A/N: I honestly have no excuse for the length of time between chapters. I lost track of this story for awhile, but it's never been forgotten. My goal (with the help of my lovely beta) is to go through and tie up all the WIP's I have in my google docs this year, so slowly but surely, this fic will be completed. I've actually had this chapter finished for a long time and just hadn't posted it. If I have anyone who is still following this story, I appreciate your dedication more than words can say and I hope you find that each chapter is worth the wait. More is to come - I can't give you a definitive timeline, so all I ask is that you trust me and enjoy the ride. :)
Part Four - "Presenting the Past"
Brom once told Merlin a story when he was threaded deep in the grip of withdrawals. The tale was about a man who journeyed to the Underworld in search of his dead lover's soul. In order to return her to the world of the living, the Lord of Underworld told him that he had to pass a test. The test was simple: Walk from the Underworld without once looking back. If he could make the journey without once glancing behind, he would be reunited with his lover on the surface.
It sounded so easy. Thus, the man began his tedious journey from the deep within the womb of the Underneath towards the exit - towards the light, towards the living.
As he walked the souls of the damned dogged his footsteps, shades and ghosts that plucked at the back of his shirt with fingers that had long forgotten the touch of skin. They sang to him, lamenting their despair in ballads of mournful screams - chorus of the damned, hauntingly beautiful as their voices splashed against the walls. There was something which begged to be listened to twined beneath their moans and sobs, a lullaby of such delicate sadness that resonated which never fell trapped by their insubstantiality. Their breath was cold on his cheeks and fetid on his lips. They stumbled in and out of his path drunkenly, lost children drawn to the beat of his mortal heart. Every soul begged to be saved. They grasped at him, fingers leaving unidentifiable smears on his clothing and skin. Their scent infused his hair with the smell of rot and decay. They pandered to him, twisted promises curled around dry tongues. When that failed they wheezed their threats.
The man was resolute, however. He kept moving forward, never once glancing back. He kept his eyes ahead, fixated blindly on the exit he couldn't yet see. Just beyond that, he'd be reunited with his beloved.
Eventually the souls fell away and left him in silence. The man continued walking. Gradually, he became aware of another pair of footsteps echoing his every stride - softer and lighter, like the steps of a woman. The footsteps paused when he paused, skipped when he skipped, stumbled when he stumbled.
The man's resolve began to waiver; perhaps the faint echoes he heard were the footfalls of his beloved, following along behind him! The echoing footsteps rustled against the walls, loud in his ears, as the ground began to slope upwards towards the surface of the world - towards freedom.
Soon the exit was in sight. A few more feet and the man would be clear of the Underworld and be united with the woman he loved. However, at the very end, unable to ignore the possibility of his beloved right behind him, the man turned.
There was no one there. And when he was finally free of the Underworld, he was greeted by the caress of the sun's fingers along his cheeks - and nothing else. He'd failed.
Merlin always wondered why, with his salvation in sight the man had failed. He couldn't understand the difficulty in simply not turning back; not looking over his shoulder. He never understood - until right now.
It took Merlin every iota of his will to keep from looking over his shoulder and at Arthur riding behind him. Merlin could hear the clink of Arthur's armor as he shifted atop his horse. He could hear the low burr of his voice whenever he said something to one of his knights, drifting through the hot air to settle heavily onto his ears. Arthur was right there, so close, but Merlin didn't look.
He wouldn't look, even though the pull to look at him tugged insistently, like fingers fisted in his hair. Instead, he looked at Brom and Brom looked back at him. He could see the scrutiny in his eyes, waiting - patient as a snake about to strike - for him to make a wrong move. He watched him with a focused intensity that made Merlin shiver with equal parts anticipation and dread; with Brom, he never knew if he was going to be rewarded or punished.
While at one time he might have preferred the carrot to the stick, most days he actually hoped for the punishment. Most days he craved the stripes of pain licked across his skin, claiming him, marking him - possessing him. He and pain had come to an understanding, a relationship balanced delicately on a razor's edge. Brom's mouth curved into a thoughtful smile, secretive, one that Merlin liked to believe was shared for him alone. He reached up and let the tips of his fingers brush the bottom edge of the collar - a habitual gesture, the cured softness of the leather reassuring beneath the pads of his fingers.
Brom's eyes absently tracked the motion of Merlin's fingers, though his expression was almost ruminative - as if he were remembering the way they felt as he broke them, over and over. Merlin's fingers convulsed in memory as he too recalled the way it felt. He remembered the flare pain that stopped the air in his lungs, and the ache that he still felt when the bite of winter filled the air. He then remembered the aftermath, the kisses laid atop bruises for days afterward; the constant throb of healing bones offset by the keen edge of pleasure.
All too soon, Darlington loomed up before them. When they finally arrived at the stables, when Merlin could safely look at Arthur, he found that he didn't want to.
"Where is your father?" asked Arthur of Brom. They walked side by side along the estate grounds as the party headed towards the manor from the stables. Merlin trailed behind them both, aware of the knights lingering with him on either side. He knew these knights - or had known them at least - and he felt their glances, flat with censure and curiosity as they slid over him. Once or twice he thought he heard one of them - Sir Osric, maybe - open their mouth to say something, but the words never came.
"He will be returning in a few days," replied Brom. His silky voice drew Merlin's attention immediately and he looked towards him, eyes fixed to the sweat-slicked, exposed skin of Brom's neck. He wanted to suck the moisture from the back of it, taste salt and musk slide down his throat - taste the lingering flavor smeared on his bottom lip, hours later. Next to him, one of the knights grumbled disapprovingly, perhaps noticing the quickness of his stare or the lust that flickered around the edges of his vision as he stared hungrily at Brom's back.
Merlin told himself he hardly cared, though he shifted his gaze elsewhere, nonetheless.
"And aren't you lucky, my prince," he sneered, a corner of his mouth twitching upwards, "my father thinks you deserving of a banquet in honour of your arrival." Brom chuckled and locked eyes with Arthur, as Arthur turned to him with an annoyed grimace.
"My knights and I thank you for your hospitality," said Arthur through gritted teeth, "but that will be unnecessary." Brom only shrugged and breezed through the double doors to the manor as the guards pulled them open to admit them.
"Don't be a spoil sport, Arthur," Brom said with a vulpine smile, "everyone likes a good party. Don't you remember what fun we both had at the last banquet we attended?" One of Brom's reddish brows twitched upwards in cruel amusement, as he watched Arthur closely for his reaction.
Merlin saw Arthur's back stiffen and his shoulders draw taut - he remembered the sign, if vaguely. It was a sign that Arthur's temper was quickly rising, ready to break the surface with the fury of Leviathan. Merlin waited for the explosion of anger, for the quickly-snapped insult and flash of heat he could now recall and once knew quite well. Surprisingly, none came.
Arthur, still rigid, nonetheless managed to reply to Brom in a steady, cool tone. "If that is your father's wish," he said evenly, "then so be it."
Merlin saw a fleeting expression of suspicion flit across Brom's face when he turned and motioned sharply for Merlin to join him at his side. The expression disappeared quickly enough for it to have been imagined, though Merlin knew Brom and therefore he knew better. Brom placed his hand on his arm, his fingers a vice around his flesh - a warning. Merlin didn't flinch, but he felt a lurch in his stomach when Brom regarded him from the corner of one green eye, a shrewd smile playing about his lips. It was not a kind smile, not by any means.
"I'm sure you and your knights are tired from your journey," Brom stated. "I will have Leofrick assign you a manservant to attend to you for the duration of your stay. Or," Brom let his hand drop from Merlin's arm to rest lightly upon the distinct angle of his hip, "might you prefer if you used Merlin? You know, for nostalgia's sake?"
Arthur flinched from Brom's words like the jagged edges of his grin had physically cut him. He looked at Merlin and Merlin looked back, absorbed by the conflict he saw warring openly on Arthur's face. There was so much emotion there, all of it tangled in Byzantine knots; all of it too complicated for Merlin to decipher.
Merlin felt things long suppressed - things that he was supposed to have forgotten - loosen from the base of his spine and begin to branch through him, awakening nodes of memory so intense, that it made each nerve ending feel chafed and raw. A sense of dread awakened in him, so poignant and so startling, that Merlin felt sick with the significance of it. He'd worked so hard to sever what he'd felt for Arthur: he'd loved him at one point, and he'd loved him with every inch of himself that he'd had to give. But Merlin had paid for that love in bruises which bloomed in a patchwork of black and blue over every soft spot on his body. He'd paid for that love in scars and cuts; and in turn he'd been reimbursed with blood and pain so keen, he'd at times forgotten his own name.
He had sweat Arthur from the pores of his skin, bled the feel of him from his veins; he had let Brom fill the spaces that Arthur used to fill instead, and to let all of that go, to have all of that shaken with just one look from Arthur...
Merlin felt fear settle coldly on his tongue and spike sharply through his veins. He couldn't do it. He couldn't risk shaking the foundation of all he'd built; of all he'd had to build to protect his own sanity. He just couldn't. Not now. It was simply too late.
Merlin spoke before Arthur could answer, turning away from the emotion, from the history - from the past. "No," he said firmly, glancing to his side, his eyes only for Brom, "I won't serve anybody but you." Boldly, he rested his hand atop Brom's where it lay curved on his hip. "Please," he said, imploringly. He wouldn't go back to that with Arthur. He wouldn't risk shattering the tenuous life he'd become accustomed to in Darlington. It wasn't perfect, but it was his, he'd adapted, and he'd learned to love it.
He'd learned to love Brom. And that was enough for him.
Merlin knew Arthur was looking at him and he forced himself not to care. This is how it would have to be. It was easier that way.
"It's settled then," Brom announced, a deep burr of pleasure stitched between his words. "Ah, here comes Leofrick." Brom removed himself from Merlin's side to confer with the steward. After a moment, the pull too great, Merlin lifted his chin and looked towards Arthur. Arthur's eyes were on him, his face closed over, glassy, devoid of emotion - almost. Merlin could see the hurt that was deeply sunken into his light blue eyes; hurt that he could see wasn't fresh but months old, ingrained into his irises. It was tinted with the colour of betrayal, too bright around the edges to be old. Arthur's lips moved and Merlin shook his head quickly, once.
'Not right now, Arthur,' he thought silently. 'Not ever. Not again. I can't. I won't.'
Brom's velvet, steel-smoothed tones cut across Merlin's thoughts. "Leofrick will show you to your rooms." Merlin quickly looked away from Arthur and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, warming the slide of leather beneath his palm reminding him of his place, his life, of who he was now. Of who he had become. Merlin shook his head slightly and watched as Leofrick escorted Arthur and his knights towards the guest wing, where they would be provided with room and whatever services they required.
Arthur didn't look back at him once.
Brom was silent at Merlin's side as they walked in nigh perfect rhythm towards Brom's bedroom - Merlin's was a smaller, adjoining one to Brom's large living quarters, as befitting a manservant. It was well known, though, that more often than not he shared Brom's bed. Actually, past the first few months, Merlin couldn't remember sleeping anywhere else. Brom's bed was comfortable and Merlin had learned to appreciate the feeling of a hot body fit against his when he woke in the mornings. And that's what it came down to with him and Brom: They fit together exceedingly well, a jigsaw of arms and legs and touches bold, darting, daring. Over time, he'd slowly realized it and learned to accept it.
It wasn't long before he'd been unable to imagine it any other way.
Of course, it had been too hot for comfort as of late, and Brom more often than not kicked him out of bed to go sleep in his own. He stated that he couldn't stand the way Merlin's skin was glued to him when he woke. Strangely enough, Merlin had been sleeping poorly in his own bed. He'd gotten too used to Brom's deep, steady breathing as a backdrop while he slept and the weight of his arm draped possessively across his stomach. He tossed and turned when he was alone, feeling like a ship without an anchor. Only the constant heft of the collar quieted him, a metallic kiss of reassurance in the darkness.
"You could barely take your eyes off of him," Brom said suddenly, cutting through Merlin's thoughts. His voice was deceivingly casual. There was no jealousy in his tone either; merely a statement of fact. Merlin wasn't fooled. He glanced at Brom and even though Brom's eyes were trained ahead of him, Merlin knew he was being watched closely.
"I - no, well," he broke off, his words scattered immediately when Brom grasped him by the arm and yanked him roughly into one of the alcoves that lined the hallway. Merlin held his breath as Brom pushed flush against him, back to front, his forearm an iron bar across his chest. He could feel the hard contours of Brom's body at his back and the tendons of his forearm roll and shift as he tightened it to hold him still. He took a wide stance and pressed back against Brom, a thrill of excitement and anticipation traveling through his body in response to the rough treatment.
He needed it. He deserved it.
Brom pulled at his ear with his teeth, the heat from his body seeping through Merlin's clothes to slide underneath his skin. Merlin groaned as he burned from inside out. He wanted to be consumed, engulfed, used. He felt Brom hitch up his shirt and drag his nails slowly up his side. Brom dug his thumb between each rib, counting them, until he reached Merlin's nipple. His palm brushed over the nub and Merlin hissed in pain when Brom roughly pinched it between two fingers and twisted slightly. He treated the other nipple to the same action and Merlin palmed himself through his trousers as the pain began to bleed into pleasure.
"I wonder," Brom mused silkily against the flushed skin of Merlin's neck, "what Arthur would think if he found you like this, touching yourself and panting like a whore at my hands." Merlin let his head fall back onto Brom's shoulder so he could crane his neck and offer his mouth to him. Brom accepted and devoured him greedily, his tongue pushing forcibly past his lips; all dominance and no give. Merlin let himself be swallowed by the heat that burned his back. He let himself be turned and pushed against the wall, hands pinned above his head so Brom could assault his mouth more thoroughly. He jerked his hips and let out a long, low moan as Brom bit down on his bottom lip and drew blood.
"Well Merlin?" Brom pressed, lifting one brow. His mouth hovered above Merlin's swollen, wet mouth. The air was thick with their shared breath and Merlin felt momentarily dizzy from lack of oxygen before Brom dropped his head. He lifted Merlin's shirt higher so he could tug a reddened nipple between his teeth, his lips hot and slick with saliva and blood.
Merlin gasped out his answer, thrusting against Brom's leg which he'd inserted between his own. "It'd," he groaned as Brom grabbed his arse and squeezed, "it'd repulse him." Brom paused what he was doing and gave Merlin an appraising look. Merlin writhed beneath the fire in Brom's gaze; the way it scalded him was as delicious as hot wax dripped over his skin.
"What would it do for you?" Brom asked, brushing a wet tendril of dark hair behind Merlin's ear. He tilted forward and let Merlin rub against him. His voice was gruff, honey oozed over razor wire when he spoke again. "Would my beloved enjoy an audience?"
Merlin shivered and realized that he would. "Yes," he replied. Brom kissed his forehead and Merlin leaned into the gentle touch. This was what made it worth it - this is what allowed him to keep going: these moments of tenderness. He felt emotion swell within him and he pressed himself closer to Brom. He could feel Brom smile against his hair but he drew away from him, a moment later.
When Merlin looked at him, he saw that Brom's gaze was sharp with thought - he was planning something. Merlin swallowed thickly and rubbed himself absently, still hard and throbbing. Brom grabbed his wrists and pushed them up above his head again. He wasn't gentle - there would be bruises there later, pressed in a five-fingered mark. Merlin could already feel the telltale ache of them forming. "Don't you dare come until I say so," Brom said icily, no trace of warmth in his voice.
Merlin nodded mutely, gasping for breath that escaped his lungs too quickly when Brom rolled his hips against his. Merlin could feel Brom's hardness slide against his own, creating some of the delicious friction that he craved. He sucked his bottom lip between his teeth and worked the cut there open further, using the pain to anchor his pleasure and stave off his orgasm. Abruptly, Brom released his wrists and pulled away. He smoothed his hands down the front of his shirt and Merlin watched the motion hungrily, though he too straightened when Brom shot him a pointed look.
"I've business to attend to," Brom stated. His voice was matter-of-fact, his breathing even, as if just a second ago he hadn't been seconds away from fucking Merlin against the wall in the middle of the mansion. Not that it would've been the first time, either, but Merlin couldn't help but feel a little disappointed. He frowned, though he mimicked Brom's movements and arranged his clothing as best he could, which turned out not to be much of an improvement at all.
Brom reached out and fixed the collar around his neck, his thumb resting lightly against the hollow of Merlin's throat. Merlin stilled. "You know I love you," Brom said in a soft, dangerous tone. "Don't do anything to disappoint me." His voice slid between Merlin's ribs, sinking into his veins, gentle but sharp, all at once.
Merlin caught Brom's hand and pressed it harder against his throat, pushing it against the vulnerable spot until he could feel the Brom's pulse throb against his esophagus. "I know," he replied. "I love you, too."
Brom smiled then, pleased, but it was still cold. A tingle sped down Merlin's spine; there was the promise of pain between Brom's teeth. Merlin's cock throbbed at the prospect, before he remembered what Brom had said. "Go and tend to the horses then," Brom ordered as he turned away from him. "And make sure you come and wash up before dinner...you know I can't stand the smell of you when you've been in the stables."
Brom walked away without another word and Merlin felt color flame on his cheeks. He clenched his teeth: Brom hadn't ever made him tend to any stable duties since he first arrived. This was a clear lesson in humiliation.
With a reluctant sigh, Merlin headed towards the stables.
The interior of the stables was dark and cool, but the heat of the day still hadn't relinquished its hold entirely. Merlin could still feel it burrow into the sweat that beaded in his hairline; he sucked in a hot breath and tasted the thickness of it in the bottom of his lungs. The horses were lethargic, munching drowsily on oats. They lifted their heads in mild interest when he entered, though none paid him much mind past a curious twist of the ear. Only one stuck its head out its stall and whickered softly in recognition.
"Hello, Llamrei," Merlin greeted softly. He brushed his fingers over her velvet-soft nose and grinned a little when the mare inspected the flat of his palm for treats. "Sorry girl," he said apologetically, "no apples today." She snorted in apparent displeasure but allowed him into her stall without a fuss, nevertheless.
Merlin stroked his hand down her neck, just as he had done when he'd known her in Camelot. He picked out the curry brush from the bucket hanging outside of the stall door and began to rub her down in small, circular motions starting with her neck. Llamrei tossed her head once, then settled, submitting to the grooming as Merlin began to work his way down to her withers and shoulders. "Has Arthur been treating you well?" he asked.
Llamrei answered by flicking her tail and shifting her bulk. Merlin laughed softly and smoothed down her forelock. "Good to hear," he said. He wiped his forearm across his brow and felt the dirt and grime settle deeply into his skin. Brom would no doubt demand that he take at least two baths before dinner, at this rate. He continued to rub down Llamrei, finding the simple task a welcome distraction from the heat and the tightness in his belly that had not yet been relieved. It also allowed his thoughts to wander.
They touched upon Arthur, of course, and for the first time Merlin allowed himself to wonder what the last year had been like for him.
"Even after a whole year and you still can't groom a horse properly."
Merlin didn't turn to look at Arthur. His jaw clenched and he continued what he was doing, deciding not to answer. The consequences were not worth his time, should he choose to follow this line of conversation. Besides, he could tell that Arthur was baiting him.
"I'd think, Merlin," Arthur began - Merlin's fingers tightened over the brush - "that Brom would have taught you better than that." Merlin could hear the bitterness in Arthur's voice. he ignored it. "After all," he continued, "he seems to have you well trained."
Merlin finally turned, as rage he hadn't realized he still held onto exploded in his chest. He fixed Arthur with a sour look, his eyes narrowed to slits. "I've learned to adapt, my lord," he replied in a low, venomous tone. Arthur flinched back from his words, the bitterness draining a bit from his expression.
The flintiness in his eyes softened. "Merlin," he began but Merlin shook his head stubbornly and turned back to Llamrei.
"Don't, Arthur," he said, speaking his name for the first time, "don't. I don't need you anymore." He paused, and slid his hand gently through Llamrei's silky mane and concentrated on working out a stubborn snarl with a few deft twists and pulls of his fingers. "I haven't needed you for a long time," he muttered, a bare whisper of sound that was swallowed by the tension in the air.
Merlin heard Arthur begin to say something, an angry protest perhaps, when the stall door opened and Arthur strode into the small space with him. Merlin continued to brush out Llamrei's coat with long, sure strokes, ignoring him, until he felt Arthur's fingers fold over his own atop the brush.
"You're still doing it wrong," said Arthur low into his ear. His voice was rough and a tremor ran through it, as if he were holding back a flood of words that he wished to say. It was at that moment that Merlin realized he wasn't the only one to have changed in a year's time.
(To be continued...)