Title: In a Land of Myth
Author: mssdare
Artist: adagioviolin
Pairings/characters: Merlin/Arthur
Rating: NC17 (explicit)
Word Count: 31K

Written for Paperlegends 2013 - please see other entries at Paperlegends at Livejournal.

This is a repost from my A03 (I now publish all the fics firstly to A03).

The truly amazing art to this fic is done by Adagioviolin who amazed me with each and every drawing and painting she sent me while working with me on this 2013 Paperlegends' entry. You can see the art here: Adagioviolin at Livejournal (I hate that won't let me add a proper link)

I want to thank my wonderful beta – Sonofsilly (Sillygoose) for making my English sound more like real English and Emmy for adding the British twist to it! :) Also – Detka – thank you bb for handholding and Fr333bird and Beckybrit for WC's!

It's been a huge privilege to take part in the last Paperlegends. Thank you the_muppet for hosting this.

PLEASE BEWARE OF WARNINGS: horror(ish) visions, ghosts, demons, little age disparity, drugs (soft), references to religion, cutting and blood, drowning, references to suicide, barebacking, references to possible mental illness, very light D/S (sort of), object insertion (butt plug), rimming, slight bondage (cuffs)


IN A LAND OF MYTH

ABOVE

He shouldn't have left the window open.

Now, little fingers are crawling up his body, tickling his calves and going up, passing his thighs, scratching at his exposed stomach.

He tries to push them off—that terrifying, grey, jelly-cold texture—but they keep moving up, making little slurp-slurping sounds in the tireless journey over his skin, heading towards his neck with an obvious intention. Fear chokes him and pushes the air out of his lungs even before those dead fingers can curl around his throat.

He kicks and tosses the fingers off, gathering the little pieces in his palms and throwing them out of the window like heavy drops of water. He grabs those that made it up to his face and neck and cries, and cries some more, but when he startles awake he only hears the last little bit of a muffled sound.

The window is still open. He doesn't dare approach to close it. He switches on all the lights in his bedroom that he can reach without putting his feet down on the floor. He turns on the TV and says his prayers, hoping his guardian angel isn't far away.

In the morning he finds himself still seated on the bed and wrapped up in blankets, the TV remote at his side where it slipped out of his hand when he dozed off.

xxx

He blames Gwaine and his, "Oh, you've got to try this pure stuff mate, so good you wouldn't believe it," for the nightmares.

The ganja is so good Merlin loses whole hours along with his sense of place.

He'd love to sit down somewhere. Actually, anywhere would be good—even the concrete stairs leading to the Underground look extremely inviting—but some urge to get moving has turned on in Gwaine's head and so they're walking across the city, through gardens that smell of cut grass and tulips, along blocks of houses that all look the same so that it feels as if the whole world is rolling by on repeat like scenery in a movie. Merlin follows Gwaine petulantly because he's not sure he'd make it home on his own in the state he's in right now.

"Stop stalling. You're such a lazy arse." Gwaine tugs Merlin, who focuses on Gwaine's hand thinking how lovely the sleeves of Gwaine's shirt are, and how intricate the pattern is, and how is it even made? Is it machinery that makes those colourful lines and swirls? Or maybe some girl in India has woven the little threads? And would she have sisters working on the same shirts, or would they rather go to the temple to sell their hair?

He bumps into Gwaine.

"Oh, brilliant!" Gwaine says. "A concert! We really need to go listen to this!" Merlin looks up to see they've stopped in front of a church. There's a poster pinned to the huge wooden doors—Dvořák's name written in golden letters. "Come on!"

But Merlin's resisting.

"What now? We'll listen to this gorgeous music."

"I don't think we should go in," Merlin says, wrapping his fingers around Gwaine's sleeve.

"Why not?"

"Because it's a church!"

"So?"

Merlin pulls on the fabric of the sleeve, then whispers in Gwaine's ear as if someone might eavesdrop. "We're stoned. It's a sin."

"You can't be serious."

Merlin shakes his head. "No, no. It's not right."

"Don't be such a wuss. You're not even religious." Gwaine laughs, pulling his hand out of Merlin's grasp.

Merlin wants to say that, in fact, yes he is, even though he hasn't been to church for years, but Gwaine's already sneaking inside the dimly lit hall.

Merlin doesn't remember going in, but he finds himself standing quietly by the wall, inhaling the familiar church-y smell of damp stones, old wood and dust.

"Isn't it just crazy? Listen to how beautifully they sing," Gwaine says in a dramatic whisper.

And indeed the music is just perfect. It flows in waves, quieting down only to pick up again, and again. Merlin closes his eyes, feeling as if he's being laid gently in a soft cradle, swaying a bit to the rhythm of voices.

In the back of his head he still has that nudging thought about his presence here being sacrilegious, and he wants to tell Gwaine again, but then there's a flash of light visible through his lids, and when Merlin opens his eyes, he catches a glimpse of something shiny on the right side of the church. It vanishes after a moment, and he thinks that maybe he's imagined it, but he can't stop glancing in that direction.

The light flashes again, and this time Merlin can see a soft glow coming from one of the aisles farther up front. His heart rate picks up and then slows down, followed by everything slowing down: people cease to move, candles cease to flicker—frozen in illumination as if someone has pressed the pause button. There's a pull in his chest and he finds himself moving forward. His steps sound hollow when he starts walking, like he's stomping on ancient wooden boards. All other sounds are muffled, and Merlin wants to turn his head to see the choir and find out what has happened to the people singing. He can't though—some strange force is driving him forward and all he can do is keep going until he reaches the aisle.

There are hundreds of candles burning in front of a small chapel on the right like in Italian churches Merlin's visited during holidays. Thin yellow sticks are placed everywhere, dripping wax on the marble floor and stairs. Inside, there's a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, only after a second glance Merlin realises it is not a sculpture. There's a woman standing on the highest step of the stairs, dressed in a long lacy gown and veil that's dirty and torn at places. Merlin can see black feathers growing out of her skin where the dress doesn't cover her arms, and he thinks that this can't be right. She can't be human. Her hair is black and serpent-like, moving in the air as if alive. Her eyes are impossibly blue, and her lips are red like fresh blood. There's a snake wrapped around the ankles of her bare feet and a sickle resting in one of her hands, its crescent blade covered with dark stains.

"Hello, Merlin," the woman says, and Merlin's heart almost jumps out of his chest. "You've made me wait for you. You're testing my patience. You've run out of time now."

"What?"

"I have opened the Door for you." She motions to a key hanging on a chain around her neck. "Don't make me wait for you any longer. My pets are getting anxious. The balance of forces is a fragile thing, Merlin. The veil is thin."

"Who are you?" Merlin asks. His hands are sweaty and he presses his palms to his jeans to wipe them off.

"I am Mother Mary of Green Fields." She motions to the sickle and smiles, showing even rows of sharp, white teeth. "I am the Mother of Dreams and Death. But you may call me Nimueh. You may call me Lilith, Hecate, Persephone, Ceridwen, Morena, or Hella. Choose the name you like, Merlin."

"I don't—" Merlin starts, but Nimueh shakes her head.

"Hurry up, Merlin. One heart is taken for each year you're here above the surface." She holds out her other hand and Merlin notices there's something dripping in her fist. She opens her fist to reveal a heart—it might be a human heart, it looks like a human heart, even though Merlin isn't sure he couldn tell the difference between a human and an animal one. Nimueh brings the heart to her lips and takes a bite, allowing the blood to drip down her chin and onto her dress. Her facial features smooth out and her cheeks redden; she looks more alive now, younger, more vibrant.

"Enter my Land where you belong," she says once she's done swallowing the meat.

Merlin takes a step back, and another. Nimueh waves the sickle, and then a lizard—that looks very much like a little dragon—flies down on heavy wings from a place above Nimueh's head and almost knocks Merlin over. Merlin first crouches on his hands, kicking his heels into the stones, then scrambles to his feet and runs towards the church's exit. The heavy wooden doors don't open quickly enough, and Merlin's fingernails scratch the surface, snapping, bleeding. He pushes the doors with his shoulder and finally gets them ajar, then squeezes himself through them, feeling as if he's fighting being vacuumed back inside. He lands on his hands and knees on the warm pavement heated by the sun.

The soft evening light feels unnaturally sharp, making him crinkle his eyes, and the lazy sounds of the summer city are so loud Merlin's head starts spinning. He tries to swallow but his mouth is too dry.

"Merlin," he hears, and realises Gwaine must have been repeating his name for a while. He feels Gwaine's warm hand on his shoulder and then around his chest, hoisting him up.

"Uh," Merlin grunts. "What…" He wants to ask a thousand questions, but he's not sure Gwaine would be able to answer any of them. "Gonna throw up," he says instead. "Want home."

"Mate, you are stooooned out of your head," Gwaine sing-songs, and navigates him to the nearest Tube station.

xxx

"Uther wants to see you," Gwen, the receptionist at Camelot Advertising, says from the front desk.

"Fuck," Merlin whines, because it's the third time in the last two weeks that he's been late to work, and he's probably going to endure a sour lecture. But the nightmares that began after the church incident on Friday evening are keeping him awake. Even now, in the bright light of a sunny day—enhanced by fluorescent lamps, laptop monitors and shiny office surfaces—he feels weird, like he's surrounded by shadows. He spent last night in front of his TV watching music videos and drinking Coke after Coke, until he was shivering under his blanket from having too much cold liquid in his stomach and caffeine in his blood. He tried to focus only on the TV screen, and on not crying out each time something grey and furry crawled at the periphery of his vision.

The bathroom is the worst. He wants to curse the brainless builder who placed the light switch on the inside wall of the bathroom. When he marched in this morning, feeling for the pull cord with his hand, he saw someone sitting on the closed lid of the toilet. Whoever or whatever it was it disappeared once Merlin managed to pull on the lights with his sweaty fingers slipping on the wall tiles.

The bathroom is also full of mirrors, which is bad. Very, very bad, as it turns out. The reflections in the mirrors are not natural anymore—they're moving of their own volition, flickering and twisting, black shadows sneaking out of frames as if overflowing. Merlin's dark reflection looks to him like a caricature—face lines melting, mouth stretching in an ugly smile, eyes unfamiliar and cruel. This other Merlin assesses the Merlin here, watches him as closely as Merlin watches him, probing for faults, seeking weak spots to dig his teeth when Merlin leans down to the glass surface, drawn in, the shadow runs towards him, reaching for Merlin and almost managing to grab him.

Merlin takes to crouching under the mirrors, his head low. He places every framed photo in his flat that reflects light face down.

"This is how losing one's mind must feel," he thinks when he forgoes breakfast because he's convinced something is hiding in his pantry and he's too scared to take the bread out to make toast.

"Merlin," Gwen repeats pointedly, nodding towards Uther's office. "Uther. Waiting."

Merlin leaves his laptop on his desk and heads to Uther's office. The door is ajar, so he taps lightly on the frame.

"Merlin!" Uther beams from across the room. "Come in. I've got a favour to ask of you."

Merlin steps inside, trying not to show the relief he's feeling about not being scolded for his tardiness. There's a young man sitting on the couch, and Merlin thinks for a moment that his hallucinations have gotten worse, or better, because the boy looks like he's walked out of the photos from Merlin's latest presentation for Hollister. He's ridiculously, perfectly pretty with the blond hair of a surfer and Caribbean-blue eyes.

"This is my son, Arthur," Uther says, and Merlin thinks that of course it's just his luck that this gorgeous boy is totally off-limits. "Arthur, this is Merlin, our creative director. He's a true magician—every ad campaign he designs becomes successful." He grins.

"Hello," Arthur says, getting up and extending his hand to Merlin who leans over to shake it, trying not to dwell too much on how warm the boy's hand is, and how strong his forearms look. Arthur's perfectly tanned skin shows below the rolled-up sleeves of his shirt, and Merlin curbs the urge to run his fingers along the downy hair there.

"Arthur's home for the holidays, and I want him to use this time to get to know all the departments in the agency. It will be an internship of sorts."

Merlin's mind wanders dangerously to all kinds of things he'd love to teach Arthur, and what is even wrong with him? The lack of sleep must be messing with his head. He plasters a polite smile over his face and tries not to let his eyes stray from Uther, for now.

"That's a great idea," he says.

"I was going to have him start with the strategy team, but they are busy with that tea contract right now. I assume you have free time to teach Arthur what he needs to know. Besides, I want him to start with something fun so as not to not scare him off." Uther laughs.

Yes, because my job is all about playing, Merlin wants to say, but just nods. "It'll be my pleasure." Even though it's hardly a pleasure to babysit an intern, not to mention an intern who's probably going to be his boss someday. What if he's an insufferable daddy's boy? Merlin won't even be able to call him on his shit.

"So, how old are you?" Merlin asks Arthur while they're going back to Merlin's desk.

"Nineteen."

"And what are you studying?" Merlin's not focusing on Arthur's answer though. He needs to find Gwaine—ask him about the weed—and then get a grip on himself. "Right, so you go and make some coffee and I'll—" He turns to the exit to run to Gwaine's floor.

"I'm not here to make your coffee," Arthur cuts him off.

"What?" Merlin stops to look at the boy.

"I'm not your servant. I'm here to learn," Arthur says coldly.

Beautiful, but definitely prattish, Merlin decides. But he clarifies, "Oh, I didn't mean you'd be making my coffee. You go get one for yourself. That is, if you drink coffee. I'll be back in ten, okay?"

xxx

"Gwaine," Merlin hisses, and Gwaine points to the phone that he's holding to his ear, mouthing, "Client."

Merlin sits on the edge of Gwaine's desk and kills time playing with the Magic 8 Ball Gwaine keeps next to his laptop.

Am I going crazy? Merlin thinks and shakes the ball. A small, violet triangle appears in the ball's window. Ask Again Later, the sign says.

Merlin turns the ball around in his hands. Are the ghosts real? he asks.

Signs Point To Yes. Merlin looks around and shivers when he sees something grey at the periphery of his vision again.

Will they get me? he asks and turns the ball.

Most Likely.

He jumps when Gwaine pats him on his shoulder.

"Where you've been?" Gwaine asks. "I tried to call you all Sunday."

"Fucking hell, mate, I'm never touching that shit again. I've been having the worst nightmares," Merlin says instead of answering. "What was in it?"

"Nothing!" Gwaine exclaims. "Pure, home-grown herb, just like I told you!"

"God, it messed with my head." Merlin rubs his eyes. "You sure it didn't have any, I don't know, dried mushrooms mixed with it?"

Gwaine just gives Merlin a look. Merlin sighs and puts the Magic 8 Ball back on the desk.

"So, I got an intern," he says. "You'll never guess who."

"Uther's son, Arthur." Gwaine grins, and of course Merlin's the last one to know about the gossip, as usual. "All the ladies in the office were on and on about it. Expect crusades to your desk." He laughs. "Although I highly doubt he bats for their team."

Merlin wants to say, Really? but he doesn't, nodding instead.

"I'm still seeing you Friday, right?" Gwaine asks. "Uther hasn't told you to babysit that boy after hours, has he?"

Merlin shakes his head, jumps to his feet, and heads back to the stairwell. The corridor is strangely empty for this time of the day. The carpet seems to be vibrating, or maybe rocking a bit beneath Merlin's feet, and the lights dim as if someone is playing with the switch.

He doesn't dare take the lift—he won't risk being crammed into small, enclosed spaces, and its shiny aluminium surface reminds him of the mirrors in his bathroom. But the staircase isn't any better. He runs down the three flights of stairs that divide his floor from Gwaine's, hearing footsteps following him even though no one's behind him. He reaches his desk panting and tries to smile weakly for Arthur, who is settling at the desk next to Merlin's, laptop already set up and notepads and pencils arranged in neat rows.

Arthur looks up at Merlin. "You look flushed," he states in a tone that indicates he disapproves of Merlin's behaviour, whatever it is.

Merlin sits down, placing his head on his outstretched arms on the desk. He really doesn't have the strength to deal with Arthur right now. In fact, he doesn't have strength to do anything. However, after a few inhales and exhales, he straightens up and opens his laptop.

"Right," he says and turns to Arthur, who's observing him with an expression Merlin can't decipher. "Let's get started. I'll show you the current project I'm working on, and we'll divide some of it between us, okay?"

Arthur nods and stands up to lean over Merlin's shoulder and have a look at the presentation.

God does the bastard smell good, Merlin thinks, trying to focus on strategy and target groups instead of Arthur's young, warm body so close to his. Arthur reaches to point at something on the screen, and as he leans even closer, his bare arm touches Merlin's. For a moment, Merlin has a vision of curling up with Arthur in a huge, four-poster bed under a heavy duvet, and spending long, cold nights like this. His head is swimming—this vision seems more real than the most vivid dream he's ever experienced in his twenty-five years. In a way, it's more vivid even than the visions he had in the church, or the nightmares he's had after.

He's startled from his musings by a strange rustle, or maybe a snarl, coming from behind him and Arthur. But Merlin doesn't look back to see who or what has made the sound. He doesn't dare.

xxx

"Fuck, this has been a long week." Merlin slumps down on Gwaine's couch, leans back, and closes his eyes.

"Bad dreams? Still?"

"Yeah. Must be overwork or something. This latest account is killing me. The Telco people won't leave me alone."

"And Arthur," Gwaine says, putting beers into the fridge and hovering over the open fridge door.

"And Arthur," Merlin agrees. Although if he's being honest, Arthur is more of a help than a hindrance. He's got to admit that the kid is not only dedicated, but also quite brilliant. Everything seems to go faster when he's around; the work itself seems easier. Also, there's something about Arthur that makes Merlin want to do more, do better, impress the boy, and that makes the work burn under Merlin's fingers, ideas sparking and words flowing. Even if Merlin's totally exhausted by the end of the week.

Gwaine looks at the items in the fridge. "Reheated risotto from… Tuesday? Or we can order."

"Order." Merlin won't risk eating anything that he hasn't put in Gwaine's fridge himself.

Gwaine shuffles through the menus on the table. "Fried tofu with peanut sauce for you, yeah?"

Merlin just nods. He can't force himself to open his eyes. The couch feels so soft and warm. Maybe he could rest here for a little while. He feels safe with Gwaine moving around the place.

The couch dips and Merlin startles, his breath hitching and heart thumping as he looks around.

"My, you're jumpy." Gwaine leans over and tugs at the belt loops of Merlin's jeans. "Let me fuck you to heaven, yeah? That should help."

Maybe it really could help. After all, it's what Merlin is here for. He lets Gwaine manhandle him to the bedroom, laughing as Gwaine pushes and pinches him as they go. Kissing while smiling is useless, but they try anyway, undoing each other's shirts and flies, hands getting in the way. This is fun, this is why Gwaine is fun—no deeper meanings and no inhibitions.

Merlin lies down on the bed and tugs Gwaine on top, maybe a bit too enthusiastically. Gwaine falls on Merlin's knees with a dull "Umph."

"Bony bastard," Gwaine says into another kiss, then licks Merlin's jaw, wet and warm. Then he licks lower, tracing Merlin's neck and collarbones.

"Sorry." Merlin tries to wriggle and find a more comfortable position, but it seems as if he's suddenly got too many limbs.

Gwaine pulls himself up and looks at Merlin, staying there until Merlin stops moving. "Will you just… concentrate? Or do I need to tie you up?"

"Tie me up," Merlin says. If only his mind could be bound just the way his body will be.

"Lie still then."

Gwaine takes out the leather cuffs from the bedside drawer, moves back on the bed, and fastens the cuffs tight over Merlin's wrists and ankles, attaching them to the wicked metal bedpost Merlin supposes Gwaine's bought for exactly this purpose.

"Fuck, do I love you like this." Gwaine eyes him like Merlin's a chocolate sundae. He runs his hands over Merlin's thighs, up and down, then on the inside of them, brushing over Merlin's sack.

Merlin closes his eyes and just breathes, feeling—finally—his muscles relax. Warmth returns to his body and his blood flows in his veins in a calm rhythm. The leather around his wrists and ankles is solid. He tugs on it, enjoying the resistance. God, does he love being taken care of like this. Gwaine has the best touch—his palms are warm and his skin is soft when he grips Merlin's hips, thumbs drawing circles and pressing over bones. Merlin's cock is already hard and bobbing, nudging Gwaine, who leans down to give it a long lick. Merlin's arms twitch as he struggles with the restraints; he wants to bury his fingers in Gwaine's hair, touch his cheek where it's swelling with Merlin's cock. But this is exactly why being tied up feels so good.

Gwaine leaves him for a second, leaning over and digging for something in the drawer again. Then he's back. Merlin hears the click of lube, and soon a cold, solid piece of metal is brushing over his hole.

"Take a breath," Gwaine says and Merlin does. "Exhale." With air exiting his body, Merlin feels the gentle slide of the metal inside him, slow, slick, stretching, until it locks into place and damn, isn't it just perfect being filled like this. And the best thing? The best thing is that Merlin knows what's next—next is Gwaine's hot mouth around his cock and Gwaine playing with the plug, twisting it and tapping it and pulling it out just a little bit only to insert it back as deep as it goes, preparing Merlin for all the fucking that will happen later. Because this gentleness will stop eventually, giving way to the hard thrusts of Gwaine's cock until Merlin's wrists and ankles will be bruised and achy from the cuffs.

But all that doesn't happen because the doorbell rings, and Gwaine says, "Fuck. Food." And he laughs, scrambling off the bed, pulling up his jeans. "Don't move, I'll be right back," he whispers, chuckling, because it's not as if Merlin has any choice.

At first, Merlin just lies on the bed trying to listen to Gwaine's faraway conversation with the delivery guy, but then he hears the door shut and thinks, Fuck. Because they didn't have enough sense to check and see if they had any money on them. There's an ATM not far away, and Merlin thinks that he can try to enjoy the anticipation of whatever Gwaine's playful brain is planning for later. He closes his eyes and tries to relax without dozing off.

But the minutes tick by without any sign of Gwaine coming back. Merlin's exposed, and it feels as if the temperature in the room has dropped, or maybe Merlin's body is coming down from the excitement of what they were doing before Gwaine left. He's cold and he shivers, pulling lightly at the restraints with, of course, no effect. He hears a strange murmur, and then a hiss, and he opens his eyes.

There's a grey creature at the bottom of the bed, sitting hunched on the metal frame. Merlin tugs on the cuffs, but they won't release. He opens his mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. The thing watches him with beady little eyes stuck above a long muzzle. It turns its head, bending it like a bird.

Merlin doesn't know what the creature wants from him. He doesn't know what it is. But he does know that this thing—with sharp, grey teeth, jagged claws and fuzzy body—is evil, and that it's come for him. He tries to stay absolutely still, not breathing, not blinking, not drawing any attention to himself while the shadowy creature keeps observing him. Merlin's heart is racing; he can hear the throbbing of blood in his ears. His wrists glide inside the cuffs, slick with sweat. The hairs on his whole body stand up from dread.

And then the creature just runs into him. It glides in the air with great speed until it hits Merlin and goes beyond, merging with his body. Merlin cries out.

xxx

By the time Gwaine comes back, Merlin is a sobbing, writhing mess on the mattress. He doesn't care that there's snot covering his face; he can't wipe it anyway.

"God, Merlin, what's wrong?" Gwaine is on the bed in a swoosh, tugging at the cuffs, undoing the locks.

"It's in me now. It's inside me."

"Hey, I haven't even started putting it in you," Gwaine starts to joke, but one more look at Merlin makes it clear now's not the best time to laugh.

"Babe, what's going on? I was only gone for five minutes!"

It feels stupid, insane even, to try to explain to Gwaine what has happened. Merlin, finally freed from the cuffs, jumps out of the bed and runs to the bathroom, pinching his skin and looking himself over. He leans his face to the mirror—forgoing his mirror phobia—and tries to assess if something has changed, if he's still himself or if maybe there's a demon visible in his eyes. But there's nothing unusual there—just a familiar, triangle-shaped face, that old scar on his chin, and tiny golden dots in his irises.

"You're seriously freaking me out, Merlin," Gwaine says, standing at the bathroom door.

Merlin's hands and legs are shaking so hard that he has to sit down on the edge of the bathtub, but he jumps, suddenly feeling the plug he still has inside of him. He pulls a face and just slumps down to the floor, kneeling on the tiles.

"Just give me a minute," he tells Gwaine. He feels sick. His head is swimming and his stomach is clenching painfully.

Gwaine doesn't press and walks over to the kitchen to reheat the food. When Merlin emerges from the bathroom, Gwaine has already gone through most of his meal. He hands a glass of amber liquid to Merlin.

"Whisky?" Merlin smells the glass and raises his eyebrows but doesn't argue as he downs the alcohol. He can't force himself to start eating, so he just watches Gwaine.

"Are you staying for the night?" Gwaine mumbles over the last bit of a chip.

Merlin shrugs. "I guess so. Sorry for earlier."

"No, it's my fault. I shouldn't have left you without untying you up first. Forgive me?" Gwaine stands up and punches Merlin on the back. "Come on. You need rest."

xxx

Merlin settles, cramming himself inside the nest built out of pillows and Gwaine's warm body lying next to him. He dozes off for a while, and when he wakes up it's the middle of the night, and Gwaine's face is barely visible in the scant light that comes from the streetlamp outside the window. Merlin wants to nuzzle into Gwaine's neck and go back to sleep, but there's something wrong with the alignment of Gwaine's body, as if it's twisted up, or maybe rearranged. Merlin knows it's nonsense—there's absolutely nothing weird about the man lying next to him, but then again… The set of Gwaine's jaw isn't quite right. His hair looks thicker and darker than usual. His nose seems pointier than before. And just when Merlin wants to close his eyes and forget all about it, Gwaine turns to him with his eyes open, irises like black beads. He smiles at Merlin, and it's the smile that ultimately convinces Merlin this is not Gwaine. He's an impostor who's stolen Gwaine's features. And then Gwaine's rising, slowly, supporting himself on one elbow and leaning towards Merlin—closer and closer. Merlin scrambles back, not daring to shout because this is all just his imagination. He knows it.

Gwaine's ugly smile stretches broader while the rest of his features flicker and melt, and Merlin shuts his eyes tight and starts praying, "Dear Lord and Holy Mary, save me from all evil. My Guardian Angel, protect me from horror. Please Lord. Dear Lord and Holy Mary, save me from all evil…" He puts all his belief into his prayer until his body almost vibrates with it, and he sees flashes of golden light behind his closed lids.

He doesn't know what happens next—only that when he finally opens his eyes it's morning, and Gwaine is whistling in the kitchen while making scrambled eggs, cursing at the butter that keeps spraying on his naked body.

And Merlin thinks that maybe his bad dreams are over.

xxx

By the end of next week he learns that he couldn't have been more wrong. His nightmares are getting worse. The shadows and shapes keep following him around. It's a constant presence he tries—and fails—to ignore. He'slosing his mind.

He can't focus on work, and it's only Arthur's help that pushes him to meet his deadlines. Still, it doesn't keep him from botching a presentation and hearing Uther say, "You may be our most talented copywriter, Merlin, but no man is irreplaceable. I won't tolerate this level of distraction again."

He can't bring himself to care about it, though. He feels a strong urge to just go out and head north, as long as it takes to get... wherever he's supposed to be. His stomach hurts, his chest burns, his whole body is in constant pain as if he's coming down with the most horrible flu of his life.

He can't stop scratching his arms because they itch. It feels as if there's something underneath his skin, constantly moving and trying to break free. Once he's at home, he stays under the coldest shower he can stand, trying to numb his nerve endings and soothe the itching. He rolls frozen bottles over his body and applies a lotion he's bought in a pharmacy, but it's all useless. The itching lies somewhere deep inside him, not on the surface. Yet he scratches himself until his skin hurts, until it's covered with marks that he knows he'll have to hide under long sleeves the next day.

He can't swallow because his tongue is swollen, too big for his mouth. He can't blink because his eyes are so dry that it feels as if his lids might cut his eyeballs.

But the worst thing is the not sleeping. He doesn't dare fall asleep, convinced that the demons will capture him as soon as he loses consciousness. And when he does fall asleep, because he's simply too exhausted to stay up, he startles awake after several minutes only to find himself crawled out of his bed, on the bedroom floor or near the entrance to his flat, scraping the door, his hands bloody and fingernails broken.

xxx

"Are you coming?"

"Huh?" Merlin startles, caught dozing off over his laptop again, and blushes because his mind provides him with all the possible situations in which he could hear this particular sentence from Arthur.

"To lunch, Merlin. Are you coming?" Arthur repeats.

"Yes. Yes, I am."

He follows Arthur into the lift, thinking what a torture it's going to be to watch the boy eat, to hear his easy laugh, to observe his interactions with people other than Merlin. Because apparently it took only two weeks for Merlin to develop an irreversible crush on his intern. He blames the exhaustion and his fragile emotional state for this, but he can't get enough of the sight of Arthur's bright smile and the way Arthur's eyes shine when he laughs at something ridiculous Merlin has said. His heart jumps each time he feels the warm touch of Arthur's hands when he wants to get Merlin's attention, or when he hits Merlin on the shoulder or pokes him in the ribs. Merlin's always hungry for more—more of the sound of Arthur's deep voice, in which he could swim if such a thing were even possible, and more of Arthur's fresh scent when he enters the office in the morning. He wants to thread his fingers through Arthur's perfectly dishevelled, sunshine-y hair, and longs to lick Arthur's golden, tanned skin. He wants to just... inhale Arthur.

Yet all he can do is watch and pine. Because even if Arthur is gay, as Merlin suspects, they really shouldn't be doing anything together—not with Arthur being Merlin's boss' son and Merlin's subordinate for the time being. Even if it's more often than not that it's Arthur who gives orders to Merlin, or huffs, offended, "I'm here to learn, Merlin. I won't be doing data analysis you can order from some simple intern."

He feels a wave of warmth from behind and realises Arthur's standing so close to his back that their bodies almost touch. There's a brush of air behind his ear and then he hears, "I know you want me, Merlin. I can feel you watching me."

Merlin feels hot. His heart rate picks up, and he can hear blood swooshing in his veins. The lift dings and Arthur takes a step back while more people enter the small space, going down.

The cafeteria is packed as usual at this time of the day, but miraculously they manage to find a table. Merlin cleans it with tissues while Arthur goes to grab his tray.

"You know, I reciprocate," Arthur says while he's sitting down, and Merlin holds his breath. He watches Arthur for a moment, and decides he's going to dive in and just ask if he's read it right. But that's the moment Gwaine, of all people, appears with his tray packed with meat and veggies.

"Fucking crowded. You mind?" He plops on a seat next to Merlin without waiting for an invitation. "How's that presentation for the Telco peeps going? They are giving me an ulcer with their whiny calls."

"We'll be done on time," Merlin says, panicking inwardly, because there's no way he'll be done on time, not unless he works in the office through the night.

Gwaine just holds his fork, pointing it in Merlin's direction while chewing on his food.

"You didn't get anything to eat. Again," Arthur says.

Merlin looks at him. "What?

"I haven't seen you eat anything this week," Arthur ads, and Merlin tries to remember the last time he had a meal. He shrugs.

"Dunno. I guess I'm not hungry." Just thinking about food makes his stomach grow queasy.

Arthur points in the direction of the buffet counter. "If we're going to finish this Telco presentation today, you might want to at least grab a sandwich. They got your faves with rocket."

Merlin shakes his head. He really doesn't feel like eating. But he smiles at Arthur because it's touching that Arthur not only wants to help Merlin with the work he's not obliged to be doing as an intern, but also remembers Merlin's favourite food.

When Arthur goes to put his empty dishes away on a cart, Gwaine scoots closer to Merlin. "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?" Merlin's face reddens. He and Gwaine talked about it several times when they started seeing each other—the ground rules—agreeing to keep it casual and not limit each other. They are not exclusive, not in a relationship. Still, flirting with Arthur, especially in Gwaine's presence, feels a lot like a betrayal.

"I'm not talking about this." Gwaine motions between Merlin and Arthur. "This is obvious." He smiles, although Merlin can see some strain on Gwaine's face. "What's going on with you, Merls? You look like shit. Are you still having those nightmares?"

"Yeah."

"What nightmares?" Arthur asks, standing next to them again, ready to leave the cafeteria.

"Just bad dreams. Can't sleep lately," Merlin admits, not wanting to get into details.

"Well, you do look sleep-deprived, but I thought it was your normal appearance," Arthur says. "You know, that you're just a loon."

Merlin would like to playfully hit Arthur on the arm, laugh, and say, "Shut up," but he's never been good at keeping things light. So he just smiles nervously and stands up. The smell of food is nauseating and he feels faint. He'd like to lie down, even if it's just for a few minutes.

xxx

Despite Arthur's help, the project is not going well. The office is deserted and silent at this time of night, and the couches in the conference room where Merlin's built "headquarters" are comfortable, but Merlin can't focus on the "big idea."

His skin itches again, or still, and he can't resist scratching his palms. He tries to focus on the data on his laptop, though, and not look down at his hands that must be angry red with white trails where the nails have passed like little rivers carving a desert.

"Merlin, stop," Arthur says, and Merlin feels a warm hand steadying his. The itching ends as if cut with a knife. He looks down at his palms covered with Arthur's long fingers, and his gaze fixes on Arthur's silver thumb ring, a solid piece of cool metal touching Merlin's hot skin. Embarrassment crawls up at Merlin because his palms are indeed scratched almost raw. He tries to draw his hands back, hide them behind him, maybe sit on them, but Arthur holds them firmly and doesn't allow it.

Merlin dares to look up at Arthur's face, and he doesn't see any contempt for his actions. There isn't even worry there, just Arthur observing him. Merlin licks his lips, wanting to say something, and Arthur's gaze drops to them.

Merlin's exhaustion makes everything seem hazy and unreal like foggy scenes in a film. That's why he doesn't react when Arthur leans in to kiss him.

Arthur's lips are soft but firm, and demanding, just the way Merlin likes it best. He opens up for Arthur as the boy licks gently over Merlin's upper lip and places his hand on Merlin's cheek, fingertips grazing over the skin there and trailing down to the corner of Merlin's lips. It feels intimate, the way Arthur's fingers just linger there, almost slipping inside Merlin's mouth between kisses and then retreating at the last moment.

Merlin's enveloped in Arthur's scent—the scent that has been torturing Merlin for so long now. He finally gives in to the urge and inhales, grabbing Arthur to bring him even closer as they lick their way into each other's mouths.

Merlin's head is spinning and it's an amazing, freeing experience like flying, or being carried over a mass of bodies at a concert. He loses himself in it, forgetting about the presentation, about the ache in his stomach and the burning of his skin. He twists his hand in Arthur's T-shirt and buries his other hand in Arthur's hair, which is just as soft to the touch as he expected.

But then, as the kisses deepen and Arthur pushes forward, insistent, the spinning sensation becomes too strong. Merlin gasps for air, cold sweat flooding his skin, bile rising in his stomach, choking him until he leans back, pushing hard with his hands on Arthur's chest. He almost falls when he scrambles to his feet, toppling over stacks of empty cups because he's hit the coffee table. He feels as if he's about to burst. He covers his mouth and prays he'll make it to the bathroom, running through the corridor and stumbling over his own feet, leaning on the walls as he swoons.

He hardly has time to stumble into a stall before he's getting sick, violently retching over the toilet. Dark spots dance before his eyes as he tries to stay upright, holding the edge of the ceramic bowl. He feels something moving in his throat, and when he spits it's a black substance that comes out, sticky and glistening like heated tar. He vomits and vomits until he thinks his guts have been turned inside out and the toilet is full of the black mess. It seems like the substance is moving, swirling and forming little waves that crawl up the bowl back towards Merlin—but it might be just Merlin's imagination. He's pretty sure he's delirious by now. He hits the flush button several times, but the water doesn't take the black goo away.

He scrambles back just in time to see the tar change its form into something very much resembling the thing he saw in Gwaine's apartment, the one that jumped inside him. The creature moves its sticky limbs one by one out of the water and looks at Merlin, blinking a few times, a grimace scrunching its maw. Then, it starts sinking to the ground as if melting, descending into the floor and pushing through it with a hissing sound like a live crayfish thrown into a pot of scalding water. And then the sound is gone, too, and there's nothing left but a wet, black stain on the tiles.

Merlin wraps some toilet paper over his hand, forms a ball, wipes the snot and tears off of his face, and sticks it inside the toilet. He flushes it again, thinking, "Fuck, if I clog it up the janitor guy will kill me," but he's too scared and too exhausted to really care.

He sits down on the floor, his back slumped against the toilet stall's door, his hands shaking. He's crying now, warm tears streaking down his face, because this? Out of all the things that have happened to him lately, this one is the most terrifying. He must be seriously sick and in need of help—he doesn't even want to Google if this is a kind of psychosis, or schizophrenia, or some other mental disease he's never even heard of.

He must have been sitting there too still for too long for the motion sensor to detect him, because the lights in the bathroom go off and Merlin yelps. He scrambles to his feet yet again, pushing the door open, and runs towards the exit, not looking into the mirrors. He is not looking into the mirrors! He's sure he'd see shadows and hands reaching out for can almost feel their cold touch on his shoulders.

The lights flicker and switch on one by one just when he's shutting the bathroom door behind him.

xxx

He's washing his face in the kitchen sink when Arthur walks in. Merlin puts his face down on the worktop and covers his head with both arms.

"Merlin… You okay, mate?" Arthur sounds unsure, and God, Merlin realises how it must have looked when he rushed out of the room right after their kiss.

"I'm so sorry," he says.

"That's okay. I shouldn't have—"

"No. Don't. It's not what you think." He laughs nervously because it's a lame line that people use as an excuse.

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" There's defensiveness in Arthur's voice, a hint of hurt pride.

"Because I know what it looks like." Merlin leaves the worktop and slumps down on a plastic chair by the table they usually eat their lunches at. "But really, it's not that." And maybe it's the tiredness, or maybe the late hour, or maybe the kiss, or the disappointed look on Arthur's face, but most of all it's that Merlin wants to share it. Somewhere during this evening he's stopped caring what Arthur might say. He just wants help; he needs help—someone or something to wake him up from this nightmare.

"I think I'm going crazy," he says gravely.

"Why?" Arthur asks, and Merlin's really grateful that it sounds like a sincere question.

"I'm having these... hallucinations," he says, and it sounds stupid to say it out loud. He's talked about this with Gwaine, but it was in the context of smoking weed and having bad dreams. This, here, is the real thing. It's the first time he's admitting he's actually ill.

"What kind of hallucinations?" Arthur sits down on the other side of the table.

Even though Merlin has started talking, it's still hard to describe his visions without blushing. "It's embarrassing."

"What kind of hallucinations?" Arthur repeats calmly with a head nod, encouraging Merlin to continue.

Merlin focuses on scratching the cuticles on his fingers. "Ghosts. Shadows. Something wanting to consume me, jump inside of me. Things reaching for me from mirrors, like evil spirits."

"Mirrors?" Arthur asks and Merlin nods. "And what do they look like, those spirits?"

Merlin is stunned by Arthur's calm reaction.

"I'm not sure. They're grey. They move. I don't look too closely. One of them kind of 'entered' me. Just glided in the air until it hit me. It had a long face like a rat. Glistening eyes like obsidian beads."

Suddenly Merlin looks up to make sure that Arthur isn't making fun of him. But no—there's no hint of a smile on Arthur's face. He's still listening with cautious attention. But then again, maybe he doesn't want to annoy the crazy...?

"Since when?" Arthur asks.

"What?"

"When did you start to see the spirits?"

Merlin reaches towards the table, takes the napkins, and starts shuffling them in his scratched-up hands. If he tells Arthur the truth, will it make a difference? He doesn't see himself as a junkie, but won't it all look even worse when he says he saw some freaking Goddess while he was stoned?

"I think—" he tries. "I think that… drugs must have triggered something in my brain."

"What kind of drugs? Hallucinogens?"

Merlin shakes his head. "No, nothing like that. Just weed."

"I'm not sure weed could trigger something that serious," Arthur says, pensive. "Long-term use could affect your emotions, maybe your memory. I don't know. I'm not an expert. I do have a friend with memory gaps, but he smokes a lot though, and I don't see you stoned daily. Or are you?"

"No," Merlin says. "It's just, you know, to wind down on the weekends sometimes."

Arthur nods. "When do these visions occur?"

"All the time," Merlin waves to the kitchen window. "Night. Day. Don't you think I'm crazy?"

"My mother used to see ghosts and demons. She called them 'the creatures of the Underworld,'" Arthur says. "Our mirrors were always covered. There was never any standing water. I remember not being allowed to take a bath, just showers. And then one day her skin started to it itch." Arthur points at Merlin's hands. "She scratched her arms and face raw; she plucked her hair out. Father couldn't watch it. He pleaded and threatened and took her to various doctors, but she kept getting worse. So he locked her in a private institution—you know that kind of facility where you pretend it's a spa rather than a mental hospital. She begged him not to do that. She claimed she had committed a crime, made a bargain for my life and the payment was due, and that she wanted to be with us when the Goddess came for her. Father wouldn't listen, though. They found her drowned in a pond there, just a month into her stay."

Merlin takes a deep breath. He doesn't know what to say. "I'm so sorry," he tries. "I didn't know." Once again, panic clenches his insides. Is he running out of time? Will they find him drowned somewhere like Arthur's mother?

Arthur nods, as if to himself. "Yeah. Not something my father likes to brag about." He takes a deep breath, too. "Anyway. You should talk to Mordred."

Merlin looks up, surprised. "Mordred? The creep from the IT team? Why"

Arthur frowns. "He's not a creep."

Merlin smiles weakly. "He wears those ugly pullovers, has dirty fingernails, and keeps talking about Star Wars. Sure, he's a creep."

"Okay, maybe a little." Arthur laughs. "But the Jedi thing? You'd be surprised. He can actually move objects with the sheer force of his will."

"What?"

"Is it more surprising than ghosts haunting you from mirrors?" Arthur asks, sounding totally serious, and Merlin has to agree that he's not in a position to judge. "But you really should talk to Mordred. He might be able to help you. He practically grew up in my house. My mother took him in because he was like her. He might be creepy, but he's learned how to deal with something to what you might be experiencing. Merlin…" Arthur trails off for a moment, and when he finishes it sounds as if he wanted to say something else. "Just talk to him."

Merlin isn't sure what to make of Arthur's advice. He needs time to process it all. Up till this point, he'd been sure all the visions were just a product of his imagination, an emanation of his sickness. But if what Arthur is telling him is true—that they can be real—then Merlin isn't sure if this is a better situation or a much, much worse one. He's not in shape to think about it now, though. If he was tired before, now he's reaching his limits. He literally can't keep his eyes open. He realises he's awfully hungry, too.

"Fancy a kebab?" he asks. "I'll finish the presentation tomorrow before work."

As they're walking to the nearest 24/7 kebab booth, Arthur keeps bumping into Merlin's shoulder while they chat about office gossip and films as if they weren't talking about demons and Merlin's possible mental illness just a while ago. Soon, Merlin's devouring a falafel, yoghurt sauce dripping down his fingers. It tastes so good he could moan around it. He feels light and normal for the first time since he entered the church with Gwaine. He'd love to sit on the plastic chairs in front of the booth with Arthur all night instead of face his empty, scary flat. But he's already drifting into unconsciousness, first dreams melting with the images of the night city and Arthur's warm smile.

"Come on," Arthur says. "Let me walk you home. Just lead the way."

Merlin's about to say that he can bloody well go home himself, but it's too nice to have Arthur by his side to protest.

Too soon they're standing by Merlin's door, Merlin leaning against it with his eyes shut. If he had any more strength left he'd invite Arthur inside. Or maybe he wouldn't; he's not sure what would come next. Arthur places one hand next to Merlin's head and leans closer. He hovers over Merlin's lips, his breath tickling Merlin's skin. Merlin opens his mouth slightly, inviting, but the kiss doesn't follow.

"Talk to Mordred," Arthur says and straightens up, turning to leave.

Merlin heads straight to the bedroom, turning on all the lights and the TV on the way, and lies across the bed still fully clothed. He falls asleep as if he'd fallen into a deep well, dreams instantly overtaking him and dragging him deeper into thick, cold darkness. It feels like swimming in dense water, and Merlin struggles to stay afloat. But then the nightmares shift, turning into vibrant images of Arthur's bright smile and the sensation of Arthur's tongue in Merlin's mouth. Merlin gasps in his sleep and shudders, an orgasm overflowing his body.

He's startled awake by the feeling of wet seed cooling on his skin, but it's still dark outside so he shimmies out of his jeans and boxer briefs, wipes himself off, and crawls back into bed. He wraps the sheets tightly around himself and dozes off, smiling at his teenage-like crush.

xxx

It's only six a.m., but Merlin gets dressed quickly and heads for the office. He feels safer surrounded by people. He's got his PowerPoint to finish anyway.

He runs into Mordred, who's standing outside the office building smoking a cigarette. The guy looks dishevelled, as usual; his curly hair is in disarray, and the long sleeves of his sweater are frayed at the edges.

"You need protection," Mordred says, not looking at Merlin. His cigarette is crumpled and bent as if it's been lying around for a while.

"Arthur told you?" Merlin asks, wondering when Arthur had the time to contact Mordred.

"He didn't have to. You smell like the Underworld."

Merlin sniffs at his arm but doesn't notice anything unusual.

"What exactly is the Underworld?" he asks. He's heard the term from Arthur, but it can mean anything.

"It's a…" Mordred hesitates. "It's kind of another dimension, I suppose. A place where all life originates and ends. But in a way it's a land of the dead, too."

Merlin wants to ask more about it, but movement at the periphery of his vision catches his attention, interrupting his train of thought.

"That one is a Guard." Mordred points with his cigarette towards a dark shadow lurking behind the wall of a house. "The one that looks like a kite—there."

Merlin looks at the kite-shaped figure that keeps moving as if fluctuating, half-hidden behind the house's corner.

So it's all real after all. Mordred sees it, too, he thinks, and he isn't sure if it's a positive thing or a dreadful one. On the one hand, it's good to know he's maybe not lost his mind—not more than Mordred has, anyway—but on the other hand it makes everything much more terrifying.

"What does it want from me?" he asks.

Mordred shrugs. "Guards usually just watch you. They don't come near."

"Can I get rid of them, though?" Merlin asks. It's all he wishes for right now. "I can't sleep. I feel them following me everywhere. I think one of them was inside me once."

Mordred takes a sudden step back, his eyes wide open. But after a moment of staring at Merlin, he leans closer again, inhaling deeply. Then he extends his hand towards Merlin until his fingers touch Merlin's shirt. Merlin notices that Mordred's hand is trembling lightly; his fingernails are bitten off so there's nothing left but pink skin around the edges, and there are nicotine stains on his skin. But up this close, when Merlin's actually looking past the horrid striped sweater and the usual weirdnesssurrounding Mordred, he has to admit Mordred is surprisingly beautiful: he's got an angelic face with clear, pale skin and icy-blue eyes.

After another breath Mordred straightens up. "You do smell like the Underworld, but I don't feel the Tracker in you."

"The Tracker?"

"That's what we call those small, grey creatures that enter your body to keep track of you. They are different than the Guards, because they actually invade your body. There are other creatures, too— like shadows with spider legs that crawl out of mirrors… They all try to bring you to the Underworld."

Merlin clutches his arms around himself because that just sounds so familiar. He had no idea there was a name for what the grey, sticky-limbed creature was. "I think I threw up the Tracker and it fled," he says. He shivers at the memory of that night.

"You threw it up," Mordred repeats after him.

"Yes."

Mordred starts muttering something Merlin can't decipher. It's actually Mordred's typical behaviour, Merlin realises. The guy usually stands here by himself, smoking and blubbering hushed nonsense as if counting or praying. God, what if Merlin starts behaving like this, too?

"I have never heard of anyone getting rid of a Tracker that was already implanted inside a body," Mordred says. "You must have some strong inner defensive magic. But it might not be enough to keep you safe. Another one will come—a more powerful one—and it'll bury itself inside you, dig it's claws underneath your skin, and make you follow the path to the Underworld. And if you don't go voluntarily, it'll make you do it in your sleep. If the Creatures really are after you, you'll need wards to keep them away from your body."

"Wards?"

"Yes. Yes." Mordred nods. "Spells. Objects with strong protective magic."

Merlin looks around and leans closer to Mordred because there are people walking through the door now and he doesn't want to be overheard.

"Are you saying that there's real magic? And that I have it?" he whispers. "Are you crazy?"

Mordred's face goes blank, the way it's usually blank when he's around people. "You see the demons, Merlin. And yet you doubt the existence of magic."

"No, it's just…" Merlin says. "I'd know it, wouldn't I? How come I don't feel it? Wouldn't it manifest itself somehow?"

When Mordred speaks, there's bitterness in his voice. "Aren't you surprised how easily everything comes to you? That each and every thing you touch is a success? Every campaign you do here at work, Merlin. I bet the buses come when you arrive at bus stops. Do the lights turn green for you when you're on the road? Do things crash around you when you're angry? Think about it."

Merlin wants to object, but then he starts wondering. Somehow the questions on his exams always suited his knowledge. And the traffic lights actually do always turn green whenever he's in a hurry. And that one time when he was little and fell down the stairs, the world just stopped for a moment until he righted himself, his toy spaceship hanging in the air as if actually flying. He's sure that if he were any other guy Uther would have him fired long time ago for tardiness.

"God." He slumps down with his back to the wall because he remembers how a boy from school tripped and broke his arm when Merlin got fed up with the boy's bullying and pushed him. Merlin never understood how a scrawny eight-year-old could push a teenager to the ground with such force, but now he realises that the strength he felt that day was not a natural one.

He tries to clear his head. "You say," he starts, looking up at Mordred, "that the Underworld—that's what you call it, right? That it will find a way to get me? Is there any way to, you know…" He waves his hand, choking on the words. He doesn't want to die or be taken to the Underworld, whatever it is.

Mordred leans over and cautiously pats him on a shoulder. "I'll help you with the wards. I need to run now, but today after work, okay? I'll do what I can."

Merlin nods, exhales, and stands up.

"Thank you," he says.

He needs to rush to finish his assignment, too. Soon he's so lost in work that even the sight of Arthur distracts him only for a minute. They smile at each other without speaking, as if sharing a secret, and it warms Merlin's chest, makes his body buzz in anticipation of whatever the future holds for him, even if he has to fight all the forces of the Underworld combined.

xxx

Merlin and Mordred take the Tube to get to Ealing, where Mordred's renting a basement in a small house. Mordred struggles with the key for a while and then pushes the door open, motioning to Merlin to follow.

"Sorry for the…" He indicates the messy area. "I don't usually have visitors, so I can't be arsed to clean up."

Merlin passes through a dark, small hall with walls covered in various drawings—crescent moons and pentagrams, swirling lines and other shapes he can't decipher. There are wooden sticks tied to the ceiling with red thread, and he has to duck his head to avoid hitting some of them.

"Protection," Mordred says, answering Merlin's unvoiced question about the sticks.

The main part of the flat consists of a small living room with a worn-out couch and an adjoining kitchenette. Every free space is covered in papers, computer hardware, and weird objects—shiny stones, incense sticks, pendants, little sculptures, and masks. Pushed to the wall next to the kitchen worktop, there's a small dining table supporting a computer that looks as if it died during a heart transplant: the outer shell is opened and the insides are overflowing like guts.

Mordred starts moving some clutter on his kitchen worktop, digging under piles of cups, paper packages, Tupperware containers, spoons, empty jars, and bottles of medications.

"Here!" He waves a permanent marker he's found under a dirty tablecloth. He takes Merlin's hand. "I'll draw the wards for you today and fill them with as much protective magic as I can. But you'll need to design your own ones later and ink them into your skin. Like here." He shoves his sleeves up, revealing intricate patterns of dark tattoos on the inside of his forearms.

"You'll need to do the important places—wrists, skin around your ankles, and your chest." He tugs his sweater up, allowing Merlin a glimpse of his chest where he has more tattoos—serpents and stars and symbols Merlin doesn't recognise. It's not attractive. It looks as if Mordred's skin is soiled, as if he's doodled all over it and didn't wash after.

"I'll have to do them permanently?" Merlin asks, not liking the idea. He's not against tattoos. In fact, he'd love to have one, if only he could decide what pattern he wants, but not like this, and not all over his entire body.

"You don't get it, do you?" Mordred leans back on the kitchen worktop, pulling his sweater back down. "Your connection to the Underworld? It's not temporary. It's not a dream you can wake up from. It's for life. This is your life now. The Creatures won't ever leave you alone. And you can fight, or you can surrender and follow them into the darkness."

"Draw," Merlin says, extending both of his hands to Mordred.

Mordred quickly sketches a diamond shape on one of Merlin's wrists and a small pentagram on the other. "Over your heart now," he says.

Merlin takes off his T-shirt and stands straight until Mordred finishes drawing three swirling arms joined in the center. Merlin looks up, questioning.

"It's a triskelion," Mordred explains. "It's my sign. As I told you, you'll have to figure out your own. Most people I know choose the Gaelic knot, but I guess it's because we live here."

"So there are more of… us?" Merlin asks.

"Not that many anymore." Mordred says, but he doesn't elaborate. "Okay, ready." He puts the marker back on the worktop.

Merlin touches the drawings. It doesn't feel any different than the rest of his skin.

"Now, stand still." Modred takes Merlin's hands in his again and wraps his fingers over the drawings on Merlin's wrists. Then he closes his eyes and Merlin feels warmth spreading through Mordred and into his skin. After a while, Mordred places both of his hands on the triskelion over Merlin's heart. He whispers something, and more warmth seeps from underneath Mordred's fingers. There are beads of sweat on Mordred's temples when he finally withdraws his hands and opens his eyes.

"For now it'll have to do," he says. "But it won't hold for long. The wards must be sustained with inner magic, and mine won't stay inside you long enough."

They stand silently for a while, Merlin observing the messy room and Mordred's mismatched clothes, the shadows under Mordred's eyes, the shakiness of Mordred's hands.

"How do you manage?" he asks softly.

Mordred just looks at him. "What other choice do I have?"

Is this it, then? Will Merlin be fatalistic about it, like Mordred? Will he cover his body with drawings and hang magical sticks in his flat? Will he be shaky all the time? Will he eventually lose his mind like Arthur's mum? "You say I'll have to fill the wards with my own power, but what do you mean? he asks.

Mordred smiles. "Every element—earth, fire, water and air—has its own energy, or inner magic if you prefer. You can draw this energy out and form it into a shape so you can release it when you need it."

"Shape?"

Mordred hums, thinking. "It's hard to explain. I imagine a shape and let it go until it does the thing I want."

Merlin nods. As crazy as it all sounds, he sort of understands what Mordred is getting at.

"Now," Mordred continues, "I don't use water. I don't feel it somehow. And air is thin and hazy, and just too weak for me. Fire… Don't ever use fire, Merlin. I did that once. It burns you inside out, consumes every piece of you. And it hurts. It hurts so fucking much you just want to die."

Moments like this, when Mordred's fierce and driven by some inner force, make him look insane. His face is still blank, not showing emotions, but his hands shake more violently, his eyes smoulder, and Merlin takes a few steps back, an uneasy feeling crawling up on him.

Mordred startles at Merlin's movement and calms. It seems superficial somehow, as if he's shutting down, trying to put a lid on whatever is taking place inside himself. It reminds Merlin of a frozen lava bed: solid on the outside but boiling on the inside.

"So, that leaves us with the earth," Merlin says.

"Yes. Yes, the earth. We should go out." Mordred leaves the room without looking to see if Merlin's following. They stand in a small garden behind the house. The evening air is a bit chilly and smells like cut grass and fried food some neighbour must be making.

"It might be just an autosuggestion, but I feel it best when there's no barrier between me and the earth, so…" Mordred starts taking off his shoes and socks, motioning for Merlin to do the same. The thin leaves of grass tickle Merlin's feet and the backgarden dirt is cold under his skin, so Merlin would rather put his shoes back on and go back inside.

"Okay. Close your eyes and try to feel it," Mordred tells him.

"Feel what, exactly?"

"The constant shift of particles, the elements moving—they are all present at any time. Try to get as far as possible. The fire inside the heart of the earth is too deep to touch with magic like this, so we're safe."

Merlin closes his eyes and concentrates, pretending Mordred's instructions make sense. It's awkward to do this in front of Mordred. He doesn't feel anything special, besides the cold and damp soil under his feet. He's not even sure what he's supposed to feel. He inhales through his nose, tries for a few seconds more, and opens his eyes, frowning. In front of him Mordred stands with his right hand extended. A small flame dances on his palm.

"See?" Mordred says, looking up, and suddenly he doesn't remind Merlin of an unkempt weirdo anymore. A broad, genuine smile lights up his face and brightens his eyes.

Mordred closes his palm, extinguishing the fire, and nods to Merlin, encouraging him to try again.

"I've no idea how you do this." Merlin shakes his head. "Perhaps I don't have it in me the way you do."

"I'm sure you do," Mordred says. "Focus."

He grasps Merlin's hand in his. His fingers are cold and a bit damp, like cat's paws. He turns Merlin's hand palm up and holds it firmly.

"Focus not on creating the fire, but on where the energy comes from. Don't fight it. Just... Do you feel the earth buzzing under your feet? Feel how the current goes through your body, up your feet, your shins, your knees, inside your stomach. Inhale."

Merlin does.

"Keep it now. Direct the current to your arm—all of it! And release. Now!"

When he exhales, Merlin feels strange energy burn inside his veins and enter his fingers. It's hot like fire. He wants to draw his hand back, but Mordred keeps it strongly in his grasp. Merlin dares to look.

"Oh fuck," he whispers, because there's a small ball of blue fire dancing on his palm. It's moving, alive and shimmering.

It's not until Merlin realises that it is actual fire that he starts to fear the heat.

"Ouch. Hurts!" He jerks his hand out of Mordred's. Sparkles burst around them. The fire dies the instant he loses contact with Mordred's body.

Mordred flashes him a radiant smile. "Isn't it awesome?"

And Merlin has to agree that, yes, despite all the dread and anxiety—it is kind of awesome.

xxx

"So, Merlin…" Arthur leans casually on Merlin's desk the next afternoon. It's Friday, and Merlin's glad he's reached the end of the week without any new demon encounters.

It's impossible not to ogle Arthur's forearms. They are sinful, that's what they are—strong and golden, their sun-kissed skin dusted with light hair. The sight of it makes Merlin yearn to touch, lick, and bite hard until he'd leave his marks on this perfect surface.

"Merlin." Arthur says.

He's waiting for an answer, but was there a question? Merlin looks up, trying not to reveal that he's some kind of a pervert with a forearm fetish. "Sorry. I zoned out for a minute. What?"

"Are you still sleep-deprived?" Arthur asks. Merlin thinks this wasn't the original question.

He shakes his head. "I'm fine. Mordred's mojo seems to be working."

He extends his arm towards Arthur to show him the drawings, and Arthur catches Merlin's wrist, turning it palm up to inspect the symbol. His thumb grazes gently over the lines. "That's it? That's all that was needed?" he asks. There's both incredulity and sorrow in Arthur's voice.

Merlin takes his hand back, knowing that Arthur must be thinking of his mother. "No, it only works combined with... magic." It feels stupid to say it, but Merlin is beyond caring about that anymore.

"You have magic?"

Somehow, Merlin finds himself struggling to answer this question, as if he's supposed to keep it secret, especially from Arthur. As if he's kept it secret for ages.

"Yes." He's certain of it now. He feels it deep inside him, a constant awareness of the world's elements and the power they provide. He wonders if Arthur will ask him to prove it, to perform a magic trick like drawing flowers out of his sleeve or pulling a bunny out of a hat. But Arthur just stands there looking bewildered, and a little sad. Merlin tries to think about what he could possibly say to make Arthur feel better, to wipe that haunted expression off his face, but he comes up empty.

"Do you want to come with me to a party tonight?" Arthur asks as if they weren't just talking about Merlin being fucking supernatural. Somehow this shift to normality makes Merlin feel so grateful that he says "Yes" without further consideration.

xxx

Merlin curses his recklessness a few hours later, standing in a club packed with very young people. All of them appear to be Arthur's friends. Boys slap Arthur's back as they go, girls give him pecks on his cheek, and all of them shake Merlin's hand vigorously.

"Hello, my beautiful, gay ex-boyfriend!" a blonde girl exclaims, and she flings herself at Arthur, throwing her arms around his neck and giving him a huge, sloppy kiss right on the mouth.

Arthur puts her down, laughing. "Happy birthday, Elena! Can I put you down now? I don't want to give Merlin the wrong idea here!"

"Ah, this must be the gorgeous date you said you'd bring over!" She grins.

Is this a date then? Merlin thinks he must have been ignoring what's between him and Arthur on purpose, what with Arthur being Uther's son. But he has to face the facts. And why is he so hopelessly happy about it? Warm waves of excitement spread through his body and his stomach clenches in a surprisingly pleasant way.

Arthur tugs on Merlin's sleeve to make him follow, and they both dive into the crowd.

"So, a girlfriend, huh?" Merlin shouts over the music because he can't help himself.

Arthur rolls his eyes, leans to Merlin's ear, and shouts, "I wanted to at least give it a try, okay? I thought I owed it to my father. For what it's worth, I don't think Elena holds it against me."

His breath tickles Merlin's skin, inducing goose bumps. He wraps his arm around Merlin and pulls him towards himself until their bodies are flush together.

"But I don't like girls, Merlin. I like men. I like you. If you haven't noticed yet." Arthur smiles and bites Merlin gently on the neck, following it with a lick that turns into a kiss. He slides his mouth to Merlin's jaw and kisses him there, too, going up until he reaches the corner of Merlin's lip.

The kisses that follow are soft and a bit insecure, despite the hard grip of Arthur's hands on Merlin's hips. No one seems to care about them; people dance and laugh and shout their greetings, the music is loud but not deafening, and Arthur's body is warm and perfect against Merlin's.

Merlin feels like floating in the air and he smiles into the kisses, thinking, "Fuck the age difference, fuck the whole job related prohibitions, fuck the demons." He's having the real thing here with Arthur, and he'll let himself just go with it. He wouldn't be strong enough to deny himself this anyway.

They're startled by someone hitting Arthur on the shoulder.

"Oi, Earth to Arthur!" says a tall man with curly auburn hair. "Hate to interrupt you, mate, but Elena says you promised her a dance on her birthday." The guy extends his hand to Merlin.

"Sorry for that. I'm Leon."

Merlin smiles. "That's okay. I'll go get something to drink."

"Grab me a beer, will you?" Arthur asks. "I'll be right back."

Merlin pushes through the crowd towards the bar and stands in line, waiting for the dark-haired barmaid to turn around to him. He checks the time and scrolls through emails on his mobile.

"Your drink is ready, Merlin," the barmaid says, and Merlin gasps in horror because he remembers this voice. He looks up to see Nimueh. Her black hair falls down her shoulders like serpents, her eyes glow radiant blue, and her lips are that red colour that makes Merlin think of thick, fresh blood. She smiles broadly and passes a glass towards him.

He wants to turn around, to flee, to shout, but he can't take a step back. Nimueh leans down, reaching for him, but as he extends his hand for the glass his sleeves roll up, revealing the drawings, and the Goddess retracts her hand and places the drink on the bar.

"You play hide and seek with my servants but don't think you can defy me, Merlin." Her eyes narrow. "I've been waiting for you for way too long. The time has come and passed. You shall enter my Kingdom tonight."

She keeps Merlin's gaze and nods towards the glass, encouraging him to drink.

Merlin feels compelled to do so. He wraps his fingers around the glass. It's full of dark liquid that is perfectly cool in the too-warm air of the club. It's so inviting. Merlin knows it would quench his sudden, furious thirst.

Nimueh nods again and licks her lips as if it is she who anticipates the first taste.

"Here you are!" Arthur grabs Merlin's waist and pushes his hands under Merlin's shirt.

Merlin drops the glass to the bar with a clank. It doesn't break, but the liquid splashes onto the worn surface. The image of Nimueh flickers and is replaced by a blonde girl who exclaims, "Watch out!"

"Leave it." Arthur says. "Let's get out of here." His fingers keep travelling down Merlin's abdomen, stopping at the waist of Merlin's jeans.

Merlin exhales, heat overflowing his veins. He's lost his mind. He feels drunk even though he hasn't had anything to drink tonight. He can't tell reality from dreams anymore. But he wants this, whatever Arthur is asking for.

"Yeah," he says. "Okay."

Arthur navigates him towards the exit. "Your place, Merlin."

"What?" They're already outside the club now, cold evening air hitting Merlin like a bucket of ice water.

"Unless you want to see my father after work?" Merlin can hear the smirk in Arthur's voice. "I'm staying with my dad while I'm in London."

Fuck, Merlin thinks. Arthur technically is still a teenager, even if he doesn't usually act like one. Does Arthur even know what he's doing? Does Merlin himself know what he's doing? He falters.

"Why are you stopping?" Arthur whines.

Merlin backs up a bit. "We can't do this," he gasps.

"Why?"

"Because you're a child."

"Fuck you," Arthur says.

Merlin shakes his head. "No. But you are. And I need—"

"What do you need, Merlin?" Arthur pushes Merlin backward into the wall of the club. "Do I have to pin you down and just take you in order to have you?"

Merlin's flooded with heat, and his lips barely move when he says, "Yes."

Arthur stills, then pulls back a little, observing Merlin. Merlin knows exactly how he must look now, with his cheeks flushed, pupils dilated, and mouth open.

"Is that what you like?" Arthur asks. "Do you want to be… what?" He places one of Merlin's hands above his head and steps closer again, pushing Merlin's legs apart with his knees. "Held down, then?"

"Yes," Merlin breathes, feeling his face burn even hotter.

Arthur brings his mouth close to Merlin's ear. "Tied up?"

"Yes."

"What else, Merlin?"

Merlin tries to answer, he really does, but Arthur is too close, and it's mind-blowing and mortifying all at once. Because this is Arthur, who Merlin's been lusting over ever since they were introduced to each other in Uther's office, and Merlin can't think. He just wants.

Arthur wraps his long fingers around Merlin's other wrist and then brings it up, catching both of Merlin's arms in his one hand. His lips feel plushy-good pressed to Merlin's neck.

"Did you think I wouldn't be able to do this?" Arthur asks, pressing his palm to Merlin's cock to feel it through the jeans. And God, is Merlin so hard now he can't breathe when Arthur continues. "Did you think that I'm too young to just splay you underneath me and open you up with my tongue and fingers until you're begging for my cock and the relief it will mercifully give you?"

Merlin closes his eyes and allows his head to rest on the wall with a slight bang. "Jesus," he whispers. "Where did you learn this?"

Arthur kisses him gently. It's a sharp contrast between the sweetness of the kiss and the tight grip on Merlin's wrists, which is almost crushing Merlin's bones.

"Merlin," Arthur says in a soft voice. It's as if a tide has rushed and retreated, giving way to the steady lull of tender waves. "Just let me do this, yeah?"

xxx

The door to Merlin's flat clicks shut, leaving him with Arthur, cut off from the world and standing in silence, panting a bit from the fast walk. Merlin isn't sure what he should do next; he thinks about proposing something to drink, a bottle of wine maybe, but then Arthur's tugging on his hand, pulling him closer. He opens Merlin's jeans and slumps down, nuzzling at Merlin's navel. For a while it's just that—hot breath over Merlin's clothed groin and Arthur's hands stroking his hips. Merlin feels suspended in time, turned into one buzzing pile of anticipation.

When Arthur drags Merlin's boxer briefs down, Merlin's cock springs out, already hard and reddened, with a pearly drop trickling down the slit.

"Your dick is gorgeous. You're gorgeous," Arthur mutters, and licks the delicate flesh from the base up to the head.

He's holding Merlin by the hips in a tight grip, but Merlin's shivering, tremors making his teeth rattle and hands shake. Merlin doesn't dare touch Arthur. He's putting all his self-control into standing still, into not giving away how nervous he is all of a sudden, into not spoiling the moment.

Arthur's grip tightens even more, palms pressing on Merlin's arse, until Merlin gives in and pushes his hips a bit forward, his cock sliding deep in the heat of Arthur's mouth.

"Ung," Merlin grunts, clenching his fists.

The rhythm that Arthur sets is uneven, merciless, pushing Merlin to the limits only to slow down again.

Merlin hesitates, but finally he brings his hand to Arthur's hair. He combs the silky threads and then brings his fingers down to trail, in the lightest way, the corner of Arthur's mouth, so he can feel the slide of his cock in between Arthur's lips. He imagines this scene being reversed—himself on his knees in front of Arthur and Arthur fucking his mouth open with long, hard thrusts, tugging on Merlin's hair until his head would tilt up, exposing his throat and allowing Arthur to push deeper. He pictures how it would feel to have Arthur come in his mouth, spurting in hot splashes so Merlin would struggle to keep it all in without spilling. He'd swallow and lick until Arthur would be clean and sated.

He's got no time to warn Arthur that he's coming himself; he just jerks back, his cock pulsing, streaks of come painting the floor and Arthur's cheek.

"Fuck, sorry!" Merlin cries, leaning down to clean Arthur up, but Arthur just smiles and licks the drops of come from his lips.

"Now, I really, really need to fuck you," he says.

Merlin expects Arthur to push him down with his naked arse in the air and screw him blindly, but instead they lie on the bed together and make out until their lips are swollen and their tongues are almost sore.

They tug and pull on their clothes, not stopping until every piece of fabric lands crumpled on the foot of the bed. Arthur hitches Merlin's leg up, placing it on his hip, and with lube-slicked fingers starts opening Merlin up slowly, meticulously, carefully. It lulls Merlin to a state in which his body feels weightless. His floating limbs are not functioning, he's breathing right into Arthur's mouth, and the only thing left in him is the impossible need to be filled, to feel full. He chokes on words, wanting to say, "Fuck," and "Yes, please," when Arthur's thick cock finally penetrates his hole in one long movement until it's all the way in.

With his cock seated deep inside Merlin's arse, Arthur pushes Merlin on his back and then leans down, trapping Merlin's own straining cock between their bodies. He presses his forearms to Merlin's chest and curls the fingers of one of his hands around Merlin's throat where the collarbone meets the neck. It's a light, reverent touch, but a firm one, too, and Merlin yields to it, sinking deeper into the mattress as if melting. Arthur's other hand travels up Merlin's side until he reaches Merlin's face, thumb grazing over Merlin's bottom lip. Then Arthur pushes it inside Merlin's mouth, pressing hard on his tongue, urging Merlin to suck on it.

This is delicious—to feel the weight of Arthur's body, to be bound under Arthur's touch with no escape, helplessly trying to arch up to meet Arthur's thrusts. It's the throbbing of Arthur's cock, the sounds that Arthur makes when he whispers, "Beautiful," together with the way Arthur's grip on Merlin tightens and then loosens and the thought of Arthur's hot come shooting out, that pushes Merlin over the edge again. The magic inside him flares up, and for a moment he doesn't know where he is; he's floating over strange meadows, rolling with Arthur on green, thick grass, kissing in cold streams until his bones scream, freezing, and the only thing that can warm him up is to be filled with Arthur's cock once more.

xxx

He leaves Arthur sleeping in his bed, all long limbs and open mouth, and heads for his appointment in the place that Mordred recommended. It's still early, and Merlin would rather stay with Arthur for a lazy morning fuck, but after last night in the club he knows he has to strengthen the wards on his body.

He's expected a space cluttered with magical objects and full of incense. Instead, he finds clinical order, steel and white glass, and shiny surfaces. Everything is clean and antiseptic. The guy that greets him at the door is huge and black, with a gold tattoo of swirling lines covering his neck and cheek.

"I'm Aglaine. You must be Merlin," the guy says, extending his hand for Merlin to shake. The hand is warm and strong under Merlin's fingers, reassuring in a way. "Good name for a sorcerer, by the way." He smiles.

"I'm not a sor-—" Merlin starts, but stops because maybe he is. It doesn't matter what Aglaine thinks of him.

"Mordred told me you need protection drawings."

"Yes. Seems like I do." Merlin nods.

"Have you picked them already?"

Merlin looks around as if searching for inspiration in the white walls. "No. I was kind of hoping you'd help me with that."

"Let me see." Aglaine opens one of the built-in white cabinets and takes out a binder. "Try looking through these. Place your hand over those that appeal to you to feel their energy. You'll sense when it's the right one. You'll just know."

Merlin browses through pages of intricate patterns and simple symbols, variations of Celtic knots, triskelions, Egyptian crosses, eyes in triangles, and pentagrams, but nothing seems right.

"I don't know," he says eventually, putting the binder down.

"Okay, so let's try it a different way," Aglaine says. "Close your eyes and focus on the magic inside you. Then try to describe what shape it morphs into."

Merlin closes his eyes and allows the current that he's been feeling since Mordred showed him how to draw energy from the earth fill him up. He shudders, because it's much more intense now. It hits him with a force he hasn't expected, like an electrical shock. He gasps when visions burst in front of his closed lids.

"Crescent moon," he says. "The sun. Two stars joined together. The Earth." He's almost knocked to the ground when the next image hits him, hot air filling his lungs and leaving him breathless. "A dragon," he says, and opens his eyes. He slumps down on a chair that looks like the ones they have in dentist's offices.

"A dragon?" Aglaine asks and Merlin nods.

"On my chest."

"Let me see." Aglaine takes out more folders.

Merlin points out the symbols. Now that he's seen them he's very sure which should go where. Aglaine goes out for a moment to the adjoining room and comes back with an ancient book. He places a loose page from inside of it in front of Merlin.

"The Dragon," he says.

Merlin extends his hand hesitantly over the drawing. The dragon is beautiful, its body curving as if it's prepared for motion, set to leap into battle. It's got a lean neck, a long face with huge nostrils, pointed spikes over its back, an arrow at the end of a spiral tail, and huge, extended wings.

The image seems to call out to Merlin, pulling Merlin's fingers towards the ancient paper. And then the lines move slightly as if alive, awoken by some force that comes from the connection between Merlin and the depicted creature.

"Yes," he confirms. "This is the one. What does that say?" He points to the sign under the drawing.

"The Great Dragon," Aglaine reads. "According to legend, he was a creature connected with Merlin."

"The Merlin?" Merlin asks, and Aglaine nods.

"Now, these I can do in about half an hour." Aglaine indicates the binder with lunar symbols. "But the dragon in the shape and shading you've chosen will take at least a few visits. Unless..." He pauses, thoughtful. "I could try to do the basic outline with the needle, and then maybe we could fill the rest in with magic. It's been a long time since I've done that, though."

The tattooing process is way less painful than Merlin expected. He grits his teeth when the needle touches his skin for the first time, but after a while the pain eases and becomes a dull annoyance rather than an unbearable ache. Still, Merlin's sweating and tensing enough that he knows he'll be sore the next day.

"Breathe," Aglaine says.

"Wow, this looks beautiful," Merlin says upon seeing the first of the symbols done. The ink is pitch black. Even though the skin around the tattoo is red and irritated, it still looks elegant, especially when Aglaine places some greasy ointment over it.

"Thank you," Aglaine says.

"Why do Mordred's look so... messy?" Merlin asks. After seeing Mordred's tattoos, he was so afraid his skin would be permanently spoiled, like a dirty piece of paper.

"He's done most of them himself using dirt and fire."

Merlin looks up at Aglaine. "He's what?"

"When he came to me, some of the drawings were cut or burnt into his skin. I couldn't remove them, so we decided to keep them and ink new lines over the original ones."

"But why would he do that? That's just insane!"

Aglaine puts his tools down. "Don't be so quick to judge him. Sometimes, you just do what you can to survive."

Merlin thinks of the grey creatures in the darkness and how they follow him around. Maybe he'd do the same as Mordred if he hadn't been guided.

Aglaine pushes a button and the chair reclines with a quiet thump. "Now, The Dragon. Take your T-shirt off."

Merlin complies and lies back on the chair. Aglaine is not using any pattern: he just quickly outlines the main shape with a wet pencil. It immediately feels warm on Merlin's skin, even though there's no ink injected yet.

With each touch of the needle, Merlin feels more of the magical force driving through him. The image is pulsing and flickering, as if emitting some inner light. When Aglaine closes the lines of the main outline, Merlin gasps and involuntarily covers the drawing with his hand. His skin feels hot. When he lifts his hand, the lines move: the drawing is filling itself up in front of Merlin's eyes. In a few seconds the image is complete, with all the shades and little details recreated to perfection.

But when Merlin loses his concentration, the details fade and almost vanish. "What's happening?" he asks.

"It's filled up with your magic." Aglaine puts away all his tools. "You'll be able to see that your magic's strong when the shape is solid. It'll start fading when your magic weakens, and will disappear if it seeps out of you completely."

"Is that possible? Can I lose it?"

"Yes, but I don't think it will happen in your case. You seem to have great power within you."

Merlin reconsiders, biting his lip. "Will it be enough to keep me safe from the Underworld?"

"Perhaps. But the Mother Goddess may find another way to get to you. The debt must be settled one way or another."

Merlin sits up, reaching for his T-shirt. "Debt?"

"Yes. Sometimes parents pledge their lives to the Goddess in exchange for a child or some other fortune. I don't know. But in some cases though—like with Mordred—the debt remains to be settled. Mordred's parents died in an accident before they could serve their time with Nimueh. Maybe your parents made a deal with her they weren't able to keep, too?"

Merlin stands up. His head is swimming slightly. He didn't know his father, as Balinor left them when Merlin was just a baby, but he knows his mother would never, ever allow anyone to do her child any harm. He purses his lips. "What kind of a sick, evil Goddess is she to take the life of an innocent?"

"She takes life, but it is she who gives life, too. She's the Queen of the Darkness and the Origin of Light. She maintains the balance."

"How do you know so much about it?" Merlin asks.

Aglaine shrugs. "I'm a Druid," he says, as if that explains everything. "Feel free to ask whatever you need, Merlin, and I'll try to tell you as much as I know. These," he motions to the tattoos, "will heal soon. Your magic is already incorporating them into your body. Be safe, Merlin." He walks him to the exit.

Merlin takes his phone out the minute he's stepped out of the shop, punching, "MUM."

"Have you made a bargain with Nimueh?" he asks without saying "Good morning."

His mother falters. "Merlin, I..."

He's so angry he lets his voice sharpen. "Have you or have you not made a deal with the Underworld Goddess, Nimueh?"

"No, Merlin. Your father... Oh baby, Balinor tried everything he could. You were born with these abilities. A woman came to our house and told us you were destined to live by her side in the world of the dead, that you'd spoken the ancient language of the Dragons and she needed you to maintain the veil between the Worlds. But you were only a baby!"

Merlin clutches the phone so hard it almost cracks in his hand. "What did he do? Balinor?"

He can hear the hurt in his mother's voice. "He went instead of you to postpone it. Merlin, how do you know about her? Oh God, has she...?"

He doesn't have the heart to tell her, but there's no way he can hold back now. "Yes," he says softly. "She wants me."

There's a sob on the other end of the line, and Merlin can't find the words to soothe his mother's pain. He's shaking. It hurts him to hear his mother like this, but at the same time he feels betrayed. He's lived his whole life in lies. He's always thought his father was a coward who left them, only to learn he'd given his life for Merlin.

"I'll be fine, Mum. I'll find a way, don't worry," he says and hangs up.

xxx

"I love it." Arthur trails his fingers over the shape of the dragon on Merlin's chest. They're both sprawled across Merlin's bed. "Especially this one. How come it's all done and healed already?" He touches the tail lightly with his fingertips and the dragon flickers, turning its head towards Arthur.

"Holy fuck, it moves," Arthur says in awe, but he doesn't flinch or move his fingers from the drawing. The dragon sniffs and curls around Arthur's pinky like a cat. "I think it likes me." Arthur smiles.

When Merlin doesn't comment, but just lies there staring at the ceiling, Arthur asks, "What's wrong? I thought you wanted the tattoos."

"Yeah," Merlin says. He doesn't want to talk about his father. He can't think about it. "I'm just tired."

"Let's sleep some more then. It's Saturday. I don't have anywhere to be." Arthur hums and throws his hand over Merlin, pulling him closer.

Merlin pushes back in search of the warmth of Arthur's body, and when he's settled, it suddenly hits him. This is the way he wants to spend his days and nights for the rest of his life. These are the arms that he wants to feel hugging him forever.

Tears hot as the magic that is humming inside him start to well up in his eyes. He was so wrong—this is not just a crush. Somehow during this short time, he's fallen in love with this impossible boy who never questions Merlin's sanity and who accepts every supernatural thing as if it's perfectly normal. Merlin's fallen in love like he's never done before.

xxx

Summer settles in; storms give way to gentler tides and warm, sunny days, and with that Merlin's life settles, too. It's all about priorities. Merlin's juggling insane amounts of work, spending every waking hour with Arthur—absorbing him as much of him as possible before Arthur has to go back to University—and practicing spells with Mordred. Sometimes the spirits peek out from behind corners, but they're never bold enough to get close to Merlin. It all feels a lot like postponing the inevitable, sweeping the problems under the rug, but Merlin is grateful for what he has.

Gwaine pops his head into Merlin's office, startling him from his musings.

"Oi, Merlin, have you seen the creep? He was supposed to give me the app today. Uther will bite my head off if I don't meet the deadline on this."

"No, I haven't seen Mordred." Merlin stresses the name, because he hates the way everyone refers to Mordred as if he's less than human. "Isn't he sick?"

"Fuck if I know," Gwaine says. "It's you who coddles the freak."

"You're such an arshole," Merlin huffs.

"Well, excuse me. I see that shagging the Princess has made you a noble by association."

Merlin wants to retort, but when he looks up at Gwaine there's something in the set of Gwaine's face that makes Merlin's chest clench. He feels guilty that he's abandoned Gwaine, but there simply isn't enough time in the day for everyone. He can't and doesn't want to share his affections, especially not now that Merlin's living on borrowed time with Arthur.

"I'll check on him and let you know," he says, dialing Mordred's number already.

Mordred doesn't pick up despite Merlin ringing him every fifteen minutes.

A prickling feeling crawls up Merlin's back. This is the reason he finds himself squeezed inside the afternoon rush on the Tube, heading to Ealing after work.

xxx

He rings the bell and raps on the door but is met with silence. He's about to turn around and go back home when he feels a pull, a familiar tickle of magic being used in his presence.

"Mordred?" he says to the closed door.

Again, no one answers, but there's a rustle or a small whisper inside the house. Dread coils deep in Merlin's stomach because the stillness of this house, the forced silence of it, is somehow unnatural.

Merlin reaches for the door handle and feels a rush of energy when his fingers connect with the metal, magic flaring up and opening the closed lock for him. He enters the darkened hallway, ducking under the hanging sticks. The air is stale, as if the room hasn't been vented for ages. There's a whisper again, and Merlin follows the sound to the living room.

The furniture is pushed to the walls, couch toppled over and covered in clothes. In the middle of the floor there's a circle drawn in dark red, and inside of it Mordred crouches, bare-chested, with his eyes focused on some point in front of him. Merlin instinctively glances where Mordred's gaze leads, but there's nothing there, and Merlin looks back to Mordred.

"What are you doing?" he asks, but gets no reply.

Mordred is whispering something. His chapped lips barely move, though, and Merlin can't understand much. And then Merlin notices the way the line of the circle is smeared, not drawn on the floor, and the way Mordred's hands look, all covered with dried blood, fingers curling stiffly.

"Jesus." Merlin crouches down and hastily moves towards Mordred until he almost reaches him through the circle. "Mordred, what have you done?"

The magic humming inside Merlin is on alert, not letting him near, or maybe it's Mordred's force keeping him out. He pushes through the barrier, even though his skin and bones scream as he does.

"What's happening?" he asks, leaning towards Mordred, who shivers lightly and then answers so softly Merlin has to get even closer, almost touch Mordred's cheek with his own, to hear the answer.

"They've come for me."

Merlin looks around again, but there isn't any trace of a Guard, or any other Underworld creature. "I don't see them."

"They fled when you came." He catches Merlin's hand, fingers sticky with dried blood. "Please don't leave."

"I won't." Merlin takes Mordred's hand to inspect the damage and hisses when he sees how deep the cuts are. "Come on. Let me get this wrapped." He helps Mordred up and out of the circle. "You should have called me, you idiot. I'd have come right away."

Mordred shakes his head weakly. "There was no time."

They sit in Mordred's bathroom, Merlin rinsing Mordred's palms under a spray of warm water that turns pink in the basin.

"I think you might need stiches," he says. "Why did you do it?"

Mordred hangs his head, allowing Merlin to do whatever he's doing without a single complaint. "My magic isn't enough anymore," he says. "I was trying to… fuck." He draws a shaky breath. "I was trying to exorcise myself. I know those spells." He looks down at his hands. "It didn't seem like a huge sacrifice."

Merlin remembers how he felt when the Tracker jumped into him, and thinks that he would've done the same.

"We're going with Arthur to the Cotswolds tonight. I'm taking you with us."

"What are you, like, fifty?" Mordred asks, and there's a shadow of smile on his face that makes Merlin exhale in relief because he wasn't sure if Mordred had lost it completely or not.

"Yeah, I know." He laughs. "But still, you're going, too. You can't stay here."

Mordred doesn't argue. He just nods, looks up at Merlin, and says, "Thank you."

Merlin fishes his phone out. "Um," he says when Arthur picks up. "I think we should take Mordred with us this weekend. He's been tracked down."

"Of course," Arthur says, as if it's the most normal thing in the world to take a bloke traced by Underworld creatures along on a romantic weekend with his boyfriend.

When Merlin turns to Mordred to ask him what he needs to pack, the man is snoring with his head on the sink. It makes Merlin wonder how long Mordred stayed in the circle, on full alert, repeating spells to keep the demons away.

xxx

They're at a nice cottage with a small garden and a bonfire area encircled with white, round stones. The evening is cool, despite it being the end of August, so they light the fire and sit on wooden benches, drinking beer and passing around a huge package of tortilla chips.

Mordred was silent and shaky duringthe journey over, but the alcohol seems to have relaxed him. He slumps to the ground, leaning back on the bench and placing his bandaged hands on his thighs.

Merlin sits between Arthur's legs and rests his head on Arthur's groin. He grins and picks up a scoop of sand to throw in the air. He aims it so it flies over the fire where it hangs for a moment, forming the shape of a sparkly dragon that roars, spits out fire, and then flaps its wings to fly up, vanishing into the sky along with the smoke.

Mordred smiles, and with his fingertips he flings a bit of sand over the fire too, mirroring Merlin's actions, until his dust descends in a curtain of flowers.

"Freaks!" Arthur laughs.

"Come on," Merlin says. "You're just jealous. You got to admit it's impressive."

"I've outgrown playing in the sand," Arthur says, laying his hand on Merlin's neck where he draws little circles with his thumb. And after a while he adds, as if he's just remembered something, "Fuck. I can't believe I have to go back to school soon."

"Would you rather work?" Mordred asks.

"I'd rather stay with Merlin." Arthur leans to plant a warm kiss on Merlin's neck. It's a sweet thing to say, and Merlin's grateful Mordred doesn't make any mocking comments about it.

"What about you?" Merlin asks, opening another bottle of beer for Mordred. "How come you don't date?" Arthur shifts behind him, and Merlin wants to bite his tongue because there's probably a reason for Mordred's celibacy he doesn't want to hear about.

Mordred doesn't answer for so long that Merlin almost exhales in relief that the topic was dropped, but then Mordred speaks. "When you are marked like we are, Merlin, you're not allowed to love anyone. And I don't care for casual dating."

Arthur starts to get up, tugging Merlin along.

"Wait, what?" Merlin asks, stopping. "Why aren't we allowed to love someone?" His pulse quickens as he waits for Mordred's answer, because Arthur's looking at him, and they've never said the words, but Merlin suspects—he hopes—that for Arthur what they have is also more than just a summer fling.

"Because the Goddess will use this person against you, or kill her... or him in your case. That's what she did with Kara."

Arthur whispers in Merlin's ear, "Kara was Mordred's girlfriend. She died in a car accident two years ago."

Mordred stands up, too. He holds his bandaged hands awkwardly along his body. "It wasn't an accident. She drove thirty miles past the place she was supposed to be going, and then she crashed into a lake."

He looks as if he's about to cry. Or lash out in anger. It's always so difficult to say what Mordred's really feeling, but Merlin can sense the magic crackling, flying around them in agitated swirls. He walks to Mordred, wraps his arm around his shoulders, and nudges him lightly towards the house. "Come on," he says. "Let's go inside. Arthur?" He nods his head to Arthur.

"Yeah," Arthur agrees. "It's getting cold."

They walk up the white stairs to the second floor. The walls are lined with pink and white floral paper that gives a cheery effect. Mordred is dragging behind them so slowly they have to check if he's following every few seconds. It's as if he's stalling, reluctant to stay alone. Merlin wonders if maybe he should stay and talk to Mordred, or try to strengthen the wards on Mordred the same way Mordred did for him once. But Arthur's tugging on Merlin's hand, and the pleasant, gentle swoon of the world after a few beers makes Merlin feel lazy and warm inside—he just wants to lie down and leave all the drama behind him, even if for a little while. So they wish each other, "Good night," and leave Mordred standing in the hall, silent and alone.

The door to the room in which Merlin's staying with Arthur shuts, and Arthur lies down on his back on the lavender duvet on the bed, extending his arms behind him, stretching. Merlin crawls on the bed after him, leaning down for a lazy kiss.

He rarely has Arthur so calm and pliant underneath him. Usually Arthur keeps moving restlessly, always seeking action, always pushing forward. But now Arthur is resting; his golden eyelashes cast gentle shadows on his cheeks, his palms are loose, his fingers relaxed, and his lips part softly as he surrenders, opening up for Merlin's kisses. Merlin can't decide if he wants to slump down on Arthur's body and drift into sweet sleep or do something. He feels warm, comfortable and safe. He buries his face in Arthur's neck, inhaling, and then goes back to kissing Arthur's mouth, licking his way inside, pushing on Arthur's tongue and forcing him to open up more.

Arthur's cock twitches underneath Merlin's hips and Arthur whispers, "So tired," but he pushes up anyway, hardening more. Merlin wonders if he could make their clothes disappear by the sheer force of his will so they wouldn't have to move and make any effort.

Go on, he tells his magic. Go on. When he suddenly feels the rush of cold air and the luxurious slide of Arthur's bare, soft skin underneath him he gasps, "Holy shit!" Because he's wanted it, he's willed it, but he's not expected it.

"Did you just…?" Arthur asks, sounding bewildered.

"Mm hmm," Merlin murmurs.

He's tipsy and sleepy and horny all at once. His magic keeps pushing from the inside of his body, wanting a release he's not sure how to deliver. He moves forward, his cock rubbing against Arthur's, then stills. He pushes down, allowing a warm wave of want to wash over him, and pulls back again. His fingers thread with Arthur's, gently at first, and then harder, until both their hands are tied together in fists. The pace he sets makes Arthur pant hot half-words into Merlin's mouth.

Merlin's magic feels like it's set free. It swirls around Arthur like a warm wind, caressing Arthur's skin and wrapping around Arthur's cock. He thinks how the magic could fill Arthur up in the most intimate places, and wonders if it would be possible to join together magically. But then the desire inside him starts building up too much, and he forgets all about his magic, allowing the need to grind to take over. A thin streak of pre-come oozes down his cock, smearing between them wetly, making the slide a little bit smoother.

Arthur moans into Merlin's mouth, and Merlin hums his disapproval. "Shhh, I don't want him to hear us."

He braces himself, holding onto Arthur's hands, and thrusts, speeding up, rubbing them together, but it's not enough, so he releases one of his hands, sneaks it between their bodies, and wraps both their leaking cocks in his palm. It's still too dry, and for a moment he wishes he'd asked Arthur to lick his palm, but there's no going back now, not when the release is right there and he's already falling, heat coiling up in his stomach, drawing his balls up, making him drool into Arthur's mouth as he breathes.

"Yes," he says. "Now you. Come for me." And Arthur spills, too, over his hand, body going rigid, shuddering while he's struggling not to make any noise.

xxx

Merlin sits up and watches Arthur's body sprawled underneath him, their mixed come glistening on Arthur's stomach. He reaches down and places his hand over it, touching the wet mess.

"I was thinking about what Mordred said today. How the Goddess takes the ones we… care about. And there's this spell I know," he says.

"What spell?" Arthur murmurs, not opening his eyes.

"A protection spell. Mordred showed it to me on the first day we talked." Merlin takes one of Arthur's hands in his, turns it over, and smears a little bit of come on the inside of Arthur's wrist. He focuses on the force that keeps humming inside him like a steady electrical current.

His magic seems to be growing stronger lately; it feels more alive with each day, more familiar, like an inherent part of him. He directs only a bit of it towards Arthur, mouths the spell that sounds a lot like, "I love you," and places a kiss over the spot on Arthur's wrist that's glistening with come. Arthur's lips quirk up in a small smile when Merlin lays Arthur's hand down and takes the other one, repeating the incantation. He then moves to make the same dot on each of Arthur's feet.

Arthur jerks his leg back.

"Keep still," Merlin says, smiling.

Arthur laughs, squirming. "Fuck, I'm ticklish."

Merlin moves up, brushing his whole body over Arthur's. He kisses Arthur's forehead and lips, murmuring the spell into his mouth to seal the protective magic, and then sits back.

"Now the creatures of the Underworld shouldn't be able to trace you, at least for a little while. If they encounter you, they'll pass you by. They might feel you, but they won't be able to see you unless they know this exact spell to track you down.

"I wish I knew more wards," he adds wistfully. "But these should be enough to do it, anyway."

"What now?" Arthur asks, pretending annoyance.

"I want to… reverse it. So I can find you, always, no matter where you are."

Merlin gathers the last drops of come from Arthur's belly onto his fingertips and starts drawing a star over Arthur's heart. His fingers dry out so he licks them, and with his saliva he finishes drawing a second star linked to the first one. He places his hand over it afterwards, feeling the warmth of Arthur's skin and the distant beat of Arthur's heart. He leans closer, focusing on gathering the energy he can feel around them. He moulds it in his mind and then pushes it gently towards Arthur. It feels to Merlin like a warm light is travelling from his skin into Arthur's and deeper, until it reaches Arthur's heart and settles there. The magic is pulsing with the beat of Arthur's heart.

Arthur places his hand over Merlin's and inhales sharply. He bites his lower lip. "This feels nice," he says. "Intense though. Kind of like a shot of alcohol, but swallowed into your heart, not your stomach. How did you make that happen?"

Merlin lies down, covering Arthur with his body again and trapping their joined hands between them. "I don't know," he says and settles, lying fully on Arthur, nuzzling his skin. "It might sound weird, but I have this theory that it's somehow connected to you."

"Me?" Arthur pulls a hand free and threads his fingers through Merlin's hair, tugging lightly.

"Mm." Merlin nods on Arthur's chest. "I can feel my magic strengthening in your presence. It's like I'm more aware of it when you're around. It's as if you're keeping it grounded, so it serves you and protects you, too. It's as if it loves you."

"It does," Arthur says, and wraps his arms tightly around Merlin.

xxx

"You sure you'll be all right?" Merlin asks for the thousandth time, and Mordred rolls his eyes. They're standing outside Mordred's place while Arthur waits for them in the car.

"Yes. I feel fine," Mordred says.

He doesn't look fine to Merlin, though. Not with the slightly blue shade to his lips, or the way he keeps his mouth open as if he's lacking air, or the way he keeps twitching as if something itches him all over. Merlin fears that he's failed Mordred somehow, that he's only pushed the threat of the Underworld away for a weekend, but hasn't made sure the protection will hold. What will happen to Mordred now? He shouldn't leave Mordred alone in his flat, where his blood still stains the floor.

But when Mordred sees Merlin's about to object again, he adds, "I have your number on speed dial, okay? Besides, you two really look like you want some time alone." He smiles weakly, making Merlin feel guilty all over again for neglecting Mordred during this weekend away. After all, he'd promised that he'd take care of the guy.

"I'm sorry," he says. "I really can stay with you tonight if you don't feel like being alone."

But Mordred just shakes his head in a sudden anger. "No." Merlin's about to leave when Mordred adds softly, "You can't keep him, you know? Not if you want him safe."

Merlin doesn't answer. He knows exactly what Mordred means, but he can't think about that now. Not with Arthur just feet away. He waits until Mordred vanishes into his flat, and then he goes back to Arthur's car.

"Uther's away at a conference. You want to go over to mine for once?" Arthur asks. Merlin shakes his head before nodding yes because it will never cease to amaze him that he's dating a teenager. One who, very inconveniently, is staying with his father. Still, he's curious to see how Arthur lives.

xxx

"Fucking hell, it's a chamber!" Merlin laughs when he sees a huge, four-poster bed in the middle of an enormous bedroom furnished in gold and red. He's expected a typical tiny teenage room with sports posters on the walls. "You live like a bloody prince, Arthur. No wonder you're so spoiled!"

"Don't offend the bed. I'm willing to bet all my money that you'll praise it by the end of the night. Come on, let's shower first. You'll love the bath."

Arthur pushes Merlin to the adjoining bathroom—which is huge—undressing them both in the process. They crawl into the bathtub and turn on all the complicated water systems built in it.

"Fuck, this is luxury," Merlin hums, allowing Arthur to manoeuvre him so they're both lying down, Merlin between Arthur's legs and leaning on Arthur's chest. "Do you think he'll be all right?"

"Who?" Arthur asks, absentmindedly.

"Who do you think? Mordred."

Arthur exhales a long breath that moves Merlin's hair. The water is still filling the bath, all systems humming and bubbling.

"No," Arthur finally says. "I don't think he will ever be all right. It's good that he has you now, though. You'll take care of him while I'm back at Uni, yeah?"

Merlin doesn't answer because it's obvious he will do what he can. And then he forgets he ever wanted to talk about anything because Arthur's soapy fingers are wrapping around his cock. He sinks in the water, spreading his legs to give Arthur better access to wherever he wants to touch. It's lazy, slowly arousing. By the time Merlin feels the slow push of a finger inside him, he's pliant and ready to do whatever Arthur pleases.

They are still dripping water when Arthur stands behind Merlin in the bedroom and places both of Merlin's hands on the column of the bed, at the level of his face.

"Hold on," he says, and runs his hands down Merlin's sides, hips and thighs. He hitches Merlin's right leg up, placing it on the bed, and kneels down, gripping Merlin's arse firmly, spreading the cheeks.

Nothing's happening though. Merlin stands, waiting, waiting. The room is silent. Arthur is silent, like a statue behind Merlin, as if he's frozen there with his hands on Merlin, and Merlin starts breathing faster. Just when he's about to turn, because his legs start shaking and his heart starts beating too fast, he feels the wet, luscious slide of Arthur's tongue over his hole. His knees give in a little.

"Stand still," Arthur says.

It's indecent to stand like this, with his body exposed and at Arthur's will. It's even more indecent to make the noises he's making, so he tries swallowing them down. He bites on his knuckles and tries to not wriggle, to just accept the press of Arthur's tongue that is soon replaced with Arthur's lubed finger, and then another one, sliding in and out with a wet sound.

Then Arthur's up again, whispering in Merlin's ear, "Merlin, can I? Can we just? Like this, no condom tonight?" while his fingers keep spreading Merlin open, stretching him and rubbing inside.

Merlin nods. Says, "Yes," and "Please," and "Yes."

He stills, with his mouth open, willing for tears not to spill as Arthur starts filling him up with his cock, bit by bit. They stand then, pressed tightly to each other, unmoving, while Merlin's body is buzzing, accommodating the stretch. It's always the first thrust that makes Merlin cry out and bite down on his lips, and it's no different now. He braces himself for more and sucks on Arthur's fingers when he pushes them inside Merlin's mouth. He needs a release. He's aching now; he's going to fall apart if he doesn't do something, if Arthur doesn't continue.

"Merlin, don't come just yet," Arthur says, and it's part command, part plea.

So Merlin tries to concentrate—not on the way it feels to be filled, over and over, until his eyes tear up again and his chest aches from holding his breath, but on how Arthur holds him, gripping his wrist and pinning it to the bed column. He watches a drop of sweat descend Arthur's arm, going down and growing bigger as it gathers more moisture on the way. Eventually, the drop frees itself and falls to the ground. Merlin sees it dropping and slowing down until it hangs in the air, glistening, heavy, and multidimensional. The sounds around them muffle, but Merlin can hear his and Arthur's breathing as if they're isolated in a closed vessel. He looks behind and Arthur lays his hand on Merlin's cheek, turning his head a little bit more so they can kiss. Merlin's magic surges towards Arthur, wanting to claim him and wrap him up so they're bound together tightly.

"Jesus, Merlin," Arthur says. "I love you like this. With your eyes all golden. With your skin all flushed. So beautiful."

He takes his hand from Merlin's face and presses their bodies closer together, hiding his face behind Merlin's neck. "I love you," he says.

Merlin closes his eyes, melting in the embrace. He can feel his cock leaking, drops of come trickling down, one by one. He counts Arthur's thrusts—one, two, and another one—and there's no way he can hold off now.

"I... uh," he pants, hoping it will be enough for Arthur, and grips the bedpost harder, his knuckles going white. And then he's falling while Arthur holds him up, still moving inside him in a steady rhythm.

Merlin vaguely feels the scrape of teeth on his neck, the way Arthur tenses, stills, and then shudders, only to recommence the thrusts that are now a bit too much for Merlin—too strong, too harsh, when he's too sensitive.

Arthur's breathing into Merlin's neck, his mouth open, planting small kisses on Merlin's skin in between the inhales. He releases his grip and slowly lays them both on the bed, his cock slipping out of Merlin. Come starts trickling down Merlin's thigh and he moves his hand to smear it on his fingers. He loves it, the way it makes him feel owned by Arthur, or marked. It's better than any ward. He also loves the heavy, almost unconscious weight of Arthur's hand on his buttock.

He's drifting into sleep, his skin cooling down, breath evening out, the images of their moving bodies still hot in his head.

"Let me get something to clean us up a bit," Arthur murmurs, and the bed dips when Arthur leverages himself to get up.

Merlin doesn't open his eyes. He feels blissful. Fucked out of his mind. It's as if every bone in his body has been put into its proper location; every muscle is resting. Even his hair is relaxed. That's probably the reason why he doesn't notice the sudden stillness, the total silence when the air should be filled with Arthur's noises from the bathroom. Merlin dozes off.

When he wakes up few hours later, he's alone in the bed. There's not a sign of Arthur, and the door to the bathroom is still closed. Merlin shivers because it's cold in the room, arctic even—probably the air conditioning has been set too low. He wraps a blanket around himself and hops to the bathroom.

"Arthur?" he asks, but there's no answer. Perhaps Arthur has fallen asleep there? He turns the knob, and more freezing air is released. The bathroom is empty.

Merlin's phone beeps the moment he notices the still water that fills the bath. He rushes out of the bathroom, knowing, feeling what has happened. He doesn't need the confirmation that awaits him on his phone.

I'm sorry, the message from Mordred says.

Merlin's out of the house before the bathroom door clicks closed again.

xxx

Merlin bangs on Gwaine's door. He's hoping—God, he's hoping so much—that Gwaine's home.

A very sleepy and very dishevelled Gwaine appears in front of him. "Merlin? What's wrong?"

Seeing Gwaine like this—so familiar, so safe and Gwaine-y in a worn cotton T-shirt and boxers—makes Merlin's heart ache. He rushes into Gwaine's arms silently, trying to breathe in enough air to explain. "She's taken Arthur," he says, and can't continue.

"What? Who?" Gwaine wraps his arms around Merlin, who starts sobbing. "Jesus, Merlin, what?"

Merlin struggles to breathe. "Remember my bad dreams? The nightmares that were keeping me awake? They're real. It's all real. There's an Underworld Guard standing right there in the corner, right now."

He points behind him to the kite-shaped figure, who stares at them with beady eyes. Its body fluctuates in waves. But, oh, Gwaine can't see it, Merlin remembers. He extends his hand towards the Guard, willing it to show itself to Gwaine, to acquire a steady shape and be visible, even if it's just for a second.

Merlin gathers up his wits and pours his concentration into the elements that surround them. He feels the vibration of the earth as it courses through his limbs. He aims all his energy at the creature, willing it to become more solid, less of a kite on the wind and more of a buoy bobbing on the water. He can only hold it for a second before the tears that flow down his face dissolve everything into a blurry picture again, but Gwaine's seen it. It will suffice.

Gwaine's eyes go round. "Fuck." He tugs Merlin inside the apartment and closes the door. "What was that?"

Merlin tries to explain, he really does try, but the words tangle up and nothing sounds right. "Can you just drive me somewhere? Please."

"You know there's nothing I wouldn't do for you," Gwaine says. His voice is steady, but there's a sadness in his tone that Merlin's never heard before.

Merlin looks at him, suddenly understanding the obvious truth he's been too blind to see. "I didn't know. I had no idea. I thought—"

"You don't think, Merlin. That's the problem. You just…" Gwaine shakes his head, swallows, and waves his hand. "Come on." He takes the car keys from the kitchen worktop and heads to the door.

They cram themselves into Gwaine's Ford Fiesta. The old car is foul-smelling, rusty, and groans with each gear shift, but Merlin's never been happier to see it.

"Where to?" Gwaine asks.

Merlin worries his lip, thinking. Then he shuts his eyes. The urge to get to Arthur is overwhelming him. "I'll just guide you as we go," he says, seeing the road in front of his closed lids. He extends his hand, commanding white light to unravel itself from his fingertips like a ribbon and light the way in front of the car.

Gwaine doesn't comment, but he flinches noticeably. Merlin wishes that Gwaine would talk, babble nonsense and meaningless truisms the way he usually does. He wishes for obnoxious, judgmental Gwaine, or flirty, inappropriate Gwaine, or even drunken, melodramatic Gwaine. Anything but this sorrowful, serious one who doesn't speak except to make sure he's taken the right turn in the road.

After an hour or so of driving north, Merlin feels an increased pull in his stomach. The skin on his writs and chest where the tattoos are placed starts to burn. "There." He points to a forest road and they turn onto a rutted, unpaved path.

First light is visible over the horizon, but it's still dark out. Long, black shadows of trees and undergrowth look menacing while they drive past them down a hill, continuing until the road ends. There's water ahead, its dark surface calling to Merlin, luring him in. He jumps out of the car and starts walking towards it, followed by a very silent Gwaine.

xxx

The water is pitch black, reflecting neither the crescent moon nor the stars. It's also completely still, not even a wrinkle over its surface. Merlin enters the lake in his clothes and shoes and immediately feels the urge to dive in, to get under the mass of this strangely dense liquid until there's nothing but darkness all around him. But self-preservation must be stronger than his courage, or even his will to save Arthur.

He turns around to face Gwaine. "You have to help me. I can't do this alone."

Gwaine enters the water, too, flinching from the icy coldness of it. "What do you want me to do?"

"Help me stay under the water."

Gwaine jerks back. "No."

Merlin reaches for him, tugs him on the arm. "You said you'd do anything for me." It feels so wrong to play this card against Gwaine, but Merlin has to try. "Please, you have to trust me on this! I know what I'm doing, and it won't be what it looks like. I won't die. I just need to go to the Underworld and get Arthur back."

"How do you know?" Gwaine shakes his head, placing his hands on both sides of Merlin's face. He's looking Merlin straight in the eyes, searching for answers there.

"I just know. I can feel it. I've done it before… in another life."

"This is madness, Merlin. You can't be sure of anything. Maybe it's not real. Maybe you're just sick." Gwaine says it like he's pleading for his own life instead of Merlin's.

"You know I'm not. You've seen the Guard. You've seen what I can do. Look around," Merlin whispers. "It's not even normal water. You have to feel the magic of it."

Gwaine places his forehead on Merlin's, his breath warm and comforting against Merlin's skin. God, how Merlin wishes that everything were different, that he could go back to the simple life he led before it all went haywire. Back to the familiarity of Gwaine's arms and the lack of magic buzzing in his veins. But, no. Then there'd be no Arthur. And he thinks that if this is the price he has to pay for loving Arthur, and for Arthur to love him back, then maybe it's all worth it.

"Okay," Gwaine says, his voice shuddering. His hands fall from Merlin's face, but only to stop on Merlin's arms, wrinkling the fabric of his shirt there. "Do you promise me you won't drown?"

"I promise," Merlin whispers, wishing he believed it, too. But he's not sure. He's only sure he has to get to Arthur. There's nothing else but getting to Arthur. "Just hold me under the water, and if I don't… magically vanish from your hands, you can just drag me out. You do know how to perform CPR just in case, right?"

Gwaine nods and grips Merlin harder. There's nothing but the sound of their breaths—the black water lies silent and motionless beneath them.

"Good luck, Merlin. Find him and bring him back," Gwaine says, finally letting Merlin go.

Merlin won't dare look into Gwaine's eyes now. He kneels in the water, takes Gwaine's hands, and places them on his own chest. Then he lies back, taking a habitual breath before sinking under. The veil of dark water closes over him, but he can see Gwaine's face above him, distorted by the liquid, and he can still feel Gwaine's warm hands over his heart.

For a moment nothing happens; there's just the pounding of Merlin's pulse in his ears. But then he grows uncomfortable under the water. His legs jerk, trying to find leverage. His hands grip Gwaine's wrists in an effort to set himself free. Panic, hot and cold and ugly, floods Merlin's mind. If it wasn't for Gwaine's hands helping him stay under, he'd never be strong enough to do this alone. There's just the animalistic urge to breathe now, the sharp pain in his head, the unbearable weight on his chest. He opens his mouth to scream, and water enters his throat. He jerks again, wanting to inhale, and when he does, icy liquid invades his lungs painfully. Above the surface, Gwaine is still looking at him, staying with him through this all. And it's the sight of Gwaine's calm brown eyes that does it, that tips the scales in Merlin's favour and helps him to face his journey head-on. He won't let Gwaine's courage and trust be for nothing.

Merlin stops fighting. He wills his hands to unclench from Gwaine's wrists, his legs to still. And then he's falling. Everything turns black.