"What do you want?" Merlin said, snarled, rising up from his chair by Gaius's bedside. His eyes were shining golden, ferocious and bright in the little quiet room at the top of the tower; outside, through the one broad window, Arthur could see coal-smoke clouds blotting out the sun, boiling over, and lightning cracking in the mirk.
"Don't be an idiot, Merlin," Arthur said, panting. He was still dizzy from the long, twisting climb, one turning after another, over and over, steps blurring into one another and the sense he could be climbing forever, nothing but stairs below and above him, and strange voices hissing at him out of the darkness in a language he couldn't understand. His sword wanted to be slippery in his hand, the leather wrappings soaked with sweat. "You planted a giant magical tower not a mile outside the city gates, did you think I would just ignore it?"
Behind Merlin, Gaius stirred in the cot at their raised voices, muttering a little in restless sleep; the bandage around his head was neatly wrapped but marked with blood, and his arms on the coverlet were bandaged thickly also, his hands little more than mittened paws. Arthur tried not to look at him too hard; it made his stomach tighten.
"You should have," Merlin said, and held out his hand, and Arthur was flying through the air as though he'd fallen out of a window sideways, the sword clattering out of his hand. He was flung back through the doorway, back into the first small room at the top of the stairs, and Merlin followed, the door swinging shut behind him with finality, shutting the noise away from Gaius's sickroom.
The room seemed different than the first time Arthur had come through it, and he realized he didn't see the stairs down anymore. Merlin was standing in front of the only door, his eyes the only light, glittering with magic and rage. "You should have been afraid to come here," he said.
Only three of Arthur's knights had managed to perservere through the tangled garden of thornbushes surrounding the tower, full of whispers and clawing branches; none of them had made it past the third landing on the stairs before horror and fear had slowed them grindingly to a halt, and driven them one by one back.
Arthur staggered up to his feet. "As though I'd be afraid of you," he said, and Merlin flung him up against the wall again in a painful crash of metal and stone, pinning him there with sorcery. Arthur coughed, tasting blood coppery inside his cheek. He'd felt the same terror trying to get a hold of him, but it hadn't mattered; what mattered was finding a way to Merlin again, through the maze of grief and rage; a duty Arthur owed to Camelot as surely as to Merlin himself.
Even if he had to die trying to fulfill it; and Arthur had a moment to draw breath and tell himself he could not, would not show Merlin any weakness, any fear, even as Merlin pointed his hand again, and then Arthur's armor began to peel away from him like the skin of a fruit coming off, falling in strips to the floor.
"Frightened yet?" Merlin hissed.
"No, I am not," Arthur said, his teeth clenched, because saying could make it so, if he only convinced himself. "You may be a sorcerer, but you're still my servant, and you wouldn't dare hurt me."
"Wouldn't dare?" Merlin said. "I—wouldn't dare? Do you think there's anything I wouldn't dare, after—" His voice choked, and a fireplace opened like a black maw in the wall, orange flames leaping hungrily up. A narrow iron poker slid out of the fire's heart, the tip glowing incandescent, and floated over to Arthur.
Merlin flicked a hand, and Arthur's clothing stripped off him too, until he was pinned naked to the wall as the poker drifted near. "They burned him with these," Merlin said, "to make him tell where I was, though he didn't know. Or maybe they just burned him to make him scream. He couldn't speak very well anymore, when I reached him. His voice was gone."
Arthur swallowed, sick with misery and shame. He wouldn't make the excuses—he'd been away, he hadn't known. It wasn't only his father's crown and wealth and honors which were his to inherit. "And what will your reason be, for burning me?" he said instead, flatly.
Merlin stared at him across the room, golden-eyed and also lost, and the poker hung in the air, unmoving.
"Put it down," Arthur said, "and let go of me."
"So you can finish your father's work?" Merlin spat. "Do you think I'm just going to let you, because I'm in the habit of following your orders?"
"You have never in your entire life been in the habit of following my orders," Arthur said, "or of thinking, either. What exactly are you afraid I'm going to do to Gaius in the middle of your magical tower? Choke him with my bare hands?"
"Then why did you come?" Merlin said.
"I came for you," Arthur said.
He'd ridden back into Camelot through streets oddly hushed, the common folk breaking out of huddles and low whispered conversations to look up at him with urgent hope and fear, and the looming tower on the horizon crowned with dark clouds and lightning. He'd come through the castle gates to find the northern walls reduced to rubble, a gaping hole exposed deep into the dungeons; four of the guard horribly dead on the floor of a cell, torn apart, with others limping and bruised where a sorcerer had flung them out of his way like rag dolls.
And Gwen in a narrow corridor telling him, in tears, that the sorcerer was Merlin. Telling him, after that, why Merlin had done it.
His father sat brooding alone in a dark hall, deathly grey with fear and towering rage; Arthur had walked past the door without going inside. Uther had sent him away on patrol—had made sure he wouldn't be here to prevent this. Through the castle hallways, councillors caught Arthur's arm and servants followed him with pleading eyes, all of Camelot waiting and afraid, and outside the city walls the tower stood black against the sky.
"Bring me back his head," Uther had said, coming out onto the castle steps as Arthur made ready to ride out with his knights, and the courtyard went silent, soldiers and lords and kitchen maids all looking at Arthur, and he'd felt the weight of their judgment like the weight of a crown.
He'd turned to his father and said flatly, "I will bring him, if I can. You can discuss the rest with him yourself."
He'd ridden away without another look, knowing that if he came back alive, he came back a king; in fact if not in name. He had come to the tower's foot and hacked his way through the thorns to the door; he'd gone on alone after even his bravest knights had faltered; he'd climbed up the full height of the spiraling tower in the teeth of a thousand creeping voices. And one way or another, he wasn't leaving again without Merlin.
"I came for you," Arthur said, and belatedly realized that was open to misinterpretation, as Merlin laughed, brokenly, and said, "Oh, did you," and glittering cords burst out of the wall.
They drew Arthur's hands up over his head and lashed them down securely, loops circling his throat, his waist, his thighs and ankles; he couldn't move as Merlin stalked up to him. "And what exactly did you think you were going to do to me in the middle of my magical tower?" Merlin said, almost humming it, leaning in obscenely close. "Were you going to choke me with your bare hands?"
Arthur opened his mouth to speak, and the cords around his throat tightened to keep him silent. Merlin put his hand over them, his long fingers cool and almost delicate on Arthur's skin, pressing down. "Like this, maybe?" Merlin asked, but his voice was wobbling even as he tried so hard to be cruel, and his thumb slid sweetly over the skin under the hinge of Arthur's jaw.
Arthur swallowed, or tried to, because there was something frightening here, except it wasn't Merlin or his magic or his—his pathetic attempt at being threatening; it was the sensation creeping hot and treacherous along Arthur's veins. He was growing light-headed, having to struggle to drag in shallow breaths. Merlin's words and fingers were trembling on his skin, Merlin's cords holding him tight, cold stone behind his back and the crackling glow of the fire against his side.
It should have gripped him with rage and helplessness, and instead he felt a thick, languorous desire welling up in him to let this happen. To yield, to be taken, without even the possibility of refusal. To be set free from duty and the crown he would have to take from his father's living hands.
He couldn't give in; he knew he couldn't; Camelot needed him, Merlin needed him, had to be saved, except Arthur's body was betraying him. His arms were burning already with the strain of being held up, his knees going shivering-weak, and Merlin's lips were at his ear, whispering, "Do you think there's anything I can't do to you?" so shockingly perfect.
Arthur struggled, gasped for breath, and fought back against it long enough to turn his head and whisper against Merlin's mouth, "You'll do nothing I don't want you to," and he licked Merlin's lower lip, with just a flick of his tongue.
Merlin's hands stilled on him, shaking, and the cords around Arthur's throat went slack. Arthur gulped air, trying not to be sorry he had won back control; he knew this wasn't something he could be allowed to have, ever; not ever again. "Arthur—" Merlin said, slowly, and Arthur rasped out, "I came for you, you idiot," laying out his claim, and then Merlin's eyes were still glittering, but not with gold.
"Arthur," Merlin said, and was kissing him, sweet and tender and urgent. Arthur was still held fast; he could almost imagine that this was still—everything it had been for just a moment, that he was still helpless and undone, on the verge of having something that had never been possible, here at the top of this impossible tower. He shut his eyes and kissed Merlin back and tried not to pretend; tried to forget. This was something he could have, and still endlessly sweet—
And then Merlin pulled just a little away from his mouth, still so close their breath was mingling, and said, "Nothing you don't want me to?"
There was a glimmer of gold from under his lashes, and maybe he wasn't lost anymore, but it occurred to Arthur that didn't mean Merlin was wholly under control, either; that he'd never seen everything there was of Merlin before. "Nothing?" Merlin repeated, still a little wild and even dangerous, and the cords around Arthur's throat drew back up and close to the skin.
Arthur trembled. It was the true answer; but he couldn't want this. He needed to take Merlin back to Camelot, back to safe ground—to his chambers, where he could make Merlin his own, make him sorcerer but still servant, bound to Camelot and to him, not terrifyingly free. Arthur couldn't let Merlin, couldn't let himself. But he didn't speak quickly enough; the cords pulled a very little tighter, just enough to make him feel his breaths, and the next one whined through the back of his throat.
Merlin's lashes brushed Arthur's cheek as Merlin closed his eyes and leaned close, sighing, and pressed a deep slow kiss to Arthur's mouth. "Nothing," Merlin murmured, and the cords dragged Arthur down to the floor of black stone, warm with the fire's flickering.
There was a thick fur beneath him, not quite soft enough to cushion away all the hard surface of the stone. The room seemed to have drawn close around them, the fireplace shrunken to a small open mouth, only a few glowing coals for heat, and Merlin's eyes lit over him instead. Arthur felt as though he were falling through the air again, perhaps all the height of the stairs he'd climbed to reach this room.
Merlin breached him slowly and thoughtfully, oil slick on Arthur's thighs as the cords held him stretched wide and open and helpless, choked his moans into low, stuttering breaths. His arms were pulled taut overhead, just the least and perfect amount of give so he could struggle and pull and writhe, shameless and taken, while Merlin pressed bruises into his skin, sucked marks upon his throat.
"You're mine," Merlin whispered, "Arthur, you're mine—" and Arthur moaned again and arched into him feverishly, tried to give Merlin everything that he still had, that Merlin hadn't already claimed.
"I'm going to keep you here forever," Merlin said, starting to move on him in quick desperate thrusts, panting. "No one will ever take you from me, no one will ever rescue you; you'll be mine, always, Arthur, always—"
All the strange whispering voices of the tower were making the promises along with him, the cords drawing tighter on Arthur's limbs to hold him still more helpless, until he was struggling desperately for shallow, tiny breaths. His vision was full of glittering light, his chest burning, and he was drowning so that for one moment it became true: he would never have to descend the steps; he would spend the rest of his days here in the safe, dark fastness of this impenetrable tower, cherished, jealously guarded, loved without condition or obligation. Arthur came shatteringly, his cry almost silent, and the world went blank with ecstasy.
He woke again breathing in deep, grateful gulps, his arms prickling with pins and needles; cushioned and cradled in furs and Merlin tangled with his body. They weren't exactly in a bed, it didn't have that much definition to it—just a warm soft box of a thing, fire murmuring low somewhere vaguely off to the side. There was a dark haze overhead in place of a ceiling, and small lights like stars glimmering. His shoulders and back ached, and he felt sore and satisfied and—possessed, in a deeply physical way; owned down to his bones.
Merlin stirred and raised his head and looked at Arthur: some of the hollow, wounded look gone, if not all of it. His hand drifted slowly down Arthur's side, stroking. He slid his fingers over Arthur's thigh and eased between his legs. Arthur drew more deep, slow breaths, yielding. The cords had vanished, but they weren't necessary, after all. Arthur didn't yet need to be a king; tonight he could remain only Merlin's, and Merlin only his, and they could let go for a while longer of everything, of duty and sorrow.
Camelot would wait, would breathe deep with them this one long night. In the morning, he and Merlin would go down the stairs together; he would carry Gaius gently, and Merlin's magic would take them the short way back to the castle, to the start of their reign.
Merlin was starting to work on him again, inquisitive, exploring the boundaries of his new possession. Arthur buried his face against Merlin's hair and breathed in smoke and the faint sharp lightning smell of magic, strangely at peace in his overturned world.
= End =
With many many thanks to giddy and Kass and Dira and gear and Ces! ♥
All feedback much appreciated!