Defenders of the Realm
Pairing: Merlin/Arthur, background Morgana/Uther
Spoilers: Through Season 1, to be safe
Warnings (highlight to view): explicit sex, violence, death of original character and minor character, brief mention of a successfully prosecuted sexual crime
Thanks: to Jim for helping me brainstorm ideas and for generally being his fantastic self, and to Cate, expectprism, Kass, Nny, and Sihaya Black for awesome betaing and encouragement during the writing of this monster. A special added thanks to Nny for Britpicking above and beyond the call of duty. Any remaining errors are mine.
Artwork: Cover by ras_elased and illustrations by wheres_walnut. Please feedback them for their marvelous work. Within the story, you can click on the illustrations to see larger versions.
Written for merlin big bang 2009
Merlin Emrys' journey from Paddington Station to Imperial College's South Kensington campus was proving to be much less straightforward than the one from Cardiff to London. He had started off on such a promising note, hefting his duffel bag containing all his worldly possessions over his shoulder and following the signs to the Tube, confident that the directions he'd gleaned off the Internet would steer him right.
He bought his ticket at the booth and boarded the train and inside of an hour he was hopelessly lost. Finally giving up the pretense of knowing what the bloody hell he was doing, he laid his hands on a map of the Underground and realised he was clear across the Thames from where he needed to be. Merlin checked his watch and groaned: he was going to miss his appointment no matter what he did. He wandered the bowels of the Tube station until he located a public phone and called the registrar's office to reschedule. The woman answering sounded far too harried to bother with him, so he managed to avoid a lecture on the virtues of punctuality and make another appointment for first thing Monday morning.
It took him another fifteen minutes to navigate his way to the surface, and then he was out in the open air again, breathing in the fumes of millions of car and lorry exhaust pipes. The street was a fascinating chaos, pavements overflowing with all manner of people of dozens of nationalities and all ages. Merlin found himself swept up in the traffic, carried along on the current of bustling humanity until he washed up on the shore of a pub just off the main road. He looked up and saw a swinging wooden sign sporting a painting of a menacing-looking dragon, its nostrils belching angry flame. His gaze dropped to the name set out in massive wrought iron letters across the front of the pub.
The Dragon's Knob. Well, that was – different.
His stomach chose that moment to growl noticeably, and Merlin chose to take that as fate, even though the name of the establishment made him a little wary of the quality of meals served there. However, when he ventured inside, he found a bright and airy space rather than the dank, wood-paneled interior he was expecting. The light pastel colours and cheerful atmosphere drew him in further, and he hopped up on one of the few available stools at the bar.
“And a good afternoon to you,” the barman said, turning to him with a broad, welcoming smile. “You're new around here.”
“Brand new,” Merlin replied, finding the man's smile infectious. “Just got into London an hour or so ago.”
“And you came straight here. A wise choice, mate. You'll be wanting – a pint of stout and some bangers and mash, yeah?”
“I was thinking more of a porter and a curry and chips, actually.”
“Hm,” the man said, raising an eyebrow at him. “Obviously I must work harder on my psychic skills.”
“You're alright,” Merlin assured him, grinning. “I like bangers and mash as well.”
“Next time, then,” the man said, extending a hand. “Reggie Dwight.”
Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Yeah, don't even bother trying,” Reggie said, chuckling as he pumped Merlin's hand. “I've heard it all before.”
“Welcome, Merlin.” Reggie poured Merlin a pint with the skill of a master and placed it in front of him. “You going to live in Brixton, then?”
Merlin took a sip, taking a moment to savour the smooth richness of the porter. “I don't know,” he said truthfully. He'd been planning to make his way to the college's student housing office after lunch and see if he could find a flat near the campus. He told as much to Reggie, who eyed him sceptically.
“You don't look like a toff,” he said, and Merlin frowned.
“I'm not. I mean, why?”
“Bloody hell, you know how much dosh you need to live in the City? A lot more than you've got if you're not a toff, that's how much.”
Merlin blinked. He'd thought he was still in the city. When had he left it?
“As it happens, my cousin's on the lookout for a flatmate,” Reggie said, before Merlin could open his mouth. “I'll show you the place after you finish your lunch, alright?”
Merlin gaped for a moment. “I – wouldn't want to be a bother,” he said finally.
Reggie winked. “No bother, mate; flat's right upstairs, and I own it, same's I own the pub. You decide to move in, you're doin' me a favour; I'm not charging her what it's worth as she's family, right? So the sooner she gets herself a flatmate, the better for me. And you look like a good enough lad, for a white boy.” Reggie clapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “I'll put in your lunch order. Table's just opened up behind you. You make yourself at home, now.” And after a final whack delivered to Merlin's shoulder, he was off and heading toward the kitchens.
Merlin rose slowly, feeling as though he had been run over by an amiable bus. Within five minutes, he was ordering another pint, because it looked like it was going to be one of those days.
As soon as Merlin had finished his lunch, Reggie led him to the back of the pub, past the kitchen and the loos to a narrow, creaky wooden staircase that wound tightly in a circle. “You don't have no furniture, do you?” Reggie asked, and Merlin shook his head; he imagined if he had, it would have to be winched in through a window.
Reggie pointed down the hall. “My office and a storeroom for the pub are in the front, and the flat takes up the rest of the floor,” he explained, leading Merlin in the opposite direction toward a nondescript door. He fished in his pocket for some keys and stuck one in the knob. “Well, here's the palace,” he said, gesturing Merlin inside with a sweep of his arm.
Merlin toed off his boots and walked into the flat carefully. The front door opened directly onto a sitting room that was as neat as a pin, with a large built-in bookcase stuffed with everything from texts on psychology and social work to novels and books of poetry. Beyond that was a small dining area and kitchen on the left and a hallway branching off to the right, doubtless leading to the bedrooms.
“Just give me half a minute to check the loo,” Reggie said, holding up a hand to halt Merlin's progress. “You know girls – always leaving their unmentionables to dry.”
“Right,” Merlin said, trying not to blush. He'd lived with his mother, of course, for most of his life, but thankfully her 'unmentionables' had never been on display, or, well, mentioned, ever. It was an arrangement he wholeheartedly supported.
In Reggie's absence, Merlin wandered over to the bookcase to take a closer look at some of the photos and knicknacks. His eye was drawn to a pair of small porcelain figures, a dragon and a knight in full armour with sword upraised. Without thinking, he picked up the dragon and turned it over in his hand.
Merlin's head snapped up at the sound of his name. At first, he thought Reggie must have called him, but then it struck him that the voice had seemed to originate inside his own head.
“Oi! What're you doing in here?”
Merlin started and spun about, his hand clenching convulsively around the dragon to keep from dropping it. He winced when he felt the tail crack inside his clenched fist, and placed his hand behind his back as he looked up to behold a young woman in police garb, her hands on her hips and her scowl truly forbidding.
Oh, fucking wonderful. He'd been in London a little over two hours and he was already running afoul of the law.
“I'm, um, I'm Merlin. Merlin Emrys.” He considered taking a step forward and offering his hand, but his right was currently holding the dragon, and he didn't wish to do anything at this point that might be construed as threatening.
The woman cocked an eyebrow at him. “Well, Merlin Merlin Emrys,” she said mockingly, “care to tell me what you're doing in a flat that doesn't belong to you?”
“I, I'm with the owner,” he said, jabbing a finger in the direction of the hallway. “He's just – he's showing me the flat because he thought I might want to – that is –”
Thankfully, Reggie chose that moment to return. “All clear, mate,” he said, then stopped in his tracks at the sight of the policewoman. “Oh, hullo there. Didn't expect to see you back here this afternoon.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “I'm always off early on Wednesdays to go to my course, aren't I?” she sighed.
“Oh, right, I keep forgetting. Well, never mind that, come on and meet your new flatmate. Gwen Smith, this is Merlin Emrys. Merlin, this is my cousin, Gwen.” Merlin and Gwen both turned to look at Reggie in shock at his announcement.
“Well, this is nice,” Gwen began. “I can't believe you'd just –”
Merlin held up a quelling hand. “Really, I didn't say I'd take it, I'm only –”
“Course you'll take it, what are you talking about, this is perfect for you,” Reggie interjected.
“–without even asking me, now that's a bit much. I mean, do you even know –”
“–haven't talked about the price yet, hardly, and it's not like–”
“Lovely boy, he is,” Reggie said, coming up beside Merlin and putting an arm around him as though they were old friends. “Just come from Wales to attend Imperial College.”
“Look,” Merlin managed, “I don't – it's clear she doesn't –”
“She does, she does, she just needs to warm up to you a little. Why don't you take a look at the bedroom and Gwen'n me'll talk it over?” Reggie looked at him pointedly, making it clear it wasn't a request.
“Right,” Merlin murmured, turning to head down the hall. Before he did, though, the shape of the dragon cut into his palm. “Oh,” he said, stupidly, and aware of Gwen's gaze boring a hole in his back, closed his eyes and bent his head briefly before turning back round and placing the dragon in her palm.
“Sorry,” he murmured.
Gwen frowned down at the figurine in her hand. “Well, at least you didn't break it,” she conceded, and Merlin nodded eagerly, aware he was probably coming across as a bit simple in the process. With a last aborted nod, he turned and headed off down the hall to inspect the bedroom and bath.
He waited until the muffled sounds of hushed but intense conversation had stopped, then risked poking his head in again. “Well, what's the word?” Reggie asked, and Merlin approached them cautiously.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” Merlin replied, glancing at Gwen, who ducked her head.
“Look, I'm sorry,” she said, startling him with a sheepish but genuine smile. “I was rude, and that's not like me.” She stuck out a hand. “Let's start again, alright?”
Merlin took her hand, smiling back. “It's my fault. I didn't mean to frighten you.”
Gwen snorted. “Well, you didn't exactly frighten me,” she demurred.
“Our Gwen's a brown belt in karate,” Reggie said proudly. “I reckon she could lay you out on your arse without even breakin' a sweat.”
Merlin drew himself up to his full height, then gave it up; after all, it was probably true. “Good to know,” he managed, smiling.
“Rent's two hundred quid a month,” Reggie said, “including light and hot water.”
Merlin's mouth practically watered; he might not know much about London yet, but he knew that was an incredibly good deal. “Yes, please,” he said, and Reggie laughed.
“Great,” Gwen said. “Well, I'm late for my course, but if you're around later on I'll take you out and show you the sights, yeah?”
“Yeah, sure, thanks very much,” Merlin managed as she waved and headed off toward the bedrooms.
After she had gone, Merlin grinned at Reggie. “Thanks,” he said simply, clasping the other man's hand.
“Pleasure, mate,” Reggie said, “I just hope you're going to like it here. You know, from the moment I clapped eyes on you, I had a feeling about you. A feeling that this was where you were supposed to be. I know it sounds odd, but my mother always said I was a bit psychic.”
Merlin thought about the voice he thought he'd heard calling his name earlier, and suppressed a shiver. “Well, I've never worried too much about things sounding odd,” he said. “So I imagine I'm going to like it here just fine.”
Arthur pounded down the hall to the loo and stuck his head in, already dreading what he'd find. However, he soon saw that Morgana was exactly as he'd left her, sprawled on her back with her head stuffed under the sink. “What's wrong?” he demanded.
Morgana twisted out from under the sink so that she could favour him with her best evil eye. “You were supposed to stay close and hand me the tools,” she accused.
“You told me to go make tea!” Arthur exclaimed, flapping his arms. “I can't exactly do both at once, now, can I?”
“That was twenty minutes ago,” she snapped. “It doesn't take that long to put the water on.”
“Alright, so I checked my messages,” Arthur muttered.
Morgana blew out a breath and wriggled out from under the sink until she could sit up. “You did all you could,” she said softly. “There's nothing you can do about the court's decision at this point.”
“Don't remind me,” Arthur growled. Morgana extended her hand, and Arthur hauled her to her feet.
“Let's go get a pint,” Morgana said, nudging him with her shoulder.
Arthur lifted his eyebrow at her. “Thought you wanted tea.”
“Oh, shut up, I'm trying to be understanding and supportive. Are you going to enjoy it while you can, or are you going to be a twat about it?”
“I have to choose, do I?” Morgana slapped him upside the head. “Alright, alright, the pub it is, just stop bloody hitting me!”
“Come on, you big baby,” Morgana said, hooking a sweaty arm around his neck and tugging him out of the bathroom.
“I swear to God, Arthur dearest, if you take that mobile out of your pocket, I will brain you with it.”
Arthur altered the trajectory of his hand at the last moment. “My leg's itchy,” he said.
Morgana treated him to the look he secretly referred to as the Disdainful Eyebrows of the Goddess, but said no more about it. Arthur took another sip of his lager, then said, “So are we already turning into those coppers who resort to the bottle in the middle of the day?”
“Don't be such a drama queen,” Morgana said over her own glass. “It's one pint, and I've been stuck in that loo since six this morning.”
“Oh, bugger,” Arthur said, scrubbing his hands over his face as he remembered, “I forgot to buy the tiles for the kitchen on my way home yesterday.” While there had been certain perks to Morgana and Arthur pooling their savings to buy a pair of fixer-upper flats in Islington at a bargain price, there was turning out to be an entire legion of disadvantages as well, not the least of which was that their every free moment, including what few holidays they could manage away from the job, was taken up with plastering, plumbing and the like. Arthur was quietly proud, however, that they hadn't managed to kill one another by now – partly because each of them had their separate strengths and the other deferred to the acknowledged expert depending on the project at hand – but the last four months had still been trying, both at home and at work.
Of course, considering the alternative for Arthur was going back to live with his father, a little DIY-induced madness didn't seem like such a hardship.
Morgana waved a hand at him. “Don't worry about it. Once we get your loo finished – and we will today if it kills me – I think we should take a break. It's Friday, and we haven't gone out in ages.”
Despite his best intentions, Arthur's thoughts strayed back to the case. With any luck, the judge would be deciding Wolverton's fate today, and if it didn't involve at least five years of hard jail time...well. Arthur might not have been superstitious, but some things it was best not to think on.
“I don't know if I'll be much for going out tonight,” he murmured into his pint.
“That's too bad for you, then,” Morgana said, unperturbed, “because I'm dragging you with me whether you like it or not. You know, I met a new girl this week just started as a PCSO – she's quite a lovely person.”
Arthur looked up at her in horror. “You wouldn't dare. Not after the Blind Date Disaster of 2007.”
“Oh, calm yourself; she's much too good for you. No, I mean we got on like a house afire, and as we were chatting she told me about this lot of kids that's performing at a club tonight, from a youth group she works with. I thought it might be fun to go see them.”
Arthur could feel his nose wrinkle. “Teenaged performers. Fantastic.”
“It wasn't so long ago that you were a spotty youth, my lad.”
“Exactly. I can still remember what a little shit I was. If I'd picked up a guitar at seventeen, I would have been stoned to death as soon as I took the stage, and rightly so.”
Morgana patted his hand. “We have to work on this self-esteem issue of yours.”
“Oh, shut up,” Arthur said, raising the glass to his lips, then nearly dropping it when the mobile in his jeans vibrated insistently. He slammed the pint down in his haste, spilling some of the contents as he scrabbled in his pocket.
“Arthur...” Morgana warned, but Arthur already had it out and was checking the screen. Oh, Christ, it was Gawain. He thumbed the talk button, then held it to his ear. “Well?”
“Are you sitting down?” Gawain asked, and Arthur's heart leapt into his throat.
“Maximum penalty, mate,” Gawain said. “Seven years. And they refused him special protection, so they'll fucking eat him alive in the scrubs.”
Arthur closed his eyes, feeling the enormous weight he'd been carrying for the last six weeks lift from his shoulders. “Thank Christ,” he breathed, and he could feel Morgana squeezing his free hand. “Oh, thank Christ.”
“Thank yourself, Arthur,” Gawain said warmly. “Your hard work made that case. You should be proud.”
Arthur shook his head; pride truly didn't enter into everything he was feeling right now. But another child molester was going behind bars, and for every time Arthur wondered if he was doing any good at all, moments like these made up for them. “Thanks,” was all he said to Gawain before ringing off, though; it wasn't something he could easily explain to anyone but the woman sat in front of him. She, like him, had copper's blood running through her veins, and she knew more about policing than any ten men at the Met with matching years of experience. She, like him, had known that in spite of the legacy left them by their respective fathers, there was nothing else in the world she could think of doing, of being. It was as much a part of her as breathing, her destiny, if you like, as his.
All of which was bollocks, and something they never, ever discussed. But they were alright with that.
Still holding his hand, Morgana looked into his eyes, her own dancing with joy and relief on his behalf. “So,” she said brightly, “tonight?”
“Lay on, MacDuff,” Arthur said, grinning for what felt like the first time in weeks.
The club was packed solid, hot and loud and insane, and Merlin was enjoying himself immensely. He knew very little about music, but when Gwen had explained this group's music was a sort of jazz-funk-South African-Indian-Celtic fusion, he'd been expecting a dog's breakfast instead of a concert. But impossibly, the music actually, well, fused, and it was really something quite special. Although he was knackered from his long day, Merlin was still glad he'd let her talk him into coming. By the time the band had finished its first set, he was already looking forward to the next.
Despite his rather terrifying introduction to her this afternoon, Gwen was turning out to be one of the sweetest people he'd ever met. She returned from her course around four, not long after Merlin himself had come back from a survey of the territory around the pub, and they chatted for a couple of hours over tea, swapping the stories of their lives. Gwen had grown up a few blocks from here, and had a degree in psychology from UEL. She had gone directly into the Met after graduation, but was already taking part-time courses toward her Master's.
“I ran out of money,” she explained, laughing, “but that's not the only reason I joined. Whatever I decide to do, it's great experience, and I feel like I'm putting my degree to good use. Most of my work is with at-risk youth.” Gwen studied him over the rim of her teacup and asked, “And how about you, Merlin? You going to find the cure for cancer or what?”
Merlin chuckled. “Possibly. More likely I'll find the cure for the common cold.” Merlin's graduate studies, which he began next week, were in the healing plants of Ancient Britain. It was an interdisciplinary degree combining history, folklore and botany. There was only one professor in the country who could help him attain it, and he was at Imperial. Merlin was looking forward to meeting him on Monday.
He'd rehearsed the story so many times it sounded perfectly plausible when he told it to her.
The truth was, Merlin was more than slightly worried at the prospect of meeting his professor; it was a bit like going straight from friendly football games with your mates for beer money to playing a World Cup match. Oh, he'd learned a great deal in Cardiff, certainly, but the bunch there were a bit silly on the whole New Age thing with the crystals and the crop circles, and so Merlin had never truly revealed the full extent of his abilities to them. But then, he'd never revealed them to anyone, not even himself, really. After all, you didn't just walk out your front door and suffer a sea to boil or a mountain to crumble – not that he thought he could do those things, but then again, he didn't know. There were days when he woke up with so much raw power thrumming under his fingertips that he had to go out in the woods and slow down the growth of the forest in order to bleed some of it off, like steam from an overheated boiler. It relieved the tension, and only the trees noticed. He hoped that the man he was about to meet would help him to explore – and more importantly, control – his latent abilities.
However, Gaius was the sort of person even the most experienced of the Cardiff practitioners spoke of in hushed tones, and so Merlin had also developed an irrational fear of meeting him. Everyone had told him what an honour it was for him to have picked Merlin – he only took on one new student every few years – and he did feel honoured, no question. He also felt queasy, but that was something he preferred not to think about until Monday.
For now, all he had to do was enjoy the music, relish the company, and drink the beer, which was bloody spectacular. He wove through the crowd with a pint in each fist, threading his way back to the tiny table that Gwen had commandeered for them earlier. As he drew nearer, he noticed that the first of the friends she had told him about had evidently arrived. And he was utterly gorgeous. Unfortunately, he was also gazing at Gwen with a look that could best be described as besotted, which meant he was probably her boyfriend. Shame, that.
Gwen looked up as he approached. “Merlin!” she shouted, smiling. “Come and meet someone. This is my best mate, Lancelot,” and alright, apparently not the boyfriend. He certainly was keen to audition for the job, though.
“Lance,” the man said, turning away from Gwen to extend his hand to Merlin. Merlin hastily set down the pints to take it, and felt the test in the grip, just firm enough to be challenging. He bit his tongue to keep from laughing in the poor sod's face, but telling a total stranger he was gay right off the bat was a bit of an overshare.
Instead, Merlin simply said, “Good to meet you. You're now officially the third person I know in London.”
“Well, I'm glad you're making friends. And I hear you've found yourself a flat.” Lance treated him to another assessing look barely hidden by an affable smile.
Merlin smiled in what he hoped was a self-deprecating way. “Yes, that was an enormous bit of luck. Lucky that Gwen didn't take my head off the moment she saw me apparently trying to steal the silverware.”
Lance barked a startled laugh. “You didn't tell me that,” he said, turning back to Gwen, his eyes sparkling with mirth and something so obvious Gwen had to be seeing it.
Gwen shot him a wry glance. “He's exaggerating. Though of course if he turns out to be a nutter, all bets are off.”
Merlin watched her interactions with Lance carefully as they talked, and within a few minutes he'd come to the conclusion that Gwen was either extremely good at ignoring the fact that Lance was mad about her, or was totally oblivious. So much for that degree in psychology, he thought wryly; but then, he was hardly the expert at relationships, so he wasn't in the best position to throw stones.
Lancelot was a social worker, it turned out, a counselor at one of the youth outreach centres with whom Gwen was involved as a PCSO. “Lance is really amazing with all the kids,” Gwen gushed, and even in the dim light Merlin could see the pleased flush that lit his face. Then she patted his hand like she might a dotty old aunt – or worse, her brother – and Merlin could see Lance's smile lose some of its lustre.
“Hullo!” Merlin started when a cheerful female voice called out behind him. He turned in his seat to see a man and a woman about his age, both rather stunningly beautiful. The woman was smiling at Gwen, and Christ, did she know anyone who didn't look like a supermodel?
“Oh, hullo! I'm so glad you could make it!” Gwen stood up and came round the table to give the woman a brief hug as Merlin and Lance rose to their feet. “Morgana, this is Lance, and my new flatmate Merlin.” Morgana smiled and shook hands with both of them, and Merlin noted that her handshake was nearly as firm as Lance's had been.
Morgana indicated the man beside her. “And this is Arthur. Arthur, Gwen, Lance and Merlin.” Arthur was as light and tanned as Morgana was dark and pale, and he had astonishing blue eyes and a strong nose that saved him from being unrelentingly pretty. As Merlin took his hand, he felt a strange, electric jolt that sang through his body along the conduits that channeled his magic. It was like nothing he'd experienced before, not even with other magic users; with them, it was a case of like meeting like, and there was a familiarity to the connection. Arthur's energy – decidedly nonmagical as it was – wasn't precisely familiar, but it seemed to want to flow toward a place in Merlin he'd never before known to be empty.
He realised belatedly that Arthur was staring at him, and he dimly wondered if Arthur had felt it too. “Are you alright?” Arthur asked, or rather shouted above the sound of the canned disco music that played between sets.
Merlin blinked at him. “Fine. Why?”
Arthur gave him an odd look, as though Merlin were perhaps a little mentally deficient. “Well, you're – still holding onto my hand.”
It was then that Merlin realised he had Arthur's hand in a death grip. Horrified, he unclenched his fingers, releasing him. “Sorry,” he said. “I don't – erm. Never mind. Nice to meet you.”
“Yes, you, too,” Arthur said, and there was a knowing crinkle to the corners of his eyes, and Merlin's mortification grew. No, really, he wanted to say, even though I'm sure the rest of the world fancies you, I don't. Alright, that was of course a blatant lie, but it hadn't been the reason he'd been clutching at the man. Not that Merlin could tell him the reason, so it was back to giving the impression of an idiot, or worse, a creepy, horny git. As he plunked back down, he glanced at Lance, who was looking intently at Merlin as though he had a series of sums written across his forehead. Finally, Merlin could see the light dawn, and he launched a smile at Merlin, a genuine one that lit up his whole face.
Merlin inclined his head in silent acknowledgment; good for you, you figured it out all by yourself. At least his humiliating introduction to Arthur had had one benefit: Lance was now highly unlikely to challenge Merlin to a duel for the hand of the lovely Gwen. As Arthur settled into the chair between him and Gwen, his mere proximity causing Merlin's power to want to leap toward him like an eager puppy, Merlin decided it would be best to look on the bright side wherever he could, considering his evening had just been downgraded from enjoyable to excruciating.
The band was midway through the second set when the trouble began. Merlin was caught up in the music, of course, and didn't notice at first. However, when something noteworthy happened in a crowd, there tended to be an effect rather like dropping a stone in a pond, and so eventually the ripples reached them. Arthur and Morgana were the first on their feet, gazes scanning for the source of the disturbance, and Gwen was only a split second behind.
He couldn't hear her, but he clearly saw Gwen's lips form the word bugger. Rising, Merlin peered in the direction the others seemed to be looking; it didn't take long for him to see what the problem was. In the midst of the crowd gathered in front of the stage, a small group was shoving its way forward, inciting angry shouts as they cut a swath through the dancers.
Turning back, Merlin saw that Arthur, Gwen and Morgana had their heads close together, and before he could ask what was going on, they'd broken toward the crowd. Merlin exchanged glances with Lance, who shot him a wry look; coppers, right? it seemed to say, and then as if by mutual agreement, they both took off toward the crowd.
Lance, naturally, headed toward Gwen, who was inching along the front of the stage from this end; Morgana was racing round to do the same from the far side. That left Arthur, who Merlin could see was approaching the troublemakers from behind, cutting off their exit. Somehow, although Merlin hardly knew the man, it seemed fitting that Arthur would put himself in the most dangerous position. After a moment's hesitation, Merlin decided to follow him. He cast a quick spell to encourage people to move out of his path, then extended it to include Arthur as well, easing his way.
When they reached the front of the stage, the crowd was parted around a group of four young men, all wearing hobnailed boots, tight t-shirts and combat fatigues, and Merlin sighed as he caught sight of their shaved heads. One of them even had a swastika tattooed on the back of his skull.
How unoriginal, Merlin thought.
The young men were shouting epithets at the band, which was still gamely playing, though the Indian singer in the front looked a little frightened, and rightly so. As Merlin watched, Gwen motioned to her, and she turned to the band and made a cutting motion; abruptly, the music stopped, and suddenly everything was silence; even the skinheads had stopped shouting, surprised. However, as they realised they were now the centre of attention, one of them turned toward the crowd with a twisted grin on his face, and he drew breath to begin anew.
“Before you treat us to some more of your scintillating discourse,” Morgana's voice rang out, “I suggest you think twice.” She had stepped forward from the ring of spectators and stood in her knee-high boots and emerald satin blouse like an Irish Wonder Woman, her ID badge displayed in her left hand. Merlin took a moment to be suitably impressed.
“Well, isn't that nice,” Swastika Head sneered, “they're lettin' little ladies make the coffee at the Yard now. Run along, little lady.”
The crowd jeered and a couple of men took a step forward at that. “Please, everyone, keep calm,” Gwen shouted above the din. “We'll handle this.”
“Oh yeah? What exactly are you going to 'handle'?” one of the skinheads said, hand clutching at his groin in an unmistakable gesture.
“Whatever it is, it's not much,” said the singer into her mike, and the whole crowd erupted in laughter, breaking some of the tension.
“You shut up, you Paki cunt!” Swastika Head shouted, lunging at the stage. “You'll get what's comin' to you soon enough.”
“I don't think so.”
Merlin watched, transfixed, as Arthur took a step forward, flipping open his badge as he did so. The skinheads whirled about, obviously shocked and dismayed at finding themselves surrounded by coppers.
“We have a dilemma, I'm afraid,” Arthur said conversationally, taking another step forward, close enough to declare his intent but not close enough to be directly menacing, “and I'm hoping you lads can help me with it. You see, I think you've perhaps failed to notice that you're vastly outnumbered, and that if you continue to utter threatening and hateful language, this crowd around us will no doubt kick your arses up round your ears. When that happens, we will be forced to arrest some fine people who were only seeking to teach you a lesson. We'd be truly distraught if we had to do that. So won't you apologise to everyone for disrupting this concert now and leave quietly? I'm convinced it will be the least painful option for you.”
Merlin joined the rest of the crowd in holding its collective breath, waiting for the tiny minds of the skinheads to process Arthur's words. In the approximately five second interval, Merlin had just enough time to consider his best course of action, think of the spell, and reflect upon the fact that Arthur seemed to be both beautiful and sort of magnificent when Swastika Head uttered an inarticulate cry of rage and flung himself at Arthur.
As the crowd surged to life behind him, Merlin took a step forward, closed his eyes and spoke the spell quickly. It was a shielding spell, putting up a barrier that was more psychological than physical. People who attempted to cross it would promptly forget why they had wanted to go forward. It was a useful bit of magic, and had kept Merlin from being beaten senseless by massive footballers and the like throughout his school career.
He'd never attempted it on a crowd this large, however, and maintaining it was tricky. It look all his concentration to keep the shield up, and so he could spare very little energy for paying attention to the fight itself. However, he did manage to note Reggie hadn't been lying when he said that Gwen had a brown belt in karate; as he watched, she dispatched a skinhead twice her size with the same effort Merlin might use swatting a fly. Lance, who hadn't managed to get past Merlin's barrier, was staring at her, gobsmacked and, if possible, even more lovesick than before.
Morgana was dealing with hers rather nicely, so that left two for Arthur. The first one was a good fighter, but he was still no match for Arthur, who Merlin could see had superior reflexes and agility. He dodged every punch the bigger man threw and waited for his opportunity, then landed a couple of swift punches before darting away again. The second man was still hanging back, waiting his turn, but Arthur never turned his back on him so that he couldn't be ambushed. Of course, it was only a matter of time before he realised they would be better off if he joined the fight before Arthur had finished off his mate. Merlin watched as the gears ground together in his pea brain, and he saw the exact moment he reached the inevitable conclusion.
Shit, thought Merlin; he honestly didn't know if he had it in him to perform another spell, particularly since the shield was wavering from the continued assault of so many people. Evidently this was to be one of those moments where he was destined to test the extent of his powers, however, because suddenly the thought of not protecting Arthur became impossible to bear, and without even thinking about it he reached out and allowed a thin tendril of his magic to leave him, weaving its way around the advancing man's feet. His shoelaces unknotted, stretched, and tied themselves neatly into a knot – one lace from the left foot joining to one from the right. He toppled like a felled tree, crashing into the man currently fighting Arthur and knocking him over as well.
To his credit, Arthur didn't waste more than a second staring in shocked surprise before he ran to the stage and borrowed a couple of lengths of microphone cord to bind the hands of the two men. Merlin could dimly hear him speaking to them, doubtless reading them their rights, but it was as though his voice were coming through a tunnel. He wanted to tell Arthur for God's sake, get them out of here; I can't hold on much longer, but he couldn't exactly say that, and Christ, he had maybe another minute before the crowd broke through the barrier.
And then Arthur's head jerked up, and his gaze locked with Merlin's as though he had heard Merlin's silent plea. “Morgana!” he shouted, still looking at Merlin. “Did you make the call?”
“No, of course not,” she called back, clearly exasperated. “Yes, there should be a mobile unit here within a couple of minutes.”
Arthur's jaw clenched, and he shook his head as though to clear it before tearing his gaze from Merlin's. “Take them backstage,” he ordered.
“Arthur...” Morgana began.
“Just do it,” Arthur bit out, hauling both skinheads to their feet; Merlin managed to get the second one's laces untangled an instant before he stumbled again. He could feel the crowd pushing to try to get at the men, the ones in behind who hadn't touched the barrier trying to get past the ones who had. Barely thirty seconds after they disappeared backstage, his control finally broke. The crowd surged forward, but now that the objects of their ire had been dealt with and removed, they merely milled about, restless. Merlin felt every muscle in his body sag, trembling from the strain of holding them back for so long.
“Alright, how bloody awesome was that?” shouted the singer from the stage. “Let's give a big hand to the Met's finest!”
The crowd, clearly as ready for a bit of relief as Merlin was, erupted in applause and cheers.
“Who's ready for some more music?”
Another cheer, and Merlin began to weave his way through the crowd, heading backstage to join the others.
As they watched Gwen and Merlin stagger from the car to the pub in the dawn light, Morgana said, “So the next time I suggest going out of an evening, please shoot me.”
Arthur was too tired even to snort at that. He peered out the window; Merlin's lean frame was bowed with fatigue, his head so low only the top of it was visible above his hunched shoulders.
“I think they're safe,” Morgana said, an ill-concealed smirk in her voice, and Arthur sighed inwardly.
“Yes, alright, let's go,” Arthur said, putting the car in gear.
“You know, I can give you her number. I'm sure she wouldn't mind; she looked at you tonight as though you'd hung the moon.”
It was on the tip of Arthur's tongue to say I wasn't looking at her, but that was more information than Morgana needed. “Yes,” he said instead, “it was similar to the way Lance was looking at her.”
Morgana shook her head. “I don't think they're together.”
“I know they're not,” Arthur answered shortly. “That doesn't change things.”
Morgana raised an eyebrow at him as he turned south onto Finchley Road. “My my, apparently chivalry is not dead.”
Arthur merely inclined his head; as exhausted as he was, he couldn't drive, keep up a conversation, and sort out the thoughts swimming round in his head. There was something about Merlin; Arthur couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he could have sworn something had happened tonight that didn't make any sense. That crowd was primed for a dust-up, and Arthur was under no illusions that the three of them had magically stemmed the tide. And when he had turned and looked at Merlin after the two men he’d been fighting had mysteriously tripped over themselves, he could have sworn Merlin’s eyes were glowing. But surely that was pure fancy: a trick of the disco ball, perhaps.
And yet when Merlin had arrived backstage, he'd been trembling and sweating as though he'd just crossed the finish line of a marathon. Arthur might have suspected drug use if the prospect of Merlin using drugs hadn't seemed so utterly ludicrous. No, there were things about this night, and particularly about Merlin, which simply didn't add up.
“Tonight was completely odd, don't you think?” Morgana said, startling Arthur from his thoughts; it wasn't the first time she seemed to have read his mind – not even the first time this week, for that matter – but after knowing her his entire life he was fairly comfortable with the phenomenon.
“Definitely,” Arthur answered, slowing the car at a zebra crossing and checking to make certain he wasn't about to run anyone over. “By all rights, that crowd should have mixed in. I don't know why they didn't.”
“Why, it was your natural authority that held them back, Arthur darling,” she said sweetly. Arthur could practically hear her batting her eyelashes.
“Leave it,” Arthur muttered, feeling his cheeks heat. “You've been ribbing me about that all night.”
“But it was such an inspiring speech, really,” Morgana cooed. “Actually, though, I was referring to the skinheads. Granted, they're not exactly top swimmers in the gene pool, but even they usually know better than to wade into a place where they're hopelessly outnumbered. And then when we got them back to the Yard, they pretended they didn't remember anything.”
Arthur grunted. “Not the first time people have claimed to be innocent.”
Morgana shook her head. “But that's not what they did, They looked truly bewildered; it's odd, because I'd never have given them credit for that level of acting ability.”
“Hm,” Arthur grunted, conceding her point. “An odd night all round, really.” An image of Merlin, wrung out and pale, his long fingers clutching a mug of tea as he gave his witness' statement at the Yard, rose up before him. Arthur realised he'd been staring when Merlin's head had risen and he'd offered Arthur a wan smile, as if to say you needn't worry, as if he had known Arthur had been watching him the whole time.
“What?” He glanced at Morgana and saw that she was already half-asleep, eyelids drooping dangerously.
“Good job tonight.”
Arthur paused, then smiled at her. “You, too. Get some rest.”
“Chivalrous to the end,” Morgana said, and promptly dropped off, head lolling against the rest.
Merlin dreamed that Gwen's figurines hopped down off her bookshelf and grew into Arthur in full armour and a truly terrifying dragon who breathed fire. Arthur swung at it with his sword, foolishly brave; instead of fighting back, however, the dragon turned, looked straight at Merlin, and boomed, “Now really, is this necessary?”
Merlin awoke with a start, his pulse finally slowing when the heavenly smell of something cooking penetrated through to his foggy brain. After checking the clock – bloody hell, it was past six PM – he wandered out, shuffling along the corridor on bare feet, and saw that Gwen was ladling something onto plates from a foil tray.
“Oh, hullo,” she said, smiling as Merlin entered. “I was just about to wake you. Reggie sent us a care package. Best shepherd's pie in London.”
Merlin scratched at his ear. “Does he do that a lot?”
“More than he ought,” Gwen answered wryly, “but I've had no luck stopping him. I dragged myself down to the pub around noon and when Reggie saw me, he made me tell him everything that had happened. I'll be lucky if he hasn't rung my parents by the end of the day, and then I'll catch it.”
“Your parents aren't keen on your being a copper?”
Gwen made a face. “I wouldn't say they're against it, exactly. They're just a little overprotective. When I got the job with the Met and told them I was moving out as well, Mum nearly had a heart attack. Too much on one day, you see. Dad's a bit more laid back, but still, first thing he did was ring up Reggie and ask him if he still had that flat over the pub.”
“He wasn't renting it?”
Gwen shook her head. “Couldn't. The city told him last year it violates the building code – stairs are much too narrow.” She sighed. “I don't know if he'd even be taking rent from me if I hadn't insisted on it.”
“He's charging me an incredibly reasonable rate,” Merlin said. “I don't care about the stairs.”
“He likes you,” Gwen said, smiling. “Told me today he has a feeling about you. That you're destined for greatness, or something.” Her gaze twinkled with merriment. “Said I should look out for you.”
Merlin straightened at that. “M'not exactly helpless,” he said around a mouthful of shepherd's pie. Wow, Reggie hadn't been boasting; it was fantastic.
Gwen flapped a hand as she sat and dug into her own portion. “That's just the way he is, don't mind him. He thinks everyone should look out for everyone.” She paused. “Listen, while we're on the subject, I'm glad you stayed out of the fight last night. I saw you watching Arthur, and I could tell you wanted to intervene. But it's best for civilians to stay out of things like that. You could really get yourself seriously hurt.”
Merlin concentrated on his plate. “Don't worry. I'm not planning to battle fire-breathing dragons anytime soon.”
Gwen looked at him a little oddly, and Merlin winced inwardly as he realised what he'd said. “I mean,” he added, “I understand.”
Gwen smiled openly at him and took a bite of her shepherd's pie. “So what did you think of my friends? Well,” she added, hastily, “Arthur's not really a friend, I just met him, so I can't exactly –” She cut herself off abruptly, looking slightly embarrassed, and Merlin thought, oh, God. He hadn't failed to notice the looks she'd been giving Arthur at the station last night, but he'd rather hoped she'd been cured of it overnight, like the twenty-four-hour flu.
“Oh, I thought they were all quite nice,” Merlin said. “Bit too stunning to be real, though.”
Gwen laughed. “Well, Morgana and Arthur both just made detective sergeant after only four years at the Met. They come by it naturally, though – both of their fathers were coppers. In fact, Arthur's father's the Commissioner.”
Merlin's eyebrows rose. He hadn't known a lot of police officers – hardly any, in fact – but the ones he had met didn't have that almost – well, regal – bearing that Arthur had. Most people wouldn't be able to carry it off – because most would come across as poncy wankers – but on Arthur, it worked. To know that he was essentially the heir apparent of New Scotland Yard explained a great deal about him. “Not that that's not interesting, but I was talking more about the fact that they're all fucking gorgeous.”
That startled a laugh out of Gwen. “I suppose they are, aren't they?”
“And then there's Lance,” Merlin said, arching an eyebrow.
Gwen frowned slightly, then chuckled again. “Well, Lance is just – Lance. He's my best mate.”
“Mmm,” Merlin said, noncommittally, and when Gwen treated him to a raised eyebrow of her own, he pointed at his plate. “Best in London, no doubt.”
Gwen rolled her eyes at him, but she smiled in spite of herself, and Merlin counted it as a victory.
Arthur made it halfway up the steps to his father's townhouse before he realised Morgana was no longer following him. Frowning, he turned back to see her still on the pavement, staring off into space and gnawing on her thumbnail. Morgana hadn’t bitten her nails since she’d been fourteen. That, Arthur recalled, had been a very difficult year.
“What’s wrong with you?” he demanded.
Morgana’s head snapped up. “I don’t think I want to go today.”
Arthur crossed his arms. “This is a fine time to tell me, isn’t it? Whyever not?” They nearly always had Sunday supper with Uther when neither of them was working on a case. She'd gotten in the car with him and driven all the way from Islington to Hampstead without saying a sodding word about not wanting to come.
“Erm,” Morgana began. “I forgot I have surgery?”
“Surgery,” Arthur drawled. “On a Sunday afternoon.”
Morgana nodded. “Emergency corn removal. It's vital, really.”
Arthur merely glared at her, and she finally flung up her arms. “Alright, fine. It's because he's been acting – odd – lately. Surely you've noticed.”
Arthur had noticed, in fact, that both Morgana and his father had been acting odd lately, primarily around one another. He hadn't given it much thought, but now that he considered it, he realised it had been going on for some weeks, since Uther had arrived at Morgana and Arthur's housewarming party in a jacket and tie. He'd received the same e-mail as everyone else about casual dress, but Arthur had never seen his father in casual dress. Sometimes he wondered if Uther slept in a three-piece suit.
And then Arthur had walked out onto their back patio and seen Morgana grab his father by his tie and reel him in like a prize catch. Uther had spluttered that she would ruin it, and ordered her to let him go.
“Oh, I'll do better than that,” Morgana had promised. She unknotted the tie and flung it onto a chair, then unbuttoned the top two buttons of Uther's shirt and fiddled with the collar, laying it flat. From his vantage point, all Arthur could see was the back of his father's bowed head as she worked; his face was hidden. He did notice, however, that Uther's whole body had gone still as stone.
“There,” she'd said, “now you're casual.” Morgana's gaze rose to meet Uther's, and whatever she saw in his expression made her smile fade and her eyes widen. She jerked her hand away from his chest as though Uther were suddenly red-hot, and took a stumbling step back. Arthur hadn't known what to make of her uncharacteristic display of clumsiness; Morgana was normally as graceful as a gazelle. Since then, they'd been strangely silent and intense around one another, as though they were two people who'd failed to make up after a screaming row. And he hadn't seen his father wear a tie outside the office since.
At the moment, though, Arthur only said, “Yes, I've noticed. I don't think it's anything to worry about.” His father had come from humble working-class beginnings, but you'd never know it to look at him now. Ambitious to a fault, he'd been climbing the ladder at the Met since Arthur could remember, and that had meant being more toff than the toffs, in everything from clothing to accent. If something had dislodged the incredibly large stick from his arse now that he'd finally gone as far as he could go in the organisation, Arthur was personally all for it. Anything that made his father a little more human was fine in his books.
But Morgana still looked hesitant, so Arthur decided the only solution would be to play dirty. “Listen,” he added, clearing his throat, “there is the Pact, after all.”
Morgana stared at him, clearly appalled. “I can't believe you're bringing up something we did when we were children.”
“It was a blood oath,” Arthur said, “and it was your idea, as I recall.” Morgana had come up with the notion that they should sign a Pact to always help one another with their fathers. Only Morgana had written it out in sparkly purple felt-tip, and Arthur had refused to sign it, as any self-respecting boy of ten would.
“The blood was your idea, as I recall,” Morgana sniffed.
“Regardless,” said Arthur, unrelenting, “a Pact is a Pact, and if you're going to desert me in my hour of need, when Dad is clearly in the advanced stages of male menopause –”
Morgana sagged briefly in defeat, then drew herself up straight again. “Yes, alright, shut up, I'll do it,” she snapped, jogging up the stairs and passing him.
“There's the girl,” Arthur said, unable to keep from smirking.
Morgana didn't deign to turn around. “I have a key to your flat, remember. I can kill you in your sleep.” She rang the bell almost viciously, and Arthur gulped before joining her.
A full two minutes of stony silence later, Morgana rang it again. No response. “That's it, he's not here,” she said, making to turn round again.
“Don't you dare,” Arthur warned. “Must be broken.” He tried the heavy brass door knocker, but nothing happened. A momentary spike of panic went through him, but he tamped it down. His father was in terrific health for a man of forty-eight; there was no reason to worry. Still, it was odd. Arthur reached in his pocket for his copy of Uther's key and opened the door.
As soon as he did, Arthur realised what the problem had been: the sound system, which normally wove a discreet background tapestry of Bach or Mozart, was blasting the Stones' Street Fighting Man at top volume. “Dad?” Arthur called, but it was no use; you'd need a bullhorn to be heard above that din.
Morgana was staring about her as though she were in a dark forest about to be attacked by wild beasts. “I don't like this,” she said.
“Oh, for Heaven's sake,” Arthur snapped as he motioned for her to follow him down the hall, “come on.” He poked his head into the parlour and the dining room as they passed, but found no sign of his father. As they neared the back of the house, Arthur discovered why: his father, Commissioner Uther Pendragon of the Metropolitan Police, was preparing supper. There were several problems with this scenario: first, Uther was incapable of cooking anything more complex than porridge. Second, he was wearing an apron. A pink apron. Third, he was dancing. And singing. Perhaps that should count as a fourth thing; Arthur wasn't sure at this point, because an important component of his world view had just been dumped unceremoniously on its arse.
“Oh, God,” Morgana groaned, clutching at Arthur's arm. “He's wearing – jeans.”
Arthur frowned and peered at his father again. Uther was indeed wearing jeans – the apron had somewhat distracted him – and they were, well, rather snugly fitted. Normally, paying attention to the fit of his father's trousers would be about the last item on Arthur's list of things to notice, but it was impossible to ignore when he was – shimmying like that. Arthur shuddered.
“We have to go,” Morgana hissed in his ear. “Now.” Arthur was tempted to agree with her; he supposed they could say that something had come up at work, though it was a little difficult to pull off that particular lie when you basically worked for your dad. Unfortunately, before he could make a decision either way, Uther spun round and saw them stood in the middle of the kitchen doorway. He stopped dead, and for a couple of seconds, Arthur was afraid his father truly would have that heart attack.
After a stunned moment, Uther strode to the wall and punched a couple of buttons on the sound system remote, and Mick was cut off abruptly, plunging the house into silence. “Arthur, Morgana,” he said, too brightly, “I'm sorry, I didn't hear the bell.”
Arthur's gaze dipped briefly to the apron. Upon the front was emblazoned in huge letters: Snog the Cook.
The placid mask that Uther had assumed faltered a little as he noticed what Arthur was looking at. He swiftly turned back toward the wall oven, tugging at the apron strings to loosen them. “Well, I hope you're both hungry,” he said gruffly.
“What are you cooking?” Arthur said, trying to sound as though this were a question he had posed to his father at some other point in his life.
Uther waved a hand. “Thought I'd try my hand at Moroccan.”
“I'm sorry, did you say – Moroccan?” Morgana sounded somewhat choked. Arthur knew how she felt; his father had always had one of the blandest palates this side of a ninety-year-old Scotsman. He had a cook who had been warned against the use of any spice that wasn't salt or pepper. Arthur had been fifteen before he'd known what curry was.
“I bought one of those tagine pots the other day,” Uther said, and Arthur had to clutch at the countertop to steady himself. “It looked like fun. But Camille said she wasn't sure what to do with it, so I said I'd suss it out and let her have the day off.”
Arthur exchanged glances with Morgana, who mouthed at him, her expression incredulous: Fun? Arthur shared her horror; it was as though his father had been replaced by a pod person possessed of a desire to leap about like an aging rock star and experiment with world cuisine. At this point, 'odd' didn't begin to cover it.
When Arthur turned back to his father, he saw a look on his face that stunned him even further, if such a thing were possible. Uther appeared – Arthur hardly dared think it – uncertain. This was another first, and it was the most startling one of all. Arthur could study his father at his leisure because Uther wasn't looking at him, but at Morgana. When Arthur darted a glance at her, he saw her gaze was locked with his father's, as though she couldn't bear to look anywhere else.
“You know, it's probably rubbish,” Uther said, still staring at Morgana. “How about I turn off the oven and we all head out to a restaurant, my shout?”
“No!” Morgana blurted, startling Arthur, and his father as well, by the looks of it. She took a step toward Uther. “I mean, I'm sure it'll be fine. How much longer has it got to go?”
Uther checked his watch. “About twenty minutes. I think.”
“Well, let's take it out for a moment and see how it's doing, shall we? It would be a shame for it to dry out.”
Uther nodded slowly. “Yes, alright,” he said slowly, finally breaking eye contact to reach for the oven gloves and hand them to Morgana as she came forward. Arthur watched their hands brush, and saw Morgana suck in a breath, and saw his father staring at her as though she were – as though he were –
No sodding way, thought Arthur, as he cast about the kitchen desperately searching for something else to pretend to be interested in, is that not going to fuel my nightmares tonight.
Merlin awoke on Sunday – after another restless night in which dragons spoke to him and Arthur and Lance ran about whacking one another with sticks and getting all sweaty and flushed – determined to salvage something from the disaster that his weekend had been. He girded his loins and ventured back into the belly of the beast, descending into the Brixton Tube station again with the sole mission of finding his school so that he didn't miss another appointment on Monday. This time, armed with a map, he found it without trouble, and spent the morning familiarising himself with the various buildings and services. The uni was bustling with students moving into halls, parents and their wide-eyed offspring carting boxes and cases across the wide avenues. It took Merlin back to his first days in Cardiff, newly arrived from the country and hopeless at everything, including containing his magic. Truth be told, he wasn't a hell of a lot better at it now, but that was only because his power had grown considerably since those days, and the need for effective control had never been so great.
As he watched, one of the students, a sallow young man even skinnier than Merlin, teetered under the weight of a box that was probably heavier than he was. Without giving it much thought, he reached out with his magic and gave the box just enough of a lift to allow the boy to recover and continue on.
The sound of slow clapping directly behind him made him startle and whirl around. An elderly man was stood there watching him with a raised eyebrow and a disapproving expression. “Very good,” he said, sarcasm dripping from every syllable. “Tell me, do you do card tricks as well?”
“Excuse me?” Merlin said, trying to appear innocent while his heart galloped in his chest. “I'm sorry, I have no idea what you're talking about.”
The man sighed. “Come, Merlin, there's no need for that.”
Merlin frowned. “Are you – Gaius?”
The old man's eyebrows rose. “My, no one told me you were a Seer.”
“I'm not, I mean –” At Gaius' bland look, Merlin cut himself off. “Oh. You're having me on.”
Gaius only stared back, frankly studying him. “What?” Merlin demanded after a moment.
The old man shook his head. “Not here. Come along.” He spun on his heel and started off across the lawn, and Merlin could do nothing but follow him.
Merlin picked up his teacup and tried not to wince at the first sip. Gaius' idea of tea tasted like Lapsang Souchong mixed liberally with dried weasel bits, but according to him it was the exact infusion first concocted by the megalithic peoples of the Stone Age. If this was what they liked to drink back then, Merlin was heartily glad he lived in the Silly Electronic Gadget Age.
“When I received the recommendation from Cardiff,” Gaius was saying, “I was, to be honest, somewhat sceptical. Their program is not the best, and the head of their department is – well.”
Merlin winced. “Yeah, I know.” He didn't need to be reminded that his magical education up until this point had been less than adequate. It hadn't been all bad, though; he'd learned lots about holistic medicine and ancient magical practices, what he'd been able to filter out of the New Age foolishness, that is. “They spent far too much time going on about the mysterious power of crystals.”
“Well, strangely enough, most of the crystal business is actually true,” Gaius mused. “Luckily, however, most of them don't know how to use them correctly.”
“Hence the mystery,” Merlin muttered into his cup.
Gaius shot him a sharp look, then nodded. “Most of the practitioners around Britain – around the world, really – range anywhere from the basest charlatans to the vaguely talented. I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the exceptions – those who were possessed of a genuine gift. But you –” Gaius waved a hand at him “– at the risk of swelling your head, I can honestly say I've never met anyone like you. I can see the magic rolling off you, like heat waves on a beach in high summer. It's – disconcerting, to say the least.”
Merlin sat up, taken aback. “No one's ever told me that before.”
Gaius snorted. “It's hardly a compliment. A true sorcerer should be undetectable. Your strength may be great, but your control is greatly lacking. And while you remain so, you're as vulnerable as a newborn.”
“Vulnerable?” Merlin asked. “Vulnerable to what?”
Gaius shook his head. “My dear boy, surely you can't be that ignorant. There are always forces at work in the world who would like nothing better than to enlist a sorcerer with power such as yours to serve their ends.”
Merlin tried not to react, but something of his skepticism must have shown on his face, because Gaius snapped, “You doubt what I say?”
“Well, not exactly, but it's only – we're not talking about Voldemort or something like that, are we?”
Gaius only glared at him, and Merlin shrank back into the sofa. “Sorry.”
“You can believe me or not. I can only trust that when the time comes, you will be capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.”
Merlin nodded eagerly, trying his best to look contrite. He suspected, from the continuing disapproval on Gaius' face, that he only succeeded in looking constipated.
Setting down his cup, Merlin leaned forward intently. “Can you help me to achieve control?”
“Why do you want it?” Gaius shot back. It wasn't the question Merlin had been expecting, but he still found the answer coming easily.
“Because I can feel myself getting stronger practically every day now, and it – it frightens me,” Merlin admitted. “Because if I ever inadvertently hurt anyone...” He trailed off, looking down at his hands. “Well. I don't think I'd be able to live with myself.”
Gaius' gaze bored into him, as though he could see clear through to Merlin's soul. “We'll start tomorrow,” he said firmly. “Be here at nine AM sharp. Don't be late.”
“No, sir; I mean, I won't be late. Thank you,” Merlin said, swallowing around the sudden lump that had formed in his throat. He shot to his feet, extending his hand to Gaius, who took it, his expression softening as he did so.
“You're quite welcome, my boy,” he said. “You're quite welcome.”
Morgana was eerily silent as they got into Arthur's car after dinner and drove away. Arthur knew it was too good to last, however. They'd gone only three blocks before she said, “Listen, it's not –”
Arthur held up a hand. “I don't want to know, Morgana. I really don't want to know.”
“Well, that's fine, then, because I don't know what it is!” Morgana shouted. “Anyway, it's – a recent thing. Whatever it is.”
“I don't care,” Arthur snapped.
“I only want you to know it's not as though I've been pining for your father since I was a child,” Morgana sniped.
“Oh, God, shut up,” Arthur said, gripping the wheel until his knuckles turned white. “It's twisted. We've known one another since we were eight. He's practically like – like your uncle or something.”
Morgana snorted. “Hardly that. He was never paternal with you; he certainly never was with me. I always saw him the same way I saw my dad – a forbidding, distant man in a uniform – only even more straitlaced and proper. I mean, we used to joke about him starching his pants, remember?”
Arthur felt a spike of pain go through his forehead. “You want to discuss my father's underwear with me now that you – you fancy him? Christ, Morgana!”
“I don't – I mean, I'm confused!” Morgana wailed. “He's not your dad any more! It's like he's been replaced by this – this alien who reads bloody cookbooks and wears indecently tight jeans.”
“I don't care how confused you are. I don't care if his brain's been scooped out and replaced by a metrosexual from the Crab Nebula. In fact, I don't give a flying fuck if you shag one another senseless, just don't tell me about it,” Arthur shouted, and that was the end of that conversation, thank Christ.
He was driving past Regent's Park when Morgana's mobile rang. “Bugger, it's the office,” she murmured, thumbing the talk button. “Yes, hello?” A pause. “When?” Another. “Yes, alright, I'll be there as soon as I can.”
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“Another robbery,” Morgana said, pinching the skin between her brows.
Arthur nodded. Morgana had recently been investigating a string of robberies of high-end items – jewelry, mostly – from well-to-do homes throughout London. “Same as the others?”
“Yes, it looks that way. Listen, this is a nuisance, but would you mind driving me to Kensington? I want to be the one to take the victim's statement.”
“Of course, don't give it another thought. Where is it?” Morgana gave him the address, and he turned the car right onto Marylebone instead of left as they usually did. “So someone was in the house this time?” Arthur asked.
Morgana shook her head. “No, more's the pity. Would have been nice to have a description.”
Arthur frowned. “Isn't that why you're going to take the statement now?”
“Well...” Morgana trailed off. “I'm – hoping I might get a description another way.”
Arthur felt a chill go up his spine. “Wait – I thought the medication you were taking meant you didn't –”
“Yeah. That would be why I haven't been taking it for a month now.”
Arthur turned to her. “You what?”
“Keep your eyes on the road, please.”
“Look, I didn't like what it was doing to me, so I went off it.”
“It was letting you sleep at night!”
“I'm sleeping,” Morgana shot back defensively. “Not as well, but working on the house leaves me exhausted enough that I actually get some rest. And I've been researching alternative methods: meditation, mostly. It's helping.”
Arthur sped the car to make a green light. “Why does that not reassure me?”
“Forgive me if I don't really care if you're reassured,” Morgana said acidly. “This case is –”
“Not worth your health!” Arthur snapped. Then, in a more reasonable tone, he added, “For Christ's sake, I'm worried about you.”
Morgana's head snapped up. They didn't usually talk about their feelings, but Arthur didn't really care. He remembered that time far too vividly, when she'd been plagued with those damned nightmares of hers before the doctors found a prescription that could help her. After studying him for a moment, she nodded. “I know. And I appreciate it. But it's not only a curse, and you know it. If I can learn to use it...”
Arthur snorted. “As I recall, you enjoyed using it to inform me what was about to go spectacularly wrong in my life. I especially liked the one where you knew Sophie would cheat on me before she did, and with whom.”
“And I'm still sure I saved you from a severe case of gonorrhea,” Morgana sniffed. “The point is, my curse is also my gift, if I choose to use it that way, and I'm choosing to. That's why I want to get into the house sooner rather than later. They think the perpetrator was there only an hour or two ago. This is the closest I've ever been to him.”
Arthur blew out a breath. “We'll get there,” he promised, leaning on the gas pedal. “And don't be sexist – it could be a woman.”
Morgana shook her head. “No. That much I know already.”
“How do you –”
“Because I heard his blasted voice,” Morgana said shortly.
“His voice?” Arthur asked, shocked.
“Yes. Last night, in my dream.”
“What did he say?”
Morgana hesitated briefly. “He said, 'Looking for me, Constable LeFay? I'm right here. I'm everywhere. Why can't you find me?'”
“That doesn't sound like a burglar,” Arthur mused.
Morgana stared straight ahead, her expression grim. “Yeah. I've been thinking the same thing.”
By the time Merlin left Gaius', his head was buzzing with a hundred new things to think about. He wasn't averse to thinking, certainly, but he wasn't particularly enamoured of having everything he thought he'd known chucked out on its ear like so much rubbish left at the kerb. He could feel his perception of himself, and of his role in the world, shifting and changing rapidly; he only wished he could be more sure of what, exactly, it was changing into. Gaius told him it would all come clearer as he learned to master his powers, but that understanding couldn't come quickly enough as far as Merlin was concerned.
“Patience,” Gaius had said, patting his shoulder, and Merlin had nodded and forced a smile. Patience was all very well and good when you weren't the one who felt close to bursting with your own power.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon and part of the evening walking around central London, working off a fair portion of restless energy and anxiety. He followed the streets which had once formed the boundary of Roman Londinium, from Newgate to the remnants of the eastern wall, and then back along the Thames. Even in this new millennium, he fancied he could feel the ancient echoes of former inhabitants with each step he took. It was a recently acquired ability, one he'd picked up on the last time he'd visited Newgrange, a few months ago at the winter solstice. There had been a few disconcerting minutes when he'd sworn a woman in white had appeared to him just outside the entrance, beckoning him inside. When she'd disappeared into thin air, he'd convinced himself she'd been a figment of his imagination. Although that had been his only sighting to date, the – vibrations, for lack of a better word – had intensified, and in places with a long history of habitation the energy was so strong it made the surface of his skin tingle.
The old city was one such place, and soon the tingling sensation moved beyond mild irritant and swiftly approached bearable limits; Merlin's every step was becoming an effort. Deciding to cut his losses, he asked directions to the nearest Tube station and turned up Walbrook.
He made it two blocks before the intensity of the sensation suddenly seemed to increase a hundredfold.
“Fuck!” Merlin gasped, doubling over with the immense wave of pain which followed immediately on its heels. Fighting to keep his head, he straightened slowly and tried to locate the source of the searing agony. He closed his eyes in order to concentrate, and there: it was clearly originating somewhere to his right, because the pain was markedly worse on that side. Aware that he needed to keep moving, he managed to stagger to a corner and turn left onto a side street.
Collapsing against a brick wall, he took a few deep breaths. The pain had dropped off abruptly as soon as he'd left Walbrook; what's more, the itch was gone, replaced by an odd electric sensation, similar to the one he'd felt when he shook Arthur's hand the other night. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and looked about. No one seemed to be paying him any mind; clearly it was an everyday occurrence for strangers to have spontaneous fits on the streets of London, then.
With great trepidation, he inched along the wall, then thrust his hand out past the brick at the edge of the building. That earned him a worried glance from a woman hurrying past, but thankfully he didn't experience any pain. Slowly, he crept forward and peered down Walbrook; what he saw stopped his breath in his throat.
The street was crammed with ordinary office buildings, monstrosities of glass and stone; nothing out of the ordinary there. However, the one Merlin had just walked past seemed to be glowing. It was faint, and from the behaviour of the other pedestrians, completely invisible to everyone else, but it was definitely there. A magical field of some sort? And if it were, what purpose could it possibly serve? Merlin had no idea. But for now, at least, his aching head told him there'd be no more exploration of the phenomenon today.
As he turned away and headed off down the side street toward the Underground, Merlin smiled thinly. At least he'd have a topic of conversation for his next session with Gaius.
Arthur checked his watch for approximately the fifteenth time without – he hoped – appearing to be doing so. The robbery victim Morgana was interviewing was a lovely woman, but she clearly lacked for companionship, because she'd insisted on making them both tea (she'd already made some for the forensics team which had come and gone, no hard evidence in sight) and setting out a tray of bread and biscuits that would have put Buckingham Palace to shame. Morgana had valiantly worked to keep her on topic, but the conversation had strayed from an account of her stolen items to the future of Britain's youth, the NHS, and the difficulty of finding a truly top shelf sandwich pickle these days.
“Well, I'm sorry, Mrs. Thistlethwaite, but we really must be returning to the station to file this report,” Morgana was saying, and Arthur did his best to refrain from whooping in triumph, “so if you're certain there are no other items missing –”
“Yes, I believe I've mentioned all of them,” the elderly woman mused. “I did tell you about my naked man, did I?”
Morgana, to her credit, only blinked serenely, while Arthur had to clamp his lips shut to keep from spitting out his mouthful of tea. “No, I don't believe you did,” she said, in a tone that clearly meant please continue.
“Oh, yes, I'm missing my naked man,” she said, waving a hand. “Not a terribly important piece, you understand, but I was fond of him.” At their blank looks, she added, “A small stone figure, about ten inches in length, from the proto-Celtic period. Or at least I thought he was when I bought him at auction; I was told a short time ago by an expert in the field that he was a fake. Sad, that. But I kept him for sentimental value; he was such a lovely little fertility god.”
“Did you have him on display?” Arthur asked.
“Why, yes, just over there in that –” She trailed off, and Arthur saw that Morgana was already up and moving in the direction Mrs. Thistlethwaite had indicated, almost as though she were being drawn there by an invisible force. When she reached the cabinet, she raised her hands, palms facing down.
“Is she alright?” Mrs. Thistlethwaite whispered to Arthur.
“Oh, yes, she does this all the time,” Arthur reassured her quickly. And then Morgana's head dropped to her chest, and she began to tremble. “Erm. Would you excuse me? Thank you.”
Arthur had crossed the room and had his hands round Morgana's shoulders in seconds, but she was shuddering so hard by that point her teeth were chattering in her head. “Morgana, stop it, now,” he hissed.
“Just – a little more,” Morgana ground out. “I've almost – got a picture –”
And then she screamed.
After swallowing enough paracetamol to tranquilise an elephant, Merlin tumbled into bed shortly after nine, too knackered to even bother removing his clothes. He was hoping like hell he'd wake up in the morning with the pain gone, but right now there were no guarantees.
He was blissfully unconscious when an ocean-deep voice roared in his head, rattling his brains against his skull.
Flailing, Merlin barely managed to avoid tumbling out of bed. He glanced at the clock; it was half three, and his head was pounding again. What the hell was going on?
On second thought, Merlin didn't give a rat's arse for what was going on. “Fuck, please just leave me to die,” he groaned, trying to escape the voice by covering his head with his pillow. Predictably, it had no effect.
“Yes, alright, bloody buggering Christ, alright!” Merlin snapped. Swinging his legs over the side of the mattress, he fumbled on some trainers, then let himself out of the flat as quietly as possible and headed down the stairs. The pub was closed for the night, and the last of the staff had cleaned up and gone. Without thinking about it, Merlin descended past the main floor, continuing into the cellar. He was sure this was the way to find the owner of that voice, though he couldn't have said how he knew.
The largest room in the basement was filled with kegs of beer and various tins of food. Beyond that, there was a smaller storage area filled with old chairs and tables, and another utility room. Merlin found what he was looking for behind the hot water boiler: a small door, sealed shut and long forgotten. Doing his best to ignore the pounding in his head, he closed his eyes and murmured a few words as he gripped the rusted knob. The edges of the door glowed briefly, and then the knob turned and the seal gave way to a gentle tug.
This magic business could be handy sometimes, Merlin reflected.
The stair beyond the door had no electric light that he could find, so he conjured a small, glowing ball that hovered in the air as he descended. Good thing, too, because the treads were damp, almost slimy; one false step and he could trip and tumble away into God knew what. The air was similarly moist, making his skin clammy, and it was as cold as a harpy's tit.
Finally, just as Merlin was beginning to seriously regret not having pulled on a jumper, the steps ended, widening out into a flat, stony ledge about five metres across and one wide. He sent the ball of light on ahead of him; it illuminated a large outcropping, but between him and that feature there was a sheer drop into fathomless darkness too profound for even his magic to illuminate.
“Hello?” he said, looking down into the abyss. “Can I help you?” And alright, that sounded incredibly stupid, but this whole thing was insane, honestly; he was dozens, perhaps hundreds of metres under the London streets, carried here on some kind of half-dreamed whim, and there was no way anything could possibly be living –
And then Merlin heard a great flapping sound, as though the world's largest bat were swooping down on him. Before he had the chance to flee back up the stairs, the creature had landed on the outcropping before him.
Not a bat, then. A dragon.
Right, yes: a dragon. Perhaps if he repeated it to himself often enough, he would begin to believe it.
The creature was approximately – well, Merlin was no good at estimating sizes, but it was bloody massive. It regarded him balefully with its yellow eyes, then opened its mouth, revealing fearsome double rows of sharp, pointed teeth. Every muscle in Merlin's body tensed; he was sure that he didn't know any flame-repelling spells, and on second thought, this had been a rather stupid idea, and oh, fuck, he was much too young to die, really –
“I see you finally saw fit to answer my summons, young warlock.”
Merlin eased slowly out of the cowering position he'd unconsciously assumed and stared at the dragon in shock. Now that it wasn't roaring at the top of its lungs, it was almost soft-spoken. “Right,” he said, “yes. Oh, so that was you calling me that first day at Gwen's, I suppose.”
The dragon inclined its head. “You had just awakened me from my slumber. I was still somewhat – groggy.”
“Of course,” Merlin said. He wasn't sure if an apology was called for in this situation, but then, he'd never engaged an enormous mythical animal in conversation before, so he could perhaps be forgiven for being weak on the proper etiquette. “How long had you been – slumbering?”
“That would depend on what year we are in now,” the dragon said, its tone as dry as deserts.
“Yeah, I don't imagine they deliver the Times down here, do they? It's 2009.”
The dragon nodded. “Then it would be sixty-four years since I was last awake. After the danger was past, and there was no more need of me.”
“The danger...” Merlin gaped at him. “You fought in the war?”
“In a manner of speaking. Winston was always grateful for my counsel. And I did help protect the city on several occasions when the RAF was otherwise engaged.” The dragon regarded him serenely. “Do close your mouth, boy; pop-eyed and drooling is a very unbecoming look for you.”
“I'm not –” Merlin protested, then decided that arguing with a dragon was probably not terribly intelligent. “So you've been trapped under here all this time?”
“It was an excellent location to slumber undisturbed. Or so I thought.”
“Right, erm, sorry,” Merlin said; apparently an apology was called for.
The dragon shook its enormous head once. “It is of no matter; it was time. Fate has drawn us together, just as it is drawing you toward your destiny.”
Merlin carefully kept his expression neutral. “My destiny. Sure.”
The dragon fixed him with a baleful eye. “I see you are a skeptic. There has been a depressing increase in the breed over the centuries. Tell me, have you yet met a young man named Pendragon?”
Merlin frowned. “Yes? How could you possibly –”
He swore that if the dragon could have smirked, it would have. “He is a vital part of your future. Your paths are intertwined so intimately that it is impossible to separate the one from the other.”
Merlin coughed. “Well. He's really not my type.”
The dragon glared at him. “I was speaking more of great and noble deeds that will go down in history, and less of your sordid Human mating rituals,” it sniffed.
“Oh,” Merlin said, feeling foolish. “Of course, right. Wait, hang on, I'm not exactly following. What great and noble deeds are you talking about?”
“Their exact shape remains to be seen,” the dragon said archly. “However, I can see that darkness and death lie ahead for many if you do not ally yourself with the young Pendragon. You and he are destined to help defend the realm against a terrible enemy.”
Despite the ridiculousness of the conversation – not to mention the fact that he was conversing with a dragon – Merlin found himself strangely caught up in it. “I don't suppose you could give me an idea of how we're to stop this 'terrible enemy,' could you?” he asked.
“If I told you all, it might upset the balance of things,” the dragon said solemnly.
“Well, we mustn't have that,” Merlin said. “Maybe just a tiny hint? What he – or she – looks like?”
“He wears many faces,” the dragon told him.
“Marvelous,” Merlin muttered.
“That is not the least of your worries, young warlock. You are powerful, but you are untrained, and you lack control. If you do not learn to rein in your magic, he will find you before you are prepared to face him. Already I can feel him laying traps to warn him of possible rivals.”
Merlin's head throbbed in time with the pulsing glow he'd seen a few hours earlier. “Okay. And if I were to come near one of those traps...”
“You would alert him to your presence as surely as a fly struggling in a web alerts the spider.”
“Right, then,” Merlin said brightly, feeling the bottom of his stomach plunge for the abyss below, “that's brilliant advice, thanks. I'll watch for that.”
“Train yourself, boy,” the dragon commanded, “and forge an alliance with young Pendragon. He is the key to your success in the trials to come.”
“Cheers,” Merlin said, fighting a sudden wave of nausea. “Glad I popped down for a visit.” He turned to go, but before he'd climbed the first few steps, a terrific growling noise filled the cavern, stopping him in his tracks. Whimpering, Merlin screwed his eyes shut, covered his ears and prayed his aching head would just tumble right off his shoulders and put him out of his misery. When he opened his eyes again, he turned and saw the dragon looking at him with an expression that could only be called sheepish.
“I don't suppose that next time you come, you could bring me a goat or two?” the dragon enquired. “Lamb will do as nicely, if you haven't any goat. There's a good lad.”
“Well? How are you?” Arthur demanded, bursting into the room the moment the nurse gave him leave to enter.
Morgana rolled her eyes. She was sat on the edge of the bed, looking a bit paler than normal but otherwise much better than she had two hours ago, when she'd collapsed in Arthur's arms, convulsing as though she might shake apart. He never wanted to go through that again.
“Not dying yet, Arthur dearest,” she told him primly. “And don't get excited, you're not in my will.”
“Jesus Christ, Morgana,” Arthur growled; she turned toward him, startled. “Don't even joke about that. I honestly thought for a moment – hell, several thousand moments – that you were –”
Morgana laid a hand atop his and squeezed. “I'm sorry. I know it must have looked pretty awful from your end.”
Arthur shook his head; the memories of Morgana's worst fits had been revisiting him as he'd sat in the hospital corridor waiting for news, and doubtless would be for some time to come. “This isn't about me. This is about you looking after your health.”
“I'm not going back on the medication,” Morgana said stubbornly.
“No. Like it or not, this is who I am. And I'm not going to give up the chase now that I've got a taste of what he really is.”
Despite his concern, Arthur's curiosity got the better of him. “What did you see earlier?”
“Not as much as I would have liked to, and that's the point. He set a trap.”
Arthur stared at her. “A trap – for you?”
“For me or anyone else who might try to find him. When I tried to reach out, I found that he'd left an impression behind, and it was strong, stronger than anything I'd ever gotten before. Stupidly, I did exactly what he wanted me to do: I lowered my barriers completely. And that's when he hit me.”
“Pain, mostly,” Morgana said ruefully, “but there were other things mixed in with it – emotions. He was trying to make me horrified, revolted, afraid. Trying to make me want to drop him, like a hedgehog in the jaws of a dog.”
“You're saying he communicated with you psychically,” Arthur said slowly.
Morgana shot him a look. “Perhaps not directly, in real time, It might have been more of a – a recording.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like an impression, only with intent,” Morgana clarified. “A voice mail message of sorts. It would take enormous ability and control, but it could be done.”
Arthur rubbed his face with his hands. “Bloody hell, Morgana.”
“You don't believe me,” Morgana said flatly.
“More like I'm wishing I didn't believe you. This is –”
“Mad, I know. Arthur, I think he's – no, I'm sure he's more than a burglar.”
“Then what is he? What is he aiming at?”
“I don't know entirely. But I do know that first thing tomorrow I'll be going over those robbery reports with a fine tooth comb.”
“And what will you be looking for?”
Morgana chewed on the end of her thumb. “A pattern in the nature of the art robberies. I wasn't looking at them closely enough, because the stolen items of greatest value were all jewelry. But now I know he doesn't only want to sell what he steals; he wants to use some of it. That's the one strong feeling I got off the impression before the pain hit: that sense of need.”
Arthur frowned. “But Mrs. Thistlethwaite said that figure was a fake.”
“No, Mrs. Thistlethwaite said she was told it was a fake.”
Arthur nodded slowly as her words sunk in. The art expert who'd told her the piece was a forgery may well have had a vested interest in making her think its loss wasn't worth mentioning to the police. “Do you want me to interview her again tomorrow, get the name of the appraiser?”
Morgana arched a brow at him. “Not really your bailiwick.”
“I'll take the morning off,” Arthur said.
“No, really, you're a dear for offering, but I can handle it,” she said, patting his arm. “You've already been a huge help tonight. I don't know what I would have done without you.”
“Stop, you'll turn my head,” Arthur murmured.
“Shut up and give us a hug before I change my mind,” Morgana told him, twisting on the bed and wrapping her arms around him. Arthur hugged her back, smiling in spite of his worry. He had never had a biological sister, but Morgana fulfilled all the parameters, including the unlimited capacity to annoy him. But underneath it all, he loved her fiercely, and knew she did him.
He was just releasing her when he heard a knock on the door. They both turned, still half in the hug, to see the door swing open to reveal Uther, his face ashen and grim.
“Dad?” Arthur said, rising to his feet as Morgana let him go. “What are you doing here?”
Uther stood in the doorway for another couple of moments as though he'd been flash-frozen, then took a stiff step forward. “I'm always informed when one of my officers is taken to hospital while on the job, Arthur.” He said it impatiently, as though Arthur should have known that, but he honestly hadn't. Arthur wondered if Uther paid a personal visit to every one of them, but he wisely kept this question to himself.
“I'm sorry,” Arthur said instead. “I should have called you to let you know she was all right.”
Uther took another step toward Morgana, then another. “You collapsed, I was told.”
“Yes,” Morgana said, meeting his gaze.
Uther took a deep breath before continuing, giving the air of a man attending an execution. “Morgana, are you –”
“Look, don't you start; I've had quite enough of a lecture from Arthur.”
Uther frowned, his gaze flicking back and forth between Arthur and Morgana. “Is Arthur – that is to say, are the two of you – I didn't know you were...” Another deep breath. “Yes, well. How long have you known?”
Arthur folded his arms, hiding his surprise at his father's uncharacteristic incoherence. And three seconds later, he was annoyed that it took him so long to figure it out.
“Oh, my God,” Arthur breathed, turning to Morgana. “He thinks you're pregnant.”
Uther glared at him, and Arthur's eyes widened in horror. “And he thinks I'm responsible.”
Morgana stared at them for a moment, equally horrified, and then she began to laugh. Arthur collapsed against the nearest wall and joined in until he was nearly dizzy from the lack of oxygen.
“Oh, oh, Uther, no,” Morgana said, between giggles, “not to worry, you are not about to become a grandfather. Also, ick,” she added, raising an eyebrow at Arthur.
“Oi! I'll have you know there are literally scores of women stood in line right now, begging for my genetic contribution.”
Morgana's eyes twinkled. “May I repeat: ick.”
Uther's voice cut through their banter. “Why did you collapse, Morgana?” His voice was low and commanding, and Arthur saw Morgana's eyes widen. She flicked a glance to Arthur, a clear warning. Arthur pursed his lips in response, but said nothing.
“Simple exhaustion, I'm afraid,” Morgana said evenly. “I've been hitting this robbery case a little hard, and it's got the better of me. A few nights' rest and I'll be fine.”
Uther nodded curtly. “Then you should have it. Consider yourself off duty for the next three days.”
Morgana gaped at him. “Uther –”
“That's Commissioner to you, at this moment,” he snapped. Morgana drew herself up, obviously spoiling for a fight, but before she could speak he added, his voice suddenly scraped raw, “Don't even think about it. I will not watch you work yourself into an early grave the way Niall did, d'you hear? I won't lose you, too.”
Arthur stared at his father, and by the silence he imagined Morgana was doing much the same. They rarely talked about Morgana’s father, and Uther hadn’t spoken of his former partner since the funeral, nearly eight years ago now. Before Arthur could give this much thought, however, Uther rounded on him. “I'm giving you leave as well; you deserve it after the Wolverton case. Keep an eye on her, and make sure she gets her proper rest.”
“Oh, for heaven's sake, I don't require a baby-sitter,” Morgana sighed, but she quieted when Arthur shot her a look. We can work around this, he wished he could say, but Morgana seemed to understand nevertheless.
“Look after her,” was Uther's final low command, and then he turned on his heel and swept from the room.
After the door shut behind him, Morgana sagged. “Well, he's an enormously paternalistic pain in the arse, but never let anyone say he isn't impressive with it.”
Arthur snorted. “He is that.” He paused. “So, looks as though I’ll be popping round to Mrs. Thistlethwaite's again tomorrow after all,” he said.
“Don’t rub it in,” she gritted. “You can also stop by the Yard and pick up the files on my cases.”
“Mmm, I don’t think that’d be wise; Dad’ll probably have left instructions to keep me out of the building. I’ll e-mail Gawain to swing by the flat and drop them off to you.”
“Good thinking,” Morgana said, rising a little unsteadily to her feet. “Alright, take me home. I’ve had enough of this bloody weekend.”
Merlin returned to the pub after another long session of training with Gaius feeling as though he'd been run over by a bus. Three days had passed, and the subjects of dragons and glowing office buildings had still not come up. Although he knew these were the sorts of extraordinary phenomena he should probably be mentioning to his new mentor, Merlin was having difficulty just casually working them into conversation. Besides, he reasoned, he was a graduate student now; he should certainly be able to figure these things out for himself.
All of which, he was aware, was a cowardly rationalisation. The truth was that he was half afraid Gaius would agree with the dragon on the nature of his destiny, and he was fully afraid that his professor would boot his arse out the door if he discovered Merlin had tripped some sort of evil sorcerer alarm inside of his first week in London, especially when he'd warned Merlin of just this sort of thing happening. Not that Merlin would be able to blame him; he'd spent most of his time since the incident feeling completely foolish for allowing it to happen, for not being aware that the strength of the magical field in the old city was far out of proportion to a natural occurrence.
He'd managed to do a little research of his own in the evenings, and while the Internet and the Kensington library were unsurprisingly silent on the subject of the enormous dragon under the streets of Brixton, there was plenty to be found about the other phenomenon. The building that had appeared to be glowing was an unremarkable office tower built on a remarkable site: the former location of the Temple of Mithras in Roman times. Merlin knew it probably had a much more ancient history than that, however, for the Romans had a habit of building their temples atop older religious sites. Chances were that the ground was also hallowed by Druidic priests. That could explain the incredible concentration of energy in that one spot, and it could also explain why someone might want to use that energy somehow.
No, Merlin decided he needed a few days to figure out a way to break the news to Gaius gently and in such a manner that wouldn't make the old man throw him out on his ear. He reasoned that increasing his control over his power was the first step to battling evil sorcerers, if in fact one did exist; however, he knew this was also an excuse. There was no doubt he was improving by leaps and bounds, though: by the end of each day, he was mentally exhausted but at ease in his skin in a way he'd nearly forgotten. The centering techniques he'd picked up so far were much more effective than the ones he'd learnt in three years of undergraduate work, and he was already beginning to hope that soon he'd be able to achieve the invisibility Gaius held out as the ultimate goal.
That only left the whole foolishness about Arthur Pendragon; the dragon had gone on about him again when Merlin had visited him the other night, dragging a canvas sack stuffed full of the most revolting leftover bits he'd found in the skip back of the butcher's in the next street. Apparently they were destined for great deeds, which seemed rather far-fetched to Merlin. After all, it wasn't as though they had anything in common: Arthur was a copper, beautiful to a fault, and probably had an ego to match. He couldn't imagine they'd work together terribly well, or at all, for that matter. And unless Gwen organised another evening out – which wasn't likely considering the way the first one had gone – it was doubtful Merlin would even run into him.
Merlin wove his way through the supper crowd, then blinked as he caught sight of the back of a familiar blond head. He frowned and shook his head in an attempt to clear it.
People didn't simply appear when you thought about them. That was – silly.
Merlin stepped closer, nodding to Reggie as he approached. Reggie smiled, then clapped the blond man on the arm and said, “Here's Merlin now, then!” and bloody hell, it was Arthur.
Arthur turned and looked at Merlin, his expression such a jumble it was impossible to read, and then he stood and donned what Merlin thought of as the bland copper's face, all pleasant, impenetrable exterior. Merlin smiled and nodded at Reggie, then said, “Arthur. It's been a long time.” He refrained from offering his hand.
Arthur barked a laugh. “I couldn't stay away,” he said in that deep, cultured voice, and Christ, he was even more gorgeous than he'd been last week. Merlin rolled his eyes, and Arthur laughed again. “Listen, I'm sorry to drop in on you like this, but I was wondering if I could talk to you about something privately. Do you have some time now?”
Merlin's brain derailed for a few crucial moments as he contemplated the limitless interpretations of Arthur wanting to talk to him privately. When Arthur's eyebrows rose in a question, he gathered his wits and managed, “Erm, yeah, we could –” he quickly scanned the booths at the back of the pub “–sit and have a pint.”
“Your flat –” Arthur began.
“–probably has Gwen in it right about now,” Merlin finished. “I don't exactly have a lot of room for private entertaining.” Or rather, he had one room, but it had a bed in it, and alright, that was enough of that train of thought.
“Right, of course,” Arthur said, nodding. “I couldn't really discuss this in front of Gwen.”
Oh God, stop, Merlin told his traitorous brain.
Arthur glanced at his watch. “Have you eaten yet?” Merlin shook his head. “What do you say to some supper, my shout?”
“Oh, no, you don't have to –”
Arthur stood and began leading him toward the back of the pub. “Don't say no until you've heard what I have to say,” he said. “I have a favour to ask.”
“Oh, well, I'm happy to do anything –” Merlin began, then clamped his lips shut as he realised the way that sounded. Mercifully, Arthur didn't seem to have heard.
As he slid into the booth across from Arthur Pendragon, it occurred to Merlin that far below their feet, the damned dragon was probably laughing its scaly arse off.
Merlin Emrys was an odd sort of duck, Arthur reflected as they sipped at their pints after supper. He seemed fragile, one of those gangly, bookish types that never saw the sun, and yet at the same time he seemed to be possessed of an inner – something. Arthur had no idea what to call it: energy, vitality, some ineffable quality that Arthur didn't usually believe existed.
The last few days with Morgana had reminded him that simply because he didn't believe in something didn't mean it didn't exist, however. She'd been like a dog with a bone, poring over reports, visiting victims and gathering further details on the robberies. As she'd expected, there were several victims who hadn't bothered to report the loss of “worthless” items, and when she probed further, most of those items had been appraised as such within two months of the robberies. Unfortunately, their hopes of finding a single appraiser had been dashed early on; in the end, they'd gathered no fewer than half a dozen different names and descriptions. Only four still had contact information, so Morgana planned to spend most of tomorrow, her first official day back to work, gathering information on both the missing artworks and the appraisers by consulting a couple of experts in antiquities who worked with Sotheby's but occasionally consulted for the Yard. If their consultants knew of these so-called experts, they were probably legitimate, but if not, it would be time to step up the investigation.
Through it all, Arthur had insisted on her resting frequently, even to the point of taking her files away at night and keeping them in his flat, and despite her grumbling she'd complied. However, this morning he'd popped downstairs to see her and had caught her before she'd put her makeup on, and had seen exactly what the lack of sleep was doing to her.
Morgana scowled at him. “What are you doing here so early? I just tumbled out of bed.” She paused. “What on earth are you staring at.”
“You look like a raccoon.” Arthur blurted.
“Thank you,” Morgana said primly, turning away.
Arthur stopped her with a hand on her arm. “Haven't you been sleeping?”
“I've been able to nap,” she hedged, lifting her chin. “But no, I haven't been able to induce a truly deep sleep.”
“In three days?” Arthur demanded. “Dammit, Morgana, you told me you were pursuing alternative methods.”
“And I am!” she shot back. “I even tried the sodding pills again. But nothing's working now that he's in my head!”
“Oh, my God,” Arthur breathed. “This – do you mean what I think you mean?”
Morgana looked at him, her gaze finally showing a small hint of the fear she must have been feeling for days. “I think he's communicating with me, yes,” she admitted. “Only through my dreams, mind you, but it's enough to keep me from sleeping properly.”
“We have to find this bastard,” Arthur gritted. “Or all of them – it's got to be a ring of some sort.”
“He works alone,” Morgana said firmly.
Arthur frowned. “But we've six different descriptions, and two of them are women.”
“I know that. But if there's more than one person involved, he's only using them to get what he wants.”
“So he's the ringleader.”
“No,” Morgana breathed, voice strained. “He's the puppetmaster. And God help me, I think he's trying to turn me into one of them.”
“Arthur?” Arthur blinked, returning to the present. Merlin was leaning forward, hand resting lightly on Arthur's forearm, expression concerned.
“You looked shit-scared just now,” Merlin said. “What is it? What's wrong?”
“I need help,” Arthur said, ignoring the strangely bereft feeling that struck him when Merlin took his hand away. “For a friend. She's having a great deal of trouble sleeping, and she's not interested in modern medicines. Gwen said you were studying ancient healing plants; I thought you might know of a traditional concoction that would do the trick.”
Merlin frowned, and Arthur tried not to hold his breath. It sounded rehearsed because it was; Arthur had been thinking about the speech all day, in between thinking it was half-mad to be asking a total stranger for something like this, but he had to do something, and Merlin was the only solution he'd managed to come up with. He freely admitted he knew nothing about psychic powers or traditional medicine or any of a hundred topics he'd always thought of as the fitting subject of tabloid journalism, but he was determined to do whatever he could to help Morgana.
Merlin's frown deepened, and Arthur said, “I know it's an odd request.”
Merlin shook his head. “No, it's only that – I'd have to speak with her.”
Merlin's eyebrows rose. “Because sleeplessness can have many causes: stress, chemical imbalance, diet, a hundred things. And the cause shapes the remedy.”
Arthur shifted. “I don't – she'd probably not be pleased I was discussing her problem with anyone.”
Merlin cocked his head. “Alright. What do you think the cause is?”
A man she's never met is trying to take control of her mind. Of course, he couldn't say this aloud; Merlin would think he was mental. “I don't exactly know. She has nightmares, though, terrible nightmares. They keep waking her up.”
Merlin studied him openly, and Arthur tried not to squirm under his surprisingly piercing gaze. “Again, the nightmares are only a symptom,” he explained. “It would be preferable if you could convince her to see me. I believe I could help if she were willing.”
“There's no – generic sleeping potion? A tea? Anything?”
Merlin's eyes narrowed. “Are you going to do this without telling her? Slip her a mickey when she's not looking?”
“No, Christ, of course not,” Arthur breathed. “What do you think I am?”
“I don't think you're anything,” Merlin said calmly. “You seem like an alright enough bloke, but now you're looking for a knockout potion for a girl you don't want me to talk to, what am I –”
“That's – God, that's completely wrong –”
“I bloody well know it is, but I can't help you unless you tell me the truth,” Merlin snapped, leaning forward. “These remedies you're talking about – they're not random collections of leaves and bark you buy at a Ren Faire, alright? There's a power to them you don't understand. I can't simply throw something together for you and hope it'll work. Your friend could be seriously harmed if I give her the wrong mixture.”
Arthur sat back, stunned at the passion and conviction in Merlin's voice. Obviously the field of ancient botany was a damned sight more interesting than he'd ever imagined. “I'm sorry,” he said. “You're right, I'm not telling you everything.”
Merlin sighed. “Look, this all has to be built on trust, and you barely know me.”
“But I do trust you,” Arthur heard himself say, surprised when he realised it was the truth.
Merlin blinked. “You do?”
Arthur nodded. “You clearly have great integrity. I respect that.”
Twin spots of colour appeared on Merlin's high cheekbones. “Oh. Well.” He looked at Arthur from under his long eyelashes, and Arthur felt a twinge of something he couldn't name. “How about this: why don't you tell me more about your friend, and I'll pretend I don't know you're talking about Morgana, and we'll see what we can figure out?”
Arthur stared at him. “Okay,” he said finally. And he found himself telling Merlin – well, nearly everything. How Morgana had begun having nightmares at thirteen, and how the two of them soon discovered she dreamed about things that would end up happening the next day or the next week. How she'd dreamed her father's death of a stroke and had awoken, screaming, to find him already gone to work, and by the time she'd reached him it had been too late. How she'd gone through hell for years until the right combination of drugs had finally silenced her dreams.
“She's gone off them recently, because she says it's helping her investigate a case,” Arthur said, “and I'm sorry, but I can't give you details about that –”
“I understand,” Merlin said, holding up a hand.
“–but she hasn't been sleeping properly–” he took a deep breath, debating with himself for a moment, and then let the final admission come out “– and now she's dreaming the suspect we're seeking is trying to – communicate with her.”
Merlin frowned. “What did you say?”
“She says he's trying to get inside her head,” Arthur said. “I know it sounds barmy, and perhaps it is –”
“Have you ever known her to be wrong about her dreams before?”
Arthur frowned. “No.”
“Then it stands to reason she's probably right about this one too, don't you think?”
Arthur nodded slowly. “I suppose so.” He hesitated, then added, “I can't help but notice you're taking this rather well.”
Merlin regarded him with a distinct twinkle in his eye that Arthur refused to find fascinating. “Yes, I am, aren't I?”
“Can you help her?” Arthur asked. He touched Merlin's hand, just the briefest brush, and yanked it away again. Bloody hell, that had felt like sticking his finger in a wall socket. What the –
Merlin stared blankly at him for a moment, then shook his head like a dog shaking off water. “Yes, I think so,” he said. “I'll put something together for you and drop it round on the weekend; I'm sorry it can't be sooner, but these things take time to gather, and it's best if everything's fresh.”
“Thank you,” Arthur breathed, tension he'd been storing up all day leaving him in a rush. “Really, I can't thank you enough.”
Merlin smiled. “I understand. You love her very much; it shows.”
“God, don't tell her that,” Arthur said, chuckling. “She'd be insufferable.”
Merlin cocked his head. “That's an odd way to talk about your girlfriend, isn't it?”
Arthur boggled. “Oh, no, God, no, we're not,” he said. “We're far too much alike, we'd be at one another's throats inside of a week. Besides, she's always been the closest thing I've had to a sister, and I –” he shuddered.
Merlin laughed. “You realise you sound like a complete wanker saying how alike you are, considering she's beautiful, talented, smart –”
“You fancy her, mate, go ahead and ask her out,” Arthur answered, laughing in return.
Merlin smiled again. “Not my type, I'm afraid,” he murmured.
“What's your type, then?”
And really, Arthur should have seen it coming; he'd had an inkling in the club but had dismissed it as a figment of his imagination. But now Merlin's gaze met his, pinning him, and suddenly all the noise and bustle and even the air seemed to leave the pub, and Arthur felt his heart pounding with a loud, steady thump against his ribs.
“Right, well,” Arthur said, tearing his gaze away from Merlin's with difficulty and hastily draining the last of his pint, “I'm afraid I have to run.” He dug in his wallet for a card and handed it to Merlin, taking care to not let their fingers touch again. “You can e-mail me or ring me as soon as it's ready and I'll come get it, yeah?”
“Sure,” Merlin said, his gaze mercifully on the card. “No problem.”
“And keep track of your time and expenses so that I can reimburse you.”
Merlin's head snapped up, and the look in his eyes nearly made Arthur flinch. “Right. Cheers.”
“Least I can do,” Arthur said. “I'll go settle up. Talk to you soon.” His heart was now leaping in his chest, as though it wished to tell him what a cowardly prick he was.
Merlin picked up his half-full pint and raised it in lieu of a farewell, and Arthur turned and escaped as quickly as he could.
He almost made it.
Arthur looked up at the sound of his name and saw Gwen standing before him, smiling. Beside her, an older couple stood; from the resemblance he guessed they were her parents.
“Hello, Gwen,” Arthur managed, “it's lovely to see you again.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Oh, I was just having a pint. It looked like a good pub when we dropped you off the other night; I've been wanting to try it.”
Gwen peered past his shoulder. “Isn't that Merlin back there?”
“Yes, it is,” Arthur said, as blandly as possible. “I ran into him and we had a bite.”
Gwen darted a glance at Merlin, then back at Arthur, and Arthur knew what it must look like. Of course, he couldn't exactly tell Gwen why he'd come here, and the truth was that he didn't actually care if she drew the wrong conclusion.
That's not what you were thinking a minute ago, his traitorous conscience reminded him.
“Oh, I'm sorry, these are my parents, Tom and Anne Smith. Mum and Dad, this is Arthur Pendragon. He's a friend of Morgana's.”
Arthur exchanged the pleasantries, and tried not to wince when Mr. Smith shook his hand with a vise-like grip. “Are you here for a special occasion?” Arthur asked.
“No, just our regular Wednesday night,” Anne said. She was a pretty woman with ginger hair and freckles, as petite and pale as her husband was dark, tall and barrel-chested. Her dress was simple, but it was adorned with a lovely, intricate silver necklace that reached to her navel and lent her a timeless air. The pattern was Celtic in origin, he thought, but had some other elements that he didn’t recognise mixed in.
“That's a lovely necklace, Mrs. Smith.”
“Thank you,” she said, beaming at him. “Tom made it for me.”
“Dad’s an artist,” Gwen said proudly. “His work’s been shown all over the world.”
“I can see why,” Arthur said. He turned to Mr. Smith, intending to ask him a question about his work, but the words were forgotten when he realised the man was looking him over with a frankly speculative air.
“Do you fence, Arthur?” Mr. Smith asked out of the blue.
Arthur blinked, nonplussed. “Well, I did a little in upper sixth PE, but it's not something I’ve –”
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Dad, I thought we agreed you were going to stop trying to recruit every person you meet.”
“You can hardly expect me to pass up an opportunity like this,” Gwen’s father said, gesturing at an increasingly confused Arthur. “He looks like he was made to wear armour!”
Anne chuckled. “Now, Tom –”
Just as Arthur was contemplating whether to leg it for the door, Gwen said, “Please ignore him. You see, he and Mum are a bit mad –”
“Oi!” Mr. Smith said.
Gwen shot her father a quelling glance. “They like to play dress-up on weekends with another lot of mad people, pretending they're knights and ladies of old. It's all Mum's fault; now Dad makes chain mail and swords as well as jewelry.”
“Oh,” Arthur said, vastly relieved. “Sounds like a fine, erm, hobby. Well, I'd love to stay and chat longer, but I'm afraid I have another appointment,” he said. “Lovely to meet you.”
“Take care, Arthur,” Gwen said. “I think I’ll go introduce Mum and Dad to Merlin now.” She raised her eyebrows at him as she said Merlin’s name, and Arthur felt his cheeks heat.
He nodded and headed for the bar to pay his tab. He was fairly certain if he'd had a tail it would now be firmly tucked between his legs.
“Right, so he's a prat,” Merlin said.
The dragon crunched and swallowed the remains of a pork leg, then let out a belch that echoed off the rock walls of the cave. “I do not remember promising – what do you call it? – 'love at first sight.'”
“As if I would ever love a homophobic twat like that,” Merlin muttered. The dragon merely regarded him blankly. “Never mind. What do you think about Morgana?”
“She is definitely a Seer,” the dragon intoned, “and perhaps an extremely powerful one. He would not be trying to infiltrate her mind otherwise.”
“D'you think it's the same one who – you were talking about earlier?” Merlin asked. He still hadn't told either the dragon or Gaius about the incident with the old temple site, but he had the sinking suspicion the dragon already knew.
The dragon inclined its head. “It is likely. You must find out more about him, however, in order to be sure.”
Wait a minute!” Merlin exclaimed. “What happened to training so that I can learn to rein in my magic?”
The dragon sighed, and Merlin waved a hand to fan at his face; God, its breath was truly foul after a meal. “I did not say to find him and do battle with him. It is clear that Miss LeFay and the young Pendragon know more about him, however.”
“But I can't simply barge in on a police investigation,” Merlin responded. “And they can't tell me about it. There are rules –”
The dragon snorted, releasing twin puffs of smoke from its nostrils. “I do not care one whit for your petty forms and courtesies,” it said. “You will find a way because you must.”
“Glad you have such confidence in me,” Merlin muttered.
“I have little choice, young warlock,” the dragon said. “Pass me that mutton hock, if you would be so kind.”
“David, David, David,” Arthur sighed, “you're basically buggered, you know that, yeah?”
“I want a solicitor,” the young man sat at the interrogation room table snapped, pale tattooed arms crossed over his skinny chest.
“You'll get one,” Arthur assured him smoothly. “Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself first?”
“Fuck off,” David muttered.
“Well, I'll start then, shall I?” Arthur said, sitting in the chair opposite. “Your name is David Jones. You're nineteen. You live in a flat in Hackney with two of your mates. You had a good job until you quit turning up for work on the fourth of September. This is your first serious cock-up.”
David said nothing, merely glared at the tabletop. “Why did you set fire to your boss' house, David? Mr. Patel says he didn't sack you, said you were a great lad. Said he couldn't understand why you'd do such a thing.”
That earned a flicker of reaction across Jones' features. “He nasty to you?” Arthur pressed. “Pay you shit?”
“No,” David muttered.
“Was he lying? Did he sack you?”
“Then what, David?” Arthur demanded, leaning forward. “What was going through your head?”
“I don't know, alright?” Jones snarled, finally meeting Arthur's gaze. “I was – it's like I can't remember nothin' that happened.”
“Were you high, then?” Arthur had already checked David's arms for evidence of drug use, but there were dozens of other places to put needles.
David shook his head. “You don't get it. I can't remember the last fortnight. The last thing I knew, I was finishing my shift. I was thinkin' it was the third, and tomorrow was my girlfriend's birthday, and I was going to buy her somethin'. That's the last thing I remember before I was stood in front of the house, watching it burn.”
Arthur frowned. “That's your story, then?”
“That's the truth,” Jones said sullenly. “Believe it or not, I don't give a fuck.”
“You'd better hope someone believes you, my lad,” Arthur said, pushing back his chair and rising to his feet, “otherwise –”
“Yeah, buggered, I know,” Jones muttered, gaze dropping to the tabletop again.
When Arthur stepped outside the interrogation room, Gawain was waiting for him. “What've you got?” Arthur asked.
“Not much,” Gawain said, flipping through his notebook. “Neighbours say he's not a bother, mates don't seem like addicts or arseholes, just a bit rough around the edges.”
“Any political affiliations?”
“He gave fifty pounds to the BNP last year,” Gawain said, making a face.
Arthur blew out a breath. “Wonderful. So it could be racially motivated, then.”
“Yeah, maybe. If he is a racist, he keeps it pretty quiet. His boss and half the people he works with are visible minorities. If he was loud about it, he'd have been tossed long before this.”
“That could just mean he's cleverer than he looks,” Arthur mused. “Any news on his computer yet?”
“Not yet,” Gawain answered. “Elspeth should have a chance to look it over by the end of the day.”
Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Is it my imagination, or is this sort of shit on the rise lately?”
“It's just your imagination, mate,” Gawain said, his expression wry. “This sort of shit is your job, but it's my life. And I can tell you, the shit's not any worse than it ever was. Unfortunately, there are times when you think it's not got a lot better, either.”
Arthur stilled. “Christ, Gawain, I'm sorry. What a bloody thick thing for me to say.”
Gawain shook his head. “You're searching for patterns; I understand that. But when you grow up half Irish and half Pakistani in Sheffield, the patterns look pretty damned persistent.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, feeling like a complete twat but aware that didn't matter a hell of a lot. “Well, we've got this one dead to rights, anyway. Half a dozen witnesses, and we're bound to find some evidence on his computer.”
Gawain lifted his chin. “What about that bollocks about not remembering anything? You think he'll be able to get away with that?”
“Those idiots from the club last week claimed the same thing,” Arthur said. “The Crown solicitor nearly died laughing at that one.” Even as he said it, Arthur felt a strange sense of unease, as though he were missing something important.
“They're probably all chatting with one another on the Internet,” Gawain said, amused. “'Maybe there's a page for suggestions on 'what to say if you're nicked.'”
“Yeah, they're all on Facebook, no doubt,” Arthur muttered, checking his watch. Bugger, it was half one already. “Alright, let's drop this gentleman back in the cells and grab some lunch, what do you say?”
“Sounds good,” Gawain agreed.
“Arthur!” Arthur turned to see Morgana approaching at a fast clip. Her face was perfectly made up, but she still hadn't been able to hide all the signs of fatigue. Arthur's spirits sank even further at the sight.
“Gawain, hello,” she said, smiling as she drew near. “I'm glad I've caught you both.”
“Are you alright?” Arthur asked.
Morgana raised an eyebrow at him. “Couldn't be better. Why would you ask?” The last sentence was delivered with just enough emphasis to serve as a warning. She turned back to Gawain. “Listen, I know it's short notice, but are you free Saturday? A friend of mine, a PCSO with the Met, helps out with a youth group in Brixton, and they're helping to run a fun fair at Brockwell Park that day. Turns out a few of their volunteers had to cancel last minute, and they could use all the help they can get. It's looking like a beautiful weekend, and I thought I'd throw together a barbecue afterward at the flats to thank everyone I drafted into the service.”
“Love to help out, sure,” Gawain said.
“Please bring Sarah along if she'd like.”
“I'll do that,” Gawain said, smiling. “Arthur, I'll take care of Jones. See you in a few, yeah?”
“Sure, thanks, mate,” Arthur said. When he was gone, Arthur turned to Morgana. “What's all this?”
“I had lunch with Gwen just now,” she said, “and she told me how she and Lance were organising this tourney, and they were worried they'd have to cancel the whole thing because so many of their volunteers had fallen ill, including their referees for the football tournament. And then I happened to mention you and I had played when we were kids.”
“Morgana, I haven't played in nearly a year.”
“Oh, stop whining. So you're a little out of shape; you'll make a grand referee.”
“'Out of shape'!” Arthur roared. “I am not –”
“Fine, you can show off your manly calves, then. Even better, since Merlin will be there,” she added, arching her brows in a terrifying fashion.
“Oh my God,” Arthur said, covering his face with his hands. “What on earth did Gwen tell you?”
“Just that she'd seen you at the Dragon's Knob last night and you said you'd had dinner with him.” Her lips twitched as she fought a smile. “Why, is there more?”
“No,” he said tightly.
“I understand,” she said, patting his arm. “It's all so new. And I've told Gwen to make sure he comes to the barbecue as well.”
“Super,” Arthur said, ignoring the way his heart gave a small, illogical leap at that. Doubtless Morgana would be insufferable, peppering Merlin with all sorts of questions, but at least it might give him an opportunity to better assess her condition and perhaps fine-tune his remedy. It still surprised him how much he trusted Merlin to do his best for Morgana; if he hadn't, he never would revealed the smallest hint of Morgana's troubles. While Arthur had always prided himself on being a good judge of character, he'd never run across a person with whom he'd connected so quickly. Despite the difference in their backgrounds and interests, Merlin was the sort of person Arthur could see himself spending time with.
Of course, he had no idea why Merlin should want to spend time with him, considering the way he'd left things last night. Merlin's hurt, angry expression had been hard to bear, and he'd been kicking himself off and on throughout the day. He'd gone and bollixed things up, and he'd have to make them right again, even though he didn't have the slightest idea how to do it.
Arthur hastily shoved all thought of Merlin aside when he realised Morgana was regarding him with a sickeningly smug expression. “How's your investigation progressing, then?” he said.
“I spoke with the Sotheby's appraiser this morning,” Morgana said, sobering quickly. “She's never heard of any of those 'experts'.”
“What can I do?”
“Nothing,” Morgana said. “You have your own job.”
“If one of these fellows is your suspect,” Arthur said, “he'll know who you are. Let me go in your place.”
Morgana studied him for a long moment. “Alright. When can you do it?”
Arthur thought about his schedule. “I should be able to clear a couple of hours tomorrow afternoon. Is that too late?”
Morgana shook her head. “No, that's fine. It's going to take me at least a day to write up the additions to the statements. I want to take an artist to some of the homes to get some sketches done as well.”
Arthur frowned. “Why? We've already got the names and contact information.”
“Because,” Morgana murmured, “I want to see if I recognise him.”
Arthur felt a chill go up his spine. “Morgana –”
“There's Gawain,” she said, nodding. “Go on. I'll see you tonight.” And before Arthur could say anything more, she was gone.
“Morgana's looking a bit peaked,” Gawain said, stepping up beside Arthur. “She been sick?”
“Just a bit tired. She'll be back to her old self soon enough,” Arthur answered, sending up a silent prayer that he was telling the truth.
“Bugger!” Merlin cursed as another of the lead weights he was attempting to levitate fell crashing to the ground. Gaius sighed and stood.
“That's enough for today,” he said wearily. “I'd rather not have my cellar floors dented any further.”
“I'm sorry,” Merlin murmured, lowering the remaining three to the table with great care.
Gaius waved off the apology. “Granted, I've worked you fairly hard this week, but yesterday this level of control was child's play for you; it was no effort to keep a dozen of these in the air. What's changed?”
Merlin hesitated, then realised there was nothing else for it; Gaius was the only one who could help him. “I've been working on a remedy for a – friend,” Merlin said, “and I'm stuck. None of my books have anything on it.”
“What are you attempting to cure?”
“Insomnia, but it's not only that,” Merlin said. “She's – I believe she's a Seer. And she may be fighting possession. So I need an ingredient that will bolster her mental barriers as well, but I can't find a thing –”
Gaius frowned. “What did you say?”
Gaius crossed his arms. “You failed to mention you know a Seer.”
“Well, I don't exactly know her; I only met her last week.”
“Then how do you know she's a Seer?” Gaius demanded.
“Her friend – well, he's more like her brother, I suppose – told me about her. He doesn't know she's one, of course, but it's fairly obvious from what he told me.”
“And how do you know this man?”
“He's – well, they're both coppers, like Gwen. I went out to a club with them the other night, and there was a dustup and I used my magic to help them.”
“Oh, they don't know I did,” Merlin added hastily. “Anyway, I barely know them, really, but now – someone else I know is telling me I have a destiny with him – the copper, Arthur – which is just ridiculous, really –”
“Merlin,” Gaius sighed. “This is becoming quite complicated.”
“You don't know the half of it,” Merlin muttered.
Gaius pinched the bridge of his nose. “This person who says you have a destiny. Is he also a Seer?”
“Well, not exactly,” Merlin said, and then he thought, oh, fuck it. “He's a dragon.”
Gaius stared at him for a long moment. “I believe I shall need a cup of tea before we go any further,” he said finally, turning and heading for the stairs.
Merlin sipped at Gaius' dried-weasel-bits tea of the Ancient Britons, considering it fitting penance for withholding the events of the past week from Gaius for this long. It turned out he needn't have worried about figuring out how to tell his professor everything; once he began, it all rather fell out in a heap, like trying to spill only one strand of pasta and ending up with an entire plate of spaghetti on the carpet.
Unfortunately, the consequences were that Gaius was now treating him to a glare that made all his previous glares pale in comparison. It was all Merlin could do to keep from diving under the sofa cushions in an attempt to escape.
“Look, I'm really sorry,” Merlin said. “I know I should have told you sooner –”
“That,” Gaius said acidly, “is the understatement of the present age.”
“But I was afraid you'd turn me out if I told you how much I'd buggered everything up.” Merlin looked at his cup. “I was hoping I'd find some of my own answers before I had to tell you.”
Gaius sighed. “My boy, there is a reason youth learns lessons from the old, especially in our line of work. Knowledge is a tool, a weapon in some circumstances, and without it you are defenseless; there is no shame in admitting you need assistance. I would not have turned you out for that. On the contrary, if I were to abandon you now, I would be shirking my duty.”
Merlin's shoulders sagged in relief. “Oh, thank God,” he murmured.
“That said,” Gaius added warningly, “I must insist that you not keep things from me any longer. If you do, I shall be very cross.”
“Oh, no, right, yeah, I totally understand that, and I won't, I promise,” Merlin babbled, clamping his mouth shut at a raised eyebrow from Gaius.
“To be fair, you are right about the Temple of Mithras,” Gaius said. “It is built on an older Celtic site, doubtless a religious one. It's an area of great power, so it doesn't surprise me that he's chosen to use it.”
Merlin leaned forward. “He's not generating his own power?”
Gaius rolled his eyes. “Sometimes I wonder if you learned anything in Cardiff. We don't generate power, we channel it. Your strength comes from the old religion, and from the earth itself, just as his must. He's probably found a way to tap into the strong magic of that place the same way the temple builders would have done. As I said, the secret to everything is control.”
“I'm guessing he's got a lot more of that than I do,” Merlin murmured.
“You've made great strides in only a few days, but you are not ready to face him, that much is true. That is why you must avoid further contact with him at all costs.”
“And if he's got more of these traps set up around the city?” Merlin asked.
“The Londinium site would be the most dangerous,” Gaius mused. “I can think of a couple of others you should avoid; I'll make a list.”
Merlin nodded. “Thanks. But what do you suppose he's trying to accomplish with this – power channeling?”
“I wish I could answer that,” Gaius said wryly. “Now, you say that this Arthur and Morgana are investigating the sorcerer in question, but you do not know the nature of the investigation.”
“Yeah, that's right. Arthur said he couldn't tell me, and the dragon said I have to find out.”
“The dragon is right,” Gaius said. “The nature of the crimes their suspect has committed could be the key to discovering his motives.”
“How am I supposed to do that, then?”
“You could start by befriending Arthur, I expect,” Gaius answered.
“Well, there's one problem with that. He's an arse.”
Gaius' eyebrows climbed. “Surely he can't be that bad.”
“Trust me, he is,” Merlin muttered.
Gaius shook his head. “Whether he is or not is of little matter. You need to find a way to gain his confidence.”
“And how do I do that?”
Gaius patted his hand. “I am sure you will find a way.”
“Thanks,” Merlin sighed. “You and the dragon are a pair, you know that?”
“I shall choose to take that as a compliment,” Gaius said primly, a wicked smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Arthur paced along the pavement, trying not to feel like a complete git and failing. He'd received the e-mail late this afternoon:
Meet me at Victoria Gate of Kew Gardens at eleven pm tonight. Wear sturdy shoes for walking and bring a torch. I need your help with the matter we discussed yesterday.
- Merlin Emrys
He was honest enough with himself that he was both dreading and looking forward to seeing Merlin again after last night. There was no doubt he'd acted like an utter prat there toward the end, but he hadn't known what to do with the sudden realisation that he was – yes, fine, that he was attracted to the man. He'd found other blokes empirically handsome before, but he'd never felt truly tempted to move beyond appreciation the way he had when he'd touched Merlin. He wasn't proud of the fear that had gripped him, and the way he'd clearly telegraphed it to Merlin was even more reprehensible. While he hadn't quite worked out the wording of it yet, he was determined to apologise to Merlin tonight.
Merlin arrived at a couple of minutes to eleven, turning up at Arthur's elbow as though he'd materialised out of thin air. “Oh,” Arthur said, stupidly. “I didn't see you.”
“Yes, I know,” Merlin said blandly. He had a large canvas bag slung over one shoulder, and was wearing hiking boots. “Thanks for coming.”
“You said you needed help,” Arthur said. “I'm a copper, you know we can't resist that,” he added, and oh, Christ, that sounded like flirting. Marvelous.
“Mmm,” was all Merlin said in response, his gaze scanning the huge wrought iron gates.
“Please tell me we're not going to break in,” Arthur said.
“What? Oh, no, no, of course not,” Merlin said absently. He walked up to the gate and peered in, searching for something. Arthur cleared his throat.
“Listen, Merlin, about last night –”
“There he is,” Merlin said. Arthur frowned and looked up to see an older man approaching the gates from the far side.
“You're Merlin, are you?” the man demanded.
Merlin nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The man unlocked a small door in the gate and swung it open. “You'll need to be out by dawn. That's when my shift ends.”
“No problem,” Merlin assured him. “And thank you.”
“Gaius vouched for you, that's good enough for me,” the man said gruffly. Merlin passed through the gate, and Arthur moved forward to join him. The old man's eyes snapped to him, narrowing in suspicion. “Who's this, then?”
“Oh, this is Arthur,” Merlin said, waving a hand at him. “He's harmless.”
The old man gave him the once-over, then shrugged. “Come along, and be quick about it.” Though he was a little stung at Merlin's summation of him, Arthur obeyed.
The last time he'd visited Kew, he'd been in fifth form; he'd certainly never seen it at night, the wide paths lit by ornate Victorian-era street lamps, the gardens and treed areas beyond their influence edging sharply into profound shadow. He found himself staring around in wonder and surprise.
“I've been here dozens of times over the years, and I'm still gobsmacked,” Merlin said quietly, startling Arthur from his reverie.
“Sorry, I just – it's lovely at night.”
“I imagine it'll be even better when we're past the lights. Come on,” Merlin said, laying a brief hand on Arthur's shoulder to guide him toward the right-hand path. This time, Arthur concentrated on the sensation the touch brought, the odd sense of connection he'd noticed last night leaping eagerly through his blood. He tried to look for signs of a similar reaction in Merlin, but if he felt anything, it was well hidden.
They walked along in silence, Arthur more than aware of Merlin's unease in his company. After they'd passed well beyond the entrance area, he stopped abruptly and turned to Merlin. “Listen, there's something I need to say before we go any further.”
“What is it?” Merlin asked, clearly wary.
“I want to apologise for my behaviour last night,” Arthur said. “I was a prat, and I'm sorry.”
Merlin stared at him, stunned. “Oh,” he said.
“Nothing. I just didn't expect you to admit it.”
“You really must think I'm a total git if you think so little of me,” Arthur muttered.
“No, I don't,” Merlin said hastily. “It's just – alright, look, I'm not interested in your paying me anything for this.”
“But you deserve something for your time, your knowledge,” Arthur protested.
“No,” Merlin said firmly. “This isn't negotiable, Arthur.”
Arthur held Merlin's gaze, gauged the stubborn determination in his eye, the set of his jaw, and nodded. “Fine,”
Merlin's expression softened a bit at his capitulation. “Besides, why do you think you're here? I'm going to put you to work.”
“No problem,” Arthur said. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”
Merlin stared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing. “What's so funny?” Arthur demanded.
“Sorry, but – you're such a copper,” Merlin said. “You actually squared your shoulders just now.”
Arthur stiffened, a little stung, and Merlin shook his head. “I'm not making fun of you, really. It's – well, I never would have thought it, but it's reassuring to know there are still people like you alive in the world.”
“You make me sound like a dinosaur,” Arthur muttered. “Some sort of ancient curiosity.”
Merlin snorted. “Well, I'm a bit of an ancient curiosity myself, so I wouldn't feel too badly about it.” His expression turned decidedly fond, and Arthur felt something inside him lurch, as though it wanted to reach for the man stood in front of him.
Fighting the impulse, Arthur cleared his throat. “Not to sound rude, but why am I here?” he asked.
Merlin jerked his head, and together they resumed their walk. “A few reasons. First, I want to show you every plant I'm using in Morgana's remedy. That way, you can gather them yourself if you ever need to, and you can tell Morgana exactly what's in it on the off chance she has any pre-existing allergies. Second, the remedy is more effective when the ingredients are gathered by someone close to the person it's intended for.”
“I doubt our friend at the gate will let me in for any more midnight raids,” Arthur said.
“That's why we're going to use native plants exclusively,” Merlin said. “I'll tell you where you can find them in the future, or I can teach you to grow them yourself.”
Arthur thought about his back yard, which was approximately the size of a postage stamp and currently devoid of any vegetation. “Right. And does it help to pick the plants by moonlight?”
Merlin shot him a glance. “It helps to keep us from getting nicked,” he said, amusement clear in his voice.
“Oh,” Arthur said, feeling stupid, “it's only that this all sounds a little magical.”
Merlin smiled in a way that could best be described as enigmatic, and that annoying bit of Arthur's innards lurched toward him again. “It does, doesn't it? But it's actually not as mysterious as it sounds.” He led Arthur off the path onto a smaller one, this one unlit; after a few metres Merlin pulled out his torch and turned it on, instructing Arthur to save his for later. “I fully expect my batteries to die before we're done,” he said.
The garden was rocky and filled with plants of all types; Arthur couldn't have identified any of them even in daylight, and said as much. Merlin crouched down before one of them and broke off a couple of the small, spiky leaves, then dropped them into Arthur's palm. “Rub these between your fingers and smell,” he commanded.
Arthur obeyed, and the scent hit him much more strongly than he would have expected. “Lavender,” he blurted.
“There you are,” Merlin said, and although Arthur couldn't see his smile, he could hear it. “You're not as hopeless as you thought, are you? Lavender is a sleep aid that's been used for thousands of years.” He waved the torch at the plant. “Take the top four or five centimeters of three branches; mind you take each from different parts of the plant.”
As Arthur did as he was bid, Merlin removed a smaller velvet bag from the larger one and passed it to him. Arthur couldn't help thinking he'd taken responsibility for Morgana's remedy, and probably that had been Merlin's point; but at the same time, the connection between them seemed stronger than before. Once again, he wondered whether Merlin felt it, but his expression was hidden by the darkness.
“One down, ten to go,” was all that Merlin said, rising to his feet and shining the torch to illuminate a path between the mounds of flowers. Arthur stood and followed him, the bag carefully cradled in his hand.
This had been a huge mistake.
As had been the case with Gaius, Merlin had no idea how to start a conversation that wouldn't result in disaster. In this situation, there was an added problem: Arthur hadn't a clue that magic or prophesying dragons or evil sorcerers existed, and would probably laugh his arse off if Merlin tried to tell him about them. No matter how hard he tried, however, Merlin couldn't think of a single reason for Arthur to share anything about the case without Merlin first explaining everything about his own involvement.
Adding to Merlin's frustration was Arthur's behaviour, which was so far from what Merlin had been expecting he was hard pressed to keep from launching himself at the man. While the whole notion of needing Arthur to pick the plants was a lie designed to get him here, the act of working together to assemble the remedy for Morgana wove its own kind of magic, and Merlin felt the bond between them grow stronger with each new ingredient they gathered. And through it all, Arthur had been not only a willing participant, but an eager one, asking questions about the history of each remedy and where it could be found. He was proving to be just as magnificent gathering herbs in a moonlit garden as he had been in the midst of a crisis, and Merlin found himself being drawn to him like iron to lodestone.
“So have you always wanted to join the police?” Merlin asked as they walked.
“Well, apart from the time I wanted to be Time Lord,” Arthur answered.
Merlin chuckled. “And when was your Time Lord phase, then?”
“Last March, actually.”
“Git,” Merlin said, laughing.
Arthur bumped him with a shoulder. “What about you? Have you always had a burning desire to study ancient medicines?”
Merlin took a deep breath and heard himself say, “I've always been what I am now.”
Although Merlin couldn't see it, he could feel Arthur's gaze on him. His heart was pounding and his palms were sweating; what the hell had possessed him to say that? But Arthur said nothing about it, and soon they resumed their easy banter.
When they arrived at their last destination, the woodland glade garden, Merlin had a bit of a job finding the liquorice plant he was looking for, and silently cursed his inability to use his magic. Well, then again, why couldn't he? Arthur needn't know if he was discreet about it. Turning away, he whispered a brief spell, and suddenly the scents of the plants surrounding him assaulted his nostrils, making him sneeze uncontrollably.
“My God, are you alright?” Arthur was at his side in an instant, a warm hand resting on his arm to steady him.
“I'm – ah – fine,” Merlin said, between sneezes. “Just got something up my nose.”
“Here,” Arthur said, producing, of all things, a cloth handkerchief from his shirt pocket. Merlin stared at it for a moment.
“Dinosaur, remember?” Arthur said, and Merlin could practically hear the raised brow.
“Thanks,” Merlin said, sneezing into it one final time and blowing his nose. “Must have an allergy.” He stared stupidly at the handkerchief, then stuffed it in his pocket. “I'll, erm, wash it and get it back to you.”
Now that his sinuses were clear and his sense of smell temporarily enhanced a hundred fold, the wood revealed a near limitless variety of scents, from the musty smell of the mushrooms and lichens to the distinct odour of the liquorice. He followed its powerful scent until he was right in front of it, then crouched down and reached in his bag for his knife.
“Here,” he said, handing it handle first to Arthur. “We'll need the root of this one. About half, cut from top to bottom.”
“Won't that destroy the plant?”
Yes, normally it would, but Merlin intended to return in the morning and cast a regeneration spell. “It'll be fine,” Merlin assured him. “Some plants are tougher than you think.”
“I'll need to dig it up first, won't I?” Arthur asked.
“Mmm-hmm,” Merlin said absently, then realised that he'd completely forgotten to pack a trowel. “I mean, yes, you need to use your hands. It's an ancient mark of respect for the plant to – get your hands dirty.”
Arthur hesitated for a moment, and Merlin worried he'd see through the idiotic lie. But after laying the knife aside, Arthur muttered, “Right, then,” and plunged his hands into the dirt on either side of the plant.
And then Merlin stared in horror as around Arthur's burrowing fingers, the earth rippled like waves in a pond around a stone. Arthur jerked his hands back abruptly, and Merlin sucked in a breath; had Arthur seen that?
“I must be overtired,” Arthur muttered, shaking his head. “I could have sworn I felt a tingling sensation.”
Merlin froze. “Did you say – tingling?” he asked.
“Yes, a bit like I'd touched an exposed electrical wire.” Arthur reached in his jacket for his own torch and shone it in Merlin's face. “What's the matter?”
Merlin shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.
“It's obviously not nothing,” Arthur countered. “You look terrified.”
Merlin didn't doubt he looked terrified; he certainly felt terrified. “We, we have to go. Now.”
“Merlin, what –” Arthur began, but Merlin had already shot to his feet.
“Come on,” Merlin insisted.
“What about the liquorice?”
“We can find it somewhere else.” Heart hammering, Merlin cast about carefully for signs of a field similar to the one he'd experienced at the temple site. He found none, which didn't necessarily mean there wasn't one to be found. The power of natural spaces was more subtle than that of religious temples: more diffuse, but just as formidable.
Earth magic, Merlin thought, staring at the newly disturbed soil around the liquorice plant. Whoever this sorcerer was, his strength was building to such an extent that he could use the very ground they walked on. And if that were so, soon it wouldn't matter how careful Merlin was, how skilled; the sorcerer would find him.
Arthur got to his feet, and Merlin quickly thought of the most direct route out of the gardens, though he knew the field could well extend far beyond this place. “This way,” he said, making a bee line for the main gate. If Arthur knew it was a different route to the one they'd used, he thankfully said nothing. Within twenty minutes, they were at the exit, which of course was locked.
“Don't we need the watchman to let us out?” Arthur asked.
“No,” Merlin said shortly. He closed his eyes briefly and thought open at the huge wrought iron gate. “Try it.”
Shooting a glance at Merlin, Arthur pushed experimentally at the gate, and it creaked and swung slowly on its massive hinges. “How –”
“Come on, Arthur,” Merlin urged, shoving him forward.
Arthur pulled up to the darkened pub and shut off the car, then turned to Merlin. “Are you ever going to explain what happened back there?”
Merlin ran a hand over his eyes. “I wish I could,” he said wearily. “But it would take the rest of the night, and you wouldn't believe me anyway.”
“Why don't you try me?” Arthur snapped. “Because quite frankly, I'm getting a little tired of people around me seeing things I don't.”
Merlin unbuckled his seat belt and turned to Arthur. “Look,” he said, with surprising urgency, “I do need to tell you this: the man trying to get into Morgana's head is dangerous.”
Arthur frowned; that was the last thing he'd been expecting. “How do you know that?” he demanded.
Merlin paused. “Because I believe he's the same man who made me run from the Gardens tonight. I don't know what he's planning, but I'm trying to find out, because I have to stop him.”
Arthur gaped at Merlin; no, that was the last thing he'd been expecting. “You – have to stop him,” he said slowly.
“Well, if you want to be technical about it, we have to stop him, and –” Merlin stopped, frowning, then bristled. “Wait, what's so sodding funny about that?” he demanded, and alright, so Arthur may have been smiling a little.
Sobering, Arthur said, “Look, if you have information, it's important that you tell us what it is. Ordinary citizens need to avoid becoming involved –”
To his surprise, Merlin laughed. “What?” Arthur demanded.
“That's exactly what I've been wanting to say to you,” Merlin answered. “Only to me, you're the 'ordinary citizen.'” He looked away, then added, “Apart from the fact that you're rather extraordinary.”
Arthur's heart kicked against his ribs. “Merlin –”
“Look, perhaps I'd like a couple more days of you believing I'm not a complete nutter,” Merlin murmured. His gaze rose to Arthur's eyes again, then dropped to his mouth.
“I already think you're a nutter,” Arthur said, just as quietly. When had the temperature inside the car gone up?
Merlin's mouth curled in amusement. “Oh, you're a fine one to talk, Doctor Who,” he drawled, and quite suddenly there was nothing else for Arthur to do but kiss him.
Arthur had never kissed a bloke before, so the stubble was a bit of a surprise, although he supposed he should have expected it; however, the shocking wave of lust that swept over him soon overshadowed that discovery. He experienced a moment of panic when he realised Merlin wasn't responding to the kiss; shit, what was he doing wrong? He'd had a few girls tell him he was a good kisser. Had they all been lying, or was he missing some secret of gay snogging?
Unwilling to admit defeat just yet, he slid his hand round Merlin's neck and drew back slightly to nip and suck gently at Merlin's full lower lip. That did it: Merlin groaned and angled his head, and the next thing Arthur knew Merlin was kissing the holy hell out of him, his long, graceful hands tangling themselves in Arthur's hair and holding him captive while Merlin plundered his mouth. Bloody fuck.
And then as quickly as he had responded, Merlin was gone, withdrawing from Arthur with such speed that Arthur was left with his mouth hanging slightly open like a stunned codfish.
“Buy some liquorice root from the grocer's in the morning,” Merlin said, as if they hadn't been snogging mere moments ago, though at least he did sound a little out of breath. “It's not perfect, but it'll do, and she needs it for strength. Chop up about two hundred grams and mix it in with the other ingredients, then take a third of the mixture and brew it for tea an hour before she goes to bed. Keep the remainder in the refrigerator for the next two nights. Let me know what happens; if it works, I'll send you a list of places where you can gather the ingredients on your own.”
“I'll see you Saturday,” Merlin said, opening the door. “Watch out for Gwen; she's been insufferable ever since she saw us together in the pub.” And before Arthur could think of a response, Merlin had shut the door behind him and was gone.
“Bugger,” Arthur said, bumping his forehead against the steering wheel a few times before starting the car up again.
It was extraordinary. Gordon was thinking about the skinny boy Gaius had sent along tonight, and there he was in front of his eyes, standing there larger than life. Only the faint glow around him revealed that he wasn't really there.
Gordon giggled. A little hysterically, he thought, but there was nothing else for it.
“So that's him,” the stranger said. He raised a hand, and in front of Gordon's eyes, the image of Merlin turned slowly. Gordon tried to move a bit himself, but his limbs once again refused to obey him. “Doesn't look like much, does he?”
Gordon wasn't sure if an answer was required, but he said, “No” anyway. It couldn't hurt to agree.
“Merlin, you say,” the stranger murmured. Gordon couldn't remember saying anything of the kind, but it didn't seem to matter. “And he is studying under Gaius. Good to know the old man still recognises quality merchandise.”
Gordon was finding it harder to pay attention to what the young man was saying. His head was beginning to hurt rather a lot; it felt as though someone were squeezing it like an orange.
“Gordon, I sensed two people tonight,” the stranger said conversationally. “And yet you seem to have difficulty showing the other one to me.”
“I don't really – remember him,” Gordon said, and that much was the truth, though he could recall enough. The truth was, he was aware by now that the young man meant to hurt Gaius' student, and he probably meant to hurt the other boy, and that wasn't right.
“You're lying, Gordon,” and Gordon cried out as the pressure increased. He heard a dull cracking sound.
“Very polite,” the stranger said, “but I'm afraid I must insist.” At that, Gordon felt his body rise into the air, so high that he was soon looking down at the roof of the Orangery. He had survived too much to be truly afraid of death, but he'd always hated heights, ever since he'd been a child, and the fear gripped him and distracted him and destroyed what little resistance he'd managed to muster.
“Gordon, you are a treasure!” the stranger exclaimed, and fifty yards above the earth Gordon hung his aching head, defeated. “Now, show me this Arthur.”
Miles away, Morgana awoke screaming.
Merlin was eating his bananas and porridge when the BBC morning news reported the suspicious death of the night watchman at Kew Gardens. He promptly dashed to the loo and retched into the toilet.
By the time he reached Gaius' two hours later he was shaking so hard he could barely stand, though whether with rage, guilt or exhaustion or a combination of all three he couldn't have said. When Gaius swung open the door, he flinched as though he were anticipating a blow.
“My boy, my boy,” Gaius murmured, his hands surprisingly strong on Merlin's shoulders as he tugged him inside. Faced with such unexpected kindness, Merlin broke down.
“I'm so sorry,” Merlin sobbed, “Christ, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry.”
“It wasn't your fault,” Gaius assured him, shaking him by the shoulders gently. Merlin shook his head violently and pulled away.
“It was. I forgot my damned trowel; when Arthur started to dig with his hands, it set something off. I didn't sense it beforehand, or afterward. It's like he's everywhere, and I can't even tell he's there.”
“My God,” Gaius breathed. “I would never have imagined he could have such power. Neither could you.”
“I should have,” Merlin said stubbornly.
“Merlin, that level of power is unprecedented in modern times, and are only rumoured in ancient ones. There are legends, but they are only that: legends, half-remembered.”
“Yes, I studied them,” Merlin added. “It's believed the tales trace back to the megalithic peoples, long before the time of the Celts. They're all gory as hell.”
“'And the blood of the enemies of Albion was spilled until it ran in the streams and rivers, and poured into the sea, and thus was the land cleansed,'” Gaius said quietly.
Merlin sat heavily in the nearest chair when the pit of his stomach rebelled again. “Yeah. Like that.” He placed his head in his hands. “God. Do you think he's –”
“I don't know yet,” Gaius murmured, squeezing Merlin's shoulder, “but I do know that kind of power can't be accessed without someone paying a price. I'm going to do some more research, consult the ancient texts. Perhaps they can provide some answers.”
“I have to find him,” Merlin said. “I can't let him hurt any more people.”
“You're not ready, Merlin.”
“It doesn't matter!” Merlin snapped. His stomach lurched as he stood, but he didn't give a damn. “It's me he wants, so let him have me! That way no one else has to die because of me.”
“It isn't that simple!” Gaius said. “You told me the dragon said that you and Arthur were destined to defeat him; if you blithely go off and sacrifice yourself, what becomes of Arthur? Of all of us? Do you suppose he'll give up his plans once you're dead? Think, boy!”
“Then help me!” Merlin said. “I need to be ready as quickly as I can. Please.”
Gaius' expression softened. “Very well. But we will need to find somewhere to work where we can be certain we are beyond his power.”
Merlin felt his heart dive for his shoes. “We can't be certain anyplace is beyond his power right now.”
Gaius smiled. “Oh, I think I know of at least one place.”
Galahad met Arthur at the gate he'd walked through less than twelve hours ago, and led him beyond the view of the curious crowds. The forensics team had set up a tent around the body where they could work in relative privacy.
“They'll be another couple of hours yet,” Galahad told him as they approached the tent. “It's not pretty, and so far they've turned up absolutely nothing besides likely cause of death.”
“Fell from a height.”
Arthur took in the location of the tent and the location of the largest nearby building; there were at least twenty metres between them. “How could he have fallen from that?” he asked, indicating it with a nod.
“He couldn't have,” Galahad said grimly, running a hand through her short hair. “Also, from the look of his injuries, he was a lot higher than the top of that building when he fell. And before you ask about security cameras, they were all down last night. We didn't get a single bloody image.” She opened the flap of the tent and motioned him in; with a brief hesitation, Arthur walked in.
There were four other police officers in the tent, two of them forensic specialists Arthur had worked with in the past. This was Galahad's case, however, so he bit back his questions and merely nodded to them as he passed.
The body was twisted and horribly wrecked by the impact with the ground, and the skull looked nearly crushed. However, Arthur could still recognise the man who had let him and Merlin in last night. The sightless eyes stared up at him, accusingly, he thought.
Fuck. He had to find Merlin. It had been one thing for the man to be all coy and mysterious last night, but today Arthur had to know the truth. The only ties linking the robberies to this murder were Merlin's assertions and Morgana's nightmares, and neither would stand up in court for more than a minute. He needed hard evidence, and he needed it before anyone else died.
“Arthur?” Galahad said. “Were you right? Did you know him?”
Arthur shook his head slowly. “I saw him once or twice when I visited here. But I never knew his name.”
Merlin placed his hand on Gaius' arm just as he raised it to ring the doorbell. “Gaius, are you sure about this?”
Gaius raised an eyebrow at him. “Why?”
“Because this is 10 bloody Downing, that's why!” Merlin exclaimed.
Unperturbed, Gaius rang the bell. “Do lower your voice,” he murmured, shooting a glance at the Royal Marines stood a few metres down the street.
“What are you worrying about them for?” Merlin demanded, though in a more hushed tone. “They heard your name and parted like the Red Sea! What the sodding hell –”
The door opened before Merlin could complete his last sentence, and he fell abruptly silent. “Good morning, sir,” the imposing man on the other side intoned. “Do come in.”
“Thank you,” Gaius said. “Lovely weather we've been having.”
“Indeed it has been,” the other man said, escorting them down a long hall toward the back of the building. Merlin was too stunned to properly take in his surroundings, but he had an impression of thick carpets and understated opulence before he reached the kitchen. They were led past gleaming countertops and state-of-the-art appliances to a nondescript door at the back of the building.
“Please telephone upstairs if you require anything,” the other man told Gaius.
“Thank you,” Gaius said, smiling. He opened the door, and a musty smell assaulted Merlin's nostrils.
“Is everything underground?” Merlin muttered, peering into the gloom.
“What was that?” Gaius asked. He flipped a switch, and the staircase beyond was bathed in brilliant light.
“Nothing,” Merlin said, allowing privately that being able to see where he was going would be an improvement.
They descended the stairs for what seemed like an hour but was probably only about ten minutes, and finally arrived at another floor deep below the Prime Minister's residence. “I remember hearing about this,” Merlin said, as they passed small rooms, sparsely decorated with military furniture. “Churchill had it built during the war as a bomb shelter, didn't he?”
“That was one of its uses, yes. The other you will discover shortly.” Gaius led him to the end of the hall to another nondescript door, then stepped aside. “Open it for me, would you?”
Merlin stepped forward and waved his hand over the knob; it creaked and turned, and the door drew back slowly.
Gaius shot him an amused look. “I meant for you to open it normally. It's only a little heavy for me these days.”
“Oh,” said Merlin, feeling silly. Gaius shook his head and walked inside; when Merlin followed, he stared around him, shocked. Unlike the cramped quarters they'd just passed, this room was easily thirty metres wide and twice as long. Its curved ceiling had to be twenty metres at its highest point. At the far end was another door, this one nearly as big as the wall itself.
“This was built for the dragon, wasn't it?” Merlin asked.
“Yes,” Gaius said. “My father worked with him during the war, when I was a very small boy. And Churchill, of course.”
“Did you ever meet him?”
Gaius smiled. “Which one? No, no I never met either, unfortunately. It was all very hush-hush at the time, as you can imagine, and it still is. Very few know of the existence of this room, or its secrets.”
“Looks pretty empty now,” Merlin observed, his voice bouncing off the walls.
“Mmm, well, yes, it is. But it remains the only place in the United Kingdom where magic can be practised and yet be undetectable by even the most powerful sorcerer.”
Merlin's head snapped up. “What?”
“A holdover from the war. The Prime Minister's office wasn't keen on the prospect of German sorcerers learning of their secret weapon, and shielding the room was the only way to ensure it. And as long as the spells are renewed regularly, it will remain shielded indefinitely.”
Merlin stared up at the ceiling, and for the first time that day, he found himself smiling. “That's – amazing.”
“It has one other advantage,” Gaius said. “The walls are incredibly strong.”
Merlin frowned, confused. “And that's a good thing because –”
“Because you are unlikely to bring them crashing down around us when we begin to test exactly how powerful you are,” Gaius said primly.
“Oh,” Merlin said.
“Well?” Gaius said, crossing his arms. “Best be doing, lad.”
Merlin thought about it for a moment, then raised a hand. “You took the words right out of my mouth.”
“Are you sure about this?” Arthur asked, turning to look at Morgana.
Morgana's hands tightened on the steering wheel. “Yes,” she said. “Now more than ever.” She met his gaze levelly. “Are you sure?”
Arthur closed his eyes and leaned back against the headrest. He'd confided in Morgana about last night, and they'd already spent about an hour debating the best course of action. “I don't know. If we do this and end up tipping our hand, we've got no sodding evidence to hold him on.”
Morgana sighed. “Look, Merlin was right. My suspect's the killer, that's certain, so I'd agree he's definitely dangerous. That's also worth absolutely bugger all if we can't back it up. Tying him to these robberies is our best start.”
Arthur opened his eyes and stared at the parked car in front of them. “We're talking about a man who just killed a human being by dropping him out of the sky.” Morgana flinched, and Arthur instantly regretted his words. “I'm sorry–”
Morgana shook her head. “It was the first dream I've doubted, because it seemed fantastic, impossible. But you saw him.”
“Yes,” Arthur said gently. “You're always right, Morgana, though this time –”
“We both wish I weren't,” Morgana finished for him.
Arthur sighed. “I think we've moved a bit beyond simple robbery. Or simple murder, for that matter. But you're right. We have to begin with some solid investigative work. It's the only way.” He adjusted his tie in the mirror and opened the door.
“You remember what to say?” Morgana called.
Arthur poked his head in the window. “Yes, dear,” he said, and Morgana stuck her tongue out at him.
The shop down the street was similar to a dozen others in this neighbourhood, all stuffed full with overpriced antiques. When he walked in, it was deserted, so he spent a couple of minutes feigning interest in the items in a large glass cabinet near the entrance. Apparently this shop specialised in artefacts from Roman times through the late medieval period, including some rather fearsome-looking weapons arrayed on the walls. Arthur wondered absently what could be gained from the theft of such objects. Certainly they were valuable, but there were other items which were much easier to pawn off for quick cash. But Morgana had said she sensed the robber – now the killer – needed these objects for another reason. What purpose could he possibly have for them?
“Can I help you?” Startled, Arthur turned at the sound of the voice and saw a young woman with shoulder-length ginger hair regarding him calmly from only a few feet away. How had he missed hearing her approach?
“Yes, thank you,” Arthur said, recovering quickly. He mentally reviewed the sketches Morgana had assembled, but this woman did not fit the description of either of the two female suspects. “I was actually looking for an antiquities appraiser I was told works here – Simon Bellum.”
The woman gave Arthur a frank once-over. “I'm afraid Simon isn't in the shop today.”
“Oh, that's unfortunate. When do you expect him back in?”
The woman smiled thinly. “He keeps rather irregular hours; I'd hate for you to turn up again and be disappointed. If you left me your name and contact information, however, I could have him get in touch with you within a couple of days.”
“Yes, that's fine,” Arthur said, reaching into his suit pocket and passing her the false business card he'd made up.
“Mr...Wart?” the woman said, squinting at the card.
Arthur leaned in conspiratorially. “Call me William. I was teased mercilessly in school; I'm still a bit sensitive.”
The woman raised an eyebrow but made no comment. “Very well, William. May I tell him something of the piece you are hoping to have appraised?”
“I'd prefer to keep that confidential, if you don't mind,” Arthur said. “It's rather a valuable artefact. Oh, not that I think you can't be trusted,” he added hastily when she drew herself up. “It's just that one can't be too careful.”
The woman took a step closer, and Arthur felt that odd tingling sensation he'd experienced last night when he'd plunged his hands into the earth, only now the feeling seemed to be under his skin rather than skating along the surface. The woman's gaze held his captive as she came nearer; Arthur stared at her, fascinated. Her eyes were very green, he thought.
Suddenly, a lorry went roaring down the street, making Arthur jump and break eye contact; he staggered back, reeling as though he'd been punched squarely on the jaw. His heart was pounding and his breath was short and every survival instinct that he had was screaming at him: don't look at her again, don't look, don't look.
“You're correct, of course; one can't be too careful,” the woman said, picking up the thread of their earlier conversation as though she hadn't just been – wait, what had she done? The memory of it was fading quickly, like a dream upon waking. He shook his head as if to clear it, but – damn, whatever it was, it was gone. Well, it probably hadn't been that important.
“Thank you,” Arthur said, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth as he kept his gaze on the faded carpet at her feet. “Good day.”
“Good day, sir,” the woman said. Arthur nodded and fumbled for the door knob, his disorientation making him clumsy. He was halfway to the car when it struck him, and it was all he could do to keep from running the rest of the way.
“Drive,” he ordered Morgana as he slammed back into the passenger's seat.
“My God, you're white as a ghost,” Morgana said. “What happened?”
“I saw him,” Arthur said. “I met him.”
Morgana reached for the door handle. “No,” Arthur said sharply, stopping her. “It's no use.”
“Why not?” Morgana demanded.
“Because he was a girl of twenty,” Arthur said. “Fuck, I can't believe I just said that.”
“He – what?”
“Morgana, will you please just drive the car away from here,” Arthur gritted. “I think I may be going mad, and I'd prefer not to do it in my car in the middle of the high street, alright?”
Morgana stared at him for a moment, then mercifully started the car and drove away. Arthur could feel his muddle-headedness fading with the distance until he could finally think again, and he tilted his head back and nearly sobbed with relief.
“God, and you have that every night,” Arthur breathed. “How do you live with it?”
“I'm not doing terribly well, if that's any consolation,” Morgana said. She pulled the car over to the kerb and stopped. “Now will you tell me what happened back there?”
“I don't know,” Arthur said. “But I do know this isn't something we can figure out on our own.”
“And who, exactly, can we go to for help?” Morgana demanded.
“I don't know about help,” Arthur said grimly. “But I know someone who's going to bloody well give me some answers the next time I see him.”
When the insistent ring of the telephone echoed off the walls of the old dragon's lair, Gaius waved a hand at Merlin. “Alright, take a rest, you've earned it,” he said.
Sending a silent but fervent thanks to the person on the other end of the line, Merlin collapsed, his arse hitting the cold concrete. He rested his forearms on his bent knees and watched with a strange detachment as his dangling hands trembled like poplar leaves in a windstorm.
Gaius punched a button on the phone. “Yes, what is it?”
“Hello, sir,” blared the voice from the old-fashioned speaker. “We, erm, we were wondering if you might be almost done down there.”
“We expect to be another four or five hours at the least,” Gaius answered, and Merlin leaned his forehead on his arms and groaned. “Why?”
“Well, it's only that things are rattling a bit up here,” the voice answered. “Mr. Brown is somewhat concerned for the plaster.”
“I believe the fate of the country is worth more than a little dislodged plaster,” Gaius said shortly. “And I'm sure the Prime Minister will see it the same way once you explain it to him in those terms.”
“I shall be sure to relay that message to him, sir.”
“Good.” Gaius glanced at Merlin. “Would you be so kind as to send down some lunch? Plaster-rattling is hungry work.”
Merlin raised his head and offered Gaius a weak smile of thanks. “Right away,” said the voice, and Gaius punched the button again.
“Well, get up,” he said, gesturing at Merlin.
“But there's lunch coming!” Merlin protested.
“We can work until then. Come along.” Gaius flapped his arms some more until Merlin groaned and rose to his feet. “Good. Now, let's make this a little more difficult.” Gaius reached back toward the wall, and suddenly the room was plunged into darkness.
“I hate you,” Merlin muttered.
“What was that?” Gaius demanded, his voice coming from an entirely different place than he'd been a moment before. Merlin spund toward the sound, knowing it was useless.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Gaius demanded. “Your true opponent will be much harder to find!”
Taking a deep breath, Merlin raised his shaking hands and once more allowed the earth's power to fill him to bursting.
Arthur shook himself for the dozenth time, fighting the drag of sleep. It was past two in the morning and the pub across the street was dark and deserted, and had been for nearly an hour now. He was just beginning to wonder whether Merlin would make an appearance tonight when he rounded the corner as though Arthur had conjured him, a large, bulging sack tossed over one shoulder.
Hunching down in his seat, Arthur watched Merlin approach along the quiet street. His shoulders were bowed under the weight of the sack, and even from here Arthur could see that he appeared exhausted; he could barely put one foot in front of the other, and stumbled under his burden a time or two. As he drew nearer, Arthur could see the sack more clearly; it was made of strong canvas, and appeared to be stained with some dark liquid.
Oh, God, Arthur thought, as his copper's brain went to work trying to guess at the possible contents of that sack. At the same time, the part of him that was more personally involved scrambled to find an innocent explanation for why an expert in herbal medicines would be carrying a heavy bloodstained bag through the streets of London in the middle of the night.
Right, yes, Arthur said. Perhaps he's feeding his pet lion. Completely innocent.
When Merlin had disappeared down the alleyway beside the pub, Arthur exited the car as quietly as he could and followed him. The back door was just closing when he arrived, and after debating with himself for a moment, he decided the times definitely called for a little rule-breaking and promptly set to work picking the lock.
The pub's kitchen wasn't completely dark, but it was dark enough that Arthur had to avoid tripping over objects as he crept along. Thankfully, it was also dark enough that he could clearly make out the light coming from the cellar, a light that seemed to be either dimming or moving further away. Slowly, taking off his shoes as he went, Arthur descended the stairs, following the light.
The hallway in the cellar led to a utility room, then to a small door beyond which were another set of stairs. Arthur could see Merlin a few metres down, a strange globe-shaped light of some sort in front of him; some kind of fancy torch, Arthur guessed. He took a step onto the stairs, and his sock-clad foot nearly slipped and sent him tumbling; sodding hell, the treads were slimy. He couldn't go back for his shoes now for fear of losing Merlin, so he stripped off his socks and proceeded in his bare feet, reasoning that they would give him better traction. He took his time, wary of his footing, but luckily Merlin wasn't progressing any faster under his huge burden.
He stopped about ten metres from the bottom of the stairs, far enough into the shadows that Merlin wouldn't be able to spot him, but close enough to hear what was going on. Merlin had stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and from his vantage point Arthur could see him but not much else.
“Hullo!” Merlin shouted. “I'm here!”
“Indeed you are.” The booming voice echoed in Arthur's head, and he covered his ears with his hands. Bloody hell, what was that? Immediately after the voice quieted, there was a loud flapping sound, and then silence.
Merlin emptied the contents of his sack onto the floor. “I brought you beef this time, like you asked.” He hefted one of the pieces and flung it into the air, then another and another. Each time there was a snapping sound afterward, and occasionally a loud crunch. Arthur's relief at discovering Merlin wasn't an ax murderer was somewhat dampened by the disturbing sounds.
“Oh, marvelous,” the voice said, sounding delighted. “I do so enjoy a little variety.”
“There was a man killed today,” Merlin said abruptly, and Arthur pricked up his ears at that.
“Yes, I sensed it,” the voice said. “A regrettable incident.”
“Why did he do it?” Merlin demanded. “What did he hope to gain by killing an old man?”
“Why, that should be obvious,” the voice replied. “He hoped to gain knowledge and power.”
“Power over me?”
“Partly. Over you, and the young Pendragon.”
Arthur frowned at the mention of his name. How did this person know him?
“And the land?”
“He already has power over the land,” the voice answered. “Or more precisely, he is taking power from it, from its very life's blood.”
“Yeah, Gaius and I were discussing some of the old legends,” Merlin said. “They talked about uniting Albion with the blood of its enemies. But who are the 'enemies of Albion' today?”
“They are whoever the most powerful decrees them to be,” the voice answered. “That is why you must choose to be the most powerful.”
“That's not much of an answer,” Merlin said testily.
“Perhaps you are asking the wrong questions.”
There was a pause. “Fine,” Merlin said. “How do I find him?”
“When the time is right, you will find him.”
“That's not what I asked!”
“Some questions are not meant to be answered,” the deep voice said, a little smugly, Arthur thought. Deciding he had to learn the identity of this mysterious individual before the conversation ended and the opportunity was lost, Arthur began descending the steps, coming closer to the place where the stairs opened onto the landing where Merlin stood.
“I will tell you this, young pup: when you do go to meet your destiny, you must have Arthur at your side if you wish to be victorious. It is his weapon, and his alone, which can defeat the evil you seek.”
“I hardly think a truncheon will be much use,” Merlin scoffed. Arthur bristled slightly at that, but he was too busy listening to be truly offended. What was all this talk of destiny and power and victory? It sounded completely daft. He took another step; he was almost there.
“The weapon will present itself when the time calls for it,” the voice said, “and not before.”
“So I'm just supposed to wait, then? Wait and watch more people die?” Merlin shouted. “That's not good enough!”
Arthur took one more step, and then several things happened in rapid succession. There was a deafening roaring noise that made Arthur jump and lose his footing, sending him sliding helplessly down the slimy stairs. He tried to stop himself, but it was no use; there was nothing to hold onto, and he was only gathering momentum as he tumbled. He hit the last step and rolled past a startled Merlin, then looked up and realised to his horror that the person Merlin had been talking to wasn't a person at all, but a giant winged lizard which Arthur's rational brain refused to call a dragon, even though he supposed that's exactly what it was –
Which was his last thought before he rolled off the ledge and began to fall into a black and doubtless incredibly deep chasm.
“Bugger,” Merlin said, and the fact that Arthur could hear him probably meant the roaring was over, not that it mattered exactly considering he was about to die, and then Merlin shouted something he didn't understand, and suddenly Arthur just – stopped.
Gingerly, he reached a hand below him, hoping to find solid ground, but all he found was more air. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed, as he slowly rose without any visible means of support and was deposited gently back on the ledge. He sat up and blinked at Merlin, who was standing with his arm outstretched toward him, his palm turned down and fingers spread wide. As Arthur stared at him, he lowered his hand, which was shaking visibly. Or perhaps Arthur was shaking so much that everything else appeared to be moving.
“You gave us a bit of a scare,” Merlin said, his tone a mixture of relief and accusation.
“I gave you a scare,” Arthur said weakly. “I like that.” His heart was still trying to find a way to somersault from his chest when the dragon craned its neck forward and tilted its head so that one of its huge slitted eyes could peer at him.
“So this is the young Pendragon,” it said. “I suppose he will have to do.”
The dragon's breath was rancid. Arthur told himself later that this was why he passed out.
“So,” Arthur said, eyeing Merlin over the rim of his mug of tea, “you're Harry Potter, then.”
“Yeah, not exactly,” Merlin said, wincing. “Though it's starting to sound like we're looking for Voldemort, isn’t it?” In the dim light of the empty pub he looked even more knackered than Arthur felt. Arthur was tempted to reach across the table and place his hand on Merlin's, which was still twitching from time to time.
“I found him today,” Arthur murmured. “I spoke to him. Well,” he corrected, “he was a woman.” He was about to add 'I know it sounds mad' when he remembered there was a dragon in the cellar. It put madness in a whole new light.
“The dragon told me he could assume many forms,” Merlin said.
“Marvelous,” Arthur sighed.
“We have to – well, you heard it earlier. The two of us have to fight this bastard. Apparently we're the only ones who can defeat him.”
“And how are we to go about doing that?” Arthur demanded, slamming down his mug, frustration and fatigue momentarily getting the better of him. “How are we going to build a case for arresting a man who never fits the same description twice?”
Merlin's gaze rose to his. “I think we're going to have to do a bit more than arrest him.”
Arthur stared at him in dawning horror. “Surely you're not talking about –”
Merlin nodded. “It may come to that. And the dragon said it's your weapon that –”
“Look, I don't mean to be rude here, but why are we listening to a bloody dragon?” Arthur demanded, bringing Merlin up short. “Why is he the authority on the future?”
Merlin leaned forward. “Alright, fine, forget the destiny business for a moment. We know several things about the man we’re both looking for: first of all, he's gathering an enormous amount of power, though the source of the largest part of it is still unclear. From what you've told me of Morgana's case tonight, it sounds like he's using ancient Celtic and megalithic religious artefacts to help him focus and channel the energy he's receiving, which means he's also clever and extremely knowledgeable. He's proven he's capable of killing. And finally, it looks to us like he's trying to take over the country. We're not exactly sure what he's going to do with it once he has it, but we're guessing it won't be good.”
“Who's 'we'?” Arthur asked, still wary. “Are you – part of some sort of coven?”
Merlin stared at him.
“Well, I don't know!” Arthur cried. “This is all a little new!”
“There's me, and Gaius – he's my professor – and the dragon,” Merlin explained patiently, his lips quirking. “That's all.”
“And you've all agreed this man is to be murdered,” Arthur said slowly.
“God,” Merlin said, burying his face in his hands, “no, alright, we haven't all talked together about killing another human being. It's – how can I explain this to someone like you?”
“Use small words,” Arthur snapped. “After all, I'm only a dumb copper.”
Merlin took his hands away from his face. “I could have been him. I could be him, Arthur.” Arthur froze as Merlin continued in a quiet voice. “You see, I'm a bit of an oddity. Most people have to study sorcery, the way you would maths or art history; I've always been like this. I knew I was strong, but I've always been afraid to find out just how strong. The problem is, I don't have the luxury of remaining ignorant any longer.
“Today, Gaius took me to a safe place where we could test my abilities, and – well, I still don't know how far I could go, but I got enough of a taste of it, and it's pretty damned frightening.” Merlin's gaze locked with Arthur's, and Arthur sucked in a breath as Merlin's eyes flashed golden. “Because I think I almost understand him. Having that much magic running through you is like an addiction, only worse: you don't think you're all-powerful, you are.”
“Is that what this is?” Arthur asked, finally giving in to his urge to settle his hand over Merlin's trembling one. “A kind of withdrawal?”
Merlin looked down at their hands, and turned his so that their palms slid together. “I suppose so,” he murmured. His fingers curled round the side of Arthur's wrist. “You don't seem scared of me.”
Arthur's fingertips stroked over Merlin's pulse point. “Should I be?”
Merlin closed his eyes. “I wish I knew.”
“So you're saying that anyone who has this much magic in him...”
Merlin shivered and opened his eyes again. “He'd never want to give it up, Arthur. And if we take it away from him, he won't want to live. I know because – I wouldn't.”
“Merlin –” Arthur breathed, gut churning.
“Please help us,” Merlin whispered. “We need you.”
Arthur stared into his eyes, which had mercifully faded to their normal deep blue, and thought of Morgana's haunted eyes, and the sightless gaze of the night watchman, then nodded. “Alright, yes. I will,” he heard himself say, and Merlin squeezed his hand hard and sagged back against the bench.
By the time Merlin staggered out of bed and down to Brockwell Park, the Fun Day was in full swing. There was a fair with colourful booths featuring games for children, three basketball matches in progress, carts selling cheap pork pies, curry and chips, kebabs and sausages. As Merlin walked between the football pitches, he caught sight of Morgana and Arthur each doing referee duty, both in striped uniforms. Arthur's arse was already grass-stained, and there was no visible trace of the fatigue from last night. He was practically glowing, his hair sweat-damp and wild, his face flushed with exertion, and damn, Merlin was staring.
A whistle cut through the air, and Merlin turned to the other pitch to see the teams trotting off the field. Catching Morgana's eye, he waved to her, and she waved back and trotted over to him.
“You finally made it,” she said, smiling at him. “Gwen said she couldn't have moved you this morning with a cattle prod.”
“Yeah,” Merlin said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. “I'm sure she'll have some words for me when she sees me.”
Morgana laughed. “Don't feel bad; Arthur and I have only been here a little over an hour. Come on, let's hide from her a few minutes longer. I want to talk to you.” She took Merlin by the arm and led him past the pitches to a stand of trees, while Merlin tried not to worry about what she might have to say.
“First off, I want to thank you for that tea,” Morgana said as they sat against an oak.
“You slept well,” Merlin said, smiling.
Morgana nodded. “For the first time in weeks. Twelve solid hours; I feel like a new woman. Really, it's a miracle. Thank you.”
Merlin shook his head. “I'm glad I could help.”
“Now, I want to talk about you,” Morgana said, patting his hand.
“About – me?” Merlin asked, gulping. It had been less than ten hours since he'd seen Arthur last; how much could he have told Morgana in the meantime? He fought down the feeling of betrayal that rose up in him; it was silly to think that Arthur would have kept his confidence, especially since he was so close to Morgana.
“I know all about you, you know,” she said, leaning in and smiling. “I think it's marvelous.”
“You – you do?” Merlin asked, surprised.
“Of course! Why wouldn't I? You don't honestly think I'd be intolerant about that sort of thing.”
Merlin frowned. “Well, I – to tell you the truth, I didn't really know. We don't make a habit of talking to – outsiders about it.”
Morgana blinked at him. “Really? I thought more and more of you were living openly these days.”
Merlin opened his mouth, but no sound came out. Morgana continued, unperturbed. “Of course, I'm not sure how Uther – that's Arthur's father – will take it, but he'll be sure to come round eventually. You must meet him; I've got him working at the kebab stand over by the football pitches.”
“I don't think I'm ready to tell more people,” Merlin managed.
“No, no, I don't want to rush you. Right now the only thing that's important is you and Arthur, and your relationship. I just wanted to let you know I'm thrilled for you both, and I hope you stick around for a long time.”
“Relationship?” Merlin asked, completely at sea. What in the world was she – oh. Oh. “Thank you?” he said weakly, as the light finally dawned.
Morgana smiled. “No need to thank me. Arthur's one of the best police officers I've ever seen, but he works so hard and holds himself to such an exacting standard that not many people will put up with him. He puts on a good show, but he's really quite lonely. I'd love nothing more than to see him with someone who makes him happy, who can take him out of himself from time to time and help him enjoy life.”
Merlin stared at her. “I –” He was horrified to find himself swallowing around the lump in his throat, around the sudden bone-deep yearning that filled him.
“What's the matter?” Morgana asked.
“Nothing,” Merlin said, “it's only that I really must find Gwen. I'll see you later, yeah?”
“Sure,” Morgana said, a small line appearing between her brows. “See you later.”
As soon as the match ended and the traditional congratulations and commiserations were exchanged, Arthur took a survey of the crowd, searching for Merlin. He'd seen him earlier when he first arrived, but Morgana had got hold of him and then Arthur had lost sight of them.
He found Merlin quickly enough, over near the Splat the Rat game; obviously Gwen had allowed him to devise his own entertainment, because he'd chosen to play to his strengths.
“And oh my, what's this behind your ear? Why, where did that come from?” The delighted girl giggled as Merlin produced a small bouquet of fresh posies and dropped it into her open palm. The crowd laughed and clapped, and Merlin bowed, holding onto his pointed cap as he did to keep it from falling off. “Alright, who would like to see another trick?” he asked, and the gaggle of children arrayed in front of him all cheered and squealed.
Merlin's gaze rose, then, and locked with Arthur's, and Arthur felt it as almost a physical sensation, a sweet but insistent pull. He still didn't entirely believe in this destiny business, but he could no longer deny that he was not only attracted to Merlin in a physical sense, but perhaps also more than a little besotted with him. He was still uncomfortable with the thought that the whole thing might be foreordained; nevertheless, the connection existed, and it was growing stronger every time Arthur saw him.
Merlin made his excuses, promising to be back in just a minute, then wove his way through the crowd and tugged Arthur away behind one of the tents. “What did you tell Morgana about me? Or rather, what didn't you tell her?”
“Nothing. She'd been asleep for hours when I got back to the flat, and when we met up this morning, I told her I thought we should take a day away from the case, clear our heads. Also, Galahad won't have the autopsy or the first of the forensics reports until tomorrow. We agreed to try to enjoy the day as best we could, focus on the kids.”
Merlin sighed. “I'd say she's shifted her focus to matchmaking, more like.”
“I was wondering why she'd dragged you off earlier,” Arthur mused, arching an eyebrow.
Merlin lifted his chin. “She gave us her blessing.”
Arthur's heart did a slow tumble in his chest. “Oh. Look, I'm sorry about that; she's been talking to Gwen, and –”
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured, laying his fingertips across Arthur's lips to silence him. “You aren't responsible for absolutely everything, you know.” He paused as his thumb slid along the line of Arthur's jaw. “And it's not as though I haven't been thinking about it. About you,” he added, his gaze dropping to Arthur's mouth.
Arthur shut his eyes as Merlin's hand grazed the sensitive skin of his chin and throat, traveling lower until it came to rest over his heart. His own hand rose to cover Merlin's, and he heard Merlin suck in a breath just before Merlin's warm lips pressed against his. And then Arthur let the world narrow for a few moments to the incredible softness of Merlin's mouth, the electric glide of his tongue, the slippery feel of his ridiculous shiny purple wizard's robe under Arthur's palm as he clutched helplessly at Merlin's shoulder.
They finally broke apart when the children began to chant: “We want Merlin! We want Merlin!” Merlin pulled back but thankfully didn't go too far, resting his forehead against Arthur's.
“Your public is calling,” Arthur murmured, trying not to resent the little blighters.
“Fame is a cruel mistress,” Merlin sighed, and Arthur chuckled and kissed him once more, lightly. He himself felt lighter somehow, freer; it was an unbelievable relief to know for certain that he wasn't alone in this. Merlin's hand slid away from him finally, and Arthur smiled as Merlin waved goodbye and disappeared around the side of the tent.
He wandered in a bit of a daze through the fair after that, doubtless with a silly smirk plastered to his face. As he approached his father's kebab stand – and God, there were four words he never thought he'd string together – he noticed Morgana stood before Uther, an odd smile on her face as she talked with him. They were standing rather close together, and she was inclined toward him, her graceful hands weaving as she described what looked like a football play. Uther laughed at something she said, and she mock-punched him on the arm. And then Arthur realised that Morgana's odd smile was actually her flirtatious one, and oh, Christ.
Perhaps he'd speak to Dad later, then.
At the far end of the games area, another small crowd was assembled, including Gwen's parents and a group of older children. The adults were all dressed in medieval garb, the men and one of the women in mail and varying amounts of armour, the other women wearing an array of clothing from fine gowns to peasant dresses. Arthur watched as one of the teenagers was kitted out in a spare suit of armour while his friends looked on and laughed – that is, until he was stood before them looking like a knight of old, surprisingly fierce in his chain mail, brightly painted shield and helmet.
“That's – well, that's actually pretty cool,” one of them said.
“Are you givin' him a sword, then?” another asked.
“Not today, I'm afraid,” Mr. Smith answered, “but if you're interested in coming to some of our meetings, we'll be happy to teach you.”
Arthur grinned as several of the teenagers stepped forward to the table to sign and leave their e-mail addresses and take pictures of their friend with their mobiles. He approached as the group began to break up, and Mr. Smith smiled and came round the table to shake his hand.
“How are you, lad?” he said warmly. “Good to see you again.”
“You too, sir,” Arthur said. He kept his expression neutral as he noted the dark circles around the older man's eyes, signs of fatigue he'd failed to notice when they'd first met. His skin seemed a little ashen as well; Arthur hoped he wasn't ill.
“Oh, now, Tom'll do much better than 'sir'.”
Arthur indicated his armour. “Well, you're certainly dressed for the part.”
“Ah, but you're really one of us, aren't you?” Tom said, leaning in. “Why don't you try on the mail, hm?”
Arthur glanced at the young man, who was currently being helped out of his borrowed armour. “I'd love to, but I'm afraid I have another match starting in a little while.”
“Too bad,” Tom said. “I'll recruit you yet. In fact, I have something – well, I won't tell you about it now; it isn't finished. But I think once you'll see it, you'll be joining up before you can say round table.”
Arthur frowned. “I'm sorry?”
Tom smiled and shook his head. “Never mind. It's a reference to an old legend. When I get dressed up like this I forget no one's heard of it but us nutters.”
“Arthur!” Arthur turned to see Mrs. Smith coming toward him.
Arthur smiled. “Hello, my lady.”
Mrs. Smith smiled and curtsied; she was wearing one of the peasant dresses, made of brightly coloured homespun. “Did you tell him?” she asked, looking at Tom.
“Shh,” Tom said, wrapping a mailed arm around her shoulder and pulling her against him, “you'll spoil the surprise.” He winked at Arthur, who couldn't help but smile. “Well, I have another sword-fighting demonstration to prepare.”
“Tom, you did the last one,” Mrs. Smith said gently, laying a hand on his arm. “Let Marion and Sean take this one.”
“M'fine,” Tom said. “Just a little tired.”
“You've been saying that for days, and you're not getting any better,” Mrs. Smith said, worry now evident in her tone. “I wish you'd see the doctor.”
Tom picked up his helmet and put it on. “A couple of good nights' rest and I'll be right as rain.”
Mrs. Smith continued to watch him, clearly concerned, but said nothing more; obviously this wasn't the first time the topic had come up. “Stick around for a few more minutes,” Tom said to Arthur, “if you can.”
Arthur smiled. “I'll stay as long as I can, definitely.”
Tom and the woman in armour – probably Marion – walked to a cordoned-off area where a crowd was gathering round a huge ginger man who Arthur assumed was Sean. The two combatants nodded to Sean and walked into the centre of the ring while Sean addressed the crowd in a loud, booming voice, announcing the contest and explaining some of the history behind the costumes and weapons. Arthur watched, fascinated in spite of himself as swords were drawn and the battle began. Marion was clearly fit, but Tom had a full head on her and easily four or five stone; he knew that these fights were well-choreographed, but even so, he wondered how they could make it look like an even match.
Five minutes later, Arthur was kicking himself for his own biased assumptions, because Marion was clearly a ringer; she fought with a speed and ferocity that Tom did not match, while he had the advantage in reach and power. As Sean continued his narration, describing the different offensive and defensive techniques being used, Arthur noticed that some of the terms were similar to the ones he'd heard in fencing, but it was a very different sport – if bashing one another with shields and broadswords could properly be called a sport. Still, he had to admit it was rather magnificent to watch, and he soon lost track of time.
Marion made another thrust accompanied by a loud shout, then pulled back abruptly as Tom failed to bring his shield up in time. Arthur may not have known a great deal about sword-fight choreography, but he knew that was clearly a misstep. As he paid closer attention, he noticed that Tom's reaction times were slowing, and Marion's aggression was diminishing as a result. Circling him carefully, Marion finally drove her blade “home” between Tom's shield and body, and he obligingly fell to his knees and collapsed onto the grass, to the applause of the crowd.
Arthur watched, his heart racing, his eyes glued to Tom. He waited ten seconds, but it may have been less time; at any rate, he was already running toward Tom as Marion knelt beside him and shook his shoulder.
“Tom!” Mrs. Smith's scream cut through the murmuring of the crowd. Arthur knelt on the other side of the fallen man, feeling for a pulse at his wrist and relieved to find it thready but definitely there. Together, he and Marion rolled him over and gingerly removed his helmet to find him sweating profusely. Arthur pulled his mobile from his pocket and hit 999 as Mrs. Smith rushed to his side. As the two women began to free Tom from his armour, Arthur gave the dispatcher his name, badge number, the precise location and Tom's condition.
“We'll be there as quickly as we can, Detective Sergeant,” the dispatcher said. “There have been quite a few emergencies the last couple of hours.”
“This is a priority,” Arthur said tersely; normally he disliked pulling rank, but Tom could well have had a heart attack. “I expect someone here within the next ten minutes.”
“We'll do what we can,” the dispatcher said, and hung up. Arthur cursed quietly and jammed the mobile back in his pocket.
“Dad!” Arthur looked up to see Gwen weaving through the crowd, desperate to get to her father. Lancelot was right behind her, his expression grave.
By now, Marion and Mrs. Smith had the heaviest parts of Tom's armour off and he was sitting up on his own, though he still looked groggy and weak. Sean had gone quite a ways towards dispersing the crowd, and the others of their group had brought water. Mrs. Smith brought a cup to his lips, and Tom drank greedily, then took the cup and dumped the rest over his head.
“The ambulance will be here soon,” Arthur said to Gwen as she ran up, wishing he sounded convincing. Gwen nodded her thanks, then knelt before her father.
“Dad, are you experiencing any chest pains or numbness?”
Tom shook his head. “I'm not – having a heart attack, love,” he said between heaving breaths. “I'm just knackered.”
“You're knackered enough to have earned a trip to hospital,” Mrs. Smith said firmly, and Tom gave her a wry look and nodded.
“I'm sat – on my arse – looking like a right idiot,” he panted. “I'm inclined – to agree with you.”
Mrs. Smith made a choked off sound of relief and leaned her forehead briefly against his shoulder, and Arthur turned away, not wanting to gawk at their private moment. He turned to the crowd, asking the remaining stragglers quietly to move along, and caught sight of Morgana and Uther running toward them.
“What happened?” Morgana demanded.
“Gwen's dad collapsed,” Arthur said, catching Morgana's arm as she turned toward them. “I think it was just heat exhaustion, but I've called 999. They'll be here soon.”
“I wouldn't count on that,” Uther said grimly. He cast a glance around them, then said quietly, “This is why I told you I wouldn't be able to stay for long. I met with the Emergency Measures council first thing this morning. There's been a sharp rise in the use of emergency services; I just checked in with my second, and hospital waiting rooms as of now are working past capacity.”
“Only in London?” Morgana asked.
Uther shook his head. “Across the country. Ireland as well.”
“Has there been some kind of outbreak?” Arthur asked, frowning. “Why haven't we heard about it?”
“Because incidents have multiplied tenfold in the last twelve hours,” Uther murmured. “If it continues to increase at this rate, we're going to have to declare a national emergency by Monday.”
“Dear God,” Morgana breathed. “What are the symptoms?”
Uther nodded at Tom. “Pretty much exactly that. Fatigue. Dizziness. Listlessness. No one's died yet, but the cause is a complete mystery. Health services are working to explain it, but right now they're mostly scrambling to keep ahead of it. It's affecting the young, the old, and everyone in between.” He reached out and rested one hand on Morgana's shoulder and the other on Arthur's. “Listen I have to go back to the office, but I'll try to drop by the flats later.”
“See that you do,” Morgana said, lifting her chin. “You're going to need to eat, and you might as well eat with us.”
Uther smiled and squeezed both their shoulders. “As my lady commands,” he said, inclining his head before he turned and strode off through the crowd.
Arthur looked at Morgana. “You're blushing,” he said.
“Shut up,” Morgana answered. “God, Arthur, what the hell is happening? Is the world going mad?”
“Right now, I certainly wouldn't rule that out as a possibility,” Arthur said darkly, as the sound of a siren cut through the crowd.
“No, no, of course not,” Morgana said into the phone. “I'm so glad to hear he's all right.”
Merlin breathed a sigh of relief, and beside him, he felt Arthur do the same. The worrisome incident with Gwen's father had put a damper on the fun day, and the fair had begun shutting down not long after that, as though the heart had gone out of it. The crowd that gathered at Morgana's was smaller than expected, but there were still a fair number of coppers and other friends that she'd managed to recruit to the cause. She and Arthur had done their best to put some life into the party, and mostly they'd succeeded, but Merlin could tell they were preoccupied. At first he thought it was just concern over Mr. Smith, but it seemed to go deeper than that. When Merlin had tried to ask about it, though, Arthur had only leaned close and murmured, “I'll tell you later.”
Which, incidentally, had been the closest Arthur had come to him all afternoon, and so of course it had been enough to make his dick hard in his jeans, a mortifying situation he swiftly took care of by scooting to the loo and giving it a stern lecture. Arthur's dad – Arthur's police commissioner dad – could show up at any minute. Now was not the time to start doing inappropriate things with Arthur, much as he might have been thinking about it since that brief but incendiary kiss earlier.
After Morgana hung up, the mood of the party was considerably improved: the volume went up, the beer began flowing more freely, and there was a good deal more laughter. Shortly afterward, Arthur's father finally arrived, looking harried and tired, and Arthur and Morgana disappeared with him for a few minutes. Merlin took over the barbecue, grilling up steaks and kebabs and trying to distract himself from his nervousness at the prospect of Meeting the Dad.
When they emerged again, Arthur came out to relieve Merlin, nudging him with a shoulder as he did so, and Merlin shoved back until they were pressed together all along their sides and really, this could only lead to disaster. Merlin therefore decided he'd make himself useful somewhere else, and pulled away from Arthur with great reluctance. He thought he might offer to help in the kitchen, and headed down the hall toward the front of the flat.
As he reached the doorway, however, it was clear that Morgana didn't need any help, because Arthur's dad was there with her. She had him backed against the counter and, as Merlin watched unobserved, she unknotted his tie and pulled it free. Arthur's dad was looking down at her, his expression more than a little terrified, but when Morgana raised her gaze to his, the terror swiftly transmuted to something else. She slid her hands up his chest as he made a deep, helpless sound in the back of his throat and wrapped his arms around her waist, crushing her to him as their mouths met in a bruising kiss, and bloody hell, Merlin needed to get the hell out of here now.
Merlin scurried off the way he'd come, and was soon back at Arthur's side, which was now looking like the safer alternative. Arthur shot him a curious glance. “Where did you go?”
“I, um,” Merlin said, pointing in the general direction of the kitchen. “I thought I'd see if Morgana needed any help.”
“And did she?”
“No, she seemed to be doing quite well on her own,” Merlin said. Arthur raised an eyebrow at him, but said nothing.
The party began to thin out around nine, and by ten there was only Arthur, Uther, Morgana and Merlin left to clean up. Merlin was quietly proud he'd survived this long in such a state of intense sexual frustration, though knowing that Morgana and Uther were possibly shagging certainly helped to keep his erection at bay.
Once the guests were gone, however, Arthur seemed to suddenly decide there was no more need for discretion, and as Merlin was passing by the barbecue to gather the empty beer bottles, Arthur left off scrubbing the grill and looped an arm round Merlin's neck, hauling him in close. “Oh my God, what are you doing?” Merlin gasped, as Arthur nuzzled his neck.
“If you don't know, I must be doing it wrong,” Arthur said, his lips moving against Merlin's skin.
Merlin wriggled out of his grasp. “Your dad's in there!” he hissed. “Are you drunk?”
Arthur waved a hand. “A little.” He made another grab for Merlin, who ducked out of his way.
“Why did I get a little drunk?” Arthur said, laughing. “Well, let's take stock, shall we?” He began ticking off points on his fingers. “A magical dragon tells me I'm destined to kill a man.” Merlin glanced back at the house and flapped his hands at Arthur to be quiet, but Arthur wasn't discouraged. “I appear to be attracted to someone, and not only is he a he – not that there's anything wrong with that, though it's a bit of a change – but he turns out to be magical too. Oh yes, and it's entirely possible all of that is beyond my control as well,” Arthur added, waving his barbecue scraper at Merlin.
“Right, that's it,” Merlin said, taking Arthur by the arm. “We're done.” Arthur allowed himself to be led, surprisingly passive. As they walked through Morgana's flat, Merlin called, “Thanks for the lovely party, Morgana, we'll see you in the morning to finish cleaning up!”
Arthur glanced round at the seemingly deserted flat, confused. “Where is she?”
“You don't want to know,” Merlin muttered darkly, shoving Arthur ahead of him. They passed through the front door, and Merlin said, “Alright, where's your key?”
“God, you have a nasty bossy streak,” Arthur said, reaching in his pocket and handing his house key to Merlin. “I'm glad I found out now before we decided to get engaged.”
“You haven't got a ring big enough.” Merlin snapped, jamming the key into the lock and herding Arthur up the stairs. When they reached the top, Merlin ran a hand through his hair as Arthur stood and watched him expectantly. “Look, I don't know where you got the idea we're destined to be together, but we're not. So if that's why you – earlier, you can rest easy. The dragon says we're supposed to work together, not fall in love for all time.”
Arthur stuck out his lower lip in a parody of contemplation. “Oh,” he said. “Well, that's good to know. I was beginning to wonder.”
“What were you beginning to wonder, exactly?” Merlin demanded, suddenly wanting this conversation to be over. He'd thought – and now Arthur didn't even want to want him, and he'd decided a long time ago that he wasn't going to allow any more straight boys to mess him about. Will had been enough, thank you very much.
Arthur waved a hand at him. “It's only – it's never happened to me so quickly. And I – can't seem to stop thinking about you. Every time I see you, it's as though it's been ages, and I can't wait to –” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I sound ridiculous. Like a Cliff Richard song.”
“Can't wait to what?” Merlin asked softly. His heart was pounding and his mouth was dry and Christ, how could Arthur go from complete and utter prat to sweet, fond git in seconds flat? It had to be one of the mysteries of the universe.
Arthur took a step toward him. “Can't wait to be near you. To – touch you.” He reached out and stroked his fingertips over Merlin's face. “You need a shave.”
Before he could think better of it, Merlin turned his head and brushed his lips against Arthur's fingers. He heard Arthur draw in a sharp breath, and then he was cupping the back of Merlin's neck and bringing their mouths together, hungry and insistent, and oh, God, this was probably not a good idea, but for the life of him, Merlin couldn't remember why not.
“Wait a minute, wait, hold on,” Merlin said between kisses. “You said you were drunk.”
“A little,” Arthur said, mouth trailing along Merlin's jaw. “I'm sure it won't hinder the proceedings.”
“That's not what I meant, you berk,” Merlin said, placing a hand on his chest and shoving at him.
Arthur blinked at him. “Dear Lord. Are you worried I'm not able to give proper consent?”
“That's exactly what I'm saying,” Merlin shot back, irritated.
Arthur smiled and took Merlin's face between his hands. “You're –sort of marvelous, you know,” he said quietly.
“Don't make fun of me,” Merlin muttered.
“I'm not,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “Merlin, I've worked with dozens of assault victims. I can assure you the last thing I would do is make fun of your concern. I'm touched. Truly.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, unable to look away from Arthur's huge blue eyes.
“I can also assure you that I know what I want,” Arthur said. “I've known it since I kissed you this morning. And I had exactly two and a half pints tonight, and the last one was at least a couple of hours ago.”
“Oh,” Merlin said again. “So not that drunk.”
“Not really, no.” Arthur's thumbs stroked over his cheeks. “You're beautiful, you know. Am I supposed to say that to a bloke? Never mind, I don’t care.”
“Arthur –” Merlin said, helplessly. Arthur leaned in again, his gaze locked with Merlin's, and Merlin decided thinking was best left to another time.
They kissed for some minutes, exploring slowly, carefully. Arthur didn't seem inclined to carry things further at first, so Merlin let him set the pace, keeping his hands firmly above Arthur's waist. Still, there was plenty to touch: the broad planes of his chest, the strong lines of his shoulders, his soft, soft hair. Finally, Arthur let out a groan of frustration and slid his hands down over Merlin's arse, tugging him forward and letting him feel his arousal, and Merlin went from pleasantly turned on to hard and aching in record time.
“Sorry,” Arthur murmured, trailing his tongue down Merlin's jugular, “Am I going too fast?”
“I'm fine with it if you are,” Merlin panted, head lolling back on his now-useless neck.
“Would you consider it too fast if I said I'd like to take off all your clothes?” Arthur asked, grinding against him.
“I – nnghhh – no, no, I believe I'd have no strenuous objections.”
“Then I'd like to take off all your clothes,” Arthur growled in his ear, and Merlin nearly came right there. Arthur took him by the hand and pulled him down the hall, and then Merlin had the brief impression of dark brown walls and oak furniture before he was being shoved down on the bed and straddled like a racehorse.
“Oh my God,” Merlin breathed, shoving himself up on his elbows, desperate to get his hands on Arthur's skin, but Arthur stopped him with a hand in the centre of his chest.
“Just so we're clear,” he said, “I'm not comfortable with – everything. Not tonight, at least.”
Merlin nodded. “Of course. I wouldn't –”
“I know,” Arthur said, smiling gently. “Now, why don't you lie back for a while and think of England.”
Merlin obediently flopped back down. Arthur laughed and reached for his own t-shirt and stripped it off over his head, then helped Merlin with his own, He eased back off the bed to remove the rest of his clothes, and then sat back down beside Merlin and ran a hand down his chest to his fly buttons. His deft fingers popped the top button, then hesitated. Merlin was about to tell him they needn't take this any further when Arthur got an oddly determined look on his face and pressed his palm to Merlin's cock.
Merlin groaned and practically levitated off the bed as Arthur began a slow, ruthless stroke. “Is this alright? Am I doing it right?”
“You're – oh, Christ – you're doing wonderfully,” Merlin sighed. “But I haven't come in my pants since I was fifteen. Do you suppose we – if you don't mind –”
Arthur's only answer to that was to pull back and pop the rest of Merlin's buttons, then help him to drag down his jeans and pants, his gaze hot on Merlin's face the whole time.
Merlin sat up and patted the bed. “Why don't you lie beside me?” he asked.
Arthur complied eagerly, setting in on his side facing Merlin. “Can I –” Merlin began.
Arthur closed his eyes and nodded. “I wish you would.”
Up until now, Merlin had been avoiding looking at Arthur's cock, but now he did, taking in the shape, the thickness, the golden curls at the base of it. He took hold of Arthur's neck and drew him in for a kiss, then glided his hand slowly down Arthur's body, pausing at the rise of nipples and the dip of sternum and the flat planes of belly. He thumbed the hollow of Arthur's hip and caressed the smooth skin of his sides until Arthur was releasing a constant stream of soft, needy moans. “Please,” Arthur begged between kisses, “touch me,” and Merlin could do nothing else but obey that simple request, so he wrapped his hand around Arthur's hardness and started up a rhythm that matched the helpless undulations of his hips.
“Fuck, that's –” Arthur managed, and then he was returning the favour, his own hand exploring Merlin's length, his touches gradually growing bolder. Soon, they were pushing together, bellies slick with sweat and pre-come, pace speeding from fast to frantic.
“Let me –” Arthur whispered brokenly. He sat up, rolling Merlin over onto his back so that he could straddle him again, and then he leaned down and lined up their cocks again with a hand between their bodies, and it was that added bit of gravity-induced friction that finally sent Merlin over the edge, gasping and incoherent, babbling nonsense he'd probably rather forget come morning.
But Arthur didn't seem to mind, for after he sagged against Merlin, his own release pulsing between them, he chuckled and murmured, “Good to know I'm not the only one who can do Cliff Richard impersonations.”
Patience, he had always believed, was the most useful of the virtues; if he hadn't possessed great reserves of it, everything that he had spent the last four years building would have crumbled to dust long before this. But even the most patient of men had their limits.
“I am no longer amused, Gaius,” he said, privately commending himself on the even tone. “You must know where the object is; that is a fact I refuse to debate with you.”
“Your version of the facts was always questionable, my boy,” Gaius said, his tone weary.
“I. Am not. Your boy,” he gritted, leaning in. Gaius was older now, of course, but he did not think for a minute that he was feeble. Only a madman would underestimate his enemy.
“You're right, of course. But you were, not so very long ago.” Gaius' gaze was steady on his, never leaving him, judging him constantly, every second of every minute stretching to infinity. “And when I thought you had died, it pained me greatly.”
“Liar!” Gaius flinched slightly at that, and he felt the triumph course through his veins, adding to the euphoria that was his constant companion now. “You didn't even cry at the funeral!”
“I thought I sensed you there,” Gaius said slowly. “But I convinced myself it was only an echo, a remainder.”
“I took pains to make it appear so,” he said, and Gaius nodded his appreciation.
“The accident, then,” Gaius murmured, “was it a fortunate opportunity, or was it staged so that you could disappear?”
He drew himself up, a little offended but too even-tempered to show it. “Surely you know the answer to that.”
Gaius nodded. “Yes, you always planned everything down to the last detail, didn't you?” he murmured, and then his gaze turned speculative. “Although I suspect you've had to move your schedule up a bit.”
“My plans are flexible enough to allow for contingencies,” he said, waving a hand to show his unconcern.
“I imagine the evidence of a prophecy which predicts your ultimate defeat would require quite a contingency,” Gaius said dryly.
Well, that was simply unacceptable. He liked the old fool, he really did, but that was simply unacceptable. Lifting only a finger, he sent Gaius toppling over the back of the chair. The heavy sound he made as he hit the floor gave him no satisfaction, none at all.
As Gaius groaned and slowly picked himself up, he came closer, standing over him. “You are stalling for time, and time is not a luxury I can continue to afford you, Professor. Please tell me now: where is the weapon of the prophecy?”
“The answer to that is buried in time,” Gaius managed, his voice barely above a whisper, “and thankfully, soon you shall be as well.”
Oh, that was a shame, it truly was. “I'm sorry,” Mordred said regretfully, raising his hand, “That was the wrong answer.”
Arthur was awakened by two separate but related events: Merlin flailed about and kicked him in the shins, a painfully direct result of Arthur’s phone going off. Fumbling his way over Merlin's groaning form, Arthur snatched up the receiver and mumbled, “Arthur Pendragon.”
“Arthur.” Uther's voice was strained, distraught, and Arthur was instantly awake. “It's Morgana. She's gone into convulsions and I can't wake her. I've called 999 –”
“I'll be there in one minute,” Arthur said, slamming down the phone and scrambling from the bed. Christ, where were his clothes?
“What's wrong?” Merlin asked, already sitting up as Arthur snatched his jeans from the floor and began putting them on, too hurried to bother with pants.
“Morgana's having another fit,” Arthur said, and before the sentence was finished, Merlin was on his feet as well. Arthur ignored the feeling of gratitude mixed with fondness that swept over him, and as soon as they'd donned enough for decency they barrelled down the stairs.
Uther's look of devastation turned to confusion as his gaze lighted on Merlin standing behind Arthur, but he only spared a split second for it before moving aside to let them in. Arthur immediately went to the bedroom, pushing aside the implications of his father still being in Morgana's flat at five in the morning. This was not the time to discuss their respective relationships.
Morgana was indeed shaking on the bed, her hair wild about her face, her skin sheened with sweat. Merlin sat at her side and laid one palm over her heart and the other over her forehead. “He's in there,” he bit out, “though she's fighting him like a tiger. Is there any of that tea left?”
“Arthur, what –” Uther began, but Arthur was already running for the fridge. He opened the door and pawed through the contents until he found a small plastic container that held the bag Arthur had given Morgana yesterday.
When he returned, Uther was stood over the bed, arms crossed, expression thunderous, and Merlin's cheeks were flushed. Arthur handed Merlin the container and he ripped it open and dumped the contents of the bag onto the bed. “You should both leave for a few minutes,” Merlin said abruptly, and Arthur could practically hear his father's spine snap to attention.
“Like hell I will,” Uther said, and Arthur knew he should step in, but he didn't have the slightest idea what he could say to his father that would explain any of this, so to his aggravation he remained paralysed and silent.
“Suit yourself,” Merlin muttered, and then he placed the palm that had been lying on Morgana's heart over the spilled herbs and whispered something in a language Arthur didn't recognise. Some of the ingredients began glowing and lifted into the air as he raised his hand.
“What the –” Uther began, taking a step forward; Arthur's hand shot out to hold him back, and Uther met his gaze, clearly furious.
“He's going to help her,” Arthur said; perhaps it was the conviction in his tone, or the evenness of his gaze, but Uther frowned and the pressure on Arthur's arm eased somewhat.
Merlin murmured another few words – a spell, Arthur realised, dazedly – and the glowing ingredients hovered over his palm, now turned upward, and began spinning together as though they were being turned in an invisible blender. They revolved faster and faster until they were nothing but a blur; Merlin then picked up the plastic container with his free hand and brought it closer to the spinning ball, which compressed to a brilliant point before stretching and flowing into the container like water.
“Help her sit up,” Merlin ordered, and Arthur moved to obey, sitting on Morgana's opposite side. As he propped her up, he could feel that her trembling was much worse than it had been at Mrs. Thistlethwaite's.
“I've used only the ingredients which enhance her strength,” Merlin explained, “mainly the liquorice.” He poured the elixir into her mouth carefully, then massaged her throat to help her swallow it. Arthur waited, listening for the sound of the ambulance, knowing it was unlikely one would arrive in time even with his father's name attached to the request. And if it did, he highly doubted they would have the slightest idea of what to do. Arthur – and Uther – had little choice but to trust in Merlin now, and Arthur was surprised to find he did trust Merlin, even in these dire circumstances.
“Come on, Morgana,” Merlin murmured. “You can fight him. I've seen you fight; you're magnificent, and you have more power than you know. Come on. You can't let him win.”
“Arthur,” Uther said, and Arthur looked up to see his father bereft, bewildered, angry; whether it was anger at Merlin or at his own helplessness Arthur couldn't have said.
Merlin glanced back at Uther. “Take her hand,” he said softly, “it might help.”
His father hesitated for a moment, then sat on the bed and did as he was instructed. His large hand enfolded her small, pale one and squeezed tightly, and it struck Arthur like a blow from a hammer that his father was – well, human. It sounded silly, but he'd always suspected Uther was somehow beyond the sway of the forces that affected mere mortals; now he knew that Uther was simply a man, with all the same fears and desires and hopes as his son.
Suddenly, Morgana stiffened and her eyes flew open. She came to gasping as though surfacing from deep water.
“Oh thank God,” Uther breathed.
Arthur reached out and brushed Merlin's arm with his fingertips. “Thank you,” he whispered; Merlin nodded, distracted.
“Morgana,” Merlin said. “What happened?”
Morgana shook her head. “He wanted me to join him,” she said, voice shaking. “I let him think I wanted that, too.”
“Why would you do something so bloody stupid?” Arthur demanded, as he shifted out from behind her and helped rearrange her pillows. At Merlin's look, he added, “It was dangerous! She could have been seriously harmed.”
“Yes, I think she knows that,” Merlin said gently, and Arthur's mouth clamped shut. “Go on, Morgana.”
“He did exactly what I thought he would do; he let down his guard, let me in. I couldn't find out where he is, but I know his real name now; it's Mordred. He wants – he wants Britain – he calls it Albion – to return to glory. I wasn't able to discover exactly what that meant, but I sensed an incredible amount of power. He wants to build a city on a hill, and I don't think it's only metaphorical. He calls it – Camelot.”
“Camelot?” Uther demanded. “What in the world are you talking about? What's going on?”
Morgana blinked at him. “Oh, yes, Uther,” she said. “Sorry, I'll have to fill you in a bit later.” She turned back to Merlin. “There's more. He's hurt someone else. I think he's killed them.”
“God,” Arthur murmured. “Do you have any idea who it might be? Where we can find them?”
Morgana shook her head. “All I know is that he was someone who was once important to Mordred. He used to be his teacher.”
Arthur heard Merlin suck in a breath, and looked up to see all the blood had left his face.
“Oh, my God,” Merlin whispered. “Gaius.”
Merlin was largely silent as Arthur sped through the early-morning streets toward Gaius' townhouse near the Imperial campus, only speaking when he needed to give directions. He was filled with such pure hatred he couldn't trust himself to carry on a decent conversation, though he wasn't sure who he hated more: Mordred or himself. He should have seen this coming, should have known that Mordred would try to attack Gaius and figured out a way to keep him safe.
“Here,” Merlin said, “the one with the yellow door,” and Arthur brought the car to a screeching halt, double-parking it in the middle of the quiet side street. Merlin was out of the car and halfway up the steps by the time Arthur caught up with him.
“I have a lock pick,” Arthur said, but Merlin was already sliding the deadbolt back inside the door with a wave of his hand. Not bothering to fumble for a light, he swiftly conjured his own and rushed inside.
Gaius was lying motionless on the floor of his study, where he and Merlin had discussed his gifts and drunk terrible ancient tea. Merlin sank to his knees in front of him, his hands covering his face. “Oh, God, no,” he groaned.
Arthur knelt on Gaius' other side. “Bring the light closer,” he ordered. Merlin inclined his head, and the orb lowered slightly. Arthur reached for Gaius' wrist; after a moment, he raised his head and looked at Merlin.
“Merlin, he's got a pulse,” he breathed. “It's weak, though. Help me turn him over, carefully.”
Not daring to hope, Merlin did as he was told, and Arthur leaned down over Gaius' face and put his ear against his mouth. When he looked up and nodded, Merlin nearly sobbed with relief.
“I'll fetch him some water from the kitchen,” Arthur said, rising. He turned on the overhead light as he left.
Merlin tentatively stroked a hand over Gaius' hair and checked for signs of injury. Gaius' left cheek was bruised, but he looked fine otherwise. His limbs looked in order; nothing appeared broken, though internal injuries weren't always obvious, of course.
“Gaius?” Merlin murmured. “Gaius, can you hear me?”
Gaius stirred, groaning faintly, and Merlin sent up a silent cheer. “Mer – Merlin,” he managed, his throat sounding as though it had been scraped raw, “how did you know –”
“Morgana,” Merlin answered, reaching back to the sofa to grab a pillow to place under Gaius' head. “She got inside his head for a change. Don't, erm, don’t take this the wrong way, but why aren't you dead?”
Gaius opened his eyes and looked up at Merlin. “I think – he wants me to be alive to watch him win.” As Merlin's blood chilled at that, Gaius added, “His name is –”
“Mordred, yeah, Morgana told us,” said Merlin.
Gaius frowned. “There's more. I know him; he's –”
“An old student of yours,” Merlin finished for him, nodding.
Gaius' frown turned to a scowl. “Anything else you'd like to tell me, Merlin?” he said peevishly, sounding so much like himself that Merlin had to laugh for sheer joy.
“A bit, but not now,” Merlin said, helping Gaius sit up as Arthur returned with the water. “Now we're going to take you somewhere safe.” Gaius cocked an eyebrow at him. “Or, well, safer.”
A couple of hours later, Gaius, Morgana, Arthur and Merlin were sat around Morgana's kitchen table, drinking tea and trying not to fall into their cups. Uther had cleared out before Arthur and Merlin returned from Kensington with Gaius, and privately Merlin was happy for the delay before what he had every reason to expect would be a spectacularly awkward conversation. Explaining the whole magic business to Morgana, by contrast, had proven much less painful; her own experiences as a Seer had prepared her to be more receptive to supernatural phenomena, and she seemed pleased to finally have confirmation that others like her existed.
“Mordred was once my most promising student,” Gaius said, “until I realised he was interested in power for its own sake, without responsibility. Although we parted ways at that point, I continued to keep track of him. Four years ago, I learned that he had been killed in an accident in Cornwall, at a place called Tintagel.”
Merlin shook his head. “I've never heard of it.”
“It's said to have been the birthplace of an ancient king whose name has been lost to history,” Gaius explained. “Mordred believed he may have been the founder of Albion, the mythical state of ancient England.”
“Which he is now trying to restore,” Morgana said. “But how? And to what end?”
Gaius shook his head. “I wish I knew how. But Mordred always fancied Albion the Golden Age of Britain. If he's discovered a way to recreate it, he will stop at nothing to achieve that goal.”
Merlin chewed on a fingernail. Something was nagging at him, but he was too exhausted to see it clearly.
“God, my head hurts,” Morgana said. “Put on the Beeb, will you, Arthur? Let's see what's going on in the world.”
“Are we sure we want to?” Arthur muttered, but he rose and did as she asked. The four of them staggered over to the sitting room and collapsed into more comfortable seats. Merlin tentatively rested his head on Arthur's shoulder and tried to stay awake; after a moment's hesitation, Arthur covered Merlin's hand with his own and shifted it to his knee.
The news came on promptly at eight, and the boringly handsome news announcer explained that they would soon be cutting away to a news conference with the PM. “The exact agenda of the conference is unclear, but it is believed Prime Minister Brown is going to be speaking on the strange illness now reaching epidemic proportions which another news network has dubbed 'acute fatigue syndrome'. We only have preliminary reports from the WHO, but so far it seems to be only affecting populations in the UK and Ireland.”
“What's this?” Merlin asked, raising his head and leaning forward. The news piece went on to show footage of patients and doctors speaking about their experiences with the illness. The afflicted included an elderly man with a Polish name, a Korean woman, and a young East Indian man about Merlin's age. The corridors of the hospital were filled with people of various ethnicities.
“Not everyone has a scientific theory for this epidemic,” the news reader added with a clear note of disdain. “BNP spokesman Harvey Melchett had this to say.”
“Oh, blast, turn that wanker off,” Morgana snapped.
“No, wait!” Merlin shouted, causing the other three to turn and stare at him. “Listen!”
“–not racist to point out a truth.” Melchett was, unsurprisingly, one of those thin-lipped, banal middle-aged men who nevertheless managed to convey an impression of utter malignancy. “All the so-called 'patients' being admitted to hospitals are foreign-born.”
“And what is your source for this information, Mister Melchett?” asked the interviewer.
Melchett's lips thinned even further: Merlin supposed it was as close as a man like that got to a smile. “We have our sources. The point is, there is no such thing as 'acute fatigue syndrome.' What you have here is a case of 'acute malingerers syndrome', just further proof that the BNP has the best solution for getting British labour back on its –”
“Oh, my God,” Merlin breathed, turning to Gaius with a dawning sense of horror. “The enemies of Albion.”
“The what?” Morgana demanded.
“It – can't be,” Gaius said.
“Necromancy,” Merlin said. “Did Mordred ever say anything about it? Want to study it?”
“Not with me,” Gaius said slowly. “Though I feared he might –”
“Will someone please speak English!” Morgana exclaimed. “What are you two talking about?”
Merlin hesitated, because if he spoke it aloud, it was as though it actually became real. He looked at Arthur, then Morgana. “Necromancy is dark magic, the darkest. It gathers its power not solely from the earth, but from other people, from their life force, for want of a better term. Usually it's practised one-on-one, up close and personal. But what if Mordred has figured out a way to target not one person, but thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions?”
“His power would be nearly limitless,” Gaius said, “and he would be almost unstoppable once he had succeeded.”
“And what, in this case, constitutes success?” Arthur asked.
“For Mordred, if I'm right,” Merlin said grimly, “the death of every person who isn't directly descended from the people of Albion.”
“No,” Morgana breathed, her face ashen, “that – that can't be possible.” She looked around at all of them desperately. “Can it?” Silence followed, but inside Merlin there rose a howl of rage and hatred and blood. He clenched his hands into fists and felt his nails cut into his palms.
“We've got to find this son of a bitch,” Arthur growled, springing to his feet and pacing. He rounded on Gaius. “Did he give you any clue, anything that might tell us how to find him?”
“Nothing,” Gaius said heavily, “I'm sorry.”
“You said earlier that he wanted a weapon,” Merlin said quietly. Arthur stiffened but said nothing; when Gaius had brought it up earlier, Arthur had been quite definite about not wanting to hear the details. Now, Merlin was taking a gamble that he would finally listen.
“Yes, you said that the dragon had prophesied about a weapon killing Mordred,” Gaius said slowly, watching Arthur as he spoke. “I believe Mordred is also familiar with this prophecy, and means to get his hands on the weapon first. There is a legend of a sword belonging to the ancient king of Albion that was said to have magical powers; perhaps he thinks they are one and the same.”
“If he possesses the weapon, will he be – invulnerable?” Merlin said uneasily.
“I believe that is what he believes,” Gaius said. “Whether it's the truth...” he spread his hands. “Unfortunately, the location of the sword, if that is the weapon of the prophecy, is another secret lost to time. Mordred hoped I knew where it could be found, but I do not. And as far as I know, there have never been any clues uncovered that point to its fate.”
“The weapon will present itself when the time calls for it,” Arthur murmured.
Merlin's head snapped up. “What?”
Arthur turned to him. “Isn't that what the dragon said the other night?”
Merlin nodded. “But I don't see –”
“I do,” Arthur said, jaw clenching.
Arthur wasn't surprised when Lancelot opened the door to Gwen's parents' flat.
“Come in,” he said, stepping aside, and the four of them filed in silently. Arthur had refused to split them up; he knew that he was hanging on by a thread, and wanted to exert as much control as he could over the situation for as long as possible. Everything he had believed, everything he'd known about the world and about himself was being turned on its ear, and he couldn't keep up. The one thing he'd always counted on had been his sense of right and wrong, his commitment to a certain old-fashioned concept of personal honour, and that was swiftly crumbling to dust.
He was going to have to kill a man. And he was beginning to suspect it might not be as difficult as he had once thought.
“Gwen,” Morgana whispered on an indrawn breath, and Arthur looked up to see the young woman looking exhausted and drawn, her eyes red-rimmed, her demeanour defeated. He realised quite suddenly that Merlin had been absolutely right, that Tom was dying, and that there were perhaps a million others like him out there facing the same fate. He swallowed around the bile that rose in his throat.
“Thank you for coming,” Gwen said, as though they were already at the damned funeral. “He's – he'd like to see you, Arthur.”
Arthur nodded, and Morgana rested a tentative hand on Gwen's shoulder; Gwen gave her a wan smile and covered it with her own. “Go ahead,” she prompted, indicating the way, and he walked down the hall with leaden steps.
The bedroom was filled with morning light, and Arthur was surprised to see Tom sitting up and smiling. And then he saw the fine tremor in Tom's hands where they lay on the coverlet, and the stricken look in Mrs. Smith's eyes as she watched him, and knew this was all a show for Arthur's benefit; the older man's pride would not have allowed anything else. Arthur closed his eyes briefly and plastered on a matching smile.
“It's good to see you again, sir,” Arthur said, reaching out to take the hand Tom extended to him, doubtless a monumental effort. “Thank you for letting us stop by for a visit.”
“Not at all,” Tom said, his voice a shadow of its former booming cadence. “I was about to call you, oddly enough. You must be psychic.”
“Not quite,” Arthur murmured, pulling up the chair by the bedside and sitting down. “What did you want to speak to me about?”
“Remember yesterday, when I said there was something I was working on? Well, it's still not done, but –” he trailed off for a moment, glancing at his wife, and Arthur's gut lurched “–I think you'd best have it now.”
“Mr. Smith,” Arthur began, appalled at the way his voice shook.
“Now lad, it's Tom, remember?” Tom said gently, patting his arm. “You're a knight of old, one of us. And I want you to have this. It's the oddest thing, really; I was working on a mace the day I met you, and then when I got home that night, I had to start working on this. It's as though it wanted to be made.” He nodded at Mrs. Smith, and she reached under the bed and drew out a long object wrapped in heavy velvet, then lay it carefully across her husband's lap. Tom folded back the cloth, revealing the most beautiful broadsword Arthur had ever seen. His hand itched to wrap around the hilt, his arm yearned to feel its heft.
Dear God. He'd been right.
“It needs tempering, mind,” Tom said, “but other than that, it's ready.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said, meeting Tom's gaze. He wanted to say a thousand things, but they all stuck in his throat; they'd sound like the ravings of a madman. And now you have a taste of what it feels like to be Merlin or Morgana, he thought grimly. In the end, all he could add was, “It's an amazing work of art. Please know that I – I'll always appreciate this gift.”
Tom smiled. “That's good to hear, lad,” he said, voice nearly a whisper now.
Merlin was waiting for him when he emerged from the bedroom; when he saw the wrapped object in Arthur's arms, he murmured, “It's true, then.”
“Yeah,” Arthur said, trying not to fumble the sword as he unwrapped it. “This is it. I can – I can feel it.”
Merlin met his gaze. “I'm sorry,” he said softly. “I know you didn't ask for this.”
Arthur's heart clenched with the knowledge that in the middle of all this, Merlin was still thinking of him. It was comforting to know there was someone who still remembered who he was.
Or perhaps he should say who he used to be, he thought as he hefted the sword and felt the way it fit his hand because it had been made for him, because it was his fate to have it, to use it.
He heard a gasp, and looked up to see Gwen staring at him, her expression unreadable. Lancelot came up behind her and gently put his hands on her shoulders, as though he might be able to hold her together by sheer force of will.
“He gave you – that, didn't he,” Gwen said. It wasn't a question.
Arthur opened his mouth, then closed it again. He wanted to tell her it was all right, that there was a greater purpose behind this, but that wasn't entirely the truth. As far as her father was concerned, he was putting his affairs in order, and it sickened Arthur to know that that was the truth as well.
Gwen shook her head. “No, it's – it's fine. He wants you to have it, and I'm glad he was able to give it to you.” She smiled wanly. “One of these days, I'll show you how to use it.”
“Gwen –” Arthur began, then stopped when another realisation struck him like a blow. “Oh, God,” he breathed. “I didn't even think.”
“What?” Gwen asked, frowning.
“I don't have the slightest idea how to use this,” he said, turning to Merlin as the panic coursed through him. “How am I supposed to –” he trailed off when Merlin arched his eyebrows at him and jerked his head at Gwen. “Look, it's a little late for worrying about keeping things quiet, isn't it?” Arthur demanded, voice rising. “Do you know how to fight with a broadsword?”
Merlin shook his head, and Arthur turned back to Gwen. “Look, this is going to sound a little daft.” Merlin coughed, and Arthur added, “Alright, a lot daft. But we need your help.”
Gwen's lip trembled. “That's not funny, Arthur. My father – not to mention Reggie, and half my family, is –” she choked back a sob “– and you're talking about mucking about with swords?” Arthur could practically feel the weight of Lancelot's glare; in a moment the man was going to punch him, or Gwen was, and he wouldn't be able to blame either of them.
He handed the sword to Merlin and took a step toward her. “Gwen, listen. I've never been more serious in my life. Please, just –” He turned to Merlin, at a loss. “How can I –”
“Don't ask me,” Merlin said unhelpfully. “I usually try to avoid conversations like this.”
Arthur's mind raced, and suddenly the light dawned. “You're right,” he said. “Sometimes it's better to show than tell, isn't it?” He looked at Merlin, whose eyes widened as he grasped Arthur's meaning.
“You're not serious,” Merlin hissed.
Turning back to Gwen and Lancelot, Arthur took a deep breath and plunged ahead. “What if we said that we know a way to save your dad? To save everyone who's fallen ill?”
Gwen frowned. “With a sword?”
Arthur shook his head. “Not entirely, but yes, the sword is part of it, a very important part. Listen, I know how it sounds. I know you don't have any reason to believe me. But please, I'm begging you: meet us at the pub in an hour. I promise everything will become clear.”
Gwen held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded. “I'll think about it,” she said finally.
“Thank you,” Arthur said simply, then decided that a swift retreat was the best option; he'd said all he could, and now it was up to Gwen.
As they left the flat with Morgana and Gaius, Merlin said, “Put a call in to your dad while you're at it and tell him to meet us there.”
Arthur frowned. “Why?”
“Maybe you're not the only one who prefers showing to telling,” Merlin muttered darkly.
“My goodness, young warlock,” the dragon said, “I'm quite overwhelmed.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Merlin said, as he glanced guiltily about. Uther, Gwen and Lancelot were all standing on the ledge, completely gobsmacked. Even Morgana, who Merlin had assumed to be unflappable, was looking somewhat stunned.
“Had I known I would be entertaining, I would have straightened up the cavern,” the dragon said dryly.
“Look, I said I was sorry,” Merlin said, irritation creeping into his voice, “but we're a little pressed for time.”
“That is obvious,” the dragon said. “I can feel his power now. It grows strong. It calls to mine.”
Merlin frowned. “Wait. Are you still on our side, then?”
The dragon actually chuckled. Merlin wanted to stab it. “I am not a creature of dark or light, of good or evil, only of the old religion, as are you, Merlin.”
Merlin clenched his fists. “So if we were to free you, would you help us fight him or not?” He felt the weight of the others' stares on him.
“Erm,” Arthur said, sotto voce, “what are you doing?”
“We're going to need all the help we can get,” Merlin murmured out of the side of his mouth.
“Point,” Morgana muttered.
The dragon cocked its head. “I serve the most powerful. Are you the most powerful, boy?”
“I intend to be,” Merlin said stiffly, trying to project a confidence he didn't entirely feel.
“And are you sure you will not join your power to his if he calls to you?” the dragon pressed.
“Of course I am!” Merlin shouted, appalled.
The dragon chuckled again, damn its hide. “Methinks he doth protest too much.”
“Right, that's it.” Merlin took a step forward, but Arthur halted him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Never mind that for a moment,” he said, unwrapping the sword and holding it out. “First, we need you to perform a small service for us.”
The dragon craned its neck and turned its head to get a better look at the sword; the others took a step back. “Ah, yes,” it said. “Very good. You have done well.”
“There's only one problem,” Arthur said. “It hasn't been tempered.”
“That can be arranged,” the dragon said. Arthur exchanged a look with Merlin, who nodded, and as Arthur flung the sword straight up in the air, Merlin raised his hand. The sword reached the pinnacle of its climb and hung there, suspended.
“Holy fuck,” Lancelot breathed, just as the dragon took a deep breath and shot a jet of flame at the sword, turning it red hot. It hung for a time after that, cooling slowly, and when the dragon nodded, Merlin returned it to Arthur with a wave of his hand.
“Now you are ready to meet your destiny,” the dragon said to Arthur. “However, young Pendragon, make your peace now, for the path you hold in your heart will lead you to your death.”
The words seeped into Merlin's consciousness slowly, like poison drenching the skin, penetrating his pores. “No – that can't –” he gasped.
Arthur was watching the dragon calmly, his face unreadable. “I understand,” he said. “Will the people live?”
The dragon inclined its head. “If that is the path taken, they will be saved.”
“Then that's all that matters,” Arthur said, nodding.
“That's not all that bloody matters!” Merlin exclaimed. “You can't just drop something like that on us! Tell us how it's going to happen so that we can prevent it!”
“Destiny is not something that can be changed to suit your whims,” the dragon snarled. “You would do well to learn that before you go to face yours.”
Gwen took a step forward, coming to stand between Arthur and Merlin. Looking up at the dragon, she said, “Bugger that.”
Merlin had never seen the dragon look nonplussed, but the expression on its face now was a close approximation of the human equivalent. Gwen grabbed Arthur by the arm and tugged. “Come on, don't listen to him. No one I teach to fight is going to die.”
As she dragged Arthur along, trailing the others behind her, Merlin brought up the rear, trying to keep down the unreasoning mixture of dread and pure rage that roiled in his gut at the dragon's words.
“Body!” Clang! “Shield!” Clang! “Body!” Clang! “Head!” Clang!
“Ow,” said Arthur, fighting to parry Gwen's blows as the two of them battled their way across Uther's back garden. Merlin sat watching them, as he had done for the past three hours, feeling as though he were on a speeding train headed over a cliff.
No, that would be Arthur headed over the cliff, Merlin thought, you just get to watch.
They'd returned to Uther's home at his insistence, and Merlin had to admit it was the best solution all round. The Commissioner had set up a temporary command post in his front parlour, though he'd been called away to the Mayor's office for yet another meeting earlier in the afternoon. However, the house was spacious, the yard was bounded by a high fence with plenty of room for sword drill, and there was a housekeeper who was capable of producing vast quantities of tea and unexciting but satisfying sandwiches. Upstairs in a library safely removed from the hubbub, Gaius was teaching Morgana techniques to bolster her mental shields, with the ultimate goal of reestablishing contact with Mordred. Everything was proceeding as quickly as possible, which was just as well because ready or not, as soon as Mordred was located, they'd have to head out to meet him.
And then soon after that, if the dragon was to be believed, Arthur would die. Despite the dragon's condescension, Merlin knew quite a lot about the way prophecies worked, and he knew that they tended to be annoying, inconvenient and inescapable. He'd never heard of one not coming true, in one form or another.
Well, Merlin told himself firmly, there was a first time for everything. Now he just had to convince the universe it was possible.
“It feels like the blink of an eye.”
Merlin jumped at the sound of Uther's voice right beside him; God, the man might be a bureaucrat, but he still had the instincts of a copper. He wasn't looking at Merlin, but at his son, and the expression on his face made Merlin's gut churn.
“Seems like only yesterday I was taking him home from the hospital. His mother died giving birth to him,” he said. Merlin stared at him, startled by the cold matter-of-factness of his tone; then it occurred to him that this might be the only way Uther could say such things aloud. “Suddenly I was alone with a baby and not the first clue of what to do. He was this – tiny little thing, could almost fit in the palm of my hand. I was terrified I'd do something wrong, that I'd hurt him without meaning to.” Uther took a deep, ragged breath, let it out. “But he's always been so much stronger than I've given him credit for.”
Merlin glanced at Arthur, who was now on the attack, the sword flashing in the sun as he swung it in an arc. “I don't think he knows how proud I am of him,” Uther continued. “And now I want to tell him, but –”
“You're afraid it might sound like you're saying goodbye,” Merlin finished for him.
Uther's head snapped up and he finally looked at Merlin.
At least that's one thing we have in common, Merlin thought as he held Uther's gaze. Because I'd like nothing more than to tell him I love him. Aloud, he said, “He's not going to die. I won't let it happen.”
Uther studied him for a long moment. “You and this Mordred,” Uther said, “you're both – sorcerers.”
Merlin frowned slightly. “Yes.”
“Please forgive me,” Uther said, still with that utterly chilling calm. “But while I don't know what kind of man you are, I know he is the closest thing to a devil here on earth. And yet you would like me to trust that you will safeguard my son's life?”
Merlin's reassurances all died in his throat. What could he presume to say to this man? If he had been in Uther's place, he wouldn't have trusted Merlin with his son either. He looked away, feeling the weight of everything he was attempting to do come crashing down around him.
“Commissioner.” Both Merlin and Uther turned at the sound of Uther's title being spoken. Arthur's friend and fellow officer Gawain, whom Merlin had met yesterday at the barbecue, was stood at the garden door.
“Yes, Detective Sergeant,” Uther said.
Gawain didn't answer at first, for just then another loud clash of swords rang out across the garden, and he frowned and peered at the combatants. “Bloody hell, is that Arthur?” he asked.
“You were saying, Gawain,” Uther said, tone frosty, and Gawain immediately snapped back to attention.
“Yes, sir, sorry. We've got a bit of a situation; seems there's a disturbance in North London. Surveillance cameras are showing a lot of people in the streets, and the couple of officers we were able to dispatch to the area are afraid it could develop into an all-out riot.”
Uther passed a weary hand over his eyes. “We've very little to spare at the moment.”
“Yes, sir, I know. Best to at least try, though.”
“Of course. Still, I can't blame people for wanting to protest. Government's doing all it can, but they can't know that.”
Gawain shook his head. “I'm afraid it's not exactly protesters. From what we've heard, sounds like the bloody Nazis are putting on a show – everything from skinheads to old ladies wearing BNP jumpers and waving the Union Jack.”
Uther's jaw twitched. “Marvelous. As though we needed proof they're a lot of vultures. Alright, see who you can scrape together, Gawain.”
“I, erm,” Gawain said, watching Uther carefully, “I take it Arthur's not available?”
Uther's chin rose. “No,” he said. “He's not.”
“Right, then,” Gawain said smartly, “once more into the breach.”
“We don't have much longer,” Uther said grimly after Gawain had left. “The city's – the country's – falling apart around our ears.” He glanced back at the house. “I should check on Morgana.”
“I wouldn't,” Merlin said, earning himself a glare from Uther. “Gaius doesn't like to be interrupted. He's already told off the Prime Minister; I don't think he'll have any trouble with you.”
Uther stared at him for a couple of moments, then, to Merlin's surprise, capitulated. “Very well,” he murmured, looking out across the garden again. “Tell Arthur I've headed back to the Yard, but that I'll be home for supper.” Merlin opened his mouth to answer, but no words came, and Uther stalked away before he could think of anything.
The sword fighting practice ended abruptly a few minutes later when Gwen landed another resounding blow on Arthur's helmet, and he went down on his arse. Merlin ran to him, but he was already sitting up as Gwen stood over him with her hands on her hips.
“I think you could do with a break,” she said, removing her own helmet as Merlin helped Arthur with his. “In fact, so could I; it's past time I called home. You've done well, Arthur. After this we'll move onto offensive techniques, alright?” She indicated Lancelot, who had been watching the fight from the other side of the garden. “Then Lance and I'll both take a turn at you.”
“Looking – forward to it,” Arthur panted, refusing Merlin's offer of help with a wave of his hand as he rose slowly to his feet. “And thank you.” Gwen nodded, then headed off into the house.
Arthur whacked his hand against his head a couple of times as though his ears were full of water. “Do you hear clanging?”
Merlin couldn't resist the urge to pass his hand over Arthur's sweaty hair, a brief but blatantly fond gesture that Arthur leaned into. “Arthur,” he said simply, because he couldn't think of anything else that wouldn't sound silly or hopelessly soppy or, worst of all, terrified.
“I saw Dad out here earlier,” Arthur murmured, eyes scanning the house. “What were you two talking about?”
“Oh, this and that,” Merlin said, as casually as he could. “You, mostly.”
“I seem to be the man of the hour,” Arthur muttered, shucking his heavy leather gloves.
“Arthur,” Merlin said again, and this time he couldn't hide the note of desperation in it.
“No,” Arthur said firmly, and the harsh denial seemed as much for his own benefit as Merlin's. “Look, let's just – do what needs to be done.” His jaw muscle leapt, so much like his father it made Merlin ache. “There's no use in carrying on about it.” His gaze locked with Merlin's, intent and brooking no argument, and Merlin swallowed and nodded around the emotion that was suddenly trying its best to choke him.
“Merlin! Arthur!” They both looked up at Gaius' shout from one of the second floor windows. “Morgana's found him. She's found him!”
Arthur raised his wine glass. “To Morgana,” he said, and Uther, Merlin, and Gaius repeated the toast. Gwen and Lancelot had gone home to be with her parents, but they had all arranged to meet at dawn tomorrow to begin their journey. Arthur was exhausted, and he felt bruised from head to toe, but he believed he was as prepared as he could be to meet whatever was to come tomorrow and acquit himself with some measure of dignity. And in the end, he supposed that was all he could hope for.
Morgana smiled. “Thank you” she said. “The bastard dared me to find him, and I couldn't bear to disappoint. But really, why does it always have to be about penises?”
Across the table, Uther spluttered and coughed as his wine went down the wrong way. “Christ, Morgana.”
Morgana only rolled her eyes. “Please. First Mrs. Thistlethwaite's little naked man, and now the Cerne Abbas Giant? I mean, obviously he's overcompensating.”
“Well,” Gaius offered, “fertility symbols have always been important in ancient rituals. Most rituals, in fact, are specifically designed to celebrate and encourage life.”
“So how is he able to use these same symbols to destroy life?” Morgana demanded, leaning forward.
Merlin shook his head. “These objects and sacred places aren't inherently good or evil. It's all in how they're used, and who uses them.” Arthur noticed his father's head snapped up at that, and Merlin met Uther's gaze in a way that could only be called challenging. It appeared as though they'd had a more interesting conversation than Merlin had let on.
“I've been thinking about that,” Gaius mused, either oblivious to the tension or choosing to ignore it. “When you get there, you must find a way to reverse the flow of energy.”
“Yes, I know,” Merlin said, studying his wine glass. “I've a couple of ideas.”
“Care to share them with us?” Gaius asked dryly, arching an eyebrow.
Merlin shook his head. “I'll know what to do when the time comes. I have to believe that, or –” He glanced at Arthur, then looked away. “I'll know what to do,” he said stubbornly.
Gaius smiled and patted his hand. “I'm sure you will, my boy,” he said warmly. “And now,” he said to the assembled company, “I must take my old bones off to bed. Thank you for your hospitality,” he said to Uther, who nodded.
After Gaius had left, Arthur drained the last of his wine. “And I must drag my aching bones off to mine.” He stood and looked at Merlin, then took a deep breath and extended his hand toward him.
Merlin stared at Arthur's face, then at his hand, then back at his face again. The room had gone entirely still, as though everyone had forgotten how to breathe; Arthur knew for certain that he had. He could feel his father's gaze on him, but he couldn't bring himself to look at him; he wouldn't be able to deal with either his sympathy or his censure, not now.
Without a word, Merlin finally took Arthur's hand and rose to his feet, and the two of them walked out together.
Arthur's father had repainted the walls and replaced the furniture Arthur had taken with him when he moved into the flat, so that now the room he'd occupied for a decade of his life looked like any other nondescript guest bedroom. He was grateful for that, he supposed; the thought of doing what he was about to do in a room that reminded him of his awkward teenage years was a little too much for his last night on earth.
Right, he told himself sternly. Not thinking about that, remember?
Merlin had moved like an automaton as they climbed the stairs and walked down the hall and now he stood stiffly, his eyes the only part of him that moved as his gaze flitted over every surface in the room except Arthur himself. Arthur stepped in front of him and took him by the shoulders, and Merlin's gaze came to rest on the hollow of his throat.
“Merlin,” Arthur breathed. “I want –”
Merlin's head snapped up, his eyes desperate and pleading, and Arthur couldn't catch his breath for a moment. “I don't want you to come with us tomorrow,” Merlin said flatly.
“That's not an option. You heard what the dragon said.”
“And now you're listening to the bloody dragon?” Merlin retorted. “I seem to remember your being a bit sceptical about the whole prophecy business.”
“You don't seem sceptical,” Arthur said, folding his arms. “You don't want me to go because you think it's right about what'll happen to me. So why isn't it right about the important part?”
“God damn it, Arthur, you are the important part!” Merlin exclaimed. “Listen, I can do this on my own. This whole mess is because of sorcery, and sorcery's going to be the only thing that can undo it.”
Arthur shook his head. “I don't doubt that. Reversing the flow of magical energy isn't exactly my strong suit. But apparently it's fallen to me to make sure he doesn't get to try it again.”
“I can take care of that, too,” Merlin said, and the determination in his tone chilled Arthur to the bone and warmed him at the same time.
“Merlin, I'm not going to stay behind and take the chance the dragon was wrong. A lot of people could die that way.” He took a deep breath and placed his hands on Merlin's shoulders. “I know it sounds silly, but I'm a copper, born and bred, and that – that means something. Most importantly, it means I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do all I could. Even if it turns out the dragon's right – about everything.”
“I won't let him be right,” Merlin said fiercely. “I won't let you die.”
Arthur took Merlin's face in his hands. “I know you'll try your best,” he said. “But look, I don't want you risking your life to –”
“I'll do what I like,” Merlin snapped, eyes flashing golden for a moment.
“Merlin, please –”
“Shut up,” Merlin whispered, kissing him hard and fast, “just – shut up. Do you want to argue, or do you –”
“No,” Arthur murmured against Merlin's mouth, “I don't want to argue.”
Nodding, Merlin kissed him on his lips, cheeks, chin, jaw, making Arthur shiver under the onslaught. “Shhh, shhhh,” Arthur soothed, stroking his hands over Merlin's face, hair, shoulders. “Slow down.” Merlin froze, then nodded against his neck; Arthur smiled and kissed his hair.
He was still smiling as he trailed his hands down Merlin's sides, then gripped the hem of his shirt and tugged insistently upward; Merlin made a small sound of protest, but raised his arms anyway, mouth only leaving Arthur's skin when it had no other choice.
They turned slowly together in a slow, shuffling dance toward the bed, touches varying from the bold press of palms to the barely-there glide of fingertips, raising goosebumps and eliciting needy groans. Obeying Arthur's request, Merlin maintained a slow pace, but the intensity of his focus as he looked at Arthur, the possessive grip of his hands, the puff of his heavy, laboured breaths over Arthur's skin were a thousand times worse than the frantic desperation had been. This way, Arthur had time to experience every moment of Merlin's anguish, Merlin's care, and yes, it was clear now, Merlin's love, and it was almost too much to bear.
Almost, Arthur thought as they helped one another shed the rest of their clothes, almost. Because it was also true that he wanted, in this last night, to be loved, to be cherished, and though he knew it was horribly selfish, to be anguished over. He wanted to be remembered after tomorrow, wanted someone to think of him as something other than a self-sacrificing copper who'd given his life in performance of his duty. Even Morgana and Uther, as much as they knew and loved him, only knew a part of him. He also wanted someone to remember the the texture of his skin, the way he kissed, the sounds he made as he came, and he wanted Merlin to be that person.
Arthur traced Merlin's collar bone with his fingertips, drifted down over his chest to his nipples, and felt Merlin shudder in response. “Merlin, I want –”
“Yeah,” Merlin said, hands fitting over Arthur's hips as though they'd been made for one another, “me, too.”
Arthur pushed Merlin down on the bed and straddled him, knees trapping Merlin's thighs firmly. He leaned down and kissed him again, catching Merlin's hands and pinning them to the bed when Merlin tried to tangle them in Arthur's hair. “No, I mean – I want you to.” He licked his lips, and Merlin's gaze darted down, following the movement. “To – you know.” Oh, that was horrid.
Merlin frowned. “Have you done that before?”
Arthur shook his head and attempted a chuckle; it fell flat. “Well, I thought, no time like the present,” he murmured.
Merlin made a sound that was half sob and half growl, and suddenly Arthur was flat on his back on the mattress and Merlin was the one straddling him and pinning him down, only he wasn't using a single finger to hold Arthur motionless. Arthur's heart slammed against his ribs as he stared up Merlin. Bloody hell.
“Forget it,” Merlin bit out. He was shaking. “I'm not taking last requests.”
“Please,” Arthur managed, hating the begging tone in his voice but unable to help himself.
Merlin shook his head almost violently. “Ask me again tomorrow, when this is all over.”
Arthur's jaw twitched, anger rising in him. “You can't know –”
“I do,” Merlin insisted, the pressure on Arthur's arms easing, “and I need you to know it, too. I need you to believe in me.”
“God, Merlin, I do,” Arthur whispered, “but –”
Merlin silenced him with a kiss, and suddenly Arthur's arms were free to wrap around Merlin, to hold him close, so close there was hardly room for breath. “No buts,” Merlin insisted. “We're going to have a lifetime together, you prat, so get used to having me in your bed.”
Anger dissipating in the face of an overwhelming wave of emotion, Arthur took hold of Merlin and rolled him over. “Oh, so I'm a prat, am I?” he growled, grinding down against Merlin with a wicked swivel of his hips that left them both gasping. “That's a fine way to talk.”
“Alright, perhaps that was – fuck, yes, just like that – a little unkind.” Arthur rewarded him with a flick of his fingernail against Merlin's right nipple and Merlin arched off the bed. “Do you – have any other suggestions?”
“Hm,” Arthur said, nuzzling Merlin's neck and traveling lower, “How about – 'master'?”
“Thought you wanted to be the Doctor,” Merlin panted, twisting his hands in the sheets.
Arthur bit at the taut skin of Merlin's belly. “'My lord'? 'Sire'?”
“Oh, now you're just being silly,” Merlin managed, giggling and squirming under Arthur's attentions.
And then Arthur ducked down and licked a stripe up the length of Merlin's cock, and Merlin's laughter died abruptly. Arthur took a moment to process the taste, decided he didn't mind it, and did it again.
“Fuck, Arthur, that's –”
Arthur settled himself between Merlin's legs, then wrapped his fist around the base of Merlin's cock and squeezed lightly. “Let me know if I bugger this up,” he murmured, and then he lowered his mouth to the head and began to suck.
Merlin choked off a cry, jamming a fist into his mouth, and Arthur braced his free arm across Merlin's hips as he bent to his task. He was surprised to find the act as arousing as Merlin seemed to be finding it, as though he were the one being sucked; his cock was soon hard and aching, and he was desperate for a touch, a caress, anything. Mindful of his teeth, he experimented with a twist of his tongue as he slid lower, and Merlin groaned helplessly in response.
“Arthur, please,” Merlin panted, his legs spreading wider and wrapping round Arthur's sides. Arthur looked up, frowning, and Merlin tugged at his shoulder.
Arthur released him with a pop. “Are you sure?”
Arthur reached for the condom he'd brought with him and placed in the nightstand drawer earlier, ripped the packet open hastily and rolled it on over his cock. Merlin's gaze twinkled. “Give me your hand.” Arthur obeyed, and Merlin raised it to his mouth and pressed his lips to the fingers, then murmured something. Arthur felt his skin prickle, and when Merlin pulled back, he smiled. “Touch yourself.”
Arthur sucked in a breath but did as he was told, hand trailing down his belly to his cock. He wrapped his tingling hand around it and gave it an experimental stroke, and it felt as though it had been slicked with lube.
“What –” Arthur began, and then his hips bucked into the air as the tingling sensation transferred through the latex barrier to his cock.
Merlin grinned. “You like that?” he murmured. Arthur closed his eyes and squeezed the base of his cock to keep himself from coming spectacularly. “Now, touch me,” Merlin rasped, and Arthur moved to obey without thinking, his fingers slipping between Merlin's legs and pressing in, searching.
Merlin gasped when Arthur's first finger slid in effortlessly and he whined low in his throat. “More,” he commanded, and Arthur obeyed, leaning down to nuzzle at Merlin's cock as he did. “Fuck, Arthur, please, now,” he babbled, and Arthur smiled and rose up, covering Merlin with his body as Merlin tugged him down and kissed him, open-mouthed and panting.
Arthur kissed him back, then sat up, hands sliding under Merlin's arse and lifting. Merlin's ankles locked around Arthur's back and his spine moved in a way that should have been impossible and then Arthur was there, the tip of him nudging in. Merlin undulated again, taking him deeper, and Arthur groaned at the incredible, exquisite tightness, like nothing he'd ever experienced before. He lifted Merlin higher and leaned forward slightly, burying himself to the hilt in Merlin's body.
“OK?” Arthur panted, trying to regain his breath and failing. “You OK?”
Eyes squeezed shut, Merlin nodded. “Good, yeah, it's good.” Arthur looked down and saw that Merlin's cock was still hard, and reached down to touch it; Merlin pushed his hand away gently but insistently. “No, don't,” he hissed. “I don't want this to be over yet.”
“God,” Arthur breathed, “are you that –”
Merlin's eyes flew open and locked with Arthur's, and Arthur's heart stopped. “Yeah,” he whispered, brushing Arthur's fringe back from his face. “Together, yeah? Let's go there together.”
“Together,” Arthur agreed, turning his face into Merlin's caress as he began to move, his eyes never leaving Merlin's, not for a moment.
Gawain wished someone would tell him what the sodding hell was going on.
The city was practically going down the shitter; half the force was sick, the other half were strung out on caffeine and not enough sleep, the Army was setting up hospital tents on Hampstead Heath, and Parliament were one step from declaring martial law. And in the midst of all this, Uther Pendragon had ordered two dozen of the Met's finest to set up a fucking road block in Brixton so that Arthur and Morgana and a few of their mates could stand around and play silly buggers at the crack of dawn.
Gawain had personally always liked Arthur. He hadn't gone along with the way most of the other officers had treated him when he'd first started, calling him Prince Arthur and a daddy's boy who couldn't have made the grade on his own merit. As it turned out, Arthur had proven himself within a few months of starting at the Yard, and if there was anyone who still called him a prince, Gawain didn't know about it. But this stunt was completely mental, and it certainly wouldn't do anything for Arthur's hard-earned reputation as a regular bloke. Christ, Arthur and two of the others were wearing chain mail and carrying swords.
The skinny Welsh lad Gawain had met the other day – Merlin? – was there as well, along with an elderly man. The two of them talked together with Uther for a minute or two, and then as Gawain watched Merlin took a large piece of chalk and drew a circle the width of the intersection.
“What the –” Gawain muttered, shaking his head. There were about a hundred other things he could be doing right now, not the least of which was sleeping. The would-be rioters, funnily enough, had all dispersed yesterday without causing a fuss, the most hardcore of them piling into cars and lorries and buses and driving away not long after they'd congregated, as though they'd been a tour group on holiday. The motley caravan was seen moving west on the M3 a couple of hours later. Gawain felt a little guilty that they were going to end up as some other town's problem, but they'd given the Devon and Somerset forces the heads up, and that was all they could do at this point.
Meanwhile, here and now things were turning even odder, if such a thing were possible. Merlin stood in the centre of the circle for a couple of minutes, waving his hand back and forth at about waist height, his palm outstretched. His lips were moving but Gawain was a bit too far away to make out what he was saying. Then he abruptly turned and ran, stopping just the other side of the chalk mark about five metres from Gawain's position at the barricade. He raised his hand again, suddenly jerking it upward as he yelled something indecipherable and strangely sibilant.
And that was when the street began to open up.
It started in the centre of the circle, small, fine cracks appearing in the street, perfectly straight, spreading out in all directions to the chalk edge. Another flick of Merlin's hand, and the macadam started peeling back, huge triangular sections of it rolling up as easily as carpet.
He barely had enough time to think how mad that was when Merlin shouted again, and the ground that had just been revealed suddenly – wasn't there any more.
“Bugger,” he breathed.
Gawain glanced round; the few gawkers who'd assembled at this time of the morning were looking anywhere from stunned to terrified, and some had begun edging away from the barricades. A smart move, Gawain thought, for Merlin was waving his hand over the huge hole in the earth once again, and he was beginning to feel a bit exposed himself.
And then an odd, rhythmic thumping noise emerged from the hole, almost like the sound of a helicopter's rotors in slow motion. Gawain thought this is probably going to be something I won't like just as an immense pair of leathery black wings flapped their way above the street, pulling with them a fucking great dragon.
The onlookers who remained all screamed and ran as fast as their legs could carry them, and Gawain was sorely tempted to follow them. Only his training and his desire not to look like a complete berk held him back.
As soon as the dragon was clear of the street, Merlin waved his hand again and the earth reappeared. Next, the macadam rolled back, and soon there was no reminder of the damage except the chalk circle and the bloody enormous beast now alighting in the middle of the intersection. There was a little back and forth between Arthur and his friends and then Merlin walked right up to the dragon's head, which was bending low to the street. The dragon opened its mouth and Gawain tensed, figuring Merlin was going to be its next snack, but nothing happened; instead, the dragon kept moving its lips (did dragons have lips?) and Gawain realised belatedly that the low rumbling sound he was hearing was the dragon speaking.
Well, of course it was a talking dragon. Why not?
This went on for a bit, and finally Merlin stepped back and waved his hands once more. He was stood facing Gawain this time, and Gawain noticed that his eyes flared like twin flames as his mouth moved. The dragon wriggled a bit, and Gawain looked up to see that it was now wearing a harness and some kind of platform on its back.
Alright, that was just about enough. After casting a glance back at the barricade and confirming there were no longer any public for him to guard, Gawain strode toward Arthur and the rest.
“You're going to ride a bloody dragon,” Gawain said accusingly, as Arthur turned to face him.
“Erm,” Arthur said, rubbing at his neck with the back of a gloved hand. “Yeah, looks that way.”
“And you didn't tell me. Are we mates or what?”
Arthur smiled sheepishly. “Sorry. I've been a little – preoccupied.”
Gawain folded his arms, unimpressed. “I'm guessing this isn't a lark, then.”
“No. It's to do with why people are falling ill. Turns out there's one man responsible. We're going to stop him.”
Gawain nodded. “Count me in, then.”
Arthur cast a glance at the others. “Gawain, I –”
“My gran's in hospital in Sheffield, Arthur,” he said calmly. “She's on life support.”
One of the other armour-wearing people stepped up to them; a woman, Gawain realised. “We'll make room for you.”
Merlin raised a finger. “Actually, I had enough trouble convincing him to carry five of –”
“We'll make room,” the woman repeated firmly, and Merlin's mouth slammed shut.
“Thanks,” Gawain said, not quite believing he'd just volunteered to fly on a dragon's back to God knew where.
Arthur gripped his shoulder and smiled grimly. “You may not be thanking us in a bit,” he said.
Gawain turned to Uther. “Sir, permission to take emergency leave.”
“You're still on the clock, Detective Sergeant,” Uther said, “just don't expect overtime pay.”
“No, sir,” Gawain said, grinning in spite of the situation.
“Arthur, a word,” Uther said, taking Arthur aside and walking with him out of earshot.
The dragon chose that moment to swivel its head round to face them. Gawain took a step back, then checked himself. “If you're quite done exchanging pleasantries,” it said, “I recommend we avoid further delays.”
“Right, of course,” Merlin said, clambering up into the rigging and onto the dragon's back; Gwen, Lancelot and Gawain followed suit. After a minute they were joined by Arthur, and Gawain noted the tears brimming in his eyes but didn't comment. They might have been friends, but they were blokes, after all; there were some things you didn't talk about.
“Isn't Morgana coming?” Gawain asked instead.
“She'll just be a moment,” Arthur said. Curiosity getting the better of him, Gawain peered over the edge of the platform and saw that Morgana was in fact being snogged rather passionately by the Commissioner.
“Bugger me! That's not standard police procedure,” Gawain said. He leered at Arthur. “She going to be your wicked stepmother, then? Or is that the wrong fairy tale?”
Arthur shook his head. “Mate, don't even joke about something like that.” Just at that moment, Morgana's head appeared above the platform, and Gawain bit his tongue to keep from laughing.
“Gawain,” she said pleasantly, “welcome aboard.”
“I just hope there's a good in-flight moo – OOOO!” Gawain's crack trailed off into a howl of terror as the dragon flapped its wings and they were jerked unceremoniously into the air.
“Oh, my!” the dragon called. “I did miss this.” And then it let out a rumbling bellow that seemed to be drawn from the land itself. Gawain gave into the urge to bellow along with it. If you were going to go barmy, he decided, might as well go all the way.
As the dragon carried them high over the Devonshire countryside, Merlin sat near the back of the platform and watched the others. Gwen, Morgana and Lancelot were talking together, while Arthur and Gawain sat near the front, surveying the land below them. Merlin was, unsurprisingly, the odd man out, like an alien landed from another planet. It wasn't as though he hadn't felt that way off and on his whole life, and so he told himself he didn't mind it now.
And then Arthur turned round and a small, private smile lit his face when his gaze met Merlin’s, jolting Merlin from his introspection. A sharp, bittersweet memory assailed him, of the warmth and weight of Arthur's body entwined with his as they awoke in the predawn darkness, Arthur's hair impossibly soft against his cheek. He mustered an answering smile before Arthur turned back to his lookout duty.
Sighing, Merlin closed his eyes and began reaching inside, summoning and centering his power as Gaius had taught him to do. He was trying not to think too deeply about how he would fight Mordred, preferring to rely on instinct and discipline in equal measure. Doubtless Mordred would have him beat on skill and power, but Merlin had a couple of weapons in his favour, not the least of which was his sanity. From what Gaius had told them of the visit from his old pupil, it was clear that the strain of channelling all that power had only driven Mordred deeper into madness. Merlin could use that to his advantage, if he stayed alert and watched for opportunities.
He wasn't sure how long he stayed like that, lost in himself, before he felt a presence approach, the soft clang of metal armour audible above the steady beat of the dragon's wings. He smiled, but when he opened his eyes, it wasn't the person he expected to see.
“Sorry,” Lancelot said. “I don't want to bother you.”
“No, no,” Merlin said, “it's alright.” After a moment's hesitation Lancelot sat facing Merlin with his legs crossed and his arms resting on his knees.
“It's only that – I have some questions,” Lancelot said.
“I can understand how you might,” Merlin said, nodding.
Lancelot shifted. “I want to know how he can be such a monster. Morgana says she's been in his head, and even she's not sure. She says he has this sick idea of what Britain's supposed to look like, and he's trying to make it happen, but that that's not all. I thought – you're like him, aren't you? Well, not entirely, but you –”
Merlin sighed. “I understand what you mean, yeah. And I do know, a little. Because this kind of power, once you taste it – it's like a drug. You have to have more, and quicker, and bigger doses, because if you don't you'll eventually die from missing it.”
“And so it's true then, is it? He is only targeting immigrants?”
“Near as I can tell from the little information we have, yeah,” Merlin agreed. “He'd have more success targeting those individuals who had no tie to the land – in the context of earth magic, that means those who were not born on this soil.”
“That explains why people like Gwen and Gawain aren't affected? Because they were born here?”
Merlin nodded. “And also because they have one parent with a close tie to the land.”
Lancelot shook his head. “And what does he think will happen when he runs out of immigrants? Does he think he's going to get 'pure' Britons, as if such a thing still exists anywhere?”
Merlin shook his head. “I don't think he's thinking much any more. But you're right,” he added, as a thought struck him, “he's not going to be able to stop. He's going to keep needing more and more power.”
Lancelot's mouth thinned. “Marvelous. And what should we be doing when the time comes?”
Merlin smiled. “I think you and Arthur should follow Gwen's lead. She's pretty amazing with that sword.”
“She is, isn't she?” Lancelot said, turning back to look at her where she was engrossed in conversation with Morgana. The expression on his face was similar to the one Arthur had had earlier when looking at Merlin.
“Look,” Merlin said, “I'm a fine one to be giving advice, but if you haven't told her already, this might be a good time to tell her how you feel about her.”
Lancelot turned back to stare at Merlin. “No,” he murmured, “she's had enough to be going on with the past couple of days; I don't want to add that to the mix.” He placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Besides, I think it's more important to show her instead.”
Merlin glanced at Arthur, the wind whipping at his blond hair as he leaned out over the platform, bracing himself without care on the dragon's scaly neck. “Yeah,” Merlin said, voice hoarse, “you may have something there.”
“Oi!” Gawain's shout startled them both, and they looked up to see him waving to all of them. “We're nearly there!”
“What the sodding hell is that?” Gwen said, clearly disgusted.
“Exactly what it looks like, I expect,” Lancelot murmured. “The dregs of Britain.”
Arthur turned to Merlin, who was surveying the scene with the rest of them from atop the dragon's back as they approached Cerne Abbas. Though it was difficult to estimate numbers from this height, the chalk outline of the Giant was obscured by perhaps two thousand dots, all of them doubtless followers of Mordred, or at least fellow subscribers to his revolting philosophy. Merlin's brow was furrowed and he was deep in concentration, as he'd been for most of the trip; Arthur decided to give him a moment to think on this new development.
“Well, at least we know where all those bloody wankers went,” Gawain sighed. “Too bad they ended up right in our laps again.”
“Do you suppose they're armed?” Lancelot asked, concerned. “We can't fight a whole army.”
“I doubt they're that organised,” Arthur offered. “Unless –” he turned to Gawain “– what if our friend David was really telling the truth?”
“You mean it was him all along, pulling the strings?” Gawain made a face. “Christ, and now what? He's got a whole zombie army of Nazis?”
“They know what they're doing,” Morgana said. Arthur turned to look at her; she was staring straight ahead, seemingly uninterested in the crowd. “At first he thought he'd have to control them, but it was too much work. Now he just frees them from their inhibitions, their fear of the law.” She turned toward Arthur and Gwen, and Arthur's blood ran cold at the hollow look in her eyes, as though there was no one home. “They take it from there.”
“Morgana, are you all right?” Gwen asked, reaching out and gripping Morgana's shoulder. Morgana started as though she'd been shocked with an electrical current.
“What –” Morgana whispered. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief as the light returned to her eyes.
“Please don't do that again,” he murmured softly, leaning in.
Morgana shook her head. “No argument. He's too close, and he's too strong.”
“So what do we do now?” Gawain demanded. “If the Somerset forces are as stretched as thin as we are, they won't be able to lend us much help. And as much of a pain in the arse as these people are, we don't want to harm them.” He paused and looked at the rest of the group. “Well. We shouldn't harm them.”
“There's only one thing to do.” Everyone turned to Merlin, who had finally spoken. “We come right down in their midst.”
“Erm,” Gawain began, “no offence, mate, but you do know that's a bit mental, right? Organised or no, he's still got a fucking army.”
“Yes,” Merlin said patiently, a small smile curling his lip, “but we've got the fucking dragon.”
Really, a dragon was a wonderful thing for dispelling crowds.
By the time it made its third swooping pass at the fleeing, screaming hordes, roaring at the top of its powerful lungs, Merlin was beginning to think they both might be enjoying it a little too much. He felt a pang of remorse as they reached the bottom of another dive and Merlin could see the stark terror in the eyes of an older man who stood paralysed as the dragon's claws missed him by a hairsbreadth.
“Watch the flame!” Merlin shouted, when the dragon puffed out twin jets of fire from his nostrils as he climbed once more.
“Yes, yes,” the dragon huffed, blowing affronted smoke rings as it heaved skyward, “though I still say you should let me singe a few of them.”
“Alright, I think that's enough,” Arthur shouted. “There are only a few left, and that lot aren’t moving.”
Merlin looked down to see that Arthur was right; there was a knot of perhaps a dozen people remaining near the Giant's head, as if in a defensive formation.
“Well, at least now we won't have to look for the entrance,” Merlin muttered.
“The entrance?” Gwen asked. “You mean – he's got some kind of underground lair?”
“Seems that way,” Merlin said. “They've never turned up any earthworks at Cerne Abbas, but that doesn't mean there aren't any to find. Or perhaps he created his own.”
“Marvelous,” Gwen sighed. “It would've been nice if we'd known this ahead of time. Fighting in close quarters is a whole different style –” she trailed off when she saw Arthur's face, which looked a little green “–not that it's that different, really, I'm sure you'll do just fine.”
“Right,” Arthur murmured, his gaze on the ground. “Let's get on with this.” Merlin swallowed and nodded, and shouted at the dragon to land.
The landing was as soft as it could be; Merlin's stomach lurched for an entirely different reason as they all scrambled off the dragon's back. Arthur was first of course, the great prat, though thankfully Gwen yelled at him to stay back, bringing him up short. “Let's not forget who the trainee is, shall we?” She and Lancelot moved forward, Lance at her left hand. “Arthur, on my right, Morgana and Gawain in the rear for now, please, until we've picked off a few.” She glanced at Merlin. “Merlin, I have no idea what to do with you.”
Merlin was already moving off to the right in a wide arc. “Don't worry about me,” he called, “I'll support you.”
“Fair enough,” Gwen said, as the first wave of skinheads, about half a dozen, charged them. “Follow me!” she called out, slamming her visor down and rushing forward with sword upraised. Arthur and Lancelot kept pace with her, and they swung their swords together in a wide arc, making their assailants leap back. One of them broke and ran, but the others held fast and produced knives.
“Is that the best you can do, then?” Gwen taunted, and two of them ran at her, shouting. She slammed one of them in the head with her shield, and Lance flung himself at the other one, knocking him to the ground. While the others were standing round trying to decide what to do next, Merlin murmured a simple spell and the knives went flying from their hands, then swung round and waved menacingly in front of their faces.
“Fucking hell!” one of them yelled, staggering back. The blade followed him, taking a small nick out of his cheek. He turned and tore off down the hill. Grinning, Merlin repeated the spell, but this time the weapons now held by the remaining skinheads – a motley assortment of knives and clubs – did not budge.
“What the –” Merlin repeated the spell, and this time the weapons did fly free, but Merlin could not command them as he had before; they only hung in the air a couple of feet from the ends of their owners' noses. One of the skinheads lunged for his knife, and Merlin hastily waved his arm, flinging the knives and clubs far away, over the crest of the hill.
Damn it, Merlin cursed silently, shaking slightly at the lapse. He should've been able to perform a simple spell like that in his sleep. Had he truly bollixed it up, or was Mordred's influence affecting his magic? The first answer was unsettling, but the second was terrifying; Merlin shoved the speculation aside for now.
“To me, everyone!” Gwen shouted, sheathing her sword, and all five attackers moved forward as one, walking slowly toward the skinheads, who were looking considerably less enthusiastic than they had at the start. As the fighting began, Merlin watched closely for any signs of distress, but other than that he allowed the others to take care of things. It was a good idea to allow Arthur to practice against an assailant who was truly an enemy. He'd be facing a worse one soon enough.
As Morgana toppled the last skinhead with a well-placed boot in the groin, Merlin rejoined them. Gwen flipped back her visor and grinned. “God, I needed that,” she breathed. “Thanks for not making it too easy.”
“I appreciate your taking care of them,” Merlin said. “I have to save as much of my power as I can.” He pointedly did not mention his earlier trouble; there was nothing to be gained by worrying her.
“Can you sense him?” Gwen asked. “The same way Morgana does?”
“Yeah,” Merlin murmured, “he's definitely here.”
Arthur ran up to them then, his face lightly sheened with sweat, his cheeks pink; Merlin allowed himself a split-second's worth of appreciation. “Where's the entrance?” he demanded.
Merlin frowned and scanned the hill. Well, of course it would be hidden; why would anything be bloody easy? Sighing, he walked up to the spot where the skinheads had been standing when they'd first landed and stretched out his hand. Open, he thought, the same way he had for the Kew Gardens gate and Gaius' front door and the street this morning, but nothing happened.
“I hate to sound impatient,” Gawain said, after a few fruitless attempts, “but we don't exactly have all sodding day.”
“I know, and it's here, I just can't –” Merlin trailed off, trying once more, and still there was nothing, not even a rumbling of soil or a rustling of grass. “He's gained complete dominion over the earth here, and I can't use it against him.”
“Show me where it is,” Arthur said.
Surprised, Merlin met his gaze, then nodded. He walked up to the spot and placed a hand on it, resisting the urge to snatch it away when his skin crawled with the raw energy. “Here.”
“Stand back,” Arthur commanded, and Merlin scrambled back just as Arthur unsheathed his sword and plunged it into the place Merlin's hand had been.
The earth rumbled and shook, and then it screamed and opened up around Arthur's blade like a wound in vulnerable flesh. Within a minute, it was wide enough to accommodate a person.
“Let's go,” Arthur said, taking a step forward.
“No!” Merlin said, grabbing Arthur's arm. “I have to go first.”
“Merlin,” Arthur growled, his gaze intense and determined, and Merlin had to take a moment to remember how to breathe because God, in his own way Arthur was one of those heroes you read about in story books, so ridiculously, brilliantly brave he was practically blinding.
“Look, just stop being a copper for two seconds, alright?” he murmured. “There's only room for one of us at a time. It makes sense for me to be the first one in, and you know it.”
Arthur glared at him for another moment, then relented. “I don't like it,” he muttered.
Merlin couldn't help himself; he took Arthur's face in his hands and pressed their foreheads together. “Noted,” he whispered. “I promise you, we'll do this together. Just keep believing in me.”
“I will,” Arthur murmured back, the words as solemn as any vow. Merlin closed his eyes, and he felt Arthur's mouth touch his briefly before he pulled back.
“Let's do this,” Merlin said roughly, turning and heading straight for the mouth of hell.
The corridor in the mountain seemed to go on forever, and if Arthur hadn't been claustrophobic before, he was seriously contemplating it now. The passage was just wide and tall enough for him, but there was very little room besides, and its triangular shape meant that the earth was close about his head as he walked. Merlin, being a few centimeters taller, kept brushing his head against the top and getting dirt in his hair. Behind them, Gwen and Morgana were having an easier time of it, but not by much. The further in they went, the more Arthur swore he could feel the magic of this place, the energy in the earth that Merlin had been talking about – and if he could feel it, he could only imagine what Merlin and Morgana were experiencing. Arthur found himself almost envying Gawain and Lancelot, who had remained out in the open air with the dragon to guard the entrance against any further attacks.
Finally, just as Arthur would swear the walls were beginning to vibrate around them, the corridor opened up into a huge, circular room. The light that Merlin was carrying blazed brightly, illuminating the space, and behind him he heard Morgana gasp.
“My God,” she breathed. “Look up.”
Arthur did, and saw that the domed ceiling of the room was studded with what looked like thousands, perhaps millions, of crystals. It was then that he realised Merlin's light had not got any brighter; rather, the crystals all seemed to be glowing.
“Is that –” Gwen began. “Is that what I think it is?”
“He's using them to collect the power he channels through the artefacts,” Merlin breathed. “This whole room, the whole hill, is like a – a battery.”
“Oh, God,” Gwen whispered. “It's horrible.”
“On the contrary,” a voice said, “it's beautiful.”
They all tensed, and Arthur and Gwen drew their swords. Arthur scanned the room, but it appeared deserted save for them.
“Show yourself!” Arthur called.
There was a sudden bright flash, and as Arthur blinked the spots from his eyes, he saw a man not much older than himself standing in the midst of the room. He spread his hands wide and smiled. “At your service, Arthur Pendragon.” He inclined his head to Merlin. “And Merlin Emrys.” Then Morgana. “Miss LeFay and I have already been introduced.”
Arthur raised the sword. “We're here to order you to reverse what you've done. Now.”
“Or you will kill me?” Mordred asked, still with that infuriating smile on his lips. “Those are harshly opposing options; I have an alternative, however, that may interest you.”
Arthur swiftly judged the distance to Mordred; it was nearly ten metres, too far for a blow from the sword. “I'm always interested in alternatives to killing a man,” he said, taking a step forward. “Go on.”
Mordred waved a hand in the way Arthur had seen Merlin do, and a scene appeared between them, translucent enough to see through, like a hologram. A roughly-hewn stone fortress stood in a pastoral summer landscape.
“This is Camelot, the home of the first king of Albion.” Arthur took another step forward, pretending to be engrossed in the images, which shifted until they showed a courtyard, presumably of the same castle. “Its story, and the story of its king, were lost to history, never having been written down. There were legends, passed down by word of mouth, but eventually even these faded and became disjointed fragments, half understood. Only I have been able to uncover the truth: that this king and his counselor, a powerful sorcerer, were destined to rise again in time. And with his counselor's help, he would rule once more over a pure and united Albion.”
“And you are the sorcerer?” Arthur asked; he was five metres away now, but the hologram was between them and he could go no further and still maintain the fiction.
“Sadly, no,” Mordred said. “I am merely the instrument.” He looked over at Merlin. “Emrys is your counselor – and you, Arthur, are the once and future king.”
Arthur bit his tongue to keep from laughing aloud at this ridiculous fancy. “That's – a very generous offer.”
“It is no offer,” Mordred said, drawing himself up. “It is your destiny.”
“Seems I've been hearing quite a bit about my destiny lately,” Arthur said, and this time he did take another step; the hologram dissipated like so much smoke. “And you know, I think I like this one least of all.”
“I am offering you immortality!” Mordred screeched. “Limitless power such as you can only imagine! And you wish to throw it back in my face?”
Arthur pretended to consider it. “Yeah, that's pretty much it,” he said, and without giving himself time to think, he raised the sword and swung it as Gwen had taught him.
“Traitor!” Mordred screamed, raising his hand. The sword never connected.
Fuck, fuck, fuck –
Merlin gave up trying to be subtle as soon as Mordred parried Arthur's blow. He shouted a stunning spell, but he might as well have been shouting nonsense for all the good it did; the spell had no effect whatsoever on Mordred.
“Emrys, I am sorry,” Mordred said, his gaze on Arthur as he advanced toward him. “Your magic is quite useless here. This mountain, and the life force it contains, obeys me and me alone. You could not pull enough power to light a candle from this earth.”
“You can't be that strong,” Merlin said, feeling his rage building even as he feared Mordred was telling the truth. He could feel the truth of it in his bones, in the way he could barely summon the strength to lift his head, let alone cast a spell.
Mordred laughed. “Well, I would not want to deceive you; I am not. But part of your difficulty stems from the fact that you do not wish to use this energy, because you know where it comes from.”
“Whereas you have no compunctions about using it, you bastard,” Gwen hissed, advancing on Mordred.
“Gwen, stay back!” Merlin shouted.
“Like hell I will,” she snapped. “You're killing my dad, my family, you prick. And we're not going to let you win.” She came up beside Arthur, who nodded at her, and the two of them lunged at Mordred as one.
“Oh my,” Mordred said, lips still curled in amusement. A flick of his fingers, and while Arthur staggered as though he'd been struck a heavy blow, Gwen went flying, her sword falling from her hand as she hit the ground. Merlin ran to her; she was groggy and winded, but alive.
“Do you see, Morgana?” Mordred said. “Is it not as I told you?”
“Yes, I'm afraid so,” Morgana said. Merlin's head snapped up as Morgana walked past them, past Arthur and straight to Mordred.
“Morgana,” Arthur hissed, “what the hell are you doing?”
Morgana looked at Arthur with sympathy. “Don't harm him, Mordred,” Morgana said. “I still care about him a great deal. And he may see things your way, in time.”
“I doubt it, my dear,” Mordred said, wrapping an arm around her waist, “but I have no argument with him provided he is disarmed.” He raised his free hand, and Arthur's sword flew from his grip and hovered in the air in front of Mordred.
Gwen opened her eyes and groaned softly. “Just lie still,” Merlin whispered.
“What's happening?” Gwen demanded, also whispering.
“I can't use my magic here,” Merlin hissed. “I can't draw any power. He's – tainted this entire hill.”
Gwen forced herself up. “God, he's got Arthur's sword.” She frowned. “Morgana?”
Merlin shook his head. “I don't know.”
“You've got to do something,” Gwen said. “Anything. Keep him talking, he likes to hear himself talk.” She shoved at him, and Merlin sprang to his feet, remembering what Lancelot had said earlier.
Mordred turned toward him, clearly bored. “Yes, Emrys?”
“When will you be done?” Merlin asked. “When will you be able to declare Albion pure once more?”
“Very soon,” Mordred said, clearly puzzled. “Within a few hours, I should say.”
“And what happens when that power's used up? Because it will be used up – and soon – at the rate you're channeling it. Think about it; no more of that delicious energy coursing through you. You'll be back to the way you were.” He paused to let this sink in. “Do you even remember what it was like before?”
Mordred's chin lifted. “What is your point, Emrys?”
“My point is that you won't be able to live without it. So the next time, you'll decide that you need to widen the net a little. Maybe go after the people who had parents not connected to Albion. Like Gwen,” he said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder. “And then there'll be another wave: the Normans, maybe? Then what, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Basques? That's a lot of us, isn't it, a lot of impure, imperfect people? The population of glorious Albion is going to keep shrinking. And then one of these days, there won't be anyone left. You'll have a kingdom of one.” He thought he saw a flicker in Mordred’s gaze, a moment of doubt, and pressed further. “You know I’m right. Please, if there’s any decency still in you, stop now. End this.”
Mordred's eyes flashed red. “I don't have to listen to these lies. I will have my kingdom, and neither you nor anyone else will be able to stop me.”
Merlin closed his eyes briefly; a thread of magic was curling about him, calling to him. It was a faint song coming from deep within the earth, but it was there, and it was unsullied by Mordred's necromancy. If he could just find a way to get to it, he could –
Suddenly Mordred reached for the sword; before he could, Arthur roared and lunged for it. Mordred raised the hand that had been reaching for the weapon and Arthur rose into the air, back bowing in pain.
“I see your point now, Emrys,” Mordred said silkily, as Merlin watched, horrified to see Arthur slowly twisting as he hung suspended above the ground. “This one is not as pure as I had hoped. Perhaps the glory days are gone after all.”
“Merlin!” Gwen hissed.
Please, Merlin thought, falling into his own centre and coaxing the tendril of earth magic to follow him. It did as he wished, but the connection was tenuous, and it would take time to summon sufficient power to rival Mordred's. Knowing he couldn't hope to win a battle, he set his goal lower: just enough to kick him, damn it, to free Arthur so that he could try to finish Mordred off.
“Mordred,” Morgana said in a low voice, “let him go.”
Arthur's lips were turning blue, and he was gasping for air. Oh, Christ.
“I'm sorry, my dear,” Mordred said, “but I'm afraid he's of no further use to me.”
Merlin couldn't wait another moment. Summoning what power he had, he raised his hand and pushed, and both Arthur and the sword fell to the ground.
Arthur rolled to his side with a groan, struggling to rise, but he was too far away to reach the sword easily, and in a moment Mordred would have it again. Merlin took a step toward Mordred, knowing it was useless, that they were finished –
– and suddenly Morgana twisted out of Mordred's hold and reached into her jacket. Merlin glimpsed a small black box in her hand just before she jabbed it into Mordred's side, causing Mordred to jerk and convulse.
“Not so much fun from the other end, is it, dear?” Morgana cooed, as Mordred writhed under the influence of the stunner.
Merlin rushed to Arthur's side; he was on his knees, struggling to stand.
“No,” Arthur gasped, waving him off, “the sword –”
Merlin ran to where the sword was lying on the ground and brought it to Arthur, who was now on his feet. He took it from Merlin and nodded his thanks.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered. Arthur's jaw set, and he staggered forward, toward Mordred.
“I can't hold him much longer,” Morgana called, her voice too bright, and as Merlin looked up, he saw Mordred's eyes flash again just before Morgana was knocked aside.
“You – are all – becoming quite a nuisance,” Mordred gritted, and before Merlin could even try to summon a shielding spell, Mordred had raised his hand and was lifting him into the air. Merlin felt the strength ebbing from him almost immediately, and knew this was what Arthur had felt.
“Watch, Emrys,” Mordred said, “watch what happens when you attempt to deny your destiny.” He waved his free hand, and Arthur, who had nearly reached Mordred by now, cried out and fell to his knees. The sword was pulled from his hands once more, and Merlin struggled against Mordred's hold as Mordred laid the flat of the blade on Arthur's shoulder.
“Rise, King Arthur Pendragon,” Mordred commanded, and Arthur rose to his feet as though he were a puppet on strings. “Before you die, you will name your successor. That way, the true Albion will live on – in me.”
“Go to hell,” Arthur spat.
“That,” Mordred said, cocking his head, “was the wrong answer.” He forced Arthur to his knees again, and Arthur gasped and choked, caught in the grip of Mordred's powerful necromancy. In a few moments, Mordred would have drained Arthur of every last drop of life; Merlin could feel it. But there was no way to wrest the sword from Mordred's grasp; he was still too strong.
Just as he was beginning to despair of finding a solution, an idea struck him. Gathering every last thread of the tenuous earth magic to him, he closed his eyes and concentrated all his remaining energy.
Behind him, Gwen's sword rose from the dirt floor, trembled, then flew straight for Mordred's heart.
Mordred saw it at the last moment and deflected the blow, but the blade still sliced through his upper arm, causing him to scream and loose his hold on both Merlin and Arthur. As Merlin fell hard on his side, he saw Arthur lunge upward, seize his sword from Mordred's faltering grasp, and drive it up into Mordred's chest.
This time, it was Mordred’s turn to gasp and choke; blood bubbled at the corner of his mouth and he fell backward, the blade leaving his body as he tumbled. As he died, he whispered words with his last breath, words that Merlin recognised even though he had never heard them spoken.
Words Mordred had uttered once before, a millennium and more ago, when Merlin had watched helplessly as the man he had sworn to protect was slain at Mordred's hand.
The sword dropped from Arthur's hands, and he collapsed face first into the dirt not far from Mordred's lifeless body.
“Arthur,” Morgana breathed, staggering unsteadily to her feet and rushing to him. Merlin was at Arthur's side a split second later, rolling him over and gathering him into his lap. He was cold to the touch, and Merlin could feel the life seeping from him, Mordred's curse still hanging over him like a killing fog.
“No,” he murmured, splaying his hands over Arthur's chest as though he could stop the flow, knowing it was useless.
Arthur's eyes fluttered open part way; his cheeks were hollowed and his gaze was dull. “Did we – win?”
“We won,” Merlin could feel the tears forming in his eyes, but he couldn't stop them. “You won.”
“That's worth – kiss,” Arthur managed. A violent shudder ran through him, and Merlin sucked in a breath.
“Later,” Merlin whispered. “There'll be time for that later.”
“No – time.” Arthur's hand rose toward Merlin's face, then dropped. “Kiss me goodbye, Merlin.”
“I'm not kissing you goodbye, you prat!” Merlin shouted, voice breaking on a sob. “You're not dying! It's not going to happen!”
Arthur's eyes widened for a moment, staring up at the ceiling, and then he went still in Merlin's arms.
“No,” Morgana gasped. “Dear God, no.”
Merlin knew he was holding Arthur, but he could no longer feel the weight of him, and it was becoming hard to see him; his vision was going dark as he gathered himself, as his power shrank down to critical mass before it burst forth and shattered the world. “You have to go now,” he told Morgana, and he could barely hear the words. “Take Gwen, and Lancelot and Gawain, and get on the dragon and fly. Fly as fast as you can.”
“Go!” Merlin screamed, though he couldn't be sure he had spoken. Everything was dark, cold, everything except that small, vanishing point inside him: that was white-hot, sharp as a thousand swords, loud as a million screams. Now that Mordred was dead, the small tendril of pure magic became a flood, pouring into him. The man had been a fool, Merlin realised as his strength grew by leaps and bounds: the earth magic was more than enough, more than any one person needed, more than enough to make a kingdom –
The once and future king, Merlin thought, trying to reach out a hand to touch Arthur's cheek and feeling nothing, nothing. He had failed him twice.
The magic crested, reaching its limit, then collapsed into itself between one second and the next. Merlin felt it rush toward his centre at the speed of dreams, then fly outward again, a raging torrent of magic, unspeakably powerful, so powerful he was sure he could not survive it. It burst from his pores, from the ends of his hair, from the tips of his fingers, and suddenly there was a huge explosion, the hill opening above him like a flower unfolding before the sun.
The pure magic flowed from him, drenching the land, sweeping Mordred's power before it like pebbles before a tidal wave. It leapt over hills, following the rivers and streams to the ancient artefacts and restoring what had been stolen. Merlin could feel Albion awakening, the people rising from their beds and laughing as they stood and leapt and fell into one another's arms. He could feel them all, and in that instant, he was all of them.
He could stay here forever, with the energy coursing through him, the magic seeping into his bones and filling him up. He could forget that he had ever felt anything but this, that he had ever been anything but this; it would be easy.
And then he felt something touch him – a memory, only a memory.
Merlin shook his head. No, no, that wasn't real; only the magic was real any longer –
“Merlin, look at me.” A touch on his – on his cheek? Merlin blinked, and the darkness cleared a little. He looked down.
Arthur was looking up at him, his fingers stroking Merlin's face. “There you are,” he murmured. “Long time no see.”
Merlin's mouth opened and closed; he had forgotten how to form words. He shook his head and tried again. “Arthur –”
“Yeah,” Arthur said. “That's me. Come back, Merlin. I know it’s hard to let go of it, but I need you here, alright?”
Merlin's breath hitched, and suddenly he was slamming back into his own body, and everything was too bright and too warm and too loud all at once.
And then Arthur smiled at him, and it was brilliant.
“I'm here,” he rasped, leaning down to press his lips against Arthur's warming skin.
Merlin awoke to find Arthur gone again.
Back in England, the biggest media storm in British history was lashing Parliament and anyone else who strayed in its path, but here on Tanera Mòr the only clouds were high in the sky, scudding swiftly overhead without a care for the petty concerns of those on the ground. The house the government had chosen for their enforced “vacation” was actually fairly pleasant, cozy but cheerful, with a stunning view of the mainland hills. As Merlin sat up and stretched languidly, he supposed there were worse places to fall off the end of the earth.
Arthur went running early every morning and was always showered and burrowing back under the covers before Merlin got up, and they both proceeded to pretend he'd been there all along. Merlin knew Arthur needed this time alone, needed a chance to try to make sense of it all without help or more talk of destiny. Still, the fact that they hadn't talked about it was beginning to put a strain on their relationship, and Merlin sensed that something was about to break.
It didn't help that Arthur was being a prat about Morgana. Merlin had taken the call last night, from an undisclosed location in Spain, the country she and Uther had chosen for their exile. Gwen was in Trinidad with her parents, attending a huge family reunion that they all hoped would help heal the memories of wounds suffered, and Merlin couldn't fault either of them for wanting to get away for a while. As for him, leaving Britain hadn't been an option; he still felt the echo of the earth magic under his skin, and the thought of letting go of that was unbearable. It was fading, and eventually it would become possible to sever the ties that bound him, but for now he needed that connection the way he needed oxygen. If Arthur had wanted something different, he hadn't mentioned it, and had seemed content to go along with Merlin's wishes.
They were having a marvelous time, Morgana had said, chatting with Merlin breezily about the food and the wine and the sun, but at the end her voice had gone soft and vulnerable, and she'd asked after Arthur.
Arthur, who had left the room as soon as he'd heard who was on the phone. “He's fine, Morgana,” Merlin said. “Still – processing everything. But fine.”
“I couldn't tell him,” Morgana said. “I couldn't tell anyone. Gaius thought it would be best, and I agreed. You understand, don't you?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do,” Merlin said, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “If any of us had known what you were planning, Mordred would have been able to sense it. It's amazing you were able to conceal your intentions, really.”
“Gaius says I'm a natural,” Morgana murmured.
“You are. And you helped immeasurably. Arthur knows that, I'm sure.”
“You haven't talked about it?” Morgana asked.
“You're not the only one who's getting the silent treatment. About that, anyway,” Merlin added, because Arthur was his usual gregarious self – when it came to any topics but the important ones. “He's doing what he needs to do, I suppose.”
Morgana snorted. “You don't know him as well as I do. It sounds like he's gone into Uther mode, and when that happens, the only cure is a swift kick.” Merlin heard the sound of a male voice raised in indignation, and Morgana said, obviously not speaking to Merlin, “Oh, don't give me that. You know exactly what I'm talking about.” Morgana sighed. “Merlin, look, I love him dearly, but he's as stubborn as this one when it comes to talking about his feelings, and when he starts chasing his tail he can't see sense until it's dropped on his head. He just went through a life-changing experience, certainly –”
“Well, yes, I'd call death and resurrection a bit life-changing,” Merlin said dryly.
“–but unless you want him moping about until the end of your days, you'd best do something now,” Morgana said smartly, and for a moment Merlin could see her in twenty years with Uther's job while he puttered about the house and cooked paella for her in the authentic Valencian tradition.
“Yes, Detective Sergeant,” Merlin said crisply, and he could practically hear Morgana rolling her eyes two countries over.
“Sod off,” she said affectionately. “And Merlin – welcome to the family.” And before Merlin could manage a coherent response to that, she'd rung off.
This morning, with Morgana's words of advice still chasing themselves around in his brain, Merlin decided to stop pretending. Dragging his lazy arse out of bed was harder than he'd expected, but once he was washed and moving, he was surprised at how satisfying it was to be up and doing this close to sunrise. He'd finished last night's dishes and had a pot of tea steeping under a cozy by the time he heard Arthur's key turning in the cottage door.
Arthur stopped short when he saw Merlin stood in the kitchen. Merlin attempted to appear nonchalant, as though he'd just decided to get up at the arse crack of dawn for no reason, but he was doubtless failing miserably.
“Hullo,” he said, attempting a smile and unable to keep from raking his gaze over Arthur's body, cataloguing the mussed hair, the shade-too-tight t-shirt, the worn track pants that clung lovingly to his thighs, the dusty trainers.
Christ, but he was beautiful.
“Hullo,” Arthur said, a little warily. “Hope I didn't wake you. Thought I'd go for a run.”
Merlin smiled and turned to the counter to pour Arthur a cup, then squeezed a bit of lemon in it the way he knew Arthur liked. “Thanks,” Arthur said, reaching to take it from him when he held it out.
Merlin pointed to a white paper bag clutched in Arthur's other hand. “What's that, then?”
Arthur held it up. “Got it at the café.”
Merlin frowned. There was only one café on the whole island, and it was closed for the season. “Oh? And how'd you manage that?”
Arthur scuffed the toe of his trainer against the faded lino, and Merlin's heart did something oddly acrobatic in his chest. “I struck up a conversation with the lady who runs it yesterday while she was working in her garden. She started telling me about the things she baked for the café, and I believe I might have begun drooling. I suppose she felt sorry for me.” He took a step forward and opened the bag to show Merlin, and the most heavenly scent of spicy tartness wafted from it. “Eccles cakes. I haven't eaten them in years.”
Merlin looked up into Arthur's sea-blue eyes. “Do you like Eccles cakes?” Arthur murmured, gaze dropping to Merlin's mouth.
“I love Eccles cakes,” Merlin whispered, sliding his hand round the back of Arthur's neck and urging him to close the last few inches between them.
Arthur broke away suddenly, and Merlin leaned his forehead against Arthur's and closed his eyes. “What is it?” Merlin asked softly.
“I – I know I'm being an arse,” Arthur said. “I don't really know how to stop, though.”
“You're not being an arse,” Merlin reassured him, fingers tightening on his nape and shaking him gently. “You're just being a little – Shakespearian.”
Arthur drew back and raised an eyebrow. “Lear? Hamlet?”
“God, no,” Merlin said, laughing. “You're not brooding that much. Prince Hal, maybe.”
“Which makes you Falstaff?” Arthur said, attempting a smile and not quite succeeding.
“If I am, I'd better start fattening up,” Merlin said, reaching into the bag.
Arthur shook his head. “You weren't. I mean, you never were,” he said, barely audible, and Merlin froze.
“I saw you,” Arthur continued. “I saw you, as I was – dying. Only you weren't you; you were his Merlin.”
“Arthur, my God,” Merlin said. Arthur shook his head, suddenly stricken, and stepped back out of Merlin's reach.
“I don't know who I am any more,” Arthur said, setting down his tea and the bag and leaning against the counter. “What – what if...” He trailed off, swallowing.
Arthur's gaze met Merlin's, then slid away. “What if we've done all this before? What if this is – Christ, I don't want my life to be the bloody Matrix. Is that too much to ask?” he said, running a hand through his hair.
Merlin considered his answer carefully. “I could see him – the other Arthur – too,” he said finally, and Arthur's head snapped up again. “And I know the other Merlin – loved him very much.” Arthur's eyes widened. “I don't know – if it was the same way I love you, though. I don't think I'll ever know, and to be honest, I'm fine with that. It seems right, somehow, that they should be allowed to keep some of their secrets.”
Arthur pushed off from the counter. “You – love me.”
Merlin shook his head slowly, gobsmacked by how utterly fond he was of this man. “Yeah. That okay?”
“And you're sure you love – me? I mean, twenty-first century me?”
“'Twenty-first century you'?” Merlin repeated, biting his tongue to keep from grinning.
“Merlin,” Arthur sighed, hands bracketing Merlin's hips and tugging him closer.
Merlin rested his forearms on Arthur's shoulders and let the smile have its freedom. “Yeah,” he murmured, brushing his lips against Arthur's, “I'm sure.”
Arthur groaned and angled his head and took Merlin's mouth eagerly, greedily, and Merlin opened to him, letting him in, letting him feel the truth of Merlin's words. Merlin met him kiss for kiss, pushing him back against the counter, bracing his hands against the cupboards and doing his best to crawl inside Arthur, grinding their hips together when Arthur's hands slid down to cup his arse.
“What about the Eccles cakes?” Merlin asked, panting against Arthur's sweat-damp neck.
“They'll keep,” Arthur growled, shoving at his hips until Merlin stepped back, then taking his hand and tugging him toward the bathroom.
Merlin pressed his forehead to Arthur's shoulder as he watched a second finger disappear into Arthur's body. The water pounded down on them both, but Merlin couldn't feel anything but the tight, hot press of Arthur, the rise and fall of his back as he laboured to breathe.
“Okay?” Merlin breathed. “Arthur, are you –”
“Yeah,” Arthur managed. “S'good. More.”
Merlin pushed in, crooking his fingers slightly, and Arthur jerked and pressed his cheek to the tile, his eyes wide with surprise and wonder. “Oh,” he said.
Merlin kissed his shoulder blade, rocked his fingers gently, skating over that small, secret place. “You like that,” he said.
Arthur reached back blindly for Merlin's free hand and guided it to his cock, which was rock-hard. “What do you think?” he rasped. Merlin's own cock twitched, and he shoved it against the cheek of Arthur's arse, rutting mindlessly.
Arthur twisted round and kissed him, messy and desperate. Breaking away before they both ran out of air, he reached for the small packet and waved it in front of Merlin's face.
Merlin kissed him again and reached for it, but Arthur yanked it away at the last moment. “Let me put it on you, yeah?” Arthur murmured against his mouth, and Merlin groaned and grabbed at the base of his cock to keep from coming right there.
Arthur raised an eyebrow and looked down, and Merlin blushed. “Sorry.”
Treating him to a stern look, Arthur said in a low tone, “Most times, I'd consider it a compliment, but if you come before you get your cock in my arse, I won't be responsible for my actions.”
Merlin swallowed. “You realise your sexy copper voice isn't really helping the situation, right?”
Arthur turned Merlin and pushed him gently against the tile. “Then in that case, you're going to have a hell of a time with this,” he said, and with that he sank to his knees and took Merlin's cock in his mouth.
“Urgggg,” Merlin said intelligently, head slamming back against the tile. “Christ, Arthur.”
Obviously Arthur was a closet sadist, for he ran his tongue up the shaft of Merlin's cock, laving it gently and lapping at the tip before (oh, thank God) finally tearing open the packet and carefully rolling the condom over Merlin's cock. Merlin gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, immeasurably grateful when the pressure helped to knock back his arousal just enough to keep him from embarrassing himself.
Arthur reached for the lube first, but when he tried to apply it to Merlin's cock, Merlin gripped his arm and shook his head a little frantically. “Not that I don't appreciate the gesture, but I'd better –” Arthur nodded, dropping his hand, and Merlin prepared himself hastily.
“Turn around,” Merlin murmured, and Arthur obeyed, flattening his palms against the wall like a suspect submitting to arrest. His arse muscles flexed, nervousness evident in the taut lines of his back, but there was determination there, too, and such strength – of mind, heart and body – that Merlin could practically taste it on Arthur's drenched skin.
He guided himself carefully, spreading Arthur's arse cheeks with one hand as he nudged inside. Arthur grunted, not pleasantly, and Merlin stroked Arthur's hip to soothe him. “I can stop,” he offered.
Arthur shook his head. “Don't. You. Dare,” he growled, reaching back for Merlin's hip and urging him deeper. Merlin shuddered as he slid another couple of inches.
“More,” Arthur gritted, and Merlin slowly buried himself in Arthur's welcoming body until he was filling him completely.
Arthur braced his hands against the tile and let his head hang down. “Please,” he said, “now,” and Merlin drew back and slid back in again on Arthur's ragged groan.
“God, you're –” Merlin gasped, flexing his hips.
“Yeah,” Arthur grunted. “Fuck me,” and Merlin began to thrust as though he was helpless to do anything but obey Arthur's orders, setting up a steady, powerful rhythm that had Arthur shaking and murmuring brokenly. Arching his spine and spreading his legs, Arthur forced Merlin even deeper on the next forward thrust. From there it was nothing but heat and madness as Merlin fucked him, savouring the broken cries that fell from Arthur's lips, the knowledge that Arthur craved this connection as much as Merlin did, the incredible feeling of Arthur warm and alive under his hands and around his cock.
Arthur threw his head back, resting it on Merlin's shoulder, and Merlin bit at his neck as his hand reached for Arthur's cock. He got off four uncoordinated strokes before Arthur came apart around him, sending him over with one final jerk of his hips.
With a shaking hand on Arthur’s cheek, Merlin turned Arthur’s head so that he could kiss him on his panting mouth. Arthur returned the kiss with abandon, his own hand reaching back to hold Merlin close.
“I love you too, by the way,” Arthur said, smiling against Merlin’s mouth. “That okay?”
Merlin wrapped an arm around Arthur’s chest, felt the strong, steady beat of his heart beneath his ribs. “I think I can learn to live with it,” he said, tasting Arthur’s laughter as he kissed him again.
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