Chapter 1: Part I
For sixteen years, Merlin Ambryse skims just under the surface of normal. (The term ‘normal’ being used in its loosest definition, of course.) He lives with his parents in a small town called Ealdor about thirty kilometers outside of the mighty city of Albion, close enough that on an exceptionally clear day he can see the skyline from the peak of Mt. Camlann. He goes to school, works part time at the local bookshop, and lets Will get him into trouble.
A normal, average life, filled with imperfections. There is the time he breaks his collarbone tripping over a hurdle while doing athletics in PE. (Which only goes to prove that whoever invented hurdle jumping deserves the lowest circle in hell.) There are the rows he gets into with his father, the ones that only break up when his mother steps in the middle and gives them one of her glares. There is the stretch of time where he and Will get into their biggest fight ever and don’t talk to each other for two weeks, before finally breaking, blurting out garbled apologies at the same time. There is Suzy Mills, who breaks his heart at thirteen by dumping him for John Tyler. There is Percy Kar, who he kisses under the mistletoe at fifteen, who then proceeds to tell everyone, earning himself a black eye and broken nose, while Will ends up unapologetically suspended for a week and Merlin tries to convince his mother that he has the black plague.
It’s about as normal as you can get, except for one thing: Merlin Ambryse is as extraordinary as they come.
His mum likes to tell him, when she’s tucking him in at night, her voice as soft as the hands that smooth down his sheets and wrap him up tight, about the first time he ever used magic. Three weeks old, barely able to lift his head, but his blue eyes went gold and the rattle in her hand tugged out of her hand and into his chubby fist, magic as natural to him as the giggle he gave as he shoved the rattle in his mouth and chewed on it with his toothless gums. Hunith always smiles at him when she tells this story, pressing a kiss to the crown of his head and whispering “my special, special little boy.”
As he grows up a little, though, he starts to recognize that as many times as his mother says “you’re special, Merlin, and that is a very good thing,” being special the way that he is isn’t actually good. After he starts to talk, and after he grows out of his shy stage—around four—his parents kneel in front of him and take his shoulders and try to impress the notion of secrets and no magic outside of the house. He doesn’t understand why, and he pouts and kicks his feet but even child-him can see the sharp worry in his parents’ eyes, and he doesn’t do magic around anyone but his them.
When he is five, he starts to understand the why. He goes to the doctor for a check-up and it isn’t their familiar old country doctor—it’s some young doctor, one who doesn’t really understand how to work with children and is cold and frightens Merlin a little. When it comes time for him to get an injection the doctor approaches too quickly, without the soft soothing of Dr. Young, and Merlin jerks back, curling into his father’s side, lower lip jutting out—the doctor’s mouth goes into a hard line, he grips the needle tighter, and he reaches out. Some part of Merlin’s instincts reads threat in the motion and his magic jumps up automatically; the needle flies out of the man’s hands, striking the wall and dropping to the floor. The doctor’s mouth drops open and he begins to babble, using big words and making frantic gestures and looking at Merlin as though he’s changed from a boy into a science experiment. Merlin doesn’t understand half of what he’s saying, but he knows that he is scared and that bad things are going to happen and he starts to cry, pulling his legs up to his chest as the doctor makes for him again.
But then Balinor steps in front of him, his body a solid shield, and rights the world with a wave of his hand.
He doesn’t have trouble keeping the secret after that. Fear knots itself inside of him, sealing his lips, and for months afterwards he has to be coaxed into using his magic, until his father sits him down and says “it’s okay, you don’t have to be scared, you just have to be careful”. He grows up with the secret ingrained in him, with it threading through his life—sometimes he thinks of himself as normal Merlin and as magic Merlin, and isn’t sure that they can ever be the same person.
It doesn’t help that he grows up watching news reports on the television, watching the brightly colored superheroes of Albion, the Knights, as they fly through the sky and defeat the evil Rogues, and as a child he presses close to the tv, because the Knights are heroes and best of all, they are magical, just like him, and he wants to be them. Their leader, the Dragonlord, is his favorite, always looking so brave and strong when the cameras fix on him, just like a mythical knight except he rides a dragon instead of a horse. But as he starts to grow older and begins to listen to what the news anchors say, he doesn’t hear words like hero and savior--he hears menace and masked fanatics and quickly comes to realize that the world doesn’t think of the Knights as heroes, it sees them as villains, just like the Rogues. Magic, no matter who uses it, is evil.
Does that make him evil? Merlin asks his father about it one day, and Balinor gives him a sad look, shaking his head, taking him by both shoulders and kneeling in front of him. Then, in a very quiet, intense voice, his father says, “no, Merlin. You could never be evil. You are special, and wonderful, and one day people won’t be afraid of magic. But until then, this is why you have to keep it secret.”
And so he does.
The only person he tells is Will, when they are thirteen, and only because after seven years of friendship he can’t keep it to himself for a second longer. They are sitting in their favorite climbing tree (technically on the property of old man Simmons, who hates them, and thus they are perpetually on the look out), Will sprawled on a higher branch, Merlin below with his back against the trunk and his head tilted back. They are quiet, Will stretching like a cat in the sun that glints through the canopy of leaves, Merlin idly drawing a finger over the bark. He’s not sure what makes him say it, but his lips move and he hears: “I have magic” come out of his mouth.
He is afraid to look as Will stirs above him, fixing his gaze on a whorl in the branch instead. Sure, he knows Will, but that doesn’t make him any less afraid that knowledge of his magic will be like poison, changing Will from his best friend into some beast intent on his destruction. Will makes a sound, trying to draw his attention, but he can’t bring himself to move, and his friend makes a huffing sound before shifting and climbing down, dropping lightly onto Merlin’s branch and sitting directly in front of him. Merlin bites his lip and looks up to find Will studying him carefully.
“You don’t look like magic to me,” Will says, a careless grin at the corner of his mouth.
“Well, I am,” he replies, almost defensive.
“Prove it,” his friend challenges. Merlin takes a deep breath, trying to think of some small bit of magic that he can do, but then the branch they are sitting on makes an ominous crack and there is only time for the two of them to stare at each other, the identical thought of oh shit written on their faces, before the branch snaps. Merlin’s part stays attached to the tree.
Will’s does not.
Merlin reacts automatically, magic bubbling out of him, and everything freezes. Will is suspended in the air, limbs in mid-flail, mouth open in a shriek. Merlin blinks, because he’s never done that before, and thinks quickly, snapping his fingers. A bed appears beneath Will, just as time snaps back into motion, and his friend’s screech turns into a whumph of surprise as he hits the bed and bounces a little. He stares down at Will, who stares back at him, mouth open.
Then: “That was bloody fantastic. Can you do that again?”
Merlin lets out a shaky laugh and rolls his eyes. “You scream like a girl,” he says, and begins to climb down. Their friendship doesn’t change a bit, except now Will comes up with even more elaborate trouble-making schemes, assured that Merlin can always get them out of it.
There is one other thing that sets his life apart from normal.
Every night, his father disappears.
He becomes aware of this when he is ten as he stumbles out of bed for a glass of water and glances out the window to see his father’s figure hunching into the darkness while his mother stands in a pool of light from the kitchen, watching the departure with something he will later recognize as fear in her eyes. He wanders into the kitchen and asks her where daddy is going, only for her to pat him on the head and mumble some excuse that he swallows without question. When he wakes in the morning Balinor is there again, smiling and laughing as though he had never left. But as he gets older, Merlin finds the pattern, that every night his father will leave, sometimes returning early, sometimes coming home just as the sun peaks over the horizon—on these nights he lies in bed, holding his breath until he hears the heavy step outside his door, his mind writing explanation after explanation on the inside of his eyelids. Sometimes his father will lift his arm and accidentally reveal some dark bruise pressed into his flesh, and Merlin will silently ask but never receives an answer. For some reason, he can’t bring himself to ask aloud.
For almost seventeen years, this is how life goes, just slightly off-kilter from normal.
And then, on a Tuesday morning, it unravels, quickly and violently, when he comes downstairs to find bloody footsteps trailing across the kitchen floor and his mother cradling Balinor’s head in her lap, hands leaving red smudges across his father’s cheeks. She sits in a pool of blood that has gone gummy and dark around the edges, his father’s limbs trailing away from her at impossible angles.
Except for the shallow gasp of her breath, he has never known such stillness. When her eyes tilt up to find him standing in the doorway she makes an involuntary keening sound, high in the back of her throat and her hands slip over Balinor’s skin as though she can summon him back.
The magic that surges out of him gives voice to every furious, anguished thought that is frozen inside his mind; it gouges tiles from the floor and explodes them, grinds glass and porcelain into dust, shreds the cabinets to splinters, melts metal and lets it run molten before solidifying into sharp spiked shapes, bursts the light bulbs and leaves them sitting amid destruction in the purple early morning light. The blood looks black and Hunith is translucent and when the last roar of magic subsides, Merlin pitches forward, limp and heavy, and his mother stretches out an arm as if to catch him, but he falls anyway.
Minutes later they will be found by neighbors investigating the noise—a kitchen destroyed as thoroughly as by a fierce storm; Merlin unconscious and bleeding sluggishly from a head wound; Hunith kneeling over him, pressing a cloth to the wound, her other hand clasped around the broken wrist of her husband’s body, a splintering connection unwilling to let go.
In the aftermath of his father’s death, the world tilts upside down. The direct aftermath is this: neighbors, police, ambulances, hospitals. He wakes in a hospital bed, his mother crumpled in a chair by his side, clothes still splattered with blood, her eyes with all the color gone out of them. Will roars into the hospital only minutes later, furiously muscling his way through the army of nurses to burst into the room, pale, shaking, on the verge of collapse, empty of the words that come as naturally to him as breath.
The story that his mother tells is a seamless imitation of truth, the kind of perfect lie that is impossible to see through unless one knows exactly where the flaws are. She tells of a burglary by a desperate fanatic, of brave Balinor fighting him off and being fatally wounded in the process, of the fanatic who fled with Hunith and Merlin’s arrival, knocking Merlin out in his desperate escape. Will gets a hard look in his eyes—the one usually reserved for thoughts of his father’s death—and Merlin looks away. (He knows where the flaws in her lie are: there was no burglar; the utter destruction of the kitchen is his own doing; his father is not dead at the hands of random violence.)
In the following week people appear to have whispered conversations with Hunith, Merlin sleepwalks, and Will doesn’t leave his side. Funeral arrangements are made, sympathetic glances are given, and every night Merlin holds his breath waiting for his father’s step outside the door. Everyone believes the lies without question, and Merlin lives in a bubble about to pop.
The day after the funeral Hunith finally convinces Will to go home, pressing a sticky kiss to his forehead and telling him that his mother is worried. More than anything this last remark stirs him, and he guiltily scrapes a foot across the floor, hugs Merlin tight, and heads down the street with a bowed head. (The house feels emptier, as though he were keeping the ghost of Balinor’s absence at bay, filling in the hollow just a little.)
Merlin wanders into the kitchen, closing his eyes against the memory of blood. The kitchen has been restored from its destruction, set to rights except for the spiky metal structures which have stubbornly refused to yield. The sink taps, the handle of the refrigerator, the knobs on the cabinets—all of them are sharp metallic statues, forged in fury and heartbreak, solid structures of frozen grief. He touches a hand to one of them, letting the magic pour out of him. The metal liquefies, cool like mercury against his skin, and returns to its original shape.
His mother’s footstep is light behind him.
“What really happened?” he asks without turning around.
“Your father…,” He turns now, seeing the lie rise for a moment in her throat, instinctive before she swallows it down.
“Where did he go every night?”
She hesitates, then waves her hand, motioning for him to follow up the stairs. He pauses at the doorway of his parents’ room, his father’s presence still on every surface. She disappears for a moment and returns, offering to him a bundle of answers wrapped in a blanket. He peels it back, revealing a bunch of cloth that he has known his entire life. He has seen it hundreds of times, always at a distance, and now it is in his hands, heavier than expected, smooth, ripped and blood-stained. There is something hard in the middle and he pulls the object out—a mask, surprisingly flexible for looking so solid, black and green and silver shot through with glittering orange, shaped into horns and spikes and the muzzle of a snarling dragon. He almost drops it, but manages to keep hold.
He lifts his gaze to his mother.
“I don’t know what happened the last night that your father went out. He didn’t have time to explain…he went up against someone and came off second best. He was wounded badly, but…he managed to get back here. That’s all he was thinking of—getting back to us. When he got here—,” her voice breaks, “we knew that…. I changed his clothes and hid the uniform.”
“Why?” He can imagine the scene in his mind and feels removed from it: his father badly wounded, bleeding; his mother extracting broken limbs from torn cloth and sliding them gingerly into normal clothes; Balinor gasping for breath and Hunith choking down sorrow.
She looks at him, a tremor running the course of her body. “To protect us. To protect you. If people knew your father was the Dragonlord… what would they expect of his son? You would be targeted, or taken away, and I couldn’t—.” Her voice breaks again and spurns him into motion. He starts forward and wraps his arms around her, surprised to find that she is so small and fragile in his grip—she buries her head into his neck, roles reversed just once so that he offers strong comfort and she cries. She shakes for a few moments, then gradually retakes her role, lifting her head and tightening her grip and kissing him on the forehead before letting go. She takes the uniform back from him, but leaves him with the mask, shaking her head when he tries to give it back.
“He would want you to have it.”
And after that, there’s really nothing to say.
Around two o’clock in the morning that night, Merlin gives up on sleep. Ever the considerate son he leaves a note on his bed before climbing out of the window. He levitates himself down, bleeding off some of the magic that jumps under his skin; on the ground he lets out a shaky breath and heads down the road. The night is a bit chilly and beautifully empty. Reaching Will’s house he slips around the side, waggles his fingers to unlock the latch, and crawls through the window. He’s done this a thousand times before, but that doesn’t keep him from catching his ankle on the window sill and pitching head first onto Will’s bed.
The other boy comes awake fast—having someone fall on you will do that—and grabs him. “Mer?” Will asks, grip tight and steadying, eyes wide and bleary.
“Who else climbs through your window in the middle of the night, Will?” he asks dryly.
Even in the darkness he can make out the shape of that half-leering grin. “Oh, I have all kinds of visitors, Merlin.”
“And here I thought I was special.”
“Of course you are.” And even though it’s a joke, there is some earnestness beneath Will’s voice that makes him blush.
Silence falls between them, Will waiting patiently to know why his bed has been invaded, Merlin not finding the words to say. He has no secrets from Will, and this is one that he absolutely cannot keep tight within his chest without it exploding.
“He was the Dragonlord. My dad.”
Merlin doesn’t like speechless-Will. He can almost see the thoughts running through his friend’s mind: bloody hell; that’s awesome; but—how?; why?; and the one that hurts the most, he’s dead. Before Will gets a chance to let one of these thoughts burst out, Merlin continues. “Do you remember how we used to talk about me becoming a Knight one day?”
Something dawns in Will’s face, a mixture of fear, excitement, and concern. “I know what you’re thinking, Mer, but just because your father—“
Merlin sharply shakes his head. “Not just because. I have all this power, Will, and I do bugger all with it. I sit here with the power to help people and—,” His voice cracks. “If I’d been with him, could I have saved him?”
“It’s not your fault,” Will says, automatic. It’s the same thing that Merlin has said to him a thousand times over in a reverse situation.
“I know. Well, logically I know. But he—he’s gone. One less person is out there saving people. There’s one less hero in the world. And he wasn’t just a hero, he was my dad. How can I know what he did with his life and not want to do the same?”
Will studies him for a long time. “You’re crazy. Your mother will kill you. And me.”
“I’ll keep it a secret from her.”
“Merlin, you’re crazy but let’s not be delusional too.”
The next morning when Will’s mother opens the door to find that her son has either grown a second head, created an android, or been joined by a late night visitor, she’s not really surprised.
Predictably, Hunith isn’t happy.
Merlin doesn’t outright tell her—because how does one tell his mother that he wants, essentially, to be a superhero?—but she puts the pieces together. Curious black marks—like burns—appear on the back of her house. Some of Balinor’s books disappear. The boys come trekking into the house one afternoon covered head to toe in a thick orange goo and are unwilling to explain. Will appears one night sporting a brilliantly colored bruise the expanse of his cheek, which is mysteriously gone the next day. Merlin volunteers to clean out the loft, and the boys disappear into it constantly, creating sounds that cannot possibly be from cleaning.
Of course, what clinches it is when she walks into the room to find Will pitching names and costume ideas and trying valiantly to convince Merlin that the gaudy blue fabric in his hand is the perfect material for a costume. Over his shoulder Merlin goes pale at the sight of her.
“Planning your Halloween costumes, boys?”
Will freezes without turning, and even holds his breath as though remaining perfectly still will render him invisible. She folds her arms and he pivots slowly on his heel. His instinct is self-preservation, and she sees his lips form the word yes and is certain that a whole charming explanation will come tumbling from them.
“No,” Merlin says, before his friend gets the chance to talk them out of trouble. Will freezes again, his only motion a quick glare at his friend.
“Oh?” she says, and both of the boys recognize the danger. Will starts easing slowly towards the door, hoping that if he makes no sudden movements she won’t spring for his jugular. He will mess with any authority figure except for the wrath of a mother. She pins him with a look. “Go home, Will.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says. He makes a motion at Merlin that probably means good luck or you’re dead, then bolts, leaving her to stare down her son.
Normally when Merlin is in trouble he bows his head and scuffs his feet and tries to get out of it with his best innocent who me? look that he learned from Will. This time he meets her gaze, his spine made of steel and his eyes unreadable.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“You already know that, Mum.”
“I forbid it.” He jolts a little, maybe at the vehemence of her voice, maybe at the fact that she has never outright forbidden him to do something. He opens his mouth to reply but she silences him with a sharp shake of her head. “You will not do this, Merlin James Ambryse.” She means business, breaking out the middle name and all. And normally, he would yield. He considers himself to be a good son, and he’s never really outright disobeyed his parents about something serious. The last thing he wants is to upset her, or hurt her, and he knows that that is where the road will lead. But he can’t back down. Not about this. “You will not throw your life away on a fool’s errand.”
“Mum,” he says, his voice soft, “one way or another, I am going to do this. I have to.”
“Why?” she asks, not above letting despair creep into her voice. “Why on earth do you have to throw your life away? You want to have to hide all the time? You want to break yourself trying to save a city full of people who would gladly throw you to the wolves? You want to be hunted by the people you’re fighting and the people you save? There is no glory in this! It’s not pretend, it’s not television, it’s your life!” What she doesn’t say aloud, but what lies behind her words is this: you want to die like your father? She doesn’t fling it at him but he knows it is there all the same.
“I know it’s my life, Mum. That’s why I have to. I’m already living a lie, pretending I’m normal. I’m not. I’m more powerful than Dad was—“
“And you have no idea what to do with that power!” she interrupts.
He shakes his head. “Then I’ll learn, Mum. I have to do something.”
“Why do you suddenly have a death wish?” She says, her voice sharp and he tenses in response.
“Did Dad have a death wish?”
“No,” she says automatically, and then closes her eyes. “We aren’t talking about your father, Merlin. We’re talking about you. This isn’t a fairytale where everything will end happily. The life you are trying to choose is dangerous. It will end with you hurt or dead or locked in prison or strapped to a gurney in some white room being poked with needles.”
He swallows hard, knowing that she’s right. Knights don’t usually have happy endings; he’s seen it time and time again: the way they plunge out of the sky and crash against the pavement and go limp; the way they collapse from exhaustion and are seized by police officers; the way the light goes out of their eyes when masks are pulled off. “I know it’s not a fairytale,” he says softly. “But that’s the point. In a fairytale someone always saves the day, but in the real world they don’t. Unless someone has the courage to stand up and be the hero.”
The breath eases out of her slowly. “This isn’t your duty, Merlin. Nothing says that you have to try and be the hero.”
“I think it is though. Not everyone has magic, Mum, and we know that my magic is different. It’s not just meant to sit around.” He half-smiles. “When I was little, you always told me that I was special. You always said that everyone has a destiny and that I could grow up and be whatever I wanted. You always told me that I could change the world if I tried.” He swallows, sure that his eyes are fever bright. His mother looks older and more tired than she ever has in his memory, her face lined and her dark hair touched with gray; his heart clenches in his throat. He wants to promise to be careful, he wants to tell her that everything will be okay, that he’ll be fine, that nothing bad will ever happen to him, but he’s never been good at lying, not when she can see every guilty tick in his atoms. He can’t open his mouth now and lie like that, not when there’s a good chance that he might end up bleeding on the kitchen floor with her unable to save him. Instead, he reaches out and touches her shoulder, pleading. He needs her to understand, even if she can’t support him.
She stares back, something breaking into resignation in her eyes. “You have the same look in your eyes that your father did,” she says. It’s not a blessing, but it’s not a forbiddance either.
After a couple of months, when his enthusiasm hasn’t flagged and as he and Will fumble their way through research and strategies and trite names and gaudy pieces of fabric, Hunith grudgingly comes to accept the shape that his future will take. She sets a few ground rules—he will not let his school work suffer over this, he will not begin action as a Knight until he is eighteen at least, he will train each and every day, he will go to uni, he will research and fully comprehend the laws he will be breaking and all of the terrible things that can happen, he will wear something more substantial than tights—and stops trying to talk him out of it. For a few more weeks she watches as he struggles to get more out of his magic than he knows is possible, but she only takes pity on him after he blows up the shed in the back garden.
The next morning, when he shambles downstairs, still dressed in an over-sized sleep shirt and a pair of jogging bottoms that he stole from Will, he finds her sitting at the dining room table, a cup of tea in front of her and a contemplative look on her face. She looks up at his arrival—announced loudly by him tripping over a bubble in the carpet, one he has tripped over almost every day of his life, and cursing loudly—and shakes her head. “I swear, one day you’re going to concuss yourself, tripping over that thing.” He shrugs, because yeah, it’s probably true, and steps in, taking a seat across from her when she tilts her head at it.
She looks at him for a long moment and he squirms under the attention, wondering which of his misdeeds she’s found out about this time and planning how he’s going to blame Will this time. Then she slides a piece of paper across the table to him. He picks it up curiously, reading an unfamiliar name and an address.
“Gaius White? Who’s that?”
She looks down at her tea, studying her reflection in the dark liquid surface. “He was a friend of your father’s. A very good friend,” she says, her voice stressing the underlying meaning and he blinks down at the name in new light. “He taught your father when he was younger.”
“Do—do you think he would teach me?”
She turns the cup slightly in her hands, pressing the handle into her palm. “I don’t know, Merlin. Things are…complicated. But he might. He’s the only one that would, these days.” With that, she stands, heading for the kitchen. She pauses to kiss him on the top of his head, and murmurs something that might be good luck.
Four hours later he is standing in front of a door, reading the embossed plaque that says Gaius White, PhD. and trying to talk himself into knocking. It took two buses and nearly an hour of wandering aimlessly through the campus of Joyous Garde University to get him here, but standing in front of the door—dressed in his ‘nice’ clothes—he’s suddenly not sure about this course of action.
His mobile phone buzzes in his pocket, and when he pulls it out there’s a text from Will that reads: knock on the door you sissy. He looks around suspiciously, half-wondering if Will is somewhere stalking him, then decides that his friend just knows him way too well. He scowls at the phone, flips it closed, and shoves it back into his pocket before knocking.
If he holds his breath waiting for a response, well, this is a huge thing.
A few seconds later the door opens, revealing an older man who looks vaguely familiar. He has completely white hair, longer than convention, and his face is lined with age, good-natured. “May I help you?” the man asks, looking at him with slightly narrowed eyes as though trying to place him.
Merlin swallows before extending his hand and trying not to let his smile slip into ‘constipated’ territory. “Hello. Are you Gaius White?” The man nods, shaking his hand. Despite the age spots on his skin, the grip is strong. “I’m, uh, I’m Merlin Ambryse,” he says, without stuttering too much.
Something changes in Gaius’s expression, maybe recognition slotting into place, maybe a touch of wariness, but the older man opens the door wider and beckons him in. He steps into the cramped room and Gaius closes the door firmly behind him, moving around to the other side of the desk. “Please, take a seat, Merlin.” He does, looking at the man and trying to place him. It hits him after a few moments—this man was one of the ones having whispered conversations with Hunith after Balinor’s death, and he was at the funeral as well.
“I—you knew my father,” Merlin says, and isn’t sure if it sounds like a question or a statement.
Gaius nods. “I did.” The man folds his hands in front of him, examining him from across the desk. “Your father was a good friend of mine.” For a moment sorrow flashes across his expression, something that Merlin has become acutely acquainted with. “But what can I do for you, Merlin?”
Merlin watches him carefully, weighing how best to continue. “My mother mentioned that you once taught my father. I was hoping you might be able to teach me as well.”
The man closes his eyes briefly, sighing softly. “Your mother is a remarkably stubborn person.”
He starts a little, and then grins. “I suppose she is.”
Gaius idly straightens a pile of papers on his desk, the motion a rote of nervousness. “Your father was also remarkably stubborn.”
“I suppose he was,” Merlin says, grin fading to something more somber, and Gaius gives him a scrutinizing look.
“I would assume, then, that there’s no hope in thinking you might turn out to be more sensible and less stubborn than the both of them?” There is a hopefulness in Gaius’s voice, one that dies as Merlin draws himself up. He’s not sure where this is going, but he does know that the last thing he inherited from his parents was sensibility, and that he is more stubborn than both of them put together.
“I’m afraid not,” he says, almost apologetic, and Gaius nods.
“Yes, that’s what I was afraid of.” The man taps one finger against the surface of his desk, lips slightly pursed. “I know why you’re here,” he says finally. “Your mother called me last night.”
“Yes. And she’s hoping that my answer will change if I talk to you, if I see you.”
Gaius sighs. “You’re just a boy, Merlin. You have no idea of how dangerous the path you’re choosing will be. Magic is a dangerous game these days.”
The other man smiles grimly. “I’m sure you think you know. But do you truly understand? Do you know the political motivations? Are you aware of the new efforts the police are putting into capturing Knights and Rogues? Do you know the penalties for being caught using magic—just using magic, much less being found as a Knight or a Rogue? Do you know why the purge against magic began, or what happens to the Knights who are captured?”
“Then teach me.” The words surprise him as much as they surprise Gaius, but as soon as he says them he knows it is the right thing to say. Gaius has a valid point—Merlin knows next to nothing about everything going on in Albion. He doesn’t know the answers to all the questions he’s just been asked, and he isn’t going to know the answers unless someone teaches him. “This morning, when my mother gave me your name, she said that you were the only person who would teach me. Not the only one who could, the only one who would.” He pauses. “You taught my father. You were his friend and his mentor, so now help his son.”
Gaius turns his head to the side. “I knew your father in a different time, before magic was banned. There was a fellowship between sorcerers back then, and even after the Purge began I kept his secret, gave him aid when he needed it over the years. But those were different circumstances. We live in a darker place now, and I do not believe your father would wish me to help you meet the same fate he did.”
Merlin straightens his back. “The world only gets darker when no one decides to fight.” He stands and it takes a moment for Gaius to mimic the motion. “Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. White.”
“Professor,” Gaius corrects absently, watching him. He echoes the honorary and offers his hand. Gaius shakes it, the slightest tremor in his hands. “I haven’t changed your mind at all, have I?”
He grins. “Stubbornness, remember? Are you sure…?”
Gaius shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I can’t teach you.”
“Well, thank you for your time,” he says, and steps out of the room, the door closing with a click behind him.
When he gets home later Hunith looks at him and he shakes his head. Her face falls a bit and she offers him a cup of tea. “I’m sorry, Merlin. I thought you might be able to convince him—“
He shakes his head, smiling. “It’s alright. Thanks for trying, mum. I’ll muddle through on my own just fine.”
She folds her arms. “If you blow up my shed again—“
“That was Will’s fault!” He says.
“Will doesn’t have magic. Would you like to try again?”
He mock-scowls. “Since when has he needed magic to blow things up?” His mother tilts her head, considering this, and shrugs. He grins at her and she reaches across to pat him fondly on the shoulder.
“You’ll do just fine,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”
He hopes that she’s right.
(Sometimes, he has the strangest dreams. He can’t remember them, not in full, just remembers flashes—light on metal, the smell of steel, a murmur of voices, a flash of gold that he knows is magic, the jutting stone precipices of a castle, half of a man’s face, the ringing clash of sword upon sword—and they are muddled and confused and slip away quickly when he wakes. But he does remember one thing from the dreams, one thing that tucks itself into the back of his consciousness when he wakes. A voice, calling to him, one that says: Come to me, young Warlock. You have a destiny. Come.)
One morning, two weeks after Gaius’s refusal, Merlin is awakened by his mother. He sits up in bed, groggy, blinking blearily at her. “Gaius is downstairs,” she says. “He would like to talk to you.” He pulls on whatever clothes he can lay hands on first and shambles downstairs, to where Gaius is waiting in the kitchen. There’s something in his manner that is disconcertingly uncomfortable, hesitant almost.
“Gaius?” He asks, through a yawn.
Gaius clears his throat, showing that hesitancy more. “Good morning, Merlin. I—ah, I have a request of you.”
He raises an eyebrow, half wondering if he is still asleep. “Okay.”
“There is…someone I believe you should meet. Would you accompany me?”
“Of course.” He stretches, looking at the older man. “Where are we going?”
Gaius just shakes his head and motions for him to follow.
“Gaius, we are in the middle of nowhere. If this turns out like that one episode of Torchwood, I’m going to scream like a girl.”
Gaius’s mouth quirks in amusement and then settles back into a troubled line. He pulls off the road and parks the car, then gets out. Merlin follows, staring around at the completely empty countryside. “Er…,” he says, and then realizes that Gaius is already half-way over a hill and runs to catch up. “No, seriously. We are in the middle of nowhere. I thought we were going to see someone…?”
“We are,” Gaius says, and then falls silent, refusing to offer anything more. This has been the pattern of the entire trip, and in the car Merlin had shrugged and accepted it, staring blindly out of the window instead. But now they are walking through the middle of nowhere and he would kind of like a little bit more information.
“Where does this person live?” He asks, and then jerks to a stop, realizing that Gaius has paused abruptly and seems to be staring—no, that’s really more of a glare, isn’t it?—at the hill in front of them. “Er…did that hill offend you in some way that I should know about?” He asks. And then the hill moves.
At least, that’s what it looks like at first, like the earth bulges upwards and grows into a mountain; then, against the gray sky, the silhouette clarifies, showing the canvas of two extended wings and the rectangular shape of a head.
Merlin, to his credit, doesn’t scream like a girl, but he does let out a rather undignified squeak. “That’s a dragon.”
Gaius make a noncommittal sound.
The dragon—it’s a bloody dragon, and if he’s been brought all the way out here to be offered up as a sacrifice to it, he is going to have some serious issues—is covered in scales, orange and rust and brown, the color of living earth. Its eyes are the luminous yellow of a predator, decidedly feline in shape, but with the intelligence of a human and the otherness of a divine being.
“Young Warlock,” it says, and its voice rings straight through him, echoing in his mind.
Merlin narrows his eyes. “I know that voice. I’ve heard it in my dreams. You’ve been talking to me in my dreams.”
The dragon laughs. “Yes, I have.” It looks at Gaius, who has his arms folded and a dark look on his face. “Physician,” it says, something mocking in its tone.
Gaius doesn’t offer a greeting back. “Will you stop troubling my dreams now?” He says instead.
If dragons can smirk, Merlin is sure that this one is. It bobs its head. “I will. If you consent to train him.”
Gaius sets his jaw. “Train him and let him get himself killed?”
“He will do as he wants with or without your help, Physician. But without aid he is likely to fail.”
“And knowing that you would still send him off to the slaughter, wouldn’t you?”
“Er, can the two of you stop talking about me like I’m not here?” Merlin interjects, looking between man and dragon. Both of them snap their attention to him, Gaius flushing a bit, the dragon tittering a laugh.
“Stubborn as always,” it says.
He raises an eyebrow. “How would you know that? Have we met before?”
“Not in living memory, young Warlock,” it says, and there is a cipher in its words. It looks back to Gaius. “You will train him?” It is phrased as a question, but even Merlin knows that it is not.
For a moment Gaius visibly wavers. “I will help him because he needs it. Not because you command it.”
The dragon gives the equivalent of a grin, lips pulling back to reveal teeth longer than Merlin’s arm. “Yes, Physician. Pretend that your decision are your own. Take petty comfort in the thought that you can sway the course of fate.”
Gaius glares and stalks away, back towards the car, leaving Merlin feeling small before the dragon. He looks up at it, intimidated but unafraid. “What was that about?”
The dragon swings its head down; up close Merlin realizes just how insignificant he is in comparison, how the pupil of its eye is the size of his hand, how the length of his body is the height of its muzzle. “There are old things between the physician and I, young Warlock.”
“Why do you keep calling me that? And why are you talking to me in the first place?”
“I call you what you are. And I speak to you because you are more important than you realize.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“You have a destiny, young Warlock. You will help recreate a kingdom of old. You will help bring magic back to this world. You will restore balance.”
For a long moment, Merlin is silent. “Are you telling me that I’m the Chosen One and that I must bring balance to the force? Because I’m all for being a Jedi, but I really don’t want to be Anakin. He’s such a whiny bitch, and as awesome as Darth Vader is, I’d rather not have to be melted by lava first.”
The dragon blinks at him. “I do not understand your reference, Warlock.”
He clears his throat. “Sorry. Star Wars. It’s a film. Um, what were you saying?”
The dragon settles itself into a more comfortable position. “You must be aware of this destiny. It will unfold itself before you in time, but you must be conscious of it, aware of its presence upon your life. There is another, who shares this fate with you, the destined king. You are two halves of one whole, and you must protect him at all costs.”
“And how will I know who this ‘destined king’ dude is?”
“You will know. Your fates will intertwine. You will first meet three times, and after this your lives will be bound together. He will bear the crest of the dragon, and by this you will know him.”
Merlin, his head swimming, stands there a moment longer, staring at the dragon. “You knew my father,” he finally says. “You’re the dragon he called to the city three years ago.” Merlin remembers that night vividly. He was at Will’s house, the two of them glued to the tv, where the story was on every channel. The battle raged between the Dragonlord and his forces--Merlin recalls the Fisher King, Sentinel, and the Healer most clearly, although there were more--and the Enchantress, the leader of the Rogues. There were never any concrete details on what had happened to begin the fight, but the cameras clearly caught the blow that struck the Healer square in the chest, the way she flew through the air and crashed against the wall and then was still, and Merlin can remember the look on the Dragonlord’s face then, the way it tightened in fury, the way his neck went rigid as he tilted his head back to he sky and screamed out something in a strange language.
Five minutes later, the dragon was there. The creature that was the Dragonlord’s usual steed paled in comparison against the beast that overtook the sky, wings seemingly filling the horizon; it breathed fire down, scorching the ground, pushing the Rogues back. The Dragonlord rose beside it, guiding his mount into the air, and together they were impossible to beat. The Ravenmaster, the Enchantress’s partner fell beneath them, and the Rogue’s fell back, their battle lost, and it ended with smoke rising in the air. Then the Dragonlord touched his hand to the great dragon’s snout and the creature took to the sky.
And now it is standing in front of him, eyes closed briefly, in an expression Merlin knows as pain. “I did. I am sorry for his loss. And for yours.” When the dragon opens his eyes again he sees the sincerity. There’s something more there as well, some knowledge, some secret that he will not speak yet. “Goodbye, young Warlock. We will meet again.” And before Merlin can say anything more the dragon leaps into the sky, buffeting him with strong gusts of wind as he wings high into the overcast sky and disappears into the cloud cover.
Merlin makes the muddy trek back to he car, sliding into the passenger seat. Gaius is looking straight forward, seeming unable to make eye contact, and they are silent for a moment.
“You couldn’t have warned me about the bloody dragon?”
Gaius turns, tension seeping from him, his gaze amused. He reaches out and cuffs him lightly on the shoulder. “Language. As a Knight you have to present yourself as respectable, God help us. You have a long way to go before you’re presentable.”
He sits straight up, staring. “You’ll train me?” He knows that he heard the man’s acquiescence to the dragon, but there are things there that he doesn’t understand. He needs to hear the acceptance directed to him. Gaius nods.
“I will. And we start today.”
What Merlin doesn’t realize when Gaius agrees to train him, is that the older man has the heart of a drill sergeant. True, he looks like a kind, genial old man, (and okay, he is a kind, genial old man) but beneath that he is sharp and demanding and has massively high expectations. More than that, he has the soul of an old warrior, one long out of the game who has never forgotten the look of war. He is an excellent teacher, endlessly patient and beyond capable of explaining things so that Merlin can wrap his tiny brain around them, but he is also ruthlessly demanding, and he knows when Merlin is slacking off. He has an innate sense for it, the kind that stretches over miles and allows him to call Merlin at the exact moment that he is neglecting his training for some escapade with Will.
Nor does Gaius let up on any part of Merlin’s life. Merlin doesn’t slack off at school—because these are A-levels and if he doesn’t do well his mother will kill him—but when he mentions cutting down on training just a bit until the end of school Gaius gives him a look. He tries to explain that this is insane, because he has school five days a week, his weekends belong entirely to Gaius except for the hours he spends on homework, and the rest of his time is spent training. But Gaius folds his arms and tells him: “You have to learn how to balance this life with the rest of your life.” And Merlin sighs and nods and tires not to complain, because he did ask for this.
The training regime that Gaius comes up with is threefold: part physical, part mental, and part magical, and it fills every last second of Merlin’s spare time.
One day a week he heads into Albion to visit Gaius at the university, where Gaius piles book after book on him, ranging from works on magical history to myth and legends to heavy volumes on the more current legal issues regarding magic users. He gets quizzed on his reading after he finishes it, and then he and the professor have long in-depth discussions about the subject matter.
The most important of these conversations is about the Regulation Council, the driving force behind what is referred to as “the Great Purge of magic from Albion”. (Technically, the council’s official title is actually The Council for the Regulation of Magic and the Restriction of Masked Fanatics, but even people who have nothing to do with magic know it as the Regulation Council.) Whenever they get to this topic Gaius’s mouth goes tight, and Merlin sometimes wonders if it is simply because the Regulation Council is responsible for destroying people’s lives or if there is something more personal there. Whatever it is, the professor leans forward, his eyes intent, and speaks in a quiet voice. “If you learn nothing else, Merlin, know that the Regulation Council is your greatest enemy.”
Merlin bites his lip. “Gaius, I’m not even sure I understand what the Regulation Council is,” he admits, and hastens to explain when Gaius gets that reproachful look of I told you to read that book in his eyes. “I mean, I read the book. I got that they’re responsible for all of the anti-magic sentiment in Albion and the rest of the country, and that they’re behind ninety-eight percent of the legislation against magic users. But I’m not sure what they are.”
Gaius leans back in his chair, sighing. “The Regulation Council is composed of very powerful individuals, most of them corporate leaders. They are very wealthy, powerful, and they control the city. They can build or destroy political campaigns, they have virtual control over the police—they are the true rulers of Albion.”
“And their major goal in life is to arrest everyone with magic,” Merlin says, half-question, half statement that sinks into him. Gaius nods shortly and he sighs. “Great.”
Beyond the mental training—sometimes it feels like he goes to school twice—there is also the physical. Gaius drills into his head that “as a Knight, you can’t just rely on your magic. Your magic cannot make you a faster runner or make you any less clumsy—you have to train that into your body yourself”. His solution is a grueling physical regime including weights training, cardio, and an obstacle. A bloody obstacle course which he builds in Merlin’s back garden. Or, to be accurate, that Merlin builds in the back garden, Gaius directing him while Will makes snarky comments from the side. (The snarky comments only last until Gaius glances over at him and says mildly “William, why don’t you go and fetch the rope from the front”. Will nods and goes and it takes him until he comes back around the corner for him to realize that he’s been conned into helping. The look on his face is priceless.)
The obstacle course includes a straight running course with hurdles (his eternal nemesis), an eight foot high wall with a rope, an army crawl, and the tallest tree in the garden affixed with a flag at the very top. After they finish building it Gaius makes him run it. Three times. Without magic. (Except for that part the second time through where he slips climbing the tree and uses magic to keep from splattering to the ground, which is probably why after he finishes it and stands panting in front of Gaius all he gets is a “again”. He glares, mentally calls Gaius a tyrant, and goes through it again.) Gaius orders him to run it once a day, and recruits Will to make sure that he does it.
Will, of course, takes an unholy delight in it and shows up with an actual whip that he cracks menacingly. Merlin glares at him and runs the course, waiting for the satisfying sound of his friend inevitably hitting himself with it.
And then there is the magic.
The first thing that Gaius has Merlin do is give a demonstration of his magic. His specific words are “Show me what you can do.” Merlin blinks in reply and shifts his weight, before asking: what do you want to see?. A bit of surprise slides across Gaius’s expression, before he shakes his head and tells Merlin to do whatever he can. So Merlin raises his hands and sends objects flying through the air around them, changes the color of his shirt, sets fire to a patch of grass and then with a pass of his hand grows new life from the burnt ground. Gaius surprises him, pulling out a handful of golf balls and chucking them at him—he freezes the first, explodes the second, and conjures a shield to block the last.
Afterwards, Gaius looks at him and nods, his expression unreadable. “Okay,” he says.
The training from there is a lot of fine-tuning. Concentration, focus, accuracy, learning spells—when Gaius hands him an old, heavy book of spells, he tilts his head and says “I’ve never had to use a spell before.” To which Gaius raises his eyebrows and replies: “That’s because your control over your magic is entirely instinctual. You think of the outcome you desire and merely extend your magic to make it happen—there’s no real control in it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I suspect it might take more energy ultimately. I’d like you to know the spells.” So he learns the spells. He learns how to use the smallest amount of magical energy, how to change objects, how to enchant, how to use magic to change his surroundings. Eventually Gaius adds another element to the obstacle course—targets and magical obstacles.
It’s hard. Most nights he comes trudging into his house, covered in sweat and dirt, and he collapses onto his bed, sleeping straight through the night until he wakes the next morning to repeat it all. But, over time, it gets better. He feels his body grow stronger and he adjusts to the stress of the different factions of his life. He still never has time, but he can manage more easily. And his magic—he becomes super-aware of his magic, of the way it pulses insides of him, of the way it swirls in the air around him.
Slowly but surely, he feels himself turning into a Knight.
But when it comes to the superficial part of being a Knight, Merlin mostly feels like a giant idiot. He knows, realistically, that the aliases Knights take up are to protect their identities, and that their costumes have sensible purposes, but that doesn’t really make him feel any better when it comes to creating his.
He and Will fight for months over first the name, and then the costume. Will throws out all shades of ridiculous names—“Count Magic, Merlin. Really. It’s awesome.” “Have I told you recently that you’re out of your bloody mind?”—while Merlin tries valiantly to find something that doesn’t make him sound like: a) the biggest prat in Britain, b) a little boy wearing a sheet as a cape, c) someone who listens to his idiot best friend (especially when Will comes out with “Enchanter Man”, because seriously, where the hell does he get this stuff from?), or d) someone who picked a name from an online superhero name generator (which he may or may not have spent a good three days hitting the ‘generate’ button on, hoping it would come up with something decent).
In the end, it’s actually the dragon who gives him the name. He’s sitting across the table from Will one morning, going through a list of names that he has come up with and rejecting the ones that Will offers, something that has become commonplace since he started this venture.
“You are ridiculously picky, Merlin,” Will drawls, leaning back in his chair. “I’ve given you pure gold.”
Merlin glares. “You wanted to name me the Curse Ninja, Will.”
“That’s a damn cool name. Clearly you are unworthy of it.”
“Clearly I’m not an idiot.” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Why is this so hard? I just want a name that isn’t stupid. Something simple that actually works.”
“Like the Dragonlord?” Will asks softly, and Merlin manages to not flinch when he says it. Mutely, he nods, because that is what he wants, something as strong and elegant as his father’s name, something that will live up to his father’s reputation. He wants a name that will be said one day with the reverence the name Dragonlord receives, not something that will be mocked. He closes his eyes, and when he does so he thinks of his father, of the Dragonlord, and then of himself. And what comes to mind is the dragon, looking down at him and calling him young Warlock and saying I call you what you are.
His eyes open with a flash and he stares across at Will. “I’ve got it.”
And thus he becomes Warlock. (Which, even Will has to agree, is a hell of a lot better than ‘Curse Ninja’.)
Then comes the costume. He and Will pour over hundreds of comic books and the internet and dozens of fabric samples. Gaius gives them the eyebrow and drags Merlin off to train while Will tags along, hands full of clumsy drawings and fluttering pieces of gaudy cloth.
“Spandex, Merlin. Either spandex or leather, your choice.”
Merlin folds his arms. “Why the hell can’t I wear jeans and a shirt?”
The open-mouthed look of disbelief Will gives him is priceless. “Have you ever seen a Knight wearing jeans and a shirt? You would be the worst superhero ever.”
“I believe the term is ‘masked fanatic’ these days,” Merlin says, but Will is already going off about spandex and leather and the pros and cons of both.
Hunith makes no comment other than to stick her head into the living room and say: “Merlin James, if you think you’re going to prance around Albion in nothing but a skin tight suit….”
Merlin looks pointedly at Will, who doesn’t seem to see any problem with that. “She said in nothing but a skin tight suit, Merl. Clearly you need armor over the spandex. You’re not buff enough to pull it off by itself. Now, what colors do you think?”
They argue back and forth, Will wanting the flashier colors like a bright shiny blue or metallic gold, Merlin plaintively asking what the hell is wrong with a nice dark brown or black, and they keep going until Gaius walks in and looks at them with his best you’re both idiots expression. Will finally makes a scoffing noise in the back of his throat, grabs a swath of cloth from Merlin’s hand and disappears down into the basement that he has appropriated as his “laboratory”. (Only once does Merlin say “Don’t you have your own loft?” and gets a “I can’t very well put together things for a superhero in my loft, now can I?” in response.)
He refuses to let Merlin into the loft after that, saying “I’m working on it, you’ll get to see when I’m done”. Merlin shakes his head, wonders if he’s going to end up wearing a rainbow costume, and lets it be.
For three days the week before his eighteenth birthday, Merlin has dark dreams. He dreams of swords and blood and shadows and secrets, wakes with a feeling as though something is pressing down on his chest, making him gasp for breath, and it all goes rushing right out of his head before he can grab it, water through his fingers. He knows people die. He knows that he watches them, gasping, sobbing, helpless. He knows that he kills them. He knows that people bend and break before him; that something inside of him reaches out with all the capability of destruction and reigns chaos, and that nothing can stop him except for a touch of someone whose face he cannot see clearly. For three days he dreams and wakes a little more broken, his magic pulsing under his skin, leaping out of him with a wild fury, and no matter what he tries, he can’t bring it under his control.
And on the third day of this, he wakes with the dragon’s voice ringing in his mind.
It’s early, barely dawn, when the world is still captured by sleepy purple shadows. He clenches his fingers around his blankets, the dragon’s call still echoing somewhere intangible, and then he grits his teeth. He pulls a jumper on over his head, leaves a note for his mother, and steals Will’s car. (Steal is a little harsh, it’s more of a borrowing without permission with full intent to return, and it’s a ridiculously easy feat, considering he knows where the spare key is. And, though Will’s expression when he looks out the window and sees his car gone will be quite comical, Merlin knows that he won’t mind.)
At around nine, after about an hour of mind-numbingly dull scenery, his phone rings. He answers it without looking at the caller ID, knowing that there’s only a handful of people it could be.
“What the fuck, Merlin?” Will says, and as expected he is more confused than angry. “Where the hell have you taken my car?”
“I need to go and see someone.”
“Who?” Will demands, sounding grumpy. Probably because he’s awake before noon, and this makes Merlin wonder if his mum didn’t wake him up to ask where the car went.
“A dragon,” he replies simply.
There is a pause. “Is that some sort of metaphor or code that I should google? Have you been kidnapped? I’m not saving your stupid arse if you have.”
“Actual dragon, Will.”
Another pause. “Really?”
“…Just don’t blow up my car,” Will orders, and then hangs up.
After a little while, Merlin pulls the car over to the side of the road. He has absolutely no idea where in the hell he is—not that he had any idea of where he was going in the first place, considering he’s going to see a dragon in the middle of nowhere—but something tells him that he’s getting close. Maybe it’s instinct, maybe it’s his magic, most likely it’s the damn dragon doing something mystical. He parks the car and gets out, stretching, then spins in a slow circle until he finds the direction that feels right. And then he starts walking.
It’s not more than ten minutes before he comes upon the house. He slows when he crests the hill in front of it, eyeing it warily. It’s a little wooden house, a bit ramshackle but still quaint. And it’s in literally, the middle of nowhere. There’s no road leading to it, not even a dirt path . He bites his lower lip, considering.
“Hmm, moderately creepy house in the middle of nowhere? This sounds like a brilliant idea,” he mutters to himself, right before walking down the hill and towards the door. What good is magic if he can’t use it to save himself from the possibility of backwater cannibals? And there’s something summoning him, pulling him forward, something he can’t resist.
He walks up to the front door, takes a breath, and knocks. The door opens only a few seconds later, as though his approach was expected. An old man stands there—he is older than Gaius, his hair completely white and almost translucent, his body one that has the old strength of an ancient tree, gnarled and crooked and immovable. Merlin shifts his weight. “Er, sorry to disturb you—.” He falters, because what is he supposed to say? Sorry, just wandered into the middle of nowhere by mistake, please don’t kill and eat me, by the way, have you seen a dragon around? The old man looks at him with an oddly familiar expression and opens the door wider, beckoning him in.
Surprisingly, none of his instincts tell him to run away. Oh, sure, the actual rational part of his mind is going bonkers with alarm bells, but the rest of him—magic and instinct and all that jazz?—not a blip. Which makes absolutely no sense, and his confusion is probably what makes him step across the threshold. The old man, without saying a word, leads him into a musty living room, and stupidly he follows. The man motions for him to take a seat and he does so, shifting awkwardly on the dull sofa that feels dusty to the touch. The room is sparse, the furniture worn, and in the corner is the only sign of technology, a dusty radio that looks like it worked twenty years ago. There’s no other sign of the outside world at all.
The old man comes to stand in front of him, un-speaking, just looking at him with an odd kind of smile. “Er, like I said, sorry to barge in and disturb you. I’m a bit…lost,” he says lamely. But the old man still says nothing, and he shifts again, looking around the room. He drums his fingers on his legs, looking everywhere but the old man who is so intently looking at him. And when he finally looks back, finally meets the man’s eyes, he feels like a complete and utter idiot.
“It’s you!” He says, jumping to his feet, and the old man smiles.
“Your observation skills need fine-tuning, young Warlock,” the old man says in the voice of the dragon. It’s the dragon’s eyes—yellow and slitted and abnormal—staring out at him.
“What the hell?” is really all he can manage, and the dragon is far too amused. “Why are you human?” He says after a moment.
The dragon—because he may look like an old man, but now that he knows better, Merlin can practically see the scales beneath his translucent flesh—takes a seat. “The world is not as empty as it used to be. The wild shrinks every year, as you humans expand farther and farther.”
Merlin follows this train of thought, understanding. “And sooner or later someone is bound to come across a giant dragon in the middle of the British countryside.” The dragon inclines his head. “So, you live as a human?”
“Sometimes. Your forms are so…frail. I could not bear to always be in this body, but it serves its purpose.”
Merlin takes this in, and then glares at the dragon. “Why the hell are you talking to me in my dreams?”
The dragon tilts his head. “There are things you need to know. It was the only way I had to call you here.”
"You've never heard of a phone?" The dragon gives him a look. It's a Gaius look, one that he has become acutely accustomed to over the past months of training, and it startles him. Did Gaius learn it from the dragon, or is it just some knowledge that becomes ingrained in a person after they reach a certain age? He shrugs.
"I do not submit myself to your modern technologies," the dragon says, snorting, the sound more dragon than human. "You humans have become so disconnected to the natural world. You've always surrounded yourselves with stone, but now you have to search for a spot of earth or a blade of grass."
Merlin eyes him. "I never figured on dragons being environmentalists." The dragon glares and he sits back. "How did you call me, anyway? Do you dragons have some kind of telepathic powers or something like that?"
"I am a creature of the Old Religion. I have powers that you could not begin to understand. But I can summon you because we are connected, young Warlock. You and I are bound."
"You know, that's the second time in a conversation that you've told me I'm bound to someone. Do I get any choice in this whole binding thing, or am I going to be bound to a sheep next time?"
The dragon grins, the expression odd on the old man's face, belonging as it does to a reptilian head and sharp fangs. "Your destiny and your life is bound to the Once and Future King, and there is no use struggling against that binding, Warlock. The bond between us is more tenuous. It is an old bond, hereditary, but it cannot change the world the way the other will."
Merlin folds his arms, raising an eyebrow. "And what exactly is this bond?"
"I am a dragon of old. You are a dragonlord." He flinches automatically at the name, and the dragon's eyes flicker. "Your father was dragonlord before you, and with his death the power became yours." The dragon bows forward, not fully submissive but a gesture of respect. "We are bound, you and I, by this power. I am yours to command."
He looks down at his hands, which shake just a bit. "I-I don't--"
"Don't trouble yourself about this now, young Warlock. You are a dragonlord, but it is not your destiny. That belonged to your father--you have your own fate to follow, and this power changes nothing. I did not bring you here to discuss this. There are more important things."
"Like what?" He asks, irrationally angry. Or perhaps it's not all that irrational, when he's been dragged out here and informed of his fate and destiny and of all these things he has no control over. The dragon humors him with a look and he feels his magic lurch beneath his skin, drawing on his irritation. The dragon's eyes sharpen and narrow. They are more than yellow in this light--they are molten gold, burning through with heat and ancient power.
"Your magic. You have been dreaming, have you not?"
He draws his arms in close around him, warding off the heavy chill the vague memories of the dreams brings him. "You should know--you've been sending them."
The dragon shakes his head. "No. They are not dreams from me. I merely sensed them. They sent tremors through the very fabric of the magical world."
Merlin sits up straight. "Why? They're just...just dreams."
"Dreams, yes. And with the dreams your magic twists. It tries to escape you, doesn't it?" He looks down, away, and the dragon nods. "You are coming upon your eighteenth year, correct?"
"My birthday's next week."
"Your magic is destabilizing."
He jolts and meets the dragon's eyes. "What?"
“You are powerful, young Warlock. So powerful that you do not properly comprehend your own abilities. You come into your full magical strength in your eighteenth year, and you should be fully prepared and capable of controlling it. But you…you are too close to Albion, where magic is embedded in the earth. And you have inherited your dragonlord powers early as well. There is too much, and your control is not strong enough. If you are not trained properly your magic will destabilize, grow wild. It will slip from your control entirely, burn too brightly within you, until it consumes you and escapes.”
He blinks. “Are you saying that I’m going to die if my magic ‘destabilizes’?”
“Not at first. You will be a shell, a puppet of wild magic. It will wreak havoc on this world.”
“That is so not good.”
The dragon gives him a look of your powers of understatement are incredible, idiotic human but merely says, “Indeed.”
“So, there’s a way of keeping all this from happening, right? Because I would really like to not be consumed by my own bloody magic and then killed.”
“I will teach you, young Warlock. We will start immediately.”
“Oh good. How long is this--” Merlin pauses halfway through the sentence, reconsidering based on the dragon’s flat look. “You know, actually, let me just call my mum and tell her I won’t be home tonight.”
The dragon nods.
Merlin spends three days in the dusty house in the middle of nowhere, learning exactly what it means for his magic to destabilize. The dragon reverts to his actual form, an unsettling transformation to watch as his skin darkens and hardens to scales, his body contorting up and out, neck growing long as the bones of his skull shift and lengthen—Merlin watches in fascination but has to look away eventually, not necessarily because he is squeamish but because there is something so unnatural about the sight that it makes his stomach roll. The dragon seems to feel something similar, because once it is back into its own form it stretches its wings and sighs.
“Now, young warlock, we will begin.”
He beckons Merlin closer and has him sit, legs crossed, guiding him through the motions of meditation. It’s something that Gaius has taught him before and he falls into the familiar patterns now, listening to the dragon’s voice, taking hold of the magic beneath his skin. Following the dragon’s instructions he pulls the magic up and expels it outwards, through his skin.
It surprises him how much it hurts. How his magic feels always changes—sometimes it is warm and coursing, sometimes it is cold pressure; sometimes it is a softness sliding through him like velvet, sometimes it is fizzing in his blood—but it has never hurt before. Until now, and he realizes exactly what the dragon means when he says wild; the magic fights him, writhing inside of him, a living pulse that tears at him and rages and tries to hold on as he pushes it out of himself.
He doesn’t know how long he does this—inside of his head it is the suspension of time, just an endless moment of pain and heat and a dizzying lack of control—but he holds to it until the dragon’s voice slides over him, audible in his head as well as his physical body. He opens his eyes slowly, surprised to find his limbs have gone numb, even more surprised as he lifts his head to find a circle of char burnt into the earth surrounding him. He blinks at it and then stretches his limbs trying to work the kinks out of them, wincing at the way his skin feels tight and hot, a bit like a bad sunburn. He looks up at the dragon, who nods.
“Good, young warlock. It is a start.”
Merlin resists the urge to suspiciously ask what do you mean a start? because he’s positive he won’t like the answer. The dragon has him bleed off his magic into their surroundings twice more that day, and by the end of it he feels boneless, limp and exhausted even though most of his day has been spent motionless. As the skies turn dusky and the sun sets behind the horizon he makes his way yawning into the house and collapses into the first bed he finds, sleeping straight through until the sun is peaked in the sky the next day.
When he wakes he finds the house empty. He pokes around, letting his inner snoop come out, and finds that the place is mostly barren. There is furniture scattered throughout the house, but it is clear that this isn’t a place where someone lives—it is a pale imitation of a home, having more in common with a motel room than anything else. He wanders into the kitchen, scouring the cupboards in hopes of finding something edible.
No such luck, and his stomach growls loudly. Scowling, his heads out of the house and around the back, to where he suspects he will find his dragon companion. Sure enough, the dragon is sprawled on the ground, wings unfurled, its body stretched languidly in the sunlight, apparently sleeping.
“I really hope you have something to eat around here,” Merlin calls as he approaches. “I’m starving, and you have to eat something.”
“I feed on magic,” the dragon says, lazily opening one eye.
He folds his arms. “Bully for you. I don’t.”
“Hasn’t the physician taught you how to summon food for yourself?”
“No, that’s not something that we covered in my training on how to be a superhero.”
The dragon sighs, lifting its head. “Young warlock, you are foolish to think that your destiny is as small a thing as being a superhero.”
“Well, as far as I know, I can’t eat destiny, so that doesn’t really help me right now.”
“Impertinent and ungrateful as usual, aren’t you?” It remarks, something almost fond in its voice. It yawns widely and Merlin takes a half step back instinctively, then scowls at the dragon, challenging it to comment. “Ask the earth to provide you with sustenance,” it suggests.
“And how, exactly, do I do that?”
“Figure it out yourself, young warlock,” it replies, putting its head down and going back to sleep. He stares at the beast for a long moment and then growls under his breath and flops into a sitting position on the ground.
“Okay, ask the earth…,” he mutters, “whatever the hell that means.” He closes his eyes. “Ask the earth, ask the earth….” He starts to reach into his inner core of magic, then stops and reaches out instead, searching for magic in the world around him. To his surprise, he finds it—magic in the earth beneath him, in the air, in the pond of water yards away, magic that is somehow softer than his own, subtler. His eyes open and he finds the dragon watching him. “There’s magic in the earth.”
“Yes. Most of it is the magic that you released yesterday, absorbed by the natural world.” The dragon’s voice is intent. “There is supposed to be magic in the earth. Magic is a force of nature, like the air and the seas and the earth itself.”
“But?” Merlin prompts.
“Magic, like wind and water, moves in currents. It can be drained from one place and trapped in another. It is meant to be evenly distributed across the land, but it is not. If you had not expelled large amounts of your magic yesterday you would be unable to feel it in the earth now.”
The dragon shifts, pulling his wings in. “Albion.”
“What about it?”
“The city is built on the ruins of Avalon, an ancient civilization.” The dragon tilts its head, looking at him. “Avalon was the birthplace of magic, the source. But Avalon fell, and the magic that originated from it became locked in place, unable to spread outwards. Trapped as it is, the magic becomes more and more potent, and more and more unstable. Inside of your city of Albion magic is everywhere—in the air and in the ground and in the water.” Merlin squirms beneath the suddenly intense gaze of the dragon. “You, young warlock, are meant to release the magic from its entrapment. Bring it back into this world. You and the Once and Future King will rebuild the glory of Avalon and restore magic to this world. This is your destiny.”
Merlin is quiet for a moment, taking this in. Then he climbs to his feet, brushing the dirt from his jeans with a hand. “I don’t believe in destiny.”
The dragon snorts. “You need not believe in it, warlock, for you to fulfill it.” The beast twists around, turning his head away, but before he does he adds, “There is bread in the bottom cupboard, if you are still hungry.”
He scowls at the dragon’s back and very, very quietly under his breath says how much he hates barmy dragons who preach about destiny.
The dragon’s snort follows him as he retreats inside the house.
Later, as the afternoon bleeds into night, the dragon teaches him how to recall magic once he has expunged it from himself. He tells him how to draw magic from the surrounding world into himself, and how to keep it from overwhelming him if he needs to take on large quantities of energy. Merlin expels the magic from himself and draws it back in half a dozen times until the dragon is satisfied and finally lets him sink into a dreamless sleep.
The third morning dawns too bright and too soon.
Merlin readies himself for departure—trying valiantly to keep from slipping into daydreams about the massive quantities of food that he’s going to eat the minute he hits civilization—and checks his magic. It’s easier, now, to look inside of himself and gauge his levels of magic—he is more aware of it than ever and it pulses under his control, steady as a heart beat.
“Well,” he says, standing in front of the dragon, “thank you. For teaching me—“
“Your thanks are unnecessary, young warlock. It would be disastrous if your magic fully destabilized.”
“Thank you anyway,” he says, and the dragon makes a pleased sound.
“You are welcome, dragonlord,” it says softly, more sincerity in its voice than he has heard before, and he smiles briefly at it before starting back towards the car.
The celebration following Merlin’s last A-level exam consists of him and Will sprawling on the roof with a bottle of rum between them. Merlin shifts his position, stretching out and closing his eyes, humming in content. “No. More. A-levels,” he says, and Will laughs somewhere next to him.
“You do realize that you’re going to uni, right? You’re not done with education yet, mate.”
“Shh. Don’t ruin my moment of bliss.”
“Also, you do realize that you’re now going to be balancing uni with actually being a superhero? I mean, that’s why we’re living in central Albion instead of on campus, remember?”
“William, what did I say about my moment of bliss?”
Will sits up and looks over at him. “I want to show you something.”
He glances over, a bit unwilling to move. “Right now?”
Will grins at him. “Yes, right now, you lazy sod.” And then his friend is swinging himself over the edge of the roof and through the window and he takes the rum, which leaves Merlin no choice but to follow. It only takes him a moment once they’re inside to realize where they are headed, and he navigates the stairs to the loft carefully.
Will maneuvers him into position before flipping on the light switch, so that he has a full view of the room when the light comes on.
There are two long folding tables heaped heavily with an assortment of items that he can’t even begin to wrap his head around yet, but the pinnacle is at the far end of the room. It’s a suit. His suit, placed carefully on an old mannequin of his mother’s. Merlin takes a step forward, then another, feeling himself shake a little, unsure of whether it is from the alcohol or the awe or the unnamed emotion sitting somewhere between his throat and his stomach.
The uniform is dark green, accented with black, red, and pale gold. It is made of a stretchy fabric underneath—Spandex, he thinks—with padding and armor set over it, covering the most vital areas. The armor extends over the shoulders and torso, down past the groin and stops just short of the knee. There are leather gloves that extend just past the wrists, and boots that end at mid-calf. The chest is emblazoned in gold with a symbol that he doesn’t know, a spiral that uncoils, extends out like a wave on the ocean, and coils tightly into itself on the other side.
“Do you like it?” Will asks softly. Merlin turns to face him, aware that his mouth is still hanging open a bit, and apparently that is all the answer that Will needs, because he grins. “The symbol is Celtic—a double spiral. It means balance. I figured it was appropriate for you, what with everything that dragon keeps telling you.” His friend moves forward, plucking an item off of one of the tables. “There’s a belt too—can’t be a superhero without a utility belt. And I’ve made a couple of things that should be useful. I need your help on some of them, since I figured that we can probably use magic to make up for what we can’t do with the tech.”
“You,” Merlin interrupts, “—are brilliant.”
Will grins and looks down. “Well, I wanted you to have the best. I mean, if you get yourself killed I’ll have to pay rent all by myself.”
Merlin stops him by reaching out and pulling him into a tight hug. “You are the best friend I could have.”
“I’m your only friend, Merl,” Will says, but his voice is suspiciously wavery and he hugs back no less tightly. When they break the embrace, well, if both of their eyes are a bit bright and shiny in the light, it’s probably just the alcohol talking.
Two days before he and Will are set to move to Albion, Merlin hears the dragon’s voice in his head. He’s right in the middle of packing a box, smoothing tape over the openings, and the voice is just a whisper, a magical tug. He frowns, because the dragon has never called him when he was awake before, and puts down the tape.
Come to me, young warlock, the dragon’s voice reverberates through his head.
Merlin scowls, thinks hard You know, I can’t always be expected to drop everything and come and find you in the direction of the dragon, and goes to steal Will’s car again. Will catches him in the process of this theft, walking into the kitchen just as Merlin is lifting the keys from their hook, and snatches them from him, slapping Merlin’s hand away.
“No way, tights boy. The last time you took my car it was gone for three days.”
“But you got it back in one piece, now didn’t you?”
“Not a chance,” Will says. “Wherever you’re going, I’m coming too.”
Merlin shrugs. “Fine. But I’m driving.”
“Over my dead body,” Will says and heads off, leaving Merlin to follow protesting behind him. In the car, Will looks over at him expectantly. “Where are we going?”
“I’m not sure yet,” he replies. “Gimme a sec.” He focuses on the direction that the summons are coming from and then points. “Mt. Camlann.”
“Should I even ask?”
“It’s probably better if you don’t. Drive the car.”
Twenty minutes later they are hiking up the side out of the mountain—more of an overgrown hill than a proper mountain, really—Will asking loudly what the hell they are doing, Merlin ignoring him in favor of focusing on pinpointing the dragon’s presence. As they crest the top he sees the beast, tucked behind a copse of trees.
Behind him, Will’s talking cuts off abruptly as he trips, stumbles, and regains his balance. Merlin grins without looking behind him, waiting for it…”Holy shit, that’s a dragon.”
Merlin snorts and walks up to the dragon’s side, folding his arms when it turns its head to look at him. “You rang?” He asks dryly.
“Ah, young warlock, good of you to come.”
Merlin shakes his head. “How did you get here?” The dragon extends one wing, giving him its your capacity for thought is shockingly low look and he scowls in response. “No, I mean, you do realize that there are people around, right? Someone was bound to see you.”
“That is none of my concern. People are aware of my existence—your father made sure that they knew.” Merlin feels Will come up behind him, sees the dragon’s gaze slide over his shoulder. “I see that you have brought a companion.”
“This is Will, my best friend. Be nice.” He turns his head to look at his friend. “Will, this is the dragon I mentioned. Who, I’m sure has a name but won’t tell me what it is.”
“That is why I have called you here, young Warlock. You are moving towards your destiny, and it is time you learned the powers of a dragonlord. You know my name—you need only to find the knowledge already within you and speak it.”
Merlin thinks of making a quip, but it doesn’t feel right. There is something solemn to this, that even Will recognizes, keeping quiet and hanging back so as not to intrude. So he nods his head silently and sits on the ground, falling into the patterns of meditation. He extends his magic, probing gently, feeling the tiny pulse of magic in the earth, feeling Will behind him, solidly un-magical, then coming to the edges of the dragon’s presence, which is as solidly magical as Will is not. He understands for the first time what he has taken for granted before—the dragon is magic, from bone and sinew and blood, gold fire straight to his core on every level of his being. His magic brushes lightly against the dragon, pulled by some kinship, a recognition of something that Merlin can’t put a name to, and when he opens his eyes the word comes unbidden from his lips.
The dragon—Kilgharrah—nods. “Very good, Dragonlord.” It bows its head to him, not quite submission but closer to it than he has ever been before. “I am yours to command. Call my name, and I will come to you.”
Behind them, Will makes a soft sound that Merlin completely understands. It’s one thing to have magic—it’s another thing entirely for him to have a bloody dragon bowing to him and nearly pledging fealty. Merlin swallows, his throat dry, and he can’t quite find something to say that sounds right, so he just gives a little half-bow in return, and Kilgharrah seems pleased enough by the action.
“I have one more thing for you, young warlock,” it says. “Your father had a wyvern as his steed, but they are dim, fickle creatures. I have a companion I believe is much more suited to you.” It pulls back one of its wings to show a dark colored creature curled up against its side—it nudges the creature with the tip of its muzzle and the animal lifts its head, blinking around. “This is Archimedes.”
At Kilgharrah’s prompting the other creature rises, revealing itself to be a dragon about the size of a greyhound and just as lithely built, thin and elegant, more serpentine compared to Kilgharrah’s bulkier build. The dragon yawns and then in a blur of motion almost too fast for Merlin to follow isn’t a dragon any more—from where the dragon was an owl emerges and flutters over to him, tawny and no bigger than the palm of his hand. The owl hovers in the air in front of Merlin’s face, blinking at him with large gold eyes, and then perches on his shoulder, settling in against his neck and making a little coo of contentment.
Kilgharrah seems vastly amused, and Merlin is still trying to formulate a thought.
“He is a Gewrixlung dragon, the first born in over a century.” Merlin blinks and Kilgharrah shakes his head, elaborating. “A shape-changer. He is young still, but he can take any form he desires. I believe that you and he are meant for each other.”
Merlin turns his head slight, raising a finger to softly stroke the owl’s head. Archimedes makes another soft sound and leans into the touch, and Will stifles a laugh. He glances at the dragon. “Thank you.”
“It was his choice, young warlock.” Kilgharrah stretches his wings. “Our paths will cross again, Dragonlord.” And then he launches into the sky, winging away dramatically and probably causing at least three car accidents in the towns below. Merlin turns to face Will, still scratching Archimedes’s head.
“You know, we’re not supposed to have pets in our flat ,” Will says.
“And I’m not supposed to dress up in a costume and chase down bad guys. Since when do we listen to rules?”
“Good point. C’mon Wizard, and bring your fluffball with you. We’ve got packing to do.”
I am not a fluffball, an unfamiliar voice says in his mind, and Merlin looks to the owl on his shoulder as Will pivots on his heel.
“You can talk?” Merlin asks the owl, who fluffs up his feathers in response.
Of course I can. I’m a dragon.
“Oh good,” Will says. “All the arrogance of the big one travel-sized for your convenience. Maybe he’ll keep your ego from inflating, wonder-boy.”
“I thought that was your job. What else am I keeping you around for?”
“I can always use reinforcements.”
Kilgharrah did say that you were interesting to be around, Archimedes muses.
“Oh? What else did he say about me?”
The owl gives him a bird-grin. Something about destiny and a king and how you would restore balance to the magical world.
Merlin sighs. “Typical. He needs some new material.”
“Merlin, the boxes aren’t going to pack themselves, and don’t think I won’t leave you here,” Will warns, halfway down the side of the mountain. He scowls, starting after him.
“I can freeze time and steal your car, you know.”
“Bring it on!”
He shakes his head and mutters a spell under his breath. The ground beneath Will’s feet goes soft and he sinks down a good six inches before it re-solidifies around his ankles, trapping him. Merlin saunters past him, grinning.
“Cheater,” Will says, sticking his tongue out.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to mess with a sorcerer?”
“Plenty of times. I just never listened.”
Merlin slides into the driver’s seat of the car before he releases Will, who scowls at him before reluctantly climbing into the passenger side. “What are you going to tell your mum about him?” His friend asks with a nod to the bird, who looks at him, tilts his head, and then flutters over to his shoulder.
Merlin shrugs. “The usual. Giant dragons, destiny, all that jazz. She’ll probably take one look and try to steal him.” When Archimedes blinks at him he grins. “Because you’re cute, Archimedes.”
I am not cute. I am intimidating and terrifying.
Both of the boys smother their laughter and Will scratches the owl on the head to placate him. “Of course you are Arc,” he soothes. “You’ll be the most feared dragon in all of history, promise.”
Good, the owl says, and then blinks. Arc? he asks.
Will shrugs. “I’m not saying Archimedes every time I talk to you, fluffball. I’m nicknaming you Arc.”
I suppose this is acceptable, Arc says, and then tucks his head into his chest, closing his eyes.
“Merlin, I think we’ve adopted,” Will says.
“Just as long as you’re mummy,” Merlin replies, and starts the car.
Two days later, Will heaves the last box into their flat and rolls a glare at Merlin, who returns it with a helpless I’m being strangled look over his mother’s shoulder as she holds him in a death-grip embrace. Merlin pats his mum on the back and waits for her to let go, resigning himself to the long haul, since she’s already been hugging him long enough for Will to travel down the four flights of stairs and back carrying the heavy box.
“Mum, it’s not like you’ll never see me again. I’m only forty minutes from home.”
She pulls back just a little to glare at him. “Yes, but you’ll be too busy at uni and throwing yourself into danger to visit your poor mother.”
“Muuuum,” he groans, drawing it out. She pulls him in again before releasing him.
“You will call me once a week, do you understand Merlin James?”
He grins at her. “I’ll call you once a week, mum. And I’ll come home. Often.”
She turns towards Will and hugs him tightly as well, holding him to the same promises of visits and calls, and then kissing both of them on the cheek. “Have fun boys. Try not to get into too much trouble.” They walk her out to the door and then turn to look at their new flat, filled as it is with boxes and containers and very minimal furniture.
“Well, we could start to unpack…” Merlin says.
“You order the pizza, I’ll get the beer,” Will replies.
Archimedes crawls out from behind a cabinet, covered in dust and looking thoroughly pleased with his cat-self. I like it here. Is this part of the destiny Kilgharrah keeps talking about?
Merlin grins, going to root out his phone from wherever it has gone. “I don’t know. But I guess we’ll find out.”
Arc jumps, shifting forms in mid air and spreading his wings the moment he has them to glide up and perch on Merlin’s shoulder. Good.
END CHAPTER ONE
Chapter 2: Part II
Merlin sits in the waiting room of the office, feeling strangled by his tie. There are about five other applicants, all of them better dressed and more at ease in their own skin. Every twenty or so minutes a tall man who disappears in and out of the board room (which he has dubbed The Room of Doom in his mind) emerges to summon applicants to their demise. All who enter emerge paler and wilted, a few of them even in tears. He doesn’t know what lies on the other side of the door, but he’s increasingly sure that he doesn’t want to find out. Absently he pulls on his tie, succeeding only in strangling himself further.
A cup of water is thrust into his vision and he makes an undignified sound, prompting a giggle from the pretty woman offering it to him. “Here,” she says with a smile. “You look like you could use a drink.”
He takes the offered water, grinning as she takes a seat beside him. “I could. Preferably one made of rum. Or tequila. But thank you for the water.”
“You look nervous,” she says.
He looks around the room. “I was under the impression that nervousness before an interview was normal.”
“It is.” She tilts her head at the cluster of other applicants, who have huddled themselves at the other end of the room, away from him. As discreetly as possible he sniffs himself, wondering if he has suddenly sprouted a body odor problem. “They are normal nervous. You are panic-attack, hyperventilating, getting-your-vom-on nervous.”
He considers this for a moment, and then nods. “Actually, that sounds about right.” Maybe that’s why everyone is as far away from him as possible. Being vomited on before an interview—or bled on, as there’s always the chance he’ll faint and hit is head and bleed everywhere—is probably something to avoid at all costs. “This water is self-preservation, isn’t it?”
“Exactly,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t want you to pass out. Then I would have to call an ambulance and there would be a panic and I’d have to deal with it.”
“Or I’ll vomit, and then someone else will vomit, and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.”
“Mhm. Therefore, to avoid these potential circumstances, you need a distraction.” She tucks a curl of her hair behind her ear, pulling it out of her eyes and giving him a coy smile. “What’s your name?”
She offers a hand, which he shakes. He’s surprised to find callouses on her palm. They seem out of place against her smart business attire and her feminine charms, but then again, what does he know about girls? That’s right, absolutely nothing. “A pleasure to meet you, Merlin Ambryse. I’m Gwen Thomas.”
“Well, Gwen Thomas, you’re obviously not my competition, so what is it that you do here?”
“I’m Morgana’s PA.” He blinks at her and she elaborates. “Morgana LeFay’s personal assistant?” Still nothing, and this draws an incredulous look from her. “The personal assistant of Morgana LeFay, who is only a few steps down from the CEO of Camelot?” He bites his lip and she stares. “Do you even know where you are?”
“Er…a big shiny corporate building in central Albion?”
He shrugs. “Gaius just told me that he arranged an interview for me, told me to wear a suit and bring my CV , and put me in a cab that he’d already given the address to. I have no idea what job I’m even applying for.” He scowls a little bit. “Honestly, I think he just wants me to stop coming by his office so much. I always break things when I’m there.”
“Oh, you’re Gaius’s recommendation? He speaks very highly of you, you know. It’s a very good recommendation.” She pauses. “He seriously didn’t even tell you the job?”
“Nope,” Merlin says with a shake of his head.
“Would…would you like to know?”
He gives her his best flashy grin. “And ruin the surprise? You mean that going blind into an interview isn’t the best idea?”
She shakes her head, grinning back. “You’re applying for a personal assistant position.”
“Like you?” She nods and he tilts his head to the side. “Why does the term personal assistant make me think of legal slavery?”
Her grin widens, showing straight white teeth. “You’re not far wrong, actually.” She glances towards the door, where another applicant has emerged looking dejected. “You’re also up. Good luck.”
On the other side of the door—in the Room of Doom—Arthur Pendragon rolls his shoulders back and ignores Morgana’s irate glare. She leans back in her chair, still keeping the glare focused. “It truly shocks me that you can’t find and keep a PA, considering what a lovely person you are,” she says, her voice dry.
He swings a glare at her. “It’s not my fault that everyone is either incompetent or too dimwitted to keep up.”
She rolls her eyes. “If you didn’t insist on putting the applicants through the mill maybe you would find someone. Besides, all of your past PA’s were perfectly competent before you broke them. They’re people, Arthur, not toys.”
He scowls, looking away from her. “Then I need to find someone who isn’t a fragile little dove. If they can’t handle the pressure, they’re useless. Besides, you got lucky. Gwen is wonderful.”
“You can’t have her,” Morgana says, not for the first time and Arthur makes a face.
“Why are you here again? I’m perfectly capable of conducting my own interviews.”
She stretches, yawning. “But not of picking your own PA. Without me you would throw them all out for some inane reason and I won’t have that. You’ve been monopolizing Gwen and Leon—who, I’ll remind you, actually has a job that consists of something other than running around after you—ever since you fired your last one. I’m here to pick you a proper one. Maybe they’ll last longer than two weeks this time. Besides, HR sent me. You know what they’re supposed to be here for all the interviews.”
“If HR is supposed to be here, then why are you?”
“Because you made them cry last time,” she says absently, and ignores his glare, pulling over another folder from the dwindling stack. “Alright, this next one is Gaius’s recommendation. That’s promising.”
Arthur makes a noncommittal sound and Morgana pinches him hard on the arm. He yelps and straightens, rubbing the area and thinking dark thoughts towards her as the door opens and the next applicant slips into the room. In the five seconds before his brain catches up with him Arthur takes in the man’s nervous grin and too-large jacket and jutting ears. Then they lock eyes with each other and the man’s grin turns to consternation while Arthur’s face flushes hot.
“You!” They shout at each other, pointing dramatically. Next to Arthur, Morgana rolls her eyes. (Boys are so melodramatic.)
“What are you doing here?” Arthur remarks snidely. And really, that’s a stupid question. Merlin seems to think so too.
“Applying for a job. Although I’m rethinking it if you’re the one in charge around here.”
“Hah! As if I would ever hire you. In a long line of incompetent idiots you are the worst.”
Merlin narrows his eyes. “As if I would work for a company who put a pompous git like you in charge of anything. Aren’t you too busy lording yourself over other people to get anything done?”
“You can’t talk to me like that!” Arthur snarls. Merlin folds his arms over his chest, raising one eyebrow.
“Why not? Does it hurt your feelings to have someone tell you the truth about what an arrogant prat you are?”
“You have no idea who I am, do you?”
Merlin tilts his head. “A pompous git? Arrogant prat? Egocentric arsehole? Would you like me to keep going? I’m sure I can come up with more. You make it so easy.”
“I’m Arthur Pendragon. I can snap my fingers and have you tossed out on the street. How you even got into this building I don’t know, you incompetent, bumbling moron!”
Morgana clears her throat pointedly, making both men snap their attention to her, Merlin going bright red while Arthur’s color subsides a bit. She raises on eyebrow at the both of them. “Am I missing something here?”
Morgana is, indeed, missing something.
This is not the first time that Arthur Pendragon and Merlin Ambryse have meet. It is, in fact, their fourth meeting, although they are only fully aware of two of the previous encounters.
The reason they are only aware of two previous meetings, rather than three, is because the first is nothing more than a brief brushing of lives, too shallow an encounter to leave a mark, not significant enough for recollection. This first meeting is dust on fingertips, fine particles rubbed away as soon as they touch upon skin. There is Arthur, a little drunk, cutting through the park to walk off the brunt of his buzz before he heads to a taxi rank on the other side. And there is Merlin, fresh from stopping an attempted robbery, covered head to toe in dirt and muck, bleeding shallowly from a cut on his cheek, who just manages to get himself back into civilian clothes before Arthur comes around the corner.
For a moment they pause, Arthur drunk and arrogant and wary, one step from belligerent, Merlin weary and on edge, running on a fading rush of adrenaline. They give each other suspicious glances and then jolt back into motion. The path narrows, bringing them closer together, and Arthur is too unsteady to cut through the grass, Merlin too tired to even think of it. As they pass each other Merlin stumbles a little, his arm brushing Arthur’s and leaving a streak of dirt on his sleeve. The moment they are past they forget each other, Merlin thinking longingly of his bed, Arthur focused on hailing a cab. In the morning, Arthur will glance at his jacket sleeve, frown, and wipe the dirt away. And that’s the end of it.
Their second meeting is much more dramatic.
Arthur—during one of his periods where yet another PA has met their demise beneath his tyranny—is forced to go and get his own coffee from the shop down the street. This irritates him, because he is Arthur Pendragon and shouldn’t have to get his own coffee, but the stuff in the office is melted plastic sludge with grainy sugar and he won’t stand for it. He tries to convince someone else to go get it for him, but Gwen is busy, Leon is off sick, and Morgana gives him the you’re an absolute bloody idiot look before he even opens his mouth. When he goes to terrify their newest intern into running out for him Morgana pokes her head around the corner and, smiling sweetly at him, says, “Oh, and Arthur, remember that the appropriation of company personnel to run your personal errands is against Camelot’s policy. I’d hate to have to tell Uther about his own son failing to uphold all the regulations of the corporation that he is meant to run one day.”
He glares at her, because he knows she won’t tell Uther—the no tattletale rule is the first law of their sibling code—but the threat is enough to keep him from following through. In the end, he finds himself trudging down the street, hands in his pockets, blinking at the bright sun.
And, actually, it’s kind of…nice. It feels brilliant to stretch his legs, to work out the kinks and knots of his legs and his back. The sun is warm and bright and there’s a bit of breeze, so much better than the frigid, sterile air-conditioning of his office. He could get used to this, he thinks. A daily trip away from his desk, like back when he was at Uni and only working part time at Camelot. The coffee shop is cozy and welcoming, the kind of place tucked into a corner of the street that has warm scents and cushioned chairs that invite relaxation. As he joins the queue the warm smells of cinnamon and coffee and vanilla swirl around him and he thinks that even after he gets a new PA he’ll keep this up. He’ll come every day and get coffee and become a face that all of the workers know and smile at. He’ll step out of his confining office and come and breathe these soothing scents and maybe even pretend to be more human than he is.
Of course, right after he thinks this, a lanky man in frayed jeans with ridiculous ears trips, careens into an entire display of coffee mugs and then pitches headfirst into Arthur, managing to headbutt him right in the torso, drench him in steaming hot coffee, and finally land heavily on top of him.
Arthur’s immediate reaction to this is a combination of ow ohmygod ow hot hot HOT ow can’t breathe OW, while the man who has landed on top of him tries to scramble to his feet, a look of utter horror on his face.
Arthur lies on the floor as the skinny idiot jerks and flops around and finally scrambles to his feet, babbling on at a hundred miles per minute, a long string of "Oh my god I'm so sorry I'm so so sorry I'm clumsy as hell and I'll pay for your dry cleaning and lemme help you up" as he reaches down and tries to grab Arthur's arm and heave him up.
Arthur wrenches his arm out of the man's grip and slowly rises, pulling the wet fabric of his shirt away from his torso and snarling. Although Morgana always likes to tell him that he looks like an angry cat who hit a brick wall when he gets mad, he knows for a fact that he is damn intimidating. He has made grown men cry with a look.
Those grown men have never knocked him to the ground and spilled hot coffee all over his favorite Armani shirt. He doesn't want tears, he wants blood. He wants bone marrow. He wants to reach out and grab the twat by the neck and decapitate him with his bare hands, just pop his head off like the plastic head of a big-eared Ken doll. The man keeps babbling, while workers from the cafe converge on them, one with a broom who sets about sweeping up the broken pottery. The other--who has the look of a manager--comes towards them, probably to make peace, but then the clumsy idiot has a wad of napkins in his hands and is dabbing them against the stain and all Arthur knows is that his vision narrows and he's going down a dark, dark tunnel of rage.
He doesn't know that he is shouting until he blinks and finds himself inches away from the man's face, literally screaming, spewing spittle onto the man's cheeks. He almost feels a trace of pity for the pathetic look the other man is wearing, that dumbfounded look that Arthur knows comes before the crumple into fear and trembling and ultimately the complete collapse into tears and begging.
Arthur is used to people who, when confronted by him in one of his moods (and this far exceeds just a mood), bow down and plead for mercy. He is used to people bending over backwards to try and appease him, offering him a perfect shot at their jugular so he can put them out of their misery.
But this man, this large-eared, clumsy, moronic, stupid, pathetic man...he doesn't bend. With Arthur literally in his face, with drops of spit landing on his cheeks, with the full wrath of a Pendragon bearing down upon him...he straightens minutely, his hands tighten around the wads of napkins he still holds, the bright flush in his skin pales just a trifle, and he doesn't step backwards. Instead, he looks Arthur in the eye and says:
"Who the fuck made you king of the world, mate?"
Arthur blinks and takes a step back. "What?"
Merlin gives him a tight, venomous smile. "I apologized for the accident. I was offering to pay for the dry cleaning--"
"This shirt alone costs more than you make in three years, you imbecilic chav--"
"Of course. Because you know exactly what I do and how much I make. Were you born this narcissistic, or do you just have a giant stick the size of your trust fund up your arse?"
Arthur most certainly does not sputter, although he's sure that lesser people might call it that. "Do you have any idea who I am--"
"Nope," Merlin says, cutting him off. "Don't give a shit either." He glances over at the manager, who is staring at him in something close to horror, her mouth open. "Sorry 'bout the mess Annie. You know I'm good for it." He glares at Arthur. "Watch the stick up your arse, mate. If it goes any higher you might puncture something." And then he stalks out of the door, leaving Arthur in the position of yelling after him, "Don't call me your mate. I'm not your friend, arsehole."
Which, okay, yeah, isn't the best comeback ever, but at least he gets the last word.
As for their third meeting…well, it is a sordid tale that includes a fashion boutique, Arthur inciting a nervous breakdown, one minor flesh wound caused by a pair of scissors, one near fist fight, an attempted murder, and Merlin being fired. The details are probably best left vague in this case.
Morgana knows none of this, nor will either of the men stop glaring at each other long enough to tell her. When neither of them give her a proper response she shakes her head, sighing. “I take it you have met before?” They both mumble under their breath and she takes that as a yes. “Well, at least you’re acquainted. Now, if we could conduct a proper interview? Why don’t you take a seat, Mr. Ambryse?”
Merlin flushes a little and sits. “Of course, Miss LeFay. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“How do you know who she is but not who I am?” Arthur interrupts, his voice outraged.
Merlin sniffs. “I was talking to Miss Thomas while I was waiting. You didn’t come up.”
“Why the hell not? This is my interview!”
“Probably the exact reason she didn’t mention you is because you’re a self-centered narcissist who thinks the world revolves around him!”
“As far as the likes of you are concerned, the world does revolve around me!”
The two are ready to devolve back into insults when Morgana clears her throat again. “Merlin, tell us about how you know Gaius.”
He smiles at her. “He’s my mentor, both personally and professionally. He’s a family friend and was my academic tutor at Joyous Garde.”
“And when did you graduate?”
He folds his hands in his lap, tugging the sleeve of his jacket straight. “Three months ago. I have my BA in History.”
Morgana, wisely, passes over the question of why do you want to work here? perhaps sensing that the answer she will receive is not one she will like. Instead she asks: “Why don’t you tell us a bit about why you are qualified for this job?”
“You’re not,” Arthur mutters quietly under his breath, but he is ignored. Merlin spares him a quick glare and straightens his back.
“I’m smart. I’m quick, I’m reliable, I’m organized. I’m loyal,” he says, and seems about to say something before swallowing it down. “Once I start something I finish it, and I never give up. Furthermore...,” he turns to stare evenly at Arthur, who folds his arms and looks back. “I am not intimidated by you, as I suspect most people are.”
Arthur grits his teeth. “You can’t speak to me like that. You clearly have no respect for anyone.”
“Certainly not for someone who demands respect but has none for anyone else.” (There is a brief moment where sheer glee crosses Morgana’s face, an expression that goes unnoticed by the two men.)
“Thank you, Mr. Ambryse. We have your CV, and we’ll be in touch with you soon,” she says.
He stands, nodding to both of them. “Thank you for your time,” he says, and shakes their hands. Well, shakes Morgana’s hand, and then he tries to hold a straight face as Arthur tries to crush the bones in his hand. When he extracts his limb from Arthur’s grasp he glares once more, smiles at Morgana, and disappears through the door.
Morgana turns in her chair and just looks at Arthur, who recognizes the expression in her eyes far too well. “No,” he says, enunciating clearly just in case. “No way in hell, Morgana.”
“Yes,” she says simply.
“He’s rude, he’s clumsy, he’s unprofessional, he’s--”
“Spunky. He has a spine and he won’t let you walk all over him.”
“He’s completely and utterly incompetent.”
“And how would you know? How do you know him anyway?”
Arthur pouts. “Do you remember that day I went to Broceliande with Vivian?”
Morgana’s mouth opens in a little ‘o’ and her eyes go wide. “That was him?” Arthur nods shortly and she claps her hands in delight. “You have to hire him. These others would probably be fine for a normal person, but you need someone of a higher caliber. You need him.”
“He has no experience as a personal assistant. He has no experience in the corporate world at all.”
“And he doesn’t necessarily need it. He needs to be technologically capable--which he is, it’s here in his CV--he needs to be able to multitask, and most of all he needs to be able to put up with you. He’s got fire that none of these others have.”
“Are we looking for my next PA, or a horse?” Arthur asks crossly. “If you like him so much why don’t you hire him and I’ll take Gwen?”
“Not a chance. She’d quit within a month. Merlin Ambryse, Arthur, is the solution to your problems.”
“You’re out of your mind, harpy,” Arthur retorts. “And over my dead body am I hiring him. Leon!” He shouts, and the man quickly pokes his head into the room. “Send the next one in,” he orders, and Leon nods. Morgana rolls her eyes and sits back in her chair.
“And you’re annoying. No,” he says, a tone of finality to his voice.
She drums her fingers on the table for a few seconds and then nods. “Okay. Whatever you say, Arthur.”
He looks at her suspiciously, taken aback by her acquiescence. “What?”
She shrugs. “You’re the boss here. So whatever you say, Arthur.”
He stares at her and then scoots his chair to the left. “If your head starts spinning around, I’m staking you in the heart.”
“You just mixed demon possession with the ways of killing a vampire, moron,” she says, just as their next applicant walks through the door.
“Well, the only thing I know is that you’re evil,” he says, and then smiles broadly at the hesitant man standing in the doorway. “Hello, ignore her, she’s not important.”
- Morgana rolls her eyes and carefully slips Merlin’s CV under the desk and into her handbag while he isn’t looking.
Merlin isn’t sure why he comes when Morgana calls him, but he shows up at nine o’clock at the appointed place. She shows up three minutes later, two cups of coffee in her hands, one of which she extends to him. He takes it warily. “Thank you,” he says. In the past three days since the interview he’s done some serious googling on Camelot Inc and the Pendragon family, so he knows quite a bit about Miss Morgana LeFay, and he’s on his guard. “Er, why have you called me here?”
She smiles at him. “To offer you a job.”
He raises an eyebrow, taking a sip of the coffee. “What kind of job?”
“The exact one that you applied for.”
He scowls. “Working as a slave to that prat?” Then he realizes who he’s talking to and coughs. “Er, for Mr. Pendragon, I mean.”
She laughs. “No, prat was far more accurate, I assure you.”
He shifts his weight. “Then why, exactly, would I want to work for him? Besides, he made it perfectly clear that I was the last person he would ever hire for the position.”
She waves a hand, dismissing. “That’s precisely why he’s not doing the hiring. Or, rather, he thinks that he is, but I’m going to take the choice out of his hands. Arthur needs you as a personal assistant. You are the only person we have interviewed that seems both confident and capable of handling him without either worshiping the ground he walks on or cowering in fear of him. You’ve met him before—you know how much of a prat he can be, and you’ve made it clear that you won’t tolerate the same level of nonsense again.”
“None of this makes me thirst to work for him, Miss LeFay.”
“You need a job. It pays well, has a good pension scheme , and will create a network of contacts for you. This job can open whatever door you’d like in the future.” She tilts her head, eyeing him. “But you’re not one of those concerned about the future, are you? The normal spiel hold no appeal for you.” He doesn’t say anything, but she’s absolutely right and seems to know that. “You’ll never be bored. Look at this objectively, Mr. Ambryse. You need a job. You need something challenging and exciting.” She half smiles. “I assure you that nothing will ever challenge you more than working with Arthur Pendragon.”
“I don’t actually need a job, you know. I have one.”
“You can’t work in a coffee shop forever.”
“Well, I had a promising position at an upscale fashion boutique, before the man you want me to work for got me fired.”
She grins at him. “To be honest, Mr. Ambryse, I’m not sure how you got a job at Broceliande in the first place. You’re not their normal kind of person.”
He shrugs. “I have connections and I’m not afraid to use them.”
“As it should be. But honestly, Merlin--may I call you Merlin?--are you sorry you got fired? I can’t believe that you enjoyed working in a place like that, particularly one that would throw you away so quickly at the single word of an egocentric man. You must have been painfully bored there.”
“I think it was more the attempted murder that got me fired,” he says, tracing the logo on the side of the coffee cup with the pad of his finger and staring at her. “Did you get all of this from my CV?”
“From your CV and your interview. Well, and I wrangled the story of what happened at Broceliande out of Arthur. If it makes you feel any better, Vivian was a complete bitch. She gave Arthur a concussion you know. Threw a vase at his head--he needed ten stitches.”
He grins widely. “That’s glorious.” Then he sighs and sits back in his chair. “Give me a real reason why I should spend my days scrambling around after Arthur Pendragon, Miss LeFay. I mean, you aren’t dead set on having me for the job because of me--I’ve got Gaius’s recommendation, but otherwise I’m not particularly qualified for the position, and there’s bound to be someone else who could do it. So...why?”
She glances to the side and takes a long sip of her coffee, focusing her gaze absently on something in the distance. He resists the urge to swivel around and try to see what she’s looking at, keeping himself still instead. After a moment she looks back at a him, meeting his gaze. “For Arthur. The two of you, obviously, have had a rocky beginning. You’ve seen the side of Arthur that most people see. The spoiled, arrogant, pushy, demanding, quick-tempered prat. But there’s another side to him, one full of potential. He’s loyal and dedicated and he can genuinely be kind. He keeps everyone at an arm’s length, so no one ever gets to see that other side. I’m the only person who can actually kick his arse the way he needs, aside from Uther, who is far worse than his son. Gwen is too kind to give Arthur a piece of her mind, and Leon, for all that they are friends, is still his employee who is too afraid to say what needs to be said.” She shakes her head. “I need you. You aren’t afraid of him, and that’s a rare thing.”
He is quiet, still tracing the logo idly with his finger, thinking hard. “Do me a favor, Merlin,” she says after a minute.
“Give it a trial run. One week, and if you can’t stand it then you can quit, no ramifications of any kind.”
He chews on the inside of his cheek before sighing. “All right. One week.” He chugs down the rest of his coffee, waiting for the caffeine to sing through his veins. He tilts his head at her. “But, um, how are you going to get him to agree?”
She smirks at him. “The PA that he hired quit this morning. Nervous break down. I intercepted the call, so Arthur doesn’t know yet.” She leans in, crooking a finger at him. “Here’s the plan.”
When Arthur walks into his office a few hours later, he is pleasantly surprised. A steaming cup of coffee is waiting for him on his desk, his dry cleaning is neatly hung in his wardrobe, his filing is done, and his schedule has been put into his computer and written on his desk calendar. He props his hands on his hips and nods, satisfied, and can't suppress the impulse to gloat when Morgana shows up at his door and asks him how his new PA is working out.
He leans back in his chair and smirks at her. "Excellent. I told you he was the right choice."
She tilts her head, smiling at him, which should be a warning sign but his ego is just a bit too overinflated for him to realize the danger he's stepping into. "So, everything that your PA has done today meets your satisfaction?"
He nods. "Yes. He's definitely improved on his performance--that discussion we had last night must have put him right."
"You mean the one where you made him cry?"
Arthur shrugs. "Clearly it's getting the job done."
Her smile widens, showing all of her teeth. "Well, that's good. So, what do you say to a little experiment? You're happy with today's performance, yes?" He nods, one eyebrow raised. "Then keep this PA for one week. Without firing him, no matter what happens."
He pauses for a second, looking at his organized desk and his neatly written schedule, and then he nods. "Fine. I'll keep him for at least one week without firing him."
"Promise?" She says, the tone light.
He rolls his eyes. "Yes, yes, I promise."
When her smile goes from sweet and innocent to cat that caught the canary, he realizes that he's walked into a trap. He sits upright, staring at her, trying to figure out where exactly he went wrong and what she's just tricked him into. "Good," she says, and he can imagine blood and feathers around her mouth. "Your PA, Roderick? He quit this morning."
Arthur blinks at her. "Then...then who--?"
She steps fully into her office, making a motion to someone standing just out of sight. She glares at whoever it is and then makes a sharper motion; Arthur hears a faint sigh and then stares as Merlin walks into the room, his expression slightly uncomfortable but otherwise composed. He gives a little wave and Arthur shifts to stare at Morgana.
"You made a verbal agreement, Arthur. Would you like me to fetch the solicitors and have them tell you all the ways in which it is legally binding?"
He folds his arms, scowling. "I made a verbal agreement that I was tricked into. Besides, what are you going to do if I back out, tell Father?"
"Stage a coup and take over your company," she replies. He searches her expression for some hint of amusement, but finds only perfect composure and no trace that she's kidding. "I only have to make one call and you know it," she adds.
"I hate you," he says.
She grins. "One week, boys." And then she spins on her heel and stalks from the room, leaving the two of them staring after her.
"Did she learn business from the mafia?" Merlin asks, gaping in the direction she's gone.
"Worse," Arthur says faintly. "she has a degree in psychology. And no soul."
"Scary," Merlin replies, and then the two men look at each other, realizing that this is the first time they have ever agreed on anything.
Arthur drums his fingers on the top of his desk, glaring at the other man. Merlin looks passively back, hands thrust into his pockets. “That’s not proper business attire, you know.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be here, actually. Miss LeFay blindsided me this morning.”
“She does that.” Arthur sighs. “I suppose I’m stuck with you. Unless you would like to resign?” He says hopefully and receives a glare in response.
“You weren’t listening to me at all during my interview, were you? I don’t quit anything that I start. I agreed to one week, just like you, so you’re not getting rid of me that easily.”
Arthur sneers and then reaches into his right hand drawer, pulling out a stack of envelopes and a pile of papers. He hands them over to the other man. “Sort those, put them into envelopes, address them, and post them. Think you can manage that without screwing it up?”
“Your estimation of my skills is amazing,” Merlin says, taking the materials. “Do I get a desk?”
Arthur waves a hand, dismissing him. “Go and find Leon and tell him to set you up.”
“Yes, sir,” he says, and leaves before Arthur can decide if that was meant sarcastically or not.
Over the next week, Merlin contemplates the morality of committing murder when one is secretly a superhero, and Arthur tries to create reasons to fire Merlin once the week is over. Ultimately, Merlin decides that no, killing your boss is not okay, not even if he’s really, really annoying, and Arthur finds Merlin to be irritatingly proficient. His coffee is on time and hot, his desk is organized, his schedule is readily available and perfectly done, and every task he gives is completed in a timely manner.
He can’t fault the work, and when he tries more often than not he finds himself looking like an idiot. For instance, there is the time he hands over his mountain of undone paperwork with orders to file it. In an hour.
Fifteen minutes later he walks into his office to find Leon and Merlin talking. “Merlin,” he barks, making both of the men jump. “I’m not paying you to make friends.”
Leon very casually moves to place the desk between himself and Arthur, while Merlin folds his arms. “No. Right now, you’re paying me to do your filing. Leon is teaching me the filing system, something that you have neglected to do. I could either wing it by myself and probably misplace half of these papers, or Leon can teach me so that I know the system for next time.”
Arthur grits his jaw and nods grudgingly. “I still want it by the hour.”
“Yes sir,” Merlin says, and this time Arthur knows it’s sarcastic.
The real problem is that Merlin is clumsy and doesn’t think before he speaks and is far too happy to bring Arthur down a peg whenever he gets the opportunity, but he also very quickly becomes the best PA that Arthur has ever had.
This makes Arthur grumpy. He stomps around and looks for reasons to fire his PA and he scowls a lot. But the thing is, the one week ends, and Arthur doesn’t fire Merlin. He threatens to at least five times a day, and takes a kind of heady pleasure in holding it over Merlin’s head, but he doesn’t actually do it.
At the end of the second week, Arthur, on his way to a “date”--a date with a wealthy heiress prearranged by his meddling father--realizes that he’s forgotten his phone. He commandeers his driver’s mobile and rings Merlin, because it’s far better to torture his PA than to turn the car around and go and get it himself.
Except, Merlin doesn’t answer.
Arthur proceeds to call him a further fifteen times, leaving increasingly nasty voice mails ranging in insults from his favorite “incompetent” to more complex varieties like “you inbred, backwater, big-eared ignoramus”.
After the fifteenth call the mobile phone buzzes with a text message that reads: OMG STOP CALLING. At cafe. Will fold ur socks or whatev later.
Arthur immediately has the driver turn around and five minutes later he is bursting into the coffee house, ready to maim. He blinks in surprise when he finds Merlin behind the counter, dressed in an apron with a hat perched on his head, accentuating his ridiculous ears.
“What the hell are you doing?” He barks, striding up to the counter. Merlin, in the process of handing a cup to a customer, looks up, his expression starting at huh? and quickly fading into hold on while I bang my head against a wall.
“Are you seriously so sad that you couldn’t do whatever it was by yourself?” Merlin asks him, and then gives an apologetic smile to the customer.
“I pay you to do it for me,” Arthur says. “What are you doing?” He repeats.
Merlin gives a long suffering sigh, gives his customer their receipt, and turns to face Arthur. “Working, Arthur. I know you’re unfamiliar with the concept but--”
“What do you mean working? You work for me!”
“Merlin?” A fellow worker says, gently interrupting the conversation. “Why don’t you take your break and sort this out?”
Merlin glares at Arthur but nods, untying his apron as he walks around the counter. He beckons Arthur to a corner table and scowls. “Why must you always make a scene?”
“I”m going to ignore that in favor of, once again, asking you what the hell you’re doing here.”
“Jesus, you make it sound like I’m cheating on you. I have two jobs, Arthur.”
“What do you need two jobs for? You have a perfectly good job with me!”
Merlin folds his arms. “You threatened to fire me seven times today. Do you see why that might cause me some concern over the stability of my job?”
“You shouldn’t have spilled my coffee,” Arthur responds, the retort sullen but a bit absent, and a furrow is forming between his eyebrows. “Get me a piece of paper and a pen.”
“I”m not on the clock right now, you know,” Merlin says, even as he obeys.
“You’re always on the clock. I own you.” Arthur takes the offered piece of paper and looks at his PA. “What do you want?”
Merlin looks surprised by the question. “What?”
Arthur rolls his eyes and with exaggerated patience explains what he means. “In your contract. You’re worried about job security? We’ll draw up a full contract as opposed to the one you had for your trial basis.
So, what do you want?”
Merlin looks at him for a long moment. “I want a helicopter.”
Arthur glowers at him. “Merlin, if I don’t have a helicopter, you certainly cannot have one.”
“You have a jet!”
“The company has a jet. You’re not getting a company car much less something that flies, so move on.”
Merlin pouts at him, but his lips tug up into a grin. “I want a million pounds.”
“In your dreams. You’re getting Camelot’s standard 25 days off a year, plus bank holidays, access to our pension scheme, and a starting salary of £25,000 per year.”
“Fine.” Merlin tilts his head. “Alright, I want a plant on my desk.”
“Deal. But if it dies, it’s your fault. I’ll have Hr draw it up in the morning. But, you should quit here.”
Merlin smiles crookedly. “You know you can’t actually make me do that, right?”
“I own your soul. I can make you do anything I want.”
“I put in my month’s notice on Wednesday. You’re stuck with me now.”
Arthur glares. “I take my offer back. You’re fired. Keep your coffee shop.”
“Nope. Too late. You made a verbal agreement and I have witnesses.”
“You stole that from Morgana!’
“Of course I did,” Merlin says smugly. “I learn quickly. By the way, why are you here? What was so urgent that you had to call me fifteen times?”
“I forgot my mobile. Go and get it for me.”
Merlin looks like he is seriously considering taking back everything he has agreed to. “You’re hopeless,” he laments. Then he glances at his watch. “Aren’t you supposed to be on a date?”
Arthur’s eyes go comically wide. “Oh shit.” Merlin’s laughter follows him as he runs out.
Two days later Merlin reconsiders what he’s gotten himself into when the air conditioning on their floor inexplicably goes out. Arthur is, naturally, on the phone demanding that repairs be made immediately, while Merlin fiddles with the windows and discovers that they are wide, provide an excellent view of the city, and are completely useless because the don’t open.
“What is the point of windows if they don’t open?” Merlin asks crossly as soon as Arthur hangs up the phone.
“Shut up,” is the response he gets in reply. Together they turn to stare at the desk piled high with papers that need to be sorted through and filed today.
“We could move to a different floor?” Merlin suggests, and Arthur gives him a disbelieving frown.
“And have to haul all this up there and then back? No. You can just suck it up. It’s not that bad”
But, contrary to what Arthur says, it is pretty bad. It’s the height of summer, and the sun is merciless streaming through the windows. It’s not unbearable, but it’s uncomfortable enough to make things difficult.
Merlin last approximately five minutes before he sheds his coat jacket, loosens his tie, and rolls up his sleeves. Arthur rolls a glaring eye at him but doesn't comment, his own face slowly turning an interesting shade of red and sweat appearing at his temples. Merlin watches the process from the corner of his eye, making mental bets on how long it will take him to either explode or finally break. He manages to last half an hour before he sighs, gives Merlin a glare that warns him not to say a word, and peels his jacket off with a breath of relief. The sleeves go next, and Merlin certainly does not watch as Arthur's thumb works the button through the hole and then peels the fabric back, rolling it smoothly up his forearm.
But it's the other arm that really gets him. Arthur repeats the process, pushing the sleeve up to his elbow, but as he does so Merlin catches a flash of colored shadow on the inside of his wrist, one that pulls his gaze over. He frowns, leaning forward, wondering what it could be--Arthur's not wearing a watch, he thinks, that's what's different--and then he is hard pressed to keep his jaw from dropping. There, on the inside of the man's wrist, perfectly placed so that the band of a watch will cover it, is a tattoo. It’s a dragon, roughly the size of a thumb—well, a normal-sized thumb, anyway, since all of Merlin’s fingers are absurdly long and therefore a bad comparison—shaded red, black, and blue. The dragon’s shape is a bit more serpentine than the blockier European dragon—looking at it, Merlin compares it more to Arc’s favored dragon shape than to Kilgharrah's bulking mass. More than that, it’s familiar; it takes him a moment, but he eventually places it as the symbol from the Pendragon family crest.
Arthur catches his gaze and looks at him mildly, a twitch in the muscle in his forearm showing an aborted urge to cover the marking. “Something for you?”
Merlin pulls his eyes away from the tattoo and gives a slanted grin. “The Pendragon crest? Really?”
The faint flush that settles in Arthur’s cheeks could just be the heat, but Merlin really doesn’t think so. “If you have enough time to comment on my tattoo choices, perhaps you need more work to do,” he remarks, and slides a heavy folder across the desk. “That should keep you busy for a while.”
Merlin scowls at him and heaves the folder onto his lap, getting back to work. (But every now and then his eyes drift to that elegant design imprinted on the surprisingly frail flesh of Arthur’s wrist, and he can’t help himself. It’s a compulsion. There’s something more to that tattoo, something important, something he should remember.)
As he is walking through the front door of his flat, it hits him.
“He will bear the crest of the dragon, and by this you will know him.”
No. Fucking. Way.
Two days later, he is standing in front of a rather smug dragon and glaring. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Arthur Pendragon. Arthur fucking Pendragon is your Once-and-Future King who my life is supposed to be intertwined with? No. I refuse. Absolutely not. He’s arrogant and he’s a prat and I think I hate him a little bit. There’s no way I’m spending any more time with him than I have to. I’m keeping this job for a couple of months, tops, and then I’m quiting and I’m never seeing him again. Ever. And you and your stupid destiny and fate and all of your self-righteous holier-than-thou riddles can shove it, Kilgharrah.”
Said dragon closes his eyes and laughs, a lazily content expression sliding across his serpentine face. “Oh, young warlock, you have no idea how much I have missed those words. I have missed your complaining about destiny.”
“Shove it, Kilgharrah. You do understand that phrase, right? Shove it where the sun don’t shine and leave it there.”
The dragon gives him the equivalent of a grin, curling his lips back, showing the expanse of his teeth—it’s part grin and part intimidation and part smarmy obnoxious dragon. “You cannot fight fate, young warlock. You and Arthur are intertwined. You have always been, you shall always be.”
“Is it just me, or are you particularly annoying today?”
“Your protests will change nothing. It would be foolish to try and deny your destiny, when it is only beginning to fall into place.”
“My destiny with Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin says one more time, slowly, just to make sure the damn dragon is getting this.
“With Arthur Pendragon.”
Merlin shakes his head. “No. No way. I refuse. You and destiny can just go suck it in a dark corner somewhere and take Arthur bloody Pendragon with you!” He turns on his heel and stomps away.
The dragon’s laughter following him kind of dampens his dramatic storming off.
Despite what he tells Kilgharrah, Merlin finds himself sticking around. (It is not, he tells himself, because he believes in destiny or fate or anything like that.)
Once he signs on with Arthur for the long run, things start to settle in. Well...”settle” as much as is possible around Arthur Pendragon. Which, as it turns out, isn’t very much at all. If anything, his life becomes even more dysfunctional than it was before, and he spends his days running around after his prat of his boss and his nights chasing after criminals while fielding Arthur’s late night calls through his communicator. He comes up with some brilliant excuses for things that Arthur hears, blaming most of them on Will.
Arthur, meeting Will for the first time one afternoon when he comes to pick Merlin up from the office, accepts these excuses without question and wonders loudly where in the hell Merlin finds these people.
Which, honestly, is a hilarious statement coming from him, because Merlin has seen some of the people he spends his nights with. Arthur occasionally takes the personal in Merlin’s job title to extremes, and Merlin finds himself fielding calls from ex-girlfriends, hushing up potential scandals (not that he is always successful in this, despite his and the entire PR department’s best efforts, and honestly, the tabloids have entire columns that they save just for whatever Arthur will get himself into next), and generally having a hand in every part of Arthur’s life.
This leads him into some very awkward situations.
Like the time that Vivian shows up.
Rightfully, Merlin should recognize the ominous click of her heels and dive for cover, but he is distracted and doesn’t pick up on the subtle distinction between Morgana’s Mess-With-Me-And-I-Will-Rain-Wrath-Upon-You and Vivian’s Crazy-Ex walking. He doesn’t realize that he’s doomed until she is looming over his desk screeching “You!”
Appropriately, he freezes, turning his head slowly upwards to stare at her and barely managing to bite his tongue around the “oh bugger” that wants to come out. He would really like to not get fired twice because of the same woman, so he plasters a smile onto his face. “How lovely to see you again, Miss --”
She stares at him like an insect, snarls like a goddamn tiger, and walks straight past him, hooking her claw-like fingers around the door handle to Arthur’s office and yanking it open. He hears Arthur’s unmanly squeak of surprise, followed by “er, hello Vivian--”, and he makes a hasty retreat, speeding towards Gwen’s desk, sure that if she can’t protect him Morgana most certainly can.
Gwen looks up at his approach and stands when she sees the look on his face. “Merlin, are you alright?” she asks, reaching out a hand as though she’s going to feel his forehead for a fever. He has half a mind to let her. Maybe if he’s ill he’ll get to go home and then Vivian can’t try to rip his head off with her bare hands.
“Vivian is here.”
Gwen’s eyes go wide. “Oh,” she breathes. Leon joins them, lured by the word Vivian and all the mayhem that it is sure to entail. “And aren’t you the one who threw that glass of wine at her?”
“She started it,” he mutters, looking nervously over his shoulder in the direction he’s come. He has reason to be scared, considering the last time he saw her she was being bodily carried out after trying to gouge his eyes out with her fingers. Leon grins at him as though he’s seen Christmas come early, and Gwen looks down towards Arthur’s office.
“Did you leave them alone?” He nods, just as there is a sharp crash and then a loud bang from the office. “Oh dear,” Gwen sighs. “Leon, can you--?”
Leon nods and warily makes his way towards the office. “It’s not my fault if she’s killed him!” Merlin shouts after him, and then ducks behind Gwen when there is another loud bang.
“Merlin, you’re quite a bit taller than me. You can’t hide behind me.”
“But I’m like a twig. I can just bend in half, it’ll be fine, don’t move.”
“...Did you just call me fat?”
“No...,” he says slowly, and wonders if he’s going to have to hide from two women who want his head. Just as he’s trying to gauge whether or not he needs to flee Morgana emerges from her office, raising an eyebrow at both of them.
“What’s all the banging about?”
There is another loud crash, this one like something breakable shattering into pieces. “Vivian’s here,” Gwen explains. Morgana cranes her neck to look down the hallway, while Leon dodges something being thrown at him.
“I’ll call security,” she says with a sigh, and disappears back into her office.
There is a banshee shriek from down the hall and a few seconds later Leon runs back to them, looking a bit as though he’s been through a battle. “It’s not looking good for Arthur,” he announces. “Merlin, aren’t you supposed to be doing something to help him instead of hiding behind Gwen?”
Merlin gives him a look without stepping from his hiding place. “One, he doesn’t pay me that well. Two, she literally tried to kill me the last time I saw her. There’s no way I’m putting myself in the line of fire, even for Arthur.”
“Yeah,” Gwen says with a wince.
Luckily, about a minute later security shows up, charging into the room and carrying a thrashing Vivian from the room. Merlin has to give her props for creativity when it comes to the insults that she slings at them all as she is bodily removed from the premises, and once she is out of sight he inches forward to check on Arthur. His boss emerges from his office looking harassed, his hair messed up and his shirt ripped at the collar. Arthur glares at him and points an accusing finger.
“You. Coward. You are the worst PA ever. I could have died and where were you?”
“Um, hiding behind Gwen?”
Arthur folds his arms and then nods reluctantly. “Solid plan.”
“No, seriously, what are you trying to imply with that?” Gwen asks from behind them.
“Er...that we need drinks?” Merlin says, giving her his best smile.
Her eyes light up. “We do. I have the perfect place for us!” she says, and heads back to her desk.
“Nice recovery,” Arthur says grudgingly. “Now, go and get me a plaster. She clawed me with those talons of her and I think I’m missing a chunk of flesh. And, you’re buying me drinks tonight.”
“Aren’t you rich?”
“You abandoned me in my moment of need, Merlin.”
“I should have let her kill you,” he grumbles, and heads off to find a first-aid kit.
It doesn't take Merlin more than a minute after walking through the door of The Round Table to figure out why Gwen was so insistent on the place. Her head starts swiveling the minute they get inside the club, and Merlin sees the exact moment that she locates who she is looking for--her face lights up and then she is standing on her tiptoes, using his shoulder to brace herself as she calls out "Lance!" Merlin follows the direction of her gaze to the handsome man who turns at the sound of her voice and he understands completely.
"Who is that?" Merlin asks, leaning in to Leon as Gwen takes off through the crowd.
"Lance," Leon replies simply, as if Merlin hadn't already figured that out from Gwen shouting the name. The other man cracks after a second, elaborating with a chuckle when Merlin glares at him. "He's a friend of mine. I introduced them last year."
"And they've been dancing around each other for ten months," Morgana says, stepping around them to lead them over to a table along the wall. "If they don't do something about it soon I'm going to have him assassinated. I can't take this will-they-or-won't-they anymore."
"Your heart is made of stone, you shrew," Arthur announces loudly, as though he is any better than his step-sister. "Merlin, go and get me a drink."
"I'm off the clock," he shoots back, but takes the drink orders for the table and heads off to the bar anyway.
The bartender, he thinks, once he gets close enough to take in the glory, should have a shrine built to his hair. It is long and feathery and Merlin wants to reach over the bar and touch it because he swears to god it looks softer than a kitten. The man with the fantastic hair glances over at him as he comes up, giving him a wicked smile and making a motion of his hand that Merlin takes it to mean I'll be with you in one second and then you can lick my collarbone. Okay, probably not that latter part, but the open v-neck of his collar gives just a glimpse of the curve of his neck and the shadow of his collarbone and Merlin very, very much wants to touch.
He shoves his hands in his pockets instead, and tries not to act like too much of a tosser.
“What can I get for you, mate?” the bartender asks him, leaning against the bar.
“Er,” he says, trying to remember the order. “A Sidecar, a Kamikaze, a Guinness, and...um, a Manhattan.”
“Add another Guinness and a Cosmo to that, Gwaine,” an unfamiliar voice says from behind him, and Merlin turns to find Gwen’s guy Lance coming up next to him. “And put it on Arthur’s tab,” he finishes, giving Merlin a winning smile and offering his hand. “I”m Lance. And you’re Merlin, right?” Merlin nods, shaking Lance’s hand.
“I thought I knew that order,” Gwaine says. He gives Merlin a sideways look and a grin, leaning in. “Except for the Manhattan. You must be new.”
Lance rolls his eyes and Merlin feels himself blush. “I guess I am. I’m Arthur’s PA.”
Gwaine raises an eyebrow. “Huh. You must be fantastic then. No one ever puts up with Prat-dragon long enough to make it here.” He sets about making the drinks, easily navigating behind the bar, pulling bottles and glasses down, his motions practiced and quick.
“He’s right, you know,” Lance says. “Gwen’s told me a lot about you. Well, in the past ten minutes anyway.”
Merlin smiles at him. There’s something about him that is just so like-able, something in his smile, something earnest and genuine that makes Merlin open right up to him, and by the time Gwaine is sliding their drinks over to them--winking at Merlin while he does so--they are chatting like old friends. They wind their way through the crowd back to their table.
“Took you long enough,” Arthur grouses, as Merlin slides into the seat next to him. “And--Merlin, did you get a Manhattan? Could you be more of a girl?”
“You’re drinking a Sidecar, Arthur,” Morgana interjects. “Why don’t you grow some balls and drink a real man’s drink?” she asks, hefting her Kamikaze pointedly in the air.
“Fuck you, Mor,” Arthur replies, his tone much more genial than normal, and Merlin wonders if he hasn’t been sneaking drinks while he and Lance were up at the bar. He glances at Leon, who shrugs and raises his own drink in a cheers motion.
Two hours later, the world has gone pleasantly blurry around the edges and Merlin is leaning against someone’s shoulder, although he’s not quite sure of who. Their group has expanded, because a quick text message--which reads Willll come get pissedddd with usss--brings Will down, and at some point Gwaine’s shift must end because he shows up at the table with a round of strong shots and never leaves. The two of them hit it off right away and instantly begin a competition for who has the best drunk-story that has them all nearly crying from laughter. (And leaves Will with a war-wound for the night, when Merlin has to jump across the table at him in order to stop him from recounting the morning after a bender when Merlin was sick on Mrs. Henry, their history teacher and how she was so traumatized by the experience she could never look him in the eye again.)
Merlin glances around the table. Will is trying ineffectively to flirt with Morgana, who looks far too put together for having drunk as much as she has, and Merlin should probably be a good wingman and tell Will that he has absolutely no shot with her, but it’s too much fun to watch. Across the table, Gwen has gone giggly, leaning against Lance because she can’t sit upright, and he has a kind of lovestruck look on his face as he drapes his arm around her shoulders. Arthur and Leon are in the corner, arguing about something that Merlin can’t follow, but it must be interesting because Morgana joins in after a moment and then Will, and a minute later Arthur is calling Will an uncivilized tosser and Will is telling him that he is a conceited wanker.
“Oh good,” Merlin says, only slurring a little bit, “they’re getting along.” He tilts his head back to look at the person he is half-lying on at this point, and Gwaine grins down at him.
“For Arthur, that is getting along.”
“I know. S’for Will too. They’re both pricks.”
Gwaine has an arm around his torso, keeping him mostly upright, and they are pressed close together, so when he laughs Merlin can feel it reverberate through him. “How do you put up with them?”
“M’special,” he replies, grinning back.
He is so not imagining the flirtatious edge to the smile he gets. Then again, he’s fairly sure that Gwaine’s normal personality setting is flirt, and he’s just a little bit too gone to try and figure things like that out. “I’m sure you are. You’re also a bit plastered right now, aren’t you?”
“M’not,” he replies. But, yeah, he is, just a bit. He rests his head against Gwaine’s shoulder. “Your hair is bloody fantastic, y’know?”
Gwaine waggles his eyebrows lasciviously. “Wanna touch it?”
“Gwaine, get your paws off my personal assistant,” Arthur says imperiously, interrupting. Apparently he’s done insulting Will for the moment and feels the need to protect Merlin’s honor.
“Or what, Pratdragon?” Gwaine says with an easy grin and Arthur glowers at him.
“If you break him, you have to buy me a new one,” he finally says petulantly.
“Hey!” Merlin protests, and the two men look at him. “I’ll have you know I can’t be bought,” he says, folding his arms. Or, trying to anyway, because his motor coordination skills are off and he ends up missing the first three times he tries it.
Across the table Morgana snorts. He glares at her, opening his mouth, but Leon heads him off with a, “I think it’s time to call it a night.” There are a few grumbles, but everyone seems to agree, and the next ten minutes are filled with Lance carrying Gwen, Merlin tripping and being caught by Gwaine and Will, Arthur making fun of him only to stumble himself, and Morgana having ungodly coordination given the combination of alcohol and her spiky death-heels. Outside the pub, Lance volunteers to get Gwen home, Leon takes Morgana and Arthur, and Gwaine takes an opportunity during the commotion to slip a folded piece of paper into Merlin’s trouser pocket and steal a quick kiss before strolling off.
Merlin is completely useless after that, as Will tells him several times trying to get him into the car without him tripping and breaking his head open on the pavement.
The next morning he finds a packet of paracetamol on his bedside table and a note on his forehead that reads Merlin, you’re a twat. Take these and don’t vom anywhere. -Will. He gladly takes the medicine and decides that he loves his best friend. He does not, however, love Arthur, as he comes to realize when he finally fishes his phone out of last night’s trousers and finds three missed calls and twelve text messages.
Clearly next time, Arthur needs to be plied with enough alcohol that he can’t even move the next morning, much less text, because this is just ridiculous. Then he glances at the table again and finds the slip of paper with Gwaine’s number scrawled across it. He grins broadly as he holds it. There’s another thing for next time.
On a Tuesday morning about two weeks later--a perfectly normal, slightly cloudy morning--Merlin is forced to confront the unpleasant realization that the two areas of his life that should never, ever meet--Merlin the average citizen of Albion and Warlock the Knight and wanted vigilante--are much closer together than he is strictly comfortable with. He has resigned himself to some amount of overlap, based on the facts that a) super villains never choose a convenient time to attack and b) Arthur Pendragon is a walking magnet for trouble, as evidenced by his poor choice in relationships and the three times that Merlin has had to secretly save his life within two months of working for him. But the diminishing distance between the two separate entities of Merlin’s existence is definitely more than just overlap.
This realization comes from an innocent statement: Arthur, glancing at his calender, something ticking away behind his eyes that Merlin has come to recognize as his there's something I need to remember look, before he wrinkles his nose. "There's a Council meeting tonight. Merlin, go and pick up my dry-cleaning. I'll need the dark blue shirt."
Merlin dutifully marks down on his PDA that he needs to pick up the dry-cleaning, and then asks, "what Council?"
Arthur responds almost absently. "The Regulation Council."
Merlin chokes on his own spit.
His employer leans back in his chair, watching him choke and sputter with a raised eyebrow, arms folded. He seems to be highly amused by the color that Merlin's face has turned. "Is breathing beyond your meager capabilities now?" he asks, as Merlin regains control of himself and takes a breath.
Merlin responds with a glare, trying to rebuild his composure as he asks--casually, dammit, and not suspiciously at all--”why do you need to go to a Regulation Council meeting?"
"Because my father heads it?" Arthur says incredulously. "Seriously Merlin, do you know anything about the company you work for?"
"It’s not technically part of Camelot, is it? I thought the Regulation council was non-profit.” Arthur looks pleasantly surprised, and mollifies it with a well, you’re not totally useless, I suppose. In strictest truth, Merlin tends to focus more on making sure that Arthur is content and not throwing staplers at Morgana’s head as she passes by, which means that yes, he is aware of the company, but he doesn’t know every corner of it yet.
Arthur waves a hand at him. "It's all over your head, I'm sure. I'm not actually going to the meeting, unless my father specifically requests my presence, but he likes to have a family dinner before it. Something about, reminding himself why he started the Council in the first place and rededicating himself to the issues."
"Ah," Merlin says, and lets the subject drop before Arthur gets suspicious from all the questions. When he tries to swallow though, he finds his throat dry, and every so often he glances at Arthur, suddenly seeing a potential threat to his very existence in place of the annoying prat he's got to know.
It doesn't sit well with him.
When he gets off work, striding away from Arthur after reminding him that your dry-cleaning is already in the limo and do you have your mobile? and so on, he heads straight for Gaius's house. It doesn't take him long to get there and he rings the doorbell persistently until the door opens and Gaius scowls at him.
"Merlin?" he asks, eyebrow raised.
Merlin gives him a flat look in response, and must manage to look serious enough that Gaius steps aside and lets him in. "Is something wrong?"
He folds his arms over his chest. "You sent me to work for the son of the man who runs a council that's sole purpose is to hunt me down, have me arrested, and stick me in a white room so that they can poke me with needles for the rest of my life," he lets out in a rush of jumbled words. Gaius is used to sorting out his ramblings though, and it only takes a moment before the older man's expression clouds and he says simply "ah" and heads for the kitchen.
Merlin stares at his back for a moment before taking after him. "Ah? Really? That's it? Because I am having serious trouble following your logic here, Gaius. I mean--you've been beating it into my head for years that the Regulation Council is dangerous and I should avoid them at all costs, but Arthur's dad created it and you didn't even tell me!"
Gaius lifts the tea pot--he must have been in the middle of making it before Merlin's arrival--and sets the tea to brew. "The Regulation Council is a very dangerous thing, Merlin. And you should avoid it. But I'm sure you've already realized that you cannot, for one specific reason."
It takes Merlin a moment to catch up, but then he thinks in a flash of a dragon tattoo and Kilgharrah laughing and he scowls. "Now you're buying into this fate thing too? You hate Kilgharrah, so why the hell are you listening to him about my supposed destiny with Arthur Pendragon?"
"I have my reasons," Gaius says, at that moment no more accessible than Kilgharrah himself. Merlin looks suspiciously at his eyes, half suspecting a flash of gold that will reveal him to be a dragon in human shape. Which is ridiculous, of course, but then again, he can’t get a straight answer out of either of them, and they do seem to have a rather complicated history. The man pours two cups of tea, fixing one with two sugars and handing it to Merlin. He leaves the kitchen, taking a seat in his living room. Merlin follows his lead and sits on the couch, watching his mentor and waiting for something further.
Eventually, he gets it. "Merlin, tell me what the Regulation Council is."
He blinks but responds. After four years of Gaius's tutelage he answers questions automatically. "It's a council dedicated to the purging of magic from our society in general and from Albion in specific. They back anti-magic legislature, fund the development of anti-magic technology, and they support the police in their endeavors against the Knights and the Rogues."
Gaius nods. There's a certain tightness around his lips, tension at the corners of his eyes that speaks of anxiety. The normally unflappable elder man is uncomfortable, and Merlin wants to know why. "Tell me what a Rogue is."
Merlin wants to dispute the line of questioning, but doesn't. "Rogue is the term we use for rogue ‘masked fanatics’, to use the proper terminology. They're the bad guys, basically. Those who use magic for hostile purposes and crime."
"And where did the Rogues come from?"
He raises an eyebrow. "What do you mean? Haven't the Rogues always been around?"
Gaius's lips tighten further. "No. Or, not in the same form that they are known today."
"Gaius, where are we going with this? Because I'm not following the connection between this and me working for the son of a man who'd probably like to see me dead."
"Unfortunately, Merlin, these two things are intricately connected. I have...not told you everything you need to know regarding the history of the Regulation Council and the Rogues." Gaius stands, heading over to the bookshelf. He reaches to the top shelf, pulling out a dark brown photo album. There is a fine layer of dust on it that he wipes off; he brings it over to Merlin, flipping through the pages before offering it.
Merlin takes it, glancing at the photograph laid out before him. It's a picture of a group of eight people--four men, four women. A younger Gaius is towards the side, his hair blond rather than white and it is odd to see him compared to how he is now, but Merlin's eyes skip over him in favor of the man standing on his mentor's left.
Merlin makes a low, surprised sound and presses his fingers to the plastic cover over his father's face. Balinor is so young here, his face full of life and laughter, and he has his arm slung over Gaius's shoulders. His hair is long and he is clean-shaven, although Merlin always remembers him with a least a scruff of a beard.
He looks up at Gaius, who makes a waving motion, indicating that he keep looking at the picture. On Gaius's other side there is a brown-haired woman, pretty in a mild kind of way, with a smile that gives her charm. Her hand is intertwined with Gaius's, but Merlin lets it pass without comment for the moment, moving on. At the edge of the group is a tall, bearded man that is unfamiliar except for his eyes--he knows the shape of them, but can't place why--and a beautiful woman that he knows instantly is Morgana’s mother. Her daughter looks almost exactly like her, and glancing back to the bearded man he knows why he recognizes those eyes. Next to her is another woman, their features similar enough that they must be related---her hair is dark, braided into a complicated knot, her lips bright red and her smile edged with something sly--and he knows he has seen her before, though he can’t place where.
Then he looks at the couple standing in the middle, and he stares. The man is shorter than the man who must be Morgana’s father, but still tall and built strongly. Merlin recognizes him as well, but he can put a name to this one--Uther Pendragon. He has met Uther a handful of times, and the intimidating, severe man that stalks through Camelot’s hallways has very little in common with the man in the photograph. The young Uther’s features are the same, less lined, strong, but they are tempered by the look of adoration he has looking at the woman next to him, the one he has his arms wrapped around. Merlin has never seen Uther smile before, has, in fact, wondered if he even can smile or if he is actually a robot. (Will is a particularly big fan of that theory.) But Uther in the picture is smiling for all the world to see, the smile of a man so in love that nothing can harm him.
Merlin looks at the woman and sees Arthur. Her hair is shades lighter than his, fairy blonde to his stronger golden hues, but they have the same color eyes and their smiles are nearly identical. He looks up at Gaius, confused.
"That picture was taken more than thirty years ago," Gaius says. "Though I can't remember where it was taken, or why." He shifts, leaning forward to pull the picture closer to him. "Earlier, you asked me why I believed in your foretold destiny with Arthur." He almost smiles, but it is a pained expression, drawn tight again. "You are correct in that I do not see eye to eye with the dragon. But in this case, he is right." Gaius taps the photograph with a finger. "And this is why. Thirty years ago, when this photograph was taken, it was a group of friends. Now, it's a picture of what everything was like before." He glances at the picture, his eyes sad. "We had no idea how poorly everything would turn out. How wrong everything could go. And Arthur Pendragon--and you, to a lesser extent--are right in the middle of it all, and you don't even know."
"Gaius?" Merlin asks, the question in his voice.
Gaius points at the photograph. "Obviously, your father and I are in this picture." He place a finger above the two Merlin has pegged as Morgana’s parents, and sure enough, Gaius says “Gorlois and Viviane LeFay.” He moves his finger to hover over the woman who looks like Arthur. "This is Igraine Pendragon, Arthur's mother." The finger shifts to Uther, and Gaius barely has to say his name.
The finger moves once more, to the beautiful woman with the sly smile, and something dark shifts into Gaius's expression. "And this is Nimueh Cara. The cause of so much that came after." Gaius looks up at him. "You'll know her better as the Enchantress."
Despite himself, Merlin lets out an audible surprised intake of breath. The Enchantress, he thinks, staring at the woman in the photo. The leader of the Rogues, the most powerful and feared sorceress in Albion, public enemy number one. He's only seen her at a distance before, because she is like vapor in sun--she disappears into the air as soon as one gets close enough, a mirage that leaves destruction in her wake. She doesn't often act herself, preferring to send her followers out, and as she is the undenied leader of all the Rogues she has many, many followers. Merlin himself has never tangled with her face to face, although he has come up against her next two in line, Chimera and the Steel Siren. The people of Albion whisper her name, afraid to say it too loudly as if it might draw her wrath down upon them.
The woman in the picture doesn't look like everything she has become. She looks happy, excited. Not like a murderer.
"What happened?" he asks.
Gaius stirs his tea idly, seeming to contemplate the question. "This was a fairly new time for magic. It was just coming out into the public eye, and obviously there were mixed feelings about people with extraordinary powers popping up out of nowhere. But it was a surprisingly progressive time, and people were accepting it. Some more than others, but they were. That's when the first Rogues started to show up. We didn't call them Rogues, at that time, but its the same principle There were only a few of them, idiots with magic using it to rob banks and scare people, but all of that acceptance started to turn the other way. People are scared so easily when confronted by something they don't understand, and when magic was used for ill it started to become equated with crime."
"And Nimueh was one of them?"
Gaius gives him a very small smile. "It is rarely as simple as that, Merlin. No. Certain individuals with magic decided that, if there were those who would use it for evil, then they could use it for good."
Gaius nods in agreement. "The Knights. They were individuals at first, but once they had started and realized that there were others who wanted to do good they organized themselves into a group. Your father was one of the founding members," Gaius says, and Merlin feels a sharp jolt of pride. "So was Nimueh."
"What?" he exclaims. "But--"
"Despite what she is now, Merlin, the Enchantress began as a hero."
"Then how did she become a Rogue?" he asks.
Gaius looks away as he answers. "Igraine and Uther were trying to have children, but they were having difficulties." His voice has gone flat, as though he is distant from what he is saying, pushing it away. "In desperation, Uther went to Nimueh and asked for her help."
"Because of the four of us who had magic--" he says, and Merlin has a quick flash of four? There is his father and Nimueh and, he realizes, Gaius, although he has never seen his mentor use whatever power he has, but who is the fourth? he wonders, "Nimueh was the only one who had told Uther. He went to her and asked for her help." Gaius pauses. "She should not have given it."
"But she did," Merlin says, half a question, half a statement. After all, Arthur Pendragon exists, so clearly Igraine was able to conceive, but at the same time, Merlin has trouble thinking of Arthur being the result of a spell.
"She did," Gaius says gravely. "She used an ancient spell to bring life, and Igraine became pregnant."
Merlin sits back, chewing on the inside of his cheek. "What went wrong? Something had to, for Uther to hate magic as much as he does. Did the spell go wrong?"
"The spell went exactly as it was supposed," Gaius says. "There was nothing wrong with it." The elder man leans forward, intent. "But there are consequences to using the ancient spells, and there are consequences to messing with the balance between life and death. Nimueh was perfectly capable of using the old magics, and she knew exactly what she was doing, but she should not have. If you give life where it should not be, you must in turn take it from somewhere that it was meant."
Merlin's eyes go wide and he licks his lips. "To give life, you have to take it away."
Gaius nods sharply. "Yes."
Gaius closes his eyes. "No," he says, pain in his voice. "She did not. By the parameters of the old magics, she should have. In exchange for the child, you sacrifice the mother. But the magic can be...directed. And Nimueh directed it away, changed its course so that Igraine did not die and Arthur Pendragon was born when he never should have existed."
Merlin wants to think well that's a good thing, Arthur gets to live and his mum doesn't have to die, except this isn't a story he is trying to guess the ending of, and Merlin is perfectly aware that Igraine Pendragon is not alive today. "So who died instead?"
"Nimueh tried to direct the magic to a harmless end, an animal sacrifice.”
"It didn't work?"
"It did. But not in the way she had intended. Magic strives for balance. An animal’s life is not an equal offering in exchange for a human life, and not just any human life would do either. In order to bring Arthur into the world the sacrifice of a mother was needed. The magic pooled around Nimueh, waiting for an acceptable offering to appear, and it did. In the form of Viviane LeFay.”
“Morgana’s mother,” Merlin breathes out.
“And Nimueh’s sister,” Gaius says, his hand tightening on the table. “Nimueh played with forces beyond her complete understanding, and Viviane died in the place of Igraine. When Nimueh realized what had happened...she tried to unmake it. She performed a ritual, intending to trade Igraine’s life for her sister’s.”
“Which obviously didn’t work, since Viviane isn’t any more alive than Igraine is,” Merlin says quietly.
“Uther interrupted the ritual,” Gaius says softly. “Nimueh lost control of it. Viviane remained dead, but the ritual was too far gone for Igraine to survive it. Uther began his crusade against magic after her death, vowing to purge it from the world, starting with Albion. The Knights went from heroes to enemies in the public’s eyes, and amongst their own ranks they turned on each other. Nimueh broke away, her followers going with her, and the rest of the Knights found themselves with enemies on two fronts--the Council and their former allies."
"The Rogues," Merlin says, understanding dawning. "The Rogue Knights."
Merlin thinks about this for a long moment, his mind swirling. Nimueh and Uther Pendragon and Arthur and Morgana. When he finally speaks, it isn't the question he means to asks. "Did she kill my father?" he asks. Gaius starts a little, looking at him sadly.
"I don't know. I suspect it, yes, but there's no way to know for sure." That is not technically true, Merlin thinks, because he knows that Kilgharrah knows, but he lets it go, asking a different question instead.
"Do Arthur and Morgana know all this?"
Gaius shakes his head. "I do not believe so. Arthur knows his mother was killed because of magic, but I do not think he knows all the details of it. Morgana...Morgana may know more, but I do not know how much more.”
Merlin drags a hand through his hair. "Great. So, I'm working for someone who hates magic, and when Arthur inevitably figures out what I am he'll probably hand me over to his father and then I'll be screwed."
"Don't let Arthur find out," Gaius responds, as if it is that simple. Merlin fixes him with a flat glare.
"Gaius, Arthur Pendragon is like a walking kick me sign. I mean, Camelot was attacked by a guy with a snake fetish yesterday. For no apparent reason. Although, now that I actually know things, it was probably because of the Reg Council. Point is, the longer I stay near Arthur--and Morgana, let’s not forget her--the greater the chance of me being outed is."
"It is not an ideal situation, I agree. But...it is where you need to be. Just, be careful. Be smart and don't do anything stupid."
Merlin stares at his mentor. "Gaius, have you ever met me? That is so not going to work," he says.
Gaius cuffs him on the back of the head in response.
On the first day of the full moon every month, the Knights hold a meeting. The moon is already high when Merlin and Arc land on the roof of an old theatre named The Grail, the hallowed and sacred meeting place of the Knights of Albion. The theatre in question is owned by Boris Gannes, a man now into his mid-sixties who once went by another name: Crusader. When Uther’s great Purge changed the landscape of the hero business, turning the Knights into enemies, the pressure became too much for him, and he hung up his cape and mask, devoting himself to being an average citizen.
But his average citizenship doesn’t extend far enough to completely abandoning his cause, and when the Knights needed a refuge he threw open the doors of his theatre and welcomed them in. The Grail is a perfect headquarters—there are half a dozen ways in an out, whether it be roof access, the back door or the two on the side, or even through the basement, and there are an equal amount of hiding spaces. No one bats an eye at seeing weird things around a theatre, so the sight of people in masks loitering around the building arouses no suspicion. Weird noises too go unremarked upon, and it is easy to hide costumes and technology among the props.
(And, as if that weren’t enough, it’s a veritable playground. An empty theatre welcomes shenanigans from normal people, much less from a group of sorcerers who can bend—if not break—the laws of physics at least temporarily.)
Boris himself carefully maintains the secret. He keeps his distance from them—plausible deniability—but he makes sure that the spare keys are in place, that the door to the roof and the cellar are always unlocked, that the refrigerator is fully stocked and that the coffee machine is working. (Sometimes he leaves them biscuits, and those are the best, although if one is late to the meeting he or she will find themselves left with nothing but crumbs. Merlin has the misfortune of being late tonight, and if he misses out on biscuits because Arthur can’t do anything by himself he is going to be very irritated.)
Arc’s body rapidly shrinks, until he is small green snake coiled in Merlin’s gloved hand. He gives a small hiss and then slithers up Merlin’s arm, slipping down beneath Merlin’s neckline to drape loosely around his neck, a snake necklace. Merlin grins, hearing his faint sigh of contentment, because this is really just a nap time for him. That settled, Merlin makes his way over to the roof door, opening it and then slipping down the stairs. He takes a shortcut by jumping over the edge on the stairs, using magic to float himself down to the stage, then he exits through the left, heading down a hallway. The theatre is like a labyrinth, one he has learned to navigate, but he remembers his first time here, nervously following the Knight named Sentinel who had volunteered to act as a mentor to him within the group.
Down a short flight of stairs he enters the prop and costume room, then passes through the far door into a mirrored practice room. He heads for the far mirror, pulling off one glove to run his hand along the seam; when he finds the slight indent he presses his thumb into it and the mirror swings inward, revealing a hidden passage. this is always the part where he feels like Harry Potter in Hogwarts, what with all the secret passageways and doors that looks like walls. He steps through the mirror frame, into what seems to be a dark, dead-end hallway, and once he is clear of it the mirror swings back into place, sealing him in the darkness.
The first time he was here, he panicked, instinctively summoning light that had both him and Sentinel blinking, before Sen had laughed, clapped him on the shoulder, and told him to relax. Now he stays in the darkness, laying his palm flat on the wall and calling out the password, putting just a touch of magic behind it.
The wall slides open, and Merlin steps into Headquarters.
As he figured, he is the last one to arrive, and everyone turns to look at him. Their leader, the Fisher King, glances at him from the podium that they borrowed from the props room in an effort to seem more official. “Nice of you to join us, Warlock,” he says dryly, and Merlin grins crookedly.
“Sorry about that,” he says. The room looks nothing like a super hero’s lair should look like, sadly lacking in shiny surfaces, fancy technology, and all the other nifty things in the comics. What it does have is a mini fridge, the stolen podium, a small television, two couches that have seen better days, two armchairs, a variety of folding chairs stacked in the corner, and three tables. It is in desperate need of a makeover, but then again, they have bigger things to worry about than what their headquarters look like.
Fisher waves him in and after a glance around Merlin goes to fetch one of the folding chairs, because all of the seats are taken. Sentinel is in the corner in what is designated by rote of tradition as his chair; the other armchair is empty, but only because Fisher is standing at the podium, and Merlin knows better than to try to mess with the proper order of the things. The two couches are filled, although he knows from practice that they can fit more people on if they’d bother to try. Everyone looks comfortable though, so he just unfolds his chair, places it noisily--there’s no way to be quiet about a folding chair--and gives Fisher a grin. “Go ahead, I’m ready now,” he says cheekily.
Fisher rolls his eyes. It’s hard to see behind his mask, but Merlin is familiar enough with the motion to recognize it without trouble. “As I was saying,” Fisher says, with another pointed glare, “minor crime has fallen a bit, but the Rogues are getting restless. The Enchantress hasn’t been seen or heard from since her attack four months ago, but her second in command, Steel Siren has, and word on the street is that she is organizing something.”
“Any idea of what?” Merlin asks, leaning forward. Enchantress, he thinks, and it sets off warning bells in his mind now, a litany of Nimueh and Igraine and Arthur and Morgana and he knows, knows, that her plans will come down upon him sooner or later. Or, more accurately, they’ll come down on Arthur, and he’ll be there to try and stop it.
“They’re looking for something,” Paladin says, and everyone in the room looks to him. He and the Rose Duchess are curled up on the couch, her tucked into his arms, and Merlin flashes both of them a smile. Sentinel was the first Knight he met, the man who became his mentor among them, but Pal and Rose were the first real friends he made in the group. Paladin is tall and strong, his costume silver and based on a suit of armor; beside him, Rose is tiny, her costume much more elaborate, bright in shades ranging from red to pink, her mask the shape of a rose over one eye, leaves and the outline of thorns curling around the other. Out of their costumes, he knows them to be Tristan Lyones and Isabel Duncan, and he and Will meet up with them for a night out every couple of weeks. “I have a contact that told me Chimera was asking about a stone of some kind.”
Merlin shivers when he thinks of Chimera, because while he’s only seen the Enchantress from a distance, and come up against the Steel Siren maybe twice, he and Chimera have had more than a few encounters. The man has a penchant for fire, beginning as an arsonist and being quickly recruited into the ranks of the Rogues--if there is a Rogue hierarchy, he is third in line in it, just after Siren. He was badly burnt at some point in the past, because an entire half of his face is scarred and disfigured--this is the half that he leaves open to the world, covering what Merlin assumes is the unblemished side of his face with a plain black mask, a reverse Phantom of the Opera.
“Snakecharmer was looking for a stone as well,” Rapier offers. He is one half of the duo that has nicknamed themselves “The Blade Brothers”, Rapier and Sabre. They are, in fact, brothers, Rapier the elder of the two, which Merlin knows from watching their frequent arguments in amusement and hearing “I’m older than you, shut up” which usually merits a response of “that just means you’re decrepit and should go sit in a corner” and so on. Nor are they the only sibling team among the Knights--rounding out the group are the Celestial Sisters, Sun--or, more commonly, Sunny--and Star. Merlin knows the least about them, because they tend to be more secretive of their identities, and where he outright knows who Paladin, Sentinel, and Rose are, and where he knows some of the minor details about Rapier and Sabre’s lives, Sunny and Star are a mystery.
But he still trusts them with his life. That’s the thing about being a Knight--it doesn’t matter who they are, but he knows that if they are in this group, they will always have his back.
Sunny leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “They’re not just looking for something, they’re looking for someone. There are rumors of a new player, someone that no one really knows anything about. All we keep getting is one word: mirage.”
For a moment they are all quiet. Then Fisher clears his throat, bringing the attention back to him. “Keep your eyes open. Whatever they’re planning, we need to try and head it off before it begins. Sunny and Star, see if you can track down anything more about this Mirage person. Paladin, Rapier, look into the stone.” Fisher glances at Merlin briefly. “But all of you keep in mind--none of you are to go up against Enchantress alone. If you find her--or even if you find Siren or Chimera--you are to call in for backup.” Merlin wonders if that was directed at him and raises his eyebrows accordingly, although he knows perfectly well that his mask hides them. He knows that Gaius and Sentinel are old friends, considering that Gaius introduced him to the Knight, and he has a sneaking suspicion that Gaius also knows Fisher, so it wouldn’t surprise him too much if his mentor had told the two older Knights that he knows who the Enchantress really is.
Still, he’s a little put out that Fisher thinks he would be stupid enough to try and take her on alone. He’s not that dumb.
“Alright, reports on anything else?” their leader asks.
“Word on the street is that there's a new Rogue on the loose,” Sabre says. “Calls himself, ‘Shadowman’. Bit over-dramatic I think, but it sounds like he’s into human trafficking and kidnapping.” His mouth twists into a grimace. “Apparently he likes to carry off young girls and use them as toys.”
Fisher's eyes flash. "Any chance he could be our Mirage?”
Sabre shakes his head. “Doubt it. He’s nothing special.”
“Then I want him taken down. Quickly. Before he gets a chance to take another victim, and before he makes allies with any of the other Rogues. We have enough problems as it is.”
It's half chance, half luck that Merlin stumbles upon the girl. He and Arc are flying over the city when he hears a scuffle and sees a flash of light in an alley below--it could be a torch or a mobile phone or any number of normal things, but he angles Arc down to take a closer look. They land on the edge of a building, peering over into the alley below. It is dark and quiet and he starts to think it was just a figment of his imagination, starts to guide Arc back up when the dragon freezes.
Look, Arc demands of him silently, and he takes another glance, searching for what his companion has seen. The dragon's eyesight is better than his, but then there is a touch of motion and he finally makes out the human shape pressed tightly against the wall.
He climbs off of the dragon's back, mutters 'stay' with a brush of his hand over the muscular shoulder, and steps off the side of the building.
He pulls his limbs in tightly, tucking in his elbows, like a pencil dive into a pool, except this is his straight lined body plunging through nothing but air. He uses magic to steady himself, to slow his descent so that when he lands on the ground it is soft. He steps out of the shadow and the figure sees him; they--he thinks it's a she--gasps, the sound a moan low in her throat, and presses further back against the wall.
He raises his hands, showing that he has no weapons and means no harm. "It's okay," he says, his voice as low as he can make it and still be heard, his tone gentle. "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you. I'd like to help you, if I can."
She whimpers, slides across the wall, and then takes a shaking step forward, into a slant of light from the streetlights. Still half in shadow he can see her more clearly--she's painfully pale, almost translucent, her veins a pattern of blue pressing against the underside of her skin. The only color in her are the bruises, mottled splotches across the expanse of her forearms, her legs, her neck, her face--livid red set over deep purples and blues, all of that overlying the green and yellowed marks of older wounds. Her hair is dark, lank and unwashed, a tangled mess that falls over her shoulders and obscures the right half of her face. Her lips are tightly pressed together and there is a visible tremble in her frame.
He clenches his jaw reflexively against the rushing nausea of rage and grief and blinding desire to hurt whoever laid hands on her, and tries to school his expression to soothing comfort. He holds himself still and she is just as motionless, a deer trying to stand ground against a predator when her natural instinct is to flee.
"I'm Warlock," he says softly, trying not to scare her. He realizes that he's blocking her escape route and very subtly steps to the side. Her eyes flicker past him and she eases a bit, more relaxed now that she doesn’t feel cornered.
She licks her lips, staring at him. Then, in a voice so soft he has to strain to hear, says, "help me?"
"Of course." He takes a tentative step forward and she wavers for a moment before launching herself at him.
Merlin has no idea what to do, his arms suddenly full of the girl’s too-frail body. She’s an exhibit of a human skeleton, hollow bones strung together by wire, her skin stretched tight and thin over her frame—she trembles so hard he’s sure she’ll shake herself apart. She’s not quite crying, just making pained little sounds high in her throat, more like a distressed bird who has found itself unable to fly; she has her arms around his neck for lack of a better place, his costume too slippery for her to grip properly with her ragged fingertips. Her feet touch the ground, but he supports the entirety of her weight, one arm securely around her waist, the other on her back.
“It’s okay,” he whispers softly. “You’re safe now, shh, it’s okay. What's your name?"
"F-Freya," she stutters. She hooks her fingers into the collar of his uniform, the edges of her fingernails raking his skin gently. "Please, please don't let him get me again, please, please--"
He tightens his grip on her just a bit, instinct and learned reaction. "Don't let who get you, Freya?" He says softly, intent. "Who hurt you?"
She buries her face into his chest--she's so small, he realizes with a jolt, barely bigger than a child, or a young teenager, and he has no idea of her age. For all he knows, she could be only a child. "I-I don't--the shadows."
Shadowman, he thinks, and then she is torn out of his arms. She screams, thrashing, dark eyes wide with fear, and it takes him too long--too fucking long--to realize that shadows are coiling around her limbs, wrapping around her mouth to muffle the shrill sound of her panic, pulling her away.
He jolts into motion, summoning light to his hands, but he's too late. Her figure disappears into a coil of shadows, literally vanishes into a pool of darkness—he only has time to throw forth a loop of magic, a tenuous thread that goes right into the heart of the shadows. He holds his breath, waiting, the way her eyes went wide with pure fear and hopelessness playing in his mind, and then he feels the thread of magic tighten and jerk and hold.
"Archimedes!" He shouts, and the dragon is at his side in less than a second. Merlin vaults onto his back and then they are into the air; he closes his eyes momentarily, focusing on the thinness of the thread, the fragility of it, and carefully feeds more magic into it, strengthening it. In his mind it glows bright gold, a thickening string of magic connecting him to her. He places his palm on the back of Arc's neck, opening his mind to the dragon and showing him.
Arc doesn't reply in words, just in a brief wordless thought of got it, and then he is turning slightly, angling to follow the thread. When Merlin opens his eyes he sees it, an illusion in the air, a faint glitter against the sky. He touches his communicator.
"Roost," he says, and Will must hear the seriousness in his voice, because when he replies he is all business, none of the usual humor.
"I've got you Warlock."
"I need Paladin and Rose in the air, now. I'm on Shadowman's trail--I'll give you location once I have it. Tell them to get there as fast as possible."
"Are you going to wait for backup--?"
"No. I'm going in the minute I have that son-of-a-bitch. Tell them to bring a med kit."
"Roger," Will says, his voice sharp. "Stay in contact, Warlock," he says, as close to a be careful as he can get without saying it.
Merlin doesn't reply, just taps his communicator and presses himself to Arc's back as the dragon dives down, following the ribbon of magic as it weaves between buildings. Below them he hears a shout--someone has seen them--but he doesn't care.
He doesn't plan on this fight lasting very long.
The trail of magic eventually leads into an abandoned warehouse down by the river, the most typical and cliched hideout for villains, but also a place wreathed in shadow. Arc lands next to the building, his form instantly shrinking down from dragon to owl, his feathers as dark as his scales had been. Merlin straightens, watching the shadows carefully--in a place like this and with a power like that, no place is safe. But he doesn't want to draw attention to himself just yet so he leaves them both in the darkness and tries the window. It unlocks at his command and he slides it up, breathing in years of dust and cobwebs as he does so. Arc goes through first, then sends him a thought of all clear and he pulls himself up and through, landing stealthily on the other side.
The whole place is dark, just shy of pitch black. Arc, scout, he says mentally, and waits in the darkness for a report.
Found her, he hears after a moment. Forward ten metres , then left. Against the back wall. Arc supplies him with a mental picture, sharp with clarity but disconcerting, a literal bird's eye view. There is a cage, Freya a huddled, miserable figure inside of it, small and shaking.
And Shadowman? Merlin asks, stepping forward carefully.
I don't see him, but...
This whole place is a shadow, and he obviously likes to play games, he thinks grimly. Then, from the darkness in every direction, tendrils of living darkness reach out at him, grabbing. His legs go out from beneath him and he hits the concrete floor hard--the shadows wrap around his limbs, securing them tightly, immobilizing him. One wraps around his mouth, gagging him, silencing him; another goes around his neck and squeezes, enough to make it hard to breathe.
A figure comes out of the black, leaning in close, a burly man with sour breath. Hold, Merlin mentally commands Arc, who he knows is out there preparing for an attack.
Stop playing around, the owl growls back, but doesn't attack.
"What do we have here?" Shadowman says, taking a hand and stroking Merlin's cheek. The touch makes him shudder in revulsion, leaves him feeling unclean--the urge to strike out rises in him, magic quivering inside him, but he holds it down. "Poor little sorcerer, playing hero. Fell right into the shadow's snare. Poor little pet, you're all mine now."
Merlin almost smiles. Because Shadowman thinks he's won without lifting a hand, and it's true that in most cases he would have. If Merlin were just a normal sorcerer, he would probably be helpless without the ability to talk or move his limbs, since magic for most relies on either spoken spells or gestures of the body.
But Merlin isn't a normal sorcerer.
When his eyes flash gold and he sends a blast of brilliant light from the center of his body, he does smile. Shadowman screams in the light, his shadows pulling back and releasing Merlin, who climbs to his feet. Out of the darkness, the man looks half-crazed, his eyes streaming with tears as he blinks furiously; he shouts something and throws out his hands, tiny tendrils of shadow crawling over his skin, but Merlin brings the light in, surrounding him, and they burn away, leaving him shrieking.
With a flick of his hand, Merlin sends the man crashing against the wall and holds him there. "You are pathetic," he growls. "A coward hiding in shadows who preys on little girls and is too despicable to come out into the light. Your shadows are just cheap illusions and you, you are nothing without them."
He lets the man drop to the ground with a thud, keeping him surrounded in light. "Arc, keep him still."
The owl drops down to the ground, shifting forms. He goes for a large dog this time and pads over to the Shadowman, growling low and baring his fangs. Merlin turns and rushes over to the cage, where Freya is slumped against the wall, her eyes narrowing in the sudden light. He waves a hand at the lock and frowns when it doesn't release.
"It's magic-resistant," she says softly.
He makes a sound in his throat and reaches into one of the compartments at the belt around his waist, drawing a key out. "Skeleton key," he says with a soft smile. He fits it into the lock and jiggles it for a second.
The lock gives after a moment and the door opens. Freya gives a wavering sob and curls in half, wrapping her arms around her torso. "Thank you, thank you," she whispers. He moves slowly so as not to scare her, sitting down and touching her arm gently. She flinches, the way he knew she would, but then relaxes a bit, leaning into him. She's not quite crying, but tears slide down her face, streaking through the dirt. Her clothes are torn and tattered, filthy, and he wonders how long this man has had her. He wonders again how old she is, wonders how the Shadowman captured her, wonders if she has parents or friends or a partner searching frantically for her.
A glint of metal catches his eye and he leans closer to inspect the ring of dull metal that surrounds her neck. A slave collar, he thinks, and goes cold inside. "Let's get this off of you," he says, gently laying one finger to it and cutting through with a quick touch of magic. Her head jerks up and her mouth opens and she whispers, broken, "no" as the collar opens and falls from her.
She jerks violently back into the corner, pulling her limbs close to her, eyes filled with fright. He holds up his hands and stutters "no, no it's okay, it's okay" but she shakes her head fiercely.
"Run, oh god, run, I'm so sorry," she babbles.
And then her eyes go gold.
He stares at her in disbelief, as her eyes burn and she screams at him to get away, and he takes a step back because of the pure fear in her voice. (Is she afraid of him, or for him?)
He knows its the latter when that gleam of a terrified girl goes blank, when those gold eyes become predator's eyes, when her body starts to twist. He's watched Arc's transformations a hundred times, but this is different--more violent than fluid, more unnatural; her limbs jerk as they change and the scream in her throat goes raw with pain. Thick black fur sprouts over her body; her clothes rip as her thin frame grows strong and muscular and as two large wings extend from her back. Her head changes shape, jutting out into a large cat's muzzle, fangs bared. When the transformation ends there's nothing of Freya left in the creature before him, just a panther with wings and bloodlust.
The creature throws itself at him and he dodges to the side, coming up against bars that trap him in. He flattens himself against them and gathers power at his palms, but doesn't release it. This is still Freya, he thinks, even if she's lost beneath layers of animal instinct and predator brutality and rage. The creature turns and snarls, then looks across the warehouse to where Shadowman is against the wall.
He knows the thought that must go through her head there, the recognition of that man hurt me and the animal reaction to it. Merlin is suddenly the last thing on her mind, and she ignores him, racing through the open cell door and bounding across the warehouse.
He has half a mind to let her tear the man that captured her to pieces, but doesn't want her to return to herself covered in blood. She deserves revenge, but he's supposed to be a hero; he's supposed to fight for justice, not vengeance.
Arc, stop her but try not to hurt her, he says mentally, and races after her. Across the room Arc turns to face the beast charging at him, abandoning the dog form for dragon, the transformation like water sliding over rock, smooth and fluid. She leaps at him and he retaliates, meeting her in mid air, trying to use his weight to pin her down. She slashes at his underside with her claws, scoring a hit that makes him growl in pain, and she tries to flip him over, searching for his jugular. But he is a creature of the air and he is in the body that he was born to--she is still a human beneath the beast . Arc manages to pin her, pressing down on her with all his weight, claws loose around her throat. She struggles and thrashes but he grimly presses down harder.
Merlin comes up to them and reaches out his magic, feeling the current of energies around her. There's definitely an element that isn't natural here, something twisted in the magic around her, but too deeply ingrained for him to root it out, too much a part of her to be removed or healed. He looks down at the metal ring he is holding in his hands, the one he grabbed before running after her--when it was broken, the beast was released. He takes a breath and walks forward.
"Hold her tight, Arc." The dragon complies and the creature gives a yowl. He kneels carefully next to it, avoiding the head, and reaches out, thinking that he might be able to stretch the metal long enough to seal it around her neck and hope that works--the minute it touches her she subsides a little, a high-pitched whine building in her throat, and to his surprise the metal expands, lengthening until he can fit it around her neck. The moment he seals it she shudders and goes limp, drastically reverting to her human form, the transformation much less violent this time. She turns her head to look at him, the gold bleeding back into brown, and then her eyes roll back into her head. She is just a girl again, unconscious and naked on the concrete floor of a warehouse. He pulls a little square of fabric from his belt, mutters a spell, and it expands into a full-sized blanket that he wraps gingerly around her.
"That was interesting," a voice says from the doorway of the warehouse. He lifts his head to look--Rose rushes in and kneels on the other side of Freya, checking the girl's vitals carefully. Paladin lingers by the doorway, an unconscious Shadowman floating in the air beside him. "He tried to get away while you were distracted," Pal says. "Good thing you called us."
Merlin smiles tiredly. "It's about time you showed up." He looks at Rose. "Is she going to be okay?"
She looks up at him, lips pursed. "From a first glance, she's dehydrated, malnourished, she’s been tortured, she’s now magically exhausted, and god only knows what kind of mental trauma she's been through, not to mention..." she trails off, the implications clear in her voice. Merlin thinks of Sabre saying he likes to carry off young girls and use them as toys and it’s really all he can do to not go over and kill the man that’s done this. Rose sighs and he touches her arm lightly--she’s an empath, not a healer, and even with Freya unconscious he’s sure that she’s getting a blast of the terror and horror that the girl has been through. “I don’t know if she’ll be okay, War,” she says, using the shortened version of his codename. “Physically, it doesn’t look like she’s too badly injured, and I think she might have advanced healing abilities. I can’t imagine being able to survive a transformation like that one without it. She needs food, water, and rest, definitely. But mentally? I have no idea.” He nods, sitting back on his heels, and she looks at him intently. “What are you going to do with her? You can’t hand her over to the doctors with her magic the way it is.”
"I'm going to take her home. I might be able to help her with her magic, and if I can’t I might know someone who can.”
"She'll know who you are. And where you live."
"That's a risk I'm willing to take. She asked me for help,” he says firmly.
"She also tried to eat you," Paladin remarks, coming a bit closer. "Just a little bit," he says defensively both of them glare at him.
Merlin shakes his head. "Pal, can you bring him in?" He asks with a jerk of his head towards Shadowman.
"Of course. Can you manage her on your own?"
He nods and scoops her up into his arms. He could use magic to lift her, but she weighs next to nothing and he doesn't want her to wake feeling a strange magic pulsing around her, not when she's been at the mercy of dark magic, not when her own magic has been so thoroughly twisted against her. He walks over to Arc, patting the dragon on the shoulder. "You okay?"
I want a nap and a cow, the dragon replies. In that order.
"I'll see what I can do. Are you too tired to fly us home?"
The dragon snorts. Get on you prat. Merlin grins and cradles Freya closer to his chest, sliding onto the dragon's back. Paladin throws the doors of the warehouse open for them and they take off, Merlin holding her body carefully, feeling how fragile it is in his grip, feeling the sluggish beat of her pulse beneath his fingers. The flight seems too long, even though it's the quickest possible way to get home, short of teleportation (something that Merlin can do, but it drains his energy and is too "loud" on the plane of magical energy, and he's already tired enough without trying to draw more attention to himself). Arc brings them down gently onto the roof of their building and goes from dragon to owl, guiding them smoothly down the stairs to the fourth floor. Halfway there Merlin taps his communicator. "Will, get ready to open the door in about a minute. And get the med kit out."
When he reaches the flat the door is already open, Will leaning against the door frame with a tight, worried expression on his face. He blinks when he sees the girl in Merlin's arm and steps back. "I thought I told you to keep in contact," he says faintly.
"Since when do I listen to you?" Merlin replies, the banter half-hearted as he lays Freya out on the couch. Will whistles softly, looking her over.
"What do you need?" His friend asks. Merlin rubs his forehead, thinking.
"Got the med kit?" He asks, and Will hands it to him. "Um...a towel, a flannel, a bowl of water, the strongest painkiller we have, a cup of juice, and some clothes for her, something loose. Elastic waistband."
"On it," Will says without a moment of hesitation.
Merlin sits next to the couch, sagging against it for a moment. He removes his mask, putting it down next to him and pulls his gloves off as well. Will comes back quickly, a bottle of water in one hand and a towel, a pair of jogging bottoms, and one of his t-shirts in the other. He places them down gently and then disappears, coming back a moment later with a bottle of orange juice and a packet of tablets that he rests on the floor.
"What happened?" He asks softly, crouching down next to Merlin.
Merlin extracts the flannel from the pile of clothes and dips it into the bowl of water, then gently dabs at a long cut running down Freya's arm. "Shadowman. She's been his prisoner, dunno how long. Her name's Freya."
"How long has she been unconscious?"
"Twenty minutes? I think it's mostly magical exhaustion, no telling when she'll come out of it."
"Magical exhaustion?" Will asks, eyebrow raised.
Quietly, Merlin tells the whole story, gently cleaning the dirt from her skin. Will works next to him, swiping antiseptic over her wounds and bandaging the worst cuts and scrapes. Hesitantly they peel back the blanket wrapped around her to check over her torso, Merlin feeling gently for broken ribs. He pulls the blanket back over her, sitting back. "I don't think anything is broken but..she needs to wake up. She needs food and water."
"Shouldn't we have a doctor look her over?"
Merlin rests his head gently on the arm of the couch. "Probably. But I need her to be awake before we start taking her places and having strangers poke her. She's been through hell."
"Good point." Will looks him over. "Go take a shower and go to bed, Merl. I'll watch over her and get you if she wakes up."
"Don't you have work in the morning?" He asks through a yawn, standing up to comply with his friend's orders.
Will waves a hand dismissively. "I've come down with a nasty case of the flu. They can get by without me, but we all know Pendragon can't last five minutes without you."
"Unfortunately true," he says, and slouches down the hallway into the bathroom. He leans against the wall, letting the hot water rush over him for a few minutes before scrubbing himself down. When he gets out, he manages to force his limbs into a t-shirt and pyjama bottoms. His bed is infinitely appealing, but instead he comes into the living room. Will is in their armchair, the tv on mute, but he is paying more attention to Freya than he is to the images flickering on screen.
His friend tilts his head when he comes into the room. "Didn't I tell you to go to bed?"
"Who's the superhero here?" He asks, smiling tiredly.
"Exactly why you should listen to me. Your mental capacity is questionable at best."
"Shush." He sits on the floor, leaning his head against Will's knee and yawning.
"How's your magic?" Will asks softly.
"Fine. This is all physical. I got thrown into a wall, you know."
"Poor baby," Will says with a grin.
On the couch, Freya gives a low moan and the two men are at her side in a moment, Will hanging back just a bit, Merlin crouching at her side, placing his mask back on his face. She spasms a little and then her eyes flutter open, staring blankly at the ceiling before she gasps and jolts upright, hands grappling for something to hold on to, fear wild in her eyes.
"It's okay," Merlin says, careful not to touch her but holding his hands out. She twists hard, staring at him and pressing herself back against the couch, sinking against the cushions. "It's okay Freya. Remember me? Warlock?"
Her breath slows, hands releasing their grip on the couch a bit. "Yes," she says softly. She glances around, tensing when she sees Will, who gives her a softer smile than his usual grin.
"It's okay, this is my friend Will. You're safe here."
"What--what happened?" She asks, and then her eyes go wide and she grapples to seize him, grabbing his shoulders. "I-I changed--did I hurt anyone? Did I hurt you? What--"
"No, you didn't hurt anyone. No one is hurt. Once you changed back you fainted. This is my house--I thought it best to bring you back here. I didn't want to take you to a hospital without you being awake." He cuts himself off. "I'm rambling a bit, sorry." He smiles gently at her and pulls the mask from his face. "I'm Merlin."
She takes a few deep breaths and manages to smile back. "Thank you for helping me."
He ducks his head and hands her the bottle of juice by his feet. "Here, drink this. You're dehydrated." He opens the packet of tablets as well, handing her one of them. "And this should help with the aches and pains. Try and drink down the juice and then we'll get you some toast and see if you can keep it down."
Will moves slowly, bending to pick up the bundle of clothes and offering it to her. "Here, you can wear this. And we'll get you a shower too, once you think you can stand alright."
She takes the offered clothes, clutching them to her chest tightly and pulling the blanket around herself more securely. "Thank you. You-you don't have to--"
Merlin opens his mouth to answer but Will beats him to it. "Of course we do, love. You're with friends now, and we're here for whatever you need."
She smiles tightly and sips her juice. Merlin has a million questions he wants to ask her, but instead he stands and offers her a grin. "Let's see about that toast, shall we?"
The next morning he dresses quietly and knocks lightly on Will's door. A soft "come in" answers him and he pokes his head into the room. He's not surprised to find Freya awake, sitting up in Will's bed with her back pressed against the headboard, the covers pulled tight around her. Will's t-shirt is swimming on her and she looks painfully small in it; her hands fist into the fabric, holding tight and he sees her visibly try to make herself relax. He keeps his distance, leaning against the frame of the door.
"How do you feel?"
She gives a shaky laugh. "I--it feels like forever since I've slept in a proper bed."
He smiles but it feels forced because dammit that shouldn't be the way it is--she should have had a proper bed and never been forced into a cage and terrorized. "Are you hungry? Thirsty?"
She nods her head at the bedside table, where there is a bottle of water and a plate of half-eaten toast and fruit. He smiles. "Okay then. I have to go to work, but I'm going to try and get off early. Will will be here the entire time, and I'm a phone call away."
She nods again. "Thank you, Merlin."
He grins. "I'll see you later."
Yawning he makes his way out to the living room. Will is sprawled on the couch, one arm dangling over the edge, and he is snoring lightly. Merlin muffles a laugh and nudges him with a knee. He snorts and flails and opens his eyes, saying "nrrgh".
"Going to work, prat."
"You're a prat," Will mutters sleepily and rolls over onto his back.
"Mhm. I'm going to try and get off early."
Will rubs his eyes and yawns widely. "Like Pendragon will let you go."
Merlin gives him a grin. "If anyone ever asks you, Freya is my sister. I'll see you in a couple of hours."
"You're a good man Merlin Ambryse," Will calls after him as he heads out the door.
He makes it through a couple of hours before knocking on Arthur's office door. "Enter," Arthur says through the door and Merlin shakes his head before coming in. "Did you finish the filing?" His boss asks without looking up.
"Of course I finished the filing," he replies, suppressing a desire to add a fond you wanker to the end of it. He places a cup of coffee on Arthur's desk sliding it within reaching distance. "I have a favor to ask."
Arthur glances up, eyes narrowing. "Did you blow something up again?"
"That was one time and there was an electrical malfunction in the microwave. Besides, how would that have anything to do with me needing a favor?"
Arthur smirks and doesn't reply. "What's your favor then?"
He clasps his hands behind his back. "I need to leave early."
"What? Why?" Arthur's incredulous tone is probably because Merlin has never once requested to leave early before.
"My sister is ill."
"...you have a sister?"
No...he thinks, just a bit guilty. But instead he says: "Yes. Her name is Freya. She's two years younger than me. She's ill and I need to go home and take care of her. I left her with Will--"
"You left her with Will?" Arthur exclaims. "Jesus, you have no common sense do you?" He wrinkles his nose at Arthur, because there is just this thing between Will and Arthur where they pretend to hate each other but secretly kind of like each other. "Go home and take care of her you moron. And I expect a full explanation of why I've never heard about a sister before."
"Maybe you're just a prat who doesn't pay attention." He says, flashing a grin. "Thanks Arthur."
When he walks through the door to his flat he’s not quite sure what to expect—maybe Freya curled into a corner, maybe Will doing his best to be comforting and maintain a distance, maybe an empty room. He doesn’t expect Will in the kitchen whistling while he cooks spaghetti and Freya sitting on the couch with Hunith, talking quietly.
“Mum?” he asks, bewildered. She stands and comes over to hug him.
“Hello dear,” she says, smiling and drawing him into the kitchen.
He glances at Will, who stirs the pasta and gives him a hey there best friend remember you love me? smile. “Panicked, didn’t you?” Merlin asks.
“Yep,” Will replies without shame.
“Good thinking,” Merlin says, and hugs his mother again. He honestly doesn’t know why he didn’t think of it first--no one knows better what to do in a situation like this than his mother. She’s magic, he swears, and sometimes he wonders if he didn’t inherit his powers from two parents instead of just one. She embraces him tightly and then cuffs him lightly on the back of the head.
“You should have called me right away,” she says.
“I would have thought of it,” he protests. “Eventually.”
She rolls her eyes at him--and honestly, she wonders where he got his cheek from?--and tugs him out into the living room again. Freya smiles at him, looking worlds better than she did even just this morning, but he sits out of her personal space anyway and sees her shoulders relax. His mother, on the other hand, sits right next to her, taking her hand and smiling warmly.
“Your mother is wonderful, Merlin,” Freya says softly and he can’t help but grin.
“Careful, praise her too much and her head starts to swell,” he says, carefully teasing. His mother gives him a mock glare and he half expects her to prop her hands on her hips.
“I believe, my son, that you are referring to your own ego.”
“Got that right,” Will calls from the kitchen where he is dumping the pasta into a bowl. They keep up the light-hearted banter until he brings out all the food and sets it on the table, and then Merlin fetches plates and silverware for everyone, and there is a lull as everyone has their mouth full. Once they’ve eaten they regroup in the sitting area, and Will and Hunith strategically volunteer to do the washing up, leaving Freya and Merlin in the living room.
She’s nervous about something, he can tell that much from the way she chews on her lower lip, but he waits it out patiently until she finally says in a quiet voice, “your mother asked me if I’d like to come and stay with her for a while.”
He blinks, a little surprised, although he really shouldn’t be, knowing his mother. “That sounds like an excellent idea,” he says after a moment of thinking it through, and she jerks her head up to look at him.
“Really?” she asks, her tone slightly incredulous.
He nods. “Yeah. I mean, you’re welcome to stay here, with Will and me, but....” She flinches, just minutely but he sees it and bites his lip. He doesn’t want to ask the question on his mind, but at the same time, he needs to. “Did...did he--?” he asks, stumbling over it, and she must realize what he’s trying to ask because she shakes her head.
“No. He--he didn’t touch me, like that. Just...looked. I think--I think he would have, but I wasn’t there long enough--.” She swallows, pulling her knees up to curl into a defensive position and it kills him.
“But it’s easier to be around women, right?”
She nods. “I--you and Will are so nice and you saved me but, I just--” she shakes her head a little helplessly.
“Go and stay with my mum. Ealdor is nothing like the city, so it’ll be a change of surroundings, and it’s quiet there.” He gives her a tiny smile. “Although, you should know that my mum will make it her personal mission to feed you. Whether you’re hungry or not.”
She responds with a small smile of her own, but it dims quickly. “Are you sure?” she asks. “I--I’m dangerous,” she whispers.
His eyes fall on the metal circle around her neck and she follows his gaze with her fingertips, brushing the necklace. He nods towards it. “That contains you, right? So long as it stays on, you stay human?”
“Then you’re not dangerous. I wanted to talk to you about your magic anyway. I think I might be able to help you control it. Without that.”
The smile he gets then, genuine and transforming her face, is completely worth it.
END CHAPTER TWO
Chapter 3: Part III
“Are you sure about this?” Freya asks nervously, fingering the necklace around her neck. They are at the top of Mt. Camlann, the sky dark above them, dotted with stars and a sliver of the moon.
“Absolutely,” Merlin replies confidently. He smiles at her. “You can do this, Freya. I know you can.”
Three months have transformed the woman in front of him--she is no longer painfully thin, her hair falling in silky waves to her shoulders, and she smiles more easily; more than that, she is strong, confident, and, as he has come to learn, stubborn as anything. She’s not completely healed yet--he knows she still has nightmares, hears them through the wall when he comes home to visit, and sometimes she flinches if he or Will move too quickly in an unexpected way, and sometimes she’ll get a far away look in her eyes, remembering something, but she is getting better.
And he has absolute faith in her. Which is why they’re out here in the first place.
“You can do it, Frey,” he says again, but she still looks dubious. “Look, if things go wrong, I’ll have the necklace, and Arc is right here. Between the two of us we can subdue you and get the necklace back on. I’m not called Warlock for nothing, you know.”
“You’re not funny,” she remarks almost absently, and he marks that as a sign that she’s been spending too much time with Will. She lets out a rush of breath and nods to him. “Alright, I’m ready.”
He steps up to her, squeezes her shoulder, and cuts through the metal with a quick spell. It falls from her neck into his open palm and he quickly steps back out of range, watching her for signs that it is going wrong. He sees her body tremble, her hands tighten into fists as the beast tries to rise inside of her and she struggles to press it down. Her eyes are a steady gold, burning bright, and though her figure shakes and convulses, it holds its form. She stays human, her skin pink and her hair dark, and after a long moment her body goes completely rigid and her knees give out beneath her. He starts towards her, but then her head swings up and he looks into her brown eyes.
Brown. Not gold.
“Any time now, Merlin,” she grits out, panting. He raises his hands and speaks four words, the syllables twisting out of him; at first it looks like nothing happens, but then a circle of gold appears in the air around Freya, spinning before settling on her skin like dust and sinking in.
The tension bleeds out of her and she pitches forward, catching herself with her hands and then sitting back on her knees. She holds her arms out in front of her, staring at them, and then looks up at him. “It worked,” she says, stunned, and then it gives way into a long, only slightly hysterical laugh. “Oh my god, Merlin, it worked!” He approaches her, helping her climb to her feet, and then she jumps into his arms, hugging him fiercely. “It worked, it worked, it worked!” she sings.
“Told you it would,” he says, smug.
She taps him lightly on the back of his head, and maybe she’s been spending too much time with his mum as well. “No stupid metal collar. Just me!” she laughs again.
“You’ll have to learn how to control it,” he says, but he can’t keep the grin off his face. She pokes him firmly in the ribs, mock scowling at him.
“Stop raining on my victory, Warlock.” She tries to do a victory jig but her knees buckle and he has to catch her to keep from falling.
“Let’s get you home,” he says with a laugh, “before you collapse again. Victory isn’t very victorious if you’re covered in dirt.”
“Shush you,” she says, but allows him to help her onto Arc’s back, and she leans against his back as they fly back to Hunith’s house. By the time they land in the back garden she is half-asleep and he has to practically carry her in, up the stairs and into the bedroom that now belongs to her. “Thank you, Merlin,” she murmurs sleepily as she crawls into her bed.
“Always, Frey,” he tells her softly, kissing her on the forehead and leaving her to sleep.
“Morgana is being weird,” Arthur says sullenly three days later. Merlin is right in the middle of writing an email to some prick from the 12th floor who is too lazy to come up and say to his face that he thinks a report was done wrong, and he’s trying to figure out how to word it so that he can convey that the man is a tosser without resorting to Arthur’s level and outright saying it.
“Mmm?” is what he says in response to Arthur, and gets a glare in response.
“She’s being weird,” Arthur complains again, and then throws a crumpled up piece of paper at his head when he doesn’t respond properly to it.
Merlin’s response is to throw a paperclip back. It misses completely, but at least it distracts him from his former topic of conversation and has him ranting about you could have put my eye out Merlin and I could sue you for incompetence and so on, all of which he tunes out with the ease of practice.
He doesn’t think any further on Arthur’s declaration of Morgana’s odd behavior until he sees Gwen looking harried the next morning. He pauses in front of her desk and she looks up at him, her expression frustrated and a bit confused and actually upset. “Gwen?” he asks. “What’s wrong?”
She shoves a piece of paper away from her. “Morgana canceled all of her meetings for today, and then she just disappeared and I have no idea where she is and this guy from Mercia keeps calling and yelling and we’re supposed to have the report on Cameliard’s progress by this afternoon but I don’t even know where it is and--”
He crosses around to the other side of the desk and puts a hand on her shoulder, spinning her in her chair so that she faces him. “Gwen, calm down. Take a breath. The next time Mercia calls just put him through to Arthur--he’ll take care of it. You and Leon try to find the report on Cameliard, and I’ll see if I can track down Morgana, okay?”
She takes the deep breath that he suggests and nods. “Alright. Thank you, Merlin.”
“No problem,” he says. “Just relax. Now, what did Morgana tell you before she took off? Was she ill?”
“No, I don’t think so. She’s been...off. Distracted, irritable--more irritable--taking lots of phone calls from a number I didn’t recognize. She’s just been odd lately. I’ve tried asking her what’s wrong, but she refuses to say.”
“I’ll find her,” he promises. “Maybe she’s just having an off-week. It happens to the best of us.”
Gwen nods. “Maybe,” she says, but doesn’t sound convinced by it. She heads off to grab Leon and he heads in the opposite direction, stopping in to fill Arthur in.
“I’ll handle Mercia,” Arthur says once he finishes, a gleam in his eye that usually means someone cries and lawyers get called. Merlin rolls his eyes and lets it go, because it’s been about a month and a half since his boss made someone cry, and it’s just a matter of time. “But I told you Morgana was being weird.”
“Fine, you were right. For once.”
Arthur gives him a smug smile. “You should learn to listen to me, Merlin. You might learn something.”
“All I do is listen to you. I just happen to ignore most of it. Do you have any idea of where she might be?”
“How would I know?”
Merlin raises an eyebrow at him. “I dunno, you’re her brother?”
Arthur tilts his head in a way that says yes, I suppose I am and then drums his fingers on the top of his desk. “Try the roof,” he says after a minute. “That’s where we used to go when we escaped from our nannies. And then from our tutors. And from banquets. And from family dinners, come to think of it.”
“I knew you were a hellion as a child,” Merlin says, and doesn’t linger over the fact that his favorite place to escape to is also the roof. Arthur gives him a who me? smile and he shakes his head as he leaves the room.
Sure enough, Morgana is on the roof. She is standing close enough to the edge that it would make Merlin nervous if he didn’t have magical powers and was capable of (brief) flight. Her hair has been let loose, although he’s sure it was up when he saw her earlier, and she has a lit cigarette between her fingers, smoke curling in tendrils around her.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” he says.
“Only when I don’t know what else to do,” she says without turning around. “Arthur does too. There’s a pack in his left bottom drawer, in the removable bottom. Lighter too. It has a dragon on it. Family pride, you know.” There’s something so bitter in her voice that it makes him recoil, and he wonders what he’s seeing right now.
He avoids the question for just a moment. “How did you get up here?”
“I have a key, Merlin,” she says, in one of her you’re an idiot tones. She and Arthur are scarily alike in the similarity of those voices. “I am second in line for the company, after all.”
He shoves his hands into his pockets, staring at her back. He’s not sure what’s going on, but it doesn’t feel right to ask Morgana if she’s okay. She’s operating on a different level right now, one that platitudes, even genuine ones, will fall short of. He’s struggling to figure out what to say when she turns to look at him, the color of her eyes more translucent than usual, maybe because of the lighting, maybe because of something he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. “Have you ever wondered, Merlin, if your whole has been a lie? If everything you thought you knew was just one fabrication after another? If the people who claimed to love you were just lying, straight to your face?”
He thinks guiltily of the things he knows about her that she can’t know about herself, about the way her mother died, and the parts that her own aunt, and Uther, and even Arthur unwittingly played in it. He thinks about the way that half of his life is a lie, because it doesn’t matter if magic is illegal and he’s only keeping it secret to protect himself (and to protect his friends and family from the enemies he makes as Warlock), it’s still a lie to sit here and pretend that he is normal every day. He thinks about secrets, and the way they press down, and he has become so accustomed to their presence that he sometimes forgets their weight. In the end, he doesn’t say anything, because he doesn’t have an answer for Morgana, not the right one to answer the real question she’s asking, the one he can’t make out.
Her expression closes and she takes a long drag of her cigarette, then crushes it beneath her foot. “Stupid, right?” she says, and takes it all back. “Gwen must be frantic.” She turns and walks past him, and he’s sure that somewhere along the way he’s missed something absolutely vital.
(Inanely, he thinks of a photograph, of their parents arrayed, smiling, one of them destined to bring destruction to the rest, and he wonders if they ever had a moment like this one, a pivotal point where the paths swung between ruin and safety? And, which did he and Morgana just land on?)
Two days later, they pinpoint the source of Morgana’s “weirdness” as Arthur continues to refer to it. Merlin is sitting at his desk, stuffing his mouth with the tail end of his lunch when a tall blonde woman comes stalking through the hallway, looking for all the world as though she owns the place. For half a second Merlin thinks to himself oh no not another crazy ex dammit Arthur but then she turns and passes by Arthur’s office without a second glance.
Arthur emerges from his office two seconds after she is out of sight, his arms folded and his mouth set in a frown. “That explains it,” he says, but there’s no satisfaction in his voice, just a low tone of uneasiness. Merlin has no idea what this is supposed to explain, and says as much. The fact that Arthur doesn’t call him an idiot is deeply troubling, but all the other man does is nod down the hallway towards Morgana’s office, where the woman disappeared into. “That’s why she’s been so odd. Morgause.” The way he says the name sets alarm bells ringing in Merlin’s head--it’s part distaste, part agitation, and Merlin has never seen Arthur sound that way about anyone.
“Who is she?”
Arthur hesitates just a half-second. “Her sister,” he says, and then steps back into his office, closing the door firmly behind him. Merlin has half a mind to open it, step inside, and demand more than an explanation than that, but he has learned to read Arthur’s moods and he knows he won’t get anything more. Arthur is...not quite upset, but close to it. Definitely uncomfortable. Merlin watches down the hallway, frowning. About five minutes later Morgana and Morgause come down, linked arm in arm, and when they pass Morgana gives him a smile and a little wave, as if she’s her normal old self.
Morgause, on the other hand, gives him an unreadable look and then a smile that gives him goosebumps, and it’s only by sheer force of will that he can smile back at her. The minute they are in the lift, doors sliding closed, he is stepping into Arthur’s office. He doesn’t say anything, just clasps his hands behind his back and waits. Arthur ignores him for a couple of seconds before putting down his pen and leaning back in his chair, looking at him evenly.
Merlin looks back just as evenly and Arthur sighs. “Father hates her,” he says. “I’ve never known why, but he can’t stand her. She got in contact with Morgana when she was seventeen. He forbade her from seeing her, but you know her, she just snuck around and did it anyway. He threatened to disown her when he found out, but she told him she didn’t care, Morgause was her sister and she was going to see her if she wanted to.” He smiles faintly. “Mor was grounded for months. And when she was finally allowed out of the house without supervision again, Morgause was nowhere to be found. She showed up again a couple of years ago, disappeared, and then a couple of months ago she showed up again, engaged to Cenred King.”
Merlin whistles through his teeth. Cenred King is the CEO of Cameliard, Camelot’s biggest rival, but also their potential ally. Cenred King is actually a second-cousin to the Pendragons, and should anything happen to both Arthur and Morgana, Camelot goes to him.
This information does not exactly make Merlin feel better.
“Yeah,” Arthur says. He hesitates for a moment, and then says, “I don’t trust her. I never have. Not because of my father, or because of Morgana. She just...seems off to me.”
“Well then. We’ll have to keep her from stealing Morgana away,” Merlin says, trying to make a joke, and Arthur’s lips curl into a wane smile, a consolatory nice try. The problem is, Merlin’s not sure how much of a joke it really is, when it suddenly feels so much like the truth.
Morgause continues to stick around, which makes him uncomfortable, Arthur irritated, and Uther absolutely irate. A dark cloud falls over Camelot, and it seems as though everyone tiptoes around, afraid to incur the wrath of one or more of the Pendragons. Even Morgana storms around, seemingly happy enough in her sister’s presence, but wrathful around everyone else, and especially around Uther.
It’s not a good time for any of them.
And Merlin’s nights aren’t that much better. Three months later and they are no closer to figuring out what the Enchantress is up to, but it is clear that the Rogues are still searching for both their mysterious stone--although there are reports now that the stone might actually be a crystal, which narrows things down a little bit--and for their Mirage person. Therefore, the Knights are looking for them as well.
It seems to be a futile search on both sides. Or so Merlin thinks, until the night that he finds the Silver Siren chasing a child through a garden.
For a moment, he and Arc hover in the air over the scene, watching because it is...kind of funny. It shouldn’t be, because any second now Siren is going to catch the child and who knows what she wants him for? nothing good, surely. But the kid is winning. He’s always ten steps ahead of her, leading her through the trees, dancing and making faces at her, and she’s getting so frustrated that she’s throwing increasingly powerful attacks at him. It’s when she sets fire to one of the trees that he brings Arc down. He should call for backup. He’s supposed to and he knows it.
Mostly because he gets distracted by the sound of giggling coming from a tree near him. When he goes to investigate he finds another small, dark-haired child sitting in the branches, one who looks down at him solemnly, blinking but clearly unafraid.
The thing is, this kid looks exactly like the one that Siren is chasing. Merlin glances over to make sure and then looks up at the child in the tree. “Either you have a twin brother,” he says conversationally, “or that’s a pretty good illusion out there.”
“Emrys,” the child says.
Emrys, the boy’s voice says again, but this time Merlin is positive that he says it straight into Merlin’s mind. He knows what telepathic voices sound like, gets it from a pair of cheeky dragons more often than he would like, and that was definitely telepathic.
Is Emrys your name? he sends back carefully, and the boy breaks out into a smile.
“No,” he says aloud, dropping down from the tree branches to the ground. “It is yours.”
This might be the weirdest child Merlin has ever met. “No,” he says slowly. “My name is Warlock.”
The boy shakes his head firmly. He looks to be about ten or so, but his expression is serious enough to belong to an adult. “No. You are Emrys, destined to bring balance to the magic.”
“You haven’t been talking to a dragon, have you?” he says stupidly, and the boy tilts his head, looking at him like he has two heads.
That’s the point that Merlin realizes it has gone too quiet. He turns slowly and finds Siren not five feet from them, a vicious smirk on the lower half of her face. Her features are obscured by the mask that covers the entire upper half of her face, silver and black reaching up to form curling horns above her head. “Warlock,” she says, and he shifts into a position more suited for defense. “Or, should I say, Emrys?” she whispers, and obviously there’s something he’s missing about this name. Her eyes shift over to the boy, who doesn’t waver at all under her gaze, in fact, seems completely unperturbed by it. “I have been looking for you, Mirage. We would like to talk to you.”
Merlin stares at the boy by his side. “You’re Mirage?”
“And you are Emrys,” the boy says, as if this is the most obvious thing in the world.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” The child frowns at him, but doesn’t comment.
“Give me the boy, Warlock,” Siren commands. There’s something familiar about her, something that he should be able to place....
“No,” he says, because that has got to be the easiest answer in the world.
“Then I will take him,” she says.
“I thought you wanted to talk to him, Siren. Your recruitment numbers must be really down if you’re picking up children now. And you’ve been looking for him for months, haven’t you? The Rogues must be losing their touch.”
The lower half of her face goes ugly, twisting, and she lifts her hand, screaming a word, but before she gets the chance to finish it a dark shape strikes her hard from behind. She flies through the air, hits a tree, and slumps to the ground, dazed and limp.
“Nice timing, Arc,” Merlin says, and the dragon preens in response. “As for you,” Merlin says, turning towards the boy, only to find nothing but empty air.
Do not trust the one who controls death, the child’s voice says into his mind. Goodbye Emrys. We will meet again. And then Merlin’s mind is quiet, the child is nowhere to be seen, and there is only him, Arc, and Siren, who is climbing slowly to her feet.
There’s something he should know about her. Something important, something vital. She glares at him. “Do not presume that this is over, Warlock,” she hisses, and it strikes him like a volt of lightning. He knows that voice.
Siren disappears, but he stays rooted where he is, his mind moving faster than he can comprehend, linking together all the things he should have realized sooner, putting together the pieces of a puzzle that could destroy everything he knows. Morgause, Morgana’s sister. Nimueh, who is Morgana’s aunt, and therefore Morgause’s aunt. Nimueh, who is the Enchantress. The Steel Siren, who is the Enchantress’s second in command.
Morgause, who is the Steel Siren.
“Oh fuck,” Merlin breathes into the night air.
For the next week, Merlin flinches every time he sees Morgause. It’s an involuntary reaction, just a minor twitch that he can’t control in her presence, especially when she starts popping out at him from everywhere he looks. She seems to take a vindictive pleasure in it, maybe noticing that he’s developed a spasm in response to her presence, and though he tries to play it cool he’s positive it’s not working. Gwen starts asking him if he’s okay, Leon pats him on the shoulder and tells him to relax, and even Arthur throws down a sheet of papers after a particularly violent twitch and gives him a long glare, saying, “you’re not a bloody rabbit, Merlin, stop fidgeting.”
He tries, he really does. But then he looks at Morguase again and mentally places a smooth silver mask over the upper half of her face, clothes her in the Siren’s tight-fitting armor, and he knows he’s not wrong. Which just makes him twitch again, because this is so not acceptable.
And then, at the end of the week, his heart nearly stops. Because Morgause comes out of nowhere from behind him, and he jumps a good foot in the air, flailing like a fish pulled out of water; she gives him the same vicious smirk that Siren has a dozen times, then leans over him, her hair brushing against his face, her lips pulling close to his ear. He is rigid, trying to control the impulse to pull away, swallowing and forcing himself to remain still.
“Hello, Emrys,” she whispers, her breath puffing against his cheek, and staying still isn’t a problem anymore. He might not ever be capable of motion again. He just sits there, his chest rising and falling shallowly, because even breathing is a struggle right this moment, and he should turn to her, blink innocently, ask her what? but it’s futile, because if she has connected that name to him, she knows who he is.
She pulls away from him, stroking one finger across his cheek as she does, her fingernail scraping lightly over his skin and he follows the motion with his eyes, realizing how easily she could just gouge her nails in right now. It doesn’t matter that they are in the middle of Camelot, right outside Arthur’s office, down the hall from Morgana--they are playing a different game now, one that could easily shatter all of the rules of their carefully scripted identities. He could raise his hand, let his eyes go gold, send her flying across the room. He could bring her down right now, end the Steel Siren and probably stop whatever the Enchantress’s plans are before they come to a head.
But his eyes flicker to Arthur’s office door and he doesn’t it. He wonders if Morgana’s near presence builds the same kind of restraint in her, as she pulls away. He swivels in his chair, turning to face her, meeting her gaze. “Siren,” he says evenly, and she smiles. She pats him on the cheek condescendingly and turns on her heel, heading for the lift.
“I’ll see you later,” she calls over her shoulder, and he wonders if it is a promise or a threat.
He’s not sure how he makes it through the rest of the day, so distracted that he staples together three folders before he realizes what he’s doing, spills coffee on Gwen, and trips headfirst into Arthur’s desk, managing to knock almost everything off of it. Arthur, by sheer reflex, grabs onto the computer before it can go crashing to the ground, and then gives him a poisonous look and banishes him from the room with a single pointed finger.
On his way home he makes plans--he’ll call Gwaine, they’ll go out for a drink, he’ll pretend to be perfectly , normal and absolutely fine and ignore for just a night the fact that one of the most dangerous Rogues in the city knows who he is, and then he’ll actually deal with it tomorrow, probably with a hangover from hell. But all those plans go crashing to the ground the minute he opens the door to his flat.
Because Nimueh Cara, the Enchantress, is sitting in his living room.
Suddenly, Morgause is definitely not his biggest problem.
“Ah, Merlin, I presume,” Nimueh says. “Do come in and join me, won’t you?”
Slowly, very slowly, Merlin closes the door behind him and steps forward. He scans the room, looking for signs of Arc or Will, for signs of a struggle, for blood spatter and virgin sacrifices, because he honestly has no idea what to expect from Nimueh. The only sign of anything is that the table is slightly out of place, like it was bumped hard enough to shift it.
Archimedes? he calls mentally. There’s no answer and he swallows. All that means is that Arc is unconscious, he tells himself, not necessarily....
“Come and take a seat, Merlin,” Nimueh says. Her voice is honey-sweet, but he doesn’t bother to wonder whether that was an invitation or a command--she’s the one in charge here, the one holding the cards, and he’s playing catch-up. He walks around the couch, taking a seat as far away from the woman as possible and examining her with a critical eye.
She looks remarkably like the woman he remembers from the picture. Her hair is the same shade, untouched by gray, and her face is smooth--she looks no more than twenty-five, her lips bright red, her eyes dark, her smile alluring. She still doesn’t look like a murderer, doesn’t look like a woman capable of tearing a city down with a pass of her hand. In one hand she holds a glass of wine--one of their glasses, he recognizes, and imagines her searching through their kitchen cabinets, picking through their life like a nosy house guest. It makes her seem more human, somehow, even as it makes him uncomfortable wondering how much detail she has about his life. Another glass sits on the table in front of her, along with a bottle of wine. She picks them both up, pouring the wine and offering the glass to him. He takes it, although he certainly has no intention of drinking it.
She lifts her own glass, smiling at him. “Cheers,” she says. He doesn’t move and she seems to ignore it, taking a sip of her own glass, her lipstick leaving a smudge on the rim. Absurdly, he thinks, Morgana’s lipstick never leaves smudges, and he wonders if he’s just a tiny bit in shock. “It’s not poison, if that’s what you are worried about.”
“Forgive me if I don’t take your word for it,” he says, and she lights up.
“Oh good, I was afraid I’d broken you!” she says, giggling--bloody giggling and he suddenly wonders about her mental stability, although he probably should have considered that earlier.
“Why are you here?” he asks stiffly. He grips the stem of the wine glass so hard he’s afraid it might shatter, but he can’t force himself to relax.
She gives him a long measuring look, before reaching beside her and picking up a black velvet bag. She unties the drawstrings and pulls from its depths a large crystal, roughly hewn into the shape of an obelisk. “Do you know what this is, Merlin?”
“No,” he says, although he’s sure that it’s the stone the Rogues have been looking for these past months.
“It is called the Crystal of Neahtid, an object of power from the great civilization of Avalon, the civilization whose ruins this city is built upon.”
“Avalon, the birthplace of magic, yes, I know,” he says, and instantly wants to take it back, because he thinks he just revealed more than he meant to.
Nimueh smiles again, sweet and soft and it’s hard to detect that slyness that Merlin knows lurks beneath it. “You have been taught well, Emrys.” She watches him, seemingly waiting for a reaction to the name, but when she doesn’t get it her expression shifts a bit. “Or perhaps not well enough, if you do not even recognize your own destiny. Emrys, child of prophecy, destined to bring balance.”
He wants to scoff, because he’s heard that all before. Kilgharrah just failed to mention the name, something that they will be having a long conversation about the next time he sees the dragon. Well, assuming Nimueh doesn’t kill him right here and now. But she doesn’t move to attack him, just extends the crystal in her hand, offering it, and he’s not sure why he moves to take it but he does. “Have you ever considered what your supposed destiny really means?” she asks, just as his fingers close around the stone.
He looks at the smooth crystal planes and falls into them.
fire. Camelot burns. Albion burns. the skies burn, rage with lightning and wind and fire and the gold, gold of magic--the city shudders and shakes, the land seizing up beneath it, rolling, and it falls, collapses inward upon itself. the earth opens, cracks and fissures in the face of the world, splitting the city, pulling it down--Arthur collapses, a froth of blood from his mouth; Gwen screams; Morgana covers her eyes, a sound less human and more the fury of a frightened creature clawing from her throat; Will burns, he burns and burns and doesn’t make a sound, grits his jaw; Arc twists in the air, wings torn, and he falls; and--
Merlin thrusts the crystal away from him, trembling violently. He’s crying, doesn’t know when he started but that he is, and his throat feels raw, as though he was screaming, but he doesn’t remember, just has those images flashing through his mind again. He stares at the crystal now clenched in Nimueh’s hand. “What--?” he gasps out.
“The Crystal of Neahtid shows you the future. Imagine how surprised Morgause and I were when we looked into it and saw you of all people there. You, Arthur’s silly little assistant, but you are so much more Emrys.” She tucks the crystal back into its bag, tying it tight. “If you oppose me, what you saw will come to be.” She reaches out, touches his wrist lightly; he recoils from it, jerks back and she doesn’t press. “But we do not have to be enemies, Warlock. You and I, together, can change the world.”
He clenches his jaw, staring at her. His mind is a confused riot of fire and death and through it all he knows one thing for sure. “No,” he says, his voice strong. “No, Enchantress. You and I are enemies, no matter what.”
He expects anger from her, but what he gets is a condescending smile, as though he is a child throwing a temper tantrum. “We shall see, Emrys,” she says simply, and leaves through the door. He sits on the couch for a long moment in the sudden silence, shaking, unsure of whether or not his legs will hold if he tries to stand. Then a voice bursts into his mind, white-hot with rage and fear, a scream of Merlin, and the adrenaline course through his body, chasing away the tremors. He races for the hallway, following the telepathic link, and finds Arc bound on the floor of Will’s bedroom, his limbs tied by some kind of silvery rope that expands with his motions and holds tight--he shifts form, growing to a dragon, shrinking to a mouse, but the ropes do not yield, do not slip off or break.
“I’m here, Arc,” Merlin says, kneeling beside his friend, who shifts into a dog and waits, panting, for Merlin to cut the ropes. He tries, but finds that his magic can’t cut them, that the magic won’t take, has no effect whatsoever.
“I’m going to rip her throat out,” Arc growls. Merlin pets him soothingly.
“I’ll let you,” he says, and tries to cut the ropes again. This time is bounces back at him, a little spark that stings. He scowls at the ropes, rubbing the place on his hand where it struck. He hears the door open and raises his head. “Will?” he calls, and a moment later his friend is in the opening to the hallway, looking down at them. As he approaches he raises an eyebrow.
“This is the beginning of a bad joke, isn’t it?” he asks, and Merlin has to admit that, yeah, it kind of is. Him in Will’s bedroom with a tied up dog? Under normal circumstances this could just be another of their normal wacky hijinks.
Unfortunately, not this time. Merlin gives Will the short version of the situation--”Both the Enchantress and the Steel Siren know who I am, Enchantress was just here, and I can’t get these ropes off of Arc”--and in hindsight thinks he could have been a bit more tactful, because Will stands there for a good minute with a flabbergasted look on his face. Then his brain seems to catch up with the situation because he points a mildly accusing finger at Merlin, says “you’d better have a brilliant explanation for what you just said”, and goes to fetch the scissors.
“Bring a knife too,” Merlin calls after him.
A bit later Merlin is rounding out an extended explanation of the mess that his life has turned into while Will is sawing unsuccessfully at the ropes with the knife. “So, basically, we’re screwed?” Will sums up, and Merlin nods his head in agreement. His friend sits back, looking at the ropes as if they are a puzzle that needs to be solved. “Merlin, I know you can put magic into things, since I have you do it often enough.” This is a true statement, because together they have invented several of the items that Merlin carries on his utility belt, including the communicators, combining magic and technology. “But can you take magic out of something?”
Merlin focuses his gaze on the ropes and sees exactly where Will is going with this. “I can. If the neutralization spells this thing has on it don’t extend to the removal of magic, only on magic being put in.” He frowns and then takes the rope in both hands, closing his eyes. He searches for the feel of it--the magic in the ropes is prickly, unfriendly, and when he reaches out to it he feels a sharp sting, tiny needles over his skin. He ignores it, seizing the magic and pulling. It is stubborn, resisting him, but eventually it loosens and finally lets go, allowing him to pull it free of the ropes.
He opens one eye as Will quickly cuts the rope and Arc springs up and away from it, changing to a cat and hissing at it. “Put it back into the rope,” Will orders, and Merlin complies, feeding the magic back into the vessel. It settles in and he opens both eyes fully. Will picks up the rope carefully, pinching it between his forefinger and his thumb. “I think we might be able to use this,” he says, already a bit absent, squinting at the rope. He has his Mad Scientist face on, the one that usually ends with something awesome or Merlin being mildly electrocuted.
“Just don’t tie it around your wrists,” he cautions, and Will gives him a don’t be a wanker look. Archimedes meows loudly to draw attention to himself and then jumps into Merlin’s open arms.
“What did the witch say?” the cat asks him.
fire and destruction and the earth breaking and--
“She wanted me to join her side,” he says, pulling his thoughts away from the crystal and the chaos inside its depths. “Obviously, I told her no.”
“And do you really think that’s going to go well for you?” Will asks dryly. “What are you going to do now?”
Merlin sits on the end of Will’s bed, holding Arc tight in his lap. The cat’s purr against his chest is comforting, and Arc seems to know it because he purrs louder. “I’m going to wait. And then, when I get the chance, I’m going to stop her.”
“Well, as long as you have a highly detailed and specific plan like that,” Will says, “how could you ever lose?”
“Oh, go and play with your rope,” Merlin says crossly.
The next month, Merlin holds his breath, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. Morgause skulks around the edges of things and the Enchantress disappears completely and Merlin wakes at night, flushed and clenching the sheets tight, because his nightmares are filled with fire and buildings that collapse and him at the center of it all, the eye of a firestorm that is his own doing. Arc knows something is wrong, but Merlin refuses to tell him about the crystal, is afraid to, because if he speaks it aloud, or even if he just shows Arc, just lets the dragon into those corners of his mind, he’ll have to think about Nimueh saying If you oppose me what you saw will come to be. He doesn’t believe her, can’t believe her, but if tells Arc, tells Will, if he actually thinks about it the doubt will creep in.
What if it does happen, because of him?
So he wakes silently from his nightmares, and Arc curls up next to him, offering silent comfort, and then one night disappears, coming back with Will trailing sleepily behind him. Merlin glares at the dog and ducks his head to avoid Will’s gaze, but it’s pointless. Will has been his best friend since they were six, there’s no hiding anything from him. But Will doesn’t ask, doesn’t say a word, just nudges him with an elbow and forces him to scoot over and then climbs into bed with him. And pressed between the two of them, Merlin sleeps easier.
The next afternoon, Gwaine shows up at their doorstep with a bottle of scotch and a pillow tucked beneath his arm. “My flat’s infested with rats,” he says cheerfully. “Mind if I crash here a couple of days?” And Merlin glares at Will, because he knows perfectly well that there is only one rat in this situation, and he’s wearing a maroon sweatshirt. But Gwaine is happy to offer himself as a human pillow at night, and when Merlin wakes from the nightmares he doesn’t ask questions, just runs a soothing hand over Merlin’s back and kisses the back of his neck and holds him tight, and it’s better.
The month seems endlessly long, stretching, and Merlin feels strung tight. He fills the hours with work, has drinks and goes to films and dinner with Gwaine, he chats with Gwen and Leon, he runs around after Arthur, he watches Morgana carefully for signs that Morgause has got to her, and he feels just slightly absent from all of it, always watching for the attack he knows is inevitable. Will commandeers him for experiments, focusing mostly on the rope and the metal necklace that once belonged to Freya--he pulls magic out of them, puts it back in, fuses things together, and generally does whatever Will tells him to, because he has no clue what his friend’s goal actually is. Merlin also has a council with Fisher and Sentinel, and he tells them about the Enchantress and about Siren, about Nimueh and Morgause, but he doesn’t mention the crystal.
They tell him to be careful, to be wary, and to call for backup.
All of these warnings are pointless, in the end.
Merlin hates fancy events, but they are a necessary evil of working for Arthur Pendragon. He spends most of his time trailing awkwardly behind Arthur, or, when he can make an escape, hiding with Gwen and Leon drinking champagne until either Arthur or Morgana finds them. If it’s a particularly bad night, the two might join them, and what ensues is an almost fun attempt to elude everyone except for the waiters who bring alcohol. Technically speaking, Merlin is fairly sure that part of his job is actually supposed to be keeping Arthur from hiding instead of enticing him to, but who’s really keeping track of that?
But the Pendragon Gala is the biggest event of the year, and there’s no hiding allowed at this one. Arthur makes that abundantly clear by typing it in bold and underlining it three times on the sheet of rules that he makes up for Merlin. He actually labels the list as Codes of Proper Conduct: This means you, Merlin. Merlin, naturally, reads the list and then disregards about half of it.
When Merlin slides into the back seat of the limo that picks him up in front of his house, Arthur looks at him incredulously. “Are you wearing an ascot?”
Merlin touches the red ascot tie around his neck defensively. “There’s nothing wrong with an ascot,” he sniffs. “Besides, you’re wearing a pink tie and you’re going to comment on my fashion sense?”
“You don’t have fashion sense, Merlin,” Arthur says, but he straightens his tie, looking slightly put out. “And pink is a perfectly manly color,” he says, in the same kind of defensive tone Merlin had.
“Morgana picked it out for you, didn’t she?” Merlin teases gently. Arthur sniffs and doesn’t dignify it with a response.
“Now, you did read the list I made for you, didn’t you?” Arthur asks. His hands are fidgeting just slightly, and he keeps pulling his tie tighter until Merlin is sure he’s going to either rip it or strangle himself. Rolling his eyes, Merlin slides along the seat, gently slaps one of Arthur’s hands, making him let go of his tie with an affronted look, and then takes the knot in his own hands, loosening it and then pulling it up snugly, smoothing the rest of the tie down into a straight line.
“Yes, Arthur, I read the list. I promise to comply with all of your requests.” Well, sort of. The ones he agrees with, anyway. “Relax. You can’t strangle yourself with your tie before we even get there. Save that for the entree course.”
“You are useless, Merlin,” Arthur sighs, but there is a fondness to his tone and he does relax, so Merlin takes it to mean a job well done. He presses a glass of champagne into his friend’s hand.
“Drink. But take it slow--remember what happened at the Martis event.” Arthur makes a face at him and Merlin returns it with an easy grin. The limo eases to a stop and Merlin peers out the window. “Ready?” he asks.
“Open the door, Merlin,” Arthur orders, and Merlin watches the transformation he makes, from nervous and fidgeting to smooth, calm, and collected, a politician’s smile on his face. He exists the limo smoothly, confidence in every line of his body, and Merlin hides easily in his wake, unnoticed and unimportant. Just the way he likes it. Inside, Arthur spots Morgana and veers towards her--safety in numbers, and they play excellently off each other, falling easily into a charming camaraderie--but halfway there he spots Morgause next to her, falters, and turns in the opposite direction instead. Merlin is glad of it, glad to avoid Morgause, glad to escape before her gaze can find him, but as they turn he catches a flash something on Morgana’s face--regret, sorrow, fear. It’s the last that makes him pause, makes him half-turn back towards her, but the expression is gone, forced back into a smile, like nothing ever happened.
He follows Arthur, a heavy feeling of apprehension settling over him. Something isn’t right, here, although he doesn’t have a clue of what it is, what it might be. But he knows, he knows, that this night will go wrong. He’s sure of it.
Things go smoothly at first. Arthur weaves his way through the crowd, smiling, nodding, shaking hands, the perfect picture of Uther’s son, all charm and suaveness and he makes it look real. Merlin knows that it’s all a show, but the people who come up to him to talk about what are Camelot’s plans for expansion? and oh, Arthur, do you have anyone special? when are you going to get married? believe that he is truly happy to have them pry into his life and his company. He convinces them that he is not only okay with it, he wants them to. By all means, ask him personal questions, that’s what he’s here for, after all.
Merlin makes sure that he has something to eat in between his glasses of champagne and reminds him everyone once in a while that no, Arthur, strangling yourself accidentally with your tie will not look good stop it but mostly he just follows along silently, exchanging polite conversation with the people who happen to look at him and watching carefully for signs of danger. He keeps Morgause in his peripheral vision--she’s hard to miss with her blonde hair coiling around her bare shoulders, her dress the same shade as her Siren suit and isn’t that just pushing it in his face? At one point she catches him watching and raises a glass in his direction, smirking, before she turns to listen to something that her fiance is saying to her.
Inevitably, they end up face to face. Arthur tries to avoid it--Merlin watches the way he maneuvers the crowd and easily picks up on the way that they always seem to move away from Morgause--but it would be in bad taste to ignore Cenred King the entire night, and eventually Arthur has to steel his shoulders and make his way towards them.
Merlin has seen King at a distance before, during those other fancy events that he has always slipped away during, but he’s never actually been right in front of him. Up close, Merlin doesn’t like what he sees. King is handsome, ruggedly so, and there is a set to his shoulders that says he owns the world, is entitled to everything--he puts on a show just like Arthur, is charming and personable, but it can’t quite cover the slipperiness beneath it. He and Morgause are perfectly matched, and Merlin wonders if he knows who his wife-to-be really is.
“I’m sure you remember my fiance, Morgause?” King says, and Arthur turns to smile at Morgause. There is a tell-tale tension to his jaw, one that says the smile is locked in place, very little more than an expression painted on cardboard and held up, and just as thin as that.
“Of course. How have you been, Morgause?”
“Lovely, thank you Arthur,” she says. She’s a wonderful actress--her usual cold has melted into softness, and he’s certain that she could be anyone right at this moment: a giggling, ditzy blonde; a sophisticated, intelligent young woman; the perfect housewife; a ruthless business woman. But then she looks at Merlin, holds his gaze, and she’s the Steel Siren, beautiful and dangerous, and he can never forget it for a moment.
They chat for a moment longer and then Arthur says, “oh, Merlin, there’s Miranda Kall, excuse us, Cenred, Morgause, Father would be distraught if I didn’t say hello to her.” The pair make polite noises and Arthur guides Merlin away with a hand on his shoulder, hastening their escape. He lets out a breath once they are out of earshot and takes a long swallow of his champagne. “What I wouldn’t give for a roof,” Arthur says lowly, and Merlin cracks a grin.
“I think your father specifically requested this building for the event because the roof is a dome.”
“Why do you assume that would stop me?” Arthur asks with a half-grin, the first real expression he’s shown since they stepped out of the limo. Merlin shakes his head and follows him.
“This is why we need to put you on a lead,” he says, and stops abruptly when Morgana comes from nowhere and grabs his arm, her grip tight. Arthur doesn’t seem to notice that his shadow is gone, just keeps weaving through the crowd, and for half a second Merlin wonders if this isn’t a ploy to get him away from his friend, to get Arthur alone and unprotected, if this isn’t the first strike he’s been waiting for. But then he gets a look at Morgana’s eyes, wild with fear, and the way the lipstick on her lower lip has been chewed off. She’s still beautiful--as if she could ever not be--but she looks terrified, the emotion slipping through her usually perfect composure. He turns to face her, taking his other hand and gently loosening her grip on his arm. She clutches at his hand instead and he grips back, offering her the comfort she so clearly needs. “Morgana,” he says softly, “what’s wrong?”
She swallows, glancing around the room to see if anybody is watching, if anyone is listening. Merlin does a check too, but he is looking for one specific person--he finds Morgause in the corner of the room, her back to them, and he relaxes minutely. “Arthur’s in danger,” Morgana says in a low voice, and there goes that relaxation.
Merlin doesn’t consciously fall into the mode of thinking he has when he is Warlock, but he does it anyway. The combination of Arthur and danger has him straightening, taking hold of Morgana’s wrist with his other hand and giving it a quick squeeze until she meets his gaze. “What do you mean?” he asks, his voice intent. She must notice the difference, the subtle change between the Merlin she knows and Warlock, who wants answers, who wants to take charge of the situation before it spirals out of control and she reacts to it, taking a breath.
“I dreamt it. I dreamt it but Gwen didn’t believe me, and I tried to tell Arthur earlier and he--he’s such a prat, but you have to believe me, Merlin. You’re the only one that will. He’s in danger. I don’t know how exactly--I saw so many things,” she says, pain in her voice, and Merlin remembers a vision of his own, of Arthur falling, and he squeezes her hand. “We have to protect him--please, please believe me,” she says, her voice breaking just a little.
He lifts his hand from her wrist and touches her cheek gently. She’s not crying--maybe too strong to, maybe too aware of her makeup and their proximity in a room full of people who would see tears and instantly jump to a thousand conclusions. “I believe you, Mor,” he says, invoking the special nickname that he has only ever heard Arthur use. “I’ll protect him, I swear.” He pulls back, looks around for Arthur and feels a surge of panic when he doesn’t see him right away. “Just, look for anything odd, okay Morgana? I’ll keep him safe. I promise I will.” He releases her hand, tugging himself from her grip, and cuts through the crowd. What if he’s already too late? What if Morgause is there already? What if the Enchantress has got to him somehow? What if there is a minion in the crowd, waiting for the opportune moment to strike? What if--? he thinks, but when he gets to Arthur’s side his friend is perfectly unharmed, barely acknowledges his arrival, except by the faint sideways flickering of his eyes.
Suddenly, everyone is a potential threat. He twitches at sudden movements, finds himself looking everywhere, trying to keep an eye on Morgause at every second, but she slips in and out of his view, and every time he can’t see her he gears himself for battle, only to have her walk back into sight, smirking in his direction but offering no threat.
“Merlin, do you have some kind of condition, or are you just even more neurotic than usual?” Arthur asks him acidly as they walk towards the head table and the podium set out for Arthur to give a speech. Merlin flinches at a quick motion to his right, gives Arthur an absent glare that makes his friend frown, and searches the crowd for Morgause again. He can’t find her. He scans the crowd valiantly for her, barely noticing the waitress offering Arthur a glass of wine, although he notes somewhere in the back of his mind that the brand is one of Arthur’s favorites.
This is the moment, he thinks, as Arthur steps up to the podium. Now he’s a nice shiny target, perfectly poised with all eyes on him, the epitome of a sacrifice; Merlin clenches his hands into fists, catches Morgana’s wild gaze, and searches for the anomaly, for the clue of where the attack will come from.
He finds it, just not in a form he expects. He expects Morgause. He expects Snakecharmer or Chimera or a face he doesn’t know; he expects a burst of light, of magic, of eyes that glitter gold. Instead, he sees Nimueh at the front of the crowd, dresses as a waitress. She locks eyes with him, smiles, lifts a glass of blood-red wine.
It’s not poison, you know, she said to him, sitting on his living room couch.
But this time, it is. He looks in horror at Arthur, who has finished his speech, as led a toast, is calling out Cheers! and touching the rim to his lips.
Merlin shouts at him and somewhere, Morgana screams, and on the stage Arthur jerks, his head turning, but it’s too late. Merlin races towards him as he goes rigid, his face paling; the glass tumbles from his hand and shatters, wine skimming red across the stage, and Merlin catches him as he falls, cradles him, lowers him slowly down, a hand pressed to his chest, feeling for the rise and fall of breath, then searching for his wrist, pressing for a pulse when that breath doesn’t come. But he doesn’t find that steady beat of blood through veins either, and he stills. People are converging on him, hands reaching for Arthur, pulling his friend out of his arms--Leon is there suddenly, placing his palms on Arthur’s chest and pressing, performing CPR, and Uther is there, his face pale and tight and horrified. Morgana is rushing up onto the stage, seizing Arthur’s wrist in her hands, and she’s still not crying, but Gwen is, Gwen is crying for all of them.
And through the crowd, Merlin stares at Nimueh, who is still there, her glass still poised in the air, smile still on her lips.
I told you not to oppose me, Emrys, her voice whispers in his mind. And then someone passes in front of her, breaks the contact of their gazes, and she is gone.
In the hospital waiting room, Merlin is quiet.
Uther paces, his every motion violence suppressed, and there is no hiding the anguish on his face. There is no robot-Uther here now, just a man desperate and afraid and on the brink of losing everything. Morgana sits in the corner, her head bent, her hair falling to conceal her face. She doesn’t say a word either, doesn’t look up, doesn’t respond to Leon when he tentatively calls her name. Eventually, he retreats, going to sit with Gwen, who holds his hand tightly, her lips pressed together, still crying, although the tears are silent, and Merlin thinks she might not even know.
Merlin himself hasn’t said a word since Will called him twenty minutes before, panicked, because the lead story on every news channel was Arthur Pendragon Poisoned? Will had asked him if he was okay, told him that he would be there in five minutes, but Merlin had said, in a commanding voice that didn’t sound like his own, “no. Stay home. Wait for my call.” And then he’d hung up over Will’s protest, and turned his mobile on silent. It lit up twice more, showing missed calls, and then it went dark.
Merlin is quiet, because if he opens his mouth, if he tries to speak, he’s not sure what will come out of him. He’s not sure that the furious magic building under his skin won’t simply erupt if he makes a sound.
A doctor emerges from behind the doors that the rest of them aren’t allowed to cross, heads towards them, and they are all on their feet, moving almost a single form. “Mr. Pendragon?” the doctor says as he comes close enough. Uther nods sharply. “May I speak to you privately?” the doctor asks, and then Uther is following him away. Morgana stares after them, and Merlin is disquieted to see something like hatred in her eyes.
“We’re going to go and get coffee,” Gwen says quietly to Merlin. “Do you want anything?” He shakes his head mutely and she touches his arm lightly. “I can’t just sit here,” she says shakily. “I need to do something.”
He understands completely, and tries to say as much to Gwen without actually saying it. She must understand though, because she gives him the best smile she can muster and heads towards the door, pausing beside it to wait for Leon, who must have asked Morgana if she wanted anything and got a similar silent rebuttal. The two of them disappear through the door, and Morgana turns her head just slightly, just enough to catch Merlin’s gaze and hold it.
He walks to her side, and she turns towards him accordingly. He searches for something accusatory in her expression--I swore to protect him, he thinks, and look how badly I failed--but if there is something there, it isn’t directed towards him. They stand in silence for a moment, before Morgana’s head turns back in the direction that Uther went. “This is all his fault,” she hisses, anger and grief and fear twisting around in her voice.
The he in her statement is perfectly clear, and Merlin takes a moment to consider it. He supposes that she has a point, if she knows the same things that he does, that maybe Uther is responsible for this, in an indirect way. Indirect is still responsible to Morgana, he knows. After all, it was Uther asking Nimueh to meddle with powers beyond human control that began everything that unfolded after it. If he had never asked for her help, Morgana’s mother wouldn’t have died the way she did, Igraine would be alive, Nimueh would not have become the enemy, magic wouldn’t have been outlawed, and more than twenty years later, Arthur wouldn’t be lying in a hospital as the outcome of it all.
Of course, by that logic, Arthur wouldn’t exist at all, and Merlin doesn’t want to contemplate that.
“Are you saying that, Morgana? Or is Morgause?” he asks softly.
She jerks, looking at him. She is angry, he sees that, but it mellows as she looks at him. “She told me not to trust you, you know,” she says after a moment.
“But do you anyway?”
There is something searching in her expression, and he has the oddest feeling that she is looking through him. “Yes. I do.”
“Arthur is going to be okay,” he says. From anyone else, it would be a platitude, a hope, a sympathetic wish. But he means it as a fact, because he is going to make it happen, one way or another. She takes his hand.
“I believe you.”
Uther comes raging out from where he was led, his eyes wild, but there is a purpose in his stride; his gaze casts around the room before landing on Merlin. “You!” he barks, and Merlin stands, Morgana letting go of his hand, her own dropping back to her side, and she avoids looking directly at Uther still. “You knew it was poison,” Uther says. “How?”
Normally, Uther Pendragon scares the shit out of him. Absolutely petrifies him, and Merlin makes a habit of trying to make himself as invisible as possible around the older man. But Arthur is on the line here, and Merlin has too much raging around inside of him to scrape and bow before a man who considers himself a king of his carefully contained world. He meets Uther’s gaze squarely. “I saw someone who should not have been there, and I knew that it meant danger for Arthur.”
“Who? Who did you see?”
“Nimueh Cara,” he says steadily, and watches Uther flinch, hears Morgana’s tiniest inhale behind him.
“How--?” Uther begins, and then stops, examining him intently. Uther has seen him more than a dozen times, but never really looked at him, and now that he does, Merlin knows what he sees. “You are Balinor’s son.”
“Yes, sir,” he answers, even though it isn’t a question. Uther nods, silent, and turns away from him as though all his questions have been answered, but Merlin needs answers of his own. “Mr. Pendragon? What did the doctor say? About Arthur?”
When Uther turns back to him, his eyes are far away, and Merlin could be made of air or glass for all that Uther sees of him. “He is in critical condition. The doctors have not identified the poison yet, and if they cannot....” Uther focuses long enough to look at him again, long enough to say without words what Merlin already knows: he will die.
Gwen and Leon return, carrying steaming cups of coffee, and they each take seats beside Morgana, who smiles wanly at them. Uther stops pacing long enough to sit, and Merlin sees the tremor in his hands that he tries to hide.
For a moment, Merlin looks at them all. Then he glances at the doors concealing Arthur somewhere in their depths, grits his jaw, and slips out.
Morgana is the only one who sees him leave, and just before he ducks out of sight she nods, just slightly at him.
I’ll save him, he promises silently, and strides away.
When he gets out onto the street he ducks his head, hides his face from the crowds of paparazzi outside--not that they will recognize him, but on the off chance that one of them does remember him as the skinny bloke with big ears constantly blurry in the background of Arthur’s pictures...--he ducks down the first dark corner he finds. He leans briefly against the wall, closing his eyes.
Arthur, he thinks. Arthur, pale, limp in his arms, not breathing, his heart still; Arthur falling, blood on his lips, or is it wine? he can’t tell, reality and nightmare images from a crystal crossing, blending, and he can’t distinguish between them, can’t shake loose Nimueh’s voice telling him it would all come to pass if he chose to be her enemy.
But if her goal was to sway his allegiance, to win his loyalty by destroying Arthur and then offering him the key to his salvation, she is sadly mistaken.
When Merlin opens his eyes, he knows they are gold. He can practically feel it, the magic humming through his blood; the contained wells of it he keeps within himself are rising, flooding over the levees, the ley lines of magic through his body and soul are tangling, snarling like vines. Wild magic, Kilgharrah called it--magic thrown out of control, capable of overwhelming his will, of using him as an agent of chaos.
But what happens when chaos is his will?
He’s going to find out.
He seizes a fistful of magic from inside himself, lets it fill every fiber of his body, and then he wills himself away--time stretches and he stretches and the world blurs around him, then solidifies into his bedroom. Arc lifts his head from where he is curled up on the bed, then shifts into an owl and flutters to his shoulder, fitting himself against the crook of his neck. He makes a soft sound, comfort and sorrow, and Merlin scratches him behind his ears.
You’re magic is burning inside of you, Arc’s voice whispers into his mind.
Camelot burns and Albion burns and everything fucking burns, he sees it in his mind, everything burns and it is because of him. And tonight, he thinks it might be true. He shoos Arc off his his shoulder, reaching into the back of his wardrobe and pulling his costume free. He dresses quickly, the motions practiced, comforting as he slides every piece into place. He takes his mask in his hands, Arc returning to his position on his shoulder, and they head for the living room. Merlin hears the sound of shuffling footsteps and expects to see Will, but finds Freya there instead.
Freya, as he has never seen her, dressed like a Knight. Her suit is tight, black and sculpted to her form. Her arms are covered, only her fingers left bare by gloves that stop just short of her knuckles, but her back is bare, the material cutting out in a swoop from her shoulder to just above her waist. She looks at him silently and he has three questions in mind and the answer to two of them is Will, so he asks the question he isn’t sure of the answer to. “How did you get here?”
In response, she closes her eyes very briefly. And then he realizes why her back is bare, as a pair of black feathered wings grow, extending outwards, and that answers that question. A long black tail snakes around her the side of her leg, swishing gently.
“I see you’ve mastered control of your partial transformation.”
She smiles. “Not going to ask why I’m here?”
“Will called you. He’s a mother hen, even when he pretends not to be. I’ll assume he also made your suit--that would explain all the experiments he had me do on the elasticity of that piece of rope we have.”
“And you pretend to have no faith in me,” Will says, walking into the room. “You are going to do incredibly stupid things tonight.”
“When do I ever do smart things?” he asks in reply, trying to smile. But there’s no real humor in it tonight. He coils the rope tighter and tucks into a pocket on his utility belt.
“Never,” Will says. “I called Sentinel and Fisher and I can call Paladin and Rose but--”
“No, don’t call them. I don’t want them to get hurt.” He glances at Freya. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to stay behind? You’re not trained as a Knight.”
“Merlin, I’m made for battle. I’m coming with you.”
He grits his teeth but doesn’t protest, knowing a futile cause when he sees one. “Will, tell Sen and Fisher we’ll meet them on the roof of The Grail.”
“Got it,” Will says, and then reaches out, catching him by the shoulder. “I swear to god, Merlin, if you get yourself killed I will resurrect your stupid arse and watch your mum kill you all over again.”
“I’ll be careful, Will,” he replies softly, and hugs his friend tightly. Arc gives a little hoot, disturbed from his perch, and lands on Merlin’s head instead. Will barks a short laugh, looking at the owl as well.
“Keep him safe, birdbrain.”
Arc must reply mentally, because Merlin doesn’t hear anything but Will looks satisfied. Merlin turns to look at Freya, forcing a smile for her. “Let’s see the mask,” he says. She picks it up from the table where it has been resting and fits it to her head--it is more complicated than his, covering the full upper half of her face, from nose to hairline. It just down past her cheekbones on the side, curling in over her cheeks, and protrudes out over her nose, sculpted into the muzzle of a large feline, teeth bared. “Are you ready, Bastet?” he asks her.
“Lead the way, Warlock.”
When they meet Sentinel and the Fisher King on the roof of the theatre, the two older men take one look at what they can see of Merlin’s expression and don’t try to talk him out of it. Merlin wonders what they see--wonders if they see rage, if they see sorrow, if they see guilt. Most of all, he wonders what they see that makes them agree to come with him. This is a suicide mission, and they all know it. Marching into the ranks of the Rogues and demanding the Enchantress’s head isn’t a plan so much as a guide to how to die a painful death.
But they don’t seem to care about that part. What they steadfastly refuse, however, are his attempts to convince them to go home and let him handle this on his own.
“No,” Sentinel says after the third time he mentions it. “I know what your plan is if you go in there alone, Warlock, and it’s not going to happen.”
In actuality, Merlin doesn’t have a plan. That’s why it’s better if they don’t come with him, but in the end he gives up on trying to talk them out of it.
“Do you have an idea of where Enchantress is?” Fisher asks, and Merlin smiles grimly.
“A dragon once told me that Albion was built on the ruins of the ancient civilization, Avalon, the birthplace of magic. He said that all the magic was trapped here. Now, it seems to me, that the magic might gather in one place in particular. And if you were a very powerful sorceress, who has been abusing these magical currents for decades now, wouldn’t you set yourself up right over that well-spring of power?”
“And you know where it is?” Sen asks, just the tiniest bit skeptical.
“I can find it. I just have to look.”
As Merlin suspects, when he feels for the currents of magic in the earth and air around him he finds them spinning around one point in particular, a park on the outskirts of the city. From the air, it looks empty and innocent, but there is a force around it, wards that push them back and to the ground. They circle the entire grounds and find only one entrance that is un-warded, a wrought iron gate, conveniently left open for them.
“This is a trap,” Fisher says.
“Of course it is. You thought it wouldn’t be?” Merlin says mildly, frowning at the gate. “But it’s a trap for me, not for the rest of you.”
“You’re not going in alone,” Bastet growls, and steps through the gate ahead of him. He rolls his eyes and follows her, the other two coming along behind him, Arc taking to a falcon’s form and circling the air above them. They don’t have to go far to find the Enchantress. She sits on a throne made from wood and vines, a fountain gurgling in front of her, the space lit by globes of light that hover in the air--she smiles when she sees him.
“Welcome, Emrys.” Her eyes flicker over his companions. “I see you brought friends. It is always best to inform your hosts before you bring in other guests.”
“I’m sure you have your own friends around here, somewhere. I didn’t want them to be lonely while you and I had our discussion.”
“Ah. I see your father taught you manners.”
He clenches his hand into a fist, but doesn’t rise to the bait. “I’m not here for your amusement, Enchantress.”
“Oh? Then what are you here for, Warlock?”
She laughs. “Of course. Come to trade for the precious life of your Once and Future King? I warned you of the consequences of being my enemy, Emrys. See what you have brought upon yourself?”
“The antidote,” he says, ignoring the last part of what she says.
“There is none. The only way your Arthur can survive is by my hand. I, who control life and death.” She laughs again, and there is something wild to it, fey and unnerving and not totally sane. “You don’t see, little warlock. You could be a god here, with me. You and I could rule over this world--the magic is ours.” He doesn’t respond and she sighs. “But you are too blinded, aren’t you? Fed your fairytales of destiny, of balance to magic.” She smiles again, crooked, sly. “What will you trade for your King’s life? Would you offer yourself? Or maybe your little pet here,” she says, nodding to Bastet, “or one of my old friends. Are they equal to the price of a king?”
Merlin doesn’t care about Once-and-Future kings. He doesn’t believe that his destiny is bound to Arthur, or that he is this prophesied Emrys, doesn’t give a damn about any of it. What he cares about is Morgana, who he promised, is Gwen, who didn’t know she was crying, Leon who always knows what to do but looked so lost when he thought no one was watching. What he cares about is Arthur: Arthur, who is annoying and throws things at him and can be such a bloody prat. Arthur, who hides out on rooftops and secretly smokes cigarettes and blames Morgana for both habits. Arthur, who has the worst taste in significant others, but when he is with them he gives them everything. Arthur, who tries so hard to keep everyone at a distance, but who can be unassumingly sweet. Arthur, who waters Merlin’s plant when he forgets, which is basically every single week. Arthur, who buys jam donuts even though he doesn’t like them and leaves them on Merlin’s desk. Arthur, who tries so hard to please his father, even though it kills him half the time. Arthur, who calls him an idiot at least once a day, but really means you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.
Merlin would give his life for him, would trade it right now, and maybe that right there is destiny. Maybe he’s meant to do it, to look up at Nimueh and say “I give my life for Arthur’s”, even though Will would legitimately find a way to resurrect him and yell at him, and his mum would cry, and Arthur would never know but Morgana would, because she would understand it.
But he hears a child’s voice in his mind, a little boy with green eyes who he only knows as Mirage, saying Do not trust the one who controls death.
And he doesn’t. He doesn’t trust her at all, and he’s sure that if he trade his life for Arthur’s she’d find some way to twist it. She has come a long way from the woman who tried to save Igraine and accidentally sacrificed her own sister instead. She directs death at her whim now, and he’s not sure he can stop her.
What comes out of him next isn’t a plan. It’s simple reflex and instinct. Gaius, Kilgharrah, and Will would all agree that it is a patent Merlin-you’re-supposed-to-think-before-speaking move.
“In exchange for Arthur Pendragon’s life, I offer my own. If you can take it.”
Whatever Nimueh expected, that clearly isn’t it. “You propose a challenge?”
He nods. “If you kill me, Arthur gets to live. And if I kill you, he gets to live.”
“A battle,” she says. “The old magics will be pleased. I accept your offering, Emrys.” She stands, stepping down from her throne. “But this agreement extends to all within this arena. Whoever dies will be sacrificed in the name of your King.”
He opens his mouth to shout, to protest, because that isn’t what he meant, isn’t what he wanted, but a sizzling ball of magic bursts from the magic towards his companions--it hits Bastet, sending her screeching to the ground, and then they are set upon at all sides, Rogues emerging from the shadows beyond the light. Here is Snakecharmer, snakes slithering over his arms; here is Chimera, fire at his palms, the flickering casting the scarred half of his face into stark relief; here is the Steel Siren, pulling a sword from a sheath at her belt; here are a handful of others, crackling with magic, and they are surrounded, outnumbered.
Bastet climbs to her feet, snarling, and from the corner of his eye he sees her shift a little more fully towards her bastet form, fingernails lengthening into sharp claws; she and Sentinel and the Fisher King move to put their backs to each other, and Arc wings down from the sky, shifting into his dragon form, and then their enemies converge upon them.
It is chaos then--magic and fire and mayhem, and Merlin sees it in fragments: Sentinel jumping back from a snake that strikes at him; Chimera circling Fisher in flames and Fisher pushing back with ice and wind; Siren swinging her blade at Bastet, who ducks and rakes back with her claws; Arc roaring as he lunges at three men surrounding him.
Merlin steps through it all and stands in front of Nimueh, ready.
It’s not too late, Emrys. You and I could still be friends, she whispers in his mind.
Never, he thinks back, and strikes.
She meets the blow with a wave of her hand, dismissing it. “You’ll have to do far better than that Warlock,” she says, and sends a fire-burst of power at him, one that sizzles ominously as he dodges it--it strikes somewhere behind him, exploding, the force of it sending them reeling. She strikes again and again and he loses track of everything that goes on behind him, intent on his own battle. They finally sync, magic meeting in mid-air, and he struggles to hold onto it as she pushes forward, as her power boils closer and closer to him, his own weakening, giving out, and he loses it. The force of her magic strikes him hard in the chest and he flies backwards, twisting in the air, pain spiking through his chest and spreading through his limbs; he crashes to the ground, gasping for breath, swirls of dark and light dancing through his vision. He forces himself up, one hand clutching his chest, covering the place where magic has burned through his suit, leaving red blistering skin in its place.
Somehow, Paladin and the Rose Duchess have arrived, and Merlin silently thanks Will, because with their addition the tide is turning against the Rogues.
But it hasn’t turned enough, because Chimera gets an opening, and Merlin sees before it happens but can’t stop it, doesn’t even have time to shout, because the fire is washing over the Sentinel, hitting him square in the back, and he convulses, screams, falls. Paladin rushes to his side, but Merlin knows, can feel the change in the magic, the blood-thirsty pleasure of it, of a sacrifice fulfilled.
Nimueh laughs, long and wild and the magic curls around her, he sees it, bending to her will.
No, he thinks, isn’t sure if he says it aloud, if he screams it, or if it is only in his mind, because Nimueh is not the only one who can manipulate magic, not the only one who can master it. Maybe he is Emrys, maybe he is the one to bring balance to magic, maybe none of it matters at all. Kilgharrah taught him to expel magic from himself, to control it, to maintain a balance inside of himself, and he has already disregarded that, already let it twist and turn inside of him, let it burn inside of him as Arc said.
Now, he lets it rage. Now, he reaches out, makes the physical motion with his hands and mimics it with his spirit, with the part of himself that is made of magic--he takes hold of the currents around him, of the ones swirling around Nimueh, of the ones that bleed deep into the earth where Avalon fell.
And he brings it into himself.
He expects it to fight, expects it to struggle against him, but he isn’t asking for control from it, he’s asking for chaos instead, and it rushes in eagerly. He thinks he screams but he isn’t sure--it feels like molten metal pouring through him, filling him, lifting him straight into the air.
When he opens his eyes, everyone is staring at him. Paladin is clutching Sentinel’s limp body, Rose beside him, holding his wrist; Fisher is supporting Bastet; Chimera and Siren have drifted close together, while the rest of the Rogues are either unconscious or have fled; and then there is Enchantress, her head turned up towards him, her lips parted, something torn between hatred and rapture in her expression.
Yes, she whispers to him, this is what you are meant to be Emrys.
“No,” he replies. “It’s not.”
And he opens the skies upon her. Lightning is nothing like flame, nothing like wind or water, nothing like earth--it is chaos, purer even than the magic boiling under his skin, and when he unleashes it upon her, it takes everything he has to control it, to bend it down on her and only her.
She screams. Screams with rage and with fear and pain, tries to bring her magic up to protect her, but there is no protection from lightning, and she is no longer mistress of death.
Merlin senses it when the magic shifts again, knows when her scream cuts off, when Sentinel comes gasping awake in Paladin’s arms. A sacrifice has been offered, a sacrifice has been taken. Merlin tries to let go, to release the magic, to cut off the lightning, but he finds that he can’t. He is trapped inside his own body, a vessel for the roaring chaos of the magic, his will buried beneath it. He can hear Kilgharrah’s voice saying “you will be a shell, a puppet of wild magic” and he understands what the dragon meant now. He is still suspended in the air, caught there, and he curls in on himself, digging his nails into his palm, hoping the pain will jolt him out of it.
You’re burning yourself through, Merlin, he hears Arc’s voice say. You have to break it.
I can’t, he whispers back, and for a moment isn’t sure the dragon hears him. But then he feels Arc’s presence more fully in his mind, the dragon slipping into his consciousness, and Merlin opens himself to his friend.
This is going to hurt, Arc warns, and Merlin has no idea what he does but he’s right about the pain. There is a storm inside of him, the magic being forced out through his skin, and he knows nothing but the agony of it, every cell in his body screaming from it, and worse, he sees the images from the crystal whirling through his mind again fire and lightning and the earth, the earth is breaking, and it will be his doing, and Arthur is still dying.
And then everything, everything, goes dark.
END PART III
Chapter 4: Epilogue
“Merlin, I’m going through caffeine withdrawl. Go and get me coffee.”
“You’re not allowed to have coffee yet and you know it,” Merlin says, looking up from his notebook. Arthur is sitting up in his hospital bed, still looking pale. He is still weak and is under strict orders to move around as little as possible, which means that he has to compensate for his confinement by making Merlin’s life a living hell.
And honestly, Merlin wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s still on the weak side himself, so sitting at Arthur’s side and putting up with the litany of complaints is preferable to trying to run around after him. It’s also preferable to listening to the lectures that he got upon awaking: one from his mum, which was largely crying and hugging him in between yelling at him, and he had forgotten how scary she was when she was mad; one from Gaius that consisted of many Eyebrows of Doom and in depth examinations of what he had done and why exactly it was so stupid; a combined one from Will and Freya, who had both crossed their arms and glared at him and thoroughly called him an idiot; and finally a joint one from Sentinel, who looked wane but healthy enough, and Fisher, who was nursing a nasty cut to his side, given to him by Siren and her sword.
This last lecture is still ringing in his mind, because it began as the expected you’re an idiot, don’t ever do that again and ended...well, it ended with something he never could have seen coming, with Fisher, touching a hand lightly to the place on his side where his wound was, and then looking at him seriously. “I’m retiring, Warlock.”
Fisher had sighed. “I’m getting too old for this kind of life. Too weak, too slow. If Paladin and Rose hadn’t shown up that night, I don’t think I would be here. And I should have known that, should have insisted that we go in with more than just the four of us.”
“That was my call,” Merlin protested, and for some reason Fisher smiles half-heartedly.
“You’re right, Warlock. It was your call. Which is why, when I retire, I want you to take over as leader.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He said. “What about Sen?” he had asked, looking at the older man, who shook his head.
“No. I’m no leader, Merlin. You are.”
“No I’m not! What--what about Paladin? Or Sunny? Or Rapier?”
Fisher smiled fully then. “Can you imagine if Sunny or Rapier were in charge and Star and Sabre weren’t? The sibling rivalries there make it impossible. And Paladin would be an excellent leader. But his loyalty is already to you, and he won’t take a position over you. This decision has already been put before the other Knights, and they all agree.”
“So, I don’t really have a choice in this, do I?”
“No,” Sentinel said, grinning.
“Merlin, are you listening to me at all?” Arthur demands loudly, shaking him from his thoughts.
“Nope,” he replies, grinning cheekily.
Arthur glares. “You’re supposed to be nice to me. I’m hurt.”
“You’ve been playing that card for a week, mate. It’s not going to work on me anymore.”
“I should fire you,” Arthur says grumpily.
“As if you could survive without me.”
“You’re not that important, Merlin,” Arthur says, and Merlin grins.
If only he knew.
THE END OMG