It’s not that Merlin isn’t used to things talking to him that really shouldn’t be talking. He has talked, on various occasions, with dogs, cats, snakes, goats, horses, cows, more sheep than he cares to admit, the occasional fish, and one time a llama at a petting zoo. And a mime, once, but that was only shocking because he was five and didn’t think mimes ever got time off.
However, this time it’s the stylized dragon on a can of peas talking to him while he’s making a veg delivery at Camelot Market, which is … unprecedented. He lowers his voice so nobody inside can hear him and bends close to the can. “What?”
“How small you are,” says the dragon on the can of peas in as grand a tone of voice as a dragon on a can of peas can, “for such a great destiny.”
Merlin looks from side to side, but it’s only him and Arthur the Prat in the store, and Arthur the Prat is determinedly stocking the veg that Merlin’s just brought around, after informing him that Merlin couldn’t possibly do so in any aesthetically pleasing way. “Is this a magic thing, or a Merlin-might-need-to-be-hospitalized thing?” he hisses. Will and Gaius have both told him that it’s a good idea to check.
“I have been waiting for your arrival for a long time, young warlock,” the dragon announces. Merlin checks the sell-by date, which implies that the dragon can’t have been waiting for much over two weeks. “This is merely a manifestation of my presence, not the reality,” it snaps, and Merlin turns it back right side up.
“So where is the reality?”
There’s a slightly awkward silence. “You are destined for great things,” the dragon reminds him.
“Yeah, we did that bit already.”
“It is your destiny to save Albion from sure destruction, to raise it back to glory, but you cannot do this thing alone. The other side of your coin, one whose path is entwined with yours, needs your help as you need his, to unite Albion against greed and evil.”
Merlin blinks. “I didn’t think Albion was ever glorious. I mean, it’s a nice little town, but--and who’s this mysterious other side of my coin, anyway?”
“The Prince of Camelot. He is your destiny, your other half, your--”
“Merlin, just what is so interesting about the canned goods? Do you want the money to take back to Gaius and the farm or not?”
Merlin starts and stands up straight. “Um, yes. Don’t think we need anything for the farm today, and even if we do, Gaius will probably end up in town sometime today anyway. We just wanted to get you the greens before they wilted.” He gives the can of peas a sidelong look, and gets the distinct impression that the dragon is smirking at him. “So, I’ll be on my way.”
“After I give you the money.”
“After you give me the money,” Merlin agrees, glaring because Arthur is smirking at him as well. Again. This is why he doesn’t usually make the deliveries to Albion’s Camelot Market. He much prefers delivering to The Castle Restaurant & Inn, also owned by Arthur’s father but run by his foster sister and catered by her girlfriend Gwen, both of whom are much nicer than Arthur.
“Your destiny,” hisses the can of peas.
Merlin gives it a vicious look, because Arthur is an arse and does not deserve the tiny little crush Merlin may or may not have on him. “You shut up.”
“Talking to yourself, Merlin?” says Arthur from the register, where he’s doing something with computers. “Gaius probably has some sort of herbal remedy for that.”
“Too bad he doesn’t have one for being a prat.”
“That insult is getting old after ten months, Merlin.” Arthur comes back out from behind the register and hands Merlin an envelope. “Perhaps you ought to get a thesaurus and come up with some new ones.”
“Clotpole,” says Merlin, pulling out one of the things Will called him in primary school. “Dollophead.”
Arthur shakes his head sadly. “You won’t be finding those in the thesaurus. Well, at least I know what to give you for Christmas this year.”
“Sod off, arsehole, like you’re giving me a Christmas present.” He snatches the envelope. “Gaius will call about the next delivery.”
“Merlin!” says the can of peas. “You cannot deny your--”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Merlin, and stalks down the aisle to get the can. “Sorry, Arthur, actually, can I buy this? I think Gaius needs some for tonight’s stew.” He rummages a few coins out of his pocket and tosses them. “Keep the change, yeah? Just apply it to our account.”
Arthur stares at him. “Aren’t peas in season right now?”
“Ours is not to ask,” Merlin deflects, and flees the shop, sticking the can in his bicycle basket and cycling off before Arthur can come out and mock him some more under cover of cleaning the windows. He pulls into the space between two buildings a few seconds later and glares at the can of peas. “What was all that about? What’s all this about my destiny? Arthur the Prat is not my destiny.”
The can of peas remains stubbornly silent, and Merlin takes great pleasure in blowing it up with his mind.
Every time Will visits, he complains that Albion must be the most boring town in England. They grew up in Ealdor Apartments in Birmingham, and Will is doing something with ledgers at a bank, so he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on with that, but he still insists. Ten months after Merlin moved out to Gaius’s farm on the outskirts of Albion to grow produce and learn magic, he’s still charmed by the town.
Everyone knows everyone else, for one thing. His neighborhood in Birmingham was close-knit enough, but now he can’t walk down the street without stopping for a chat. The countryside is lovely, most of the people are as well, and it’s clean and bursting with small businesses, from Camelot Market to Gwen’s dad’s hardware store to the GP’s office run out of the home of Alice, Gaius’s on-again-off-again flame.
His favorite place in town, though, aside from Gaius’s fields, is undoubtedly The Castle. It’s not the local, which he usually ends up at once or twice a week, but Gwen feeds him tastes of whatever she’s cooking if he washes a few dishes and Morgana talks about bed linens in an almost frighteningly intense way, and even Uther Pendragon, who is Arthur and Morgana’s father and pretty much runs Albion, deigns to give Merlin a smile sometimes and ask how things are out at the farm.
After he finishes blowing up the can of peas and cleans up the mess so none of the town’s teenagers go into the alley to neck and wonder why someone tossed pea soup about, Merlin goes to The Castle because Morgana tends to take his side over her brother’s and Gwen will perhaps feed him samples of dessert. When he gets there, however, Morgana and Uther are shouting at each other.
“People would go there for different reasons, Uther!” Morgana is yelling when Merlin finishes retreating before he gets enlisted to one side or the other. “It wouldn’t lose you business, and it would be nice not having to drive half an hour to get the things that you don’t stock!”
“You could always ask me to stock them!”
“You just can’t handle a little competition!”
Merlin sidles over to the door to the kitchen, where Gwen is frozen with a spoonful of what looks like bechamel sauce dripping on the pristine floor. He unties his neckerchief and holds it under before Morgana sees and throttles her poor innocent girlfriend. “What’s going on?” he whispers as Uther talks about loyalty and local business and shady practices.
“They might be building an Avalon Supermart in Mercia,” Gwen returns, talking about the next town over, and Merlin winces. “Morgana made the mistake of saying that it might not be a terrible idea in Uther’s hearing.”
“Maybe I should go,” says Merlin, because Morgana has noticed him and he’s going to have to disagree with her and then she won’t let him wash his clothes in the inn’s laundry and it’s generally best to flee before he crosses her.
“I will never make you cherry tarts again,” Gwen hisses, which is just a low blow. “Come into the back room and taste tonight’s dinner.”
Merlin lets her drag him, because he’s a good friend and because her cherry tarts are probably the best he’s ever tasted. But then again her everything is about the best he’s ever tasted because his mother is wonderful but can’t cook to save her life. “You don’t agree with her either,” he accuses once they’re out of earshot.
“Hush,” says Gwen. “The walls have ears.”
“Your sous-chef has ears, but he’s on your side,” says Merlin. “Hello, Lancelot. We’ll have that shipment of greens in to you later this week, it’s just that the peas have been exploding and there’s only so much Gaius and I can do.”
“Hello, Merlin,” says Lancelot, waving his spatula and doing something with the tray of scones he’s just removed from the oven. “Are Morgana and his Majesty still at it out there, Gwen?”
“Just because Morgana went to uni with that Morgause woman,” Gwen mutters direly, returning to her bechamel, spoon in hand. Merlin looks sadly down at his neckerchief, which is now covered in cheese. It is just not his day, what with the talking canned goods and the potential supermarket. And the presence of Arthur the Prat. “Merlin, you look absolutely shattered, sit down, you really need to stop running off your feet like this. Wasn’t Gaius thinking about hiring Gilli? You could use another pair of hands, business is booming since you arrived--not that it wasn’t before, of course, it’s just that Gaius is getting on--and besides, you’ve got a green thumb.”
“Gilli …” Gilli blew up half a bed of radishes trying a fertility spell and doesn’t seem to share Merlin’s magical green thumb, but Gwen doesn’t need to do that. “Gilli doesn’t want to work full-time, he still visits his mam a lot.”
“You should find someone, then. You’ve got the farm pretty much to yourself now that Gaius is concentrating on his remedies, so you should hire help. It’s too bad Edwin didn’t stay on.”
Edwin is the single best argument for pesticides Merlin has ever heard of, with his creepy little beetles, but Merlin doesn’t say that. Truly, he is the epitome of restraint. “Er, yes. But yes, we’re looking for someone, sort of. Gilli’s helping where he can, for now, but we’re trying.”
Gwen hands him a chocolate biscuit. “Let me know if you need help, I know everyone and if I don’t know them my da does. Best to give out jobs while we can.”
Merlin looks sharply up from his biscuit, since Gwen never sounds that bitter about anything, but Morgana bursts into the back room at that moment and her eyes light on Merlin instantly. “Merlin! You can talk some sense into Uther, he’s being completely unreasonable!”
“Actually, I have some very urgent berry-picking to do,” he blurts, and runs out before he can get dragged into the argument, ignoring Gwen’s indulgent mutter of “Traitor” from behind him.
“Arthur asked me how last night’s pea soup was when I stopped in at Camelot this morning,” Gaius says when he gets back from town the next day. Merlin starts and looks up from the spinach he’s picking. “Do I want to know, Merlin?”
Merlin considers that. “Probably not.”
“Let me know if that changes, will you? And take the spinach to The Castle when you’re finished and pick up an extra bag of fertilizer from Camelot while you’re in town.”
“We don’t need fertilizer.”
“Unless we want the government asking questions, we need fertilizer.”
Merlin ponders that. “Why do I have to buy it, then? You were just in town.”
“I forgot it. Now hurry with that picking, Gwen and Lancelot want that for tonight’s salads.”
Merlin grumbles, but Gaius is his employer and his mentor and he can deal with being in Camelot long enough to pick up a bag of fertilizer. He hitches up a cart to his bicycle and piles crates of spinach on it before peddling to The Castle, where he manages to drop off the spinach without getting in the middle of the quiet argument Gwen and Morgana are having in a corner. Both of them give him tight smiles but don’t come over, so he chats for a minute with Lancelot before fleeing. It’s always disconcerting when Gwen and Morgana actually fight. Apparently they’ve been together forever (well, since uni, but they’ve been dancing around each other pretty much since Morgana moved to Albion when she was twelve), and while they have their share of spats, normally they don’t last more than an hour before they’re over. He’s only seen them fight properly once before, when Morgana almost entered a contract to get their vegetables supplied by a man named Tauren instead of by Gaius while they were dealing with the blight issues Edwin had brought down on them. Gwen had slept on Gaius’s sofa for a whole week before Morgana had apologized.
“Tell them I’ll be by later this week,” Merlin whispers to Lance as he heads out, and Lance grimaces before he nods.
When Merlin gets to Camelot, Arthur is dealing with a customer, so Merlin goes to the back and gets a bag of Gaius’s usual fertilizer and then dawdles his way through the rest of the store. “You cannot run from your destiny,” the same voice from yesterday says as Merlin wanders past the cereal, and Merlin almost drops fertilizer on his foot.
When he turns around, the cheerful cartoon dragon on a box of sugary children’s cereal is looking at him in a disappointed manner that reminds him unnervingly of Gaius. “I do not have a destiny,” he says under his breath.
“Your path and that of the young Pendragon lie together. They always have, and they always shall.”
“We hate each other,” Merlin hisses before realizing that he is arguing with a cartoon dragon on a cereal box.
“A half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole. You and Arthur must save Camelot, and all of Albion, from the dark forces working against it.”
“Look, whoever you’re looking for, you’ve got the wrong person. Arthur and I wouldn’t piss on each other if we were on fire.” Arthur is also finishing up with his customer at the register, a dark-haired woman Merlin doesn’t recognize buying eggs and milk and honey. “Destiny can fuck right off,” he finishes, and hefts the bag over his shoulder.
“Talking to yourself again, Merlin?” says Arthur from the register, raising his eyebrows as he bags the woman’s groceries. “Perhaps you ought to go see Alice, if you’re under that much stress.”
Before Merlin can muster the retort that Arthur deserves, there’s a flash of something that feels like magic, and while Merlin’s distracted by that, the woman shrieks and points at the floor. “A mouse! There’s a mouse in your shop!”
“Save Camelot!” shouts a whole row of cereal box dragons, and probably a whole stack of can of peas dragons, and Merlin yelps and drops his bag of fertilizer, which explodes everywhere--and covers up the red “recording” light on the woman’s camera.
It transpires, when half the town (but most importantly Uther and Officer Leon) shows up, that the woman was paid by an anonymous source to shut Camelot down, and Merlin is hailed as an accidental hero and Uther pays for his replacement bag of fertilizer (but not the one he broke). Merlin mutters a lot about not having meant to, but thank you, and ignores the smug looks he keeps getting from cartoon dragons.
“Hey, Merlin,” calls Arthur when Merlin finally manages to escape, and Merlin braces himself for yet another cutting comment, probably about his clumsiness and the fact that Arthur will have to pick up the spilled fertilizer. “Just wanted to say thanks,” he says while Merlin loads up his bicycle. “She could have shut us down, and with Avalon coming to Mercia even something temporary could have been bad.”
Arthur looks disconcertingly earnest and he’s looking right in Merlin’s eyes and it occurs to Merlin that they’re having another moment. Considering they don’t actually like each other (Merlin considered for about five minutes once the possibility that Arthur is pining for him and thus being an arse, but then discarded it, because come on, like Arthur Pendragon couldn’t do any better), they have a lot of ridiculous cinema-worthy moments where they sort of get stuck looking at each other and forget to stop, or where Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder for emphasis, or … well, it happens once a week on average. “Hey, don’t mention it,” he says at last when he remembers that the products in Arthur’s shop are telling him they have a destiny and he wants to thwart them, not encourage them.
“Yes, okay, fine.” He produces a chocolate bar from the pocket of his shirt. “These are your favorites, right? Not organic or anything, but I figure it’s the least I could do.”
Merlin grins at him and takes it, because he’s never one to turn down chocolate. “Thanks. I guess you should get in there and talk to Leon some more, yeah? And I’ve got to get back to Gaius, he’s going to yell at me for disappearing.”
“Can’t have that, he might use the eyebrow on you and then you would never recover.”
“I’m fragile that way,” Merlin agrees, and then there’s another moment while Arthur grins at him in a really disconcerting way and Merlin definitely doesn’t blurt anything about Arthur being the other side of his coin because he Does Not Listen to cartoon dragons on groceries. “Really, really need to go,” he says at last.
“Right, yeah. See you at The Castle sometime, then.”
Merlin waves and gets on his bike before he can do anything else hugely embarrassing.
(And Gaius does give him the eyebrow when he gets home, which is really not fair.)
Merlin’s heroism is overshadowed the next day when he walks into The Castle and Lancelot immediately sticks a paper under his nose: Avalon Supermart is indeed building in Mercia. “We’ve got to stop them,” Gwen proclaims from nearby, and then looks around guiltily. “We’ve done just fine with Camelot and ordering what we can’t get there, and so has everyone else in the area.”
“What are we supposed to do about it, Gwen?” Merlin asks, and looks around for Morgana, who is absent. “And where’s Morgana?”
“Morgause is one of the CEOs of Avalon, and she and the regional manager Cenred are viewing the building site.” Gwen looks miserable. “Morgana went to have coffee with her or something, I don’t know.”
Merlin pats her shoulder. “I brought you a crateload of young potatoes, if that will cheer you up.” It’s a rare day when produce won’t cheer Gwen up.
“She and Morgause dated in uni, before she and I got it together, and they really only broke up because they found out they were third cousins or something and decided it was weird.”
“It would still be weird, then,” Merlin says firmly after exchanging a look with Lancelot over her head. “Besides, Morgana loves you. She would never cheat on you.”
“If she did, she would be run out of town on a rail,” says Arthur as he wanders into the kitchen. “She may be my foster sister, but you’ve been here longer, Guinevere. Bringing them the best produce, Merlin?”
“Of course. We’re having a torrid affair, so I’m obligated.”
Arther raises his eyebrows. “Does ‘we’ mean you and Gwen, you and Morgana, or you and Lancelot?”
“All of them,” Merlin replies promptly, and Gwen chokes on nothing.
“Does that mean if I have a torrid affair with you Camelot will get better produce?”
Merlin pretends to consider it while he staves off his blush. “I don’t know. Perhaps a little better, but then there would still be the three of them at The Castle and you alone at Camelot, so …”
Arthur just smirks. “Oh, I’m worth better produce even if it’s one against three, I promise.” Merlin rolls his eyes and they don’t stop looking at each other, which means they’re having a moment again, and this one in public, which they generally manage to avoid. They’re getting worse. If he knew what the scientific or magical term for one was he would try to find a cure for them. “Anyway, that’s not why I’m here. I assume you lot have heard about Avalon?”
“Your sister is off having coffee with Morgause,” says Gwen. The rest of them wince. “I haven’t heard from your father, though.”
“He’s preparing to compete aggressively,” says Arthur, a perfect parrot. “I am preparing to figure out how to shut them down. Their business practices are shady, and I suspect they might be behind the mouse incident.”
“Have you got any proof?” asks Lance, ever the sensible one.
Merlin opens his mouth to say he agrees with Arthur and then remembers that he refuses to obey the orders of cartoon dragons and shuts his mouth instead. “Well, no,” says Arthur. “But she was paid to get the health and safety inspectors in, and I can’t think of anyone else who would do that.”
“We just have to make sure that everyone boycotts them,” says Lancelot in the tones of someone who knows that his solution will never work.
“Yes, that’ll work when Morgana’ll just swan off to buy industrial-sized tanks of mayonnaise or something.”
Gwen looks at him reproachfully. “I would never use store-bought mayonnaise, Arthur, and you know it.”
“Well, vinegar and eggs, then, to make it with. Large vats of products, anyway.” Arthur flaps a hand irritably. “That isn’t the point.” He turns unexpectedly to Merlin, who is attempting to sidle towards the door. “What do you think, Merlin?”
“I think I’d better get the potatoes in here,” he says. “Honestly, I can’t do much, and you all know the area much better than I do. I’ll talk to Gaius about it all, yeah? He’ll definitely have more suggestions than I will.” With that, he flees, and wishes there were something around with a dragon face so he could rub in his refusal to help Arthur with anything.
He finishes his delivery quickly despite Gwen’s disapproving look and Lancelot’s curious glances (not to mention Arthur mocking him for nearly dropping the whole crate of potatoes) and goes back to the farm, where Gaius and Alice are sitting on the porch talking about Avalon and how awful it is and what they can do to stop it.
This, much to his annoyance, is the template for his next seven weeks.
Will, for reasons best known to himself, gave Merlin a ball-in-a-cup toy at his Easter visit to Albion. Merlin has had it for months now and still has not managed to get the ball in the cup without the use of magic. However, it’s useful for his fine-motor magical control, so he’s sitting cross-legged on his bed playing with it one August evening when someone knocks on the door. “I’m coming in, Emrys, get your hands out of your pants if you’re wanking.”
Merlin drops the toy on the floor while Arthur throws the door open, and then there’s an awkward silence while Arthur processes precisely what Merlin was doing and presumably prepares lists and lists of things to say to him as a result. “That would not have been enough time to get my hands out of my pants if I was wanking,” Merlin points out. “What the hell do you want?”
“To catch you jerking off, Merlin, of course. It’s my life’s ambition,” says Arthur dryly. “What do you think I want?”
“An order of vegetables?” Merlin guesses hopefully.
Arthur gives him a withering look. “Don’t you think I would have called Gaius up if that were the case? Or even stopped by here and talked to Gaius? No, Gwen says you’ve been complaining about Avalon just as much as everyone but Morgana, so you’re going to help us get rid of it.”
“I’m sort of busy. It’s just Gaius and I on the farm these days and it’s harvest season.” And he’s been avoiding Camelot because apparently half their products somehow have dragons on them and they won’t shut up and they always sound really smug about his and Arthur’s destiny. Besides which the moments still haven’t reduced in frequency and he suspects it is freaking both he and Arthur out because neither of them is actually in a film.
“Be that as it may,” says Arthur, which is Arthur-speak for I am going to be a gigantic prat and take over your life without your consent, “we really need everyone in town to pull together on this. You can sacrifice the time that you would otherwise spend playing with your toys to the cause.” He gives a pointed look at the ball-in-a-cup sitting pathetically on the floor, and then rummages around in his pocket to produce something. “I brought chocolate as bribery.”
Merlin takes the chocolate bar only to discover with a certain sense of inevitability that it’s some ridiculously fancy sort with a dragon on the label. “None of us can choose our destiny, Merlin,” the chocolate bar informs him, “and none of us can escape it.”
“Oh, shit,” says Merlin, because this is the first time something has spoken to him outside of Camelot.
Arthur beams, apparently taking that as resignation to the inevitable. “Knew you had a chocolate addiction. We’re meeting in my flat tonight at eight to discuss what we can do. Though you’ll likely end up drawing our posters for us or something equally useless.”
“If I’m so useless, why do you even want me there?” he mutters.
“Your souls are entwined, your destinies lie together,” says the bar of chocolate in a tone that can only be described as lascivious.
“Gaius says he’s busy--”
“So do I!”
“Yes, but I believe Gaius because I didn’t catch him playing with a children’s toy. As I was saying, Gaius is busy and we want a representative from the farm because your farmstand and private orders are going to take a hit with Avalon around.”
Merlin spares a moment to wonder why Arthur didn’t send Gwen before shrugging. “Fine, as long as you don’t expect miracles.”
“Together, you and Arthur shall save Albion,” the dragon on the chocolate bar reminds Merlin, who wonders how Arthur would react if Merlin threw his peace offering out the window. “For you are two sides of the same coin, two halves of the whole--”
Arthur, mercifully, interrupts what must seem like an awkward silence to him. Since Merlin is refusing to look at him they don’t even have the excuse of a moment. “Well, then, I’ll leave you to your fascinating game.” He scoops the toy up off the floor and gets the ball in the cup on his second try, the arse. “See you tonight, Merlin.”
“Yeah,” says Merlin, and crumples up the chocolate wrapping the second Arthur is out of the room. Each square of the chocolate has a little dragon imprinted on it, and he eats it quickly, before he finds out if those will talk to him too.
He refuses to speak at the meeting that night except when spoken to and manages not to have any moments with Arthur, so he counts it as a win.
Merlin tries very hard not to think that destiny is working against him when Gaius picks up two new workers for the farm in the next three days. The first is Freya, a terrified-looking girl who shows up on their doorstep one afternoon with no sign of a car and says that she heard about them from a man named Aglain after she got into a bit of trouble in her old town. Gaius doesn’t ask questions, although he gives Freya the eyebrow enough to make her quail whenever she’s in his presence. Merlin sets her to weeding, because he suspects she won’t be wanting to use magic for a while.
The second is a man named Gwaine, who is apparently an old uni friend of Lancelot’s in between jobs, and Lancelot, not knowing about Freya, sends him to Gaius. Gaius, even though Gwaine shows no hints of knowing about magic, let alone having it, invites Gwaine to stay through the season immediately.
Merlin takes to Gwaine immediately, reminded of what Will would be like if he didn’t feel the obligation to stay at the job he practically inherited from his father, but that doesn’t mean he thinks it’s a good idea to have him around. “Gaius,” he hisses while Gwaine is settling into his guest room. “Not that I don’t appreciate the help, but we just got Freya in, and she’s terrified of us and we have magic. I don’t even know how she’ll react to Gilli when he gets back from his trip and he’s harmless!”
“She doesn’t want to use her magic right now, Merlin, and she seems accustomed to keeping it secret anyway. And Gwaine is personable enough, isn’t he?”
Gwaine could flirt with a rock, Merlin suspects, which is what’s making him nervous. “Perhaps Freya should help out in your lab, Gwaine and I can take care of the fields.”
“I don’t need help in the lab, not with Gilli coming back soon. And this will give you more free time for the Avalon effort.” Merlin grimaces. Gaius raises his eyebrows. “I don’t know what you have against Arthur, Merlin, but whatever it is, you need to get over it. The whole town must pull together for this.”
“You sound like someone else I know,” Merlin mutters.
Gaius smiles. “I’m glad you listen to Gwen when she speaks sense.”
“Right. Gwen,” says Merlin, because he hasn’t quite got around to telling his mentor about the dragons on groceries speaking to him yet. Either Gaius will have him committed or Gaius will do hours worth of research and then take the dragon’s side, so he figures it’s best not to mention it until he can prove that the dragons speaking to him are both real and slightly dotty.
Gwaine, thankfully, picks that time to knock on Gaius’s office door. “Ah, just the men I wanted to see. I seem to have frightened your … sister, Merlin?”
“Just an employee,” says Merlin, and goes to fix it after giving Gaius an I-told-you-so look in return for all the ones he’s gotten himself.
For all Gwaine is great company, over the next week he also proves that he attracts difficult situations like a magnet. For one thing, he terrifies Freya every time he tries to be friendly, and she takes to doing her share of the chores early in the morning, while Gwaine’s still asleep, and then fleeing to Gaius’s lab. For another, since he knows Lancelot, he’s always tagging after Merlin when he goes to town, and everyone loves him instantly--except the Pendragons. Uther seems to think he’s a spy for Avalon, since he showed up at just the wrong time, so he glares whenever Gwaine dares enter The Castle. And Arthur, well …
“New boyfriend, Merlin?” he asks when Gwaine comes along to one of their meetings at Lancelot’s invitation. “If he distracts you, I’m kicking him out.”
Gwaine, either because he’s an arse or because he’s actually rather sweet (actually, probably for both of those reasons), slings an arm across Merlin’s shoulders. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist, princess. We’ll be good.”
Merlin turns bright red and looks down at his lap. “Really, we’re not--”
“Don’t want to hear it, Merlin,” says Arthur, and stalks off and is generally an arse to Gwaine for the rest of the night. And throws a notebook at Merlin when he asks for paper, which is just not fair. There isn’t even a moment, and Merlin doesn’t know what the hell Arthur’s problem is with Gwaine but it’s all very disconcerting.
(Okay, so maybe he has a bit of an idea, but it’s too nerve-wracking to ponder.)
“So,” says Gwaine as they walk in the door of Gaius’s farmhouse that night, slurring a bit from the wine Gwen had produced at the end of the meeting. “You and Arthur, yeah?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Merlin, and flees.
“There are dark forces who want Albion to fall,” a box of cereal says conversationally one day while Merlin is doing his shopping. “Young warlock, leave your stubbornness behind, for you and Arthur must work together.”
“For we are two sides of the same coin, two halves of the same whole, Bonnie and Clyde, Jeeves and Wooster, Fry and Laurie,” mutters Merlin, more than a bit annoyed.
“Not the most romantic speech I’ve ever heard, Merlin, and have you and Gwaine really been dating long enough for you to make that kind of commitment?” asks Arthur, and Merlin drops a box of cornflakes.
“Don’t be an arse, and Gwaine and I aren’t dating, for the three hundredth time, and don’t you have something better to do than sneak up behind your customers and make them dent your merchandise?”
Arthur grins at him unrepentantly, and Merlin wonders what murdering him in cold blood would do to his destiny. “I might, but not when my customers are muttering to themselves. You might snap and go on a murderous rampage, and then I would feel responsible for not stopping you.”
“You would have driven me to it,” Merlin retorts, and finally picks up the box he dropped.
Arthur looks amused and opens his mouth to say something, but he’s interrupted by the shop bell ringing and a stranger walking in. A beefy stranger who could probably take Merlin apart with his bare hands and who has a tattoo of a snake up his arm. Merlin dislikes him on sight, probably because he looks around like Camelot is beneath him. “Can I help you?” Arthur asks, effortlessly slipping into the charm he uses with everyone he doesn’t know well.
“I’m looking for a job, actually.”
Merlin blinks at him, because he doesn’t look particularly impressed by Camelot and he doesn’t seem the sort to stick around Albion anyway. “I don’t know as we’re hiring at the moment,” says Arthur, even though he’s been complaining for weeks that he’s run off his feet. “You’d have to ask my father, he’s the owner. I just manage the place.”
“Do you have an application?”
“Again, you’d have to ask my father. He’s usually at The Castle this time of day. They might be more likely to hire you there, as well. They haven’t had a dishwasher in a few months.”
The stranger grins. “I prefer sales. I’m Marcus Valiant, by the way, but you can call me Val.”
“You must not let him near,” says the cereal box dragon, and Merlin jumps and almost drops something else. Arthur gives him a sidelong look but doesn’t mock him in front of the stranger. “He is a danger to Albion. Help Arthur!”
Just for that, Merlin decides to help the stranger, for all he dislikes him on sight. “I’m about done here, actually. I’ll walk you over to The Castle if you like.”
“What, Merlin, have to flirt with every new stranger in town?” Arthur says, and then looks horrified at himself.
Merlin glares at him, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. It’s one thing to tease him in private or around friends, and quite another to do it around a stranger who’s now giving them speculative looks of a really unpleasant perhaps-we-could-do-a-threesome-sometime variety. “You are such an arse,” he snaps, and finishes stuffing the last few items into his basket before stomping to the register and starting to unload. “I’m done here.”
There’s a pause, and Arthur finally walks around the register to start scanning Merlin’s groceries. Val wanders towards the door and looks at Merlin. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer of a walk to the restaurant. I don’t know my way around town just yet.”
“Right, okay,” says Merlin, and rummages for his wallet.
Arthur touches his wrist when Merlin passes a wad of bills across the counter and gives him the closest thing to an apologetic smile that he can apparently muster. “That was out of line,” he mutters.
“Yes, it was,” says Merlin, quietly because even if he’s angry with Arthur he doesn’t want Val to hear about it. “Put the remainder on the farm’s charge account.”
He takes his bags and heads for the door, and almost makes it out before Arthur calls his name (twice, actually, because the first time Merlin isn’t sure if it’s him or the stupid matchmaking dragon). “I--I’ll see you at the meeting later this week?” he says.
“I might just send Gwaine. Gaius and Freya need me about,” Merlin replies, and leaves while Arthur is still feeling guilty and the dragon is still disappointed and silent. He sticks the bags on the cart attached to his bike and starts walking it down the street, Val in his wake. “So what are you doing in Albion, then?” he says when he’s got his temper under control.
“Wanted to get away from the city.” Val doesn’t elaborate, and Merlin doesn’t find himself warming to him by the time they get to The Castle.
Morgana opens the door when he walks up to it, leaving his bike and its contents outside. Val stares at him for leaving it unattended, but in ten months away from the city Merlin has lost any caution about that sort of thing. Nobody in Albion would steal his things, and if they did, he could track them easily. “Merlin, to what do we owe the pleasure? And you’ve brought a guest.”
“He isn’t staying with you already?” Merlin asks without thinking. “You must have really just got here, Val, unless you’re staying out of town.”
“I’m at the motel in Mercia right now, actually,” Val offers. “But this looks like much nicer accommodation.”
“Of course we are,” says Morgana, puffed up with pride. “And you’re--Val, is that it? Please come in, get a look around. We’re the best in the area, my girlfriend runs the kitchen and our dinners are fabulous.”
“They really are. Is Gwen in, Morgana? Gaius wanted me to tell her that the broccoli is coming along nicely.”
“She’s not, actually, but I’ll tell Lance and he’ll let her know.” Morgana gives him an appraising look and produces one of the statements that make him wonder sometimes if she has magic that she’s been hiding from Gaius since Uther adopted her. “Arthur being an arse again?”
Merlin gives a jerk of the head that he hopes conveys I won’t tell you details in front of this possibly creepy man. “No more than usual.”
“So quite a lot, then.” She rolls her eyes. “This Avalon campaign is sapping what few good manners he’s ever managed to cultivate. Are you still involved?”
Morgana seems more amused than annoyed by their efforts even as she seems to spend more and more time chatting with Morgause and her colleagues, but he’s still not willing to risk her wrath. “Oh, you know. When I’ve got the time. Things are busy on the farm even with Gwaine and Freya around. Especially as I spend half my time mediating between them because Gaius thinks it’s beneath him.” Val is still standing around scrutinizing his surroundings. “Anyway, I’ve got to talk to Lance. Morgana, Val wants to talk to Uther about maybe getting a job at Camelot, is he about?”
“I’ll take care of him,” Morgana promises, and Merlin wonders if she’s picked up on his dislike or if she actually means that sincerely.
Deciding that decoding Morgana requires either more letters after his name or more patience than he currently has, Merlin flees to the kitchen, where Lancelot is making stock. He stays there until he’s quite sure Val has gone and then leaves, grabbing his bike and starting back towards the farm. He stops, though, when he sees a mobile on the street near Camelot, and picks it up. The default image on the screen is a picture of some sort of snake, which marks it pretty clearly as Val’s, which means Merlin ought to return it instantly, but his uneasy feeling about the man makes him go into the contacts.
Sure enough, his suspicions are confirmed: there, among the names of mates and family members, are listings for Cenred, Morgause--and Morgana.
Maybe, Merlin reasons as he looks at the insistently-vibrating phone on his bedside table that night, Morgause gave Val Morgana’s number just so he would have somewhere nice to stay while he conducted his corporate espionage. That would be quite logical, even. Especially as it’s Morgana’s office line and not her mobile. And she hasn’t called since Merlin stole Val’s phone, while Morgause has, six times now.
He should probably call someone. Val, certainly, since he’s actually stolen his phone. Arthur and Uther, to warn them that the competition is trying for a job in their shop. Morgana, to ask what the hell she thinks she’s playing at. Gaius or Gwen, just to talk to someone with sense, although Gwen will be dealing with the dinner rush and really doesn’t need something else to worry about.
Freya knocks on his door before he can quite decide what to do. She’s taken to spending an hour or so with him in the evenings when he’s home, so it’s not unexpected. She almost backs right out of the room again when she sees the lit-up mobile, though. “Oh, if you’re expecting a call, I can leave,” she says, timid as always.
“No, come in, it isn’t my phone. Nor Gwaine’s,” he adds hastily when she looks even more nervous. “It’s--oh, hell. There’s a stranger in town today looking for a job at Camelot and I don’t trust him so when I found out he’d dropped his mobile I sort of … didn’t return it. And he’s been getting calls from Morgause Lothian for hours now, so my suspicions are confirmed.”
She walks in and perches on his chair, a rickety thing he got free out of someone’s backyard when he first moved to Albion. “So are you going to call Officer Leon? Or tell someone?”
“Not sure yet. I’m tempted not to tell anyone out of spite, but--”
“That never ends well,” she interrupts, and then turns tomato red. Merlin doesn’t ask questions. He knows she’s got a past, but it’s hers to tell him about or not. “You need to do something.”
“That’s what the damn dragon keeps telling me.” Freya looks at him, eyes wide, and Merlin winces. “Uh, that’s a bit of a long story.”
Luckily, he’s saved from having to elaborate by another knock on the door. Freya nearly leaps from her seat, but Gwaine opens the door before Merlin can quite think of what to do. “What’s got your Arthur being such a bastard today?” he asks, grinning. “Glared at me worse than usual when I--oh, hello, Freya. Stopped by your room earlier to see if you wanted a ride into town.”
“Not my Arthur, and I have nothing to do with him being an arse,” says Merlin, giving the phone a glare (since glaring at Freya seems like worse heresy than glaring at Gwen and Gwaine just thinks it’s funny when Merlin gets pissed off). Arthur isn’t allowed to be an arse and then sulk when Merlin gets pissed about it, especially when he refuses to apologize. Freya starts to stand when Gwaine moves into the room. “No, Freya, stay if you like. Gwaine’s harmless.” Or at least Merlin hopes so.
“I don’t bite unless you ask,” promises Gwaine, which is really the opposite of helpful. Freya turns pink and stares at her lap, but she doesn’t flee, so Merlin decides to take what he can get. “And Arthur only gets this way when his massive crush on you has been thwarted, so don’t go giving me that.”
Arguing, Merlin decides, would only encourage him. Although everything encourages Gwaine, from what he’s seen so far, so pretty much whatever happens he’s in trouble. “There’s another visitor in town,” he says instead.
“Another for our motley crew of farmers?”
Freya, even though Merlin has already explained, looks terrified. “No,” he says. “Well, Gilli is due back sometime soon, but he’s not really a visitor, he’s a … something, I don’t know. No, this is some arse who seems to be in league with Avalon Supermart and is trying to get hired at Camelot.” Merlin explains the rest of the story when Gwaine just stares at him.
“You’re calling Gwen,” Gwaine informs him when he’s finished. “Arthur won’t listen to reason where you’re concerned, Uther won’t listen to reason at all, and Lance will find out within five minutes of you calling Gwen anyway. And then we’ll figure out how to return this phone.” He brightens. “Maybe we can bug it! Does anyone use technology in this town?”
Merlin already knows magic can tap phones (and he is very, very lucky that his mother doesn’t know that it can), so he flaps a hand vaguely. “I might be able to arrange something.” Freya narrows her eyes at him. “Long enough for us to get proof, at least. But I doubt it will be admissible to the police.”
Gwaine shakes his head sadly. “Oh, Merlin. You have so much to learn.”
The next morning, when Merlin walks into Camelot intending to bury the hatchet and talk to Arthur (because Uther is terrifying and hearing about Morgana’s number in the phone would break Gwen’s heart), Val is there, dusting shelves with terrifying efficiency. “Oh, hello, Val,” he says, since finding him was next on his to-do list. “I found your phone on the street on my way in. Looks like the battery died.” After Morgause and Cenred’s insistent calls continuing, but he doesn’t want Val to know he’s onto him quite yet.
“Thanks. Was wondering where that went.” Merlin is a terrible liar and he knows it, so he busies himself looking at a display of digestive biscuits that do not have dragons on them. He can still feel Val giving him a suspicious look. “Thanks for taking me to The Castle yesterday, by the way. Uther was kind enough to give me a job.”
“Glad to hear it.” Arthur, it seems, is standing at the register and sulking. Merlin picks up a chocolate bar and goes to pay. “Veg delivery might be a bit earlier than usual this week. Things go much faster with Gwaine and Freya to help out,” he says, and lowers his voice. “And I need to have a chat with you when you’re free.”
Arthur’s sharp look stretches out, and neither of them looks away, Merlin getting caught as always in the intensity of Arthur’s expression, and seconds later Val does the unthinkable--he interrupts a moment. “If you lads need to have a private chat, I’ll hold the fort down for a few minutes.”
Merlin is torn between wanting to let Arthur know everything instantly and the dubious wisdom of leaving Val alone in a store he is probably trying to sabotage or take over or something. Arthur makes the decision for him, though. “Come on, Merlin. Thanks, Val.” With that, he goes around the register and drags Merlin by the elbow into the stock room. Merlin looks away to make sure Val can’t eavesdrop and then back when Arthur doesn’t say anything further. “Well, what is it, then?”
“Val is working for Avalon,” Merlin blurts, and then winces because he always means to say things more tactfully around Arthur because otherwise he’s prone to fits of temper. And sometimes throwing things.
Arthur stares at him, in a shocked, non-moment sort of way. “He’s what? And how the hell do you know?”
“I may or may not have found his phone yesterday instead of today. There were listings for Morgause and Cenred in there, and Morgause especially was calling pretty insistently.” He pauses, but all of it has to come out sometime, and maybe Arthur will be reasonable about it. “There was a listing for Morgana as well.” Arthur’s jaw clenches instantly. “I couldn’t see any sign of them actually contacting each other, and it’s not her mobile number, so it could just be Morgause giving Val a number for a place to stay. But I thought someone should know, and I couldn’t tell Gwen that.”
“No, of course not. She’s upset enough as it is, we needn’t get her involved for something that might not end up being a problem.” Arthur scowls. “You realize you ruined the moral high ground by looking at his phone like that. We can’t go to Officer Leon, he might think you tampered with the evidence.”
Merlin shakes his head. “Gwaine’s da is a barrister, and he says that what we’ve got on Val isn’t illegal anyway. But we can certainly make his life a misery.” He pauses, partly for dramatic effect (because Arthur looks impressed for once, and he’d be a fool not to relish that) and partly because he isn’t certain Arthur will approve of his next suggestion. “And we can … sort of use him, to pass on the wrong sort of information to Morgause and her colleagues.”
Arthur’s eyebrows disappear into his hairline. “Everyone always thinks you’re so innocent. You know my father won’t agree, don’t you?”
Merlin very carefully looks at the floor, because everyone in Albion knows that Arthur is the only one allowed to behave less than perfectly towards his father or disagree with him in any way. “He maybe doesn’t have to know. I know you hate lying to him, but …”
There are a few seconds of silence. “I’ll consider it. You are surprisingly sneaky, you know.”
“Is that a compliment?” Merlin dares to look up, only to find Arthur looking thoughtful, which is a rare event to say the least.
“Don’t be an idiot, Merlin, complimenting you is beneath me,” says Arthur, sounding a bit gruff, and then clears his throat. “Would you mind just keeping this between yourself and Gwaine for the moment? Gaius if you must, I suppose. But Gwen’s run off her feet and doesn’t need to be worrying about Morgana, and Lance will just tell Gwen.”
“I won’t tell.” Merlin looks at the door and takes the eavesdropping spell off it. “I’d better go. Got to talk to Lance and Gwen if they’ve got any special requests for late veg.”
“What, you aren’t asking me?”
“Pumpkins. Possibly some squash. Carrots. Have I got it about right?” It’s far too fun to bait Arthur, especially when he starts looking mulish. “Bye, Arthur. See you soon.”
“Bye, Merlin.” Another clearing of Arthur’s throat stops him before he can get too far. “And thank you. I’ll take your suggestions under advisement.”
Merlin nods jerkily and flees before they can have another moment, and leaves the store room to find Val watching suspiciously from where he’s sweeping near the register.
A cereal box dragon winks at him as he goes past, and Merlin realizes that once again he’s been foiled by destiny or his sense of ethics or something equally inconvenient. “Bugger,” he says, heartfelt, and goes off to talk to Gwen.
Gwen, when he arrives, is oversalting her soup by way of crying all over the place. Lance is wearing the horrified look of a sous-chef who knows his supervisor is doing something wrong but doesn’t want to get his bollocks chopped off. Merlin settles for the lesser horror of seeing Gwen cry for the first time he’s seen since her father had a heart attack and walks quickly across the kitchen to give her a hug. “What’s the matter?”
After a frozen second, Gwen turns around and hugs him back, sniffling into his shoulder, and Merlin drags her a few steps away from the soup, letting Lance lunge forward to rescue it. “I--I think M-Morgana is cheating on me,” she manages after a few seconds.
“Oh, oh Gwen, no, she would never,” Merlin exclaims, looking at Lance a bit desperately over her head. He gets, predictably enough, no help whatsoever. “I mean, this is Morgana we’re talking about. She loves you so much it’s honestly a little creepy sometimes. She would do a lot of things, but she would never cheat on you.”
Gwen continues crying into his jacket. “But she’s hardly home and she’s always talking to Morgause and she looks so guilty when we actually do have a chance to catch up …”
Merlin’s heart sinks, because he suspects this means that Morgana is not cheating but helping out Avalon actively rather than just staying out of it. “She’s probably just feeling bad because she feels like she’s consorting with the enemy.” That’s what he hopes, at least. “Really, Gwen, she would never cheat on you.”
“But you can’t know that,” she frets, and Merlin closes his eyes to conjure up a pack of tissues and then pulls them out of his back pocket to hand her one. “Thank you. But what if she is? What am I supposed to--Lance, I swear to God, if you put that clove in the soup I will hang your guts from the ceiling.”
Lance jumps guiltily and starts stirring again. “She isn’t, really,” says Merlin, getting the conversation back on track, and then decides to hell with Arthur asking him to keep this from Gwen, surely corporate espionage is better than infidelity. The story about Val and the phone tumbles out and by the end Gwen has stopped hugging him and looks to have moved from heartbreak to righteous indignation (which is as close as Gwen gets to murderous rage, as far as Merlin has seen). “Gwen?” he ventures at last.
“Have you still got an extra room in the farmhouse, or have Gwaine and Freya taken up the available space?”
“I’ll make up a pallet for myself in Gwaine’s room and you can have mine, if you like. Are you okay?”
“I can’t believe she would just--she knows what Camelot means to Albion, she knows. Just because she disagrees with Uther on a few issues--” Gwen presses her mouth into a thin line. “I’ll be over after closing tonight, Merlin. I’m going to go tenderize a chicken now. You can discuss vegetables with Lance.”
Merlin does discuss vegetables with Lance, to the background noise of Gwen having it out quite violently with a dead chicken, and then flees for Gaius’s and reports his progress to Gwaine, who looks amused. But Gwaine always looks amused, so that’s nothing big. Then he goes and finds Freya, who is apparently avoiding Gwaine more diligently than ever. Merlin doesn’t want to think about how that is going to end.
Gwen arrives on their doorstep at eleven that night with a grim expression and a duffel. Gaius gives them all a look that says they’d best watch their step and goes to bed, so Merlin moves into Gwaine’s room and manages not to indulge his curiosity about whether Gwen actually told Morgana she was leaving.
He gets his answer the next morning when Gaius shakes him awake. “Morgana is at the door. I refuse to get involved.”
That leads to Merlin stumbling down the stairs and opening the door to find Morgana looking as if she hasn’t slept a wink. He tries very hard not to feel any sympathy. Morgana clutches at his arm as soon as he appears. “Is she here? She didn’t leave a note, she didn’t say she was going anywhere.”
“Even if she was here, she doesn’t want to see you,” says Merlin firmly, and Morgana’s face crumples, which just isn’t fair. If seeing Gwen cry is like knowing someone kicked a puppy and told it its mother didn’t love it any longer, seeing Morgana anything less than poised or possibly pissed off is like seeing someone kick a pit bull, because a dog is still being kicked but worse than that, the dog should be fighting back. “She thought you were cheating on her,” he offers.
Now Morgana just looks horrified, which is a step up from about-to-cry. “I would never! How could--I wouldn’t!”
“I know that.”
“Then let me in, I have to explain, Morgause and I are just--”
“Working together to take Camelot down,” Merlin supplies, and Morgana’s eyes narrow instantly. “I found Val’s phone yesterday, and your number was in it. Alongside Morgause’s and Cenred’s.”
Merlin feels as if the world is set to rights now that Morgana is outright glaring at him, but he’s also mildly terrified of her, so he stops there and makes sure he can slam the door in a hurry if need be. “I may not be starting up ridiculous little grassroots campaigns that won’t work to stop a store that could actually be good for our town, but that doesn’t mean I am deliberately attempting to ruin something that my entire family cares about,” she hisses.
“But you’re friends with people who are. Look, if Avalon gets built, Avalon gets built. I sure won’t be happy about it, but that’s a side issue. But when they send spies to try to get information and get the store shut down, you should rethink being on their side.”
“This explains why Arthur refused to speak to me when I called looking for Gwen, I suppose.”
“She’ll talk to you when she’s ready,” says Merlin. “Other than that I don’t have much to say to you right now.” With that, he shuts the door before Morgana’s glare can turn into her threatening violence or something.
“You shouldn’t be baiting Morgause like that,” says Freya quietly from behind him, and he jumps and turns to find her cradling a handful of late strawberries. “She uses magic, you know.”
Merlin stares at her for a second. “No, I don’t know. Tell me.”
Merlin is going to kill Gwaine for doodling a dragon on the whiteboard on the fridge, because it isn’t even a grocery but it’s still talking to him. Yelling at him, in fact, which is really annoying late at night. “Young warlock, I cannot make this clearer! Arthur’s life is in grave danger! You must go to Camelot this instant!” it cries when he finally manages to tune in past his grogginess.
His brain is saying Hold on a tick, what am I supposed to do about it but his mouth is saying the spell that will transport him to town in a fraction of an instant, one that Gaius has said time and time again that only the most powerful wizards can master. A second later he’s blinking the sparkles out of his vision and wondering what that crashing noise is, and then he realizes he’s standing outside Camelot in the boxers and t-shirt he went to sleep in and that the crashing noises are inside and quite possibly have something to do with Arthur’s life being in grave danger.
“I should call 999,” Merlin mutters to himself, and opens the lock instead. He comes in to find Val with a length of hose attempting to get the drop on Arthur, and Arthur beating him off with what looks like a tin of beans. Merlin dives for the register, glad for once that Uther is a paranoid bastard, and hits the panic button that will hopefully summon Officer Leon.
What it actually does, however, is absolutely nothing, because of course if Val is working at Camelot and planning on attacking Arthur (in what universe is this logical?), the first thing he would have done is disable the panic button. Instead, it makes Val and Arthur both look at him in surprise, and then Val says “Now, damn it!” and the hose turns into a snake.
Merlin feels the twist of magic, not coming from Val, but activating from the hose--something Morgause probably set up as a last resort, if what Freya said is true and this isn’t the first time she and the rest of the Avalon CEOs have tried to shut a business down with shady practices and magic. The snake twists tighter around Arthur’s neck, the air fills with hissing, and Merlin tries frantically to undo the spell while Arthur flails ineffectually with his can of beans.
A second later, Merlin realizes he’s going about it the wrong way. He’s never been good at undoing spells, not even his own. But he can remember how that piece of magic felt, and he can hold out a hand at the cans of peas on the shelf near Arthur and Val and say a spell that’s half what he uses to make objects move about on their own and half what he uses when seeds aren’t sprouting properly.
Within seconds, there’s a flock of small dragons attacking Val and the snake with great enthusiasm. When the snake writhes and slides to the ground trying to avoid them, Arthur hits it with his can until it stops twitching and then Merlin fries it just in case, which finally sets the store alarm off. “You okay?” he asks Arthur, which he supposes is the least useful question he possibly could have asked, and just gets a stare, which might be because Arthur is still gasping for breath.
At that moment, Val, bleeding from scratches all over his face and neck, breaks out of the little dragon flock and lunges for Merlin, at which point Arthur stops gasping for breath, grabs a broom that’s leaning nearby, and cracks it so hard over Val’s head that the handle cracks and splinters a bit. Val goes down like a tree, and the dragons sort of give Merlin one collective smug look and then fade away into nothing. “What the fuck,” Arthur says after an awkward silence, “was that?”
“You are having a very vivid lucid dream,” Merlin tries, prodding Val with his bare foot. He doesn’t even get a twitch as response. Arthur’s apparently a dab hand with a broom.
“You appeared in my store in your underthings even though the door was locked,” Arthur says in a very even tone. “You shouted some gibberish and a bunch of little lizard things attacked Val. Your eyes went funny colors. You set a snake on fire. A hose turned into a snake in the first place..”
The fire alarm is still going off and someone’s going to arrive any minute now, and now that the rush of adrenaline is over Merlin realizes that he’s just broken the first rule of having magic, which is not to tell anyone who doesn’t need to know. “Could you maybe … do me a favor and not mention that to Officer Leon? Just make yourself look nice and heroic and get Val clapped in irons? Why the hell did he attack you, anyway?”
That at least makes Arthur let out an embarrassed cough before he remembers himself. “I overheard a conversation with Morgause giving his plans in more detail, and I … lost my temper, a bit, and told him I knew. You walked in on the aftermath of that.”
“What kind of plans?”
For some reason that shuts Arthur down again. “I’ll tell Leon. It’s a police matter now anyway. Merlin, what was that?”
“It was magic. Yes, the real sort. It’s not--not many people know about it. And you can’t tell anyone that was what happened in here. Not what Val used, not what I did. I’ve really got to go before they get here, actually.”
Arthur gives him a long, cool look that doesn’t even get close to turning into a moment. “Yes, I suppose you do.”
There are voices on the street outside, and Merlin wants to make it all better right away, but Arthur is angry and that won’t get better until he’s shouted, which they don’t have time for. Instead, he attempts the teleport again, but without the benefit of adrenaline, he lands in the middle of one of Gaius’s fields and has to walk into the house, miraculously without waking anyone else up.
He erases the dragon on the whiteboard before trudging back to his pallet in Gwaine’s room and falling asleep.
Things are different after that.
On the surface, of course, they’re the same. Merlin does what he always does, Arthur does what he always does, everyone gossips about Val and how the police can’t actually prove anything about him working with Avalon because his phone was irreparably broken in the scuffle, and Gaius raises his eyebrows more than is reasonable for any one person to do. Gwen is still sleeping in Merlin’s room and Morgana looks worse by the day, but that’s at least a normal sort of abnormal.
Merlin would understand it if Arthur avoided him or got pissed off--Will had done both when Merlin had accidentally revealed his magic when they were fourteen. Instead, Arthur is polite and friendly, which is deeply frightening the same way Uther cooing over a small child would be frightening, and they stop having moments. And Merlin, horrifyingly, misses them.
It doesn’t help that the dragon is unbearably smug, either. “Ah, young warlock, it felt good to fly again,” a box of cereal says dreamily while Merlin is doing the shopping (because Gaius insists that they continue to take turns, and adds Gwaine to the rotation as well, even though Merlin explained that Arthur knows and Merlin might want to avoid town for a while). “Your destiny with the young Pendragon grows ever closer,” a can of peas adds when he changes aisles.
“How can I have a destiny,” he says tightly, “with someone who hates me?”
“A half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole,” a box of tea informs him.
Arthur clears his throat. “Something I can help you with?”
“Not really,” says Merlin, and glares at the box of tea before finishing his shopping in silence. “Are we--is there a meeting tonight?” he asks when he gets to the register.
“No. Could you ask Gwen to call me, though? I haven’t talked to her since she and Morgana fell out.”
“Yeah, of course.” Merlin turns to walk out and count out another day of awkward silences when he almost runs smack into a sketchy-looking old man in a snappy black suit. Since strangers walking into Camelot hasn’t exactly ended well recently, he pauses at the door. “Uh, hello, sorry, do I know you?”
The man sniffs and Merlin resists the urge to cower. There’s a feeling a power around him that isn’t magic, or at least isn’t any sort of magic Merlin’s run across before. “I don’t believe that’s any of your business. Where is the owner of this … establishment?”
Arthur steps forward, at his very snootiest. “I’m the manager. My father’s the owner, but he isn’t here at the moment. I have full authority on all matters pertaining to the store. Who are you?”
“Anthony Aredian. Health and Safety. I was called about a possible violation.”
“If this is about the mouse, the woman confessed to having dropped it about ten seconds before it was caught and we went through due process clearing and decontaminating after.”
Aredian’s lip curls. “No, we’ve had reports of a different sort of vermin. Reptilian, perhaps.” He could mean the snake that Arthur did tell Officer Leon about (while lying through his teeth about the fact that it used to be a garden hose, much to Merlin’s relief), but he swivels to give Merlin a cold smile and Merlin almost drops his groceries all over the floor.
“Again, the snake was brought in by an outside source and a criminal to boot, and we’ve decontaminated and sanitized everything in here.”
“The perpetrator of the latter incident, however, mentioned … lizards. Small ones that attempted to injure him, as if they’d been trained to do so.”
Arthur looks highly unimpressed and somewhat bored. “And you don’t think that perhaps he was just saying that so the authorities might go a bit easier on him, poor boy, got hit on the head.”
“It’s not my business to make statements on the law or on medical opinion, Mr. Pendragon. It is my business, however, to make sure that the practices in this building are to code. If you refuse my inspection, of course, I could always go to The Castle and do a surprise inspection …? Or perhaps to visit my dear old friend Gaius at the farm in town, they produce products for public consumption there as well, as I recall.”
For a second, it looks like Arthur is considering it, but the kitchen at The Castle is always full of bustle and undoubtedly if someone was looking, they would find a problem, just like they would at Gaius’s farm because they sanitize things with magic far more effectively than cleaning agents and excessive boiling can, and that’s certainly not to code. Either reading Merlin’s expression correctly or thinking of the problems he could cause an already-stressed Gwen, Arthur sets his jaw and shrugs. “Inspect away, Mr. Aredian. I don’t expect you’ll find anything, but of course my father and I are always willing to find room for improvement.”
Aredian gives Merlin another look that makes his skin crawl, like Aredian is trying to sense his magic, or has already sensed it and is trying to do something to it. “Perhaps if we had some privacy. Unless this young man is your employee?” The way his gaze lingers on Merlin’s probably-filthy hands and definitely-stained jeans, he is obviously hoping that Merlin is so he can shut Camelot down on a flimsy pretense and go on his merry way to ruin more people’s lives.
Arthur catches his eye and shakes his head quickly. “Merlin is a supplier, but not an employee. And don’t you have to go, Merlin? I know Gaius wanted you to talk to my father about that produce order for the wedding Gwen is catering.”
Merlin stares at him, bewildered, because Gwen isn’t catering a wedding right now that he knows of, and either way he would talk to her and not to Uther. Then he realizes that Arthur is apparently trying to be sneaky, which is both ridiculous and endearing because Arthur is the most straightforward person he knows. “Right, thanks for reminding me,” he says brightly, even though Aredian’s presence is still making his skin crawl. For once, he almost wants the dragon’s (dragons’?) input, but they’re conspicuously silent. “And I’ll have Gwen call you like I promised,” he adds.
Arthur just gives him a quick nod and Merlin turns and flees and actually gets on his bike instead of walking it down the street to The Castle. Within five minutes he’s explained to Uther and Uther has swept down to Camelot in a rage, so Merlin goes and hides in Gwen’s kitchen and drinks tea until he feels a bit calmer.
Aredian is apparently doing a very thorough investigation, because three days pass and he’s still in town. Not just in Camelot, either, although mostly there, and he’s almost always escorted by Arthur when he wanders away. He stops by The Castle one dinnertime while Merlin is waiting tables in hopes of some of Gwen’s amazing stuffed mushrooms and alternates between staring at Merlin (who soon retreats to wash dishes where it’s safer) and Morgana (who, oddly enough, starts looking unnerved and drops menus while she plays hostess to their guests). He comes to the farm and Gaius tells Merlin to answer the door and say Gaius isn’t in. Freya catches sight of him and locks herself in her room for the rest of the day.
After that, Merlin corners Gaius and asks him what the hell he’s missing. “Aredian is an old acquaintance,” says Gaius, and yes, Merlin could have guessed that. “He has grudges against magic that I couldn’t hope to explain, but when he has the chance, he lingers, tries to get magical people put away for whatever crimes he can. Even something as simple as a Health and Safety violation.”
“So why is he working for Morgause?”
“Either he doesn’t know she has magic--”
“I think he could sense mine, Gaius, I really doubt that.”
“--or he works for her because through her he meets magic users without the financial power to ruin him if he tries something.”
After that, Merlin goes up to Freya’s room, only to find Gwaine sitting against the door. “She seems pretty upset,” says Gwaine. “And you and Gaius were busy. So I thought I would make sure she was okay.”
“I’ll talk to her,” Merlin promises, because he suspects Aredian might fill in some of the massive gaps in the abbreviated version of the story Freya told him when she talked about Morgause and how she’d offered to train Freya if she would just work for Avalon and help eliminate the competition.
Freya does let him in, but she doesn’t tell him anything else, just looks terrified and haunted like she did the first few days after she arrived, and tells him that she wants to be out as little as possible until Aredian’s gone, if that’s okay. “He’ll remember me,” she says, and goes back to staring out the window.
“We’ll keep you away from him,” Merlin assures her, and then pauses. “If you don’t want to, it’s fine, but you might want to let Gwaine know you’re okay. He’s worried.”
She doesn’t answer, so Merlin leaves again and shrugs helplessly at Gwaine, who’s still lurking out in the hallway. “If you like,” says Gwaine before he walks away, “I’ll do the shopping in town for a bit. I don’t care to ask many questions, but I’m thinking you want to avoid this Aredian chap as much as the other two. I’ll put up with princess and his temper tantrums for a couple days.”
And he does, much to Merlin’s relief, but Merlin still ends up at Camelot two days later because Gwaine’s taking an afternoon off and Gaius ran out of desperately-needed cheesecloth. Aredian pounces less than five minutes after he walks through the door, putting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder that Merlin immediately wants to shrug off (and sanitize, and scrub with scented soap, and possibly chop off altogether if none of that makes him feel clean again). “Ah, it’s Merlin, isn’t it? I’ve heard so much about you.”
“If it’s about the melon avalanche, that is all a lie,” Merlin blurts.
Aredian just chuckles. “It just seems that everyone speaks highly of you, and the work you do out on the farm. You must tell me when Gaius is in, I do want to speak to him again so badly. Strictly unprofessional business, of course, unless I see something that must be rectified immediately.”
“He’s busy a lot lately. Lots of internet orders on the supplement business.”
“Yes, yes. Hope his facilities are quite up-to-date. And yours as well.”
“Merlin,” says Arthur from behind them, and Merlin gratefully steps away from Aredian when his hand falls. “Good to see you. Where’s Gwaine?”
“Afternoon off.” Arthur’s speaking to him, but situating himself comfortably between Merlin and Aredian. Merlin tries very hard not to feel warmed by that. “He said to tell you he pines for your company or some rubbish like that.”
“And you had an urgent errand? I’d thought things were very, very busy at the moment.”
“We need cheesecloth.”
“Cheesecloth,” says Arthur flatly. “Well, we certainly have that. Come on, let me help you find it, Val moved things around while he was still in our employ and I think that was one of them.”
“No need for that, surely,” Aredian interrupts. “Merlin and I are having a nice chat, no need to sweep him away so quickly.”
Suddenly, Arthur is right next to Aredian, and definitely directly between he and Merlin. “Leave him alone. If you have business with Camelot, that’s fine, though you can stay another week and still won’t find anything to report back to Morgau--the authorities about. But you are not here to get into anyone else’s business.”
“So protective,” murmurs Aredian, but he looks a little shaken. “Very well, get your groceries.”
“Thanks,” says Merlin when they get far enough away. Arthur’s hand is on his elbow and he looks very grim. “He really gives me the creeps. Not leaving yet?”
“Maybe. He’s inspected everything, twice, and seems very upset that everything’s in order. But last night he … acted with Morgana like he did with you just now, and she called him disgusting and threw him out of her establishment and then cried all over Gwen.” Which explains why Gwen hadn’t come back to the farm the night before. It doesn’t explain why Aredian focused on Morgana like he did with Merlin. It’s hard to imagine her having magic without Gaius knowing about it. “He’ll probably try harder to find something now.”
“I’m sorry. I should have thought, before, with Val. That he would say something about it even if you didn’t.”
“Morgause probably would have sent him anyway.”
“So you do know it’s Morgause.”
“Who else would it be?” Arthur holds out a packet of cheesecloth and doesn’t drop it when Merlin takes hold of it. “Stay away from him, would you? He’s been asking about you all week. Even more than he’s asked about Morgana.”
“If he keeps on creeping me out, I am going to make him cough frogs.” Arthur looks more than mildly alarmed. “I wouldn’t do it to you, though.” Merlin looks down at their hands, since both of them are still holding the packet of cheesecloth. Which has a dragon on it, damn it. “You’re--does this mean I’m forgiven?”
“I was more freaked out than angry anyway,” says Arthur, and then they’re smiling at each other and it feels embarrassingly right to be back having moments. “But yes, I suppose.”
“I told you so,” says the dragon.
“I’m sorry, am I interrupting something?” says Aredian, and Merlin ponders hitting him about the face with the packet of cheesecloth. The effects wouldn’t be as long-lasting as magic, but it would be more personally satisfying. “I only just wanted to look at the regular inspection records one last time …”
Arthur shifts his grip to Merlin’s wrist for just a moment before letting go and stepping away.
Merlin stays out at the farm after that, and continues letting Gwaine get the groceries. Aredian still hasn’t left, and Arthur has taken to texting Merlin more and more frequently as two more days go by.
Is the frog-coughing offer still on the table? he sends during breakfast, and Merlin chokes on his toast, which makes Gwaine smirk and Freya look alarmed.
Thus far I can turn him into a frog, but not make him cough them. Working on it, though, he replies, and that starts off all sorts of dreadful suggestions of tortures for Aredian. Gwaine joins in when Merlin is finally forced to explain what he’s grinning about, and when Freya realizes they’re talking about Aredian, she joins in, although her suggestions are sometimes a bit terrifying.
A. keeps having accidents and being remarkably clumsy. Your fault? comes the next morning.
Merlin has to think about that for a few minutes, because he’s certainly been known to do accidental magic before, especially on people he dislikes, but he can’t feel his power anywhere it shouldn’t be. Then he asks Freya, who bites her lip and shakes her head and says she still isn’t ready to use her magic again. He asks Gaius as well, just for the sake of completeness, and only gets a disdainful raise of eyebrows in response.
No. Maybe he’s hungover he replies eventually.
And he would even almost believe it--except Arthur keeps texting. To say Aredian tripped over nothing. To say he keeps misplacing papers, or that he set his sleeve on fire trying to light a cigarette, or that he looks more alarmed every time it happens. Merlin wonders at first if the dragon figured out some way of doing something, because he knows it’s not him doing it, but figures if the dragon were more powerful it would not manifest itself on groceries.
A. insulted Morgana and his car blew up, Arthur texts that night.
Merlin texts back as fast as he can type. Bring her here. Now. And Gwen. “Gaius,” he yells. “We’ve got a problem!”
By the time Arthur arrives, Gaius has finished shouting at Merlin for recklessly revealing secrets, Freya has retreated to her room, and Gwaine is demanding to know what the hell they’re all talking around. He softens when they come through the door, at least. Arthur’s expression is surprisingly neutral, but Morgana is wide-eyed and shaking like a leaf. Gwen is holding her arm and looking worried. “What’s going on?” she asks, sitting Morgana down at Gaius’s kitchen table. “Arthur just dragged her into the kitchen while Lancelot and I were doing the last few dinner orders and said we were leaving.”
“Morgana, do you know what happened?” Merlin asks.
“I--” She looks between all of them and predictably enough settles on looking at Gwen. “Should I be worried? None of you is pleased with me right now.”
“We haven’t dragged you here to kill you and leave you to fertilize the potato beds,” says Arthur.
“I doubt you’re organically certified,” Merlin adds, and everyone else glares at the two of them for derailing the conversation. “Sorry. But do you have any idea what happened?”
“I was talking with Aredian, and I felt a little odd, that’s all.” She raises her chin, daring any of them to contradict her.
“And then his car blew up,” Arthur contributes.
Gwen and Gwaine blink in unison, but Morgana’s gone pale, so Merlin’s pretty sure she understands what might be going on. “But I didn’t--I couldn’t--”
It’s rare but not unheard of for people to discover they have magic when they’re older, especially when their talents aren’t quite as flashy as Merlin’s can be. Morgana’s always been quick to guess what other people are thinking or telling when something’s going to go wrong, but she doesn’t seem prone to blowing things up. Other than Aredian’s car, and Merlin really can’t blame her there. “You probably did,” he says as gently as he can. “It seems you’ve got magic.”
It’s surprisingly easy to convince Morgana. She’s shaken, and worried, but Merlin knows how it feels to suddenly have everything odd about your life explained. Gwen takes it well, too. “I always knew there was something different about her,” she says quietly when Merlin checks to make sure she’s okay. “This is--this is weird, especially knowing you and Gaius, but … it makes sense.”
Gwaine, though, is unusually quiet through the explanations and the demonstrations, and he excuses himself before Merlin can take him aside and apologize for springing it on him. When he goes upstairs, he goes in the direction of Freya’s room and not his own, and Merlin spares a second to hope that doesn’t go horribly awry.
“So what’s this got to do with Aredian?” Morgana asks finally into the awkward silence that follows Gwaine’s departure.
Gaius is the one who answers. “He can sense magic, and he likes to hurt those with it. He probably knew about yours before you knew about it. It’s why he’s stayed in Albion so long, most likely.” He pauses. “And it’s likely he’s reporting to Morgause.”
Morgana freezes. “What do you mean?”
“She’s got magic too. Freya told us. She and some others at Avalon, they use it to do some pretty awful things in business, and they sort of … convince reluctant people to join them. They’ve found a relatively large group of us, here, which is probably why Aredian’s stayed so long.” Merlin wonders how much of Freya’s story to betray. “They aren’t always nice about it,” he settles on at last, and Arthur gives him a sharp look and shifts closer to him.
Now Morgana looks really shaken, and Gwen’s mouth is pressed tightly closed again, but she doesn’t pull away when Morgana puts a hand over hers on the table. “Surely Morgause wouldn’t--we’re friends,” she says at last. “She never asked me anything about Albion or Camelot.”
“I’m sorry,” says Merlin, and shrugs helplessly. Arthur puts a hand on his shoulder and Merlin leans into the touch as much as he dares. “It’s not just Camelot, though. I mean, sure, she’d love to shut it down, and that was what the mouse and Val were there for, but then Val got word to her somehow about the magic, I’m guessing, and now she wants … us.” Arthur’s grip tightens, and Merlin gives his best reassuring look while he waits for someone else to say something.
“So if she means to do this to us,” Morgana says at last in a flat tone, and Gwen turns her hand over to squeeze her fingers, “then what do we do about it?”
Gaius opens his mouth to say something, probably about being prudent, but Arthur beats him to it. “We call Gwaine and Freya back downstairs. All of us have to be in on this.”
“And then?” says Gwen.
“And then we come up with a plan,” says Arthur, and smiles.
The plan, after scrapping back and forth (mostly between Morgana and Arthur), turns out to be researching records to get Aredian, Morgause, and anyone working with them arrested, and it doesn’t work well. Gaius and Freya go to the local records office, and Morgana gets on the internet, but none of them turn anything up at all. On top of that, Gwaine and Gwen between them manage to spill to whole business to Lancelot because apparently neither of them can keep a secret, and Merlin is feeling increasingly like the whole of Albion is going to know about magic and the Avalon problem before it’s solved.
Of course, all of that is minor setbacks compared to the fact that Aredian walks into Camelot while Merlin is in the midst of having a shouting row with a box of cereal. “Seriously, you’ve got to give me specifics if you expect me to save the day heroically!” he yells, and someone coughs behind him.
It is not, he discovers a horrified moment later, Arthur, who is standing at the till with his mouth open. Merlin managed to spill the whole business about the dragons to the group after muttering about destiny one time too many, so he didn’t ask Merlin too many questions when Merlin entered his shop and immediately started interrogating his inventory. Instead, there’s Aredian with a supercilious smile on his face. “Young man, are you quite all right?”
“I’m … practicing lines. Albion’s trying to get a bit of community theater going. And I’m practicing for my audition. But Arthur won’t practice with me. So I’m practicing with … this …”
“Cartoon dragon, yes,” says Aredian.
“Our Merlin’s a bit odd,” says Arthur, aiming for jovial and landing somewhere around panicked.
Aredian just smiles, thin and pleased. “Gentlemen, we’re alone, and perhaps it’s time to lay all of our cards on the table.”
Merlin shifts around, trying to get himself between Arthur and Aredian. He’s somewhat hampered by the fact that Arthur seems to have the same idea, coming out from behind the counter. “Cards? What cards?” says Merlin, edging away from the cereal aisle, since the dragons don’t seem to feel like being helpful. “This is a card-free establishment.”
Arthur sighs. “Merlin, you are not helping.”
“I will not find an error here,” says Aredian like they haven’t even said anything. He turns while Merlin skirts around him, but seems more amused by the protective effort than anything else. “It would be better if I did. Dealing with me is far preferable to dealing with Morgause.”
“We don’t respond to intimidation around here, thanks,” says Arthur.
“She knows how much magic there is in this town,” Aredian announces casually, and Merlin manages to get between them, although Arthur immediately grabs Merlin’s arm and shoves him to the side until they’re standing next to each other. “If you’d allow yourself to be shut down just temporarily, I’m sure she’d be less likely to … make her interest known.”
Merlin snorts, and winces when Arthur elbows him for it. “I’m not really inclined to believe you there.”
“Believe it or don’t, but you won’t like the consequences if you continue to be stubborn.”
“He sounds like a panto villain,” says Merlin in a stage whisper, because he’ll feel far less guilty for making Aredian cough frogs if he’s actually attacked first.
“You will agree to being cited for a hidden vermin infestation and close Camelot while it’s fixed. You will not reopen until after Avalon has opened its doors next month. If you don’t agree to these terms, I will be forced to tell Morgause you were uncooperative.”
Merlin takes a second to think that Gaius will be disappointed, and Freya and Morgana will both be upset that he didn’t let them help, but he really doesn’t have the patience to deal with Aredian’s threats and general being an arse. “I could kill you and make it look like a heart attack, you know,” he says conversationally, even though he would never actually do it. Arthur’s alarmed look isn’t comforting, though.
“Morgause would see to it that you were prosecuted,” Aredian says coolly.
“She’s using you just like she wants to use Mer--my friends,” says Arthur, shouldering Merlin behind him again. “Or do you just enjoy ruining people’s lives so much that you don’t care?”
Aredian opens his mouth, but Merlin’s a bit sick of him being all condescending and threatening and it’s the quiet time of day so he doubts anyone will come in and see anything untoward happening. “You are a toad,” Merlin says with intent, and Aredian’s eyes widen before his clothes collapse into a pile.
“Did you--Merlin, did you just--?” Arthur’s voice is high, and he seems disinclined to move.
Merlin grins at him, and hopes that Arthur won’t run for the hills now that he’s seen actual magic without being strangled by a garden hose first. “Arthur? I’m afraid Camelot’s got a bit of a vermin problem.”
Once they’re finished celebrating with Gaius’s lethal cider and Freya has burst into tears all over Merlin and Morgana has complained that she got left out of the action and Arthur has stopped looking at Merlin like he’s going to go mad any moment and Gwaine has finished taking pictures of Aredian with a bowtie on, they mail him to Morgause.
In retrospect, it was not one of their better plans.
The first sign that something is amiss comes the next time Merlin comes into Camelot. Lance is at the counter chatting with Arthur (though he stops to stare a bit at Merlin, which he’s been doing ever since he had the magic explained to him), so he waves at both of them and goes about his shopping. A can of cocoa flags him down. “This is not the end,” the stylized dragon on it tells him. “It is the beginning.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he hisses, glancing around. Nobody’s about other than Arthur and Lance, and they both know about him talking to dragons, but it’s always good to check.
“It will not be so easy to defeat the witch, especially now that you’ve angered her.”
“So how should we do it? I mean, I don’t want to murder her.”
“Young warlock, that is for you and the young Pendragon to decide. For your paths, as you have surely now discovered, have always been meant to twine …” The dragon sounds as if it’s enjoying itself far too much, and Merlin feels his ears turn red.
“Specifics. Specifics are good.”
“The specifics are not for polite company, young warlock.”
“Not that kind of specifics!” Merlin yells, and the quiet conversation at the register stops. He buries his face in his hands and quietly wishes for death.
“Merlin?” says Arthur a few seconds later. “What did the dragon just say to you?”
“It’s not being helpful,” he tells his hands. “And it has some really interesting ideas about you and me. No, I won’t elaborate.”
If he were up to looking at them, he suspects he would find Arthur and Lancelot eyebrow-telegraphing at near-light speed. Lance is the first one to break the silence. “Well, Gwen wants to try out something new for dinner tonight, so I’d better get back to The Castle. I’ll talk to you later, Arthur, Merlin. Morgana says to tell you she wants to talk to you about everything, by the way.”
“We’ll talk to her,” says Merlin, and manages a wave over his shoulder before the shop bell rings and silence descends again. It takes almost a full minute before Arthur huffs out a sigh and walks over to him. “Why couldn’t I have a useful dragon talk to me?” he asks, finally looking up.
Arthur is giving him an intense look that easily turns into a moment, and Merlin only breaks it because he can almost feel the dragon radiating smugness in his direction. “Could you--is there some sort of spell that would let me hear it as well?” Arthur asks when Merlin looks down.
Merlin blinks at him. “None that I know. But I can improvise a lot better than most other magicians I know, so I can try.” He closes his eyes, grabs Arthur’s hand, and waits until Arthur relaxes to wrap their fingers together and whisper a few words. And then a few more when the first set doesn’t work. “Dragon? Can you talk to Arthur?” he says after a third set finally feels right.
“Ah, young Pendragon. I have hoped that the warlock would allow us to speak.” Merlin opens his eyes when Arthur jumps and grips his hand so hard it hurts. “For he cannot save Camelot alone, and neither can you. You are two halves of the same whole.”
Arthur turns and gives Merlin an incredulous look and then turns back. “Like, soul mates?”
“If you will. It only matters that your destinies are entwined.” Merlin’s pretty sure that if this drawing had eyelids it would wink at them. Arthur’s expression means the dragon’s tone hasn’t got past him, but he doesn’t remove his hand from Merlin’s. “Once you have defeated the witch and removed the threat of Avalon from your horizons, you can fulfill your destiny.”
“Really, son of Uther, I thought I’d made that quite obvious.”
Merlin wrenches his hand out of Arthur’s. “Well,” he says as brightly as he can manage. “You two catch up on things, I’m just going to run up to The Castle.”
“You haven’t finished your shopping,” Arthur points out, smile going just a bit predatory. Merlin swallows. “I’d hate to chase you out.”
“I’m not chased. I just figure you two might want to chat about this without me around. Or something.” He knows he’s turning a horrible shade of magenta, and Arthur seems torn between smirking and looking worried. “I’ll stop by again on my way out of town,” he promises, and flees.
The Castle, because that’s the way his luck goes, is in an uproar when Merlin arrives. Lancelot is looking terrified and Morgana is in the midst of a rant that mostly consists of “how dare she?”, so Merlin goes to Gwen the second he gets in the kitchen. “What’s happened? Is it Morgause? Or has Katrina’s meat supply come rotten again? You need a new source there.”
“It’s Morgause,” says Gwen, glaring at the sauce she’s making like it’s personally offended her. “Called Morgana shrieking about betrayal and promising revenge.”
“Any specific sort of revenge?” he asks, hoping she’s told Morgana if she intends to storm into Albion today or something. Morgause, from what they’ve picked up on Gaius’s grapevine, is powerful enough to make Merlin very nervous.
“I doubt she would tell us, unless she wanted us to do something,” says Morgana, interrupting her rant. “But whatever she’s doing, she’ll have to do it soon, before Avalon opens up. We need to call everyone.”
“I’ll call Arthur,” Merlin says without thinking, and turns red again when all three of them pause to look at him. “Shut up. The other three are just at the house today, except for trips out to the field. We can call them on the way.”
“The pair of you, honestly,” Gwen murmurs, turning the heat down on her sauce. “If this mess with Morgause isn’t fixed soon, Morgana, we’re going to need another chef.”
Lancelot shakes his head. “I’ll take care of the kitchen tonight, and as much as you need me to. I don’t think I’ll be much help in these meetings.”
“I’m not either, to be honest,” says Gwen with a half-smile.
Morgana stops pacing and fixes her girlfriend with an intense look that reminds Merlin uncomfortably of Arthur. “You are a great deal of help. I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for you.” Gwen smiles at her properly, the first of her old sunny smiles he’s seen directed at Morgana since they started fighting.
Merlin decides that’s a private moment and turns away to call Arthur. He picks up on the second ring. “Well, Merlin, your dragon and I have been having a very interesting conversation,” he says.
Merlin is only too glad to have an excuse to change the subject. “We need you at The Castle. Morgause called Morgana.”
“Shit. Is she okay? Are you okay? I can’t exactly leave the store unless one of you tells my father I’m ill, and then he’ll insist I go see Alice because I’ve kept the store open when I had the flu.”
“You really need someone else to take a shift once in a while,” Merlin informs him. Arthur just sighs across the line. “I’m fine. Morgana’s not quite as fine, but Gwen is taking care of her.”
“I’ll come out to the farm after closing tonight, okay? Call me if Morgause shows up or calls again or anything and I’ll figure something out with my father.” There’s a moment (which Merlin suspects would be a moment if they could actually see each other) where neither of them hangs up the phone. “We will be talking about some of the things the dragon said, Merlin,” Arthur adds at last.
Merlin swallows. “Yeah, okay. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Yes, you will,” says Arthur, and hangs up before things can get even more awkward.
When Merlin turns around, Gwen and Morgana are hugging, but Gwen is also winking at Merlin over her girlfriend’s shoulder. He clears his throat. “He can’t come just yet, but he says he will when the store’s closed. We should probably get out to the farm, though. Just in case.”
“Will it make much difference?” Gwen gives her sauce a sideways glance. “If we’re there or here? Because I’ve been missing a lot of work …”
He thinks about it for a minute. On one hand, it feels like the news that there’s a crazy CEO/sorceress out to get them should cause them to have meetings and make plans and possibly figure out to defeat her without killing her. On the other, chances are Morgause won’t come for them right this instant, and he’s been falling behind on work at the farm anyway. “I guess not,” he says at last, because for some reason they’re all thinking about it. “If she really wants to find us, she’ll find us. And it might be best if we’re not all in the same place when she does, anyway.” Morgana’s face goes tight, and he winces in apology.
“We can call each other frequently,” Lance contributes. “And make sure that we’re not alone as much as possible.”
“Right,” says Morgana, and straightens up, although she leaves an arm around Gwen’s waist. “I’ve got a meeting with Uther that I’ve been putting off, in that case, about whether we ought to make a deal with Percival and his hiking business.” She gives Gwen a peck on the cheek that would be hesitant if she weren’t Morgana. “Talk to you later, love. And you, Merlin. We really do need to chat about magic in general soon.”
He waves in acknowledgment as she breezes out, then turns to Lancelot. “Does she ever stop being terrifying?”
“No,” says Gwen, sounding more cheerful than she has in weeks despite the fact that they have an evil sorceress to defeat. “Not even when you’re sleeping with her.”
“Well, it’s not like that option was available to us anyway,” Lancelot points out. “Merlin, do you want to stick around and wash some dishes or wait tables or something? Tonight’s duck is bound to be delicious.”
“I’d love to, but meeting or not, I’ve been spending too little time at the farm lately. Gwaine and Freya help a great deal, but I still want to be there.” He grimaces. “And Gaius actually sent me to town to do a bit of shopping, in the first place, so I’ve got to go back to Camelot.”
Gwen smiles, wide and bright, and Lancelot gives him an assessing look that makes Merlin want to squirm. At least Morgana’s gone, he’d hate to see her reaction. “Go on, then,” says Gwen after the silence gets uncomfortable. “I’ll save you a serving and you can have it for lunch tomorrow.”
“You’re an angel, and you’re getting extra beets,” says Merlin, and gives them his best grin.
Five minutes later, he walks back into Camelot and Arthur blinks at him from where he’s having an intense, low-voiced conversation with a box of cereal. “You’re back. Is something the matter?”
“We decided maybe we didn’t need a meeting after all. And I still have my shopping to do.” Merlin digs the list Gaius gave him out of his pocket and waves it around a bit in explanation. “I sort of ran out without doing it earlier.”
Arthur takes a few steps towards him; the dragon remains conspicuously silent. “Merlin, if you--we don’t have to, if it’s just because my groceries are telling us we’re soul mates, but if you’d like to--”
The shop bell gives its little tinkly greeting, and Merlin, dazed, spins around to see who’s interrupting and if he can justifiably tell them to sod off, because he has a sort of urgent need to snog Arthur right now. Instead, he finds himself staring at Morgause, terrifying in a business suit and a great deal of eyeliner, followed by a smirking man with shaggy dark hair. She waves a hand casually and the lock on the door clicks home. “Well,” she says mildly, smiling. “Just the two people I most wanted to see. I wouldn’t try the phone if I were you, Mr. Pendragon. It won’t work.”
Arthur starts forward, and Merlin holds out his hand, never looking away from Morgause. He’s always been rubbish at telling who has magic (case in point: Morgana), but she practically reeks of power, and he doesn’t want to chance Arthur with her. Plus, he’s supposed to stay in frequent contact with the others. If they can keep Morgause talking long enough, things might just be okay. However, he has no way of reminding Arthur of that, and Arthur seems inclined to do something dangerous.
Dragon, he thinks furiously, now would be a good time to make yourself useful and pass a message on, if Morgause can’t hear you.
“Now is not the time to act rashly, young Pendragon,” says the dragon, right on cue, and Morgause doesn’t even blink, just keeps smiling at them, so Merlin figures that at least is useful.
“Look,” says Merlin, as conciliatory as he can manage, “perhaps it wasn’t fair of me to turn Aredian into a toad. I apologize for that. But isn’t this a bit of a bad idea? Do you plan to kill us or something?”
“Of course I don’t plan to kill you, Merlin. What would be the use in that?”
Arthur steps forward until Merlin can almost feel his body heat. “So what do you plan to do?”
“We just want to have a reasonable chat,” says her thug. “That’s all. I’m Cenred, and I’ll be staying in the area to oversee the Mercia store, so we really all ought to be friendly.”
Merlin doesn’t dare turn round, but he can tell that Arthur is crossing his arms and leveling his most unimpressed look at the intruders. “I imagine that your version of friendly is telling me to back off so you won’t have to deal with competition. Are you afraid we’d win?”
“Arthur,” Merlin whispers. “This is an epic battle, not a pissing contest.”
“We can work together. Merlin, you have power. Avalon is always more than willing to employ bright young things like you.” He thinks that’s rich, coming from a woman perhaps five years his senior, but he makes a point of not mentioning it. “We do far more than just sell groceries or grow vegetables. You could learn a great deal.” Her gaze flicks to Arthur. “Of course, Mr. Pendragon, you can keep your shop, though I would recommend working with us rather than against us. Aredian is not the worst I could send you.”
“This is all highly illegal, you know,” Arthur points out, finally impatient enough to try to shove Merlin to the side. Merlin refuses to go. “Merlin, for pity’s sake, you may be bloody Harry Potter but that doesn’t mean you’re immortal.”
Morgause raises her eyebrows. Merlin thinks he might like her more if she didn’t just stand there and look patient and reasonable while her thug smirks at them. “This is what you put up with around here, Merlin? Aredian said you were the most powerful warlock he’s run across in years, and you’re taking orders from a grocer? And Gaius?” She smiles, a bit pitying. “It’s as if you want to be a farmer forever.”
Merlin considers that for a few seconds, distracted enough to let Arthur manhandle him so they’re at least standing next to each other again, and thinks about being a kid, telling Will and his mother how he wanted to use magic to go into space and rescue damsels. Arthur gives him a look that he will undoubtedly pretend later wasn’t anxious and shifts his grip on the broom he somehow managed to pick up, and Merlin decides he doesn’t need to rescue damsels to be good. “Actually, I quite like being a farmer.”
Gaius will notice how long he’s been gone soon, and call him. Or Gwen will call Gaius and ask if he’s there yet, or Uther will call Arthur. They only have to keep Morgause here a bit longer and then they’ll … do something. That might be a flaw in his otherwise flawless plan.
“You can’t be serious,” says Cenred, and gives a pointed look around Camelot. “You actually want to stay here?”
“Right, that’s enough,” snaps Arthur, and lunges with his broom--in Cenred’s direction, luckily. Cenred doesn’t have magic of his own, from what they’ve found out, so at least Arthur is unlikely to get set on fire from that direction.
“End it!” shouts the dragon.
“Yes, all right, I’m trying,” Merlin says, and starts magically pelting Morgause with whatever products are on the shelves. She fends most of them off as easily as swatting flies and sends a bolt of pure energy his way. Merlin responds in kind, keeping one eye on Arthur and Cenred who have resorted to fisticuffs (the broom is in splinters on the floor, which might have been the fault of a flying jar of pickles, considering the amount of broken glass and brine on the floor).
It doesn’t take long for Morgause to figure out that hurting Arthur is going to hurt Merlin, and that he’s far less able to defend himself from her magic. Arthur yells and accidentally knees Cenred in the crotch when she turns at the last second and throws a bolt at him instead of Merlin, but miraculously dodges the worst of it. Morgause gets ready to send another, and Merlin loses his temper.
One of the first things Gaius taught Merlin was meditation, because half the reason Merlin went to him in the first place was because he had a bit of a tendency to make things explode when people pissed him off. This time, he blasts Morgause off her feet with a jet of flame that he stops before it melts anything in Arthur’s shop. Her suit smolders and she looks shaken for the first time, but she shouts a few words and Arthur starts clawing at his throat like he’s being choked.
“That is outside of enough,” says Merlin, and the dragon is shouting at him but he doesn’t particularly care, and he calls a length of hose out and ties Cenred up with it so there’s one less thing to worry about, which distracts Morgause just enough to let Arthur breathe, and then calls up so much energy he’s almost blind with it and lets it loose.
Morgause shrieks, and sends something back at him, knocking him off his feet and back into a wall, where he hits his head. Arthur yells something and then there’s a dull thunk, and Merlin pries his eyes open in time to see three or four Morgauses crumple to the ground while three or four Arthurs brandish the remainder of the broom handle above her. A few seconds later, when she shows no signs of moving, Arthur sprints across the store and drops to his knees next to Merlin, wincing. “Shit, Merlin, are you okay? What the hell was that? How many fingers am I holding up?”
Considering both of his hands are on Merlin’s shoulders, Merlin decides that’s a trick question. “You have to hold fingers up first, Arthur,” he says patiently. “Do you think maybe you could call 999?”
“Right, right,” says Arthur, sounding more than a bit panicked, and levers himself to his feet again. “Just stay awake, yeah? You’ve probably got a concussion, and--”
“Mmm,” says Merlin agreeably, and passes out to the sound of the glass door breaking and Officer Leon and their friends bursting through it.
They don’t get around to celebrating till the next night. First they have to explain everything to Officer Leon, and then several other police officers, and by “explain everything” Merlin of course means “lie through their teeth.” Merlin, through his concussion, sitting in Alice’s examination room with a blanket around his shoulders in case he’s in shock, puts on his most guileless expression and explains that Morgause and Cenred came in and started threatening them and then attacked them. No, he doesn’t know why it looks like Morgause got set on fire. Yes, it’s very amazing that Arthur managed to incapacitate Cenred long enough to tie him up that tight. He doesn’t quite remember how he got concussed, but he’s quite sure Morgause was the one who did it.
Morgause and Cenred both try to claim that they were the ones being attacked, but no one seems inclined to listen to them and an out-of-town police officer takes Arthur aside and actually thanks him, as apparently they’ve been looking for an excuse to investigate them for ages. (Merlin doesn’t find that bit out for a few days, since he’s busy being scolded by Alice and Gaius at the time, in between fighting down nausea and trying to work out how many of each person is around.)
Morgana, it turns out, is the one who realized that something was wrong, and the one who insisted that Officer Leon come to Camelot with them. She claims, when Uther and the police ask, that it was because Arthur was meant to call her when Merlin got to Camelot because she’d forgotten to tell him something. With the rest of them, she smirks and beams at Gwen because apparently they’ve worked things out properly at last.
They all end up out at the farm the next night. Merlin, on strict orders to do nothing strenuous, lays with his head on Arthur’s lap on the porch while everyone else gets giddy with success and cider. Gaius and Alice are giggling on the other side of the porch, Lance sitting near and expounding about how he wants to go to France next summer and do another cooking apprenticeship. Gwen and Morgana drift between groups, never letting go of each other’s hands and smiling at each other more than they manage to chat with anyone else. Gwaine grabs Freya’s hand and drags her out for a drunken approximation of a jig, and Freya actually laughs and dances along with him and conjures a daisy to hand to him when it’s over.
Arthur just sits and strokes his hand gingerly through Merlin’s hair. “My father,” he says at last, “is thinking of hiring Elena on part-time at the store. You know, Godwyn’s daughter? Says I’m working too much.”
“You do work too much,” says Merlin, comfortable and half-ready to drop off to sleep.
“Well, it looks as if I’ll have a bit more free time on my hands. So if sometime you’d like to go to a restaurant that isn’t The Castle, I would definitely be more than willing.”
Merlin smiles up at him. “Arthur, are you asking me on a date? You’re my destiny, you know. Other side of my coin. It’s sort of a forgone conclusion.”
Arthur scowls back. “No, actually, it’s not. I want you to go out with me because you want to, not because some barmy dragon on a can of peas told you it was meant to be.”
If he were feeling a bit less content, Merlin might think about smacking Arthur, who’s honestly got to be the thickest person he knows sometimes. And he knows Will. But he is content, and generous with it, and Morgana’s here to make sure Arthur’s ego doesn’t swell all the way to Neptune, so he feels okay with smiling and snuggling a bit closer and saying “I want to. Have wanted to. Honestly.”
Arthur attempts to turn a beam into a smirk and fails miserably. “Thought so.”
“But you love me.”
Merlin ponders that. “If I agree, will you blame it on the concussion and let me pretend that I don’t remember it in the morning?”
Arthur just catches his eye and smiles, fond, and Merlin lets it turn into a moment and lets that stretch out while Gaius talks about visiting Marseilles and Morgana says something low and tucks Gwen’s hair behind her ear and Gwaine calls Freya “fair lady” and she giggles and yeah, okay, maybe everything the dragon says isn’t total bollocks after all.