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Written in the Stars of Your Eyes

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“And to the Fool's eyes it is as if the Magician has created the future with a word. All the possibilities are laid out, all the directions he can take. The cool, airy Sword of intellect and communication, the fiery Wand of spirituality and ambition, the overflowing Chalice of Love and emotions, the solid Pentacle of work, possessions and body.

With these tools, the Fool can create anything, make anything of his life. But here's the question, did the Magician create the tools, or were they already in the pack? Only the Magician knows--and on this mystery, our eloquent mage refuses to say a word.”

- The Fool’s Journey

***

Come to the quaint little town of Ealdor!’ the brightly colored brochure had exclaimed over photos that were obviously (and poorly) edited, ‘Where dragons still live by the sea!

He didn’t know about dragons, but as far as Arthur was concerned, good taste had lived but died there a long time ago, and was possibly now starting to rot. It was easy to see as soon as he arrived, bombarded by billboards and signs plastered with various art fitting in with the dragon motif. If it was physically possible, the “quaint little town of Ealdor” would ooze pure kitsch through its garishly painted buildings and streets.

But while Arthur found the area completely unappealing, he could understand why his father had sent him there on reconnaissance; while it was obviously a huge tourist trap, it was one with potential that should be snapped up before anyone else had the chance.

Under the pretense of vacation, Arthur was visiting instead of his father; for if Uther had shown up himself, no doubt the rumor mill would start churning on the possibility of the multi-billion hotel tycoon opening one of his renowned Pendragon Suites in Ealdor. And while the discussion of expanding the chain was already in the works, the last thing the company needed was word to get out to their competitors about their interest.

Because Arthur’s presence alone could have possibly raised some suspicions as well, he had assumed an alias while signing into the bed and breakfast he was currently staying at (“The Dragon’s Call”… Was everything in the town required to have some sort of dragon theme?) as well as wear dark sunglasses and hooded sweatshirt while he walked about in public.

“You look like the Unabomber,” Gwaine drawled as they left the inn early to go out and explore. Arthur had figured the faster they check out the sights and sounds Ealdor had to offer, the sooner he could send his report to Uther and get the hell out of there.

“I do not!” Arthur snapped, although secretly he wasn‘t so sure. “What part of ‘I have to be undercover’ don’t you understand?”

Gwaine rolled his eyes as he crossed his arms behind his head, stretching out any remaining sleep from his body as they walked. “Right, you don’t look shady at all. First store we go into, they’re probably going to think you’re there to rob the place.”

“…No offense, Arthur, but he might have a point,” Lance piped up in agreement, shooting a sympathetic look at both of his friends as he continued, “You are bound to be noticed, especially dressed like that.”

About to argue some more, Arthur suddenly caught his reflection in a nearby store window and winced; he did indeed stick out like a sore thumb. Sighing in exasperation, he tugged the sweatshirt off, thankful he didn’t need it after all, especially in the growing heat of the morning sun. “That’s just great, then. We’re here to work, and we’re going to blow our cover the very first day.”

“You might be here to work, but I’m planning on enjoying myself.” Gwaine chuckled, his gaze following the path of some female joggers that ran by them. “Probably wouldn’t hurt for you to let off some of that steam of yours while you’re here as well.”

Gritting his teeth, Arthur glared at Gwaine’s very obvious leering; last thing he needed was his friend to get caught up in chasing after a new bed companion. “I’m fine. And if you’re not here to work, why are you here then?”

“To help your precious ‘cover’, of course,” Gwaine replied cheekily, slapping a hand against Arthur’s back. “Nothing is sadder than some poor sap on vacation by himself.”

“There’s nothing that says we can’t work and enjoy ourselves, is there?” Lance interrupted, always determined to be the voice of reason between the three of them. “After all, isn’t that kind of what your father wants, Arthur? For us to discover if the attractions would draw enough crowd for…his ‘business proposition’ to be viable?”

Grateful that Lance had enough sense not to mention anything about a hotel in public, Arthur ran fingers through his blond hair, belatedly wondering if he should have invested in a wig. Maybe he could find a hat at one of the souvenir stores that didn’t scream "tacky", but he wasn’t holding his breath. “I suppose so, though I doubt we will be able to find anything here that we’ll consider entertaining.”

Snorting loudly as he shook his head, Gwaine perused the clothing rack outside one of the shops. “Are you kidding me? We’re getting paid to be at the beach, to sample the local food and shops, and maybe sample some of the locals themselves.” He winked before he pulled up a light blue shirt that had been screen printed with the words, “Quit dragon your feet!”, complete with horrendous clipart of a dragon in running gear. “You should get this one, it matches your eyes.”

“Shut up, Gwaine,” Arthur growled, shuddering slightly at the mere thought of wearing the abomination to fashion being held in Gwaine’s hands. “You won’t be paid at all if you keep wasting time like this.”

“Seriously, Arthur, you need to get laid; holding all that tension inside you can’t be healthy.” Gwaine clicked his tongue in mock concern. “If you don’t want us to go shopping while we’re here, what do you want us to do, oh fearless leader?”

Honestly, Arthur didn’t really know. It wasn’t like him to be completely unprepared when it came to dealing with company matters, but his dislike of the current area he was scouting was unusually prevalent over completing his work in a satisfactory manner. If Uther ever found out how poorly Arthur was handling the situation at the moment, he would probably chalk it up as another case of his son continuously disappointing him.

Lancelot sensed Arthur’s hesitation and cleared his throat. “Perhaps we can get something to eat and discuss a plan over breakfast? Maybe we can ask fellow tourists and get a survey of the most popular attractions and decide from there.”

God, Arthur knew there was a reason he kept Lance around; Gwaine, he wasn’t so sure most of the time. “Good idea. Let’s just hope we can find some place whose idea of fine cuisine doesn’t involve frying things in ten-year-old kitchen grease.”

“It adds flavor,” Gwaine quipped, shooting a grin in Arthur’s direction. “Not all of us have your delicate appetite. Besides, you can hardly talk when I’ve seen you drink that disgusting protein shake with grass clippings and who knows what else in it for breakfast.”

“It’s wheatgrass, not ‘grass clippings’. There is a difference, Gwaine,” Arthur argued, a bit miffed that his normal morning routine was being mocked. “And I drink it because it’s healthy. Some people don’t want to have arteries clogged with bacon fat, or liver failure before they turn forty because of too much drinking.”

Instead of feeling insulted by the description of his eating habits, Gwaine threw his head back and laughed heartily. He then paused, something seemingly catching his attention, and there was a gleam in his eye as he gestured to a nearby building. “If you’re so worried about your future health that you’re willing to ingest what’s basically liquid fertilizer, why don’t we find out if it even matters in the long run?"

All Arthur could do was gape in disbelief. “You’re joking.”

Perhaps Arthur had to give the shop kudos for being one of the only ones in the town to not have a dragon related name (though he was curious what the hell “Kilgharrah’s Keep” was supposed to mean), but it lost points for one glaring reason, specifically the neon sign in the window. “A psychic? Absolutely not. I’m not paying for some old lady pretending to be some sort of gypsy to give me a cracked out horoscope I could read for free in the newspaper.”

“Come on, just real quick, since we’re right here. You can ask if you should get boring egg whites on wheat toast, or be daring and actually order something with sausage.” Gwaine grabbed the door‘s handle, propping it open as he turned to look back. “Are you two coming or not?”

Obviously torn between what to do, Lance smiled sheepishly as he admitted, “I wouldn’t mind checking it out myself.”

At first Arthur was surprised, considering he could usually count on Lance to be on his side. But then he remembered that, while Lance was usually a level-headed and logical man, he was also one of the most superstitious people Arthur knew. As long as they had known each other, Lance always carried a rabbit’s foot with him, and was actually late to a first date once, just because he had trouble finding his lucky socks.

(Of course, when he and Gwen ended up hitting it off anyways, despite his lateness, it just reinforced the idea that the socks were indeed lucky.)

While he could deny Gwaine easily, Lance was another story, and it was apparent that Arthur had been outvoted on the matter. “Fine, we’re not staying long, and when it turns out what she says is complete crap, I get to say I told you so.”

As soon as Arthur walked inside, his nostrils were accosted by the rich aroma of burning incense. But while he was used to the patchouli his sister Morgana used to burn when she was in what he liked to call her “hippie phase”, this scent was actually half-way decent, a mixture of something earthy and spicy at the same time. Music comprised of bells and chanting floated through the air from carefully hidden speakers, and the walls were plastered with posters discussing different subjects such as “Finding One’s Inner Peace” and “When Your Stars Align”. It was exactly as cliché as he expected a psychic’s shop to be.

It was also completely empty.

“…They are open, right?” Gwaine was the first to ask, glancing back to make sure he had read the sign on the door correctly. It wouldn’t be the first time they had “accidentally” broken into a place, but Arthur really didn’t want to deal with explaining to their presence to the police.

A glimmer of hope rose in Arthur’s belly; maybe they didn’t have to go through with this completely ridiculous idea after all. “What kind of idiot leaves their store open and unattended--"

“The kind of idiot who was just in the other room.”

Jumping at the sudden voice, Arthur turned sharply, noticing a set of stairs off to the side with a sign that read, “EMPLOYEES ONLY” dangling from the rope hanging across the threshold. And at the top of the flight of steps stood an ethereal being, bathed in a golden glow.

It took Arthur a few seconds to realize it was sunlight filtering in from the window behind that gave the person an almost angelic look, and definitely not the man’s appearance itself. The man slowly went down a few steps, just confirming Arthur’s appraisal; sure, he had completely pale, alabaster skin (which seemed unusual for a resident of a beach-side town), striking high-profile cheekbones, and impossibly blue eyes that seemed to shine liquid gold for a brief moment. But he also had unruly dark hair that barely managed to cover the large ears that stuck out from the side of his head. Hardly the otherworldly creature that Arthur originally perceived, but most likely an employee of the shop.

“…Can I help you?” The man tilted his head to the side as he assessed all three of them quizzically, his gaze seemingly focusing mostly on Arthur in a way that unnerved him for some odd reason. It was almost as if the sensation that awoke in his body was on a spiritual level.

That was, of course, if Arthur actually believed in that sort of nonsense. Which he definitely didn’t.

“Do you know if the psychic is currently in?” It was only at the sound of Lance’s voice that broke Arthur from his reverie, making him realize they had all been gawking at the stranger in awkward silence for the past minute now. He didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse, and instead of dwelling on it, he just listened carefully to the man’s response.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure.” The man laughed softly, apparently delighted in some sort of private joke before he answered, “That would be me.”

“Definitely not some old lady pretending to be a gypsy, huh?” Gwaine whispered at Arthur’s side, straightening up instantly when the man laughed again.

“No, not a gypsy, though I can wear a headscarf if you really want me to get into the whole act.”

It was obvious by the shock on Lance and Gwaine’s faces (which were so amusing, Arthur wished he had a camera to capture the moment) that the man’s claim to be a psychic was authentic, but Arthur remained steadfast to his doubts. “Great, could you maybe come down and do…whatever you do for these two so we can hurry and get out of here?”

“You don’t need to be so impatient, Arthur,” the man lightly chided, exhaling with sigh before he nodded. “Just give me a moment and I’ll be right with you.”

As soon as the man retreated up the stairs, both Gwaine and Lance turned to Arthur, awe still registering in their expressions. “Oh my God, I was just kidding at first, but this might be the best idea I’ve ever had!” Gwaine proclaimed, trying to keep his voice down but still shooting a glance towards the ceiling. “Maybe even better than Senior Spring Break.”

“’Finding a random group of girls and trying to fit them all into the hotel’s hot tub’ was hardly a good idea, let alone your best. We were nearly arrested for that, remember?” Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose at the memory; it was just their luck that some of the girls had to be underage at the time. If they had initiated “Phase Two: Breast-ageddon” of Gwaine’s plan, they probably would’ve ended up in serious trouble. “And I fail to see how this is your best plan either. Do you really think this guy is psychic?”

“He knew your name, Arthur,” Lance countered, his voice the same hushed tone as Gwaine, but more out of reverence than anything else. “He knew who you were.”

“A lot of people know who I am,” Arthur curtly responded, stepping closer to idly examine one of the figurines on a nearby shelf. He was trying come off as nonchalant, as if the idea of a complete stranger knowing his name didn’t bother him as much as it really did. “I knew I should have kept the hoodie; he probably recognized me as soon as--”

“And don’t touch anything!”

At the sound of the man shouting from upstairs, Arthur jerked his hand back from the figurine he was about to pick up, unable to look Lance or Gwaine in the eyes as his cheeks burned with embarrassment.

Arthur decided he didn’t want to see the satisfaction in their faces anyway.

***

Gaius, Merlin lamented with a pained groan, was definitely going to kill him.

If his friend Will was there, he would probably laugh and tease Merlin, claiming that no one had ever died from being subjected to a raised eyebrow. But just because it hadn’t happened before didn’t mean it was impossible. And if anyone could commit homicide with just one withered look, it would definitely be Merlin’s uncle.

To be fair, Merlin knew his impending demise was completely his fault. Gaius had trusted him to watch over the shop while he ran his errands for the day, but as soon as the older man had left, Merlin had snuck back to his room upstairs, falling into the comfort of his bed once more.

The clock had read 2:04 the night before (or technically, earlier that morning) when he had finally put down his current dusty, ancient tome of choice, too absorbed in the study of arcane symbols and tongues of old to notice time passing. He was paying for it now, however; how Merlin managed not to yawn as Gaius had listed off tasks for the day, he could never tell.

As eager as he was to catch up on his sleep, Merlin had taken some precautions. True, he had left the shop open and unattended, but he wasn’t that concerned. For one, crime was hardly a problem in Ealdor, even if some of the older residents continuously griped about how the increasing number of tourists was bound to change that. Even if it was, there wasn’t anything in the shop that could be really worth stealing. The cash in the register, maybe, but in addition to a traditional security system, Merlin had also personally placed a protection spell on it, making it so only Gaius or himself could retrieve the money inside. He used to implement a back-up plan where, if a would-be thief did manage to gain access to the bills, they would probably be caught red-handed, literally. He had thought it was kind of a clever idea, until the enchantment backfired on him and he was forced to wear gloves for over a week, no amount of scrubbing making his hands any less than a dark shade of scarlet.

A barrier spell had also been cast around the perimeter, so if the ringing of the bell on the shop door didn’t alert him enough to the fact that he now had customers, the prickly sensation of his magic buzzing against his skin did, nipping in the bud any possibility of having a longer nap. Fighting back a grumble and instead forcing himself into “professional mode” (though really, who was so desperate to have a psychic reading on an early Sunday morning?), Merlin sleepily started to make his way down the stairs, prepared to rattle off his usual rehearsed spiel.

That was until his magic involuntarily rushed out of him, beating him in the race to the bottom of the steps to nip at the heels of the blond man standing there, as if it was an overeager puppy welcoming its master home.

Struggling inwardly to keep his composure (especially when the stranger referred to Merlin as an “idiot”), Merlin was completely mortified at his magic’s reaction to a man he had never met before. He was aware that his powers sometimes had a mind of its own, working with him one moment and against him the next, and he swore it had moods depending on different people. But usually a sickening display of affection like this had been reserved for family members and friends, and never had it been this strong-willed.

And yeah, maybe he should have kept his sarcasm in check when it came to customers (or at least Gaius insisted he should--many, many, many times), but Merlin was cranky and tired and confused as to why his magic seemed to be anxiously resisting as his tried to draw it back completely into his body, as if it was clinging to the blond man like he was its only lifeline. So he felt a bit hurt about that too.

Why his magic didn’t climb all over the other two men that were standing in puzzlement nearby (it just gave a cursory assessment of their character before humming in approval), Merlin didn’t know, and didn’t want to think about it, to be quite honest. While he was curious about the presence of all three of them, he found his focus was mostly on the one he was spiritually drawn to, as if his powers were involuntarily threading a bond between the two of them; his fingers twitched with the urge to swat at it, but he knew he would just come off as a little unhinged if he started flailing wildly at what appeared to the average person as just empty air.

It was understatement to say he was immensely relieved when the question about a psychic was finally posed, though Merlin couldn’t bite back the laughter at the thought. He knew he didn’t fit the usual stereotype, but it never failed to amuse him when people expected someone else. Like an “old lady pretending to be a gypsy”, apparently.

Also, while he was perfectly content in letting them believe he had heard the whispered comment because of some mystical reason, the simple truth was that Merlin was gifted with exceptional hearing. Will once joked that it was no wonder, considering the size of Merlin’s ears, but had quickly apologized when Merlin threatened to turn him into a toad. Will didn’t have to know that Merlin couldn’t really do that.

(Well, he probably could; it was just turning him back that would be the hard part.)

The blond man was once again being rude towards Merlin, just a little more subtly this time. It was obvious from his tone of voice that he was one of those people that had little to no respect for Merlin’s line of work. He could actually understand that, respect it even, considering the majority of psychics in the country were fakes that sullied the reputation of those with true gifts. But it didn’t mean Merlin had to like being judged before he even had a chance to prove himself.

It still bothered him why his magic seemed so attracted to the surly young man. Sure, the stranger had hair the color of sun-ripened wheat, bronzed skin stretched over firm, toned muscles, and steel blue eyes that seemed to glint like the edge of the blade. But while the physical aspect wasn’t half-bad (Merlin would’ve been blind not to notice), the personality part seemed to be completely lacking, and it made no sense why his magic would be so excited over someone’s appearance alone.

Great, Merlin mentally whined, my magic has a hard-on for an utter prat.

Arthur, a voice practically purred inside his head in response, his name is Arthur.

Whether he “accidentally” let Arthur’s name slip out of his mouth or not, Merlin was willing to use it to his advantage. Wishing he could revel in the look of shock on their faces (even if Arthur seemed to hide it surprisingly well), he scurried back upstairs, leaning against his door after closing it behind him. His head hit the wood with a low thunk as the events over the past few minutes swirled through his mind. Just what the hell was that all about?

Sighing, he released his grip on the handle as he quickly moved to change; if Gaius happened to come back to find him giving readings in his bedclothes, Merlin would definitely be a dead man, regardless of possible witnesses.

Shooting a jealous look at Aithusa, who had curled up in the still warm sheets as soon as he had left, Merlin asked softly, “So, what do you think I should do?”

“Meow,” was Aithusa’s only response, stretching languidly before hopping down and rubbing against Merlin’s legs. Picking up the kitten, Merlin chuckled as he nuzzled the feline, ignoring the white fur flying off everywhere. “As usual, you’re no help.”

The voices carrying from downstairs reminded him that he didn’t have time to dawdle, so Merlin reluctantly placed Aithusa down before dressing in brown corduroys and a blue polo shirt. Running his fingers sloppily through his hair, Merlin assessed his appearance in the mirror and wondered if he should throw on a headscarf after all.

Honestly, Merlin hadn’t really meant anything by it when he belatedly remembered to shout down at the group with instructions not to touch anything (Gaius was just really particular about people touching his things), but judging by the silence that followed, it seemed his timing was impeccable.

The thought that Arthur might have been the one reprimanded filled him a strange sense of glee, and a smile spread across his face as he made his way back downstairs to the group, Aithusa closely following his heels. “So, who’s going first?”

***

“How much longer is this going to take?”

Arthur easily commiserated with Gwaine on the length of Lance’s reading the first time it was mentioned. But after the subject had been brought up six times in the past fifteen minutes, Arthur was growing aggravated on top of impatient. “I don’t know, Gwaine.”

“I knew I should have gone first,” Gwaine continued with a groan, sprawled out over chairs in a position that didn’t look comfortable, yet seemed to work for him. “Lance is probably asking him to plan out every possible choice of his day.”

Gritting his teeth, Arthur silently prayed Gwaine’s assumptions weren’t correct. “You’re the one that wanted to come here, so you can’t complain.”

“You’ve been shooting my ideas down left and right this morning. Are you ever going to stop griping?”

“I am not--”

“Look,” Gwaine coolly interrupted, all his normal easygoing demeanor vanishing in an instant. “I know you don’t want to be on this trip, but I also know you’re trying to prove to your father that you won’t fuck up a deal this big. So you’re going to act differently and do stuff you don’t want to if you don’t want people to know the real reason you’re here; that means buying some souvenirs, go swimming at the beach, check out the scenery, and maybe put a damn smile on your face like you’re actually enjoying yourself.”

As much as he hated to admit it, Gwaine might actually have a valid point and Arthur had been just too blind to see it. “In other words, you’re saying I should put ‘my big boy pants on and shut up’?”

“You got it,” Gwaine cheekily gave Arthur a thumbs up. “And I knew I could get you to say that eventually.”

Arthur snorted. “It’s not really language I would normally use, especially in the board room. Can you imagine the heart attack my father would have if I ever told our shareholders to ’check themselves before they wreck themselves’?”

A snigger emerged from Gwaine’s lips. “Before or after he strangles you for ‘besmirching the family name’ yet again?”

“I’m pretty sure ‘before’, Gwaine. Not sure my father could do much after I’ve finally killed him by being a disappointment to him all these years.”

“I doubt Uther Pendragon would let a little thing like death stop him; he would probably rise from the grave if he thought his pride and joy was in danger.”

“Yeah…” Arthur replied somberly, knowing that “his pride and joy” referred to Uther’s company rather than his own flesh and blood. Over time, the pain of his desires being placed behind business had lessened, but it still stung to that very day.

And Gwaine had known Arthur long enough to realize this without being told, clapping a hand on Arthur’s back. “Hey, don’t think about it too much. You’re not in the board room now, and you still have time to do this job for your father. So you can relax and not worry about anything and everything for once… Except maybe what the cat is doing to your shoes.”

Of course, there was a cat in the shop, and it had just been Arthur’s luck that it was drawn to him like a magnet. He tried swatting it away from his Italian leather shoes for the umpteenth time, shooting a murderous glance in the kitten’s direction. The little hell beast just meowed before hopping up into Arthur’s lap, its claws digging deeply into his thighs.

This was the reason Arthur hated cats.

After what seemed like eons, the beaded curtain that separated the waiting room from the private one in the back was finally pushed aside, and Lance joined them once more, an indescribable expression on his face.

“Lance, do you need a cigarette? Because it looks like he totally just blew your mind,” Gwaine snickered, as if his crude joke made him the cleverest man in the world.

Ignoring Gwaine’s horrible sense of humor, Arthur studied Lance carefully, concern starting to well up inside him when his friend still didn’t speak. “…Well? What happened? What did he say?”

Lance blinked repeatedly as he broke out of his stupor, giving them a small smile, as if he had just noticed their presence. “He knew… He knew I was thinking about proposing to Gwen, and he said I should do it.”

Arthur huffed. “We’ve been telling you that for nearly a month now.”

“Not me,” Gwaine corrected, shaking his head. “I say it’s crazy to be stuck with someone for the rest of your life.”

“It’s not crazy, I love her. But…” Lance paused before admitting solemnly, “I was worried if I can ever make her happy enough. There’s far better men than myself out there.”

“God, quit being so damn noble! They might be out there, but you’re the one she’s with.” Gwaine rolled his eyes, muttering something about lovesick men before adding, “Even I know that you two are perfect for each other; you’re like her freaking knight in shining armor.”

“Did he say anything else?” Arthur interrupted, his irritation from earlier returning with a vengeance. Anyone with eyes could see Lance was smitten, and if the psychic had used that advantage to convince Lance of his abilities…

Something dark twisted inside his gut as Arthur’s imagination ran away from him freely. To pretend you were something weren’t was deplorable enough; to use a man’s emotions for monetary gain was simply unforgivable. He clenched his fists into tight balls, the urge to go and tell off the fraud rolling over him in angry waves.

“He did, but I can’t tell you right now.”

Jerking his head up, Arthur fixed Lance with a sharp, piercing gaze, and was shocked when Lance actually turned away. It just made Arthur’s curiosity grow even more--just what the hell had been said?

Not willing to drop the subject so easily, Gwaine probed for more. “Come on, you can‘t just say that and expect us not to ask about it. Was it true at least?”

Really, Gwaine should have known better; if anyone could keep a secret, it was Lance. “Why don’t you go in and find out?” he offered instead, gesturing back towards the room. “It’s your turn anyways.”

Shooting Lance a look that promised he would pester his friend for answers later, Gwaine then turned to salute them mockingly. “Be back soon. Maybe this guy can predict the next time I’ll get lucky.”

A blessed calm fell over the room after Gwaine left; Lance seemed to be caught up in his own thoughts, and Arthur was still seething. Over this trip, over his father, over being in stuck in a psychic’s shop, over the possibility of Lance being swindled, over the stupid cat that still refused to detach itself from his lap--

“Arthur.”

The sound of his name jerked him back to reality, and he stopped grinding his teeth when he realized Lance was staring at him with unbridled empathy. “What?”

“Please calm down, you don’t have to worry about me.”

“Don’t tell me you’re all of a sudden a mind reader too,” Arthur snapped, wincing afterwards at the aggravation in his tone. Lance hadn’t really done anything wrong, and thus shouldn’t be the target for Arthur’s current frustrations.

Lance didn’t seem too surprised at Arthur’s outburst, though he did flinch slightly. “No,” he responded stoically, as he always did (not matching Arthur’s anger with his own, nor with a Gwaine-like jest), “but it’s pretty clear that you’re upset.”

Arthur rubbed a hand over his face as he stifled a groan. Did he really come off as that miserable? “It’s not just that. Gwaine thinks I should just forget everything and just enjoy myself.”

While he had listened to Gwaine’s advice (and was begrudgingly starting to see some sense in it), Arthur valued Lance’s opinion just as well, if not more so. And unlike Gwaine, Lance took his time to view all the angles of the situation before answering, “Maybe he’s right, but I know it’s hard if not impossible for you to do so. You throw every fiber of your being into your work, and take it as a personal offense if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned, beating yourself up for it. Just… Just try to have more faith in yourself, Arthur.”

The bitter thought of how he had run out of his faith a long time ago screamed in his head, and Arthur forced his mouth into a grim smile. “Thanks, Lance.”

If Lance wasn’t convinced by Arthur’s response, he was too tactful to say otherwise. He didn’t really have the chance anyways, for Gwaine came back at that very moment, looking just as dazed as he had.

“If I had known all it took to get Gwaine to shut up was to come here, I would have agreed immediately,” Arthur weakly joked after a long pause; it bothered him more than it had with Lance, because it usually took a lot to shock Gwaine. The one time Arthur had accidentally seen his friend’s browsing history was enough proof of that.

“Arthur,” Gwaine finally croaked, his voice akin to pieces of sandpaper being scraped together, “I’m going to need a list of everyone who might hate your guts.”

“…What?” Arthur hadn’t expected that at all.

“He said I’d fall for my friend’s closest enemy,” Gwaine explained, shaking his head as if he was ridding himself of the effects of some sort of spell. “And everyone loves Lance within five minutes of meeting him, so that just leaves you.”

They seriously couldn’t be believing all this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Arthur was sure that this was all some elaborate hoax, and his friends were just seeing how long they could pull his leg before he figured it out. “I thought you said it’s crazy to be stuck with someone for the rest of your life.”

“Why do you think I want a list? This way I know which people to avoid forever.”

The solution was so fitting of Gwaine that Arthur couldn’t help but chuckle. “Fine, I’ll give you names, but how far back are we talking about? I don’t think you’ll have a problem skipping a hook-up with our fifth grade teacher; I think Ms. Collins despised you more anyways.”

“And she probably wouldn’t be a MILF anymore either,” Gwaine lamented, instilling in Arthur plenty of mental images he certainly did not want.

Thankfully, Lance changed the subject before bile could rise too far in Arthur’s throat. “Arthur, you should do a reading yourself.”

“No way in hell.” Not only had the excursion had been a complete waste of time, Arthur saw no appeal of wasting money to hear vague garbage thrown his way.

“Don’t be such a princess.” Gwaine crooned, as if insulting Arthur would get him to change his mind. Which, it actually did, or maybe it was just the need to show he wasn’t scared. What he would be afraid of exactly, he wasn’t sure, but he could guess that it would be the next thing Gwaine would hurl at him if Arthur didn’t agree.

Grumbling something about going on vacation alone next time, Arthur unceremoniously pried the cat off his thigh, inhaling sharply from the stinging cuts that its claws left behind. Right, that settled it; even if he didn’t want a reading, he was determined to give the guy a piece of his mind for letting wild, dangerous animals that destroyed expensive designer clothing roam freely through the shop. Flinging the beaded curtain to the side with a loud thwack, Arthur stormed angrily into the back room, halting mid-step when he noticed the man hunched over a small table in defeat.

“…Oh!” The man’s head sprung up automatically at Arthur’s presence, and he quickly wiped at his reddened eyes, almost as if he had been crying. “I didn’t expect to see you back here.”

There was a white blur that rushed by Arthur’s feet, and soon the kitten was rubbing itself against its owner, purring madly in attempt to provide comfort. It also reminded Arthur why he had came. “Your cat ruined my shoes, snagged my pants, and used my legs for its own personal scratching post.”

The man paled, which seemed impossible, given his already fair complexion. “Really?” he exclaimed, his fingers stilling in the cat’s fur as he looked down at it in complete disbelief, “Usually Aithusa is affectionate with customers.”

“The thing is, it was too affectionate,” Arthur clarified as he plopped into the chair in front of the table, draping his arm across the back of the seat. “So, what exactly is it that you do?”

A small assured smile spread over the man’s features. “I pegged you for someone who doesn’t believe in psychics, Arthur.”

“Just because I don’t believe in this stuff doesn’t mean I’m not curious.” Cradling one side of his jaw in his free hand, Arthur added, “But first off, what’s your name?”

“Why do you want to know?” The obvious mistrust in the man’s face was ironic, considering the situation.

“It’s not that hard of a question for you, is it? You know mine, after all.” How exactly he did was still bugging Arthur; he had been in the tabloids a few times when paparazzi couldn’t find a celebrity to hound, and Pendragon Suites was quickly becoming a renowned hotel chain, but he wasn’t egotistic enough to think his name was used in the common household.

“…Oh, right.” The man squirmed slightly, as if being reminded of his knowledge made him nervous, which made no damn sense in Arthur’s eyes. Shouldn’t he be gloating and going on about how he read Arthur’s name in the stars or something? “I’m Merlin.”

It took all of Arthur’s willpower not to slam his head against the table in frustration. “Seriously, your real name. I don’t care what you tell customers you’re trying to impress.”

“My real name is Merlin,” the man (or Merlin) insisted. “I would pull out my ID to prove it, but it’s upstairs.”

Arthur blinked. Repeatedly. “Did your mother hate you or something?”

Merlin laughed once--that cheerful, tinkling sound he had let out earlier on the stairs--before his expression grew poignant. “...It was my dad’s idea, actually.”

There was such reverence in Merlin’s voice that Arthur knew the matter was delicate, and he had the common sense not to press it. “Whatever, Merlin. Are you honestly going to sit there and tell me you’re the real thing?”

“Tell you what,” Merlin offered as he leaned back in his seat, arms crossed, “I’ll give you a tarot reading, free of charge, just because I want to see the look of shock on your face when I prove I’m right.”

“Like that will ever happen,” Arthur retorted, scooting his own chair closer. As much as he hated to admit, his interest was growing more and more as time passed. He wondered if he would find out why Lance and Gwaine were like the living dead after their readings. Besides, it was free; that definitely appealed to his inner businessman. “What do I have to do?”

Flipping through the pile of cards near him, Merlin deftly pulled out one and placed it carefully down at the center of the table. “After we draw your significator card, you can shuffle through the deck of cards while thinking about the question you want guidance on.”

Taking the deck that was handed to him, Arthur blindly shuffled them, his focus on the lone card on the table. “’King of Wands’?”

Picking up the card, Merlin held it up as he explained, his tone suggesting he had this conversation many times before: “The significator card represents you in the reading, and the Wands suit is usually used for people with blond hair and blue eyes, such as yourself.”

“What, you’re basing it on what I look like?” Arthur frowned; already he was having a hard time taking this whole tarot reading thing seriously.

“Yes, Arthur, even though I’m not sure if the rest of the card’s description fits you.” Merlin crinkled his nose thoughtfully as he studied Arthur. “Just be lucky I didn’t pick The Fool for you.”

Not sure if he wanted to argue about being called a fool or asking what Merlin meant about the rest of the card’s description, Arthur decided he just wanted to finish the reading already and be done with it. “…The question, do I have to say it out loud?”

Confusion flickered in Merlin’s eyes, and he tilted his head to the side curiously. He looked so owlish, Arthur had to stifle the urge to laugh. “Um, I don’t think so, but it would make it kind of hard to do a reading for you if I don’t know what you’re asking about.”

Well, the idea of Merlin being a mind reader after all was definitely thrown out. “Fine. I guess I want to know if my father’s latest business deal will go through,” Arthur replied half-heartedly, hoping that was vague enough it would raise any suspicions.

Murmuring something noncommittal, Merlin chewed absentmindedly at a hangnail on his thumb. “I don’t know if that will work either; the question is supposed to be about you, though I can try, or change the significator so it fits your father better. Though, I’ve never done a long distance reading before--”

“Never mind,” Arthur interrupted, not willing to make this whole thing overly complicated. “I want to know if the point of me visiting Ealdor will be worth it in the end. Is that good enough?”

Maybe that was a little more suspicious than his first question, and he could tell Merlin was trying to meet his gaze again, but Arthur ignored him as he unceremoniously handed back the deck of cards. Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but then stopped, and instead began to flip the cards in a pattern on the table. Some were face-up, while others were still face-down, and Arthur questioned the reasoning to himself.

Merlin hummed pensively, tapping his fingers just inches from the cards, his brow furrowed in concentration. “…The reason you’re in Ealdor is your father’s business deal, isn‘t it?”

Shit. Shit. Arthur’s heart jumped right into his throat and pounded against his vocal cords. After flopping his mouth open and shut a few times, he managed to hiss, “How… How the hell do you…”

“Uh, I think it’s part of my job description,” Merlin replied, clearly enjoying Arthur’s reaction. “And also because it’s simple: for one thing, you had asked about your father’s business deal before changing the subject of your question to Ealdor, and secondly, look at the cards.”

Glancing down, Arthur half-expected the pictures to come to life. “What am I supposed to be looking for?”

There was a brief pause, and Merlin ran a hand through his hair, chuckling nervously. “Right, sorry, I always forget that it’s not that obvious if you haven’t done this before. The Ace of Pentacles, it usually means something involving business, and the card below it, The Emperor, usually stands for a father figure. So it wasn’t too hard to put two and two together.”

Arthur had no way of knowing if Merlin was telling the truth, but felt himself get drawn in all the same. Was this the sensation Lance and Gwaine experienced? “What about the other cards? Like the one on top of the Ace--what does that mean when it’s crossed like that?”

“The Ten of Wands,” Merlin explained carefully, in a manner that Arthur instinctively didn’t like, “It usually means the feeling of being burdened down by something, and in this position, it’s supposed to represent an obstacle in your way.”

He could tell Merlin was waiting for him to say something, and Arthur just clenched his jaw as he seethed, “Is this some sort of joke? Did Gwaine put you up to this?”

“What? No!”

“He did, didn’t he?” Arthur continued, swearing underneath his breath. “Damn it, he probably told you everything, and now you’re just repeating things he told you.”

Arthur.” Merlin’s eyes flashed angrily, and Arthur felt a shiver of fear run up his back. He couldn’t understand why; Merlin hardly seemed like someone others would consider threatening. “Don’t be so full of yourself. While both of your friends briefly mentioned you, they were more interested in readings for themselves. They didn‘t tell me anything about you.”

While he wasn’t sure he could trust Merlin, Arthur realized he could trust Lance (and even Gwaine), and felt slightly ashamed for doubting them. “What else do the cards say?”

“Why should I tell you? Are you going to accuse me of tricking you again?”

“Look, I just thought--”

“Forget it,” Merlin replied bitterly, moving to gather the cards, “If you’re not going to believe me, why should I bother?”

If their positions were switched (and what a weird thought that was), Arthur would be asking the same question, just with a lot more shouting involved. Before he could stop himself, his hand shot out to grab Merlin’s wrist. “Wait. I’m sorry, please continue.”

Pressing his lips into a thin line, Merlin looked as if he was having an inner debate, and Arthur could even feel his pulse quicken before Merlin pulled his hand away. “Okay, but I’m not going to explain every card to you, just the way I interpret it. Basically, it seems as if you’re feeling stressed about this business deal, because you feel it’s your way to prove yourself, either to your father or someone else.”

Arthur bit his tongue to prevent himself from voicing his serious doubts. Forcing on a mask of indifference, he simply nodded. “Go on.”

“But you’ll find someone that’s willing to help you, if you let them. A new friend, or…” Merlin trailed off. His face colored; the pink rushing to the tips of his ears.

“A bit of a romantic, aren’t you?” Arthur snorted. “I’m the third person you’ve mentioned a relationship to today.”

“The Two of Cups doesn’t always mean love!” Merlin exclaimed a little too quickly, his voice squeaking with embarrassment. “It just means you’ll meet someone new. Probably.”

“That’s great and all, I guess. But what does that have to do with my question?”

Finally starting to overturn the face-down cards, Merlin revealed the significance as he went up the line, “That’s the whole point; you have friends that are reaching out to help you, but you don’t want them to know you need their help. And because of that--”

A gasp escaped from Merlin’s mouth, and Arthur stared at the last two cards before stating the obvious: “…Well, that’s just cheerful.”


“The Five of Swords means while you might get what you want, it won’t feel right to you; you’ll just feel empty inside. And The Tower…” Merlin bit his bottom lip before feebly offering, “It doesn’t necessarily mean something bad.”

Arthur tapped the card in question with an incredulous grimace. “Need I point out that it’s a picture of people falling out of tower? That’s on fire? Because it’s been struck by lightning?”

Merlin shrugged sheepishly as he reached for the cards as a means of a distraction, babbling slightly, “Yeah, but like the Death and Devil cards, it has a bad reputation. Really, it could just mean a sudden change--”

“I want another reading,” Arthur blurted out, the sensible side of him denouncing that he was being completely ridiculous. “Just not with tarot. Don’t you people have crystal balls or something like that?”

The effect that his question had on Merlin was surprising: He instantly stiffened, inhaling sharply. “...Yeah, something like that, but it costs extra.”

“You probably already know that money is not an issue,” Arthur replied haughtily as he dug out his wallet, pausing when he felt Merlin’s bemused stare upon him.

Either Merlin was an amazing actor, or he really didn’t know that money was not an issue for Arthur. All he appeared to know was Arthur’s name and that he was here on business for his father.

The idea that he had retained some anonymity comforted Arthur a little bit, yet disturbed him as well. He tried to think back to remember if either Lance or Gwaine had used his name in the shop earlier, and Merlin had merely overheard. He knew they hadn’t, but he still clung to possibility like it was a well-worn security blanket.

Arthur pulled out a few bills and slid them across the table in Merlin’s direction. “That enough? If so, go on then.”

Merlin hesitated briefly before handing some of the money back. “It doesn’t cost that much extra,” he mumbled.

Despite the circumstances, Arthur was secretly impressed; Merlin could have easily taken the entire amount without saying a thing, and Arthur felt a small twinge of respect flicker inside of him. “Keep it. For the tarot reading.”

With a wordless nod, Merlin stood up to put the money in the register and get a receipt for Arthur. His actions were subdued, as if he was trying to drag them out as long as possible to stall for time. What should have taken a few seconds was stretched out into minutes, but before Arthur could complain, Merlin finally slid a large crystal rock across the table, holding it only by the ornate metal stand it rested on.

“I thought it was supposed to be a ball?” Arthur raised an eyebrow as he examined the crystal with a critical eye. In its raw and uncut form, he could see how it could come off as more authentic and mystical to those who believed in it.

“Yeah, well, that’s what your one friend said as well,” Merlin joked faintly, though his voice was hollow and without mirth. “Place your hand on top of it, please.”

When Arthur touched the top of the crystal, a slight spark ran up his fingers and through his arm. He figured it was just his imagination. Or maybe there was some device rigged into the crystal that gave a slight shock whenever someone touched it. “Merlin,” he snapped, “What was--”

The rest of Arthur’s words died on his lips when he noticed the dramatic change that had overcome Merlin. His fingers were gripping the base of the crystal so firmly that his knuckles were turning white, and his entire body was trembling like a tensed spring on the verge of breaking from being over-tightened.

Most unnerving of all, Merlin’s eyes were wide and unfocused, staring at something that was intangible and non-physical. The golden hue that Arthur had seen earlier (and had written off as being a trick of the light) was back, causing such a visceral reaction in Arthur that he let go of the crystal. “What the hell?”

Then, as if some invisible cord holding him up had been cut, Merlin suddenly flopped forward in his seat. His arms propped against the table surface were his only means of support as he let out a shuddering breath.

Oh, Arthur understood everything now. Merlin was indeed one hell of an actor, and for a moment, Arthur almost actually fell for the whole charade. But after recovering from the initial shock, he began piecing together the truth of what had happened. The only thing he couldn’t explain right away was the eye thing, but given the chance, he could probably figure it out.

“You need to get out.”

Too absorbed in the steps of his plan to expose Merlin for fraud (or at least get a refund for himself and the others), Arthur blinked in disbelief at Merlin’s words. “Excuse me?”

“You need to get out,” Merlin repeated, raising a hand to his ashen face while desperately holding Arthur’s gaze. “Out of Ealdor, before it’s too late.”

***

Ridiculous. It was completely ridiculous for Merlin to act this way. He was a grown man, after all (even if he did look younger than his twenty-three years); he should not be running to his mother every time he had a problem.

Yet there he was, sneaking in through the back patio door of his childhood home, struggling to push the horror of the day’s events out of his mind.

It isn’t fair, he wanted to whine as he nudged off his boots before padding down the hall; he hated doing crystal readings and everyone close to him knew it. His mother wouldn’t even mention the word “crystal” in Merlin’s presence without growing pale and apologetic. Even Will had the unusual tact of never bringing it up whenever they discussed Merlin’s line of work.

Only Gaius had gently pushed the idea, even agreeing to raise the price of the reading so it wouldn’t be a popular choice among customers.

You have a gift, Merlin,” he had once explained when he saw Merlin scramble away at his first sight of the crystal after many years, “And I know what happened last time was tragic, but maybe you can change the future of others.

That was the thought that managed to get him through it. Merlin was trying to help people in the only way he knew how, misguided as it may have seemed to others, like Arthur.

With a pained groan, Merlin hit his forehead against the hallway wall a few times, stopping when he heard the framed pictures his mother had hung vibrate from the force of his actions. Stupid, stupid, stupid; just why the hell did he agree to give Arthur a crystal reading?

The one he had given Arthur’s one friend (he was guessing it was the one called Gwaine) actually hadn’t been that bothersome. Merlin never enjoyed how the crystal forced images inside his mind--nor the pounding headache he had afterwards--but Gwaine’s apparent future was far from upsetting. If anything, it had been slightly satisfying to see a mysterious dark-haired, green-eyed beauty slap and belittle a man Merlin was now sure was supposed to be Arthur, based on his appearance and how he stood close to Gwaine in the vision.

The whole thing grew embarrassing, however, when the images switched to Gwaine and the woman heavily kissing; Merlin hadn’t been able to look Gwaine directly in the eyes since then, feeling like he had intruded on something personal.

So maybe the fact that Gwaine’s reading had just made him very uncomfortable--and had only caused him a little distress--was why Merlin had reluctantly agreed to do one for Arthur as well.

There was a extremely good reason Merlin hated dealing with the crystal, and it appeared that fate decided it hadn’t fucked with him enough recently.

“God,” he whispered hoarsely as he turned to slump against the wall, struggling to keep his composure. Hopefully no one would pass by at that moment, because he wasn’t sure how he could account for his current state: Hello! Oh no, I’m not okay, thanks for asking. I just saw how a man was going to die and he doesn’t believe me, how about this weather, huh?

Even without the crystal in front of him, the outcome of Arthur’s reading still flashed before Merlin. The imagery didn’t really make much sense, just bits and pieces that spun around faster and faster until he felt physically dizzy, but of one thing he was absolutely certain: if he Arthur remained any longer in Ealdor, his life would be in danger.

Maybe he could have handled the situation a little better and told Arthur why he should leave--instead of just telling him he needed to get out--but at that moment Merlin had been trying very hard not throw up on Arthur’s precious shoes.

Arthur had been instantly defensive, ranting something about not having to deal with threats from fake psychics who took advantage of their customers. For a moment Merlin wished his prediction did come true, because Arthur had to be the most infuriating, entitled human being he had ever met.

Only for a brief moment though, before Merlin had instantly grown ashamed at himself for being so selfish. So instead he did the only thing he could think of; he refunded the cost of all three men if Arthur promised to leave that instant.

At first, Arthur looked like he was going to argue some more, but then had begrudgingly agreed, having the sheer gall to call his friends in to make sure they received their full refund. Merlin might regret losing such a business loss in the future, but as far as he was concerned, there was nothing more valuable than a single life.

He had barely ushered them out of the shop and switched the sign to “Closed” before he collapsed by the front door, all his energy completely drained. He remained in that spot, unmoving even as Aithusa circled around him while meowing pitifully, until he heard the jingling of keys and Gaius trying to push open the door. “Merlin, why are you--”

“Bad reading,” Merlin answered pitifully before his uncle could finish, shifting so he was no longer blocking the entrance.

Instantly Gaius had switched to caregiver mode, remnants of his years as a family physician before he retired emerging. He checked Merlin’s vitals, tut-tutting as he made a cup of herbal tea that wouldn’t smell delectable even if Merlin had the stomach for it. He only asked Merlin what the vision was about once, but at the fear that sprung into Merlin’s features, quickly dropped the subject matter.

“Come on,” Gaius commanded gently as he tugged Merlin to his feet, proving he was still spry despite his elderly age, “Take the rest of the day off. Hunith is expecting us for Sunday dinner. Maybe you could go early and help.”

Thankful for the possibility of any distraction, Merlin pulled Gaius into tight hug, hiding his face so his uncle wouldn’t see if he started to cry again. Gaius seemed to sense it anyways, giving Merlin a supportive pat on his back. “It’ll be okay, Merlin. I just wished I could do something to help, but I could never see these things as well as you do.”

Neither of them said it, but the sentiment hung like a swaying noose in the silence between them just the same: I wish no one had to see these things.

Pushing darker thoughts from his head, Merlin now focused on locating his mother in the massive Victorian house, his feet instinctively heading in the direction of where he knew he would most likely find her. Forcing a smile on his face, Merlin popped his head in the kitchen. “Mom?”

The pantry door closed to reveal Hunith standing behind it, a collection of dry goods filling her arms. “Merlin! You’re here early!”

“Let me help you with that,” Merlin offered, crossing the expanse with long strides before he took some of the load and placed it on a nearby counter. Beaming up at him gratefully, Hunith stopped, reaching up to cup his cheek. “What’s wrong?”

While he had regained some color to his skin since the incident, Merlin knew it had been foolish to think his mother wouldn’t notice his haggard appearance. “I had to do two readings with the crystal today.”

“Oh, sweetie,” Hunith cooed sympathetically, wiping her hands on her apron before pulling two cookies out of a jar. Placing them on a plate, she poured a glass of milk and then handed them both to Merlin. “Sit down and tell me all about it.”

Merlin wanted to argue that he wasn’t a child any more, but with the mood he was in, he just meekly nodded. Besides, as cliché as it sounded, his mother really did make the best cookies ever. “The first one wasn’t that hard, just really awkward. But the other one…”

The cookie he had just bit into abruptly turned to sawdust in his mouth, and he choked painfully, “…The other one was like… Was as bad as…”

Unable to finish the rest of his sentence, Merlin felt the dam of emotions he had built behind his eyes break, and hot, ugly tears were falling faster than he could rub them away. He cursed loudly, then quickly apologized, remembering his mother abhorred that kind of language.

But Hunith understood; she knew what he was referring to, even if he could never get the words out. Wordlessly, she pulled his head to her chest, like she had many times before, just like when he was a child who had seen horrible things he had no control over.

“Shh,” she murmured, moving away after a minute or so to wet a dishcloth to rub at Merlin’s face. “I told Gaius it wasn’t a good idea for you to work there. You have a good heart, Merlin, and I know you’re trying to help people, but I don’t want you to be unhappy. You know you always can come back here if you want.”

After the day he had, the offer was more than appealing, and it took all of Merlin’s willpower to turn it down. “…No, I’ll be okay, really,” he replied huskily, wiping his nose on the back of his hand. “I do like working there, and Gaius is teaching me so much.”

Frowning with motherly concern, Hunith sighed in resignation and gave his knee a squeeze before returning to her work. “You’re stubborn as ever, but I can see how much this means to you. Clean up after you’re done eating, and then maybe you can help me by preparing the salad?”

Dipping the rest of his cookies in the milk until they softened enough to crumble off, Merlin then gulped down the sickeningly sweet sludge. It looked disgusting and left an awful mess behind, but as far as he was concerned, it was the best way to achieve the right mixture of milk and cookie.

After washing his plate and glass in the sink, Merlin switched the hot water to cold before splashing his face. The cool liquid felt like a blessing against his flushed skin, and little by little he was actually starting to feel better.

“Make sure you rinse the tomatoes really well, I just picked them from the garden this morning,” Hunith instructed over the whirling of her mixer, a bit of flour on her nose. It always seemed like whenever she baked, she got a smudge of something on her--it was easy to see where Merlin’s own clumsiness came from--and it never failed to make Merlin smile. He often wondered if she did it on purpose for that very reason, but never bothered to ask.

The cherry tomatoes looked so fresh and mouth-watering that Merlin’s stomach growled crossly--he suddenly realized that with the exception of the cookies, he hadn’t eaten anything all day. Selecting the biggest tomato he could find, he gave it a quick rinse before popping it in his mouth, only for Hunith to playfully swat at him. “I’m sure you’re hungry, but you have to leave some for the salad!”

“But there’s so many here, we’ll have plenty between the three of us,” Merlin protested, hastily swallowing when Hunith shot him a reproving look for talking with his mouth full.

“It’s not just the three of us; I asked a few guests if they want to join us as well,” Hunith explained as she pulled out baking pans and greased them heavily before pouring batter and berries inside them. Stealing another tomato while his mother’s attention was diverted, Merlin finished washing the rest before moving on to the lettuce. “Mom, you own a bed and breakfast. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to serve them dinner as well.”

“Oh, shush!” Hunith reprimanded with no real heat to her words as she turned off the buzzing timer above the stove. “Most of them are as young as you, and probably think fast-food constitutes an actual meal. It’s just one dinner, there’s no harm in that.”

Somehow Merlin had his doubts, aware his mother had been more charitable than necessary to her guests in the past. True, The Dragon’s Keep was more profitable than ever, thanks to Ealdor’s growing popularity, but while the bed and breakfast was in the black every month with a near constantly full capacity, Merlin didn’t think that meant Hunith should spend so much time, energy, or money on something that seemed frivolous.

An enticing aroma of garlic, spinach, mushrooms, and an assortment of cheeses suddenly wafted through the kitchen, and Merlin paused mid-toss of the salad to see his mother remove two large pans of bubbling lasagna from the oven. “Is that…?”

Smiling knowingly, Hunith nodded as she placed the pans on racks to cool, then reset the timer before putting the berry crumble in to bake. “I made sure to bake one without chicken, just for you.”

“…You are the best mother ever, you know that?” Merlin replied gleefully as inhaled in the scent of the pasta dish deeply, sorely tempted to serve himself now, uncaring if it meant he burnt the roof of his mouth in the process. Hunith seemed to sense his intent, and shooed him away. “I know, dear, and I also know that I can’t trust you in here now. If the salad’s finished, can you do me a favor and let the guests know dinner will be served shortly?”

Merlin stole another tomato--and ducked from his mother’s swatting--as he dashed into the hall before making his way up the main staircase, taking two of the creaky wooden steps at a time. His right hand gripped the worn banister with fondness, for he remembered how he and Will used to slide down it constantly, even after Hunith constantly berated them for it.

It was a minor miracle that the bed and breakfast actually thrived, especially since Merlin and Will had been little hellions when they were younger, running up and down the halls and generally terrorizing guests. Well, it had been mostly Will, though Merlin was always eager to follow his friend’s plans, even if he didn’t necessarily agree they were all good ones.

Like the time they had climbed out to the widow’s walk of the building to enjoy the view, only to find the door to get back inside had jammed, no matter how hard Will tugged or how much magic Merlin used. After hours had passed with no change, Hunith finally discovered what had happened and called the fire department. One busted door and several severe scoldings later, Merlin looked proud--as proud as a seven-year-old who was just bawling in his mother’s arms a few minutes earlier could be--as he announced that he had told Will the whole thing was a bad idea. Will had just shrugged in response, and asked if they could ride in the fire engine, whooping excitedly when the firefighters agreed.

Okay, maybe that last part hadn’t been so bad.

Chuckling to himself, Merlin was just about to knock at the door of the first room when he froze, his knuckles mere centimeters away from the painted wood.

There was no doubt in his mind why his magic was metaphorically scratching at the door, whining to be let in, but he still couldn’t believe the coincidence, or his horrible luck. Taking a deep and shaky breath, Merlin took a few steps backwards in a daze, hoping he could make his escape before it was too late and his presence was noticed.

Fate, it seemed, was in a rather cruel mood that day, for the door suddenly opened, and Arthur was standing there. Their gazes locked instantly, and after surprise and confusion swept through them, Arthur’s eyes narrowed as he snarled, “Just what the hell are you doing here?!”

At that moment, Merlin would give anything to be trapped on the widow walk once more.

***

Never in a million years did Arthur ever think he would be having a family dinner with people who could be considered rivals to his father’s company. Not only that, but he was seated next to the man that wanted him out of town and possible had the knowledge to blow his cover.

It was the most surreal and unnerving situation of Arthur’s life.

When Arthur had stormed out of the psychic shop earlier, Lance followed dutifully behind without a single word about their sudden departure, but not without the expression of a kicked puppy plastered on his face. Even Gwaine remained uncharacteristically tight-lipped on the subject, recognizing that it wouldn’t be prudent to push Arthur about it. That didn’t stop him from dramatically rolling his eyes every now and then, no doubt calling Arthur a variety of insulting names in his head.

It didn’t matter, because Arthur had been too busy stewing in his own bitter thoughts to notice or even care. How could he have been so blind, so stupid? The question repeated itself over and over, a constant droning that pounded between his ears and left him with a headache towards the end of the day.

As furious as he was at himself, however, it was nothing compared to the severity of what he felt about Merlin at the moment. Just thinking Merlin’s name was enough to get Arthur’s blood boiling, and waves of anger rolled off his body like the roaring tide.

So it was the understatement of the year to say that Merlin was the last person Arthur had wanted to see, let alone expected to find at the door of his room. There was a brief moment where Arthur nearly slammed the door right in Merlin’s face, but curiosity stayed his hand. Just how did he manage to find Arthur? Never mind; when he actually thought about it, he knew that with the limited lodging choices in Ealdor it wouldn’t be too hard to track a visitor down. But the next question was, why?

“Just what the hell are you doing here?!” he had snarled, and when Merlin didn’t answer right away (and instead pulled that “shocked” act that was growing old really fast), Arthur immediately assumed the worst. “What, first you threaten me, and now you’re actually stalking me?!”

“No!” Merlin protested, looking just as surprised as Arthur, which didn‘t seem to make one iota of sense. “It’s not like that, I swear! Just my mom said she invited some of her guest to dinner, and…”

At first, the weight of the words didn’t fully register, and Arthur had started to ask what Merlin was babbling on about. Then suddenly, everything clicked into place, and a knot of anxiety and dread tightened in Arthur’s chest. “…Your mother owns the bed and breakfast?”

Any hope that he was simply misreading the situation died inside Arthur when Merlin nodded and then hastily explained, “I swear, this is just a coincidence--”

A coincidence. The most important business deal of Arthur’s young life--and quite possibly the best chance of showing his father he could handle this degree of responsibility--could slip out of his fingers because of a mere coincidence.

Because what would stop Merlin from telling his mother, telling others, telling the whole damn town about Arthur’s true reason for being in Ealdor? Nothing short of the apocalypse could stop Pendragon Suites from swooping down on a prime piece of real estate if the location was deemed viable by the company, but common knowledge of Arthur’s visit could make things a lot more difficult to settle a deal. After all, it was hard to cooperate with people who instantly mistrusted you simply because of who you were and what you stood for.

No, the irony of the idea was not lost on Arthur, considering it nearly paralleled his first meeting with Merlin. But Arthur thought his behavior then had been within good reason, especially when he realized Merlin was still rambling on. “--and I haven’t told her it was you that I saw, but I know she’ll understand if you have to check out early--”

The sneaky little bastard. Did Merlin really think he could manipulate Arthur into canceling this trip? As tempting as it was to jump at the opportunity to leave Ealdor, Pendragons were notorious for never giving up, and Arthur wasn’t about to break tradition. “I’m not leaving.”

That seemed to catch Merlin off-guard, and he stammered, “B-but… That’s why I gave you a refund, because--”

“I asked for a refund because I was completely dissatisfied with your service, and didn‘t appreciate being swindled out of my money for your own personal vendetta,” Arthur countered, watching with grim satisfaction as Merlin spluttered in disbelief, “And the fact is, Merlin, I’m not leaving until I finish the job I came here to do, whether you like it or not.”

Before he could fully enjoy the panicked look in Merlin’s eyes, Arthur did finally slam the door shut. Perhaps it wasn’t the most mature way to end an argument, but he felt a sense of superiority and closure nevertheless.

However, the feeling was quickly dampened when he turned around to face Gwaine glaring at him. “What?”

“…That‘s it, I’ve been keeping quiet all day about this, so don’t even try to weasel your way out of having this conversation now.” Gwaine paused, as though daring Arthur to object before continuing, “You have to tell me what has your panties all up in a bunch.”

“It’s nothing, Gwaine," Arthur said roughly, his teeth grinding painfully together as he emphasized his words.

Gwaine snorted. “Bullshit! Now, I know you can be a pain in the ass, but most of the time you’re tolerable and even damn near fun to be around. But ever since we left that shop, you’ve been acting like you have the biggest stick in the world up your ass. I’m talking like, the size of one of those thousands-of-years-old redwoods.”

“He knows, okay?” Arthur snapped, his heavy pacing leaving a path in the already well-worn floor rug. “He knows my name, he knows I’m here on business for my father, and I don’t know what else! What if he tells other people, and they decide they don’t want a major hotel chain in their town threatening small businesses like his mother’s bed and breakfast?”

There was a moment of collective silence. Arthur exhaled softly to try and release some of the tension building up in his shoulders with little success. He knew he was being irrational in his concern, but the stress of his first hotel deal was causing him to be a bit paranoid.

In times of need, cooler heads prevail, and Lance was a textbook example. “…I don’t think he knows everything.”

If there was any chance of Arthur getting out of this mess, no matter how minimal or far-fetched, he was willing to hear it. “What do you mean? He knows enough to blow our cover.”

“Then why hasn’t he yet?” Lance argued gently, not needing to raise his voice in order to get his point across. “You would think he would do everything to keep his mother’s business from being jeopardized, but he didn’t tell her about you. He didn’t even try to use it to get you to leave. Doesn’t that seem strange, like something else is going on here?”

Arthur caught onto the meaning of Lance’s words and groaned. “You don’t still think he’s a psychic, do you?”

“Does it really matter what he is?” Gwaine interjected as he moved to open the door to the hall. “All that I care about right now is that there’s a free dinner waiting for us downstairs, and I’m fucking starving. I don’t know if you realize this, but we didn’t get breakfast or lunch because we were too busy making sure you didn’t bite some random stranger’s head off. So can we continue this conversation after we’ve stuffed our faces?”

Arthur was reluctant to agree, in no mood to face Merlin again so soon. But he knew he would never hear the end of it if he didn’t go, so he sullenly made his way downstairs to the dining room, grateful to see it was relatively empty. So far, it seemed like none of the other guests were joining them, which suited him perfectly.

Of course, out of all the possible spots at the table, he would happen to be placed next to Merlin. Arthur almost requested to switch seats, but determined that would only draw unwanted attention to himself. So he plopped down into the chair without a word, noting how Merlin flinched in his own seat as he did so, but also remained silent. Fine, if they were going to pretend they didn't know each other, that worked out perfectly for Arthur.

It was weird how a simple meal time gathering could throw Arthur so far out of his element, though. As he helped himself to lasagna (the very definition of comfort food not found in the gourmet dishes prepared for him back home), he idly listened to the conversation that spun around the table. Even though he still looked slightly withdrawn from having Arthur by his side, Merlin had perked up considerably as his mother animatedly discussed her plans for her garden. It was such a banal topic, but there were smiles and laughs from everyone who participated.

Jealously burned away at his gut, and he stuck a fork in his food more violently than needed before shoving at a bite in his mouth. When he was growing up, dinner had hardly been an enjoyable affair; no one really spoke until his father prompted the topic, and even then it had been mostly stern lecturing on Uther's part rather than a two way conversation. That was if Uther was even there; most of the time he was so caught up in work he left his children to eat by themselves. So to see what a normal, well-adjusted family meal was like left Arthur with a hollow ache in his chest.

A kick under the table from Gwaine made Arthur snap out his internal pity party, and he glanced up to see everyone looking expectantly at him. "Sorry, what was that?"

Merlin's mother--who had introduced herself as Hunith when they first checked into their room--smiled softly in his direction, and Arthur wondered why he hadn't recognized the familial resemblance in Merlin before. "I asked how you were enjoying your trip so far. You're here for the whole week, right?"

While the others didn't notice, Arthur felt Merlin immediately stiffen in preparation for his answer. Well, if the truth had to come out sometime, it might as well be now. "That's right, though we might need to stay longer, if our room is still available."

"You stay as long as you need, it's still the beginning of the season so there are plenty of rooms. Take this time to be free without responsibilities, while you're still young." Hunith laughed, the twinkling sound nearly identical to the one Merlin let out earlier.

The job might be becoming too personal for his own good, because Arthur found himself starting to like Hunith. He always had a soft spot for maternal figures, formed from never knowing his own mother, and Hunith exuded a warmth and charisma he found himself being drawn into. "Actually, we're here on business for my father," he explained, watching Merlin out of the corner of his eye. "We're writing a travel guide about the town and its attractions."

Technically, that wasn't a lie, but Arthur still waited anxiously for Merlin to refute him, to expose his true intentions. When seconds passed and Merlin did nothing but push food around on his plate under the pretense of eating, Arthur's heart surged with fresh hope that Lance had been correct in his assumptions: it seemed Merlin really didn't know everything.

"How wonderful!" Hunith beamed, making Arthur feel just the slightest bit of guilt for his deception. "I'm sure you boys already planned on mentioning the beach and the boardwalk, but there's also a outdoor stage that has live performances on Saturday nights. Sometimes they have ghost tours around town, especially in the older buildings. And of course, there's the dragon himself."

Lance choked on his drink in surprise. "There's actually a dragon?"

In true motherly fashion, Hunith automatically patted him on the back and handed over a napkin before answering. "Why do you think the town is covered with them? Back when Ealdor was founded, some unknown sculptor climbed up to the cliffs and decided to carve a dragon into the rock facing overlooking the water. In fact, if you follow the road on the east of town, you can hike right up the marked path and see it for yourself."

"There's even a legend that if you jump from the cliff and ‘fly’ with the dragon, your heart's desire will come true. If you survive the fall.“ The elderly man who was sitting by Hunith offered, and Arthur was inwardly curious if he was another family member or a guest. Whoever he was, apparently he never got the memo that the 60s were over and no respectable person would be caught dead wearing tie-dye.

There was a loud whistle from a clearly impressed Gwaine. "It sounds like you'd have to have balls of steel to even try it. Does it work?"

Hunith clicked her tongue in reproach. "Look at you've done now, Gaius, you’ve put the wrong idea in their heads."

"It's just a story," Gaius said, holding up his hands in an attempt to placate Hunith. "Even if it was true, you would have to jump right when the tide was at its highest and not smash into the rocks below. A very difficult feat, I can assure you."

“And one I’m sure none of you boys will even think about trying, right?” Hunith asked, studying them all closely before cheerfully changing the subject. “You did pick a perfect time to visit though; there’s a week-long dragon themed festival starting tomorrow that the whole town is participating--Oh, and maybe Merlin can give you a tour!"

Silverware clattered sharply against the porcelain plates, and all eyes were on Merlin as he abruptly rose from his seat, his chair scraping painfully against the wooden floor. "S-Sorry, I have to..."

Not bothering to finish his sentence, he walked swiftly from the room, leaving a fretful Hunith in his wake. “I don’t understand, he seemed to be feeling better earlier...” She sighed before forcing a weak smile on her face. “Please excuse him, he’s had a trying day.”

“I know the feeling,” Arthur mumbled under his breath, stabbing his food with renewed gusto. He really didn’t appreciate it when Gwaine snorted at him, quite aware the mental name-calling had returned.

Luckily, Hunith didn’t seem to notice, too busy admonishing Gaius. “I still say you've been working him too hard at the shop. It seems like I hardly see him any more."

Gaius raised an eyebrow at the accusation and huffed loudly. "You see him at least every Sunday, and you two talk on the phone every day. While he might not act like at it times, he's old enough now to handle his own problems." His features softened when he noticed the distress in Hunith's face, and Gaius patted her hand reassuringly. "I'm sure he just need a good night's rest. He usually loves to help people and has no problems with the other readings, but you know how it is with the crystal.”

"What's with the crystal thing anyways?" Gwaine asked as he shoveled his third helping of lasagna in his mouth. "It seemed to really freak him out when he gave me a reading with it earlier."

Arthur immediately suspected his worst fears had come true when Gaius and Hunith immediately blanched, their eyes awash with understanding. Damn it, instead of worrying that Merlin was going to blow their operation’s cover, Arthur should have poured more focus in making sure Gwaine kept his big mouth shut.

The first to speak again was Gaius, his tone laced with somber apprehension. “When he performed the crystal reading for you, did he foretell...an unfavorable outcome?”

“You can say that,” Gwaine chuckled wryly. “My dream of being single forever is apparently doomed."

"...I didn't do one with the crystal, even though I wanted to," Lance admitted quietly with a sheepish smile. "What would have happened if I asked?”

“As hard as it may be to believe, I have yet to hear one of Merlin’s predictions that didn’t come to fruition in some way.” For a moment, Gaius looked like he was about to say something else, but instead shook his head with a heavy grimace.

The idea that he was perhaps the only rational and sane person sitting at the table briefly flitted across Arthur’s mind. He wanted to tell them exactly what he thought of Merlin’s abilities and their willingness to have so much faith in them, and afterwards, where they could shove them both. He caught himself just in time; not only would it be incredibly rude, but he had calmed down enough to recognize he would be just taking out his frustrations on those who didn’t deserve it.

Did that mean Merlin deserved it, though? He had been so sure earlier that the answer was a resounding “Yes!”, but doubts were starting to creep in the shadows of his mind. There were a lot of things he still didn’t understand, and now he was wondering if he passed his judgment too quickly without knowing all the facts.

It was then that he realized the others were waiting for him to say something, and while he didn’t want to lie any more than he had already, Arthur panicked. “...I didn’t have a crystal reading either," he muttered, keeping his eyes downcast. "Merlin didn't tell me a thing."

***

Every year, there seemed to be fewer and fewer stars twinkling in the night sky. Whether it was because Ealdor's growing light pollution blocked them out, or the stars themselves had faded away, Merlin wasn't sure. But he mourned the loss all the same.

As painful as the thought was, he clung to it desperately, searching for an assortment of things to focus on instead of the problem plaguing him. He was hyper-aware of how the coarse, natural fibers of the hammock he was curled up in dug into his bare skin. And how, when he closed his stinging eyes, the cool tendrils of the evening breeze snaked through the stifling heat to curl around him. He could even hear the nearby ocean as it crashed against the shore, the roar of the foamy waves Mother Nature's own version of a lullaby.

He took these seemingly small and inconsequential things and magnified them in his head, forming a makeshift barrier against the thoughts he wanted out and gone. But every time he tried to hold it up, it would inexplicably topple over, and his anxieties would surge anew.

If Arthur refused to listen to him and decided to stay in Ealdor, it really wouldn't be Merlin's fault. Although he told himself this over and over, he was having a hard time actually believing it, especially considering the circumstances.

But while he had come to the conclusion that he had explain the situation fully, had to make Arthur see sense, Merlin had struggled (and failed) in his attempts to conjure up the right words. Instead, he remained relatively quiet, forcing a faint smile or chuckle when needed, trying not be overwhelmed by Arthur's presence in the seat beside him at dinner.

It was a simple comment on his mother's part--and he made a mental note to apologize later for worrying her--that broke through the last of Merlin's defenses. The mention of the dragon and the festival reminded him of the images he saw in the crystal, and suddenly he felt like he was suffocating, the walls of the room closing in tight around him. Before he could give it a second thought, he had rushed from the dining room to the sanctity of fresh air, retching the meager contents of his stomach onto the ground as soon as he was outside.

No doubt Arthur had a laugh at his expense after he had left, or at least thought he was even more of a freak, which did not help Merlin's credulity in the slightest. How on earth was he going to convince someone their life was in danger when they thought he was an overly emotional fraud?

"Look, I thought I told you I didn't want your kind around here any more."

Merlin instantly froze, thinking Arthur had somehow found him and was going to heckle him some more. But as he recognized the approaching figure in the dusk, the tension slowly released itself from his body. "...Good to see you too, Will."

The hammock dipped dramatically as Will unceremoniously plopped down next to Merlin before handing over a small serving of berry crumble. "Here. Sorry I missed dinner, but from what your mom told me, sounds like you did too."

While his stomach was still twisted in knots, Merlin took the plate. "I wasn't hungry," he mumbled as he forced himself to take a bite of the dessert.

"See? That right there tells me something." Will jabbed at the air with the fork from his own serving to emphasize his point. "You always seem to be eating, even though you stay skinny as hell while the rest of us gain ten pounds just from watching you."

It was an off-hand joke, but Merlin could hear the underlying bitterness in his friend's voice. At school, while he had been picked on for being scrawny and continuously clumsy, Will was teased for being somewhat on the chunky side and baby-faced. He eventually slimmed down once he entered his teens and became more active, but it was still a sore subject to that day.

"Besides," Will then added, "She told me about the readings too. She's worried about you Em, and I don't blame her."

The usage of his childhood nickname normally made Merlin smile, but now it just grated against his already frayed nerves. "...Am I really that bad off that my mom has to send others to look out for me?" he groaned, throwing his arm over his face as he lay back in the hammock.

"You know how your mom is; just be glad she‘s not out here herself, dragging you back inside and forcing you to stay." Will shrugged, placing his empty plate on the ground before leaning back as well. "But even if she didn't ask me to check up on you, I still would've, because I see now what she’s talking about. No offense, but you look like shit."

"...Thanks Will," Merlin replied, rolling his eyes sarcastically. “Why don’t you tell me how you really feel?”

Will responded by jabbing Merlin in his ribs with an elbow. "I mean it, I've never seen you this bad in a long time... Want to talk about it?"

When Gaius asked a similar question earlier, Merlin had clammed up, the experience too fresh and raw at the time. But over the span of the day, the urge to tell someone welled up inside of him, and besides his relatives, he could think of no other person to talk to about it but Will. He hesitated nevertheless, not knowing the best way to start the conversation. “When you went down for dinner, was there anyone besides my mom and uncle there?”

“By the time I finished telling the couple in Room Six that if they stopped stuffing so much shit down their toilet, I wouldn’t have to come by and fix it that often, it was already past eight. Your mom was the only one left in the dining room when I got down there, and she was just cleaning up.” Will paused, then snapped his fingers. “No, wait, there was also that group of guys from Room One, yeah? I ran into them in the hallway; they were laughing and joking with each other, but as soon as they saw me, they all got quiet. And that fucking blond douche just glared at me, like ‘how dare you share the same air space as me when you’re just a lowly maintenance man.’”

If the situation wasn’t so severe, Merlin would have laughed at Will’s description of what was undoubtedly Arthur. “He and his friends were in the shop today, and when I brought out the crystal for him…” He swallowed deeply to fight the bile that threatened to rise up his throat. “It’s bad, Will. Really bad.”

“No shit?” When Merlin nodded weakly, Will shrugged. “Maybe he’s just getting what’s coming to him then.”

“Will!” Merlin shouted, absolutely horrified. “Do you not get it? If he stays in Ealdor for much longer, I think he’s going to die!”

Will’s eyes widened dramatically at Merlin’s outburst. “Fuck Em, when you said bad, I didn’t think you meant that bad. What did he say when you told him?”

“…I didn‘t really get a chance, since he didn‘t believe me,” Merlin muttered, his shoulders slumping in dejection. “He thought I was a fake, and made me refund the money for all the readings I did.”

The hammock wildly bounced up and down, and Merlin sat up in alarm to figure out the source of the disturbance. “If anything is going to kill him,” Will growled as he quickly moved to get up, “it’s going to be me.”

“But--”

“Don’t even start, Em! We both know you’re complete shit when it comes to standing up for yourself, which is why you have me around.” Will ran a hand through his dark brown hair, almost as if he was a bit embarrassed to be admitting such a thing so freely. “Look, I don’t really get the stuff you do, even though you’ve tried to explain it to me a couple times, but I still believe you. So it pisses me off that you tried to help that asshole, and he just blew you off. And made you give back the money just because he doesn’t like his fucked up fortune!”

Merlin gave Will a faint grin. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do that. In case you couldn’t tell, I kind of don’t want him to die.”

For a second, Will looked like he was going to protest some more, but eventually sighed as he sank back down next to Merlin. “Yeah, well, that’s because you’re a giant bleeding heart with ears.” He pushed at the ground with his toes, lazily swinging them back and forth before he asked, “You sure about this? Not saying you’re wrong, just… What did you see anyways?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” Merlin shuddered, the images projecting into his mind once more without needing any real effort on his part. “You know how it’s all jumbled together, like when you’re fast forwarding through a movie and only catch bits and pieces. But they all involve him getting really hurt. …Or worse.”

“…Remind me to never tease you about not wanting to watch horror movies again,” Will joked in a weak attempt to lighten the mood, his normal ruddy complexion paled. “Is there any way you can find out when it’ll happen?”

“The festival,” Merlin whispered, repeating himself when he realized Will didn’t hear him. “One of the first things I definitely saw was people celebrating the festival that starts tomorrow. You know how they’re doing kites over the water this year?”

“Yeah?” Will raised his eyebrows and snorted. “Don’t tell me one of those things will dive-bomb him or something?”

It was hard to stay focused on the issue at hand when Will kept interjecting his quirky brand of humor, but Merlin found himself appreciative of the gesture. "No, but you know those bicycle carts they use for giving people tours on the boardwalk? I think someone will try and run him off the pier with one once the kites are flying."

"Damn, just how many people in this town has Blondie pissed off already?"

"Will, this is serious!"

"Yeah, yeah." Will waved his hand nonchalantly. "I know you want to help him and all, but what are you going to do if he refuses to listen to you?"

Sounds of crickets performing their nightly mating rituals filled the silence that followed while Merlin struggled to come up with an answer.

"...I'll try to talk to him one more time, and if he still doesn't believe me, then..." Merlin chewed on his bottom lip before continuing, "Then I guess I'll just have to protect him from everything I saw in the crystal."

"In other words, you're going to stalk him."

"I am not stalking him."

"Sure sounds like it to me." Will chuckled. "You sure you just don't have a crush on the guy or something?"

Even in the dark, the blush that spread across Merlin's features was visible, and he spluttered indignantly, "What are you talking about? Arthur probably hates me right now, and I'm starting to feel the same way about him."

"Yet you're worrying an awful lot about someone you don't even know." Will shoved him playfully. "Why would you do that if you don't care about the guy?"

Merlin turned on his side, facing away from Will and closing his eyes. "...You know why."

There was a loud exhale of breath, and when Will spoke again, all humor was gone from his voice. "Shit, Merlin, you were just a kid. You know it wasn't your fault."

Even after all the years that had passed, the reason behind Merlin's hatred of the crystal still festered deep inside him. He wiped the few tears that escaped before they could roll any farther down his cheeks as he answered, "I know, but what's my excuse this time, now that I'm old enough to know better? I can't let someone die just because I don't like the guy."

Will hummed noncommittally as he began to swing the hammock again at an obvious loss of what to say. Merlin blearily opened his eyes, pushing back painful memories to proper recesses of his mind. "Hey Will?"

The swinging stopped. "Yeah?"

Using only his chin, Merlin gestured to the sea cliffs, which were barely viewable in the horizon. Even if he squinted, he wouldn't be able to make out the dragon, but he knew it was there. "Have you ever thought about... You know... Trying it for yourself?"

"Once or twice," Will replied, knowing exactly what Merlin was referring to. He settled back against the hammock, sticking his hands under his head. "Like when my mom left, or my dad lost his job and started to drink all the time."

The way Will calmly spoke about his family life, one would assume he wasn't bothered by the hardships he'd experienced, but Merlin knew better. The truth was, Will was more like a brother than a friend to Merlin, especially since he had been unofficially adopted by Hunith when he was sixteen. She took him in her house, fed and clothed him like he was her own, and he insisted on paying her back by doing odd chores around the house. After high school--which he swore he only passed thanks to what he affectionately called Hunith's "nagging"--he got certified in different fields of maintenance work just so he could be more of assistance to the bed and breakfast. Merlin sometimes even felt guilty about it, like Will was the more diligent son of the two men.

"I didn't go through with it though, obviously," Will awkwardly explained after the momentarily lapse in conversation. "Because knowing my luck, I'd probably cock it up somehow and end up splattering myself on the rocks all for some stupid urban legend. Besides, my life turned out pretty alright without it."

A pause, and then the question Merlin knew had been coming up next: "What about you?"

It was surprising that Will didn't know already, considering the two hardly kept anything from each other, but Merlin never willingly brought up that period of his life to anyone before. "...Remember that time I was really sick and couldn't leave my house for a whole month?"

"Of course I do. Your poor mom was freaking out, because it happened right after--"

Even though he couldn't bear to look at his friend at the moment, Merlin could tell the connection had been made when he felt Will go completely rigid besides him.

"...You didn't, you fucking didn't." Will's tone was akin to thunder crashing in a storm, which was oddly appropriate given the topic. "Tell me you didn't."

"I didn't," Merlin reassured him quietly, finally forcing himself to turn back towards Will. "I tried to, though. That same night, but I ended up getting caught in the rain. They found me halfway up to the cliffs, shivering from hypothermia under a tree somewhere."

"What the fuck, Em? You were like, what, five at the time?" Will stared at him in disbelief before shaking his head. "Fuck."

Merlin knew how bad it sounded, and he would always regret putting his family through hell for an unfounded idea. But then, a voice in the back of his head always countered, What if it worked?

"Probably goes without saying, but I'm glad you didn't get to go through with it. I mean, if anyone could do it, you could, thanks to your--" Will twiddled his fingers, a gesture that was supposed to represent Merlin's magic. "--and all, but still. Wouldn't want to take a chance."

"Yeah," Merlin said dully, not really sure how else to respond to that.

Sighing loudly, Will rose to his feet again, stretching out before gathering the empty dishes that lay in the grass. "I should get some sleep; no doubt Room Six is going to call me for another clog in the morning. And look, I know your mother probably already offered, but don't be afraid to come back here if you need to. This place has been boring as hell without you."

Merlin stood up as well, knowing that if he didn't move soon, he would be liable to fall asleep right there in the hammock. "I know... Thanks Will."

"I mean it, I'll even let you share my bed, as long as you keep your hands to yourself. Of course, that won't be a problem now that it sounds like you have a thing for Blondie."

"Ugh." Merlin wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Remind me why we're friends again?"

Will threw an arm over Merlin's shoulder, pulling him in for a sideways hug. "Who else is going to take care of you besides your family?"

***

Arthur had always been something of an early riser, prepared to greet the new day as quickly as possible. It just made sense to him; after all, the sooner he completed his monstrous list of daily tasks, the sooner they would get done.

But the truth of the matter was that Arthur’s schedule just seemed to grow longer as his nights grew shorter. Gwaine often joked that Arthur would sleep when he was dead, and recently Arthur was starting to believe it.

Even when he was on vacation (or at least under the pretense of one), his tendency to wake five minutes before his alarm went off remained the same. So while the rest of the world around him still curled up in a blanket of sluggish darkness, Arthur hurried to dress in a white t-shirt and shorts the shade of the trademark Pendragon red. After he fastened the laces of his tennis shoes, he quietly made his way outside.

Another reason Arthur loved mornings so much was because it was the only time of the day he could fully devote to himself without feeling like he was shirking his other duties. Even Uther Pendragon himself didn’t conduct business this early, though it wasn't for a constant lack of trying. As traitorous to his father and the company as it made him feel, Arthur was at least glad to be granted this one simple pleasure.

He popped in the earbuds of his mp3 player, and the classic sounds of Chopin washed over him as he stretched the kinks out of his legs. The beachside wasn’t quite a literal hop, skip, and a jump away from the bed and breakfast, but it was close enough that he soon found his feet pounding against wet sand. With every step, the leftover water from last night’s high tide would spray up, hitting the backs of his calves as he ran. The sensation--along with the sea breeze ruffling his golden hair--left him feeling absolutely invigorated.

This was what he could finally find appealing about Ealdor. Not the town’s bustling boardwalk or even the dragon on the cliffs, but just the act of enjoying the calming atmosphere around oneself. It almost made him wish he really was there just for vacation, and he realized he couldn't remember the last time he had been on one. The problem was, being in the hotel business meant all the usual holiday spots would only serve to remind him of work. But while he was still young and healthy, he could feel the stress he was under grinding him down relentlessly; it would never let up until he was little more than dust blowing in the wind.

That settled it; once he finished in Ealdor, he was putting in for some actual time off. Whether he went far away where they didn't have concerns about profit margins or development setbacks, or just stayed in his dark and empty apartment and finally weeded through the shows he always recorded but never had the chance to watch--it didn't really matter.

Arthur snorted at thought; who was he trying to kid? Even in the unlikely chance he was granted leave, he'd probably go stir-crazy from sheer boredom the very first day. It was in his nature to always be productive in some way, or else he grew antsy and started to pace like a wild animal in a cage.

He was even using his morning run to brainstorm different ways of showcasing Ealdor's marketability. With a fresh and clear head on his shoulders, he could now easily formulate how to push the relaxing properties of the town into the focus of his report. It could be the perfect place to unwind and get away from the bustle of everyday life, and he made a mental note about the possible services a Pendragon Suites could provide that would play into that theme. Perhaps a sauna or even a day-spa.

As for the other aspects of Ealdor, Arthur realized he should have just left those to his friends in the first place. Always a self-proclaimed people person and lover of food, Gwaine could handle a review of the shops and restaurants, no doubt trying out everything at Arthur's own expense. And the whole dragon business seemed right up Lance's alley, for he had always been interested in the study of local history and folktales.

Satisfied he now had a viable plan to tackle the project, Arthur felt like he had shifted the weight of the world from his shoulders. The relief might have been short-lived, but he basked in it all the same, a wide smile spreading across his features.

The first tendrils of dawn were just starting to streak across the sky when he returned to the bed and breakfast, and he had suspected he would be alone in watching the sun lazily make its ascent in the horizon. So he was surprised to see Hunith sitting out on the front porch, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders to ward off any chill lingering behind. "Good morning Mr. Debois," she called softly. "Did you sleep well?"

The usage of his mother's maiden name threw Arthur off for a second, but then he remembered it was part of the alias he used when he signed for the room. "...Yes, very well, thank you."

"Good, I'm glad to hear it." She beamed at him, the expression so genuine Arthur felt himself returning it. "There's coffee and breakfast in the dining room, feel free to help yourself."

Nodding in gratitude, Arthur went inside, heading to his room first in desperate need of a shower. The door clicked behind him softly as he entered the suite, and he shook his head fondly when he saw his two friends still snoozing. Or at least in Gwaine's case, loudly snoring.

After he showered and dressed for the day, he returned downstairs, expecting to find the traditional continental breakfast waiting for him: stale danishes, cold cereal, fruit that made the wax ones look appetizing, the common hotel staples.

The enticing aroma that hit his nose even before he got to the dining room was the first clue on how wrong he was. When he entered, he could only gawk at the number of food choices that had been spread out on the table. To make all this would be a sizable workload for a kitchen crew, let alone one person, and the cost of it all must have been exorbitant. Once again he wondered just how The Dragon's Keep made any profit, and was tempted to say something about it, to offer his business expertise in the matter--

Except according to the business principles his father had constantly drilled into his head, this was practically his competition he was thinking about offering advice to, and he had to stop forgetting that. Had to stop thinking of Hunith's face, heartbroken and crushed once she found out the truth, for Pendragon Suites had a reputation of running smaller hotels out of town. Funny how Arthur never felt a twinge of guilt about those previous cases.

He crunched down on a piece of bacon, chewing it violently as he tried to banish the thought from his mind. Thankfully, the sounds of others entering the room provided a distraction, and he turned to see Gwaine and Lance lumbering in. "Good to see you two finally are awake."

While Lance mumbled a sheepish apology as he shuffled towards the coffee, Gwaine casually flipped Arthur the finger. "Just because we don't want to get up at the asscrack of dawn doesn't mean--wait, are you eating bacon?"

It wasn't until Gwaine pointed it out that Arthur realized this was the first "normal" breakfast he had in a while. It might have not been the healthiest choice, but he had to admit, it did taste a hell of a lot better than his nutritional shakes. "...Yeah?" he replied, swallowing the bite he had in his mouth. "Your point?"

Gwaine clapped a hand on Arthur's back, grinning cheekily. "I knew I could eventually make you see the light."

“Just don’t let it go to your head, alright? It’s big enough as it is,” Arthur snorted, hiding a smile behind his coffee mug as he took a sip. “Hurry up and eat, I want to talk to you about what we’re doing today before the other guests come in.”

At first there was grumbling on Gwaine's end at just the mention of discussing business so early and before he had proper food in his stomach. But once he learned he was to scope out all the shopping and entertainment Ealdor had to offer, his mood quickly improved. "Finally putting one of my many talents to good use, eh?" he drawled, winking in a way Arthur promptly ignored.

Though he didn't wear his excitement on his sleeve like Gwaine did, Lance seemed pleased with his role as well, his eyes shining brightly as he nodded to Arthur's instructions. The festival was the perfect time to gather information about the town's background and stories, and it was obvious that Lance was just as interested for himself as well as for his report.

Later, when the group left the inn in separate directions, Arthur's spirit was in high hopes that everything would fall into place. Despite the rough start, it seemed the reconnaissance mission was finally going his way.

Of course, it wasn’t too long before everything went downhill again.

It was a few minutes after noon when he reached the pier, allowing himself a small break before he would head back to the room to type up his portion of the report. He had been happy to find that there was nothing even close to a spa in Ealdor, meaning if one was offered by the Pendragon Suites location there, it would no doubt be in high demand. He added that to the growing file of notes that he kept on his phone, mindlessly pushing through the crowd of people who were out to celebrate the dragon festival.

A flash of color caught his attention out of the corner of his eye, and he glanced up to see assorted kites of different shapes and sizes soaring through the air. Even he was left speechless by the spectacle, and he just hoped Lance would know to write specifically about events like this, perhaps even take pictures as visual references. He even snapped a few using the camera on his own phone, just in case.

To his right, a pair that looked like father and son were making last minute adjustments on an obviously homemade kite. The young boy prattled on happily while the man looked down with an open, easy smile. When their kite joined the others already in the sky, they let out a combined shout of jubilation, the man wrapping his arms around his son to give a supportive squeeze.

Arthur huffed, sticking his earbuds in to block out any further noise. He didn't want to be reminded that his relationship with his father lacked the warmth he had seen in other families. He told himself that it was pointless to still be wishing for anything else than what he had.

After all, it wasn't like Uther was considered a horrible parent by any means. He was just...distant. And strict. He loved his children in his own particular way: not through overzealous displays of affection, but a constant push for them to excel in everything they did. The only problem was, Arthur often wondered if his father expected too much, accepting nothing less than perfection.

Sometimes he wasn't sure if his life was the way he wanted it, or the way Uther dictated it to be.

With a shake of his head, Arthur banished such thoughts from his mind, growing angry for allowing himself to get so melancholy. No matter what, he loved his father and would be forever grateful to him.

Besides, would his life be really that more enriched if Uther had taken time out of his overloaded schedule to spend more time with his son? Would Arthur have played a better game at all his high school soccer matches if he glanced up to see his father cheering wildly, instead of just another empty seat in the bleachers? Would his heart have healed faster the first time a girl broke it if he received sympathy and understanding instead of a stern lecture on how he didn't have time to mope around like a lovesick fool?

Did it matter that he didn't even know how to fly a kite himself because he didn't have anyone to teach him?

Arthur gritted his teeth as he turned the volume on his mp3 player completely up, drowning out any possible answer his mind could provide. He really didn't have time for this; he had a report to finish and--

The pier vibrating heavily underneath his feet stole the remainder of his focus, and his gaze darted upwards to see a bicycle-drawn carriage speedily heading in his direction with no sign of stopping. Not even having the chance to shout out in alarm, he jumped out of the way as the bicyclist smashed into the spot where he had been just a mere second before. The worn wood splintered under the magnitude of force, causing the railing he was leaning against to suddenly break away. Before Arthur could fully comprehend was happening, he was falling backwards, desperately grasping for something to latch onto other than thin air.

The last thing he remembered before hitting the water below was the feeling of lean but strong arms encircling around him protectively with a golden flash of light.

***

If Hunith ever learned about the type of crude language currently circulating through her son's head at the moment, she would probably wash his mouth out with soap on sheer principle alone.

Not that she had ever done such a thing before (never really needing anything besides a soft reprimand), but even Merlin was surprised by the degree of words he kept muttering under his breath. He wasn't sure whether to blame the severity of the situation, or just the fact that he spent time around Will recently. Perhaps it was even a combination of the two.

When he returned back to his room above the shop late Sunday night, Merlin had promptly passed out on top of his bedsheets, not able to stay awake long enough to bother changing from his clothes or even take off his shoes. While he knew he needed the rest, he didn't expect to be so exhausted that he would sleep right through his first alarm as well as his second.

Gaius banging on his door and yelling at him to get up already was what finally jolted Merlin to a groggy state of consciousness. Smacking his lips together in an attempt rid of the feeling his mouth was stuffed with cotton, he blearily blinked at the clock next to the bed. And blinked again when he noticed the time, letting out the curse that would be the first of many of the day.

Somehow he managed not to stumble down the stairs in his haste to leave, and he was reaching for the front door when Gaius stopped him: "And just where do you think you're going?"

"...Um." Merlin shrugged sheepishly. "Out?"

"Out," Gaius repeated, raising an eyebrow at Merlin's disheveled appearance. "Ah, I see. Tell me, in your plan to go out while still wearing the clothes you had on yesterday, did you forget you were scheduled the work shift this morning?"

Technically, it was kind of late to point that out, considering the morning was almost over anyway, but Merlin knew better than to bring that up in his argument. "I'm really sorry, but there's something I have to do. Besides, you know business is slower on weekdays, and everyone will probably be at the festival. So please, can I go?"

Maybe it was because of what happened yesterday that Gaius eventually relented. "Go on then," he sighed, shooing Merlin off, "I'll just have some chores for you to do when you get back."

After shouting his thanks, Merlin rushed outside but halted in his tracks when he reached a startling revelation: he had no idea where to even begin his search for Arthur. Sure, he figured out from the vision that the kites from the festival would play a key role, but the pier would be crowded with hundreds of people. How would he be able to find Arthur in time, if it wasn't too late already?

Magic prickled underneath his skin, and the voice that spoke within him before hummed in response to his question: Breathe. Think. You will find him.

Right, it's finally happened then, Merlin thought to himself, I've officially lost my mind if I think my magic has started talking to me.

Still, there didn't seem to be any harm in following the whispered instructions, so he exhaled slowly and closed his eyes, conjuring a clear image of Arthur on the back of his eyelids.

There was a sharp pull at the center of his chest, and his eyes flew back open in surprise. At first he thought he would have found someone physically tugging at him, but gasped when he saw a trail of golden, sparkling light form a pathway in front of him.

"...Great, apparently I have some sort of mystical GPS," he said aloud, thankful that no one was around to hear him. "That's...good to know, I guess."

Even with his magic leading him (which definitely would take some getting used to), there was still the matter of Merlin reaching Arthur before anything happened. Cursing his lack of a car, he ran the entire way there, completely out of breath by the time he arrived at the pier.

"Arthur!" he called out, hopping and down over the crowd to get a better view; his magic was still trying to guide him, but it kept getting trampled underneath the feet of people who were oblivious to it. After apologizing to the third person he accidentally bumped, he finally spotted a familiar head of blond hair and called out again. "Arthur!"

Whether Arthur heard him or not, Merlin wasn't sure. All that mattered was the next thing he knew, the exact same bicycle cart from his vision was on a collision course straight for Arthur.

"Arthur!" Merlin cried out fruitlessly one last time as he shoved his way through the throng, unwilling to come all this way just to watch the scene from the reading unfold right in front of him.

Sheer panic filled Merlin’s chest as he watched Arthur fall off the edge of the broken pier, and with an unexpected burst of adrenaline (as well a chorus of “shit shit shit" mumbled under his breath), Merlin dove after Arthur without a second thought.

Even though he had memorized a few spells, most of Merlin's magic was based on pure instinct alone. It was like an unconscious part of him tapped into some unknown power welled deep inside him, bringing it to the surface. The only problem was that he had yet to learn how to fully control his gifts and bend them perfectly to his will. Which meant he could wrap himself around Arthur, encasing the two of them in magical barrier that would absorb some of the impact from the fall, but he couldn't prevent them from hitting the water altogether.

(Then again, that was probably a good thing, considering he wouldn't be reasonably able to explain any obvious use of magic with spectators around.)

The frigid temperature of the water was what shocked him the most. They were only submerged for only a few seconds, yet he could already feel the cold creep into his bones as he desperately pulled them both to the surface.

Arthur hung like an unresponsive rag doll in his arms, and Merlin wasn't even able to tell if he was dead or merely unconscious while struggling to keep them both afloat. With a strained grunt, he awkwardly tugged the limp, bulky body back to the shore, never being so grateful in his entire life when his feet touched solid ground again.

His lungs felt like they were on fire and his muscles were screaming in agony, but he still managed to drag Arthur onto the beach. Merlin checked for a pulse as soon as he could, breathing a sigh of relief when he felt a heartbeat under cool, clammy skin. "C'mon," he muttered as he slapped Arthur's cheek gently, wondering if he had to perform CPR without really knowing how. "C'mon, you can't die on me after I went through all the trouble of saving your life."

Arthur abruptly jerked his body upwards before he groggily rolled onto his side, violently coughing up seawater. Not sure what else to do, Merlin calmly rubbed his back and asked tentatively, "Are you okay?"

"...Yeah," Arthur croaked, spitting in disgust one more time. "I think I'm--"

Merlin was roughly shoved backwards, landing in the sand with a yelp as Arthur whirled around to face him. "You!" Arthur shouted, his voice hoarse and scratchy as he pointed lividly in Merlin's direction. "What did you do?"

"Me?" Merlin squawked in indignation, scrambling to his feet and trying to brush the grit from his body with no success. “I’m pretty sure I just saved you, Arthur!”

“Saved me?” Arthur spluttered as he stumbled to stand as well, wiping the stinging saltwater out of his eyes and off his face. Merlin grimaced in sympathetic understanding; his own outfit was soaked and starting to chafe, and he probably had sand in places he didn’t even want to think about.

Then Arthur peeled off his dripping t-shirt off his chest in an attempt to wring it out, and Merlin’s breath hitched in his throat. Once again he was forced to acknowledge how good-looking and fit Arthur really was. He couldn’t help but gawk as rivulets of water coursed down from Arthur’s broad shoulders, weaving and whirling around firm and well-defined muscles before nestling in the smattering of dark blonde hair that disappeared into the waistband of Arthur’s jeans. The sun hit his glistening, tan skin at all the right angles, and Merlin felt a rush of blood heat his cheeks.

Damn it, Merlin thought. Maybe Will was right; maybe he was just a little bit attracted to Arthur. And wouldn’t that be just fucking fantastic?

If Arthur read anything in his bemused expression, he didn’t mention it. “You, saved me,” he repeated, staring at Merlin like he had sprouted a second head. As if the concept of being saved by him was the hardest thing in the world to believe.

(Okay, maybe it was, given the current circumstances, but still...)

“Yeah, I don’t know what I was thinking,” Merlin quipped dryly, only to bite his tongue in afterthought. Judging by the way Arthur bristled in response, that had definitely been the wrong thing to say, and he hastily tried to change the subject. "Hey, should you be moving around so much? Maybe we should wait for help to arrive, to make sure you're okay."

"I'm fine," Arthur growled, and yeah, while it did look like he had recovered relatively quickly, Merlin wasn't fully convinced. "Arthur, you were unconscious for a little while there. You need medical attention."

"Merlin." Arthur's tone was as bitter and biting as the seawater itself. "You will tell no one about this."

"But..." Merlin started to argue as he glanced towards the pier, confused on how Arthur could expect the whole thing quiet when there had to be other witnesses. He wondered if anyone in the crowd he saw gathering had the sense to call the paramedics and had checked to see if the bicyclist was hurt. Surely it all had been a simple accident...right?

A hand suddenly shot out to yank Merlin by the collar, and soon his face was inches away from Arthur's own. "No one, and I mean it," Arthur hissed, his breathing hot and heavy against Merlin's chilled skin. "Keep this a secret, and I just might not press charges for reckless endangerment. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"

Merlin staggered back, reeling like the weight of Arthur's words had physically struck him. He wasn't naive enough to think they would be on the friendliest of terms now, but he really didn't expect to be threatened. "'Reckless endangerment'...Arthur, do you think I meant for this to happen?"

"I'm not an idiot, Merlin; that's exactly what I think. You're involved with this, somehow." Arthur relinquished his grip on Merlin's shirt with a look of disdain. "Unless you're going to try and tell me you were just magically at the right place at the right time."

The urge to scream, Yes, actually, I do have magic, and I just used it to save your sorry ass, bubbled up within Merlin, but he focused on keeping his voice calm as he replied, "I was just trying to help, but if you don't believe me, fine. I'll leave you alone from now on."

Before Arthur could respond, Merlin spun around and hurried to make his way up the beach, not wanting his watering eyes to be visible. He was drained, wet, hurt, and a little bit nauseous, but most of all he was angry. Angry at the crystal and its effect on him, angry at himself for believing he could fix things so easily, and angry at Arthur for being completely blind to the truth.

In retrospect, it would hardly be considered the most mature moment of his life, but Merlin couldn't help but turn back and shout, "I hope when the dog attacks you, it bites you right in the ass!"

"...What dog?!"

The realization that he had unknowingly revealed the next part of the vision dawned on him, and before he could even blink, Arthur was upon him once again. "Merlin, what dog?"

***

“Thank God you're safe now, Arthur. I don't know what I would do if you were seriously injured, or...”

Arthur blinked; while the concern over his well-being was appreciated, he never expected the sentiment to be so openly expressed by his father of all people. Bitterness over the fact that Uther was revealing his emotions only after his son was involved in a relatively serious accident buzzed in the back of Arthur’s head, but he immediately squashed all such thoughts before they spread any further. He was now determined to no longer question his father's feelings for him, no matter what brought them to Uther's normally austere and taciturn surface.

“I’m fine, really, Father.” Arthur stilled his voice to come off as cool and collected, even though inside he was nothing but a tangle of frazzled nerves.

But he wasn’t going to let on his distress in fear it would be taken as a sign of frailty. That was part of the unspoken Pendragon family code: never give anyone any weakness they could use against you, whether it was in the boardroom or in real life. For his entire life, he thought that applied to dealings with family as well, but after being privy to emotional cracks in his father’s façade, he wasn’t so sure. “It was just a freak occurrence, nothing more.”

He didn’t bother to share with his father that the situation at the pier was supposedly just one of many Arthur would have to face if he remained in Ealdor. That was only if the “predictions” of a certain gangly, blue-eyed, self-proclaimed psychic were to be taken seriously.

When confronted by Arthur after making that cryptic “dog” comment, Merlin confessed that he had foreseen Arthur’s death in the crystal reading. That the longer Arthur stayed in town, the more likely his life was in grave danger.

If he hadn't been still recovering from the shock of his fall at the time, Arthur would have laughed at Merlin's explanation. Not just for the utter ridiculousness of it (wasn't a fortune of death just a bit overly dramatic?), but also the sheer relief that rolled over him when he found out that was the real reason Merlin had told him to leave Ealdor after the reading. He would rather take vague warnings from fake psychics over possible public detractors of his company any day.

In the end, Arthur had cut off ramblings about a rabid dog with a curt warning that Merlin should stay the hell away from him, or else.

And yet, something still bothered him after the day's events: if Merlin was just a common charlatan with no real psychic abilities, how did he know to be at the pier just when the accident happened? Arthur knew there was a possibility he could have drowned--he didn't remember passing out, nor did he know long he had been unconscious--if Merlin hadn't been there. The only reason--besides his wounded pride--Arthur hadn't offer his gratitude was because he had been so sure Merlin had been involved with the accident somehow. But now, as he looked back over what happened after recounting it to his father, he was starting to have his doubts. What if...what if...

"Arthur, are you listening to me?"

Arthur jerked back to the present, mentally reprimanding himself for letting his attention wander while he still had his father on the phone. "I'm sorry, can you repeat that?"

"I asked if you knew of any news reports on the matter," Uther said, his usual formality locked back in place. "Has anyone discovered your identity because of this?"

An image of Merlin flashed in Arthur's mind for a brief second before he shook his head. He wasn't going to mention Merlin to his father, not until he got to the bottom of what was really going on. "None that I know of, sir. It's possible that witnesses at the pier may have spoken to someone about it, but I believe no one knew I was involved." No one except Merlin.

Usually his father could tell when he was lying (Arthur had made no mention of being rescued by Merlin in his story, and instead simply stated he had swam back to shore himself), but perhaps Uther's ability was dampened because of the distance between them. "Good, good. I hate this cloak-and-dagger way of business just as much as you do, but I ask that you continue to keep your reason for being there a secret for now. I'll send a PR representative there just in case any more mishaps occur, as well as a few members of our security team."

Arthur frowned in confusion. "Wouldn't that make me come off as more conspicuous? And I hardly think one accident with a bike warrants bodyguards, do you?" He couldn’t shake the distinct notion that there was something his father wasn’t quite telling him.

"There have been insider reports that suggest we aren't the only ones looking to acquire a holding in Ealdor within a year," There was a pause on Uther's end, and when he spoke again, his voice was brimming with obvious disdain. "It seems that Essetir Lodge wants to try their hand at the territory as well."

Essetir Lodge was hardly one of their biggest competitors, but still a formidable opponent and not one to be taken lightly. The company's CEO, Cenred King, was considered by many to be too young for his position, but proved to be a shrewd and cutthroat businessman. Quite literally, if the rumors surrounding him were to be believed. Stories about shady dealings and grisly murders that happened in one of his hotel chains frequently splashed into the news, but despite many investigations pointing in Cenred's direction, he had never been officially charged with anything.

"Why now?" Arthur asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Ealdor is closer to their main headquarters than ours; you’d think they would've swooped down on the location ages ago."

Uther scoffed, and Arthur could almost feel his father sneer through the phone line. "It's because Cenred is a damn coward when it comes to expanding his empire on his own, but seeks to undermine this company in any way he can. His business practices are unethical and dubious at best, no matter if the police findings always mysteriously come up short. You best be on your guard at all times now, Arthur. I don't trust that man at all."

The concept was so surreal, to think of the lengths a person might go just in order to succeed. But years of experience had already prepared Arthur on how desperate and greedy men could become. "Of course, Father."

Seemingly satisfied with Arthur's answer, Uther pressed on to add, "Also, I have taken the liberty of researching a few possible properties that are for sale in that area. I emailed you the list; since I want a rush on this job, I'm putting you in charge of deciding on which location would be best."

A burst of pride rocketed through Arthur at being granted such a huge responsibility and honor. "Thank you, sir. I'll scout them out right away, as well as send you our reports on the tourist trade."

"See that you do, Arthur." There was a click, and then a dial tone in Arthur's ear, but his father's habit of hanging up without exchanging goodbyes never really bothered him anymore. Especially not when it seemed his day could be salvaged after all.

Running his hand through his dark wavy locks as he came from the bathroom, Gwaine halted mid-step when he spotted Arthur. "Shit, you're smiling after being on the phone with your father... That can only mean one thing--the world is about to end, isn't it?"

Arthur didn't rise to take the bait, and instead waved the cell phone he held in his hand. "Thanks for letting me use this, but I'm going to need to borrow it for a little longer."

His own cell phone had fallen out of his pocket and was now residing on the bottom of the ocean floor somewhere, with all his notes and data with it. Arthur mourned the loss like it had been a limb shorn from his body.

“Hell no.” Gwaine’s deft fingers pinched the phone away before Arthur could protest. “I already gave out my number to a few people when I was out earlier; I don’t want to give the wrong idea if another guy was answering my cell phone.” He waggled his eyebrows lecherously. “Of course, if you actually took up my offer...”

“I told you before, you’re not my type, Gwaine.” Arthur rolled his eyes, not wanting to admit that he had almost taken Gwaine up on his “offe”r once or twice in the past. But then Arthur would return to his senses and remember that this was Gwaine--even if he oozed “pure sex” (as he so modestly put it), the two of them would probably drive each other up a wall if they ever ended up together. Well, more so than usual.

Gwaine took a running leap to land on the bed next to Arthur, the springs in the mattress squeaking in loud protest from the bulk of his weight. “Bullshit, I’m everybody’s type.” He stretched against the covers lazily while fixing Arthur with a cheeky grin. “Even people I haven’t met before just take one look at me and boom! Instantly their type.”

“That is, until you open your mouth and speak, ruining your allure,” Lance countered good-naturedly as he entered the room, the white plastic bags in his hands filled with tourist pamphlets, various souvenirs, and Chinese takeaway. Gwaine tore into the bag containing the latter, and feigned offense around a mouthful of pork chow mein. “Thou doth wound me, good sirs."

The look Gwaine pulled was so comical, Arthur couldn't help but chuckle at the sight. The earlier events at the pier were still weighing heavily on his mind, but the high from receiving his father's praise was quickly counteracting any lingering ill effects. It was then that he realized how much he missed joking around with his friends, and wondering if they were right in assuming he was stressing himself too much over his job.

"And yet, somehow, life manages to go on," Arthur retorted sarcastically, ducking out of the pathway of the sauteed mushroom thrown in his direction.

"But seriously, Arthur, do you even know what your type is anymore?" Gwaine snorted, settling back onto the bed as he opened a bag of egg rolls. "No offense, but all you seem interested in lately is work. So unless you have a fetish for financial reports I really don't want to know about..."

Arthur groaned, stealing the egg rolls out of Gwaine's grasp as penance for earlier. "Gwaine, I am not talking to you about my sex life." Or lack thereof.

"What I think Gwaine's trying to say is that we're worried about you. You just seem so tense and withdrawn lately, and that was even before we came here," Lance started, throwing Gwaine another pack of egg rolls before any squabbling could start. "You could always try to juggle business with pleasure, you know."

"I tried that with Gwen, and you saw how well that worked out for me." Spotting Lance's flinch at his self-deprecating words, Arthur quickly gave his friend his best apologetic smile. "I told you already, it's okay. You give her a lot more than I ever could, and she's much happier now than she could ever be with me. Besides, while I loved her, it was like being with my sister... If my sister wasn't a blood-sucking harpy, that is."

Gwaine grunted in agreement as he wolfed down his food, but Lance studied Arthur in a quiet way that became slightly unsettling. Not willing to continue the conversation any further, Arthur took a bite from his egg roll before grabbing his laptop bag off the spot of his bed. "Anyways, I'm going to try find someplace in this damn town that actually has a decent enough internet signal and try to get some actual work done."

That was another thing he mentally added to the list of features the Pendragon Suites location in Ealdor should have: a business center, complete with WiFi, fax machines, and anything else for the person who couldn't leave their work at home. People like him, who felt naked without access to some sort of technology and reminders of the daily grind they escaped from in the first place.

“Arthur.” Lance’s tone was casual, but his eyes were filled with obvious concern. “...Be careful while you’re out there.”

“Yeah, watch out for any more rogue cyclists.” Gwaine added with a cheeky grin, letting out an oof when Arthur chucked a pillow at his face.

"Don't worry." Arthur grabbed one of the fortune cookies on a whim--it reminded him of Merlin and his supposed "fortunes", and he found himself shaking his head at the absurdity of the idea again--and stuffed it into his back pocket. "I think I’ve had enough excitement for one day."

***

Apparently, Merlin was a bit of a masochist.

He had to be; why else would he be so determined to protect Arthur, especially after the incident at the pier had hardly gone in Merlin's favor. He finally had the chance to explain the outcome of the reading--he didn't go into specific imagery, but stressed how much danger Arthur's life was currently in--and yet Arthur still refused to believe him, probably chalking Merlin up to be some sort of creepy stalker.

Common sense dictated that he probably should just wash his hands of the whole matter and walk away before he got even more involved. Even if Merlin ranted and raved, pleading until he was blue in the face, Arthur would never listen to a single word he had to say in the matter. It wouldn't be Merlin's fault that the stupid prat got himself killed.

But even though Arthur's safety wasn't technically his responsibility, Merlin would never forgive himself if he stood by and let one of his visions come true. And wasn't just the loss of a life that bothered him any more.

Will's voice popped into his head, teasing about a possibility of having a crush on Arthur, and Merlin groaned. If he did indeed have a crush on Arthur, he really was a complete and utter masochist for falling for a person who belittled him constantly. It shouldn't matter that Arthur had boyish good looks that could make one's heart skip a beat if his sour, egotistical personality ruined it all.

No, it was more than just an unfortunate infatuation; Merlin was still curious as to why his magic reacted so strongly to Arthur in the first place. And there was only one person he knew that could help him in that department.

As soon as Merlin stepped into the shop, Gaius took one look at him dripping water on the floor and held up a hand before Merlin could say anything. "Not one word until you go upstairs and change out of those wet clothes. Whatever you have to say can wait until you're no longer ruining the carpet."

Even after a thorough shower, Merlin still felt like he had a layer of salt and sand caked on him, but at least it was nice to be in an outfit that didn't rub uncomfortably whenever he walked. Gaius handed him a cup of hot tea and directed him to a chair as soon as Merlin came back downstairs, his eyebrow arched in the classic quizzical position. "Now, care to tell me why you've returned so late, soaked from head to toe with seawater?"

Merlin spilled everything, starting with his magic being drawn to Arthur, to the vivid and horrendous images of his reading, and ending with what happened at the pier that day. Gaius gasped every now and then, or made little noises of disapproval, but for the most part remained quiet as Merlin told his story.

"...And that's about it, so far." Merlin sighed, his shoulders slumping forward from exhaustion. "What does it all mean? What should I do?"

Gaius hummed pensively, heading to the nearby bookcase to start flipping through the volumes shelved there. “Honestly, I don’t know if you can do anything more than you already have to keep Arthur out of trouble, but maybe you can try a different approach. He mentioned something about research for his father, correct? Perhaps if you assist him, the sooner it’ll be complete, and he can leave earlier than expected.”

“...That’s great, except I only see one problem with that plan.”

“Oh? And what would that be?”

Merlin scowled. “It means I would actually have to spend time with him.”

“Merlin!” Gaius snapped his book shut. “You seem so keen on saving the man, yet act like you don’t want anything to do with him.”

“But Uncle Gaius, you don’t understand,” Merlin whined, running his fingers through his hair in exasperation. “Did you miss the part where I made it clear that it's more of Arthur wanting nothing to do with me? I tried to explain what’s at stake, but when I tried to tell him about my vision, he just brushed me off with a warning to stay away. He’s more likely to call the police the next time he sees me then let me help him.”

He slid down in his chair, glumly toeing at a snag in the carpet with his bare feet. “Arthur probably thinks I’m sort of freak, and maybe I really am.”

“Don’t ever think that,” Gaius gently admonished, coming over to Merlin’s side and giving his shoulder a comforting squeeze. “You know as well as I do that people tend to lash out when faced with things they don’t understand. They get scared.”

“Scared?” Merlin echoed, his inflection overflowing with obvious skepticism. “I doubt it. I don’t think anything could scare Arthur, or else I would have used it against him already.” After seeing Gaius frown in reproach, he hastily added, "Only if it would make him leave Ealdor faster."

"Be that as it may, I sense there's something about him that he's not quite telling us, so I think you should investigate the matter more thoroughly. Besides, if your magic seems to be drawn to him, he can't be that bad, can he?"

After a moment of silence--and an intense staring contest that Gaius definitely won--Merlin threw his hands up in the air in defeat. "Fine. But if you have to bail me out of jail later because the ass managed to find a reason to call the cops on me, I get to say I told you so."

"Of course you do," Gaius chuckled dryly, moving to stack a few selected books together before thrusting them in Merlin's direction. "In the meantime, I have a little bit of a homework assignment for you. While your case has always been an unique one, these texts are the closest thing I have to explain how to control your instinctive magic a little better. I was going to wait until you were a bit older, but now it sounds like you need the crash course."

Merlin grunted painfully as the books were plopped into his lap, his legs straining to support the combined weight."...Thanks, I guess. But aren't you going to stay and help me with research?" He glanced up, blinking in confusion as he finally realized Gaius wasn’t wearing his usual tie-dye shirt and faded hemp-based cargo pants. The image of his uncle being dressed in a button up shirt and wool slacks was a rare one, and Merlin raised a questioning eyebrow.

“Not tonight, I’m afraid,” Gaius replied, his cheeks tinged with what looked suspiciously like a blush. “Alice is back in town, so I thought we could get back together for old times’ sake and maybe--”

“La la la, not listening!” Merlin stuck his fingers in his ears and stuck his tongue out playfully, laughing as Gaius huffed in annoyance. “This is one of those times, Merlin, where I wonder if you’re really responsible to handle the shop by yourself, given your apparent level of maturity.”

“Wait, does that mean I get to go--”

No,” Gaius interrupted before Merlin could even finish his question. “You have the evening shift to make up for this morning, so study down here between customers and try to stay out of trouble. I’ll be back later.”

“Yes sir,” Merlin mumbled, transferring the stack of books to the ground by his feet before cracking open the top one. He gave a small wave of acknowledgement when Gaius left, already getting lost in the secrets bound in gilded ink on yellowed, aged pages. While the text could be a bit pretentious and stuffy at times, Merlin ate up every word, always eager to discover anything he could about his magic and its origins.

The majority of those who claimed to practice the art were clueless when it came to real magic, and those who were aware of its actual existence often had to study for years before they could even form a simple spell--like his uncle, who used to be constantly amazed by the stuff Merlin could do without uttering a single incantation. The awe eventually wore off, especially when Gaius discovered that while Merlin was gifted in the arts of sorcery, and thought leaving him untrained would be an absolute waste, like an uncut diamond encased in stone.

(Personally, Merlin thought one of the reasons Gaius was so adamant in his teachings was because he wanted to show off his knowledge of the occult to someone who would appreciate and actually understand it. )

However, even with Gaius's extensive library, Merlin was unable to locate information on exactly what he needed. Poring over dusty manuscripts that discussed reincarnation (yes, their names were "Arthur" and "Merlin", but he wasn't even going to travel down that route of thought) to tomes about soul-bonding that contained pictures that made him go red, he made his way down the stack of selected reading, tossing the unhelpful ones off to a pile. Flipping through the very last one (which talked about destiny and fate in such a pedantic manner that he went cross-eyed), he was forced to accept that--much like other aspects of his magic--his issue was unprecedented and never recorded before.

He snuck a glance at the clock on the wall, surprised to see how much time had passed; it was nearly closing time already, and he had yet to have a single customer. Well, sure, he had a couple of squealing teenage girls who looked around and tittered but didn't actually bother speaking to him before they ran out, a few college students that made him repeat himself multiple times before they understood the shop didn't sell those kind of herbs, and even one off-kilter evangelical lady who claimed he was going to burn in hell for promoting witchcraft.

(He may or may not have made her trip over her gaudy mauve heels after he calmly directed her to the exit, tired of just gritting his teeth into a polite smile as she spewed nonsense on how he was consorting with the devil.)

But for the most part, it was the quiet night he originally expected it to be, and contemplated closing the shop early. It wasn't like Gaius was going to be back anytime soon, if even at all that night--and Merlin nipped the thought in the bud before it progressed any further. He wanted to be able to go to sleep without disturbing mental images in his head, thank you very much.

Before he could flip the sign to "Closed" though, he went through all the preliminary procedures: he counted the money in the till, making a note in the ledger and filling in the day's date in the margin. He then entered the combination of the safe to put the money in, reinforcing the protection spell before leaving a note to Gaius about making a bank run sometime soon. Picking up the books off the floor, he rearranged them back on their appropriate shelves, knowing how much Gaius would gripe if they weren't put back in the right order. Lights were turned off, doors firmly locked, and Merlin did one last sweep of the shop. Satisfied everything seemed to be in its proper place, he started to head upstairs but then paused after a few steps.

“...Aithusa?” He called out, just then realizing that he hadn’t seen his kitten for the majority of the day. Usually Aithusa would have wrapped around Merlin’s ankles while he studied, mewing for attention the entire time. Nearly leaping the entire distance left to his room, Merlin scanned the unmade bed, the pile of dirty clothes on the floor, everywhere for any glimpse of the cat. “Aithusa, where are you hiding this time?”

The food and water bowls by the door looked untouched, and while he told himself not to get overly anxious just yet, Merlin still felt dread claw its way into his stomach. It wasn’t the first time Aithusa had escaped from the confines of the shop, always being an adventurous sort of thing despite his size. He probably got it from his sire, Kilgharrah, the ancient tomcat the shop was named after. Kilgharrah had shown up one day when Gaius was just starting his business, and while the cat hardly stayed in one place at a time, he was known to sun himself in the front window often, giving a golden-eyed glare to anyone who came too close. Kilgharrah had disappeared a few years back, but had left plenty of his offspring behind in Ealdor, Aithusa included.

Merlin worried at his bottom lip; while he didn’t like the idea of Aithusa being outside, he really didn’t like it when it was starting to get dark. He searched the shop one last time before resigning himself to the fact that Aithusa had definitely gotten out somehow, and Merlin had to find him before it was too late. With a sigh, he grabbed a flashlight and his keys, making sure the shop was locked before heading out to the alleyways. He figured that was the best place to start looking, and he cupped his hands around his mouth to project his voice. “Aithusa!”

Panic struck him square in the chest when there was still no sign anywhere; what if something had happened? What if someone didn’t see the blur of white before it was too late and couldn’t stop their vehicle in time? Merlin squeezed his eyes shut tightly to block out the image of Aithusa hurt and bleeding somewhere, and his voice cracked with desperation as he shouted again, “Aithusa! Where are you?!”

The “please” he tacked onto the end of the sentence was barely above a whisper, and he let out one shuddering breath as he struggled to calm himself down. He couldn’t let himself get so worked up, and tried to concentrate on the next best place to look. Perhaps at the docks? Or the dumpsters behind a restaurant?

Suddenly, his magic began to swirl around him, and Merlin widened his eyes in confusion; it had acted like this earlier, when he had been looking for--

And then he remembered: in the vision filled with the gnashing teeth of a rabid dog, Arthur had been protecting a ball of white fur in his arms.

“...No!” he cried out softly, the flashlight rattling on the pavement after he dropped it in shock. “Nonononono...”

Merlin stumbled over the flashlight as he started to run, accidentally kicking it out of his reach. But he didn’t need it any longer, not when he had a path of golden light to follow once more.

***

If he thought he could remain out of trouble for the remainder of the day, Arthur soon discovered he was sorely mistaken.

He had brushed off Lance’s concern for his safety at the time, because while the sentiment was touching, it had come off as completely unnecessary. After all, searching the town for some place to check his email hardly qualified as life-threatening in Arthur’s mind.

Then again, visiting the pier wasn’t supposed to be dangerous either, but he just mentally reaffirmed that the earlier incident had been a freak occurrence. He wasn’t going to let that--nor Merlin’s ramblings about a mysterious killer dog or Arthur’s imminent death--scare him away from the job he was determined to finish.

After a half hour of looking, Arthur managed to find an internet cafe that he could set up a temporary office in. While the technological services they offered weren’t as up-to-date as what he was used to, he was thankful they at least didn’t still rely upon a dial-up connection.

The printouts of the different properties his father had suggested were spread out in the table in front of him, and he fastidiously studied each sheet. If Arthur knew his father as well as he thought he did, no doubt Uther thoroughly weighed the pros and cons of each of the properties himself already, and probably had even selected a few of his personal favorites. It was almost like some sort of test, to see if Arthur could not only choose the same ones but also explain how he arrived at his answers.

Just by their descriptions alone he could weed some of them out of the lineup: while one location was in the right price range, it was too close to other establishments to fit the Pendragon Suites ideal. Most of the company's clientele wanted to be close enough to civilization without their privacy being compromised. Plus, if the hotel ever needed to expand in the future, it needed the extra space to do so, and the acreage the listing provided was just not up to par.

He also tossed the next one he viewed out of the pile of possibilities. It had the space to be sure, and even from the grainy photos that accompanied the ad he could tell that the area seemed scenic enough. The only thing he balked at was the listed price; money was not something the company had to worry about, but Arthur would still like to save as much as he could on the deal.

Jotting down a few notes in the paper margins of the locations he was interested in, Arthur wondered if he could squeeze in a property viewing that same day. But a glance outside at the setting sun told him it would have to wait, and Arthur sighed as he carefully gathered his papers and placed the stack in his bag along with his laptop. He didn't even bother finishing the instant coffee sludge the cafe had provided him, and threw the offending cup into the trash by the front door before walking out into the humid night air.

Even so far inland, he could smell the salt of the ocean drifting with the evening breeze, and he inhaled deeply. That was one thing he was going to miss when he finally left Ealdor: the ability to fill his lungs with the briny scent of the sea and sun-warmed sand. Back in home in Camelot, he couldn't even take one foot outside without the smog pollution and various city aromas assaulting his senses.

Logic dictated that he should turn in early--not just to recover from the day's events, but to also ensure that he had the energy for the property hunting he planned to do in the morning. But he wasn't quite willing to return to the room just yet, and instead found himself meandering Ealdor's sleepy streets with no real aim or purpose. There really wasn't much to see; unlike the city which always seemed to be awake and loudly blaring at all times of the day, after a certain time of night most of the town seemed to shut down for a long slumber. It was a bit surreal to walk a whole block before he saw another living soul, and the people he did run into were a select few that waved to him with such an open-ended friendliness it took him back at first. He was slightly curious of what kind of nightlife Ealdor could supply, if any at all.

Not that Arthur would personally be interested in such a thing; he never cared for the club scene that much in college, even if he did have a hidden fondness for dancing. And while he used to join his friends at a local pub to bond over a pint and a friendly wager over the game being broadcasted on the overhead television, work had consumed his night and weekend times eons ago. Maybe he really had become a "stick in the mud"--as Gwaine so affectionately put it--without fully realizing it, and he didn’t know how he was supposed to feel about that.

A thundering crash tore Arthur from his thoughts, and his eyes immediately darted in the direction the sound came from. The streetlights barely cut through the darkness that coated the nearby alley, and he was just about to brush it off as nothing when he heard the noise again, this time followed by a pitiful wailing.

At first, Arthur decided to ignore it, and started to walk away. But then his curiosity got the better of him, and he retraced his steps to stop at the mouth of the alleyway. He waited for another crash, but only heard frantic scraping against metal and yet another wretched howl. Whatever it was, it definitely didn't seem to be human, and Arthur prepared for the possibility of it being some sort of rodent as he cautiously lifted the lid of the trashcan that was closest to him.

It wasn't a rodent, but just as bad in Arthur's opinion. Something small and furry jumped out at him, and he let out a shout of alarm as he frantically tried to shake it off. Sharp claws dug into the bare skin of his arms despite his efforts, and he stopped his thrashing so he could look down at the white fur now coating his shirt. "Oh, great. I should have know it was you."

Merlin's cat (that had such a ridiculous name Arthur couldn't recall at the moment) mewed softly in response as it tried to bury itself in between Arthur's arms. The thing's normally pristine coat was absolutely filthy, streaked with dirt and god knows what else, and it reeked to high heaven. Arthur wanted to drop it where he stood and go bathe in anti-bacterial wash before he caught some sort of deadly disease, but he couldn't ignore how violently the animal was trembling. Even though there was no love lost between him and the animal, he could tell the poor creature was scared and didn't feel comfortable just abandoning it. "Come on then," he sighed, shifting the strap of the laptop bag on his shoulder so he could carry the cat easier. "I don't know if you're supposed to be out here, but I'll take you back anyways."

Just as Arthur was about to leave, he heard a low growl rumble behind him, making him freeze in place. He had a good idea what kind of animal made the sound, but still slowly turned around to face the dog baring its teeth in his direction. It was impossible to tell what breeds had been mixed together to contribute to its massive and threatening stature, with patchy black and brown fur covering a muscular torso that was marred by old battle wounds in the form of pale, grey scars. Its fangs, yellowed, diseased, and even broken in some areas, jutted over its slobbering jaws, covered in a rabid froth.

For a few heart-pounding seconds, it was a tense standoff between them, until Arthur made the mistake of stepping back. His foot knocked over an empty can, startling the dog and causing it to bark and lunge forward. As the cat hissed and writhed madly in his arms, Arthur managed to dodge the sharp fangs and start to run like hell.

He didn't sneak a glance behind him to see if the dog was following, the clicking of nails against the pavement providing the answer. His bag kept painfully banging into his side with each step he took, and the cat struggled at being gripped so tightly in his arms, but Arthur didn't dare stop or even lessen his pace. The soles of his shoes skidded against the old newspapers littering the ground as he cut around building corners, and he tried everything he could to shake the dog off his trail with little success.

A tangled mass of discarded fishing line seemingly appeared out of nowhere, and before he could catch his footing, he tripped and slammed against the ground. The cat shot from his arms upon landing, darting to safety behind some nearby trash cans. Loose gravel and broken glass dug into his skin where he landed and his right knee throbbed in agony, but he gritted his teeth to stave off the pain as he scrambled to stand. He didn't need to look to know how close the dog was now, and he knew it was useless to run any farther, especially with an injured leg. He quickly searched the area for anything that could be wielded as a weapon, coming up empty-handed. So he braced for impact, using his bag as a makeshift shield just in time as the dog lunged at him again.

There was a loud crack, and considering his recent luck, it was probably his laptop screen breaking from the force of the attack. The dog bounced off with a surprised yelp, shaking its head groggily once or twice before regaining its aggressive stance. Figuring his laptop was probably ruined anyway, Arthur swung the bag wildly, doing his best to avoid the dog’s snapping jaws. Canine teeth suddenly sank into the leather, and the bag was viciously ripped out of Arthur’s hands before he could fully comprehend what was happening.

Not willing to go down without a fight, Arthur yanked off one of his shoes as a last-ditch effort. He felt a bit foolish as he brandished it with one hand, and was involuntarily wincing in preparation for the inevitable bite when a rock hit the side of the dog’s muzzle.

"Hey! Leave them alone!"

There was no mistaking that voice, and Arthur was overwhelmed with a mixture of suspicion and relief and when he saw Merlin step out from the shadows, holding another rock in his hand. Before he could throw it, the dog scampered up to attack Merlin, and Arthur instinctively yelled out a warning: "Watch out!"

What happened next, Arthur wasn't sure: the dog had leapt upwards towards Merlin with bared teeth, but was flung back mid-air into a brick wall with a sickening thud, the body limply sliding down into trash bags nearby. Before Arthur could congratulate Merlin on landing a decent blow (and for having the fastest reflexes he couldn't even see), Merlin was hovering over the dog and cautiously running his fingers through the mangy fur.

"...Oh God, I didn't mean to hit it that hard," Merlin whispered with a breathless sob, catching Arthur off-guard. Shouldn't Merlin be glad that he managed to stop the animal before it hurt anyone, if it hadn't already?

But as the cat left its hiding place to bound over to its owner, Arthur began to understand: Merlin hadn't hurt the dog because he wanted to, but out of necessity born from protecting Arthur. He wanted to tease Merlin about being so emotional and distraught over a violent stray, but found he couldn't. Not when he was too engrossed in watching Merlin murmur comforting words to the obviously dying animal.

The look of absolute grief on Merlin’s face when the dog let out one last, long whine before finally laying still shook Arthur to the core.

After replacing his shoe, Arthur gathered his ruined laptop bag as he limped over, staring down at Merlin incredulously. His mind swirled with questions he didn’t know if he even wanted the answers to, and for the first time in his life, he was at a total loss at what to say.

***

Sometimes, Merlin actually kind of despised his magic.

Complex spells would backfire against him every now and then, often blowing up right in his face--literally. Or they wouldn’t work at all, and he would end up repeating the same string of words over and over to get the cadence just right.

But what he hated the most was when his powers lashed out with a mind of their own, leaving him with no chance to really consider possible consequences until they had already happened.

He knew the dog had been the first to attack, but Merlin had just wanted to defend himself, not cause it actual harm. But the moment the dog had lunged towards him, fear gripped his body so tightly he couldn’t move, couldn’t even think. So his magic had instinctively reacted for him.

Maybe he should have been thankful that he was safe, but as he had looked down at the whimpering mass of fur at his feet, burning bile rose in his throat and threatened to gag him. All he could focus on was that the dog was another living being, possibly even someone’s pet at one time in its life.

And he had sent it to its death because he still didn’t know how to fully control himself.

There was nothing Merlin wanted more than to take the animal back to the shop and try to patch it up, maybe use the little knowledge he had of the healing arts to save it and change its temperament. But he knew the dog wouldn’t survive in time, so instead he murmured a calming spell to ease the passing, choking out a small apology as the dog’s unfocused eyes closed shut.

A sudden movement out of the corner of his vision caught Merlin's attention, and his teary gaze darted upwards to land upon Arthur. Realization dawned over him a few seconds later: Arthur had probably seen everything.

His gut clenched at the thought of what would happen now, and he automatically scrambled backwards as Arthur came near. That's when he noticed the blood oozing from scrapes on Arthur's arms, and he blurted out, "Oh shit, you're hurt!"

Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin long enough to look down at his wounds, as if he was noticing them for the first time. "...I'll survive," he replied calmly before going back to staring at Merlin, like he was a puzzle Arthur couldn't totally figure out. "It would have been a lot worse if you hadn't come along when you did. I didn't even see you move."

"I move faster than most people," Merlin responded hastily, biting his tongue at how close the statement came to the truth. "Anyways, I'm sure there's a payphone or something around here so we can call someone and then--"

"No." Even though he was unmistakably dazed from the incident (and quite possibly in some sort of shock), Arthur's voice was filled with the same steady conviction he had back at the pier. "I'll be fine, there's no need for anyone else to get involved."

For being the same man that threatened to press charges against Merlin earlier, Arthur seemed hesitant to deal with any sort of law enforcement. His uneasiness when discussing his father's business had made Merlin curious before, but now he couldn't stop his imagination from running wild. Was it possible that Arthur was actually hiding out from the authorities? Or maybe he was on some sort of witness protection program, and had been sent to Ealdor for his own safety. If he was just using the premise of a working vacation as a cover, that could maybe explain why his life was in so much danger.

"Arthur, you're bleeding everywhere. If you won't see a doctor, at least let me take you back to the shop," Merlin insisted, feeling this was somehow all his fault. If he had been there sooner, things could have gone a lot better than they had. Arthur wouldn't have been injured, and a life wouldn't have ended that night. "It's not that far from here, and we have a first-aid kit so you don't have to walk back to your room with your arms like that."

Hesitation briefly flitted across Arthur's features before his expression hardened, his Adam’s apple bobbing with the clenching of his jaw. Remembering how Arthur accused him of being a part of the incident at the pier, Merlin groaned. "You don't think I have something to do with this too, do you?

"That's not it," Arthur said sharply, sounding like he was still trying to convince himself of his answer. His next words were so soft Merlin wasn't sure he was supposed to hear him: "I don't really know what to think right now."

Even though all past interactions with Arthur ended poorly, Merlin couldn't ignore someone who was injured. "Then let me help you."

Aithusa picked that moment to paw at the hem of his jeans, and Merlin scooped the kitten up into his arms. It wasn’t clear who the squeezing embrace he gave was supposed to comfort more, Aithusa or himself.

“Please, Arthur,” Merlin pleaded, despair now in his voice at the realization that it could have been his pet that died that night, “It’s the least I can I do.”

The long bout of silence that followed was so stifling, one could hear the proverbial pin drop. But just as Merlin was about to take back the offer, Arthur sighed in defeat. "Come here, then."

Frowning slightly in confusion, Merlin tentatively walked over to the spot Arthur indicated by his side. But before he could ask the reason why, Arthur’s arm was thrown over his shoulder, and he jumped at the pressure. “What--”

“Twisted my knee, so I need to lean on you for a bit,” Arthur hissed as he shifted his balance to his good leg. “Of course, I don’t like it any more than you do, and it would help if you weren’t so tall.”

“Oh! Um, here.” Clumsily shuffling Aithusa into the crook of one arm, Merlin used the other to wrap supportively around Arthur. The gesture had been an innocent reflex (he just wanted to help distribute the weight), but he paused when he felt Arthur noticeably tense underneath him. "...Sorry, is this okay?"

Arthur grunted in response but didn’t recoil, which Merlin took as a sign to leave his hand where it gripped Arthur’s side. He was itching to get to the shop as soon as possible; the longer they remained in the street, the greater their chances were of being seen. Like in most small towns, word was bound to spread quickly, and if anyone saw Merlin leading a bleeding, limping man around, everyone who knew him would be pestering him all about it the very next morning.

Still, Merlin didn’t want to push Arthur too much, so he shortened his regularly long stride so they could walk at an encumbered pace. For a few minutes they remained quiet, the only sound being the scraping of feet on the pavement, and Merlin soon allowed himself to get lost in his own troubled thoughts.

So he almost missed Arthur’s words when he suddenly spoke again. “Your cat is not hurt too, is it?”

“What?” Merlin blinked out of his stupor and caught Arthur staring down at the kitten curled up against his chest. While Aithusa was much more subdued than usual (and had been trembling when Merlin first picked him up), he didn’t seem to be physically harmed in any way. “I don’t think so, just shaken up. He probably won’t try to escape the shop for awhile.”

“At least it was only one of us, then,” Arthur said, wearing an indescribable expression before he turned his face down and away. Even if the tone had been nonchalant, Merlin’s heart fluttered against his ribcage at the words and their meaning: Arthur--who made it no secret how much he disliked Aithusa--had still protected the kitten, even with the threat to his own life. Who seemed to be more concerned about any possible injuries Aithusa might have received than his bleeding arms and twisted knee.

No matter how badly Arthur treated him, Merlin would be forever grateful all the same. “Thank you, by the way,” He murmured. “For saving him.”

"It's nothing," Arthur said, then paused, fixing Merlin with that inscrutable gaze once more. "...I probably should be thanking you anyways."

A seed of hope planted itself inside Merlin; maybe the plan of helping Arthur wouldn't be so impossible after all. "You're welcome," Merlin said, grinning even though Arthur hadn't technically thanked him. It was close enough.

Arthur didn't mention how much his injuries were bothering him, but by the time they arrived at the shop it was obvious he was in serious pain. Sweat beaded on his forehead, his face looked pinched and drawn, and his breathing was heavier than before. Merlin took one look at him, then at the staircase that lead upstairs. "Here, come sit down in one of these chairs, and I'll run and get the first-aid kit."

After depositing Arthur into one of the waiting room chairs as gently as possible, he dashed to the upstairs bathroom. He almost forgot he was still holding Aithusa until the kitten squirmed out of his arms to scamper off to the bedroom (and more importantly to his food bowl).

Merlin found the first-aid kit under the sink cabinet with relative ease, and was about to rush back downstairs when his reflection in the mirror made him pause. He thought Arthur looked horrible, but was surprised he didn't look that great either. His shirt had streaks and flecks of blood on it from Arthur's arm across his shoulders, and there were smudges of dirt all over from Aithusa rubbing against his chest.

But what stuck out the most to him the most was his eyes. They were red-rimmed and watery as if he had been bawling, and he couldn't even remember if he had in fact started crying or not. Ignoring how he had the look of a haunted man, he splashed cold water on his face as he reminded himself he had to focus on Arthur at the moment. He could heal any emotional scars he received from the night's events later.

Merlin actually tripped on the bottom step in his haste to return, barely managing to catch himself before he fell. Somehow Arthur looked worse in just the few minutes time that had passed, his normally sun-kissed skin looking unnaturally pallid. His head was propped against the wall, and he cracked open one eye to glance over at Merlin by his side. "Took you long enough."

"Sorry, I had to find it," Merlin lied, regretful he hadn't thought of something to stanch the loss of blood before he had left Arthur alone. He carefully inspected Arthur's arms, thankful that the majority of the bleeding had actually slowed on its own, save for a few of the deeper wounds. "I can't tell if there's any glass still in there, so I have to wash it out. It might sting a bit, just so you know."

Arthur didn't respond, so Merlin took in a deep breath as he shook the bottle of antiseptic wash vigorously. He placed a sterile pad underneath the area he was spraying to catch the runoff excess, gingerly wiping down the lacerations to remove any debris left in the skin. Luckily, there were just little bits of gravel that were dislodged easily enough, and soon Merlin could wrap Arthur's arms with gauze bandages. "There, that should help. Now, let me see your knee."

Merlin scooted a chair over so he could raise Arthur's leg up onto the seat. He slowly rolled the fabric of the jeans up, but stopped with a gasp at the sight of Arthur's knee. Besides a few scrapes from the areas where the pavement had cut through the denim, the skin around the knee was already mottled heavily with the onset signs of bruising. The knee tissue itself looked extremely swollen, at least three times the size of its counterpart. It all looked extremely painful, and while Merlin was hit with a fresh wave of guilt, he felt a tiny bit of admiration as well. A weaker man would have probably been griping about the pain the entire walk back, but not Arthur, who decided to suffer in silence.

"There's not much I can do for this," Merlin said as he punctured the inner seal of the kit's ice pack to activate it. "Just put ice on it to help the swelling go down. You shouldn't walk on it any time soon though."

Arthur huffed. "Didn't know you were a doctor too, Merlin."

"I'm not, my uncle is. Or was, before he retired and opened this shop full-time," Merlin explained as he rolled an ace bandage around Arthur's tender knee. "He still sees some of his older patients for minor things when they refuse to visit another doctor, and I help him sometimes. Like with small cuts or sprains, things like that."

After he made sure there was enough of a barrier between the skin and the ice pack, he carefully placed the ice pack on top of the knee and secured it with the remaining bandage. "There. I know it looks stupid, but it'll help. Let me get you some water so you can take some pain reliever too."

"I can take it now." Arthur held out his hand expectantly, throwing the pills Merlin gave him into his mouth and swallowing quickly. He then sighed as he leaned his head back against the wall again. In Merlin's opinion, Arthur looked better now that he was all cleaned up, but was probably still in a lot of pain.

"Um," Merlin started hesitantly as he put the supplies back in kit, "I've been thinking--"

Arthur made a little noise at that. Merlin pointedly ignored him and continued, "--that if you needed a tour guide, I could help you after all."

"...I know your mother suggested something like that--" Maybe Merlin was imagining it, but he swore he heard a trace of guilt in Arthur's voice. "--but I'm pretty sure that's not a good idea."

"How come?" When Arthur didn't answer, Merlin sighed. "Look, I'm not asking for us to be friends or anything like that. For one thing, I could never be friends with such an ass."

That's when Arthur did something unexpected: he laughed, really laughed. A rich, hearty sound that seemed to melt some of the tension out of his body, not to mention turn Merlin's insides into jelly. "And I could never be friends with such an idiot, so at least we agree on something."

Merlin grinned. "Right. But I'm still willing to help, if you let me."

If all worked according to plan, the arrangement would benefit both of them. Arthur would be able to get the job for his father done faster, and Merlin wouldn't have to worry so much about not getting to Arthur in time if he needed to be rescued again.

“...Fine, sure, whatever.” Arthur groaned. "Just...just stop...talking..."

The slurring of Arthur’s speech caused Merlin to look up in alarm. “Arthur? Are you okay?”

Arthur was slumped slightly forward, his eyes tightly closed, and the only sound he made was that of his soft and steady breathing. Merlin’s eyes widened in surprise, thinking Arthur must have been completely exhausted to fall asleep in the middle of a conversation.

He had taken too many risks with his magic around Arthur already, but an idea nevertheless wormed its way into Merlin’s mind and refused to leave. He chewed on his bottom lip, glanced at Arthur’s sleeping face one last time, and then placed his hand over the injured knee. “I really hope this works."

Healing spells were never really Merlin’s forte, despite Gaius’s constant attempts to train him otherwise. But while he was still relatively inexperienced in relation to his uncle when it came to the medical arts, Merlin's magic once again seemed eager to help in anything dealing with Arthur. Just in case there was a chance Arthur could overhear him, Merlin whispered the incantation, watching as the knee was bathed in a golden glow that soon disappeared after a few seconds. He repeated the spell on Arthur's arms to the same effect, pulling his hands away before Arthur could stir from the sensation.

Merlin wasn't stupid; he hadn't healed the injuries completely, but just enough that they wouldn't be as severe. Already Arthur looked more relaxed in his sleep, and Merlin was reminded how handsome Arthur really was, especially when he wasn’t scowling or running off his mouth.

He probably should at least call animal control about removing the dog's body from the street, or even call his mother and ask her to tell Arthur's friends what had happened. But using so much magic in one day put a heavy drain on him, and Merlin yawned as he struggled to keep his eyes open.

Eventually he gave up the fight against sleep, and as he settled into a spot by Arthur’s feet, Merlin wondered what the hell he had exactly gotten himself into.

***

Arthur couldn't remember the last time he’d actually overslept.

Which made it more surprising that he had overslept sitting in probably one of the least comfortable chairs in existence. He rubbed at the awful crick that had formed in his neck as he looked at his surroundings with bleary, sleep-encrusted eyes.

What he saw made him jolt completely awake in his seat as the memory of the previous night rushed over his consciousness.

"Shit," he said, wincing at how loud his voice echoed off the walls of the quiet room. Something stirred nearby, and he blinked at the sight of Merlin leaning against the leg of Arthur's chair, still asleep.

And how Arthur's hand had somehow found itself a place in Merlin's hair during the night.

Arthur drew his hand back like it had been burned, thanking whatever above deity that Merlin didn't wake up because of the sudden movement. His heart flapped like a wild bird trapped in his rib cage as he struggled to comprehend what had exactly happened. Something had definitely shifted in their relationship--while he wasn't fond of Merlin in the slightest, Arthur now thought he might have been too harsh in his judgment. That he had taken the stress of the job on a scapegoat named Merlin, and it really wasn't fair. Not when he was starting to suspect he really did owe Merlin his life twice already.

Even he could admit that the thought scared the ever-living hell out of him.

Honestly, Arthur didn't quite know what to think any more. But he wasn't going to rack his brain about it, not when he already had the makings of a splitting headache. As he pushed himself to his feet, he braced for the pain that never fully came.

That caught Arthur off-guard. He had expected to have a limp for at least a few days, but as he gingerly placed a hand over his injured knee, all he felt was a slight tenderness. Even the stinging in his arms had disappeared, and as he unwrapped one of the gauze bandages, he was surprised to find that the majority of his wounds had miraculously healed over in the night.

Immediately his gaze was fixed on Merlin (who was still asleep, even with all the commotion), and Arthur wondered just what kind of medical attention he had exactly received. As soon as the thought popped into his head however, Arthur shot it down. He had always tended to heal rather fast, and perhaps his injuries just didn't seem as bad in the morning light. No matter how much pain he had been in the night before.

While he and Merlin had established a shaky form of a truce, he was too unnerved by the manner in which he woke up to remain in the shop much longer. He practically dashed outside, thankful that although he slept in, it was still early and the streets were relatively empty as the town came alive for the day. With every person he did pass, he lowered his head in embarrassment, as if the common passerby could read into the expression on his face.

Some part of him argued that, truce or no truce, Merlin was an annoying idiot who could blow the whistle on Arthur's entire operation in Ealdor if he ever found out the truth. The best thing to do now would be to just treat their whole partnership as some sort of business deal and not get too close.

And yet Arthur suddenly found he couldn't stop himself from thinking how the corners of Merlin's bright blue eyes crinkled when he smiled, how gentle and warm his hands had been while tending to Arthur's injuries, and how soft his hair had been tangled in Arthur's fingers.

Arthur scowled, shaking the image of how serene Merlin looked as he slept out his head. He must have been more eager for humanly affection than he thought if he was attracted to Merlin of all people.

As he finally arrived at the bed and breakfast, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw no one was around to see him slinking in at such an unusual time. He made his way to the dining room, hoping breakfast was a repeat performance of the day before. His stomach rumbled in agreement.

However, if he was expecting a peaceful meal, he soon found he was out of luck. He recognized the group of people that were gathering around the food, his focus on one dark-haired, green-eyed woman in particular. "Great,” he groaned, “I didn't know you were coming."

"Nice to see you too, dear brother." Morgana smirked as she quickly kissed both of his cheeks, that ridiculous greeting she had picked up while schooling abroad one summer. "And who else do you think Father should send for public relations in Ealdor than the Head of PR herself?"

Arthur whipped his head around to see if anyone was listening. "Why don’t you say that a little louder, Morgana? I don’t think everyone could hear you."

Morgana prodded his shoulder with the tip of one well-manicured fingernail. "You don't need to lecture me of all people about possible breaches of confidentiality, Arthur. In case you haven’t noticed, everyone in this room is already well aware of the company's interest.”

She was right, of course, but Arthur would rather walk barefoot over burning coals than to admit it. A brief glance around confirmed what he already knew: everyone there was connected to Pendragon Suites in one form or another. There was no mistaking Percy and his massive form towering over the buffet table; the man was built like a tank, and could probably eat everything that was spread out on the tables by himself. He was laughing and conversing with Leon, who kept having to brush his ginger-colored curls out of his eyes as he kept darting glances around the room, ever alert for a sign something was off. It was a unusual sight to see them both in their civilian clothes, considering that Uther usually made his personal bodyguards dress appropriately, but it probably would help strengthen their guise of simple tourists.

Based on pure habit, they had still both stood at attention as soon as they spotted Arthur, but he signaled for them to be at ease with a small wave. He still questioned the reason for their presence in Ealdor. Not only did he still find the idea of needing their protection ridiculous (even if he could have used their help last night), it made him nervous of having so many people from Pendragon Suites in one centralized location. Not that he couldn't trust them in maintaining company secrets, but the chances of information slipping out were exponentially increased now.

If that wasn't bad enough, Morgana had also brought her assistant/best friend along, and of course Gwen had immediately latched onto Lance. The two were wearing the same besotted expressions they always had when around each other, with Lance running a hand through the black ringlets of Gwen's hair while she smiled bashfully in return. They were one of those perfect couples everyone claimed to hate, yet were secretly envious of, and Arthur still couldn't believe Lance had doubts about being the right man for Gwen to marry.

One would think Arthur might be jealous of the couple, considering the history he had with Gwen. But while Gwen was a lovely, beautiful woman, and he had fond memories of when the two of them were together, Arthur was actually happy that his friends had found each other. It gave him hope that even though he might have failed in every relationship he had (to the point where he had practically given up on them), at least there were still people in today's age that could find each other and thrive. He might have been a cynic to the outside world, but deep down, Arthur really could be a foolish romantic at times.

He just hoped Gwen's impromptu visit wouldn't distract Lance from his assigned duties, though he really shouldn't have to worry. If there was anyone he had to be concerned about, it was-- "Where's Gwaine?"

Morgana wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Honestly, Arthur, why do you think I would be interested in the whereabouts of that delinquent?"

"Morgana..." Arthur started, a slight warning in his tone. While Gwaine had some minor run-ins with the law in the past and never failed to drive Arthur up the wall at least once a day, he was still Arthur's friend. "He's not a--"

"What I'm more concerned about,” Morgana interrupted, “is where you have been? When we arrived early this morning, poor Lance was completely beside himself that you hadn't returned last night. He was about to organize a search party after breakfast."

Arthur glanced over at Lance, who had yet to even acknowledge his presence. "He doesn't look that concerned to me."

"Arthur."

Unfortunately, Arthur recognized that tone. It was the one Morgana always used when she was about go off on a tirade where he couldn’t a word in edgewise. But instead of a lecture, Morgana just sighed, her expression softening into something that was so uncharacteristic of her, it was almost physically jarring. "Arthur," she repeated, quieter this time, "what on Earth happened to you? Father had mentioned there had been an accident, but lead me to believe you weren't injured."

Arthur's relationship with his sister had always been a complicated one. While they were civil enough around each other nowadays (well, mostly civil), their childhood had been filled with constant fighting and bickering. As the older sibling from one of Uther's previous marriages, Morgana had taken it upon herself to tease and challenge Arthur over almost every decision he ever made. Yet she would be fiercely loyal to her brother if the situation called for it, especially during one of their father's infamous lectures.

He had grown used to her brand of "tough love" (learning to dish it out himself as much as he could take it), so to see her so openly concerned bothered him more than any insult she could throw at him. The last time she had worn her feelings so openly, it had been right after he broke things off with Gwen. Morgana had stormed into his apartment, fully prepared to chew him out for breaking her best friend's heart. But she must have recognized something in his expression that even he wasn't aware of, because instead she ended up sitting on his couch with him for the remainder of that night.

While he had needed and appreciated her concern then, Arthur didn't think it was necessary now. First Uther, now Morgana; Arthur was starting to think he tripped and fell into some alternate dimension where his family wore their hearts on their sleeves, and he wasn't sure how to react. “I wasn’t.”

At Morgana’s pointed stare at the bandages on his arms, spotted red from wounds he no longer had, Arthur added, “This happened last night, it’s nothing.”

"It hardly looks like 'nothing', Arthur," Morgana said, her familiar snark returning for a brief moment as she gripped one of his wrists to examine him more closely.

"Really, I'm fine, Morgana." Arthur shrugged, hoping that would appease her curiosity. He really didn't want to go in full detail of last night’s events at the moment, even though he knew he had to tell her sooner or later. The traits of a good PR representative were infused in Morgana’s blood, and she would probably cut his balls off and serve them back to him if he ever managed to keep such crucial information from her for too long. She could spin any story to the company's advantage, and would no doubt paint him as a heroic victim if the public's sympathy was ever needed. “Just a few scrapes, but I promise to give you a full report if you're really that worried about me.”

It was supposed to be a joke, but Morgana’s face just blanched, and Arthur suspected there was something she wasn’t fully telling him. “Morgana, what--”

“I don’t think you should stay here, okay?” Morgana blurted out, her normally cool composure cracking and falling away completely. “Just...just a bad feeling I had.”

“...For a second there, I thought you were going to say something serious,” Arthur chuckled in disbelief, slightly relieved. If she had mentioned a tangible reason, like insider information that could jeopardize everything being released to the public, he might have been troubled. But he had no faith in just "woman's intuition", let alone anyone else's for that matter.

He pulled away from her grasp and grabbed a plate of food to finally stop his stomach from gnawing on itself. “Trust me, Morgana, I’ve had enough of ‘bad feelings’ the past few days." he said, the memory of Merlin’s first warning automatically popping to mind. "I don't need any more.”

Before Morgana could question what Arthur exactly meant, Gwaine stumbled in the room, a dopey grin on his face. It was obvious what he was up to the previous night, judging by the lipstick stains on his shirt and the smell of cheap beer and stale cigarettes that clung to him like second skin. "Please tell me there's coffee," he said, yawning loudly as he stretched, "and it's not all gone already."

Morgana tore her attention away from Arthur to cast a frown in Gwaine's direction. "Charming as ever, I see. Still taking advantage of women's hearts I take it?"

"Still making it your mission to crush every man you meet under your heel I take it?" Gwaine mimicked, matching Morgana's condescending tone perfectly. He sidled up next to her, hopping up onto the edge of the table. "And it's not taking advantage if they know what they're getting into. But I can understand if you're jealous."

"Jealous?" Morgana snorted, taking a sip of her coffee. "Of what exactly? The trite filth that spews out of your mouth that somehow manages to get the overly intoxicated to spread their legs wide open for you?"

Arthur choked on a piece of bacon. Despite the glamorous way his sister carried herself, he had almost forgotten she still had one of the dirtiest mouths ever. "What the hell, Morgana?"

Gwaine just took it in stride, throwing his head back with a guffaw. "Not exactly," he said, deftly plucking the coffee cup out of her hands. He downed the entire thing before she could protest, then leaned in close. "But it does involve my mouth, if you're ever interested."

Instead of showing repulsion, Morgana just smirked, her eyes glinting dangerously. Her demeanor changed rapidly, and as she pulled Gwaine closer using the collar of his shirt, she practically purred. "Hrm, really? You know, now that I think about it...maybe..."

"Yeah?" Gwaine licked his lips, oblivious to the fact that he was the prey trapped in a predator's trap. "Maybe you realized how much fun we could have together, eh?"

"Or maybe it's that you have a snowball's chance in hell." Without warning, Morgana gave a sharp pull on the shirt fabric, casually stepping out of the way as Gwaine lost his balance and fell off the table. Cursing loudly, he rolled about the wooden floor, holding a hand over his nose to check if it was bleeding.

"One day, Morgana," he said, actually laughing at the clever maneuver despite being tricked, "one day you'll no longer be able to resist my many charms, and you'll finally know what you've been missing out on."

"Perish the thought." Morgana rolled her eyes, but still offered a hand to help him off the floor, her nails "accidentally" scraping against his skin as a warning. One Gwaine would probably ignore, as he always did whenever the two of them engaged in their psuedo-flirting sessions.

"If you two are finished," Arthur sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, not knowing whether to chuckle or groan at their disturbing type of banter, "I want to have a brief meeting about the plan for the day, before any other guests show up. "

After making sure he had everyone's attention (including Lance and Gwen, who had finally stopped making lovey-dovey eyes at each other for the time being), he addressed the assembled group. "Right, so Lance, you're back to researching the different tourist areas. Take Gwen with you, and see how the town would function as a--" He almost slipped and said "honeymoon spot", but caught himself just in time, "--romantic getaway. Gwaine, once you stop being hung over, you're back to reviewing restaurants. Make notes of which ones you would like to see; we might bring in an in-house restaurant of our own. Percy's going with you to keep you out of trouble, though I shudder for any chef that has to provide enough food to feed the two of you. Leon, you're with Morgana and myself; we're going to be looking at the properties that I--"

Arthur stopped mid-sentence as a horrifying realization dawned over him. The printouts of the different real estate properties he wanted to view were still in his laptop bag.

Which he had left behind in his haste to leave Merlin's shop.

***

"This is starting to become something of a habit of yours."

Still caught between the hazy fog that separated sleep from consciousness, Merlin was sluggish in his response. Slowly uprighting himself from his awkward position on the floor, he idly rubbed at the imprint leaning against a chair leg left on his cheek. "...Uncle Gaius? Wha--"

It felt like a bucket of ice water had been dumped on his head as the events of the night before flooded the forefront of his mind. He blinked repeatedly as he scanned the room, already aware of what he would discover: Arthur gone, stolen away in the earlier hours of morning without saying a word.

Snatches of what he originally thought to be just simple dreams flashed in front of him. Of how he heard Arthur shifting around to leave, but couldn't will his exhausted body to move in protest or even say anything. But what he would have said exactly? That he didn't want Arthur to leave after they finally managed to stop sniping at each other? That he remembered Arthur's fingers intertwining with the strands of his hair, and oh god, Merlin had actually kind of liked it?

Merlin felt his cheeks flush at the memory. "Arthur, that is... He... I mean..."

Gaius sighed, adjusting the bag from the local bakery he held in his arms. "I'm sure you have a wonderful explanation for everything, Merlin, including why the front door was unlocked when I arrived. But unless it's urgent, I suggest we discuss it over breakfast."

The mouth-watering aroma of fresh danishes emanated from the bundle in Gaius's grasp, quickly making Merlin's decision for him.

"...Aithusa got out again," Merlin explained after they had sat down to eat at the table in the back room. He had already polished off two danishes and was working on a third, sending a look of apology for the crumbs that went flying everywhere as he spoke, "and Arthur must have found him and saved him... I don't know why I didn't make the connection from my vision before."

Gaius glanced down at Aithusa, who was eagerly lapping a bowl of cream, showing no signs of trauma from the previous day's events. "I always had a feeling that one would be trouble, considering his pedigree." He sipped at his tea, that awful herbal concoction that Merlin could never drink himself. "Then what happened?"

"...Um." This was the part that Merlin was dreading the most, knowing whatever answer he gave was going to be met with scrutiny. "I...I might have used my magic a bit?"

The infamous eyebrow of Gaius's shot straight up. "Define 'a bit', Merlin."

Merlin pushed away the remains of his breakfast, his appetite gone now that the gravity of the situation caught up to him. "...I accidentally killed a dog. It was about to attack Arthur, and then it lunged at me, and I just..." He trailed off, sinking down in his chair to bury his head in his folded arms.

"I know you're upset, Merlin, but it sounds like you did what you had to in order to defend yourself. Who knows what would have happened if you weren't there?" Gaius punctuated his words with a comforting pat to Merlin's head, then paused. "...Arthur didn't see you use magic, did he?"

Merlin sat up in his chair, running a hand through his hair nervously. "...I don't know. It was dark, and I said I just moved faster than people realized, but I don't know if he bought it. But..."

"'But'?" Gaius prodded, his lips pressing into a terse line. "Merlin, don't tell me there's more."

"...I might have healed Arthur's wounds?" At the incredulous look on Gauis's face, Merlin added, "Not all the way! Just enough so he wouldn't be in so much pain. I felt so guilty, and because I couldn't help the dog, I thought... Maybe..."

"You never cease to amaze me." It was obvious Gaius didn't approve of Merlin taking risks that could expose his magic. But after Merlin wilted underneath his scrutinizing frown, Gaius’s demeanor softened, and he sighed. "I understand your concern, but I do wish you would be more careful. Not everyone is understanding of your gifts."

The same lecture had been given to Merlin all his life, that he had to keep his magic a secret. That fortune-telling was one thing, but full-on demonstrations were bound to panic the masses, or--as Will so helpfully supplied--get Merlin locked up in a government testing facility hidden away somewhere. "I know, Uncle Gaius."

Seemingly appeased by Merlin's answer, Gaius hummed thoughtfully. "That being said, I think your mother might have a point in you working too hard, especially if this situation with Arthur continues to be such a daunting task for you. I want you to take the rest of week off from the shop. Though now that I know you do have some skill with the healing arts, I'm going to pull some texts for you to read on the subject."

"Great," Merlin said, grinning as he feigned a dramatic eye-roll. "More homework."

He really couldn't find it in himself to be bothered by the assignment though; he knew it was just his uncle's way of punishing him for being too reckless with his powers. Apparently Merlin was supposed to use his magic to help Arthur, but not use it so Arthur (or anyone else for that matter) found out the truth. It was more than confusing.

The faint sound of claws scratching at something caught his attention, and he groaned as he stood up and headed towards the shop's waiting room. No matter how many cat-scratchers Merlin bought, Aithusa always seemed to want to claw into furniture. "Aithusa, stop destroying the chairs--"

Merlin stopped mid-sentence when he realized Aithusa was actually pawing at the leather of what seemed to be a laptop bag. Shooing Aithusa away, Merlin picked it up, confused for a split second before he remembered how Arthur had such a bag last night. While he knew it was wrong, curiosity overtook him as he opened the bag.

Well, if the deep gouges on the side of the bag wasn't enough a hint, the giant crack on the laptop screen was; the laptop was ruined, no doubt thanks to last night's scuffle. A fresh wave of guilt washed over him, and although his magic and electronics never really got along (they tended to be too artificial and man-made for his magic to commune with properly), he wondered he could do anything to fix it.

Gaius's words about being careful rang out in his ears, and Merlin drew his hand back, feeling it buzzing with energy. What if Arthur knew the laptop was broken? How would Merlin be able to explain if he did use his magic to fix it, or accidentally make it worse?

Was it possible that Arthur already suspected him? It would explain why he had ran off without saying anything. Either he had been too freaked out to be around Merlin a second longer, or worse, went off to tell off the authorities like he had threatened after all.

A feeling of dread hung over Merlin, and he tried not to overreact as he rapidly shoved the laptop back in the bag. The scrunching of papers made him pull it back out, as well as the printouts he had accidentally folded. He tried to spread them out as evenly as he could in an attempt to get out all the wrinkles, but then their subject matter caught his focus.

Real estate listings. Not only that, but real estate listings for commercial properties in Ealdor. Merlin frowned as he read the notes in what he presumed to be Arthur's handwriting, filled with jargon he didn't quite understand.

Why was Arthur looking at property when he was supposedly researching for a vacation guide on behalf of his father's company?

"Merlin?" Gaius called from the other room. "Are you done eating?"

"What? Oh, yeah," Merlin called back absentmindedly as he placed the papers back next to the laptop, determining he had enough questions and not enough answers. "I'll see you later, okay? I...I have to go do something."

If Gaius responded, Merlin didn't hear, too lost in his own thoughts as he slipped his shoes on. Tugging the bag's fraying strap over his shoulder, he opened the front door of the shop--and walked smack dab into Arthur.

Merlin just stared in awkward silence; sure, he had been planning on returning the bag to Arthur, but he never expected Arthur to actually return to the shop of his own volition. "Um, hi."

For some reason, Arthur looked just as surprised to find Merlin standing there, despite the fact they were in front of the shop. "...Merlin, I wanted to talk to you about--is that my bag?"

"What?" Merlin looked down at his side, almost forgetting his reason for seeking Arthur out. Well, one of them at least. "Oh! I was just about to find you and return it. Try to find you, I mean."

As he handed the bag over, the question about the printouts was on his lips, but Merlin suddenly couldn't bring himself to ask it. He didn't want to break the shaky truce that had formed over the fact that he had been snooping.

"What brings you here anyways?" he asked, immediately regretting the stupidity of the question. Obviously Arthur had come for his laptop and his papers, whatever they were for.

But Arthur didn't even spare them a second glance, his blue eyes instead focused completely on Merlin, assessing him quietly. "Look, about this morning--"

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but maybe you two can have have this conversation inside, away from this horrid heat?"

Merlin blinked, finally noticing that Arthur wasn't alone. The man behind Arthur was nearly two feet taller than him, and could have probably snapped Merlin like a twig if he was so inclined. Not only that, but the woman who had spoken up was the exact same one he had from his vision. It was a bit unnerving to see her in real life, so it took Merlin a second to react. "Sorry!" he said, louder than he intended, stepping out of the way. "Come in and sit down if you want."

Hearing the bell on the door, Gaius came from the back room, shooting a questioning look in Merlin's direction. Merlin shrugged helplessly in return. "Uncle Gaius, you remember Arthur, right?"

Arthur nodded in greeting before gesturing to his companions. "This is my sister, Morgana, and Percy."

Morgana gave a demure wave as she lounged in one of the chairs. The man called Percy chose to stand, a quiet presence that filled the room without being overbearing.

"I'll get some refreshments then," Gaius said before returning to the back. Merlin winced; Gaius's idea of refreshments usually included tea and those hard seaweed crackers.

"So, Merlin, was it?" Morgana glanced around, the faint gleam in her eyes revealing her interest. "What exactly is it that you do here?"

Merlin scratched the back of his neck. Usually he had no qualms over informing people about his profession. He had grown used to the varied responses over the years. But he suddenly felt nervous with Arthur standing right there, listening to every word.

"He's a psychic." Arthur responded before Merlin had a chance. "A damn good one, if you believe that sort of thing."

Morgana snorted, though it seemed to be directed more towards Arthur than the subject of his words. "Which you don't, of course."

"No, but Lance and Gwaine do," Arthur said, meeting Merlin's gaze solemnly, as if he was trying to communicate more with his words than what he let on. "And that's good enough for me, I guess."

In a sort of roundabout way, Arthur had just given a compliment, and Merlin felt himself flush, a small smile tugging on his lips. Maybe Arthur didn't believe in his abilities just yet, but maybe there was hope he’d come around.

"Besides," Arthur added, turning back towards Morgana, "Merlin here pretty much convinced Lance to finally propose to Gwen, so that has to count for something."

After a pause, Arthur drew out his wallet, pulling out an earmarked set of bills. "By the way, Merlin, he wanted me to give you this."

Merlin stared at the money thrust at him, knowing exactly what it meant. "But this is--"

"It's for Gwaine's reading too," Arthur said calmly, shoving the money in Merlin's hand. "They wanted to apologize for taking so long to get it to you."

It was the closest thing to an apology from Arthur that Merlin was going to get. He swallowed deeply and nodded, knowing payment for Arthur's reading was included in the amount as well. "Let me go get their receipts then."

"Lance I understand, but Gwaine?" Morgana's voice dripped with undeniable disdain. "What would he care about enough to get a psychic reading, besides copious amounts of alcohol and willing people with loose morals?"

That made Merlin drop the money in surprise, bills flying everywhere. From the reading he had given Gwaine, he had thought the two of them were romantically involved. "You're not..." he blurted out, "I mean... I thought you and Gwaine..."

Morgana's eyes instantly narrowed, and Merlin felt a shiver run up his spine. Arthur could be fearsome when he was upset, but Morgana was downright terrifying.

"I hope you're not trying to insinuate that I have any involvement with that...man." She spat the words out, as if the very thought left a bad taste in her mouth.

"No ma'am." Merlin knew to take the option out when he was offered one, and just hoped it meant he would be spared from Morgana's wrath. Arthur was looking at him strangely, almost if he wanted to press the subject further.

Apparently hearing Merlin's mental plea for help getting out of the predicament, Arthur cleared his throat. "Thank your uncle for us, but we probably should get going. Go on ahead you two, I'll be out in a moment."

Percy nodded before headed out the door, but Morgana didn't move right away, darting calculated looks between Arthur and Merlin. Arthur sighed. "I mean it, Morgana."

An understanding smirk spread across Morgana's features, and she stood up, making a beeline straight for Merlin. "It was nice to meet you, Merlin," she said, kissing both of his cheeks. In his ear, she whispered, "I hope we see you around soon."

"Um...sure?" Merlin didn't know how else to respond to that. But apparently it was the right answer, because Morgana gave him a wink before leaving the shop. But not before calling out, "Don't be too long, Arthur. Or poor Percy and I'll leave without you."

"...Your sister kind of scares me," Merlin mumbled once Morgana was safely out of earshot.

Instead of being insulted, Arthur let out the same rich laughter from last night. "You should try living with her some time."

As scary as Morgana was, being left alone with Arthur unhinged Merlin even worse. Feeling the urge to say something, he stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "So...how are your injuries?" Argh, he just seemed to be full of stupid questions today; why would he purposely open up that can of worms?

"Better," Arthur said, looking down at his arms, as if to confirm his statement. "Much better, actually. If I didn't know better, I might believe you actually knew what you were doing."

There was nothing to suggest Arthur considered his healing anything out of the ordinary, but Merlin was still cautious. "My uncle did teach me everything he knows," he chuckled awkwardly, his words not far from the truth.

"Come with us."

The abrupt subject change threw Merlin off. "Excuse me?"

"Come with us, today. If your offer still stands, that is." Arthur ran a hand through his hair, almost sheepishly. "I shouldn't have left this morning without thanking you again for...helping me out. And I've been thinking about what you said last night, and I might have misjudged you, and for that... Well, I'm sorry."

"Yeah."

Arthur snapped his head up, frowning in confusion. "'Yeah'?"

"Yeah," Merlin repeated, his cheeks feeling like they were about to crack under the sheer magnitude of his smile, "Yeah, I'll come with you."