Actions

Work Header

The Bodyguard

Work Text:

The Bodyguard.

 

 

Borden described predatory circles around Merlin. “Do you remember the security protocol?”

If the importance of today hadn't been drilled into Merlin, he would have probably rolled his eyes or grinned impudently at the very least. As it was, Merlin nodded and bowed his head. He kept on buttoning down his shirt as diligently as he could.

Vivian handed him a tie. “This is going to look ravishing on him.”

Borden scowled at them both. “Perhaps you've got to set your priorities straight, Ms Prince,” he said. “This is not a fashion award contest. I want him to remember how he's to behave.”

“I remember,” Merlin said, hands clumsy on the tie. “I can't do the knot.”

Vivian inched closer and fixed a perfect Windsor for him. “So dashing.”

Borden, though, wasn't having any of it. “Merlin, I want you to go over the protocol with me again.”

“I hope you know that looking dashing is part of the deal,” Vivian told Borden, tapping her foot, chin tilted accusingly at him.

“Not a priority with us,” Borden barked.

Merlin patted down his jacket, then pulled at his cuffs. “I'm to--”

Thankfully, Merlin was interrupted in his attempt at dully reciting the drill he'd been previously force fed by Isolde's arrival.

She leant against the door jamb, hip canted. Out of the collar of her formal white blouse the coils of her earpiece were visible. As well turned out as she was, Isolde looked both carefully professional and trim.

Her two-piece was sober and expensive; while her shoes, an equally sober and flat-heeled pair, were as costly as they were rational. Her nails were blunt but perfectly manicured. To top the whole off, she was wearing a layer of non-flashy make-up that reminded Merlin of his mum.

Under her charcoal jacket Merlin couldn't spot the gun he was sure Isolde had. Not even if he tried. He squinted, trying to locate it, but stopped short when he realised people might think he was ogling her.

Actually, her eyes were twinkling, so that must be what she was thinking too.

Merlin lifted his gaze to make it clear that that wasn't what he was intent on doing. It would have been less awkward if she knew, but Merlin didn't feel this was the right time or place to tackle that particular subject.

“Hello, cub, how are you doing?” she greeted him.

Merlin would have smarted at the nickname if he'd thought it patronising. He'd have rolled his eyes as he did at Borden or prepared a come-back. He didn't think it was meant to be, so he just said, “It's not my big day.”

“How are you holding up though?” Isolde asked again as if Merlin's first answer wasn't good enough.

“I'm a little terrified but it's okay.”

Borden growled. “This isn't the right time for small talk. We have fifteen minutes to get him into the car. Isolde, you of all people should--”

“Merlin will get into the car in time,” Isolde assured Borden. She cocked her head towards Merlin as if Borden hadn't spoken at all. “And I promise I won't let anything happen to you.”

Merlin shrugged her promise off with a small smile. “It's not that dire, is it? They can't hate him that much. They voted for his party and he was its leader all along.”

Borden crossed the room and planted himself before Merlin. “We briefed you about UFAM. We briefed you about the dangers. Now tell me that you remember.”

“Yeah,” said Merlin, making a face when Borden wasn't looking. “Yeah, death threats, stick to one of you at all times. No unsettling public use of magic. If something happens, follow the head of security's orders, blah blah blah...”

Borden was into his face in a flash, lip curled into a rictus of downright anger. “You do what we tell you. To the letter.”

Merlin's eyelid spasmed; his fingers curled inwards. He let out a breath and opened his mouth to find a counter to that. Thankfully, Isolde stepped in, a finger on her earpiece. “The PM left Buckingham palace. It's a go.”

“Was that Tristan?” one of the S01 staff joked.

Isolde smiled but didn't answer back. She hooked her arm under Merlin's and said, “Let me escort you to the car, sir.”

Merlin couldn't help but grin. He stuck his chest out a little, feeling the pressure of Isolde's fingers as she bore down on his arm, her reassuring warmth buoying him as she led him outside.

When he got out of the building the wind hit him like a punch and caused him to tuck his neck into his collar.

Two security people were making way for him, Isolde was herding him and Borden was keeping the rear. Merlin supposed they'd been trained to choose the best possible formation at all times, though Merlin doubted that he would be attacked right in front of his own home.

He was sure that they had taken all the threats – which were bound to rain in – too much to heart.

Past the gate, Merlin spotted his father's car; it was a blue car in a line-up of government vehicles idling before the main entrance.

Merlin knew there'd be no time to say hi and ask how things had gone. He didn't need to be told anyway because he'd checked the news on his mobile. Still, he reflected, he would have liked a word with his dad before the big media circus began. As it was, he merely let himself be walked to the second car, a sleek grey thing he wouldn't have dreamed of climbing in as a child.

On the way to the cars, he watched as Tristan, his dad's head of security, cocked his head towards Isolde. He felt rather than saw Isolde's quick head movement as her hair, gathered in a functional plaited ponytail, whipped his neck. It was the briefest of acknowledgements but Merlin didn't miss the heat in Tristan's eyes or the way Isolde's body went taut when she spotted her colleague.

He didn't have much time to think about this because he was whisked into the car, but he pondered the issue for a few moments as the car slid into gear. When he'd figured it all out, he grinned to himself, promising he'd tease Isolde later.

For now he merely hummed the Wedding March under his breath.

Isolde slapped him playfully on the arm. “Oh, shut up!”

London was abuzz today; people of all descriptions crowded the pavements, holding up signs and placards bearing messages in bold. As the car rolled quickly down the streets, Merlin couldn't read any of them.

He had to wait for the car to stop at a traffic light to be able do so. Some of the messages were supportive of the newly elected party coalition while some were a direct petition for better pensions, NHS support, tax cuts, or different Euro politics.

Some were positive while some made Merlin's stomach turn. Magic is Wrong, a banner said. Down with the Unnatural, another proclaimed. And then Merlin saw the most unsettling one to date: Death to Magic Users. A skull completed the pictorial threat.

A cold shiver ran down his spine and he huddled in into his coat, pulling the lapels together.

Isolde put a hand on his knee. “It's not all of them. And your father will change things.”

Merlin tried for a grin. “Voted for my dad's party, did you?”

Isolde winked. “Trade secret.”

Merlin's grin became larger, more honest. “I wouldn't tell anyone.”

Isolde drew her hand away. “Just don't look. All right? Opinion will change. And remember, the majority voted for your dad's party. That's a stepping stone. In the meanwhile, I won't let any of the extremists from UFAM near you.”

Merlin nodded and turned his head just as the car slid into Whitehall. Before he'd had time to get his heartbeat under control or tame the different impressions that crowded in on him, the gates to Downing Street had been opened and the car had slowed to a halt before number ten.

The driver met Merlin and Isolde's eyes in the rear-view mirror, Isolde's hand went again to her earpiece and then Merlin was being gently pushed out of the car to be blinded by the flashes of the photographers' cameras.

A row of them was present: some were squatting and some were standing, pushing on their toes for a better view of the proceedings.

And they weren't the only ones attending. Telly people were there too, boom mikes and cameras pointed at Merlin's dad. The latter had taken position behind a mike stand that had been placed before the door to Number Ten.

Police officers were dotting the sides of the government house like stone sentinels, backs straight, shoulders rigid.

For a moment Merlin could hear very little past the roar of the police helicopters flying overhead and the shouts, buzz and whistles coming from the row of press assembled in the narrow street.

Merlin had been quietly led to take position somewhere to the side, from where he could be suitably impressed without being centre piece.

Isolde was standing a few paces away from him, forehead lined with concern, lips pressed tight together; Tristan, her mirror image, was shadowing Merlin's dad, hands folded together as Merlin had seen people do in church, his mouth turned down at the corners.

Merlin's dad cleared his throat and tapped the microphone. “This morning,” he said, loud and clear, a touch of his northern diction colouring his tone, “Her Majesty, the Queen, asked me to form a new government.”

Merlin's dad paused and Merlin didn't miss the theatricality of it.

“I have accepted.”

The crowd had fallen as silent as such a crowd could, listening intently to his dad's words. A wash of warmth enfolded Merlin as he thought of how far his dad had come. When he was little, Merlin would never have dreamed this would come true. He'd only known his dad was never there. Now, though, he couldn't bear a grudge; he could only smile and tell himself that those years of semi-loneliness hadn't been for nothing.

As Merlin was lost in a world of his own, his dad continued, “Before I address any issue incumbent on my new position, I'd like to talk about an underlying problem that has plagued our society for too long a time: the political, social, and sometimes legal discrimination levelled at magic users.”

At those words all hell broke loose, to the point that Merlin didn't know where was up and where was down. Voices rose, pitched to protest or question; camera flashes went off like mini explosions.

And in the middle of that chaos, Merlin heard the report, perhaps more than one. Limbs frozen, he watched Tristan launch himself at his father, covering him and leading him inside number 10.

Merlin's dad merely shouted for Merlin.

More noise drowned his ears: people screaming, yelling orders, loud cracks like thunder, which Merlin belatedly realised were more gun shots.

Merlin had no time to get a sense of the danger. Someone careened into him and threw him to the ground before Merlin could understand what was going on.

All he knew was that it hurt. His forehead started throbbing in ebbs and pulses, washing him clean of all thought. His vision went, the only physical sensations being the trickling of sticky wetness down the side of his face, and the grit scraping his fingers raw when he tried to get up.

For a moment there was nothing else but silence and darkness and then light bloomed on his eyelids and he was brought back to the shock of what had happened.

He was still down and his vision was limited to a section of tarmac and shuffling, stampeding feet. As his vision went gold, flight or fight instinct, his blood took to roaring in his ears.

Eventually, people got closer to him, and Merlin, cold seeping into his bones and draping his guts, flung them off him with his magic.

When he looked up, he saw a man holding his hands up, saying, “David Birch, S015, Merlin.”

Merlin stopped randomly reacting.

He blinked, once, twice; heard the roar of the helicopters, one more shot being fired and instinctively scoped the area around him for further threats.

“You can trust me,” the S015 guy said.

Merlin nodded, and let himself be pulled to his feet.

It was only when the other body was rolled off of him that he realised. Isolde was still down, a burst of crimson staining her white shirt, her mouth slack and parted, her eyes glassy and unfocused. One of her hands lay slack on her stomach as if she'd been caught searching the lining of her jacket.

Merlin froze.

Birch pulled at him, at his ripped jacket, at his collar, trying to get him to move. Birch might have been counter terrorism but he wasn't a big man by any means. Merlin found that if he dug his heels in, he could stay put. And did.

“Isolde,” he said, crushing to his knees, pain that he ignored flaring in his kneecaps. “Isolde.”

He reached a hand out to her, touched her forehead. But she didn't blink or bat her lashes. Her chest didn't rise and she made no sound. Yet she was warm, and despite the trickle of blood meandering from her mouth to her chin and staining a corner of her collar, she looked just as she had earlier this morning.

“She's dead; come on,” Birch insisted, panic in the cracks of his voice.

To Merlin, Birch's voice seemed to come from far off. What didn't was the sound of Tristan's shout, the long, wounded wail in it. He heard other voices. Someone telling Tristan, “Not now. For fuck's sake. Secure the PM; secure the PM.”

Merlin had just been hauled upright by two burly men he couldn't as easily resist as he had Birch when Tristan got to Isolde.

Merlin watched as he cradled her in his lap, rocking her. He saw Tristan tip his head back as he cried out loud. He took in their last kiss before he was hauled away, off his feet and into Number Ten.

Merlin was shaking like a leaf by the time the door thundered closed behind him and he was led into a windowless room, swarms of people, plains-clothed and uniformed, buzzing around him like loud insects.

As the world went crazy around him, he leant against the wall, and crumpled in a heap, eyes gone blurry, tear tracks wet on his cheeks, head hurting as if his skull was about to crack.

He dabbed at his eyes with his fist, needing to be strong, but all he could see was the corpse of the person that had died to protect him.

****

Two months later

Tristan knocked and he was told to enter.

The prime minister was sitting at the oval table, the light from the window behind him washing him out and painting a halo around him.

There were folders on his desk distributed in three neat piles. One was stacked to his left, one to his right, and the third one was right under his eyes. A red folder, neither too thick nor too thin, was open before him.

The PM was seemingly poring over it, sitting with his legs apart, an elbow on the table, two fingers at his forehead. They spasmed from time to time, a little twitch most would have missed.

If Tristan was on the field now, he'd consider it a tell. He wasn't, so he merely filed the information away. After having put his briefcase down, he stood to attention.

Not looking up, Mr Emrys waved at Tristan. “None of that.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr Emrys closed the file and steepled his fingers together. “How are you?”

“I'm fine, sir.”

Mr Emrys nodded, though a lip twitch betrayed his lack of conviction, and swept his hand about to direct Tristan's attention to a chair.

Tristan pulled it back and sat down, putting the briefcase on the table before him but leaving it locked. “I'd ask how Merlin is but...”

“He's the reason you're here.”

Even having known that much, Tristan found that he didn't quite know what to say, how to express his thoughts. “He was at Isolde's grave.”

Mr Emrys said, “He's eighteen. Can't stop him if he wants to.”

Tristan inclined his head. “I understand.”

“Have you found a suitable candidate?”

Lower lip between his teeth, Tristan said, “You mean one he won't send packing – again?”

Mr Emrys rose and went to the window, looking out of it with his hands behind his back, his fingers locked together. “I knew Borden wouldn't take even though he was vetted by Five.”

However much Tristan's opinions and feelings wanted to find an outlet, now was not the moment to air them. Tristan couldn't help but agree on that particular score anyway. Borden had no tact. “The others were all better choices than him.”

Mr Emrys tipped his head back. “He doesn't want them.”

Tristan took a step forward, blurting out, “With all due respect, sir, he's just a kid.”

Mr Emrys whipped round, the signs of anger clear in the pursed lips that formed into a snarl. “And what am I supposed to tell my traumatised son? He was in hospital with a skull fracture, having just witnessed a friend's death. Should I just tell him to behave?”

Tristan made a fist of his hands.

“Rationally, I empathise with the people working to protect us,” Emrys said, “and I realise he's refused protection on a whim, but try to understand.” Emrys deflated, his shoulders curving, the wind suddenly out of his sails. “There's already been one attack, and the United Front Against Magic is promising more.”

The prime minister grew animated again and took four large steps; for a moment Tristan thought he was heading straight towards him, and his fighting instincts reared his head, making him unlock his knees in case he'd have to act.

But the PM just sat down and banged his hand on the table. “Every move I make is being watched and the threat dangled above my head is my son's safety. He doesn't want people he dislikes? Frankly, that's all right by me as long as we find someone able to protect him as he should be protected.”

Tristan opened the briefcase. “I have someone who might work.”

Emrys looked pleasantly surprised, the heightened colour seeping out of his cheeks. “Better than the last four?”

Tristan attempted to school his features; make them betray nothing. After all, lately, emptiness was a familiar feeling. “Those four had impeccable CVs too.”

“But Merlin wouldn't have them.”

Tristan had three folders stashed in his briefcase but only took out the top one. “Arthur Pendragon, born December, 19th, 1986--”

“Young,” the PM said. “Does he have the experience needed?”

Tristan looked down and drummed his fingers on the mahogany. “You wanted someone who could connect with him, right? An M5 analyst with a degree in psychology and a Ph.D in social and behavioural science suggested that a younger person would be a better choice if having them click is the aim.” He spared himself the words, 'young like Isolde'.

Mr Emrys gestured brusquely and Tristan read on from his notes, “As I was saying, Pendragon, Arthur, born in '86, enrolled in the PWRR, second battalion, in '04. Straight out of training, (took place in Catterick, NI), he was deployed to Iraq within the scope of Operation Telic. Redeployed to Afghanistan in 2007.”

“Enduring Freedom,” said the PM, tone reminiscent.

“Exactly,” said Tristan. “From then on there's a slight change of pace. Lance Corporal Pendragon decides to go for Military Police training, passing his courses with flying colours.”

“Why not follow in the path he'd sown?” Mr Emrys pointed out. “He'd have made officer...”

“That was looked into when he was assigned to the Foreign Office,” Tristan said levelly. “His unit took a hit; must have changed his outlook.”

Mr Emrys accepted that with a tilt of his head.

“Well, we're getting closer to the present now.” Tristan pushed the file away. He'd learnt it by heart anyway. “ In late '09 he makes it into the Close Protection Unit, 160 Provost Company. From 2009 to 2010, he was assigned to General L.F. King. No complaints. 2010/2011: seconded to the British Embassy in Algiers, protecting the Ambassador. Then a new embassy. This time we're talking Cairo.”

The Prime Minister's pupils got smaller, as if he was interested.

Tristan finished his recitation. “He was also detached to Bahrain to protect the royals during their visits.”

The PM sat back, half relaxed, half poised for intervention. “There's something you're not telling me. This man sounds like gold and I'm wondering why he hasn't been snatched up by Five.”

“That's because,” explained Tristan, wary of another explosion on Mr Emrys' part, “his time with the army was up nine months ago and he won't be talked back into it.”

Mr Emrys lips pulled into a frown. “Why? How?”

“Ten months ago, he was on a Royal Protection mission. He and the colleagues on his team made a wrong call. Judged that the kid following them around and through crowds was a terrorists' recruit. Kid made a move; they thought he was armed. The man under Pendragon's orders shot...”

“And the kid died but was later proved to be unarmed,” Emrys finished for him, depicting a kind of scenario that wasn't that rare on missions like the one described.

“He was wounded badly,” Tristan said, “but for Pendragon, apparently, it was the same thing. There was an investigation but he was acquitted. It was found that they had every reason to assume the boy was armed and dangerous.”

“So why did he leave the army?”

“I suppose it's a matter of honour.” Isolde would probably have understood that. Seen the reason and pointed it out to them. Tristan was only left with the facts and little else but cold reason to judge them with.

“Can he be convinced to...”

Tristan met Emrys' eyes full on for the first time since their meeting started. “Five is willing to hire him. Make him one of theirs and pass him off as one of ours. It'd also help having someone from 5 with us. He'd have his eyes on the bigger picture.”

“I sense a but coming.”

Tristan absently leafed through Pendragon's file. “His surname's no coincidence-”

The light of understanding coloured the Prime Minister's eyes. “Pendragon as in Uther Pendragon, the backer of John Aeredian's United Front Against Magic and MP for...Stockton North?”

Emrys pushed his chair back again though he didn't rise. It looked as though he was in half a mind to but didn't. Instead, he leant his elbows on his thighs and narrowed his eyes. “It's a no. You want the son of a known hater of sorcerers to protect my son, who is, after all, a sorcerer?”

Tristan turned a little in his chair to meet the PM's eyes. “He's also a-political and the half brother of Morgana Fay--”

“Leader of the most volatile pro magic group known to politics.”

Tristan conveyed his message in as toneless a tone as possible. “If we believe him partial to Uther, then we should believe him partial to his sister too. As it is, background checks confirm that he's spoken to neither in eight years.”

A gleam appeared in Emrys' eyes as though he was considering the import of Tristan's message. Tristan, for his part, wanted nothing better than that; that's what he'd been sent here to do and he was following his instructions to the letter.

“You think he's not affiliated to any of these groups?” the PM asked.

Tristan smoothed his hands down his trousers and looked at them. “Personally, I don't think he is. His file has been looked into before. Or he'd never have made it into the military, let alone the Close Protection unit of the Military Police.”

“So I should go for him?”

Tristan picked up the other folders he'd left in the briefcase. “I have other options,” he said.

“But none as good as Pendragon?”

“Not if their field evaluations are taken into account.”

There was another knock on the door and Ms Lewis waltzed in, prim and proper in a pencil skirt and modest heels. “The cabinet meeting is in ten, sir.”

“Very well,” said Mr Emrys, rising. “I'll be there in a moment.”

Tristan got to his feet too, neither too quickly, nor too slowly. Mr Emrys watched as Ms Lewis walked back out and then turned his head towards him. “Get me Pendragon. And have Five triple check him.”

“Yes, sir,” said Tristan, never smiling or doing more than acknowledging the order for what it was.

****

Merlin hopped off the back of Will's scooter, slapped his back and said, “Thanks, mate, I owe you.”

Merlin could see Will squint even from under his helmet. “This is the last time, Merlin.”

Merlin undid the straps of his own helmet, a blue and silver thing that was bound to get noticed, leaving them dangling unbuckled under his chin. “Why? Come on, it wasn't that far out of your way.”

“Because it isn't okay,” Will, said. “It isn't healthy.”

Merlin gave Will his helmet back, shoving it at him with little grace. “I don't see why.”

“Because it's not your fault, Merlin. It’s the fault of the bastard that shot her,” Will said, starting his scooter again. “Not yours. Definitely not yours.”

“She said she'd protect me and she died doing it.” Merlin thrust his hands in his jacket's pockets. “On national TV. Her mum was watching. Tristan--”

Merlin found that he couldn't quite put into words how Tristan had looked that day and perhaps it was better that way. Finding the words would mean he'd remember forever. And he didn't want to. He didn't want that to be his last memory of her. Will would never get it because he wasn't there. “Never mind. It's just that I'm moving to uni and... A flower seems like a little thing. One last time.”

Will made a sour face, one that was aimed at the speedometer more than at Merlin, but an unmistakably sour face. “Have it your way,” he muttered, driving away.

The cemetery Isolde's family had chosen to inter her in was a small one; still Merlin, with little experience to guide him, took his time to find her gravestone.

At length he obviously did, though he never hurried, stopping to read the engraved names at every turn.

Isolde's headstone was plain marble; only a date of birth and death had been marked on it. No other special message had been etched on it. Yet there was evidence of people stopping by to leave a token of their presence. Different bunches of flowers had been left to droop, dry and die on the cold marble.

Merlin sat down on the grass and remained silent for a few long moments. He then shook himself, took the little silk flower he'd found at a stall in Camden Market from out his pocket and put it on the foot-stone.

“Hello,” he said, his voice too loud and clear in the solitude. “I've come to say goodbye. 'Cause I'm moving. Going to uni.”

Merlin dipped his head. He wasn't sure that that would have been what Isolde would have wanted to hear, that it was at all appropriate. Maybe he was just wasting his time and no one was listening; no one was there. But he felt a compunction to go on, speak, fill the silence with the sound of his own voice.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.” He took a breath, wet his lips and continued. “Tristan misses you. It's like a light's gone out of him. And maybe you wouldn't have wanted to know that. Maybe you don't want people to suffer because you're gone. But maybe they should. A little. Some.”

Merlin pressed the heels of his hands against his temples, shaking all over. He inhaled, nostrils flaring, and tried to compose himself.

He'd almost succeeded when the sound of footsteps made him shoot upright. He whipped round to the sound of coughing.

A man wrapped in a trench coat was standing a few steps away from him, having glided there unheard, like a ghost.

Merlin wasn't sure he'd ever seen him before but there still was something familiar about him.

The man kept a rather rigid stance though his whole face was a study in sympathy. His lips were formed into a slightly upward curl that wasn't a smile yet but was nonetheless encouraging. His deep brown eyes looked at him with a kind of pity that should have soothed if it hadn't made Merlin's skin crawl.

He was looking at Merlin as though Merlin was a spooked animal, a deer at bay, and Merlin was half tempted to run away like a scared little kid, except something in him – maybe the part that thought that Isolde was there and watching him – made him stay.

“Who are you?” said Merlin, knowing perfectly well that this cemetery and this particular spot weren't his to claim.

“Agravaine du Bois.”

Merlin arched his eyebrows. “Do I know you?” He looked around, realised the man could have been aiming for no other grave but this one and hunched in his clothes. “Are you a family member?”

“To answer your questions, no and no.” The man tightened his trench coat’s belt. “I was at Ms Stevens' funeral and you might have seen me there.”

Merlin acknowledged the possibility with a small nod. Aching from a skull fracture as he'd been, he hadn't been paying much attention, but the man certainly looked like a government official of some species or other. Someone who might have shared the same employer as Isolde. He was polished enough and smooth enough, down to his tone, for that to be true.

Merlin, however was a little sick of government officials, so he gave the man a parting shoulder raise and took off on his heels.

“Wait!” the man called after him and Merlin stopped.

“What is it?” he asked, wanting to back away but not doing so for whatever reason. “I really need to go.”

“I work for the MET,” du Bois said. “Just like Isolde did.”

Merlin bobbed his head, not quite getting what the man was driving at or why he wanted Merlin to stay if he just wished to pay his respects.

“Oh, I know,” du Bois added in a tone that was borderline apologetic. “I don't look much like it. Not sprightly enough, am I? Though now I'm desk-bound, in my heyday I protected my share of people.”

Merlin's ears were now pricked. “You're S01? Really?”

“Yes, indeed,” said du Bois, working the path's gravel loose with the tip of his polished shoe. “I did nearly twenty years of that. You get attached.”

Merlin breath was taken from him. “To the people you protect?”

“It's inevitable, don't you think?” Du Bois ambled up to him, chin tipped studiously sideways. “I haven't made a study of it, but we're all humans.”

Merlin found himself nodding.

“And it goes both ways.”

Merlin dipped his head, casting a glance at the grave. “I--”

“You feel guilty,” said Agravaine, laying a hand on his shoulder. “It's perfectly understandable. She's dead, you're alive and you feel that that wouldn't have been the case but for you.”

Merlin flinched and side-stepped. Speaking to this man made him feel naked, as though he ought to be the corpse. “No, I--”

Agravaine tutted. “It's just you and me.” He gestured at the empty space between them. “In confidence? You feel guilty. You think you're to blame.”

Silence hummed between them until Merlin found his breath again. “I think she's not enjoying the things she should have been enjoying because of what happened.” Merlin kept his shoulders down, his head bent.

“Well, let me tell you one thing,” said Agravaine in a tone that Merlin might have described as fatherly. “You're not guilty. Though, of course, I'm detached enough to see that while you're not.”

Merlin made a low noise in his throat. He knew he'd just sounded like a broken animal. “That's not the point, it seems to me.”

Agravaine wrapped a strong hand around his elbow and steered him back towards the grave. He stopped there, looking at him as if he was waiting for something.

Merlin made himself look, take in the grey marble and slightly raised lettering of the etching, the little paltry flower he'd left. He made himself look just as he was being watched.

“You're brave.” said Agravaine, letting him go. “But are you brave enough to plough past your own fears?”

“What do you mean?” Merlin eyes filled with unwanted tears.

Du Bois acted as though he hadn't seen them and Merlin was thankful for that. “As I said, I'm desk bound,” he said as though à propos nothing. “So I hear things. What I'm hearing is that you're refusing a replacement bodyguard.”

Merlin half turned around, jaw locked. “I just can't.”

“I understand,” said Agravaine. “And I'm not here to give you a speech about duty.”

Merlin looked at him sideways. He half wished to tune the man out completely and half wished to hear everything he had to say. Agravaine seemed to have understood that, but then Merlin had just found that the man was good at picking up cues.

“Just consider this though,” du Bois said, stressing each one of his words like an actor on stage. “If you die because you've refused protection—“ He looked around, gaze encompassing the empty cemetery and Merlin's position in it. His evaluation of the spot made Merlin feel as vulnerable as he'd ever been. “--she's died for nothing.”

A big fat lump sat in Merlin's throat; he swallowed against it but it stayed lodged where it was. “I've got my magic.”

“But you're still one man against many.”

Merlin felt stupidly grateful towards Agravaine for his choice of words. He hadn't said that Merlin hadn't been quick enough or strong enough on that day, though it was painfully true; he'd just pointed out the statistics. “My dad made it clear. Pointed that out plenty of times.”

“Yes.” A smile slipped on Agravaine's lips. “But this is you admitting it.”

Merlin couldn't curb the little devil in him pushing him to say, “Actually, it's you telling me.”

Agravaine lifted an arm, made a fist and then released it. “Touché,” he said, “I should have put it differently. But it all boils down to you acknowledging it.”

Merlin wanted to poke and prod at that statement; he'd have asked more questions for sure, if a car hadn't rolled by the cemetery's gates, its rumble alerting du Bois to its presence. “Ha, that's for me,” he said, detaching himself from Merlin's side.

He muttered something about office hours and plodded off, shoulders wide, step quick and sure. As quick to disappear as he'd been to appear.

The car's windows were obscured but when the door opened for du Bois, Merlin caught a glimpse of a shapely calf and a foot encased in varnished stilettos. The car door closed with a soft thud.

Walking back home, Merlin replayed Agravaine's words in his mind.

****

Tristan took the exit signalled by his sat nav and decelerated on the lane. From then on he drove at a more sedate pace, changing lanes to allow the other cars on the road to overtake him.

As he ducked over the wheel to take in the coastal view, the sun kept on shining and baking the dashboard, getting into his eyes and making them redden.

The view, he had to admit, was objectively beautiful enough to warrant a mention in a tour guide, though he himself was uninterested in that aspect of the drive. What made him curious, though, was the out of the way nature of this particular spot.

Sea gulls flew overhead, the road was all twists and bends of the kind you saw on motoring shows, and he'd spotted the last road sign indicating the presence of a village more than twenty minutes behind.

Someone was seeking solitude, it seemed.

When Tristan stopped his car in view of the cottage the first thing he saw was the man on top of the thatched roof. He had a hammer in his hand and a bale of wheat straw was precariously perched right next to him, a round hole gaping open at his side.

The sun, fierce for the end of August, glinted off his hair and must have blinded him to his work, though he soldiered on. His neck looked red from the exposure while, despite the rolled up sleeves of his shirt, the skin of his arms hadn't suffered yet.

“Mr Pendragon?” Tristan closed the car door and shielded his eyes from the sun. “Can I have a word with you?”

The man straightened, tensed, and came down the ladder without putting down the hammer.

As he approached, Tristan noted that the man – Pendragon – had a closed off look about him. His lips were compressed into a thin line and his eyes were very nearly slanted shut.

His clothing underlined the sinewed muscles of his arms and legs, and followed the strong lines of his body, the broad planes of his back and the strength of his thighs. The man Tristan had just ambushed looked strong and fit enough to emanate a dangerous air; if you added the fact that he'd been trained to kill with his bare hands, Tristan might have called himself stupid for having stirred up a hornet's nest without a preparatory phone call.

“Who are you?” Pendragon asked, his whole body stiff with contained wariness. “You're not a stray tourist.”

Tristan forked his sun glasses, even though the sun was now behind him. “I could have pretended I was.”

Pendragon put a hand to his forehead to scratch at his eyebrow. The gesture might have appeared casual and lazy. Tristan, though, hadn't failed to notice the way the tendons of his other arm were bulging around the grip he had on his hammer. “You're government.”

Tristan neither confirmed nor denied. “Can we talk about this inside?”

“I'm not in the habit of inviting strangers into my home.”

Wanting to avoid an impasse, Tristan introduced himself. “My name's Tristan Draper. I'm with the MET.”

Pendragon's throat muscles relaxed a fraction. “The MET? Out here in Dorset?”

“Specialist Protection Branch.”

“I see,” said Pendragon in a tone Tristan couldn't read yet, a tone that said he'd been trained to give away as little as possible at any given moment. The classified section of Pendragon's CV should make for an interesting read indeed. “I still don't see what you people have got to do with me.”

“No?” asked Tristan. “Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about.” He arched an eyebrow at the cottage behind him, at its white walls and roof snuggling into background green hills criss-crossed with hedgerows.

Pendragon pulled air through his nostrils, fingers working the grip of his hammer as if he was testing his hold. “I've got a few minutes.”

Tristan couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at that, but followed the man up the drive, the ground soft beneath his feet, sucking at the soles of his shoes, advertising how far away from the familiar turf of the big city he'd got.

The door wasn't closed and creaked when Pendragon pushed it open. It revealed a traditional cottage at least as far as the floor plan was concerned; as for the rest, there was little of the traditional about Pendragon's living arrangements. The furnishings were kept to a bare minimum and looked as little used as things that were patently not new could look.

Pendragon led him past a tiny hall washed in natural light, through a moderately tidy lounge, and into the kitchen.

Tristan noted the highlights: a used mug sat on the counter, a spillage of coffee grounds littered the surface and the sugar bowl on the table was chipped. Everything else was clean enough. An old aga, oven mittens hanging above it, caught Tristan's eyes and made him re-evaluate the man before him.

He was dealing with a traditionalist or at least a man who wasn't dependent on technology for his comforts.

Pushing aside a little waddle of bills and receipts, Pendragon sat at the table. “So I suppose I should ask why you're here.”

Though he hadn't been invited to sit, Tristan drew up a chair and sank down, the muscles at the small of his back giving a twinge after so many hours spent driving. “Have you got a job lined up?” he asked, seemingly out of the blue.

“Something tells me you already know the answer to that question.” Pendragon fetched a sigh. “Something tells me you know a lot more about me than is fair.”

“I don't know about that,” said Tristan. Then, deciding he ought to give away something if he wanted something in return, he said. “I read your file.”

Pendragon gave him the tiniest nod.

Tristan asked, “Have you read the papers in the past few months?”

Pendragon chuckled. “This place may be at the back end of nowhere but I do buy papers. I've also got a TV.”

Tristan hadn't seen it, but waved the issue aside. “Then you must know that the UFAM has never been more active.”

Pendragon pressed his lips resolutely together, all light going out of his eyes. “Is this about my father?” Chair screeching against tiles, he got up, gave his back to Tristan and started filling the kettle on the counter. “Because I haven't heard from him since--”

“2004.”

Pendragon put the kettle down with a loud clang and span around. “If you know that, then why are you here?”

“Because someone tried to kill the PM.”

That got Pendragon's attention all right; he nearly froze in place, eyes widening, muscles locking. “You haven't got who did it?”

“We obviously have suspicions,” said Tristan. “But no concrete leads. As you probably know, no arrest was made.”

Pendragon's eyes narrowed. “That doesn't mean anything.”

Tristan acknowledged that with a tilt of his head. “In this case we know little more than the press actually. The whole attempt was orchestrated rather well, telling us that those behind it are both powerful and smart.”

“And have UFAM leanings.”

“Indeed,” Tristan said. “But I'm not here because I think you had a hand in it.”

Pendragon didn't seem as ticked off at the shadow of accusation as he had at the mention of his father. His stance was looser now and there was no tell-tale sign of extra tension in his body language. This seemed strange since a personal accusation should have been more alarming than the mere hinting at one's personal family connection, but Tristan let that go in favour of doing some recruiting. “What this means, of course, is that the PM is as much in danger as he was a few months ago.”

After having turned on the gas, Arthur took a seat back at the table, both hands on its surface, palms down. “Five must be thrilled.”

Tristan grimaced. “They tell me Thames House is like a frantic behove.”

“I can well imagine.” The kettle made a surging, wailing sound. “Still, that's got nothing to do with me.”

“It has.” Tristan waited a few moments for Arthur to take the bait. As foreseen, curiosity flashed into his eyes. “How? I'm an unemployed civilian.”

“Not for long.”

Arthur burst out laughing, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he shook his head. “Don't tell me you've come this far for a job offer. And don't tell me you're not with Five.”

Tristan leant forward. “Mr Emrys has a son. He was nearly killed.”

“And you want me to?”

“You're the close protection expert.”

Pendragon hooted. “What? Be his bodyguard?” Pendragon got to his feet and made himself busy with the kettle, getting clean mugs out of the cupboard and dunking tea bags into them. “I'm not with the Protection Command like you claim to be. I'm not even with the military police anymore. Why am I even being considered as a candidate? Why don't you do it?”

Tristan set his jaw. “Because you're one of the best and because the young man in question has rejected all candidates proposed to him.”

Pendragon picked up the kettle and poured water into the mugs, acting for all the world as though he was uninterested. The fact that he was still talking with Tristan, however, suggested that all might not be as it seemed. That this was still worth a try. “So I should bend over backwards for the whims of a whelp?”

Tristan firmly believed in the powers of his own intuition; they might have been dulled recently, but they still worked when he wanted them to. Pendragon needed to be pushed the little bit necessary to make him see the human factor of the whole business. It had to be more than a spy game; it had to be more than a reinstatement. The man who had apparently left everything behind because of a mistake needed to be courted with something more than the promise of a good salary and an intriguing who-done-it conundrum. “His former bodyguard was killed. He's shaken and scared and--”

“Still a tantrum.” Pendragon slid him his mug.

“Look,” said Tristan, the first spark of rage he'd felt in months making him veer off the script, “his bodyguard was my fiancée. She died to protect him. Frankly, I don't care much about your hermit posing.”

“I'm not--”

Tristan steamrolled right over him, “Or about your guilt. Someone is trying to kill that boy to get the Prime Minister to step down. So that his non magic coalition ally, Mrs Caerleon, could step up, ending all magical reform at a time when it's most needed. That would be a national crisis all right. Five doesn't have a clue. The MET hasn't got a clue, but they're offering you an in, and a mission. Now you may feel that you're above it all or maybe you don't give shit about your country, but this is a little more than you disciplining the tantrums of a kid.”

“I never said that I-”

“Licking your wounds and renouncing the world is not going to make a difference, you know.” Tristan backed away, lifting a hand up as if in surrender. “I'm sorry,” he said, adjusting his tie. “That wasn't my place. I'd come because you were the best candidate for this job.”

Pendragon cocked his head at him.

“Well,” said Tristan, getting up and stepping further away, legs more unsteady than he'd have thought possible after his outburst. “Think about what I said.” He dropped a card on Pendragon's table. “If you should rethink it, give me a call.”

****

Merlin dropped the latest stack of books into the open cardboard box and mopped his brow with his sleeve. He turned round, eyeing the shelves: more than two were yet to be emptied. At the thought Merlin felt the beads of sweat start out on the back of his neck. Sighing, he pulled his old, slightly worn, short-sleeved tee over his head, dragged it across his face, breathed out, and made a ball of it.

With an arm lifted to throw it in the general direction of the bed, he rounded on his feet and saw him.

The man standing on the threshold was tall but perhaps not as tall as him -- Merlin could have told if he wasn't slouching against the door jamb – blond, not the kind of blond that faded into the background, and muscled.

His rounded biceps filled out the crisp white fabric of his sleeves and his pecs did the same for his chest. When he flexed his arm and straightened out, the breadth of his shoulders became visible. Despite this, he wasn't built in the way of body builders, tendons and veins sticking out as if they were about to burst with excess muscle, but like someone who led an active lifestyle and didn't abuse illegal substances.

Merlin shifted his weight, wished for a moment his chest wasn't bare or that it wasn't significantly less muscled, and asked the most pertinent question that came to mind, “What are you doing here?”

The man's pupils went from wide to narrow so quickly Merlin was able to notice; the more so since the man's eyes were intently scanning his face for traces of who knew what. “I'm authorised.”

Merlin crossed his arms. “Yeah, well, I suppose you are. You'd have been tackled to the ground if you weren't.”

The man shifted his suit jacket from one arm to the other and cocked his head to the side, hair falling across his forehead. Merlin heard a small sound come from his throat, like a chuckle, but couldn't swear to it, because it was so low. “Then you should have asked who I was.”

Merlin uncrossed his arms and took a step forward. “It seems to me,” he said, “that that was implied.”

“Brave,” said the man who was, to all intents and purposes, pretty much still an unknown. “Considering I might be a terrorist.”

Merlin felt a frisson chasing down his spine, like a cold liquid freezing his marrow. His head started to pound and he knew his eyes were probably gold now. To break the spell, he moved again, and grabbed for his discarded shirt, the action mundane enough to take him out of the chain reaction thoughts of terrorists had instilled in him. Slowly his focus returned. “If you were, one of us would be dead.”

Merlin's guest – hopefully not a hitman – took a step towards him, coming to stand chest to chest with him. His eyes never left Merlin's as though he was looking for something there. Maybe, Merlin thought, he was searching for proof of his humanity. People did when his eyes did their thing.

Merlin bunched his shirt in his hands, looking down, then up again, tension lingering at the small of his back.

“Arthur Pendragon,” the man, now bearing a name, said. “And you wouldn't be able to take me.”

Merlin knew that he didn't look like much, that he wasn't threatening. But for his big bones, he wouldn't have weighed much, and since he'd never given much thought to sports, being somewhat lazy when it came too his free time, he didn't have bulging muscles of the type you found on the covers of romance novels.

Yet the man had to be brain addled to discount the magic. Half the nation was in an uproar because of the powers of people like him. “I could,” Merlin said, suiting words to action.

He flung Arthur away from him, moving the bed so he wouldn't crash against the wall. Arthur, however, rolled with it, landing not so much on the bed as on his haunches, a hand stretched out, tendons sticking out on his arms, as if he was about to use them to lever himself up. Which he did.

In a flash he'd got himself to his feet and Merlin backed up against the wall, a few inches shy of the shelving. Arthur placed his forearm against his throat, virtually trapping him between the wall and his body.

He pushed Merlin's head up, pulling it back farther with his hand, having caught a fistful of short hair, as if he wanted Merlin to see him, see what he'd done.

For his part, Merlin dropped his shirt and started breathing fast, chest heaving, grazing Arthur's with each big in-take of breath.

Tingles ran up and down Merlin's back, a little bit like lightning flailing him, though way less painful (as he had to suppose). He gasped and tried to say something, but Arthur was there before him.

“Hello, I'm your new bodyguard,” Arthur said, pressing into him, hands hot and solid on him, strong hands, hands that would keep him in place unless Merlin went for really hurting him.

Something he didn't want to do.

Merlin wriggled his shoulders to work himself free, to do something that wasn't being the object of this man's thorough, penetrating scrutiny. “I don't want one. I don't need one.”

Arthur's fingers touched Merlin's temple, tracing the scar Merlin had got when he was flung to the ground that day.

Arthur was no longer meeting his gaze, but following the outline of the scar with his eyes. “You really do need one.”

Just like that, Arthur stepped away, his breathing heavier than it had been when he'd entered. Merlin was glad that he'd given the man a run for his money, that he'd made him sweat it.

“I could really, really hurt you,” said Merlin, sliding down the wall. “I just don't want to. Because... I can't control it that well and if I go all out...” He winced at himself. “You'd be dead.”

Arthur arched an eyebrow at him. “Rule number one: don't give out such strategic information to unknowns.”

Arthur squatted on his haunches, bringing himself at eye level with Merlin. “You're going to be their perfect victim because your father loves you. Besides, you're not just somebody's son, even if that somebody's the prime minister. You've got what they hate. Magic. You're the perfect sacrificial victim.”

Merlin swallowed. “I--” He'd never tested his fear of death, but those words unsettled him, maybe it was what they were turning him into, something he didn't want to be. On a stupid whim, he said, “What do you care?”

And wished his words back when Arthur said, “It's my duty to protect people.”

Merlin tilted his head to the side, pretending to be interested in the floor. “I don't want you.”

Arthur rose, lip ticking. “You'll have to have me if you don't want to drive your father crazy with worry, Merlin.”

Merlin screwed his eyes shut. It was kind of true that his father was worrying. And Merlin hadn't just figured this out on the basis of the lines that kept multiplying on his forehead or because of what he'd actually said since the attempt on their lives. It was more about the fact that he now rarely spoke and when he did his customary bark was gone. As if he thought Merlin was breakable.

Then he remembered Agravaine and what he'd said at the cemetery, how he'd argued that Merlin was wasting Isolde's death by not doing anything to keep alive. “I don't want to hurt my father,” said Merlin aloud. “I'd thought that nothing ever would but that's not true.”

“I don't know him,” Arthur told him. “But I'm sure he would suffer if you were to die.”

Merlin tilted his head. “Does your father worry? About the job you do?”

Arthur got to his feet and stepped back from him, leaving Merlin free to repossess his own breathing space. “No,” he said. “I don't think he cares about that anymore....”

Merlin laughed, “So basically you're not reaping what you're sowing.”

Arthur laughed too, carefree for a second, but all that changed in a moment, his eyes getting more distant, his whole face shuttering as if curtains had been drawn. “Even if you don't care about your father, which I doubt, you're too young to die.”

Merlin had the impression Arthur knew what he was going on about, that he wasn't talking out of his arse, and that alone served to make Merlin shake a good part of his sense of defiance. “All right,” he said, tapping a finger on his knee. “Let's do it like this. You can be my bodyguard.”

That sentence pulled Arthur out of his sudden funk. “Oh, how gracious of you.”

“And if I don't hate you.” Merlin attempted a small smile to sugar coat his sentence. “I'll keep you.”

A small reluctant smile appeared on Arthur's lips.

 

****

Over the few days following his initial one in the PM's employment, Arthur helped Merlin pack his life up.

Merlin had gone about it methodically enough even if his room itself was a mess. However, the odds and ends that ended up in the boxes seemed to be of little use.

Aside from his clothes, which Arthur granted were necessary, Merlin also packed comics, knick-knacks from childhood holidays, books that had nothing whatsoever to do with studying, and reams of papers that weighed a ton but couldn't possibly be of any value.

When Merlin opted for putting a stack of posters in one of the boxes Arthur had offered to lug out, (just so he could have an eye on Merlin,) Arthur said, “You can't bring that! What do you need that bunch of papers for?”

“These are my Junior Magic Association posters,” Merlin said with a duh face. “I spent half my life at their meetings!”

“Junior being the operative word,” Arthur pointed out, hands on his hips. “It seems to me that if you're all grown up, you won't need them anymore.”

And Merlin was an adult, wasn't he? Before taking on the job, Arthur had expected a teen, maybe a sullen one, but Merlin, aside from his moments of forlorn silence, which were expected given what had happened to him, had nothing of the sulky youth about him.

And most of all he didn't look much like a kid. He was taller than Arthur, his shoulders were wide though his hips were narrower than most people's, and there was an assured slant to his features, as if he was so very determined to achieve what he wanted to get done, that made him look like a young man ready to let the world hear from him.

Merlin smiled an unthinking smile that had previously made no appearance on his face. This smile was youthful and care-free like none that had gone before. Arthur had to bolster himself for it, planting his feet wide apart in an act of self-defence. There was something to Merlin's smiles that left him nearly speechless. “You can't get rid of things like these. They're my history.”

Arthur couldn't quite understand not moving on. “They're a burden.”

“Look,” said Merlin, shedding his soft, nearly addled smile from before. “I'm not asking you to take them downstairs. But I can't leave this stuff behind.”

Arthur looked at the old yellowed posters and leaflets, at the coloured ones and at the artsy ones. “I don't understand their purpose. You won't need them where you're going so why bring them at all?

Merlin shook his head, lips turning up. “It's a chunk of me. They're of sentimental value.”

Arthur poked at the box with his toe. “Sentimental value?”

“Don't act as if you don't understand that,” said Merlin, dragging the box away from Arthur's reach. He lay an old jumper that couldn't possibly fit him anymore inside it, paying a lot of attention to folding it properly.

“Because I'm sure you understand getting attached,” Merlin said. “You can't be a heartless man of duty all the time, can you, Mr Bodyguard?” Merlin stopped fussing with his jumper, a line crossed his forehead and he said, “When my mum died, and my dad got into politics for real, well after all that, they basically raised me. Helped me develop some of my skills. They're home. So I'm keeping their posters and stuff.”

Arthur couldn't quite believe his ears, that someone would be quite ready to pour his heart out the way Merlin had, that someone would put themselves in such a position. “It's alright,” he said, after he'd managed to close his mouth.

Merlin chuckled but let it go. “You're an odd man, Arthur.”

Arthur stood there watching as Merlin's eyes danced with some kind of understanding. He wasn't sure what Merlin had got from him, but it convinced Arthur he'd better stop doing whatever he was doing that made Merlin look like that. He didn't like being outmanoeuvred by a uni kid.

“Oh,” said Merlin. “Now you're gonna clam up.”

And that was that for the day. On the next Arthur walked in on what had to be a father and son row, if his memories of his own relationship with his father were anything to go by.

“You can't go by train,” Mr Emrys thundered. It was short, raucous and very much to the point. There was so much sheer rage in the order Arthur would have thought any normal kid would have backed down.

Arthur watched as Merlin kept his ground, both father and son certainly unaware of his presence in the room.

“I don't want to be seen as different!” Merlin said. He wasn't shouting, but his voice was raised and his fists were tightening. “I want to get to uni by train as the majority of people do.”

“The majority of people don't have to contend with attempts on their lives.”

Merlin looked ready for a second quarrel round if the jerk of his facial muscles was anything to judge by. “It's just uni, dad.”

Lips drawn back over his teeth, neck the colour of a ripe plum, the Prime Minister said, “Merlin, this is--”

“You were the one who said to the press I would never ever receive preferential treatment for being your son.”

The Prime Minister said, “I was referring to tuition or scholarships, not security, Merlin.”

“I'll drive him or stick to his side if the train idea is sanctioned,” Arthur found himself saying without quite knowing why. “Sir.” He felt an irrational need to stand to attention but he guessed that would have only heightened the scrutiny he was undergoing.

Merlin rounded on him but loosened his fists. “I want to stop being a part of this. I'm not even into politics.”

“You already are, if you haven't noticed,” Arthur told Merlin, ignoring the PM, a choice he wasn't certain was wise. Hell, he wasn't sure either whether he was trying a psychoanalytical approach on Merlin, the kind they'd taught him during training – the one aimed at convincing potential attackers to back down – or if he was speaking out for Merlin's own peace of mind. “If you've read the morning papers, you'll have found out that you happen to feature.”

“The press release,” Merlin began.

Arthur shook his head; in a way he didn't want to add fuel to the fire or hurt Merlin, but he felt that nothing short of the truth would be enough to make Merlin understand that he was part of the politics arena whether he liked it or not. “Not that. There's a nice Daily Mail article about you going to uni, wondering why you turned down Oxford and why you were going to Durham. There was another one on the Telegraph looking into your performance and the fairness of the candidate selection procedure that allowed you to win a place in lots of top unis.”

“I--”

Arthur took a step towards Merlin without having quite planned to do so. “I'll drive you. I can keep a low profile.”

“I guess you can,” said Merlin a little bitterly. “This was supposed to be a nice day for me. Brand new life.”

“Yeah,” Arthur said, avoiding the PM's eyes and any form of judgement that might be held in them. “You need to be alive to reap the rewards though.”

Merlin bent his head, shoulders slumping. “All right. I just--” He shook his head and trailed off, brushing past Arthur and getting out of the room after having released a big huffed sigh.

Arthur watched him go. When he turned again, it was to be met by the Prime Minister's arched eyebrow.

“I'd just thought that'd convince him,” he said.

“I'm sure.”

“I suppose it's better if I escort him anyways.”

The Prime Minister sobered. “As long as there's someone to protect him,” he said, before leaving the room much like his son had.

 

*****

The first part of the drive north was silent and uneventful. Merlin kept himself to himself, though he fidgeted lots, seemingly unhappy with his seat, the radio station and the way the sun hit his eyes.

Since Merlin was being that way, Arthur saw no reason to be talkative either. He kept his hands on the wheel and his mouth shut.

He focused on the goings on on the motorway, alert for anything out of the ordinary, anything that meant they were being targeted.

But nothing seemed out of the ordinary: traffic was slow but didn't seem to be artificially so. It didn't look as though it was being purposefully halted so UFAM terrorists could get to the car. The slow pace was just the product of the presence of a couple of big lorries.

At one point Arthur tensed because a driver forced himself on Arthur's carriageway and Arthur prepared to swerve and accelerate in case they were being boxed in on all sides. His fingers tightened around the gear lever, but relaxed when he saw that they weren't being attacked. The aggressive driver was just a wanker with a hard on for speeding.

However, he only relaxed when he overtook the wanker. The individual in question had tried not to give way, even when it was clear that the car Arthur was driving had a more powerful engine. At last the wanker was forced to back down by the realities of car engineering.

“That's so much for posturing.”

Arthur purposefully didn't turn his gaze on Merlin. “That wasn't posturing,” he said, braking a little now that the wanker was far behind. “I don't like people who get funny on the motorway when I need to watch out for hit-men eager to kill you.”

“Yeah,” said Merlin, turning sideways, body language signalling that now a conversation channel was open. “As if I believe you. You've been trained to go all Rambo, haven't you?” Merlin cast him a studying glance that made Arthur shift in his seat. “What are you anyway? S01 like...” Merlin bit his lower lip as if to stem the flow of his words. “...Like Borden. Or are you something else?”

Arthur looked ahead, lips together. He made a study in stillness of his face.

“Oh.” Merlin resettled himself so he was no longer turned towards Arthur, legs sprawled loosely in front of him. The pose made an odd sensation seep into Arthur's tissues. “I see how it is. You're going to be a pro. Never say a word.”

“That's not—” Arthur started, then he tamped down on what he felt the urge to say. Lying to Merlin just so he wouldn't feel wounded wasn't an option. There was nothing honest about it. “I suppose you know the drill.”

Merlin moved again, a little restlessly perhaps. He put his foot on the dashboard, leaving a trainer imprint Arthur would have chided him for if he didn't feel like a heel already. “I know. But it's been different these past few months.”

“What do you mean?” Arthur sneaked a glance at Merlin, at his slightly far away expression and parted mouth.

“Before my dad started being written about in the papers we had next to no security and that only because we were considered at risk as a high profile magical family.” There was no mistaking the sadness in Merlin's tone and once again Arthur was surprised by Merlin's ability to share his feelings. “Now, they drill me and talk about national security and how much people want me dead. It's scary. So I liked it better when I didn't know the drill and could have normal conversations with people.”

Arthur smoothed the car into fourth gear. “I'm so sorry it has to be like that.”

Merlin made a little noise, like he meant to say something, but then he gnawed on his lips. At last he said, “What do they say about me?”

“Merlin.” Arthur lifted a hand from the wheel and smacked it back down.

“No, come on, tell me.”

“Merlin--”

“Arthur!”

“All right,” Arthur said, “I suppose you can get the morning paper once we get there anyway.”

Arthur paused to choose his words. “They're doubting you got accepted into those unis by yourself. They think you got accepted because the polls said your father would win. And they think your choice not to go Oxbridge was a political manoeuvre of some sort.”

Merlin surged up, very nearly braining himself on the car's roof. “What! No! I--”

Arthur put his hand on Merlin's knobby knee and Merlin stopped flailing. He stopped doing much of anything and Arthur was quick after that to put his hand back on the wheel. “I'm sure you knew it would be like that. Mr Emrys seems to be a clever man and he must have warned you.”

“I--” Merlin said, sniffling a little as he tried to put his outrage into words. “I'm doing Geography, you know. And Durham is famous for that. And... I got into Oxford, but I didn't want to be my dad. I don't want to be one of the 26 PMs who got their education there. If my father's career hadn't taken off, I'd be a normal lad from Northumberland. That's who I want to be. I don't ever want to become someone I'm not and Oxford is who I'm not.”

“You'd have better chances at everything,” said Arthur, glossing over the passion that shone through Merlin's words. He couldn't linger on that because if he did he'd have to admit that he'd been very off track regarding Merlin. “Jobs, further education...”

“People are looking at me,” Merlin answered him then, lashes going down so they were screening his eyes. “At what I do. I don't like it, but I'd rather make a point with that. And if that's screw old institutions, then welcome.”

“You know;” said Arthur, hardly containing a chuckle, “you're hardly the underdog.”

Merlin shrugged his shoulders. “I can still root for the underdog.” He grinned then, as if that alone could help put everything in perspective.

Arthur braked when he realised he'd inched too close to the bumper of the car ahead.

“For someone not into politics, you're doing an awful lot of politicking.”

“Shut up, Arthur.”

The rest of the drive went smoothly, and despite the fact that they didn't stick close to Arthur's schedule thanks to Merlin wanting to stop on the way multiple times, they made it to Durham before nightfall.

“I was so late in choosing,” said Merlin climbing the stairs of a riverside building. “That I got exiled here instead of at St. Aidan's.” Merlin had been adamant about carrying his own carry-all. Now he was both clambering up the stairs and huffing. “My father insisted about me taking my time to decide before I dismissed Oxford. So I didn't get collegiate accommodation.”

Arthur had taken a look at the building, at its access door and the number of floors, and found he liked how contained it was. “Makes it easier for me to keep an eye on you. A collegiate building crawling with students would have been a security nightmare.”

Merlin just laughed. “Of course you'd be thinking about that and not about my socialisation chances.”

“I'm sure that,” Arthur said, skipping ahead of Merlin, “if you pull a few of your sad little faces you'll melt anyone into being your friend straight away.”

Merlin stopped, hand on the banister. “Didn't work with you, did it?”

Arthur tried to reply but the door to one of the flats opened on what seemed have been some kind of stammered acknowledgement of the fact that those words had been addressed to him.

A round faced and brown haired man of about Merlin's age emerged from within the flat wearing Hawaiian shorts and a tee that bore the logo of Queensryche. “You're Merlin, aren't you?” the man asked. “I'm Gilli, second year, your new flatmate.”

Merlin bounded up to the man, put down his carry-all and shook his hand. Gilli wasn't so formal and decided a hug was the perfect greeting for a new flatmate.

If Arthur had been greeted that way, he'd have probably backed away to weigh the person allowing themselves such liberties, how potentially dangerous they might be to him.

Merlin, though, went practically loose limbed and allowed the familiarity, body open and pliant.

The hug was quick but despite that Merlin's neck got red, leaving Arthur wondering at Merlin's tendency to put himself out there so quickly. It was terrifying and admirable in a way, and also something Arthur wanted to cull then and there.

Stepping out of Gilli's embrace Merlin pawed at the back of his neck with the flat of his hand, laughing a little. “Sorry we were late,” he said. “We--”

Arthur ducked his head, biting his lip in order not to mention the stops Merlin had requested they make.

“I guess that 'we' isn't a royal 'we'?” said Gilli, finally looking past Merlin and at Arthur. As a result of his quick study of Arthur, he pitched his eyebrows together. “You haven't introduced me to your boyfriend.”

Arthur was quick to understand how the misunderstanding might have arisen, but was weighing what to say while Merlin went through a few different phases as he sifted what Gilli had hinted at.

At first a fleshy crease appeared on his brow, then his eyes flicked from Gilli to Arthur and lingered on him, all pupil, mouth rounded in an 'o' that looked both like surprise and vulnerability. Then he gaped awhile until he finally became all motion: waving his hands and shaking his head. “Arthur is my bodyguard.”

Gilli squawked then hooted. “You've got a bodyguard?”

Arthur's mouth set in a sour line.

“Yeah,” said Merlin, backtracking. “I normally wouldn't but after what's happened...”

“Gods, I'm a-political on principle but I watched that on youtube,” Gilli said, scratching at his badly shaven chin and evidently referring to the June attempt on the Emryses. “The whole reason why I'm a-political.”

Merlin went as white a sheet, eyes tracking in a way that was worrying.

By now Arthur's lips were pressed thin. He was just the bodyguard and as such he shouldn't interfere with Merlin's interpersonal relationships, but he felt an itch to hit Gilli that was only curbed by the knowledge that Arthur would really hurt him if he did raise a fist on him.

Even though he wanted to do something to help Merlin out of this and punish Gilli, he stayed silent and waited for Merlin to recover.

He did at length, a very small smile gracing his lips. “Yeah, it was scary. So now there's Arthur to protect me and you're probably gonna see some other bodyguardly types around now and then because I'm sure Arthur sleeps from time to time.”

Gilli snorted, “Does he talk or is he like one of those guards at Buckingham palace?” He made caricature signs that were half directed at Arthur and half at the landing. “Maybe if...”

Arthur picked up Merlin's carry all for him. “Where's his room?” he barked and heard Gilli say, “That answers it.”

He found the room destined for Merlin all by himself. It stood to the left of the small lounge that separated it from another bedroom and a kitchenette. There was an unmade bed in it and bare shelves. A pouf had been placed under the window and to the left of the door sat a lacquered white desk with black drawers. Arthur put Merlin's bag on the bed.

Merlin made it into his new room. “I'm so sorry,” he said. “I didn't think he would poke fun at you, but you've got to admit that you don't always get room-mates that come with bodyguards who look like the younger, fitter version of the guy from 24.”

“That's all right,” said Arthur, keeping his head down. He pulled the keys from his jacket pocket. “I'll get your boxes and—”

Merlin walked up to Arthur and pushed him down on the bed by placing both hands on his shoulders.

Arthur was stunned into looking up and was still doing so out of wide eyes when Merlin said, “I'll get my own things. You drove all the way up here. You might be the next James Bond for all I know, but even you need to rest a few minutes.”

Arthur tried to object but Merlin had already gained the door. “Just try not to kill Gilli while I'm out, all right?”

Arthur found himself nodding, smiling softly only after Merlin had left the room. The next few months of this settling down phase, Arthur wagered, were going to be a challenge.

 

****

Light streamed in from the tall sashed window, washing the furniture in its nearly whitish glow.

Many portraits looked out from the wall opposite – all Baroque pieces to the last of them.

Given the room's lay-out, they were thrown in shadow, the angles and hollows of her ancestors' waxy faces overlapping, any life-like quality they might have held erased in the grey wash of light.

Strokes of green, red, and brown looked matte and lacking in character, the ripples of the brush smoothed out into flatness.

A knock on the door startled Morgana from her reverie. The door opened and one of her PAs glided in, the click of her heels muted on the carpet. “Mr du Bois to see you, madam.”

Morgana pushed her swivel chair back and slid her reading glasses off her nose, placing them on a stack of papers at her left. “Let him in, I suppose.”

Mary arched an eyebrow but slid back out silently and without question. A few moments later Agravaine appeared in the doorway.

Unlike most days, he wasn't wearing a formal outfit, but a casual polo neck and trousers that might have been smart if combined with any other top. His hair was growing longer, too long, lengthening in less than trendy tufts at the sides and flowing too freely. The slight sagging of his jawline belied his youthful hair cut. He leant against the door, one hand in his pocket, “Happy Friday.”

Morgana snorted, tapping her fingers on her desk. “I see it's casual Friday at the MET.”

Agravaine smiled in a way he must have thought of as agreeable. “It's my day off.”

Morgana's lips joined together, settling into a flat line. “And what brings you here?”

Agravaine crossed the room, still smiling benignly, and pulled back a chair. He sat, crossed his legs one on top of the other and cupped his knee. “According to our informers,” he said, “your party and your line have gained more public support since the June attempt.”

As if Morgana didn't know that. “It still doesn't change the basics, does it?”

“You can't expect a sudden turn of popular opinion.”

“No, I can't,” Morgana acknowledged, not appreciating Agravaine's patience in this instance. Being patient was easy when it wasn't your cause that was hanging in the balance. “And it was all part of my long term plan, yet long term shouldn't mean impossible.”

“But still.” Agravaine waved his hand about. “This is what you wanted. Using the--”

Morgana raised a hand to anticipate Agravaine. She smiled. “No, no,” she said, “you're not getting this. What have you done to put things in motion?”

Agravaine's body stiffened. He stretched forward, coming to perch on the edge of his chair, teetering on one hip. “I thought our plan would be to wait and see, though I talked to--”

Morgana tutted to interrupt Agravaine's tedious babble. She studied her fingernails for a moment, just so he'd grow suitably anxious, and then she looked at him from under her lashes. “There's a difference between orchestrating from behind the lines and doing nothing.”

“Talking to the boy wasn't doing nothing,” Agravaine returned, his half smile eclipsed. “I exposed myself.”

She rose, circled her desk and came to stand before him. She picked up a paper cutter and turned it round and round in her hands. It was silver and gleamed when the light from the window hit it just right. “You aren't one of us so, of course, you don't understand,” she began. “We need to manipulate the outcome better. Magic users are the victims...”

“What you suffered, Morgana, was unjust...” Agravaine's expression had melted. The wariness was gone from his features; in its place there was something that looked very much like pity.

Morgana put the paper cutter down with more force than such an action required. “That's not important: what matters now is to be seen to have suffered. To set this up properly.”

“We've already a foot in the door--”

“Letting them do it in the way that is most beneficial to them is not a strategy.”

Agravaine's brows knit together. “I thought that in the long term we... you would benefit the most.”

Morgana tapped her foot twice and went back to her place behind the desk. Placing both hands on its surface, she said, “I hope for you that it works out that way.”

 

****

Freshers' week should have been paradise and was for many students; there was lots of prospective socialising to be done and no studying to be weighted by.

Merlin found it mostly an exercise in embarrassment. At first everything was much as he'd expected whenever he'd tried to picture uni life.

He met the representatives of his student union on his second day and up till then everything had seemed boringly normal. Even far more normal than he'd thought it would be.

He'd figured his first week of uni would be an initiation in a boundary-free existence he wasn't sure he would fit in. He'd imagined odd flatmates (okay, he got that in some shape), sex on tap, dope available in every slightly hidden nook, and raging promiscuity.

Instead he got a bodyguard schedule, early wake up calls and no new friends aside from Gilli, who was quite tactile and didn't close the loo's door when he was in. There had been no alcohol binges on his first night and he'd definitely met no one new.
Arthur being there sixty per cent of the time hadn't helped. Not that Merlin wanted to give in to particularly crazy acts, but he'd thought he could lose himself in the absurdity of Freshers' week and be allowed not to think too much. Maybe if he did indulge, things would fall into place even if he had to force it at first.

Things took a different turn at Fresher's fair. After having signed up for a couple of clubs and, entirely at Arthur's instigation, a couple of sports activities as well, he found himself next to the Welfare Stall.

A girl named Freya stepped up to him and said, “Hello, I'm Freya.” Merlin would have been able to tell anyway because the pin attached to her top said so. “We're having our safe sex awareness talk in a few minutes, I hope you want to join in.”
Merlin felt his cheeks grow hot: Freya was looking at him out of huge and expectant doe eyes. Arthur was chuckling softly behind him. “No, thank you,” Merlin said. “I think I've got all possible safe sex tips down.” If his school hadn't made sure back when he was twelve, his dad would have.

“Oh,” said Freya in a small, desolate voice. Then she ducked quickly behind her desk and riffled into an opaque bowl, trotted back to him and rained what had to be a thousand condoms into his hands. “We also have demonstrations on how to safely put one on.”
Merlin made a pained noise and tried to stop Freya before Merlin's ears started to go a not particularly enticing shade of mauve. “Thank you, I think I'm good there too...”

“First times are very...” she started and Merlin just threw his hands up in the air, showering himself in foil packets. “What makes you think I'm a virgin?” he rattled off, head sinking against his chest.

Freya didn't take that as a rhetorical question, “Well you look sweet and--”

Merlin sobbed out of pure mortification but didn't fail to catch Arthur's groan. Now that was even more cringe-worthy than the eyefuls he was getting from perfect strangers. He would never meet those strangers again – probably – while there would be lots of Arthur in his immediate future.

The I've-had-sex-before speech died on his lips when he remembered that he was in public, the current PM's son (and therefore likely to be quoted on just such a thing) and terribly, terribly eager to cut this conversation short.

He was oddly saved by Arthur pushing him forwards like a sheep dog, telling Freya Merlin had to, “Go through a security check.”
When they were out of the hall, Merlin wheeled on Arthur. He was surprised by Arthur's fighting stance and heightened colour. “Thanks for the save,” he said, willing to bury the subject forever and ever.

Arthur passed a hand through his hair from back to fringe, messing it up in a way Merlin had never seen before, in a casual way that suddenly made him look young, almost as young as Merlin, and much more approachable than usual, when he was strutting about with his chest sticking out, airing his exact speech pattern, and exhibiting his mind boggling attention for detail.

“I was in the military,” Arthur said while Merlin was lost in considering him under this new and interesting light, this dangerous light. “So I know about the teasing. Close knitted groups are hell like that. I felt I could help you.”

Merlin gawped, overwhelmed by the thought of someone as closed off as Arthur sharing things about his past. He stammered, “T-thanks, Arthur, that was nice of you--”

Arthur smiled willingly, lower lip trapped between his teeth, “I can be nice.”

Merlin swallowed, ready to say that Arthur was nice, really nice, really devastatingly so, but was stopped by Gilli clapping a hand on his back to tell him about a barista position that had opened up at the campus bar.

Merlin went and sat through an interview, though for various reasons, including the bar administrator's expression throughout, he didn't think he got it.

He high-tailed it back to his flat bearing lots of leaflets and the distinct impression that this week wasn't shaping up to be the distraction he'd thought it would be.

While determinedly keeping eyes peeled for anyone he might have something in common with, Merlin went about the next day trying to do his best to make some new friends he might fit in with. He needed people; he was sure they'd help make him feel less like he was spinning in circles, directionless. Alone.

Since he'd met scarcely anybody new during his first few days at Durham, he decided to get a look at the notice board to see if there was any interesting event going on he might want to participate in.

That was how he learnt that Freshers' Ball would take place that night. He wrote time and place down on the spiral notebook he'd fished out of the messenger bag he'd been using to stash all his prospectuses in.

“This is going to be a security nightmare,” commented Arthur from behind his shoulder, breathing on his neck.

Merlin, who'd thought himself alone, turned on him, irritation prickling at his skin. “I think this is the stuff I'm supposed to do, making new friends, fitting in, doing well. I don't want to be a cosmic giant loser.”

“You're not a cosmic giant loser.”

Merlin held his breath, dipped his head and said, “No, I'm just a small time one. Which is even sadder because that means I'm an underachiever at loserdom too.”

Arthur gave a short bark of a laugh, shaking his head. Merlin knew he meant to say something and suspected that something to be kind. He curled a hand around Arthur's elbow and mimed a no.

Arthur's eyes widened then narrowed. He stiffened all over, shoulders, arms, jaw-line. Merlin held in his breath, waiting for Arthur's next words.

Whatever it was that he'd meant to say, he didn't say it: he just pushed Merlin against the wall when a covey of loud political protesters marched past him. “They're spilling over from Fresher's Fair. Protesting against student fees, not sorcerers,” Merlin said when he realised what it was that Arthur was anxious about.

“They're a political group all the same,” said Arthur. “And came too close.”

“Please,” said Merlin, a wash of uneasy irritation slipping into his words, “give me the benefit of the doubt. I think I can spot real danger and that was not it.” He straightened his head and stared into Arthur's eyes. “Besides, I'm not a child and I'm not a damsel in distress.”
Arthur inched closer to him, got in his space as he'd done in Merlin's room when they'd first met. “You have no idea,” Arthur husked. “You don't know what being targeted really means. You can't know.”

The haunted look in Arthur's eyes, like shadows glazing them over, told Merlin Arthur had been targeted in the past. The thought turned Merlin's heart into downright pulp. He reached out just as he'd pushed Arthur away before – because Arthur drove him crazy like that – and said, “I won't know if you don't tell me.”

Arthur bowed his head and looked at Merlin's hand on his chest. He gave Merlin a half grin but stepped back, shuffling on his feet to assume a military pose.

When he was a little kid, Merlin's mum had taken him to see the Household Cavalry changing of the guard on Horse Guards Parade. Merlin was pretty sure Arthur had stricken just such a rigid pose.

Seeing as Arthur was closing off again, he took his hand away, not knowing exactly where to look and settling for the hallway behind them. “I'll let you do your job,” he said. “Promise.”

He sped back towards his room, not understanding the way his feelings were shaping themselves. Why he felt bad about not hating Arthur as he'd thought he would at first. And why something close to shame was crawling into his chest.

 

*****

The car slowed down and Tristan mounted in the back.

“How's my son doing?” The Prime Minister fussed with his tie, tightening the knot. “Bloody hell,” he added, undoing the too severe knot. “I hate Wednesdays' question time, especially when I know where the questions are going to be leading.”
Tristan had suspected as much. “Pendragon has settled in; he's gonna have to report to me and Borden, with Borden pitching in for a few shifts, if Pendragon falls ill or asks for days off.”

“Magic,” said Mr Emrys. “I wouldn't have thought this possible back in June.

The car started back into traffic; Tristan held back a moue of disgust. “Everything seems to be working out.”

“Except that my rivals in parliament get more vociferous every day.” Emrys pounded his fist on the car's velvety armrest. “And all because we can't pin June down on them.”

“Five says they won't try any funny business just now, Prime Minister.”

Mr Emrys grunted, a primal sound you wouldn't have expected from a man in such a high place, draped in the trappings of civilisation. Unless you knew him. “I hope that's not what they're telling Pendragon. I want him on the qui vive.”

“I'll pass that on.”

Mr Emrys turned towards him.. “That's why you were promoted.”

Tristan's heart beat began thumping in his ears; he flexed his hands, studying them as extraneous objects. “I thought I was promoted because I lost everything that made my life bearable.”

The Prime Minister's eyes flashed. They looked extremely dark and perfectly devoid of feeling. The spark was soon gone though. “When my wife died, I was as angry as you. I still am.”

Tristan didn't know what to do with that or any form of consolation. “I'll tell Pendragon to never relax his guard.”

“Good,” said Emrys, and then the car halted and someone opened the door for him. Before stepping out, the Prime Minister said. “He's my son.”

 

****

 

Merlin emerged from the bathroom wearing jeans and a dark shirt that was nicer than any of the ones he'd worn so far. It wasn't designer, even Arthur, as uninterested in fashion as he was, could tell, but it made Merlin look good, groomed, so Arthur called it nicer and left it at that.

Merlin's hair was standing up in tufts and was wet at the ends, curling at his nape. For days Arthur had thought Merlin needed a hair cut; now not so much, not when he noticed, cursorily and dismissing the thought as soon as it had formed, that it made him look good.

“Want to find yourself a girl?” Arthur asked, making a point of teasing Merlin as an older brother would. “That's all that socialising talk was about, wasn't it?”

“Or a man, Arthur,” said Merlin, slipping on his shoes. “I'm gay.”

The vein in Arthur's neck jumped and he dipped his head. No commentary was required of Arthur though, since Merlin appeared eager to go. Arthur sighed and followed, Merlin clopping down the stairs and Arthur bringing up the rear.

They switched position when they got out of the building, Arthur sliding forwards, checking the road up and down for unknown variables and then pulling the door open to let Merlin out.

“I hope you don't think that was subtle bodyguarding,” said Merlin.

Arthur toyed with the car keys and bit the inside of his cheek to avoid breaking into an inappropriate smile. “I hope you know your juvenile eagerness to get partying isn't subtle either.”

“I'm not eager!” said Merlin. “And not into partying... per se. And if I have to spend another sleepless night I'd rather it be for a normal reason, for once.”

Arthur's smile faltered. He wanted to tell Merlin that he knew what remembering and being powerless to stop it felt like, but he didn't. He found himself in a sort of limbo, being neither a friend nor trained to give advice, so he merely said, “If that happens again... The insomnia.” He swallowed and tipped his hand about. The words, “I'm gonna be there for you,” or “You can talk to me about it,” died in his throat. Instead, he shepherded Merlin to the car.

He drove Merlin to a sort of indie kind of club, the décor of which seemed to be inspired by some species of retro aeronautical theme, structures like model planes hanging from the ceiling thanks to sturdy metal cables and a tiered stage that was itself a B52 model. The aerial theme was repeated via ceiling fans, looking very much like rotors, and the light display.

“They must be strapped for cash,” Arthur said, Merlin humming in agreement.

The music playing, Arthur found, was a combination of 1970s nostalgia and obscure contemporary tunes.

Merlin nodded his head at the whole as though he found it rather cool, going for the bar the first chance he got, and darting speculative glances at those students who were running around partly naked while wearing foil hats.

If you asked Arthur the get up made them look like imbeciles.

At the bar, Merlin ordered himself a bourbon and cola and threw it down at a gulp, as though he was caricaturing a Clint Eastwood western.

Arthur, who'd been flanking him, said, “Merlin--”, but Merlin wasn't listening to him and was soon lost amid a posse of contemporaries any way. They all introduced themselves to Merlin and started ordering more drinks before they were even done.

Single girls and boys, couples, and a guy who was so clearly hitting on Merlin by way of over the top lines like, “Fancy meeting someone as hot as you right here. I'm Gwaine,” alternatively vied for Merlin's attention.

Merlin drank some more, sometimes on his own, sometimes at the instigation of his new friends. At one point the quantity of multi-coloured drinks he downed seemed to become alarming, and Arthur was about to intervene, but Merlin seemed to get more and more interested in his flirtation with Gwaine and less in ordering new fanciful concoctions, so Arthur let it go.

Gwaine stuck to his side for most of the night, leaning into him, sidling closer and closer, till around midnight, he was practically purring in Merlin's ears, whispering words against his neck, no doubt touching his mouth there in passing.

Arthur never strayed far and watched. It was his duty to watch out; Merlin was vulnerable especially in such a public place as this. So Arthur had his eyes on Merlin when Gwaine shared a drink with him and the kissed his mouth open next to chase the taste. And he was watching when Gwaine stood up and offered a hand up to Merlin.

Arthur had left Merlin a little space to have fun and be himself, so he'd scooted a few stools down, drinking soda desultorily and exchanging a few words with the green barman.

When he saw Merlin move, heading for the loo, he hopped down and made to follow. He knew he couldn't go inside; he knew he couldn't stop Merlin from doing anything. Merlin was of age and he had a right to have some fun.

To have the fun Arthur didn't get to have when he was eighteen because he'd chosen the army. It still felt as embarrassing. More than when the Duke of Kent had a one night stand in a bar in Taipei. With Merlin it felt more personal.

He played sentinel, leaning against the outer door to the loo. Unavoidably he heard some of it: the slamming of a door, the noise as of something crashing to the floor, and worse, little grunts and pants, loud enough to tell Arthur what was happening. At least in the broadest of lines. The crescendoing, the animal sounds, the build up. He could pick out Merlin's voice; by now he knew it well. And this didn't help Arthur much; it made him picture it. Merlin, shirt off, his chest as it had been on that day in his room in London, trousers half way down, with Gwaine on his knees, his mouth....

A drop of sweat traced its way down Arthur's temple; he felt it slither down his skin and he wiped at it, opening his shirt at the collar some more. Another grunt. Arthur tipped his head back and closed his eyes, drumming the rhythm of an old song favourite of his against the wall. Trying not to think; trying to do his duty.

“That's Gwaine in there, I suppose,” someone said. Since it sounded as though this had been said to him in particular, Arthur opened his eyes. A bloke about six feet two was standing in front of him.

He had ginger hair, was muscular and looked like a typical uni-straggler, more acclimated to clubbing than studying. He was very pink-cheeked and Arthur guessed that was the alcohol and not his natural complexion. For another he was wearing a t-shirt with the venue's name stamped on, which meant he was a regular, and had been for some time.

There was one final grunt from the loo accompanied by a loud crashing sound.

“Well, that's definitely him.” The boy laughed opening his mouth wide so Arthur could see his molars twinkling. “If you need the loo I suggest you try the one in the basement because Gwaine's known for picking up more than one bloke a night. I wonder who his current shag is.”

He thumbed his chin. “Oi, maybe it's the PM's son. They say he's at St Aidan’s and someone spotted him here tonight. Guess I might stay around then and...” He got his mobile from his back pocket. “Snap a pic or two; send it to the Daily Mail--”

“All right,” said Arthur, grabbing the annoying boy by the collar and pointing him back towards the door, “go sober up. If I see you buzzing round me again I might snap your head off. Believe me, I could kill you with one move.” He aimed a glare at the boy, letting out all his aggravation. The boy must have believed his threats for he scurried off.

Just as well, since Arthur hadn't really meant to harm the boy and could at most have smashed his mobile.

Just a few seconds before Merlin re-emerged, looking wrecked, green about the gills, and hardly capable of standing on his two feet. Not to mention the fact that he also looked shagged out: a love bite was starting to show on his neck, the skin worried and almost broken in places, and his zip hadn't been tugged all the way up.

He crashed into Arthur's side, smiling inanely, saying, “That was good. That was very good. I had fun.”

Gwaine sauntered out after him, looking a little bit more in control than Merlin, a blissed out grin on his face.

“See you around, gorgeous,” he told Merlin. Merlin waved after him, nose still buried in Arthur's throat. “He was good.” Merlin said drunkenly even though Gwaine was gone. “Just what I wanted.”

Arthur stopped him from further rhapsodising. “You're pissed. I'm getting you to bed.”

“Not that pissed.”

Arthur stepped aside, letting Merlin stand by himself. Merlin accepted the challenge and attempted to walk in a straight line. He tumbled down and Arthur cursed but went and picked him up. Merlin was all limbs and a bit like an octopus when he was drunk. Straightening him up and getting him to the door felt very much like hugging him. “Was that what you wanted?” he asked seriously, feeling Merlin's well being was something he must ensure. “Merlin, I--”

Merlin breathed out against his neck. “Yeah, it was.” He waddled backwards, reached a hand out to touch Arthur's shoulder. “It really was, Arthur, it was alright. My balance might be a little less than perfect but I knew what I was doing and what I was looking for.”

Arthur nodded and walked him to the car.

“Gwaine's nicer than he seems.”

Arthur grunted as Merlin tried to double back on their steps, somehow thinking that must be direction they had to walk in. “I bet.”

“No, really, he said some deep things back in there.”

Arthur hooked an arm over Merlin's shoulder and directed his tottering steps towards the back end of the car park. He leant Merlin against the car while he searched for keys, hoping ginger boy from before wasn't lurking somewhere hunting for a scoop. “He did it to pick you up, Merlin.”

“I wanted to be picked up,” Merlin said.

Arthur swore, got the car door open and manhandled Merlin into the passenger's seat, fastening his seatbelt for him because he was pretty sure Merlin wouldn't if left to his own devices. He then slammed the car shut on Merlin's lyrical approbation of Gwaine. Effusions which lasted as Arthur drove out of the car park and back into town.

“He's smart and has got a sense of humour and he liked me for me and that,” Merlin said in a sing song voice, “doesn't happen every day.”

Arthur didn't go too easy on the clutch as he asked, “Why wouldn't it?”

“Because I'm Merlin--”

“You're an alright bloke, Merlin,” said Arthur. “More than.”

But Merlin hadn't heard Arthur's by no means overdone praise of him, because he'd fallen asleep, mouth half parted, face smashed against the window, a half impish, half angelic expression on his face. “You're a great guy,” Arthur finished for his own benefit, sure he was safe admitting that now that Merlin was snoring softly.

However, Arthur couldn't leave Merlin to his sweet dreams for long. Not if he had to get him up four flights of stairs.

He woke Merlin up, his reward loud protests. “Be good Arthur, lemme sleep.”

Arthur somehow worked Merlin's limbs out of the car and helped Merlin walk back to his building, helped by a sprightly breeze that worked some awareness back into Merlin.

Thanks to that Merlin made it up the stairs under his own steam. Getting a key in the lock seemed beyond him though, so Arthur did it for him.

Merlin meandered back to his room and face planted into the pillow without even kicking off his shoes. Arthur, who'd kept in the doorway, moved over to him and knelt by the bed. He undid Merlin's laces and slipped off his shoes.

Merlin said, “That tickles,” when Arthur's fingers brushed the soles of his feet. Arthur heaved himself up, his own eyelids a little heavier for being reminded it was bed time.

Nevertheless he got Merlin out of his shirt so he'd be more comfortable, brushing his knuckles against the love bite. He stayed clear of touching Merlin's jeans, a stab of lust working through him at the mere thought. He was about to turn to go and get Merlin a glass of water for the night when Merlin took his hand and said, sleepily very much so, “I did it to forget, but thank you for looking after me.”

“Merlin,” said Arthur squatting back down and pushing Merlin's fringe off his forehead with his free hand. “That's not how you forget. Because you just don't.”

“No?” Merlin sounded broken and lost.

“No, Merlin,” said Arthur, carding Merlin's hair back for one moment longer. “You don't forget death.”

“It happened to you too?”

Arthur closed his eyes and expelled a gush of breath. It had been years since he'd last spoken about this to anyone other than the base's psychiatrist for his evaluation. “Yeah, yeah.”

“But you're all right now,” said Merlin. “You're happy? Because you should be--”

Arthur didn't know what to say to that. Anyway he found that he wouldn't have to weigh the truthfulness of his answer because the grip of Merlin hand on his had gone lax and his breathing pattern had evened out. Arthur settled down with his back to Merlin's and waited for dawn to come.

*****

Uther Pendragon walked to the sofa with a mug of tea in his hand and opened the photo album. He opened it the way he always did, starting from the back and working his way back to the beginning.

It seemed like the only way he could approach the contents of it, to brace himself for the pang the pictures brought.

The last photos in the album and the ones he always contemplated first were pictures of Morgana and Arthur during their respective teen age years, Arthur's being the very last.

There was a picture of Arthur in his football kit, having just won his year twelve trophy, and there was one of him at seventeen with his then girlfriend, a curly haired girl he didn't end up marrying despite having vowed to do so quite earnestly. Uther sighed. God knows what had happened there.

There was another one of Arthur having a go at rafting during the summer holidays when he was fifteen. He didn't even remember how he'd come by it since Arthur had been on holiday with a mate of his who was the son of one of Uther's own associates. His associate must had given him the photo.

Uther didn't own many photos of Arthur. He did have some of Morgana though, more than he should have had, considering that he married her mother only later in life, repairing to the old mistake when it seemed as though his life made no sense any way.

She'd been a beautiful child, her smile shy, her eyes clever, a light shining in them that spoke of wit and mischief. She'd grown up to be a beautiful young woman as the photo of her in her graduation attire confirmed.

Uther took a sip of his tea; it was too sweet but it would do. When he put down the mug he realised his hands were trembling. He cursed his body and took in a big breath, one that rattled down his rib cage.

He flipped the page. And there she was as if she'd never gone, blond soft curls framing her face. She'd had straight hair. But she'd put a curling iron to her locks because of an event, he forgot which. Her eyes though had always remained the same, big and soft and blue, like Arthur's.

She used to have a perpetual blush on her cheeks, the by-product of her fair complexion and a tendency to spend as much time as possible in the open air.

The embroidery on the silk bodice of the evening gown she'd worn that night had made it in the frame. It was the reason why he didn't like this particular shot of her. She'd always hated frippery.

So he turned another page, eyes flicking across all the pictures he had of her, posed ones, old Polaroid’s, small format wallet photos that were worn and lined because he'd kept them in a compartment for years before realising they'd come apart, the edges already curled and softened, if he continued hanging on to them.

So he watched her at play, by the sea, during an evening with friends, holding Arthur up in her arms by a window so that the baby could play at snatching sun beams.

The door opened. “Mr Aeredian to see you, sir,” his secretary said. “What shall I do?”

Uther rose and walked across the room to secure the picture albums inside a locked drawer. “Let him in,” he said, resuming his previous position. “And see to it that we get some tea. Lapsang will do.”

Before retreating, the secretary said, “As you wish, sir.”

Aeredian appeared a few moments later, his charcoal suit underlining the steely penetrating power of his eyes. He was as polished as he looked on campaign photos but stiffer, no trace of the fake smile he produced for those on his face now.

“Uther,” he said, crossing the room to extend a hand to him. “I find you well.”

Uther leant up and shook Aeredian's hand. “I see we're opening up with pleasantries.”

Aeredian took the armchair in front of Uther's, fiddling with the crease in the left leg of his trousers as he shifted in his seat. “I think things are going well, so I don't see why I shouldn't show my happiness.”

Uther thought that Aeredian, like himself, wasn't made for lighter moods, but refrained from saying that. He didn't care about the man enough to even try and make a point. “Well, keep me up to date.”

“I shall,” said Aeredian though he was interrupted by Uther's secretary with their tea. Uther's had a few drops of milk in it and wasn't sweetened at all. Aeredian's looked paler, a slice of lemon perched on the cup.

“Just as I like it, Maud,” Aeredian complimented Uther's secretary. “Just as I like it.”

“I'm glad it's to your taste,” Maud said professionally before retreating.

Uther and Aeredian both sipped at their teas, till all sound of heels on the floor had died down.

Uther put the cup down. “You were saying?”

Aeredian clung to his cup though he'd stopped taking small sips. “Our mole is in place.”

“So this time it will work out.”

“The other time was just a fluke,” said Aeredian. “A mere accident. Overly officious bodyguards won't always thwart our plans. This time we know they won't.”

“Yes,” said Uther, staring out the window. “Hopefully.”

“How about that other annoyance, your daughter's pro-magic activities?”

Uther's heart lurched in his chest, but he steeled it. “I haven't found a way to infiltrate her group or to bug her office for that matter.”

“What?” Aeredian snapped sarcastically. “She never renovates?” Aeredian put down his cup.

“That's not the point,” Uther said, jaw much more rigid than before. “She's learnt to watch her back and never to trust anyone, to the point of extreme paranoia. Therefore she won't hire anyone if not previously vetted by her trusted friends.”

“I see she truly is your daughter.”

Uther sniffed contemptuously at Aeredian. “That's neither here nor there. She must be stopped.”

“But you're not doing anything to.”

“I don't see how I could approach her as she reviles me, but please I'm all ears if you have a better idea.”

Aeredian steepled his fingers, tapping them together. “How about Agravaine du Bois? They've been seen together.”

Uther scoffed. “Agravaine may think he's clever but he's plainly useless and likely besotted. He won't be any help. Not even in undoing her party.”

“How about using the sexual scandal line?”

Uther rose, a muscle ticking in his neck. “Sexual scandal?” he repeated. “In Agravaine's dreams!”

Aeredian watched Uther move. “All that matters is the public's perception of it.”

“They're both free and the age discrepancy as such may raise a few murmurs but not a tide against her.”

Aeredian smiled thinly. “It's better than nothing.”

Uther saw that Aeredian looked too pleased and found he couldn't tolerate that. “Then put that in motion,” he said curtly. “Though not now. Later, when people threaten to turn against us.”

Aeredian's lips tightened. “Up to now I've effected more than you have thanks to getting that mole in. I'd reserve the chiding for myself If I were you. You're the one who's accomplished nothing.”

Uther was about to reply when Aeredian put up placating hands. “I shall go now. I see that talking about Morgana being a traitor to your cause still irritates you. I won't pour venom on your wounds.” He rose accordingly.

“I still finance your enterprises and your political career,” Uther pointed out. “I'd be much less quick to point fingers if I were you.”

Aeredian crossed the room to the door, hand wrapped around the door. “As I said I'm in a good mood and I don't mean to spoil it. Let's appreciate out commonality of interests and leave it at that.”

The quick turnabout from accusing to smooth left Uther almost speechless. In the pause between the gathering of his thoughts and the articulation of them, Aeredian left, promising he'd keep Uther updated. Uther was left to pour a measure of whisky in his tea.

 

****

 

Gritting his teeth against the nagging headache, Merlin rolled onto his back, promising to himself he'd never get drunk again. He was officially seasick, on dry land. He reached his arms out for balance, feeling like he needed all the help he could get to sit up – and whimpered.

Arthur found him in this state. He leant against the door jamb, already dressed in his tracksuit, a hand in the pocket of his loose trousers. “I see you made it back to the land of the living,” he said with a grin. “Come, you're late for your run.”

“What run?” Merlin asked, blinking owlishly. “What are you talking about?”

“Your newly established early morning jog,” Arthur said. “It'll keep you grounded and on your feet.” He clapped his hands together the way Merlin had seen Marines do in American films.

“Arthur, I don't need to make it into the army.”

“Being fit is being healthy.” He raked his eyes over Merlin, who had to admit he didn't feel particularly healthy this morning. “So up and at them.”

Merlin rolled out of bed, padding, though in a not extremely straight line, towards the bathroom.

Thankfully Gilli was still sleeping, which meant he'd have a go at first shower. Arthur followed him inside, arms folded across his chest. “Do I have to stay and make sure you don't concuss yourself?”

“Ha, ha,” said Merlin, cheeks pinking at the thought of Arthur seeing him naked, and quite betraying his will to remain totally unfazed. “I think I can deal with a shower, thank you.”

He opened the tap to make sure the water would be just the right temperature for him, hesitating in stripping off his jeans, the last remnant, apart from his socks, of his choice of clothes from last night.

Not that he was aware of how he'd got rid of those or anything much past making a knob of himself in front of lots of people. And Gwaine. Gwaine had been filthy good.

Feeling the heat creep up his chest at the thought of that and of Arthur witnessing his body's reactions, he opted for pulling off his socks.

“Well, if you think so,” said Arthur, retreating. “I'll wait for you in the other room.”

After a proper shower and a breakfast Merlin felt too queasy for until he tasted Arthur's beans on toast (sure hangover remedy, according to him), Merlin did manage to go on that run. And felt the more human for it.

That must have been the reason why Merlin didn't complain too much when Arthur woke him the next day for another one.

Or the next when that happened again. They fell into a routine.

The only days he didn't go were those when he was saddled with Borden, who, despite being fit enough to stomach the jog, refused to do anything that wasn't within his job description: i.e. watch Merlin's back in case of an attempt on his life. In silence, and from a-far.

Borden could be very textbook and anally retentive, as Merlin had suspected from the day he'd met the man.

Borden could be more of a stone wall than Arthur had ever been when he went into professional mode. Merlin supposed you were bound not to like some of your bodyguards. He already liked Arthur: what were the odds of him liking the other? And since Arthur was with him most of the week anyway he couldn't complain about Borden's lack of human qualities on those rare days he was burdened with him. Borden only took over Arthur's free shifts, after all.

Merlin told himself that those free shifts of Arthur's were a godsend, reminding him that he was Arthur's job and not Arthur's friend. They were vital that way and made him happy to accept Borden when he wouldn't have been a couple of months ago.

He just couldn't afford to think of Arthur as a friend, though sometimes he sounded like one or acted like one, especially during those crack of dawn runs when nobody but them was by. He couldn't.

So Merlin fell into a new routine, trying to keep the ghost of wanting Arthur at bay.

Anyway, he told himself, he had enough to think about without dwelling on that. Settling into uni life would have to be his priority. He was here for a reason and that reason had nothing to do with Arthur.

In fact, the first few weeks were a mixture of new courses and modules. He was dipping his toes into actually studying as opposed to what he'd done during the first one, which had consisted in fooling around mostly.

His acclimating to uni life took place while he bore the brunt of most of his fellow students' practical jokes. Other students did too, naturally, but Merlin seemed to be the preferred target.

Sometimes it was fun and putting on a grinning face was easy. Sometimes it was less than, like the time someone hid a sardine in one of the ceiling panels so that his room reeked for an entire week.

The stench had pervaded the room till both he and Arthur had gone over it with a fine tooth comb to discover the source of the smell.

Or like the time he woke up to find he'd been trapped in his room. He tried the handle and it would give but then the door itself wouldn't. Merlin pummelled the door. “Gilli,” he shouted, “I swear, I'll get you for this.”

He felt the urge to kick but since he didn't want to destroy the door he tried alternative methods to try and get out. He heard Arthur's voice from the other side.

“You're here early!” Merlin said.

Arthur ignored Merlin. “Some idiot's stuck duct tape on the door frame, from top to bottom,” he said. “If you give me a minute I'll get you out.”

Merlin heard noises. Arthur shifting furniture around. “I'm climbing on a chair,” he said. “Don't open the door the minute you can, all right?”

Merlin nodded, realised Arthur couldn't see him, and added, “Alright.”

He heard the noise of the duct tape being unpeeled, a thud, signalling that Arthur had jumped down from the chair, and again the sound of furniture being dragged around. Merlin felt safe in opening the door.

He'd expected to find a grin on Arthur's face or some sign of his amusement at Merlin's predicament – what had happened when they'd found the sardine – but there was no trace of merriment in his narrowed eyes and sealed lips. No, “We pulled pranks in the military too,” no dropping hints as to his past, which would make Merlin curious and stop caring about the pranks themselves.

Instead he said, “Where the hell's Borden?” He looked around as though Borden would materialise in Merlin's room just because Arthur had mentioned his name. “And why didn't you use your magic?”

Merlin shrugged the first question off. Borden had probably gone off duty a little earlier than normal. And he gulped at the second. “I promised my dad I wouldn't use it too much. That I wouldn't provoke haters.” He looked glumly down. “I was tempted, but--”

Arthur's anger seemed to fizzle at that. He stepped over the miles of duct tape someone (Gilli most likely) had seen fit to use to pull their prank and placed a hand on Merlin's shoulder. “You shouldn't have to hide.”

Merlin felt something in him soar free at that, taking wings and flying. “I don't want to. I just want to be me. But my dad promised he was working on it in a way that would make it acceptable to people, for all of us to use freely, so I--”

Arthur tilted his head, eyes clear and breath warm on the side of Merlin's face. Merlin couldn't help but hold his gaze, happy that Arthur had seen and known how he felt about the most important thing in his life. There was a moment when Arthur inched closer, his grip on Merlin's shoulder stronger, the tendons in his wrist working, but Borden interrupted it.

Arthur whirred round, stalking up to him. “Where the fuck were you?”

Borden waved both hands in the air to placate Arthur. “I dashed down for a coffee, nothing more. Christ, shift's was almost over.”

Arthur backed Borden up against the wall, gripping him by the lapels. They grappled for a few moments that made Merlin want to drive them apart with magic, then Arthur seemed to have the upper hand and he said, “You don't leave him even for two minutes! No matter what. He was duck-taped into his room, where he was a sitting duck. They want him dead and if something happens to him when you're off doing God knows what, you'll get on my hit least and I'm not joking.”

Borden tilted his head up, his fingers trying to disengage Arthur's. “Might I remind you that I'm your senior officer, Pendragon?”

Merlin saw Arthur go red, his eyes widening in a way that couldn't be described as anything but feral. “I'll report you,” he said. “Be sure of that.” Arthur let go of Borden, who slumped against the door.

“And who do you think they'll believe: a man who was subjected to an inquiry that could have led to a court martial, or me and my spotless record?”

Arthur clenched his fist, the other arm keeping Borden in place, but he didn't punch him. He almost diminished in place instead.

Given that reaction, Merlin quite forgot about Borden and stopped caring about his minor breach. He wanted to know what it was that had made Arthur back down. He wanted to help Arthur not feel as if Borden was worth more than him because Merlin didn't for a moment believe that to be the truth.

“You don't leave him alone,” said Arthur. “You just don't.”

Borden straightened his tie, a smile creeping onto his lips. “It was just a cup of coffee, Pendragon. Just a cup of coffee. The kid was still sleeping, no threat visible for miles. I could also keep an eye on the entrance to this building from where I was. Back down. Relax.”

Arthur stepped back though Merlin could tell by the line of his mouth that Arthur still thought Borden had committed a terrible faux pas. “Merlin was still alone. And someone managed to seal him in.”

“That was a prank. Must have been.” Borden, now much more composed than when Arthur had manhandled him, patted him on the shoulder. “A tip,” he said. “You're growing too attached to the kid. That too is something that should perhaps be reported. We could sync our reports.”

Merlin blanched and Arthur's face set into something that was completely unreadable but certainly couldn't be classed as happy. “There's no attachment of any kind,” Arthur said curtly, his tone clipped.

Merlin didn't hear what Borden had to say, only realised it was a parting shot of some kind. He watched him walk to the door, leaving the shift to Arthur, but Merlin was too busy feeling disappointed about what Arthur had said.

It wasn't that he'd been expecting Arthur to wax lyrical about him, but he'd thought they might have become friends in a way. He'd thought that Arthur liked him independently of his job. He'd thought that was the reason why he'd made a point of taking Merlin out for runs and the motivation behind his slightly more relaxed attitude.

Merlin was just a job though. Perhaps everything that Arthur had done was so as to make his job easier.

As Borden left, Merlin retreated to his room to think. He sat on his bed, feet on the floor, face in his hands, elbows on his knees.

He was feeling bad, his stomach twisting itself up in knots for no reason. He wanted not to think but couldn't stop. He couldn't stop feeling belittled.

He was only worth fake friendships apparently. Non-magic users shunned him because of the magic. People who were neutral about the magic treated him as an odd conundrum because of who his father was. Some approached him because of who his dad was. And then there was people like Arthur – and maybe Isolde – who had to stay close but for whom he was just the job behind the pay cheque. Maybe their sense of honour was part of the equation too.

Being protected by heroic people who'd have done it for anyone didn't make Merlin feel any more like he had a friend than he if was talking to a robot.

That was just universal good will.

Well, Merlin's dad was trying to change the world for him and people like him. Merlin wouldn't engender that by throwing naive tantrums anymore.

Arthur stopped on the threshold to Merlin's room. “Merlin?”

Merlin's head snapped up. “Yeah?”

Arthur took a step inside and stopped there when Merlin flinched. “Are you...”

Merlin shot up like a light. “I'm fine, yeah, put off by that stupid prank.” He summoned a little smile. “I've got a lesson to go to. I'm late... Would you mind?” He eyed the door.

Arthur followed his line of sight, and said, “Yeah, sure, yeah.” He left Merlin to his privacy.

From then on Merlin focused on his studies way more. He made a point of trying to make friends with other students and though some of them avoided him on principle – either for his magic or because they didn't like his dad's politics – he made a couple.

They came in the shape of Drea, who seemed a bit scared about his magic but was willing to try, and Freya, the girl from the fair, who was as magic as him and therefore not put out by Merlin's powers.

As for distractions of a different order, he had Gwaine, who sometimes lent himself for a spot of sneaky sex – as sneaky as it could be when your bodyguard was sitting just outside, flashing you concerned looks – and two other very low key relationships that wouldn't get his name and mug splattered onto the Daily Mail.

They weren't important anyway, just him liking someone enough to take them back to his room or someone finding him fun enough to take him to theirs. They didn't last long but he doubted any relationship entered into while at uni would last.

Arthur watched him live the life Merlin was supposed to out of sombre eyes but he never said a word. When Merlin asked why he wasn't commenting, he said, “It isn't my place to.”

Merlin saw that as a spur to proceed as he was. This was the way it was meant to be.

This way the end of first term drew closer and closer.

*****

Tristan left Downing Street at around ten past eight and drove home like a drone. He stopped once at a supermarket to buy himself a decent bottle of scotch and less than decent frozen food. By half nine he was home, the flat smelling musty, all lights rigorously off.

No wonder.

What with his shifts and the nights he'd spent at a two star hotel because DI Kilbury had practically stolen his car keys, he hadn't been home in two days.

He turned the ones in the kitchen on. The plant on top of the fridge had died or at least it looked very yellow and droopy. Far too droopy to be anything but a goner.

He contemplated the microwave for a few moments then let it go. He wasn't in the mood to cook anything anyway. He stashed the food he'd bought in the fridge. It was empty. There was space enough for fresh groceries and then some.

He took the bottle of scotch from the bag and opened the seal with a knife. He looked for glasses but none of those he found in the cupboard were clean.

“Shit.” He passed a hand over his brow, kicked at the furniture, and took the bottle back to the living room. He didn't bother with the lights here. Enough brightness filtered in from the kitchen and the windows to steer by and he didn't need more than that. More than that would have been a pretence at cheerfulness.

He planted his whisky bottle at the foot of the sofa and got his laptop out of the cabinet. Kicking his shoes off, he padded back to the sofa and laid down on it, pushing the cap open with his teeth. As his laptop booted itself, he took a few swallows, not without grimacing as he did so.

He'd got himself the shitty variety. Still, it was far better than nothing. He pushed the neck of the bottle into his mouth and tilted it up, swallowing more, kicking the liquid back without allowing the taste to linger.

He set the bottle back on the floor but within reach. Meanwhile the main log-in screen of his computer had appeared.

Tristan tapped the password in and waited for most of the systems to load.

When this was done, he opened one of the old camera files he'd saved onto his back up hard drive.

If he was right the oldest file in the lone folder he'd archived there was the video he'd been looking for and thinking about all the way home.

This fact was confirmed once he'd seen the first minute or so of footage. The image was grainy and shaky but the room the camera was panning across was this one. The woman in the room slow dancing for the camera was Isolde.

She was wearing next to nothing, a slip of a semi transparent thing that left very little to the imagination.

“I hope you're liking this,” she told the camera. She threw her head back and let her body follow the rhythm of the jazzy number they'd put on. “This is part of your birthday present, understood?”

“I thought you liked me every day not just on my birthday,” a happy, version of himself the future had not yet destroyed said.

“I do like you every day.” She was smiling into the camera now, looking past it and as if at Tristan. “But only birthdays rate fake sexy.”

“It's real sexy though,” a chocked version of himself said.

She ran a hand through her hair, livening it up so it was a little wild. She turned onto her side and craned her neck to wink at him. It was complicit, full of humour, her eyes sparkling with a vitality that shook him to the core.

He fought to draw breath and took another swig from the bottle to steady himself, the alcoholic kick and the sweetness of the after taste filled his nose and mouth as his eyes grew heavy with tears he had no shame left to rein in. His chest worked in big heaves.

He pressed the heel of his hand against the bottle, waves of pain washing over him and leaving him helpless. Now it really felt as though she was gone when it hadn't before. He'd known before but that knowledge hadn't twisted his guts like this. He clutched the neck of the bottle tight.

She wasn't coming back no matter how he stuck to his job, the straight and narrow. He could let himself go, he could waste away and he wouldn't have to clean himself up because there was no one that would react to his free fall, no Isolde to scare.

He flung the bottle at the wall just as the phone rang. Tears were coursing in tracks down his cheeks; he shouted, “Fuck you!” But the phone kept on ringing.

Tristan padded over to it and answered just to silence it.

His croak wasn't really a hello, so Borden's, “Tristan, is that you?” wasn't too surprising.

“Yeah, yes,” he said. It was panted; snot was running down his lips and chin and he wiped it with the back of his hand, staining the cuff of his shirt with a semi transparent shiny patina. “It's me.”

“You don't sound like you,” Borden pointed out, “but small matter. You need to do something about Pendragon.”

For a moment Tristan came up blank, not knowing who Pendragon was or where he was, aware of nothing but the way everything hurt. Then, of course, he did remember. Pain hadn't made him stupid nor had he drunk enough to sink into oblivion. “What about Pendragon?”

“I don't trust him,” said Borden curtly, the anger in his tone surfacing despite the level tone. “I don't trust him at all.”

Tristan scratched at his scalp. “Borden, you need to give me more than that.”

“He's trying to put one over me though he ranks below me.”

“You can pull rank, if necessary,” said Tristan, bending over the phone, nausea making his belly feel both fuller and lighter. “That's how it works.”

“And you think that's all right?” Borden snapped, now not even trying to sound professional. “With all that's happening? And you know it. You think that's all right?”

“I think that's fine as long as we can keep him.” Tristan put a hand on the table for support. “Or it's back to the drawing board with it.”

“So I'm supposed to what?” Traffic noises drowned Borden's complaints then died down as if he'd ducked into a place that filtered outside sounds. “Tell me.”

“You're supposed to do your job,” said Tristan, not quite believing he had to go over this again. And tonight too. “You got rejected once already. That can't happen again.”

“And who by?” argued Borden, evidently pacing given the heel stomping Tristan could hear. “A snotty magic kid!”

Perhaps it was the alcohol that spurred Tristan on but instead of hanging up as he'd meant to, he said, “Magic? You're objecting to the magic of all things? You're talking as if I didn't know about you. Well, I know about you. Though of course you're not like Merlin.”

Borden barked something and said, “Pendragon is an obstacle whatever you think of me.”

“If he is,” said Tristan, “he's one that can't be removed. Not if things are to go to plan. I have the PM breathing on my neck as is.” There was more yapping on Borden's part but this time Tristan tuned him out. He had no interest in stroking the man's ego and Borden wanted nothing short of that. He wanted to be considered key by the powers that be. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I have better things to do with my free night.”

Tristan hung up before he could hear any more objections to go and bury himself in his memories.

****

 

“So term is almost over,” Pell said as they were walking down the corridors of one of the uni buildings.

“And Christmas's almost upon us,” Merlin said, smiling at Pell and a little bit at Arthur, who was shadowing them.

“Yeah, yeah. That's brilliant.” Pell said, then as though his was a random question, he added. “What are you doing for the holidays?”

Merlin could see the hope and brightness in Pell's eyes and tried not to think about them too much. “Pell, it's best over,” he said, not wanting to hurt Pell at all. “Or you'd end up in the newspapers for the public's consumption.”

Pell gnawed on his lip. “Yeah, I know. And I know what I said about not wanting that and being a private person. But I was wondering all the same if you wanted to spend the holidays with me and my family?”

Merlin didn't see how Pell's needs could be reconciled – how he could keep his dating secret while openly asking Merlin to spend time with him in a coupley fashion – and was a little glad he did have his prior engagements to save him from getting more entangled.

“I'm going home. There's going to be a party in the state rooms at Downing Street on the 22nd. And the Chancellor of the Exchequer has got another one going at the Dorchester the next day. It's for a children's charity and I need, and want to be there. I'm even going to dress up for the kids later into the night.”

“Oh,” said Pell. “Hoity toity stuff.”

Merlin grimaced. “I just want to be there for them. My mum would have been happy if I was.”

Arthur, always quite quiet and self-effacing when Merlin was talking to other people, bounded up to him to put a hand on his shoulder. Merlin was left not knowing why his heart had sped up or what he should tell Pell. He merely looked into Arthur's eyes, jaw hanging open. Arthur nodded to him and stepped back.

When Merlin turned, it was to see Pell focusing on the both of them. “Merlin, it's definitely okay. It would have been nice if you could have come over but you can't say no to children.”

Despite the understanding words, the wry grimace on Pell's lips told Merlin that he'd cocked things up with him, including a shot at a friendship. He put on his best smile all the same, and shook Pell's hand, promising he'd be more available once the holidays were over, even while suspecting that Pell wouldn't ask him over again.

Merlin watched him go with a sigh.

“Merlin,” Arthur started but when Merlin whipped round he had already trailed off, at a loss for what to say.

Yeah, well, it wasn't as if there was much to say.

The next day Merlin got back the last essay he'd handed in; he'd managed a decent mark and was given pointers that would be useful for the future by Professor MacDonald. And then it was time to go back home or to the closest approximation of home he would have for the near future: Downing Street.

The trip back to London took place much in the same way as the trip North.

Arthur drove Merlin, a special escort following them once they got into London proper.

From then on he and Arthur were to part ways for a couple of days, Arthur's next shift being on the 23rd.

“So this is it,” said Merlin, telling himself that informing yourself about your bodyguard's holidays plans was just polite. “You're going home?”

“No,” said Arthur, fixing his eyes on Merlin as some members of staff took care of Merlin's luggage for him, scurrying to and fro as if there was more than a bag and box with a few books to carry. “I'm going to stay in London. There's no point going home.”

“But even if you're working on the 23rd, you've got Christmas free. Aren't you going to... I dunno, spend it with someone?”

Arthur gave him a half smile that didn't travel up to his eyes. “Who would I go to?”

Merlin felt he was skating around a very personal issue, “Someone special?” he asked.

“Don't have someone that special, Merlin.”

This made an inner voice inside Merlin protest in outrage. Arthur deserved someone special to be waiting for him. “Well, friends, then.” He perked up at a thought. “From when you were in the army or from school or...”

Arthur studied Merlin closely then ducked his head, hands on his hips, a pained smile grazing his lips. “You lose people in the army, Merlin.”

Merlin knew there was a whole painful story right there that he shouldn't ask about. But Arthur wrapped his fingers around his wrists, “It was all right to ask, Merlin. And I'll be all right over Christmas.”

Merlin didn't know how to react to the different inputs he was getting, not when he'd set a course he'd sworn he'd follow dutifully. But he couldn't be blustery with Arthur. He couldn't be cutting, not when Arthur had shared things about himself and his past he needn't. Even if they weren't friends that wasn't something Merlin wanted to do, or be.

“I'm glad,” said Merlin, looking back over his shoulder because he had a feeling he was being watched. Borden was there, eyes boring on them. “--that you're going to be fine. And... I'll try to stomach a couple of days with Big Brother over there.”

Arthur opened his mouth to speak and it was clear he wanted to say something. His eyebrow had twitched at the very least, but he didn't. And then Merlin's dad was on the doorstep and all Arthur said was, “Just watch out, Merlin, okay?”

Merlin nodded and watched Arthur walk away.

 

****

 

Arthur crashed at a hotel. He'd given up his London base the moment he'd been discharged from the army so now he had no place to go to that wasn't Dorset.

And Dorset was too far away from London for him to be comfortable with. He felt he needed to be on call in case something happened. He had a sixth sense that something would, much like he had in Hojme Bala.

The room he was given was impersonal, all tones of white. The bed was wide and comfortable, made for two, for lovers. The TV was gigantic and the film choice available enough to make any film buff happy.

The place was so aseptic as to make wallowing in memories impossible. Even Christmas, despite the futuristic tree in the hall, seemed but an afterthought. And that suited Arthur just fine.

He didn't have the heart for it though he hoped Merlin did and was as happy as he had a right to be.

Merlin was the kind of person who had a giving heart and watching him sad or afraid tore at Arthur in a way he hadn't thought possible.

Merlin had shrunk in on himself during his first uni term, going from open, even while in mourning for Isolde, to guarded and shuttered.

Arthur would have talked, said something to shake Merlin and make him revert to the boy he'd first met, but he couldn't get so near and hope to remain unmoved himself. He had a duty. One he wouldn't be able to accomplish if Borden reported him to Five for being over familiar with his charge.

So all he could do was hope that the Charity Christmas party would work its charm on Merlin.

He didn't have to wait long to find out. After two days spent in relative solitude a new day dawned and with it his shift. He should have been at Downing Street at five. He got there an hour earlier even if he shouldn't have.

Official schedules were official schedules and couldn't be altered. So he sat in Merlin's room, Merlin wearing an evening jacket and tie. Arthur was drinking tea in slow sips and watching out of the corner of his eyes as Merlin fixed his bow tie in the mirror.

It sat skewed but Merlin seemed happy with it to the point Arthur almost didn't want to point out that it didn't sit correctly. In the end he did but only because there would be photographers, paps and telly people outside the Dorchester, hoping to snatch a shot of someone invited to the party.

“Your bow tie, Merlin,” Arthur said. “It's all--”

Merlin looked down at his chest, eyes nearly crossing. “It's what?”

“A little lopsided, I'd say.” Arthur pushed onto his feet. “I can-”

“What?”

Arthur paced closer to Merlin. “Your bow tie, I can set it straight.”

Merlin's eyes widened in recognition as Arthur grabbed both ends of fabric so that it would fall in a more even and natural fold.

Merlin put his hand on Arthur's forearm as if to stop him, but Arthur was already done so when he looked up he had nothing to busy himself with and all the time in the world to watch Merlin's eyes. This way he had ample opportunity to catalogue the flecks of colour in them and the way the light hit them. He let out a breath and Merlin flared his nostrils.

Arthur stepped quickly back. “See, done,” he said raspily.

Merlin patted his shirt and nodded absently. “Yeah, I--”

Borden chose that moment to peek in. “Okay, there's heavy traffic so the schedule has been altered. You're taking him now.”

Arthur brushed his hands on his chest. “All right, I'm on it.”

“Wait,” said Merlin. “I've still got to get my Santa outfit for the children.”

Borden's mouth tightened and it looked as though he wasn't pleased with Merlin's plea for time.

Arthur could give him this at least. “I'll tell the driver to push it so we can make up for the lost time.”

Borden seemed in a mind to object but for some reason he thought about it and didn't, clamping his mouth shut at the very last second.

Merlin got his gear together quite quickly and followed him outside very dutifully, accepting to be packed in the back of car even as he was being sandwiched between himself and Borden, an army driver hired for the occasion studying them using the rear-view mirror.

Nothing happened to necessitate the driver to summon his combat driving skills and they were all safely delivered at the Dorchester. Met with by one of the party organisers who shook Merlin's hand and asked about his father, they were all packed into the service lift for security reasons. A minute later they spilled onto the floor housing the ballroom.

Arthur scoped it out. The grand staircase was dotted with people in evening wear whose hands trailed along the Art Deco banister. None of them seemed dangerous, giving off the kind of airs business people gave themselves.

Arthur recognised a few famous faces, some of them notorious for either dabbling in politics – at a venue organised by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that was to be expected – or show business.

The brightness emanated by the chandeliers and wall sconces made all of them look garish and fake but non threatening. They looked like masks at a comedy, turned up to look their best, but to the point of artificiality. Gliding as they did along the marble floors in their need to be noticed, be looked upon.

Most of the ladies wore dresses that made hiding weapons impossible. The gentlemen, some of whom could theoretically be packing, appeared fat and lazy, their hair grizzling, their bellies reined in by cummerbunds and buttons. Still Arthur assessed them quickly before he allowed Merlin to go and do his thing.

As for Merlin he didn't seem to be checking the room for the same things as Arthur was. He was lost in admiring the new décor the children's charity had had put on for the night.

The ballroom had been transformed to mirror the magical world of Alice in Wonderland and filled with winter decorations suited to the season.

After passing through the doorway, the children were guided in by the charity workers, slipping past a host of seasonal decorations. Greeted by the fancy winter scene, they gaped and aahed contentedly as they were cooed over by the crowd.
Arthur didn't deny that the decorations were pretty to look at but his mind was elsewhere, his finger constantly going to his earpiece in case a warning should come through it.

Five was watching and so was the Met, but that still didn't seem to be enough, not with the number of people flitting by.

Borden came up to him, smiling the friendliest smile Arthur had seen on his lips ever since he'd joined Merlin's protection team, and holding a tall glass ornamented by a pink umbrella.

“It's non-alcoholic,” he said, handing him the glass. “You can relax tonight,” he added. “Chancellor Wilson is here, so protection has been upped by five. It's not all on our shoulders.”

A waiter passed and Borden took a glass similar to Arthur's from the tray. “So, enjoy sharing the burden.”

Merlin, who hadn't yet strayed far from Arthur, heard Borden. He straightened, grimaced, pulled at his cuffs and ambled over to mingle with the crowd, going to meet one of the ladies from the Charity hosting the event. The woman he chose to address was a sleek and pretty looking red-head.

Arthur hadn't seen her before but she was wearing a pin marking her out as a charity member, was dressed in a flimsy dressed no weapon could be hidden under and was tiny enough for Merlin to bring down.

Arthur let him be, thinking him safe enough, and drank a sip of the drink Borden had given him.

Before he could say anything else to Borden the Chancellor of the Exchequer took the stand to give a speech about the Charity, the government, and the spirit of good will that should never be forgotten irrespective of the season.

“We should always give,” he said. “We should never forget the value of charity. The children from the Stardust Charity are here today to remind us that we can help with very little. That we can make a difference. Let's hear their voices.”

One of the charity workers – a pretty, sophisticated brunette – led one of the children, one who seemed old enough to be able to withstand all the gawking going on, up the dais. The child was now standing shoulder to shoulder – or would have been if he had been more than twelve – with the Chancellor.

He talked about his experience as an orphan and how the people from Starburst had helped him. Merlin was listening intently until his attention was snagged by one of the kids, a serious, wide- eyed one with a mop of dark hair reminiscent of Merlin's. He started talking to him, smiling softly in a way Arthur had never seen. As if recognising someone alike.

Merlin's almost happy expression relaxed Arthur. He was sure he was feeling much less tense than he had been when the evening began. The soirée seemed to be going smoothly, no threats popping up, and Merlin had regained some of his natural good humour.

Arthur kept feeling the outing might have been a good idea, until a headache startled him with fierce jabs of pain. His head felt so heavy.

He shook it but the nagging low key pounding didn't leave him. If anything, it got worse by the minute, temples thundering to their own rhythm.

Since this was a key, potentially critical event, he couldn't ask to be excused and relieved by another officer. And he wouldn't trust someone else with Merlin anyway. Not tonight.

He'd have to grit his teeth through it. Keeping his mind on the job would surely help. He circled the room for a perimeter check, glass still in hand, eyes trained on Merlin and those orbiting around him.

More kids went up to the dais, talking about their personal experience amid a chorus of applause.

Probably spiked by all that noise, Arthur's headache worsened still. He took another sip of his drink and leant against a marble column.

The movement alone was dizzying and his mind went soaring in a spiral that made him feel ungrounded, while his body got heavier. He blinked, lids weighted. He lifted his free arm and it seemed to be suffering from the same problem. It was as hard to shift as lead.

Mind floating free, Arthur was still able to make the connection. This wasn't a headache. The chatter and the clapping of hands hadn't driven him to this.

He'd been slipped something. He must have. He'd felt perfectly all right before, no headaches, no symptoms. He let his glass fall from his hand and tapped his ear piece. “We have a situation,” he said, not letting panic overwhelm him, even though he knew this was bad. Who could have access to him, to them, when all this was monitored by Five?

Needing to get better in order to focus, he stumbled towards the refreshment table to drink directly from the water carafe, glass clattering against his teeth with his uncoordinated movements.

An elegant matron scowled at him but he ignored her, needing to do his utmost to stay coherent. Water trickled down his chin and onto his jacket.

He wiped at his mouth and tried communicating through his earpiece again but not a crackle came from it. It was as though no one was listening on the other end and the contraption was totally dead.

Shit. For a moment he saw dark, not experiencing anything at all, a complete and utter black out. He was not even hearing sounds. He blinked and his vision came back, but he was hearing things with an echo, as if they were far away.

He drank another long pull of water and his vision steadied in time for him to witness what was going on. Three men were closing in on Merlin, one of them was reaching into his jacket, the other was wielding a tazer and the third was aiming a small calibre gun directly at Merlin's chest.

“What the hell!” Chancellor Wilson shouted. “This is un--”

He never finished his sentence for he was shot in the chest by the man who'd been threatening Merlin. He fell backwards, blood staining his black evening jacket darker still.

Arthur whipped out his gun, trying to keep his trembling arm steady by supporting his elbow with his other one. He squinted, willed his hand to be firm and his mind on the action, and fired. His target, Wilson's killer, went down.

The guests screamed, shouts like the flapping of scared birds rising. At the same time, Merlin raised his hand and incanted, flinging the other two men backwards. Thank God. In the state he was in Arthur wasn't sure he could have got at them in time.

Relieved but knowing he had to get Merlin out of there, Arthur staggered towards him, climbing over fallen back chairs as people pushed towards the lifts, screeching in panic. There were cries and bellows and someone jumped on the dais to check on the Chancellor.

Arthur grabbed Merlin by the wrist, narrowing his eyes to steady his focus. “Come on,” he said, tugging him in the opposite direction to the one the other guests were streaming towards like a school of fish fleeing from a hungry shark.
Slurring his words, he said, “I've studied the plan of this place.”

Merlin opened his mouth to reply but Arthur saw the laser beam belonging to a precision rifle pinpointing a spot on Merlin's chest.
There was no time for explanations. Arthur threw Merlin to the ground, climbing on top of him, shielding him with as much of his own body as he could.

On the way down he cradled Merlin's head to break his fall, weathering the shots, fear coating his tongue with a foul taste as things burst to pieces around. The wall sconce behind Merlin shattered, raining sparks.

And more shots followed. Arthur had two options: getting up, trying to locate and take out the shooters or hoping that whoever shot got him and not Merlin.

Merlin stirred under him, panting in his ear. Arthur kept him down under the volley of shots, bringing his weight to bear, a hand in Merlin's hair.

Merlin, though, tried to get Arthur to roll off him. Arthur trapped him in place till Merlin said, “Can't incant if I can't breathe or see.” Arthur moved off Merlin's chest, a hand still on his torso to prop himself up. From this close Merlin's eyes flaring gold looked more surreal than before, a source of power.

Merlin threw up a wall of magic protecting them from attacks. Objects exploded, shards flying like projectiles. A man looking for a way out of the besieged ballroom crumpled to the ground, but Arthur and Merlin lay there untouched.

Given this proof of the efficiency of Merlin's magic, Arthur sat up. “How long can you keep this up?” he asked, watching Merlin's shiny brow.
“Don't know,” Merlin said. “Probably a couple of minutes, maybe less, maybe more.”

Arthur jutted his jaw out. So magic of that kind took its toll on Merlin. Yet it could be relied upon to get them out of there unscathed. “All right,” Arthur said. “I want you to keep this up for as long as you can.”

Merlin quirked an eyebrow despite the strain. “Fancy that. I would never have thought to do that on my own.”

“Can you keep it up as we move?”

“Yeah,” said Merlin, “though it could possibly waver some.”

Arthur had to risk that, had to, with two more people closing in on them, there was no other choice. “Okay, on my three, run.”

Merlin nodded. “Kay.”

Arthur got off Merlin and Merlin sat up.

“One, two, three, go,” yelled Arthur, pushing Merlin up and towards the staircase located opposite the lift, gun in his hand. Merlin craned his neck to see what was happening. Arthur didn't need to make out his blanching to know that they were being pursued, that Merlin was their primary target.

“They're following!” Merlin said. “God, what--”

“Stairs, stairs, stairs,” said Arthur, coming head to head with Merlin. He grabbed his elbow and herded him down, making him take two steps at a time.

Merlin wheezed, something more than the run winding him, and the magic wall fizzled out. Went with a sound as if of sparks raining down. The shimmering halo enveloping them disappeared like breath misting up in the sky.

It didn't matter though. They'd gained the stairs. Two ramps, a stretch of corridor, a turn, and the lift would be there. And from there Arthur would have to figure out what to do, who to trust. But not now. Now they had to escape.

“Arthur,” Merlin gasped, slewing to a halt. Arthur was about to curse, tell Merlin he needed to get a move on, when he saw the reason behind Merlin's sudden arrest.

Borden was aiming a gun at them. If the trajectory was to be taken into account, Arthur would have to say it was trained at Merlin.

“Borden.” Arthur aimed at the man in return, finger on the trigger. “I should have known.”

“I wonder how you're managing to stay on your feet,” said Borden. “They said the dose would be enough to keep a man down.”

Arthur thanked the stars for not having drunk the full glass. “I have my ways.”

“Why are you doing this?” Merlin snapped in a panicky tone, head whipping from Borden to Arthur. “What did you do to him?”

“Dosed him,” said Borden with extreme nonchalance. “But that's immaterial. I don't give a shit about Pendragon, though I'd have had you earlier if I'd managed to get him discharged for fucking you or something. Still.” Borden flicked the safety of his gun off.

Arthur put more pressure on the trigger. “Freeze, or I swear I'll put a bullet to your brain.” He meant it too.

He wasn't sure Merlin could disarm Borden they way he'd flung off his others attackers. For all he was trying to keep staunch upright, Arthur could see Merlin was stooping a little, as if he couldn't bring himself to straighten up.

He was tired; Arthur had no idea how far his magic would get him, or how far he could use it, whether there was only a certain amount he could employ or whether it was like a muscle waiting to be stretched.

He should have asked. He should have asked and not let the PM's plan, Merlin's insecurities or his own feeling of displacement when he saw magic being done overrule the exploration of a possible tactical advantage.

Borden didn't laugh in the face of the threat but he didn't look concerned either. “That could work if I didn't have other weapons at my disposal.” Borden's eyes flashed and for a second Arthur's weapon became hot as if someone had placed the metal barrel close to an open flame.

“You're magic!” Merlin said. “But if you're magic then why are you...”

“Trying to kill you?” said Borden. “Money, of course.”

Knowing there was no discussing things with someone who'd sold himself for money, Arthur took more careful aim, even if his fingers were being scalded, keeping his weapon steady, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

Borden cocked his head, angling it partially towards Arthur even as he kept his gun on Merlin. “Pendragon, when I admitted to being magic, it was the truth. What did you think I'd do with it? Make rose garlands?”

Borden was fast. One moment he was trading barbs, the next he was pivoting and firing. Merlin was in the direct line of fire and would be dead before Arthur could let out the breath he was holding. His reaction was belated, but he launched itself at Merlin, jumping in front of him.

But he was hit by something before he could grab Merlin, something like a hot rush of air, strong as a tornado.

Having nothing to hold on to, he was flung down the steps, no control over his body. But so was Borden and with triple the force. He was levitated off his feet and then hurled backwards. He hit the wall with a sickening crunch, leaving a body-shaped indent behind.

Arthur looked at Merlin then and saw that he had a hand thrown out, his eyes almost gone a completely molten gold, no pupil discernible.

All in all Merlin looked as though he was on fire, emanating a kind of power Arthur had never seen the like of before.

“Merlin,” he said, cradling the shoulder he'd hurt while he was grazed by Merlin's power. “Merlin.”

Merlin started and dropped his hand to his side. Borden, whose body had been shored up by the magic, fell to the ground, limbs all over the place, head turned at an impossible angle.

It didn't take a genius to see what it was that Merlin had done. Arthur saw it and Merlin did too. In response to the dawning realisation, Merlin went down on his knees hard, eyes welling up, his whole face going a pasty white with no transition from any other healthier shade. “I've killed him,” he said, looking at Borden's lifeless body. “I've killed him. I've killed him.”

“Merlin.” Arthur picked himself up and crawled closer to Merlin. His side hurt and he wasn't at his most lucid thanks to the drugs he'd been given. But he was coherent enough to see that Merlin was having a meltdown.

He was passing his hand over his mouth, wetting his lips, eyes both watery and glassy. A well that was getting darker by the second, like a deep, deep pool. “I've never... never used my magic to...” He hung his head, grabbing fistfuls of his hair with both hands. “... to kill a man. Oh, God.”

Arthur didn't touch him. He didn't think it was a good idea. Merlin was completely out of it, moving listlessly back and forth, nearly rocking on his heels.

His forehead was covered in sweat that hadn't been there a minute ago and his eyes wouldn't leave the body though they had welled up in a way that broke Arthur's heart to see.

“Come on, up.” He stood himself, reaching a hand out to Merlin. It was as if Merlin hadn't seen it, not even registered the movement. Arthur knew that verbal persuasion wouldn't work on him, not now.

Merlin wasn't even crying though his eyes were fat with tears. He wasn't cursing or saying anything. That somehow was worse. Arthur had seen soldiers like this and knew that he wouldn't be able to shake Merlin out of this fit so easily.

Not quickly enough to get them out of the building before one of Borden's associates arrived.

Arthur pulled Merlin up by the scruff of his jacket. Getting Merlin to move was more of an effort than he would have thought, given that Merlin was so much dead weight at the moment.

Arthur tipped Merlin's head towards him, grabbing a handful of his hair to force Merlin to listen to him, break his line of sight.

“Listen,” he said, feeling Merlin's chest pressed against his, feeling it every time it rattled with an intake of breath. “Borden wasn't acting alone. There's no way he was acting alone. I don't know how many of the people back there are part of his group or if more of his hit-men can gain access to the building. I think they probably can because this place is not secure. So,” he continued, shouts from the ballroom already making a prophet out of him, “we need to get out of here.”

Merlin's head may have been pointing his way but Merlin's eyes were unfocused. Damn, Arthur needed to get some kind of response. He couldn't drag a grown man all the distance to the service lifts if said man was unwilling.

To make matters worse, someone rounded the corner, sighted them and shot, ducking for cover immediately after.

The bullet glanced off the banister, sending splinters flying. A cut opened on Merlin's hand. Fear stunted Arthur's heart once more. Black and dismal, it caught in his throat.

More roughly than he would otherwise have had, he manhandled Merlin down the steps, using the pause the killer had given him to duck and get them out of the line of fire.

Merlin's feet not quite following, they went down in a heap, tumbling down the stairs, hitting their knees and elbows.

Arthur busted his lip open, tasting blood as slow trickles worked themselves past his lips. Not caring given the far more alarming nature of the predicament they were stuck in, he gathered himself up and pushed Merlin forwards, propelling him into a corridor. “Run,” he yelled.

Merlin did, though Arthur thought it was more because he'd shouted it than because it was what Merlin wanted to do.

Bullets whistled past them. Arthur saw the plaster covering the wall get pulverised. His head had been there but a moment before. It was clear that they had pursuers, one at least, maybe two. And no way to establish whether they had magic or not, whether Arthur's gun was any use against them or whether the four bullets he'd left could do the trick of getting rid of the person or persons on their heels.

Speeding faster, heels skidding on the waxed marble floor, Arthur steered Merlin by the elbow and shouted. “Can you tell if they have magic?”

Merlin turned his head towards him, blinking as if he was seeing Arthur for the first time tonight.

“Merlin!” Arthur urged, making him round into a hallway. “I need an answer if I'm to get us out of here.”

“No,” said Merlin at last, “No.”

Arthur had to be content with that and just that. It was enough that Merlin had answered when he hadn't even been able to respond much on the stairs.

Ducking bullets, he pushed Merlin past the bend in the corridor and dived after him. He stalled there, peeking out to check where their pursuers were. He saw one. He was careening down the corridor, his weapon lowered.

He was going too fast for Arthur to take proper aim. Arthur had to fire or let himself be overtaken.

He could take that risk, but then it'd be High Noon, close range and level ground, with Merlin there. A Merlin Arthur wasn't sure was all right.

A Merlin whose magic had been probably squeezed half dry by the feats he'd pulled in the ballroom and on the stairs.

He fired though he couldn't aim as he would have wanted to. The pursuing gunman rolled down and gained his feet again, disappearing round a corner as soon as Arthur lowered his weapon. He had three bullets remaining.

The gunman poked his head round again to return fire. That he missed Merlin completely was a mere fluke because Merlin had used Arthur's focus on their pursuer to wander past the corner and into the hallway. In plain sight.

“Merlin,” Arthur hissed.

The hit-man fired again and Arthur stepped away from all cover. This was it. Either he killed the man or the man killed Merlin. He righted his arm and fired. The man went down.

But not before another gunman came running down towards them, firing like a madman. Two light bulbs were hit, fragments being showered everywhere, the smell of burnt iron filaments filling Arthur’s nostrils.

Just as Arthur was preparing himself to shoot and say goodbye to his last bullet, Merlin raised his arm. The mangled sounds coming from his mouth were scary and so were the effects of his spell.

All lights flickered, the window exploded and the hit-man's gun went flying off his hand, skittering at Merlin's feet.

Arthur picked it up.

The hit-man took a step back. “I'm unarmed,” he said.

“And so's Merlin,” Arthur said. “I can't say I'm feeling any pity for you.”

“You can't kill me! It's not--”

Blood pulsed in Arthur's ears, marked by the rhythm of his anger. This man had been paid to assassinate Merlin. And he'd meant to do it because of money or because he thought magic was intrinsically evil.

Arthur took a look at Merlin, his wide eyes, still largely unfocused, at the sweat that coursed down the sides of his face. And he saw a young man who'd never forget today and what he'd been led to do thanks to the man in front of him and those who'd bought his services.
Killing would have been very easy. Despite the memories. Despite his knowledge. He lowered his gun and pulled the trigger, taking the hit-man's knee out.

The man went down like a sack of potatoes, squealing.

Arthur said, “I didn't kill you because of him,” he said, nodding to Merlin. “And not because I think what you've done is worthy of any forgiveness.”

He didn't waste any more time. He grabbed Merlin by the jacket and pushed him forwards and into the service lift. It seemed to take ages to go down, but at last the doors opened at underground level.

Arthur prompted Merlin and Merlin followed him though Arthur could see he wasn't all there. They ran down the corridor and towards the service exit, sending a valet flying.

“No running!” the man shouted after them, but to Arthur the sound came muffled by the distance he'd put between them. At last they skidded into the hotel garage. The neon lights were bright and glaring but served to orientate him. Arthur rushed forward and this time Merlin ran after him without any prodding.

Arthur stopped in front of the oldest model car that he could find. He fished for his key ring inside his pocket and, after pocketing his key, bent the ring into a hook shape. A coat hanger would have done much better for the job, but he didn't have one at the moment. Looking left and right, he slid his makeshift tool into the opening between the mirror and the car door.

He started prodding and pushing it around.

“What are you doing?” Merlin asked, interested for the first time in the goings on. “That's not--”

“Looking for the lock actuator,” said Arthur, prodding carefully through every inch of space from the handle to the side mirror. “It's not always in the same place. Depends on the manufacturer.”

“No, I see that,” Merlin said, “but we have a car.”

Arthur grimaced. He thought his hook had caught onto something, but no. “Yeah,” Arthur distractedly explained. “One that comes with a driver who's a Five officer. Which means he was vetted by Borden's team. I don't think I like the odds of him being clean.”

“So you're stealing a car?” Merlin said in a higher pitch then before, moving over to screen what Arthur was doing.

“Yes,” said Arthur, looking up from his bent position. “I am.” The moment he'd looked away from the interstice between door and window, something shifted, Arthur pulled and the lock opened. “Get in,” he told Merlin, as he himself dove for the driver's seat.
Merlin obeyed.

Snapping the driver's door shut, Arthur cursed. “Where's a screwdriver when you need one?” He removed the panels that snapped together to cover the steering column so that he could see both the cylinder and the wires running into it.

Arthur bent down and saw three pairs of wires meandering into the back of the cylinder. He knew that each pair represented a different key position on the ignition. Now he'd just have to guess which one would start the car.

Carefully, he detached the wires from the cylinder. Just as carefully he stripped the plastic from the ends, peeling it back an inch or two.
Merlin said, “Arthur,” just as the back window was crashed by a bullet that thankfully only killed the stereo. Another goon must have appeared

“Down, down, down,” Arthur said, frantically trying combinations of wires. He twisted first one pair then the other together. Another shot resounded in the garage and Arthur kicked at the steering column, “Fuck, come on.”

Another shot resounded and this seemed to wake Merlin, spur him on. He put one of his hands on top of Arthur's, making Arthur's spine liquefy, and the other on the steering wheel.

“Geweald!” he said.

The dashboard powered up, lights going on, everything starting at once.

“Could have done that a while ago,” Arthur complained as Merlin snatched his hand back. He pushed the throttle down, let it up, and floored the accelerator to a screech of tires, busting out of the garage and onto Park Lane like a madman.

He only slowed down when he'd left the hotel behind. It wouldn't do to be stopped by the police for speeding in Mayfair. He'd only to be arrested and sent to face higher authorities when they learned who Merlin was.

“Sorry,” said Merlin, still pale and shocked. “For not helping sooner. Sorry I--”

Arthur took his eyes off the road to have a look at Merlin. “No, I'm the one who's sorry. You weren't trained for this,”

Arthur focused on the rear-view mirror as Merlin said, “So, what now?”

Arthur made for the M25.

****

Tristan had cleaned up as best he could for his shift, though the traces of his binge were still clear in the dark gouges under his eyes and the extreme pastiness of his skin. Even the never seen before S01 officer cringed and clapped his back sympathetically when he gave him a once over.

Tristan, held his head up high, cocked an eyebrow as if to hint at his not knowing what had caused the outpouring of sympathy coming his way.

The S01 officer shifted from foot to foot, letting him pass. Tristan nodded each time he recognised a staffer, he knew, climbing up the stairs to go and relieve the official manning the PM's office.

Even though it was late evening and the day before Christmas Eve (which fact was advertised by the rather garish decorations the building was languishing under,) Mr Emrys was working.

Tristan didn't even knock to advertise the fact there'd been a change of shift. He didn't think interrupting the PM would be a good idea, not unless he wanted to be treated to his famous shouts. He was still too queasy to be subjected to any of that.

Instead he crossed his hands together and took to staring at the brass and black lacquer case time piece that sat on a little cabinet opposite the door he was guarding. Its ticking was loud and precise, a sign of time going by.

Tristan guessed it recorded more than just time passing; it was a testimony of his own mortality. He wondered how many more of those tickings he'd have to endure before he died, before he followed into Isolde's footsteps.

He'd have probably considered the point from every possible aspect if a crash hadn't startled him. It was loud and broke the quiet of this particular corner of Downing Street.

To make sure nothing untoward was happening, Tristan crossed to the balustrade and peeked at the stairwell. At first nothing seemed to be going on, but then five came running up the stairs, all of them armed. One of them was herding the PM's PA on by the hair, pointing his gun at her temple.

Tristan stepped back quickly and had his gun out by the time the five and their hostage had made the landing.

He trained it on the most prominent of the three, safety off, even while knowing that he was outnumbered and out-strategized.

“Out of the way,” the man who seemed to be their leader said.

Tristan had seen his face before, though he couldn't place it.

“I think you haven't got how it works here, mate,” Tristan said, buying time. Why the hell was nobody coming? How could 10's security have been breached and nobody had reacted to it? Well, he couldn't focus on that now. Any distraction and the PA, not to mention the PM, would die on his watch. “You stand down.”

“Lower your gun or the girl dies,” the leading intruder said, pulling on Ms Lewis' hair for show.

“How very cheap B movie,” said Tristan, not lowering his gun at all.

He knew the odds were against him but he didn't see what else he could do. Security in Downing Street was supposed to be so tight something like this could never happen. But it had. Which meant that there was more to this than met the eye.

Five may occasionally screw up but not to this extent. So he was virtually alone in this. Against five armed men. He shrugged his shoulders. “More importantly, I think I'd rather kill you first.”

If he had to go, he wanted to go in a way Isolde would be proud of. Like she had. She'd died a hero.

He quickly swerved on his feet and shot at the man closest to wall. He went down in a heap just as Birch from S015 climbed the stairs, waving his gun. He looked as surprised at this development as Tristan was, eyes gone completely round under his sweat-covered forehead.
He jumped over the rolling body and aimed at one of the armed intruders.

And then what Tristan had hoped wouldn't happen happened. The door to the PM's study opened and Mr Emrys walked out, still in his shirt sleeves, braces down. “What is the meaning of this?” he said, taking in the situation. His pinched brow showed that he'd realised pretty fast.

“Mr Emrys,” the leader who had Ms Lewis said, “give yourself up and nobody need die.”

He shifted the barrel of his gun an inch or two. Tristan felt sure the move had been designed to cause Ms Lewis to whimper, which she did.

Mr Emrys' hand twitched at his side as if he was trying to curb an instinct to punch the man. Tristan felt pretty much the same.

Maybe he could try something. He took a step forward, a breath away from pulling the trigger and killing the man. True, it wouldn't be easy, for he was mostly using Ms Lewis as a shield, but perhaps, if she moved at the right time, Tristan could get her captor.

The only parts of the captor's body left to aim at were a section of his shoulder, his neck and face. It would be tricky but the only way Tristan could take him out would be going for the head.

He squeezed one eye shut and had almost pulled the trigger backwards completely when Mr Emrys put a hand on his shoulder and said, “I can't be responsible for my staff's lives.”

He shot a sympathetic glance at Ms Lewis, one that was completely uncharacteristic in that it held an edge of sweetness to it. This told Tristan more than anything else ever would that Mr Emrys was serious about giving up. Or his apologetic, almost nice side would have never emerged.

“Sir,” Tristan questioned him. The man was crazy. Had to be. Only madness could prompt such a self sacrificing act in a politician.
Tristan tried to think of the consequences of such an action on the part of the Prime Minister, but couldn't think of any. Nothing like this had ever happened before. All he knew was that there would be no protecting Mr Emrys once he walked into that trap.

Mr Emrys emitted a low grunt. “I know what I'm doing, Tristan,” he said. “Just make sure that my son is all right, please.”

“Sir, I--” said Tristan, thinking that he would, if only because this didn't sit right with him at all.

This impotence, this being proved worthless, useless, spurred him. Even the thought of Isolde, how much she'd have hated this did. “I can't let you walk to...” He didn't say your death, but he suspected that was what was going to happen to the PM. Tristan guessed Mr Emrys got him even if Tristan never completed the sentence.

One more security team, a MET officer, came up running up, interrupting the proceedings, but he was just a boy and basically weapon-less. Fat chance he'd do anything.

“Tristan,” Mr Emrys said again. “Don't let me repeat myself or pull rank.”

Tristan lowered his weapon and so did Birch, bowing his head. Mr Emrys walked into the waiting arms of the group of aggressors.
Two of them grabbed him by the shoulders and frisked him rapidly to make sure he was hiding no manner of weapon. Satisfied, they communicated their findings to their leader by way of some gesture code.

The leader nodded, smirked briefly, and pushed Ms Lewis into Tristan's arms.

And then the four men left, forced Mr Emrys down the stairs and out of Tristan's own line of sight.

Ms Lewis cried into his arms. “Poor Mr Emrys. What will we do now?”

Tristan had no better question himself. Five and S01 had to be rotten for this to have happened. How he was to proceed knowing that something like this had taken place was a mystery he didn't have the solution to.

*****

Uther found the car and driver waiting outside his villa. The driver was standing at attention by the car's bonnet, his arms stiff at his side. When he spotted Uther, he walked to the passenger door and opened it for him.

Uther nodded briskly and stepped inside. The driver closed the door after him and took his place behind the wheel, only meeting Uther's eyes in the rear-view mirror once.

“Drive on,” said Uther and the car rolled into motion.

It was late enough for Uther to be unable to make out the road or the specifics of his journey. He could have closed his eyes and waited to be jolted awake by the halting of the car but he didn't let himself close his eyes.

No matter how late it was or how hard the day had been, he couldn't relax now.

The waiting was done and they were meant to reap the fruits of their labours. Their decade long labours.

He engaged the driver in a discussion about his children, projecting an aura of normality. The driver would pick up on the abnormality of the situation, Uther asking to be driven out in the country at this hour and with no purpose in sight, but if Uther didn't feed him any viable information he would never become aware of the specifics of Uther's plan. He'd never find out what was going on.

More than two hours later the car slewed to a halt in the vicinity of an industrial hangar. Uther's driver got out and opened his door for Uther. Uther stepped onto the gravel-covered terrain to find himself met by Aeredian and a posse of ten to fifteen armed men. He didn't fail to notice that all of them barring Aeredian were clutching semi-automatic rifles.

“Uther,” said Aeredian, spreading his arms out. “Welcome to the Fortress.”

Uther stifled a laugh. The place was certainly guarded and now that he looked more closely the presence of a watch tower – which had assuredly been built by Aeredian's men in that it looked separate from the building it was protecting – didn't escape his notice. Yet the fact remained that the compound appeared to merely be an old army hangar. And a disused one at that. Certainly there were offices around it. And probably underground storage facilities that could be used for other purposes, but the place was scarcely a fortress. Uther hoped Aeredian wasn't applying the same kind of hyperbole to the assessment of his security levels.

“Did everything run smoothly?” Uther asked Aeredian.

No news had leaked thus far so he was in the dark as far as the specifics of how their plans had turned out.

Aeredian nodded. “Everything is in place,” he said, taking Uther by the elbow to lead him to a more solitary spot, the group of armed men in the background out of earshot but clearly still there, ready to intervene at a moment's notice.

“So you have him?” Uther concluded.

“Did you think we wouldn't succeed?” Aeredian asked, cranking up an eyebrow. It made one of his eyes appear larger and more spirited than the other. “When we had everything in place? When we'd cast our net?”

“The net might have been cast,” said Uther coldly, “but that doesn't mean we have more allies than there are government officials.”

“We do have most of Five,” said Aeredian. “And some of the higher ups at the MET.”

“The balance is still not entirely in our favour,” Uther pointed out. “And we need more support within the MET. Just because we managed without their fully fledged support, it doesn't mean that we can take back everything that is ours if we haven't got their backing.”

“We will,” Aeredian told him. “Now that we have the most important bargaining chip, we will.”

Uther accepted that though he did see the fallacies in Aeredian's machinations. “Show me this bargaining chip then.”

Aeredian shifted uneasily to the point that Uther thought he’d lied thus far, but he quickly checked and led Uther towards the compound, two armed men following.

The hangar was, as Uther had suspected, compartmentalised and subdivided in different areas separated by steel partitions. More guards, all of whom sported the looks of paid professionals, dotted the various areas, silent men looming upright like gigantic monoliths.

Uther counted at least twenty of them. Aeredian's teeth glinted in the semi-darkness when he noticed Uther appreciation of his security measures.

“This way,” he said, leading Uther down a flight of cement steps flanked by walls of the same material. They looked both impenetrable and eaten at by damp and rot. The steel pipes that ran the length of the corridor Uther found himself traversing were rusting away, a clear sign that the place had been abandoned long ago.

“We use a different method for water supplies and I don't think we need to make the place any more hospitable, the less we draw attention to it the better.”

Uther grunted in agreement. “I suppose you've tested the psychological repercussions of inhospitable prisons on many an individual before.”
“Indeed I have,” said Aeredian, complacent. “I wouldn't have acted unless I'd tested every aspect of my plan.”

Uther hummed non committally, not intending to lavish further praise on Aeredian. In silence Aeredian, shepherded him forward till they reached a steel door that was both evidently locked and heavily guarded. The two men of Aeredian's own escort took their places beside their colleagues either side of the door.

Uther said, “Open it.”

And one of the guards moved to obey.

“A moment,” said Aeredian, dragging Uther aside. “We need to talk”

Uther compressed his lips. “What haven't you told me?”

Aeredian made a calculating face. His shoulders were thrown back in a show of bravado. But he was tapping his foot in a nervous manner, suggesting he wasn't as blasé about whatever it was he was holding back as he would have liked to have it known.

“We discussed the angles before,” said Aeredian.

“Have you stopped me from savouring this moment, at long last, might I add, to go over previously trodden ground?”

“No.” Aeredian narrowed his eyes, puckering his mouth to spit out an objection. “I'm stopping you because I want you to be aware of a minor shortcoming.”

Uther barked out a flat, “What shortcoming?”

He really didn't need to be led around by the nose by the likes of Aeredian. He might be their UFAM spokesperson and have some serious backing from some circles but his importance stopped there. Besides, Uther himself wasn't without allies of his own.

His whole life – his whole life after Ygraine – had been aimed at the fulfilment of one purpose alone. This meant that over the years he'd found a group of like minded individuals who'd follow him and him only, no matter what.

“We might even say,” Aeredian answered, “that this minor failing is your fault.”

Uther snapped, “Aeredian, I'm not here to listen to you beating about the bush.”

“We don't have Emrys Junior,” said Aeredian. “He's neither dead, which would have suitably curbed the father, nor is he in our power. And that's thanks to your son.”

Uther didn't say 'I have no control over my son' though that was painfully true. If Arthur had seen the light, had understood what magic really was and what it had done to Ygraine, most things would have been easier. But that was neither here nor there. And Aeredian had no right to be made privy to that. Uther certainly didn't intend to make him privy to that. “Does Balinor know?”

“No,” Aeredian said, “I don't think he does. Our two actions ran parallel.”

“Then we'll suss it out and play him accordingly,” said Uther curtly. “If he doesn't know then everything is just as well. We'll make him believe what we want.”

A smile painted itself on Aeredian's lips. “As I said,” he said, as though he'd been meaning that all along. “It was a minor shortcoming. Though if you could somehow persuade your son... He's still in a prime position to.”

Uther backed Aeredian up against the wall and snarled in his face. “You don't know Arthur! He'll only do what he thinks is right. And right for him coincides with honour. His honour won't make him harm a man he's supposed to protect, however despicable a creature that man is.”

Aeredian pushed at Uther. “Very well, then,” he said, swallowing quickly. “It would merely have been advantageous. I merely supposed you'd tried before when you said Arthur wasn't an in and that we'd have to go for Borden. But now I see that I was mistaken. You never contemplated him.”

Uther let Aeredian go, wiping his hand on his jacket, a moue of disgust on his face. “Show me Emrys,” he said.

Aeredian snapped his fingers and one of his men busied himself opening the door, drawing back bolts and applying keys to the locks. The others stood ready to fire at his sides. Uther doubted Balinor Emrys had any active magic or he would have used it before now, thus avoiding ending up into this scrape. But he figured prudence was a measure they would always need to apply around magic users.

So privately he approved of the measure. Balinor's son, Merlin, was sad to be powerful in the ways of magic. Everybody had witnessed his magical knee jerk reaction on the day of the first coup – a reaction that had aired on national television no less. If Balinor had passed on that genetic trait he did have magic in his blood. (Everybody knew he'd married a non-magic person, so it was him who had the gene.) In short, it'd be better to watch out.

The opening door hit the cement wall behind it, denting the old whitewash coating. Leaving Aeredian behind, Uther stepped in and saw Balinor Emrys manacled to a table. He looked just as he did on TV interviews and on the pages of magazines. Apart from the split lip and the hair flying over his forehead, hair that generally was carefully pomaded back and now wasn't, he looked the same.

Uther had seen him in the flesh before, of course. You couldn't move in the world of politics without brushing shoulders with a man who'd climbed the ranks as fast as Emrys had.

He smiled. “Mr Emrys,” he said, ambling into the room to place himself by the desk Emrys had been secured to. “It's a pleasure to have you here with us.”

“Cut the shit,” said Emrys in the fashion that had made him popular as a matter of fact politician. “You can't keep me here.”

“You'll see that I can,” said Uther, taking the chair opposite Emrys. “You'll see that I won't easily let you go.”

Emrys snapped forward. “Then don't,” he said. “But know that this is laughable. What do you think you can achieve by holding me hostage? You think I'm leverage? The government won't bow to blackmail. Not even if you threaten to kill me. Not even if you do. The government will never bend to blackmail. Can't be seen to.”

Uther raised his shoulders, not wishing to give his game away too soon. It wasn't as if they were acting on a whim, or as if they didn't have fall back plans. Emrys didn't need to be aware of any of them for them to succeed. If he was left in the dark, he'd even have more to fear. “Then we will fail,” he said.

Emrys grunted. “You can't have what you want,” he said. “The people have voted. Magic will be accepted, Pendragon, when my son is old enough to--” Emrys cut himself off, the words slowing to a halt in his throat. He shot up and tried to climb the table that separated them, obviously restricted in his movements by the short tether created by the manacles. “What have you done to my son?”

The growl Emrys released with the words was loud and primal. Uther perfectly understood what the loss of a loved one did to you. And understood what separation from your own son did to you.

Yet he had no sympathy for Emrys and only studied the man for his reactions. He'd just been told one thing he hadn't known before entering this room. As for the other, it was good to know too.

Emrys' eyes were glinting a pale gold and looked like a wolf's. Yet Nothing was happening to Uther. He wasn't being hurled against the wall or levitated off his seat. Balinor's magic was, therefore dormant, or just not strong enough. Unlike his son's. As Uther had already thought. Uther didn't smile. He didn't bat an eyelash. He allowed himself no tells. “Nothing yet,” he said.

 

****

Arthur didn't allow himself to relax until they'd got well out of London and on the way to Dorset, and even then, not fully. He was on the qui vive, eyes running to the rear view mirror more frequently than necessary, driving carefully so as not excite suspicion but wishing he could just floor the accelerator and get them there quicker.

Merlin himself had fallen abnormally quiet after the danger moment that had shaken him into taking action had passed.

Arthur had hoped he'd fallen asleep but that belief had been dispelled when he'd looked sideways at Merlin.

Merlin was sitting with his shoulders slumped except for when a tremor went through him and he became rigid. His head had fallen forward and again Arthur might have suspected him of dozing but for his holding his hands palm up, as if inspecting his fingers. They twitched as did his lashes.

At times he released a big, shuddering breath or sniffed, and Arthur knew he was fighting tears.

Arthur had been too the day he'd first killed someone. He hadn't been much older than Merlin when he did either.

He didn't say anything, knowing Merlin needed silence to come to terms with what he'd done. He did talk though when he pushed the car to a halt.

As Arthur got out, Merlin stood defeated, still staring at his shaking hands. Arthur opened the door for him and crouched low by the passenger side.

“Merlin,” he said. Merlin's nostrils flared. “Merlin, we're here.” Merlin didn't lift his head but after a moment met his eyes from under his lashes. They were red but dry.

Arthur said, “We're here. This is my place. It's safe for now.” Unless Tristan was with the people who'd tried to kill Merlin.

The fact that the place was deserted told him that Tristan probably hadn't fessed up. So he either was clean, biding his time, or the people hounding Merlin had been told and had concocted a different plan that didn't involve this place.

However it was, Arthur needed to stop somewhere or he'd have driven them into a wall. The effects of the drug he'd been administered had mostly worn off but they'd blunted his reflexes. He didn't mean to play into their enemies' hand by killing Merlin for them.

So here he was. He'd come up with a plan tomorrow. “Come on, Merlin, I need to get you inside.”

Merlin didn't move, just fixed him with half vacant eyes that sometimes swirled gold, like a bulb going on and off before firing off. Arthur leant against the car seat. “Come on, Merlin, I'm very tired.”

Merlin focused on him and got out of the car.

Arthur didn't push him, but let him trail after him. There was no need to hurry now and he didn't want to shake Merlin further when it wasn't needed. He turned on the lights and was hit by a gust of stale air. He hadn't been in here since taking the bodyguard job and it smelt like it.
Arthur stalked over to the window and opened it.

When he turned, it was to find Merlin leaning against the nearest wall. He'd shed his evening jacket as if it had been stifling him, and was breathing in harshly. The jacket itself lay at his feet all crumpled up.

Something seized inside Arthur, most probably his heart. It was being twisted like a sodden rag. “Merlin,” he said and walked over to him. Merlin met his eyes. “I-- I did it, didn't I?”

Arthur would have liked to have been able to tell Merlin that it had all been a bad dream. But he couldn't. Merlin was strong enough to take everything. And Arthur would be doing him no favours if he discounted that. He would need to process though. And Arthur knew there'd be no time for it. Not if things stood the way he thought they did.

“Merlin, we have a few hours to regroup. Take my advice. Sleep. You need to sleep. You haven't slept a wink all night. You can't get a grip on anything, on what happened tonight, while you can hardly stand.”

Merlin jutted his chin out, but took a step sideways. He looked around then, registering at last that he was in an unfamiliar place. He didn't ask what manner of place this was or whether they had a right to stay. He seemed completely uninterested in his surroundings. He did ask, “Where do I go?” in a thin thread-y voice and that was that.

Arthur studied him for a second or two, and then led him to the foot of the stairs. “The bedroom is upstairs,” he said. “You can have it.” Merlin skipped up the stairs, not saying a word. “Watch out for the beams,” Arthur added. “They're low.”

It was a very mundane thing to say but Arthur didn't regret the words. He watched till Merlin disappeared upstairs, then shed his own jacket, throwing it carelessly over the old sofa, and picked up Merlin's. He put it next to his own, paying a little more attention to the creases, running a finger down the lapel. As he did so he looked at the stairs Merlin had taken at a jog.

He let go of the fabric and went to close the window again.

They had enough fresh air to make the place habitable and he didn't want to make access easier than it already was.

This cottage certainly hadn't been built with security in mind. He could lock the doors though, the one in front and the one in the back. And latch all the sashes. Still, if someone wanted in, they could smash the glass.

He went into the basement where the previous owner had kept an old hunting rifle next to a few casks of wine. When he'd found it, Arthur had put it behind a glass case because trifling with weapons made him itchy.

He retrieved the key from behind one of the casks and opened the cabinet. He took out the rifle and cartridges and loaded the former, leaving the safety on just in case.

It was an old weapon, for which he had no certificate. Unlicensed or no, it would have to do. The gun he had been issued for his job had no ammunition left. And in the situation they were in that was something that needed to be changed.

He mounted the stairs and was hit by the sound of the shower running. “What the fuck?” he said. He put the old rifle on the kitchen table and rushed upstairs.

He hesitated before the closed bathroom door. “Merlin? Merlin, are you in there? I didn't turn on the boiler at all, Merlin. You'll have to wait until kingdom come for a hot shower.”

There was no answer. “Fuck it.” Arthur tried the handle. It turned. He stepped inside.

Merlin was standing under the shower, hair flattened against his skull, head tipped back.

Barring the jacket he'd left downstairs, the shoes that were strewn on the floor, and the socks that were balled into them, Merlin was clothed. His shirt was sticking to his skin, almost a second layer, nipples showing.

His trousers were sodden, the fabric looking shiny and heavy. It stretched across his thighs in soggy, wrinkly folds. They clung to his hips and to his shins in odd ripples.

Arthur pulled back the flimsy shower door and stepped in, ice-cold water running over his bare nape, wetting his hair and drenching his shirt.

“Shit,” he said. “Shit.”

It was freezing cold and he had to clench his teeth together so as not to hiss at the sudden shock.

He edged closer to Merlin, shielding him from the frigid spray while his hands, grown clumsy for the cold, tried to manipulate the rusty taps he had never bothered to change.

Once he'd finally managed to kill the icy jet of water, he buried the tip on his nose in Merlin's neck, put one hand to his shoulder, the other to his chest and said, “What the fuck, Merlin? What the fuck?”

Merlin turned his head, his nose a flare of ice on Arthur's cheek. He didn't say anything, just grabbed Arthur tight by the waist the way you would hold onto the saddle if your horse was trying to throw you. He breathed harshly through his nose and those sounds filled the confined space of the shower stall.

Arthur held on for the longest time, rubbing his thumb in circles over Merlin's pelvis, lips a breath away from Merlin's mouth. His back went taut with tension and he shivered in tidal waves, so many jumbled thoughts making it to the surface of his consciousness he couldn't pin any.

He made it all instinct, plastered himself close to Merlin as if he was a second layer to Merlin's skin.

It lasted until Merlin slid down the wall and huddled there, saying, “I can't, I can't,” holding out both his hands as if for inspection. He curled them into a fist, raked his knees up and buried his face in his arms.

Arthur sat down next to Merlin and reached out, kissed his temple, and Merlin's breathing settled though the shaking of his body didn't.
Breaking the silence was difficult but Arthur had to. “Merlin, come on, we should get dry.”

Practicalities seemed to work on Merlin more than any attempt at consolation. Arthur got up and Merlin fought upwards.

He followed Arthur silently, dripping water as he went, leaving little pools of it as he went. He noticed when he'd passed the door separating the bathroom from the hallway. “Sorry,” he said in a voice that sounded unused. “Didn't-- Didn't mean to make a mess.”

“You're not.” Merlin was making a mess, but that was truly beside the point. “I'll get you something dry.”

Merlin nodded and without a second thought he undid the buttons of his shirt and his belt. He pushed down his soggy trousers and underwear, bent to pick them up and, naked but for the handful of clothes he was hugging to his chest, he looked at Arthur expectantly.
Arthur should have moved to get Merlin some clothes. He didn't, looking at Merlin's body instead.

It got to him. It got to him in a way that most things hadn't in a long while. His eyes travelling downward, he took in Merlin's form from his chest to his stomach and down to the line of his pelvic bones, tapering in contrast to a wide set of shoulders. There was a lithe strength to his hips that was unmistakable though there was a vulnerability in Merlin's current stance and in the pallor of his limbs that couldn't be bypassed.

There was still a lot of the teenager about Merlin, in the way he was lanky, all elbows and knees, his legs on the very thin side. But there was a lot of the man about him too. The scattering of hair on his chest wasn't boyish at all. His cock was pink and sizeable, though not huge. It was surrounded by a mat of dark, coarse hair.

Arthur swallowed. If he'd looked into Merlin's eyes right then he'd have lost sight of his sense of duty in the need to touch and protect. A thrill raced through him that Arthur acknowledged as mistimed and inappropriate.

His heart might be swelling in his chest and his senses were getting drunk on the intimacy of the moment, but he repressed that. It wasn't his place to feel those things. And it wasn't the right moment either. No matter that Merlin was beautiful in his odd, magical way. No matter that he'd awoken Arthur from a slumber of the senses. He'd just have to plough through it and get them out of this situation alive. He drew his bottom lip between his teeth to ground himself and dropped his own uncomfortably sodden clothes. He put them in the laundry basket next to the door. “Just do the same,” he said to Merlin soberly. “I'll get you something of mine to wear while we sort out your stuff.”

He marched into his bedroom and opened the wardrobe door. He'd moved a good part of his stuff to the place in Durham he crashed at when he wasn't on the job, but he still had some clothes here. He pulled out briefs, a tee and pyjama bottoms for himself and his old joggers for Merlin.

He put on his bottoms and edged out of the room to hand Merlin his joggers. “There's no underwear,” he said, averting his gaze while Merlin covered up. “I thought you wouldn't be comfortable wearing mine.”

“It's okay,” said Merlin, straightening.

“You should sleep.” Arthur put a hand on Merlin's bare shoulder. He was still cold to the touch. “You can go through my wardrobe to look for a top that fits but then I suggest you crash. I'll have to wake you in a few hours anyway so we can decide what to do.”

“All right,” Merlin said listlessly. He edged into Arthur's room as if he thought the space alien to him and possibly dangerous. He shifted on his feet and didn't open the wardrobe, neither did he touch the drawers. He looked lost.

Arthur found him a tee just so as to get to do something for him. “You can sleep on my bed,” he said once Merlin had put it on. “I'll be downstairs if you need me.”

Merlin needed to rest. He looked badly off and Arthur could think of nothing else that could be of use to him now.

Merlin needed to come to terms with what he'd done and how it had happened, but he couldn't do it while he was about to keel over.

Merlin eyed the bed mistrustfully and then flashed an alarmed look at Arthur. “Don't,” he said.

Arthur didn't fully understand what Merlin meant. “Don't what, Merlin? You need to crash.”

“I can't.”

“I know it can feel like that.” Flashes of memory brought to life old nightmares. Voices, screams. The dry thunder of weapons. The taste of fear. “But you need to try. We can't stay here indefinitely. As much as I would like to think I could give you some peace and quiet, the truth is that I can't. Not while knowing that Borden, and therefore MI5, were in on what happened tonight. I don't even dare to turn on my mobile let alone stay in a place they know I own.”

“Okay,” said Merlin, daring another glance at the bed. “Just... Lie down with me. I need to... Not be alone. Not close my eyes just yet.”

Arthur couldn't argue against that. He nodded his head.

Merlin went to lie down on his side, not pulling the covers on top of himself in spite of the pungent December air and how cold he must feel after that shower.

Arthur laid himself down too, in a similar position to Merlin's. They were facing each other.

They shared moments of pervasive silence and Merlin's breath evened, until he asked, “You were in the military, right? How many people have you killed?”

“My fare share,” said Arthur. “More than I ever wanted to. I... Joined for my country. And found out that the toll was... high.”

“Do you remember them?” Merlin's tone was naïve but his eyes weren't. “Them?”

“Yes,” Arthur said. He didn't have an easy solution. A way to tell Merlin that everything he'd done today could be easily forgotten. Swept under the carpet. “My first kill was a guerilla soldier. I remember the light going out of his eyes. I was a couple of years older than you. I was ordered to do him. Doesn't make it any easier to swallow.”

Merlin's eyelids fluttered but he didn't tear his eyes away from Arthur. “I don't want it to be easy but I-- What did it do yo you?”

“What? War? Killing?”

“Yes,” said Merlin, moving his head on the pillow. “I need to know, please. And I know I have no right. That you've been keeping it from me for a reason. But, I need to.”

Arthur put a hand on Merlin's waist, just a fleeting touch. “At first I didn't talk about it because some of it is classified and because some of it is... There are no words.”

“Don't then.”

Arthur rolled onto his side, a hand on his stomach, his eyes on the ceiling. “Killing in action is... I remember it in slow motion. My memory goes wonky when I try to pin down the events before and after, but someone going down, a man just like you, fighting for his cause, is something I remember alright.”

“Arthur.” Merlin propped himself up. It was as though he wanted to stop Arthur. “I--”

“But the thing that haunts me,” said Arthur in a rough tone, “is something else.”

The silence between him and Merlin became haunting. Merlin was faintly breathing in the background as though he thought even that shouldn't interrupt Arthur's flow.

“A while ago, it's been a little less than a year really, I was on a protection mission.”

“Like you are when you're with me,” Merlin said. “Right?”

Arthur canted his head up to see Merlin. “No, not like you. You're different.”

The truth was that Merlin wasn't just a job, had stopped being one a while ago. He'd stopped being a job at some point between Merlin's drunken crawl back to his room during Freshers' week and Borden pointing out that he'd grown close to Merlin.

“I was escorting a member of the royal family. All I remember is the heat and the crowd pressing in. It was stifling. It was loud. I remember thinking 'this is the worst place to be to allow for close protection'.”

Very carefully, Merlin asked, “Why?”

“Too many people to keep track of, shouts and laughter and all sorts of noises in between to make you lose focus.”

“Did somebody die?”

“No,” said Arthur. “Nearly though. See, there was this kid. He must have been fifteen or sixteen. Lanky, all elbows and knees, probably undernourished. He kept following His Highness' detail from quite up close. Kept following even when we moved forward. We were on foot and the crowd wanting to get a peek was pressing in from all sides. But that's when I noticed him.”

“Was the kid a... terrorist?”

Arthur took in Merlin's expression, the lip he was gnawing on, how intent he was on listening to Arthur's words. How it was clear he wanted to understand them. “No. No, he wasn't.” Arthur swallowed the bile that rose in his throat every time he revisited the incident. “He was just a kid, maybe a more excitable one than the rest.”

“What happened?” Merlin asked, moving subtly to the rustling of the sheets that shifted as he did.

“The kid was persistent,” said Arthur, his voice having gone as dry as his mouth. “So I informed the other members of the security detail that were under my orders. They all got back to me with a 'received' or 'I'll keep my eye on him.”

“Something went wrong,” Merlin concluded, the faint traces of a question to his statement.

“Everything that possibly could did,” said Arthur. “The kid got nearer. I warned my team. I had my hand on the gun. We had been briefed on how dangerous the area was, so that came naturally. And then the kid slipped his hand inside his jeans jacket. I was so, so sure he was hiding a gun. I alerted the others. I'm sure I was barking into my ear-piece, telling them about the threat. I had my finger on the trigger, waiting to pull it and then... one of my colleagues rattled into the ear piece, 'Shit he's going to fire,' and fired himself. The kid went down in a pool of blood. He had no gun.”

“But you didn't fire yourself,” said Merlin “And the kid pulled through.”

“It was under my orders, Merlin,” Arthur told him something he'd actually told himself so many times he'd come to accept it as an unalterable truth. “And, yes, he did pull through. It was a minor miracle that he did. Yet, he's still suffering the consequences. He's had to re-learn to walk, Merlin.”

Merlin didn't say anything to that. He grasped the magnitude of Arthur's guilt. Was probably looking at Arthur through different eyes now. But that seemed to have refocused him. Made him stop thinking about his own guilt.

“It's horrible,” he said in very low tones. “What happened to him. But you didn't shoot. You waited. It was the other officer who...”

“I was the senior officer that day, Merlin. The responsibility was mine. For what happened and for training that particular bunch of men. I should have done something.”

“You're not God, Arthur,” Merlin said. “That officer got scared. Didn't wait. Something horrible happened. I don't think it's on you.”

“And you killed someone who was trying to kill you,” said Arthur, “someone who was rotten and likely had something to do with your previous bodyguard's death. I don't think that's on you either.”

Merlin's eyes dilated with surprise and something else. Something Arthur couldn't pin down however used he was to dealing with men with PTSD.

“I chose to,” said Merlin. “I chose to do it. I could have not.”

“And died,” said Arthur, putting all his heart into it, in underlining how unthinkable that would have been. “You would have died. And that's... The worst thing I can imagine ever happening.”

Merlin whispered through strained breath, leant down and put his lips to Arthur's. They were strangely soft considering that Merlin was mostly angles. And they lit a blaze of fire inside Arthur that came only as half a surprise.

Arthur's fingers curled around Merlin's arm, opening and closing in a spasm. His eyes went wide with it and his heart thundered in his ears like there was no stopping it.

Merlin's tongue stroked over the crease of Arthur's closed mouth and Arthur could only think about how he wanted more of this. How he wanted to kiss back and pull the clothes off Merlin, wrap his arms around him and have him. Shield him. Breathe him in.

He should stop this though. Merlin was upset, not himself, and Arthur had a duty by him. And that duty was to protect him, not exploit him sexually.

Not knowing what Arthur was thinking, Merlin him pushed his tongue past Arthur's lips and rubbed the tip across Arthur's, tasting him. For a handful of seconds Arthur parted his lips and let his tongue dance with and lightly touch Merlin's.

He hadn't meant to do it. He hadn't meant to do any of this. But his body wanted it and he wanted it too. But for his duty, he would have taken what was being offered fully. But there were so many reasons why not and they did have the better of Arthur.

Mouth still tingling, Arthur wrapped a hand around Merlin's shoulder and pushed Merlin off him. “I can't, Merlin. I'm your-- I can't.”

Merlin's breath came quickly through his lips. He stared down into Arthur's eyes, trying to read him.

Arthur was sure he was giving off ten different vibes. His mouth was parted, he was panting, and he knew his eyes were wide with passion. With Merlin half on top of him, his body heavy and gangly, Arthur's cock had risen to half mast. He was sure Merlin could feel it just as he could sense that Arthur was going to be firm about stopping their madness.
“You want it,” said Merlin, studying Arthur for clues. His eyes narrowed with it. “I thought. You... I--”

Arthur resettled, fighting the need to squeeze his cock. “Merlin, that doesn't matter. What does matter is that I'm forbidden from....”

“What?” Merlin asked in a puff of breath. “Having sex with me?”

“Yes,” said Arthur. “And even if I wasn't... I shouldn't. You're in a vulnerable position and I'm--”

Lowering his head, Merlin said, “Vulnerable?” Merlin gave a bitter chuckle. “I've just proved I'm a killer. And you...” Merlin's voice hardened as did the expression in his eyes. It went shuttered, a step away from cold. “You could have said you didn't want me. It's all right. I wouldn't hate you for not wanting me. You could have just said you didn't. But don't call me 'vulnerable'.”

Arthur could have told him the truth. It was on the tip of his tongue. How he wanted to grab Merlin, cup his face, kiss him, roll him over and... He had to close his eyes to stave off the surge of want the mental image caused. But that would have been counterproductive. Logic said no. Affection said no. Merlin wasn't okay.

And he was supposed to be the one person Merlin could trust. Better let him believe whatever he wanted. However wrong it was or however cutting to his ego.

Better that Merlin think him not interested than take advantage. “I just can't, Merlin.”

“It's okay,” said Merlin, pushing off the bed. He grabbed a pillow and marched out.

“Wait, Merlin,” said Arthur, jumping up after him, “I'll sleep downstairs.”

But Merlin didn't listen. He just heard the sound of feet crashing down the stairs.

****
.

Tristan was sitting on a chair, patting down his creased tie. He watched as people flitted by, an aura of business in the way they pushed through, jostled each other, dismissed each other in order to pursue their own goals.

The air around him was tense. People wore tight expressions, never dallying as they used to, the low buzzing of voices in the background filling the halls and corridors of the building.

And yet Tristan was sure they knew but a quarter of what was going on. Of what Tristan knew. And even so they were behaving like nervous ants, swarming this way and that for a scrap of news.

Tristan watched as Birch came up the stairs. He was wearing the same shirt as yesterday night and no tie. Going by the dark smudges under his eyes, you could tell he hadn't slept at all after the security breach.

The moment he located Tristan, Birch hurried over to him, brow shiny with sweat, slight paunch threatening to burst through the buttons of his jacket. “Have they asked you in yet?”

“No,” Tristan said, looking at the door he'd been sitting by for the better part of an hour. “No debriefing yet. Not past 'the not a word to anyone' order we got after the fact.”

“How much do you think they know?” said Birch, looking around suspiciously. “About yesterday?”

Five knows, Tristan thought but didn't say. He was saved from hedging by the door opening.

Commander Glenn Owain from Protection Command peeked out. He was wearing his uniform, starchly pressed as though he was ready for an official photo to be taken, but no cap.

“You can come in,” he said stiffly, lips tightening again the moment he was done inviting them in.

Tristan rose wearily and he and Birch filed in. Commander Owain wasn't alone, a deskful of individuals watching Tristan and Birch enter. Not that Tristan had thought he would be, given the gravity of the position they were all in after yesterday.

What surprised him was the presence of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Stephen Lamorak, the head of the Protection Command himself, alongside that of two other officers Tristan couldn't name and hadn't seen before.

The fifth man was a known face at Protection Command: Chief Superintendent du Bois. As to the two unknowns there was the slightest chance they were Five and this put Tristan on the alert. Everything did after the night he'd had.

Both Tristan and Birch stood to attention and were told to relax by their Commander. “DI Draper, DI Birch,” said Commander Owain, “you understand that you're here today to be briefed.”

“Yes, sir,” both Tristan and Birch said almost at the same time.

“I'm sure you also understand the delicate nature of the situation.”

They both nodded. They weren't meant to argue the point and besides there was little they could argue about. Delicate might be a euphemism but Tristan had never known a high ranking officer to be as direct as might be wished.

Owain continued, “The Protection Command itself was working under no operative orders until an hour ago.”

“Sir,” said both he and Birch, once again falling back on their past training for reactions. They couldn't comment in any other way. It was not as if Tristan could say what he really thought. Birch was probably acting on the same principle.

The DAC shifted in his seat, Chief Super du Bois's expression was tight, though he was clearly trying to exude an air of calm by assuming an open pose. The two unknown officers looked as blank as a blank slate. Five, definitely.

Commander Owain didn't look at any other person in the room but Tristan and Birch. “I was with the Home Secretary from seven to ten this morning. We're all agreed that something like this is completely unprecedented.”

Tristan jutted his chin out and arched an eyebrow.

“No Prime Minister has ever been abducted before, and certainly not during his tenure.” There was an upset murmur from Chief Super du Bois. DAC Lamorak had practically blanched at the reminder, the tracery of veins on his forehead bulging out. And he hadn't even been there.

Commander Owain ignored the murmurs and went on. “It goes without saying that nothing of what happened must leak. Officially nothing's happened.”

“But,” said Birch, “The Chancellor was killed. The PM is missing and in their hands. That's impossible to cover up.”

“Nevertheless,” du Bois intervened. “We must try. MI5 is on it. And the utmost is being done to rescue the PM. In the meanwhile...”

The DAC interrupted du Bois' modulated yet nervous speech. “In the meanwhile you say nothing and you know nothing. The Chancellor was the victim of an attack orchestrated by a terrorist cell. Officially, he's still alive. He didn't die on the spot. He was transported to the nearest hospital Naturally, we all know he didn't survive. As for the PM.” The DAC picked up his fountain pen and toyed with it. “As far as the public knows he's at Chequers.”

Tristan's eyebrow shot up of its own volition. How long could they keep up such a lie? A day? Two? “But,” he said. “There must be footage. It will leak.”

“We count on finding him before the news spreads,” said du Bois benignly, probably overstepping.

“The point is that Five must have known, sir,” said Tristan, glaring at the two unknowns sitting side by side with the DAC and their Commander. “You can't get into Downing Street unless you have an in. And Birch and I, sir, were the only ones there when the attack took place.”

“We're looking into it,” the DAC said curtly, not inspiring Tristan with any sense of trustworthiness. “Those who were meant to be on duty last night and weren't have been suspended and an arrest warrant was issued for them under section 1.”

That somehow didn't seem enough to Tristan. Use a few scapegoats; arrest a few individuals, never look into what had allowed the kidnapping to take place. This was too superficial an inquest.

The two nameless officers wore correspondingly dull expressions. Nothing seemed to be going on behind their eyes, though one of them had taken to desultorily taking notes.

The DAC made a point of not looking at them, even once. Du Bois gave them an encouraging nod while Commander Lamorak rose and started to pace. “I don't want you to dwell on that. It's being seen to. Care of the Home Office. From now on, you're going to be redeployed. You're going to be assigned to the team protecting the Deputy PM. She's going to be in the spotlight since she has, with the unanimous approval of the cabinet, taken the reins from Mr Emrys.”

Tristan hadn't thought he'd be put on the case involving the missing officers and hadn't doubted he'd be sent to beef up some other minister's detail. But he hadn't thought that would happen quite so soon or that he'd be assigned to the team protecting none other than the Deputy PM.

This was strange.

There was something else on his mind besides. Something Isolde would have wanted him to do if she had known what had happened.

“What about the PM's son?” Tristan asked. “If I could, I'd prefer to be assigned to him, sir. You must be augmenting his detail and I'm sure people will be jostling to get placed with the Deputy as things now stand.”

The twitch of DAC's eyebrow told Tristan all he needed to know. “Something happened to him!” He couldn't resist the impulse and took a step forward. “Was he kidnapped too? What about his detail? Borden and Pendragon were with him.”

There was no answer from any of Tristan's superiors. “Sirs, please.”

Commander Owain said, “Borden was killed in action. We're gathering testimonies. The official story is that the PM's son was secured after the Chancellor was attacked.”

“But that's not true, is it?”

The Commander tapped his fingers on the desk, then lowered his head. “No, it's just the official version of events. And on a need to know basis. Suffice it to say that given Pendragon's connections with UFAM, an arrest warrant has been issued against him too.”

Tristan gaped. He couldn't quite believe that. He couldn't believe that Arthur Pendragon was corrupt. True, Borden had complained about him, had said Pendragon made his job impossible, but Tristan had thought it part of Borden's prima donna antics. He needed to look into this. Understand what had happened without being fed the party line. “So Merlin is?”

“That's classified,” said the DAC. “In light of what happened last night, you can both have a few days before taking up duties again. But no more than that. And you won't be allowed to choose your own assignment. Your request will be denied.”

Tristan stuck his chest out, said, “Yes, sir,” accepted the days off he was being awarded, and saluted as a sign of respect. While he sensed that the offer was not as clear cut as it seemed, he couldn't deny that it was still something. It was time in which to figure out what was going on exactly. At least beyond the empty words of those in power.
Something was wrong here and he would find out what it was.

He didn't say anything as to that though. He wasn't so stupid.

Birch was going on about refusing his free days.

“We want you to have the time necessary to deal with the stress of the day,” du Bois chirped in. “What happened was...” A dark cloud crossed his face. “Appalling and astounding.”

Birch objected, “Please, sirs,” he said. “I failed in my duty to protect the PM yesterday. I want to make myself useful.”

Tristan had nothing against the idea. He might need an ally that had access to inside info while he pursued other enquires.

“As you wish,” said Commander Owain quite briskly, clearly betraying a shade of annoyance. “Just remember: not a word of what happened. Not even to your colleagues. Not even to those who generally have clearance.”

And that was the reason why they'd been offered a paid holiday. To keep them from spilling the beans upon something they were keeping a lid on.

“Understood, sir,” and “Yes, sir,” both he and Birch said.

The DAC rose stiffly, jaw tight. “You're dismissed,” he said.

Commander Owain nodded and waved them off, thanking them for the loyalty displayed the night before. There were no reprimands as to them having lost the PM.

Tristan and Birch left the Commander's office and later the building in near silence. Before Birch could get to his car, Tristan stopped him and instead of saying a few parting words, he told Birch, “Birch, something's wrong.”

Birch eyed him warily, then he scanned the road as if he thought it was crawling with spies. He opened his car door and said, “Agreed.”

Tristan studied Birch carefully. “I need you to do something for me.”

Birch tapped his fingers on the edge of the car door. “What? And would I get in trouble for it?”

Tristan's brow got pinched. “I want you to keep me up to date. I want you to tell me what's going on with Deputy Caerleon.”

“That's against all sort of rules,” said Birch, both unconvinced and panicked. “I'll lose my job.”

“You know there's more going on than they're owning up to,” said Tristan. “I was too slow to see it before, but there is. What they've told us today is a lot of balls. So I need you to tell me what's going on on the inside. Maybe that way I'll be able to do my job. Which is protecting the PM and not a bunch of self-serving politicians who might or might not be neck deep in some plot or other. This is more than the careful handing out of some convenient backhanders.”

Birch's nostrils flared but he didn't look belligerent. More worried out of his mind. “Why did you take those days off then? If you want to know--”

“That's because I need to investigate what happened,” said Tristan. “Don't tell me that the security breach sits well with you. Or that you don't think Five's involved.”

Birch's nose wrinkled conspicuously. “I don't like what happened any better than you,” he said. He shut his mouth the moment a passer-by slinked past, then continued, “And I think you might be right. So all right. But if you get me sacked...”

Tristan clapped a hand on Birch's shoulder. “I won't...”

Birch said, “Why are you so determined to get to the bottom of this all of a sudden?” Birch reddened, moved his mouth in a silent gasp, and then recovered and added, “I really don't mean anything by it but your head has been somewhere else these past few months.”

Tristan's shoulder muscles tightened for a moment, then he sucked in a breath. “Because whoever's behind this killed Isolde. And because she died to protect the Emrys kid and I'm fucked if I let him die when she would have wanted me to protect him. So, yeah, yesterday night was my wake up call.”

Birch lowered his head.

Tristan jutted his jaw out, nodded at Birch and walked off.

 

****

Agravaine left the Yard and jogged down the street to get to the car, the wan smile he'd sported while in the company of his superiors progressively disappearing the more distance he put between himself and the building.

He drove to Morgana's office to find it besieged by journalists who'd picked up on the news of the attack on the Chancellor. They were all abuzz, gathered in clusters on the steps leading to the door giving access to Morgana's headquarters.

They had cameras, mikes and booms. One of them pushed the buzzer, probably to see whether he could get a word with someone or manage to get a foot in the door.

When they spotted Agravaine, they turned.

Agravaine could read confusion on their faces. He wasn't a public figure like Morgana and most of them surely couldn't put a name to his face.

Though not one of them would fail to recognise the uniform he was wearing. Well, it was too late to duck away now. It would look much more suspicious than pursuing his objective. And he did need to have a word with Morgana.

“Chief Superintendent,” one of the reporters asked, “how do you know Ms Fay? Are you here in an official capacity?”

Another one of them snapped a photo of him, Agravaine having to shield his face so that his features wouldn't become public domain. Also so that his presence here today wouldn't be advertised to half the nation.

“Are Ms Fay or her party being investigated by the Yard?” another journalist pressed while a third asked the question that was on the tip of everybody's tongue: “Can you tell us anything about Chancellor Wilson?”

“No comment and no I'm not here in an official capacity.” Agravaine shouldered his way past these ghouls, sounding the buzzer and spitting out the words, “It's me.”

The person on the other side, likely one of Morgana's assistants, must have recognised him even on the basis of that short utterance because he was let in. Once inside, he shut the door behind him, the confining journalist mob outside, righted his uniform, and asked Morgana's PA, a man called Cenred, “Is she in?”

He had little doubt that she was but was nonetheless comforted by Cenred's, “Yes, she is. But she's busy with Ms Lothian.”

“This is urgent,” Agravaine hissed through tight lips. “I need to see her.”

“I'm sorry.” Cenred didn't look it. He was the picture of pleased and confident arrogance. He was enjoying this. “But I can't do anything for you. You'll have to sit.” He gave a glance at the seats lined up in the anteroom, a subtle smirk painting his lips. “And wait.”

Agravaine vastly preferred Morgana's other secretary to Cenred. At least she was professional. Cenred was patronising and had no respect for anyone at all.

“Look,” Agravaine began again but he stopped the moment he saw Morgause Lothian strut out of Morgana's office.” She met Agravaine's eyes. She had a stormy look about her, which told Agravaine she knew at least something about what had happened. How she could or what that meant for him, he didn't know, but he was suspicious of her.

He had no way to confront her though, for she pattered out the door to be met with a rain of camera flashes going off.

“I'll be going in,” he told Cenred firmly and before the man could use his bulk and muscles to stop him, Agravaine had already slipped through the door and into Morgana's office. “Morgana, we need to talk. It's extremely urgent.”

Cenred had followed Agravaine inside. “Do I throw him out?” he said with an unmistakable leer.

Morgana turned in her chair and waved Cenred away. “There's no need, Cenred. Though next time try and stick to the letter of my orders. When I say no interruptions...”

“Yes, ma'am. I will. It's just that some people are extremely determined.”

Morgana raised an eyebrow and Agravaine shot Cenred a confident look. Cenred capitulated and closed the door.

Morgana crossed her legs. Agravaine had the time to note that she was wearing even more vertiginous shoes than usual. They made her appear fiercer, her legs elongated. “What brings you here, Agravaine?” Her voice was cold, skirting the edges of subdued anger. “On a day like this? With journalists bustling about on my doorstep?” She rose and walked up to him, the fabric of her clothes brushing against his chest. “When people might put a name to your face and ask questions about your involvement with me?”

Agravaine cleared his throat and said, “There's an emergency.”

“Yes,” said Morgana, “Chancellor Wilson is in hospital. Morgause says there's more. That she had a chat with someone in the cabinet. They wouldn't tell her a thing but for something having happened? So was it Uther?”

Agravaine shot out, “Probably, but that's beside the point. I think you're in danger.”

“How?” she said. “My party was considered an extremist group. We barely got any seats though Emrys was quite happy to form a coalition with Anne Caerleon. We're not the ones in power. I'm not the one Uther fears.” She said that with contempt and fire in her eyes. Agravaine understood her position, sympathised with it, but now was not the time to do so. Morgana couldn't protect herself if she wasn't aware of the goings on. Of how much further the UFAM had gone. “It's gone beyond what we imagined, Morgana.”

“How?” said Morgana, eyes narrowing.

“It's more than that one attack in June, Morgana. The PM was abducted. The Chancellor is actually dead. The Emrys kid is missing in action together with your half-brother. There's already been demands. Designed to press the cabinet to acquiesce to policy changes, though that can't be their real aim. Not when they know the government won't bend to blackmail.”

Morgana bit her lower lip, the first nervous gesture she'd allowed herself since Agravaine had known her. “You mean to say--”

“I mean to say they've gone beyond random attacks,” said Agravaine. “And our plan to exploit their actions to gain popular support is not going to fly.”

“My plan, you mean?” Morgana tipped her head back, chin up, studying Agravaine closely.

“Yes, the plan you devised and I followed because I believe in you,” Agravaine said, feeling himself lose hold of his self control. “We underestimated them. This new move of theirs is bold. This is something more than UFAM pressuring the government to yield to their demands. And we will be the victims.”

“Magic users will be the victims rather,” snapped Morgana. She whirled around and sat on her desk. “And what do you propose I do now? Seek an alliance with Emrys despite his closing the door on my people? Now that he's in UFAM hands?”

“No,” Agravaine hurried to say. “No, I'm not proposing that. But you need to watch out, Morgana. You've always been more outspoken than Emrys' ever been.”

“That idiot, Uther, won't have me killed,” she said with certainty, her lips curling up in disgust. “And that's a weakness he's going to pay for.”

“That might be true,” said Agravaine, walking to and fro with his hands on his hips. A thought having stricken him, he stopped. “Aeredian though--”

“Aeredian is nothing without Uther's millions,” Morgana pointed out. “But you're right in one thing,” she said, her voice scorning his prudence, “we need a new strategy. A new line.”

Morgana was surely right but Agravaine himself hadn't thought past warning her. “What new line?”

“Who's in charge now Emrys's missing?” she asked, pulling a strand of hair back behind her ear. She was frowning still, multiple lines marring her forehead.

“Deputy Caerleon and the cabinet, but she's not magic so I'm not sure she would welcome any overture.”

Morgana scoffed. She'd butted heads in the past with Caerleon and her reaction was surely a result of her less than nice memories of Caerleon. “How about the other cabinet members? I'm sure some of them must be scared to death now and more open to our 'extremist' position than they were before the UFAM and its political representative started taking them out.”

“I wouldn't trust the Home Secretary,” said Agravaine. “The PM was kidnapped for God's sake. That means most of Five must have been in it. Only two S01 officers came to his defence. That must tell you something.”

“Then I'll have to probe,” said Morgana. “In the meanwhile we use our knowledge carefully.” She ignored the phone buzzing next to her to say, “What about Arthur?”

“He's believed to be in it with his father. He was given a chance to prove himself clean of UFAM leanings when he was offered the job, but the Emrys' kid has disappeared. And the DAC himself thinks your brother was instrumental in bringing that about.”

“Arthur never would. He's too honest for that,” she said, her voice softening incrementally. “He cut bridges with Uther over both his girlfriend at the time, Gwen, and Uther's hatred of magic. Over Uther having withheld information about Ygraine's death from him. And he wouldn't go back.”

Agravaine pointed out the obvious, “He's still his son.”

“And I'm still Uther's daughter. And I'll have no mercy for him and people like him.” Morgana's voice had risen; the note of hurt that entered her voice each time she skirted around the subject of Uther's treatment of her appearing again.

“He's a suspect,” said Agravaine mildly. “The only reason there's no official nationwide search for the Emrys kid is that his disappearance has been kept from the public.”

Morgana got to her feet in one quick movement, stalking up to him like a panther provoked into action by the sight of prey. “Arthur is innocent of any wrong doing,” she said, stressing each word carefully. “Now open the door,” she ordered and Agravaine shot back to obey.

Morgana crossed the ante-room and much to Agravaine's surprise she opened the door that faced on to street. Flashes went off as they had when Morgause had filed out.

Agravaine hid in the shade provided by the half open door, listening in to the impromptu interview Morgana was releasing.

After being asked a few basic questions to which she fired off perfectly witty answers, she was asked what she thought of what had happened to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

“I'm sorry for his family. I'm sorry that they will have to mourn his loss,” she said, causing the journalists to erupt into a volley of questions at this new revelation.

****

Merlin woke to the sound of water running. For a moment, a short but blissful moment, he thought that he was in his flat in Durham and that he was late for a lecture. Then the coffee-maker made a sound like a belch and Merlin realised that none of his domestic appliances ever made that noise.

He wasn't in his flat. When he opened his eyes it was to remember everything. He had a clear view of a raftered ceiling that belonged to Arthur's cottage and that in itself brought back every detail of the previous night.

He remembered it and all that went with it. The gunmen going after him, the chancellor dying, Borden turning out to be a traitor. Killing him.

He felt sick. He blinked repeatedly until Arthur floated in his field of vision. “It's late afternoon,” he said levelly.

Merlin tilted his head back, moving his aching body, and recalled everything. Kissing Arthur. Thinking that Arthur had wanted him back just to be refused. Storming out in a huff. He looked the other way, passed a hand through his hair and got slowly to his feet, his shoulder popping.

“I have something for you to eat but not much,” said Arthur. “And then we need to clear this place.”

Merlin tried to connect the dots and remember why it was so necessary to go now. “Do we really need to?”
“Merlin,” said Arthur tiredly, “we went over this yesterday. They went after you. People in the MET and MI5 went after you. We don't know who's corrupt and who's not. All we know is that we can't risk it.”

“Can I call my dad then?” Merlin was sure his dad must be worrying himself sick by now. “He'll think I'm dead.” He couldn't do that to his dad.

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. “The moment you turn your mobile on you will be tracked. We can't take the risk.”

“Okay then,” said Merlin. “But there must be another way.”

“No, Merlin.” Arthur moved to the kitchen and Merlin followed him. “There isn't. The moment we contact the PM we give them a weapon and a way to find you. We can't trust them. Borden was just the tip of the ice-berg. What happened last night was planned.”

Arthur took a plate out of the fridge and pushed it at Merlin. Merlin looked at it queasily.

“I don't--”

“Please, Merlin, eat.” Arthur fished a fork and knife out of a drawer. “We'll have to drive for most of the day and I don't want to stop at service stations. They have CCTV. And you can't starve.”

Merlin saw the logic in that and even took a seat at the kitchen table. He couldn't summon the will to eat though.

Arthur straddled another chair. “Eat, Merlin. I know what you're going through but you can't starve yourself.”

Arthur had sounded like he cared and that added to Merlin's pain. Merlin had made a pass at him and while they were in bed at that. Clearly fishing for sex.

He'd let himself feel everything and now all he had was Arthur's rejection and the memory of having felt him, wanted him. Of knowing what a good person Arthur was – still caring for him while Merlin had pushed himself on him. For that reason he couldn't reach out again.

Merlin sighed.

He fiddled with his fork and raked up a tentative bite of pasta. It was sort of horrible but Merlin would have had trouble swallowing even if Arthur had cooked something delicious.

He downed the bite and forced himself to eat despite the memories of Borden dying that surfaced every twenty seconds or so.

Arthur was right. Merlin needed to be strong. He chomped on his food methodically. It helped keeping it down.

Seeing as Merlin was eating, Arthur turned the radio on. It was to listen to the news. A journalist's steady, professional voice reported the death of the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the hands of an unknown group of hit-men.

“MP Fay broke some pretty shocking news regarding Chancellor Wilson's death. The family of the politician has refused to make any comment and has retired to their manorial seat in Sussex. Stay with us for more news after the break.”

Arthur was rigid and pale, staring at the radio. Merlin didn't think he'd heard anything new in that news report though something did niggle at him. As for Arthur, he didn't look too good. Merlin might be hurt by Arthur's rejection but he wasn't so horrible a person as not to be concerned by Arthur's sudden paling. “Arthur,” he said. “Are you okay?”

Arthur lowered the radio's volume and put his hands on his hips. “That was my sister. MP Fay. She's a member of a minority pro-magic party. I don't know how or why she knew about the Chancellor. But that was her. And...” Arthur seemed to be biting his words back.

Merlin prompted him by making a worried noise.

“And there wasn't a single mention of you being missing,” Arthur said, looking at the radio as though it was a very mysterious object. “Back in June, when there was that attack on Downing Street, it was all they could talk about. This time you actually disappear and no one cares to mention the fact? Not even in passing?”

Now that he let himself think about it, Merlin did find it strange. He'd been out of it with a big concussion the first time someone had tried to kill him, but he remembered Will telling him how he'd become famous over night because of the assassination attempt.

He hadn't doubted that there was more truth to Will's ribbing than met the eye, not from the moment he was contacted by different newspapers for a version of his experience. He could see how this was different. The current radio silence was more than odd. “So what is it you're thinking?” asked Merlin. “That someone is deliberately hiding something?”

“Yes,” said Arthur. “I think there was some kind of huge cover up. Of everything that happened yesterday, and perhaps more. “

Giving up on his food, Merlin said, “So basically we're in trouble but in the dark about it?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, inhaling deeply. “But we do know something. And that's that we can't trust the bigwigs.”

Merlin arched an eyebrow. “My dad's one of those.”

“Then clearly he's not in control.”

Merlin pushed his chair back and himself to a standing position. He crossed his arms to stop himself from making fists of his hands. “My father's a good man and he isn't stupid.”

“He's trying to stop gap terrorist action by showing how well behaved he is,” said Arthur, voice rising an octave. “And of course he can't. It's bad strategy. Because there are men around – men like my father – who're ready to play underhanded games to win.”

Merlin felt all his blood go to his face. “What do you mean to say, uh?” he prowled up to Arthur, magic at his fingertips. “That my dad isn't equal to his duties? That he's no good? He's trying to do his best.” He let his frustration with Arthur's attitude shine through. “The truth is that his hands are tied because people fear magic.” He let his eyes go gold, knowing full well that Arthur still recoiled. “You don't understand a thing,” he added in a half shout. He tugged at his hair and let all his anger flow through him.

Arthur stepped back. It was just a moment, an instinctive flinch and a tiny backwards move, but it was enough to make Merlin feel more alien than he'd ever felt in his life.

Even more alien than when he'd heard people badmouth magic without a reason. Or gather in squares to protest against his existence. And that was because they were just members of a faceless crowd. Arthur wasn't. He'd started to believe in Arthur.

“I thought you understood,” he said, turning around to give Arthur his back. So that Arthur couldn't see how Merlin really felt about all of this.

He wanted not to feel like a freak of nature and when he did, he didn't want others to know how they'd bent him out of shape. His shoulders shook and he lowered his head. “I want to go back,” Merlin said. “I want to go back home and check on my dad. I want to--”

The hand on his shoulder felt a little like a betrayal. “Merlin, you can't. Not now, not at the risk of your life.”

“I don't want to--” He might have said stay with you, but given yesterday that would have sounded false and hypocritical. He went for something equally true. “I don't want people to hate magic without a reason.”

“It takes time to change attitudes,” said Arthur, his voice gentle this time. “And in order to do that you also need to be alive. Pick your battles.”

“I know that.” Merlin's dad had hammered on that point time and again, telling him to use his magic only when needed so that people could get accustomed to the idea of it without butting head first into it. “I do.”

“Then let me help you through this.”

Merlin didn't know what to say. Part of him wished he could use his magic to wink himself off to a deserted island. But he couldn't. He had his dad to think about and he had to find a way to put his magic to good use. “All right,” he said, looking at the palms of his hands. “Help me then.”

“Then let's pack up and go.”

Merlin nodded. Not that there was much to pack up. The clothes that he'd worn the day before were still too damp and eye catching to be of any use. He merely had the shoes and even those were too glamorous not to be noticed. He kept the socks and wore some of Arthur's borrowed clothes. With uneven results.

While Arthur's shirts more or less fit him, though he didn't fill them the way Arthur did, his trousers proved to be too large at the waist and an inch too short. The latter wasn't much of a problem, the former was.

As for the rest, Arthur gave him a change of clothes to bring along, saying, “We'll buy something on the way though we're on a budget, no use of credit cards allowed.”

Merlin knew enough about the workings of credit cards to know that it was the fastest way to track someone down, so he kept his mouth shut and filed out of the cottage. To stop short in the drive. “Where's the car?” he asked.

“The owner must have reported it stolen,” he said, walking Merlin to the back of the cottage and towards a granary that rose a few hundred yards in the distance. “That's why we're taking my old Jeep. I changed the plates, don't worry.”

Merlin didn't. He merely asked himself where Arthur had got false ones. He didn't voice that thought though. Not after the outburst they'd had in the kitchen.

Merlin fit his few belongings in the boot and they drove off, taking to the motorway and only rarely stopping, Arthur giving him instructions as to how to avoid CCTV cameras.

“Wear these” Arthur fished a pair of sunglasses from the glove box and handed them to Merlin. “And keep your head down.”

“All right.” Merlin forked them on. “Though I doubt I'm that highly recognisable.”

Arthur gave him an odd smile and said, “Those eyes of yours are.”

Merlin shrugged that off as no more than what it was meant to be, a piece of strategic advice.

He shouldered his way out of the old, cranky Jeep, and made a toilet stop as well as one to buy some food. He was quick in choosing and avoided the aisles that were under surveillance.

He avoided saying anything to anyone, even cursory queries, and while he kept his hoodie down so as not to pass off as a robber, he kept his sun glasses on and his chin lowered.

He paid cash.

Nobody paid him any mind, thinking him just your run of the mill rude customer. He hurried back to Arthur, passed him the bag with the food and ducked quickly in the car. As Arthur attacked a three-layer cheese sandwich, Merlin asked, “So where are we going?”

Arthur swallowed his mouthful. “Somewhere nobody will think to look for me after so many years.”

“Care to be more specific?”

“She has my old gun,” said Arthur, putting his sandwich down and looking speculatively at the wilting lettuce leaves. “It's been five years since I last saw her.”

Merlin spotted a certain wistfulness in Arthur's tone he narrowed his eyes at. A woman who had Arthur's old gun? A woman Arthur spoke about with a voice that was full of feeling when Arthur seldom let his feelings shine through? She had to be someone important.

“She must be a dear friend,” said Merlin. “To keep weapons for you.”

He looked out the window, not wanting to see Arthur's expression when he answered.

“Things have changed in many ways,” Arthur told him, avoiding giving a straight answer. Given this new brand of reticence, Merlin kept all questions to himself. He didn't want to know. It was not as if he had a right to know.

While Merlin was lost in thought, Arthur finished his hasty meal, passed the grocery bag to Merlin, and put the car into gear.

As the Midlands landscape rolled by his window, Merlin nibbled on his food and thought about a host of things. About Arthur and this mystery woman of his, about how his dad was and whether he was really furious with Merlin for not checking in with him, about the political situation.

Before he could make true sense of the latter, they'd slowed down, entering the peripheral neighbourhood of a village called Meriden. Before Merlin could place it on his mental map, they'd made the village centre and left the car parked on a side street.

The village centre overlooked a green; a few local shops and small businesses gave the area a cosy look.

Merlin trailed Arthur down a number of streets, head ducked, while noticing, despite this, how Arthur never stopped to orientate himself. As if he knew the directions by heart.

After a sharp turn left, Arthur jogged up the three steps leading up to a redbrick, semi detached house.

A vase of flowers was hanging from the slate roof, hanging from a cord. A white, freshly painted fence separated a tiny herbaceous border from the mini porch. The whole place looked very wholesome. Quaintly so.

Nothing much had looked like that in Merlin's life since his mum had died. The places he and his dad had moved to after his mum had been aseptic and clinical. Not like this.

A woman of Arthur's age or thereabouts opened the door. The first thing that struck Merlin about her was the vibrant, soulful smile that faded when she clapped eyes on Arthur.

She had unruly curls that still managed to be luscious, smooth skin and eyes like those of a doe.

“Arthur,” she said, opening her mouth to let out a gasp. “What-- What are you doing here?” She drew her hand back, clutching the door tight. “It's been so long.”

“Guinevere,” Arthur said, voice a little caught in his throat. “I need your help. I need--” He looked this way and that so he was covering both sides of the residential street. “The thing I left with you. And I desperately need shelter. For a day or two.”

Guinevere's eyebrows almost joined together. Hers was a mixture between an angry frown, confusion and surprise. Merlin was with her on most counts but kept his mouth shut. Mostly because he wasn't in a position to fully understand what was going on.

“Why-- What's happened?” Guinevere pushed the door further open but was gnawing on her lower lip as if she was unsure as to letting Arthur in.

“I can't talk here,” said Arthur, “but, please, Guinevere. I need your help. I know I shouldn't even ask but it's not for me.”

It was only now that Guinevere shifted her gaze on to Merlin. Not that there was much to see since Merlin was still wearing his camouflage shades. And besides Merlin was sure he paled in comparison with Arthur. Not much to look at in general.

Still, Merlin felt he was being studied, assessed as if for threats.

Guinevere's frown lessened though it didn't entirely go away. Merlin didn't exactly blame her. Since Arthur was apparently asking her for shelter and a gun while accompanied by a shady unknown.

“Come in,” she said after warring with some kind of internal battle Merlin wasn't privy to. She closed the door behind them and led them to a tidy, pretty drawing room with flowery curtains, a fireplace, and a couple of old suede sofas.

Like a fish out of water, Arthur shifted from foot to foot while Merlin simply held back, not sure he should intrude on Arthur and Guinevere’s reunion.

Guinevere put her hands on her hips and heaved a big sigh. “Arthur, you'll have to explain a little better than that.”

“I will,” said Arthur. “And I'm sorry for barging in like this. But I thought I'd be safe here.”

Guinevere looked as if she wanted to poke at that statement but appeared willing to let that go in favour of being brought up to speed. “You'll need to be a little less cryptic, Arthur,” she said.

This time a smile surfaced on her lips, as if she was laughing at a private joke of hers, something that might have been deeply cherished once.

Arthur nodded, turned and told Merlin, “Take off your glasses.”

Merlin did. He doubted Guinevere was a threat to him. However, there was still a dose of reluctance to his action given that he'd successfully hidden behind them all day long. He tried to work past the sudden feeling of nakedness that rushed at him and toyed with his shades.

Guinevere seemed to recognise him. Her eyes widened for sure. “Is he?” Guinevere took a step closer to him, tilting her head at him in contemplation. “Is he the Prime Minister's son?”

“Yes, he is.”

Merlin nodded. “I'm sorry if that's a problem.”

Guinevere cupped her chin. “No, it's--” She turned to Arthur. “Why is the PM's son here?”

“Because someone is trying to kill him,” said Arthur as if he was used to make such revelations. “I'm his bodyguard.”

“I thought,” said Guinevere tentatively, “that it was the police's job.”

“It is,” said Arthur, “but someone within S01 was among those trying to off him. You'll see that after that I'm not inclined to trust anyone with him.”

“Hey,” Merlin felt compelled to say. “I'm here and not an object.”

Arthur gave him a smile albeit a tight one. “I know. I was just trying to spell out how things are.” Arthur squinted at Merlin, “Or would you walk blithely into Scotland Yard knowing what's happened?”

“Not really.”

Arthur lifted his shoulders. “There.” He angled his body towards Guinevere. “We're in trouble, Gwen. Big trouble and we need some place to hide they won't connect to either of us.”

“But I can be connected to you,” said Guinevere, stuttering over her words. “I was with you. I was seen with you.”

Merlin understood many more things about Arthur's choice to come here. He'd turned to his old girlfriend for help. He probably felt the need for her support and care. Merlin was sure he would get that support because Guinevere's reluctance at having them in had faded the moment Arthur told her how deep in shit both he and Merlin were.

As both Arthur and Guinevere discussed the weapon Arthur had left in Guinevere's care and never retrieved and the likelihood of getting in touch with a friend of Lancelot's called Leon, Merlin wandered off.

He sat on one of the steps, his hands between his knees, his head down.

Guinevere and Arthur's conversation floated over to him, but he wasn't listening, not past the few hints of how the years in between had been hard for them both and how the bare mention of Lancelot pained them and drove them nearly silent.

Merlin twiddled his thumbs and tried to focus on his magic. He usually woke up with magic at his fingertips but hadn't today. But for his outburst with Arthur earlier he'd shut it down the whole day. Yet now he wanted it, missed it.

So he made a castle made of colour and mist and let it float between his hands.

It shimmered a bit because his idea of how a proper castle should look like shifted around from moment to moment but then it settled down to something that vaguely resembled the Disney logo castle.

Arthur surprised him while he was busy making dragons flit around and between the towers. “Merlin,” Arthur said.

The castle vanished in a cloud of smoke drifting upwards. “Oh, sorry,” said Merlin, “I--”

“You just disappeared,” said Arthur. “For a moment I thought you'd walked out the door to go and do something stupid.”

“No,” said Merlin. “I was just here.”

“We were discussing what to do,” Arthur said, ambling over and taking a seat next to Merlin on the step. “And you just slipped out.”

“The conversation seemed to drift into very private territory,” said Merlin, not wanting to sound like a jealous arsehole. “So I took myself away.”

Arthur stiffened, the reaction noticeable to Merlin because their shoulders were brushing. “Merlin, we do go way back, but--”

“No,” said Merlin. “It's all right. I'd even go away and let you catch up as you should if I wasn't... If it was safe.”

“Merlin, I--” said Arthur, but Merlin cut him off. “So has she kept your old gun?”

“Yeah,” said Arthur, the set of his shoulders relaxing. “She has. And some ammunition. She never touched anything.”

“All right.” Merlin could talk business with the best of them. “So we have a gun now.”

“Yeah,” said Arthur, “and an old rifle. It's still in the Jeep's boot.”

“Your best bet is my magic,” Merlin told him. Not that he was chomping at the bit in order to use it as a weapon, but the fact remained that it was the one thing in they had that could make a difference. It was. And they wouldn't need an arsenal to use it. “And you know it.”

Arthur put his elbow on his thigh, craned his head to study Merlin and sighed. “I don't want you to have to defend yourself like that.”

Merlin met Arthur's gaze and let himself be as honest as he could. “I don't want to either. Magic isn't made for that. But it's the only thing we have.”

He still shook at the memory of the surge of power that had served to kill Borden but he tamped down on it.

“I'm still the one entrusted with your safety,” Arthur said, very seriously and very earnestly.

With his attitude Arthur had just broken Merlin's heart in several little pieces.

Merlin was sure Arthur meant it, had taken his duty to heart in a way no one else would have. Given where they were at – stranded, unable to trust either the police or the secret service (the pillars of society) – most people would have dumped Merlin. Would have called it a day and reported back to the government, whatever the government said about Merlin.

Most people would have thought they'd fulfilled their duty by saving Merlin when somebody was shooting at him and left it at that.

Merlin couldn't help his heart from beating fast when contemplating Arthur's idealism and sense of duty.

And, well, crap, it wasn't just that that made Merlin's heart go stupid. He thought he was in love. Deeply and madly in love with a person he could never have. Because Arthur had those ideals and had slotted Merlin in the 'do not touch, forbidden' category.

Because Arthur was good, and heroic, and strong. Merlin knew that Merlin's advances would only pain him because they faced him with a duty quandary.

Arthur had loved others – like the surely more deserving Gwen, who'd never killed anyone – and would love others in future.

Merlin just couldn't compare because he came with more burdens. Arthur would think of touching him as a breaching of rules.

Merlin was better off never mentioning what he felt ever. He'd only make himself look ridiculous.

Yet Merlin couldn't help but feel as he did, his sides aching for wanting to lean closer to Arthur. He stayed put even though he vibrated in place. And stuck to practicalities.

“Even in the best case scenario you're one man against a bunch of organised terrorists who've wormed themselves into the government. Without my magic, you'll die. They'll kill you too.”

Arthur might not want Merlin but Merlin could use his magic to shield him like Arthur had so many times since they'd met.

Arthur sat up, throwing his shoulders out. “Let them try,” he said, as if he was untouchable. Merlin didn't believe for one moment that Arthur thought of himself that way, but was moved by his courage. “But I won't have you do that for me, understood, Merlin? I won't. I won't have you go through a magical wringer for me. I intend to put everything to rights for you.”

Merlin let out a small gasp at the determined tone, the sparkling eyes, the determined set of jaw that convinced him, each in their own way, that Arthur could pull it off.

“Not without my help,” Merlin said. “I can’t sit back when I'm the one they're gearing for.” Besides magic users needed someone to fight their battle for them. He was powerful; he could act on behalf of those who weren't. He quirked his lips up. “So do we have a plan?”

Arthur nodded his head in a very determined way, jaw closed and lips sticking out. “Talking to Leon will help.”

“How?”

“He used to serve with Lance before I came along,” said Arthur. “He was promoted before us, was in the military for longer. Now he works for a security agency that does part time consulting for both private citizens and, on occasion, governments.”

“I hope not ours,” said Merlin, already cringing at the idea of further possible betrayal. “What with Borden and Five being a part of it.”

“Gwen says not,” said Arthur, patting Merlin's knee. “Leon's people have eyes and ears everywhere and be able to tell us more. Not to mention their easy access to weapons.”

“And how do we pay for those?” Merlin asked.

If they couldn't use their credit cards and assuming the government theoretically had the power to freeze their assets, they had not a penny to their name. “Because we're both virtually broke.”

“Leon's rich.” Arthur winked. Merlin wanted to ask why Arthur was so sure this Leon person would wager his money on them but was stopped by Arthur's, “Don't worry about any of that now.”

Merlin arched up an eyebrow. “Right, stop worrying...”

Arthur's hand hadn't left his knee. “You have to. For tonight at least.” He underscored his words with a flash of an earnest, encouraging stare Merlin considered sweet. “Why don't you show me a little bit more of that fancy castles magic of yours instead?”

He did, summoning up a vision of a fancy castle that was so lifelike he stunned even himself.

Merlin's pulse fluttered like the wings of a hummingbird when he read amazed wonderment and no fear in Arthur's eyes.

“That's beautiful, Merlin.”

****

Tristan made a detour back to his office. He took some things from the locker in there, shoving them haphazardly into a plastic bag. When Forridel flitted by the door, he called out, “Forridel, wait, I need a word.”

Forridel, stapled pages held in one hand, harried expression on her face, stopped. “I'm in a bit of a hurry Tristan.”

Tristan sauntered over to the door, leaning against it as casually as he could. “Yeah, I can see that. I was just wondering whether you could give me a list of the guests that were at the Dorchester party yesterday?”

“You aren't assigned to the PM's son,” she said. “What do you need that list for?”

“In confidence?” said Tristan winking. “It's for the PM himself. He wants to make sure S01 is doing its job right without having to pull strings to do so. It's quite an informal thing. If you don't want to pull the file, I'd understand.”

Forridel's nose wrinkled. Tristan was banking on her not knowing yet but even if she didn't spot the lie about the PM having asked, there were a hundred other reasons why she could choose not to help. “The PM?”

“Yeah:”

“And he can't ask someone from Five?”

“Not when it's about his own son,” said Tristan quickly. “It'd look like special treatment. I'm sure he wouldn't do it if it wasn't for the fact that the kid almost got killed a few months ago.”

A shot at eighteen-year old was apparently so shocking a concept that Forridel melted on him, eyes going softer, pursed lips relaxing into a smile. “I understand that. I'll see what I can do. Wait here.”

Tristan sat on the edge of his desk and waited, hoping Forridel could get at the list without too many questions being asked.

Tristan might have the clearance but not a reason to ask for it to be shown to him. More so since he was acting on his own initiative while the man he'd claimed wanted a look at the file was missing.

As he looked at the clock ticking on the wall opposite he found his hands were going damp. “Fuck it,” he said, hoping Forridel wouldn't be stopped and asked what she was doing.

She came back in ten minutes, though those ten minutes had seemed like an eternity. “Here,” she said, closing the door behind him and handing him a folder. “I haven't given this to you.”

“I would never implicate you,” Tristan said. “And I want you to know that this won't go further than me... and the PM.”

“I'm trusting you with this, Draper,” she said, catching his eyes and raising her eyebrow pointedly. “Don't make me regret it.”

Tristan didn't avoid her gaze. “I won't. I promise.”

“Very well,” she said, retreating to the door, “I'll get back to what I was doing then.”

Tristan raised the palm of his hand in a goodbye gesture and watched her go. When she had, he hid the folder in the folds of his jacket and slipped out of his office.

By the lifts several of his colleagues stopped by to have a word. It was not every day that he popped in at headquarters when his duty lay elsewhere.

Tristan just tapped his hand against his thigh, drumming an uneven rhythm on it, hoping for the doors to slide open as quickly as possible so he could cut all possibility of interaction short.

“So, have you heard about the Chancellor?” DI Brown asked. “Morgana Fay broke the news.”

Tristan had known via the brief, of course, but he'd been too busy to pay attention to the news and the new leaks. He did wonder how Fay had found out since the actual item had been deemed confidential just the morning before. “Terrible,” he said. “It's a blot on the team,” he said.

“You said it, mate,” Brown agreed. “It's a slur on the Force.”

Fortunately, the lifts opened and Tristan ducked in, saying, “True,” and, “Sorry, mate, got to go.”

In his car, Tristan finally opened the file. At first sight it was no more than a list but it did tell him things that would have escaped a casual observer. The list of attendees, for one, wasn't as homogeneous as it might have looked. Not considering that the party had been hosted by a government representative. Quite a few members of the opposition had made it to the party.

While that might not have been too strange once the charitable nature of the event was taken into consideration, it did seem odd at a time when the differences between party lines was so harsh as to warrant fierce opposition in the Lords and Commons. More so when you considered the political climate of mistrust and unrest the Summer attack on the PM had unleashed.

The high rate of attendance of UFAM friendly people seemed suspicious and on the side of too high on a night that had seen the death of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There was also another downer as regarded the list, and this one a far more practical one. None of the UFAM friendly people would talk to him to reconstruct the night. And most of the big wigs would unleash their lawyers at him if he tried to question them unofficially.

Tristan sighed and pressed his fingers against his sinuses.

He'd have to go for someone else. His finger scrolled down the list and fished out an unknown name out from those of the VIPs. He took his mobile from his pocket and launched a simple Google search.

A list of pages on which the name had been mentioned appeared. Tristan clicked on the first one quite casually, not hoping for much. To be surprised by the kind of profile he'd been hoping to get.

Well, rarely luck did turn in his favour. He hoped that this good stroke meant something. He killed his browser and turned the ignition on.

Starburst had headquarters both in the West End and Croydon. Tristan chose the former as the closer to where he was now.

He had to park some way away but found the clean, white Georgian building with ease. In the atrium he was confronted by a volunteer who stopped him for credentials. Even though he had no right to, he flashed her his warrant card. “Scotland Yard,” he said. “I need to have a word with Ms Nemeth.”

“Mithian?” the volunteer looked shocked. “Why? I mean, Mithian and the police.”

“I understand she escorted a group of your kids to the charity fund-raiser the late Chancellor gave?”

The volunteer's face seemed to clear of doubt and hostility. “She's upstairs in her office. First door on the left.”

Tristan acknowledged her help with a smile but didn't linger on. He took the creaking stairs two at a time and found himself on a landing.

The headquarters Starburst had chosen were not functional for a modern day organisation. An old family mansion with its small rooms and narrow hallways had been chosen to house them. And that didn't seem to be the kind of architectural lay out that could easily be turned into functioning offices.

Tristan found himself flattening against the wall when two more volunteers bustled by, flicking him intrigued and suspicious glances respectively. When they'd passed by, he proceeded down the narrow and equally creaky hallway. He knocked on the open door to the last office on the left.

Mithian Nemeth had long brown hair gathered up in a functional half-pony tail and big eyes. She was very pretty. Her face had an oval shape to it and dimples appeared the moment she smiled. She did when she saw him, extending her hand for Tristan to shake it.

Her voice had the ring of the upper classes when she said, “How can I help you?”

Tristan showed her his warrant card as he'd done downstairs, not specifying that he was from S01. The least said that could identify him at a later stage, the better. “Scotland Yard, Ms Nemeth. I'm here to ask you about the charity event you escorted the Starburst kids to. I understand you were there.”

Ms Nemeth looked alarmed, and then she lowered herself on the edge of her desk. Behind her several posters promoting her association hung. “I was, yes.”

“Can you tell me what happened?” Tristan asked, walking to a chair but not sitting down. “Just the events as your remember them?”

“I don't know,” said Ms Nemeth, tapping a pencil against her thigh. “I was busy collecting the children, trying to get them all out before something could happen to them. I wasn't paying much attention to the rest, you'll understand. My priority was getting them out of there the moment the first shot was fired.”

Tristan looked up, recognising a certain mettle in her. “You must remember something,” he pushed. “Anything'”

“Sure,” she said. “It's not the kind of night you easily forget, is it?” She smiled wryly.

“No, it's not,” he agreed, taking the seat, if only to put her at ease, establish a sense of security.

These were all tricks he'd picked up from Isolde and thought it fitting he was using them now to do something she would have approved of. “But try to reconstruct the event in your head, please.”

She nodded her head, a frown of concentration appearing on her brow. “At first everything was normal. Not for our kids, perhaps, they come from all sorts of backgrounds, some of which are really not well-to-do. But if you look at it from the point of view of politicians, it certainly looked like a normal event.”

Tristan cleared his throat.

“Right,” she said, scratching a patch of skin right above her eyebrow. “You're not looking for that kind of info. Well, that's what I noticed mostly. My kids being awed and stunned. The Chancellor took the dais and made a speech. My kids weren't listening. Got distracted. At one point I did too.” She smiled. “The late Chancellor didn't have a gift for entertaining audiences. And he didn't know how to be brief either.”

“So he looked at ease?” Tristan said. “Not worried or tense?”

“Not at all,” Mithian told him. “He seemed very relaxed. He was a bit pink-cheeked too. So I guess he'd had a go at the cocktails. He exuded relaxation. He was surrounded by two bodyguards. I would've too.”

“And then?”

“Then I led one of the children, Mickey, up to the dais,” Mithian said, “he started talking about his experience with us and as an orphan in general. Everything went well. So I accompanied more children to the dais. That's when I noticed that the PM's son was there. I remember that very clearly.” Ms Nemeth's expression softened. “I remember thinking, poor kid, he was shot at a few months ago.”

“So you definitely knew it was him?”

“Yes,” said Mithian.

“Who was he with?” Tristan asked, interested. If she'd dwelt on her memories of the June shooting, then perhaps she'd paid subliminal attention to what was going on with Merlin.

“He had no date,” said Mithian. “That I remember. Only bodyguards flitting around him.”

“Do you remember who these bodyguards were?”

Nemeth's eyebrows twitched with the effort of remembering. “Only on the basis of what happened after.”

Tristan thought he'd hit gold the moment Ms Nemeth said those words. “Why are you saying that?”

“Because I noticed two of them in particular,” said Ms Nemeth carefully. “Especially the one who jumped over chairs like a madman to go and shield the Emrys boy with his body.”

Tristan leant forward on the edge of his seat. “Who was this?”

“No idea as to names,” said Nemeth, “but I remember he was blond and muscular.”

Arthur Pendragon. That was sure. They didn't have any other blonds on Merlin. “So he was performing his duty? Protecting Merlin?”

“Yes,” said Ms Nemeth, eyes flashing. “I remember thinking he was very brave.”

“And there's no doubt about this?” Tristan had trouble couching the question in a way that wouldn't show how the MET didn't trust its own, but he didn't see how else he could assuage his doubts. “He was definitely protecting his assignment?”

“He most certainly was,” said Mithian, eyes widening as if she'd picked up the undercurrent to Tristan's question. “He could have been shot if the PM's son hadn't done magic.”

“Merlin did magic to defend himself?” he said, wanting the specifics. “Against whom?”

“Against three men at first. But he was being shot at all the while.”

The more the concatenation of events was explained to him, the more he saw how the operation had been cleverly orchestrated. The two attacks, the one on the PM at Downing Street and the on Merlin at the Dorchester, had happened at the same time, so news of the one couldn't reach the ears of those assigned to protection duty.

It stood to reason and made the job of the terrorists easier. In such a situation it was obvious that Merlin used his magic, to defend himself. “And what about the blond man?”

Mithian Nemeth was quick to answer the question, “He shielded the PM's son. Then they found a way out. And ran for the backstairs.”

Nemeth might have insisted she'd been preoccupied with the children but the truth was she had excellent factual memory. She was a precious witness. “And then what happened?”

Nemeth's lips thinned. “I'm afraid that's all I know. They got out of my sight.”

“Anything more that you do remember?” Tristan prompted. He was almost hanging from the edge of his seat, wondering whether Ms Nemeth knew something that would throw light on more particulars, set him onto the right track in his investigation. “Sounds, noises, things said?”

The thin smile of Nemeth's lips quirked wryly, painfully upwards. “Things were being shouted over shots. That's what I remember. My kids were screaming too by then.”

“So there were many shots?”

Ms Nemeth nodded her head vigorously. “After the first two, I heard more. They wanted the PM's son dead. It seemed pretty clear. They were obstinate in their attempt. The Chancellor seemed to be an afterthought. They wanted him gone so desperately, one of his attackers slipped out from his group to go and take the corridor leading back to the stairs. To surprise him, you see.”

Tristan frowned. He hadn't studied the topography of the Dorchester's ballroom. Hadn't thought to because it wasn't his job to. “Can you be a little clearer?”

“One of the 'rogue' bodyguards trying to kill young Emrys slipped out in the middle of the shoot out,” Nemeth said. “I noticed him because he looked savagely determined. He took the corridor leading back to the service stairs. I know about it because they told me to use that passage to get to the service lifts.” She waved her hand. “For the kids in case the main lift got too crowded. “

Tristan's heart beat double fast. He felt he was closer to understanding the dynamics of the event. To pinpointing friends and enemies. “Could you describe this rogue bodyguard for me?” he asked gently, trying to mask his interest in the question.

“As in IDing him?” Nemeth asked, chewing on the corner of her lower lip. “I'm not sure I can do that.”

“I'm not taking you to the Yard for a session with a forensic artist,” said Tristan reassuringly. He knew that would daunt her and he didn't need that kind of precision anyway. Not when he couldn't use it. As things stood, he couldn't work within the system. “But if you could give me a rough idea as to how he looked like or even sounded like.”

Ms Nemeth appeared surprised at his lack of pressing on the matter, even suspicious. Tristan had learnt to read body cues a long time ago in a bid to intuitively understand how to establish when action was necessary.

She didn't voice any suspicion, though, when she said, “Tall but not too tall. Brown haired. Couldn't tell his eye colour as he was too far away from me. Normal build, about forty or so.”

Borden. So Borden was the rogue bodyguard. It didn't make much sense since he had latent magic and the fact had been put on file, but Nemeth sounded like a reliable witness and one with a keen memory.

Tristan couldn't see how she would have come up with a description fitting Borden, who'd really been on Merlin's protection team, if she hadn't seen him. And seen him betray the government.

“Is there anything more that you can tell me?” Tristan asked. “Was the man definitely acting for the terrorists?”

“Yes,” said Nemeth firmly, as if she knew how important this was. “He was. He was on the terrorists' side.”

So the MET had it wrong in having the rogue down as a faithful officer and the dutiful bodyguard mistaken for a terrorist. Maybe that was because of the lack of reliable information from that evening. They had no recordings of any radio communication because all of it had been strategically cut off.

And they hadn't proceeded to reconstruct the events because a general enquiry would lead to more questions. Questions that couldn't be asked as long as they were going for a cover up of the Chancellor's death and the PM's abduction.

Now that news of Chancellor Wilson's death had leaked they'd maybe use that as an excuse to order an enquiry into the happenings at the Dorchester. But it wasn't certain that they would. Nothing was.

Or maybe the government needed no excuse because they had no interest whatsoever in finding the truth. Maybe they intended to keep things as they were.

The notion made him ball a fist. He hadn't joined the Force for this. Nevertheless he smiled a little smile for his witness' benefit. “You've been very helpful, Ms Nemeth,” he said.

She returned his smile. “I hope so. Nothing like what happened at the Dorchester should be allowed to take place. People were at risk.”

“I assure you,” Tristan said, “I'll do my best to try and put things to right.”

And he meant it too. Not just for Isolde this time, but for the people like Nemeth who believed the government had failed.

He rose, and over a few parting words left, promising himself that he would find confirmation for Ms Nemeth's words. And when he did, he'd go and try to put things to right.

****

 

Aeredian opened the door and walked up to him. Uther was sitting on what looked to all intents and purposes like a bunk bed. The only form of accommodation that this base could offer.

“They said 'no'.”

Uther didn't need any coffee or to properly wake up to understand. “I never thought they would. This is just phase one.”

“I don't think making a failing move is going to convince them of our power.”

Uther pulled on a long sleeved shirt, the dank cement not friendly on his middle-aged bones. “We've already sent them in a panic. This means they're flapping around like headless chickens. And yet they think they've got us down. That they know what we want, a fact which was confirmed by our requests.”

“I don't see how that helps,” Aeredian said, piercing eyes focusing on Uther. “They won’t yield to blackmail and never accept our requests. And, I'm quoting, If we can't retaliate then our move proves our impotence.”

Uther rose, wishing to quell Aeredian's over reaction. “We're just setting the mood,” he said. “And if we can wrest some small changes in policy out of them while we're at it all the better.”

“Our only weapon is Emrys,” Aeredian reminded him, toeing and frowning. “And we can kill him only once.”

“We won't kill him,” said Uther. Aeredian looked incredulous. “I want his death for what his people did to my wife. But if we just kill him his party would just elect a new leader and then present them for approval to the Queen.”

“That's what I was saying,” Aeredian interrupted him. “They might choose his death as the safest, least precedent-creating piece of policy. Better sacrifice a PM than opening themselves to doing what we want them to. Of course they'll tell the press they did their best to rescue the Prime Minister, but the fact remains, they'd probably be relieved.”

“I have no doubt of that.” Uther released a thin smile he was sharing with Aeredian. “But that's not what we should focus on. We'll let them believe we're short sighted; we'll continue to make them believe that we only want short term changes in policy or to keep the anti magical status quo. In the meanwhile, we'll take the leading ministers out. Emrys will have to be the last.”

A new light appeared in Aeredian's eyes. “That way we'll--”

“We'll be able to force new elections,” said Uther, heading for the door. “And this time we'll make sure they go our way. By any means necessary.”

***

Tristan found that Fay had headquarters in Chelsea, a red brick edifice that had only a plaque to distinguish it from a private home.

A gaggle of journalists was besieging the area. Tristan spotted a couple on the pavement opposite, three in the gardens to the side of the building and a camera crew near the steps to the building.

A hand shielding his face, Tristan jogged past them and sounded the buzzer. A secretarial voice of some sort answered him. “Yes?” There was a note of mistrust in its tones. “What can I do for you?”

Tristan knew he couldn't play it as he had at Ms Nemeth's. Politicians cultivated even more mistrust than upper class voters and they knew their law. “My name's Tristan Shields. I'm with the Parliamentary committee investigating the June Downing Street shooting and I need a word with Miss Fay.”

“One moment, please.”

Static followed. Tristan waited patiently, having garnered the attention of the journalists camping on the steps. Two minutes later the secretarial voice came back. “Miss Fay is very busy at the moment and can't see you. I'm sure you can call and get an appointment later this month.”

Journalist or no journalist Tristan had to risk it. “It concerns the news regarding Chancellor Wilson.”

“One moment, please.”

The second time around Tristan didn't have to wait quite as long. The door was buzzed open. The journalist hovering behind him tried to slip in when Tristan did but Tristan was careful to close the door on his nose. If there was one thing he didn't want, it was to cause Ms Fay to get more tongue tied than she was already sure to be.

The moment he was in, a stunning, dark haired woman slinked out of a set of big double doors.

“You're the man with the parliamentary committee?” she asked, studying him closely. Her eyes were deep and he would have ascribed some kind of mind reading ability to her if he hadn't known that something like that was extremely rare.

“Yes,” he said, feeling as though she was looking into him right to his marrow. “I am.”

“Bollocks,” she said. “You're no more a politician than I am a pastry chef.”

Tristan's shoulders stiffened but he gave her a smile. “What gave me away?”

“The suit,” she said. “Cheap but well-ironed. The stubble. That look of yours as if you haven't slept in days. Not typical of a politician. They're too pampered for that.”

Tristan raised an eyebrow. “Then what am I? If you're so observant?”

Ms Fay waved her hovering PA away. He retreated to the toilets as if to show he couldn't possibly be listening from there. “Now you're flattering me, hoping that I will talk to you.”

“You're already talking to me.”

“I mean about the topic you came here to discuss.” Ms Fay took a step backwards and leant against the door she'd emerged from. “But please, come in.”

Tristan followed her into an elegant office furnished in a way that mixed antiques and modern.

Nothing jarred the eye and the various elements seemed to have been put together by someone with a clever eye for these things. Most of all, the place exuded wealth in the way the ante-room hadn't.

Tristan sank into the armchair facing the capacious desk and waited for Ms Fay to re-open the conversation.

“So,” she said, “why are you here and what are you here for?”

Tristan's hands went damp with sweat. He had no reason to trust Fay but he was gambling on her to get the information he needed. And more. “You broke the news of Chancellor Wilson's death before a public statement was released. That means someone told you.”

“Please,” she said, crossing her legs and toeing off her shoes. “As if you didn't know that politicians have ears everywhere.”

“So I'm assuming someone passed you classified information even though you didn't have the clearance.”

She curled a lock of hair around her finger. “And doesn't that happen every day?”

“I don't know,” said Tristan, playing the naïve officer. “I rather hope not.”

“I'm afraid reality is harsher than you seem to think, Mr... Shields.” She lifted an eyebrow.

“It was need to know,” Tristan persevered. “I suppose I could get at the person you're covering for if I put my mind to it.”

“Some sources can be given up,” she said humorously. “And you would be left with nothing. I suggest you direct your questions to those who abuse and single magic users out for attacks.”

“But that's what I'm doing.” Tristan cradled his fingers together. “And I'm trying to clear a name in the process.”

Fay was all ears now, her body going taut. “Whose?”

“The man an arrest warrant has been issued against,” Tristan said, not at all lightly. “Your half brother.”

She didn't seem to be struck by the news of the arrest warrant. Her eyes flashed with anger but more at the slight, the offence implied, than with surprise. “You think my brother is innocent.”

“I think young Emrys's other bodyguard was the one guilty of the crimes that are being laid at your brother's door. I think I can help him. If I just knew where to find him.”

“And how do I know you're not lying to me just so you can arrest my brother?”Fay narrowed her eyes to the point the green in the irises became but a distant hint of colour. “Why should I trust you? I have no reason to, Mr Shields.”

“Let's say you have no other way out,” said Tristan. “And I'm much more concerned with finding his assignment than...”

Fay interrupted him. “So you're looking for Merlin. Merlin! You don't know where the PM's son is.”

“Merlin and Arthur are in this together.” Tristan conceded the point. On balance, the news about Merlin wasn't as key as the news about his father. And if offering one titbit brought him what he wanted then he was ready for this quid pro quo.

“I still think you just want to put my brother behind bars.”

Tristan rose and leant both hands against the desk. “Well, you may not trust me Ms Fay, but I know of a group of people you should trust even less.”

“My father's people,” she said, cutting to the chase. “How do I know you're not one of them? Or worse: that you're not someone my father has bought? Mercenaries are even worse than psychos.”

Tristan opted for the most direct route. “You don't know that. But I can tell you this. I think your brother was deliberately framed. And I think he'll be made to pay. He’ll die. So that nobody will know what it is that UFAM is doing.”

“My father is many things,” said Fay. “He's a despicable and horrible tyrant who can't accept people's nature for what it is.” Fay's eyes shone with the passion of the righteous. “But there definitely is one thing he's not.” She paused for drama. “Someone who'd have his own son killed.”

Morgana Fay sank back into her seat, both arms on the armrests. She tipped her head back and expelled a big sigh. “He wanted to bring Arthur to the fold. Change him into something closer to his own image. But he would never want any harm to come to him. He would never sacrifice his son to his plans.”

Tristan bobbed his head to signal understanding. “I'm assuming you know him better than anyone.”

Morgana snorted sarcastically.

“In the way you know your enemies best,” Tristan specified so as not to irritate her. “So let's say you're right and I'm wrong. In that case a few upright members of the MET have made an honest mistake and think Arthur has been bought by UFAM. The affiliations are there. He's Uther Pendragon's son.” Tristan let that sink in, then continued, “Worst case scenario: your father hasn't unlimited control over his own people. And some of those allies of his not directly tied to him have decided to sacrifice Arthur to their gain.”

“One of my father's partners going against him?” Morgana's lips twitched sardonically. “I doubt that.”

“Do you?” Tristan questioned. “Yet your father backs John Aeredian as the more voted spokesperson. Does your father fully control Aeredian?”

Morgana bowed her head. “I don't know,” she said in tones of genuine reflection. Her head snapped up, speculation over. “But I need more than a what if to believe that to be true.”

“How about facts?” Tristan asked. “One of the rogue agents we found dead at the Dorchester wanted to report Arthur to his superiors for misconduct. A few days prior the attack that left the Chancellor dead.”

Morgana's nostrils flared like those of a hound on a scent. “If that's true, I'd say you have something.”

“That's what I say, too,” said Tristan pressing the point. “Now I need to find Arthur in order to find Merlin and help him do his duty.”

Tristan didn't say that that was his job just as much as it was Arthur's. Let Morgana figure that out for herself. “And I'm sure you're the one person who can track him down for me.”

“What tells you I'd know where to find him?” she said. “I'm sure you looked into my file. I'm sure you know I haven't seen him in eight years.”

Tristan smiled, feeling a new confidence surface. “While I'm positive that's true, I'm also certain you can find a way. We have common enemies, Ms Fay. And common intents.”

 

****

Leon stretched his legs out in front of him, Gwen's cosy little sofa looking too small to fully accommodate his frame. “And that's all that I can offer you, Arthur.”

“Are you joking?” Arthur said, voice caught in his throat. “I couldn't ask for more. A place to hide and weapons. That's...”

“Too little giving what you're facing,” said Leon, meeting Gwen's eyes. “It's big, mate. It's big. All analysts say that something fishy is going on.”

The door opened. Merlin strolled in, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses that made him look like a grunge music star after a drunken binge.

Arthur said, “Excuse me a moment,” he said, and went to intercept him. “Where the hell have you been?” he asked Merlin, placing a hand on his arm. “You said you needed some air not that you'd disappear for an hour and a half. If Gwen hadn't said you needed some alone time I'd have come after you. Or thought the worst.”

“Yes, Gwen.”

“Merlin,” said Arthur, sighing. “Gwen and I aren't--”

“I called my dad,” said Merlin, changing gears. Arthur changed them as fast as Merlin, heart climbing to his throat. “What the bloody hell, Merlin?” He backed him up against the side of the stairs where the rails culminating in the banister were. “I told you not to...”

“Not to turn my mobile on, not to have them localise me,” Merlin said in a little snarl of anger. “I didn't! I called him from an old fashioned phone box.”

“They can trace those calls even more easily that way!” Arthur found himself shouting. After the picture Leon had presented them, known rogue MI5 agents trading in weapons, doing what Merlin had done seemed like courting death. “I told you--”

Merlin cut him off. “I'm not a stupid little kid!” Merlin said, bitter and as angry as before. “I took a train. I phoned from two towns over.”

“They can still narrow the area the call came from down!” said Arthur. “And find you.”

“They won't,” said Merlin. “You told me the other day that nobody but your father knew about Gwen.”

“We were only together till Lancelot died,” Arthur said, wanting to shut out the thought of the best friend who'd sacrificed himself for him. “After his death, being together was impossible. But for Leon nobody knows who she is to me. I've never been one to talk much. Still, I went on a couple of weekend leaves with her. There might be signatures around. There's a tiny chance that someone who's really looking might trace me to her.”

“They won't be digging up old holiday bills,” said Merlin, right into Arthur's face. “They won't even think to. Not now. Bigger fish to fry. And I had to. You don't understand but it's my dad. And he wasn't answering. He wasn't answering his own phone, Arthur, his private one. I tried it five times.”

Arthur took a step back to process that. Something wasn't all right there, patently so. Yet the news read as normal. Or at least news reports had begun to sound matter of fact again the moment the clamour the news of Wilson's death had started waned. He was about to open his mouth to discuss this with Merlin when the doorbell rang. Arthur's hand went to the gun Leon had supplied him.

Gwen came out of the lunge, staring at the door, Leon behind her.

“Are you expecting anyone?” Arthur asked Gwen and she shook her head. “Marvellous,” he added, training his gun on the door. Merlin's eyes went gold, the pupil no longer distinguishable.

Leon pulled the safety off his, a resounding click dominating the silence.

“Open the door,” Arthur told Gwen. “Don't give anything away.”

She looked at the door reluctantly and Arthur didn't blame her. After Leon's report, the Chancellor's death, and Merlin and Arthur's own tale, Arthur would be dreading opening the door too.

They were four people – two of whom had had no sort of self defence training, though Merlin was magic – against who knew how many.

Gwen rubbed her hands together as if to wipe the sweat off of them and went to get the door. “A moment,” she called.

Arthur pushed Merlin closer to Leon and he himself dove to the side so whoever was behind that door could only get a view of Gwen. If it was a neighbour or friend dropping by then no harm would come of Gwen putting them off for today.

If it was Five, Gwen would be giving them the benefit of a tactical surprise. She'd know to play dumb. “Who is it?” Nobody answered. Gwen opened the door on a sigh and leant against it. Her clutching of the door handle told Arthur she didn't know the person on the other side.

“Hello, Ms Smith,” said a voice Arthur recognised too well. “My name's Tristan Draper and I'm with the MET.”

So Tristan had been bought and had gone rogue. Must have, since he was looking for Merlin. How he'd found them was a question for another day. What worried him the most and must have occurred to Merlin too since Merlin's eyes flared wide was that Tristan was the man entrusted with the PM's security.

“I'm sorry,” said Gwen buying them time, “but isn't the MET London's police? We're in...”

“We do have national responsibilities when it comes to the protection of members of the government,” Tristan said in a tone that was more measured than had been the case when Arthur had talked to him before. “But I'm not here on the MET's behalf,” he added, making Arthur's skin crawl.

“What the fuck?” Merlin mouthed, jaw falling open in astonishment.

Arthur whispered, “Stay put, Merlin,” when he saw Merlin stretch his hand out in preparation for an attack.

“Oh, yes, I see,” said Gwen, still evidently playing the part of the addled civilian. “Mmm, How can I help you?”

“Yes, concerning that,” said Tristan, “I'm sure that you can or that you can at least point me in the right direction.”

“I don't see how,” Gwen began, only to be cut off by Tristan again. “Have you seen Arthur Pendragon in the past few days? Has he contacted you in any way?”

“Arthur?” Gwen repeated. “Arthur Pendragon? No, he was my ex. Haven't seen him in years.”

Arthur was smiling; Merlin was frowning nervously, fingers twitching to do magic.

“Stop it, Gwen,” came another voice, one that Arthur recognised only too well. “And let us in. There are things you need to know. Later, when we're done telling you you can throw us out.”

“Morgana?” Gwen gasped. “I--”

Merlin whipped his head towards Arthur, his arm coming down. “Morgana? Is that your sister?” Merlin whispered.

“Yes,” said Arthur in as much of a hiss. “I've no idea why she's here.”

Leon put the safety back on his gun. He'd never laid eyes on Morgana but knew her name and what she was to Arthur.

“Gwen?” Morgana repeated. “I have magic. If I'd wanted to hurt you, I'd have done so already.”

“I--” Gwen said, clearly unsure.

“Oh, for crying out loud!”

“Let them in, Gwen,” Arthur said loud enough for all to hear. “We're still on the alert.”

“And have magic, too,” Merlin supplied.

Morgana and Tristan walked in, Morgana's eyes going to Arthur and lingering on him, then focusing on Gwen with a little half smirk. Tristan scoped the room out, as if looking for threats.

Arthur wanted to tell him that there'd be threats all right if he tried anything funny on Merlin, but kept that to himself. He still clenched his teeth in expectation of something happening.

All that happened was Morgana saying, “Can we move this somewhere else or shall we all stand here?”

“Right,” said Gwen, “here.” She led the way into the lunge. Morgana followed, Leon went after her, and Arthur waited for Tristan to make a move. So did Merlin. He was learning.

“I see,” said Tristan with a quirk of lips. He walked into the room, letting Merlin and Arthur follow behind.

When they were all seated, barring Arthur, who was leaning against the piano with a good view of both Morgana and Tristan, Merlin said, “So... you said you had something to say?”

Tristan nodded. “I guess you know Borden's dead.”

Arthur frowned, wondering how Tristan could know that they were aware. Merlin paled.

“What you don't know,” he continued, “is that prior to the Dorchester shoot out he called me in an attempt to have you removed.”

Arthur put the gun down but within easy reach. “Obviously,” he said bitterly. “With me removed, he could get to Merlin more easily.”

Tristan nodded. “Yes, reporting you would have made everything easier, the problem is that I didn't smell a rat as soon as I should have.”

Morgana cleared her throat. “There's more,” she said.

Tristan spread out his palm. “Yes, there is. But I wanted you to know that I'm aware that you were being framed. You were framed so successfully that there's an arrest warrant for you because they think you abducted Merlin.”

Merlin stepped forward. “That's absolutely ridiculous! Arthur was the only one to ever help me.”

Tristan lifted a shoulder. “That doesn't matter to them. I don't know if those in charge genuinely think Arthur guilty or not. I don't know whether this Arthur mess is part of a big plan to overthrow the government. What I'm sure of is that--”

Morgana interrupted Tristan before he could finish. “What he's tiptoeing around is the fact that we have reason to think this is part of a larger plot.” She eyed Merlin, eyes going from green to a bright kind of amber for the fraction of a second. “We think that because DCI Draper here witnessed the PM's abduction.”

“The what?” said Leon.

Arthur went red, wanting to shake the truth out of his sister and Tristan.

Merlin went whiter, staggered, then recovered and said, “What? What's happened to my dad?” And then skipping on without waiting for an answer he said, “Why didn't you protect him? You were meant to.” He threw back his shoulders and marched straight towards the door to the hallway. “I've got to find him,” he said feverishly, fists against his forehead. “I've got to--”

Arthur went to intercept him, barring his way by planting himself right before Merlin.

Merlin tried to walk past him but Arthur stopped him, placing both hands on Merlin's shoulders and shaking him. “You can't! Not like this. Not alone. Not half-cocked when we haven't checked their story.”

“She's your sister!” said Merlin. “Why should she lie to you? And if there's someone bound to know what's happened to my dad, that's Tristan. And... And my dad didn't pick up my call.”

“Yeah, okay,” said Arthur, his hand moving to cup Merlin's neck, feeling Merlin's pulse roaring under his fingertips and willing Merlin to calm down. “Some of what they're saying seems to be backed up by fact, but we don't know for sure, and if there's one thing we don't want...”

Merlin was shaking under his hands, itching to go. He wasn't focusing on Arthur, but on the door – and whatever was going on in his head.

Talking as a dutiful bodyguard wouldn't help Arthur reach out to Merlin at all. He couldn't hide behind 'impersonal' if he wanted to get through to Merlin. “If there's one thing I don't want is for something to happen to you.”

“I--” said Merlin.

Arthur continued, aware of having all eyes on him and not caring one jot. “I want you safe. And raring to go with no reliable info is not the way to act. I swear I want to help you. I'll help you save your dad. But we've got to think first. Verify the facts. I'll never let you go, never, promise. And I'll try very hard not to let you down.” He searched for Merlin's gaze. “But you have to help me, too. You have to be patient.”

“This is my dad, Arthur!” Merlin said. “If they have him... His magic is latent. He can't blast people away at will if they want to hurt him. I need to help him.”

“I know, Merlin,” said Arthur. “I think I can imagine what you're going through right now. But none of what's happened was casual. This was all carefully planned. And if we want to win we must go about it in the same way.”

“But--”

Arthur pulled Merlin closer but not so close he would have to stop looking him in the eyes. “It's just me and you Merlin, against forces that have taken over the government. We can't afford not to be patient.”

Merlin seemed to be considering this, no longer straining to get to the door. He was settling into Arthur's arms, the coiled energy in him subsiding even if it was still thrumming low.

Leon rose and said, “Actually, I'm on board too.” Arthur gave him a stern look, not understanding why Leon wanted to risk his job to take part in an enterprise against the government he had no reason to think would succeed.

“When I started looking into this matter for you,” he added, “I found out more than I wanted to. I think I've just realised that the government has been half taken over by mercenaries and the people who pay them. That what they're doing is attacking society and the law. I served for twelve years,” he continued candidly, voice calm and decisive, almost serene in having reached his decision. “I may no longer be in the army, but that's not what I fought for. And I will fight again to get things back on track.”

Tristan heaved himself up. “You may believe me or not,” he started, “you can have your friend check into my background for proof I'm telling the truth. But I'm with you. I want to get that kid.” His eyes swept over Merlin, “out of this alive, for Isolde's sake and my sake. And I want to bust my employer out.”

Arthur acknowledged that with a nod. He'd have Leon check Tristan but if his words proved true then he might as well let him jump on board.

Morgana remained seated, but said, “I have magic and mine isn't dormant.” She caused a little whirlwind to form in the middle of Gwen's lounge, scattering papers and notes all over, making scattering around some petals that were collected in a bowl.

Gwen gaped, Merlin raised his arm, stretched his arm out and curled his fingers inwards, to strangle the mini tornado.

Merlin stepped away from Arthur, asking Morgana, “Why would you help me?” He pointed at Tristan. “I know why he is and I can understand Leon. But why you?”

Morgana relaxed further on the sofa. “I'm magic too. I'm against everyone who wants to put a brake on magic. And the people we're facing... Uther I'm sure, is in it.... that's all they want. To suppress magic. I don't need to know you to side with you.”

Merlin looked sceptical and Arthur couldn't say he wasn't too. But he wasn't about to say that aloud. Not yet.

“So we have a crack team?” said Leon, ever the optimist.

Arthur said, “Not yet.”

****

Aeredian sipped at his tea in the incongruous backdrop of the abandoned base. “I passed on our last request. Deputy PM Caerleon refused us.”

Uther smiled. “Perfectly predictable. It's time to take out two more of theirs.”

“Who?” asked Aeredian, putting down his tea cup, as incongruous an object with its flowery decoration as their rendezvous point.

Uther had been preparing for this for a long time. “Nimueh Lake is one of them.”

“The Minister for Women Equality?” Aeredian asked. “Shouldn't we go for the Home Secretary or the Defence Secretary? Aren't you getting blinded by your own personal vendetta?”

Uther slammed a hand on the desk Aeredian was using. “The Defence Secretary is going to be our second target. When Muirden is out too, we'll force new elections. They government can't continue existing hobbled like that.”

“While I agree,” said Aeredian slowly, tidying up those papers Uther's had upset. “Shouldn't we make it look as though we're not targeting magic users exclusively? We have Emrys, now you propose assassinating Muirden and Lake. That's three.”

“Wilson's down and he wasn't a magic user,” Uther pointed out.

“But once we leak the news of having Emrys,” said Aeredian slowly, as if he was talking to a child, “the public will put two and two together. Understand that it's warlocks and witches that are targeted. They'll think that it's us behind the movement. And I don't believe that'll sway the vote our way.”

Uther sat himself down in a chair even though he had no intention to stay. “As I told you before, these elections won't be quite as free as they think. The people must be guided in their choice seeing as they made a mistake when they were allowed to choose.”

“As long as you can guarantee me the result,” said Aeredian, “I'm all for stamping magic out. It shouldn't exist; it makes second class citizens of us all while they can....”

“I know that,” said Uther shortly, “And I've never failed to deliver, have I? Who's been helping with your campaign?”

Aeredian gave Uther a very thin smile. He lifted his cup and brought it back to his mouth. “I'd have chosen someone else, someone easier to eliminate than Nimueh, but since you're so adamant.”

Uther pushed himself upright. “I see we've found harmony again. Now let me talk to Emrys.”

“As you wish,” said Aeredian, pushing a button that was to be found under his desk. “It's not as if Emrys has better to do these days.”

Two of the mercenary guards that manned the compound appeared to escort Uther to the basement cell Emrys was kept in.

This time Emrys was free to roam about. After all, there was no way he could escape. And he seemed to know it. The glower on his face made it clear. Uther leant against the door and said, “It's over. We're doing what we must to put a stop to your unconscionable promotion of unnatural acts.”

Emrys gave him a sarcastic grunt. “And of course it's up to Uther Pendragon to decide what's natural and what's not. In the face of people born with a gift, he calls that gift unnatural.”

“It is,” said Uther, walking up to Emrys, sharing almost the same breathing space. “It is when it allows people to use these abilities to harm others. Look to what Nimueh did. She's your ally, is she not?”

“Your wife's death shouldn't cost people their freedom,” said Emrys. “I understand your pain. I lost my wife too. But you're punishing innocents, Pendragon. You have to stop.”

“Nimueh dragged Ygraine to one pro magic rally after the other to gain her support,” said Uther. “She was selfish in that. And then, when Ygraine's health started worsening because of the strain she was being put under, Nimueh convinced her to deliver magically. To ease the pressure on her body. Nimueh thought she was a god and my wife suffered the consequences for it.”

“So you're doing what?” said Emrys. “Kidnapping people? Killing people? Holding my son over my head?”

“Giving the nation a better government than the one it's choosing for itself,” said Uther, infusing as much passion in his tones as Emrys was doing for his. “As it should be.”

“That's tyranny,” said Emrys contemptuously. “That would throw us back to darker ages.”

Uther dismissed Emrys' contempt with a hand wave. “That would make us all equal. The power magic users have makes them dangerous.”

“What about the power of your money, Pendragon?” Emrys snarls. “You're planning to derail a country with it? Who gives you the right? The fact you've suffered? I don't think so. I won't let you endanger the future of all sorcerers and of my son, just because you're so busy licking your wounds.”

Uther didn't flinch or react. He knew what Emrys' game was, what his ideas were like. Through the years he'd come to know his enemy well. Once they'd even been closer than mere acquaintances. Through Ygraine and her interest in Lake's activities. He knew when his buttons were being pushed and how to push right back. “You won't have to worry long about your son.”

Emrys' eyes smouldered with rage before he backed Uther up against the wall, wrapping his big, calloused hands around Uther's throat.

Emrys' fingers squeezed his windpipe brutally, in a way Uther wouldn't have thought possible of a man that seemed so civilised in interviews and during debates. He was cutting Uther's air off as if he found violence easy, each grunt coming out of him more and more vicious, the strength of his hands like that of man used to manual labour.

Uther tried to raise his hand to fend Emrys off, tried to kick, but Emrys had him in a hold it wasn't easy to break out of. Uther clawed at Emrys's hand that had lodged itself so tightly around his throat. Uther felt as if those paws were bands of steel.

He could hear himself gargling as he tried to fight for breath. His shoulders writhed as he desperately attempted to wriggle free. With the pounding in his ears and the haze of darkness clouding his vision, it wasn't easy, and for a moment Uther experienced the taste of death on his tongue.

Emrys tightened his grip. Uther's exertions, meanwhile, helped depriving him of oxygen, making his need for it even more fundamental.

Uther saw a haze of red closing in on him until Emrys's stranglehold lessened a little and he was able to shout, “Help! Guards! Help!”

The two mercs stationed outside kicked the door open and fell on Emrys, immobilising him despite his attempts at fighting them off by way of kicks and elbow jabs.

Uther, feeling light-headed, sank down the wall, hand cupping his raw throat. It hurt.

When the mercenaries on guard had finally subdued Emrys, Uther allowed himself to calm down.

Emrys didn't, eyes manic, laugh wild and spirited. “See what I did, Pendragon?” he said. “No magic needed. I can kill you just without.”

Uther ignored that. There was no way he could let himself contemplate the threat at this point in time. “I see that we were too kind on him. Restrain him from now on.”

“You can restrain me as much as you want,” Emrys spat while he was being manacled to the only table the room provided. “But you won't restrain the nation.”

“We'll see,” said Uther, adjusting the collar of his shirt. He had the guard open the door and he stepped out, repeating the words, “We'll see.”

 

****

 

Late that night Arthur found Morgana sitting at the table in Gwen's kitchen. She hadn't bothered to turn the lights on, the lights from Gwen's gardens back lighting her.

“You scared me,” said Arthur.

Morgana raised an eyebrow. “I doubt that. You're used to far more scary things than me.”

“I don't know,” said Arthur, opening the fridge to get a bottle of cold water. “I'm not sure I trust you.”

“Merlin is more accepting and he's the one in trouble,” Morgana observed astutely.

“Well,” Arthur said, taking a pull from his bottle, “he's a good kid and sees magic people as on his side. He hasn't developed--”

“Your levels of paranoia?” Morgana laughed. “Hard to reach.”

“With all that's happened you can hardly call me paranoid.” Arthur placed a hand on the chair's backrest. “Merlin's being hunted; I'm wanted. My sister surfaces for the first time in eight years.”

“I surfaced because it's now that they're making a move.”

Arthur tilted his head in acknowledgement. “Why didn't you do anything the first time they took it in their heads to attack the government?”

Morgana seemed to have no immediate rejoinder. “When that happened I had no way of knowing.”

“But now you magically do,” said Arthur, stressing the words magically. “Is that it?”

Morgana relaxed. “You know that's not how that works. And why should you care? I don't think you're actually in the position to reject my help, brother dear.”

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. He was tired, tired of this game. Tired of being wary and tired of being played. This woman was his own sister. She shouldn't be a threat but she could turn out to be.

He straightened up, shoulders going back, stance wider. “I know you're playing some game. And I don't care as long as it stays political. Father made his own bed regarding that. But if your hurt Merlin in any way. If any harm comes to him, I'll--”

Morgana left her seat and moved very close to him. He could smell her breath and tell she'd had had coffee. “I was actually quite happy to learn you were assigned to Merlin. Given that I know how good you are, why would I have been, if I wanted to do Merlin harm?”

“I'm sure you have your own agenda,” Arthur said briefly. “I still don't trust you with him.”

Morgana tilted her head. “You have it quite bad for him, I see. Far from me to interfere.”

“I don't,” barked Arthur, taking a step back, mouth snapping shut. “That's not,” he tried again, not sure he knew what he wanted to say.

“I saw that little scene of yours earlier,” said Morgana in the crowing tones of someone who knows they have something on you. “And now this. You're not fooling me.”

“Even if it was as you say, there's nothing I would be able to do about it.”

“Frankly,” said Morgana, “if I were you I'd be all for it.”

Arthur shook his head in denial. “I-- It's against every sort of rule.”

Morgana's chuckle was low and less than merry. “As if rules still count after what's happened. As if government officials haven't trampled all over them themselves.”

“That's no reason why I should too.”

“You were being quite demonstrative early,” said Morgana confidently. “So I think you're not too sure of your stance. I think you should stop confusing the poor boy if I you intend to do nothing about...” Morgana's eyebrow arching replaced her words. “It's but fair.”

So saying she left the kitchen, leaving Arthur gaping after her. Damn, he'd let her be manipulative again. He was as much of a fool as he'd been as a boy.

Manipulative or not though, she'd been right on one score. He had to make a decision about Merlin. And he hadn't. It was time to.

With this in mind he climbed the stairs and softly knocked on the door of the room Merlin shared with Leon and him.

Leon had fallen asleep in front of the TV set and was still snoring softly downstairs. Arthur wouldn't be waking two people at once with his rapping.

There was a chance Merlin was still sleeping though. Perhaps swooping down on him at this time of night wasn't among the most sensible things Arthur had done. But Morgana had pointed out a truth that made him antsy; made it necessary to react.

The door opened and Merlin appeared, hair ruffled, the side of his face bearing the imprint of the pillow he'd been sleeping on. Merlin seemed to always plant his face right into pillows whenever he could. It turned Arthur's heart in his chest. Not so much the habit in itself but what it told him about Merlin. How he had that much power running through him while still needing to take comfort from small things.

“Arthur?” he said sleepily and a touch breathlessly. “Has something happened?”

“No,” said Arthur, wondering whether he looked as confused as he felt. “No, I--”

“Arthur?”

“I'm sorry about your father,” said Arthur. He'd meant to say something entirely different but he couldn't force those words out so went for the first thing that came to mind. “I want you to know that my promise stands.”

Merlin waved him in and Arthur wandered inside.

Merlin's bed was more of a mattress placed on the floor than a real bed, but none of them had complained seeing as they'd all rained on Gwen with no warning and bringing trouble.

Merlin sat down on it, knees gathered up and said, “I never doubted that, you know. I'm sure you're loyal to a fault. You believe seeing me through this is your duty and I'm sure you will.” He paused. “Hell, I'm wondering if I should... you know. Let you go. You're in enough trouble because of me. An arrest warrant.”

The words Arthur had prepared died in his throat. They weren't the truth anyway. “Even if you did send me away, I'd stay.”

“Why?” said Merlin in an exasperated whine. “The government’s betrayed you. And... I know you think you owe it to me to help me.” Merlin's eyes were shiny. “But you don't. And since there's no point in waiting for orders from your superiors, I'm giving you the out.”

“I would never take it.” Arthur knocked shoulders with Merlin. “Never.”

“Very heroic of you but the world's going to shit anyway. And I can take care of myself. I don't--”

Arthur sighed. “It's not heroic,” he said. “You asked why...”

Merlin drew in a big breath, turning his head to look Arthur in the eyes. The light in the room was very dim with only one lamp switched on, but if Arthur could see the blue of Merlin's eyes and their slight wetness, then Merlin could read the truth in his.

Merlin gave a slight tremor and Arthur said, “While I believe in your cause, I'm doing this because I care about you, because I--”

Merlin dove in, quick as a wink, his lips closing around Arthur's in a kiss that came as a surprise and shook Arthur to his very core.

As much as he'd tried to suppress it, he'd looked at Merlin with desire. Longing. Watching over Merlin for months had made Arthur aware of Merlin in a big way, broken a chink in his armour, made him see Merlin and love every little thing about him. And now this. This was what Arthur wanted and couldn't quite deny. Though he couldn't quite act about it yet.

He went rigid at first until Merlin's mouth firmed on his. Merlin's kiss was soft, undemanding. His lips were warm, coaxing, and all Arthur could think about was that he was done with keeping Merlin at a distance. Not when Merlin wanted him and seemed to be slowing down in fear of rejection, his open eyes flaring even wider with something that looked too much like hurt for Arthur to be able to bear it.

Arthur started stroking his hand up Merlin's arm to his shoulder so as to pull him closer, tell him that he wanted the kiss to continue. In a perfect world he shouldn't have, considering what his duty to Merlin was, but the world had gone crazy on them, and he wouldn't lie to Merlin by turning him down.

Because it'd be lying,

Merlin's tongue stroked gently over the crease of Arthur's lips, parting them, and danced inside Arthur's mouth to tentatively graze the tip of his. It was like an electric shock of pleasure. It heightened the feelings already there and made burn bright.

Merlin was kissing him slowly with an intensity that made Arthur feel as he hadn't in years. It was as if Merlin couldn't let him go and wanted to tell him things. As if nothing mattered more than this. As if Arthur mattered. Mattered to him.

Arthur growled in response and deepened the kiss himself, taking the initiative for the first time since this began.

Merlin's tongue pulled back and he pushed his forward, wanting to get more of the closeness he hadn't allowed himself to feel for too long. He sucked Merlin's tongue back in his mouth, filthy now, raw.

A little crash as if of crockery being broken and Leon's shout broke the silence enveloping the house. “Holy shit, people, come down and have a look at this.”

Merlin lifted his mouth from Arthur's, blinking hard as if he was trying to come back down from a high himself. Arthur was feeling pretty much the same though he also silently wanted to curse Leon all the way to hell and back.

The pause allowed Arthur too re-experience some of the doubt that had gnawed at him earlier, especially when Merlin smiled sheepishly at him, looking to Arthur as too young and vulnerable to be played with.

It lasted until Arthur truly looked into Merlin's eyes and saw the desire running deep in them. When he felt more than took in Merlin's shudder. “I guess we'd better go see. If he's waking up the household there must be a reason.”

“Yeah,” said Arthur, coherence blown to pieces, shaken and wanting, control out of reach. “Yeah, we should see what it's all about.”

Merlin started levering himself up. Arthur pulled him down, not quite ready to lose this quite yet. Instead of going for another kiss, he pressed his lips to the soft spot behind Merlin's ear and breathed him in.

He let it last a moment than he slapped Merlin's side, the closest to his arse as possible, and said, “Let's get moving.”

When they joined Leon downstairs, he wasn't alone. Tristan, Morgana and Gwen were there too, gaping at the images the TV was playing. The news was on; the flashing headlines said, “Defence Minister and high profile Cabinet member die in separate bomb blasts.”

Leon cranked up the volume and they all heard a concerned commentator sum up the news.

“Minister for Women Equality, Nimueh Lake, and Defence Secretary, Edwin Muirden, were both the victims of two separate bombings happening earlier in the night. Several members of their security details have also been reported as having lost their lives. While news of the attack broke earlier tonight to a media frenzy, nothing is yet known of those responsible for it.

No claim of responsibility has been made, though the focus on prominent members of the Magical Liberal Party seems to indicate that sorcerers are being especially targeted. While the police is looking into finding out who's pulling the strings of these terrorist attacks, both following on the heels of the one that caused the death of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rupert Sidney Wilson, no official comment has of yet come from Downing Street.”

Leon turned down the volume. “So what do you guys think?”

“They're starting a civil war,” said Morgana while Tristan shook his head and said, “They picked out their targets. They want to force elections.”

“They haven't said a thing about my dad,” said Merlin. Arthur squeezed his shoulder in silent support.

“Because they're still covering up his kidnapping,” said Leon. “That seems obvious. They can't let the cat out of the bag or they will have to agree to new elections. Especially with two more ministers dead.”

“But why hasn't my father let them know he has the winning hand?” Arthur asked himself. “The moment he reveals he has the PM...”

Merlin went instantly white as a sheet and whirled round to face Arthur. “What if he's killed him already and that's why he hasn't said anything?”

Arthur shook his head, having no words to help Merlin out of his – justifiable – moment of blind panic. He wanted to do something for Merlin so badly, but couldn't. Not in front of all these people and not when he couldn't rule out Merlin's supposition.

“Pendragon hasn't had the PM killed,” said Tristan, doing more to help Merlin than Arthur could while feeling so stretched thin and so partisan. “Without him he's got much less. No, he's waiting for the best moment to gently let out the news, while not involving UFAM too directly. Notice how UFAM hasn't come up in any official report yet.”

Merlin faced Tristan. “So you think my dad's still alive?” Merlin asked with clearly renewed hope. “That he's not--”

“He's alive.” Tristan nodded his head at Merlin. “I'm positive.”

“Then we can't wait for him to become useless once the info's out,” said Merlin, eyes swirling a sudden blinding gold in the half darkness of the room. “I'm getting him out of wherever he is being kept.”

Arthur took a step forwards. “And I'll help you.”

The others, moved by Arthur's example or their own priorities, vowed they would too.

****

The alarm sounding with an incoming text woke Agravaine just as sure as an air raid siren would have. It was still the dead of night; no light coming in from outside. Something must have happened; even through the fog of sleep that was clear To him.

Cursing softly under his breath, Agravaine, pushed the duvet off him, swung his bare legs over the bed and started to rise off it, arm braced behind him to give him momentum.

The shock given to him by the cold floor freezing the soles of his feet was of brief duration but enough to wake him up properly.

Even though the wood panels on the walls of his bedroom turned into grotesque looking shapes in the darkness, Agravaine steered onwards without turning the light on to dispel them. He went for the mobile he'd left on the dresser.

It was his private one, not the one he used at work. Ostensibly no one had this number though working as he did for the MET, he was sure someone did and was keeping tabs on him.

He picked it and read the incoming message, the light from the display illuminating both the text and his face.

Two more little pigs are dead, the text said, find the the head pig asap

As far as cryptic messages went this one wasn't. And if someone else read it they could quickly guess what it was about. But it didn't matter because it could be said to mean nothing. The wild ramblings of a child.

Fingers trembling, Agravaine put his mobile down, put on his dressing gown and padded into his living room, turning the TV on and sitting on the sofa to watch.

The images that came at him from the news special were harrowing and worrying. Though they showed no dead bodies, the amounts of blood, the shocked, pale faces, the layers of metal plates curling back to allow the cars engines and chassis to show, spread out like animal entrails, told the tale well enough.

Agravaine put his hand flat up over his mouth and continued looking, aghast. At length the images stopped registering or he stopped making sense of them. Processing them.

He still wondered how it could have happened. Oh, he knew that the United Front Against Magic had to have been behind this attack. That Uther Pendragon hated those who were like his daughter so much as to target them was not news. That he could have succeeded to this extent was more shocking though.

Wilson was a coalition ally and had no magic. Emrys' magic was latent as far as Agravaine knew and mostly a genetic trait passed on to his son. Agravaine could see how any aggression towards them could have succeeded.

But this particular attack had worked on two powerful sorcerers. Two people who were said to have so much magic they could have changed the shape of the world.

This meant that with enough organisation anybody could be taken out. That sorcerers, despite their power, could be made to be sitting ducks. That they could be taken out by stealth. And if the power of the masses went into taking them out... This could be the dawn of a magic-less era.

Morgana could die.

That night Agravaine didn't sleep at all. The next day he showed up bright and early at Commander Owain's office.

“You aren't on duty, du Bois,” Commander Owain said, opening the door to his personal sanctum.

Agravaine followed him inside. “I'm aware, Sir,” he said. “But I had to turn up.”

“I see you were shocked by the news too. It's shameful. Shameful. For every officer on the force.”

Agravaine closed the door, his eyes narrowing to slits. “I feel that it is. But I'm not here to offer to work a few extra shifts.”

Commander Owain shot an alarmed look at the door. “Then why are you here?”

Agravaine placed himself squarely before the door. “Because I need classified information, sir. The only kind that can get us out of this scrape.”

The Commander laughed. “I'm certainly not allowed to pass on any form of classified information.”

Agravaine smiled. “Do you really think that normal procedure can be applied, sir? After what's happened?”

The Commander drew himself up. “That's neither here nor there. You're not cleared. You're not--”

Agravaine stalked up to his commander, grabbed him by the shoulder in a gesture he would not have allowed himself in any other circumstance and said, “Do I have to suppose you're with UFAM then?”

“That's preposterous and absurd!” Commander Owain spat out. “I'm doing my job as any other officer in the MET. And--”

“Because I have backing in other quarters,” said Agravaine with the same pale smile on his lips. “And we all know how powerful certain people can be. And now they're angry. A lot can happen in the blink of an eye, sir.”

The light in Commander Owain's eyes changed in nature.

****

A week had passed since Merlin had last had news of his dad. The first batch had come from a friend of Morgana's and had been confirmed by Leon and his security firm friends.

Leon's friends always managed to be in the know as to when weapons and men were being shifted and deployed outside of the pale of government’s activity.

They registered the news and sat on it while waiting to use it to their best advantage: i.e., their wealthy clients'.

From the moment Morgana's friend's news had been corroborated, Tristan, Leon and Arthur, all of them relying on their experience in the military, had started devising a plan for the storming of the base where they thought Merlin's dad was being kept.

They discussed it while hidden in the Birmingham suburban house Leon had provided for them. They had moved there on the basis that Gwen's connection to Arthur could be discovered, rendering her house unsafe for them.

During their strategy talks Merlin and Morgana gave them input as to their powers, their capabilities, while Gwen tried to keep up the morale.

“Can your magic affect electronics?” asked Tristan, “disable alarms and normal security devices?”

Merlin said, “Not that I know of. I mean, I can make things explode, but I don't suppose that it's in any way subtle.”

“With a few pointers from a friend,” said Morgana, “I think I could.”

“We're not bringing in any more people I don't know anything about,” Arthur said in a clipped tone. “Numbers might help. Unknown factors won't.”

“Raw power will help us more!”

“Morgana,” said Arthur, “be content with me trusting you enough to let you take part in this. I'm not trusting third parties.”

“What about a non magic user, then?” she asked. “I have a friend who'd be willing to fatten our numbers. And if he proved untrustworthy Merlin could blot him out easily.”

Merlin winced. He knew they'd been considering his abilities to 'blot people out' to devise a plan that would get them in the position to free his dad, but he couldn't take the idea of killing so lightly. Not after Borden. He reminded himself that his father's life was at stake and hardened himself. Still the wince hadn't gone unnoticed.

Arthur said, “Merlin will have a lot on his plate. I really don't think he should have to face variables too.”

“Besides,” said Leon, “we've got to train him first. I get that he can wipe people out with the power of his thoughts.” Merlin's lips swept downward at this. “But he ought to know how to defend himself when he does. And a whole lot of other things.”

“But is there time?” asked a concerned Gwen. “Didn't you guys and Lancelot,” her voice got sombre over the name, “train for more than a year before you became proper soldiers? And let's be honest, what you're planning is a mission just like the ones the military sent you on.”

“Yes, it's too soon for Merlin to be facing this,” Arthur agreed. “And he was never trained to take part in any action.”

“But I've got no choice,” added Merlin, looking from one of them to the other. “Because they've got my dad. And if they had their way things would spiral out of control so fast, I'm sure magic users would be targeted so badly I'd suffer anyway. So I'm doing this for my father and for those like me. There's no choice.”

“Someone that sees it as I do,” Morgana commented.

Arthur and Tristan objected to Morgana's intervention, Arthur stressing that Morgana took things too lightly, Tristan saying that their pact, “Only goes so far. I'm not endangering a kid.”

Merlin felt the need to intervene. He slammed a hand down on the table they were all sitting around.

“I'm not a kid,” he said. “I'm an adult. One who's been discriminated against in one way or another all his life. And while I appreciate your concern for my safety --” He raked his eyes over Arthur, Leon and Tristan in particular, “I think you're crazy if you believe I'm more vulnerable than you are. Or that there's anyone more committed than me.” He tapped a finger on the table. “It's my dad they've got.”

Leon nodded thoughtfully, Arthur looked as though there was lots he wanted to say but was reserving it for when they were alone.

Tristan alone objected, “Isolde died so that you could live. I won't endanger you for lack of training or--”

“I liked Isolde,” said Merlin. “I think she was my friend and I'll never forget her. But you're really out of your mind if you think she would have stood by when something like this happened.”

Tristan's eyes flashed with anger. “No, she wouldn't have stood by. But she was a police officer. A specially trained one. She wouldn't have let you do this because you're a civilian. She would have sat on you rather than let you do it.”

“I know you're mourning her,” said Merlin. “But that's not true. She would have understood.”

“You don't know what you're talking about.”

“Why?” said Merlin. “Because I'm not nineteen yet? I'm not doing this for glory or fame. I'm doing this for the last living member of my family. And because I want to preserve his... his--” Merlin didn't want to use the word legacy because that would have implied his father was dead. “His work. The work that makes it possible for magic users to hope for a better world. And that's not a fancy idea. Isolde would have understood those things; she wouldn't have patronised me--”

“Like hell she wouldn't,” barked Tristan. “Like hell.”

“You're not the only one who knew her!” Merlin returned.

“Perhaps not,” Tristan acknowledged. “But you certainly didn't. You were just her job!”

A memory flash pained Merlin to the core: the image of Isolde's dead body, blood staining the collar of her shirt. He'd mourned her to this day but now found himself wondering whether she'd have laughed at the notion. Merlin balled his fist and pressed it against his temple, closing his eyes to avoid Tristan's stormy, red countenance and Gwen's pitying eyes.

“It doesn't matter,” he said at last. “It doesn't really matter. I think I'm powerful enough to get my dad out. Without me you've got a three person commando plus Morgana. Whom none here trusts. I say I'm coming.”

That decided them because it seemed reasonable enough. Merlin would be their battering ram and that was that. From that afternoon on, Leon and Arthur did their best to impart Merlin the minimum knowledge required for him to be able to take part in a storming action.

While they meant for Arthur to have Merlin covered at all times, they taught Merlin how to handle a series of weapons (rifle, gun, knife) and some self defence techniques based on hand to hand combat.

“This is stupid,” Merlin would protest as he lay flat on his back in the house's vast gym. “I've got my magic. I'll use that.”

Leon bit on his lips and took that into consideration. “That's true. And you're not exactly SAS material.”

“He can't rely just on his magic,” said Arthur. “I've seen him in action at the Dorchester. He's very powerful, true. But when he's handled lots of magic, he gets tired. And what then?”

Leon's eyebrows went up. “Okay then.” He clapped his hands together. “More hand to hand.”

“Don't you think that I should do some magic resistance training instead?” Merlin objected.

“No,” barked Arthur in tyrant fashion. “I think you should get up and learn the moves we're trying to teach you.”

“But it's pointless!” Merlin said. “Let's say I learnt them. Then what? I'm not going to build up this enormous muscle mass in a few more days. And if you pit me against a trained mercenary, I'm going to end up dead anyway!”

Arthur shook his head, moved his lips as if to say something, then huffed and stormed out.

Even though Leon waved at him, indicating that Arthur was best left alone, Merlin could do nothing but follow. He caught him on top of the back stairs. He grabbed Arthur by the arm.

Puffing, face red, Arthur whirled around. “What, Merlin? What? You never do as I tell you anyway. And God knows you need my help!”

Merlin tried not to dwell on that, on those trust issues, and ploughed past them. “I can't become you. And you can't ensure my safety by teaching me a few tricks. So why are you so dead set on getting me to learn them? When I feel far more confident using my magic!”

“Because,” said Arthur grabbing Merlin by the shirt and pulling him close, “I know what's out there. I lost a friend once and it was-- With you it'd be ten times more difficult.”

“Arthur--”

“No, you listen to me,” snarled Arthur. “He was my best friend. We got close fast. And he died to protect me. Because he thought I was more important than him. That my life had more value because of Gwen, and Gwen's hopes. And it was bad enough. It changed my life. But with you. With you it'd be...” Arthur flailed a hand about angrily while the other was still crushing the fabric of Merlin's shirt.

“Arthur, I'm not going to die and even if I did, you'd end up with someone else. Someone who'd help you and comfort you.” He didn't say who he thought would take that place but that was easily guessed by both.

“I don't go kissing everyone, you idiot!” Arthur shouted. “And certainly not someone I vowed to protect and not touch.”

At that heartfelt declaration Merlin could do nothing but reach out and grab hold of the back of Arthur's head, pulling him close for a kiss. He opened Arthur's mouth with his, testing with his tongue to see if Arthur was on board, drawing Arthur's into his own mouth and waiting for his belly to go to mush as it did every time Arthur danced close.

It did like clockwork the moment Arthur moaned and trailed his fingers down Merlin's cheek and across his jaw to cup his chin.

Breathing with his mouth open, Arthur drew back, his eyes round with lust and dopey with confusion. He thumbed Merlin's lower lip. “You can't die on me.”

“Not up to me,” Merlin said, hastening to add, “but I'll do my best and use my powers to survive and get my dad out.”

Arthur grazed his lips with his one more time. “I'll hold you to that--”

“Oh, no,” said Merlin, seeing where this was going. “You're not dangling sex over me as an incentive. I... just want to have a night...” He cocked his head at the window. “All right afternoon with you. Having sex, fucking each other silly. So I'm going to march in there all brave and primed for--”

Arthur groaned. “Merlin, that's not a good reason to have sex.”

This time Merlin's shoulders slumped. “Don't you want to? Because it sounds like you don't. All of this postponing and--”

Arthur took him in a surprise kiss so deep, so all encompassing, Merlin was sure he wasn't lying about his needs. About wanting Merlin.

So Merlin gave back and soon they were going at it, touching each other, grinding against each other, slamming into doors and walls as they blindly searched for Arthur's room, Merlin's mouth open to Arthur's, Arthur's hands clutching at Merlin's waist as if he couldn't bear to let go.

They stumbled into Arthur's room more by luck than design, Arthur driving Merlin into the wall, grinding into him, causing their hips to brush together.

“You have no idea,” said Arthur, “you have no--” but he didn't seem coherent enough to convey his thoughts. It was as though, much like Merlin, he could explain his feelings in no other way than using his body.

Pressing Merlin against the wall, Arthur nuzzled at his collar and sucked onto his throat, making Merlin throw his head back and grunt softly. Merlin must have sounded encouraging for Arthur started to lay kisses along the line of his jaw and down his throat. His hand fumbled between them, undoing the laces of the tracksuit bottoms Merlin was wearing. He slid his hand up the back of Merlin’s shirt, palming skin, pulling Merlin to him at the same time as he rocked him into the wall.

Merlin felt like he was melting, his cock pulsing between his legs, his thoughts rarefying as more primal instincts took over.

Wanting to bare Arthur, Merlin pulled at his shirt. Arthur stepped back for long enough to yank it off and allow Merlin to do the same with his top.

Naked to the waist, Arthur looked good: solid, and muscled, and real. Merlin pressed his fingers against his skin, cupped a pec, and drew a hiss of a breath from Arthur's chest.

As he lay his hand on Arthur's heart he felt it beat fast under his fingertips, a flush spreading across Arthur's chest and slowly climbing upwards.

Glancing at Arthur, Merlin found he wanted to say lots of things but none of them encompassed the wonder of having Arthur like this, so he only whispered Arthur's name.

Thinking of any kind was too much at this point and it led places Merlin didn't want to go.

Arthur seemed to accept that because he met Merlin's lips with his again, giving him the gift of silence. The kiss was deeper this time but less rough; Arthur used his lips to coax, his tongue to wet it all up.

When he withdrew, he pulled Merlin's lower lip into his mouth, where it caught and rubbed. Arthur's hand roamed down along Merlin's chest, skimming over this hips, running to his belly.

Kiss broken off, Arthur slipped one hand into Merlin's joggers, wrapping a palm around Merlin's cock.

It filled shamelessly at the touch, twitched even. Merlin gasped into Arthur's mouth while Arthur worked him to an angry red stiffness.

Arthur twisted his hands around and rolled Merlin's balls in his palm, caressing his thigh with his thumb on a downward swipe. Then again he slid his hand up, running his fingers around the head and along the wet tip.

To stay on his feet Merlin grabbed Arthur's shoulder for balance and started thrusting, placing his legs apart to hump and grind against Arthur's palm. He did this until he could feel shivers in his chest and his knees buckled.

Arthur's arm around his waist was what was keeping him upright. And it wouldn't do. He hadn't even touched Arthur yet. He hadn't done anything to return Arthur's attentions.

A helpless whimper escaped his lips. “Ar-- Arthur,” he said, “please, let me... I can't. I don't want to come. Please, no”

“It's all right if you do,” said Arthur, thankfully sounding as wrecked as Merlin felt. “It's the point of the exercise.”

“Yes, but--” Merlin fought for clarity then finally managed to find the kind of wording that would express how he felt. His voice was two tones too low to be his when he said, “I don't know... This is our one chance till god knows when and... I'd like for it to last.”

“I'm not going to let it be our last chance,” said Arthur, rubbing the flesh of Merlin's inner thigh. “I'm not.”

Merlin frantically nodded his head, wanting to believe Arthur with all he had. He trusted Arthur, trusted him with his life. “But let me... let me have it slow,” Merlin said.

It was Arthur's turn to agree. He said, “Yes,” and kissed Merlin's lips softly. Then he took a step back, palmed Merlin's hip, and without letting go, he walked him to the bed.

Their bodies had scarcely hit the mattress when Merlin had arched up into Arthur, wrapping his arms around his back and his legs around his waist, tugging him down and keeping him there with all his strength.

Merlin devoured Arthur's mouth with deep kisses. At the same time he tightened the grip of his legs around Arthur's middle and rolled them so Merlin ended up on top. The kiss had to be broken off for that to happen but Merlin's reward was Arthur's dopey expression and intake of breath.

Merlin kissed Arthur one more time and drew back with a smile, Arthur saying, “I've wanted you for longer than is probably all right. When I was supposed to feel nothing for you. From before you ever thought of me this way... in whichever way you do.”

“That's impossible,” said Merlin, bending to nibble Arthur's ears and to nuzzle his face, finally settling on Arthur's lips, making the kiss deep and hot, and pulling back to say, “I thought you handsome and brave from quite early on. And you know what I feel.”

“You're in lust with and older man,” said Arthur, breathing a little hitched, shoulders going up in a shrug. “You like me and I'm the only friend you've got left.”

“No.” Merlin shook his head and sat up in Arthur's lap. “It's more than that. You know it's more than that. You know I... I'm happy to be with you.”

“Happy?”asked Arthur, playing with Merlin's nipples as a smile started playing on his face. “Only happy?”

“Delirious.” Merlin moved up Arthur's body, without trapping his arms. He liked Arthur's firm grip too much to give it up. His touch steadied him. “Thrilled. Delighted. Passionate about you. Mad. I just.. I just.” Merlin grew serious and made one big breath of it. “I think I love you.”

Arthur's eyes flared with giddy relief, or so it seemed to Merlin.

As if he'd heard what he needed he pulled Merlin's joggers and boxers lower, just so that Merlin's dick would be bared, the elastic of Merlin's underwear pushed halfway down Merlin's arse.

Arthur slapped Merlin playfully and Merlin's cock bounced. A lusty, mischievous gleam appeared in Arthur's eyes. Then he breathed on Merlin's cock, a warm puff of air that made Merlin's thighs quiver.

He wasn't close to grazing Merlin's cock yet; he was just bathing it in his breath. Merlin angled his body forward and fed Arthur his cock; Arthur's mouth wrapped around him, engulfed him in wet hotness, Arthur's neck straining upwards to take as much of Merlin as Merlin would give him.

Narrowing his lips so they were perfectly sealed around the crown of his cock, Arthur suckled him.

Arthur's tongue curled around him and drew him inch by inch into his mouth. Merlin was panting heavily, body trembling as Arthur nodded his head to signal he could give him more and more of his cock.

Merlin was hesitant at first because Arthur had tears in his eyes and his tendons stuck out badly, but he read eagerness in Arthur's expression. Arthur even nocked up an eyebrow. as if saying, 'What are you waiting for?' He did so even though he was in what must be such an uncomfortable position, Merlin looming over him, him having to strain to get to work. So Merlin gave in to him and his pleasure, the combination of both stimuli egging him on.

Merlin felt himself going progressively down Arthur's clutching throat.

Arthur swallowed and Merlin was aware of having hit the back of his throat. It drove Merlin mad, made him sob and arch into it even as he was afraid of hurting Arthur, cutting his air off, chocking him. But Arthur was encouraging him, moving his hands to cup Merlin's arse and drive him forward.

Tension coiled low in his belly, made him snap his hips forward, feeling the need to go deeper. To feel how warm and wet it was.

The sensations made him hot, made his skin feel as if it was stretched too tight and all abuzz. He felt off kilter, woozy. Every part of him wanting nothing more than release.

Merlin dug his fingers in Arthur’s hair, guiding Arthur's face to him, cupping it as he felt love gushing through him. He shouted, “Arthur”, rocked his hips back and forth a few more times, and let go, come gushing out of him in pulses and little throbs he could feel however tiny they were.

And then Arthur was coughing, having swallowed some, red in the face and breathing out through his nostrils as if he was about to keel over. A smile lit him up and his eyes brightened even as Merlin pulled back.

Arthur knuckled a blob of come off his shoulder and tasted it. Then he looked up, grabbed Merlin by the neck and planted a big kiss on his face.

Merlin was shaking on his haunches, the aftershock waves not having subsided.

Arthur said, “Hey,” and, “Merlin,” and, “Hey.”

Merlin sobbed out a laugh and then Arthur was kneeling up, working an arm round his waist. He clutched Merlin's body to him and turned them both over, sliding his palms down Merlin's buttocks, hooking his fingers over the waistband of Merlin's bottoms and boxers and peeling them off him.

“Don't expect me to do much,” Merlin tried to quip in a shaky voice, as Arthur's ribcage expanded against his. Arthur's cock nudged Merlin's thigh. “I think you've done me in.”

Arthur gave him a grin, an easy one, though his eyes were still completely glazed over and made him look less than nonchalant. “I'll see what I can do about that.” He pinned Merlin's left arm over his head but left the right one free. “Does this guarantee enough lying back on your part?”

Merlin smiled. “But,” he said, feeling Arthur's erection poking at him, “I want to touch you. I always want to. Give me that.”
“I will,” said Arthur. “Promise.” He moved, kissing Merlin's chest lightly, eyes glancing up at him as if to make sure this was what Merlin wanted, something flashing in them as he went.

Merlin couldn't help but keep the eye contact. Partly to egg Arthur on, partly because he didn't want to miss any of this. He might have come already, but the thrill Arthur was giving him hadn't faded one bit.

He was content and lethargic, ready to purr and forget about reality, but not in any way willing to miss one bit of this. And despite how he must have wanted to come, Arthur was patient with him.

Freeing Merlin's hands, Arthur slid down his body, his own hands moving on Merlin's belly, fluttering softly down his sides, his moist lips dragging wherever he went.

Merlin rose onto his elbows as Arthur slowly roamed his lips everywhere, moving across his abdomen to nuzzle the base of Merlin's spent cock. Merlin could barely stand it. He threw his head back and spread his legs. Let Arthur make what he might of that.

Arthur got the hint. He nuzzled Merlin's inner thigh, sucking a round of flesh into his mouth.

Merlin's hiss of breath was loud in his own ears but then so was Arthur's panting. “You are just,” Arthur said, then shook his head as if he couldn't put it into words. “Do you ever use your magic for sex, Merlin? I've wondered.”

“No,” Merlin said, holding himself taut while Arthur put his hand on him, smoothing his foreskin back over the head and putting a kiss to the overly sensitive tip. It was enough to get Merlin to a buzzed half mast. “No, people get scared.”

“I'm not scared.” Arthur continued doing filthy things to him. “I'm awed.”

If Merlin didn't already feel too much for Arthur, in all ways and guises, that alone would have made him fall in love. No one. No one had ever said that to him. No lover. No friend. Even his family hadn't been like this.

For his father magic was a matter of fact thing, something some of his relatives had. Something to be passed on. For his mother magic had been something of a curse. Merlin had never felt not loved by her, but he'd always known that she feared his magic. She'd feared what people might do to him because of it.

To Merlin loving his magic was loving him. It made something bloom in his chest. It made him go funny. It made him smile ear to ear. It was almost better than sex.

“You really do?”

“Yeah.” Arthur snaked lower, spread Merlin legs further apart and put a kiss to his hole, making Merlin clench on him to stem the flood of pleasure. “Yeah. I do.” Arthur sucked on the folds of muscles he found an inch away from his nose. “Can you make yourself wet for me? Can you do that?”

Merlin didn't think he still had the presence of mind to nod to that but be made a hollow sound that came low from his throat. Still at a loss for words or spells, he closed his eyes and tried to think hard of the desired outcome.

When Arthur gasped Merlin knew that he'd done it, but he didn't have much time to explore the consequences. Because Arthur was on his knees and between his legs. Because Arthur was slipping on a condom he had to have got when Merlin had closed his eyes. Arthur crawled up on all fours, all flushed and shiny with perspiration, took himself in hand and guided himself in. Just a few inches at first, enough to make Merlin feel it and want more, but not enough to cause discomfort in case the magic hadn't been enough.

“Alright?” Arthur asked in a voice that didn't much sound like his and more like a lower, distorted version of his educated tones. “I can--” He bit on his lower lip, something Arthur rarely did.

Merlin knew it wasn't shyness; that it was a way for Arthur to distract himself, but he found it endearing all the same. His cock strangely enough filled a bit more at that.

“I'm peachy.”

He grinned, good humour enveloping him for no reason, considering how bleak his life was right now. “I would appreciate a little fucking.”

“Little?” Arthur bottomed out, twisting his hips from side to side to work himself in, withdrawing and then inching inside again. “I think I can make it more than sufficient.”

“Let's see.” Merlin gritted his teeth because Arthur pushed back in again. “I'll reser-- reserve judgement.”

He lost the grin but not the pleasure even though his erection flagged again. There was still something nice about what Arthur was doing to him, about feeling his thickness in him.

And Arthur was gorgeous doing this; he just became beautiful. His eyes shinier and wider; his muscles snapping and flexing with every move, his body meeting the challenge, mastering its limits, making poetry of exertion.

Arthur was born to act. To be this vital. Merlin worked himself to arousal again, arching back, meeting each of Arthur's thrusts with a downwards shove of his lower body, spasming around Arthur's cock after a powerful slam.

When Arthur lowered himself on top of him to kiss him, Merlin met it, Arthur gently sliding his tongue inside, searching his mouth.

Desire washed through Merlin bright like a glow he could almost see. Bright like magic. Arthur pressed deeper, their tongues dancing in slow motions, until Arthur lost it a little, his hips stuttering as his kiss did.

When the kiss faltered to a stop, Merlin turned his face to the side, dragging his hand down Arthur's back and then clutching at Arthur's arm. His mouth fell open, heaving a sob, and his eyelids flickered.

A wash of magic left him to envelop Arthur and then they were both coming, Arthur slack jawed and looking surprised, Merlin feeling it in the throbs and pulses that left his cock dry and achy.

Chest rising and falling, little shock-y tremors working through him, Arthur settled at his side, slipping off his condom and saying, “I felt... Your magic. Inside me. That was. Wow.”

Merlin curled around Arthur, feeling none too steady himself, happy they were lying down and not required to get moving just yet. “That's how we should have advertised magic from the beginning. Great for sex. Then maybe all those people wouldn't be so ready to jump at our throats.”

“They would all the same,” said Arthur. “Some people just need something to hate.”

Merlin sobered. “Yeah, you're right. I-- I was being stupid.”

Arthur rose from the bed to dispose of the used condom, threw it in a bin and came back to the bed. He rolled right into Merlin's arms. “You were being optimistic. And you sounded happy. Which is what you should be. Merlin, you're not nineteen yet. You should always sound like that.”

Merlin bypassed Arthur's dig at his age and said, “Mindlessly happy.”

Arthur grazed Merlin's lips with his, palming his flank. “I promise you to fight for the world you deserve to live in. One where you're not--”

Merlin just took Arthur's lips. He didn't need any promises. He'd fight for that world too.

****

Agravaine stared at the print out and sat maps, and passed his hand through his hair. He wasn't an expert at reading this particular sort of material but the meaning of what he was seeing was clear enough.

He had to choose. Pick one. Forty men assembled in one, forty in another. The likelihood of them being gathered in one place equal to that of them being gathered in another.

He might toss a coin. Or consult Morgana. Except that Morgana had made herself scarce after sending him that text. Agravaine snorted, tapped his feet on the car mat and picked up his mobile, selecting Morgana's number out his list of contacts.

She picked up on the fourth ring, voice tight but betraying the signs of tiredness.

“I found out what you needed,” said Agravaine. “But the data needs to be discussed.”

“Why, how?” asked Morgana, voices in the background. “Leon hasn't returned yet. But there's been not a pip from him to suggest that anything's amiss.”

“Nothing's amiss, Morgana,” said Agravaine. “Apart from my not being able to pick out the relevant pieces of data. Data I had to risk everything and pressure someone important for.”

“Oh, poor Agravaine.” Morgana's tone held little pity. “Tell me what you know. I'll help you sift through the material.”

“And then you'll tell your new allies.” Agravaine wasn't stupid and knew Morgana was letting herself be enticed by thoughts of a past during which she'd mostly got along with her little brother. “Morgana, we have different objectives,” he reminded her.

“I have different objectives,” she agreed, making Agravaine sigh and briefly close his eyes. “But you'll agree that I can't do much alone. And while Morgause would probably help that alone isn't enough, especially when I've been told they don't trust her.”

Agravaine heard footsteps, the sound of a door closing. He was fairly sure that Morgana had holed herself up somewhere she couldn't be overheard. Her proximity to her brother worried him. Living under the same roof as him could be dangerous for her.

“Morgana--”

“Emrys junior is very strong,” Morgana said low. “When we thought his death would be useful to move people to our cause I didn't have that knowledge.” She inhaled. “Agravaine, he might be the strongest sorcerer alive. With some training and some patience. Oh my God, Agravaine. He could kill Uther. He might succeed. We'd be free.”

“Are you sure?” said Agravaine. “He's only a kid. Can he? And would Arthur let him? Uther is his father.”

“As for Merlin's potential, yes, I'm sure,” Morgana said. “As for Arthur, I don't know yet. We'll get to it when we get to it. In the meanwhile I'm backing this horse.”

“And what about my data?”

“I'll give you some coordinates, so that you can find us,” Morgana said. “You'll have an hour window to get there once you receive them. You'll understand the need for security measures. Until then, good luck, Agravaine, and don't let yourself get caught.”

The line went dead.

Agravaine received the coordinates and was at first baffled by them. His Sat Nav showed that the place he'd been directed to was in the middle of nowhere. A field not too far off from a motorway ramp and not much else beside.

When he got there he feared he'd been misled but then he saw the armoured black lorry and sighed with relief.

He left his car near a ditch, earthworks in the background, and stomped up to the lorry with a bunch of documents under his shoulder, slamming his hand on the back to advertise his presence.

A blond man who could be none other than Arthur Pendragon opened the back door, saying, “Never too late, Leon,” his face going through several expressions upon seeing Agravaine. Surprise, wariness, deadly intent.

Before Pendragon could do anything Agravaine raised a hand to stave off the man's temper. “I'm a friend of Morgana's.”
“Wait,” someone in the background said, “I know that voice. It's...du Bois.”

Agravaine had recognised the other voice too. It belonged to Tristan Draper “Yes, well,” Agravaine began, “Morgana can clear me.”

Morgana peeked her head out just in time. “Yes, I do know him. He's the source I mentioned.”

Arthur turned his head. “I told you not to bring in any more people!”

Morgana steamed over Pendragon's evident anger. “We got the data, didn't we?” she arched an eyebrow at Agravaine's paperwork.

“And it cost me dearly,” Agravaine said, hoping to move Pendragon to help him. According to Morgana, Arthur Pendragon was just the sort of man to be moved by an honest man's plight.

“I'm sorry,” Pendragon said, “but that's no skin off my back.” He turned to his sister again. “I told you it was a no and you went and did it anyway. And whatever he's got, Leon will soon have.”

“But we may have to compare and contrast!” Morgana addressed Arthur. “Agravaine says his data is conflicting. So if whatever he has is backed up by whatever Leon's come up with than we've got an answer.”

Arthur leant his head against the lorry's door. “Basically I should trust someone on your say so.”

“Not on my say so!” said Morgana. “You should weigh this rationally and see--”

“I can assure you I have no intention of betraying you to anyone,” said Agravaine. “I don't like Uther Pendragon anymore than you do.”

Arthur's scoff was unpleasant but Agravaine had no time to take it to heart because the arrival of a very tall, bearded man interrupted their squabbling. “What's up?” the man said, smiling though his body coiled when he saw Agravaine.

Arthur Pendragon said, “Leon, Morgana has done what she promised not to do. And here's her ally, Mr du Bois.”

“DI du Bois,” Agravaine said. He waved his folders and paperwork. “With inside info courtesy of the S01 Commander.”

Leon scratched at his chin. “The MET, eh?”

Arthur answered with an eyebrow tilt and a glare directed at Agravaine. “Yeah, the same people who gave me a job and then sent out an arrest warrant for me.”

“In all fairness,” said Agravaine, “some of them truly think you went rogue and sold yourself to your father.”

“I don't know,” said Leon à propos Agravaine himself. “We're risking lots here.”

“See, Morgana?” said Pendragon. “Leon isn't comfortable with this.”

“Let's poll the others, shall we?” said Morgana while Agravaine shuffled from foot to foot.

That was when Draper and Merlin appeared. Draper glared at Agravaine while Merlin jumped off the vehicle and said, “I recognise you. You're the bloke at the cemetery.”

“What bloke at the cemetery?”

“The one I met at...” Merlin ducked his head for a second or two. “At Isolde's grave. When I went before going to uni.” Now that that was out Merlin's mouth, Merlin's tone took on a more assured quality. “He talked to me about bodyguards. He said he was police. Convinced me with going for Arthur.”

Given Pendragon's half mystified, half suspicious look, Agravaine hurried to say something. “Let's be honest here. You convinced yourself it was the reasonable thing to do. And it was.”

Morgana's shoulders relaxed and Agravaine allowed himself a smile. “So do you want my data or not?”

“Yes,” said Merlin, “but what we do with it is up to Arthur, Leon and Tristan. Not you.”

“Merlin,” Arthur began, his hand brushing Merlin's. It was something Agravaine took stock of to be later analysed.

“It's the reasonable thing to do,” said Merlin. “We can see what Leon has and what Agravaine has, and pin down the right location. We don't need to trust him. I don't.”

Arthur sighed and said, “All right, jump in,” and Agravaine followed him inside the vehicle.

There were two rows of seats either side, a tech console filled with gadgets that screamed military surveillance, two bunk beds coming with woollen blankets and flat pillows, and a mini fridge with a thermal bag stacked on top.

It was clear that Morgana and the others were using this lorry as a temporary base.

Agravaine spilled his papers onto an extension table and spread them all out. He waved his hands at them to signal his openness.

“This is what Commander Owain and I managed to gather with the aid of a tech. This is what the Commander had clearance for, so you'll understand that it's not the whole picture. We didn't want to alert Five, too many moles.”

Leon and Arthur leaned in to have a look at the maps and satellite thermal scans. At the array of documents Agravaine had managed to lay his hands on.

Tristan kept scowling at Arthur, Morgana kept to the background, arms crossed, tapping her fingers, while Merlin took them all in as if the key to understand them all was in their joint behaviour. Smart kid. He'd taken after his dad.

Arthur lifted his chin at Leon and Leon took that as his cue to speak. “It matches. Matches what I've got, I mean.”

“So we can't be a hundred per cent sure,” Merlin said.

“No,” Agravaine told the boy. He seemed the most reasonable and the one the others would trust over Morgana. “From the thermal scans we can gather that a number close to forty people is deployed at each base. Same number of men. Given some passport controls stats, we even know who some of these hired mercenaries are.”

“I don't have names,” said Leon, “but I got the same numbers. Your father has control of two ex military bases. Both of them are occupied roughly by equal troops.”

“I have something else,” said Agravaine. “This might help you decide. I have a transcript of a COBR meeting and--”

Merlin frowned. “What's that?”

“Cabinet-level emergency crisis management body,” Draper supplied. Of course, he of all people would know.

“And what did they say?”

“A man nicknamed Catha landed at Birmingham airport.”

None of the people present had heard of this person, barring Morgana, who played it as if she didn't know.

Agravaine further explained. “He's a sorcerer but can be hired. Against other sorcerers as well. They think that wherever he is, the PM is. “

“And that would be Base 1,” Arthur said, tapping a finger on the map on top of the spot that marked the place. “Because that's the closest to Birmingham.”

“My dad's not there,” said Merlin resolutely.

They all had a reaction to that. Leon had a double take. Tristan stepped forward to have a look at the map to verify what it was that Merlin had seen that had made him sound so sure. Morgana's brow creased in tiny little folds and Agravaine himself didn't fail to gape. Only Arthur maintained his presence of mind.

“Why are you saying that?” Leon asked and Agravaine couldn't have thought of a better question himself.

“You said Birmingham,” said Merlin. “It's so close to ley lines that...” He gesticulated to make his point, looking at each one of them in turn.

“Well, even someone like my dad, whose power is mostly asleep, would feel that. His magic would be amplified, like a magic boost. He'd be able to do things he normally wouldn't. And give his captors a very hard time. So I don't think a magic hater like Uther Pendragon would have let that happen. Put him somewhere where he'd be stronger. He's in the other facility.”

“What if Uther doesn't know?” Leon asked. “Arthur, what do you think?”

“I think my father made a study of magic in the hopes of defeating it,” said Arthur, biting on his lower lip, deep furrows forming on his brow. “He's made magic his life-long study so he'd know. I say Merlin's right.”

Agravaine wasn't convinced but it was the best they had; they only way they had of killing off Uther and securing Morgana's future. “All right, so my information helped and is backed up by your friend? So what now?”

“Now,” said Arthur Pendragon, “we make a plan to storm the place.”

 

****

They had the cover of darkness and infra red binoculars courtesy of Leon. It was something. From the outside, the base looked like a concrete shoe box, with few windows and only two emergencies exits that were very dutifully manned.

The same went, multiplying it by two, for the main entrance.

Only one car had been allowed in so far, a sleek, stately Bentley Arthur would have bet belonged to his father. The car had been stopped, the window was lowered and only after a dutiful inspection was the vehicle allowed in.

At least they had known from the start that getting in wouldn't be easy. Not with forty men guarding the base, both inside and out.

“All right, Morgana,” said Arthur, hiding behind a ridge of higher ground. “Try to disable their alarm systems without alerting them that something's off.”

“I need the blueprints to focus my power on something,” said Morgana. “The shape of the wiring in my head. Circuitry patterns.”

Agravaine shouldered up to them and handed Morgana two different sets of blueprints.

Morgana laid her palm flat on one of them and closed her eyes, her eyelids fluttering. It looked as though her pupils were tracking under the thin layer of skin.

While Leon and Tristan goggled, Arthur leaned closer to Merlin and asked, “What is she doing?” He trusted Morgana only so far and he didn't want to find himself wrong footed in case she did something he hadn't predicted.

“Channelling her magic to search,” said Merlin. “As far as I can tell.”

A low hum filled the air. Arthur kept his eyes on Morgana but leant closer to Merlin so he could whisper in his ears and brush their shoulders together. “You know what to do, don't you?”

“Go directly for the basement,” said Merlin. “Because that's the most likely place for my dad to be. No dawdling. No trying to take out the guards unless they attack me or block my path.”

“That's right,” said Arthur. “I'll cover you at all times. Together with Leon. So don't waste time on the mercenaries. Just look for your dad.”

“Right,” said Merlin, just as Morgana announced that she was done, that she'd disabled every last item of technical gadgetry on the premises.

“This means we have only a few minutes before they notice,” Tristan reminded them. “And then we only have our weapons, and Merlin and Morgana.”

They all knew these weren't good odds. But there was nothing to be done about it. “Let's focus on freeing the PM. After that the cabinet can rally,” Arthur said.

Tristan gave him a shrug but the others all declared themselves ready to move. Agravaine shifted closer to Morgana, which was something Arthur was suspicious of but could do nothing to stop, while Leon studied the base's configuration on his laptop. When Leon lifted his arm and said go they all jogged down the hill.

The good thing about being so few and it being twilight was that they went unremarked. The bad thing about it was facing the security guards.

There were four and despite all legislation to the contrary they had automatic weapons. If their reflexes were quick there was little they could do about them. They'd die before they'd even begun.

They were a few yards shy of the perimeter gate when a shout of 'halt' stopped them in their tracks.

Both Merlin and Morgana went to work, Morgana incanting a spell, Merlin's eyes flashing. The weapons the perimeter guards were holding flew out of their hands. One of the guards was swift to react: he bent over and managed to reach for the gun encased in a thigh-high holster. By the time he'd pointed it at the nearest threat, Merlin, Arthur had already taken him down.

“From now on do the thing you did at the Dorchester,” Arthur barked at Merlin. But Merlin shook his head. “I'm saving it for the last bit. I don't want to use up all my power.”

“Can you open the gates?” Morgana challenged. “I'm a little tired from frying their security system myself but I'll lend a hand if you can't.”

Merlin snorted, spread his shoulders out, stretched out his hand and without a word blew up the gates and two opposite portions of the high concrete wall that surrounded the latter. Arthur's lips twisted up in a grin. “Now don't show off,” he said.

Merlin's lips twitched in response, but his momentary good humour vanished when a group of ten mercenaries ran out of the compound, streaming like waves towards them. With the weaponry Leon had supplied they took out three with some careful aiming, but his Father and his allies had seen fit to equip their troops with bullet proof uniforms, so that even their weaponry proved somewhat futile.

Tristan said, “Shit,” and Leon shrugged his shoulders in a way that implied he shared the feeling.

They had, however, Merlin and Morgana's magic.

Morgana blasted back two men, making Arthur bite back a curse. He'd never known she had that much power. She hadn't when she'd left, once she hit eighteen and was legally allowed to. And he'd rarely been in contact after, her brand of rebellion one Arthur never understood. Then at eighteen he'd left himself, cutting his family and their squabbles off. So he was more than a little taken aback by what he was seeing and what it might mean.

He had no time for closer speculation though because he had to cover Merlin while he sent five people flying with the power of his own thoughts.

The coast was clear.

They still were at a terrible disadvantage. They still had to go through 30 men and their sorcerers were tiring out. Morgana looked paler than she'd ever been, and that was saying something, and while Merlin looked better off than her, (it seemed the more magic he used the more he could tap into), he did know a moment of stumbling helplessness.

Multiply what he'd done by thirty and Merlin would be at the end of his tether fast. And that was without reckoning with any surprises that Father might have in store for them.

Arthur put his shoulder under Merlin's even if by doing so he was restricting his own range of movement and helped him cross the courtyard while keeping a serrated jog going.

Leon and Tristan flanked them while Morgana kept the rear, she herself covered by Agravaine.

They loped up to one of the side entrances, one they could only hope was less closely watched than the main one they veered from.

Arthur let go of Merlin to have his arms free and be able to better aim his gun. He disposed of the first guard easily. Aim, shoot, disable: the man was down and would be for the remainder of the night.

But then another appeared from out of nowhere and Arthur knew he'd trusted on having cleared this section too quickly.

Leon and Tristan whipped round but they couldn't possibly shoot without taking Arthur out too. Arthur was in between them.

Morgana raised a spell but she couldn't do shields like Merlin.

Merlin himself opened his mouth as if surprised by the turn of events, then he said just one word, and time slowed down. It didn't stop, Arthur could still see the bullet fending the air and aiming for him, but it trickled by in slow motion.

Arthur closed his eyes, a chill wrapped around his marrow. Then instinct prompted him and he ducked to the side, but not before Merlin careened into him, sending them flying sideways.

Merlin's momentum carried him onto his back and pinned him to the ground, pressing him down.

As he struck the floor, flinging out a hand to catch himself, Arthur's arm sliced across a jagged piece of mortar. He knew a flare of pain that ran along his arm, but that wasn't what alarmed him.

His arm had instinctively shot out to wrap itself around Merlin, who was panting fast on top of him.

With Merlin's body plastered against his, he could feel every contour and part of it. The contact seared him, but that what made him gasp was the trickle of liquid that seeped from Merlin's shoulder to make his own jumper soggy.

While Leon and Tristan secured the corridor, Arthur said, “You're bleeding.”

“Shoulder,” said Merlin. “No worries.”

He even picked himself up to prove there was no need to worry. But Arthur didn't believe him for a moment. Merlin was pale and starting to shiver. He hadn't lost much blood yet, but fear and pain were clearly doing a number on him.

Arthur heaved himself to his feet, getting the weapon Merlin had sent skittering down the corridor to save him. When he straightened, he said. “You're lying. Can you continue?”

Merlin was leaning against the wall, cupping his shoulder, a taut face signalling how poorly he was doing. “Of course I can continue. We're here to save my dad. Then get out. Whatever it takes. Or people like me will have no future.”

Arthur opened his mouth to argue this point, how they couldn't afford Merlin's loss, they couldn't cope without him, when surprise stopped him in his tracks.

After having narrowed her eyes at Merlin, Morgana and Agravaine started backing away and when Arthur saw them, Morgana said, “Merlin is right. People with magic will never have a future for as long as Uther lives.”

She took another backward step so she was level with a hallway branching out from the one they were in. “Your priority being the PM, I fear you won't take him out. Because you never will, Arthur. And Merlin won't because of you. Up to now I've been misjudging Merlin's vindictiveness. Though his priority would be Uther. But seeing as it isn't. I must rid the country from the aberration that Uther is.”

So saying she went off at a run, separating herself from the others. Arthur didn't doubt for one moment that she had only come along to get her way. Now that she thought she couldn't have Merlin do what she wanted, she'd go do her thing.

“Morgana!” Arthur shouted after her. “You can't leave us now. Not with Merlin like this,” he said, playing on her loyalty.

Tristan said, “Let her be. I never fully trusted her anyway.”

Leon yelled at Morgana too, trying to make her see reason, but that was just Leon's personality talking. Agravaine just trotted after Morgana.

“All right,” said Arthur, “we just lost one but that doesn't mean that we can't do it.”

Merlin nodded his head. “Let's go get my dad.”

Tristan was the first to move, Leon the second. Arthur threw a look at Merlin that he tried hard to load with everything he was feeling. Merlin of course was already powering down the corridor and Arthur had to concede that there was no time for feelings. There was little they could do in the position they were in but soldier on. If they retreated they would still be pursued. They'd only give these UFAM people time to regroup and send men after them.

They'd have to make do with Morgana's betrayal.

Arthur sped after Leon and Tristan, catching up with Merlin and being his cover. This was what he'd been trained for; what he knew how to do. Protect people. He took out one mercenary descending from an emergency staircase. The man rolled into a heap and didn't get up again.

More mercenaries came at them, Merlin using his magic to protect them all, to fling the UFAM guards as far away from them as possible, disabling their weapons when he could, making sizzling hot rods of them that were instantly dropped when he couldn't.

The more they advanced the more Merlin stooped or tended to stumble. Beads of sweat ran down the side of his face and dripped off the ends of his hair. He wiped them away with the back of his hand or of his arm. His face was getting pasty and translucent, like old parchment exposed to the sun. The blood loss certainly wasn't helping on that score either.

His voice was less than steady when he had to cast. So he stopped doing it aloud, his spells losing in precision without the verbal directives, but not in power. Though Arthur was sure Merlin had to put in even more effort than before to obtain the desired result.

He disarmed, disabled or killed ten men and that almost all alone. Tristan and Leon were being wingmen and as for Arthur, his impromptu sniping only served to eliminate the most immediate threats.

They ran into more trouble when Tristan was disarmed by one of the guards, his arm bent behind his back and twisted till a grunt and a sickening crunch made Arthur step in, take aim, shoot, but not before Tristan's arm started to hang limply by his side. It was his right arm.

Gritting his teeth, Tristan pulled himself up. At Arthur's shocked glance, he said, “Can still shoot with my left.”

Arthur nodded but promised himself to watch out. As he was now Tristan should have to be sent back. He would have been if this was a military action. But they couldn't let him retreat alone, because he'd be easy pickings. And they couldn't spare someone to escort him back. On the other hand, having him continue would be paramount to having him become a liability.

Arthur was almost starting to regret not having allowed Guinevere to take part in the action. She might have helped do this. Then again she had no training and no magic. He wouldn't have wanted her here of all places. Where she could die, God forbid. “Let's move,” he said, “before more of those goons come at us.”

Merlin stopped them. “Wait,” he said, and moved over to them, putting a hand on Tristan's injured arm. Tristan hissed and Arthur had no idea what Merlin was doing. Then Merlin started muttering unintelligible words quite fast under his breath, brow marred by a deep frown, the lines of his body taut with strain.

Arthur realised Merlin was doing magic but he couldn't guess at what kind until Tristan exhaled and his face lost the lines pain had already etched on them.

“Did you heal him?” Arthur asked when Merlin stumbled away from Tristan.

“Not really,” said Merlin. “I'm crap at healing magic. But I made it better for a while. It will hold for a few minutes.”

“Can't you do this on yourself too?” Leon asked while still training his weapon at the long corridor unfolding before them.

“Doesn't work that way,” Merlin said, pinched face a study in weakness. “Can't do it on myself because that would be like—” He was interrupted by a very loud crash coming from behind them.

Leon whirled around, probably expecting to be rushed from behind. But no one came at them.

It was then that Arthur realised what had happened. “They locked us in. They sprung the emergency lock up system on us.”

“So we only have the main exit left,” Tristan said.

“If that.”

“That means we really have to win, then,” said Merlin, waving them onwards. “I see no other way.”

As they advanced down the corridor and further into the compound they were beset by more guards.

Leon was the one covering them now because Merlin magic kept misfiring. Arthur pushed Merlin on until a hand clamped around Arthur's ankle, sending him skidding headlong.

The impact with the ground drove the breath from him and he had to fight to keep his weapon.

Someone rammed against him.

Having to give up on keeping his semi automatic, Arthur tried to roll on his back even while the person clambered on top of him. It was one of those guards they'd left behind thinking they'd be out of it for long enough to allow them to finish their mission. This meant the man was weapon-less, having lost it when Merlin be-spelled as many of their rifles as he could. If he hadn’t been Arthur would have been dead. This didn't mean the mercenary had lost his sense of aggression.

“Go on,” Arthur gritted out as the man wrapped his hands around Arthur's throat. “Get to the PM.”

Merlin lingered, unable to proceed. Two more mercenaries rained on them so that both Leon and Tristan had their hands full.

“Go!” Arthur yelled at Merlin. “Go and they don't have their main bargaining chip.”

Merlin's face was washed in tears. “Arthur,” he mouthed.

But Arthur was too busy to urge Merlin on again. He got his knees under him even while his windpipe was being crushed, then he kicked the mercenary off him and into the wall embrasure behind him.

When Merlin saw Arthur fighting, he nodded his head and raced down the rest of the corridor and the stairs. Arthur, Leon and Tristan were busy with their own opponents.

In the time Arthur took to get his breath back, the mercenary had got up. His eyes widened when he saw Arthur's gun on the floor. He went for it. Arthur should have seen it. He tackled the mercenary the moment he made a dive for his gun.

As Arthur charged him, wrapping a hand around the man's shoulder, the mercenary reached for Arthur's belt.

The knife. He was trying to get at the knife. Arthur slammed the mercenary into the wall opposite, making him go briefly limp. The mercenary paid him back with the same coin, rushing him backwards.

A crate someone had left there struck him on the chest, and then his back was driven into the wall. It hurt, the more so when he struck his head in the back lash.

His vision swam but he wasn't otherwise injured. He hissed. The man went for him again and Arthur swept his feet from under him, landing a blow on his side and head, rolling him against the wall. The mercenary brought up both his arms and criss-crossed them in self defence.

He used his lower limbs to get Arthur off him only to dance back in his range. Arthur intercepted a punch and a chop move to the side. To deflect all blows he used fast, snappy whip-like action. This counter action served to shock his opponent.

The man was, in fact, confused by Arthur's style of fighting, clearly not knowing which part of his body to aim for when Arthur was quick enough to respond to every move he pulled.

Arthur blocked a bunch and a flying kick in turn, angering the mercenary, who was by now snarling at him.

Arthur responded by kicking out too and that was when he felt the side of his shoe scrape along his opponent's rib cage.

The man shouted and Arthur knew he had broken some of his ribs. He closed in then, using his advantage, raining blows on the mercenary the man couldn't properly deflect.

And then Arthur had an in.

Having edged close enough, Arthur grabbed him by the neck and drove the man's head into the wall. If that wasn't conducive to a broken skull Arthur didn't know what was or how to stop the man short of outright killing him.

The man slumped down the wall and sprawled at its base, eyes closed. That was good enough for now.

Free of his attacker, Arthur turned to see how Tristan and Leon were faring. They were both locked in hand to hand fights with the UFAM mercenaries.

“Go,” Leon shouted. “Go cover Merlin.”

Arthur moved, hesitated before rounding the corner, and was again told to go and then he broke into a run to get to Merlin in time.

He skidded down a corridor then down the next one. Finally, he found the stairs leading to the lower floor and the underground cells. Head bent down, he ran till his lungs almost burst and had made it halfway down the passageway when he heard the voices.

“We're at an impasse, Merlin,” a voice Arthur recognised as Aeredian's, the UFAM second in command, broke the silence. “You move, use your magic on me, and I kill your father.”

“You kill my father and I kill you.” Merlin's tones were cutting and so different from his usual ones. To the point that this didn't sound like Merlin at all.

Arthur's fingers closed around the butt of his gun. He wanted to barge in but he had to find a way to peek inside, see what was happening, before he could.

He used the conversation that was going on to cover his steps and he crawled to the door from the other side.

“Yet,” said Aeredian in a thoughtful tone, “I've still got the advantage. I'm here, you're there, and so are 40 men I'm paying to do away with scum like you.”

Arthur could finally see what was going on. The Prime Minister was manacled to a dingy desk, Aeredian stood behind him, a gun to the PM's temple, while Merlin kept to the other side of the room, his hand stretched out.

“My magic can cause a lot of damage,” Merlin said glacially. “Hurt lots. You want to try that while we wait for the guards?” There was a pause, one engineered to get Aeredian's hackles up. “I'm sure that scratching that itch would be very nice.”

Merlin was buying time; that was good. What wasn't was that he was in Arthur's line of fire. Arthur couldn't take Aeredian out without hitting Merlin. He could warn him to his presence but if he did, Aeredian would be alerted too and that would surely lead him to shoot Mr Emrys.

“Move, Merlin, move.” Arthur took aim, but didn't pull the trigger. Couldn't. Not with Merlin between the bullet and Aeredian.

“Merlin, go,” said Mr Emrys, as the leader he was. “Save yourself. You don't want to stay and see what he does to people like you when I'm dead. Keep up the fight. Take it where I didn't have the courage to. Rebel against these terrorists. These people who'd take away your freedom.”

The sound of running footsteps put a stop to Emrys' speech. Arthur spun round and trained his gun on the oncoming person. It was none other than Father. A man he hadn't seen in eight years.

Aeredian took the sound to mean that reinforcements were coming. Arthur saw him move and pull the trigger out of the corner of his eyes at the same time Merlin roared and cast. Still keeping Father in his field of vision, his own gun still levelled at him, Arthur watched as Aeredian went flying, as he was tossed against the wall. Heard the snap of his neck and Merlin's wail.

Arthur gently pulled the loop of the trigger towards him, squeezing by a thread. “What have you done to Morgana?” he asked his father, aiming for his heart.

“Nothing,” said Uther. “Her magic goes haywire when she's angry. She's lying unconscious in my office.” Uther smiled. “The same cannot be said of her lackey.”

Arthur compressed the trigger a little more. “And what do you expect me to do now?” Arthur asked. “Let you go?”

“You're my son, Arthur,” said Father. “Drop this magic support lark and do your duty.”

“My duty isn't persecuting people.” Sweat was running into his eyes; his finger trembling on the trigger.”

“Magic killed your mother,” said Father. “It's your duty as a son to make sure people wielding it aren't allowed to harm anybody else. It's your duty to see to their punishment.”

Arthur blinked away the sweat, hand trembling. “One mistake, one!” Arthur said. “And you're damning thousands upon thousands of people to persecution and death. To dictatorship.”

“That's all they deserve,” Father proclaimed. “Don't you see? They think they're better than us because of the abilities they have. Their powers. Their unnatural powers. People like you, me, and your mother--” Father's eyes glinted with the hint of tears. “Could have lived happily but for them. Safe. We could have prospered. We could have enjoyed the blessing of a normal, loving family circle.”

Father waved his arms out and lowered his gun, put it on the ground. “Now, of course, if you want to kill your own father to make a point, that's entirely up to you. It's your call.” Father stood, arms spread out, as if egging him on to shoot.

Or prove what a coward Arthur was. Arthur's arm took to shaking just like his hand did, his heart doing double thumps in his chest.

He steadied himself slowly, bringing a hand to cup the one wielding the pistol. He placed his feet wider apart and started breathing in and out, chasing out all thoughts.

All thoughts of his childhood and him seeking out a mourning father. All thoughts of waiting for his father to take notice of him, spying on him from his study door, asking him whether he was too busy to have a look at Arthur's homework.

He closed his eyes and opened them again. Father had not moved.

Yet time wasn't standing still and the longer Arthur lingered, the more difficult he was making the getting out.

He wavered, the trigger a hair's breadth away from clicking. But Merlin appeared in the doorway to the cell that had held his father.

Tear tracks coursed down his cheeks; his watery eyes seemed to have lost all the light they'd had in them. et Merlin's chin was angled defiantly up. “So you think we harmed you,” he said. “Yet the one who's lying dead right now is my dad.”

“Merlin,” Arthur said. “I don't think I can.”

“I can,” said Merlin.

Arthur lowered his gun. Uther lifted his for the first time. If Arthur had gauged the line of fire correctly he was going for Merlin's head.

Merlin said a word, a short and clipped one, and Uther was hurtled backwards. He skidded a few yards and then went down to the ground like a ton of bricks.

 

****

 

It started out as a gentle kiss, soft and lingering, the TV blaring on in the background.

But then Merlin parted Arthur's lips, tongued his bottom lip and licked into his mouth. After a single deep, shuddering breath Arthur responded, easing into it as if born to do just this.

Merlin loved Arthur's mouth. Loved the firmness of his lips, the wet softness of his tongue. He even loved the graze of his teeth. It was the only thing that kept making sense in Merlin's world.

Arthur deepened the kiss, one hand cupping Merlin's cheek, his thumb brushing the corner of Merlin's mouth and found Merlin's retreating tongue with his.

Merlin licked back at it, delved deeper, one of his hands on Arthur's nape, the other holding his hip, sliding up to feel the muscles contracting,

Arthur opened wider for him, sucked on him. Merlin pushed the sides of his shirt apart to better reach, to touch warm flesh. His heartbeat accelerated. Merlin clambered on Arthur's lap, bracing himself against the sofa, latching onto his mouth again, peppering it with kisses that were sometimes shallow and sometimes warm and deep.

He pressed against Arthur, Arthur responding with the thrust of his body against his, the thickness of his cock tenting the fabric of his trousers.

“Merlin, Merlin, wait,” Arthur said against his mouth, pushing at his waist to get him to stop.

Merlin didn't grasp why till he'd turned his head to see that the BBC News Channel was being been broadcast on BBC One, a red strap-line highlighting the breaking story: “

UFAM wins new general elections with 520 seats. Uther Pendragon to take lead as Prime Minister.”

“Rigged election,” Arthur said, while Merlin mouthed, “Fuck.”

A reporter further recapped the situation, explaining how the country had had to go through new general elections after the deaths of half of the cabinet.

“Uther Pendragon picks up the banner from John Aeredian, deceased leader of the Anti Magic League and against opposition leader Morgana Fay.” The reporter pressed on her earpiece. “Wait, we have the PM's Speech live,” she said.

Uther Pendragon was standing behind a microphone, the door to Downing Street framing the shot. Merlin felt bile rising in his throat at the déjà-vu.

He climbed off Arthur and came to stand, picking up the remote.

Uther was saying, “Good morning. As you know I've just come from Buckingham Palace where the Queen has asked me to form a new administration. I have accepted. It is, of course, a great honour and a great responsibility. Especially in times such as these, with me stepping in as a representative for UFAM in place of its former leader John Aeredian, who died at the hands of rebel sorcerers.”

Merlin shook his head, gaping at the screen. “He's painting himself as the victim,” said Merlin, not exactly incredulous but certainly indignant.

“It's a tremendous privilege,” Uther went on, “to be elected to answer the people's call for peace and elimination of magic.”

“Magic is a part of the sorcerer, you bastard,” said Merlin. “Doesn't he know that? What the fuck!”

Merlin was so busy cursing he didn't hear Arthur pad over, but felt the hand squeezing his shoulder.

“This time,” Arthur said, “I won't fail. My father or not that's...dictatorship. But I swear to you, I'll help you overthrow him. I'll be by your side.”

“I know,” said Merlin, listening to Uther speechifying. “I know. I couldn't kill your father either, with you there. But I'll do what my father said. I'll fight for the sorcerers. Gather them round. Lead them on. Perhaps that's my calling, who knows? And now I've been training for it, Uther had better fear me.”

 

The End.