The television is blaring loudly in the room next to his. From the exaggerated moans and fake cries of more, harder, fuck yeah just like that he can tell it's cheaply made porn that the motel is probably charging way too much for.
Arthur sits on his bed, leaning back against the headboard with one leg stretched out in front of him and the other bent at the knee. His arm rests on that knee, a lit cigarette dangling from his fingers as blue-grey smoke curls from the tip and floats toward the stained ceiling. His own television is on, the pictures flashing brightly in the midnight-dark of his room. The sound is muted and he thinks maybe it's playing some old movie, but since he doesn't recognize it he doesn't care. There's a lot he doesn't care about these days.
His gun, Excalibur, is beside him on the bed, loaded and ready—just in case. It's a sleek black and silver, its name engraved across the side. It's a one-of-a-kind, made especially for him. The weight is perfect in his hand and it's more like an extension of himself than a weapon. The safety is on but Arthur is well trained, and fast; he can flip the switch and fire six rounds into the enemy before they even have time to aim their own weapon. It's a skill born of necessity, and one he—unfortunately—often gets to practice.
He doesn't even think about it anymore. It's just something he has to do to survive.
Arthur closes his eyes and leans his head back against the headboard. It's been six months since he's seen Morgana, and three years since he's seen Merlin and Merlin's sister Freya. Even longer since he's seen Gwen and Lance, since Will died. It feels like it's been much longer. Sometimes he has trouble seeing their faces in his head; they're blurred around the edges, fading into his subconscious. He would know them if he saw them, but the memories are becoming sepia-toned.
Except for Merlin. Merlin's memory will never fade—his mop of black hair, his ridiculous ears, his open grin and easy laugh. It's his eyes Arthur remembers most, though—the startling blue, bright with laughter, dark with lust, brimming with grief.
The flash of deep gold that betrays the immense power he holds tight inside of him.
Arthur scowls and opens his eyes; he doesn't want to think about Merlin. All he wants to do is find Morgana and retire from the whole fucking resistance shit. Unfortunately, he's beginning to suspect that he won't be able to do the latter without the former.
He uses the remote to turn the television off and then reaches over to crush his half-finished cigarette in the tray on the table next to the bed. The smoke continues to curl upwards, almost glowing in the pale moonlight shining through the window.
He doesn't bother undressing before he slides under the scratchy sheets; he's been caught unawares in the middle of the night too many times for him to risk it. Fighting naked is always more troublesome than just fighting. He slides Excalibur under his pillow, his hand resting on it just in case. Arthur closes his eyes and eases his breathing, concentrating on the in and out of it. It doesn't take long before he's drifting off into an uneasy sleep filled with dreams of flashing gold and blue.
When Arthur wakes he's in the same position he fell asleep in. Soft sunlight spills through the window and falls directly across his eyes, and he rubs them with the heels of his hands as he sits up. Excalibur is still clutched in his right hand, and he instinctively checks to make sure it's still loaded and the safety on. He picks up his watch from the nightstand and glances quickly at it before setting it back down and sliding from the bed. It's just after seven, which means he has time for a shower and shave before having to head out to meet his new source.
His small duffel bag is sitting on the only chair in the room, and Arthur slides Excalibur into the back waistband of his jeans before digging through it for his last clean change of clothes. He'll have to find a Laundromat at some point that day. He shuffles into the tiny bathroom and locks the door behind him before carefully pulling Excalibur from his jeans and placing it on the side of the sink. He quickly strips and climbs into the small, dingy shower. The water is blessedly hot, and Arthur allows himself to stand under it for longer than usual.
His thoughts turn to Merlin, as they have been doing more and more lately. Merlin could help him find Morgana, he knows. But Merlin left of his own accord, and the last thing Arthur wants to do is beg him to come back. It wouldn't take much to reopen the connection between them, to reach out with his mind and find Merlin wherever he was. Arthur had cut that line off for a reason, though, and he isn't sure he's ready to face the consequences of having it back.
Scowling, he quickly washes his hair and runs the soapy washcloth over himself. The water is starting to go cold already, so he rinses and cuts it off, stepping out and grabbing a towel from the rack. He dries himself and then knots the towel around his waist before reaching for his shaving kit. The foam is cool on his face and the razor soothing as he pulls it over his skin. Merlin used to offer to shave him with magic, but Arthur always refused. There's something about the task that makes him feel normal in a world that is anything but.
Unfortunately, he can't take the time to enjoy it today. His meeting is soon, and for Morgana's sake he can't afford to miss it. He finishes his task and removes his towel to wipe his face down before dropping it on the floor and reaching for his clothes. Once he's dressed in his clean jeans and black long-sleeved t-shirt, Excalibur in its holster on his side, Arthur takes a second to look at himself in the grungy mirror over the sink. He isn't too surprised at what he sees, though it does make him wince.
His hair is long, hanging into his eyes, and if Morgana were still there she would make him cut it. He is thin; thinner than he can ever remember being. His cheekbones are prominent, though even now they're no match for Merlin's. There are dark circles under his blue eyes, which are now dull and haunted instead of bright and determined. Arthur can't remember the last time he laughed, but he's willing to bet it was before Merlin had taken Freya and run.
Shooting a sharp glare at himself, Arthur abruptly turns away and presses his ear to the bathroom door. All is silent on the other side, but he places his hand on Excalibur anyway before unlocking the door and pulling it open. There's nobody there, of course, and Arthur's mouth twists wryly at his own paranoia. He gathers his dirty clothes and shaving kit and shoves it all into his duffel bag before zipping it closed. His leather jacket is draped over the back of the chair, and he quickly pulls it on.
Arthur grabs his watch from the nightstand and slips it over his wrist, buckling the soft leather band with practiced ease. It had long ago been a gift from Merlin, and is completely indestructible—even the batteries refuse to die. He grabs his duffel bag and slings the strap over his shoulder, pulling the key from one of its pockets as he walks out the door. He doesn't bother to look back; the room was nothing more than a place to sleep and shower. Everything he owns is either in the duffel bag or on his body.
The main office is just as grungy and run down as the rest of the motel, and the bored looking girl behind the counter does nothing more than smack her gum and hold out her hand for the key. Arthur hands it over without a word and walks back out. His motorbike is parked in front of the room he was in, and he quickly removes his helmet from the small compartment on the back, replacing it with his bag. He throws one leg over the seat and glances around just in case before slipping the helmet over his head.
There's a small screen of numbers between the handlebars, and Arthur quickly enters the code to start the bike. As it rumbles to life beneath him he feels a familiar surge of adrenaline. He loves this bike, and takes great satisfaction in the knowledge that the only people it will start for is himself and Merlin. He raises the kickstand and backs out of the parking space, turning in the direction of the back entrance. The town he's headed for is small, out of the way, and most people avoid it if they can. He can't, so he turns left and focuses on the road ahead of him.
It takes Arthur three hours to get to his destination. His arse is numb by the time he pulls up to the dank little pub, and his legs are stiff as he climbs from his bike. He hangs his helmet over one of the handlebars and runs one hand through his hair. Making sure Excalibur is well concealed beneath his jacket, Arthur pushes through the door and pauses just long enough for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness. The pub isn't very crowded at this time of day, but that's what Arthur was aiming for when he set up this meeting.
His eyes rake over the few occupied tables until he spots the man he's looking for at one in the back corner. Arthur studies him for a long minute, taking in the overly casual posture and the way his eyes dart around without settling on anything in particular. Narrowing his own eyes, Arthur automatically flexes his right hand. The man spots him then and sits up straighter, giving a small jerk of his head. Arthur doesn't hesitate as he makes his way through the tables to the partially hidden one the man is at.
He slides into the seat opposite the man, keeping their gazes locked as he carefully slides Excalibur from its holster, switching the safety off. He purposely keeps it hidden beneath the table. "Cedric."
"Pendragon," the man returns, shifting in his seat. "You have my money?"
"You have my information?" Arthur shoots back.
"Money first," Cedric says, fingers tapping out a rhythm on the table top.
Arthur raises an eyebrow but reaches into his inside jacket pocket with his left hand. He pulls out an envelope stuffed with money, and makes to hand it over. Just before Cedric can touch it, however, Arthur yanks it back out of reach.
"My information," he says coldly.
Cedric hesitates, but then nods. "Last I heard, your sister was headed north. Looking for somebody…or something." Cedric smirks. "Camelot, supposedly. Gone a bit mad in the head, has she?"
Arthur doesn't react; he's used to the insults, and is able to keep his anger at bay. "Are you lying to me, Cedric?" he asks.
Cedric's smile is smarmy as he leans back in his chair. "What reason do I have to lie to you?" He shrugs. "Besides, anybody who knows who you are knows you can sniff out a pile of shit no matter how sweet it smells."
Arthur is forced to admit the truth behind that statement, no matter how crass, and he knows instinctively that Cedric isn't lying about Morgana. "In that case, Cedric, do tell me—have you sold me out?"
Cedric's reaction would have gone unnoticed by anybody other than Arthur, but he can see the way the man's smile stills a certain way and his shoulders stiffen almost imperceptibly.
"Before you answer," Arthur says casually, "you should know that I have my gun pointed at your balls."
All the color drains from Cedric's face and his eyes dart quickly to the table top, then to Arthur's right arm, and finally back to Arthur's face. "Right," he chokes out, swallowing hard.
And then he brings his hand up and scratches at the side of his jaw.
Arthur tenses, and catches sudden movement in his peripheral vision. There is a beat of silence, a single moment in which everything freezes and all of his senses are honed onto this one thing. And then the world begins again, spinning as out of control as it has so many times before. He turns just in time to see one of the other people in the pub rise from his seat, the gun in his hand pointing at Arthur. In the split second it takes the man to move his finger over the trigger, Arthur has Excalibur out from under the table and the man has a bullet in his head.
Before the assassin's body even hits the floor Arthur is up and heading for the door at a dead run. Two others stand and aim their own weapons at him, but he fires off two quick rounds as he runs, and they crumple to the floor as well. Just as he's pushing the door open and bursting out into the bright sunlight, his body jerks and he stumbles, a burning pain exploding in his shoulder. He thinks, fuck, but doesn't slow down, jumping onto his bike and hitting the emergency button on the screen.
The bike roars to life and he kicks up the stand, twisting the handles and hitting the accelerator. The tires spin and squeal, the bike shuddering as it takes off. Arthur hears cursing and more guns firing as he disappears around the corner of the building, and presses harder on the gas.
It isn't until the pub is a distant speck and he's surrounded by nothing but road that he carefully shoves Excalibur into its holster and his helmet on his head.
Arthur takes a few convoluted back roads, ignoring the growing pain in his shoulder, and eventually finds a motel in the middle of nowhere. He parks the bike, kills the engine, and hits the stealth button on the screen. The bike disappears beneath him and he vaguely realizes that he probably should have climbed off first. His focus is fading, and that is most definitely not good. Arthur carefully rises from the seat and tosses his helmet down where he had just been, and it vanishes.
The office is only a few feet away, and he manages to stumble through the door and to the desk. Behind it sits a spotty teenage boy, and his eyes widen as Arthur grips onto the edge of the wood. He can imagine how he looks—pale and sweaty and obviously in a tremendous amount of pain—but he doesn't really give a shit.
"A room," he grits out between clenched teeth. "Now."
The boy nods jerkily and grabs a key from the wall behind him, shoving it at Arthur as though it's cursed. Arthur takes it and manages to pull a few notes from his pocket to toss in the boy's direction. Outside the main office, he glances down at the number on the tag, fighting off a wave of dizziness. Fortunately he's been given room two, which is only a few steps away. It takes all of Arthur's dwindling strength to make it to the room, and he has to try three times before he gets the key in the lock. He stumbles through and slams the door behind him, leaning against it and taking several deep breaths.
He forces himself to push away from the door, making his way to the small bathroom. The light is already on, the light bulb flickering, and Arthur somehow manages to peel off his jacket and shirt without screaming from the pain. He drops them both on the floor and twists to look at the back of his shoulder in the mirror. His heart nearly stops at what he sees. There's an entrance wound, yes, but instead of gushing blood there's a wicked black web beginning to spread just under the surface of his skin.
"Fuck," Arthur says, and his vision immediately blurs.
He knows in that instant that he has only two choices: let the virus kill him, or reopen his connection with Merlin and hope that the bastard finds him in time. He turns and tries to move back into the bedroom, but trips just as he clears the door. Arthur lands in a heap on the floor at the end of the bed. His muscles are starting to seize, the burning intensifying and making him cry out. He realizes that he no longer has a choice, and as he starts to fade from consciousness he reaches out with his mind and clutches at his last hope.
Help me, he thinks desperately as the connection flares to life for the first time in three long years. Please…
The first time Arthur wakes the only thing he is able to register is the soft, sibilant hiss of words and a pleasant, tingling warmth that envelopes him from head to foot.
He quickly slips back into unconsciousness.
The second time Arthur wakes he manages to open his eyes. He blinks a few times before focusing on achingly familiar blue eyes that are dark with worry.
Oh, he thinks. I'm dreaming, then. Or dead.
"Sleep," the dream-ghost murmurs, soothing fingers cool on his brow. "You're safe."
And so Arthur does.
The third time Arthur wakes, it is fully and completely. He curses loudly and vehemently several times as his shoulder and right arm burn with pain. A snort sounds from nearby and then a firm hand rests on his shoulder, the pain fading to something much more manageable.
Arthur groans, relaxing further into the bed he's on, his eyes still closed. "Christ, that hurt," he manages to gasp out.
"I'm sure it did," a voice says, sounding both amused and worried.
And now that the pain isn't threatening to turn him inside out, Arthur finally registers that he's not alone. His eyes open and he stares, stunned. "Merlin?" he asks hesitantly, voice scratchy and weak.
Merlin smiles, though it's strained around the edges. "Who else would it be?" He pauses, eyes searching Arthur's. "You called; I came."
Oh, right, Arthur thinks, remembering. He ignores Merlin's protests and struggles into a sitting position, suddenly very aware that he's wearing nothing but his boxers. "The virus?"
"I removed it," Merlin answers, sitting on the side of the bed. "Contained it." He scowls. "I was almost too late. Why did you wait so bloody long?"
Arthur snorts and runs one hand over his face and then back up through his hair. "I didn't realize that's what it was until I got here. I'd thought it was just a regular bullet." He realizes something and looks around, frantic. "Where's Excalibur?"
"Under your pillow," Merlin says. "I figured that's where you'd automatically look. What the fuck happened, Arthur?"
Arthur ignores him and twists around to move his pillow. His shoulder protests but he ignores that too, picking up his gun and bringing it back in front of him to examine it. The safety is on and the three missing rounds have been replaced.
Arthur lets out a single humorless laugh. "Even after three years you know me too well." He looks up to see Merlin scowling at him.
"Tell me what happened," Merlin says tightly, eyes fierce and angry.
Arthur stares back at him, wondering just how much he should say. There used to be a time when he wouldn't have hesitated to tell Merlin everything.
"I was meeting somebody," he finally says. "He had some information I wanted. He gave it to me, but he'd already sold me out. I killed three of the Support and had nearly gotten away when that bloody Black Widow hit me."
"So you jumped on your bike, drove like hell until you found this place, realized exactly what you'd been hit with, and reconnected with me because it was either that or die," Merlin finishes for him, and there's no mistaking the bitterness in his voice.
Arthur has no idea what to say to that, so he just stares.
"Right," Merlin says flatly, jaw setting as he turns away. "Care to tell me what kind of information was important enough to risk your life over?"
"Not really," Arthur answers.
Merlin turns furious eyes toward him, expression angrier than Arthur can ever remember. "Oh, that's rich, Arthur, even for you. I can't believe, after everything—," he cuts himself off, rising from the bed in a single, fluid motion, stalking halfway across the small motel room before abruptly turning back. "Alright, if that's how you want it. Get some rest and you should be fine in a day or two."
Arthur blinks and then realizes exactly what Merlin means as he heads for the door. Sudden unexpected panic overtakes him, and Arthur scrambles across the bed. "No! Wait, I—" he cuts off with a strangled cry as his shoulder suddenly seizes with pain.
Merlin pauses and looks over his shoulder at Arthur, who is now curled into a ball on the bed. He sighs and turns back, grabbing Arthur by his left elbow. "Come on, you great big prat. You're just going to cause more damage."
Arthur allows Merlin to push at him until he's lying flat, the ceiling swimming above him. When Merlin starts to move away again Arthur reaches out and grasps his wrist. "Don't go," he rasps out.
Merlin stops, looking down at him with a carefully guarded expression. "On one condition," he eventually says. Arthur waits, and Merlin's eyes tell him that he's deadly serious. "The next time you wake up, you tell me what the hell is going on."
Arthur hesitates only a second before nodding; he can't do it by himself anymore. Merlin seems satisfied with this, and carefully extricates his wrist from Arthur's grasp. He places his hand just over Arthur's eyes and whispers a spell, his own eyes flashing gold.
Arthur slips into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Arthur finally wakes again the room is dark, aside from the harsh glow of the television. He glances over and sees Merlin in the chair next to the bed, legs stretched out in front of him and head leaning back against the wall. His eyes are closed but Arthur can tell he's not asleep. Sitting up, he carefully rotates his right shoulder, pleased to find that it's now only slightly sore. He swings his legs over the side of the bed and slowly stands, relieved when the world doesn't spin around him.
"You doubt my healing abilities?" Merlin asks dryly from his chair, not opening his eyes.
"Of course not," Arthur answers after a brief pause. "I'm just not used to them anymore."
Merlin makes a noise that Arthur can't quite interpret, so he pads over to the bathroom and quietly shuts the door behind him. After relieving himself he glances into the mirror, unable to stop the grimace that crosses his face. His hair is dull and lank, badly in need of a wash, and his cheeks seem even more hollowed out than before. There's a clean white bandage covering the place where the Black Widow bullet entered the back of his shoulder.
Sighing, he leaves the bathroom, glancing warily at Merlin as he climbs back onto the bed and sits with his legs crossed. There's a pizza box on the nightstand, and Arthur opens it to find half a ham and pineapple pizza left. It doesn't surprise him that it's still hot. He's halfway through his third slice before he looks up to find Merlin watching him. Suddenly self-conscious, he quickly swallows the bite that was in his mouth and grabs a napkin.
"Thank you," Arthur finally says, staring down at the pizza in his hand. "For coming. Saving my life."
Merlin is silent for several long moments. "Did you think I wouldn't?" His tone is odd, something off about it that Arthur can't quite place.
Arthur shrugs, not looking up. "Maybe. I don't know."
"Then you're more of an idiot than I thought," Merlin says flatly, and Arthur scowls, his gaze rising sharply to meet Merlin's. "Tell me what's going on," Merlin insists before Arthur can protest.
Remembering his promise, Arthur's stomach twists and he grimaces down at his half-eaten pizza slice. Appetite quickly fading, he drops it back into the box and looks back at Merlin. "I don't actually know," he says carefully.
Merlin's eyebrows shoot up and he looks incredulous. "You can start with why Morgana isn't here—why she didn't have your back."
Arthur winces and takes a deep breath. "She's missing."
"Missing?" Merlin repeats, sitting up straighter. He obviously hadn't been expecting that. "What exactly do you mean by 'missing'?"
"What do you mean, what do I mean?" Arthur asks, dumbfounded. "I mean missing. She's gone, she's not here, she's somewhere else and I have no idea where!" He gestures around vaguely with his hands. Merlin stares at him as though he's lost his mind, and Arthur thinks that maybe he has.
"You're going to have to be more specific than that, Arthur," Merlin says slowly. "When did she go missing? Did she just up and leave with no word, or was she captured?"
"Six months ago," Arthur answers, suddenly very tired. "And I'm pretty sure she left of her own accord. We were on our way to help out a small group down south, and we stopped at a motel. When I woke up the next morning she was gone."
Merlin frowns. "And there was no note? Nothing to let you know what had happened?"
Arthur shakes his head and forces his gaze to meet Merlin's. "No. She'd been having a rough time for a while—odd dreams, and sometimes even a vision or two. Every now and then she would mention someone named Mordred, but whenever I started asking questions she would shut me out."
"Maybe she doesn't want to be found," Merlin says, staring at Arthur with an oddly blank expression.
Arthur stares back, his gut twisting again. "Maybe," he concedes. "But there's something about it that just doesn't sit right with me."
Merlin nods slowly. "Tell me, Arthur," he says, and his voice is suddenly ten degrees colder. "Is there a reason you didn't contact me sooner? Did you think I wouldn't care that Morgana was in trouble?"
"It's not like that," Arthur protests bitingly. "I just…I thought I could find her on my own."
Merlin's expression is hard, unforgiving. "Meaning you were being just as stubborn and selfish as usual. I'm not surprised, really."
Anger rises sharply in Arthur, and he glares at Merlin. "I'm being stubborn and selfish?" he asks in disbelief. "You're the one who gave up, the one who left without letting me have a say in the matter."
"Because not everything is about you!" Merlin snaps, rising from his chair at the same time Arthur jumps up from the bed. Merlin's fists are clenched, and Arthur can see sparks of gold flickering in his eyes. "My sister needed me, but you couldn't see past your own fucking cock to try and understand that!"
"I needed you too!" Arthur shouts before he realizes what he's going to say. "I needed you, and you left me!"
Merlin stares at him, and they're both breathing harshly into the space between them. "Why did you break the connection?" he finally whispers.
Because you broke my heart, Arthur thinks to himself. He shakes his head, looks away, and then finally realizes something he should have noticed to begin with. "Where is Freya, anyway?" he asks, frowning as he looks back at Merlin. "I would have thought you'd bring her with you."
Merlin pales and his entire body stiffens. "She's dead," he says, voice hard and cold. "Has been for two years."
Shock hits Arthur and he struggles to breath. "Fuck. Fuck, Merlin. Why didn't you tell me?" Merlin's face floods with fury, and Arthur takes a step back in surprise.
"How the fuck was I supposed to do that?" Merlin hisses. "I had no way to tell you. You cut off the connection, and I had no idea where you were or what you were doing. Besides," he adds, and his voice has turned bitter, "you've made it quite obvious that you don't want anything to do with me unless you have no choice."
"Don't," Merlin snaps, and walks away.
Arthur says nothing as he watches Merlin leave, slamming the door behind him.
The first hints of dawn are just sliding through the window when Merlin returns, wearing a bloody trench coat of all things. On the nightstand he sets two Styrofoam coffee cups and a bag that smells deliciously of scones, and then drops Arthur's duffel bag onto the bed beside him. Arthur stares at him, nonplussed; he had been positive Merlin wouldn't be returning. Merlin apparently interprets the expression on Arthur's face correctly because he rolls his eyes and gestures toward the duffel bag.
"You're lucky that I still like to clean when I'm upset, and even luckier there was a Laundromat nearby. I suggest you take a shower and get dressed so we can decide on a plan."
Arthur doesn't need to be told twice, and digs out a clean pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and boxers before padding into the bathroom. He showers quickly but doesn't bother shaving, although he does remember to brush his teeth.
When he comes back out of the bathroom, Merlin is sitting in the chair again, frowning thoughtfully down at the coffee cup in his hand. Arthur pauses in the bathroom door and lets his eyes trace over Merlin's drawn features. There are circles under his eyes and something more…haunted to him than there was three years ago.
He's still Merlin, though, and Arthur's breath catches in his throat.
Merlin looks up and catches his eye, his expression unreadable. Arthur clears his throat uncomfortably and walks over to the bed, stuffing his dirty clothes into his duffel bag before sitting on the side and pulling on a pair of socks and his trainers. He digs his watch out from one of the pockets and slips it on before grabbing his leather jacket and putting it on as well.
He carefully avoids Merlin's gaze as he reaches for his coffee and the bag of scones. "So you're going to help me find Morgana?" Arthur asks, focusing on his breakfast. Merlin doesn't answer immediately, and Arthur is finally forced to look up at him.
"What do you know about where she is?" Merlin asks.
Arthur shakes his head. "Not much. The information from the guy in the pub said she was headed north, looking for Camelot."
"Camelot?" Merlin repeats in surprise. "But there's no proof that facility even exists!"
"I know," Arthur says bitterly. "It's all I've got, though."
Merlin sighs. "Then I guess we head north and hope—"
He stops suddenly, his entire body stiffening and his head shooting up. His eyes narrow and Arthur knows that look, he knows it, so he's up and grabbing Excalibur from under his pillow before Merlin even manages to say, "They're here. They found us."
Arthur throws the bag of scones into the duffel bag and zips it up, throwing it over his shoulder before carefully removing the lid of his coffee. Merlin is already up and standing by the door, one hand on the knob and ear pressed to the wood, his own coffee quickly abandoned on the nightstand. Arthur catches his eye and gives a small nod, tightening his grip around both Excalibur and the cup of hot coffee. Merlin pauses for a split second and then yanks the door open. Arthur flings the hot coffee as hard as he can.
Merlin's eyes flash gold and the coffee separates and multiplies and, from the screams of the four Support outside the door, most likely increases tremendously in temperature. They fall back, and both Merlin and Arthur take off through the door. Arthur's bike is parked in the same place he left it, though the stealth has worn off.
"I'm driving!" Merlin calls over his shoulder.
Arthur wants to argue, he really does, but there's no time, so he pauses just long enough to stuff his duffel bag into the small compartment on the back before jumping on behind Merlin. The bike is already rumbling and the tires squeal as Merlin punches the gas and turns the handles. Arthur curses and automatically throws one arm around Merlin's waist to keep himself from flying off. He twists around as far as he can and aims Excalibur in the general direction of the Support, firing off a few rounds for the sole purpose of warning them to back off.
They don't seem to be trying to follow, so Arthur turns back around and only hesitates slightly before wrapping his other arm around Merlin's waist; Excalibur is still clutched tightly in his hand.
"Where are we going?" he yells into Merlin's ear as the motel fades from view behind them.
"East!" Merlin answers above the roar of the wind. "To see some old friends!"
Arthur tries not to think too hard about what that means, or about how it feels to have his arms around Merlin once more. He has the feeling it's going to be a long ride.
It's both awkward and familiar, riding behind Merlin on his own bike. Arthur isn't entirely sure where to put his hands, and finally settles them on Merlin's waist with as light a touch as he can manage without risking falling off. Excalibur has been tucked away in its holster and they still aren't wearing helmets, but Arthur can feel the buzz of protective magic around them. The bike purrs beneath him, as though telling him that it missed Merlin. He glares down at it out of pure spite.
The silence between them is heavy, ignoring the fact that they're barreling down the road at a hundred kilometers per hour. The last time they were on the bike together it had been purely for fun, arguing back and forth in their heads about which of them was the better driver. Merlin had won that particular argument, though Arthur is still hazy on the details. What he does remember involves lots of filthy sex on the side of the road, Merlin's cheeky humour and lazy, meaningful kisses full of now-shattered promises.
Scowling, Arthur shoves the memory away; that's the past, and things are very different now. He can feel the open connection between them better than he ever has before, the awareness of it and the knowledge that he can use it at anytime.
It isn't until now that Arthur realizes how much he's missed it.
He briefly considers using it to ask exactly where they're going, but he isn't sure how well it would be received. Besides, he has a sinking feeling he already knows the answer, and since he probably won't like it he keeps quiet. The wind is harsh as it blows around them, whipping Arthur's hair into his eyes. He stares at the back of Merlin's head for lack of anything better to look at, and notices how his mop of black hair has grown long enough to just barely cover the tips of his ears.
Merlin's leather trench coat is smooth and worn beneath Arthur's hands, and he can't help but wonder when Merlin had gotten it.
It hits him suddenly that he doesn't really know Merlin anymore; they've become virtual strangers in the three years since their last time together. It hurts, to be faced with this realization and the knowledge that it's his own fault. Swallowing hard, Arthur shifts his gaze to the quickly passing landscape, trying to place exactly where they are. He doesn't recognize any of it, but that doesn't surprise him in the least. He takes in as much as he can, storing it all in his memory in case he needs it later.
It's better than thinking about where it all leads to.
Several hours into the ride they stop at a small diner for lunch. The booths are a bright red and white plastic, the tables black-speckled Formica. There are neon tube lights everywhere, and a classic jukebox in the corner. They're in the middle of nowhere, and the waitress doesn't even try to look anything other than bored as she sets two glasses of water in front of them and takes their order. Arthur is distinctly uncomfortable sitting across from Merlin, and turns to glance out the window when the waitress finally walks way.
Once again, he's not sure what to do with his hands. Taking out Excalibur to reload it probably wouldn't be the best idea if they actually want to eat what they ordered, so he settles for unrolling the napkin from his silverware and shredding it into tiny pieces. Merlin is silent across from him, and Arthur suddenly wonders where all of his courage has disappeared to. He thinks maybe it got left behind at the motel, and hopes it'll catch up to him soon because he's starting to feel a bit ridiculous.
"Tell me more about Morgana," Merlin suddenly says, making Arthur jump and look up at him. "You said—," Merlin pauses and glances around at the mostly-empty diner before lowering his voice and leaning closer. "You said she was having dreams and visions but wouldn't tell you anything. Do you have any idea what they were about?"
Arthur shakes his head. "She didn't like to talk about it." He hesitates for a second, but it's Merlin, and he's there to help. "We never—," he pauses, swallows, "we never bothered to get another safe house, so we just moved from motel to motel. It was safer to share a room, and sometimes she would talk in her sleep."
He stops and Merlin doesn't say anything, staring at him with carefully guarded eyes. Arthur doesn't blame him; they'd never actually talked about what had happened. Needing something to steady him, Arthur digs into his pocket and pulls out his pack of cigarettes and cheap lighter.
Merlin's eyebrows shoot up as Arthur lights one up and takes a deep drag. "Since when do you smoke?"
"Since about three years ago," Arthur answers flatly, and Merlin's eyes narrow. Arthur ignores him and picks up where he left off. "Like I said, she would talk in her sleep sometimes. It got really bad the month before she disappeared—the nightmares came almost every night, and she said a lot of things that didn't really make sense."
"What kind of things?" Merlin asks, and Arthur barely notices the quick flash of gold before his cigarette goes out.
He glares at Merlin, who only looks back at him defiantly. "Things about the Mordred boy," he continues, relighting the cigarette. "And before you ask, yes, he's a boy. She would usually mumble something about him being 'so young', followed by 'too powerful'."
Merlin slowly shakes his head and then frowns, suddenly thoughtful. "Too powerful…," Merlin looks at Arthur meaningfully. "Do you think?"
"I do," Arthur agrees, and barely keeps from growling when his cigarette goes out again.
He immediately relights it and takes an extra-deep pull, exhaling the smoke directly into Merlin's face. Merlin only raises an eyebrow, and then there's another brief flash of gold before Arthur's cigarette disintegrates into hot ash. He curses and shakes his hand free of the embers, glaring balefully at Merlin.
"You shouldn't do things like that in public," Arthur mutters. "It isn't safe."
Merlin snorts and sits back in his booth, arms crossed over his chest. "Why do you care? For all you knew these past three years I could have already been dead."
"Well then why do you care whether or not I smoke?" Arthur snaps back, carefully not mentioning that—connection or not—he would have felt it if something had happened to Merlin.
Merlin sets his jaw and very slowly places his hands on the top of the table, leaning in again. "Because I'm not the one who cut the connection," he hisses pointedly.
Arthur has no idea what to say to that. "What happened to Freya?" he blurts without thinking, and then winces. That was not how he had wanted to ask that question.
Merlin, however, looks more resigned than surprised, and the guarded look has returned to his eyes. He doesn't answer right away, sitting back and considering Arthur carefully. It's obvious that Merlin doesn't trust him, and that hurts a whole goddamn lot more than it should.
"You don't—" Arthur starts hesitantly, but Merlin cuts him off.
"She never recovered," he says softly. "Whatever was in that bullet that hit her—it drained her magic, and then her life. Nothing I tried worked, and eventually she gave up and wouldn't let me try anymore."
Arthur stares at Merlin in horror, guilt slamming into him even harder than before. "Oh my god," he chokes out. "Merlin—"
"Here you go," the waitress suddenly interrupts, setting down two plates piled high with food. "Anything else?" They both shake their heads and she walks away.
Arthur stares at his burger and chips, appetite gone without a trace. He feels sick, heavy with sorrow and regret. Will and Freya are both dead, and it's all his fault.
"You haven't asked who we're going to see," Merlin comments, picking up one of his chips and rolling it through the ketchup.
Arthur recognizes the change of subject for what it is, and swallows down the bile rising in his throat. "Do I need to?"
Merlin's mouth turns up slightly in a parody of his cheeky smile. "I guess not." He pauses, but Arthur can't bring himself to look up so he continues staring at his food. "Eat," Merlin says firmly. "You're too damn skinny."
Arthur lets out a single, short laugh. "You're one to talk, skin and bones."
"I," Merlin protests, shaking the chip in his hand at Arthur, "have always been this way, and you know it. You, on the other hand, look as though you're about to starve. Well, compared to how you used to look, anyway."
Arthur snorts softly but reaches out and grabs one of the chips, popping it into his mouth almost reluctantly. His appetite still doesn't return but his body quickly reminds him that it does indeed need food to keep going, so he eats.
The sun has just disappeared over the horizon when they stop at a motel on the outskirts of a small village. The old man behind the counter looks at them disapprovingly, pursing his lips when they ask for a single room. Arthur glares when the old man turns his back, but Merlin shoots him a warning look so he keeps his mouth shut. There used to be a day when the two of them would have played upon the man's discomfort, but now there's too much between them.
Arthur takes the key the man gives him and leads the way to the room, stopping briefly to grab his duffel bag from the bike. The room itself is, surprisingly, in fairly good condition. The one large bed takes up most of the space, and Arthur can't help but glance at it with no small amount of trepidation. Merlin, however, doesn't seem too bothered by it, and Arthur immediately understands why when he holds out his hand and utters a few words under his breath as his eyes flash. The bed shifts and changes, and then splits into two singles.
Well. That answers that question.
Arthur pushes away the sharp stab of disappointment and turns to rummage absently through his duffel bag, reminding himself that it's better this way. It's not like he has the right to truly want it anymore, anyway. "You can shower first if you want," he offers, not looking at Merlin. "Just don't use all the hot water."
Merlin snorts. "How gracious of you," he says dryly, but there's no bite to it.
After Merlin disappears into the bathroom, Arthur collapses onto the closest bed and stares up at the ceiling. He's exhausted, and his arse hurts from being on the bike all day. His shoulder is thankfully free of any twinges or pulls, and he's pretty sure the bandage is useless at this point. The water sounds from the tiny loo, and Arthur tries desperately not to think about a very wet, very naked Merlin. He fails miserably, of course, but that doesn't really surprise him. Scowling, he forcefully pushes the thoughts away.
He's almost dozed off when the door to the bathroom opens, and Arthur automatically looks over. He freezes, his mouth going dry, when Merlin walks out with just a towel knotted loose and low around his bony hips. Arthur wants nothing more in that moment than to jump up and lick the bead of water that's trailing down the center of Merlin's chest. Merlin looks up, catching his eye, and Arthur flushes at having been caught. A small smirk appears on Merlin's face, but is gone the very next instant.
"It's all yours," he says, gesturing toward the bathroom even as he looks away. "Don't worry, I heated my water myself."
Arthur gives a short nod and quickly grabs a change of clothes from his duffel before hightailing it into the bathroom. He leans back against the shut door and curses himself inwardly for being so weak and obvious. Stripping off his clothes, Arthur turns on the shower and steps under the blissfully hot water. He doesn't bother pretending that he's going to deny himself, so he immediately reaches for his hard cock and wraps his hand around it.
His strokes are quick and firm, and he swallows back any noise that threatens to break through. When he comes he allows himself no more than a near-silent gasp, easily drowned out by the water. Afterwards, he feels even more empty and guilty than before.
When he leaves the bathroom, Merlin is already dressed (Arthur briefly wonders where he's keeping his clothes before deciding he probably doesn't want to know) and sitting on his bed, flipping idly through the channels on the television.
He glances at Arthur and then away again before looking back and offering the remote. "You want to watch something? I can't find anything interesting."
"Nah," Arthur says, shaking his head as he puts away his clothes and zips his duffel. "I'd rather just go to sleep." Excalibur is clutched in one hand and he double checks the bullets and the safety before pulling back his covers and sliding in. He slips the gun under his pillow and lies with his hand directly next to it.
Merlin has been silent, watching him, but as soon as he's settled he hears the television go off and the quiet rustle of covers. Neither of them speaks, and the silence is heavy between them. Arthur is tense, waiting for something but not knowing what.
Finally, after what seems like forever, Merlin shifts in his bed. "Goodnight, Arthur," he whispers.
Arthur swallows. "Goodnight, Merlin."
He isn't sure how long he lies there before he finally falls asleep.
Arthur is awake and sitting straight up—Excalibur aimed at the door—before he can even fully register that he heard something. Merlin is also alert in his bed, staring stonily at the door. They are both silent, waiting, unsure. The sound comes again, a small squeak and a rattle, and Arthur quickly realizes that somebody is trying to turn the knob on the door. He exchanges a significant look with Merlin, who then narrows his eyes at the door and allows them to flash gold.
A strangled gasp follows and Arthur is astounded by the look of frustrated panic that appears on Merlin's face. He raises his eyebrows, Excalibur still pointed at the door, but Merlin only shakes his head sharply and throws his covers back, standing.
Don't make a sound, Merlin's voice suddenly says in Arthur's head, startling him. He's already pulling on his coat, slipping his socked-feet into his shoes. We have to get out of here.
Arthur scowls but carefully climbs from his bed, grabbing his socks and trainers and quickly pulling them on. Everything else is already in his duffel bag, so he throws it over his shoulder and follows Merlin to the back of the hotel room, Excalibur clutched tightly in one hand.
The knob rattles softly again, and Arthur knows that if he weren't so paranoid he never would have heard it the first time. Merlin glances briefly at it before holding his hand out toward the small window high on the back wall. He hisses a few words and his eyes flash, and then the window is growing in both height and width, until it's big enough to walk through. Merlin says something else and the glass disappears, letting the warm night air in.
Arthur follows Merlin as he slips through, and they move quickly through the dark along the back wall of the motel. Merlin pauses long enough to peek around the first corner and then gestures Arthur along as he continues on. At the corner leading around to the front they stop again, and this time Arthur moves beside Merlin so he can see too. The walkway ceiling has a row of dim lights in front of the rooms, and he can just barely make out a dark-skinned man in front of their door.
Arthur reaches out and takes hold of the connection. Do you know him?
Unfortunately, Merlin answers, and even in Arthur's head his voice is grim. His name is Myror, and he's been chasing me since I left with Freya.
Why? Arthur asks, frowning. Is he Support?
Not exactly, Merlin says. Come on, we're going to have to make a run for the bike.
Arthur tightens his grip on Excalibur, nods once when Merlin looks at him, and then they're both off across the car park. He hears a furious shout but doesn't slow down, sliding onto the bike just behind Merlin as it roars to life, his duffel bag heavy across his back. As they take off—front tire popping off the ground a few inches with the force of Merlin's acceleration—he glances back and sees the man jumping into a sleek black sports car.
He's trying to follow, he tells Merlin.
Hang on, Merlin says warningly, and Arthur barely has enough time throw both arms tight around Merlin's waist before he's hit the sonic button. A few seconds later they're twenty miles away, and Arthur gasps for breath as they slow down.
He hasn't used that button in ages, and he feels slightly sick to his stomach from going so fast without any time to prepare. Neither of them speaks for a while as they drive on, the previously warm night air chilly as they race through it.
Arthur waits as long as he can stand it, but eventually curiosity wins out. Who is that guy really? Why is he chasing you? And why didn't we stay to fight instead of running?
Merlin tenses slightly, and it takes him a few long moments to answer. Myror is an assassin. He's loyal to neither side and works for the highest bidder. From what I've managed to gather, he's not trying to kill me, he's trying to capture me—which is why we didn't stay to fight.
Arthur is silent, trying to comprehend what Merlin is telling him. Why is he trying to capture you?
No idea, Merlin answers. I've never bothered waiting around to ask.
Arthur doesn't know what to say to that, so they drive on in silence.
Eventually, the bike's screen starts flashing and they realize they're finally running low on fuel. The sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon when they stop at an old gas station. Arthur takes the opportunity to stuff his duffel bag into the back compartment. Merlin heads inside to pay for the gas and get them something to eat, and Arthur hooks the automatic pump to the fuel tank. He stands to the side, Excalibur in its holster and his hands in his pockets, and stares back the way they came.
He feels slightly overwhelmed at everything that's happened in the past three days, and if it weren't for this huge wall between himself and Merlin it would almost feel like old times. It isn't, though, and Arthur knows he should remember that. Scowling, he glances absently down at the bike, and then blinks when something catches his eye. He bends down to inspect closer, and then lets out a stream of curses when he realizes what the small device he's looking at is.
A fucking tracer.
Arthur quickly cuts off the pump before taking off toward the shop, bursting through the rusty screen door. "Merlin!"
Merlin pops his head around the end of one aisle. "Hey. Would you rather have the—"
"He put a tracer on the bike," Arthur interrupts tightly, and Merlin's face immediately tenses.
"Exactly," Arthur agrees. "Now let's go."
"Oh, I think you'll find it's a bit too late for that."
Arthur and Merlin both spin around toward the front, where Myror is holding a gun to the attendee's head. The man looks like he's about to pass out in fear, and Arthur thinks that would probably be the best thing for him at the moment.
"You're not the only one whose vehicle can go unnaturally fast," Myror says conversationally. "I bet you're wondering how I knew to find you at that motel." He pauses but neither Merlin nor Arthur says anything, so he shrugs and continues. "I was, quite coincidentally, at that very same diner you stopped at yesterday. I just happened to look out the window as you pulled up, and managed to slip out the back as you came in. That's when I put the tracer on your bike."
He pauses again, looking thoughtful. "I did consider going ahead and ending this little game of ours then, of course, but I thought it more appropriate to wait until we were in a less crowded place." He flashes a dark grin at the trembling attendee. "It's so much better when there are less people to deal with, don't you agree?"
"Myror," Merlin says stiffly. "Let him go; he doesn't even know who we are."
"Too bad for him," Myror retorts uncaringly. "Now he won't know why he's going to die."
"No!" Arthur and Merlin both shout, but it's too late.
Myror pulls the trigger, and the man does nothing more than flinch, staring blankly at the assassin in terror and confusion. Then he slowly turns to look at Arthur and Merlin, his eyes going glassy as blood begins to leak from his ear. He collapses into a heap behind the counter, and Myror smiles calmly at Merlin and Arthur.
"That was a Panther," he says. "A type of bullet I invented myself. It lodges itself directly into the brain and then explodes with just enough force to kill. Much less mess that way. What do you think?"
"I think you're fucking insane," Arthur chokes out, and Merlin shoots him a warning look.
Myror clucks his tongue disapprovingly and steps out from behind the counter. "That wasn't very nice, Arthur."
"How do you know his name?" Merlin snaps, capturing Myror's attention.
Myror chuckles lightly. "I know everything about you, Merlin. Of course, I wouldn't have given two shits about you if you hadn't kept evading me." His expression turns dark. "But you did, didn't you? I've never failed at a mission, Emrys. And I'm sure as hell not going to fail after all this time."
"And what, exactly, would your mission be?" Merlin asks, and Arthur slides just barely to his right, keeping his eyes trained on Myror's profile.
"To catch you," Myror answers, raising an eyebrow. "Come now, Merlin, surely you knew that?"
Merlin nods shortly. "I did. What I don't know is why. Who wants me, and for what reason?"
Arthur takes another tiny step, his hand itching to grasp onto Excalibur and end this.
Myror smiles again, and raises his gun to examine bullets in the chamber. "Those details are not for you to know. Now, do you see this bullet?" He turns the gun and Arthur catches a glimpse of black and red. "This is the improved version of the one that hit your sister." Arthur feels himself pale, and Merlin looks horror-struck. "It won't kill you, or even drain your magic, like it did her. It will paralyze both your body and magic, however, until I can deliver you to the proper…authorities. I'm going to take care of Mr. Pendragon here, and then I'm going to put this into your heart."
Arthur barely has time to register the sudden movement as Myror snaps the chamber shut and spins around, finger pulling the trigger. For a split second he thinks he's about to die, but then there's a sharp cry and a burst of hot magic, and the bullet Myror fired skims through Arthur's hair.
Myror looks enraged and turns to aim at Merlin, and Arthur acts on pure instinct. Excalibur is in his hand without him even realizing that he's yanked it out of its holster, and he barely takes time to aim before pulling the trigger. Myror jerks as the bullet hits him just above his eye, and his own shot goes wide, causing the glass from one of the drink coolers in back to shatter. He sways, and then crumples to the floor, his gun falling loose as his eyes glaze over.
Arthur stares at the body for a long minute, adrenaline causing his hands to tremble. He glances over at Merlin, unsurprised to see him pale and unmoving as he stares at Myror's body. Arthur steps around the body to pick up the gun, causing Merlin to startle.
"These could be helpful," he says, and pockets the bullets. He glances up at Merlin, who's jaw is set. "Come on. Let's get this taken care of."
Merlin nods and Arthur backs away; they've had to do this many times before, and even after three years apart they both understand what needs to be done. Merlin takes a deep breath and brings his hand up, whispering foreign words under his breath. Myror's body begins to dissolve into dust, leaving nothing but an imprint where a man had once been. Arthur moves behind the counter—carefully avoiding the attendee's body—and grabs a few plastic bags; he works his way through the shop, stuffing them full of food and drinks.
Merlin meets him at the door and they walk out, heading for the bike still sitting at the pump. Arthur hands the bags to Merlin and hooks the pump back up. They both lean against the bike to wait, knowing the magically enlarged tank will take a while to fill.
"Honey bun?" Merlin asks, holding the snack out to Arthur.
It isn't the healthiest of breakfasts, but Arthur couldn't have cared less at the moment so he takes it. "Yeah, thanks. Hand me one of the Cokes too." Merlin passes the bottle over and the next few minutes are spent in silence as they eat.
"Do you think he had a family?" Merlin eventually asks, and they both know he isn't talking about Myror.
"I hope not," Arthur answers, and reaches over to the back of the bike to remove the tracer, throwing it to the ground and crushing it beneath his heel.
The screen on the bike dings to indicate that the tank is full, so Arthur unhooks the pump and Merlin stuffs the remaining food into the back compartment, next to Arthur's duffel bag. They both climb on, Arthur still in the back, and Merlin starts the bike.
"We should get there some time tonight," Merlin says, and they take off.
When they're far enough from the station they stop, turning the bike to face it. Merlin's eyes flash once, and Arthur knows he's checking to make sure nobody else is there. His eyes flash a second time, and a huge ball of flame erupts on the horizon.
They drive and drive, stopping every now and then to dig more food from the back compartment, or for restroom breaks. Neither of them talks much, and when they do it's about nothing they actually need to talk about. The sun rises high in the sky and then sinks low again.
Arthur isn't ready to face what's coming.
It's very late when they pull up in front of a modest house set back from the main road. Merlin kills the engine, but neither of them moves. Arthur stares at the house with something akin to fear, swallowing hard as he tries to get his heart to slow its erratic thumping.
"Ready?" Merlin asks heavily, turning to look back at Arthur.
Arthur shakes his head slightly and turns his gaze to Merlin. "You come here often, don't you." It isn't a question.
Merlin raises an eyebrow. "Of course I do. They didn't see fit to cut me off from any and all forms of communication."
Arthur's gaze turns into a heated glare. "You left me," he hisses through clenched teeth.
"Keep telling yourself that," Merlin says flatly, and climbs from the bike. "Come on then. Can't avoid them forever."
Arthur scowls and slips off the bike, automatically taking his duffel bag when Merlin grabs it from the back compartment and shoves it at him. He hits the stealth button on the bike just in case, and reluctantly follows Merlin up the walk to the front door. Merlin glances briefly at him before reaching up and pressing the button for the doorbell. A distant chime sounds from within, and Arthur clutches reflexively at his bag. Several minutes pass, and he's almost decided to give up and make a run for the bike when the door opens.
"Merlin!" Gwen exclaims, sounding surprised but pleased. "I didn't know you were out this way—," she stops when her eyes land on Arthur, an expression of shock appearing only to be quickly replaced by a myriad of other emotions.
Arthur is stunned to his core when she suddenly flings herself past Merlin and wraps her arms tightly around his neck. His grip on his bag slips, and it falls to the ground as his arms rise hesitantly. Not entirely sure he isn't imagining it, he slowly returns the embrace.
Merlin is smirking at him behind Gwen's back, and Arthur shoots him a venomous look. You are an absolute arse. You let me think she was going to hate me as much as you do.
An odd look flashes across Merlin's face but it's quickly replaced by a wry expression. And you really are an idiot for thinking that Gwen of all people could hate you.
Arthur can't really argue that logic so he just scowls, which causes Merlin's smirk to return full force.
"Oh, Arthur," Gwen says, pulling back and cupping his face in her hands. There's tears in her eyes, and Arthur has to swallow around a sudden lump in his throat.
"Hello, Gwen," he says quietly.
And then she steps back far enough to smack him hard on the side of the head. "How dare you stay away for so long! You have no idea how worried we've all been!"
Arthur rubs the side of his head, ignoring Merlin's badly restrained snickers, and smiles weakly; Gwen has always been able to make him feel sheepish. It's nice to know some things never change, even when everything else does.
"Don't just stand out there, you two," she continues, gesturing them both inside. "There's still plenty of dinner left; Lance won't be home until much later. He picked up an extra shift today." Her smile is bright but still watery, and Arthur feels a sharp stab of guilt.
Merlin steps through first, obviously comfortable in Gwen's home. Arthur picks up his bag and follows more slowly, glancing around at the simple but nice interior.
"Sorry to just drop in without calling, especially so late," Merlin says as they walk through the entryway to the back. "It was a bit of a last minute decision."
Gwen waves her hand dismissively. "Don't be ridiculous, you know you're welcome here." She pauses, glancing over her shoulder at Arthur. "Both of you."
Arthur can't meet her gaze, so he stares at a picture on the wall. It's of Gwen and Lance on their wedding day, and his gut twists again with familiar guilt.
"You said something about dinner?" Merlin asks, and Arthur slowly lets out a breath as Gwen turns her attention back to him.
"Yes, I made lasagna." She grins as they both look at her hopefully. "Come on, then. There's plenty of it, and you both look as though you haven't had a decent home cooked meal in ages."
Arthur follows them into a small kitchen in back, and nearly groans when the scent hits him. Gwen had always been the best cook out of all of them, and he can honestly say that he's missed her delicious meals. He carefully sets his bag down near the kitchen entrance. She fixes them both a large plate and settles them in at the table before turning to get them drinks. Arthur is too hungry to care about the awkwardness he's feeling, so he digs in. He feels a bit better when he sees Merlin do the same across from him.
"So," Gwen says as she hands them their drinks and sits in one of the empty chairs. "What brings you here? Not that I'm not glad to see you, I am, but…" she trails off, glancing at Arthur and biting her lip.
There's a beat of silence where Merlin and Arthur glance at each other, and then Arthur purposely stuffs his mouth full of a large bite of lasagna. Merlin rolls his eyes but turns to Gwen.
"Is Lance working tomorrow?"
Gwen looks confused but shakes her head. "No, he's off."
Merlin nods. "It's a bit of a long story, and he needs to hear it too." He hesitates, glancing quickly at Arthur and then back to Gwen. "We're going to need your help."
Arthur scowls and swallows quickly. "Merlin, we can't—"
"We have to."
"No, we don't. It's not fair to them."
"I think that's up to them to decide, don't you?"
"But you know what they'll say, and that's taking advantage—"
"Maybe they'll want to help. And really, it's not like you can stop them if they do."
"Shut up, Arthur. Just…shut up."
Gwen is looking back and forth between them, confusion and worry creasing her brow. "This is something really serious, isn't it?" she asks quietly. Arthur and Merlin stop glaring at each other and turn to look at her.
"Yes," Arthur eventually says. "Extremely."
Gwen nods slowly and stands. "Alright then. You'll tell us tomorrow, at breakfast. I'll go make sure the guest room is ready." She pauses, glancing uncertainly from one of them to the other. "Um—"
"Arthur can have the bedroom," Merlin says quickly as Arthur avoids both their gazes. "I'll take the couch this time." Gwen nods again and quickly retreats from the kitchen.
"Well, that wasn't awkward at all," Arthur mutters sarcastically, and Merlin snorts.
They finish eating in silence.
When Arthur crawls into the comfortable bed not long after, he can't help but recall that Merlin had said this time. He doesn't know how long he stares at the ceiling before finally rolling over and burying his face in the pillow.
If he breathes in slow and deep, he imagines he can still smell the scent Merlin would have left behind. He doesn't really, of course, since Gwen has most likely washed the bedding since the last time Merlin was there.
But he imagines, and for a short time it's enough.
Arthur wakes early the next morning.
He's still face down on the bed, both pillows covering his head at odd angles. Scowling, he pushes them off and rolls over, irritated at himself. Excalibur is beside him, and despite the safety he feels in Gwen's home he's relieved. There's a small guest bathroom through a door to his right, so he grabs a shower and dresses quickly. Excalibur goes into its holster and the strange bullets he took from Myror's gun the day before are heavy in his pocket.
The house is quiet when he steps out into the hall, and he wonders if anybody else is even up yet. Hesitating briefly, Arthur decides to head to the kitchen and start a pot of coffee. He hopes Gwen won't mind, because he really needs some. He's not happy about asking Gwen and Lance for help, but he's also forced to admit that Merlin has a point—they'll probably want to anyway. Sighing heavily, he runs one hand over his face as he steps through the door to the kitchen.
Arthur jumps and looks over at the table to see Merlin sitting there, hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee. "Morning," he returns uncomfortably.
"There's coffee on the counter," Merlin says after a brief pause, watching him carefully. "Sugar next to it; milk in the refrigerator. Cups are in the cabinet above the sink."
Arthur nods shortly and heads for the sink. "Thanks." He hesitates but decides he should probably say something else. "I didn't know you were up; I was thinking about making some coffee myself but I wasn't sure if Gwen would have minded."
"She wouldn't have," Merlin says lightly. "Which you would have known if you'd not bothered to abandon us all."
Arthur stops dead in his tracks and spins around, suddenly furious. Merlin is staring at him calmly but his hands are tight around his mug and there's a challenge in his eyes.
"I'm not the one who did the abandoning," Arthur snaps. "Once again, I must point out that you are the one who left me."
"Is that right?" Merlin asks coldly, rising from his seat and placing both hands on the table in front of him. "I'm the one who left you?"
"Yeah, that's right," Arthur says just as coldly. "I asked you to stay—begged you. And you left anyway."
Merlin grits his teeth so hard Arthur can hear it from where he's standing. "You seem to be forgetting something," Merlin says tightly. "I begged you to come with us, but you refused."
Arthur hasn't forgotten that, and shakes his head. "And you know that wasn't fucking possible."
"Why?" Merlin immediately asks, his jaw set stubbornly. "Out of some misplaced sense of responsibility and guilt over Will's death? Or was it the fact that Freya got hit during that fight and you couldn't stand to be around her anymore?"
"That's fucking bullshit," Arthur says furiously, pointing one finger at Merlin. "It had nothing to do with Freya!"
"Really, Arthur?" Merlin's voice has gone quiet, flat. "Then it was just me you didn't want to be with anymore."
"Are you mad?" Arthur exclaims, shock hitting him like ice cold water.
Something glints in Merlin's eyes but before he can say anything somebody clears their throat. Both Arthur and Merlin turn toward the sound to see Gwen standing in the kitchen doorway, Lance directly behind her.
"Good morning." Gwen's voice is sure but her smile is hesitant, and Arthur can see the way she's twisting her fingers. "Is anybody hungry? I'd be happy to cook some breakfast."
Arthur glances at Merlin to see him looking back at him, expression carefully guarded once more.
"That would be great, Gwen," Merlin says, turning to her and smiling slightly. "You do make the best chocolate chip pancakes."
Gwen tilts her head and looks thoughtful. "I would deny that, but we all know it would be a lie."
Arthur lets out a breathless laugh and some of the tension in the room fades. He smiles weakly, and as Gwen steps past him on her way further into the kitchen she pats his arm. Lance comes fully into the room then, and his expression is open and happy.
"It's good to see you, my friend," he says, and pulls Arthur into a brief hug. "How have you been?"
Arthur's not quite sure how to answer that. "Pretty miserable, actually," he says honestly, smile turning wry. Merlin snorts and sinks back down into his seat; Arthur ignores him.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Lance says, gesturing Arthur toward the table so they could sit as well. "Gwen said that you two have something important to talk to us about?"
"We do," Merlin confirms. "Actually—Gwen, the pancakes can wait. We really do need to go ahead and talk."
Gwen turns in surprise from where she was setting ingredients on the counter by the cook top. "Before breakfast?"
"Yeah," Arthur says grimly. "Merlin's right; this can't wait."
Gwen and Lance exchange a look and Gwen smooths down the front of her shirt before walking over to join them at the table. "Alright," she says, back straight as she sinks down into her chair. "Talk."
Arthur takes a deep breath; it's going to be harder to tell Gwen than it was Merlin, but he knows the best way to do it is to just say it—so he does.
"Morgana has gone missing."
Gwen gasps, her hands flying up to her mouth.
"Missing?" Lancelot asks worriedly. "Was she taken? Is she hurt?"
"She's not hurt," Arthur says hurriedly. "At least, she wasn't the last time I saw her. And I'm fairly certain she left on her own."
"Which was when?" Gwen demands, dropping her hands. "Why did she leave?"
"Six months ago," Arthur answers wearily. "I've been looking for her ever since."
"We're not entirely sure why she left," Merlin cuts in, sitting back in his chair and crossing his arms. "From what Arthur's told me, it's most likely something to do with a boy named Mordred."
"She'd been having dreams," Arthur picks up. "About the boy. She wouldn't tell me about them directly, but—"
"She would talk in her sleep," Gwen whispers, and Arthur nods.
"What's so special about the boy?" Lance asks. "Morgana wouldn't risk her life carelessly."
"We think he's magic," Merlin answers heavily. "And quite powerful."
Gwen and Lance exchange another look. "So she's gone after the boy, most likely to protect him from Support," Gwen concludes questioningly.
"I think it's more than that," Arthur says quietly, and all three of them look at him. Merlin's brows are creased, and he's frowning; Arthur catches his eye. "I think she's trying to save him from something."
"And why didn't you tell me this before?" Merlin asks in exasperation. "You could have mentioned it in the diner!"
"Because I didn't think about until last night," Arthur answers tightly. "But it makes sense."
"It does, actually," Gwen interjects hesitantly. "Morgana isn't the type to just run off without a word, even for a child. There must be something about this boy that only she knows."
"But how are we supposed to find out what she knows without her here to help?" Lance asks, turning to Arthur. "You said you've been looking for her—do you have any idea where she could be?"
Arthur sighs and runs one hand through his hair. "The last thing I discovered is that she's headed north, looking for Camelot."
"Camelot?" Lance repeats in dismay, and shakes his head. "Nobody can find Camelot."
"We know," Merlin says grimly. "You can't find a place that doesn't exist."
"No, you don't understand," Lance continues. "Camelot most definitely exists—but the unfortunate ones who've tried looking for it have either wound up dead or disappeared entirely."
Arthur feels like he's been punched, and stares at Lance in shock. "How do you know this?" he asks hoarsely, and glances at an equally-stunned Merlin.
Lance hesitates and looks at Gwen, who straightens her shoulders and nods decisively in his direction. "I think it's time."
"Time for what?" Merlin asks blankly.
Gwen turns to him and her expression is both nervous and apologetic. "I'm very sorry, Merlin, but we were trying to protect you."
"From what?" Merlin asks, and looks as lost and confused as Arthur feels. "What in the hell are you talking about?"
"Well," Gwen starts slowly. "We're no longer as neutral as we decided to be when we left the group."
"Come on," Lance says, pushing his chair back and rising. "It would be easier to just show you."
Merlin scowls, looking very much put-out and possibly a little hurt. Arthur wants to say something, but since he has no idea what he just stands to follow Gwen and Lance. Merlin trails behind them as they leave the kitchen and walk down the hall, stopping in front of the cupboard.
Gwen hesitates, placing one hand on the doorknob and staring down at it. "Arthur, I don't know if Merlin told you, but—a year and a half ago Support accused my father of practicing magic. They executed him—," her voice breaks and Arthur sucks in a sharp breath, turning to glare at Merlin for not having informed him, "—and ever since then we've been firmly on the side of Resistance." She looks up and her eyes are dark with pain and regret. "We never should have tried to remain neutral."
Merlin has the decency to glance guiltily at Arthur, but most of his attention remains on Gwen. "You know I've never blamed you for your decisions. Why didn't you tell me you were fighting again? I could have helped you!"
Lance shakes his head, squeezing one of Gwen's hands. "What we're doing is more dangerous than just being in a group of fighters. If we were caught we wanted to make sure you wouldn't feel like you had to lie for us, or take the blame yourself."
Merlin scowls again and looks away. "Alright," he says after short hesitation. "Let's see whatever it is, then."
Arthur isn't exactly sure what to expect, but for some reason it isn't for Gwen to lead them through a hidden door at the back of the cupboard and down a narrow, steep staircase. "Where does this lead to?" he asks quietly, voice muffled in the tight space; Merlin is silent behind him and Arthur can almost feel the tension radiating from him.
"I've been working in a Support factory since Gwen's father was killed," Lance answers from behind Merlin. "For all intents and purposes, we make cleaning products—but there is a sub-basement where Support weapons are being made. Not many of the workers know about it, and I'm not supposed to, but the whole reason I applied for a job there was because I had heard the rumors."
"And we figured that if he could get in there, we could help Resistance gain an advantage," Gwen continues, and stops.
Arthur glances over her shoulder and sees another door, this one made of thick steel with several digital key pads on it. "So you've been stealing Support weapons?"
Gwen smiles, and it's both predatory and triumphant. "We've been stealing Support technology."
The room is huge, full of things Arthur has never seen and some he has. One entire wall is completely covered in guns, ranging from the size of his pinkie to a few taller than he is. On a stand in one corner is a body suit, sleek white leather with the gold Support emblem on one shoulder. There are tables scattered throughout the room, various devices spread out on them. One table has what looks like a huge, complicated chemistry set; the table beside it is covered in vials of odd colored liquids.
"Don't touch that!" Gwen suddenly cries, and Arthur snaps his head around to where Merlin is standing next to the body suit, hand outstretched to do just that.
"Why not?" Merlin asks, sounding baffled.
"It neutralizes magic," Gwen answers heavily.
Merlin looks back at the suit in horror and quickly steps away. "I didn't know Support could do that!"
"That's one of the newer things they've created," Lance says. "There are still a few glitches to it—some of them very, very dangerous."
"What do they plan on doing with it?" Arthur asks warily, eyeing a very pale Merlin. Gwen and Lance share another significant look.
"From what I understand, they plan on enforcing a global dress code," Lance answers, frowning. "Everybody will be forced by law to wear clothes made like that suit."
"Which means anybody with magic won't be able to use their powers," Merlin finishes hoarsely.
"Exactly," Gwen says, voice quiet.
Lance clears his throat after a few beats of silence and gestures toward the wall of weapons. "I've figured out how to use most of these, as has Gwen. It won't be hard for us to teach you two how they work."
Merlin lets out a short, dry laugh. "There aren't any that neutralize magic, are there?"
"Oh, we won't give you those," Gwen says, and then bites her lip when Merlin gazes at her in shock.
Arthur winces and decides that a change of subject would be best, so he points to a large container-type device on the table nearest to him. "So what does this do?"
"That," Lance says, walking over to join Arthur at the table, "breaks things down and tells you exactly what's in them, and then puts them back together again."
Arthur's eyebrows shoot up in surprised interest. "Really? Does it work on, say, strange bullets?"
Lance grins and hits a few buttons on the main screen. "Sure does. I took a few of the bullets that came in some of those guns and tried it out." He glances up at Arthur. "Let me guess—you've got some you want to see about."
Arthur reaches into his pocket and pulls out the bullets he took from Myror's gun. "These. An assassin made them; I want to know exactly what they'll do."
"Are those—," Merlin starts, and Arthur nods.
"The red and black one is the one," he says, handing it over to Lance before looking back at Merlin. "I was surprised it was still there, but he must have been angry enough to use a different one."
"Who?" Gwen asks, glancing between them.
"The assassin," Merlin answers distractedly, walking over to join Arthur and Lance in front of the machine. "He's dead."
"Oh," Gwen says, and then nods firmly. "Good."
Lance presses a few more buttons on the screen and a small drawer slides out smoothly; he places the bullet inside and presses another button to close it. Arthur watches, and tries not to think about how close Merlin is standing to him.
The walls on the container are clear, so they can all see when the bullet floats up into the middle and hangs suspended. It rotates in mid-air, the black and red swirling together the faster it moves. The outside shell doesn't take long before it separates itself from the rest of the bullet. Arthur does his best to pay attention to what's happening inside the container, but all he can think about is Merlin almost pressing against him. He can feel the hairs on the back of his neck rise and he has to fight his instinct to shift closer.
"That's odd," Lance suddenly says, frowning at the main screen on the container.
Arthur startles slightly and hears a choked off snicker beside him. He ignores it. "What's odd?" he asks Lance, shifting his weight just enough to put a bit more distance between himself and Merlin.
Lance is shaking his head in confusion, and Gwen touches his elbow questioningly. "This isn't like any bullet I've ever seen," he says, eyes darting back and forth as he reads the words that have appeared on the screen. He looks up, glancing between Arthur and Merlin seriously. "Do you have any idea what this is?"
Merlin stiffens beside him and Arthur closes his hand into a fist to keep from reaching out.
"It's the improved version of the bullet that hit Freya," Merlin says bitterly. "It was meant for me."
Gwen sucks in a sharp breath and stares at the bullet in disgust. "Oh, that horrible, evil little fucker—"
"This bullet," Lance says over Gwen's continued cursing, "will temporarily freeze your magic, and then, when it's activated by an outside source, will suck the magic from your very core, contain it inside itself, and leave you nothing but an empty shell that wants to die but can't."
Arthur stares at him in horror, and knows that Merlin's expression most likely reflects his own. "Fucking, fucking hell," he bites out, running one hand through his hair. He gestures at the separated bullet that's still in the container. "How the fuck is that even possible?"
"That's the thing," Lance answers, brow creasing. "The bullet itself is made with magic. But it's obviously meant to fight it as well."
"Wait," Merlin says, finally tearing his gaze from the bullet and looking past Arthur to Lance. "Support doesn't use magic to fight magic; they never have."
"I know," Lance agrees, voice heavy. "I don't understand it any more than you do."
"What are we going to do with it?" Gwen asks, glaring at the floating bullet pieces.
Lance doesn't answer; he quickly punches a few buttons on the container screen, and a slot below it spits out several sheets of paper. He reads over them, nods, and then hits a big red button on the left side of the screen.
The pieces all freeze in mid-air, and then they simply disintegrate into nothing and the container is once again empty.
"That's what," Lance says.
Late afternoon finds Arthur sitting on the steps of Gwen and Lance's back deck, staring into their yard. He's twirling a cigarette between his fingers and scowling fiercely; the damn thing refuses to light no matter how many times he tries. It's obviously Merlin's doing, but Arthur will be buggered before he goes begging for him to lift whatever spell it is. He can handle this; nicotine withdrawals are nothing compared to some of the pain he's been through since he started fighting ten years ago.
Arthur's scowl deepens and he glares at the cigarette like he blames it. He wants to, he really does, but if he's learned anything then it's that everything seems to wind up being his fault somehow. The ambush on the safe house, Will's (stupid, stupid) death, Freya getting hit by that fucking bullet.
Merlin leaving him.
And now this blasted dependency on a tiny little stick that probably does more long-term damage than a Black Widow bullet. Cursing, Arthur shoves the end between his lips anyway and then just sits there with the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"When did you take up smoking?"
Arthur jumps and looks up to see Gwen standing beside him; he can't help but wonder when over the last few days he started to let go of his paranoia enough to be snuck up on. It bothers him, even if it is just Gwen.
"Oh, you know," he says with a self-deprecating smile, removing the cigarette from his mouth. "About the time I fucked everything up."
Gwen raises an eyebrow and lowers herself to the step beside Arthur. "That's funny; I don't remember it happening like that."
Arthur shakes his head and looks back out over the yard, the cigarette now loose between his fingers. "It's my fault, Gwen," he says heavily, and it's something he's never admitted out loud before. "Every fucking bit of it." He lets out a short, bitter laugh and glances down at the cigarette. "He hates me, and he has every right to."
"Who?" Gwen asks, frowning in confusion.
"Merlin," Arthur answers pointedly. "He hates me for what happened that day, to both Will and Freya." He shrugs uncomfortably. "I don't blame him, really."
Gwen is already shaking her head, her brow creased. "Merlin doesn't hate you, Arthur. How could you think that?"
"Oh, I don't know," Arthur answers sarcastically. "The fact that every time he speaks to me it's to remind me of how much I fucked up?"
Gwen frowns, and something hard glints in her eyes. "I had hoped when you showed up together that the two of you had finally worked things out. Obviously I was wrong, because you're both idiots. What happened to make you…" she gestures vaguely, "find each other again?"
Arthur shakes his head but answers anyway; he's never been able to deny Gwen anything. "I was meeting a source for information about Morgana. It went to shit and I was shot with a Black Widow." Gwen gasps in horror, but Arthur doesn't let her cut in. "When I realized what it was I did the only thing I could." He gestures toward his head, not wanting to say the words out loud.
Gwen looks confused for a moment but then comprehension dawns across her features. "Oh—oh, Arthur." She sighs and looks at him sadly. "No wonder he's so angry."
"Why?" Arthur asks with a snort. "Because I'm the reason his best friend and his sister are dead?"
Gwen is silent for a long time before she says anything to that, and when she does her voice has a hint of reproach in it. "That day—" she starts, and Arthur winces. "No, listen to me. That day, the day Will died, he sneaked out of the safe house to go to the market for ice cream."
Arthur blinks and turns to stare at Gwen uncomprehendingly. "Ice cream?"
Gwen smiles sadly. "It was for me. I couldn't sleep with Lance gone on that mission, and Will was already up from being on watch the night before. He was trying to cheer me up." She stops to take a deep breath, and suddenly there are tears in her eyes. "We talked for ages before he left—he even admitted that he admired you a bit, however reluctantly it was."
She looks down at where her hands are twisting themselves in the hem of her shirt. "I offhandedly mentioned the way that Lance and I always used to go for ice cream before Support started to focus in on our little group." She raises her gaze back to Arthur. "He said he remembered, and insisted on going out and getting some, just to make me feel better." She pauses and swallows. "So you see, Arthur. It's not your fault at all."
"It's nobody's fault," Merlin's voice suddenly snaps from behind them, tight with anger and an old, deep pain.
Gwen jumps slightly and turns to face Merlin, but Arthur doesn't move. He stares out over the backyard, trying to ignore the startled, nervous pounding of his heart. Gwen hesitates and then reaches out to briefly squeeze Arthur's hand before standing.
"I think I'm going to go start dinner," she says quietly, and disappears back into the house.
Arthur doesn't move as he hears hard footsteps cross the deck, or when he sees Merlin clomp down the steps and fully into his line of sight. From where Arthur is sitting near the top and Merlin standing a few steps down, it's hard not to look straight into those hard blue eyes.
"You," Merlin starts, voice sharp, "are the biggest fucking idiot I know."
Arthur bristles, despite the fact that he agrees, and glares harshly. "Oh, that's really nice, Merlin. Anything else you'd like to say?" he asks sarcastically. He gestures vaguely around them. "Please, don't hold back on my account."
"Yes, actually," Merlin bites out, edging closer on his step. "If you would get off your high horse for two fucking seconds you would realize that nobody blames you. What happened was just a bloody stupid series of coincidences that added up to the worst possible outcome. No one person caused anything."
Arthur wants to believe Merlin, he really does. But he knows that if he hadn't left the night before—hadn't convinced Will to swap places with him—then things would have been very, very different. He would have been there sooner, and he would have been able to stop it in time.
"You can make all the excuses you want," Arthur says flatly. "It doesn't change anything."
Merlin looks furious, and without warning leans down and places both hands on the step behind Arthur, one on each side, trapping him in. This new position brings them nearly nose-to-nose, and Arthur suddenly finds that he's having trouble breathing.
"You know," Merlin says almost conversationally, though his voice is edged with something dangerous, "I can't decide what I want to do more—punch you or fuck you."
Arthur can feel his eyes widen as both shock and heat race through him. "Er—"
He doesn't get any further than that, because Merlin closes the short distance between them and crushes their mouths together. Arthur makes a startled, desperate noise and one hand automatically rises to fist into Merlin's t-shirt, holding him in place.
The kiss is by no means gentle, but neither is it cruel or vindictive. Arthur responds instinctively, driven by years of need and pain and ache, opening his mouth as Merlin pushes his tongue inside. It slides along Arthur's, twisting around it and drawing it into Merlin's mouth. Merlin sucks harshly on it and Arthur makes a very undignified noise, clutching harder at the cloth in his hand. When his tongue is finally released he retaliates by biting down on Merlin's bottom lip, reveling in the resulting groan.
Both of them are frozen, neither moving more than their mouths as the kiss deepens and becomes increasingly desperate. Arthur's cock is achingly hard, and the fingernails of his free hand dig into the wood of the step he's sitting on. When Merlin finally breaks away and presses their foreheads together, breath harsh, Arthur is too stunned to say anything.
"Why?" Merlin croaks, and his eyes are closed. "Why did you break the connection?" He opens his eyes and they are dark and fierce, angry and hurt and aroused and hopeful all at once. "And don't—don't you dare fucking lie to me, or give me the same bullshit excuse. I want to know the truth."
Reality crashes back into Arthur and for a moment he can't move or think or breathe. He swallows, hard, and then swallows again. "Will was dead," he whispers. "Will was dead and it was my fault, and you couldn't even bring yourself to look at me. And then—" He has to stop, take a deep breath, "—then you left with Freya despite the fact that you knew I didn't want you to go." Merlin is staring at him and Arthur has to glance away for a moment. "You obviously didn't want me anymore, and I couldn't blame you. So I cut the connection before you got the chance."
Just like that the anger and pain return to Merlin's face and he steps back, forcing Arthur to let go. "You stupid, stupid man," he hisses. "You have no idea—," he stops, turns away and runs one hand through his hair before turning back and looking Arthur dead in the eye.
"The only reason I left was because I was relying on our connection to keep us together," he says furiously. "It was the one way I could give Freya the care she needed and still have you. And you—," he stops again, and looks at Arthur with more hurt than he ever has before. "You cut it off."
Arthur stares up at him, cold with shock. "What?" he chokes out.
Merlin shakes his head and there are tears forming in his eyes that Arthur knows he won't let fall. He smiles brokenly and Arthur can feel his heart shatter all over again as he struggles to draw in air.
"Like I said," Merlin whispers. "You're the one who did the abandoning, not me."
Arthur is frozen in place, unable to move as Merlin carefully climbs back up the steps and crosses the deck to the house. The glass door slides shut behind him, and Arthur forces in a deep, stuttering breath.
He has never hated himself more.
Dinner that evening is tense and stilted.
Gwen keeps glancing worriedly between Arthur and Merlin, and Arthur can tell she wants to say something. He knows she won't, though, because it's not in Gwen's nature to intrude. Lance is eating slowly, watching carefully as though making sure they aren't going to kill each other.
Merlin refuses to look at Arthur. He's pushing his food around with his fork, face a blank mask as he stares down at his plate. Even the connection between them is silent, though Arthur can easily sense that it's still open. He half-wonders why Merlin hasn't cut it off already, especially now. Arthur can't bring himself to do it again, and even if he could he doesn't want to. At the moment, it's the only thing giving him hope that Merlin doesn't actually hate him.
Gwen clears her throat and they all turn to look at her; she flushes slightly at the sudden attention. "Lance and I have been talking," she starts, "and we think that we need to start searching for Morgana as soon as possible."
"Meaning we leave tomorrow," Lance confirms.
This surprises Arthur, though he was hoping they could get things rolling soon. "Do we have enough time to get everything ready?" he asks, frowning slightly.
"I'm working my last shift tomorrow," Lance says, and shrugs. "They don't know it's my last shift, but it's safer that way. Especially considering it's a Support-funded factory."
Gwen nods and explains further. "While Lance is at work, the three of us will gather up everything we're going to need and pack it into the car—"
"Wait," Arthur interrupts. "What about my bike?"
"It'll fit in the boot," Merlin says flatly, still not looking at Arthur.
"The boot?" Arthur exclaims, horrified. "You must be joking!"
Gwen sighs and pats Arthur's hand placatingly. "It's a very big boot, and your bike will be perfectly safe. You can use it when we have to stop along the way."
"We all need to be in the same vehicle," Lance says firmly. "It's the safest, smartest option."
Arthur scowls but quits arguing.
"Like I was saying," Gwen continues, shooting Arthur a reproachful look. "We'll pack the car while Lance is at work. He will do everything he does normally, giving no reason for suspicion. When he gets home, we'll go through our usual routine and then pretend to go to bed."
"About half an hour before midnight," Lance picks up, "we'll meet in the living room and head down to the car. If all goes well we'll be able to completely disappear and be far, far from here before they realize anything is amiss."
"We're heading north," Gwen adds. "Lance has heard some rumors about a possible location for Camelot, and we'll go over the map tomorrow to decide on an exact route."
Arthur feels slightly overwhelmed, and sits back in his chair. "You're seriously planning on leaving your life behind to help look for Morgana?"
"You're not the only one who cares about her," Merlin says coldly, finally looking up at Arthur.
"I know that," Arthur returns just as coldly. "But—"
"We don't really have much of a life here," Gwen interrupts softly. "Neither of us has any friends apart from Merlin—and you and Morgana, of course—or any family. This house is just a place to sleep and eat and shower. There are no real memories here."
"Gwen is right," Lance says, raising a challenging eyebrow in Arthur's direction. "There's no reason to stay here, and every reason to go."
Arthur hesitates, looking at them both, and then nods. "Alright. The four of us will start tomorrow."
His gaze lands on Merlin, and his heart leaps into his throat when he sees him looking back at him. They stare at each other for a long, tense moment, and then Merlin nods shortly.
"In that case, I'm for bed," he says, rising from the table. "There'll be a lot to do to get ready if we're leaving tomorrow night."
Gwen and Lance both tell him goodnight but all Arthur can do is watch as he walks stiffly from the room. If Merlin didn't hate him before he almost certainly does now. Turning his gaze away, Arthur stares down at his mostly untouched plate. He doesn't want to hurt Gwen's feelings but what little appetite he had is long gone.
"I think I'll head to bed myself," he says, and from the corner of his eye he can see Gwen and Lance look at each other.
Lance nods at him. "Sleep well."
"See you in the morning," Gwen adds.
Arthur smiles wanly at them both and quickly leaves the room.
That night, Arthur dreams of gun shots and fire, of panic and terror and rage.
He sees Will fall a hundred times, eyes glassy before he hits the ground. He hears Morgana's desperate tries to hold the enemy off, sees gold flashes that don't do enough, and runs forever and ever as he tries to reach Freya in time.
He's always too late, always catches her just as she's hit and never before.
Arthur dreams mostly of Merlin. He dreams of mouths and hands and of being filled again and again and again until he's in pieces. He dreams of fights and cold distance, of pleading and fear and the look on Merlin's face as he tells Arthur he's leaving.
And through it all, Arthur dreams of the quiet snick of the door as Merlin walks out and never comes back.
When Arthur seeks Gwen out the next morning the sun hasn't yet risen. He's full of restless, exhausted energy from the dreams that kept him awake most of the night, and he needs some sort of release. Fortunately, she's already in the kitchen, coffee brewing and something sizzling in the pan on the cook top.
"Morning," Arthur says almost awkwardly, and Gwen throws him a smile over her shoulder.
He only hesitates briefly before asking, knowing it's better to get it out of his system now. "Gwen, do you have anywhere I can go for a few rounds with Excalibur?"
Gwen turns to face him then, and she scrutinizes him knowingly for a few seconds before nodding. "We do, actually. Come on, I'll show you."
The range is in another hidden room, just beyond the one with the stolen technology. Gwen hands him a set of earphones and a pair of large, clear plastic eye-protectors and then sets up the targets before quietly leaving him to it.
Arthur smirks at the gold symbols directly in the center of the first target and flips off Excalibur's safety before quickly raising the gun and firing off all six rounds. When the chamber is empty there's a neat hole in the middle of the gold symbol. Adrenaline races through him and he hits the button that will switch out the targets, and then reloads Excalibur. The target is barely in place before he's destroyed it, and he feels some sort of empty thrill at the action.
Arthur does this again and again, and within twenty minutes he's exhausted both the set of targets and all but six of the bullets he brought down with him. There's sweat pooling in the small of his back, and his breath is harsh as he stares at the remains of the last target.
He jumps at the unexpected sound of Merlin's voice in his head and turns to see him leaning against the doorjamb, a mug of coffee in his hands. Arthur hesitates only briefly before tugging off the protective gear and tossing it onto a nearby table.
"Needed the practice," he says, shrugging. "How'd you know where to find me?
Merlin snorts in obvious disbelief and holds out the coffee toward Arthur. "Gwen told me how to get down here. She said you didn't even have any caffeine first, so I figured you were having a good sulk."
Arthur glares balefully at him but takes the coffee anyway. "I am not sulking." He pauses and stares down into the dark liquid. "I didn't sleep well last night, that's all." He takes a long drink and is somehow unsurprised to find that it's exactly how he likes it.
Merlin makes a small noise. "I could help with that," he says lightly. "I know a few spells for more restful sleep."
"No," Arthur immediately says, shaking his head. "It's not that big a deal." It's a lie, of course, and they both know it.
"Don't be a fucking martyr," Merlin snaps, stepping further into the room. "There's no point in torturing yourself over something that isn't your fault."
"I would agree," Arthur says tightly, setting the cup of coffee down with a loud click, "except that, apparently, it is my fault."
"Which part?" Merlin shoots back. "The part where Will chose to switch with you? The part where he chose to leave the safe house? Or the part where he didn't choose to be followed back by Support but was anyway?"
Arthur looks Merlin straight in the eye. "The part where I promised Will two weeks' leave if he'd switch with me, just so I could have the chance to fuck you with nobody else around." Merlin pales slightly, so Arthur keeps going, voice shaking with a barely suppressed mixture of rage and sorrow. "Or the part where I couldn't reach Freya in time to keep her from getting hit. Or maybe," he finally bites out, and has to swallow three times before he can say the words on a whisper, "the part where I lost you for good."
Merlin stares at him and Arthur stares back, neither daring to do more than breathe in the heavy silence of the practice room.
"Will," Merlin eventually says, jaw clenching, "was never scared to tell you no, and you know as well as I do that he never would have taken two weeks off. He cared too much." Arthur opens his mouth to protest but Merlin glares him into silence. "Freya was too far away from both of us, and at least you tried instead of just freezing like I did. And for the record—," he stops, looks away for a few seconds and then looks back, "for the record, you've never lost me."
Arthur's heart stops for several long seconds before starting again, faster and slightly off-rhythm. He wants to say something, anything, but he can't think, and Merlin's expression is very, very carefully expressionless.
"Um. You guys?"
Both Merlin and Arthur turn to stare blankly at Gwen, who is standing in the doorway and twisting her hands together, looking both apologetic and worried.
"I don't mean to interrupt," she continues hesitantly, "but Lance just sent me a coded text. Apparently the higher ups are acting a bit odd towards him today, and have even asked a few cryptic questions about the sub-basement he took the Support technology from."
Arthur immediately tenses, and exchanges a look with Merlin. "What did he say?"
"Nothing, of course," Gwen answers, her brow creasing. "But—"
"They know something," Merlin finishes, voice heavy with meaning, and Gwen nods.
"Then I guess we need to speed things along," Arthur says, and steps toward the door. "Let's go ahead and load everything up, starting with weapons and food supplies."
None of them want Merlin near the weapons so he goes upstairs to start gathering food. Arthur and Gwen grab a few duffel bags and quickly begin filling them with the guns from the wall. There are several they decide to leave behind, since neither Gwen nor Lance could ever figure them out. Gwen goes through the items on the tables but there's not much there they can use. It doesn't take long before they head upstairs, and Gwen disappears into her and Lance's bedroom while Arthur joins Merlin in the kitchen.
He doesn't know how long he stands in the doorway and watches him, eyes locked onto Merlin's profile. His expression is serious, brow creased and bottom lip caught between his teeth; his eyes have a constant, faint glow to them as foodstuff organizes itself into boxes. Arthur has always found Merlin utterly fascinating when doing magic; the combination of tightly controlled power and unknowing beauty speaks to something deep within his core, and never fails to leave him aching.
Before, Arthur would watch Merlin.
He would lay in bed after they fucked, exhausted and sated and happy, and watch as Merlin lazily held out his palm, eyes soft and gold, making random objects dance across the room. Sometimes Arthur would ask for things, and Merlin would make it happen with a small, indulgent smile. Other times, like now, Merlin wouldn't know that Arthur was watching. Those were Arthur's favorite moments, the moments where Merlin felt uninhibited freedom and pure joy from just being magic.
Once, Arthur remembers, he had watched from around the corner of the safe house's living room as Merlin had danced around the room to some classic rock love song, drawing little hearts in the air that had M + A written inside. He had teased Merlin for days afterward, calling him a teenage girl, and had never once told him how the sight had left him warm and giddy and more in love than ever. Merlin had known, however, and had only laughed and blushed and kissed Arthur stupid.
"Are you just going to stand there or are you going to help?"
Arthur jumps, the present immediately coming back into sharp relief. Merlin is standing in the middle of the kitchen, staring at him, eyes now blue and wary. His expression is odd, and Arthur has to swallow hard before he can answer.
"What do you need me to do?"
Merlin takes a moment to answer, eyes still locked onto Arthur's. The air is thick between them, heavy with what Arthur can only identify as an odd form of anticipation. They are both remembering, he realizes, and feels a jolt of something skitter down his spine.
Finally, Merlin points to a few filled boxes that are on the kitchen table. "These are ready. Can you put them in the boot of the car?"
Arthur nods and moves to pick up one of the boxes. "And where exactly would this car be?"
At this, Merlin grins and waves his hand toward a door on the far end of the kitchen. It opens with an audible click, and Arthur raises an eyebrow at Merlin before walking towards it and peering through. What he sees has him letting out a short, shocked exclamation.
"I don't believe it!" he breathes, setting the box down just inside the door and heading straight for the classic, cherry red convertible. "It's Morgana's car!" He runs a hand lightly over one fender and looks back up at Merlin, who is watching from the door. "But I thought it was destroyed with the house that day."
Merlin shrugs, and Arthur can tell that it's purposely casual. "After—after Freya died, I needed something to distract myself with. An image of the car popped into my head one day, so I went back to see if there was anything left to salvage." He catches Arthur's eye and smiles faintly. "It was in a bit of a mess, but so was I. We got along splendidly, really."
Arthur's heart clenches painfully and he has to blink as he looks back down at Morgana's beloved car. "I'm the biggest bastard that ever existed, aren't I?" he blurts before he can stop himself.
Merlin's lips twist, and it's not quite a smile but it's not something horribly bad either. "A bit, yeah," he says, and then he's stepping forward, moving nearer to Arthur until he's much too far away to be so close. "But I've always known that about you."
Neither of them moves, caught somewhere between the past, the now, and a future Arthur isn't sure could ever really happen. Everything in him is screaming at him to reach out and touch, to kiss Merlin as fiercely as he kissed Arthur the day before, but something holds him back.
"Do you hate me, Merlin?" Arthur whispers into the air between them.
Merlin slowly shakes his head. "I wanted to," he answers quietly. "For a long time. But I've never been able to get past the whole madly-in-love-with-you thing."
Arthur's breath shudders out of him and he reaches up to bury one hand in the hair at Merlin's nape, leaning forward just enough to rest their foreheads together. He closes his eyes and takes a slow, deep breath, his entire body trembling. Merlin doesn't say anything, doesn't move other than to bring both hands up to cup just behind Arthur's jaw. They stand like that for an endless amount of time, and Arthur feels like the piece of himself that's been missing for over three years is finally beginning to slot back into place.
It only takes a couple of hours for the three of them to get everything they need packed and loaded into the boot. Gwen hadn't been lying when she had said that it was very big—Merlin had expanded it magically when he rebuilt the car. They put the boxes of food on one side—several of them magicked to stay cold—and the weapons on the other. In the middle they put their clothes and personal items, and Gwen carefully adds two boxes filled with her and Lance's irreplaceable memories.
When she isn't looking, Arthur catches Merlin's eye and Merlin smiles grimly as he places an extra layer of protection around them.
Arthur still doesn't like the thought of his bike being locked away where he can't just jump on it and ride if he needs to, but he reminds himself that this is for Morgana and at least he'll have it. They fit it in towards the front, well within easy reach, just in case. When they are finally done, Gwen takes one more walk through the house just to make sure she doesn't forget anything. Arthur and Merlin wait, leaning side by side against the car. Neither of them speaks, and Arthur checks and rechecks Excalibur.
Finally, Gwen joins them. The three of them climb into the car, Merlin behind the wheel, Arthur beside him in the passenger seat, and Gwen in the back.
"We should go over the map," Merlin says, and then in Arthur's head, Distract her.
Right, Arthur thinks, nodding slightly in Merlin's direction as he reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out the map he'd found earlier. "I've been thinking about how we're going to accomplish the impossible," he says out loud. He unfolds the map and Merlin waves his hand at it, making it flatten out and hang suspended in mid-air, so all of them can see it easier.
Gwen moves closer, leaning over the front seat. "Is this were you think Camelot is located?" she asks, pointing at a spot with a big X over it.
Arthur gives a half nod. "I think it's possible, yes. Unfortunately, that spot is one of many. There are lots of places that are north, and a good bit of them could easily hide an entire compound. This one seems the most likely to me, though."
"It does make sense," Gwen says distractedly, studying the map carefully. "As far as I know, nobody's been near that area for years."
"I have a friend who lives around here," Arthur continues, pointing at a circled spot just north of where they are. "He's a bit of a technical genius, and I'm positive he can help us get closer to discovering where Camelot actually is. We'll go there first and see what he can tell us."
Merlin shoots him an inscrutable look. "How do you know he'll help? And how do you know we can trust him?"
"Merlin!" Gwen chastises, but Arthur shakes his head at her.
"It's alright, Gwen," he says, and raises an eyebrow at Merlin. "I know because he's helped me on several occasions already, and he's always pulled through. He is firmly on the side of Resistance, and I have no reason to doubt him."
"Right," Merlin mutters, and looks back at the map. "How long will it take to get there?"
"We should be there at some point tomorrow," Arthur answers. "Allowing time to stop for some sleep, of course."
A loud beeping noise suddenly sounds from the back and Gwen turns and picks up her cell phone. She punches a few buttons and then frowns down at the screen before raising worried, determined eyes to Merlin and Arthur.
"It's Lance," she says grimly. "Something's happened. He's on his way."
By the time Lance skids his car across the front lawn and jumps out at a dead run, Merlin has pulled the convertible, top up, into the drive and is letting it idle. Arthur has Excalibur in hand, and is holding it pressed against his thigh; Gwen has retrieved one of the smaller guns from the boot.
Lance jumps through the open back door onto the seat next to Gwen, shouting "Go, go, they're right behind me, go!"
Merlin shoves the car into drive and stomps on the gas pedal, tires squealing and leaving a cloud of smoke behind them as they take off. The back door slams shut as they slide sideways into the street.
"What happened?" Arthur asks tightly, twisting to face the back seat as they barrel down the quiet suburban roads.
Lance shakes his head. "They finally figured it out, that I've been stealing their stuff. They came after me but I managed to get away, barely."
Just then loud shots sound from behind them, and Arthur curses as three Support vehicles appear. Arthur and Gwen exchange a look as Merlin hisses a familiar spell of protection, and as soon as the magic is in place they both open their windows and lean out on opposite sides.
Arthur quickly aims and fires off a shot at the gas tank of the vehicle closest to him. An adrenaline-fueled laugh bursts from him as the bullet finds its mark, and there's only a split second before the car explodes, flipping high into the air.
"Was that really necessary?" Gwen yells over the top of the car, sounding exasperated. She's already taken out one of the tires on the second car, but it hasn't slowed down as it follows them. A man wearing the gold Support symbol on his arm suddenly pushes through the back window, gun in hand, and fires a few rounds at her.
"Apparently it was," Arthur yells back, and Gwen scowls.
"Oh, fuck it," she snaps, and shoots the guy directly between the eyes. He jerks and drops the gun, and then slumps over so that he's hanging half out of the car. Gwen's mouth is a grim line as she aims again, and follows Arthur's example by taking out the gas tank.
The car skids sideways and back into the third car, and soon both of them are one huge ball of twisted metal and flames. Gwen looks at Arthur and then they both slide back down into their own vehicle. Lance gathers Gwen into his arms and presses his lips to her hair. Arthur glances at Merlin and can see the taught line of his jaw as he stares hard at the road in front of him. Merlin reaches for the dash and presses a button, and a panel slides up to show the screen of a GPS system.
"Put in the coordinates for your friend's place," he says shortly.
Arthur does, and nobody speaks for a long time.
Merlin drives the rest of the day and into the night, despite Arthur's protests. By the time they arrive at their destination it's nearly four am. They all tumble out of the car and Merlin locks it down with magic, a quick flash of gold in the dark. Arthur leads the way to the front door and glances back at the others before pressing the doorbell.
When the door swings open several minutes later, Arthur can't help but grin at Leon's sleepy glare. "Hello."
Leon blinks, face twisting in confusion. "Arthur? It's four o'clock in the fucking morning!" He flicks his gaze over Arthur's shoulder and raises an eyebrow questioningly. "And they are…?"
Arthur steps to the side and gestures at the others. "Gwen, Lance, and Merlin. Guys, this is my technical genius friend, Leon."
"You mean your save-your-arse-because-you're-a-stubborn-idiot friend," Leon says, frowning slightly. "Merlin?" he asks Arthur. "Do you mean—?"
"Yes," Arthur interrupts, glancing back at a scowling Merlin.
Leon's entire stance changes, and he tenses visibly as he glances around his front lawn before stepping back. "Get inside. Now."
Arthur raises his eyebrows in surprise at the sharp tone but quickly gestures the others forward. Gwen holds tightly to Lance's hand as they go by, and she sends a questioning glance at Arthur. Merlin is still scowling, and steps just ahead of Arthur as they enter the house. Leon glances around the yard once more before shutting the door with a loud click and proceeding to turn several bolts.
"Paranoid much?" Merlin says dryly.
"Merlin!" Gwen hisses, swatting at his arm.
Leon, however, only shoots him a strained smile. "You would be too if Support was watching every move you made."
"What?" Arthur asks sharply. "I thought you were under their radar. What happened?"
"Your sister happened," Leon answered, sounding weary but not upset. "I assume she's why you're here?"
Arthur nods slowly and scowls. "We're searching for her; I thought you might be able to lend us some of your genius in finding her. But it sounds like you already know what's going on."
"I knew this would be pointless," Merlin mutters, and Arthur shoots him a baleful glare.
"Maybe we should all sit down and talk," Lance says cautiously.
Leon shakes his head and heads for a back hallway. "We don't have much time," he throws over his shoulder. "Come on, we need my computer room."
Arthur immediately follows, and the others trail closely after him. Leon's computer room is unbelievable, and because Arthur's seen it before he can grin at the gasps that sound from behind him when they enter.
There are screens and keyboards all across the back wall, both physical and digital, and several different types of gadgets and cords spread throughout the room. A projection of some sort is on the ceiling, and one corner is a circle of screens floating in mid-air. Another wall contains a huge bookcase, stuffed full, and a third is covered in graphs, charts, photos, and newspaper clippings. There are filing cabinets and desks scattered everywhere, and Arthur knows most of those are locked down tight.
"Morgana was here a few months ago," Leon says, and pulls open one of the drawers on a nearby desk. "She had me do some research for her, on Camelot."
"Morgana was here," Arthur repeats in disbelief. "Months ago. And you didn't bother trying to get in touch with me." It wasn't a question.
Leon looks up at him, and there is apology written on his face. "I'm sorry, Arthur, I am. I wanted to, but…she told me certain things that convinced me I shouldn't."
Arthur throws up his hands and turns to look back at Merlin, Gwen, and Lance. "I'm sorry," he says sarcastically. "My friend seems to be a weak-spined pushover."
"Don't be cruel, Arthur," Gwen admonishes, a frown appearing on her face. "We all know how Morgana can be."
"I think I'm with Arthur on this one," Merlin says, and Lance gives him an amused look, raising his eyebrows.
"Look," Leon interrupts, irritation clear in his voice, "I would have tried contacting you if she hadn't told me what she did. As it was," he glances quickly at Merlin and then back to Arthur, "it was important to let things play out on their own."
Arthur stares at him. "What exactly did she tell you, Leon?" he asks very deliberately.
Leon shrugs, and it is anything but casual. His eyes flick once more to Merlin and then back to Arthur. "That I should keep my mouth shut about it."
"Are you serious?" Arthur bursts out angrily.
Leon raises an eyebrow and Arthur suddenly finds himself in a heated glaring contest with his friend. Uncomfortable silence fills the room, and he is angry and worried and when he finally finds Morgana he's going to bloody murder her.
"Look," Merlin suddenly snaps, voice tight, "can we please just get on with this? You said there wasn't much time, but you two can't seem to get to the reason why we're actually here."
Leon breaks eye contact first, shifting his gaze to Merlin. "Right." He turns back to the desk drawer he was going through and pulls out a file folder.
Arthur pinches the bridge of his nose and takes a deep breath. "Okay, fine. What can you tell us?"
Leon waves the file folder and plops it down onto a clear spot on the desk, opening it. "This is everything I've discovered about Camelot. It's yours to take with you, but when you're done—burn it." He pulls a sealed envelope from the papers within and hands it to Arthur. "From Morgana."
Arthur takes the envelope and immediately rips it open, ignoring the way his hands tremble slightly. There's a single sheet of paper inside, and on it a single word:
"Fuck," Arthur says.
"What is it?" Gwen asks quietly, nervously. "What does it say?"
He hands the paper over without a word, jaw clenched painfully; he knows what Morgana meant, and he doesn't like it one bit. Gwen frowns down at the name before passing it to Lance, who curses under his breath.
Merlin scowls and takes the paper from Lance, looking down at it. "Fuck."
"She said you would know who it was," Leon says cautiously, glancing between them.
"We do." Lance's voice is heavy, and he's looking worriedly at Arthur.
Merlin meets Arthur's eyes. "This isn't going to be fun."
"Obviously," Arthur says dryly, and picks up the file on Camelot. "What the fuck does Morgana need with Morgause, anyway?" he mutters in irritation, and tries not to think about all of the secrets kept from him. The file is thin, with only a few papers inside. One is a map, the northern part of which contains a big red circle. He glances up at Leon and points to it. "Is this where Camelot is supposed to be?"
"Maybe," Leon answers. "It's pretty much speculation, but that's the general area where the most activity takes place."
"What kind of activity?" Merlin asks sharply.
Leon's expression is serious when he looks at Merlin. "Magic. The dark sort."
Gwen and Lance head out to the car not long after that to get some of the food from the boxes in the trunk. Leon checks several of his screens and punches in a few codes, and then tells them they have about half an hour before Support shows up.
"You need to leave," he says. "If you're going to find Morgana you don't need to be here when they arrive."
"We can't just leave you here to face them alone," Arthur protests.
Merlin scowls unhappily. "He's right," he agrees, sounding reluctant to do so. "Support will destroy you, especially if they're coming because they know we're here."
Leon grins at this, and Arthur sees a slightly manic spark behind his eye. "I can handle Support. I have technology they've never even heard of—it's fun playing with them." He rubs his hands together in excitement and Arthur can't help but laugh.
"You're mad," Arthur says, shaking his head in amusement but quickly sobering. "Don't die, alright? You're kind of useful, you know."
Merlin looks at him sharply, and his jaw clenches. "I'll just be in the car, then, since our help isn't required." He snatches the file on Camelot from Arthur's hands before turning and stalking away, shoulders tense.
Arthur watches him go before turning back to Leon. "Well. This visit was certainly interesting, if only vaguely helpful."
Leon grins at him. "I don't think he likes me."
"Yeah, I got that feeling as well," Arthur says, returning the grin.
"Be careful out there," Leon warns, suddenly serious. "From what I gathered, Camelot isn't exactly a friendly place."
Arthur nods, his grin dropping. "I know. Morgana better have a damned good reason for putting us through this."
"I think she does," Leon says, and shakes his head at Arthur's raised eyebrow. "No, she didn't tell me anything. Just that she needed to find Camelot, and that you would be coming after her."
"And the thing you need to keep your mouth shut about," Arthur adds wryly.
Leon grins again. "You're not stupid, Arthur. I think you can figure that one out on your own." He leans his head slightly in the direction Merlin disappeared and waggles his eyebrows.
Arthur rolls his eyes and then pulls Leon into a quick hug. "Don't let them bring you down. I expect your help on future acts of illegal resistance against the government."
Leon laughs and pushes him toward the door. "Go on, or Merlin will come blasting in here and do Support's job for them."
"Whatever," Arthur says, laughing, but he goes.
Merlin, Gwen, and Lance are already in the car, food distributed between them. Merlin has their map from earlier spread out next to the new map from the Camelot file, and the three of them are comparing them closely.
Arthur opens the driver's side door and shoves Merlin over. "I'm driving."
"Oi!" Merlin protests, glaring even as he slides across the seat to the passenger side. "You could have just asked, you know."
Arthur ignores him and takes the ham sandwich and bottled water Gwen hands him, and then starts the car. "Where's the button for the GPS?"
Merlin scowls at him but hits the button to raise the panel. "I don't see why I can't drive."
"You've been driving," Arthur tells him, punching in the coordinates for Morgause's house. "You haven't had any sleep—I have, while you were driving." He finally looks up at Merlin, silently daring him to argue.
"Don't bother, Merlin," Lance says, sounding amused. "Besides, he's right and we're running out of time."
Merlin scowls again but snatches at his seat belt, pulling it over and clicking it into place. "Fine. Let's just go." Arthur raises an eyebrow and takes a bite of his sandwich, nodding toward Leon's home. Merlin blinks at him. "What?"
"Protection?" Arthur asks pointedly around his mouthful of food.
Merlin narrows his eyes. "He said he could handle it." Arthur continues to stare at him, taking another bite of his sandwich. Merlin grits his teeth but his eyes flash gold. "There," he says flatly. "It's enough to keep him alive, but not so much that Support will notice."
Arthur nods once. "Thank you," he says sincerely. Merlin ignores him, so he rolls his eyes and quickly finishes his sandwich. "Alright, let's get out of here."
He pulls the car onto the road and heads north.
A few hours later the sun has risen and Arthur has had to dig his shades from his jacket pocket. He has an unlit cigarette between the knuckles of one hand, and occasionally places it between his lips and wishes Merlin weren't such a stubborn git.
He doesn't really mean it, though, because then Merlin wouldn't be Merlin.
Gwen and Lance are talking quietly in the back seat, and both Arthur and Merlin pretend not to hear them. Merlin hasn't said a single word since they left Leon's, staring out the window as the scenery flashes by.
Arthur thinks about earlier, at Gwen and Lance's, about the way they stood together and just breathed each other in. There had been a vague feeling that they'd come to some sort of unspoken agreement, but now Arthur isn't quite so sure. So he thinks about Merlin's reaction to Leon, about his tense shoulders and clenched jaw and short words. Arthur smiles slightly, and decides that it's time he takes a step forward instead of wallowing in self-pity like he has been the past three years.
You were jealous, he thinks smugly at Merlin.
Merlin startles slightly and then shoots Arthur an incredulous look. I was not jealous!
Arthur smirks, keeping his eyes on the road. How odd that I don't even have to explain what I mean.
Merlin flushes, the tinge of pink reaching all the way to the tips of his ears. I have no idea what you're talking about.
Arthur has to choke back a laugh at that. A bit too late for denials, Merlin, but fine. You were jealous of Leon.
I was not, Merlin immediately shoots back, scowling.
You were, Arthur argues, grinning widely now. Even Leon could tell, and he's the straightest man I know.
Merlin blinks, surprise flashing briefly across his face, and then his flush slowly deepens. You're both mad, then. I wasn't jealous.
Whatever you say, Merlin, Arthur thinks, and snickers under his breath. Whatever you say.
I wasn't! Merlin insists. Whatever you've done over the past three years isn't any of my business, anyway.
Arthur's smile fades, and he shoots a quick glance at Merlin from behind his shades. I haven't done anything except fight.
Merlin shrugs slightly and looks back out the window. Like I said. Not my business.
Arthur's grip tightens on the steering wheel. He wants to argue, to tell Merlin that it is, in fact, his business, that Arthur has always belonged to him, even when they weren't together. He wants to tell Merlin that the thought of being with somebody other than him makes his chest ache. He wants to ask if there was anybody else for Merlin, if he decided Arthur wasn't worth it. But he isn't sure if he wants to know the answer, so he doesn't. Silence falls between them, and it isn't the hurt anger from before but it isn't easy or comfortable either.
The quiet conversation between Gwen and Lance has stopped, and they are each staring out of opposite windows. Their hands, however, are entwined on the seat between them, and their posture is easy and relaxed. Arthur swallows, and wishes he could reach out and touch Merlin in the same way. He knows he can't, though, not yet. Maybe, he thinks. Maybe, after they find Camelot and Morgana, and if they can get things between them to be okay again.
Arthur reaches down to shifts gears, and hopes.
"We're being followed."
A heavy silence immediately falls at Merlin's quiet announcement, and Arthur's knuckles turn white as his hand tenses on the steering wheel. "How long?" he asks tightly.
"About half an hour," Merlin answers. "I wanted to be sure."
"Support?" Gwen asks from the backseat, shifting just enough to pull her small gun from its holster on her ankle and check the bullets, keeping her movements as slight as possible.
"Yeah," Merlin answers, and his eyes burn gold just as they slide closed. "Five of them—two in the front, three in back. Support symbol on their shoulders. A Commander symbol on the one in the back middle." He pauses and scowls, fingers flexing in his lap. "I can't do anything to the car. There's something—" he stops, shaking his head and opening his eyes, scowl deepening. "Something blocking my magic."
"I guess we'll have to do this the old fashioned way, then," Lance says, and reaches for the gun he had retrieved from the trunk while at Leon's. He checks it as Gwen did hers, and then slides it into the holster at his side.
"Stupid bloody Support," Gwen mutters angrily under her breath. "We don't have time for this shit."
"Is it just the car you can't touch or the men inside as well?" Arthur asks Merlin, quickly punching a few buttons on the GPS.
"I don't know," Merlin says heavily, glancing over at Arthur.
Arthur nods shortly and follows the directions the GPS is giving him. "Then I guess we'll just have to find out."
Before long they've turned down a narrow dirt road, and by the time they reach the clearing at the end the Support vehicle isn't bothering to try and hide anymore. Arthur knows instinctively that this will not end well, and from the looks on the others' faces they know it too.
"Ready?" Arthur asks, putting the car in park but leaving the engine running; the Support car parks nearby, facing them.
Merlin nods. "As ever."
"Guns out," Gwen orders, flipping the safety off on hers. "The last thing we need to do is give them the chance to gain the upper hand." Lance already has his in hand, and Arthur quickly pulls Excalibur from its holster and checks that it's loaded, turning off the safety.
The four of them climb from the car, slamming the doors behind them and stepping around to the front. The Support vehicle remains still, the tinted windows reflecting the midday sun. Arthur tries to make out the men inside but he can't see anything more than shadows. Merlin is beside him, whispering spells of protection beneath his breath.
"Come on, then," Arthur shouts, gesturing toward the other car. "Whatever you have to say, let's hear it."
There's a pause, and a warm breeze ruffles Arthur's hair across his forehead. Finally, the doors on the Support vehicle open and five men step out into the clearing. Four of them are wearing black suits and sunglasses, and surround the one in white with the Commander symbol on the front of his jacket.
"Aww," Gwen calls out in a sarcastically sing-song voice. "Does the big, bad, magic hater want to play?"
Arthur snorts out a laugh and exchanges an amused look with Lance; Merlin is still casting spells. "Did you just channel Morgana, by any chance?" Arthur can't help but ask. "Because you sure sounded a hell of a lot like her."
Gwen grins over at him. "Maybe I did. It was a right bit of fun, too."
A chuckle comes from the man with the Commander symbol, and the three of them turn back to him. He looks amused but there is a hard, malicious glint in his eyes that's unmistakable.
"I can assure you that I don't have anything at all against Sorcerers ," the man says smoothly, smile full of false reassurance. "I'm just here to help you."
A snort of disbelief sounds from beside Arthur, and he glances over to see Merlin glaring hard at the man, arms crossed over his chest.
"Who are you?" Merlin snaps out.
"My name is Alined," the man answers calmly, smile still firmly in place. "And as you can see," he gestures to the men around him—all four with oddly expressionless faces—and to the symbol on his jacket, "I am a fairly important member of Support."
"We can see that, actually," Arthur says coldly. "So the real question is, what do you want?"
Alined gives a small nod of acknowledgement. "I am here to make an offer to you all."
"We don't bargain with the enemy," Lance bites out.
Stepping forward, Alined raises both of his hands in a placating gesture. "Just hear me out. I think this particular offer might be of interest to you." He pauses as though waiting for their answer, but all he gets is silence. This seems to be enough because he steps forward again, smoothing down the front of his jacket and smiling. "If you four agree to turn yourselves in afterward, then I will escort you directly to Camelot myself."
Arthur sucks in a sharp breath and very determinedly does not look at the others.
"What makes you think we're searching for Camelot?" Gwen asks, gun held tightly against her thigh.
Alined laughs humorlessly. "Support has eyes and ears everywhere. There is nothing we don't know."
"Well, that's complete bullshit," Lance snorts, raising on eyebrow. "Support doesn't know half of what it thinks it does. Which means we don't accept, if that isn't clear enough for you."
The smile on Alined's face immediately freezes, going cold and hard. "I'm sure you'll want to rethink that decision. A few minutes to talk it over between you, perhaps?"
"We don't need a few minutes," Arthur says firmly.
"So you can take your offer and shove it up your arse," Merlin adds almost pleasantly, a sarcastic smile twisting his lips.
Alined stares at them for a few moments, all traces of false benevolence gone from his features. Finally he straightens his jacket and gives a small nod to his men. "Freeze the Sorcerer and bring him with us. Kill the rest." He turns and stalks back towards his car.
"Like hell!" Arthur shouts after him.
The other four men step forward, pulling weapons from inside their jackets, but Arthur already has Excalibur raised. Gwen and Lance are ready as well, guns pointed at the approaching enemy. It isn't until Arthur's fired off three rounds, Gwen and Lance with him, that he realizes the bullets aren't coming anywhere close to the men.
"Stop!" he yells, but Gwen and Lance have already realized what he has and lowered their guns. "What the fucking hell?"
"It's some sort of shield," Merlin says , speaking quickly as his eyes flash and his brow creases in concentration. "Similar to the one I created for us, but there are definite differences. I can't even reach through with my magic—it just stops." His voice is frustrated and his hands clench into fists.
And then one of the men steps forward and raises his gun, pulling the trigger. Arthur doesn't expect anything to happen, Merlin's magic is protecting them, so when he hears a loud, shocked cry of pain it doesn't register at first. But then he realizes and his head snaps around to see Gwen holding one shoulder, gun on the ground, blood pouring through her fingers.
They're all frozen—Arthur, Merlin, and even Lance—until Gwen's eyes roll back and her knees buckle, and then Lance is moving, catching her and pulling her up into his arms even as he runs toward the car. Arthur looks at Merlin and can see his own terror and fury reflected in his eyes. Merlin swings around to face the men, all with their guns pointed at the two of them and their faces unnaturally blank. He doesn't give them time to act, throwing his hand out and aiming at the ground, eyes burning bright, liquid gold. Words pour from his mouth, low hisses full of anger and intent.
The ground immediately begins to tremble beneath Arthur's feet, shallow rolls of dirt and rock from deep within. The magic flies toward the men and thick, strong roots burst up from the ground to wrap around them. They don't react, don't even try to fight, as the heavy vines wrap tightly around them, all the way up to their necks and then over their heads.
The earth opens beneath them, allowing the roots to drag them down before sealing itself back together.
Arthur feels no remorse at the men's deaths, and can't help but wonder what that says about him. He glances up from the now-smooth ground and catches sight of a fleeing Alined. "Merlin," he says, nodding toward the Commander.
Merlin narrows his eyes, still gold, and brings more roots up from the ground. Alined fights as they grab hold and drag him down, screams echoing through the clearing as the dirt closes over him. Silence descends quickly, and Merlin drops his hand, the bright color fading from his eyes.
"What about the car?" Arthur asks, glancing at the abandoned vehicle.
Merlin shakes his head and turns to hurry toward their own car. "The earth won't accept it," he throws over his shoulder. "Manmade."
Arthur can't really argue with that and it isn't really important anyway, so he quickly follows. Lance has laid Gwen on the ground and has taken his shirt off to press against the wound. Her eyes are closed, breathing shallow and uneven. Merlin drops down beside her and pushes Lance out of the way, carefully lifting the shirt from the wound.
"I've tried to stop the bleeding," Lance forces out, only moving far enough to take her other hand and hold it tightly. His face is pale and there's a wild look in his eyes. "Merlin, please—"
But Merlin is already whispering words, hands pressed against the wound and eyes once more shining gold. Arthur watches, feeling helpless and scared. Images flash before his eyes—Will in a pool of blood, eyes vacant; Freya unconscious and still as Merlin frantically casts spell after spell; Morgana pale and shaking in her bed, staring at the mark on her thigh where the bullet had shot through her.
It takes longer than it should, a desperate edge to Merlin's voice as he repeats the healing spells over and over. Lance is staring at Gwen's face, one hand clutching hers while the other brushes her hair back. There are tears in his eyes and Arthur has to turn away, swallowing. Finally, Merlin's voice stops and he just breathes instead, closing his eyes.
For a short, terror-filled moment Arthur thinks that it didn't work, that Gwen is dead, but then Merlin sits back and holds up the bullet. The wound is nearly closed, blood no longer flowing, and relief crashes through him when he sees Gwen's chest rise and fall with deeper, more even breaths.
"Oh thank fuck," Arthur chokes out, and Lance can do nothing but lean over and place his forehead to his wife's.
"Let's get her in the car," Merlin says, voice weak. "She needs lots of sleep, but she'll be okay." Lance nods and stands, moving to open the back door of the car before gathering Gwen into his arms and climbing in as best he can.
Arthur looks at Merlin and sees the way his hair is damp with sweat, streaks of it trailing down his face. "You too," he says firmly, leaning down to take Merlin's elbow and pull him up. "You just did a hell of a lot of powerful magic."
"Yeah, okay," Merlin says, not even bothering to argue. He sways slightly and Arthur tightens his grip, pulling him over to the car and opening the front passenger door.
"Sleep," he says, gently shoving Merlin inside. "I'll get us to Morgause's."
By the time Arthur slides behind the wheel Merlin is already asleep.
Morgause lives at the high end of an abandoned office building, having redone the topmost floor into a huge, luxurious flat. The entire city she lives in has been eerily abandoned, no other humans in sight, and Arthur figures that's the only reason she hasn't been caught out by Support yet. That and her magic. He thinks there might be more magic users around, but he's never seen anyone else.
When they arrive Gwen is awake but still weak, so Lance stays with her in the car while Arthur and Merlin head for the lift. The ride up is silent, but from the corner of his eye Arthur can see how pale Merlin still is. Near the top he takes out Excalibur and makes sure it's loaded before flipping the safety and pointing it at the door of the lift.
"Is that really necessary?" Merlin asks, but he already sounds resigned.
"I guarantee she's doing the same," Arthur returns, and sure enough when the lift stops and the doors open Morgause is standing on the other side, gun pointed right between his eyes.
"Hello, Arthur," she says pleasantly, lips twisting into a sharp smile.
"Morgause," Arthur says flatly.
They stay like that for several long moments, guns pointing at each other and eyes locked. Merlin watches from directly beside Arthur in the lift, not moving to stop either one but making it clear who he will defend if it comes down to it. Arthur feels a thrill shoot down his spine at that, but now isn't the time so he mostly ignores it.
Eventually Morgause lowers her gun and flips the safety, eyes never leaving Arthur's. His jaw clenches but he follows her lead, flipping the safety and slowly lowering Excalibur. Inclining her head, Morgause turns and makes her way back into the large living room. Arthur and Merlin step out of the lift but don't go too far into the flat.
"I'm disappointed in you, Arthur," Morgause says casually as she reaches her sidebar and carefully chooses an expensive looking bottle of amber liquid. She doesn't look at them as she pours out a snifter. "I expected you much sooner than this."
Arthur bristles, narrowing his eyes. "And just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Morgause looks up at him, raising her glass to her lips and taking a sip. "When Morgana said that you would be following I assumed she meant shortly after her." Something in her voice goes hard and accusing, eyes glinting. "I was beginning to think that you'd given up and was going to leave her for the wolves at Camelot."
"I would never give up on Morgana," Arthur snaps. "And what the fuck do you know about Camelot?"
"Is that so," Morgause murmurs, voice inscrutable, ignoring his question. Her eyes flick toward a still-silent Merlin and Arthur feels his chest ache. "Then why did you wander aimlessly for six months before seeking the help you knew you would need?"
Arthur flushes hot with fury. "It might have taken me six months to get it right but at least I'm doing something," he says tightly. "She came to you but here you are, in this fucking flat instead of out there with her trying to protect her."
Morgause's eyes flash with something unidentifiable. "Does it bother you, Arthur?" she asks, a smug smile appearing on her lips as she once again raises her glass to her lips. "Do you hate the fact that Morgana chose to confide in me rather than you?"
Arthur nearly growls, and feels Merlin take a step closer. "So she told you what she was doing," he grinds out, and then snorts. "I'll bet you convinced her to go to Camelot, told her it was a good idea."
Morgause immediately stiffens and her eyes harden. "I most certainly did not," she says coldly. "If anything, I tried to convince her not to go."
"Right," Arthur sneers. "For some reason I don't believe you."
Morgause takes a step closer to him and there is a fury to match his own in her expression. "Contrary to what you may believe, I do care very much for Morgana. She is my sister. I would never have tried to convince her to go to her own death."
"And yet that's exactly what you did," Arthur points out angrily. "You gave her the information she wanted and sent her on her way."
"I had no choice," Morgause snaps, setting her drink down with a loud clink. "If I hadn't told her she really would have gone to die. At least now she might have a chance."
"So why the fuck didn't you go with her?" Arthur yells, anger and fear making his stomach clench painfully. "You could have protected her, but no—you're still here and she's by herself in some god-forsaken place that we know next to nothing about!"
The snifter in Morgause's hand shatters, shards of glass and amber liquid falling over her hand and to the floor. "Don't you think I tried?" she hisses, waving her hand so that the mess disappears before turning and walking to one of the huge windows in the far wall and staring out of it. "She placed a binding spell on me. It won't let me follow her."
"She can do that?" Merlin asks in surprise, speaking for the first time since they arrived.
Morgause scoffs and turns back to them. "Morgana is much more powerful than she's given credit for—more powerful than even she realizes. She knew what would happen when she came here, knew that I'd insist on going with her." Her gaze sharpens and she glares at Arthur. "She learned the binding spell on purpose. Apparently it was vital that you be the ones to come after her."
"But why?" Arthur asks, and then throws up his hands in frustration. "God, never mind. Morgana's reasons are her own. Just…tell us how to get to Camelot."
"I can't," Morgause says.
Arthur stares at her, not sure he heard correctly. "What?" he asks, low and dangerous.
"What the hell do you mean you can't tell us?" Merlin snaps. "What did you tell Morgana if not how to get to Camelot?"
Morgause raises one eyebrow. "Camelot's location is not something I have knowledge of. And what I told Morgana is not for you to hear from me."
Arthur grits his teeth and fights the temptation to raise Excalibur and finish her stupid head games. "Then what can you tell us?" he forces out calmly.
Morgause smiles slightly. "I can tell you how to find someone who does know how to get to Camelot, someone who will tell you what you need to know. But—," she pauses and eyes both Arthur and Merlin carefully before her gaze locks onto Arthur's. "You have to answer a question first."
"A question," Arthur says flatly.
"Yes." Morgause steps closer, not stopping until she's right in front of them both. "It is Morgana's question, not mine. If you don't answer honestly, I can't give you the information you seek."
Arthur takes a deep breath, and then another. "Alright," he says through clenched teeth. "What's the question?"
Morgause stares at him for a long moment and then nods shortly. "When you cut your connection with Merlin—,"
Arthur draws in a sharp breath, and feels Merlin tense beside him.
"—did you regret it?"
Arthur swallows, and can't bring himself to look at Merlin as he answers, voice quiet. "Every second."
Morgause considers him carefully. "And now a question of mine."
"That wasn't what you said!" Arthur bursts out, but she ignores him.
"If you regretted it, why didn't you reconnect?"
Arthur closes his eyes and runs a shaking hand over his face. "Because," he says after a moment, opening his eyes and staring out the far window. "I was too proud, and in too much pain. I thought Merlin didn't want me anymore, and it hurt so much I could barely breathe."
"You loved him?" Morgause asks, and Arthur really, really wants to kill her because Merlin is standing right there, not saying anything.
"I never stopped," he says instead, tired and scared and Morgana is going to pay for putting him through this.
Morgause considers him carefully and then nods again. "Alright." She turns and heads for a cabinet in the corner, turning a key that's sticking out of the lock and reaching inside. She walks back to them and holds an envelope out to Arthur. "These are instructions on how to find a resistance camp. There's a man there who can tell you not only how to get to Camelot but about the boy Mordred as well."
Arthur's hand trembles as he takes the envelope, both frustration and hope surging through him. "Thank you," he says, though why he's thanking her he's not entirely sure. Now that he has what he needs he wants nothing more than to get the hell out of there. "If that's all then we'll just be going." He turns toward the lift but Morgause's hand closes tightly around his wrist, stopping him.
"Be careful, Arthur," she warns, shocking him. "The people in that camp are the most extreme of our kind." She pauses and then says, fierce and quiet, "Bring her back."
"We will," Arthur states firmly, and she releases him.
In the lift, on the way back down, Merlin pushes Arthur into the wall and kisses him, hard and desperate, tongue sliding into his mouth and teeth biting down on his bottom lip. Arthur surges against him, burying one hand in his hair and clenching the other in the fabric of his shirt, holding him in place.
Merlin breaks the kiss, licking a hot, wet stripe up Arthur's jaw. "When this is over," he breathes against his ear, "I'm going to fuck you senseless and never, ever let you out of my sight again."
Arthur shudders, heart tripping over itself as heat unfurls in his belly. "That's the best thing I've heard all day," he manages, and pulls Merlin back to his mouth.
Gwen and Lance are leaning against the front of the car when they get back, Lance's arm around Gwen's waist.
"We were beginning to wonder if we'd have to come rescue you," Gwen says, voice teasing but eyes serious.
Arthur points at her sternly. "You will do no such thing. You aren't fully recovered yet."
"I'm fine," Gwen protests, rolling her eyes and sitting up straighter. "My arm is a little sore but it's nothing I haven't dealt with before."
"Not the point," Merlin says with a frown. "I had to pour a lot of magic into you to keep you alive. You need to rest."
"I tried to tell her," Lance grumbles, and Gwen pokes him hard in the side.
"Did Morgause give you any information?" she asks in an obvious effort to change the subject.
Arthur holds up the envelope. "Another clue in the most insane scavenger-hunt-slash-rescue-mission I've ever been on."
Merlin snorts and grabs the envelope from Arthur's hand. "Alright, let's see what we have to work with."
Inside was a hand drawn map on thin, sheer parchment and a short note from Morgana:
At the camp, look for a man named Alvarr. Be cautious. He must tell you the truth about Mordred and Camelot, but anything else is not to be trusted. And for god's sake, Arthur, use your brains for once and don't come rushing in without a plan.
Arthur scowls at the note. "How is it she manages to be such a harpy when she's not even here?"
Merlin is studying the map, bottom lip pulled thoughtfully between his teeth. "Lance, where is the map we got from Leon? I have an idea." Lance quickly retrieves it from inside the car, unfolding it and spreading it out over the bonnet. Merlin studies both maps before carefully laying the hand drawn one over a certain section of the one from Leon.
"They match up," he says, leaning over to look closer. "See? This is where we are on both maps, and this is the direction we have to go to get to the camp. The lines from Morgana's are directly on top of these roads, and then veer off into unpopulated land very near to where Leon has marked a possible location for Camelot."
"Very clever, Morgana," Arthur murmurs. "We just need to follow the roads marked to find the camp."
"Exactly," Merlin says, and grins up at him. Arthur's breath catches, and he can't look away as Merlin's smile shifts just slightly into something softer.
A moment passes and then Gwen clears her throat softly, startling Arthur slightly. "Right, so," she says. "Come on, then. The sooner we get there the better."
Merlin has a faint flush on his cheeks and quickly looks back down at the maps, holding one hand over them and whispering. His eyes flash gold and the two maps merge into one, the lines of Morgana's standing out boldly against the other.
"Alright," Merlin says, straightening and carefully folding the newly-made map. "Let's go."
It takes them a full two days to get the car as far as they can with the directions on the map. There's still at least another three hours' travel to the camp, but the sudden appearance of a thick forest blocking their way is a bit of a problem. Merlin makes a thoughtful noise and glances back and forth from the map to the long line of trees, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel. Finally, he nods and looks up, pointing to a certain section of forest.
"See that path there?" he asks, and if Arthur leans forward and squints he can make out something that might be what Merlin is talking about. "That's where we have to go."
Arthur gives him an incredulous look. "Merlin. This car is not going to fit down that tiny path."
Merlin rolls his eyes and huffs a breath. "Obviously not, no." But then he grins and begins to fold the map. "But the bike will."
Arthur blinks at him and then breaks out into a huge grin. He turns to face Gwen and Lance in the backseat. "Do you mind—?"
Gwen waves her hand dismissively. "Go on, then. I'm still tired anyway."
Arthur doesn't believe her for a second but he isn't going to argue. He jumps out of the car and heads around to the boot, pulling the lid up as Merlin pushes the button that opens it from the front seat. His bike is still at the front, gleaming and perfect and dear god he has missed it.
"Don't you dare even think that you're going to get to drive it this time," Arthur states as Merlin comes around to help him haul it out, using magic so neither of them hurt themselves.
Merlin shakes his head, lips twisting in amusement. "You are incorrigible, do you know that?"
Arthur flashes him a grin over his shoulder as he climbs on, the familiar feel of the metal and leather sending a happy thrill through him. "You know you like it."
Merlin just snorts and climbs on behind him, wrapping his arms around his waist and leaning his mouth close to Arthur's ear. The spell he whispers is for protection, but even as Arthur feels the buzz of magic form around his head he can't help but shiver. He swallows and turns the bike on, nearly groaning as it comes to life beneath him.
Merlin laughs. "This bike always did get you off, didn't it?"
"Shut up," Arthur says without heat, and punches a few buttons on the main screen. He feels the bike shift and change subtly, preparing itself for a different type of terrain. "Ready?"
"Definitely," Merlin answers, and then his arms tighten around him as Arthur hits the gas.
The back tire spins and the front lifts off the ground, the whole bike skidding slightly as it comes back down and takes off for the path in the trees. It's utterly brilliant, with the wind whipping through his hair and Merlin's arms around him. His chest aches for times gone past, when it was still this easy between them.
And it will be again; he's determined. It won't be the same, nothing will ever quite be the same, but Arthur thinks that maybe they can be happy again.
He has seen many resistance camps, and this one is not much different from any other. Arthur parks the bike at the end of the path—knowing how rude it would be considered for him to just barrel in there—and surveys the large field. Everything in the camp is most likely put together by magic, and can easily be taken down by the same in case of an emergency escape.
There's a cluster of small buildings on one side that is obviously the housing—toys scattered everywhere, laundry hanging out to dry, people sitting outside talking while children play. The rest of the buildings are spread around, and Arthur knows there will, at the very least, be one for dining, one for communing, and one for learning magic.
"Where do you think he is?" Merlin asks. Neither of them has moved from the bike.
"No idea," Arthur answers. "But this isn't a very large camp, so I guess we can just try to find someone and ask."
They leave the bike, concealment on, at the top of the path and make their way towards the camp. It turns out that there's a small guard building just outside the rest of the camp, and as they approach a man steps out and eyes them suspiciously.
"What do you want?" he asks gruffly.
"We're looking for a man named Alvarr," Arthur answers, trying not to roll his eyes. "He has some information that we need."
"Morgana sent us," Merlin adds.
The man frowns and looks back and forth between them. "What are your names?"
"I'm Arthur," Arthur answers, and gestures toward Merlin. "This is Merlin."
The man stares at them a bit longer and then nods shortly, turning and heading into the camp. Arthur exchanges a look with Merlin and they follow warily. The man leads them in the direction of the houses, occasionally calling out greetings to people they pass. They get several odd looks but Arthur ignores them; he just wants to get the information they need and get out.
Finally they stop in front of one of the houses on the outskirts of the others. It's small and simple, made of stone and wood, but looks clean and well-taken care of.
"Alvarr!" the man calls, knocking loudly on the door. "They're finally here!" And then he turns and walks away.
Arthur raises an eyebrow and glances over at Merlin, who looks just as bemused as he feels. Before he can say anything, however, the door opens and a tall, thin man is looking out at them. He eyes them carefully, expression blank.
"Not exactly what I was expecting," he says. "But I guess that itself is to be expected. Come in, then. This won't take long." He steps back from the door and gestures them inside.
"You know who we are?" Merlin asks as they step through.
"Of course I do," Alvarr says blithely, closing the door behind them and leading them over to a rough wooden table on one side of the small main room. "Sit down. Let's talk."
Arthur bristles at being told what to do by a man he's never met before, but Merlin touches his elbow briefly and heads for the table. Arthur takes a calming breath and follows, sinking down onto one of the wooden chairs around it.
"Before I tell you what you're here for," Alvarr begins, "I propose a deal."
Arthur narrows his eyes. "What kind of deal?"
Alvarr sits back in his chair and considers them both carefully. "All of the information you need in exchange for the boy, Mordred."
"You want the boy," Arthur repeats, and clenches his jaw when Alvarr nods. "Why?"
Alvarr's eyes spark with something wild. "He was part of this camp to begin with. We need him back."
"You need him?" Merlin asks, raising an eyebrow. "That's a strong word for just a boy."
"You don't understand," Alvarr says, sounding slightly desperate as he leans forward. "This boy is our salvation, and your sister wants to take him away!"
Arthur glances at Merlin, and before Alvarr can blink he's got Excalibur pointed at his head. "Ever seen a gun enhanced with magic?" he asks, low and dangerous.
Alvarr slowly eases back, though his shoulders remain straight and proud. "I'm a sorcerer too," he says angrily. His eyes never leave the gun.
"I'm sure you are," Merlin says, and his voice is a carefully controlled mix of soothing and patronizing. "I'm also sure that Morgana told you exactly how powerful I am." He narrows his eyes. "We're tired of playing games. If you don't tell us everything right the fuck now, I will forcefully extract the knowledge from your head, and believe me when I say it won't be pleasant."
Alvarr pales, eyes shifting from the gun to Merlin to Arthur and then back to Merlin.
"Okay. I'll tell you everything."
Arthur stares hard at Alvarr for several long seconds before slowly lowering Excalibur. He lays the gun on the table but keeps one hand on it, ready to use it with as little warning as possible. "Go on, then. We don't have time to waste."
"No, you really don't," Alvarr says, scowling. "You've taken so long as it is many of us fear the boy is already dead."
"Stop talking in fucking riddles," Merlin snaps, and Arthur feels a crackle of magic spark across the small distance between them.
Alvarr holds up both hands. "The boy, Mordred—he's been a part of our group since he was born. His mother wasn't magical in the least, and always seemed to fear the rest of us. Right after he was born she took off and his father raised him. Mordred is—" Alvarr pauses. "Extremely powerful."
"Where is his father now?" Arthur asks.
"Dead," Alvarr answers heavily. "About nine months ago our former camp was invaded by Support. Many of us were killed before we could get away, including Mordred's father, and Mordred himself was taken."
"To Camelot," Merlin says, exchanging a look with Arthur. "Because he's so powerful?"
Alvarr considers them carefully, something dark and dangerous in his eyes. "Mordred is powerful enough to save the entire magical population from being exterminated by Support. He can defeat them, and free us all."
Arthur feels a chill go through him at the words, and he's not entirely sure if it's the knowledge of the boy's powers or the look on Alvarr's face.
"Does Mordred know how powerful he is?" Merlin asks carefully.
Alvarr nods. "Those in the camp with the most natural powers had been teaching him to control his magic, to use it consciously—and with intent. He knew what would be required of him one day."
Merlin stiffens beside him and Arthur draws in a sharp breath.
"You—" Merlin starts, voice tight with fury. "You were teaching a little boy how to kill?"
"Did you not hear me?" Alvarr asks blankly. "He can free us."
"Oh, I heard you," Merlin says darkly, eyes narrowing.
Calm down, Arthur directs at him. We need him to tell us the rest. Beside him, he feels Merlin take a deep breath. "Go on," he says out loud, gesturing at Alvarr.
"Six months ago Morgana arrived here at the camp," the man continues, glaring at Merlin. "We all thought there was no way to rescue Mordred but she told us about her dreams, and that she thought she could save him. The only problem was that she was positive he had been taken to Camelot."
"And why is that a problem?" Arthur asks, heart picking up speed; the truth is so close and he has to force himself not to shout at Alvarr to just fucking tell them already.
Alvarr snorts and leans back in his chair, crossing his arms. "Don't play stupid; everybody's heard stories of Camelot. No one who goes there survives. At least, not until now."
"Seriously," Merlin says flatly, and Arthur can feel the anger radiating from him. "I can take you apart with a single thought."
"I agree," Arthur says, and his hand tightens briefly on Excalibur. "Quit playing games and get the fuck on with it."
"Camelot," Alvarr grinds out between clenched teeth, "is where Support gets their anti-magic magic from. The sorcerers that are taken there are completely drained of any magic that's inside of them, and that magic is twisted and broken until there's nothing good left about it. It's used purely for killing more sorcerers, for completely eradicating our kind. All of the weapons and strength and power they have is from us. And then, the sorcerers' bodies are either burned or used as empty, mindless soldiers."
Arthur remembers the odd bodyguards from a couple of days ago and thinks he might be sick. "Fucking hell." He runs one hand through his hair. "If that's the case, what makes you think Mordred is still alive? And Morgana—" he stops, swallowing hard.
"Because he's so powerful," Merlin says quietly, and Alvarr nods.
"Exactly. They're going to keep him alive as long as possible to get as much magic from him as they can."
"But how?" Arthur asks. "Once a sorcerer's magic is gone—"
"They won't take all of his magic at once," Alvarr interrupts. "They'll take enough so that he's too weak to fight back, but leave just enough to keep him alive."
"What's the point in that?" Arthur asks in horror. "To torture the boy? My god."
Merlin's hand curls into a fist on the table top. "Over time, his magic will build back up."
Alvarr nods. "Before he gets too powerful they'll take the re-built magic and bring him back to that point of weakness. They'll do this over and over, until eventually his magic won't build back up."
"At which point they'll take the rest and let him die," Arthur works out for himself, disgusted. His jaw clenches and his stomach twists. "What about Morgana? Did she tell you exactly what she had planned?"
"She didn't go over every single detail of what she was going to do, if that's what you're asking," Alvarr says dryly. "But she did say that a huge part of it included you two." He pauses, scowling. "She also left you a letter, which you can have if you'll allow me to retrieve it without blasting me to pieces."
Merlin snorts. "We'll do our best," he deadpans.
Alvarr narrows his eyes but gets up and makes his way to a desk in the corner, opening the top drawer and pulling out a familiar white envelope. He comes back to the table and tosses it down in front of Arthur. "Here; I have no idea what it says, but it seemed important."
Arthur takes the envelope and tucks it into his pocket. "How do we get to Camelot?"
"When you get back to where the path that leads here starts at the edge of the forest, turn north-northwest and go straight for the next one hundred miles. You'll come to a dead-end at an abandoned, weeded-over graveyard. Turn due west and go straight until you see a rusted out sign asking for help on a special government project. Turn due north and then go straight for another fifty miles. Don't try to take shortcuts or just go vaguely north—it's guaranteed that you'll get lost. At the end of those last fifty miles you'll come across a high-voltage fence, impenetrable by magic. It reaches deep underground too, and I've never bothered trying to find a way past it. Camelot is right over the hill that's just beyond that fence. And don't even think about magicking yourself inside or back out, either. It's not possible."
"How did Morgana plan on getting past the fence?" Arthur asks.
Alvarr smiles humorlessly. "She didn't. She went to Camelot with the intention of being caught."
Merlin sucks in a startled breath and Arthur stares, stunned. "Morgana wanted to be caught, knowing what would happen to her?"
"It was the only way, is all she would say about it," Alvarr says with a snort. "It'll be a miracle if either of them is still alive after all this time." He glares at Arthur.
"Anything else we should know?" Merlin asks tightly, placing his foot firmly over Arthur's in silent warning.
"Yeah," Alvarr sneers. "We want the boy back. Morgana claimed that she would be taking him somewhere safe instead of bringing him back here." He points his finger at them furiously. "Mordred belongs with us—he's going to save us, and he needs the proper training. You make sure he gets back to us, or you will regret it."
Arthur stares hard at him. "Is that right?" he asks softly, and when Alvarr nods he very carefully places his other hand on the table next to where he's still gripping Excalibur, pushing himself to a stand and leaning forward. He takes the gun and places it against Alvarr's temple, enjoying the sharp intake of breath.
"I promise you," he says quietly, "that you will never see Mordred again. I will help my sister hide him wherever she needs to, and will do everything in my power to fix whatever you've done to teach him that cold-blooded murder is okay."
"You kill people," Alvarr points out angrily, gesturing toward the gun at his head. "How is that any different?"
"Because I don't enjoy it," Arthur hisses. "Because I don't have any other choice. I kill to keep myself and the people I care about from being killed, not just for the sake of killing to get what I want." He slowly straightens and purposely moves Excalibur into Alvarr's sight, flipping the safety on and placing the gun back in its holster.
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin says stiffly, pushing his own chair back and standing. "I've had enough."
Alvarr silently watches them as they go, fury in every line on his face.
They make it back to the bike unscathed, though not for lack of hate-filled glares. Arthur isn't stupid enough to think that there hadn't been somebody standing outside Alvarr's door as they had talked, and word of his promise to keep Mordred away has probably spread like fire. Merlin is tense beside him, casting his gaze around, and Arthur knows he's half-expecting somebody to attack.
They climb onto the bike, and as soon as Merlin's protection spells are in place Arthur fires it up and takes off in the direction they came, dirt spinning beneath the tires.
"What happened?" Lance asks as soon as Arthur's cut the engine on the bike.
Merlin climbs off and begins to explain everything they had learned from Alvarr, both Lance and Gwen listening intently. Arthur ignores them all, remaining seated on the bike as he pulls Morgana's letter from his pocket and tears it open.
You've got yourselves sorted by now, I hope? Good, because you're going to have to work together for my plan to be successful. I won't waste your time repeating everything that Alvarr told you, but there are things that even he doesn't know—like how Support plans on using the magic they extract from Mordred to help eliminate every sorcerer that exists, much in the same way Alvarr wants to use Mordred's powers to defeat Support.
As I'm sure you've discovered, they've been working on weapons that neutralize magic. The magic will still be there, but the sorcerer it belongs to won't be able to reach it. They plan on using these neutralizing weapons to weaken as many sorcerers as they can, steal their magic, and then use their bodies or kill them.
The more magic they gain the easier it will be for them to succeed.
This is important, so pay attention: You two must be careful when you get to Camelot, because the only known sorcerer more powerful than Mordred is Merlin. If they're able to capture him and take his magic to combine with Mordred's, there's no hope left for us. They've had somebody after him since before he left—when Freya got shot they were there for him, and the bullet killed her over time because it was slowly stealing her magic and giving it to Support.
Don't even think about not bringing him, Arthur. You're very noble in the thought, but Merlin and his magic are needed if you are to get Mordred and me out of Camelot. Leon would be a helpful addition as well, with all of his technological knowledge.
I don't know what section of the facility they'll have me in, but if my plan works I'll be with Mordred. I will probably be very weak, because they'll be able to detect my magic and will take what they can. They'll need me alive, however, to take care of him and make sure he lives and that his magic rebuilds.
I cannot tell you how sorry I am for putting you two through this, but it was the only way. You need each other, and now the world needs you both.
Love (and I mean that),
Arthur stares down at her name for several long seconds, the familiar curve of her name sending an ache straight through his heart. Six months. He's let her be alone in that goddamned place for six fucking months, her magic being drained as she waited on him to come rescue her and Mordred.
And Freya. Merlin is going to be devastated all over again.
He starts, and looks up to see Merlin staring back at him worriedly. "Fuck," is all he can manage.
Merlin doesn't take his eyes away from Arthur's as he reaches out and brushes his fingers across Arthur's cheek. "You're crying," he says, sounding baffled.
Arthur blinks, and then looks away as he reaches up with the back of one hand to wipe at his face. He doesn't argue when Merlin plucks the letter from his other hand but he can't watch him read it either, so he climbs off the bike and strides toward the forest line. When he's close enough he pulls Excalibur from its holster and flips off the safety, emptying all six rounds into the nearest tree.
It doesn't really make him feel better but it does help to calm him marginally.
When he turns back to the others he sees Merlin sitting sideways on the bike, pale and staring at nothing; Gwen and Lance are off to the side, reading the letter. Arthur takes several deep breathes before making his way back to them, carefully placing a hand on Merlin's shoulder. Merlin turns to look up at him, eyes dark and haunted.
"I'm sorry," Arthur whispers.
Merlin just shakes his head, closing his eyes and sighing as he leans into Arthur. He's trembling, and Arthur slides his hand from his shoulder to his head, tangling his fingers in soft black locks. Neither moves for a long time, and Gwen and Lance glance over at them before turning away to talk quietly.
Arthur isn't sure how much time passes before Merlin pulls away and stands, but when he looks over at Arthur his eyes are clearer and more determined than they've ever been.
"Is there any way you can get in touch with Leon?" he asks.
Arthur frowns thoughtfully. "Possibly. I know the number to his encrypted mobile, if he still has it. It's an emergency-only type thing." Merlin opens his mouth to say something but Arthur holds up his hand and rolls his eyes. "Yes, I am aware that this is definitely an emergency. Let me get my phone—and hope it's charged."
Arthur can't help but sigh in relief when Leon picks up. "Sir Knight!"
"This had better be The King, or this phone is going to be destroyed."
Arthur grins. "It's me. Look, I don't know how long my battery is going to last and I need your help. Are you opposed to magical traveling?"
"Wonderful," Arthur says, nodding at Merlin. "Get as much of your equipment together as you can, especially anything that can detect body heat and weak magical energy. Something for satellite tracking and blue-prints would be helpful as well. Oh, and anything that can de-activate a high-voltage fence that's immune to magic."
"And how long are you giving me to get all of this together?"
"Fifteen minutes, and then The Warlock will be bringing you to where we are."
There's a long pause, and then a sigh. "Right. I'll be ready."
Merlin brings Leon to them in a bright flash of gold eyes and swirl of white mist, and it's probably one of the oddest things Arthur has ever witnessed. Leon must feel the same way, because as soon as the mist disappears he shudders visibly and looks sideways at Merlin.
"That was just bloody weird," Leon says with blatant honesty, and Merlin grins.
"Nice to see you too," Arthur says dryly. "We've got work to do."
"Alright," Leon says, rubbing his hands together as he balances his laptop on his knees in the backseat of the car as they drive. Arthur is on one side of him, Merlin on the other, and Lance and Gwen are in the front. "From the directions you gave me I was able to use a satellite to pinpoint the exact co-ordinance needed. If we put those numbers in here—" he taps a few keys, "—and zoom in as close as we can—" he hits a few more keys and a picture of a large structure pops up on the screen. "And there it is. Camelot."
Arthur stares at the picture, not entirely sure how he's supposed to feel at seeing this cursed place. It seems to go on for miles, a single-story square building with very few doors scattered around the outside walls.
"It looks bloody impossible to get into," Merlin says, eyes scanning over the screen.
"It probably is," Leon agrees, tapping more keys on his keyboard and causing the picture to shift. "I can't get the exact blue-prints, but we should be able to use the satellite to get a basic idea of the layout, and also where the guards are. I can use the other detection devices to get a better idea of what's on the inside."
"Will you be able to see where Morgana and Mordred are?" Gwen asks, having twisted in her seat to look back at them.
Leon shrugs apologetically. "It depends. When I look on the inside I'll only be able to see body heat and magical energy. The first thing combined with the second should give us a better idea of where the sorcerers are kept and where the guards are located, and then it depends on how many there are."
"The guards would only have body heat but the sorcerers would have both, right?" Lance asks from his seat behind the wheel.
"Exactly," Leon confirms with a small nod. "Though with what you've all told me it's entirely possible their weapons will have magical energy as well."
"Yeah, but weapons won't have the same kind of energy, or be the same shape," Merlin points out, and Leon nods in concession.
Arthur watches as another picture pops up from the satellite. "If we're lucky they'll have all the sorcerers together," he says, and then points to one corner of the picture. "I see a guard here. And another here. But that's it."
"They don't seem to have many," Leon agrees, and brings up several of the pictures at once. "I'm counting a total of five on the outside perimeter."
Gwen raises an eyebrow, her expression one of disbelief. "Only five? I would think they'd have more than that."
"Let's see what we can detect on the inside," Leon says, tapping on the keyboard. The image on screen changes abruptly, and several multi-colored shapes appear.
"That's not more than twenty people," Arthur says in astonishment. "That can't possibly be right."
"Not many people know about Camelot," Lance points out. "And those that do find it never return, or return dead. If Support doesn't have a lot of captured sorcerers then they probably wouldn't have a lot of guards."
Gwen gestures at Leon's laptop. "Check to see how many there are with magical energy."
Leon taps several keys, and when the image pops up Arthur sucks in a sharp, shocked breath.
"Two," Merlin chokes out. "There's only two there with magic."
Gwen's eyes widen. "Is it them?" she asks fearfully.
"It's them," Arthur says heavily, nodding shortly. He points at one of the eerie silver-blue shapes. "This one is much smaller than the other, obviously a child." He looks up and catches Merlin's eye, guilt twisting his stomach. "Both of their energies are low, but they're still alive."
"We'll get them out." Merlin's voice is quiet and firm, and he doesn't take his eyes from Arthur's. "Whatever it takes."
Arthur points at him. "You are not allowed to get caught, is that clear?"
"I won't," Merlin says seriously, shaking his head. "I'm not letting these bastards win."
Night has fallen by the time they cut both the engine and the headlights on the convertible, silently drifting as close to the high-voltage fence as they can. They've got a plan in place, and while it's probably not the best they don't have time to think of anything better.
"Alright," Leon says, balancing his large bag of equipment on the boot lid and pulling open the zip. "I'm going to deactivate the fence, and then use my laser to cut through it." He digs through his bag and produces a handful of small, black devices. "Each of you take one of these," he says, handing them out. "They're ear transmitters, and on a special frequency I created myself. We'll all be able to hear each other, and therefore stay in communication, but there's no possible chance of anyone else listening in."
Arthur slides his into his ear, the others doing the same, and feels it shift to match the shape of his ear canal.
"These are brilliant," Lance says, and Arthur hears him crystal clear inside his head. It's almost like the connection he has with Merlin, but at the same time it's entirely different.
"Once we're through the gate we'll take care of the outside guards," Arthur commands. "Leon will stay out here and use his equipment to guide us, and the rest of us will split into teams. Gwen and Lance, you'll be our outside lookouts. If any more guards show up, don't hesitate to do whatever you have to do." Gwen and Lance both nod, and begin checking their guns; Arthur turns to Merlin. "You and I will go inside and find Morgana and Mordred. The fewer guards we have to take out, the better; otherwise the alarms will be raised sooner."
"We know the most likely place they're located," Merlin says, glancing down to where he's holding the hastily-drawn map of the facility. "The question is how much security we'll have to go through to get there."
"I've got that covered," Leon says, and hands Arthur a small, remote-looking object. "I've done a specially-adapted ultrasound pulse of their security technology, and most of it is just number codes. When you come to a room that needs a code to get through, point this remote at it and press this button. It'll scan the code screen and send the information back to my laptop, where I can crack it and get you in. Surprisingly, I didn't detect any cameras—but that will work in our favor."
"Perfect," Arthur says, and pockets the remote. "Everybody know what to do with our shitty little plan?" Four affirmative nods are his answer, so Arthur takes a deep breath and catches Merlin's eye. "Alright. Let's do this."
Fortunately, the main breaker for the fence isn't far from where they've parked, and Leon shows Arthur how to use the remote to scan for the code. It takes his laptop half a minute to crack it, and then he's hooking up the computer to the breaker and hitting a few buttons. There are several sparks and pops, and then a low whine as the electricity to the fence dies. Leon unhooks his laptop and Arthur takes the crowbar he's grabbed from the trunk and tosses it at the fence. He breathes a sigh of relief when it does nothing more than bounce off harmlessly, landing with a dull thump on the ground.
Leon hands his computer to Gwen and pulls a long, thin laser-ray device from his pocket, walking to the fence and aiming it at the links. The metal hisses and melts as the hot ray touches it, breaking off and forming a wide entrance into Camelot grounds. They all share silent looks and Arthur has to swallow past the lump that forms in his throat at the knowledge that these people care so much. Merlin gives him a small, grim smile and Arthur nods once at him before stepping forward and through the fence.
It takes them twenty minutes of walking before they crest the hill and the facility comes into view. Adrenaline is pumping through Arthur's veins, his heartbeat steady and fast, blood thrumming in his ears. They're so close, Morgana somewhere inside that building doing her best to protect a boy she didn't know existed less than a year ago.
"Let's get this done," Arthur forces out. "They've waited long enough."
They keep to the shadows, slipping through the dark spots as silently as they can. Merlin takes out the guards as they find them, using small bursts of magic, each one falling to the ground in a deep, dreamless sleep.
"Okay, that was the last one," Leon's voice sounds in Arthur's ear just after they've dragged the fifth unconscious guard into the bushes. "I'm watching through the satellite feed, and so far none of them have been found. The door you need to go through is just ahead on the right."
"Lance, Gwen," Arthur says quietly. "You stay out here, and keep to the shadows. If anyone finds you, do what you can to get rid of them."
They both nod in agreement, and Arthur glances briefly at Merlin before they carefully make their way across the open grounds to the door. Arthur has Excalibur out, ready just in case, but nobody suddenly appears with the intent to attack them. When they reach the thick steel door Arthur uses the remote to scan the code box on the outside.
After a few seconds Leon's voice comes through the transmitter. "Two, seven, three, five, nine, one."
Arthur quickly taps the code onto the screen's number pad, and there's a quiet buzz as the box's background color goes from red to green, the door clanking as it unlocks. He quickly grabs the handle to keep it from relocking and waits.
Merlin stares hard at the door, eyes briefly flashing gold. "All clear."
Arthur pulls the door the rest of the way open and they slip through. The corridor is dim, lights above them flickering off grey stone walls and a hard concrete floor. Their footsteps are muffled as they make their way to the other end, Merlin's arm almost constantly brushing against Arthur's. Their movements are instinctual, born from years of fighting together and learning the small things about each other.
Right, Merlin thinks at him after they've checked around the corners at the end. They should be about six corridors over.
Arthur nods shortly and leads the way down the next hallway, constantly aware of their surroundings. There are no sounds, no indications that anybody else is there, and something about it doesn't feel right. This is too easy. We should have encountered at least one person by now.
I know, Merlin returns grimly, and they keep going.
With Leon's help they make it through three more security-coded doorways before they find themselves at another thick, steel door with the words Block Ten painted over the top.
They should be in one of the rooms through here, says Merlin.
Arthur glances around them, uneasiness sliding down his spine. He has no choice, however, so he quickly scans the code box and then punches in the numbers Leon gives him. The door hisses slightly as it opens, and Arthur exchanges a scowl with Merlin before he pushes it open and they step through.
They find them in the third cell down.
Arthur sucks in a sharp, sorrowful breath when he sees Morgana, curled into a tight ball on a tiny mattress. Her skin is ashen, hair lank, eyes shifting almost constantly beneath her thin eyelids as she sleeps. He can see her ribs through the grungy t-shirt she wears, jeans that Arthur remembers telling her were too tight now slid low over prominent hip bones.
Beside her is a small boy, a mop of dirty brown hair on his head and blue eyes open and blank as he stares at them. "Who are you?" he whispers, voice weak and scratchy.
Arthur slides Excalibur into its holster before he crouches down next to him. "My name is Arthur," he says quietly. "My friend Merlin and I are here to rescue you and Morgana. Do you think you can trust me?"
The boy stares at him for a long moment before slowly nodding his head. "Morgana told me. She said you would come."
Arthur swallows hard and nods shortly before straightening and turning to Merlin. "Can you carry Mordred? I'll get Morgana."
Merlin is glancing around nervously, eyes not meeting Arthur's. He must have heard, however, because he jerks forward and reaches for Mordred, letting the boy weakly wrap his arms and legs around him. Arthur slides one arm under Morgana's back and the other under her legs, despairing at how light she is as he picks her up.
"No," Morgana moans quietly, head lolling back. "No Merlin. Stop…safe."
"Let's go," Merlin says urgently, something in both Morgana's words and his voice sending a spike of fear down Arthur's spine. "This room—it's wrong. Something. I can't—"
"Out," Arthur says tightly. "Now."
Merlin doesn't hesitate, stepping back through the door to the room, Arthur right behind him. There are audible sighs of relief from all three sorcerers once they're free of the room, and Arthur feels Morgana immediately relax against him.
"Lance," he forces out quietly, striding as quickly as he can toward the Block Ten door, Merlin and Mordred just behind him.
"I'm here," Lance immediately answers.
Arthur pushes open the steel door with his hip and shoulder, both surprised and grateful that there is no code needed to get out. "We've got them. You and Gwen meet us by the door, and be ready."
It's the fact that they make it all the way back outside without seeing a single other person that convinces Arthur of a gut suspicion. Lance and Gwen are waiting, and he carefully transfers Morgana to Lance's arms. Gwen clucks softly as Merlin carefully sets Mordred down, helping him to sit on the ground when his legs give out. She kneels down and runs one hand through his hair, pulling him close.
Arthur glances over at Merlin and sees the determined expression on his face, the set of his jaw, and knows they're thinking the same thing.
"You need to go straight back to Leon, right now," Merlin says stiffly. "It's the best way to assure you get away unharmed."
"What about you?" Gwen asks, looking up from Mordred and frowning. "You'll be coming too?"
Merlin catches Arthur's eye and shakes his head. "No. We have something to take care of first."
"You can't expect us to just leave you here," Lance protests indignantly.
"We can, and we do," Arthur snaps, gesturing toward Morgana and Mordred. "They need medical attention, and there's no time to waste about it. We have to get them out of here before Support changes their minds and we have a bigger fight on our hands."
Lance's expression darkens and he exchanges a look with Gwen. "You're going to stay and fight them like idiots."
Merlin shakes his head. "Not idiots. We have to stop this, or it'll just keep happening. They let us get them out for a reason, and we have to see this through or they'll come after them again."
"If the two of us try to leave now, they'll attack us all," Arthur adds. "Morgana and Mordred wouldn't survive that kind of scenario—it's likely none of us would."
Gwen's eyes flash angrily and she turns her gaze back to the boy in her arms. "Alright," she says tightly. "But if you don't survive this I will never forgive you."
Lance's expression is grim but he tightens his hold on Morgana and steps closer to his wife. "If you're not at the car in an hour I'm coming back to help."
Arthur nods shortly, not having expected any less from his friend. "We'll be there. I don't plan on losing this one."
Nothing more is said between them and Gwen rises, carefully pulling Mordred up into her arms, his hold on her the same as it had been on Merlin. She glances between Arthur and Merlin one last time before she and Lance begin the walk back to the car.
When they've finally disappeared from view, Arthur turns to Merlin. "Support is smarter than I gave them credit for."
"Yeah," Merlin agrees darkly. "And now we have to be smarter."
Arthur reaches up and takes the transmitter out of his ear, slipping it inside his trainer, Merlin doing the same. "Let's smoke these fuckers."
Just inside the same steel entryway door stands a man, tall and slim with thinning white hair. His hands are clasped behind his back, and though his closed-mouth smile is vaguely pleasant there's a hard line to it and a dangerous glint in his eyes.
"Boys," he says amiably when they're standing before him, shoulder to shoulder. "Merlin. I've been waiting for you."
"Aredian," Merlin says coldly. "I was really hoping you were dead."
"I have no doubt of that," Aredian returns blithely. "Now. If you will come with me, we can get this…unpleasantness over with."
"We're not going anywhere with you," Arthur snaps.
Something dangerous sparks in Aredian's eyes. "Is that right," he murmurs quietly, sounding pleased.
Before Arthur can even think about reaching for Excalibur he hears a click and feels the cold end of a gun pressed against the back of his neck. He freezes, jaw tightening; one quick glance at Merlin shows him to be in the same predicament, but the gun settled lightly against his skin is one of the magic-neutralizing ones Arthur recognizes from Gwen and Lance's basement. His stomach lurches.
Don't move, he thinks almost desperately at Merlin. And no magic. They've got one of those neutralizers on you.
Merlin pales visibly but otherwise doesn't move, eyes remaining a clear blue. "What exactly do you want with us?" he asks Aredian, voice quiet but steady.
"Your magic, of course," Aredian answers as though it's obvious, and Arthur thinks that it really kind of is. "That's what we've always wanted, for years now." He pauses and glances down at the watch around his wrist. "Oh, look at that – we're out of chit-chat time. Come along, then. We've got a lot of magic to extract."
"You're not taking my magic!" Merlin exclaims, fury filling his voice. "It's mine."
"And in the space of a few—hours? Days?—it will belong to Support," Aredian says dismissively, and gestures to the two men holding the guns on Arthur and Merlin. "No time to waste now. I've been waiting on this day for a long, long time."
"I told you," Arthur bites out. "We're not going anywhere with you."
Aredian merely raises an unimpressed eyebrow. "I daresay you are, or these two lovely soldiers behind you will make sure you take a nice, long nap."
Arthur snarls, lip curling up over his teeth. "You're a fucking bastard."
Aredian smiles, empty and cold. "Why yes, I am. Are you two going to come quietly, or will my men have to force you? Either way—"
"We'll come," Merlin interrupts, voice hard. "But you won't be taking my magic."
"Right," Aredian says, and almost sounds amused. "This way, then. Follow me." He turns and stalks away down the dimly-lit corridor.
What are you doing? Arthur shoots in Merlin's direction, stepping out behind him as they trail behind Aredian.
Saving our arses, Merlin responds. I can feel Morgana and Mordred's magic – they haven't broken or twisted it yet; it's still pure. They're probably waiting to add mine to it. If we can play along long enough, I know a spell to contain the others' magic inside myself.
Arthur's brow creases. I didn't know you could do that.
It's not easy, is Merlin's careful answer. Each person's magic is unique to them, and doesn't always like to be used by others – full control over it is only possible with what they're doing here, and I don't want anything to do with that kind of magic.
Will it let you use it? Arthur asks, frowning.
Merlin hesitates, shooting Arthur a quick glance over his shoulder. I don't know.
Arthur's heart clenches; he recognizes the look in Merlin's eyes, the look that he always used to get before their most dangerous missions. It's the one that says I might die doing this but it's the only choice we have so shut the fuck up and help me do what I need to do.
Arthur hates that look.
"So, Aredian," he says mock-casually, because if Merlin needs to concentrate then Arthur's going to do everything he can to distract the enemy. "You say you've wanted Merlin's magic for years. Are you just so stupid that you couldn't get to him before now, or did you wait for a reason?"
Aredian lets out a short, humorless laugh and leads them around a corner. "Do you mean you haven't figured it out by now?" he asks, sounding delighted. They almost immediately turn through a doorway and begin to descend a dark flight of narrow stairs. "I wonder – how much should I tell you?"
Arthur grits his teeth and takes a deep breath. "Everything would be preferable." He moves closer to Merlin on his next step down, letting their elbows brush in the shadowed stairwell. A familiar spark of magic rushes through him at the contact.
Aredian makes a thoughtful noise. "That's a bit trite, don't you think? For the 'evil nemesis' to reveal the twisted master plan just before he tries to kill the 'hero'? Well," he chuckles slightly, "does kill, in this case."
"Maybe," Arthur agrees tightly, carefully ignoring the threat. "But I'd think it would be more satisfying to gloat about how you made complete fools out of us."
"Ah," Aredian says. "But then you would know and the secret wouldn't be quite as much fun. Never mind, I do see your point. Alright, you've won me over. Now where should I start?" They've reached the bottom of the stairs at this point, and he leads the small group down another dim corridor. "Oh, yes. Let's start with the fact that Freya Emrys purposely took a bullet meant for her brother; she wasn't just caught in the crossfire."
Merlin makes a choked noise of horror. "What?" he forces out, sounding more strained than usual.
"That's a lovely bit of information, isn't it?" Aredian asks with barely disguised glee. "According to the report Myror made immediately after, she used her magic to make herself look like you. To this day I can't figure out if she knew the real reason we wanted you, but she obviously knew that we did."
"And that real reason would be Merlin's magic?" Arthur asks, reeling. That bit of information hadn't been in Morgana's letter.
"Of course," Aredian answers. "Taking his magic and combining it with your sister's – and then the boy Mordred's, when we discovered his existence – has always been our goal. We were going to take both of them that day, put the two bullets we had into Merlin and Morgana so that we could gain their magic. In retrospect, it's good that we didn't succeed that day." They turn another corner in the endless maze of corridors, this one sloping downward.
"Why?" Arthur asks, trying to keep the bitterness from his voice. "So you could enjoy watching the most wanted group of Resistance fall apart because of something you did?"
Aredian snorts. "No, that was actually a complication. Because of your split, we had to put extra effort into bringing both sorcerers in. It was quite bothersome, really. What makes it worth it is the fact that if we had succeeded that day then we wouldn't have discovered Mordred."
"And he was powerful enough to hold off on Merlin and Morgana," Arthur states, because that much is obvious.
"Exactly," Aredian says, glancing over his shoulder at them as the floor levels out. "When we found out how powerful Mordred would be when he reached a certain age we revised our plan. Myror continued to follow Merlin to keep an eye on him, and another trained hunter followed you and Morgana."
Arthur stiffened. "You had us followed?" he bit out sharply.
"Of course we did," Aredian sniffs. "We couldn't afford to lose track of your sister. Myror was good at tracking but he was quite obviously bollocks at actually catching anybody. Our planned relied on her to bring Merlin in."
"I'm not sure I understand," Arthur says after a brief pause. He can feel Merlin trembling next to him as they walk, breathing slow and deep through his nose.
"Ah, yes, this is the slightly complicated part," Aredian murmurs almost to himself. "You see, we had been waiting for Mordred to come more fully into his powers. When that finally happened we set our plan into motion. There had been hunters on Mordred's trail since we discovered him, and it was laughably easy to obtain him from his camp. Not to mention we rid the world of a few more sorcerers in the process, and that's nothing to complain about." He chuckles darkly.
Arthur barely holds back the rage that threatens to choke him. "That doesn't sound very complicated."
"Oh, it wasn't," Aredian says dismissively. "It was after we had him that we had to be careful. Myror was completely incompetent at catching Merlin, and the hunter we had on you and Morgana wasn't trained to capture, only to follow. So we used the magic we had already extracted from Mordred to give Morgana her dreams about him."
Arthur draws in a sharp breath. "What?" he chokes out. "Her dreams weren't real?"
"Goodness no," Aredian laughs, and yet another corner is turned. "I'm quite proud of the fact that they seemed so real, actually. She easily fell for the little-boy-in-trouble-please-come-save-me thing. It was amusing to watch."
"And the point of giving her these fake dreams was to get her to try and save Mordred, which would bring her straight to you," Arthur works out, furious at himself for not making Morgana tell him about the dreams.
"Partially, yes," Aredian says with a sigh. "We were expecting her to contact Merlin for help, and then the two of them would come to the 'rescue'. That's not what happened, to our disappointment, so we had to adjust the plan and hope that you would be worried enough about her to contact Merlin yourself."
Arthur can't stop himself from trembling, hands clenching into fists. "But that's not what happened either."
"No, it isn't," Aredian agrees, and finally stops in front of a thick-looking steel door. "I had no idea you cared so little for your sister, Arthur; you left her to be tortured here for six months. I'm not sure if I should pity you or feel proud. Ah well, no matter." He turns to Arthur and the flickering overhead lights casts an eerie shadow across his cold smile. "All we needed to do was bribe that Cedric man to give you just enough information and then have one of our men put a carefully aimed Black Widow into you."
Arthur can't breath. Everything that's happened over the past three years – a set up, all of it. Every fucking bit. He looks over at Merlin, and he can see the hard set of his jaw, the way his eyes are closed and his head down, shoulders tense. There's a subtle energy to him that isn't usually there, a thrumming just under his skin that Arthur can see even in the dim light.
"Nothing to say to that?" Aredian asks, a hard edge to his voice, and Arthur glances back at him. "I'm not surprised; it's a lot to take in. We're here anyway, and I'm more than ready to get this done." He raises his hand to punch in the code on the security screen.
Arthur's gaze flicks over to Merlin and locks onto him, everything in him suddenly hyper-aware.
Aredian pauses and turns to Merlin with a raised eyebrow. "No? You don't have a choice, boy. I will have your magic. I detest using the stuff, honestly, but it's a necessary evil for Support to make sure we win this little war."
"I said," Merlin repeats, and when he lifts his head and opens his eyes they're a bright, solid gold, "no."
"What—" Aredian gasps, taking a step back. "What are you doing?" He doesn't give Merlin a chance to answer, pointing at the guard behind him. "Shoot him, goddamn it!"
But there's no way in hell Arthur's going to let that happen, and before the words are fully formed he's got one elbow crashing violently back into his own guard's nose and Excalibur in his hand. He spins and aims, pulling the trigger and putting a bullet into the temple of the man behind Merlin. Aredian lets out a furious cry and lunges for a large red button next to the steel door, slamming his hand down onto it. A loud, blaring alarm begins to sound.
"I don't know what you think you're doing," Aredian hisses, "but I can guarantee that you won't get away with it. We've got all possible escapes blocked off, and setting off the alarm means there are more guards on their way down here right now. You—" he points at Arthur, "—will die, and you—" his finger swings toward Merlin, "—will have every ounce of magic ripped from your very soul, until there's nothing left of you but a pile of twisted bones."
"I told you before," Merlin says, voice rough and strained, eyes glowing impossibly bright, "that you won't be taking my magic. What you're doing here is beyond evil, and you will pay."
Aredian laughs, wild and mad, gesturing around them. "There's nothing you can do! You could kill me but it won't change the fact that there are others here who can take your magic as well as I can. You're not strong enough to win this!"
Merlin smiles at that, slow and dangerous. "And that is where you're wrong. Would you like to know why? You got cocky. You took Morgana and Mordred's magic and instead of breaking it when you had the chance you stored it. It was locked away, contained by dark magic but not touched by it, waiting for mine to be added to it. That's why you let them leave, isn't it? You've taken so much of their magic that there isn't enough left to build back up. They no longer matter, and so you let them be rescued for the sole purpose of trapping me."
Aredian sneers. "You think you're so smart, don't you? Such a powerful sorcerer to be so stupid. Their magic isn't important until it's combined with yours."
"And that," Merlin says triumphantly, "is the point. Do you know what I've done yet, Aredian? I've done exactly what you wanted – combined Morgana and Mordred's magic with my own, inside myself."
Aredian narrows his eyes. "That's not possible."
"It's very possible, actually," Merlin contradicts. "I've done it, and now I've got more power than you could ever dream of. Do you know why? Because good may not always overcome evil, but it's sure as hell going to try a lot harder."
Arthur has been watching in amazement, and when he sees Merlin raise his hand, waves of magic bursting from his palm, he steps behind him. He can feel the two of them immediately surrounded by a protection spell stronger than any he's ever felt before, and he doesn't bother to spare any pity for the ones on the receiving end.
"I hope you burn," Merlin hisses at Aredian, and then words are falling from his mouth, tongue twisting over the odd sounds.
The floor beneath Arthur shakes, shifting and cracking, the walls of the corridor falling in chunks around them. Aredian suddenly looks panicked, stumbling as he spins around. Merlin's voice gets louder, the spell flowing from him and sparking in mid-air. The floor bucks violently beneath Arthur and he makes a wild grab for Merlin's waist. He hisses when he feels the heat coming from his wiry body but he holds on tight anyway.
It happens almost without warning as the power builds and builds and finally explodes in a huge burst of white. Arthur can do nothing but cling to Merlin and bury his face between his shoulder blades. He can feel the magic surround him, hot and overwhelming, but it never touches him. His whole body is trembling, breath gasping out of him as he fights to remain aware.
It's over quickly, the heat and power fading into a low thrum of energy, but Arthur isn't able to move until he feels Merlin begin to collapse. He tightens his hold and carefully sinks down to his knees, Merlin groaning as he leans back against him. Arthur carefully blinks his eyes open and looks over Merlin's shoulder, jaw falling open at what he sees.
They're in the middle of a deep crater, probably a mile wide at the very least, dirt surrounding them on all sides. There's no sign of Camelot, of the steel and concrete facility or the people who ran it. Aredian is gone, the guard's bodies are gone, and the underlying chill of dark magic that Arthur hadn't even been aware he could feel is gone.
"My god," he breathes. "Merlin. You obliterated everything."
"Had to," Merlin says, and his voice sounds weaker than it's ever been. Arthur looks over at his profile, and even from the odd angle he can see his eyes almost continuously flashing the same bright gold as earlier before fading briefly into blue, only to flare again with gold.
"Merlin," he says firmly, "you need to let go of Morgana and Mordred's magic before it kills you. Nobody is meant to hold that much magic inside them."
Merlin drags in a shuddering breath. "Need," he rasps. "Need them...give it back."
"You want to give their magic back to them?" Arthur guesses, and Merlin nods weakly. "Okay. Alright, let's see if we can figure this out. Would it be too much for you to get us out of this crater, by chance? Because that would be helpful."
Merlin lets out a single huff of laughter and turns his head so that his nose brushes against Arthur's jaw. He whispers the words he used to bring Leon to them earlier, and after only a few seconds Arthur feels an odd, dislocated feeling. The world swirls around him and he tightens his grip on Merlin, not willing to take the chance of losing him. When the spinning stops they're just outside the crater, a few feet from the edge.
"Brilliant," Arthur says, a sudden, giddy grin stretching across his face. Laughter bursts from deep in his chest and he twists so that he can look more fully at Merlin. "Have I told you yet that you're the most amazing person I've ever met?"
Merlin smiles, exhausted but happy, eyes still flashing gold. "I love you too," he says.
Arthur feels his own grin soften, and he lifts one hand to trail over Merlin's cheek. "Come on," he says softly. "Let's get you back so all that extra magic can return to its rightful owners."
He struggles to his feet first and then helps Merlin up, supporting him as they slowly make their way back to the car.
They're halfway there when they're discovered by Leon and Lance.
"You're alive!" Leon exclaims, hurrying forward.
"Thank god," Lance adds, and places himself on Merlin's other side. "We saw that huge blast of magic, and could feel the ground move from where we were. We thought you two were dead."
"Not quite," Arthur says with a grin. "But Camelot is once more an infamous place of myth and legend."
"What the fuck happened?" Lance asks.
"It was Aredian," Arthur answers, grin fading. "Everything that's happened over the past three years—even the attack on the safe house. All of it was a set up, one thing leading to another in some kind of twisted plot to get Merlin's magic."
"They didn't succeed did they?" Leon asks in horror, glancing at a barely upright Merlin.
Arthur shakes his head. "Not in the least. He's done more powerful magic than ever before, which is why he's so weak right now."
"Morgana and Mordred," Leon starts, sounding sad. "Their magic is all but gone."
"S'not," Merlin mumbles from between Arthur and Lance. "Got it."
"Merlin could feel their magic there," Arthur explains at the blank looks on his friends' faces. "Support kept it untouched, waiting to combine it with Merlin's. So he did it for them—he's got Morgana and Mordred's magic inside of himself. That's what caused that huge explosion you saw."
"That's fucking amazing," Leon breathes.
"Yeah," Arthur agrees, "but we have to get him to Morgana and Mordred so that he can give the magic back before it kills him."
"What are we waiting for then?" Lance asks, and tightens his grip around Merlin's waist, speeding his steps.
When they finally reach the car the first thing Arthur sees is Gwen, sitting on the ground in front of it, sobbing into her knees. His heart clenches, because he's never seen Gwen cry before and he knows she's crying because she thinks her friends are dead.
"Gwen," he calls softly, and her head shoots up.
"Arthur," she gasps, and scrambles up. "Merlin. Oh my god, I thought I'd never see you again! Why are you carrying him, is he hurt?"
"Not exactly, "Arthur answers, and lets Merlin slide down to sit on the ground.
"'M fine," Merlin manages, smiling weakly up at Gwen. "Just need…need—"
"Where are Morgana and Mordred?" Arthur interrupts.
"Resting," Gwen answers, kneeling down next to Merlin and brushing his hair back from his forehead. "In the backseat." She raises her eyes and meet's Arthur's gaze. "They're pretty bad."
Arthur's gut twists but he just nods at Leon and Lance. "Bring them here. This should probably happen outside of our only vehicle."
"What should happen?" Gwen asks with a frown, watching as the two men head for the car.
"Merlin has Morgana and Mordred's magic," Arthur says. "He needs to give it back."
"Oh!" Gwen gasps, hand coming up to cover her mouth as tears formed in her eyes again. "He saved their magic?"
"Their magic saved us," Arthur corrects with a tired smile. "It's all a bit complicated. Right now I just want everybody back right." Gwen nods and then moves away as Leon and Lance both reappear, each carrying one of the others.
"How are you going to do this?" Arthur asks Merlin, settling onto the ground behind him.
"Just need to touch them," Merlin answers, eyelids fluttering. "Their magic will know them."
Leon and Lance lay Morgana and Mordred down on the ground, one on each side of Merlin. They're both unconscious, pale and sickly against the dark earth. Merlin sways and then leans forward, reaching out to take one of their hands in each of his own. Magic crackles between the three of them and he gasps, eyes slamming shut as his hands clench on theirs. Arthur watches apprehensively, easily able to see the sudden pain Merlin is in.
Morgana and Mordred both react immediately to the magic, groans escaping them; their hands glow where they're clasped in Merlin's. Neither seems to be in pain, and the more their magic flows from Merlin back into them the more relaxed they both become. Merlin, on the other hand, has tears streaming down his face as he makes small, gasping noises, brow creasing deeply. Arthur wants to reach for him, to gather him close and kiss him until the pain eases, but he knows he can't.
It goes on for what seems like forever, and Arthur waits impatiently. He exchanges quick looks with the others before they all turn back to watch, eager for it to be over.
Finally—finally—Merlin releases Morgana and Mordred, their hands falling limply to the ground despite the slow return of color to their faces. Arthur has a brief second to be amazed at their similar reactions before Merlin is tumbling backward, Arthur just barely managing to catch him.
"Tired," Merlin breathes, entire body trembling.
"Shh, I know," Arthur murmurs into his hair, placing a kiss to his temple. "Go to sleep. I'll be right here."
"Good," Merlin mumbles, and his breathing immediately evens out into sleep.
They don't stay long. Support will soon discover Camelot's decimation, and none of them want to be around when it happens.
"The farther away we can get the better," Arthur says, and they all agree.
So Morgana and Mordred are carefully placed in the back seat, Arthur beside his sister with Merlin curled in his lap. Leon takes the wheel, Gwen and Lance beside him in the front seat.
They don't look back.
They find the house three hundred miles later, thanks to Leon's satellites. It's a very large two-story, clearly abandoned though in good condition. It's two miles away from any frequented road, the yard overrun with waist-high weeds. Arthur very nearly does a victory dance when he discovers the full tank of petrol in the back.
Merlin, Morgana, and Mordred are all still sleeping, exhausted but looking healthier than they had just hours before. There are four bedrooms on the upper floor, each with its own bathroom, and Arthur brings Morgana and Mordred to the one with the best view before claiming the one across the hall for himself and Merlin. Gwen and Lance get the master bedroom, and Leon takes the one beside Morgana and Mordred's.
Arthur carefully lays Merlin on the bed, removing all of his clothes except for his boxers. A deep sigh releases from Merlin's chest and Arthur has to swallow around a sudden lump in his throat. He takes off his own clothes with trembling hands, leaving his underwear, and only hesitates a second before climbing onto the mattress.
For the first time in three years Arthur pulls Merlin close and breathes him in, drifting off to sleep with the feeling that he's exactly where he should be.
It's dark when he wakes, the moonlight spilling through the dusty window and illuminating the room with an odd glow. Arthur finds himself staring into clear blue eyes, and for a few seconds he can't breathe.
"Hi," Merlin whispers, biting his lower lip.
Arthur swallows and brings one hand up to trace along the white path where Merlin's teeth crease the flesh. "Hello."
"Arthur," Merlin says, still quiet. "Don't ever leave me again."
Arthur shakes his head. "I won't if you won't."
Merlin smiles happily and then leans forward to press their mouths together, tongue easily sliding past Arthur's lips when they part. It's slow and easy, different from the angry and desperate kisses from before. It reminds Arthur of lazy mornings spent in bed, the thrust of hips and the heady smell of sex and sweat permeating the air.
He can feel a hard length against his thigh and lets out a small, pleased sound before hooking one leg behind Merlin's knee and rolling onto his back, pulling Merlin on top of him. The kiss breaks and Merlin laughs quietly, a breathless sound against Arthur's lips.
"Eager, are we?" Merlin murmurs, shifting so that he's lying between Arthur's spread legs.
"Yes," Arthur answers honestly, and rolls his hips upward.
Merlin groans softly, hands sliding down Arthur's ribs to rest on his hips, just above the waistband of his shorts. "You're still too thin," he mutters, and then sucks a hard kiss into the soft skin behind Arthur's ear as he thrusts downward.
Arthur gasps, head falling back to allow Merlin better access as one hand comes up to bury itself in soft black locks. He tugs Merlin back up to his mouth and kisses him, hard and demanding, twisting his tongue around Merlin's and sucking it into his mouth. His cock is achingly hard, and a desperate whine breaks free as it brushes against Merlin's through thin cloth.
"Please," Arthur whispers into Merlin's mouth.
Merlin shudders against him and pulls back, sitting up and gazing down at Arthur with dark, glazed eyes for a second before shifting to remove his boxers. Arthur does the same, tossing them somewhere into the dim room. His heart is pounding almost frantically, and he isn't quite sure what to do with his trembling hands. This is something that he had once thought he'd never have again, and the last thing he wants to do is fuck it up.
Merlin's tongue drags over his bottom lip and his eyes briefly flash gold before he plucks a small bottle of oil out of the air. He pauses and swallows audibly before looking Arthur straight in the eye. "Did you mean it?" he asks seriously. "That you haven't been with anybody but me since – well, since."
"I meant it," Arthur answers honestly, voice rough. He hesitates, but forces himself to ask anyway. "What about you? Did you—"
Merlin shakes his head and runs one hand over Arthur's thigh. "No," he says. "I never wanted anyone else."
A knot Arthur hadn't realized was there loosens in his chest and he smiles, allowing his legs to drop open further. "Come on, then," he says quietly.
Merlin closes his eyes briefly, a small moan echoing from his throat. When he reopens them his pupils are blown wide, a single ring of blue all that's left. He removes the stopper from the bottle of oil and coats his fingers before slowly sliding one into Arthur. It burns, and Arthur hisses slightly, but after three years he hadn't expected anything less.
Alright? Merlin's voice echoes in his head, eyes locked onto his. Arthur nods in response and concentrates on loosening his body.
By the time he's got three of Merlin's fingers knuckle-deep inside of him he's writhing, pushing down onto them and whining deep in his chest. The stretch is better than he remembers, that twist of Merlin's wrist and the press of his fingers just so, and Arthur pushes him away before he comes all over the place.
Now, he thinks, please Merlin, please now—
Merlin groans, reaching for the oil to pour more into his hand, spreading it over his cock as he leans down over Arthur. Love you are the words Arthur hears as Merlin kisses him, tongue delving deep into his mouth. The head of Merlin's cock presses against Arthur's hole, pushing through the ring of muscle, Merlin rocking his hips as he slowly buries himself inside. Arthur groans, hands sliding over Merlin's back and holding him close as he focuses on relaxing.
"Christ Arthur," Merlin says breathlessly against his mouth. So tight.
Arthur shudders and bucks upward. Come on. Please.
Their rhythm is off, familiar and yet not after so long, but Arthur doesn't care anymore than Merlin seems to. They both gasp and thrust, the slick slide of Merlin's cock nearly overwhelming as his movements speed and his hips begin to snap. Arthur arches into him and his nails scratch over Merlin's back; he raises one leg to wrap tightly around Merlin's waist.
Merlin slides his hand between them to wrap around Arthur's cock at the same time he pushes as deep as he can, stretching Arthur wide open, and it's over. Three short, firm strokes are all it takes before Arthur comes, breath hitching and cock pulsing as streaks of white land on his stomach and chest. Merlin lets out a strangled moan as Arthur's muscles tighten around him, hips rolling in short, hard thrusts for several more moments before he stills completely, shuddering.
Afterwards, Merlin waves a hand to clean them up and they curl together, tangling their fingers as they slip back into sleep.
Arthur wakes a few hours later to the feel of Merlin's mouth around his cock. He gasps and arches his back, fingers twisting in the sheets beneath him. Merlin pulls off with a wet pop and spreads his hands over Arthur's hips, pinning him down.
"Easy," he murmurs, tongue lapping at the head of Arthur's cock. "Haven't done this in a while."
Arthur chokes back a groan and nods, fingers clenching further in the sheets in an effort to keep himself from moving. Merlin smiles at him and then ducks his head, licking a wet stripe up the underside of Arthur's cock and then swallowing him down. Arthur clenches his eyes shut and whimpers, soft heat surrounding him as Merlin sinks down a bit further before having to pull back up.
Arthur struggles to stay still, allowing Merlin to remind his body what to do, and soon enough he can feel the back of Merlin's throat with the tip of his cock. And then Merlin sucks, twisting his tongue, and all Arthur can do is curse, gasping Merlin's name as he comes. When his cock finally stops twitching he tugs Merlin up and flips them over, licking his palm before wrapping his hand around Merlin's cock and pulling.
Merlin arches against him, crying out as his hips buck wildly. He pushes his cock through the tight circle of Arthur's hand until he's coming, covering them both with hot liquid. This time they don't bother cleaning up before collapsing against each other and going back to sleep.
Light is streaming through the dusty window when Arthur wakes the final time, alone in the bed. He frowns for a second before the sound of running water breaks through the fog of sleep, and he realizes that the house must be equipped with a well. A grin breaks out across his face and he rolls out of bed, sore in all the right places.
The bathroom door is unlocked, and Arthur quietly slips through and into the steamy room. The glass door on the shower doesn't hide much, Merlin easily visible on the other side as he bathes. Arthur reaches out and grips the handle, pulling it open and causing Merlin to glance over his shoulder. The sly grin that crosses his face is the only invitation Arthur needs, and he steps inside.
He fucks Merlin from behind, pressing him against the tile wall and sucking kisses into the back of his neck. Merlin opens easily for him, gasping and arching, a stuttering groan sounding from his chest as Arthur pushes deep inside of him. Merlin comes first, untouched, painting the shower walls white. Tight heat clenches around Arthur's cock and he closes his eyes, gripping Merlin's hips to pull him back against him as he comes a few short thrusts later.
They're still damp from the shower when they finally make it down to the kitchen, the smell of bacon and eggs too alluring to resist. Gwen is at the stove, humming contentedly as she cooks. Arthur's hunger disappears, however, when he steps fully into the room and sees Morgana sitting at the table, Mordred beside her, both of them wide awake and frail looking.
"Morgana," he says on a sharp breath, and her head snaps up.
He doesn't know which of them moves first but suddenly he's halfway across the kitchen, Morgana's arms tight around his neck. "I'm sorry," he gasps into her hair, silently despairing over the thinness of her frame. "I'm sorry I left you in that goddamned place for six fucking months—"
"Shut up," Morgana interrupts with a choked laugh, pulling back slightly. "I've always known how stubborn you could be. Besides—" her gaze slips to Merlin and then returns to Arthur. "It's me who should be apologizing. I was so bloody stupid, I didn't realize that it was all a trap until I got there—"
"Don't you dare," Merlin says firmly, coming up beside them. "You saved Mordred by going, and that's something I'm positive you would have done anyway."
Morgana glances back at Mordred, who's watching curiously, and smiles. "You're right." She turns back to Merlin. "If you leave again I will hunt you down and beat you."
Merlin laughs and pulls her into a tight hug. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
"Thank you," Arthur hears her whisper into Merlin's ear. "For giving us our magic back."
Merlin's arms tighten around her briefly before he lets go with a shaky smile. "Anytime."
"Breakfast is ready," Gwen's voice interrupts softly, and the three of them move to the table.
"Hello, Mordred," Arthur says as he sits across from him. "I'm glad to see you looking much better than the last time we met."
Mordred smiles at that, but it's closed-mouthed and hesitant. "Thank you," he says softly, and drops his gaze.
Arthur's heart clenches and he swallows; Mordred is much too young for the trauma he's been through, and there's no doubt in Arthur's mind that it's going to take a long time before he's fully recovered. "Where's Leon and Lance?" he asks the table at large, purposely changing the subject.
"They're scouting the property," Gwen answers, setting the platters of food in the center of the table. "This seems like a good safe house so far, but they're using Leon's computer stuff to make sure."
The back door opens just then and the two men walk through, Leon holding his laptop and Lance loaded down with other electronic devices. Arthur purses his lips together to keep from laughing, exchanging an amused look with Merlin.
"Alright, we're good to go," Leon says, setting the computer down on a counter top and taking most of Lance's armful from him to set it down as well. "From what I could discover, this place was abandoned a couple of years ago, the family that lived here fleeing from Support in the middle of the night. Support searched it for anything magical but couldn't find anything, so they left it intact."
"Which is good news for us," Lance puts in, dropping a kiss on Gwen's cheek as he takes the seat beside her. "The full tank of gas and the well—which is pretty deep, from what we could determine—are definite advantages, as is the full set of furnishings. There's plenty of room for seven people; it's almost like this place has been waiting for us to find it."
"Maybe it has," Merlin says, giving a small shrug.
"And it's far enough out that nobody bothers it," Leon added, sliding into the only seat left, between Arthur and Morgana. "There's a good chance the nearby village has forgotten it entirely, or rarely thinks about it. And the village is close enough that when we need supplies it won't be too hard to get them."
"Are you sure nobody will be able to find us?" Mordred asks, voice small. "I don't want to go back."
"Nobody's taking you back anywhere," Morgana says firmly, reaching out to stroke Mordred's hair. "We'll make sure of that."
"I could teach you some protection spells if you like," Merlin offers with a small smile. "Ones that won't harm anybody else to be effective."
Mordred's eyes light up and he straightens. "You can do that? What else can you teach me?"
Merlin chuckles and then clears his throat. "This is something I used to do when I was younger. Drove my mum mad though, so try not to do it too often."
He holds out his hand toward the table top and whispers a tiny word, eyes flashing the faintest gold. The pile of cutlery Gwen had set down next to the plates rattles briefly, and then it all jumps up and begins dancing with itself. Mordred laughs in surprised delight, reaching a finger out to touch a spoon as it spins by.
Arthur sits back in his chair and watches silently, smile tugging at his lips. After a moment his gaze roams around the table, taking in the people that are his family. Gwen and Lance smile at each other, trading bits of bacon and tiny, affectionate kisses. Leon sneaks looks at Morgana, ranging from worry to something Arthur isn't quite ready to think about yet. Morgana's gaze is on Mordred as he listens attentively, her small smile not quite covering the hollow ache in her eyes.
And Merlin gestures animatedly as he makes the dancing cutlery do silly little tricks, all the while telling Mordred about the wonderful things magic can do. His smile is wide and genuine, his eyes bright with happiness. Arthur drinks in his features: the shape of his nose, the line of his jaw, the sharp angle of his cheekbones. He's beautiful and proud, strong and determined and the most stubborn man that has ever existed. Arthur loves him deeply, with a bone-deep ferocity that somehow manages to always steal his breath when he takes the time to think about it.
The fight against Support will likely never end, Arthur muses. Certainly not in his lifetime, and probably not in Mordred's either. But as long as he has these people by his side—as long as he has Merlin—there's nothing he'd rather be doing.