It always came back to Morgana.
The root of all evil. Well, maybe not the root. But a very definitely a large, very twisted branch that twined into every problem.
Because, seriously, spandex just was not a suitable fashion option when one was evading police and generally being mobile. Arthur had a crotch, for fuck’s sake! He needed freedom of movement. Instead she had given him the material version of cling film.
And embarrassment. She'd given him embarrassment. But then that was probably one of her only sources of amusement.
Who wanted to stand in front of their father in a second skin?
Arthur supposed he should just be thankful that the item in question was black. At least without a highlighting colour his genitalia still held some form of anonymity under his father's ever-present, ever-vigilant eyes.
He was willing to bet that Uther never had to stoop to wearing fashion atrocities to complete his missions of questionable moral integrity.
At that particular moment, he was sitting, back erect and legs crossed, glaring at Arthur from over his newspaper - which had been printed approximately ten minutes ago. His eyebrow curved expectantly.
"I wouldn't say it went exactly according to plan," Arthur said, careful to keep his voice even. The temptation to shuffle under the pointedly disappointed gaze was almost too much to resist.
"Elaborate," Uther murmured, quietly turning a page; it made a tearing sound that caused Arthur to wince for no particular reason. What was so scary about tearing paper? Get it together, Arthur. It's your father, not the chief of fucking police.
"Well..." How could he put this in a way that wouldn't get him killed in a metaphorical you're-the-son-of-the-boss-so-we-can-only-partially-maim-you sort of way? "There were dogs. And you know how I hate dogs. And Mordred never gave the guard signal. So really, the whole team fucked up. And..."
"Arthur," his father sighed. Arthur immediately clapped his jaw shut; teeth grinding loudly in the silence. "I think it's time you grew up. You're too old to be wasting your time playing with Mordred anymore."
"You said Mordred needed guidance," Arthur muttered feebly into the tense air beside him.
"Yes," Uther breathed, his words barely audible and his voice hissing from his throat. "I can see all the good your...guidance is doing." He shifted minutely, switched the cross of his legs and uncrossed them again. "You are an adult now, Arthur. I expected more from you." God, don't say it. Please, don't say you're..."I'm disappointed." Because that didn't make his gut ache like there was a nest of snakes writhing there.
"I'm sorry, father." Arthur felt his cheeks burning as he ducked his head. Jesus, he felt like an idiot. Why was he suddenly being so meek?!
"Apologies are useless to me," Uther cut back at him, slapping his paper closed against his thigh. "Do something about your ineptitude." He pounced to his feet and strode forcefully to the desk in the corner of his office.
"I have arranged for you to continue your studies at Avalon Lake University in Camelot. Why you chose to do such an inconsequential thing is beyond me, you have a perfectly good career waiting for you with me but I understand you are easily distracted and need an outlet. See that it is only an outlet." He swapped the newspaper for a folder before turning back to Arthur. "I want Camelot under my control within the year. See that you make it happen."
"And Arthur?" He glanced up, his eyes dark and pitiless. "See that you do not fail. I won't have an embarrassment for a son." He swivelled back to his desk. "Dismissed." As if being faced with his broad back wasn't enough of an obvious dismissal.
Unsurprisingly, Morgana was loitering - as much as one can loiter when one looks like an angel descended from heaven - outside the door. Her lips were quirked in that irritating way that meant she knew something Arthur absolutely didn't.
"So, you're off to see the world," she chirped as she fell into graceful step beside him. Her dress swished behind her, a bloody red that suited her dark hair and blinding blue eyes. Her heels clapped along pertly beside him, their rhythm constant and mocking. "How exciting."
"You're not having my T.V," he replied snidely, completely ignoring her smirk.
"This isn't about your favoured son privileges, Arthur. I know you're in the black books at the moment." She caught the elasticated cuff of his sleeve with surprisingly gentle fingers, her damson nails prickling at the delicate skin of his wrist. "I just wanted you to know," she murmured sincerely, slinking closer, "if you ever needed any help..." She bit her lip, the red of them bright against the ivory sparkling of her teeth, as if considering.
Arthur cocked his head disbelievingly. Morgana? Helpful? It was a trick. Obviously.
Her lips were suddenly crooked and, well, not so friendly.
"Well, I wouldn't help you even if I could. Every super villain for herself and all that rot." She twirled a lock of her raven hair as she swept ahead of him, her long legs easily striding ahead of his dawdling. "Have fun pleasing your father, dear brother," she cackling as she rounded the corner, "Goodness, that must be my favourite oxymoron."
The University was nothing like Arthur had expected. From his father's grunted 'newly refurbished' and 'modern facilities' that had amounted to his farewell, he had been imagining studio apartment styles, black trimming and fantastically blinding lighting everywhere. He'd expected clear hallways and boundless numbers of lecture theatres in modern architecture tower blocks all of the minimalist, high fashion persuasion.
What he saw when he parked his Porsche - funded from his own pocket, thank you very much - was, well, pretty much the exact opposite. The Dark Ages and fat, feasting kings were what sprung to his mind.
It was an honest to God, motherfucking castle. Complete with peeking steeples, snarling gargoyles and pale stone that shone almost white in the strong morning sun.
The place was beyond massive. He wasn't sure how far back it extended but he was willing to bet a long way, back into trimmed hedges and precise gravel paths. There would probably also be a second fountain tucked somewhere into the maze, a little brother to the circular art piece behind him complete with sculptured angels and devils glaring like warriors, their only weapons the water gargling from pert lips and gaping maws respectively.
A small annex extended off to his left, windows modern and clean, fitted snugly in the aged stone. To his right, far beyond him, the great towering blocks of stone gave way to an archaic arch and chipped oak doors, well weathered by the elements, that giants could stride through straight-backed and strong-shouldered.
He spotted more towers and spires over the turrets lining the wall and off farther behind him a modern monstrosity that should never have fitted but somehow did with its darkened windows and polished wood. Its flat rooftop was sprawled with saplings bustling to the sky and ivy trailing and tangling over its side almost to the summer green grass below in some places.
People were milling around before him, blocking the double oak doors rather unhelpfully and completely – violating in its degree - ignoring the human right to personal space. In fact, someone rather large barrelled straight into his side as soon as his feet touched the stern, stone steps that practically rippled with the numerous, jittery shadows.
"Oh, Jesus, sorry mate. Alright there?" asked a melodic, gruff voice and even before he turned Arthur knew he would be handsome. He knew he would be stubbled. Probably vain to make it a happy trio. He did not expect that he would be charming though. And if there was one thing that the crooked smile, jovial eyes and dark, glistening hair - a cross between artful and floppy or perhaps a conscious attempt at both - screamed, it was charm.
"I'll live," he conceded, cutting off the snapping retort that automatically tripped to his tongue from years of arguing with Morgana's sharp wit before it could begin. He couldn't really afford to have friends while he was here. They were too much of a distraction and he never had had much of a defence against the guilty pangs that came with deception. But companions were a necessity if one wanted to navigate the tortuous lectures and stifling hallways that came with the social and educational crisis most often referred to as University.
"You look a bit lost, actually. Need any help getting somewhere?" Tall, dark and handsome lilted back. "I'd guess the admin offices but I'm not really a betting man." His friends sniggered and giggled behind him for whatever inane reason.
"You'd be right though. Care to show me the way?" he half-asked and half - completely without meaning to, mind, it was just in his breeding - ordered.
Companion, he reminded, not friends.
"You asking me on a mini date?" Still-anonymous tittered, sidling a little closer. How did he titter and still sound masculine? Surely there was some kind of paradox or rule about that. "Just joking, mate. Sure. Follow my lead." He flicked his head back toward his group, hair fanning. God, Arthur didn't think he was one of those pretty boys but social butterflies were almost as bad. But Mister Over-Conditioned didn't look either attention deficit or absolutely lacking in self-worth, the two key behavioural characteristics of said insects in Arthur’s personal opinion, so..."We’ll get to that later." So maybe he had too much self-worth. But Arthur was never going to be the right person to look down on a person for their narcissism.
Having said that, he obediently followed, albeit with his nose as high into the air as he could stomach; he was rich and royal but he was not a snob or twat. Very definite distinctions.
"Arthur, by the way," he said, sticking his arm out sideways as he slipped in beside his guide and matched his pace as they hopped haphazardly over seated people and around dawdling bodies up the stone steps.
"Gwaine," newly-identified-man responded. His grip was strong and calloused - confirmation: not a pretty boy - and the grin he flashed was filled to brimming with dazzling white teeth, all perfectly straight damn him.
The foyer they ended up in was crowded and bustling, the sound of shoes on wood almost deafening. The floor extended on for what seemed like forever in eternal corridors to both their left and right. But ahead of them a staircase, a monument in its size and majesty, carpeted in a deep red to match the stained hardwood floorboards that looked to be a modern addition, rose up to the heavens. Or the second floor. Same thing. Students were scurrying along the balcony on either side or slamming doors on the other side of the wide hallway, adding to the cacophony of noise ringing at Arthur's eardrums.
Beneath the staircase, which was an expression of status and wealth if he ever same one, were two sets of double doors, one on either side, both wide open to a view of yet more students at rows of - unsurprisingly - heavy, oak tables, shrieking and munching like impulsive, mannerless teenagers.
"Canteen, spotted. Tick it off. But for real food, actual, edible food, I'll pick you up at eight, baby," Gwaine whispered, throwing a wink at him that dripped with sexual appeal, as he slid past Arthur and started down the corridor on their left and away from the grand open doorways, wafting smell of food and spacious expanse.
"Mate, apologies, sometime you'll get used to my sense of humour."
"So you weren't hitting on me? Well, that just hits me in the heart. Am I not pretty enough for you or something?" Arthur returned, already beginning to feel the familiar camaraderie that had made time spent with Mordred so simple. His lips curled slightly against his will.
"Don't get your knickers in a twist, Princess. I can hit on you if you like, I just figured you were the fragile, damsel-in-distress type. You know, need a little wooing before we get to the canoodling."
Gwaine was still laughing when he jammed the handle of a smart door at the end of the hall all the way down and rammed his shoulder against it next to one of the four spotless, misted panes of glass.
"Right. Offices, including admin. Door sticks," he puffed. "Hey, Leon. Newbie," Gwaine was already turning his attention to the curly haired man behind the antique reception desk.
"Do you have to be so loud?" Leon murmured with exaggerated quietness for effect, shuffling through the piles of folders and papers that were no doubt in some kind of strange order on his overflowing desk. He tracked down a thin sleeve of papers, a laminated card and something small that glinted gold in the light streaming through the window. Only then did he turn trustworthy - how could eyes be trustworthy? - eyes to Arthur. "You must be Arthur Pendragon. Date of birth?"
"Fifth of April."
"Congratulations. You've passed your own identity test. Welcome to Avalon University. Your new student guide, student I.D and room key are here." His voice was all professionalism but then he focused on Gwaine and his eyes shone darkly. "You'll show him around, won't you, Gwaine?"
"Well, actually, I was-"
"It was a shame about Lancelot's last art project. I'm sure he won't take too kindly to being reminded about it. Or better yet told who-"
"OKAY!" Gwaine yelped, slamming his palms on the table top and swiping Arthur's paperwork up to his chest in one swoop, his face pale and eyes wide. "No need to go that far! I was actually going to say 'I was already planning our route around campus.' Jesus, let a man finish." He clutched at Arthur's official papers and stormed back the way they came, scowling and stroppy enough to stomp.
"Leon," a calm voice caught Arthur before he could make a step to leave and a hand shook his so quickly he wondered for a second if it had ever happened. "I'll see you again for class. We have 'Politics of Sustainability' together at least."
"Thanks," Arthur replied, swivelling on his heel. "It'll be nice to see a friendly face."
He shut the door as quietly as humanly possible on his way out. Leon appeared formidable. Best not to upset him.
Lest he end up like Gwaine.
Escaping Gwaine, Arthur decided, once he had settled behind an old, rusting and long out of use tanker opposite the signal box at the railway tracks, was much like how he imagined it would have been to escape the plague. Or perhaps the rats that carried the plague. The Black Death to be more specific. But he had managed it with great effort and a humongous amount of skill, if he did say so himself.
There had been hallway dodging, and he was absolutely positive Gwaine was staking out his room, and aborted fire drills, which had resulted in a near miss with academic probation and crafty apologies. There had been fake laundry visits and a million coffee trips, because apparently Gwaine was quite happy to accompany him at five o'clock in the morning all the way across campus for a skinny double latte. So, from this, Arthur had gleaned two things for sure.
The first was that Gwaine never slept.
The second was that Gwaine hated sushi. The taste and, even better for Arthur and his plans, the smell. Which was good. Arthur could like sushi. In fact, he could like it enough to want to go every night if he had to. In the middle of the night.
And Gwaine would leave him alone.
So, finally having escaped his new stalker, Arthur found himself crouched behind a tanker, some five miles off campus, and glaring at the pudgy man in a navy uniform, the shirt looking suspiciously like flannel - and who in God's name wore flannel still? - and waiting for the fat lump to decide his bladder was about to burst from all the hot chocolate he was drinking. And spilling all over the keyboard with the obvious intent of infecting others with his stickiness. Arthur knew it was hot chocolate from the muddy brown colour, too dull to be coffee, that dribbled into his poor excuse for a beard every sip. And Arthur was so tired, he was willing to bet that had it been coffee, he would have made the considerable effort to steal it by now. It was arse o'clock in the morning after all.
The stones under him were uncomfortable against his knees, grating against his scantily covered skin, and the metal at his shoulder smelled of rot and abandonment. He could feel the shining eyes of hungry foxes behind him, sneaking around in the undergrowth that ran along the track edges, weeds and hedges and an ocean of foxgloves that were the only real colour in the entire place.
He was shivering, too, from the chilled breeze that swept about him sporadically. Bastard across from him had a bulky fleece flung over the back of his buckling swivel chair, going to waste. As for Arthur, his limbs were freezing, clothed only in a dark red tracksuit that was the nearest thing to black he owned. He would not be wearing one of Morgana's creations on this little venture. She had shoved them at him when he ducked into his car before he left but he was the one in charge here, thank you very much. There was no Morgana to order him about and he was damn well going to wear whatever stealth uniform he so chose to be suitable. The freedom was making him feel intoxicatingly empowered
The black wool that was pulled down over his face may not have been very fashionable but it had been a split second decision - what if people see me! Then I'll be fucked. No worse, expelled. Dishonourably! - and at that moment, was his only source of real warmth. Albeit, said warmth only seemed to encompass his head, which was steadily overheating as time crawled by, and leaving the rest of his body to fend against the elements. He may as well have been naked with only his head boiling in a pit of lava for all the good it was doing him.
Except the cameras that were blinking red warning lights at him. They made it worth it.
Hung loosely around his waist was an antique - not literally but he had inherited it from one of his father's men as an indulged child - army belt complete with all the little pockets he could ever wish for. And what he wished to hide and keep safe then were the little cylinders of shining metal that were going to make him of great worth in his father's eyes.
The truth was Arthur didn't know very much about science. So when Uther had assigned him to its development department he had been a bit flummoxed. What was the point? But Uther was Uther and in charge. Apparently, Arthur was going to help by doing more than 'partying around in pansy costumes' which were not on his person by choice might he add. The whole notion of hiding one’s face seemed to take an entire part of the point of conquering away in Uther's opinion.
But, cruel as he was, his science division was not something to be laughed at. In fact, they were well known on the correct side of the law, a foreign place to be sure. And, quite luckily for Arthur and his current plan of action, he had been saddled with the computer technology portion of the team.
Pellinore was a ruthless man who loved to know everyone's business. He also became one of Arthur's closest contacts. Which was how he came across the little miracle that currently called its home Arthur's belt.
He dipped his shaking fingers into the pouch that held it and drew it out, careful not to drop it onto the stones where it would have been lost forever against the faded, grey.
It was half as long as his ring finger and about as small, circumference wise. Very easy to lose. Pellinore had made the design especially for him with a single button, a slightly darker grey with a matt finish, extending off one end. At the other was the glass top, a dull red ready to shine when he pressed down. And in that little line of light? Code.
"Infra-red, Arthur! My own personal invention. Quite ahead of the times. Imagine being able to hack into someone's computer without having to physically plug into it! The possibilities."
"What could you make it do though?"
"Anything! I'm working on a relaying device, so that one could receive information back onto it. But for the moment, you could be on the other side of the room and it would hack into a device for you. Think of it. Binoculars from a roof and you could have missile defence maps from another building! Line of sight, Arthur!"
Arthur considered, cogs whirring in his brain. He would be leaving in two weeks with no plan to speak of whatsoever and an overbearing father expecting quick results.
"And you have to code these yourself?"
"Of course, for the moment." Pellinore's lips quirked up at the sides, wrinkling the skin around his eyes. "What's in your head, boy?"
"Could you encode them with commands?"
"Your wish is my command. Although I've only done preliminary tests for such a thing."
"If I continued the test phase for you, would you be inclined to manufacture a few specific ones for me?"
"What did you have in mind?"
"How about train signal lights? Just to get us started? Then I've got a list for you."
"Leave it on my desk." ‘Maniacal and hungry for his science’, flashed through Arthur's head at the glint in Pellinore's eyes. "I'll have them ready by Monday."
There were four in total. This one currently in his hand, though, was the only one with a manual button. The rest were all clean, polished and buttonless, the base flat and smooth to the touch. Another stroke of genius had stuck mere hours later as Arthur stood motionless in the shower, amazed at his own ingenuity and wondering when the down-side to this marvellous plan was going to hit, as the water grew cold around him.
"Pellinore. Could you command these things, whatever you're calling them, from somewhere else?"
"Bugs, boy, they're called bugs. I did think about incorporating a sound wave trigger. But you'd still have to set them up first."
"Perfect. Simultaneous. Perfect."
"I could even blend the controller into your laptop if you wanted."
"Oh, didn't I tell you? The team and I have put together a special leaving present. It won't go public and live until next year at CC. Come pick it up on Monday with your new toys."
It was under his pillow in his room at the moment, safe and sound from the grabbing hands that would have liked to sell for a very pretty, very large penny. It weighed a tonne, more literally than figuratively, he grouched every time he hauled it from his bed to his desk, but it was mobile. A mobile computer. That he could lift. All at once.
One thing Arthur was sure of was that Uther was getting back every copper and more that he invested into Crowned Corporations daily.
Which was when movement in the box caught his eye. Doughnut Dunker was on his chubby feet, waddling towards the miniature cabin at the back of the box that housed the employee toilet. The amber light blinking told Arthur the signal was set to automatic and that the electric orders running through the wires below his feet were patterned.
He had done his research, all right, be impressed.
Pellinore had said there would be some kind of password and activation device somewhere on the console. He needed to hit as near to it as possible for ensured results otherwise the code might not pass through whole. It was there, right next to the flashing light, a small keypad and lock, the key still left in.
The light, when he snapped his thumb down on the bug decisively, was a bright red, much like the sights of the rifles Uther had tried to teach him about on a bonding tour around his personal armoury one fine morning instead of the traditional father son breakfast. It hit the dashboard head on, exactly where he had hoped and he began the nerve wracking count to fifteen that was required, never once taking his eyes off the point where red met black.
His arm was quivering with the effort of staying stationary for so long and his knees groaned in protest as well. Fucking hell, he hoped he wouldn't have to run because then he'd be buggered.
Apparently the bug would shut off at seventeen anyway so that it didn't fry its own circuitry but that didn't matter when Arthur was faced with a fat man who wouldn't be able to run for toffee. However, he did have a big red button at his head that summoned, if one averaged from past history, three and a half big men who could. Very fast. With grand tackles to conclude their pursuits.
His heart picked up pace in his chest, thundering against his ribs.
A bead of sweat dribbled around his eye and down to his chip, dangling there.
The handle of the mini-toilet inched downward alarmingly.
Arthur wrenched his thumb off the button just as the peeling door swung open far too casually, as if it were on a different plane of existence and the man could not feel the tension radiating from the other side of the empty tracks.
The amber light paused momentarily on. Two seconds longer than it should have been glaring. Arthur's heart leapt into his throat and his lungs screamed as he held his breath mid draw.
And then it dropped back into its monotonous rhythm. On. Off. On. Off.
The chair buckled back under the operator’s weight as if nothing had happened.
Arthur's knees creaked as his darted back to hedges, back hunched and bug already stowed. He could barely breathe through the thick wool over his mouth as he jogged along the hedgerow back the way he came and his legs felt like jelly, useless and soft under him, but he carried on. There was a set of lights half a mile north. On the flat tracks they came into view quickly, their light bright against the blackness of the night.
And they were green.
At first, Arthur felt the flush of shame at his ineptitude and he frowned in disappointment. It shouldn't have been difficult. Point the thingy. Play statues. Run. Simple. But somehow he had messed it up
But they were green.
He heard the blare of a train tooting warning in the distance behind him. And the ground under his feet vibrated his entire body.
In the distance, from the void that was shot through the hill many miles away, a tiny light blinked at him.
In the distance...in front of him.
Neither showing signs of stopping. Even though there must have been a signal in the tunnel. Which was green. Not buggering fucking red like it was supposed to be.
They were all meant to be shitting red. Not GREEN.
Sickness pulsed in his stomach because the light was still solidly fucking wanking green. The thumping in his ears was noisy but the monstrous charging behind him was deafening.
His feet would not move at first. Stuck to the ground and motionless against the gravel. His eyes would not move from the stubborn light on the post. A single bulb was going to be the cause of a catastrophe.
And then he was sprinting back the way he came. His chest stinging constantly like a knife was piercing slowly through him and his gut bouncing with every step, vomit inducing and fearful.
He was in action before he could think much about what he was doing. The stone, scooped up mid stride, through the open window of the cabin and centimetres away from the black and yellow buzzer at the edge of the console, ringed in important red tape, that proclaimed 'EMERGENCY STOP.' He didn't know how it worked he just knew he needed to press it before either of those two trains reached the cross section of track those lights were supposed to police. And had been doing a fine job of too before Arthur had come along and screwed it all up.
His second stone missed as well. The third bounced off uselessly. And the fourth was wide, skittering along the console with great force but misplaced aim, cause by the wrecking shakes of his throwing arm.
Pudgy man was gob-smacked, Arthur would have noticed by then if he had not been the tiniest bit busy.
His fifth rock hit. Larger than the others it jammed into the buzzer and set off the alarm, grating and loud. The operator must have been in shock because his hand was reaching for his security button in slow motion and he did nothing but follow with his beady eyes as Arthur made his escape, leaving, hopefully, minimum destruction in his wake and no fatalities.
They should have been fucking red.
He and Pellinore were going to be having serious words. Both about the bugs and Arthur's medical insurance; he could feel his blood pressure skyrocketing from the stress.
"Did you hear?" Freya practically pounced on him as soon as he was through the door, clicking it shut gently behind him – but just like when you stepped as a mouse into a lion’s den, he felt more helpless than gentle. "Camelot might have a new visitor!" She said it with a strange, meaningful inflection like he should know exactly what she meant.
But his eyes probably looked like they were popping out of his head with the force of his confusion.
"A new masked villain!"
So, really and in all honesty, it was Freya that started the whole thing. Not Merlin. Peculiarly not Will. And absolutely, for the record if anyone wanted to write it down, not Merlin. Sweet, innocent Freya had dragged them into it with her doe eyes and her cheeks delicately tinged pink with excitement.
Will must have been able to feel the tension when he made his appearance from stage left out of the poky bathroom - that was more a plumbed cloakroom than a toilet, let alone a bathroom - less than five minutes later.
Freya seemed to think she had come up with the next best idea since the space pen - which had been completely useless and utterly ridiculous to the normal man, by the way, so really the comparison could be seen as rather apt. Of course, Merlin looked like a twat in response, but then when had he managed not to do that in his entire life?
"I'm a genius," she chanted to the heavens while waggling an archaic gaming controller dangerously close to the tip of Merlin's nose - their only working remote, he might add, due to a startlingly similar event that had taken place two months ago. All three of them were too poor to scrape together rent (very important), alcohol money (essential) and a gaming fund (important, granted, but sadly not an indispensable necessity). Yes, okay, their priorities weren't perfectly in the right order. But they were still students. Not adults. It was allowed.
"Will! Merlin's going to save the city!" She announced vigorously to the entire building like it'd already been decided as she yanked him down onto the sofa with her. "It's perfect. With his...you know..!" Her cheeks were verging more on a ruddy dusk than tickled pink and her eyes glowed in their mischief.
"I'm not," he blundered back, staring at Will meaningfully and gritting his teeth when Will remained oblivious.
"But you'd be perfect." He could already feel his will buckling under her pleading stare.
His eyes darted back to the television screen, which remained muted in the background. It was flickering from railway station to the techni-colour flashing of the confused lights system to railway line to the millimetre-from-significant-catastrophe train positioning.
"If this is really some evil genius come to ransack little city and terrorise fair town then I don't really see what I can do about it."
"Can't see..?" Freya's eyes widened like she was suddenly suspicious of his mental stability. "But you can do, like, anything!" She yelled, slightly (read: increasingly) exasperated and breathy, flinging her arms wide and very nearly smacking Will in the face - apparently she had a secret fantasy of maiming one of them before the day was out.
"Not really," he attempted to reason in the face of her snowballing car wreck of a plan. "I can barely flick a light switch. No one can do anything." It wasn't exactly the whole truth but as far as Freya knew, and indeed needed to know, such a mundane chore was a devastating drain.
It was depressing that it really wasn’t.
It was even more depressing that he couldn't tell anyone because then, not only would he be the local freak, but also this year's messiah or some such fad of girlish nonsense that everyone clamoured to buy into.
"Don't be bashful, Merlin," Freya whispered conspiratorially like she had seen him levitating shampoo into his hair for the precision practise. Which was ridiculous. Because those were private moments. Naked. In the shower. Naked. "I've seen you-" Shit. "-when you're sleeping." What? What does he do?! Make electricity surge or something? "In your dreams." Or ramble in some incoherent language that obviously didn’t exist any more, because that would be a right give-away, knowing an extinct language.
"I've seen your eyes when you're dreaming, Merlin." Secrets were just not his forte. But in his defence, how was he meant to know if he was performing magic tricks in his sleep?
And what the bloody hell had Freya been doing in the designated male bedroom when he was sleeping anyway. Well, duh, Merlin, face-palm at your own obliviousness. They had better have just been snuggling and pecking chastely.
"It's in there, Merlin! Deep down somewhere. You could help so many people if you could just find it and learn to control it!" At that point Merlin wasn't sure if she was trying to guilt trip him or infect him with her bubbling excitement. Judging by the way she was bouncing on the lumpy cushions like her bladder was about to explode, he would guess the latter.
Either way, he should probably have felt more guilty than he did that Freya had grabbed - like a rabid Rottweiler he might add - completely the wrong end of the metaphorical magic stick. It was her own fault really for being such a nosy, horrible friend who spied on him at his most vulnerable - probably whilst canoodling behind his literal, peacefully sleeping back. Additional evidence of her chum status included making up fantastical, suicidal missions - but only for him, logically - and plans that were ludicrous and fucking batshit crazy. Had he mentioned that? No way in hell was she sucking him in even more than she already had.
Although, his mind began to supply and reason helpfully - traitorous piece of junk - maybe she was onto something in a twisted, fangirl-in-search-of-a-new-idol sort of way. He did have an unique ability, advantage if you will, to help his fellow citizens on this particular occasion.
But would he be expected to do it forever? Was it a long term contract or just a short term gig because if he was honest with himself he was a bit of a commitment-phobe. But if he should suddenly decide to quit and hastily beat a retreat to escape once Dastardly Villain had been vanquished, then what? He hated disappointing people. Like, seriously, hated it. Almost as much as he hated commitment. No win scenario.
Would it be possible to be an awe inspiring hero without the entire populace knowing about his
special...gifts? That was a complication he could definitely live without. Especially if his identity became public knowledge.
Which it wouldn't.
He'd make sure of it. And if it did leak out then, well, he'd just have to brainwash the entire world - god damn social networking and the media - into believing he didn't exist. He was pretty confident he could do something like that if his life depended on it.
Which was actually horrifyingly scary when one paused to think about it.
All the more reason to make sure his uncommonly angular cheekbones stayed a secret.
So did that mean they were talking secret identity? With the mask and the cape and the Lycra-y, nylon-y, clingy uniform? Was that just superheroes that were allowed to do that or was it an all inclusive deal to identity revelation prevention issues?
Because if he was going to do this at all then he was damn well going to do it right.
Why was he even considering this? No, worse! He was starting to plan and ponder for the intricacies and impending problems.
"Merlin? You still in there? I know it seems daunting but we'll figure something out." It was the gentle brush of her fingers on the bare skin of his arm that shocked him back to the real world. Good job too, laughable musings had no business lingering and eating at whatever sanity remained in Merlin's head. "I heard Gaius knows something about latent ability."
"Gaius knows something about everything according to you," Will mumbled out from his armpit. Merlin was struck by what an awkward position he was snoozing in.
"That's because he's the Historical Magic professor, you doddering donkey," Freya spat impatiently, as if Will's input were the single most idiotic thing she had heard her entire life.
Then he was struck with the unfairness of it all; that Will should be allowed to doze through the simultaneous breaking of Merlin's sanity and resolve while he had to not only be painfully conscious the entire time but actually aware as well. Aware enough to be able to argue his corner. Stand his ground. And other deeply masculine battle-connoting metaphors he should be winning.
He would, of course, lose them all though because Freya - as she often reminded them, loudly and with nauseating frequency - was their superior in every way.
Which was entirely the reason why he found himself asking, at the fatal risk of all decency and pride:
"Will I have to wear a costume?"
It all started with the appearingly innocent conversation and resulting request with his main Professor in a busy school corridor on after his first real lecture; complete with Leon dithering in the background and elbows burrowing into his sides with every passing body.
"Ah! Arthur. Glad I caught you." Professor Kay was Arthur's main Politics teacher and after only a single discussion he could understand why he was the leading expert in the subject. He was younger than Arthur thought he would be when he read through the syllabus but his appearance did nothing to reduce what years he did have. Wrinkles crinkled at his forehead and around his eyes perpetually like they had been there since childhood and he was always frowning, his lips down turned and his light eyes drawn close. The hair atop his head was thinning and dangerously short. But he was passionate about his subject and clear, if a slave driver. "I wanted to talk to you about your extra percentage. You're going to need to select an activity you can individually carry out for the extra marks. An essay's worth of coursework is what I'd usually suggest but you have less time than everybody else. So, I was thinking you could help one of the other Professors out. Give a presentation?" His eyebrows inched further together and up into the first line on his forehead.
"You mean like a teacher's assistant?" Arthur asked, balancing his folders and general learning paraphernalia into one arm.
"Yes, yes, that would be quite suitable. Just make it good, eh, this is worth ten percent of your overall mark."
"Could I do something a little more...unusual than most people?"
"Whatever you like, boy," Kay said breathlessly, as if he were eager to run off, straining at the bit. "Did you have something in mind?"
"Possibly, sir. How will it be assessed?"
"I'll finalise the mark with whatever materials you use but most of my information and your considered mark will be advised by the professor overseeing your chosen placement. Be quick about picking though, most of the other courses have this option too and plenty of other young'n's are just as charismatic as you. Don't waste this opportunity."
He promptly shuffled off down the hall, his formal coat swinging behind him, unnecessary because it was a particularly warm day for Autumn without a whisper of wind and the main building was being heated like a rich man's palace early for the time of year.
Arthur didn't have to consider for long before the makings of an idea crept into his mind.
Which was how he found himself hovering nervously outside the last door before the beginning of the East Tower steps, waiting for the calling of his name and the subsequent embarrassment, for him, and hilarity, for the comprising students in said room, that would ensue.
Gwaine had been dubious about his choice of subject, immediately proclaiming it to be ridiculous to attempt to link two subjects so far apart on the academic scale. Arthur had proceeded to lecture him about the possible overlaps while Leon half heartedly jotted notes in the background which soon became the skeletal bones of his presentation. And that, as they say, had been the end of that.
It was ridiculous, really, that Arthur could stand at a building's edge and prepare himself to jump off with only a centimetre thick cord stopping him from plummeting to his death and yet the prospect of facing a group of academic peers several years younger than himself could make his knees quiver visibly.
'The Possible Consequences to Political Structure Following a Theoretical Magical Rebirth' he had titled it with a flourish and a rather large portion of pride a month and a half later. He was really quite chuffed with the final result; inclusive of the pink backgrounds – although they were few and far between but half the people at least in 'Theoretical Magic' were girls so a subtle, detailing necessity – and swirly writing for the magic parts – purely for ease of access when it came to differentiating the topic.
Everything was set up nicely around him. No technological glitches resulting in the bright blaring of his presentation being scattered to a rainbow of illegible light on the screen behind him. No nattering students before him just a sea of politely interested faces. No professor breathing down the loose collar of his shirt as they were stereotypically found doing when a advanced student swept into their metaphorical shoes. Everything was going well, for possible once in Arthur's pressure-addled existence. He was just starting to settle into the swing of things, methods of enforcing authority to be precise, when things started rolling downhill, velocity steaming further out of control with every second. All thanks to some little shite in the corner who could not keep his mouth shut.
"Wouldn't that violate some human right somewhere?" A low voice blurted from his right, rushed like he had never voluntarily decided to actually voice his question. Arthur felt the prick of his nails into his palm, his annoyance ticking under his skin. His phone conversation with Pellinore that morning that amounted to approximately seven words on his part had not left him in a good mood and his temper was short.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pendragon, they still aren't ready," Pellinore huffed down the line as if calling him by a title would make the news any less difficult to hear.
"Just sort the fuckers out, Mr. Pellinore," Arthur snapped before jamming the phone back into its cradle, not even sure if 'Pellinore' was actually a surname.
"I'm sorry, this is the presentation segment, the discussion will take place in five weeks time unfortunately delayed for your coursework schedule. A review will be provided. Please hold any considered arguments until then," he said calmly, reasonably.
"What, I'm not even allowed to ask a question?" Arthur's eye flew across the faces of the students sat quietly before him, most of them letting out bored sighs as if this were an experience that befell them often and they all wished they could sleep through the encounter.
He found him sandwiched between the pale blue of the wall and a small, fae girl whose elbow was wedged into the questioner’s side and her eyebrows raised alarmingly high, although whether she was encouraging him or chastising him Arthur could not tell.
The first thing that Arthur noticed was that his ears were disproportionate to his head without being disproportionate at all. Somehow. The second was that his skin was sickeningly pale without the lifeless, dulling sweat that pertained to illness. The third was that his eyes were humongous and blue. Deep and intelligent and blue.
"And you are?" He growled with as much derision as he could manage at a moment's notice, his knuckles aching in their tenseness.
"Merlin." In all truthfulness, Arthur only managed to hold back his guffaw of laughter due to stunned clog in his throat at the sheer audacity of the name.
"What on earth kind of parent would have the nerve to call their child that? Isn't it rather pigheaded to name your child, well, only after the most infamous sorcerer known to man!"
"Some of us are born with great destinies awaiting us, while some of us are natural twats from birth. I know which of us is which here." Arthur felt his eyebrows grinding down determinedly without his permission. He settled against the professor's desk behind him, crossing his ankles in as leisurely a pose as possible.
"Is that what your mother told you when you came crying home, bullied from the playground?" His gut gave a pang at the thought of his own mother and he knew he had gone too far. The stony silence that greeted him only cemented the point. He flushed at his immaturity and coughed awkwardly into the cold quiet. He was supposed to be acting the serious adult, complete with responsibilities, not the school yard bully.
"Bringing up my mother is beyond juvenile." Merlin murmured, his voice carrying perfectly across the room and his eyes burning with shrouded fury, clearly unimpressed. "Can I just ask my bloody question please."
"Get it over with." Arthur flicked his hand impatiently, suddenly stubborn that he was going to win whatever thick-headed argument Merlin was going to fling at him.
"Doesn't your suggestion of restrictions and legal registration infringe an enormous number of human rights? You're assuming all these rising magicians would be dangerous."
Arthur hardly paused to think before answering dismissively. "The government is responsible for all persons under its influence. People of power are a threat to anyone without and each other. It would be their responsibility to police the situation. How can they do that without legitimate methods of policing?" Wasn't all that pure logic?
"Let me get this straight. You'd spy on a mother magically cooking dinner for her child whilst you're blind to her neighbour murdering his wife with a kitchen knife or any other implement any person could find in any house, magical or not."
"I didn't say that!" Arthur gasped, astonished by this boy's stupidity. He hadn't said that at all. Attention to one detail did not necessarily lead to ignorance over another.
"But then you're implying you'd tag every living being! So why can't you just not tag anyone. There are questions of equality here. Tagging only sorcerers could lead to slavery on that road. Everyone has the power to harm. I think you're afraid of who would really be in control if a magical rebirth happened; the governmental body you're fighting for or the magical sector."
There was an element of truth in that accusation, Arthur knew. But wouldn't anyone? Faced with images of cities blazing and devil's with burning eyes atop Downing Street anyone would feel insecure.
"Aren't you? An unpredictable rise of people we can't comprehend, who can't necessarily be controlled by the law and whose limits may not ever be known, if they exist at all."
"The law isn't a real thing! We've made it up to fit with a set structure of morals none of us will ever one-hundred percent agree on. Normal people don't follow the law because they're controlled by it, we're not brainwashed. We follow it because we believe it to be right and just. Why should magicians be any different. It's a life choice."
"Of course the law's a real thing, you complete and utter idiot." What kind of a peasant was this kid? The law wasn't real? They might as well have all migrated to hell and offered themselves to the oven without it.
"But you can't see it. You can't touch it." And wasn't that philosophical of him. "You're missing the point. I want to know why you're immediately assuming the worst of people would rise from this. An arrangement existed in the past. The Advisors. That worked. Or are you such an arrogant clotpole that you can't see the wisdom of democratic solutions." The imbecile had a point, a weak point, but a point nonetheless. Arthur knew immediately how to crush it.
"Yeah, sure, it worked,." he conceded casually, before bulldozing on to demolish the statement. "After a hundred years of war and bloodshed! Which is besides the point because by the time everything settled down enough to be historically noted as a time of peace there was only enough times for two Advisors before the Fading. Two terms, that's twenty years in simple folk words for you, is nothing compared to the long history of violence."
"And, if you'd let me finish, that only started because of persecution in the first place."
"Historical fact. Therefore, the threat of persecution could very well be enough of a threat to start the wheels into motion that would result in civil war." Arthur felt his arms starting to raise as if he were about to fling them to the heavens in sheer frustration. They were beginning to go round in circles.
"From the way you're spouting on about tagging and registering I'd say it was a very real threat! Any sane person would resist!"
"We register all health and military personnel. Why is this any different? It's just an organisational method and possible way of tracking the guilty."
"Very few people want to wipe doctors saving their lives and soldiers protecting their homes off the face of the planet. And what you're talking about? It's also an enabler for mass genocide. How would that feel on your ego-blasted conscience?" Merlin's eyes squinted back at him accusingly and his mouth was a grim line. Arthur felt his cheeks flush and knew he had lost.
The tower Gaius had claimed for his own was infamous on campus for being the most aged place in the University’s history with chairs that felt like stone on one’s backside and books that were practically made of dust they were so ancient. Although Merlin supposed that age was somewhat a prerequisite for one’s books and their validity when one was a history professor. What he didn't understand was why Freya was dragging him by the cuff of his sleeve to see said history professor, magical history or no, when there was a perfectly good theoretical magic professor, Merlin's own and - 'mine's as good as yours, Freya’- over in the other tower.
But Merlin was already aware of the fact, for Freya had made it quite clear that in this interview he was to be much more seen than heard and that she would be taking over the communication on the subject of ‘their’ choice. Even tripping along behind her on their way up to the tower, the stone walls closing in on them as they circles up the narrow spirals of the staircase, as claustrophobic as ever, Merlin sincerely feared that this meeting would shine some uncomfortable lights on his life that he would much rather were not taken from shadow.
As if happened, Gaius remembered him perfectly well from the one course he had flown through in the past year. "Ah yes, Merlin was it? 'The historical accuracy of the published works of High Priestess Maylish, last of the Governmental Advisors of Modern Magic, against the noted journals of Greyjon the Great concerning the time of the Great Purge.' Very interesting subject. I seem to remember grading a rather interesting paper in which you were somewhat focused on the battlefield medical procedures and their uses. Quite enthralling, especially the description and possible uses of the ene- Never mind, that's all in the past, no need to bore poor Freya here." Embarrassment did not even cover the issue, for Merlin, at Gaius’ near breaching of the subject in public conversation. What had he even been thinking when he’d handed it in?!
Once they were seated and uncomfortable, cups of tea perched on the study table that separated them, the old soft wood chipping and stained, Gaius' eyebrows rose, two fluffy caterpillars atop his eyes that brushed against his floppy hair with every movement, and flicked a hand unceremoniously.
"Now then, what can I do for you? I do hope you haven't come here in the hopes that I will help you cheat on an assignment Prof. Kilgharrah has given you."
"No, Professor, would I ever?" Freya's eyes widened innocently beside him and Merlin couldn't help grinding his elbow further into his knee where it was perched. He coughed disbelievingly into his fist, very much aware that if she could cheat her way through her education then she would without a second thought. Freya glared at him before being diverted back to Gaius. "We were wondering what you could tell us about latent magic."
"Good God, girl, you're studying magical theory, aren't you? Why would you need to ask me, it's all in your textbooks." Gaius huffed as he leant back, his interest lessening by the second.
"But all the textbooks are too vague," she whined in return.
"Well, of course they are, there isn't much to be said. After the Fading, no new people could learn to sense magic within themselves. Even if latent magic still existed, very few people have the knowledge to learn they have it on their own. One would have to have a divination dream and those are clearly uncommon."
"Dreams?" Freya immediately perked back up, the back of her hand smacking against Merlin's arm excitedly. "So if someone had one of these dreams then they would know they had latent magic? What about other things? Movement of small objects."
Gaius suddenly appeared distinctly uncomfortable. His armchair, the only comfortable thing in the entire room by the looks of its plushness, creaked under his shifting and his eyebrows were knitted so close together at the bridge of his nose that Merlin thought they might become one.
"What are you asking, Freya? Magic doesn't exist any more, not in the same way it does in the history books."
"But it must! Not everyone could have lost it surely."
"What can I tell you child? When magic faded from the people that wielded it two hundred years ago, it faded from the entire world. Fascinating subject but really rather short. Is that all? My Aconite needs trimming, I haven't had the time in weeks! Dreadful abandonment!"
Gaius was on his feet before Freya could protest. Her gaze was hard and upset when she turned to Merlin, the dismissal sharp for her. Gaius was well known for his understanding and patience.
"Come on then, Merlin, maybe the library will have something, we didn't check properly. He might tell us something if we find something in a stupid book first, the old riddler."
He just shrugged and gulped down the remains of his tea, too sweet and milky for his personal liking but he was too polite to complain.
They were almost at the door when Gaius called for him. He received a nasty stare before he could usher Freya out of the door, well remembering the lectures Gaius had liked to keep him after in order to help him with odd jobs and ridiculous ones at that.
"Would you care to help me with my pruning, it's gotten rather tall and your long legs might make all the difference."
He couldn't very well say no, so, with the sound of Freya's descending footsteps dimming in the background, he set to his new task.
The door at the bottom of the steps clanked loudly shut, with forced menace about five minutes later. The atmosphere in the room was tense for a further second before Gaius relaxed next to him and snatched the shears back.
"I'm not an invalid, lad, now go make yourself useful and fetch 'Magic At Its Weakest' from that shelf over there." He pottered around happily behind Merlin's back as he wandered away, perfectly befuddled by the whirlwind change of tone and the interest buzzing in his ears.
The book was near devastating in its normalcy, average size and common thickness, a disappointment after the rough tomes he had just skimmed past. Its spine was a rich purple under the layer of dust, banded in shining gold, the writing all swooping letters and glowing metallic curves. Merlin slipped it from among its peers and hefted it into his arms; its size obviously having no bearing on its weight for it was a heavy thing with dull metal plating on its jagged corners.
Gaius was waiting patiently for him beside his Aconite, shears resting on the windowsill, a hand outstretched and gesturing gently toward the table they had only just vacated. "On there if you please." It made a hearty thump as it hit the solidness of the table, wafting dirt and the smell of years up into Merlin's nose. Hidden under disuse, Merlin could also scent the subtle thrumming of magic.
"This," Gaius murmured next to his shoulder, "was a book I acquired many years ago about the myths of modern magic. Certainly not as old as the rest of my library but even yesterday is history. I'll be over watering my Dandelions if you have any burning questions."
'Magic At Its Weakest: A History of 'The Fading' and the Resulting Disruptions'.
The pages were thin and delicate when Merlin finally felt the courage to flip the cover open a minute later. There wasn’t a crinkle in sight, as one would expect in a well cared-for library, but they were well worn as if used often despite the sizeable amount of dust that permeated them.
The contents were barely visible any more, the black of the handwritten letters faded but the writing a couple of pages in was completely visible.
'Fifty-seven years ago, a sudden and most disruptive event took place which is now referred to by most as 'The Fading'. Other titles it is known by include 'The Judgement', 'Heaven's Punishment', 'Magic's Death' and even 'The Apocalypse.' The phenomenon caused such a astronomic disruption that a new dating system was universally commenced (e.g. this document was published Winter 57AF – (After Fading). The cause of the event, one way or another, cannot be proven or the butterfly effect that could have lead to the final result either by ways of science, observation, psychology, history or, sadly quite obviously, by magical means; on this most of the entire human race is agreed...'
'...Many find it curious, or suspicious, that the Druids chose to disappear precisely a year, accurate to the hour, before the Fading. Others wonder at the supposed inability of Seers around the world , who proclaimed themselves incapable of predicting the event. Many modern, Post-treaty Governmental bodies have suggested conspiracy theories but the downfall of the magical community, on a global scale, would suggest more than a failed enchantment from any corrupt individual or group aiming for the falling of one state leadership or, even, country. After all, a plethora of authorities on magic have agreed that magic is balance...'
'...Following the catastrophe, or what was quickly labelled in records of a scientific, historical and official capacity as 'The Fading', a multitude of of magical practitioners with talents in skill sets known for their difficulty claimed that magic, while no longer accessible to man, could still be sensed in the world. While this may be true, it has always been recognised that magic plays an intrinsic role in the natural balance and order including the turning of the seasons, the cycling of water and the breath of life, these higher sorcerers were claiming a theory much more extravagant: that magic never deserted of the human soul at all. They stipulate that despite the complete loss of any ability to wield the power, it still exists as a latent force. The term 'latent magic' has since been used as an official term.'
'Additionally, there is worldwide evidence supporting the 'latent magic' claim. Many previously powerful magical humans, of varied race and gender, have stated solely and of their own volition that magic still exists within them; they just have no ability to harness said power.'
'The difficulty of latent magic, and the potential 'death' of magic entirely from mortal man arises with the new generation. Inexperienced, young sorcerers have no way of identifying the existence of latent magic in themselves, hence the symbolic 'death.' The only proven method of exhibiting the existence of a young person’s power is for a divination through the medium of dream to follow through to a tangible conclusion.. Dreaming is the time at which the human subconscious is at its most free and therefore when the natural barriers that are suspected of now blocking magic for an unknown reason, although several theories exist on this subject as well, are at their weakest. Physical magic – the power that results in any change, be it physical or mental (source: Third Court Sorcerer Talis Wishtail, first of his name and noted for his considerable anthology titled 'The Definition of Magics') no longer exists...'
'...As a result of the Fading, quite predictably, the scientific community documented a significant rise in discoveries; a boon which registered as the highest since records began. These recent discoveries were intrinsically valuable in recreating and rebuilding numerous societies that were reliant on magical care. Such inventions included the first fossil fuel powered travel vehicles and electronically powered communication and entertainment; the coding phone and television. Ongoing experiments (57AF) have been announced to include devices capable of an electrical computer and the return of the telephone with full vocal capabilities...'
The coffee shop, when they finally arrived on the opposite side of campus, was a quaint little building more in keeping with some far off English countryside than a mainstream university shop. Arthur was a little surprised the roof was slate rather than thatch if he was honest. The brick was dusky and greying with age but even from a distance he could see it was well cared for and clean.
Hanging flower baskets drooped artistically from the multitude of windowsills behind several cast-iron table and chair sets. It was nice, but all that stuck in Arthur's mind was that he was glad he didn't suffer from hay fever.
He wasn't astonished in the least by the bell that jangled when they slipped through the old door, although in his opinion the resounding creak that followed them should have been enough of a 'customer nigh' for any present employees.
The woman behind the counter was ageing but enthusiastic, if the vibrant flapping of her hands at one of her student workers was anything to go by. It shouldn't have worked as a whole, but Arthur found himself thinking of the laid back home he would have liked as a child and longed to sink into the currently vacant armchair by the empty brick fireplace with a cup of tea and a classic book that smelled of...well, book.
That was until a slim figure collapsed into it, beaming up at someone else. Arthur quickly identified him as his horror student and immediately turned to Gwaine.
"We should go. I'd rather avoid an apparent patron of this establishment." Gwaine stared at him, brows furrowed, as if he were insane before guffawing good-naturedly and whacking him on the back.
"Don't be a prick, mate. Lance and Gwen'll be here soon and then we can skedaddle." His smile was wide and Arthur thought it must have been painful. But he let out an exaggerated sigh and dutifully ordered his tea – 'no, plain please. No, not cinnamon. Not vanilla. I just want plain, Earl Grey. Chai, what? No! And I'll do the blasted milk and sugar myself, thank you ma'am, I'm not a toddler.' - before following Gwaine towards the back...
Towards the fireplace...
Why did Arthur suddenly have a bad feeling about this?
Of course, because he was thoroughly familiar with how cruel the Universe could be already, Arthur did little more than mentally roll his eyes resignedly when Gwaine halted at the fireplace. The friendly smiles and intimate hugs that followed made Arthur feel out of place.
His quick glances of before hadn't shown the two people propped on the sofa, their fingers entwined but about a foot of space between them. She was lovely and he was devastatingly handsome. He could already surmise they were made for each other even without the sickeningly sweet smiles, the secret but shy and frustratingly innocent touches and the constant blushing. And he hadn't even been introduced to them. Had only been in their presence for about a minute.
He vaguely heard his name and assumed an introduction.
"Lancelot, Arthur," Gwaine began. Arthur received a strong handshake and a flash of white teeth to accompany the soft "Lance, please."
"Gwen, over here, trying to be as virginal as humanly possible." Gwaine continued and she flushed brighter, a rosy glow over her caramel skin.
"I'm not! Well...I mean, I am, but I'm not, you know, trying. But, I am-" Her cheeks flamed further and Arthur dropped to place a chaste peck on the back of her hand. He could be a gentleman. If it was possible her flush darkened even further.
"And this," Gwaine continued, turning Arthur bodily towards the remaining person Arthur had been trying with little success, because his eyes were branding into the back of his skull, to the final member of the group, "is Merlin."
"We've met," Arthur groused, steadfastly refusing to hold out his hand even for the sake of manners, "haven't we, Merlin." He didn't know whether to be offended or relieved they were on the same page when he received the same treatment in return.
"My name's Merlin."
"That's what I said, Merlin."
Their short lived scowl-off was killed by Gwen's good-natured, girlish giggles and Gwaine forcing Arthur onto the other end of the sofa.
Time passed ridiculously quickly in that little coffee shop with its old-fashioned music that couldn't decide if it was going to stay on or not and its creaking walls. Alice, who Arthur was quickly introduced to as the owner, was genuinely one of the nicest women Arthur had ever met and he wondered if she was a product of a dying age. She bustled and mothered them, forcing every third drink on them free of charge. He realised this place was more like a family that he was likely to find anywhere else on campus. He blushed self-consciously when the thought hit him that he had been exclusively invited by one of their own. And even more so when Alice hinted between her pottering that his invitation had been discussed in advance. Luckily she seemed to understand the importance of one being served ones preference in tea and didn't fault him for his first impression.
He chose to ignore Merlin's snide, "well some of us weren't born with a silver spoon and are grateful for what we're given."
Of course this had started an argument about 'getting what you pay for' followed by 'you paid one pound fifty for that, half as much as any of those commercial thieves would charge you' and 'the customer is always right' and 'you should be respectful for what the mercantile establishment has to offer.' Arthur ended that spat by asking how Merlin had learned to speak with such long words. Another argument followed shortly after.
It was strange how rapidly hot tempted raving at each other could become amiable swashbuckling. Arthur wouldn't go so far as to say 'friendly banter' – a requirement of all male-male university friendships as stated in the international Bro Code – but he could feel the icy inferno of their earlier arguing spluttering and starving and an entirely new heat, this one more raw and craving, flickering to life.
He left the coffee shop, bladder full and vocabulary dazed, with Gwaine at his side and a reassurance that their meeting next week, to which he had no choice but to attend, would be just as fun.
If he ignored the niggling voice at the back of his head that sounded unnervingly like his father with the volume turned almost to mute – a luxury he would only ever have in his head – then Arthur could almost imagine he was a normal student. It certainly felt normal. Like clockwork, they huddled closer together as the weeks grew closer and closer to Autumn. They moaned about the workload and they groaned about their professors. He learned to appreciate the smell of Merlin's black coffee but made the same disgusted face every time he was forced to try 'God's gift to man.' They laughed and joked and somewhere along the line Arthur forgot about his rule of acquaintances only, too overcome with the swelling joy that came with having real friends. In all honesty, it was an entirely new experience for Arthur.
When one's place was on a pedestal it was hard to have equal friends.
Of course, Merlin still called him a prat and a idiot every other word, but Arthur liked to think they were more terms of endearment now. Just like how, when he said Merlin was a peasant what he really meant was he wanted to touch his cheek because he had said something infeasibly cute. Or when he called Merlin an imbecile he actually meant for him to stop being so kind because it was making Arthur's heart ache and his knees weak. That was the thing about Merlin. He never would have guessed it from their first encounter but he was ridiculously, moronically kind. And Arthur was growing rather attached to him.
The first time he met Sophia, it was because he had been cajoled into attending Lancelot's birthday bash for Gwen. At first, he thought she was sweet, attractive even with her plush lips and curls.
Then he noticed the way she looked at him, intense and constant. And the way she talked to him with the suffocating need for his constant attention and a wanting, worshipping glimmer behind the flutter of her eyelashes. And the way she followed him from room to room, hounding his steps or staring at him, starstruck, from across the room.
Lancelot lived in a small flat - which vibrated alarmingly with the volume of noise bursting from its seams - five minutes walk from campus. It was grotty and smelled of damp but it was the best a student could ask for when sharing it with three other boys, none of whom had an iota's interest in personal hygiene. The result of this was that it was virtually impossible to escape his new stalker. Beyond throwing her out a window - and, seriously, don't tempt him - there wasn't much he could do about the situation but get drunk on cheap beer and hope she went away. Unlikely but not impossible. So that became his plan.
At least, it was his plan until, four hours in and approaching midnight, he was comfortably sozzled and she slipped under his arm while he was in the middle of a serious lad moment with Gwaine concerning their various exes.
"I'd never leave you, Arthur," she simpered, oblivious to the faces blinking back at her. The skin of her fingertips was soft against his ear and she smelled refreshingly feminine after his long line of platonic male sympathising hugs of the last hour. But her touch made him itch from their point of contact down to the disquieting spot between his shoulder blades and, although refreshingly different, her scent was nauseating after more than a whiff. Her fingers scrabbled into the thin material of his blue shirt -'It makes your eyes sparkle, Arthur,' she had told him earlier – when he tried to draw away.
"Maybe you should pretend you're gay," Gwaine guffawed boisterously during one of the brief moments of respite while Sophia was away doing whatever freaky girls did at house parties apart from stalking their targets.
When Gwaine mentioned it as a master plan in the making, Arthur knew he was joking. He did. He knew that. But the more his alcohol addled mind circulated the idea, the more it seemed like the perfect solution to his girl trouble. So it really was quite understandable that when he asked "and how would I convince her of that?" he needed to convince Gwaine that it was possible for him to have an idea worthwhile investing in.
"I was joking mate," he shouted back into Arthur's ear, hammering at his back. Arthur had noticed the correlation; the more merry Gwaine became, the harsher and harder his gestures were, be they physical or conversational. Another example was his volume.
"I know!" Arthur yelled back more over the pounding beat than because drunkenness made him loud.. "But think about it! This could actually work!"
"I'd like to take this moment to mark exhibit A. The film industry! A frequent plot device in which the hero pretends to be going out with Female A in order to escape crazy, psychotic Female B. The conclusion of these films usually ends with the involvement of our hero and Female A forming a romantic attachment." Gwaine said straight into his ear a mile a minute while he dragged him stealthily, or as stealthily as drunken men can drag, towards a more deserted corner.
"Would you stop talking like a complete pillock?" Arthur hissed back.
"Noted," Gwaine nodded. "I'll leave that to you. But the point still stands." He continued, ignoring Arthur's offended puffing.
"But! But!" Arthur waggled his finger to emphasise the importance of his words, bracing himself against the wall, "I'm not going to pretend I have a girlfriend! I'm going to pretend I'm gay!"
Gwaine's single raised eyebrow told Arthur exactly what he thought of that statement.
"Oi! No! Wait! Hear me out. I'm not gay, so I won't end up as a scripted stereotype. Problem solved," Arthur exclaimed, feigning wilful obviousness to Gwaine's 'yeah, right.' But Gwaine was just as inebriated as he was and seemed to be coming around to the idea, if only for entertainment value. In fact, if one looked at his next statement, one might even call him an enabler and a very bad influence.
"Yeah, but how are you going to convince her. She ain't going to believe you if you just tell her."
Arthur nodded lopsidedly. Seemed reasonable.
"You're going to have to shag someone, mate," he continued solemnly, as if it were the next logical step. And Arthur knew he wasn't in the best state of mind but even he could tell they missed a few stones there.
"Wow, what?" Arthur shrieked, his eyeballs straining in their sockets.
"It's the only way," Gwaine declared, patting his shoulder supportively.
"Wow, let's slow down a bit, there. What about something a little less...erm...invasive. Cuddling. You can be manly and cuddle, right?"
"No way, man, you're going to have to shag, nothing else for it."
"Absolutely not. No way. Zero percent chance. Maybe I can-"
"Arthur?" But Sophia's return cut short their planning session. "What are you doing over here in the corner? There's a space on the garden bench if you'd like to join me." He was led away, trying to ignore the crude gestures Gwaine was making at his back.
Merlin was lingering at the back door, appearing alarmingly sober and nursing an untouched cider bottle, and Arthur knew he was going to regret this in the morning but, fuck it, you only lived once and Sophia was severely cutting into his time. And Merlin's lips were a red verging on obscene.
It was only a peck on the lips. Really, he could have excused it to Merlin in the morning as an overly friendly gesture while sloshed. But the awkward thing was that it wasn't awkward at all. Which made it all the worse. It was pinpricks of heat and the echo of flushing skin through the short distance to his own.
It lasted seconds, barely happened at all, really. And the only other person who saw it was Sophia, desired effect achieved by the way because her floods of tears left metaphorical oceans in her wake as she fled. So this was not a disaster situation.
But the painful thudding in his chest, the waves roaring in his ears and the numbness of his lips told him otherwise.
"What was that for, prat?" Merlin squinted, blasé about the situation.
"Just," Arthur shrugged helplessly, "because..." Both of them instinctively knew he was never going to finish that sentence.
"Okay then." And just like that, it was accepted and the moment was glossed over. He knew they would never speak of it again.
Merlin's attitude didn't stop Arthur from sprinting away with his tail between his legs, knees a-quiver and fingers shaking with embarrassment around his beer can, at the first chance of freedom
Hindsight was the beautiful but somewhat futile tool that informed Arthur he should never party the night before a really rather important – in the a hefty percentage of your grade, Arthur, so you should probably do well – discussion group he needed to lead. Astonishingly, and possibly due to his new position in Merlin's good graces, the seminar ran to fruition without a hitch. If by 'good graces' he meant eternal blackmail material and by 'hitch' he calculated in his banging head and rolling stomach. He placated himself with the knowledge that Merlin looked worse than him, but only a little.
Morgana was waiting for him when he returned from the lecture theatre. The lock on his door had been picked and she was settled cosily, completely at home, at his desk. Her fingers were flipping through one of his more recent papers; a shitty little essay that barely made the word count written at fuck o'clock in the morning.
"What on earth are you doing sneaking around here? Did father send you?" Her skirt, deep blue so as to be almost black and studded in some mysterious pattern with shining, circular crystals, slid up to her knee when she hooked it over its partner and slid down further into the plush cushioning of his chair. Arthur was not willing to bet that the colourless dots were fake. Knowing Morgana they were billion carat and the skirt cost more than his entire educational career combined. Her coat was thrown on his bed – when had he made that? - along with a black, opaque shopping bag that bulged alarmingly. Her blouse was low cut, surprise surprise, and a bold red to match the feather earrings that dangled and flashed at him from between the silken strands of her hair.
"Of course he did. Apparently you aren't making enough, if any, progress," she said tartly, flipping his papers back to their original positioning with barely concealed disdain, boredom evident in the way her nails, a pale pink and scarcely coloured at all against her skin tone, instantaneously started tapping against the nearest available section of naked wood.
"I am! Haven't you been watching the news?" Arthur exclaimed, insulted by his family’s lack of attention and faith.
"That catastrophe that almost cost civilian lives without any foreseeable goal? Yes, I saw that. So did Uther in fact. I can't say he was too impressed by your care of your future subjects." She switched to inspecting under her nail beds with the majority of her focus.
"The bugs needed testing. And it's a good job I did. They're faulty; the coding's wrong. Imagine if I had gone straight ahead with my plan. That could have been a catastrophe."
"Uther doesn't seem to agree with you, unfortunately for you. He sent me as a sort of catalyst, if you will. To speed things along a little. You know he's never been a patient man."
"This is ridiculous, if I hadn't-"
"Do shut up, brother dearest, you sound like a broken record. Uther says speed up, we say?" Arthur paused before answering, leisurely taking the time to exaggeratedly roll his eyes so far back into his skull it pained him.
"Two or three times faster?"
"Exactly. Now. What are you going to do."
"Communications. I'm going to hit communications." He made sure his voice was decisive and low, like he was the dominant one in this situation. And like everything was under control. Which wasn't exactly true, per se.
"Predictable as ever. Plausible for success though. I'm going to go right ahead and assume you have an actual plan." She glanced up at him with her piercing eyes. He fidgeted under her stare like a naughty child, damn his nerves.
"Well, I'll plant the bugs and hit the switch."
"You are joking."
"No, I figured it would work out in the end."
A snorting laugh, most unbecoming, escaped from the back of her throat at her next breath. Her lips curved amusedly for a scant second before she was all business and sternness.
"Uther was right to be disappointed. You don't have the head for this. How did you ever get employed in the underground? No, wait. Because you're daddy's little boy." Her sneer could have boiled water in its derision. "I am going to plan this out for you. I knew he should have just sent me in the first place. Offence intended, brother darling, but you couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery. But would he listen, absolutely not, the dunderheaded fool." Arthur considered interrupting her and calling 'blasphemy' but that would have involved interrupting her and he was proud of his maintained sanity considering his questionable childhood. "Coincidentally, I brought your cheap trinkets with me, I can’t say I’m particularly impressed though. In the meantime, you can go into your little closet of a bedroom and try this on. "
Now, Arthur may not have been the most brilliant genius on the planet but one thing that had become clear over the past few years, during his masked stints, was that Morgana ordering him to remove any item of clothing and replacing it with another of her choice meant only one thing. Costumes. Usually humiliating ones. But she was quite correct in assuming that no one would dare protest vocally against her, let alone down right refuse. But Arthur bucked up the courage, even if only weakly, with the knowledge already settled steadfastly in his chest that he would lose the argument.
"No, Morgana, no!"
"And what are you going to do? Refuse me? Tell 'your father'? I will hire a man to drag you in there and strip you if have to. And I shan't close the door. Do you really want that, Arthur? For your young, impressionable sister to see you - a boy! - naked as a babe, and quite possibly crying like one too."
"You're older than me. And I doubt very much if there's anything left to impress on you."
Her eyes were like ice but wide with mock innocence. Unluckily for Arthur her patience also seemed to be wearing off if the constant movement of her fingers was any indication; plucking at her skirt, picking loose lint from her shoulder, playing with the curling tips of her hair and brushing at at imaginary smears of her lipstick.
"Give me the damn bag," Arthur spat before halting abruptly in horror and turning to her slack-mouthed. "Oh my god, is that Lycra? I absolutely refuse to wear a onesie like last time. Ghastly thing."
"I took into careful consideration all your complaints about your last identity hider and have come up with this masterpiece of symbolic manipulation."
"Symbolic manipulation because...it's got a dragon on the belt?" he yelled disbelievingly, grabbing the canvas black loop, laden with empty slips of pockets and a roaring dragon face, a dull gold, with sharp teeth, intelligent eyes and flared nostrils; hiding the clasp. He didn't even want to think about all the other clinking sounds echoing up from the folds of material.
"I'll have you know that was designed in Paris and made by the finest craftsmen in Egypt. But that's nothing compared to the mask."
"A new mask, aren't you taking this a little overboard?"
"Absolutely not. If I can't do it myself, by order of patriarchal oppression, you are going to go out there and take over Camelot and you are going to look good doing it. Now start undressing while I fiddle with your plan."
"I am not wearing this." Merlin growled stubbornly, plucking at one of the frills perched on his chest.
"Well," Freya sighed as though he was being purposefully difficult and the woes of the world rested upon her shoulders because of it,"it's either this or the leather."
"I'm not fucking wearing that either!" He yelped, jabbing a finger violently towards the offending item. They were finding it exasperatingly difficult to agree on a costume choice for his future night wanderings and good deed doings. In fact, Merlin was beginning to question every 'fashionable outfit' that had ever been thrust upon his person. But when you only have two male wardrobes, neither of which really barely existed in the scale of fancy dress, and one female arsenal of flamboyant costumes to choose from then anyone might find it difficult to agree on a final ensemble that wasn't mock-worthy.
"It's going to be one or the other," she huffed, showcasing in an instant the exact attitude that had made him bend to her will in the first place, stern and at the edge of her patience like she was training an ill-mannered puppy. But instead of caving immediately, he turned to Will for one last attempt at persuading Freya to see reason, that her choices were nothing short of ridiculous and that he was being more than generous at allowing the cycling leggings anywhere near his 'valuable area.' They itched constantly against the hair of his legs as a reminder of their presence.
"Will? Seriously." He furrowed his eyebrows in sarcastic solemnity. "Disco prostitute or I'm-about-to-rape-you biker?" Will blinked an eye open where he lay on the sofa, smiled lazily and promptly rolled over, falling back into his daze. But Merlin could recognise a pity smile when he saw one, more specifically if it was Will's version, which had an added 'I won't laugh out loud because I know it will break you mentally' gleam in his eye.
"There, you see?" Freya hopped forward between them, near launching the leather number into his face. "Will likes them both. Now choose!" Merlin was tempted to correct her and tell her exactly what Will actually thought, but she was already charging on. "I, personally, would put you in the shirt. To be honest, darling, you just don't have the muscle definition for the leather."
Of course, this comment left Merlin with no doubt in his mind as to exactly what his final choice would be so there was no use wriggling any further, any argument he could make would probably ensnare him further. Therefore, he made a tactical decision to retreat and tackle the next obstacle: the blaring purple box that rested innocently atop the television. He tapped it gently with his nail as if afraid it would nip at him or take it hand.
"And I think I can guess what this is," he said long-sufferingly, his tone low and resigned.
"You'll need a mask, though," Freya chirruped, obviously excited about the whole debacle. Merlin nodded along to her reasoning, neck loose and hope lost, while she unwrapped the thing. "Secret identity and all that rot. I was thinking 'Emrys' as your hero name," she said as Will barked a humourless laugh in the background. "As in Merlin the Eternal's Druid name." Merlin didn't have the heart to argue with the wet, pleading sparkle in her eye. "Oh, the romanticism of it all. If you end up kissing a maiden and marrying her, I expect your wedding speech to convey huge amounts of gratitude proportionate to my genius."
Merlin, if he was being one-hundred percent honest with himself, had expected garish and bright and drama. But what Freya pulled from the box was grace and balance and poise.
"It's a tad dusty," she said, brushing at the plume of feathery fronds that burst from the top. It disturbed the nest of feathers, all of them shifting and swaying musically. The last rays of dusk spilt into their sheen, reflecting and refracting in dancing echoes of blush back at him. On this, he thought, he and Freya could agree.
It was surprisingly heavy on his skin when she smoothed it onto his head, tutting gently at the resilient curls of his hair poking through the light dusting of feathers that molded from the top of his forehead to his crown, stabilising the structure. And the feathered flicks that extended up from his ears felt enormous and cumbersome, in the way they caught and held the air. But it was perfectly proportioned from one coal tip to the other cobalt one. And it was soft like blossoms against his skin, not scratchy like quills and spikes as he imagined. He knew that within mere minutes of acquaintance it would melt onto his features like it was born to be there.
"Where did you get it?" He asked, trailing the tips of his fingers delicately over the strangely shaped stones he knew gleamed silver in the light around his eyes. The shapes were familiar to him, like a language from a half remembered dream, but he had no way of deciphering them in wakefulness.
"It's a genuine Druid's mask," Freya whispered conspiratorially. "My father used to help perform some of the baser ceremonies." Merlin supposed that was something worth being quiet about. After the Fading there was nothing really left for the Druids to do except pray to the Mother. It turned out the authorities had not been too happy that there were those unhappy with the new order of the world. Only the new terror of sudden weakness stopped the Druids from revolting against the rising power over them, saving countless lives. Merlin supposed humans felt fear for a reason: self-preservation. They were labelled trouble makers. All Druid practices were kept underground from then on.
"And he wouldn't mind my wearing it?" Merlin asked cautiously, fully aware of the special relationship a person could have with an item that was dear to a lost one.
"It's not like you're using it to rob a bank. I think he'd approve of the cause." Her finger combed reverently over one of the flicks.
"Hate to interrupt your moment," Will murmured sleepily, "but the scanner's screaming bloody murder in your room, Freya."
Freya's eyes lit up instantly and she dashed from the room, bare feet slapping loudly against their old wood floor.
"Scanner?" Merlin rounded on Will. "What scanner? What did she make you do?"
"Now, don't be mad but-" he reasoned placidly over his shoulder.
"Will hooked us up with the police network," Freya beamed, bouncing on her toes with scarcely contained joy, hurrying back in with an old radio held aloft triumphantly. "What use is an EvoTech student for a flat mate if you're not going to use him?" She was being rhetorical but Merlin could think of plenty of replies anyway.
"That's totally immoral!" He exclaimed, horrified at Freya's criminal underbelly.
"Not the time, Merlin." She huffed, fluttering around him. "You're all dressed up already. I guess we're going with the shirt, good." She plucked at a stray strand of cloth. "Don't worry, if you need it enough I'm sure your magic will answer, no matter what Gaius says. I have faith." She was babbling so quickly Merlin didn’t notice he was being herded towards the front door until they were there. "You're going to the television tower just west of campus. They had an emergency alarm and it's Him, Merlin. I can just feel it's Him. Will you be warm enough? Maybe-"
But Merlin was already darting out of the door before she could mention the dreaded Phantom of the Opera cape. And he'd find his own way there, thanks.
He concentrated on 'invisible' and started running.
The broadcasting central tower and head office was one of the newest buildings in the entire city, a monstrous creation of modernism and steel and glass. Arthur immediately thought of a metal spider, colossal in size, that had been pinched by the finger of God and distended up towards the heavens and reinforced with horizontal legs to aid in its standing. Five iron feet stood rooted into the ground evenly around the base, completing the outer structure.
The inner tier was entirely made of glass, the support system of pillars like the bars of a prison cell. It tunnelled up the centre of the structure, clear darkening to obsidian near the top as if hiding from the stained ruins of the earth below, too hideous for their enlightened eyes.
Arthur had considered climbing the entire way but Morgana's sharp retort concerning icicles in unwanted places had quickly shot him down. Unfortunately she would be right, much as he would have liked to think such a thing would never come to pass. She suggested he be 'be stealthy for once in your pitiful life, Arthur, what on earth was all that training for if not this'. He pointed out that security cameras, according to the blueprints she had somehow acquired - he wasn't really willing to ask how, rather sure that he wouldn't like the reply - decorated every square metre of the blackened floors. The only feasible way to shut them off was either to plant a bug, a moot point as it would need to be done at the central control override - the very target he was aiming for on the roof, although fuck knew why the bloody architect had decided to plant it there - or disable the power, which was really such a fuss it wasn't even worth it. Not to mention all the back-ups they probably had installed as precautions.
Thus came the event that should have signalled the apocalypse. Arthur Pendragon and his half-sister, Morgana Le Fay, actually agreed on something. For once in their lives. Or maybe that was putting it a little strongly. They compromised at least.
He would be stealthy and silent and sneaky...for the first fifteen floors. Then he was allowed to be rash and brave and daring for the seven wherein he would reach the roof, fix the bug into place and get the hell out. Simple plan. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, Arthur had already found his first setback in the guard settled solidly beside the front door. What was it with these people? Didn't they ever actually walk around? Bloody modern technology with their bloody cameras and their bloody security who were paid a bloody fortune to do bloody nothing.
It was times like these that Arthur contemplated his line of work with varying degrees of contentment. The grimy brick wall to his back told him his job was shit and he had been saddled with the worst deal here. But the view of the top of the tower, gales howling and storm clouds brewing, informed him he had the most exciting job in the world. And in all good faith he would be lying if he said he wasn't looking forward to leaping over the railing and skidding recklessly back to the ground.
The guard was balding and fat and a menace to the evolution of humanity, lounging there with his slouched back and his dirty shirt and his gaping mouth. Arthur was offended for his race. But at some point he had to turn his back, which was where Arthur's shiny new electric pulse toy came in. It wouldn't hurt - well not too much anyway - and he'd be out like a light for at least two hours. Or until someone punched him in the face, a fact that Arthur had found out first hand upon its invention.
And turn his back he did, scooting his chair doggedly over the slate flooring, another attempt at stylish décor no doubt, slowly, every movement from his flabby wrist to his quivering belly looking like a chore of the hardest difficulty. He skidded around to the cupboard that presumably housed something mundane and unimportant, not really worth Arthur's interest, and promptly stuck his oversized head inside to rummage around the contents.
Arthur grasped at the opportunity and darted across the the giant double doors.
He had never been a patient child.
The lock was easy enough to pick. Any alarms must have been deactivated, although he had been prepared for them nonetheless. He streaked towards the desk, hardly faltering when the blob swivelled back toward him, shock registering on his fleshy features.
The perfect plan started to take a turn for the worse around that point.
A cloak. Why in fuck’s name had Morgana been thinking when she'd presented him with a bloody cloak. Which could happily snag on things. Mainly front doors that were closing behind him. Even more specifically, double front doors made of glass with recently picked locks that lead into ghastly buildings of the broadcasting variety. Why?
Whatever the answer, the resulting vicious yank that began at his throat and hauled him back all the way down to the final button that ended at his gleaming belt barely left him on his soft soled - custom made - boots. By the time he was finished grappling with the material the damage was already done.
Another question, why were panic buttons always red? Couldn't they be fluorescent orange for visual recognition?
The alarm was located less than a hands width from Fat Man and thus it was completely unsurprising that his podgy thumb was already jamming it down repeatedly, with enough force to crack the insolent crimson polish, by the time Arthur was free from his self-imprisonment by stupidity.
Was it broken?
Unlikely. More likely a direct link to law enforcement.
There was time then. If he was extraordinarily quick – verging on heroically speedy.
The zap from the taser, when the currented iron tapped into his arm, was near silent, just a distant humming. In fact, Arthur doubted he would have noticed at all except for the shivering of the man's pupils from side to side and the sudden ridged stillness of his entire body, his stomach vibrating with the muscle strain.
The room was all high ceilings echoing above him and smooth floors rushing off into the distance under his feet. The lifts were shimmering parallel to the entrance, jewels encrusted around their frames - all five of them - and reeking of extravagance. Arthur began to wonder if there were any run down buildings in Camelot. The door he was searching for, though, was partially hidden from view behind the security guard’s desk, a sore sight in comparison to the grandeur of its cousins. Apparently anyone that worked here wasn't expected, in fact it would probably go against some policy, to ever climb a single step towards their destination. And if one worked on a higher floor then there was an ambitious amount of them.
Arthur on the other hand was not so lucky. Unfortunately for him, all the lifts were equipped with state of the art security much like the higher floors. As a result, he was forced to painstakingly ascend nearly every step in the building in pursuit of his mission. Having said that, he did not go to the gym religiously at home simple for excuses to be away from his father's ever watchful, beady eyes or so he would not appear absolutely ridiculous when it came to traipsing around in one of Morgana's creations.
The lighting was low and ominous when he slid soundless through the door; perhaps he should have taken it as a sign of things to come when they did not flare up at his presence. The stairs were an old, rusting metal that should have been a safety hazard but according to inspector this shiny giant was impregnable to all evils - minus himself, of course, but who could possibly foretell, and therefore account for the actions of, a random, mask wearing stranger with questionable ethics and a strong obligation to succeed at said dubious task. Clearly not the safety officer in charge, that was who.
He caught his reflection in the glass opposite him and was suddenly stunned by how real the situation was. The cloak was a light material that clung to the rises and curves of his arms but flared and whirled around his torso when he moved, revealing the tightness of his new, black uniform with its crimson sheen and fitted texture, moving fluidly with every twitch of his honed body. Locks of golden hair licked out from under the absolute blackness of his hood. And below that? Below that rested the mask.
It was a fine specimen of the majestic beasts. It was a dragon.
It glinted back at him, dulled by the shadow of his drooping cloak but no less magnificent. It writhed and shone and twirled, contorting gracefully around his eyes. The powerful curl of its jagged tail encased his left and the heavy, muscular coil of its extended neck encompassed his right. It rested in a semblance of peace upon the bridge of his nose, its claws grasping at his skin with a tremendous strength. Such a beast could never be truly tranquil though; they were ever-changing and bound by an instinctual wildness. The ridges of its spine were indented into the gold of its body like teeth and thwarted battle scars. One skeletal wing, hidden away beneath the folds of material atop his head, nestled snugly into wisps of his hair and firmly secured its imposing body in position. .
The first five flights were of little consequence, once he began them after staring at himself for an indecent and hazardous amount of time - which actually only amounted to a minute but was still time he did not have at his disposal to waste. He passed floor and floor at a slow jog, growing more comfortable with his head start the further up he went, and only just concealing the annoyed eye roll at the predictability of these people; of course all the floor signs were black, block lettering, bold and dominant, shadowed in royal gold on glass plating. Did they have no imagination at all?
It was at the seventh or so floor that he started to realise exactly how strenuous of an exercise he was undertaking. All that accompanied him were the whispering of his cloak behind him, his thudding heartbeat - a sharp staccato by now but not unhealthily so - and the panting of his breath, which sounded loud to his own ears, but who was in the vicinity to hear it anyway?
By floor ten he was wondering if the climb ahead of him was really worth the hassle. Uther would be disappointed to a monumental level but Arthur was sure he'd overcome the depression in time. And by the fourteenth, he was seriously considering just surrendering to the obviously superior power of the stairs, such a simple creation which was about to crush his athleticism to dust. His knees were knocking together by the time he flopped, boneless, against the sign for the fifteenth floor.
He barely noticed the creaking of the main door when he dragged himself through it or the clutter of desks with their disorganised files. His focus was entirely on the floor to ceiling window opposite him, seemingly impossible miles away. But, toes cramping and thighs quivering, he succeeded. After that it was simply a case of unlatching the window and wriggling through the vertical slit the pivoting glass created.
It was cold outside. Enough so as to have his teeth chattering enthusiastically against each other within seconds of breaching the window. The beam Morgana had helpfully pointed out on their map was scarcely wider than his foot. He would have no support. No hand holds. Just buffeting winds and silence for company. Luckily the building started to taper towards its steeple several floors below his location, therefore a few short steps were all he needed to withstand before he could collapse against a solid pillar and cling to it desperately until his life had finished flashing before his eyes.
He took his time preparing himself, any law officer would never find him out here, he was certain his tracks inside evidenced more a mouse than a man and he had no reason to retrace them. His stomach tensed at the thought of stepping out into nothingness, a conscious choice that could end seriously badly in respect to his bones and beating heart.
When he finally coerced his delicate and resistant body into taking the plunge, in the furthest sense from the literal meaning possible, it was over in an adrenalin fuelled second. To be honest, there had been worse - much worse - death defying stunts in his history folder but tightrope walking was never his forte, even if his babyish fear of heights had been lectured and forced from his psyche as he grew up.
And it was high; 'seventeen floors' his rational mind reminded him while his calves and thighs throbbed sympathetically with muscle memory in their tight confines. So high, in fact, that the very run-down warehouse his night had begun hiding behind looked little bigger than a country cattle shelter.
The magnetic studs, unnervingly small where they slotted snuggly into his palms, would instantly secure him to the metal like hair on cashmere. For that moment though he just crouched and glared back at himself over the expanse of thin air he had darted across moments ago. His eyes shone so dark a blue they glistened black, focused and serious, from inside the gold circling them. His cheeks were flushed but he did not like to speculate whether it was from the driving wind, a constant tirading attack from up here, or the rushing excitement flooding his system again after his brief terror.
And with the cloak swirling near invisible behind him, vanishing smoothly into the darkness, he could see the biggest design feature Morgana had deemed fit to add. This dragon was far less grand in colour, comprised of greys and shades that caressed their way into the fitted body of his suit. It should have been heavy and he had been dubious upon first discovery. But the metal was light weight and the structure more unwavering that the delicate lines would have him believe. And it was a structure, inching out from his body to rise to life.
The dragon's profile rippled from his chest like an amphibious hunter waiting for its opportune moment to strike, teeth gnashing, angrily flaring nostrils holding black smoke waiting to billow, eye glinting from the darkness a dull, malevolent crimson. The scales of its snout were uneven, patchy and promising the pain of grating against naked flesh. They were dynamic and suggested a swaying motion and the vitality of the living.
The claws on his shoulders were a reassuring weight, both steadfast against his skin with their unrelenting claws and nails that appear to scrape and tear and snag and rip.
Its spine shimmered a weightless, lacklustre metal across his back. The overlapping plates shifted naturally like bone and sinew. The scales were so perfectly designed they gyrated from side to side and pulsated with the rolling movements of his spine seamlessly, like a snake's body coiling and flexing continuously.
Its hind legs were flexing and powerful, one stretched down his right leg in a tortuous feat of strength and the other coiled atop his buttocks in one of Morgana's cruel tricks, her cackling laugh told him it was no coincidence. The tail, more plating that bobbed and weaved and twitched with his every move, swung across his lower stomach and looped down his left leg, meandering and squeezing as it descended.
One deep breath later and Arthur was ready to begin phase two of the plan. The Ascent. The only preparation necessary were the two caps that clipped simply onto the soft toes of his mid-calf boots - 'even you can figure out these mechanics, brother dearest.' Once done there was nothing left for him to do except to begin his climb, despite the continued shaking in his lower limbs and the slow sapping of his strength from all his muscles. He was grateful his strenuous journey only consisted of seven windows, even if they were all taller than him by another half length. He could not see inside the building any more, the blacked out glass of the important administration offices and all their secrets hidden from view. To his advantage, this also meant he could waggle his bottom in a policeman's unsuspecting face and they would be none the wiser.
He had thought the slope would help him, some sort of interference with gravity or easier resting spots. Something. As it turned out, it caused him to overreach uncomfortably and sprain his muscles with every wrenching pull of his straining biceps. And on top of it all he felt like his cloak was suffocating him, tangling his legs and restricting his stride. And, although managing to do a splendid job of containing warmth and banishing the cold of night, he was now overheating from the boiling sweat trapped inside his suit and making his skin absolutely glue itself disgustingly to the thin fabric. And the chafing, Jesus. This creation was Morgana's worst culprit yet. If he ever got the opportunity he would never question her choice of all-in-one over two-piece combos again for the sake of his fertility.
His arms and legs, muscular and trained though they were, were quivering with exhaustion when he breached the final obstacle. The low railing - because who was going to be up here ordinarily to fall - that was the only defence provided for the innocent access panel that lay somewhere on this rooftop, shrouded in steam and fog and dirt. It was an ugly sight full of mangled piping in grotesque formations left behind when the remainder of the steeple had been built above where the inner structure halted.
Not for the first time, Arthur wondered what the bloody hell they had been thinking when they positioned the emergency manual access here in the first place. True, it was isolated and probably easy to secure but, with a little effort - actually a gargantuan effort but that was just playing slap-Arthur's-ego-for-fun - he had bypassed any difficulties there. Perhaps they reasoned for any sane man the only point of access was the triple locked, double security pass and code required door. Well, clearly, and proudly so, Arthur was not the most sane man in the world - that would make him boring like all those other posh toffs. No thank you. Arthur liked adventure and excitement.
God, it was like these people were trying to get broken into. The lock on the surprisingly small metal box was rusted through, he didn't even need to pick it. They were fucking inviting criminals. He flicked it, aim precise, with focused force and, low and behold, it sprang straight open, eager to oblige his illegal wishes.
Inside was a tangled mess of multicoloured wires. But he didn’t need to worry about navigating such a labyrinth. The fingerprint identification pad, state of the art for such new, evolutionary technology and looking out of place against its crumbling casing, blared its presence in a grid-lined, pensive green. It was a simple task to wedge the bug between the confusing jumble of rainbows, pointing in the correct direction.
In truth, Arthur felt let down. It was too easy. He clapped the doors shut with a quiet, metallic snick and pressed harshly against them until the corrosive damp stuck them back together. It would never really matter if they relapsed open again, no one was going to be up there to see anyway. Actually, after his stealthy climb and daring deed this was ridiculously anticlimactic. He edged back through the jungle of poles and grim and environmentally apocalyptic smoke.
Which - as was, is and shall always be with these situations - was when the shit hit the fan.
He was falling forward onto his knees, balance stolen by swift trickery, before he recognised that the other person was skulking about suspiciously on the sheltered roof, which did not say much for either of their characters but fact was fact and there was no use denying it. His knees jarred painfully as the nerves were struck with ninety percent of his bodily weight in one harsh swoop.
It took precious moments to take stock of his surroundings - hissing steam, fleeting shadows and...flocking birds whispering through the silent darkness? - before he could gain his feet and sprint, back hunched low, to the nearest tangle of pipes that would provide him with a modicum of shelter against this hidden force. He thanked his body for its natural ease of movement and recovery so he could easily listen into the eerie, still silence of his surroundings rather than the rattling of his own ribcage where his heart smacked repeatedly against it. The footsteps were ever so faint, but they were there, tapping like echoes behind him and, for the present, separated by hollow metal and possibly a thin wall, although it was futile to try and say for sure through the moist grime and dripping condensation over growing infestation. Which was mere centimetres from his back. Ew.
Arthur took care to remain motionless, silent as the grave. 'Wait for your opponent, Arthur, whether in sport or matters of mind, let them come to you. Much like a disproportionate rat in a trap.'
When he finally prowled into view, and it was a he, albeit a seemingly young one, Arthur's arm had dropped into a doze where it was holding him aloft from the realm of filth to his back.
The man was tall. And thin like a rake. But he moved with a fluidity, not quite graceful enough to be an natural born asset, that spoke of years worth of practice coming to know the motions and balance of his own body. There were deceptive amounts of muscle wound around his frame as well, only visible to Arthur due to his choice of apparel, which might as well have been a fucking full body tattoo. At least Arthur could feel reassured by the fact that he wasn't the only one insane enough to be running around Camelot in the dead of night in a mask and tights. Because there were tights, or they were skin tight so as to appear as such, even with the navy shock of lightning cracking against the black down the sides.
Ordinarily, Arthur would have dismissed him immediately and asked any person in range who exactly the loon thought he was. If one wanted to meddle with an accomplished and well-versed villain like himself by playing hero, he assumed that was this pillock's intended purpose, then one needed the correct equipment. Ordinarily. Except this young man's face spoke volumes about exactly how serious he was, so much so that Arthur could not reject him as a redundant force on first sight. It might have been in the tight press of his generous lips and the way that made his jaw tight and unyielding. But Arthur thought it was more to do with his eyes.
They were wreathed rather than hidden by a flash of feathers, obsidian on one half of his face and a shadowy cobalt on the other, all smooth and alive with vivid lustre. They flattened down onto his cheeks and back over the midnight of his hair, which curled out between the feathers in abandon. But it was the exaggerated flicks that leaped from his forehead and ears that drew the attention, glossy and bold they bounded from his face, not fazed by the roiling wind. And when he tilted his head just so on the long, pale column of his neck the owlish appendages made him appear wise beyond the youth of his skin.
But in the end it was the eyes inside the dazzling mask, the unnaturalness of them. They were fierce and untameable, the edges of his iris' iridescent amber and alien in their brightness against the pitch of night. They glowed intrusively out into the darkness, reminding Arthur nervously of a panther lingering under a low moon before decisively choosing its prey and chasing it down ruthlessly to the kill. The echoing light illuminated the tiny, strangely shaped stones that detailed the inner edges of his mask, where they brushed against the unconscious fluttering of his eyelashes. From this distance, Arthur could not see the symbols as close as he would need to be in order to define their pattern or meaning, if one existed.
And because of all these distractions, Arthur nearly missed the atrocity of the so-called article of clothing that adorned his torso; a shining black shirt complete with copious amounts of glittering blue stitching to make it glimmer in any form of light and a plume of ruffles that avalanched from his collar like sooty waterfalls swirling with inky ribbons. It was purely comedic and the most poncy thing Arthur had ever seen, and yet laughter never threatened to gurgle from his chest and it did not retract at all from the severity of the man's presence.
It was somewhat of a shock to retreat from his observation to find eyes already upon him, although only seconds must have passed. Damn Morgana and her especially unsubtle colour choices and damn the healthy brilliance of his hair. But there was nothing he could do to remedy either, Morgana about as subtle as an explosion in a library and he couldn't help it if his hair showed his general fitness and well-being via gentle radiance. He glowered back to prove to the stranger that he would have to compete with a trained master in this area as well.
Neither made any move, to converse or fight, until the silence extended for so long it made Arthur's skin tingle unpleasantly and he decided to take the roll for himself. He slithered from his hiding place, careful not to touch anything as his vaccination list was a pinch on the overdue side, and stood to his full height. He was all too aware that he was the shorter of them, but he took some solace in the mental image of a brisk gust of wind sweeping through the cavern - it might as well have been - and whirling his uninvited guest over the side.
"You must be here to represent the hero faction," Arthur stated, already feeling his curiosity dying and quickly morphing to annoyance. More people meant more time wasted, which meant displeasing his father longer, which resulted, he sadly knew from experience, in bruising for Arthur in every way bar the literal.
"Excuse me?" Just like that the ferocious spark of his eyes dimmed into nothingness and all the confidence that had potential to invigorate, as well as aggravate, was gone. It left only stuttering insecurity behind. Arthur suddenly wasn't as attracted to his mask, or face area in general, so much anyway. Or his shirt. It was a god awful shirt. Worth plenty of teasing.
"Well, don't tell me you got all dressed up like that for some kind of nerdy date. I was working under the assumption that only rapscallion hunting necessitated one’s best outfit."
"Are you taking the piss?"
"No! Would I?" Arthur gasped, innocence mockingly elevating the pitch of his voice. It was strange that he could feel settled and in charge with the incongruousness of the situation while the buffoon in front of him could appear so out of place. Although that was most of the point, proving his dominance by cruel embarrassment with wit and sharp, wounding retorts. It had been a while since he had sparred with anyone intellectually besides Morgana, which was never a pleasant affair because he was always and without fail bound to lose. "I sincerely feel superior ruffle-wear, such as yours, warrants a special occasion. So you simply must be a 'superhero' in this scenario, am I wrong?" Apparently, that was something the mysterious lunatic was willing and prepared to discuss.
"Well I am here to stop you, if that's what you mean," he replied, stammering at the start but growing surer of himself with every word.
"Ah, the naivety of the untried. You see, I've already completed my business here. So, we come to the age old question: what are you going to do about it?" It was absurd really, that they should be stood at the scene of his crime discussing their course of action. But Arthur was content with his role thus far, relaxed with one hip cocked and his hands, although gloved, tucked snugly into the sleeves of his cloak. Meanwhile. Superhero jittered on the spot, his eyes focused and cold but his fingers twitching under the stony blue of his gloves like he wished he could be anywhere else in the world but dithering right there. He seemed unsure of his reply so Arthur thought it only polite to aid him.
"You are new at this. You see, I, the villain, have just handed you with open palms an opportunity to sprout a sleep-inducing speech detailing my misdeeds and the sanctimonious shite that follows. To which I argue, usually about some veiled, possibly deformed, greater good as my ulterior motive, which in this case does exist but I shan't bore you with the details.
"See there, I've managed to quite brilliantly collapse this entire conversation into one breath. So, are we done here? Can I go? These fumes are ruining my skin."
"No! Wait!" Hero yelped when he tried to step away from his person. "I'm not going to stand by while you put innocent lives at risk like last month!" His eyes were wide, the sudden determination hurtling life back into the abnormal sparks that danced there. It occurred to Arthur that perhaps he should take more notice of such an alien event, but he dismissed it. Magic was dead, everyone knew that.
"Yes, that sanctimonious shite, right there. You just couldn't leave it. You're all the same, you do-gooders. So quick to judge us with your stunted black and white morals." He huffed in aggravation. "If you must know, that entire débâcle was actually an accident. Despite what you may deign to conclude about me from over two minutes of acquaintance, I'm not actually a murderer." Speaking of time, he was running out of it. Even this high up he could hear the sirens picking up volume, their wailing becoming less and less of a distant drone and increasingly more of an oncoming threat.
"Well, whatever it is you're planning-"
"Go with 'plotting', it sounds much more nefarious," Arthur sniped.
"-planning, I will stop you."
"You do that, " Arthur murmured assuredly.
"Oh my God, do you have to be such a...such a..."
"Genius? Mastermind? Charmer?"
"Clotpole!" He shouted right before he lurched toward Arthur, fist already swinging. He caught it easily, a reflex, fearful for the man's safety and unsure he would ever survive even a bar fight.
"Speaking of names, what may I have the pleasure of calling you, my arch foe?" Whose eyes were ridiculously blue.
"Emrys," he spluttered, staring at his clasped fist, betrayed.
"And I, good sir, am-"
"An arrogant arse?" The man recovered valiantly.
"The Dragon Prince, for obvious reasons. I would advise you to work on your martial arts before we meet again. It's a weak area. Until then." He saluted.
Arthur would like to believe that his exit was dramatic and awe inspiring but as the tails of his cloak snagged around his legs he presumed the effect was lessened. He damned his non-existent luck to hell...until he threw himself against the railing in a desperate attempt to remain upright and caught his last glimpse of the hero to his villain. Palm outstretched. Fingers splayed. Eyes inhuman.
He was stunned to stillness, locked with his legs tangled and his fingers grasping for never-ending seconds until two things happened simultaneously. Emrys tripped on his own clumsiness and Arthur's fingers finally found their target, the reel of reinforced line wound onto his belt with a nifty little spinning invention. As soon as it was securely attached to the metal, he flung himself over the edge, drying sweat and galloping heart forgotten. Everything was replaced by those eyes. The full iris burning and flaming angrily at him from within ruffling feathers and above bared teeth.
Emrys was magic.
Arthur personally thought he was quite within his rights to spit and hiss obscenities at Morgana when she pounced on him as soon as he fell through his door. That moment wasn't the time for her theatrics, he was too busy trying not to hyperventilate at his own situation thank you very much.
White spots flickered on the back of his eyelids every time he blinked, bright and blinding. All he could see were volcanoes simmering, embers flaring and sunspots bubbling. Somehow, if he knew, Arthur didn't think Gwaine would find his choice of lecture subject as funny anymore.
The implications of such a thing – that there might still be magic in the world, their broken, crumpled world – was monumental. Record-breaking, world news worthy, going down in history, monolithically important. And he was showing himself to Arthur. Focusing his efforts in protecting some insignificant little city in the middle of arse-end trying to stop a small time villain trying to please his father.
He should have been out there promoting fucking world peace or something!
Emrys could have done anything, anything. And yet he was...here?
He wouldn't tell Morgana about the interference that had held him up nor the reason for the panic tightening his face, she would only hinder the process. This was the biggest inconvenience conceivable, but he would deal with it – or sidestep around it with as wide a berth as humanly possible. He would avoid the situation. He would relearn how to breathe and then he would blend into as many shadows as existed, silent and stealthy.
It didn't matter how he had been found that night. He would settle the stuttering chill in his belly and then he would make himself invisible.
Morgana or no Morgana, his new plan was 'stealth'. The possibility that he wouldn't survive a real encounter with Emrys was horrifyingly real.
The low budget uniform clung to the sleek fabric of his costume like teeth revolting. It snagged on every rise of his dragon, pulling and catching uncomfortably. The shirt was overly starched, the trousers were as coarse as pig's hair and the jacket, a poor semblance of a real tailored number, was worn and thread-bare.
Admittedly, he had pinched them from a supply cupboard and they were probably long out of commission. But the shiny badge labelling him as 'Peter Hardly, Security Guard,' embellished with the winging Bluetit that was universally known to stand for 'Camelot Telephone Networking', told a different story to any other – real – employee that may have happened to pass him by.
Personally, Arthur was growing rather attached to the guard's cap, a mocking sham of a police hat, that currently perched atop his mussed head.
The tunnels he was striding confidently through were all as dark as each other, lit only by a sporadic littering of dull, orange lights. There was no grime on the walls or ominous dripping water or questionable stench beyond staleness, but Arthur was still reminded of a sewer. It was quiet and still, few people bustled past, and the solitude made Arthur feel all the more claustrophobic.
The offices of the telephone network were right above him, small but stately, immediately off the main road that cut straight through the city, University campus and all. But the real stuff? That all happened here, underground, using millions of metres of wiring, a system far beyond its time, that made up the electrical networking hub of the entire operation.
And for such an important place, it really was amazing that it had been so easy to sneak into, impersonate an employee and get down to the lower levels without a whisper of anything going wrong.
The fire alarm was exactly where Morgana had said it would be, wedged between a dusty pipe and a tangle of wires extending down from the ceiling. The entire building was one giant breach of health and safety laws, so Arthur didn't blink at the mess of fraying plastic casings or bruises of rust. He focused on his business, all too aware that his luck could break at any moment and then Morgana would have all the more reason to blame him. So, really, it wasn't worth the effort of being distracted in the first place.
He slid his finger between the spikes of glass that remained from their previous alarm – and, seriously, who the fuck was in charge of maintenance around here? - and pressed against the white dot at the centre until it caved little more than a millimetre under his weight.
For such a small change, the effect was instantaneous. The bell was shrill and loud, echoing like a continuous klaxon around him from all directions. Pounding, relentless, at his eardrums. Vibrating up through the dull, aged concrete floor. Quaking through the ceiling overhead and rattling loose grit from the corners.
It took Arthur a moment to recapture his bearings, to realise he should have been diving into the unlocked cleaning supplies cupboard fifty metres down the hallway thirty seconds ago. Namely, before the patter of evacuating feet were close enough to be heard over the wailing siren.
The sprint was short and uncomfortable, material pulling taut at every inconvenient location. Most annoyingly, it bunched at his thighs with every stride, higher and higher until it was beyond uncomfortable and verging on a hindrance.
But then he was within his designated safe zone, in this case a metre square room with one door, one barely on this plane of existence light and the smell of copious amounts of cheap bleach.
He stole a second to imagine the irony of vomiting in a room full of industrial strength cleaner before he forced himself to freeze in place. He crouched low behind the closed door and listened intently to the tapping of rushing feet as they sped past his hiding place.
The mask was all sharp angles and snarling spines when he pulled it hesitantly from his bag. It felt heavier than before, weighted in more ways than one. Blue eyes flashed in his mind’s eye and he smacked back at the guilt threatening to rise. His mask was his protection from himself. When he put it on, the university and all the people crowded into the hallways didn't exist to him any more. He wasn't Arthur behind the jagged coils of the beast. He was the Dragon Prince and he would do well to remember that.
The pretence of his purpose in the city was quickly becoming his reality and it was terrifying, that he could contemplate turning against his nature so easily. His father was right, he was weak and didn't deserve the family name. He needed to snatch at this opportunity to prove himself. He needed to show himself as worthy.
There was a heat burning in his chest, churning and boiling and he wasn't sure what it meant but he slapped the mask against his face, slipping behind his pseudonym, the protection of a false name and knowledge that no one could touch him while he was hidden like this. Not his father, miles away ruling from his iron throne. Not Morgana, with her cruel smiles and claw-like nails. And not his acquaintances at the university, not Merlin with his bright eyes and his quick laughter. Merlin was a far away dream. This was his reality.
He slipped from beneath the folds of the guard’s uniform like a butterfly blooming from his cocoon and was silent as he slid back into the abandoned hall and towards his next target.
Freya would probably say it was some kind of fated hero sense that brought him here. Will would laugh and call it coincidence. But Merlin didn't really believe in coincidence and it definitely wasn't destiny contacting his spidey senses. But his gut was itching and his magic was tingling in his palms. Instinct, he would have called it, given the choice. One thing that he did count as lucky? The fact that he didn't need his newest suit to be anywhere in the vicinity in order to put it on, which was brilliant, magical serendipity.
The faux leather was tight across his torso when it materialised there, but he was resigned to the idea of Freya's newest fashion obsession. The punishment he would receive for ignoring her wasn't worth the dignity he would save in disobeying. Besides, the mask was growing on him quickly, with its fanning feathers that sashayed in the light breeze of the late evening and rested as a reassuring weight against his forehead, comforting him that his secret was well hidden within the ruffling folds. A handy accessory, he'd admit.
The cold suddenness of the leather, not so much. He felt exposed, the skin of his arms raising in goosebumps along the entire length of them in protest to the chill air. But it could have been worse; no doubt if she had had the funds, Freya would have completed the ensemble with matching trousers. The very thought made him shiver.
His stomach tingled with wrongness and he knew it was time to move.
Merlin disliked the feeling of slipping through solid brick. But the Telecommunication office was a solid fortress of brick and more brick, so he didn’t have much choice. The feeling of old bones scraping his cheeks raw and the rasping of stubble catching on fabric, pulling at the fibres. But it was a necessary evil.
He still scowled as he swiped at the orange dust caught at his shoulders, lingering on the smooth material as if magnetised, though.
His concentration wavered with the sudden smash of noise assaulting his ears. People yelling, alarms blaring, feet pounding like elephants. His concentration wavered for a second, but he screamed flighty thoughts inside his head and knew no one could see him, which was a positive thing considering how ridiculous he felt. He was apprehensive about the ridicule he was sure to invite upon his next meeting with his new foe.
His magic thrummed pleasantly through his veins as he wandered the deserted hallways of the building, content to let it guide him and enjoying the temporary freedom he could grant it. It sizzled happily just under the surface of his skin.
He found him quickly enough, being pulled along by an invisible string of power was a rather mountainous advantage, almost cheating. He wondered momentarily if their last meeting had placed some form of anchor on his opponent, as a precaution, so that when this time came he'd be able to track him easily like this.
He was hunched over another monstrous creation of modern technology, just like last time. A mountainous mound of wires barely any of which were hidden by his body, the crouched form with his back to him. Even though he couldn't see a lick of skin, the muscles under the fitted fabric were tensed and taut, ready for action at any sign of threat. Merlin's mind unhelpfully focused in on the sleek lines of him, the tapers and hardness, the grooves and jaggy raises that were created by the intricacies of his costume. Whoever he was, The Dragon Prince wasn't poor.
"Step away from the equipment! I won't tell you twice!" Merlin shouted once he'd found his voice from the dry recesses of his throat. The golden hair atop the Prince's head shifted and fluttered as he turned his head, the golden folds of his mask catching in low lights that buzzed loudly around them. His eyes were slitted behind the solidness of it, almost appearing closed but the slightest flash of pale blue glared back at Merlin, plainly annoyed at being interrupted. But the irritation was gone quickly, replaced by a jovial humour and a light-heartedness that was out of place considering the situation. Or perhaps Merlin was taking this whole 'out to destroy the city' thing too seriously?
"You are kidding right?" the Prince murmured back, a sound that shouldn't have carried across the open space of the miniature cavern they found themselves in but echoed back to Merlin clearly nonetheless. His full lips, a vivid carmine, were pressed tight together and the corner of his mouth tugged down like he was sucking on a particularly sour lemon, a expression that juxtaposed strangely with the dancing sparkle of his eyes.
"I said, step awa-"
"I thought you weren't going to tell me twice," he hollered louder, like Merlin hadn't heard him, although the hollowing of his cheeks below the swooping curves of glimmering gold were evidence that he was attempting to fight a smile. "Oh dear, is that your new get-up, a tween biker sadist? Because, I'll give you some free advice, it isn't the most terrifying thing that's threatened me. I'm more afraid of my goldfish."
"Look, it wasn't my first choice either, but I didn't really have choice." It was more than Merlin was really willing to admit or share about his real self, but his pride was at stake, mutilated though it already was.
"You're someone's dress-up doll too, huh," was the reply, abject and accompanied with a lowering tilt of the chin.
Merlin felt awkward standing there, exposed and left out in the open, his fingers fiddling with themselves. Meanwhile, the Prince could stand, relaxed as if he were in any bar casually people watching, with his hands crossed loosely over his chest, carefully aware of the artistry there, which should have been a defensive gesture but instead looked self-assured. Especially with the grin that was cracking out gleefully on his sinful lips, uneven teeth peeking through merrily.
"I think you should leave," Merlin remarked coldly, deciding his best course of action here was to keep the conversation out of dangerous, shark-infested waters – conversations that included nonchalant inferences about his identity.
"No, no, moron," the blond sighed, absent-mindedly hooking his thumb onto his belt at the hip, obscuring the point where the dragon slithering around him leapt from one item of clothing to the next. A place which Merlin probably shouldn't have been paying attention to, let alone lingering over. He was distracted enough to almost miss the continued speech. "That's not how you should threaten me. You should use the police or force."
"Use force?" Merlin asked, trying to ignore mixture of prickling and slickness when his eyebrows dusted against the feathers inside his mask when the scrunched downwards. "How would I do that?"
"Let's not play innocent here, shall we, Emrys." His stance shifted straighter, almost militarily so, his feet sliding apart and his chin dropping to protect his throat. His hands fell back down to his sides, prepared, and a deep concentration dulled the colour in his eyes to a cobalt that matched the night sky with dawn fast approaching. "I know what you are, what you can do. And, side note, you shouldn't say things like that, you make yourself look weak in front of your enemies."
"Maybe I'm trying to lull you into a false sense of security," Merlin replied, watching the way tan skin shifted below the promise of cheekbones when the other man ground his jaw. Merlin knew he was remembering the flare of magic seething in his eyes, scorching with power like phoenix fire reborn.
"I'm not an idiot," the Prince guffawed, a spike of mirth bursting from his chest unchecked and unexpected, a short sound that reverberated around Merlin.
"I beg to differ," he chirruped back cheekily, "who here's trying to hatch some plot or other?" Merlin stared pointedly past his opponent and jerked his chin towards the nest of wires in the background.
"'Hatch a plot,' I see you've been researching your stereotypes. But I don't have all night here, are you going to attack me or can I 'make a run for it'?"
"You know I can't let you go."
"Of course you can." He sauntered forward a step before thinking better of it and halting, but the confidence shone off of him still. "Just let me walk out the door. Stand aside," he joked, jolting a hand haphazardly into the air carelessly, while his voice was airy, trying to convince Merlin.
"No, I really can't," Merlin said, grin stretching his own mouth and knowing he should feel bad that he was developing a camaraderie with a villain he was supposed to be fighting. "You'll just carry on doing this and who knows where that will lead."
"Nowhere bad, I promise." Eyes widened, back to that crystal azure that was liquid sapphires and silken purity. Merlin knew it was faked.
"Because I can really trust you, prat."
"Are you going to tell me to prepare myself?" he mocked jovially, his good spirits making him lively and the sheen of sweat on his skin glow healthily.
"I was actually," Merlin said, matter-of-factly, before clinically splaying his fingers and observing the instinctual reaction it caused – tightening sinews, coiling and ready to spring, flaring nostrils, pursed lips and pupils expanding like ocean tides sweeping across electrified shores. For his own satisfaction he waited until the body opposite him was vibrating with the nerves and the internal fight urging him no doubt to flee rather than stand his ground.
Then he let the power flare, pushing it luxuriously down through his arms and feeling the hairs there shiver to life where the magic flooded underneath. His shoulder blades itched and rolled at his back and his toes flexed in his shoes. It was like an ache finally being massaged after years of stiffness and internal tiredness. It was like freedom causing, wild, through his body.
And for that one instant he had complete control over the situation. The dull crunch of wires and metal as they gave way under a body was loud but not as loud as the breathless grunt that startled from the Prince's open mouth upon impact, surprised even though he must have known what was about to happen.
But it was a fleeting moment, nothing more, and then he felt the magic growing heavy, energy waning and shine dispersing. Panting reverberated around the room and it was a long second before he realised it was coming from himself. And the Prince was already recognising it, yanking his limbs, mouth curving when they shifted as though through coagulating mud but definitely not locked, immovable, in place like seconds ago.
Honestly, Merlin was most disappointed with himself. If he'd allowed himself to practise like he craved then this would never have happened. First came the weakening of his will, energy sucked away with the power and the use of his limbs, and then the inevitable thump of the Prince dropping to the floor sounded when Merlin’s stamina was drained. He just breathed a sigh resignedly and waited for his punishment, feet glued to the floor by his own mass. Embarrassed shame swelled in his chest, feeling like he had an entire forest’s worth of birds flapping and flurrying around his heart.
But the attack he was expecting never came and, when they came, he couldn't tear his gaze from the floor, knowing it would be vulnerable and weak. The footsteps were even as they approached, quiet and measured. There was a stinging behind his eyes by the time they paused beside him.
It was then that he managed to drag his gaze up from the flickering golden dragon buckle perched on his foe's boot. And the Prince was staring at him with a sympathetic sort of sorrow. Not pity, just the soul deep apology that it was none of his business to extend. The tilt of his head made Merlin's gut ache. He wanted to punch him anyway but the shame of failure kept him rooted and frozen. One thing, one god-damned thing, he was supposed to be able to do.
"Don't follow me."
'How can I?' Merlin thought, self-pity crashing over him like torrential rain, 'the broken can't run.'
Arthur wasn't sure when afternoon coffee at their little shop had turned into take away beverages and a film in his little dorm room. And then to just him and Merlin with no drinks to speak of other than the instant crap from his kitchenette and films that measured between a high seven and ten on the Essential Sci-Fi Richter scale.
Actually, no, that was a white lie. He knew how it had happened...but he didn't know how it had happened. He was perfectly aware that Gwaine had some sporting event to parade himself in and Gwen had her book club for cuties and Lancelot was tutoring at the local high school. So technically speaking he knew how it had happened, but he didn't really understand, especially when they had rescheduled their play dates to Fridays, why he and Merlin always found themselves playing violent footsies on his ratty sofa every Wednesday afternoon.
And he was often left with popcorn down the back of his sofa, loose sugar between his sticky cushions and empty mugs of hot chocolate, and rum and milk everywhere – and who drank all of them in the same day anyway!? Merlin apparently, who always left merry in all senses of the word and hyperactive from sugar consumption. But the smile across his face was worth the hours worth of clean up duty and Morgana's scowl when she returned to remind him in a clipped voice that 'you have a job to do here, Arthur, this sickening puppy love I can read all over your face is a stupid distraction and it's only going to cause you problems in the future.'
She said it like she was concerned for him, as if she were the barrier holding him back from jumping ship. It wasn't, he was completely aware, for his own benefit. Morgana always had an ulterior motive and this was no different, but there was a contentedness that was foreign to him on these Wednesday afternoons and he wasn't ready to give it up yet.
They had established a pattern quickly and Arthur should have found it awkward, all the innuendoed jokes that were too close for such a new friendship and the lingering touches, whether from physical brushes between their fingertips or glances turned more. He didn't, Mordred had always stayed at least a metre from skin-to-skin contact as a rule, but he should have.
That particular evening was cut short. Merlin's distraction over some unknown conundrum was making him fidget, his legs and arms in constant motion, and snarky, an unusual characteristic for him. Half an hour into an action 'epic' – although in Arthur's opinion the entirety of the plot was gun fire and he wasn't sure how this constituted 'geek' – and startlingly few bites into the Chinese Arthur had generously had waiting for him when he arrived, Merlin's patience exploded.
"Oh my god, Arthur, you don’t need to mother me. I’ve already got one of those, thanks." Arthur had never heard Merlin snap or lash out with sarcasm. It was ugly on his face, misplaced and wrong. He wanted to touch his arm reassuringly, but thought better of the contact. Wild animals spooked at forced contact.
"What’s the problem?" he asked instead.
"You, you’re my fucking problem." Merlin’s eyes skittered around the room and Arthur recognised it as the face Mordred pulled when he was trying to make up an excuse. "Look, no, my mother’s ill, sorry." It wasn’t the entire truth. But Arthur wasn’t going to call him on it. Everyone had their secrets.
His exit was sudden, halting and without much balance. Arthur didn't see or hear from him for three days. Despite the thought that grew in his head that he should have gone after him, he didn't.
However much his chest ached and his throat felt thick, he was here to do a job at the end of the day and Uther was still waiting.
"Things seem to be moving along more swiftly," Uther's voice crackled down the phone at him as emotionless as all their conversations began, until Arthur inadvertently disappointed or upset him.
"You've had Morgana spying on me as well," Arthur stated, not at all surprised in the least, in fact, it was somewhat of an expectation nowadays that his father didn't trust him to do anything on his merits. For a long time he had been wondering the point of his title. Maybe Uther should proclaim Morgana his heir instead.
"Your less than efficient start to this entire affair left me with strong concerns, Arthur. I don't like to watch you fail." His tone was even and completely matter-of-fact as if he were reading Arthur his newest security logs and not beating at Arthur's abilities.
"I won't fail you, father. A slight technical glitch held up the project, that's all. Pellinore-"
"Don't thrust the blame upon your subordinates, Arthur. Most unprofessional. Be more of a man and accept responsibility for your faults." 'Like I would, if I had any,' Arthur heard in the ringing quiet that followed Uther's hiss. Though it might as well have been as loud as a thunder clap for all it struck Arthur with weighted tension, like the clinging humidity of a storm, straight at his lungs.
"I wasn't, father, I was simply explaining why-"
"Yes. I saw your little débâcle." Arthur slid his fingers over the receiver to cover the noise and breathed a single long expulsion of air; wishing he had the patience to deal with his father's annoying habit of constantly interrupting him; wishing he could be with Merlin, especially Merlin, or Lance or Gwaine or anyone except crushing himself against his wall trying to escape Uther's relentless prodding... "Most unsophisticated. Not worthy of your stature"...and disappointment. "You clearly have need for Morgana's guiding hand. You should be thankful I could spare her. But I'm a very busy man, Arthur, and I assume you did organise this meeting for a reason. Stop this fluff of an excuse and get to it." Here Uther's voice rose like stormy winds ordering the trees to bow. Arthur felt more like a leaf, ripped and torn and insignificant.
"The final stage of the plan will be executed tomorrow at one minute to midnight."
"No need for theatrics," Uther murmured, and Arthur could imagine him brushing at invisible lint somewhere on his clothing unconcernedly.
"We'll need to set up a contact time," Arthur growled through his gritted teeth, trying to ignore the way they squeaked in protest and think of the way Merlin's glinted when he smiled instead to calm himself.
"I'll expect you call at twenty-three hundred every Wednesday," Uther commanded, continuing before Arthur could argue about how utterly inconvenient that was. "Don't cock this up, Arthur."
And then he was gone, leaving Arthur to boil and simmer and finish preparing himself for the night ahead. The Police Charity Masquerade Ball only occurred once every ten years. And Arthur was going to take full advantage of that.
He stroked the shining leather of his shoes while he accustomed himself to the additional weight of his mask against this skin.
"Where are you going?" Freya yawned as she emerged from the bathroom, hair dripping over their newly vacuumed carpet and mascara smudged everywhere. Merlin swivelled back from the door, guilt – why was he feeling guilty about this? - flushing his face red.
"I got a, um, job, at the charity thing." He attempted a smile, knowing immediately that something was wrong with it by the way Freya scowled at him, not convinced at all. She tugged her towel closer to her chest with one hand and pointed an accusing finger at him with the other.
"You're lying to me, you always do that stupid, wide eyed grin when you're lying somehow."
"I'm not lying, I swear!"
"Okay, not lying then." She nodded as if convinced before striding a step forwards, the eyebrow arching over her left eye arching. "But you always swear you're not when you're omitting information." Her fingers grasped her hips stoically. "Spill."
"Nothing, we need the money, so I signed up and..." He shrugged noncommittally, trying to play off the entire situation casually.
"No, that's not it. You're too nervous to be nervous about our money problems. We all know we're poor, now spill." And it was like being given an order by a siren, commanding and futile to resist – ignoring the fact she'd be punishing him for a week if he didn't cave.
"Okay, so, this thing. It's kind of a big deal and, well, considering where it is...you know?" Freya's mouth grimaced and her hand flicked for him to continue, as if part of his punishment was to be forced to say everything out loud no matter how stupid it sounded. "And you know it's being held at the Police Academy. Well, we know the, um, terrorist is targeting communications – yeah, I'm not as stupid as you think I am – so isn't it logical that he would target, you know, this?"
"You can say it, you know. Your foe," she cackled for a second before seriousness swept across her face. "Makes sense. I'm so proud of you, all grown up. But why didn't you want to tell me?"
Merlin glanced down at the penguin suit they had loaned him for the occasion, noting the constriction around his stomach and the tightness of material on his Adam’s apple when he swallowed deeply. 'Because I look ridiculous?' he thought.
"Because this is my uniform and you're not allowed to mess with it and I knew you wouldn't be able to resist. Basically." He shrugged one shoulder, as if that was some kind of a loss – although, really? Totally a blessing.
"I won't, just a couple of tweaks?" He thought about making a break for it when she turned to dart into her bedroom but knew he'd be sleeping outside in the hallway if he succeeded so it was best to stay silent and put up with her mother-henning.
"You've got your mask already?" she asked, her head nodding, quick and business-like, at the ratty backpack slung loosely over one shoulder. He didn't – it was hidden securely underneath his bed but it was pretty much the same thing when you could call something and it would come from across the city – but he inclining his head once in confirmation anyway. "I just want to add one little touch."
Her hand brushed the the notched lapel, a long slimline feature of the jacket that skirted half way down his torso before tapering off, and flattened it reverently. Then she tucked something into the empty button hole near the top of the lapel, smoothing her fingers over it once and watching it flick back before stepping back.
"I think this is your best look yet," she said softly, like she wanted to say more but couldn't think of the words or didn't have the courage. She shooed him out of the door quickly, like if she did it swiftly enough he wouldn't notice the wetness in her eyes.
He did, but he went anyway.
Camelot's main river, the Excalibur, mostly ran underground through the city. But in certain places, like on one side of the Police Academy, it gushed up to the surface and thundered under the open sky. Right now, the starlight of a clear night rippled and swayed in its folds, dancing with the frothing foam of its fury.
The lights from within the main hall were bright, shooting out into the night from decadent chandeliers of twining flowers and acrobatic, naked cupids. It was supposedly a canteen for the cadets, but looking at it now through the high arcing windows it looked more like a natural ballroom. Stone pillars kissed by frosted, pale vines. Polished white and grey marble floors scrubbed and cleaned until they sparkled like faerie dust. A pale ceiling like clouds, the dark, wooden beams like great oak branches sheltering from the threat of rain.
Before he could take in any more there were angry voices shouting his name and he was forced to abandon the luxury for the seedy back alley filled to brimming with empty bottles and overflowing rubbish bins. He was here to work, he reminded himself, slipping past the man that would be his scowling manager for the night and disappearing into the dark confines of the locker rooms.
Arthur was used to women throwing themselves at him - it wasn't vanity, it was just fact. Whether because of his looks or because of his lineage didn't really matter. But standing there, beside the ridiculously long table, which was too low to be considered serviceable, sparsely filled – because that was fashionable, to show grandeur with miniature food that could barely be seen on a table that could hold a herd of cows – with finger food of all persuasions, his greatest desire was never going to be getting hit on by a woman who thought she was the next Aphrodite.
A woman exactly like this one, who was taller than him and with a waist the circumference of his arm. The black mask that hid nothing of her face was off-putting with its layers upon layers of delicate pink lace that probably cost more than the entire function put together and the ostrich feather that was just...absurd. The slinky dress designed to tempt and tease, all long slits and backless glimpses, was definitely less erotic than she probably imagined. Basically, making small talk with a woman who was ten years older than him and not shy about inviting him into her bedroom was the last place he wanted to be.
He was distracting himself with the stained glass champagne flute sitting randomly on a table over her left shoulder and twiddling with the dinner jacket slung over his arm when he saw him.
And as much as he was shocked that Merlin was there, standing not five metres away from him - thankfully, not noticing his presence - it should have had him panicking but the breathlessness he felt had nothing to do with the dire complication. It had everything to do with the suave, sharp cut of his suit that tapered and hugged at his lean body like liquid darkness, flaring as he whirled, with a unexpected balance and ease, to pass the next guest their drink. The aquamarine cummerbund cinched snug across his hips under the pitch black jacket and the bow tie settled between the stiff peaks of his collar, pert and perfect and framing the ivory column of his throat.
A simple blue feather, smaller than Arthur's little finger was burrowed into the buttonhole by the quill, fine and sleek and the same colour blue as the silk wound around his torso but somehow it shone and reflected the light like a dusting of precious jewels were caught in the fronds.
It was a breathtaking sight and Arthur had to take a moment to check that he wasn't the only one staring at the help – he was, but the ludicrous woman pandering for his attention was too wrapped up in her own bravado to notice his wandering attention. Merlin was backlit and swayed gently with the classical music wafting gently through the atmosphere and his suit looked expensive and definitely loaned. But underneath it he still managed to be the same Merlin Arthur held a tentative friendship with. The same Merlin he hadn't seen for almost a week, who had vanished off the face of the planet, despite his subtle – or not so subtle judging from Gwaine's frustrated sighs – enquiries to their connecting acquaintance.
It was unfortunate that he couldn't catch his attention and take time to wonder at how the blue of his eyes was so much deeper now that there was an azure to compare them too. It was unfortunate that he couldn't march over and demand to know where Merlin had been for the last several days, sulking in a corner like a toddler or nursing his mother on her sickbed? Arthur didn't know and he was sure his lips were cracked from the amount of time he had spent chewing on them worrying about other possibilities. It was unfortunate he couldn't let Merlin know that he looked delectable and shouldn't be allowed out in public due to threat of mauling.
But he couldn't. Because Merlin knowing he was here was not an option.
So instead he politely – but if his words were a little more clipped than usual then he wasn't going to lose sleep over it – excused himself from the most recent addition to his fan club, swerving around her before she could object, and strode confidently towards the gentleman's wash room. Once he was out of sight of the other guests, however, he detoured straight past the public rest rooms and instead continued on until he reached the double doors half way down the hallway. The security lock was deactivated by the code Morgana had pressed into his palm before he’d left – maybe little miracles came wrapped in scales with dagger-like claws after all – and he slipped through, checking once more over his shoulder to make sure no one had seen him leave. There was no one there to miss him anyway, not when he had never been invited in the first place.
The hallway on the other side of the opaque doors was like stepping into an abandoned house that had been left to rot for several years in comparison to the grandeur he had just left behind. The smoke-dyed, grey wallpaper was peeling with patches of water staining everywhere. The floor was off white spotted black, although whether it was a natural pattern was a question Arthur didn't really want to think about for fear of the answer.
Office doors lined both sides, troubling in their closeness to one another and Arthur spared a fleeting second to be sorry for the people that were locked in them for nine hours a day. But then he recollected himself and pressed a finger to the firmness of his real mask – not the cheap, tacking black number he currently wore – hidden safe and sound inside the loose folds of his jacket. It was a physical reminder of the reason he was here, as well as the solidness of it being a reassuring presence at his side, like an old wartime friend that could always be depended upon.
His jacket unravelled with a flare and a flourish like a flurry of ebony petals dancing in the swift breeze of autumn, into the cloak that had accompanied him on his journey so far. His mask, which he plucked from inside the crevice of the hood, was still shiny and unblemished, the dragon's snout wrinkled and snarling as always.
It slotted onto his face with an ease and comfort that pleased him, like sliding into bed at night after a hard day’s work and finding the sheets still embracing the shape you had left behind that morning. Its foot settled against the curve of his eyelid, perfectly situated. The thick muscle of its tail swung over his nose as always and the curl of its magnificent body was the same, majestic and powerful against his bare skin.
He left his suit in one of the smaller rooms, rolled into a messy ball of empty sleeves and unfastened buttons, and stuffed into the bin in the corner. He didn't look back as he left the room, already more at home in this persona.
Room 513 was much the same as all the other rooms except it had the luxury of being at the very end of the hallway, allowing it room for growth on either side compared to its neighbours. It was packed to brimming with whirring machines and blinking lights on boards of metal. This was the hub for the police themselves, conveniently situated in the lower half of the building for ease of access.
The room was hot to almost sizzling, fans sucking and siphoning air and all the windows shut tight against invaders. The river, when he crossed to the window to view it, surged past two floors below him, swollen to its banks and rampaging with righteous rage at being forced underground for so many miles of its course. The high moon above, half asleep in shadow, glinted down on it, casting a reflection that distorted and contorted with every crush of illuminated water.
The bug, which he pinched delicately from his belt as he swerved around miscellaneous machinery and buckling tables of files back across the room to the machine device this mission was centred around, clipped neatly onto the grill that housed the master interface button. And that was it. An anticlimactic load of nonsense if he ever saw one. Morgana had thrust the suit at him as if it were life or death and shimmying into it while trying not the tear the thin white shirt on the hooking dragon claws of his costume had been like trying to poke a hangman's rope through a needle eye.
But that was it and he was ready to take Camelot for his own, a thought which didn't sit easily on his shoulders. In fact it felt more like an elephant was trying to squeeze the life from him and he couldn't even muster the energy to thrust his fear back onto his attacker.
The reality of it was, he was about to become the villain his father had always wanted him to be since he had been born. It was the day they had dreamed of, planned for and there would be pride on Uther's face, stoic and silent, but pride all the same. For him. No more disappointment or nonchalant brushing to the side. He would be accepted into the arms of Uther's business as a proven equal.
But, right then, Arthur wasn't sure it was what he wanted to be. The bad guy. The anti-hero. The criminal.
He wasn't even all the way out of the door when Emrys caught him, his eyes bright in the low light and glittering straight at him, his palm outstretched. He was thrown violently back into the room, his heart pounding so hard he was dizzy before he hit the floor, his bearings lost and speech impeded by his own useless tongue which lolled inside his mouth, bleeding where he had bitten it in his short flight.
An animalistic instinct urged him back to his feet and he lurched forward, diving further into the room as his feet somehow found their way back beneath him. His hand caught a stack of papers as he flung himself past and he swiped them from their table, sending them flurrying into the air and obscuring Emrys from view. And hopefully vice versa while he collected himself and put some distance between them – as much distance as was possible in such a small space anyway.
From the strength and the will that burned in his rival’s eyes, Arthur could be sure of one thing – he wouldn't be so lucky this time. Emrys wouldn't be rolling over like a kicked puppy whose bark had deserted him this time.
Arthur glimpsed his first peek at Emrys' new costume through the whirlwind of white as it fluttered noisily to the threadbare carpet. He was in full formal wear. Crisp white shirt partially hidden under a coal jacket. Dark slacks to match that wound and clung to his long limbs. Pale sapphire accessories in the form of a pert bow tie and...familiar cummerbund.
A flash of warmth, alarming in its intensity, scored through Arthur's chest like lightning striking, searing through the pitch of night, but he calmed himself - all of the employees tonight would have the same uniform, he reasoned. Instead he focused back on Emrys' face, the spiteful crinkle of his nose and mouth and the burning eyes behind the mask that, by now, Arthur was well acquainted with. And the wisps of coiling hair that looked exactly like-
And then everywhere he looked, all he could see was Merlin. In the fierceness and the temper. In the goodness and the purity, the intentions. In his stance, stiffer and straighter than usual but still leaning slightly to one side and his shoulder rounded forwards protectively. In the resistant rebellion spoken without words from his lips. In his cheeks, who else would have such a bone structure, sharp like glass, pale like porcelain and delicate like bone china?
But Arthur convinced himself, all the while with the snowstorm of pages falling slowly between them, that this wasn't proof. There was no solid evidence that this was Merlin, his friend Merlin, who he jovially joked with and drank coffee with and cleaned up after Merlin, his Merlin.
Until he saw the innocent little flick of an object quivering in the buttonhole on his lapel. Then he knew.
He had stayed still too long though and the blitz of magic - Holy Jesus on a stick, actual fucking magic – that clouted him in the centre of his chest was like how he imagined having a piano fall on someone after they had been shot by an entire hunting party must have felt. His ribs creaked in protest within his chest and his skin flared red hot, like lava was pouring straight onto it. The bruise would be angry and colourful.
He flew backwards, the last few flapping sheets of paper scurrying aside from the impact of the invisible wall passing. His back cracked when he collided against the solidness of the window behind him, stinging and aching and agonising. White sizzled in front of his vision as the pressure increased, and all he could see through it when his eyes deigned to stay stationary in his skull was the blazing pair of eyes that were closing in on him as Emrys stepped, paper crackling under his dress shoes, towards him, slow and unhurried.
The crack of the glass behind him fracturing was like a gunshot into the room, louder than his heart, louder than his panting, even louder than the gurgling screams he hadn't realised were being ripped from his own throat. But, in this, Emrys was merciless.
Later, Arthur would realise this was Emrys' method of revenge. Arthur had seen him vulnerable, shamed, powerless and had done nothing. To his enemy's way of thinking, this meant Arthur saw him as no threat. As useless.
And this was how he chose to retaliate, by proving Arthur wrong.
So when the glass finally gave way under the strain of taking his weight and the pressure of the magic, and Arthur was hurled outside into the cold air that struck like ice against his bared skin and throbbing torso, Emrys did nothing to save him. Why should he? They were enemies.
When he struck the water below it was like being pierced by a thousand swords at once, slicing at his organs, striking and lashing at his body. He wasn’t sure if they were all the physical feeling of smashing into cascading water that felt like bricks either. At least half of those swords were the crushing weight of betrayal that squeezed at his lungs. He thought there was a very real possibility his back might have snapped under the burden but his mind was too busy being blacked out by constant, scorching torture to generate a coherent thought.
All he knew, later in the dead of night when he woke, his senses dull and his body pulsing unpleasantly, was that he was still breathing – miraculously – and his mask was still on his face – however lopsided.
And that he couldn't, in hindsight, have survived that without help.
Hiding injury from Morgana, especially serious ones that seized his worn muscles with every tiny movement like these, was an entirely different form of agony. Her eyes were ever sharp, always assessing him and when he had staggered in, soaked to the bone and shivering, in the middle of the night they had been the brightest he had ever seen them, alight with a malevolent curiosity.
Just lurching to his small bathroom under her watchful eye felt like pins pricking at his flushed skin. Stretching and contorting himself once behind the relative safety of a locked door was excruciating. It was difficult to remember how easy it had seemed mere hours ago when he had slipped the suit on, feeling the tightness of it squeezing against his skin and moulding to it. Now peeling it away, soggy and glued, from his flesh made him shudder and think of dripping, disintegrating paper between his crinkled fingertips.
All heat was gone, along with all comfort and practicality. The dampness trapped beneath his mask and the hair stuck to his forehead by water and sweat combined was causing red patches of soreness to appear. He wanted to scream his frustration to the world when his wrists caught in the shrinking fabric and the dragon, usually so graceful and fluid when it twisted with his body, refused to warp in certain ways, halting his progress.
He fumbled with the clips of his belt for what felt like an hour before it slid from his hips, his fingers shaking and so pale a white he worried the blood flow – if it hadn't frozen in his veins by now – would never return. Both belt and shirt clattered to the tiled floor loudly, an echo that rung in his head and made him wince.
His ribs were a mess of colour, a purple so dark it bordered on black ringing thickly around a bright red the shade of fresh blood reflecting a massacred dawn. From what he could see without twisting his backbone overly, his back wasn't much better - a mass of blossoming flushes spreading from the quivering dip of his spine.
He gingerly swung his right arm, working the aching joint of his shoulder and swore colourfully under his breath at the thunderbolt of pain that scraped across his bones, the hairs on his arm prickling irritatedly in response.
He would be black, blue and every other colour of the rainbow for weeks. But at least he was alive.
A flash of Merlin's cheeky smile and mischievous stare zipped across his memory.
He slammed his shaving kit into the sink and cringed at the resulting twinges.
"Merlin," Arthur muttered whilst trying not to stare at Gwen and Lancelot's public display of sickening coupledom. They were sweet as calorific triple chocolate cake topped with cocoa butter icing so saccharine your teeth tingled and polished with valentine's hearts of pure sugar. To be more blunt, they were nauseatingly sweet. And at that precise moment they were attempting to order an ice cream mountain to share.
Apparently, this task was nowhere near as simple as Arthur could ever have guessed. There appeared to be an exact science behind the quality versus quantity and an entirely new social interaction, which included shy touches, doe eyes and much 'no, dear, you choose'ing and 'but we can't possibly, strawberries are your favourite'ing.
Really was it so difficult to settle on a mutual flavour they could both share?
On the other hand, Arthur had been handed, with gift-wrapping and a bow, an opportunity to mention something to Merlin he really shouldn't risk mentioning. The problem was this would play on his conscience for a very long time unless he did something about it.
"What? I'm trying to read," Merlin hissed from behind the pages of his Magical Blah of the Blah Age study guide. He kicked at Arthur's feet for good measure, where they were propped up next to him on the sofa. Arthur only nestled down further into the arm so his bare toes were inches nearer to the worn denim of Merlin's jeans.
Merlin was calmer today, his movements slower and more deliberate, less of a panic stricken mess and more like the uncoordinated Merlin he had been introduced to all those weeks ago - Jesus their non-friendship was hurtling into monthly units by now. He was even closing distances and subtly shifting his attention to Arthur, the book in his lap more or a prop than an essential piece of reading. Whatever had spooked him before, and Arthur wasn’t entirely convinced it was his mother’s health, was firmly in the past now. But that didn’t mean Arthur couldn’t use it as the perfect excuse to manipulate the conversation where he wanted it to go.
It was too simple to deceive himself. Too easy to make his mind separate the image of Emrys, the wrathful but merciful hero of their little tale, with the innocent, sweet Merlin who bounced and wriggled through his days seemingly carefree.
The tricky part of this conversation was hinting to your almost, not quite, probably will be boyfriend that he should contact his mother because 'something big was about to go down' and you knew about it because you were the villain behind the mask and would be the character booed at the pantomime. But doing all this without saying any of it? Well, therein lay the problem.
"Have you...um...spoken to your mum recently?" He hedged, figuring this was a fairly safe course of action.
"No, she's busy with her community leadership stuff, why?"
"Oh...erm, no reason really. You mentioned she was ill. I just wondered, you know?"
"So you've interrupted my studying because you're bored basically." No, that wasn't actually it at all, but how on earth was Arthur supposed to casually slip this into conversation? 'You're not, you idiot,' Morgana screamed shrilly in his head.
"Maybe you should? You know to...yeah, check up on her?" He tried to make his eyes as wide and innocent as possible as Merlin's glare turned shrewd and untrusting.
"Any particular reason?"
"No, not really, just, you know, a feeling I've got. Like...maybe you'd want talk to her about...something. I don't know." God, what was he on about? His heart blared in his ears and sweat trickled down his spine, collecting at his tailbone. It was several seconds before Merlin seemed to settle on a conclusion and he breathed a pitying sigh, which altogether worried Arthur for all of three milliseconds, because wrong conclusions would be drawn - that was just the way of the world - until Merlin spoke.
"If you wanted me to tell her about us you could have just said so," he grinned and stroked at Arthur's ankle absent-mindedly. The gesture was so relaxingly familiar, even though it was the first time Merlin had initiated such a contact, and right then it should have startled Arthur. Instead, he fell into the momentum of the chance that was tumbling into his lap, shoving his guilty to the back of his mind.
"Right, yes, how do you know me so well already? So can you, you know, now? Before I lose my nerve?"
The peck on his lips he received as Merlin bounded to his feet, book forgotten, made him feel guilty and ashamed, the shock of it shuddering down his spine. But the flushed pleasure on Merlin's face was worth it. And Merlin wouldn't have to suffer through the next couple of months, or longer, without the refreshed memory of his mother's voice there to comfort him.
Arthur seriously doubted his days were really so lighthearted, but in that they were similar. Both tucking away their insecurities and complications behind masks. Merlin behind the veil of feathers that created a fake bravado and he, Arthur, behind a golden beast as fierce and bright and magnificent as the sun.
Both hiding like scared boys under their beds, waiting for the monsters to pass by their rooms. Only now they were adults facing the adult world and it turned out that they were each others’ monsters.
He should have been more worried about what Morgana would do if she ever found out. Instead he was preoccupied in the moment with rolling his eyes repeatedly and in astonishment when Gwen and Lance returned with nothing but an overflowing glass of vanilla ice cream.
"What are you waiting for?" Morgana hissed from behind him, her own cloak billowing and her fingers twitching as though she would like nothing more than to rip his mobile computer from his hands and clatter around on the keys herself. Arthur couldn't help smiling at the rare position of control he found himself in. "Get on with it, I don't have all night." Her lips shone ruby red from the shadows, like demons and sin, and he could see how she could corrupt so many men in his father's company to her own devices.
"I'm thinking," he murmured, his lips dropping and his eyes catching the flickering lights in the windows of the buildings surrounding them.
They were at what he had dubbed 'Central Point.' There was nothing particularly special about the location itself, just a normal apartment building in the middle of the city. The fire escape granted them easy access to the roof and there was no sign of life anywhere around. The city looked like a
haphazard catastrophe of stunning and hellish from this height.
On the one hand, he could see the skyline, drifting and rising like voices on a choral line, and the last drifting colours of sunset were splayed out in the sky, all bright and hopeful. But on the other, he could see all the signs of loss, all the signs of despair. All the signs that humans were polluting the space. The dirty streets and surging fumes encasing the lowest levels like a resistant fog that clung to this part of town, marking it unclean. The buildings were dirty, street lamps flickering with disrepair. The old lady bickering with her cat on a nearby street corner below them made his faith in humanity wither. The prostitutes glaring at her from across the road didn't make him feel any better either.
Not only were they in their own, carefully plotted 'Central Point', they were also in a part of the city formally known as Angel's Court, but most knew it more readily as The Gutter. It looked like one giant gutter too, littered and destitute and dying.
"What on earth could you possibly be thinking about at a time like this? Just get on with it, stop destroying valuable brain cells." Morgana fidgeted impatiently behind him. Not the kind of impatient that signalled nerves, more the kind that meant her fingers would sink into his skin if he didn't hurry up because she was cold.
The last letter of the password was harder to type than he thought it would be. In his imagination he had thought it would be easy to detach himself from the situation, from the reality of just what he was doing, of what he had been leading up to doing for a long time now.
It was almost an accident when he did finally press it, breathing in deeply and smelling the the sharp tangy metal smell of his mask all the way down his throat. Almost. He wished immediately that it had been completely, so he could reject the responsibility. So he wouldn't be guilty. A traitor and as dirty as his surroundings to the people he was growing fond of.
An eerie silence swept around them for long seconds, his computer screen blank and worryingly quiet. Frozen.
The only noticeable change were the spluttering deaths of the lamps below them, plunging the world into darkness everywhere. The darkness spread out into the distance and toward the horizon like a disease.
The change startled Arthur into snapping his laptop shut, since when had that been a part of the plan? But the vibrating aura, shadowy and malevolent and pulsing from behind him made it clear to him that this was only another of Morgana's dramatics. He didn't know how she'd done it, he didn't want to know either, no doubt it involved seducing some innocent, but it made the plan feel more like a hatched plot.
The seriousness of his reason for being in Camelot in the first place suddenly felt very real and very heavy where it was settling in his stomach.
He stood up and thought of Merlin with his feathers and his grace and his everlasting goodness, and Arthur hoped - with some semblance of remorse already taking root in his chest - that this wouldn't ruin him.
Merlin came to him one Wednesday evening a few weeks into what people were labelling 'the Occupation', although whether anyone knew who was occupying them exactly, Arthur didn't know. The street lights never came back on, the radios stayed static and the television showed nothing but 'Tom & Jerry' reruns, as if seeing an animated cat get its head bashed in enough times would incite the violence of vengeance in the people of Camelot. Arthur was quite proud of his new, if tentative, home when no such thing happened and people held onto some form of dignity.
Uther had long ago informed him that he had taken care of the outside world. "A biological hazard, Arthur." No one would be coming to help them and sooner or later, his father would wonder why he wasn't making a move to seize a more active role in dictating these people's lives. The thought made his gut ache.
But then Merlin was there, looking up at him from his darkened doorstep, rebellious of the curfew the more innocent citizens had enforced on themselves for their own safety, with irises sparkling like sapphires in the low light that echoed from his dorm room.
There was comfort to be found in the familiarity of the situation, relaxing with Merlin at his side, sniping at one another and laughing more after each television repeat. Neither of them deigned to raise the seriousness of their situation, especially Arthur.
It was strange that he didn't feel angry. Or regretful of any of his decisions. He didn't even feel betrayed like he had on the night the water had cascaded over him like waves breaking him onto the docks. He only felt the pang of sadness that resonated around his body a lot these days. It was for the future. A future that would be without Merlin and the companionship they shared now.
It was strange to think he was sitting next to the man who was probably the most powerful on the entire planet, a man who could rip him limb from limb or force him to jump off a cliff and yet Arthur was the most comfortable he had ever felt. It felt like home, this familiar pattern, joking and laughter and playful smacks on his stretched legs.
One day, in all likelihood very soon, the rain would lash and the thunder would growl and Merlin would be standing before him, crushed and betrayed, the light in his eyes slowly, agonisingly, dying out as he stared through Arthur's shattered mask. It was inevitable. And that would be the end of his first real friendship. The first friendship he hadn't had to act his way through, the first one he had been himself and actually liked for it.
That would be the end.
But for now, he was determined to take whatever Merlin would give him, to satisfy the hunger yearning for the comfort of another human, a need that had long since starved and withered inside him. Living with Uther Pendragon was a lonely occupation.
He didn't know what Merlin was, how he could do the things he could, but until the day came where Merlin turned his shrieking wrath and righteous justice onto Arthur himself for the love of Camelot, Arthur would let himself wallow in this new sensation of happiness. Was that what this was called?
It wasn't their first kiss, not by any means, but it might as well have been for its fire. The absence of chaste pecking and alcoholically fuelled lust made it more real. Merlin's lips were plush and soft and, when he checked just because he could, a debauched rose from only one kiss.
Arthur made it his new goal to see how obvious a red he could make them.
"Who would want to do this to Camelot?" Merlin said through lusciously puffed lips once they were settled back against the cushions, a tangle of awkwardly placed limbs and fingers brushing against new territories of skin. Merlin was currently patting at the bone of his wrist, toying with it gently while he wondered aloud. "We don't have anything to offer anyone. Is this all some big ego trip?" His features were scrunched up like a child who didn't understand a complicated answer when they had asked a simple question.
"I don't know, Merlin," Arthur murmured tiredly, his stomach sinking and warmth flaring unpleasantly in his belly. He let himself shrug infinitesimally, plucking delicately at one of Merlin's longer strands of hair which were curling at his nape.
"You know what he is?! He's a...a...utter clotpole!" Merlin stammered, gripping at Arthur's wrist and smacking his other hand down in Arthur's clothed thigh. His gut wrenched at that. Merlin didn't know it, but he had called him that before, what felt like a long time ago. Shame writhed under his skin heatedly, like a nest of snakes being released all at once and sliding through the slippery wetness of his veins.
There wasn't much Arthur could say in reply that wouldn't make him physically sick with the dishonour he had brought on himself. So instead he shushed Merlin and worried compulsively about his future.
When the alarm by his bed energetically trilled ten o'clock, it jerked them both awake from their impromptu dozing. Arthur felt like he deserved the resounding, if accidental, slap to his face.
"W'sat for?" Merlin huffed, eyes bleary and mouth puffy.
"I have to go out."
"What? But it's past curfew."
"Didn't stop you, did it?" Arthur grinned lazily, his heart rising into his throat at the suspicious squint Merlin gave in return. He rolled his shoulders and jumped to his feet with a faux energy he didn't feel in his limbs. They were springy and loose, but in the disquieting, lax way that made him feel like screws at his joints were coming undone slowly.
He had never ditched Merlin before, never needed to try and escape, but right then he felt very much like he was. Like Merlin's stare was watching every move he made, distrusting and peaking all instincts that a predator was pursuing in the shadows. Or maybe Arthur was projecting his own feelings because he felt pretty fucking threatened under the growing uncertainty Merlin was looking at him with.
Once he was out in the cold air of the night though, under the puffed clouds that looked ready to burst and in the friendly embrace of darkness he felt more in his element. Once he was sure Merlin had rounded the corner of the next building heading back towards his own dorm, Arthur began his long sprint.
He only had forty-seven minutes to make it to the Telephone Underground System and break back in. Changing in a portable toilet on a possibly haunted construction site hadn't been his original plan, and it wasn't one of his most pleasant experiences, but needs must and it was his own fault for forgetting the time. He winged his way through the side-streets that ran adjacent to the main road, wary of being seen. But there wasn't a soul in sight and his only companions were the slapping of his boots on the damp ground.
It had been raining while he was enjoying Merlin's company. And by the looks of it there would be more before the night was out.
Breaking in was as astonishingly easy as it had been previously, they probably weren't even aware of the criminal activity going on in their underbelly. The bug was exactly where he had left it, all he had to do was fiddle with some of the system, a process he had become increasingly familiar with over the past few weeks, and the phone on the far side wall would activate.
"Progress report." Uther didn't so much as ask for things from Arthur as he ordered them and now was no different. He was stoic as ever. Arthur’s masked clinked against the plastic loudly with his nervousness.
"Nothing has changed. Proceeding as planned."
"Meddling and obstructive as usual."
"Arthur," Uther replied, clipped. Arthur knew he would be rereading the financial pages from that day’s newspaper one last time before bed and he could hear the pages ruffling in the background. At least some things stayed constant, unlike his conscience, which had been growing more present these last few days. Nagging at him.
"Useful," he finally grouched.
"If it weren't for her you wouldn't have gotten this far."
"I'm pleased you have so much faith in me. Why didn't you just send her to do it then?" His hackles raised before he could stop them and he seethed quietly from his end of the phone, skin itching under the tightness of his suit.
"Because she is not my son." Uther stated sternly. "You are my heir, Arthur, and you must prove yourself worthy."
'Worthy of what?’ Arthur thought, suddenly struck by the idea that his inheritance was, well, a steaming pile of no-future. Really. Where would he end up? Prison? Hiding in some godforsaken country cottage away from the thousands of enemies he had made out for his blood? Or murdered by magical wrath?
"Yes, sir." He said instead of raising the futile argument. It would only end in further disappointment for both of them - Arthur, the son who could never hope to rise high enough and Uther, the father whose expectations were never met.
The click of the phone hanging up on him and the dead tone that followed reminded Arthur eerily of a hospital machine informing him his heart had stopped.
It was small and cracked. There was a fractured quality to it, a dreading, disbelieving brokenness hitching at the oxygen like it was poison gas instead. And it was lower pitched in its husked whisper that rasped and crackled like static and tears.
But it was Merlin. No doubt.
Turning around felt like eternity to Arthur. A simple one foot over the other made impossible by the seizing, icing that shot through his veins and immobilised him. He found it suddenly hard to blink from behind the mammoth heaviness of the mask nestled on his face. His lungs wouldn't expand, catching half way and he felt like he was suffocating in a void. He nearly stumbled on his own toes but the dragon curled around his torso kept him grounded and stable.
Merlin was there. Standing in his holey jeans and his ratty, faded shirt and his mask, which dripped water on the concrete floor below. The feathers drooped under the burden of the rain, which had swept across the city in Arthur's wake. Arthur wasn't sure whether the sogginess under his eyes was entirely fresh water or salt and he didn't think he wanted to know the answer judging from the way Merlin's cheeks were sucked in determinedly.
His lips were still glowing ruby and swollen.
The rumble that resonated under his feet from Merlin's deep anger should have brought people running. But no one came. Arthur glanced at the door, precious milliseconds when he wasn't focused on Merlin. But Merlin just pursed his lips and shook his head.
"They're all sleeping. No one's coming." Even then, his voice caught like a strangled cat’s yowl in the back of his throat. Like his vocal chords were growing nails and spikes which snared the sound waves and distorted them. Rough. Broken. Wrecked.
Arthur had destroyed him.
Arthur was used to disappointment. He had accustomed himself to the sinking of his stomach every time Uther sighed and he didn’t know what he had done wrong that time. Every time Uther raised an eyebrow and shifted in his seat, like he had been cursed with a son who could do nothing right. Every time Uther looked at him and his face tightened and Arthur knew he was seeing Arthur’s mother.
But it had never hurt as much as now, with Merlin staring back at him, his face damp from the rain and his eyes sparkling wet. And looking overall like he had been left, pathetic and miserable, out in torrential rain overnight, complexion ashen, spasms of shivers wracking his body, feathers drooping.
A damaged shell.
There weren’t any words that could make it better. He contemplated what hell would be like when Merlin lost control and sent him down there. It would be an accident, but Arthur wasn’t expecting an outcome any better.
His throat closing in a gentle suffocation accompanied Merlin's first steps, the soles of his trainers ticking out a quiet rhythm that echoed around Arthur's head.
"Don't ever let me see you again," Merlin rasped, his fingertips tender and hesitant – far more gentle that Arthur deserved – when they stroked once across the sweaty skin of his forehead that wasn't hidden by gold.
Sleep was merciful, cloaking him in a dark, restful embrace. And if he thought it was death in the instant he had before it took him? Well then he was glad this one thing wasn't rejecting him
He would wake later on his own bed, Morgana glaring at him from across the room.
It wasn't that Morgana held a massive amount of sway over all of his decisions – and he really should stop lying to himself because his costume and persona were evidence to the contrary – but she could be fucking scary as a devil queen fresh from hell when she wanted to be.
Right then was exactly one of those times. Her hair whipping as she stalked and cornered him reminded him of Medusa at the height of her fury. Her words were hissed and her fingers flexing, like claws waiting to sink into flesh, to match.
"Do you hear what you're saying, Arthur? Utter bollocks, that's what. You're talking about a revolution."
"You're acting like Uther owns the fucking world or something!"
"Of course he does! Have you discussed your situation with any of his other employees recently? Arthur, he owns you. And he always will. This is where you belong. Where you were born to be. Right here."
Under Uther's thumb. Regretting every decision he had ever made. Wishing his mother were here to guide him. Second guessing every thought in his head. Doubting his own family. Disgusted with the face that had been reflected back at him when Merlin had looked at him so trustingly for all those perfect weeks. Empty whenever he glanced out of his window and was reminded of his crucial part in destroying Camelot.
'Where was 'here' anyway?'
"Well maybe I don't want to be 'here' any more!" He finally screamed all the pent up rage and anger that had been building inside of him since Merlin's dismissal. His lungs heaved and his stomach ached like he was going to vomit. Like rebelling against the ideals that had been rooted inside him since childhood was making him physically ill.
He glared down at the laptop sitting idly on his bed, a guiltless piece of technology that had been turned into something twisted and horrible and selfish.
"Get out," he murmured, only just audible over his own panting.
"Get out, Morgana," he said more firmly, the line of his mouth grim and determined.
"When did you grow a pair?" She harrumphed – and it might have been his imagination but he thought he saw some flicker of pride twitching at the corner of her lips – before sliding out of the room. It had been too easy. He should have been suspicious that she would return with fifty henchmen, but instead he trusted his gut, swirling anxiously and threatening expulsion about what he was about to do though it was, and turned to the computer.
His fingers stretched sluggishly over the keyboard, extra seconds he used to contemplate his decision.
Uther wouldn't forgive him for this. He was effectively outlawing himself from everything he had ever know, and for what? Morality? Probably not, but putting the real answer into words – even silent ones – was out of the question. That would make it real.
He would be on the run. He didn't know if his father's patience extended to ignoring his existence or whether he would send someone for him. Whether Uther would be placated that Arthur was poor and alone, left to fend for himself or whether he would be bloodthirsty for revenge over such a treachery, by his own legacy as well. It would make his father look weak and out of control, which in turn would place Arthur in danger.
Either way Arthur would have to accept the consequences.
But did all of that topple the scales enough to make ignoring what was right, what was just, possible?
No, he would end this.
And then he would grovel to Merlin and pray he wasn't swatted from existence by his magic. Merlin was forgiving and merciful in both identities. He was goodness epitomised.
When the lights in the street flickered back on minutes later, dull against the first stains of the morning sunrise, Arthur knew there was no going back.
Dawn was still breaking when Arthur finally mustered up the courage to go after Merlin. It dyed the sky like the last wisps of a horrifying nightmare being washed away by purity and fire. He squeezed through the window and wasn't at all surprised to find Merlin on the sofa, staring at nothing with eyes dead and cheeks smudged.
Merlin didn't need to turn to know he was there, the unprotesting sound that fell from his lips – still tinted from their kisses so long ago – was suffering and reigned, like he had never expected Arthur to follow an order.
He dropped the laptop beside Merlin's thigh on the cushions. It bounced once, offended by such treatment, and then was still. Merlin shoved it away as if burned.
"No," Arthur shook his head when Merlin tried to shove the offensive technology back at him. "You keep it." Merlin cocked his head, eyes hard. "You can't trust me. Keep it. So you'll know I can't turn them on again. The bugs won't work without it."
"We're still removing the bugs. I don't believe much of what you say any more."
"Of course. Anything you say." He hesitated, not sure how far he could push his luck. "Can't you just do it from here?" he asked, slowly.
"It isn't like saving a prat's body from being pulverised when he falls out of a window." Merlin whispered, a former fondness making his words chill. "This is precision work. Think needle eye in a haystack the size of the city."
"So. What next?"
"I'm not forgiving you. And I'm definitely not kissing you."
"Well, that depends."
"How much good you’ve done to counter all of your...lapses in judgement. And how many dinners you’ve bought me," Merlin replied, irises iridescent and golden like Elysian fields, luminous under a high summer noon.
The laptop started to smoke.