There are few things more mundane, dull, or bleak than early mornings in November, at least in the Northern hemisphere. The wind is always whining through the night, and before the shrill sound of alarm announces the arrival of a new morning in lieu of the absent sun, the thought creeps into one’s consciousness that it’s already raining and the day is shot before it has begun. Bright seasonal displays promising hot chocolate are powerless, even in numbers, and the tender smell of cinnamon from the French bakery down the street is the last thread of hope in a world revolving in shades of grey and brown.
Nothing exciting happens on November mornings, and this one isn’t much different in the city of Camelot, population just over one million, weather report stuck on abysmal.
In a little while, however, certain events will come to pass here that will in all likelihood break the pattern. They will include, among others, a man being murdered, a young woman asking a friend for a favour, a journalist tripping into the scoop of the century, and magic being reintroduced to the history books – or, better yet, the top-ten blogs.
On a lesser scale, the events will also result in two unlikely people meeting and falling in love, but that is hardly noteworthy.
There are curses and then there are curses, Arthur thinks, and being dragged out of bed at five in the morning because someone found a dead body definitely falls into the second cluster.
It’s one of those mornings when the entire world riles up against you. His car, a gorgeous, wild beast of a BMW X5 that is, according to Leon, more his partner than his actual partner, and the only luxury Arthur allowed himself after coming back from Afghanistan, is still in the shop after a run-in with some Sicilians two weeks back. It’s a flashy car for a copper, but Arthur loves it something fierce, and depending on public transportation or people being good Samaritans puts a dumper on things.
Leon does show up to give him a lift to the scene, but he doesn’t bring coffee, and while the Army might have left Arthur with a lingering ability to make himself battle-ready in under forty-five seconds, but it didn’t magically turn him into a morning person.
Outside, it’s the crack of dawn, but one wouldn’t know it for the murky soup of fog and monotonously grey sky. Camelot looks grim and colourless, a thick patina of autumn-dull covering the streets, gaping holes in the thin wet blanket.
When they arrive at the scene, it begins to drizzle. Arthur pulls his leather jacket tighter around himself and wonders silently for the thousandth time why he’d ever thought coming back to his hometown was a great idea.
“Morning, sir.” Owain pulls up the annoyingly bright yellow tape so that Arthur could pass. He corrects himself at Arthur’s reproachful look. “Arthur.”
“What have we got?” Arthur asks, taking in the tableau in front of him.
They’re in the middle of the East Village, a dormitory town with its myriad of narrow streets and two-story houses where nothing has ever happened, at least not on Arthur’s watch. The tape secures the area around a small bakery shop, a cheesy sign above proclaiming it to be Johnny’s Bright Morning Bakery. Arthur has to suppress a rather inappropriate snort at that, spotting the body sprawled awkwardly across the entrance, feet hanging over the steps.
The image is so grimly pathetic, with its sense of dark mockery, that Arthur grits his teeth and wills his hands not to curl into fists. This is why he hates crime scenes. Later, when the evidence is collected and the witnesses have been questioned, is when his real work starts – piecing the clues together and chasing after the bad guys. Then he can do something – if not to make it right, then at least to bring justice.
At the scene, he feels superfluous and helpless. He’d sworn to protect these people, and dead bodies mean he’s not doing his job.
Leon calls him an ego maniac, and deep down Arthur knows he has a point. In a city with the population of over one million people, it’s the height of arrogance to believe that any one man could be personally responsible for everyone’s safety. But Arthur is hard-wired that way. Annis says he might grow out of it eventually when he stops being ‘such a damn puppy,’ but Arthur has his doubts.
“The victim’s name is – er, was John Bates,” Owain says, pulling himself almost to parade rest. He’s one of the best rookies they’ve got this year, though, so Arthur valiantly resists the urge to roll his eyes. “He was 48, Camelot-born-and-bred. He’d been the owner of this bakery for twenty-two years.”
Arthur can’t see anything of the man but his well-worn house shoes and mismatched socks. Lance is still conducting his examination on the other side of the threshold, and one of the CSI workers is still circling the body, heavy camera in hand. The flashes are annoying.
“His sister Mary Bates came by between three and four in the morning; she can’t be more precise. She’s the one who found him.”
Arthur lifts his eyebrows. “What was she doing here so early?”
Owain glances into his notepad – a reflexive gesture, as he clearly doesn’t need help remembering. “She owns a cafe on campus. Apparently, she comes in every morning to pick up the pastries for it.”
Arthur shakes his head. “Campus is across the city from here. Brother or not, sounds damn inconvenient.”
Owain looks uncomfortable. “This bakery has something of a reputation. The pastries are to die for, apparently.”
“Did she see anything?”
“She saw two men leaving. They obviously weren’t expecting her to show up; weren’t in a hurry until they saw her. She only caught a good look of one of their faces, but I’m not sure how good her description will be. She’s... pretty upset.”
Arthur cringes at the understatement. He can hear the woman now, somewhere inside the shop, weeping loudly with desperation of a mortally-wounded animal.
“Was he married?” Arthur asks suddenly. “Kids?”
“Nope.” Owain shakes his head. “Neither is she, no other family. And there was no money stolen, the place is mostly intact. It wasn’t a robbery.”
Somehow, Arthur already knows this. There’s a certain rotten aftertaste in the air that he can almost feel. Another inexplicable death of an ordinary citizen. He suppresses a sigh. Lately, there’s been one too many.
“Thanks, Owain,” he says out loud. “I’ll take it from here. Go talk to the neighbours, since they insist on being present for the show,” he says, frowning at the spectators gathered behind the yellow tape. “Find out if anyone saw or heard anything.”
“Yes, sir.” Owain all but snaps to attention. “Erm, Arthur.”
Arthur does roll his eyes this time before turning to walk inside the bakery, stepping carefully over the dead body.
Lance doesn’t even look up as Arthur’s shadow blocks his light. “You’ll have my report when I get him on my table.”
“Good morning to you, too,” Arthur says dryly. “And I happen to know that it’s within your power to confirm the time of death for me now, Doctor. Don’t worry; I won’t hold you to seconds.”
Lance does glance up then, a slight frown wedged between his elegant eyebrows. In the bleak grey light, his pale skin and eerily perfect features, offset by dark hair, make him look like a vampire with a tragic love story that ended in blood and tears trailing after him through the centuries. Or maybe it’s him being around dead bodies so much that gives Arthur ideas.
“He was murdered at some point between three and four in the morning,” Lance reports in his calm, measured voice, his blue-gloved hands steady as he packs away his paraphernalia.
“Murdered? You certain?”
Lance stands up to look Arthur straight in the eye. “This man’s death was violent, if quick, and it was no accident. His neck was broken – by an expert.”
Arthur nods, letting him pass.
Lance is normally harder to rattle than any other forensic pathologist Arthur has worked with during his so far short but eventful career with the Force. This string of inexplicable, senseless deaths they’ve been dealing with lately must be getting to him, too.
Arthur walks further into the shop, to the back rooms where Leon’s quiet, soothing tone can be heard in between sobs. The sweet smell of fresh pastry assaults Arthur’s nostrils, making his stomach clench and his eyes dart, rather inappropriately, toward the big copper-plated oven. Arthur swallows and wills the impulse away. Freshly baked bread has always been his one absolute weakness.
The victim’s sister is a plump woman in her mid-forties, with black hair, dishevelled from where she’s been pulling at it, and a face that’s gone red and blotchy with tears. She looks up at Arthur, hiccupping – and it’s the feeling of being shot all over again, only this time it’s his heart, not his shoulder.
She doesn’t give him a lot to work with while answering his questions. Her reactions to them tell Arthur much more – the shocked dismay; the earnestness; the look of bafflement and betrayal at having her life gone to pieces out of the clear blue sky.
They’ll run a background check, but Arthur knows the score already. John Bates was universally loved by his neighbours, customers, and sister, wasn’t a gambler, had no connections to any gangs, and owned absolutely nothing which would warrant such an abrupt and cruel demise. The case will be added to Arthur’s folder of unsolved crimes, which used to be blessedly empty but has been steadily gaining weight through the last couple of months.
And he’s back to feeling sick and disgusted at being useless.
He steps outside, and Leon follows, bumping his shoulder into Arthur’s. “We might get lucky this time; you never know.”
Arthur grinds his teeth in frustration – police work shouldn’t depend on bloody luck, that’s for amateurs. He opens his mouth to say as much when he spots an uncommon movement along the police line. His eyes narrow.
“Well, if we aren’t, someone else might,” he grits out. “Looks like we’re in for another editorial about how fucking useless the lot of us are.”
Leon frowns, following his gaze to where Gwaine is steadily working the line, his face a mixture of sympathy and charm as he talks to the bystanders.
“I swear if I ever find out who tips him off, the son of a bitch will be directing traffic for the rest of his life,” Leon promises grimly. “Do you want me to remove him?”
Tempting as the idea is, Arthur shakes his head. “No, let him be. For now.”
There are times when people are much more open with a journalist than they are with the police. And Gwaine, though being a prick of massive proportions, would come to Arthur if anything noteworthy turned up. Not before he turned it into another crushing article about ‘the wonder boy of the Camelot police force making a fool of himself,’ but still.
As though sensing his gaze, Gwaine turns, flipping his ridiculous hair – showy bastard – and sends Arthur a blinding grin and a mocking salute. Arthur scowls.
“You know,” Leon says slowly, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think that all that shite he pours over you in his articles is elaborate foreplay.”
Arthur sputters and glares at him. “Don’t quit your day job, mate. Your jokes are terrible.”
Leon smirks. “Wasn’t joking.”
He claps Arthur on the shoulder and walks off to collect the team.
A particularly precise droplet bypasses the protection of Arthur’s collar to land on the back of his neck and slithers down, ice cold against his spine. Arthur swears under his breath.
He hates November.
Despite Gwaine’s occasional less-than-subtle jibes, the story of how Arthur Pendragon became a Detective Inspector working Serious Crimes at twenty-five is a lot less mysterious than people tend to think.
Some said it was in his blood. After all, before becoming Mayor Pendragon, his father had been Police Chief Pendragon for almost a decade, and he’d served on the Force before that for about as much. Arthur had grown up treated like a prince by everyone outside his immediate household, while, inside it, he mostly felt like the single child of a Captain von Trapp who’d never met his Fraulein Maria. Well, Morgana was there, too, but she ran away so often that it didn’t really make a difference.
It wasn’t in his blood, Arthur decided. The moment he turned eighteen, he marched straight up to the conscription office and enlisted in Her Majesty’s army so fast his father hadn’t had time to either bribe or threaten the recruiters. In retrospect, it wasn’t unlike seeking political asylum.
Having breezed through basic training, Arthur was shipped over to Afghanistan within a month. He lacked the education necessary for the command track, but after the third time he’d done something outrageously heroic that he didn’t like to talk about, he got a field promotion to lieutenant that was later confirmed to remain in effect.
When his eighteen-month contract was up, Arthur signed up for another, declining the offer to be shipped back home to think about it. He wasn’t particularly bloodthirsty, but the army gave him a place to call his own for the first time in his life, and he couldn’t seriously contemplate any other options. He had no taste for business; no passion for science. Here, at least, he could be useful for as long as his country needed him, not to mention far, far away from Uther’s influence.
He would have likely kept it on indefinitely, but then the war had come to his hometown, in a manner of speaking. Shortly after the explosions in London, the ancient walls of Camelot had shuddered with the echo. There was only one bomb this time, and it was in the mayor’s office.
Uther survived, against all odds. He’d spent five months in a coma before suddenly waking up – except not really. His state was almost completely catatonic, and they were forced to take him to a special and very high-end establishment where he could be surrounded by 24-hour professional care.
Arthur had only just returned from a mission, his mouth still full of dust and his body shaking with exhaustion, when he caught the news on the crappy telly in the barracks.
“Hey, Arthur, isn’t that your dad?” someone had asked, more impressed that someone connected to Arthur was on the telly than anything else.
Arthur had two weeks left of his second contract, and he didn’t sign up for more. Instead, he packed his bags and did something he’d sworn he’d never do – went back to the city he thought he’d left behind.
Then he’d surprised himself again and joined the Met, simultaneously enrolling in several university courses. By the time he was twenty-five, he had a degree and what looked suspiciously like a career.
A year into his current position and four years since his return, he was no closer to solving his father’s case, but his success rate otherwise was impressive. What was more, he was beginning to feel at home in his own skin. His life was finally making sense to him in every aspect, and Arthur quite liked the feeling.
But he didn’t like when people called him a wunderkind. It’s not that he wasn’t a talented investigator – to a point that surprised even himself, Arthur was smart, decisive, brutally logical, and a born strategist, and if he missed minor details sometimes, his systematic approach more than compensated for it. All those qualities would have undoubtedly helped him up the career ladder, but they weren’t the reason for quite so rapid a leap. That reason was somewhat more peculiar.
People in line for his particular chair kept dying – a car accident, an arrest gone wrong, a sudden illness. Arthur could see how the rumours would spread, especially in Camelot, which once used to be the biggest stronghold of magic in the country.
But magic didn’t really exist any longer, not since the last Great Purge three hundred years ago. As historical irony would have it, the tyrant monarch who ordered mass executions of anyone remotely capable of sorcery had been executed himself some five years later. The laws were changed, and magic was no longer illegal, but it seemed that the eradication of genetic material had finally produced the desired effect: eliminating the ‘magic gene.’
Of course, some people still had magic, but it was barely more than parlour tricks. Most of the so-called great mages, whose schools of sorcery demanded expensive fees, were charlatans with no magical gifts at all. Arthur had put enough of them behind bars to know that firsthand.
From a powerful instrument – or weapon – magic became a curious quirk, a peculiarity of character. There was certainly no one left who could create an elaborate curse that would doom whoever took Arthur’s current job. It was the kind of story the public loved to hear, but it was rather far from reality.
Besides, Arthur has been the DI for little over a year now, and nothing has happened to him yet.
Gwaine loved telling stories, especially at a pub with a few pints in him. He also tended to invent pieces that weren’t there to fill the blanks, but that was par for the course – he was a journalist, after all. Arthur’s life, he claimed, was boring as a preacher’s undergarments.
Arthur’s obvious distaste at the metaphor only served to make Gwaine repeat it as loudly and as often as possible, and he did so again, upon stumbling over Arthur still in his office late at night, staring unseeingly at a stack of cold cases he’d been going through. Arthur blinked at him owlishly, and Gwaine tsk’ed.
“You need a new hobby,” he’d said, dragging Arthur out to a pub. “When was the last time you got laid?”
Arthur frowned, thinking about it. He’d used to like clubbing, but having a fake ID at fifteen meant that he was pretty tired of the scene by twenty-two, although his tour of duty might have had something to do with it as well. There were men who, upon their return from active duty, jumped from one bed to another, fucking everything that moved – fear, PTSD, reintegration issues. Arthur had never been one of them.
There was Ewan, a law student who’d shared a few of Arthur’s classes at uni. They’d had a satisfying sexual relationship for about a semester. Then Ewan transferred to London, and that was the end of it.
Morgana introduced him to someone occasionally, but Arthur didn’t have time (or patience) for the whole wining and dining shtick, and surprisingly few guys were satisfied with being his one-night stands. They called, asked him out – some went as far as sending him stuff. Arthur didn’t get it – he was a good lay, he knew, but he was always crystal clear about his intentions. He offered casual; he didn’t have time for home-cooked meals and mini-break weekends. It wasn’t him.
In the end, most of the time it felt easier to go without than having to deal with another clingy boyfriend wannabe.
“You’re a sad, sad bastard, Pendragon.” Gwaine had shook his head. “Don’t you have any friends?”
“I have friends,” Arthur had replied gloomily. He did, didn’t he?
“Your squad doesn’t count. They’re contractually obligated to like you.”
There’s always you, Arthur had thought, but didn’t say, because a) Gwaine had a big enough head as it was, and b) the very thought was making Arthur want to pull his gun and shoot himself in the head.
Besides, it wasn’t as though Gwaine didn’t know, anyway.
Arthur was getting supremely tired of the conversation. He’d taken to avoiding Morgana, who told him the last time she saw him, ‘You’re twenty-six, for God’s sake. You’re too young to be lonely.’
Arthur was pretty sure the lot of them had too much spare time on their hands.
He had his job.
He wasn’t lonely.
Arthur glances around the room. “So basically, we have nothing.”
Gwen shifts from foot to foot, tugging at the sleeve of her pristine white lab coat nervously. “The crime scene was squeaky clean, Arthur. Not a fingerprint, not a hair – nothing. And Lance couldn’t find anything on the body.”
“Anything on the motive?”
Owain shakes his head. “He didn’t have so much as a parking ticket. His neighbours say he never quarrelled with anyone.”
“We still have a witness.” Leon steps forward. “And this.”
He hands Arthur a printout with a facial composite. Arthur peers at it in gloomy disbelief.
“We can’t distribute this.”
“Because he looks too much like you?” Percy pipes up.
“Because he looks like a ninja turtle,” Arthur snaps. “Seriously, Leon; we paid a shitload of money to upgrade that software. This is the best we can do?”
“Afraid so.” Leon takes the image back, turning his head to examine it from various angles. “You know, if you squint and tilt your head just so, this almost looks like a person.”
Arthur stares at him in a way that hopefully conveys his serious consideration about replacing Leon with a Labrador retriever.
“Anyone else?” he asks, because if they have nothing, he’ll have to send them back to the trenches, and when that proves to be about as fruitful, the case will be considered cold and will be moved to a dangerously growing pile in Arthur’s cabinet. He hates that cabinet.
“As a matter of fact, I have something,” a voice declares from the doorway; everyone groans.
Gwaine beams at them.
Arthur presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “You realise you don’t actually work here, right? Or – scratch that. Who the hell keeps letting you in?”
“I’m charming and resourceful.” Gwaine smirks, stepping all the way in. “More importantly, I like to share with the class,” he says and deposits a loaf of freshly baked bread on Arthur’s desk.
“I know I’m going to regret asking this,” Arthur says, “but what is that?”
“A possibly motive.”
Arthur stares at him. “God, would you just spit it out?”
“Fine, you ungrateful bastard. This is John Bates’s bread. Try it.”
“Try it. Come on, Arthur; it’s not going to bite you.”
Rolling his eyes, but knowing from experience that the fastest way to get rid of Gwaine is to give him what he wants, Arthur breaks the loaf and tears off a small piece. It smells delicious, he’ll give Gwaine that, and as he puts it in his mouth, he has to admit that it tastes wonderful, too.
“Okay, so he makes nice bread,” Arthur says, taking another bite. “So what?”
“When do you think this one was baked?” Gwaine asks, a mischievous glint in his eye.
Arthur stops chewing, his fingers kneading the warm softness under the beautifully tanned crust.
“What the hell?” he says slowly. “Why is it warm? Has someone been using the bakery since we left? It’s still a bloody crime scene!”
Gwaine lifts his hands in a placating gesture. “Such a drama queen, Arthur, honestly. No one’s disturbed your precious crime scene, for all the good it’ll do you. Mrs Reynolds next door gave me that bread.”
“The old lady with lilac hair?”
“The very same. Guess when she bought that loaf, Arthur.” He pauses. “Sunday.”
Arthur blinks. “But today’s Tuesday. You can’t tell me—”
“Mr Bates’s bread,” Gwaine says triumphantly, “never goes stale. It’s printed on the paper bags, if you’d have cared to look at them.”
Arthur had looked at them. He just hadn’t thought it was anything but advertising.
Percy moves forward to tear himself a piece as well, and Gwen pokes at the crust delicately with her finger.
“Okay, fine,” Arthur says, irritated. The bread had felt heavenly in his mouth, and he’s fighting the urge to swat the prying hands away and grab the rest of it. “Bates had a minor magical ability. It’s not exactly a breakthrough.”
Gwaine shrugs. “Just thought I’d let you know. Concerned citizen and all that.”
“Thank you so much for fulfilling your civic duty,” Arthur tells him dryly. “Now be so kind as to get the hell out of my office.”
Gwaine leaves with a mock bow, and Arthur shoos the rest of them off, too. To his utter annoyance, Percy takes the rest of the bread with him, leaving Arthur to stare at the inadequate ninja turtle sketch in frustration.
He looks up to find Gwen still hovering by his desk. “What is it, Guinevere?”
“We can try to do better than this,” she says, pointing at the picture. “A friend of mine is kind of an artist. Well, he is an artist, that is to say, but he’s still a student, so—” She bites her lip. “Anyway, it’s not important. What is important that he has occasionally made sketches for us when I worked with Cenred.”
Arthur lifts his eyebrows. “We posted the ‘sketch artist wanted’ ad like a dozen times. Nobody wants the job.”
“Yes, but like I said, I know this bloke. He doesn’t want to come in on a regular basis, but he’ll do me a favour.”
Arthur considers this. It’s a well-known fact that no software, no matter how sophisticated, can compare to a human hand when it comes to facial recognition. He looks up at Gwen.
“Is he good?”
She seems strangely hesitant. “The thing is, Arthur... He’s done work for us a few times, and the thing is...” She takes a deep breath, then blurts out, “Whenever he does a sketch, they always find the guy. Always.”
Arthur stares at her for a moment, then grins. “Really, Guinevere. Wouldn’t have taken you for the superstitious kind.”
Gwen shrugs, her lips pursed unhappily. “Call it superstition, call it coincidence, whatever you want. But you can check his track record – they find the guy within a week every time.” Her frown deepens at the sight of Arthur’s continuous mirth. “He can do better than a ninja turtle, in any case.”
Arthur snorts. “Fine; bring him in. I’ll ask Leon to arrange for our witness to meet him.”
Gwen beams at him. “You won’t regret it!”
Arthur shakes his head after her. He’s grasping at straws, if he’s honest, but there’s no need to tell Gwen that.
Merlin’s morning doesn’t get off to a good start. His sleep is broken by the intrusive, vaguely metallic wail of an ancient alarm clock that was probably forgotten around the flat by its original owner some two hundred years ago. Coordination isn’t Merlin’s best suit, and he spends a few agonising moments trying to shut the infernal contraption down.
The alarm in his mobile is more decent, despite the fact that Merlin got the phone third-hand, but that’s the problem with it – most days Merlin is so exhausted that he sleeps right through it, waking up two hours late with no recollection of hitting the snooze button.
His efforts finally succeed, and the sudden silence is almost as deafening. Slowly, the sounds from outside start to seep in: dogs barking, the ever-loud shouting of Mr and Mrs Something or Other one floor up, the low hum of traffic, and – yes, the bloody rain. Merlin lies there for a moment just listening, but it’s a trap, his eyes already starting to close, and if he lets them, it’s game over.
He’s buried under a pyramid that consists of two threadbare blankets, one quilt, an old woollen sweater torn in half to create some kind of spread, and a revolting purple faux fur coat someone had forgotten at the club a lifetime ago and never came back for. Nobody wanted it, so Merlin volunteered to find it a new home, and it served its purpose – it’s November, and it’s bloody cold already, but Merlin can barely afford to pay for electricity. Heating is a luxury he has to do without for the time being.
He groans as he kicks off the covers – brutal, but it’s either this or stay in bed for the rest of the day, and he certainly can’t afford that. He slips to his feet, wincing. The hardwood floor feels like the surface of a glacier even through his socks, and Merlin starts shivering before he’s even out of the room.
He glances habitually at the couch in the hall, but of course it’s empty, as is the other bedroom. Merlin had had a roommate when he’d first moved in – some bloke called Edward or Edwin, a blurry image in his head of dirty blond hair and odd stares. Merlin doesn’t really remember; that was freshman year, and he hadn’t surfaced much for the whole of it, nailed down by the ever-mounting coursework and the three jobs he’d had to get to keep himself alive.
It was only last August that Merlin managed to get a job waiting tables at The Eclipse. The skin-tight uniform was ridiculous, and the attention of the patrons unpleasant, but the hourly rate, combined with the tips, allowed him to keep one job instead of three and finally be able to breathe above the water.
By that time, though, Edmond had disappeared without a trace, as had Gilford or Gilli and someone else whose name didn’t make it to Merlin’s long-term memory. He couldn’t afford the flat on his own and had lived for a few weeks in constant fear of being kicked out. But someone had managed to tie in the missing roommates into some kind of conspiracy theory and splashed it all over the rent-a-flat websites, and the landlord had faced an interesting kind of dilemma: either let Merlin live there for only half the price or have no income from it at all. Merlin knows he’s supposed to feel guilty about it, but in truth, he’s been too relieved and too tired to care.
He hops into the bathroom, greeted as always by cracked tiles on the floor, a single, vaguely greenish bulb hanging from the ceiling along with peeling paint, and today – joy – a thin layer of ice framing the mirror that used to be a perfect square once but hasn’t resembled any figure known to traditional geometry in years.
Merlin’s teeth are chattering, and every motion of the toothbrush is painful. He uses the tepid water from the kettle to rinse and braces himself for the scalding-cold water from the tap before washing his face, amazed that the pipes haven’t frozen solid. He can’t feel his fingers anymore, really, but he’s awake, so that’s something.
He looks at the shower stall, and his body shrinks from the very idea; Merlin can literally feel the cells crawling in on themselves. He shrugs and tries to take a deeper breath. He’ll shower at the club tonight, as he has for the last month and a half.
The kitchen isn’t much better, gloomy and severely disapproving, as though trying to guilt Merlin into remembering that food is supposed to live here. Merlin hasn’t been able to do the grocery shopping in weeks, and he ate the last of his more substantial supplies a few days ago. He should still have tea, though. He opens the box to discover the last two teabags looking like little orphans huddling together for warmth.
“For fuck’s sake,” Merlin mutters, separating the two. “Stop whining, you’ll be together in the afterlife.”
He drinks his tea scalding hot in lieu of breakfast, refilling the mug with more boiling water halfway through. His stomach stopped being tricked into not feeling hungry by that kind of subterfuge a long time ago, but at least he’s warmer now, and his nails are only faintly purple instead of ice blue.
Half-full mug still in hand, he trots back into the bedroom and wakes his laptop to check the calculations Kilgharrah had made through the night. His heart does a little somersault the way it always does when he gets to work on his pet project, anticipating results. Almost immediately, though, Merlin frowns at the progress bar. There’s barely been any movement in several hours.
It’s not catastrophic, but not especially good news, either. After the last upgrade, Merlin really thought Kilgharrah would be able to make it through all the way, but it looks as though he still requires another boost of capacity. There’s nothing Merlin can do until he buys another processor. He’ll be paid on Friday, so maybe then—
His stomach growls. Merlin’s frown deepens as he fishes for his trousers and shimmies out of the old sweater he wears to bed to change it for one of the two jumpers he owns that are still halfway presentable. He sniffs at them, not feeling much of anything, but that’s no proof either way. Laundry this week, definitely.
He’ll have to buy some groceries, too. Even instant noodles sound delicious right about now, and beans would be heavenly. It’s unlikely he’d have enough for a new processor anyway, not for the custom-made kind he needs, but maybe if he’s smart about his food choices and makes it last until the paycheck after next...
His gaze falls on the time in the corner of the screen, and Merlin curses loudly. Ancient alarm clocks be damned; he’s twenty minutes late.
It’s a mad rush from this moment on, but that’s nothing new. Shutting Kilgharrah down and shoving his notebook into his bag, followed by his sketchpad, Merlin runs for the door.
He hurriedly tugs on his coat, a size too big and secondhand but not all that bad looking. It sort of matches the once-teal scarf that his mother made for his sixteenth birthday and which has stretched far beyond the original design since, though it’s still the warmest thing Merlin owns.
It doesn’t matter. He spends most of the time running when he’s outside, anyway.
He flies down the stairs at an alarming speed, barely pausing to apologise for startling one of the neighbours he never really gets to meet, and then he’s out on the street, diving into the slimy coolness of the November mist.
“No,” Merlin mutters at the sight of a bus pulling away from the stop, voice rising. “No, no, no, no, no, wait!”
He sprints forward in pursuit that looks completely hopeless for a few moments. Then the bus emits a sound like a long-suffering sigh and, defying its own schedule and strict instructions, stops. The middle door opens with almost human reluctance, and Merlin picks up his pace even more, throwing himself inside the bus as it starts to move again.
He straightens up, grabbing the railing, and looks around. He’s met with a few impatient glances, as well as a few indulgent ones. A solemn-looking gentleman two rows down hands a ten-pound note to a highly amused teenage girl with pink hair in the seat next to him. The girl gives Merlin a wink.
Smiling sheepishly, Merlin goes to find a seat of his own and spots one closer to the main cabin. In the rearview mirror, he catches Gaius giving him the almighty eyebrow of doom, to which Merlin makes an apologetic face and tries to mouth ‘thank you’ at the same time. Gaius rolls his eyes, returning his attention to the road.
It’s warm on the bus, and Merlin’s body begins to relax into it instinctively, but he blinks, hard, straightening. The warmth combined with steady motion is traitorous, too, and has been known to lull him to sleep upon occasion, which was how he met Gaius in the first place.
Merlin gets out one stop early, not out of embarrassment - he waits tables six nights a week in a pair of pleather leggings and a golden net for a t-shirt, for goodness’s sake, he’s so past that – but by the lure of potential caffeine.
When Merlin had first come to Camelot, he’d had a string of one-time jobs that had allowed him to stay afloat and pay for his books. One of them had involved painting the walls of an old coffeeshop on the outskirts of campus. To this day, Merlin doesn’t quite know what had possessed him – his usual inability to control his hands when there was a brush in them or some kind of inner force at work. Instead of covering the walls with an even layer of friendly beige paint, he’d transformed the space, painting apple trees upside down with fauns and maenads playing tag between them and dancing all across the ceiling.
When he’d finally stopped to see what he’d done, Merlin had been horrified. He’d scrambled to paint over the fantasy chaos, but none of it was left. Nervous and apologetic, he’d gone to tell the owner, a severe lady his mother’s age who’d looked like she was not be messed with.
To Merlin’s surprise, Mary had loved it. She’d nearly smothered him in a hug once she’d taken it all in, startled to find out Merlin wasn’t an art student. Mary’s appreciation had been so deep that, ever since then, Merlin would get a free coffee whenever he stopped by.
Normally, he doesn’t like to abuse it – he was paid for the job, after all – but on days like this, ten pounds’ worth of sweet, foamy, caffeinated wonder is too much to resist, so he hops off the bus one stop early, even if it means he’ll be most likely late for his lecture.
When he rounds the corner, however, Mary’s Garden greets him with dark windows and Elena, who’s turning the sign on the door to ‘We’re closed.’
Disappointed and worried – the Garden’s never closed, not even on holidays – Merlin jogs toward it.
She turns around, her messy blond hair swivelling back from under the beanie she wears. “Oh, hi, Merlin. Sorry, apparently we’re closed today.”
“Why? What happened?”
She shrugs, her expression concerned. “Don’t know. Mary called earlier; didn’t sound quite right.”
“You think she’s sick or something?”
Elena shrugs again. “Probably. Hey, I don’t think she’d mind if I opened up to make you a cup of coffee real quick.”
“Oh – no.” Merlin shakes his head. “No, it’s all right. I’m actually late for class, but you know me – can’t live without a caffeine hit.”
She winces sympathetically. “Tell me about it; I’ve been up all night studying for the damn geopolitics test.” Elena bites her lip and glances up and down the street, as though checking nobody’s watching. “I think I’ll have to pop into Starbucks.”
“Ellie.” Merlin makes big eyes and imitates being stabbed through the heart. “No.”
Elena looks suitably ashamed. “It’s Starbucks or death, Merlin. I’ve no choice.”
He grins. “Well, when you put it that way.”
Grinning back, Elena kisses him quickly on the cheek and takes off, tugging the sleeves of her sweater over her knuckles.
There’s nothing to it after that but beat it to class. The rain frisks him as he goes, and by the time Merlin makes it to the lecture hall he was supposed to be in twenty minutes ago, he’s soaked and exhausted and doesn’t have enough energy to even muster an apologetic glance at the professor.
He slips to the back as quietly as he can, only stumbling twice and knocking into someone with his bag once by accident. He sinks into a seat and tries to focus on the lecture, blinking water out of his eyes.
The tantalizing smell of chocolate drifts over from two rows down where a blond girl in a fluffy white sweater is cradling a steaming paper cup, inhaling blissfully. It must be the good chocolate from the Indian place two blocks down, rich in cocoa and spices.
Merlin tries not to sniff, but the scent is everywhere, teasing him beyond mercy. His stomach twists and shrinks, and his fingers tremble.
It’s going to be a long day.
When Merlin was seventeen, he’d told his mother he wanted to be an artist.
His mother had asked him if he was sure. Then she’d sat him down at the kitchen table, taken his hands in hers, and very calmly told him that she’d been let go by the hospital two months ago – coincidentally, also the last time they paid the rent. They weren’t on the street yet out of the kindness of Mr Kanen’s, the landlord, heart.
Merlin had been scared. They had never been rich, but this was a different thing entirely – this was shelters and soup kitchens.
He’d get a job, he said. He’d cut some classes and get a job, and he’d totally keep them afloat.
Hunith had said no – Merlin was so smart, so bright, he had a real chance of getting out of there and making a life for himself. It was Hunith’s duty as a parent to see that he could do it, and she was determined not to fail him.
It would be all right, she’d said. If Merlin would get a summer job, that was fine, but the rest of the time she wanted him concentrating on his studies. They’d make it – Mr Kanen was looking into a possibility of investing the last of Hunith’s savings for her. He was a smart man, Hunith trusted him, and it would all come through, Merlin would see.
The artist part, though – that was worrying. Of course, Hunith had said, she wanted nothing better but for her child to be whatever he wanted to be. But the thought of him choosing a profession where it was so hard to succeed, condemning himself for more struggling… The thought of it made her ill. Wouldn’t he consider some alternatives?
Merlin had thought about it. In the end, he’d decided that he was very good at maths, and liked computers almost as much, and he only did want to study art because something inexplicable happened to him every time he took a brush or a pencil in his hand, something he didn’t understand, a shift in consciousness that both excited and scared him. He wanted to find an explanation, but that could wait.
He’d do his best to get a scholarship for computer science, and who knew? He could totally be a graphic designer afterwards with a rainy-day option in his pocket. It was going to be brilliant. And he’d gotten a summer job every year since he’d turned fourteen, so that wasn’t a hardship.
Hunith had smiled and nodded, and the panic in her eyes had faded a little.
For a few weeks, they’d lived in some kind of limbo, feeding off each other’s encouraging smiles, exercising positive thinking.
Then, Hunith had stepped off the sidewalk at the wrong moment, and the next thing Merlin knew, people were asking him what arrangements he thought best for the funeral.
Kanen had come to see him the day after the service. So sorry, he’d said – the investment hadn’t come through. Out of respect for Hunith, he’d be willing to forgive the rest of what Merlin owed him... provided Merlin cleared off the premises within a week.
Merlin had had to sell every piece of furniture his family owned, as well as his mother’s clothes. Most of them had gone to his neighbours, and what Merlin remembered most of that day was the exceptionally sunny weather and their loud voices, excited and strangely gleeful, and a woman two sizes too big ripping Hunith’s favourite dress when she’d tried it on.
Merlin had been too numb to cry.
He’d moved to the nearest town, closer to his school. His room at the hostel had been a disaster zone with no heating, barely any light, and the clingy smell of fried fish embedded into the walls. The showers at the end of the hall hadn’t had any curtains, and no matter how late at night Merlin went, there had always been someone watching.
Most of the time, Merlin had been too tired to care. He’d gotten a job at a corner shop nearby – loading and unloading the goods, restocking the shelves, and cleaning up. The pay was shit, the hours were dreadful, and his back had ached nearly constantly from moving sacks of potatoes and beer crates, but it had been all he could get while still managing to go to school every day.
He’d done his homework after he came home, which had often meant staying awake till three or four in the morning, listening to the loud sex someone was having next door while trying to solve maths problems. He’d probably squeezed at least a couple of nights of sleep a week, but his acceptance to Camelot had been conditional, and, if he’d wanted to ever make it out of there, he’d had to ace his A-levels.
What few friends he’d had at school had drifted out of his orbit completely, and instead he’d gotten reprimanded by the Head Boy on a near-daily basis for being late to class or in the wrong class altogether, and the school nurse had practiced her interrogation techniques on him to find out if he was taking drugs. Even the bullies who had used to love tormenting him lost their interest, unable to get a rise out of him anymore.
Merlin had gritted his teeth and moved on.
He’d received his exams results and let out a cautious sigh of relief. A week later, a letter from Camelot University had arrived, granting him not only acceptance but a scholarship. Merlin would have to cover the textbooks, accommodations, and living expenses himself, but compared to the rest, it was nothing.
He’d cried then, for the first time since his mother’s funeral.
Camelot had been neither welcoming nor unwelcoming, and the ancient castle of the university perched on a rock in the middle of the city looked as though it couldn’t have cared less about every little newcomer who’d come to make his fortune. But there had been something liberating about that indifference, the absence of judgment or pressure.
True, Merlin’s flat was barely a step up from the shithole he had in Rhyl, and yes, he was still struggling. But he breathed easier now, and he occasionally remembered how to smile at people.
A year and a half ago, he couldn’t have imagined himself doing so well. He had been starting to believe he could make it.
By his third class of the day, Merlin is wondering if he can get any matches or toothpicks to put into his eyes to prevent them from closing. He’d only had four hours of sleep the night before, and today’s lectures have been especially mind-numbing. He’d finished the required code thirty minutes ago and had rewritten it since for pure aesthetics, bored out of his mind.
There are drawbacks to being the curve-setter, Merlin knows. He almost wishes he were a little slower and had to concentrate on the professor’s words.
He feels more than sees some kind of quiet disturbance among his classmates and lifts his head to look around.
There, in the doorway, stands Gwen, looking prettier than ever in a short leather skirt and tights; her coat is open to show a fluffy jumper she wears underneath, a Starfleet emblem on it.
Merlin grins; Gwen beams at him and waves him over.
Even as Merlin starts quietly collecting his things, his smile fades a little. Gwen only ever comes to him here for a job, and it’s not that Merlin doesn’t want to help. It’s just... there’s this thing that happens when he draws, especially with an intent to find someone. Merlin doesn’t know how to describe it, but it unnerves him, and he doesn’t have anyone to tell him it’s going to be all right now.
On the other hand, their arrangement works: Merlin draws whoever needs to be drawn, and Gwen takes him home and cooks for him. Merlin likes Gwen and Lance’s place almost as much as he likes Gwen and Lance, and he adores Gwen’s cooking.
With the kind of day he’s having, maybe Gwen was sent here by some higher power looking over him.
As usual, when Merlin tries to be stealthy, things go to hell at an alarming rate.
He’s managed to collect his things in almost perfect silence and creep most of the way toward the door when he trips over someone’s bag, hovers in midair for a bit, arms flailing and his bag flying, until the momentum carries him forward into the professor’s desk.
Merlin swallows in absolute silence and dares to look up. “Um.”
Professor Hora is peering at him through his spectacles, unimpressed, but perhaps just a little bit amused.
“Mr Emrys,” he sighs. “Please reassure me that you do not plan for a career in espionage or anything requiring a minimum of eye-hand coordination?”
The students chuckle behind him, and Merlin straightens up, grinning ruefully. “Er, no, sir.”
“How long did it take you to finish the code this time?”
Merlin looks down. “I’ve only just finished,” he tries.
Professor Hora is giving him the look, and Merlin sighs.
“Twenty-two minutes,” he mutters under his breath.
Professor Hora smirks. “Twenty-two minutes, eh?” he repeats, loud enough for the entire auditorium to hear. Someone groans, and there are a few muffled ‘Oh, come on’s. “We’ll have to find a way to challenge you.” Hora sighs and dismisses him. “Off you go then, if you’re in such a hurry.”
Merlin doesn’t wait to be asked twice.
Gwen is still giggling when he bursts into the corridor.
“Oi,” Merlin objects even as she hugs him. “That was your fault, you know.”
“It really wasn’t,” she says, her eyes laughing.
Merlin has discovered a long time ago that being mad at Gwen is impossible. He grins. “It’s good to see you.”
“You too; it’s been too long.” She looks him up and down and frowns minutely. “Merlin, are you—”
“So what’s the job, then?” Merlin asks quickly to stave off her questions. He knows how he looks. “Purse snatcher? Con man?”
“A murderer,” Gwen says softly.
“Yeah. God, I feel like such a shitty friend, only turning up when we need you.” She bites her lip in frustration.
“Pssh, don’t worry about it. I know you’re busy.” Merlin grins at her. “Only, I was wondering – can we stop for food before we get there? You know, switch it up a bit? I work tonight, and I didn’t have lunch, so—”
“Of course.” Gwen nods quickly. “I could use some food myself, and get something for Lance. Arthur’s been driving us pretty hard today. Not that he doesn’t work as much himself or doesn’t have a reason, it’s just—”
“Arthur – your new boss?”
“Yes.” Gwen takes him by the arm and begins to steer him down the corridor.
“So how is he?” Merlin asks, only mildly curious. “Better than Cenred?” Gwen snorts, continuing to guide them outside and into the street.
They stop at a tiny Mexican restaurant where Gwen gets them each a burrito and some tea. Merlin tries his best to focus on Gwen’s words, since the stories of her new boss seem to be truly entertaining, and it must be damn nice to work with a guy who has your back at all times. He tries not to inhale his food, but it’s beyond him, and Gwen stops her tale mid-word to order a meal to go for Lance and another burrito for Merlin.
Merlin flushes bright red, but it’s not in him to refuse. He’s weak, and the food is wonderful.
Gwen catches a taxi, easy as pie, and Merlin swears to himself that he’ll get there, too, get to a point where he can buy quality junk food and get a cab ride without thinking of either thing as a luxury.
He must have been silent too long, preoccupied with his cementing determination, because Gwen nudges his shoulder gently.
“Is everything all right?”
“What? Oh, yes.” Merlin nods vigorously. “Yes, everything’s fine. Perfect.”
Gwen looks like she might not believe him, but she’s too tactful to pry, so Merlin’s safe.
He drops his guard completely, and grins dopily, looking out the window.
Suddenly, everything is too bright and pretty and Merlin thinks he can see the sun through the thick layer of grey clouds.
Food coma, he realizes as though through a veil, his body shutting down, his reactions slowing. It’s warm in the cab, and the seats are soft and cushy; the burritos are a tacky, divine weight in his stomach, and the wonderfully strong tea is still melting on his tongue, leaving a citrus aftertaste. Merlin feels a bit like he’s flying.
The police station is well heated as well, and Merlin almost purrs. He knows he has to get himself under control before he talks to the witness, but he has a few more minutes, right? It just feels so good to be warm and not hungry at the same time; he’d almost forgotten.
Then Gwen tugs him toward the most gorgeous man Merlin has ever seen, which, as he’s acquainted with Gwen, Morgana, and Lancelot, is really saying something. Merlin’s grin broadens.
Gwen shoots him a bemused look. “Merlin, this is Detective Inspector Arthur Pendragon.”
Merlin takes in the head-spinning combination of bright blond hair, mouth-watering jaw line, luscious lips, and piercing blue eyes, and keeps beaming, offering his hand.
DI Pendragon glares at him, ignoring his hand. “Is this a joke?” he hisses at Gwen. “Is he high?” He turns to Merlin. “Are you high?”
Merlin frowns, his happy bubble dwindling. He lowers his hand. “No?”
Pendragon looks him up and down and cringes in disgust. “Gwen, you can’t possibly tell me that this – this bag of trash could be useful.”
Merlin feels his face heat up, his fists clench. “Wow, Gwen. You didn’t tell me your boss was such an arse.”
Pendragon’s eyes narrow. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me.”
“You might want to reconsider the way you’re addressing an officer of the law.”
“Not before he gives me any reason to.”
Pendragon’s lips purse into a thin white line. “Get out.”
“Fine. I didn’t want to be here in the first place.”
Merlin spins on his heel and is about to walk out, banging every door he encounters, when his eyes land on a woman in civilian clothes, crying in the corner.
Merlin stills. “Is that—”
“The witness, yes,” Gwen says. “Her brother was murdered this morning. Do you know her?”
Merlin nods, taking in Mary’s red eyes, her grief-stricken face, and feeling sick; his stomach, only just so happy, is twisting into knots. “Yeah – yeah, I do. Excuse me.”
He goes straight for Mary, ignoring the commotion that starts behind his back – he thinks DI Pendragon tries to stop him, and Gwen wouldn’t let him, but Merlin doesn’t care.
“Mary?” he calls softly, and she looks up.
Her eyes widen at a familiar face, and then she’s out of the chair and squeezing him in a desperate, grief-fuelled embrace.
“Oh, Merlin,” she sobs into his shoulder. “John’s dead, Merlin. My baby brother, my Johnny is dead. What am I going to do?”
Merlin wraps his arms around her and holds her tight. It’s the only thing he can think of doing.
They don’t find the guy in a week.
They find him in three days.
Arthur is the one to bring him in, along with his accomplice. The hotline lives up to its name the day after Emrys’s sketches are distributed, and the reports are surprisingly informative. All it takes afterwards is a clever stakeout, and Arthur is a master of those.
After the first break comes the second. Arthur sends in George to talk to the suspects, and after four hours with him, they’re almost begging Arthur to accept their confessions of killing not only John Bates, but Eleanor Gobstone as well. The police still aren’t clear on the motives, but Mary Bates picks them out of the line, and together with signed confessions, it’s a done deal.
The mood at the station is cheerful, but Arthur is strangely restless. He doesn’t need to see Gwen’s smug little smirk to remember Emrys’s involvement in all this. Maybe it is a coincidence. But there’s no denying that Arthur’s curiosity is piqued.
He goes as far as to discreetly go through Cenred’s reports in the general database. Emrys isn’t present anywhere on paper, but looking at various facial composites of suspects, Arthur can pick his work out easily. He’s only mildly surprised to discover that Gwen was right – Emrys is some kind of lucky charm. Every single one of the cases he’d been on had been solved.
Gwen is still cross with him, so Arthur stops by the shop that sells frankly indecent – in both price and flavour – Belgian chocolate before going to her lab.
She’s bent over her monster of a microscope, testing something that looks like demon blood, and Arthur wrinkles his nose pre-emptively, sliding the seductive golden box over to her. Gwen looks at it for several seconds in silence, fighting off the temptation. Then, with a long-suffering sigh, she gives in and pulls at the tease of a string.
“You have two minutes,” she says, eyes on the chocolates. “Go.”
“It’s about your friend the artist,” Arthur says, wincing as she swats his hand away from the sweets. “And before you say anything, I already told you I’m sorry. I was having a rough day. You have to admit that with the way he dresses, it wasn’t so far out of reach to assume—”
Gwen glares at him, and Arthur promptly shuts up, throwing his hands in the air.
“I come in peace, okay? I can’t seem to find his details anywhere, and we haven’t paid him.”
Gwen blinks, momentarily thrown off. “Oh. I don’t think I've ever taken down his details,” she says slowly. “Cenred said that since Merlin didn’t want to be listed officially as civilian help, we couldn’t actually pay him. I always took him to dinner afterwards...” She trails off, biting her lip in worry.
Arthur gives her a look. “Of course we can pay him; we should pay him. He’s much more useful than the guy tweaking the coffee machine twice a week, and we find a way to pay him.”
“Oh.” Gwen drops the chocolate, upset. “Oh, Arthur, I never thought – after Cenred said, I didn’t even look to find if we could – all this time, and it’s not like Merlin doesn’t need the money. Oh, God, I'm an awful person, I exploited him—”
“Guinevere.” Arthur lifts up a hand. “It’s all right; budgeting isn’t exactly your job. Just look up how many composites in total he made for us, and we’ll compensate him for them.”
“We will?” A hopeful smile blooms on Gwen’s face. “Oh, Arthur, that would be wonderful!”
“Which brings us back to the point,” Arthur reminds her gently, stepping back just in case. Gwen looks like she might hug him, and Arthur always feels extremely awkward at spontaneous displays of affection. “Can you give me his contact details so that I can track him down and let him know?”
“And apologise, right?” Gwen presses with a grin, because she’s evil.
“Right,” Arthur sighs, glancing away. That’s never happening.
“I can give you his mobile number,” she says, looking for a piece of paper to write on, “but I tried to call him yesterday, and it was out of service.”
Something in her tone tells Arthur it’s not that uncommon. “Any other means of contact?”
“No.” Gwen shakes her head, looking worried again. “I don’t actually know much about him.”
“How did you meet?”
“You know that vet shelter I volunteer at on weekends? Merlin brought in a stray someone had run over. He saw it happen. The dog, um. The dog didn’t make it.” Gwen glances away. “Merlin was very upset, and so was I, if I'm honest. I mean, seeing what I see here every day, you’d think I'd be immune to minor things like that, but—”
“Gwen,” Arthur pushes, sounding a bit pained.
“Right, sorry. Anyway, we started talking, and then he helped out at the shelter for a while until he found a second job.”
“All I actually know is that he’s a great guy,” Gwen says. “I know that he’s nineteen and in his second year at Camelot, but I don’t even know where he lives.”
“Right. Well, this should be enough to find him. Thanks, Gwen.”
“Tell him I'm sorry about – that I didn’t know—”
“Don’t worry; I will.”
Actually finding Emrys proves to be more difficult than Arthur had anticipated. His phone remains dead, which gives Arthur pause. At this day and age, no one stays disconnected willingly, particularly not someone who looks enough like a hobo to be a hipster.
Arthur had had maybe all of two minutes of direct contact with Emrys, but the impression had lasted, and as far as Arthur remembers, everything about the kid was annoying, from his battered Converse shoes to his would-be vintage clothes. Honestly, young people were the worst, wishing to fit in so badly that they hit the stereotype on the nail without trying. If Arthur had been asked to describe an average pretentious prick of an art student, Emrys would have fit perfectly.
But the guy has talent, loath as Arthur might be to admit it, and it’s worth exploring.
He sets off to campus, following the route he takes every time he goes to see Morgana in her natural habitat. The Art College is the kingdom of the pretentious, insane, and arrogant, so it would follow logically that Morgana is their queen.
“I'm sorry, the office hours are over, as it states clearly on the door,” Morgana says, looking up at the sound of the door opening. “Oh. It’s you.”
“I'm happy to see you, too,” Arthur says, stepping inside.
“You look tired.”
“You look evil. Have they run out of virgins at the canteen?”
“Don’t be silly, Arthur; virgins are so tiresome. Catholic school boys, on the other hand, are nothing if not inventive.”
Arthur can’t help a grimace, and Morgana laughs. “You shouldn’t play this game with me, brother dearest. You’re too easy.”
“Because I hadn’t lost my remaining shreds of decency at a gambling table in Monaco by the time I was fifteen?”
“It was Venice, actually, and I got my first Toulouse-Lautrec out of the deal.”
Arthur glances at the wall over her head involuntarily. “That’s a fake.”
Morgana beams at him. “Very good. You’re right; the original is elsewhere. My office is too poorly secured for it.”
“Glad to see you’ve finally discovered some sense. I remember the time you jumped on a plane to Venezuela with what I'm pretty sure was a lost Rembrandt in your carry-on—”
“Entertaining as this has been,” Morgana cuts him off coolly, “is there a reason for this unscheduled outburst of brotherly love, or are you just here to make my day duller than the weather?”
“Charming,” Arthur mutters. “Actually, I need your help in locating one of your students. Merlin Emrys?”
Morgana doesn’t blink, but something in her stance shifts to wariness. She considers Arthur for a few moments.
“Is he in trouble?”
“What? No. Why would you think – do you know something—?”
“Oh no, I'm not playing this game. Why are you looking for Merlin, Arthur?”
“Believe it or not, he’s done some work for us, and we owe him money. Nothing more sinister than that.”
Morgana contemplates this. “Well, if that’s the case, all I can tell you is good luck finding him. I can’t help you; He’s not one of mine.”
Arthur blinks. “What?”
“I know Merlin from his work, and believe me, I think he’s wasting himself, but the point remains he’s not an art student.”
“He’s not? But – he’s good.”
“Don’t I know it,” Morgana drawls sourly. “No, he’s with the geeks over at computer science. As if the world needs more of those.”
Somehow, Arthur hadn’t expected that. Emrys looked like an art student. Perhaps a little subdued for one, but still...
It’s worrying how wrong Arthur’s instincts have been.
The Computer Science and Technology faculty building greets him with an ostentatious Enter over the doorway. Arthur wonders briefly if these people really think they’re being clever.
A few inquiries followed by more than a few suspicious looks lead him to the fourth floor, but Merlin isn’t immediately evident. Arthur’s beginning to think he could find a better use for his time, but he never quits anything halfway.
A man emerging from one of the offices looks positively ancient, but the sign on the door says ‘Professor Arnold Hora,’ and Arthur darts toward him, exasperated by the search.
“Excuse me, Professor Hora? DI Pendragon.” Arthur flashes up his ID. “I'm looking for a student of yours – Merlin Emrys? I was told you’re his advisor and I would likely find him here.”
Professor Hora regards him coolly, taking his time to answer. Arthur grinds his teeth in impatience.
“Is Mr Emrys in some kind of trouble?” Professor Hora asks at long last.
Arthur blinks. “No. He – I need to tell him something. I would have called, but his mobile seems to be dead.”
There’s another long pause, and the assessing manner with which Professor Hora is evaluating him reminds Arthur of his own father’s critical gaze. Of course, that makes him think about Uther’s current condition, and how Arthur would have probably taken a disapproving glare over complete apathy. He gives himself a mental shake – neither the time nor the place.
Professor Hora’s scrutiny must have produced some favourable results, though; eventually, his expression unfreezes minutely. “You’d best try the library, young man; Merlin tutors students on Tuesdays and Fridays. There’s a good chance he’s still there now.”
“Right.” Arthur presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose. If it wasn’t his impression that Emrys was harmless like a little fuzzy animal, Arthur would have suspected he was being mocked on purpose. “Thanks.”
Professor Hora continues to watch him like a particularly unpleasant insect under a microscope. Arthur bows out quickly.
The library had been one of his favourite spots on campus, and he’d spent enough time there to know where tutoring groups tended to congregate. He spots one almost immediately, but Merlin isn’t among them.
“He left early today,” one of the girls tells Arthur, smiling up at him in a manner unnervingly reminiscent of Vivian. “Which is a shame; I don’t think I can finish those on my own.”
Ignoring her pout – and trying not to think about how old she is and if her parents realise what she’s up to – Arthur questions the others. It turns out Emrys tutors them in a variety of subjects, from basic calculus to advanced quantum computing, and, for some bizarre reason, history. Arthur has a hard time reconciling the information that Emrys is obviously smart with the image of him as he presented himself at the station the week before. Unwillingly impressed, Arthur is more determined than ever to track Emrys down, but none of his protégés seem to know where he’s gone. It’s a dead end.
Arthur walks slowly away from the group as they start collecting their things – the blond girl is still eyeing him in a rather disturbing fashion – when someone grabs his elbow and pulls him sharply behind a bookshelf.
Arthur blinks. There’s another blond, but this one, while actually prettier and older, looks anything but flirty. Under a leather coat and a baggy cardigan, she wears a white t-shirt with a huge flower on it and a sign ‘Inside I'm a fairy.’ She looks like a hippy, or maybe a woodland creature.
“You’re looking for Merlin,” she says without preamble. “Why?”
“I'm with the Met,” Arthur says, pulling out his ID again.
“Is he in trouble?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that? Is he in trouble?”
She lifts her chin up defiantly. “Not that I know of. Why are you looking for him?”
“I owe him money.”
The girl stares.
Arthur rolls his eyes. “I really do. It’s for a job he’s done for us – he left before we could pay him.”
She squints at him with clear suspicion.
“Look, I really need to talk to him. I promise you he’s not in any trouble.”
“Word of honour?”
Arthur can’t resist a startled laugh. “Cross my heart.”
The girl shoots him a warning glance, but relaxes a little. “I'm Elena Gawant; Merlin is a friend of mine. Are you really with the Met?”
In answer, Arthur shows her his ID again and waits patiently as she takes her time studying it.
“Merlin works at The Eclipse,” she says at last.
Arthur’s eyebrows crawl up. “The night club?”
The girl rolls her eyes. “No, the celestial chancellery. Of course the night club.”
“As what, dear God? Coat hanger?”
Elena narrows her eyes. “As a waiter.”
Arthur can’t quite swallow his disbelief. It’s been a long time since he’s been to the Eclipse, but as far as he can remember, they only hired really hot guys, even for waiting tables. He doubts they’ve changed their hiring policy, considering the Eclipse is still the highest-end gay club in the city, and Emrys didn’t strike him as someone good-looking enough to work there.
True, he’d been mostly bundled up in baggy clothes, but, from what Arthur could see of him, he’d been an ordinary lanky bloke, too skinny even under the layers. He had nothing to make him a striking presence. Maybe only his eyes – they were, as Arthur recalled, a rare, clean shade of blue. Well, okay, perhaps his cheekbones were... unusual enough to attract attention. His smile was rather ridiculous, but his lips were quite lovely. And those smart, long fingers that flew over the sheet elegantly as he drew...
Arthur clears his throat. “He works tonight?”
Elena nods. “Every night except Monday.”
“Thank you, Ms Gawant.”
Elena snorts. “Lord, you’re a pompous arse. And if you make Merlin’s life difficult, I’ll hunt you down and show you the true meaning of miserable. Got it?”
Arthur considers her for a moment. “Everyone I've met so far is very protective of him.”
“Was that a question, Detective Inspector?”
She shrugs. “Merlin is more generous than sensible sometimes. If you get to know him, it’s just an instinct to start looking out for him. I don’t know that I'd tell you how to find him, if you didn’t say you owed him money.”
“Surely he must do well enough for himself? All those kids he’s tutoring would alone make—”
“Oh, Merlin doesn’t charge them,” Elena says quickly, as though the very idea is absurd.
Arthur stares at her for a moment, then sighs. “Of course he doesn’t.”
Elena gives him a half-apologetic smile and another shrug.
Forget smart, Arthur thinks as he crosses the wet lawn toward the campus car park, after leaving Elena his contact details. Arthur’s first impression was right after all.
Merlin Emrys is clearly the biggest idiot on the planet.
Merlin blinks as a snap of multicoloured lights streaming from the dance floor hits him square in the face. He’s used to it, but, as usual, by the middle of his shift, the chaos of flashes, trance music, and moving bodies begins to disorient him, becomes too much. There’s nothing to it but to grit his teeth and soldier on, so he smiles at the bartender, picks up the drinks, and heads back for the booths.
It was midsummer when Merlin had first heard that the Eclipse was hiring. If he’d had any idea back then about exactly how upscale the club was or that all the other hopeful candidates would look like male underwear models, he’d never have shown up.
But he hadn’t had any idea and felt that it would be stupid to leave once he was there, so he waited with the others. They were giving him looks, some discerning, some interested, and Merlin felt rattled the most by the latter – what was that all about? Then he was called in to see the manager.
“Strip,” Simon had said.
Merlin had frozen for a moment; he’d thought only the dancers would undergo that level of scrutiny. Simon’s look on him had been hard, unnerving.
But Paul, the guy who’d told him about the job in the first place, had said that the pay was good, the hours ideal for a student, and tips were ‘beyond your wildest dreams if you play it right’.
So Merlin had stripped. Fortunately, he’d only managed to do so from the waist up when Simon had stopped him.
“Turn around. Again.”
Merlin had, flushing with embarrassment, before looking down at himself and realising, with a start, that his body had changed since the last time he’d paid it any attention.
He’d always been skinny, but months of manual labour of all sorts had transformed him. His arms no longer looked useless, but were in fact revealing a glorious shift of muscles with the slightest movement. His stomach had always seemed weak to him – concave, white, and soft. Now it was displaying what looked like a washboard, solid and firm and probably capable of repelling a punch. Merlin had gaped, resisting the urge to poke at it.
Simon had looked thoughtful.
“All right, you’re hired,” he’d said, slipping a black eyeliner pencil into the pocket of Merlin’s battered skinny jeans.
Merlin’s first experience with the eyeliner had been beyond abysmal and more reminiscent of desert warfare camouflage than sexy makeup. He’s gotten pretty good with it since.
It hadn’t been the only thing he’d had to get used to.
The attention had dumbfounded him at first. He knows he isn’t horrid looking, but he’s hardly GQ format, either. The number of men who’d flirted with him, called him by some pet name, or even tried to grope him on his very first shift had been staggering. The idea of him being considered hot had made him laugh.
Then he’d gotten it.
It wasn’t about him being hot – it was about him being available.
Patrons were strictly prohibited from touching the dancers, either from the main show or the go-go boys who moved like they were trying out for an Energizer commercial in the cages that hung from the ceiling all night. Making a move on them would mean an automatic one-time ban from the club; a repeat offence warranted being blacklisted.
But the wait staff? They were fair game.
Of course, they weren’t forced to do anything they didn’t want to do, but they were strongly encouraged to show ‘friendliness’ to the guests, and accompanying them to the backroom usually spelled a bonus.
Merlin had never gotten that far. Too much of a country boy in him, Simon snorted, but patrons liked that, too.
Merlin flirts, though, discovering it’s easy when the other party’s onboard before he is. He smiles and talks back and compliments people. His tips are good – not as good as some other guys, but still very helpful. And Simon’s usually around if someone decides to be not only drunk but an arsehole.
“Here you go, sir,” Merlin says with a flirtatious smile, setting the drinks down at the table. The height of it requires him to lean down, and he’d used to be embarrassed by the way it must make him look, but that had gotten old a while back.
“Took you forever,” the man complains, eyeing Merlin head to toe, gaze lingering on his arse.
Merlin smiles, but it’s tense. “So sorry, sir.”
This particular client isn’t a first-timer; he comes often enough for Merlin to know his face and mentally label him Dungeon Overlord. He tips well, but he looks at anyone wearing the club uniform as though they owe him a blowjob and are being deliberately slow about getting to it. Merlin seems to be stuck with him surprisingly often, and begins to suspect some kind of conspiracy on his co-workers’ parts.
“Well, you’ll just have to find a way to reimburse me, won’t you?” Overlord says, getting a hold of Merlin’s wrist.
The grip isn’t gentle.
Don’t panic, Merlin tells himself firmly, even as his heart leaps into his throat. It’s not that it has never happened before, but there is something about this man’s eyes, the set of his jaw, his entire appearance that makes Merlin want to be as far away from him as possible.
Overlord’s build like a retired heavy-weight champion, narrow forehead, broken nose, and burly tree-trunk arms included. He looks like a guy who used to push kids into lockers and call them fags, fear of discovering his true nature turning into hatred and violence to be shared equally between himself and those around him.
Merlin summons a cheeky grin that he’s been told makes him look most disarming. “I can get you more ice,” he says cheerfully and winks, trying to pull his wrist free.
Overlord’s grip doesn’t give, only tightens. Merlin can almost feel the bruise forming and can’t quite suppress a wince.
The man smirks, tugging him closer. “I don’t want ice. But I have a few ideas about what you can do for me.”
“I’m sure you do,” Merlin mutters, before he can stop himself.
The company laughs.
“That one’s got a mouth on him, don’t he?” a drunk voice comments. The others laugh again.
Merlin grins automatically. He’d learned a long time ago not to react to comments like that, or he wouldn’t make it through a single night.
“Let him go, Stan,” another man drawls. “I need another drink, so off you go, kid, chop chop.”
Merlin breathes out a sigh of relief, blessing the man’s timing, but Overlord – Stan – doesn’t seem to care. He jerks Merlin roughly toward himself, making him sprawl across his lap. Merlin scrambles to straighten up to sit on the edge of the bunk beside him.
“Drink with me,” Stan says, pressing a glass to Merlin’s lips. “Come on, baby, open up.”
The smell of sambuca hits Merlin’s nose, and he can’t pull away fast enough. “I’m not supposed to drink on the job—”
It’s only partly true. Waiters are allowed and encouraged to accept drinks from customers; they just aren’t allowed to get drunk.
“I said, drink up,” Stan presses, dropping Merlin’s wrist and grabbing him by the back of his neck instead, the glass an unrelenting pressure against his mouth again. “Or I’ll break your teeth.”
There’s nothing to it. Merlin parts his lips, and immediately the vile burning taste fills his mouth, the awkward, forced angle making him choke. He coughs and coughs, tears welling up in his eyes from the alcohol’s burn.
Stan is pounding him on the back, forcing the last of his air out of him. Everyone is laughing.
Still not breathing properly, Merlin recognises his one and only chance to get away and slips out from the booth while Stan is busy laughing himself hoarse, forcing a shaky smile. “I’ll get you that drink, then,” he addresses the other man, and retreats from the table as fast as he can.
Getting back to the bar, Merlin dives under the counter, ignoring the barman’s scowl, pouring himself a tall glass of water and downing it in one go. His mouth still tastes foul, but at least he can breathe easier.
“Hey, Merlin, you okay?” Kevin, another waiter, stops to ask him. “You look flushed, mate.”
“Sambuca,” Merlin croaks, and Kevin’s look of concern evaporates on the spot as he laughs and turns to go. “Wait.” Merlin reaches for him. “Can you take another pint to the blue booth? You’re headed that way.”
Kevin glances at the booth over his shoulder, squinting, then rolls his eyes. “Fine, you big baby. If you take my bachelorette party at twelve.”
Merlin winces. Straight women at a gay club are usually beyond wild. “Done,” he sighs.
Kevin grins, clapping him on the shoulder. “Sucker.”
He forgets about the whole thing within minutes as the girls run him ragged with their demands for fancy cocktails with ridiculous names that they seem to be inhaling. They joke with him and slap his arse when he stands still a second too long, and his head is maybe spinning a little – he and strong alcohol had never been friends – but the buzz makes him forget all about Stan and his lot.
That turns out to be a mistake.
There’s an old bar counter in the far corner of the club. It was to be removed at one point, before someone figured out that it made a nice storage point for cleaning supplies, being at hand but mostly hidden.
Merlin is jogging toward it to get a clean cloth, one of the girls having reached the pouring-drinks-over-her-girlfriends stage, when someone slams into him from behind, propelling him straight into the firm wooden ridge of the bar counter.
“You think you can just tease me and get away with it?” Stan the Overlord hisses in his ear. He grabs Merlin’s arm and twists it behind his back, making Merlin choke on a scream. “You filthy little cocksucker – think you can wriggle your arse in my face all night, every bloody night that I’m here, and then leave me high and dry? Not this time, sweetheart.”
He jerks Merlin’s arm just a bit higher, and Merlin isn’t thinking anything, really, the sharp, white-hot pain making him desperately grip the counter with his free hand. He pulls himself up on the balls of his feet in an instinctive move to get away from the overwhelming pain. His arm is going to break at any moment, he can feel it, the impossible tension in the strained muscles, the burning agony in the abused tendons. Something’s going to snap, now, now...
“No,” he lets out breathlessly, hating the way his voice goes weak. “Please, let me go.”
Stan laughs. “Not this time.”
He’s still hissing insults in Merlin’s ear, but Merlin can’t get a word of them, immobilized as he is. He doesn’t hear so much as feels the man working his belt buckle behind him, and instead of blind terror, some kind of dull stupor comes over him.
He’d be terrified if it wasn’t so unbelievable. But it is happening, right here and right now, in a crowded room where no one will hear Merlin scream over the music and no one will think anything is wrong if they happen to look their way. Two men rutting in a dark corner of a nightclub – some might even stop to watch.
The incredulity staves off the panic attack, but when Merlin feels a hand grip the waistband of his stupid pleather leggings and begin to tug them down, he bows his back and howls, trying to get away.
“Let me go, you son of a—”
“Shut up,” Stan snarls, and twists Merlin’s arm even higher, making Merlin’s vision white out for a moment as his lungs strain to cooperate with the mad beating of his heart.
‘I’ll blow you,’ Merlin thinks, trying desperately to get the words out. ‘I’ll blow you, just please not this. Not this.’
He tries to say it, but he can’t breathe, the hard edge of the counter pressing into his chest, threatening to crack his ribs—
And suddenly, there’s nothing.
The sounds seem to have vanished, leaving Merlin blinking hard and trying to breathe, like a fish thrown ashore. It takes a moment to realise the pressure is gone, and his arm falls limply to his side. He bites his lip through, hissing in pain, and whirls around.
Stan is lying face down on the floor, his arm twisted behind him, and another man’s knee is pressing hard against his spine.
“I believe the gentleman said no,” DI Pendragon growls at the man, loud enough to be heard over the roar of music. “Go pick on someone your own size.”
Merlin stares, dumbfounded, unable to process the scene. Stan is squirming on the floor, his free hand pounding against it, like it’s a sporting event and he expects his opponent to accept his surrender and let him go. His face purples as he bucks against the weight holding him down, but he’s completely helpless to break free.
Pendragon looks up, his eyes narrowing on the way Merlin is cradling his right arm instinctively to his chest.
“Are you all right?” Pendragon barks at him, making Merlin jump. “Emrys, I asked you a question!”
Merlin nods hastily. “Yeah, I—”
“What is going on here?”
Merlin turns his head to see Simon appear, frowning at the lot of them, Mike and Harry, the club bouncers, flanking him.
Pendragon straightens up, jerking Stan to his feet as well and making the man groan. Merlin’s still a little numb, but he marvels at the way Pendragon handles the man. Stan has easily a couple of stones on him, but he’s powerless in Pendragon’s grip.
“What is going on is that your club appears to be extremely lax on security,” Pendragon drawls in that posh, arrogant voice of his that makes Merlin want to punch him just because.
He pushes Stan into the arms of the bouncers, who grab him before he can so much as think about escape.
Simon takes the situation in with remarkable speed, turning toward Merlin. Fully expecting a reprimand for failing to deal with an unreasonable client in a conflict-free manner, Merlin is floored when the manager asks instead, “Merlin, are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Merlin nods quickly, rubbing his arm unconsciously. “I’m really sorry, Simon. It – it was all a misunderstanding.”
“No, it wasn’t,” Pendragon snaps, glaring at him, before turning to Simon again. “Take this piece of garbage out of my sight and deal with it, or I will be forced to arrest him for attempted rape.”
Four pairs of eyes stare at him, and Merlin blushes scarlet, ducking his head and praying for the ground to swallow him. He’s never felt so embarrassed in his entire life.
“That’s not necessary,” he mutters, hardly even knowing what he’s saying. “He – I mean, no harm was—”
“We’ll deal with it,” Simon says in a tone of voice Merlin has only ever heard him use when speaking to the owner of the Eclipse. Simon gestures for Mike and Harry to take Stan away, the man still cursing loudly, before turning back to Pendragon. “I appreciate your assistance, sir – and I will be very grateful for your discretion. The club will cover your tab for the night.”
Pendragon snorts. “Thanks ever so.”
“Enjoy your evening,” Simon says mildly, gives Merlin a charged look, the meaning of which isn’t at all clear, and walks back across the crowded dance floor toward his office.
“What?” Pendragon asks from much closer than Merlin expected.
He starts. “I don’t—”
“You have that look on your face, like you’ve been hit over the head or something.”
“I – it’s just.” Merlin swallows. “Simon.”
“What about him?”
“He never acts this way, with anybody. I didn’t realise he had so much respect for police.”
Pendragon blinks before throwing his head back and laughing. “You’re something else, Emrys, I swear to God.” He shakes his head, watching Merlin with amusement. “Me being police had nothing to do with his attitude. I keep forgetting you’re new to the city – if you weren’t, you’d know that I’m something of a celebrity around here.” His lips curve derisively.
“Oh.” Merlin rolls his eyes. “Great. What are you doing here?”
Pendragon flashes him a winning smile. “Saving damsels in distress, apparently.”
Merlin bristles. “I didn’t need your help with him.” It’s a blatant lie, but the smug look on Pendragon’s face is too much. “I could have handled him myself.”
“Yes, and you were doing a great job of it,” Pendragon mocks, nodding. “I see my initial impression of you being completely useless wasn’t far off the mark after all.”
And this is so much like the insults they used to hurl at him back at school, usually just before dunking his head into a toilet, that, combined with the abundance of adrenaline that is still rolling through him, Merlin’s higher brain functions check out for a moment. Before he knows it, he’s throwing a fist, aiming for Pendragon’s face, pouring all his strength into it.
Except, naturally, the blow never connects.
Pendragon catches his hand easily as though Merlin is moving in slow motion, and in a flash, Merlin has his arm twisted behind his back again, and howls in pain. Pendragon isn’t holding him as tightly as Stan had, far from it, but the residual pain multiplies the new one.
“I’m beginning to see the advantages of restraining you,” Pendragon growls in his ear. “You’re a bloody danger to yourself.”
He lets go abruptly, having made his point, and Merlin spins around, glaring at him, his arm feeling permanently out of place.
“What are you even doing here?” he demands angrily. “Are you stalking me now?”
Pendragon lifts an eyebrow. “I just came for some nighttime entertainment.”
“Oh, yeah? So why’s it here, then? I hardly think this is your kind of scene.”
Pendragon squints at him. “What scene is that?”
Merlin stares at him. “This is a gay club.”
Like it’s not bloody obvious enough.
Pendragon is smirking. “And why would you think this isn’t my kind of scene?”
“Because you’re – you’re—” Merlin gestures at him, struggling for words. Straight, he wants to say. Police is his second choice, which, granted, is idiotic.
That’s when it finally occurs to him to notice what Pendragon is wearing. Club clothes; very high end, very classy, way too flattering for his body – like it’s not obvious enough that the man is built like a god of war, all hard lines, golden skin, and perfect proportions, the very image of masculinity.
They’re also clothes that any straight man would be hard-pressed to wear.
“I thought you were straight,” Merlin mutters helplessly.
Pendragon smirks at him. “Oh, really.”
Just then, a couple of guys pass them on their way to the dance floor. Almost without looking, Pendragon reaches to catch one of them – a slender dark-haired bloke wearing a thick layer of blood red lip gloss – by the wrist and draws him into a kiss.
The guy freezes in surprise but melts into it almost instantly, closing his eyes, his hands settling on Pendragon’s hips, tugging him close. Pendragon’s eyes are on Merlin, though, watching him even as he fists the man’s hair in his hand, kissing him aggressively.
Merlin swallows, unable to look away, suddenly hot and breathless all over again. He’s seen far more obvious displays in this club since he started working here – so much, in fact, that he’d believed himself to have become immune to any such scenes all together.
Right now, he wants nothing better than to look away, but the cool challenge in Pendragon’s eyes keeps him rooted to the spot, and he watches.
Finally, Pendragon breaks the kiss, the bloke all but swooning in his arms. He tries to say something, probably asking for a phone number, but Pendragon laughs quietly, whispers something too softly for Merlin to catch, and pushes the guy back towards the dance floor.
“Proof enough for you?” Pendragon almost purrs, stalking closer to Merlin. “Am I allowed to stay now?”
“I never said—” Merlin blushes.
There’s lip gloss smeared against Pendragon’s lips, distracting as hell, and Merlin can’t quite look away. Then he looks up and finds Pendragon smirking at him in a manner so smug, so impossibly conceited, that Merlin’s hands curl into fists off their own volition.
He steps back, clearing his throat, knowing he’s blushing something horrible. “It’s none of my business anyway,” he snaps, his tone clipped and more steady than he had expected. “Enjoy your evening, Detective Inspector.”
He whirls on his heel and marches off, ignoring Pendragon shouting after him.
Merlin spends the rest of his shift, one of his worst to date, in some kind of blur.
He’s been absent too long and loses the bachelorette table – and the tips. Someone too drunk to see straight then crashes into him, upending an entire tray of drinks he’s carrying – those would come out of his wages. He cuts his hand cleaning up the mess and wraps it hastily with a napkin – the first aid kit is in Simon’s office, and Merlin really doesn’t think he should push his luck with the man any further tonight.
He ends up on the cleaning crew, even though it’s not his turn, but he’s the reigning champion for the number of messes created in one night, so he doesn’t argue.
By the time he finally changes into his street clothes and walks out of the club, the sky has begun to turn to a lighter shade of depressing grey, though dawn is at least an hour away yet.
Tired beyond words, Merlin nods at the security guard dozing by the backdoor and steps into the street. He sometimes catches a ride with Kevin when they end up on the same shift, but Kevin obviously didn’t want to wait, and there are no cars in the staff car park, except for Simon’s slick black Porsche and some unknown monster of a BMW, so vividly red it’s almost an eyesore.
Merlin shivers, pulling his coat tighter around him, and starts walking. Some forty-five minutes and he’ll be home – maybe fifty, considering he’s practically a zombie at this point. He’ll have an hour and a half to get some sleep when he gets home, and Merlin tries not to think about how it usually takes him about that much to warm his bed enough to relax into sleep. Spent as he is, he doubts he’ll notice.
A hot bath, he thinks dreamily. He’d give anything right now for a hot bath. With bubbles, possibly even candles. Flame is warm—
He’s blinded suddenly by a flash of car lights. Disoriented, he stops, blinking, before resuming his walk. The flash strikes again, longer, more persistent now.
“Christ, do you mind?” Merlin grumbles, shielding his eyes as he trudges on. “Wanker.”
“Emrys, would you just hold on for a minute?”
Merlin stops, surprised by the shouting, and looks around.
DI Pendragon is leaning from the driver’s side window of the red BMW, glaring.
Merlin blinks; he’d almost forgotten about their bizarre encounter. He remembers running into Pendragon a few times afterward, but he was too busy and ignored the man, later assuming that he’d left.
“What do you want?” Merlin asks tiredly.
“Get in; I’ll give you a lift.”
Merlin blinks. “Er. No, thanks.”
“Come on, Emrys, don’t be an idiot.”
“As charming as the invitation is, still no. You seem to know what the word means, don’t you?”
“God, just… wait, okay? Hold right there.”
There’s a sound of a door being open and closed and then footsteps. Merlin sighs, but stops, waiting. The wind picks up, and he trembles.
Pendragon is on him in seconds, peering into Merlin’s face.
“I need to talk to you. Get in the car before you freeze to death.”
“No. Whatever you’ve got to say, say it here.”
“Your lips are turning blue.”
Merlin rolls his eyes. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait.” Pendragon grabs his arm. “We caught the guy, is what I wanted to say.”
Merlin processes this. When it clicks, he brightens up, even the cold abating for a moment. “The one who killed Mary’s brother?”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m – I’m very glad. Have you told her? I can tell her. I mean – it’s probably best if you do it, I don’t know why I—”
“Merlin,” Pendragon interrupts his babbling, a hint of a smile hovering over his lips. “We’ve already informed her. It’s all right.”
“Oh. Well, um. Thanks for telling me.”
“The thing is, your sketch was what caught him really, so I’d like to say thank you.”
“But I only – I didn’t really do anything—”
“There’s also the money issue.”
Pendragon’s words are ever precise and to the point, but Merlin still can’t believe he understands correctly.
“You want to pay me?” he asks finally, incredulously.
“Merlin.” Pendragon looks as though he’s silently praying for patience. “You’re a civilian contractor. It’s a paid job. I mean, you could always volunteer, I suppose, but—”
“No, I’ll take the money,” Merlin says quickly – too quickly, perhaps – and blushes. “I mean if it’s all right. If it’s not—”
“Of course it’s all right.” Pendragon sounds exasperated. “Why do you think I went to such lengths to find you?”
“Because you’re anal-retentive and have nothing better to do?”
Pendragon glares at him.
“Okay.” Merlin throws his hands up. “Don’t shoot me, please. I’ll, um. I’ll stop by the station?”
“Yes, you’ll need to file in some paperwork. Gwen or someone will help you.”
“Great,” Merlin says. It’s the first piece of good news he’s had in weeks, and he can’t help a smile. “That’s really kind of you. Thanks.”
Pendragon grimaces, but nods. “Yeah. Now, would you please step into the car so I can drive you home?”
Instantly, Merlin freezes. “It’s not that far,” he lies. “I can walk.”
“You can barely stand,” Pendragon says with clear derision, looking him up and down. “And what kind of idiot dresses like that in November?”
Merlin bristles. “You’re an arse, you know?” He jerks his arm away, only now noticing that Pendragon is still holding it. “I’m not getting into a car with you and your swollen rich-boy ego. There’ll be no room left.”
“For fuck’s sake, Merlin, get in the bloody car.”
“Not if you paid me,” Merlin snaps, spinning on his heel to march off.
“I can pay you, if that’s the problem.”
Merlin stops on the spot, turning around slowly, his cheeks burning with anger and humiliation.
Very articulately, he enunciates, “Go. To. Hell.”
“Oh, come on, Emrys, I didn’t mean it like that—”
But Merlin isn’t listening. He breaks into a run and dives into a narrow passageway between two buildings where Pendragon’s car has no chance of following.
Merlin slows down to a quick pace when it becomes clear that he isn’t being followed. Fuming, he mutters under his breath every expletive he can find and invents a few new ones. It’s keeping him warm at least, which is an odd discovery. Merlin isn’t by nature an angry person.
In his agitation, he hardly notices where he’s going, and suddenly it becomes apparent to him that he has no idea where he is. He’s only ever taken one route to the club, using as many shortcuts as possible, and he’s learned it well enough to be able to find his way home comatose, as he often is after a gruelling shift.
This time, thanks to Arthur bloody Pendragon, he has no idea how to get back to his usual path.
Normally in Camelot, one could always use the Citadel to get one’s bearings. Situated on a high hill, with four distinctive sides facing certain parts of the city, it serves as an Earth-bound equivalent of the North Star.
But Merlin finds himself surrounded by tall office buildings with no view further than a couple of blocks, not a single street sign in sight.
And that’s not his only problem.
A shiver runs down his spine as he notices a dark figure at the end of the narrow street from which he’s just emerged. It’s moving steadily toward him, a man dressed in black, the hood of his sweatshirt casting his face in even darker shadows.
The streetlamp above Merlin hisses and blinks before giving out straight over his head. The second one follows, leaving him at the mercy of pre-dawn twilight.
His pulse picking up, Merlin starts moving forward, glancing over his shoulder. Black Hoodie doesn’t appear to have quickened his steps, but he’s closer somehow, silent and menacing.
Merlin walks faster, telling himself off silently for being paranoid. This isn’t some horror film; he’s not about to be surrounded by bloodthirsty zombies. He only needs to get to the main street, where shop windows are lit even through the night and cars pass regularly. He only needs—
His heart gives a jolt as a second dark figure emerges from a side street Merlin had just passed. This man is dressed identically to the first one, and he’s closing in on Merlin fast, his steps loud in the deserted street.
Merlin doesn’t care anymore how it’s going to look. He runs.
They’re after him, he knows, though he can’t spare a moment to look back. He can hear their feet pounding against the pavement, can feel the malicious intent focused on him, and some kind of hindbrain instinct he didn’t know he possessed whispers at him urgently that he can’t be caught, not if he wants to live, not if he ever wants to see the sun again.
How Merlin wishes he’d stepped on his stupid pride’s throat and accepted Pendragon’s offer. Who cares if the man is a conceited arse? He’d had a car, he’d offered safety, and the truth is that Merlin did feel safe with him; he’d never have gotten so brazen otherwise. How he longs to see that incredibly flashy stupid red car right now...
His lungs are starting to burn, and he knows he can’t last. He’s faster than his pursuers, but he’s exhausted; he can’t keep it up forever. Already their footsteps sound deafening, too close, closer still, he can almost feel the hands reaching out for him—
Something catches him abruptly across his abdomen, and he rolls over something hard, bouncing off it to hit the pavement, his elbows and back taking the brunt of his fall.
There’s a screech of tyres, and Merlin looks up, breathless and disoriented, to see the bright red BMW looming over him.
“My God, are you all right? Where did you come from? Merlin? Merlin, answer me!”
Merlin’s eyes snap to DI Pendragon hovering over him, his gaze wild, startled. Over his shoulder, Merlin can see the two dark figures hovering uncertainly in the gloom of the side street.
Merlin surges up, gripping Pendragon’s arms. “Take me home. Please, let’s go now. Please, I’m begging you—”
“Of course,” Pendragon says, confused, peering down at him in worry. “Are you sure you’re all—”
“Now!” Merlin yells, pushing up.
His feet are unsteady, and Pendragon pulls him up, taking most of his weight.
“Careful,” he says as he opens the passenger door and helps Merlin inside. “Let me help you with the seatbelt.”
“Can we just go?” Merlin begs, frantic. “Just go, Detective Inspector, please, please, just go.”
Pendragon looks at his face for a split second and nods, shutting Merlin’s door quickly. He runs around and jumps into his seat, the engine revving, as he slams the door shut, and, in another loud squeak of tyres, they’re finally off.
Merlin twists his head to look back, but they’re moving away too fast, and it’s too dark behind them. He can’t see anything, but the pressure in his chest eases. He falls into his seat, letting out a loud sigh of relief.
“You want to tell me what that was about?” Pendragon asks him a few minutes later. He keeps throwing worried looks over at Merlin, as though trying to assess his condition. “You’re white as a sheet. What happened?”
Merlin takes a deep breath, luxuriating in the feeling of safety. The seat beneath him exudes warmth, and he wants to be swallowed by it completely. Heat seeping into his chilled body, he begins to feel lightheaded.
“I don’t know,” he says slowly, trying to remember how to form words. “I got lost, and then some guys were after me. I don’t know what they wanted. Thank God you were there.”
Pendragon gives him a strange look. “That’s just it – I wasn’t supposed to be there. I took a wrong turn.”
Merlin shrugs. “Lucky me, then. If you hadn’t found me, I don’t know what would have happened. Something bad.”
Pendragon is silent for a moment. “I don’t think I found you, Merlin,” he says pensively. “I think – I think you found me.”
Merlin is having a hard time keeping his eyes open. “What does it matter? It’s a coincidence, that’s all. A lucky one, I’ll grant you, but—”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Pendragon presses. “I don’t remember making the decision to drive there; it’s out of my way. And you – you have a talent of finding people.”
“A talent,” Merlin repeats dubiously. “You mean like—”
The word hovers between them for a moment. Then Merlin laughs.
“Oh, man,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m not my dad – he had talent. I can’t even light a candle.”
“Your father had a magical ability?”
“I never met him, but so they say. He was a vet, and very good with animals. Supernaturally good.”
“Training, healing, you name it. He died before I was born, and everyone hoped I would be just like him. Handy on a farm, you know. But I’m useless. Just a regular homo sapiens.”
Pendragon is silent for a while. After a few moments, he asks quietly, “Merlin, you don’t live in Watersgate, by any chance?”
Merlin blinks, straightening up in his seat. “Um, yeah. Why?”
Pendragon points at the road sign ahead that says ‘Welcome to Watersgate’, then looks at Merlin.
Merlin stares for a moment, then shakes his head. “No, it’s... I’m not – this isn’t anything like that.”
“Then how did I know to come here?”
“Gwen must have told you.”
“Gwen doesn’t know your address.”
Merlin is too tired to deal with this. He sinks back into his seat. “Look, I don’t know; I think it’s just all one big coincidence. I’m not magic, okay? I’d have known if I was. Don’t you think I’d like to be? I mean, who wouldn’t?”
Pendragon doesn’t answer, but takes the correct turn without Merlin telling him, and then stops directly in front of his building.
Merlin ignores his pointed look. “Thanks for the ride.”
He’s loath to move. Every muscle in his body is sore, and the thought of leaving the heavenly warmth of the car makes him want to scream.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Pendragon asks him softly, eyes betraying concern. “I hit you pretty hard; I didn’t notice you.”
“I’m fine,” Merlin says and straightens up, releasing the seatbelt. “Good night, Detective Inspector.”
“You know, you can probably call me Arthur,” Pendragon says with a resigned expression.
Merlin pushes the door open and jumps out before he can ask Pendragon’s – Arthur’s – car for asylum.
“Bye, Arthur,” he says, giving him a cheeky smile and a wave. That’s all he can manage before a gust of wind hits him square in the chest, making him curl into himself.
He runs toward his building, thinking that it would be interesting to know if Arthur is still there by the time Merlin gets to his flat.
Six long flights of stairs later, all Merlin can think of is the number of steps he’ll have to take to reach his bed. He toes his shoes off and barely remembers to push off his coat before diving under the covers.
He’s asleep in seconds.
St Basil Care Home is an old Victorian mansion, situated well outside the city to make it truly peaceful and isolated. The gardens around it are voluptuous, even so late into the fall, and meticulously maintained. The place has an air of a luxurious resort, which, in a way, it is.
Arthur parks the car and sits quietly for a moment, stilling himself.
It’s the third Saturday of the month, the day he’d selected as his visiting day almost three years ago. He’s never missed one, but even so, he can’t get used to it, the sense of foreboding at the thought of walking into the building gripping his chest.
Arthur has always been the rip-off-the-plaster kind of man, so he pushes the door open and steps outside before he’s ready.
It’s not as though he’s ever going to be ready, anyway.
The receptionist smiles at him in that professionally concerned manner that all the personnel seem to adopt around here.
“Good afternoon, Mr Pendragon.”
“Hello, Dolores. Is my father up?”
“Yes. He’s in the east wing parlour.”
Arthur almost asks her how Uther is, but stops himself at the last moment. There’s no need – he gets daily updates via email that his father ate well, slept well, and underwent his daily sessions of physical therapy where they forcefully move his limbs for him because he wouldn’t do it himself. Uther is up, but he’s not awake, and if there had been any changes, Arthur would have been notified immediately.
He gives Dolores a smile for her trouble and takes the familiar route along the enfilade of beautifully furnished corridors toward his father’s suite.
Uther is sitting in his wheelchair by the tall window facing the garden. He doesn’t react to the sound of footsteps, doesn’t turn. He never does.
Arthur swallows. “Hello, Father.”
No answer. Not that Arthur is expecting one.
There’s a chair prepared for him as usual, and Arthur sits down, taking in his father’s features.
Uther Pendragon is still a handsome man, or he would have been, if the attack hadn’t made him age before his time. He seems small in the cardigan Morgana had bought for him years ago. He’d used to fill it out completely, but now he’s drowning in the soft wool, the collar of his shirt looking too big.
Arthur had consulted dozens of specialists before he’d finally accepted the situation, but this is one thing he can’t get used to – his father looking fragile.
“They tell me you’re not eating well,” Arthur says softly, settling into their usual one-sided conversation. It used to make him feel stupid and angry, but not anymore. “You should really try those shepherd pies they make here, you know. I'd feel like a king if they served me one for lunch every day.”
He smiles fleetingly, undeterred by lack of response.
“Morgana’s doing well, sends her love. Her students are all in an uproar because she’s just named candidates to take part in her Winter Show. She’s really excited, so I honestly fear for the poor kids. You know how she gets.”
Morgana seldom comes to visit. She’d told Arthur once that she wasn’t as forgiving as Arthur seemed to be. But she cares, he knows. It’s just complicated, as things Morgana usually are.
“I'm working on this case – well, several cases, actually. It’s strange. Someone seems to be hunting down people with minor magical abilities. Not that there’s anyone left with a major one, of course, but these people were the epitome of harmless. One was a baker who put a spell on his bread to always stay fresh. Another was a woman whose songs turned simple glass into stained glass artwork; she made vases, for goodness’s sake, they were gorgeous. There was also a boy who could make headaches go away. He wasn’t even a true healer or anything; he just helped his neighbours to get rid of migraines. He was sixteen.”
Arthur clears his throat, wishing suddenly for a glass of water.
“And the thing is, we caught the men who did it, but they refuse to talk. Confessed to the murders all right, but they won’t say what made them do it. We couldn’t identify them, if you can believe that. No names, no fingerprints – it’s like they don’t exist. We left them together in a holding cell, and the next morning there were two bodies. No one noticed anything; the cameras caught nothing. I swear it’s the weirdest case I've ever worked on. Annis made me turn it over as closed, but it doesn’t feel like it. Not at all.”
Arthur looks up, startled. In the three years his father has been in this condition, Arthur has never heard him uttering a single sound.
Had he imagined it, caught up in his tale? Wishful thinking?
But Uther’s hand is moving jerkily where it lies on top of the afghan covering his knees. His fingers are crooked and awkward, but he moves them forward and back, as though trying to write something.
Arthur is out of his chair and on his knees in the blink of an eye.
“Father? Father, can you hear me? It’s me, Arthur. Are you trying to tell me something?”
He gets a hiss and a grunt, and it’s painful beyond belief to watch this once-powerful man struggle to be understood.
“Father, what is it?” Arthur asks, panicking – Uther’s starting to rock his wheelchair slightly, as though trying to push off. “Do you want me to take you somewhere? Is that what you’re trying to say?”
The hand still for a moment, then begin to scratch the fabric at a feverish pace.
“Okay,” Arthur murmurs. “Okay, just hold on.”
He jumps to his feet and takes the handles of Uther’s wheelchair, turning him slowly to face the room.
“Where do you want to go?”
There’s no reply, so Arthur starts steering the chair across the room slowly, waiting for another sign.
His father occupies a suite of rooms that could easily accommodate five physically active men, but money hasn’t been an issue for anyone called Pendragon for the last four hundred years, and the doctors recommended giving him space, so Arthur hadn’t even thought before agreeing.
It makes for a frustrating turn of it now as they move at a snail’s pace from the parlour to the bedroom, from the bedroom to the study.
There, finally, Uther makes another barely-there sign that could easily turn out to be not a sign at all, but a muscle twitch, but Arthur stomps viciously on the thought.
They stop before an old wooden cabinet that Arthur recognises immediately. It’d used to sit in Uther’s study back at the Pendragon mansion, and before then, in his office when he was Chief of Police – the office that now belongs to Annis.
“You want me to open it?” Arthur asks, and Uther makes a noise in response.
Inside, there’s an old-fashioned metal safe case. Arthur blinks, taking it in, his gaze resting on the code lock.
“You wouldn’t happen to remember the combination?”
Uther remains silent, his hand drumming a slow, sporadic beat on his knee.
“Right,” Arthur sighs, and sets to work.
He tries everything from the date of his parents’ wedding to the date when Uther was elected mayor – every single date that might have significance for his father, who had only loved one woman in his life and only cared about advancing his career. Nothing works.
“All right, I give up,” Arthur says fifteen minutes later. “If you really want me to open it, I’ll get someone to—”
Uther’s head is moving in broken circles, as though he’s trying to – to catch Arthur’s eye?
“You have got to be kidding me,” Arthur whispers.
His hands are shaking as he tries the lock one more time.
The lock clicks agreeably, and the safe door opens.
Arthur lets out a shocked laugh, his eyes welling up as he glances up at his father. For a moment, he can’t breathe.
“This is the worst password in the world, just so you know,” Arthur says, horrified at how choked up he sounds. “Anyone could guess...”
There’s no response.
Pulling himself together, Arthur opens the door. Inside, there’s a box from an old filing cabinet, filled with neatly stored binders. Arthur pulls one out carefully to discover it’s an old case file dated almost thirty years back, when Uther was still making it through the ranks of the Met.
Arthur opens it, the yellowed paper and typewriter print making him smile for a moment before he starts to read. His eyes widen.
Ted Williams, 24, postman, can produce small balls of cold flame to light the way. Found dead on the street, murdered, method unknown, motive unknown. Killer not found.
Automatically, Arthur reaches for another file, then another. His brain begins to churn.
Margaret Duval, 47, housewife, makes extremely precise fortune biscuits. . Found dead in her house, murdered, method unknown, motive unknown. Killer not found.
Robin Eile, 28, secretary, can preserve cut flowers fresh for weeks. Found dead in her office, murdered, method unknown, motive unknown. Killer not found.
Jane Farrows, 36, accountant, can fix old clocks and mechanisms by laying her hands on them. Reported missing by her husband, discovered four months later disoriented and confused in the street, retains no memory of her true identity, shows every sign of severe mental disorder. Magical ability no longer present.
Benjamin Lewis, 58, retired, can locate lost objects by touching the owner. Reported missing by his sister, found seven weeks later wandering the streets, suffering from amnesia and severe mental confusion. Magical ability no longer present.
Dean Grey, 17, student, can levitate for short periods of time. Found dead in the school gym, murdered, method unknown, motive unknown. Killer not found.
It went on and on, thirty-two cases in all, Uther named as head investigator on every file.
Arthur looks up in a daze, only to find that his father’s face has once again gone completely blank, whatever spark that had previously ignited him having gone out.
Arthur jumps to his feet and rushes out of the room, yelling for a doctor. He’s a horrible son, he should have done this at once, instead of wasting time, digging through old case files—
“Mr Pendragon, calm down,” Doctor Ambervari is telling him repeatedly twenty minutes later. “Short periods of agitation can happen – it doesn’t change your father’s condition. They are rare and never last.”
“But he was – communicating with me,” Arthur presses. “He understood what I was telling him, and he responded.”
“He must have been having a particularly strong emotional reaction to whatever you were telling him.” Doctor Ambervari’s tone is dripping with limitless patience. “Last week he had a similar reaction to a piece of broccoli.”
Arthur blinks. “He hates broccoli.”
Doctor Ambervari gives him a dry smile. “So we gathered. It doesn’t mean anything, Mr Pendragon; I don’t want you to cultivate false hopes. I'm sorry, but the chances of your father recovering even partial coherency are negligent. That’s the way it is. You were fortunate today. Take joy in that.”
Arthur nods slowly. “Thank you, Doctor.”
His father is back at his usual spot, looking out the window. Arthur’s heart clenches at the sight of him. The shock of discovering him like this is never truly gone, and now it feels like someone has ripped the dressing from barely-healed wounds.
Arthur leans forward and kisses Uther’s forehead. “Thank you, Father,” he whispers. “Be well.”
He takes the files with him when he leaves.
Leon looks at him sourly over the table. The canteen in the basement of the police station has never been a nice place to be to begin with, and on a Saturday, the sight is all the more pathetic.
“I could have been playing footie with my kid, you know. Linda only lets me have him over twice a month, and her mother...” Leon trails off, shuddering.
“I'm sorry,” Arthur says. “Honestly, I am, Leon, but this couldn’t wait.”
“Because you discovered a pile of old cases that your father had worked but never closed?”
“They aren’t just any old cases,” Arthur starts, but the argument is forfeit. Leon has seen the files, so he knows this already. “What have you found out?”
Leon taps at a stack of folders he’s brought with him. “I've gone through the missing persons files, like you asked, and you’re right. It’s not our purview, so we never saw any of these, and the detectives working missing persons didn’t have anything to tie those together.” He catches the look on Arthur’s face and grimaced. “Objectively, there isn’t, Arthur. You know that.”
Arthur waves a hand at him. “Go on.”
“Five disappearances in the last six months. Four never found. Two have turned up recently, within a month of each other.”
“Amnesia?” Arthur guesses.
“And severe dementia, and, in one case, schizophrenia.”
“Add our three murders, and you’ll get the same pattern that my father uncovered thirty years ago. Someone’s hunting down magic users, and it looks like they either end up dead or clinically insane.”
Leon rubs his forehead in frustration. “Yes, but what kind of pattern is that? I mean, those people back then and right now – they were harmless, Arthur. If we’re dealing with a religious fanatic of some sort, he’d have gone straight for the kill, and he wouldn’t have been dormant for thirty years.”
“He could have tried to ‘cure’ them first, and when that didn’t work—”
“Jesus, you mean like that Father Aredian crap?” Leon looks disgusted. “That guy is insane, don’t know why he hasn’t been put in jail. You can’t cure magic; it’s not a disease!”
“But it makes sense if you’re a psychopath,” Arthur sighs. “All we do know for certain is that this happened before, and if the pattern sticks, there’ll be more than seven victims.”
“What about those guys we caught, though?”
Arthur shrugs. “They were obviously the hands, not the brain. And whoever’s behind them had taken care that they could never talk. We can keep trying to dig anything on them, but I have a feeling we’ll be wasting our time.”
Leon looks grim. “If you’re right, Arthur... do you realise how big this is? Every magic user in the city could be in danger.”
Arthur looks at him. “Every magic user in the city is in danger.”
“So what do you suggest we do? We can’t make a public announcement; we’d be laughed at, or worse, people might think we’re after magic users ourselves and go deeper into hiding. And come to think of it, the Registry was denounced in the ‘60s, so who even knows how many magic users there are out there? I mean, my thirteen-year-old cousin thinks she can spell her mascara into being waterproof – is she in danger, too, or should we wait until she can actually prove it?”
Arthur stares at him gloomily. “So you suggest we do nothing?”
“I'm not saying that. But Arthur – right now, we don’t even have any physical proof connecting the victims – now or thirty years ago. I mean, it looks undeniable when you put them together like that” – he pokes at the stack of old files in front of Arthur – “but the reality is, we have no evidence.”
“Don’t you think I know that, Leon? We need to get some. Fast. If we’re right, if my father was right – it’s every magic user, Leon. Don’t you understand what that means?”
Leon goes pale. “Morgana,” he whispers, shell-shocked.
Arthur nods; his sister’s prophetic powers, weak as they are, might just be enough to make her a target.
Then a thought occurs to him that makes all air rush abruptly from his lungs.
Merlin Emrys, Arthur is convinced, possesses not one, but two distinctive magical powers.
The first is his uncanny ability to track people down, whether personally or by means of his artwork. Merlin might deny it all he wants, but Arthur trusts his instincts, and besides, Merlin’s success rate can’t be explained by logic. Arthur believes in logic; it never fails.
Merlin’s second ability is much nastier than the first – it makes Arthur suffer from an acute case of foot-in-mouth disease whenever Arthur is in his company.
Arthur can’t think about the night in the club without wincing and experiencing a dire need to smash his head against something.
The truth is, he was ambushed, and Arthur doesn’t like feeling ambushed. He’s a master strategist who knows all the facts and sees the entire board. He comes in prepared at all times. He doesn’t get surprised.
Merlin hadn’t even done anything on purpose, but that’s only made Arthur even angrier at him for catching him so completely off guard.
It wasn’t even the discovery that Merlin had a beautiful body beneath those horrible baggy clothes, although that had been revelation enough. Arthur had stood there in the middle of the sizzling crowd, staring, his palms sweaty and his mouth dry, his heart beating battlefield-fast in his chest, unable to move as he watched Merlin move from table to table, his body fully on display thanks to the vulgar uniform.
He wasn’t skinny but lithe and slender, graceful in his lack of gracefulness – he was a bit of a klutz. He had proportions of a ballet dancer, the stretch of his shoulders betraying hidden strength, muscles shifting subtly under the ludicrous see-through shirt, and Arthur had wanted to shove him into the shower and scrape every last bit of glitter off him; the touch of it on the flawless moonlight pale skin felt like a sacrilege.
But it wasn’t the ugly duckling metamorphosis that made the ground shake under Arthur’s feet. It was his own inability to look past it – or past the hot swell of attraction overloading his senses.
Arthur had never had a reaction like that. Sure, he found other guys attractive; otherwise, he’d never have gotten laid. But it was always a decision he made: look, assess, figure out that yes, this could probably turn him on, and go from there.
He’d never felt that he might actually die if he didn’t touch someone. And if he did touch them, he’d need a twelve-step program to help him through withdrawal afterwards.
To have it all slammed into him in the span of fifteen seconds upon locating Merlin inside the club had been – a little overwhelming. It’d made him scared, angry, and had eventually led to him acting like a dick.
Arthur cringes as he thinks about the conversation outside the club. He’d been so desperate to get Merlin into his car, unable to stomach the thought of him walking home alone, that he’d resorted to some rather desperate flailing that had naturally produced the opposite result.
He’s been like this since he was a child – Morgana had used to tease him mercilessly about it, making his life a working approximation of a living hell. As they’d grown older, she’d toned down on her mocking, since that genuinely was a problem.
Arthur was so afraid to reveal a drop of interest in someone he really liked for fear of being rejected that he ended up overcompensating so badly that the object of his affection went running for the hills at best and tried to cause him bodily harm at worst. Either way, they ended up hating him.
It was almost as though he was cursed.
It wasn’t as though he wanted to be pulling people’s pigtails. He’d watched Morgana flirt when he was a kid often enough to have decided on some subconscious level that it was a way to go. Except where Morgana had sounded provocative and sultry and enticed boys aged four to sixty-four to do her bidding, Arthur always came off as rude when he meant to be teasing, insulting when he meant to be joking, and downright condescending when he tried to pay a compliment.
“You are so very lucky you have your looks,” Morgana told him once, six months before Arthur had made the incredibly wise and informed decision to go fight somebody else’s war on the other side of the planet. “You have no clue how miserable you’d be, if you didn’t look the way you do.”
Arthur had shrugged her off then – he was doing all right, after all, but he’d thought many times since that she might have had a point. He had been silently grateful that it had been years since someone had caught his eye, had really captured his attention.
Until Merlin Emrys had turned up in all his battered glory.
Arthur wants to howl at how poor his timing is. The very idea is inconceivable. Merlin is barely an adult. Maybe Arthur doesn’t have that many years on him for it to be scandalous, but it’s enough to make it uncomfortable to contemplate.
The war, with its inevitable ability to strip things to the bone and then have at them, has changed him. Arthur might not be all that old technically, but he feels his own age differently.
Having lived through what he’d lived, he feels nothing in common with the bright-eyed crowd who had burst into adult life still drunk from the last uni pub crawl and are slowly climbing up the career ladder now. They’d been his classmates; they want to invite him for coffee, for drinks; they try to drag him over to dinner to the latest fashionable spot and introduce him to their girlfriends’ brothers.
Arthur tries to be sociable, but his dreams are still haunted by burning villages and blood-coloured sandstorms, and he couldn’t care less about whose law firm had gotten the better of whose employer and if someone’s boss is sleeping with his PA. These people are aliens to him, like a different species, and he isn’t the kind to care about fitting in, but he feels a sharp sense of misplacement sometimes, and it worries him.
Leon is thirty-three years old, but he defers to Arthur, and both of them find it natural. Morgana still calls him her little brother sometimes, but it feels like a forceful reminder and maybe an appeal to remember his biological youth, since Arthur’s been acting like the head of the family ever since he came back and took charge of Uther’s care.
Arthur feels old. Not world weary, thank God, not yet, but definitely too old to be crushing on a pretty kid like Merlin without feeling like a pervert. Merlin’s life, from what Arthur has seen of it, seems to be screwed up enough without his help.
Except Arthur’s noble intentions mean little when Merlin seems to possess an uncanny ability to make Arthur feel sixteen again, brutish and half-stupid with lust, making awful decisions and subsequently sulking in a corner. It’s ridiculous, and a luxury Arthur can’t afford if he wants to remain professional.
He’ll have to get a grip, swallow whatever it is that Merlin has stirred up, and stop acting like a bull in a china shop if he wants Merlin to keep working for them. And Arthur does want it – he’s the best sketch artist Arthur’s ever met, and he’d be valuable even if he doesn’t have a magical power after all.
Of course, right after Arthur had worked out a decision, Gwaine had had to turn up and ruin it all for him.
“Oh, wow, who is this?” Gwaine asks, looking through the glass window of the coffee room, his eyes glinting with more than polite interest.
Arthur follows his gaze to see Merlin trotting after Gwen to an empty desk to file that paperwork Arthur mentioned. He looks flushed with embarrassment. About what, dear God? Being paid for work?
Shaking his head, Arthur mutters, “Whatever you’re thinking, don’t. And I need to change the locks around here or something so that you’d stop creeping in. Don’t you have anyone else to bother?”
Gwaine smirks. “You’re my favourite, Arthur. Never doubt that.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Get the hell out, and leave Merlin alone.”
Gwaine, being Gwaine, doesn’t do either, and twenty minutes later, Arthur finds him sitting on top of the desk where Merlin’s been filling his forms, both of them laughing.
Merlin is blushing again, from the attention this time, and the way he looks makes Arthur blink and stare for a while, asking himself if he’d gone temporarily blind during their first meeting. The way Gwaine is looking at Merlin makes Arthur want to arrest him for being a sex offender.
“You two have a specific reason for being here?” Arthur growls as he comes closer.
Gwaine merely arches an eyebrow at him, but Merlin’s smile fades immediately, and he looks tense and so damn unsure that Arthur wants to smack himself.
What happened to calling me Arthur? Arthur thinks, but it’s not a mystery.
“I was – you said I could come in and – and file out some forms for—”
“You’re done with that now, aren’t you?” Arthur asks, and then listens, horrified, to the next words spilling out of his mouth. It’s an uncanny but unfortunately familiar sensation, being a first-row spectator to the unmitigated disaster that is his communications skills. “If you insist on conducting other forms of... business” – he looks from Merlin to Gwaine slowly – “you’d better find a different venue than a police station.”
Merlin blushes beet red and it would have been adorable if it hadn’t been fuelled by anger. He springs to his feet.
“You – I never – I’m not – God, just how much of a twat can you be?”
He grabs his bag and tries to push past Arthur for the exit, but Arthur catches him by the arm.
“Are you all right? No lasting damage from where I hit you?”
“You hit him?” Gwaine pipes up, incredulous and, Jesus Christ, scowling.
“With my car,” Arthur clarifies, because that should obviously make things better.
“You hit him with your car?”
“I’m fine,” Merlin snaps, jerking his arm free and glaring at Arthur. “Why do you care, anyway?”
Arthur bristles. “Wouldn’t want to lose a sketch artist now that we’ve found him, mediocre as he might be.”
Merlin stares at him in disgust for a moment, before rolling his eyes. “Don’t worry; my mediocre skillset is intact. Now please excuse me, I’m late for work.”
He pushes past Arthur, and so does Gwaine, pausing only to hiss, “You’re a grade A arsehole, you know that? What has the kid ever done to you?”
Then, he calls out, “Merlin, wait! I thought we were going out for burgers? Come on; join me. My treat.”
Merlin stops, and this time it’s clear embarrassment that lends colour to his cheeks. “That’s very kind of you, but I wouldn’t want to—”
“You can pay me back in dirty pictures,” Gwaine says, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and steering him toward the hallway.
Merlin laughs, and Arthur watches them go, feeling like someone not so much forced to dig his own grave, as one who’d stumbled into it voluntarily.
Two days later, Arthur comes to work to find a small crowd gathered around the door of his office. His entire team is there, even Lance, who’s obviously been excavated from the pit of the morgue. He shoots Arthur a look and smirks; everyone else is flat-out giggling, some of them snapping pictures with their phones.
Arthur comes closer.
There’s a sketch taped to his door – his own face drawn in an unflattering cartoon style. There’s a crown on his head, sliding into his left eye, and his caricature self is glaring at it as he pushes it back.
Under the image, in an impulsive, untidy scrawl, there’s a caption.
ME, A ROYAL PRAT? WHERE DO THE PEASANTS GET THESE IDEAS?
Arthur surprises everyone, himself probably most of all, when he laughs out loud.
That was two days ago, and in the here and now, looking into Leon’s worried face, Arthur can’t help but feel that there’ll be few moments for levity from now on.
Merlin is the most unusual, intriguing, fascinating person Arthur has ever met, and Arthur wants nothing more than to get to know him better. But if he wants Merlin safe, he’ll have to do his best to keep the kid as far away from the station and this gruesome business as humanly possible.
It’s the only way.
Merlin looks down at his wristwatch. It’s a little after 1 a.m., and one of those rare nights when he’s been on the earlier evening roster, so there’s only a little under an hour of his shift left. He lets out a sigh that’s swallowed whole in the thick of the music and loud voices. How are these people never too tired to party, he wonders, peering down at his tray and trying to remember who ordered what at the three tables that have somehow become his after two of his colleagues bailed – Kevin to the backroom with a mean-looking bloke who looked like he discovered goth fashion a decade too late, and where Ivan has disappeared to, Merlin has no idea.
In a way, he’s grateful for the extra work. If he’s only thinking about putting one foot in front of the other and doesn’t have a moment’s respite, he can’t very well worry about how he’s getting home – something that has been a constant concern ever since he was chased down by black figures last Tuesday. Merlin is still convinced that he’d only barely gotten away with his life, but even thinking it makes him sound like a superstitious old lady, so he doesn’t share with anyone.
He’s frightened, though. Whenever he thinks about that mad run through the streets, that metallic taste fills his mouth again, his heart going into overdrive.
Still, Merlin can’t afford to lose this job, so he’ll have to get a grip and soldier on.
Kevin, who occasionally gives him a lift – not all the way home, of course, but at least to the general vicinity of his street – had been absent the whole week, only turning up for work tonight. Family emergency, he’d explained, and Merlin wondered how he’d made it fly with Simon.
Merlin has taken to staying back for clean up whether it was his turn or not. After Simon left, Merlin had slept a couple of hours away on the narrow bunk in the staff room. Mark, the security guard, had thrown him out once, but, after finding Merlin there a second time, he’d just let out an exasperated sigh and let him be. The whole arrangement wasn’t the tiniest bit convenient, but it was the best Merlin could come up with for now.
“Hey.” Kevin’s hand lands on his shoulder half an hour later, reeling him in. “You about ready to wrap it up?”
Merlin glances at the slightly puffed contours of Kevin’s mouth and looks away quickly. “Um, yeah. Are you taking off then?”
Kevin flashes him a quick grin before grimacing. “I’d wait for you, but I totalled my car last weekend. Street racing.” Merlin makes a sympathetic face, as expected. “Word to the wise, though – Simon’s chewed Mark out good today for letting in someone he shouldn’t have. It was the whole ‘one more mistake and you’re out’ kind of thing. I doubt he’ll let you squat in the staff room again.”
“Oh.” Merlin blushes. “I didn’t realise you knew.”
“Yeah, people talk, what can I tell you?”
“Does Simon know?”
“No, but it’s a matter of time, mate.” Kevin squints at him. “What happened? You got kicked out of your flat or something?”
“No.” Merlin shakes his head. He doesn’t know how to explain it without sounding like a complete twat. “I was too tired to make it all the way home,” he offers in the end lamely.
Kevin ruffles his hair affectionately. “Yes, you poor little university buggers – all wrapped in your studies, no time to play.”
Merlin winces, not needing a reminder. He hasn’t been able to submit his homework in two of his classes for two weeks now, and he’s starting to panic.
“Hey, you know what? Maybe you can catch a few winks at mine instead?” Kevin offers, smiling down at him. At six foot two, he’s a towering presence, and, while Merlin is a respectable six feet himself, Kevin has at least three stones on him, all of them solid muscle. Merlin always feels negligent next to him. “We’d still have to walk, but it’s closer.” The arm still wrapped around Merlin’s shoulders gives him a playful squeeze. “My couch is for shit, but I promise not to kick you out until noon if you want to.”
“I—” Merlin blinks. “That’s very kind of you, but—”
“Then it’s settled,” Kevin declares resolutely. “Come on, Merlin, stop looking so damn worried. It’s no big deal. What are friends for?”
‘Since when are we such good friends?’ Merlin wonders, but he can’t help a relieved smile that breaks over his lips. Maybe this is how it starts, anyway. Give a little trust and stop pushing people away at his pride’s bidding.
“Thanks, Kev. I really appreciate it.”
An hour later, they finally stumble out of the club, Merlin waving at a grim-looking Mark at the backdoor.
Kevin is bubbly and cheerful, and Merlin feels so much better for having company. He’s ashamed of his own fear, even if it makes him wonder at the same time. He’s been accused of being many things at various points in his life, but even his schoolyard bullies had never believed him a coward. That was what made going after him so much fun, after all.
According to DI Pendragon, Merlin looks like a hustler now, and apparently, he’s afraid of the dark as well. Merlin wonders vaguely how his life has come to this.
Kevin’s flat contains the exact amount of empty beer bottles, dirty laundry thrown everywhere, and frozen pizza boxes that one could expect from a single guy living his life as he pleases.
“This is you,” Kevin says, pointing at the couch in front of the big plasma telly.
Merlin nods gratefully, and starts to undo the clasps of his inadequate coat; Kevin’s flat is warm. The couch looks lumpy and suspiciously stained, but Merlin has slept on worse, and he’s too tired to be bothered.
“You can shower if you want,” Kevin offers magnanimously, smiling at Merlin.
Merlin mumbles his thanks, but he feels too awkward in another man’s flat all of a sudden. It occurs to him that Kevin must only ever have one kind of visitor here, and why didn’t Merlin think of this before? Had the promise of a safe place to stay and another human being’s company been too much for him to start thinking?
As though in answer, Kevin’s hands settle on Merlin’s waist from behind, his lips ghosting over the crook of Merlin’s neck, warm breath on the sensitive skin.
“The couch is serviceable,” Kevin murmurs, “but the bed is better. What do you say?”
Merlin stiffens, panic flashing through him. How does he get himself into these situations? Does he have ‘Easy’ tattooed on his forehead? DI Pendragon certainly seemed to think so...
Merlin pulls away from Kevin’s arms and turns around awkwardly. “Kevin, I – I'm sorry, I didn’t realise. I’ll go.”
He makes a move to pick up his discarded coat, but Kevin catches his hand, grinning ruefully. “No, Merlin, I'm sorry. I shouldn’t have. I invited you as a friend. It’s just – I'm horny after my shifts sometimes, and you’re pretty.”
Merlin makes a noise of protest, and Kevin laughs.
“You are, mate, there’s no getting around that. So I just thought maybe you’d want to get off. But it’s okay if you don’t. No harm, no foul, right? Please stay. I promise to keep my hands to myself.”
Merlin looks at him, embarrassment making him tongue-tied. “It’s not that I don’t like you, Kev—”
Kevin lifts up his hand. “Hey, no need to explain. Come on, let me take this thing away, and sit down.” He reaches to take Merlin’s parka. “I’ll make us some tea, yeah? It’ll be good after all that shit I had to drink back there.”
They drink tea from the mugs that Kevin fishes out of the sink overflowing with dirty dishes and rinses quickly. The taste of chamomile is soothing, and as they chat – mostly, Kevin talks, retelling the adventure that left him without a car for the foreseeable future –, Merlin stares at him, asking himself why he couldn’t just give Kevin what he wanted.
Kevin is good-looking, the type that Merlin has always been drawn to, and Merlin is nineteen. He should be all over that – what could be better than a friendly no-strings relationship in his current situation?
He thinks about his impromptu dinner date with Gwaine, and his skin tingles. They’d eaten burgers in an American diner across from the police station, and Gwaine had asked him where he was from and how he came to be in Camelot and working for the Met. He’d listened like he really wanted to know, a man who was older, had a successful and visible career, and looked like a wet dream. Merlin couldn’t understand what a guy like Gwaine could possibly find alluring in someone like Merlin, who was, after all, just a non-peculiar looking student trying to make ends meet. If there was ever a sadder case of a cliché, Merlin couldn’t name it.
But Gwaine had fed him fries off his own plate, had reached to brush off a drop of ketchup from the corner of Merlin’s mouth, and, when Merlin had blushed and ducked his head, too shy suddenly to breathe properly, Gwaine had laughed softly, ruffled his hair, and said, ‘Okay, then.’
They’d left the diner, and Merlin had bravely gone for a handshake, but Gwaine had rolled his eyes and pulled him into a hug instead, murmuring, ‘I’ll be seeing you,’ in Merlin’s ear.
Merlin still feels dazed at the thought of the encounter. He’d thought at first that Gwaine just wanted to piss Pendragon off, but the interest in Gwaine’s eyes had felt genuine, not that Merlin has a lot of experience with that either way.
And then, there’s Pendragon – or Arthur, the way he always seems to be whenever Merlin’s thoughts get away from him.
Remembering the kiss at the club makes Merlin hot all over. He still can’t believe that had actually happened, but it must have – no mere fantasy could have made itself so at home in his dreams. Except, whenever his mind replays it, it’s not some random faceless bloke Arthur is kissing.
Arthur grabs him, twists him around, manhandles him every which way, because he can, because he’s so much stronger.
‘Easy, where do you think you’re going?’ Arthur breathes low in his ear. ‘You’re with me now.’
And even though Merlin tries to resist, he doesn’t really want to. Arthur’s arms feel wonderful around him – strong, reliable, protective, holding him the way Merlin has never really allowed anyone to hold him, but it’s not even a question with Arthur, who just goes there, and somehow it’s right.
The kiss is where he comes up short trying to imagine it, because nothing in his previous experience can measure up to being kissed by someone like Arthur, if, indeed, there’s anyone else like him out there. The man is rude and incredibly hostile, but it’s hard to stay mad at him when his actions all speak to the fact that he cares.
He didn’t have to come looking for Merlin to tell him the news about John’s killer. He didn’t have to go the extra mile to see that Merlin was paid. He didn’t have to wait for Merlin for several hours to finish his shift just to give him a lift home.
Merlin realises full well that Arthur’s reasons for doing all those things have nothing to do with him, Merlin, personally. But they paint Arthur as a man of integrity, and, dare it even be mentioned, honour. The absolute, steadfast confidence Arthur exudes, the non-wavering assurance in his own power and ability, makes Merlin want to follow him instinctively, and he has to throw everything he has, all the years of being on his own, into not being pulled into Arthur’s gravity.
Naturally, daydreams about that bloody kiss don’t help.
And that’s all they’ll ever be in both cases – fantasies. Arthur hates him, and Gwaine is all kinds of charming, but with the kind of polished, glamorous life he lives, he’s probably forgotten all about Merlin by now. Merlin would do well not to mistake kindness for attraction.
Still, Merlin thinks with a soft, private grin. In an alternate universe where someone would actually ask Merlin to choose, it’d come down to this:
Gwaine makes him blush and laugh and remember the general meaning of the words ‘fun’ and ‘easy.’
Arthur makes his knees go weak with a single charged look.
In a perfect world, it would be a no-brainer.
Smiling, Merlin tries to focus on Kevin’s story, but his mind must have been drifting too long – he can hear the words, but can’t recognise them. Everything feels too warm and blurry, swelling and contracting in some kind of weird pulsation that makes Merlin’s head swim. He must be more tired than he thought.
Or maybe not.
Merlin blinks forcibly and turns his head, wondering why the room suddenly started spinning. He feels as though he’s on a carousel, but it’s moving underwater, strange sounds of jingles and bright lights hovering all around him.
Kevin’s face is floating in front of him, suddenly close, and Merlin can’t make sense of his expression; it seems twisted, filled with mad glee and—
He’s moving, he’s being moved, the cup slides from his lax grip and onto the floor with a dull sound, and Merlin wonders through the ever-thickening haze why it doesn’t break. The question flees as Merlin is pushed down on the sturdy wooden table and Kevin straddles him, still looking completely insane, as he rips Merlin’s t-shirt in two, filling the air with the crackling sound of tearing fabric.
“They paid me to deliver you,” Kevin’s voice drifts over, distorted and foreign, “but they never said I couldn’t have a little fun. I don’t think they’d care.”
Merlin tries to say something like, ‘Let me go’ or ‘Someone paid for me?’ but all that comes out of his mouth is a half-formed groan.
Kevin backhands him across the face, then catches him by the chin, holding his head in place and pushing his mouth open.
“Shouldn’t have said no when I asked nicely,” Kevin sneers. “But you think you’re too good for us, don’t you? You tease clients like a slut, but you never follow through. It’s not for the likes of you, huh? Too good for any of us to touch? Newsflash for you, mate: you’re nothing special. I’m going to fuck you, and there’s shit you can do about it.”
There’s a distant part of Merlin’s brain that clings to the remnants of coherency, and it keeps screaming that Kevin means business and Merlin should be terrified. But he can’t quite muster panic. There’s the same feeling of detachment that had rolled over him a week ago at the club, like he’s watching from the sidelines and he would well be terrified if only he could make himself believe that it’s actually happening.
Kevin is panting on top of him with the effort of keeping Merlin down, and Merlin has no idea how he even has the power to keep resisting.
“Are you a virgin, Merlin?” Kevin taunts. “Is that why you’re so fucking prissy? That’s just sad, mate. Don’t worry; I’m going to help you.”
Merlin wants to snap back, but his vision blacks out as Kevin moves to straddle his chest, his weight making it impossible to breathe.
It’s the pain that must have helped Merlin work through the heavy veil of narcotics dimming his senses. He bucks up, trying to push Kevin off, and Kevin backhands him again.
“Damn it! Why aren’t you out yet?”
Merlin would be wondering that himself, but he’s feeling really strange, even all things considered. It’s as though a thick steel rod has replaced his spine, white-hot wire coiled tightly around it, and the whole thing grows and burns from the inside out, setting his blood on fire and making him writhe in agony. The convulsions grow stronger, and soon he’s bucking under Kevin like a mad horse, uncontrollable and violent. Kevin is shouting something, his face a mask of disbelief and fear, but Merlin doesn’t care about him anymore. The pain becomes overwhelming, and he screams, and screams, and screams.
When he knows anything again, his head is still spinning madly. He’s on his hands and knees on the floor, and when he looks up groggily, he sees Kevin, lying prostrate across the tiny space of the kitchenette, his head against the leg of the table. His expression is vacant. He’s not moving.
Merlin starts to tremble and then shake violently, frozen cold and feverish at the same time. Horrified at what he must have done, he scrambles to his feet, and backs out of the room, somewhere in the drugged haze the thought drilling insistently that he must collect his things.
He moves back toward the couch, and it must look like a mad dance, his limbs flailing, his balance non-existent. He trips and falls again and again, feeling every bruise magnified. It’s like walking on hot coals and icy knives, and he can’t keep up with the insane dance of gravity.
He tries putting on his coat, but he’s seeing three of them, and it’s not an option. He thinks he hears a moan, and it sends him into action, even if he isn’t sure that it wasn’t his imagination. He drops the coat and stumbles out of the flat, smashing his forehead against the doorframe as he goes.
The stairs are a new terrifying torture, and Merlin falls over, again and again, reaching for the railing and missing more often than not. He curls his arms around his stomach as he tumbles down the last flight in a ball of abused limbs.
It takes a long time for him to catch his breath, and his left wrist responds with a burst of searing pain when he tries to lean on it. It’s probably broken.
He doesn’t feel like he can move ever again, but he has to; the thought of Kevin coming around and going after him is incentive enough to throw his body into motion. He crawls, then stumbles into the dark street, chilly night air a sobering slap across his face.
He staggers away, unable to find his balance, looking for all intents and purposes like he’s drunk off his arse. Maybe the police will show up to arrest him, Merlin thinks hysterically, missing the step off the sidewalk and crashing onto his knees again. That would be a blessing.
He tries to take a look around, his head swaying madly, vision blurry and erratic. He has no idea what kind of neighbourhood this is, no clue where he should be headed. He only knows that somewhere behind him is Kevin, and before him—
Two shadowy figures step out of the dark and grab at him, swearing over his head.
“What the fuck! He should have been knocked out.”
“I told you we shouldn’t have wasted time with that moron. Agh – grab his legs, the fucker just kicked me!”
“Shite! You bastard, you’ll pay for this!”
Merlin doesn’t see the blow coming, but his head hits the pavement hard, his world exploding in stars. Just like that, he can’t move anymore.
“How the fuck’s there so much fight in him? He not drugged at all?”
“The fuck he’s not, look at his eyes.”
“Tie his wrists, we need to get the fuck out of here.”
Merlin keens as his wrists are tied together roughly, the damaged one shooting pain through the entire left side of his body. For a small eternity, he can’t breathe, his mouth trying in vain to catch some air, gaping, his head feeling hot and tight, as though it’s about to explode.
He’s thrown into the back of a van and no, no, no, this can’t be happening. There’ll be no escape if they get him into a car.
The van starts moving jerkily, making Merlin roll across the hard metallic floor. He can feel the last of his strength fading, and tears of sheer panic well up acid-hot in his eyes. He’s not ready for it all to be over, he’s not.
The van is picking up speed, turning again and again, taking him God knows where. Merlin pushes himself up to his knees, biting his lip hard to avoid yelling. Blood trickles down his chin, but the sting is grounding.
He moves closer to the doors. They’d tied his wrists but left his legs free, probably believing him to be finally out of it. He pushes with his shoulders – the doors budge a little, but don’t open.
Merlin blinks tears out of his eyes. In the small patch of free space between the opened doors, he can see the road beneath, trickling away at mind-numbing speed. It’s a sure death to jump out, but to stay is worse. Merlin doesn’t know how he knows, but he feels in his blood that he can’t be taken to whatever end destination his kidnappers are headed for. He just can’t.
He steadies himself, gathering the last of his strength, fuelled by the panicked rush of adrenaline. He watches the pavement through the crack. The moment it slows just a little bit, Merlin throws himself at the doors.
Something hot sears through him, the same scalding pain that had first attacked him back in Kevin’s flat, and the locked doors spring open.
Merlin flies out of the van, hitting the road with his shoulders and rolling around and aside toward the curb.
The power of impact makes the world stop and all the sensations cease. He can’t feel his body. He must be lying on his back – there’s sky above him, dim Camelot stars.
Someone’s yelling. Blinking lights of the nearby restaurant, empty but for a group of men in suits. More yelling.
Merlin blinks, and suddenly there’s Gwaine’s face swimming over him, lips moving, but Merlin can’t hear a word.
He tries to say something, to smile, to reassure, but the world spins faster and faster, drawing away, and Merlin can’t hold on to it anymore.
Everything goes dark.
The smell hits him first – sterile. Chemical. Familiar.
Hospital. He’s in a bloody hospital.
Your mother is not in intensive care, son; she’s down in the morgue. Did no one tell you?
He never wants to come round again.
The next time he drifts back into consciousness, things are inescapably more real.
He can feel his body, and God, does he wish he couldn’t. It’s sore all over, every inch, like a huge human-shaped bruise, pulsing with pain. His left wrist is in a cast, sending sparks of unhappy electricity through his entire arm. He has the worst migraine in the known universe.
Merlin doesn’t want to open his eyes, but he does, reluctantly. He’s in a smaller section of a presumably bigger room, separated from the rest by privacy screens.
Just outside, two people are yelling.
“What were you even doing there in the middle of the night? Don’t you know that restaurant belongs to Neal Peganov?”
“The Russian mobster, yes, Arthur, I’m not stupid!”
“I never would have guessed.”
“I was trying to get an interview with him for three months now; of course I was there.”
“Oh my God, you’re certifiable. You’re legitimately out of your mind, Gwaine!”
Merlin would recognise the aggravated tones of DI Pendragon anywhere. He doesn’t know why it makes him want to smile, but the throbbing pain in his lower lip reminds him that it’s probably not a great idea.
Gwaine is a surprise, though, albeit a pleasant one. Merlin was half-convinced he was just a hallucination.
“... and I don’t see the need for you to stick around at all!”
“The hell there’s not! I was the one who brought him in, and I’ll damn well stay until he’s up and about!”
Merlin frowns slightly, trying to figure out how all of this came to be, but his thoughts are muzzy and sluggish, and his head hurts, and he can’t concentrate on anything so complicated.
“It’s you who doesn’t need to be here, actually,” Gwaine says in a dark, nasty tone Merlin has never heard him use before. “Merlin’s in no condition to make a statement. I’ll take him home and bring him to the station when he’s up to it—”
Pendragon’s tone bristles. “Who died and made you his caretaker? He works for me now; he’s my responsibility. I’ll take care of him.”
“Doing a bang-up job of it so far, aren’t you?”
“Gentlemen.” A third voice interferes, one Merlin doesn’t know, and he’s grateful for the interruption; the argument was beginning to sound surreal. “I suggest you take this pissing contest elsewhere. Mr Emrys needs his rest, and neither of you is contributing to that by shouting in here. Might I suggest the cafeteria if you’re so inclined to wait?”
Gwaine grunts, and Pendragon remains silent, but they both leave.
The curtain is pulled aside, and a man wearing a white coat steps in. He looks in his early thirties, with a commonly handsome face and dark green eyes set in a gripping and perceptive gaze. He doesn’t seem surprised to find Merlin awake.
“Mr Emrys,” the man says, glancing at the monitor briefly. “How are you feeling?”
It takes Merlin a couple of tries to actually produce a sound, and when he does, his voice sounds like gravel. “Like a steak someone forgot to cook?”
The visitor smiles. “Quite. I'm Doctor Reyes; I was on duty when they brought you in. I know you must feel like hell, but it feels much worse than it is.”
Merlin swallows. His lips are dry. “What happened?”
Doctor Reyes lifts an eyebrow. “You don’t remember?”
“I do, but... I don’t know how much of it was real.”
The doctor considers him for a moment, before nodding subtly to himself. “You seem to be have had quite a busy night, Mr Emrys. For starters, someone dosed you with flunitrazepam. Do you know what it is?”
Merlin shakes his head, which stirs a wave of nausea deep in his stomach. The doctor’s gaze hardens.
“It’s a date rape drug, Mr Emrys,” and no, Merlin didn’t need to hear that. “The quantity administered to you should have rendered you unconscious within five minutes. For some reason, the drug had a lower effect on you that it was supposed to.”
“Didn’t feel like it,” Merlin mutters, but he thinks about that odd heat wave that had nearly incinerated his internal organs back at Kevin’s flat, and wonders. “Also, could you… not call me Mr Emrys when you talk about someone trying to rape me?” His voice sounds small all of a sudden, and Merlin wants to melt into the bed and never surface.
Doctor Reyes’s face softens. “Merlin… I'm sorry, but we had to examine you for signs of sexual assault the moment your bloodwork came in. There are no signs of that, but you were beaten, quite severely so. You have several cracked bones in your left wrist, a few bad hematomas, and a mild concussion. Your shoulder blade is not broken, but it’s going to be sensitive for a while. Other than that, you’re fine. You were incredibly lucky for someone who jumped out of a moving car.”
Lucky, Merlin thinks. He feels many things – dirty, violated, powerless – but ‘lucky’ isn’t one of them. There’s a sense of swelling humiliation at the thought of being examined that way. And oh God, did they tell that to the police? To Arthur?
Merlin shrinks in on himself at the thought, his eyes watering. He hates himself for such weakness, gritting his teeth angrily.
Nothing truly bad has even happened to him, for God’s sake. The doctor says he’s fine. There’s no need to fall to bloody pieces.
Doctor Reyes is watching him, and there’s too much understanding in his scrutiny for Merlin’s comfort.
“Mr Emrys – Merlin. We’ve flushed most of the drugs out of your system. Unless your condition worsens in the next few hours, we’ll release you in the morning. You’re over eighteen, so you’ll be free to leave on your own – but if I may, this is a bad time to be alone. Is there anyone we can call who can stay with you for a few days? You’ll still be in a lot of pain, and your concussion might need further observation.”
Merlin thinks about it, but the idea of someone witnessing him at his lowest terrifies him. And who would stay with him, anyway – Gwen? She’d come if he asked, but she has a husband, a job, and a life of her own, and it’s not as though they’re that close anyway. Asking her would be exploiting that golden heart of hers, and Merlin can’t stomach it.
Who else? The only person he was vaguely friendly with at the club was Kevin, and look how marvellous that had turned out.
Ellie? But they all have exams coming up, and it’s not like Merlin will be able to treat her to a pint afterwards, let alone return the favour. She needs time to study, and she’s so bright and lovely and so sympathetic; it would be a crime to drag her any further into the sordid mess that is Merlin’s life.
He’ll do fine on his own; just needs to get a bloody grip and stop being such a fucking wimp all the damn time. It’s disgusting.
“No.” Merlin tries to shake his head, but fortunately thinks better of it just in time. “There’s no – I mean, I’ll be fine. Thank you, Doctor.”
Doctor Reyes observes him for a moment, then sighs. “Well, if you change your mind, let me know.”
Merlin nods, and then he’s finally, blessedly alone.
The next time Merlin wakes up, murky grey light is oozing grudgingly from the window, indicating that the sun is up in some distant, happier places.
He sits up in his bed, too hot, the paper-ish gown they stuck him in clinging to his chest. It takes a long moment for his breathing to calm, and even longer for his head to stop spinning.
Merlin swings his legs off the bed. He can’t stay here – it feels as though the walls are crowding him in, the smells choking him. Ever since his mother died, ever since he’d been waiting for hours and hours for her to come out of surgery only to find out that she’d been dead that entire time, he feels claustrophobic in hospitals. He wants out.
He tries to stand up, but something’s holding him back. It takes him a moment to make sense of the IV they’d hooked him up to. Merlin frowns and pulls the needle out. For a moment, he stares unthinkingly at the thin trickle of blood that emerges, then dabs it with a corner of his gown and bends his arm, pressing tight to stop the bleeding.
He finds his clothes on a plastic chair next to the bed and dresses awkwardly. His t-shirt was a goner, and someone had left him a non-descript grey one instead. It looks soft and worn, but Merlin couldn’t care less. He still has his mobile, his keys, and his wallet; thank God for skinny jeans. Tying his shoes one-handed is an experience he doesn’t much care for, definitely not when his head is pounding like that. Didn’t they give him any painkillers? Doesn’t matter.
Merlin emerges from behind the privacy screen gingerly, looking around. If Gwaine or Arthur are still there, maybe they can give him a lift home. He feels like shit, and he’s not too proud to ask right now.
The A&E is a busy area at any time of day, and no one pays Merlin much attention as he makes his way slowly forward.
Gwaine is nowhere to be seen, but Arthur is standing beside a vending machine, contemplating it with a deep frown. His eyes are glued to a single spot; it doesn’t look like he’s actually considering his choices.
Merlin is just about to call him when another voice beats him to it.
“You’re still here, Detective Inspector?” Doctor Reyes says, stopping beside Arthur, his tone friendly, teasing.
Merlin pulls back out of sight.
Arthur looks up, frowning. “Of course I’m still here. I need that statement, don’t I?”
Reyes shrugs. “You could have left and come back in the morning. That would have been reasonable. Mr Greene certainly seemed to think so.”
Arthur snorts and mutters something uncomplimentary under his breath that Merlin doesn’t quite catch.
Reyes grins. “Come, come, Detective Inspector. One could almost think your interest in Mr Emrys is of a personal nature.”
His tone seems to leave no doubt as to what kind of interest he’s implying, and Merlin’s heart skips a beat.
But Arthur looks up, finally giving the doctor his full attention, and he’s scowling. “It is nothing of the sort,” he snaps, words dripping with ice. “This is the second time someone’s tried to attack Emrys. The first one I might have let slide as a mugging attempt, but tonight’s kidnapping? It’s part of a larger pattern of crimes that I am investigating, and so far three people are dead, four missing, and Emrys might bring the first shred of evidence to connect them together. You’re damn right I want to talk to him.”
Reyes lifts his hands up in a placating gesture. “I’m sorry – I was only joking, and perhaps reading too much into your argument with Mr Greene. Forgive me, but you gave an uncanny impersonation of two jealous dogs fighting over the same bone.”
Arthur snorts, and his battle stance relaxes. “That’s because Gwaine wants to get the story first; he’s a nosy bugger and a damn reporter. It’s in his blood. He knows I tend to go with the stick, so he’s trying to get there first by offering the carrot.”
“That doesn’t sound very gallant from either of you.”
“Well, no. But we’re not knights in shining armour, we have jobs to do. And I don’t know about Gwaine – God knows the guy has no ethics to speak of – but I, for one, am not attracted to scrawny street kids with a propensity to land themselves in trouble. For fuck’s sake, he’s bloody nineteen. I’ not a cradle robber, even if he were something special, which he isn’t.”
“I see,” Reyes says, not sounding particularly disapproving or upset. “Well, that’s good to know, since my first question was, in fact, an incredibly awkward attempt on my part to find out whether you’d like to have a coffee with me sometime.”
Arthur stares at him in incomprehension for a moment, then laughs. “Sure,” he says, clapping Reyes on the shoulder. “And please – it’s Arthur.”
“Damon.” Reyes grins. “You look like you could use some caffeine now, actually. There’s a nice cafe across the street, and they can page me if—”
Merlin backs further down the corridor, turns the corner, presses his back against the wall, and closes his eyes.
He tells himself the only reason he doesn’t laugh at his own stupidity is because it’d hurt too much. His stomach feels tender, and his lip is split. Laughing would be a terrible idea.
It’s humiliating to be put in his place like that. The fact that at least he’s the only one who knows the precise measure of it is small consolation. He thinks back to his fantasies and burns in shame.
Of course he’s not good enough for someone like Gwaine or Arthur, not even if he was older. Good God, what was he even thinking? Kevin, Stan – those people are in his league. The only thing that Kevin and Arthur have in common is the opinion that Merlin is nothing special. That stings, somehow, most of all.
He needs to get out. Now. He can’t stand to stay here another minute.
Merlin takes a few deep breaths, ignoring the protests of his rib cage, and tries to appear as unobtrusive as possible as he retraces his steps and walks past the reception hall. Arthur and Reyes are nowhere to be seen, and Merlin breathes a little easier, walking toward the doors as fast as he can without attracting attention.
Outside, there’s barely any light and far too chilly for someone in a t-shirt. Merlin tries to hug himself, but the best he can do with a cast on his wrist is hold his left hand close to his body with his right.
He looks around across the busy car park. The bus stop is mercifully only a short walk away, and there’s a bus rounding the corner right now. Miraculously, it’s the one that will take Merlin within a fifteen-minute walk of his place, so he sprints after it, his body wooden and sluggish.
He makes it, dropping into a seat and ignoring the looks he’s given. On the long list of things Merlin doesn’t care about right now, being taken for a mental patient is somewhere closer to the bottom.
He slumps against the window, the glass cool against his cheek. He feels feverish, but that’s neither here nor there. A few cracked bones in his wrist and a mild concussion – he’s not exactly dying. No need to make it more dramatic than it is.
There’s a list of things that he should be worried about, Merlin thinks blankly. Like, why are there suddenly people after him? Or Kevin, who sold him out to them. What the fuck? Who on Earth might need Merlin so badly? And for what?
Is Kevin alive? Is he going to be after Merlin, too? Merlin can’t lose his job, but what if Kevin is still there? And why is Merlin not afraid of him, only of his employers? The man drugged and tried to rape him, after all – and is something wrong with Merlin that he can still scarcely believe it had happened? Does he not care?
And what of his classes, he can’t miss any more, and the tutoring group he’s not going to make today, and Lily has that test later, and Merlin had promised to help her. He hasn’t finished any of his assignments from last week, and if he doesn’t turn them in soon, he won’t get a passing grade, let alone a good one, and his scholarship is hanging on a thread as it is...
Just as his head begins to feel as though it will explode at any second, his phone rings.
It takes a few moments of persistent vibration against his hip for Merlin to finally register what’s happening. He fishes the mobile out with difficulty, glancing at the screen. He doesn’t recognise the number but takes the call anyway, dying for a distraction.
“Where the fuck are you?”
Merlin blinks. “Ar—Detective Inspector?”
“Do you realise that if a nurse hadn’t seen you walk out of here under your own power, I’d be calling for a city-wide alert right now? Do you realise that whoever tried to kidnap you might still be out there? Damn it, Emrys, are you more damaged in the head than we thought?”
Merlin closes his eyes, too tired to deal with this. “I don’t know, Detective Inspector,” he says slowly, his words blurring together a little. “But I don’t think yelling at me will make it any better.”
There’s a pause, and then a long intake of breath, as though Arthur is trying to still himself.
“Where. Are. You?”
“On the bus,” Merlin says, not really caring. “I’m going home. Oh, that’s my stop right there. Sorry, I need to—”
“Don’t you dare hang up,” Arthur snaps. “What kind of an imbecile would do such a thing, I have no—”
“Aren’t you supposed to be on a date?” Merlin asks vaguely, stepping onto the pavement on shaky legs. It’s a square, a huge space open to the wind from all sides. Merlin nearly whimpers as a particularly strong gust hits him in the back from the bus pulling away.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?”
Merlin bites his lip. “Nothing. I’m still a tad confused, sorry.”
“Which is exactly why you aren’t supposed to just walk out of the hospital. You’re concussed, you idiot. You need supervision. You have to come back in—”
Come back. No.
“Someone will look after me.”
“Oh yeah? Who?”
“My roommate,” Merlin lies quickly, trying really hard not to let his teeth chatter audibly. “Look, Inspector, I’ll stop by the station later today, okay? I have to go to class, but after that, I’ll come by, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know. Not that I know much, mind you, but—”
“Go to class?” Arthur growls, and even from that big a distance, his tone makes Merlin wince. “Are you actually out of your mind? You are a goddamn target, Merlin! You should go into protective custody, you great bloody moron!”
“Yeah, no.” Merlin gives up on trying to suppress the tremors. “I really don’t have time for this. I’ll come by to testify or whatever you need, Detective Inspector, but I really have to go now.”
“Merlin, don’t you dare—”
“Bye now. Talk to you later.”
He turns his phone off for good measure.
Sleep, Merlin thinks, looking at his building with an unexpected kind of longing. Who cares if he has no heating? There’s a bed in there, and it’s all he really needs.
If only by some kind of miracle he could sleep for an entire week. That would be amazing.
Arthur is livid.
Climbing the steps of Merlin’s building three at a time – of course the house doesn’t have a lift, why would it – he fingers the little plastic bottle with painkillers that Merlin should have picked up at the hospital, had he waited to check out like he was supposed to.
Arthur probably would have come even without the excuse of bringing the medicine. He wants to size up Merlin’s roommate for himself, and to give Merlin a piece of his mind.
He wants to yell, too, if he’s honest though he probably isn’t going to, considering Merlin’s condition. The temptation remains.
After Gwaine’s frantic phone call, Arthur had broken more speed limits than a busted bank robber getting to the hospital. He’d gotten in on the heels of the ambulance that had brought Merlin in, just in time to get into the shouting match with the surgeon on duty. Arthur always panics a little in hospitals, and seeing Merlin unconscious on a gurney, face bruised and shirt torn, had robbed Arthur of any presence of reason for a few frightening minutes.
He’d stared at Merlin’s scrapped knuckles and the spiral bruises on his wrists and wanted to pull his gun and shoot the next person who looked at Merlin wrong. The vehemence of his own reaction had astounded Arthur. Even Gwaine had been giving him weird looks, and Gwaine had looked white as a sheet himself. It had taken Arthur a while to get himself under control.
Nineteen – the goddamn kid is nineteen years old. If Arthur had felt uneasy about his attraction to Merlin before, it was nothing compared to the shock value of the doctor’s announcement. Arthur had felt like the worst kind of arsehole in the world.
His gut churning unpleasantly, Arthur nearly misses the correct door. He frowns at it; if the building looked like it had seen better days, Merlin’s door looks positively shabby.
Arthur reaches for the buzzer, only to discover it doesn’t exist. He knocks instead.
Arthur knocks again, harder this time, and the door gives way under the rap of his knuckles. Arthur stares.
“You have got to be kidding me,” he mutters, pushing it open all the way and stepping inside.
The entire flat is laid out before him in a glance, and Arthur wants to howl out of the sheer sense of all-consuming desperation it invokes in him.
“Merlin?” he calls instead, not surprised when he gets no answer.
Merlin’s boots stand abandoned in the middle of the tiny space in front of the door, so Merlin’s definitely here. Arthur relaxes a fraction and looks around.
He wouldn’t be a detective if it took him longer than a few minutes to determine that there is no roommate; there never was. The entire flat reeks of desolation and feels colder than the North Pole.
The state of the bathroom makes the barracks Arthur had lived in back in the Afghan desert look a luxury suite; the sitting room, such as it is, contains nothing but an ancient couch, the upholstery so frayed it’s no longer possible to tell its original colour, and a stack of unpaid bills and discount coupons cut from a paper on the plastic coffee table. Instead of a telly, the opposite wall is holding up canvases, all of them facing away.
Arthur frowns as he ruffles through the bills, shivering. In the quietness of the flat, the chill is all the more pronounced.
Leaving the bills, Arthur walks into the kitchen, and it’s so much worse than he’d imagined. The fridge is not only empty but dead, unplugged and showing no signs of use within the current century. Every cupboard is bare, minus a thin stack of cheap Ikea-would-be-so-ashamed plates, a couple of mugs, some utensils, and a half-finished pack of teabags. It’s almost a relief to discover a brick of instant pasta on the shelf behind the kettle.
Arthur stares at it, and for a moment, he can’t take it in. How can anyone live like this – strike that, how can anyone survive? What the hell, Merlin goes to university, how on Earth can he be this broke? No one is this broke, not anymore. How?
He remembers suddenly how thin Merlin really is. He wears it so well that Arthur had always assumed it was a veneer, a way to fit the profile, to look more interesting and be ‘in-trend.’ He remembers how cross Gwen was with him when he’d kicked Merlin out from the station before she could take him to their customary dinner. How quickly Merlin agreed to go with Gwaine when Gwaine mentioned food.
It boggles the mind.
Arthur lifts his hand up to wipe cold sweat off his forehead. This isn’t right. There are – loans, for fuck’s sake. Not that Arthur would know exactly how those work, but—
He storms through the flat toward Merlin’s bedroom and pushes the door open without knocking.
Merlin is lying in bed in his clothes, under a threadbare blanket that looks like it was stolen from an ethnography museum. He’s fast asleep, but shivering badly.
Arthur grabs his shoulder and shakes him before he even knows what he’s doing.
“What—?” Merlin jumps off the bed, startled out of his troubled slumber, and stares at Arthur wide-eyed. “Let go – what – you?”
Arthur pulls back, cursing himself under his breath. “Merlin, it’s all right, it’s just me. Sorry.”
Merlin sags back, his shoulders lowering from where they were hiked up to his ears. “Arthur,” he breathes out, his voice a brick of ice being dragged through a rusty pipe. “What are you doing here?”
“You lied to me,” Arthur states, still too shocked to think straight.
“There’s no roommate. There’s never been one. You don’t have anyone to take care of you.”
Merlin blinks, and then blinks again too fast, before turning his face away. “You’ve driven the entire way here to tell me that?” His voice breaks a little.
Arthur sighs. “Merlin. Is there no one you can call—?”
Merlin sits up, the line of his jaw tightening. He pulls his excuse of a blanket over his shoulders, clutching it angrily. His nails are blue.
“No,” he says flatly. “Anything else you’d like to know, Detective Inspector?”
“Don’t,” Arthur says, his throat constricting painfully. “I’m sorry, I – look, Merlin, I didn’t—”
Merlin glares at him. “Why are you here?”
“I – came to give you these.” Arthur fishes the bottle with painkillers out of his coat pocket awkwardly.
“Oh.” Merlin takes it from him. His hand is stiff and ice cold, and Arthur stares again at the blue and purple marks on his wrists from where crude rope had cut into the tender skin. He wants to hit something.
“Thanks,” Merlin says, and grimaces, touching his forehead. “I suppose I’d better take one of those.”
He slides onto his feet, swaying, and Arthur reaches instinctively to steady him, catching him by the elbow. Merlin gives him a look that’s so surprised, Arthur has to let go immediately.
Merlin walks toward the kitchen, the blanket trailing after him like an old tartan. Arthur follows, watching as Merlin pours himself a glass of water straight from the tap and swallows a pill, wincing as it goes down.
It’s eerily silent.
“Kevin Walters is dead,” Arthur blurts out suddenly.
Merlin chokes, spitting out water as it goes down the wrong pipe. “How?” he asks when he can breathe again. There are two stains of colour on his cheeks that offset his bruises in an alarming way. “Did I—”
Arthur shakes his head quickly. “No, Merlin. No – he was found by the Old Fish Market. Someone tried to dump him into the river and missed; he broke his neck in the fall. You were long in the hospital by then.”
Merlin sways with relief, and this time, he doesn’t even think to object when Arthur catches him by the arms, holding him up. “Oh thank God,” Merlin breathes. “Not that he’s dead, of course, I wouldn’t have wished for that—”
‘I would,’ Arthur thinks vengefully, but holds his tongue.
“—but if it turned out I’d killed him, I don’t know how—”
“It would have been self-defence,” Arthur interjects firmly. “Merlin, he attacked you. You have every reason to wish him the worst.”
Merlin drops his eyes in clear turmoil, biting his lip. Arthur must really be the lowest kind of scum – he wants nothing better at that moment than to pull Merlin even closer and kiss the abused line of his mouth, to drape his thick woollen coat around Merlin’s shoulders and scoop him up and walk out of this dreadful place without looking back.
“I don’t get it,” Merlin breathes out softly. “He’s always been – friendly, but not like that. He never really – I had no idea he wanted to – to—”
“I imagine this happens to you a lot,” Arthur mutters half to himself.
Merlin lifts up his eyes at him, and up close, they’re a siren’s song, bottomless, dangerous and frightened at the same time, seemingly defenceless and so very powerful that Arthur can almost feel the tight pressure building up around his chest, can taste the water closing in over his head.
“He said someone paid him,” Merlin says, breaking the spell.
Merlin nods. “He said someone paid him to ‘deliver’ me.”
Arthur frowns. “Do you know who it might have been? Anyone wishing you ill, Merlin?”
Merlin lets out a helpless little laugh. “I don’t know.” He shrugs awkwardly. “Not that I know of. I – I don’t think I have any enemies.”
Involuntarily, Arthur’s hands squeeze Merlin’s shoulders tighter.
John Bates hadn’t had any enemies. Eleanor Gobstone hadn’t had any enemies. None of the others had.
None of them had survived.
“Merlin,” Arthur says slowly. “You can’t stay here. You’re obviously in danger. If they know where you work, they can sure as hell find out where you live.”
Merlin pulls the blanket tighter around himself, frowning in confusion when he notices Arthur’s hold on him. Arthur lets go.
“I suppose I could ask Ellie to sleep on her couch for a few days,” he says, reluctance clear in his voice. “She’s closer to campus, anyway.”
“You can’t go to classes,” Arthur says, looking at him closely. Is the concussion worse than he’d thought?
Merlin stares at him. “What do you mean? I have to go. Don’t you understand? I’ve missed so much work already, I’m pretty sure I’m this close to failing half my subjects, and if I stop showing up on top of that? I’m here on a scholarship, Arthur. Do you think I can afford to go to Camelot on my own? It’s a once in a lifetime chance, and I’m not wasting it.”
“You could be killed or worse,” Arthur manages in frustration. “Don’t you get that? What good will your scholarship be then?”
“I’ll take my chances,” Merlin snaps, his chin lifting up defiantly. “Thank you for your concern, but I’ll be fine.”
“You’re the farthest thing on the planet from fine! God, Merlin, why do you have to be so bloody stubborn?”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You can’t even feed yourself, let alone anything else! This place is more barren than an actual desert!”
Colour splashes in two bright spots high on Merlin’s cheekbones. “I feed myself fine. I haven’t done grocery shopping this week, that’s all.”
“This week? How about this month, or even this century? Merlin – this place is a freezing ice cape, with no security to speak of. For God’s sake, you don’t even have an adequate lock on the door.”
“There’s a deadbolt—”
“Anyone with a toothpick can get in here with no trouble at all. Frankly, I don’t know what will happen faster if you stay here – if the people who are after you find you, or if you starve or freeze to death.”
Merlin steps toward him, shaking with anger. The blanket slides off his shoulders, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ve managed this far. And I’ll keep going.”
Arthur rolls his eyes. “Will wonders never cease. You need help, Merlin. Why won’t you just admit that?”
“And then what?” Merlin spits. “Pity isn’t an actual currency, Arthur, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not have to deal in it. Do you think my landlord wants to hear my sob story? If he knew how bad things really are, he’d throw me out in an instant. Where would I be then? I don’t even have a place to call my own back where I come from. If I lose this scholarship, if I’m thrown out of Camelot, I have nowhere to go. Do you know how that feels?”
Arthur’s heart hurts, but Merlin’s right: he doesn’t know. He’d run away from a life of luxury, restraining as it had been. And even when he’d been wandering the far side of the world with no intention of going back home, he’d still had it, had always had that place that would accept him and take care of him, no matter what.
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” Merlin presses on, defiant. “Maybe this” – he sweeps the empty kitchen, the entire flat with his arms – “is… suboptimal, but I can handle it for a while longer. And if someone wants to come and get me, they can fucking do it. We’ll see how that goes.”
Brave little fool, Arthur thinks, mesmerised, unable to tear his eyes away. Merlin is scared, so fucking scared, and yet his whole frame is trembling with the force of the challenge he’s throwing back at the world. Arthur has seen it before, although never quite so pure, so adamant.
Merlin might not live in the streets, but he has street kid instincts printed all over him.
Don’t turn your back or they’ll stab you when you’re not looking. Don’t ask for help or they’ll know you’re weak. Don’t ever let them think you’re weak. They’ll pounce.
Arthur knows it. He’d seen it, he’d felt it – he’d never lived it.
He thinks about the canvases in the sitting room, about how Merlin’s fingers are probably too numb to paint because it’s too bloody cold in here all the time. He thinks about the fierce protectiveness that everyone he’d talked to about Merlin at university had shown, and how Merlin doesn’t seem to be aware of it. He thinks about Merlin tutoring spoiled trust fund kids and doing gruesome police work for free.
He wants to grab Merlin’s shoulders again and shake him, and ask him why, why on Earth he thinks so little of himself. Why he thinks that no one would care.
“I can put you up in a hotel,” Arthur says instead. “You’ll be safer there. You’ll be safer anywhere but here.”
“Oh yeah?” Merlin smirks bitterly. “And who’s going to pay for it? The Met?”
Arthur doesn’t answer.
Merlin nods with grim satisfaction. “Didn’t think so.”
“Look, Merlin, money is not the problem,” Arthur says, almost frantic. Keeping you safe is, he thinks, digging up his wallet. “Here” – he pulls out four fifty-pound notes – “this should be enough for a few days.”
He pushes the money at Merlin, but Merlin recoils, as if Arthur had offered him poison.
“No.” Merlin glares at him, every visible bit of skin turning red. “Get the hell out.”
“Merlin, I won’t miss this money – oh God, this is stupid. Just take it, okay? Don’t go to a hotel, if you don’t want to, but buy yourself a bloody space heater or—”
Merlin actually growls, looking angrier than Arthur has ever seen him.
“I don’t need your charity, Detective Inspector,” Merlin snarls, practically hissing the words into Arthur’s face. “I don’t even know you. You’re not my friend; you’re just a stuck-up, arrogant arse who thinks he’s so much better than everyone else on the whole bloody planet! What am I, your good deed for the day? Well, thanks, but no, thanks. I can do just fine on my own, and if you’re feeling generous, you can always buy Dr Feel Good a Rolex or something. Now get the hell out of my flat!”
The intimidation factor is about the same as that of an angry kitten, but Arthur doesn’t laugh, because who the fuck is arrogant here? Who’s the idiot who thinks he can do everything on his own, when it’s so very clear that he can’t? What is that nonsense about a Rolex – and oh, yes, no wonder it hurts, you moron, you’re screaming yourself hoarse while having a concussion.
He must have said just enough of it out loud – the next thing he knows, the door has been slammed in his face, his ears still ringing with Merlin’s parting shot.
I’ll never be able to live with myself if I take a single penny from you!
Arthur stares at the ratty door, his head still spinning from the whiplash.
That went well.
There’s this thing about Arthur that every single person who knows him agrees on. His second form music teacher would attest to it, along with acknowledging that Arthur has a singing voice that would make angels not so much weep as scatter in horror. Mr Edwards, the football coach who had managed to talk Arthur into handing over the captain’s band to someone else and leaving the field but not into going to the hospital to get his near-broken ankle seen to until the match was over, would heartily agree. So would Uther, if he was still able, and, coming from him, it would have been a strange cross between a grudging compliment and an admonishment.
So would Arthur’s CO in Afghanistan, who’d ordered Arthur to abandon his search for a wayward reporter who’d gone missing from a press tour, and then had to hastily rescind said order when Arthur showed up with Gwaine and a family of fugitives Gwaine had stumbled upon and couldn’t abandon in tow. They’d saved seven children, aged four to eleven, and five women that day, after which Arthur got reprimanded and Gwaine was shipped back to Albion with a military escort and a formal complaint to RWB. If anyone asked Gwaine’s opinion on the matter, he’d have readily agreed as well.
Arthur is stubborn and wilful to the point of pigheadedness, alternates between thinking too much and not thinking at all, but, above and beyond all that, he’s determined.
Once he’s set his eyes on a goal, he won’t let go until he sees it though.
So, standing outside Merlin’s frankly depressing house building, Arthur doesn’t think about how much Merlin’s reaction to his offer of help hurt or why it did. Arthur thinks about alternate ways to approach the situation.
It’s really straightforward, come to think of it. If Merlin wouldn’t accept anything from Arthur, well, it doesn’t have to come from Arthur. Simple as that.
Arthur walks slowly back toward his car, turning his collar against the wind.
He can feel a snowstorm in the making.