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Come Alive

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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?”

“Evidence.”

“Of—?”

“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.”

“Excuse me?”

“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.

Warm.

“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.

“Um, Arthur?”

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.

“Ellie?”

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.

“Oh.”

“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.

“Hi, Arthur.”

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.

It’s Mary.

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.”

Arthur blinks.

“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.”

“Oh.”

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?”

“An observation.”

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.”

“Yeah.”

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.

“What?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

Watching.

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—”

“Magic.”

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?”

“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.”

“Ugh.”

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—”

Urgh.”

Arthur freezes.

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.

10-11-87

Arthur’s birthday.

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.

--

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.

“Detective Inspector...”

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.”

Kevin beams.

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.

It’s Merlin.

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?

Merlin groans.

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.

Everything hurts.

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.

“Hello?”

“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.

Silence.

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.

“What?”

“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.

“Walters?”

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.

So desperate.

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.

Chapter Text

--

Merlin doesn’t end up going to class that day after all.

The confrontation with Arthur left him drained and with a pounding migraine, so he swallows more painkillers than is probably advisable, and blacks out for the rest of the day. It’s stupid beyond belief, even for him, but by some kind of miracle he doesn’t suffer for it.

He wakes up a few hours after the sun has set, around the time he usually leaves for work. The thought of going back to the club makes him shudder, but it’s not like he has a choice.

He stumbles into the bathroom, and as the light turns up, Merlin recoils from his own reflection in the cracked mirror. Forget his nerves, nobody’s going to want to have him serve drinks while he looks like that.

He goes anyway after swallowing some pot noodles, trying his best not to taste them. It feels like he’s chewing carbon anyway.

His appearance has the effect of rolling bomb waiting to explode. Merlin is on the verge of hyperventilating under all the stares, when Simon materialises out of nowhere, wraps his arm around Merlin’s shoulders and steers him into his office faster than Merlin can stammer out a hello.

“Why on Earth would you come to work in this state?” Simon asks, but surprisingly it doesn’t sound hostile. His tone is almost concerned – or at least as close to it as it ever comes for Simon.

“I was thinking maybe I could help out in the kitchen or something,” Merlin mutters, his voice failing him half-through. “Please don’t fire me,” he blurts out, because the thought of losing his job terrifies him more than the idea of a second Kevin.

“Fire you?” Simon lifts his eyebrows. “Don’t be silly. Why would I fire you when you’ve been attracting so much business lately? Speaking of which, you could have told me that Arthur Pendragon was your boyfriend.”

Merlin chokes, a gulp of air going down the wrong pipe, and gaping at Simon with watery eyes. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

Simon shrugs, unimpressed. “Fair enough. I don’t think he does boyfriends. Boy toy of the month is good too. Still, Merlin, you should tell your boss things like that. Preferably before your fuck buddy bursts in here, threatening to close us down unless we provide proper screening for our employees and heighten security.”

“He what?”

“Oh, he said that and more. And by the way, did you lie on your application form, Merlin? Pendragon swears some of our staff aren’t twenty-one – I wonder who he might mean?”

“Oh God,” Merlin mutters, his hands shaking. “I’m so fired.”

“Relax.” Simon laughs. “It’s not like we can’t claim adult supervision here. Besides, firing you after he made all that noise would be more trouble than keeping you. Besides, believe it or not, you’re actually one of my best waiters.”

Merlin stares. Serving drinks involves a lot of balancing fragile objects, and Merlin is terrible at that.

Simon rolls his eyes. “It’s more about the performance in here, and you know it. You’re doing just fine, trust me, or I wouldn’t have kept you all this time. We have a waiting list a mile long for jobs here.”

“Oh,” Merlin says intelligently. “Thank you?”

Simon sighs in exasperation. “Go home, Merlin. Come back in three days if you’re feeling up to it. Just – borrow some makeup from the dancers and – actually, borrow one of the dancers along to help you put it on. Until then – shoo.”

Merlin nods and walks out as quickly as possible before Simon changes his mind. He didn’t think he could actually survive a work shift tonight, but not showing up and losing his place fore sure was far more terrifying. Three days off that Simon has given him are a blessing. Sure, Merlin won’t make anything in that time, but at least he gets to keep his job. That’s more than he’d hoped for after seeing his face in the mirror for the first time after the assault.

Pot noodles don’t taste any better when he gets home, but there’s a sampling of cheese at the corner shop below, and somehow it’s uplifting and wonderful. The girl smiles at him, and Merlin smiles back, and then buys some instant coffee, and eyes the eggs speculatively until he remembers he doesn’t have a pan to cook them in. He buys an apple instead, the smell of fresh fruit nearly doing his head in, and as he passes the promoter again on his way to the exit, she gives him the remaining samples – half a pack of cheese – on the sole condition he doesn’t rat her out about having finished early.

Back at home, he eats in his bedroom in the light of Kilgharrah’s screen. The coffee is bitter acid, but it’s strong, and it chases away the remainder of Merlin’s headache. He’s tempted to work on his pet project, but he should probably catch up on his coursework, so with a sigh, he settles to do just that.

He goes to bed around three, his panic about being too far behind mollified to a degree. He feels almost warm, wrapped in all his blankets.

He thinks that he should be angry at Arthur for being a meddling arsehole and putting Merlin’s job in jeopardy, but for some reason Merlin can’t summon enough energy for the emotion. In fact, there’s something pleasant about the situation that Merlin can’t quite put his finger on.

Just as he slides into sleep, he finally gets it.

Someone thought he could be Arthur Pendragon’s boyfriend.

Merlin snorts at himself quietly, and if it sounds too wistful for self-mockery, no one’s there to hear it.

--

Oddly enough, things start looking up after that. Merlin jokes that if he’d known that getting a bit of a fright would be all it took to get some karmic retribution from the universe for all the shite he’d had to deal with, he’d have gotten himself attacked a long time ago.

There’s a part of him that is dimly aware of him being an idiot and taking things way too lightly, but Merlin doesn’t want to listen to it. A poor country boy moving to a big city with no family to support him and having a tough time of it is as much of a cliché as being jumped at one point or other, or screwed in some way. His every life choice seemed to have led to that moment, no soap opera scenario would have been complete without it, and Merlin almost feels relieved now that that’s out of the way.

Besides, his options are limited. It’s making jokes about it, or curling into a ball in the corner and crying himself straight into clinical depression, and Merlin can’t afford that. There’ll be no one there to pull him out of it, and Merlin really doubts that he’s strong enough himself.

He’s vaguely aware that his is not the best way to deal with shit, but it’s good enough for the moment.

Mark doesn’t appreciate the joke. Mark shoots Merlin a look like Merlin is the bane of his existence and also too stupid to live. Merlin shrugs and beams at him, chattering the rest of the way, valiantly ignoring the lack of response.

It’s a new development in Merlin’s life as of late – Simon making Mark walk Merlin home after his shift. Officially, of course, it’s not for Merlin’s benefit. After the police-issued warning about an increase in the number of muggings in the area, Simon ordered all personnel finishing work before 6 a.m. to be escorted by one of the security guards. It mostly meant though escorting them to the car park and waiting until they drove away. Merlin is the only exception, and he feels on the spot enough without Simon’s smirks or his co-workers’ grumbling about preferential treatment.

Merlin tries to bribe Mark into letting the matter drop. He feels safer in the guard’s company, yes, but also incredibly uncomfortable being someone’s extra workload. He offers to split his tips with Mark on the second night they walk home, but Mark only glowers at him.

Merlin is nothing if not persistent, trying to dissuade Mark from walking him all the way home at least, but to no avail. He tries ditching Mark once, and regrets it almost instantly when his face is smashed into a brick wall, Mark panting heavily behind him.

That’s how Merlin learns that Mark is actually being paid for overtime, and the consequences of him losing Merlin would be less than pleasant. When Merlin confronts Simon, the club manager claims to know nothing about that, but the way he’s smirking isn’t reassuring.

Still, awkward as being someone’s overtime is, Merlin would feel so much worse about getting Mark, who, granted, is a sourpuss but generally a good guy, into trouble. The arrangement stands.

Merlin isn’t less tired exactly, but he feels calmer somehow, his mind clearer. It takes him a week to catch up on his coursework, and he can see the relief on his professors’ faces when he shows up for classes in time. His grades pull up to their previous level, and Merlin stops having sweat-breaking nightmares about losing his scholarship and being kicked out of uni.

Halfway into December, the students he tutors surprise him with an early Christmas present. Merlin gets flustered and tries to refuse – there’s no way in hell he’ll be able to afford to give them all back anything more expensive than a postcard. They insist, telling him it’s a ‘thank you for putting up with us and saving our arses’ gift, and there’s no way he can ruin their party by refusing in the midst of all the hugs and pre-holidays post-end-of-semester-exams cheer.

It’s a Currys gift card, and Merlin knows what this is about – they’ve been making jokes about his ancient mobile phone only every week.

He can deal without a new phone, so he ends up buying a space heater. It’s dark and sort of round-ish, and Merlin immediately labels it Dalek Seck, half in love already. Because his tutees have been more generous than reasonable (Merlin only allows it because when the sum is split between their number, it’s actually not that scary), he also grabs a small frying pan, and an electric blanket.

His electricity bill is going to jump, but Merlin can feel winter in the air, even if there’s been no actual snow yet, and it’s a survival thing, okay? He’s broke, not actually homeless.

He buys half a dozen eggs to try his new frying pan, cracks a couple of them onto it, and panics, realising he’s forgotten the grease. But the eggs slide into the plate smoothly all the same, because the pan has some non-stick coating that works so well it has to be magic and Merlin hadn’t even noticed that at the shop. He eats the eggs. He’s forgotten the salt, too, but he’s too ridiculously proud to care about minor details. It’s healthier like that anyway.

The first night he spreads the blanket over the lumpy mattress and turns it on is pure bliss. Merlin never wants to get up. In fact, getting up is pure torture at this point, and a trip to the bathroom is a stuff of nightmares. He’ll have to figure something out about that.

His last exam is on Friday, and he spends at least half of it daydreaming, his mind wandering from subject to subject without dropping the anchor in any of them. Due to a fluke in his schedule, he doesn’t have to go to work until Christmas Eve, and all his students have left for the break, so he’s going to have almost three days to himself. He loves holidays.

He walks out of the main Computer Science and Technology building, commonly referred to as the Lab, pulling his scarf tighter around his neck. The wind makes him shiver, but the sun is out for once, sweet yellow glow across the pale lead sky. Merlin lifts his face and smiles at it, and for a moment everything is fine with the world.

“Well, hello, stranger.”

Merlin’s eyes snap down, but he doesn’t have a split second to be frightened.

“Gwaine!”

Gwaine laughs and hops down from the stone parapet where he’s been idling, evidently indifferent to the cold. Merlin is so happy to see him that he readily goes for a hug, Gwaine’s laughter turning quickly from surprised to delighted.

“Nice tan.” Merlin beams at him.

Gwaine makes a face. “Yeah, they sent me over to Egypt for a couple of weeks. Let me tell you, revolutions are a lot less fun up close.”

“What a stretch,” Merlin deadpans.

Gwaine mock-scowls and knocks shoulders with him, laughing as they both reach to adjust Merlin’s messenger bag, dislodged by the motion. “Anyway, coffee? Or are you too smartarse for my company now?”

It gives Merlin pause just for a moment, but the day is too bright to let the doubt linger. “Sure,” he says. “That’d be great.”

One coffee turns into three, and hours later they’re still driving around the city, giddy on caffeine and too much laughter, because Gwaine’s stories are hysterically funny, and Merlin doesn’t remember the last time he felt so completely carefree and relaxed.

The sense of uneasiness that has become his constant companion ever since someone started hunting him perks up as Gwaine pulls into the car park across from Merlin’s building.

“Mind if I come up for a few?” Gwaine asks, grinning at him, and Merlin finds he can’t really say no, even if he’s now uncomfortable for a whole other reason. Arthur’s reaction at seeing the way he lives is still remarkably vivid before Merlin’s eyes.

He gropes for a convenient excuse, even though he hates to end the uncommonly wonderful evening, but Gwaine doesn’t really give him a chance to object, hopping out of the car and pulling Merlin’s door open.

Merlin gives him a nervous smile, and they trot across the empty street toward the grim-looking entrance, Gwaine whistling softly, some sort of tune that had been on top of the charts long before Merlin was born. He sounds a bit too cheerful.

Maybe Arthur is right, and Merlin is shockingly careless, or maybe it’s Gwaine’s presence that’s made him lower his guard, but as they climb up the stairs, he doesn’t tense up until he reached to open his door only to discover that it’s already open. Merlin freezes in place, his hand caught in the air mid-motion, his pulse jumping up to a maddening staccato at his temples.

Inside, he can hear voices, the sound of people moving, laughter, the clink – are those glasses clinking? Without quite having managed to work up to fright yet, Merlin frowns, confused and nervous, and jumps when Gwaine lays a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey. It’s okay.”

Merlin looks at him. “There are people in my flat.” He glances up to make sure it’s actually his door he’s staring at. Yep, definitely his. “Why – how are there people in my flat?”

“Well, your lock’s shit, for one thing.” Gwaine shrugs, rubbing his neck with his free hand. He’s not looking at Merlin, but there’s a grin fighting to get out, barely hidden in the corner of his mouth. Merlin doesn’t know if it makes him relax or tense even more. “Just go in.”

“What – I don’t—”

“It’s fine, I promise.”

Merlin hesitates for a moment longer, but he’s never been a fan of suspense, and, while he barely knows Gwaine, imagining him as a criminal mastermind who’d want to pull another Kevin on him is a tougher task than Merlin can handle.

He shrugs uncertainly, and opens the door. For a few dizzying moments, he stands in the doorway, taking it all in.

There are people in his flat, people he knows. It’s a bit of a shock that he even knows so many people, if he’s honest, but it’s nothing compared to the impact value of seeing them all in one place – in his place – having a party.

There’s Elena talking to Leon at the far side of the room, glasses in their hands, and Merlin doesn’t think he even had glasses. Leon is watching her in obvious fascination, while keeping one eye out for Ewan, his four-year-old energy ball of a son, whom Merlin had entertained once by drawing comics for him as he waited for his dad back at the police station one night/

Not too far from them, Morgana is turning Merlin’s paintings around with a confident hand, clearly not bothered that they might reveal some private content. The smile on her face is a little manic, and she’s wearing a lot of glitter. Merlin has to blink and look away.

His eyes slide to Percy, engaged in some kind of arm wrestling contest with Lance, and it looks a little painful and smells like testosterone. Lance manages to look mildly bored throughout it, like a tall glass of milk next to Percy’s fuming enthusiasm.

In the corner Owain is taking sneaky pictures of Morgana with his camera phone, looking too young and innocent to be in her presence, and what the hell – has the entire police force of Camelot decided to crash gate Merlin’s night?

Merlin registers the delicious smell drifting from the kitchen, his mouth watering immediately as the scent of spices and cooking meat hits his nostrils. Just then, Elyan comes out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel that looks brand new, and beaming as he spots Merlin in the doorway.

“Merlin, my man!” Elyan enthuses loudly, opening his arms. “Everyone, our host is here!”

Before Merlin can get out so much as a word, he’s enveloped in a bear hug that makes him feel in equal parts warm and constricted. He’s only met Gwen’s brother a few times, and, while they had fun together at those occasions, Merlin didn’t consider it more than a passing acquaintance.

“What is going on?” Merlin tries to get out, but doesn’t quite succeed, as Ewan runs over to him with a smile that’s bigger than his face, crashing into Merlin’s knees and wrapping his arms around them.

It’s a blurry of hugs and kisses after that, and Merlin’s head is spinning. He’s breathless with the kind of happy confusion that makes one wonder if they’d slipped into an alternate reality somehow.

The next thing he knows, he’s in the kitchen, and Gwen is beaming at him. The sleeves of her blouse are pulled up, she’s got a spatula in her hand, and next to the huge, divinely smelling pan she looks the epitome of gorgeous and domesticity.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she breathes out as she pulls up on her toes to press a kiss against his cheek. “We wanted to have a pre-Christmas party before everyone goes on to spend the holidays with their families. And you’ve been to our flat – there’s no way it could fit all of us—”

“Nope, nor mine,” Leon says, clapping Merlin on the shoulder.

“—and you have all this space, and I really hope you don’t mind, Merlin.” Gwen is looking at him beseechingly. “Really. I mean it would be so awkward if you hate us being here, but we thought it would be the best way, and I really, really hope you don’t mind, we wanted you to have some fun, too, and you know how hard it is to get you out to ours, and—”

“Gwen.” Merlin lifts his hand up, laughing helplessly. “It’s fine, I don’t mind. I'm surprised as hell, but I'm happy to see you all. I just—”

He looks around, still disbelieving, to see smiling faces everywhere around him, and he can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, because this is something friends would do for you, except Merlin has never had so many friends or any who’d want to go to such lengths for him.

Because he knows what this is, even if he can play along with the official story, but the truth is, his flat isn’t that much bigger than Gwen and Lance’s, and Merlin can see new things scattered all over his place – dishes and chairs and cushions and a nice-looking afghan made of the thickest wool. There’s a new space heater in the other room, and a smaller one in the kitchen, and there’s food everywhere, snacks and sandwiches and drinks, like a catering explosion.

Gwen’s making curry using the recipe Merlin had taught her once, the one Merlin’s mum had perfected over the years into something sinfully delicious for something so simple. There’s a look of grim determination on Gwen’s face, and Merlin knows that she’s making it just right, just the way he remembers, pulling out all stops to make it perfect for him.

And he and Owain had barely exchanged any words other than ‘Hey there, mate’ – ‘How you doing?’ And Percy has always intimidated Merlin a little, being the epitome of masculinity the way Merlin couldn’t ever hope to achieve, and he had to resent Merlin a little for that, but it’s clear now from the huge grin on Percy’s face that all his teasing was but a way to make Merlin more at ease. An awkward way, perhaps, but Merlin could so relate to that.

The kindness is doing Merlin’s head in, mostly because he can’t stop asking himself why they’re doing this, what could they want in response, but at the same time he knows that this is a group of people who don’t, in fact, need anything from him. They’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, pulling Merlin into their circle, adopting him for one of their own.

Part of him wants to hide in shame, even if it doesn’t feel like charity, and feels almost as though they – genuinely like him? He can’t wrap his mind around it, even confronted with undeniable warmth pouring onto him from all sides.

He’s trying not to show it, laughing at Gwaine’s jokes, but inside he can’t quite stop freaking out. He almost thinks about escaping to process it all, but then Elena, who’s known him the longest and can apparently read him like a book, presses a beer into his hand, wraps her arms around his neck, and holds him, and holds him, a fierce whisper in his ear, “Merry Christmas, you fucker.”

Merlin lets out a sound caught between a laugh and a whimper, and buries his face in her neck, smelling the familiar aroma of coffee that never quite gets off her skin, and clings to her for dear life.

Music comes streaming from someone’s iPod, and Gwen’s cooking is delicious and abundant. Merlin is a little drunk, not with alcohol so much as the excitement and friendship and all the hugs and jokes. His head is swimming, and he can’t stop smiling.

He’s in the kitchen for another refill, when he discovers the curious thing. His fridge is stuffed to the brim with dairy and greens and at least five kinds of cheese. All the kitchen cabinets are filled with the kind of groceries Merlin had never quite managed to make a stock of: pasta – not instant for once, rice, beans, canned soups, canned ham, olives, biscuits, nuts of every kind, and dry fruit.

Merlin surveys it for a few moments in blank stupor.

“Yes, about that,” Gwen’s voice drifts over his shoulder. “We might have brought a little extra food, just in case. You know, you can never tell with those parties how much people are actually going to eat, right? I hope you don’t mind if we just leave it here? There’s no way Lance and I are carrying this load home. I mean, not that there’s that much, obviously, it’s just that we’re leaving for the holidays, and well, it’d be a shame if all that went to waste.”

She falls silent, looking at him nervously, and Merlin gets it, sort of.

He knows she’s lying. There’s no way restocking his kitchen would ever qualify as ‘a little extra food.’ He also knows she’s waited as long as possible for this revelation, hoping to get him drunk and mellow, and it sort of worked, because looking at Gwen’s anxious, hopeful expression now, Merlin can’t fathom doing anything to upset her. His friends helped him out, and he’s still isn’t sure that he won’t wake up tomorrow to discover it has all been an elaborate dreamscape, he’s still thrown by the fact that he apparently has friends, but here and now he can’t do anything other than give up and give in.

“That’s okay,” Merlin says quietly, and watches as tension drains out of Gwen’s body. “Thank you.”

“Oh, Merlin.” She throws herself into his arms, making him step back with the inertia.

When she pulls back, Merlin asks suddenly, “Arthur couldn’t make it?”

Because sometimes there’s having an elephant in the room, and there’s having the absence of one. Merlin didn’t think to ask the question, he didn’t even know he was wondering this for the entire night, but now that the words were out, he feels sad all of a sudden, as though catching up to his emotions at long last.

Gwen looks down. “He, um... he was really busy. With the case.”

Merlin has to swallow against a sudden lump in his throat, but forces a smile back onto his face almost at once. It stings, a sharp twist in his gut, like a long forgotten injury making itself known, but he’s having too good a time to ruin it with pointless regret.

If anything, Arthur’s the one who’s punished here, having to miss such a great party for the sake of his pride.

Eventually, things start winding down. Leon leaves first, Ewan almost asleep on his shoulder. The others trickle out soon after one by one, until only Gwaine remains, having volunteered for cleaning duty.

Merlin’s not drunk, not quite, but his head is spinning from the overwhelming feeling of warmth that transcends the physical. Gwaine’s humming something tuneless and soft as they do the dishes, and Merlin finds himself grinning at the soaked peach-coloured kitchen towel he’s sure he didn’t have before.

Then suddenly they’re done, and Merlin isn’t thinking so much as drifting on some happy cloud, and his hands end up on Gwaine’s hips of their own volition. Gwaine is still for a second, then reaches to cup Merlin’s face with his hands. Merlin smiles at him in a way that is probably much more inane than seductive, and he’s never been so forward in his life, but his night has been so incredibly, amazingly good that the only thing that could make it better would, in fact, be making out with someone.

There have been very few instances in Merlin’s life when he knew he wouldn’t be rejected, but the thought doesn’t even enter his mind now. He drifts forward, thinking about Gwaine’s lips and not so much of the man himself, the gravity picks him up gleefully, carrying him on, and then – yes, this, so much better.

Gwaine makes a muffled, vaguely surprised sound, but it’s not unhappy, and Merlin suddenly feels the edge of the kitchen table digging into his lower back, and Gwaine is shorter than him, so it should be awkward, but somehow isn’t.

It’s easy and warm and kind of sweet, and Merlin can’t help smiling, which ruins the whole thing a bit, but Gwaine doesn’t seem to mind. He takes control from Merlin easily, fingers threading through Merlin’s hair soft as a whisper, and Merlin sighs happily into it, warm and mellow and pliant, and almost out of body in the way a good hit of weed would get you, only a little better.

“Hey. You with me, baby?” Gwaine asks, pulling back, trying to catch Merlin’s eye. “Are you sure it’s all right?”

Merlin opens his eyes reluctantly, pouting a little at the interruption. It’s like falling asleep on the beach, the sand cooling slowly after the day’s heat. He doesn’t want to wake up.

Gwaine’s eyes are sharp, though, suddenly sober, and he pulls back a little more, much to Merlin’s chagrin.

It means Merlin has to start thinking again, and remember all the reasons why this is a bad idea.

“I can do one-night stands,” is what comes out of his mouth, because his brain has never felt more unfiltered. He’s vaguely aware that he’s probably begging, and it would be embarrassing normally, but his body is humming with it, and something’s been missing through this entire nearly perfect night. Maybe not this, but something close, something so very close to this. “I'm cool. I won’t be weird afterwards, I promise.”

Gwaine’s expression contorts in an odd way as he stares at Merlin for a moment, and then incredulity takes over. “I can’t believe I have to be the responsible one in the face of this,” he mutters, and then his hands tighten, not letting Merlin get closer. “Merlin, baby, you have no idea how I'm tempted I am, but that’s the thing, isn’t it? You have no idea what you’re even offering.”

Merlin opens his mouth to say that he does, too, he’s not that innocent, but what comes out instead is, “So it’s just like Arthur said. You only wanted the story.”He squints at Gwaine, more curious than upset. “Am I really that hideous?”

Gwaine’s eyes narrow, and he tugs Merlin by the wrist to sit at the table. “What exactly did Arthur say?”

Merlin rolls his eyes, but none of it stings somehow. He’s too weary to care.

Gwaine’s face darkens more and more as Merlin tells him what he’d overheard at the hospital, and the way Arthur acted the next morning. When he’s done, Gwaine swears loudly, his hand curling into a fist on the table.

“Okay, first of all, I'm not trying to be your friend for a story, Merlin,” he says, leaning forward, as though trying to physically push the words on. “I'm not that kind of prick, but I'm not even mad at you for going with it, because I can see where you’re coming from, and I could kill that self-obsessed coward for the crap he pulled. No wonder you’re so—”

Merlin looks away, blinking too fast all of a sudden. “He didn’t even show up today,” he says before he knows what he’s saying. It’s like pulling the knife out of a wound you didn’t know was there. “Not that I – I mean, everyone was here. Everyone. I know he doesn’t care, but couldn’t he at least turn up for a moment to say hi? It still was their pre-Christmas party or whatever...”

There’s a loaded pause. When Gwaine speaks, his voice sounds strange.

“Merlin, the party was Arthur’s idea.”

It’s so shocking that Merlin turns to stare at him in blank stupor, certain he has misheard.

Gwaine nods. “It was. I’d love to say I’m the good wizard here, but that’s all Arthur. He’d organised his entire department; I think there were assignments involved. Gwen jumped at the chance of course, and Morgana thinks you’re the next coming of Van Gogh with a side order of cute as a puppy, and don’t get me started on Leon, but none of them would have known to do any of this without Arthur. He orchestrated the entire thing, he sent me on lookout, he called Elena, and told everyone what to bring, and the only reason he didn’t show up tonight was because he didn’t think you’d want to see him.”

Merlin stares at him, his mind unable to cope. Gwaine is still talking, explaining how he’d never even think about writing a story that could put anyone in danger, let alone Merlin, and that he genuinely feels the connection between the two of them, the kind of kindred spirit he doesn’t often – ever – find. He talks about how he’d have to be blind not to be attracted to Merlin, but Gwaine doesn’t have the best track record, and Merlin should be really sure if that’s what he wants. He talks and talks and talks, but the only thing Merlin hears is:

“Arthur planned the party for me?”

Gwaine blinks, pausing mid-word and staring at him for a moment, then sighs, running a hand over his face.

“Yeah, you’re mad young for me anyway.”

Merlin doesn’t really hear him. He’s vaguely paying attention as Gwaine explains about the new locks on the door, but mostly it goes over his head. Gwaine looks part amused, part aggravated, and in the end simply presses the keys into Merlin’s hand, curling his fingers for him.

Merlin drifts off to sleep that night under a pile of blankets with a disbelieving but invincible smile on his face.

--

Arthur is used to the first day of the New Year being quiet in a teeth-grinding, bone-tired sort of way. The station looks empty with most people still sorting out the drunken escapades of the night before all over town, and a few lucky ones sleeping it off. Normally, Arthur would be nursing a bit of a hangover himself – Morgana’s New Year parties are notorious for many things, creatively vile drinks of unknown origin being at the top of the list – but this year he had to miss it. He doesn’t remember the last time he left the station. After the Millers showed up, looking lost and despondent, the wife clutching the photograph of her baby girl to her chest, Arthur had acquired an acute case of tunnel vision.

He slumps back in his chair, rubbing at his eyes furiously. His stomach is churning from too much coffee, probably working a hole in the soft tissues even as Arthur sits there, and there’s a vague dullness at the back of his head which might be the beginning of a migraine. Days like this he isn’t sure why he ever thought he’d be any good at this job. He closes his eyes for a moment to escape the harsh accusing glare of the soulless fluorescent lamp.

When he opens his eyes, Merlin is standing beside his desk, neck wrapped in a thick woollen scarf that seems to transmit the feeling of cosy warmness, a hesitant smile on his lips.

“Hi,” Merlin says softly.

Arthur looks at him, breathing in the image, something in him relaxing at the sight. Merlin seems to belong to another world entirely, like a vision from some perfect, warm-coloured universe that has place in it for tentative smiles, crinkles in the corners of his eyes, pine-scented soap, and home-made pies, and no kidnapped children.

“Um. Arthur?” Merlin clears his throat, eyes darting down, nervous.

Arthur blinks. He’s been staring too long, caught in his wistful reverie. “Merlin,” he says, straightening up in his chair. “What can I do for you?”

They didn’t part on the best of terms the last time, but it seems so distant and ethereal now, and Arthur has to ruthlessly squash a sharp pang of longing. Part of him wishes Merlin would yell at him again, because the guy’s even hotter and somehow more adorable when angry – and Arthur’s never claimed to be a good person, but the truth is Arthur couldn’t master the energy right now to play along. All he wants – all he really wants is to wrap Merlin in a hug and never him let go.

Which probably isn’t in the cards, so—

“Um. Happy New Year?”

The snort is involuntary, and Arthur lifts up a hand almost at once. “Sorry – that wasn’t directed at you. Just not feeling the holiday cheer right now.”

“Anything I can help you with?” Merlin asks, eyeing Arthur’s desk with a slight frown. “Gwen mentioned you had another case.”

Arthur pauses for a moment, but for whatever reason Merlin genuinely seems interested and not defensive the way he usually is. And Arthur – Arthur apparently wants to spread the misery.

He gestures to a chair, and pushes the photo toward Merlin across the desk. “Jamie Miller, four years old. Went missing two days ago.”

Merlin traces the outline of the face with his finger almost absently. “Can I talk to the parents?”

“It’s no good.” Arthur shakes his head in frustration. “Not even with your skills. They didn’t see anything. Didn’t hear, didn’t get a feeling. She just wasn’t in her bed in the morning, and no one has seen her since.” He looks up at Merlin with a flicker of hope. “Can you – sense anything from the photo? Or maybe if you did talk to them...” He trails off. Not that it would be easy to explain, but if it helped, Arthur was willing to risk it.

Merlin is silent for a long time, staring at the photo intently. Finally, he shakes his head. “No, sorry. I keep telling you, I'm not actually magic. I just draw things and—”

Arthur nods tiredly. He’s not in the mood to argue with Merlin again.

“Thing is, I might—” Merlin bites his lip nervously, eyes still glued to the picture. “Did she have any magical talent, do you know?”

Arthur looks up. “Yes. She apparently could make her hair every colour of the rainbow at will.”

Merlin nods slowly, dropping the photo. “I might be able to – that is, it’s never worked before, but I added some new code last night, and maybe – I mean there’s no harm in trying, right?”

“Merlin.” Arthur stares at him in exasperation. “Whatever it is, for God’s sake, spit it out.”

“All right, the thing is, I – I used to have this friend, right? When I was at school back home. Her name was Freya, and she was – she was great, though shy, but so smart you wouldn’t believe, and—”

“Is this going somewhere?” Arthur asks, watching Merlin’s hands working nervously on the straps of his bag.

“She had magic, is my point,” Merlin says, a light flush creeping up his cheeks. “The real kind. She would turn into a bastet every midnight.”

“A bastet?”

“Think big black panther with wings.”

Arthur whistles. That was the kind of magic people were convinced no longer existed.

“Freya disappeared,” Merlin says, his feverish tone suddenly even and lifeless. “She just – she was there one day, and the next she wasn’t.” He glances at the photo. “Just like Jamie.”

“Did you ever find out what happened to her?”

Merlin shakes his head. “No. They told us her family moved, but that can’t happen overnight with no warning. And Freya, she was my friend. She would have told me if they were planning to leave. I know it.”

Arthur watches him, sympathy welling up in his own chest. Merlin didn’t need to say it for Arthur to see that the girl had obviously meant more to him than the word ‘friend’ could encompass.

“I tried to look for her, but I could never get far. And then I – I began to study programming codes and stuff.” Merlin’s finger taps against the cover of an old-looking laptop he’s pulled out of his bag. “When I went to Camelot, that’s what I chose to read. I focused on search engines, and I thought – I started working on something even before I came here, but I think now it’s finally – it may be complete.”

“What is it?”

Merlin turns on the laptop, proceeding to enter some sort of sequence that has to be the most complicated password Arthur has ever seen. Merlin’s hands, Arthur notices, fidgety and nervous before, are confident and dead-sure on the keys. Faintly, Arthur wonders if it’s the same way when Merlin paints.

“It’s a search engine, the special kind. I call it Kilgharrah. It can find – or at least that’s what it’s supposed to do – people with magical abilities. Like Freya.”

Arthur moves closer, staring at the complicated-looking control panel. “It’s not particularly user-friendly.”

“Wasn’t exactly a priority,” Merlin says. “I have to tell you, though, it never worked before. I never found Freya. It – at some point it told me someone with magic drives the bus I'm usually taking, but I could never find out if it was a glitch or not. I mean, it’s a bus – how exactly could I check for witches? But now I have a feeling it would work.” He glances at Jamie’s photo again. “I had – I think it was some kind of epiphany the night after Christmas. I've been working on the code ever since, and I think I might be onto something at last.”

“How does it work?” Arthur asks, even as he stares, transfixed, at Merlin’s hands flying over the keyboard. “How can it work? I mean, it’s not like there’s a database somewhere of everyone who’s ever displayed signs of magic and—”

“It uses a satellite feed to track location of a special kind of signal. I have this theory that all magic users project a kind of aura,” Merlin explains a little absently, focused on completing a profile for Jamie. He’s less nervous when he’s in his element, and Arthur has to bite back a rather dopy grin which would be highly inappropriate for the moment. “Actually, it’s not a theory so much as under-researched biological field. Professor Cooper wrote a monograph on that, and she postulated that people with magic have a certain signature, if you will, a combination of electro-magnetic distortion and biophysical residue, and it’s unique to every person – like fingerprints. It can be masked, of course, but it would require some serious magical effort, and most people aren’t even aware of it anyway.”

“So how do you—”

“The satellite I use can trace some of it, and then I had to hook to another one for the bio signature, and—”

“Merlin – the kind of technology you’re talking about. I'm pretty sure there’s nothing up in orbit capable of it that’s meant for commercial use.”

“Well, it’s not commercial strictly speaking, but a few research companies give the university access for tax deduction or something, and we do have a team project. It was easy to squeeze in another link with the kind of mess the others are making.”

Arthur shakes his head, fighting back an incredulous grin. To think that, when they first met, he’d thought Merlin to be a worthless junkie...

“Okay, I’m all set,” Merlin says. “I can’t make it look outside of Camelot, but you said everyone else had turned up within the city, so I’m hoping it’ll be enough. If it’s going to work, it’s going to work. If not, at least we’ve tried, right?”

“Right,” Arthur says, leaning over the desk for a better view and squeezing Merlin’s shoulder. “Go.”

Merlin types in the last command, and the screen goes dark.

Slowly, so very, very slowly that at first Arthur thinks it didn’t work, the city map grid starts unrolling across the screen, and then one by one miniscule dots of every colour begin to pop up like tiny bubbles on the surface of the water.

“It’s – Merlin. Is that—”

“It’s working,” Merlin breathes, stunned disbelief clear in his voice. “Holy fuck, it’s actually working!”

“What are you guys up to?” Leon asks from the doorway, a mug of coffee in his hand.

Arthur tears his eyes away from the screen reluctantly and starts explaining, but before he can really get to it, Percy and Gwen come in, so he has to start again. It’s frustrating beyond belief, and, in the end, Arthur simply calls the entire team inside and explains, while Merlin’s program keeps working.

It takes longer than their collective impatience would have preferred, but the process is fascinating. For a moment, Arthur almost feels like a kid watching a ‘magic’ show for the first time, trying to see how the tricks work, his delight growing as he continues to fail.

“Why are they all different colours?” Gwen asks, peeking at the screen over Lance’s shoulder. “And hey, look, this one’s bigger than the rest of them. And that one, too!”

“I think, if everything’s correct, different colours mean different abilities,” Merlin says, running his fingers through his hair in excitement, messing it up even more. “Like the red ones have affinity to flame, the blue ones – water, green – various transformations, white – a little bit of everything, I suppose.”

“And the size?”

“I think – I didn’t exactly write it that way, but there was a certain leeway, and I think the bigger the spot the higher the magical potential of that person is.”

“Wow, look at that,” Leon says, eyes growing wide. “They just keep coming. I had no idea there were so many magic folks still alive, let alone in Camelot. Merlin, how precise is this thing?”

“Very,” Merlin replies, tone confident. “It can pinpoint magic within a few feet radius.”

“Nice. Just how smart are you?”

Merlin grins bashfully, ducking his head. “I’ve been working on this a long time, Leon. A long time to get it to do—”

He trails off suddenly, as a tiny purple spot on the screen begins to blink, the view adapting quickly to zoom in on it.

“Do you think it’s her?” Arthur asks, leaning over. “Merlin?”

“I think so,” Merlin mutters distractedly, working quickly to adjust the settings. “Let me just—”

They all watch with bated breath, as the search square on the screen zooms in further and further, narrowing down the quarter, the street, and finally the building.

“All right, let’s go,” Arthur says, the address already committed to memory.

“But what if—”

“It’s still the best lead we have, and our 48-hour window is almost up. Gear up, people. Lance, you’re coming with us. Percy, get the van.”

“Wait,” Gwen says, pointing at the screen in the midst of the commotion. “There’s something else. Something’s happening.”

The flush of freshly released adrenaline in his veins, Arthur pauses impatiently, charged for action (at long last!), but the search engine is indeed acting weirdly. Seemingly without any input, the zoom refocuses on a different – and instantly familiar part of the city, closing in on the main police station building in a kind of feverish haze.

“Merlin?” Arthur asks in warning.

“I’m not doing anything!” Merlin pushes back from the desk, hands in the air. “I don’t know—”

A huge golden spot emerges inside the police building square. It’s so big and so bright that it eclipses every other flicker around it as Kilgharrah zooms in – and in, and in.

“Holy shit,” Leon mutters. “We’ve got someone really strong right here in the building.”

The screen blinks, and, instead of the city plan, the map changes to the building schematics, showing every floor and every room.

“Merlin,” Arthur says softly, a chill running down his spine at the thought. “I think you might want to—”

But it’s too late, because the closer it gets, the more inevitable the conclusion looks. Merlin is staring at the screen helplessly in numb shock, as his own creation goes through floor after floor, room after room, until it stops at the rectangular box that represents Arthur’s office.

Arthur doesn’t need to say anything, as his people start to file out one by one, backing to the door and the walls, everyone but Merlin.

The huge golden spot remains in place, shimmering on the screen in contentment.

“Well,” Leon says from the door, breaking the stunned silence. “That would explain a few things. And here I was, thinking of asking you to babysit for me.”

Merlin blinks, and looks around until he finds Arthur, his eyes huge with pure, unadulterated shock.

“But that’s not possible,” his voice comes as a hoarse whisper. “The program” – he clears his throat – “Kilgharrah must be wrong. This can’t be true. It can’t be.”

“Maybe,” Arthur says, hating himself already. “There’s only one way to find out.”

He pushes toward the door, sweeping his team up as he goes, and trying desperately to ignore the utterly crushed, terrified expression on Merlin’s face.

--

They find the girl. Somehow, Merlin managed to convince himself that they wouldn’t, and things would go back to their normal levels of fucked up again. He sits in Arthur’s office, as it steadily goes darker, feeling like an awful person and staring at a once-hot cup of tea that is glaring ice-daggers back at him.

Then Gwen bursts in, like an explosion of sound and colour, and between her fierce hugs and Leon’s enthusiastic clapping on the back, Merlin gets the gist of it.

Little Jamie is fine, they kept her asleep through most of it, so she won’t remember much. The thugs that had her had dropped dead before they could be questioned – ‘literally dropped dead, Merlin, wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes’ and ‘Lance doesn’t think it’s poison, but he’s running a tox screen, so we’ll see’. They found the girl exactly where Kilgharrah had pointed them, so the program is definitely working. Which means...

There’s a loud noise in his ears, and his vision whites out for a moment.

He has magic. Inexplicably, impossibly, somehow. He has magic. A lot of it.

“Merlin.”

He looks up to find Arthur, still dressed in his black assault suit, staring at him with an expression of undisguised concern.

“But it’s not possible,” Merlin whispers. “I can’t even light a bloody candle.”

“Thank gods for small mercies,” a cold voice says from the door, and Merlin blinks, startled.

Arthur turns around and annoyingly stops in a position that blocks the doorway from view. Merlin frowns, craning his neck to look around him.

Morgana, looking paler than even usual, is standing beside an unfamiliar woman, whose sharp blond locks and strict to the point of prudish business suit make for a terrifying combination.

“Arthur, step aside,” the woman snaps irritably, not rolling her eyes clearly only because it would be beneath her. “I'm not about to snap his neck, for goodness’s sake. Isn’t that why you called me?”

Arthur grumbles something indistinguishable under his breath and does move, but not too far. Merlin fights a truly pathetic urge to grab his hand, but he’s being stared down by a blond Amazon who might well be hiding a sword in her sleeve so he’s not too concerned about his masculinity at the moment.

“Hi?” he says uncertainly.

Morgana clears her throat. “Merlin, this is my sister Morgause. She teaches medieval studies at the university. She also—”

“Has magic,” Merlin says in awe, as Morgause’s eyes flicker to gold for a fraction of a second.

“Incredible,” Morgause says, ignoring the attempt at civility. “I've been trying to confound him since I walked in. He didn’t even feel a thing.”

“What?” Merlin yelps, startled. “Confound me?”

Arthur moves closer to him instantly, grabbing his arm, as if to forcefully pull him away from Morgause. She lifts an unimpressed eyebrow at them, as though they’re misbehaving children.

“Oh, come off it,” she tells Arthur coolly. “I wouldn’t have harmed him, but I had to test him, didn’t I? Things are worse than you all think they are.”

“How is that possible?” Arthur asks, a fatalistic note to his tone.

“I don’t really have magic?” Merlin says hopefully.

Morgause turns a smile at him that is anything but kind. “You most certainly do, little mouse. But it’s not that simple. You don’t simply have magic. You are a Source.”

Morgana gasps loudly, the rest of them simply stare, and Merlin asks with a sinking feeling, “I'm a what?”

“A Source. You are a focal point of magical energy. It’s like electricity. Some people have to light candles, some have to recharge batteries, few can illuminate a room. You? You are a nuclear power station.”

“But—”

“It doesn’t matter that you can’t tap into your own power yet. Obviously, you need to learn control before that, or you’d blow up half the island. But you most definitely are a Source. You carry so much magical power it’s a miracle you’re not constantly on fire.”

Merlin slowly becomes aware of Arthur’s arm around his shoulders, holding him up. He’s stupidly grateful.

“Is he dangerous?” Leon asks.

Merlin winces, not having thought about that. Arthur’s fingers tighten on his shoulder.

Morgause shrugs. “Under normal circumstances, I'd say we have nothing to worry about. Merlin obviously has a very strong defence mechanism in place that prevents him from using his power until he can handle it. But these aren’t normal circumstances. Someone has been kidnapping people with magic. We don’t know what would happen if Merlin is attacked next, and his magic thinks he’s in danger.”

“Merlin has been attacked twice already,” Percy pipes up from the corner.

Morgause’s eyes narrow. “Then you’ve been very, very lucky indeed.”

“So who are we looking for exactly?” Leon asks. “Some kind of radical Father Aredian fan? A religious fanatic who hates magic?”

“No, it doesn’t fit.” Arthur shakes his head, stepping away. Part of Merlin wants to reach after him on pure instinct. “Aredian, for all his rhetoric, is no Grand Inquisitor, he has no idea how to find people with magic. No one does – or at least no one did” – he looks at Merlin, then at a laptop on his desk – “until now.”

Arthur pauses, looking around at his people slowly, jaw set in determination. “Merlin’s program is dangerous. In the wrong hands it could start all manners of disaster. The knowledge of it doesn’t leave this room. Am I clear?”

Everyone nods, murmuring assent. Merlin feels feverish.

“The disappearances, all those people,” Arthur muses, “they all turned up either dead or insane and stripped of their magic.”

“I didn’t know it could be done,” Morgause says. “I mean, there are ways of preventing a person from using it, but taking it away completely is unheard of. It’s like ripping away part of your soul – or your genome, if you will.”

Arthur looks at her for a long moment before saying, “I think someone found a way to do it. Most people don’t survive it. Those who do go insane. It had first started twenty years ago, when my father was still an investigator here. If we go through the archives, knowing what to look for this time, we’ll probably find a string of disappearances through the years in-between up until recently, when whoever’s doing it has become too bold.”

“But how can we find such a person?” Owain asks, bewildered. “I mean what does he want? To ‘cure’ people of magic? So he is a religious nut after all?”

Arthur exchanges glances with Morgause; after a moment, she nods at him grimly.

“I don’t think it’s about curing people,” Arthur says slowly, turning to look directly at Merlin. “I think it’s about extortion.”

Merlin feels sick. “You mean – someone is—”

“Collecting other people’s magic, yes. Which would explain why they are so desperate to get to you.”

“Huh,” Merlin says.

It’s weird, but he feels more secure now that things are making sense. He straightens up, glancing at the concerned faces around him.

“Will it help if I go away somewhere? Far away?”

Morgause’s lips twist in wry amusement. “And how far would be far enough? You don’t know that. I don’t know that.”

“No, Merlin, it won’t help,” Arthur says grimly. “Not to you, and not to all the people your program—”

“Kilgharrah.”

“—Kilgharrah has identified. They are all in danger. We have to find a way to protect them.”

“How?” Leon asks sceptically. “We can’t exactly issue a public warning. First of all, we can’t ‘out’ every magic user in Camelot against their will. Some of them might not even know they have magic. Second of all, even if we do go public with this, we’re going to be laughed at. Magic as in real magic has been absent since the last Great Purge. There are going to be experts, historians, politicians, preachers – all kinds of opinions and debates, and all the while people will still be in danger.”

“Gentlemen, I think you’re underestimating the threat,” Morgause interjects coolly. “This person has been collecting magic for years, presumably consuming it. The destructive potential of that much magical power would be devastating. Remember the last World War? That would be a walk in the park compared to how much havoc a person with that much magical power could wreak.”

“If we can’t go public, what can we do?” Percy asks. “Looking for the guy, obviously, but in the meantime—”

“In the meantime,” Arthur says, “we protect as many people as possible without showing our hand. Morgause is right, whoever the perpetrator is, he’s extremely dangerous, and tipping him off that we’re on to him can provoke him into taking drastic action. We need to be discreet. No rumours, no conversations, no discussions outside this circle.”

“We can identify the areas most populated by magic users,” Leon says thoughtfully, studying Kilgharrah’s map, “and double routine patrols there.”

“Hold unscheduled drills,” Lance chimes in. “Nothing suspicious about that.”

“Good, we’ll do that.” Arthur nods. “If someone disappears again, Kilgharrah will help us find them. Now, as for the magic users we have here—”

“I can take care of myself,” Morgause snorts at him dismissively.

“Fine,” Arthur says. “Morgana, I'm hiring you a bodyguard.”

Morgana scoffs, but doesn’t argue, which is a clear indication of how frightened she is.

“And you.” Arthur turns to Merlin.

Merlin shrugs. “You can’t hire me a bodyguard. It’ll be like waving a banner that says ‘Hey you, we’ve caught up with your plan finally!’

Leon frowns. “We can’t leave you unprotected, either. You heard Morgause. God only knows what would happen if whoever it is gets his hands on you. We’ll have to find some unobtrusive way to guard you...”

“He can move in with Arthur,” Morgana says. Everyone turns to stare at her, and she flashes them a bright smile. “No, really, it’s perfect, don’t you see? Merlin has been working here for months, at some point, he and Arthur started dating, Merlin is too broke to afford rent – sorry, Merlin – so it’s only logical that he moves in with his boyfriend. And then Arthur can pick him up and be with him whenever, and Merlin has even more excuses to hang around here with all of you, and no one from the outside suspects a thing. It’s perfect.”

“It’s not!” Merlin snaps, his heart hammering madly in his chest. He can’t look at Arthur. “I can’t just – move in with him!”

“Morgana, now is hardly the time for jokes,” Arthur says, his faze frozen in an odd way.

Morgana lifts her eyebrows. “Who’s joking? You have a spare bedroom you never use, so it’s not like you’re going to be inconvenienced much.”

“That’s not the point!” Arthur snaps. “Leon, help me out here, would you?”

Leon clears his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Well, actually, Arthur, when you think about it – I mean you said it yourself the other night—”

Outside,” Arthur growls at him. “Now.”

They smash shoulders as they try to get through the doorway at the same time, the sounds of scuffle filtering in even after the door has closed.

“Well, I think I’d better go,” Merlin says brightly, reaching to collect his laptop.

He’s not fooling anyone. Percy frowns at him and moves to stand in front of the door, blocking the way. Morgana pats his arm with very fake sympathy.

“You’re not going anywhere, Merlin,” Lance says with quiet confidence that Merlin has always loved about him, but that is now incredibly infuriating.

“Why the hell not?” Merlin whirls at him, looking from face to face, searching for a weak link. “This is a crazy idea, no offence, Morgana. You’ll have to find some other way of settling the score with Arthur than saddling him with me.”

She shrugs, studying her nails. “I can find a million before my morning coffee, but why bother? This is one argument Arthur doesn’t stand a chance of winning.”

Just then, Arthur’s raised voice booms through the tightly shut doors.

will make being in my own home utterly intolerable!

Merlin winces. “He hates me.”

Morgana chuckles. “Oh, Merlin. If he did, he wouldn’t have had the slightest problem going along with my plan.”

Merlin blinks. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

Morgana just smiles enigmatically and ruffles his hair, as though he’s a cute (if dumb) puppy. But she must know something Merlin doesn’t, because, when Arthur returns to the room, he’s wearing an expression of someone resigned to his unpleasant but inevitable fate.

“Oh no,” Merlin says reflexively, stepping back. “No, no, no, no, no. This is a horrible idea.”

Arthur sighs and reaches to take the laptop bag from Merlin’s unresisting grip and hoist it on his own shoulder. “Can’t argue with you on that one.”

--

Merlin’s entire life is rearranged faster than it takes for them to reach the car park.

They’ll pick up Merlin’s things tomorrow. Arthur will be driving him to the campus and back. No boyfriend of Arthur Pendragon works at a nightclub, so Merlin will call Simon and give his notice. Someone will have to call Gwaine before he screws them all up by asking too many questions.

Arthur is still talking, laying out the points on a checklist as though he’s reciting a battle plan, but Merlin can’t hear him over the rising wave of white noise filling his ears. The sight of Arthur’s bright red fuck-fuel-economy monster of car makes the entire thing more real, and it’s suddenly hard to breathe, because there’s no air. Merlin sucks it in through his mouth greedily, panicking, his chest straining with the effort, but his lungs still feel empty, starving for air, and there are red spots before his eyes, his head spinning, ground falling from under his feet, as he reaches for something – for anything to hold on to.

“Merlin.”

Arthur’s hands grip his shoulders, not shaking, but gripping hard. Arthur is sitting on his knees on the ground in front of him, giving Merlin a point of reference to realise that he himself is sitting on the pavement, his back to the gleaming brutish car wheel.

“Merlin, come on, breathe with me,” Arthur orders, voice tight, controlled, blissfully cool. “Match me, come on. In and out, in and out, that’s it, in, out, in, out, you’re doing so good, that’s it, that’s it.”

Concentrating on that one thing is a relief. In. Out. Matching Arthur’s rhythm breath for breath. His head clears slowly, filled with crystal cold clarity with every slower inhale. The bright red pain in his chest recedes.

“You had a panic attack,” Arthur says eventually, tone gentle and careful. He releases Merlin’s shoulders, but doesn’t break the contact entirely, resting his hands on Merlin’s knees instead, rubbing slow circles into them. Merlin is stupidly grateful, almost tearing up. “Does this happen often?”

Merlin shakes his head, blinking quickly. “This is the first time.”

“Jesus,” Arthur whispers. “Come on. Move over.”

Merlin is still too shaken to grasp it at once, so Arthur has to nudge him a few times, until they’re sitting side by side on the cold ground, Arthur’s arm wrapped around Merlin’s shoulders, heavy, solid. Warm.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin ventures, not quite knowing what he’s apologising for.

“No,” Arthur says at once, firm. “I’m sorry we have to put you through this, Merlin. But Morgana is right, much as it pains me to admit it. So is Leon. We have to keep you safe. It’s living with me or arresting you for something horrible enough to land you in prison, and you would not do well in prison, Merlin.” A note of light teasing enters Arthur’s voice. “Not at all.”

More than anything in the world right now Merlin wants to turn into him, to cling to Arthur with his entire body and hold on, if only for a little while. But as his panic recedes, his pride returns, and he remembers that Arthur doesn’t want any of this, either.

“It’s not—” He clears his throat. “I’m not scared of whoever it is that attacks people. It’s just – what am I supposed to do when this whole thing is over? My flat, my job... I’ll have nothing.”

He can feel Arthur’s eyes on him. “Of all the things, this is what set you off?”

Merlin shrugs, lowering his head, his jaw tightening stubbornly. He might not have had a lot going on, but it was his and it was working. He didn’t live the life of luxury or even comfort, but it had taken him years to reach the point where he could hold his head above the water.

Now he is about to lose it. And having little is tragically, drastically different from having nothing.

“Merlin.” Arthur uses his hold to pull him in, turning the casual touch into a hug. With his free hand he tips Merlin’s chin up until their eyes meet. “I’d say I’ll take care of you, but that’s not what you want to hear, is it?” Arthur murmurs almost tenderly. “You want to stand tall, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Except sometimes you have to let someone else help you out. No one gets through life on their own. No one, Merlin. It’s – it’s all right to lean on someone sometimes.”

It’s not the words, but the way Arthur says them – as though twisting his tongue around unfamiliar syllables for the first time, finally understanding them himself, that makes Merlin nod at long last and go slack in Arthur’s hold.

For the first time in his life the saying about the blind leading the blind actually sounds reassuring.

--

Merlin’s landlord is surprised to see him go, but even more surprised to see him actually go instead of simply disappearing into the ether and never coming back the way his roommates had. All of Merlin’s possessions still fit into the old duffel bag he’d brought them in two years ago.

“Is that rubbish?” Morgana asks, wrinkling her nose and staring at the bag like it’s a health hazard. “I wouldn’t bother taking it out if I were you.”

Morgana is there to pack Merlin’s paintings, having volunteered to safe-keep them in her gallery. She goes through them confidently, as though already owning them, and Merlin can’t help feeling like a man whose wife is being felt up in front of him. He knows he should be happy that she wants some of them in her gallery, rather than in the storeroom, but at the moment he can’t feel any joy about that.

He calls Simon and, in a surprising twist of events, gets lectured. ‘Far be it for me to snub someone for finding a sugar daddy, but Arthur Pendragon just never goes for that. Merlin, you can’t simply have your job back when he’s done playing with you. The waiting list is still six months long.’

The fact that Simon of all people is looking out for Merlin’s interests makes the entire thing even more surreal and grotesque.

Early winter dusk finds Merlin sitting morosely on the ridiculously soft bed in Arthur’s guest bedroom, surrounded by the grey and burgundy of casual luxury, feeling small and helpless. Cliché as it is, he really does feel like a leaf in the wind, powerless and rootless. The fact that he possesses magic still doesn’t compute for him, Kilgharrah’s revelations feeling almost like a best friend’s betrayal.

Merlin tugs his knees tighter to his chest. He wants to go home. Except – oh, yes, he has no home.

“Merlin?” Arthur pokes his head through the door. “Dinner’s here, and I put a movie on, if you want.”

He leaves before Merlin can reply, and, for a moment, Merlin can almost imagine it being true, Arthur taking care of him because he loves him, not because he’s forced to. What a nice feeling that must be.

They eat in the living room, watching Cowboys vs Aliens on a big plasma screen that’s taking up half the wall. Merlin is pretty sure neither of them is paying attention. Dinner is takeaway, except Arthur’s takeaway comes from a four-star French restaurant, so the steak must be delicious, and the silverware is beautiful.

It’s a waste, Merlin thinks regretfully. He wishes he could enjoy the flavour, but he can’t feel the taste the same way he can’t laugh at the movie.

“What if you find him tomorrow?” Merlin asks without quite meaning to. “I don’t – I don’t even have anywhere to go.”

Arthur sets his plate aside, and turns to look at him. “I’m not going to throw you out on the street, Merlin. You can stay here for as long as you need.”

“Why? You don’t even like me that much.”

Arthur pushes his plate aside and cocks his head. “Is that what you think?”

Merlin stares down to where his fingers are demolishing a napkin in his lap, and doesn’t answer.

He can feel the movement, but he’s still unprepared when Arthur’s hand covers his, stilling the jerky, nervous motions.

“Merlin – you understand why this had to be done, don’t you?” Arthur asks softly. “It’s not just your life on the line anymore.”

“No, I get it,” Merlin snaps, unable to hold back the bitterness. “I’m some sort of time bomb, a danger to the city. And I can’t even—” He bites his lip in frustration. “That is so unfair.”

Arthur takes away the napkin and moves closer, wrapping his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. Ever since Merlin’s panic attack in the car park, Arthur has been touching him freely and more frequently, as though some kind of barrier has been broken.

Merlin feels like he should mind, but he doesn’t. He feels perpetually cold, and Arthur always runs hot like a walking space heater. Mostly, when Merlin does manage to make himself pull back, it’s for fear of getting used to it.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Arthur says softly. “You have a gift. It’s a beautiful thing. When this is all over, you can explore it, and I’m sure will do something wonderful with it.”

“How do you know that?” Merlin asks petulantly. “You don’t even know me.”

Arthur actually smiles and ruffles his hair. “I think I know enough.”

He stands up to collect the plates, and Merlin almost asks him to sit back down, missing the solidity of the touch, the safety of the embrace.

How did this happen? Arthur is the same person who yelled at Merlin for one thing or other almost every time that they met. The same person who had literally twisted his arm that one time – so carefully, Merlin understands it now, Arthur had been so very careful with him, almost – almost gentle. He’s gruff, he’s rude, he yells, he orders rather than asks, but he’s also—

“Merlin.” Arthur rests a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “I know you’re scared. I know you didn’t ask for any of this. And I can’t help that this has happened, but I promise you, I will protect you at any cost. You’re safe here. You’re safe with me.”

kind. He’s so impossibly kind and noble and generous that it brings tears to Merlin’s eyes, and makes him want to follow Arthur to hell and back – and Merlin had never wanted to follow anyone in anything his entire life.

“Fuck,” Merlin mutters, sitting there on the couch, listening to Arthur loading the dishwasher in the kitchen as the movie credits roll on screen.

So this is why he’d agreed to the frankly insane scheme, why he hadn’t picked up and run the way his instincts told him to do. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t want to run, even if staying feels like breathing underwater – chest burning, spots before his eyes.

It’s Arthur; it’s always been Arthur since the day they met.

And there’s nowhere left to run.

--

The clothes arrive the next day, and Merlin tries to put up a fight, but it’s useless.

“We have to keep up the ruse,” Arthur tells him calmly, buttering his toast. “There’s no way I’d let you keep those rags you call clothes if we really were in a relationship. It’s not even about fashion, you’ll freeze to death dressed like that.” He lays the piece of toast in front of Merlin and pushes the marmalade toward him. “Come on, Merlin, try and be reasonable for once, it doesn’t actually hurt. There’s being proud and there’s being stupid. Consider it part of being in protective custody.”

Merlin bristles, even as he reaches for the marmalade. “I don’t know what’s left of me anymore. I feel like you’ve taken over my life.”

Arthur looks at him over the rim of his coffee mug. “I asked Morgana to pick the clothes if it’s any consolation. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

Merlin snorts, but there’s little humour in it. “Right, because asking your sister to help dress your boy toy gives the entire thing so much dignity.”

Arthur lifts an eyebrow, amused. “Boy toy?”

Merlin blushes. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, I have to admit, you’re remarkably articulate. Especially when something offends your delicate sensibilities.”

“I just – I feel so – cheap.”

Arthur snorts into his coffee. “Merlin, if I know anything about Morgana, it’s that she doesn’t believe in any other wool except cashmere and absolutely abhors mass-market. Cheap is definitely not the word you’re looking for.”

“And that makes it better how?”

Arthur considers him for a moment, the calm scrutiny unnerving. His tie is cornflower blue, offsetting his crisp white shirt, the collar still undone, teasing with a glimpse of skin.

Merlin didn’t think it was possible to feel more trapped.

“Can’t you consider it a gift from your friends?” Arthur asks softly at last.

“They’d have to be some friends to spend that kind of money,” Merlin mutters.

“Well then, operational necessity it is,” Arthur says firmly, pushing to his feet. “No, I don’t want to hear any more about it, Merlin. When we’re done, you can give it all to Goodwill, if you want, but until then kindly shut up and get changed. You’ll be late for classes.”

There’s nothing to it, but get up and obey, and Merlin does, grumbling under his breath the entire time.

The clothes feel foreign to him, the softness of textures, the perfect fit, the way he feels instantly warm the moment he puts them on. Morgana didn’t forget anything from underwear and socks to boots and upper coats, and there’s a dark blue scarf Merlin instantly falls in love with.

Arthur is already fully dressed and waiting impatiently, when Merlin emerges from his room. Something bright flashes in Arthur’s eyes when he sees Merlin, but he doesn’t comment, beyond looking at his wristwatch and telling Merlin to hurry up.

Merlin tells himself he’s not disappointed.

They drive to campus, accompanied by the scratchy sound of the police scanner. Merlin keeps tugging at the sleeves of his new sweater nervously, looking out the window into the grey mist. He feels almost too warm and restless, and wishing the ride would go on forever and be over already at the same time.

Arthur brazenly parks in front of the main entrance, disregarding the sign that says emergency services only, ignoring the honks and the stares.

“Do you have to be this obnoxious?” Merlin asks, very aware that everyone’s staring at them and feeling all the more nervous for it.

“Yes,” Arthur replies, matter-of-fact. “We need to draw attention. They have to know that you’re dating a police officer.”

“Yes, but—”

Whatever else he wanted to say dies in his throat, when Arthur leans over to plant a soft kiss on Merlin’s cheek.

He pulls back just barely, his breath warm on Merlin’s face, as he winks and says, “Have a nice day, baby.”

“Um.” Merlin swallows reflexively, eyes dropping to Arthur’s lips of their own volition.

“Fuck,” Arthur breathes, drifting closer like he can’t help it. “Oh, fuck,” he groans, “get the hell out of my car, for the love of God.”

“Right.” Merlin tries desperately to pull himself together, fingers searching for the door handle blindly. “I’ll see you later.”

He almost falls out of the car and sprints for the Computer Science building without looking back, turning the collar of his ridiculously warm grey coat against the stares as much as the mist.

Behind him, the engine roars loudly, hungry for the road.

The day passes in a daze. Merlin fends off the questions from people who’d never said a word to him before. He blushes and stumbles all over the place at first, but, by lunch, he’s so annoyed, he doesn’t think twice before blurting out, ‘Excuse me, I need to call my boyfriend.’

He can hear them whispering all kinds of things, from calling him a slut to wondering if he’s being harassed, but he doesn’t care. He digs up his battered headphones from the bottom of his bag, puts them on, and powers through.

It doesn’t matter. So many of his fellow students are in danger, without even knowing it. So many hide their magic, while others don’t suspect they even have a gift. That’s what’s important. Pesky rumours, Merlin can deal with.

What he’s finding hard to deal with is Arthur waiting for him when Merlin walks out after his mid-afternoon class. Before Merlin can so much as say hello, there’s a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a cup of coffee in his hands, and Arthur slings his arm around Merlin’s shoulders, walking him to the car and asking about his day.

It’s one of the most surreal experiences Merlin has ever lived through, and he’s having a hard time remembering it’s not real.

“Don’t look so stunned, it’s not attractive,” Arthur murmurs, opening the passenger door for him. “I can be nice.” He leans over and takes a bite of the doughnut Merlin’s still holding in his hand.

“I see it and I still don’t believe it,” Merlin mutters under his breath, drawing his hand up to wipe a smear of sugar powder off the corner of Arthur’s mouth.

Arthur stills under the touch, eyes wide and searching, and Merlin blushes furiously, his brain catching up to his actions.

“Sorry, I – you, er, had a little – never mind.” He leaves it as a lost cause and gets into the car.

He’s suddenly hoping against his own conscience and better judgment that it’ll take them a long, long time to find the killer.

--

It’s surprising how quickly they get into a rhythm.

Arthur drives Merlin to campus and picks him up after classes. They have lunch or stop for coffee – or both when Arthur’s feeling particularly stubborn about Merlin’s diet. Afterwards, they drive to the police station, where Merlin works with the rest of the team, bringing Kilgharrah to life to check up on missing people or talk to witnesses.

People keep teasing Arthur mercilessly for being too in love to stand being apart from his boyfriend – both those in the know and not – and, to Merlin’s surprise, Arthur deals with it with a staggering amount of good humour.

“Yeah, he’s not so easy to embarrass these days,” Gwaine complains once, nudging Merlin with his elbow. “Though he’s normally less of a good sport about it. Is it only me, or is he enjoying this too much?”

“It’s just you,” Merlin tells him dryly, but his heart flutters treacherously at the words.

Arthur does play his part incredibly well. His eyes frequently rest on Merlin. His arm is always on Merlin’s shoulder, or around his waist, and, if someone is staring especially hard, Arthur would kiss his cheek or nuzzle his hair, and Merlin would always – always – blush and try to push him off, which would only make Arthur grin at him, wide and happy.

They are obnoxious, they are that couple, and Merlin is beginning to seriously fear for Arthur’s professional reputation.

“Don’t worry.” Gwaine rolls his eyes. “They’d let him get away with more, because the more hopelessly smitten he looks? The more they can gloat that Mr Perfect is human after all. Nobody likes working with someone who’s too good for basic human stupidity. Those gigantic hearts in his eyes help more than hurt.”

“He doesn’t have hearts in his eyes,” Merlin mutters.

Gwaine laughs and ruffles his hair. “Whatever you say, sweetheart.”

--

Back at Arthur’s flat, Arthur cooks, which is possibly the biggest surprise of all.

“Our housekeeper taught me when I was little,” Arthur explains, trying his best not to look embarrassed and failing. “I obviously didn’t do it much before I left. When I came back, I had a lot of time on my hands at first. Then, I started this job and classes, and it wasn’t worth the time when it was just me. What?” he asks when Merlin shakes his head.

“Nothing. It’s just—” Merlin bites his lip. “If I could afford all this stuff, I’d cook all the time.” He chuckles. “I’d probably be pants at it, though.”

Arthur peers at him for a moment, then holds out the spatula. “Taste this for me.”

Merlin comes over, and lets Arthur feed him a spoonful of chilli.

“Enough salt?” Arthur murmurs.

Merlin licks his lips, the hot pepper setting his tongue on fire. “Yeah,” he breathes out. “It’s really good. Might burn a hole in my stomach, but it’s delicious.”

Arthur grins at him. “Perfect.”

--

“Listen, I’ve been thinking. Don’t you miss painting?”

“Sorry?” Merlin looks up from his laptop. It’s a rare night when he’s actually doing his homework instead of finding new and creative ways to track down the bad guys.

Arthur pushes his hands into the front pockets of his jeans and shrugs. “I just thought your easel would fit nicely over there.” He points at the empty space in the end of the living room closest to the window. “The light is probably better there than anywhere else around here, and if you were worried about the smell of paint or something, I don’t care.”

Merlin lifts his eyebrows. “You say that now.”

Arthur rubs the back of his neck. “No, I’m sort of used to it. I spent half of Sixth Form practically living in Morgana’s studio, back when she thought she could paint. I don’t mind.”

“That’s... very kind of you. Thank you.”

“It was just a thought.” Arthur shrugs and leaves before Merlin can thank him again.

--

Merlin does put up the easel a few days later, but he sticks to watercolours. Arthur watches him paint for several hours that night, and Merlin can’t remember for the life of him what they are talking about, but he will remember being drunk on the sound of Arthur’s laughter.

It’s the most beautiful, peaceful night he’s had in a long, long time.

--

Except of course the peaceful part can’t last.

“How come you don’t have a boyfriend?” Merlin blurts out a few days later, because it’s too late in the day for filters to be working properly, they closed another missing person case that day, and red wine is evil.

Arthur gives him a curt look. “I do now.”

“Yeah, but that’s not real.”

Arthur purses his lips and says nothing for a long moment, his attention on whatever ingredients he has in the mixer bowl, because brownies made at moonrise are apparently all the hype.

“Guess nobody wants me,” he says at last, shrugging it off.

Merlin rolls his eyes. “Oh, come on. You’re gorgeous looking – shut up, it’s not a compliment, just a fact, and you know it, you have a job, you’re kind of loaded, you cook, for God’s sake, and you’re generally not as much of an arsehole as you seem to be at first.”

“Why, thank you.”

“No, for real, though. When you forget to be a prick you’re – you’re nice. And you’re kind, and noble, and – I’m just saying. A lot of blokes would be sweet on that. Who wouldn’t be sweet on that? Unless—”

“What?”

“Oh, that figures.”

What figures, Merlin? Enlighten me, since your numerous degrees in human psychology and keen observational skills clearly make you an expert.”

“That right there. It’s got to be your arrogance. Probably treat everyone like they’re not good enough for you.”

Arthur’s hands freeze, and the line of his jaw tightens. He turns around, flour on his shirt, his eyes hard.

“You think so, do you?” he asks, taking a step forward. “Well, how about this? My father used to get roaring drunk and yell at me that I’m the reason my mother’s dead and he wished they never had me. Nothing I did had ever been good enough for him, which is as much of a fucking cliché as it gets. I guess the script was that Morgana spends the rest of her life going from one rehab to another, while I become my father’s less powerful, less impressive image. So it didn’t go over as planned, but it’s not like we’ve won anything. My sister changes lovers so fast, it’s no use trying to learn their names, and I—”

“Arthur—”

“—I’m a workaholic who always puts his job first. I’m apparently emotionally unavailable, if not downright constipated. I don’t know how to do any of those ‘sweet things’ lovers are supposed to do, I never learned. Maybe it was arrogant of me, I wouldn’t know.”

Merlin takes a deep breath, heart beating in his throat. “You make coffee before you wake me up in the morning,” he says quietly.

Arthur hits the counter with his palm. “That’s not – sweet. You’re worse of a zombie in the mornings than I am; that’s just self-preservation.”

“Arthur—”

“I’m an insomniac, and when I do fall asleep, I have nightmares. I’m a control freak, and I need everything to be done my way. I hate being told what to do. I’m possessive, and when I get jealous, it’s not pretty.” He puts his hands on the counter at either side of Merlin, locking him in. “If you were really mine, do you think I’d tolerate the way Gwaine looks at you? It would drive me crazy, Merlin.” He bites at the air, rather than take a breath. “Does me being single still sound weird to you?”

Merlin swallows, his throat painfully dry, and tries to come up with a reasonable answer, but Arthur is crowding him too close, and Merlin’s brain is still stuck on ‘really mine’ with no hope of recovery.

Except, there’s a sharp edge in Arthur’s eyes, a mixture of hope, prematurely defeated, and desperation in the unhappy set of his mouth, and the way he would allow himself to go this far, but no further when he has to know – he has to know by now—

“You deserve better than to be lonely,” Merlin hears himself say.

A shudder runs through Arthur’s entire frame; it’s like watching a mountain crumble into the sea in mere seconds. Merlin wants to reach out, to help, but he doesn’t know how.

Arthur closes his eyes, bowing his head. “Go to bed, Merlin.” His voice sounds strangled.

“I’m not sleepy.”

“Then watch a movie or something. Just go.”

“But—”

Go.”

Merlin does. He goes through two episodes of Walking Dead, before Arthur joins him, uncharacteristically hesitant as he pads through his own living room to sit on the other end of the couch. He’s tense in a way that makes it feel he’d shatter at the slightest touch.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin offers softly after a few silent moments.

Arthur blinks slowly, turning to look at him. “You’re sorry?”

Cautiously, Merlin shifts a little closer. “I didn’t mean to pry. I – mostly meant it as a joke.”

“No, you didn’t. You framed it as a joke. But you meant it.”

Colour rising in his cheeks again, Merlin bites his lip, but meets Arthur’s eyes. “No, you’re right, I really – it just doesn’t compute for me, okay? That someone like you—”

“Can be bad at relationships?” Arthur suggests with a tired smile. “Yeah, I’m pretty fucked up, as Morgana never tires of reminding me.”

“I just always thought,” Merlin says, blushing, but desperate to explain himself, “I thought that it’s different, the whole dating lark. That it’s easy for people like you.”

“People like me?”

Merlin feels his entire face flush at the sweet, teasing tone Arthur uses. “You’re fishing. I already told you, you were gorgeous once today. I’m not saying it again.”

There’s a beat of silence, and then Arthur moves, so fast it’s almost supernatural. Merlin gasps as Arthur presses him against the back of the couch, arms holding him down, lips pressed against the hollow of Merlin’s neck. Arthur takes a deep breath and Merlin lets out a soft, embarrassing little sound that he’d die to take back.

“You should really stop saying shit like that,” Arthur murmurs low in his ear. “Back in the kitchen, and now... My self-control has a limit, you little imp. I have to live through hell every single day, seeing you just out of bed, just out of the fucking shower, smiling that smile that makes you so damn adorable, it’s unbearable. Where do you get off teasing me like this? So fucking innocent, like you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s driving me up the fucking wall.”

Arthur pushes up to look in his face. Their eyes meet, and Merlin almost forgets how to breathe. His heart is hammering in his chest, the electrifying pulse of desire setting every cell in body on fire. It feels as though the universe is throwing his dearest wish at him, daring him to take it, and Merlin wants to, trembles with want, but he’s too spellbound, too terrified of it coming true to reach for it.

The shrill ring of Arthur’s mobile cuts through the tension, and Merlin can’t tell if he sags with disappointment or relief. Arthur drops his forehead against Merlin’s chest for a moment, before straightening up with a groan and reaching for his phone.

“Pendragon.”

Merlin watches his face, trying to keep up with Arthur’s conversation with Percy, but failing spectacularly. All he can really think about is what almost happened and if he wanted for that moment to come back.

“Fine, I’ll be right there,” Arthur says and disconnects the call. When he turns to look at Merlin, he’s once again a consummate professional. “I need to go. Annis called for an urgent department meeting.”

“At 10 p.m?”

“There’s no rest for the wicked, Merlin. Looks like someone had finally noticed that we’re up to something, believe it or not. It’s only taken them a couple of weeks.”

Merlin grabs his arm. “Are you in trouble?”

Arthur shrugs, sliding up to his feet. “I don’t know. It’ll mostly depend on how good a story I can spin.”

Merlin follows him to the door, watching as Arthur pulls on his jacket.

“Lock after me, don’t go anywhere, and keep an eye on Kilgharrah,” Arthur says, obviously trying his best not to meet Merlin’s eyes. It’s like the moment on the couch never happened.

“You want me to go with you?”

No.” The emphasis in Arthur’s tone is unmistakable, and he does look at Merlin now. “I most certainly do not. The less Annis knows about you, the better. Lock up, and don’t set one foot out this door.”

“Yes, Sire,” Merlin drawls sarcastically, but Arthur’s already gone.

Merlin activates Arthur’s elaborate security system on autopilot.

Then, he calls Elena.

--

Elena doesn’t laugh at him outright, which cements her position as Merlin’s best friend forever and ever. She exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke in his face (“I’m quitting next week, I swear”), takes a sip of her ten-shots-of-syrup-one-shot-of-espresso coffee, and squints at the grey snake body of the river, glistening under a rare smile of sunlight.

They’re using her twenty-minute break to take a walk along the frozen bank. Arthur wouldn’t approve Merlin straying away from campus, but Merlin is beginning to feel suffocated by the impromptu house arrest, no matter how hot the jailor.

“Are you sure, though?” Elena asks, voice hoarse from too little sleep. “I had this relationship once. I thought I was head over heels and all, but it turned out I was simply grateful, because I wasn’t like all the other girls, and he made me feel wanted. And then I felt horrible about having to break up with him, but it turned out he loved me more as a pet project than anything. He didn’t get it, though, so it was pretty ugly in the end.”

Merlin frowns. “What are you getting at?”

She studies him through spiky dark-blond lashes with no signs of mascara. “You’re really vulnerable right now. Arthur is literally your everything. You live with him, you depend on him for protection. I’m your only friend who wasn’t his friend first. He’s with you all the time, and, let’s face it, he’s not exactly ugly or anything.”

“So what you’re saying is—”

“That sometimes it’s easier to fall in love with the idea of someone than with the real person.”

Merlin tries to digest it. “My head hurts.”

Elena laughs, shaking her head. “Boys,” she manages through the giggles. “Don’t know why I’m wasting my breath. All you think about is sleeping with him, isn’t it?”

Merlin blushes and punches her arm, which makes her laugh harder. “No, I just... Well, that, too, if you must know, but I really—” He trails off, staring at his feet. “We pretend to be boyfriends, and I just” – he swallows –“I want it so badly to be real.”

Elena turns him around and hugs him. “Oh, sweetie, it’ll be all right,” she murmurs. “You just have to wait till you’re on more equal ground. He’s obviously attracted to you—”

“Not like that,” Merlin mutters.

She gives him a reproachful look. “Exactly like that, from what Leon told me.”

Merlin blinks. “Leon? Since when are you talking to Leon?”

Elena rolls her eyes. “Since he asked for my phone number at your Christmas party, silly.”

“He’s like ten years older than you.”

She gives him a look. “He’s thirty-three, Merlin, that’s hardly ancient. And anyway, you’re the last person that should be commenting on that one.”

He throws his hands in the air. “Sorry. So what did he tell you?”

Elena grins. “Among other things, that Arthur was scared shitless to pretend-play house with you; that he acts like he’s lost all sense and reason in regards to you; and that Arthur has never ever been a good actor.”

Merlin has to look away from her beaming face. His palms are sweaty, his mouth is dry, and he grins at the white-grey-golden sky so hard his entire face hurts.

Behind him, Elena curses darkly, and digs through the pockets of her jeans for another cigarette.

--

Arthur knows they’re too late the moment Merlin’s voice in his ear turns frantic as he says, “I lost him, Arthur. He was bright green right at the bottom of the screen, and now he’s not there. He’s just not there!”

Arthur can see him so clearly, sitting in Arthur’s office at the station, hunched over Kilgharrah’s screen, the headset making him look like a crazy tech from some 80s movie, Percy hovering at his shoulder.

“Has he changed position before he disappeared?”

“No. He was just there – and gone.”

“Right.” Arthur switches the mic off and looks around the van, seeing grim understanding on every face. “We’re running out of time. Go.”

They storm through the building, an abandoned warehouse at the very outskirts of the city. There’s nothing to find except rubbish, dust, empty bottles, and threatening graffiti on the crumbling walls.

And in the basement, right where Merlin’s miracle program had placed him, the boy lying prone on his back, a menacing-looking metal band circling his forehead, a thin trail of blood trickling from his temple down the side of his neck.

“We’re too late,” Leon spits, angry, appearing at Arthur’s elbow. “The building’s clear. I don’t know how they managed to leave so quickly, but they’re gone.”

Arthur nods. There have been about half a dozen of these raids since Merlin unveiled his creation, and most of the time they managed to rescue the kidnapped people in time, like Jamie Miller, but they’d never ever caught so much as a glimpse of the people who took them again.

“Arthur, he’s alive,” Lance calls from where he’s crouched by the boy’s side, checking on his vitals. “We have to get him to the hospital right away, though.”

Arthur nods again and moves closer, as Leon calls for an ambulance.

“Careful,” Lance says quietly as Arthur gets close, and Arthur knows why.

Alive, yes. But the look in the mesmerising green eyes is feral, dangerous, with no hint of recognising reality.

Insane.

“Arthur, you okay?”

He isn’t. He can’t tear his eyes away from the prone figure. In his mind, he knows who he’s looking at. Mordred Verrens, 16, failed to return home from school two days ago, it had taken is guardian that long to report him missing.

But as he stares at the twitching, tortured body on the dirty stone floor, all Arthur can see is Merlin. The unfortunate boy looks disturbingly like him – pale skin, dark hair, bright eyes, slim build. Arthur blinks and blinks and blinks, but he can’t shake off the vision of Merlin lying prostrate in front of him, restrained, his face bloody, no sign of intelligence in his beautiful rebellious eyes...

“The ambulance is on its way,” Leon says, approaching. “Arthur?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re shaking.”

Arthur lifts his head just in time to see Lance and Leon exchange worried glances.

“I’m fine,” he says gruffly, and forces himself to step away – to look away. “Sweep the building.”

“You know they never leave anything—”

“Well, maybe this time they did,” he snaps. “Sweep it anyway.”

“Yes, sir.”

He needs to hear Merlin’s voice. He needs it like air, but the line remains dead. He knows it’s normal. Merlin always leaves him to it once the chase is complete. Right now, Merlin is probably packing his things to go home.

But Arthur can’t get the horrible image out of his head. He needs to see Merlin now.

He steps out of the way of the ambulance as it comes to a halt in front of the building, raising a wave of gravel.

“Arthur!”

Arthur grits his teeth, but stops, allowing Leon to catch up with him.

“Where are you going?”

“I need to get Merlin.”

“Why? You don’t think he can pick something up from the scene? He hasn’t so far.”

“No, I just – I need to—”

“Arthur.” Leon grabs his arm. “He’s fine. He’s safe. Percy’s with him. You know that.”

Arthur does know that, except he doesn’t know that. He never had a reaction like this, not under enemy fire in Afghanistan, not in a hundred tight spots he’s been since. That sharp metallic taste in his mouth, his guts twisted into knots, skin too hot, too tight with the feral, animal need to secure his own, so powerful he can’t stand it.

It must show on his face, because Leon’s grip tightens. “Arthur, listen to me. Annis said you’re to report to her personally every time, or the entire operation is off. You know we can’t afford that.” In a quieter tone, he adds, “And you need to talk to the boy’s guardian.”

Arthur’s shoulders droop, bile rising in his throat. “Yeah.”

--

It’s 3 a.m. when he finally gets home. There’s light in the living room, the TV is stuck on the image of a DVD menu, and Merlin is asleep on the couch, his neck craned awkwardly, his t-shirt wrinkled and riding high, revealing a sliver of skin above the waist of his jeans. He’s frowning even in his sleep, an unhappy wedge between his eyebrows that Arthur wants to smoothen with his fingers.

Arthur stares at him for a long time, his body tense with the effort of holding back. He’s used to it by now, used to the constant reminder to keep his hands off, to looking away, to ice cold showers in the mornings, and to the endless, relentless lure of trust in Merlin’s eyes, all the more precious because Merlin isn’t used to trusting anyone. He opens up for Arthur, only for Arthur, like a bloody flower, with every reflexive sarcastic line, every shared meal, every allowed touch.

Living with Merlin is hell. Arthur is bone-tired of resisting.

“Arthur?” Merlin stirs, blinking up at him owlishly. “When did you get back?”

Arthur clears his throat. “Just now.”

Merlin sits up, squinting at the DVD clock. “It’s three in the morning.” He looks up, the corners of his mouth going down. “He didn’t make it, did he?”

Arthur closes his eyes. “He survived. But...”

When he opens his eyes again, Merlin is standing in front of him, so close Arthur can see the hint of freckles on his nose.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin whispers. “I’m so sorry, Arthur.”

This is what surrender feels like, Arthur thinks bleakly, hands moving of their own volition to rest on Merlin’s waist, tugging him closer. He rests his forehead against Merlin’s, breathing his air.

“Yeah. Me too.”

Merlin reaches to cup Arthur’s face with his hands, and Arthur looks at him, willing himself to pull away, but it’s no good. He lost that battle before it even began. He lost.

He is lost.

Merlin’s kiss is tentative, like he’s afraid to be pushed away, and so sweet that it pierces through Arthur’s whole body. Arthur grabs him, muscles still charged with excessive adrenaline, twirls him around and pushes him up against a wall, forceful, taking ownership, catching Merlin’s startled gasp on his tongue, smirking at how fucking easy it is in the end. The kiss is rougher than he means it to be, but Merlin arches into it, his mouth slick, tight, and pliant, yielding to Arthur willingly, pulling him deeper in.

“God,” Arthur breathes hoarsely when he comes up for air. “I want you so fucking bad, Merlin, you’ve no—”

“Yes,” Merlin murmurs, tugging Arthur closer by the hips, moaning softly as they slide against each other. “Yes, Arthur, God, please. Yes.”

Arthur growls and bites Merlin’s lower lip to shut him up, savouring another gasp he gets for his trouble. He trails hungry, open-mouthed kisses down the seductive, long line of Merlin’s throat, sucks hard on the tender spot where his neck meets shoulder, hands sliding under Merlin’s t-shirt. Merlin moans loudly, shock and desire making his body taut, and he’s shaking in Arthur’s arms, short nails digging into the skin of Arthur’s back through the layers of clothing. Arthur grabs his knee, pulling it up until Merlin gets the idea and hooks it over Arthur’s hip. Merlin’s head falls back, mouth open helplessly, as they rub against each other through the fabric, hot and tight and not enough but too good to stop. Arthur mouths at Merlin’s throat, making curt, desperate sounds he can hardly believe, fingers pressing greedily into Merlin’s thigh through the fabric of his jeans, scratching at the obstacle.

Thought flees as they stumble into Arthur’s bedroom, tugging at each other’s clothes. Arthur is more impatient, and Merlin is wearing less, so he ends up on the bed naked with Arthur pressing him down, still wearing his trousers. Merlin tugs at his fly, and Arthur lets him, moaning when Merlin wraps his long fingers around his cock, stroking and staring with awed, hungry eyes.

Arthur growls and pushes him back, stretches Merlin’s arms over his head and presses down until Merlin wraps his fingers around the bars of the bed.

“Hold them there.”

Merlin’s obedience is immediate and electrifying, and Arthur has to kiss him for it, because Merlin never just obeys, and it makes Arthur’s head spin.

When he pulls back, Merlin is looking up at him, the very picture of temptation, skin flushed, lips swollen red and glistening, black hair tousled and wild, his body tense like a string on display for Arthur, because Arthur wanted it so. His eyes are trained on Arthur, part-scared, pained with suspense, dark with want, fierce and vulnerable, every defence down.

The look goes straight to Arthur’s head like a hit of potent old wine, his cock swells between his legs, still half-trapped by the confines of his trousers, polyester rough on the sensitised skin. His hand shakes as he traces the taut surface of Merlin’s stomach, revelling in the shiver it provokes. Arthur moves over him, kissing his chest, his throat, his stomach, breathing Merlin in, drunk on the little gasps and whimpers Merlin’s making, like it’s the first time someone’s touched him, like even the softest kiss is too much to bear.

“Please, Arthur.” It comes out as a high-pitched whine. “Please.”

Arthur grins up at him. “Please what?”

“Anything,” Merlin blurts out, tongue too thick in his mouth. “Anything, just—”

Arthur smirks. He scoots down the bed, makes sure Merlin is watching, and very slowly, very deliberately takes Merlin’s cock into his mouth.

Merlin’s head falls back helplessly, the sound torn from his lips almost inhuman. Arthur almost forgets to breathe at the sight, fingers leaving bruises on Merlin’s hips, holding him down, because Merlin can’t stay still, writhing underneath him. His hands reach down instinctively, as though the lure of Arthur’s hair is too much, then jerk back viper-fast to grab at the bars of the headboard again at a single look from Arthur, and that’s so hot Arthur groans around him, sucking harder, rough with a hint of teeth. Merlin’s back arches helplessly off the bed, and he whimpers, biting his lips raw to stop the sound from spilling, and failing.

Never pulling off, Arthur trails his fingers down the exposed skin of Merlin’s inner thigh, back and forth until he can feel the muscle tremble from tension.

“Arthur, please, I—”

Arthur’s thumb presses against Merlin’s entrance, rubbing softly, sensitising the tender skin to the point where it has to become unbearable before pushing in.

Merlin cries out, a shocked, hoarse sound, as Arthur moves inside him, just the fingertip, drawing circles, pulling ever so slightly at the tight, resisting flesh.

“Arthur...” A broken, torn sound, as though Merlin has been screaming for hours, and this is all that’s left of his voice.

Arthur pushes his finger in to the knuckle; it doesn’t hurt, but it’s uncomfortable dry, an edge of pain where his lips and tongue lavish pleasure, and Merlin is shaking beneath him, whimpering uncontrollably, begging.

Arthur pulls back, kicking his trousers and pants the rest of the way off, running a soothing hand up Merlin’s side. Merlin doesn’t make a noise at the withdrawal, not really, but his pupils are blown so wide his eyes look bottomless, and he’s trembling.

Unable to help himself, Arthur stretches over him, capturing his lips again, deep, drugging kisses that almost make him forget the urgency, but not quite, not with all that gorgeous bare skin beneath him.

He reaches for the nightstand, pulling out lube and condoms, and tips Merlin’s chin up to meet his eyes.

“Hey. You’ve done this before?”

Merlin swallows, lips dark and bruised. “Yeah. Once. It wasn’t – very good.”

Arthur’s hands clench into fists, and the kiss is hard, demanding, jealous, tongue pushing in roughly, and Merlin gasps as teeth graze his abused lips, but doesn’t pull back. Arthur softens the kiss, licking apologies into Merlin’s mouth, not letting him up for air, as he opens him up with slick fingers, slowly and thoroughly, until Merlin is panting and begging beneath him, an unstoppable litany of pleas that no sane man can resist.

When Arthur finally pushes in, he’s at the end of his endurance, grinding his teeth to prevent himself from pounding Merlin into the mattress. Merlin’s mouth falls open in a soundless gasp, his hands going white-knuckled on the headboard, and it hurts, it has to, but it’s too good for both of them to stop.

“Fuck me.” Merlin’s voice is broken, filthy-beautiful, demanding in an angel-turned-demon sort of way.

Arthur gasps in surprise, sliding all the way in, feeling with every inch the incredible way Merlin’s body stretches to accept him, tight, so tight and so good he has to feel it again, pulling back and thrusting back in, faster this time, and faster still. Merlin’s ankles lock around his waist, and Arthur puts his hands on top of Merlin’s on the bars of the bed, gripping hard, as he follows the order he’s been given.

It’s a frenzy of motion, the rhythm of their bodies desperate and beautiful, Merlin’s breath knocked out of him on every hard stroke, Arthur’s name hovering on his lips, never quite spilling. Arthur frees one hand to press it against Merlin’s pulse point, before he dives in to suck at the already forming bruise, while his hips snap forward, relentless, as though Merlin is a spoil of war he has to claim.

Arthur’s orgasm starts thick and hot, honey-slow at the base of his spine, rolling through him like a tidal wave, sweeping him under, and, just as it’s about to crest, he holds it back, just a little, the sweet torture of fighting the inevitable for fractions of a moment, as he wraps his hand around Merlin’s cock, stroking him hard and fast.

“Come on, baby. Give in. Give over to me. Just give in.”

As though it’s been waiting for the order, and Arthur really can command it just like that, Merlin’s body goes tight around him, eyes open wide, drugged gaze sharpening with desperation for mere seconds, Arthur’s name spilling from his lips, a breathless, husky sound that Arthur has to taste, and it’s champagne-tingly and searing bright, like the swirl of gold and white snow eclipsing is vision.

Arthur is loath to move, and, even though it can’t be comfortable, Merlin doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to separate either. They untangle eventually, every motion sluggish, tired smiles, and soft, humming kisses.

Then Arthur looks up for a moment, reaching to push Merlin’s hair off his face, and gasps.

“What?” Merlin murmurs sleepily.

“Merlin,” Arthur breathes out, barely audible. “Your eyes.”

They’re golden. Beautiful, liquid gold that makes Arthur’s breath catch. He’d seen eyes like that in the pictures in fairytales books. He never realised that part of magic lore was so literally true.

Or that it was quite so... magical.

“What about my eyes?” Merlin frowns and rubs at them absently. The glow doesn’t fade. “Arthur?”

“Nothing,” Arthur says, his voice not quite his own. “They’re beautiful is all.” He bends down to kiss Merlin’s eyelids. “Go to sleep.”

And either the spell still lasts, or Merlin is too tired to argue, but he does just that, snuggling close to Arthur’s side under the covers, almost purring his contentment as Arthur runs his fingers through Merlin’s hair.

--

Arthur doesn’t sleep that night at all.

--

--

The first thing Merlin feels when he wakes up is a pleasant ache in his entire body. He could say he’d forgotten what it feels like, but the truth is he’d never really known it quite like that. Grinning, he stretches and rolls around in bed, relishing the languid, dull soreness. He blushes and giggles into the pillow, the images of the night before stark clear in his head.

He’s alone, which is somewhat disappointing, but he’d already known that Arthur doesn’t really understand the advantages of lying in on a Saturday morning. Laughing a little, Merlin wonders if he’ll be able to change that.

He showers quickly and puts on some of his old clothes. He feels like painting today, and ruining a pair of four-hundred-pound jeans Morgana selected would put a damper on things.

He trots to the kitchen, barefoot, whistling something off key, and is surprised to find Arthur sitting at the breakfast aisle, dressed for work and nursing a cup of coffee.

Merlin stops to stare at him, his grin slowly fading. “God, Arthur. You look terrible. Has something else happened? Why didn’t you wake me?”

Arthur looks up. “Good morning to you, too,” he says without a trace of humour. “Coffee?”

“Um.”

“We need to talk.”

Merlin’s heart misses a beat. “Okay.”

Despite his words, Arthur doesn’t seem in a hurry to say anything.

Merlin pads closer, resisting the urge to hug himself. He’s suddenly cold. “What’s up?”

Arthur frowns at him, as though Merlin has interrupted his thought process. “Merlin, last night – what we did” – he takes a deep breath –“it was a mistake.”

Merlin stills. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, and for the first time there’s a hint of emotion in his voice. “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have let it go so far. I know we were joking about it, and – well, what with the roles we play, but I shouldn’t have let it actually happen. You’re in my custody, and I – I got carried away. It’s unacceptable.”

“Carried away?” Merlin repeats blankly.

Arthur scowls. “You want me to say it? Fine. You’re very attractive and I’m human.”

Suddenly Merlin wishes he was sitting. He’s heard that line before – usually worded much cruder and said with a drunken slur, but he’s heard that line so many times at the Eclipse he can barely give an estimate. He knows a response is expected, but for a moment he can’t talk for the wave of nausea rising in his throat.

“Merlin, are you all right?” Arthur half-rises from his chair, a note of alarm in his voice.

“I’m fine,” Merlin replies, trying not to open his mouth too much. “I just – wasn’t expecting that.”

From you. I wasn’t expecting that from you.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur repeats. “I was really upset last night, and I wasn’t – really in control.” He swallows with difficulty as though the words are physically painful for him to say. “I told you, I’m hardly perfect.”

“You did. So I guess it’s my own fault for not listening.”

“No, Merlin.” Arthur is suddenly right in front of him, cupping his face so gently that Merlin wants to cry. “None of this is your fault. It’s mine. I’m supposed to be protecting you, not – taking advantage of you. If someone had told me I’m capable of doing this, I would have punched them, but I suppose it only proves that I think better of myself than I deserve. Just because you’re here, doesn’t mean I should—”

Arthur drops his hands, stepping back as though only just becoming aware of his actions. “We should stay professional,” he says, pulling himself together. “Too many lives depend on this for me to get distracted by my... whims. I can’t afford to screw this up. It’s too important.”

‘I’m in love with you,’ Merlin thinks sadly. ‘How’s that for important?’

“You’re my witness,” Arthur says, his tone getting stronger, more aloof with every word. It’s like watching him don his armour, turning back into the arrogant, unapproachable person he was when they’d first met. “What happened between us was a moment’s weakness. I apologise, and you can report me if you like. You probably should.”

It takes a couple of false starts before Merlin can speak. His voice is hoarse. “I don’t want to report you.”

Arthur’s gaze on him is relentless. “I don’t think I can forgive myself as easily.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Merlin snaps, suddenly angry. “There’s no need for all this Victorian era drama, Arthur. I don’t have a mighty protector to come challenge you over my ruined virtue – I don’t need one – what the everloving fuck? We’re both consenting adults, we both wanted it, so it happened. You don’t want it to happen again – just bloody well say so. I got you the first ten times you said it was a mistake. Believe it or not, I’m actually old enough to get that.”

Arthur winces. “And there is that, which I also conveniently forgot last night. God, I really wasn’t thinking.”

“Do you have to rub it in?”

“Merlin—”

“For the last time – I got it! I won’t throw myself at you again. Message received. Now, weren’t you going somewhere?”

Arthur looks conflicted for a moment, obviously unhappy with Merlin’s response, although Merlin can’t fathom why. But then Arthur’s mobile emits an impatient ping from his pocket, and Arthur steps back, ceding the field for now.

Merlin grits his teeth, forcing himself to stay still. Victory has never tasted so bitter.

“That’s probably Annis,” Arthur says flatly. “I really am late, I was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but I wanted—”

“Well, then,” Merlin cuts him off. He’s being a brat and he knows it, but he’d do anything to get Arthur out the door right now. The humiliation is too strong to stand another minute with him. “Don’t let me distract you.”

But Arthur stares at him for another torturous minute before finally brushing past him toward the door.

“Lock up after me, and don’t go anywhere. If you need anything, call. I’ll be back as soon as I can. We’ll talk.”

Merlin doesn’t bother answering, flinching at the sound of the heavy door pushed closed as Arthur finally, mercifully leaves.

--

The thing is, Merlin isn’t actually stupid. He doesn’t want to put himself or anyone else at risk. He doesn’t actually have a death wish.

It’s just that he can’t stand staying under Arthur’s roof a second longer.

He’s wearing his old clothes, so it seems fitting to tug on his old coat. It hasn’t been that long since Morgana had turned him into her personal Ken doll, but his old, familiar to tears coat feels alien as he puts it on, too small somehow, as if in a few short weeks he’d outgrown it.

Leaving Kilgharrah behind is like leaving an old friend, but it’s too unsafe to take it. Merlin doesn’t have the slightest idea where he’s headed after all.

The day is brisk and crispy, the chill crawling in through his inadequate clothes, greeting Merlin like a long lost brother. Merlin shivers, grinning a little at the thought of how quickly he became spoiled by the good things. The irony is sour. He should never have let his guard down.

He follows the curves of the river as it twists and turns under the winter sun, taking him further into Riverside, and from there to the edges of Watersgate, the houses looking particularly shabby and grim, unwelcoming as ever.

Merlin’s head is curiously void of thoughts as he walks, trying to figure his life out. He should be heartbroken and scared, but strangely enough he’s neither. Maybe because he’d hoped but never truly believed that Arthur could really love him back. They come from different worlds, and the distance has obviously been too great to meet in the middle.

Or maybe because he’s still in denial and will bowl his eyes out when the shock lets up.

There’s nothing stopping him from going back. He could. He should. It’s the smart thing to do.

He knows he won’t.

He sits on a frozen bench, rubbing his hands together and trying to relax. There’s a trick to staying warm in the cold, and not letting your muscles tense up is the first step.

There’s a book dropped carelessly beside an overflowing rubbish can. It’s in a miserable condition, pages stained with grease, some missing. Merlin picks it up, smiling when he sees the cover. It’s a copy of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

Laughing a little, Merlin flips through the pages, eyes sliding over familiar paragraphs. He’d found the book unbearably boring as a child, but he thinks he might have a new appreciation for it now.

He never notices the motion until a shadow blocks his light; there’s a stab of sharp white-hot pain at the base of his neck, and then his entire world goes dark and quiet.

--

Arthur knows what happened within seconds of walking into the dark and empty flat. He sweeps through the rooms just in case, his heart seizing painfully in his chest when he sees Kilgharrah sitting reproachfully on the nightstand, and Merlin’s new winter coat abandoned carelessly on the rack.

He calls Elena without much hope, not being remotely surprised when Leon picks up the conversation on her end after a while, as she hurries to get dressed. Merlin didn’t call her, because Arthur obviously hadn’t deserved it easy.

The station is mostly dark except for Arthur’s office, where his team plus Elena and Gwaine assemble within ten minutes of his arrival, wearing near-identical grim expressions.

“I don’t understand,” Leon says, frowning. “He’s been on his best behaviour for weeks now. Why would he do something so stupid as to walk out unescorted now? Did you forget to get the milk or something?”

Arthur purses his lips. “We had a—”

“Fight?”

“—misunderstanding. Obviously.”

“Oh my God, Arthur, what did you do?” Gwaine asks, but Leon cuts him off.

“Not now. Are you sure he’s not staying with a friend or—”

“All his friends are in this room,” Arthur says tiredly, looking from Elena to Gwen to Gwaine. “He isn’t answering his phone, I can’t even track his phone, and he’s neither home nor at the library, and no, not even at that club, I checked. They got him. At the most generous estimation, for over six hours.”

He looks around, watching their faces transform as the implication sinks.

“Have you tried—” Gwen points at the laptop, sitting menacingly on Arthur’s desk.

“I can’t make it work,” Arthur says, pushing it toward her. “You try.”

But it doesn’t work for Gwen, either. The software is clearly operational, teasing them with the by-now-familiar display of the stripped-down map of Camelot, but the search doesn’t work.

“Do you think it’s damaged?” Arthur asks, breathing down Gwen’s neck. “Can you repair whatever’s wrong with it?”

Gwen’s expression turns from tense to puzzled as she studies the screen. “There’s nothing wrong with it, Arthur. But maybe—”

“What?”

She looks at him. “Maybe it’s like Merlin’s sketches. Maybe this thing needs actual magic to make it work. See, this” – she points –“is a pretty classic code. Sure, it’s inventive in parts and very cleverly intertwined with satellite feeds, but on the surface there’s nothing in here to enable it to do what it does when Merlin operates it. I don’t know if it’s attuned specifically to Merlin or if anyone with magic will do, but I don’t think anyone in this room stands a chance of making it work.”

Arthur pulls out his phone. “I’m calling Morgana.”

“Gwen can do it,” Leon says firmly, grabbing Arthur’s elbow. “You and me, a word outside.”

Arthur follows him out reluctantly, loath to relinquish control even for a minute.

Leon turns to face him. “Okay. So what did you do?”

There’s no point hiding in the well of his own guilt, bottomless as it might be, so Arthur tells him.

Leon swears. “You act like an army commander so much sometimes, I keep forgetting you’re still a damn puppy. Why on Earth have you got to be so stupid?”

“How am I stupid? If you recall, I was the only one objecting to that crazy plan of Morgana’s, but you lot wouldn’t hear a word of reason—”

“That, I actually don’t care about, the plan was good – and not just because we could laugh at you, but because Merlin was actually safe with you.”

“Safe with me, not from me.”

“What in the hell are you talking about? You didn’t force him, did you?”

Arthur blanches. “No. Leon, God, how can you even ask me that?”

“I asked, because you need to get it through your head. The only actual atrocity here is you telling him that load of bullshit to try and cover the fact that you’re in over your head. Which brings us back to the matter of your unbelievable stupidity.”

“He’s a key witness to this case, Leon. He was under my protection. What I did was—”

“Oh, for the love of God. It happens, Arthur. Nurses fall in love with patients, teachers with students, and yes, bodyguards with their charges sometimes. Falling in love is not a crime, for fuck’s sake. It happens to the best of us, and you really need to get over yourself. Granted, this might not be ideal in a situation like this—”

“You think?”

“—but there’s still nothing wrong with it. Not when he feels the same way about you.”

Arthur feels the floor lurch under his feet. Reaching for the wall for balance, he tries to find the words. “How do you know—”

Leon sighs, shaking his head. “A bloody pup. I’m not sure I’m up to taking orders from you after this display of idiocy.” He catches the look on Arthur’s face, and his expression softens. “You really had no clue, did you? And I thought Lance and Gwen were bad.”

Arthur’s chest feels tight and heavy, lungs struggling to breathe. “I hand-delivered him to them, didn’t I? I practically sent him out there.”

“You don’t know that. Maybe he just stepped out to clear his head. He’s the impulsive kind, Arthur; has been from day one.”

“Yeah, but he knows better. He only took what he thought of as his, but he left the laptop, because he knew we needed it. He wasn’t planning on coming back.”

Leon throws his hands in the air. “Well, he is nineteen, so he has that excuse for being an idiot. The rest of us will have to do without.”

Arthur tries to stretch his lips in a smile, acknowledging the peace offering of ‘us’ instead of the accusing ‘you,’ but it falls flat.

Leon rests a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find him, Arthur. But we can’t do it without you.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, forcefully pushing his emotions deeper inside. He has to keep it together if he’s to be of any use to Merlin now.

Thankfully, he had a lot of practice doing that, and the blanket of numbness drapes over him with the easy force of habit. Leon studies his face and nods, stepping back.

They turn in sync at the sound of Morgana’s dark skirts whispering as she marches in from the far side of the corridor, eyes blazing with angry tears.

“Don’t talk to me unless you have to,” she orders, pushing Arthur in the chest with the tips of her fingers. He’ll feel the bruises for days. “I had a dream, and you’re a moron.”

“Not that I disagree, but now’s not the time—”

“Oh, shut up and just take me to the bloody thing. And you’d better pray that Merlin’s talents and mine are compatible.”

“Already there.” Arthur sighs and turns toward the door. “This way.”

--

There’s probably something wrong with your life choices if you come to the moment when waking up from a drug induced blackout feels familiar. This time, there’s no feeling of overwhelming heat he might not survive. Instead, waking up feels like forcefully dragging himself up from a swamp by his own hair.

Merlin opens his eyes slowly, blinking, not sure if it’s the first or the thirty-first attempt. His body feels rigid the way living tissue gets after lying for a long time on a hard cold surface. Everywhere he looks there’s darkness, odd shapes tearing through it, making no sense. He thinks about acoustics for no apparent reason, and then he gets it, the feeling of being watched, of being small and unprotected, and the fear of heights all wrapped into one. Even unseen, the space around him feels enormous.

Merlin sits up slowly, focusing on the sluggish, pained response of his body. He looks around, his night vision kicking in at last, but he has to blink and rub his eyes to believe what the sparse light reveals.

He’s in a cave. And not just any old cavern, the kind he used to explore at the outskirts of Ealdor as a child. This place could easily fit five Camelot Cathedrals put one on top of the other like a pyramid and still have room to spare. There’s a huge rock at the centre of it, its top unseen in the gloomy height, a spiral of steps carved in stone curling around it.

For a few dazed moments, Merlin isn’t sure if he’s hallucinating, still under the influence of whatever it was that knocked him out. He’s never heard of a place like that anywhere near Camelot.

Then, he hears a chuckle.

“Oh, you’re not dreaming, my dear boy. You are still in Camelot, in the very heart of it, to be precise. I thought it would be symbolic.”

Merlin turns his head to find there’s another set of steps coming down from what appears to be a small entrance in the cave wall. A man is slowly descending them, a leisurely pace of someone who feels utterly at home.

Merlin scrambles to his feet, still woozy, but determined to face his kidnapper standing tall. As tall as his trembling limbs would allow anyway. What the hell kind of shit did they give him?

Up close, the speaker doesn’t cut an impressive figure. He’s shorter than Merlin, thin, dressed in non-descript baggy clothes. His hair is of the kind that always looks greasy even when it’s not, and the cut that would flatter a more striking face underlines instead the small, mousy features, deep-sunken eyes of unidentifiable colour, sharp pointy nose, and a weak, shapeless chin.

A rat, Merlin thinks. Disgusting. Smart. Dangerous.

“Have you never heard of the King’s Cave beneath the Citadel, Merlin? Although maybe you wouldn’t. You’re not from around here after all.”

“Who are you?” Merlin asks. His throat feels as if it hadn’t been used in days.

The man smiles pleasantly, a welcoming host at a dinner reception. “Of course, my young friend, where are my manners? The name’s Cornelius. At your service.” He sketches a bow.

Something stirs at the back of Merlin’s mind at the name, like a tantalising, just-out-of-reach memory or a déjà vu.

“Why have you brought me here?” Merlin asks. He has a vague inkling that asking a homicidal psychopath questions might not be the best plan, but he has no idea what he’s supposed to do. Things look pretty dire anyway, and it’s not like he believes that he has a chance of getting out of this if he’s really, really smart. Curiously, he’s not as scared as he should reasonably be. Maybe the drugs haven’t been all bad after all. “Are you the one who killed all those people?”

“Now, ‘killed’ is such a strong word,” Cornelius dismisses casually. “I had no intention of murdering them. They simply weren’t strong enough.”

It’s the light, conversational tone that sets chills down Merlin’s back. In this, Cornelius isn’t acting. He genuinely doesn’t care.

Merlin casts a glance around, as though hoping for an escape route to sprang at him from somewhere, complete with neon green arrows pointing the way.

“But let me look at you,” Cornelius simpers, sickeningly sweet. “You are the long awaited prize of my collection, after all, and I’ve hardly even seen what you look like.”

He makes a wide gesture with his hands, and suddenly Merlin can’t move, pinned to – thin air, it would seem, his arms and legs outstretched, as he’s lifted off the ground and rotated around slowly, like a postcard stand at the Citadel Boulevard.

“Yes, yes, very nice,” Cornelius murmurs. “You’re not that impressive at all, are you? Who’d have thought that such an – ordinary – package conceals such valuable a treasure. Priceless even, one could say. You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Looks can be deceiving, and I hear you’re a smart one. Outsmarted both my crews and your friend Kevin. But third time is the charm, isn’t it?”

He chuckles, and in the next moment, whatever’s been holding Merlin suspended in midair lifts, dropping him hard to his knees, making him bite down a scream.

“You know why you’re here, Merlin,” Cornelius tells him, bending closer, no trace of fake-humour in his voice. “I know you’ve figured it out.”

“You steal people’s magic,” Merlin breathes out through waves of red-hot pain in his crushed knees. “And I’m – I’m some sort of source—”

“You’re the Source, Merlin,” Cornelius crows, his tone bursting with delight. “The only true remaining Source of magic in the entire Albion. Maybe even in the world. Do you know what it means? Your magical power is inexhaustible. And soon it’ll be all mine.”

Merlin blinks, forgetting about the agony rising from his likely broken knees for a moment. “Does that line actually work for anyone? I mean, did you learn how to be a villain from a comic novel?”

Cornelius pulls back, his manic grin dwindling to a thin-lipped smile. “A smart mouth. So you’re exactly as stupid as you look.”

Without warning, he slaps Merlin hard across the face, knocking him backward, head smashing into the stone wall. Merlin sees stars, realising belatedly that his body was frozen solid once again. He couldn’t have reacted even if he was fast enough.

“I don’t like back talk,” Cornelius tells him calmly. “I see I’ve made a mistake hoping we could converse like civilised people before we proceed. A pity, really. You’re the only one of your kind, and you wouldn’t be up to much talking after I start with you. Well, if that’s how it is, then—”

“Wait,” Merlin says with difficulty, feeling blood at the back of his throat. He struggles to sit with his back against the cave wall, and, to his surprise, he manages, his legs hurting, but not to a crippling degree, as if—

“Gods have mercy,” Cornelius whispers, staring at him with wide eyes. “I’ve broken your legs in three places, boy, and you’re – you’re healed! I didn’t believe it when Kevin said you’d burned through the drugs too fast to be humanly possible. I thought he’d messed up as usual, but I guess he hadn’t, huh?”

“I don’t know what happened then,” Merlin pushes out between fast, shallow breaths.

“I do!” Cornelius explains gleefully, like a kid in primary school beating his classmates to an answer. For the first time, Merlin realises that the man in front of him is truly, irrevocably mad. “Your magic is a jealous little bitch, that’s what happened. It owns you, and it wouldn’t let anyone else have you. Good thing we dozed you with enough sedatives to leave half a dozen people in a permanent coma. And all it did was knock you out for a few hours. Oh, but this is marvellous! I can’t wait to get all of that in me! Bert, Gordon, get him set.”

For the first time, Merlin notices that they aren’t alone. The shadowy figures, faceless men dressed in black, the same or identical to the ones who had chased him down the alley the night Arthur came to the Eclipse, surround him, immobilising him quickly with the efficiency of drones. Merlin tries to resist, but whatever hold Cornelius has on him holds.

“Magic is a curious thing, isn’t it?” Cornelius murmurs somewhere close, as Merlin is stretched on a flat stone palm, wrists and ankles shoved into iron cuffs, securing him in place. “You have so much of it, more than any man alive or dead, and yet – here you are, helpless, unable to reach it.”

Infuriated, Merlin tries, bucking against the restraints, trying to unlock the power that everyone kept talking about, the power he still can’t even feel, but it’s no good. All he feels is a knock-out mixture of white-hot rage and sickening, nauseating streaks of fear.

“It was said that the magic will return when the world forgets about it,” Cornelius says, leaning close over Merlin’s prone form, their faces inches away. “Do you think it’s time to remind them?”

Before Merlin can so much as take a breath to reply or spit in Cornelius’s face, a heavy band of metal descends on his forehead, wide enough to block his sight, and tight, so tight, squeezing his temples.

And then he’s no longer alone in his own head.

--

“What the hell does this mean?” Arthur asks, as they all stare at the screen, confounded.

The big golden spot that represents Merlin, that has always represented Merlin, is blinking in and out of existence, eclipsed every other second by an equally big dark spot. It’s like watching twin stars, with only one of them emitting light.

Morgana mops the sweat from her brow. Kilgharrah did work for her, grudgingly and excruciatingly slow, but it left her looking as though she’d lost five pounds just sitting there.

“This is Merlin,” she says tiredly, pointing at the golden dot. “And this is the man you’ve been looking for.”

“I thought there was no such thing as dark magic,” Leon mutters.

“There isn’t,” Morgana says, shaking her head. “Merlin created one hell of a program. It’s intuitive and it’s learning, because I’m pretty sure Merlin himself had no idea—”

“Morgana,” Arthur cuts her off impatiently.

“Right, sorry. This man” – she points at the dark spot –“doesn’t have ‘dark magic.’ He doesn’t have any kind of magic, just the opposite.” She looks up meeting their bewildered gazes, and huffs in frustration. “Look, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. It’s the same here. The opposite of magic isn’t dark magic, it’s the absence of it. Every person whom we consider ‘normal’ might not have magic per se, but possesses the potential to have it. Like a latent gene. This man” – she points at the screen again – “doesn’t have that potential. He’s physically anti-magic.”

“Like matter and anti-matter?” Gwen pipes up excitedly.

“Precisely.” Morgana beams at her.

“I’m not a theoretical physicist,” Arthur snaps. “In English, please.”

Morgana glares at him. “He craves what he doesn’t have. He’s obviously discovered a way to strip people off their magic and consume it. But he wasn’t built with an ability to retain it, so his appetites grow as he carries on. He’s a magic addict, if you will, but that’s not the worst part.”

She pauses to press a tissue under her nose delicately. “It’s just the tension,” she says quickly as they all gasp at the sight of blood. “I’m nowhere near as strong as Merlin.”

Gwen passes her a glass of water, and Morgana nods gratefully.

“The worst part is that he’s consuming magic at an exponential rate, and he isn’t equipped to deal with it. He’s becoming a human equivalent of a black hole. He’s been growing stronger and more powerful with every little bit he absorbs, but Merlin’s power is unquantifiable. It’ll be like fighting a nuclear reactor meltdown with a fire extinguisher.”

“He’ll self-destruct,” Gwen whispers, horrified.

Morgana nods. “Taking the entire city with him.”

“Can he be stopped?” Arthur asks, breaking the grim silence. “Have there been any precedents?”

Morgana lifts an eyebrow. “Is your history better than physics? The only precedent on record was almost fifteen hundred years ago. Remember Cornelius Sigan?”

“Yes, he was a dark warlock who tried to overthrow the—” Arthur trips, but finishes all the same, “the Pendragon dynasty.”

Morgana laughs bitterly. “History is written by the winners, and that particular episode was being described during the second Great Purge, so of course that’s what they’d say. Sigan was the first anti-magic on record, even though he wasn’t recognised as such at the time.”

“How do you know all this?” Leon asks in awe.

Morgana frowns. “My dreams began when I was thirteen. It took me a while to learn that I’m an actual Seer, the first in three generations, and not a candidate for a mental institution. Wouldn’t you want to find out everything you could about yourself if that were you?”

“I guess,” Leon admits, scratching his beard. “So how was Sigan taken down?”

“He wasn’t. He was contained.” She leans forward, grabbing Arthur’s wrist. “You have to understand something, Arthur. Anti-magics are, in point of fact, unnatural. There’s no way that this man” – a nod at the screen – “has chosen the King’s Cave by coincidence. Sigan’s grave was rumoured to be lost there, in the labyrinth somewhere. That’s why the place had been put off limits originally, though no one remembers it now.”

“You mean to say we’re dealing with a ghost?” Leon asks, eyebrows high.

“No.” Morgana shakes her head. “I’m saying we’re dealing with Cornelius Sigan. Who probably wants to finish what he’d started fifteen hundred years ago.”

“The explosion in the Mayor’s office,” Arthur whispers.

“And the curse on your job,” Lance supplies. “Every attempt on your life since you’ve been back.”

Arthur’s head is spinning. “We need to get Merlin out of there. We need to stop that bastard.”

“We need to tell Annis,” Owain says slowly, as though trying to cling to the normalcy of police procedures.

“No,” Arthur says flatly, sharing a look with Leon. Annis is the kind of officer who’d rather shoot the hostage than negotiate with terrorists. Her righteousness has always mattered more to her than her conscience. “Do you think she’d leave Merlin be if she knew what he really is?”

“She’s see him as the main source of danger, not Sigan,” Leon says grimly.

Arthur looks around, taking in various shades of shock and dismay on every face.

“Look,” he says finally. “I can’t ask you to circumvent orders. I can’t ask you to not tell Annis. All I’m asking is that you give me a little time. I’m going to the King’s Cave.” He tugs on the straps of his probably useless bulletproof vest. “If Morgana’s right, the entire Camelot is in danger, and it happened on our watch. But that’s not the main reason I’m going. I think – I think you all know why I’m going. And why I can’t order anyone to go with me. I doubt it’ll help anyway.”

He pauses. This isn’t how he’d thought he’d be saying goodbye to his team, but nothing in life ever is.

“Just give me as much time as you can, okay? Annis is going to know something’s up. Don’t lie to her. It probably won’t matter by then anyway. Oh, and—” He pulls his gun out and takes the safety off. “Morgana, move aside.”

She does without question, and Arthur puts a round through Kilgharrah’s plastic frame. The screen goes dark. Dead.

“Sorry, Merlin,” Arthur mutters, staring at the ash-grey smoke for a second, before turning toward the door. “See you on the other side,” he throws back at the others.

And that’s when tiny, benevolent Gwen blocks his way, checking the safety on her own gun matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” she says, meeting his eyes with clear defiance. “Not without us.”

Arthur closes his eyes. He so hoped to avoid that.

--

Merlin expects pain, but when it does come, it’s insignificant and distant like a faraway echo. He senses confusion that is not his own, the mounting sensation that something isn’t going the way it should.

Images float before his eyes, memories he never had. The Camelot Castle at the height of its power, looking dark and intimidating, dwarfing the filthy little town at its feet. Soldiers marching in the courtyard. A sweep of a black fur cloak. The emerald eyes of Brunhilda, the Mad Queen of Albion. Water boiling in the wells, stones crushing from the citadel walls; chaos in the streets; a forgotten torch that sets the nearest house on fire, a child, sitting at the window, wailing in fear.

And another set of images, another life. A small boy diving under the table as his drunk father throws a bottle at him. Mayor Uther Pendragon, looking impossibly young in his brand new police sergeant’s uniform, locking the cell door with a smirk, saying, ‘This used to be the first Camelot prison; technically it’s still under the Met’s supervision. They say the ghosts of all the witches tortured here during the Purges still haunt the corridors at night. A night here will teach you to steal from the City Museum. And maybe you’ll be able to tell me what you did with that crystal in the morning.

Images flash fast after that. Faces. So many faces. Young, old, male and female. All scared, all begging not to hurt them, confused, lost, desperate.

Merlin feels nauseous at the sensation of blood on his hands, the clammy skin of his victims that are not his victims; he has to get away, has to get clean, has to get out.

White-hot pain shoots through him, and he screams, feeling as though he’s been dropped into boiling lead. He screams and screams, writhing, feeling his flesh melt around him until there should be nothing left, but the agony persists, lingers, until—

It’s like being thrown out clear of an explosion. Merlin blinks, abruptly back in his own body on the cave floor, the remnants of heavy metallic restraints shapeless and broken on the stone plate beside him. He’s alone on the pedestal, and the cave around him is on fire.

Merlin sits up, blinking rapidly, feeling as if every bone in his body has been broken and mended in a matter of seconds, to find himself in the middle of a battlefield. Through the flames and smoke, he can see Cornelius’s black – servants? guards? – fight with of all things the police taskforce.

To Merlin’s left, Leon is pinned to the rock by two men. Even as Merlin watches, Leon empties an entire magazine into his attackers to no avail – the bullets don’t even slow them down. At the other side of the smaller staircase, Percy is throwing punches left and right, holding his own for now, but more and more opponents are coming at him, and it’s a matter of time until he’s subdued.

Up on top, Gwaine is – impossibly – taking shots with his camera, until a black-clad figure doesn’t reach him. He pulls out a knife, and Merlin loses sight of them as they roll away.

Merlin pushes up to his knees, without really feeling them, desperate and frustrated. He spots Owain being backed into a corner to his far left. Gwen is shooting from an ancient looking silver-studded crossbow that Merlin is pretty sure he’d seen on the wall in Morgana’s study at uni. The short, silver-coated bolts seem to be more effective than bullets and at least slow down the targets.

A shout makes Merlin jerk his head and straighten up. Hardly noticing the flames, he coughs, walking through the smoke in the direction of the sound, and sees Arthur and Cornelius locked in a frenzied fight.

It’s a sickening game of cat and mouse. Cornelius would pin Arthur down with his magic, then lift the hold. Arthur would grab for his weapon, and Cornelius would jerk his gun, and then his knife out of reach. He’s serving blows and punches without ever touching Arthur’s body, and Merlin wants to scream in rage, feeling every bruise as if it blossomed on his own skin.

Arthur catches sight of him, eyes widening in terror.

“Run!” he yells, blood bubbling on his lips. “Run, you idiot!”

Cornelius twists around, smirking as he spots Merlin. “Your friends here were most persistent to join the party,” he shouts over his shoulder, knocking Arthur back yet another time. “Who was I to deny them?”

“Stop,” Merlin wants to shout, but only a gurgling noise makes it past his lips.

His vision darkens, stomach twisting with pain, and he falls to his knees like a ragdoll, as Cornelius laughs. He turns back to Arthur, flicks his fingers, and by the way Arthur shouts Merlin knows that bones are broken.

Merlin can’t breathe. It’s like the panic attack all over again, only it’s worse, so much worse. Everywhere he looks his friends are being tortured to be surely killed by the end of it. There are too many opponents, too many magic-powered, invincible fighters coming at them, and in the middle of it all is Cornelius, and he is mad.

Merlin looks at Arthur’s strong, beautiful face, contorted in pain, and it’s all he can see in the world where sounds are fading, and everything else is eclipsed by that one horrific sight.

He knows what he has to do as surely as though someone had whispered it in his ear over the cacophony of battle around him.

He has to go back to that place of white-hot agony, of bone-melting pain that emerged every time his magic had come to his rescue. A safeguard something, someone had put in place, protecting him, protecting the others from him – it doesn’t matter.

Arthur screams, and there’s not even a moment’s hesitation.

Merlin breaks down the locks he’s only just found inside of him and jumps headfirst into the familiar, searing agony.

For a few endless moments, he can’t breathe, blind and deaf to everything but the excruciating pain that seems a hundred times worse now that he’s doing it on purpose. He doesn’t know, will probably never find out how he manages to fight through it, to feel himself in his own body as it screams around him with every single receptor stimulated past the point of sanity, but he does.

Looking through the blinding white haze, he sees the cave, the fight around him, but he sees it differently. Between pain-induced hallucinations and Kilgharrah’s intuitive algorithms, he sees white-red flickers of light, surrounded by burning black torches.

He doesn’t know what to do, but he doesn’t need to, concentrating on the gleaming black columns one by one, visualising them crumbling to ashes. On his half-imagined half-real field of vision, they disappear under his gaze, as he pushes his wish through the invisible barbed wire.

He wants to scream, but there’s no air to spare for it, as only one gleaming black spot remains, pulsing like a clotted, metastasized growth, swelling with slime and something so repulsive it shouldn’t ever have been brought into existence.

It feels as though his eyes are pierced by red-hot needles, shooting straight into his brain, and Merlin shouts in an inhuman, ultra clear voice, bypassing every octave known to humanity, and strikes.

The entire cave whites out for a moment, and, as Merlin sinks back down to the stone floor, blood streaming from his nose, his mouth, his ears, from under his fingertips, he sees Cornelius explode as though he’d swallowed a grenade, Arthur throwing his arm up to protect his face from an outpour of blood and ashes.

--

--

Merlin hates hospitals.

There’s no mistaking it even by the sounds – the soft beeping of equipment, the hasty shuffle of feet outside the door. Maybe if he doesn’t wake up now, it’ll turn out to be just a dream after all...

“I know you’re awake.”

Reluctantly, Merlin opens his eyes.

He is in the hospital, no doubt about it, but it’s almost worth it to see Arthur – alive, safe, healthy – smiling at him from the bedside chair. Noticing Merlin’s scowl, he chuckles, standing up and coming to sit at the side of Merlin’s bunk, looking down at him.

“How are you feeling?”

Merlin thinks about it. “Woozy,” he says at last. “I don’t think anything hurts. It’s – strange?”

Arthur looks him up and down, checking for himself. “They diagnosed you with extreme exhaustion. Good Doctor Reyes is out there somewhere, writing down his suspicions that I’m an abusive boyfriend.”

The idea is so absurd that Merlin stares at him for a moment, before bursting out laughing. His entire body protests as he does, but the soreness is almost welcome. Arthur, on the other hand, wraps an arm around his ribs, and winces, even if he’s grinning again the next second.

“Broken?” Merlin asks, reaching up to slide his palm against Arthur’s ribcage. He can feel bandages through the fabric of his t-shirt.

Arthur shakes his head, peering at Merlin closely. “Bruised. Should have been broken, but somehow weren’t. Just as Lance’s arm, Leon’s burns, and Percy’s shoulder.”

Merlin shifts under his scrutiny, avoiding his eyes. “Must be magic.”

Arthur grins. “I think so, too.” He leans over and plants a kiss on Merlin’s forehead. “Thanks.”

Merlin doesn’t know what to do with that, except blush and look away. A change of subject is definitely in order. “What happened? I’m not sure I remember it right—”

Arthur fills him in. Apparently, Merlin had somehow managed to immobilise Sigan’s fighters, and then to blow up the man himself. After he was gone, his men fell unconscious. All of them are now in the vegetative state with no recovery in the prognosis.

“I can’t believe I did that,” Merlin whispers, trying to assimilate the knowledge that he had ki—

Arthur catches his chin and turns Merlin’s face around until they make eye contact. “He kidnapped and murdered over a hundred people, Merlin. He kidnapped and tortured you. You were defending yourself and us. You saved all of our lives.”

“If you didn’t come to get me, I don’t think I’d have broken out,” Merlin says, thinking back. “Why did you? You didn’t have to.”

“Idiot,” Arthur sighs and ruffles his hair.

“Are you in trouble?” Merlin asks, realising for the first time that Arthur is dressed casually. “With the Met?”

Arthur shrugs carelessly. “They weren’t happy about being kept in the dark, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m officially on probation until the hearings are concluded.”

“You don’t look too worried.”

“In view of recent events, they’re creating a special taskforce within the Met to investigate crimes involving magic. With all the press I’ve been getting, they’ll be hard pressed to put someone else in charge of it.”

“Press?” Merlin frowns.

Arthur’s grin grows wider. “Gwaine’s photos have miraculously survived our crazy quest to get you. I refused to let him release your name, so you’re the ‘young warlock whose actions saved numerous lives and whose name shall remain undisclosed.’ My face, on the other hand, is plastered all over the front page.”

Merlin studies said face for a moment, before reaching for Arthur’s hand. “Thank you.”

Arthur adopts a look of confusion. It’s not very convincing. “What for?”

“There’s no way Gwaine would have passed on the chance to print my life story now that there’s no danger. You traded yourself for me, didn’t you?”

Arthur looks away. “I’ve been his cannon fodder for months anyway. And I didn’t think you’d want—”

“I wouldn’t,” Merlin says. “Thank you.”

They are silent for a while, Arthur twining his fingers with Merlin’s as though absently, Merlin pretending he doesn’t notice.

“You’ve been asleep for nearly two days,” Arthur says at last. “If you’re up to it, I’ll drive you home now.”

“Home,” Merlin repeats slowly. “Arthur, I don’t—”

“Shh, listen to me,” Arthur says, bending closer, until their faces are inches apart. “Merlin, what I said that morning, what I did – it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, and I nearly lost you for it. I will never forgive myself for that.”

His eyes are intense, painfully earnest, and so guilt-ridden that Merlin wants to soothe him, to tell him it’s okay. As if sensing his wish, Arthur presses a finger against Merlin’s lips gently.

“I never said that to anyone, never thought I would, never wanted to. You – you are for me. And I’m for you. I don’t know how I didn’t know it the first time I saw you, but it’s there. I can’t run away from it, I don’t want to. Come home with me. Stay with me, Merlin. Stay with me always. I can’t – I’m not sure I can stand the possibility of losing you again.”

Merlin swallows, his throat suddenly dry, his pulse deafening. “What if you change your mind again?”

“I won’t,” Arthur says. “I love you.”

Merlin closes his eyes, trembling. “I can’t think like that. With you here. I can’t.”

“Merlin,” Arthur starts, and Merlin can tell he’s gearing up to make his case, and there’s nothing Merlin can do to stop him – except Arthur sighs and pulls back.

“I’m sorry,” Arthur says, lips stretching in a shaky smile. “I promised myself I won’t rush this, won’t rush you. But I just – seeing you now, it’s... They told me you were fine, Lance told me a million times, but I needed to see you wake up to believe.”

“Arthur—”

“Let me take you home. You need to recuperate while you decide what to do, and no one will bother you at my place. It’s my fault you don’t have a place anyway. I’ll give you space, I can move to a hotel for a while, if you want me to. Whatever you need. Just let me get you out of here.”

Merlin finds it difficult to speak. The way Arthur is looking at him makes his head spin, and his words are a sweet, desperate plea – words of a man too far gone to care for pride. Arthur had never looked at him like that, not even that night.

“Okay,” Merlin says, closing his eyes.

He can feel Arthur’s entire frame sag in relief, and it’s humbling beyond words to hear Arthur whisper, “Thank you.”

--

Arthur’s flat looks exactly the same as the day Merlin had left it. His things are still wandering all over the place, the easel up in the living room, the brushes drying in a cup beside it.

“Kilgharrah?” Merlin asks, catching sight of an empty laptop bag.

“I’m sorry.” Arthur shakes his head. “I had to destroy it. It was too dangerous to leave it for Annis to find.”

Merlin nods. He would have probably done the same thing, but he still feels a sharp pang of pain in his chest. It feels like losing an old friend.

Arthur squeezes his shoulder for a moment. “I’ll let you get settled.”

True to his word, Arthur lets him be. Over the next few days, Merlin only sees him during meals. Arthur tells him about the hearings and the new details they discover about the latest Cornelius Sigan wannabe and his victims.

He teases Merlin a little about this thing or that, but he doesn’t slip into outright flirtation, and he doesn’t touch Merlin more than necessary.

But the way he’d look at Merlin sometimes when he thinks he won’t get caught never fails to leave Merlin breathless and feverish, losing his trail of conversation, and dropping whatever he’s holding. Arthur only smiles, but says nothing.

It’s not that Merlin doesn’t want to say yes. He wants it more than anything. He lies in his bed at night, sleepless, getting up to go to Arthur half a dozen times and stopping himself at the last moment, his hand on the door handle.

‘I love you.’

‘It was a mistake.’

‘I love you.’

He steps back, sitting down on his bed, head in his hands. He has no idea what to do.

--

Merlin looks at the pancake dough with a satisfied grin. He’s getting quite good at it, might want to keep it as a Sunday morning ritual.

Arthur is humming softly, flipping through the paper, still flushed after his morning run. He took a shower, but the smell of spring still clings to him, tangled in is hair, all the more irresistible now while the winter still has the ball.

The phone rings, surprising them both. Arthur glances at Merlin as he picks up. After a short exchange, he hands the receiver over to Merlin.

“It’s for you. Morgana.”

Surprised, Merlin puts down the bowl, wiping his hands on his t-shirt absently. “Morgana? Hi.”

“Hello, sweetie. Hope I didn’t wake you?”

“Since when are you worried about that?”

“You wound me, Merlin. I’m always looking out for you. This is actually why I’m calling. You remember how you let me take your paintings for safe keeping? Well, long story short, we were down an artist at yesterday’s gala, and I put out two of yours – just to keep the appearances, you know? You don’t mind, do you?”

Merlin knows that Morgana doesn’t have unplanned emergencies, and the story seems even more farfetched after she’d pestered him to exhibit his works for months.

“Sure,” he says fatalistically. “If it helps you out.”

“You’re such a sweetheart. Anyway, two of them sold last night, can you believe it?”

Merlin chokes on his coffee. “What?”

“I know, right? No one was more surprised than me, trust me.”

“Of course you were.”

“In any case, darling, I have five thousand pounds waiting to be transferred to your account.”

Merlin sits down so abruptly, he nearly misses the chair. Arthur glances up at him in alarm.

Five thousand pounds?” Merlin asks in a choked voice. “Are you joking?”

The money isn’t that outrageous, but for Merlin it seems almost too big an amount to fathom.

“Not even a little bit.” Morgana manages to sound offended. “I know it’s not as much as they deserve, but now that people are starting to take interest, the prices for your next ones are going to be higher. I’ve been fending off calls all morning. Everybody wants you.”

“Morgana, I don’t – know what to say.”

“Say nothing, darling, it was my pleasure. Just thought I’d let you know, since you’re still hauled up at Arthur’s. In case you wanted to move out and put him out of his misery.”

“I—”

“Talk to you later, got to go. Oh, and congratulations, maitre.”

Merlin hangs up, fingers numb. He turns to Arthur, still reeling. “She said—”

“I heard,” Arthur cuts him off. “Morgana gets shrill when she’s excited.”

“I – well.” Merlin clears his throat. “I can’t believe it.”

Arthur shrugs, giving him a wan smile. “I can. I know nothing about art, but I love your drawings. I suppose congratulations are in order.”

He walks over to Merlin and offers him his hand, the gesture so stiff and formal that Merlin has to look twice.

“Arthur—”

Arthur grabs his hand and shakes it firmly, before dropping it and pulling back. “I suppose you would want to move out now,” he says in a strangled, unnatural voice. “I can – I can get you in touch with a few people to help you find your own place—”

He trails off, and that’s when Merlin knows it. He’s almost giddy with relief, because he finally has his answer, and it’s been in front of him all along.

He slides off the stool and walks over to Arthur, who’s watching him with wary, pained eyes.

“I don’t want to move out,” Merlin says, unable to fight his grin any longer. “I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere.”

Arthur grabs him, jerking him close, eyes bright with hope. “You mean it? Merlin, I can’t take it if you’re joking or—”

Merlin grins and kisses him, and it’s like waking up from the best kind of dream to find out he wasn’t actually dreaming, Arthur’s arms wrapping around him, strong and careful, and just right in a way no one else has ever been.

“Thank God,” Arthur breathes out, breaking the kiss, burying his face in Merlin’s hair, holding him close. “You have no idea what these last few days have cost me. Wanted to touch you so badly, but I promised to give you space, and then thinking you’d leave me, and I wouldn’t even have what little I could have—”

“Arthur,” Merlin interrupts him softly, tracing the stubborn outline of Arthur’s jaw with his teeth. “I’m here. I’m staying. Shut up?”

Arthur does, but the gleam in his eyes is wicked, promising revenge. Merlin shivers in anticipation, and he knows he’ll be begging later and loving every minute of it, but for now he wants to keep kissing Arthur, keep being kissed by Arthur until he can’t breathe, until Arthur is all he knows in the world, because Arthur is home.

And it turns out that it’s the most easily granted wish in the world that requires no incantations, no charms, just a look and a smile and a string, drawn from one beating heart to another.

--