Merlin stared at the ratio for a long time. Then, picking up his pen, he wrote it out.
One to one billion, four hundred fifty nine million, three hundred thirty eight thousand and two hundred --
Merlin scowled, erased the sheet of paper, and removed the rounding factor.
-- one hundred, eighty-seven.
Once more, Merlin stared at the numbers for a long time. Writing them out like that didn't make them look better. Getting rid of the rounding only made it worse. He flicked his pen over and over with increasing anxiety until it spun out of his grasp.
The pen arched beautifully in the air, like a ball soaring through the air to reach the goal, and smacked Will on the back of his head.
"Ow," Will said, turning to scowl at Merlin. He promptly turned back and growled at Sefa, "Don't you dare change that channel."
"I wasn't going to," Sefa said quickly, even though she had the remote control in her hand. "You realise that there are better presenters on the other networks?"
"This one's cute," Will said. "Besides, she's new at this. She'll get better."
Merlin glanced at the telly. The on-site reporter was a poised, well-groomed brunette who could, even on her worst day, double as a high fashion catwalk model at the most exclusive venues and design line unveilings. Her makeup was understated, her eyes were bright, and her smile was sweet, but a large part of her charm, at least where Merlin was concerned, was her quick intelligence and her sharp wit.
Arthur had mentioned her briefly a few days ago, as part of the news that Uther would be released from his latest incarceration soon. Mithian St.-Clair was Pendragon Unlimited's latest field reporter after a string of other field reporters proved they didn't have the sang-froid for unstable situations. She'd been promoted from one of the satellite offices in a tiny little community up north not just for her looks or her ability, but because Uther was championing inclusivity.
Mithian was a werewolf, apparently. And also an Alpha, apparently, who was looking to establish her own pack.
Merlin didn't share that little tidbit of information with Will, only a little because he knew Will would have a heart attack before running off to track her down, exposing his throat and bare belly to her in the hopes she would take him on. Mostly, Merlin didn't speak up because he didn't feel like talking, and because he was still staring at the number.
It didn't matter how many times Merlin recalculated the data he had on hand, or how many theories he applied in the hopes that another solution was both plausible and possible. There was no changing an incipient event that had such a foothold in fate and temporal dynamics. There was only delaying the inevitable.
He didn't know how to stop Arthur's murder.
The odds were terribly against even making the attempt. The temporal causality effect would come into play, and no matter what they did, the event horizon would continue to drive toward this exact scene, over and over. It was inevitable; Morgana couldn't see anything else but that particular scene, and she was a powerful enough Seer that no amount of measurement uncertainty could influence the ratio in any significant aspect.
Merlin's initial solution had been to keep Arthur away from the battle in question, but he hadn't seen any particular markers in Morgana's memory of the vision to know where it would happen, or more importantly, when. Kidnapping Arthur and relocating him to the outermost reaches of the planet wasn't going to fucking help when both hard science and esoteric magic confirmed that Arthur's presence in the battle was critical. They could try to hide Arthur away forever, but the battle would follow him.
And, besides, Merlin knew Arthur well enough by now that, no matter what, Arthur would not be left out of a critical situation.
He also knew Arthur well enough by now to know that Arthur probably had a PlanTM to save his own arse, but since none of Morgana's visions ever extended much further beyond Arthur falling down to the ground in a heap, there was no knowing if it would work. If Arthur had a PlanTM, he was keeping it to himself, because the more people knew about it, the less chance it had to work.
"Ugh." Merlin said, to no one in particular.
Merlin rubbed his face. He dropped his arms with defeat at the nudge at his elbow, and gratefully accepted the tea from Mordred.
"No luck, then?" Mordred asked. Mordred sat down on the old, worn out sofa next to him.
Merlin shook his head. "I'm out of ideas."
Mordred clicked his tongue sympathetically. Merlin was grateful Mordred didn't try for platitudes -- they wouldn't help right now. Neither would the What-if questions that Sefa lobbed at him earlier -- it wasn't as if she had the background to understand the science, so some of the directions she had gone in bordered on the ludicrous. And, honestly, that annoyed Merlin more than anything, because he was the metaphysicist, damn it, and ludicrous was his specialty.
Still, he appreciated her attempt at helping. He appreciated everyone for trying. He just didn't want to think about the problem anymore.
"Can we start the staff meeting? I have a hot date," Gilli said.
"Ahh --" Will began, only to be cut off by Gilli's pointed finger and angry, "Don't start."
(Knowing Will, he had most likely been about to make a remark about dating fire elementals or salamanders, which, first of all, was speciesist. Mostly it was stupidly ironic, given that Will was a werewolf who had once dated an ifrit on a temporary student visa, years ago. He wasn't one to talk.)
Will shut up and settled on the sofa with a smug look on his face until he sniffed the air, shifted in his seat again, and announced, "The pillows smell like cat pee."
"No, that's just you," Freya said, too quickly. Too innocently. Will gave her a suspicious look.
"Staff meeting?" Gilli prodded again.
"We're not all here," Mordred pointed out.
"Arthur's been delayed. Uther's fresh out of jail, the MRO is sniffing around, he has to be a bit more cautious than usual. You know how it is," Merlin said, rubbing his head. "Lance and Percival are working overtime to finish off one last project before they move to the new building and get it set up properly for us, and anyway, it's safer for them if they're not directly involved with the rest of us for now."
"What about the rest of the staff?" Sefa asked.
"Except for us, we have no staff," Mordred reminded her. He studied her for a second. "Well, except for us, minus you. You're not staff anymore."
"Excuse you, I'm a founding member and a consultant," Sefa said primly. She turned to Merlin. "I thought we were recruiting?"
"We were. We are," Merlin corrected quickly. "It's just been put on hold for now. Can't exactly have interviews when we're half-expecting the MRO agents to kick down the door."
"Or worse, one of the short-listers turns out to be a MRO agent in the first place," Will said distractedly, his eyes still glued on the telly. The volume was turned down, but Sefa must have put on the subtitles.
"Better hurry, though. People are still sending in applications, even though they're past the deadline," Gilli said, head bowed over his tablet. "Do you want numbers?"
"No," Merlin said wearily, waving a hand in the air in protest. "No. Just... Set up an autoreply, swamped with response right now, thanks for your interest, will post updates on the main blog. Then the same thing on the blog, too."
"All right," Gilli said, finger-pecking at his tablet's keyboard.
"If you hired an HR person --" Sefa suggested.
"First thing we'll do, then we'll dump everything else on their laps to deal with, so if you've got suggestions for someone to skip the line, do tell, but for now that's a pin on the board for later," Merlin said. He looked around. "Anyone have anything for staffing issues?"
No one said anything. Merlin fumbled through his notes before remembering that the meeting-specific information was stored in his phone. He found his mobile and opened the agenda Arthur had sent him earlier.
"Payroll," Merlin announced, frowning. "Oh, right. We're on fixed salaries -- except you, Sefa -- hourly wage and X amount of weekly hours. Except we're not doing fixed hours and we're all working overtime on some of this. For the time being, Arthur wants to introduce timesheets, make sure that you get paid for your time. Oh, and expense reports."
"I miss being gainfully employed," Sefa mused, mostly to herself.
"Ugh, paperwork," Freya complained.
"It's overtime pay and compensation for essentials until we can sort out department budgets." Merlin stared at his mobile for a long time. Arthur was the one who knew about these things, who'd already laid the groundwork and had set up a base budget. He was the one who should be talking about it, and that knowledge only sank Merlin in a depression spiral, because Merlin didn't know if Arthur would ever be speaking at staff meetings again.
It made his eyes prickle. He forced himself to keep talking.
"Anyway, Arthur will send out the forms, fill them electronically and send them back, and don't be fucking ridiculous about it. Send them in weekly so that we can stay on top of things, but as long as they're in by end of each quarter you'll be compensated. Miss that deadline and you're shit out of luck. If you've got questions, hold on to them, because Arthur's the one with the answers."
Merlin took a deep breath and pushed on without seeing if anyone would speak up despite the warning.
"Next item are the EOI offices. Arthur has an estate agent looking at a few buildings for us, but until we have regular revenue again, an actual rental won't be on the books."
"I still have dibs for a corner office," Will said.
Arthur wanted a corner office, too. He wanted one on principle, even though...
(Sometimes, it didn't fucking pay to know what was going to happen in the future. Merlin had never wanted to be a clairvoyant or a Seer, but now, he didn't envy clairvoyants or Seers at all.)
"You can have all the fucking corners you want," Merlin snapped. At the deathly silence in the sitting room, Merlin's eyes watered until he couldn't read the text on the phone anymore. He sniffled and wiped his cheeks from the tears that spilled out.
He should apologise. He didn't, because his throat was closed up. He should storm out angrily, but he didn't have the energy. Instead, he accepted the crumpled tissue paper Freya handed over, and blew his nose.
"Someone else take over, yeah?"
Nobody picked up the slack immediately. Everyone turned to Sefa, but she wasn't part of the staff anymore, although she kept in touch with everyone on a regular basis, providing updates about her flower shop and nursery. There wasn't much that she could add to that particular topic that they didn't already know.
Gilli sat up, swallowed noisily, and said, "Right, I've got a few things to talk about, don't I? Finished moving the website to a secure server. That'll stop the government from trying to hack us."
"Huzzah," Freya said, glancing at Merlin cautiously.
"Not that it was a problem before. Between George and Arthur, we're locked down pretty tight," Gilli said.
(They still hadn't convinced George to join the company, but Arthur was working on him.)
"Social media's blown up like crazy, mostly positive; the negatives are just trolls who wish they were you or government asrseholes," Gilli continued, flicking through his tablet. "Still getting job tickets through our old Craigslist email address, there's been a slight drop-off in through our website but that's only because some twat spread a rumour on Reddit about MRO agents monitoring IP addresses to track people. Don't worry, I've taken care of that, we should be back to normal in no time."
He paused, skimmed through his notes, and hummed to himself.
"Like I said earlier, job applications are still coming through, but I'll sort it like we talked about." He broke into a big grin. "You'll never guess who applied -- Edwin Muirden. Remember that bloke, Merlin? Keep stealing your books, turning the professors against you, trying to steal your research to present it as his own? He was such an all-around nice guy."
Merlin snorted, but he didn't look up. He was too busy wiping the tears out of his eyes, which wasn't helped by Mordred, who was rubbing his back comfortingly.
"I'm guessing he's an automatic no," Gilli said. "Can I reject him?"
"Let Merlin burn him," Mordred said. "It'll make him feel better. Plus, it's not like it'll really hurt him. But a few fireballs..."
"Damn it. Spoilt my fun. Good job," Gilli said, though his tone was light. He continued through his notes. "There's so much chatter on the blog posts that I had to expand the user database and how the site handles the comments. I'm thinking we need to add a forum, let people have their own chats in their own space. What do you think?"
He looked around. No one answered. Merlin couldn't find it in him to even process moving forward without Arthur there to cast his vote. How the fuck was he going to manage without Arthur after... after?
"Right," Gilli said, after a prolonged silence. "I'll table that for later."
He hummed quietly, skimming through his tablet, and made a sudden, Oh sound.
"Almost forgot. I've been monitoring the responses on your work, you know, the stuff you posted about Ground Zero? A lot of the comments are clear rubbish, even I can tell that. But there was a comment a couple of days ago that redirected most of the trolls. The poster suggested that the data might point toward an exposed ley line? Maybe a damaged one." Gilli looked up, then. "I don't know. Does that make sense to you?"
Merlin looked up, then, his brows furrowed. He felt Mordred shift on the sofa next to him, and turned to meet his eyes. Mordred had the same thoughtful look on his face.
"It's possible --"
"That's impossible --"
They looked at each other. Mordred was the one who broke the silence first. "If it was an exposed ley line, the area would be saturated with wild magical energy. Instead, it's practically a no-supernatural zone, and not only because everyone got the fuck away from there as soon as they could. I worked at a clinic on the edge of the grey area around it, but had to leave. It's either blocking or sapping energy, because I couldn't even use my magic after a while."
Merlin held up a finger, wagging it as he thought about it. He didn't have to think very far. He remembered the weird sensations from Ground Zero where not even air seemed to move. He remembered the glow at the bottom of the crater, strange and unnatural but beautiful and vivid, pulsating like a heartbeat. He remembered the juxtaposition of not being able to use his magic, but being able to feel it, live and aware, thrumming under his skin.
As if it were a living thing.
As if it were a living thing.
He had a counter-argument for Mordred, if only he could put it into words. A few seconds passed before he could translate the images and mathematical equations in his head to something that resembled English. "If it's a ley line that was unearthed by a negavoid bomb, and it's exposed to the residual radiation of the negavoid bomb --"
Mordred clearly wasn't following, if the deep frown on his brow was any sigh. It didn't matter, because Merlin ran out of words and scrambled for another way to explain.
Desperately, Merlin grabbed Mordred's shoulder, jarring his arm so much that tea sloshed out of his cup and onto the sofa, and said, "No, think about it this way. If someone gets a deep cut on their arm and they don't seek medical help, what do they do?"
"They bleed out," Mordred said flatly, brushing his jeans even though the tea had already soaked through. "If they survive, maybe they get an infection. Gangrene. They'll lose their arm."
"Right," Merlin said, and added, "And if it was a supernatural creature that was hurt?"
"They'd heal. Well. Mostly. They can't help it, it's in their blood to do anything to stay alive," Will volunteered, excitedly. He pointed his thumbs against his puffed-up chest. "See? I'm paying attention."
Merlin exchanged glances with Mordred again. This time, he could tell that Mordred had caught onto his theory. Out of anyone in the group, he was the one more likely to understand the metaphysical aspect of a situation, even if only in layman's terms. He might not know where Merlin might be going with this, but Merlin was hoping that Mordred would come to the same conclusion on his own, in the hopes that his idea wasn't as far-fetched as he thought it was.
Then the lights turned on in Mordred's eyes, and he grimaced.
Very slowly, Mordred allowed, "Well, it's possible."
"How possible?" Merlin pressed, aware that Sefa, Freya, and Gilli were watching them oddly. Will had turned back to the telly.
"Had an interesting conversation with Gaius about two months ago, maybe longer. About ley lines and interaction with human souls?"
Merlin's eyes narrowed. He vaguely remembered Mordred animatedly recounting that conversation around the dinner table, but could recall none of it. Most likely, Merlin had been too busy working out the Ground Zero problem in the first place. "Sure," Merlin said, "But tell me like I don't remember anything."
Mordred snorted, seeing through him easily. Still, he humoured Merlin and said, "It was about druidic sacrifices in the heyday. You know all those bog bodies they keep finding? Gaius' has the idea that they were sacrificed to feed flagging ley lines or to rejuvenate dormant ley lines. Likewise, he believes that the ley lines, when at full strength, could bring the very sick or injured back from the brink of death. But he can't prove it because --"
"Because ley lines keep shifting, and nobody's mapped ley lines against finding bog bodies," Merlin said, making the connection even though he remembered none of the dinner table discussion. "So, feed the ley lines, draw energy from the ley lines? That's the idea?"
"Hedge witches," Will supplied suddenly. He tilted his head back to look at them. "No real nascent power of their own, right? Most of their rituals and spell work are based on pulling magic from the land around them."
Everyone stared at him.
"What?" Will said, affronted. "I listen."
Everyone stared at him some more.
"Fine," Will said, deflating somewhat. "I dated a witch. Shut up."
"But he's on to something, whatever that is," Gilli piped up. "I've always lived close to places where I could feed from strong magical energies. Never thought about it in terms of ley lines, honestly. You don't count, though. Sorry, Merlin."
"Ta," Merlin said, certain that he had been insulted, but not sure how.
"Dryads cluster close to ley lines," Sefa offered quietly, almost shyly. Merlin made eye contact with her, wondering if this was when she revealed herself for what she truly was. Instead, she went on and said, "And nymphs like rivers that follow ley lines."
As disappointed as he was that Sefa continued to hide herself from her friends, Merlin couldn't fault her. And anyway, he was more interested in what it all meant. No supernatural lived close to Ground Zero. Not anymore. Not for a long time.
Ground Zero had been blocked off because of the very same radiation alert that Merlin hadn't been able to detect until he'd travelled as close to the crater as he could get. As far as he was concerned, the negavoid radiation was below harmful levels. What had happened to the radiation?
Immediately, Merlin wanted to know how many more supernaturals moved away from the area surrounding Ground Zero over the years. His gut told him that if they plotted it out over a map by year, he'd get an ever-widening concentric ring.
He stood up slowly, a sick feeling sinking in the bottom of his stomach.
"Merlin?" Will asked, his voice low and serious, the telly abandoned despite showcasing Mithian St.-Clair to her best profile. "You've figured it out, haven't you?"
"I need to do the math," Merlin said, wringing his hands.
"What's going on, Merlin?" Mordred asked, putting his tea on the floor and standing up, too. "What are you thinking?"
"I'm not sure what I'm thinking," Merlin said, running a trembling hand through his hair. He tried for a reassuring smile, but failed miserably.
"I'm really scared," Freya whispered.
"I don't care if you're not sure. Just tell us," Will said. Merlin blinked at him -- when did Will get up? Why was he so close?
"Um," Merlin said, his eyes falling on Freya. Her eyes were big and round, and he thought he could feel her emotions until he realised that he was scared, too. Pretty fucking terrified, actually. He spread his hands, chuckled nervously. "It's like this. What happens if you feed too much power to an active transformer being used to power homes?"
Nobody spoke. Freya exchanged glances with Sefa. Will made a curious noise. Mordred crossed his arms, eyebrows furrowed, and Merlin had no idea what Gilli was doing, because Will was standing in the way.
"Eventually, the transformative capacity of the receiving line can no longer self-regulate," Arthur said from the doorway.
Will jerked way with a startled growl. Sefa gasped with surprise. Mordred turned around, the calmest of the lot, because he was the one who'd watched Merlin set the wards around the decrepit flat. They'd have been alerted if the anyone with bad intentions approached the temporary safe house, and, of course, there was no way Merlin would stop Arthur from coming in, no matter his mood.
He wasn't alone, though. For whatever reason, Gwaine had tagged along, and he was looking over Arthur's shoulder into the living room.
Merlin looked at Arthur, his heart thumping hard against a painful twist. If he was right, and he wouldn't make any broad statements until he was absolutely certain, the negavoid bomb, which had damaged and exposed one of the ley lines running under London, had left behind enough residual negavoid radiation to feed negative energy to a ley line desperate for some sort of sustenance that it could use to heal itself.
Except, instead, the ley line was being poisoned by power that it wasn't equipped to handle.
"Yeah," Merlin said quietly. "That's about the sum of it."
"But what does that mean?" Sefa asked.
Merlin looked at Arthur. He was already miserable knowing that Arthur would inevitably die, if Morgana's visions were to be believed. He was afraid to put hope into whatever Arthur's PlanTM, because it would break Merlin if it failed. Ultimately, it didn't matter. Even if Merlin figured out how to extricate Arthur's fate from the temporal event, Arthur would die, anyway.
They all would.
Arthur knew that, too, because he looked a little green.
"It's pretty simple, sweetheart," Gwaine said, pushing past Arthur to get into the sitting room, "London's sitting on a bomb."
He tilted his head and grimaced.
"Was kind of hoping that wasn't the case, but the tea room rumours are hard to ignore. That's why I came by."
Merlin buried his face in his hands, because the news could have been broken a little more gently than that, and waited for the blowback. Surprisingly enough, no one reacted, and Merlin sincerely hoped t it was because they'd been struck dumb by the news than for some other, inexplicable reason that he couldn't come up with.
Gilli was the one who broke the silence. "This is a staff meeting. You're not staff."
"Excuse you, I'm a consultant," Gwaine said. Merlin shot a glance at Arthur, but Arthur only rolled his eyes and shrugged, making a gesture that Merlin could only interpret (hopefully correctly, this time) as, Play along.
"You better not get paid more than I do," Will said.
"If I did, I wouldn't tell you," Gwaine needled, crossing the sitting room.
Gwaine made room for himself on the sofa by plopping down half on Merlin's lap and half on Mordred's, but since Merlin was nestled against the arm, there wasn't much of anywhere that he could move. Mordred grunted, squeezed out from under Gwaine's surprisingly considerable weight, given his size, and muttered something unpleasant and unflattering about jocks and muscleheads.
"Anyway, all this?" Gwaine asked, gesturing at Merlin and reaching out for the papers on his lap. He'd snatched away a good portion of it before Merlin had the good sense to react and to protect his research, but by that point, Gwaine was already reading through them, making thoughtful noises.
Arthur wrenched the papers out of Gwaine's hand, smacked him on the head with them, and handed them back to Merlin without looking at them. Merlin quickly and gratefully put them away, only slightly mortified that Arthur had glanced at the math that determined the odds of Arthur's successful survival given the temporal parameters Merlin had been able to suss out from Morgana's vision.
"Budge over," Arthur said. Exasperated, Mordred got up and claimed a spot on the same sofa as Will and Freya, and there was a bit of a tussle between Arthur and Gwaine before Gwaine decided that the better part of valour was getting out of Arthur's way, and Arthur sat down next to Merlin.
Merlin stared at Arthur's thigh where it touched his own leg with the warmth of a thousand suns. That was the only excuse for his distraction, but he eventually tuned in onto whatever it was that Gwaine was saying with broad gestures and nonsense words.
"... and that's part of the reason I'm here."
"You smell weird," Will said, tilting his head in puppy-like confusion.
"He feels weird," Mordred agreed, but he didn't seem all that bothered about it.
Will, on the other hand, studied Gwaine for a few more moments before turning to the telly again, but his hackles were up, and he was paying attention.
Gilli stared intently at Gwaine before turning to Arthur. "Translation, please?"
"There's some interesting activity at Ground Zero," Arthur said, his tone tinged with amusement. He took off his glasses, squinted at the lens, held them up to the light, and fished out a piece of microfiber with which to clean them. He didn't continue until he was satisfied, and Merlin left him to it, knowing Arthur had a tendency to hide the fact that he was thinking with this particular mannerism. "An unit of army engineers has been assigned to the site. A few lorries full of construction material drove through the gates a few hours ago."
"That's why you're late?" Sefa asked, catching on.
"That's why I'm late," Arthur said, gesturing toward Gwaine. "Our... consultant advised me of unusual activity in the sector, which I felt merited further investigation, particularly given the data Merlin collected at the site and the implications that came with them."
"But he's not really staff," Gilli said, unable to get past that hurdle.
"Does he really make more than me?" Will asked, turning to Merlin.
Merlin was too busy rubbing circles against his temples to have the energy to handle his mates. They could be such fucking children, sometimes. He tuned out the argument and didn't pay attention again until Arthur elbowed him gently in the ribs.
"Here. Take a look."
Merlin looked, but had no idea what he was looking at. The first glance only revealed some sort of fancy photography that Merlin didn't immediately place as satellite images until he took note of the scale on the bottom of the page. It took him a minute to locate a few landmarks, and as he went through the short stack of printouts again, he realised they were increasing magnifications of a site that no one had been able to access in just slightly more than twenty years.
"Where did you get these?" Merlin asked absentmindedly.
Although the government didn't strictly regulate certain satellite images and there was no technical reason to do so for captures of London, no one, regardless of their scientific background, security clearance level, or Registration status, had been able to get their hands on overhead images that would better detail the damage wrought by the negavoid bomb.
Merlin could feel Arthur giving him one of his patented raised-eyebrows, scornful looks, and pointedly did not look up. Instead, he focused on the date stamps, which were all less than an hour ago, and the fact that the most zoomed-in image showed a long, wide structure with diaphanous material completely covering the crater with the exposed ley line.
"Shite," he said, to no one in particular about nothing in particular, because this was bad.
There was no reason for the government to be so interested in the site when they'd long let it lay fallow following their own investigations shortly after the Sigan Incident. That meant that they'd figured out for themselves what was going on, and when it came to the government, there was no telling what they would do with this information.
The government probably had some sort of specialist -- an old and doddering metaphysicist lucky enough to still be on the government payroll, preparing for their retirement years in the relative comfort of a pension that was only plush because they'd bought into it early on -- who explained what it all meant.
It was easy enough to imagine the metaphysicist wading through whatever data had originally been acquired, and to dutifully plug in the new data from the government stiffs that Tristan and Isolde said came by all the time to take measurements of some sort or another. Maybe the metaphysicist didn't know what they were looking at, because despite their impressive curriculum and number of additional letters attached to their names, they themselves weren't in any way associated with the supernatural, what with being a government employee and all.
Possibly, just possibly, the nameless, faceless, unknown, most likely completely non-existent metaphysicist would have Googled a few terms, clicked around on a few links, and stumbled upon the paper that Merlin had posted to the Evil Overlord Inc. blog.
Possibly, bordering on definitely, Merlin might have contributed to the government having information that they shouldn't have, and, well..
This wasn't the solution that Merlin had been hoping for in the How-to-Save-Arthur dilemma. It was worse. It was the fucking trigger.
Merlin didn't want to deal with sorting out whatever it was that the government was about to do. He had more important things to do.
(Like sorting out How-to-Save-Arthur.)
Merlin sighed a heavy sigh and slumped, sinking deeper in the worn-out pillows of the second-hand couch. He rubbed his forehead some more, because he couldn't think with all these problems battering at his brain for attention, and decided that he really, really needed a drink. Preferably something stronger than tea.
Merlin looked around in search of alcohol, because of the usual culprits, surely Will would have brought a six-pack over for the post-meeting wrap-up, and stilled, suddenly acutely aware of everyone's eyes on him. "What?"
"Mate," Will said, pointing in his direction, "When did that happen?"
Half-expecting to discover that he'd somehow set himself on fire, Merlin glanced down, but didn't immediately spot anything untoward. The only thing that wasn't quite normal was the weight of Arthur's arm around his shoulders, his fingers rubbing at the nape of his neck. At right that moment, Arthur's thumb found the knot in his neck, pressed just so, and Merlin moaned.
"Um," Merlin said, trying for innocent and knowing he was failing miserably, given how hot his cheeks were. He stood up abruptly, breaking free of Arthur's hold, ignoring the curl of amusement on Arthur's lips, and decided the only way out of this was through. He clapped his hands together and said, "All right, folks. Gilli, track the downloads on that paper we posted to the blog, see if you can find out who in the government got access to it. Not that we can do much about it now, but I want to know how much they know.
"Mordred, Sefa, I need the two of you get me an updated map for the leylines. I want to figure out how bad this is going to get. Freya, move the Hellhounds and start relocating all of the other creatures. Will, work with your contacts to get an evacuation plan."
Merlin turned to Arthur and Gwaine. "You two..."
"Don't say it," Gwaine warned, eyes round with alarm. "There's no way we'll get through --"
"Find a way," Merlin said. "We need to get back to Ground Zero."
"That's number thirty-four," Gwaine announced unnecessarily.
"Thirty-seven, actually. You missed the guard who stepped out for a fag," Arthur said, adjusting his binoculars. They were stereographic, and had more depth perception than Gwaine could get with the flattened view through the standard-issue models.
Besides Arthur, Merlin stirred. He said something that was both muffled and indiscernible until Arthur nudged his shoulder repeatedly. Merlin returned to the world of the living -- though he clearly had one foot somewhere in the metaphysical realm -- and took the pencil out of his mouth. "Forty-two. There's five more in the bunkhouse. No sign of Aredian, though."
"You're not even looking," Gwaine complained. "How are you doing that?"
"Magic," Merlin said. "Can I borrow someone's mobile? I need another calculator."
"Right arse cheek," Arthur said, flushing a little and grinning a whole lot when Merlin, too absorbed in his work to notice what he was doing, blindly fondled his arse to fish out his phone. He caught Gwaine looking between the two of them with a disgusted look on his face.
"At least let me get in on that," Gwaine whined.
"No. Not on your life. Never. Won't happen," Merlin said, decisively, his tone brokering no argument or negotiation, and returned to his calculations.
Arthur laughed, unable to help himself, and watched Merlin fondly for a few minutes. He wasn't entirely sure how Merlin could operate in that strange mode of partial detachment -- aware of some things, but not others, remain capable of responding to both. Or several, as the case might be, because as far as Arthur could tell, Merlin was working on several different things at once.
Foremost on the radar was the situation at the negavoid Ground Zero. Gilli had tracked down the government IP addresses that had accessed and downloaded Merlin's paper, handed the information to Arthur, who delegated it to the still-elusive knob-obsessed George, who in turn winnowed down the IP address to specific desktops and identified their users. Gwaine, because he'd been in everyone's hair at the time, had been given the task of finding out who might have taken the paper seriously, or understood the implications, and to find out whom else that person might have told.
Interestingly enough, except for Arthur's old supervisor at MI5, no one in Her Majesty's service had actually paid any attention to Merlin's meticulous work. Half of it had to do with not being able to understand the high-level mathematics that Merlin had used in his paper, but mostly, without Arthur there to stem the flow of work, his former department was woefully behind on evaluating the threats flagged by another division.
His old supervisor had tagged it, Worth investigating, but there was no record of it going anywhere else. As far as Arthur could tell, no one in MI5 was aware of the threat rumbling under the surface of Ground Zero, and they weren't the ones instigating the increase of armed forces personnel on-site.
Gilli, however, noticed a certain individual had accessed the EOI website on a spurious, but too-frequent basis, which stank to Arthur as obsessive behaviour. George discovered that this particular intruder was some bloke who was a highly-disliked former classmate of Merlin's, and, when Arthur arranged to meet him, he understood why they were highly-disliked in the first place.
(Arthur had borrowed Elena to man the front desk of the seventh floor of a building that was still partially furnished despite having gone into bankruptcy. It had been perfect given the minuscule amount of time he'd had to set things up. He still remembered how Elena's voice had been sickly-sweet and pleasant when she'd escorted Muirden to the glass-walled conference room, guiding him inside.
"Good luck at your interview, Mister Muirden," she said.
"It's Doctor Muirden," Muirden snapped, already making a good impression.
"Let me know if you need me to validate your parking, Mister Muirden," Elena said, all smiles, and when the door closed on Muirden's face, the smile vanished from her face. She mouthed, Wanker, and jerked her hand up and down in the air as she walked away. Muirden didn't even notice.
Arthur, struggling not to laugh, leaned over the table to shake Muirden's hand and to invite him to sit. He moved to the perfect position to watch Muirden's expression when Merlin, who had been sitting in the big leather chair at the head of the large conference table, executed the perfect Evil Overlord chair swivel to face Muirden with a small, serene smile.
The sound of Muirden's jaw falling to the floor had been priceless.
Before Merlin could even say, "So, still up to your old tricks, yeah? Steal someone's research, pass it on to someone else in the hopes that it'll make you look good?", Muirden burst into tears and begged for mercy.
The poor sod had indeed passed Merlin's Ground Zero research as his own during a government interview for a metaphysicist position, using faked credentials and someone else's unregistered Registration status. Aredian, it seemed, had been on the interview panel, and had asked Muirden to explain the impact of the data, in which he made a few wild, speculative guesses that had been uncomfortably close to the truth.
Needless to say, Muirden didn't pass his police check at the government job; he was shite out of luck trying to get a job at EOI no matter how much he begged Merlin; and, Elena definitely did not validate his parking.)
The actual culprit was some sort of military advisor who was somehow associated to a number of sub-committees, and who was peripherally linked to the people who had built the negavoid bomb in the first place. Tómas Aredian was too well connected to the right people and had too much leverage on the wrong people for Arthur or Gwaine to do something about him, directly, and it wasn't until Arthur saw his photograph that he remembered Aredian as one of the people who had come to Ground Zero just as he, Gwaine and Merlin had been leaving that first time.
It was too much of a coincidence for Arthur to ignore, but he had to ignore it in favour of dealing with the question immediately at hand: How bad was it going to be?
"How much longer?" Gwaine complained.
"I just got the ley line map from Mordred, give me a few minutes, yeah?" Merlin replied absentmindedly.
"How much longer do we have to wait here like a pack of wankers?" Gwaine clarified.
"Um," Merlin said, his brow furrowing, but he didn't look up and was immediately absorbed by the image on his mobile's screen, a hand hovering over a sheet of calculations.
"When we're ready," Arthur said patiently, which was as close as he would get to ever admitting, I don't know. For all the surveillance scenarios he'd ever played out in his head, Arthur had never actually engaged in one, and he felt like he should turn to Gwaine for some input, given that Gwaine was the actual secret agent and knew his way around a battlefield.
But it was Gwaine, and Arthur didn't know if he wanted to trust him that much. Will thought he smelled bad, Morgana frowned when she looked at Gwaine, Gilli got the heebie-jeebies when he got close, but it was Merlin who said that Gwaine felt wrong before Mordred even mentioned it. On top of that, Arthur wasn't convinced that Gwaine's loyalty was to anyone but himself.
"Um," Merlin said again, putting down his pen and reaching out blindly to pat, then poke, at Arthur's thigh. He hadn't looked up from the ley lines. "Um."
Arthur lowered the binoculars. "Yes?"
Merlin didn't answer right away. His eyes were wide, round, and showing too much white as he turned the screen of his mobile to Arthur. The screen was filled with a topographical map, the landmarks obvious, with strange squiggly and circular lines drawn over top, as if a child had taken a box of crayons and had drawn random curlicues everywhere. If this was the ley line map, it wouldn't mean anything to him.
However, something about it had bothered Merlin enough that he felt the need to show Arthur, which hopefully meant that Arthur would be able to puzzle it out on his own, as Merlin seemed to have gone subverbal. He took the mobile, shifted in his seat, and angled the phone carefully to keep the light from the window.
The map didn't have the sophistication of modern-day maps with longitudes and latitudes locating every street, building, and city to within a millimetre of their global positioning coordinates. Nor did it have the level of detail that Arthur could get with satellite maps. If anything, the ley-line map was more like a medieval map, with fanciful drawings in the margin and exaggerated imagery within city borders. Although there were no sea dragons curling out of the Thames, no gryphon aeries anywhere, and certainly no red X marks the spot, the map was still drawn well enough that Arthur was able to turn the background transparent, overlay it on top of an actual city map, and to resize it so the major landmarks matched.
He zoomed in on the Ground Zero site. The ley line map confirmed that there was, indeed, a ley line in the area, though it was not a major line, if the thickness of the sketch was any indicator of prevalence. Arthur wasn't certain what that meant in the grand scheme of things and couldn't correlate it to Merlin's alarm or the way Merlin was scrambling to put everything away until...
He zoomed out.
And then, he understood.
Instead of standing alone, as most of the smaller ley lines seemed to do, the ley line at Ground Zero fed immediately into several tributaries, which, in turn, were connected to other minor ley lines, some of which were very strongly linked to one of several major arteries -- never the same ones -- that ran in a cross section beneath London.
"Um," he said, because, what else could he possibly say about that level of destruction?
(The analogy of cartoon characters came to mind. The evil toon would trace a line of gunpowder across the floor of a shed, which was filled with explosives. The toon would tip-toe away to shelter, light a match, drop it onto the pile of gunpowder, and cackle gleefully as the spark burned its way through the laid line. The toon would crouch with their hands over their ears, counting down in anticipation of detonation. More often than not, the evil toon's plans were thwarted by the hero toon's hilarious antics, and the shed never blew up. The town was saved.
It was simple, easy, and hilarious, because no one ever sympathised with the evil toon. Why couldn't this situation be as simple as it was on the telly? Evil Overlords weren't supposed to be the heroes.
For once, Arthur was glad Merlin was an outlier to the mean.)
"All right," he said, scrambling to his feet. He kicked at Gwaine's hip to get him moving. "We need to get inside. Right the fuck now."
A wardrobe change and nearly an hour of dodging through the mostly-deserted and
strangely largely unlit streets later, they were at the gates again, ignoring the large army trucks waiting behind Gwaine's sleek black company car. Gwaine was currently engaging in a staring match with the guardsman at the gate, who was insisting on everyone's identification while tapping his clipboard meaningfully.
"If you can't tell that we're on important government business --" Gwaine paused to snatch the fake IDs that Arthur had somehow acquired for this particular incursion. "-- then you're vastly mistaken. I'll make sure your commanding officer hears of this. We can't afford any further delays! This is absolutely ridiculous. How dare you -- what are you doing? Who are you calling? Put me on the line right now with whoever that is!"
Arthur exchanged a glance with Merlin in the rear view mirror. He blinked, at first not immediately recognising Merlin despite the fact that the only concession to a disguise had been a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting off-the-rack suit that still made Arthur wrinkle his nose in disapproval. But Merlin's eyes rolled impatiently, and he held off kicking the back of the driver's seat with what Arthur thought was enormous restraint.
"Tone it down," Arthur said, through clenched teeth. "You're attracting too much attention."
"It's the best approach, trust me," Gwaine said, though he first glanced around to make certain no one was in earshot and spoke at a soft volume. "They've got a guest list, and it's on paper, so we can't hack that, can we? The more obnoxious we are, the faster they'll be about letting us through."
"Or turn us away, you big wanker," Merlin snapped, clearly stressed.
"Obnoxious and loud tends to equate self-entitled and important," Gwaine said, shooting Arthur a wry grin. Arthur tried not to take offence. He'd learned young that obnoxious and loud weren't half as effective as pushy and precocious, but then he'd grown up and came to the conclusion that the limelight could wait until he was a proper Evil Overlord.
(He'd been nine years old, at the time. All these years later, despite remaining arrogantly precocious, Arthur was satisfied with his level of celebrity, which would no doubt explode once it was revealed that he was Dr. M.'s right hand man. However, he wasn't above using obnoxious and loud as tactics to help them get what they needed for EOI. It was actually a whole lot of fun.)
"They teach you that in Spy 101?" Merlin asked in the snarkiest tone Arthur had heard him use.
"No, learned from watching the best," Gwaine said, thumbing toward Arthur. He didn't say much more than that, continuing in his role of impatiently tapping at the steering wheel and snappily asking, Well? Raise the goddamn gate, we're late, at whoever passed by.
Arthur felt Merlin's attention on him. He refused to make eye contact. "I don't know what he's on about. I'm a darling."
Merlin snorted, but when Arthur glanced in the rear view mirror, some of the tension had leached out of Merlin's shoulders.
"Finally!" Gwaine exclaimed, hitting the steering wheel. "It's about time. Is that your commanding officer? She'll clear this up immediately and see you in the stockade for interfering with Very Important Government Business."
Sergeant Isolde Lemieux emerged from the gatehouse with a severe frown on her face, her lips in a pressed line, and her hands, thankfully, nowhere near her weapons. Behind her was Tristan Grant, still in his government-issue business suit. He seemed less suspicious than Isolde but slightly more unreadable beyond the flash of peculiar interest in his eyes. They followed the guardsman to the car.
Isolde stood next to the driver's side door, far enough away that she didn't have to bend down to stare at Gwaine. Gwaine stared back unflinchingly, and except for a few impatient gestures on his part, neither one of them spoke for a solid thirty seconds.
During those thirty seconds, Tristan casually walked around the hood of the car, his attention focused on the passengers. Arthur watched him move, not doing the slightest thing to hide his identity, but he felt, rather than saw, as Merlin ducked his head down, ostensibly over a tablet.
Tristan paused at Arthur's side of the car. He leaned back, tilted his head, and looked through the rear passenger window at Merlin. Merlin glanced up quickly with an annoyed frown, but immediately looked down again, tapping the tablet with intent that was most likely not manufactured.
Isolde heaved a sigh and whipped her hand out to the side. The guardsman handed her the three identification cards. Isolde flipped through them, one after the other, at least three times over, as if shuffling playing cards, but her eyes never drifted from the IDs themselves. Time trickled past so slowly that Arthur fretted that they would never get inside, or, worse, that Isolde would flag the soldiers to start firing. Instead, she raised her eyes to look over the roof of the car to where Tristan stood, and there was that bit of silent telepathic communication between close couples Arthur had always privately envied, before Isolde abruptly handed the cards back to Gwaine.
"Open the gates," Isolde said, shooing the guardsmen out of the way with a rude gesture. As soon as they were out of earshot, Isolde stepped closer to the car and bent down, looking at the three of them. Nearly simultaneously, Tristan knocked on Arthur's window, gesturing for him to roll it down.
Arthur raised an eyebrow, but he complied. As soon as the window was lowered all the way, Tristan leaned an arm across the width of the door and quietly asked, "Whatever's going on in there, it has nothing to do with you lot. It's been going on too long. So. Do you know what they're doing?"
Arthur glanced at Merlin, his mouth opening and closing with a click, as if unsure of how much to reveal. Arthur hesitated, too, but Gwaine, being Gwaine, asked, "Bunch of military talking heads, no government oversight anywhere? What do you think?"
Isolde hissed through her teeth. Tristan clicked his tongue, his expression neutral. He looked off to the side thoughtfully, and when he spoke again, it was with a low tone that carried no further than the car. "Recognised you straightaway when you were on the telly, you know that?"
"Didn't really think much about it," Merlin admitted.
"You never turned us in," Arthur said, turning his wary glance from Tristan to Isolde. Isolde smirked and shrugged, but Tristan's eyes narrowed measuringly. He would have seen some sort of chatter from some of the spy bugs he'd left on any number of computer systems since leaving MI5. Some of those computers belonged to the military; others were MI6, and at least one was an unidentified ghost server that, based on the material it contained, was the private domain of the Royal Family.
He was nothing if not thorough, and he was invested, damn it. Originally it was because he wanted to make sure Evil Overlord, Incorporated became something out of the ordinary, something amazing. And now... Now, he found that he used those resources not only to safeguard the company, but to protect Merlin.
(Arthur liked to think he was an upstanding, virtuous man, even if his morals were dubious. But not even a bloody saint would have resisted going through the Royal Family's records to see if there was any truth to the rumours that the Family wasn't as mundane as they let their press agents claim they were.
Hint: they were as bloody supernatural as most of the population, and hiding from their own government as much as the rest of them, but if push came to shove, Arthur was certain he knew whose side they'd be on when Evil Overlord, Incorporated, made a stand.)
"No, but I looked you up," Tristan said, and shook his head. He looked right at Merlin. "Read your paper. Fascinating stuff."
He paused, but it was Isolde who finished whatever thought Tristan hadn't spoken yet. "Can you fix it?"
"Fix what?" Merlin said innocently. His eyes were so round with surprise and concern that Arthur almost believed him. The act would have worked if Gwaine hadn't choked back a laugh. Tristan didn't seem to mind the deception, however, because the corner of his mouth twitched.
"So, what do I tell mum?" he asked.
Arthur started to answer, mostly to mirror the confusion on Merlin's face and to ask, What the fuck are you talking about? when he realised Tristan wasn't talking to either of them. He was talking to Gwaine.
Gwaine shrugged a shoulder, and very seriously said, "I meant what I told her before, and that hasn't changed. They're trying to fix things. This is just another item on their list."
Tristan clenched his jaw, looked down at his hands, and rubbed his palms. "She's not going to like that."
"Then she should get off her bloody arse and do something about it instead of hiding behind gilded walls. I keep telling her it's 2017, regular folks are more open-minded now, Victorian sensibilities were a long fucking time ago, and there aren't any more witch hunts, damn it. This would've never been a problem if she'd gone and done something about it when it first started being a problem -- and anyway, why are we sitting here wasting time? Can we go in?" Gwaine said, gesturing at the open gates ahead.
"You can tell her that yourself. She lets you get away with that sort of lip," Tristan snapped. He caught himself, pinched the bridge of his nose, and huffed a sigh. "And, anyway, if she decides to hang you, at least you'll survive."
Arthur glanced sharply at Tristan. He turned to Merlin, who had the same startled expression that Arthur imagined he wore, too. He gave Gwaine a critical look, trying to see if he'd missed something, but, no: MI5 wouldn't have made a supernatural creature or someone otherwise-human inclined into one of their secret agents, never mind given them any sort of authority. And, anyway, Arthur had done a thorough background check. Gwaine wasn't Registered, his records were all above board, right down to the sealed juvenile arrests and associated court proceedings. So, what the fuck was Tristan talking about? At least you'll survive?
"You know," Merlin said conversationally, his voice low and his breath close to Arthur's ear, "Come to think of it, those two feel weird, too."
"Uh," Arthur said, but he was stuck on the more important question of, "What does that mean?"
"It means he's jealous mummy likes me best," Gwaine said cheekily, and his voice darkened as if heavy light-cancelling curtains had dropped down around it. "Letting us through or what?"
"Go," Tristan said, waving a hand. "I expect an invitation for when you do a full debriefing with mum."
"I don't report to you," Gwaine singsonged, letting go of the brake to drive through the gates.
"I'm very confused," Merlin said, looking between Arthur and Gwaine. Arthur had no answers to give, either, and Gwaine hummed merrily to himself, as if nothing untoward had happened. Maybe to him, nothing had.
But it was in that moment Arthur saw the shrewd glint in Merlin's narrowed eyes, so he paid attention when Merlin got out of the car. Gwaine fussed with a few controls that were not normally part of the off-the-assembly-line automobile standard, turned off the engine, and climbed out to face a waiting Merlin. It was resignation Arthur saw in Gwaine's eyes, not surprise or anger, as if he'd expected Merlin to use his magic on him.
His surprise happened in the aftermath, when the gold faded completely from Merlin's eyes, because he said, "That was a lot more gentle than I expected."
Merlin blinked repeatedly, his mouth open in the O of someone who'd been slapped in the face with a fish, and when he found his voice, it was to blurt out, "That was not what I was expecting at all."
Gwaine grinned and winked. "Keep it to yourself, yeah? For now?"
Merlin flushed and fumbled with his satchel, shoving the tablet in the front pocket, ducking his head like an adorable schoolboy with a crush on a handsome classmate. Arthur glowered with jealousy, times three -- Gwaine should not be winking at Merlin, Merlin should not be flattered by this attention, and what the fuck was going on?
Before they could ask, he spotted an increase in activity off in the distance, with soldiers in scattered formations running double-time toward the Ground Zero impact site. Some of those soldiers weren't even pretending to be anything other than mission-ready, because they were flat-out running, already hunkering down to brace for impact. Gwaine had a gun in his hand, keeping it close to his hip, and Arthur resisted the urge to draw the gun Merlin didn't know he had.
(But probably knew, anyway. Because he was a sorcerer, and he knew Things.)
More soldiers appeared, this time from the gatehouse; they ran past without so much as a wary glance, hard caps low on their heads, automatic rifles cradled in their arms. Their orders, whatever those were, must have been clear enough to broker no argument or hesitation, but that didn't stop Arthur from seeing the fear in their eyes.
Then, and only then, did the alarms begin to blare.
There were megaphone speakers positioned nearly every fifty metres all along the fencing that surrounded the affected zone. They were supposed to alert nearby residents of a radiation leak, requiring them to evacuate to their nearest shelters. In all of Arthur's research, he had never found a single incident when those alarms had gone off.
Age, possibly rust, most likely deteriorated connections -- all of those things explained why the speakers crackled and hissed before popping in a loud clash of static and antistatic. Covering his ears too late, Arthur was deafened by the blaring warble of a multi-scale whoo-whooo-whooooopp. He turned and saw Gwaine leaning against the car, doubled over as if in extreme pain, and further down the road, from the guardhouse, were Tristan and Isolde, driving along the rough road in an open-top all-terrain. They drove past, did a sharp U-turn that nearly tipped the vehicle, and drove straight toward Arthur, Gwaine and Merlin.
The all-terrain came to an abrupt stop and they were rained with a hail of pebbles, gravel and dust. Tristan looked as miserable as Gwaine, though to a lesser degree; Isolde merely looked grim as she clenched the wheel tightly. She shouted, "Get in!"
Gwaine didn't hesitate. He tottered on one leg, as if knocked off balance, and in a few steps shook off his stagger to climb in the rear seat. Arthur followed, because he wasn't going to bloody well walk if he could catch a ride, but paused when he realised he had no idea where Merlin was. He whirled around, desperate, only slightly terrified, and stilled when he saw Merlin.
Merlin stood on the other side of the car, his head tilted as if listening to something. He was absolutely motionless, his expression concentrated and thoughtful, lost to something Arthur couldn't make out from over the distant clatter of gunfire and the screech of alarms.
That was when Arthur realised Merlin was unaffected by the alarms. Whatever it was that Merlin was listening to, it had captured his complete attention, and there was no reaction when Arthur called his name.
"Mer -- Merlin!" Arthur repeated, marching over to place his hands on Merlin's shoulder to give him a good shake. Or two.
(Or several. He wasn't panicking. He wasn't.)
It was enough to make Merlin blink and to come back to himself, though there was a gold-glazed look in his eyes. It wasn't normal. It wasn't normal for Merlin. The gold-glaze was dark, streaked with mud, as if it were still in its unrefined form, trapped in rock. It was nothing like the brilliant burnished gold of Merlin's pure magic.
Arthur started to shake Merlin again, only for Merlin to catch his hand and shake his head.
"Power's back on," he said simply, frustratingly cryptically, and nodded in the vague distance, in the direction of the crater.
"That's good, yeah?" Arthur asked, because he had no idea. He only knew Merlin couldn't use his magic reliably here, if he could use it at all; that the ley line was exposed and probably severely contaminated by the negavoid radiation; and, that meant --
Merlin wavered in his arms. He was more pale than usual in the headlights of the all-terrain, a little too green around the edges.
Merlin shook his head slowly. He opened his mouth as if about to explain, but his attempt was interrupted by the loud blast of a horn. From the army vehicle, Isolde waved an arm, urging them to hurry. Gwaine was hunched over the rear seat; Tristan was doubled over. Arthur glared at them over his shoulder with a notion of asking Isolde to Wait one bloody second,
And then it hit, whatever it was, in a pulsating, visible blast like a soundwave in oil-contaminated water, iridescent in the dark of night. The force of impact wasn't enough to knock them off their feet, though Arthur rocked closer to Merlin. Merlin didn't budge a millimetre; he seemed rooted to the spot.
The wave went through Arthur with no visible or noticeable effect. Arthur patted himself anxiously and looked Merlin over with a critical eye. The engine to the all-terrain vehicle must have cut out, because Isolde was twisting and grinding the key and stamping on the accelerator in an attempt to get the engine running again.
The cold, logical part of Arthur's mind distilled what had just happened. It must have been a low-energy, short-wave electromagnetic blast, of some sort, because Arthur had no other explanation for it.
The instinct-driven lizard part of Arthur's mind knew he was wrong. Arthur grasped Merlin's arm and dragged him toward the all-terrain just as he received confirmation: his mobile buzzed in his jacket pocket, completely unaffected.
Arthur ignored the call when he noticed the secondary effects of the pulse of whatever that had been.
Dust floated from the ground as if it was the fresh kick-up of a passing vehicle. Small stones rose as if untouched by gravity. Arthur's hair floated up from his head, and he felt a trickle of electricity on his skin. He had to flatten down his tie as it drifted of its own volition into his face.
Merlin was outside of the realm of effect, it seemed. Arthur didn't catch on right away, but he followed Merlin's gaze as Merlin stared down at himself, then at Arthur, completely confused. It was as if he were surrounded by an aura of some kind, and the energy that had been mysteriously released was repelled by Merlin's magic.
That was when Arthur noticed that the blackness which had tinted the edges of Merlin's eyes was gone, and now there was neither blue nor white in them, and nothing but gold.
Brilliant, vivid gold.
"Oh, no," Merlin confirmed quietly, reaching out with a hand, only to see the floating rocks move away from him. "This isn't good at all."
They ran to the all-terrain, clambering onto the back seat and climbing over Gwaine to get to the empty rear bench seat, Isolde barely waiting for the doors to close before she stamped on the accelerator. She drove back the way they'd come, heading to the guard house, rushing through the gates. The truck screeched as Isolde took a hard right, but miraculously kept its wheels on the makeshift road.
Behind them, the earth rocked, roared, trembled --
And in the ripple of pavement that reminded Arthur of a tsunami, the all-terrain vehicle lurched, jerked to the side, and barely kept on course or ahead of the wave crashing upon the surface from deep underground.
Eventually, the earth quieted, reduced to little but a faint tremor. The city was alight with awakened households, men and women streaming out of their houses or looking out the window to see what was going on. It wasn't long before Isolde couldn't drive any further, and the five of them climbed out of the army truck to join the other gawkers in the street.
The London sky had been cleaved in half by a bright blue-grey light filled the sky like a spotlight at a film festival.
"What is that?" Gwaine asked shakily, clearly not himself.
"We were wrong," Merlin said slowly. "This is worse than a bomb."
"But what is it?" Tristan demanded, the bark in his voice betrayed by a crack of fear.
Merlin shook his head, but it was Arthur who answered, because he knew. He was the expert on Evil Overlords, the only one amongst them who had studied them since he was very small. That particular shade of blue belonged to only one man. That light had been his trademark, the undertone of any destruction that he had wrought upon London. It was the same person that the government had murdered at Ground Zero.
"It's Cornelius Sigan."
The government denied there was a problem for nine days.
The blue lights in the sky above Ground Zero were a "new experimental device intended on making the zone safe for inhabitation again" and the scientists tasked to study the effects were currently reviewing the data collected.
("Bollocks," Will said, because no one else was saying it.)
The destruction of the buildings around Ground Zero had "nothing to do with the experimental device that was energised at the same time, and the severe and unprecedented earthquake in the region was a natural phenomenon which had occurred by sheer coincidence".
("And I'm a bloody wraith," Sefa hissed, sitting on the very edge of her seat, practically spitting.
Freya eyed Sefa curiously. "Are you?"
Sefa's glare wasn't quite murderous, but it came close.)
The area around Ground Zero had been evacuated by the government in a ring that extended several hundred yards. The government's excuse was concern about "contaminants leaching into drinking water pipes and the possibility of broken gas lines following the earthquake".
(Mordred snorted, but offered no commentary, because he knew better than anyone else that the public health statistics indicated nothing of the kind. And, anyway, his friends amongst the city workers would've been called in to do the work, and they were currently sitting idle, waiting for the go-ahead order from on-high.)
When the press -- led by Uther Pendragon of Pendragon Unlimited, who had grabbed a microphone and a cameraperson to get right into the face of one of the officials observed entering the central command headquarters positioned outside Ground Zero's "new" restriction zone -- insisted on answers, the government's response was a tight-lipped, "No comment."
("Probably the first time someone's dared say that to him in years," Arthur said, the amusement in his voice not matching his now-perpetual scowl.)
Shortly afterward, a ghostly blue light was observed on the horizon, where it trailed like a nasty little cloud until it hovered directly above a small winter festival. Social media was, once again, more informative than mainstream media, which couldn't get on-site in time, but either way, despite the video footage, the government kept mum on the situation.
(Thirty-six dead, hundreds more injured, and that said nothing of the mental trauma that was caused by both natural and supernatural means. There was no shaking off being trampled by frightened people stampeding toward the few available exits, and there was definitely no forgetting the reedy, thin-mustachioed, greasy-haired, possessed-by-Cornelius Sigan bloke who had glowed bright blue on video, and cast spells to harm, torture, and murder whoever was nearby.)
The area was blocked off for an unannounced, highly-sensitive government event within the hour of Twitter announcing the presence of a new Evil Overlord wreaking havoc near Parliament Hill. Not long afterward, #WhereIsDrM began trending.
("Where is he, indeed," Gilli muttered, shooting a sidelong glance at Merlin. Merlin tensed but said nothing, just as he did nothing, because there was nothing he could do. The Cornelius Sigan-Cedric Cole Twin Power Activate monster had vanished, and Merlin didn't know where they were. Making a public appearance now, when the government was on high alert and hiding the fact they were freaking the fuck out, would help no one.)
The British stiff upper-lip had borne Londoners through a series of seemingly random attacks throughout the city, all of them unprovoked and unrelated, at least until Arthur made an appearance and remarked that each of those sites had been areas of contention, decades ago, when Sigan had first made an appearance.
("I can't imagine the owners of those places having to deal with this shite again," Freya said, cuddling one of the Hellhounds close. She hadn't felt comfortable leaving them alone in the warded warehouse-turned-kennel, on the off-chance that Merlin's residual magical signature would be strong enough for Sigan-slash-Cole to take notice. Their flat was currently the territory of several very fluffy and flammable Hellhounds, one of which was sprawled across Arthur's lap as if it had every intention of coming home with him. "I'd be so pissed, personally.")
There was nothing for it, really. Merlin could only react to the aftermath, which was better than useless, because if he couldn't handle cleaning up his own room, how could he help the city clean up the streak of destruction? It was bad enough watching shaky smartphone video of what was going on, never mind seeing the ruins on the more stable video of mainstream media, and Merlin had taken to his room to bury himself into research and metaphysical theory to see if he could come up with a solution to the Sigan-Cole problem.
Foremost amongst them: what to call this fearsome combination, because "the Sigan-Cole entity" didn't exactly roll off the tongue.
(On more than one occasion, Merlin had sat up straight from his over-the-book crouch, cracking his spine in an effort to slow down his transition into a permanent hunchback. He'd spot Arthur stretched out on his bed, sleeping blissfully, the Hellhound keeping the room temperature at a slow roast, curling up against Arthur as if it was Arthur's personal hot water bottle. Arthur looked so soft and vulnerable in those moments that Merlin somehow found a third or a fourth second wind, and concentrated on a solution, because he had two problems to solve.
One more important than the other, of course.)
"Do you think he'll find us?" Percival asked, carefully scratching behind the ears of the Hellhound dubbed Momma Hellhound, from the way it watched the other Hellhounds, making sure they behaved. The telly was slow-panning over the aftermath of a complete flattening of a string of flats not far from Parliament Hill. Luckily, no one they knew lived in that area. Unluckily, and more troublesome, a lot of people had died.
"No," Merlin said quietly, chewing on his thumbnail. "I wiped off every magical trace on the outside of the No-See-Ums wards. As far as anyone outside of Google Maps is concerned, we don't exist."
"No-See-Ums?" Gwen asked, curling up against Lance. She was carefully keeping her feet away from the Hellhounds, who had a particular fascination for her mismatched coloured socks.
"Don't ask," Mordred said, thumping Will on the head as he walked past. "This one thought it was a great name, and it stuck."
"Okay," Gwen said uncertainly, and made room for Mordred on the sofa. Merlin wasn't sure how they'd managed to keep the Hellhounds from the furniture (except for the one who was on Arthur, but that was semantics no one wanted to argue), but it had something to do with how Freya had said, No, which only worked when she was in the room. Or, really, when Arthur was in the room, too, because the Hellhounds thought that Arthur was the next best thing besides peanut butter.
"If it helps, this is the safest place in London," Morgana said, her feet tucked under the legs of some bloke named Leon. Merlin gathered that Leon worked in Morgana's law firm, and also that he was Morgana's secret husband except Uther kept forgetting they were married. That was understandable, since Merlin didn't remember Leon's last name, and the bloke was so quiet that Merlin half-forgot Leon was there at all. He was such a well-grounded, self-effacing guy Merlin half-suspected that Leon harboured a secret desire to be in the spotlight, for a change. "I can't even See it, and I've looked."
"That's an endorsement if I've ever heard one," Will said, glancing over his shoulder at Merlin. "Have you ever thought of starting a security firm?"
"Yeah. It's called Evil Overlord, Inc., and it's not doing too well protecting its clients right now," Merlin said absentmindedly, still staring at the telly. In a fit of self-defence, someone had turned on the closed captioning, because the background chatter sometimes completely overwhelmed the reporter, no matter how loudly the volume was set. He was busy reading the text of the latest reports in the hopes that it would tell him something about where Sigan-slash-Cole had gone. "I can't stay here and do nothing!"
(Actually, he damn well could. All the mathematical equations in the world pointed toward one single outcome, and that was the resolution Seen in Morgana's visions. If he moved forward to confront Sigan-Cole, then the inevitable would happen, and that, Merlin couldn't allow. He wasn't ready for it. He didn't have a solution.)
"Just wait," Arthur said, putting a hand on Merlin's shoulder.
"Wait for what?" Merlin snapped, and immediately regretted it. He didn't want to be angry at Arthur, of all people. Arthur was the only one who could defuse everyone's tempers while retaining their own. Despite the familiarity of being in their own flat, having so many people cramped together was wearing on raw nerves. "For Tristan and Isolde? I don't care what Gwaine said -- actually, I don't fucking know what Gwaine said. Why are we waiting?"
"For this," Gwaine said from the doorway, where he promptly ducked and narrowly avoided getting his head knocked off by a blast of energy. He raised his arm from the floor and waved a white envelope. "I surrender!"
"Sorry," Merlin said, rubbing the side of his head. "I'm a bit on edge."
"So glad I let you go in first," Isolde said. She looked different out of uniform. Her hair was down around her shoulders, her jeans loose and torn at the knees, her peasant blouse adorned with hand-stitched embroidery. No one would ever suspect her of being a ranking non-commissioned member of the British Armed Forces, or that she was currently AWOL.
Actually, Merlin wasn't even sure if she was, or if she wasn't. That was never made clear. Given that Tristan was still wearing his usual clearly-government-issue off-the-rack black suit-and-tie combination, and that Isolde was armed to the teeth with weapons cleverly hidden beneath her unassuming outfit, they probably were on-duty, just not in the way they'd originally presented themselves.
Tristan stepped over Gwaine's body, snatching the envelope out of his hands. Gwaine grabbed his leg and did his best to trip him, but Tristan fell on top of Gwaine instead. There was a scuffle that was cushioned by the mountain of shoes in the entryway and attracted the Hellhounds, who started barking angrily at a pitch that Freya insisted meant, Stop this nonsense right now!
After glancing in their direction to make sure they wouldn't damage anything and ruin their safety deposit, Merlin continued to nibble at his thumbnail and to stare at the telly.
A piece of white paper flashed in front of Merlin's eyes. He jerked away from it, already forgetting what it was, but Arthur snatched it out of Isolde's fingers.
"You'd think they'd outgrow sibling rivalries," Isolde said, thumbing over her shoulder. Merlin followed the gesture in time to see one of the Hellhounds raising their hind leg, as if about to take a piss. Gwaine shrieked and shoved Tristan at the Hellhound, Mordred yelled for Freya to take her damn dogs outside, and Isolde bit her lips to keep from laughing out loud, because, Did you see what they almost did, Dee? Fucking dogs almost --
Tristan was not impressed. When Gwaine cackled gleefully, Tristan kicked him in the ribs.
"This is what you were waiting for," Arthur said, gently pulling Merlin's thumb out of his mouth and putting the opened letter in his hand. "Go on. Read it."
"The situation's become untenable," Tristan said, brushing himself down, adjusting his shirt, and running his fingers through his thinning hair. "The MRO agents are spread thin, they've had too many losses from early confrontations, and the army is making noise about dropping another bomb on Sigan's arse. Or is it Cole's arse?"
"We haven't settled on a supervillain name for them, yet," Will said.
"Doesn't matter," Gwaine said, throwing an arm over Arthur's shoulders. "They're one and the same. I think mum was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but she's too much of an optimist, and I did warn her. Sorry it took so long. She was angsting over the wording."
Merlin stared at that arm until Arthur successfully dislodged it. Satisfied that he wouldn't actually have to do something to hurt Gwaine, Merlin glanced down to the letter in his hand. The paper was thick, embossed, and was pressed with an official-looking seal, but it was also upside down. He turned it around.
"Oh, hello," Merlin said, to no one in particular. He tuned out the background and not-so-background conversation conversations and furrowed his brow as he read.
A good third of the letter was the royal crest, the date, and several official-sounding salutations. The bottom half was a large, flourished signature and a bunch of titles that Merlin assumed would mean something to a person who was more of a royalist than he was. The actual letter was only two lines.
Dr. M., also known as Dr. Merlin Emrys, as well as every employee of Evil Overlord Incorporated are hereby absolved of their actions, past, present and future, where such action, however small or however great, is performed for the betterment of the United Kingdom and all Commonwealth nations. So ordained by Her Majesty the Queen--
There was another string of names, titles, and whatnot. Merlin was about to make a querulous noise when he spotted the handwritten postscript.
If I must make Evil Overlord of London an official title, I might as well elevate it for all of the United Kingdom. Now get out there and save my bloody country before it's completely decimated.
Merlin re-read that last part several times before looking up to find Arthur staring at him with a small, wry grin on his face. "Were we waiting for the Get Out Of Jail Free card?"
"The Get Out of Jail Free card is nice," Arthur said, and shrugged a little. "I was talking about the job."
"Huh," Merlin grunted, and reread the letter, just to make sure.
Merlin could feel Arthur's body heat right next to him, and closed his eyes to keep from moaning at the sensation of Arthur's hand sliding down his spine. He did shiver when he heard Arthur's breath against his cheek when Arthur whispered, "Are you ready to get to work?"
"We don't even know where they are," Merlin pointed out.
"That's an easy problem to solve," Arthur said, his hand sliding around his waist to squeeze Merlin closer to him. "And I have a solution. Make them come to you."
Merlin hummed thoughtfully. He hadn't thought of that, honestly. Dealing with the Sidhe's attempt to create chaos had been easy to do, because the Sidhe had conveniently landed into his lap. As long as he was holed up behind magic-tight wards, there was even less chance of encountering Sigan's new alter ego, even by accident. But issuing the magical-equivalent of an engraved invitation...?
That could work.
"Are we being paid for this?" Merlin asked.
"You're getting a bloody title out of it," Tristan snapped. "What more could you want?"
"Our usual fee," Arthur said blandly. "I did make that clear when I told you what it would cost for us to interfere."
Merlin side-eyed Arthur. He'd known that Arthur took care of most of the administrative bollocks for the company and even engaged in the negotiating of the charges associated with any job that they took on. Merlin was grateful for that, because he didn't have the mind nor the patience for that sort of thing. It meant Arthur could ask for whatever silly trifle he felt they could get, if for no other reason than it amused him. Merlin, on the other hand, had one and only one responsibility. As Arthur put it, Merlin's duty was to take care of the actual business.
He swallowed thickly. Could he take care of business? The Sigan-Cole entity had demonstrated itself to be very powerful, very destructive, and very irrational. There was no talking to an irrational creature, there was little that could be done against wanton destruction, and Merlin wasn't entirely certain he was strong enough to hold his own against a monster that had received a power-up from the poisoned energy of the ley line. His mum had always taught him to stand up to bullies, but she'd also taught him not to be absolutely fucking nutters about it.
Tristan huffed in irritation before grudgingly handing over an envelope he'd plucked out of his inner jacket pocket. Arthur inspected the contents carefully, tilting it so that Merlin could see it when Merlin leaned over his shoulder for a better look, and gave Tristan a restrained nod and smile that Merlin could not have duplicated in a million years, not after seeing at all the zeros on the cheque.
"That's not all of it," Arthur said, and Merlin boggled at him.
"Mum's not stupid," Gwaine said, crossing his arms.
Tristan shot Gwaine a dark look. "The rest is on delivery of services rendered. As agreed."
Arthur's smile broadened, and he tucked the cheque back in its envelope and pocketed it carelessly, as if it were nothing more than a dirty napkin. He also patted Merlin on the shoulder, which didn't do anything to settle Merlin's nerves, and said, "And the rest of it? She guarantees no interference?"
Tristan hesitated, Gwaine scratched his jaw and didn't meet anyone's eyes, but it was Isolde who answered in a no-nonsense tone, "For the most part. We're working on securing certain divisions of the army that stopped answering their coms, but all we can do is wait and intervene, if we can."
Arthur's eyes clouded over, as if that was an unacceptable answer. As far as Merlin was concerned, everything was unacceptable, right down to Cornelius bloody Sigan taking possession of some hapless (or not so hapless) civilian and making a mess to his city. He didn't need a rebellious faction of the army, answering to a man who seemed to have far more power than he was supposed to have, making things worse.
"As long as Aredian is taken care of in the end," Arthur said firmly, as if it was non-negotiable. Which it was.
"That'll be my job," Gwaine said, and tilted his head toward the door. "Which I should get on with doing, if we've got nothing else to talk about?"
"The rest can keep," Arthur said magnanimously, and escorted the three to the door. Once the door was shut and they were beyond the wards, driving off in three separate vehicles in many different directions, Arthur turned to the room. Everyone had been listening in and pretending not to be, but now their attention was rapt on Arthur. He didn't seem bothered. "Does anyone else need reminding of their jobs?"
"Keeping an eye on the Hellhounds and making sure they don't eat your socks," Freya volunteered.
"I need to find Gaius at the clinic and get the word out to the other Healers," Mordred said. "Help them out as needed."
"Hide in the closet and wait for it to blow over while finding all the social media streams and re-posting them everywhere," Gilli said, already hunkering down in the sofa, half-hidden by the pillows.
"Evacuation plans," Will said, turning away to watch the telly again.
"Helping Gilli," Lancelot said, since he turned out to be a whiz at setting up video streaming websites on the fly, along with all the appropriate eye-catching graphics that would be necessary to go along with it.
"Helping Will," Percival said, because he'd been in the army in a past life, and whether or not he actually had Giant blood, he was as intimidating a figure as a werewolf protecting territory.
"Helping Mordred," Gwen said, having admitted that she had a nursing degree that she'd abandoned in favour for pursuing a career in the arts. She was a little rusty, but if people were hurt, no one would protest about the extra pair of hands.
"I don't work here," Sefa said cheerfully.
"Oh, now you remember," Will grumbled.
"I'm not sure how much longer you'll have your greenhouse if your two silent partners back out of your flower shop franchise," Arthur pointed out, in a rather nice bit of blackmail. Merlin was startled into a laugh.
"Fine," Sefa groused. "I'll call Elena, make sure she has a crew ready to go wherever. Then I'll wait half an hour and let the other outlets know."
"I'll be preparing your press statement," Leon volunteered, since he neither worked for Merlin, hadn't been around during the earlier planning stages, and didn't seem to have any particular skills or abilities that would contribute to the cause. When everyone looked at him, he shrugged a little uncertainly, and said, "If you need one, that is."
"We do need someone to handle our Public Relations," Arthur commented.
"We can deal with that later," Merlin said.
"Right," Arthur said, glancing between Merlin and Leon before clapping his hands together. "That can be your interview. Work on that press statement, and we'll see."
"Don't you already have a job?" Morgana asked. Leon grinned, shrugged without answering, and that, inexplicably, was enough for Morgana, because she announced, "I'll do what I always do. Prepare the usual responses for anybody suing you for property damage, restraining orders for your adoring fans, and, well. I'll keep an eye on things, too, but I'm not sure anything is going to change much."
If Merlin needed any confirmation (hint: he didn't) that he was being hurried headlong into that inevitable temporal event that he couldn't correct, not even for the tiny detail of keeping Arthur alive, Morgana's words qualified as the last nail in that coffin.
Merlin rubbed his face, pushed all the silly little emotions rising up to the surface into a little, overstuffed box, and sighed heavily. He couldn't deal with this, and yet, he was going to have to.
Arthur turned to Merlin and raised an expectant brow.
Merlin tried his best, most innocent, I have nothing to do with this why are you asking me anything expression, but Arthur raised a brow and Merlin deflated. He sighed, and dropped his head dejectedly. "I guess I'll get ready."
He turned for the stairs, and was halfway up when he realised that Arthur was following him.
"I can get dressed on my own," Merlin muttered, heading for his room.
"I know," Arthur said, shutting the door behind him. The Hellhound who had adopted Arthur whined from the other side, scratched at the door a few times, then thumped down heavily across the door, as if intending on guarding it. Sullenly. "That's not why I'm here."
Merlin took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Right. Come to give me a pep talk, then?"
"You're the Evil Overlord of London. No -- of the United Kingdom," Arthur said with a scoff. "You don't need a bloody pep talk."
Merlin tried for a smile, but it fell far short of the mark. "You suck at reassurance."
"And you suck at self-confidence," Arthur said, coming closer. "You've got no reason to be. You're miles stronger than Sigan, and this is coming from a self-professed expert on all things Evil Overlord. Do you know how I know? It's because you've done impossible things, and each one is greater than the last, and nobody I have ever heard of has ever managed as much as you have."
Merlin swallowed thickly when Arthur put his hands on Merlin's chest and walked him backward. There wasn't a whole lot of room to move, but there was the desk, the mounds of journal papers and rare books, and --
(The bed. How could he forget the bed --)
Merlin landed on the bed with a bounce, spreading his legs to give Arthur room to move, and left his hands on Arthur's thighs. He looked up hopefully, and Arthur obliged without hesitation. He leaned down and gave Merlin a sweet, chaste kiss --
And pulled away.
Merlin gaped at him. "What --"
But Arthur was already moving toward the closet, which, really, wasn't anything more than a piece of old pipe that Merlin had cleaned up and permanently spelled to levitate, since there wasn't any actual room for anything resembling a closet in what was a closet-sized bedroom. He hummed thoughtfully to himself as he riffled through Merlin's clothes.
Merlin cleared his throat delicately. When that didn't do anything to direct attention to the problem, he threw a pillow at Arthur. "What are you doing?"
Arthur looked at him as if he were the offended party, and there was no more offended party in the room than Merlin, who was sitting on his bed right where Arthur had put him. Arthur brushed down the back of his head, smoothing down the hair that the pillow had driven askew, and scowled. "What do you mean, what am I doing?"
"You're there," Merlin said, waving at Arthur. He moved his arm to point to his general vicinity. "And I'm here."
"Well-spotted," Arthur said, his brow furrowing even more. He spread his hands as if he didn't understand Merlin's dilemma. "You can't possibly be so nervous about the Sigan-Cole Whatever that you've forgotten where you are?"
"No! You --" Merlin finished his thought with an eloquent hiss of frustration and a jerky motion of his arms that should explain everything. "I thought we were... you know."
Arthur's expression turned odd, but Merlin had the satisfaction of seeing his cheeks flush. "Yes, and I'm more concerned about keeping you at peak performance. Hasn't anyone ever told you that elite athletes do their best when they're throttling the edge of sexual frustration? They channel that extra energy into intent and are better able to focus on their goal --"
"Nn-nrg," Merlin didn't growl, and fell back onto the bed, covering his face with his hands. When he came up for air, he reached out with grabby-hands and muttered, "I'll show you throttling. Come here. Arthur, please --"
Arthur silenced him by dumping a stack of bespoke clothing on his head. "Get dressed."
Merlin didn't move.
He remained where he was under the soft material, his eyes closed to the grey blobs of material on his face, and... gave up. Just like that. Gave up, because he'd been trying so hard to find a solution, but it was difficult to stay strong, and he didn't know how Arthur could bear it. He really didn't mean to let the tears well up to the surface or to let his voice croak with tears.
(There was a time when he'd reassure himself that it was mostly a manly sob, but he didn't fucking care anymore. He couldn't take it. How could anyone expect him to go on when he was about to lose Arthur?)
Almost immediately, the clothing was wrenched away. Merlin had the sense that they were being gently folded before being draped over the back of his rickety student chair. More than that, though, he was acutely aware of Arthur's weight making the bed dip. Then, the bed dipped a whole lot, and Arthur's body heat was radiating on top of him.
Merlin covered his face with his hands, but didn't succeed in muffling his ugly sniffling and sobbing noises.
Arthur, damn him, was so gentle in pulling Merlin's hands away from his face that Merlin didn't realize that his hands weren't covering his face anymore until a soft cloth handkerchief dabbed at the tears gluing his eyelashes together.
Merlin pulled himself together, but only barely -- he set off again when Arthur opened his mouth as if he were about to ask a question.
Then, suddenly, Arthur wrenched his glasses off, dropped them somewhere in the vicinity of Merlin's bedside table, and dived in to snog Merlin within an inch of his life.
Somehow, they ended on the floor, wedged between two unmoveable piles of recent research on temporal mechanics and another one of applying chemometric evaluation of spatial factors to metaphysical resolutions to astronomical positions, and it was the most comfortable Merlin had been in a long time.
"You're not going to lose me," Arthur said, from where his face was buried in Merlin's armpit. He shifted in an attempt to gain some leverage and to sit up, but the end result of that was knocking several journal articles onto their heads and accidentally kneeing Merlin in the groin.
"Say what?" Merlin asked hoarsely, cradling his bollocks with one hand. He grunted when Arthur used him to lever himself up, and didn't really focus on what Arthur said until the throb of pain eased a bit more.
"I said," Arthur repeated patiently, offering an arm to help Merlin to his feet. Merlin ignored it, because he was fine where he was for a few more minutes, thanks. "You're not going to lose me. And I damn well better not lose you. So get your head in the game, if you please."
"Um," Merlin said intelligently, his throat suddenly thick with a myriad of emotions -- the least of which was not premature grief. "Neither one of us can promise that. The maths --"
"Fuck the maths," Arthur said, crouching down to rummage through the few boxes of high-end shoes that Merlin had tucked half-under the mattress. He discarded a few pairs before finding what he was looking for. "Your math's wrong."
"My -- what?" Merlin stared at Arthur, affronted, and sat up straight. He tossed the journal papers on his chest onto a nearby pile without taking any care for it being in the proper pile, despite the careful system he'd trained himself to follow since the early days of his doctorate. "My math's not wrong, unfortunately. However much I might want it to be --"
"Pass me my glasses," Arthur said, moving toward the drawer where Merlin kept his pants. Merlin snatched Arthur's glasses from the makeshift bedside table and moved in time to intercept Arthur from coordinating his bloody underwear with his outfit. Arthur smiled faintly, kissed Merlin stupid, and patted Merlin's cheek before putting on his glasses. "You're adorable when you're mad."
"I'm not mad. I'm just -- I'm just not wrong. How can you say that? Morgana's visions --"
Somehow, Arthur had retrieved a clean pair of black trousers and tossed them onto the pile of clothes. Merlin wasn't sure how Arthur had gotten past him, since he was too distracted staring at Arthur's arse when he bent down.
"I've looked over your proofs. I can't pretend that I understand half of it, but I'm fairly decent at complex mathematics and even developed my own theorem for the determination of socioeconomic statistics and their correlation with Registration status," Arthur said.
Merlin stared. He knew Arthur was smart, but he didn't show it very often. Merlin's friends mostly thought Arthur was a pushy sort of hands-on person, but they had no idea how intelligent Arthur really was under his blunt, arrogant veneer. Also, it got Merlin hard when Arthur talked like this.
"Once I figured out your notation style and realised that your big V is actually an inverted A, and that your timeline theorem relies heavily on Magammon's posit that certain events have always will have had happened, everything fell into place," Arthur said.
"When did you have time to study Magammon?" Merlin wondered, because he had the only surviving book that still had all the pages, and he couldn't remember letting anyone borrow it.
"In my spare time between setting up safe houses and making sure Pendragon Unlimited continues to run while my father was in contempt of court, but that part was mostly Elena," Arthur said. "Anyway, that's when I realised that there's a little-known variable you didn't take into account."
Arthur scratched the scruff of his jaw as he studied Merlin's room.
"Where are your socks?"
"Socks, Merlin," Arthur said, spreading his hands impatiently. "You need to get ready."
"Variable, Arthur," Merlin snapped, because he was not all that interested in clothes right now. "What are you talking about?"
Arthur sighed and walked over to him. He started tugging Merlin out of his shirt despite his protests, and said, "You forgot to take me into account."
Merlin blinked. He was only dimly aware of Arthur tugging at the belt of his jeans, too distracted by the monkey wrench Arthur's revelation had thrown into his calculations to notice the prime opportunity he was missing. By the time he realized that his jeans were pooled around his ankles, he'd looked up in time to get a face full of the trousers Arthur had thrown at him, earlier. "How does --"
"I've spent a lifetime curtailing the worst of the outcomes of Morgana's visions," Arthur said, answering the question before Merlin could finish. "I've always been successful before, and I'll be successful this time, because I have plans for the aftermath."
"Um," Merlin said, because he'd seen that look in Arthur's eyes before.
"It involves gratuitous nudity, explosive victory sex, and you moving into my flat." Arthur crossed his arms challengingly. "Do you have a problem with that?"
Merlin tilted his head in consideration of the imagery that accompanied Arthur's bald statement, and deemed it acceptable. He let the fantasy wash over him for several minutes, ignoring Arthur's urging nudges to Get dressed, Merlin, and, eventually --
-- tore himself out of his own head. He waved his arms in the air in protest.
"No problem whatsoever, but I bloody well see through you, you prat," Merlin said. "You're not distracting me with sex."
"Can't I?" Arthur asked, his expression smug.
"I have to do the maths on this," Merlin said, turning in search for his laptop. He shoved journal papers aside, lifted his hoodie from the desk, and delicately shoved the mouldy pizza slice he'd completely forgotten about into the rubbish bin.
Arthur turned him around and held him firmly until Merlin paid attention. "No maths. No elaborate theorems. No pages-long calculations. You don't need all that."
"Take it on faith," Arthur said. "Trust me."
Merlin's shoulders slumped. He looked down at his hands. "I do."
"Good," Arthur said, and tugged Merlin's shirt off.
"But if you're wrong, I'm going to resurrect you and kill you, you know that?"
Arthur's laugh and smothering kiss was answer enough.
(Much later, on the way to the site, Merlin frowned, and turned to Arthur. "Wait. I'm moving into your flat?")
Twenty-three minutes after Merlin magically wrote, Cornelius Sigan is a stupid poopface, in big white letters in the rare clear blue British sky, the Sigan-Cole entity appeared.
It was too bad, because that was only the second message in the list that Arthur had given Merlin. He would've at least wanted to see number #8 -- Cornelius Sigan is an absolute wazzock.
(He'd been particularly proud of that one.)
The entity had arrived, in all things, a taxicab. It wasn't even a black cab, though Arthur couldn't really fault the entity for that. At his earliest opportunity, he'd hacked Cole's mobile to make sure that whoever he called would receive his identification as Cornelius Sigan, Evil Overlord. Taxi companies were run by intelligent people; they kept a list of troublesome fares they never wanted to pick up again, and seeing that on their Call Display would've garnered an immediate hang-up.
(In contrast, Merlin's mobile read: Dr. M., and no one had hung up on him, yet. Last week's client didn't count. She'd been so excited to get a phone call from Merlin that she'd dropped her mobile on the floor, where it had been promptly stolen by the Cthulhu offspring that had taken to haunting her loo. She'd called back as soon as she'd wrestled her phone from the baby Lord of the Depths, apologising profusely. There were freshly-baked biscuits when they'd arrived to take care of the problem, and they'd been delicious.)
Still, the not-taxicab was actually an Uber, from what Arthur could tell through his binoculars. He made a mental note to corrupt the app on Cole's mobile, or at least write a subroutine to block Cole's account through Uber, but then decided a second later that there was no need, since Merlin would take care of the problem in short order. Arthur couldn't help feeling sorry for the driver, whose expression was a combination of deep regret for their life choices and mortal fear for their continued survival. As soon as the entity slammed the door shut, the Uber driver peeled off like a bloody bat out of Hell.
Arthur didn't blame him.
Sigan-Cole stormed down the empty city streets, happened on a gap between buildings to see the latest message in the sky -- Cornelius Sigan isn't a tosser if he can't get it up in the first place -- and howled in outrage. The entity blorbed, its shape distending outside of the logical limits of the possible physical outline of a human being, and windmilled its arms as it threw fireball after blue fireball at the sky.
The entity's aim was terrible. It struck most of the building, effectively demolishing it, and once the flight path was clear, the fireballs didn't have any lasting power. Or rather, the entity didn't have much of a throwing arm.
It was appropriate that the next message in the sky was, Clearly, Cornelius Sigan was always picked last for cricket, which wasn't on the list of insults that Arthur had given Merlin. That meant Merlin was gaining some confidence as Sigan-Cole approached, if he was enthusiastically involved in taking the piss out of the entity.
Arthur thought that was a good thing.
Sigan-Cole threw back its head and roared. Its body crackled, but didn't blorb. Arthur wished he understood what that meant, and belatedly remembered he had a radio in his hand and asked Merlin.
"Let's say that the entity keeps losing its shape," Arthur asked, keeping his binoculars trained in Sigan-Cole continued advance toward its target. "What would that imply?"
"I dunno," Merlin said. Arthur could almost hear his shrug. "That it's not a stable possession?"
Arthur considered that, then shook his head, even though Merlin couldn't see him. "Not according to the footage Gwaine recovered from Ground Zero. Cole looked fairly willing; he walked right into the pit you nearly fell into."
"Willing doesn't equal stable," Merlin said, and Arthur heard the eye-roll in Merlin's tone, even if he couldn't see it from across the river. "Did you know there are so many free spirits in the world, that it's a miracle we're not all possessed now?"
"You don't say," Arthur said, frowning through the binoculars.
"Doesn't matter if Cole was willing," Merlin countered. "The container has to be compatible. If it's not compatible, things start falling apart. Sometimes the entity is just too big to be contained. If the ley lines healed Sigan's disembodied soul with negavoid energy, then it's possible the soul is just too big to fit in a body that's meant for one skinny bloke. It's like a dam trying to hold back more water than it was built for. Eventually, it'll spring a few leaks. Wait long enough, and something will go critical, and it'll blow. It's like that hole I told you about, the one in Lance's room at his flat? It didn't have any kind of containment, so it spilled out everywhere. Same idea."
"Hm." Arthur scratched his jaw. He watched as Sigan-Cole destroyed another building out of sheer frustration.
(They'd picked this particular waterfront area for the confrontation for a reason.
It was a deserted worksite for a string of poorly-designed and greatly-underfunded private homes that a now-defunct architectural firm had hoped to build quickly on cheap land using substandard material and underqualified labour. Most of their budget had gone to local councillors in the shape of bribes in the hopes of selling the finished housing for hundreds of thousands of pounds more than they were worth.
But the police got wind of a completely different embezzlement scam perpetrated by the company owner, and the investigation effectively shut down every aspect of his operations. The buildings were an eyesore, and Arthur was more than happy to save the city some money by letting a rampaging monster tear them down. Maybe it would encourage the new local councillors to recoup the land and turn it into a lovely little park. This part of town was rather bland-looking and could use some greening-up.
And, anyway, it was ideal because the area was nowhere near Ground Zero and in a patch where there were no nearby ley-lines, effectively cutting off any energy sources for the entity and forcing it to engage Merlin using nothing but its own reserves of magic. The situation was as optimised in Merlin's favour as they could engineer it.
Also, it had clear line-of-sight. Arthur was nothing if not a voyeur at heart.)
"How did you handle the situation at Lance's flat again?" Arthur asked.
"Well," Merlin said, sounding embarrassed. "Before or after I terrorised the landlord?"
Arthur snorted. "Whichever part solved the problem."
"Put the breach under a containment ward. Made the energy source inaccessible to the manifestations outside of the flat. Waited until the void's power started pushing against the wards and let it blow itself out. Repaired the breach," Merlin said.
Arthur guessed from the lack of elaborations and pointed sentences that Merlin was too distracted to go into the magical theory behind his reasoning for taking that particular approach, something for which he was grateful. Not having a doctorate degree in metaphysics, Arthur couldn't always understand what Merlin was talking about, never mind keep up with Merlin when he got going on a tangent.
He turned the binoculars to the rooftop where Merlin was hiding -- as opposed to the rooftop where the illusionary decoy-Merlin was flamboyantly writing things in the air with a feathered pen, pasting a new insult in the sky -- and saw that Merlin was checking his mobile.
He rolled his eyes and clicked the radio a few times to get Merlin to pay attention.
"What are the odds that the Sigan entity will blow itself up?" Arthur asked.
"I can't even begin to calculate," Merlin said, sounding somewhat bitter. He held up his mobile as if he'd been trying to do the maths before Arthur had interrupted, but the resolution on Arthur's binoculars didn't let him see that clearly. "I mean, I could treat it like a walking, talking, stroppy void to the netherworld, but it's not exactly the same thing, and I don't have all the variables. I could've looked them up, but I've been a little distracted by a completely different problem, you bloody wanker."
"For the last time," Arthur began. He paused. He hadn't realised that Merlin had gotten himself completely wound up over Morgana's visions. He should have noticed Merlin's withdrawal some time ago. He should have spent some time reassuring Merlin that the situation was under control. For example, he could have at least mentioned the extraordinary number of times Morgana had seen him dying in one fashion or another -- usually spectacularly -- and somehow avoiding death no matter what, even when he hadn't known danger was coming.
Technically, Merlin's temper was entirely Arthur's fault for not reassuring him on the subject. But also, technically, it was Merlin's fault, too, for not telling Arthur what was eating at him all this time. For all that he wore his heart on his sleeve, Merlin was surprisingly good at keeping secrets.
Arthur rubbed his forehead in annoyance and adjusted his glasses. In a calmer voice, he said, "Can we just agree to have angry make-up sex, later?"
"Is this before or after you die?" Merlin snapped.
"Faith, Merlin," Arthur reminded him. "And besides, I've already started moving you into my flat. You just haven't noticed yet. If I'm that confident, that should tell you something."
Merlin didn't answer right away.
"Before or after the victory sex?" Merlin asked. He tried to sound nonchalant, but Arthur could hear the uptick of interest in his voice.
"Before, I think. We can combine it with the Thank-God-You're-Alive sex, if necessary," Arthur said. "Get all the nervous energy out first, then we can rest before the marathon victory sex."
"You blokes realise you're on an open line?" Isolde cut in.
"Don't stop on our account," Gwaine said quickly.
"Can I film it?" Elena asked.
"I don't want to be hearing this," Will moaned.
"Shut up, Will," Freya said.
In the distance, Arthur saw the military convoy heading their way. It wasn't merely a convoy, either -- there were a few tanks, a number of fast-response vehicles, several of which were heavily armoured and equipped with heavy artillery normally intended for taking down airplanes or submarines. Arthur had hoped it wouldn't come to this, but someone had to intervene, and it might as well be him.
Morgana's visions had told him that much.
Regretting he wouldn't be able to stick around to watch Merlin take down the Sigan-Cole entity any longer, Arthur heaved a sigh and retreated from the rooftop of his half-constructed building, taking the rickety elevator down to the ground floor.
On the way, he answered everyone: "We're aware, we don't care. Fuck you Gwaine, we're not your personal peep show. Elena, I'm not paying you to open up a porn studio, so, definitely not. Will, pay attention, you're our liaison with the police, and the evacuations need to go smoothly if the entity escapes the perimeter. Freya..."
Arthur marched across the builder's yard and positioned himself in the middle of the road. There was only one logical route through and Arthur was currently blocking it. He waited until he saw the glint of sunlight reflecting from the windows of the fast response vehicle before issuing his last order.
"Freya, release the hounds."
He paused before putting his radio away, and considered.
You better win this one didn't quite have the impact that Arthur wanted to make. Good luck seemed too impersonal, and that was the last thing he wanted Merlin to hear at this late stage in the game. So, instead, he said, "I love you, Merlin."
Then, he threw his radio over his shoulder as far as he could, because he was that much of a coward, thank you very much, and he damn well knew it.
(It was the only time Arthur was ever going to admit to being guilty of anything remotely resembling cowardice, and he was very, very grateful that no one was around to see him slap his hands over his face and regret what he'd just done. But then, he realized that the current situation was untenable, and that he'd better compartmentalize and Deal With This later.)
Arthur raised his hands in the air in surrender. He didn't move as the vehicles bore down on him. There wasn't so much as a flinch as the lead truck came to a stop a bare centimetre from his knees, though he did blink repeatedly against the dust that had been kicked up by the wheels, and wished he hadn't traded his glasses in for his contact lenses. Glasses would've hampered him in a fight, though, and he'd rather be able to see.
When the dust died down and two soldiers emerged from the rear passenger seat on either side of the vehicle, Arthur wriggled the fingers of one hand in greeting, and said, "Hello."
The soldiers didn't respond. Their assault rifles were tucked against their shoulders, their attention firmly focused down the sightlines of their weapons, and the muzzles were trained dead centre on Arthur's chest.
It wasn't quite the scenario Morgana had Seen in the latest variation of her Arthur-Dies-The-End-Of-The-World-Is-Nigh visions, but it was close, and Arthur just had to play the game a little longer.
"My name is Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon, who is the owner of Pendragon Unlimited Media. If you shoot me, my father will be very unhappy, and he'll be sure to let the entire world know. I'm not sure how he plans on doing that, but knowing him, it's definitely going to be somewhat embarrassing to our government and our armed forces, given that I'm not armed and not threatening you in any way. By the way, as I'm concerned that I might be misrepresented, we are on video and this conversation is being recorded," Arthur said, and waited for a reaction.
There was none, but that was all right, because nobody was shooting him just yet. On the flipside, more people began to emerge from their vehicles, and very shortly, he was completely surrounded by soldiers tricked out in all sorts of body armour, nylon netting, weaponry, and urban camouflage. It was starting to look more like the scene Morgana had described to him that morning over the phone.
He shouldn't feel satisfied about that, but he did.
Arthur waited a minute more. "I'm also an employee of Evil Overlord, Incorporated. My job title is complicated, but let's simplify it a little bit. I'm Dr. M's Second."
He saw at least two soldiers exchange glances. Another one adjusted his grip on his automatic rifle. And yet, no clear leader advanced.
Arthur took that as a sign to continue, so he did. "In case you're thinking that means I'm nothing more than his personal assistant, allow me to correct your false assumption. Should something happen to Dr. M and he becomes unable to complete the task he has set himself, the duty falls to me. Perhaps you should take a moment to think about what kind of power Dr. M has demonstrated and decide for yourselves what kind of person the Evil Overlord of London would trust to be able to accomplish the task that he couldn't."
Almost as if it had been choreographed, a thundering blast from somewhere behind him.
It resounded like the clang of distorted bells, boomed its way through the unfinished buildings around them, and sent a rush of dusty wind down the road. Arthur was reassured by the golden glitters of magic in the air, which settled right along with the sand, and sincerely wished he could return to the rooftops where he'd left his binoculars so he could watch the battle.
From the pins-and-needles sensation trickling on his skin, and the loud, alien noises that sounded like a technorock band doing their best to blow out their amps, Arthur was fairly certain it was a good show. Elena had better be doing her job directing the camera crews, or Arthur would be very put out that he'd had to come deal with this annoying little detail of stopping the army from interfering so that Merlin could do his job.
He coughed a little to clear his throat, and looked directly at the soldiers who were in front of him before settling his attention to the driver of the vehicle right in front of him, and to the passenger next to him.
"I'm sure you're thinking that this is a load of bollocks. That I'm bluffing. Allow me to save you the trouble of looking up my status: I am, in fact, Registered, though I am, thus far, unclassified, as no one has been able to identify where I fit on the spectrum." Arthur paused. "Here's a hint. There's no spectrum for what I am."
("You're something, all right," Merlin said, his brow furrowing. "But I'm stumped.")
Arthur shrugged, splayed his raised hands in a What are you going to do about it gesture, and smirked. The situation hadn't changed to perfectly match Morgana's vision quite yet, so he couldn't begin the countdown to the zero point when he was supposed to be shot and killed. That moment was coming, however, if the tension around him was any indicator.
Oh, and the Hellhounds. Arthur was pretty sure that was his favourite, Cathal, over there behind the soldiers, sniffing at the rear wheel of the vehicle and raising its leg.
Nobody noticed the sound of trickling pee -- who could, with the absolute racket that Merlin was causing a couple of blocks and a river that-a-way -- or the hacking sound Cathal made a few seconds later, when it trotted over to the nearby building and spat up a good-sized flame.
(Freya promised that Hellhounds were easy to house train and that they learned new tricks all the time. Sit, roll over, shake paws, and, fetch the nice man's left hand were the games they liked best, though both Arthur and Merlin wished that the left hands belonged to dead people to begin with. On the plus side, Mordred was getting a lot of practice reattaching dismembered limbs.
Setting a ring of fire around a designated area decorated with treats was child's play, Freya said, though she did wish Gilli had discovered the Hellhounds' ability to use their sulfuric fire and suffocating brimstone to disrupt radio signals and WIFI a lot sooner. She was a fantastic animal trainer, but she wasn't a miracle worker.
Either way, Merlin had been pleased to be able to update his personal bestiary with this new piece of information, while Arthur happily returned the jammers he'd purchased to block any signal sent to launch negavoid missiles. Military grade jammers were expensive, even on the black market, and he made a small profit in the re-sale.)
Arthur noted there was still no reaction from the gentlemen in the army vehicles, though some of the soldiers were beginning to notice the quickly-spreading fire.
Arthur hummed to himself. He was amused to note he was following the rhythm of the magical battle going on behind him. He imagined a few fireballs here, a couple of concussion blast there, some lightning bolts, and a lot of cursing and swearing as the background lyrics to the stuttering collapse of a building or two. The soldiers were getting increasingly spooked, the hellfire had surrounded them completely and was continuing to climb the buildings, and --
Just like in Morgana's vision, the pillock in the passenger seat climbed out of the car. Morgana hadn't been able to See him clearly in the earlier visions, but that morning she'd confirmed that Tómas Aredian was the bloke who was going to murder Arthur.
Aredian was a tall, sallow, hollow-cheeked fellow with a modest comb-over to hide a bald spot on the back of his head and a manicured goatee that was far more Evil Overlord than an actual Evil Overlord. He was built like a bureaucrat and dressed like one right down to his brown socks, starched shirts, and horn-rimmed eyeglasses.
Arthur admitted it. He was a little disappointing. He thought he'd be going against someone a little more... grand.
"Hullo, there," Arthur said, but Aredian was too busy raising a small black box into the air and repeatedly punching a button. After a few minutes, he howled, much as the Sigan-Cole entity had done, earlier. Aredian threw the black box into the army vehicle, where it struck the driver and disappeared out of sight. Innocently, Arthur asked, "Problems?"
"You're doing this," Aredian snarled, pointing an accusing finger in Arthur's direction.
"Hm," Arthur said, raising and dropping a shoulder. "My lawyer asked me to make her life easier and advised me not to cop to anything. But for curiosity's sake, what, exactly, am I doing?"
"Shoot him!" Aredian shouted.
"Video cameras," Arthur reminded, which made all of the soldiers pause, if they weren't already giving Aredian suspicious glances. "For the record, the person ordering my assassination is Tómas Aredian, the deputy Minister of the Ministry of Supernatural Supervision and the Chairperson of the Humans First! Council, which, incidentally, has been directly funding the Magical Registry Office. I thought that was supposed to be a publicly-funded, government-run agency. Would you care to comment on that, Mr. Aredian?"
"How dare you --" Aredian sputtered.
"What I believe Mr. Aredian is trying to accuse me of is jamming the transmitter to a remote missile launcher equipped with a small explosive payload capable of destroying an area half a mile in every direction, destroying every building and killing every inhabitant who live there. That missile is a new, improved prototype to the negavoid device that turned part of North London into a supernatural wasteland some twenty years ago.
"Mr. Aredian is also rather upset that I'm blocking the convoy, preventing him from positioning himself at a ringside seat out of the blast range that will kill a lot of innocent people when he launches a missile with sufficient fallout to negatively impact sixty-some percent of the population that happens to have supernatural genetics," Arthur said with a sly grin. He tilted his head in mock consideration. "Isn't that about the sum of it?"
Aredian stared at him, bug-eyed and slack-jawed. Some of the soldiers nearest to Aredian were giving him wary looks and were inching away.
"Meanwhile, what he's neglected to mention is that, despite the forged documents to the contrary, he doesn't actually have the authority to lead this particular mission. Seriously, who would even fall for that to start with?"
Arthur looked around. At least two of the senior personnel were glancing at each other.
"I mean, really? Mr. Aredian has no army background or associated rank, honorary or otherwise. He isn't a super-secret spy under the auspices of Her Majesty's service -- I should know, I used to work for them. And... Oh, what am I forgetting?"
Arthur lowered one of his raised hands to tap at his forehead, his expression frowning in theatrics he'd learned from Gwen. Dramatic pauses were always the most flamboyant, though he did wish he had a proper Evil Overlord cloak to perform a villain's swish with.
"Oh, yes! Weren't you responsible for figuring out that the negavoid bomb didn't actually kill Cornelius Sigan twenty years ago, but instead provided the means in which his soul could be preserved? And, once you deemed the soul ripe for the proverbial plucking, ensured that an appropriate vessel was available for Sigan to possess, all for no other reason than to save your family company from bankruptcy? The very same company manufacturing the negavoid bombs that they're selling to our government for an exorbitant fee?"
(Arthur made a mental note to send George a thank-you basket of knobs for finding that little tidbit.)
Arthur paused again, taking note of how the soldiers had spread out a little more, and how it was getting awfully close to the point when he was supposed to die. He ignored the trickle of sweat running down his spine and pressed on.
"A pity that you didn't count on Dr. M."
On the other side of the river, there was one majestic blast. It erupted in a mushroom cloud of pale blue light at the stem, brilliant gold at the neck, and silvery, fluffy clouds that faded into the afternoon sunlight in prismatic shades of blue, orange, and grey.
(Arthur could have kissed Merlin. They couldn't have synchronised the magical battle with Arthur's speech any better if they'd tried.)
A gentle rush of air swept past Arthur, like the ocean lapping at the shore, and Arthur, for the first time, turned his head away from Aredian to watch the mushroom cloud fade away in a trickle of sparks, the residual power in the air settling into his bones the same way that the oppressive silence of the aftermath of a war created hallowed, holy ground.
The battle was over. Arthur was pretty sure about that. It meant Merlin would be here soon. He'd promised he would be.
Arthur turned to look at Aredian, knowing exactly what he'd see. Morgana's vision allowed for no surprises, though it was disconcerting to see a gun pointed in his direction.
This was the scene Morgana had Seen, moments before he was shot. Arthur reminded himself not to brace for the bullet. He knew it would hurt so much more if he was tense, and forced an easy smile onto his lips.
"Feeling inadequate, Mr. Aredian?"
Somehow, the crack of a single bullet was louder and more encompassing than the biggest magical bomb Merlin could drop on top of the Sigan-Cole entity's head. The world slowed -- but didn't quite come to a stop the way it did when Merlin's magic froze time -- and Arthur saw the bullet's spiralling approach with frightening clarity, unable to help his fascination with the turbulent eddies in the air that were left in the wake of its passage.
He should dodge, he thought, but the rational part of his brain reminded him that he was neither Merlin, to be able to move freely when time was stuck in its own loop, and nor was he actually a supernatural to be able to withstand the damage caused by a normal bullet.
(That was why he wore three layers of the most cutting-edge bulletproof materials under his clothes. It had taken his tailor over on Jermyn St. a damnably long time to get the fabric to drape properly, without obviously being body armour, and it would pass muster on the fashion runways in Milan.
However, it could stand to be a bit more breathable, and Arthur resolved to pass on that very important feedback. Everyone wanted to look good, but absolutely no one wanted to sweat like a pig in the process.)
Time stuttered, accelerating like someone pushing the Skip button on a telly remote instead of Play. As soon as Arthur had the flitting thought about body armour did he realise, Fuckshite, I've been shot.
A 9mm bullet didn't have a whole lot of knockback power. That wasn't why Arthur took a step back. Sheer offence at the gall of his opponent for having pulled the trigger in the first place had been the driving force, but when he put his foot down, his entire leg, then his body, collapsed under the shock.
Fleetingly, Arthur fretted that the body armour hadn't worked the way it was supposed to. Had Aredian loaded armour piercers into his gun? That absolute twatwaffle! That wasn't playing by the rules!
He landed on the gravel road with a floppy-limbed, nerveless splat, Hopefully, Arthur would appear a lot more graceful on video, or Morgana would never let him live it down, and his father would tut-tut about the importance of making a good appearance on camera.
For a second, his vision darkened, as if he'd knocked himself out, but just as quickly, everything brightened with unspeakable clarity, as if the sun had emerged from behind a thick, threatening storm cloud.
Arthur's chest throbbed. He glanced down to where his hand had risen up to cover the injured area only to discover that there was no blood, and that the body armour had held up fairly well, given the circumstances. His pectoral muscle ached, and he had a feeling there would be a bruise, later.
(Kevlar, he remembered, worked under the principle of stretchy fibres tightening under fast, impacted pressure. It was why it was generally useless when showing up dressed for a gun fight but the weapon of choice was knives. Sharp edges and blunt edges didn't use the same amount of force and couldn't engage the special fibres as effectively.
It was, Arthur realizsd, a flaw that must have transferred to fibrous nanomaterials and why most army grunts swore by ceramic plates, instead. Arthur would have to recommend the company making the fabric return to the drawing board. Bruises were as unappealing as sweat.)
"Jesus fucking Christ," Arthur groaned.
He shifted onto his side, because, bruise or not, the pain of being shot had transferred to his organs while setting his nerves on fire. That was the reason that he didn't immediately notice the rising electricity in the air. Once he realised that the sharp, acrid smell wasn't anywhere like gunpowder and more like ozone, Arthur looked up in time to see Merlin murder-walking toward them.
It was fantastic.
Merlin was absolutely fucking done, and not even a blind man could miss it. His unbridled rage showed in every stalking step down the imperfect gravel road. It was a physical presence in the way his magic crackled in the air around him, lightning trailing in his wake. And there was absolutely no doubt who his target was, because if looks could kill, Aredian would have been a very dead -- thoroughly obliterated from existence -- man.
Arthur grunted, shook the residual pain off as much as possible, and forced himself to his feet. Merlin didn't seem to notice that Arthur was just fine, thanks, because, apparently, seeing someone holding a smoking gun over Arthur's prone body was the one thing capable of dousing Merlin in blinding fury.
Quiet gasps of surprise echoed in surround sound as Arthur tottered to his feet. Arthur ignored the soldiers -- he doubted they would shoot him, now, and, maybe, Aredian would be too surprised to have another go. Arthur brushed himself down while giving Merlin a critical once-over.
The navy blue suit was a loss, of course. The special bulletproof material hadn't held up against magical rounds or whatever it was that the Sigan-Cole entity had used against Merlin. The jacket was half-burned, there was something that looked suspiciously like blood down one leg, and Arthur suspected even the best dry cleaner in London wouldn't know how to get it out of this particular type of fabric.
His hair was in disarray, but that had more to do with being in sore need of a haircut. The scrape along his jaw, on the other hand, made Arthur scowl, because there was no reason for that to be there. It was a pity that the Sigan-Cole entity was taken care of, or Arthur would have had to do something in retaliation.
"You shot my partner," Merlin said, his voice the quiet, draconian growl of someone about to fuck shite up. The sound sent a thrill of excitement down Arthur's spine paired with a level of arousal that was inappropriate given the situation, but didn't keep Arthur from stepping into Merlin's path and putting a hand on his arm to stop him.
Merlin's magic crackled, but immediately dissipated when he turned, recognised Arthur, and realised that Arthur was alive. Merlin's rage vanished, he melted like a scoop of ice cream on a hot grill, and the tremendous grin of delight and pure joy had better have been caught on camera.
Merlin's eyes traced down to Arthur's chest to where slightly-scorched fibres marked the spot where Arthur had been shot. His gaze flicked up to seek out Arthur, but the flash of irritation in his eyes was tempered by how bloody happy he seemed to be that Arthur was all right.
"That's right," Arthur said, turning slowly until he found Aredian in the crowd.
Arthur might have braced himself more on Merlin than he'd meant to, because his entire left side hurt like bloody heck, but nobody needed to know that. From the expression on everyone else's faces, however, Arthur had the feeling they thought he was invulnerable.
(Honestly, with Merlin at his side, he sure felt like he was.)
Arthur lingered over the sight in front of him. Aredian with his gun limp in his hand, ineffective and impotent. The soldiers who gaped at Arthur and shot angry looks in Aredian's direction. The guns that were aimed at the ground, at Arthur, at Merlin. Arthur smiled pleasantly.
"And I'm sure these fine soldiers will disarm him and take him into custody for the attempted murder of an unarmed bystander," Arthur said. "They might want to hold onto him in case he decides to leave the country before the full investigation on his other activities is complete. There might be more charges pending."
"But," Merlin protested, clearly out for revenge. Arthur laid a soothing hand on his shoulder.
"If they don't, you can take care of him later."
Arthur turned Merlin away and guided him back the way he'd come, earlier, but not before Arthur had the satisfaction of seeing Isolde in uniform, appearing out of nowhere to wrench the gun out of Aredian's hand, and to order the soldiers to stand down.
One exclusive interview with Uther Pendragon, two unavoidable press conferences, four mandatory attendances at their favourite pubs celebrating the rise and fall of Cornelius Sigan, and fifty-two hours later, Merlin found himself sitting on the pavement outside his flat. He was in a ratty T-shirt and an equally ratty pair of jeans, nursing the Mother Of All Hangovers.
He wasn't altogether certain of the details. Gilli's explanation had been hazy. Apparently, some enterprising Dr. M fan had hacked the interwebs and somehow tracked his comings and goings to a building that existed only on paper but wasn't showing up on video, and followed that up by leaking the information to Reddit with the subheading, Dr M's Secret Lair???? Now, the flat he shared with his best mates was no longer secure in a very permanent way.
It wasn't just the people who had figured out the address or who were camping on the front yard in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Dr. M or Arthur Pendragon that made it impossible to get home. Some of it was the media, but a large portion of the crowd consisted of undercover agents for the Magical Registry Office, who didn't understand the concept of blending in.
Either way, it made coming and going difficult, since not everyone could make themselves turn invisible and walk past everyone unnoticed. Or stop time and walk past everyone unnoticed. Or was virtually unrecognisable, and capable of walking past everyone unnoticed.
Merlin rubbed his face.
Yeah, Merlin was good with avoiding them all. His head being the way it was, he couldn't promise he wouldn't banish everyone, MRO agents, annoying reporters, and innocent fans, to a dimension with big monsters who thought human beings made perfect pre-dinner aperitifs.
That was why he was sitting on the kerb outside of Arthur's building, watching his decidedly more sober mates moving box after box of books, manuscripts, journal papers, personal belongings, and clothes. He should be helping, but he couldn't muster up the energy to move.
He didn't remember drinking that much.
(It probably happened during the impromptu staff meeting, sometime between the second and third bottle of tequila, but definitely before Morgana arrived and popped the champagne bottle. Merlin's recollection of that time frame was a little fuzzy.)
"Admit it, you're going to miss us," Will said, plopping down on the pavement next to Merlin, draping his arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Maybe not all that much, since we've got actual offices, now, and we're supposed to show up on Tuesday once the paint fumes have dried. But you'll miss us, yeah?"
Merlin blinked at him. He said the only thing he could think of. "I was promised victory sex."
Will recoiled with a disgusted scowl. "Jesus, Merlin."
Will got up and walked to the small lorry Arthur had rented to move everyone out of the flat. Merlin had no idea when everything got packed -- or how, given the hubbub on the pavement outside their old lodgings -- but Freya had kissed Merlin on the cheek earlier and thanked him for making things easier.
(He had a suspicion that, during the impromptu staff meeting, sometime between the second and third bottle of tequila, he'd been conned into using his magic to pack up their belongings and to load up the lorry when Gilli gave them the heads-up about the Reddit spoiler. They all wanted to get out before the Internet crowds began to appear on their doorstep, which, Merlin had to admit, was sound reasoning.)
It was mid-afternoon, and everyone else had been moved into their temporary-turned-permanent safe houses. Everyone had discovered that they rather enjoyed living alone, and the safe houses were far better than the flat they were renting, so it wasn't a hard decision to abandon ship. The only one who refused to move was Lance, because he had a great rental rate, and a landlord who was awfully quick to handle any problems he might have with building maintenance. At some point, Merlin would have to visit everyone to make sure their wards would hold, but it could wait until his head wasn't splitting in two.
"You've traumatised Will," Mordred said, taking the spot Will had vacated moments before.
"Good," Merlin said absentmindedly, not quite registering Mordred's words. His face scrunched up, and he asked, "Sorry, what?"
"Fuck's sake, Merlin. Your breath could kill Giant Hogweed," Mordred said, putting his hand on Merlin's face and shoving him away. Merlin tipped over and lay there, half on the hard pavement, half on the wilting grass. Mordred got up, took a box from Sefa's arms, and headed inside.
Gilli stepped over Merlin's body. After a minute, so did Sefa, who was followed by Elena. Merlin didn't know when Elena became part of their little group, but he didn't mind. She seemed to be less clumsy and more self-assured around them, which was something of a relief.
Merlin watched everyone scurry about for a while before wondering (a) why everyone was moving as if they were pain-free, and (b) how everyone was sober enough to move. They drank as much, if not more, than he'd had. It didn't occur to him until afterward to realize that a = b, but a + b did not equal c, which meant that c needed to be resolved by some sort of quantum physics equation whereby one must first discover what c was supposed to be in the first place.
He covered his head with his hands and groaned. Even thinking hurt.
"The world's unfair," Merlin said, to no one in particular. He started counting blades of grass, which made him sleepy, and he felt himself snoring a few minutes later.
Something -- someone -- nudged him roughly. "You can't sleep on the ground, Merlin," Arthur complained.
"Watch me," Merlin said.
"Come on, you have to get up," Arthur insisted, and pulled on Merlin's arm. Merlin let it happen, because he had neither the strength to fight back, nor the energy to help. Someone else came joined in with the manhandling until Merlin was more or less upright and mostly draped over Arthur's side, but whoever it was, they moved away before Merlin could thank them.
(It was probably Will. He smelled like wet dog when he was sweaty.)
Arthur snorted, and said, "Yeah, that was Will. He smells like wet dog anyway."
"I can hear you, you know!" Will shouted, and his voice rang loudly in Merlin's ears. Merlin whined and reached to hold his head, but missed and ended up with a hand full of Arthur's glasses and a clump of hair instead.
"Did I say that out loud?"
"You did, yeah," Arthur said, and thankfully, he was considerate enough to keep his voice soft. Merlin liked to think he sounded fond, but hopefully he would never let Merlin drink again, Oh my fucking God.
"I'll try, but you're rather fond of your tequila," Arthur said. His lips found Merlin's temple and pressed a kiss there, but it didn't do a whole lot to make the pain go away. "And, yes, I am fond. A little exasperated, though, just so you know. Are you always like this when you're drunk?"
"You weren't supposed to hear that. That was in my head," Merlin complained. He looked down and noticed his feet were moving. "Are we moving?"
"Up to the flat," Arthur confirmed. "Nearly done moving your rubbish. I'm ordering a few more bookcases -- how in the world did you manage to keep so many books in that tiny closet you called a room?"
"Magic," Merlin said, and was grateful when Arthur leaned him in the corner of the lift. Arthur was nice and solid and warm, but what Merlin really needed right now was some ice on his skull, and the metal panels were cool to the touch.
"I'll get you some," Arthur promised, and, how lovely was he? Merlin was absolutely lucky to have him. "Yes, you are. But you're drinking some water and taking paracetamol, because I am not unpacking your things for you. The last book I tried to put away nearly bit my fingers off."
"Stop stealing my books," Merlin muttered, and, oh, they were moving again, this time to Arthur's flat, which had a lovely-looking bed in it, not that Merlin had had the chance to test it out before. Which reminded him: "I was promised victory sex."
"Maybe when you're not dying," Arthur said. He sniffed the air. "And after a shower. And about a litre of mouthwash."
"I'll have you know I'm a delicate fucking flower," Merlin protested. "I smell like one, too."
"As lovely as a corpse flower," Sefa said, climbing into the lift just as Arthur pulled Merlin out, but the doors closed before Merlin could retort. Not that he had one. Maybe later.
"Why aren't you hungover?" Merlin asked instead.
"Because some of us can hold our drink," Arthur said. "Unlike you."
"Ugh," Merlin said, because it was the only comeback he could think of.
There was a whirlwind of movement, a flash of bright light before curtains somewhere were pulled closed, and the softness of Arthur's Very Expensive Sofa. He was left there for who knew how long before Mordred shoved Merlin over, pushed him into a sitting position, and said, "Drink this."
It turned out to be water, with something sweet and bitter, like a mandarin orange with too much rind. Merlin drank it all and reached for more, but the second glass was only plain water, this time, and Mordred was good enough to help him balance the glass before he poured it all over himself. Then, as was typical of the bloody pillock that he was, Mordred let him fall onto the sofa again.
Merlin distantly heard him say, "Don't bother with paracetamol. I just gave him my hangover cure."
(And Merlin only finds out now that Mordred had a cure all along?)
The outraged squawk belonged to Arthur. "You had a hangover cure? Why didn't you give him that before?"
(Thank you, Arthur.)
A hand ran through Merlin's hair, and it probably belonged to Arthur, and he was doing that because Merlin had probably spoken out loud again.
"You did," Mordred answered.
"We could've cut the move in half the time," Arthur complained. "He's the one with the lift-and-move magic."
Sure, make me do all the heavy lifting, Merlin tried to say, but he probably wasn't very successful. Arthur's fingers through his hair were a magic all their own.
Mordred snorted. Merlin decided he'd spoken out loud again, and grumbled. Mordred said, "Could have, would have, didn't. For two important reasons. I only learned the recipe from Gaius this morning, and, trust me, he didn't want to share. Also, we wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into with Merlin."
Merlin mumbled something that wasn't even coherent to himself.
"Isn't he adorable?" Mordred cooed.
I can still hex you, Merlin was pretty sure he warned, then decided, Fuck that, and waved a hand in the air. He felt his magic take some sort of form, but what it was, exactly, he wasn't sure. It must have been frightening, or at least painful, because Mordred shrieked and clambered away. He heard a distant door slam shut.
"You realise he won't be sharing that hangover cure anytime soon?" Arthur warned.
"'m the Evil Overlord. I'll make him share," Merlin said, or thought he said, and drifted off to the feeling of Arthur's fingers giving his scalp a nice massage.
He wasn't sure how long he was detached, boneless, and --
(Let's be honest, here. He'd startled himself awake from a particularly loud snort after he'd probably been snoring like a chainsaw in desperate need of an oil change while cutting through a thick tree trunk with several missing links along the chain. He'd woken up splayed across the sofa, one leg on the floor, his upper body sagging in the space between the sofa and the coffee table. A gaming magazine was stuck to his face by the super glue that was human drool, and he'd been cradling the telly remote in his hand.
Despite all that, Arthur had draped a comfy, incredibly soft blanket over most of his body, had placed a pillow under the magazine that Merlin had been glued to, and must have had adjusted Merlin's grip on the remote so that he wouldn't bean himself in the head when he finally did wake up.
Arthur was a keeper. Merlin wasn't so sure about himself.)
-- quite alone, which was disappointing.
But he was sober, which was excellent.
Most of Merlin's belongings were stacked in the bedroom-turned-study, boxes piled nearly to the ceiling in a neat little corner. The black rubbish bags and duct-taped suitcases that contained his clothes were on top of the futon beneath the window, and his suits, which came in garment bags that Arthur had insisted upon, were hanging from the narrow closet.
Merlin scratched his head, panicked for ten minutes until he found his mobile and the text Arthur had left: Back soon, which was followed by, And by "soon", I mean in an hour from now, and it is now just past 1 PM. Merlin checked the time -- he must have woken up just as Arthur had gone, because he would have nearly an hour to himself.
He took the opportunity to inspect Arthur's refrigerator, helped himself to the sandwich Arthur had left on a plate for him with a post-it note that said, Eat this, and explored the flat some more.
It wasn't a big flat. The sitting room was large enough to accommodate staff meetings, the kitchen was definitely meant for a single cook, and the bathroom was attached to the master bedroom. Merlin didn't see where they'd be able to stick the extra bookshelves Arthur had threatened to buy. Then, he spotted a slight crack in the wall in the corridor next to the spare bedroom and pushed at the bare wall until the secret passage opened wide into what looked to be the much-larger flat next door.
(He never would have suspected there was a secret passage to another flat, never mind found it in the first place, if not for the crack in the wall. Given the elaborate security system he spotted on the inside, Arthur must have left it that way on purpose to make sure Merlin found his way there.
Merlin couldn't wrap his head around the reason why, but then again, he didn't have much brainpower for thinking. He was too busy gaping in awe at the hidden flat-within-a-flat. To list the differences between the other flat and this flat was to try and compare night and day. The secret flat belonged in a home décor magazine, or in an architectural display.
The open design sprawled into vaulted ceilings that reached up to the floor above and to a second level that was almost entirely made out of bookshelves. The kitchen was wider and larger and chef-quality. The sofa in the living room looked more comfortable than the one in the other flat, and was far more appealing because of the big plasma telly.
It was bloody amazing.)
Merlin's mobile buzzed.
I see you found my inner sanctum, Arthur texted. An attachment followed, which was a photograph of Merlin curiously pushing the door in from right above him, a bit to the left. Merlin found the camera, laughed, and waved before texting back.
Who's the Evil Overlord around here?
As if that was ever in doubt. Me, of course, Arthur texted back, which made Merlin crack up. He grinned at his phone, decided, yes, he loved this man. He beamed up at the camera again, smiled wickedly, and went to snoop around some more.
(The flat, Merlin discovered, was far more massive than he'd first thought. He found a computer room so technologically elaborate that he backed out immediately, careful not to touch anything. There was a large walk-in closet in the messy master bedroom that explained why Arthur was always done up to the nines. But the crowning glory was the study in the back of the library with empty bookshelves and space for more, where Merlin found a post-it note that said: Merlin's office.
Merlin would never come right out and say it, but, yeah, he had to agree. Arthur, not Merlin, was definitely the Evil Overlord between the two of them. He had his own bloody secret lair.)
By the time Arthur returned to the flat, Merlin had showered (twice), gargled most of the contents of a nearly-new bottle of mouthwash, gotten dressed in something somewhat respectable, and had planted himself in front of the refrigerator again, trying to decide what he would make them for dinner.
"Arthur? Is that you?" Merlin asked, trying to decide between toast and beans and spag. Someone needed to do the shopping, clearly.
"If it's not, you have a problem," Arthur said, leaning against the doorframe. "That reminds me, you need to ward the flat against Morgana."
"How about against everybody, instead? Easier to maintain." Merlin said. He was quickly distracted by the Hellhound squirming past Arthur's legs to peer into the kitchen. Like most of its breed, it had a sleek, black body and a burnished copper mask on its face. Unlike its littermates, however, this one had a little white mark on the side of its nose, which glistened against the darker fur like a scar, and made it look as if it were permanently sneering. It was the one that Arthur had taken a fancy to. "Freya?"
"She insisted," Arthur said, shrugging. Arthur's hand drifted to scratch at the underside of the Hellhound's pointed ear.
"Ah," Merlin said, frowning in serious agreement. "Yes, because it's such a hardship to take Cathal in."
"It was the price of convincing Freya to give you a day off," Arthur said, raising an eyebrow. Just as Merlin was about to ask, Arthur held up a hand. "Don't ask me what the others wanted in exchange for the promise of leaving you alone today."
Cathal sniffed the air, its ears perking up, and it broke into a big doggy grin, tongue lolling, eyes bright. It scrambled backward and loped off deeper into the flat. Merlin heard the tell-tale sounds of the comfortable sofa creaking under the Hellhound's weight, and winced, but Arthur didn't seem to care about letting the pets up on the furniture.
"Why today in particular?"
"Because," Arthur said, his voice velvet-smooth as he stepped inside, "Today is the day I finally get you all to myself, and this," he pulled out a bouquet of roses from behind his back, "is step one in my master plan to seduce you into staying with me forever."
(Merlin had had a plan to seduce Arthur into exactly the same end-result, and it had involved food. Given the state of the refrigerator, his version of a seduction had been doomed to fail from the very start. He was happy that at least one of them had a better plan in place.)
"Sold," Merlin said, and crashed into Arthur.
The flowers fell onto the floor. Arthur staggered backward until he hit the far wall on the other end of the corridor, the plaster giving under the force of their combined weight.
"Don't think this means we're not going to talk about the body armour you didn't tell me about," Merlin said, in-between gasps for air. "Or that I didn't notice you kept giving me more drinks whenever I asked about it."
"An Evil Overlord has to have some secrets," Arthur said, cutting off Merlin's response with an insistent kiss. It was Merlin's turn to collapse the plaster when Arthur turned them both around with a quick movement that was probably a secret ninja trick, because Merlin had no idea how he'd managed it without magic.
"Is this the victory sex?"
"No," Arthur said, drawing away to favour Merlin with a frown. "This is the desperate first-time getting-together I'm-going-to-be-with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life-whether-you-like-it-or-not sex. The victory sex can be later."
"Huh," Merlin said, unable to hold back his delighted grin. "Well, then. Carry on."
Arthur pressed a kiss that was all the more gentle given the bruises caused by their earlier fervour, and when he pulled back it was with a little smirk and a tilt of his head toward the door. "The wards?"
"Oh -- oh, right," Merlin said, casting something with a haphazard gesture that probably would hold against Morgana, but he didn't have the coherence for something more. He'd install something more robust later, he promised himself, and realised: "Wait. Wouldn't Morgana See what we're doing and stay away?"
Arthur gave him a flat look. "She's my sister. Ask me how many times she's cockblocked me."
"She wouldn't," Merlin said, his voice as flat as Arthur's expression. After a second of thinking about it, Merlin cursed. "Fuck. She would."
He turned and cast a stronger ward on the door. The door shone a bright, vibrant gold, but Merlin didn't have the opportunity to make sure it would hold against low-level-sorcerers-possessed-by-former-Evil-Overlord-sized interruptions before Arthur was dragging him deeper into the flat, past the bedroom door and toward the secret passage that Merlin hadn't quite closed all the way.
"You're already vetted into the security protocols. I'll show you how to get in, later," Arthur said, not stopping for anything, though he did pause long enough to close the entrance completely and to secure the lock with a biometrics reader. "And you'll add a bunch of traps and secret passageways. I have a list of things I want to do. Do you think you can install a moat with crocodiles? I think that would be sufficient deterrent against most people."
"Whatever you say," Merlin agreed, too distracted by Arthur's arse on the way up the stairs.
(That was why he'd tripped on the top of the stairs, suddenly unable to navigate steps when they stopped going up, and nearly face-planted in Arthur's arse.
From the smirk that spread across Arthur's face when he looked over his shoulder, he knew exactly what Merlin had been doing and wouldn't have minded if that had been the end result.)
"Whatever I say, huh?" Arthur asked, twirling Merlin into one of the sturdy oak bookshelves. They were in the military tactics section, and when Merlin glanced at the nearest book, he almost cackled. The title was, How to Take Down Your Opponent.
"Whatever you -- oh --" Merlin started to say, but lost his train of thought somewhere between Arthur's mouth on the side of his throat and Arthur's thigh against his crotch.
(He wasn't sure how. As far as he could tell, Arthur definitely did not have any magic.)
-- after an unknown amount of time --
(A few minutes?)
-- Merlin came up for air to discover he was missing his shirt, his jeans and pants were around his ankles, and Arthur was on his knees. That was all that he was able to process before his cock ended up in Arthur's mouth, he became intimately acquainted with Arthur's deep-throating skills --
-- and realised that the sneaky prat had either lube in his pocket, or had planned ahead by tucking the packet in the bookcase, because that was a wet finger circling around his hole. Merlin tried to spread his legs more, but he was trapped by his clothes around his jeans, and he couldn't bloody concentrate well enough to use his magic to make the inconvenience go away.
And then, with a particular swirl of Arthur's tongue, followed by the contraction of throat muscles swallowing, Merlin managed a rare moment of clarity that had nothing to do with the desperate first-time getting-together I'm-going-to-be-with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life-whether-you-like-it-or-not sex they were about to have, and everything with wanting it now, before he came in Arthur's mouth.
He didn't want a bloody blowjob. They'd traded blowjobs and they had been, and continued to be, fantastic. Merlin wanted Arthur's cock in his arse, and that was the one and only reason that he managed to make his clothes vanish.
In the process, his magic took care of Arthur's clothes, too.
Arthur drew away from Merlin's cock to glance down. Merlin's cock bobbed up insistently, saliva-slick, offering up a fresh bead of pre-come, as if it were irresistible bait to lure in his prey. Arthur looked up at him, glasses askew, and said, "Nice trick."
"Thanks," Merlin panted. He gestured impatiently for Arthur to continue.
Arthur, was having none of it. He adjusted his glasses and favoured Merlin with a scowl. "In the process, however, you also took away the condom I had in my back pocket."
"Fuck," Merlin hissed wholeheartedly, and wondered if there was a spell that would get him a whole box of condoms immediately. He couldn't think of one, though, and he let out a growl of frustration.
Arthur cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should have had this discussion before, but I hacked your health files and I know your last test was clean and you haven't been with anyone since it was done. I'd be happy to show you mine, though I assure you are also clean --"
"Ugh," Merlin said, leaning his head back against the bookshelf and covering his eyes with his forearm. The sight of Arthur on his knees, his glasses still slightly askew, talking like a bloody professor with bruised lips -- it was just too much. Merlin surrendered. Arthur was the Evil Overlord, hands down. Merlin was his bloody puppet, and he didn't fucking care. Then, he caught the last of what Arthur was saying:
"... I could load it on my computer --"
Merlin sputtered and twisted in Arthur's grasp, bracing himself against the bookcase. "You could walk down the corridor and do that, or you could fuck me right now.`
There was a long pause. When Merlin looked over his shoulder, it was to see Arthur staring at Merlin's arse as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted to put his mouth there or if he wanted to get to his feet and fuck. Merlin stuck his arse out even more, hoping Arthur would get the hint and fucking decide, already, because Merlin wasn't fussed either way. He could tell the moment that Arthur remembered that he'd already fingered his hole with lube to stretch it, and that lube tasted terrible, even when it was the flavoured, edible kind, because he surged to his feet.
Yes, finally, Merlin thought.
Despite Arthur's enthusiasm, he still hesitated, and Merlin banged his head on the bookcase. "What is it now?"
"Are you sure you want it this way?" Arthur said, his voice hollow, as if it was taking a great deal out of him to be posh and polite.
Merlin glared at the volume of Mapping Changing Territory Lines Over The Centuries: Book Four (United Kingdoms) and hissed, "Desperate first-time getting-together sex, remember? I'm not going to make it to your bedroom. If you don't fuck me right now, I'm finishing myself off and leaving --"
"No!" Arthur's hands tightened at Merlin's hips, and Merlin felt the firm press of a very hard cock between his arse cheeks, just catching the rim of his hole.
Merlin didn't give Arthur much of a choice. He pushed back, and the first, delicious burn drew a strangled noise that was somewhere between a grunt and a moan. Maybe he hadn't been loosened enough; maybe they shouldn't have waited so long to have penetrative sex; or, maybe --
But it reached the point when Merlin didn't feel the burn anymore, and instead enjoyed the satisfaction that came with fullness. Arthur was fully-seated and warm behind him, his breath coming in short, desperate pants between Merlin's shoulder blades, and his hand snaked around Merlin's body to cross his chest and hold him --
The drag of Arthur's cock as it pulled out rubbed Merlin in exactly the most perfect way, but he revised his evaluation a second later when Arthur thrust in, slowly, almost experimentally. He continued in this nearly clinical movement, as if he were studying every approach to decide how best to proceed, until Merlin was ready to scream in frustration.
He did scream, a few seconds later, when Arthur came up with the solution to what must have been an otherwise complicated scientific theorem. Somehow, he'd discovered how Merlin best liked every thrust, how to change the angle just so, how much strength and power needed to be behind it all, and how deep Merlin wanted it, each and every time. It was exactly as perfect as anything in the universe, and Merlin didn't want it to fucking stop.
The bookcase rattled. It bounced against the bookcases on either side of the in-wall construction. A few books bounced loose, but didn't quite fall off their shelves.
It figured that Arthur would fuck like a champion. He was relentless, as if he could go for hours, and that was definitely something Merlin wanted to explore, later. Preferably someplace with a horizontal surface, surrounded with mirrors, so that Merlin could watch the ripple of Arthur's thigh muscle and perfect arse with every thrust.
Arthur shifted his angle again, adjusted the rhythm, and --
Merlin crested unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning crashing down his spine, and he cursed. It was too fast, he had wanted it to last. His come pulsed onto the leather-bound, extremely rare first editions.
Arthur began to stutter, each fuck deeper and harder than the last, until he stopped with a deep exhalation of breath, nearly entirely balls-deep in Merlin's arse.
Merlin laughed softly, unable to help himself. A little hysterically, maybe. Arthur was breathing heavily on Merlin's back, kissing him on the shoulder as if in apology for... for what, Merlin didn't know.
(For substandard fucking that he considered to be beneath his capability? How dare he perform less than at his best? Merlin would demand that Arthur do better than the best fuck of his life the next time. He hoped the next time would be soon.
As soon as they recovered, ideally.)
"Sorry about your... um. Your books," Merlin said, wincing a little when Arthur pulled out and come trickled down his leg.
Arthur gently turned Merlin around, kissed him so soundly that Merlin forgot what he was apologizing for, and drew away with a sly grin. "I don't care about the damn books."
Merlin gaped at him. "Priceless first editions, and you don't care about the damn books? You bloody heathen. What do you care about?"
"You," Arthur said, and leaned in for another kiss.
"I've got to know," Merlin said, as soon as they broke for air. "Is there any chance your security cameras caught all that?"
Arthur gave him a pitying look. "I thought you knew better than to ask dumb questions, Merlin."
Merlin couldn't help but grin.
(Some time later, sprawled across a wide bed that was so comfortable it might be illegal, thoroughly shagged to the point of wobbly legs and fuzzy thoughts, Merlin grinned about nothing and everything. He shifted, only to be immobilised when Arthur's arms tightened around him.
How did it ever come to this? Less than a year ago, he had been haunted by joblessness, heavy debts loomed over his head, and he had to deal with the ever-heavy threat of imprisonment if not outright assassination for being who and what he was. And now, he was the owner of a successful company, and he didn't have to worry about his debts any more. Until certain laws were repealed, he still did have to worry about the MRO agents who wanted to arrest him, but it didn't bother him any longer.
He was the Evil Overlord of London.
Who would dare arrest him now?)