Chapter 1: Chapter 1 - Operation Marriage
“Is it ready, Jonas?”
Catrina watched intently as he stirred and added ingredients and stirred again, sometimes muttering spells, sometimes falling silent - never looking up to her. She knew not to take it personally, as she knew not to take the fact she was sitting in a dusty basement personally. He was devoted to her; he was just doing his duty. Finally, he gave a small, satisfied noise. “Yes, my lady.” He bottled some of the potion and handed it to her.
She smiled down at the small bottle and, taking a pipette, dabbed it behind her ears, on her wrists. Like perfume. Jonas kept on bottling.
“Keep up, Merlin,” Gaius said cheerfully, walking back from lunch, towards the gates of Camelot. “Busy day today.”
“Isn’t it always?” Merlin sighed, switching the shoulder he held his backpack on. “I mean, between you and Arthur… You work me to the bone.”
Gaius tsked. “Do stop moaning. At least the work’s interesting.”
Well. Merlin couldn’t exactly argue with that.
A hand grabbing his arm startled him. He whipped around, ready to smack or curse when the owner - a young, dark-haired man - raised his hands in surrender. “Please,” he said, sounding exhausted. “Please, we need Uther Pendragon. Where is he?”
“I…” Merlin looked nervously to Gaius.
The man pressed something into his hands. He looked down at it. It was a seal, like some fancy royalty’s. “We need him,” the man said again.
“I’m sorry,” Gaius said, stepping forward to relieve his nephew. “Uther Pendragon doesn’t take…” He trailed off, his eyes falling upon the seal. “That’s from the House of Tregor. Where did you get that?”
“It doesn’t belong to me,” the man said.
A blonde woman stepped forward, pale and tired, playing with what would have been a beautiful and expensive necklace, except the jewel had fallen out of the centre. “It belongs to me,” she said.
“My lady,” Gaius said, eyes bulging, voice little more than a shocked whisper. He bent himself into a bow and tugged at Merlin’s sleeve. Merlin obediently bowed, a little shallower than Gaius. Something felt… off. He just wasn’t sure what.
“Lady Catrina?” Uther gasped, sweeping a low bow as she stepped into the room. Merlin managed not to gape at Uther’s respect, but it was a new thing. Gaius shot him a glance in warning, having a supernatural ability to sense when Merlin was thinking about doing something stupid. “Is it really you?” Uther went on, looking close to - gods above! - tears.
“I can hardly believe it myself,” she said with a wan smile, “but yes.”
“When they told me about the explosion, about the sorcerer…” Uther trailed off as Catrina bowed her head. “Your father?”
“Gone, sir.” She took a moment before composing herself. “The sorcerer struck without warning and my father… He had no way of escape. I wouldn’t have escaped myself if not for my faithful servant, Jonas. He saved my life.”
Merlin looked at the man who’d grabbed his arm. He was blushing, just a little, ducking his head away. Uther looked at them both with sorrow, with sympathy. Merlin supposed he’d sympathise with anyone with reason to hate and fear magic - which was probably a cruel thought, in the circumstances.
“Your suffering is beyond what I can imagine, my lady,” Uther said, taking Catrina’s hand. “If there’s anything we can do, you need only to ask.”
“A bed for the night would be most welcome.”
“Then consider yourself our guests - you may remain here as long as you need.”
Catrina gave Uther a watery smile, “Thank you.”
“She’s very brave,” Merlin said slightly dubiously, walking through the corridors. Something still wasn’t sitting right, and the emotion Uther had shown wasn’t helping. Merlin knew he did feel, but he also knew that he didn’t often show it. Perhaps Morgana being away on a mission had softened him, but Merlin doubted it.
“Yes,” Gaius said. He sounded distracted. Merlin frowned.
“Really,” he said, laying it on thick this time, using the dramatics that always got Gaius’ attention, “it’s just terrible what she’s been through. I can’t imagine it.”
“Yes,” came the reply, “terrible.”
“Right,” Merlin said sternly. He took Gaius’ arm and lead him determinedly into a blind spot in the cameras. (Only he, Gaius, and Arthur knew it was there because he was the one to put it there, the last time he was on repair duty. He’d tell Morgana about it when she was back.) “You think there’s something wrong, too,” he said without preamble.
Gaius looked interested now. “Perhaps. Why do you think so?”
He shrugged. “Instinct. She seems… I don’t know how she seems. I just don’t trust her.”
Gaius nodded and opened his mouth to say something.
“Merlin,” Arthur called as he walked down the corridor, cutting off whatever Gaius was about to say. “Need you.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Work, work, work,” he said, sighing, but jogged to catch up to Arthur anyway.
“Uther says I have to make Catrina and Jonas comfortable,” Arthur said. “So, duvets, pillows, etcetera, etcetera.” He frowned, “You know, he smiled at her. I don’t think I’ve seen him smile properly since…” He shrugged. Since ever .
“And you need me for this because…?”
“I’ve not seen you all day,” Arthur said simply. He kept walking as Merlin stopped in his tracks. After a moment, he paused, realising Merlin wasn’t going to follow.
“Oh,” Merlin said. Then he shook himself and caught up again, smiling.
“I’m sorry it’s not what you’re used to,” Arthur said to Catrina a little later, arms full of bedding. Merlin stood beside him, clutching toiletries and managing not to drop a single one. (He was rather proud of that, actually.)
“Well,” Catrina said with a small dry laugh, “we did spend a night sheltering in a cave. This will be wonderful.”
Arthur nodded, placing the bedding down. “If you need anything more, just ask. There’s always somebody around.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” she said. “And… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
Merlin smiled, placing toiletries in a drawer Jonas showed him. “Merlin.”
“Merlin,” she said, nodding. “Thank you very much, Arthur and Merlin.”
Lying on his stomach on his bed, Merlin wondered whether it was acceptable to give up on trying to hack into the file yet. It had been two hours - probably he should come back later with fresh eyes. Yes, he should definitely come back later. Or maybe…
A chime from his phone made the decision for him. He closed the lid of the laptop and grabbed his phone from the bedside table.
Catrina’s here for
Uther’s house. He’s
been having ‘family dinners’
recently to try and make up
for Morgause and he brought
Catrina as a guest. Wants me
to “get to know her’
Merlin laughed a little and slipped the phone into his pocket, hearing Gaius call him down for dinner. Half-way through it chimed again; he looked at Gaius for permission to answer it. His uncle nodded, the exasperated look warning him not to make a habit of it.
Have excused myself.
They were flirting!!!!
What, Uther and
He laughed again, not even trying to disguise it, and it didn’t help when Arthur added: If you’ve got a spell to stop them, I’ll make you a very wealthy man. Gaius raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” he said, managing to control himself. “Just - Uther and Catrina have apparently hit it off. Arthur is unimpressed.”
Gaius nodded, looking thoughtful again, before shaking it off and returning to his meal. Merlin decided to ignore it and text back, I would but watching you suffer is so much fun! before placing his phone face down on the table and going back to eating.
“Please take this to Lady Catrina with my compliments,” Gaius said, pressing a little bottle into Merlin’s hand.
“Huh?” Merlin blinked. Gaius had been weirdly quiet on the train to work, and now he had some sort of… mission. It was weird. It was suspicious. He looked at the bottle. There was no label, no hint of purpose. “What is it?” He hesitated, thinking. “What is it that you won’t face her yourself?
“A test,” Gaius said simply, looking back at the cameras he was monitoring.
“But what-?” Merlin cut himself off. “No. Never mind. I’m going.”
“Looks like you did your job well, Jonas,” Catrina said smugly, looking at the fruit basket sitting on the small table in her room. She took the small bottle from her pocket and started applying more. “He’s falling for me already. It’s only a matter of time before he’s entirely in my power.”
Jonas smirked, “Thank you, my lady. I live only to serve.”
“I know,” she said simply. She’d conjured him herself for that very purpose.
They looked over at a knock on the door. She nodded to Jonas, who opened it to reveal the boy from the day before - Merlin, that was it. Merlin, holding a bottle in one hand. “I don’t mean to intrude,” he told her, stepping through the door. Jonas closed it behind him - she thought she saw him flinch, just a little.
“Oh,” she said airily, “it’s quite alright.”
“Right,” he said. A little awkwardly. “Well, Gaius asked me to bring this to you.”
Jonas stepped forward and took the little bottle. “What is it?”
“Gaius prepared it for Lady Catrina,” Merlin said stiffly. Interesting - the boy didn’t know himself.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Catrina said, smiling gently at him, “but he must have made a mistake. I requested no medicine - I presume that’s what this is?”
“Oh,” Merlin said, taking the bottle back. “Oh. Are you sure?”
“Quite sure. I’m in perfect health. Though I thank him for his concern.”
“She didn’t want it, ask for it, or take it,” Merlin summarised, placing the bottle on Gaius’ desk. “Does she pass or fail?”
Gaius hummed. “I was Catrina’s doctor when she was a little girl. Not for very long, mind, not past her third birthday. I’d be surprised if she remembered me.” He put the bottle in his top drawer and leaned closer to Merlin. “Catrina had a rare and incurable bone disorder affecting her joints. She could hardly move after walking for more than an hour, which I gather she has been, and nothing but magic or that tonic could cure her. And her parents were very clear that magic was not to be used.”
Merlin frowned. “So either Catrina managed to save… what, a month’s worth of that tonic from the explosion and carry it all that way, or she’s walked right into Camelot whilst using some sort of… Is she mad?”
“Not necessarily,” Gaius said fairly. “She could be completely innocent, just trying to cure her pain, but…”
He sighed. “She’s getting awfully close to Uther.”
Gaius nodded, leaning back in his chair. “Best tell Arthur to keep his eye on things if there are any more… family dinners.”
Me and Gaius have
some suspicions about
Catrina. Please keep
an eye on any more
Does this count?
They’ve gone to
a restaurant lunch
Merlin relayed this information to Gaius, who frowned.
“Snooping time?” Merlin sighed.
“Take some sheets,” Gaius said. “You can say you’re sorting the bed out .”
Armed with sheets, Merlin went down to Catrina’s room. He placed them on the bed and then, checking the door was closed behind him, got to work. There weren’t any charms in the cupboards, nor any potions in the drawers. No magic books under floorboards - ha! - or secrets under the bed. But there was… something. An overwhelming smell of...
“Can I help you?” asked Jonas.
Merlin jumped, narrowly avoiding smacking his head on the bed. “No, no, er,” he took a breath. “I just came in to change the sheets, but I thought I knocked something under the bed.”
“No,” he said cheerfully. “Just my imagination.” He looked at the sheets piled on the bed. “May I?”
“Ah. Please, go ahead. Don’t let me bother you.”
“Thanks,” Merlin said. After a moment, he realised that Jonas didn’t intend to leave, so he worked quickly. “Right,” he said, picking up the basket of dirty laundry, “all done.”
Jonas nodded and opened the door for him. Merlin hurried out but, as he left, he thought he saw something. A green, forked tail.
“What did you find?” Gaius asked as Merlin walked into the medical room.
“There was this… smell. Not a bad smell, more like… perfume? But not perfume, I don’t think. And Jonas, when he turned...” he hesitated.
“Yes?” Gaius prompted.
“This will sound mad. But I could have sworn he had a tail.”
“A tail?” Gaius blinked. “Are you sure?”
“It was only a glimpse,” he said quickly. “Only a moment. I- I could be wrong.”
“No, no, I believe you. And I believe we were right to tell Arthur to be careful.”
Uther looked up at Catrina. “Excuse me, my dear. I just need to visit the restroom.”
“Of course,” she said, smiling. As he stood and left, she took the bottle of Jonas’ potion from her pocket and, leaning over, tipped it into Uther’s drink. It wasn’t permanent, but it would last longer than just having him smell it.
“Don’t you think it’s odd how quickly they’ve become close?” Merlin asked Arthur, watching from the window as Catrina and Uther walked into Camelot together.
“Perhaps,” Arthur said, considering. “But perhaps not. Uther is a powerful man - and Catrina is a wealthy woman.”
Merlin shook his head, elbowing Arthur lightly in the ribs, “You’re a right cynic, you.”
“Good afternoon, sir,” Gaius said, walking into Uther’s office. He kept his voice cheerful, but his mind was worried. This would require… delicacy.
“A very good afternoon to you, Gaius,” Uther said with a grin.
“You seem in a good mood.” This was worrying. Uther hadn’t been in high spirits since... decades ago. It seemed unlikely that things would change so quickly.
“I am, I am.”
“The Lady Catrina has struck a chord with you?”
“She’s a remarkable woman.”
“Indeed she is,” Gaius said, taking a seat. It would perhaps be easier than he’d thought. He was an old man - he could reminisce whenever he pleased without anyone questioning it. It was one of many perks to counteract the fact he could no longer bend down to reach the floor without his knees giving in. “Indeed she is, sir. I treated her when she was a child - before I left medicine, of course - and I’ve never known a child so strong, so courageous. The bravery she showed in the face of her condition - well, sir, it was a credit to her. A credit to her whole family.” He gave a fond-looking smile, “Yes, I believe she was my best patient as well as my last.”
“Her condition?” Uther was frowning a little.
“Oh,” Gaius said, affecting an embarrassed look. “My apologies, sir - I thought you knew.”
“Strictly speaking I shouldn’t tell you, but seeing how close you are, I doubt Lady Catrina will mind too much. I diagnosed Catrina with an incurable bone disease.”
“Well,” Uther said, “evidently you were wrong. She shows no sign of it now.”
“I know. I had my nephew take a tonic down to her, thinking she might not have any left after her miraculous escape, and she didn’t need it!” He gave a small shrug, “Clearly I was right to change careers when I did if I was able to make such a grievous error. Or, of course, she’s made a miraculous recovery.”
“I’m sorry, Gaius. What are you suggesting?”
Damn. He’d thought he was doing well, but there was suspicion in Uther’s eyes. “Nothing at all, sir, nothing at all. I just thought it was strange, and it brought up old memories that no one but me cares for.”
“The only strange thing here is that you won’t admit you were wrong,” Uther said harshly.
“This isn’t about me, sir. It’s about Lady Catrina.”
“She is our guest,” Uther said. The suspicious look had turned dangerous and Gaius almost flinched away - their friendship wasn’t what it was when they were young when Gaius could say as he pleased without fear of reprisals. The times were not the same. Uther kept glaring at him: “You will treat her with the respect she deserves.”
After Gaius regaled his tale of failure to Merlin - “You tried to talk to Uther about it? You’re a braver man than I.” - his nephew decided to do a little more snooping as if he hadn’t nearly been caught the first time. Arthur said that Catrina had gone into Uther’s office, so that was where he started, hiding in the shadows until he saw her leave. He gave her a twenty seconds head-start before he followed, keeping out of sight.
She lead him to an empty corridor, close to her room. He stayed around the corner, listening intently.
“Your potion is working perfectly,” she said. “He believes himself very much in love - and there is no one who doubts the illusion.
“Thank you, my lady,” Jonas said. “There’s another waiting in your room.”
Merlin heard a door open and close - Catrina going into her room - and heard Jonas’ footsteps. He ran back to Gaius.
“She’s using a potion to make Uther fall in love with her.”
Gaius nodded, his expression grim. “We’ve reached the point of no return. Uther must be told.”
Merlin stared at him. “You’re going to go to Uther and tell him that his girlfriend’s a witch?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Gaius frowned, “With a bit more tact, of course.”
“Good luck,” Merlin said, raising his eyebrow.
“Shall…” He hesitated. “Shall I grab Arthur? For backup, I mean.”
“Merlin,” Gaius said. “Uther is my oldest friend. We know and trust each other.”
Merlin bit his lower lip. “But he’s enchanted . That doesn’t tend to make people… rational.”
“I still have to try,” Gaius said stubbornly. Merlin sighed and watched him leave.
Gaius has gone on a
stupid mission. Please
report to the medical
room for an update.
“What’s happened?” Arthur asked as he came through the door and took a seat next to Merlin on the bed he’d claimed.
“Catrina’s a witch.”
Arthur blinked. “How literal are we being here? Is this, ‘I understand that the idea of a potential stepmother is unwelcome and I’m being rude about her because of it?’ or is it ‘the woman Uther’s besotted with is a sorcerer’?”
“She’s a sorceress. She’s enchanted Uther.”
Arthur sighed. , “Of course she has. So, what’s the plan?”
“Well, I’ve done some snooping and Gaius tried to subtly guide Uther away from Catrina. But none of that worked, so Gaius has decided to just go and tell Uther the truth. Ah,” he turned as the door opened, “here he is now.”
“Don’t say it, Merlin,” Gaius said as he walked in. He spotted Arthur, “Or you, for that matter.”
“You were going to say, ‘I told you so’,” Gaius said tiredly.
Merlin hesitated, trying to look innocent, before giving in with a nod. “Alright, I was. But I won’t now.”
“Uther didn’t take it well.”
“Oh, see, I told-” Merlin found himself cut off by Gaius’ sharp look. Arthur laughed a little and tried to turn it into a cough. Merlin pressed his lips together. “Sorry.”
“But what I said still holds true. I know him. He’s a proud man, but he’s not stupid. If there’s a part of him untouched by the enchantment, it will hear what I said and reflect upon it.”
Merlin sighed, “Let’s hope you’re right.”
“The boy has been searching your room,” Jonas told Catrina. “Shall I dispose of him?”
Catrina considered a moment. “No. No, no, no. That would cause suspicion. But,” she reached into her pocket and pulled out a necklace, “perhaps it’s time to turn to a more permanent enchantment.” She ran a finger over the shining ruby in the centre and, then, taking up a needle, brought forth a drop of blood that dripped onto it. “Ic nemne þá grædige, yfele, formolsnung. mé getryme. Nu meaht þú begalan. Nu meaht þú begalan.” The ruby shone a little brighter for a moment, before dulling. Catrina smiled slyly at Jonas, “Dinner time.”
The opportunity Catrina was waiting for came at the end of the meal. “Here,” she said, taking the necklace from her neck, “this belonged to my father. I know how fond you were of him, and he of you.”
“Catrina, I couldn’t possibly…”
“No, no, I want you to have it. Here, let me put it on you.” He leaned forward so she could slip the chain around his neck. She watched the jewel glow and his expression slacken. “There now. Don’t you like it?”
“I will wear it always,” Uther said.
“Good. It will stand as a testament to our love - you must never doubt my love for you, you understand?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“I am beautiful, after all, aren’t I?” she said, smiling.
“You are beautiful.”
“And I am I not your heart’s desire?”
“You are my heart’s desire.”
“Then prove it,” she said. Her stomach twisted a little as she told him, “Let us seal it with a kiss.”
“Yes,” he said, leaning closer. “A kiss.”
When Gaius and Merlin arrived early the next morning, before any of the other techies, it was to a note on Gaius’ desk. In it, Uther explained that while he didn’t hold Gaius’ fears against him, he hoped he’d put them aside over time as he got to know Catrina. I consider the matter closed, he finished, and I hope you do me the courtesy of doing the same.
Gaius slammed the letter back onto the desk. “It’s no good,” he said a little angrily. “I can tell him she’s a sorceress until I’m blue in the face, but he won’t see it. The enchantment’s too strong, as you said. He’s completely in her thrall.”
“Then what do we do?”
“We have to break the enchantment.”
“It’s the only way to end this,” Gaius said. “Once the spell is lifted he’ll come to his senses.”
“But she never leaves his side.”
Merlin felt a dawning sense of horror. He sat down. “You want me to use magic in front of the king? Again?”
Gaius frowned. “The king?”
He shook his head irritably and waved a dismissive hand. “Not anymore,” he said quickly; Gaius was missing the point. “He was king in the other Camelot.”
Merlin either ignored him or didn’t hear him - Gaius wasn’t sure. “I’d never get away with it,” he said, fiddling with his shirt. “He’s always been unconscious before this.”
“I’m sorry, Merlin,” Gaius said, and he really was. “I know how dangerous it is, but we can’t let her maintain such influence over Uther. Who knows what the consequences could be?”
“Just one problem,” Merlin said, ignoring all the other problems for the moment, as this was arguably most pressing. “I don’t know what spell she used.”
“Then we have work to do.”
“Here,” he said a little longer. “A spell of revelation. ‘By which the true nature of things may be revealed.’”
“This is for objects, Merlin,” Gaius said, looking over.
“Oh.” He sighed, “I thought it might reveal the truth of his feelings.” Arthur came in looking vaguely traumatised. Merlin looked over. “You alright?”
“Uther wants to see us.” He shook his head, “Catrina convinced him to marry her.”
Merlin blinked as he left, likely to find the others Uther had summoned. He groaned, “Looks like the spell of revelation is gonna have to do, then.”
“Thank you all for coming,” Uther said, smiling around the meeting room. That, in itself, was mildly terrifying to Merlin, who’d carefully positioned himself out of sight behind a pillar. “You are, no doubt, wondering why I have gathered you here today. Though we live in dark times, today I bring you light and love. It gives me great pleasure to inform you I am to marry Lady Catrina Tregor. I am to marry Lady Catrina tomorrow.”
“Hierste þæt íecen sóna,” he muttered, holding out a hand towards Uther. “Hierste þæt íecen sóna.”
“I could not have made a better match.”
“Hierste þæt íecen sóna.”
“I hope you will all share in our joy.”
“Hierste þæt íecen sóna,” Merlin hissed one last time. He could hardly hear himself over the room applauding politely. Uther thanked them all, still smiling. Merlin sighed and let his head rest against the pillar. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jonas watching him.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Gaius, leaving the room. “I tried.”
“It’s not your fault, Merlin,” he said. “You did your best.”
“That spell is powerful magic.” He shot Gaius a look. “I think Jonas felt it.”
“You’re sure?” Gaius winced as Merlin nodded. “You’ll have to be careful. If he and Catrina know…”
“I know.” He combed a hand through his hair, “We’ve got to get this sorted before they have a chance to tell Uther.”
Gaius raised an eyebrow. “Not before Uther gets married?”
“He’s getting married tomorrow,” he reminded him. “I’m being realistic.” He thought a moment: “Just don’t tell Arthur. He might not like it.”
Merlin nearly leapt out of his skin a few hours later when Jonas grabbed his arm and dragged him into a corner.
“Master Merlin,” he said, his voice thick with fear and unshed tears, “I’m sorry.”
He tugged his arm away and eyed him suspiciously. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Jonas looked around as if he was afraid of being seen. “I’m a slave. A prisoner.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lady Catrina, my mistress, she’s not as she seems. But… You know that already.”
Merlin hesitated a moment before relaxing his stance. “Go on,” he told him. “I’m listening.”
“She’s a witch who uses her magic to twist my mind as she twists Uther’s,” he spat, rubbing at his wrists as if imagining chains. “I… I am not strong enough to break the enchantment, but perhaps…” He looked up at Merlin, “Your magic is more powerful than anything else I’ve ever felt. If anyone can break the source, it’s you.”
“There’s… something that she keeps in a cave not far from here. I’m not sure what it is, but she’s careful to keep me away from it, so that must be it.”
“Why should I believe a word of this?” Merlin asked him, trying to look threatening. In truth, he was desperate enough to take almost any lead presented to him.
Jonas shrugged. “You probably shouldn’t. But if you don’t act, she and Uther will be married.”
He hesitated, realised he really was going to do this, and grabbed his phone out.
Doing stupid thing
and following Jonas
to a potential lead.
Please start worrying
if I don’t come back
before Uther’s married,
or if I text an SOS.
“Right,” he said, slipping the phone back into his pocket. “Where’s this cave?”
The cave was deep in the forest closest to Camelot. Merlin really wanted Jonas to go in first, but he stayed back and gestured that Merlin should enter.
He knew he’d made a mistake the instant he saw the cave was empty, but he didn’t quite understand the magnitude of his fuck up until he saw Catrina at the mouth of the cave beside her servant. He tried to take a step forward but Jonas raised a hand; a sticky patch of magic stopped him moving an inch.
“I really hate you,” he told Jonas, thoroughly irritated. “I hate you more than her. When I get you…” He trailed off menacingly.
Jonas simply smiled at him, stepping back so Catrina had more room. “You may possess some magic,” she said, staring down her nose at Merlin, “but you’re no match for me.”
She collapsed the front of the cave in a mess of rocks and dust.
After Merlin stopped coughing and his eyes stopped streaming, he grabbed his phone.
No signal. Shit.
He sat down and thought his options through. Gaius would start looking for him as soon as Uther was married, but it could take a while to find him, even if Arthur was able to help, too. He could try and find another way out of the cave, but the idea of walking into the dark with no guarantee that there was anything there was not one he relished.
So he had to break through the entrance.
He climbed to his feet and tried to think which spells he’d learned covered ‘trapped in a cave by a witch and some fork-tailed bastard’. For such a niche situation, there were actually quite a few, but - being on a time limit - he’d stick to the most powerful, rather than cycling through them.
“Ic ábíetee pæt stánhol,” he said, stretching his arm out. The rocks sat where they were, uninterested in warlocks who really needed to be elsewhere right now. He grimaced and tried again: “Ic ábíetee pæt stánhol! Ic ábíetee pæt stánhol!”
The rocks shuddered a little as if they were contemplating moving for him. He gathered his magic to him, feeling it burn in his stomach. “Ic ábíetee pæt stánhol!”
The rocks exploded outwards, leaving the entrance clear. He strode out and grabbed his phone. “Gaius?”
“Merlin,” his uncle said, sounding relieved. “I’ve been trying to call you. Where were you?”
“About an hour into the forest trapped in a cave,” he grumbled. “It was a trap.”
Gaius sighed. “Well, there’s a problem. Catrina convinced Uther to move the wedding forwards.”
“Move it forwards? They’ve been engaged for about three hours!”
“They went to the registrar’s office about forty-five minutes ago.”
He stopped dead and kicked irritably at a tree root. “So they’re already married.”
“Yes,” Gaius sighed. “Just… Come home and we’ll sort this out.”
“Right.” He looked around himself. “Can you tell Arthur to come and pick me up?”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2 - Operation Stepmother
“So,” Arthur said, lying on Merlin’s bed and looking up at the ceiling with Merlin nestled in his side, also staring upwards. “This is a disaster.”
Merlin wrinkled his nose, looking at him, “Sums it up.” He sighed, “Come on.” He reached one arm under his bed and pulled out his magic book, dropping it on Arthur’s chest. “Better find a counterspell before he does something he really regrets.”
“ Merlin .” Arthur stared at him, looking a little sick. “That is my father , remember.”
“Oh, yeah.” He winced, “Sorry.”
Gaius walked in to find them, a little later, both sound asleep, the book clutched in Merlin’s hand and lay face down on Arthur’s chest, and Merlin’s head on his shoulder. He shook his head fondly and took the book away, putting it on the bedside table. Merlin shifted a little in his sleep - for a moment, Gaius thought he might have woken them - but just clutched unconsciously at Arthur’s shirt and fell still again. Rolling his eyes a little, he took the blanket from the bottom of the bed and threw it over them, wondering if they’d be embarrassed in the morning, or if they’d just pretend they hadn’t been seen.
(They were the slightest bit embarrassed in the morning but played it off well. Merlin managed to play down the fact that Arthur kept spare clothes in the bottom drawer of his room - and that he had the same at Arthur’s house - and the three of them travelled to work together with the minimum of awkwardness.)
Merlin and Gaius went to the technicians’ room and Arthur to his father’s office.
Arthur came back in a little later, horribly pale. “Merlin,” he said under his breath.
“Arthur?” He looked over, frowning, “Are you alright?”
He shook his head and grabbed Merlin by the shoulder, dragging him out the chair and out the room. “I overheard Catrina talking to his servant,” he said as soon as the door closed behind them. “Merlin, she’s going to accuse you of magic.”
He went pale. His stomach dropped and he felt sick. “Oh,” he said. “Oh.” He tried to catch his breath and gave a little hysterical laugh: “I- I mean, again? Can’t people think of better ways to kill me?”
“I know,” he said. “I know.”
“If you value your life,” Arthur said, “you have to leave. Now.”
“What? She’s moving that quickly?” He was almost flattered that she thought him that much of a threat.
“I don’t know,” Arthur admitted. “Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know how much time you have, exactly.”
“Then I have to stay.” Arthur stared at him and Merlin rolled his eyes, “If I leave before she acts it’s another thing she can use against me.”
“Will you think about this? She doesn’t need evidence - Uther will believe every word. But if you wait for her to act, everyone will know where to find you. They’ll follow you.”
“They’ll know where I am anyway!” he pointed out. “Everyone knows I live with Gaius.”
“What about going to your mother?”
“I won’t put her in danger,” he said sternly.
“Bloody-” Arthur cut himself off with an explosive sigh and shoved his key into Merlin’s hand. “Here! Go hide at my place and we’ll go from there.” Merlin stared blankly for a moment, looking at the key. “Go on,” Arthur said, closing his fist around it. “Go!”
He hesitated a moment and then nodded. It took a lot not to run but it was necessary. It’d only look suspicious if he left in a hurry.
Arthur watched him go and then went back into the technician’s room. He had to tell Gaius what was going on.
As it turned out, Catrina was moving quickly. He received a text telling him to bring Merlin in not twenty minutes later. He read it, closed it, and did nothing.
He was summoned to Uther’s office four and a half hours later. Uther sat behind his desk, frowning, and Catrina hovered behind, draping himself over his shoulders like a particularly disgusting scarf.
“Well?” she asked as he came in. “Where is he?”
Arthur cleared his throat and tried to look embarrassed. “I fear he slipped through my net,” he lied.
“Really?” Uther said, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re very quick to give up the chase,” Catrina added. She unhooked herself from Uther and took the chair next to him.
“Only when I know my target’s long gone.”
“How do you know?” Uther asked.
Because I sent him away. “Because Merlin is not, despite all appearances, a complete idiot. He’ll have left the moment he caught wind of what he’s accused of.” He hesitated, wondering whether logic would have a chance when Uther was so clearly in Catrina’s thrawl. Whether it would have had a chance even if he was himself. “I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that Merlin has been accused of magic several times and acquitted every time. I have every confidence in his innocence.”
“Why would an innocent man run?”
“He knows what happens during interrogation.” He thought of Merlin, alone in his apartment, waiting for him to come and give him an update, desperately trying to think of a plan... “I’d imagine he’s terrified.” He shook himself. Some of his real concern had slipped in there and Uther was looking at him strangely.
Catrina hummed as if she was thinking. “I thought Camelot’s staff were supposed to be brave. Fearless.”
“With all due respect, he’s just a technician.” (Using the word “just” rankled a little.)
“No, she’s right. He’s your handler. He should be able to cope with pressure.”
Arthur glared and fought to keep his temper under control. The situation was under control, he reminded himself. He was in control. “He could be anywhere right now,” he lied. (Again. He was lying a lot, lately, and he didn’t even feel guilty.)
“And that’s enough reason to give up?” Catrina asked incredulously.
He wondered if he’d be fired for shooting her. “No,” he gritted out. “But I do think that resources could be better spent on things that aren’t searching for a man who’s been nothing but loyal-”
“Enough excuses,” Uther snapped. “I have enough - we both have. I want him found.”
Arthur sucked in a breath between his teeth. “Of course, sir.”
Catrina’s nasty smirk stayed in his mind as he left.
(“My plan to undermine Arthur is underway,” she told Jonas later. “Soon, Uther will hate the sight of his own son. We will have taken away everything he loves away from him… He’ll be glad to die.”
“Wonderful,” Jonas said, smirking. “Your cunning knows no bounds, my lady.”)
“Did they find my trail, yet?” Merlin burst out excitedly as he let Gaius in through Arthur’s door.
“Yes,” Gaius slowly. Some agents Arthur had dispatched had found one of Merlin’s scarves on a tube running out of London, towards Manchester. “But it won’t fool them for long.”
Merlin nodded. Honestly, he hadn’t expected it to. It had been a brief flash of inspiration, though Arthur had called it clever when he texted him where to send his men, so it looked like he was doing something. He rubbed his hands together, “We best be getting to work, then.”
“Have you managed to make a plan?”
He pulled a face and scratched at his wrist. “I have. It’s to call Mr Kilgharrah and hope he’s willing.” Gaius grimaced and shook his head. “Can I borrow your phone?” Merlin asked. “They’ll be tracking mine by now, won’t they? There’s no good in sending people to his door.”
Gaius handed it over. “Rest assured,” he told him as he wandered towards the hall to make the phone call, “I told the technicians to make your case a very low priority.”
“Young warlock,” Kilgharrah said in greeting.
“Hi,” Merlin said, kind of in a hurry but still wanting to make nice, just to soften him up. “Nice to speak to you, how are you today?”
“Very well, thank you.” The dry tone said Merlin wasn’t fooling anyone. “What’s the problem, now, Emrys?”
“Uther was enchanted, married a sorceress, and she’s trying to get me arrested.”
Kilgharrah let out a splutter of laughter. “A sorceress?” He lasted a few moments before dissolving completely into laughter.
Merlin counted to ten before telling him, “It’s not funny.”
“Oh, it is, it is, it is. Who knows? Was it a very public affair?”
“Very few people know. But it’s enough to be humiliating if it ever comes out.” Kilgharrah laughed again and showed no sign of stopping. Merlin scowled. “Enough!” he snapped. “Do you think she’s going to stop with Uther? She’s getting rid of me because I’m protecting Arthur because she’s not going to let him live to succeed his father!”
Kilgharrah’s laughter came to an abrupt stop. “I’m sorry,” he said solemnly. “You’re right, of course.”
Merlin nodded at the wall - about time realised that. “How do we break the enchantment? Barring true love’s kiss, for obvious reasons.”
“It will be difficult.”
He resisted the urge to ask, when isn’t it? “There has to be a way.”
“You must make Uther cry tears of true remorse.”
Merlin blinked. Well, shit. “How on earth do we do that?” This man hunted anyone from children to doddering old men without a hint of regret. Merlin had never known him to ever admit a mistake. To ever say he was sorry.
“That,” Kilgharrah admitted, “I don’t know. Uther has a heart of stone. I have never heard of him being sorry for anything.”
“Wonderful,” he sighed. “Thanks anyway.”
“Young warlock,” Kilgharrah said, stopping Merlin from hanging up. “The help I give is not unconditional.” He paused long enough for Merlin to picture the warning look: “It is past time you set me free.”
Merlin hung up without answering. He did know that one day he’d have to fulfil that promise - but the very idea filled his gut with inexplicable dread, so today was not that day. He looked over his shoulder at Gaius, “He says Uther has to cry tears of true remorse to break the spell.”
Gaius looked for a moment like he might curse before recovering himself. “His heart is closed to everyone,” he said with some regret. He was Uther’s closest and oldest friend, but he had a sneaking suspicion that if even he died in the line of duty, Uther would not mourn him excessively. Losing Ygraine… it had killed off something vital within Uther’s soul, and Gaius wasn’t sure it was the sort of thing that would ever come back.
Merlin thought a moment. He remembered the Questing Beast - though the gods knew how he hated to remember it - and how Uther had sat at Arthur’s side, looking broken. “No,” he said quietly. “Arthur. He cares for Arthur. When he thinks Arthur’s dying...”
Gaius nodded. “Then there is only one path we can take. Uther must see his son die.”
Merlin was waiting for Arthur when he walked into his office. “Arthur,” he hissed. “Hey, Arthur!” Arthur jumped a mile and pulled out his gun. “Woah!” He put up his arms, though Arthur’s desk was pretty low, “It’s just me. Just Merlin.”
“Merlin!” Arthur looked at him for a moment. “Merlin under my desk… One might call it a dream come true.” Merlin raised an eyebrow at him before Arthur remembered, “You’re supposed to be hiding!”
“Yeah,” he admitted, crawling out from beneath the desk and rolling the cramp out of his shoulders, “but Gaius and I came up with a plan.” He hesitated, “But… Well…” He shrugged awkwardly, “You’re really not going to like it.”
Arthur stood in the centre of the medical room, staring at the Myrddins for a moment. Then he glared at Merlin, “Your great plan is to kill me?”
“Absolutely not,” Merlin said sternly. “You’re not dying.” Arthur was never dying on his watch. Ever. “You’ll just… Die a little bit.”
“A little bit,” he repeated dubiously. “You were right. I really don’t like it.”
“Gaius has this potion,” he said, jerking a thumb towards his uncle. “It gives the appearance of death without, you know, the dying part. It’s fine. Nothing to worry about.” Was he convincing himself or Arthur, here? “It’ll only take you to the brink of death.”
“Oh, only to the brink of death.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“We have to make your father cry,” Gaius reminded him.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “He doesn’t care about me. I’ve known since Morgause…” He swallowed and carried on, his voice a little thick, “If he cared about me, he would have told me the truth about my mother.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said softly, “you know that’s not true. You know what he’s like when he thinks you’re in danger…”
“I’ve known your father for decades, and he’s never treasured anything more than you, however well he might hide it.” Arthur swallowed, his throat bobbing a little as his teary eyes darted away. Gaius tactfully changed the subject. “The potion is perfectly safe. A single drop of the antidote will reverse the effects.”
He blinked away any tears that definitely weren’t there and rounded on Merlin. “Antidote? You didn’t mention that, Merlin.”
“I, ah… Didn’t think it was important?” Actually, he hadn’t wanted to worry him.
“Didn’t think it was-?” Arthur broke off and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“The potion will lower your heart rate and breathing,” Gaius cut in. “But for all intents and purposes, you will be dead.”
“And the antidote will make me all better again?” he asked sceptically.
“If it’s administered in time.”
“And if not?”
“Ah.” Gaius looked uncomfortable, “You will be dead.”
Arthur pointed at Merlin without breaking eye contact with Gaius, “You just said it wasn’t important.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, shrugging awkwardly. “I suppose it’s a little important.”
He raised his gaze to the ceiling. “I hate you, your plans, and everything you stand for. And you’re fired.”
Merlin pouted, “Bit mean.”
“Merlin will have the antidote. Once I’ve administered the poison - er, potion - he’ll have half an hour to get to you.”
Arthur thought a moment and looked at Merlin. “How about a deal? As long as you’re not late, you can have your job back.”
He raised an eyebrow and grinned, “Am I ever late?”
“You’re sure you want to do this?” Gaius asked.
Arthur hesitated. Merlin walked forward and poked at him until he looked at him. “I won’t let anything happen,” he promised. “Just trust me.”
He nodded, took the bottle, and thirty seconds later he was out like a lamp. Merlin’s magic leapt out instinctively and lowered him gently to the ground.
Gaius looked at Arthur on the floor and then looked away. It was a sight too familiar to go by comfortably, even if they were in control of the situation, and he could see Merlin struggling. “Time to break the news to Uther,” he said, forcing Merlin to tear his gaze away from Arthur. “Keep out of sight, but not too far.”
He nodded, a little distracted by Arthur’s motionless body and the little voice in his head that said this was a terrible idea, Merlin, what the fuck are you doing ? and retreated to the cupboard, leaving the door open a crack so he could see what was happening.
He didn’t watch Uther’s grief. It was so raw and pained, he felt like an intruder just for being in the room. He couldn’t imagine how Gaius felt.
He snapped back to attention when Uther hissed, “You.”
“Me,” Catrina said, walking in with Jonas at her back.
“What trickery is this?” Uther roared, leaping up.
“This was not my doing,” she said, “though I won’t say I’m not glad for it. This is vengeance, Uther Pendragon, for what you have done to me, to my people.” She raised her arms and began to chant.
Uther didn’t wait for her to finish, shooting her in the stomach. She crumpled to the floor and Jonas, only kept alive by her will, dissolved into nothing.
Ha! Take that, you prat!
Merlin took this as his cue. He leapt out of his cupboard and hurried over to Arthur, ignoring Uther as he demanded an explanation, trusting Gaius to fill him in. He tipped the antidote into Arthur’s throat and waited, his nerves on a razor-edge.
Arthur gasped in a breath and jolted upright.
“Woah there, Sleeping Beauty,” Merlin said, grabbing his arm to steady him.
“Did it work?” Arthur asked, blinking away the dizziness.
He nodded towards Catrina, lying bleeding on the ground. Uther, having been given some explanation by Gaius, was instructing guards to have her fixed up and prepared for interrogation. Arthur relaxed a little, leaning into his grip.
Anxiety loosened its grip on Merlin, too, and he smiled. “So, you’re still alive?”
“As far as I can tell,” Arthur conceded. He feigned thinking for a moment. “Yes, alright. You’re unfired.”
Merlin laughed and helped Arthur up, leading him to a bed to rest.