He had all the necessary things—clothes, shoes, books, toiletries—and he had thought that was all he would need for a semester abroad. After all, it wasn’t like he was leaving society completely. If he really needed something else, he could always just go out and buy it.
But, looking around at the rest of the students in his program, he wondered if he had miscalculated. Everyone else had two cases—some people had two that were both just as big as Merlin’s one—and hand luggage that was so stuffed it didn’t look like it would fit in the overhead locker.
Maybe he should have brought more clothes. But it wasn’t like he wouldn’t have access to a washing machine. At least, he was pretty sure he would. He was staying with a host family, and surely they washed their clothes somewhere. If it came down to it, he could always just use a laundromat or, if he got really desperate, wash his clothes in the tub with a bar of soap.
Or maybe he should have brought more books. He had brought a few of his favourites just to keep himself company, plus his father’s journals, and he had a few language dictionaries and travel guides as well.
He had packed enough empty notebooks for all his classes. What else could he have needed?
Maybe he hadn’t brought enough shoes. Maybe there was some category of item he had missed out on completely. He hadn’t brought too many toiletries, thinking that he would just buy them when he arrived or when he needed them. Maybe he should have packed more.
Whatever the verdict was, it was too late to change anything now. He had what he had, and he would just have to manage if he’d made any mistakes.
He was considering digging through his case to find one of his father’s journals to read while he waited at the terminal. Everyone had been instructed to arrive at the airport well before boarding, and now he had time to kill, and stressing about his luggage wasn’t making him feel very good about the trip.
His dad’s journals always calmed him, though. He’d read them so many times they were like friends. He loved the cramped handwriting, the long passages about his father’s favourite buildings and parks, the ponderings over spells and curses and creatures and potions.
The journals were the only connection he had to the history of magic in his family. He’d only been studying magic for a few years, and most of the time he felt like a complete failure at it, but his dad’s journals gave him hope that one day he could be great. One day he could sense magic like his father, could memorise enough spells to use them whenever he wanted, could conjure things from thin air. One day he would write his own journals to pass on.
Until then, though, all he had were the journals and a few magic books he’d inherited. They weren’t enough to sate his curiosity, despite the fact that even after having read them all, Merlin still mostly felt like he had no idea what he was doing when it came to magic.
It wasn’t like he could ask anyone for help, either. His mother was encouraging, but she didn’t have magic. No one he knew did, at least not as far as he could tell. He supposed someone else out there might have it, might be able to help him, but he didn’t know how to find them. All he had were his books, and that was going to have to be enough.
“Nervous?” the girl next to him asked.
Merlin snapped out of his thoughts and realised he’d been bouncing his legs. “A bit,” he said. When she just smiled at him politely, he added, “I’ve never been on an aeroplane before.”
“No? It’s fun. Well, no, it’s cramped, but the idea of it is sort of fun. It won’t be too long, anyway. I’m Gwen, by the way.”
She held out her hand, and Merlin shook it quickly. “Merlin,” he introduced himself. “Have you ever been to Estonia before?”
“No, I’ve never even been outside of the UK before.”
“Me neither,” Merlin said, relieved he wasn’t the only one. “Where’d you fly to?”
“Edinburgh. My brother lives up there. Or, he did at the time. Now he’s in Liverpool. He moves around a lot. I guess I’m nervous, too. Sorry for the rambling.”
“It’s fine,” Merlin said, smiling. Gwen seemed sweet.
“Do you have any siblings?”
Merlin shook his head. “No, it’s just me and my mum. We’ve lived just outside London my whole life.”
“Me, too! I mean, my whole life, not yours. Me and my dad, and my brother until he went to Scotland. I’m starving, do you want some food?”
Merlin nodded and followed Gwen towards the food court, glad for something to do besides waiting for their boarding call.
“How did you decide to study in Estonia?” Gwen asked when they were settled at a table with their salads and pastries.
Merlin took a bite instead of answering. For some reason he hadn’t expected anyone to ask him that.
“I took a WWII history class back in secondary school,” Gwen said when he didn’t immediately respond. “The Baltics were always fascinating to me.”
Merlin nodded. “They are interesting. My dad was from Estonia. I was curious to see what it’s like. Do you speak any of the language?”
Gwen scoffed. “Barely. I’ve been listening to an audio tape to try to get used to the sound of it, but I’m actually abysmal at languages. I’ve been studying French since primary school, and I still barely grasp it. Do you?”
“I downloaded a bunch of apps on my phone,” Merlin said. “I think I can manage to get around and ask, like, where the toilets are.”
“Probably the most important thing. That and ordering alcohol.”
“I think I can manage that, too,” Merlin said before taking a few more bites of his salad.
“Then I’m definitely sticking with you.” Gwen smiled, but then her expression turned into one of panic. “Unless you don’t want me to. I’m not trying to impose.”
Merlin shook his head and hurried to swallow. “No, no. You’re welcome to. I’d definitely rather explore the city with a friend than by myself.”
Gwen looked pleased at being called his friend.
Boarding was set to begin shortly after they finished eating, so they headed back to the gate. Some of the other students on the program were sitting on the floor playing cards, and others were napping in the seats.
Merlin sat down and dug through his hand luggage to get his headphones, planning to listen to an audiobook on the plane. As soon as he had them in his pocket with his mobile, they were called to start boarding.
Merlin stayed close to Gwen, not really sure what to expect. He let her go first through the gate and watched how she presented her ticket at the desk. He did the same and then followed her down a small tunnel to the plane.
Gwen hadn’t been kidding when she had said the plane would be cramped. It wasn’t even half full yet, and it already looked like there were too many people crammed into too small a space.
“This is me,” Gwen said when they were about two thirds of the way down the aisle. She shoved her hand luggage into the overhead locker and then plopped down in her seat to introduce herself to the guy in the window seat.
Merlin double-checked his ticket and was pleased to see he would be sitting across from her. He put his hand luggage away and sat down, but there was no one sitting next to him, yet. He emptied his pocket and put his passport, ticket, mobile, headphones, and gum into the little pocket on the back of the seat in front of him.
“And this is Merlin,” Gwen said, and Merlin looked over. “Merlin, this is Gwaine. He’s in our program, too.”
Merlin waved to the guy sitting next to Gwen. He was a little gorgeous. He had his long hair pulled back into a high bun, and he had a sort of roguish smile.
“Good to meet you,” Gwaine called across the aisle. “Do you want some gum?”
“I have some, thank you.”
Gwaine shrugged and said something to Gwen, pulling her attention away from Merlin. Merlin watched them for a while, amused by the way Gwaine was sort of leaning into Gwen and the way Gwen was blushing, until someone blocked his view.
Merlin looked up to see another student standing in front of him.
“That’s my seat,” he said, pointing to the empty window seat next to Merlin.
“Oh! Sorry.” Merlin stood and took a few steps back to get out of the way.
The guy sat in Merlin’s seat and then scooted over, his hand luggage in his lap. He shoved it under the seat in front of him and then pulled on his lap belt.
Merlin sat back down, very aware of how close they were sitting.
“You’re doing the study abroad program?” Merlin asked.
“Yeah, are you?”
“Yeah, I’m Merlin.”
“Arthur,” he said, turning slightly to shake Merlin’s hand.
“That’s Gwen and Gwaine,” Merlin said, gesturing across the aisle at where they were still flirting.
Arthur seemed uninterested in getting to know them.
Merlin pulled his mobile out and fiddled with it as they waited for the rest of the passengers to board.
“Ever been on a plane before?” Merlin asked.
“‘Course I have,” Arthur said, staring out the window. “Haven’t you?”
“No,” Merlin said quietly. “First time.”
Arthur looked over his shoulder at Merlin. “Really? Why?”
Merlin had no idea how to answer that question, and he didn’t appreciate the notion that everyone should have had previous flying experience.
“Because I’ve never been anywhere before.”
“Oh.” Arthur gave Merlin a once over, and Merlin frowned. He didn’t like the scrutiny or the way it felt like Arthur was judging him for never having travelled.
“Where have you been, then?” Merlin asked.
“Loads of places,” Arthur said before turning back to the window.
Merlin glared at Arthur for a moment before turning his attention back to his mobile, deciding that he wasn’t worth the annoyance. He looked over at Gwen, but she was deep in conversation with Gwaine, so he pulled out his headphones and started up his audiobook.
Before long, it was time for the safety demonstration. Arthur continued staring out the window, but Merlin paused his audiobook and paid close attention, fascinated by the idea of needing to use an oxygen mask. He wondered if maybe Arthur had been on so many planes that he had all the safety measures memorised.
“Do you want some gum?” Merlin asked. He had two packs, having heard that it helped to chew gum during take-off, landing and even during the flight.
Arthur shrugged and held out his hand. Merlin gave him a stick and received no thanks in response. Rolling his eyes, Merlin unwrapped his gum and chewed it anxiously, not sure what to expect next.
Take off did turn out to be kind of fun. Merlin craned his head to look out Arthur’s window, wishing he had the window seat. It was amazing to see the ground getting farther and farther away, the airport getting smaller and smaller, the land looking more and more like a photograph rather than someplace he had been just a moment ago.
Once they were stable in the air, Merlin went back to his audiobook. He couldn’t really hear it—something about the aeroplane made it sound like there was a fan very nearby—but it was a book he’d read before so he supposed it didn’t really matter. It was a nice distraction from the cramped quarters and his rude neighbour.
There were snacks and drinks provided, which was nice, and after barely 90 minutes the pilot announced that they were approaching Tallinn.
The landing was a little less fun than the take off. It felt like the plane was hurtling towards the earth way too fast, way too steep, and Merlin found himself clutching the arm rests until it touched down.
“You can let go now,” Arthur said when the plane had come to a full stop.
Merlin peeled his hands off the arm rests. “Sorry,” he said, sheepish.
Arthur said nothing, just went back to the book he had been reading for most of the flight. Merlin looked over to see Gwen unbuckling her belt.
“How was it?” she asked, grinning.
Merlin managed a smile, his body still tense. “Good. I didn’t like the landing.”
Gwen laughed and started to say something but was interrupted by the announcement that they could disembark. Everyone stood at all once, and it was a bit of chaos for a while with everyone trying to get their bags and push past each other to get off the plane. Merlin tried to hang back, not in any kind of hurry, but Arthur wasn’t having any of that. He got around Merlin—which was a very awkward manoeuvre—and secured his place in line before Merlin had even got his hand luggage.
Eventually, Merlin made it off the plane and found where the rest of the students had gathered. They were being lectured by the director of the program, an elderly man named Kilgharrah, who had been waiting at the airport to greet them. He gave a stern speech about how they were expected to act for the duration of their visit to Estonia, and then he escorted the group out to a bus that took them to a hotel where they would stay for the night before moving in with their host families the next day.
Merlin found that his head felt a little heavy or stuffy or something from the flight, but he was excited to start his study abroad experience.
Once they arrived at the hotel and were assigned rooms, Merlin went to put his case away. His roommate was Gwaine, and he seemed much friendlier than Arthur had been.
“Do you snore?” Gwaine asked, dropping one of his large bags on the floor near one of the beds.
“No.” Merlin propped his lone bag against the wall near the other bed. “Do you?”
“You’ll have to tell me,” Gwaine said, grinning.
Merlin chuckled, thinking that was a bizarre answer. “All right.”
“Let’s go find Gwen,” Gwaine said, leading the way down the hallway. He stuck his head in a few rooms until he found her and her roommate. “Hey there,” he said, striding right in without waiting for an invitation. “I’m Gwaine.”
Gwen’s roommate shook his hand. “Elena, hi.”
“This is Merlin,” Gwaine said. “He’s shy.”
“I’m not shy,” Merlin protested.
Gwaine sat down on the edge of one of the girls’s beds. “How was your flight?” he asked Elena.
“I hate flying,” she said cheerfully, “but the guy I sat next to was really nice about it.”
“That’s lucky. What are we doing next?”
“Didn’t you listen to what Kilgharrah said in the lobby?” Gwen asked.
“No.” Gwaine grinned.
Gwen rolled her eyes, but she was smiling. “We’re doing dinner down the street in an hour. Then we’re free for the night. In the morning we’re going to our host families.”
“Should we try to find a pub after dinner, then?” Gwaine asked.
Gwen shrugged. “I imagine that’s what everyone will want to do, yeah.”
“I’m in,” Elena said.
Everyone turned to look at Merlin.
“Oh,” he said, his brain still a little foggy from the flight. “Yeah, that sounds good.”
“That’s that, then. Hey Merls, I’m going to grab a nap before dinner. Come get me before you leave.” Gwaine pushed himself off the bed and headed for the door.
“It’s Merlin,” Merlin said.
Gwaine blinked at him. “What’s Merlin?”
“My name,” Merlin said. “Not ‘Merls’.”
Gwaine looked amused. “Merlin it is, then,” he said before going back to their room.
“Not into nicknames?” Gwen asked.
“My mum calls me Merls,” Merlin explained. “It sounds weird coming from him.”
Gwen smiled and went over to the window and took a look out over the city. “This place is beautiful. I can’t wait until we start going on sightseeing tours.”
“Hey,” a guy said, appearing in the doorway. “We’re thinking of getting a group together after dinner to go exploring. You in?”
“We’re trying to find a pub,” Elena answered. “Do you want to come in?”
He stepped inside, and Arthur followed him.
“This is Lance,” Elena said to Gwen and Merlin. “He sat next to me on the plane.”
Lance waved as Gwen and Merlin introduced themselves.
“And I’m Arthur,” Arthur said, looking between Gwen and Elena. “Lance and I are bunked together.”
“What pub are you going to?” Lance asked.
Gwen shrugged. “Don’t know yet. I guess we were just planning to walk until we found something. Gwaine was sort of our ringleader, but he went to nap.”
“Gwaine?” Arthur asked.
“He was the guy sitting next to Gwen on the plane,” Merlin reminded him. Arthur didn’t look like he had any recollection of that part of their brief conversation.
Lance came farther into the room to sit on the edge of a low dresser. “Where’s everyone from?” he asked.
By the time they had to go collect Gwaine for dinner, the group had shared their hometowns, where else they had travelled, their top touristy priority for the semester, and—for whatever reason—their favourite animal.
Gwaine was extremely groggy when Merlin woke him up, but he followed everyone down to the hotel lobby anyway. Kilgharrah led their group a few doors down to the restaurant. Tallinn felt entirely new to Merlin. It wasn’t like London, where he went to uni, and it wasn’t like Ealdor, where he’d grown up. It was something in between. A city, but small. A town, but large. The sky was a pleasant shade of blue, the buildings were low and charming, and Merlin buzzed with the knowledge that he was elsewhere, abroad, experiencing a different culture.
Kilgharrah had chosen all of their dinners beforehand, so all they had to do was wait for the food to be brought out. They were served smoked fish and a drink called kvass which was apparently fermented from rye bread. It tasted like something close to beer, but not quite. Merlin almost liked it, but he ended up giving most of his glass to Gwaine, who seemed to love it.
After they were all done dinner, some of the students went back to the hotel, but Gwaine corralled a decent sized group and led them down the street as he searched for a pub. As they walked, Merlin tried to take in more of the city, but he felt full and a little hazy, almost like he was already a little drunk even though the little kvass shouldn’t have had any effect.
It didn’t take long to find a pub, and after everyone ordered their drinks, Merlin found himself squished between Arthur and Gwaine in a booth with Gwen, Elena, and Lance across from them.
“To Tallinn,” Gwaine shouted, raising his beer.
“To Tallinn!” everyone chorused.
Merlin knocked his glass against Gwen’s before taking a sip. Based on what the bartender had said, it was a local beer, and it was good. The drinking company was good, too. Gwen was sweet, Elena was funny, Lance was nice—and very pretty to look at—and Gwaine seemed to really enjoy his role as rambunctious leader of the group. It was really only Arthur who was a little hard to handle. He didn’t say much, but when he did speak it seemed like he thought he was better than everyone there. No one else seemed bothered by it, though—least of all Gwaine, who laughed uproariously every time Arthur said something a bit haughty—so Merlin did his best not to dwell.
“You’re awfully quiet,” Gwaine said to Merlin when they were on their second round of drinks.
“Yeah,” Merlin agreed. “I’m think I’m tired from the flight.”
‘Tired’ wasn’t exactly what it was, but there was definitely something that was off, and the flight seemed the likeliest explanation.
“It wasn’t that long,” Arthur pointed out.
“No,” Merlin agreed. “I don’t know, maybe I didn’t sleep well last night. I was too excited about today.”
“That’s adorable,” Gwaine said, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and giving him a shake. “Well, sõber, you made it here in one piece.”
Gwaine left his arm around Merlin’s shoulders for a while, and Merlin did his best not to read into it. Gwaine had definitely been flirting with Gwen earlier in the day, and it seemed unlikely he would choose this indirect way to make a move on Merlin. It still felt a little more intimate than he probably meant it to, though. Or maybe that was just Merlin’s head. He really did feel weird.
“I think I’m going to head to bed,” Merlin said when Gwaine suggested another round.
“Aw, come on,” Gwaine said, giving Merlin another shake. “Aren’t you having fun?”
“I am,” Merlin said. “I’m just tired. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
“All right.” Gwaine scooted out of the booth to let Merlin out. “I’ll try not to be too loud when I come back to the room.”
Merlin didn’t really believe it was possible for Gwaine to be quiet, but he appreciated the thought. He waved to everyone and headed back to the hotel, rubbing his temples.
The flight had really done a number on him, apparently.
He hurried back to his room as quickly as possible. Then he changed into his pyjamas, cleaned his teeth, and crawled into his bed, pulling one of the pillows over his face to block out the glow of street lights coming through the window.
Gwaine was thoroughly passed out—and snoring—as Merlin moved around the room to get ready for the day. He showered, got dressed, and repacked his bags all before Gwaine even opened an eye.
“Fuck,” Gwaine mumbled when he was finally up. “What time is it?”
“8:45. We’re meant to meet downstairs for breakfast at 9, I think.”
Gwaine gave an exaggerated groan.
“How was the rest of your night?” Merlin asked, amused and glad he’d left when he had.
“Fun,” Gwaine said before rolling over and planting his face in a pillow.
“Do you want to skip breakfast?”
“No,” Gwaine said, his voice muffled. “I just don’t want to move.”
“You can do it.”
“Help me up?” Gwaine asked, rolling onto his back again.
Laughing, Merlin walked over and grabbed Gwaine’s hands to pull him up. Gwaine resisted, but after a brief struggle Merlin managed to get Gwaine on his feet.
Gwaine smirked at how close they were standing. “Good morning.”
Merlin took a step back. “Morning. Breakfast in 10 minutes.” With that, he grabbed his case and hand luggage and headed down to the lobby.
Gwen and Elena were already there, also with their bags and also looking like they’d had a ‘fun’ night.
“Hi Merlin,” Gwen said around a yawn. “How’d you sleep?”
“What is sleep?” Elena asked in a monotone voice.
“Didn’t get much,” Gwen said with a sigh. “We should have left when you did.”
“Sounds like you had a good time, though.”
“Gwen’s got all the hot boys pining after her already,” Elena said.
Gwen flushed. “I do not!”
“You do,” Elena said firmly, and Gwen pouted.
Arthur and Lance appeared next, both of them looking a little worse for the wear, and Gwaine only barely made it in time before they were all lugging their bags out of the hotel and into a bus.
“Where’s breakfast?” Gwaine grunted as he shoved his bag into the back of the bus.
“Same place as dinner, I think,” Arthur said, lifting one of his bags with ease and chucking it over Gwaine’s head.
“Mr Muscles,” Gwaine muttered, and Arthur chuckled.
After all their bags were safely locked in the bus, Kilgharrah led the group back to the same restaurant as the night before, and they were all served eggs and some sort of porridge for breakfast. Merlin felt sicker the more the ate, and he wondered if he was coming down with something.
Once the last person had finished their breakfast, everyone loaded themselves into the bus so Kilgharrah could start dropping people off at their new temporary homes. Luckily, Merlin was in the first group to be dropped off. Arthur and a girl named Mithian also had host families living in the same block of flats.
“Here you are,” Kilgharrah said, handing out folders full of papers to each of them. “Here’s directions to the school and some maps of your neighbourhood. You’ll have the rest of the weekend to yourselves, and on Monday the group will be meeting at the university so you can sign up for your classes. Any questions?”
No one said anything for a moment, and then an old man came out of the building.
“Ah, Gaius, tere,” Kilgharrah said. “Merlin, this is Gaius. You’ll be staying with him.”
“Hello,” Gaius said, holding out his hand.
“Tere,” Merlin said.
“Do you want come in?” Gaius had a soft, barely-there accent, and it was clear he spoke English very well. “Your room is all ready for you.”
“Yes, thank you.” Merlin grabbed his bags off the van and followed Gaius inside, waving back at where Arthur and Mithian were still waiting for their hosts.
Gaius led him to the lifts and pressed the button for the 15th floor. The lift was small, barely big enough for the both of them with Merlin’s bags, and rickety. It did nothing to ease the pain in Merlin’s stomach.
“How was your trip?” Gaius asked when they reached his floor.
“I think I’m still feeling it.”
Gaius hummed and let Merlin into his flat. It was small—just the hallway, one bedroom, the living room, and the kitchen.
“You can put your things in here,” Gaius said, indicating the bedroom.
“Where are you sleeping?” Merlin asked, alarmed.
“The sofa pulls out,” Gaius said.
“I can stay there,” Merlin said quickly. “Really. You can keep your room.”
“Nonsense,” Gaius said, smiling generously. “You’re a guest. I have students here every semester, I promise the sofa treats me just fine.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin asked, feeling guilty.
“I’m sure, and I won’t have you making a fuss. Put your things down and come join me for tea.”
Feeling that he couldn’t argue with that, Merlin dragged his bag into the bedroom. There was a desk and a dresser as well as the bed, and a large window with nice curtains. The wallpaper was hideous.
Merlin dropped his hand luggage on the bed and sat next to it, rubbing his temples. The pain killers he’d taken earlier were already rubbing off. He was glad he had the weekend to rest, but he really wished he had his herbs. He was sure he would be able to concoct something to take care of whatever it was that was ailing him.
When he went into the kitchen, Gaius was already sitting down with two steaming mugs.
“So, Merlin,” Gaius said, sliding one of the mugs over as Merlin sat down. “Tell me about yourself.”
Merlin blew into his tea. “I’m studying history,” he said.
“How old are you?”
Gaius nodded, and Merlin took a sip of his tea to test the temperature. It was too hot, but his head immediately felt a little better, so he took another sip.
“What’s in this?” he asked, sniffing at it.
“Tea,” Gaius said dismissively.
Merlin took another sip, and the ache in his stomach lessened.
“How did you get into hosting students?” he asked to be polite.
“I studied in England,” Gaius said, which explained his accent and fluency. “When I moved back, I used to host my English friends when they came to visit. Most of them are dead now, so I thought I’d open my home up to the younger generations.”
“That’s very nice of you.”
“I like doing it,” Gaius said.
Merlin’s mobile buzzed in his pocket and he hurried to check it.
“It’s my mum,” he said to Gaius. “Do you mind if I—”
“Not at all, please.”
“Thanks.” Merlin grabbed his tea and went back to his room. “Hi Mum.”
“Hi Merlin,” Hunith said, excited. “How are you? How was your trip?”
“It was all right,” Merlin said, gently closing the door. “I felt fine on the plane, but I’ve been feeling kind of off ever since we landed.”
“Well, that was your first flight. Maybe your body is still adjusting.”
“Is it normal to take this long?”
Hunith paused. “Well, no, but when have you ever been normal?”
“Where are you now?”
“With my host family.”
“Oh? Who are you staying with?”
“This man named Gaius. He’s nice. His tea is doing wonders,” Merlin said before taking another sip. The tension in his head eased a little bit more.
“That’s good. Well, I won’t keep you. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“It’s good to hear yours. I’ll try to Skype you next weekend if I can figure out the internet.”
“All right. Have a good day, Merls. I love you.”
“Love you, too, Mum,” Merlin said before ending the call.
He saw that he had two text messages, both from an unknown number.
HEY. It’s Gwaine. We’re meeting up tonight for dinner if you want to come
Merlin had completely forgotten he’d given Gwaine his number at the pub the night before. The second message was also from Gwaine.
Merlin chuckled and added Gwaine as a contact before responding.
Guess that means I’m coming. Just let me know where/when
He went back to the kitchen where Gaius was still sitting and drinking his tea.
“How is your mother?” he asked kindly as Merlin sat back down.
“Good. Um, I got an invitation to go out to dinner with some of the other students tonight,” Merlin said, feeling a little guilty at abandoning his host family so soon. “If that’s all right.”
Gaius smiled like he had been expecting it. “Of course. I’ll serve lunch in a bit and we can get to know each other a little better then, yes? Why don’t you go get properly settled? And finish your tea.”
Merlin hurried to gulp down the rest of his tea, feeling exceptionally normal by the last dregs. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “I feel much better.”
“Good.” Gaius stood and took their cups to the sink, and Merlin went to go start unpacking.
“Where’s Arthur?” Gwaine asked as soon as Merlin found them.
“Why should I know?”
Gwaine frowned. “I gave him your number, told him to coordinate with you to come together.”
Merlin shrugged. “Well, I didn’t hear anything from him.”
“That’s—oh, there he is,” Gwaine said, pointing in the opposite direction from where Merlin had come. Sure enough, Arthur was approaching them. Gwaine waved him over. “Why didn’t you come with Merlin?” he asked.
“I was already out,” Arthur said, shrugging.
“See anything interesting?” Gwaine asked. Then, before Arthur could respond, he said, “I found a place a few streets over that looks good. Shall we?”
Everyone followed Gwaine to the restaurant, and they ended up mostly ordering more smoked fish.
“What are you studying?” Lance asked after they had ordered. His question seemed to be directed to the group even though his eyes were trained on Gwen.
“Literature,” she said. “You, too, right?”
Lance nodded, and Gwen started quizzing him on his favourite books and genres.
“What about you?” Gwaine asked Elena.
“History,” she said. “I like WWII and the Soviet Union. I’m not really fond of the Russian government, so I decided to come study here instead.”
“Makes sense. Although, for all I know, the Estonian government could be just as bad,” Gwaine said. “I didn’t really read up on it before I came here.”
“What are you studying, then?”
“Art history. Architecture, mostly. I’m excited to see Old Town.”
Elena launched into the history of Old Town, and Gwaine seemed to be hanging onto her every word.
“What are you studying?” Merlin asked, attempting to make conversation with Arthur.
“Computer science,” Arthur said shortly. “And philosophy.”
“That’s an interesting combination.” Arthur shrugged, and Merlin took a sip of his water, trying not to feel awkward. “So… how’d you end up coming to Estonia?”
“To piss off my dad.”
“Oh,” Merlin said, slightly taken aback. “That’s…”
“What about you?” Arthur asked.
“I guess I’m also here because of my dad,” Merlin admitted. “Not to piss him off, though. He’s dead. He was from here.”
Arthur nodded and interrupted Gwen and Lance’s conversation to talk about how he also liked a book Lance had just mentioned. Merlin sighed and took another sip of his water, wondering what had crawled up Arthur’s arse.
Once the food came, the conversations opened up a bit more, and Merlin ended up talking to Gwaine and Elena about what Estonian sights he was excited to see. He had a whole itinerary of places he wanted to go, comprised of anything and everything mentioned in his father’s journals.
“Once I’m a little more familiar with the city, I’m going to go exploring on the weekends,” Merlin said.
“Aren’t we going to all those places on program excursions?” Gwaine asked. “Kilgharrah gave me a whole cultural schedule.”
“Yeah, some of them. There’s more I want to see that aren’t on there.”
“I’m looking forward to the day trips,” Elena said. “Like, it’s cool we don’t just have to stay in Tallinn the whole time.”
“Bored already?” Gwaine teased.
They went back to chatting, and just as Merlin was thinking of excusing himself and going home for more of Gaius’s tea, Arthur announced that he was leaving. Not particularly wanting to travel home with Arthur, Merlin waited another 15 minutes before heading out.
He took a bus to a few blocks away from Gaius’s flat and then walked the rest of the way, going slowly and enjoying the night despite the cold January air. He was starting to like Tallinn. It didn’t really feel like a home, but it felt something close to it. He imagined after a few months it would grown on him even more.
As he approached the block of flats, he heard raised voices. He could see two figures up ahead, and as he got closer he realised one of them was Arthur.
“I told you,” Arthur was saying, “I’m not getting a drink with you.”
“Come on,” the other man said, his voice accented and his speech slurred. “Come on.”
“Hey,” Merlin said as he reached them. “What’s going on?”
“He won’t get a drink with me,” the Estonian man whined. “I want to hang out with the American.”
“I keep telling him I’m not American,” Arthur said, exasperated.
“Why don’t you just go inside?” Merlin asked.
“He followed me all the way from the bus stop.”
Merlin frowned and turned to the drunk man. “We’re not American, and we’re not interested. Come on, Arthur. You stay where you are,” he added to the stranger.
The man made some pathetic whinging noises but stayed put as Merlin and Arthur walked the last block to their building.
“Thanks,” Arthur said when they reached the front door. “I couldn’t shake him.”
“You just have to be firm.”
“I was firm! He wouldn’t leave me alone. Kept saying he wanted to get a lemonade.”
Merlin chuckled and unlocked the door, letting Arthur inside first. He double checked that the man hadn’t followed them, but he couldn’t see anyone around.
“A lemonade sounds good,” Merlin said, following Arthur to the lifts.
“Too much sugar before bed,” Arthur replied.
Merlin didn’t really have anything to say in response to that, so they waited for the lift in silence. After what felt like an age, there was a ding and the lift doors finally opened.
“What floor are you?” Arthur asked, pressing the button for the 11th floor.
Arthur pressed that button, too, and the doors closed.
“Thanks again,” Arthur said quietly. “I’m glad you were there.”
“It’s no problem.”
The lift dinged again, and Arthur stepped off on his floor. “Have a good night,” he said as the door closed.
“See you,” Merlin called out.
He rode up to 15th floor and found Gaius already shut up in the living room for the night. Merlin went to his room and turned on the small telly that sat on one corner of the desk. He flipped through the channels, mostly just listening to the sounds of the Estonian language until he could barely hold up the remote, and then he went to bed.
He didn’t understand what was going on with his body, and he definitely didn’t understand why Gaius’s tea seemed to be the only thing that helped. It looked like Gaius made his own brew. The tea bags had no tags and were tied up as if by hand. Merlin had stolen one and opened it in his room, trying to decipher the ingredients. There were definitely herbs, but everything was dried and mashed up and mixed in with the tea leaves, and Merlin hadn’t studied plants enough to figure it out. He could pick out hints of ginger and cinnamon, but that was it.
On Thursday, Merlin came home from uni with the worst headache yet. He felt like he was going to be sick if he didn’t lie down as soon as he walked in the door.
“Sit, sit,” Gaius said when he saw how pale Merlin was. “Tea. I’ll put on the kettle.”
Merlin sat gingerly at the kitchen table and rested his head in his hands. He tried to focus on his breathing rather than the pounding in his temples.
“Gaius,” he croaked. “What’s in your tea?”
“It’s just tea,” Gaius said. “Don’t you like it?”
Merlin shook his head, considering for the first time that Gaius might be poisoning him.
Not that that made any sense at all. What motive would Gaius possibly have?
“Drink up,” Gaius said as soon as he had poured a cup. He pushed it across the table and Merlin sniffed at it, hoping the aroma would help while he waited for it too cool down. “Can I get you anything else?” Gaius asked as he sat down.
“No, thank you.” Merlin blew into his tea and took a too-hot sip. He could feel the muscles in his forehead relaxing. “Gaius,” he said, his voice low. “What’s in the tea?”
“Herbs,” Gaius said after a moment. “I like to make my own tea.”
“Why is it the only thing that makes me feel normal? What’s going on?”
Gaius said nothing, and Merlin continued blowing into his tea.
“Tell me about your childhood,” Gaius said out of nowhere. “What were you like?”
“Poor,” Merlin said shortly.
“Yes, and… anything else? No funny stories, no shenanigans?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Just trying to help keep your mind off the pain,” Gaius said innocently.
Merlin took a deep breath and looked around the kitchen, studying every inch until he found what he was looking for—a sign of magic. Gaius had left one of his cupboard doors slightly ajar, and Merlin could see a few unmarked vials sitting on the shelves inside. One of them looked like it was glowing.
“My mother told me when I was 16,” he said, staring down at his tea. “How did you know?”
Merlin glared at him. “The magic.”
Gaius looked surprised for a moment, and then he sighed in relief. “I wasn’t sure if you knew about yourself.”
“How did you know?” Merlin pressed.
“I’ve seen the symptoms before,” Gaius explained. “When you come to a new place, it can take a while to acclimate to the different magic in the air. It’s a different kind of environment. Drink up.”
Merlin took a long gulp and closed his eyes as the warmth spread through him and eased more of the tension in his head.
“Should only take a week or two before you won’t need it,” Gaius said. “That’s how it was for the last boy, at least.”
“You’ve had other students with magic?” Merlin asked.
Gaius nodded. “The last one didn’t know. I thought you might be the same. What do you know about yourself?”
“My father had magic,” Merlin said, his head still throbbing a little. “He was from here. I have his journals, his spell books. I’m trying to… connect, I guess.”
“Connect with what?”
“With him. With my magic. I don’t really understand it. I’m not very good at it. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with it.”
“You don’t have to do anything with it,” Gaius said. “It can just be a fact. It doesn’t have to become your whole life.”
Merlin shook his head, thinking Gaius wouldn’t understand. His magic hummed beneath his skin all the time. He couldn’t just live with that like it was nothing. It was something, and he was meant to do something with it. He just didn’t know what.
He didn’t know how, either. He’d gotten the hang of a few spells, but generally he didn’t know what he was doing. The thing he was best at was mixing herbs into potions, and that never really felt like magic. It didn’t do anything to quell the constant rumbling under his skin. It was just something interesting he could do.
“Thank you for the tea,” he said. “It helps.”
“Good. Hopefully this passes for you soon. I’ll give you some before you leave, to help the transition back to your home. The sudden change can be hard, even when you’re going back to an area you’re familiar with.”
Merlin nodded his thanks and finished off his tea. He felt significantly better. It was almost like he’d never had a headache in the first place.
“Can I tempt you with some dinner?” Gaius asked. “I’d like to hear more about you.”
Merlin agreed and let Gaius serve him some fish and potatoes.
“Did you know your father?” Gaius asked. “You speak of him in the past tense.”
“I didn’t know him. But when he died when I was 16, he left me his books. That’s when my mum told me.”
“Had you suspected about yourself?”
Merlin shrugged and took a bite of fish. “I always felt… a little different. But I figured everyone thinks of themselves as special, that’s part of being human. I thought maybe everyone felt the way I felt. Turns out they don’t.”
“How do you feel?” Gaius asked, an eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“Don’t you know?” Merlin asked. “You have it, too, don’t you?”
Gaius shook his head. “Oh, no. I’m an amateur. I don’t have a spark of magic in me. I’ve studied it, I understand the principles, I can manipulate potions and remedies, but I don’t have real magic. Nothing like what you have.”
Merlin didn’t know how Gaius could possibly know what he had. “It feels… big,” he said. “Like there’s something bigger than me that lives inside of me. And when I use it, it feels like it fills up all this space around me, like it grows to its full size.”
Gaius’s eyebrow stayed arched. “That sounds…”
“Ridiculous, I know. But that’s how it feels. When I can manage it.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Gaius decided. “I’m glad your mother told you the truth.”
“Me, too. I only wish I’d known sooner. I’ve been reading everything I can of my dad’s, but I feel like I’ll never master it..” Merlin looked over at the bowl of tea bags and the up at the cupboard of vials. “Do you have magic books?”
“Oh, I have a few,” Gaius said casually. “They’re nothing special.”
“I’m sure they are,” Merlin said excitedly. “Could I see them?”
Gaius smiled and nodded. “After you eat your dinner.”
Merlin scarfed down his food, and then he followed Gaius into the living room. There was a bookcase filled up with what looked like standard novels in English and Estonian. Gaius pressed his hand to the side of it, pushing it against the wall, and it spun around to reveal the backside, another bookcase. Each shelf was piled high with what looked like ancient texts. Gaius’s books looked older and more comprehensive than anything Merlin had inherited from his father.
“Holy shit,” Merlin breathed. “I mean, sorry. Wow. This is…”
“Just some things I’ve picked up over the years,” Gaius said. Despite his dismissive tone, Merlin could tell he was proud of his collection. “You’re welcome to read anything you like.”
Merlin brushed his fingers over a few cracked and broken book spines. “Where should I start?”
Gaius chose an enormous tome from a middle shelf. “This is a good one if you’re interested in some of the local lore and spells.”
Merlin lifted it carefully into his arms. “Thank you, Gaius,” he said. “This is what I came to Tallinn for.”
“For my books?” Gaius teased.
“For the magic,” Merlin said. “For my father. I know he studied magic here, too.”
“Your real studies are at the university,” Gaius said, adopting a fatherly tone. “But you’re welcome in here during your free time. Just be careful. These are very old.”
“I promise,” Merlin said. He took the book into his room and poured over it late into the night.
It was all he could do to not skip his classes the next week in favour of reading Gaius's books. He managed to get through everything, though, and the next weekend, Kilgharrah took the program students on a tour of a mediaeval church that boasted the oldest clock in the city. It looked small from the outside, but once they were inside the soaring ceilings made for quite a large impression.
Merlin loved it. It felt old and special in a way that was similar to magic. It wasn’t magic—at least not that he could feel—but it had a certain something that made him feel calm and sort of wondrous. The altar was exquisitely carved, the stained glass windows were beautiful and moody, and the balcony panels were finely painted. Merlin took as many photos as he could, loving the colours and the sense of history in the place.
On the outside of the building was the old clock, and even that was beautiful. Its background was blue and there was a sun in the middle, its rays stretching out to each number. Merlin took photos of that, too, charmed by the idea of it being notable in any way.
After everyone else had finished taking their photos, Kilgharrah led the group across the street to the city’s oldest café.
“Have you started exploring yet?” Gwaine asked as he settled down at Merlin’s table with his tea and pastries.
“Not yet,” Merlin said. He’d been too distracted by Gaius’s books.
“Let’s find somewhere to go tomorrow,” Gwaine suggested. “Somewhere more interesting than a church.”
“What’s more interesting that a church?” Gwen asked, joining them.
“Literally anything. What’s on your list?” Gwaine asked Merlin.
Merlin pulled out his mobile and opened up his notes app to see what might be a reasonable first stop.
“We could go to the botanic garden,” he suggested.
“Yes,” Gwen said excitedly. “I wanted to go there, too.”
“Sounds good to me,” Gwaine said. He leaned back in his chair and called over to another table where Arthur and Lance were sitting with Elena. “Oy! Botanic garden tomorrow?” The group nodded and Gwaine turned back to Gwen and Merlin. “Let’s do it.”
Merlin was surprised to see Arthur waiting for him with Mithian. He hadn't realised she and Arthur were friendly.
"Come on," Arthur said as soon as Merlin reached them.
"Hi," Merlin said to Mithian as they took off, not sure why Arthur had decided there wasn't any time for pleasantries. "How are you?"
"Cold," she said, adjusting her scarf. "But I suppose I'll live. Do you think any of the plants at this garden will actually be alive?"
"I think they have some indoor exhibits," Merlin said. "Hopefully there's at least something."
"Why are we going if you're not sure?" Arthur asked.
"People wanted to go. If it’s rubbish, we can just find something else to do."
Arthur didn't look impressed by Merlin's answer.
"I'm looking forward to it," Mithian said, and Merlin appreciated her attempting to keep the peace.
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Merlin agreed.
The three of them got on a bus, and Gwaine, Lance, Gwen, and Elena joined them a few stops later.
"This is cosy," Gwaine said as he sat down in front of Merlin and Mithian and pulled Gwen into the seat next to him. Lance and Elena joined Arthur on the other side of the aisle. "Hey, Mithian."
"Didn't realise you'd be joining us." Gwaine grinned at her. "The more the merrier."
Merlin watched, feeling like a third wheel, as Gwaine started up a long flirtation with Mithian. It was ridiculous, he thought, that Gwaine was so comfortable putting on such a show right in front of Gwen, who he was definitely also still flirting with, not to mention Elena.
When he got too uncomfortable, Merlin climbed over Mithian to sit next to Arthur instead. He and Lance were talking about some computer game Merlin had never heard of, so he tapped Elena on the shoulder, and she turned around to chat with him.
"How're your classes going?" he asked.
"Oh, they're perfect," Elena said excitedly. "I'm taking a WWII history course, and we're going to be going on walking tours of the city in the spring. I love getting to see exactly where history happened."
"History's happening right now," Merlin said. "What if one of us becomes famous and writes an autobiography about this very day?"
"There'd better not be any war involved."
Merlin laughed and plied her with more questions about her classes, enjoying how passionate she was.
The bus ride was long, nearly an hour, but eventually they reached the gardens. They each paid an entrance fee, and Gwen led everyone straight to the palm house.
"This is much better," Mithian said, unwrapping her scarf once they were inside.
Merlin hung back from the rest of the group and pulled up a photo of his dad's journal that he'd taken the night before. He had written that the air vibrated around certain plants. The air felt normal to Merlin so far, so he stepped farther into the room.
He walked around for a while, but nothing stood out to him. He wondered if maybe he didn't have the ability to sense differences in the air. He hadn't noticed anything when he'd first come to Tallinn, after all, he'd just gotten sick from it without having any idea as to why.
They visited the succulents next, and, again, Merlin didn't find anything different about the air. He was disappointed, but he tried not to let it get to him.
"These are pretty," he said, stepping up next to where Gwen was admiring some yellow blossoms on a fat spiky leaf.
"I want one for my hair," she said, and Merlin laughed.
"Pretty sure you aren't supposed to touch anything," he reminded her.
Gwen shrugged and moved onto the next plant. Merlin followed her for a while, talking over all the different colours of flowers she would like to wear in her hair. Once they'd made the rounds, they bundled back up and headed out to the rock garden.
Merlin went over to some tall purple flowers and immediately felt a shiver run through him. He paused, trying to tell if it was just the cold or if he was actually feeling something magical. He bent down to smell the flower, and it did feel like the air was vibrating. The air felt tight, close, and he could almost see it shimmering.
The plant held some sort of magical property, and he could feel it. He could feel it in his bones, and his own magic was responding in kind. It felt like his magic was reaching out, embracing the shimmering, shivering air, drawing energy from it.
He wondered if his dad had felt this exact same way.
"Hey," Lance said, coming up next to him. "We're thinking of figuring out lunch."
Merlin wiped his eyes, pretending to rub his nose to keep it warm.
"Yeah," he said. "I'll do whatever. We can leave if people are cold."
He didn't want to leave, but he didn't know how much more he could take. It was overwhelming.
"I think that might be what we do," Lance said apologetically. "I know you wanted to look at everything, but—"
"No, it's fine," Merlin said quickly. "We can go. I've seen enough."
When Lance turned to call over the rest of the group, Merlin plucked one the purple flowers and shoved it in his pocket before anyone could see.
"Merlin's done as well," Lance said when everyone was gathered around them. "What do you guys want to do for lunch?"
"We can go to the TV Tower," Elena said, looking at a map she'd unfolded. "There's a restaurant and an observation deck."
Everyone quickly agreed and they left quickly. Merlin followed, but not before taking one last breath of the strange air in the rock garden.
Merlin enjoyed his lunch and the views from the observatory deck, but all he could think about at the TV Tower was getting back and talking to Gaius about the air around the flowers. He wanted to see if any of Gaius's books mentioned the phenomenon. He wanted to reread his father's journal entry about the botanical garden.
The group got back on the bus after lunch, and Merlin sat quietly by himself, watching out the window and still thinking about the purple flowers.
"Merlin," Arthur snapped when the bus home reached their stop.
"Sorry," Merlin said, scrambling out of his seat. He exited the bus with Arthur and Mithian and followed them back to their block of flats.
"HEY!" someone shouted.
Merlin glanced around and saw an old woman sitting on a bench nearby. He was sure she wasn't shouting at them—except, she had shouted in English.
"HEY!" she shouted again.
Arthur and Mithian stopped walking and looked over at the woman.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Walking," Merlin answered.
"Not you," she said, shaking her head. She pointed at Arthur. "You."
Arthur looked completely unfazed. "Walking," he said.
"You don't belong here," she said. "You know why."
Arthur looked worried for a moment, then he scoffed and turned away, heading towards their block of flats. Mithian followed.
Merlin stayed put, trying to make sense of the interaction. Then the woman stood up and started following Arthur and Mithian. She was moving much faster than an old woman should have.
Coughing to cover up the sound of his spell, Merlin knocked over a bin with his magic. The magic fell clumsily out of him, eager for a chance to do something, and the bin crashed down at just the right moment. The woman toppled over it in an almost comical manner.
Merlin hurried to catch up with Arthur and Mithian.
"What happened?" Mithian asked, looking at the woman with concern.
"Dunno," Merlin lied. "Let's get inside." He hurried them down the rest of the street and ushered them into the building. "What was that about?" he asked Arthur.
"How should I know?"
"She acted like she knew you."
"She was crazy," Arthur said sensibly. "I don't know anyone in this city."
"It was just a weird old woman," Mithian said.
Merlin didn't want to drop it, but he didn't want to have an argument either, so he followed Arthur and Mithian into the lifts.
When Mithian got off on the 7th floor, Merlin tried again.
"Are you sure you didn't know her? You looked scared."
"Of course I was scared," Arthur said angrily. "There was a strange woman screaming at me. Jesus, Merlin, just drop it."
He looked annoyed, but under that he looked worried, and Merlin decided not to push. For now.
When he reached Gaius's flat, he found it empty. He went into his room and lay down on his bed, replaying the last few minutes. He had never used magic so easily before. Usually he had to be concentrating, reciting the spell in his head a few times before saying it out loud, focused completely on the anticipated outcome. The magic he’d just used outside had been nothing like that. It had been like nothing to use. It had been right there, ready for him to use, ready to do whatever he asked of it. It had been so strange, so freeing, so new.
He didn’t know what to make of it.
Sitting up, he pulled the purple flower out of his pocket. It didn't feel like anything other than a flower. He guessed it needed to be alive and planted or maybe surrounded by others like it to create that strange feeling in the air.
When he got home from classes on Friday afternoon, he decided to give himself a break and take it easy for the rest of the day. He flipped through channels on the telly, wrote some in his journal about the rock garden from the previous weekend, and took a long bath since Gaius wasn’t home.
He relaxed in the tub, closing his eyes and reflecting on his semester so far. It was only a few weeks into it, but he was starting to enjoy his classes and the readings—it was fascinating to get a non-British view on European history. Even events he’d already studied seemed new due to the different books he was reading, the obscure facts he was learning, and the lectures he was being treated to.
The semester was everything he could have asked for. And Gaius’s books were even more. He never could have dreamt of having access to so much magical knowledge on his trip abroad. He’d thought he’d be stuck with only his father’s books forever, but Gaius had opened a whole new world for him. It was like a separate semester, studying magic on his own time. There were so many books to read, and so little time. Besides the botanical garden, he hadn’t even been making much effort to visit the locations from his father’s journals. Gaius’s books were too much of a draw, and he was probably learning more from them than he could from any excursion.
Eventually the water went cold, and Merlin got out of the bath. He was drying off in his room when he got a text message from Gwaine.
MERLIN. Come out tonight?
Merlin pulled on some pants and sat on the edge of his bed.
Anywhere. Let’s go meet girls
Merlin sighed and pulled a face before writing back.
I prefer boys
Boys are good too ;) We’ll figure something out, just come
I don’t have his number
How do you not have his number? What if your block of flats burns down?
How would having Arthur’s number help in that situation?
After that, Gwaine sent a text with Arthur’s number, and Merlin added him as a contact.
Meet at mine at 7
Merlin finished getting dressed and wasted some time watching the news—decidedly not texting Arthur—before heading out.
He found Arthur waiting by the bus stop anyway.
“Hey,” Merlin said. “Meeting up with Gwaine?”
“Yeah. Do you know who else is going?”
“The usual group, I guess.”
Arthur shrugged and busied himself on his mobile.
“Have you seen that woman again?” Merlin asked, deciding not to let Arthur ignore him.
“No, thankfully.” Arthur put his mobile in his pocket. “It was weird the way she tripped over that bin.”
“Maybe she kicked it over.”
“Why would she kick it over?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin said. “Why would she shout at you that you don’t belong here?”
Arthur shrugged, and it was hard to tell in the cold, but it looked like he was going red.
“So, um…” Merlin trailed off, annoyed that he and Arthur still didn’t have a basic rapport.
“You going on that camping trip in a few weeks?” Arthur asked.
“Yeah. It’ll be fun to see what it’s like outside of the city.”
Arthur murmured his agreement, and before Merlin could think of another topic, the bus arrived. It was too crowded for them to find seats together, which Merlin had no qualms about. He rode in the back while Arthur rode in the front, and they reunited on the pavement when they reached Gwaine’s stop.
Gwaine and Lance were already there, waiting for them.
“Lads night?” Arthur asked.
“Thought it might be fun. I found a hookah lounge.”
Gwaine led the way, and Merlin walked with him.
“How’d you find a hookah lounge?” he asked.
“Just wandered by it. Have you found anything good around your flat?”
“No,” Merlin said, although he hadn’t tried. He’d been too preoccupied with Gaius’s books to do much exploring.
“No? I thought you were all about getting out into the city?”
“I’ve been busy with coursework,” Merlin lied.
“Well. Glad I got you out tonight, then. It’s just here.”
Gwaine opened the door and everyone filed into the lounge. They ordered a few appetisers and a fruit-flavoured hookah as well as some beers.
“To me,” Gwaine said when he had a drink in hand. “Because otherwise you losers would never get out of your flats.”
Merlin chuckled and knocked his beer against Gwaine’s before taking a sip.
“I’m not that pathetic,” Arthur protested.
Gwaine shrugged. “Prove it.”
“Remember the last time we met up, I’d been out sight-seeing all day.”
“And since then?”
Arthur actually pouted. “I’ve had coursework, haven’t I?”
“Not that much,” Gwaine said.
“Whatever.” Arthur took a sip of his beer. “What have you done?”
“Found this place.”
Arthur grumbled, and Merlin smiled into his beer. He liked seeing Gwaine harass Arthur.
“What about you?” Gwaine asked Lance. “What have you been up to?”
“Went to a museum with Gwen the other day,” Lance said. “Our Tuesday class got cancelled.”
“Have you made a move yet?”
“What makes you think I want to make a move?” Lance asked.
“Mate,” Gwaine said, barely suppressing a grin. “You are not subtle.”
Lance shrugged, but Merlin could see him blushing.
“If you don’t make a move, I will,” Gwaine said. “Same goes for you and Mithian,” he added to Arthur.
“I thought you fancied Elena,” Arthur said smoothly.
“I’m leaving my options open.”
Gwaine laughed and turned to Merlin. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Who do you fancy?”
“No one,” Merlin said quickly, and it was true. Gwaine, Lance, and Arthur were all attractive, but they were also all straight.
Gwaine kept staring at him expectantly, and Merlin sighed and took a long gulp of his beer.
“I’m gay, actually,” he said. “So, not really looking to hook up with any of the girls.”
“I’m sure we could find you a hot Estonian bloke,” Gwaine said.
“No, thanks.” Merlin glanced at Lance and Arthur as he took another drink. Neither of them looked particularly surprised at his coming out.
“Maybe I’ll find one for me, then.”
Arthur raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Lance just laughed.
“Considering how little you’ve bothered to learn of the language,” Merlin said, “I’d like to see you try that, actually.”
“I speak the international language, baby.”
Merlin groaned and pretended to vomit.
Their food arrived with their hookah, and Gwaine took the first hit. He leaned back as he exhaled, blowing several smoke rings into the air.
“Delicious,” he declared, passing the hose to Lance. Then, turning to Merlin, he asked, “So, do you have a boyfriend back home or anything?”
“Nope. Do any of you have girlfriends?”
Everyone shook their heads.
“Four single lads on the prowl,” Gwaine said happily. “This is going to be a good semester.”
“Cheers,” Arthur said.
“Terviseks,” Lance said before taking a hit off the hookah.
The rest of the night carried on in mostly the same vein, with Gwaine trying to get a rise out of everyone but only succeeding with Arthur. By the time they decided to leave, Arthur was fairly wasted from spite drinking.
“You good to get him home?” Gwaine asked as Merlin and Arthur’s bus pulled up.
“I’ll manage. Come on,” Merlin poked Arthur’s back and guided him onto the bus.
It was still too crowded for them to sit together, so Merlin pushed Arthur into a seat near the front and then went to stand in the back until their stop came up.
“This is us,” he said, grabbing at Arthur’s sleeve.
Arthur stood, swaying a little as the bus stopped, and followed Merlin onto the pavement.
“You shouldn’t let Gwaine get to you,” Merlin said as they headed to their block of flats.
“He’s ridiculous, and I love him,” Arthur said. “Also, I hate him.”
Merlin laughed. “You’re silly when you’re drunk.”
“I had a good time tonight.” Arthur draped his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “Sorry if I’m a prat to you. I don’t mean to be.”
“What do you mean to be?”
“So… your true self is a prat?”
“And you’re apologising for that?”
Merlin sniggered and pulled Arthur’s arm off. “No worries, I guess.” He could handle Arthur being a bit of a dick as long as he knew it wasn’t because Arthur looked down on him.
“I do like you,” Arthur said, his words slurring a bit. “You seem funny. Or fun. Something. Like, I want to hang out with you. I was—”
Merlin looked around to see that same old lady sitting on the same bench.
“What the fuck?” he asked.
“Oh, shit,” Arthur said before taking off at a run. Luckily he was headed in the general direction of their building.
“What do you want?” Merlin shouted at the old woman.
“You should stay away from him,” she said. “Don’t you know what he is?”
“What are you?” Merlin asked. “Why won’t you leave him alone?”
She stood, and Merlin took a step back.
“He’s one of them,” she hissed, moving closer. “He hunts your kind.”
Merlin hesitated for a moment and then knocked the bin over again, his magic flowing out practically before he’d called for it, and ran after Arthur. He found him by the front door, fumbling with his keys.
“Move,” Merlin said, unlocking the door and shoving Arthur inside. He glanced behind him and saw the woman getting up and moving towards them again. He slammed the door and turned back to Arthur. “What the fuck?”
“She’s crazy!” Arthur said, throwing up his hands.
“She knows you,” Merlin said. “Who is she?”
“I honestly have no idea. I need to get to bed,” Arthur said. He pressed the button to call the lift.
“She said you hunt people.”
Arthur snorted. “Do I look like a murderer?”
“She’s crazy,” Arthur said again. “I don’t hunt anyone. Do I look like a murderer?”
“You already asked that,” Merlin said as the lifts dinged.
“Well, it’s a good question.” Arthur slumped into the lift and pressed the button for his floor.
“It’s not.” Merlin rolled his eyes but decided not to press. Arthur was drunk, and he wasn’t getting anywhere with his line of questioning.
“Fuck Gwaine,” Arthur moaned when the lift shook to a stop. “I didn’t mean to drink that much.”
Merlin got off on the 11th floor to make sure Arthur got into his flat okay, and then he went up to his own. He found Gaius sitting in the kitchen, enjoying a midnight tea.
“Ah, Merlin,” Gaius said pleasantly. “Come, sit.”
Merlin sat down and heaved a sigh. “Gaius, are there… people who hunt us?”
“People with magic.”
Gaius frowned. “Well…”
“So, there are?” Merlin bit his lip. “There’s this old lady up the street who told me that Arthur—one of the other students—hunts my kind.”
“Do you think he does?” Gaius asked as if that were a reasonable question.
“No. I don’t know. He said he doesn’t hunt anyone.”
“He was there for this?”
“Yeah. Tonight was the second time we saw her. She keeps trying to come after him.”
Gaius frowned. “I’ll have words with Kilgharrah.”
“Why? What’s he got to do with it?”
“I want you boys safe. If there’s someone threatening you, he should know.”
Merlin shrugged, thinking there wasn’t anything either Kilgharrah or Gaius could do to stop it.
“How did she know I have magic?” Merlin asked.
“Maybe she didn’t,” Gaius suggested. “Maybe she was just drunk and you read too much into what she said.”
“She said he hunts my kind, how else am I supposed to interpret that?”
“Maybe she thinks Arthur is a vampire.”
Merlin found himself laughing at the absurd suggestion. “Maybe,” he agreed. Then he yawned.
“You should get to bed,” Gaius said. “Don’t worry too much. I’m sure Arthur isn’t hunting anyone.”
Merlin back on Arthur’s drunken confession that he didn’t mean to treat Merlin so poorly. “I’m sure, too.” With that, he got up and went into his room to get ready for bed.
After he showered, he went to the university library to do some reading for his classes without the distraction of Gaius’s spell books being so close.
He found Arthur and Mithian there as well, and Mithian waved him over to their table.
“Hey,” she whispered. “Study party?”
Merlin nodded and settled in the chair next to her, across from Arthur. Arthur gave him a small smile, and Merlin returned it easily. He pulled out his laptop and started going through his assigned readings. It was difficult to concentrate, though. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. Every time he looked up, though, there didn’t seem to be anyone looking at him. Mithian and Arthur were wrapped up in their own coursework, and none of the local students were paying them any attention. Still, Merlin kept getting distracted.
After a while, Mithian packed up and went off to meet up with Gwen, and Merlin considered going home. At least at home he would know for sure that no one was staring at him.
“Do you want to get a coffee?” Arthur asked almost as soon as they were alone.
“Oh, um…” Merlin trailed off, surprised by the offer. Arthur had been more friendly to him the night before, but he hadn’t really expected that to continue now that they were sober. “Sure, why not?”
They packed up their things and walked around outside until they came across a coffee shop that wasn’t too crowded.
“How was the rest of your night?” Merlin asked when they were settled at a small table.
Arthur shrugged. “I just crashed. The next time that lady comes after me, I’m getting the police involved.”
“Might not be a bad idea. She definitely has it out for you.”
Arthur sighed and took a tentative sip of his coffee. “Sorry you had to put up with me last night.”
“I didn’t mind,” Merlin said honestly. “I appreciated the apology. The one from last night, I mean.”
Arthur flushed and took another sip of his coffee. “Yeah. Well…”
Merlin shrugged, sort of enjoying watching Arthur wrong-footed.
“What do you have going on this weekend?” Arthur asked after a stretch of silence.
“Just reading,” Merlin said, gesturing to his bag. “Might Skype with my mum tomorrow.”
Arthur nodded and glanced out the window. It had started snowing. “Are you close?” he asked.
“With my mum? Yeah, it’s just the two of us, so…”
“Must be nice,” Arthur muttered.
“Are you not close with your parents?”
“Mum’s dead,” Arthur said without much emotion. “Dad’s a bloody nightmare. So, no.”
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said, feeling awkward. The conversation felt almost too intimate considering they had only just become friendly. He wondered if this was Arthur’s way of making amends. “At least you’re here instead of home?”
Arthur managed a smile. “Yeah. It’s nice to be far away, to be honest. I know that makes me sound horrible, but…” He shrugged. “That’s the way it is.”
“Do you have any siblings?”
“I have a sister,” Arthur said, sighing. “She’s difficult. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Yeah,” Merlin agreed, trying to think of something to keep the conversation going.
“Gwaine said you have a list of places you want to go,” Arthur said.
“I—yeah. My dad was from here, I have his journals. I never met him, but I got them after he died. I’m trying to visit all the places he mentioned.”
Arthur nodded. “Anything good on the list?”
Merlin pulled out his mobile to scroll through it. “It’s a lot of places the program is taking us on tours of. Lots of old historical sites and stuff. Plus the botanical garden—that was from my list.”
“What did he say about it?”
Merlin hesitated. “Just that he went there and enjoyed it.”
“Are you going to try to, like, visit the people he mentioned?”
Merlin frowned, realising for the first time that there never any mentions of other people in his father’s journals. “No,” he said. “He didn’t really write about his friends. I think they’re more like travelogues.
“I’m trying to write down all the places I go while I’m here,” Arthur said. “Maybe one day my kids will go off on a quest because of it.”
Merlin chuckled. “Be sure to mention some places that don’t exist at all. Send them on a wild goose chase.”
“Did your dad do that?”
Merlin shrugged. “Only one way to find out, I guess.”
They brainstormed a few made up places Arthur could write down as they finished their coffee, and then they headed back to their block of flats. Arthur wanted to continue doing coursework in his room, and Merlin wanted to take a break and go back to reading Gaius’s magic books.
“Hey, isn’t that…” Arthur trailed off, frowning, as they walked from the bus stop towards their building. There was a man up ahead who was standing on the street corner looking at his mobile.
“Do you know him?” Merlin asked.
“Isn’t that the lemonade guy?”
Merlin squinted, but he couldn’t remember what that man had looked like. “Maybe.”
“Let’s go this way,” Arthur said, taking a turn that would lengthen their walk.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Merlin said, following Arthur. “He was just drunk that night.”
Merlin shrugged and looked over his shoulder. The man was staring at him.
“You do seem to attract some odd sorts,” Merlin pointed out.
“I’m a magnet,” Arthur said dully.
Merlin looked over his shoulder again and saw the man moved towards them. He whispered a spell, barely managing to keep control over his magic, and a street sign bent over in a gust of wind. The man walked right into it.
Merlin sped up his gait, hoping Arthur would keep up with him.
“In a hurry?” Arthur asked, catching him up.
“I’m cold,” Merlin said. He looked back and saw the man getting up and glaring at them. He stepped around the sign.
“It’s nice today,” Arthur said, oblivious.
The man started running towards them, and Merlin, his magic singing at him to do more, coughed and knocked a tree over to block his path.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Arthur’s arm and starting to jog towards their building.
“FUCK YOU, KID,” the man shouted at them from where he was struggling to climb over the tree trunk.
Arthur looked around and saw the destruction behind them. “What the—”
“Run,” Merlin said, urgently pulling Arthur along. The man was coming straight at them.
Arthur bolted for it, and Merlin spelled a bench to overturn. His magic flew out of him, using everything he could give, and the man ran into the bench with a grunt. Merlin turned and took off after Arthur. He reached their block of flats just as Arthur was unlocking it, and he dashed inside and shut the door as quickly as possible.
“Arthur,” he said, panting. “What the fuck is going on?”
“You do know.”
Arthur tugged Merlin away from the door. “Come on,” he said, heading for the lifts. “My host mum is out for the day and she has some really good chocolate stashed in her kitchen.”
Merlin followed Arthur to his flat, giving Arthur time until they were sat at the kitchen table with a bowl full of sweets and two mugs of tea. He thought back on the magic he’d just done, how it was still so much easier than anything he tried when he was studying, how simple it was to access and command. He still didn’t know why. Why couldn’t he get his magic to obey when he was in a controlled environment, why did he have to be in a panic to get it to work with him?
“So, are you going to tell me what’s going on with you and these weirdos?” Merlin asked when he got sick of listening to his own thoughts.
Arthur sighed and stood to look out the window. “It’s my dad.”
“That guy is your dad?” Merlin asked, confused.
“No, it’s because of my dad. It’s complicated.”
“I have time.”
Arthur sat back down, worrying his lower lip.
“It’s a sensitive matter,” he finally said.
“Like, secret government work?” Merlin guessed.
“Why would some random drunk guy and an old lady be after you just because your dad works for British intelligence?”
“It’s not really the normal kind of intelligence.”
“He…” Arthur sighed again and slumped back in his chair. “His job is to get rid of all the…”
“Immigrants?” Merlin guessed, thoroughly confused as to why Arthur was being so secretive.
“Magic users,” Arthur mumbled, and Merlin blinked.
“Did you just—”
“I know it sounds crazy—”
“What do you mean he ‘gets rid’ of them? Does he kill them?”
Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, he just makes them leave the country.”
“Usually by… by threatening their families.”
Merlin felt his mouth drop open. “That’s—”
“Horrible, I know. I hate him. I hate everything about him.”
Merlin took a deep breath, trying to let the news sink in. Arthur knew about magic. Arthur’s father knew about magic. Arthur’s father worked to systematically remove magic users from the UK. Merlin was a magic user in the UK.
“What about those people?” Merlin finally asked. “What do they have to do with your dad?”
“I’m guessing he kicked them out,” Arthur said. He looked miserable. “And somehow they… found out about me. I don’t know, there must be some magical underground or something. They’re coming after me because of him. I’m not like him. I don’t give a fuck about magic.”
He said it with a little too much bite.
“You need to tell someone,” Merlin said. “Kilgharrah, or your host family, your dad, anyone.”
“Tell them what?” Arthur asked with a laugh. “That I’m in danger because of my dad’s horrible job? What can anyone do about it?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Merlin said. “You should be somewhere safe.”
“It’s not like this doesn’t happen at home,” Arthur said bitterly.
“What do you do at home?”
“Nothing. I don’t have to. My dad paid a woman to put protection spells on me. And then he banished her.”
“I know. I hate him.”
Merlin sighed and ran his hand over his mouth, trying to think. “Maybe… maybe there’s a protection spell you can use here.”
“I don’t know magic, Merlin,” Arthur said sadly. “Even if I had a spell, it wouldn’t do anything.”
“Are you sure?” Merlin asked, thinking of how Gaius claimed to be able to manipulate ingredients for potions without having any magic.
Arthur glared at him. “Do you know more about magic than I do?”
Merlin thought he probably did, but now didn’t seem like the most opportune time to reveal himself.
“What are you going to do, then?” Merlin asked.
Arthur shrugged and ate another chocolate. “Wait until one of them comes at me with a knife, I guess?”
“And… then what?”
“And then I get stabbed.”
Arthur was smiling, but Merlin didn’t think it was a very funny joke. They both knew magic users wouldn’t need a knife to kill him. They had magic—they could kill him any damn way they pleased. Merlin rather thought it was a miracle no one had done anything more menacing to Arthur so far.
“Did you know there were magic users in Tallinn?” Merlin asked, thinking back to Arthur telling him that he was in Estonia to piss off his father.
“Yeah. I guess it’s a popular spot for my dad’s victims.”
“Then why did you come here? Surely you had to know it was a risk.”
“I didn’t think anyone would find out about me. It’s not like I’ve told anyone.”
“You’ve told me.”
“You’re the first.” Arthur licked his lips. “The first ever, actually. None of my mates at home know what he does. I didn’t think you’d take the news so easily.”
“You’d already told me he was a nightmare,” Merlin reminded him.
“I mean that magic exists. Most people wouldn’t just roll with it like you did.”
Merlin shrugged, considering his response carefully. “Seemed like there were more important things to discuss.”
Arthur murmured his agreement.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to it slowly start to rain outside.
“Will you stay here until my host mum gets back?” Arthur asked quietly.
“Of course,” Merlin agreed.
“Thanks. And thanks for helping. I’m sorry if I… I know I’m not the easiest person to be friends with, so…” Arthur flushed and pushed the bowl of sweets towards Merlin. “Eat.”