It was just little things at first.
Keys went missing, then turned up hours later in places that Arthur knew he’d already searched. The notes in his wallet mysteriously vanished when he was out for lunch with Morgana. He’d been able to pay on his card, but still it was strange.
Sometimes it was frustrating. An entire file vanished from his personal drive at work. There had been three months casework in there. He called IT and the odd young man who retrieved it from the backup servers gave him a lecture on not hitting the delete key. He couldn’t save much of the report Arthur had been in the middle of when the file vanished though.
“You’re useless,” Arthur told him. But there wasn’t much venom in it. Arthur had too many concerns of his own to worry about the perceived shortcomings of an IT technician.
“It wasn’t me who leaned on the delete key and lost all my work,” the technician retorted.
Arthur knew he hadn’t hit the delete key. He was many things, but not stupid. He put the phone down and started to rewrite his report.
For a day or two everything was okay again. But then more files vanished. He dreaded ringing IT, knowing the sarcasm he was going to encounter. Everyone down there probably thought the legal staff had no idea how to operate a computer. Still, at least they retrieved his missing files. There was nothing they could do though, when he printed out another report, read it through, took it to a meeting… and found the report that he pulled out of his case wasn’t the same one.
That mistake had almost cost them a client.
“Why don’t you take a week off?” his father suggested. “You’re obviously tired.”
It wasn’t really a suggestion. It never was from Uther Pendragon. He had, as he told Arthur regularly, built up their legal practice from nothing. Now it was one of the most renowned in the country. There was no place in it for someone who made mistakes.
Arthur didn’t have a lot to do in his spare time, not any more. He had split with Mordred a few months back, and really the only person he saw in any social context at all was his sister. Mordred had slowly driven everyone else away with his moody ways and abrasive tongue. Morgana had only stayed because, as she told him, she was in it for Arthur and didn’t care what that little weasel thought. Also, she could be far more abrasive than even Mordred.
In the end, he had driven Arthur away too. Too needy, too demanding, too strange. More than once Arthur had awoken in the night to find Mordred wide awake, out of bed and standing over him. Or just lying there beside him, staring at him with those dark, eerie eyes. Mordred hadn’t taken their split well. He’d shouted, raged with a passion Arthur hadn’t known he was capable of. It had been a little unnerving, scary even. When Mordred had finally left, Arthur had changed the locks. He knew he could deal with Mordred in a straight fight, but he didn’t want to come home and find the man there. There was something about Mordred, something creepy. Arthur wouldn’t have put it past him to lurk in a closet for hours then come out in the night and attack him.
Arthur still had dreams about it. Often he woke, and just for a moment he thought that Mordred was there again, standing in his bedroom, lurking in corners. Just a trick of the light.
It was a trick of the light again when he thought he saw him on the street, out in restaurants, and then when he returned to work he was sure that he saw Mordred in the foyer of Pendragon Law…
Morgana had been kind during his week off. She’d lunched with him, made him go out to the theatre with her, tried to introduce him to new people. But he’d seen the concern in her eyes when he stood outside his flat, his keys missing again. It was lucky she had a set because he’d left them on the hall table.
“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on,” she told him fondly, and he tried to ignore the slight edge in her voice as she said it. She would be the one, he knew, who suggested he go to the doctor. Not yet. He wasn’t ready for that conversation yet.
It was his second morning back in the office, and his work folder had gone missing again. This time the IT tech couldn’t instantly retrieve it.
Arthur spent several hours in a panic, wondering what on earth he was going to do. Uther would sack him, son or no. There was never any space in the company to carry people. His own absent-mindedness was a liability, it was only a matter of time before he did something truly stupid that everyone noticed.
His secretary, Gwen, poked her head around the door.
“Your two o’clock just cancelled. They’re stuck in traffic and want to rearrange. I’ve pencilled them in for Friday.”
Arthur could have hugged her. Instead, as he heard the door close, he slumped forward, leaning on his desk, his head in his hands. There was still a missing file to find, and only two days to do it. He was still ruined.
There was a light cough, and Arthur jerked upright, aware he wasn’t alone. For a brief, horrible moment he saw the pale skin and dark hair of the man in front of his desk and thought it was Mordred. But it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.” It was the IT technician, the rude one from a few weeks back. M Emrys, his ID badge said. “I just came up to tell you we’ve restored the file.”
“All of it?” Arthur could feel the relief washing over him.
“Think so. And it won’t happen again, I’ve put additional security on the server. Well, not unless you actually do delete the folder next time.”
Arthur scowled. “I didn’t delete it.”
“I know you didn’t.” The man’s voice was soft and it took a moment for his words to sink in.
“I know my way around a computer. I don’t… What?”
“I know you didn’t delete the file. You couldn’t have wiped it from all the backup servers as well. It’s taken me three hours to pull it back. It was deliberately done. So, who has it in for you?”
“Someone did this deliberately?”
Emrys rolled his eyes. “Contrary to what some people think, computers only do what they’re instructed to. So yes, someone has accessed our systems, and for some reason they’re targeting you. Are you on a particularly sensitive case? Have you recently got someone sent down? Got a member of staff demoted or sacked? I need to know who I’m keeping out.”
“Nobody… there’s nothing like that. No reason… what do you mean, you’re keeping them out?”
“Because this wasn’t done via a computer. It’s the work of a magic user.”
For the first time in weeks Arthur thought that perhaps there was someone in greater risk of losing their mind than he was. “Don’t be ridiculous! There’s no such thing.”
Emrys nodded. “Of course not.” He picked up the mug of cold coffee on Arthur’s desk and flipped it over, ignoring Arthur’s shout. The coffee hung in mid-air for a moment, then Emrys somehow caught it all back in the mug again and put it down on the desk. Arthur stared at it, and then at Emrys.
“Yeah, it’s real. Get over it. Now think… is there a spurned ex-girlfriend?”
Arthur gaped at him. If he hadn’t thought he was going mad before, this was the final proof. The abusive, big-eared idiot from the IT section had been sent up to finish him off. Fine, if this was the way his subconscious wanted to play it, Arthur would play along.
“Boyfriend. There’s a spurned ex-boyfriend. How did you do that?”
Emrys shrugged. “Magic, I told you.” He settled down in the chair in front of Arthur’s desk. “That’s why Gaius hired me. He’s getting on a bit now, and the magic users are getting cleverer, wilier. You should see the list we’ve got of people trying to ruin your father!”
“My father knows you do this?” Arthur really couldn’t believe that. Anything remotely supernatural and Uther was instantly dismissive.
“He turns a blind eye. Gaius has been protecting him for years. How do you think the company’s been so successful?”
Arthur had wondered, sometimes, when he was growing up at how many times Gaius had appeared at their house, the hours that he’d spent shut away with Uther. He wasn’t going to admit that to Emrys though, the man was already a bit too cocky for Arthur’s liking.
“So, anyway, this ex-boyfriend…” Emrys was scribbling down a list on a scrap of paper, then pushed it towards Arthur. “I’ll need a name, photos, anything else you’ve got. Is he doing anything else to you? Sending you things?”
“I’m not going mad,” Arthur whispered. He stared down at the coffee mug.
“No. It’s a lot to take in,” Emrys said and it almost sounded kind. “Come on, what else has he done?”
It didn’t bear thinking about. “Things vanish, and then turn up again hours later. And…I see him… Sometimes I wake up and just for a moment I think he’s there, standing over me. But he can’t be. He can’t be, can he?”
Emrys just nodded, sadly.
“I didn’t treat him badly. We just weren’t right together. God, he’s been in my flat… in my bedroom. He could get anywhere, do anything. I thought I was just imagining it.”
“You didn’t,” Emrys assured him. “Look, Gaius is going to be calling me back in a minute, we were in the middle of a server refresh when you called this morning. Get everything you can on this guy, I’ll come back when I’ve finished and we’ll work on it tonight. If he’s been attacking at night I’ll need to stay. You don’t mind a houseguest?”
“Sounds like I’ve already had one.” Arthur didn’t laugh or even smile when he said it. It wasn’t funny.
Emrys reached over and squeezed his hand sympathetically as he got up to leave. “He’ll be out of your life, Arthur. Don’t worry.”
“How can you be sure? He sounds powerful.”
Emrys smiled a little too smugly. “Because I know I’m better.” He gave Arthur a wink as he turned to go. “You’ll see that for yourself soon enough.”
Emrys, or Merlin as his name turned out to be, certainly knew how to make himself at home. Somehow, within an hour of him arriving at Arthur’s flat there were things everywhere. Merlin didn’t seem to know that if you picked something up and looked at it, that you should put it away where you found it. He didn’t seem to understand that coffee mugs didn’t make their own way back to the kitchen (although when Arthur pointed this out, the offending mug did immediately make its own way back to the kitchen, which was possibly even more annoying than having it left on the living room table in the first place). The overnight bag he’d brought with him appeared to have exploded all over Arthur’s bedroom floor. Worst of all, he’d got control of the remote and was insisting on watching some horrendous reality show where a bunch of Z-list celebrities were undergoing trials by bugs and snakes and buckets of gunk. Arthur could feel his brain melting out of his ears.
“You’re far too serious,” Merlin told him. “Oh no, look at that. She’s got magic, that’s totally fake.”
“How can you tell?” Arthur asked, intrigued despite himself.
It was a mistake, Merlin immediately launched on a long and detailed description of exactly what it was that one magic user could see in another one, and just who was cheating on the show. It went on for quite a while, long after the show had finished. Arthur was surprised to discover that it was almost midnight. Considering how awful Merlin was to have around, the time certainly passed quickly. Much more quickly than it ever had when Mordred was there.
The very worst part of all, of course, was that Merlin was going to be sitting there, in his bedroom, whilst he slept. Or not, because Arthur didn’t think that there was any way he could sleep now that he knew Mordred really had been appearing in his room. Merlin claimed it was an illusion, that it was just a psychic shadow and that Mordred hadn’t actually been there physically. Like that made it better!
Having Merlin sitting up in a chair right next to his bed didn’t help either. He was a dark shadow, looming there, and…
“Oh God, don’t do that!”
Merlin’s eyes glowed gold in the dark. It would have been scary at the best of times.
“I have to scan. I can’t help it!”
“Just get into bed, then I won’t be able to see you doing it. It’s creepy.”
“Says the man with the psycho ex-boyfriend.”
“Consider me an expert.”
But Arthur wasn’t an expert, and the whole thing was unsettling him more than he liked to admit. Merlin seemed to recognise that, and Arthur didn’t see the glow from his eyes again. Eventually, taking a little comfort from the warmth of the body beside him, he drifted off to sleep.
Merlin could hear the difference in Arthur’s breathing and knew he’d fallen asleep. If he stayed asleep, that would make things so much easier. Arthur wouldn’t see what he did. Merlin didn’t think Arthur was ready for that yet.
Gaius would have something to say in the morning if he found out Merlin had shared Arthur’s bed, even if it was completely platonic. Gaius had told him to get used to sitting up all night, to dozing in uncomfortable chairs at Uther Pendragon’s bedside before battling whatever aggrieved magic user came after the man next. Apparently there had been many over the years. Gaius had said nothing about Arthur needing help. Arthur dealt with divorces and other domestic disputes. He didn’t wage the endless war against magic users that Uther had done. They hadn’t expected this.
Helping Arthur was far more appealing. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he looked over at the shadow of the head on the pillow next to him, wishing that he could see Arthur’s face. The problem, he supposed, was going to be making sure that he didn’t fall asleep in the warm, comfortable bed. And hoping that he didn’t do anything embarrassing like gravitating towards Arthur in his sleep. Arthur probably wouldn’t be too impressed by that. Merlin would be in the chair tomorrow night if that happened, no question.
Arthur rolled over onto his side, a little closer to Merlin. He was, after all, used to having the bed to himself. It didn’t mean anything. Merlin was so busy concentrating on how it didn’t mean anything, and how much of Arthur’s body heat he could feel, that for a few moments he forgot why he was there. And suddenly, there were three of them in the room.
Mordred wasn’t there in person, of course. The man had to be skilled at astral projection, it was how he was interfering with all aspects of Arthur’s life, slipping in and creating the illusion that Arthur was slowly losing his mind. Carefully, trying not to wake Arthur, Merlin slipped out of bed and stood beside the bed.
“I can do this too,” he breathed. “Leave him now or you’ll regret it.”
Merlin felt a rush of confusion followed by anger, all of it directed at him. That was good, he could use it. Mordred was powerful, but not enough. His communication was of feelings rather than actual words. Merlin could feel his growing frustration as the shield Merlin had put up held. It was only a matter of time before the energy Merlin was collecting from Mordred’s attack had built up enough. When he threw it back it wouldn’t kill Mordred, but it would hurt. It would hurt a lot. The man wouldn’t be coming back for more any time soon. If he had any sense he’d never come back.
Merlin glanced down at the bed. Arthur was waking up. He just hoped the man wouldn’t freak out, because he was about to get a massive magic display.
Everything was gold.
It had only felt as if Arthur had been asleep for a moment, but he awoke abruptly to what for a terrifying moment looked as if the room were ablaze. Merlin was standing beside the bed, surrounded by light, illuminating the room brighter than the energy-saving light bulbs ever could. It was dazzling, and Arthur had to look away.
When he looked again it was just Merlin, flicking on the bedside lamp and standing there in a ridiculous t-shirt with a picture of SpongeBob on it. His hair was sticking up in all directions, as if he too had been startled awake. He would have looked quite ordinary if Arthur didn’t have an image burned into his retina of the man, arms outstretched, glowing so very brightly.
Merlin shifted uncomfortably under Arthur’s gaze. “He… uh… won’t come back. Probably not… definitely not tonight anyway. That would’ve hurt.”
Arthur nodded slowly, not sure what to say.
“It’s sort of freaky to see, I know,” Merlin continued. He was fiddling with the hem of his t-shirt, not looking at Arthur. “I could… I have to stay for a while just in case… but now there’s not much risk… I could sleep out on the sofa. I know it’s weird...”
He looked so uncomfortable. Arthur almost felt sorry for him, except from what he’d just seen Merlin wasn’t someone who needed pity. Merlin was very, very powerful. Arthur knew he probably should feel afraid. But he didn’t.
“I’ll just go… it’s freaky I know…”
That was twice he’d described himself as freaky. Arthur wondered where that came from, who had been cruel in the past.
“Oh just sleep here, Merlin. I’m sure if you’re going to incinerate me you could do it just as easily from the sofa.” He pulled back the covers, and after a moment’s hesitation Merlin climbed back in and snuggled down. There was something comforting, reassuring about having him there. It shouldn’t be, Arthur knew, not given what he’d just seen. But there was something about Merlin that just felt right. He felt safer with Merlin there at his side. “And stop calling yourself freaky. Mordred was the freak, not you.”
Merlin beamed at him happily. It was a little bit too endearing, and Arthur had to look away.
“Yes, well don’t get too pleased. People say I snore. You might want that sofa before the night’s out.”
“I hate sofas,” Merlin mumbled tiredly, already drifting off.
In the morning, Arthur knew, there would be a thousand questions. Not just for Merlin, but for his father and Gaius too. He lay awake, listening to Merlin’s soft snores, realising that he could probably get used to hearing that, and wondering at all the discoveries in the world that he had yet to know.
He wondered just how many of those discoveries were going to involve the man beside him.