Merlin arched his back and stretched his arms out in front of him. He winced at the sound of his joints popping with the ache of standing all day in the little homeopathic medicine and "magic" shop where he worked. The sky outside had slowly progressed to storm dark over the course of the day, and it wasn't exactly inspiring his mood.
He glanced at the large, dragon-shaped clock hanging on the far wall and grimaced, looking away quickly. It freaked him out, stylized in the shape of a metal dragon with crow-like claws. He only had an hour left before he could go home and collapse onto his nice warm bed, with its soft freshly bought sheets...
He'd only half been listening to the news Gaius had turned on in the background, when the harsh voice of Aredian Forrester cut through his thoughts- a snippet of the speech the man had made earlier in the week, and which had already gone viral.
“And then finally I want to say that we need one idea, and we’re not thinking about a solution to the problem … And the one idea is, how we are going to exterminate vampires because that in my estimation is the only conclusion I have come to. We have to exterminate vampires off the face of the planet to solve this problem … We need to get very serious and not be diverted from coming up with a solution to the problem and the problem on the planet is vampires.”
Gaius snorted in disgust and Merlin didn't protest when his boss got up and pressed the power button on the mini TV they kept behind the counter before they could hear any more of the speech.
"Despicable! How people can be so, so ignorant as to follow someone like that is beyond me,” Gaius ranted.
"It is awful," Merlin agreed from the customer side of the counter, where he was leaning on his elbows to watch.
Gaius sighed and stood up. His shoulders were slumped more than usual, and Merlin wasn't sure if it was the hate speech, or the damp weather that was getting to him.
"I'm going back to the office to do some paperwork. Will you be alright out here?"
Merlin nodded and smiled when Gaius clapped a gentle hand on his shoulder, and then walked slowly toward the back of the store.
Hours later, Merlin jerked out of his thoughts when the chimes on the door tinkled in indication of a potential customer. No one else had been in the shop since the two girls a couple of hours ago, dressed in black and safety pins and eyeliner so thick they looked like raccoons. They'd walked around for a few minutes, warily eyeing the more bizarre contents of the shop, before finally settling on the fairly innocuous incense selection. They had hurried out just as quickly when one of them had answered her surprisingly bright and bejewelled, way-too-smart-for-its-own-good phone with a contemptuously sighed, "Mo-om."
A tall, ruddy-faced man entered the shop, and Merlin relaxed.
"Will!" he said, offering his roommate a grin that quickly turned wary when he saw the shit-eating grin on Will’s face and realized that he was holding something behind his back. "What's up?" he asked cautiously.
Will's smile grew even more enormous, if possible, and Merlin winced. When his friend brought out a piece of paper from behind his back, he sighed in resignation. It was a flyer to be more precise, with a crisp black business card paper clipped to its upper right hand corner- as plain and austere as the flyer was obnoxiously campy.
Gothic letters spelled out the words "KNIGHT LIFE" across the top middle of the page, while beneath that, spidery letters announced the date of the controversial vampire bar's opening night- tonight, Merlin noticed with a sinking feeling, because he was pretty sure that he knew exactly what Will was thinking. The caricatured silhouette of a dancing woman was pictured in the bottom corner and two pinpricks of red showed bright and vivid on her throat. There was an elaborate rose, some of its petals scattered and broken around it, on the opposite corner.
"So you know how that new vampire bar over in Camelot is opening up tonight?" Will started excitedly, "Well, some rep from the place walks into our little establishment..."
Merlin nodded. Will was talking about the "Full Moon Bar and Grill," the small hole-in-the-wall place where he worked. Although "bar" was a title that could only be applied with grudging generosity. Certainly, the few patrons who inhabited the place didn't go there for the alcohol.
Personally, Merlin usually just thought about it as "that shit-hole where Will pretends to do actual work'.
"...and he offers all the employees, cross promotion or some bullshit, this..." Will brandished the flyer right in Merlin's face for emphasis, "...and a business card that's supposed to get us into the place with no cover!"
Merlin was already shaking his head by the time Will finished talking, because No. No way. "Will. There is no way that going to a vampire bar is a good idea, especially on its' opening night. Do you have any idea what kind of crazies will be there?"
The local news would be there of course, a generally benign presence, if a slightly annoying one, especially with the bar opening in the direct wake of the anti-vampire speech that Aredian Forrester had just given. He wasn't worried about them. He was worried about the crazies who thought the type of people going into vampire bars didn’t deserve to be walking around on the earth . . . alive or dead. He'd heard of shit like that, and he knew for a fact that at least three people had died last year, coming or going from the various vampire establishments that had slowly started popping up across the country, and not at the hand of any vamp.
He hadn't gotten a degree in supernatural studies for nothing.
If he was honest with himself though, which he wasn't always, Merlin feared being scrutinized by the type of people just crazy enough, or connected enough, to be interested in him. He didn't exactly hide his connection to the "magic" shop as people often called it, or to the police force. People knew him. He stood out, and he was afraid that someone might be smart enough to figure out that he took his interest in the supernatural just a little too personally.
Also, he attracted trouble like a moth to a flame. And he wasn't the only one with secrets. He looked pointedly at Will, who had the unfortunate habit of turning into a wolf once a month. Werewolves had about as much a place in the world as warlocks, and that was firmly in the category of nonexistent.
"Oh, COME ON, Merlin," Will groaned. "Sure, there's vampires and shit, but that doesn't mean the first thing that someone's gonna think is 'hey look, that person there works in a magic shop, so therefore he must actually have magic,' even though no one has ever proved there even is actual magic in the world. And obviously vampires are just an anomaly of genetics and nature, and that in no way has any bearing whatsoever on the theory that magic and other magical creatures may or may not exist." Will took a deep breath as his sarcastic tirade tapered off, and then he rolled his eyes. "Dude, it's a bar, like an actual bar and nothing like that shit place where I work. It's gonna be cool, and there will be hot women with predisposed tendencies toward nakedness with someone who may or may not be entirely, you know, human. It's a win-win situation as far as I'm concerned, and even if you're not interested, I need a wingman okay? Just look at it as research or something." Will gave him his biggest, appropriately ironic, puppy dog eyes. "Please?"
Which was how Merlin found himself popping back into Gaius' office a few minutes later and asking for the rest of the night off.
Gaius gave him a long disapproving look, then sighed and shook his head.
"I suppose this is Will's idea?" he asked, and answered his own question, "What am I saying, of course it is. Don't let that mutt drag you into anything dangerous."
Merlin smiled fondly and nodded. "Never," he agreed.
Gaius quirked his lips, then made a shooing gesture. "It's been quiet all day anyway. You leaving an hour early won't do much damage. I do, however, expect you to make the time up. You can do inventory when you come in next."
Merlin groaned, but nodded, then dashed back out to Will, who was waiting with arms crossed impatiently over his chest. They walked together back to their dingy little flat on the fourth floor of a dusty old building with a broken elevator.
"Now," Will said as he trotted completely uninvited into Merlin's room, "Let's find you something to wear!"
"What? Wait, Will. Hold on just a second." Merlin quickly darted after Will, trying to rush past him and block him from his wardrobe. He was too slow of course. By the time he actually caught up, Will was already rummaging through his things "No. No. No," he muttered methodically as he grabbed each item, looked at it, and threw it haphazardly over his shoulder. "Jesus, Merlin, you dress like..."
"Will!" Merlin pushed him away from his closet. "Will!"
Will backed off quickly, giving Merlin a strange look. They'd known each other for forever, lived together for almost a year, and this was the first time Merlin had felt himself get so defensive. He had just enough presence of mind to recognize something else was bothering him, even if he couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was.
Apparently Will had come to the same conclusion if his sudden frown and intense scrutiny was anything to go by. "What's gotten into you Merlin?" he asked, his hard look melting into a considering frown.
"I just...don't think going to this vampire bar is such a good idea is all," Merlin finally said, his stomach clenching in uncharacteristic knots. He wasn't sure why he had such a bad feeling, in fact, he wasn't even sure "bad" was the right word. It felt more like nervous anticipation.
It didn't even have anything to do with vampires, either. He had met a few before, in his classes back at school, and on a few cases for the police. Granted, those had all been very controlled situations. "I just have a bad feeling about this." He shrugged helplessly, unable to vocalize what he didn't understand himself.
Will's face fell and he pushed his lower lip out into a pout that Merlin knew he would deny fiercely if he tried to point it out to him. "If you really don't want to come..." Despite the pleading in his eyes, he clearly meant the offer.
Merlin knew he could walk away right then, and Will wouldn't ever mention it again.
He looked at his friend and sighed. His shoulders slumped and he shook his head before he could really think about what he was doing. "No. No, it's okay. It's just been a long day and I guess I'm tired. Also, I really don't think you're going to find anything in my closet appropriate for this type of place."
"Come on the, I'm sure I've got something that'll fit you!" Will paused and smiled hesitantly at him. "Thanks, Merlin. This means a lot to me."
When they pulled up to the bar it was only just past sunset, so still fairly early. Despite that, there was already a queue of people, in varying states of gothic dress, or undress as the case may be, waiting to get in. He saw a woman in a dominatrix outfit walking toward the back of the line and he suddenly didn't feel quite so self conscious about his own outfit.
Will had finally gotten him dressed to his satisfaction, and he was currently decked out in tight black jeans- his own actually- and a black fish net shirt- Will's obviously- as well as a wide leather bracelet and a pair of mid-calf length black leather boots -- that had been hiding, forgotten until that night, in the back of his closet. They were a relic of a previous Halloween experience he would rather not think about. Ever. He had also given in and allowed Will to break out his eyeliner and draw delicate black lines around his eyes, an effect that had actually surprised him, because in a weird way it actually looked kind of good on him.
They parked and got out, quickly making their way to the back of the still relatively short queue. He doubted it would stay short for long, and already more and more cars were pulling in.
Unfortunately the crazies were also growing in number. He was just grateful that it seemed like the vampires had not been willing to take any chances that night. There was an honest-to-god SWAT team setting up barriers to keep the media and anyone not going into the bar, out.
Merlin flinched when they got close enough to hear the yelling.
"You're going to burn in hell!" someone yelled at him. A rather mild insult, he realized after a few minutes. He fidgeted and deliberately refused to look in the direction of the protesters, and he couldn't help but be a touch jealous of Will, who seemed completely unconcerned. In fact, he had apparently already acquired his first target of the night, a tall brunette in a slinky red dress, whose rather well endowed ass seemed to rivet Will's attention to the exclusion of all else. Merlin rolled his eyes and physically pushed his friend forward as the line moved slowly on.
When they finally reached the entrance, he could only be grateful that the wait really hadn't been too terrible because of the still early hour. It could easily have been worse, even if it had still taken long enough that Merlin had started to become acutely aware of the chill. By the time they were nearly to the entrance, he'd had to resort to bouncing on the balls of his feet to keep warm. Mesh shirts? Not so great for keeping warm.
He was surprised, although he really shouldn't have been, when they finally came face to face with the bouncer and Merlin realized he wasn't actually human.
The vampire was tall and handsome, with shoulder length hair that might have been red, or blond, or maybe some shade in between, but was impossible to distinguish in the harsh neon lights of the bar's exterior. He didn't look particularly inhuman. Merlin was pretty sure that most people wouldn't- hell, they hadn't- even realized that he was a vampire, and it was only that he stood just a little too still, that his skin was just a little too flawless and his gaze a little too sharp that gave him away.
Or maybe, some small part of him whispered, it was something else that tipped him off. He'd always had an eye for the supernatural, always been drawn to it. Will, who had been his friend since a 10 year old Merlin had moved next door, was a good example of that. He'd known almost immediately that Will was different, and both their respective families had practically died of heart attacks when Merlin had casually announced that he and Will should be friends, "because we're both magic."
It had been nice growing up with someone to share secrets with.
Merlin immediately turned his gaze away from the vampire, consciously keeping his eyes averted just to the side of the vampire's face.
"ID and cover," the man asked them gruffly. He looked perplexed, surprised even, to realize that Merlin had somehow identified him. Merlin realized that the vampire had actually been trying to blend in, to pass as human, and he'd been successful until now. His height and bulk gave him credence enough as a bouncer.
And Merlin had just caught his attention for recognizing something that most humans should not have been able to do.
He winced as they handed over their IDs and the little black business card, which the bouncer accepted gracefully, keeping his gaze firmly riveted on Merlin the entire time. He gave a brief snort of disgust in Will's direction, and handed his ID back without even looking at it.
"Merlin Emrys," he read off, focusing his attention on Merlin's ID instead, with as much interest as he'd lacked looking at Will's, and Merlin had the distinct and uncomfortable impression that the vampire had just memorized the information on it. "Welcome to KNIGHT LIFE." The vampire pocketed the black business card with one hand and motioned them in the door with the other.
They stepped across the threshold quickly, and into the blaring sounds of Lady GaGa.
The place was fairly well-lit despite the requisite strobe lights that flashed across the wooden dance floor that opened up at the far end of the room, in front of a DJ station that had been raised up on a platform, and draped in bright red silk. There was another small a stage nearby where Merlin thought a band could probably play, but which was currently occupied by two women in a strange combination of leather and silk- even from a distance they looked both beautiful and deadly. "Vampire" his brain supplied to him.
To the right of the entrance was the bar itself, a large fixture made of stone and wood, and... suddenly Merlin got it. He laughed to himself, drawing Will's attention back to him.
"Knight Life?" Merlin said with a sardonic smile. "It's supposed to be a medieval theme isn't it?" Clearly he was right, and also kind of an idiot for not figuring it out sooner. It was subtly done, but pretty obvious now that he knew what he was looking at. The legs of the small high top tables scattered around were stylized swords, and stone and wood and red silk were the prevalent materials. The low layer of fog added a hazy feel to the place that helped to disguise the fact that the stone was fake, and that it was a bar after all.
Will shot him a long suffering look, "You just realized that?" he asked with a laugh, then he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "The rumor is that the vamp who owns the place used to be, like, an actual medieval knight or something." He was clearly excited by the thought, at least until he caught sight of 'red dress', and then he was off before Merlin could think of anything to say in response.
"Wingman? Right..." he groaned and made his way to the bar, grabbing a seat while there was still a seat to grab. The place was quickly reaching capacity.
He ordered a rum and coke, and then sat back to watch, because it was actually kind of interesting. Most of the people inside were very clearly human, but there were vampires. Vampires who looked exactly like what they were, who were flaunting the fact, wearing black leather or red and gold. They were the real attractions and they knew it. There were also vampires who, like the bouncer, didn't look it. They mingled easily, dancing and lounging at the bar, and Merlin couldn't really explain how he knew, knew, what they were. He kept his eyes averted from them, and was careful not to acknowledge them. He didn't need any more vampires honing in on him.
So he nursed his rum and coke, and kept a half amused eye turned on Will, who had been rebuffed by 'red dress' and had since found a rather more willing blond woman. Her arms were wrapped possessively around Will's neck, and they danced enthusiastically close, their hips swaying with the music. Merlin shook his head in mild, if friendly, disgust.
"Enjoying your evening?" a silky smooth voice suddenly purred from behind him, too close. He jerked in startled surprise and turned around to face... He immediately averted his eyes.
Even from his peripheral vision, Merlin could tell the vampire was attractive. He was about Merlin's height, well-built- and Merlin guessed that even alive he would have been strong- blond, and also clearly one of the 'vampires in disguise'. He didn't stand out like the spectacle that many of the other vampires in the room were meant to, but he also wasn't trying quite as hard to disguise what he was as the bouncer.
"Yeah. Thanks." He tipped his half empty glass at the vampire in acknowledgement, and then deliberately turned away again, nonchalantly trying to get the attention of the bartender. There was something predatory in the assessing gaze that he could practically feel as it shifted over his skin like a caress.
"That's good. I like to know that my customers are... enjoying themselves." There was deliberate emphasis on the word "enjoying" that made Merlin shiver involuntarily. He had to force himself to take a deep breath, and he shifted as far away as the stool would allow.
Except, the vampire clearly didn't take Merlin's hint. He moved deliberately into Merlin's space, took a deep audible breath, and sat pointedly beside him. And just like that, like magic, Merlin thought sullenly, the bartender was in front of them.
"Another..." blond and handsome trailed off and looked expectantly at Merlin.
"Rum and coke," he reminded the bartender, as he tried to continue ignoring the focused attention of the vampire at his side. He wasn't used to attention like this, predatory, and somewhere between hunger and unashamed desire.
"Rum and coke," he repeated, "And Synth for me, of course."
Synth was the synthetic blood substitute that vampires could drink instead of human blood, the invention that had led to the general knowledge of their existence, and then to the Vampire Citizen laws- just because someone was undead, it didn't make it legal. The laws had effectively allowed vampires to 'come out of the coffin' and into the public eye. At least in about one-fourths of the world.
There were still many countries where it was perfectly legal, encouraged even, to kill vampires on sight.
The laws were doing amazing things for business and tourism though. National debt too. You couldn't tax someone who was legally dead.
"Leon told me about you, Merlin," the vampire continued smoothly, "He was the vampire you met outside. He told me you recognized him for what he was, which is interesting because he can pass better than almost anyone else that I know." He trailed off and smiled when the bartender placed a wine glass full of deep ruby colored liquid in front of him.
"Pass?" Merlin asked with grudging curiosity.
"Pass for human. Most people don't realize what he is, at least unless he wants them to. Some vampires are more accomplished at it than others." He shrugged and smiled brightly at Merlin, and it took all of Merlin's willpower to keep his eyes averted. There was something strangely alluring about the vampire, for all the he was instantly infuriating as well. Something about the sound of his voice, and the too-graceful way that he moved...it made Merlin’s heart beat wildly in his chest.
"I guess I'm just really observant?" he finally offered halfheartedly, even though he knew as he said it that it sounded weak.
"Ye-es, I suppose that's entirely possible, especially considering the company that you keep."
Merlin immediately glanced over to where Will was still dancing with the same blond girl from earlier. He had a blissed out expression on his face that told Merlin he was probably high on something or other at this point. Not that it would keep him high for long.
They sat in silence for a while after that, Merlin doing his best not to be so hyperaware of the vampire at his side, while the vampire simply nursed his Synth, looking obnoxiously at ease. He seemed completely unconcerned about the goings on around him, and there was a strange stillness to him that was disconcerting. Even more so when Merlin realized that it was because he wasn't actually breathing.
And then something came back to him, a snippet of their earlier conversation.
"Your customers," he muttered and turned when the vampire chuckled.
"Figured it out have you?"
"You, this is YOUR bar?"
The vampire smirked at him. He looked strange and beautiful silhouetted against the strobe lights of the dance floor.
"Arthur." He offered his hand and a mocking smile that only grew larger when Merlin resolutely ignored it. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Merlin Emrys," Arthur said pointedly, and then he threw his head back and laughed outright when Merlin, continuing to ignore him, took his drink and walked stiffly away.
"Oh, don't walk away!" Arthur called after him, over the pounding music, and it was all that Merlin could do not to turn around and drench the sickeningly expensive suit- and it must be expensive if even he could tell- in cheap rum.
Because something about Arthur annoyed him. Except even as he thought it, he knew that that wasn't the right word. Arthur more than annoyed him- people annoyed him all the time, but it had never felt anything like this, never touched on any other emotion but the urge to throttle them. He did want to throttle Arthur, but he also wanted...
It pissed Merlin off even more that it didn't even have to do with the fact that Arthur was a vampire either. Just as a person. A person who he couldn't look in the eyes, and who could probably snap his neck as easily as Merlin snapped the little plastic sword in his drink in irritation.
They'd been in the bar for a while at this point, and Will was nowhere to be found when Merlin finally went looking for him. He suspected that he had either passed out somewhere, or followed the blond girl off to her car maybe. He wasn't very concerned one way or the other. Will was more than capable of taking care of himself.
He didn't feel even the slightest twinge of guilt as he fished his car keys out of his pocked and headed toward the parking lot alone. He hadn't had much to drink, and the night was turning out to be about as bad as he'd expected. He could feel his exhaustion creeping up over him, exacerbating the agitation that had been twinging at him since Will had walked into the shop.
The parking lot was mostly quiet , especially in comparison to the light and noise from inside. The protesters and media seemed to have gotten bored and moved on to other things, although there were a few token stragglers doing their best to harass the queue of people still waiting to get in.
Merlin got into his car quickly, suddenly strangely nervous in the dark, so he was grateful for the deceptive safety when he pulled the door home with a heavy thud. He let his eyes close and his head tilt back onto the head rest for a brief moment, before he turned the key in the ignition with a little twist of his wrist.
Before he could pull out of his spot, though, there was a quiet tap on his window and he practically jumped through the roof when he realized that there was a person standing next to his car. Someone who had most definitely not been there a moment previously.
Heart in his throat, he relaxed slightly when he realized that it was Arthur, looking unruffled and lovely and still entirely too arrogant. Merlin reached for the button to roll his window down, and he was pleased to note that his fingers were only slightly less steady than they had been before.
"You left before I could speak to you again," Arthur said to him as he produced a familiar glossy black business card with red embossed ink. "Take this, It'll get you back into the bar again. Although I do suggest keeping it to yourself. Your friend is an interesting character, and while we naturally extend our good will to the residents of the area, we don't appreciate his..." Arthur trailed off and shrugged, his nose wrinkling in obvious distaste, "Kind."
"Um..." Merlin blinked up at him, then blinked again when he realized he was staring into empty space. He'd would have questioned his sanity, but the business card felt like cold steel between his fingers.
'Arthur Pendragon' it said on one side. On the other side, above a delicate etching of a rose, was a phone number.
Merlin....didn't actually know what he was doing.
It had been a week since he'd been here, a week since Will had stumbled home with a goofy grin, a hickey, and the number of Merlin's new least favorite person. Actually, Vivian was probably a close second to Arthur Pendragon, but Merlin couldn't be sure. He changed his mind about twice a day, depending on his mood, and how obnoxious Vivian was being that particular day -- also the amount of clothes she was wearing factored in somewhere.
It had been a week since he'd thrown the black business card into the trash, only to dig it out again immediately to hide it at the bottom of his sock drawer.
It was just that there was something about the blond vampire. Something that had drawn him back to the bar today with his heart beating in his throat. He drummed his fingers nervously against the seam of the steering wheel as he just sat there for a few minutes, trying to catch his breath, as something he wanted to call anticipation, but might have been closer to apprehension, tingled down his spine.
He was wound so tightly, sitting alone in his car, that he jerked violently when his phone vibrated against his hip. He had to scramble to get it out, one hand absently fighting with the seat belt he hadn't bothered to undo yet, while the other fished frantically for the phone before it shut off.
"Hello?" he practically shouted when he was finally able to flip it open and hold it to his ear. He eyed the odd neon tinted dark around the bar nervously as he waited for a response.
"Gwen?" He hadn't had time to look at the caller ID before he'd picked it up, but he would recognize her voice anywhere.
"There's been a murder," she started. "We think it might be a vamp kill. I want you to come and take a look if you can."
He frowned, glanced toward the bar once last time, and then turned the engine back on, wincing when it made a disgruntled cough before it finally choked to life. "Where are you?"
He nodded when she read off an address in a tone of voice that suggested she was repeating what someone else was telling her. "I'll be there as soon as I can."
She hummed in response, and Merlin could hear indistinct voices in the background, before the phone beeped off without another word. He pulled it away from his ear, frowned down at it, and tossed it onto the passenger seat.
He definitely wasn't relieved, he told himself, as he pulled out of the parking lot and out onto the main road.
He didn't rush- he wasn't that grateful to get away from the bar, but he didn't dawdle either, because things must have been bad if Gwen had called him onto the actual scene. He might technically be on retainer for the police department, because there wasn't a single person with his skills within 100 miles, and no one else at all with his education within the state, but he was still relatively inexperienced when it came to dealing with actual crime scenes.
Still, his joint degrees in supernatural studies, as well as a doctorate in forensic pathology was almost uniquely unheard of currently, although there was a growing push for people to pursue a similar education now that vampire crimes were on the rise.
He wasn't at all concerned about his inexperience though. He was glad when he could help out, when his unique knowledge was exactly what Gwen needed to solve a case, but he had no desire to work for her full time. The money he got for being a consultant was better than the minimum wage he got paid for working in Gaius' shop, but that job didn't give him nightmares.
As he drove down the empty road, carefully following Gwen's directions, he wondered what new ones this crime scene would bring.
Not that he had much time to dwell on the matter in the end. Just as his mind started drifting down increasingly dark paths of thought, he pulled onto the final street in his directions.
It was dusky and shadow filled, despite the fact that it was lined with lampposts at regular intervals. At first he was confused why they remained dark, when they should have already flickered to life by now. The questions was answered, however, when he arrived at the first house, a thing of bare white washed bones that created even darker holes against the night, broken only by overly bright bits of plastic and building material scattered across a dirt lawn.
This was a new housing development, he realized. The few houses here were all in various states of construction, and because of its desolation, it was a perfect place for someone to meet a gruesome end.
As he reached the end of the larger road he was on, the bright flash of lights drew his attention to a smaller dirt road, a driveway probably, or a future driveway, that lead off to his left. There was another house near the end of it, standing tall and separated from the others he had passed so far.
If it wasn't already obvious that this was his destination, the mass of flashing police cars would have given it away.
When he finally pulled his beat-up car (a dark blue thing with a loud engine and a bad habit of stalling, up to the curb) he was immediately assaulted by the sights and sounds of a crime scene. It was both very like what he'd seen on TV all his life, and very, very different.
There was no yellow tape here. The location was too far removed from anyone who might cause the police problems for it to be worth it, although one of the cops milling around outside was quick to spot his car and march menacingly toward him. Probably to throw him off the scene. At least, he'd try.
Merlin was already pulling his white plastic consultant badge out of the glove box of his car so that he could flash it. He wasn't sure it would actually work, because it tended to only about half the time, and Merlin didn't recognize the man coming toward him. Although he'd been to a few of these things before, the uniformed cops had the bad tendency of showing an astonishing lack of brains when it came to anything relating to vampires. It wouldn't be the first time a cop had given him a hard time just because he could, and because it made him feel powerful in a situation where he probably felt anything but.
Whatever these cops were, however they normally comported themselves, even the best of them tended to spook when it came to the types of cases that Merlin got called onto. Which went a long way toward explaining the cop's sharpening glare after he read Merlin's name off of his badge.
"Emrys," the man started, and Merlin glanced down at the man's nametag to see that his name was Henderson. "The Lieutenant has been expecting you." And then he turned abruptly on the hard packed dirt lawn and headed toward the house, clearly expecting Merlin to follow along.
The yard was hushed as they walked along, and Merlin did his best to ignore the hostile stares that prickled along his back as he followed behind Henderson. He didn't think the various people, cops, detectives, people from the ME's office particularly hated him, at least not because of anything he'd ever said or done, but he knew he made the ones who recognized him nervous for some reason. The ones that didn't recognize him had looks more akin to consternation on their faces as he walked by them. They didn't understand what a civilian was doing there.
Which was another reason why his work with the police force was sporadic at best.
Cops, in general, were a superstitious lot. It didn't help that Merlin's field of knowledge was still quite small, obscure, and also very new to the public mind, and was therefore both looked down upon and viewed with an air of suspicion.
"Merlin!" someone called out to him, drawing him out of his thoughts, when he finally stepped across the threshold of the house. He looked up to fine one of the very few people who actually did seem to like him. Gilli Gladstone, local Medical Examiner, walked up to him with a wide awkward smile, although the pinched lines around his eyes gave Merlin the bad feeling that he wasn't going to like what he saw.
"Gilli," he acknowledged.
"I figured the Lieutenant would call you in. I'm glad you're here." Gilli made a point of glaring at Henderson as he deftly inserted himself between him and Merlin, effectively taking over the escort position. Henderson didn't seem to mind.
"Is it bad?" Merlin couldn't help but asking as they quickly ascended a flight of roughly planked stairs that felt worryingly unsteady beneath their feet.
Gilli winced as he drew back a strand of the yellow crime scene tape that had been absent up until that moment, and before he had a chance to say anything in response, Merlin saw red.
There was blood everywhere, dappling the rough dusty floor with patches of sticky burgundy. In his shock, Merlin had to do a clumsy little dance to avoid stepping in it, so he was grateful when Gilli placed a steadying hand onto his shoulder. He was even more grateful for the support when he finally began to absorb the scene before him.
The body was splayed out in the middle of the floor, clothes ripped and stained so heavily with blood that it was impossible to tell their original color or design. A large chunk of the person's throat was missing, and even from where he was standing, Merlin could see the startlingly white gloss of bone, immediately obvious as part of a human spine.
He gagged, and before he realized what he was doing, how it happened, he was once again outside, the cool night air licking across his neck as he wretched into the grass.
He'd seen a lot of bad shit in his life, but this, this was the worst.
When Merlin finally managed to climb the rickety steps, his breathing had evened out again, even if his throat still felt rough and swollen. Prickling embarrassment curled in his gut, and he had to work at keeping it suppressed.
"I don't think this was a vampire kill," he said softly when he was once again standing over the body. The gruesome scene was just as horrible as he remembered it, but he was more prepared this time, more centered and clinical with his thoughts. He had a job to do.
Gwen- Lt. Smith he reminded himself now that they were at a scene- smiled wanly at him, and her bright chocolate eyes swept appraisingly over his clothes. He hadn't dressed as ridiculously as he had the other night, but the tight black collared shirt, opened just enough to reveal a flash of naked skin, and his well fitted jeans were a far cry from the more conservative day wear she was accustomed to seeing on him.
"I hope we didn't interrupt anything?" she asked him, her words blasé and ironic, juxtaposed with the grisly sight that framed her. She raised an eyebrow at him and Merlin had to fight off a blush at her frank regard.
"Nothing important, Lieutenant."
Her thin smile turned admonishing, "Gwen," she reminded him, and then tutted when he shifted uncomfortably. This wasn't the place for being so familiar though, despite her insistence. Her division of the police department (nicknamed the "Burns Unit" behind her back, because people tended to burn out of it so quickly) faced enough challenges. The fact that she was a woman often made her job even more difficult. He knew how strong she was, how capable, but he still hated doing anything that might jeopardize her authority.
Besides, he could call her Gwen when there wasn't a case. Those nights when she let her dark curly hair down from its tight pony tail, and they went out for a much needed drink together, because friendship had been immediate and probably inevitable, after his first case for her. Their dates, rare though they were, were comfortable and enjoyable affairs, if not the kind ever destined to end with sex. He was resolutely gay, and she was too married to her job, but it was still nice to go out with someone who understood the practical elements of dealing with the supernatural. The long dark hours, the edge of fear that could tinge even the most inconsequential of cases.
The look on her face suggested that she was not convinced. "Why don't you think this was a vampire kill?"
Merlin hesitated, then straightened his back and moved carefully toward the body. He accepted the pair of blue surgical gloves that Gilli handed him when he reached the thing, the mass of meat and blood that he knew had once been human. A young man he realized, now that he was close enough to comprehend long limbs, dark hair, glazed blue eyes opened in accusing shock...
"Merlin," Gilli said gently into his ear, and he jerked, then shook his head to clear it.
"Sorry," he mumbled, and then, with a resolute set to his jaw, he squatted down to examine the body more closely, Gilli kneeling beside him. "I'll uh, I'll need to look more closely at the bite marks once the body has been cleaned up, and then I'll be able to tell you with more certainty one way or the other. It's just that," he paused as Gilli carefully moved aside a mess of cloth at the body's elbow, to reveal more tearing like at the throat. He worried at his bottom lip as he carefully probed the exposed wound. He didn't dare to breathe, fearing what the sickeningly sweet smell of so much meat would do to his senses. "I've never even heard of a vampire kill this messy before," he finally concluded softly. "Even at their most violent, and I admit that torture isn't unheard of, vampires are notoriously fastidious killers.
"Could it be torture?" Gwen asked grimly.
"I see no evidence of that. This was too violent and unrestrained."
Gwen nodded in agreement.
Merlin took her nod as a sign and slowly stood up. He turned away so that he could take the deep breath that his body was craving after such careful control over it while examining the body. It was too much of a mess, too torn up for his normal skills to be of much use at this point anyway.
"The thing is," he began once he got his breath back, "Even if you forget all of that, I can't begin to imagine the self control it would take for a vampire to leave so much blood untouched. It just doesn't seem possible to me. This, everything about this, is too messy. It almost looks like someone might imagine a vampire kill to look, like something out of a movie maybe, as if someone who doesn't know much about vampires wanted you to think that it was."
The lines around Gwen's brow crinkled up, making her look older than she was. She glanced quickly at Gilli, who was still kneeling over the body. When he just shrugged, her face turned into something a little more disgruntled.
"I don't know as much about vamps as Merlin here," Gilli said, "I don't know if what he says is true, but the wounds look like they could be consistent with a vampire bite. Although...also like Merlin said, I'd have to do a more thorough examination before I could say one way or another.
The quick scratching noise of pen over paper, coupled with the way that Gwen was squinting in concentration, all resonated confusion and annoyance to Merlin. She had the look on her face that he had slowly come to recognize as one she wore when she was trying to make a mad grab at something resembling logic. Which wasn't consistent with the level of concern or commitment she would show at the very onset of a new case.
"What do you know that I don't" Merlin asked her suddenly, convinced he was on to something.
She winced, then looked up slowly to meet his eyes. "I'm not sure yet," she admitted. "We found another body two days ago, but it seemed like a cut and dry case. No one had any questions that it was a vamp kill. The guy was seriously at risk already, an addict of some sort and homeless," she sighed and raked her hand through her hair. "It's not.... things like that aren't pleasant, but it does happen. But two vamp killings in such a short amount of time? I think they're related, my gut is telling me they are. One vamp killing isn't uncommon. Two is a rogue."
"Assuming this is a vamp kill," he reminded her carefully, and then, after a beat, "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," she said with long suffering annoyance, and then she sighed heavily. "The word on the street hasn't given us anything on the previous case, but out contracts with the vampires community are so limited right now, that even if there is some rogue out there, it's hard to say how quickly we'd hear about it. Hell, that's assuming we'd hear about it at all." She shook her head in frustration, and Merlin felt a wave of sympathy for her.
"The problem, is that we still need to talk to them, even if this, whatever this is, isn't the work of a vampire. If it's something else, maybe they have information that can help. It's just that, it's damn near impossible to talk to anyone with any power, and dealing with the few vampire who are willing to talk to us right now is slow and tedious. What we need," her gaze lowered to the body on the floor, "What we need," she repeated, "Are answers and expediency."
"Wait," Merlin interjected, "What do you mean? I thought Cenred was," he made a rueful face, " I thought he at least pretended to be cooperative with you and the police?"
"Cenred? Didn't you hear? Cenred... left town. About a month ago, and he took almost all of my contacts with him. What it all means I couldn't begin to tell you, except that there's some new head honcho in town now, and just about the only thing that that I've managed to figure out about him is that he owns that new bar that just opened." She shrugged her shoulders, her irritation obvious. "I tried to get more information by sending one of my undercover people in on the opening night, but she never did find out anything useful. Following a paper trail hasn't turned up anything either, because the bar is corporately owned."
"Oh." Merlin shifted his weight nervously back onto his heels at the mention of the bar, of its enigmatic owner, and his hand reflexively slipped into his pocket so he could finger the sharp edges of the business card tucked away there.
"Oh?" Gwen parroted back, raising her eyebrows in a faintly menacing way that suggested it was probably fruitless to try and withhold anything from her.
He sighed and pulled the little card free, reluctantly holding it out to her, something he regretted almost immediately. He felt strangely bereft without its presence, and all the implications and promises that it held.
"Arthur Pendragon," she read slowly. The named rolled off her tongue with a curious lilt as she turned the card over to rub a thumb absently over the raised lines of the phone number there. "Who is Arthur Pendragon?" Just as Merlin began to fear that she would keep the card, tuck it neatly away in her little notebook, or maybe stick it into the pocket of her sleek pant suit, she held it back out to him. When she did, Merlin had to refrain from snapping it harshly away.
He immediately slipped it back into place, uncomfortably aware of her assessing gaze, much more intense than the once over she'd give him earlier.
"The...he, well," Merlin stuttered as he continued to fidget under her intense scrutiny. He could feel a warm blush rising high on his cheeks when he finally answered her, "He said he was the owner of the bar?"
"Ah." The word was clipped. A beat later her eyes widened and she gave him another considering once over, this time taking in his clothes, his carefully mussed hair, and the hints of exposed flesh. "Where exactly were you going tonight, Merlin?"
He didn't answer, because she obviously knew exactly where he'd been going. She started biting at her bottom lips in a familiar gesture he's come to associate with trouble, much like Will's rakish grin.
"I really shouldn't..." she trailed off and shook her head. "If he won't meet with us," her eyes flickered to his pocket, where the business card had been replaced, "Maybe he will... I want you to go talk to him," she announced resolutely.
Gwen laughed at him, "Isn't that why you were going to the bar tonight anyway? Why you had the card in your pocket?"
"No. I mean, it was to get into the bar. Free. For free. Not... I wasn't going to..."
She placed a hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes, her own hard and serious. "We have two bodies here," she said slowly, voice deadly serious. "We can barely get the time of day. Um. Night, from the vampires even in the best circumstances. And now here YOU are with an actual phone number for their new master. Even if you can't get much out of him, it's still more than anything I can do, at least this quickly."
"But I'm not a cop. I don't know the first thing about," he bit his lip, and he knew he looked almost wild, "Interrogating people, or, you know, whatever..."
She laughed softly at him, and her "I'll coach you," was chiding and ironic. "You just have to get him talking. Get me a lead. Get me something. I think, if he'll talk to anyone," she paused and fingered the open collar of his shirt, popped one more button to reveal just a hint more skin, then continued softly, "It'll be you."
When Merlin pulled back into the now familiar parking lot of KNIGHT LIFFE, the darkness was complete and oppressive, despite the radio playing loudly over the speakers.
It was well past midnight now, and the digital display on his car dash read 1:15. It was kind of funny, he decided as he parked his car, that his evening should lead him full circle.
He turned the car off and the sudden silence from the lack of music was deafening.
He wondered where the evening had gone. How it could have slipped away so quickly, only to dump him right back where he started, sitting in a dark parking lot, his fingers drumming in nervous anticipation on the steering wheel.
Not that he was here, he hesitated to get out of the car.
He flipped the lighted car visor down to try and procrastinate a little, and he pointedly ignored the part of himself that told him he was acting like a school girl with a crush.
If anything, the thought just made him more annoyed with himself, and he slammed the visor back up angrily, then forced his shoulders to relax and sighed. He just wanted to go home. He was exhausted, and he was already fairly certain in the prospect of nightmares, and even more certain of the fact that Arthur would turn him all upside down and inside out.
Merlin took a deep breath and forced his mind to stop whirling. He just had to do this one last thing for Gwen, and then the night would be over.
The bar was new enough, enough of a novelty, that he wasn't surprised to see a queue of people still waiting to get in, despite the time. His shoulders slumped, and, somewhat disheartened at the prospect of a wait, he wondered why he hadn't just called the number on the card.
He began to make his way to the back of the line, only to stop when the familiar bouncer from the other night made a subtle waving motion in his direction. He couldn't quite stop himself from looking back over his shoulder for someone else, even though he knew with certainty that the vampire was beckoning to him. He hesitated for only a moment before he made his way over, quickly ducking under the velvet rope cordoning off the entrance.
He threw a quick 'thanks' over his shoulder, and then once again plunged inside, pointedly ignoring the grumbling of the people waiting behind him.
The bar, when he entered, was exactly as he remembered it. Loud. Music still pumped out over the speakers, the decor was exactly the same, and fog still covered the floor in a low layer that created a strange hazy effect. It made him feel as if he'd walked into a dream. Somehow it made the crime scene from earlier feel less real, but also more horrible for that quality, compared with the life and vitality around him. The people here, most of them anyway, were so very alive. They lived their lives in the crash and burn of music and movement, completely self assured of their invincibility. And why shouldn't they feel like that? Here they were, literally dancing with death, and they knew during every second of it, that they would be able to walk away, that a life still awaited them out in the sunlight of a new day.
Merlin almost couldn't bear to look at them as he pushed his way through the writhing masses toward the bar. "Excuse me," he mumbled, not that anyone could hear him over the music, when he bumped into a tall man with dark, curly hair.
He'd already plastered what he hoped was an apologetic smile on his face when the man started to turn around. Except as the man pivoted around toward him...Merlin could feel as the blood rushed like a tidal wave out his face, making him dizzy. The man's visage seemed to blur, transforming in front of his eyes to something dull and dead, with vicious tearing along his throat and white, white bone glaring through the mess.
He closed his eyes. His heart pounded and his head throbbed, only slowing when the man turned away with an annoyed grumble to fade back into the crowd.
Merlin stood there for a long time, like a human island amidst the flowing tide of people, until he was jerked out of his tired imaginings by a hand caressing across his neck. Despite how ephemeral the touch was, every sense that he possessed suddenly narrowed down to that spot on his skin. He was sure in that moment, with so many mixed signals firing along his nerves, that were it not for that same hand settling onto his shoulder, the solid presence at his back, he might have swooned.
"Merlin," a familiar voice whispered into his ear, and he shivered in a combination of horror and demented arousal, before he finally managed to turn in the embracing arms to face the person- he instinctively averted his eyes- the vampire that held him.
"I..." he fumbled, and he was left with just enough presence of mind to recognize that he probably looked like an idiot, staring wide eyed and mute. All the words that had come so easily, ranted over the sound of the radio during his drive back here, suddenly abandoned him. He wondered where his courage, his anger and indignation from their first meeting had gone.
He wondered if Arthur had been this attractive last time, too, although he knew that he had been. If anything, he’d probably downplayed vampire's physique over the course of the last week.
"I did wonder," Arthur said smoothly, "When you would come back here," and even though he didn't actually say it, Merlin heard the unsaid "To me," just as clearly as if had.
"I...." he started again, and he had to untangle his way out of the vampire's embrace before he could find his voice again.
"I was hoping we could talk."
Arthur raised a thick eyebrow at him, and a smirk curved his lips before he turned and stalked smoothly toward the bar, forcing Merlin to hurry after him, to reach out and catch his arm.
"Privately," he clarified, and Arthur's smirk became bright and dangerous. He shifted Merlin's hold so that his hand, instead of holding onto Arthur, was then trapped in turn, held in a grasp that was as gentle as it was unrelenting.
"I think I can manage...privately."
This time when Arthur started walking away, he headed toward a curtained wall where he revealed a hidden doorway concealed by artfully draped fabric. There was a narrow staircase behind the door, lit dimly by red tinted lights just bright enough to illuminate the narrow stairs, the navigating of which was made even more awkward because Arthur refused to let go of his hand.
The odd lighting didn't do anything to discourage the illusion that Merlin was heading into some strange new world, and the lounge that finally opened up before them didn't do much to waylay the feeling either.
Three of the walls were covered in expensive damask wallpaper, while the fourth was nothing but a single seamless tinted window that provided an excellent view of the main floor, of the people dancing oblivious to an audience. Merlin remembered seeing a mirror from the dance floor about where the window was.
The heavy modern furniture scattered strategically around the room was all black leather, punctuated by dark wood and silver fixtures, and there were a couple of vampires, as well as a young human girl who looked barely out of here teens, lounging there. The two vampires were sitting on the larger of the sofas, their legs facing intimately toward each other, while the smaller human woman curled between them and half across the male vampire's lap. There was a placid expression on her soft features, and she displayed absolutely no sign of concern for the red blotches of blood that smeared down the side of her neck and stained the silvery sequins of her dress.
'Messy,' Merlin thought fleetingly, and then he wondered how bad a night had to be when that was the only thing to come to mind at witnessing the afterglow of what must have been a very recent feeding.
At the sight of Arthur, the two vampires rose smoothly to their feet and made shallow bows, the woman supported easily between them. A meaningful nod in return sent them gliding smoothly toward another door at the far end of the room, although Merlin could still feel their gazes linger on his skin for a long time after they had disappeared through it.
The feeling was an unpleasant one, and nothing like the shivery pleasure that Arthur's gaze provoked within him.
"I'm glad that you have come back," Arthur repeated once they were alone, "I was certain that you would, but I," he pulled Merlin down with him onto the now vacated sofa, "Often underestimate the stubbornness of humans. I fear it is a flaw of mine. But then, you are...you're something more, aren't you?"
Merlin jerked away at the question and tried to stand up, but found himself stopped by the sudden press of a body rearing over him, bearing him back into the corner of the sofa. He stared shakily up at Arthur, who seemed to have only just barely restrained himself from pressing even closer. "What are you Merlin?"
"I'm nobody," he whispered, "Nobody. Just..."
But Arthur ignored him as if the question was nothing more than a rhetorical and pondering one- Perhaps it was- and he inhaled deeply against the skin of Merlin's neck.
When the touch of a tongue pressed softly to the thin skin just above where his pulse fluttered fast and hot, Merlin finally came back to himself, finally overcame his confusion and tong-tied silence. A blast of magic sent Arthur hurtling toward the glass window, would probably have sent a human through it, and only the fact that Arthur was supernaturally fast allowed him to turn his momentum into a somersault that landed him solidly back on his feet.
They stared silently at each other for a long minute, neither saying anything, and the only movement the rapid rise and fall of Merlin's chest.
When Arthur asked hoarsely, "What are you?" it was clear that he was actually taking the question far more seriously now. There was something calculating in his eyes too, as if he were making connections in his brain that were more far seeing than Merlin could imagine. "I've heard rumors of sorcerers. Of course I have, but I never imagined..." Arthur licked his lips, and his distended fangs flashed in the low light, making him look feral and inhuman.
It took Arthur another moment to compose himself, for his fangs to vanish back into his mouth, and when he finally approached again, he did so cautiously. His movements were slow and exaggerated, wary of another magical attack. His face remained blank and impassive when he seated himself again, choosing this time to sit in the chair perpendicular to the couch instead of beside Merlin as he had before.
If Merlin suddenly felt the insane need to apologize for his actions, he managed to hold his tongue.
"I'm here on consultant business. For the police department," he explained once they had both resettled themselves, as if such a mundane answer was all that Arthur wanted from him.
It was good to have some official cause to rally behind, and Merlin grasped at it like a lifeline, even as he pointedly ignored what had just happened, the implications of what had just happened, pointedly ignored the fact that his heart still raced in his chest. The formalities of the case, the vocabulary with all its technicalities inspired him to speak softly and clearly, and without any hint of a shake or stutter.
When he was done explaining the situation to Arthur, the vampire simply sat back, stroking his chin thoughtfully. His eyes were very, very dark, and his mouth was set into a thin line, but there were no other signs on his face of what he was truly feeling or thinking.
"I don't think it's a vampire kill," Merlin explained, "Or if it is, maybe it's a message of some sort...?" he trailed off and shrugged, because who was he to explain vampire behavior to another vampire.
Arthur only nodded thoughtfully at him, before speaking slowly.
"You are right. For a vampire to leave so much blood untouched is strange, but not entirely unheard of. I fear that I simply don't have enough information to be able to make a valid suggestion though. I have heard of nothing amongst my people that would suggest any of them..." he stopped and blinked rapidly, before continuing smoothly.
"I can of course look into the matter for you." And Merlin was left with the sudden idea that Arthur had left something out. That he knew something, but was refusing to tell him.
He also recognized that he was probably not in any position to push, so instead he reached into his pocket for Gwen's business card, white and plain, and the complete opposite of the one Arthur had given to him, still safely tucked into his other pocket. He handed it over.
"Lt. Smith of the local police department wanted me to give that to you. This, uh, talking to you about police business isn't really part of my usual job description," he explained apologetically. If Arthur was hiding something, Gwen could be the one to figure it out.
Arthur looked amused, and his seriousness began to diminish. "She knew I would talk to you." It wasn't a question.
"Yeah. She did." He can't help but feel a bit sullen about the fact.
"Well, tell your Lieutenant that I will let her know if I find anything out. My only other suggestion might be to check out Aredian Forrester. If this is, as you suspect, humans trying to mimic a vampire kill, I can think of no one with more of a motivation than he and Humans First."
Merlin's nod was as much an acknowledgement as a way to hide his sudden grimace. He had never met Aredian before, but he had met a few members of his extremist political movement "Humans First". It would be hard not to have met a few of them, in fact, considering that Camelot was their home base.
He suspected that Arthur' suggestion to look into the man would not be a surprise to Gwen.
Merlin stood, suddenly feeling every moment of the day as it crashed down on him. He had to stifle a yawn.
"I should go."
Arthur nodded and stood smoothly as well. "Let me walk you to your car then. There is a back way if you would prefer not to go back through the main bar." Arthur started to walk to the door that Merlin had seen the two vampires disappear through earlier.
"This isn't some devious plot to get me into your secret vampire lair is it?" he half joked tiredly.
Arthur's smile was incomprehensible, and then he was suddenly back in Merlin's personal space. “You are already in my lair."
"Oh. Well. Yes, I guess I am."
"And I dare say that you could protect yourself if you had to."
They stared at each other for a moment, although Merlin was careful to keep his eyes focused on Arthurs- mouth- nose. He had to fight the instinctive urge to sway closer, and for a moment he thought that maybe he'd somehow made a mistake. Maybe he had made the necessary eye contact to put himself under Arthur's spell. But no. He'd been so careful.
"Have dinner with me?" Arthur whispered into the still space between them.
"As a date?" He couldn't stop himself from blurting, "Or as the main course?"
Arthur's sudden laughter was bright and joyful, and the touch of his fingers to Merlin's cheek startled him out of his exhausted delirium.
Merlin's stepped away from the touch almost immediately, despite some part of his body that regretted the motion. He shook his head warily. "No."
Arthur's laughing face suddenly went smooth and calculating, and he made a point of tapping his finger against Gwen's business card, still grasped in his hand. "Very well," he said slowly and with a shrug. "Perhaps I will see you when I remember something... useful for your case."
Merlin's eyes widened as he understood the implications of what Arthur was saying.
"You're blackmailing me?" He asked incredulously.
Arthur shrugged, unconcerned, and completely free of guilt. "If I must."
Merlin licked his lips, and looked up at Arthur from beneath his lashes. His heart was pounding, and he wondered how much Arthur would take from him, if he gave even this small inch.
Arthur's amused gaze was heavy against Merlin's skin, and his voice was husky when he finally said, "Go home Merlin," before Merlin could voice the yes that tingled like something sweet and forbidden on the tip of his tongue.
And he did, though his cheek still tingled with the memory of that one final touch for the entirety of his drive back to his flat.
When Merlin woke up the next morning, his entire body was sore, as if he'd run a marathon the day before. Using such forceful magic tended to do that to him. In many ways his magic was like a muscle, and when he exerted himself too much without warming up or practicing, he would invariably wind up feeling sore and a bit bruised inside afterwards.
And he was out of practice. He hadn't really used much magic outside the basic and mundane chores to which he sometimes- and he would never admit to how often- put his abilities. He hadn't really used his magic in any serious capacity for years.
What he'd done to Arthur... he had never felt so much raw power within himself before. What had been intended to be a simple shove might have killed an actual human. Still reclining against his pillows, he brought his hands out in front of his face and stared at them, as if they were foreign to him. As if they weren't really his.
He was jerked out of his reverie by Will's loud voice, yelling at him through his door, and he dropped his hands with a start.
"Merlin!" Will yelled again, closer that time, and then he was pushing the door to Merlin's bedroom open, peeking just his head around the door. "Your damn phone's been ringing off the hook for the last half hour. Answer the fucking thing before I throw it out the window."
Will had dark rings under his eyes, and his hair was sticking out as if he'd stuck a finger into an outlet. Merlin realized belatedly that he must have left his phone sitting out in the kitchen when he stumbled home last night, so he hadn't heard it. But Will would have, because his bedroom was closer to the kitchen. He felt a smidgen of guilt, but quickly got over it when Will tossed the offending phone at him with a hard lob and an angry scowl. He slammed Merlin's door behind him.
The phone wasn't currently ringing, but the little digital display read '5 missed calls', and Merlin groaned when he realized they were all from Gwen.
"Sorry," he mumbled belatedly at his door, and then he nervously thumbed the 'send' button.
Gwen answered before it could even finish ringing once.
"Merlin. Where have you been? Did you meet with Arthur Pendragon last night?" And then, after a short pause, "Are you okay? I was worried."
He realized that she had probably been feeling guilty for sending him into the monsters lair. It had certainly felt like that to him, but he also knew instinctively that he'd been perfectly safe at the bar. Arthur could not have truly hurt him.
"I'm fine, but I just woke up. I can be down at the station in," he looked at the clock on his nightstand, "Half an hour?"
Gwen sighed, long suffering, and he could imagine her annoyed expression and resigned nod. She didn't understand. She was one of those annoying morning people. As long as she got her coffee. "Half an hour Merlin," and then she hung up on him with a click.
As he forced his body out of the warmth of his bed, he imagined that it was about what torture might feel like. His room was cold. A quick calculation told him that it must be close to the full moon, although the chill in the air was sign enough. Will's body temperature rose to the point of fever this time of the month, and he had the bad habit of turning the air down to almost frigid to compensate, despite Merlin's annoyance, and the often brutal battles that took place over the thermostat.
He was too groggy to fuss with it at the moment, though. As soon as he was dressed in mostly clean clothes, he walked out the door without giving the thermostat more than a disgusted glance.
The air outside was actually warmer than the air inside, but he still shuddered in relief when he could finally get into his car and turn the heat on. About the only consistently reliable function in the piece of junk. "One day..." he muttered, and he allowed his mind to linger over the prospect of having enough money to get a new car. A car with heated seats, and maybe a heated steering wheel. And also, if he felt like splurging, one that could defrost the rear view mirrors with a push of a button. Oh! and that could parallel park itself too...
His thoughts tapered off as he pulled through the drive thru window of the nearest Starbucks. He'd probably be late now, but Gwen could get over it. He needed his coffee fix too, and she would find him much more useful, not to mention coherent, once he got some caffeine pumping through his veins.
Latte finally in hand, he pulled up to the police department with two minutes to spare, although he knew that by the time he got through security, and then picked his way back to the obscure little corner that her office occupied, he would be late.
And she didn't hesitate to call him out on it. "You're late, Merlin."
"Good morn...uh," it was actually about 12:30, "Afternoon to you too." He flashed her his brightest smile and then whipped out his peace offering. The cup was plain and white of course, and if anyone asked she'd say it was "just coffee". It wasn't though, and she practically purred when she took a delicate sip of the white chocolate mocha. Her soft eyes suggested that all had been forgiven.
"So," she said, her demeanor more gentle now, "I'm assuming you met with Arthur last night?"
He nodded, and his cheeks flushed as he remembered the baffling encounter.
"I gave him your business card. Hopefully he'll call you. He didn't know anything though; at least that's what he said. I think he might have been lying, but I can't say for sure. I got the sense that he knew something, or at least suspected something, but he didn't say what it was." He collapsed into the seat across from her desk, his own coffee cradled protectively to his chest, "His only other suggestion was to check out Aredian Forrester."
"Yes," she agreed with an ironic smile. "Not a very original suggestion, especially since I already met with him this morning."
Merlin's eyes widened, and he looked at her in surprise. Before he could say anything, Gwen continued speaking.
"Of course he didn't know anything, and he mostly spent the time explaining to me how these murders are proof of his words." She sighed in exasperation, and Merlin couldn't help but wonder how long she'd been subjected to the man's vitriolic speeches. He almost felt bad for her... until he remember how she's sent him back to the bar last night. She'd known exactly what she was doing.
"So nothing helpful," he summarized.
Gwen nodded. "Basically. It doesn't really mean anything at this point, but as of now, there's no reason to look into him further."
Merlin trusted her judgment enough that he just shrugged and absently fiddled with his coffee cup. He certainly wasn't going to tell her how to do her job.
"So what am I doing here?" he finally asked her curiously.
I wanted you to come with me to the morgue. ME Gladstone has completed his autopsy, and he wants your opinion." She stood up from her desk and rolled her shoulders to get out the ache after what must have been a long morning of paperwork, if the disaster on her normally tidy desk was anything to go by.
"Come on, I'll drive." She quirked an eyebrow at him. "I can't believe you're still driving that little blue monstrosity of yours."
He glared at her back, half in anger, but also half entranced by the way the thin sun filtering through her single dirty window, glinted off the baby blue silk of her blouse as she stalked quickly out of the office. She absently grabbed a soft white faux fur coat from the back of the door as she did, sliding it around her shoulders once she was in the hallway.
"Yeah." He hurried to catch up, walking at her side out to the back parking lot.
The drive to the morgue was comfortably silent. Merlin still cradled his Starbucks in both hands, and he took careful sips every once in a while, until slowly he started to feel truly awake. Gwen seemed to simply enjoy driving, especially now that the morning rush was long over and the streets were quiet. The crisp fall weather lent itself toward a truly beautiful day too, and everything seemed bright around them.
Merlin leant back in his seat and let himself simply enjoy being alive. After the night he'd had, it was a good feeling.
The city morgue was a low sleek looking building. There was a single security guard right inside the front door that Merlin recognized from previous visits, but whose name he could never remember, other than that it was something foreign. The man nodded at them when they approached, absently waving them toward the sign-in sheet, and then onward without ever saying a word.
When they finally worked their way through the maze of corridors and into the main autopsy room, Gilli smiled brightly at them. He carefully set aside the clipboard he'd been scrawling on, and walked toward them, his blue lab coat swinging open to reveal a truly horrendous green, and extremely out of season, shirt with the words "Kiss me, I'm Irish!" written on it.
"Merlin! Lt. Smith." He gave them both a chipper nod.
"Good to see you, Gilli," Merlin said fondly, and then stifled a laugh when Gilli blushed and shuffled his feet.
"I guess you guys are here about the murder victim?"
"Yes," Gwen said. She shivered a bit in the cold, and Merlin sympathized with her. It was always on the cold side here, out of necessity, and he wasn't sure he'd ever be truly comfortable with the sterile, slightly stale scents that he had long come to associate with hospitals and death.
When Gilli offered each of them a pair of blue surgical gloves, of which he seemed to have an endless supply, Merlin took them and struggled his way into them.
"I figured you guys'd be here soon." Gilli moved to one of the bight silver surgical tables, where a covered body was already laid out on top of it. "Ready?" he asked, when both Merlin and Gwen were standing close by, and then, without waiting for an answer, he quickly peeled the crisp white sheet away. He seemed entirely too cheerful in the presence of the body, that had been, until recently full of so much life and potential.
Not that MEs were known to be a particularly sane lot. It was only another reason on Merlin's list of reasons why working for Gaius was the better choice for him.
At first glance, Merlin almost didn't recognize the body laid out before them- it was that different from the horrible mass of meat he remembered. All the blood had been long since washed away, and there was a neat row of stitching cut into a "Y" shape across the chest. The heavy ripping at the man's throat, and in the crook of one arm, reminded Merlin more of curling plastic than flesh.
"Have you been able to determine if this is a vampire kill yet?" Gwen asked. She looked intense and angry, a little green too, Merlin noted, which was interesting because she'd been fine at the crime scene itself.
"I've come to a conclusion. Yes. But I want Merlin to take a look before I say anything."
Merlin gave the man a sideways glance, but nodded slowly in understanding. Gilli didn't want to influence his thoughts in any way. He got that, he did, but it didn't alleviate the long beaten into him sense that he was being tested in some way.
His examination was quick, but thorough, and all the supplies that he might need were thoughtfully laid out, silver and bright, on a little tray. There were also half a dozen x-rays clipped to a light plate located against the way, and just to the left of the table.
Merlin could feel a headache growing as the evidence slowly started to become clear before him, and Gwen's impatient questioning of everything that he did wasn't helping.
"So?" she asked him, when he finally pulled the gloves off and tossed them away.
"I might have been wrong."
She raised an eyebrow at him. "How might you have been wrong, exactly?"
"There was definitely a vampire involved here. The wounds are most definitely consistent with vampire fangs, and based on my measurements, the work of two of them."
The look on her face wasn't quite smug, but it was close, so he took pleasure in her confusion when he asked his next question.
"Did the CSU fine a bullet on the scene by any chance?"
"A...a what?" I thought you just said..."
"There are signs of a GSW in the neck," Gilli jumped in for him, gesticulating excitedly, apparently unable to sit back any longer. "It's disguised by the tearing. It goes a long way toward explaining why the scene was so, so bloody."
"And why the victim wasn't drained," Merlin added. "There was intent behind this, it wasn't just some random attack."
"But I've never heard of a vampire using a gun?" Gwen's voice rose in a questioning lilt, but this was a puzzle that none of them could work out. Not yet. Merlin had faith in her though, because for all that she might seem delicate, she could be a force of nature when a situation called for it. Added to her simple desire to protect, to bring justice to those she couldn't, Merlin would put his life on her finding the answer eventually.
"I can't imagine why a vampire would, and that's only slightly more fathomable than the idea of a vampire covering up a murder committed by a human."
"The why is my job," she sighed. "I will catch the sons of bitches responsible for this." She turned to look at Gilli again, "Is there anything else I need to know?"
Gilli nodded, the morbid excitement never leaving his eyes. "You're looking for a .9mm caliber bullet most likely. Also..." He paused dramatically, "Based on the approximate measurements of the fangs, the same vamps who attacked your victim from a couple of days ago." Gwen didn't seem surprised by this, more relieved that her suspicion had been correct. "The rest of the evidence is still processing, and it'll be a couple of days before I get the reports back from the lab,” Gilli continued. “We also haven't been able to get a positive id of the victim yet. I have someone coming in later though, looking for a kid that matches our John Doe here. Hopefully...well... not hopefully, but if we're lucky the kid'll be who he's looking for and we'll have a name." GIlli looked awkward, and his mouth screwed up with the understanding that he obviously wasn't saying the right thing. "I'll let you know," he finished lamely.
Gwen acknowledged the words with a pat to his shoulder, before she broke out her notebook to make several quick notations. "Thank you, Gilli," and then she turned and, discarding her own gloves, and walked out of the stale and sterile room. Merlin followed along behind her, but he passed one final look over his shoulder at Gilli as he did, just in time to see the man offer an awkward little finger wave goodbye.
"So." He said when he was once again seated in the passenger seat of Gwen's sleek black Charger.
"So," she parroted, and then, "I've got a bad feeling about this case."
"Yeah, me too." The car was silent for a few minutes as they both processed what they'd just learned.
"I... think we can probably rule Aredian out," she said softly, thoughtfully, to herself. If this is a human-vampire partnership, he's the last person I can imagine being involved. There's no way I can see him willingly working with a vampire."
"I think that's probably fair," Merlin said slowly. He knew Gwen wouldn't completely rule the man out, she couldn't afford to just because it was improbable, but he agreed that the prospect of Aredian being involved didn't seem likely.
She looked at the clock on the dash. Almost 2:00. "I better get you back. Me too, actually." She groaned, and Merlin suspected that it hinted at more paperwork in her immediate future.
They drove along in silence after that, each of them caught up by their own heavy thoughts.
Gwen was the one to break it first, and she turned her head to give him a teasing smile. "So, Arthur Pendragon?"
He blushed, but he was pleased for the distraction, and glad to have someone to talk to. "What about him?"
"I'd never seen you look so nice, before last night."
"Oi! I look just fine right now, don't I?"
She laughed at him in the giggly happy way that only a girl could manage, before her face suddenly turned very serious. "He's a vampire Merlin. I hope you know what you're doing."
"I..." He groaned and scrubbed a hand over his face. "To be honest, I don't have a clue. He's infuriating. The biggest prat I've ever, but he's also shockingly gorgeous and... there's just something about him." He laughed ironically. "When I'm with him I'm all tongue tied. I can barely get a word out, and when I'm not, I can't seem to shut up about him can I? What does that mean?"
"He has you glamoured?"
"No. No I don't think so. I think if he were human I would still..."
"Be all wobbly eyed?" She suggested in a laughing voice.
He shot her a mean look, and was thankfully saved from any further conversation when the large stone building that was Camelot Police Headquarters came into view.
She dropped him right in front of his car, although she couldn't help but make a quip as he got out, keys in hand.
"I'll just wait here in case you need me to jump your car."
He glared at her. "Ha ha. Very funny."
His relief when the car turned over with only a little resistance was probably not at all in proper proportion with the situation. Honestly, he couldn't bring himself to care.
The temperature outside had clawed its way into something comfortable, if a little windy, and as he headed home, he decided that it was worth the effort of manually rolling down his car window. The breeze felt good against his skin, carding through his hair, and he let himself absently day dream as he drove. He was just grateful that for once that day, he wasn't being plagued by images of death.
The sun, instead of invigorating him, only served to make him drowsy. As he pulled into the parking lot of his building, he decided that a nap was to be the first order of business.
All thoughts of a nap were quickly curtailed, however, when Merlin finally stepped inside the chilled entrance to their flat, where he was greeted with the sight of an obnoxiously large bouquet of roses. They sat on the little entrance table just inside the door, and even from a few feet away, Merlin could smell their sweet fragrance.
"Will?" he yelled into the quiet flat. He stared at the roses as if they presented a physical barrier blocking his way.
"Merlin?" the response was soft and a bit choked off. Will walked out wearing the same tattered pajamas he's been wearing earlier. His eyes were red rimmed as if he'd been crying, but there was a faint smirk on his face too. "Those arrived for you about an hour after you left." He nodded his head at the flowers, which Merlin moved toward with all the caution that he might use approaching a snake.
They smelled sweet, and the color was a rich red. The color of blood. He didn't miss the symbolism of it, even though he also understood the romantic gesture.
A plain black card was clutched delicately in the grasp of a forked plastic holder. There were no words on the card, but the message, the understanding of who the flowers were from, was undeniably clear. He shivered.
"Merlin?" Will's voice was ragged. "Who the hell is sending you roses?"
The silence dragged out between them, and Merlin fidgeted guiltily. He'd talked about Arthur plenty since that first meeting. Mostly disparagingly.
"I can't believe his nerve..."
And now, after this second meeting, he had to fight off inappropriate sexual fantasies. A background of damask wallpaper on a billboard he'd seen on his drive back home had practically sent him swerving off the road with a sudden influx of memories. Memories of Arthur pressing him into the corner of the couch, his body solid and maddeningly heavy.
"Oh. My. God." Will gasped disbelievingly. "These are from the vamp, aren't they?" What the hell are you doing Merlin?"
"I wish I knew," he sighed. "And what about YOU?" He looked his friend up and down. He knew it was close to the full moon, but that didn't explain Will’s abnormally disheveled appearance.
Will's face immediately fell, and the look of mirth vanished so fast that it was jarring. "Got a call a few minutes ago. Morris is dead. He," Will's face went white and he shook his head, "Apparently he was murdered. God. He was like the most submissive person I've ever met. He didn't deserve..."
Will trailed off and licked his lips. He looked almost frail standing there in the wan light coming through the dirty windows. It was not a look Merlin was accustomed to seeing on his friend. Will had always been the strong one of them, the rock that Merlin could cling to when things got crazy or stressful.
Merlin's sudden urge to pull his friend into a hug was as much a selfish gesture, as it was a way to comfort Will.
Will stiffened at first, and then went boneless almost immediately. They rarely hugged, but that just made the few times they had, more meaningful. He didn't cry, but he let Merlin hold him longer than he'd ever admit to later.
Merlin hadn't met Morris before, but he'd heard plenty about him. About how Will had taken the young man under his wing over the last year, because Will was good like that. Once he decided that he liked someone, he developed a protective streak about a mile wide, that, while it drove Merlin crazy sometimes, was also terribly endearing.
Merlin let his vague thoughts about Morris drift away as they both stepped back by some silent mutual accord.
"Thanks, Merlin." Will's color, along with a shadow of his normal pessimistic grin, had returned.
"Any time. You know that."
Will nodded, and then picked up the flowers as if they smelled foul rather than sweet, and opened the door onto their little cement balcony. He set them on the ground, and then closed the door and pulled the curtains so that the room was cast into shadow, and the flowers were lost from view.
"I should have listened to him," Will said softly to the closed curtains, although the words were clearly for Merlin. "He didn't like all the new vamps coming into town. Said it would be trouble, and now he's dead."
There was nothing to say to that. No comfort that Merlin could give.
"C'mon," Will rallied finally, "Let's make some popcorn and have a Quentin Tarantino marathon. I want to look at Uma Thurman's boobs for a while."
And so they settled back, eating bad microwave popcorn, drinking worse beer- although Merlin switched to water about the time Uma Thurman's character got buried alive.
He had the beginnings of a headache as he reclined on the couch about five hours later. Long enough to have gotten through Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2, and the beginning of Reservoir Dogs.
"Mr. White is so fucking... he's fucking badass," Will slurred vaguely, never turning away from the TV to face him. He had the glassy eyed look of someone who most definitely was drunk. Well past that point, in fact, if Merlin were to go by his particular boneless sprawl and the slight slurring of his words. He'd be down for the rest of the night if he kept up his steady drinking, werewolf constitution or not.
Merlin hummed gamely in response, and then groaned. He finally convinced himself that he really couldn't wait any longer to take a piss. Besides, he'd seen the movie before, so he didn't really mind getting up that much. He'd just lacked the motivation to do so before then.
He didn't think Will would mind much either.
He had just washed his hands and was heading back to the couch when the doorbell rang. He frowned, glanced back toward the living room to his roommate, and then shrugged and detoured to the front door.
"Arthur?" His face went slack in astonishment at the incongruity of seeing Arthur, perfectly pressed and gorgeous, standing in the grubby hallway outside of their flat. It was dark outside, he figured, but at a little past 7:30, only just.
"Merlin!" Arthur sounded genuinely surprised, which was preposterous, and pleased, which was less so.
"What in the world are you doing here?"
"I'm taking you on a date, remember? I suggest," he raked his eyes over Merlin, pausing for a long obvious moment at the place where he knew his pajama bottoms were slung inappropriately- it hadn't felt inappropriate when it was just Will- low on his hips. "That you change. Unless you don't want to. We could always stay here. Find a be..."
"I'll change," he said, mostly because he was afraid of what Arthur's idea of an alternative might be, but also because he was sort of happy for the opportunity to get out. Will was far too drunk at that point to care if he was there or not. The point of friendly support had swiftly passed them by about the time Will had started in on his second case of beer, and had been unable to clearly keep Merlin in focus. An issue that was, apparently, selective, since he didn't seem to have any problem focusing on the TV.
"OK," Arthur said, but he made no move to step inside. He cleared his throat meaningfully, and eyed the threshold. "Can I...come in?"
"Oh. Ooh! Yes, yes of course. Come in."
Arthur stepped gracefully around him, and then frowned as he looked around the messy apartment, "Did you not receive my gift?"
"Gift?" Merlin's brain felt sluggish after such a slothful afternoon.
"I arranged for flowers to be sent."
"Oh. The...the flowers. Right." He looked guiltily toward the balcony.
"They're outshide mate," Will slurred distractedly. Merlin jerked his head to look at Will in surprise and annoyance. He was still glued to the flickering TV, and Merlin had no idea when he'd even taken notice of Arthur's presence.
Arthur's face fell, and a he looked almost sad for a moment, before he got control of himself and a completely blank look replaced the hurt.
"I'm allergic?" Merlin suggested, but the words came out sounding like a question. He glared when Will snorted, but relaxed when he didn't dispute the claim.
"Ah. Well. No more flowers then."
No one said anything for a moment. The air was heavy and Merlin took the opportunity to flee while he still could.
"I'll just..." he motioned vaguely down the little hallway that led to his bedroom. "I'll be right back." He slipped into his room, desperately hoping he had something appropriate, and most importantly, clean, to wear. He had the bad habit of only doing laundry when it became critical, which usually meant when he was out of clean underwear, but even then he sometimes preferred just to buy more. He had finally broken down though, and done some of his laundry only a couple of day ago in a bout of manic energy as he had contemplating going back to the bar. So he was in luck. He quickly pulled on a pair of dark wash jeans, a gray fitted t-shirt, and his nice leather jacket, before slipping quietly back into the living room.
He had a suspicion that Will and Arthur in the same room together for too long was probably not the best idea. Especially considering the maudlin state Will was currently in. Indeed, the two were glaring at each other when he came back, but Will was still lounging on the couch, and Arthur was still entirely too gorgeous, casually leaning against the wall, so he figured nothing too horrible happened.
"Merlin," Arthur acknowledged. His voice was pitched low and intimate, and he shivered at the sound of his name.
"If you are."
He nodded, and then he caught his roommate’s gaze from across the room. Will had a hard look in his eyes, and he mouthed a quick 'be careful' at him, just as they stepped out into the hall.
It was only when they were down at street level that Merlin stopped. "Should I drive? Do you drive?"
"Of course I drive. How do you think I got here?"
"I dunno. I thought vampires couuuullld...fly?" He trailed off. It sounded completely ridiculous as he said it, and he laughed at himself. "I guess I never really thought too much about it. How vampires got around, I mean."
Arthur looked at him fondly, his head cocked to the side to reveal an excruciatingly enticing line of jaw. "I knew there was something special about you as soon as I saw you. I just didn't realize it was idiocy until now." His smile softened the insult, turned it into something else that had Merlin's gut twisting as if Arthur had just said something cheesy and romantic and cliché like, "You have beautiful eyes."
"That sort of thing turn you on?" he quipped, because how else was he supposed to respond?
Arthur laughed and opened the passenger door of a very small, very sleek, sports car that probably had its origins in Germany or Italy or somewhere. "Apparently."
The restaurant was nice. Really nice. Merlin fidgeted with the hem of his shirt, more self conscious here than he'd been in a mesh shirt and eyeliner, standing in front of a bar with Bible-thumping idiots shouting at him.
"Arthur," he whispered, "Why didn't you tell me that we were going somewhere so nice?"
Arthur frowned and looked him up and down, something like surprise lighting behind his eyes. "You look perfect. Don't worry."
"Why are we here anyway? The flying thing aside, I know you can't actually eat."
"This place is supposed to have the best steaks in Camelot. You deserve the best." He might also have muttered something under his breath about iron levels, but Merlin couldn't be sure.
Instead of sitting in a terribly exposed portion of the restaurant, or by the kitchen, where Merlin would have ended up if he'd ever tried to come here on his own, they were led back to a table set into a private alcove. The waiter who attended them -- "My name is George" -- was perfectly polite and perfectly unobtrusive.
As Merlin sipped at a glass of what must have been extraordinarily expensive wine, judging by George's reverence as he poured it, Merlin finally felt at ease with Arthur.
He had a pleasant buzz from the wine, and the beer from earlier, and Arthur proximity was heady, but for once, not overwhelming. He seemed genuinely interested in Merlin too, even when he knew he was babbling. About his mum, and Will, and growing up in a little town about an hour south of Camelot called Ealdor. About his degree, and working with the police force, despite how bad it could be sometimes.
He might have even mentioned the creepy dragon clock at the shop at one point.
And through it all, Arthur simply watched him, nodding along at all the right points, asking polite questions that proved he was listening. It was all...Merlin didn't entirely know what to think. He'd never had a date like this, never felt so content with another person before.
He took a deep breath and welcomed the distraction of George arriving with his food. The steak was good, and Arthur watched him take each bite, as if by studying every flex of his mouth as he chewed, he might somehow absorb some of the flavors as well.
As Merlin finished the last bite of his steak, he looked up from under his lashes, watched as Arthur took a compulsive sip out of his own glass. The deep red of the liquid wasn't so different from the wine Merlin was drinking, but it was thicker, and it stained Arthur's mouth for a second before he licked it away.
Merlin's eyes riveted to the movement as avidly as Arthur had watched him eat.
The tension between them was thick as butter, and Merlin's heart started to pick up speed within his chest. He knew he had to somehow break the spell that was growing between them, because he wasn't entirely sure what would happen if he didn't, and that scared him.
"Thank you. For this. Dinner," he croaked, his voice sounding hoarse and breathy. At his words the tension bled away a little, settled into something not quite as immediate, but still present. Still full of potential. He looked pleased by the compliment.
"I'm glad that you are enjoying it. It's been a very long time since someone has caught my interest so thoroughly.”
"How...I mean, if it's not too rude to ask, but how old are you?"
Arthur looked pensive and almost sad for a moment, and Merlin jumped in quickly with, "You don't have to tell me, if you don't want. You won't hurt my feelings."
"No it's fine. I just don't think about my ... original life very often. I've forgotten many things about it. The few memories that I do have are- it's hard to explain. It's like the difference between watching an old black and white movie, and then watching a movie in the theaters today, all bright and vivid and full of action." He shrugged. "That probably doesn't make any sense, does it?"
"No. I think I get it actually." He did, at least a little. He wondered what it must have been like to live for such a long time, to have seen so much. A single person could not possibly hold so many lifetimes in their head at once.
"I know that I am over 800 years old," Arthur finally said after a thoughtful pause. "If it matters. I was a knight in my first life. I remember having a sword and wearing armor, fighting, and trying to be noble even when it was hard." His voice lowered, and he brought his hand to curl around Merlin's jaw. "I still try to be noble." He paused, licked his lips, "You are just making it very, very difficult."
"Am I?" Merlin's own voice was low and raspy, and his eyes followed the deliberate swipe of Arthur's tongue across his lips, stayed there even when it vanishes back into his mouth. He wondered, vaguely, what it would be like to kiss someone with fangs, if he'd have to be careful. If he even wanted to be.
"Will there be any dessert tonight, gentleman?"
The question shattered the moment completely, and Merlin pulled back with a jerk. Arthur's twitch was almost imperceptible, but sitting so close, Merlin saw it and was glad that he wasn't the only one to have felt the spell around them so strongly. In the wake of it now, Merlin was left feeling frazzled and breathing hard, and the sudden appearance of the waiter, of someone else in the intimate little space he shared with Arthur, was startling.
Merlin hated the waiter- George- for all of his immaculate composure. Hated him more for the fact that he was completely oblivious to the moment he'd just interrupted.
Arthur sat back more slowly than Merlin, the movement graceful. "No. That will be all." He picked up his wine glass and took a long sip. His face was carefully blank, and the sudden distance between them felt vast, not just a matter of physical distance, but something less tangible. "The check will be fine."
George made a shallow bow and backed away.
"Thank you," Merlin said again, later. "This was nice." He didn't need to tell Arthur that no one had ever taken him on a date like this before. Or that no one had ever looked at him the way Arthur had, before they'd been interrupted- with hunger, and something else, something impossible for all that they'd only spent so little time with each other.
Arthur relaxed and smiled at him, and the change that came over his face made him look strangely vulnerable, before he pulled Merlin up from the booth with a strength that took his breath away.
"Come on. The night's not over yet."
"It's still early. You don't think I'd let you go so easily do you?"
The night was very dark when they made their way outside, linked arm in arm. Merlin was surprised by how warm Arthur was at his side. It felt pleasant against the evening chill. He swayed closer as they walked toward the car, reluctant to lose the feelings of solid, safe, happy. His world was perfect, and for once he was completely content with his life, with the moment. It was a rare feeling for him, but he relished it, rolled it under his skin like he might savor something sweet under his tongue, so that he could remember it later.
The trees rustled with a gentle breeze, the only sound Merlin could hear over the slow thudding of his heart.
The sudden buzzing of his phone against his hip startled him so badly that he stumbled. He gave Arthur a grateful look when the vampire's embrace tightened around him, keeping him from falling in what he was sure would have been an embarrassing show of his lack of coordination.
He pulled his phone out and then slumped his shoulders when he read the display. He was already giving Arthur an apologetic look when he finally answered the phone.
Arthur raised an eyebrow at the name, but kept silent at his side.
"Merlin, there's been another murder." She sounded as cool and collected as always, but he could tell that she was angry and also a bit exhausted, emotionally and physically if the fatigue in her voice was anything to go by.
"Do you want me to come take a look? I'm with Arthur," he added in what he hoped was a tactful way. It wasn't like he'd been much help on the last scene.
She clearly didn't get the hint. "Oh, good. See if he'll come with you. Maybe he can get a better read on these murders if he sees an actual scene."
Merlin sighed, already mourning what he was sure would have been an exceptionally good night. Once he was done with this new crime scene, he knew that the only thing he'd want to do was go home, maybe take a shower, and go to bed. "I'll ask him."
He pressed the speaker portion of the phone against his chest and gave Arthur a serious, if regretful, look. "There's been another murder. Lt. Smith would like you to come take a look at the scene as well. If you want." His eyes focused on Arthur's mouth for a moment, and he couldn't stop the words, "You could say no?" from rushing out of his mouth.
Arthur gave him a wistful look and shook his head. "As much as it pains me, I think we must go to this scene. Perhaps I will be able to find some clue about who is doing this, that your human senses could not detect." Arthur traced his hand over Merlin's cheek, and he turned his face into it.
"A rain check on that second half of the date then?"
Arthur laughed, the sound soft and seductive. "Count on it."
Arthur was silent as he drove them through the suburbs of Camelot. He didn't follow any directions, but had instead, much to Merlin's amusement, programmed the address into his phone's GPS.
"In 500 feet," a stilted feminine voice announced, "turn left."
Neither of them said much during the short drive, and any buzz Merlin might have been feeling vanished in proportion to the tension that once again settled into his shoulders. He sighed and looked out into the darkness, and then turned back around when he felt Arthur's eyes on him.
"What?" he asked softly.
Arthur shook his head and gave him a considering look. "I don't like that you are sad," he finally said.
"I'm not sad."
"I think you are."
"I... I just hate this kind of thing," Merlin admitted softly. "I don't like going to crime scenes. I don't mind the bodies usually, but... there's something about seeing them in the actual scene. Seeing them laid out where they've lost their lives. It's so... vulnerable. So..." Merlin knew he wasn't articulating this well. It was an odd fear, something that kept him up at nights sometimes. The idea of being laid out while so many other people milled around, saw him laid bare and vulnerable and unable to do anything about it, as if he might still have some awareness, despite being dead. "It's even worse when it's at someone's actual home. Where you can see their things, their photographs and their messes and all the little secrets of their life, and know that none of it mattered. That it's all just stuff, and the person will never come back for it."
Arthur gave him a long look. His lips were turned down into a frown, and his brow was furrowed as he considered Merlin, considered his words. "If you dislike it so much, why do you do it? Why did you go into this field of study?"
Merlin's mouth pinched, and then he let out a long breath and slumped back into the seat. "I've always been drawn to the supernatural. When I was young, when I was naive, I thought... I thought maybe I could use that for good. That I could help people. Silly right?"
"No. No it's not." Arthur reached out and slid a hand along his thigh. The gesture wasn't sexual so much as intimate. "I think it makes you even more intriguing to me. You are a good person, Merlin."
They both went quiet for a long moment, after that. Arthur's hand was a warm presence through the denim of Merlin's jeans and it made him feel better. As if someone believed in him, in what he could do, acknowledged that what he was doing was meaningful, and that meant more to him than he'd ever let on.
The sudden lightening of the sky by bright flashing lights clued them in to their destination , just as the electronic voice of the GPS cut into the moment, broke the silence. "At the end of the road, take a left, and then your destination is on your right." The words were violent in contrast with their little moment of understanding, but Merlin couldn't say he wasn't a bit relieved either. He rarely talked about his insecurities, and it disconcerted him how easily he had just done so.
As they pulled up toward all the commotion, Merlin let his thoughts shift into something more businesslike, and he was instantly struck by the difference between this scene and the last one. This was a far cry from the hush and desolation from a couple of nights ago, mostly because there was about ten times the amount of people. The police were busily setting up barriers and crime scene tape in an attempt to stem the tide of curious onlookers, all milling around as if this were some sort of reality TV show.
The situation wasn't helped by the fact that the crime scene was right in the center of an upscale suburban neighborhood. It was nice, which meant nice houses and nice yards and shitty fucking people, all doing their best to see past the lights, yellow tape, and disgruntled police officers.
What that almost meant was that with his ID still in his own car, Merlin was about as likely to get past the barrier himself as he was to get into Area 51, especially with a vampire in tow.
"I could fly us over?" Arthur offered. Merlin shot him a mean look, sure that Arthur was teasing him about his earlier comments. When he saw Arthur’s serious face however...
"You're serious?" he said incredulously.
"Flying into a crime scene where their main suspect is a vampire is a recipe for getting a chest full of silver bullets."
Arthur gave him a rueful smile, "Probably for the best that I can't actually fly then."
Merlin punched him in the arm, and didn't feel the least bit guilty for it. If it hurt his hand more than it hurt Arthur, he didn't want to know. He- gingerly- pulled his phone from his pocket.
"We're here, but I think you're going to have to get us an escort onto the scene," he said once Gwen answered.
And a few minutes later, Merlin recognized Henderson's discontented face weaving through the sea of people and other cops. He gave them hard glares, but didn't hesitate to motion them forward and under the tape.
The crime scene itself was actually in the back yard of the house. Conscious not to trample any potential evidence, Merlin and Arthur walked carefully across the grass to where Gwen was standing over the fallen forms of an older lady and a young man who might have been her son.
There was almost no blood this time. Merlin was grateful for that at least.
Gwen turned to look at them when they reached her side. She offered a hand to Arthur, who took it with a smile.
"You must be the lovely Lt. Smith?" Arthur said with a blinding smile that, for a moment, made Merlin feel inexplicably jealous.
"And you must be Arthur Pendragon."
He released her hand, and offered a shallow bow in acknowledgement "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Gwen."
She snorted and gave Merlin an amused look. "I get it now," she said cryptically, and then she patted Merlin on the shoulder in what he wanted to think was sympathy, but probably wasn't.
"So what do you know so far?" Merlin asked as they turned back to look at the bodies. Gwen straightened, and immediately went all business, pulling her little notebook out of her pocket with quick, efficient, movements.
"The victims are Mary Collins and Thomas Collins. The house is under Mary's name, but it looks like her son recently moved back in after losing his job. Other than that, we don't know much."
Merlin studied the corpses for a long moment, and then turned away. There was very little blood around them, but somehow, seeing the two together was almost worst. Everything about the first victim had been theoretical. The scene had been so impersonal.
With the Collins it was hard not to think about them as real people, to think about them in terms of their home, the two beat up cars out front in the driveway, and all the other things that had been lost with their deaths. Everything around them told a story of their lives, and now they were gone.
Sensing his distress, Arthur placed a warm hand on his shoulder, before he turned to Gwen. "Do you mind if I examine the body myself?"
She nodded. "No touching though."
"Of course." Arthur turned and squatted down. Merlin sighed, forced himself to remember his professionalism, and joined him.
Unlike the first body Merlin had seen, there was no question that this was a vampire attack. There were two messy puncture marks on each of the victim's throats. The skin around each mark was dark and bruised, and Merlin knew that the two had not died peacefully.
He looked at Arthur and raised a questioning eyebrow, then flinched when Arthur's eyes met his. They were dark and stormy, and there was rage building behind them.
"These are vampire kills," Arthur confirmed. His voice a menacing growl that made some of the cops standing around flinch. As he said it, his face turned up to the sky, and his tongue darted out of his mouth, almost as if he were somehow scenting the air, smelling something or sensing something that no one else could.
"Do you have any idea who could be doing this?"
Arthur was quiet for a long moment, but when he spoke, there was a warning in his voice. "No."
Merlin wondered if there hadn't been some sort of power infused the word as well, because to his surprise, Gwen didn't question him further.
"If I find anything, you can be assured that I will let you know," he promised her, and then he stood, pulling Merlin up to his feet as well.
"Is there anything else you want me to look at?" Merlin asked her.
She sighed and shook her head. She looked strangely vague for a moment, before her eyes cleared. "At this point, I don't think there's really anything else you can do." She eyed Arthur, "I'm sorry I dragged you both out here for nothing."
"It wasn't for nothing," Arthur replied coolly. "I needed to see this, so it was...fortuitous that you called when you did." He didn't sound like that was true, if anything he sounded bemused and a bit annoyed. Still, the fiery anger in his eyes had not left, and Merlin couldn't help but wonder what he knew, but wasn't telling them.
"If it is alright with you," Arthur continued, "I'd like to get Merlin out of here?"
Gwen nodded and smiled, "Of course. And again, it was a pleasure to meet you Arthur. I hope we can continue to work together."
"That is my hope as well." And then he took hold of Merlin's arm and began to drag him away.
They did their best to work their way through the maze of yards, trying to get themselves back to Arthur's car as discreetly as possible, because leaving a crime scene was a hell of a lot easier than entering one, apparently. Merlin couldn't bring himself to say anything as they walked, but when they finally got themselves secured in the car, he turned on Arthur angrily.
"Did you glamour Gwen?"
At least Arthur had the grace to look slightly guilty. He shrugged noncommittally, not that he actually needed to say the words for Merlin to know that he was right. "It was only a minor glamour, nothing serious. There was nothing I could tell her, and I didn't want her to keep you there all night either."
Merlin sighed and slumped against his seat. The truth was that he was grateful. The only reason she'd let him go from the last scene was because she'd wanted him to go the club. If she'd had her way tonight, he'd have probably been there for hours.
Sensing that he'd swayed Merlin over to his point of view, Arthur smiled smugly at him. "And now we can still go on the rest of our date," he said gleefully.
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him and shook his head. "Actually, I think it's probably best you take me home." When Arthur's face fell, Merlin felt his own wave of guilt, but he held his resolve firm.
"It was good to get out. I...I really enjoyed tonight...uh, well, not this part, but earlier." He winced as his mysterious Arthur induced stutter returned with a vengeance. "I should probably get home and check on Will again though."
"I would feel better if you returned to the club with me," Arthur said, voice suddenly very serious. "If you don't want to stay with me, there are plenty of rooms where you can sleep."
"Why?" Merlin gave Arthur a long, sideways look. He was sitting rigidly, and the lines around his mouth and eyes were pinched, as if he were thinking very hard, or as if he were working to restrain himself.
And then a thought struck him. "This has to do with the murders, doesn't it? You think...." he frowned and turned his body to look at Arthur full on. "You think I'm in danger?"
Arthur deflated and his shoulders slumped. He looked suddenly haggard and much older than his normal physical appearance of late twenty-something.
"I don't know. These murders aren't making any sense. I just...." he turned his head and returned Merlin's look, "Don't know."
Merlin tried to smile reassuringly at him. "I'll be alright. I promise. I have magic, remember?" He smiled and held out his hand. A small blue orb flashed into existence, hovering a few centimeters above his palm, illuminating the interior of the car in an eerie blue glow.
Arthur stared at it, enraptured for a second, and a small smile finally quirked the corners of his lips.
"And besides, I have Will. He won't let anything happen to me. I just... I want to go home..."
Arthur had tensed again at the mention of Will's name, but he finally relented. "Alright." And then his wicked grin reappeared, "But don't think you're getting out of that rain check."
"Never," Merlin deadpanned in response, not quite managing to keep from smiling.
Merlin threw his roommate an annoyed glare and collapsed into one of the cheap kitchen chairs, which creaked ominously with his weight. "What is that supposed to mean?" He wasn't nearly awake enough to have this conversation, and he gratefully seized onto the coffee mug that Will practically slammed onto the table in front of him.
Will grunted at him and sat down on the opposite side of the table. He looked haggard, and his eyes were deeply bruised. "I'm just worried about you Merlin. Vampires are trouble.... I don't like it that this one has taken an interest in you."
Merlin snorted. "A bit rich, coming from you," he replied, "considering it was YOU who dragged me to the vampire bar in the first place."
"That was different, that was fun. I figured we'd see a vamp or two..." Will deflated, and he legitimately looked upset. "I wasn't expecting you to, to get involved with them though. Vampire business is vampire business, it's not something a normal person-"
"I'm not a normal person." Merlin cut in. "Look," he sighed, "I know you're trying to help. I know you're upset about Morris's death, but this is my life and I know what I'm doing."
"Do you? You know Morris was killed by a vamp then?" The anger was back in Will's eyes. His face had gone ruddy and his body was tense and practically vibrating with energy. Merlin didn't need look, to know that Will's nails had been bitten down to the quick and that he was probably too thin. "A vampire Merlin, just like the one that you spent your evening with."
For a moment an image of the first body at the construction site flashed through Merlin's mind. If that body had been ID'ed, Gwen hadn't said anything to him last night- he wondered if it would have occurred to her to, if Arthur hadn't done his little vampire trick. It didn't matter though. He wouldn't wish that death on anyone, and he wouldn't let himself imagine that scenario for Will's friend until he had to.
Still, he made a note to ask her about it later. Another vampire victim would surely be related to their case.
"I'm sorry," he tried to placate, "But just because one vampire did something horrible, it doesn't make them all horrible. Just like you can't blame all humans for the acts of just one. Or hell, all werewolves. Are you telling me that a werewolf has never been responsible for killing someone?" Merlin raised an eyebrow at Will's outraged face, and then made a point of looking at the clock, before Will could respond. "Look, I have to get ready for work," and he stood slowly, wincing as he stretched, and set a hand on Will's shoulder, flinching at the fever heat that radiated out from his friend's skin.
"I'm worried about you," Will finally emphasized, relenting, but unwilling to let the subject drop entirely. "I didn't like that vamp in our apartment last night. I don't like the fact that you know firsthand how violent and evil they can be, but you're still gonna date that one. Aren't you?" Will's body drooped and his energy drained away. He seemed to know Merlin's answer too, because his "Just be careful. Please?" sounded disappointed, but resigned.
"Arthur's a good person, vampire or not," Merlin said as he began moving out of the kitchen. "He wouldn't hurt me."
Will grimaced, "Just don't hesitate to blast him to the fucking moon if he ever does."
Merlin smiled. "Already did," he reassured, and he was gratified when Will looked up in surprise. The beginnings of his normal grin began to spread across his face in as close to an apology as Merlin was likely to get. Deciding not to press his luck with Will's temperamental emotions, he took the opportunity to slip out of the kitchen on a high note.
The coffee was finally starting to seep back into his nervous system, and a quick shower finally had Merlin awake for the day. He'd told Will that he needed to get to work, which...wasn't entirely true. Gaius wasn't expecting him until two, but Merlin figured he wouldn't mind a bit of extra help, not to mention the fact that he still owed Gaius time for leaving early the previous week. The extra overlap would also give him the opportunity to talk to Gaius more. He had a way of being both wise and objective, and that sounded exactly like what Merlin needed right now.
Will's comments in the kitchen had been harsh, but they'd also struck a little too close to some of his insecurities about Arthur. He had never considered himself to be a rash person, never felt so innately connected to someone else before, and he didn't understand what this was with Arthur. The date last night had been nice, really nice, the kind of nice that meant he was already looking forward to a second one. It shouldn't have been the kind of nice that made his mind start coming up with words, god help him, like love. Not so soon.
And that scared him.
He opened his sock drawer and quickly took out a pair of clean socks, then paused before closing it again. He pushed the remaining socks aside to reveal Arthur's business card that he'd replaced last night, then moved on to open the heavy book he's placed there that morning. Between the pages, pressed flat now, was a single rose blossom, cut from the bouquet Arthur had sent him. The petals had lost their vibrancy, and it didn't smell as sweet anymore, but just looking at it made his heart quicken in his chest.
He took a deep breath, then closed the book back over the flower, shuffled everything back into place, and left his room.
Will has obviously retreated as well, because he wasn't in the kitchen any longer. Merlin was grateful. He didn't want to fight. They'd been too close for too long, and that inevitably meant that they did, but he always hated it. He sighed, eyed the coffee maker and half considered brewing up another cup- working with Gaius did not cover his Starbucks addiction by half- then disregarded the idea and slid out the door.
It was cold outside, the coldest day yet, and the sky looked like it was threatening rain again. Merlin pulled his jacket tighter around him and made his way over to his car. He cursed when it refused to start at first, and he finally resorted to giving it a little jolt of his magic to get it running, albeit loudly.
He was almost grateful when he finally got into work. The storefront was cheerful against the slowly darkening backdrop of grey sky and swirling leaves, and, by that point, a few fat raindrops. He parked his stupid car in the back employee lot and walked in through the private employee entrance.
Merlin had to bite back a grin when he finally made it into the main part of the shop. The store was obviously empty and Gaius was humming, badly, along with the pop radio station filtering in through the speakers. He had to bite back a laugh when Gaius did a strange shuffling dance-esque type move, and he stopped trying to restrain entirely himself when Gaius actually, when he actually twirled, putting him face to face with Merlin.
He froze, and his face flashed from surprise, to anger, to bemusement all in the space of a few seconds.
"Merlin!" He said, surprised, and then he frowned. "I thought you weren't coming in until two? It's not two is it?" He looked toward the clock.
"Uh no." Merlin replied, stifling a laugh. "Not two. I'm early."
"Ah. Well..." Gaius' face was a deep red now, and he started fussing around to cover up his embarrassment. "In that case, is there something you were hoping to discuss?"
Merlin shook his head and absently began fixing the items suffering in the wake of Gaius' post embarrassment destruction. "No. Not really..." He trailed off and sighed heavily. That wasn't true, but he couldn't seem to find the right words, or, more like, he couldn't bring himself to say them. "My magic seems to have gotten stronger," he finally said when Gaius gave him a searching look.
Gaius frowned at him. Merlin couldn't figure out if the old man didn't believe him, or just somehow knew that he hadn't said any of the things he really meant to. In the actual moment, talking relationships with Gaius didn't seem like the best idea after all. "Gotten stronger you say?” Gaius said. “Interesting."
"Tell me have you experienced any changes in your life recently? Something major."
"I...don't think so." Merlin replied frowning. "Why?"
"It is no longer common knowledge," he explained finally, "Although the truth is, most sorcerers these days are simply not powerful enough to notice." He stopped and offered Merlin a sly grin, "But then, you aren't normal by any stretch."
"What isn't common knowledge?"
"A sorcerer's magic isn't a fixed thing, and therefore it will often go through changes throughout a person's lifetime. Growing or... fine tuning, if you will, based on a person's needs, or situation. Often this takes place in tandem with psychological, emotional or physical changes- puberty for instance is the most noticeable example, and why most modern sorcerers think that that is when a person comes into their power."
"Uh. Unless I'm mistaken...that's really, really not the issue."
Gaius laughed and patted him condescendingly on the shoulder. "I should hope not. I'm talking about something else though. Something major, that changed you on a fundamental, soul deep level. You can't think of anything like that? What were you doing when you first noticed your magic had matured?"
The question immediately brought a flush to his face, and was reason enough for Merlin to throw a suspicious look at Gaius for somehow managing to get to the heart of the matter anyway. "I uh..." He licked his lips. "I was with someone. A vampire."
"Were you scared?"
"No. Not scared. I mean, I was, but..."
"You are interested in him romantically," Gaius concluded with a knowing smile.
Merlin blinked, and he felt a blush heat his cheeks. "Yeah, I think so. What does that mean?"
"As I said, the kind of change that would affect your magic so dramatically, would have to be something dramatic on its own." Gaius paused and looked uneasy for a moment. "Traditionally, there are three times in a person's life that this happens. When they become cognitively aware of their surroundings, of the idea of self. So as a child. During puberty, and... when meeting their soul mate."
"Soul mate?" Merlin laughed. "That's...I don't even know how to respond to that. He's a vampire."
"Be that as it may, the only other explanation I can think of is that you were simply out of practice."
The excuse sounded weak, but Merlin grasped onto it with all his energy." That could make sense? I haven't exactly needed to use any big magic for a while..."
Gaius sighed and then looked up when the chimes on the door sounded. "Perhaps." he conceded over his shoulder, already heading toward the front of the store to great their customer.
With nothing better to do, Merlin slumped his shoulders, doggedly refusing to allow Gaius's suspicion to have free reign in his head, and headed toward the back room to get a head start on going through the big monthly shipment that had arrived some time that morning.
The labor of it was soothing, distracting him from the panic that periodically threatened to creep up on him. His trusty box cutter was a comfortable weight in his hands, and it was nice to have some time in which he didn't have to think about anything but what he was doing.
"I hope you aren't expecting to get paid," Gaius said from the doorway a while later. Merlin looked up at him, absently rubbing a thin sheen of sweat off of his brow.
"I wouldn't dream of it," he replied with a faint smile, knowing that Gaius didn't actually mean it. In fact, he probably paid Merlin more than he should.
Gaius nodded, and walked back to him. His eyes were sympathetic and when he pulled Merlin into a gentle hug, he didn't resist, but melted into it.
"It'll be all right Merlin."
For a desperate moment, Merlin was afraid that the tears welling up in his eyes, chocking in his throat, would fall would fall. Gaius' intuitive sympathy was almost more than he could take. Finally he forced himself out of the comfortable embrace and turned away. "Thanks Gaius. I think I needed that more than I thought."
"Any time, my boy." He placed a comforting hand on Merlin's shoulder, but didn't try to get him to turn around. "Just be true to yourself and everything will work out."
He nodded, even though he knew Gaius couldn't see him. The vague advice was something he expected from the old man, in between his never-ending tidbits of knowledge.
"Now. I think it's time for me to head home and give these old bones a rest. I trust you can manage the shop for the rest of the afternoon?"
"I think I can manage that." Merlin’s voice still sounded a bit rough, but after a few deep breaths he was feeling well enough to turn around and watch as Gaius walked slowly to the back door and toward his car.
When he was finally gone, Merlin headed out toward the front of the shop to keep an eye on it, and to take a break from unpacking their shipments.
It looked like it had probably been a fairly quiet morning, if the tidiness of the shop was anything to go by- aside, that is, from the few objects still out of place from Gaius' earlier discomfited fussing. Which meant there really wasn't much more for Merlin to do but stand around until it was time to close up for the evening.
As the gray afternoon wore on, it continued to stay quiet. A few regulars came in for their tea fixes, and a gaggle of teenagers shuffled their way inside near dusk. More to get out of the drizzling rain for a few minutes than anything else, he suspected. It all added up to a quiet, easy shift, and when closing time came around, he was not in any hurry to leave. Inside the shop was nice. It was orderly, and he knew his job and his place. There were set tasks that required no interpretation or struggle.
Nothing like his real life at the moment.
Just as he was about to close things down for the evening, the chime on the door jingled.
"We're closed mate," he said, not bothering to look up.
"A shame," a richly cultured voice responded. A very familiar by now, voice. He jerked his eyes up to meet Arthur's amused gaze.
"Arthur! What are you doing here?"
"Hm. I was thinking I needed some tea. Any suggestions?"
Despite the frantic rhythm of his heart at the sight of the vampire, he couldn't stop the beginnings of a grin. "Tea is it? It's a shame we're closed for the evening. You'll have to come back I'm afraid."
"Oh, I plan on it. Although, on second thought, forget the tea."
Merlin laughed , then choked it back when Arthur suddenly blurred, coming back into focus only a foot in front of him. He gulped, his throat clicking. When Arthur leaned forward to capture his mouth in a gentle kiss, he didn't resist.
He did pull back a second later though, absently licking his lips. "I uh. I need to finish up here." And then he frowned and looked at Arthur considering. "I thought you had to be invited inside?"
"Only into private homes. A public space is fair game," Arthur replied with a hint of laughter in his voice. "Now go and do what you must. I figure, it's raining outside, therefore I am free to claim my raincheck."
"I...don't think that's how it works."
"Mm..." Arthur responded absently, tracing a finger over a replica of a fertility goddess statue.
Suddenly cursing his earlier lackadaisical approach to closing, Merlin had to rush to finish up his tasks for the night. He did manage it though, and in record time.
"Alright," he said with a deep breath, and then he shepherded Arthur through the back room and out the private door there. He turned the lock with a final, pleasing click. "Done."
"Very good." Arthur responded. "Now. How about we go somewhere warm?"
"And dry?" Merlin asked archly, because just standing there, even with the small awning, he was already getting wet.
"And dry," Arthur confirmed, holding out his arm in a gentlemanly gesture for Merlin to take. In his other hand was a large black umbrella that he held over both of them
They hurried, hunched over, to Merlin's car. The umbrella kept the worst of the rain off of them, but the wind was blowing it sideways, so they got wet anyway. His fingers scrabbled for the key, then fumbled to get it into the lock. Arthur did his best to stand over him and protect him from the worst of the rain, for all the good it did either of them.
As Merlin fussed with the keys, almost dropped them, he didn't notice that Arthur had gone tense beside him. He was shivering too much, and was too focused on getting inside the car.
He did respond, couldn't help but respond, when Arthur made a strange growling, almost animalistic, noise in the back of his throat.
The sudden pain in his chest was strange and dull. A part of his brain started screaming desperately at him, but another part was simply too incredulous to comprehend what was happening. The world didn't feel real, his skin didn't feel real, and when the true pain finally smashed into him, it took his breath away.
He felt himself falling, was dimly aware of the keys slipping out of his numb hands. H belatedly understood that the pained crying he heard was coming from him.
"Merlin! Merlin!" Arthur was leaning over him, his face frantic and beautiful.
He reached up to touch him, to trace his finger over Arthur's lips, catching the beaded raindrops that clung to his face.
"There's blood on your face," he heard himself say, his voice sounded wondering and breathless. The drops of blood looked like tears, streaking down Arthur's face. It was fascinating. And kind of sad.
He felt the need to apologize suddenly, as the world started to go dim around him, but he couldn't find the words. Or maybe it was just that the idea of speaking was too hard just then, too painful.
He wondered what it was like to die, and in his last fleeting thoughts, he hoped it would not be as painful as living.
He frowned, and rolled his head to the side to see Arthur sitting in a plush leather chair. Arthur looked pale, and strangely haggard, like he'd looked back at the crime scene...when? Only this wasn't a brief glimpse. Arthur didn't look young at all at the moment. His hair seemed dull, and his eyes were rimmed in red, and then Merlin registered the fact that he was looking into Arthur's eyes. He flinched and averted his gaze. He must have been more out of it than he thought.
Arthur chuckled weakly at him. "You know, if I'd ever been able to, I could have glamoured you long before now. I tried once, when we first met, and you never even knew it. Even if I could have then I... I can't now." He looked guilty, and he reached for Merlin's hand, stopped, and then jerking away before their skin made contact.
"What do you mean?" Merlin's voice sounded scratchy even to his own ears, and his throat was dry and rough so that each word felt slow and tedious.
The guilty look on Arthur's face faded to be replaced by determination, as if by sheer force of will, he was refusing to be cowed, although Merlin had no idea by what.
Merlin tried to sit up, to face Arthur directly, only for a dull pain to rip through his chest, taking his breath away. It was a strange pain, and not like anything he'd ever felt before. It didn't have the immediacy of an open wound, more like his skin was too tight, or like the pins and needles sensation of a limb waking up, only much, much worse.
"What happened?" he gasped, as he struggled to catch his breath. He remembered even as he asked the question though. He remembered falling, the world fading. Blood. "Oh god! Was I..." His fingers scrabbled at his now bare chest, feeling for something other than the smooth pink of flesh.
"Merlin." Arthur was suddenly at his side, holding his hands away from his body, manipulating him as if Merlin’s struggles were no more to him than the beating of butterfly wings.
He could feel his magic racing up from the depths as his panic grew. He could feel it prickling up to the surface of his skin, reaching curiously toward Arthur as if it somehow recognized him. And Arthur must have somehow felt it too, or seen it in his eyes, or something, because Arthur's eyes widened. But he clenched his jaw and continued to press Merlin solidly back into the bed.
"Merlin," Arthur hissed again, very close from where he leaned over him. "You're fine. I'm not going to hurt you. You're fine." He continued to croon softly to him for awhile, Merlin had no idea how long, talking him down from his strange craze. Something that was baffling in its own right, that Arthur seemed to have the power to do even that in the first place, vampire glamour or not. "You're fine. I promise. You're OK. I won't let anything happen to you..."
Until finally Merlin came back to himself. He let himself relax as the pain in his chest receded and the world settled back into its abnormally bright focus.
"I'm...I'm okay," he whispered hoarsely up at Arthur, and he shifted against the bed, suddenly keenly very aware of their position, of what it meant. "Let me up?" he asked softly, "I promise I'm okay, just let me up."
Arthur moved off of him with ease, but he stayed close, practically swaying toward him, as if it was physically difficult for him to move too far away.
"What happened? I remember...dying?" Merlin’s movements were slow, and one of his hands subconsciously clenched over his chest again, as if to reassure himself that he was indeed whole.
"You were. And I saved your life. I couldn't lose you, couldn't let you die." Arthur was very close again, leaning toward him, head angled as if preparing for a kiss, and though long practice warned Merlin to avert his gaze, he couldn't. Arthur's eyes were strikingly blue.
"I bound you," he whispered into the space between them. "I tied your life to mine, and I'm . . ." Arthur stopped and his eyes fluttered closed. "I'm not sorry."
And then he pulled away, startlingly fast, and turned his back to Merlin. His voice, when he spoke, was low and weighed down by a thousand years of sadness. "I have claimed you as my mate, my eternal companion. I have shared my life force with you, and we are... We are two halves of the same whole now. You share my immortality, and I share your humanity. Neither of us can survive without the other."
Merlin blinked rapidly at the words. Arthur seemed to be speaking clearly, but somehow his words seemed to be coming too fast for Merlin to understand. Or maybe Arthur was speaking another language, something foreign that he wasn't sure wanted translated for him.
"I don't understand."
Arthur sighed, but didn't turn around. "You were dying and I could not bear the thought of losing you." He said this matter of factly, but the next bit came to Merlin's ears soft and uncertain and pained. "I did what I had to do to save your life, despite the fact that it was without your knowledge. I know it was... unforgiveable of me."
And just like that, Merlin got it. He felt it, some ineffable tug to his heart that made his body cry out at him to cross the distance between them. Arthur had done something to him, created some sort of bond between them, after he'd been shot, because... because... he didn't understand the why? They'd only known each other for such a short amount of time.
Merlin stumbled out of the bed, because it was too intimate, with Arthur so close. He tried not to let himself think about the fact that he was apparently only wearing thin sleep bottoms, and licked his lips, forcing himself to back away to the other side of the room. The more space between them, the better he could think. He could feel himself trembling, but he was too stubborn to let himself give into it. If Arthur thought his trembling was due to physical weakness, and not the desperate desire to be closer to him, Merlin was okay with that just then.
He bowed his head, because it was easier than seeing the hurt on Arthur's face when Arthur turned around to face him. There were too many emotions and strange feelings. Too many things Merlin didn't know or understand, and he needed space. He'd always been his own person, and the thought that that might not be true anymore... He mentally cursed. He didn't know Arthur, not really, and Arthur didn't know him, despite how viscerally his body seemed to respond to the vampire. And now... Now they were what? Whatever bond had been created between them was against his will, was a violation of the deepest order, no matter what the circumstances, and it scared him.
He was grateful to be alive, but at what cost?
"I need to go," he finally said.
Arthur's quick reply turned all Merlin's emotions to anger so quickly that he felt his throat tighten and his breathing quicken.
"What?" Merlin could feel his magic gathering at his fingertips again, boiling under his skin so fast that he was left breathless. The idea of letting it all out in a rush of confused emotion sounded wonderful, cathartic even, and it was all he could do to restrain himself
Arthur must have recognized it too- and Merlin baffled at how attuned he seemed to be to it now- because he held up a hand in a warding gesture. "Look. I'll go. I just don't want you leaving. It's not a good idea for us to be separated right now, and it's almost morning. I need to be here. But more importantly, I need to know that you are safe. I was too wrapped up in trying to save your life, " Arthur was clearly gasping at this fact like a lifeline, "To find the person who shot you. If he were a human, Arthur would have been breathing hard with his convictions by that point. "I don't know why someone was trying to kill you, but whoever they were, they're still out there. I will not risk your life."
"Your life too," Merlin whispered hoarsely, because although he knew the words were cruel, he was pretty sure that he understood at least that part of the arrangement.
"My life, too," Arthur agreed coolly, his entire body going stiff as he said it. "Just stay here. I'll make sure someone comes to check on you, and then we can talk when I wake up for the night. Please?"
Merlin nodded slowly, and as the adrenaline seeped out his limbs, he was suddenly very aware of how tired he still was. He flinched when Arthur appeared in front of him, again, blinding speed making his movement across the room almost unperceivable, almost magic.
"I'm sorry Merlin. I hope you can forgive me. I've never... been drawn to anyone like this before. I could not have lost you, and I... I'm not sorry." He repeated the words as if by doing so, it would make them true, make Merlin believe them as well.
Arthur leaned forward and pressed a quick, chaste kiss to Merlin's lips. Then was gone from the room like a breeze, leaving Merlin cold and bereft in his absence.
He reached up and touched the spot where Arthur's lips had met his own, and then practically collapsed back onto the bed, sitting with his head bowed low and cradled in his hands. He had to work at controlling his breathing, and it took a long time before he let himself relax, stretch out on the bed, and finally fall into a fitful sleep.
Finally he sat up, absently rubbing a hand over the smooth flesh of his chest as he contemplated the dark room. There was nothing to give away the time of day, although his internal clock suggested that it was probably mid afternoon. It was hard not to feel a little lost, and harder still not to let the loneliness of the sparsely decorated room overtake him, despite every cell of his body crying out with the feeling. It finally drove him to his feet, had him looking for... his skin ached for a touch that he didn't know how to invoke, his ears strained for a voice that he knew would send shiver down his spine...
He flipped on the light at the side of the bed, the movement nearly violent, and then got to his feet. The light helped to draw him back to himself a bit, although it did nothing to help him make a decision, give him a direction or a purpose.
Just when he was afraid that the despair might overcome him completely, there was a soft knock on the door, and a second later it opened to reveal a tall, well muscled man, whom he might have thought of as gorgeous had his body not been yearning so strongly for someone else.
The man stepped hesitantly into the room, and smiled gently at Merlin. He held a grocery bag in one hand, but he offered the other to Merlin in greeting.
"I'm Lance," he said with a sheepish smile when Merlin took his hand, "And you're Merlin," he finished when Merlin didn't immediately respond.
"Uh. Yeah. Nice to meet you?"
Lance chuckled at him, and moved with a gracefulness that made Merlin envious, to sit on the edge of the bed where he began to pull things out of the bag. A sandwich, a package of biscuits, and a bottle of water.
"I thought you might be hungry, but I had no idea what you liked so... I just went kind of basic. I could probably dig up something else if you wanted?"
"No. No this is good... Arthur sent you?"
"Yeah. I saw the light turn on, so I figured you were finally awake."
Merlin nodded and sat cautiously next to Lance, who he eyed warily, before making a beeline for the food. He was surprised to realize that he was actually ravenous, and he quickly unwrapped the sandwich.
Too caught up in his food, he wasn't bothered at first by the way Lance watched him with curious intensity, but as his hunger abated the man's piercing gaze became noticeably conspicuous, and he became more self conscious in return. "Do I have something on my face?" he finally asked, wiping at his mouth.
Lance shook his head and continued to regard him seriously. "No." He paused, his face a blank mask that made Merlin shiver, before he continue softly. "It's just that, I can see why Arthur likes you."
"Arthur." The name sounded flat and hollow between them, but Lance didn't seem bothered by his hear hostility. If anything, it seemed to amuse him, at least for a moment, if the faint upward turn of his mouth was anything to go by.
"He's not a bad person, you know. He's," Lance paused and scrubbed a hand over his face, although he betrayed the seemingly agitated movement with his continued blank eyed look. "He's got his flaws, but he's got a good heart as well. He's probably the best person I've ever met."
"He bound my life to his, against my will," Merlin spit out, his anger rising in him again, warring with his desire for a moment. The two emotions see-sawed back and forth within him, driving him mad with the constant flux of emotion. Fleetingly, he wondered which would win in the end. "How was that...good, or noble or whatever?"
Lance winced. "I'm not saying he hasn't made mistakes, but it's just that, I've never known him to feel so strongly for someone that he would even contemplate creating such a bond. He took away... your freedom, yes, but he gave up something too. He made you into his ultimate weakness, and willingly. That's a dangerous thing to do for someone who lives as long as a vampire. Do you understand?" For a moment, the blankness slipped away from Lance's eyes, and Merlin shivered at the strange coldness he saw behind them. The calculating look of a predator trying to decide if he was a threat or not.
He cocked his head at that, as much because of the frission of fear that slid along his spine, as it was a response to the words. He licked his lips nervously and forced himself to think about what Lance just told him. If he were honest with himself, he hadn't thought at all about what the bond meant for Arthur, beside the fact that his death would mean Arthur's as well. Not that he'd really had much time to think. He sighed and rubbed at his eyes, trying to work out the headache that was steadily building behind them.
"I'm sorry," Lance said softly to him. "I know this can't be easy."
Merlin nodded and crumbled up the food wrapper in his hands. He plucked disheartened at the package of biscuits, but didn't open them.
They both sat there for a moment, the quiet wrapping them up in their own thoughts. The food had helped to clear Merlin's head a bit, as had Lance's words, but there was still tension his shoulders. The fact that he felt so out of place in that room wasn't helping to settle him either.
"Do you know where my clothes went?" he finally asked, breaking the silence between them. Lance looked at him, and smiled for the first time, genuine and charismatic. It went more toward relaxing Merlin than anything else so far.
"Of course. I'm sorry. I should have offered before," And just like that, the rest of the tension that had been in the room dissipated. "Uh, your shirt was destroyed unfortunately, but I've washed your jeans for you." Lance smiled at Merlin compassionately. "Do you want a shower first?"
The idea of a shower sounded suddenly unbearably lovely, and Merlin nodded eagerly.
"The bathroom is through there. Your clothes, well, your jeans anyway, are sitting on the sink. I gave you one of my shirts, although it'll probably be too big. It's clean though. I also have your phone." Lance dug into his pocket and came out with Merlin's phone. "It rang this morning, but it's been quiet since then."
Merlin nodded and flipped the phone open to see a missed call from Will. There was a notification saying he had a new message too, and he mentally made a note to check it. Shower first.
The bathroom was small, but very clean, and reminded him of a hotel bathroom with its perfectly coordinated- probably real- antique fixtures. The sink was marble and dipped gracefully to form the sink, and, as promised, his clothes were sitting in a neatly folded pile on the edge.
The water, when he finally slipped into the small cubicle, felt heavenly against his skin. For a moment he let himself just stand there, the water flowing across his skin, washing away the dirt and blood that he was still afraid clung to him. He turned to face the front of the shower and the matching bronze fixtures, and hunched in on himself, crossing his arms across his chest and lowering his head so that his body had maximum contact with the water. He just stayed like that, eyes closed, for a long time, savoring the sensation.
Never one to take a long shower, as much as he liked being clean, he finally stretched himself out of his hunched position. He felt better, and when he went through the motions of actually washing, he was quick and economical.
Changing into clean clothes was almost as good, even if, as promised, the plain black t-shirt was a bit too large on him across the shoulders.
Clean and dressed, he propped himself up on the counter and stared at the door leading back into the bedroom for a moment, before pulling out his phone and calling his voice mail.
"Please enter your password," a clipped electronic feminine voice asked of him, and then, "You have one new message..."
He sighed as he waited for the message to begin playing, only to groan a bit when Will's worried voice came over the phone.
"Merlin? Where are you? If you're fucking that vamp I'm gonna... anyway, look. Tomorrow's the full moon and we're going hunting," He said "hunting" like it meant so much more than that, and Merlin winced when Will qualified with, "We're tracking Morris' killer. Uh crap, look, you probably shouldn't mention that to your cop friend, but I wanted you to... fuck, I have to go. I just wanted you to know. Be safe asshole... and if you did fuck the vamp I really don't want to know about it.... Come home tonight, please? I'll see you in the morning."
Merlin slipped his phone back into his pocket when he walked back into the room, glad that he had listed to the message in private. He felt guilty for making Will worry, and he must have worried if he had bothered to call him. HIs "live a little" philosophy meant that he rarely did.
Lance was still sitting on the bed, and he smiled at Merlin. "Sorry about the shirt," he apologized again. Merlin shrugged and smiled tentatively back.
"It's fine. Thanks."
And then there was nothing but awkward silence. Lance was clearly... well, he wasn't sure what exactly Lance was. "Nice guy" didn't seem quite right. he also apparently worked for Arthur, which made Merlin hesitant to trust him.
"So, you work for Arthur then?" Apparently his mouth didn't have the same restraint as his brain.
"Yeah. I do." The words sounded strangely nostalgic, which Merlin thought was a bit odd. It made him hesitate in his judgment of the man, because it hinted at something deeper, something more human than just an employer's relationship with his employee. "I've known him almost my whole life.
Merlin blinked at that, surprised. The existence of vampires had only been common knowledge for a little under a decade. Lance looked like he was pushing thirty. He wondered what it meant, what the history between the two was.
Merlin knew what it was like to grow up with the knowledge that the monsters under the bed were real. He had the feeling that Lance did as well.
It was a difficult thing to know for a child, and Merlin felt a wave of kinship with Lance for that. He suddenly sympathized with the strange blank look that flirted behind the man's eyes, even if he couldn't really understand what it meant.
Lance smiled knowingly at him, as if he had some idea of what Merlin was thinking, but he didn't say anything, didn't do anything to alleviate Merlin's curiosity.
Instead, Lance rose smoothly to his feed and headed to the door. "Come on, I'll give you a tour of the place. It's not the most exciting thing in the world, especially during the day, but I imagine you're probably sick of this room."
"Actually, I was hoping I could go home?"
Even before he finished, Lance was shaking his head, and he offered Merlin a rueful smile that nonetheless had a warning edge to it.
Merlin glared at the man and groaned, flopping back onto the bed and half contemplating staying there just for spite. Not that anyone would suffer but him. Lance certainly didn't seem bothered. He simply chuckled under his breath, and then sprawled casually in the chair that Arthur had occupied the night before.
They stayed like that for a few minutes. The whole situation reminded Merlin of when he and Will would play chicken on their bicycles when they were younger. Waiting for the other person to move out of the way, daring them not to. Fearing the crash, but also excited for the possibility of it. He smiled fondly, then startled up onto his elbows when his phone started buzzing from his pocket. He had to fumble for it, before he could hold it up in front his face to see the number.
It wasn't one that he knew.
And because he never took calls from unknown numbers, and because he was feeling particularly maudlin, he had no compunctions about ignoring it and tossing his phone away. It was probably a sales call anyway.
Except, a minute later, it rang again.
"Aren't you going to answer that?" Lance asked, picking up the phone from the bed and looking at the display when Merlin continued to pointedly ignore it. "Gwen?"
"Oh!" Merlin said in surprise. He had just assumed it was the same unknown number, but it made sense that it might have been her. If she'd been calling from the police station, or from a crime scene, it was possible she wouldn't use her own phone for one reason or another.
He held out his hand for the phone and pressed it to his ear, though he stayed lying down.
"..." There was only silence on the other end.
He had a moment to wonder if maybe she had bad reception, when a man with a gravelly voice came over the line and asked, "Is this Merlin Emrys?"
Merlin sad up again abruptly, and his heart started beating frantically in his chest, because he knew, knew, that whatever he was about to hear wasn't going to be good.
"Yes. Who is this?"
"You have one hour to come, unarmed and alone, to the Humans First headquarters. If you don't follow these instructions exactly, your lovely Lieutenant here will die."
And then the phone clicked off, leaving Merlin with nothing to do but stare blankly down at, where it rested in his trembling hands.
"Merlin?" Lance asked him, worried.
"I have to go." He said, voice hard, and he was already heading doggedly toward the door when Lance rushed in front of him, blocking his way.
His fingers immediately began to crackle with energy, and he looked up with his own version of what was probably an emotionless stare. "I can. I will. Someone has my friend, and if I don't go, they'll kill her." He tried to shoulder past Lance, but the man continued to hold his ground.
"Look. Wait. Please," he said, as he moved to continue blocking Merlin. "You realize that this is a trap, that it's probably whoever tried to kill you last night..."
"I don't care. I won't let them hurt Gwen."
"I get that, but if you can just wait until..."
"I can't! Now move. I will use my magic against you," he paused ant looked at Lance form under his lashes. "Arthur did tell you about my magic, didn't he?" he knew his voice was cold, almost cruel, but he couldn't let anything happen to Gwen. The world felt red-hazy around him, and he knew that he would not hesitate to hurt the man standing before him, blocking him from doing the only thing he could do.
Lance looked upset and uneasy, and the ice look was back in his dark eyes. He looked just as dangerous as Merlin felt. He also didn't move. "I'll come with you then."
That finally brought Merlin up short, and he relaxed, swayed backward for a second. "The man on the phone said alone."
"You can't actually stop me. I'll follow you if I have to. Arthur would kill me if I let something happen to you."
Merlin frowned and contemplated what spells he could use to keep him here. A sleeping spell, maybe. So he wasn't entirely sure why he finally nodded. Maybe because he truly was afraid, and the thought of someone helping him eased that fear just a little. It might also have had something to do with the fact that, on some intellectual level, he was aware that Lance could help him.
"Can you follow in another car?"
Lance nodded seriously. "I can do that." he paused and gave Merlin a long assessing look, "But first, come on."
He led Merlin quickly out of the room and down a long flight of stairs, though a maze of corridors, until he finally stopped in front of a plain door. He slid a key into the lock and opened it to reveal another small bedroom, although this one was filled with various person effects, and wasn't quite as reminiscent of a hotel room.
"I stay here when I'm on the premises," Lance explained over his shoulder, before immediately heading toward the closet. He pulled an obnoxiously large suitcase with a lock, that, when opened, revealed a small arsenal.
His hands hovered reverently over the weapons nestling within, before he expertly pulled out a gun, released the magazine to reveal that it was fully loaded, and then popped it back in, pulling the slide with a sharp practiced motion.
He set the loaded gun carefully on the bed, before moving to rummage under the pillow on the bed to reveal another, larger gun, the metal on the grip smoothed from constant handling. He set it beside the first on the bed, and then began to sort through a tangle of leather straps to reveal a shoulder holster which he efficiently shrugged into.
"You don't know how to shoot, do you?"
"Merlin knew his eyes were wide as he stared down at the guns, then back up at Lance. He shook his head slowly.
"Probably just as well. They'll likely search you..." he was fully armed now, one of the guns resting snugly in the shoulder holster, the other tucked carefully into the back of his jeans. As he finished adjusting the gun, he looked up at Merlin in consideration and frowned, before he carefully began searching through the suitcase once again. When he came up, he was holding something long and black, which he gingerly held out to Merlin.
The inlaid wood was smooth in his hands, and Merlin was mesmerized by the intricate Celtic knots that swirled around the handle of... before he could ask about the object, Lance reached around him, guiding his hand until he felt the small disguised catch, that when pressed, released a slim silver blade with deadly speed.
He was glad that he'd never had a reason to come here before, even thought it meant going into this situation essentially blind. He could feel his pulse speed up at the thought, fear and anticipation warring inside of him as he stepped out his car.
The rough gravel crunched obscenely under his feet.
He didn't see Lance, but he knew that the man had followed him and had probably parked some distance away to remain inconspicuous. Merlin hoped that he would be okay, but he didn't allow himself to spare much more thought on the matter. Lance had made the decision to come, and his life was in his own hands now. Merlin couldn't be responsible for anyone but himself, although, considering the confidence with which Lance had handled his guns earlier, Merlin didn't think he had much cause for concern. He absently put a hand against his hip, and the blade he knew was tucked away there, for all the good it would probably do him.
He made his way cautiously toward the large, church-like double doors that were the main entrance into the building. For a moment, he allowed himself to entertain the dark fantasy that he was entering through the gates of Hell.
"Abandon all hope," he muttered under his breath, and then laughed bitterly at himself, because for all the crap he'd gone through recently, entering into a human building seemed to evoke the greatest sense of wrongness within him.
He paused in front of the doors. He could feel his hands trembling, but he kept the rest of his body forcefully in check. The fading sun, lowered to its late afternoon zenith, cast bright rays against his back so that his body created a strange warped silhouette in front of him, like a ghostly imitation. The shadow twisted, distorting as he shouldered against the heavy door and slowly forced it open. The sun followed him into the entrance hall, a bright beam of light, that, nonetheless, failed to illuminated the rest of the dark and shadowy room. He could just barely make out the figure standing by a pillar off to his right.
"Mr. Emrys, I presume," the man said. His voice was gravely and had a hint of the exotic accent that Merlin recognized as being unique to Aredian Forrester, the head of HF, from the various interviews and speeches he'd seen. Merlin shivered in revulsion at having to physically be in Aredian’s presence.
"Doctor Emrys," he corrected, something he never did. He covered his discomfort with "Where's Gwen?" and then quickly qualified, "Lieutenant Smith". He was proud that his voice didn't tremble, that it went hard to match the posture his body had automatically fallen into. Tense, and ready to fight if it came down to it.
So he wasn't prepared for Aredian to laugh at him, the sound shocking for its joviality. "Your dear Lieutenant is fine, Dr. Emrys. I assure you. Now, if you would be so kind as to follow me. I'm sure she would love to see you." He turned and briskly walked away, absolutely certain that Merlin would follow him. And he did. He didn't have a choice in the matter, and it disconcerted him that Aredian so clearly seemed to understand it.
Merlin suddenly pitied Arthur. If he'd told the truth about how tightly they were now bound, if he was able to sense Merlin, the trouble he now found himself in, the fear and anger that Merlin was now feeling would hit Arthur like a storm, when he finally woke for the night.
"Through here," Aredian told him, as he led Merlin into a large room strikingly similar to the sanctuary of a church. There were large stained glass windows around the upper half of the roof that had been concealed from view on the outside of the building. Thin, watery light trickled through them, making strange colored patterns on the floor, even as darker shadows were created in the places where the light was absent.
Gwen was curled against the stair rail leading up to the raised dais. Her wrists were handcuffed above her, and a man stood over her, holding a gun pointed casually toward her head. His flinty eyes reminded Merlin disconcertingly of the blankness he'd seen flirting behind Lance's eyes, though this man undoubtedly scared him more.
Gwen didn't look scared though; instead she looked angry and determined, and her wrists twisted fruitlessly against the restraints.
When she saw him, her eyes widened and she started shaking her head angrily, the force of it causing the metal handcuffs to clang noisily against the rail holding her in place.
"Gwen!" He rushed toward her, though he was forced to a stop when the man standing over her cocked his gun warningly.
"As promised," Aredian said calmly from behind him, "The lovely Lieutenant is fine, and she will be permitted to leave as soon as you submit to me.”
"I'm here, aren't I?" he growled, belying the helplessness he felt.
"Indeed you are, but it's not so simple, is it?" He walked to Merlin until he was standing too close, one hand whispering just over Merlin's shoulder, barely touching. "You're just a little bit special aren't you?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Aredian gave him a pointed look. "Of course you don't."
Merlin had to work at not flinching away from Aredian’s rancid breath. And then Aredian was gone. He walked briskly across the room to retrieve something from one of the nearby benches. It was only when Aredian started walking back toward Merlin, that he recognized a pair of handcuffs, though these were definitely strange. They were bright in the pale light, and Merlin could see some sort of strange, swirling etching around the edges. He had to fight off a shiver at the wrongness that seemed to emanate from them.
"If you'll be so kind..." Aredian indicated that Merlin should hold his hands out. He didn't though, instead he tried to back away. Only, he came flush with someone's chest, and Merlin whirled around and came face to face with another blank-eyed bodyguard. He smiled thinly down from where he towered over Merlin, and took his shoulders in a painful grasp, forcing him back toward where Aredian was waiting. He looked smugly patient, and it made something in Merlin twist angrily, fueling him to start struggling.
He wrenched free and to the side, but didn't try to flee, likely the only reason that the guard grudgingly allowed it. Merlin couldn't leave while Gwen was still in danger, but he would do this on his own terms as much as possible.
"Release Gwen and I'll do whatever you want."
The only response to this was a weary sigh. "If you insist. Lieutenant Smith may certainly go free." Aredian waved a hand absently behind his head. He never took his focus off of Merlin. "She means nothing to me."
Merlin watched as Gwen's wrists were released and she stumbled to her feet. She looked angry as a feral cat, and her body instantly fell into a defensive position, despite the fact that she had nothing to defend herself with, and she was probably half the weight of just about everyone in the room.
She eyed Merlin for a moment, before her attention shifted to the bodyguard who had put his gun away, and had instead taken hold of her elbow to begin escorting her down the aisle toward the door. She let the man march her forward, her face hard and her dark eyes flaring angry fire. When they came close to Merlin, she jerked out of the man's grasp and rushed up to Merlin, her fingers clinging almost desperately to his arm.
"What's going on Merlin? Why the hell do these people want you?" Her words were rushed and breathy, and her eyes demanded answers. She was still too much a cop not to.
He could only shake his head at her though. "I don't know. But I think they've already tried to kill me once," he confided quickly, and her brown eyes went wide.
"Why did you come here?" he asked her, trying to figure out how Aredian got a hold of her in the first place.
Gwen frowned and rubbed absently at her chaffed wrists. "The body we found in that house? He was identified as an employee of Humans First."
She didn't say anything else. She didn't have to. Of course it would have been her job to investigate a lead like that, and why would she have had any reason to imagine something like this happening?
"I don't know what you've gotten yourself into, Merlin..." Before she could finish, the bodyguard cut her off by once again grabbing her arm.
She struggled against the man and leaned up to whisper, "I don't think they're going to let me leave," into Merlin's ear, barely audible, before she let herself go deceivingly limp in the man's hold.
Merlin looked frantically back at her, because he had the very bad feeling that she was right. Even if he hadn't, her cop instincts were good enough that he trusted them absolutely. He took her words on faith, and knew that he had to try to do something to help her.
"How do I know that you won't kill her as soon as she's out of sight?" he asked over his shoulder to Aredian, who was watching them curiously.
Aredian looked thoughtful for a moment, and then he shrugged. The bright and charismatic smile that bloomed across his face was the same one that Merlin knew had probably brought hundreds of otherwise good people to his hate mongering cause. Merlin just thought it looked crazed. "I suppose you don't, but then, you don't really have much leverage, do you?" Aredian shook his head sadly.
Merlin could do nothing but watch helplessly as Gwen was dragged completely out of view, her eyes wide and scared, but also fiercely angry.
"Now," Aredian said, once again holding out the handcuffs, and this time Merlin had nowhere to run to. The second bodyguard had come up behind him again, and he easily managed to manhandle Merlin's arms away from his sides so that Aredian could slip the cold metal around his wrists with a final click, just as Merlin began to call forth his magic to blast them all into oblivion.
And just like that, the spell forming in his mind, hanging partially on his lips, fizzled away.
Merlin went still and stared at the man in shock, absently aware of the metal as it began to tingle unpleasantly against his skin.
"Ah! Good. It seems my little toy here works. Would you agree?" Aredian traced a finger across the silver handcuffs and looked knowingly into Merlin's eyes.
He rubbed at his wrists in agitation, trying to rub away the burning that was beginning to build where the metal touched skin, and where his magic bottled and choked and fizzled away in confusion.
"What have you done?"
Aredian didn't answer him. Instead, he leaned casually against the stair rail and glanced down at the watch on his wrist. He sounded amused when he finally spoke.
"This isn't about what I've done."
"What do you mean?"
Aredian chucked at him, and righted himself again. "You have no idea, do you? I'd have thought..." He stopped and gave Merlin an assessing look. He moved to stand in front of Merlin again, to look calculatingly into his eyes as if he thought he could divine some secret, though Merlin was baffled as to what the question was.
"I would have thought that you'd be better prepared for all of this, but you're just as out of your league as the rest of us, aren't you?"
Merlin frowned at him, and wondered if he meant to say that, meant to give away the fact that he was apparently as out of his depth as Merlin. He didn't point it out though, in the hope that Aredian would keep talking. That he'd give away something important that would get Merlin out of this mess. Preferably alive.
So instead he asked, voice low and pitched in fearful tones, "Why did you try to kill me last night?"
"Ah. Yes. About that."
Merlin flinched and had to fight the knee jerk reaction to cower in fear when the other man suddenly drew a gun from a holster hidden beneath his jacket, very much like the one Lance had donned only a bare hours ago. Aredian didn't shoot him though, despite the fact that he did level the gun pointedly at Merlin's chest. Only that fact that a smirk played across his mouth, that his eyes were still darkly amused, hinted at the fact that he wasn't going to. Yet.
"That was before we knew the lengths to which the vampire," Aredian spat the word, "Would go to save you. It complicated things. But don't worry, you're probably still going to die." he stalked over to Merlin and traced the gun over the hollow of his cheek. "We just need your lover to come racing valiantly to your rescue first. Just like you did for dear Lieutenant Smith."
He sat up a bit straighter from where he'd been slumped on the stairs, not far from where Gwen had sat, although the cuffs around his wrists weren't binding him to the rail.
Aredian must have sensed the change too, because he went still and raised his gun, which had been resting loosely in his lap, to point it vaguely in Merlin's direction.
Things had mostly been quiet since Aredian put the strange magic restraining cuffs on him. Boring, in fact, and although Merlin felt his heart pick up again when the gun was pointed in his direction, the time he'd spent- hours at this point, he thinks- just sitting had gone a long way toward dissipating his fear.
He'd also had a lot of time to think, not that it's really given him much in the way of answers, and his early attempts at being annoying, asking questions until Aredian revealed something useful or interesting, had only resulted in the gun being brought down hard across his right cheekbone.
Merlin rubbed at the place where he was sure a spectacular bruise was probably forming, and once again let his mind wander. The fact that Arthur was apparently awake now added a riotous swirl of complicated feelings to Merlin's already dark thoughts. Thoughts about Gwen, what had happened to her. The man who had escorted her away hadn't returned, but it didn't seem to be causing any concern. Merlin also hadn't heard any gun shots. Thoughts about Lance, and the fact that he hadn't shown up either, hadn't done anything in fact, to get Merlin out of this mess. He'd certainly seemed capable enough, and with an element of surprise he might have been able to.
Merlin sighed and slumped his shoulders even further in dejection. He tried to allow himself to consider the possibility that Lance was simply waiting for Arthur, but he couldn't quite manage it.
Merlin clearly wasn't going anywhere.
Whatever Aredian, or whoever was pulling Aredian's strings, intended, it was probably going to work. Merlin shivered when he felt a tidal wave of helpless rage, not his own, suddenly crash over him. It left him breathless and overwhelmed.
He had always thought that vampires, by virtue of their immortality, must feel less emotion than humans. Certainly there were scholars who philosophized on that very fact. Vampires lived for centuries, they were faster and stronger and so very different on so many elemental ways, that surely human emotions must be dampened, if not all together absent, but now Merlin had a suspicion that the opposite was actually true.
Arthur's anger, and his fear, and a whole spectrum of wants and desires that Merlin didn't even have names for, couldn't possible relate to, were not like anything he could ever have guessed at. If anything, immortality seemed to have expanded the range of emotions that Arthur was capable of- there were so many things that Merlin didn't have names for, couldn't even guess at or hope to understand. And it made sense, as he thought about it. Arthur had seen more, felt more, in all his centuries of life than Merlin could ever truly comprehend with his limited human experiences.
As it all washed over Merlin, crashed through him, flooding his mind with an overwhelming sea of broken thoughts and clipped words bereft of context, Merlin felt as if he stood on the edge of a chasm. He was afraid that if he wasn't careful he would be lost in Arthur, tied up so thoroughly with him that he would lose track of where their individual selves ended and began.
So caught up in it all, it was a long time before the sensation of being watched was strong enough to alert Merlin that something had changed. His skin prickled, and a flash of movement in the corner of his eyes, winding through the deepening shadows of the room, was the only warning Merlin got that someone else had joined them.
The woman, when he could finally make her out, was lovely. Her long black hair fell in gentle waves across her shoulders and down her back. Her green eyes were cat like, dangerous, just like her stalking movement toward him, accentuated by the curve-hugging black dress that swished around her knees with each step.
Merlin stared at her, every instinct screaming at him that he was in mortal danger, and forced himself to lurch to his feet, to at least try to stand his ground in front of her.
"You must be Merlin," she purred as she got close enough to eye him curiously. "I can't say I see the appeal." She traced a long nailed finger curiously across the bruise on his cheek.
"You're a..." Merlin stared at her in shock, now that he could finally see her enough to recognize her for what she was. And it didn't make any sense. The last thing he would ever have expected was for a vampire to be working with the most blatantly anti-vampire organization in the country.
"I'm a what?" she asked him in amusement, although it was clear he had already come to the correct conclusion, however improbable he would have thought it only a moment ago.
"I don't understand."
Despite Aredian's cryptic comments to him after Gwen's departure, at worse he thought this, whatever this was, had simply been some way for Humans First to strike at Arthur. It wouldn't have been the first time a hate organization had gone after a vampire, or those in service to them.
The fact that he was new to town was reason enough for the organization to try to test him, to try to push the boundaries of the new rule.
But this? the fact that another vampire was behind this, was actively working with Humans First...Merlin's mind boggled.
"Don't worry, pet," the woman purred, "it doesn't have to make sense. To you." She laughed at him the, the sound strangely girly and at odds with the dark power that swirled behind her predator's eyes.
"Who does it have to make sense to, then?" he asked, even though he already knew the answer.
"Why, Arthur of course. It really is a shame you had to be involved in all of this, by the way." She moved intimately close to him once again, her words breathing across his skin in a way that she seemed to think must be arousing. "You are a powerful one, aren't you? If you weren't already bound to Arthur..." she trailed off and sighed dramatically. "But you are, aren't you? Pity."
She turned her head to Aredian, and she must have made some sort of signal, because in the flash of a second, the man raised his gun and pulled the trigger.
The pain wasn't like it was last night. It wasn't a creeping darkness, but a sharp and immediate thing that was ugly and scary and so much worse, because he felt vulnerable too somehow, alone in a strange place, surrounded by enemies.
He clutched at his thigh where the bullet had gone through the meaty part. He knew immediately that it was not a life threatening injury. The bullet had gone clean through and had obviously not hit bone or any big arteries. But knowing that didn't do anything to dull the agony.
Merlin collapsed back onto the stairs and fought to stay aware of the female vampire, Aredian, the bodyguard still watching everything with dispassionate eyes.
'Where is Arthur?' he thought desperately to himself. Arthur would help him, make everything better...
Merlin looked up at the woman and took a deep gasping breath, as he finally understood what was going on. Aredian wasn't a bad shot. It hadn't been luck that he'd miss more vital parts of Merlin's body when he had shot him. Merlin's pain was the point. She was counting on Arthur using that pain to track him to come to his aid.
"Bitch," he gasped at her as cold anger washed through his veins, dulling the pain and bringing the world into sudden sharp focus.
"I suppose I am," she said airily, laughing at him. Then she perked up as if hearing something no one else could. When she turned her head enough for Merlin to see the slightly glazed cast to her eyes, he shivered.
And then he... he felt it too.
"Arthur," she purred.
It felt like a tidal wave coming for them, unstoppable and breathtakingly fierce, beautiful and awful, like a vengeful god.
When the doors at the end of the hallway crashed open, Aredian was the only one to react. He shrank away like a frightened dog with his tail tucked between his legs.
Arthur was a masterwork of shadows and sharp flickering angles as he stalked toward them, and even Merlin had to fight the urge to try and back away, although the wound in his leg meant that any movement was difficult and painful.
"Merlin," Arthur growled, low and possessive, and then he was stalking forward, only pausing to cast a heated, hateful glance at the other vampire.
The relief at seeing Arthur was a sharp and twisting thing within Merlin. He was afraid, not so much of Arthur, but of the look in his eyes, but he also felt somehow safer. And wasn't that just ridiculous with his blood seeping all over the place, and-
Merlin licked his lips and caught Arthur's gaze, held it as Arthur continued toward him. Before Arthur could reach him though, the female vampire rushed, fast as lightning to stand between them. She barely managed it, but it helped her that Arthur hesitated when the remaining bodyguard glided sleekly up behind Merlin and cocked his gun warningly right by Merlin's ear.
"I don't think so, dear Arthur," Morgana hissed, the words slick and biting sharp.
"Stand aside Morgana," Arthur growled, trying to push past her. She continued to block him, her movements almost dancelike as she worked to stay between them, and then struck out with blinding speed, her long dagger-like nails dragging in a ragged path along Arthur's cheek.
Arthur didn't flinch, but the growl that gurgled up out of his throat was inhuman and terrible. He took a step back.
"What do you want then, Morgana?" What are you trying to do?"
Her posture relaxed, and she looked more certain of her control over the situation. She began examining her nails. “Revenge, of course." The words were light and airy, and at odds with the implication behind them. With the hate that shone behind her eyes.
Arthur stepped back from her, wary, and then brought a hand to finger the scrape on his cheek. He studied the blood that came away before wiping his hand on his thigh.
"And?" she parroted, looking unconcerned, although her tone suggested that Arthur was right. "Why must there be another reason, Arthur?"
"Because I know you. What happened to Mordred happened a long time ago. You could have struck at me long before now, if you'd wanted to."
Morgana's expression went suddenly hard as stone, and Merlin felt a wave of fear for Arthur wash over him. Every inch of her body screamed murderous intent, and only the fact that Arthur still looked unconcerned eased Merlin's concern. A little.
"You know nothing!" she practically screamed, and then, just as fast as her rage came on, it was gone and she looked unruffled and beautiful.
"What are you doing with Humans First, then?" Merlin forced himself to ask, glad when his voice didn't tremble like the rest of him.
Arthur turned sharply to look at him, but he let the question stand. Maybe he was just a little curious himself too.
"Yes, Morgana. And what does it have to do with..." he gestured around him, before he settled his gaze on Merlin again. "This?"
She sighed with all the beleaguered irritation of a parent to an unruly child, and then she walked to Aredian's side, pressed her body in a seductive line against him. She pointedly ignored the way the man shivered in revulsion; if anything she seemed to relish it.
"Humans First," she smiled dreamily, her voice proud and possessive of the name as Arthur's had been when he'd spoken Merlin's name. "My little love child," she laughed, drawing a confused look from Arthur. "What do you think of it?"
No one could say anything. It made no sense. The idea that the most vocally anti-vampire organization in the country was...founded by a vampire? It was laughable and insane.
"You are mad, Morgana."
She laughed, and the sound did nothing to contradict Arthur's accusation. "Perhaps," she shrugged. "Although, I must say that Aredian and his little organization have proven most... obliging in helping me to achieve my aims. And, her voice pitched low, as if she were telling them a secret, "If those aims happen to correspond with my plans to get revenge on you? All the better."
"I don't understand. That makes no sense. How does creating an anti-vampire movement help you? They've personally been responsible for..."
"You needn't quote facts to me, Arthur Pendragon. I know exactly what they've done, how many lives they've taken. And if you think the bloodshed has stopped with just vampires, you are an ignorant fool."
"It was you, wasn't it?" Merlin said softly into the momentary silence after her crazed tirade. "The murders the police have been investigating."
"Perhaps you aren't as stupid as you look," she growled as she turned her attention back to him. "Arthur should take notes. But yes, I suppose you could say that."
"But why?" Arthur hissed, feinting toward her, and baring his fangs when she didn't flinch.
"Haven't you figured it out yet? My poor Arthur, you never were very smart." She sighed, long suffering, "We are vampires, Arthur, superior to humans in every way, and yet... humans try to rule us with their laws about what we can do, how we can live, how we can get our food. Bah!" She turned and started pacing. "They have NO right. So I.... merely began the process of returning things to the way they were, when we were the most feared creatures to roam the earth."
"When we were hunted?" Arthur countered her angrily. "When we had to hide who we were? When we had to live in filth? Or travel constantly to keep ahead of the angry mobs who would have burned us, tortured, us experimented on us? How was that a better life?"
"And yet, you and I, those of us who remember that life? We are stronger for it. We were more cunning, more dangerous then. Granted, if things return to the old ways, there will be casualties, but I have no sympathy for these new vampires we are breeding. They are fools. They know nothing about what it means to be vampire." She stopped her pacing, and her voice regulated back to something sickly sweet and grating- and Merlin has to struggle to keep up with the capriciousness of her personality. "Survival of the fittest, my dear."
"So what? You created this cult in order to convince humans to once again endeavor to send us to the shadows?"
"And then I killed a few humans to give them some fodder to work with." She shrugged noncommittally, as if it didn't matter, as if she had been slaughtering cattle and not living people.
"And Merlin?" Arthur hissed. "What does he have to do with all of this?"
"It'll be such a shame when another mutilated body turns up, won't it? Of course, that was always the plan for him. Your poor new love interest, murdered by Humans First in retaliation for the other murders.
"Merlin is human too."
"Is he? Anyway, his- association- with you, makes him just as guilty." Morgana paused and sighed mock regretfully. "And then, when you went mad because of your grief," She stalked up to Arthur and traced a finger through the blood on his cheek before slipping the bloodied finger into her mouth. "I'd be there for you, ready to put the past behind us, to help you." She sighed dramatically. "And then you had to complicate things when you claimed him as your mate. So of course he's still going to die now, I'll just have to kill you too. " She looked thoughtful, "Just as well really, and rather appropriately ironic, if a little messier than I'd hoped."
"And naturally, you'll offer yourself as the new Master of the City in my place?"
"Naturally. Perhaps you aren't as stupid as I thought you were, after all." She bared her fangs at Arthur then, and a low snarling growl began to work up from her throat. "Now, I think there's been enough talking, don't you?"
Merlin didn't even have a second to react before the two vampires were at each other, their movements so fast that they were little more than a vicious tumble of blurred figures.
Arthur must have managed to catch her, in her sudden deadly strike toward him, but it didn't lessen Merlin's terror. If anything, the aborted attack only gave him time to remember his fear, and the pain that had faded a bit, during Morgana's mad little speech.
He didn't notice the other vampire until it was too late, and fangs were pressed warningly against his throat.
Merlin couldn't help the startled cry as he was embraced, too tight, by cold inhuman arms. "Don't move," someone growled into his ear, and Merlin had just enough presence of mind to notice Arthur and Morgana stop their fighting, and Arthur's frightened desperate look, before Merlin's head was jerked further back.
The fangs were ice cold and threatening where they pressed against the delicate pulse in his throat.
"Ah, impeccable timing, Agravaine, my love." Morgana hissed, though she said "my love" as if it were ironic, a joke somehow. All pretenses dropped away from her and she looked ugly with her fangs bared and her eyes black, her face twisted into a rictus of madness.
When the fangs sank brutally into Merlin's throat, it took every bit of strength that Merlin had left not to scream. He'd never been bitten before and the sensation was ripping and excruciating. The pain of it was bad enough, if not as bad as the wound in his thigh, but the sensation of his blood being sucked away, that was worse. The deep sucking pulls of his blood felt wrong, wrong in a purely animalistic, instinctual sense. He shuddered, then seized when the vampire bit him again, like a dog gnawing on a bone, and for no other reason than he wanted to. Merlin’s blood was already flowing freely. Too freely, and he felt the beginnings of lightheadedness, saw spots begin to dance in front of his vision.
So overwhelmed with sensation, too dazed from blood, loss, Merlin almost didn't notice when the fangs finally withdrew. It took him even longer to realize that something had changed in the room.
He jerked his head up when he finally heard the growling over the pounding of blood in his ears.
A mass of new figured had gathered at the back of the room. They looked wary, but there was something dangerous about them, about the way they held their bodies, about the strange shimmering in the air around them. And at the very front of the group...
"Will?" Merlin groaned. He knew the sound wouldn't carry that far, but even that small vocalization helped his brain to come to terms with what was happening. Somehow Will and his wolves had found him, had come to rescue him!
Will did seem to hear him though. His head raised and he stared right at Merlin, his eyes widened in shock, before his attention, along with the rest of the pack’s, shifted to something else.
Merlin struggled against the vampire- Agravaine- with renewed strength. Will was here, Arthur was holding Morgana at bay and... Merlin had... he fought with his fuzzy brain, and his clumsy fingers searched surreptitiously for his pocket. The slim stiletto blade was cool when he closed his hand around it, cool and comforting because it gave him a weapon, gave him some sort of control. His finger searched out the disguised catch that would release the blade.
Everything happened fast after that. The wolves attacked, their eyes glowing red, claws arching out fearsomely from their fingers, and in that momentary lapse, the few heartbeats of confusion before Agravaine was able to understand what was happening, Merlin moved. He fought past the pain and the blood and twisted his body not away, but toward the vampire. His hand clutched the stiletto blade as if it were a lifeline, and this was his final act.
The blade pierced the vampire's chest easily, sliding in between a rib, and Merlin only had a split second of triumphant success at the stunned look on the vampire's face before Agravaine exploded in a mess viscera and stringy gore.
And then all Merlin could do was kneel there on the floor. The pain hit him again like a brick wall, and he feared losing consciousness. He shuddered and stared blankly down at his hands, at the silver blade, the cuffs circling his wrists, all covered in blood and bits of exploded vampire, like some sort of fungus.
Merlin forced himself to look away.
The immediate threat to his person had been taken care of but... He lifted his head when a sudden inhuman scream reverberated around the room. It cracked the stained glass windows, made the very foundation of the building quake.
Morgana was looking at him with a rage so potent it might have flayed him down to the bone, if she'd had the power.
"What have you done!" she screamed in a high-pitched wail that tore at Merlin's ears, made him want to claw at them, if only he had the strength to lift his arms.
Merlin's only comfort was that she was too far away now. He noted this in an odd, estranged kind of way, as if it were merely an interesting fact, and not something that determined whether he would live or die. Just like he was aware of the fact that she had no one else to help her now.
The wolves had taken down the bodyguard efficiently. There were wide claw marks gashing over his throat. Ugly, but efficient. Aredian hadn't been so lucky- Merlin gagged when he saw the wolves. Saw...
A thought struck Merlin then, the kind of thought that slammed him back into his own body, made his skin prickle with realization. "Hunting" Will had said. The wolves were going hunting. For Morris' killer. They hadn't been here for him, but for... one of the wolves tore itself away from the corpse on the floor, mouth covered in blood, and howled. Merlin didn't know if the sound was an angry one, or triumphant, maybe sorrowful, but soon all of them were doing it. All but Will, who had gone still. He was looking at Merlin, as if he wanted to go to him, but was torn.
"It's over Morgana," Arthur growled, voice low. Merlin jerked his gaze away from Will, and back to Arthur who stood like some sort of avenging angel between him and Morgana.
No one could have anticipated her next move though. She didn't even try to reach him, to get past Arthur. Instead, she darted to the side and grabbed something off of the floor.
They all stared blankly at the gun. The sight was so incongruous that no one seemed to know entirely what to do.
Merlin was too weak, too far gone in a haze of pain to do anything anyway.
Morgana didn't say anything. There was a singular intent in her eyes though. She'd lost here, today, but she was going to take them- take Merlin down with her.
"Merlin!" someone yelled, from the far side of the room, gone quiet, intent, now that the wolves had done their thing, had found whatever pack justice they needed.
The bang of the gun was shocking in the echoing silence, and Merlin flinched in anticipation of more pain that never came.
It took him what felt like an eternity to comprehend what had happened. Will stared up at him as his legs buckled and he fell to his knees, and then over onto his side, blood bubbling up from his mouth.
He'd... Merlin felt his breath go out of him as he stared, uncomprehending, at his friend. Will had come between him and Morgana, between him and the gun and now...
He couldn't stand, but he could crawl, and he did. Each movement felt like his bones were grating together, like glass was tearing his skin, but it didn't matter. He finally reached Will, pulled his head into his lap.
"No." he whispered to himself. "No, no, no," like a mantra he repeated the word, over and over, as Will's gurgling moans faded into silence.
All he could do, all he could bear to do, was stare blankly at the single headstone and mound of fresh dirt.
Everyone else had long since gone on. Gwen had stayed with him for a while, her face solemn, not saying anything because she understood grief, and better than most. He knew, intellectually, that she felt guilty too. If Lance hadn't been so confident in Arthur coming to his rescue...
Lance had done the right thing making sure Gwen was ok, saving her. What reason could he possibly have had to think that vampires were involved? That the situation would be more than Arthur could handle on his own.
And Merlin had seen the way he had looked at Gwen earlier, during the actual funeral. The way he had strayed toward her side, almost unconsciously. Merlin didn't blame him.
Even if he had stayed, lent his gun to the madness, there was nothing to say it would have made any difference anyway. So Merlin doesn't blame either of them. How could he?
Three days later, and the only person he could think to blame was himself. Will had taken that bullet for him.
Three days later, and Merlin has barely eaten, barely slept, because every time he closed his eyes, started to drift off, images assaulted him, violently flooding in behind his eyes and under his skin. Images of blood, of Will laying in his arms as his last breath shuddered out of him because the bullets in that gun had been fucking silver- of course they had been, they hadn't been just for him, but for Arthur too if necessary.
He still felt the strange phantom sensation of his blood being drawn out in harsh sucking motions from the slow-to-heal wound in his throat.
His apartment, still filled with Will's presence, didn't help his state of mind either.
Just that morning, after he'd finally managed a few fitful hours of sleep, he'd gone into the kitchen to find a sink full of dishes, and he'd come so close to yelling back toward Will's room- none of them were his, after all- before he'd remembered.
That had been bad. When it had hit him, he'd dropped his mug of coffee, splattering its hot contents and ceramic all across the floor. He knew, in some part of his mind, that the mess was still there, still waiting for him to come home and clean it up, because Will wasn't there to do it for him. Will wouldn't ever be there again, to clean up his messes, for Merlin to clean up his in return.
So caught up in his thoughts and his pain, he didn't know when the grayness of the sky turned from overcast toward the darkness of early evening.
He did know when Arthur arrived though, a silent presence just behind him. There was a small part of his brain that told him he should still be angry, that he should ignore the vampire like he'd been ignoring his calls over the last few days. He'd been ignoring everyone. But when Arthur came up behind him, wrapping his arms securely around his shoulders Merlin didn't have the strength to fight him.
"Shh," Arthur soothed as he turned Merlin around, so that his face was pressing into the crook of Arthur's neck. It felt so good to be held.
"Can I take you away from here?" Arthur asked him softly, pressing the words into his hair.
He couldn't respond for a moment, because whatever it was that held him there, that made the thought of leaving unbearable, was still gripping him. There was something he still had to say, or do, or something. He had never really had to deal with true grief before, and as he let Arthur hold him, he wondered if he would ever figure out the right thing.
"It wasn't your fault," Arthur told him, as if reading his thoughts. "It's alright to move on with your life. Grieve for him, but don't let his death prevent you from living. Rather, live in his honor. Do the things he would have wanted to do, and remember him."
The words felt knowing, and they touched something inside of him, easing up the ache that had been choking in his throat. When Arthur began to smooth his hands along Merlin's back, to press warm kisses to the top of his head, he finally let himself relax into the hold, accepting it, accepting the words.
It felt like a release, when Arthur gently herded him away. It felt like he was saying goodbye.
He was still a bit listless when he got into Arthur's sleek black car that was a lot less sporty than what he'd been driving the night of their date, an age ago, but he did feel better. He felt more solid, more like he belonged in his own skin, even if he couldn't bring himself to say anything as they drove, the night flickering by his window like a kaleidoscope of lights to his tired and blurry eyes.
He came out of it a little more when they got to the club, where Arthur led him back toward the basement compound. He was vaguely aware of the journey down long narrow corridors, of an opulent bedroom, and then a blindingly white and gold accented bathroom. And when Arthur began to gently strip his sodden clothes away from his body, he finally felt true life begin to pulse under his skin. He felt more like himself, if exhausted down to the bone, and deeply aware of his own body.
"No!" he said, and he jerked warily back from Arthur, who wore a look of mildly annoyed consternation.
"You need to get warmed up," he explained gently, "A shower would help." He matched words to actions by slipping an arm past the frosted glass door of the shower and turning the water on. He didn't look apologetic. "I promise I won't..." he trailed off and then spread his arms in a non-threatening gesture. "I just want to help."
And just like that, the exhaustion hit Merlin again, only briefly driven away by his flash of anger. Modesty was probably a little ridiculous anyway, and a shower really did sound nice. The thought of Arthur there, holding him, supporting him- it was surprisingly non-sexual at the moment.
He didn't think he gave any actual sign of his consent, but suddenly Arthur was in his space again. His hands were sure and quick as he helped him ease the rest of his wet clothes away from skin gone clammy and cold, and also somehow too tight in the wake of everything that had happened.
Once he was naked, Arthur gently pushed him toward the shower and urged him to step in. He sighed when Merlin resisted, dragging his heels and clutching at Arthur's still clothed arm.
"You too," he said earnestly, grasping at the image of them showering together. He wanted that with every fiber of his being at the moment, wanted to be close to someone, to Arthur. He felt good and solid and safe, and the world only seemed to feel real when Arthur was touching him, as if he were some sort of magical touchstone, grounding him down to the earth, keeping him from just floating away. Will had always been that person in his life before... he gasped, closed his eyes. Will was gone, and Arthur would never replace him, but his arms, his solid presence offered something all its own.
Arthur nodded slowly. His eyes were intense, studying him for a moment, and then quick as thought, his clothes joined Merlin's on the floor.
Merlin studied him where he stood, unashamedly naked. There wasn't any possibility of arousal for him, but he was curious to see all the vampire had to offer, all the things hidden like a tease under his expensive clothes. He had always known Arthur would have an amazing body, but the reality stole his breath. Arthur had naturally golden skin, even after so many years away from the sun. His body was strong and sturdy and well muscled, and his cock, hanging heavy and half full between his legs was perfect. He quickly looked away, only barely restraining the impulse to reach out and touch, because he knew it would be a cruel, teasing thing, when he wasn't in any state to really do anything.
The water was glorious around them when they both finally stepped inside. Arthur hesitated at first, standing as far away from Merlin as he could, not even under the warm spray of water. Arthur watched Merlin watching him, and he quickly stole a furtive glance downward himself, prompting Merlin to shiver at the frank assessment of his body. If he weren't so tired he would probably have felt a curl of self doubt over his lanky frame, but it didn't seem worth it. Besides, the appreciative light in Arthur's eyes was more than enough to satisfy any doubts he might have had.
They were both hesitant, standing there in the shower, at first. It seemed to Merlin that there was some invisible line between them, and once it was crossed...he didn't know what would happen. Choice was taken from him, however, when he began to sway with fatigue, and just like that, Arthur got over himself. He was suddenly there, holding Merlin as the water sluiced over their naked bodies.
They didn't spend very long in the shower, in the end. It was more about warming up than anything else anyway. A shower wasn't going to wash everything away, especially the horrors that went more than skin deep.
Merlin knew that those things would take time to work through his system before they could be shed away.
Arthur dried them both efficiently with large fluffy towels, when they stepped out of the shower, and when most of the moisture had been wicked away, he carefully wrapped a new one around Merlin's shoulders. Merlin almost drowned in the voluptuous folds, and a soft laugh escaped his mouth before he realized it. He felt good, the kind of good- safe- that drew him into a memory of being a small boy, of his mother doing much the same thing to him after a bath.
"I can heal that, you know," Arthur said absently, drawing him out of the memory. He guided Merlin back into the bedroom, sitting him down on the edge of the bed. His fingers were gentle at the soggy edges of the bandage at Merlin's neck, before tracing over the one at his thigh, "If you'll let me?"
Merlin looked up at Arthur in surprise. He had an idea of what it would take to heal the wound, and he weighed that knowledge with his desire to be free of the mark. Another vampire's mark, something inside him chided.
He nodded slowly in acceptance.
Arthur gave him a thin smile. "Come on. Let's both get comfortable first."
He tugged Merlin's towel away, and then maneuvered them both until they were comfortable in the bed, naked, and wrapped in soft heavy blankets that smelled like new, unused, and expensive. Arthur was a solid presence, spooning at Merlin's back, and he began to drift off almost immediately, forgetting about what he'd agreed to until the bandage was gently peeled away.
If that sensation wasn't enough to jerk him fully back into alert wakefulness, Arthur's sudden hiss of anger would have done it.
"Merlin." Arthur’s voice was low and dangerous, and Merlin’s only comfort was in knowing that anger wasn't directed at him, so much as at the severity of his injury. He knew he hadn't been taking the kind of care of his wounds that he should have, either. "Why did you not tell me it was so bad?" Arthur gave him a long look, tinged with the same danger Merlin heard in his voice.
"I'm fine," he insisted, then flinched when Arthur made a strange animalistic noise and got up out of the bed, where he started pacing and talking to himself in another language. After a minute his tirade tapered off, his shoulders eased, and when he looked at Merlin again, his eyes were soft and compassionate.
"I'm sorry. I knew you had been injured but... seeing it again. I cannot stand it, to know that you are hurt." He suddenly went very serious. Every line of his body told the story of a kind of intensity that Merlin's human experience could never have prepared him for. "You are mine."
The words sent a thrill through his body, made his heart stutter, and his body quicken with a desire he hadn't thought he had the energy for.
"I..." Gaius' words flashed through his mind then, his talk of soul mates, and for the first time Merlin let himself believe it. "Yes."
Arthur prowled toward him and claimed his mouth in a lingering kiss that started off almost rough, but quickly softened into languorous and sweet.
"You need to rest," Arthur said reluctantly. "You don't have the strength for this yet." He pulled away, leaving their foreheads touching, and licked his lips. There was promise in his vivid eyes though, as he said it, and Merlin shivered. It didn't change the fact that he was right, and Merlin let Arthur guide him back down into the plush bed.
"I'm going to give you some of my blood," Arthur explained as he sat gingerly down beside him. "It will help you to heal."
"Will it..." Merlin licked his lips, because he had suspected that this was what would be required, and the idea of it was odd and kind of gross, if he were honest with himself.
"It'll be alright. I promise."
Arthur brought his wrist up to his mouth. He made a point of moving slowly, so Merlin saw when his fangs clicked out of their sheaths, saw when they punctured the perfect skin of Arthur's wrist, and when the blood beaded lazily up through the wounds. "My saliva has a natural anti coagulant in it," he explained absently, and then he held his wrist out to Merlin, positioning it just above his mouth so that Merlin would have to be the one to close the final distance.
He hesitated at first, but when a single drop of scarlet fall across his lips, it was.... it was odd, but not bad. There was the metallic taste he had always associated with blood, with the memory of sucking on a paper cut, but there was something else too. It was almost sweet, like molasses, and the texture of it was thick on his tongue.
He slowly brought his mouth to seal over the wound, not nearly as repulsed as he thought he would be. As he sucked, the sensation was like drinking something too hot, or too cold, that odd awareness of the liquid as it traveled down and into his stomach. Warmth slowly radiated down his throat, into his belly, and he only jerked away when he felt a strange itching sensation, like ants or spiders crawling along his skin.
His fingers flew to where the wound was- should have been- but he felt only the faintest pucker of an old scar. A touch to his thigh told him that the bullet wound had closed as well.
"The scar should disappear as well," Arthur told him, eyeing the spot where his fingers touched. "If you were worried."
Arthur nodded, bit his lip, and licked at the wound on his wrist. Merlin watched in fascination as it closed quickly and cleanly.
"You shouldn't do that often," Arthur warned him when he looked up. "A little of my blood can help to heal minor wounds, but too much could have... unintended side effects. Humans have been known to go insane from a vampire's blood."
Not sure what to say to that, Merlin curled in on himself in the bed. It was easier to get comfortable, now that his wounds no longer pained him. He said the only thing he could say. "Thank you."
Arthur smiled, the first truly brilliant smile Merlin had seen on him since their date. "You are mine."
The words sounded almost chiding, as if they explained everything, and were somehow also saying "of course, you idiot." and "don't you know, I would do anything for you."
Merlin fell asleep with the beginnings of a smile on his face.
He felt no need to rush or hurry, and he was only brought up short when an arm stretched to the side brushed across something smooth and crinkly. Paper. Which immediately brought to mind the night before. Arthur.... His heart began to race, with the sudden absolute certainty that Arthur was not there. That he'd left Merlin.
He forcefully slowed his breathing, trying to be reasonable. Arthur probably had a perfectly good reason why he'd left, but it didn't make the action feel any less like a kind of betrayal.
He sat up and fiddled with the light at the side of the bed, wincing when it produced a soft glow that was still too bright to his sleep tired eyes. He blinked rapidly several times, rubbed at his eyes to wipe the gunk away, and finally pulled the piece of paper up in front of his face.
"I feared that you would not respond well to waking up beside me this morning. I have been told in the past that it is an unpleasant experience to wake up next to a corpse." There was a definite hint of bitterness to the words, and Merlin’s anger immediately fizzled away. "If you need anything before I wake for the evening, you need only ask. ~Arthur"
Merlin stared down at the elegant script and sighed. With the light on, he was able to see that his phone had been placed next to the nightstand, and a charger had miraculously been found for it, so it lit up immediately when he flipped it open to check the time.
2:00. He also saw that there were several missed calls from Gwen, and with a sigh he reclined back against the bed and brought the phone up to his ear.
"Merlin?" Gwen answered almost immediately. "Are you alright?" She sounded sympathetic and a bit ragged herself.
"I'm alright. I'm with..uh, at the club."
She hummed in response. "I know. Lance told me."
"Did he?" he asked. He was surprised, but considering the heated looks he had seen Lance giving her at the funeral, he really shouldn't have been. They must have really connected when he'd saved her after she'd been taken out of the HF headquarters.
"Yeah. He's... well... We can talk about it later?"
"Uh yeah. I guess. So . . . you probably need me to come down and give a statement or something, don't you?" Merlin was resigned to the fact, had honestly been surprised that she hadn't insisted earlier.
"Um. About that " She hesitated. "I'll tell you what, why don't I just come and get you. I'm assuming you don't have your car?"
"I don't," he confirmed. He didn't really feel like doing this, but better to get it over with, and then he could come back to Arthur and...
"Can you be ready in twenty?"
"See you then," she announced, and then she hung up in typical Gwen fashion.
He sighed, flipped the phone closed and forced himself out of bed.
When he finally exited the room, he wasn't surprised to fine Lance leaning casually against the opposite wall.
"Gwen told me she was going to pick you up," he announced in his smooth voice. "I figured you'd need help finding your way out of this place though."
He offered Merlin a conspiratorial grin.
"Yeah, about that..." he gave Lance a sideways look. "She's my friend, yeah, don't go doing anything to hurt her."
He was rewarded with a mock offended look that was ruined by the smile that was tugging at the edges of Lance’s mouth. "I'm not worried. She only looks sweet and innocent, but she's a spitfire underneath. I have the feeling she'd knee me in the balls without a second thought."
Merlin laughed, because it was true, and he gave the man credit for recognizing that fact about Gwen before he had to learn it the hard way. He figured that Lance would probably be good for her too, with his odd hours to match hers, and the dark jaded look in his eyes that meant he would understand her like few people ever would.
"Just remember," he warned, and then he plastered an innocent look on his face when they stepped out into the daylight to find Gwen standing there waiting for them.
She eyed them both suspiciously, and then waved Merlin along. He didn't miss the long look she sent over her shoulder back toward Lance.
"Don't say anything," she warned him, when she put the car in gear and headed onto the road.
"Wouldn't dream of it," he replied, pleased that his ability to tease had come back to him sometime during the night.
Gwen noticed too, and she gave him a wide smile. "I'm glad you're feeling better."
"I am too. I...I think it's still gonna be hard, but I know things will be all right now."
She gave him a pleased look, and then turned back to the road. It took Merlin a while before he realized they clearly weren't heading to the police station.
"Uh, Gwen, where are we going? I thought you wanted me to give a statement."
"I'm hungry," she replied absently, as she pulled up in front of Gwaine's, an Irish pub known for good cheap food and excellent beer. She parked the car, but didn't get out.
Instead she unbuckled her seatbelt and turned to look him solidly in the eye. Her jaw was clenched and her eyes were serious.
"There's no police report to give," She told him seriously, "Because you were never at HF headquarters."
"I....what?" He was seriously confused now.
Gwen sighed and took a deep breath. "Listen carefully, YOU WERE NOT THERE," she told him. "The case is closed now, therefore there is nothing for you to report."
"Closed?" he felt anger creeping up on him as he thought of Will, of Morgana who, last he'd heard was still out there somewhere. "So you caught Morgana then?" The words were acerbic, because he knew the answer. Of course they hadn't.
"Merlin," Gwen said, and then she licked her lips. "What happened...it's not the kind of thing that human authorities are capable of dealing with...I... did what I thought was best." She looked genuinely angry and uncomfortable with the situation, and her discomfort helped to dissolve some of his anger toward her.
"So what DID happen?"
"What really happened? Or what's the official story?"
"Both, I guess." The truth was, he didn't really remember much of what had happened that night. He knew she'd been taken out by the bodyguard, but he hadn't asked her what had happened after that. He didn't know how she had met up with Lance, or what her role in the final outcome had been.
Honestly, he hadn't even been curious until now. Hadn't thought to be. He'd been too caught up in himself, and in the fact that his best friend was now dead.
"You know that bodyguard led me away," she started, "He would have killed me, but suddenly he was the one with a bullet in his head."
"Yeah. He rescued me. I think he wanted to get me out of there right away, but I wanted to go back for you."
"About that," Merlin said half bitterly, because if they had come back for him, Will would still be alive. Probably, "Why didn't you?" And Merlin hadn't realized how much this was still really bothering him until now. He'd thought he had understood, but looking her in the eye, right at that moment, he really didn't.
She pursed her lips. "We, Lance and I, had no reason to think that there were vampires involved. We figured we'd keep an eye on things and then let Arthur come and deal with everything."
"You...didn't think vampires were involved? Even though you've spent the last few weeks investigating humans murdered by vampires?!"
Gwen tried to hide her flustered, guilty look "How could I have possibly known that Aredian Forrester, the most anti vampire person in the area, or so I thought, was conspiring with a vampire? It never even crossed my mind until it was too late."
"What did you think was happening then?"
"It turns out that the first victim, Will's friend, worked for HF. Once we'd ID'd the body we figured that out pretty fast."
Merlin was shocked by this piece of news. Morris had actually worked for HF? That...didn't make much sense either. "He did?"
"Uh yeah. I talked to one of the, uh, wolves about it. Apparently they wanted to keep tabs on the situation against the vampires, in case some kind of supernatural war broke out. It damn near did."
"Yeah. That's what Morgana wanted."
"Apparently, Aredian figured out that Morris was some sort of spy. I doubt he realized the full extent of things, but when he needed a convenient victim, he must have figured he'd kill two birds with one stone. Kill Morris, get a spy out of the way, and have another body lying around for them to point fingers over."
"Only," she continued, "He didn't know what Morris was, so when things went to shit Morris must have tried to...shift?" she said the word hesitantly, as if she still didn't entirely believe that werewolves apparently existed as well, "Aredian had no choice but to shoot him to put him down."
"Which was why the crime scene was so bloody."
"And why the vampires when to such extremes to try to cover up the gunshot wound. Yeah. So once I figured out who he was, and where he worked, my assumption was that whichever vampire was going around murdering humans must have been targeting HF sympathizers- speaking of, it turns out the Collins had both recently joined the organization. I thought that Aredian was the victim. So when he got you, I just....I thought he was only trying to get back at Arthur, because he thought Arthur was the one killing people."
Merlin laughed bitterly at the irony of it all
"How could we possibly have known about Morgana?" she said this softly, sadly, and Merlin suddenly realized that she was blaming herself, a deep self-flagellation that was cutting her up inside more than she was showing. Despite the fact that he had wanted to blame her himself, he hadn't really meant it, hadn't truly believed that she was guilty.
"Gwen," he said softly, pulling her into an awkward hug over all the police tech lining the inside of her car. "It's not your fault."
She took a shaky breath and nodded against his shoulder. "I keep telling myself that, but I can't make myself believe it."
"It's not," he assured. "It was all a big mess, and the only person left to blame is Morgana."
She hugged him tighter, squeezing at his shoulders until his body protested, but he couldn't bear to push her away. Hugging her felt like something they both needed at that moment.
She pulled away a moment later, and he smiled at the pale blush that crept up her cheeks. "Sorry," she said self consciously. "I think I needed that."
"I think I did too," he told her with a smile, and then, because he was feeling brave again, he asked, "What happened after Lance saved you?"
"We snuck back in," she told him with a cheeky grin. "I wanted to call for backup, but Lance broke my damn phone." She didn't look mad about this. He figured she probably had been at the time, but the memory had already taken on the rose colored hue of amusement that he had often heard from long time couples when they talked about their first meeting. It was a joke now, and would probably be something they remembered for a while to come- even if they did have to alter the context of the situation. "He was afraid that it would be too difficult for Arthur to get to you, or that Aredian might spook if the cops showed up."
"So we managed to get up onto the balcony looking down on the whole thing...I...I watched Aredian shoot you." She shook her head to clear the memory. "By the time we realized things were worse than we thought, there really wasn't much we could do. Lance managed to take the other bodyguard down once the fighting started but...." she shrugged helplessly. "Which brings me to the next bit."
"The part about how I wasn't there?"
"Yeah. That." She was quiet for a long moment then, obviously trying to get her thoughts together. "Arthur... he was too worried about you...but he sent someone else back to the scene. Leon.... And a cleaning crew."
"A cleaning crew? Like..."
"Like, the kind that disposes of bodies," she said. "And then he glamoured an HF girl we found hiding in an office. Who knows what she saw, but it served our purposes."
Merlin pursed his lips. He disliked the practice of glamouring someone, but something about the way Gwen's eyes gleamed clued him in to the fact that it was more than a simple matter of making her forget.
"What, exactly, did he glamour her to do?"
Gwen gave him a bright-eyed look that startled him in its intensity. "It's always awfully convenient for me when someone decides to give me a confession."
He gasped, "You made her confess to...to what?" He was horrified at the idea. She probably wasn't completely innocent if she'd been working for HF, but that didn't mean...
"Not to the murders. She gave up Aredian. She was a damn good witness too. She went teary eyed at all the right spots, and gave up her boss without an ounce of hesitation. She just couldn't take it anymore," Gwen mimicked in a high, girly voice. “She told us how Aredian had gone too far when he started working with vampires, killing innocent humans,” Gwen's voice took on a mimicking tone again, "Although it was a shame it took him going that far just to start making humans aware of how evil vampires could be." She sighed. "It helped that Arthur has been absolutely cooperative. He gave us Morgana's name of course, but it was all formalities."
"So...she accused Aredian of being behind the recent murders."
"Said the victims were all random," Gwen cut in.
"So you have a closed case. If Aredian can't be found..."
"Who would blame him for doing a runner?" Gwen nodded. "And the massacre at their headquarters never happened." She shrugged. "Not that his disappearance will hurt HF much. The little bitch, Sophia, will probably be all over the news tonight. I won't be surprised if she ends up as the new spokesperson... At least she isn't actively calling for violence. Yet."
She sighed, then winced when he nodded dejectedly. "So nothing's really changed, except Will is dead."
"Merlin...I did the best I could. You have no idea how hard it was for me to...to lie. To go against my oaths... But it was the right thing. Our justice isn't made for vampires. It would have ended worse than it already was. And..." she wrung her hands, and an odd look flickered behind her eyes. "Merlin I was scared back there. I saw... I saw things that I can't explain and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with. I don't think I could..." she shook her head again. "I don't think I could lie well enough to make a convincing case against.... Morgana?" she laughed bitterly. "It wouldn't have done any good, if anything it would have made things worse, not better. Justice, the justice I believe in, should make things better. It should punish those who deserve it and protect those who don't and bringing the police into this, into whatever happened that night, it wouldn't have made anything better." She licked her lips and crossed her arms over her chest, an awkward motion in the narrow confines of her car.
Merlin looked at her, really looked at her. Took in her haggard appearance and the dark circles under her eyes, and he knew she was telling the truth. She had made the best decision she knew how to make, and because of that, the families of all the other victims at last could find some sort of closure.
"You did," he acknowledged slowly. "I know you did."
"Thank you." She looked truly grateful at his grudging acceptance, and a weight seemed to lift off her shoulders. "Hungry?"
Her chipper smile was obviously forced, but Merlin couldn't help but respond to it.
"Yeah. I think I am."
The vampire was stunning as always, his vivid red shirt highlighting features already backlit from the lights on the porch.
There was a smirk in his voice, and Merlin couldn't help his own returning smile. Arthur had guessed his game.
"You are going to make me ask, aren't you?"
"I think so, yes." Merlin agreed. He stood just inside the doorway of the house. His clothes were old and ragged, perfect for the chore of unpacking, but not the most glamorous thing he'd ever worn in the vampire's company. Not the least glamorous either.
“Merlin Emrys. Light of my life. My mate. May I enter your home?” And then Arthur stepped forward, kissed him square on the mouth, and stepped neatly around him.
For a second, Merlin’s mind was too addled by Arthur’s grand, if mocking gesture, to realize that he hadn’t actually granted Arthur permission.
"I thought..." Merlin's jaw hung open and he turned to stare at Arthur in mild incredulity.
"Close your mouth, darling, unless you are offering it for other... more intimate purposes."
Merlin snapped his tingling mouth shut, but he didn't have time for anything else before the force of his back hitting the door knocked it closed with a bang that shook the walls around him. It hurt, a little, in the way things tended to always hurt a little with Arthur.
Arthur's mouth was hard on his, demanding and intimate in a way that the kiss from a moment ago hadn’t been.
"Arthur!" he half gasped, half laughed when he managed to pull his mouth away. He pressed a hand to Arthur's chest to hold him back, but didn't otherwise try to escape out of Arthur’s arms, caging him against the door.
“Can I at least show you around before we start christening every room in the house?"
Arthur chuckled, and rested his head on Merlin's shoulder for a second, before he pushed his body back with a flex of his arms and stood straight.
"Fine. If you must. Also, just in case you were wondering..." Arthur winked at him. "Considering the fact that I helped pay for this house, therefore it is also partly mine. I don't have to be invited anywhere."
Merlin mock scowled, but he couldn't maintain it. He was too giddy at even that small reminder of what they'd done.
They'd bought a house together. If he thought about it, it scared him a little, the implications of that. It meant that he’d given into the bond between them.
But it also felt good. Good in a way that left his magic purring under his skin, and Merlin happier than he’d been in a long time.
This was a place where he didn’t have to be haunted by the memories of a lost best friend. Where, instead, he could begin to build new memories with the man- the vampire- who he was slowly starting to come to realize that he loved.
"Come on," Merlin said, taking Arthur's hand. He led the vampire through the living room and stopped dead center, standing under the lazily rotating fan. "Living room," he announced, spreading his free hand in an encompassing gesture.
"I see that Merlin," Arthur said drolly, and then he rolled his eyes when Merlin, still holding his hand, led him purposefully into the kitchen.
Arthur licked his lips and his eyes narrowed, and Merlin had to fight not to laugh. He continued down the hallway and pulled Arthur into the first room they came to.
"Guest bedroom," he announced after he showed Arthur to a completely empty room. Not even any boxes in it yet.
"I don't want to see a guest bedroom, Merlin."
“Yeah, pretty sure.”
Merlin smiled and reached up to press a kiss to Arthur’s lips, before he pointedly walked out of the room and down the hall. “My tour. If I want to show you an empty guest room, I can show you an empty guest room.” And then he pushed open another door, and Arthur stopped dead in his tracks, the sudden lack of momentum causing Merlin to jerk a little when he came to the edge of Arthur’s reach.
“Merlin,” he whispered, his voice low and a little choked.
Merlin turned and pressed his body close to Arthur’s, until he had the vampire’s attention.
“Lance helped me,” he explained softly. “It’s why I’m so behind in unpacking. It took longer than I thought it would.”
The room- the master bedroom- had been completely decorated, and was a sharp contrast to the unfinished feel of the rest of the house. Electronic blinds sealed the windows, still drawn tightly closed for effect even if they weren’t necessary now that it was after dark. During the day, they would keep the room completely dark, hiding windows made of bullet proof glass. They might have been clunky looking if not for the impeccable styling of the room. Everything black and white with silver accents.
“The walls have been reinforced with steel too,” Merlin explained softly. “This space is completely safe for you. So you can stay. With me.... if you wanted.”
Arthur’s eyes went liquid soft as he stared at Merlin. “I wasn’t expecting this,” he explained. There was no accusation, just resignation in Arthur’s voice. As if, despite helping Merlin to pay for the house, he hadn’t expected that it would truly be shared. That it would be theirs. As if he expected Merlin to go back to fighting the bond between them, now that he was no longer relying on staying with Arthur at the club- where he’d moved almost immediately after Will’s death. “I do want,” Arthur finally said.
And then he cupped Merlin’s chin and pulled him into a kiss.
This time, Merlin didn’t try to stop him, didn’t try to push him away. He melted into it, let his body go soft in Arthur’s arms, content to let the vampire’s strength hold him steady.
They just stayed like that for a while, their kisses gentle and sweet, but hinting at more to come, building up to it like ozone before a lightning storm.
Merlin licked carefully into Arthur’s mouth, feeling for his fangs which had distended with Arthur’s growing pleasure. The points were sharp against his tongue and Merlin hesitantly pressed against them, let himself be pricked. And just like that, with that small amount of blood, Arthur groaned, and went almost frantic.
His hands became demanding over Merlin’s clothes, feeling for fastenings before he finally gave up and outright tore Merlin’s shirt from his body.
Merlin laughed at that, laughed into the kiss, and then returned the favor, not the least bit guilty about the fact that Arthur’s shirt was probably worth ten of his.
They tumbled to the bed in a tangle of limbs and strips of torn fabric, Merlin on top of Arthur.
"I want you,” Merlin whispered into the space between them, before he slid off, down between Arthur’s legs to kneel at his feet. Arthur sat up and looked down at him, his eyes glowing faintly red in the dim light, an effect of drinking the amount of blood it took for him to be with Merlin like this.
Merlin’s hands were certain as he worked the button of Arthur’s pants, and then the zipper, until he was able to slide his hand inside to find Arthur’s already hard cock. With nothing for lubrication, Merlin slid his palm gently up and then down the hard flesh, his hand making a loose circle that just barely squeezed Arthur’s flesh.
“God, Merlin,” Arthur moaned. His hands cupped loosely around the back of Merlin’s neck, then tightened when, with no further hesitation, Merlin leaned down and engulfed him whole.
He sucked greedily, relishing the feeling of doing this for Arthur, for giving him this pleasure.
Too soon, Arthur was using his hold, not to encourage Merlin, but to hold him back. “Enough,” he groaned. “You have to stop.”
One of the only drawbacks of having a vampire lover, Merlin had discovered early on in their relationship, was that Arthur may have superhuman stamina, but he was only ever good for one round. Once he orgasmed, he was done for the night. The synthetic blood that ran hot in his system simply didn’t sustain him longer than that.
Arthur had told him that human blood would be a different story, but since Merlin was neither willing to donate blood himself, nor was he comfortable with the idea of Arthur feeding off of anyone else, this was how it was for them.
“OK,” he rasped, sliding back up Arthur’s body to resume their kissing, more sloppy now, more desperate.
Finally Merlin pulled away a bit. He stood back on shaky legs and pulled the rest of his tattered shirt away. His pants quickly followed so that he was standing completely naked before Arthur, who looked at him with predatory eyes, like a giant lion ready to pounce on his prey.
Quick as thought, Arthur darted forward and grabbed Merlin by the waist, and then hauled him bodily onto the bed and toward the headboard. He pressed Merlin back into the fresh sheets that still smelled like new, and Merlin arched up against him, his cock rubbing against the trousers Arthur still wore.
“Off,” Merlin said, his hands catching at the open edges of fabric from which Arthur’s cock still jutted. Together they slid the pants free from Arthur’s hips,. When they came together, skin to skin, it was electric.
“Fuck.” Merlin shuddered as Arthur’s hands travelled down his sides, the touch inflaming nerves that Merlin was somehow never aware he had until he was aroused.
When Arthur’s hands slid between his legs, and then further back to press against his hole, Merlin keened, the sound breathless and echoing in the room- their room.
Arthur’s finger circled around him, testing the resistance he felt there, before ignoring it and pushing forward, only a little, because his finger was dry It had been a couple of days since they’d had sex, and it stretched a little, burned a little- was perfect. Merlin rocked his hips into it because it felt good to have a part of Arthur inside of him, and because he wanted more.
“Yes,” he murmured, slurring the sound against the skin of Arthur’s shoulders. When Arthur slid a second finger in side of him, Merlin bit down. The trickle of thick blood that slid over his tongue was sweet and made him feel almost like he was floating. The sting of Arthur’s fingers receded to nothing, and suddenly Merlin couldn’t wait any longer for more, for what he really wanted. “I’m ready,” he said, certain.
Arthur pulled back and stared down at him. His eyes were bright and a little dangerous, and Merlin shivered, reached up to caress his hand over Arthur’s cheek.
“I’m ready,” he said again.
Arthur growled, and pulled away, his eyes roving over the new room until they landed on the night stand. He cast Merlin a questioning glance, and when Merlin nodded, Arthur slid away, all cat-like grace, to rummage through the top drawer.
Merlin pulled himself up onto his knees and watched. He was almost out of his mind with desire, but not so much that he couldn’t admire Arthur, the way his body was stretched taught as he leaned over to the dresser. The way the room’s artificial light cast a dancing patchwork of shadow over his skin.
Then Arthur was a blur of motion, and Merlin gasped when he reappeared directly behind him in a rush of superhuman speed. He had Merlin bent over onto his hands and knees, and a finger inside of him again so fast that Merlin was breathless.
“Oh god,” Merlin cried, his body spasming at the sudden press of a finger back inside of him, more a warning than any kind of preparation now.
“No. Me,” Arthur growled, and then he was withdrawing his finger, and replacing it with his cock, hard and hot and exactly what Merlin needed.
From the very beginning Arthur’s thrusts were hard and deep, and Merlin cried into each one, the sound somewhere between pain and exquisite pleasure. It had never felt so intense between them before, like too much, and exactly right all at the same time.
When Arthur wrapped a hand around Merlin’s hip and hauled him back until they were both on their knees, Merlin’s head thrown back onto Arthur’s shoulder, he came. Completely untouched, Merlin’s cock spasmed at the sudden deeper contact, and his vision went white, and all he could do was ride the force of Arthur’s thrusts inside of him.
He was dimly aware of Arthur’s mouth at his throat through it all, sucking into his skin as if that would be enough to get to the precious blood beneath.
“You can do it,” Merlin said softly, his voice sounding strange and distant even to his own ears after such blinding pleasure. “You can bite me,”
Arthur paused, and only the fact that Merlin was pressed so tight against Arthur’s, that he was arched so fully against the vampire, kept him from falling bonelessly forward.
“Do you mean it?” Arthur growled, voice pleasure rough and almost disbelieving, because Merlin had panicked every time the subject had come up before. He’d been unable to free himself from the memory of being bitten by Morgana’s flunky, Agravaine, but in that moment, all Merlin felt was a sense of rightness.
It felt right to offer that final surrender to Arthur, so Merlin said the only thing he could. “Yes.”
And it wasn’t like he remembered at all. The vulnerable feeling of his blood flowing messily free was completely absent. It hurt a little, but no more then the pleasure pain of Arthur as he continued fucking him, almost frantic now that this final element had been added to their lovemaking. If anything, Merlin felt more safe, more loved in that moment than he could remember feeling in his entire life, with Arthur inside of him, holding him, all around him.