PART ONE: Take me up (one edge to defend)
Chapter 1: Of Boffins and Exploding Pens
“Sniper at your ten o’clock. Second story, third window.”
The voice in his ear was steady and familiar, acerbic tones with just a hint of welsh accent that calmed Arthur instantly. He didn’t hesitate. Pivoting accordingly, Arthur raised his hand and shot without bothering to take the time to aim properly. There was a sound of glass smashing; the sniper fell, a perfect mark straight between his eyes. He fought the small smirk of satisfaction.
“Three men on your seven. Take the next left, there should be a door.”
There was. Arthur ducked through it and cursed as machine-gun fire erupted in his wake.
“Straight ahead, there’s a balcony. Try not to fall through any roofs this time.”
“That was one time” Arthur muttered, taking a running leap from the balcony just as his pursuers entered the floor behind him. Their bullets missed him by a hairsbreadth.
“You’ve picked up quite the entourage, it seems.” The voice turned amused.
“Oh shut up,” Arthur said, twisting round to return fire. One of the men crumpled, but the other two quickly disappeared, obviously trying to cut him off further ahead. With a frustrated noise, Arthur holstered his gun and hoisted himself up onto the slated rooftops. The Italian sun beat down mercilessly as he leapt from roof to roof, his Kiton suit providing absolutely no help against the blistering heat. Why the service even insisted he wear these stupid suits was beyond him…
“Two men still on your tail. Pursuing in a black Aston Martin — coming up fast on your left.”
Arthur risked a glance down to the street, a hand already reaching for his Walther.
“Don’t even think about it.” The voice in his ear pulled him short, making Arthur wonder exactly how good the resolution was on the CCTV system his quartermaster had hacked into. “That’s military-grade armour plating and bulletproof glass. Save your bullets for later, you’ll need them.”
“Your never-ceasing faith in me is touching.”
“Remind me of that when I save your worthless ass in the next minute,” the voice replied mildly, but Arthur could hear the smile in his words. “If you must indulge in those ridiculous car chases you double 0’s are all so fond of, there’s an Alfa Romeo parked fifty feet to your right. Now there’s a fire exit —”
Arthur was unfortunately unable to reply at that point, for he had just jumped off the roof. There was a startled curse in his ear, which he ignored, sliding down the slated rooftops and landing in a roll with an agility that would have impressed even M himself (were Uther capable of being impressed).
“…Or you could just launch yourself into thin air off a four storey building and scare the shit out of me.” The voice ground out. “Thank you, really, for that momentary glimpse of what a cardiac arrest feels like. I almost crossed over to the other side.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Keys?”
“You’re a secret agent. I’m sure you can figure it out.”
“God you’re irritating.”
Arthur wasted precious seconds fumbling about the car before his hand closed on a bunch of keys hidden in the overhead sun blocker. Smirking, he coaxed the engine to a low purr and shot forward, relishing the thrum of the car under the accelerator.
“Careful, your hard-on is showing.”
“What have we said about you trying to be funny?” Arthur replied absently.
Arthur’s hands danced across the wheel as he fought to navigate the narrow streets of Florence, careening round corners with ear-splitting screeches of rubber on stone. After a minute or two, the pursuing Aston Martin appeared in his wing-mirror.
“I see it,” he said grimly, yanking on the handbrake to swerve the Romeo round an adjoining street. Rickety stone paving did little to help the suspension, but Arthur didn’t afford to lose any speed. He hurtled down the alleyway like the hounds of hell were upon him, gritting his teeth as he burst though the rows of stalls and markets. Angry Italian erupted behind him. He only hoped the havoc would slow his pursuers down.
“Take the next right.”
The command was sudden and certain, and Arthur didn’t question it. He screeched round the next corner, shooting out onto the main road to the welcoming chorus of blaring horns and the screaming of brakes. A few moments later, the Aston appeared behind him. Arthur swore, cutting across two lanes to get out of its line of sight.
Up ahead, the lights had turned red and oncoming traffic raced past in a continuous stream.
“Keep going,” the voice said firmly. “Don’t slow down.”
Arthur’s hands tightened involuntarily on the wheel, but he obliged. Seconds later, moments before he reached them, the lights impossibly changed to green. He allowed himself a small smile as he shot through.
Behind him, the Aston was gaining steadily, and Arthur knew anytime now they would open fire.
“Whatever you’re thinking, don’t.” The voice warned.
Arthur grinned, and yanked hard on the wheel. The car veered sideways without warning, catapulting up the stone stairs and roaring forward straight into a great courtyard.
Try and follow that, he thought with some satisfaction. Sure enough, there was no flash of a car in pursuit. There was, however, another problem. With a startled oath, Arthur swerved to avoid the masses of people screaming in his path as he shot past, narrowly avoiding crashing into the stone pillars. The car zig-zagged from side to side, ramming into pillar after pillar like a ball in a pinball machine. He winced as the sides of the car were all but sheared off, the wing mirrors snapping off completely.
“I think you missed a pillar,” the voice said placidly.
“Shut up!” Arthur growled, stomping down on the accelerator until he burst back out onto the main road.
The satisfaction of the evasion was short lived, however, as gunfire erupted around him. His left window shattered.
“Are you just going to sit there and let them shoot at you?”
“Stop criticising my job and focus on yours.” Arthur ground out, already twisting round to return fire. “An escape route, for instance?”
The voice grumbled something that sounded suspiciously like prat. Arthur was unfortunately otherwise occupied shooting the second man in the head to reply.
“There - the next left, there’s a bridge over the river. Do you see it?”
Arthur grunted the affirmative, ducking as the third man rained machine gunfire about his head.
“When I say so, step on the throttle.” Arthur could hear the furious tip-tap of his quartermaster’s fingers on his keyboard. “I’ll handle the rest.”
“You’re not serious.”
Cursing, Arthur yanked the steering wheel and shot to the left towards the river, scattering another row of stalls. Ahead of him, the bridge loomed, but — was it…splitting?
“Don’t slow down.”
“You better fucking be right about this,” Arthur muttered.
The warning bell of the safety gates rang in his ears as Arthur shot under them, speeding up the slope of the bridge as the two sides split and rose further and further into the air. Cross too early, and the Aston would be able to follow. Cross too late…
Arthur stomped down on the accelerator, and the Romeo growled and shot forward like a speeding bullet up the steepening slope. There was a dizzying moment of weightless equilibrium as the car soared over the gap…
Arthur’s eyes caught the incredulous gaze of a passing boatman under him…
Behind him, his pursuers launched into the air —
Thud. Arthur’s engine roared to life as he touched down on the other side. His breath left him in a shuddering exhale.
Behind him, the Aston soared through the air… and with a thundering crunch of twisted metal, crashed straight into the underside of the opposite side, sending a mushroom cloud of scarlet smoke pluming into the air. Arthur fought a smile, and shot forward, disappearing in moments amongst the twisting streets.
“Huh. That actually worked.” The voice mused.
Arthur’s hands spasmed on the wheel, and it was only years of self-control and a lifetime of assassin’s instincts that saved him from crashing into a lamppost. “You mean you didn’t know?”
“In theory it was perfect.” The voice sounded indignant. “Perhaps I could have timed the projectile a tad earlier, I was going for a 47 degree slope and that was more of a 49, but you didn’t exactly give me much time to calculate.”
“Oh I’m sorry,” Arthur said, pulling the battered car down an abandoned street and cutting the engine. “I was a tad occupied what with the certain death coming at me from all sides and all.”
“You try hacking a private foreign government’s transport system, finding the right bridge, redirecting the nearest barge that would have cut you in half, and timing the lift so you would sail over unharmed whilst the baddies have a rather pressing engagement with the underside of the bridge.”
“I don’t need to. That’s why they pay you.”
“Mm.” The voice sounded mildly affronted. “I need a raise.”
And abruptly, Arthur started laughing. A startled, slightly-hysterical giggle tinged with exhaustion that rolled through his whole body like a wave, dissipating the red haze of frustration that had been clouding his brain ever since the op had gone tits up. For the first time in weeks, he felt the strain he’d been carrying around with him lift, relaxing on instinct to Merlin’s voice. The adrenaline high made the world around him seem that much sharper and brighter, heady with the rush of a job done well and the wild exhilaration of brushing with death and walking away without a scratch, and Arthur smirked at the nearest security camera.
“‘Baddies’, Merlin, really? What are you, twelve?”
"If there's a term you’re more partial to, I'll make a note in your file," Merlin said placidly, but Arthur could hear the smile in his voice through the earpiece. “You still have the asset?”
Arthur reached into his jacket and withdrew the memory stick, tossing it lightly in his hand.
“All that for this,” he mused. “Nice to know I was risking my life for such a worthy artefact.”
“Well we can’t all be Indiana Jones.”
“Thank god for that. I’d look terrible in a fedora hat.”
Merlin laughed softly in his air, the sound curiously intimate, and Arthur felt any remaining tension uncoil at the familiar sound. He imagined Merlin, standing before his bank of monitors at HQ, long pale fingers flying over his keyboard as he watched over Arthur, and the thought was strangely comforting.
When Merlin next spoke, his voice was all business once more. “I’ve booked you onto the first flight back to London. You leave in two hours. Your luggage has already been transferred, and a field agent will rendezvous outside the city. A new suit will be waiting for you.”
“Brioni. You’re in Italy, might as well dress like it. Plus, I’m rather partial to the Vanquish II.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Your taste is improving.”
“That’s what happens when you work 24/7 with a bunch of snobs.” Merlin remarked offhandedly. “Let it never be said MI6 doesn’t travel in style.”
Arthur laughed. He never understood how easily Merlin made him laugh.
“Given you’ve unsurprisingly trashed your latest transport, I’m guessing you’ll be wanting a ride?”
Arthur looked mournfully on what was left of the Romeo. “You know all this would have been much easier if you’d have just given me one of those bulletproof wheels gathering dust in your lab.”
“After what you did to the last one? You’re lucky I’m giving you so much as an exploding pen.”
“Okay, the Audi A5 was not my fault…”
“You drove it into a river.”
“I did no such thing —”
“You drove an exceptionally modified 3-million-pound prototype into the Nile, and I am not letting you near my Aston Martin DB5 until you prove you are capable of not destroying every vehicle you get into.”
Arthur scowled. It was an expression that usually sent war-hardened thugs scrambling for the hills. Merlin, he imagined, would only smile infuriatingly like Arthur wasn’t a highly trained assassin who could kill you and make it look like an accident.
“Next thing I know you’ll be confiscating my Walther too.” He grumbled.
“Please. We both know you could kill a man in about thirteen different ways using a paperclip.”
“Yes well, remember that when I come looking for that Aston DB5.”
Another laugh. “I look forward to it. See you at home, 007.”
And as Arthur memorised the sound of Merlin’s laugh — easy and startled and unmistakably fond — feeling its warmth spreading through him, as he looked around at the sun-bleached-russet-sand-stone that was Florence, smelt the tang of that was unmistakably Italy — sun and burnt petrol and oranges — felt the remnants of gunpowder on his fingertips and a thin layer of grime and dust coating his once-pristine suit... he couldn’t help thinking he was already home. This was where he belonged: out in the field, with the thundering high of adrenaline singing in his veins and Merlin’s voice a steady presence in his ear.
“Home it is,” Arthur replied, but his eyes were on the CCTV camera as he said it.
Hundreds of miles away in an office that technically didn’t exist, Merlin felt an answering grin tug at his lips.
MI6 HQ, London. One year previous.
It had only taken a week after Merlin was first recruited for Her Majesty’s secret service, for Agent Arthur Pendragon — otherwise known by ‘007’, MI6’s leading operative and unofficial legend of the double 0 program — to come to the conclusion the new quartermaster was a complete idiot. For one thing, he wasn’t scared of Arthur.
This was unacceptable.
“Hey, come on that’s enough.” An unfamiliar voice, friendly but surprisingly authoritative, belonging to a thin scrap of a boy with ridiculous ears and devastating cheekbones.
Arthur pauses where he had been using one of the terrified minions from Q-branch as target practise. He flips the throwing knife in his hand. “What?”
Either Cheekbones doesn’t hear the warning tone in Arthur’s voice, (not to the mention the blade in his hand) or he chooses to ignore it. “Your marksmanship is obviously good enough not to require the motivation of an actual live target to hurl cutlery at, so why don’t you give the guy a break, yeah?”
His tone is reasonable and friendly, and Arthur can only stare at him incredulously. “Do I know you?”
Arthur’s using that voice - the one that sends an entire room full of armed double 0 agents ducking for cover. Cheekbones just smiles, and Arthur catches a glimpse of startling blue eyes, a shade of sun-shattered ocean that shouldn’t be naturally possible, ringed with gold.
It had to be a code name. Nobody in their right mind would name a child Merlin .
“Well, Merlin,” Arthur says, taking a step forward. “I didn’t realise it was within your power to tell a double 0 agent how he should train.”
“And I didn’t realise it was within your power to subject another agent to mindless torment just to appease your sense of superiority over everyone else.”
Beside him, there’s a dull thud as Percival — steady-handed, unshakable Percival — drops his gun. Arthur stares. The response is delivered without faltering, without hesitation, swift and unequivocal. Their gazes lock, searing in intensity.
Arthur jaw twitches. “Didn’t you know?” He gestures with his blade. “That’s standard practise for any agent who pisses me off.”
“One almost wonders how MI6 is still staffed.”
Behind him, Gwaine snorts, quickly disguising it as a cough when Arthur glared at him. “By recruiting idiots like you, I imagine.” He returns.
The corner of the boy’s mouth turns up into a smirk. “Touché.”
Something about those all-too-knowing blue-gold eyes gives Arthur the unnerving sensation that he’s being read like a book, and suddenly Arthur wants to lash out or shoot something or run away — to be anywhere but here under those eyes that see too much. The unfamiliar impulse prickles.
Arthur knows how to deal with threats, and everything about this boy screams non-threatening, but... there is something. It’s an indefinite feeling, like the smell of ozone before a lightning strike, like some long-buried instinct bristling to the surface.
Arthur is used to being the most dangerous person in the room. But suddenly, caught in the liquid thunderstorm of Merlin's gaze, Arthur isn't so sure.
The words are out before he can stop them.
“I think you’ll find that there are very few things beyond my power, Merlin. You’d do well to remember that if you plan on sticking around.”
It’s a threat, and a poorly disguised one at that. Around him, the other agents try and back away without looking like they’re diving for cover. The boy, however, just smiles — a small, sharp thing that makes Arthur want to reach for his weapon.
“Oh I intend to.” Cheekbones — Merlin — shrugs, and Arthur’s mind goes strangely blank as those damn-distracting eyes dance with mischief. “We can’t have you running out of agents to skewer, after all.”
Arthur scowled. Already the word was spreading about the mysterious new recruit who had gone through a verbal sparring with 007 and survived. Arthur was still wondering himself why he hadn’t just knocked the guy flat and be done with it. Authority, he decided. The unflinching command in the boy’s voice, the curious way Merlin had met his gaze and held it, the fact he’d just walked into the double 0 training room unchallenged. Merlin hadn’t been wearing identification, so that meant he had to be a lettered rank. New, if the easy way he gave away his name was any indication. That was why Arthur hadn’t skewered him.
Despite his known disregard for the rules, Arthur preferred not to make a habit of pissing off agents before he found out how easily they could make him disappear and make it look like an accident. It just wasn’t worth the aggravation of provoking some foreign secretary, or whoever the hell Merlin was.
Of course, there weren’t many in MI6 who had the authority to talk down to a double 0, and even less who would dare do so to Arthur. People didn’t tell Arthur what to do. Not if they wanted to keep all their limbs.
And then there was Merlin. Merlin, who apparently had no sense of self-preservation and enjoyed baiting professional killers.
With a small huff of irritation, Arthur whipped his hand out and his blade buried itself in a wall as he strode past. There were several yelps of alarm from nearby agents, which he ignored. Everyone knew not to bother Arthur between missions. This period had been one of the longest, with almost a month since the last assignment, and Arthur was quietly going insane.
A boredom-induced frustration cast a thin red haze over everything, with irritation flaring more quickly to the surface. He began spending long hours in PT, emptying rounds into wooden targets because he couldn’t sleep. When he wasn’t training, he took to the city. The streets, the back-alleys, the rooftops — anywhere to avoid going back to a huge empty flat where the silence was almost as deafening as the gunfire that haunted his dreams. Sometimes he went unarmed into the darkest corners in London, looking for trouble and often finding it, because even if the fights were over too quickly at least for a moment or two he felt like he was worth something.
And sometimes, like today, he just prowled the hallways of HQ because he didn’t belong anywhere else, snapping at whoever’s gaze lingered for too long.
Morgana fondly called it his ‘brooding reign of terror’.
Arthur said she was wrong; he wasn’t brooding. He was waiting.
“Waiting for what?” She’d asked.
Arthur looked at his sister. “I don’t know,” he’d answered honestly.
And that was just it. Because no matter how many hours he trained, how many nights he spent burying blades in targets rather than trying to sleep, how many marks he took down or missions he completed, it was never going to be enough. Arthur had been running for so long, chasing that deadly rush of achieving the impossible as though the next kill would somehow make him feel less empty inside... he no longer knew how to stop.
It was the reason why Arthur had been doing this for years, the reason he threw himself into the path of death and destruction on a daily basis because it hadn't taken him long to figure out the only time he really felt alive was when he had a weapon in his hand and the weight of his country on his shoulders.
The army had been that, for a time, before protecting his country somehow became synonymous with shooting at civilians to protect bigoted men in totalitarian regimes, and the lines between who they were supposed to be protecting or fighting began to blur. SAS had picked him up for a brief stint, moving the fight to the shadows, before someone had convinced him his talents would be of greater use elsewhere.
It shouldn't have surprised him that he had ended up here, under his father's command at MI6, fighting the battles the military couldn't, the ones no one else dared.
He was like an addict, craving his work and the thrill of the chase like a fix, because there was nothing quite like facing death and defeating it.
Each day, every mission, every kill brought him closer to that edge, that liminal boundary between living and surviving, until Arthur didn’t know where the edge was anymore or whether he had passed it long ago. It was like one of those recurring nightmares — the ones consumed with darkness, where an answer shines behind you, but no matter how badly you want it, you cannot turn. You can only stare into the abyss, waiting for the day it finally swallows you.
Morgana had looked at him searchingly, and a little sadly. “Well, I hope you find it.”
Arthur closed his eyes. “So do I.”
Merlin was still getting his head around it.
It had been a little over an hour since he had first walked through the doors of MI6, unguarded and uncuffed for the first time he could remember, freshly showered and dressed in clothes that thankfully weren't bright orange. Part of him still expected one of the agents he passed in the corridors to tackle him to the ground and drag him back to Ealdor, surely recognising him for the imposter that he was. So far there had only been friendly nods and curious glances, but it was still early days yet.
It was a constant battle to keep from looking over his shoulder, reminding himself again and again that no, he couldn't have just slipped in the back entrance and no he shouldn't hack into the mainframe and disable all their security cameras and alarm systems just because he felt a little twitchy.
It was the first time he'd been outside of Ealdor's HM Young Offender Institution in four years. He was bound to feel a little paranoid.
Merlin glanced around at the offices as he walked past, reluctantly intrigued. He'd been piggy-backing MI6's systems for so long now, it was odd to see the agency as an actual place. Though honestly, for a top secret spy facility, it was disappointingly normal. No secret underground labs, no blinky dials or elaborate computers, no exploding stationary. The latter, at least, he would have to remedy. Merlin did not become the best hacker in the world only to settle for something so mundane as an office job. If he had to build the extortionate, fiction-worthy gadgets himself, so be it. God knows he had to find some way of amusing himself.
The tea, at least, seemed acceptable.
Merlin's lips twitched as he recalled the conversation just earlier with M, in which he had laid out his rather sparse list of requirements, at the top of which was —
“Tea?” M clarified dubiously.
“Earl grey, brewed for three minutes with a splash of milk. And I mean a splash. Anything lighter than taupe brown and someone’s internet privileges are going to be cut maliciously.”
That should have really been a sign from the beginning that Merlin was not your average MI6 recruit.
Nothing could have prepared Q-branch, though, for the skinny nineteen-year-old boy with the strange, sky-shifting eyes and a smile bright with mischief who came bounding into their department that morning, nearly tripping over his own feet, and introduced himself as the new Quartermaster (all the while absently hacking into the MI6 database from his mobile).
“Merlin!” A fond, exasperated voice that was probably meant to sound disapproving came from the end of the room. “What have I told you about hacking into government systems?”
Merlin span around so fast he almost fell over, and if possible his grin grew even wider. “Gaius!”
Gaius laughed as Merlin flew forward and wrapped him in a crushing hug. The old quartermaster had been a part of Merlin’s life ever since he'd found him on the streets, vague recollections of a kindly smile and a rather terrifying eyebrow mixed in with scolding slaps on his wrist and the familiar reprimand — ‘now for the last time, the kitchen is not a free-buffet of spare parts for you to rebuild to your choosing. I happen to like toast in the morning, and if I see another toaster droid running off with my breakfast, I cannot be held responsible for my actions.' He had been the first one to look at Merlin on the streets of London all those years ago and see past the dirt-covered vagabond with the impish smile and light fingers. The one to buy Merlin his first computer, the first one not to look at him with fear in their eyes as he tore it apart and rebuilt it over and over again, slipstreaming whichever programming took his fancy. He had been the only one who’d stood by his side as the judge read out Merlin’s sentence that fateful day he’d been caught.
Gaius pulled back and studied him, his eyes crinkling with mirth. “Causing trouble as usual, I see. What was it this time?”
Merlin waved his hand vaguely. “Your protocol handler got confused.”
One of Gaius’ magnificent eyebrows rose. “Did it now?”
“I was just giving it a little nudge in the right direction…”
“Of course you were.” Gaius shook his head. “Did you fix it, at least?”
“Please. I had it up and running and at twice the speed before I even came into the room. No need to thank me, by the way.”
“So what were you doing just now then?”
Merlin smile turned impish. “Playing Candy Crush.”
Somewhere, one of the agents choked. Gaius gave the impression of sighing without actually moving. “If you did not have the talent you do, my boy… playing Candy Crush indeed.”
By now the agents in Q-branch were all honing in on the newcomer with curious eyes, fingers pausing where they had been furiously tapping on keyboards.
“Everyone, this is Merlin, my protégé. He’s young, but don’t let that disillusion you. Merlin, well. Welcome to Q-branch.”
And Merlin smiled that dazzling smile of his, and the entire of Q-branch melted.
A flurry of introductions followed where Merlin tried his hardest to remember names and faces. There was Gaius, of course, former quartermaster and now head of R&D (apparently building weapons of mass destruction was considered less strenuous than heading up the branch).
There was Gwen, officially Uther’s secretary, (though Merlin suspected she and R all but ran the place) who smiled so sweetly Merlin had a hard time believing she was capable of some of the highest marksmanship scores in the service. Said ‘R’ being a terrifying beauty called Morgana, thick as thieves with Gwen, who slipped in just to flash Merlin a shark-like smile and a rather ominous ‘good luck’ before disappearing to terrorise the minions or whatever it was she did to amuse herself.
Elyan, Gwen’s brother, served as their technician, which basically involved pulling Gaius out of the way when his creations backfired. And George, the self-righteous do-gooder who ran comms on most of the double 0 missions (also whom Merlin distrusted immediately; I mean who volunteered to babysit stubborn, pig-headed agents who thought they knew better than everyone else?) Everyone else blurred into a mass of smiling, hesitant faces and given names that were probably false anyway.
“Just call them the minions.” Gwen had advised later. “Everyone else does.”
“Surely that’s a little, I don’t know, undermining?”
“You’re the Quartermaster of MI6, which inevitably makes you one of the most powerful people in the country. You are also their boss. They’ll take any jobs you delegate, run errands for you, and occasionally bring you tea. Thus, minions.”
Merlin looked unconvinced.
“Just think, if you ever snap from the stress and become an evil mastermind, it’d be useful to have an army of boffins to bring with you.”
Minions or no minions, though, the agents from Q-branch liked to think they were pretty good judges of character. And they worked out very quickly that the new Q was frighteningly smart, even by their standards.
After familiarising himself with the array of tech his position granted him, Merlin had taken one look at the raw programming, made a face, and proceeded to all but rebuild their laptops, stripping the base code of the operating system and rewriting it — all the while muttering under his breath how the hell MI6 had survived this long without him.
He made leaps in encryption that made no sense to anyone else yet always somehow worked. He did all the maths in his head, firing off calculations whilst patching up some holes in the firewall. His hands flew across multiple keyboards, never hesitating as they deviated between screens, oddly graceful from someone who would fall off his chair and nearly brain himself against the desk at regular intervals. Every monitor circling his desk displayed tantalising flickers of code, surveillance, and footage of just about every corner of the world — any camera just a few clicks away, feeding him a steady stream of information. Within the first few hours, Merlin had pulled up every agent’s file to familiarise himself, and the new face-recognition cameras he’d installed, with their backgrounds (and just happened to stumble upon two moles in the process).
And throughout all this, Merlin had just perfected an exploding pen.
By the time they got to lunch hour, everyone was just a tiny bit terrified of him.
But they’d leant an important lesson. That yes, Merlin was young. Yes, had a smile that could probably melt the heart of the most stoic villain. Could still tear the world down and rebuild it to his choosing with nothing but an old mobile and a paperclip. Don’t piss him off.
“Oi, new guy.”
That is, apart from the double 0 agents, who apparently didn’t fear anything. Merlin had a glimpse of something flying fast towards his head, and his hands snatched it before it could collide with his face.
He stared at it.
“What’s the matter, never seen a sandwich before?” The same agent called. He had an easy grin, lopsided and full of mischief, and a blasé, reckless air. Merlin remembered him as the man who had sniggered and received the blonde’s withering look back in the training room. What had been his name?
“Gwaine…” Gwen hissed at the newcomer.
“What?” The agent — Gwaine — raised his hands. “He’s got to eat, hasn’t he?”
Gwen just levelled her gaze at him, and Gwaine wisely shut up. The girl turned to Merlin, a faint flush colouring her cheeks. “I’m sorry, sir. I mean, I saw him come in, but it’s Gwaine so I didn’t think… because it’s only Gwaine, but then this is Gwaine so he was bound to do something, and, well, I don’t…” She stopped, bit her lip, and looked so flustered Merlin instantly forgave her.
“Hey, no harm done.” Merlin smiled to alleviate her discomfort. “I was heading to lunch anyway, this just saved me the trip.” He nodded to the newcomer. “And who have I to thank for so expertly throwing sustenance at my face?”
The man grinned and bowed. “Agent Gwaine, 003 at your service. And you must be the new Quartermaster everyone’s been talking about. Caused quite the stir with your little… discussion with Pendragon earlier.”
“Blonde guy, body of Adonis, walks around like he has a silver spoon permanently up his arse?”
Merlin’s expression brightened. “Oh him. He was a prat.”
Gwaine laughed, a carefree, infectious sound that had the corners of Merlin’s mouth tugging up. “Don’t let him hear you say that. The guy may be an arrogant ass, but he’s still got a licence to kill. I wouldn’t go picking a fight with him any time soon, no offence.”
Gwaine made a vague gesture that was probably meant to encompass all of Merlin’s lack of physical attributes.
Merlin pouted. “Thanks.”
“I insulted a double 0?”
“God you really don’t know?” Gwaine shook his head. “How about 007? Mean anything to you?”
Merlin blanched. Who hadn’t heard of 007?
The double 0’s were the elite of the assassins, each ruthless warriors in their own right, fiercely loyal to their country. A passing stranger might mistake them for another agent or soldier — but Merlin knew better. He’d seen them in action, heard the stories, seen evidence of their skills on the reports he used to hack from MI6’s database for fun. Each agent was an expert in his field, the best of the best, all handpicked by M himself. Whatever it was that made them — arduous training, experience, an innate ability to shoot anything that moved… God help their enemies.
But 007 was something else.
Rumours were he’d been enlisted since he was eighteen, trained and honed to be MI6’s finest weapon. Every mission, every target, every mark — 007 aced it. The most dangerous assassin in the continent, a ghost, a whispered name, a harbinger of death. No one lived long enough to say any otherwise. Little to nothing was known about him, other than that you did not want your name given as his next assignment. This was an assassin who never showed himself. And never missed.
And Merlin had just insulted him in front of everyone and their mother.
There was a dull thunk as Merlin’s head fell on the desk. “I’m dead.” He said, his voice muffled. “I’ve been here an hour, and I'm already dead. So much for my promising career in espionage.”
Gwaine laughed. “Technically, as Q you outrank him now. I’m sure there’s a rule somewhere about murdering your superiors.”
“Gwaine, this is 007,” Merlin said pointedly. “Now I may be wrong, but from what I’ve read following guidelines isn’t really his strong point.”
Gwaine opened his mouth, and closed it. He smiled ruefully. “Good point. I’ll distract him while you run.”
Arthur didn’t bother knocking as he strode into the M’s office, earning a withering look from the man seated behind the desk. Despite the years spent running operations from his office instead of on the field, the head of MI6 hadn’t lost the broad frame of his shoulders or the muscles that coiled up his arms. He sat tall and assured, wearing his suit like armour, and even if M’s hair was greying and his reflexes were slowing, there was no missing the authority in his bearing, the ruthless command in his voice.
“Excuse me, Prime Minister, I’m afraid we’ll have to finish this discussion another time.” M smoothly addressed the other man in the room, interrupting the PM’s droning monologue. Arthur glanced at the PM for a fraction of a second — balding, nervous tremor in left hand, troubles with the wife at home based on the agitated way he keeps twisting his wedding ring — and glanced away, already bored.
The man made a few halting farewells, and then they were alone.
M turned his scrutinising eyes on Arthur. “007,” he greeted at last.
Arthur inclined his head. “Father.”
Uther’s mouth twitched with irritation. A very select few were privy to Arthur’s relation to the head of MI6, and Uther preferred to keep it that way. “R tells me you’ve taken it upon yourself to start terrorising the agents from Q-branch.” His tone was mildly disapproving.
Arthur silently cursed his sister. He had vehemently advised his father against instigating Morgana as the new R, but once Morgana got an idea in her head…
“Terrorising is such a strong word…” Arthur mused.
“Oh? What would you call throwing knives at an agents head?”
“High-stress endurance training.”
Uther huffed, though it sounded suspiciously like a snort. “Arthur, the agents are not there for your personal amusement. Might I remind you also that it is Q-branch that oversees all of your missions and prevents you from getting shot, when you allow them to, anyway. It would be unwise to aggravate them further.”
Arthur waved his hand dismissively. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard this spiel a million times before. “I hardly need a voice in my ear to tell me when to duck.”
“Perhaps not. But no double 0 is infallible, and one day you’ll be glad to have someone on the inside back here when you’re in a tight spot half-way round the world.”
A flare of irritation made Arthur fight to keep his voice even. Leon had warned him to watch his mouth when he spoke to his father, but when he spoke to him like that, as if Arthur were a pampered idiot…
Oh to hell with it. Arthur met his father’s gaze. “I don’t need someone on the inside,” he ground out. “I’ve done just fine on my own so far.”
Uther’s eyes flashed. “So long as you refuse to collaborate with a partner from Q-branch, your efficiency as an agent is limited—”
“Limited?” Arthur repeated incredulously. “My mission-success-rate is the highest in the agency, and that’s without any help from the Q’s!”
“So just think what you could do if you weren’t so pigheaded as to think yourself above that help,” Uther snapped. He levelled his gaze at Arthur. “Our power as an organisation lies not in your guns or car chases, but in intelligence. And when you’re in the field, it is Q-branch which supplies you with it. Communication with HQ must be upheld, else you become a liability, 007.”
Maybe it was the snide condescension in his father’s tone, a poignant reminder that no matter how well Arthur did, he would never be good enough for his father. Maybe it was the three weeks, two days and seven hours — too long — since his last assignment. Maybe it was the boy with the distracting blue eyes and the disarming smile who had called a double 0 agent out so brazenly, and who Arthur couldn’t seem to get out of his head. But whatever it was, without warning the suffocating tightness that had been coiling in his chest all day snapped.
“I do not need some imbecile who has never even held a gun telling me how to do my job,” Arthur snarled. “I work alone.”
“You work for me!” Uther’s voice was like the crack of a whip. “I have been lenient with you, Arthur, because you are one of our best. But damn you, you will fall into line or there will be consequences, do you understand?”
Arthur, realising how close he was to crossing a boundary between impertinence and insurgence — a boundary that he’d been very, very careful to maintain — clenched his trembling hands and amended. “Perfectly, sir.”
“Good.” Uther lowered himself back into his chair. When he spoke again, his voice was all business again. “Now, you have an assignment at 0700 hours. R will brief you. You leave first thing tomorrow.”
Arthur inclined his head, a small, jerking movement. “Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes. You are dismissed, 007.”
Jaw flexing, Arthur turned to leave, before he was stopped by his father’s voice.
“Oh, and Arthur?”
“See the new Quartermaster before you leave. I believe he has a new earpiece for you after you… conveniently lost the last one.”
Arthur bit back a retort. “Yes, father.”
If the door shut a little violently on his way out, neither of them commented on it.
Work in Q-branch settled in surprisingly quickly for someone who'd been in jail for the past four years. The next few hours passed in a blur of monitoring and coding and reinforcing security walls, and with no national disasters or assailants causing trouble in far-off lands, life was pretty quiet. The only noteworthy instance had been when the coffee machine had mysteriously disappeared, and Merlin learned very quickly that Q-branch without their hourly caffeine fix were scary, scary people. The perpetrator in question, some poor sod from finance, was now currently sat tied up in the corner whilst the minions took turns in pelting him with the (re-stolen) coffee beans.
Merlin hasn't asked, only smirked, and offhandedly cobbled together an electrified-fingerprint-recognition system for the coffee machine registered to Q-branch members only to prevent such terrible situations ever happening again.
He'd earned the minions undying loyalty ever since.
In fact, Merlin hadn’t realised how long he’d been solidly working until someone placed a steaming mug of tea by his left elbow, the smell of Earl Grey jolting him out of his coding.
His typing paused for a nanosecond. “Is that…”
“Tea, a lá Gwaine," the 003 agent declared with a flourish. “I don’t suppose you’d know why your minions made me remake it three times under pain of death to get it right?"
Merlin took a cautionary sip, and smiled. Perfect. “Tea is important.”
“They threatened to castrate me if I got it wrong.”
“Did they?” Merlin said fondly, “I’ll have to give them a raise.”
Gwaine gave up. He gestured to the monitors. “What are you doing?”
“Running surveillance on the UN meeting in Switzerland. I don’t trust the American rep.”
“So what’s that screen doing?”
“Decrypting the CIA’s email notifications.”
“And that one?”
Merlin huffed. “Don’t you have somewhere you need to be?”
“Not particularly. I’m on med rest.” Gwaine grinned winningly. “What are you doing now?”
“Checking the protocol for accidentally punching obnoxious double 0 agents in the face.”
“You are no fun, my friend.”
“And you are an annoying pain in my arse.”
Gwaine pouted and looked at Morgana who had just swanned in. ”Are you just going to let Merlin sit there and call me names?"
"Yes," Morgana said kindly without missing a beat. "It'll do you good - try to think of it as endurance training.”
“God knows he needs it,” Merlin said under his breath.
Morgana let out a delighted laugh, and the two shared a quick grin at finding a fellow partner in crime who was apparently also stupid enough to enjoy goading double 0 assassins. Somehow, Merlin wasn't surprised. If anyone had the balls to poke fun at a double 0, it was going to be Morgana.
“Loyalty is a dead concept, I see,” Gwaine grumbled. “The boffin’s been here what, two hours?”
“The boffin is sitting right here,” Merlin pointed out.
“The boffin is much prettier than you,” Morgana said, ignoring him. “And, unlike you, he’s actually doing his job.”
Gwaine looked around in mock outrage. “How dare you even suggest —”
“Shoo,” she commanded. “Or I’ll put you down for harassing a minor.”
“My hero,” Merlin muttered.
Morgana eyed him. “Don’t be sarcastic, Q. Irony doesn’t suit you.”
“Oh come on,” Merlin said petulantly. “I’m nought but skinny, uncoordinated limbs and fragile bone. Sarcasm is my only defence.”
Morgana’s lips twitched in something suspiciously close to a smile.
“You two.” Gwaine gestured between Merlin and Morgana, eyes narrowed. “It’s dangerous that you’re getting along. Don’t topple any small governments while I’m gone.”
Merlin and Morgana glanced at each other. “Bolivia?”
"I was thinking Bulgaria," Morgana mused. "Recent deterioration of democratic governance might merit a minor shake up."
"And they have excellent hot springs," Merlin agreed thoughtfully.
"Which may have to merit a visit, too."
"All in the name of diplomacy, of course."
"I'm sure M will understand."
Gwaine threw his hands up in the air. “Fine, enjoy conquering the world. In the meantime, I'll be blowing things up in the lab. If anyone asks for me.”
“Oh, in that case, here.” Merlin tossed something in his direction, which Gwaine expertly plucked from the air. “A thanks. For the tea.”
He blinked. “A pen?”
“An exploding pen,” Merlin corrected. “Blast radius 15 feet. Activate by twisting the top until it flashes green, then you’ve got five seconds to lob it at whatever unfortunate object offends you.”
There was a beat. Then a slow, wicked grin stretched across Gwaine’s face. “Q you are my favourite.”
“Prototypes need testing,” Merlin said airily, but he was hiding a smile of his own. “Try not to kill anyone, it looks bad on my report.”
Gwaine saluted. “Yes, sir.” Then, more quietly to himself as he left. “An exploding pen. A real exploding pen.”
“That was good of you,” Morgana murmured from his side. “You wouldn’t know, but Gwaine’s never the one who gets the gadgets. He’s seen as too reckless, too irresponsible, not trustworthy enough.”
Merlin just looked at her. “I know,” he said.
A swipe of his hand, and Gwaine’s file appeared on the nearest monitor. Not an official one, mind, which had classified bullshit all over it, but the file — every mission report, psychological test, even his real name. It had taken Merlin all of thirty seconds to crack whilst he and Morgana were talking.
Surprise flickered across Morgana’s face, and suddenly she was looking at Merlin in a whole new light.
“You know what, Q, you might actually survive here.”
The corner of Merlin’s mouth curved up. “I’ve got exploding earrings in development if you want to swing by in an hour or two.”
Morgana laughed. “I’ll hold you to that.” She turned to leave, calling back as she did — “Oh, and I think your American UN rep just slipped off surveillance. Might want to look into that.”
Merlin swore colourfully, and dived back into the system, hands flying across the keyboard. So immersed was he trying to locate the rogue American, Merlin barely noticed the newcomer enter Q-branch, nor Morgana’s distant, sardonic exchange with him at the door. In fact, Merlin didn’t notice Arthur Pendragon at all until the man pointedly cleared his throat from somewhere very close behind him.
“One minute,” Merlin ground out, eyes flying between monitors. Come on, come on, think. The American can’t have bloody evaporated …
Then he heard a familiar voice drawl from behind him.
“Terribly sorry to interrupt. I’m looking for the Quartermaster — I don’t suppose you can point me in the right direction?”
That voice. That low, mocking, beautiful voice…
Merlin almost gave himself whiplash spinning round to see the agent who he’d confronted in the training room earlier — a shock of golden hair that was more sun-kissed than hair had a right to be and two dazzling blue eyes. Arthur looked up just in time to lock gazes, and something passed in the air between them — more than just realisation, but recognition. I know you. Ice blue eyes stared back at him with a similar expression, the one that screamed of the world realigning and settling rightly into place.
Suddenly Merlin couldn't help but drink in all the details he had missed earlier when all he could see was prat. The agent was achingly handsome. All aristocratic lines and lazy strength, the stark contrast of those eyes — like pale chips of winter sky — against gold-dusted skin, browned by the sun. If that didn’t do it, the signature Walther 9mm at his hip confirmed it.
Merlin was staring right into the face of 007.
Merlin saw the exact moment Arthur realised who he was talking to, the precise moment he made the connection between quartermaster and Merlin and git from the training room. Arthur’s head snapped back, blue eyes widening ever so slightly, lips parting in slack surprise —
“You!” he blurted.
Merlin flashed him a winning smile. “Me,” he agreed. “Excuse me for a moment.”
And Merlin turned back to the monitors.
He ignored Arthur’s spluttering protests, ignored how the entire lab had fallen silent, ignored Gwen’s worried glance or the two minions who hastily ducked behind a desk. Sod Pendragon. What creative retaliation he had in store for Merlin could wait until the security risk of the vanishing American was resolved.
Merlin flew between security cameras, scanning footage, bypassing mobile cameras and satellite images when that failed. He traced the American’s phone, only to find it had been ditched. He ran a scan on all the security doors, and saw apparently the American hadn’t left the building.
Think think think —
Merlin stopped, eyes catching on a decrypted CIA message.
Agent MIA, request immediate backup. Target on the move.
Target. Who else was missing? Another scan, and Merlin had him: the Russian ambassador. Merlin swept aside his phone’s piss-poor security and traced it in a heartbeat. The roof. Of course. A scatter of fingers on keys. Satellite footage appeared on the monitors: the missing American, standing at the edge of the roof; the Russian Ambassador, who Merlin now suspected to be a certain representative of the Russian Mafia, holding a gun to her head.
Stupid, stupid. The American woman wasn’t the one Merlin should have been watching. She wasn’t the assassin. She was the mark.
Somewhere behind him, someone swore softly. Merlin ignored them. He opened a comm line with a sweep of his hand.
“Gwen.” His voice was a pulse of authority. “Nearest agent to the UN summit.”
She didn’t question him. She didn’t even hesitate. “Four hours away.”
“Too slow,” Merlin muttered. To Gwen — “Radio him. We’re going to need someone on the scene to bring him in.”
“Sorry sir, bring who in?”
Merlin’s eyes were aglow with the blue light of the monitors as they narrowed in on the two figures on the roof. The Russian Ambassador was pushing the CIA agent closer and closer to the edge, shouting something incoherent. Merlin could probably access audio with time, but his focus was elsewhere. With a swipe of his fingers, he pulled up the schematics of the building and overlaid it with the live footage, double checking the infrared scan to make sure no one else was in the immediate vicinity. Just a bit further…
The Russian took a step forward.
Merlin smiled grimly. “We’re bringing in a top hitman of the Russian Mafia.”
Then his finger hit the spacebar, and the gas line under the Ambassador’s feet exploded, sending him flying backwards and a red mushroom cloud pluming into the air.
When the smoke cleared, the Ambassador was lying unconscious on the roof, and the CIA agent was staring down at him, unharmed. The explosion was so explicitly focussed she wan’t even knocked off her feet.
Merlin let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding. Crisis averted.
“Sorry, 007,” he said briskly, turning away from the screens and the awestruck minions who were staring at him. The effect was somewhat ruined by the fact he almost fell off his chair doing so. “You were saying?”
“You’re the new Q.” Arthur said blankly.
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Yes. I thought that was fairly obvious.”
“Yes.” Arthur was still staring.
“Yes you are. You. The new Q.”
Merlin wondered if he’d just broken MI6’s best agent.
“Yes, I think we’ve established that,” he said slowly. “Sorry, did you want something?”
“Aren’t you a bit…young?”
Merlin’s mouth quirked. His voice was cynical. “Why thank you. It is impressive I’ve managed to obtain such a high and skilled position at such a tender age…”
“You can’t seriously think that I’m going to take orders from —”
“—What?” Merlin interrupted coolly. “Charming, young delinquents who’s job it is to save your lives?”
“From someone who still has spots.”
“My complexion is hardly relevant.”
“Your competence is.”
Merlin’s gaze hardened. “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.”
“And youth is no guarantee of innovation,” he countered derisively.
Merlin eyes flashed. So they were doing this.
He crossed his arms. “I just prevented the assassination of a CIA operative from my desk. That man who tried to kill her? I know his name, who he works for, where he was born, his social security number — all because I caught a glimpse of his face. I can be anywhere, access any file, any system in the world. I’ll hazard I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.”
Arthur made a small noise, something between incredulity and amusement. “I could take you apart with one blow.”
“I could take you apart with less than that.” Merlin purred.
Somewhere in the room, someone choked.
“Oh?” Arthur cocked his head to the side in a way that was almost predatory. “So what do you need me for then?”
“Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.”
“Or not pulled. It's hard to know which in your pyjamas. Q.”
The name was full of contempt, and suddenly Merlin found himself standing. “Look,” he said fiercely, “whatever petty feud you feel like starting, I suggest you save it. I didn’t agree to this position just to have my competence questioned by stuck-up prats like you. I didn’t ask MI6 to come and recruit me, and I sure as hell didn’t ask to work with you. M, chose, me. This is what I’m trained for, this is what I’m good at, and if you’ve got a problem with that…”
Merlin’s face was inches from his own, his eyes so dark a blue they were almost indigo, and the blistering tension coursing through the air between them was so intense Arthur thought the air would crack under such pressure.
“If you’ve got a problem with that,” Merlin repeated, quietly enough that only Arthur could hear, “maybe you should take it up with M. Or, should I say, dear old dad?”
Arthur’s expression flickered, and for a moment the mask slipped. “I don’t know what it is you think you’re implying…”
“Don’t you?” Merlin’s voice was quiet, dangerous.
You could have heard a pin drop in the silence. The minions stared at him. Arthur had gone very, very still. The entire world seemed to fade away and it was just the searing inferno of Merlin’s gaze meeting Arthur’s, blistering, unstable, raw. Staring into Merlin’s face, all sharp angles and fierce defiance, his skin even paler than Arthur remembered — a diaphanous alabaster that made Arthur think of steel and starlight… Arthur felt strangely lightheaded, and realised he had forgotten to breathe. What was it about this boy that undid him so? The pounding in his head was reaching an impending crescendo, and Arthur had that same urge to lash out or run or burn something to the ground.
When Arthur finally spoke, it was terrifyingly quiet. “Careful, Q.”
His voice was repressed thunder, slicing through the silence of the room, and the agents all but cowered. Merlin was the only one who did not lower his gaze, unaware of the danger or just uncaring of the consequences. After a moment, Arthur’s eyes glinted and he stalked away from the lab, yanking open the (automatic) door to Q-branch and disappearing.
The room seem to exhale a shuddering breath.
Merlin rolled back towards his desk, his poise relaxed, his eyes thoughtful. The faint tapping of his fingers on the keys seemed abnormally loud in the deathly silence Arthur had left behind.
“What,” a dry, incredulous voice spoke up, “was that all about?”
Merlin turned to see Morgana leaning against the doorway, looking somewhat shell-shocked and just a tiny bit bemused.
He looked innocent. “What was what all about?
“I assume you’ve heard the term 'passive-aggressive?'”
“I wasn’t being passive-aggressive.”
“No,” Morgana agreed. “You were being aggressive-aggressive.”
Merlin’s lips twitched. “I couldn't help it. He’s a prat.”
“That ‘prat’ is our best agent,” She reminded him.
“He could be the sodding pope for all I care. I’m not about to let his magnanimous holiness walk in here and tell me how to do my job, no matter how good with a gun he is.”
Morgana gave a startled laugh. “Oh my dear Q,” she said fondly. “You are going to fit in here just fine.”
Meanwhile, in the double 0 training room, the agents stared at the surveillance monitor which had just replayed the entire spectacle between Arthur and the new Q.
Gwaine cleared his throat into the silence. “Arthur kills Merlin within the week. Twenty quid.” His voice was low enough to be wary of Arthur furiously training not far off, but his eyes danced with mischief.
“You’re on,” Percival, 004, said under his breath. A hint of a smile tugged at his lips. “I ain’t the one stupid enough to be betting against Q.”
“So you’ll bet against 007?” Leon, 006, raised an eyebrow. “Put me in. Twenty on Arthur, give it until the next assignment.”
“You can’t gamble about something like that!” Lancelot, 002, protested weakly. “He’s our Quartermaster!”
The double 0’s gave him a long look.
Lance groaned. “Twenty on both of them making it through the next assignment alive. I hate you all.”
“Your naive idealism will be your downfall, my good friend.” Gwaine rubbed his hands together in an absurd imitation of glee. “But I accept!”
Just then, a quiet, amused voice spoke up out of nowhere. “Thirty quid on not only us both making it through the next assignment alive, but on first name terms by mutual consent.”
All four assassins started, guns leaping into their hands as they looked around wildly for the source of the voice. Gwaine was the first to work it out, and he glared at the nearest security camera.
“Merlin, what have we said about you pretending to be Big Brother?”
A small snort. “I’m the quartermaster. Cultivating an air of omniscience is good for morale.”
“It’s creepy is what it is,” Gwaine muttered. “Anyway, you can’t bet against yourself.”
Merlin hummed. “I could use the money.”
And surprising everyone, Leon laughed. “You’re on, Q. Now this is getting interesting.”