Actions

Work Header

You Only Live Twice

Chapter Text

 

~

PART ONE: Take me up (one edge to defend)

Chapter 1: Of Boffins and Exploding Pens

~

 


 Florence, Italy.


 

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.

“I shouldn’t?”

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.

“Arthur —”

“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.”

“Now!”

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…

Now!”

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.”

Snob.

“Idiot.”

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.”

“Ralph Lauren?”

“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.

“I’m Merlin.”

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.”

 


 

Freedom.

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.”

“…Right.”

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.”

“Who?”

“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.”

“No problem.”

“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?”

He turned.

“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.”

Merlin smirked. 

“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.

Well, shit. 

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.

“Sir?”

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.

“What?”

“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.”

“Done!”

“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.”

 

Chapter Text

As it was, by happy chance or the design of a certain-blonde-haired-prat, Merlin barely saw the 007 agent over the coming week. Arthur had left the following day for Peru, and they had heard nothing from him since. Nobody seemed particularly concerned (or surprised) by the lack of communication.

In the meantime, Merlin invented a new fail-safe protection for their files, stopped a minor terrorism bombing, built new toys, and generally stayed at work until the early hours and was back in for seven-sharp and found himself strangely content with the arrangement. Sometimes he worked through the night, only belatedly realising the time when agents began coming in after sunrise in different clothes. Everyone thought he was a little strange (or an obsessive perfectionist) but that was okay, because he was.

After all, how could he justify something so tedious as sleeping when there were prototypes to modify, extortionate gadgets to build, agents halfway across the world fighting for queen and country whilst they all slept? 

Morgana, apparently, didn’t agree.

“You’ll burn yourself out at this rate, you know,” she remarked as she swanned into Q-branch just as the sun was rising, looking annoyingly impeccable as always.

Merlin started, tugging his gaze from the monitors. “Ugh?” He managed brilliantly.

Morgana rolled her eyes. “Look, if you’re going to do all-nighters, at least have the forethought to bring a change of clothes so everyone and their mother doesn’t know about it.” Her gaze scrutinised him, running over his disheveled hair and rumpled clothes. “When was the last time you slept, anyway?”

Merlin yawned. “Tuesday?” he guessed.

“That was two days days ago.”

“Oh, good.”

“No, Merlin, not good,” she said slowly. “We can’t have our quartermaster falling asleep on the job.”

“I wasn’t falling asleep.” He protested. 

“Oh, so you always work with your nose an inch from the keyboard?”

Merlin pouted, rubbing a tired hand across his face. “Aren’t you usually nicer?”

“I’m never nice,” she replied airily. “I’m imperious and cynical and occasionally charming, but rarely nice.”

“So you’re imperiously checking up on me out of an cynical, possibly charming concern for my wellbeing?”

Morgana paused and eyed him for a moment. “You’re too clever for your own good, has anyone ever told you that?”

“Oddly enough, no.”

She sighed. “Come on, I’m not going to even try and convince you to go home and sleep, because that would be an insult to both our intelligence. We’re getting out of this lab, and we’re getting caffeine — none of that Earl Grey shit you insist on drinking, real caffeine. That way you might actually last through the day without lending to any national disasters.”

Merlin huffed, and let himself get led out. 

As it happened, Morgana’s idea of ‘getting out of the lab’ meant escaping all the way to the roof. 

“Trust me,” was all she said at Merlin’s raised eyebrow, “no one ever comes up here. It’s good to get away from it all, sometimes.”

“You know, all this ‘not-caring’ demeanour you put on, it’s not fooling anyone,” Merlin commented as they walked. “I saw you when 007 left for Peru last week. You worry about him."

“He’s our best agent, it’s my job to worry about him.”

“And here I was thinking it was because he was your brother.”

A slight falter in Morgana’s step was the only tell. “Now I know for a fact that isn’t on any of the files,” she said at last, sounding reluctantly impressed. “How did you know?”

“Honestly?” Merlin turned his head, smiling slightly. “I wasn’t entirely sure until just now.”

Morgana stifled a snort.

“I guessed that you two were acquainted beyond MI6 — I’ve seen 007 voluntarily converse with all but three people in the time I’ve been here, and the other two were Leon and Percival, both whom he grew up with. Now Arthur’s not one to take food from just anyone, yet he didn’t think twice about drinking the coffee you brought him. That implies a level of trust. So, a closer relationship. Could be a girlfriend, but I’ve never known one side of a relationship to hum and cover her ears when overhearing the on-mission-honeypot-sexual-activities of the other. That behaviour is statistically exclusive to siblings, possibly close friends. Your reaction just now confirmed the former.” Merlin shrugged. “Process of elimination, no more.”

Morgana huffed a small, disbelieving laugh. “Well played, Quartermaster.”

“I try."

Ahead of them, the corridor began to slope upwards, the gloom giving way to ever-brightening light. Merlin blinked rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Light streamed through the hinges of the old fire exit, even the air seemed fuller, easier to breathe. He could almost taste the recent thunderstorm outside. Suddenly he could feel every day that he’d spent in his lab downstairs, every hour it had been since he had last seen the sun. Perhaps Morgana was right; he’d burn himself out if he wasn't careful.

After all, he’d be damned if he was going to exchange one prison cell for another — no matter how much tech he had to play with.

It seemed to take an eternity to reach the end of the corridor, and Merlin had to fight to keep his steps from quickening.

Then the door was opening wide - wider - and light streamed in and the wind tore at his face and it was raining - rain! - and it was almost like Merlin was breathing for the first time in years and it was heaven. 

He stumbled out, head upturned to the sky as the downpour soaked into him. The rain was like a thousand droplets of pure silver, tasting of spring and sky, jewels that seemed to wash away any last remnants of Ealdor that clung to him. And for the first time, Merlin thought he finally understood that he was free. There wasn’t a catch, this is wasn’t a deception. Merlin had been out for a week, and no one had come to drag him back again. Four years of his life spent in a jail cell, and it was finally over. Freedom.

Merlin spread his arms out wide and laughed.

 


 

Arthur liked Peru well enough. The music, the rainforests, the sweet wine.

London, though, Arthur stared out the window as he drove: London was grey and bleak, and it was the most welcome sight he'd seen all week. To a stranger, a bewildering and illogical labyrinth of lanes and alleys, streets and squares, roads and undergrounds thronged with bustling people all consumed within their own lives. To Arthur, London was work and debriefs and assignments. London was nostalgia and the intake of breath before the inevitable plunge of the next mission. London was home.

And, naturally, London was raining.

“Well, at least someone’s enjoying this miserable downpour,” Lance remarked as they got out of the car that had picked Arthur up from the airport. It was tradition for all of the double 0’s who weren’t out on the field to accompany the welcome party whenever a brother came home. 

Arthur glanced up, following Lance’s gaze. He stopped, thoughts stuttering to a halt. MI6 towered above them, all pale, domineering stone looming over the river. And right at the top, standing for some bizarre reason on the roof, was Merlin, face upturned to the rain.

Beside him, Gwaine whistled in appreciation. “Well I’ll be damned. I could jerk off on that alone.”

“Shut up, Gwaine.” Arthur rebutted immediately, but he couldn’t really blame him.

Q shone in the sun-streaked rain. Under all those terrible cardigans and that ridiculous neckerchief, his skin looked even paler under the harsh, pale sky. Though the shirt was too large for his slight frame, it clung to him in the rain, leaving little to the imagination. Merlin looked like a sprite or a nymph or some sort of mythical creature that had fallen from the sky, like you could blink and he would vanish. His face was upturned like he was praying, snatches of sunlight falling upon his brow, lips parted in a laugh.

Fuck.

Arthur tore his gaze away with a scowl. 

“Get him inside. We draw enough attention to ourselves as it is without agents making a spectacle of themselves on the roof.” He raised his voice. “And who authorised him to be let outside? Do the words secret service not mean anything to you imbeciles?”

There were several hasty yessir-sorry-sirs as half a dozen guards at MI6’s entrance rushed to Arthur’s barking command. The clang of the fire door opening on the roof a few minutes later shouldn’t have been as loud as it was, but the sound seemed to reverberate through Arthur’s head. 

“Was that really necessary?” Leon murmured at his side.

“He’s the Quartermaster,” Arthur replied evenly. "More to the point, he’s new. I’m not taking any chances that a foreign assassin might catch a glimpse of his face or decide to take a shot. Besides, its not as though Q heard me.” 

Leon sighed resignedly but didn’t argue. He shut the door of the car and joined the others where they were waiting. 

It was then Arthur glanced up at entirely the wrong moment, to find Merlin’s gaze burning straight through him, blue eyes bristling with displeasure.

 


 

After staking-out in the misty humidity of Lima for seven hours, being shot at (twice) and suffering through the insufferable agony of business class for an eight-hour flight with no decent scotch, Arthur was just about ready to fall into a shower and sleep for the next day or two. 

Unfortunately, protocol and, more specifically, Uther, had other ideas. 

Arthur managed to dredge up a half-convincing smile as he saw Gwen, Uther’s secretary, outside his office.

“007.” She greeted with a brisk nod.

“Miss Moneypenny.”

Gwen rolled her eyes, fingers pausing on the keyboard. “How many times have I said to call me Gwen?”

“So long as you insist on calling me 007, I get to choose what I call you.” Arthur replied flippantly.

She sighed good-naturedly. “I’ll let M know you’ve arrived.”

“If you could be so kind.”

A comfortable silence followed. Unlike most of the bumbling idiots in this place, Gwen didn’t feel the need to fill every silence with some mindless babble. The two had known each other for years, ever since Morgana had adopted her in all but name. Gwen, like most of the MI6 recruits, was an orphan, with her only relation being her brother Elyan. She’d been a familiar presence in Arthur’s life for the past few years — they’d even dated at one point, until one day she’d come into MI6 to see Arthur and instead quite literally ran into Lancelot. That had been the end of that. There could be no competing with that kind of love — the pure, soulmate, destiny kind that you came across once in a lifetime. Gwen and Lance had now been married for nearly a year, and Arthur was happy for them, truly.

Him and Gwen would never have worked anyway.

“Meeting room’s all set up, boss.” A voice tugged Arthur back into the present, and he saw an agent duck his head round the door.

“Actually, he’s the boss.” Gwen pointed at M’s door. “I just do all the paperwork, organise everything, and make everyone look cooler.”

Arthur’s lips twitched. “Lance has been making you watch Avengers again, hasn't he?”

Gwen dimpled at him, and for a moment Arthur could see what he saw all those years ago — a girl with steel and more strength than people gave her credit for, and such an innate goodness you almost wanted to hang on and never let go because you know you’ll never find someone that good again. 

“M says you can go in.” She said. Arthur shook himself inwardly. “A word of warning, he’s not in the best of moods.”

“Noted.” Arthur replied dryly. “Tell Lance I said hi.”

“Tell him yourself, you see him more often than I do these days.”

“Is that jealousy I detect, Miss Moneypenny?”

Gwen,” she hissed as Arthur retreated. “It’s Gwen, and you know it.”

Arthur laughed, and ducked through the door of M’s office.

Uther glanced up as he entered. “007.”

As far as greetings went, that was probably the kindest one he’d get.

Arthur nodded, straightening his face. “M.”

“Your trip was successful, I trust?”

“Our source was correct,” said Arthur. “The french secret service are moving in Peru. I tracked the DGSE agent Olaf as far as a hotel in Lima, where he met with a man known as ‘Sigan'.”

“Sigan?” Uther’s eyebrows furrowed, obviously searching for any recollection and drawing a blank. “Did you get a positive ID?”

“Negative, but I did get a visual. With the right search, I believe I could identify him. ”

Uther stared at him piercingly for a moment, and Arthur had to fight the urge to shift uncomfortably under the weight of his partial-failure.

“Agent Vivian was no trouble?” He continued after a moment.

“No sir, I believe Olaf continues to keep her very close by.”

“You were undetected?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I am pleased to hear it,” M said at last. He didn’t look pleased, but then, Uther rarely did. “We can never be too vigilant when fighting the war of our country.”

Arthur fought the urge to roll his eyes. “Yes, father.”

“The moment we let down our guard, our enemies will strike right at the heart of England. You cannot show any weakness. One moment of reliance on anyone will have the people questioning whether you are fit or not to take over from me when the time comes.”

Arthur opened his mouth for another yes, father, only something stopped him. A flash of the UN summit, of Merlin, saving the CIA agent even though it wasn’t his place to do so. Merlin, stopping the terrorist bombing in Munich without being asked. Merlin, who didn’t think twice about saving a life whether they were English or not.

“Surely collaboration is not a sign of weakness, but of strength?” he found himself saying.

Uther stilled. “Excuse me?” 

Arthur met his father’s gaze. “You talk of ‘fighting the war of our country’, but we are not at war, father. You had me stalking the DGSE on a whim from a spy, and they are our allies! How can we expect them to work with us, to answer our calls for aid, when all we do is view them with suspicion?”

The head of MI6 laughed, the cold sound echoing hollowly in the huge office. “Your naivety would be pitiful if it wasn’t so dangerous. Of course we are at war — we are always at war.” He shook his head. “You know nothing of what it means to run this service.”

“I know that we have little hope of defeating our enemies if we are fighting amongst our allies.”

“Our allies?” Uther repeated. He stood, his jacket billowing out behind him like a flare of warning. “To which allies would you be referring to, then? The French? The Americans? Maybe that jumped-up-hacker running things down in Q-branch?”

“I — what?” Arthur’s brain stuttered and stopped on hacker and Q. “You mean Merlin?”

“Oh, so you’re acquainted?” Uther’s tone was derisive. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Be careful of that one. He slipped past our guard once before, and I wouldn’t put it past him to try again.”

Merlin?” Arthur repeated in disbelief.

“Oh enough of the bloody Quartermaster!” Uther snapped. “The point is, everyone is our enemy. You cannot trust anyone — not the DGSE, not the secretary who brings you tea, not even those you consider closest.”

“Not even you?” Arthur said evenly.

“As it happens, I am the only one you can trust.”

Arthur snorted. “Of course. How convenient.”

Uther made a small sound of frustration. “I am only trying to protect you, Arthur, can’t you see that?”

“From who, the Quartermaster?” Arthur said sarcastically.

“Among others.” Uther allowed. He lowered himself back into his seat. “That boy is not all that he seems, Arthur.”

“Him and the rest of the secret service. That’s why it’s, you know, secret.

“He was one of Kilgharrah’s, once.” Uther's eyes flashed at the name. “His protégé, if I remember right.”

Arthur only just managed to conceal his surprise. Kilgharrah — ‘King of Thieves’ or ‘The Dragon’, as he was more commonly known — was at the head of the underground criminal organisations active in London. There was never enough solid proof to get anything against him, and the Dragon rarely got close enough to a crime to have his name associated. More the point, Uther had yet to actually find his base. Every time he got close, Kilgharrah’s men would scatter and disappear only hours before the police turned up. It had become a rather personal feud between Uther and Kilgharrah. 

And now to find out Merlin had been one of the Dragon’s — his protégé, nothing less.

“How was it Merlin came to work for MI6 then?” Arthur asked. “I know recruitment often seeks out…less official origins, but —”

“Yes, well, when someone hacks into MI6 that many times, it comes down to either recruiting them, or killing them." Uther said dryly. "Besides, the boy ran from the Dragon. Ealdor Juvenile Prison picked him up a few years later.”

“What was he charged with?”

“Cyber crimes, fraud and embezzlement…” Uther made a dismissive gesture. “It matters not. Gaius vouches for him, and he’s done a fair job so far, if a little… unorthodox in his methods.”

Arthur was still trying to get his head around the idea of Merlin as a dangerous criminal. “But—”

“It. matters. not.” His father accentuated. “You’re missing the point. Merlin, or whatever his name is, is probably no more the villain than your average MI6 recruit. Do you know how hard it is to find talented programmers and hackers with a small enough criminal record and little-to-non-existent family ties?” Uther shook his head. “The point is, Arthur,” his father leant forward, “we recruit who we must. But trust?” His eyes went hard. “The Dragon would not have chosen any but the best - Q is not to be underestimated, and he is certainly not to be trusted. Do you understand? Everyone is your enemy.”

Arthur swallowed back a retort and bowed his head. “As you say, father.”

“Go on then. You're dismissed for the day.”

Finally. He turned to leave. Just before he reached the door, though, Uther spoke again.

“Arthur.”

Arthur turned, eyebrow raised.

“I mean it, regarding the Quartermaster. Work with him, pretend to befriend him if you must. But don’t get too close.”

 


 

Merlin glared at the offending object in his hand. 

“Don’t grip it so tight,” Leon advised. “You’re holding a Glock, not a grenade.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t particularly enjoy holding something that can blow up in my face.”

“Someone else’s face, if you’re lucky,” Leon replied mildly. “Now come on, relax your wrist, exhale as you pull the trigger, and none of that one-handed nonsense that you see in the movies. Hilt in the palm of your left, steady with your right. Point, and fire.”

Merlin fought the urge to roll his eyes. Whilst Gwaine had been a familiar presence in Q-branch since he was still on med rest from the last mission and apparently had nothing better to do, more recently he had started bringing some of the other double 0’s — Lance and Percival, even Leon on occasion. The agents in question were in danger of becoming quite fond of the young, enigmatic quartermaster.

The only downside was that the double 0’s had apparently decided Merlin was their young, enigmatic quartermaster, and therefore had to be defended at all costs. Thus, they had made it their sacred mission to ensure Merlin was fully able to protect himself.

Merlin pouted, lifting his finger from the trigger to look round at Leon. “007 shoots one-handed.” He pointed out.

“I don't care if 007 does it. You can't. In fact,” Leon amended, “think of all the things Arthur does. Then don't do them. You’ll live longer.”

“So no jumping on the back of moving trains then?”

Leon shook his head, fighting a smile. “Less talking, more shooting.”

Unlike Arthur, Leon was reasonable and steady and down-to-earth, and one of the few who Merlin thought actually had an idea about how dangerous he could be at the hands of a computer. And yet, the agent was oddly okay with it; so long as he was never in any doubt Merlin meant them (or more specifically, Arthur) no harm. From what Merlin had read when he’d cast a fleeting glance over their files, the two agents grown up together as boys, fighting together, training together. When Arthur became a double 0, Leon had signed up beside him a week later and watched his back ever since. It wasn’t deference, exactly; more of a mutual respect. Yes, the double 0’s were all equal, but Merlin noticed how they all shut up and listened when Arthur spoke up, how they looked at him like he was more than just a fellow double 0 — like they’d follow him to the end.

It made something ache inside of him for a camaraderie he’d never had in Ealdor, for the brothers he never had, for the friends he’d lost. The double 0’s all had each other. Who did Merlin have?

Merlin gave a long suffering sigh. “I don’t see why we’re doing this. I’m a hacker, not an assassin. There are infinite easier ways for me to kill someone. Ways that don’t involve, you know, having to leave my desk.”

“He’s got a point,” Percival muttered.

Leon crossed his arms, a strange light in his eyes. “Indulge me.”

By now a few of the other double 0’s had gathered to watch, and Merlin could feel their curious gazes boring into his back. With a small resigned huff, Merlin turned, grip shifting obligingly into something looser, and was about to pull the trigger when a smooth, sardonic voice stayed his hand.

“You’re wasting your time.” Arthur, mightier-than-thou double 0 agent, said dismissively as he strolled into the training room. “You can’t seriously think that Merlin can shoot anything inside the broadside of a barn.”

“I can shoot,” Merlin retorted, indignant.

Arthur’s gaze swept up and down him, as though he was seizing Merlin up. His lip curled. “Simulations and Call of Duty don’t count I’m afraid, Q.”

“I know how to shoot an actual gun, 007.”

Arthur raised one imperious eyebrow.

Something flared inside Merlin, hot and volatile, and suddenly he had the irrepressible need to prove Arthur wrong. He turned, jammed his ear-protectors on, and emptied the remainder of the clip in a burst of methodic fire.

Silence as the shots faded.

“Well I’ll be damned,” Lancelot said at last.

Merlin glanced up. The double 0’s stared back at him. They looked - for once - utterly speechless; Percival had his mouth open and everything. The effect was mildly comical.

Arthur, of course, just looked as stony and unimpressed as always.

Merlin yanked off the headphones, switched the magazine, and did the press check in one swift movement. Safety on, he offered the Glock back to Leon, but his eyes never left Arthur’s. “Satisfied?”

Arthur turned away from the loose but respectable cluster Merlin’s shots had made on the target. (Honestly, given how long it had been Merlin was happy just to have hit the target, let alone got anywhere near the centre).

This wasn't about the accuracy, though. He could shoot at the same target all day and never get close to the precision a double 0 assassin could achieve with a single shot in the dark.

It was about the attitude: the lack of hesitation, the calm in the face of handling a firearm, the willingness to act.

Across from him, Arthur's eyes glinted curiously, wide and dark, and Merlin had the feeling he’d surprised him.

Then Arthur turned and left without another word.

Meanwhile, apparently oblivious to the silent tension coursing between them, Leon’s mouth curved up into a wry smile. “Now I know you didn’t learn that in Q-branch.”

Merlin shrugged, avoiding the question. “Needs must.”

“Marksmanship like that, you could apply for the field,” Lance remarked. “Certainly give some of these idiots a run for their money.” He looked non-too-subtly at Gwaine, who pouted.

“I take great offence to that insinuation.”

Merlin stifled a snort. “Thanks, but I think I’ll stick to computers. Me on the field would not be a good idea.”

“Oh?” Leon challenged. "And why’s that?”

“Three reasons,” Merlin said. “One, and don’t even deny it, I’m actually a half-decent Quartermaster, and with all the customisations I’ve made to our security, MI6 would fall within a few days. Two,” he checked to make sure Arthur was really gone, “007's reaction to hearing of it would probably cause M’s early death by catalytic attack, not to mention mine.”

Lancelot looked like he was fighting a smile. “And three?”

Merlin handed the Glock back to Leon. “I don’t like guns.” He said simply.

There was a moment of loaded silence. None of the agents missed the fleeting glimpse of pain that flashed through Merlin’s eyes. It made them wonder, not for the first time, where Merlin had come from - who he was before he was Q. What sort of life he’d had to be able to find his way around a firearm like that.

Leon looked at the Glock in his hand. “Merlin-”

“I’d better get back to Q-branch.” A smile that didn’t quite reach Merlin’s eyes. “The minions get tetchy when I’m gone too long. I’ll catch you later, okay?”

And with that he flashed them a quick grin, bounded up the stairs and slipped out through the door. The agents stared after him.

“I don’t know what I expected when they said they were bringing in a new Quartermaster, but that… wasn’t it,” Leon said at last.

Nobody argued with that.

Merlin was a walking contradiction. 

The men and women in Q-branch had all been hired for their superior minds, but what was quickly becoming apparent was that Merlin outpaced them all. Easily. It was a level of intellect that Leon suspected verged upon genius, yet he was one of the most clumsy people Leon had ever seen, tripping over every table leg and stair in sight. Merlin was easily half their size, scrawny by anyone’s standards, and yet had fired a gun with the calm, instinctive assurance that couldn’t be taught, that came from years and years of experience. Merlin’s eyes were wide and guileless, yet hid layer upon layer of closely guarded secrets. His smile was brighter than the sun, yet it fell when he thought no one was looking. He was nineteen, still a boy, really — yet his eyes spoke of someone far older, someone who’d seen things that no man should see.

None of them quite knew what to make of him.

“You know,” Percival said, “for a skinny boy of nineteen with the most ridiculous ears I’ve ever seen and a smile that could melt even M’s heart, I dare say, he bloody well terrifies me sometimes.”

“A five year old girl would terrify you, Percival,” Gwaine replied.

Percival hit him. “I’m sorry, was that a different Gwaine I saw hiding behind Lance when Merlin’s minions threatened to emasculate you?”

“I was not hiding-”

“Crying for your mother…”

“-Manly crying!”

Lancelot laughed. “Admit it, Gwaine, Merlin has you as spooked as the rest of us.” He sheathed his gun. “The worst of it is he’s so damn nice about it all.”

That sobered them up. They were double 0 agents — ruthless assassins taught to trust no one. Yet despite every part of their training demanding they stay aloof from the boy with the strange, sky-shifting eyes  — the boy with apparently no past, no file on any of MI6’s servers, a boy that, really, they knew next to nothing about — the truth of it was, Merlin was a hard person not to like. 

He worked just as hard as they did — throwing himself into every task with the single-minded determination that forbade failure. More than once one of the double 0’s had left in the early hours of the morning, or arrived before the sun rose, to find Merlin already at his desk, fingers dancing across the keys, tired eyes reflecting the lights of the screens.

Merlin was unfailingly kind to everyone, and fit in everywhere he went — making a point to know everyone’s name. He helped out when he had a few minutes to spare, running a check on a foreign agent or bypassing some security wall or coaxing a piece of tech to life when no one else seemed to have the knack for it.

The double 0’s quickly worked out he was frighteningly smart — and not just computer smart, like most of the boffins in Q-branch. Merlin understood them when they spoke of history or politics (though he claimed to loathe the subject) and could passably hold a conversation in more than a few languages.

But what really took the double 0’s off guard was the way Merlin spoke to them — equally stubborn and brazen even after learning they were, well, trained assassins who could kill you and make it look like an accident, as opposed to regular agents. People at MI6 didn’t talk to the double 0’s like Merlin did. It was a necessary evil of the job; kill people for a living and people are bound to be afraid of you. The double 0’s had gotten used to how no one met their gazes, how no one really felt at ease around them. It was okay; they had each other, after all.

Merlin though, he probably knew better than most the scope of their abilities given his position, yet it didn’t seem to make a difference to him. He never looked at them with fear in his eyes, never seemed to think any worse of them for the lives they had taken for Queen and country. Merlin’s remarks were dry and cynical, but not unkind — never unkind. Come to think of it he’d been nothing by courteous to them right from the beginning, though he had every reason not to be. There was almost a kind of… innocence about him, something utterly at odds with the image of the boy who had shot the Glock so terrifyingly well.

It was strangely refreshing, and just a tiny bit humbling. 

It wasn’t that Merlin was brave — because he was; it was that he really couldn’t see why he should treat them any differently from Gwen or Gaius or one of the minions from Q-branch. 

And that, Leon imagined privately, was what Arthur found so hard to understand.

Leon sighed. “Merlin’s past is his own, and we would do well to respect that. For now, just keep up your guards. Merlin might be young, but he’s Q for a reason. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating him.”

The double 0's faces grew serious, and they nodded.

It didn’t matter how much they wanted to trust him, how much they wanted him to trust them; they couldn’t — not yet.

This was still MI6, after all. 

 


 

Don’t get too close. 

Uther’s parting words lingered in Arthur’s thoughts long after he had left the training room. Alone in the corridor, he allowed himself to pause next to the wall, forehead pinched between his finger and thumb. 

Keeping his distance from Merlin wasn’t the problem — Arthur trusted the man about as far as he could throw him.

It was everything else. The soft, distant look Merlin sometimes got when he thought no one was looking, the quirk of mischief that was always quick to spring to his lips, the scathing words matching Arthur jibe-for-jibe, the fleeting moments when their gazes caught and Arthur could hardly breathe.

The wicked intellect exploding in all directions, the long, pale fingers caressing over the keyboard, the obscene noises of pleasure drowned in his cup of tea and the mouth that just wouldn't stop running.

The flailing limbs and irreparable clumsiness, the terrible cardigans and the neckerchief and the too-big shirts that slipped over his collarbone when he yawned.

The patience in his voice when he explained something to his underlings, drowning in paperwork and formulas and still looking up to see if anyone else needed help.

The memory of when Arthur had seen him, standing still and beautiful under the sun-tipped rain. Or just now, when Merlin had picked up the Glock and spectacularly proved him wrong in a burst of gunfire. Arthur was still wrapping his head around it. Q —skinny, stubborn, soft-hearted Q — could shoot, but shoot seemed too inadequate a word for it. Blue eyes dilating as he narrowed in on the target, offsetting the faint tang of burning gunpowder into the air when his fingers squeezed the trigger…

Arthur groaned quietly against the wall.

His preference for men was not public knowledge, but it wasn’t exactly a secret either. The double 0’s knew, of course, as did Morgana (there was no keeping anything from his sister). His father had raged and ranted for a good few hours when he’d found out, then after demolishing a few pieces of furniture and threatening Arthur with the usual but the family legacy, Arthur! — he’d calmed down enough to grudgingly admit that at least he didn’t have to worry about illegitimate grandsons running about, and that there were several worthy business partners in distant governments that he could still matchmake Arthur with. Arthur had been dismissed, and that was that.

Of course, it was one thing to like men. It was another thing entirely to be having fantasies about MI6’s Quartermaster — who was also, apparently, the most dangerous hacker on the the continent and a known criminal.

Even Arthur thought that might be pushing his father’s tolerance a little too far.

He banged the back of his head lightly against the wall.

Any other man, and Arthur would have found out who he was within the day, whether passing stranger or visiting agent, and dealt with the irrepressible distraction there and then.

But this was no passing stranger. 

Don’t get too close.

Arthur wasn’t stupid, it was everything else he was worried about. Merlin had gotten under his skin, and there was nothing he could do about it. 

 


 

To the relief of more than one, Arthur was deported to Paris on another assignment the next day, sparing Merlin from the inevitable backlash from his spectacle with the glock (a story already circling MI6. If people weren’t afraid of the new Quartermaster before, they certainly were now). If Merlin had been thinking at all, he should have feigned ignorance. Marksmanship like that would only attract unwanted attention, and have people asking questions Merlin couldn’t answer. 

But that was thing — he hadn’t been thinking.

The smooth, mocking lilt to Arthur’s voice, the complete certainty that Merlin couldn’t do it, the imperious arrogance that said he had already dismissed Merlin as proving once again inadequate in his eyes…

Something had snapped. Suddenly Merlin hadn’t cared that people might ask how and why a boy of nineteen with no past could shoot without instruction, hadn’t given a toss that it might open doors that couldn’t be closed. Everything had narrowed down to the challenge in Arthur’s eyes, and Merlin had reacted.

It had almost been worth it just to see that expression freeze on Arthur’s face. 

“Go on, spill.” Gwaine’s voice tugged him back to the present as they walked. “What’s on your mind, genius?”

Merlin glanced sideways at him. “What makes you think there’s something on my mind?”

“Well, the fact you haven’t spoken in about fifteen minutes, which has got to be some sort of personal record. And the fact you obviously haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying the entire time, which is really quite a shame because it was a rather fascinating tale about this girl from the second floor who I—”

“—actually, I think I’m good,” Merlin interrupted hastily. He smiled a little sheepishly. “Sorry, I’m a little distracted today.”

“I noticed.” Gwaine looked at him far too knowingly. “Now it wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain blonde-haired-double-0 who returned from the field this morning, would it?”

“Why would the fact that Arthur’s back have any bearing on my state of mind?” Even Merlin was impressed at how even his voice was. 

“‘Arthur’?” Gwaine repeated in a satire of confusion. “His first name is ‘Agent’.”

Merlin poked him.You know, you’re not pleasant when you’re like this, 003.”

Gwaine smiled winningly. “I’m always like this.”

“My point exactly.”

He laughed. 

Merlin sighed and gave up. “Is there anything interesting down this hall?”

Next to him, Gwaine waved his hand vaguely. “Define interesting.”

“Well so far I’ve seen the bar, the conveniently placed cupboards, and the kitchens,” Merlin ticked them off. “Is there anywhere that doesn’t involve alcohol or running into all the various people you’ve either pissed off of slept with?”

“You mean there’s a distinction between the two?”

Gwaine…

Gwaine laughed, a carefree, infectious sound that had the corners of Merlin’s mouth tugging up. He’d managed to convince Gwaine to give him a tour under the pretence of extreme boredom - when in fact, he’d used every moment to scout out any blind spots in the security and several escape routes from his lab. Not that he didn’t trust the layers of defence MI6 had in place, but it never hurt to be prepared, just in case of whatever potential disaster decided to grace them next. 

“I’m sorry,” Gwaine said. “If I’d known you were such princess I’d have shown you the board room instead, maybe the weapons vault? Or is that too scandalous for your refined tastes?”

“Fuck you too.”

Gwaine grinned like Merlin had just said something wonderful. Just then they passed an agent who worked in foreign relations, who flushed slightly when he met Gwaine’s gaze before he hurried past.

“Seriously?” Merlin exclaimed when he had gone. “Him too?”

“I am a man of many tastes, Merlin,” Gwaine said seriously. “Many tastes.”

Every taste, apparently,” Merlin said. “I do believe you’ve slept your way through the entire secret service.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, did you see that security guard as we came through the courtyard? Even I have standards.”

Merlin couldn’t help it, the situation was so ridiculous and Gwaine’s smile was so full of mischief, he threw back his head and laughed. It rang out into the corridor, half-hoarse and a little startled, and of course Arthur chose just that moment to stalk round the corner. He stopped short at the sight of Merlin, nearly giving himself whiplash. His lips were parted in a startled oh shape, jaw slacking in surprise, blue eyes tightening. Oddly enough the sight of Gwaine standing next to him didn’t seem to reassure Arthur. If anything, his expression closed up even more, eyes hollowing out as they rested on Gwaine’s hand on Merlin’s shoulder, fists clenching and unclenching reflexively. 

Merlin shifted, suddenly feeling guilty for no reason at all.

Things had been… odd between him and Arthur ever since he’d come back from that first mission in Peru. Most days the agent ignored him entirely, and on days they did encounter each other it was strained and cold. Arthur avoided speaking to Merlin if he could help it, and their communication came largely through the pre and post assignment debriefs.

He still seemed determined in finding fault in everything Merlin did or was, as though just waiting for the moment Merlin snapped and gave him the excuse he needed to prove Merlin wasn’t fit for his position. Merlin wasn’t going to give him that pleasure.

“What are you doing?” Arthur said at last, blue eyes cutting through them like a scythe slicing through wheat. They flickered between the two of them, measured, tense.

“Giving Q a tour.” Arthur’s piercing gaze turned to Gwaine, who gave him a lopsided smile. “Can’t have our Quartermaster running around by himself now, can we?”

“What, he doesn’t know his way around by now?”

“I’ve been busy, funnily enough,” Merlin inserted, a little irritated.

“Oh yes, I’m sure you’ve been very busy.” An unreadable expression crossed Arthur’s face. “Bank accounts to hack, national security defences to bypass, state secrets to uncover…”

“Did you want something, 007?” Merlin interrupted. “Or are you just here to try and intimidate me?”

“Why, is your self-image feeling fragile?”

“Enough, Arthur.” Gwaine’s smile had fallen from his face. “Stop being such a dick.”

“Oh, so you’re his bodyguard now?” said Arthur. “I hope he’s paying you well.”

“He is not my bodyguard,” Merlin said through gritted teeth. “He’s my friend, something you wouldn’t know much about seeing as I find it hard to believe you actually have any. And another thing, in case you don’t remember I’m fully capable of protecting myself.”

Arthur’s eyes flickered for a moment, and when he spoke his voice was a strangely rough. “There’s more to fighting than pulling a trigger, Q.”

“Oh?” Merlin challenged. “Why don’t you enlighten me?”

A snort. “I warn you.” Arthur took a step forward. “I’ve been trained to kill since birth.”

“Wow,” Merlin said acerbically. “And how long have you been training to be a prat?”

Arthur shook his head, a kind of startled, incredulous amusement on his face. “Alright, Q. Have it your way. Double 0 training room. Now.”

Gwaine looked between them, troubled. “Arthur, I don’t think-”

“Sure,” Merlin interrupted. He pasted a blinding smile on his face. “Any chance to put your royal highness on his arse.”

Gwaine choked, but Arthur only smiled. “We’ll see about that, Q.”

Merlin matched his expression and tone perfectly. “I guess we will.”

The two looked at each other, unyielding, a silent challenge. Then something glinted strangely in Arthur’s eyes, and he turned away, calling back as he did.

“Come on then, I haven’t got all day.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, and set off after him, ignoring Gwaine’s worried stare boring into his back.

 


 

By the time they reached the training room, some of the other double 0’s and agents had gathered to watch. Speculations ran wild - What was it that the quartermaster had done to evoke Arthur’s wrath? Why was he being met in combat like a double 0? What hope did he think he had against MI6’s best?

The double 0’s in the midst of training parted without a word as Arthur stalked past, shrugging off his jacket and tossing it through the air in a ripple of material for some passing minion to catch.

He rolled up his sleeves, gesturing to the matts. 

“Take your position.” He moved into a defensive position himself, and Merlin looked at him sceptically. 

“Aren’t you going to show me the basics?” Merlin said quietly enough for only Arthur to hear. “Some prat once told me that there was more to fighting than pulling a trigger.”

“Really?” Arthur countered, as they began circling one another. “I seem to remember some idiot telling me he could protect himself. Maybe he was wrong.”

“Or maybe he’s just getting started.”

Eyes narrowing, Arthur lunged.

But Merlin had been watching him, and his body moved as soon as Arthur’s expression changed. Merlin sidestepped the blow, twisting round to keep facing him. Arthur surprised him with a lightning jab, and Merlin sprang backwards as Arthur’s kick sailed over his head. Damn, he was fast. Merlin stumbled slightly. He tried throwing a punch of his own, but Arthur...

God, Merlin didn't even see him move, but between one breath and the next, Merlin's arm was twisted behind his back and he was bent double, Arthur's breath warm on his ear.

Humiliation flushed high in Merlin's cheeks. Arthur's hold on him was laughably easy; Merlin couldn't break it if he tried.

“Dead.” Arthur breathed, his lips only a hairbreadth away from Merlin’s ear. The proximity did something odd to Merlin’s head, and all of a sudden he was entirely, horribly aware of the heat of Arthur’s body pressed against his, all hard muscle and coiled strength —

Scowling, Merlin struggled until Arthur released him. He shoved Arthur away, returning to a defensive position. Arthur just raised an eyebrow, and they began again.

Fighting was every bit as much keeping your head as it was skill. All the training in the world could be rendered useless without experience, just as bitter experience could make up for lack of any training. (After the fifteenth time you get punched, you start to learn how to avoid it.)

Once Merlin sank into that muscle-memory, it all came rushing back. The other agents and the training room faded away.

“Good,” Arthur said, blocking his punch as Merlin jabbed at his kidneys.

The compliment sounded genuine, but Merlin found it somewhat hard to swallow when Arthur was keeping up with him with such ease. Not to mention the 007 agent was clearly holding back. It almost felt like Arthur was taunting him.

Suddenly irritated, Merlin withdrew and feinted, trying to get around his defence. Caught off guard, Arthur only had time to deflect, his parry lost in his size. Arthur’s eyes flickered with faint surprise. He came at him again, throwing more of his weight into the attack. Arthur was stronger, and Merlin grunted at the force required just to deflect the attack. But, strong as he might be, Arthur was not as quick.

Merlin darted forward, his fists coming down on Arthur's blocks again and again, twisting and turning, always moving. Every move made him more sure of himself, awakening his instincts, remembering a time when it was fight or die on the streets —

Keep moving. Don't let them catch you.  Don't let them get you on the ground.  Don't hesitate, or they'll have you. Don't flinch, or you're dead.  Don't waste your breath calling for help, because no one ever comes. 

Something swept into his feet, and Merlin had the sudden feeling of falling. Next thing he knew he was staring at the ceiling, winded, flat on his back on the floor. Arthur knelt beside him, sticking his thumb out and two fingers to resemble the shape of a gun. He pressed it lightly to Merlin’s temple.

“Dead,” he said again.

Merlin pushed himself onto his elbows, trying not to wince at the dull throb in his back. “You tripped me. That’s hardly fair.”

“Combat isn't fair.” Arthur said. He stood. “You’ve got some skill, I’ll admit it, but your moves are undisciplined.”

“Well not all of us had Karate lessons from age three.” Merlin muttered.

Arthur’s eyebrow quirked. “Alright, try these.” The 007 agent grabbed two Bo staffs — wooden sparring weapons — from the rack and tossed one to Merlin. Surprisingly, Merlin raised a hand and caught it like he was supposed to, albeit with a small amount of juggling. 

“Staffs?” Merlin queried. 

Arthur smirked, and for the first time, Merlin thought it might have been genuine. Oddly enough, it was here, with his normally-impeccable-shirt disheveled and his sleeves rolled up and a weapon in his hand, that Arthur looked more at ease than Merlin had ever seen him.

He was stuck suddenly by how different Arthur looked from the man who’d stormed into Q-branch, from the man he exchanged cold glances with in the corridor. Arthur was practically glowing, his face flushed from adrenaline, his blonde hair a beacon of gold. His jaw was set in a hard line, but his eyes were bright with an odd sort of light.

If Merlin didn’t know better, he would say the agent was enjoying himself.

“What’s the matter, Merlin?” Arthur called tauntingly, spinning his staff with practised ease between his hands in one whip-crack circle. “Having second thoughts?”

“Just giving you a last chance to back out,” Merlin replied airily.

Arthur’s lips twitched, and then he lunged, and Merlin rose his staff to meet the blow with a clean thwack of wood-on-wood, and the dance began again.

This time, when they fought, something was different. Blows were lighter, jabs bruising rather than bone-breaking, evasive manoeuvres spawning easily from ducking and twisting rather than hacking the other person to pieces. Arthur started slow, letting Merlin feel the rhythm of it. After a minute or so when the staff stopped feeling so foreign in Merlin's hands, their pace began to gradually quicken, bodies instinctively moving in tandem with each other. It felt…playful, almost.

Merlin couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment Arthur started smiling, probably around the same time he did. It spread slowly across his face like the dawn breaking across the sky, and if Merlin wasn’t, well, Merlin, he would have been horribly distracted by the beauty of it. 

As it was, Merlin retaliated with a distraction of his own, flipping the staff in his hand and sending it flying through the air with a flick of his arm. It had been thoughtless, instinctive, fully confident that the double 0 would evade it as he had every other of Merlin’s attacks. It was only when Arthur yelped and dropped to the ground, the staff only just missing his head by a hairs-breadth, that Merlin realised what he’d done. A weapon like the one’s they were using — even wooden ones — could do some serious damage if misused. And Merlin had just lobbed one at Arthur’s head. 

Merlin froze. “No — I didn’t mean — ” Words stuttered and died in his throat. “I mean that wasn’t an attack — I mean — it was, but — ”

“Oh quit your drivelling.” Arthur cut him off, but the words were without heat. He straightened. “I know you weren’t trying to hit me. You’re not that stupid.”

If Merlin didn’t know better he might have said there was a fond sort of exasperation in Arthur’s voice.

Merlin blinked. “Thank you?”

“Next time, though, perhaps refrain from throwing your weapon unless its at a target. We all know your aim is sufficient enough without a demonstration.” Arthur looked at him pointedly, and Merlin knew he was referring to his shooting earlier.

Merlin swallowed. “Yes, Arthur.”

There was a curious glint in Arthur’s eyes as he beheld him. Merlin realised with a jolt that was the first time he’d addressed the agent by his name.

“Alright, we’re done for the day.” Arthur spoke to the surrounding agents, but his eyes never left Merlin’s. “Let’s clear this up.”

There was several murmured yes, sirs as the agents filtered out, leaving only Arthur’s core team standing watch. Arthur glanced at the people dispersing around them, as though only just noticing how much of an audience they’d had.

“It wasn't fair of me to spar with you,” he said. “I’ll admit, I hadn’t thought you’d be anything but terrible.”

Merlin quirked an eyebrow. “Careful, 007, one might actually think you were complimenting me.”

"Hardly. Your awkward flailing did most of the work for you." Arthur picked up Merlin's staff, spinning it lazily between his hands as he spoke. "There's a reason we're trained to be equally wary of incompetence as skill; a trained fighter is predictable, he does what he ought to, but there's no telling what an idiot will do next in a fight."

"Like throwing a Bo staff?" Merlin offered, a tad dryly. "That's all well and good, but it rather depends on your definition of incompetence, don't you think? Just because I haven't the same training as you doesn't mean I don't know what I'm doing."

"Do you?" Arthur challenged. "Where were you taught to fight, for that matter? I didn’t recognise any of the manoeuvres you were using.”

“You wouldn’t. I was never taught.”

A flicker of confusion crossed Arthur’s face. “But then, how…?”

“When you’ve lived half your life on the streets and the other half in a cell, you learn fast, or you die.” Merlin’s voice went slightly flat. “We all do what we must to survive.”

Arthur’s expression sharpened. “What do you mean?”

Merlin opened his mouth, and abruptly realised how close he had been to telling Arthur of Kilgarrah, of the Guild he’d grown up in, of how being the smallest and smartest kid on the streets often drew unwanted attention, of how that attention grew into something more sinister the older and ‘prettier’ he got.

He shook his head, his words clipped. “It doesn’t matter. Thank you for sparring with me.”

“Merlin —”

“I said leave it,” he snapped. There was an edge to his voice that he didn’t like, a slight crack, as though he was pleading with Arthur not to push any further.

A flicker of emotion passed over Arthur's sky-blue eyes, nearly completely hidden behind his utter and complete control, squashed by lifetime of burying every thought that might give you away. Arthur opened his mouth, the cold defiance in his gaze suggesting he was about to demand answers as he had every other time Merlin had argued with him, but then abruptly Arthur exhaled, running his hand through his hair in frustration, words dying at his lips.

“There’s something about you, Merlin.” He said at last. He turned away, shaking his head. “I can’t quite put my finger on it.”

And before Merlin could think of what the hell he was supposed to say to that, Arthur was already walking away, his shoulder brushing Merlin’s with a jolt of electricity that he felt all the way to the bone.

 


 

Needless to say, Merlin did not spar with Arthur again. Whether that was by his order, or pressure from the other double 0’s, Merlin didn’t know, nor did he particularly care. He actually felt strangely grateful for it. When Merlin had thrown that staff, he hadn’t been meaning to hit Arthur. Not that he would have — the 007 agent would have probably caught it or just walked away from the blow like he did any other injury.

But it wasn’t just a matter of logistics. The more Merlin went over it in his head, the more he realised that even if he could, he didn't want to hurt Arthur, even if he was an arrogant prat.

Perfect.

Merlin groaned. The last thing he needed was to develop an attachment to the double 0. Kilgharrah would probably laugh himself silly if he ever found out.

So instead, Merlin spent the next few days trying very hard not to think at all. He started coming down for a few hours before dawn to train, using whatever he could to exercise. Helpfully, Arthur was deployed back to Paris, so that was one less complication. The double 0’s, once they figured out what he was doing, started joining him on his early morning runs, spotting him in the weight room without being asked, quietly offering corrections on his stance when he used the punching bag. None of them commented on it, nor how Merlin could run farther and farther every day without stopping for breath. 

The days passed, and Merlin grew stronger. He wasn't in the same league as the double 0's — not even remotely close. But nor was he quite as helpless anymore.

And in the mean time, he was definitely not thinking about the last time he had to use skills like these and how he was now working under the man who imprisoned him in the first place and how the double 0’s who used to be his adversaries were beginning to feel more like brothers every day and the small, exhilarated smile that had lit up Arthur’s face as their staffs pressed against each other.

No. He would not be thinking at all of any of those things.

Merlin buried himself in work and training, and that was fine.

Merlin sighed, lifting his hands from the keyboard to rub his face tiredly. Q-branch was quiet this late, and Merlin kind of liked the stillness. That moment before twilight, just as some of the final doors were closing elsewhere in the building as the last stragglers left for the day. Moments where the shadows beckoned and the umber-cast light was flushed with red and gold, transforming the pale, grey offices into something strange and profound. He raised a hand, letting the light dance across his fingers.

Long ago, Merlin had used to scramble up onto the rooftops, leaving behind the dusty squalor of the streets and the shouting and the angry voices, just for an hour or two. He'd stretch his small fingers up to the gold-washed sky as though he could capture the rays in his palm, if he were but a little taller. Sometimes he’d imagine his eyes would flash another colour, and his hands would glow with a soft light for hours afterwards, long after the sun succumbed to the long night. 

Kilgharrah used to find him like that, hands stuffed beneath his ragged jacket so no one would see.

No one can ever know — do you understand, Merlin? No matter what happens, you survive, you run, you hide, you conceal it. There are people in this world — bad people — who don’t understand. They will try and hurt you, they will try and use you. You cannot let them. No one can never find out about you. Promise me, Merlin.

His fingernails dug into his palms, his mother’s last words forever burnt into his mind. No matter what happens. 

He wondered what his mother would have thought if she could have known just how much that promise would be put to the test, how it had been the difference between staying and running from the only home he had ever known that fateful day Kilgharrah had found out. Sometimes it felt as though Merlin had been running ever since.

It was odd, then, being back in London now. These were his streets, his home. London was Kilgharrah's territory, and as his protégé, that made it Merlin's as well. In many ways, returning now was like a punch in the gut, a reminder of the day he’d been caught.

Merlin wondered whether Kilgharrah knew he was back in London yet.

A soft knock startled him from his thoughts, and Merlin turned to see Gwen slip in.

“I thought you might still be here,” she said, flashing him an apologetic smile. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all, come in.” Merlin waved his hand, and the lights automatically grew a little brighter around his desk. “How can I help you?”

“I was wondering if you could help find someone.” Gwen produced a file seemingly out of nowhere, balancing it with the coffee cup in her right hand. “I ran this name through every database we had, and nothing came up. Nothing. ” She scowled. “That’s never happened before.”

Merlin studied the blank file. “If there’s nothing there, I’m not sure I can be of much help, I’m afraid.”

“But then it got me thinking,” she continued. “If he wasn’t on any of the official records…”

“— that I could hack into the unofficial ones,” Merlin finished dryly. “Very devious of you, Gwen. I’m impressed.”

She blushed. “If you’re not comfortable—”

“Nonsense. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve shimmied along the borderline of legality.” He flashed her a grin. “What’s the name?”

Gwen returned the smile gratefully. “Sigan. S-I-G-A-N.”

“-A-N,” Merlin repeated under his breath as he typed, fingers flying across the keyboard. With a small, satisfied sound, Merlin hit one of the keys and the name appeared in blue holographic letters, rotating slowly above a large, tablet-like surface that at first Gwen had taken for Merlin’s desk. With a flick from Merlin’s fingers, the name pulsed bold, and was suddenly surrounded by lines and lines of text and hundreds of images as the technology ran it through every database on the web. Merlin’s eyes scanned the holographic information at lightning speed, pausing to physically select chunks of virtual text and toss them through the air where they appeared on another screen that had lit up behind him. Every now and again he would stop and enlarge certain parts of what looked like gibberish, biting his lip before making a small noise of realisation and entering the decrypt code.

Gwen stared, struggling not to sound as awestruck as she felt. “Isn’t that…”

“An Iron Man-inspired holographic 3-D User Interface?” Merlin finished. He glanced round at her, his grin turning impish. “I had a spare hour over lunch. I got bored.”

“You decided to recreate a fictional piece of groundbreaking technology because you were bored?” She clarified incredulously.

“I…yes?”

Gwen gave a startled, hiccuped laugh. “Of course you did. Pray, continue, don’t mind me.”

Merlin shot her an odd look, but obliged. “Well, you were right, there’s nothing on the official records. It’s not a surname or company name.” He spun the holographic letters and they shifted, inverting and switching places. “It’s not an anagram or an acronym, as far as I can tell, and it’s not encrypted. Thus, that only leaves one possibility.” 

Merlin plucked the floating name out of the air, and tossed it carelessly to the second screen. Suddenly, all the random extracts he’d collected flickered and slotted together — audio extracts and phone calls and faces caught on camera and a scribbled signature on the bottom of a contract — all untied by one thing: Sigan. 

Merlin smiled delightedly. “It’s a cryptonym.” From the way he said it, he might as well have said it’s christmas.

Gwen looked at him blankly. “A what?”

“It’s like a code name.” Merlin explained. “Something on none of the records, but everyone would know. Something spoken, but never written down. Something that doesn’t exist on the web, apart from one, singular loophole that nobody could erase: an audio iteration.” At Gwen’s blank ‘loading please wait’ expression, Merlin tried to clarify. “It’s like a paradox of sorts — you can only find the name by hearing it, like 007 did, but you can’t access the audio record of it without knowing the name. The name is the code.”

“So once you know the name…”

“I translated the audio into binary code, then encrypted it using the five letters S-I-G-A-N in that order as the key. The resulting line of code was what I then entered into the search, to give us…”

Merlin paused dramatically, making a small tada! motion, and the spinning holograms stopped on a single face.

“Cedric Alined. Ex-CIA, wanted in three continents, and known in some, select circles as Mr Cornelius Sigan.” Merlin finished with a triumphant smirk.

There was a moment of silence. Gwen stared at him, coffee cup paused halfway to her mouth. “That,” she said slowly, “was amazing.”

Merlin cocked his head. “You think so?”

“Of course it was. How the hell did you get all that from five letters?”

“I’m good with computers?” Merlin offered.

Gwen huffed and shook her head. “God help us all if you ever get bored and become a super villain. You’d go mad with power.”

“Of course I would,” Merlin said as-a-matter-of-a-fact. “What would be the point in going mad without power? It would suck. No one would listen to you.”

There was a moment of silence as both attempted to keep a straight face. Then Merlin's lips twitched, and Gwen was lost. She started snorting and tried desperately to quell it. A valiant effort was made to retain her dignity as she sipped her coffee.

“You should at least have a code name,” she managed between sniggers.

“Good idea,” said Merlin, nodding. ”I shall be Baron Erich von Hornbosten.”

This time Gwen spat out her coffee.

 


 

“When you get to the end of the corridor turn…right — no, wait that’s not right…um, left, turn left. Wait…”

Arthur careened to a halt, his breath coming heavily. The footsteps of his pursuers echoed behind him — too close — and he pressed himself against the wall, his body trembling with adrenaline and rage.

“Which way?” he demanded, his voice a crack of urgency.

“Sorry 007,” George, the hapless idiot who ran field support, stammered. “The system…I can’t get in…”

Arthur wasted precious seconds closing his eyes and cursing the Q-branch agent in every language he knew, and he only just restrained the urge to tear the earpiece out of his ear and throw it.

“Um, right. Go right.”

Arthur was already running. He tore round the corner, ducking as gunfire erupted about his head.

Shit.

Turning, Arthur returned fire, and saw two of them go down. The other five pressed themselves against the walls and Arthur saw one of them talking into a radio in rapid french.

If that was a call for backup…

Gritting his teeth, Arthur holstered his Walther and put on another burst of speed, ramming into the double doors just as they opened fire again behind him. Maybe he was a moment too slow, or the doors swung open just a margin too wide, or George chose exactly that moment to start stammering in his ear…

Whatever it was, Arthur only had a whistle and a distant crack to warn him before pain, sudden and blinding, creased his thigh in a white-hot crackle and his leg gave way underneath him, sending him crashing to the ground.

“007?” George’s panicked voice broke into his ear like white noise. “007 are you hit? Why have you stopped? What — are they there? Did they hit you?”

“Shut up and get me an exit!” Arthur snarled, gripping the bannister with one white-knuckled hand and gunning down all five men with the other. The Walther fell from his hand after the final shot, clattering to the ground, and Arthur gasped, pressing his palm to his leg in a futile attempt to put pressure on the wound. His hand came away red.

“George.” Arthur barked, but his voice cracked a little. “Exit.”

“Sorry, sir, I…I’m just checking…”

Arthur raised his head as new voices echoed down the stairwell, rapid and furious french rebounding dizzyingly off the walls. He concentrated on standing, trying to ignore the ludicrously bright red seeping through his trousers, but he stumbled nonetheless, slumping heavily against the metal stair rail as his head swam alarmingly for a moment.

Shit shit shit.

The pounding footsteps were getting closer, and all Arthur could do was stare at his Walther on the ground. For the first time, he felt the iron tang of panic begin to encroach upon him. Raw. Unfamiliar. Paralysing.

He wasn't going to make it. 

“George…” Arthur started weakly, but before he could say any more a different voice interrupted the line: a familiar voice, calm and acerbic and surprisingly authoritative and infuriatingly stubborn and just a hint of a Welsh accent…

Arthur’s knees almost buckled in an absurd sort of relief as he recognised it.

“…just shut up, don’t say a word, and give me the line.” The voice was hard and cool and quietly, terrifyingly furious as it faded in, talking to someone on the other side. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Even so Arthur had to hear it, had to hear the confirmation for himself. “Q?”

“007,” Merlin said crisply. “Go up the stairs. One flight.”

Arthur didn’t question it. He didn’t have to. Later he would blame it on pain and delirium — the way he had instinctively deferred to Merlin’s instructions. In reality it was far simpler. Something in Merlin’s voice, the crisp, calm command perhaps, made something click in Arthur’s mind; an unspoken trust me. 

So Arthur picked up his Walther with one bloodied hand, staggered to his feet, and began to run. 

At the top of the stairs, there’s a door on your right. Two on the other side, I’m afraid. Open the door in 3…2…

Arthur rammed his shoulder into the door, and it flew open, slamming straight into a man on the other side and knocking him down. Arthur blinked down at him. Huh.

“Another man coming round the corner, 2 o’clock.”

Arthur fired without thinking, and his bullet buried itself between the man’s eyes just as he came into sight. It all seemed hopelessly easy.

“What are you doing?” Arthur asked through laboured breaths as he ran.

Saving your life, if I’m not mistaken,” the voice replied. “Another guard around the corner.”

“I didn’t think you cared,” Arthur said absently.

“Oh don’t flatter yourself, I still don’t like you.” 

Arthur exploded around the corner, catching the man off guard. To his surprise, the guard blocked his attack, and suddenly they were locked in a fierce flurry of blows as each tried to gain the upper hand. If the bullet in his leg hadn’t been slowing him down, Arthur could have finished him in a heartbeat. As it was…

“Uppercut to your left.” Merlin’s voice inserted suddenly.

Arthur ducked as the man’s fist sailed above his head, giving him the opportunity to finish the guard off by slamming his Walther into the man’s temple. He refused to acknowledge the victory was in any way down to Merlin’s intervention.

“Q, out of the two of us who has actually been trained in close combat?” He said, a little irritated.

“We’re the British secret service. We’re all trained in close combat”

“And you see a lot of combat sat playing with your toys behind your desk in London, do you?”

“You’d be surprised,” Merlin said mildly. “Oh, and duck.”

Arthur had barely a split-second’s notice before gunfire erupted inches from his face. He swore, dropping to the ground. Twisting round, he fired in the general direction of the sound and there was a thump as a body hit the ground. Arthur let his arm fall back to the ground, gritting his teeth as he stumbled once more to his feet.

“You know,” he said to Merlin, almost to distract himself from the pain. “Running field ops is George’s place.”

“Yes, and he was doing such a spectacular job of it,” Merlin replied smartly. “Turn left, second door on your right.”

Arthur veered round the corner then stopped just short of it, panting. “Door’s locked, I need a key card.”

“Look again.”

No sooner than Merlin had spoken, the electronic door turned green and slid aside.

Arthur blinked. “How did you—”

“Keep moving. There’s a fire alarm on your left in about ten yards. Set it off.”

“I’m trying to escape, not draw more attention.” Arthur pointed out.

“The alarm will automatically shut all electronic doors, other than the ones I choose to open, thereby preventing the backup they called from reaching you, and creating a distraction.

“But—”

“Fine. I’ll do it.” There’s was a scatter of fingers on keys in the background, and moments later the shrieking peals of the fire alarm started sounding.

“How are you doing that?” Arthur growled as he ran.

“Stop criticising my job and focus on yours.” Merlin said in clipped tones. “Your escape is through the next door. How many bullets do you have left?”

Arthur checked. “Seven.”

A soft curse in his ear. “Make them count. I’ll handle the rest.”

Arthur looked at the nearest security camera incredulously. “But—”

Arthur,” Merlin’s use of his name pulled him up short. “Trust me. I’ll handle it.”

Goddamnit. Trust. The one thing Arthur couldn’t give.

He swayed. Caught himself. Just barely steadied. He could feel the adrenaline that had been the only thing sustaining him begin to seep away, succumbing to the demands of pain and exhaustion as days of little sleep and the blood loss finally caught up with him. Distantly, Arthur knew he should really be more concerned about the lack of blinding agony he should have been feeling from a gunshot wound, and what that meant that all he felt was a throbbing ache. He wondered if this was what going into shock felt like.

“Nearly there, 007.” Merlin’s voice was uncharacteristically soft in his ear, and just a little strained, and Arthur wondered just how much Merlin could see. He imagined Merlin back at HQ, surrounded by all his monitors, watching and guiding him from across the sea even though it wasn’t his place to do so. 

Don’t get too close.

Merlin had gotten him this far.

“You better be right about this, Q,” he muttered, drawing his Walther.

On my mark,” was all Merlin replied. “3…2…”

 


 

The head of MI6 looked back and forth between the two agents before him. Both Merlin and Arthur stood unflinching under his gaze, hands clasped behind their backs. No one spoke for a long time.

“Let me get this straight,” Uther said at last. “You” he directed at Merlin, “hacked into 007’s comm line, breaking protocol to, and I quote, ‘get that royal prat out of the shitstorm that blabbering idiot George had gotten him into’, and then proceeded to break three international laws hacking into a foreign security system, somehow remotely apprehending nineteen guards from your desk, and redirecting the nearest plane, all in order to save my son’s life?”

“Four laws.”

“I’m sorry?”

Merlin raised his chin, and Arthur could help but notice the gold flecks in his eyes seemed that much brighter. “It was four laws I broke, sir. The plane I redirected was a French military one, and the weapons it carried were not exactly certified for being used on the French’s own security bases. Sir.”

Uther studied him for a moment, and for the first time Arthur could remember, his father looked honestly perplexed.

“Why?”

“Well, according to article #42 of the European Common Security and Defence Policy, a country may not objectively obtain or use any military weaponry —”

“No, not the law you idiotic boy,” Uther interrupted impatiently. “Why did you put yourself at such personal risk without a thought for the consequences to do a job that was not yours to do in the first place?” He leant forward, gaze boring into Merlin’s. “Why even intervene in the first place?”

Arthur turned towards Merlin, waiting himself for an answer to the confounding question that had been tormenting him the whole journey back to London: why had Merlin done it? It couldn't have been a sense of duty — Arthur could have bled out in that french basement and no one would have thought twice about blaming the quartermaster because it wasn’t his responsibility. It couldn’t have been loyalty or friendship — Arthur had been nothing but rotten to him from the beginning, and it wasn’t exactly a secret how much the two loathed each other. What drove him? 

Merlin’s gaze flickered to his for a fraction of a second, as though he knew exactly what Arthur was thinking.

He straightened. “I intervened because the situation was being handled appallingly by Agent George, and because Agent 007 was in danger of being compromised. Once 007 was shot, I couldn’t sit by and watch any longer when it was in my power to provide the escape route he needed.”

“It was not your place to dismiss Agent George —”

“Who, with respect sir, was doing a deplorable job,” Merlin interrupted, his voice hard. “If I had left him on the comms, it is entirely likely the entire mission would have been compromised.”

Arthur winced. It had been something he’d learnt very early on that if it was one thing Uther hated above all else, it was being interrupted.

His father’s eyes flashed. “You suppose an awful lot, do you, quartermaster?”

Merlin didn’t blink, didn’t even falter. He met Uther’s gaze. “I speak as I see fit.”

“I could have you locked up for this, you know.”

For some reason that seemed to hit a nerve with Merlin, and Arthur saw him flinch — the tiniest of movements — but a flinch all the same. His arresting blue eyes suddenly seemed that bit more haunted than usual, and Arthur thought the Quartermaster suddenly looked a little smaller, less sure of himself. 

It was so odd and unusual and so decidedly not Merlin that Arthur found himself speaking before he could stop himself.

“Father!” Arthur inserted sharply. “This is ridiculous, Merlin—”

“Quiet” Uther snapped. “I’ll deal with you later.”

“He saved my life” Arthur stressed, ignoring his father. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

Silence. Arthur could feel Merlin’s incredulous gaze boring into him from the side, and it took a physical effort not to turn and meet it. His father searched him long and hard, and perhaps he saw something that surprised him, for the ice in his eyes softened ever so slightly.

He turned back to Merlin. “Arthur is right, of course. Forgive me. You saved my boy’s life, a debt must be repaid.”

Merlin blinked, obviously as taken aback as he was at this sudden change of attitude. “I…well…”

“Don’t be so modest.” Uther said dismissively. “You shall be rewarded. In fact,” his eyes gleamed suddenly, “you shall be 007’s new comms partner.”

What?” Arthur and Merlin’s voices exclaimed simultaneously. They shared a horrified glance.

“Yes.” Uther looked entirely too satisfied. “Provided you don’t break too many international laws, that is, Q. You know them all by heart, apparently.”

Merlin looked between Arthur and Uther desperately, and in any other circumstance it would have been comical, had Arthur not been feeling the exact same. “But, sir,” Merlin began, “I really don’t see—”

“You’ll still be expected to fulfil your duties as Quartermaster, of course,” his father continued, oblivious to their shared turmoil. “I trust that won’t be a problem?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Excellent. You will start as of the next assignment.”

“But—”

“Father—”

“Problem?” Uther cut them both off.

Arthur glanced at Merlin, and saw the same helpless frustration in his eyes mirrored in his own.

He didn’t need to say anything, Arthur could read the commanding do something in Merlin’s eyes. Arthur’s shoulders rose the tiniest bit — what am I supposed to do? 

Merlin’s gaze flickered to Uther — he’s your father! 

Arthur’s mouth set in a hard line — like that’s any help. His gaze turned accusing — Anyway it’s your fault we’re in this mess in the first place.

Merlin’s eyebrow rose — would you rather I had let you die?

Arthur scowled slightly — well you could have certainly been cleverer about it. Four laws?

An eye roll — I do apologise. Next time I save your life I’ll be subtler about it.

Arthur huffed — please do.

When he turned back to his father, Uther was watching their silent exchange with narrowed, curious eyes.

Arthur cleared his throat, since Merlin was obviously sulking and wasn’t going to say anything. “No, sir. No problem.”

“Good, you are both dismissed.”

Looking remarkably like a sullen teenager who’d been sent to his room, Merlin trundled out with a murmured yes, sir, and a petulant scowl at Arthur. Arthur rolled his eyes and limped after him. 

The second the door closed behind them, Merlin whirled around in a blur of flashing eyes and acerbic-laced words.

Why couldn’t you have just let things be?” Merlin said in a low, biting voice. “Now we’re stuck with each other, and all because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut. Now M feels like he has to bloody reward me for saving your useless hide.”

“Oh so this is my fault now?” Arthur hissed. “If I hadn’t said anything, you’d be on your way to prison right now.”

“So what, I’m supposed to thank you?”

“Well a little gratitude would be nice.”

“I was handling things just fine.” Merlin ground out. “I didn’t need you to rescue me from your father.

“No?” Arthur challenged, and suddenly the words were spilling out before he could stop them. “Wasn’t it my father who imprisoned you the first time after your little spout with the Dragon? My father who kept you in Britain’s highest security cell for four years like a criminal?”

Arthur regretted the words as soon as he’d spoken them. Merlin recoiled from him like the words were physical blows, lips parting in slack shock, eyes flashing with a horrible realisation that Arthur knew.

“How dare you,” he said quietly, fiercely, and for a moment Arthur could have sworn Merlin’s eyes flashed gold. “How dare you presume to know anything about me. You know nothing, Arthur Pendragon.”

Arthur swallowed. “Merlin, I didn’t mean—”

“What? That I’m a criminal? A traitor?” Merlin stepped closer, until his face was inches from Arthur’s. “Every second since the moment I’ve arrived you’ve been trying to prove I’m not good enough. I’m sick of it.”

“Merlin—”

“I belong here.” Merlin continued fiercely, “I like it here. And I will do anything to keep from ever going back to that cell again. So you can take your threats and your secrets—”

Merlin,” Arthur said again more firmly, cutting him off. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I just…”

I don’t know what this is, but it’s incredibly distracting and I can’t think straight when you look at me like that and I’m trying so, so hard to hate you because I know if I let you in even for a second they’ll be no turning back.

Merlin was still looking at him with those bright blue eyes — desperately stubborn with a steadfast defiance. 

Arthur ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “You saved my life.” He said simply. “Standing by and watching my father imprison you for it seemed a pretty poor way to repay you. I’m sorry if I overstepped my boundaries.”

Merlin studied him for a long time, arresting eyes seeing right through him. “You don’t need to repay me,” he said at last. “I didn’t do it for you.”

“I know,” Arthur replied. “But I’m grateful all the same.”

Merlin’s mouth twisted. “But—”

“Just, let me thank you.” Arthur interrupted, absently wondering why this was so important to him. “Please.”

They looked at one another, gazes lingering just a second too long. It wasn’t…warmth, exactly, in that shared look - more like a silent yielding, a wordless understanding. For the first time, Arthur wondered whether he was really seeing Merlin for real.

Don’t get too close.

Eventually, Merlin nodded. “You’re welcome, 007.” He said quietly.

This close, Arthur could see the tiniest gold flecks in Merlin's eyes. Arthur felt oddly lightheaded, and he realised he'd forgotten to breathe. He also couldn't look away.

Don’t get too close.

And as the two agents looked at each other, as Merlin finally broke his gaze away with an awkward cough and a parting nod and strode off down the corridor without another word, as Arthur’s eyes followed him all the way; Arthur wondered whether it was already too late for that.

 

Chapter Text

“So,” Gaius said as he sat down next to Merlin. “I hear you’re 007’s new comms partner.” 

Merlin groaned.

“Not you too,” he complained. “I’ve heard nothing else from anyone all morning. You’d think agents of her majesty’s secret service would have better things to do than wager on how long Arthur and I last before one of us cracks and kills the other, but no.” He scowled petulantly, jabbing a finger at his laptop. “They have a dead-pool going, Gaius!”

“I know,” Gaius said placidly, peering at the screen. “I’ve got fifty on there myself.”

“You…what?” Merlin spluttered. “Fifty?! On what?”

“One of you saving the other’s life, of course,” said Gaius, amused. “They’re saying you saved Pendragon’s life over in Paris. Seems you're a hero.”

Merlin sighed, giving up. “Hard to believe, isn't it?”

“No,” Gaius scoffed lightly. “I knew it from the moment I met you. When you saved my life, remember?”

Merlin did remember. A lonely street on a starless night, an old man on his way home, three pursuers from a rivalling gang looking for an easy mark. And Merlin, little more than a child himself, leaping down from the rooftops to stand in their way.

“What did you just do?” The old man demanded, as the three men lay unconscious around them, untouched, their unused knives still clenched in their hands. “Tell me!"

The boy backed away, staring at his hands. “I — I have no idea what happened.”

“If anyone had seen that…"

“Er, no!” he blurted. “That- that was, that was nothing to do with me. That- that was...

“I know what it was!” The old man interrupted. “I know magic when I see it. I just want to know where you learned how to do it.”

“Nowhere.”

“So how is it you know magic?”

“I don’t!” The boy insisted.

One of the man’s eyebrows rose imperiously. “Are you lying to me, boy?

“What do you want me to say?” He said desperately.

“The truth!”

“I was born like this!”

“That's impossible!” A beat. The old man studied him shrewdly. “Who are you?”

And wasn’t that the question of all questions. 

To London, he was Emrys; a whisper in a computer, a hacker, a criminal. To Kilgharrah, a protégé; profit and potential. To the rest of the world, a street urchin, a lost cause, just another orphan dirtying their streets.

“Merlin” he said at last, small chin raised high in stubborn defiance. “I’m Merlin.”

That had been the day Merlin left behind the Dragon and the Guild and the streets, the only home he’d ever known. The unconscious men would eventually wake, and tell others of what they had seen, and Kilgharrah would finally know what dwelt behind the gold flash in Merlin’s eyes, what power lived within this small boy.

I'm not a monster, am I?” the boy had whispered.

The old man’s voice was firm and devastatingly kind.  Don’t ever think that.”

Gaius had helped Merlin disappear that day, and he had never looked back. He had taken Merlin to his home, patched him up where he was bleeding, placed a steaming bowl of casserole in front of him and told him to have as much as he wanted. Merlin had never forgotten the taste of that stew — the first act of kindness he had seen in a long time.

“Eat up,” Gaius commanded, “there’s far too many ribs showing through that shirt for my liking.”

Merlin had picked up the spoon before Gaius had gotten two words out, small moans of ecstasy escaping from his mouth as he ate. The boiling stew scalded his mouth, but Merlin didn’t care. That is, until the spoon was suddenly snatched from his hand.

“Good grief, not all at once, you foolish boy, or you’ll make yourself sick,” Gaius reprimanded, waving the spoon in the air.

Merlin whimpered, strongly considering drinking the broth straight from the bowl. Gaius whacked him lightly on the head. “Now eat. Slowly.”

To both their surprise, Merlin obeyed. His stomach did feel a little unsteady, after all.

When he had teased out every last drop, Gaius took away the bowl and nodded approvingly.

“There. Keep that down, and we’ll see about something more than broth for supper. Carrots, roast chicken maybe. Nothing too hard to digest.”

Merlin perked up. “I get roast chicken? Real, honest-to-god chicken? Chicken chicken?”

“Is there another kind of chicken?”

Merlin laughed delightedly. “Carrots! Chicken! Oh, it’s Christmas.”

Gaius sighed. “How you managed to terrify the streets of London with the mere mention of your name, I will never know.”

Merlin flashed him a grin. “Just keep talking about that chicken, and we’ll get along just fine.” Then, more quietly to himself, “chicken. Real chicken.”

Gaius shook his head, and went back to registering the adoption papers.

Years on, Merlin looked up at the man who had taken him in as though Merlin was his own son, who’d given a damn about him when no one else had. Really, it was Gaius who had saved him that day on the streets.

“Why did you do it?” Merlin asked after a moment. “Take me in, I mean.”

“You had saved my life.” Gaius said. “It seemed a pretty poor thank you just to leave you on the streets bleeding and in shock.”

Merlin wondered what it was that made everyone feel like they had to keep repaying him for the simple instinct of coming to their aid.

“Gaius, I was a hacker, a thief, a criminal under Kilgharrah’s rule,” Merlin pointed out. “I endangered the country where you were trying to protect it. There had to have been another reason. I can’t believe you were doing this merely out of… out of a sense of duty.”

“You were a child.” Gaius said gently

“And children make the best weapons, don’t you think?” Merlin challenged. “So again, I ask; there has to be a reason.”

Gaius stopped. He placed his hands down carefully on the table. “The Dragon is many things, Merlin, but a good man is not one of them. He takes what he wants and uses whoever he must in order to achieve his ends, no matter who gets hurt.” He finally turned, and Merlin caught a fleeting glimpse of pain in those all-seeing eyes. He wondered what - or whom - the old Quartermaster had lost to Kilgharrah. “The moment you mentioned Kilgharrah’s name I knew I couldn’t leave you to go back to him. Once the Dragon learnt of your gift, he’d have never let you go.”

“I didn’t realise you knew him so personally,” Merlin said.

“There was a time, believe it or not, when we fought for the same thing.”

Merlin’s eyebrows rose, but before he could question Gaius further the door to Q-branch opened and people came flooding in. He huffed, and Gaius flashed him a knowing smile.

“A story for another time, perhaps.” He stood. “Good luck with 007. He’s stubborn, but temperament aside, the boy’s a good agent. You two could do well together.”

“Yeah yeah, we’ve established Arthur is the spawn of all things good and holy and can do no wrong, I could have gotten that from the swooning agents every time he walks by,” Merlin dismissed. “I’m more concerned with his track record of conveniently losing his radio. And, you know, blatantly disregarding everything I say.”

“Yes, well.” Gaius’s eyes twinkled. “Maybe it’s your destiny to change that.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “You had to use the ‘d’ word.”

Gaius laughed.

 


 

Arthur selected the top floor option inside the lift, impatience making him continue to irrationally press the lit button even as the doors began to close. In fact, the lift was all but shut when someone stuck a hand into the gap, expertly prising them open.

Arthur raised an eyebrow as Gwaine’s broadly smiling face appeared on the other side.

“Arthur!” he exclaimed. “What are the chances, eh?”

“Regrettably, quite statistically likely,” he muttered.

Undeterred, Gwaine grinned. “Ever the charmer, 007.”

“003.”

Silence for a moment. Of course, silence rarely lasted with Gwaine.

“So,” Gwaine remarked in a tone that Arthur knew meant trouble, “you and Q. Comms partners. I’ll admit I didn’t see that coming.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Does anyone in MI6 actually know how to keep a secret?”

“A building full of top agents working under the most restrictive confidentiality laws?” Gwaine mused. “Not a chance.”

Arthur sighed. “How did you find out?”

Gwaine waved his hand mysteriously. “I have my sources.”

“Blonde, about 5'4"…” 

Gwaine shoved him good-naturedly. “Hey now. Just because you’re sexually frustrated and haven’t had a good shag since the dark ages doesn’t mean you can take it out on the rest of us.”

“I’m not sexually frustrated.”

“No. You’re worse.” Gwaine said, wrinkling his nose. “You’re pining.”

Arthur looked offended. “I do not pine.”

“Oh? Name one person you’ve fucked in the time Merlin’s been here.”

Arthur's jaw twitched. "I don't see what that has to do with anything."

"Indulge me." 

Arthur wasn't sure he much liked the knowing smirk on Gwaine's face.

“Fine, there was that Countess back in Italy—”

Outside of missions.” 

Arthur’s mouth opened, then closed. 

Gwaine looked at him pointedly. “Pining.” He said decidedly.

Arthur glowered, wishing adamantly they weren’t in a lift with no escape. “I don’t know what it is you think you’re implying…”

“Yes you do,” Gwaine said mildly. “You’re just not ready to admit it, yet. That’s okay. A few missions with Merlin’s sexy sexy voice in your ear should help things along.”

“You jealous?"

“Well, not all of us are special enough to merit the Quartermaster of MI6 as our personal babysitter." Gwaine's voice turned dry. "I guess you were always the exception.”

Arthur waved a hand noncommittally, his voice blasé. “By all means, feel free to claim him for yourself.”

Gwaine smirked lazily. “I might just at that.”

Without warning, a flare of something fiercely possessive welled in Arthur’s chest, and he fought to repress the sudden irrational surge of mine mine mine.

And going by Gwaine’s knowing expression, he knew it too; that reaction was probably exactly what he was trying to provoke.

Arthur scowled. The 003 agent was too smart for his own good. So often people made the mistake of underestimating Gwaine, deceived by his blasé, devil-may-care attitude and rash carelessness. Arthur often wondered whether Gwaine deliberately played up that side of him, exaggerating the reckless behaviour to put opponents off their guard. 

And yes, Gwaine was reckless, with little regard for his own life and no qualms with fighting dirty. But alongside the fact he was a crack shot and a charmer to rival even Arthur’s successes; Gwaine saw things other people didn’t. He read people the same way Arthur did — observing body language, taking in the small details that were often overlooked by others, getting into people’s heads and finding what made them tick. Disarming them, playing the fool; that was all part of the game.

It was one of the reasons he was such a good agent.

Of course, the skill that was so useful in the field was unendingly irritating when Gwaine was your friend. 

“Just a word of advice regarding Q,” Gwaine said, clapping him on the shoulder. “It may have escaped your notice, but everyone in MI6 is quite fond of him. And I don’t need to tell you how many of them are assassins.”

“So?”

Gwaine grinned. “So don’t fuck it up.”

With a faint ping, the lift reached its destination and the doors slid open, and with a wink that only Gwaine could pull off without looking ridiculously camp, the 003 agent slipped out through the closing doors.

“Don’t fuck what up?” Arthur asked, but Gwaine had already gone.

He exhaled, running a tired hand across his eyes, Gwaine’s parting words lingering in the air.

It may have escaped your notice, but everyone in MI6 is quite fond of him.

That was the thing; Arthur had noticed.

He’d noticed it when the double 0’s were spending more and more of their time in Q-branch, even taking time out to help Merlin train on his downtime — accompanying him on runs, sparring with him, lending him their own weapons when Arthur refused to let the hacker have full-time access to the weapons vault as was double 0 privilege (he thought it was a perfectly just refusal, but the way Owain had looked at him in disappointment, as thought Arthur was the one being unreasonable). More than once he had come into the training room to see Merlin on the matts, sleeves rolled up, his lithe figure flashing back and forth as he ducked and dodged and parried, faster every day. He didn’t balk at the double 0’s attacking him.

Arthur had asked Lancelot later why they were doing it — why the agents were going out of their way to help Merlin. Lance had just looked at him strangely, maybe even a little sadly, and said simply, “because he asked.” He turned away, hesitated, “and… because you wouldn’t.”

Arthur hadn’t known what to say to that.

He wanted to shake Lance, tell him to stop being such a trusting idiot and couldn’t he see Merlin was just using them? He wanted to argue that it was more than just them agreeing to Merlin’s request — it was the way they laughed when Merlin landed them on their arses, when they returned the favour and Merlin released a string of profanities that could rival the fires of hell, sending them all into fits. It was the way he once caught Leon correcting the angle of Merlin’s wrist on the shooting range, guiding him through the movements, and Merlin had listened. The way Percival and Gwaine sometimes called by Q-branch in the evening to keep him company, sharing the latest talk over a pint they’d brought him from the bar because Merlin hardly ever left his desk. The way they looked at him, as though he was one of them.

“Because he asked.”

The double 0’s did not give away their trust easily — their loyalty was hard won, their close-knit ranks almost impossible to join. And yet somehow, in the process of a week or two, Merlin had managed it.

It made Arthur want to bang their heads together.

Yes, Merlin was good at what he did. Yes, he smiled at them and drank with them and made them exploding stationary on occasion.

That was still not a license to trust him unequivocally. 

It may have escaped your notice, but everyone in MI6 is quite fond of him.

There was another ping as the lift doors opened onto the top floor.

Arthur had noticed. And if he was the only one to keep a healthy dose of cynicism, so be it.

God knows someone had to.

 


 

“Come in, 007.” Uther gestured to a file on his desk. “Take a look at that. See what you make of it.”

Arthur picked up the profile, scanning the few lines of information and the narrow, pointed face that stared back at him. The grey eyes seemed to laugh at him, as though he knew something Arthur didn’t.

“That’s him,” Arthur said at last, looking up. “That’s Sigan. How did you find him?”

We didn’t,” Uther replied. “Q did.”

Arthur’s eyebrow rose. “Merlin?”

“Mm. Some nonsense about code names and decrypts and some other explanations to which I don’t particularly care.” His father waved a dismissive hand. “Point is, we’ve got him.”

“Not yet we haven’t.” Arthur tossed the paper back onto Uther’s desk as he paced. “You should have told me this sooner. That way we could’ve found this ‘Cedric Alined’ before he went into hiding.”

“I can’t just call you in every assignment I get, 007,” Uther said dryly from where he was sitting on the corner of his desk, watching Arthur’s progress back and forth. “There were other agents already out in the field who were perfectly capable of taking over since you were injured.”

Injured, yes.” Arthur said. “Injured. Not dead.”

“None the less, you were in no state to go after Sigan. The agency—”

“Wants terrorists captured, I assume,” Arthur interjected, and Uther sighed, pinching at the bridge of his nose.

“We didn’t need you on this one. Percival and Owain were breaking up a drugs ring in that area—”

“In which time, your target got away!” Arthur exclaimed, twisting in place to glare at Uther. “If you hadn’t waited until today to call me in-”

“But I did, because last I checked, I was still at the head of this service, and you were still recovering from being shot.” Uther barked, his arms spread out at his sides. “You’re here now, though, so are you going to do your job and help us find this man, or not?”

Arthur pressed his lips into a thin line, and almost considered walking out there and then, just to see his father’s face. 

“What do you need me to do?” he said instead.

“Our source tells us some of Sigan’s associates will be in Rome on Saturday for a conference ball he’s hosting. You are to attend, gather intel, and make contact if given a chance.”

“And if Sigan is there?”

“Do not engage.” His father’s tone was uncompromising. “I fear this is much bigger than we realise, and we have to know what we’re up against. Sigan is just the tip of the iceberg, and our only lead. Don’t lose him.”

Arthur felt a flash of irritation at his father’s cryptic words, feeling with some certainty that there was something Uther wasn’t telling him, but inclined his head all the same. “As you wish, father.”

“You leave tomorrow.” His father paused, and for a moment looked oddly unguarded. “Be careful, 007.”

Arthur cocked an eyebrow. “Aren’t I always?”

“No,” Uther said frankly, and a little resignedly. “No, you’re not.”

 


 

“Do you mind?”

“Get your ass back to Q-branch. We’re needed.” Arthur strode into the training room without looking. “We’ve got a lead in Rome.”

“Lead to what?”

“Sigan, Merlin, what do you think?” Arthur glanced round. “Now hurry up, we - ”

Arthur stopped short, words tangling in his mouth. Merlin was dangling from one of the metal beams across the high ceiling of the training room, heaven knows how he’d gotten up there, repeatedly hoisting himself up to touch his chin to the bar. Sweat ran in rivulets down his pale skin, glistening on his bare chest.

All at once, every one of the thoughts Arthur had so carefully forgotten the past week avoiding Merlin came flooding to the surface. He swallowed.

Merlin was thin - painfully so - but without his oversized shirt swamping his slight frame, Arthur could see there was no inch of flesh spared. Surprising strength was evident in the lean cords of muscle stretched across his abs and shoulders, all hard lines and honed power, contracting and flexing with an easy rhythm. Merlin looked sharp and capable and strong; pale and unbroken and beautiful. Arthur didn’t want to think about what that unexpected strength did to his imagination.

Above him, Merlin cocked his head, eyes flashing blue. Arthur snapped out of it. Stalking forward, he yanked at Merlin’s foot and the Quartermaster fell to the ground with a yelp.

“Save your PT for your downtime,” Arthur growled. “If you’re not down in ten minutes, I’m leaving without a radio. Then you can be the one to answer to M about how I’m stuck in the field without backup.”

And with that he stormed out of the room, leaving Merlin to gape after him.

It took Merlin three of those ten minutes to get to his feet, only because he was preoccupied cursing Arthur in every language he knew. With a muttered oath, he grabbed his shirt and ran out the door, pulling it on as he went.

He was down in five. 

 


 

“Put that down.” Merlin barked as he entered. “That’s not for you.”

Arthur ignored him, curiously holding out the handsome blackthorn cane that had been lying on Merlin’s desk. “What is it?”

“Well, I’m not an expert,” said Merlin. “But I believe it’s a walking stick.”

“Does it do anything?”

“It helps you walk.” 

Arthur flashed him a withering look. “Anything else? Machine gun? Hidden darts in the handle?”

“Don’t be absurd," said Merlin. "It’s a ground-to-air missile launcher.”

“Shut up.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, and deftly snatched it from Arthur’s hands just as he picked up something else. “Must you touch everything?”

Arthur didn’t deign that with an answer. “What about this?” he continued, undeterred by Merlin’s unholy displeased expression. 

That is a Single Digit Sonic Agitator.”

Arthur tossed it in his hand carelessly. “It’s a ring.”

“A ring that emits a high enough frequency to shatter any glass or fry an electronic circuit, or a person’s brain, whichever you prefer.” Merlin remarked, plucking it from the air as Arthur tossed it again. “Also not for you.”

Arthur once again ignored Merlin’s small protests, twisting round him to hold up an umbrella. “Grenade launcher?”

“Bulletproof shield,” Merlin deadpanned. 

A flicker of uncertainty across Arthur’s blue eyes. “You’re joking.”

“I never joke about my work, 007.”

With an expression of disbelief, Arthur opened the umbrella and studied it out a little doubtfully. He glanced round to see Merlin still watching him. 

“What do you think?” Arthur asked, holding it out in front of him in a defensive position as if to model it. 

Cocking his head in a way that was faintly mischievous, Merlin picked up the Walther on the table and without warning, fired four times straight at the umbrella. Arthur let out a startled curse and ducked more fully behind it. Silence as the deafening shots faded. Cowering minions peeked up from behind their desks. The umbrella hadn’t even torn.

Merlin hummed and studied it. “Yes,” he said after a moment, smiling blandly. “I think it works.”

Arthur gaped, sharing an incredulous glance with Leon, who unhelpfully held up his hands.

“Alas”, Merlin continued, “that one’s also not for you. So, if you’re quite done inspecting my work, 007, I believe we have a schedule to keep to?” 

And without waiting for an answer, he plucked the umbrella from Arthur’s unresisting hands and turned away, not bothering to see if Arthur followed. 

“So; our lead?” Merlin queried, his voice entirely business as he walked.

Arthur hastened to keep up. “Rome. Word has it, Sigan’s men are attending a ball this Saturday, some conference—”

“The International Conference on Process Engineering and Advanced Materials,” Merlin cut in absently, almost to himself. “Yes, of course, that makes sense.”

A slight hitch in Arthur’s stride was the only tell of his surprise. “It does?”

Merlin glanced round at him impatiently. “Cedric Alined is an arms dealer, which you would know if you had done any of the reading. He uses his old contacts from the CIA to supply terrorist groups and individuals with the newest battlefield technology, thriving on war and often creating conflict when there is none. A war procurer, of sorts.”

“That doesn’t explain why he’s interested in a conference on process engineering.”

“I was getting to that,” Merlin said irritably. “Alined specialises in providing illegal and experimental weapons, to those who pay the right price. Weapons like those require some rather rare materials — iridium and organophosphorus compounds and the like. Materials only select people have access to.”

Arthur’s expression sharpened with realisation. “He’s making bioweapons.”

“And then some.” A slight frown crossed Merlin’s face. "The rest of the raw materials, Alined can get his hands on pretty easily. Governments trade with him across the globe without suspecting a thing.”

“I thought you said he was an arms dealer.”

“Oh, he’s a business man, make no mistake.” Merlin paused, absently placing the umbrella down on a desk. His expression turned thoughtful. “My guess is that he has a contact in the industry — someone in chemical research, perhaps. The materials would need to be stored carefully, and the transport of such volatile components would be near impossible unless he had someone on the inside. Singular equipment like that draws attention; they’d have to be hiding in plain sight.”

Arthur crossed his arms, struggling not to appear in any way impressed. “When did you become an expert on chemical arms trafficking?”

Merlin shrugged. “Last night.” He quipped. "The file. CIA’s notes, the extraction theory papers. Did you look at anything I gave M?”

Arthur gave a long, dramatic sigh. “What’s the point? You obviously know it all anyway, and I’m going to have your voice jabbering in my ear the entire time. Might as well make use of it.”

“I’m not your personal encyclopaedia, you know.” Merlin groused, but there was no heat in it.

It was almost as though they were running through the lines, falling into the familiar routine of throwing quip after quip at each other, but without any of the weight behind it. The words were just as harsh, but the bite had left them. Merlin didn’t want to think about what that meant. 

“Oh?” Arthur countered. “Then what good are you?” 

“Well,” said Merlin, “I may not know a lot about a lot of things, 007; but I do know how to blow shit up.” 

Merlin handed him a recognisable object. Finally. “I believe you’re familiar with this particular model?”

“The Walther PPK/S nine-millimeter short.” Arthur said, a slightest hint of a smile curving his lips despite himself as he took it. “Why, Q, I thought you’d never ask.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, ignoring him. “It’s been coded to your palm print so only you can fire it. Less of a random killing machine, more of a… personal statement.”

A slight raised eyebrow. “Clever,” Arthur said grudgingly.

“No point giving you expertly modified weaponry if your opponents can use it against you.” Merlin said airily. “Suitable attire will be waiting for you in Rome. Your radio will be in the top pocket. Do try not to lose it.”

“So, a gun and a radio.” Arthur summed up. “It's not exactly Christmas, is it?"

“Were you expecting an exploding pen?”

“Well, a ground-to-air-missile-launching-walking-stick certainly wouldn’t go amiss.”

Merlin refused to think how it was the tiniest bit sexy that Arthur could quote the exact words he’d used, even down to the tone.

“No missiles,” he said firmly. “Bring the equipment back in one piece, and I’ll reconsider your pen.”

Arthur pouted. “Spoilsport.”

“Prat.”

“Idiot.”

“Clotpole.”

“I…clotpole?” Arthur repeated incredulously, his head literally snapping backward slightly as he gaped at Merlin.

Merlin was looking at him, perfectly casual, but then his lips slowly pressed together as he fought a smile, a battle he quickly lost. A few huffs of a chuckle hissed through his nose before his laughter tumbled out, his head turning away while he lifted a hand to his mouth.

“Your face!” he managed between laughs, his whole body shaking.

Arthur’s expression quickly snapped into a scowl, but he could feel the corners of his lips betraying him. 

“Weren’t you on a tight schedule or something?” he grumbled, but Merlin only laughed harder.

“Am I…interrupting something?” 

Arthur turned to find Leon standing awkwardly behind them, puzzled eyes shifting between them as his lips slowly curled in amusement.

Arthur cleared his throat, shooting Merlin a dark look as he continued to laugh. “Nothing at all.” He said with an air of finality. “Merlin was just leaving.”

“Um, no. Last I checked, this is my office,” Merlin pointed out, struggled to sober himself. “If you want to leave, your highness can kindly bugger off yourself.”

Leon choked, and Merlin had to thump him on the back.

Arthur only rolled his eyes. “As you wish. Always a pleasure, Q.”

Merlin grinned, blue eyes flashing distractingly. “007. Good luck in the field.”

And jerking his head to Leon to signal him to follow, Arthur strode out. 

The moment the door closed behind them, Leon cleared his throat. “I see you and Merlin are still getting on swimmingly.” He remarked.

Arthur scowled. “The boy’s an idiot.”

“Far from it, from what I gather. He’s competent, well-liked, handy with a gun, too, which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming. And that’s not even mentioning the fact he’s a sodding genius.”

“So?”

So,” Leon emphasised, “none of that explains why you’re so determined to hate him.”

Arthur opened his mouth to protest, but stopped at Leon’s expression. Arthur sighed. “He’s hiding something.”

“We’re the secret service.” Leon pointed out. “We’re all hiding something.”

“Not like this.” Arthur paused, glancing sideways at Leon. “Don’t you find it at all strange that we know next to nothing about him? I checked the database, you know, and he doesn’t have a profile. Officially, he doesn’t even exist.”

Leon didn’t look as surprised as Arthur thought he would. “Well, he’s a data encrytionist, isn’t he? Hell if I could crack MI6’s servers, I’d want to stay off the radar too.”

Arthur made a small noise of frustration. “You don’t understand—”

“I understand.” Leon interrupted. “I understand that I’ve known you since we were seven, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone get under your skin like Merlin does. And I’m pretty sure it hasn’t got a thing to do with whether he’s got an online profile or not.”

Arthur fought the urge to scowl. First Gwaine, now Leon. Was he really that obvious?

“Is there’s a point coming up soon?”

“You like him.” Leon stated. It wasn’t a question.

Arthur didn’t meet his gaze. “I thought we just clarified I was determined to hate him?”

Leon huffed. “Look, Arthur, as your friend; you’ve been alone for nearly three years now. You can’t keep punishing yourself for what happened with Gwen.”

“Sure,” Arthur said. “I was just in love with another gender, and she was in love with another man. Sounds like the perfect relationship.”

“Arthur—”

“I’m an assassin, and I like it.” He exclaimed, desperate with the sudden urge to make Leon understand why even considering the possibility of Merlin like that was absurd. “I like the cloak-and-dagger and the stupid car chases and taking justice into my own hands. I like that the only time I feel alive is when my life is hanging in the balance. I like never knowing if the next day will be my last, and getting the chance to put my life on the line for something that matters. It's insane and irrational and it's fucking messed up, but it's all I have — all I know. I’ve killed more people than I’ve loved, and I will go on killing because it’s the only thing I know how to do.” He spread his arms at Leon. “Does me being alone still sound odd to you?”

Leon just looked at him, and Arthur could hardly bear the expression that looked dangerously close to pity in his friends eyes. 

“You deserve better than to be lonely,” Leon said at last.

Arthur exhaled with a shudder. “Yeah well”, he said flatly, “alone protects me.”

“No, people protect you,” Leon said quietly, with a sad sort of smile. “Take care not to push them all away.”

And then with a warm squeeze of Arthur’s shoulder, the 006 agent left him standing in the corridor, staring back at the door to Q-branch with the odd feeling he’d left something important behind.

 


 

Say what you want about the criminal wealth; they knew how to throw a party. Merlin raised his eyebrows at the lavish display of luxury he saw through the monitors — at the great staircases and windows and chandeliers spitting speckled light across the dance floor. It was another world entirely, and Arthur seemed right at home in it. He took to it like a fish in water, only he wasn’t a fish at all, he was the shark in their midst. He wore a suit like he was born to, a shade of blue so dark it was almost black, contrasting attractively with his blonde hair. For a moment, the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon his upturned face through the windows — all hard lines stoked in gold; then the glow faded, each light deserting him with lingering regret.

He looked painfully attractive and completely, utterly unreachable.

It took a physical effort for Merlin to stop gawping at Arthur and focus on what was being said.

“I’m sorry, sir,” a heavily accented voice trickled in from Arthur’s earpiece, halted the 007 agent in his steps. Through his eyes, Merlin saw a girl standing apologetically by the door. “This is invitation only.”

Arthur inclined his head, turning his spotlight focus to narrow in on the girl, and Merlin started as he seemed to…change somehow, as though one Arthur had been switched for another in the time he had blinked. The icy steel in his eyes melted, his posture shifted from defensive and closed off to open and inviting, his mouth curved into a half smile. Merlin stared as Arthur raised the girl’s hand to his lips. His lidded eyes remained fixed on her, and she flushed slightly.

“Pendragon,” Arthur said, “Arthur Pendragon.” 

His voice was low and full of promise, desire and danger and forbidden pleasure all rolled into one. It was bloody unfair, was what it was. Merlin swallowed hard, and shook his head to clear it. 

The girl, however, who must have been getting the full-blast of Arthur’s gaze and voice of sex, wavered slightly, blinked a few times. “I…I’m sorry, sir, we don’t seem to have you on the guest list…”

Arthur smiled winningly. “Could you check again? I’m sure there’s been some mistake.”

The slightly commanding lilt to Arthur’s voice caught Merlin’s attention, and he thought he saw Arthur glance pointedly at one of the security cameras.

Right. That was Merlin’s cue. 

Diving into the system, Merlin quickly hacked the guest list and added Arthur’s name, giving him a little background just to add credibility. The whole thing had taken less than four seconds.

The girl now blinked at the tablet in her hand. “My apologies, Mr Pendragon. We have you right here. It’s an honour to welcome such a generous donator to the company. Please, come in. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

A slight flicker of Arthur’s eyebrow was his only sign of surprise.

“The honour is all mine, I assure you,” he said smoothly. “To be upheld by a beautiful woman is never a waste of time.”

The girl, if possible, blushed even deeper, and her eyes followed him in a daze as Arthur flashed her another smile and entered the room. 

Merlin stared.

Two minutes. Not even two minutes and Arthur had her completely wrapped around his little finger. He shouldn’t really be surprised. Being desirable was just what 007 did. He wielded sexual attraction like he would any other weapon, and it was just as deadly as any gun.

It was one thing to hear about though. It was entirely different to see it in action.

“Nice touch with the donation,” Arthur’s voice murmured in Merlin’s ear, startling him from his thoughts.

“You too,” Merlin said without thinking, and then his words caught up with him. “I mean, not with the donation — the girl, nice touch with the girl — not that you, um…”

Shut up shut up shut up.

Merlin slapped a palm to his forehead, wondering why the hell his brain could hack into their security system in four seconds but fail to form coherent sentences. 

This is 007. Get a fucking grip.

“Q?”

Merlin saw Arthur pause, looking around nonchalantly as though surveying the room, but discretely shooting a questioning glance at the nearest security camera.

“Bad connection,” Merlin lied quickly. “All fixed. Nothing to worry about.”

Through the cameras, Arthur didn’t look like he believed him, but he didn’t question it.

Merlin quickly changed the subject. “Any sign of Sigan’s men?”

“Not yet.” Arthur sighed a little, accepting a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. “If they don’t show soon, we’re in trouble. That was the only lead we had.”

“Yeah, well, don’t throw us in the dirt just yet,” Merlin said. “There’s still time.”

“Your naive optimism is nauseating.”

“Your face is nauseating, but you don’t see me complaining.”

Arthur choked on his champagne. 

“Sir? Is everything alright?” The nearest waiter looked at him with some concern.

“Quite alright, thank you,” Arthur said, recovering impressively quickly.

Merlin managed to hold his laughter just long enough for the waiter to walk away. “Something wrong with your champagne, 007?”

“Shut. Up.” Arthur growled. “Now why don’t you make yourself useful and find me Sigan’s men?”

“I’m the Quartermaster. You can’t give me orders.”

“Watch me.”

Merlin bit back his laughter. “As you command, your highness,” he drawled.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed, but an approaching guest saved Merlin from whatever he had been about to say next. With a barely withheld sigh, Arthur turned to the newcomer, though not before giving Merlin (or more specifically, the security camera) a look that told him he’d pay for the remark later.

Merlin smiled, keeping one eye on their interaction as he ran identity checks on everyone in the room. The guest — a thin, elegant man with long-fingered hands and an impressive scar decorating one side of his face — had started speaking.

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of seeing you at these conferences before,” the man said in fluid Italian, his voice low and guarded as though he was choosing his words carefully. “My name is Edwin Muirden.”

He held out a pale, long-fingered hand, and after a moment, Arthur took it. “Arthur Pendragon.”

They shook, and it could have been Merlin’s imagination, but he thought Edwin’s beady eyes seemed to sharpen at Arthur’s name.

“It is unusual to come across a new face in this industry,” Edwin remarked. “We all move in such…small circles. Are you a scientist yourself, Mr Pendragon?”

The way he spun the word ‘scientist’ made Arthur think he might have meant something else entirely. What, Arthur couldn’t say.

“A small benefactor, no more,” Arthur replied smoothly, switching effortlessly to Italian in turn. “I was hoping I might speak to our host. Do you know where I might find him?”

“Oh Mr Alined never attends his balls,” Edwin dismissed lightly. “If you have a matter you wish to discuss with him, I can—”

“And Mr Sigan?” Arthur cut in, following his gut. “Where might I find him?”

Edwin froze. Bingo. His eyes narrowed, voice lowering. “What business do you have with Mr Sigan?” The switch to English was like a blunt slap in the face. The smooth lilt to his voice was gone, replaced with something hard and cold, with perhaps just a hint of an American accent.

Arthur crossed his arms, dropping the Italian himself. “I think that’s for him to know, don’t you think?”

“Mr Pendragon I must insist—”

“Goods exchange.” Arthur interrupted.

For some reason that seemed to be the right thing to say.

Edwin nodded as though that explained everything. “Of course. If you would follow me, Mr Pendragon.”

He turned, and Arthur slowly released the hand that had been poised on his gun. Merlin let out a breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding.

“Don’t react, just listen,” he said quietly in Arthur’s ear as the 007 agent walked. “Edwin Muirden is a researcher on chemical engineering and battlefield technology, disapproved by his peers for working on more…experimental procedures. American, both parents were CIA agents, now deceased. Most definitely working under Sigan.” He paused. “Be careful.”

A slight flicker of Arthur’s eyebrow was his only reaction. 

It seemed to take forever for the two to leave the ballroom, and finally the door shut behind them, snapping out the pink-hued light and faint murmur of conversation. 

Edwin strode into the dimly lit room, speaking as he did. “We can talk freely in here. No cameras, no bugs. Nothing comes out of this room.”

From his position in HQ, with every monitor showing a different angle of the room and several audio streams feeding in, Merlin snorted. “Overconfident git, isn’t he?”

Arthur’s lips twitched.

“So where is this elusive Sigan?” He addressed Edwin in a bored voice. “I was hoping for a personal audience.”

Edwin shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. You tell me what you’re offering, and I’ll pass it on to the higher-ups, who’ll pass it on to their higher-ups, who’ll eventually get it to Sigan. If he likes your proposal, you’ll hear from him.”

“Well, that all seems extremely tedious,” Arthur drawled. “I have a better idea. You tell me where to find your boss, and I might just consider forgiving you for wasting my time.”

Edwin narrowed his eyes, and for a moment Arthur could have sworn they flashed a different colour — a burnt orange. It had to have been a trick of the light. 

“Is that a threat?” Edwin asked in an undertone.

Arthur…” Merlin warned softly in his ear.

“A threat?” Arthur repeated in mock confusion, “No. A threat would be more like... ‘If any more words come out of your mouth that aren’t the exact location of Sigan, I'm going to break your jaw. Then I’m going to drag your ass to the roof, and put a bullet in your brain.’ You see?” He took a reckless step forward. “That was a threat. This is more of a request.”

Edwin shook his head, lips curving into a smirk that Merlin didn’t like. “Foolish boy — you have no power here. What makes you think I’ll just tell you—”

Arthur punched him in the jaw.

“I did warn you,” he said frankly, and then suddenly the two men were fighting, grappling too close to allow one of them to get a proper blow in. 

Back in HQ, Merlin smacked his head into his palm. “You had to punch him,” he groused in Arthur’s ear. “Why does every conversation you have always have to end up in a brawl?”

“Not the best time right now, Q,” Arthur spat out through his teeth, slamming his knee into Edwin’s face as the man tried to strangle him.

Merlin huffed, but obligingly shut up as Arthur took his time finishing Edwin off,  grudgingly admiring the easy competence, the unhesitant strikes and parries that flowed from him like Arthur knew exactly where Edwin would move next.

Twisting in place, Arthur caught Edwin's flying punch and wrenched him round, locking his shoulder. And he wasn't done — Arthur continued to turn, elbow smashing into Edwin's face, deflecting the man's kick with an irritable flick of his foot. The hard edge of Arthur's hand slammed into Edwin's temple just as Arthur swept his legs out from underneath him. Edwin crumpled, flying backwards and crashing into the wall. 

Merlin raised an eyebrow, struggling not to be impressed. For all Arthur's many faults, the man could fight. 

Against the wall, Edwin doubled over, coughing, wiping the blood from his nose with the back of his hand. “Very good, Mr Pendragon.” He said between laboured breaths. His eyes swept Arthur up and down. “Or should I say ‘Agent’?”

Arthur didn’t blink, only to draw his Walther and hold it an inch from Edwin’s forehead. “Last chance,” he said, his voice a crack of authority. “The location of Sigan, and I will spare your life.”

Absurdly, Edwin laughed. “God you really don’t know anything, do you?” he said wonderingly. “You spies, with all your guns and weapons and technology — none of that will matter soon.” His eyes flashed. “The end is coming, Arthur Pendragon, and it will come for us all. Only the strongest and the pure will survive, and we will watch you burn like you burnt us.”

“Is that supposed to scare me?” Arthur said, unimpressed. 

“No.” Edwin grinned. “It’s supposed to make you run.”

And then before Arthur could think about what the hell that was supposed to mean, Edwin hissed something that sounded like a curse —

Forbærne yfel”— 

—harsh and twisted and utterly unlike any language Arthur knew, and suddenly the entire room erupted into flames.

Impossible

In London, Merlin dropped his mug and it crashed to the ground. He barely even noticed. He was staring at the monitors, eyes seeing but not wanting to accept it. 

Magic. Edwin was using magic.

He could hardly believe it. He’d seen it used by others before, but never like this — never with this total abandon, right in the open for everyone to see.

Merlin’s gaze darted back and forth, falling on Arthur in the midst of the blaze.

He saw how there was the tiniest of moments where Arthur froze, disbelief overtaking logic, in which time Edwin surged forward and slammed Arthur’s head into the wall behind him, snatching the Walther from Arthur’s weakened grip. Arthur tried to scramble to his feet, but the flames seemed to swell around him, trapping him against the wall.  

“A word of advice,” Edwin spat through the flames, looming up above Arthur. “When you’re threatening someone…” he aimed the Walther carefully between Arthur’s eyes, “don’t warn them first.”

And Merlin could do nothing but helplessly watch as the scarred face smiled, and Edwin pulled the trigger.

 


 

Click.

Edwin frowned.

Click. Click.

“What…” he turned the Walther over in his hand, confused as to why it refused to fire. “What kind of sodding piece of shite is this!?”

Arthur closed his eyes, inwardly fighting the crushing wave of relief as he thanked every star in the sky that Merlin had had the forethought to modify his gun. Of course, there was also slight bitter irritation that he know owed his life twice-over to Merlin. 

Bloody genius.

But that was the least of his problems right now. With another muttered oath, Edwin tossed the Walther away and, with one final, long look at Arthur, turned tail and ran.

Shit.

His father’s words echoed through his head; “this is our only lead. Don’t lose him.”

Arthur scrambled to his feet, hissing as the flames licked up his suit. The fire seemed to have a life of its own, swelling and bending towards him as though hell-bent on reducing him to ash. He recoiled as one of the wooden beams from the ceiling groaned and crashed to the floor inches in front of him, ablaze and spitting molten fire. Whatever this was; it wasn’t natural.

“Q?” Arthur spat through gritted teeth. “Edwin—”

“Already on it, 007.” Merlin said crisply, although Arthur could hear a hint of strain in his usually calm voice. “I’m tracking him as we speak. Meanwhile, focus on not burning alive, would you?”

“Your concern is touching,” he said absently, cursing as another wooden beam crashed down. “Did you see that?”

A pause. “See what?” 

“Merlin, what Edwin did—”

Later.” Merlin’s tone gave no room for argument. “Here, this should help.”

A moment later, the fire sprinkler systems seemed to explode into life and a mist of water rained down upon his head. Arthur didn’t wait, vaulting over the stubborn flames that refused to die and bursting out the door in a flying sprint.

“Which way?” He demanded. 

“Straight across the ballroom. Through the double doors.” A pause. “Edwin’s just called his car.”

“Try and delay him.”

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

 “I don’t know!” he growled. “Use your imagination!”

Arthur flew by the other guests, crashing straight past a waiter and sending glasses catapulting in the air. He didn’t stop, didn’t even stumble as angry voices erupted behind him. He slammed straight through the double doors, eyes falling immediately on Edwin.

The man was shouting in Italian at the bottom of the steps, gesturing wildly to the delivery van that that blocked the road. 

“I don’t care if it’s urgent,” he snarled. “Get the fuck out of the way!”

At which point a gunshot cracked through the air, and Edwin howled, cradling his right hand in his left. Someone screamed. Arthur glared at him down the sights of the Walther, ignoring the panicked guests scattering around him.

“Step away from the car, Edwin,” Arthur ordered. 

Edwin’s eyes flew to the source, and the hatred in them could have incinerated Arthur where he stood.

Pendragon,” Edwin growled, and it sounded like a curse in his mouth. “You’ll pay for this — you and your father both. Mark my words.”

Sirens were wailing in the distance, and Arthur glanced round pointedly at the chaos. “Actually, it seems we’re all out of time for revenge.” He said in clipped tones. “This is your last warning: step away from the car.”

“Burn in hell!” Edwin spat.

After that, three things happened simultaneously. Arthur fired, Edwin’s eyes flashed a burnt orange, and before Arthur could so much as take a step forwards to see why the fuck his bullet had somehow missed its mark, the man started chanting frantically, almost like he was praying — low, guttural sounds that raked upon Arthur’s ears. Voice rising with increasing fervour, Edwin let loose a final cry that timed almost exactly with a wave of invisible force that exploded through the air, like the aftershock of a grenade — only there was no grenade — tossing him and everyone in a fifty-foot radius all through the air like rag-dolls. 

Arthur must have blacked out, for when he awoke he was lying on the ground, ears ringing, his head throbbing, and Edwin was nowhere to be found. 

Arthur swore.

 


 

“He just tossed us all aside like we were nothing.”

Merlin watched Arthur pacing furiously back and forth from where he was sitting on the corner of his desk, following Arthur’s progress like a tennis match. 

“Yeah, I know,” Merlin said carefully. “I was sort of watching the whole thing.”

“And the fire! He just waved his hand and it… appeared!”

“Again, I was watching.”

Arthur slammed his foot into a nearby wall. He did it again. “How did he do that?”

“Advanced weaponry?” Merlin offered weakly.

“You think that,” Arthur jabbed a finger at the paused footage on Merlin’s laptop, “was a result of ‘advanced weaponry’?”

“I don’t know what I think!” Merlin snapped. “All I know is that for whatever reason, Edwin escaped. And we have no clue where he might have gone. Don’t you think that’s the more pressing concern right now?”

Arthur gaped at him. “You saw it!” he exclaimed. “You saw him conjure fire from thin air, send us all flying with a few words like some sort of twisted Matrix reenactment. And you think that’s not a pressing concern?

Merlin could feel his heart thudding in his ears, his mother’s last words echoing in time with the heightened beats. No one can ever know — do you understand, Merlin? No matter what happens, no one can know.

“All I saw was a man say a code word, and take credit for the result,” Merlin said with a calm he wasn’t feeling. “He had your attention right where he wanted it — it was all just mirrors and subterfuge from there. It was a trick, Arthur. We know Sigan was investing in new battlefield technology. Now we have proof.”

The lie rolled easily off his tongue.

“Technology,” Arthur repeated blankly. 

Merlin crossed his arms, mostly to hide the tremor in his hands. “Well?” he prompted, a defiant challenge in his eyes. “What would you have said it was, then?”

Arthur opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His eyes darted to Merlin’s — full of disbelief and denial and a helpless sort of confusion that came from seeing something you couldn’t explain. He looked stranded, as though everything he thought he knew was suddenly being put to doubt.

Looking at him, Merlin felt lightheaded and heavy all at once. He could almost hear the unspoken ‘magic’ that hovered tauntingly in the air, feel lie after lie dancing at his lips. 

“I don’t know what I saw,” Arthur said at last, and it sounded almost as though he was giving up. “I mean, I do, but…” he exhaled frustratedly. “I can’t make any sense of it.”

Merlin didn’t say anything, not trusting his voice not to give him away. 

He felt Arthur’s eyes on him, watchful, considering, and forced himself not to flinch or look up or run away screaming like every instinct was begging him to, certain that any moment Arthur would leap up and exclaim aha! so you do know something!

“You did a good job, back there,” Arthur said quietly, and the words were so unexpected Merlin’s head snapped up. “There are times, on the comms, where you… when you display a sort of..I don't know...I don't want to say...it's not wisdom...but yes.” He said in sudden realisation, “That's what it is.”

Merlin blinked. “I…thanks?”

“Oh don’t look so pleased. You’re a complete prat the rest of the time.”

Merlin’s lips twitched. It was something Arthur did a lot — take some irritating personality quirk of his own and turn it into a compliment to him whilst simultaneously making it sound like an insult. He was never quite sure whether to be flattered or offended.

“So what now?” He asked.

“Now?” Arthur echoed.

“Well. Edwin’s gone, and we’re no closer to Sigan than before, only now he’ll be actively running in the other direction.” He summed up, “we’ve got nothing to go on, and no leads left.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say we had nothing to go on…” Arthur mused, and withdrew from his inner pocket a familiar shape.

Merlin stared. “Is that…Edwin’s mobile?”

Arthur smirked, tossing it lightly to Merlin, who caught it reverently. “See if that ridiculous brain of yours can deduce anything from its contents.”

If Merlin didn't know better, he could have said Arthur sounded almost fond.

“But when did you…I didn’t even see…”

“Like you said, it’s just a trick. Mirrors and subterfuge.” Arthur smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. He shrugged. “I’ve got about five of M’s security cards in my flat. I pickpocket him when he’s annoying.”

Merlin snorted despite himself.

“So? Can you get into the phone?”

Merlin grinned like a boy on Christmas morning. “Let’s find out.”

Swinging across to his desk, Merlin connected the mobile to his laptop and began tapping in a few commands, pausing every now and again to look at the phone, which had lit up.

“Interesting,” Merlin murmured to himself.

“What is?”

Merlin glanced round at him distractedly, as though only just remembering Arthur was still there. “Edwin’s upped the security. He’s established fail-safe protocols to wipe the memory if there’s any attempt to access certain files.” Merlin looked begrudgingly impressed, “Only about six people in the world could program safe-guards like that.”

Arthur just looked at him. “Can you get past them?” he asked.

Merlin’s lips curled into a smirk. I invented them,” he replied dryly, turning back to his laptop. “Give me two minutes.”

And if Arthur’s gaze lingered perhaps just a second too long, if Merlin’s hands didn’t actually touch the keyboard at all for almost a minute because he had accidentally locked eyes with Arthur’s reflection in the monitors, if the space between them suddenly seemed tantalisingly close  —

Well. That didn’t mean anything at all.

 


 

It was well into the night — or maybe it was morning, Merlin wasn’t sure — when Arthur finally left. Merlin let his hands still on the keyboard, straining to hear the doors closing before turning to check Arthur had really gone. Nothing.

Slumping in relief, Merlin let his head fall into his hands, the act of blasé indifference crumbling away like paint.

Fuck.

This mission had suddenly become a hell of a lot more complicated.

It didn’t matter that Merlin had turned his back on that part of him a long time ago, had learnt to suppress that well inside of him that thrummed with something other, had virtually erased any trace of magic from his past so no one but Kilgharrah (who he couldn’t do anything about) and Gaius (who he trusted with his life) knew about him.

None of that would matter if MI6 was going to start going up against sorcerers. 

Merlin’s eyes flickered to his laptop, where the video footage of Arthur’s latest mission was still open in the corner. He didn’t need to watch it again; he already had the entire thing memorised.

Forbærne yfel’ — Merlin mouthed the words silently, rolling his tongue around the unfamiliar syllables.

There were few people alive who still knew the dialect of the Old Religion, and fewer still who practised it. Merlin never had the chance to learn the language, but a part of him shivered with recognition at the sound of it. Even mouthing the words sent a thrumming warmth coursing through his veins, a subconscious recollection right at his core that simultaneously felt like falling into an abyss and coming home.

He’d told Arthur it was gibberish, a code word to signal to an accomplice.

It was more believable than telling him it was a spell, anyhow. That it was magic.

And if Sigan had sorcerers on his payroll — and powerful ones at that, going by Edwin’s abilities — god knows what sort of ‘experimental weapons’ he had been developing. Magic in the hands of the most dangerous arms dealer of their time.

The genius part was, no one even knew about it. To the majority of the world, magic was a myth, nothing more than a special effect in movies. It was the perfect weapon, for it was the perfect secret.

But of course, it was only a matter of time before the ruse of ‘technology’ fell flat. The gloves would come off, and MI6 would find itself ridiculously, hopelessly outgunned. 

Merlin lifted his head, eyes falling on his mobile. After a moment, he picked it up and dialled a number from memory, realising belatedly it was only four in the morning.

It rang once, twice.

“Merlin?” Gaius’s voice sounded groggy and rough. “What—”

“Gaius.” Merlin cut in. “Can you come in? It’s important.”

“What’s wrong?” Just like that, Gaius was immediately alert. “Is everything alright?”

Merlin had to repress a sudden lurch of hysteria - Well, aside from the fact the agent I was monitoring just went through the rounds with a sorcerer, got his arse handed to him with a magic that doesn't officially exist, and now looks to me to provide all the answers, I would say that everything is rosy, yeah.

“You remember that thing you told me never to speak about?” he said, deliberately obscure to anyone who might be listening in.

Merlin thought he heard a sharp intake of breath from across the line.

“Of course,” Gaius replied carefully. “But Merlin, what—”

Merlin looked at the paused video footage, at Edwin’s eyes glowing a burnt amber, at the shocked disbelief on Arthur’s face as he was flung through the air.

And when Merlin spoke again, his voice was grim:

“We have a fucking problem.”

 

Chapter Text

Gaius didn’t speak for a long time after Merlin finished explaining. He’d watched the footage of Arthur’s mission twice in silence, and each time his eyebrows rose higher. 

“You’re sure?” he said at last to Merlin.

“It was magic Gaius, I know it.”

Gaius sighed, a troubled look crossing his face. “What did Arthur think of it all? You didn’t…”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Of course not. I do possess some discretion. Besides; even if I had told him he wouldn’t have believed me.”

“I think you underestimate the power of seeing something with your own eyes. First-hand evidence is hard to deny.”

“Hmm.” Merlin shrugged noncommittally. “I told him it was advanced weaponry.”

Gaius snorted despite himself. “I suppose it is, in a way. An advanced form of attack.”

Merlin’s lips curved in response. They looked at the paused footage for a moment, lost in thought.

“You don’t think I…” He cleared his throat. “You don’t think I should have told him, do you?” Merlin said quietly.

That earned him a startled look.

“Good heavens, no,” Gaius admonished. “Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve taught you?”

“Well I wouldn’t tell him about me, obviously…”

“No,” he said firmly. “It’s safer if no one knows about this.”

“Safer for whom?” Merlin challenged, voicing the guilt that had been nagging at him ever since he’d lied to Arthur’s face. “For Arthur? Surely if he’s going to be fighting sorcerers, he has a right to know.”

“Safer for you, Merlin!” Gaius exclaimed with a rare fierceness. “If you’re right, and our opposition is recruiting sorcerers, magic will be treated with more fear and suspicion than ever before. And that paints one hell of a target on your back.”

Merlin made a small sound of irony. “Gaius, I already have a target on my back. I made that choice when I ran from the Guild long ago. And, as Arthur helpfully reminds me daily, I’m already treated with my fair share of suspicion thanks to Ealdor.” He waved a hand dismissively. “‘Safety’ isn’t exactly a priority right now.”

“Well it should be!” Gaius’s voice was a stern crack of anger, the closest he ever got to shouting. “Have you really so little regard for your own life that you would throw it away so carelessly? After everything I’ve done to keep you safe?”

The words cut into him like physical blows. Merlin whipped round, his lips parted in a slack ‘oh’ shape.

His eyes tightened. “Gaius, I didn’t mean - you know I would never…” Merlin stopped, running an agitated hand through his hair. His shoulders slumped a little. "You know I think of you like a father.”

Just like that, Gaius’s stern exterior crumbled away. His eyes softened. “I know Merlin, and I you a son. Which is why I cannot allow you to be so blasé about all this. Your magic is a secret you should protect with your life.”

“And Arthur’s life?” Merlin asked softly. “Ehat about him? I was standing there last night with all the technology in the world at my fingertips, and I could do nothing but watch when Edwin attacked. Am I supposed to just sit here and turn a blind eye?”

A long moment of silence weighed down heavily upon them, interspersed with the occasional beep from Merlin’s laptop as it continued to hack into Edwin’s phone. Over the skyline of London, Merlin could just about see the beginnings of dawn begin to creep across the sky. The city was still, and sleeping, blissfully unaware. 

In the end, Gaius just sighed. “I don’t have an easy answer for you, Merlin. Helping people is as much a part of you as magic is — you need only look at the day we met for proof of that. I would never demand you hide who you truly are.”

Merlin cocked an eyebrow. “I’m sensing a whopping great ‘but’ about to follow…”

That earned him a withering look.

But,” Gaius emphasised. He paused, as though he was choosing his words carefully. “Just remember. You ran from Kilgharrah because you believed that if the world found out what you could do, they'd reject you... out of fear. Because you were so sure that it wasn’t the right time, that the world was not ready. Because the mere thought of being known, truly and unequivocally, terrified you like nothing else. You were so sure, you were willing to leave behind everything you had ever known.”

Merlin thought on this for a moment. “Is that a cryptic way of saying ‘no way in hell’?”

“It’s a gentle way of saying ‘don’t do anything rash’.” Gaius countered diplomatically, “or irresponsible, for that matter.”

Merlin looked offended. “When have I ever done anything rash or irresponsible?”

“I keep a list. It's alphabetised.”

Merlin snorted. “Alright, but no promises,” he said. “I can hardly stop Arthur from going gallivanting off after sorcerers the moment he gets over nursing his bruised ego.”

“No,” Gaius allowed, hiding a smile. “But perhaps you can stop him getting himself killed in the process.”

“You say that like it’s easy.” Merlin flounced into his chair with a dramatic sigh. “Arthur doesn’t listen to anyone, least of all me.” He pouted. “And he lost the Walther I gave him. It was a prototype! Do you have any idea how long it took me to modify that?”

“Better part of an hour, I’d guess.” Gaius said absently.

“—An entire forty three minutes! and that’s not even—” Merlin stopped, registering what Gaius had just said. “Oh, well, yeah. I suppose it didn’t take that long.” He shook himself. “But that’s not the point; my time is valuable.”

“You spent two hours yesterday riding up and down the escalators catching Pokemon with Gwaine.” Gaius pointed out.

Whilst decoding enough evidence to break up that drugs smuggling ring in Mexico and catching the perpetrators.” 

Gaius crossed his arms. “The CIA arrested those men.”

“Yes,” Merlin agreed, a smirk playing at his lips. “But who tipped them off?”

The eyebrow of doom seemed dangerously close to rising again, and Merlin quickly amended.

“Relax. It was anonymous, obviously.”

Gaius pinched his nose, as though maintaining an incredible patience. “The American secret service aren’t completely useless you know, they have ways of tracking virtual presences. Even yours.”

A snort. “I’d like to see them try.” Merlin put his feet up onto the desk and crossed his ankles. “The Pentagon still haven’t worked out how someone hacked into their systems, and I was fifteen.”

You…?” It said a lot about their relationship that Gaius hardly seemed surprised. He shook his head, sending Merlin a look that was probably meant to be disapproving but just ended up exasperatedly fond. “I did always wonder why you suddenly became all twitchy for a few days. You would have warned me before any of the SAS dropped by wouldn’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Merlin dismissively. “I’d have created a false IP and scrambled their communications long before they traced it within a hundred miles of us. In fact, I believe up until now the Pentagon has been under the impression I was a middle-aged writer of erotic gay porn from Singapore.”

Gaius’s lips twitched. “Comforting.” 

“Not if you’re a middle-aged writer of erotic gay porn from Singapore.”

The two looked at each other in all seriousness. Gauis’s lips pressed together. Merlin bit the inside of his cheek. Then a strange noise wheezed out through Gaius’s nose as he shook, and Merlin lost it completely, letting out an ungodly snort that had them both in fits. 

“What…on earth…” Gaius managed, “possessed you to disguise yourself as a writer of erotic gay porn?”

“I was fifteen!”

“And that makes it better?!”

Merlin gripped the desk as he continued to giggle uncontrollably, splashing his drink where he set it clumsily on the table and curling over on himself helplessly.

“I needed — something…they wouldn’t arrest some complete stranger because they matched the description…”

“You couldn’t have picked such a generic profile it could have been anyone? A Jane Doe or a John Smith?”

Merlin stilled mid-laugh, making a strange hiccupping sound. “I didn’t think of that.” 

Gaius half groaned, half laughed, and Merlin let out another snigger. 

“For all your genius Merlin, you really can be an idiot sometimes.” 

“Only sometimes?”

“Don’t push it.”

Merlin grinned. “I assure you; my erotic-porn writing days are over.”

“And the Pentagon?”

“Not sure they go in for that sort of thing.”

Gaius gave another hiccupped laugh. “No, Merlin. Are your Pentagon hacking days over?”

“Oh.” He smirked. “Ask John Smith.”

“The middle-aged writer of erotic porn?”

“The very same,” said Merlin very seriously. “Although I suppose, in fairness, it could also be ‘Jane Doe’. I’m already committing treason, no need to add gender discrimination to the mix.” 

That set them both off again.

“What the hell…”

Both Merlin and Gaius jumped as a new voice spoke. Merlin turned to find Lancelot standing in the doorway, looking a little bemused as his lips slowly curled in amusement.

His eyes shifted between them uncertainly. “I’ve missed something, haven’t I?”

Merlin looked at Gaius, and they both burst out laughing.

 


 

Meanwhile, around the back end of London in a bar he couldn’t remember the name of, Arthur signalled the bartender for another drink.

In some ways, Arthur Pendragon was surprisingly predictable. Routine and procedure had been drilled into him since he'd joined the cadets when he was nine, and then more so in his brief time with the military. Like every soldier, he had his own set of routines and traditions. 

For example, the night before a mission, he never slept. Arthur made a flask of wince-worthy-strong coffee, climbed out his window, and spent the early hours of the morning on the rooftop above his flat, cleaning his gun with a meticulous attention reserved only for the work (regardless of whether the weapon needed it or not) and watching the sun rise over his last dregs of caffeine. Company made him irritable, so he spent those nights alone. 

After a particularly gruelling mission or a harrowing kill, Arthur skipped debrief, went straight home and took a long shower. Nothing but the hot water pummelling over his head could make him feel human again. 

When a mission was a success, the final drive home after the double 0's met him at the airport would take a diversion to their preferred takeout, dropping his mangled suit off at the dry cleaners en route, and rounding up any and all other double 0's back to his flat for Indian or Chinese, or whatever the preference of whoever managed to wrestle the phone for long enough. Amongst greasy takeout and shite beer there would also be the obligatory ridiculous superhero movie which habitually broke the laws of physics, even a few (or many) rounds of black ops with the familiar complaints 'that was a perfectly valid manoeuvre' and 'come on, on what planet?' All nine double 0's would squeeze themselves onto Arthur's luxury sofa and yell profanities at the PS3 and laugh and drink and game like they weren't trained assassins, and Arthur would look at the greasy takeout littering his immaculate kitchen and the stink of beer and the sound of his friend's laughter filling the gaping emptiness in his flat, and think it was the best thing he'd ever seen. 

And on those very rare occasions Arthur failed an assignment, he skipped the offered ride home all together. The other double 0's had learnt by now not to try and track him down. They didn't know what he did or where he went, only that he always turned up the next morning with significantly more bruises than he had returned with and a raging hangover to match it. 

Those were the danger nights. 

The nights he was decidedly unpredictable, and it scared the shit out of anyone who knew him because no one knew just how far he'd go, whether he’d even want to come back.

And so found Arthur that very same evening he'd left Merlin cracking Edwin's phone, slipping out when it became clear Merlin had powered down into 'hacking mode' and wouldn't emerge anytime soon. He doubted the quartermaster had even noticed him leave. 

That lead him here: ordering his something-th-drink at some bar he couldn't remember finding and generally pissing everyone off in the mild hope they might chose to pick a fight with him. It wasn't going particularly well so far. He glared down at his drink as though it had personally offended him, his recent failure still fresh in his mind. Edwin's voice taunted him, a reminder brought on by the second degree burns up his arms. 

You spies, with all your guns and weapons and technology — none of that will matter soon. The end is coming, Arthur Pendragon, and it will come for us all. Only the strongest and the pure will survive, and we will burn you like you burnt us. 

Nonsense and melodrama. That's all it was. 

The fact that the room had gone up in literal flames moments later at the muttering of a few words didn't change a thing. 

Fuck. 

Arthur ran a hand roughly over his face, feeling exhaustion tug at his bones. 

He should really have gone straight back to his flat after talking with Q. He recognised an oncoming adrenaline crash when he saw one, and knew from experience he shouldn't be around people for the fallout. Instead he was here, drinking shite whisky and wondering when the hell it had all gone so wrong. 

In his minds eye, he saw himself pull the trigger like he had done a hundred times, and the bullet go mysteriously astray at a flash of Edwin's eyes just before he was thrown backwards. 

Arthur, as a rule, did not miss. He may not have Lance's affinity for sharp shooting, or Gwaine's knack of hitting his target without aiming, but he was the best for a reason. 

He didn't buckle under stress, or have an 'off day', or let the adrenaline get the better of him. 

And he did. not. miss

In one, jerking movement, Arthur downed the rest of his whisky, barely repressing a wince. 

God this shite was awful. 

The barman was eyeing him a little nervously, as though he expected Arthur to explode any moment. 

Smart man. 

Then again, with his singed Kiton suit, ash-smeared face and bloodshot eyes, Arthur imagined he looked a state. It wasn't exactly surprising he was getting the odd look. He briefly entertained the notion of jumping up and shouting HA! just to see what the barman would do. 

Instead, Arthur tossed some notes on the bar and stood, scraping his stool with a painful screech against the wooden floor. Some of the other patrons shot him ugly looks, which he met unflinchingly, all but daring them to say something. 

Go on, give me a reason. You know you want to. Just give me an excuse.

Maybe there was something in his eyes, something piercingly sharp despite the dubious amounts of alcohol he'd drunk, something untamed and quietly dangerous that gave him away, that he was usually more careful to hide. Maybe the brutes he stared down simply weren't drunk, or territorial, enough. 

Either way, Arthur was disappointed. He stalked out without confrontation, pausing outside to gulp in the cool night air. 

We will watch you burn like you burnt us.

The words nagged at him. It was an odd turn of phrase, particularly as Arthur wasn't exactly sure who 'us' referred to, let alone what he'd done to warrant such hatred. 

"Hey you."

Arthur was used to revenge. In his line of work, he made a lot of enemies, most of whom weren't likely to let past transgressions slide. 

Revenge coming from someone he'd never met before however; that one was new. 

"Hey, yeah you."

Like you burnt us. 

'You' the plural, or 'you' in particular? 'You' as in MI6? England? Spies in general?

"Oi, posh boy!"

Arthur blinked, turning to see three of the brutes from inside the bar had emerged, smelling of alcohol and eyeing him up with a familiar hostility. Finally

Arthur raised an imperious eyebrow. "Gentlemen. A simple excuse me would have sufficed."

He coloured his accent deliberately, letting an upper class lilt bleed through. It was engineered to subconsciously emphasise the social rift between them, make them feel all the more inadequate and trigger their pride-anger-dominance sides which so often lead to the most delicious fights. Going by the scarlet flush on their cheeks, the move had paid off. 

"You think you can walk in here like that and talk shit to us and we'd do nothing?" The first demanded. "Who the fuck d'you think you are?"

Arthur let his gaze scan them lazily up and down. "I don't 'think' anything," he replied. "That would imply a degree of uncertainty."

"That ain't an answer."

"Well, if you wanted clarity, you shouldn't ask rhetorical questions"

Brute #1 looked just about ready to strangle him. "Now look here, posh boy, your money don't protect you round 'ere-"

"Doesn't."

"You what?"

Arthur gave a long suffering sigh. "'Your money doesn't protect you round here'. If you're going to threaten me, do it properly. And in any case," Arthur eyed them up and down again, "forgive me, but I don't see much reason to warrant needing protection."

Brute #2 spat on the ground. "Come on then, faggot. Let's see what you've got."

A hint of a smirk played at Arthur's lips, dangerous and predatory, and he let just a flicker of it show — just enough to make them a little nervous. The men faltered slightly, then looked about in confusion. Human instincts ran deep, and even if they didn’t see Arthur for what he was — death and charm all rolled into one, lethal powerhouse — long buried primitive instincts would still register the simmering vibes he gave off on a subconscious level. Arthur’s smirk widened. This was going to be fun. 

He took a prowling step forward. The brute opposite him rolled up his sleeves. 

ding ding

The tritone text alert buzzed from his pocket, obnoxiously loud in the terse silence. Arthur paused. Ignored it. 

He took another step forward. 

ding ding

Oh for god’s sake. Who would be texting him at four in the morning?

With a small sound of frustration, Arthur held up a one moment hand and turned away from the brute's incredulous expression to reach for his mobile. There were two text messages from an unknown number.

'Accessed Edwin’s contacts and emails from his mobile, accounts decrypting right now. We'll have him in an hour. Nice job - Q'

Arthur stared at it for a moment, and the other message popped up before he could put it away.

'Oh, and you should probably get those burns on your arms seen to.'

A flicker of disbelief and indignation, mixed in with a begrudging surprise Merlin had even noticed the injuries he took such effort to conceal. It was no secret in MI6 that Arthur periodically avoided the med bay like the plague.

Arthur found himself replying before he could think to reconsider.

'How did you get this number? - A’

The reply came back lightning fast. 

'I'm a hacker. Take a wild guess.’

'This is my private number.'

'And?'

Even over text, Arthur could almost hear Merlin's flippant tones in that one word.

'It doesn't exist.' He sent.  

'I'm a very good hacker'

Arthur snorted in disbelief, forgetting for a moment the three men were still there. At their bewildered shared looks he slipped his phone back into his pocket. 

Or at least, he started to, until it buzzed again and Arthur looked at the screen before he could stop himself.

'You should still get those burns seen to.’

Busy.’ Arthur's fingers jabbed at the send key. 

'I'll report you invalid for field work’ Merlin’s reply buzzed a millisecond later.

Bastard, Arthur thought with some bemusement, slightly unnerved at how well Merlin had him twigged over so short a time. 

He typed out a second message, the men opposite him all but forgotten. 

'How do you know I haven't had them looked at already?'

'You forget I have access to your medical records.'

'Maybe I went to a practise outside of MI6'

'Lie.' The reply was instant. 

Arthur raised an eyebrow as he typed, honestly curious. 

'What makes you so sure?'

Again, the reply was so fast Arthur had trouble believing Merlin was typing at all. 

'You trust about two people with your coffee . You're not about to let some stranger patch you up.'

Arthur grudgingly admitted he had a point. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the three guys muttering to one another, getting more and more confused and indignant when Arthur continued to give his attention to his phone. Arthur wasn't quite sure himself why he was favouring arguing with his infuriating quartermaster over indulging in a good brawl. He tried not to think on it too much as he typed out another message.

'Maybe I did it myself.'

'Lie.' Merlin sent again. This time another response followed immediately. 'Unless taking on three guys outside a bar is considered self remedying.'

Arthur felt a flicker of irritation, and glanced up instinctively to search for the CCTV camera Merlin must had hacked. Upon finding none, he frowned.

'What, you're stalking me now?' He sent. 

'It's my job to keep you alive.’

'Yes. On missions. It's not your job to babysit me on my free time.'

'No. That I do as a hobby’.

Arthur growled in frustration. 

"OI, are we keeping you from something?" One of the brutes called at last. 

Arthur spared them an unimpressed glance, his previous pumping desire to punch someone in the face strangely vacant. Somehow, knowing Merlin was on the other side of his mobile, quite probably watching him right now, made the whole idea seem less appealing. As though he didn't want Merlin to see him like that. As though he actually cared what Merlin thought of him. Ridiculous. 

"As a matter of a fact, yes you are." He said at last. "Sorry fellas, maybe another time. I've got better things to do than introduce your faces to the pavement tonight.”

He saw the disbelief on their faces.

"That's right, run away back to your bodyguards," brute #3 jeered, obviously trying to rile him. "Run back to daddy. I should have known. Take away your money and your fancy words and you're just a fucking coward."

He spat on the ground. 

Arthur looked at him for a moment. Then, with an age-old sigh, he stepped forward and punched brute #3 in the face in one, explosive movement. Arthur only remembered to pull his punch just in time. The man's head snapped back, and he crumpled like a sack of bricks.

Silence. 

Arthur glanced up at the other two, and raised a single eyebrow. 

With something suspiciously resembling a squeal, they scarpered back into the pub. Arthur stifled a grin. 

He was just finishing dragging the unconscious man to the door of the pub when his phone buzzed again. 

'Tad unnecessary, don't you think?' Merlin wrote. 

Arthur rolled his eyes.

'We really need to have a talk about this stalking thing.'

'Do I need to send a cleanup crew?'

'It was one punch. Hardly a security leak.'

'With you, 007, I've learned not to take any chances'

A hint of a smile curved Arthur's lips.

'I'm flattered’ he typed.

'Don't be.’

He stifled a snort. 

Now that he was alone, the last remnants of adrenaline and tension seemed to dissipate, and Arthur breathed in the night air, cool and crisp.

Above him, the clouds shifted and Arthur caught a rare, undulated glimpse of the night sky — a window of darkest blue, almost black, scattered with tiny pinpoints of speckled starlight. Tilting his head back, he widened his gaze until the sky took over his entire vision from peripheral to centre, knowing he probably looked utterly ridiculous and doing it anyway.

And looking up, Arthur felt that familiar dizzying rush that humans had encountered for centuries upon gazing on the infinite. Maybe it was the exhaustion, or the alcohol; but in that moment, Arthur found it easy to believe that if such a implausible cosmological coincidence could mean he was standing here, on this earth, gazing at the phenomenon of the universe, then perhaps the thought that a man could conjure flames from a whispered word wasn’t entirely implausible either. That if humanity could evolve from a kickstarted-cocktail of amino acids, maybe they could evolve into something more. 

Or maybe he was just drunk.

The buzz of his phone in his hand brought Arthur’s musings crashing back to reality. He blinked at the message on the screen.

Edwin’s phone finished decrypting. Come if convenient.’

A second message followed almost immediately after.

‘If inconvenient, come anyway.’

Unbidden, Arthur felt a smile tug at his lips. Casting a final look at the sky, he pocketed his mobile and set off walking, trying ardently to convince himself that the light, warm feeling that currently infused him as opposed to the hollow weight that usually greeted him post-mission had absolutely nothing to do with the infuriating Quartermaster on the other side of his phone.

And by the time Arthur reached MI6 HQ, he almost believed it. 

 


 

Merlin didn’t even turn away from his laptop as the automatic door to Q-branch swung open behind him.

“Come in, 007.” He called, making both Gaius and Lance start beside him.

The familiar, droll voice answered. “Q,” Arthur greeted. “How did you know it was me?”

“Obvious.” Merlin span round on his chair. He paused, and his eyebrow quirked as he took in Arthur’s appearance. “You look like shit.”

It was only partially a lie. Inwardly, Merlin thought Arthur looked annoyingly perfect for someone who’d been grappling a sorcerer only a few hours ago, but he was hardly going to voice that out loud.

Arthur obviously hadn’t changed yet since the op, and his suit was charred and torn. There was ash in his hair and a smear of dirt on his cheek, something Merlin suddenly had the absurd urge to sweep away with his thumb. His eyes were a little brighter than usual, probably down to the alcohol, but his gaze was no less sharp. The edges of his cuffs just covered the burns that Merlin knew stretched up his arms.

It was a stark contrast to his usual, carefully composed appearance, and Merlin thought it only made him seem that much more annoyingly attractive. It didn’t seem fair that Arthur could get punched, set on fire, blown up, and knocked out, and still look like he’d stepped off the cover of Vogue. Then again, Arthur would probably look great in an old sack. Or nothing at all, his traitorous thoughts continued.

“Astounding observation,” drawled Arthur, snapping him out of it. “Really what would we do without you, Merlin, to point out the obvious?”

Gaius coughed to hide a snort. Merlin whirled round to glare at him.

“Exactly who’s side are you on?”

Arthur smirked. “Oh don’t blame Gaius, he can’t help my rapier wit and charming personality.”

“I’ll tell you where to stick your rapier wit…” Merlin muttered.

Meanwhile, to say Lance was surprised at Arthur’s entrance was an understatement. 

“Arthur?” Lance blurted, looking mildly shellshocked. “What…what are you doing here?”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “I work here.”

“But…your mission was last night…and you missed the car at the airport…”

Arthur and Merlin exchanged an odd look.

“Yes.” Arthur agreed slowly. “And?”

Lance was still looking bemused. “You never come back to HQ after a mission.”

“Of course I do.”

“No…you don’t.”

Merlin found himself wondering at the strange expression that passed across Arthur’s face, and the unreadable look that was sent his way. 

“Yes, well,” Arthur cleared his throat. “I’m here now. Might as well get on with it. Merlin?”

“Oh, right yeah.”

Spinning back to his desk, Merlin made a peculiar gesture with his hand, and his desk turned into what seemed to be a massive interactive surface. He placed Edwin’s phone in the centre, and the table pulsed, streaks of light and code branching out from it as the phone was scanned.

“Bring up all files on Edwin Muirden,” Merlin said to no one in particular. 

“Retrieving files,” an automated voice replied.

Arthur struggled not to look impressed as the table filled with information at Merlin’s command.

Beside them, Gaius was less reserved. “You added a voice recognition interface?” he said.

Merlin shrugged. “Figured it’d be nice to have someone who actually listened to my orders for once.”

Gaius hid a smile.

Arthur huffed impatiently. “Yes, Merlin, very clever. Any time you want to start explaining what you’ve found?”

Merlin sent him a look, one that was becoming increasingly infamous in MI6 for its uncanny ability to reduce trained men and women who had no problem whatsoever keeping calm under brutal interrogation into a quailing mess. To Arthur, he could almost hear the visible manifestation of prat as though Merlin had said it out loud.

“Well, I could tell you about the inordinate amounts of money transferred anonymously into Edwin’s account every month, or the millions of pounds worth of weaponry he’s smuggling across the American border, but that’s old news.” Merlin pulled up a string of what seemed to be emails fro the phone. “What I can tell you, is that from Edwin’s recent phone calls and messages, we can gather that his main contacts are based in Chicago, most notably a man referred to as ‘the Witchfinder’, who Edwin periodically sent information to.”

“Witchfinder?” Arthur repeated dubiously.

“A code name, obviously,” Merlin said quickly. “From what Edwin was implying in Rome, I believe he’s the next link in the chain of Sigan’s network. That’s a possible lead to follow up. What’s more interesting, however, was the other recent contact in Edwin’s phonebook.”

Merlin pinched one of the images on the table, and carelessly tossed it to one of the monitors where it appeared in large. Both Gaius and Arthur made a small sound of recognition.

“Olaf,” Arthur exclaimed, surprised. 

“You know him?” Lance said.

“He’s the head of the DGSE — French secret service,” Arthur said absently, a slight frown on his face. “Our paths have crossed before.”

“What’s the French secret service doing with an arms dealer?”

“That,” said Merlin, “is a very good question.” He turned to Arthur. “What do you say, 007, fancy a little tête-à-tête with an old friend?”

“Old friend, maybe, but Olaf’s hardly going to agree to meet me for une pinte de blonde at the local bar,” Arthur said a little dryly. “in case you don’t remember, my last visit to Paris didn’t exactly end well.”

Merlin grimaced, remembering the disaster of a mission where he’d taken over from George. The French weren’t likely to forget something like that in a hurry.

“He’d be unlikely to agree to a meeting full stop,” Gaius pointed out. “Olaf’s smart, and he’s paranoid. You’d be lucky to get a few minutes with him alone.”

“You’d only need a few minutes,” Merlin said thoughtfully. “Well if you can’t get him to come to you, you’ll have to go to him.”

“I can’t just walk in to the French secret service,” Arthur protested.

“So break in.” Merlin shrugged. “You’re a spy, aren’t you? Can’t you just…” he waved his hand vaguely as if to encompass all things spy-like, “…flirt with the secretary or something?”

“Sure, okay, great idea.” Arthur said sarcastically. “Now I only have to get past their security systems, a stubborn ex-spy who’d quite happily string me up by my ankles, and a whole building of trained killers. That’s a great plan.”

“What if…” Merlin cleared his throat hesitantly. “What if I came with you?”

Gaius sent him an incredulous look, but Arthur barely noticed.

He stilled, sure that he’d misheard. “What?”

“You say you’d only need minutes alone with him? I can give you those minutes.” Merlin stood, blue eyes strangely bright. “On site, I can crack their systems and get you in far more effectively. Hell, give me access to one of their computers, and I could bring the whole place down. It’d be child’s play.”

“Absolutely not.” Arthur said sharply.

“Arthur—”

“No.” The words were rushing out without thought, and all Arthur could see was the chaos and noise and blood and red-haze of the field, of the bullets flying around you, each one death just an misstep away, of looking into a man’s eyes and seeing the terrifyingly cold intent, knowing without a doubt he would kill you, unless you killed him first.

Arthur looked at Merlin, with his ridiculous neckerchief and blinding smile and clumsy limbs that never seemed to move in tandem, and knew he didn’t want Merlin anywhere near that.

He glared at Merlin. “You don’t have the training to operate on the field, and you’ll only get yourself killed.”

“I’ll be hacking a computer, not waving a gun around,” Merlin said impatiently. “I’ll be perfectly safe.”

Arthur fought the urge to throw something.

“Oh? And what about the hundreds of agents still in the building?” Arthur challenged. “What are you going to do, throw a keyboard at them?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Lance can cover me.”

Lance blinked. “I will?” Merlin shot him a look. “I mean, yes! I will. What he said.”

Arthur was still glaring at him stonily, unmoved. “And me?” he said. “Exactly how are you going to clear me a path through hundreds of assassins from your laptop?”

I won’t.” Merlin shot back. “Gwaine, Leon, Percival, Owaine…they’ll be creating a distraction whilst I guide you to Olaf.”

“Oh fantastic, they’re coming too are they?” Arthur exclaimed. “Next Valiant will be posing as our getaway driver, and you’ll have the minions fetching us all tea. Will Gwen and Morgana be accompanying us as well? Might as well invite the rest of MI6 whilst you’re at it.”

Merlin growled with frustration. “It’s not a crime to accept help, you know.”

“And why can’t you help from here? You seemed to hack their system just fine last time.”

“Yes, opening fire doors and piggybacking CCTV cameras,” Merlin said shortly. “It’s a completely different system. Believe it or not, hacking a secret service takes a tad bit more effort than opening a black-screened program on any old computer and typing in a few green lines of code. Movies have lied to you. I need direct access, or you’re not getting in anywhere.”

Arthur’s eyes bore into Merlin’s, fierce and uncompromising, gaze lingering just a second too long. The silence stretched on, and both Lancelot and Gaius shifted awkwardly when neither of them looked away. 

“You know I’m right,” Merlin said softly when Arthur didn’t say anything. “You know it makes sense.”

Arthur’s eyes roamed over Merlin’s face, tight and unreadable. His lips pressed into a thin line.

“You’re not going, and that’s final.” He said firmly. 

 


 

Twelve hours later, Arthur was glowering at the rain-splattered windscreen. 

“Come on, Merlin!” Lance yelled. “We haven’t got all day!”

Behind him, Arthur heard Merlin scrambling into the back of the Jeep they’d hijacked on the French border to slide in next to Gwaine, miraculously managing not to fall flat on his face as he did so.  

“What the hell took you so long?” Arthur called back shortly. In the reflection on the windscreen, a wink of light glancing off something metal caught his eye. He jerked his head to the side. “What’s all that?”

Merlin simply continued securing the odd assortment of tech cradled in his arms, and buckled his belt. “You’ll thank me later,” he said unhelpfully, with a small smirk. He nodded to each of the double 0s, pointedly ignoring Arthur. “Shall we?”

Arthur’s jaw clenched, and he turned the key in the ignition, trying to shut out the warm welcome Merlin was receiving in his wake. He pushed aside the pang of hurt of the double 0’s who had momentarily taken Merlin’s side back at HQ. And he definitely ignored the guilty twist in his gut at the look Merlin had sent him when he’d caught Arthur not ten minutes before trying to leave without him, yelling at the other double 0’s to hurry up goddammit — ignored the cold accusation in Merlin’s eyes and the uncharacteristic downward twist to his mouth.

Merlin had no place on the field. He wasn’t trained for it, he had no experience, and he was only going to get them all killed. Hell, he shouldn’t even be out of London. 

Instead he was here, crammed in the back of Jeep on the outskirts of Paris as Arthur drove towards the DGSE’s external base, talking and laughing with the other double 0’s whilst typing furiously on the laptop propped on his lap. 

Arthur definitely did not hurtle round any of the corners with more violence than necessary to try and dislodge the precariously balanced computer. Nor did he slam his foot on the brakes in an attempt to wipe that stupid smile off Merlin’s face.

From Leon’s pointed glance, he wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding his intentions.

Arthur gritted his teeth as Percival roared at something Merlin said, one of his booming laughs that few could tease out of him.

Naturally, all of the double 0’s had leapt up when Merlin had proposed the idea, bemoaning how long it had been since they had all done an op together and grinning at the Quartermaster like he had just had Christmas moved forward. When Merlin had included that he himself was coming too, they hadn’t hesitated, welcoming him with open arms.

In his desperation, Arthur had turned to Uther, who if anything was even less helpful.

“The boy needs to be tested, and here is an ample opportunity. Don’t look at me like that, Arthur, if he proves disloyal, I’m sure another casualty caught in the crossfire won’t go amiss.”

It had taken every ounce of willpower Arthur had not to punch his father there and then. The question of Merlin’s loyalty was the last thing he was worried about, and his father was blind not to see it.

In the end, he’d gone to Gaius, who had looked at him in that eery way that said he’d seen straight through Arthur’s excuses about how idiotic Merlin was and how he’d only put the entire thing at risk.

“I wouldn’t worry about Merlin, 007.” He’d said after Arthur had finished. “He’s capable of far more than you know.”

“I’m not worried about him.” Arthur rebutted instantly.

“No,” the old man had said softly, as Arthur stalked out. “Of course not.”

So Arthur’s protests had fallen on empty ears, Merlin had grown progressively cooler towards Arthur with every exchange, and that lead them here: twelve hours later, hurtling down the streets of Paris with a half-formed plan, a car full of assassins, and a boffin with a computer.

Marvellous.

In the back, Merlin had raised his voice above the chatter.

“Alright, you lot, listen up.” He said, and it was a credit to him that everyone actually shut up, even Gwaine. Arthur pretended he wasn’t listening. “I’m passing round your earpieces. Put them on, and do try not to lose them before we get there.”

There was a good-natured rumble of protest. Arthur just scowled.

“These aren’t the standard radios,” Owain noted as he picked one up. Glancing down, Arthur saw that he was right. An extra dial raised up on the side, and their shape was longer and sleeker.

“No, they aren’t.” Merlin confirmed. “Private comms band, nothing comes in or out. I’ve also adapted a polymorphic engine to maintain the code. In the unlikely scenario someone tries to get onto the line, the decrypt code will change on each attempt to crack it.”

“Most radios can’t do that, can they?” Percival spoke up.

Merlin’s lips quirked. “Most radios aren’t build by me. Broadcast range is limited to sixteen klicks, but you’ll have full contact with me at all times and an additional group broadcast on the second channel. If you need to switch between them, just tap the dial on the outside to the channel you want.”

They nodded, inserting them into their ears.

“Oh, and 007,” Merlin added in the same even tone, albeit slightly more coolly. “Your radio also has an enhanced microphone built in that you can activate by saying the word Bravo twice. If Olaf knows something, we may need recorded evidence later on.”

Arthur’s voice was equally formal. “Thank you, Q.”

Merlin nodded once, then turned back to his laptop.

In the slightly awkward silence, Leon’s voice was one of the first to come onto the line, shockingly clear in their ears. “Destination T-minus-thirty-minutes.”

The atmosphere suddenly became subdued, a terse readiness in the air as the double 0’s switched from men to soldiers. Another time, the change would have been fascinating to watch.

“Roger that, 006,” Merlin replied crisply. “Alright folks everyone switch to channel B.” He waited, registering the faint beeps of everyone coming onto the secure line. “Initiating radio lockdown from network broadcast. Switch to in-squad range.”

There was another beep, then silence.

“What does that mean?” Gwaine asked quietly.

Merlin smiled grimly. “It means that from here on? We’re on our own.”

 


 

They drove hard and fast through the city, barely pausing to switch Leon in to drive, and it was only by the time the sun was beginning to hang low in the sky that Arthur held up a hand to halt. For a moment the last sunshine fell upon his upturned face, setting his hair and eyes ablaze with gold and blue, before dusk swept in and cast the hard lines of his face once more with shadow. The DGSE's undisclosed headquarters loomed before them, a sister compound to their official HQ in the city that not many knew about. According to the intel Arthur had gathered, this was where Olaf would be tonight.

“We’re close,” Arthur said, his voice low in the quiet. “We go forth on foot from here on. The engine will only draw attention.”

Leon cut the engine obligingly. The air lapsed into silence.

Over the earpieces, Arthur’s voice spoke in an undertone. “You all know the plan. Leon and Gwaine will breach from the East side, Percival and Owaine from the North. I’ll be entering from the South.” His head turned in the dark. “Do what you must, but don’t take stupid risks. You aren’t trying to win this fight. You can’t win this fight. What you can do is create a diversion long enough for Olaf to talk.”

They nodded, deferring without question to Arthur’s authority. In the real world, every double 0 had equal authority. Out on the field, he was in command. 

“Lance, you’ll stick with Q. We move the moment the security system’s down.” He paused, and Merlin found himself wishing he could see Arthur’s face rather than listening over the comms. “Any trouble, and you get out of there immediately do you understand?” his voice was tight.

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Arthur—”

“Do you understand?” Arthur bit out, not looking once at Merlin.

Beside him, Lance sighed. “Roger that.”

“Good. Everyone sync your watches to 19:30…now.” They all pressed their watches. “Stick to the plan, and do try not to get killed. I don’t particularly fancy spending the next year hunting your killers across the continent avenging your sorry arses.”

It was obviously a familiar pep-talk, as the double 0’s chuckled.

Merlin got out of the Jeep with the rest of them, reaching across the seat for the weapon he had smuggled in. He was stopped by a cold voice, harsh like the crack of a whip.

“What do you think you’re doing?” 

Merlin turned his head to see Arthur glaring at him, face overcast in the twilight.

“Getting my stuff,” he said slowly. “Or did you think I was going to get close enough to hack this system of theirs empty handed?”

“You won’t be getting close to hack anything at all. You’re to stay here and work from the monitors.”

Merlin froze, his brain not quite comprehending the words. He blinked once, twice.

“I’m sorry, what?” he hissed.

“You’ll only be in the way, and I don’t trust you.” Arthur was already turning away. “The matter’s not up for discussion.”

All at once, Merlin felt an icy rage erupt inside him. After every jibe, every cold exchange, every attempt Arthur had made to leave him behind… suddenly he’d had it.

What is your problem?!” he burst out suddenly.

Arthur stilled. “Excuse me?”

Merlin couldn’t stop now. “What, so I can talk in your ear and make you guns and save your worthless hide, but nothing more, is that it?” He said cuttingly. “It’s all fine until I’m assigned outside of MI6 where no one can watch me, until I actually have to do something that matters, until it counts.”

Arthur’s lips tightened into a thin line. “Merlin —”

“That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?” Merlin’s face went hard with realisation. “No matter what I do, how many times I save your sodding life, I’ll always be a criminal in your eyes. You know a tiny fraction of my life before MI6, and you’ve decided you know the whole fucking story.”

Arthur just looked at him, stony, unyielding. Merlin stepped closer, until his face was inches from Arthur’s.

“You don’t trust me, I get it” Merlin snapped. “You don’t have to trust me, you don’t have to even like me.” His eyes blazed. “But trust me to get the job the done. Because I can tell you that you aren’t getting anywhere near Olaf without me. This whole plan depends on me getting to that control centre, and unless you want to put everyone’s life here in danger, I suggest you move aside and let me do my damn job.”

Silence. The whole world seemed to stop and hold its breath. Their faces were inches apart, the fuming tension coursing between them like a lit match held above a pool of gasoline. One wrong move, and it would blow. Merlin’s gaze was blisteringly volatile, his eyes ablaze with defiance and anger and just a tiny bit of hurt.

Then abruptly Merlin turned away, and Arthur could breathe again.

“So,” Merlin said, “if you don't mind, I’ve a system to hack.” He grabbed his bag. “Try not to get in my way.”

And without waiting for an answer, he pushed roughly past Arthur and stalked away into the night, pulling out a Sig and two magazines that Arthur was sure hadn’t been there earlier to insert into a holster around his waist. As Merlin’s jacket shifted, Arthur caught sight of an assault rifle swung over his right shoulder, the rifle muzzle-down behind him.

Arthur stared after him, trying to ignore the twinge of regret that lashed out from deep, deep down, curling around Arthur's throat and choking him tight. He couldn’t call out after him and explain that Merlin was, for once, hopelessly wrong, that despite everything Arthur did trust him against his better judgement and couldn’t care less where Merlin came from or what he’d done to end up in Ealdor because he was Merlin and he’d proven himself a hundred times over already. Arthur couldn’t tell him that the real reason he didn’t want Merlin here wasn’t that Arthur didn’t trust him, but that he was terrified what would happen if things went wrong. 

But he couldn’t say any of this, so he just watched Merlin walk away. 

“Arthur?”

From behind him, Lance’s voice was careful, hesitant, and Arthur wondered how much he’d heard. He shook himself.

“Go,” he said roughly, grabbing his Walther. “Keep him safe. Wait for my mark.”

He barely heard Lance’s murmured yes sir before he was running, eyes scanning the perimeter fence for the dark head slipping between the railings. It wasn’t easy - Merlin moved like a wraith, his black body armour rendering him little more than a slip of darkness. Every time Arthur thought he’d spotted him, Merlin would flicker like the shifting shadows on the pavement and appear five feet to the left without seeming to have moved, never-ceasing, never stumbling or faltering in the dark. 

Arthur gritted his teeth and willed himself to go faster, determined not to lose him.

He tapped his ear once. “Lance?” he said tightly.

“I’ve got him,” Lance replied over the comms. “He’s disabling the perimeter now.”

Arthur exhaled, slowing and signalling the other double 0’s to his position. They slunk forward, weapons easy weights in their hands, all but invisible in the night. Leon fell back to his right automatically, taking the position of his second whilst Gwaine took his third in place of Lancelot. Percival and Gwaine took formation behind him. An autumn frost was closing in, and their breath fogged in the crisp night air.

“It’s down, we’re through,” Lance said suddenly. “Making our way to command now. See you on the other side.”

Arthur closed his eyes. “Roger that. Good luck.”

The line cut out. He turned to the other double 0’s. They didn’t need to say anything. He nodded at Leon once, and the group split up to go to their respective entrances, leaving Arthur standing a solitary figure in the dark.

Alone, he allowed his shoulders to slump slightly, running a hand agitatedly through his hair. Unbidden, Merlin’s words rang through his head, fierce and angry and a little hurt.

That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? No matter what I do, how many times I save your sodding life, I’ll always be a criminal in your eyes.

It was the hurt that cut through Arthur like nothing else. As if he didn’t already feel shitty enough.

Agents 003 and 004 in position, over.” Percival’s voice came over the line.

“Affirmative.” Leon’s voice replied. “005 and 006 checking in.”

Arthur tapped his ear. “007 ready and standing by, over.”

Just then, every light in the compound went out, and the area was swathed in darkness.

A moment later, Merlin’s voice came over the comms, so ridiculously clear Arthur had to restrain the urge to look round and check he hadn’t magically appeared behind him.

“Gentlemen. If you were waiting for an invitation… that was it.” A pause, where Arthur imagined he smiled. 

“Give ‘em hell.”

Chapter Text

It was chaos from the get off. The double 0’s appeared out of the night like spectres, disabling an entire patrol of guards before anyone even noticed something amiss. They moved swiftly and silently, every sense attuned to razor acuity. Hunters among men.

On the East-side entrance, Leon locked gazes with Gwaine. A strange gesture. Two fingers. A sharp nod.

The unspoken teamwork was natural, instinctive even. These were men who’d grown up together, trained together; the DGSE didn’t stand a chance. 

Gwaine had the first guard in a firm headlock before he even had a chance to reach for his weapon. Gwaine muffled his cry of alarm, holding him there silently until his struggles petered out and the man's body went heavy and slack in his arms. He heard Leon’s sharp intake of breath across the comms, along with the discernible thud of a second body hitting the ground. They moved the unconscious men to the side where they wouldn't be seen, checking their pulses and disarming them before moving on.

It took an embarrassingly long time, sixteen thuds to be exact, for the DGSE to catch on.

“The East side is breached! I repeat, the East is breached!”

Répéter. What is your position agent?”

“The East, you imbecile!”

“Négatif. We — are not— repeat —”

“The North! Hostiles entering from the north, requesting backup, I repeat —”

“Systems down, radio — breaking up — negative …”

The nearest DGSE agent swore colourfully. “Merde. Fucking comms.”

From their concealed position just a few feet away, Leon and Gwaine shared an amused look. 

Merlin. Of course.

Gwaine was going to make him tea everyday when they got back.

As though they had said his name, Merlin’s voice suddenly spoke up through their earpieces.

“006, 003.” His voice was crisp and steady. “The agent at your seven is currently arming an M67 fragmentation grenade. You may want to move.”

Anyone else might have sworn, or bolted out of the shadows and ran, giving away their position. Hell anyone in their right mind would not have ran towards the person trying to kill them.

But Gwaine and Leon were double 0’s, and double 0’s did not do stupid things like panic upon learning of a deadly explosive device being thrown in their general direction. Instead, being double 0’s, they did something heedlessly reckless instead.

They charged.

Vaulting the final fence, the two assassins thundered forward and didn’t stop when they came face to face with a pale-faced agent staring up at them in shock which quickly morphed into terror, one finger on the detonator of the grenade. Gwaine smiled a smile that was all teeth (which only seemed to traumatise the poor man further) and kicked the agent in the head. In the same moment, Leon snatched the grenade and hurled it towards the final door into the building. Both men dropped to the ground in perfect unity.

BAM

What had been a well fortified door was now lying in flaming remains all across the courtyard. Gwaine tried not to look too pleased.

“I’m starting to think a fondness for exploding things is a common trait among double 0’s.” Merlin commented dryly.

“Technically he was the one with the explosives,” Gwaine pointed out.

“Yes. You’re welcome by the way.” A minuscule pause, and then suddenly Merlin’s voice was brisk, and distracted. "Got to go. 007’s trying to get himself killed again. Good luck.”

And before either of them could reply, Merlin was gone.

Gwaine glanced over at Leon, who was casually brushing himself off. “‘Once more into the breach’, then?”

“‘Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and St. George.’” Leon quoted back.

They grinned at each other, and started towards the smouldering, gaping hole in the wall.

Just before they got there, however, the security camera nearest them abruptly exploded in a smattering of sparks, making them both whirl around with fingers on triggers, and Merlin’s voice growled once more in their ears.

“It’s ‘once more unto the breach’, you heathens. And for christ’s sake, cover your faces from the cameras. I’d like to avoid seeing your faces on the evening news if we can possibly help it.”

His voice cut off.

The two agents looked at each other. 

“Did he just divert from guiding Arthur through enemy territory to correct our Shakespeare?” Leon said incredulously.

“Did he actually just call us heathens?” Gwaine countered.

The two assassins momentarily dissolved into sniggers.

“Alright, come on.” Leon struggled to sober himself. “We’ve still got a job to do.”

“And more Shakespeare to butcher, apparently.”

“Don’t you start.”

“Ah, well if you insist.” Gwaine swept his arm out dramatically. “‘Lead on Macduff!’”

Biting back a smirk, Leon signalled, and they both prowled forward.

When seconds later the next security camera suddenly burst coincidentally into flame, neither of them mentioned it, only to share a conspiring grin. As it so happened, the exploding camera provided the perfect distraction to take down an elusive opponent.

Gwaine was definitely going to make Merlin tea everyday when they got back.

 


 

The corridor was eerily silent but from the sound of Arthur’s laboured breathing as he ran. In the dark, his figure was nothing more than a ghost, another flickering shadow on the walls. He’d encountered no one so far. No doubt the DGSE was a tad occupied with the mess Merlin was wreaking of their security systems and the other double 0’s causing a scene on the opposite side. The lack of backup was a little unnerving all the same.

“Turn left, end of the corridor.” 

Merlin’s voice was a steady presence in his ear, the only dependable thing as he sprinted through the dark. Arthur turned, Walther cocked next to his head.

“Next door on your right. Two men.” A pause. Merlin’s voice was matter-of-a-fact. “I’m still pissed at you.”

As if that was ever in doubt.

“I know,” said Arthur simply, whirling round the corner to disarm the two stray guards and catch their unconscious bodies before they could hit the ground. It was over before they could even cry out. “Would it help if I apologised?” he asked, barely out of breath.

“Would you mean it?” Merlin replied.

“Um…” he paused to snag the guard’s weapon and ammunition. “No.”

“Then no, not really.”

Arthur’s pale-blue gaze scanned the room, muscles tense with habit. Apparently his reflexes had realised that the corridor was empty of hostiles almost before his mind logically accepted the fact, as his posture instinctively relaxed by an almost imperceptible margin. Of course, anyone who had turned up in these moments would have quickly demonstrated that the shift did nothing to Arthur’s reaction time, because even a relaxed 007 was still horrifically lethal. 

Satisfied he was alone, Arthur prowled silently to the door, trying the handle. 

A scowl. “It won’t open.”

“Of course it will.” Merlin said dismissively in his ear. “Put your back into it.”

“Why don’t you come down and put your back into it?” Arthur rammed the door again, which resulted only in a smarting shoulder. “No, it’s stuck.” He said stubbornly.

Merlin might have replied, but the echoing footsteps approaching down the corridor made Arthur’s head snap up.

“Oh, good.” He said. “it appears backup has arrived.”

“Hmm. That’s vexing.”

The footsteps were thumping closer. One of them barked a command in french.

Arthur let his eyes slide closed for the most minuscule of seconds, feeling everything with a steel, crystal clarity. The comfortable weight of the Walther in his palm, the smooth nick of the trigger under his finger, the cold press of the wall against his back. Time slowed down around him. He inhaled, giving himself over to the adrenaline, sinking into that dizzying rush of stalk-hunt-kill that infused his aching muscles with coiled, familiar power. A deep rooted calm settled in his chest, a beautiful juxtaposition to the blazing endorphins coursing through his blood. 

There came that tiniest of gaps in time between drawing breath and exhaling it. Eyes flew open just as enemy gunfire erupted around him. Instincts took over. Duck, roll, strike, counter.

Arthur exhaled. Time resumed. The gunfire had stopped. Five men lay in varying states of incapacitation, their unconscious bodies strewn on the polished floor. Arthur hadn't needed to fire a single shot.

“007?” Merlin sounded almost bored, for god’s sake. “Did you neutralise the targets, or are you dead?”

Merlin, as always, was such an encouraging soul. 

“You know, your lack of concern for my welfare is a little disturbing,” Arthur answered instead.

“Not dead then?”

“No. Arthur’s dead. This is Arthur’s killer berating you for your apparent apathy towards his life.”

“Well, being his killer I’d say you were hardly one to talk.”

He almost snorted at that. Almost.

“I see your sense of humour’s still intact,” he remarked.

“I see yours has yet to make an appearance.”

Ouch. Arthur’s voice held a hint of impatience. “Are you always this sarky when you’re pissed at someone?”

Silence. Arthur mentally kicked himself. He was trying to make amends, not bollocks things up even more. He hated the fact he couldn’t even see Merlin’s face, couldn’t read his body language to see what the silence meant. 

Merlin’s voice, when it spoke again, was chillingly professional. “Go through the door. Keep going to the end of the corridor. Up one flight. Olaf’s office is the first one on the left.”

“Merlin—”

“You best hurry.”

And Merlin’s voice cut out.

Shit.

 


 

Merlin could feel Lance’s eyes on him as he worked. Whilst only able to hear Merlin’s side of the conversation, the guy wasn’t stupid. He could deduce what he couldn’t hear.

“What?” Merlin said at last without looking away from the screen.

Lance pursed his lips. “Do you always talk to him like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, like’s he not an assassin who can kill you in a disturbing number of ways before breakfast?”

“Oh.” Merlin said distractedly. “Most of the time, yes.”

Lance huffed. “Well, that explains a lot.”

“Hmm?” 

“Nothing.”

Silence fell again, broken only by Merlin’s furious typing on the keyboard and occasional low commands to the double 0’s. Even with his attention split three-way between Arthur and the other two groups of double 0’s, Merlin was still somehow finding time to wreck havoc of the DGSE’s firewalls and defences. It was hard not to be transfixed as Lance watched him work. He’d seen Merlin as Q, sardonic and witty in his element, leader of minions and maker-of-exploding-stationary; as Merlin on his downtime, softer, more playful, his eyes dancing with mischief; as a stranger on his own when he thought no one could see him, quiet and withdrawn.

Merlin in the midst of a crisis, however, was something else entirely. His voice was crisp and decisive, fingers dancing over multiple keyboards, tension only evident in the stiffness of his spine until the agent was in the clear. He was utterly formidable, and Lance found himself thinking he never wanted to be on the wrong side of the Quartermaster when he was in battle mode. Or had access to a computer. Or ever.

There was a lapse in Merlin’s rigid concentration as Percival and Owaine got past the outer defences unharmed, and Merlin took a moment to catch his breath. When he spoke again, his voice was in the same calm, even tone he used over the comms that Lance almost didn’t realise Merlin was talking to him.

“When Arthur came into Q-branch last night, you were surprised,” he said without turning. “Why?”

Lance blinked, recalling the earlier conversation. He shrugged. “You haven’t known Arthur that long. If you had, you’d know that Arthur doesn’t do that. Come back, I mean. Either he takes the car and rides back with us, or he doesn’t and disappears off-grid until the next day.”

Merlin looked confused.

“It’s tradition.” Lance explained. “Whenever one of us comes home from an op, we bring the car that picks them up. The only time Arthur ever doesn’t take the car is when a mission fails.”

Realisation flickered over Merlin’s face. 

“The mission in Rome, of course.” He thought for a moment. “Arthur didn’t take the car last night did he?”

Lance shook his head. “Imagine my surprise, then, when he turned up at HQ in the early hours. You wouldn’t happen to know why a man who has never responded to any contact or attempts to track him down somehow ended up in your office on a danger night?”

Merlin thought of Arthur texting him, rattling off comebacks with his usual dry humour. He thought of Arthur giving his attention to his mobile rather than laying into those three brutes from the bar, despite his obvious urge to burn off the excess adrenaline. He thought of the small, amused quirk of Arthur’s lips that he’d seen from the nearest camera as Arthur read Merlin’s replies; if inconvenient, come anyway.

Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it. “Danger night?” he said instead, avoiding the question.

Lance gave him a I-know-exactly-what-you’re-doing-but-I’m-going-to-oblidge-you-anyway look.

“Arthur doesn’t cope well with failure.” He said simply.

Merlin pretended he didn’t hear the resigned regret in Lance’s voice, and wondered how many times the double 0’s had tried to track Arthur down to pull him out of his own head and failed.

A beeping alert from Merlin’s laptop snapped them out of it. That was field work monitoring in a nutshell: long periods of mind-numbing boredom interspersed with occasional 30-second bursts of mindless panic. Merlin dived back to the keyboard, and Lance wouldn’t have been surprised to see smoke coming from his fingers from the speed he was typing.

“What is it? What’s going on?” he demanded.

Merlin flashed him a quick grin. “It’s Olaf. Arthur’s got him.”

 


 

There was a moment where neither of them moved, two agents frozen at an impasse in the dim light of the office, mirror images of each other. Arthur’s eyes flickered, unimpressed, down the barrel of the gun that was pointed at his forehead.

“A Glock 17, original 9×19mm Parabellum model?” He observed with some amusement. “You always were a traditionalist, weren’t you Olaf?”

A pause. The slight shifting of a figure in the darkness. “Pendragon.” The voice of the ex-agent came from the shadows with a sort of resigned recognition.

The last time Arthur had seen Olaf, they had been in Tokyo. Olaf had been investigating a stolen french bomb. Arthur was investigating a Japanese extremist group who were getting a little too interested in London. After a brief, entertaining game of cat and mouse, the two agents had ended up forming a tenuous alliance, one might even dare to say friendship, in the time it took to bring the terrorist group down (and retrieve said bomb), but not before the frenchman had almost taken off Arthur’s head.

Arthur was completely unsurprised, then, when he found himself on the wrong end of a Glock the moment he entered the room. Olaf had always been quick on the draw, but Arthur had been expecting it, and his own Walther aimed steadily at the frenchman’s temple.

“Olaf,” he greeted equably, as though they had just bumped into one another at the supermarket. “Thanks for agreeing to see me.”

“I didn’t.” He said gruffly. “You just broke in to my top secret facility, walked in to my office and started talking.”

“Yes, well, I don't have time for a history lesson. Do you mind?”

Slowly, very slowly, they both lowered their weapons, and Arthur could see the person holding it. Olaf may have been retired, but he had lost none of the muscle definition from his days as an agent. His hands were steady, his hard, brown eyes as unreadable as ever, nestling under dark, stubborn eyebrows that seemed continually set in a frown. His square jaw was locked, lips pressed into a thin line, greying hair cropped close to his scalp in a military style. 

It was strangely comforting to see the agent hadn’t changed a bit.

“What are you doing here, Arthur Pendragon?” Olaf said at last, annoyance giving away just a hint of a french accent in otherwise perfect english.

“I’m hurt, Olaf. Is that any way to address an old friend?”

“In my experience, old friends don’t go breaking and entering into my top secret facility in the middle of the night.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “We’re spies.” He pointed out. “Breaking and entering is like, going for coffee. Standard etiquette.”

The ex-agent looked ready to shoot him again. “Is everything a joke to you?”

“Funny things are.”

Arthur half-expected Merlin’s voice to snap in his ear about the time and place for sarcastic comments, and was oddly disappointed when his earpiece stayed silent. Their insult-charged exchanges had become such a customary part of Arthur’s missions, the radio silence felt a little too close to what it had used to be before; before Merlin had hacked himself into Arthur’s ear and apparently decided he was going to stay.

Meanwhile, it appeared Olaf had finally lost patience with him. “What, are you doing here?” he ground out.

“Information,” Arthur said, voice growing serious. “I want to know why your number was in Edwin Muirdin’s phone.”

Olaf’s eyes glinted like struck flint in the darkness. “And what makes you think I want to tell you anything?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Arthur said offhandedly. “Saving your arse in Tokyo. Commandeering that boat in Venice to pick one of your agents up out of the ocean. Tipping you off about that terrorist bomb in Nice. Defusing the terrorist bomb in Nice. Take your pick.”

If the ex-agent was the sort to sulk, Arthur was sure he would have been pouting right now. As it was, Olaf simply looked at him. Naturally, his expression didn’t give a thing away. 

“Edwin Muirdin is a weapons broker, part of a greater chain of illegal arms smuggling that we’ve been tracking for some time, and not your problem right now.” He said brusquely, “There. Now, if that’s all you wanted —”

“And Cornelius Sigan?” Arthur interrupted, and was rewarded by Olaf’s minuscule blink of surprise. “How long have you been tracking him?”

His jaw twitched. “Have you been…tailing me?”

“Oh don’t look so wounded. I know you’ve got at least three men stationed around MI6 that notified you as soon as I left.”

He made an impatient sound. “Look, son—”

“Don’t call me son.”

Olaf ignored him. “—You should stop looking. Forget Edwin, forget the Triskellion, forget you ever even heard the name Sigan.” His eyes were intense with something Arthur couldn’t read. “You think you know what you’re getting into; you’re wrong. This is beyond anything you’ve ever encountered before.”

“So tell me,” Arthur urged, taking a cautionary step forward. “We formed an alliance before when the odds were against us. Tell me what you know. I can help you.”

Olaf shook his head, the shifting shadows dancing across his face. “I’m sorry, Arthur. Believe me when I say its better if you stay out of this one.”

Distant sounds of conflict arose from somewhere on the other side of the building, exclamations of rapid french and smatterings of gunfire and the occasion shuddering explosion. Olaf’s face flickered briefly with irritation, but Arthur stiffened, knowing he was running out of time.

“You’ve got to give me more than that,” he pressed, “at least tell me why.”

“Why?”

“Why Sigan?” Arthur clarified. “All the mercenaries in the world, and you go after an arms dealer. Why? I can think of plenty worse men to hunt down.”

Olaf gave him a long, appraising look. “You already know the answer to that, Arthur. You’ve seen it. You’ve fought it in Rome not two days ago.”

Never mind how Olaf knew (he was a spy; it was his business to know). You’ve seen it. Unbidden, images flashed through Arthur’s mind. Eyes flashing a burnt orange. Low, guttural sounds that raked upon Arthur’s ears. A wave of invisible force that exploded through the air, like the aftershock of a grenade — only there was no grenade —

Arthur’s eyes sharpened with new interest. “The advanced weaponry. You know what sort of tech they’re building.” It wasn’t a question.

A strange, dry smile quirked Olaf’s lips that Arthur couldn’t interpret. “Tech.” Olaf repeated, as though trying the word out. “Yes, I suppose.”

Another explosion thundered in the background, notably closer this time. This was not entirely unexpected. What was surprising, was the unnatural blue glow that lit up the compound like a supercharged flare, a searing flash of blue lightning that momentarily blinded them through the windows. Both agents flinched, arms flying up instinctively to shield their eyes from the blaze. Seconds later the noise reached them, an earsplitting crack that reverberated through the air. It was fortunate Arthur’s hands were already covering his face, as moments later the window shattered in an aftershock of sonic sound, spitting glass into the room. He swore, ducking.

For a ridiculous fraction of a second, Arthur found himself wishing he still had Merlin yelling in his ear to tell him what the sodding shite was going on. Come to think of it, Arthur couldn’t remember a time Merlin had been so quiet.

“What the bleeding hell was that?” he exclaimed once his ears had stopped ringing.

He turned to Olaf, only to find the man’s face had drained of colour. That in itself was cause for concern; the guy was a Veteran, a spy for christ’s sake. It would take nothing short of the world ending to rattle him. “Olaf—”

“You should leave.” He said abruptly. “Take your men and get out.”

“But what—”

“I won’t ask again.” Olaf absently tugged a shard of glass out of his arm, tossed it aside and pumped the slide on his Glock. “Get your people out.” 

Arthur blinked. “You’re not going to try and stop me?”

“Would it do much good?”

“Probably not.”

For the first time, Olaf’s mouth twitched into a hint of a smile. “Let’s call it even for Tokyo. Owing you a life debt is proving more irritating every day.”

Arthur smirked. He had just reached the door when something made him pause. He turned.

“That blue flash — it wasn’t yours, was it?”

Olaf’s smile faded. “No, it wasn’t.”

“So if it wasn’t one of ours, and it wasn’t one of yours…”

“It’s not your problem” Olaf said firmly. He studied Arthur for a moment, and something carelessly open flitted across his face. “I will tell you this, though. The world is changing. New powers are coming into play, and it won’t be long before they reveal themselves. Make sure you’re ready.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It will, soon.” Olaf’s expression was grim, and Arthur suddenly thought he looked incredibly old; “And I’m sorry, but that’s when everything changes.”

The words were sombre, almost ominous spoken in the shadows. 

Arthur, never one to be particularly affected by ominous warnings whispered in the dark, only raised an eyebrow. “You know, mysterious cryptic comments don’t really suit you. You should stick to your usual manquer de tact.”

“Because we all know you English do tact so well.” The agent replied dryly, edging closer to the broken window with his Glock and eyes aimed outwards at a target Arthur couldn’t see.

His parting comment was faintly amused. “Now piss off with you, before I change my mind.”

Arthur smiled, and slipped out the door just as Olaf fired.

 


 

In all fairness, Percival thought, the mission had started well. He and Owain had taken the north entrance as planned and were attacking with all the subtlety of an invading army, hoping the chaos would buy Arthur as much time as possible. What neither of them had planned for, however, was the blue lightning that split open the sky like Zeus himself had come down to join the fray.

“What the flying fuck was that?” Owain yelled, or at least, that was what Percival thought he said — their ears were still ringing too much to tell.

Percival shook his head. The two stumbled to their feet from where they had been thrown by the explosion, taking in the destruction around them. Whatever that blue energy had been, it had scorched the ground to a blackened husk, melting brick and stone alike. Percival tried not to look too closely at the other shapes emerging from the mist like Elliot’s hollow men, motionless, formless figures that had been too close to the lightning when it struck. If he and Owain had been just a little closer, a little slower…

“—dammit Percival, just say something you ridiculous oaf of an agent…”

The voice battered against the edge of his hearing, then swelled in a rush of sound as though someone had suddenly turned the volume up.

Percival winced. The incessant voice was still yelling in his ear. 

“…so help me, if either you died I am going to hunt your asses down and resuscitate you just to kill you again for being so damn deaf—”

“Merlin?”

There was the sound of some exhaling in a rush of breath. “Thank fuck,” the Quartermaster groused. “I’ve been trying to get through for at least a minute now. Are either of you injured?”

Percival looked at Owain, who shook his head.

“Aside from a few busted eardrums, we’re fine,” Percival told Merlin a little wryly. “No need to resuscitate us just yet, as impressive as that would be.”

Yes, well, count yourself lucky. If the two of you were ten feet closer to the blast, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

“Any leads on what the heck it was?” That was Owain, always straight to the point.

I’m working on it,” Merlin sounded grim. “Some kind of localised EMP, maybe. I’ll keep you posted.”

There was the faint scatter of what Percival guessed was Merlin’s rapid-fire typing on his computer. He sighed, wiping a hand across his face and pausing at seeing it come away smeared with ash and grime. Next to him, Owain wasn’t in much of a better state.

“Never thought I’d be one to underestimate the French,” Percival muttered.

“Oh that wasn’t the French,” Merlin said briskly.

“Who now what now?”

“It wasn’t the French.” He repeated. “Their defences are in havoc, comms have gone to shit; they’re getting ready to run, and I’m sorry to say not from us.”

Owain was sure he’d misheard. “Their deserting their own base? For what?”

In the background, he thought he heard the faint murmur of voices.

Percival shifted. “Owain…”

“But why would the French run?” He continued. “It doesn’t make any sense…”

“Owain…”

Maybe there was something in Percival’s voice, something that made him look up. On the outer rim of the compound, the explosion had ripped through the perimeter fence, leaving a great, gaping, smoking gap in the French’s defences. And from within the shadows, seemingly appearing out of thin air, a squadron of masked armed men stalked into the compound.

Merlin’s voice was a crack of authority in their ears. “Get down. Now.”

Neither of them hesitated. Owain dropped to the ground a second after Percival did, faces pressed into the dirt behind the mound of earth that had been shifted by the explosion. They waited. Above them, the men halted.

Silence.

The sound of press check. The two double 0’s barely breathed, not even flinching when a scatter of machine gun fire erupted randomly over their heads. They didn’t shift when the final rounds echoed into silence and the sound of footsteps of gravel crunched a few feet away.

“See?” A voice said gruffly when the gunfire had stopped. “What did I tell you? There’s no one here. Aredian’s pet took care of that.”

Percival and Owain exchanged a glance. English, a faint eastern european accent. Interesting.

“And you trust the Witchfinder?” A second voice, presumably the one with the machine gun, answered.

“Fuck no. Bunch of freaks the lot of them. But I trust the money he’s being paid.”

“Still creepy if you ask me.” The second guy muttered.

“Nobody asked you.” The first said curtly. “Now come on, Aredian’s men will be here any minute.”

Another crunch of gravel, and their voices faded further away.

Percival and Owain shared a loaded glance, not bothering to hide their confusion.

“Merlin?” Percival murmured. “You get that?”

“I got it.” There was a pause. “You two should retreat, get back to the Jeep. That was too close.”

“You’re telling me,” Owain muttered.

“What about Arthur?” Percival said. “What about you? If we needed a distraction to get in, surely you two will need one to get out.” 

Merlin paused. “Let me deal with getting Arthur out. Go; we’ll be back within the tender arms of MI6 before you know it.”

The two double 0’s exchanged a quick nod, and stole away back into the night, no more than two dusty shadows in the gloom. Neither of them saw the man with the glowing eyes who watched them from the shadows. 

 


 

“You’re going the wrong way.”

The ridiculous surge of warmth and electric relief when Merlin’s voice spoke up once more in Arthur’s ear was almost bordering on irrational, so much so he almost forgot to keep running. It calmed and irritated and ignited him all at once.

“Merlin?”

“Is there someone else you’ve got talking in your ear?”

Right, stupid question.

“Where the hell have you been?” He groused as he rounded another corner.

“Busy.” A pause. “You’re still going the wrong way.”

“Oh for—” Arthur bit back a curse and whirled around, setting off to an adjoining corridor.

“I wouldn’t go that way either.” Merlin said absently.

“Are you actually going to help, or did you come back onto the comms just to piss me off?”

“I didn’t actually, but it’s rather fun.”

Arthur resisted the urge to walk to the nearest wall and then proceed to bang his head against it until he passed out from blunt trauma. He growled. “Merlin…” 

“Fine. Second corridor on your right.”

Keeping his Walther cocked in front of him, Arthur turned accordingly, his footsteps padding lightly on the polished floor as he ran. Aside from the distant echoes of voices outside, the building was silent. Perhaps the French were somewhat preoccupied which whatever that blue lightning was to worry about one lone Englishman.

“Aren’t you going to ask me if I got anywhere with Olaf?” He panted after a minute or so. “That was, after all, the point of all this.”

“Irrelevant.” Merlin dismissed in his ear.

Arthur felt a short flare of irritation. “Excuse me?”

“Irrelevant.” He repeated, as though Arthur was being particularly stupid. “You obviously wouldn’t have willingly left Olaf’s office without prompting if you hadn’t been successful. Of course you got what we came for.”

The offhanded compliment was delivered so frankly Arthur almost missed it. He blinked, a little thrown. It was the complete lack of doubt, the laid-bare fact that of course Arthur would have done it because he was Arthur, stated in the same way Merlin explained gadget modifications or how he would ‘hypothetically’ hack into the Pentagon. The same voice that said ‘this is why I’m the genius, and you’re the hooligans that run around playing at assassins’.

Of course you got what we came for. The ‘idiot’ was unspoken.

A strange feeling of warmth infused him, warring paradoxically with his previous indignation. The end result just left him feeling flustered and confused.

“Thanks,” he said at last. “I think.”

Merlin hummed. “Take the next left.”

And that was that. Merlin proceeded to guide him through the maze of corridors without any further objection, his voice cool and professional as he unlocked doors and redirected patrols away from Arthur’s position as he went. In fact, by the time Arthur reached one of the outer exits, the lack of opposition had started to unnerve him.

“French troops are amassing outside on the east side” said Merlin, eerily answering his unspoken question. “I’m taking you out the north entrance.”

“Amassing against who?”

Silence.

“Merlin?”

Arthur could still hear him breathing over the comms, just the faintest sharp intake of breath, so he knew Merlin hadn’t closed the line. As the sudden pause stretched on, Arthur realised abruptly that Merlin always had a comeback ready even if it was only to call Arthur a prat and even if he was only pausing to think then Merlin’s brain worked at about ten times the speed of everyone else’s so why would he need to pause for longer than a few seconds unless he was —

“Ah,” Merlin said at last, in a mild, unconcerned voice. “It appears I’ve been compromised.”

Arthur froze, skidding to a halt. The calm, even tones of Merlin’s voice disarmed him, and it took far too long for what Merlin had said to register. “What?”

There was a dull thump over the comms line, and Arthur thought he heard Lance’s voice in the background. Merlin’s voice was brisk, uncompromising. “Keep going, you’re nearly there.”

Arthur didn’t move. There was an odd thundering in his ears. “Merlin—”

“I just need to disable the deadlock on the outer door so you can get out—”

“Merlin—”

“It’ll only take a sec…”

There was the smattering of gunfire in the background, and Arthur knew it wasn’t from his end. He felt sick. “Merlin, get out of there now!

“Not while you’re still trapped inside!”

From the other side of the building, there was an explosion of red light, then again seconds later, igniting the compound in a hazy scarlet glow. Through a passing window, Arthur saw dark shapes moving towards the building, silhouetted against the light. The unknown third party had breached the French’s defences. And they were heading straight for command.

Merlin.

Arthur felt his breath tear painfully in his chest as he whirled around. “I’m going back.”

“Don’t you dare.” Merlin said darkly.

“You’re surrounded — you’ll never make it out!”

“Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Dammit Merlin—”

Whatever he was going to say was cut off as voices erupted over the comms line, an outbreak of exclamations that Arthur could barely understand. Within them was Merlin’s, voice raised above the chaos. Through the window, Arthur saw another shuddering explosion, a flash of light.

In his ear, Arthur thought he heard Merlin cry out in startled anger and…pain?…before there was a burst of static and the line went dead.

Everything seemed to sharpen into an icy focus, and suddenly the tight ache in his lungs seemed to fade into insignificance. Arthur’s mind blanked; the only thing that mattered was getting to that command centre.

Arthur dug his feet into the ground and shot forward, fiercely ignoring the pang of concern that was ripping his insides to shreds.

 


 

Merlin had forgotten just how irritatingly predictable sorcerers could be. The one who was trying to break the door down was chanting with a manic sort of fervour, apparently oblivious to the fact the door would have opened perfectly well with one of the keycards they had taken off a DGSE agent not five minutes ago. Because obviously magic was the death of common sense. Predictable. All the sorcerer had to do now to complete the cliché would be to start sprouting something about injustice and how they were all so inferior to the supreme holiness of the old ways-

“You stupid mundanes, you cannot hope to keep me out!” The boy yelled from the other side, “I am more powerful than you will ever know, and you will burn for trying to oppose us! You - ”

Ah yes. There it was.

Merlin rolled his eyes. It had been a while since he’d had come across a sorcerer, but he certainly hadn’t missed their arrogance.

Beside him, Lance crossed his arms dubiously, thankfully distracted from the fact there was a bloody sorcerer trying to break the door down as he regarded the plan Merlin had just laid out. “This is either madness… or brilliance.” He said at last.

Merlin just smirked, finishing the code he was writing on his laptop. “It’s remarkable how often those two traits coincide.” 

The door shuddered again under the onslaught of another explosion. Their time was almost up. A loading bar appeared on Merlin’s screen - thirty-seven percent. 

“Ready?” said Merlin, partially closing his laptop. Without waiting for a reply he picked up the assault rifle with his other hand, pulling the breech open and letting it snap shut again with practised ease before letting it swing back, muzzle-down, behind him.

Lance just watched him silently. “You’re being remarkably calm about all this.”

“Don’t worry, I’m saving the hysterics for later.”

Lance snorted. The double 0 drew his own SIG out, pumping the slide, and checking the chamber before returning the pistol to its cradle. The two hunched down, waiting. The laptop beeped: sixty percent. They needed more time-

There was the sound of screeching metal as the door flew off its hinges, rebounding violently off the walls. Merlin flinched, but didn’t move. Smoke curled in from the other side, thick and choking. A red witch light glowed ominously from behind the figures as they entered the room, and Merlin had to fight the urge to roll his eyes. Sorcerers always did have a tendency towards the dramatic. 

He ducked as a streak of flame flew his way, twisting to the side and shielding his face from the glare as the fireball exploded behind him, frying the circuits on the command desk. A quick glance confirmed his own laptop was unharmed. Small mercies. Whilst the sorcerer’s aim was pitiful, Merlin had to admit his abilities were impressive. The rate of consecutive spells he was casting would have worn out weaker sorcerers by now already, and the boy didn’t look to be tiring.

“We know you’re there,” one of the other figures, not the sorcerer, said in a hard voice. “Come on, lay down your arms. You’re surrounded.”

Giving Lance a minuscule nod, Merlin straightened very slowly, holding his hands up. They had both decided (albeit Lance with more reluctance) that Merlin could pull off vulnerable and non-threatening much better than Lance ever could. He widened his eyes, letting a thin tremor leak into his voice. “Qui est là?” — who’s there?

The men didn’t look surprised at the french. Good; that meant MI6’s presence there was still unknown. Best to keep it that way.

“Come out where we can see you, nice and slow.” The figure ordered.

Merlin obliged, all the while running his gaze over the strangers, lingering on a smaller, slighter figure still lurking by the doorway behind the armed men. He’d bet his latest prototype that that boy was the sorcerer. 

“That’s close enough.”

Merlin stopped.

Dark eyes studied him piercingly. “Where’s your friend?”

Merlin looked confused, layering on a french accent just for the hell of it. “Friend?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lance slipping round the back of them whilst their attention was on Merlin. 

Merlin shook his head. “Non. No friend.” 

“He’s lying.” The sorcerer said from the back, his voice high and strung. “I heard voices. He was talking to someone.”

“Shut it, freak,” one of the figures snapped, “no one asked you.”

The boy raised his chin stubbornly, a flicker of orange dancing in his eyes. “He is though! I heard—”

“I said shut it!” 

“You should listen to the kid,” Lance’s voice commented from the shadows behind them, smooth and unruffled and very unobtrusively dangerous, making the group whirl round in a graceless stumble. “After all; you wouldn’t know if someone was standing right behind you.”

There was a rather belated yell of exclamation, and then chaos erupted. It was almost comical watching the men scramble for their guns as Lance shot them down one by one, felling three before any of them could fire the first shot. His advance was calm and effortless, dodging the oncoming fire with ease, pushing the rest forward towards the centre of the room.

Meanwhile, Merlin’s attention was elsewhere. The sorcerer’s burnt irises flared a sickly shade of umber as he beheld the double 0. He opened his mouth.

Merlin didn’t let him get any further than that. 

Reaching back, he grabbed the assault rifle he’d… borrowed from the weapons vault a few days ago. His eyes narrowed, the sight crosshairs a sharp point in his vision, finger hovering over the trigger, rifle braced against his shoulder…exhale and-

Crack.

The rounds ricocheted off a shield surrounding the sorcerer, blue cracks of energy scattering out into thin air. The boy span wildly, searching for the source. Merlin ignored him, focussing on the fading light from the shield as it became invisible once more.There you are.

Unfazed, Merlin fired another clatter of shots in the next second, this time three feet to the right. The shield sparked, but the air remained clear. Lastly, Merlin grabbed a pen from a nearby desk and flung it in the sorcerer’s general direction. It landed an inch from the boy’s foot; no blue shield in sight. A close-knit enchantment then, limited to perhaps a two-foot radius around the sorcerer, specific to offensive weaponry. A good protection, well-cast. It would be hard-pressed to break with force. But no one could sustain any spell forever, nor cast more than one spell at once. Merlin just had to find a loophole.

Behind him, his laptop beeped again, and he risked a glance back: ninety percent. 

By now the men were starting to shoot back, and Lance moved back to stand between them and Merlin. The two fired now without restraint, careful to let their adversaries advance a little but not too close — no further than the faint white line Merlin had drawn on the floor earlier.

The laptop beeped. 

Merlin didn’t need to look. 

“Now!” He barked suddenly.

Lance dropped to the floor. Merlin’s finger hit the enter key. The lights cut out, swathing the room in pitch blackness. Shouts erupted - cries of confusion and uncertainty that were quickly swallowed up in the chaos. In the midst of the fray, the sorcerer was panicking - trying and failing to keep his voice down as he blundered about in the dark. Merlin honed in on his heightened breathing, his small mutterings as the boy tried to ignite the air with a spell. Naturally the sorcerer’s first instinct when the lights cut out would be to conjure some sort of light, forgoing the shield in his panic. 

That had been what Merlin was counting on.

He closed his eyes, mentally navigating by hearing and memory, calculating the layout of the room from where the sound was echoing off the walls and matching it with the memory in his head. When he was in the Guild, Kilgharrah had insisted he train blindfolded for a month until he could navigate the twisting backstreets of London by hearing alone, forcing him to develop a mental map of his surroundings. Compared to that, this was child’s play.

It took him approximately four seconds to pinpoint the sorcerer’s location - eleven o’ clock, three paces - and another two to work out which direction the boy was facing - heavy breathing, facing away - then without looking, Merlin rapidly entered a set of coordinates and hit another command on his keyboard in the dark…

Dark, that is, apart from the window of air above the white line on the floor.

Because the moment Merlin’s virus entered the room’s security programming, electric transformers running across the ceiling had rerouted with the electromagnet power supply running under the floor, igniting in an explosion of current as the circuit was completed, setting off a cataclysmic reaction in the exact point Merlin had just entered…

—the same moment Merlin dropped to the ground, landing in a roll and not stopping, arms up to shield his face… 

The very air seemed to crack in two. The point where the two electrodes of different polarity met just a short enough distance apart had sparked a wall of electricity deadly enough to slice through anything in its path. And right now, that was all remaining seven of their attackers. They didn’t even have time to scream before the current racketed through their bodies and flung them back, knocking them instantly unconscious.

The wall of electricity crackled out. Silence.

Merlin exhaled a breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding.

By the time the lights flickered back on, Lance had already disarmed the unconscious men and Merlin was making quick work of binding the sorcerer’s hands while Lance was distracted. As a precaution, he also stuffed a scrap of cloth into the boy’s mouth, just in case he should wake. Just because Merlin’s magic had the irritating tendency of flaring up without so much as a whispered word, he had yet to meet a sorcerer who could cast a spell wordlessly and without his hands. Magic, like everything else, had its limitations.

He was just exchanging a small, satisfied smile with Lance when Arthur came skidding round the corner, breathing heavily. His eyes were slightly manic.

“Merlin!? What—” he stopped, seeing the mass of bodies lying on the ground. “You—” he stopped again. Blinked. Looked uncertainly between the bodies and Lance. “Did you do this?”

Lance snorted. “Hardly,” he said. “Most of it was Merlin’s idea.”

Merlin?”

Merlin huffed. “Always the tone of surprise,” he muttered. 

Arthur blinked again. “Oh, well. I…”

He stopped again, but this time it was different. Arthur’s expression had frozen, head cocked, pale blue eyes hardening into chips of ice, lips half curled into a predatory snarl that Merlin never thought he’d be on the end of.

Merlin, like any sane person would at the end of such a gaze, automatically took a half step back. “Arthur?”

Arthur raised his Walther straight at Merlin, and pulled the trigger. Merlin barely even had time to flinch. There was a dull thump behind him. Whirling round, Merlin saw an eighth man — one they had missed — now lying on the floor just short of Merlin, gun-arm outstretched, Arthur’s bullet in his temple.

He stared. “Oh. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Arthur voice was oddly rough. He cleared his throat. “These men, are there any more of them?”

“Nothing we can’t handle. This was most likely a small scouting party — minimal backup, if any.” Merlin hummed as his fingers danced across the keyboard. “It’s likely they would have deployed the mass of their forces on getting through to command.”

“Good. Radio the others, we should…” Arthur faltered, eyes sharpening as they caught on something out the window. A frown. “Is that Leon and Gwaine?”

Lance and Merlin turned, following his gaze. Sure enough, there were two figures, tearing across the compound away from something they couldn't see at breakneck speed towards them.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “But what—”

Merlin never heard what he said next. From outside came a rumbling groan, as though the buildings themselves were moving. Then out of the darkness, a line of twelve armoured vehicles roared out of the mist, engines snarling like caged tigers as they crashed into the compound.

“What the…” Lance whispered.

Merlin stared at the small army amassing outside. Across the room, his eyes met Arthur’s, and he could read the bloody buggering fuck as clearly as though it was reflected from his own.

“Run?” Merlin said faintly.

“Run.” Lance agreed.

Arthur scowled.

 


 

“You said it was a small scouting party!” Arthur yelled.

“It was - ”

Arthur ducked as more gunfire erupted his way. “Your idea of small is very different to mine.”

“I said most likely small-”

“MOST LIKELY SMALL,” Arthur said through gritted teeth, “is NOT, SMALL, ENOUGH.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” Merlin said, throwing himself behind a car to narrowly avoid a clatter of artillery fire. “I’ll just alter my report when we get back from ‘minimal backup’ to ‘not minimal enough for Arthur’. He prefers his scouting parties really, really small. Will that make you happy?

Arthur would have answered, had one of the men arming the roof-mounted 7.62-machine gun on the nearest vehicle not suddenly spotted where they were taking cover.

He grabbed Merlin’s arm without thought, ignoring his yelp of protest, yanking him down just before a round tore into the car where Merlin’s head had been a moment before. The two thudded jarringly to the ground. There was a strange rushing sound in his ears. 

Merlin’s eyes, when they fell upon the damage wrecked by the bullets on the car, were very wide, and very blue.

“That’s the second time you’ve saved my life.” He noted in a strange voice.

Arthur grunted. “Let’s not try for a third, okay?” 

Almost by accident their gazes snagged, caught, lingered. Arthur realised belatedly he was still gripping Merlin’s arm. 

“Arthur!” Leon’s voice seemed to batter against his consciousness from very far away as it spoke up in his ear. “Arthur we need to go now! Like right now!”

Right. They were escaping. Arthur clipped another magazine into his Walther and pumped the slide, eyes falling on the next wall that could serve as cover. He jerked his head towards it.

“Go,” he said to Merlin in voice that forbid argument. “I’ll cover you.”

Merlin, naturally, argued anyway. “But—”

“That wasn’t a request, Merlin—”

At the sound of footsteps approaching, Arthur twisted round and shot without aiming, hearing the confirming thump of a body hitting the ground. “Now go!”

Merlin’s mouth twisted unhappily, but he conceded, keeping low to the ground as he sprinted away. Arthur’s bullet found another hostile before the man could even take aim at Merlin’s retreating figure. A few, terse moments later, Merlin’s voice was back in his ear, cool and professional.

“Okay,”  he said, and Arthur would later deny choosing that exact moment to relax. “I’m through. Now you.”

Arthur would have obliged, had the figure nearest him not flung his hand out and yelled a word into the sky…

After that, several things happened simultaneously. 

Arthur froze, feeling a horrible sort of recognition dawning on him as he connected the strange behaviour of the figure with his memories of what had happened in Rome…

Across the clearing, Merlin felt something snap in his chest, a jarring, terrifyingly familiar surge like the prickling awakening of a phantom limb, long-buried magic humming just under the skin as it responded to the power broiling in the air…

And then before Merlin could cry out a warning over the comms, before he could hack the lights or fry their systems or even draw his gun, the sorcerer — for there was no doubt now in Merlin’s head what he was — standing at the head of their attackers brought his hand sweeping down, eyes aglow, a flash of spitting crimson blazing in his palm — 

Arthur was still running towards the wall, exposed, unaware, Leon and Gwaine right behind him, Lance covering them from further back —

They weren’t going to make it.

And just like that, Merlin’s magic tore free, vengeful and hungry, surging up like a volcanic eruption — dizzying and furious and too fast for him to reign back in —

The air flamed red. The crimson streak screamed. 

Merlin didn't think. In the same way someone flinches and covers their face when an object flies towards them, Merlin’s reaction was automatic, instinctive. Flinging his palm up, he twisted his wrist to latch onto the four double 0’s and threw up a split-second shield—

BAM

The air seemed to ignite as waves of red-burn-smoke-blaze blasted outwards, searing them with blistering heat. Surrounding cars were knocked flying, nearest buildings collapsing inwards and tearing free from their foundations with a screeching groan. The ground cracked and shuddered. The sky bloomed scarlet. 

Merlin let out a yell as the weight of falling debris and burning fire rained down on the shield, pressing furiously against the invisible barrier. The very force of it sent him careening to his knees, gasping at the pull in his chest. God - when was it he’d last used magic? A decade? More?

A shrieking groan made him look up, and Merlin barely had the impulse to roll over to the side as a nearby watchtower crashed down with a thunderous sound of twisted metal and burning brick, cinders flying into the air like angry fireflies. 

With a frustrated noise, Merlin felt the protective barrier he was holding over everyone slip from his grasp as his magic fled back into the pit he had buried it in long ago, as dormant as it had been for over a decade. He had gotten lucky with the shield. Merlin just had to hope the others weren’t equally stupid enough to get themselves almost killed by a falling building. 

Gritting his teeth, Merlin rolled to the side and scrambled to his feet, reaching for his gun. An odd prickle on the back of his neck made him glance up, and for a moment his gaze met the sorcerer’s. Even from here, Merlin could see the bewildered shock, the narrowed curiosity that they weren’t all blown to smithereens or smoking carcasses or whatever the hell it was the spell was intended to do.

His gaze was torn away as he saw Leon, Lance, Arthur and Gwaine start firing again on their attackers, but a second figure (not another sorcerer, surely…) waved his hand lazily, and their bullets rebounded like pebbles. The two sorcerers shared a glance, and both began raising their hands…

There - like a switch had been flipped, Merlin felt his magic bristle to the surface at the sight of Arthur and the double 0’s standing so unprotected, and then words were rising unbidden in his mind, unfamiliar words shaped with deadly intention that fell from his lips in a waterfall of syllables, harsh and lilting and snarled and sung…

Overhead, the sky rumbled.

A scatter of glass rained down from a nearby broken window.

Merlin felt the layers of the dusky earth deep beneath his feet, the thrumming energy in the darkening clouds above, the crackling currents brewing in the air...

A flex of his mind, a shifting of intentions, a whisper to the earth, and Merlin brought the sky crashing down around them in a clap of deafening thunder and a bolt of lightning that lit up the sky. The Jeep nearest the sorcerers exploded, overturning in a freak surge of wind, crashing onto the sorcerer’s shield, and the men staggered, faces going white as they tried to stop the burning weight from crushing them. The engine roared as it caught flame. The sky trembled again. 

And the last Merlin saw of the two sorcerers was the panic on their faces as their shield finally gave out and they disappeared under the burning metal.

Merlin quickly dropped his outstretched palm as he heard the sound of footsteps behind him, making a wild grab for his rifle. Thankfully, it was only Lance, who grasped his hand, shouting something that was lost in the chaos.

Merlin let himself get pulled to his feet, eyes scanning the clearing.

Come on…come on - wait… there .

Behind him he heard Arthur yell for a retreat, but Merlin’s eyes were on the one remaining sorcerer, standing by the controls to the exit gate and slowly frying them with conjured electricity as the gates closed; trapping them inside.

Oh no you don’t.

He didn’t haul ass getting out of Ealdor only to die here. 

Without thinking Merlin leapt after the sorcerer, ignoring Lancelot's shout of protest as he threw himself once more into the fray.

 


 

Arthur stared at the dark-haired figure ducking and weaving his way across the compound towards the control tower, eyes flashing with the light of the spells exploding around him. Nothing could touch him, not the blistering streaks of whatever-the-fuck-that-was being thrown his way, not the ground that shuddered beneath his feet, not even the waves of force that he always seemed to anticipate. Merlin seemed to have a sixth sense for whatever was being thrown at him - rolling before the fireball shot over his head, knowing instinctively when to duck and when to stand firm, bringing his gun up in a cross guard in front of his face to send the streak of energy rebounding off the metal. 

Arthur didn’t even know you could do that.

And all the while, the men attacking seemed to be getting more and more pissed off. The attacks came faster and uglier, those glowing missiles flung wildly in the hope it might hit the Quartermaster. Fire and light exploded around him, hot and volatile. Merlin simply sidestepped the blast, and carried on. For a moment his eyes seemed to flare a brilliant gold, but Arthur put it down to the reflections of the explosions igniting the air around them.

The figure nearest roared with fury, flinging out his palm towards Merlin, murder burning in his eyes…

Something snapped. Before Arthur knew what he was doing he was charging forward, a cry at his lips. The man turned - too slow - just as Arthur tackled him to the ground. The impact slammed into his back but he kept rolling, deflecting the man as he came face to face with his fists. Arthur’s elbow snapped up into the man’s face. He snarled, twisting to close his hands around Arthur’s throat. They tumbled across the ground - a frenzy of blows and grunts - until Arthur didn’t know which way was up and which was down and surely he must have been hallucinating because the man’s eyes were orange - an impossible dark, simmering amber, burning with hate. Arthur choked, black spots blotting out his vision as the man’s hands squeezed tighter around his neck. His lungs screamed, his chest thundering…

BANG.

Suddenly the pressure lifted. Arthur gasped in a breath. Above him, the man recoiled, head snapping back. Buried in his temple was a single bullet.

Lance.

No one else had that kind of accuracy.

Then there were hands pulling him to his feet, and Leon was yelling in his ear that they had to go right now.

Arthur agreed whole-heartedly. Together, they tore away from the compound towards the gate, praying the others were smart enough to follow. Arthur tried to yell out another retreat order, only the words snagged inside his raw throat and he ended up doubling over, coughing. The double 0 beside him - Lance - simply grabbed him arm and pulled him up.

As they neared the exit, however, Arthur realised they had another problem. The lockdown procedures had been set off, sealing the exit. Unless they could scale a twenty foot wall of sheer metal, and taking fire from the enemy whilst they did so…

Then, absurdly, as though someone had heard his inward spike of panic, the gate began to open.

Arthur didn’t have time to question his good fortune.

“Go!” He ordered. “Make for the gate!”

The double 0’s didn’t need to be told twice. They flew under the gate and ran until they could run no more - until they could no longer hear the sounds of the French base exploding into oblivion. The night was cool and clear around them. Arthur slowed to a stop, fighting to catch his breath. Every exhale sent plumes of icy smoke steaming out in front of him in the rapidly cooling temperatures. Even on the cusp of Autumn, the bite of frost hung about in the air.

"What - the fuck - was that?" Gwaine panted in the silence.

Leon shook his head, hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath. Around him, the other double 0's were looking similarly shell-shocked, still seeing the bullets that rebounded and the glowing missiles that had ripped open the sky like some sort of twisted CGI cop, only it had happened right there, right in front of them, and none of made any shite's worth of sense...

Arthur glanced round at his men, breathing heavily, silently doing a head-count.

Naturally, they were one short.

Merlin,” Arthur rasped. He cleared his throat. “Where’s Merlin?” 

The double 0’s glanced at each other. No one volunteered anything.

“Where is he?” Arthur said through gritted teeth. The silence stretched out. Arthur’s blood thudded in his ears. He wanted to throw something, or yell at someone, or turn right back around and march back to the compound and tear Merlin out with his bare hands if he had to because they was no way they were leaving him behind-

“There!”

At Owain’s shout Arthur span around so quickly he almost gave himself whiplash. There, stalking out from the trees as though Arthur had conjured him up just by thinking of him, was Merlin, his eyes blazing sapphire in the darkness. The sudden crushing relief that surged through Arthur almost choked him, the foreign emotion startling and raw. Around him the double 0’s were calling out, snapping out of their inner-freak outs and forgetting for a moment the insanity of what had just happened to break rank and rush to greet him. It took a physical effort for Arthur to restrain from joining them.

Now that he looked properly, he saw the Quartermaster was walking oddly — injured? No — Arthur realised as Merlin drew nearer, carrying something. His laptop, the odd trailing cable, a rectangular box of some kind —

Of course. 

Merlin hadn’t just run off into the blue; he had been the one to open the gate.

A strange feeling came over Arthur. Everything from the past few days seemed to surge up  his crushing relief at seeing Merlin alive, leftover adrenaline and the inevitable crash after a fight, the double 0’s laughing with Merlin, endless strategy-planning and then it all going to pot anyway, the attacks and weaponry that made no sense, Merlin’s words ringing in his mind as they snarled at each other, the strange exhilaration coursing through him when they had trained together, don’t get too close, looking at Merlin sometimes and forgetting to breathe for a moment because he looked and he wanted — don’t get too close — and now Merlin was standing there tall and unbowed, a small, bemused smirk touching his lips at the antics of the double 0’s surrounding him and was that blood on his shirt? and Arthur was moving forward and Merlin looked up with an uncertain smile and Arthur wanted to seize him in his arms and never let him go because there was no way Merlin could have been so stupid

“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Arthur snarled. He heard his voice as though from far away, words spilling out before he could stop them — “you could have got us all killed!”

You could have gotten yourself killed, he wanted to yell, you’re not a double 0, you’re supposed to have a slip of self-preservation. You’re not supposed to be reckless with your own life. Don’t you know anything?

Merlin recoiled as though he had been slapped. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Arthur…”

Arthur waved Leon aside. He couldn’t stop now. Arthur stepped forward. “You disobeyed my direct orders for a retreat, you broke rank, compromised our position-”

“I only saved our bloody lives!”

“You risked the fate of this entire operation!” Arthur roared. “You ran off without sparing a thought for the consequences, without a plan, without backup, without-”

The words caught in his throat. Without me

“I’m not one of your double 0’s,” Merlin’s voice was very cold. “I don’t answer to you.”

“Well you do here,” Arthur snapped. “You might be a big-shot back at MI6, but out here, in the field — you’re one of my team, and you defer to me. We work together.”

“Oh, so we’re a team now?” Merlin’s eyes flashed. “Tell me something, Pendragon. Do you trust me? Even in the slightest?”

Arthur opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

You’ll only be in the way, and I don’t trust you. The matter’s not up for discussion.

His own words, coming back to haunt him. He stared at Merlin, blood still roaring in his ears. The silence rang out as loudly as any answer he could have made.

Merlin shook his head, lip curling in disgust, “we’re no team, Arthur. We never will be. You’re 007, a Pendragon, and I’m — ” the words seemed to catch in his throat. Merlin looked away, but not before Arthur saw the strange flicker of panic in his eyes, as though he had been about to say something he shouldn’t.

Still keeping secrets Merlin?

He took a steadying breath, “You’re a Pendragon; you will always be the son of the man who locked me in a cell and left me to die. Don’t ever think that just because we work together means for one second that we’re a team.”

“Merlin…”

“Here.” Without looking, Merlin threw his assault rifle to Gwaine, who fumbled to catch it. “Wouldn’t want to be leaving me with actual weapons now, would we?”

“Merlin —”

“We shouldn’t linger here long. Those men will realise soon enough that I’ve locked them inside and wrecked their systems, and we don’t want to be here when they do.”

“Merlin —”

What?” Merlin snapped, and Arthur could have sworn his voice cracked a little. “Haven’t you said enough?”

Arthur restrained himself from flinching, but only just. This close, Arthur could see a bruise on Merlin’s chin, that his shirt was still stained from other people's blood, that his eyes were heavy with irritation and exhaustion. Arthur was hit with a rush of sudden, deep, thundering want. He wanted to take that last step forward and gather Merlin in his arms, press his lips to Merlin’s skin and convey through his touch everything he couldn’t say out loud.

You terrify me sometimes. I don't understand you at all, and yet there are times when I think you see me more clearly than anyone, and you keep saving my life and sometimes I catch you hiding a smile when we argue and then you get this distant look and it kills me not knowing what you're thinking and sometimes I just want to curl up inside your skin and stay there for a while because then maybe I'll finally understand what it is about you that feels like coming home-

Merlin was still looking at him, desperately stubborn with a broken defiance. God he was beautiful. 

Can’t you see I’m trying to stay away from you and it’s killing me? 

“We may not be a team, but when we fight, we fight as one.” Arthur gestured to the compound. “That means no more suicidal solo missions.”

“If I’m not mistaken, it was my ‘suicidal solo mission’ that saved your lives. Or did you miss that part?”

“I was somewhat preoccupied with covering your ass in the shitstorm you left in your wake,” Arthur said. “Or did you miss the swarm of angry assassins that we had to stop from blowing you to smithereens?”

Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it, as though he hadn’t considered it. His lips twisted in a cynical expression. “Careful 007, I might actually start to think you care.”

“You’d be surprised.” Arthur’s voice came out rougher than he intended, and Merlin blinked. Confusion warred with anger.

“Fine.” Merlin said at last. “Next time I want to go on a suicidal solo mission, I’ll send you a telegram in advance.”

“And you’ll take backup.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. "And I’ll bring Gwaine along with me. Are you happy now?”

“Why Gwaine?”

“His response to ‘suicidal’ is ‘I like those kind of odds’. I’m sure you can see the benefits.”

Gwaine perked up. “Of course, those aren’t the only benefits…”

“Shut up Gwaine,” Arthur and Merlin both chorused without missing a beat. They looked at each other.

“Fine, take whomever you will,” Arthur said, “but next time we have a plan, and we stick to it. We may not be a team, but when we’re out here - working together isn’t a luxury, its a necessity. Are you prepared for that?”

“On one condition.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

Merlin stepped closer, so close that Arthur could see the gold flecks in his eyes.

“Stop fighting me.” Merlin said. “No more trying to stop me from coming, or forcing me to steal weapons because you won't let me near anything sharp, or telling me to watch from the bloody monitors…just…trust has to go both ways, you know.”

“And you trust me, do you?”

“Well I trust you not to shoot me in the head. That’s a start, don’t you think?”

Arthur’s lips twitched. He looked at the double 0’s, each one of them meeting his gaze steadily. They would back whatever decision he made, even if they didn’t support it. He trusted them with his life, and for whatever reason, his friends had chosen to trust Merlin. 

And at the end of the day, against all odds, Merlin had saved their lives.

Don’t get too close.

Oh to hell with it all.

“A chance,” Arthur said. “You get one chance.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”

They looked at one another, gazes lingering just a second too long. From behind him, Arthur thought he heard one of the double 0's cough pointedly, and he started, snatching his gaze away.

“Good, well.” He cleared his throat, turning to Leon. When he spoke, his voice was all business. “Bring the Jeep around. The sooner we put a few miles between us and here, the better.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Be ready to move out.” Arthur turned, and then paused, eyes on Merlin’s retreating back. He looked so slight — a slip of darkness in flimsy clothes, no body armour, no weapons to defend himself.

Trust has to go both ways, you know. 

And as Arthur watched Merlin go, as he saw Gwaine swing Merlin’s surrendered weapon over his shoulder, abruptly he decided that something was abhorrently wrong with this picture, and wrenched off his own Walther from his belt.

“Hey Merlin,” he called, “wait.” Merlin turned, one eyebrow raised in silent question. Arthur held out the Walther. “Here.”

Merlin’s forehead furrowed in confusion. “This is your gun.”

“Yes, I am aware.”

“Why are you giving me your gun?”

“Because there is something you should have. Something every agent should have.”

"An obnoxious, arrogant attitude?”

“Haha.” Arthur tossed the Walther with perhaps a little more force than necessary to Merlin as he began to turn. “Here, catch.”

With a small, startled curse, Merlin leapt sideways, contorting his body to avoid the flying firearm, and somehow managed to snatch it out of the air without dropping it. 

Arthur nodded. "Good catch."

"Good..." Merlin gaped. "What the bloody hell was that for? Do you have some personal vendetta against the back of my head or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. You need a weapon.”

"And throwing one at my face is the answer?"

Arthur had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing. "Stop being such a drama queen. I knew you'd catch it."

"Terribly convenient that you'd choose now to have a little faith in my abilities."

"Oh I always had faith in your abilities, Merlin." Arthur said dismissively. "I'd be a fool not to. Its trusting them that I'm working on." 

Merlin glanced at the Walther in his hand. "So...lobbing a gun at my head was your way of...trying to trust me?"

"Now you're getting it."

"You've got some serious issues, you know that?"

Arthur's lips twitched. "Of course, the look on your face was also particularly entertaining..."

"If you're going to mock me, you can shove this —" Merlin lifted the Walther in the air and made an obscene gesture that finished his sentence.

Behind him, Lancelot made a strange choking sound, and it took them all a moment to realise he was laughing. Percival thumped him on the back. 

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Depends," he said to Merlin. "Are you planning on leaping up five feet in the air again? Because if you are, I'd like to get a camera ready so I can forever remember the sight."

"Prat."

"Idiot."

“Dollop-head."

"Dollop-head?" He repeated incredulously. 

Abruptly Merlin laughed, and his smile was as dazzling as the stars overhead.

 


 

The mood was surprisingly high as the seven of them readied to depart, considering not five minutes ago they'd been running for their lives from homicidal maniacs with glowing eyes. Then again, Merlin supposed, one would have to have an odd sense of humour, (not to mention a remarkably high tolerance for the sort of stuff that would send lesser men running screaming in the opposite direction) to be recruited as a double 0 in her majesty's secret service. 

“Well, would you look at that.” Leon said cheerfully as they approached the Jeep. “Our first assignment together, and nobody died. I call that a win.”

“Does this mean I win the pool?” Lancelot’s head popped up, grinning. Everyone groaned, and there was the rustle of crumpled notes as they got thrown in his direction.

As one of the twenties fluttered by, Merlin snatched it out of the air. “Come to think of it, I do recall putting thirty on this…”

“You said, and I quote, that Arthur and you would ‘both make it through the first assignment alive and on first name terms by mutual consent’,” Gwaine pointed out. “See, I hate to burst your bubble, but—”

Merlin!” Arthur’s voice yelled from inside the Jeep.

Merlin smirked. “You were saying?”

Lancelot’s face turned indignant. “Now wait just a-”

“MERLIN!” Arthur’s shout made them all wince. Anyone the focus of that much of the double 0's ire would be wise to duck and run whilst they still possessed all their limbs.

Merlin however, just grinned more broadly. “Come on gents, pay up — you’re all men of honour, are you not? We wouldn’t want to keep his highness waiting.”

“You,” Gwaine growled as he tossed his money to Merlin, “are a danger to mankind.”

Merlin winked. “So they tell me. Now,” he pocketed the thick wedge of cash. “I’d better go and see what Arthur wants. Ta!”

And with that, he bounded off, managing to nearly trip over his feet as he did so. The double 0's stared after him. 

"Were we just outplayed by a nineteen-year-old boffin in a neckerchief? Percival asked, a little incredulously.

"Danger to mankind," Gwaine repeated solemnly, and trudged up the hill after Merlin.

The double 0's shared a glance, lips fighting a smile, and followed. 

 


 

It was only later, of course, when they had put some miles between them and the DGSE, and Merlin was sat in the back of the Jeep absently turning Arthur's Walther over and over in his hand, when he realised. 

“You do know that giving me a gun that I made for you in the first place doesn’t actually constitute a gift right?” He addressed to Arthur in the front.

Arthur didn't take his eyes off the road, but Merlin thought he saw his mouth curve up at the side. "Don't people say it's the thought that counts?"

“— Besides, in case you didn’t remember, I specifically coded it to your palm print. I mean what was even the point of giving it back to me when I'll just have to reprogram —

"Merlin."

“Yes?”

Arthur's eyes flickered to his in the reflection of the windscreen, the flash of cornflower blue disarming Merlin for a moment. "Shut up."

If Merlin didn't know better, he'd have said Arthur sounded almost fond. Merlin pouted. Arthur's smile widened by the tiniest of margins.

And if the Walther somehow found its way onto Merlin's belt and stayed there, if Arthur started looking abnormally pleased for some reason whenever his eyes fell upon it, well; it was the thought that counted.

 

Chapter Text

The head of MI6 sat silhouetted against the window, grey eyes flitting back and forth as they scanned the reports of what was left of the DGSE. The base had been overtaken in minutes, all but destroyed by no more than fifteen men. The hazy descriptions of the assailants’s weaponry —  plumes of strange light, shuddering explosions, of bullets that faltered and fire that burnt blueleft a sour taste in Uther’s mouth.

Twelve years. Twelve years since he had last looked at the daily report on his desk and seen the destruction of magic lurking behind every line of veiled text. Twelve years of peace, whilst those with the accursed power fled into hiding. Broken, scattered, leaderless; Uther’s plan had worked perfectly. 

What had changed? Had they simply been waiting, biding their time, growing stronger, or had something happened to make them emerge? 

Pursing his lips, Uther lowered the report. No sign of Olaf, or his elusive daughter, Vivian, though the number of French agents dead or unaccounted for was harrowing to behold. Really, it was a miracle Arthur and his men had gotten out at all. 

After a second or two of contemplation, Uther pulled out one of the drawers at his desk and withdrew the Glock inside, silently holstering it to his waist. Almost absently, his fingers brushed the key on his belt —the only physical key he owned in a world of digital encryption and biometric security. This key belonged to a time that far outdated any electronic system. As to what it opened…

Clasping it in his hand, the head of MI6 stood, and began the long descent through the Riverhouse, down until you could go no more, and then further down still. 

He had found a way to break these people before; he could do it again.  

And if magic decided to strike at MI6, Uther was going to be ready. 

 


 

Despite what Arthur had said, Merlin hadn’t really expected much to change between them regarding the whole ‘ceasefire’ thing. He was a double 0, and an arrogant one at that. The deadliest field asset MI6 possessed, if his reports and success rate were to be believed. Sole heir to an agency that was steadily growing with each new asset Uther set his eyes on, soon to be one of the most powerful men in England. Golden boy of a service that adored him. Unofficial leader of one of the most highly trained and lethal groups of assassins the country had ever seen.

During his time with the Guild, Merlin had known enough people in this sort of line of work to know they were all the same. Narrow-minded, self-serving individuals - just as likely to stab their brother as an enemy. They weren’t exactly known to be particularly forgiving, either.

Arthur though... Merlin was starting to wonder if he’d been too quick to throw him in with the rest of his lot. The agent’s Walther bumping against his side was testament to something, anyhow.

“There's no such word, you know.”

As though he’d conjured him up, Merlin turned to see Arthur walking up beside him, looking frustratingly perfect given he probably hadn’t slept in days and had spent the last few hours being shot at. He fought to put the thought out of his head. It was an unspoken fact of life at MI6 that everyone at some point developed a crush on 007. Really (excluding the fact he was a complete prat) Merlin couldn’t see how you could not. There was something about Arthur that just drew you in, that had drawn him in from the start, even if he hadn’t recognised it at the time. One need only look at the double 0’s that surrounded him to see evidence of the loyalty and devotion he inspired, the qualities that one only glimpsed once you got past that outer wall of his that was so determined to keep everyone out. 

Arthur made people want to fight beside him, to follow him, to be better, because when the world inevitably went to shit around them as it often did, and the bullets began to fly and men who’d lived through all manner of horrors ducked and ran, he’d be the one still fighting because it was the right thing to do. Not because he was the only one stupid or reckless enough, or because he was the only one who could, but because no one else would.

It was a sort of archaic sense of honour and valour that hadn’t been followed in an age, not since the time of myth and heroes of old. On anyone else, it might have seemed presumptuously arrogant or laughably misguided, but on Arthur, it just seemed to fit. A curious combination of ruthlessness and virtuousness, of stubbornness and selflessness, an overwhelming conviction to do what was right, and on the flip side a crushing fear of failure. The flaunting of the rules, but the strict adherence to his own morality. The thrill of the chase, and the danger nights that haunted his return.

More and more, Merlin was beginning to realise just how little he understood Arthur Pendragon. 

Of course, the small fact that he was also unfairly handsome, devastatingly charming, and a lethally trained killer certainly didn’t hurt the appeal. (Not to mention, he looked like a greek god every time he smiled. Or shot something. Or breathed.) Being desirable was just what 007 did; it wasn’t really surprising half the secret service was madly in love with the insufferable bastard.

This was just Merlin’s turn. He’d get over it. 

Arthur was still looking at him expectantly, the pink streaks of dawn casting a pale glow upon his face, and Merlin realised he had been gaping at him for some time. He snapped out of it in a flush of heat and a stern reminder that Arthur couldn't possibly know about Merlin’s untimely epiphany or ridiculous infatuation. With an effort, he forced himself to look away. It wasn't easy.

“What?” 

Dollop-head.” Arthur repeated. “There’s no such word.”

Merlin hid a smile. “It's idiomatic.”

“It's what?”

“You need to be more in touch with the people.” He said seriously.

Arthur huffed, though the sound was more amused than irritated. “Describe ‘dollop-head’."

“In two words?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh... Arthur Pendragon.”

“Arthur!” Leon’s call saved Merlin from whatever Arthur had been about to say next. With a barely withheld sigh, Arthur turned to his second, though not before giving Merlin a look that told him he’d pay for the remark later. Merlin flashed him a grin and made way as Leon came between them.

“Leon?”

“Percival said he spotted another vehicle approaching from the south. A mile away, maybe less.”

“Friend or foe?”

“We’re not quite sure yet.”

Arthur frowned, glancing up to scan the horizon. “Merlin, you see anything?”

“What? Why me?”

“Lance said cutting the lights and using the electricity cables in the control room was your idea — that you navigated their positions blind. That’s more than I can say for half of these lot.” Arthur turned, impatient. “So, what do you see?”

“What — hang on, would you?”

Merlin flushed. There it was again — that way Arthur had of giving him something suspiciously close to a compliment whilst simultaneously making it sound like an insult. He was never quite sure whether to be flattered or offended. 

He scanned the horizon obligingly, though, and his gaze narrowed on the scatter of dark figures huddled in the oncoming vehicle. Without being asked, his magic flared up and the thin specks in his vision suddenly warped and brightened as the figures zoomed into focus. There were four of them, armoured like the double 0’s, only instead of standard MI6 black adorning their clothes, it was a dark, velvet green with an unfamiliar insignia. Driving was a moderately handsome man with a cruel face, eyes heavy set and dark. On the front of the jeep was a small metal shield, bearing a symbol of three entwining snakes. 

Merlin conveyed as much to Arthur, ignoring the way his eyebrows rose at the close description. When Merlin got to the snake emblem on the front, however, Arthur’s face hardened.

“Valiant.” He said darkly.

Merlin blinked. “Well, thanks, but I mean it was only a description-”

“Not you, idiot. That man you saw — his name is Valiant.”

“Oh.” Merlin glanced at him. “You know him then, I take it?”

“He’s one of my father’s newer recruits for field work.” From Arthur’s tone, he might as well have said conniving slug. “He was the one who brought in that defective agent in Turkmenistan last week.”

Merlin’s gut tightened. Uther’s recruits were steadily stretching out further and further afield to less…accredited origins (his own recruitment was evidence of that) and some of the newer field agents were said to be much more brutal than their peers; less honourable, and more dangerous. Merlin had seen them when they passed through HQ, overheard their debriefs, seen the evidence on the marks they brought in.

He remembered glancing over the report of Valiant’s op not two days earlier. The target in question had been barely alive, face pummelled beyond recognition, eyes hollow and unseeing. None of those who opposed MI6 lasted very long, but those who had been brought in by men like Valiant rarely lasted a few days. Breaking them had become somewhat of a sport to the agents. 

If Valiant was anything like his reputation rumoured him to be, God help them all.

“Do we hail them?” That was Leon.

Arthur’s lips pressed into a thin line that Merlin wanted to kiss away. “He’ll intercept us whether we hail or not, I don’t see how we have a choice.”

“I could drop a missile on his head,” Merlin offered.

“Very funny Merlin.”

“I’m serious. The Chinese military satellites are circling not too far overhead. At this distance — a small case of mistaken identity, a glitch in the Chinese offshore nuclear programs… happens all the time.”

“Can you even hack their satellites from here?” Gwaine looked fascinated.

Merlin opened his laptop, a smirk playing at his lips. “Would you like a demonstration?”

“Okay no, no.” Arthur interrupted quickly, looking like he wanted to smack his head against the car door, “no dropping a bomb on foreign soil, or anywhere for that matter.” 

Gwaine pouted. “Buzzkill.”

“Don’t buzzkill me, Mr-‘but-the-building-was-coming-down-anyway’.” Gwaine opened his mouth to protest — “I don’t want to hear it. Now for heaven’s sake try and keep your mouths shut. Valiant will be on us any moment.”

The Jeep was indeed coming up fast towards them. Valiant’s smile was slow and calculating as he beheld them, stepping out of the car. “Well well well, what are the chances, eh? Arthur Pendragon.”

“Valiant,” Arthur said curtly. “What brings you out of England?”

“What — no hello? No British welcome? Your famous charm is slipping, 007.”

Arthur’s face was like stone. “I heard you were preoccupied with some unrest in London.”

Valiant made a derisive sound. “The Dragon’s lackeys and street rats, no more. You’d think they’d know when to give up, but then, I suppose we need somewhere to get some target practise, so I’m not complaining.”

Merlin felt a white hot hatred surge through him. His breath hitched, his hand twitched towards his gun —

As though Arthur could read his thoughts, the double 0 cleared his throat and carefully positioned himself in between Valiant and Merlin’s line of sight. 

“What would we do without you, Valiant, to ambush defenceless orphans in the streets?” Arthur’s voice was droll with irony, but Valiant seemed not to notice.

“Well I’m afraid they’ll have to do without me for now. M has offered me a promotion. You’re not the only one with two nice little zeroes before your name anymore.”

Arthur smiled — if you could call it that. It was more of a flash of teeth. “009, I presume. How lovely.”

“I see you’re accompanied by the whole little cadre — a bit excessive for a hunting party, don’t you think? Then again, some missions require a more…select skill set.” His eyes flickered to where Merlin stood at the back of the group.

Arthur’s right hand twitched. “You would know, wouldn’t you, Valiant? Of course, that would actually require you to have a skill set. I seem to recall you knocking yourself out within the first five minutes last time you were sent after a mark.”

Valiant’s eyes flashed, but he didn’t rise to the jibe. “I see you have some new faces amongst your company. One almost has to wonder where you pick them up these days.” His eyes lingered on Merlin, eyes too-knowing.

Arthur shifted his body slightly, shielding Merlin. “Allow me to introduce our newest member, Merlin. Merlin, this is Agent Valiant.”

Merlin inclined his head a fraction. 

“My pleasure,” Valiant said, extending a hand for Merlin to shake. “Are you newly arrived at the Riverhouse? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”

“I arrived this autumn,” Merlin said coolly.

Valiant gave him a pointed smile. “And what sort of work do you do for our good nation?”

Lancelot shifted on his feet and Arthur went very still, but Merlin returned Valiant’s smile and said, “I specialise in finding information people don't want me to find.”

Valiant, to his surprise, actually chuckled. “I’ve heard about the new Quartermaster. I did not think it would be someone so… beguiling.” Merlin felt the oily grin and roaming eyes of the agent like a physical caress on his skin, and he fought the urge to spit in his face as Valiant leaned in closer. “Perhaps you and I shall get to work with each other, Merlin. Given you seem to be taking more... personal commissions.”

Merlin wouldn’t mind working with him, but not in the way Valiant meant. His way would include an exploding prototype, an unfortunate trip to the med bay, and a restraining order.

Before he could answer however, Arthur cut in, once more positioning his body in front of Merlin’s. “Merlin is not for hire.” He said coldly, and Merlin blinked at the anger in his voice — anger that, for once, was not directed at him. “He is on my team, and his contract is exclusively with M. If you need technological assistance, speak to him.”

“Who said anything about technological assistance?" Another smile. "Perhaps I am more interested in his other talents.”

Gwaine made a small choked sound, and the words were out of Arthur's mouth before he could stop them. “Then you’ll have to answer to me.”

His voice was soft, with an edge of warning, and Valiant looked at him with a sharp glance and a raised eyebrow, too slow to hide the flicker of surprise. The tension edged upward until Leon cleared his throat.

“Arthur? The time…”

“Quite. We really must be pressing on, M’s expecting us.” Arthur’s voice was smooth, unruffled. He pulled away, nodded to Valiant. “Congratulations on your appointment.” The platitude was utterly flat, but Valiant didn’t seem to notice.

“Thank you.” He glanced at Merlin one final time, expression perplexed, before whistling sharply to his men and turning to get back into into the car.

Merlin didn’t notice. He was staring at Arthur.

Arthur raised one aristocratic eyebrow. “What?”

Merlin shook his head. “Nothing.”

Arthur looked to say something, then seemed to think better of it. He exhaled with a small sigh, glancing up at the car as it sped away. A small, troubled frown creased his forehead.

“What are the chances a giant rock would just fall out of the sky and splat them into the ground?” Gwaine mused cheerfully.

“I could drop a bomb on them.” Merlin said, going back to his former offer.

Gwaine open his mouth, then closed it. “Actually not a bad idea.”

This time Arthur did smack his head against the car.

 


 

The journey back was thankfully ambush-free, and dawn was just breaking as they approached the outskirts of London. They had made unusually good time once back on home soil (though Arthur was willing to bet his next pay check that Merlin had had something to do with the sudden absence of road works, the traffic lights that were always green, and the morning rush-hour delays that mysteriously avoided them). For such a guileless, clumsy idiot, the Quartermaster could be a little scary sometimes.

Arthur frowned slightly as he cast his mind back to the events of the past few hours. Merlin had been surprisingly unperturbed when they were taking enemy fire, and hadn’t balked at the rogue third party when they entered the fray, even when they’d started blowing them all to kingdom come with apparently nothing more than their hands. Come to think of it, Merlin had taken the unexplainable ‘weaponry’ so much in his stride, it was almost as though he wasn’t freaked out at all. 

He recalled Merlin screaming at them to get down moments before the first explosion, seeing him dodging the beams of light like he had a sixth sense for where the next one would hit, unhesitant where the double 0’s had momentarily frozen in disbelief. 

Almost as though he had seen it before.

Olaf’s words rang through his head, “…I will tell you this, though. The world is changing. New powers are coming into play, and it won’t be long before they reveal themselves. Make sure you’re ready.”

Could Merlin know something he wasn’t telling them? If so, why withhold it? 

As he pulled off the M25, Arthur stole another glance in the front mirror to see Merlin was still slumped against the window in the backseat, hair in disarray, lips parted slightly, utterly dead to the world. He looked younger in sleep, all hard lines stripped away as the shadows caressed his jaw, all barriers lowered under the occasional, flickering luminescence of moonlight, though what they revealed Arthur couldn’t say. The Quartermaster had dropped off just as they crossed the border into England (not that Arthur was paying attention) and the double 0’s had shockingly quietened down in a remarkable, unspoken effort not to wake him.

Arthur had tried very hard not to crash the car into a lamppost when he saw Merlin’s head drop unconsciously onto Gwaine’s shoulder as they turned a corner, ardently telling himself he was glad he had given his Walther to Merlin so he couldn’t shoot Gwaine when the agent shifted his arm to let Merlin slump further against him. 

Gwaine was a tactile person. That was nothing new. There was no reason to mentally compile a list of seven different ways to break his arm just for the act of moving it to make Merlin more comfortable. 

To his left, Leon was beginning to eye Arthur with something close to amusement. Arthur pointedly kept his eyes on the road.

Despite general appearances, Arthur actually liked Gwaine. Sure, he was reckless and inappropriate and had no sense at all of common decorum when it came to anything remotely important, but the man was loyal to a fault, and one of the most selfless people Arthur knew. Not to mention, the guy was a bloody assassin who could shoot the wings off of a fly at a hundred paces.

But he kept. Touching. Merlin. 

Arthur had started noticing it on the way to Paris. Nothing obvious, just a hand on his side as they got into the car, a friendly brush of the shoulders, the near-constant contact of his knee or elbow or arm against whatever appendage of Merlin's is nearby.

It was driving Arthur insane.

And Merlin didn't even seem to notice. Merlin. Who was the least tactile person Arthur had ever known. Who shied away from the casual contact that was so normal amongst the double 0’s — a shoulder clap or fond clipping of the head or suffocating hug when a brother came home. Who, to Arthur’s knowledge, had never allowed anyone beside Gaius to touch him casually, and was seemingly indifferent to near-constant contact from Gwaine. 

Arthur resisted the urge to scowl in the mirror again.

Beside him, Leon cleared his throat. “Arthur?”

“Hmm?”

“You just missed the turning.”

A pause. “Right.”

Leon’s mouth was definitely curving up in amusement now.

“Oh shut up.” Arthur groused as he made a u-turn, but there was no heat in it.

His second looked defensive. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. I can hear your smugnessness all the way over here.”

“I’m fairly sure ‘smugnessness’ isn’t a word.”

“Oh, I see. Two weeks ago, playing Scrabble with Percival, it’s a word and now suddenly it's not a word because it’s convenient for you.”

Leon’s lips twitched. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

“Gwaine giving Percival a topless lap dance over a triple score is something hard forget in a hurry.”

Leon choked out a laugh, stifling it when he was shushed from the back.

“In all seriousness, though, Arthur,” Leon lowered his voice, wary of the listening ears behind them, “you two are in a dangerous business. You really ought to get it sorted between you.”

“Excuse me?” Arthur sounded incredulous.

“You heard me.” Leon’s gaze flickered back to where Merlin was still asleep on Gwaine’s shoulder. “What happened in Paris isn’t going to be the last of it. He’s going to be in danger again, just like you’re going to continue walking a fine line between recklessness and getting yourself killed. That’s the nature of our work, and that’s not going to change, I know that.” Leon’s voice gentled at Arthur’s frozen expression. “But I also know a thing or two about missed chances. What we do… any day could be our last. Don’t wait until its too late.”

“I —” Arthur began to protest but stopped at Leon’s bullshit expression. It was a look that said 'do not insult my intelligence by denying it you utter tit because I am exhausted and hungry and at my limit’. 

Leon had very vocal expressions. Arthur’s shoulders slumped slightly. “I’ll think about it.”

His second nodded, and they both turned back to the road, lost for a moment in the haze of streetlights and black tarmac streaking past them. He could feel Leon working up to saying something next to him, could sense him mentally preparing himself to bring up to the matter he’d really been wanting to broach ever since they’d started talking. Arthur let him think, knowing Leon would get there when he was ready and not a moment before.

Sure enough, after a minute or two, Leon spoke again, his voice careful and measured. “Are you going to tell M about…” He trailed off.

Arthur should have known this was what had been bothering him. 

About the blue lightning that nearly cut Percival and Owain in half? The glowy-missile-grenade-shite that should have blown us all to kingdom come but our ears weren’t even ringing? Our bullets that suddenly adopted a rather odd tendency of stopping in midair a foot from their target? 

“The weird stuff?” Arthur finished when it became clear Leon wasn’t going to say it. 

Leon gave a short, jerking nod. 

Arthur had been considering the thought himself for the past few hours, and he’d yet to reach an answer. He couldn’t exactly tell his father, sorry we didn’t get the information you were after, we were a bit busy, what with the dodging all of the certain-preternatural-death coming at us from every direction from the glow-stick-wielding terrorists who might actually have magical powers. 

Even in his head, it sounded absurd. Men had been discharged on less.

Arthur exhaled, a small noise of frustration. “I don’t know,” he said at last, “I mean, Christ, I hardly know what to think myself. Some men just happen to attack the DGSE when we’re calling by, start throwing around force-voodoo-shite like they’ve just strolled off the set of Star Wars, then let us go?” He shook his head. “I don’t like it.”

“From where I’m standing, I don’t think the ‘letting us go’ was entirely intentional.” Leon said quietly. “I saw their faces when we were still standing after that red-explosion-thing. They were surprised, confused, angry even. Something must have stopped it from working.”

“Or someone,” Arthur murmured.

Leon inclined his head. “Either way, we got lucky last night. Had that Jeep not overturned and caught fire when it did, I’m not sure we’d have made it out at all.”

“Lucky,” Arthur repeated, almost to himself. His gaze narrowed, seeing in his head the red explosion that had split the earth in half and set buildings ablaze around them, but hadn't even knocked them off their feet. Lucky indeed.

“You know we’ll support you either way. Whatever you decide with M.”

It was a statement, not a question, but Arthur nodded gratefully at his second all the same. “I know.”

They lapsed into silence. 

A few exits and ring roads later, Lancelot spoke up from the back. “So, who’s turn is it?”

That, apparently, was the cue for everyone to start talking at once. Arthur sighed, finding himself once again restraining the urge to accidentally crash the car into a lamppost. 

“I got the Thai last week,” Owain offered.

Percival perked up. “Indian was mine.” 

“Gwaine owes me a breakfast.” 

“I think you’ll find the Indian was mine, actually.”

“Bollocks!”

“I certainly do not owe you anything —”

“Last week’s pool? That Irish brunette?”

“Oh right yeah —”

“OI!” Leon barked, the honed crack of authority in his voice silencing the hub of exclamations. “One, it’s actually my turn to buy, so unless you want to forgo your right to bacon, you might want to shut up. Two, in case you didn’t notice, our Quartermaster here is trying to sleep and would hardly appreciate you—”

“No, he really wouldn’t,” Merlin’s voice grumbled from the corner, rough with sleep as he fought a yawn. He glanced round blearily at the slightly-guilty faces surrounding him. “Now what was that about a topless lap dance over a triple score?”

Silence. Arthur glanced sideways. Leon, the insufferable twit, was grinning.

 


 

Merlin hadn’t known what to expect when they pulled into a private driveway in a top end of London as dawn broke across the sky. He certainly didn’t expect Arthur-mightier-than-thou himself, to saunter into the tiny restaurant on the corner that looked very not open and emerge with a crooked smile that made something turn in Merlin’s chest, beckoning them in with one raised aristocratic eyebrow. The double 0’s, apparently having done this routine a hundred times before, trooped out of the car with a grumble of good-natured complaints and an air of familiar anticipation, taking the bustle of noise and warmth with them and leaving Merlin poised awkwardly by the Jeep. His eyes followed the double 0’s, fingers curling around the open car door absently. Hesitant.

This was their tradition, the double 0’s, one small part of their routines and quirks and long-established normalities, that sense of home that had nothing to do with place. Who was he to intrude upon it? Upon them, this band of brothers who’s bond went far deeper than blood — forged in steel and duty and loyalty? Everyone was talking to someone, Gwaine grinning at Percival, Lance clapping Owain on the shoulder, Leon pausing by the door to say something that made Arthur smile. 

Merlin didn’t fit in.  

And maybe it was the adrenaline crash after a mission, or the way his hands was still tingling with the remnants of magic bristling just under his skin, a sensation he hadn’t felt in a decade, forever reminding him he was different, or the way Arthur had looked at him when he'd walked out of the forest by the DGSE - looked at him like the world could have been on fire and he wouldn't have noticed. Whatever it was, a strange, hollow feeling opened up within him, momentarily stealing his breath. Seeing in this group of assassins an echo of what he’d had once, in another life. Before everything had gone so very wrong.

Who was he, but an outsider? Stranger. Hacker. Criminal.

At the door to the restaurant, Arthur paused when the other double 0’s had entered. His eyes flickered away back across the road, searching, frowning. When those cornflower blue eyes met his, Merlin ducked his head slightly, wanting to lower his gaze but unable to break Arthur’s stare. A thread stretched between them, taunt and tightening. He could almost see Arthur’s mind at work, see him reading everything Merlin was usually so careful to hide. 

And Merlin could have sworn something in Arthur’s expression softened as he jerked his head towards the door.

“Come on, Merlin. Anytime today would be nice.” Impatient. Droll. Commanding.

But for that curious warmth in Arthur's gaze, a faint glimmer of protective steel flaring to the surface that Merlin had glimpsed earlier with Valiant. A wordless beckoning, the fond undertone of idiot, what are you doing standing all the way over there?

And so Merlin went, wondering why the hell Arthur Pendragon had to become so bloody observant at the most inconvenient of times, the one moment his guard was down. 

Wondering when it was the double 0 agent had started to care.

The restaurant was empty but for them when Merlin entered, making him strongly suspect they had opened at Arthur’s request. The feat didn't surprise him in the slightest; Arthur could be insufferably charming when he needed to be. What did surprise him was the steaming cup of Earl Grey that was placed in front of his nose the moment he sat down. Merlin blinked. It was the right colour. He cautiously took a sip. Blinked again. Glanced up at the waiter, and then at Arthur standing behind him, watching Merlin.

“You know my tea order?” Merlin ventured, trying to remember when he had ever mentioned to Arthur how he took his tea and coming out on a blank.

A slight raised eyebrow. “Of course I know your tea order,” Arthur dismissed, again, the unspoken idiot almost as audible as though he had said it out loud. “Now come on, budge up.”

Merlin did, trying not to look as dazed as he felt. He put it down to the sleep deprivation.

“Anything I can get you, Mr Pendragon?” The waiter enquired.

“Just the usual, if you would, Seb.”

‘The usual’ ended up an amount of food that could have fed a small army, making Merlin wonder whether it would have been simpler to have just brought the kitchen out and placed it in front of them with a fork. The waiter bowed with a small smile, and retreated, leaving them to it. At Merlin’s quirked eyebrow, Arthur explained. 

“I did the owner a favour a few years back. Her husband was on death row in America. I was able to help out.”

“You stopped her husband from being executed?”

“Oh no,” Arthur smiled, a flash of the predator underneath, “I ensured it.”

“Arthur!” A woman’s voice exclaimed before Merlin could open his mouth to ask what — “it’s been too long, my boy, I’ve been absolutely desolate without you.”

The woman swanning towards them was elderly, Merlin would hazard around fifty or sixty, yet she exuded the refined poise of a woman half her age. Silver hair was twisted into an elegant knot on the top of her head, laughter lines etched around her eyes, and her mouth was gentle and kind. Her clothes were rich drapes of material in blue-greys and silver, and her eyes were twinkling as they beheld Arthur, though now Merlin looked at her properly, he thought he saw an underlying steel in her gaze. Suddenly her acquaintance with Arthur made more sense. 

Arthur’s smile shifted in a heartbeat from dangerous to charming. “Madame Elaine, always a pleasure.” He took her outstretched hand, and pressed it to his lips.

Elaine’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. “Not being shot at too much, I hope?”

“As if they could hit me if they tried.”

A tinkling laugh. Elaine scanned the group. “Good to see your boys are still with you, I do worry.” Then her eyes stopped on Merlin, and for a moment he could have sworn she froze, something flickering across her face that Merlin couldn’t read. Recognition? Shock? Awe? A blink, and it was gone, replaced with a smile, leaving Merlin to wonder whether he’d imagined it. “Oh ho, who’s this?”

“Ah, Merlin, may I present the Lady Elaine.” Arthur’s eyes flickered to him. “Elaine, this is Merlin, my… colleague.”

“Colleague?”

“Friend,” Merlin inserted, missing the strange expression that flickered across Arthur’s face. He had just enough sense to take Elaine’s offered hand, noticing absently it was callused in the same way as the double 0’s, and rose it to his mouth the same way he had seen Arthur do. He gave her a dazzling smile, eyes flitting across her face as he took everything in. “Always charmed to meet a former operative of MI6.”

Elaine blinked. Turned to Arthur. “You told him about me?”

“Not a word,” Arthur said.

She turned back, curious. Tthen how…”

Merlin shrugged. “Your knowledge of our profession, your familiarity with Arthur. The calluses on your palms, rather specific to regular use of a handgun. The two blades you have concealed, one in your hairpin and the other strapped to your right leg. I also highly suspect the heels of your stilettos are poisoned, based on the faint hint of residue on the carpet that has the distinct aroma of a liquid neurotoxin created by my predecessors in Q branch. I noticed we were all scanned upon entering by the facial recognition cameras hidden in the coat stands — you needn't worry about them not recognising mine, by the way. You'd be hard pressed to find a security system in the Western world that would. Plus there’s the way you’ve surveyed the room twice in the time I’ve been talking…” Merlin smile turned sheepish, “and the logical conclusion is that you are a retired double 0 operative now running this restaurant as a front to some sort of side business MI6 has.” He tilted his head. “Something to do with the archives, based on the ink stains on your hands. History. Research?”

Elaine’s smile widened delightedly. “It’s just a safe house, actually. Though I do spend a great deal of time in the archives, purely for personal interest, of course.”

Merlin sighed. “There’s always something.”

She giggled, a strangely girlish sound that Arthur didn’t think he’d ever heard her make before. He exchanged a raised glance with Leon. 

“You’re quite right of course, I was a double 0. Retired now, obviously.” Elaine shook her head. “Are all the Q’s as smart as you nowadays?”

“Nope, that’s just Merlin.” Percival grinned. “Our special snowflake.”

Merlin unobtrusively hit him.

“Well, anything on the house for you and your boys. Just yell if you need anything.”

That last part was directed at Merlin, who gave her another dazzling smile. “You’re too kind.” 

Elaine flashed a knowing smirk at Arthur, and jerked her head towards Merlin. “You can keep this one.”

Arthur opened his mouth, but Elaine was already sauntering off. He bit back a sigh.

If only Merlin was Arthur’s to keep.

“Nice one there, Merlin. Didn’t know you went in for older women.” Gwaine remarked.

“Oh piss off,” Merlin said good-naturedly, and helped himself to more bacon. 

Thankfully, everyone was busy trying to see how much food they could consume without needing to draw breath to notice Arthur’s fork had paused halfway to his mouth, struck dumb by the sudden realisation he had no idea what Merlin did go in for. Whether he was even gay. Come to think of it, they still knew very little about the enigmatic Quartermaster at all.

Across the table, Gwaine was speaking again. “You haven’t really grasped the concept of ‘time off’ yet, have you?”

Arthur glanced up to see Merlin apparently disassembling his phone on the table in between mouthfuls of toast, twisting one of the wires onto the antenna into an odd, curving shape.

“Elaine’s netted the building,” Merlin explained absently. “Lined the walls with a Faraday cage, prevents any EM fields from getting through, thus no phone signal. I’m just boosting mine.”

“To what, check Facebook?”

A dry look. “You’ll thank me when MI6’s security systems are breached, and I’m able to prevent your personal information being leaked online because I caught it from my phone.”

“Hmm.” Gwaine stole one of his sausages, ignoring Merlin’s protest. “Doesn’t your girlfriend have something to say about you spending every waking moment at work?”

“Unlikely, given I don’t have one.”

“Oh.” The sausage paused halfway to Gwaine’s mouth. “Boyfriend then?”

Arthur choked on his toast, and Leon had to thump him on the back.

Merlin gave Gwaine a look. “Are you asking?”

“Yes.” said Gwaine with a slow grin.

“Then no.”

“No?”

“No.” Merlin agreed.

Gwaine opened his mouth, then closed it, confused. “Wait, so was that ‘no’ I don’t have a boyfriend, ‘no’ I don’t swing that way, or, you know,” he made a vague gesture between them, “‘no’ ?”

Merlin smiled blandly. “Yes.”

Gwaine huffed, though it sounded more amused than irritated. “Come on, Q. You’re not allowed to be charming and elusive. That’s my job.”

Merlin dimpled. “But you know I do it so much better!”

“Alright girls, girls,” Leon sighed. “Christ this is like college all over again.”

Merlin and Gwaine shared a conspiring grin. Arthur fought the urge to knock over his coffee.

“It won’t last though, you know,” Gwaine informed Merlin smartly.

“What won’t?”

“This.” Gwaine waved his fork in a vague gesture that could have meant anything from ‘your breakfast’ to ‘the current political state of the English government’. “You. This whole keeping mum bollocks. It won’t last.”

Merlin looked innocent. “I am an open book.”

“I don’t believe that for a second.”

“Come on Merlin,” Percival implored, “we deal with enough of the secret-agent crap in our real lives, let alone between friends. Keeping secrets is exhausting. Is it such an alien concept to think that maybe you don’t have to?”

Merlin paused, eyes flitting between all the double 0’s, who watched him silently. His eyes fell on Arthur last, and lingered there.

“You’re trained to read people, correct?” Merlin’s eyes glinted curiously, as though he was talking solely to Arthur. “Read me, then. You must have made some deductions of your own these past few weeks.”

Arthur cocked his head. This was a direction he was not expecting. “Will you tell me if I’m right?”

“If you like.”

A strange hush had fallen over the table. Arthur ignored them and took his sweet time studying Merlin, relishing for once the excuse to stare at him openly. Merlin’s chin was raised slightly in a challenge, his limbs strung out like the taunt strings of a bow as though any moment he might snap. Arthur’s gaze swept across the lines of his cheekbones as the light played across them, glancing over the shadows under his eyes and the stubborn set of his jaw. Those blue-gold eyes watched him steadily all the time, dark like the blue-black space between the stars. 

Arthur started with the easiest.

“You were born in Wales.” He declared at last, his tone utterly certain.

Merlin’s expression didn’t flicker. “What makes you say that?”

“Somewhere North,” Arthur mused, ignoring him. He threw out a guess, “North-West. Coastal?”

Bingo. Merlin blinked, lips parting slightly in shock. “How could you possibly know that?”

Arthur smirked, leaning back in his chair. ”I have an ear for accents.”

"I've lost my accent entirely.”

"I have an ear for that as well.”

The slight flush darkening Merlin’s cheekbones should not be as attractive as it was. 

“So? Am I right?”

“Aberystwyth.” Merlin confirmed. “North-West Wales.”

Arthur smiled. “Right on all accounts then.”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Anything else, oh mighty one, or was that it?”

“You used to smoke,” Arthur continued instead of answering. “Not for a year or so now, mind, but your hands —” Arthur demonstrated an elegant gesture of his wrist that he’d seen Merlin doing absently when he was stressed, two fingers pressed together as though he had just taken a drag, “—still have the tells.”

Merlin’s lips quirked. “Closer to four years, actually. Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in prison.”

By now the other double 0’s were utterly silent, gazes flickering between them. Merlin and Arthur barely noticed.

“You’re left handed, but you shoot with your right.” Arthur threw out.

“Practicality.” Merlin answered. “Left-handed weapons aren’t standard issue. You’re much more likely to be able to get hold of a right-handed firearm in a tight spot.”

“Your nose was broken when you were younger.”

“Twice, actually. Never did learn when to run away from a fight.”

“You don’t sleep enough.”

“That’s an opinion, not an observation.” Merlin pointed out.

“Doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Arthur’s voice came out rough at the end, and he belatedly realised they had unconsciously angled towards each other whilst they had been talking.

A funny smile crossed Merlin’s face. “Sleep is boring.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Of course you don’t like sleep.”

“I never said I said didn't like it…:

“Merlin, you like everything.” Lance pointed out.

“Untrue. I detest all the works of Microsoft. Bureaucracies. Business suits. COBOL. BASIC. Character-based menu interfaces. Poorly made tea...”

“You don’t like water.” The deduction slipped out of Arthur’s mouth without thinking.

Silence. Though Merlin hadn’t so much as flinched, Arthur saw something shut down in his face, and immediately wished he could take the words back. 

Shit.

“Merlin—”

“No, it’s okay, you’re right.” Merlin glanced up, flashing him a small smile that convinced no one. “I don’t. Like water, I mean.” He paused, as though weighing the odds of telling them. “I was running. It was night time, and the ground was wet. It was raining.” His voice was quiet, detached. “I slipped on the bridge. Fell into the Thames. Later, I was told I nearly drowned.”

“Told?” Percival repeated softly.

Merlin shrugged, his gaze distant. “It was December. The water was freezing, and with the impact from the height I fell, I lost consciousness before I even resurfaced. I was seven.”

Arthur nearly dropped his coffee, the surge of emotion he felt was so strong. All of a sudden, he wanted to shoot someone, to draw Merlin close to his side and murder anyone who tried to take him from him, to fight monsters, to do something heroic and valiant and angry and ridiculous all because the thought of Merlin not-existing, of seven-year-old Merlin struggling alone in the cold, dark water, was an abruptly horrible thought. 

“How did you survive?” Lance was saying.

A shrug. “I was found washed up on the bank the next morning, freezing, but alive. Everyone said it was a miracle.”

Arthur didn’t ask who had found him, or why Merlin had even been on that bridge in the first place, who it was he’d been running from. Now wasn’t the time.

Instead, he looked Merlin straight in the eye, and said, “the official record is that I was recruited when I was eighteen, but in fact it was closer to sixteen. Uther sent me on my first assignment when I was seventeen, five years ago now, breaking up a drugs ring in Japan, and I first killed a man a week later.” His eyes lowered, still seeing the agent’s face, “I didn’t even know his name, but my father was so pleased when I returned, it didn’t seem to matter.” Arthur paused. “I killed another six men in four months, Uther lying about my age to clear it with the higher-ups, and was 007 within the year. I’ve been with MI6 ever since.”

He had never told anyone this, not explicitly anyway. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Leon staring at him. Arthur’s gaze flickered up, expecting to see shock or horror, but what he saw was an immeasurable warmth, a smouldering emotion in Merlin’s blue-gold eyes that momentarily took Arthur’s breath away, and somehow, for once, Arthur knew that he had managed to find exactly the right thing to say. Truth paid with truth. The two looked at each other, the added layer of something forging between them almost tangible as the rare honesty they’d shared.

“Well,” spoke Gwaine, very seriously, into the silence. “During the threat of an assassination attempt, I once appeared convincingly in front of congress as Barack Obama.”

“In black-face?” Percival replied blandly. “That's not appropriate.”

A beat. Then Owain snorted, and bright laugher filled the restaurant, school-boy sniggers dissolving into delighted mirth at the ludicrous breaking of the tension. There had been little to laugh about this past week, and Arthur grinned to see Merlin fighting a smile. His quiet seriousness faded away, leaving him more relaxed than Arthur had seen him for a long time. His long lashes —impossibly long, that made girls at MI6 HQ look on with envy — brushed the high rises of those devastating cheekbones, hiding the bright blue of his eyes in a moment of quiet solitude amongst the bustle of the double 0’s around him.

And though Arthur knew this was just the beginning of all the secrets Merlin was hiding, that there was a great deal more he wasn’t telling them and not all of it was going to be pleasant, that burning curiosity, that insatiable need to drive Merlin out into the open that Arthur had battled in the beginning, was for the first time strangely absent. 

Because, God-help him, he trusted the bastard. And until Merlin trusted him enough in return, he’d just have to wait.

Across from him, Merlin gave him an small smile, shy and uncertain, and Arthur was surprised no one heard the sound of his heart trying to leap out of his chest. 

Oh to hell with it. He’d wait as long as it took for Merlin.

 


 

“You haven’t told them yet, have you?”

The voice made Merlin start, whirling around to see Elaine standing behind him as he was about to exit the restaurant after the double 0’s. One of her eyebrows rose serenely in a way that was scarily similar to Gaius’s.

“I’m sorry?” He said slowly.

“What happened in Rome, what happened in Paris. You haven’t told them what it is.”

Merlin stilled. His eyes flickered on instinct to the rest of the double 0’s outside as they were getting into the car, but none of them were in earshot. None of them even glanced their way. 

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said evenly.

Elaine gave him a look. “Let us not lie to one another, Emrys —"

At the moniker, Merlin physically recoiled. A jerk, a crack in his facade.  "Where did you hear that name?"

She ignored him. "You and I both know this is just the beginning. They’re going to find out, eventually.”

“Find out what, exactly?” 

She smiled. “About the magic, of course.”

Magic.

“Magic isn’t real.” He rebuked tonelessly. Even to his own ears, Merlin sounded unconvincing. 

“Oh? Then I suppose it was luck that sent that Jeep flying into your attackers in France? Coincidence that their spell just happened to miss all of you? Mere good fortune that saved you all those years ago from drowning in the Thames?”

Merlin’s eyes flashed warningly, his magic flaring up in response. “Who the hell are you?”

“I am not your enemy, Merlin.”

“Oh? You’re not doing a very good job of convincing me otherwise.”

Slowly, so Merlin could see what she was doing, Elaine reached into her robes and drew out a crystalline object that shone with a soft light, its many faces reflecting images that did not belong to their surroundings. 

Merlin’s gaze widened with understanding, and just like that his magic simmered down. “You’re a seer.”

“And you’re late,” she informed him smartly, putting the crystal away. “You were supposed to be here hours ago.”

“We were delayed. Lovely chap called Valiant intercepted us on the way back.”

Something flickered across Elaine’s expression that Merlin couldn’t read. “Did his car have a shield with three entwining snakes by any chance?”

“I get the impression you’re about to tell me.”

Elaine shook her head, muttering to herself. “This is happening more quickly than I anticipated. Watch that man, and don’t let him fight Arthur.”

“What? Why?”

“You’ll see.” Her eyes flickered to the double 0’s outside, who were glancing through the windows, looking for Merlin. Her mouth tightened. “We don’t have much time. Listen closely. At some point within the next few days, a woman is going to enter MI6 called Sophia. She will be beautiful and charming and have the whole lot of them eating out of her palm within the day, and she is not to be trusted.”

“I don’t understand—”

“Listen.” Elaine said firmly, her hand gripping Merlin’s wrist in a death grip. “She will try and get Arthur alone. It is imperative you do not let this happen.”

“Why? Who is she?”

“Merlin!” Arthur’s voice cut Elaine off from whatever she was about to say, and Merlin closed his eyes in frustration. Of all the times for Arthur to be paying attention…

“What happens if she gets him alone?” He pressed. 

Elaine just looked at him, and Merlin could read the answer in her eyes. He swallowed.

“Merlin!” Arthur yelled again, this time with a touch of impatience. Anyone the focus of that much of the double 0’s ire would be wise to duck and run whilst they still possessed all their limbs.

Merlin just sighed. “Coming!” He called, grabbing his coat. He glanced round at Elaine as he shrugged it on, lowering his voice. “Why are you telling me this? You barely know me, you owe me nothing. Why warn me at all?”

For a moment, something unbearably sad, almost pity, crossed Elaine’s face, though Merlin couldn’t think why she would be pitying him. “You’re not alone, Emrys. There are those of us who still remember.”

Again with that accursed name.

“Remember what?” 

“MERLIN!”

Merlin bit back a curse. One of these days, he was going to turn Arthur into a frog. With a forced exhale, he turned to Elaine. “I’d better go. Thanks, um, I think.”

“Good luck,” Elaine said simply, and then surprised Merlin by bowing slightly. “It is an honour to finally meet you.”

Finally? Merlin flashed her a quizzical smile, then slipped out the door just as Arthur was marching over to no doubt drag him out himself.

“What took you so long?” Arthur demanded.

Merlin shrugged. “Elaine wanted me to look at the facial recognition security at her door.” He lied smoothly. “The database needed updating is all.”

Arthur raised an aristocratic eyebrow, but didn’t question it. “Well if you’re quite done showing off, we’ve got a debrief at HQ in ten. Try not to say anything overly stupid.”

Overly stupid?” Merlin repeated as they walked.

“I am under no delusions. With you, a certain level of stupidity is unavoidable.”

“At least I’m not a gigantic arse,” Merlin muttered under his breath.

“What was that, Merlin?” Arthur asked dangerously.

He smiled blandly. “I said ‘you might want to mind the glass’.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed, but the expression was somewhat ruined by the quirk of amusement on his lips. “Get in the car, Merlin.”

“Yes, sire.”

The unbidden smile still lingered on Merlin’s face as the two got in and the engine started. As the car pulled away, however, he caught a glance of Elaine’s face through the window, and she wasn't smiling. She wasn’t even looking at Merlin. No; Elaine was looking at Arthur.

Looking at him as though she might never see him again.

 


 

Sitting in front of the head of MI6 back at HQ, awaiting debrief, felt a whole lot like taking one’s place in front of a firing squad. In fact, it was only when the door had closed behind them, and all of them were waiting silently for Uther to speak, that Merlin realised none of them had actually discussed what it was they were going to say. More specifically, whether they were going to mention, oh he didn't know, the magic? The sorcerers? The stuff that no one could explain, that had everyone but him wondering whether they’d gone mad? In the army, soldiers would be discharged for giving such a report. No general wanted to hear their battalion was defeated by flashing lights and magic force-fields. How would the double 0’s factor?

“The third party,” said Uther, after they had given the head of MI6 a very brief run-down. “You didn’t recognise them?”

“No sir,” Arthur replied. “They were speaking English, but the accents hinted at Eastern-European, some American. No identifying marks on their uniform.”

“Hmm.” Uther looked displeased, but not entirely surprised. “And their offence? You mentioned there was something…strange.”

A moment of charged silence. Merlin forced himself not to fidget, or start babbling, or run screaming from the room like every instinct was compelling him to. 

“Strange, sir?” Arthur said with some nonchalance.

Uther glanced over the report. “Unwarranted explosions. Strange lights. Shielding technology.”

Arthur shrugged. “We were outgunned. Laughably so. If it hadn't been for Merlin — I mean, Q — we wouldn’t have made it out alive.”

Uther’s eyes flickered to his, like cold blue lasers, and Merlin wanted to happily whack Arthur on the head for drawing the attention to him. “Q?”

Merlin cleared his throat. “The third party had jammed the systems somehow, locking us inside. I was able to hack the backup generator that opened the gate in order for us to escape.”

“And how, exactly, were you able to get past these men when my double 0’s could not?”

I don’t know, maybe because I could sense the magic being flung at me like heat missiles circling a plane?

“I was able to slip past them whilst Arthur and his men attacked from the front.” Merlin said evenly. “I can only presume they didn’t think me much of a target.”

To his left, Arthur shot him a side-along glance, but thankfully Uther wasn’t looking. 

He humphed. “And, as head of Q-branch, what do you think of this weaponry they were using?”

Merlin hesitated, his eyes briefly meeting those of the double 0’s, and finally Arthur’s. There was the tiniest shake of Arthur’s head. For whatever reason, Arthur wanted him to keep his observations quiet. That worked fine by him.

“Whatever it was, it far advances anything we have in our arsenal,” Merlin said carefully. “Finding a way to defend against it should be our first step.”

“But do you think we can beat it?” There was a gleam in Uther’s eyes that Merlin couldn’t read. “Given the right research and resources?”

“I think we’re lucky to be alive,” Merlin answered honestly. 

Uther pursed his lips, but didn’t press the matter. He waved his hand lazily. “Very well. You are all dismissed. If any of you… recalls anything of significance, you are to take it directly to me.”

There were a few murmured yes, sirs as they stood up to leave. Just before they reached the door, however, Uther spoke up from behind them.

“Oh, Arthur?”

They all stopped, though only Arthur turned. “Sir?”

“Did that blundering fool Olaf have anything useful to say? You didn’t mention anything in the report."

“The world is changing. New powers are coming into play, and it won’t be long before they reveal themselves. Make sure you’re ready.”

“No sir,” Arthur said nonchalantly. “Nothing of significance.”

Uther studied him for a moment, then nodded. “Very well, off you go.”

Merlin stared as Arthur turned and walked out, meeting his gaze for the most fleeting of moments. Merlin rose his eyebrow meaningfully, the tiniest of margins — what the hell, Arthur?

Arthur shook his head slightly — not here.

A tilt of his head, a risked glance back to Uther —You lied to your father?

Arthur’s mouth twitched into a scowl— Try and look slightly more obvious, why don’t you? I’m not sure my father quite caught that.

Merlin rolled his eyes — prat.

Idiot.

The silent exchange had lasted all but a few seconds, but it was long enough for the double 0’s to notice. They shared a glance, curious and a little bemused at this wordless communication Merlin and Arthur didn’t even seem to realise they were having. Nobody, though, could miss the determined steel in Arthur’s eyes as he stalked past them out into the hallway. 

The message was clear: we need to talk. 

Resigned, and with some trepidation, Merlin followed him out, the others close in his wake.  

This was going to be interesting.

 


 

After some brief deliberation, the seven of them ended up in Q-branch, where one look from Merlin had the entire room getting up and abandoning their desks without a word, leaving them alone. 

“And I thought Gwen was kidding about the whole minion thing…” Lance muttered. 

Merlin flashed him a quick smile. “We can talk freely in here. I’ve got a lockdown on all the feeds, and an alarm to notify us if anyone comes prying.” 

Arthur gave him a curt nod of approval. He turned to the double 0’s. His voice was quiet. “Just now, I induced you to lie in a debrief to your commanding officer, and you have the right to know why.”

“Is this about the weird stuff that happened in Paris?” Lance asked.

Arthur’s gaze flickered to Merlin, loaded and unreadable. “This stays with us. No reports, no outside involvement, and no taking it to the higher ups. Nothing leaves this room.”

The double 0’s glanced at one another, scattered surprise and curiosity lingering in their expressions. When Arthur’s piercing gaze met theirs, however, they held it evenly, a silent affirmation. 

Satisfied, Arthur turned to Merlin, holding out his earpiece in one hand. “Merlin, if you would?”

A small, surprised smile touched Merlin’s lips as he recognised it. He hadn’t thought Arthur had been listening when he’d told him of the recording device in his earpiece. Apparently Olaf hadn’t noticed Arthur activate it either. Ruddy spies. Spinning over to his desk, Merlin tapped out a few commands on his laptop and moments later Olaf’s voice was sounding over the speakers.

“What are you doing here, Arthur Pendragon?”

“I’m hurt, Olaf.” Arthur. “Is that any way to address an old friend?”

“In my experience, old friends don’t go breaking and entering into my top secret facility in the middle of the night.”

“We’re spies. Breaking and entering is like, going for coffee. Standard etiquette.”

Percival snorted. Arthur looked mildly smug. Merlin rolled his eyes. 

The recording continued in a similar manner, with Olaf getting progressively more irritated and Arthur being a sassy little shit, until —

“—You should stop looking. Forget Edwin, forget the Triskellion, forget you ever even heard the name Sigan. You think you know what you’re getting into; you’re wrong. This is beyond anything you’ve ever encountered before.”

“Stop.” Arthur commanded, “rewind that last bit.”

Merlin obliged.

“—Forget Edwin, forget the Triskelion, forget you ever even heard the name Sigan.”

“There.” Arthur said. He turned to them. “So Edwin Muirdin smuggles illegal, prototypal weapons across the American border. Sigan, or Cedric Alined, or whatever he calls himself, sits at the head of the biggest underground network of criminal activity that we’ve stumbled across this decade. And every opposition we come across has now apparently acquired comic book superpowers.” Arthur summed up with a trace of sarcasm. “Now here’s what I want to know. First: what the hell is a Triskelion?”

“It’s a symbol,” Merlin replied distractedly as he typed. “Celtic. Three spirals, interlocking.” Silence. Merlin looked up to see everyone staring at him. “What?”

“And you know this…how?” Arthur asked.

“I’m originally from Wales, as you were so kind to point out earlier.” Merlin shrugged. “You see it in gift shops. Tourist trinkets, things like that.”

“Why would Olaf be so interested in a symbol?”

Merlin gave him a look that he often gave when he thought Arthur was being deliberately obtuse. “He wouldn’t. Clearly it represents something else. Something he doesn’t want us to find.”

A beat. “Right,” said Arthur with a resigned sort of acceptance. “Okay, second thing. With Olaf now MIA, that leaves very little in terms of leads. We have no idea how extensive Sigan’s network is, undoubtably he has some sort of leverage in London, but with no way in, and no contacts in the underground…”

Arthur kept talking, but Merlin was no longer listening. They needed a way into the underground criminal network in London. They needed someone with connections, a past, someone who could turn over a few stones and no one would look twice. 

Someone like the Dragon's old protégé.

The room around him faded away. Merlin swallowed, wavering on his feet, trying to keep his balance. Suddenly he was seven again, not two months since he was plucked from the river banks half-dead, staring at the company he had just helped rob from the crappy computer on his lap, waiting to feel something, anything. There was nothing. Nothing mattered any more. There was no one left to care. 

“Well done, Emrys.” A heavy hand on his small shoulder. 

Kilgharrah’s voice was the only constant in this world of chaos, the only steady thing throughout the years to follow. He had given Merlin the chance to run and never look back, to forge a new life in code and crime and forget that life had ever been any different. A life where he could just be Merlin, the small boy who was good with computers.

Until he had run from Kilgharrah too, that day the past had caught up with him.

He never thought he’d ever be considering going back.

“Merlin? You’re being uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal.”

Merlin blinked, snapping out of it to see Arthur looking at him quizzically, an expression that quickly shifted to concern. Merlin wondered what his face was doing to make Arthur look at him like that. He shook his head, pasting a quick smile. 

“Sorry, um, thinking. What were you saying?”

Arthur gave him a don’t-think-I-don’t-know-you’re-deflecting-by-changing-the-subject look before answering. “That until we have more information, we’re at a dead end with Sigan. Unless something else comes up, there’s not much more we can do.”

“So that’s it?” Merlin glanced round at all of them. “You’re just giving up?”

“You got a better solution?” 

Merlin opened his mouth, then closed it. Arthur, obviously mistaking his hesitation, just looked at him tiredly. 

“And then there’s the third thing.” He began. “We know the third party weren’t there for us, as they didn’t even know we’d be there. That leaves us with a problem: if they weren’t there for us… what were they doing there?”

To that, no one had an answer. They lapsed into silence. In the background, the recording was still playing.

“I will tell you this, though. The world is changing. New powers are coming into play, and it won’t be long before they reveal themselves. Make sure you’re ready.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“It will, soon.” A pause. “And I’m sorry, but that’s when everything changes.”

The recording cut out, Olaf’s last words lingering in the air.

Arthur cleared his throat. “I don’t know what happened last night, and I don’t know why. But whatever this…weaponry is…I don’t believe this is the last of it. They know it works, and they know we have very little defence against it.”

“So what can we do?” Lance asked quietly. 

Arthur ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Keep fighting. Keep searching for an answer. They’re still men, and men can be beaten.”

Even he sounded unsure. None of the double 0’s contradicted him, or voiced the unspoken thought that had been steadily growing in their minds since they’d had their arses handed to them by men with glowing eyes: that they were ridiculously, hopelessly out of their depth. Whatever this was — explosions, traps, wards, beams of light that wreaked havoc around them… it wasn't like anything they had seen before. And how could they fight it, if they didn’t understand it?

“Comic book superpowers?” Leon repeated Arthur’s earlier words in a weak attempt at humour. 

Arthur huffed. “At this point? I wouldn’t rule it out.”

“—Aliens?” Gwaine suggested. “I bet its alien technology. Torchwood stuff.”

“You know that’s a TV show, right?” Percival said.

“The Japanese?” Owain piped in.

“I say aliens and you say Japanese?”

“Well, they’re secretive bastards, aren’t they? Their secret service doesn’t even have a name.”

“Nah, I reckon its the Americans. SHIELD and all that.”

"And we're back to comic books."

“If the Americans had created some top secret revolutionary weapon, it would be all over Twitter by now.”

“The CIA aren’t complete idiots you know.”

“They let Donald Trump win the election.”

“Technically that wasn’t just them...”

The conversation moved on, but Merlin was watching Arthur off to the side. He wasn’t joining in with the theories as they got more and more elaborate and absurd, Merlin didn’t even think he heard a word they were saying. Arthur’s lips were pressed together in a thin, kissable line, his jaw set in that way Merlin knew meant he was worried. His gaze was distant, distracted. And in that moment, Arthur didn’t look like a man who was questioning his sanity at what he’d seen. Arthur just looked…tired.

Merlin felt the words dancing at his lips, words that would take away that worried pinch in between Arthur’s eyes and that stranded, lost look that seemed so alien on his face. It’s real, Merlin wanted to tell him, all of the things you saw that you can’t explain. That was magic, genuine, straight-out-of-legend magic, and its more real than you’ll ever know. 

Magic is real.

And I’m…

Arthur’s gaze met his, and for a moment Merlin forgot to breathe. Merlin wondered what he saw, whether he could read the conflict raging through him and the words he could never say out loud burning in his eyes. 

I’m magic, Arthur. 

The moment was there, tantalising and fleeting, warmth flaring between them, daring him to shape the words and give them flesh. Merlin opened his mouth, drawing in a choked breath —

Then Percival laughed one of his booming laughs, Arthur blinked and broke his gaze, head turning at the sound, and just like that the moment was gone, snatched away by the whirl of conversation and the cold absence of Arthur’s eyes.

Merlin closed his eyes and exhaled with a small shudder, inwardly battling feelings of relief and disappointment. 

Trying to convince himself that it was better this way. 

The next time Arthur looked round, Merlin was absorbed in his laptop, drawing up schematics for a new communications box he was working on and pointedly ignoring Arthur’s smouldering gaze boring into the back of his head.

He did not look up when Arthur left. 

 


 

On the outside, perhaps, nothing much had changed. Arthur still insulted him at every opportunity and Merlin still talked to him like the double 0 wasn’t a deadly weapon forged to end lives. Arthur still argued, disregarded, or just plain ignored Merlin’s advice in his ear on missions, and Merlin continued saving his miserable hide anyway. Arthur continued not to bring his equipment back in any sort of working order, and Merlin still refused to make him that exploding pen.

And yet, there was something. A slight shift in dynamics. A realignment of polarity. 

Whenever they were in the same room together, others began to take notice, perhaps sensing some of that underlying magnetism that drew the two together like two moons orbiting the same planet. They watched, fascinated by the change in the honed predator that used to stalk their halls, a walking storm of temper and steel, and the man who was spending more and more time in Q-branch. Not terrorising the minions, not shooting holes in the walls, not even trying to smuggle out new prototypes. No; everyone knew Arthur was there for Q (even though he’d be last one to admit it).

And people began to wonder. Wonder at the assassin licensed to kill, and the enigmatic hacker who made such an unlikely partnership. Merlin created a complete contradiction in how they saw Arthur.

Arthur famously never listened to anyone. And yet he sought out Merlin’s advice. 

Arthur did not care what people thought of him. And yet it was obvious to anyone with eyes that he cared very much what Merlin thought of him.

Arthur between missions was a nightmare, a tightly-wound bomb triggered to blow at any time, a brooding, stalking presence in their halls. And yet in Q-branch he relaxed, dropping his guard, was even downright nice when Merlin was around.

Arthur, as a general rule, did not lose his head and giggle like an idiot. And yet Merlin seemed to have the odd ability to provoke it in him.

Arthur infamously lost his equipment, most notably the earpiece radio that always managed to conveniently end up destroyed maliciously within the first hour or two. And yet whilst Arthur lost his gun and any other gadgets Merlin felt like giving him more often than not, after a while, he never once lost the earpiece.

Arthur worked alone. Only apparently, Merlin was now part of that. 

Confrontations between Q and 007 became something to watch, to listen to, to talk about. An endless series of bickering and arguments that everyone knew neither of them really meant, insults that would have been convincing had the word idiot not sounded so fond.

“Next time, warn me before you decide to jump out of an elevator that’s at least 200 feet in the air. I mean seriously are you out of your mind?”

“I was being attacked by twelve armed men. I didn’t exactly have a lot of options—”

“So you jump off a building?! What the hell is wrong with you, you absolute moron?!”

“I landed on my briefcase, it absorbs the shock-”

“DO I LOOK LIKE I GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOUR BRIEFCASE?”

“You built it for me!” Arthur protested.

“To bring down their firewalls! Not to use as a bloody parachute!”

“Fine. From now on, I’ll be sure to consult with you before I do anything you don’t expect. Is that acceptable?”

“Only if it involves weapons, cars, escape routes, or people shooting at you”, Merlin groused after a pause. “I don’t need to know if you decide to eat some bread and cheese in the middle of the night.”

“Unless a man with a very long knife is waiting for me outside my room.”

“If you could not defeat a single man with a very long knife, you would be a poor excuse for an assassin indeed.”

“Not to mention dead.”

“Prat.”

“Idiot.”

It was a game, and playing it made Arthur feel alive — quick-fire remarks volleying between them as every synapse in his brain worked overtime to simply keep up with Merlin’s quicksilver wit. The verbal sparring that was more playful than anything, the earth-shattering rows when Arthur disregarded Merlin’s advice and toyed a little too closely with death, the hushed, strikingly intimate conversations over the comms when Arthur was on a stakeout. It was a stalemate and a surrender all at once. Too charged to be friendship, but never straying too, dangerously close to the invisible line they seemed to have mutually drawn.

And if Merlin took notice that whenever he told Arthur calmly and authoritatively not to jump out of that window, not to blow up something that could be hacked, not to shoot that man (who was actually concealing a Semtex vest under his coat), and Arthur listened…

No, nothing had changed. And everything.

So when a week later Arthur saved the life of the pretty CIA agent with the amber ringlets and the green eyes in Islamabad, helped her to her feet like the insufferable gentleman he was and she introduced herself as Sophia, Merlin nearly spat out his tea all over the monitors. 

He barely heard Arthur insist over the comms on taking her back to MI6 to make sure she was okay, barely noticed the triumphant gleam in Sophia’s eyes as she leant heavily on Arthur’s offered arm. 

All Merlin could see was the resigned grief in Elaine’s eyes as they had driven away from the restaurant — acquiescent, fatalistic. 

As though Arthur was already lost.

“Merlin? You okay?” 

Merlin blinked, glanced up at the perplexed expression on Leon’s face that had quickly shifted to concern.

“What? Yes, fine.” He said, distracted. “Wonderful. Marvellous. Never better.”

Leon didn’t look like he believed him. “You look like someone just died.”

Almost imperceptibly, Merlin froze. His eyes followed Sophia on the satellite footage, narrowing on how close her mouth was to Arthur’s ear as she spoke, gaze burning through the monitors to the possessive grip Sophia had on Arthur’s arm.

And suddenly Merlin was inexplicably furious. Screw prophesy; Sophia wasn’t going to lay a finger on Arthur. His eyes flashed, gold burning through the blue like wildfire.

“Not,” said Merlin in a hard voice, “if I have anything to do with it.”

 

Chapter Text

In the depths of a cave in the middle of the wilderness, three cloaked figures regarded the girl who stood before them. Her head was bowed in respect, though her eyes wandered restlessly and her hands were balled into fists at her side. Impatient. Arrogant. Fickle. It was unsurprising to see the Fae had not changed much since the days of old. They were an ancient race, and a proud one; one that could hold a grudge across the wide rift of time and memory itself. 

“Are you sure he is who you think he is?” One of the Three spoke. “We’ve been mistaken before.”

The girl raised her head. “This one is different,” she replied. “His memories are young, but he has the anam d’aois, I am sure of it. He has the same bearing, he walks the same path. I barely had to intervene at all.”

“Hmm.” Another of the Three made a sceptical noise. “An ‘old soul’ has not been confirmed for centuries. If what you say is true, we must act quickly. Lest it become too late.”

The girl ducked her head once more. “What would you have me do?”

“The Prince wishes to walk to same path?” The last of the Three said, without waiting for an answer.  If the girl could see the figure’s expression, she imagined it would have been smiling. “Let us not deny him.”

The girl bowed, and made to leave. Before she could, however, the three spoke once more, in chilling unison.

“Only this time, little Fae… be sure you do not fail. A third chance will not be offered.”

Sophia gritted her teeth, and kept walking, stepping through the portal that would take her back to MI6 before she could do something stupid like turn around and rip the three figures’s throats out. 

She would not fail, not even if she had to take on the entirety of MI6 with her bare hands. 

She had been chosen — her, above all others — to return to this mortal realm and right the wrong that was done all those years ago to her kin, to show the world that the Fae were a people to be feared and not forgotten and blasphemed in fairytales and myth.

And no one, not even Emrys, was going to stand in her way.

 


 

“Has he moved since this morning?”

“He leaned across the desk about an hour ago to retrieve the tea Lance left him, but other than that…”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Does this guy ever sleep?”

“I think he periodically makes a whirring noise and then shuts down…”

“What’s he doing, anyway?”

“Plotting world domination?”

“Hacking M’s autocorrect on his emails again?”

“Building a lightsaber? — don’t laugh! Why else would he be making a plasma cutter turn blue—”

“You guys do realise I can hear you, right?” A quiet, amused voice cut through the double 0’s hushed speculations, and they started. Merlin’s hands hadn’t even paused in their rapid-fire typing, though they thought they could see his raised eyebrow in the reflections of the monitors. 

Gwaine flashed him a winning smile. “Now Q, what have we told you about eavesdropping?”

“It’s not eavesdropping if you’re talking loudly, in public, and about me.” Merlin pointed out, finally turning around to face them. 

The double 0’s tried to subtly give him a brief, assessing look. Merlin was smiling, yes, but there was a tension that hadn't been there before, a slightly wary look in his eyes. It had been a few days since Arthur had returned from Islamabad with the CIA agent, and all of them had noticed the slightly bizarre behaviour exhibited by the Quartermaster since then. The lurch into overworking (not that Merlin was exactly a slacker to begin with), the sudden fascination with MI6’s internal security, the strangely cold demeanour he’d adopted whenever a certain amber-haired CIA agent was in the room (a reaction that puzzled the double 0’s to no end — they didn’t even know Merlin had a ‘cold demeanour’ setting). And, of course, the sudden, bordering-on-manic obsession with building objects of mass destruction that suspiciously resembled fictional weapons of the Jedi. 

Leon shared a quick, worried glance with Lancelot. It was well known that Merlin always did his best work when he was upset, or stressed, or worried, and what with the scattered evidence of robotics on his desk, this was one of those occasions. 

“What?” Merlin’s head tilted curiously. “Why are you all staring at me like that?”

Leon cleared his throat. “I — we — were just wondering, you know,” he made a vague gesture in Merlin’s direction, “if you were okay?”

A quirk of an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“You haven’t left Q-branch in days,” Gwaine supplied helpfully.

“You haven’t had anything but tea since this morning—” Lance interjected.

“Which you didn’t even notice wasn’t the right blend—” Owain noted.

“And I’m pretty sure it was cold anyway—” Percival added.

“—And now your trying to recreate fictional weapons of the Force.” Gwaine finished. “Which, by the way, is infinitely cool, but, you know. We’re worried about you.”

Merlin, who had been listening to their interjections with a slightly bemused expression, considered this. That strange, wary look had returned to his eyes — apprehensive, as though Merlin knew something they didn’t, as though something bad was on the horizon.

“You don’t need to be,” he said after a moment, with a quick smile that convinced no one. “I’m fine. Just working off a little steam, is all.”

“By building a lightsaber?” Lance said a little incredulously. 

And just like that, the smile turned more genuine. There was that glint of mischief that they had been missing from Merlin’s eyes. He shrugged, leaning forward so his hands were propping up his chin on his knees. The movement was strangely childlike. “Everyone needs a hobby.”

“Does it work?” Gwaine asked. Leon inconspicuously hit him. “Ow, what?”

Merlin gave him an amused look. “My problem is the capacitor — containing the plasma itself.”

“Why not just use lasers?” Owain asked.

“Lasers have no barriers, no fixed length.” He explained patiently, as though he had explained this multiple times before. “It would be like… trying to make the trajectory of a bullet into a sword. Your only barrier would be where the laser hit something it couldn’t pass through.”

“So plasma.” 

“Plasma.” Merlin confirmed. “Now, as to the problem of containing it, I tried using magnetic fields to manipulate the charged particles, kind of like nuclear fusion, but even then it would be pretty pointless.”

“Why?” Gwaine said.

“Because the blades would just pass through each other.”

“You’re making more than one lightsaber?” Lance clarified incredulously.

Gwaine shushed him.

“Point is," Merlin continued, “even if I did get it to work, you, well. You wouldn’t be able to fight with them.”

He sounded so genuinely disappointed by this that Percival patted him on the shoulder consolingly. “Don’t take it too hard, Q. The construction of such technological prowess is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Leon rolled his eyes. “And getting back to the point, lightsabers and plasma cutters aside,” that was accompanied with a pointed glance at the other double 0’s, who pouted. “Merlin, something’s up, and don’t—” he held up a hand when Merlin made a move to protest, “—don’t deny it. We’re your friends. We want to help. And whatever it is, well, you know you can come to us with anything, right?”

Merlin opened his mouth, and then paused, the smile fading from his face as his eyes fell on something behind them. Leon followed his gaze. On one of the monitors, he saw a shot from one of the security cameras, showing Arthur and the CIA agent, Sophia, walking down the hallway together. Sophia was laughing, one hand curled around Arthur’s arm. Perhaps more curiously, Arthur actually appeared to be smiling back. Huh. 

Leon turned back to Merlin, and stopped. There was a strange, determined gleam in Merlin’s eyes, one he hadn't seen since Merlin had first intervened in Arthur’s mission in Paris. It had been the same expression on his face as he’d quietly and furiously told George, the previous double 0 handler, to step aside, and singlehandedly extracted Arthur from the impossible situation he’d found himself in. It transformed the Quartermaster’s face into something sharp and angular and dangerous, a glimpse of wildfire beneath that rigid calm he held to himself. That look was a promise — a promise that whoever stood between him and his goal would find themselves wishing they hadn’t underestimated the skinny boy with the strange eyes. 

And right now? It was unexpected and odd and just a tiny bit terrifying. 

Leon found himself wondering what on earth it was Merlin had seen in that monitor to have caused such a look. 

“Thank you.” Merlin was talking again, and Leon wrenched himself back to the present. “I…um, I appreciate that.” 

His voice was halting and a little stiff, as though he wasn’t used to being offered help and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Leon reached out and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder once, a gesture he often offered to Arthur when the double 0 was in danger of falling into an epic brood. 

“Anything you need, just ask,” he said seriously.

Merlin nodded, a little bob of his head. “I…You too.”

They shared a quick smile. 

Then, naturally, Gwaine sliced through the solemn mood with a well-placed inappropriate comment. “Well, now that you mention it, Q, I would rather fancy one of those lightsabers when you get them up and running…”

“‘When’ I get them up and running?” Merlin repeated with a raised eyebrow. “More like a whopping great ‘if’. This kind of tech is decades, if not centuries beyond our generation, even if I tried…”

“Merlin.” Gwaine chided. “Come on. Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’”.

At the gleam in Merlin’s eyes, Leon groaned. “Don’t encourage him,” Leon said exasperatedly. “Next thing we know he’ll be making invisibility cloaks, and phasers, and…and recreating the Iron Man suit, and…”

He trailed off at the slightly guilty look on Merlin’s face.

“Q.” Leon said, with a great patience he usually reserved for Arthur. “Tell me you have not built the Iron Man suit.”

And Merlin, damn him, just smirked. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

 


 

It was the third day since Arthur had returned from Islamabad. Three days since the Agent Sophia had waltzed in on Arthur’s arm and been allocated temporary sanctuary at MI6. Three days of obsessive digital stalking and poorly-veiled dark looks directed at her general direction whilst Merlin waited for the girl to make a move. So far her only suspicious behaviour had been hoarding time with Arthur, but that might as well have been a criminal offence in Merlin’s eyes. 

Seeking out the double 0’s company? Understandable. Spending every waking moment glued to Arthur’s side and keeping him firmly away from Q-branch? Unacceptable.

Merlin tried not to think about how much he missed the insufferable bastard's company. Arthur had become such a familiar presence in Q-branch these past few weeks it felt odd not having him there, interjecting snarky comments and stealing Merlin's prototypes and occasionally bringing him tea with that imploring smile that meant Arthur had done something that would probably piss Merlin off.

Ever since Sophia had taken up residence here, though... The girl seemed determined to stay as far away from Merlin as possible, which these days meant keeping Arthur as far from Merlin as possible, as the two were rarely apart. 

Not to mention the incessant touching — grabbing his hand, taking his arm, one hand snaked around his waist and tucked familiarly into the back pocket of his jeans — and the flirting and the smiling and Merlin just wanted her to go away and never look at Arthur again because she wasn’t fit to stand by his side let alone steal him away from Merlin—

Merlin blinked, shook himself.

Worse was the laughter. The first time Merlin had made Arthur laugh had been weeks into their acquaintance, a stolen moment caught from the satellites as Arthur read Merlin’s texts. 

'This is my private number.'

'And?'

'It doesn't exist.'

'I'm a very good hacker’

Merlin often caught Arthur hiding a smile, biting back a laugh, the odd snigger (usually when Merlin tripped over something). Real laughter, though, indeed any outward expression — that was different. After a lifetime of learning to hide every true thought and emotion, the depths of Arthur’s real expression existed only in his eyes. Laughs were rare, then, cherished for the challenge they brought on Merlin’s part to draw them out of him.

Sophia, on the other hand, made Arthur laugh all the time. His smile sprang easily in her company — not the slowly dawning one that Merlin had come to know, that crept from the side of his lips like a silent laugh he couldn't quite contain, until it spread across his entire face, crooked and full of mischief, eyes alight with something bright and open — no. The smile Sophia provoked was wide and dazzling and just a little dazed in a way that Arthur rarely was. Sometimes Merlin thought he saw a haze over Arthur’s expression, a slight glazed over look in his eyes, and found himself wanting to grab Arthur by the chin and force him to meet Merlin’s eyes the way he used to at the beginning. When their eyes would lock in searing tandem, a binding channel of words unsaid and feelings unspoken, as though the world could have been on fire around them and they wouldn’t have noticed. More than recognition, but familiarity. I know you. 

What had happened to make Arthur lose that edge? Was this Sophia’s work?

But then, a dark voice would whisper, maybe this is just what he looks like when he’s falling in love.

And Merlin would recoil like the thought had physically wounded him, mentally slamming the door on any thoughts of laughter that was too loud, or smiles that were too wide.

This was paranoia, nothing more. 

And if Arthur looked happier when he was with Sophia than he had ever looked when he was with Merlin…

Well.

What right did he have to claim any piece of Arthur’s heart?

 


 

Something was wrong. 

The thought drifted slowly across Arthur’s mind like a leaf in a gust of wind. Fleeting, insignificant.

By his side, the girl said something in her soft, sing-song voice, a voice like the pealing of bells, or the trilling of a mockingbird. Arthur felt the corners of his lips turning up into a wide smile, though he couldn’t think why he should be smiling. His chest thrummed with something odd. Vibrations. Laughter. He was laughing.

(Laughing at what?) 

The world around him faded into a blur, narrowing his attention down to one, singular point of burning connection around his wrist. The grip — her grip — tugged on him lightly, and Arthur followed. The girl said something else, the meaning of her words lost in favour of their lilting cadence. 

“Túce hwón frec'úre, artur.” 

It was pleasant, this wash of light and sound. Surrendering to the words that dripped with power, words that made so much sense and made conceding so easy.

“Þec nom feoh gyse. Cume morðor rice ær.”

Jade-green eyes swam into his field of vision and latched onto him, enticing him closer. Ruthless and cold; there was no warmth in those eyes, none of the love she claimed they shared.

(Love?)

Suddenly another pair of eyes came to mind, blue like the space between the stars just after the sun had set, burnished with gold as they blazed with fury on Arthur’s behalf…

“Arthur.” The girl’s voice was a whip-crack. He jolted, confused. What eyes?

“Look at me.”

The green eyes returned, only they weren’t green anymore, but red, impossible and glowing. Arthur blinked, recoiled. “What—”

“We’re in love,” she told him, her voice firm and uncompromising.

Arthur stilled. Yes, that was right.

“We’re… in love,” he repeated slowly.

The girl smiled, touched his cheek. “Our love is strong. But if we were ever to be parted…”

No.

“I'd never let that happen.” 

“You may not have the choice.” Her voice was syrup, lulling him with its gentle rise and fall. “There are some here who don't want us to be together…”

“I'll never let them come between us.” He murmured, and the world was slipping, swaying…

He didn’t see the fierce triumph flash across Sophia’s face. “Because we are in love.”

“Because we're in love.” His words slurred, and suddenly for one, brief moment, Arthur felt a flicker of panic.

What was happening to him?

He saw himself in that moment as though he was watching through a pane of glass. He was both within, and without. Arthur saw himself lean into Sophia’s touch as though her grip was the only thing keeping him upright, saw his eyes glaze over and his lips form words that were not his own.

And Arthur was afraid. 

He was afraid of this power, this ungodly thing he was powerless to fight. But perhaps even more so, Arthur was afraid no one would notice, that no one would look at him and see that it was not him looking back at them. 

Then Sophia smiled at him, and Arthur smiled back, panic seeping away like sand between his fingers. 

Behind that barrier in his mind, Arthur pounded against the glass and howled.

 


 

“You don’t like Sophia.” 

The voice was brusque and as-a-matter-of-fact, stated in the same way one might say ‘the earth is round’, or ‘the sky is blue’. 

“Most people start with ‘hello’,” Merlin replied without looking, firing off another line of code before he swivelled in his chair to face Morgana.

“Why?” Morgana continued, head cocked to the side like a curious bird. Or rather, Merlin thought, a cat looking at said curious bird and wondering the best way to eat it. Pacific wasn't really Morgana’s style. 

“Because it’s polite?” Merlin answered hesitantly, his eyebrow quirking.

“No, not that,” Morgana dismissed impatiently. “Why don't you like Sophia?”

Merlin paused. He should have guessed that out of all of them, Morgana would be the one to guess at the source of his change in behaviour the past week. She was frighteningly observant when she wanted to be.

“Is it because of my idiot of a brother?”

He blinked. “What’s Arthur got to do with this?”

Whilst Merlin knew of Elaine’s warning, there was no way Morgana was aware of the impending threat upon Arthur’s life.

“Well, they are spending a lot of time together…” she trailed off meaningfully, though Merlin couldn’t think what it was she was implying.

“And?”

Morgana gave him a look like she thought he was being particularly obtuse. “Look. Merlin, despite my upmost best efforts to ignore the fact, I am well aware of my brother’s, well, unfortunate tendency of attracting everything with a pulse, and I know you two have gotten close these past few weeks—”

Morgana trailed off, for Merlin had started laughing.

“I don't see what’s so funny about all this.” She said curtly.

“No — no, sorry, I just…” Merlin stifled another giggle, choking back the hysteria that threatened to come flooding out.

I am desperately trying to prevent this girl from murdering Arthur the second I turn my back and you’re worried about my feelings?

“You think I’m jealous of Sophia?” Merlin eventually managed once he’d stopped laughing.

Morgana crossed her arms, unimpressed. “Correction. I know you’re jealous of Sophia.”

"Look, Morgana..."

"You can't tell me you don't find Arthur attractive."

"Of course I find him attractive," Merlin said. "He's 007. Celibate recluse monks in Tibet would find him attractive. That doesn’t mean I’m about to go on a homicidal rampage every time he talks to a girl.”

Morgana made a small, frustrated noise in the back of her throat. “Fine, deny it all you want. But if you’re so aloof from it all, explain to me why you glare daggers at the girl every time she walks into the room.”

Silence.

“Well?” Morgana prompted.

And as Merlin looked at her, suddenly he was struck by his own words to Arthur last week — it’s not a crime to accept help, you know. Merlin couldn’t tell Morgana the truth. But maybe he didn’t have to do this alone.

At last, Merlin sighed. “I’ve got a bad feeling about her,” he admitted.

“Bad how?”

“Like... I think she may be harbouring ill-intentions.”

Morgana’s eyes narrowed, picking up what Merlin left unsaid. “Towards Arthur?” 

At Merlin’s surprised look, Morgana rolled her eyes. “Please, it was written all over your face.”

“…Right.”

“So then why haven’t you, you know…”

“Told someone?” Merlin finished. He shrugged. “Like I said, I don't have anything concrete. Just an instinct.”

To his surprise, instead of being met with scepticism, Morgana was looking thoughtful. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”

“You will?”

She gave him a withering look. “Merlin, everyone likes you,” Morgana said resignedly, as though this was Merlin’s most irritating feature, “and you like everyone. You get on with everyone. And it’s foolishly naive of you, but if you say that someone doesn’t feel right…” she shrugged, “who am I to argue?”

“Thanks.” Merlin paused. “I think.”

“For the record, though, I think you’re wrong about Arthur.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve seen the way he looks at you. The way you look at him.”

“I don’t…we’re not…” Merlin bit back his words, running a hand through his hair. “Its not like that.” He said quietly.

“Isn’t it?” Morgana said. She shrugged. “Just be careful, alright? My brother, well, he’s like fire. Loyalty, leadership, love…he inspires them without really trying. People are drawn to him, because he burns so bright, but every so often?” Her smile turned a little sad. “People get burnt.”

Merlin considered this. “Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Get burnt.”

Morgana shrugged, her gaze turning a little distant. “I’ve always been the shadow to Arthur’s light. How could I not? Arthur was the golden child, the firstborn, and I was a living reminder of Uther’s mistake.”

“I’m sorry.” Merlin said quietly.

She gave him an odd smile. “Don’t be. Arthur's always been fierce in seeing me as nothing less than his sister, and it was his opinion that mattered anyway.” And then her smile turned wry. “As for getting burnt, well. Fire cannot kill a shadow.”

"Okay, Dragon Queen."

Morgana laughed. "Please, I could totally take Daenerys Targaryen."

"Oh of that I have no doubt. You are infinity the more terrifying of the two, even with the Dragons."

"Flatterer." She chided, but Morgana was smiling. She stood up to leave, but Merlin’s voice stopped her.

“Morgana?” She turned. “Um, for the record, I think you’re easy to love, too.”

For a moment, honest surprise flashed across Morgana’s face. Then her expression softened. “Well, you’d be the first. But thank you.”

 


 

The next few days were tense with the high-strung anticipation of waiting, days where Merlin resigned himself to the fact that the only contact he would get with Arthur was by watching him through the monitors (and no, that wasn't creepy in the slightest) since Sophia seemed determined to keep Arthur away from him.

Why, he couldn't be sure. 

Needless to say, Merlin was understandably surprised when he was leaving MI6 by the back entrance one evening to head back to his flat, having thought Arthur had left hours ago, only to see him standing there like a ghost outside in the freezing darkness. 

Merlin stopped, momentarily overcoming the brief heart attack one inevitably gets at discovering unexpected figures in the night. He blinked. Arthur was still there.

"Arthur?" He called carefully, closing the door behind him, not wanting to startle the double 0 and end up on the wrong end of an over-tired assassin with lethal instincts.

As it was, Arthur's figure just turned towards him slightly, features cast in shadow from the dim lightning that came from the sole lamppost above them. It cast a warm halo on Arthur's hair, on the terse line of his back. His eyes were strangely bright in the darkness, obscured by swirls of smoke that escaped Arthur's lips as he lowered a cigarette. He regarded Merlin silently.

"What are you doing out here?" Merlin continued awkwardly, when it became apparent Arthur wasn't going to say anything.

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Smoking."

No, really?  "I, er, didn't know you smoked." 

Merlin never thought he'd be glad to see Arthur's unspoken-idiot-expression, but then, any glimpse of the pre-Sophia Arthur was a relief.

Instead of answering, Arthur silently held out the box of cigarettes, and after a moment, Merlin took one, accepting his offer of a light. The two stood there for a minute or so, breathing out smoke into the cold night air.

“I think it's going to snow,” Merlin said eventually, if only to break the silence.

“This is London. It doesn’t snow,” Arthur replied curtly, taking a long puff from the end of his cigarette before discarding it.

Merlin's lips quirked. He took another drag. "So. You're, er, spending quite a bit of time with Sophia."

Blue eyes flashed to his, at once wary and suspicious. "And?" 

"She seems...nice." Merlin finished lamely.

Arthur gave him an unimpressed glance, and took out another cigarette.

Merlin tried again. "You like her then?" 

"What's it to you?"

He let out an quick sigh. "Look, Arthur, I'm only trying to look out for you-"

"Well I didn't ask you to."

The words were quick and harsh, and Merlin blinked. "Okay, but-"

"Who are you to tell me what I'm thinking?" Arthur's voice was rising with anger, but there was something brittle, something strung-out about his words. "Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn't do?" 

Merlin swallowed, feeling something thick in his throat. "I'm your friend."

"No, Merlin." Arthur crushed the burnt out end of his cigarette into the pavement. "You're my mission handler."

The words were like stones in his chest. Merlin stared after him as Arthur strode away, and in that moment saw nothing of the man who teased Merlin over the comms, who had given Merlin his Walther, who defended him from Valiant, who had known that inviting him into that restaurant with the double 0's meant far more than just a breakfast, and had done it anyway, who constantly watched at him with smouldering eyes when he thought Merlin couldn't see.

There was nothing of his Arthur in this stranger stalking away into the night, but it was all Merlin could do to stand there and watch him go, wondering when the hell he had lost him.

At the end of the road, just before disappearing round the corner, Arthur stopped suddenly, breath frosting in the air. Belatedly, Merlin realised it had started snowing. It wasn't much, just a few flakes spiralling down, landing on the golden strands of Arthur's hair. They shimmered, crystalline, before turning to iridescent droplets in the dull light. Arthur didn't even seem to notice. His head was bowed, his fists clenched at his side, his shoulders hunched against the cold. Almost as though he was bracing for a blow, or facing down an opponent that Merlin couldn't see.

Then, after what seemed like an age, the double 0 turned, hesitant. "Merlin, I..." His voice was hoarse and brittle, and he cleared his throat. "I didn't..." Arthur stopped again, looking pained.

Merlin took that as his cue to come closer, and when he did, he saw that Arthur was shaking, his rigid form racked with an almost imperceptible tremor. The transformation was startling.

Merlin paused. "Arthur, what's going on?" His voice was soft, but it carried in the snow.

"I..." Arthur ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Nothing. It's nothing."

"Doesn't look like nothing." 

"I'm fine."

“You’re shaking.”

“It’s cold.”

Another step, and Merlin was there in front of Arthur. Everything about his posture screamed for comfort, but his mouth was set in a hard line that forbade it. It made Merlin want to kiss him and strangle him at the same time. Then again, that was kind of a constant feeling with Arthur these days. 

Merlin narrowed his eyes as their gazes met, seeing beyond the blue haze in Arthur's eyes to the brief, desperate flash in his expression, there one instant, gone the next, as though a battle was going on somewhere Merlin couldn't see. Now that he noticed it, a faint tang of magic seem to hang about Arthur, though it was unlike any Merlin had encountered before. This magic was like smoke in his hands, seductive and elusive, slipping through his fingers every time he tried to grasp it. It was maddening. More worryingly, the strands seemed to be bound to Arthur's will itself, choking it in a strangle-like hold that tightened every time he fought against it. 

"What is it?" Merlin whispered. "What's she done to you?"

And just like that, the wall went back up. Arthur's eyes shuttered, and he took a hasty step back. 

"I'm sorry," Arthur said tightly, and before Merlin could reach out and stop him, Arthur whisked around in a flurry of melted snowflakes and stalked away from Merlin once more. This time, he did not hesitate at the corner.

"Damn it," Merlin swore under his breath.

Back in the street, he stood motionless in the falling snow, biting his lip, the icy swirls slowly turning his hair white under the moonlight. 

He did not consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Sophia had already won. He did not let himself believe that Arthur was already lost to him.

And he did not dare entertain that nagging doubt that maybe there was no nefarious scheme, no evil plan, no strange magic at play, and that Merlin had made the entire thing up in his head because the alternative - that Arthur and Sophia were just falling in love - was too much to bear. For then Merlin would despise his own selfishness for thinking even for a second that a hypothetical assassination plot was somehow more bearable than Arthur's happiness with someone else.

Because Arthur's life would always come first, no matter the cost.

No matter how much seeing the two together felt like it was tearing up his insides.

Merlin let the burnt cigarette fall from his numb fingers, and began trudging home. 

 


 

It was an hour or so later, in one of their regular bars a few tube-stops away, that the rest of the double 0's sat around their usual table and tried not to stare at unexpected sight that had greeted them when they had first walked in. More acutely, where Arthur and Sophia were sat rather close, half-concealed by the shadows in the corner.

Everyone was studiously ignoring the snogging. 

"So," Percival said casually as he sat down, "has anyone else noticed something a little... off about Arthur as of late?"

"If by 'a little off' you mean the simpering-green-eyed-bitch that's permanently attached herself to his face, then yes, yes I have." Gwaine said offhandedly, swinging a sip of his beer whilst sending a distasteful look at said green-eyed-bitch across the bar.

Owain, who had yet to lay eyes on this particular sight, choked on his pint, and Lance thumped him on the back. "What is that?" He spluttered.

"It's a girl," said Gwaine, recovering first, "surely you've seen one before, Owain. Your friend Morgana is one."

Percival was frowning. "But isn't Arthur..."

"A raging homosexual?" Gwaine finished helpfully. "Bent as a nine-bob note? Mad for cock?"

"Enough," Leon cut in sharply, wary of listening ears, "mind your tongues."

"Oh I think Arthur's doing multiple things with his tongue right now." Gwaine drawled. "And it certainly isn't minding it..."

Leon set his pint down hard on the table, and the table fell silent. If a glare had the power to set someone alight, Gwaine would be a smoking pile of ashes by now.

"Look." Leon's voice was low, so as not to be overheard. "I'm not sure what's running through Arthur's head right now, but what I know for certain is that what won't help in the slightest is you lot blabbering on about it like twelve-year-old girls." A small, pointed glance at Gwaine, who scowled slightly. "This is Arthur's business. Stay the fuck out of it."

"And if we think he's making a dumb-ass mistake?" Gwaine hissed. "If we think he's not in his right mind? Is it our business then?"

"For christ's sake, we're not his mother-"

"No, we're his friends." Lance interjected quietly. "Leon, you've got to admit there's something off about this."

"This is hardly the first time Arthur's pulled a woman."

"No, but it's not just a pull is it?" Percival noted in a hushed voice. "You saw him with her in the office today. Three days, and he's already looking at her like the sun shines out of her arse. The guy's besotted."

Leon sighed. "What would you have us do? Stroll up to him, tell him he's looking just a tad too happy and therefore something must be terribly wrong?"

The double 0's fell silent. 

"I don't trust her." Gwaine said gruffly.

"Yes, well, lucky for us, Arthur doesn't trust anyone," said Leon, lips twisting into a sad sort of smile. "He can take care of himself, Gwaine."

Across the bar, Sophia murmured something and Arthur laughed, bending down to kiss her again. The two stayed locked together for almost a minute, all roaming hands and sickeningly sweet whisperings, before Sophia stood, saying something else that they couldn't quite catch. A moment later Arthur was on his feet as well, a smirk on his face as Sophia tugged him by the hand and the two stumbled out through the door in another spew of giggles. 

None of the double 0's moved as the bar door shut with a click behind them.

"Can he?" Gwaine replied mildly.

 


 

It was the following day that it happened. Merlin should have known something was wrong the moment his security cameras caught Arthur ducking into a room with Sophia and the two vanished from the live footage, but he was too slow, too stupid...

He ignored the strange looks he was getting as he tore down the corridors. The room they had entered was empty. Too late.

Merlin swore, and then he was running again, barely slowing as he burst into the double 0 training room, barely registering the five weapons that suddenly leapt into their owner’s hands at the intrusion.

“Merlin?” Leon said, lowering his gun, “what—”

“Have any of you seen Arthur?” He managed through laboured breaths, a dull panic seeping like ice through his veins.

“What?”

Tell me you’ve seen him." 

“He left,” Lance said quickly, before Merlin could explode. “Not half-an-hour ago.”

“Where?” Merlin demanded.

“I don’t know, he — Merlin!”

But Merlin was already running, bring up his speed dial as he did. “Morgana.”

Merlin?”

“Tell me you’ve got eyes on Sophia.”

Morgana didn't even question him. “She’s here, lower-level 1.”

“And Arthur?”

“Not here.” A pause. “He’s missing, isn’t he?” It was only credit to how well Merlin knew her that he could hear the slight tremor in her voice.

“I’ll find him,” he promised. “For now, I need you to stall Sophia. Keep her there.”

“Confirmed. Good luck, Q.”

Morgana hung up, and Merlin paused against the wall, suddenly feeling sick.

“Listen.” Elaine said firmly, her hand gripping Merlin’s wrist in a death grip. “She will try and get Arthur alone. It is imperative you do not let this happen.”

One thing. Don’t let her get Arthur alone. That was the one thing he had to do. 

But it wasn’t too late — not yet. He just had to get to Arthur before Sophia did. 

Taking a steadying breath, Merlin pushed away from the wall and broke once more into a run. 

 


 

Morgana studied the CIA agent with narrowed eyes.

The funny thing about being working in MI6, Morgana thought to herself, was how often people forgot that the ability to shoot someone in the head from fifty feet (whilst useful, she was sure) or hack into someone’s data files with nothing more than a blank Unix screen and a line of code (and in Merlin’s case, drinking tea and bemoaning the lack of a biscuit in the process) was not the only form ‘dangerous’ could take. Guns, car chases, technology, codes, encryption…that was the language of spy warfare now, the legacy of the modern age. 

Take her brother. In many ways, Morgana and Arthur were as different as two siblings could be. Arthur was, first and foremost, an assassin, and thus used to dealing with two things: guns, and people trying to shoot him with guns. Generally, the second was a problem, and could be solved with the first. Dealings with people when you weren’t trying to kill them or they you, on the other hand, well. In Arthur’s experience, people were neither as dependable as guns, nor was it socially acceptable to shoot them if they pissed you off. This meant, for all his many skills, her brother was about as social adept outside of the job as he was at apologising, or cooking anything other than ravioli, or not-sinking-into-an-epic-brood when he was worried. That is to say, not very adept at all.

Morgana was not an assassin. Nor was she an encyptionist or hacker. The only tools at her disposal were her wits, her charm, and a glare that could make even the most battle-hardened assassins quiver. 

But she was a spy, none the less.

For then in other things, and perhaps where it mattered, the two siblings were strikingly similar. Both of them possessed that single-minded drive, that iron-willed conviction to see something through to the end. And whilst they did not love easily, both were fierce in protecting what what theirs. 

So it was that Morgana looked upon Sophia, Merlin’s warning in the back of her mind. Even if the Quartermaster had never mentioned any ill-feeling towards Sophia, Morgana thought she would have got there on her own eventually. The CIA agent was just so irritating. All simpering smiles and thinly-veiled spite beneath syrupy words — beautiful like a poisonous flower was, before it stabbed you in the back.  

But she had another thing coming if Sophia thought she was getting to Arthur through Morgana. 

The girl’s face bloomed into a smile as she approached, apparently missing the dangerous glint in Morgana’s eyes. Each of them had a tell of sorts when shit was about to go down. Percival's jaw would lock, a sure sign that things were going to get smashed. Gwaine had his smile — a sharp, venomous thing that promised death to any who strayed too close. Owain's head would tilt, vulture-like, cocked to the side as though he was mentally tallying all the different ways he could kill you and still walk away unscathed. Lance would assume a careful blankness, a stoic expression carved out of stone like a greek statue, noble and terrible.

Arthur had his voice, all false calm simmering with a thundering authority that brought an entire squadron of agents to their knees, their undisputed leader in that barked command. 

And Morgana had her eyes. A smile, beautiful and terrible, and a predatory glint in her eyes as though she was considering how best to play with her food before she consumed it whole. 

It had been noted by some, though none would dare say it aloud, that the laser-like gaze was eerily similar to M’s, just as Arthur’s voice held the same steel. But matters of family were not discussed in MI6, for it was not their business. 

All they knew was how to recognise the signs that meant they should duck and run and for the love of God do not ask questions when Morgana got that look in her eyes. 

Of course, Sophia did not know any of this.

The girl’s voice was light and bubbly. “Morgana, isn't it? Have you seen Arthur? I can’t seem to find him.”

“I wish I knew.” Morgana said airily. “That way I could exercise free will while telling you to go fuck yourself.”

For a moment, Sophia gaped at her, and Morgana got to cherish the look of blank surprise on her face. 

Then the girl shook herself, and the smile flicked back on like a switch. “I don't believe we’ve met.” She extended a hand, which Morgana viewed distastefully. “Morgana, I’m Sophia.”

“It’s ‘R’, actually.” Morgana replied just as sweetly, looking away from Sophia’s hand without touching it. “We’re not friends.”

Sophia’s smile faltered, hardened. “I’m sorry, have I offended you in some way?” 

“Depends. Are you here to kill my brother?”

A beat of silence. Then Sophia laughed, a light, tinkling thing. “Is he really getting on your nerves that much?”

“Look, let’s just cut to the point, shall we?” Morgana snapped, keeping her voice low so only Sophia could hear. “I know you’re here for Arthur, and I know you don't mean him well.”

A small smirk crossed Sophia’s lips. “Well, if you know so much, why am I still standing here, hmm?” She leant in close, so her lips hovered by Morgana’s ear. “Why haven’t you gone running to dear father to bring MI6’s finest down upon my head?” 

Morgana whipped round, catching Sophia’s wrist in a vice-like hold as she made to move away and pinning her so any movement would result in her snapped little finger. It was one of the first moves Arthur had taught her, way back when. Ironic now that it was being used to try and save his life.

Sophia gasped slightly, but she was still smiling. “I’ll tell you why,” she hissed into Morgana’s face, “because you have no proof. You have nothing—”

“Arthur—”

“—you think he will help you?” Sophia’s face twisted into something ugly and cruel. “That boy is mine now, he has been since the moment we met. You’ve all just been too blind to see it.”

Morgana put more pressure on the girl’s wrist, and Sophia made another small noise of pain. “If you hurt him—” she began dangerously.

“—What?” Sophia whispered. “Will you hunt me down, Morgana Le Fay?” Morgana recoiled at her mother’s maiden name, but Sophia was still talking. “Take up your father’s mantle and chase our kind to the ends of the earth?” Her eyes blazed, and for a moment Morgana could have sworn they flashed scarlet. “You have no power against us. You have, nothing. And when the end days come, I will gladly watch you burn along with the rest of your accursed family. That is my promise to you, little Pendragon.”

Sophia made another move to get past her, but Morgana gave her arm a forceful yank and spun the girl round so she was slammed against the wall. Around them, agents were exclaiming in surprise and confusion, but the two girls barely noticed. Their gazes were locked, one red, one green, locked in a battle of will.

“You hurt him,” Morgana said again, her voice low. “And I will come after you myself, do you hear? That is my promise to you. And there is no nook, no cranny, no dark corner in the world you can flee to where I will not find you.”

There was a moment of silence. Then Sophia tilted her head, considering. “I believe you,” she said at last, “which is why, I’m afraid, you’re much too dangerous to be allowed to be walking around right now.”

And before Morgana could so much as blink, Sophia’s eyes flashed red, and everything went strange and fuzzy. Morgana seized Sophia's arms, but even now her grip was weakening, her knees buckling.

The last thing Morgana remembered was the triumphant gleam in Sophia's eyes as she lowered her to the ground with a murmur to the worried agents flocking to their side, before a dull pain thrummed through Morgana's head and the world went black.

 


 

“Gwen?”

“Merlin!” Gwen’s voice broke into Merlin’s earpiece as he ran down another corridor. “Thank God, I’ve been trying to reach you for ages—”

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

“It’s Morgana—” Merlin jolted to a stop.“—she collapsed.”

Shit. “Is she okay?”

“I think so, Sophia managed to catch her before she hit her head, and med bay have given her the all clear. She just hasn’t woken up yet.”

Merlin’s blood went cold. “Sophia was there?”

“Well, she was, only she had to leave pretty quickly.”

“How long ago?” Merlin demanded, his voice a crack of urgency. “Gwen, how long has she been gone?”

“Um, I don’t know, an hour maybe?”

Fuck. Bloody buggering—

“Merlin, I don’t understand. What’s going on?”

Merlin closed his eyes, fighting the sickening lurch of panic in his stomach. “I’ve got to go.”

“Wait, Merlin—”

The line cut off.  

Merlin just stood there for a moment, staring blankly at the wall in front of him. There was a dull rushing in his ears. Then with one shaking hand, he opened another comm line.

Another voice greeted him. “Merlin?”

“Gaius,” Merlin said hoarsely. “I need your help.”

 


 

After a while, Arthur stopped recognising his surroundings. Abstractly, he though he remembered descending down through MI6 and below, further down than he had thought it went, until the walls turned from smooth concrete to rugged stone and the tunnels were lit by candlelight. Strange. He wondered if his father knew this place existed.

Stranger still that he'd known where to find it.

“Arthur.” Sophia’s voice greeted him from the end of the tunnel. “Good, you're here. I was beginning to worry.” Her hand found his. “Come, this will all be over soon.”

And Arthur went.

 


 

“Merlin, come on, just calm down—”

“Calm down?”  Merlin repeated as he paced furiously back and forth. The was a dull roaring sound in his ears. “How am I supposed to calm down when there is a homicidal assassin out there alone with Arthur and they’ve gone and disappeared off the face of the earth? How can I be calm when Arthur’s life might be in jeopardy right now, and it’s my fault?”

“There was nothing you could have done,” Gaius began.

“But I knew!” Merlin said desperately. “I knew she was a threat, and what good was I? The one thing I had to do was to keep her away from Arthur, and I couldn’t even do that.” Merlin’s eyes turned hollow as he tore at his hair. “I might as well have killed Arthur myself.”

“Alright, that’s enough.” Gaius placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, halting him mid stride. “Self-pity does not suit you Merlin.”

“But—”

"Take a breath," Gaius said sternly, and Merlin did, if only because the eyebrow of doom seemed dangerously close to rising. The rushing in his ears quietened slightly. “Good, now. What’s done is done; it helps no one and nothing to look back. You can rant and rave about it later all you want, but right now I need you to focus. You’re no good to Arthur like this.”

“But—”

Listen,” Gaius said firmly. “This isn’t over. It’s not too late.”

“How do you know?” Merlin said in a small voice. “How do you know she hasn’t killed him already?”

“Because we cannot think that,” Gaius said fiercely. “We never give up hope, Merlin, do you understand? Never. Because if you do, Arthur might as well be dead.”

Silence. Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath.

“Okay,” he said at last, and when he met Gaius’s gaze again, Merlin’s was steady. “Okay. What do we do?”

Gaius squeezed his shoulder once, a quick, unspoken approval, then let go. “First, we need to find out who exactly this ‘Sophia’ is, and what she wants with Arthur.”

“Morgana said her eyes turned red, just before she knocked her out.” Merlin glanced sideways at him. “Does that mean Sophia has magic?”

“That, or something worse.”

“I’m sorry, worse?”

Gaius gave him a look before reaching behind him and fiddling with Merlin’s laptop for a moment. “I pulled up the footage of Arthur and Sophia just before he disappeared, and found something rather interesting about our guest.”

Though the recording was faint, Merlin could just about pick out Sophia’s words. Whether he could understand them, however, was a different matter.

“Túce hwón frec'úre, artur.” 

And then again —

“Þec nom feoh gyse. Cume morðor rice ær.”

The language was lilting and song-like, interspersed with the occasional sharp click of consonants. Merlin narrowed his eyes, feeling none of the electric warmth he usually felt when magic was being spoken into being. “What language is that? I don't recognise it.”

“You wouldn’t,” Gaius said resignedly, “for it has not been used in an age.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow in question. A silent get to the point, Gaius.

“It's one of the Goidelic dialects, transcribed by Ogham, an ancient script.” Gaius explained. “I was wondering where I had come across it before, and then I remembered there is a staff in the vaults that uses the same symbols.”

Vaults? Merlin thought, but Gaius was speaking again.

Abas ocus bithe. Duthectad bithlane.” Gaius read out from his notes. “‘To hold life and death in your hands.’” He paused, eyes flickering to Merlin with a serious look Merlin did not like at all. “We're dealing with the Sidhe.”

“That does not sound like a good thing.”

Gaius inclined his head. “They’re masters of enchantment.”

“Enchantment?” Merlin suddenly felt sick, remembering the strange magic chaining Arthur’s will to another’s like shackles. “Like, say, a very powerful compulsion?”

Gaius looked at him sharply. “What—”

“Just something I felt around Arthur.” Merlin shook his head. Idiot. It was staring you in the face and you never even saw it. “I didn’t understand it at first. But that’s what it was, wasn’t it? Sophia’s got Arthur under a compulsion.” A compulsion so strong that it overrides even his basest instincts. Oh God Arthur I'm sorry.

In the background, the recording was still playing.

“Because we are in love.” Sophia’s voice, syrup and steel.

“Because we’re in love.” Arthur repeated in a murmur. 

Merlin went very still. Fury, sudden and volatile, roared through him. If Sophia touched Arthur, she was going to burn. If she forced him to do anything, she was going to burn. If she caused him harm in any possible way, she was going to burn.

“I need to find him.” Merlin barely recognised his own voice, harsh and distorted as it was. 

“And where do you propose to look for an ancient being in alliance with the magic of the earth itself?” Gaius challenged. “The Fae are a vicious people, Merlin, and you would do well not to underestimate them.”

“Gaius, this is Arthur. Please, I have to try. You must have some idea where she might be taking him.”

The former Quartermaster sighed. “If you’re right, and Sophia is intending to sacrifice Arthur, that would require a gateway to Avalon, and few of those were said to have existed. You're looking for a magical hotspot, preferably rooted in a body of water.”

“Avalon? That was a lake in the legends, right?”

“The Lake of Avalon was one such gateway.” Gaius confirmed. “Though the term was more of a metaphor than an actual location."

“Damn it!” Merlin kicked a nearby table. “How are we supposed to find them when we—” He stopped. 

“Merlin?”

“You…you said sacrifice Arthur,” Merlin said slowly. “Not kill, but sacrifice.”

“Of course. The Fae may be ruthless, but they never kill without reason.”

“And, according to the legends, such a sacrifice would require a large body of water, right? A metaphorical 'lake'?”

“I suppose.” Gaius was still looking confused.

“Gaius, we have a body of water right here.”

It took a moment or two before realisation crossed Gaius’s face. “The Thames.” He said. “Of course. The old tunnels under the Riverhouse would lead her straight there, unseen and undetected.”

The two looked at each other for a moment, the realisation of what was to come weighing heavily in the air between them.

Merlin swallowed, getting to his feet. “I have to go.” 

“Merlin…”

“You can’t stop me.”

“I wasn’t going to, my boy.” Gaius smiled a little sadly, though the worry was still etched into his forehead. “Just…be cautious, would you? The Fae are creatures of magic, old magic; they will be able to sense yours, however dormant it is. You must be careful.”

“Careful?” Merlin’s lips quirked. “Tried that once, ever so dull.”

And with one last, quick smile, Merlin slipped out the door, feeling Gaius’s worried gaze boring into his back.

Hang on, Arthur.

If anyone had been watching in that moment, they would have seen his eyes flash a bright, untarnished gold.

 


 

They could have walked for minutes, or days. The world around Arthur slipped in and out of focus, the ground tilting under his feet. He stumbled a few times, though a harsh word from his companion never kept him down for long.

He wondered whether this was what Merlin felt like when he was always tripping over his own feet.

“Arthur?” Sophia’s grip tightened on his wrist, bringing them to a halt. She studied him, narrowing her eyes. “It…it doesn’t make any sense,” Sophia was muttering to herself. “How can you keep throwing off the compulsion? There isn’t a drop of magical blood in you…”

Arthur wasn't listening. He was staring at Sophia. At her eyes that had turned red once more. Red for warning. Red for danger. Red like the blood on Merlin’s shirt when he’d stumbled out of the woods outside the DGSE’s base in Paris…

Hang on, Arthur.

(Merlin?)

“Arthur!” She snapped again, and if Arthur was concentrating he might have heard the sudden uncertainty in her voice. “Stop it. Focus on me.”

But even though everything was telling Arthur to listen to the girl, he couldn’t. Images were rushing in, too fast for him to stop — 

“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. “What?” 

— Across from him, Merlin gave him an small smile, shy and uncertain, and Arthur was surprised no one heard the sound of his heart trying to leap out of his chest... 

‘If inconvenient, come anyway.’ 

“Fine. From now on, I’ll be sure to consult with you before I do anything you don’t expect. Is that acceptable?”

“Only if it involves weapons, cars, escape routes, or people shooting at you”, Merlin groused after a pause. “I don’t need to know if you decide to eat some bread and cheese in the middle of the night.”

Arthur’s gaze flickered up, expecting to see shock or horror, but what he saw was an immeasurable warmth, a smouldering emotion in Merlin’s blue-gold eyes that momentarily took Arthur’s breath away, and somehow, for once, Arthur knew that he had managed to find exactly the right thing to say.

(Don't get too close.)

Truth paid with truth. The two looked at each other, the added layer of something forging between them almost tangible as the rare honesty they’d shared…

"Who are you to tell me what I'm thinking? Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn't do?" 

"I'm your friend."

"No, Merlin, you're my mission handler."

Snowflakes in Merlin's hair, a worried pinch between his eyebrows, the glint of realisation as he looked into Arthurs eyes and saw...

"You're shaking."

"It's cold." 

— Merlin’s words ringing in his mind as they snarled at each other, the strange exhilaration coursing through him when they had trained together, looking at Merlin sometimes and forgetting to breathe for a moment because he looked and he wanted...

Hang on, Arthur.

- the soft, distant look Merlin sometimes got when he thought no one was looking - the quirk of mischief that was always quick to spring to his lips, the scathing words, the fleeting moments when their gazes caught — blistering, searing, all-consuming... blue-gold fire burning through the haze in his mind like wildfire…

"What is it?" Merlin whispered, "what's she done to you?"

Enough!” The voice tore through Arthur’s mind like a battering ram, scattering his thoughts like a pack of cards thrown to the wind. He gasped, staggering, one hand flying to his temple, and for a moment, just a moment, had one crystal clear moment of clarity.

His head whipped to the side, to the girl seething silently next to him. The girl who’s eyes were glowing a bright, impossible scarlet. 

Ice slammed through Arthur’s veins. 

He didn’t hesitate. His hand flew to his Walther, lighting-fast, a lifetime of assassins instincts combining with the adrenaline roaring through his blood in a haze of red as his arm whipped out and his finger squeezed the trigger…

But Sophia was faster.

Lips curled into a snarl, she flung out one hand, and the bullet halted in midair. In the same movement, she flicked her wrist and the Walther was wrenched with an invisible force from Arthur’s grip, clattering far away. The bullet dropped to the stone with a faint cling.

Silence. Arthur stared, nostrils flaring, breathing heavily, experiencing that dizzying shift of reality as his entire perception of the world turned on its axis.

Because he could not deny it any longer, not when it was happening right there in front of him. All those impossible things, the fires that sprung from nothing, the bullets that faltered at the raising of a hand, the earth-shattering explosions and the flash of orange in a man's eyes and the way Sophia had gotten into his head with a whispered word... It was insane, it was absurd, it was -

Magic,” Arthur said hoarsely. “That was magic.”

Sophia's smile was a small, cruel thing. “Took you long enough.”

And then she said something else — strange, lilting words that Arthur didn’t understand, and the crushing pressure on his mind finally broke through his final barrier of resistance. Sophia’s mind swept into his, drowning his every protest with wave upon wave of unearthly power, alien and ancient and —

Fae, a voice whispered from somewhere far away, a voice that sounded strangely like Merlin’s.

(Who?)

Then the invading presence did something in his mind, a sort of twist, and Arthur felt himself falling away as the world shattered in pieces around him and everything faded into nothing.

 

Chapter Text

Merlin didn’t remember getting to the river. 

Later, he couldn’t have recalled finding the tunnels running under the Riverhouse or sprinting down their twisted paths, his way lit by the torches on the walls that flared up as he ran past. It didn’t seem important then seeing that these tunnels were old — really old — far outdating MI6. It didn’t seem bizarre that Merlin never faltered in navigating this maze of stone, following that small nudge from his magic every time he reached a fork in the tunnels. It didn’t seem significant then that this place had clearly known magic. 

All that mattered was getting to Arthur. 

Soon the stone turned to shingle beneath his feet and the sky opened up above him, the tunnel unfurling out onto the river bank. It lay there unlit and forbidding, nothing more than a fading spar of marshy soil and discarded pebbles. One small blessing that the turbulent water was at low tide. At high tide, there'd be nothing here at all. Maybe the tunnels themselves would have been submerged. But he didn’t have time to count his good fortune. Merlin’s feet scraped against the gravel as he skidded to a stop, breath frosting in a plume in the cold night air. The Thames lay dark and still before him, the ghostly reflection of the moon quivering upon the water. A thin wall of mist crept along the water’s edge. The very air seemed thick with anticipation. 

There was no sign of Arthur or Sophia. 

Panic spiked, sudden and choking, and Merlin suppressed it with practised ease. Think — they can’t have gotten far. 

A flash of movement in the corner of his eye drew his gaze upwards. Vauxhall Bridge loomed above him, dotted with street-lamps and mostly void of traffic at this god-awful time of night. And there, silhouetted against the misted light, were two figures standing at its edge. 

Arthur.

Merlin’s feet dug into the gravel as he pushed forward once more. Ahead of him, he could see the small figure — Sophia — move closer to Arthur, close enough to speak directly into his ear. Arthur swayed towards her, pliant and trusting. 

A sodden patch of marshland on the bank stole Merlin’s feet from underneath him, and he slipped with a curse. In his head, Merlin could almost hear Arthur’s painstaking groan at the ill-timed clumsiness (you really are a complete idiot, aren’t you Merlin?) Grime and sludge and God-knows-what clung to him as Merlin scrambled once more to his feet.

Back on the bridge, Sophia brushed a kiss on Arthur’s cheek before stepping away. The two stood there for a moment, pale figures under the waxing moon.

Then Arthur began to climb over the railings. 

Shit. 

Merlin almost tripped again in his haste. He was too far away, too slow, and Arthur…

Arthur was stood on the thin overhang jutting out from the bridge, swaying slightly with the force of the winter gusts as they tore at his clothes.  His hands did nothing to steady him as they hung limp at his side. Below him, the churning currents of the channel surged and swirled in a turbulent mess of inky water.

Merlin feet slapped on concrete as he crossed a wharf, heart drumming in time with his pounding footsteps. Faster. A stitch burned up his side. Ragged breaths left his mouth in a painful stutter, clawing up his throat. Still Merlin pushed forward.

Over Arthur’s shoulder, Sophia had her eyes closed, palms turned upwards to the sky as she began to chant. Though there was no way Merlin could have heard her at this distance, the words carried on the winds, lilting and song-like. Long, winding syllables met with the harsh sibilance of consonants, ethereal and alien, whispering across the water like a language he couldn’t quite remember. As the final cadence left her mouth, Sophia opened her eyes, eyes that glowed an unearthly red. And the river froze. 

Merlin faltered, snatching in a ragged breath.

‘Froze’ was perhaps the wrong word. The area about fifty feet in diameter around Sophia had just stopped, flowing one second, still the next, as though someone had hit the pause button. The swirling current smoothed to a mirror-like surface, an opulent ebony glass that shimmered under the moonlight.

Merlin felt a brief, sickening lurch of trepidation. He knew the Sidhe were powerful, but this — the sheer control required to manipulate nature in such a way — he’d never seen anything like it. This was old magic, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for an age; magic of the earth and natural law.

But Merlin didn’t have time for a personal crisis; he’d finally reached the bridge. 

A choked noise caught in Merlin’s throat as, finally, his body started to flag after his wild sprint through the tunnels and then along the riverbank. The air burned in his lungs as he staggered up the final stretch.

Something was happening out on the water, a strange light emerging from under the surface like a siren call. Merlin ignored it, tearing his gaze away back to Arthur. 

The double 0 was trembling even as he leaned over the gaping drop, lulled by Sophia’s voice as it spoke from behind him. Merlin couldn't hear the words but he could see them, clouding between them like a poisonous vapor, dark and twisted, seeping into Arthur's ears, shadowing his mind with loneliness, despair, weariness.

“Arthur!” Merlin’s voice rang out, unmasked desperation clear in every syllable, but he was too far away, his words snatched away by the winds. Arthur couldn’t hear him. 

In desperation, Merlin’s hand flew to his hip, where Arthur’s Walther was still holstered. The Sidhe were averse to metal, he remembered. If he could take Sophia by surprise… The gun was a familiar weight in his palm, grounding him. The sights lined up. Breath, Merlin, god damnit. You’ll never be able to shoot straight if you’re gasping for every breath,

But even as he took aim, Merlin knew it was fruitless. He wasn't Arthur, or a double 0. Merlin might know his way around a firearm, but he couldn't get that kind of accuracy at this kind of range. He couldn’t risk getting a clean shot — not when Sophia was standing so close to Arthur. Biting his lip, Merlin lowered the Walther. There was nothing for it, he needed to get closer.

“One step, and this will all be over,” she was saying, Merlin now close enough to hear as he advanced. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? All that pain, all that loneliness, all that guilt. Just one step, and it’ll all be gone. All this will end.”

Arthur’s feet shifted forward, so his toes were hanging over the edge.

“Arthur!” Merlin’s voice cut through the air before he could stop himself. “Arthur don’t listen to her!”

A command, a plea.

Sophia’s head snapped up. Her eyes were narrowed to fiery slits as they found him, her Fae heritage showing in the harsh lines of her face. “You,” she hissed, “I should have killed you the day I met you.”

Merlin swallowed. Great plan, genius, announce your presence for everyone and their mother to hear. Now what? 

“That would have been tremendously ambitious of you.” Merlin replied, trying to edge closer without making it obvious what he was doing. 

Sophia was still looking vaguely disgusted at his general existence, like he was a bug that had crawled under her shoe, so Merlin presumed she hadn’t noticed. “How did you find me?”

Keep stalling. Merlin took a step forward. “Homicidal Fae with sacrificial intentions? Big ass river? Wasn’t a difficult leap.”

“You’ve been slow, though, this time.” The girl studied him. “Last time you were more observant.”

Last time?

“It is no matter though; you have already lost.” Sophia caressed a hand down Arthur’s bicep proprietarily. “This one has been mine from the beginning.”

Merlin shrugged, eyes half on Arthur as he replied. “See, that’s you’re mistake,” and — yes, one of Arthur’s hands had reached back to curl around the railing. Arthur was fighting the enchantment.

“And what mistake is that?”

Merlin took a reckless step forward. “Underestimating Arthur Pendragon.” And pushing his luck, Merlin turned directly to Arthur, his voice softening. “Arthur, I know you can hear me. She’s controlling you. You’ve got to fight it.”

Arthur’s expression flickered.

“Quiet.” Sophia snapped. “You’re a fool, Quartermaster. Arthur, step off the bridge.”

But Arthur was shaking his head, one hand clenched white-knuckled onto the railing as though to keep himself there by sheer force of will. His face was drawn tight like he was in pain. 

“Arthur. Step off the bridge.” Words laced with power, thick with command. 

“But…we’re in love…” Arthur sounded so confused it made Merlin’s chest ache.

“Arthur…”  Merlin tried.

“Enough.” Sophia cut in. Her expression was twisted with a stiff annoyance. “A willing sacrifice was preferable, but an unwilling one will work just the same.”

A flash of scarlet in her eyes, and Arthur’s form was wrenched forward. The light under the water gleamed. His feet slipped…

No.

Merlin lunged, hand outstretched to snatch his friend back to safety, but he was still too far away: a dozen paces behind and useless. A spark of something old and angry sprung up in his chest, magic crackling like a wild electrical discharge, but it was too volatile, his grip on it too shaky — thrown into flux by the fear and panic coursing through him. 

So Merlin wrestled it aside, raised his arm and aimed the Walther straight between Sophia’s eyes.

“Stop!” His voice was a whip-crack. “Stop, or I’ll fire.”

Sophia held up one hand, and Arthur’s form froze, suspended in the air. Merlin’s breath left him in a shuddering whoosh, the surge of crushing relief so strong he almost dropped the Walther. 

Sophia cocked her head to the side, expression set in an icy calm. “No,” she said after a moment. “You won’t.”

Her eyes flashed again, and the gun was ripped from Merlin’s hand so powerfully it flew up, up through the air, and over the edge into the river with a distant splash. 

The two stared at each other. 

“Funny,” she said. “Somehow, I expected more.”

Merlin frowned. “what—”

Then Sophia’s mouth turned up into a smirk, and she released her outstretched hand.

No.

Arthur’s body dropped like a stone, disappearing from view.

No no no —

The world shuddered to a screeching halt around him. There was a dull roar in his ears. His throat burned, and Merlin realised distantly he had screamed Arthur’s name. And as Merlin stood there on that bridge, watching Arthur fall away to the dark waters below, blonde hair a beacon of gold against the inky void, hearing the soft mockery in Sophia’s voice as she cast his life away with nothing more than the turn of her hand, feeling his heart contract painfully in his chest and his entire world crumble because Arthur was falling and he couldn’t get to him…something snapped.

Merlin was taken to a place where he only knew three things: that Arthur had been taken from him, that he was a creature forged from the magic of the earth and sky, and that if Arthur was hurt, Sophia was going to burn.

Merlin’s magic — wild and uncurbed — leaped to the surface at his call, humming in his veins, roaring in his blood. His eyes blazed, the gold utterly engulfing the blue in their fire.

And the block he had carefully built in his mind over the years came crumbling down.

That ember of magic, that churning mass of raw power that burned inside of him, was flaring up in a wash of searing heat, scorching from the inside out, burning brighter, higher, hotter —

Across from him, Sophia took one, faltering step back. Her eyes were wide with fear. “No…” she whispered.

Merlin plunged his whole being into the flow of magic and, without relying on the ancient language to structure his spell, rewove the fabric of the world into a pattern more pleasing to him. Power surged through his fingertips in a white hot agony, directed by a spear of intent, bursting from his outstretched palm with a thunderous crack

And then all that stored energy, all those years of suppressing and burying and hiding his magic, burst out of him in an onslaught of raw, uncurbed power. A blinding outburst of white-gold light split the night in two, illuminating up the entire bridge in a flare of searing heat that tore open the sky.

He was fire, and lightning, and embers. And Sophia was already ash.

Sophia flung up both hands, a crackling blue shield appearing in front of her, but the wave crashed straight through it, and through her. There was no scream or shout – just a resonant thrum as the wave pulsed, and Sophia’s form disintegrated into nothing in the white-gold fire. The air trembled in the heat. The bridge under him shuddered. Then the broiling sphere of magic shimmered and dispersed, leaving nothing but steam hissing in the icy air.

Silence.

Merlin exhaled. He blinked away the white spots in his vision. His hand fell limply to his side. 

In his haze, only one thought penetrated. 

Arthur.

Grit scraped over stone as he skidded to a halt at the railing, searching desperately for a flash of golden hair in the inky blackness of the now-unfrozen channel below, thinking of nothing but the impulse to follow. His hands gripped the railing to hoist himself over. There was no logic, no common sense, only the pounding terror of loss and the need to do something, anything, to make sure that was not how tonight would end.

Another terror kept him firmly rooted to the spot. 

Merlin realised absently his breathing had become shallow and fast. His lungs burned as they tried to get enough oxygen. His vision blurred at the edges. His hands were trembling. 

This wasn't the same bridge. But oh God it might as well have been. Suddenly he was seven again, his hands and knees scraped and muddied from the amount of times he had tripped and fallen, every other panicked breath hitching on a sob as he ran, running beyond all hope because what else could a seven-year-old do? Larger footsteps thundered behind him, his chaser’s voice harsh and close — too close — his steps had soon stumbled and faltered, exhaustion overpowering fear — I’m sorry mama 

and then there was rain on the ground, and a shout from behind him, and a desperate lunge forward and a slip and then a tumble over the edge into the abyss and the cold, dark waters that awaited him below…

Merlin gasped, wrenching himself out of the memory. Breathe. His chest rose and fell, heart pounding with the remnants of terror. Breathe, you idiot, come on.

Strange that his inner voice had been replaced by Arthur’s.

Arthur.

Merlin’s breath hitched on a sob. Arthur: fiercely stubborn and irritatingly noble, an arrogance that was really strength, a strength that was kind, and a kindness that was lonely. Arthur who wouldn't think twice at diving in after him. Arthur who needed him now more than ever.

Arthur.

O blast it. Without another thought, Merlin vaulted the railing in one motion and hurled himself straight back into the churning blackness, hoping against hope he wasn't too late.

 


 

At first, there had been nothing.

Indistinct shadowy figures and murmured voices, a wash of grey and black.

Then there had been a voice, and suddenly Arthur was standing on a bridge. Disorientation. It wasn’t the strangest place he’d ever woken up in, but then usually Arthur actually remembered waking up in the first place. This had been more like a light switch — one second he wasn’t there, and the next he was. 

The voice was speaking again.

“Arthur, I know you can hear me. She’s controlling you. You’ve got to fight it.”

Merlin. Further confusion. Worry. Merlin shouldn’t be here. He had no idea what Sophia was capable of. He should get out of here whilst he still could.

Arthur. Step off the bridge.”

Another voice — hers. Arthur’s muscles locked instinctively in protest. It was as though every ounce of him was straining forward to obey the command, whilst simultaneously scrambling back in horrified denial. He was nought but a passenger in his own body, fighting for control.

Words tripped over his lips, slow and clumsy. “But…we’re in love…

The world blurred away for a while after that. The other voice — Merlin’s — was rising with anger and tension and something else Arthur couldn’t identify (fear?) — his unmasked desperation clear in every syllable. 

“Stop! Stop, or I’ll fire!”

Back on the bridge, Arthur watched the gun get torn from Merlin’s hand. Idiot, he thought, only the gun sailed up, up, over the edge into the river, so it couldn’t have been purely Merlin’s ill-timed clumsiness. Merlin’s eyes turned to him, fierce and desperate and — yes, there was fear in those gorgeous blue eyes. Arthur wanted to tell him not to worry, not to be afraid, but when he tried to form the words, he realised he seemed to be hanging in midair, suspended a few feet out from the bridge over the river.

Strange. He didn’t remember leaving the ledge.

She was speaking again.“Funny. Somehow, I expected more.”

“What—”

And then Arthur was falling. 

The world fell away. Time seemed to spiral and slow around him. In that moment, several things happened at once. Arthur heard Merlin screaming his name, a roar of anguish, like he could pull Arthur back from the edge just from the power in his voice. He saw a searing light burst into the sky like a flare, felt the world tremble at the power unleashed above. And as Arthur fell, face upturned to the bridge, just before he fell out of sight, Arthur saw Merlin.

His silhouette set ablaze, eyes turning an impossible gold, standing tall and strong at the epicentre of the explosion, one hand outstretched as he leashed that devastating wave of power and sent it blasting into the sky…

Moments later, Arthur felt an indistinct weight lift from him, relieving him of a crushing burden he hadn't even known he was carrying. The haze from his mind cleared. The foreign presence fled. His thoughts came flooding back…

Merlin?

And Arthur hit the water. 

 


 

Dark. It was too dark, the undertow too strong, the water too turbulent, tossing him back and forth in its writhing grip —

Tried as he had over the years, Merlin had not forgotten this part.

The water that was ice, a searing cold that burnt his skin and stole his breath and sapped his strength. The disorientation — no sense of up or down as the currents played tug-of-war with his body. The burning in his lungs as they screamed for oxygen.

Shoving the memories aside, Merlin dived deeper, searching, grasping in the pitch-black void for any sign of a figure.

He doubled back to the surface when his lungs started screaming. A snatched breath. A scan of the surface. Merlin dived again.

Panic magnified inside him with every stroke. Too long. Arthur had been under too long. Sophia’s spell on the river had still been in place when Arthur had fallen, so he can’t have drifted that much further downstream than Merlin. He just had to find him…

God damnit!

In a sudden burst of helpless frustration, Merlin struck out at the water, and light spewed from his fingers like fireflies, pulsing wide arcs of light that lit up the entire riverbed. He stilled in the water. 

There, not ten feet in front of him, was Arthur, his form limp and drifting untethered in the depths. He wasn’t moving.

Bubbles spewed from Merlin’s mouth as he lurched forward in frantic, clumsy strokes. One hand fisted in Arthur’s shirt, the other latching around Arthur’s waist. And Merlin heaved, pulling them both up towards the surface with every last shred of strength left in him…

They broke the surface.

Merlin gasped, nearly choking as he gulped in that first breath. His hand was still tangled in Arthur’s shirt. 

“Arthur?”

Next to him, Arthur’s head drooped forward into the inky waves. He wasn't breathing. 

“Arthur…” Merlin rasped hoarsely. He seized his friend around the waist to keep him from sinking, kicking hard to keep the two of them afloat. “Arthur come on!”

But Arthur was a dead weight in Merlin’s arms. He wasn't even shivering. Merlin tightened his grip as Arthur’s head lolled against Merlin’s collarbone, boneless, unconscious, unresponsive.

Oh Gods.

Merlin let out a cry of fury as one of his kicks faltered and the two dipped momentarily in the black water. His strength was almost spent, his arms burned with Arthur’s weight, violent shivers racked through him and his hands were already turning blue in the icy waters.

But Merlin sure as hell wasn’t giving up now. 

Gritting his teeth, he secured a better grip on Arthur, eyes finding the bank across the wide, gaping stretch of water, and Merlin began to swim. Everything narrowed down to the strokes of his arms and the pumping of his legs as he dragged them both through the water, fighting every current in his path. It seemed such a mountainous effort just to keep Arthur’s head above the water as he made for the bank, but somehow he managed it. 

And just when Merlin thought he’d pass out from the strain of it all — his shaky legs scrambling to find purchase on the sand as he dragged Arthur into shore, just as Arthur began to slip from his numb grip in the shallow water — Merlin heard distant voices yelling his name.

“Merlin!” 

Merlin glanced up blearily to see flashes of light dancing on the bank. He raised a hand.

“Over here!” His voice was hoarse and ragged, but the figures miraculously seemed to hear.

Torchbeam flickered past then doubled back and lingered on Merlin’s face. More shouting, a call to the others. Figures were running towards them, splashing through the shallows, yelling something that was probably important. The double 0’s had found them.

Then strong arms were hoisting him up, lifting him clean out from the shallow water.

Panic spiked as Merlin lost his hold on Arthur.

“Arthur…” Merlin was shivering so much he couldn’t form anything else.

“Shush, we’ve got him,” the person holding him up soothed. Gwaine. The double 0 darted forward and caught Merlin under the arms as he sagged, exhaustion catching up with him now the adrenaline had worn off, “shit — easy there, it’s alright.” Gwaine wrapped an arm around his waist and Merlin let him take his weight. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

On the riverbank, Merlin saw Percival lowering Arthur to the sand as though he didn’t weigh a thing, not hesitating to bend down and start resuscitation procedures. 

Somehow (probably with Gwaine’s help), Merlin managed to make it up the sand bank. He stumbled forward and collapsed at Arthur’s side. He didn’t think his heart had ever been pounding so loudly.

Come on, Arthur, breathe.

Absently, he registered the other double 0’s gathering around them as Percival pushed air into Arthur’s mouth again and again, pumping his chest with practised movements, calm and professional whilst Merlin was crumbling into a nervous wreck beside him.

Breathe.

Tears pricked at Merlin’s eyes.

Breathe, Arthur, god damnit.

And then Arthur coughed, and coughed, and took a great, ragged, gasping breath, and it was the best sound Merlin had ever heard. His next breath left him in a wobbling huff, hysteria bubbling under his ribs as he fell back on his heels in weak relief.

Thank fuck.

“Merlin?” Arthur rasped after he had stopped retching up half the Thames.

“He’s here, he’s fine.” Percival said, moving aside to let Arthur see.

Arthur’s eyes darted sideways to where Merlin knelt, and their eyes met. Arthur’s hair was a dripping mess of estuary slime, his face hollowed and skeletal, his chest rising and falling shallowly, his eyes sunken and exhausted, and his lips were turning blue. 

He was the most beautiful thing Merlin had ever seen. 

Merlin gave him a weak smile. Arthur’s hand twitched, one finger curling around the edge of Merlin’s sodden sleeve that lay just next to his hand. As though he was tugging Merlin closer, or making sure he was really there. Both of them were still breathing heavily, coated in mud and slime and God-knows what from the Thames, weak with exhaustion and soaked to the bone and freezing their arses off. But neither of them moved; neither of them wanted to. It was as though they needed a moment of stillness, a moment of drinking the other in and accepting the realisation that we made it, we’re alive, we’re okay, we’re here. We’re okay.

Slowly, barely moving at all, Merlin turned his hand over so that his fingers brushed against Arthur’s. Arthur blinked. Then, after a moment, his hand curled underneath Merlin’s. 

“Idiot,” Arthur murmured, his eyes already falling shut.

A ghost of a smile touched Merlin’s lips.

Then Arthur’s hand went limp in his and Arthur passed out in the sand.

 


 

Leon pursed his lips as he regarded the pale figure lying in the bed. 

Arthur, he decided, was an utter moron. Not for running off with Sophia (though Leon was going to have words with him about that later), not for allowing a pretty girl to take him for a fool, not even for nearly drowning in the Thames and giving them all a heart attack. 

No: Arthur was an idiot for refusing to see what was right in front of him, for being so infuriatingly blind about how Merlin felt towards him.

In fact, they were both idiots.

All the double 0’s had noticed it — that magnetism that drew the two together, the way they had of looking at each other like they were the only two in the room. They had been dancing around each other for weeks now. And after last night… Well.

The double 0’s knew Arthur well enough to know besotted when they saw it, and whilst they didn’t have the same advantage of a lifetime spent with Merlin, nobody who saw him at the river last night could have been in any doubt those feelings weren’t replicated.

Getting Arthur to realise that was another matter entirely. 

As if on cue, the figure in the bed stirred. Leon watched from his seat as Arthur groaned softly, eyes opening with a grimace. He looked utterly drained – unsurprising, considering what had happened. Arthur, being Arthur, of course tried to sit up, only to wince back with a hiss of pain.

“Easy,” Leon murmured, placing a hand on his friend’s arm. “You did swallow half the Thames last night.”

Arthur made a low sound in the back of his throat. “That actually happened?”

“‘fraid so.”

Arthur grunted, falling back on the pillows. His gaze darted quickly to Leon’s and back. “Merlin?”

There it is, not even a minute awake. Leon rolled his eyes. “Is fine.”

“What happened?” 

“You don’t remember?”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Given I spent the majority of it unconscious, I think I’d like to hear it from you first.”

Somehow Leon didn’t believe him, but he let it slide for now.

“You went AWOL with Sophia, completely disappeared off the map. Apparently you used some tunnels running under MI6 to get to the riverbank, where Sophia got you on Vauxall bridge and somehow managed to catch you off guard long enough to off you over the edge.” A sharp glance from Leon showed just how likely he considered this particular scenario to be. “After which Merlin arrived, miraculously survived an explosion that lit up half of London, shot Sophia, and dived after you to save your sorry ass. We came as soon as we saw the flare.”

He…what?

“Merlin dived in after me?” Arthur repeated. He frowned, “but…the river…the water…

Leon knew he was recalling Merlin’s confession in the restaurant the past week.

“I don’t. Like water, I mean. I was running. It was night time, and the ground was wet. It was raining.” His voice was quiet, detached, “I slipped on the bridge. Fell into the Thames. Later, I was told I nearly drowned.”

Leon looked at Arthur knowingly. “Guess he found something that was stronger than that.”

Arthur’s eyebrows were still furrowed. His gaze was distant, even Leon couldn’t hazard a guess what he was thinking. Leon waited. Then — “I need to see him.”

And there’s the second predictability. “I thought you might.” Leon said dryly. “He’s just next door, was waiting until you woke up.”

Arthur was already nodding. But Leon wasn’t quite done just yet.

“Just, Arthur?”

“Hmm?”

Arthur still had his ‘Deep Thought’ expression on, so Leon waited. Waited until Arthur decided to pull himself out of whatever brood he was working himself into and come back to the real world. Sure enough, after a minute or so, Arthur blinked and reemerged.

“What is it?”

“Two things.” Leon replied. “First, I don’t believe for a second that Sophia was all that charming to catch one of the sharpest men I know off-guard long enough to push him off a bridge, but whatever it was that really happened last night —”

Just like that, Arthur stilled, his gaze sharpening. “I don’t—”

“Whatever it was,” Leon emphasised, stopping Arthur before he could start because once Arthur started there was no stopping him, “whatever it is that you’re not saying, and that for some reason Merlin’s also keeping mum about next door —I think it scared you. I think you saw something, something maybe you can’t speak about yet.”

Arthur had gone quiet. He was staring fixedly at his hands in what Leon called his ‘carefully blank’ expression (as opposed to say, his ‘furiously calm’ blank expression, or his ‘loading, please wait’ blank expression; the three weren’t all that dissimilar) that meant something was really, really freaking him out.

“And that’s okay,” Leon said softly.

Arthur’s head jerked up. “I’m sorry, what?”

“It’s okay,” he repeated. “You don’t have to tell us anything. But I need you to know that you can.”

“I…” Arthur’s face twisted. He opened his mouth, and closed it. It was like watching a whole whirlwind of reactions in the space of a few seconds as they flashed across Arthur’s face — denial, surprise, hesitance, indecision, and then, finally, resignation. He swallowed, nodded once. “And the second thing?”

Braver men than he would have stopped there. But Leon knew Arthur better than anyone, and knew that for all his skills at observing people and navigating the rest of the world like a chess master, Arthur was hopeless when it came to his own emotions. 

He squared his shoulders. Battle stations. “What I said before about Merlin? About not leaving it too late?”

Sure enough, Arthur’s expression closed off. “Leon…”

“Look, I know its not my place, but what I also know is that a boy who is terrified of water didn’t think twice about diving in after you, and nearly killed himself trying to get you out.”

Arthur didn’t look at him. “He’d have done that for anyone. That’s just who he is”

“Maybe,” Leon allowed. “But you didn’t see his face when Percival pulled you out. I had to all but drag him away from your side just so he could get his own injuries seen to.”

“Injuries?” Arthur said, head snapping up. “What injuries?”

“For christ sake, he’s fine, okay? A little bashed up, a little feverish from, you know, taking a swim in the fucking Thames in December, but that there is just what I mean.” 

Leon crossed his arms, not backing down at Arthur’s glare. “We’ve known each other a long time, yeah? I’ve seen you in some pretty bad places, but nothing quite so bad as when something happens to Merlin. And the reverse. You both go half mad.”

“I don’t—”

“For God’s sake. How many times of one of you nearly dying is it going to take for you to admit you feel something for each other?” 

“He doesn’t—”

“Bullshit, Arthur, and you know it.”

Silence.

A stricken expression was frozen on Arthur’s face, warring with a small, desperate sort of hope that made Leon’s chest ache for him.

Leon’s sighed, and his voice gentled. “Look, Arthur, this is going to keep happening. I know you, and if you don’t say anything and something happens? You’ll never be able to live with yourself. Nor would he, for that matter. So just, think about it, please? For both your sakes.”

Arthur swallowed tightly. “You really think he…” The words trailed off. Even now, Arthur couldn’t say it.

Leon raised an eyebrow. “I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

Arthur considered this. 

Standing, he clasped Arthur’s shoulder briefly, gently. “Oh and for the record, if you do anything stupid like nearly drown and scare the crap out of me ever again, I will kick your ass, you hear me?”

For the first time, Arthur’s lips turned up into a small smile. “Why Leon, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Hmph. I’ll call by again later — try not to brood too hard. You might burst a brain vessel. Plus, it scares the nurses.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Arthur replied placidly. He cleared his throat. “Could you, ah, tell Merlin I want to talk to him on your way out?”

“Tell him yourself.”

And Leon didn’t relish the startled surprise on Arthur’s face at all as he opened the door to reveal Merlin standing on the other side, hand raised as if to knock.

“Um,” Merlin said, “hi?”

“I’ll leave you two to talk,” Leon said brightly, slipping past Merlin and ‘accidentally’ nudging him into Arthur’s room. “Hope you feel better, Arthur.”

Merlin looked vaguely confused, obviously sensing he’d missed something. Arthur just looked stoic and unimpressed. 

Leon flashed him a quick grin, then shut the door behind him and strode off down the hallway, whistling as he went.

 


 

Neither of them spoke for a moment or two. Arthur studied Merlin as he hovered awkwardly in the doorway. Someone had obviously found him some clothes, and given they were most likely one of the double 0’s they were hopelessly too big. Tattered jeans that had seen better days hung low on his hips, revealing a teasing strip of pale skin that wasn’t quite hidden by what looked like one of Leon’s shirts. With the hoody that utterly swamped his slight frame, the whole effect had Merlin looking about a decade younger. He looked pale, and exhausted, and tense with worry, but otherwise unharmed. Bruise-like shadows rested under his eyes that Arthur wanted to sweep away with his thumb. And all the while, Merlin’s eyebrows were furrowed with a thought that Arthur couldn’t read.

Then again, Arthur never knew what Merlin was thinking.

As a double 0, he had been trained to read people, to observe minute changes in body language and expression and decipher them, the same way Merlin could look at a string of code and see a security system. Where most people would see a jumping gaze or a tightening jaw or the tapping of fingers on a desk, Arthur saw a weave of intent and meaning, all lines and shifts painting a web of decisions and thoughts that Arthur could read like a map. 

It was how he knew just by the tilt of Morgana’s eyebrow if she’d had her coffee that morning, how he knew exactly how good the sex had been last night by Gwaine’s swagger, how Owain’s sister had been at the drink again by the way he continually glanced at his phone, how stressed Gwen was just by the state of her hair, and how much Uther wanted to strangle him by the unpleased twitch of his mouth.

And then there was Merlin, who Arthur couldn’t read at all. There were too many contradictions about him — the way he could hack through walls of encryption with nothing but a few lines of code, but couldn’t walk across a flat surface without tripping over. The way he looked so innocent yet never flinched at the blood on the double 0’s hands. The way he looked so young and breakable yet had fired a gun with the calm, instinctive assurance that couldn’t be taught. The way his day job consisted of creating weapons of mass destruction, yet he wouldn’t let them kill the spider that crawled across his desk one morning. The way he was so unerringly kind to everyone, but trusted next to no one. The way he was terrified of water, yet had single-handedly pulled Arthur from the Thames.

His inconsistencies both frustrated and fascinated Arthur. It made his head hurt. But somehow Arthur couldn’t help but be drawn in.

“You’re hovering, Merlin,” Arthur said at last. “Come in. You’re making me nervous.”

Merlin rolled his eyes, but he obliged. “You sound better,” he noted.

“If by ‘better’ you mean ‘not hacking my guts up at the side of a river’ then yes, I suppose I do.” Arthur paused. “I gather I have you to thank for that.”

Merlin’s eyes flickered quickly to his, then away. “Percival was the one who pulled you out. He brought you back.”

“But he wasn't the one who dived off the bridge after me, now, was he?”

Merlin didn't answer. His eyes were shuttered, long eyelashes brushing against his cheekbones and hiding the bright blue of his eyes. This close, Arthur could see a bruise on Merlin’s cheekbone, that the tuffs of his hair were fluffy as though he’d just had a shower, that his lip was bitten into a nervous wreck. Arthur was hit with a rush of sudden, thundering want. He wanted to hook his fingers into the loops on Merlin’s tattered jeans and tug him close, pull Merlin onto his lap, bury his face in Merlin’s neck and breath him in. He wanted to press his lips to Merlin’s chapped ones, whisper that it was okay, that Merlin had saved him. Arthur wanted to hold him until Merlin stopped looking like he was about to fall apart any moment.

But Arthur did none of those things, because now wasn't the right time. 

Instead, he distracted himself by trying to piece together what exactly had happened the previous night. “How did you find me?”

“I saw a whopping great explosion and thought ‘now, who could that be?’”

Merlin…”

He sighed. "I noticed you and Sophia had disappeared the moment you vanished from my security cameras. Nobody knew where you had gone. Then I talked to Gaius, who, um…mentioned there was an underground tunnel system running underneath MI6 near the place you were seen last. I found it, tracked you down through the tunnels, and managed to catch up to you on the bridge.” Merlin shrugged. “The rest you know.”

No, he didn’t. Arthur remembered eyes that glowed and light that burned and magic, none of which aligned with anything he knew.

Merlin, as ever, was watching him with eyes that were far to observant. “Arthur, exactly how much do you remember?”

Merlin’s words were casual, but Arthur sensed a loaded question behind it, a shade of wariness that hinged on Arthur’s answer. But why? And why was Merlin being so frustratingly vague? 

The first thing that struck Arthur was that Merlin thought it was magic too. If he was going through anything like what Arthur was, he’d be undergoing a mild reality crisis as he tried to align what he’d seen with the ever-shifting realms of ‘possible’. It would explain the skittishness, the shiftiness, the evasive answers.

The second thing that struck Arthur was that Merlin had seen this before. All throughout the weird stuff that had happened, the impossibilities no one could explain, Merlin’s reactions hadn’t made any sense. He had been too dismissive of Edwin’s abilities in the beginning, too calm whilst Arthur was having a minor freak-out. Technology, he’d called it. He’d been unhesitant in Paris where the double 0’s had momentarily frozen in disbelief, screaming at them all to get down moments before the first explosion, charging at the assailants and barely flinching when they’d started blowing them all to kingdom come with apparently nothing more than their hands. When Sophia had torn the Walther from Merlin’s grip on the bridge, in the exact same move that had had Arthur’s realisations screeching to a halt back in the tunnels with the crashing epiphany of magic, Merlin hadn’t even blinked. He hadn’t been freaking out; Merlin had been angry. 

And that wouldn’t have made sense, unless he already knew.

The third thing that struck Arthur was that if Merlin had seen this before, then why the bloody hell hadn't he said anything? 

Merlin was still watching him with guarded eyes. “Arthur?”

“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “There are these periods of blankness that are just nothing, and then what I do remember doesn’t make any sense.”

Arthur pretended he didn’t see the relief that flickered over Merlin’s face.

“Well, you were in the water for some time.” Merlin said carefully, and damn him, he even sounded apologetic, as though he regretted not saving Arthur’s life sooner. “A bit of disorientation is probably normal.”

More like questioning-my-sanity kind of disorientated. 

“Leon said you shot Sophia.” Arthur said. It wasn’t supposed to be a question, but it came out sounding like one.

“Yeah,” Merlin said after a pause. "Right after she pushed you off the edge.” 

And was that before or after the gun was torn out of your hand by an invisible force?

“You saw the flare then?” Arthur said casually. “That explosion?”

Merlin rubbed his face. He didn’t look at Arthur. “Yeah, I suppose. Sophia must have had some kind of compact missile launcher or projectile canon…”

And Arthur didn’t believe him. His words were too calm, too measured. Why won’t you tell me? He wanted to ask. What are you so afraid of?

Normally, Arthur would have lashed out and demanded answers, pressing forward with a single-minded determination to discover the truth. But this was Merlin: impossible, idiotic, infuriating, brilliant Merlin who had saved Arthur’s life more times than he could count and who right now looked so uncharacteristically nervous Arthur couldn’t find it within himself to push, not today. He needed more time to think, to gather evidence, to consider what this meant if he was right.

And if Merlin wasn’t ready to tell him yet, he’d just have to wait until he was.

So, with a great effort, Arthur stifled his burning curiosity and decided to put all his questions aside for the moment.

Merlin was still rambling in that slightly-manic way he did when he was nervous or trying to hide something he’d done wrong. Arthur cleared his throat, smiling slightly when it made Merlin jump.

“Are you alright, though?”

“Me?” Merlin repeated blankly, 

“That explosion looked like it gave off quite a bit of heat, and I wasn’t the only one who nearly swallowed half the Thames,” Arthur pointed out. He hoped Merlin heard what he wasn’t saying — you were forced to relive one of the most traumatic events of your childhood, are you okay?

Merlin shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“You have just killed a person.”

“Yes, I... That's true.” Merlin cleared his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was matter-of-a-fact. “But she wasn't a very nice person.”

Arthur’s lips twitched. “No. No, she wasn't, really, was she?”

“No, frankly. Bloody awful taste in men.” And there was the mischief that had been missing from Merlin’s eyes.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “If pushing someone off a bridge is your idea of a romantic gesture, I fear for your future partner.”

“Please, I’d at least take them to dinner first.”

“Death decided over desert then?”

“Depends if they’re paying.”

The two broke into entirely inappropriate sniggers.

“Stop it!” Merlin admonished, trying to bite back his laughter. “We can't giggle about this. Stop it.”

“You're the one who shot her. Don’t blame me.”

 

“Yes, well, you’re welcome, you prat.” Merlin reached out, and for a moment his hand hovered in the air over Arthur’s shoulder, like he was about to offer a friendly squeeze but couldn’t quite work up the nerve. “I’m, er,” Merlin cleared his throat. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

He started to move away, but it seemed that tiredness and belated shock had detached logic and reason from Arthur's actions, and he found himself snagging Merlin’s hand as it withdrew. Perhaps Merlin was a bit off his game, too, because his reflexes weren’t fast enough to avoid the grip, and he pulled in a soft, surprised breath but didn’t break free.  Instead, there was silence and poignant stillness filling the room like a weighty presence.

“Merlin…”

But his words trailed off. Maybe there were no words right then. For some reason he couldn’t discern right then, he was just craving the physical contact with Merlin. 

Across from him, Merlin had gone very still, but he didn’t move away. His eyes were tired, but so blue — as blue as the sky just before dawn, looking at him through long lashes with something uncertain and smouldering that made Arthur’s chest ache. Arthur swallowed, his own gaze darting down as Merlin involuntarily licked his lips.

Christ.

A million thoughts danced at his lips. Arthur wanted to tell Merlin that he knew, that Merlin didn’t have to hide it. He wanted to tell him he’d heard Merlin scream for him when he fell, that Merlin’s voice had been the only thing anchoring him to reality whilst Sophia had invaded his mind. He wanted —

Some days I can’t stop staring at your lips. Sometimes I could swear your eyes turn gold. I know you’re still keeping secrets; I see their weight crushing you every day. I’m constantly afraid that one day you’ll just disappear, because no one ever really stops running. You make no sense, but I feel like I know you. You quiet me. You unbalance me in every way. You make me feel something I thought I’d never feel again.

Arthur wanted, period. He wanted so much it scared the crap out of him.

(What is it about you that feels so much like coming home?)

Instead, Arthur settled with — “thank you.”

The words were heavy, full of all the gratitude Arthur couldn’t find the words to express.

But Merlin seemed to understand this, for his gaze softened. “You’re welcome.”

Belatedly, Arthur realised that their hands were still entwined, but neither of them made a move to pull away. Without even seeming to realise he was doing it, Merlin’s thumb began to sweep lightly back and forth against the inside of Arthur’s wrist. It was probably just an absentminded reflex, but it made the breath catch in Arthur’s throat. It was soothing and tender and shockingly intimate; less of a claim, more of a promise. It was the first inhale of a cigarette, a glass of expensive scotch at the end of a good day, the recoil of the gun in his hand as he made a clean shot, effortless and true. It calmed and ignited and intrigued and terrified him all at once. Arthur’s hand turned to catch Merlin’s thumb with his own, and then he was touching before he could talk himself out of it, reaching out with his other hand to press his palm gently against the bruise on Merlin’s jaw. Merlin didn't move, didn't make a sound, just let his eyes fall shut. The two stood there for a long moment, both of them aware they were teetering on the edge of a crevice, suddenly hesitant of the elusive more that lay before them. Both struck by just how incredibly fragile it all was.

“Merlin…” Arthur barely recognised his own voice, rough as it was.

And then the door suddenly opened and they sprang apart, and the moment was shattered. It was only one of the med’s, come to sign Arthur off, but Arthur could have strangled them for their timing.

Merlin, on the other hand, only grinned at him a little ruefully as he stepped away, like he knew exactly what Arthur was thinking. His eyes were still strangely bright. “I’ll catch you later, yeah?”

And Arthur could only glare as with a distracting flash of blue-gold eyes, Merlin ducked out the door. He fell back onto the bed with a huff.

Oh he was so fucked.

 


 

Merlin was distracted in the following days. Not because he had thrown himself into a churning river of death and relived one of his worst nightmares (though, admittedly, the aftermath of that had not been pleasant). Not because he had faced down one of the Fae and turned her into ash with nothing more than a flash of his eyes (though Merlin was still eyeing his hands distrustingly for days after). Not even because of the thundering, half-delirious want that had shuddered through his entire body the moment Arthur had looked at him like that and said his name in a voice that did things to him and that Merlin was still thinking about days later when he was having a quick one in the shower.

No: Merlin was distracted because the moment he'd unleashed that devastating wave of power on the bridge, something had changed inside him.

He hadn’t noticed much at first. It had only been small things — a humming warmth just under the skin, a heightened awareness of the people around him, a strange, restless feeling like he’d been pent up for too long. 

The first time Merlin slipped had been when one of the minions accidentally knocked his mug off the desk a few hours later. The reaction was thoughtless, instinctive. Merlin had reached out, eyes flashing gold, a coil of magic snapping out to catch it in midair with a wave of his hand. As it was, the mug only faltered, suspended in the air for a fraction of a second, before Merlin realised what the hell he was doing and leashed his magic with a firm yank. The mug crashed to the floor, shattering.

Beside him, the minion was stammering apologies, but Merlin barely noticed. He stared. It had been so easy, so natural to call up the sleeping power that simmered just under his skin. Too easy.

Thankfully, no one had noticed the lapse, but Merlin was shaken. Previously, his magic had only sprung to his aid when he had been under incredible duress, in the midst of battle, bursting out to shield or strike or protest when their lives hung in the balance.

This had been a cup of tea. 

Too close.

Under his skin, his magic hummed innocently. Alive and volatile and warm and very much awake.

Bloody hell. Merlin pressed his hands into his eyelids, taking a deep breath. Ever since that night on the bridge, his magic had been…misbehaving. It was as though it had been let out of a box, and Merlin couldn’t remember how to put it back. It sprung out at the slightest thought, a muscle flexing involuntary like that of his heart pumping in his chest, elusive and instinctive, curling around his will with a fond obedience. It had saved his life on more than one occasion, had saved Arthur’s life, and for that he couldn’t regret letting it loose. But now he had brought down the wall, it was a constant battle to keep it from bursting out at the slightest provocation.

No one can find out about you Merlin.

Merlin opened his eyes, finding the shattered remnants of the mug on the floor. Inside him, that electric warmth still thrummed in his chest, sparking at his fingers, burning through his blood, singing in his veins of things ancient and forgotten, familiar and foreign, even now longing to swarm around those broken shards and make the mug whole once more.

Merlin sighed, yanking back the surge of power with practised ease.

He’d had a lifetime of learning to master this, to suppress it, but that had been when his magic was dormant. That had been before he had started encountering sorcery at every turn, before he was given a daily heart attack because of Arthur’s propensity for attracting danger wherever he went, before diabolical Fae witches had come trampling all over MI6 and throwing magic all over the place, before saving Arthur’s life had become so vital to his existence.

Magic had come to his aid and saved his ass more times that he cared to admit. Hiding it, though, had suddenly become a hell of lot harder.

 


 

It took another two days, three check ups, four arguments, several death threats, and a final last-bid escape attempt through the med-bay window before Arthur was released for active duty. The call couldn’t come a moment too soon; Arthur was all but ready to start shooting the walls by the time the summons to Q-branch came in to retrieve his tech for the next op.

“Q!” Arthur cried, startling a nearby minion as he swept into the lab, “Do you have a mission? What is it, a mark? Terrorist cell? Intel? Hostage recovery? Double mark?”

At his desk, Merlin blinked at him, forehead slowly furrowing. “Two days in med-bay. That’s all it took. You couldn’t last two days?”

“I’m bored,” Arthur said emphatically.

“Morgana said you climbed out of a window.”

Arthur inwardly cursed his sister. “Really bored?” He offered.

Merlin snorted. “Well, you’re in luck, call came in this morning. We’ve got a rogue agent making some noise in Ankara — guy says he’s got intel, wants to rendezvous. M seems to think he’s solid.”

“And you?”

As way of an answer, Merlin pulled out a draw and handed him a familiar object. “Your replacement Walther — palm print recognition still, though I may have added a few…um, improvements.”

“Improvements?” Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Let me guess, this one also makes a delightful martini?”

“Close. It’s rigged with an electric shock that’ll incapacitate anyone who tries to fire the gun that isn’t you, and the mechanism is now water-proof, fire proof, electric and shock resistant. Not,” he added hastily, “that that’s an invitation to go blowing things up.”

“You just want to suck the joy out of everything, don’t you?” Arthur said mildly, taking the Walther and running a practised eye over it. The design was, unsurprisingly, flawless.

“Yes, well,” Merlin said. “If you must, try to call me before things start exploding.”

“Maybe this time it'll be different.” Arthur offered. “Maybe I'll work everything out through reason, diplomacy, and mutual cooperation.”

Merlin just looked at him.

“It could happen!” Arthur said defensively.

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Merlin muttered. “You’ll find the rest of your gear in the briefcase. Do try to bring some of the equipment back, won’t you?”

“Have I ever let you down?”

“Do you want me to answer that, or shall I just glare?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. Moving over to said briefcase, he ran a quick glance over the contents. He was just opening his mouth to make another snide comment when he stopped. Doubled back. There, nestled innocently in between the standard radio and space for the Walther, was a single pen.

Surely not.

“Q,” Arthur said slowly, “are you giving me an exploding pen?”

Merlin arched an eyebrow, but Arthur could have sworn he saw a slight blush. “A mild explosive. Blast radius 10 feet, activated by twisting the cap and I coded it to your fingerprint as well and I will kill you if you happen to lose it—”

“You are.” Arthur said, a ridiculous grin creeping across his face. “You’re giving me an exploding pen. You’re giving me a gadget.”

“I'm giving you a prototype, for a mission I deem to be suspicious and quite possibly very dangerous," Merlin corrected stubbornly. "You're still not getting your hands on my missile-launchers.”

Arthur was still looking entirely too smug. “All in good time, Q.”

“Arse. Now go, or you’ll miss your plane and M will have all our heads.”

Arthur held up the pen in thanks. “I’ll send you a postcard.”

“Please don’t.”

But when Arthur glanced back as he left, he saw that Merlin was fighting a smile.

 


 

For the next week, Arthur waited for Merlin to bring up the small matter of what the ruddy hell had happened that night on the bridge. He waited for any sign Merlin might be going through a similar crisis he was going through right now. He waited for Merlin to say something. 

But life went on very much as normal. Arthur went off to fight for Queen and country. Merlin added more and more elaborate modifications to his equipment (equipment, Arthur, not gadgets). Arthur did lose that exploding pen, but he came back with the Walther so one out of two wasn’t bad (plus it did save his life so Merlin only grumbled about it for about ten minutes). Arthur ignored Merlin’s voice in his ear slightly less, and in return Merlin smiled every time Arthur entered the room. Arthur glowered and huffed and complained about the Christmas decorations cropping up all over MI6, (‘we’re a secret service operating at the highest level of discretion, not a bloody department store’) and Merlin had smiled blandly and all but transformed Q-branch into Santa’s Grotto overnight in retaliation. Arthur took stupid risks, and Merlin used every camera, satellite, computer and technological prowess he had at his disposal to bring him home every time. Arthur still called him an idiot, and Merlin still talked to him like the double 0 wasn’t a deadly weapon forged to end lives, (but that was hardly ever going to change). 

Arthur waited for Merlin to tell him that he had nearly been killed by magic, and Merlin pretended nothing had ever happened, all the while looking at him out of the corner of his eye with an expression of warring indecision — torn and pained and soft with want — when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking. 

So, after a week of waiting, Arthur decided he had had enough.

 


 

“I need to talk to you,” Arthur announced as he entered Q-branch. 

“‘Good morning Merlin’.” Merlin deadpanned from his desk. “‘I realise you’re incredibly busy right now, but would you mind sparing me a moment of your valuable time to answer my inane questions?’”

Arthur ignored him. “I’ve been thinking…”

“‘No, Arthur, I’m not busy. Yes of course I’ll put aside this very important task in order to tend to your every need—”

“All right, yes, you’ve made your point.” Arthur said with a sigh. “Please?”

“A ‘please’ and a call-by all in one morning, it must be Christmas.”

“Merlin…”

The Quartermaster rolled his eyes as he span around on his chair. “What can I do for you, sire?”

“Can we talk? Like, in private?”

Merlin raised an eyebrow, but stood obligingly. He led Arthur to a door branching off Q-branch — an actual office for Merlin that he never used, preferring to work amongst the other Q’s at his workstation with all his monitors. The moment the door shut behind them, Merlin dug out a device from his pocket and fixed it to the wall, where it made a small whizzing sound followed by a brief burst of static that made Arthur wince.

“Was that really necessary?”

Merlin gave him a withering look, “It’s a scrambler, one I’ve modified from my own designs. Keeps unwanted ears from listening in, unless you’d rather our conversation not be private?”

Arthur humphed. 

“Thought not. So,” Merlin crossed his arms, perching on the edge of the desk, “what’s up?”

And Arthur must have been tired, because from the moment Merlin had started leading him somewhere they could be alone his imagination had been spiralling out of control, and now Merlin was sprawled out over the desk, all long limbs and sharp lines, with his head angled towards Arthur like a curious bird, looking at him up through his long eyelashes with intrigued, expectant eyes and gnawing at his bottom lip absently in a way that had got to be illegal and Arthur was seriously resisting the urge to cross the room in a single stride and push Merlin back onto the desk and pin his arms either side of him and snog him senseless…

“It’s about that night on the bridge,” Arthur began with the part of his brain that was still functioning, not missing the way Merlin straightened slightly and averted his gaze. “I’m still confused as to one point.”

“That must be a new sensation for you.”

Arthur ignored the jibe. “How was Sophia even able to get me on that bridge in the first place?”

A beat.

“What do you mean?” Merlin’s voice was level, but he had gone very still. He sounded casual, too casual. And his gaze still wouldn’t meet Arthur’s.

It was clear Merlin wasn’t going to say it on his own, and suddenly Arthur had decided he’d had enough of all this dancing around the truth. All week he’d been giving Merlin time, dropping him hints, waiting for him to confide in Arthur the truth of that night. But Arthur was running out of patience. He needed someone to talk to about this. He needed to know he wasn't going crazy. He needed to hear out loud that magic was real.

He looked at Merlin steadily. “I remember you talking to me, on the bridge.”

Merlin made a small, strangled noise in the back of his throat. “Oh?”

“Telling me she was controlling me. Telling me I had to fight it.”

It was like someone had flipped a switch. Merlin’s head flew up, startled. His face had drained of colour. “I…” 

But nothing came out. Merlin swallowed hard, shifting precariously on the edge of the desk. He looked just about ready to bolt from the room. With a shock, Arthur realised Merlin was actually trembling. “I…”

And that’s when Arthur knew that Merlin knew.

Merlin didn’t just suspect that magic was real. Merlin knew it was real. Because Merlin didn’t look like someone who was freaking out at something he couldn’t explain, or someone mentally questioning his sanity at what he’d seen. Merlin looked completely and utterly terrified, and terrified of him, which made no sense at all unless —

Unless.

Arthur recalled the sight of Merlin standing on the bridge, his figure set ablaze as though the sun itself was contained within his slight frame.

Merlin, do you have magic?

The words were dangerous, impossible, implausible. Arthur didn’t dare speak them aloud. 

“It was magic, wasn’t it?” Arthur said into the gaping silence.

Merlin gave a small squawk, and fell off the desk. He was staring at Arthur.

“Merlin?”

“You...you realise that’s insane, right?” He said weakly. He was still staring at Arthur.

“More insane than fire springing up from nothing? Than guns that are torn out of our hands and bullets that stop in their tracks with nothing but a word? Than eyes that glow red and suddenly I’m Sophia’s personal plaything?”

Than the fact that you are always there when we miraculously escape an impossible situation?

Again Merlin seemed to be on the verge of saying something, words hovering on his tongue, eyes wide and uncertain and desperate, before something stopped him and his face shut off, unused breath exhaling. 

Arthur narrowed his eyes. “You think it is too. You’ve seen this before.”

“What? No! I—” Merlin stopped at the expression on Arthur’s face. His mouth twisted unhappily. It was an expression Arthur had seen before, whenever Merlin thought he wasn't looking — a wreck of agitation and quiet want and warring indecision, as though he was constantly fighting some internal battle Arthur couldn’t see. 

Arthur had never understood it until now.

Just tell me, Merlin. I know. 

“I can’t,” Merlin whispered, broken and pleading, eerily answering Arthur’s thoughts.

“Can’t or won’t?”

Merlin bit his lip, staring at the ground. It was like he was unravelling before Arthur’s eyes — his posture, so open and inviting not a minute before, shutting off with defensive and panic written all over it. His very body language was all but screaming to be left alone. Arthur sighed, knowing a losing battle when he saw one. He got up to leave.

Just before he had reached the door, however, Merlin’s voice stopped him, so quietly Arthur almost missed it.

“Compulsion.”

Arthur paused, turned. “I’m sorry?”

Merlin’s eyes were closed in weary resignation, screwed up tight as he rubbed his face. “You asked how Sophia managed to get you out onto the bridge.” Merlin’s gaze flickered briefly to his. “She had you under a compulsion.”

“Which means what, exactly?”

“It makes you more…er, susceptible to persuasion.”

“So I turned into her own flying monkey,” Arthur summed. 

Merlin inclined his head. Silence. Arthur stepped forward carefully, not wanting to break the fragile moment.

“How…” Arthur cleared his throat. “How did you know?”

“That you were compelled?”

He nodded.

Merlin shrugged, “it was like you were there, but you weren’t. You were still smiling and laughing, but it wasn’t you, you know? Plus there was the fact you were spending a lot of time with Sophia and, well…”

“I’m a paranoid bastard who doesn’t trust anyone and wouldn’t go near a potentially defective agent with a sharp stick unless I had a gun to their head?” Arthur summed up, letting a gentle mockery leak into his voice so Merlin knew he was joking.

Merlin’s mouth tugged into something resembling a smile. “Something like that.”

“So let me get this straight.” Arthur said. “Your realisation of my enchantment was entirely riding on the, apparently incredibly unlikely, scenario that I be seen spending time with a girl?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It was when you started smiling that we really got worried.”

Arthur snorted.

A moment of silence entreated upon them again, but this time it was thoughtful, rather than painfully awkward. It gave Arthur hope, hope that there was a quiet understanding forging between them regarding this subject that was obviously so bizarrely touchy for Merlin and bewildering and terrifying for him.

“So,” Arthur said. “Magic.”

Merlin winced, but he didn’t argue with it this time. His shoulders slumped slightly in resignation.

“Magic.” He affirmed after a moment. Merlin still looked worried, biting away at that torn bottom lip, hands fidgeting agitatedly on his lap, but he no longer looked like he was ready to bolt from the room, which Arthur supposed was a plus.

“It’s real?” He asked, feeling a little stupid, but wanting to hear Merlin say it out loud anyway.

“Real.” Merlin said.

“Dangerous?”

“Very.”

“Possibilities? Weaknesses?”

And then, just like that, they were talking like they never had before. Of magic and spells and sorcerers, the stuff of legends that Arthur could hardly believe if he hadn’t seen it for himself. And whilst Merlin never volunteered much other than confirming what Arthur had already suspected (the fire? Conjured. Force-waves? Magic. Bullet-stopping? Shielding. Mind reading? What? Don’t be absurd) it was clear Merlin understood a lot more than he was letting on. More and more, Arthur was coming to realise Merlin didn’t just know about the existence of magic, he knew magic in a way Arthur didn’t, intimately, personally. A knowledge that had to have come from close-hand experience.

“How do you know all this?” Arthur asked after a while, voicing what had been nagging at him for some time. “How can you possibly know so much?”

Merlin paused, and for a wild moment Arthur thought he was going to come out with because I have magic, Arthur. But then — “when I was with Kilgarrah?” Merlin said, “I saw stuff, in the Guild. He — the Dragon — he…practised.”

Practised?” Arthur picked up on the meaning inflected on the word, “are you telling me the Dragon has been running around London doing hocus-pocus right under our noses this whole time?”

Arthur could just see his father taking the news. Uther might just have a meltdown.

“More like training up his underlings to do it for him,” Merlin explained. “Kilgharrah would find potentials and… recruit them, give them food and a place to stay and maybe even teach them a few spells on the side in return for their loyalty and a few menial tasks — carrying messages, gathering intel, that kind of thing. It was a good deal, not many said no.”

And you? Were you one of those potentials?

Arthur didn’t ask. He didn’t dare. 

“So you’d recognise magic when you saw it, then?” Arthur asked. “You’d know if it was being used?”

Merlin gave an odd kind of laugh. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah I’d recognise it.”

“Great,” Arthur said. “That makes you our expert.”

“Our?” Merlin repeated.

“Well, yeah, I mean, we need to tell the others.”

Others?” Merlin definitely did not shriek.

“The double 0’s,” Arthur clarified. When Merlin didn’t answer, he continued in a slightly firmer voice. “They deserve to know. They need to know, especially if we’re going to be facing this stuff again, which I’m betting that we will.”

Of course that was Arthur, always thinking of the team first. It would be infuriating, if it wasn't so disgustingly noble.

“This is one of those moments where I tell you something isn’t a good idea and you ignore me, isn’t it?” Merlin said resignedly.

Arthur smirked. “You’re learning, Merlin. Slowly, but you’re learning.”

Merlin sighed. “Fine. But not another soul — there’s a reason this has been kept classified, you know? If this got out...”

“Not another soul.” Arthur agreed.

“And you’re the one that’s got to tell them.”

“Fine,” Arthur said. Then he paused. “Even Gwaine?”

Especially Gwaine.”

“You just love making my life difficult don’t you?”

“For you? Always.”

“Idiot.”

“Prat.”

They laughed softly. Across from him, Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath, letting the tension roll off his shoulders. He glanced at Arthur sideways, his gaze soft with something shy and uncertain that made Arthur’s breath catch. And though there was still worry resting heavily on his brow and shadows of exhaustion under his eyes and indecision warring at his lip, Merlin looked lighter somehow, as though a great weight had been lifted off his back. 

It made Arthur wonder how he did it — how he survived every day with that crushing weight of secrets on his thin shoulders. Because, despite what Merlin said, Arthur was not an idiot. He knew that this was just the beginning of all the secrets Merlin was hiding, that there was a great deal more he wasn’t telling him and not all of it was going to be pleasant. ‘Trust-issues’ was plastered all over his file, alongside the notable blankness where Merlin’s background should have been (not that Arthur had looked, once upon a time). 

No: Arthur had far from the full story. 

But it was a start.

Arthur smiled at him, and, after a moment, Merlin smiled back.

Chapter Text

All in all, Merlin thought, the double 0’s had taken the whole thing rather well. There had been the expected reactions of confusion and laughter before they realised Arthur wasn’t joking, followed by the unsurprising backlash of scepticism, an onslaught of questions that no one could really answer (to which Merlin kept his face carefully blank), more disbelief warring with the dawning realisation that the whole thing made a horrible sort of sense, and then finally the harrowing silence as the scope of what had been said sunk in.

Merlin watched as his friends went through doubt, denial, tentative acceptance, and saw the exact moment they reached the ‘oh fuck, we’re screwed aren’t we?’ phase.

In the end, it was Gwaine who said what they were all thinking. “How the hell are we supposed to fight something like that?”

The team had fallen quiet, and Merlin realised that in this moment of uncertainty, every single one of them had looked to Arthur. Their trust was absolute, unwavering: a steadfast belief that whatever horrors they might have to face in the future, Arthur would be the one to get them through it. It made a strange lurch of something that felt suspiciously like pride course through him.

And it was then, just for a moment, that Merlin blinked, and his vision seemed to split — overlaying another image on the sight before him. Arthur still stood at the head of the table, and the double 0’s seated around him, but all of them were clad in red, cloaks of deepest scarlet that swept over what looked like silver chainmail. Armour glinted in the sunlight streaming through the castle window—

Castle?

— and at their head stood Arthur, his figure cast in gold against the rays of light, his spine held ramrod straight and an air of quiet command in his bearing. He looked older and younger at the same time, his eyes unburdened by the assassin’s legacy that haunted him today, yet weighed down with a strange authority that Merlin couldn’t place. He looked like he sometimes did when he wasn’t being such a prat, when Merlin glimpsed moments of startling selflessness, of an archaic sense of honour and valour that hadn’t been followed in an age, of a nobility that almost hurt to look at.

He looked, Merlin thought with a jolt, like a king.

Then Merlin blinked, and the world righted itself, snapping back to the present. 

“We do what we have always done,” Arthur was saying. “We adapt. We train, and we learn, and we fight, and don’t stop fighting until we win.”

“And what if we can’t?’ Leon said quietly. “What if we fight, only to find our efforts are futile against such power? What if we can’t win?”

And then Arthur looked straight at Merlin, and it knocked the breath out of him because there it was — that same glimpse of brilliance and fearlessness and unflinching resolve, of the leader Arthur had the potential to become — 

“Then we can lose.” Arthur said simply. “And we can lose. And we can lose again, and again, until we don’t. Until one day we go out fighting and this time? This time we don’t lose.” Arthur met each and every one of their gazes. “Because whatever we do, we never give up.”

Merlin felt that lurch again, that rush of emotion that felt strangely like pride, as he looked out at the double 0’s meeting Arthur’s gaze and knew that every single one of them would follow Arthur through fire if he asked it of them. Because that was who Arthur was. He was a leader, through and through; the sort of man who inspired loyalty in strangers and assassins and outcasts alike. It was a tug that Merlin had felt right from the beginning, a magnetism that he had been powerless to resist then and even less so now.

Abstractly, Merlin was aware he was staring at Arthur like a gaping fish, but his thoughts seemed to have dissolved into mush. He felt strangely lightheaded; he couldn't look away.

Then across the room, Arthur went and goddamn smiled at him. Small and intimate, barely a quirk of his lips, like a secret between them. Eyes bright like windows of crisp winter sky, a flash of fierce certainly in the crooked edge to his smile, the heat of something significant passing between them — and Merlin almost stumbled at the sheer, uncurbed want that crashed through him with startling realisation.

Oh this was bad.

Because it was so clear then what this was. It had been creeping up on him for weeks now — longer even, Merlin hardly knew. He didn't know when he’d started noticing the shifting play of light on the rise of Arthur’s cheekbones, when he’d started going out of his way to make Arthur smile, when the thought of losing him had become so terrifying. He didn’t know when he’d realised there was nothing he would not do for Arthur.

But in that moment, Merlin knew one thing for certain, and that was that he’d completely and heedlessly fallen for Arthur Pendragon.

Bugger.

 


 

Needless to say, Gaius did not take the big magic reveal so well. 

“What do you mean Arthur knows?” He hissed, the eyebrow of doom arching to dangerous levels.

Merlin’s winced. “I, er…I may have…told him about Sophia. And Edwin. And a teeny bit about the conceptualised existence of magic…”

“Merlin!”

“I didn’t have a choice! He had already worked it out!” Merlin protested. “Came to me asking questions, what was I supposed to do?”

“Denied it, claimed ignorance,” Gaius said. “You know, lied.”

“Well I’m sick of lying.” Merlin snapped. “I’m sick of always hiding, always watching my back, never doing anything when people are in danger because I have to lie.”

“Merlin, your magic—”

“—‘is a secret I should protect with my life’. I know. But at what cost? How many times do I have to watch Arthur nearly get killed because I’m being careful?” Merlin’s mouth twisted unhappily. “I’m so bloody careful I’m going to get us all killed.”

Gaius drew in a sharp breath, and Merlin sighed, deflating. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take it out on you, I just…” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Gaius, if it…if it comes down to a choice between saving people’s lives and revealing who I really am…” He splayed his hands helplessly. “There is no choice. Not anymore.”

Silence. The weight of Merlin’s words lay heavily between them. A silent enough.

Eventually, Gaius sighed. “It is I who should be apologising to you. All your secrets, all that responsibility…I have failed to appreciate just how heavy your burden must be.”

Merlin bit his lip, shoulders sagging. “I shouldn't have lost my temper with you.”

“Maybe,” Gaius allowed with a small smile. “But whilst Arthur finding out isn’t ideal, I’ll admit it may make things easier in the future.” He paused. “It is just Arthur that knows, yes?”

Merlin suddenly became very fascinated with his feet.

“Merlin?” Gaius's tone said it all.

“Well, um, there’s also Leon.” Merlin said hesitantly. “And, er, Gwaine…”

Gaius gave a long suffering sigh. By now, the eyebrow had reached almost unprecedented heights. “Right. So just you, me, Arthur, and a dozen master assassins.”

“No!” Merlin objected. He considered. “Five master assassins at most.”

Merlin!”

 


 

Thankfully, they did not have to deal with anything of the mystic or supernatural variety in the next week. Bullets fired when they should, creepy Fae witches stayed notably absent, and eyes stayed reassuringly non-glowing. The only point of suspicion had been when Valiant’s mission-success rate (and, innocuously, his kill-rate) suddenly skyrocketed to unprecedented triumphs with every next assignment. Merlin had watched the new double 0 through satellite footage a few times when he was out on the field, but never saw any damning evidence to suggest there was anything going on but a remarkably improved ability for close-combat fighting. Still, the niggling doubt remained (though that may have been more to do with Merlin’s intense dislike of the man than any real nefarious explanation).

A week after the events on the bridge with Sophia, Merlin received a brief, cryptic note from Elaine.

Emrys,

It appears I owe you congratulations for your recent save. (Cutting it a little close, weren’t you?)

Be on your guard. I will not have been the only one who recognised what that ‘flare’ was on the bridge, nor the first to question who it came from. You must be careful. This is only the beginning.

If you should ever need my help, you need only ask.

Ever at your service,

Elaine

Useful, if not particularly reassuring. Merlin read it twice before destroying it.

Exempt from that, life went on. Merlin began tapping in on some of the other double 0’s missions when the situation was heating up or one of them found themselves in a tight spot, just because he couldn’t bear it if one of them didn’t make it home, and in return the double 0’s took it in turns teaching Merlin a handful of martial arts, how to tell if someone had poisoned your drink, and how to drive at speeds post-90mph without killing yourself. 

Merlin made Arthur’s watch shoot tranquilliser darts and his shoes hide a poisoned blade in their heel, because it made Arthur smile and Merlin was hopeless.

And throughout all this, Merlin found himself torn in a constant, internal battle between the secrecy he had striven for his entire life and the irrepressible need to be known. More than ever before Merlin wanted to hang self-preservation and tell Arthur and the team everything. Especially Arthur.

But he couldn’t, and he didn’t. 

Merlin swallowed back the heavy weight of secrets dancing at his lips, and carried on with a smile.

And if Merlin ever caught Arthur looking at him with slight-frustration and confusion and quiet anticipation, he pretended he didn’t see.

 


 

“Gaius,” Uther waved him in from his desk. “Thank you for coming. Shut the door behind you.”

“Sir,” Gaius acknowledged. The door shut with a click. “To what do I owe this summons?”

“I would like to know why you were in the vaults last week.”

A beat. Gaius kept his face carefully impassive. “I didn’t realise they were forbidden to visit.”

“Gaius.” The reprimand was dry, a soft reproach only Gaius could invoke in the head of MI6.

The two men had known each other for years, all the way back to when Uther was a double 0 himself and Gaius was just starting out in Q-branch. Few could claim to hold the trust of Uther Pendragon, but Gaius was one of them.

Gaius sighed. “There was an artefact I wished to consult.”

“Oh?” Uther raised an eyebrow.

“About a… matter which concerned me.” He said carefully.

Uther studied him for a long moment, and Gaius forced himself not to fidget under that laser-like gaze. The tension thickened. Uther’s chair creaked slightly. Gaius was just considered whether or not he was going to have to run from the room pursued by murderous assassins leaping out of the walls when —

“It was the Triskellion, wasn’t it?” Uther’s tone was resigned, decided in that tone of voice that said he’d already made up his mind.

It was a testament to a life working in espionage that the only outward sign of Gaius’s surprise was the flicker of an eyebrow.

“Sir?”

The head of MI6 leant back, his rigid posture lapsing slightly in a rare show of weariness. “I know, for it is also on my mind. Rumours, strange happenings, all this business with Sigan warmongering in Europe…the old players are reemerging, Gaius, and something is drawing them out.” Uther frowned. “It wasn’t until the attack on Olaf and the DGSE that I began to suspect what that motive was.”

“Olaf?” Gaius repeated. Then his expression dawned. “Arthur’s mission in Paris. The third party — you think they were sorcerers?”

Uther’s expression flickered with irritation. “Arthur’s debrief was frustratingly vague. But from what I can gather, the assailants were throwing magic around without trying to be subtle about it. After being in hiding for so long, I can think of few reasons for them to attack with such force.”

“The Triskellion,” Gaius summed.

Uther acknowledged him with a tilt of his head. “Someone must have leaked the location of Olaf’s piece.”

“You think they managed to retrieve it?”

“Olaf’s disappearance leads me to think not,” Uther said thoughtfully. “He always was a sly bastard, and if he were dead we’d know by now.”

Gaius considered this for a moment. “Olaf only had one of the three, though. The artefact is useless without the other two counterparts.”

“Which is, I imagine, why you felt the need to check on the vaults.”

Uther’s gaze was piercing, weighing. Gaius hesitated, thinking of the Sidhe staff. Thinking of Arthur, facing down that Fae girl on the bridge. Thinking of Merlin, saving Arthur with the very magic Uther would see destroyed.

And here was Uther, providing him with a perfect lie.

“It was a precaution, nothing more,” Gaius said smoothly. “Being only one of two people in MI6 who know of the vaults, I thought it prudent to assume some responsibility of their security.”

“You are quite right,” Uther said, nodding. “One can never be too cautious when magic is concerned. If those people managed to assimilate all three pieces…”

A muscle jumped in Uther’s jaw. The unspoken words hung in the air.

Gaius cleared his throat carefully. “It has never been confirmed what the Triskellion was actually said to unlock, sir, the prophesy—”

“Prophesies,” Uther scoffed. “What are prophesies, but riddles wrapped in nonsense? Old wives tales designed to send people on ridiculous endeavours and spark revolutions and spreading hope —” His words cut off with an angry exhale.

Gaius hummed. “You seemed quite concerned with those ‘old wives tales’ when you were assassinating innocent families on the whim of such a prophesy.” The words were out of his mouth before he could think twice, even and daring.

Uther’s eyes flashed. He stood with a harsh scraping of his chair against the floor. “You would do well to hold your tongue, Gaius. I forbade you to speak of those events.”

“I just do not think it would be wise to ignore the words of seers—” Gaius pressed.

“Enough!” Uther snapped. “Do not trouble yourself with the lies of sorcerers, Gaius. What matters is that these people want something, and we cannot let them have it. You understand? I will hear no more of this.”

Gaius pursed his lips, but acceded. “Of course, sir.”

“And keep an eye on the vaults. If these people were able to find out about the piece in Olaf’s possession, it won't be long before eyes begin turning here. We must be vigilant.”

Gaius inclined his head. “Will there be anything else?”

Uther sat down again with a dismissive wave of his hand. “No, you may go.”

With a small bow, Gaius turned to leave, only to be stopped by Uther’s parting call. “Oh, Gaius?”

He turned, one eyebrow raised.

“Tell no one of this, you understand?” Uther’s blue eyes hardened to a pale steel. “Ever magic seeks to gain a foothold in our world. All it takes is one man, one overheard conversation, one promise of a child who will change their fortunes in this fight, and they will rise up against us. I will not risk giving them reason to believe they have a chance again. I will not risk war.”

“War is upon you, whether you like it or not,” Gaius said evenly. “You made sure of that when you murdered that child, along with their last remaining hope.”

Silence. The words seemed to hover in the air between them, lingering long after the sound had faded from the room.

“Do not look for regret, old friend,” Uther said tightly. “For you shall find none in me. I did what I had to do to ensure the safety of our people.”

“By slaughtering an entire family?!” The words were spilling out now, but Gaius couldn’t stop them. “By assassinating a seven-year old boy?”

“By eliminating a threat!” Uther hissed. “We were at war, and we were losing! They had to be silenced!”

Gaius shook his head, his words harsh and bitter. “You didn’t silence their uprising, Uther, don’t you understand? Those with magic may have gone into hiding, but they’re far from finished with you.”

“Have a care, Gaius…” Uther warned.

“You wonder why they are risking so much for the Triskellion?” He pressed on, “You wonder why they risk exposure all over again for a fools hope?”

“Gaius—”

“Because you made them desperate.” Gaius exclaimed, and later he would deny the furious tears that sparked at his eyes. “You might not be glad that you did.”

“Enough!” Uther’s voice was a whip crack, a thunder of authority lashing out into the air. “Enough.”

Gaius met his furious gaze silently, unflinchingly. The seething tension between them coiled in the air. Then, after what seemed like an age, Uther fell back in his chair, an angry exhale hissing through his teeth.

His voice was ice. “You would do well to remember, Gaius, that my regard for you is the only reason I spared you all those years ago. Speak to me like that again, and I won’t grant you the same courtesy. Do you understand?”

Gaius wanted to rage and scream, shake Uther until he understood the pain he had caused, the lives he had forsaken, until Uther saw that murdering a child in order to bring a great people to their knees was not strategy, but execution. But Uther would never see it that way, for he was blinded by fear. God knows Gaius had tried over the years, forever burdened by the shame he did not do more to stop it. 

So Gaius swallowed twelve years of grief and guilt, and bowed, hating the words that came through his lips. “Perfectly, sir.”

 


 

The days rolled by, and before they knew it, Christmas was almost upon them.

In an ideal world, Christmas eve would find Arthur in his flat, a book in one hand and a glass of inordinately expensive scotch in the other, an evening lulled by the crackling of the fire as the day faded into dusk. A perfect solitude, dampened only by the slight fact that there was no one there to share it with. Maybe there would be a call-by from Morgana, appearing at the door with a raised eyebrow and a bottle of whisky and inviting herself in so that even if they were both tragic and alone at least they could be tragic and alone together. Maybe there would even be the awkward phone call from Uther, going through the annual motions of pretending they were a functional family.

In none of these scenarios would Arthur be standing in a dimly bit basement in Kabul, covered in blood and grime and city dust, operating on very little sleep and even less patience as he interrogated an ex-agent of the KGB on the selling of British national secrets to the Iranian government.

But such was the glamorous life of a double 0.

Arthur looked irritably at the man sitting in front of him. “The blueprints exist nowhere else, then? These are the only copies?”

The man smirked, a leering, slimy thing. “I am not a fool, Mr Pendragon. The blueprints are my insurance, and as such they exist only on this device,” he held up his phone, “and in here,” he tapped his temple. “Photographic memory, you see. I can see it all, in my head, like it were right in front of me.”

“Oh I see, you're a proper genius too.” Arthur brushed an imprint of dust of his suit with a distasteful expression. “Fascinating. Well, thank you for your help. This has been most illuminating.”

“Has it? I’m glad. Such a shame you won’t be able to share the information with your peers at MI6.” Another leering smile. “Or did you really think you were leaving here alive?”

In his ear, Merlin snorted, and really Arthur couldn’t blame him. The whole charade — the dramatics, the lines, the setting — it was all taken straight out of a bad spy movie.

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Good God, man. Did you rehearse that in front of a mirror?”

The man ignored him. “My security is unmatched, and you are far outnumbered.” His voice dropped dangerously. “You’ll never get out of here alive.”

Arthur shrugged. “I’ll take my chances.”

“Bah! You English, all the same —”

Rolling his eyes again, (this was ridiculous, honestly), Arthur raised his Walther and shot the man in the head. There was a dull thump as his body hit the ground.

“Well," said Merlin, "I guess that concludes negotiations.”

“Quite.” Arthur pocketed the man’s phone. That was the blueprints taken care of. Distantly, he could hear the shouts of men nearby as they responded to the gunshot.

“And you’ve broadcasted your location quite nicely, I see.” Merlin said dryly. “Well done.”

“Mm,” Arthur hummed. “He was monologging. It was annoying.”

“And God forbid anyone irritate Arthur Pendragon.”

“I do hope you’re finding me an exit alongside trying to be amusing.”

“Oh ye of little faith.” There was the distant tapping of Merlin’s fingers on the keyboard. “Right, I’m in. I’d say going out the door might be a good start, don't you think?”

“Less of the sass, Q. I’m the funny one, remember?”

“You never let me forget. Left at the end of the hallway, two hostiles.”

Arthur veered left, taking down the two men with two clean shots. “What are you doing for Christmas?”

“Door on your right, the one with the electronic lock.” Merlin said absently, then, “I’m sorry, what?”

“Christmas,” Arthur said again as he reached the door. “Got any plans?”

“I hadn’t really — don’t shoot it, you idiot!”

Arthur froze with his Walther cocked towards the lock pad.

"It's a digital lock, you heathen, I’ve already opened it for you.”

“Oh,” Arthur pushed against the door and, sure enough, it flashed green and opened. “Right. So, plans?”

“I hadn’t really given it much thought,” Merlin admitted. “Keep going, right at the end of the corridor.”

“You do realise Christmas is in fact tomorrow?”

“Funnily enough, I’ve been a little preoccupied, what with saving your worthless ass, trying to keep MI6 from falling into chaos on a daily basis, and the constant overwhelming crushing fear that something terrible is about to happen.” 

“Hmm. I was thinking mince pies.”

“Pies?” Melin said. “Oh, you’ve got some twat with a Kalashnikov coming around the corner in about ten seconds.”

“Lovely.” Arthur kept running, checking the chamber of his Walther as he ran. He cursed lightly in Russian, (because, really, it was the only language that encompassed his feelings right then). “I’m out of rounds.”

There was a pause in his ear. “Don’t even think about it.” 

“Hmm?” Arthur flipped the Walther in his hand just as the man appeared around the corner.

“007, do not throw your gun, do you hear me?  Do not throw your Walther ."

Arthur threw his Walther. "Oops," he muttered. It smacked the oncoming man square in the forehead, stunning him as he ran past.

“Oh for heaven’s sake…”

“Relax,” Arthur said as Merlin sprouted various profanities in his ear (also in Russian, apparently, because the Quartermaster was too smart for his own good). “I’ll retrieve the damn thing when I circle back.”

“That ‘damn thing’ is at the pinnacle of modern weapons technology, 007. It is not a sodding frisbee.”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

Merlin humphed. “Club someone over the head with my equipment again, and you’ll be back to army regulation stuff, you hear?”

“Liar. You love building me gadgets.”

“Not if you’re going to bludgeon people in the face with them like a bloody caveman…”

And so it went on. All in all, Arthur thought, it was a fairly standard day in the service of Queen and country. Everything had predictably gone tits-up, and Arthur ran like hell to the chorus of shouting and gunfire whilst Merlin guided him out with his usual dry commentary. By the time Arthur had escaped the compound, he was grinning.

“‘Do They Know It's Christmas?’, Merlin, really?”

“You asked for a distraction!”

“Blasting Christmas songs through the security systems and frying their comms with the dulcet tones of Band Aid 30 wasn't exactly what I had in mind.”

“There’s just no pleasing you sometimes…”

And then Arthur started giggling, he couldn’t help it. There was something hopelessly ridiculous about grappling with Russian thugs and dodging bullets to the soundtrack of a charity Christmas hit blaring out from the walls. And once Arthur started laughing, he couldn’t stop.

“Oh my God,” said Merlin, sounding alarmed. “How hard did that thug hit you on the head?”

Arthur shook his head, gasping for breath.

“What’s so funny?” Merlin sounded honestly puzzled.

“Nothing,” Arthur managed, choking back a laugh, “nothing. Just, er, Merry Christmas.”

That set him off again, and then Merlin was laughing too, the sound warm and inviting and reminding him of home a little bit. But home never made him feel like this, never made him want like this.

“You’re delirious.” Merlin was saying in his ear, and if Arthur didn’t know better he’d say Merlin sounded almost fond. “When was the last time you slept?”

“Well, I hadn’t exactly planned to spend my Christmas eve running about the back alleys of Kabul getting shot at. Sleep wasn’t really a priority.”

“Don’t sound too sorry for yourself. You forget I’m also working Christmas eve, babysitting your useless hide.”

“Oh I’m sorry, do you have somewhere else to be?”

The words were teasing, but Merlin’s reply came after a pause. “Um, no, actually, I don’t. Because, as much as it sucks, working on Christmas eve is still a hell of a lot better than sitting in an empty flat, which is what I would be doing right now.”

Arthur blinked. “Oh.”

“Besides, your company isn’t utterly terrible…”

“You flatter me.” Arthur said a little wryly. “You’re not spending Christmas with family, then? Some, er…girlfriend? Boyfriend?” He willed his voice to remain even. “Significant other?”

“Not really on the cards.” Merlin said lightly. “You?”

Arthur shook his head. “Uther doesn’t really go in for the whole Christmas-dinner-thing, not that Morgana would turn up if he did. And there’s…er, no one else.” 

A pause.

Merlin hummed. “So you’re another one of our illustrious group of agents with no attachments." 

“Aren’t we all, in the end?” Arthur mused. His gaze drifted up to the star-scattered sky, just visible in amongst the glare of the city lights. “What time is it there?” He murmured. 

“Just coming up to — ah, midnight.”

There was a silence; Arthur almost imagined he could hear Big Ben chiming all the way down the earpiece. And as Arthur stared up at the stars, he wondered whether Merlin was looking up upon the same constellations all the way back in London. The thought was strangely comforting. 

“Merry Christmas, Q.” He said after a moment.

“Merry Christmas, 007.”

 


 

The next morning, Merlin awoke to the sound of something heavy and insistent thudding through his flat. Knocking, his brain supplied as Merlin pulled the covers over his head with a groan. Having seen Arthur off on the comms and tumbled straight into bed not four hours ago, Merlin was quite happily contemplating how best to murder the person apparently trying to break his door down at nine in the fucking morning.

Working for a secret service as your day-job (not to mention living in a flat that didn’t officially exist) meant Merlin didn’t tend to get many visitors. Or any, for that matter. Let alone anyone who might be calling by in the early hours of Christmas day.

The banging on the door returned with increased vigour.

Merlin cursed, and stumbled out of bed, hugging the covers around his shoulders like a cape as he swept (or rather, staggered) towards the door. His sleep-addled brain was still trying to come up with who might be making such a racket and coming out on a blank.

There were voices now, familiar in a way Merlin couldn’t quite place.

“Just knock louder—”

“I am knocking louder—”

“Maybe you should try shooting the lock.”

“Shoot the lock to the flat of the Quartermaster of MI6? Are you insane?”

“I’m sure it’s perfectly safe—”

“I’m sorry, we are talking about the same person? The guy who makes lightsabers and exploding stationary on his lunch breaks?”

“Well if you hadn’t insisted on knocking on the front door—”

“For the last time, we are not breaking in to Merlin’s flat…”

“What? I break into your flat all the time—”

“Alright, I’m coming.” Merlin muttered, fumbling for the digital lock-pick he’d built the other week (state he was in, Merlin couldn’t be arsed to calculate the shifting algorithm code for the lock he’d installed on his door). Merlin squinted at the digital lock, watched the light go green, and yanked the door open.

The five men on the other side jumped at his sudden appearance. Then —

“Merry Christmas!” The double 0’s cried, bright grins stretching across their faces.

Merlin blinked. “What—”

And then the five assassins were striding past him into his flat, a bustle of noise and laughter and crammed bodies in the hallway, each one enveloping him in a crushing hug on the way past or thumping him on the back in the ruckus. 

“What are you all doing here?” Merlin asked, bemused.

“Gatecrashing, obviously.” Gwaine said as he passed.

“Obviously.” Merlin repeated. 

Leon laughed at Merlin’s expression. “We heard you didn’t have any plans for Christmas day. We’re here to rectify that.”

Heard? Merlin opened his mouth, but was momentarily distracted by the large boxes Percival, Owain, and Lance were carrying on their way in. “What, did you buy out IKEA on the way as well?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Owain said. “These are for you.”

“Me?”

“Gaius may have mentioned you didn't have much in the way of furniture, given you’d only moved in a few weeks ago,” Leon explained.

“What? No,” Merlin said hastily. “Guys, I can’t accept this…”

“Well, you have to.” Percival said with a smirk. “No returns.”

“But—”

“And since we we’re going to be needing somewhere to sit, really it’s entirely for selfish reasons…” Leon continued smoothly.

“But, you didn’t have to—” 

“—and it’s Christmas.” Lance interrupted with a grin. “So just say thank you, and suck it up.”

Merlin stared, thrown. “Thank you?”

“There’s a good lad.”

And with that, the double 0’s satisfied themselves with squabbling over where to put what-chair and what-desk and who got dibs on the sofa when it was assembled, whilst Merlin stood in the midst of it and tried not to look too dazed. 

It was true: having moved in only a few weeks ago, Merlin had little in the way of possessions; he had barely afforded the flat as it was. The government had seized all of his accounts when Merlin had been arrested, way back when, and Merlin had been determined not to delve into old ways in order to make back some of the funds he’d lost. Just because he could hack into any bank account in the world didn’t mean he should take it as an invitation. Besides, the pay at MI6 wasn’t too meagre. He’d rebuild his life up again, it would just take time.

Time, and a couple of deadly assassins ridiculous enough to buy him half a floor of IKEA for Christmas.

Merlin shook his head, and went to get dressed. He blamed sleep-deprivation. Severe sleep-deprivation. When Owain started dragging a fully-decorated Christmas tree into his lounge, however, Merlin put his foot down.

“No. No, absolutely not.”

“But, it’s Christmas!” Owain protested, looking so despondent Merlin almost caved right then and there. “You can’t not have a Christmas tree on Christmas day. That’s like, minor treason.”

“And where, pray tell, did you manage to find a Christmas tree this late?” Merlin asked, raising his eyebrows.

“We bought it?” He tried.

“Already decorated?” 

“Oh, fine, we took it from the lobby in IKEA.” Gwaine waved his hand dismissively. “But it’s Christmas day, isn’t it? They don’t need it anymore, and I mean they’re hardly going to miss it…”

“So you stole it.” Merlin summed.

“I wouldn’t call it stealing, exactly…”

“Oh? Then what would you call it?”

Gwaine’s eyes twinkled. “An extreme case of window shopping.”

Merlin’s lips twitched. “Alright, fine, just…put it by the window, or something.”

Owain beamed, and did just that.

Merlin shook his head fondly, and went to help Percival, who looked to be having an argument with a desk chair. (At least, it sat there in pieces whilst Percival yelled abuse at it.)

On that point, watching five double 0 assassins attempt to assemble Swedish furniture was probably the highlight of Merlin’s year. 

“I’m pretty sure the screws are supposed to go in before the legs—” Leon was saying.

Gwaine batted his hands away. “No, the instructions specifically say to assemble the legs first—”

“Gwaine, out of the two of us which one actually speaks Swedish?”

“For the last time, just because you chatted up a Säpo agent once does not make you an expert!”

“I know enough to know that you’re reading the diagram upside down.”

“I’m not — oh bollocks.”

Leon snorted. Everyone groaned. Merlin grinned.

Because right then, as he watched England’s most dangerous assassins squabble over Swedish furniture, it was almost like he was one of them. They may be trained killers out in the field, but here in his flat it was a family, a group of outcasts who had found their home amongst people just like them, and Merlin got it. He was an outcast in his own right, after all.

“Alright, you wankers, pass over the instructions.” Merlin said, in the same no-nonsense voice that he used over the comms when Arthur was being particularly stubborn. “See if I can make any sense of it.”

“Yeah, I know, let’s ask the actual genius.” Gwaine muttered. “Why didn’t we think of that?”

"Because you're an idiot.” Merlin said, then amended at Gwaine’s look of indignation. “Oh, don’t look like that. Practically everyone is.”

“Lovely. And that’s supposed to make me feel better… how exactly?”

Merlin laughed. “Balance of majority, my friend.”

Gwaine was still grumbling, so Merlin plonked himself right in front of the double 0 and gave him his best dazzling smile. “I’m sorry for suitably bruising your ego.”

Merlin’s eyes were wide and imploring, and whatever willpower Gwaine had left crumbled. No one could say no to Merlin when he looked at them like that. He sniffed. “My ego will recover. Just make the bloody table already so I can get the PS4 set up.”

“I — PS4?” Merlin repeated incredulously. His eyes narrowed. “Let me guess, this is entirely for selfish reasons as well?”

“Absolutely. Entirely selfish. Definitely not a Christmas present.” Gwaine said seriously. “In fact, so selfish that you won’t mind if we keep it here when we leave?”

“You’re an arse, 003.”

“And a Merry Christmas to you, too, Q.”

Merlin choked out a laugh, and after a moment Gwaine joined in.

And as Merlin looked out at his friends transforming his flat into something that might be called a home, at his friends who had barged into his flat to keep him company on Christmas, for the first time in years, Merlin didn’t feel quite so alone anymore.

If there was a strange emptiness where one more of their number should have been, Merlin didn’t dwell on it.

 


 

Morgana and Gwen turned up a few hours later armed with dubious amounts of alcohol, though none of the double 0’s had invited them so it was a bit of a puzzle as to how they had known. When Merlin had asked, Morgana had only given him one of her knowing smiles and an unhelpful “you’ll see”.

Everyone was there, even Gaius made an appearance as the day stretched into night. Everyone he had grown to care about in his short time as Q. Everyone he now considered family.

The only person missing, of course, was Arthur.

But given the double 0 was currently thousands of feet in the air on a plane back from Kabul, there was no point in bemoaning his absence. Not that Merlin was missing him at all. 

With a small sigh, Merlin leant out on the balcony where he had just stepped out for some air. After a few beers, his head was starting to swim pleasantly, and the alcohol warmed his blood in the cool, crisp air. Merlin’s hand skimmed the rim of his glass absently. The winter frost had sharpened the night sky into a rare clarity above him, undimmed by the glare of city light. He wondered if Arthur was seeing the same constellations as he flew through the night.

After a minute or so, he sensed Leon join him beside him.

“It was Arthur’s idea, you know,” Leon said quietly, and Merlin turned towards him slightly. “Called us from the plane.”

Merlin had suspected as much, but to hear Leon confirm it out loud had something turning in his chest.

“Contacted everyone, told us where your flat was.”

“Arthur knows where I live?” 

“Pretty sure he asked Gaius.” Leon mused.

Merlin’s lips twitched. “Figures.”

The two stood in silence for a moment.

“Guess he must have gotten hold of Morgana and Gwen as well.”

Merlin hummed in agreement.

“Figured no one should be alone on Christmas.”

“They said that?"

“Arthur's words actually." Leon said thoughtfully. "Not that he'd ever admit it."

Merlin’s hands stilled on his glass. He opened his mouth, and then closed it.

Leon was looking at him far too knowingly. He cleared his throat. “So, ah, Merlin —”

But whatever Leon was about to say next was cut off by a heavy knocking on the front door. 

Merlin frowned. “Was there someone else coming?”

Distantly, he heard the sound of Gaius answering the door, and then there was a voice that was oh-so-familiar drifting through the flat.

“Gaius, I thought you said this place would be easy to find.” 

Merlin froze. 

“—I lost my way, twice.”

And surely Merlin’s ears were deceiving him, surely the alcohol had gone straight to his head and was making him hear things, because Arthur was 40 000 feet in the air on a plane and he wasn’t due in for at least another 92 minutes (not that Merlin had checked) so there was no feasible scenario in which he could possibly be here at his flat —

“Sorry I’m late,” the voice said again. Low and resonant with sleeping authority and light with amusement in the gentle mockery; a voice that Merlin had come to know as intimately as his own over the comms, hidden pockets of expression in every slight rise and fall. A voice Merlin would recognise in his sleep. Merlin almost gave himself whiplash spinning round and darting back through into the lounge to see Arthur standing in the doorway, smiling that crooked smile that made Merlin’s thoughts careen to a halt. “What have I missed?”

“Arthur,” Merlin breathed. 

Arthur looked awful in the best way, exhausted and bedraggled in a mussed up shirt and actual-by-God jeans that he’d obviously just ripped out of his suitcase the second he’d landed, because Arthur must have come straight from the airport — Merlin drunk in the sight of him hungrily, observations sparking in a rush too fast to comprehend — from where Arthur had shammed his way onto an earlier plane, commandeering a rent car to drive through London at breakneck speed when he arrived. All completely unnecessary, of course. All of that just to get here in time for Christmas.

Merlin opened his mouth, but couldn’t find a single thing to say. Any rational thought had utterly deserted him. The fact that the Afghan sun had lightened Arthur’s hair and darkened his skin to give him the appearance of some sort of sculpted Greek god probably didn’t help.

But Arthur didn’t seem to need Merlin to say anything. Ignoring all the others, he reached into his jacket and pulled out his Walther, battered and smoking, but very much accounted for.

Arthur offered it to him with a small ta-da! motion and a small, curiously childlike grin. “007, checking in his equipment.”

Merlin stared. And stared. His brain was still struggling to catch up with the fact that Arthur was standing in his living room. Arthur had arranged it so he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas day. Arthur had stolen onto an earlier plane just to get there in time. Arthur had actually brought back his equipment.

“I hadn't realised you thought so little of me.” Arthur said dryly, when Merlin continued to stare at the Walther.

Merlin blinked, shook himself. “You actually did go back to retrieve it.” 

“Course. I promised, didn’t I?”

A grin was fighting at Merlin’s lips, so wide the act of containing it was starting to physically hurt his cheeks. “It’s a Christmas miracle” he said solemnly.

“Call it a Christmas present.”

“You’re too kind.”

“Don’t expect this to become a regular thing, of course—”

“Um, Arthur — the moment? We talked about the moment. Don’t ruin it.” 

In the background, Gwaine coughed pointedly. Neither of them noticed.

Their gazes met, caught, lingered. Arthur was looking at him with a soft sort of smile, a study in gold and cornflower blue. Merlin wasn’t sure what his face was doing — some sort of slack-jawed, dewy-eyed stare, he imagined — but he couldn’t care less, not when Arthur was looking at him like that.

“Honestly,” said Morgana dryly. “Two weeks Arthur hasn’t seen me, it’s like I’m not even here. I’m only his sister.”

“Speak for yourself,” Gwaine muttered. “Although, now that we’ve interrupted, Arthur shift your well-formed ass out of the way so I can get back to thrashing Percival on Call of Duty.”

To which Percival smacked Gwaine on the side of the head. “Oh I’ll show you ‘thrashing’…”

And the moment was effectively broken. Arthur rolled his eyes, but obliged, moving across the room to talk to Morgana and Gwen. Everyone resumed what they had been doing prior to Arthur’s arrival.

That is, aside from Merlin, who was endeavouring to relearn the art of respiration. Across the room, the candlelight softened the hard lines of Arthur’s face, turned his hair into something beguilingly touchable, and Merlin had the sudden ridiculous impulse to go over and see if it felt as soft as it looked. You are the Quartermaster of MI6, he reminded himself, working at the very heart of the British nation. You hold the security of the entire secret service in your head. You will not be seduced by Arthur Pendragon's hair. Get a fucking grip.

And then Arthur laughed at something Gwen said, and Merlin’s brain stopped working altogether. 

Bugger.

“Merlin?”

Merlin’s eyes flickered, dazed and uncomprehending, to Gwaine, who frowned. If Merlin was thinking straight, he would have been more careful to hide the emotions etched on his face, but it was too late now. There was a lightning spark of realisation in Gwaine’s eyes, along with a strange, determined look that never boded well.

“Right, come on,” Gwaine said decidedly. “Get your ass over here. You’re overdue for a couple of rounds on the old Black Ops.”

“I… What? I don’t think—”

“No thinking.” Gwaine thrust his controller into Merlin’s hands and playfully tugged him down to the crammed sofa so that he was squished between him and Percival — practically on Gwaine’s lap. “Just shooting.”

“But I don’t even know how to play—” Merlin protested weakly.

“You are the Quartermaster of MI6. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

“But—”

“Here, I’ll take that.” Gwaine deftly swiped his drink from his hand, and Merlin made a small sound of indignation.

“Oi, you wanker, that was mine!” 

He squirmed to reach it, but Gwaine held it high above his head, a small smirk on his face. “Mine now.”

To which there followed the inevitable few moments of wrestling as Merlin flung himself across Gwaine and attempted to prise it from the double 0’s hand. Within moments both of them had dissolved into helpless giggles.

“Why Merlin,” Gwaine managed between Merlin’s attacks. “If this was all it took to get you on top of me, I’d have done it weeks ago.”

“Shut up you intolerable, pig-headed —”

“—Handsome, swash-buckling rogue?” Gwaine filled in, raising an eyebrow as Merlin flailed across him again.

Arse.” Merlin finished, and gave up with a huff, half-sprawled against Gwaine’s chest.

Gwaine beamed, taking a triumphant swig of Merlin's beer. “Thank you.”

“That wasn’t a compliment.”

“Yes it was. Now come on, one round?”

Merlin huffed again, but obligingly began thumbing the PS4 controls with a hesitancy that lasted about all of five seconds. To no one’s surprise, it took no time at all before Merlin was acing the game. “What’s the big deal with these games anyway?” He said when he had beaten the double 0’s record for the fourth time.

Gwaine shrugged, leaning back on the sofa with one arm stretching casually behind Merlin. “It’s got everything I like. Gratuitous violence…”

He paused, and Merlin glanced sideways at him. “Oh, I thought you were listing things.”

“I was,” said Gwaine. “I'm done.”

Merlin snorted before he could help himself. He put the controller to the side for a moment as the game reloaded. Percival had gotten up to talk to Lance a few minutes earlier, so it was just the two of them. 

He eyed Gwaine speculatively. “So, I’m guessing you didn’t call me over here just to steal my drink and introduce me to the world of virtual-reality-based simulations.”

“Well, I’ll admit the drink was an unexpected bonus.”

Merlin swatted him. “Gwaine…”

Gwain rolled his eyes. “No, I didn’t,” he agreed. “I called you over here because the unresolved sexual tension between you and his royal highness over there was becoming physically painful to witness.”

It was fortunate Gwaine had taken Merlin’s drink away from him, else Merlin would have spat it out all over the new furniture. “I’m sorry, what?”

Merlin glanced around quickly, but thankfully everyone else was out of earshot.

“You heard me,” Gwaine took another swig of Merlin’s beer. “All of this…pining and gadget building and flirting over the comms…it’s driving us all mad. Show us all some pity and just fuck already, won’t you?”

Merlin swallowed reflexively, a muscle in his jaw jumping. His eyes darted to where Arthur was across the room, and then seemed to realise he was giving himself away and quickly looked elsewhere. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gwaine watching him with eyes that were far too observant.

“Unless…” Gwaine said, in the dawning tone of someone figuring something out. “It’s more than that.”

Merlin kept his eyes fixed firmly on his hands. He didn’t say anything.

“Merlin?”

Closing his eyes, Merlin spoke in a soft, pleading voice. “Don’t, Gwaine.”

“Why?”

Merlin just shook his head, biting his lip.

And then Gwaine exhaled, a soft noise of realisation. “Christ, you’re in love with him, aren’t you?”

Panic. Denial. Merlin’s head snapped up, a protest at his lips, but nothing came out. His jaw clenched tight, gaze scattering away. 

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

Gwaine…” Merlin entreated again.

“So what’s the problem?”

“Because he doesn’t…I’m not…” Merlin ran a frustrated hand through his hair, cursing once again the alcohol for making his brain lose the ability to string two words of sense together. “It wouldn't work.”

“Why?” Gwaine demanded. “I’ll bet good money Arthur feels the same about you.”

Merlin winced. “Arthur doesn’t know me,” he said. “Not really. And if he did…”

“What?”

Merlin thought of the fear in Sophia’s eyes just before he’d unleashed that bolt of magic and burnt her to ash. He thought of Kilgharrah finding him the day he washed up on the riverside. He thought of the first time he’d learned of Uther Pendragon’s name, the first time he’d made the connection with the men who had come that fateful night his world had turned to ash and blood, and the man he now worked for. He thought of Gaius’s warning —

“You ran from Kilgharrah because you believed that if the world found out what you could do, they'd reject you... out of fear. Because you were so sure that it wasn’t the right time, that the world was not ready. Because the mere thought of being known, truly and unequivocally, terrified you like nothing else. You were so sure, you were willing to leave behind everything you had ever known.”

He thought of the magic coursing through his veins, foreign and familiar, saving his life time and time again whilst all the time putting it at risk. He thought of the way Arthur had looked at him tonight, and how he would never look at Merlin the same way again once he knew.

He thought about how much his secrets would break them both if they let themselves get any closer.

Merlin closed his eyes, and when he spoke his voice was cracked and hoarse. “I’d lose him,” he whispered.

Gwaine was silent beside him. Then — “we all have things in our past, Merlin, Arthur included. Who we are, the things we’ve done, the paths we’ve taken… that’s no longer for us to decide, it’s beyond our control.” And then Gwaine’s voice turned unusually serious. “All we have to decide is how we let our pasts define us. That’s who we really are.”

Merlin opened his eyes, and they were strangely bright. “But…he doesn’t even know who I am.” He said hoarsely. “None of you do.”

And then Gwaine smiled. “I know you’re brave, and kind, and a complete dork. I know you’re smarter than you make out, which is saying something because everyone knows you’re a sodding genius. I know you make me laugh. And I know that you would rather chop off your own hand than allow harm to come to one of us.” Gwaine shrugged. “I hardly need to know where you come from to know you’re a good person, Merlin, and Arthur doesn’t either. Whatever Arthur feels for you…it’s because of you, right now, that person who forgets to sleep and drinks fussy tea and saves all of our arses from his desk in Q-branch. Learning about your past isn’t going to change that.” 

Merlin swallowed hard. “How do you know?”

“I don’t.” The double 0 lifted his shoulders. “But sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. The trust-part comes after.”

There was a beat.

“Here, I’m pretty sure you need this more than l do.”

Merlin looked up see Gwaine holding out his drink, and he choked out a laugh. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, I mean…thanks. For everything.”

Gwaine’s eyes softened, and he draped his arm familiarly round Merlin’s shoulders. “That’s what friends are for, savvy?”

A small smile touched Merlin’s lips, and he let himself relax against Gwaine’s warmth.

The double 0 agent squeezed his shoulder once. “Now come on, if we keep this level of conversation up I’m going to need something a hell of a lot stronger than beer.”

“I’ve got a 1962 Dalmore in the cupboard under the sink?” Merlin offered.

“See Merlin, this is why you are my best friend.”

 


 

Leon glanced with some amusement at Arthur standing next to him. The double 0 was doing an admirable job of pretending to stare absently into the middle distance, but if Leon followed his gaze, he knew Arthur was watching Merlin and Gwaine. The two were laughing on the sofa, a tangle of limbs and bodies as they fought over what looked like a bottle of beer. As Leon watched, Merlin threw himself across Gwaine’s chest and stayed there, giggling helplessly, whilst Gwaine took a triumphant swig of the beer. 

A muscle jumped in Arthur’s jaw, betraying the emotion he was usually so careful to hide.

“You’re awfully quiet, Arthur.” Leon noted.

“Well,” Arthur said without breaking his death stare. “Nobody plans a murder out loud.”

Leon hid a smile. “You know he’s doing it on purpose.”

“Gwaine?”

“No, the French Ambassador.” He rolled his eyes. “Yes, dumbass, Gwaine.”

“Why would he do that?” Arthur said neutrally.

“To make you jealous. To piss you off and push you into doing something. To save us all from having to watch the two of you undress each other with your eyes for the next year.”

Arthur’s jaw twitched again. 

On the sofa, Merlin had abandoned the game and the two of them were now talking in hushed voices, heads bowed together. Merlin made a quick, frustrated movement with his hands, his expression agitated and full of miserable uncertainty. Gwaine said something softly. Merlin bit his lip. Then Gwaine put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, and after a moment, Merlin settled into the cradle of Gwaine’s arm. The two looked utterly at ease on the sofa. 

Arthur fought the urge to break something. “Well, the pissing off part’s working swimmingly.” He muttered.

“That’s the spirit.” Leon said cheerfully. “You know all you need to do to make him stop is just make it clear Merlin’s yours, right?”

“For christ’s sake, I’m not a bloody caveman—”

“Oh? Your evident urge to kill something in an onslaught of testosterone says otherwise.”

“Leon…”

“Of course, that would require you to actually tell Merlin how you feel…”

“Leon.”

“…And we all know you’re emotionally constipated and allergic to feelings, so—”

“Leon?” Arthur said firmly.

“Yes, Arthur?” 

“Shut up.”

Leon smirked. “Yes Arthur.”

 


 

In the warm bustle of Christmas celebrations happening throughout London, no one noticed the dark-clad figure limping down the street in the dead of the night. Olaf pressed one hand to his side in a half-hearted effort to keep pressure on the wound, using the other hand to check for the millionth time that the third of the spiral was still in his inside pocket.

He had been running for nearly a month now; it was only a matter of time before they caught up to him. And with his own secret service scattered, his network crumbling, and his list of allies growing thin, there was only one place he could go. 

"Merde," he swore under his breath as he saw the dark lights gracing the windows of his destination. Where had that bloody boy got to now?

He was running out of time. All of his hopes now lay in one fool of an English assassin. A noise behind him made Olaf glance round sharply, and his hand fell to where his Glock was holstered at his hip. 

That is, if Olaf could find Arthur Pendragon before his pursuers found him.

 


 

The night stretched into morning, hours fading away in a blur of takeaway food, highly unlikely spy movies, and the general loss of sobriety, and before Merlin knew it he was waking up with Percival’s foot digging into his stomach, Lance’s head on his knee making his leg go numb, and his head on Gwaine’s chest. Merlin blinked, momentarily confused before the events of last night caught up with him. Christmas. Arthur’s arrival. The double 0’s playing strip poker into the early hours. Christ. 

He was just considering whether or not to go back to sleep when his eyes were viciously attacked by the light blaring through the flung open curtains. Merlin whimpered, one hand flailing up to cover his eyes. Faint, pitiful noises of pain were similarly sounding from the bodies on the floor, exclamations that could have been saying anything from ‘my mortal form refuses to assimilate once more into the tragic world of the living’ to ‘dear god, someone shoot whoever opened that curtain’.

“Alright, you sorry lot,” Morgana, of course, sounding far, far too awake. “Get your miserable hides off the floor and for heaven’s sake put some clothes on. If you’re not conscious and decent in five minutes, I’m coming round with buckets of water.”

“You,” Arthur growled from where he was sprawled on the sofa. “When I find my gun, I’m going to shoot you.”

“And a good morning to you too, dear brother.” She said sweetly. “Coffee?”

“I hate you so much right now.”

“That’s a no to coffee, then?”

Arthur groaned again, and fell back against the sofa. Around him, the double 0’s were faring similarly well, though Gwaine had at least managed to stand up.

He yawned, cracking his back. “God I’m starving. Get up everyone. I want to eat, like, everything.”

Leon was curled up in a foetal position on the floor. Lance and Percival seemed to be rising into the land of the conscious, but Owain looked about two seconds from keeling over.

“What the fuck,” he said flatly. “How are you not dead?”

Gwaine merely shrugged, looking far too pleased with himself. He began pocking around for his shirt which had mysteriously vanished over the course of the night. “Merlin, light of my life," he said, "tell me you have food in these cupboards or I will abandon you all for bacon, and eggs, and toast, and sausage. Don’t think I won’t.”

Owain looked like he was about to throw up. Gwaine prodded Merlin gently with his foot, who had curled up in silent protest. 

“Merlin? Come on, I wouldn’t advise contesting the will of Morgana.”

“m’ don’t wanna,” Merlin mumbled. “m’ sleep.”

There was a small huff of amusement, then Gwaine was hefting him up by his arms and propping him against the sofa so he didn’t fall over. “Figures that you’re a complete lightweight.”

“Shutup.”

“Well done, that was almost coherent. You’ll be progressing to full sentences any day now.”

Merlin grunted, and slumped against the sofa. 

Across the room, Morgana was swanning in again, looking irritatingly perfect and not-at-all hungover, a fact which was entirely unfair as she had out-drunk them all the previous night. 

“Bacon will be a few minutes,” she remarked as she reached Merlin. “But I have coffee whilst you wait?”

And maybe Merlin hated her slightly less.

“Cheers,” he said as Morgana pushed a mug of steaming black coffee into his hands.

Morgana winked at him, and swanned off again, ignoring Gwaine’s spluttering “Oi, where’s mine?”

And then Merlin was just reenacting the scene from last night as he played keep the coffee away from that bad, bad man with Gwaine when he caught a glimpse of Arthur standing behind them.

His expression was unguarded, soft in a way Arthur rarely allowed. And maybe it was the daze of sleep weighing on him, or the dull thrum of a hangover, but Arthur looked… sad, almost. Then Merlin blinked, and the look was gone, replaced with Arthur’s usual mask. He watched, barely noticing Gwaine steal a mouthful of his coffee, as Arthur began gathering his belongings with sharp, jerking movements.

“Arthur, do you want eggs, or—” Morgana stopped as she saw what Arthur was doing. She raised an eyebrow. “Going somewhere, are we?”

“Debrief,” he said curtly. “M will be wanting a run-down.”

Gwaine snorted. “How opportune.”

Morgana looked unimpressed. “Surely that can wait.”

“I’ve waited long enough already.” Arthur said.

“You can say that again,” Gwaine muttered with a non-too-subtle glance at Merlin.

“Gwaine, not helping,” Morgana enunciated. “Arthur, for pity’s sake—” 

“Headquarters won’t be up and running for another hour.” Merlin cut in quietly, ignoring how everyone’s eyes flew to him. Apart from Arthur, of course, who kept his gaze resolutely on the floor. “At least stay for breakfast.”

A beat of silence. Merlin watched Arthur close his eyes with a pained expression, letting out a soft exhale. 

“Fine.” He said. “But I want those eggs scrambled, okay? None of this poached crap.” 

And he disappeared into the kitchen, leaving behind an odd silence. The double 0’s began filtering out to join him, and Gwaine wandered off to find the shower, but Merlin stayed, frowning at the space Arthur had left. After a moment, he sensed Gwen sit down beside him.

“You okay?” She said softly.

“What was that all about?”

She shrugged. “Arthur was jealous. I think Gwaine found it amusing.”

“Jealous?” 

Gwen looked at him sharply.“You didn’t notice?”

“Um, no?”

“Well, he was jealous. I'm fairly sure he thinks you and Gwaine are, you know.” She made a vague motion. “Involved.”

“Me. And Gwaine.” Merlin said blankly. “Why on earth would he think that?”

“Merlin!” At which point Gwaine wandered in from the bedroom, stark naked from the shower. “Where do you keep your towels? I need to borrow one.”

“Why indeed,” Gwen muttered.

Merlin gave a long suffering sigh. “Cupboard on your left. Top shelf.”

“Ta.”

He turned back to Gwen. “By why would Arthur even care if we were? What does it matter to him?”

Gwen just looked at him. “Do you really not know?”

Merlin swallowed, but was thankfully saved from having to answer by the knock at the door. He sighed. What now? “I’ll get it.”

Pushing himself off the sofa, Merlin ambled over and yanked open the door to see a figure leaning heavily against the door frame, his face half-cast in shadow, hunched over as though he were in pain.

“Can I help you?” Merlin asked hesitantly.

The figure raised his head, and Merlin caught a glimpse of steel-grey eyes. “Pendragon,” the stranger rasped. “I need Pendragon.”

Merlin blinked. “Okay, um—”

“Olaf?” Arthur’s voice came from behind him, startled and full of disbelief.

The figure — Olaf — followed the sound and met Arthur’s gaze. His lips turned up into a thin, dry smile. “007. Apologies for the intrusion.”

Frowning, Arthur joined Merlin at the door, and Merlin didn’t miss the way he positioned his body carefully in front of Merlin’s in something suspiciously close to a protective stance. Behind him, Merlin sensed Lance and Percival taking up similar positions behind them. He huffed. Bloody double 0’s.

“What are you doing here?” Arthur asked coolly. 

The frenchman smiled, but this time it didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, as much as I would like to say I’m here for pleasure, I—” Olaf stopped, swallowed. His face had drained of colour. 

“Olaf?” Arthur stepped forward.

“I—” Olaf tried again, but lost his hold on the doorframe and stumbled. 

Arthur darted forward and caught him by the shoulder, sharp eyes seeing the blood that stained Olaf’s dark clothing and the way he favoured his side. “Olaf what’s going on?” 

Breathing through gritted teeth, Olaf grasped Arthur’s arm. His face was drawn tight, as though he were in pain. And when he spoke, his voice was grave. 

“I need your help.”

 

Chapter Text

It took all of five seconds for the double 0’s to switch from hungover lads in dire need of bacon to lethally trained assassins, level-headed under a crisis, soldiers ready for battle, and without any warning in-between. Leon got Olaf in through the door whilst Gwaine and Percival left immediately to secure the area, guns close to hand as they scouted out the hallway. Owain took position outside the door, and Lance the window, covering every vantage point that could be visible or targeted. Any other time the change would have been fascinating to watch, but Arthur was busy trying to keep from fidgeting as Leon saw to Olaf’s wound on the sofa.

He managed to hold off his impatience for answers long enough for Olaf to get sat down and checked he wasn’t actually dying (thanks to some gauze Gwen had magically procured from her handbag; being married to a double 0 meant she never went without) before his restraint ran out.

“Alright Olaf, start talking.” He said, in that measured, ‘don't fuck with me’ voice that got things done. “What’s going on? Why are people after you?”

Olaf’s eyes shifted to the double 0’s positioned on Arthur’s flanks, to Merlin standing slightly to the side, to Morgana and Gwen lingering in the door on their way out. Gwen tugged on Morgana’s arm, and she rolled her eyes, but followed, shutting the front door behind them. Olaf then looked pointedly at Merlin and the double 0’s.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed slightly at the unspoken insinuation. “They’re staying.”

“You trust them?”

“I trust them a hell of a lot more than I trust you.”

That earned him a small smirk. “Now, Arthur, when have I ever given you a reason not to trust me?

“Would you like me answer chronologically?” Arthur said evenly. “Or alphabetically?”

Merlin coughed to hide his snort. 

Olaf only rolled his eyes, wincing as he shifted his side. He jerked his head towards his jacket which had been taken off to see to his wounds. “Check the inside pocket of my jacket.”

With a sigh that expressed all of his dwindling tolerance, Arthur obliged, sticking his hand into the folds of material and pulling out some sort of circular object. It was a singular spiral, made of bands of solid gold, the tail jutting out in two legs as though it had once been connected to something else. If Arthur looked closely, he thought he saw strange, runic markings etched into the surface. The object looked ancient, like a prop from a movie or a relic from a museum.

“Nearly a month ago, our external headquarters in Paris was attacked.” Olaf said in a low voice. “This much you know. You caught a glimpse of the coup yourselves.” He gestured to the thing in Arthur’s hands. “This is what they were after.”

Arthur turned it over in his hands. “What is it?”

“A key,” Olaf said, “or part of it, anyway. One of three fragments.”

“A key?” Gwaine interrupted dubiously. “Like a physical key-in-a-lock, kind of key?”

Olaf inclined his head. “Only together can the three pieces form the Triskelion, and only the Triskelion can open the door to Ashkanar.”

Triskelion. The term was vaguely familiar. Arthur’s gaze flickered briefly to Merlin’s.

“A key to what?” Arthur asked, an unspoken get-to-the-point.

“Ah, now that’s the question.” Olaf eyed the piece warily, in the same way one might view a unexploded bomb. “It is said to be a weapon of some sort, a tool to bring the modern world crashing down. A weapon that could very well determine the fate of the war to come. And make no mistake, war is coming.”

The words were sombre, almost ominous spoken in the close of the flat. A measure of silence.

“And who, exactly, was trying to steal it?” Leon asked quietly.

Olaf pursed his lips, sharp eyes falling back to Arthur. “How much do you know about the man who calls himself ‘Sigan’?”

This just kept getting better and better. Arthur sighed, opening his mouth, when he caught the look on Olaf’s face. It was almost…expectant. No, appraising. As though Olaf was testing him somehow. Olaf’s words from Paris were brought to mind.

“I will tell you this, though. The world is changing. New powers are coming into play, and it won’t be long before they reveal themselves. Make sure you’re ready.”

No way was that a coincidence. No way was Olaf oblivious to what was going on.

Oh to hell with it. Arthur shrugged nonchalantly. “He’s a warmonger, terrorist, weapons dealer. Oh, and his network is largely made up of sorcerers. Does that about cover it?”

Behind him, Merlin choked, and Percival thumped him on the back. 

But Arthur was watching Olaf, and saw the brief flicker of surprise cross his face before he smiled, slow and wide. “Knew you’d get there eventually. You’ve been busy since last we spoke, Arthur.”

“If you mean encountering that delicate little revelation that magic is real? Yeah, cheers for the heads up about that by the way.”

Olaf studied his fingernails. “Would you have believed me if I had told you then?”

Arthur ignored him. “So this weapon — we’re talking about something magical?”

“I suspect so, yes.”

“And it’s destructive capabilities?

“The legend isn’t exactly specific, but we have been assured they are extensive.”

“Wait, legend?” Arthur repeated sceptically. “I’m sorry, we’re basing all this off a bloody myth?

“He’s got a point,” Percival muttered.

Olaf levelled his gaze at Arthur. “Fire materialises from a muttered word, your bullets literally stop in midair with a wave of a hand, and your attacks are continually thwarted by a supernatural force manifested in eyes that glow bright orange, and you’re having trouble grasping the concept of an element of truth in folklore?”

Percival coughed slightly. “…Also a good point.”

Arthur huffed. “Alright, fine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that you’re telling me all this, but I’m still trying to work out what the hell you’re doing here. Surely you’d be better off taking this to the authorities, or to my father—”

“Your father,” Olaf interrupted with a scowl, annoyance giving away just a hint of a french accent in otherwise perfect english. “It’s because of your father that we’re in this mess in the first place.”

“What?”

But Olaf just shook his head. “I came here because my possession of the key puts it at liability. It’s only a matter of time before Sigan’s men catch up to me, and I will not have this weapon falling into his hands.” Olaf nodded at the fragment still in Arthur’s hand. “The key is yours to protect now, if you would have it.” 

“You mean the key puts you at liability,” Arthur pointed out. “Why would I take responsibility for something that brings a terrorist cell down on my head?”

“Because you know what’s at stake,” the agent said simply. “You’ve seen what Sigan is capable of, and they were only the foot soldiers. Imagine what he could do with a weapon of this scale.”

“And what scale is that, exactly?” Arthur challenged. “For all we know, there might not be a weapon at all. It might be a scroll, or a book, or a pouch of magic fairy dust.”

“Fae.”

Arthur turned at Merlin's voice. “What?”

Merlin looked a little sheepish. “Um. Fairy’s don’t exist. It’s the Fae you need to worry about — and you best hope there isn’t one of them behind that door.”

Arthur blinked. “Right, well, whatever. It could still be nothing.”

“And would you take that chance?” Olaf said placidly. 

A muscle jumped in Arthur’s jaw. He didn’t answer.

Olaf sighed. “I also came here to warn you. If Sigan’s men were able to trace one of the pieces of the Triskelion to the DGSE, it’s only a matter of time before they come for MI6.”

“But why would they come here?” But even as the words left Arthur’s mouth, he realised. His eyes narrowed. “The other two pieces of the key. What happened to them?”

Olaf gave him a long, appraising look. “One was lost track of years ago, vanished without a trace. The other, however, is sitting underneath MI6 right now.”

“Uther.” Arthur said grimly. “He knows about…” he made a vague gesture that could have been anything from waving a magic wand to implying the state of decor in Merlin’s living room, “…all this, then?”

A strange look crossed Olaf’s face. Irony, guilt, anger — Arthur couldn’t place it. “You could say that, yes.”

“Perfect,” he grumbled. “Now my father’s keeping secrets from me too. Anything else you’d like to inform me of whilst we’re having our little honesty spiel?”

“Only this: I lost a lot of men that day the DGSE was attacked — good men. My best agents and assassins, and they didn’t stand a chance.” For a moment, grief flashed across the agent’s face before he masked it again. “Now I don’t know how you and your men were able to escape right past a group of Sigan’s sorcerers without a scratch, maybe you were lucky, maybe you’re just that good, I don’t know. But whatever fucking guardian angel or deity is keeping your asses alive, I suggest you start praying to it. Because when these people come — and they will,” Olaf paused, and the faint hint of perturbation on his grim face was enough to make a strike of uneasiness pierce Arthur’s chest.

“You’re going to need all the help you can get.”

 


 

“Well,” said Lance pleasantly, “that was suitably terrifying and not-at-all reassuring. Is he staying for breakfast?”

“Sure as hell hope not,” Gwaine grumbled, wary of Olaf who was still lurking on the other side of the room, talking into his phone in rapid french. “Now, where did that blasted whisky get to…”

“Here.” Percival volunteered, rescuing it from under the table.

“Ta. Pour me two fingers, would you?”

“Gwaine, it’s breakfast.”

A paused. “And a piece of toast.” Gwaine amended.

Lance snorted.

“Um, guys,” Owain spoke up from the doorway, hunched over his cup of coffee like someone might try and take it from him. “Arthur wants to talk to us. He’s called a war meeting, or something.”

“Has he found something?” Lance asked.

Owain shrugged. “No? I think he’s trying to come up with a plan, or something. Not that you can get a word in edgeways between him and Merlin.”

“They’re still arguing?” Leon said incredulously, moving toward the door.

Sure enough, voices began coming into hearing as they approached the kitchen. 

“Don't do that.”

“Do what?”

“The Look.”

“Look?”

“You're doing the Look again.”

“What look? It's my face.” Merlin said.

“Yes, and it's doing a thing,” Arthur said irritably. “You're doing a ‘I’m-having-one-of-those-really-terrible-ideas-that’ll-sound-dubiously-optimistic-but-inevitably-end-in-lots-of-running-and-screaming’ face.”

Merlin blinked, and frowned. “I have a face for that?”

“Merlin!”

Merlin huffed. “Look. Olaf’s warning gives us some time. We know Sigan’s men are going to turn up at some point, magic wands and pointy hats and all, but we don’t know when, or how. We need more information.”

“No.” Arthur said.

“…You don't even know what I was going to say.”

“Still going to stick with ‘no’.”

Merlin made a small noise of frustration. “Arthur, you said it yourself after the mission in Paris. Sigan’s undoubtably got some sort of leverage over the underground criminal network in London — that’s an information source right there. We just need a way in. I can be that way in.”

“No.”

“I can arrange a meeting with the Dragon—”

“Not going to happen.”

“He’ll talk to me—”

Merlin…”

“In fact, I have an old contact number for him right here—”

No. That’s it. Give me me the phone.”

“What?”

“The phone, Merlin. Now.”

“No!”

There was a small squawk, and a clatter, and then the double 0’s reached the kitchen door just in time to see Merlin dart around the other side of the table, phone held high in the air, whilst Arthur stomped after him.

“You’re being childish!” Arthur growled, pursuing Merlin round the table.

You’re being childish!” Merlin countered, scrambling away as Arthur made a grab for him. “It’s the only thing that makes sense!”

“No. No you are not contacting your creepy-Fagin-ex-boss on the off-chance he knows something.”

“He might know something!”

“Yeah, and he might not—” Arthur made another grab for Merlin, who darted around the other side again, keeping the table between them. “Now give me that phone.”

Merlin clutched it protectively to his chest. “No!”

Arthur growled and lunged, and Merlin jumped back with another squawk. The double 0’s just stared at the two of them, at Merlin making an mad-escape around the table and Arthur stomping after him again in an absurd chase around the kitchen.

Merlin scrambled over a chair. “I don’t see why this is such a problem—” 

“Do you know what would happen if you got caught? If my father found out you were rendezvousing with the man he’s been hunting for over a decade?”

“He won’t find out—”

“—And even if he didn’t, what are you going to do when you get there?” Arthur stopped, crossing his arms. “You’re a hacker, Merlin, not a field agent!”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” Merlin demanded, before ducking sideways again when Arthur renewed his vigorous pursuit around the table. 

“It’s too dangerous!” Arthur insisted. “What if the Dragon’s working for Sigan?”

“Then he’ll definitely know something useful.” Merlin pointed out quickly, and then squeaked and jumped back when Arthur barrelled up.

Useful?!”

Merlin shrieked and half-climbed the kitchen cabinet as Arthur attempted a lunge across the table at him.

"You're being ridiculous—”

“Ridiculous?” Arthur exclaimed. “You want to go gallivanting back to that indoctrinatory street gang with very possible ties to homicidal-magic-wielding terrorists, with no backup, no plan—”

“I have a plan—”

“A terrible plan—”

Merlin darted around Percival, using him as a shield. “I’ll be perfectly safe! I’m just going to walk in, ask him what he knows, and then walk out!”

“No.”

“Arthur—”

“No. I forbid it.”

“You forbid it?!” Merlin said incredulously.

“Yes.”

“You can’t do that.”

“I just did.”

“I outrank you, you tosspot!” Merlin threw a teaspoon at him to accentuate his point, which Arthur dodged easily.

“I don’t care. You’re not going.”

“What are you, my mum?”

“No! I’m —” Arthur stopped, the words catching in his throat as he halted his mad pursuit. He bit back a huff of frustration. “I’m your friend.” He said roughly. 

Merlin froze in mid-scramble, one leg halfway to clambering up onto the kitchen counter, one hand still clutching another spoon clearly intended to be thrown. He brought it down slowly. The two looked at each other, apparently oblivious to their audience.

After a moment, Merlin sighed, pinching his nose with his thumb and finger. “Arthur, there are lives at stake here, actual lives — far more than some stupid artefact. MI6 is going to be attacked. We have to do something.”

“And we will,” Arthur said, moving forward slowly, hands held up entreatingly. “We’ll find another way. Just don’t…” He put his hand out, resting against the phone in Merlin’s hand. A silent plea. Don’t go back to him. Don’t go back to that man who took so much from you. 

Merlin’s mouth twisted. “Arthur…”

“Please?” He said, and out of the corner of his eye he saw Leon nearly fall over in surprise. Please don’t go where I can’t follow.

Merlin bit his lip, seeing the faint desperation in Arthur’s eyes, and whatever willpower he had left crumbled. He let the mobile slip out of his hand into Arthur’s grip. “Alright, fine. But…can I at least send him a message?” At Arthur’s expression, he quickly amended. “I won’t meet him, I swear. But Arthur, we’re going in blind here. We need to know more about what we’re up against.”

“You really think he’ll know something?”

Merlin lifted his shoulders. “Kilgharrah always seemed to know more than he should. He’s got people everywhere, and records that go back centuries. It’s worth a shot.”

Arthur hesitated.

“You know I’m the only one who can get close enough. You know I’m the only one he’ll trust.”

“Okay, okay.” Arthur turned his eyes up to the heavens for strength. He pushed the phone back to Merlin. “Get a message to him. But only a message, you understand?”

Merlin’s answering smile was dazzling. “Thank you.”

Both of them looked up as Leon cleared his throat loudly. “Right, well. Now that you’re done chasing each other around the kitchen, do you want to start telling us what you’ve found?”

Merlin and Arthur exchanged a sheepish glance.

“We have a plan,” Arthur announced.

“We should point out, at this moment, it is a fairly terrible plan.” Merlin inserted.

Arthur gave him a look. “First, we need to work out where the third of the Triskelion is being kept in MI6. Merlin and I think it might have something to do with the tunnels we found underneath the Riverhouse the other week.” 

“I’ll try and pull up some blueprints,” Merlin said. “See what I can find.”

“In the meantime, I’ll be having a little chat with M to find out what he knows,” Arthur said a little grimly. “We’re far past the time for discretion here.”

“Right.” Merlin said. “Once we’ve found it, we’ve got two options. One, we hunker down in the Riverhouse and make our stand there, on home turf. I’ll modify our security, we’ll throw every defence we have at it, and we wait for Sigan to come to us.”

“…Giving us absolutely no forewarning when or how he might be coming, and possibly risking the entirety of MI6 in the process.” Arthur added.

Leon nodded. “And option two?”

“We move the artefact,” Merlin explained. “Draw Sigan’s eye away from MI6 and force his hand, meeting him on our own terms. We control the variables; he’ll be walking straight into a trap.”

“You want us to steal from our own secret service?” Owain clarified.

“If it means protecting everyone at MI6 from being caught in the crossfire?” Arthur replied. “Yes.”

Leon shouldn't have been surprised — of course Arthur's priority would always be the safety and well-being of his men. But at what risk? Best case scenario: they'd emerge on the other side alive and still in possession of the artefact, and Uther would let them off with a sharp rebuttal, maybe a revoking of double 0 privileges or a firearms ban. Worst case, they'd be done for treason against the state. (That is, if Sigan's men didn't kill them all horribly first.)

After a moment, Leon cleared his throat. “We’ll follow where you lead, Arthur. You know that.” He paused.

“But?” Arthur prompted.

Leon sighed. “It’s just… we’ll be going up against sorcerers with nought but our wits and weapons that’ll do fuck all. What makes you think the seven of us have any better chance than the entire of MI6?”

If Leon hadn’t been watching, he would have missed the way Arthur’s gaze flickered immediately to Merlin, though he couldn’t imagine why.

“Because we know the truth.” Arthur said at last. “We know what these people are capable of, and that makes us responsible. Besides, we got past them last time, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, running our arses away from them,” Percival muttered. Owain unobtrusively cuffed him on the head.

“Point is,” Arthur continued, “we have an advantage that we didn’t have last time round: we know what’s coming. And this time, we’ll be ready.”

A beat of silence whilst everyone considered this. It was risky plan by anyone's measure — daring and unexpected and reliant on no small amount of luck, not to mention they'd be doing it without any backup from MI6. Well, Leon thought as his eyes flickered to Merlin, maybe not entirely without backup. Merlin’s track record was unparalleled. He seemed to marshal resources from out of thin air, pushing Q-branch to ever more impossible feats, managing to extricate his field agents from even the most hopeless of circumstances.

And then there was Arthur. Arthur, who continually defied expectations as to what one man could do, whose record was unparalleled, who somehow managed to work as an assassin and yet still retain his strict moral code. 

If there was anyone who could make such a plan work, it was the two men standing in front of him.

“Certainty of death, small chance of success…” Gwaine rolled off. He smirked. “What are we waiting for?”

 


 

Arthur was just preparing to leave for the Riverhouse when Olaf’s voice spoke from behind him. “You’ve decided then?”

Arthur paused, turning his head slightly. “Decided?”

Distantly, he could hear the other double 0’s amassing in the kitchen as Merlin procured breakfast — all of them out of earshot for the time being. He wondered whether Olaf had been waiting for such a time as to catch him alone.

“To throw your lot in with all this,” Olaf clarified. “To take a stand. To join the game.”

“There is no ‘throwing my lot in’,” Arthur said, shrugging on his jacket. “There is no ‘game’. People’s lives are at stake. There’s a chance I may be able to do something about it. It’s that simple.”

“And you really think that things will ever be the same once you do?”

Arthur made a small noise of impatience. “And what would my alternative be, Olaf? Bury my head in the sand? Look the other way? Let my father deal with it, since he seems to know so much?”

Olaf just gave him a blank, stony look. “You could stay out of it.”

“Is that why you came all the way here? To tell me to stay out of it?”

“I certainly didn’t tell you about the threat to MI6 for you to go running off on a suicide mission!” He barked. “You cannot hope to defeat sorcerers on your own, Arthur. You must understand—”

“Oh must I?” Arthur challenged. His eyes flashed, a touch of sleeping authority simmering in his tone as he spoke. “What did you expect, Olaf, that I’d sit there twiddling my thumbs until Sigan turned up on our doorstep?”

The agent’s face was as impassive as stone. “This isn’t your fight.”

“A group of armed mercenaries are staging a coup on MI6. Pretty sure that makes it my fight.”

Olaf muttered something that sounded like a curse in french. “Arthur, if you go up against Sigan in this way, you’ll wading into an age-old war you don’t fully understand yet against men with more power than you could possibly imagine. You don't know what it is you’re getting into.”

Arthur hummed. “Right yes, of course. I’d almost forgotten the vast magnitude that is my ignorance. Ironically, you still seem rather reluctant to tell me the full story.”

Silence hung heavy in the air following Arthur’s words. A beat. Arthur crossed his arms, using that same do-not-fuck-with-me voice that left no room for argument. “Olaf?” 

The DGSE agent glanced at him, his gaze weighted and measuring, and let out an age-old sigh. “There has always been a certain…hostility that has existed between those with magic and those without. A striving for power, a fear of the unknown, a reciprocal belief in one’s own respective superiority over the other. For the past few hundred years, that balance has lain in our favour: those with magic retreated into hiding or shut away that part of themselves to blend in. Magic faded into legend, along with those who had it.”

“But why?” Arthur asked, seeing in his mind’s eye the destruction wrought at the wave of a hand, their weapons rendered useless at the flash of orange eyes. “What possible reason had these people to hide? To hide from us?

Olaf raised an eyebrow. “Ever hear of the mass executions in early modern Europe? The witch hunts that spanned nearly four-hundred years?”

“Ah.”

“Yes, ‘ah’. Sorcerers may be powerful, Arthur, but we still outnumber them a thousand-to-one, and the world of modern warfare and technology is developing every day. Is it so surprising they chose to move underground in the world?”

Arthur considered this. “So what happened?”

“The balance shifted.” Olaf said simply. “Around twenty years ago, something changed. Sorcerers began emerging out of hiding, getting involved in the affairs of the world once more. Suddenly the antagonism between us started looking less like mutual dislike and steadily leaning more towards outright war.”

Arthur’s brow furrowed with thought. “What was the trigger?”

“Rumours, at first. There was word of an ancient prophesy being set in motion—”

“I’m sorry, prophesy?” He interrupted.

“Ah,” Olaf said mildly. “Haven’t gotten to them yet, I see.”

This just kept getting better and better. “You don’t mean to tell me these people can see the future, too?” 

“The future is approximate at best, but even so — no. Only a very few could catch glimpses, seers, prophets and the like…” Olaf waved his hand dismissively. “This was something else, though. Something old, very old. More akin to a legend, or a bedtime story.”

“They were prepared to go to war over a story?”

“No. They were prepared to go to war over a child.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, a silent get to the point, Olaf. “I’m sorry, a kid caused all that?”

“A child promised to rise above all his forebears and bring about a new age. To restore magic back into the world and recall that which was forgotten.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad.” Arthur said dryly.

“The child was also prophesied to become the most powerful sorcerer the world had ever seen.”

“…Right?”

“You can imagine that made some people rather nervous.” 

“Some…” Arthur trailed off, eyes narrowing. “My father.”

Olaf inclined his head.

“What did he do?”

A hint of something that was almost amused passed across Olaf’s face. “Interesting that you assume he did something.”

“Well? Did he?”

“Uther silenced the uprising before it had a chance to grow into any real threat. The consequences though, I fear we may all suffer before long.”

Arthur made a small noise of impatience. “Okay look, if I wanted the vague-arse cryptic version I’d have gone to Uther. Speak plainly, Olaf. What did my father do?”

“He killed the child.” Olaf retorted, and the words were like a whip-crack in the terse air. “Him and his entire family.”

Silence. Arthur had gone slightly pale. “You’re lying.”

“Ask him yourself.”

“No, my father—”

“—Was acting out of fear.” Olaf cut in, and if Arthur wasn’t mistaken he thought he saw a hint of sympathy in the agent’s grey eyes. “He saw the effect even the hearing of this boy had on the magical community, how everyone was determined to get their hands on him — follow him, influence him, forge the boy into a weapon of their own. Uther knew what the boy could become, the threat he would pose.”

Arthur was still trying to get his head around the fact his father was a cold-blooded murderer. “But…”

“Arthur, listen to me. What’s done is done, it does no good to dwell on it now.” At Arthur’s stricken expression, Olaf’s tone lost some of its harshness. “Point is, by acting as he did, your father set in motion events we do not yet understand. Without the hope that boy had given them — regardless of whether the prophecy was a load of horse-shit or not — many began to look for an alternate source of power, another way to fight back.”

Arthur swallowed. “The Triskelion.”

“Just so.”

A pause. Arthur ran an unsteady hand through his hair. How old would the boy have been when Uther had him assassinated? A baby? A teenager?

Arthur’s age at the time?

“This isn’t just about power then, is it?” Arthur said slowly. “This is about revenge.” Revenge on my father. Revenge on me.

Olaf’s silence spoke for itself. Then — “Sigan’s motives were never clear, but ever since Uther apparently defied the prophesy twelve years ago, Sigan’s been using that residual desperation and hopelessness left in the wake of the assassination to spearhead a rather effective plan B. One that’s slightly less diplomatic than the whole ‘destiny’ plan.”

“Using sorcerers on the field?”

“And more. All of this warmongering in Europe, planting conflicts and doubts in the Western alliances, selling weapons to different countries, selling sorcerers to the highest bidder like goddamn soldiers for hire…Sigan’s gearing up for war. This man owns the supply, now he just has to create the demand.”

“Christ.” Arthur bit back a curse. “And the Triskelion?”

“The final piece to add to his board. I suspect he’s waiting for it before he makes any public move.”

“And we still don’t know what the weapon is?”

“Nothing from this century, I can tell you. Not that that’s much comfort.”

Running another frustrated hand through his hair, Arthur stalked across the room in his agitation, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown. “And if Sigan gets his hand on all three pieces? If he manages to unlock this weapon?”

“I wouldn't put the scope of it any less than World War Three.”

Arthur’s stride halted, sharp eyes darting across Olaf’s face to search for a bluff. “You’re serious.”

Olaf’s expression was impassive. “And that is why I cannot allow to you to risk your third of the Triskelion in such a way. Taking it out of MI6, all but delivering it to Sigan on a silver platter…this man will tear through your defences like a pack of cards.”

“Which is why I cannot allow MI6 to be risked in such a way,” Arthur said evenly. “We know what we’re doing, Olaf.”

“If this is something stupid attempt to prove yourself—”

“What?” Arthur said brusquely, one eyebrow risen dangerously. “Are you going to shoot me? Take me to Uther? Steal the piece for yourself? You seem to be doing a tremendous job of protecting your own piece so far.”

Olaf’s lip curled. “Watch your tone, boy—”

“No, you watch your tone.” Arthur shot back, taking a step forward so he was right up in Olaf’s personal space. “I’m not some harebrained teenager. I’m a double 0 assassin in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. I’ve been prepared to lay down my life for my country since I was sixteen, and I’ve been on hundreds of assignments since. I know how to protect my men.”

Olaf’s eyes flashed. “You stupid boy, you know nothing—”

“Everything alright here?” A cool, calm voice with a hint of steel cut through. 

Arthur glanced up to see Leon standing in the doorway, arms crossed, eyes narrowed dangerously at Olaf. Behind him, Lance and Percival had taken up position, a silent show of support and warning. The raised voices must have finally caught their attention.

Olaf’s gaze flickered between them. He bit back an angry exhale, a curse catching between his teeth. “Everything’s fine.” He glanced once more at Arthur, stony disapproval in his gaze. “Arthur and I were just having a little discussion.”

Arthur met his gaze unflinchingly. The tension in the air was so palatable he could have snapped it with a bowstring. After a moment, Olaf shook his head. “Your recklessness and arrogance is going to get us all killed.”

“Where are you going?” Arthur asked.

Grabbing his jacket roughly, Olaf snatched up the third of the Triskelion and shoved it deep into his inside pocket. “Out to seek the company of the only person around here who has any sense.” 

“And who’s that?”

Myself, Arthur Pendragon!” Olaf barked, and slammed the door behind him.

  


 

The atmosphere was subdued after Olaf left, as though his news had stolen any of the Christmas joviality they'd had, reminding them their brief reprieve was over. Terrorism wouldn't stop for the holidays, after all, and neither would they. One by one, the double 0's said their goodbyes, and Merlin's flat fell quiet once more. He tried not to think upon how much he missed their presence.

“Do you think I’m reckless?”

The voice came out of nowhere, and Merlin yelped, nearly dropping his fourth cup of coffee of the morning. "Holy fuck — Arthur." He turned his head to see Arthur standing in the doorway of the kitchen, watching him. "I, um, I thought you left."

Arthur raised an eyebrow. "Evidently."

There was a moment or two more of jiggling as Merlin's mug seemed apparently determined to have an illicit affair with gravity. "So. Reckless. Ah. Is that a trick question?”

Arthur just gave him an unimpressed look.

“Er, I suppose?” he answered haltingly, and then quickly reiterated when he saw something shut off in Arthur’s expression, “but not, not like, Arthur wait —” Merlin caught Arthur’s arm as he made to turn away, just about managing not to spill coffee over the both of them. “Let me finish. You’re reckless when it comes to your own life, when you’re taking stupid risks out on the field and nearly giving me a heart attack every five minutes because your sense of self-preservation seems to have taken a permanent vacation.”

Arthur’s lips twitched slightly.

“But when it comes to the work, to MI6, to your friends and the people you care about?” Merlin  continued, wondering at the steel in his voice, the need to make Arthur see that Olaf had been wrong about him. “You’d never risk them if there was another way. You’re never reckless with anyone’s life other than your own.”

A pause. Arthur cleared his throat roughly, looking oddly subdued. His gaze was distant, distracted.

Merlin eyed him speculatively. “This is about what Olaf said, isn’t it?”

Arthur’s eyes flickered briefly to his and then away. “How much did you hear?”

“Not much — just the general gist of patronisation, certain doom, something about the end of the world, that bit about supposedly delivering the Triskelion to Sigan on silver platter…” 

Merlin watched as Arthur exhaled, rubbing his face tiredly. “Olaf’s right. Terrorists and warlords I can deal with, but sorcerers? Magic?” Arthur shook his head. “They have such power, and we have nothing to counter it with.”

You have me, Merlin thought. You’ll always have me.

Arthur’s lips were pressed together in a thin, kissable line, his jaw set in that way Merlin knew meant he was worried. And Merlin felt that familiar wretchedness inside him that ached to tear down the walls between them, to tell Arthur that Merlin would bring the skies crashing down to earth and raise the oceans to the mountains and stretch one moment out into an infinity before he allowed any harm to come to him.

But he couldn’t. So Merlin made himself smile, and said, “come on now, I wouldn’t say that. Look what we've got!”

Arthur gave him a blank look. “What?”

“You…” Merlin said, “…me.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow dubiously. “Merlin, what exactly are you going to do?”

“I'm going to be in your ear, like I always am,” and his tone was light with mockery but the words were painfully honest, “…protecting you.”

“God help me.” Arthur muttered, but he was fighting a smile.

And as Merlin looked at him, at the sun-burnished skin and the callused hands, the absent clench of his jaw and the cautious ‘at ease’ way he had of standing as though he was half expecting everything to go to shit at any moment, everything about him so painfully familiar in a way Merlin couldn’t place, he thought he felt something break inside of him.

Oh Arthur; you’re never going to forgive me when you find out the truth.

 


 

Their progress over the next few days was frustratingly slow. There was no digital record anywhere on MI6’s systems of any sort of hidden underground vaults, nor anything that came up when Merlin ran scans of the building. Uther was proving irritatingly elusive, making it impossible for Arthur to get him alone. And to top it all off, Olaf still hadn’t returned ever since he’d stormed out of Merlin’s flat (though from the occasional glimpse of him on a security camera, Merlin knew the DGSE agent was still in London).

On the third day, Merlin finally heard back from Kilgharrah. A boy who couldn’t have been that much older than twelve tugged on Merlin’s sleeve as he stepped out of the tube station on his way to the Riverhouse. Merlin glanced down, catching a glimpse of a hollow-cheeked face and wary, brown eyes, before something was pressed hastily into his hand and the boy fled, disappearing into the streets in a matter of seconds. Merlin stared after him, bemused. Then, feeling some trepidation, he turned his gaze to the crumpled bit of paper in his hand and carefully smoothed it out. The note was written in harsh, jagged lines, the words pressing deep into the paper as though someone had wielded the pen with some force. It was strangely comforting to see Kilgharrah’s handwriting had not changed a bit.

Emrys,

I’ll admit I was surprised to hear from you after all these years, especially given your new employer.

The jibe was subtle, but it made Merlin scowl all the same. Of course Kilgharrah knew about his recruitment into MI6, the blasted Dragon always seemed to know everything.

Your concern is warranted, however. Cornelius Sigan is a dangerous man, driven by human ambition and a hunger for power. He has no regard for matters of destiny or natural law, and as thus he will not be impeded by them. You must tread carefully, for the man is not all that he seems. 

As for your current situation, you may be interested to know that a previously-abandoned warehouse in Battersea was inhabited last week by a group of mercenaries — and I don’t mean the sort to carry guns and knives. They appear to be waiting for something, though I estimate you have three days at most before they make their move. I need not impress upon you the importance of keeping that artefact out of that Sigan's hands.

Lastly, as you have been so particular in contacting me, I offer you some free advice. Beware the snake within your midst, for soon will he strike. He will be the catalyst for the events to come. 

One man will die by his hand, though two will he mark. Choose wisely which one you will save.

I hope to hear from you again, Emrys. Remember, you will always have a place among us if you choose.

Then there was Kilgharrah’s usual scorch mark signature at the bottom of the page.

Merlin read the whole thing twice, then swallowed, and called Arthur.

 


 

“A mole? Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure, Arthur. ‘Beware the snake within your midst’ — could that be any clearer?”

Arthur sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know, I mean, do you trust the Dragon? Could he just be saying this to mess with our heads?”

A pause. “Kilgharrah has no love of Sigan, some crap about fate or destiny or whatever, but more to the point, he’s trying to get in my favour at the moment. I don’t think he would lie about this.”

“Get in your favour?” Arthur repeated sharply, feeling a lurch of something that felt strangely like panic mixed with fierce possession. “What, like trying to re-recruit you?”

A snort. “I’d like to see him try. I mean, has he seen my salary from MI6?”

Feeling stupid, Arthur mentally shook himself. Get a grip; Merlin isn't going anywhere, you idiot. “And you said he’d be the catalyst?”

“Something like that.” Merlin paused. “Arthur, if he’s working for Sigan, this could be the break we were looking for.”

But there was still something nagging at Arthur that he couldn't quite pin down. “You said Kilgharrah called him a snake?”

“Yeah? But I mean, that’s probably just the Dragon being melodramatic.” Merlin muttered something that sounded like ‘cryptic son-of-a-bitch…’

“What if it wasn’t, though?” Arthur said slowly. “What if it’s actually a snake?”

“…I’m not following.”

“Remember when we met Valiant that day in Paris? What was the symbol of on his car bonnet? The signet on his uniform?”

“A shield?” Merlin said hesitantly. Then — “Oh my god, three snakes — it was a shield with three entwining snakes…you think it’s Valiant?”

“Only one way to find out,” Arthur said grimly, his hand falling to his Walther. “I call you when I know more.”

“Wait, Arthur!” Merlin blurted.

“What?” Arthur said with a hint of impatience. “Merlin, there isn’t time—”

“Just…be careful,” Merlin said haltingly, his voice oddly strained. “Please? Don’t do anything stupid.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “How can I? I’m leaving all the stupid with you.”

“Arthur…”

“Yes, yes, I’ll be careful. Catch you later, alright?”

He hung up, turning the phone over in his hand thoughtfully. Beware the snake in your midst. Valiant had always been a little…generous with the limits of morality and legality, but this was something else entirely. He had risen to the double 0 program with remarkable ease, though that may have just been an incident of timing. One double 0 falls, another has to take their place. Maybe Valiant had just been in the right place in the right time.

Or maybe he engineered it that way to rise to a position of power — a position you were granted a license to kill and nobody asked too many questions so long as they job was done at the end of the day.

Pocketing his phone, Arthur lifted his gaze to the lobby of the Riverhouse, sharp eyes scanning for a dark head amongst the morning crowd. As luck would have it, it only took about ten minutes before the man himself strolled in through the doors. Arthur descended the steps smoothly, mentally mapping out a route of collision and turning his shoulder just so and timing it just right —

“Pendragon!” 

Bingo. Arthur turned, letting a glimmer of surprise flicker over his face before smiling tightly. “Valiant.” He greeted coolly. “I see you’re back from Chicago. Drug cartel, wasn’t it?”

“Smuggling ring,” Valiant returned smoothly. “Say, what are your movements for the next hour?”

“This and that. What’s it to you?”

The agent shrugged, though there was a gleam in his eyes that Arthur couldn’t interpret. “Well, we haven’t sparred together yet. Fancy going a few rounds?”

It was almost too easy. Arthur raised an unimpressed eyebrow, pretending to consider it.

“Unless, of course, you’re scared of being shown up,” Valiant taunted. “007, the legendary assassin, golden boy of MI6. Tell me, are all the stories true? Or is that just daddy’s reputation doing the hard work?”

Arthur’s mouth twitched with amusement. This guy, a mole? “I guess we’ll find out. PT in five. Pray you don’t waste my time.”

Valiant inclined his head. “Likewise.”

Arthur snorted, and strode away. Mole or not, Arthur was going to eat Valiant for breakfast.

 


 

Merlin stared at the monitor screen without seeing any of its contents, gnawing at his lip absently. Elaine’s warning from a few weeks ago lingered in the back of his mind: watch that man, and don’t let him fight Arthur.

His thoughts bounced back and forth in a rapid internal battle. Valiant was a double 0, a lethally trained assassin, but he was nowhere near Arthur’s standard. (And what about the sudden rise in his kill-success-rate within the past week?) Kilgharrah might have been wrong. He might not have even meant Valiant at all. (And when have you ever known the Dragon to be ignorant about things when it mattered?) Arthur had said he’d be careful. (And how often had he known Arthur to actually listen to that advice?)

Merlin bit his lip again, hands drumming agitatedly on the keyboard. Then, after a moment, he let out a resigned sigh and dove back into the computer. It wasn’t stalking, his inner voice cajoled as Merlin’s hands began dancing across the keyboard again, just checking. Just to make sure Arthur and all the double 0’s were safe.

So it was only feeling a tiny bit guilty that Merlin found himself activating the tracker he’d hidden in Arthur’s new Walther — the one he’d deemed necessary ever since the incident with Sophia. He’d tell Arthur about it. Probably. 

A notification popped up that Merlin had set to trace Olaf’s location, alerting him that the agent’s status had changed. Merlin ignored it.

His other monitor flashed, narrowing in on Arthur’s location: the double 0 training room. 

It’s probably fine, Merlin told himself as he absently pulled up the CCTV footage, he’s just letting off some steam, shooting a few wooden targets, grappling with potential deadly assassins…

The livestream appeared on the screen. There was Arthur, shrugging off his jacket as he spoke to someone out of sight. He rolled his shoulders back as he stepped into the training ring. 

See? His inner voice chided, nothing to worry about.

Merlin watched Arthur for a second more though, gaze lingering on the proud set of Arthur’s shoulders, the coiled strength evident in the cords of muscle that tensed as he stretched, the strands of blonde hair falling across steel-blue eyes and the strong line of his jaw. Bloody fucking gorgeous, Arthur was. 

With a small huff, Merlin made to close the window when he saw another figure enter the ring, sleeves rolled up, a small smirk on his lips. Merlin would recognise that smirk anywhere.

“Bloody buggering fuck—” he swore. 

Merlin almost fell out of the chair as he leapt up, slamming his laptop shut, and was already running by the time Valiant took up a defensive position opposite Arthur, and the two began to circle one another.

He never saw the second alert that sprung up on Olaf’s position.

 


 

Valiant’s dark eyes bored into his, hard and calculating, an easy arrogance in the saunter of his stride.

“Come on, Pendragon. I haven’t got all day.” He called jeeringly.

Arthur ignored him. He was waiting for the lapse in focus, that damning moment just before Valiant made his move that would give him away. Everything seemed to slow down, each moment stretching out into a thousand.  A slight scuff as Valiant’s foot dragged across the ground. The air in his lungs: in and out. The absent twitch of Valiant’s left shoulder.

He sensed the change in the air the moment before Valiant moved. Now.

Twisting in place, Arthur blocked Valiant’s flying punch easily and used the excess momentum to press forward, countering with a light jab of his own. Valiant ducked at the last second, surprising him with a sweep kick that undercut his stance. Arthur stumbled. The whooshing of air at his left was the only warning he got before Valiant’s kick drove into his side, hard and sudden, stealing his breath with the force of it and near-cracking his ribs. A surprised grunt was the only sound Arthur made, though anger sparked in his chest.

In a real-life combat situation, it was fight or die. Here, in the training room, as double 0’s they had to restrain themselves, else they would end of killing one another every other training session. No one wanted to end up leaving their sparring partner unconscious, or worse. 

Of course, Valiant appeared to have no such restrictions.

Sparring my arse.

Arthur started to turn, but was thrown off once again by Valiant’s onslaught as the other man surged forward, one punch glancing off Arthur’s jaw and the other arm coiled in preparation to knock Arthur flat, a small smirk playing at his lips…

Right, screw this.

Growling, Arthur whipped round, catching Valiant’s next punch in a lightning block and wrenching the other man’s arm round, forcing Valiant to stagger towards him. A frustrated lash of a strike, which Arthur deflected easily. The moves came effortlessly to him then, strikes and parries flowing on instinct as Arthur relinquished himself to the devastating rhythm of his body, acting without any of the hinderances one usually worked within when training.

You want to spar? Let’s spar.

Valiant’s eyes burned, his right foot pivoting, his body angling slightly to the left…

Arthur read it all like a map. He blocked Valiant's punch, countered by driving the heel of his hand into the soft hollow just between Valiant’s ear and his jaw, stunning him and momentarily throwing the other man off balance. Dazed, Valiant tried a blind jab. Arthur knocked it aside with his elbow. He swayed easily to the side to avoid another feral punch, then struck.

Valiant staggered back with a gasp as Arthur’s fist connected with his jaw, not hard enough to dislocate, just with enough force to make his entire skull shudder unpleasantly. Murder burned in his dark eyes as Valiant flew forward once again, teeth bared in a snarl…

Arthur waited until he got close enough, pivoted on his left, and slammed his foot square into Valiant’s chest, sending him crashing backwards and off the training matts.

Silence.

Crossing his arms, Arthur watched, unimpressed, as Valiant pulled himself to his feet, every limb trembling slightly with rage.

“Satisfied?” Arthur said mildly.

Valiant spat on the ground. “Again.”

“You enjoy getting your arse handed to you?”

“Again.”

Arthur shook his head. “No. Not until you tell me what that was all about.” His voice was steel and the sleeping thunder of authority, but Valiant only sneered.

“I was under the impression we were sparring.”

That?” Arthur said. “That was not sparring. That was you, trying to break me in half.”

Valiant only glowered. “Are we going to stand here debating taxonomies, or are we going to train?”

Arthur gave a small, disbelieving huff, but made a beckoning gesture. “By all means, be my guest.”

The other double 0 was more cautious this time when they fought, his dark eyes shrewd and calculating as they exchanged blows. Though Valiant did pull his punches this time, Arthur still sensed that burning ferocity held just in check, as though Valiant was barely restraining the urge to lay into Arthur like his own personal punchbag. It made him doubly vigilant, and Arthur often found himself on the defensive simply to keep Valiant from getting too close.

After a few more rounds of no decisive winner, Valiant began to speak again.

“I’ve heard reports that the head of DGSE has been seen wandering around the back alleys of London,” he remarked as they paused. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, keeping his expression carefully settled on ‘mild disinterest’. “Olaf? He hasn’t been seen since the incident in Paris.”

“Hmm, that was the op you royally fucked up, was it not?”

I’d like to see you go up against a group of magic-wielding terrorists, Arthur thought. Instead, he deflected the question with one of his own. “Come to think of it, you never mentioned why it was you were in France yourself that day.”

Conveniently the morning following the attack on the DGSE.

Valiant’s eyes glinted. “No,” he said. “I didn’t, did I?”

A flash of movement, and then Arthur only just managed to block Valiant’s punch as the agent struck out, surprising him whilst he was distracted. Scowling, Arthur carried through the block and wrenched Valiant into a shoulder lock, holding him there for a second or two just to make a point. The moment before he shoved the other man away, however, Arthur’s gaze snagged on something out of place.

“You have blood on your neck,” Arthur told him evenly, twisting his shoulder a little before letting him go.

Valiant only smiled tightly. “Do I? You must of caught me at some point.”

But the blood was dry — long dry. And Arthur was nearly certain it was not Valiant’s. 

The two continued circling each other. A vague sense of trepidation was encroaching upon Arthur, the sense that he was missing something vitally important, that something was not right.

Across from him, Valiant was fidgeting with something — a ring on his finger that Arthur was certain had not been there before. He turned it over and over in his hand, like a soldier touching a talisman for luck just before he went across the wire. 

“You weren’t in Paris that day by coincidence, were you?” Arthur said, speculation allying in with fragments of information from the past few weeks as everything slowly came together. He went out on a limb. “You were meeting someone. The same person who organised your ascent to the double 0 scheme, who you’ve been feeding information to from the inside this whole time right under M’s nose.”

Valiant didn’t look up, but Arthur thought he saw a small, amused smile quirk at his lips.

“You’re good, Arthur, I’ll give you that.” He said at last. “It’s a shame, really.”

“What is?”

Valiant shrugged. “That my employer wants you dead.”

And then before Arthur could react, before he could even blink, Valiant was surging forward once again, faster than before, his arm lashing up like a snake so the ring on his finger caught the light…Arthur recoiled, one arm raising to intercept the blow, but when Valiant’s arm fell, it wasn’t a blow at all, but a prick that met him: a sharp sting piercing his forearm that had him staring stupidly down at the pathetic cut on his skin.

What the…?

A moment later, it was as though someone had taken a crossbar to his elbow, and a great shudder swept across Arthur’s entire body. Something — poison, he would guess — broiled in his veins, seizing his limbs and paralysing Arthur where he stood. He was rendered utterly immobile in under a second, frozen as a statue.

Not just poison, then. 

Magic.

Had he control of his tongue, Arthur would have cursed in every language he knew. As it was, he could only watch, helpless, as Valiant carefully removed the ring from his finger — a ring Arthur now saw was a shield, with three entwining snakes and a deadly point protruding out of its centre — and turned to face him, withdrawing a wicked looking blade as he did. The steel was darkened with the stain of someone else’s blood, recent enough that it had not yet browned fully.

Valiant’s eyes flickered to his briefly, reading the question in Arthur’s eyes.  “The old croulant was tricky — he was more paranoid than you, harder to get close.”

Olaf?

Arthur strained desperately against the magic that held him, to no avail. He was once against a prisoner within his own body, rendered helpless because of magic. God how he hated it.

“The serpents did their work, though.” Valiant continued, oblivious of Arthur’s struggle as he slipped the ring back into his pocket. “They always do.” He stepped closer, close enough to see the fury burning in Arthur’s eyes just beneath the surface, close enough for Arthur to feel Valiant’s breath as he hissed in Arthur’s face. “Edwin Muirden sends his regards.”  

And then the cold edge of the blade was being pressed to Arthur’s neck, the muscles in Valiant’s arm tensing in the millisecond before the plunge, and Arthur had one wild moment to think this is it, this is how I die, paralysed and useless until the very end…

The door burst open with a thunderous bang

Valiant jerked back with surprise, the knife slipping.  A moment later, the pressure of the blade disappeared entirely from Arthur’s neck as the knife was sent miraculously flying away, yanked out of Valiant’s grip in the same way Sophia had torn the Walther from Arthur’s back in the tunnels. Valiant hissed, his hand recoiling as though it had been burnt. His eyes were wide, unbelieving. Arthur was just thinking how he was the luckiest fucking sod on the planet, before he turned his gaze to see the figure who had just burst in through the door. 

The figure who’s eyes were burning a bright, brilliant gold.

Even immobilised, Arthur’s breath caught in his chest. 

Merlin?

The last time he had seen Merlin like this, Arthur had been falling from a bridge, near-delirious. The gold in Merlin’s eyes could have been a reflection of the street lamps, or a trick of the light, or something he might have imagined. There was no such ambivalence here. Merlin's irises seared like two suns, his expression terrible to behold as he looked upon Valiant. Arthur barely recognised him. 

You—” Valiant exclaimed, his face contorted with shock and fury —

But he never finished, for Lancelot had just skidded into the room behind Merlin and, upon taking in the scene, the double 0 didn’t hesitate. The ear-splitting crack of the gunshot was thunderously loud in the confined space, making Arthur’s ears ring —

There was a scorching crackle of energy in the air just next to Arthur’s face, the bullet trajectory so close he felt the heat of it as it shot past —

Lance’s aim was true. No one moved as Valiant’s body hit the ground with a dull thud, Lance’s bullet buried neatly between his eyes.

Silence fell. Lance lowered his gun. The burnt tang of gunpowder hung heavy in the air.

Then the two of them were rushing towards Arthur, worried eyes trying to account for the state of Arthur’s paralysis. Lance was saying something, but Arthur wasn’t listening. A strange numbness that had nothing to do with the poison was seeping through him. He was staring at Merlin. Merlin, who’s eyes had now returned to their normal shade of cerulean, running over him with a familiar concern that made Arthur’s chest ache. Merlin, who had saved Arthur’s life yet again. Merlin, whom Arthur now knew without a doubt was a sorcerer.

Oh, he had suspected for a while now. But seeing it in reality was a whole different matter, one that had a whole array of emotions churning inside of him. Arthur wanted to shoot something, or lash out, or run away — to be anywhere but under those damning golden eyes that revealed something he didn’t want to see, that made his insides twist uncomfortably with fear and doubt and hurt: hurt that Merlin had lied, and that he was still lying.

He wanted to shake Merlin and demand to know why, why he hadn’t told him, why he was fighting against sorcerers, why he kept saving Arthur’s life and watching him with the starving eyes of someone who wanted something they couldn’t have. Arthur wanted to know why Merlin still didn't trust him enough to let him know he was a ruddy sorcerer.

But then, almost in the same moment, Arthur was abruptly reminded of the way Merlin had looked when Arthur had confronted him about magic the other week, the way he had looked completely and utterly terrified, and terrified of him, as though Arthur was the one who could incinerate a person with a flash of his eyes. He thought of all the times Merlin had saved his life when Arthur wasn’t looking. He thought of all the times Merlin watched him with a torn, pained expression —a wreck of agitation and quiet want and warring indecision, as though he was constantly fighting some internal battle Arthur couldn’t see. He thought of how lonely it must be, how terrifying it must be to live with something like that, crushed under the weight of a secret that no man should have to bear. He thought about how much he wanted, how much he trusted despite and because of everything that had happened...

Arthur could no sooner sort out his feelings towards Merlin in that moment than he could count the stars in the sky.

Perhaps it was a blessing, then, that Arthur was paralysed by a magical snake venom that prevented any of this from showing on his face.

Off to the side, Merlin was behaving rather oddly, rummaging in Valiant’s jacket and muttering to himself. After a moment or two, he made a small noise of triumph and pulled out Valiant’s snake ring from the inside pocket. Arthur watched as Merlin threw the ring to the floor and stamped on it, and if he wasn’t mistaken, Merlin’s eyes flashed gold once again. The ring turned to dust beneath his heel.

In the exact same moment, Arthur felt all sensation in his limbs return to him in a rush of heat, and he staggered as the paralysis left him. At his side, Lance grasped his arm, steadying him.

“Alright?” He said, a little worriedly. “Arthur?”

“I’m fine,” Arthur said. He flashed Lance a quick, unconvincing smile. “Good shot.”

Lance shifted uncomfortably, and Arthur didn’t miss for a second the way his gaze flickered almost guiltily to Merlin. “Oh, well, actually, it was—”

“So it was Valiant?” Merlin interrupted quickly, his voice brisk and business-like. “He was the mole?”

Arthur closed his eyes briefly, surprised at the poignancy of hurt fear betrayal that pulsed through him upon hearing Merlin’s voice. Upon Merlin once again glancing over his use of magic as though it had never happened. How many times had Merlin done that? Brushed over his achievements as though they meant nothing at all?

“And more,” Arthur replied, forcing his own voice to remain even. He didn’t look at Merlin. “Edwin’s had him on his pay roll for a while now. I was just his next mark.”

A sharp intake of breath from Merlin was the only sign he had heard. Merlin ran a shaky hand through his hair. “We need to find out where he was based, whether he had a contact somewhere in the city. I can run a scan on all satellite and CCTV footage in London in the past twenty-four hours, see if anything comes up —”

Merlin’s voice started to rise in that slightly-manic ramble that happened whenever he was worried or trying to hide something he’d done wrong, rapid-fire observations coming quicker and quicker —

“—if I traced his movements within the past few days, cross-referencing the satellite footage with any incoming calls to Valiant’s phone that align with any of the contact numbers we have from Edwin’s…no, no, of course, obvious: Edwin would have noticed by now that we have his phone. If Edwin’s what I think he is, he’ll have dumped all numbers that were in that phonebook. So that leaves tracking Valiant’s movements in hope of catching a rendezvous — I mean he had to get that ring from somewhere, right? — and assuming the attack just now was connected to Sigan, if we revise that with the retracing of Sigan’s men’s route to Paris…”

“Can you do it?” Arthur interrupted, for he knew Merlin would just keep on going like this until Arthur stopped him or he passed out from lack of oxygen.

Merlin blinked, turned those blue-gold eyes to him. “I can do it.”

“Good, because I fear we don’t have much time.”

“What is it?” Merlin asked, a soft concern in his voice as his eyes flickered around Arthur’s face. “What do you know?”

I know about you, Arthur almost said. But looking at Merlin then, at the wary look in his eyes and the stubborn set of his jaw and the nervous wreck Merlin had bitten of his lip, everything about him so desperately familiar... Arthur realised with a jolt that it didn’t matter. Quartermaster, hacker, sorcerer. What difference did it make?

Because Arthur despised magic - it corrupted and it killed and it made gods of men who abused their power at the expense of the weak. But what Arthur was slowly coming to understand was that no matter how much he hated magic, Arthur couldn’t hate Merlin, no more than he could hate himself.

A half cannot truly hate that which makes it whole.

The voice was so faint Arthur almost could have convinced himself he’d imagined it, as fleeting and insignificant as a gust of wind.

“Arthur?”

Shaking himself mentally, Arthur glanced back at Valiant, seeing in his mind’s eye the speck of blood on Valiant’s neck that he knew from experience came from the upward spurt of the carotid artery when it was sliced. 

“The old croulant was tricky — he was more paranoid than you, harder to get close.”

Arthur ran a hand across his eyes, feeling the sickening lurch of trepidation clench at his insides. “I think we’re going to find Olaf tonight.”

“You know where he is?” Lance said, surprised. “Has he contacted you? Is that why Valiant—”

“No,” Arthur said, and his voice was stiff and strung-out with the realisation that any illusion of control was slipping through his fingers. He swallowed, met Merlin’s gaze. “No, I mean we’re going to find him dead.”

 


 

With the night brought wind and rain, a raging gale that transformed the sky into a writhing, turbulent mess of ice and thunder, choking the spires of London in the storm’s smoky grip. Car headlights glared through the sheets of rain in a haze of yellow. Fumes from their engines hissed into the air in faint tendrils of mist that curled along the pavement. People turned their collars up and gave up attempting to open an umbrella, bracing the gale in hoards of hunched figures — small smudges of charcoal against a canvas of grey. 

Back in MI6, Arthur stared out of the window, his gaze distant as though he could see all the way to Paris.

As it turned out, they didn’t even have to search at all. The call came into MI6 at 02:36 am of a positive identification down by Battersea: the DGSE agent Olaf was dead.

His body had been found in a back alley, cause of death a violent slash across his carotid artery, coupled with a strange paralytic toxin no one could identify. Any trace of evidence had disappeared with the rain.

His third of the Triskelion was gone.

 


 

The air was thick with voices, a polyphonic tangle of rising doubt and uncertainty as everyone tried to work out what in hell was going on and what they were supposed to do about the impossible situation before them.

“—dead.”

“—are you sure?”

“What about the Triskelion?”

“—gone.”

“—stolen.”

“Bloody fuck—”

“Okay, but we don’t know for certain that Sigan has the Triskelion…” Lance tried above the mass of voices.

“Valiant killed Olaf. Valiant was working for Edwin. Edwin works for Sigan.” Merlin pointed out. “QED. We have to assume Sigan has it.”

“Okay,” said Leon, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “Okay, so we move our fragment of the Triskelion. Sigan needs all three, right? We keep it from him — go through with the original plan.”

“We don’t even know where the blasted thing is!” Gwaine pointed out.

“And even if we did, where would we make our stand?” Percival interjected. “If we were to steal it, I mean. It certainly couldn’t be anywhere in London.”

“That’s assuming we even make it out of London alive,” Owain muttered.

“Now hang on a minute—”

“Camelot.” 

The voice was low, quiet with authority in that way that effectively cut through the noise and made everyone else shut up and listen.

The double 0’s turned to Arthur where he stood motionless at the window, his face half cast in shadow as he stared out into the churning storm. It was the first word he had spoken ever since he’d summoned them all together and announced that Olaf was dead.

Slowly, Arthur raised his gaze to the double 0’s standing before him. “That’s where we’ll make our stand,” he continued, his words flat and emotionless, chillingly calm. “We take that cursed artefact, and we end this once and for all.”

Silence. The double 0’s all looked at one another, seeing the unspoken unity of agreement that followed in the wake of Arthur’s words. Not one rose an objection.

Leon nodded, and turned back to Arthur. “Camelot it is.”

 


 

Lancelot was not a superstitious man. There was no time to be worrying about things that went bump in the night or whispers of what dwelt in the shadows when your day job consisted of spying and fighting to protect queen and country (but mostly just lot of running around getting shot at).

That is not to say he had not seen things, though. They, most of them, were soldiers prior to their recruitment into MI6, and Lance was no exception. He had witnessed things out on the field that didn't make sense - things that didn't adhere to the laws of reality that the world operated on. He had seen things he could not explain.

Then there was magic. Finding out the unexplainable was so much more, so much bigger and so much darker, than he could have ever imagined.

And then there was Merlin. Merlin, who didn't make any sense at all. Merlin, who Lance had just seen send a blade flying out of Valiant's hand with nothing more than a look. Merlin, who apparently had magic, and a lot of it. 

Lance wondered if that should scare him. It didn't. Come to think of it, the only thing he felt was shame. Arthur had thanked Lance afterwards, his eyes warm with a gratitude that made a sickening guilt curl in Lance's gut. He wanted to protest, to haul Merlin in front of him and declare it was Merlin Arthur should be thanking, Merlin who'd saved his life, not him.

But then Lance remembered the expression on Merlin's face afterwards, the flicker of sheer and utter panic that had crossed his face. So Lance held his tongue, shoved aside his confusion and hunger for answers for the moment, and the nagging urge to let Merlin take the credit he deserved.

Lance let Merlin slip by unnoticed, a silent guardian in Arthur's shadow, and pretended he hadn't seen anything.

It wasn't his secret to tell, after all.

 


 

“I still can’t believe you own a bloody castle,” Merlin grumbled, zooming in on the property he’d pulled up from the satellite footage on his laptop.

He could almost hear Arthur’s eye roll. “For the last time, it’s an estate, Merlin. Not a castle.”

“Um, you see these thing called turrets? The battlements? The citadel?”

“Pretty standard medieval architecture.”

“You have a moat, Arthur,” Merlin pointed out. “How many estates have moats?!”

“Is this really relevant, right now?”

“It’s a castle, Arthur. Say it. You live in a castle.”

“No, I live in a flat,” Arthur said patiently. “This is just the family estate, it has been for generations, and that’s all it’s ever been. Now. Can we…get back to the matter at hand, please?”

“Next thing I know you’ll be announcing you’re seventh in line for the throne or something.” He muttered.

“Merlin?”

He huffed. “What do you want to know?”

“Is it defensible? Traceable? Far enough removed to prevent collateral damage to the surrounding villages?”

“Well, you might want to evacuate your household staff, and hide your fancy-pansy silverware, but other than that, yeah. It’s perfect.” Merlin glanced at him. “What are you going to tell your father?”

“Figured that I’d say we’re taking a little well-earned R&R in the family grounds.”

“And if that family ground becomes a battleground?”

Arthur shrugged. “Training exercise.”

Merlin huffed, a small, amused sound. He glanced sideways at Arthur, seeing the tired strain in his eyes and the absent clench of his jaw. “We don’t have to do this, you know.” He said quietly. “We could still go back to plan A and make our stand at MI6. Let Uther deal with it.”

“And risk what happened to the DGSE happening here?” Arthur shook his head. “Olaf was right. Against this kind of offence, your run-of-the-mill agents and assassins don’t stand a chance. The only advantage we have is that they don’t know that we know they’re coming; we need to push that advantage, to whatever end.” 

A beat.

Merlin sensed Arthur’s gaze on him, weighed, measuring. “I, er,” Arthur cleared his throat awkwardly. “I won’t blame you if you choose not to join us, though. We’re going to be taking some pretty heavy fire, and there’s no dishonour in staying behind.”

“Is that a subtle reminder that I’m not a lethally trained assassin and therefore will only get in the way?” Merlin asked, a little teasing. “Because I can take care of myself.”

“I know,” Arthur said quietly, his voice unusually earnest. “I know you can. I just… needed to ask. Just in case.”

Merlin blinked. “Oh. Um, thanks.” He shook himself, his voice taking on a mock serious note. “But you know, I care a hell of a lot about that Walther, I’m not about to let you nearly lose it again.”

A quirk of a smile curved Arthur’s lips, and he looked almost…relieved? “Have a little faith in me, Merlin.”

“Oh I have great faith. Tempered with vast annoyance and an unfortunate knowledge of your track record with equipment.”

Arthur snorted.

They both considered the images on Merlin’s laptop for a moment, counting the odds, weighing the risk, wondering when fortifying up in a castle to defend an ancient relic from power-hungry sorcerers had become their reality.

As was the norm these days, though, Merlin found his gaze inevitably drawn back to Arthur. Worry was still resting heavily on the double 0’s brow, his expression taking on that distant quality that Merlin knew meant he was definitely over-thinking things. He wondered whether Arthur was seeing in his mind’s eye the devastation that had been wrought at the DGSE, worrying about the fate of his own people that Arthur took responsibility for. 

He wondered whether Arthur blamed himself for Olaf’s death. 

Before he could think twice, Merlin found himself placing a hand on the terse line of Arthur’s shoulder, the contact effectively pulling the double 0 out of his own head with a small start.

His voice softened. “It’s going to work, Arthur. We’re going to find the damn thing, smuggle it out, and meet this bastard on our terms.” Without conscious thought, his thumb had started absently rubbing circles into the taut muscle of Arthur’s shoulder, and he pretended he didn’t see Arthur’s eyes fall momentarily to half-mast at the contact. “It’s going to work. It has to.”

He hoped Arthur heard everything he wasn’t saying. There’s nothing you could have done. Olaf’s death wasn’t your fault. I’m sorry. I don’t know how well you knew him, but I’m sorry. He seemed like a good man. I should have worked it out faster, I should have stopped it. I’m sorry I didn’t.

And then there was the other things he didn’t say, that he didn’t dare.

Kilgharrah said I could only save one of you, that I had to choose.  I’m not sorry I saved your life over his. Is that wrong? Because I will always choose you. Even if the world was burning and I alone could save her. 

I will always, choose, you.

And later Arthur would deny the way he leant back slightly into Merlin’s touch, head falling forward, the tension in his shoulders unravelling under Merlin’s gentle ministrations as he finally accepted the comfort his posture had been screaming for all evening.

And Arthur would definitely deny the rough husk to his voice as he replied.

“I hope so.”

Chapter Text

Arthur stared at the throng of people swarming out onto the platform, at the opposing hordes fighting to cram themselves into the waiting car. The air was thick with the hustle of people and usual clamour of the morning rush. The dull whoosh of an approaching tube sent a warm channel of air pushing through the circular tunnels, making the pasted advertisements flutter weakly on the walls.

Arthur stared, but didn't see any of it.

The roar of a passing tube sounded from behind him, loud enough to make the lights overhead tremble. A man shoved roughly past him in his haste to beat the closing doors, and Arthur let himself get pushed to the side.

He should really move. Arthur was starting to get odd looks from the people around him, stood as he was — ramrod still on the crowded platform amongst the sea of people. He should head back to MI6. People needed to know what had happened. Someone should tell them. Arthur should call in a sitrep.

He didn’t move. 

“It’s going to work, Arthur.” Merlin’s voice, soft and certain in that way he had of seeing Arthur with all the belief that Arthur could never muster to find in himself — a pure-and-utter trust that was so blinding in that moment that Arthur had to look away. “We’re going to find the damn thing, smuggle it out, and meet this bastard on our terms.” A hand on his shoulder. Warmth. Familiarity. Home. Merlin . “It’s going to work. It has to.”

Arthur swallowed hard, wavering on his feet, catching himself at the last moment. A strange, hollow ache was tearing at his chest, clawing at his breath. Staring at these hordes of people, none of them who Arthur wanted to see… Arthur realised absently the pain he was experiencing was lossraw and crippling, as though part of him had been ripped away and the wound left open and bleeding. 

In a distant part of his mind, Arthur knew he was wasting time. He needed to call it in. He needed to sound the alarm, get a team together, do something. He needed…

He needed Merlin.

Arthur sucked in a breath, feeling the release in his chest as though he had been holding his breath for some time. Closing his eyes, he keyed in a number from memory and raised his phone to his ear, hearing the dialling tone ring twice before Gwen answered. 

And it was only with the slightest crack in his voice that Arthur spoke.

“Get me M.”

 


One hour earlier.


 

Of course, even the best laid plans often went awry. 

Olaf had given them warning of the impending attack, and now it was a waiting game, a race against time — and a race in which to their opponent they were blind. It could come from anyone, from anywhere, at any time. Everything depended on finding the artefact before Sigan decided to launch his attack, so whilst Merlin spent his nights pouring over old schematics of the building with tired eyes and hacking through alpha-level security to access the archives, Arthur made it his prerogative to ensure they weren’t caught off their guard in the meantime. To prepare for every eventuality, any outcome, and then to have plans A, B, C and D to follow each one. Whatever Sigan threw at them, all Arthur had to do was issue one of several codewords and his men would fall into position. They may not be able to counter magic directly, but they could sure as hell give Sigan’s men a run for their money. 

In all of his scheming, though, Arthur never once thought they’d go for Merlin.

Kilgharrah had said that Valiant’s actions would be the catalyst for the events to come. 

They wouldn’t realise how right he was until it was too late.

 


 

“This is a bad idea.” Arthur muttered, gaze scanning back and forth as he crept forward. The dim lighting overhead flickered sporadically across the tunnels.

“You said that already.”

“Well, it was worth saying again.”

In his ear, Merlin huffed. “Keep going. My coverage extends only to the end of the corridor, so from there it’ll be up to you. Do try to keep me in the loop, won’t you?”

“This would all be a lot easier if I knew what it was I was looking for.”

“If we knew that, you wouldn’t be down here,” Merlin replied smartly. “Keep your eyes on the walls. You’re looking for anything that shouts pre-19th century, the older the better.”

Arthur eyed the slimy walls distastefully. “And you really think Uther would have hidden something thing that important down here?”

“I’ve scoured every inch of MI6, and found nothing — no records, no secret passage-ways, no high-tech safe hidden behind an obscure painting in Uther’s office… absolute nada. The subterranean networks under HQ are the only viable option left, and conveniently that which I have virtually no information on.”

“Hence why I’m trudging through the dredges of London getting rat piss all over my new Armani suit.”

“Yes, well. No one said you had to dress like a bloody film star.”

“I happen to like suits.”

“You happen to be a snob.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Idiot.”

Arse. Now come on, what do you see?”

“Some place in serious need of redecoration.”

“Arthur…”

“I don’t know — tunnels, crappy lighting, some sort of slime on the walls, a lot of dust…” Overhead, the lights flickered again, and then went out entirely. “Great. And now no light.” 

Merlin sighed. “You’re still wearing the watch I made you?”

“Well, yeah, but somehow I don’t see how tranquilliser darts are going to help me see in the dark.”

Arthur could almost hear Merlin’s eye roll. “Twist the dial clockwise.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow, but obliged, and suddenly the tunnel was lit up as blinding light beamed out from the watch face. “Huh. Neat.”

“You’re welcome. Now come on, I’m going to need a little more than ‘walls’ and ‘slime’. Does there look to be any end to the tunnel?”

“Not that I can see. The air’s lighter down this way though, so…” he stopped.

“Arthur?”

Taking a step back, Arthur angled the watch to reveal what had caught his eye. “There’s a gate.”

“Come again?”

“A gated door, you know, like a portcullis.”

The bars were made of solid iron, rusted and ancient, almost medieval-like. It was a far cry from the white-washed corridors not two hundred yards back. Arthur yanked on one of the bars, but the gate barely shifted, not even when he braced his shoulder against it. A heavily cobwebbed keyhole gaped at him tauntingly.

“It’s locked. I can’t get through.” Arthur said gruffly.

Merlin muttered a curse. “Can you see anything inside?”

Arthur held up his watch and squinted. “Not well. There’s shelves and podiums, mostly covered. Looks like a vault of some sort, I don't know.” He narrowed his eyes, doubling back to shine his watch on one of the podiums right at the back. A golden glint shone dully back at him. Arthur huffed. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

“What?”

“It’s here.”

A pause. “The Triskelion?”

“No, the Holy Grail.” Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, dumbass, the Triskelion.”

“You’re sure?”

“Pretty hard to miss.”

Merlin made a small, affirming noise in his throat. “Thank fuck. Report back, I’ll see if I can rig up a device that’ll get us through the gate when I’m back at HQ.”

“Roger that, I’ll…” Arthur paused, eyes narrowing. “Wait Merlin, what do you mean back at HQ? Where the hell are you?”

“Er…somewhere between Charing Cross and Embankment. I haven’t really been keeping track.”

“You’re running my comms for a covert operation that’s undercover from our own secret service, might I add, from the bloody tube?” Arthur hissed.

“Relax. I’m in an empty carriage, hijacked the doors and everything, and I’ve got the security feed rigged.”

Arthur resisted the urge to walk to the nearest wall and then proceed to bang his head against it until he passed out from blunt trauma. “That still doesn’t explain what you’re doing there.”

“Commuting, obviously. Not all of us get to cruise to work in an Aston every day, 007.”

Turning his eyes to the heavens, Arthur readjusted his watch and began trudging back down the tunnel. “Please. You can’t tell me you couldn’t build yourself some wheels with all the nuts and bolts and no one would even bat an eye —”

“Just one moment, 007," Merlin interrupted, all warmth gone, his voice suddenly clipped and businesslike.

“Merlin?”

Silence. Arthur frowned. He could still hear Merlin breathing over the comms, just the faintest sharp intake of breath, so he knew Merlin hadn’t closed the line. As the sudden pause stretched on, Arthur thought he heard voices in the background, too muffled and indistinct to hear what they were saying.

A strange curl of trepidation in his gut made Arthur swallow tightly, slowing his pace in order to hear better. “Merlin, what is it?”

There was another pause, and then Merlin’s voice was back in his hear, sotto vocce and brisk. “Four men just got on at the station.”

The calm, even tones of Merlin’s voice disarmed him, and it took far too long for what Merlin had said to register. “What? I thought you said you’d locked the doors.”

“I had.”

“Then how—”

“I don't know, Arthur,” Merlin snapped, and that alone was enough to make warning bells start sounding in Arthur’s head. 

Merlin never snapped on the comms, not even when Arthur was pointlessly endangering himself or going off mission. He was the picture of composure and British decorum, calm and cool, terrifyingly professional. When everything else was going to shit around him, Arthur could always count on Merlin’s voice to keep him sane, to ground him in reality. An unspoken promise that everything would be okay.

But right then? Merlin’s voice was terse, strung out. And when he spoke again, his voice cracked slightly. “Arthur, listen to me very carefully. In my flat there’s kitchen drawer with a false bottom. Inside is a laptop. I need you to find it, I need you to—”

But whatever Merlin was about to say next was cut off as voices suddenly erupted over the comms line, an outbreak of exclamations that Arthur could barely understand over the ringing in his own ears. He froze, straining to hear. 

“Merlin?”

There was a dull thump over the comms line, then a gasp of what might have been pain.

Arthur felt sick. “Merlin, damnit, what the hell’s going on?” 

His voice rang out in the tunnels, hoarse and stricken, to no answer. Merlin’s breathing was harsh in his ear, uneven and ragged. Arthur had never felt so disgustingly helpless. He was torn between being unable to move, not wanting to miss a second of what was happening across the comms, and with wanting to race out of the tunnels, because he knew, deep down, that Merlin was not okay.

“Merlin!” Arthur tried again —

Then there was a cry cut off— Merlin’s — before another burst of static and the line went dead. The sudden silence was deafening in his ear. 

For a moment, Arthur could only stand there, trembling, staring at nothing.

Merlin.

A pain tore through him, starting deep inside his guts and erupting out through his chest. His vision blurred at the edges, his heart pounded against his ribs in a staccato beat of dull panic, his blood roared in his ears. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t —

Merlin.

Oh god.

Sucking in a choked breath, Arthur took one, staggering step forward, and then he was running. A clamour of shouting echoed in his ears as he tore out of the tunnels, out through MI6, out into the streets, down into the underground… everything blurring together into one wash of sound and colour. He ran blindly, heedlessly, until his lungs started screaming and his knees gave way beneath him.

Arthur ran, knowing he was already too late, knowing that it was futile.

And when he finally skidded to a halt on the platform at Charing Cross station, feeling the world swarm dizzyingly around him and the pounding ache of loss claw at his chest, Arthur knew in his heart that Merlin was long gone.

 


 

Consciousness came to him slowly, and when it did Merlin wished that it hadn’t. Every bone in his body ached, the sort of pain that came from having the crap beaten out of you by someone who knew what they were doing. Wincing, Merlin kept his eyes closed, regulating his breathing so that there was no change to any who might be observing. Silence greeted him. The air was dank with a cold chill, the bite of winter not yet thawing. Yet — Merlin tasted the air on his next inhale — it was stale, close and stagnant. Inside, then. An unheated room, warehouse maybe. Whoever had taken him had removed his shirt, and Merlin was already starting to shiver involuntarily in the frigid air. After ninety seconds of detecting no audible change in the air around him — (alone) — Merlin turned his attention inward, mentally compiling a tally of his injuries.

 A sharper pain was coming from a few of his left ribs — one broken, maybe two — making it hard to breathe without sending stabbing agony burning along his nerves. Merlin flexed his fingers, feeling the numb prickle of cut-circulation. Wire bit into his skin — hands tied. His mouth tasted of blood — must have bitten tongue when knocked unconscious. His temple throbbed with the echoes of a blow to the head. Concussion, likely. That would explain the dizziness and the faint ringing in his ears. Everything else: bruised, but otherwise unharmed.

Merlin had woken up to much worse.

Merlin took another breath, and opened his eyes. It took a moment or two for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Sure enough, the room around him looked like some sort of storage room, dark but for one bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. It was empty save for a few shelves and the chair Merlin was tied to. He tugged lightly at his restraints, wringing his hands in an attempt to measure how they were tied. The wire was tough. It would take some force to cut through it.

Merlin sighed, letting his shoulders slump with another faint shiver.

Exhausting the few observations he could make, there was now nothing to distract him from the dull panic lingering just below the surface. 

Four men had jumped him in broad daylight. Four, clearly well-trained assailants, had snatched him right out from under MI6’s eye and brought him here alive and Merlin hadn’t been able to do a damn thing about it. How could he, with eyes everywhere and his mother’s warning weighing upon his every thought? To save Arthur’s life, maybe, but hardly his own. He’d be a dead man anyway if Uther ever found out.

That hadn't stopped Merlin from trying to fight, though. It hadn't stopped him from throwing himself at the men that continued to come at him, to duck and deflect and scramble away, praying for the next station to appear through the windows, if only he could hold on, if only for a chance to lose them in the morning rush… 

Chance. It was taken from him in an instant with a well-aimed blow to the head. His vision erupted in a shatter of stars, the world falling away as a searing, blinding pain coursed through him. Merlin didn't see the floor that came racing towards his face as he crumpled but he felt it. His last thought, in the split second before oblivion overwhelmed him, was that he could have sworn he heard Arthur’s voice in his ear, screaming his name…

Merlin jerked out of the memory, taking forced breaths in an attempt to calm his racing heart. Breathe, you idiot, panicking isn’t going to do you squat. His magic simmered just under the skin, bristling, itching to tear through his bindings. Merlin clamped it down with a firm yank. It would not do to lose control here, under the watchful eye of whomever thought him worthy of kidnapping. God knows what they would do if they found out who he really was.

That is, if they didn’t already know.

Swallowing, Merlin almost missed the sound of the bolted door being unlocked, and raised his head just as four men entered the room. Two were clearly bodyguards of some kind, heavily armed and stopping just inside the entrance. The third — an older man with a cold, laser like gaze —  he didn’t recognise. The fourth, however, Merlin would have known straight away from the scar across his face.

“Quartermaster,” Edwin Muirdin greeted, smiling thinly. “I trust you had a comfortable journey?”

‘Comfortable journey’? What was this, a job interview? Merlin cleared his throat. His voice was rough. “The escort service was a little handsy for my taste.”

A twitch. “Yes — my apologies for the way you were brought here. I wasn’t sure you’d accept a formal invitation.”

“Well, there’s always something formal about the point of a pistol.” Merlin returned. 

Edwin’s eyebrows rose slightly. “I don’t believe we’ve ever had the pleasure of an introduction. My name is—”

“—Edwin Muirdin, ex-CIA agent, middle-ranking sorcerer, chemical weapons designer and arms trafficker under Cedric Alined, also known as Sigan.” Merlin finished in clipped tones. “Yes, I know who you are. Last I heard, you were negotiating a deal in Chicago. The Yakuza, wasn’t it?”

Silence. The four men stared at him, and Merlin did not feel any degree of satisfaction at all as he saw Edwin and his companion exchange a worried look.

Yamaguchi-gumi,” Edwin confirmed after a pause, eyes narrowing slightly. “I see your surveillance has not been exaggerated, Q — or do you prefer Merlin?”

“I’d prefer not to be here at all, if its all the same to you.”

That earned him another twitch. “I’m sure you must be wondering why it is I had you brought here.”

“Look, let’s just cut the crap, okay?” Merlin said irritably. The pain in his head was getting worse and he was shivering more and more by the second. “You want me to break into some system or other and help you with some underhand job you need doing, maybe steal some national secrets or bag some weaponry along the way. I’m not interested.”

Edwin’s face grew stony at the pronouncement, but he didn’t look particularly surprised. “You do realise the position you are in, yes? We can make things very difficult for you if you do not comply.”

“Bite me.”

Edwin laughed. “Let me lay out the situation for you. There is an object of great value hidden in MI6. Perhaps you know of what I speak.”

Damn right I do, you son of a bitch, and you ain’t having it. Merlin kept his expression carefully blank.

“You, my Quartermaster, are going to get us into MI6’s systems, strip them of their defences, give us all the necessary blueprints and security details, and clear a path for a selection of my men to retrieve this object undetected.”

Merlin was just opening his mouth to tell Edwin where he could stick his ‘object’ when he paused, replaying the words in his head. Something about that didn’t add up.

“Why not just storm the place yourselves?” Merlin asked, brow furrowing. “From what I’ve seen, you’ve got the manpower for it. Why even bother with me, anyway?”

Another pause. Edwin and his companion shared a loaded glance. “That’s none of your concern.” Edwin said at last, in a terse voice that forbid argument. “Once the object is within my possession, you will be free to go. I give you my word.”

Bullshit. “And if I don’t?” Merlin said.

Edwin inclined his head to the side. That was the only warning he got before the second man took a step forward and backhanded Merlin across the face, hard enough that he saw stars. Merlin gasped, head snapping back with the force of it as agony exploded in his head. Barely a second later another blow slammed into his ribs, to his abdominal — crippling and blinding, making Merlin double over in a futile effort to shield himself from the blows —

Blood started staining the man's knuckles. The blows rained down again and again, each one making a sharp crack as they landed. Merlin lost count of how many. When Merlin's head dropped forward onto his chest, it was yanked up again by a fist in his hair. When darkness encroached upon his vision and his grip on consciousness began to slip, a sharp slap yanked him back to the present. When he was sent flying back so forcefully the chair toppled over entirely, the man laughed.

The impact shuddered through his skull as Merlin crashed sideways onto the floor. He coughed, and felt blood trickle from his mouth onto the cold floor upon which his cheek was pressed. The world seemed dull, and unfocused. Above him, Merlin saw the blurry outline of Edwin’s boots step forward and crouch down beside him.

Edwin’s breath was warm across his ear. “Then I suggest you reconsider.” He said coolly.

The next thing Merlin knew the metal door was being bolted shut with a clang, and Merlin was alone, still bound to the fallen chair, face slumped against the cold surface of the floor. Pain lanced through him with every movement, violent shivers trembled in his shoulders, resignation now overtook panic. Merlin would never concede — not whilst there was still strength in him. He couldn’t escape, and he couldn’t use magic. 

Help would have to come to him.

Merlin closed his eyes, and thought of a warm voice in his ear and eyes like chips of bluest sky, of the quirk of a smile and a steady hand in the dark. Merlin thought of an assassin, his Walther (or was it a sword?) in hand, raised to the heavens with a battle cry upon his lips, terrible with righteous fury, like one of the kings of old. Merlin thought of Arthur, familiar in a way he couldn’t place, like a half-forgotten memory. 

Merlin turned his face into the floor, and shivered.

 


 

The double 0’s stood at the entrance to Q-branch, staring. It had been near twelve hours since Merlin had been taken, and the place was in uproar. Corridors were flock with people, running and talking rapidly into their phones, swarming in and out of the branch, Gwen’s face was flush with exertion as she tried to quell the tide of questions, Morgana’s was cold with anger as she replayed the audio from Arthur’s earpiece, Gaius’s tight with worry as he took control of the larger monitors. The air swelled with noise, in the clatter of quick-fire typing and yelling of voices. The atmosphere was high-strung, everyone on edge for the slightest sign of change. 

And at the centre was Arthur, his face set in a stony mask, his voice steady and sharp with command as he directed the chaos before him.

“I want every camera in London on these screens. Anything moves that doesn’t seem right, you sound the alarm.”

“Yes, sir.” A flock of minions scurried away.

“You there — Elyan!”

“Sir?”

“I need men on the streets, in these buildings.” Arthur indicated several points on the map. “Set up a perimeter as far as St James’s Park and then across the river. You’ll need a dozen agents or so.”

“I’ll find them myself, sir.”

“Good man.”

“Arthur!” Leon called above the ruckus, fighting to get through the crowd.

Arthur didn’t even look up. “Have we gotten access to the CCTV footage in Q’s carriage yet?” He addressed the room, his voice a sharp crackle of authority.

“Not yet, sir,” one of the minions spoke up. Her eyes were apologetic. “Q rigged the camera himself. None among us could hope to crack it.”

“How about the cameras in Charing Cross?” Arthur pressed. “Surely one of them caught something.”

“We believe the assailants managed to hide their exit in the morning rush, sir,” another minion said hesitantly. “As of yet, there’s no sign of him.”

“Arthur,” Leon tried again.

“Check again,” Arthur ordered, ignoring him. “Examine frame-by-frame if you have to. They can't have just disappeared into thin air.”

“Arthur—”

“What’s our situation with Q’s earpiece? His laptop? His phone?”

“All encrypted by Merlin himself,” Gaius inserted quietly. “Uncrackable, and untraceable. The only way we can find him is if Merlin allows himself to be found, and I doubt he would have had time to authorise it.”

Arthur’s face spasmed slightly on Merlin’s name. His throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Keep trying,” he said gruffly, “there may be something we’ve overlooked.”

“Of course.”

“Arthur—”

What?” Arthur snapped, whirling round at last to face him.

Leon opened his mouth, then paused. Up close, he could see the slight tremble in Arthur’s lips, the clench of his jaw, the glistening, slightly blood-shot look in his eyes and the tight, shallow way he was breathing. Looking at him then, Leon knew that beneath that mask of rigid calm and authority, Arthur was barely keeping it together. He wasn’t coping; Arthur was driven.

Leon’s voice dropped. “Can I talk to you? Please?”

A blink, a slight twist of his lips, but after a moment Arthur inclined his head, signalling to Gaius to take over as the two retreated to the edge of the room.

“Alright,” Arthur said when they were out of earshot. His voice was matter-of-a-fact. “What is it?”

Leon’s voice softened. “You need to slow down. You're scaring me.”

“Slow down?” Arthur repeated incredulously. “Merlin is missing, and you want me to slow down?”

“Arthur—”

Arthur began turning away. “You don’t understand. I don’t have time for this —”

“Shut your damn mouth and listen to me.” Leon barked. To his surprise, Arthur did. “For one, do not assume for one second that you are the only person here who cares for Merlin. He’s my friend too, remember, so don’t give me that crap about ‘not understanding’.”

Arthur’s expression flickered, and he looked mildly cowed. “I know, I’m sorry.”

“Look, you’ve been at this for hours,” Leon said. “Hell, you’ve barely stopped for breath since the moment you charged in here.”

Arthur made a strangled sound, a kind of scoff. “I can’t. There’s too much that needs to be done —”

“It can wait.”

“Leon—”

“Five minutes.” He implored. “Sit down, eat something, sleep. You’re no good to Merlin like this.”

“But—”

“I’m serious, Arthur.”

“I can’t!” Arthur burst out angrily, a harsh crack that silenced the room into a sudden hush. His throat bobbed as he glanced round, voice dropping. “Don’t you see? I can't stop. Because the moment I do, I’ll start thinking. What they might be doing to him, what he might be going through right now, whether he…whether he’s even…” the words faltered at his lips, and Arthur swallowed. He had gone very pale.

“He’s alive.” Leon said quietly.

Arthur looked away. “You can’t know that,” he said hoarsely, savagely.

“Think about it. If these people wanted him dead, they would have killed him and left the body at the scene instead of going through the trouble of kidnapping him.” Leon’s voice was even and reasonable, and he could see Arthur working through the logic. “We’ll find him. We will,” he said firmly, “and when we do he’s going to need you battle-ready. None of this burning-out-crap, you hear?”

Arthur sagged, bracing himself against a nearby table with one white-knuckled hand as though he might fall. He dragged a weary hand across his face.

“I don't know what to do,” he said. “I mean, christ, how are we supposed to find him when the only leads we have are damn near useless? The only person who’d be able to crack them would be—”

“Merlin.” Leon finished. “It would take Merlin himself to do it, which means that for now, you’re going to eat a fucking sandwich, and then we’re going to do this the old fashioned way. With two guns and maximum effort.”

Leon expected Arthur to laugh, or smile at least, but instead Arthur just frowned. “What did you say?”

“Two guns and maximum effort?”

“No, before that.”

Leon frowned. “That it would take Merlin himself to do it?”

Arthur froze. Then, “Son of a bitch.” 

“What?”

“That’s it!”

“What is?”

Merlin,” Arthur said, as though that explained everything. He whirled round, grabbing his keys and jacket.

“What — Arthur, where are you going?”

“Merlin’s flat!” Arthur called back behind him. He flashed Leon something resembling a grim smile. “I think I know how to find him.”

“Arthur wait!” But Arthur was already gone.

Swearing under his breath, Leon signalled to the other double 0’s, and set off after him, hoping against hope that wherever Merlin was, he was okay.

 


 

Time became meaningless and indefinite in that room. With no natural light to orientate himself around, all Merlin had was the growing pit of hunger in his stomach and the comings and goings of his hosts — though even that was disrupted by sporadic periods of semi-consciousness. Edwin’s companion visited Merlin twice more. Every time the beatings went on for longer, every time Merlin had to fight every fibre of his being to keep his magic from rising up and devastating the building, and every time Merlin gave the same answer.

It was getting a little tedious. And painful. More to the point, Merlin was cold. His fingers had gone numb a while ago, and the constant shivering was making his bones ache. (Still, the fact that he was shivering at all meant he hadn’t yet slipped into hypothermia, which Merlin supposed was a plus.)

The dull clang of the metal door being unbolted made Merlin flinch, involuntarily cringing away from the sound of someone entering. So soon after the last one? Merlin wondered idly that if he pretended to be unconscious they would just leave him alone. Upon listening, however, the footsteps that greeted him were light, almost hesitant — a far cry from his beater’s clipped march. With some effort, Merlin raised his head, and found himself staring at an Iraqi girl that couldn’t be much younger than him. She stared back, her brown eyes wide and wary. There was a hunted look to her, in the stooped stance of her posture and the sharp, hollowed lines of her face. She reminded Merlin of the children on the streets when he was with Kilgharrah, already beaten down and bowed by the world. Glancing down, Merlin saw an archaic-looking manacle bound to her left foot, a genuine ball-and-chain, and wondered whether she was just as much a prisoner here as he was.

“I, um…” the girl licked her lips. Her voice was soft, barely a murmur, halting with a faint accent that sounded vaguely middle-eastern. “I’ve been sent to attend to your injuries.” 

“You mean to check I’m not about to snuff it whilst Mr Blonde over there takes a tea break,” Merlin said dryly. His voice was rough from disuse.

The girl just blinked owlishly at him, and held a bottle of water to his lips, which Merlin accepted gratefully. 

“Thank you,” he said quietly. 

The girl blinked at him again, then turned away quickly. Neither of them spoke whilst she cleaned the worst of the blood from Merlin’s face and neck, taking more care than Merlin would have expected with the cut above his eye. The only sign of emotion Merlin gleaned from her was when she got to the purple blotchiness adorning his abdominal. A slight frown pinched between her eyes as she gently prodded the area, and Merlin hissed with pain.

“Internal bleeding,” Merlin said, making the girl jump. “That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

The girl looked away, busying herself with wringing out the cloth with Merlin’s blood.

“You don’t talk much, do you?”

No reaction. Merlin huffed, wincing as pain shot through his ribs.

“I’m Merlin,” he tried.

That earned him a pause. The girl turned her head slightly towards him. “Freya,” she murmured, so softly Merlin almost didn’t make it out.

“Freya?” A quick nod. “Huh. How’d you end up here then?”

Her movements stilled, eyes darting to the door as though she feared someone may be listening. Her voice rose slightly, “I…I can’t…”

She looked just about ready to flee from the room, or burst into tears, and Merlin shushed her gently. “Hey, it’s okay, forget I asked.”

The girl — Freya — shook her head quickly, dark hair falling across her face. “No, its fine, its…” She bit her lip. “My master, Aredian, he likes to keep me close.”

“Aredian?” The name sounded familiar. 

Freya’s eyes flickered to his. “The man who hurts you. They — the others — they call him the Witchfinder when they think I can’t hear.”

Witchfinder. Merlin’s blood ran cold, a lifelong installation of fear rearing its ugly head. Oh this was bad. After the name had come up in conjunction with Edwin, Merlin had done a little digging. On the surface, Aredian might seem like your average mercenary, but Merlin had found more than one mention of his name in association with some of the larger international human trafficking organisations. Add in his connections with Edwin, not to mention the connotation of the monicker ‘Witchfinder’…

He looked at Freya, eyes flashing with dawning realisation. “Wait, Freya, does that mean you…that you’re…” 

Merlin never finished, for at that point the door was yanked open once more, and the man himself stood in the doorway.

“Alright, out with you, girl.” Aredian said coldly. Freya jumped like she had been shocked, grabbed her things, and fled, leaving Merlin alone.

The two stared at one another for a moment. Merlin wondered whether Aredian could see the new-found recognition burning in his eyes.

“Ready for round three?” Aredian said politely, in the same way one might ask if someone wanted a top up for their morning coffee.

“Blow me.” Merlin returned glibly.

Aredian smiled at him as though Merlin had said something particularly amusing — a small, cruel thing that didn’t quite reach his eyes — and swung the door shut behind him, shutting them both in the cold and the dark once more.

 


 

In the short route to Merlin’s flat, Arthur ignored three traffic lights, broke at least four speed limits, and suffered a very near collision with a London bus, all without ever lifting his foot from the accelerator pedal. The streets of London flashed by, but Arthur barely saw them. His mind was elsewhere.

About a month after Arthur had given Merlin his Walther outside Paris and invited him into that restaurant, Merlin told him of an extra security measure he incorporated into all of his personal devices. 

“An override code?” Arthur repeated with some scepticism, leaning against the wall as he watched Merlin assemble something vaguely resembling a flamethrower on his desk. He didn't really want to ask. “You’ve got biometric security, about a dozen passwords all based around a string of numbers that change depending on a constantly shifting algorithm, not to mention you’ve personally modified every system so that even if someone did get in, they wouldn’t be able to do squat because every piece of software’s buried under a mountain of garbage and misdirection that looks like some terrifying reenactment of the matrix. Why the hell do you need an override code?”

“For exactly those reasons,” Merlin had replied. “What if my hands were tied, or injured? What if I were drugged, unconscious — what if someone needed to get access who wasn’t me?” He gestured vaguely with his screwdriver.“biometric security and uncrackable passwords are only viable if I’m there to activate them.”

“Isn’t that rather the point of a password?”

Merlin rolled his eyes. “Look. Say one day, America calls enough enough and is all set to go nuclear on Iraq. Say it can be stopped from this laptop. Say I’m out of the action for whatever reason — injury, absence, whatever — but you’ve got the keys to the kingdom. Once you’re in, maybe I’m on the other end of the phone directing you, maybe you find someone who can get the job done…either way, we’ve just saved a hell of a lot of people.”

“But that still doesn’t—”

“Alright, how about this. Every one of my personal devices are untraceable — location scramble on the signal, encryption, the full deal. But activate the central link, and you’ve got an integral tracking system operating purely on a closed circuit. My laptop, phone, earpiece — all untraceable but from each other.”

Arthur was looking at him blankly in what Merlin had dubbed his ‘loading please wait’ expression. “So?”

“So say this whole gig goes to shit and we get separated. You get access to my laptop, or my phone, and you’ll always be able to find me even when no one else will. Untraceable, with one exception.”

A pause. “So basically you’re telling me the only way to crack your tech is to… use your own tech?”

Merlin smirked at him. “Don’t ever say I wasn't modest about it.”

Not for the first time, Arthur wondered whether Merlin had some physic ability along with his magic that allowed him to see the future. That, or he had seen enough of the world to know just how badly things could go south when you were in a business like theirs, and made a point of thinking about these scenarios far in advance. Somehow, it wouldn’t surprise him.

Arthur left the car running when he arrived, barely pausing to grab his Walther before launching himself up the fire exit running outside Merlin’s flat. Ten minutes later, Arthur was sat on the floor of Merlin’s kitchen, the spare laptop Merlin had mentioned just before he had been taken on his knees, the primary password screen blinking at him. Twelve minutes after that, he heard the distant sound of a door being kicked in, and Leon appeared, panting, in the doorway.

Arthur didn’t even look up. “Twelve minutes, Leon. You’re getting slow.”

There was a small huff. “The bathroom, Arthur, really?” Leon returned.

Arthur glanced round at the inconspicuously smashed window in the bathroom that he had entered through. A shrug. “I’ll pay for that.”

“Mind telling me what the hell you’re doing?”

“Merlin’s personal devices are all linked by an integral tracking system,” Arthur explained absently. “One that I should be able to access from this.”

A pause. “Okay,” Leon said patiently, in that tone Arthur knew meant he was humouring him slightly. “And how, exactly, are you going to break into Merlin’s laptop? No offence, Arthur, but you’re not exactly a hacker.”

Arthur ignored him. He closed his eyes, casting his mind back to that conversation. Merlin’s hands painting in the air as he spoke, the quirk of his lips as he answered the question in Arthur’s frown, the soft look in his eyes as he guided Arthur through the motions, watching him when he thought Arthur wasn’t looking.

Even the memory of it, of Merlin, was enough to send a startling lurch of pain tearing through his chest. Come on, keep it together. Arthur swallowed hard, exhaled, and opened his eyes.

Hesitant fingers began keying in some commands on the laptop, more certain with every line. After the last, Arthur hit the space bar and a separate dialogue box appeared on the screen — a Unix screen open, the prompt blinking back.

This was the tricky part. Merlin had told him how to activate the override, but never the code itself. A word, a number, a sequence… it could be anything. Everything now depended on Arthur — about how well he really knew the impossible boy with the strange eyes, who continued to surprise Arthur at every turn, who had more secrets than any spy Arthur knew.

This wasn’t just about a cracking a code. This was how well Arthur knew the man he loved.

“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. “What?” 

The memory flickered, and then suddenly another image overlaid upon the scene, blurred with gradually dawning focus, familiar in away Arthur couldn’t place —

“You’ve had your fun, my friend.”

“Do I know you?”

“I’m Merlin.”

“So I don’t know you.”

“No.”

“And yet you called me ‘friend’.”

A pause. “That was my mistake.”

“Yes I think so.”

“Yeah. I’d never have a friend who could be such an ass.”

Pain, sudden and blinding, split through his head. For a moment, just a moment, the imposed images before him seemed to warp and shimmer, and Arthur could have sworn he saw —

a red neckerchief, faded and worn, the weight of a blade in his hand, easy and familiar, the white towers at his back calling him home, the flash of sunlight of chainmail, blue-gold eyes, dancing with mischief and the promise of adventure —

“Arthur?” Leon prompted gently, and Arthur realised he had been staring at the screen for some time.

He blinked. The images jarred to reality. Green letters stared back at him on the screen, taunting, measuring. Another blink, this time coupled with a frown. In the midst of his zoning out, Arthur had apparently typed in a password — nine letters that formed a single word: EXCALIBUR.

The word was meaningless to him. His finger hovered over the backspace when —

A slight pull in his chest, a flicker of gold in the corner of his vision, a whisper of an unfamiliar voice in his ear…(you are but one side of a coin)…

Oh what the hell.

Arthur’s hand drifted down and hit the enter key instead. A pause. He had a split second of thinking he’d screwed the whole thing up, when the dialogue box disappeared, the screen flickered, and Merlin’s home display loaded on the laptop.

He stared. 

“How did you do that?” Leon asked, the disbelief evident in his tone.

Arthur opened his mouth, and closed it. He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Help me find something that’ll track him down.”

Thankfully, Merlin had rigged the override so that Arthur was greeted with a much simpler layout to the one he had seen Merlin using. There were none of his usual pieces of software adorning the screen. Instead, there were a number of customised options — icons for Contact, Hacking, Encrypting, Decrypting, a number of options that looked suspiciously like shortcuts into the systems of international secret services, and then one for Tracking. Arthur clicked on that icon, and another page appeared, giving him several more options. There, in the centre of the screen, was a single icon displaying two words: find Merlin. 

Arthur glanced, wide-eyed at Leon, who nodded. Arthur selected it.

At once a map appeared on the screen, co-ordinates flashing along a pair of red axis as they narrowed in on London. Within seconds several red markers adorned the map. One at their location, one at MI6, and one in an industrial space bordering the river in Battersea.

Bingo. Beside him, Leon swore softly. Arthur exhaled.

“Get the word out to the team,” Arthur said after a moment. His voice sounded strange in his ears — flat and detached, coolly professional. “No phones, I don’t trust someone won’t be listening in. Head back, rendezvous at HQ. Grab whatever firepower you can, and then come straight over. We move in immediately.”

“What are you going to do?”

Arthur slotted a magazine into his Walther and pumped the slide in one swift movement. He checked the chamber briefly. His hands were steady. His eyes were steel. “I’ll meet you there.”

“Arthur—”

“Inform one of the Q’s if you can, one we can trust.” He thought for a moment. “Elyan. Get him on comms.”

“Alright, but—”

“Don’t tell anyone else. We can’t risk this getting out and them moving Merlin before we get there.”

“Arthur, wait.” Leon stopped him with a hand on his arm. His gaze was sharp, measuring, reading Arthur the way only someone who had known him for so long could. “You’re…I mean, you’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, right? You know not to go in there without backup.”

Arthur’s face was blank, unreadable. “Of course.”

“Arthur—”

Leon.”

The two stared at one another for a moment. Arthur’s gaze was stony, unyielding, and Leon broke away first, knowing that look in Arthur's eyes — tempered steel that had been quenched in blood.

“I’ll see you soon,” Arthur said in a slightly softer tone. He held out a hand, and after a moment, Leon took it, clasping Arthur’s forearm in a firm grip.

“Be careful,” Leon said.

A small nod, and then Arthur turned and headed to the door. Just before he reached it, Leon’s voice called after him.

“Just, Arthur?” Arthur paused, head turning slightly. Leon swallowed. “You’re just as important, you know that, right? Your life is just as valuable. Don’t go throwing it away. ”

A beat. Arthur bowed his head. “Take care of yourself, Leon.” 

And then he was gone. 

 


 

The next time Merlin awoke, it was curiously difficult to breathe. His hands were bound above his head and there was a crushing weight upon his chest, stifling every breath. It took a moment to realise that crushing weight was in fact the weight of his body dragging him down, whilst his arms trembled to hold him aloft as they hung from the ceiling.

Asphyxiation, Merlin thought dizzily, spectacular

His breath steamed in the freezing air as Merlin heaved himself up, lifting himself with trembling arms in order to relieve the weight on his chest for just a moment — just long enough to take in a gasping, ragged breath. Merlin twisted his hands into the rope that held him, fighting to maintain a grip. White spots flared in his vision. Breathe. His whole body shook with the effort. Pain ripped from his broken ribs. Breathe. Merlin’s exhale hissed through his teeth, heart thundering in his ears. The muscles in his arms screamed. Breathe —

Merlin let go with a gasp and he slumped back down again. The room wavered dizzyingly around him. Fuck. It would be just his luck to die because his kidnappers didn’t know how to torture someone properly without accidentally killing them. 

Merlin couldn’t say how long he hung there — continually lifting himself up with ever-weakening strength in order to snatch in a breath. Absently, he realised he had stopped shivering a while ago, though his stolen breaths still steamed in the frigid air. The thought should probably concern him slightly. Merlin resolved to address it once his head stopped swimming. 

In the back of his mind, he registered the sound of a door opening, the sound of someone approaching, the clipped tones of someone talking.

With what seemed like a tremendous effort, Merlin raised his head, struggling to focus on the figure in front of him.

“Well, then. Ready to give us MI6?”

Merlin recognised the words, but couldn't seem to perceive their meaning. The voice, though, that was familiar, as was the intent behind it.

“Go to hell,” Merlin rasped. 

The man — Edwin, Merlin now identified — made a small noise in the back of his throat. A scoff. Disbelief. “Come now, Q, let’s be reasonable. Look at where you are — look where loyalty has gotten you. Where do you think this ends? You think MI6 gives a rat’s ass about you?” 

Merlin blinked.

“No one is coming,” Edwin continued smoothly. “No one is coming to save you, no one cares. And you know why?” He stepped closer, so close Merlin could feel his breath on his face. “Because MI6 has weighed the value of your life, and found it worth… nothing.

The words rang in the air, harsh and cruel. Merlin dropped his head. A twist of a smile, and Edwin drew back, obviously sensing he had made his point. Then —

“You’re wrong.”

Silence. Edwin turned around, and Merlin realised he had just spoken aloud.

“What did you say?” 

Merlin licked his lips, struggling to fight past the blanket of confusion in his head in order to form the words he needed. “I said you’re wrong. Arthur will come for me.”

Arthur will always come, because that’s who he is, he’s a leader, and he would never leave a man behind, he would fight through fire and ash and blood if it meant even a single life could be saved, and god only knew what sort of fury he would unleash when he got here—

“007?” Edwin voice was incredulous, amused. “I’d like to see him try. I hate to disappoint you, but one assassin is no match for my men. He’d be dead before he even made it past the front door.”

Merlin let out a low, breathy laugh. “I don't think you realise who you're dealing with.” 

Edwin made a dismissive gesture. “He’s just one man."

And even though his guts were twisting at the thought of Arthur in this place, with these people, though his nerves were on fire and his voice was beginning to slur as consciousness slowly slipped from his grasp, Merlin gave Edwin a grin. 

"Then you're really in for a big surprise.”

 


 

Arthur tore his way across the city with a reckless, methodical calm, headlights and horns erupting in his wake. The screech of brakes and the smell of burning rubber were of little consequence to the pounding of his heart in his ears, driving him ever forward. Before long, Arthur had left the busy streets and beaming lights far behind him, disappearing into the maze of the back alleyways bordering the river. He abandoned the car a few streets away from the warehouse, and cut the engine. Silence. 

Arthur’s movements were quick and quiet as he armed himself. He had taken every weapon he could find in Merlin’s flat, including a rather lovely set of throwing knives and a few prototypes that had been lying around, and then as many of his own as he could fit on his person. An assault rifle was slung over his shoulder, his Walther a grounding weight in his palm, the throwing knives and another SIG holstered at his back and a number of blades adorning his torso. By the time he stepped out of the car, Arthur was a living armoury. 

The night was cool and still around him, its welcoming shadows shrouding him like a cloak. Arthur’s posture responded instinctively, shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet, slinking into a slight crouch, a predator’s stealth keeping his steps quiet on the cobblestone streets as he stalked forward. The air that filled his lungs was ice, and Arthur welcomed it. The world slowed down around him, everything sharpening into crystal clear clarity.

He didn’t care what these people wanted with Merlin. He didn’t care what sort of information they expected to twist from him, or what task they were trying to enforce upon him. When they had taken Merlin, they’d made the biggest mistake of their lives. 

“Arthur, wait. You’re…I mean, you’re not thinking of doing anything stupid, right? You know not to go in there without backup.”

Arthur paused by the side entrance, closing his eyes, giving himself over to that darker part of him that sang with the thrill of the chase, that hungered for blood and retribution, that only came alive when he was staring death in the face: that primal, instinctive stalk hunt kill that filled his veins with coiled, terrible power. 

He was a weapon forged to end lives, a creature of blood and toil and ash. He was forgotten death on a winter’s night. He was rage wrapped up in inexorable, quiet steel.

And if Merlin was hurt, no one was going to walk out of that warehouse.

Arthur opened his eyes, cocked his Walther, and slipped through the door.

 


 

It could have been minutes or hours later that Merlin was dragged back to consciousness to the chorus of gunfire and shouting. He surfaced slowly, confused. Beside him, Edwin was yelling orders at someone, his words incoherent but his tone all too clear: surprise, irritation, panic. That last one made Merlin smile.

As the sounds of conflict grew nearer, Merlin lifted his head, straining to hear what was going on beyond the bolted door. Muffled thuds and grunts — the sounds of close combat fighting — a shout, a gunshot. Another clatter of artillery fire, then silence. Dread struck through him, sudden and choking. Don’t let that be Arthur. Please don't let that be Arthur. The dozen or so men in the room aimed their sights upon the door. A few of them shifted nervously.

A dull clang, a shudder as the door was unbolted from the other side. 

And then everyone in the room collectedly held their breath as the great iron door swung open to reveal a shadow-cast figure standing on the other side, bodies strewn at his feet, his face splattered with blood, two wicked-looking blades in his hands and two eyes blazing bright.

“Pendragon,” Edwin hissed, fury and disbelief etched into the word.

Arthur’s eyes found Merlin’s, and Merlin watched a cold fury settle over his expression as he took in Merlin’s state. Merlin had never seen Arthur angry — not like this, not this calm, cold-blooded lethality, and the death he saw in Arthur’s eyes was enough to make his blood chill. This was 007 as their enemies knew, and knew to fear: an assassin renown across the continent, the best of the best, MI6’s most deadliest weapon. Merlin had just never seen that part of him until now.

“Merlin, you all right?” Arthur asked very, very, evenly.

Staring, Merlin just nodded.

“Well don’t just stand there, you idiots!” Edwin snarled. “Shoot him!”

But Arthur was already moving. He dove forward just as gunfire erupted where he had been standing, and by the time he landed and rolled into a crouch, two of his daggers were already flying.

 


 

Arthur was a whirling cloud of death, a fury of steel and blood, and these men didn't stand a chance. He didn’t register the terror on their faces, the crack of gunfire, the blood on his skin. All Arthur saw was Merlin — head lolled down as he hung from the rafters, his skin ashen, his bare chest mottled with bruises and blood - god, so much blood -  his eyes wide and disorientated and oh-so blue — and then everything had gone white, and hard, and blazing hot. His wrath became a song in his blood as Arthur unleashed himself upon the men standing between them.

He fought recklessly, ruthlessly, with devastating efficiency; any who came against him were cut down, by blade or bullet or his own hand. As the attacks came quicker and the men swarmed around him, Arthur cast aside his weapons and threw himself heedlessly into the fray of bodies, ducking and spinning and raining blows down upon them. It was chaos now, but this was still the storm’s edge that Arthur lived on. Those who had hung back didn’t dare open fire — not when they could hit their own.

It was only when the final man crumpled, and Arthur whirled around, his Walther flying into his grip, that the bloodshed halted.

For in the centre of the room, Edwin hadn't moved from Merlin’s side in the entire time Arthur had been fighting; one hand was fisted in Merlin’s hair, yanking his head back, and the other dug the barrel of a gun into Merlin’s temple.

Just like that, the entire world came crashing to a standstill. Arthur froze, breathing heavily, eyes blazing bright.

“007.” Edwin acknowledged coolly, as though he hadn’t just seen a dozen of his men slaughtered in front of him. “So lovely to see you again.”

Merlin's chest was rising and falling shallowly, twisting in Edwin’s grip, desperately trying to catch a breath whilst Edwin had him pinned. As Arthur watched, he saw Merlin’s muscles go slack, eyes rolling back as lack of oxygen finally pushed him into unconsciousness —

An involuntary noise escaped Arthur’s throat, and he took a step forward —

“Stop.” Edwin commanded, his tone like a slap in the face. “Not another step, or I blow his brains out.”

Arthur stopped.

A smile spread across Edwin’s face. “That’s it,” he said, “let’s all just calm down now, shall we? For starters, you can drop your weapon.”

Arthur hesitated.

“I said, drop it.” Edwin’s eyes flashed orange, and Arthur was sent flying backwards, crashing into the stone wall with such force that knocked the breath from him and the Walther from his hand. His head ricocheted off the stone. Arthur slid to the floor, gasping.

“Fool,” Edwin hissed. “You think you are a match for me? For us? You think you have any power that can equal ours?”

Another flash of his eyes, and fire sprung up from the ground in a circle around Arthur, trapping him in scorching flame. 

“Look upon our power, Arthur Pendragon, for this is the age that is to come.” Edwin’s scarred face smiled. “Look upon your doom, and despair. For there is nothing you can do to stop it.”

He raised his hand, intent burning in his eyes, and Arthur wanted to scream with frustration, to have gotten so far, come so close, and yet —

Edwin uttered a word, harsh and guttural —

The world slowed down to a crawl. A great ball of fire blossomed at Edwin’s palm and shot towards Arthur —

Arthur closed his eyes, bracing himself —

Silence. There was nothing. No burst of light, no excruciating pain from the oncoming fireball-of-death. Arthur frowned, opening his eyes cautiously, only to be momentarily blinded by brilliant blue light. No, not light — a shield — a great globe of blue light surrounding him, inwardly sheltering but outwardly lethal. A vicious protectorate. A hiss, a flash of light, and Edwin’s flames extinguished on the side. 

Edwin’s face dropped, looking as stunned as Arthur felt. “How —”

And Arthur looked at Merlin. Merlin, who was looking straight back at him, eyes dim and unfocused but determined. Merlin, who’s right hand was glowing faintly with a soft ball of blue light. Arthur felt something in his stomach drop.

Bloody hell, Merlin.

Edwin, who thankfully hadn't appeared to notice, was still gaping at him, and Arthur didn't hesitate. Quicker than a flash, he dived across the dying flames, snatched up his Walther and aimed it straight at Edwin’s forehead. 

“Let him go.” Arthur snarled. “Do it now!”

“You shoot me, boy, and you’re precious Quartermaster goes down with me,” Edwin hissed. “You won’t risk that.”

The beast within him snarled. “You pull that trigger,” Arthur said, in a low, deathly calm voice, “and I will unleash upon you every blow you cast on him and magnify it tenfold. I will become your very own, personal hell. And when the day comes that I finally decide to end your miserable existence, I will draw it out until you beg for me to kill you, and I’m a damn good assassin, so I can make that take very long time.”

Edwin only laughed. “I don’t doubt it. But Q here will still be dead. Are you faster than me? Faster than a bullet?”

Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw Merlin give him the smallest of nods. Do it.

So without even a second’s hesitation, before Edwin had even finished speaking, Arthur levelled his gaze along the Walther and squeezed the trigger.

The gun recoiled in his hand. An earsplitting crack. A split-second of time standing still.

And Arthur’s bullet found its mark straight between Edwin’s eyes.

“Apparently so,” Arthur muttered, as Edwin’s head snapped back and the man fell away to the ground, his own gun clattering the the floor.

Arthur was moving before his body even landed, rushing forward to where Merlin hung limply from the ceiling, head dropped forward on his chest. He looked dangerously pale. Arthur could barely even see his chest moving.

“Are you alright?” He demanded, hands fumbling to cut the rope with his last remaining knife. The pounding rage of adrenaline was still coursing through him, every nerve alight, heart thundering in his ears. If only his damn hands would stop shaking — “Are you alright?”

“’m fine, Arthur—” 

Merlin’s words were lost in a rushed exhale as Arthur finally cut through the bindings, darting forward to catch him when Merlin dropped to the ground. Strong arms found a slender waist, and Merlin crumpled against him, alarmingly light.

“Easy, I’ve got you.” Arthur said, a murmured gentleness that utterly contradicted the lethality in his voice not a moment ago. 

Merlin’s head dropped involuntarily onto Arthur’s shoulder, exhausted. For a moment or two he simply let Arthur take his weight, slumping heavily against Arthur’s broader frame, one hand steadying himself on Arthur’s waist. Arthur fought the urge to do something incredibly stupid, like press his lips to Merlin’s hair, or draw him closer and wind his arms around Merlin’s bare waist, bury his face in Merlin’s neck and breathe him in… 

A shudder worked its way through Merlin’s body, and he turned his face into Arthur’s chest.

“Found me.” Merlin murmured. His lips were ice against Arthur’s skin. “Knew you would.”

His posture was pliant and trusting, curling towards Arthur like an anchor in a storm, or a furnace on a cold winter’s night. 

Fuck it. Arthur’s arms came up of their own violation, wrapping around Merlin’s bare shoulders and drawing him close into a fierce embrace, suddenly struck with mute terror at the realisation of how close he had come to losing him. Merlin made a small noise and burrowed deeper into his torso, shivering violently.

And just like that, the haze of fire and ice and rage that had been driving him up to this point, that terrifying hunger for death and blood and devastation that gave Arthur the strength to cut through dozens without hesitation, went blissfully quiet. For that moment, all other thoughts of escape and strategy deserted him because Merlin was there, right there in Arthur's arms and so alive Arthur could hardly draw breath. 

But then the moment passed, and Arthur shook himself. This wasn't over yet.

“Alright, we need to get out of here,” Arthur said roughly. He pulled back, scanning Merlin’s condition with as much professional disinterest as he could manage. “Can you walk?”

A slight eye roll. “Course I can bloody walk. A weapon might be nice though, if you’ve left me any.”

Arthur fought a smile despite himself. “One thing first.” He shrugged off his jacket. “Take this. No point in rescuing you if you’re going to freeze to death before we make it out.”

“My hero,” Merlin muttered, but took the jacket. A slight frown puckered his forehead as his gaze fell upon the blade sticking out of the nearest thug. “Aren’t those my throwing knives?”

Arthur looked innocent. “Are they?”

“They were prototypes, Arthur.” There was laughter in Merlin’s voice even as he attempted to sound disapproving. “Did you actually nick those off my desk?”

“Call it a field test.”

“Prat.”

And there was the Merlin that Arthur knew. Arthur smirked, “here.” He handed Merlin the SIG. “Try not to shoot yourself in the foot or anything.”

“I’m not completely incompetent, you know.” He grumbled.

“Could have fooled me.” Arthur briefly scouted the corridor outside the doorway, his voice turning serious. “Keep your head down, keep moving, and stay close to me.”

Merlin nodded. Arthur glanced round at him again, sharp eyes seeing how he wavered on his feet slightly. “You sure you’re ready for this?”

“I’ll be fine,” Merlin said firmly. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“Okay, then.” Arthur said, cocking his rifle. “On me.”

 


 

“I’m gonna kill him,” Leon said darkly.

The double 0’s stood just short of one of the entrances to the warehouse, staring at the devastation adorning the corridor inside. A staggering amount of bodies lay in varying states in incapacitation on the floor, strewn haphazardly as though someone had stormed through in a hurry. The lights overhead flickered. Somewhere, an alarm was going off. Gunfire echoed distantly from within the building.

Arthur couldn’t have announced his presence more clearly if he had left a flashing neon sign up pointing to the building.

“Son of a bitch,” Gwaine said softly.

“I’m gonna kill him,” Leon said again, even and resigned. He shook his head, made a small, frustrated noise, and turned to the others. “Alright, fan out. Our primary goal here is finding Merlin and Arthur and ensuring they make it out in one piece, preferably to an extraction point. Hostiles are to be given no quarter, using lethal means if necessary, but watch your collateral: we’re still in a civilian area.”

The double 0’s nodded, deferring without question to Leon’s authority. It was an unspoken fact that he was Arthur’s undisputed second. 

“You think he got through to Merlin?” Percival voiced.

“Doubt much would have stopped him, if the state he left the outer guard in is anything to go by,” Leon replied a little dryly. “Stay on the comms. You find them, you put out an alert.”

“And Sigan’s men?” Lance asked.

Leon’s expression hardened. His gaze flickered to the warehouse. “These bastards kidnapped Merlin,” he said quietly, with all the calm of a tsunami building in the distance. When he looked once more at the double 0’s, Leon saw the same lethal quiet in their stances, the same cold steel in their eyes that he knew reflected his own. “Give ‘em hell.”

 


 

They very nearly made it. Arthur had been thorough fighting his way in, and they only came across a few stragglers that put up any opposition, which Arthur took care of with single, methodical shots to the head. In fact, they had all but made it to the front door when a figure stepped out in front of them, halting them in their tracks.

“Leaving so soon?” Aredian asked coldly.

Arthur’s expression didn’t change. He raised his Walther and fired, but Aredian simply cast the bullet aside with a flash of his eyes. He gave Arthur a faintly disappointed look. 

“You didn’t really think that would work, did you?”

“Seemed to work just fine on your friend Edwin,” Arthur returned.

A pause. Aredian’s expression flickered. Displeasure. “Yes, well, he always was rather careless. Me, on the other hand…” There was a growl behind him, and both Merlin and Arthur froze. Aredian smiled. “I prefer to leave the fighting to the animals.”

Another growl, low and snarling, the kind of sound that made his blood freeze and the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Beside him, Arthur’s face captured the situation perfectly — a wordless scream of frustration and oh for fuck’s sake, what now?

Slowly, Merlin and Arthur both turned to see a sight that defied belief. A creature of nightmare, winged and snarling, vaguely catlike in build and black as pitch, stalking towards them with eyes like death. Bastet, Merlin’s mind supplied, even as he gaped at the creature. There was an odd manacle around the creature’s left foot, as though it had once been chained. Behind them, Aredian made a strange clicking sound with his tongue, and the Bastet hissed.

“Merlin,” Arthur said very evenly, eyes fixed on the creature. “Run.”

Now it was Arthur’s turn to be gaped at. “What?”

“Run!” Arthur’s hands were steady as they lined up the sights on his rifle. “I’ll buy you some time.”

Merlin looked between him and the creature, disbelieving. “You’re not serious.”

“Damnit, Merlin—”

With a snarl, the Bastet leaped for them. Arthur shoved him to the side just as its jaws snapped where he had just been, and dived the other way.

“Over here, you oversized bat!” He yelled, opening fire. 

The Bastet roared, recoiling from the onslaught of gunfire, before launching back towards Arthur. He ducked and rolled as the creature swiped at him, twisting round to unleash another clip. But even Merlin could see the rifle was having virtually no effect on the Bastet’s hide. It was a creature of magic: and only magic in turn could bring it down.

Arthur seemed to realise this a moment after he did, and he backed up, centring fire on the creature’s face and eyes, if only because the noise seemed to confuse it. As it happened, this only served to enrage the beast further. With a roar that set the ground trembling, the Bastet’s wing’s flared out and it struck out with one massive paw, deadly claws tearing into Arthur’s torso as it batted him aside as easily as a rag doll. 

Everything after that seemed to happen in slow motion. Arthur flew backwards, slamming into the wall so hard that Merlin heard the crack of his head upon the concrete. Crumpling, Arthur slid to the ground, the rifle falling from his hand. He didn’t get up.

“Arthur!” Merlin barely recognised his own voice, stricken and hoarse as it screamed Arthur’s name.

Power surged through his fingertips, white-hot and blazing: it wanted to tear and burn, to rise up and devastate the building, to surround Arthur in flame and fury and incinerate any who dared touch him —

And then Merlin saw Aredian. 

Standing half in the shadows, head cocked, eyes narrowed as he watched Merlin. 

And just like that, with a single look, Merlin’s magic spluttered, hesitated, and —

fizzled

out.

Fear. Sudden and paralysing. It froze his veins, stole his breath. Total and absolute. Merlin had felt it before, had used it every day to bury his magic deep, deep down and keep it dormant. Fear was his protection. Fear was his ally.

And then he had thrown open the hatches on the bridge that night with Sophia, set it loose and unleashed his magic upon the sky. 

But now, seeing Aredian — Witchfinder — watch him struggle with the heat of a thousand suns burning at his fingertips, watching, wondering…

Merlin choked.

Twelve years of running and hiding couldn’t be erased in a night. And now those instincts stole his will from him, smothered his magic like a blanket over flame —

The Bastet pawed the ground, looming up towards Arthur where he was still slumped on the ground —

Merlin couldn’t do it. He couldn’t —

Arthur stirred, and he blinked blearily up just as the Bastet raised a paw —

There was only one thing left he could try.

“Stop!” He yelled, “I’ll do it!”

Quicker than a flash, Aredian held up a hand, and the Bastet paused. 

Relief, so powerful it stole his breath, rushed through him in a wave, leaving him weak and shaking. “I’ll do it,” Merlin said again. “MI6, the Triskelion — all of it. I’ll do whatever you want, just…just don’t hurt him.”

Silence. 

Aredian cocked his head at Merlin. “You’ll come with us willingly?”

“Yes.”

“Merlin,” Arthur rasped, struggling to sit up. “Merlin no.”

Merlin didn’t look at him. He held Aredian’s gaze evenly. “Let him go, and I’ll go with you. I give you my word.”

Aredian stared at him for a moment longer, his eyes cold and calculating. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him. “Well alright then.” Another click of his tongue, and the Bastet retreated from Arthur, melting back into the shadows. Aredian’s mouth quirked into a smile. “I believe we have an agreement. Q—”

He paused, frowned. A moment later Merlin realised why. There was distant gunfire somewhere in the warehouse, smatterings of explosions that sent slight tremors through the ground they stood on.

Aredian lips thinned. “What is the meaning of this?”

Then there was another explosion, and Merlin turned just in time to see Gwaine skid round the corner, panting and covered in ash. 

“Arthur, Merlin,” he exclaimed, and there was no mistaking the relief in his voice. “Ah. Do yourselves a favour and duck, would you?”

Merlin barely had a moment to register what Gwaine had said before there was an ear-splitting bang and the ground shuddered violently beneath him. He dove to the ground without thought, covering his head. Several more explosions followed, sending washes of heat searing down the corridor and debris and ash billowing into the air like a smoke-screen.

Merlin stayed curled in a ball, hands over his ears, remaining on the ground even when it had stopped shaking. His ears rang. His head felt oddly light. The patch of ground in front of him swam in and out of focus. 

He must have blacked out for a moment or two, because the next thing he knew Merlin was distantly aware of someone calling his name, grasping his arm, pulling him to his feet. The world swirled dizzyingly around him as he stood, and Merlin felt an arm — Arthur’s — wrap around his waist as he swayed. The smoke was gradually clearing, revealing the devastation the explosions had wrecked. Gwaine was running over to them, and in the distance Merlin saw more blurred figures — Leon and Lance and Percival and Owain — appear at the end of the corridor. 

Aredian and the Bastet had disappeared. 

Merlin shook his head in an attempt to dispel the ringing in his ears.

“Fucking hell, Gwaine,” Arthur was saying beside him. “What are you trying to do — kill us?”

“You’re welcome,” Gwaine replied. Merlin sensed his eyes on him. “He alright?”

Merlin wanted to reply that he was fine, thank you very much, but everything had gone soft and fuzzy, and he couldn’t seem to find the strength to lift his head. Any adrenaline that had been keeping him going up until this point seemed to have deserted him, sweeping over him and dispersing in a great wave, leaving him cast out and exhausted. It was all he could do to close his eyes and lean against Arthur.

“A little bashed up, early stages of hypothermia, likely concussion, severe dehydration, some broken ribs maybe. I didn’t have time to check.” 

It could have been Merlin’s imagination, but he thought he felt Arthur’s arms tighten around him involuntarily.

A soft curse. “Bastards. You two get your arses out, we’ll handle it from here.”

Merlin sensed Arthur hesitate.

“For christ’s sake, go, Arthur. You both look a breath away from collapsing, and I don't fancy dragging your asses all the way back home at the end of this.” Gwaine’s voice softened slightly, “go, get him out of here."

“Thanks, Gwaine.” And christ if Arthur didn’t sound as exhausted as he did.

“Oh, and Arthur? Next time fucking wait for us before you decide to charge in and take on an entire terrorist cell on your own. One might start to think you’ve got a death wish or something.”

Arthur huffed. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Idiot. Watch yourselves.”

“You too, Gwaine.”

Retreating footsteps, which Merlin guessed was Gwaine heading back down the corridor to the other double 0’s.

Arthur’s arm shifted to get a better grip on Merlin’s waist, and the other manoeuvred his arm around Arthur’s shoulders. “Come on,” he said softly. “My car isn’t far.”

 


 

By some miracle, (or, rather, the five double 0 assassins raising hell inside the warehouse), the two of them made out. Arthur lowered him to sit in the open boot of his car, turning away to rummage around for some medical supplies. The night was cool and quiet around them but for the faint patter of rain, a strange bubble of peace outside the bloodshed of the warehouse. 

Neither of them spoke as Arthur checked him out with steady hands, shining a light into his eyes and listening to his lungs. It was only when Arthur got to the gashes on his face that Merlin cleared his throat.

“Is this where you start ripping up your shirt to bind my wounds?”

Arthur’s hands stilled, amused eyes flickering up. “If you wanted me to take my shirt off, you only had to ask.”

Merlin huffed. He reached out with one hand to where the Bastet’s claws had ripped into Arthur’s chest, brushing a feather-light touch on the area surrounding the gashes. “You’re bleeding.”

Arthur was still watching him. “I’m fine. Barely grazed me.”

“But your head—”

“Merlin,” Arthur caught his hand. “I’m fine, really.”

Their gazes met, lingered. It was then, now that they were no longer running for their lives, that Merlin had a chance to look at Arthur properly, and what he saw made his breath stutter in his throat. Arthur looked utterly spent. Dark shadows adorned his eyes — eyes that still blazed too bright with adrenaline — overcasting the usually-bright blue in shades of steel and grey. His once-pristine suit, the very same he had been wearing that morning when Merlin was taken, was torn and wrecked, stained with blood that was not his own. Blood he had spilt for Merlin. The hands that tended to him, hands that Merlin had just seen tear a man apart, were gentle and steady, though the occasional twitch in the rigid way he held himself betrayed the evident exhaustion hovering on the horizon. Those hands that had cupped his face to check his pupils were callused and rough, fragrant with the faint odour of gunpowder on his fingertips.

For the first time, Merlin thought Arthur truly looked like the assassin his monicker was so revered for. Ruthless and lethal, fiercely loyal and devastatingly effective: the perfect weapon. 

Yet Merlin had never felt so safe than when he was in Arthur's arms.

Merlin swallowed, and he saw Arthur’s gaze dart down to follow the movement. His eyes were very blue, and very dark. Arthur licked his lips, his voice rough and curiously intense. “Merlin—”

“Arthur!” 

A small sigh of frustration. Merlin’s lips twitched. Arthur turned his head to see Leon and the other double 0’s hail them from across the street, running towards them through the rain.

“Leon,” Arthur acknowledged, dredging up a half-convincing smile. “Everything taken care of?”

“All cleared out,” he confirmed. “About two dozen dead, those who made a run for it we didn’t pursue. That guy, the older one in the black cloak—”

“Aredian.” Merlin filled in.

Leon inclined his head. “Right. Saw him taking off in a boat across the river.”

“He got away?” Arthur said sharply.

“Well, yeah. The flying death turtle made sure of that.” Gwaine grumbled.

Merlin’s lips twitched again.

“So what, we’re fighting mythical creatures too now?” Lance asked.

Arthur glanced at Merlin, seeing the way he was starting to sag against the side of the car. “We’ll figure that out later.” He met every one of the double 0’s gazes individually. “Thank you. We wouldn’t have gotten out if you guys hadn’t showed up.”

“Damn straight,” Gwaine said cheerfully.

“You’re never alone, Arthur,” Leon said simply, with a hint of a pointed look. “Remember that.”

The two exchanged a loaded glance, and Arthur knew Leon would lay into him later for going in without backup. For now though, his second glanced at Merlin, gaze softening, and nodded. “Take care of yourself, Merlin.”

Merlin flashed him a quick smile. “Thanks, Leon.”

And with that, the double 0’s began to filter off, leaving Merlin alone with Arthur. 

“Alright, pass me the keys,” Arthur said into the silence. “Let’s get you to Medical.”

“You’re driving?” Merlin kept the keys in his hand.

Arthur gave him his signature ‘don’t be an idiot, Merlin’  look. “Well I’m certainly not about to let you drive.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“You’re concussed.” Arthur pointed out.

“You’ve been thrown into a wall twice and served as mincemeat for an oversized bat.”

“And you’ve been tortured and tied to the ceiling in an unheated building without food or water for 16 hours,” Arthur returned, plucking the keys from Merlin’s hand. “I’m driving.”

 


 

Despite Merlin’s protests, (for god’s sake Arthur, I’m fine, the last thing I need right now is a group of Meds fussing over every fucking bruise), Arthur had insisted on taking Merlin to Med at HQ, realising guiltily he probably should have called in earlier that Merlin had been retrieved when the entire of Q-branch practically launched themselves at him upon arrival, some of them in tears. Even Morgana looked shaken as she threw her arms around Merlin, scolding him for worrying her.

Throughout the chaos, Arthur didn’t leave Merlin’s side once. He stood there, a silent guardian at Merlin’s shoulder as they got cleaned up, his glower keeping anyone from getting too close. Even the staff who’d come to debrief them both had halted in their tracks once they saw him — clothes still covered in blood, still a little trigger-happy from the adrenaline, silencing them with a flat glare that clearly said we can do this tomorrow. The faint smile that Merlin had given him at that had been worth it.

On the way back to Merlin’s, however, something was different. Both of them were utterly strung out, exhausted both physically and emotionally, still suffering from the magnified reflexes and keyed-up emotion that had kept them going up until this point, that had kept them alive. Now, however, it only served to keep them painfully on edge.

In the midst of it all, a strange feeling came over Arthur. Everything from the past few hours seemed to surge up in his mind as he drove — the crippling terror and loss of losing Merlin, as though part of him had been ripped away, driving himself to the point of exhaustion in a desperate bid to find him, the red haze of battle and the faces of the men he had killed, forever burned into his brain, his crushing relief at having Merlin back with him, the fleeting stillness of warmth-home-peace he had gotten in the brief moment he’d held Merlin in his arms, resignation as he’d faced down that beast, cold denial and horror when Merlin had offered himself up in exchange, and now the bitter taste of leftover adrenaline and the inevitable crash after a fight… everything raging up and sweeping over him in a wave, casting him out upon the shore…

“I’ll do it,” Merlin said again. “MI6, the Triskelion — all of it. I’ll do whatever you want, just…just don’t hurt him.”

The more he thought about it, the more the sick feeling in his stomach grew. Now that the initial wave of relief of getting Merlin back had crested, Arthur was beginning to realise just how easily it all could have gone wrong, how close he had come to losing Merlin for good. And suddenly Arthur was irrevocably, unexplainably furious. 

He knew, in a distant part of his mind, that the aftermath of a fight like the one he’d just had would be ugly, and could go one of two ways: Arthur would crash, drink himself into oblivion, and rebuild himself tomorrow morning; or he would burn, lash out on whomever was closest, needing an outlet for the thundering rush of adrenaline still in his blood. 

Arthur knew, abstractly, that he was being irrational. That this wouldn’t end well for anyone. But that didn't stop him from wanting to seize Merlin in his arms and never let him go because there was no way Merlin could have been so stupid as to risk his own life, and that of everyone in MI6, for so meagre a prize as Arthur’s life. It was laughable. It was illogical. It was —

“Are you angry with me?” Merlin’s quiet voice tugged him from his thoughts, breaking the terse silence in the car.

“No.” Arthur said shortly.

Translation: Arthur was definitely angry with him.

Merlin thought for a moment. “Is it because I disobeyed your orders, or because I offered to trade MI6 and the Triskelion for your life?” 

Bloody hell the man was observant. Arthur couldn’t help it — his hand tightened convulsively on the wheel, and Merlin tracked the movement with sharp eyes.

“The latter, then,” he said. “Interesting.”

“Don’t, Merlin,” Arthur said tiredly, with what felt like the last bit of authoritative strength he had left. “I don't want to talk about it.”

“No, you mean you just don’t want to yell at me when I’ve just had such a trying ideal,” Merlin corrected, his inflection upon the word showing just how much he cared at that point. 

Arthur’s jaw clenched again. “What do you want me to say?”

“Something, anything, I don't know. You’ve barely spoken two words to me since we got in the car.” 

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ve got nothing to say.”

“Bull.”

Silence. Arthur stared resolute ahead at the rain on the windscreen.

“For fuck’s sake, Arthur, I’m not some wilting flower. If you’ve got something to say, say it.”

The seething wave of emotion surged, crested, crashed -

“Fine.” He said tightly. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You have the entirety of our national security system in your head. Hell, you can break into near any system in the world. And you were just going to give yourself up? Throw us all to the dogs and sell us out to a group of terrorists?”

Do you even understand how valuable you are to these people? How dangerous that makes you?

“That thing was about to tear you to shreds!” Merlin protested. “What was I supposed to do?”

“You were supposed to let me die!” Arthur snapped. He heard his voice as though from far away, words spilling out before he could stop them —“damn it Merlin, my life is supposed to be sacrificed for my country, not saved at the expense of it! You could have destroyed everything we’ve worked for, worse, endangered thousands more lives — "

You could have gotten yourself killed, he wanted to yell. I nearly lost you today, and you were just going to give yourself up willingly? Do you have any idea what losing you would do to me?

“—You could have damned us all, and for what?”

Merlin just looked at him, with those infuriatingly calm blue eyes, and said, “I couldn’t let you die.”

Arthur slammed his foot down on the brake and the car screeched to a halt. Suddenly there wasn't enough air in the car, and Merlin's eyes were too bright and too close, seeing straight through Arthur the way he always did, and Arthur needed out, needed to put some space between them before Merlin saw how close he was to losing it —

His hand finally found the door handle behind him and Arthur staggered out into the rain, marching out onto the street in a vain attempt to quiet the pounding in his blood. He sucked in a deep breath through his teeth, and the rage subsided a little, though Arthur felt no less dangerous. 

He sensed Merlin's eyes on him from the car, and, after a moment or two, he joined Arthur on the side of the road.

Don't. Arthur pleaded silently. Get back in the car. You don't want to see me like this. 

Merlin's voice was tired and frustrated. “Look, Arthur—”

“You had no right.” Arthur said without turning round, his voice harsh and strung out with the quiet crack of not okay — “no right to risk what you did.”

Please just get back in the car. 

“Arthur—”

“I mean god, Merlin, how could you do that? How could you be so stupid as to give yourself up?"

The raging tide of emotion was screaming to an impending crescendo, burning through everything in its path —

Merlin grit his teeth, because Arthur wasn’t listening. Arthur—”

Why couldn’t you just let me die?” He roared, finally whirling round to face the man at his side.

And Merlin

…just

snapped.

"BECAUSE I'M IN LOVE WITH YOU, YOU INSUFFERABLE PRAT!" He yelled.

 


 

Silence

Complete and utter silence, the kind that brings the entire world to a standstill, that convinces you your heart is racing towards you in the dark. Merlin didn’t quite slap his hand over his mouth, but it was a near thing. He felt a similar sort of wild terror as he heard the echo of his words resonate in the air, as he saw their effect cascading across Arthur’s face.

Merlin had told Arthur that he loved him. Shouted it, in fact. Screamed it in Arthur’s face. Oh my god.

Arthur had frozen, the retort dying at his lips. He looked utterly stupefied, like the core of him was coming apart, every ounce of raging emotion dissolving into a thousand grains of sand. Merlin wasn’t even sure he was breathing.

“You…what?” Arthur managed, sounding lost.

Merlin swallowed tightly, feeling dizzy all of a sudden, and why oh why couldn’t he just keep his damn mouth shut — “I’m…”

— And it was all too much, the awareness of what he was initiating, standing on a crevice of terrifying uncertainty, an invisible line they hadn’t dared to cross until now, and the knowledge of how things would never be the same once he crossed it —

There was never really any choice.

“I’m in love with you.” He finished.

For a moment, Arthur could only stare at Merlin, the rain soaking into his hair, his eyes wide and fragile. Then Merlin watched as something twisted, something broke in Arthur’s expression, and —

And then with a small, desperate sound, Arthur tugged Merlin’s face down towards his and crushed their lips together.

Perfect wasn’t the right word. 'Perfect' was for formulating a single line of code that bypassed a troublesome security hack, or getting the milk-to-tea ratio just right in a cup of earl grey, or refining the precise weight of a firearm in your grip — not for this. Not for the feeling of Arthur’s lips against his, wild and possessive, capturing Merlin’s lips in a heady kiss that had every thought crashing to a sudden standstill, every calculation that constantly raced through his head going blissfully blank. Not for the hand that cupped his neck, burning heat through his skin, tilting his head just so and narrowing his entire world to nothing but Arthur. Not for the small, wrecked noise that hissed through Arthur’s teeth the moment Merlin got past his initial, stunned surprise and all but melted against him, curling his own hand into Arthur’s hair and kissing him back just as fiercely.

It wasn't perfect. It was rough and desperate and a little rushed, with that sense of finally that weeks of wanting from afar had effected. Their breaths steamed in the frozen night air, their hands scrambled for purchase, suddenly desperate with the gut-wrenching need to be closer. Merlin’s heart thundered in his ears, his blood sang, his skin burned, and it hurt, this soul-deep want — terrifyingly new and yet painstakingly familiar.

When they finally broke away for air, both of them were gasping for breath. Arthur’s hands were still cradling his face, keeping barely a sliver of space between them. Their gazes were locked in searing tandem, a binding channel, every emotion stripped raw. This close, Merlin could see every hue of blue in Arthur’s eyes, as vast as the summer skies, and then everything else Arthur was usually so careful to hide. God, Arthur looked wrecked. The vulnerability there in the wet shine of his eyes, the sheer, unguarded want, the flush in his cheeks, the harsh, uncontrolled breaths, the slight tremble in his hands as his thumbs traced the stark outline of Merlin’s cheekbones, an absent reflex Arthur didn’t seem to realise he was doing. 

Arthur was blazing. Arthur was burning with the light of a thousands suns. Arthur was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. And as Arthur cradled his face, looking back at him with similar wonder in his eyes, Merlin felt himself fall in love with him all over again.

He was understandably a tad surprised then, when the first words that came out of Arthur’s mouth were —

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said hoarsely.

Merlin’s eyebrow quirked. Confusion. “For… kissing me?”

“For losing it,” Arthur confessed. He tilted forward, leaning his forehead against Merlin’s in a gesture that was artlessly tender. “Doing what I do, this life…the aftermath isn’t always pretty. I know that, and I shouldn’t have lost my temper with you. I’m sorry.”

Merlin carded his fingers through the soft hair at the back of Arthur's neck. “There was truth there, though, wasn’t there? In what you were saying?” A pause. Merlin pulled back slightly to see Arthur’s face. He looked torn. “Arthur?”

“I can’t see straight when it comes to you,” Arthur whispered, a hushed admission in the rain. “You’re in danger, and all my training goes out the window. All I can think about is not him, god anyone but him.” He closed his eyes, made a small noise of irony. “It fucking terrifies me. So I get angry instead, because its easier than facing the truth.”

“Truth?”

And then Arthur gave him a faintly amused look, that look of exasperated affection that meant he thought Merlin was being particularly dim, ruined by the softness in his eyes. “That I’m in love with you too, idiot.”

The swell of uncontainable joy that filled Merlin’s chest in that moment was so strong it knocked the breath from him, left him reeling giddily with the realisation that Arthur wanted him.

Arthur loved him.

This time it was Merlin who closed the distance between them. This kiss was gentler, without any of the frenzied desperation of their first, softer and more intimate, loving and forgiving. An unspoken I'm here, we’re alive, we're okay. He nuzzled at Arthur’s lips with his own, tasting him, coaxing them open with a teasing touch of tongue. Arthur sighed into his mouth, soft and electrifying, and Merlin felt the exact moment he let go. Every muscle relaxed even as Arthur stepped into him, taking such care over the cuts and bruises on his face it made Merlin’s chest ache. Arthur’s body was as familiar to him as his own. His lips chapped and dry, his hands callused and rough as they caressed his neck, his body leaning against him in perfect counterbalance.

By the time they pulled away, both of them were utterly soaked through, and Arthur had an astonished little smile on his face, eyes crinkling at the corners. “That was a long time coming." He breathed.

"You think?" Merlin grinned wickedly, and bent down to press his lips to Arthur’s neck, his collarbone, grazing his jawline with just a hint of teeth that made Arthur hiss and his hand clench involuntarily in Merlin’s hair. 

“Merlin…”

Arthur's voice, pleading and heavy with longing, made Merlin’s head spin. He wanted to bury himself in Arthur, to taste every inch of him, to learn him from the inside out. He wanted to take Arthur apart, to be undone, to lose himself in Arthur until neither of them were sure where one ended and the other began. He wanted —

A warm hand on his neck brought him back to reality, tethering him to earth.

“You’re cold.” Arthur said softly.

Merlin blinked up at him, and realised he was right. Standing in the rain, bare chested but for Arthur’s jacket, had him starting to shiver in the cold night air. Merlin opened his mouth to offer a smart-arse reply, but nothing came out. He blinked again. That thundering, half-delirious want was still coursing through him, making it hard to focus on anything but Arthur’s hands on his skin.

“Come on,” Arthur said, the laughter in his voice poorly masked by exasperated affection. “Let’s go home.”

Home. The word sent another wave of soft happiness coursing through him, making him giddy and breathless.

“Would you…”  and suddenly Merlin was struck by a ridiculous surge of shyness, the words tangling awkwardly in his mouth as he fought the dizzying rush of hope that seeped out of his chest and flooded his veins — “Will you stay?”

Arthur paused, looked at him with soft, unguarded eyes, bright and blue and shining in the moonlight. Then he leaned in, closing the last minuscule inch of space between them, and pressed a silent, chaste, loving kiss against Merlin’s lips.

“Yes,” he whispered, his voice cracking slightly. “Yes, I’ll stay.”

Chapter Text

The drive back through London was the longest journey of Arthur’s life. A near-tangible energy hummed in the air between them, full of breathless anticipation and a fierce, electric want that had been months in the making. It took all Arthur’s willpower just to keep his hands on the wheel, knowing Merlin was sat just a few inches away.

“This is okay, right?” Merlin spoke up, a little hesitantly when minutes had gone by in complete silence.

Stuck in this car right next to each other without touching? Definitely not. “What?” Arthur said, struggling to focus.

“This. Us. It’s just…” Merlin glanced at him sideways. “You haven’t said anything since we got in the car. You’re not… having second thoughts, are you?”

Second thoughts?  “I’m trying to make it all the way back to my flat before I have you right here in the car,” Arthur replied honestly.

Next to him, Merlin made a strange choking noise. “Oh." He managed. "I. Good. I mean, that’s... good."

There was another moment of silence. Then -

"You could have me here, I wouldn’t mind.” Merlin added, as though this was the most natural thing in the world. 

Arthur’s foot spasmed on the pedal, and he very nearly crashed the car into a lamppost. “Bloody hell, don’t say things like that when I’m trying to drive.”

“Sorry, sorry, I. Um.” Merlin bit his lip, and it was so adorable Arthur had to lean over and kiss him, relishing the little surprised noise Merlin made before he responded. 

“Arthur — the road…”

“You,” he growled against Merlin’s lips, “are a bloody danger to society.”

“I’m not the one about to crash a car in a civilian area-”

“You are absolutely mad, you know that? ‘I wouldn’t mind’, Jesus Christ.”

And abruptly, Merlin started laughing. Small, helpless snorts that had him clutching the dashboard to catch his breath. 

“Merlin?”

But Merlin just shook his head, one hand flapping ineffectively as he giggled. “Your face,” he gasped, “oh god, just drive.”

Arthur looked at him, bemused. "Merlin, are you-"

“Arthur if you don’t step on it we might as well just pull over now, so if you want to make it back to your flat at all tonight, shut up and drive.”

He couldn't really argue with that. So Arthur drove, hiding the involuntary smile that tugged across his lips as Merlin continued to snort helplessly into his hands.

 


 

They didn’t quite make it all the way into Arthur's flat before they gave in, but it was a valiant effort. Merlin had looked at him with those blue-gold eyes, half-shuttered and dark with promise, and it was impossible for Arthur not to reach out and taste and touch, drunk and giddy on the sole realisation that he could. Snatched and desperate, slow and lazy, hot and fierce, soft and chaste. It was addicting, the taste of Merlin, and Arthur couldn’t get enough.

In all honestly, the sheer strength of his own reaction gave Arthur a millisecond-pause. Sure, he had found other people attractive in the past, had enjoyed their company, but it was always an informed decision he’d made. Even with Gwen, it had been different. He had loved her, but more in the way one loves a friend. A love that was kind and undulated and easy.

Never before had Arthur felt that he might actually die if he didn’t touch someone.

And really, Arthur should have known that Merlin wouldn't hold anything back when it came to this. Merlin, who gave his friendship easily and unconditionally, who felt everything so keenly, who bared his emotions to the world as though daring them all to mock him for it. As if Arthur ever could.

Merlin consumed him. He took everything Arthur had, and then surrendered himself to Arthur completely. He looked at Arthur as though he were something precious, something worth cherishing, seeing something in Arthur that could never see in himself. Merlin touched him reverently, wonderingly, as though he wasn't quite sure if Arthur was real. Merlin kissed him like a man drowning, and Arthur was his air. Every thought, every sense, every nerve, was utterly ensnared and attuned to the man in his arms, all coming down to one thing: bliss.

Finally Arthur managed to fit his key into the lock, and the two of them stumbled into his flat, laughing at their combined lack of coordination in the dark. Arthur felt Merlin’s grin against his lips, tasted his laugh on his tongue like a shot of expensive whisky, dizzying and intoxicating. Arthur could barely breathe for the rush of staggering want that crashed through him, the kind that came wrapped around impossible, inexorable love.

God, was this what it was like for other people? Was this what people had been writing and singing about for centuries? Loving someone, having them loving you back, having nothing between you but your own fears and insecurities and idiocy at not realising it sooner? If so, how did people ever stop

His mouth was on Merlin's neck before the door even shut behind them, suckling, biting, trailing hungry, open-mouth kisses down that gorgeous stretch of throat. Merlin arched into him, head falling back. 

“Arthur..." Merlin's voice was ragged, his whole body taut and trembling like a tuned string for Arthur to play. 

Arthur hummed, his tongue lazily caressing the welt he'd made on Merlin's skin.

"Arthur," he said again, a hint of pleading now, and Arthur reluctantly left his neck to nuzzle at the corner of Merlin's mouth, playful, teasing. A small, huffed laugh slipped through Merlin's lips. "Christ, if you keep that up, this is all going to be over very, very quickly."

Merlin's voice was breathless and not quite firm enough to mean it, and Arthur smiled against Merlin's mouth. "Would that be so bad?" He murmured, one hand slipping under the jacket Merlin wore — his jacket, Arthur thought non-too-smugly — to brush his thumb lightly over Merlin's hipbone. 

Arthur felt Merlin's breath hitch, the muscles in his abdominal go taunt, his hips jerk forward involuntarily. The raw, unabashed responsiveness of it all made Arthur dizzy. 

“Insufferable man,” Merlin breathed, and the way he said it, he might as well have said beautiful.

Arthur turned, brushing their cheeks together to hide his smile. “Idiot.” I love you.

Merlin pulled back just far enough to dip his head down and kiss Arthur again, soft and long— “prat,” he whispered. I know, Arthur heard.

Catching Merlin's wrist, Arthur spun them both round so Merlin was pressed against the wall, the illusion of strength without any of the force. Even his grip on Merlin's wrist was uncommonly gentle as he bent down to taste Merlin's collarbone, hyperaware of every injury Merlin had sustained in the past few hours. There was no question that if Merlin wanted to break from his hold, he could do so easily. But Merlin surrendered anyway, his whole body going blissfully pliant in an instant submission that made Arthur's head spin. Because Merlin never submitted, not ever, and certainly not to him. Even from their first encounter, Merlin was fearless in his resolve, stubborn to the point of idiocy, unwavering in the challenge he threw back into the world that had given him so little. He was one of the strongest people Arthur knew. 

So to have Merlin stretched out against him in near-complete submission, a yielding both immediate and electrifying, was almost too much to bear, and suddenly Arthur had to kiss him right now -

The kiss was rougher than he meant for it to be, all tongue and teeth and heat, but then Merlin moaned into his mouth, hot and filthy, and all thoughts of propriety fled from his mind. Merlin kissed him like the world was falling around them, and Arthur lost himself in it. It was only when they stumbled sideways and roughly collided with the dining table, knocking over one of the chairs, that they broke apart.

“Are your ribs—”

“Your chest—”

Both of them spoke at the same time, then stopped, looking at one another with amusement.

Merlin’s smile was rueful. “Ribs are fine, I told you. Only two broken.”

“You didn’t tell me there were two—”

“Because I knew you’d freak out, you overbearing oaf.”

Arthur looked offended. “I would not freak out—”

“— And don’t think I don't know you’re deflecting.” Merlin brushed a featherlight touch over the gauze binding Arthur’s torso where the Bastet’s claws had torn into, tracing the area through his shirt.

Arthur huffed, trying to keep the roughness from his voice. “Like I said, the flying-death-turtle barely grazed me. I’m fine.”

Merlin hummed, tilting forward to rest his forehead against Arthur’s in a gesture that was startling intimate. Then, “flying-death-turtle?” he repeated with a slight raised brow.

“Gwaine’s words, not mine.”

A small snort. One of Merlin’s hands touched Arthur’s face, traced his cheekbone with his thumb. “Thank you.” Merlin said softly, without breaking away. “I never said it earlier, for rescuing me.”

His thumb was cool against Arthur’s flushed skin, and Arthur closed his eyes, leaning into the touch. “It’s what you and I do, isn’t it? We save each other.”

Merlin’s hands stilled, and Arthur opened his eyes to find the other man staring at him.

“What?”

Merlin shook his head. “You…” but nothing came out. Merlin closed his mouth, blinking hard, like he was suddenly trying desperately hard not to cry. The transformation was startling.

“Merlin, hey,” he cupped Merlin’s face, worried. “What is it?”

Again Merlin seemed to be on the verge of saying something, before something stopped him and his face shuttered off, unused breath exhaling. Arthur could almost see him pulling away, withdrawing back into himself, back where Arthur couldn’t follow.

“I can’t,” Merlin whispered suddenly. “I can’t do this.”

He looked torn, his face a study of hope and misery and a quiet aching expression that Arthur had seen before, whenever Merlin thought he wasn't looking. Arthur had never been shot in the chest, but he imagined this would be what it felt like, like the breath had been knocked from you, stolen by a single, insignificant piece of metal fired in a deadly trajectory from an indifferent object, tearing apart your insides in one squeeze of a trigger —

“— I can’t hide anymore, not from you.”

Wait, what? Confusion halted the mind-numbing panic, and for the moment Arthur could breathe again. 

“It’s not fair, I know.” Merlin was rambling now. There’ve been so many times I should have told you, and gods how I've wanted to, but…I couldn’t bear it. ” Merlin closed his eyes, his voice cracking with the quiet strands of not okay, and the realisation of what was going on struck Arthur in a sudden swoop —

Oh. Oh.

“—I couldn’t bear the thought of you hating me. That I would lose you. And I. I couldn’t…”

Christ, Merlin sounded close to tears, and Arthur ached to draw him close, to tell him it was okay, that Arthur knew, because there was no doubt now what Merlin was actually talking about —

“Merlin—” 

But Merlin shied away from him, a pained expression crossing his face. “Arthur, there are things you don’t know about me, about my past, who I am…” 

“I know.” He said.

“No but that’s the point, you don’t!” Merlin snapped. “You don’t know me, Arthur, not really. And how could you possibly love me if…if…” his words caught on a strangled sob, and if Arthur’s heart hadn’t already shattered into a million pieces, it certainly did now.

Arthur swallowed hard. In the faint glare of city lights streaming through the window, Merlin’s silhouette was lit in a pale yellow glow, his head bowed as though bracing for a blow. This close, Arthur could see a bruise on Merlin’s cheekbone, that his lip was bitten into a nervous wreck, that there was a faint tremor racking through his thin frame. Eyes that were a little too bright, expression that was a little too blank.

If Arthur didn't know him, how did he know that this was what Merlin looked like when he was bracing himself against terrible, inevitable pain?

Merlin was obviously waiting for Arthur to pull away. He was waiting for the anger, the outrage, the flying accusations. Underneath all those secrets, all those walls he had built and parts of himself he had locked away, Merlin never believed he was deserving of trust, of love, and Arthur wondered now how Merlin had lived like that for years, losing himself a bit more for every day that he was meant to live.

If this wasn't Arthur's Merlin, how did Arthur know him so well? 

“I’ve killed a lot of men.” Arthur said into the silence. “Good men, bad men, men with too much power, men who’ve done nothing wrong but receive a pay check from the wrong person, soldiers and civilians and criminals alike.”

Merlin didn’t look up, but his head turned to the side. Listening.

“I’ve killed them, and I’m going to keep on killing. Right up until one of them kills me.”

Merlin’s mouth twisted. “What are you—”

“Point is, Merlin, there’s a lot you still don’t know about me, that much was evidenced by today. I’m an assassin, a former-solider, and that sort of life comes with a whole bunch of crap. I may not be the person you’ve grown to know, or to love, even. I may be someone else entirely.”

“But you’d still be you.” Merlin said, frustrated.

“Would I? If I wasn’t who you thought I was?”

“It wouldn’t matter. I’d still love you.”

Arthur’s voice softened. “Then don’t you think it’s possible that I feel the same way? That I would love you regardless of who you are and what you’ve done?”

Silence. Merlin bit his lip, looking uncertain, but at least he was looking at Arthur now. “When I first saw you standing there in that warehouse, covered in other men’s blood, all I could think about was how beautiful you looked.”

Arthur blinked.

“I thought that it should bother me,” Merlin continued, “that you had killed all those men. That you were capable of that. But all I could think about was how beautiful you were. Isn’t that wrong?”

“When I first saw you hanging from those rafters, I wanted to kill everyone in that room.” Arthur said honestly. “How’s that for wrong.”

Merlin met his gaze, the bright blue of his eyes shuttered by those long eyelashes, dark against pale skin. “Sometimes, I look at you and it feels like I know you from somewhere else, that somehow we’d met before.”

Arthur took a step closer, closing the distance between them. “Sometimes, I think you look at me and you see a different person entirely to the one everyone else sees. It used to terrify me, how easily you could read me.”

“Used to?”

Arthur shrugged. “There’s something freeing about being seen.”

Merlin’s breath hitched slightly. “I’ve been running ever since I was seven years old. I don’t think I know how to stop.” His voice was barely a whisper, a hushed confession in the dark.

Arthur turned his head a little, brushing their cheeks together, feeling the faintest hint of stubble. “I’ve been fighting someone else’s battles ever since I was fifteen. Sometimes I wonder whether my own choices have any bearing at all.”

Merlin shivered. “I was terrified of loving you. Of having someone that important, that fundamental to your existence, that without them you feel like nothing.”

The words were hoarse and true, devastatingly honest. Arthur swallowed hard. In the close darkness between them, his reply was deafening. “I was terrified of losing you before you were mine to lose.”

Merlin flinched like Arthur had struck him, pulling away. “Arthur—”

“It’s okay.”

“No,” Merlin said desperately. “No, it’s not.”

“Merlin—”

“Arthur I’m trying to tell you I’m a sorcerer.” Merlin blurted, tearful and rushed and miserable.

The words hung in the air between them, shimmering in the moonlight. And there it was. The confession Arthur had been waiting and dreading ever since he had first seen Merlin light up the sky on that bridge. In hindsight, he really should have thought up a response, whether he should act surprised, or roll his eyes and call Merlin an idiot, or pull him close and snog the living daylights out of him (the last one, admittedly, was tempting).

But Arthur didn’t do any of these things. It didn’t feel right, when Merlin looked so torn up, so wretched, when Merlin had bared himself to Arthur even though the thought clearly terrified him. 

So Arthur looked Merlin straight in the eye, and said, “Alright.”

A beat. 

“‘Alright’?” Merlin repeated.

“Good, you were listening.”

“I've just told you I'm a sorcerer, and all you can say is ‘alright’?”

The incredulous, slightly-hysterical rise to Merlin’s voice shouldn’t have been funny, but suddenly it was a struggle for Arthur to keep a straight face. He settled for raising an eyebrow. “Would you prefer I yelled at you instead? Rant and rage about queen and country and the sacred pledge of integrity?”

Merlin’s face scrunched up, confused. “I…no?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. "Merlin, I knew.” He emphasised. "I've known for a while now. And it's alright."

Merlin stared at him again. He seemed to be having trouble forming sentences. “You knew,” he clarified. “This whole time, you knew?”

“I suspected,” Arthur corrected. “Ever since you saved me on the bridge with Sophia. The great sodding beam of golden light surrounding you kind of gave it away.” Merlin was still staring at him. Arthur cleared his throat roughly. “There were, er, other clues after that.”

Merlin’s brow was pinched with confusion. “And you’re not…”

“What?”

“I don’t know…angry?”

Arthur’s gaze softened. There was an edge in Merlin’s voice, a conflict of hope and desperation in the unhappy set of his mouth, and the way he would allow himself to go this far, but no further, when he had to know, he had to know by now—

Arthur couldn't help himself anymore. He reached out to touch Merlin’s jaw, tilting his face up to Arthur’s. At the touch, Merlin shuddered, nudging his cheek involuntarily into Arthur’s palm, as through succumbing to some starving part of himself. His skin was pale and iridescent in the moonlight, his lashes like moth’s wings against Arthur’s fingertips. 

“Merlin,” Arthur said hoarsely. “I love you. I wish I knew a better way to say it, but the fact is that I love you. Even if I were angry, even if I hadn’t already known about your magic, even if you’d never told me for the rest of our lives, that wouldn’t change. And that’s not because of some hidden speck of worthiness that you seem to think I see in you, or because you’ve earned it, or because I think you deserve it. It is fact. I love you.”

“Arthur—” 

But Arthur pressed on, desperate with the sudden urge to make Merlin understand as he himself was starting to. “If you had never told me the truth about you, even until my last day upon this earth, I would still love you. If you wanted to use your magic to rule the world and turn the moon purple, I might not be particularly happy about it, but I will love you nonetheless. If you decide tomorrow that you want to sod it all and go and live as a recluse monk in the Tibetan mountains — well, I might have to have a chat with you about the whole celibacy thing — but I will be right there with you, hunting goat and trying not to freeze my balls off in the winter, and I will still be hopelessly in love with you.” He brushed his thumb under Merlin’s eye, catching the tear that had fallen. “My feelings for you were decided long ago, and they’re not about to change because your eyes turn gold.”

“Why?” Merlin said, and he sounded desperate. As though he actually needed to know, which Arthur thought was altogether heartbreaking. 

He blinked hard, and tried not to cry. “Because you are Merlin, and I am Arthur, and that’s what you and I do. We love each other.”

Merlin’s exhale was ragged, his breath hitching on something like a sob, and Arthur opened his arms just as Merlin threw himself into them. 

“Merlin,” he whispered.

Merlin pressed his face into Arthur’s neck, his breathing coming in tiny gasps. “I’m sorry. God, Arthur, I’m so sorry.”

“I know,” he said, drawing Merlin close, murmuring into his ear. “I know. It’s okay. I love you. I love you.

They remained like that for some time, breathing each other in. Slowly, Arthur felt the shuddering tension in Merlin’s thin frame uncoil, succumbing to Arthur’s warmth. He tightened his hold when Merlin shifted slightly as though to pull away, but Merlin only leaned back, his fingers touching Arthur’s cheek, tugging it down. The kiss was devastating. It was antagonistic words fired between them and stolen glances from across the room, secret smiles over the comms and the beginnings of what might be called friendship. It was the unspoken affection beneath the insults, the pledges of protection between their bantering, the charged electricity humming between them when their hands brushed or their gazes caught. It was the feeling of coming home in Merlin’s arms.

“I fear you will never know how much I love you, Arthur Pendragon,” Merlin breathed when they at last broke for air.

“Don’t worry,” Arthur said, curling his fingers into the soft hair at the back of Merlin’s neck. “I do.”

God, but he was beautiful. Merlin’s eyes were still a little red-rimmed, but the way they were trained on Arthur — pupils dilating with want, fierce and vulnerable, every defence down...

Christ

That look went straight to Arthur’s head like a hit of potent scotch, and he could feel his cock, which had softened during the unexpected turn of their conversation, swell with new interest between his legs, still half-trapped by the confines of his trousers. His hand shook as he traced the taut surface of Merlin’s stomach, revelling in the shiver it provoked. 

Merlin’s eyes fluttered half closed, turning his face into Arthur’s other hand on his cheek and nuzzling into his palm. The barest hint of Merlin’s tongue tasted the crease between Arthur’s fingers, and Arthur sucked in an unsteady breath.

“Merlin…”

Slowly, without ever breaking Arthur’s gaze, Merlin took two of Arthur’s fingers into his mouth, and sucked on them lightly, and Arthur nearly groaned. This time it was Merlin who surged forward, flipping them both around to push Arthur against the wall, declaring his ownership with a deep, drugging kiss that made Arthur’s knees weak. His hands fumbled at the buttons on Arthur’s shirt without breaking the kiss. “Can I — ?”

Arthur pulled far enough away to strip off his shirt, throwing it on the floor behind him. Merlin’s jacket followed. Together, the two of them stumbled through Arthur’s flat, until Arthur felt the edge of his bed press into the backs of his thighs. There was no finesse in the way they tumbled onto the bed, a mess of limbs and the shedding of clothes and the touch of smooth, warm skin against his own.

“Merlin, your ribs,” Arthur managed in between kisses, with that small part of his brain that was still functioning.

Merlin interrupted him with another kiss. “Fuck my ribs.”

“But your concussion—”

“Arthur,” Merlin said, “shut up.”

Arthur did, if only because Merlin’s hand was down his trousers, and he had abruptly lost the ability to form words that were not fuck and christ in some sort of conjunction with Merlin’s name. Then Merlin bent down and swallowed him whole, and Arthur lost the ability to think altogether. 

“Oh fuck, Merlin…”

Merlin lifted his head slightly, eyes alight, a slight smirk on his lips. Without looking away, his tongue darted out and swirled about the tip of Arthur’s cock, as though to savour the taste. 

“You want me to stop?” Merlin asked innocently, or at least, as innocent as he could sound when his lips were inches away from Arthur’s cock.

“Don’t you dare.” He growled.

Merlin grinned — the dazzling one that really should be outlawed — and bent down to resume taking Arthur apart with his tongue.  The noise that escaped Arthur’s lips was all but inhuman. His head fell back, hands flying down to fist in Merlin’s hair as sensation exploded in a smattering of stars across his vision, electrifying, startling, and suddenly Arthur wanted more, needed more, wanted to taste and touch and take —

Forsaking his earlier command, Arthur grabbed Merlin roughly by his hair and dragged him back up to press their lips together. Merlin kissed him back just as fiercely, as though he planned to never let go. He could feel Merlin's fingers in his hair, grazing along his scalp in a way that sent shivers of pleasure coursing down his spine. 

"God Merlin," Arthur barely recognised his own voice, rough and ragged as it was. He wasn't sure what he was going to say next, but Merlin seemed to understand.  

“Yes,” he murmured, tugging Arthur closer by the hips.

Arthur made a low noise in his throat, and dragged his teeth lightly against Merlin's lower lip, capturing Merlin’s startled gasp on his tongue. A blind scramble at his bedside table provided a meagre bottle of lube, and then one hand reached down to pick up where Merlin left off, slotting both of their lengths together in one long stroke, and Merlin choked something that sounded vaguely like Arthur’s name. The angle was awkward, but Arthur didn’t care — not when Merlin was arching against him, biting his lips raw to stop the sound from spilling, and failing. 

“Oh fuck, Arthur, please—”

At least, that was Arthur thought he said, only the words came out in a garbled crash of words. It was intoxicating, seeing Merlin like this, raw and responsive and unguarded, his breath knocked out of him on every hard stroke, Arthur’s name hovering on his lips, never quite spilling. Arthur pumped them both harder, matching the rhythm of their bodies, the burn of skin-to-skin as they rocked against one another. At some point Merlin had wrapped his legs around Arthur's waist, pulling Arthur against him even as Arthur held him there, hands tangling in Arthur’s hair. He mouthed at Arthur’s neck, suckling at the tender skin between his neck and collarbone as Arthur brought them both to the edge.

“Arthur,” Merlin breathed. “Get. the fuck. on with it.”

A laugh rumbled from his chest, low and startled and half-drunk with happiness, and Arthur shifted his hips, tightening his grip ever so slightly and adding another twist as they slid together —

Then abruptly Merlin cried out, a ragged, broken sound, and Arthur pulled him down to crash their lips together just as Merlin’s hips thrusted forward and he spilled out all over Arthur’s hands. A moment Arthur felt his own orgasm, searing-white and honey-slow at the base of his spine, crashing through him like a tidal wave, sweeping him under. For a second, Arthur’s vision whited out in a haze of sensation, probably killing about a thousand brain cells in the process, and then the next thing he knew Merlin was kissing him, slow and lazy, and the world melted back into focus. Arthur fell back against the bed, breathing heavily, vaguely aware of Merlin collapsing at his side.  

Fucking hell.

Merlin hummed in lazy agreement next to him, and Arthur realised he had spoken aloud. He turned his head slightly, smiling at Merlin sprawled out at his side, watching him with hazy, blissed-out eyes. “Come here.”

Merlin did, albeit with a small amount of huffing, and slumped against Arthur’s chest, one leg tangled between his, one pale arm flung across Arthur’s chest, somehow managing to coil his entire body around Arthur like some sort of human octopus. Arthur’s smile widened. He wound his arm around Merlin’s waist, and pressed a kiss to Merlin’s hair. 

They stayed like that for a while, tangled together, brushing lazy kisses over whatever area of skin was closest.

“Love you,” Merlin murmured sleepily as one of his fingers traced patterns on Arthur’s torso.

Suddenly Arthur could hardly breathe for love for this man in his arms, curled into Arthur’s chest like an overbearing cat. He hadn’t thought it was possible to love Merlin more than he already did, but this — hearing Merlin’s breath deepen as he grew heavier on Arthur’s chest, his eyelids fluttering as Arthur traced the line of Merlin’s cheekbone with his thumb, a small, soft smile settling on his lips as he tucked his face into Arthur’s neck — it was all Arthur could do but bury his face into Merlin’s hair and struggle not to fall apart. He tried to remember what it was like before — before the voice in his ear, the smile welcoming him home, the fury when he took stupid risks on missions and the vicious protectorate keeping him from harm. Before elaborate equipment modifications and fussy cups of tea, arguments that were more like foreplay and insults that were terms of endearment. Before magic and mystery and the crack in Merlin’s voice as he’d told Arthur he loved him.

Arthur couldn’t imagine it. Couldn’t bear to. 

“I can’t lose you, Merlin,” Arthur whispered, small and quiet with a vulnerability he rarely allowed, words that shimmered in the dark over Merlin’s sleeping form, his thumb lingering on Merlin’s cheek.

Except Merlin wasn’t asleep, not fully, for as soon as the words left Arthur’s mouth, Merlin’s head turned and he pressed a kiss to the underside of Arthur’s palm. 

“You won’t,” Merlin said softly, and burrowed back into Arthur’s chest.

 


 

Dawn came with the grey-cast light streaming in through the window. It shone through the dust motes in the air, alighting on Arthur’s sleeping face in a muted palette of soft greys and pinks. Merlin watched him silently, his head pillowed on his arm. 

Arthur's face was younger in sleep, all hard lines stripped away, all worries smoothed from his brow. It was strangely endearing. Whatever subconscious senses Arthur maintained even in his shallow sleep had apparently long-since coded Merlin in as a safe entity, and he didn't stir as Merlin let his fingers trace his bare skin. The realisation that somehow, over the short course of their time together, Merlin had managed to earn such complete and undeserving trust was a humbling one. 

Arthur's body was adorned with scars — the bruises already blooming from a long string of gunfights and narrow escapes, the scrapes and minor cuts from closer shaves, older scars from countless battles fought — yet it was as if the injuries were merely scuffs on his surface, minor things that didn’t have a hope of stopping him. He was a force of nature, as imperturbable as a blood-red dawn.

Merlin's gaze followed the dip of Arthur's collarbone, the sweep of his jaw, the dusty brush of his eyelashes. The powerful lines of his body stretched out on the tangled sheets, one hand curved behind his head, the other thrown haphazardly across Merlin’s waist, the faint whisper of his breath through slack, parted lips. 

Beautiful, Arthur was. There was no other word that fit. Merlin was still coming to terms with the fact that he was somehow graced to wake up next to someone that beautiful.

“You’re staring, Merlin,” Arthur said without opening his eyes, and Merlin jumped. “It’s creepy.”

Arthur’s voice was low and rough with sleep, utterly deadpan but for the faintest smirk tugging at his lips, and the sudden surge of happiness that coursed through him almost took Merlin’s breath away. 

Merlin coughed to hide his laugh. “It’s romantic,” he argued.

“Watching people sleep? Definitely creepy.”

A strange sensation was encroaching across Merlin’s face, like a grin he couldn’t quite contain, stretching helplessly at the limitations of his face.

“Yes, well,” Merlin shifted closer, keeping his voice nonchalant, “it’s your own fault.”

“Oh? And how’s that?”

Merlin brushed a soft imprint of his lips against Arthur’s collarbone. “You’re beautiful,” he said simply. “It’d be criminal not to stare.”

A pause. Merlin glanced up to see Arthur’s eyes had opened, and were looking at him with an expression that was a sort-of smile but also the beginnings of tears. The end result was neither, just a soft expression that made Merlin’s breath hitch a bit. 

Arthur cleared his throat roughly. “What are you doing all the way over there, then?” 

Merlin rolled his eyes, but shuffled closer obligingly, lifting his gaze just in time for Arthur to swoop and catch his lips in a heady kiss that stole whatever words he was about to say. Merlin couldn’t help it; he melted, arching into Arthur’s touch with a whisper-soft sigh. It was soft and drowsy and warm, each kiss drawn out and lingering as though they had all the time in the world. As though they stay in that moment forever, lost in the grey dawn and the tangle of bed sheets. 

There was a small, soft smile on Arthur’s face as he pulled back. “Hi,” he said, as though the two of them had just met up for coffee. 

That bloom of irrational, happy warmth burst again in his chest. Even gravity seemed to loosen its hold on his body for a moment as he stared up at Arthur.

“Hi, yourself.” Merlin returned. “What was that for?”

“Do I need a reason to kiss my boyfriend?”

“Well —” Merlin stopped, the words catching up with him. “Boyfriend?”

And then Arthur Pendragon, whom Merlin had witnessed shamelessly seduce countless men and women without batting an eye, actually blushed. “I mean, we’re already partners at work so that’s out, ‘lover’ sounds like we’re living in an 18th century romance novel, ‘engaged in active intercourse’  is, I suppose, is technically accurate, but somehow I can’t see that going down on the Relationship Disclosure paperwork—”

Merlin couldn’t help it. He lurched forward clumsily and kissed Arthur full on the mouth, capturing the little surprised noise Arthur made before he responded.

“You,” Merlin said in between kisses, “are my absolute favourite, Arthur Pendragon.”

“Well I should certainly hope so.” Arthur managed, recovering quickly and rolling them both over to get better access to Merlin’s mouth.

And so dawn stretched into day, hours whistled away in the press of skin-to-skin and murmured affections as they learnt each other’s bodies. It was only when the sun was breaking properly across the sky-top buildings and the noise of the morning rush began to seep into the flat that the desire for caffeine finally drew them out from the covers.

“Your wifi connection is abysmal.” Merlin informed him as Arthur entered the room, gloriously naked and holding two mugs of coffee that he’d got up to fetch a minute earlier. “Remind me again why we aren’t at my flat? Oh that’s right, because you ninja-jumped through my bathroom window and Leon had an argument with my front door.”

Arthur rolled his eyes, allowing himself a moment to appreciate the sight of Merlin in one of his shirts. “Okay firstly, I have never ‘ninja-jumped’ in my life. And second, it’s your own fault; if you hadn’t installed your ultra-fancy security, we wouldn’t have had to break in.”

“Yes well. I suppose I’ll just have to add you to the system, then, won’t I? Can’t have you getting zapped every time you need to break in.”

“Very considerate of you.” Arthur set one of the mugs down by where Merlin was sat, crossed legged on the bed with a laptop on his knees. “Is that my computer?” 

“Obviously. Mine’s still tragically rotting away in that warehouse somewhere if you remember.”

“And what, you thought you’d just help yourself to mine?” He paused as he realised something. “It's password-protected.” 

“In a manner of speaking. Took me less than a minute to guess yours. Not exactly Fort Knox, is it?”

Arthur huffed, though the sound was more amused than irritated. “Right. Invasion of privacy and gross appropriation of all the tech in the flat. Good to know.”

“Mm.” Merlin blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Just going through what to expect. Might as well get all the personal flaws out of the way.”

“Oh, well in that case,” Merlin said. “Cover-stealer, insomniac, terrible cook…”

“What are you—”

“You wanted to know what to expect, didn’t you? I’m telling you. I steal the covers, I’m a terrible cook…well actually, I just forget to eat most of the time, I’m emotional and stubborn and next to useless before my first cup of tea in the morning. I’m impulsive and argumentative, have an innate disregard for authority, and am inherently unforthcoming when it comes to anything remotely personal.”

“That sounds a lot like, ‘I have more secrets that I’m going to spring on you whenever I feel like stopping your heart dead in your chest’.”

“Yes, well, nobody’s perfect.” 

Arthur snorted. “Alright then. I’m possessive, excessively moralistic, and a lazy bastard in the morning. I have a temper, and I’m not always great at keeping it. I drink too much. I’m bossy and over-opinionated and sentimental, with an overburdened sense of integrity and a hatred for double standards.”

“And you’re a snob.”

“I’m — I wear a suit, Merlin.” Arthur said, in the tone of someone having voiced this a hundred times before. “That hardly warrants your favourite assigned epithet.”

“You just used the word ‘epithet’.” Merlin said pointedly. “My argument stands.”

I hate you, he thought. “I love you desperately,” Arthur found himself saying.

Merlin blinked at the unexpected delivery, hands stilling on the keyboard. Then — “God yes,” he murmured, and twisted round to kiss him. 

Kissing Arthur, Merlin had decided, was his new favourite activity. As 007, Arthur had a well-established reputation in MI6 for his ability to charm anything with a pulse, but there was something to be said about a man who was able to melt someone into a puddle without ever touching anything south of one’s collarbone. And if Merlin thought kissing Arthur would be less earth-shattering now that he got to do it whenever he pleased, he was ridiculously, hopelessly wrong. His mind quieted, his blood sang, his heart ached —

He should really kiss Arthur more often. It seemed quite consequential to his health.

“So? Is MI6 still standing?” Arthur murmured when they caught their breath.

Merlin blinked at him lazily. “Hmm?”

“That’s what you were checking, right? On my laptop?”

“Among other things,” Merlin allowed, pulling away from him with a faint sigh. “I’ve been running the satellite footage in every part of the area from last night. Seeing if we can trace down any of our friends from the warehouse.”

And just like that, their momentary haven was shattered with a painful dose of reality. Arthur looked at Merlin, seeing the evident exhaustion in his eyes and the tight worry in his mouth despite his attempts to hide it, their euphoric afterglow of the morning paling slightly in light of yesterday’s events. It seemed a cruel move of irony from the universe that the two of them should find one another just when shit was beginning to hit the fan.

“Aredian?” Arthur guessed, moving to sit behind him on the bed.

A hint of something hard and annoyed flitted across Merlin’s expression. “Gone. Vanished into fucking air. I can’t even get a shot of him leaving.”

Arthur wasn’t surprised. It seemed very little had gone their way ever since this whole mess began.

“We’ll get him.” Arthur said, his hand running absently through Merlin’s hair. “One way or another.”

Merlin said nothing, only leaned a little more against him. He was just contemplating whether or not he could persuade Arthur to ignore the world for one more day and just go back to bed, when of course Arthur’s phone chose that moment to start ringing obnoxiously. 

Behind him, Arthur paused, as though contemplating just letting it ring, then sighed, pressed a kiss to Merlin’s neck, and rolled over to retrieve the blasted object, glancing briefly at the caller ID.

“Leon.” He answered evenly. “You better have a pretty fucking good reason to be calling right now, because frankly there are much better things I’d rather be doing—”

He paused, presumably whilst Leon replied. 

“What? No, I’ve just woken up.”

Another pause.

“Wait, seriously?”

“No, Merlin’s fine, he’s here.”

“Yes, I mean here with me— oh bloody hell, one moment.”

Arthur shifted over and pressed something on his phone, and Leon’s voice filtered into the room. “—Arthur? You still there?

Merlin raised an eyebrow at Arthur, but he only rolled his eyes, gesturing at the phone.

“Leon,” Merlin greeted cautiously. “What’s going on?”

There was a pause. 

Merlin.” Leon acknowledged. “Er, we weren’t able to get hold of you at your place, and, well…”

“Yes.” Merlin said.

“I’m sorry?”

“The answer, to the question you were blatantly thinking but failing to ask. Yes, I’m safe. Yes, I’m with Arthur. Yes, we did have some rather fantastic sex last night.” Merlin’s gaze flickered to Arthur, seeking disapproval or anger, but found only a soft smirk curling Arthur’s lips. He cleared his throat roughly. “So, now that that’s all out of the way, what was it you called to tell us?”

Another pause. A very long pause. A pause that stretched out uncomfortably. Then —

“You bloody fucking wankers!” Gwaine’s voice roared through the speaker, making them both jump half-an-inch in the air. “Who had the pool for today?”

“Gwaine—” Leon tried in the background.

“Give me that phone—” 

“I had next week blocked off, that’s close enough—” Percival’s voice joined the fray over the line, scratchy and distant.

“Bollocks, you had last week at best —” 

“Does ‘following a near-death-experience’ count?” Owain inserted mildly in the background.

“Just give me that bloody phone—”

Another voice — Lance — “I had ‘dramatic rescue’ down as a catalyst event—” 

“‘Dramatic rescue’ my arse. We’re spies, turning up for work is a goddamn dramatic rescue.”

“Now hang on a—”

“ENOUGH!” Leon’s voice yelled, making both Arthur and Merlin wince again. “For God’s sake, could you all please try and act like adults for one fucking moment? Gwaine, let go of the phone. Percival, let go of Gwaine. Lance, er, help Owain, would you? And not a word from any of you, bloody christ.” There was a faint scuffling sound, then Leon was back on the line, sounding clipped and exasperated. “Right. So. I’m happy for the two of you, I really am, but unfortunately we have more pressing matters to attend to right now.” His voice turned serious. “We’ve got a lead on the events of last night. Percival picked up a stray this morning — and we’re pretty sure she’s one of there’s.”

“Sigan’s?” Arthur clarified, his voice sharp.

“Aredian’s, or so she says. We haven’t been able to get much from her yet.”

“Christ.” Arthur rubbed his face tiredly, and it was almost as though he was putting back on the mask, the 007 demeanour, the leader, the soldier, keeping Merlin’s Arthur safe behind the walls he had so lovingly stripped away last night. “Where is she now?”

“One of the interrogation rooms in HQ.”

“Anyone know she's there?”

“None but the seven of us.”

“Good,” Arthur said firmly. “Keep it that way. We’ll be down there in half an hour tops.”

“Roger that.” Leon paused. “So you two are really…?”

Arthur’s gaze met Merlin’s, and for a moment the mask seemed to slip, revealing a flash of something soft and bright and curiously unguarded. “Yeah.” He said roughly.

“‘Bout bloody time.” Leon grumbled, but Arthur could hear the smile in his voice. “See you both in a few. Do me a favour and try not to kill any of the others when you arrive. They mean well.”

There was a distant, indignant ‘hey!’ in the background that sounded like Gwaine, and then a muffled thud, which Arthur presumed was Percival thumping him.

“I’ll do my best,” Arthur said wryly, and hung up.

For a moment, he and Merlin stared at one another. As had always been the way between them, they didn’t need to say anything. They didn’t have to.

Arthur simply held out his hand, and said. “Shall we?”

A faint smile touched Merlin’s lips. “I thought you’d never ask.” Merlin said, and let Arthur pull him to his feet.

 


 

“So when you said there were much better things you’d rather be doing…” Gwaine said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively at the two of them when they walked in together.

“I meant mind your own fucking business,” Arthur said blithely. “What’s our situation?”

Leon nodded at the panel of one-way glass, through which a skinny-looking girl could be seen perched on a chair, fiddling nervously with her tattered jumper. “Girl turned up by the river, Battersea-side around 0600 hours this morning. Almost ran straight into Percival when he was doing a final sweep of the area. Scared him half to death, along with half of London.” Leon grimaced. “Girl’s got a set of lungs on her.”

“Freya?” Merlin’s voice came from the door as he walked in, obvious recognition in his surprise.

Arthur blinking, turning. “You know this girl?”

“She was in the warehouse with Aredian. She…helped me, after he visited once.” Merlin’s hand brushed his ribs unconsciously, and Arthur momentarily had to fight the urge to hit something or throw Merlin over his shoulder and march him right back to his flat where he could hover over him like some overprotective guard dog and shoot anyone who tried to take him away.

Instead, to distract himself, Arthur studied the girl in question, seeing the signs of abuse on the marks round her wrists, the telling bruise across her cheekbone as though she had been struck, the odd-looking chain around her ankle, the way she was never quite still.

“So what happened?” He said.

“She was near-hysterical at first,” Percival took up, stepping forward. “Kept saying how she didn’t mean to do it, how she didn’t want to hurt anyone — didn’t make a lick of sense to me.” He shrugged. “I was half-way to deciding just to drop her off at the Met, then she mentioned Aredian’s name.”

Arthur’s brow rose, but he didn’t interrupt. 

“Wouldn’t say much after that, I don’t think she meant to let it slip. I think she’d already worked out by that point that I wasn’t a usual cop, though. Kept eyeing me like I was about to pull a gun on her or throw her over my shoulder.”

“I’m presuming you didn’t.” Arthur said a little wryly.

“Hardly. She came of her own will.”

Arthur’s eyebrows arched up further, and he eyed the girl sitting through the glass with a contemplative look. “And she’s said nothing since?”

“Not a word. She’s not talking. At least, not to any of us.”

“Hmm.” Arthur shrugged off his jacket. “Alright then, I’ll see what I —”

“Wait.” Merlin interrupted, his voice strangely intense. “I’ll go.”

“Merlin?”

“Think about it. She’s just come from a hellhole of gang mercenaries, and well, no offence, but you’re all trained killers.” Merlin flashed him a faintly apologetic look. “If she’s been around these people as long as I think she has, she’ll be able to pick that up in a heartbeat. Me? I’m just a regular boffin. I’m not a threat in her eyes, and more to the point, she knows me. Kind of.” Merlin shrugged. “Point is, I think she’ll talk, if I ask.”

Arthur glanced at Leon. “He’s got a point,” Leon said.

His gaze returned to Merlin, and the two of them shared a loaded look, the faint worry in Arthur’s eyes speaking for him — you sure you’re ready for this?

Merlin’s lips quirked — she’s skinner than I am Arthur, I think I can handle her.

A faint crease in his brow. You know that’s not what I meant.

Merlin rolled his eyes. I’ll be fine. Five minutes. 

Arthur sighed. “Alright then,” he spoke aloud. He looked at Merlin pointedly. “Be nice.”

“I’m always nice,” Merlin replied airily, and slipped through the door.

There was a moment of silence whilst they all watched him enter through the one-way glass.

“You know,” Lance said, “that thing the two of you have where you can have an entire conversation without saying a word? Kind of creepy.”

“It’s called observation, Lance,” Arthur drawled. “You should try it some time.”

“Telepathy more like,” Owain muttered.

Through the glass, they saw Merlin holding up his hands as he approached Freya, speaking in soft, soothing tones over the audio feed. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. You’re safe here.” 

Even though the words weren’t directed at him, Arthur felt something inside him — some residual tension that had slowly accumulated ever since they had left the flat — uncoil instinctively at the sound of Merlin’s voice.

Arthur sensed Leon move to stand by his side. “How’s he doing?” Leon asked quietly.

Arthur didn’t have to ask what he meant. He didn’t look away from Merlin as he spoke, gaze lingering on the bruise colouring his cheekbone and the shadows under Merlin’s eyes and the slight hesitance to his movements despite his bright, open smile. 

Arthur sighed. “As well as can be expected. He took a hit, that’s not going to go away overnight.”

“And you?”

Arthur turned his head slightly. “Me?”

“Don’t give me that bollocks. You know what I mean; I’ve never seen you like that.”

The imperious eyebrow of denial rose. “Like what, exactly?”

“You know what.” Leon shook his head. “I’ve never seen you lose your head like that. Like you could kill the next person who looked at you funny.”

Abruptly, Arthur’s shoulders sagged, and he ran a tired hand across his face. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m not—” Leon made a small noise of frustration. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, I am pissed you fucked off and went in solo, but I’m not trying to screw you over that.”

“You’re not?”

“No, you bloody pillock. I’m trying to ask if you’re okay.

“Oh.” Arthur’s eyes flickered back to Merlin, and just like that everything about him seemed to settle. “Yeah,” he said softly. “Yeah I think I am.”

Leon made a small noise of affirmation. “Well, like I said earlier, it’s about time. You look happy, both of you.”

And in spite of everything — the shitstorm of yesterday and the emotional exhaustion in the aftermath, the growing number of people who wanted very much to see them dead and the list of secrets that just kept getting longer — Arthur realised he was happy. For the first time, something in this whole goddamn mess made sense, and that was watching Merlin fall asleep in his arms, pliant and trusting and so alive Arthur could hardly breathe. It was the silent sobs that had shuddered through him as Merlin clung to Arthur in the wake of his disclosure. It was the way Merlin was looking at him when he had woken the next morning, like Arthur was the sun and he had lived his life forever in the dark, starved for the light.

“Just don’t break his heart, you hear me?”

Leon’s voice was sudden, blunt and matter-of-fact, and Arthur turned, a little incredulous. “Seriously? You’re giving me the you break his heart I break your legs speech?”

Leon met his gaze unflinchingly.

“Leon, you’ve known me since we were seven,” Arthur pointed out. “I’m fairly sure it should be my heart you’re defending.”

“Like you need me to defend you.” Leon remarked a little dryly. “And actually, that’s kind of my point. You’ve seen Merlin, yeah? He hasn’t exactly got an abundance of people in his corner. He hasn’t got an overbearing father or a terrifying sister or a childhood best friend to look out for him. He hasn’t got a family, or a network of allies, or an entire secret service awed into stupor and ready to spring to his aid at a word. He has us. That’s it.”

Arthur frowned. “Your point?”

“Point is, Arthur, that yes, I am going to give you the speech. Because someone has to, and God help him, we’re all he’s got. So if you break his heart…”

The threat hung in the air between them. Leon himself seemed not to know the end of it. He cleared his throat and said, simply — “Don’t break his heart.”

And maybe Arthur should have felt offended, that his oldest friend was warning him towards the man he loved. But strangely, Arthur only felt a quiet wash of relief. Relief that Merlin had this group of double 0 assassins who loved him as he did, a vicious protectorate keeping him from harm. Relief that Merlin had people who would look out for him when he couldn’t. Relief that Merlin wasn’t alone, especially in light of what they were going to face.

Arthur’s met his friend’s gaze evenly, and nodded, which seem to satisfy Leon. The two of them turned back to the glass. 

“Just out of interest.” Leon said after a minute or two, in an innocent tone that didn’t fool Arthur for a second. “About what time would you say you two had you little, er…revelation, yesterday?” 

Arthur just sighed. “Exactly how much money is riding on this sweep?”

“Twelve-hundred pounds. Give or take.”

Arthur choked. 

“Everyone accelerated their timelines last night after you wouldn’t let anyone else touch Merlin at Medical.” Leon said mildly. "So really it's all riding on the hour.”

“Are our entire lives just a gambling venture to you all?”

“Well, I’m not supposed to talk about it, but if you were to estimate the time as around midnight, I may be able to share the profits with you.”

“You’re incorrigible."

And Leon, the insufferable bastard, just laughed. “I learnt from the best.”

 


 

In the harsh light of the interrogation room, Freya looked even smaller than Merlin remembered. Her gaze was fixed downwards on her hands, a curtain of hair hiding her face. She looked exhausted.

Merlin lingered by the doorway, not wanting to startle her. “Freya?”

His voice was soft, but Freya jumped as though he had shouted, her head snapping up, eyes widening as she scrambled back.

Merlin held up his hands, keeping his movements slow and steady. “Freya, it’s me, it’s Merlin,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. You’re safe here.”

Freya just looked at him, eyes wide like a startled animal, unblinking. “Merlin?” 

“Hey,” he smiled.

“What…what are you doing here?”

“Ah, well. The guy you ran into this morning? He’s a friend of mine.”

A pause. Freya’s gaze flickered between him and the mirrored window behind him, wary.

“Freya, what’s going on?” Merlin said gently. “What were you doing by the river this morning? How did you get away from Aredian?”

“You’re with MI6.”

It was a statement, not a question, but Merlin nodded anyway. “Yes.”

“That’s why Edwin had you. He wanted you to get them in.”

“Yes.”

“Could you have done it?”

“I’m sorry?”

“What they were asking. Could you have gotten Sigan’s men in?”

“I…probably.”

“But you didn’t.”

“No.”

A flicker of a smile touched her lips. “Good.”

Another pause. 

“Freya,” Merlin asked carefully, “do you know why they felt the need to go through me?”

She frowned. “I told you. To get them in.”

“No but I mean why.” Merlin stressed. “Why does Cornelius Sigan kidnap the Quartermaster of MI6 to smuggle his men in, when he had no qualms with staging a full-on coup of the DGSE and burning it to the ground?”

Freya’s eyebrow rose, in a way vaguely resembling Arthur’s don’t-be-an-idiot-Merlin look. “Because MI6 is under protection. Everyone knows that.”

Merlin blinked, flashing a look towards the glass. “I’m sorry ‘protection’?”

“Of your sorcerer.” Freya said, and thankfully she didn't notice Merlin freeze. “His magical signature’s all over the Riverhouse, and from what I hear, he’s got people pretty freaked. Sort of power that hasn’t been seen since the dark ages, Aredian says.” She cocked her head. “Or did you think it was coincidence how everyone who’s attacked MI6 in the past few months has ended up dead?”

Names ran through his head: Sophia. Valiant. Edwin. Shit. Oh shit. For a moment, Merlin’s vision whited out as a crippling surge of long-time fear caught him, old instincts rearing their ugly head. (No one can know about you Merlin.)

Merlin swallowed, carefully not looking towards where he could almost feel Arthur was staring daggers at him. He fought to keep his voice even. “MI6 doesn’t have a sorcerer.”

“Then you’ve got a friend on the outside.” She shrugged. “Either way, Mr Sigan isn’t taking any chances. He won’t attack MI6 until he’s got insurance that he’ll be walking out of it again.”

Bloody hell. 

Was this why Sigan had held off attacking so far? On the assumption Merlin was some great, all-powerful protector? How long before they started making inquiries? Before they traced it back to the boy who knew too much, the boy who came from nowhere, the boy with impossible eyes? 

How long before Uther found out there was a sorcerer in his midst?

“Those men, in the other room watching us,” Freya said suddenly, “they’re MI6, too?”

Merlin blinked, snapping out of it. “Yes. They’re my friends. They won’t hurt you.”

“And you trust them?”

“With my life.”

Freya bit her lip. “If you knew where Mr Sigan was going to be in the next week, what he was doing, who he was meeting… would you be able to stop him?”

Merlin went very still. He thought about the quiet urgency in Freya’s voice, the wariness in her eyes, her evident urge to trust someone despite a lifetime that told her not to. 

“Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I imagine we would.”

She nodded, meeting his gaze properly for the first time since he’d entered the room. “You asked how I got away. I didn’t, not really. Aredian gets careless when he’s angry, and I was able to slip away in the chaos, but he won’t miss my absence for long. He’ll come looking eventually.”

“Then why—”

“I had to find you.” And then Merlin watched, confused, as Freya tugged something in her sleeve, and withdrew a crumpled sheet of paper that had been wrapped around her forearm. She offered it to him. “This is an account summary of the most recent dealings between Aredian and Mr Cornelius Sigan, the goods exchange which is happening next Saturday, in Istanbul. It was all I could get. I hope its enough.”

Merlin stared at the paper in his hand. At the codenames, the transaction records, the staggering number of zeroes adorning the profits, the sheer list of weaponry in the goods column. Words like Napalm and grade four sorcerers and mustard gas jumped out at him, and Merlin felt a lurch of holy fuck. There were enough weapons here to start a war. Or eliminate a secret service, he thought. 

“Why are you giving this to me?” He said at last, looking up.

“Because you beat him,” Freya said simply. “Nobody gets away from Mr Sigan, but you did, you and your friends. You’re smart. Maybe you’ve got a chance.” 

“That’s not the only reason, though, is it?” Merlin scrutinised her. “There’s something else. Why would you risk your life to give me this information?

Freya just looked at her hands. “Have you ever met him, Merlin? Cornelius Sigan?”

“No.”

“He’s a monster.” She said flatly. “I grew up in a place called Rayat, on the Iranian border, with my brother, Hakim. There was a protest going on for something or other near my school, and one day two men came.” Her face twisted. “They released a magical compulsion that filled our minds with terrible images — a vicious, raw paranoia so strong it rendered people catatonic. Then, when we were all stumbling around, blind and deaf and screaming, they dropped two shells into the crowd - a toxic nerve agent.”

“Sarin.” Merlin said softly.

Freya nodded. “It was a massacre. My brother died that day.” The words seemed to catch in her throat, and Freya caught her breath, blinking hard. "That was the first time I saw Mr Sigan.”

“He supplied the weapons?”

“No. At least, I don't think so. That's not... he started selling magical weapons, after that event — because of it. He saw what I saw. He saw hundreds of children driven to insanity with terrors that weren’t real, saw them choke on their own lung tissue because they weren’t in their right minds to think about running, and he thought, ‘profit’.” Freya bit off an exhale, furiously wiping at the tears that streaked down her face. “You want to know why I’m helping you? Mr Sigan owns me. Mr Sigan owns the weapons industry. And now, he controls the movements of every known magic-user on the continent. Do you have any idea how dangerous he is? How much pain he could cause?” She gestured helplessly. “If there was a chance in a million that you could help take him down, wouldn’t you take it?”

Merlin bowed his head. “I’m sorry.”

Freya shook her head. “Don’t be.” She said. “I only wish I were brave enough to do it myself.”

Their gazes met, and in her eyes Merlin saw resignation and a quiet hardness that spoke volumes. She had already accepted her fate. She knew the consequences of her actions. 

Yet she had come anyway.

“Why do you call him a monster?” Merlin asked.

And Freya just looked at him. “Because. He sells destruction, pain and death and suffering. And… he laughs.”

 


 

Arthur stormed past his father’s undersecretary without so much as a glance. “I need to see M.”

“I’m afraid Mr Pendragon is in a board meeting right now, sir.”

“So get him out.”

“I can’t do that, sir — hey! You can’t go in there!”

“Sorry pal. Bigger fish.” Arthur moved past him.

“Hey! Hey!” The man stood. “I’m calling the police!”

“I am the bloody police.” Arthur growled. The door slammed open, startling the gathering of people seated around the table. 

Uther half rose from his seat, an expression of irritation on his face. “007. What is the meaning of this?”

“I need to speak with you. Alone.” His voice was flat, repressed thunder, slicing through the silence of the room, and the men inside flinched, averting their eyes. 

Uther was the only one who did not lower his gaze. His mouth tightened into a thin line. “In case you didn’t notice, we are rather in the middle of something here —”

Arthur responded only by tossing a few sheets of paper across the table. "Did you know about this?” He demanded. “Did you know Cornelius Sigan was buying weapons under the counter from British and American arms companies, and that people on the inside were aiding and abetting, and getting paid to do so?” He gestured at the papers. “5 million. That’s not bad for a few falsified MOD certificates, don’t you think?”

You could have heard a pin drop in the silence. The men quailed into their seats. Uther had gone very, very still.

“Gentlemen,” Uther said with all the calm of a tsunami building in the distance. “That name you think you may have just heard, you were mistaken. If you ever mention hearing that name in this room, in this context, I guarantee you, on behalf of the British Security Services, that materials will be found on your computer hard-drives resulting in your immediate incarceration. Now, if you’ll excuse us.”

The boardroom was emptied so fast Arthur wondered whether he had hallucinated the men inside to begin with. The door shut behind them with a soft click, and then there was silence once more. Arthur met his father’s laser-like gaze without flinching.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” Uther hissed. “Bringing those documents in here?”

“You did know then.”

His father’s silence was confirmation enough.

“Jesus, Uther.” Arthur swore. “There’s bloody Napalm on this. He’s got enough here to start a war.”

Uther picked up one of the papers carefully. His expression was unreadable. “Where did you get these?”

“Doesn’t matter where I got them. Point is, why haven’t you done anything about it? Why is MI6 concerning itself with petty criminals and the bleeding election personnel, when this guy is out there supplying millions-of-pounds-worth of arms to terrorists in the middle east? Why have you got me chasing a rogue KGB agent after some sodding blueprints, when you’ve known this was happening for what, weeks? Months?”

Uther’s eyes flashed warningly. “You would do well to mind your tongue, Arthur. The situation is more complicated than you realise —”

“Bullshit.” He said flatly. “The British government has a responsibility—”

“The British government is my responsibility.” Uther snapped. “This isn’t some harebrained vigilante we’re dealing with. ‘Cornelius Sigan’ is a ghost. He doesn’t exist. As Cedric Alined, on the other hand, he has invested over a billion dollars in Britain in the last five years alone. He funds political parties, he’s at every top table you can name, he has half of Parliament in his pocket. Our hands are tied.”

“So sod the legalities!” Arthur exclaimed. “Arrest him, drop a bomb on him, fly me out to put a bullet in his brain.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“This man is bombing civilian villages in Iraq with British weapons.” Arthur said with gritted teeth. “Forgive me, but it really is that simple. This isn’t a business transaction. This is a humanitarian act, and we have a duty of care.”

A loaded pause. Arthur met his father’s piercing gaze silently, defiantly. The seething tension between them coiled in the air. Then, after what seemed like an age, Uther fell back in his chair, an angry exhale hissing through his teeth.

“Arthur listen to me. This is far bigger than you and I. There is a whole system that keeps our country where we want it, amongst the elites, punching above our weight. It's a state of being. An ontology, if you like. And it has to be maintained.”

Arthur scoffed. “So instead of putting handcuffs on him, you give him a seat in the House of Lords.”

Uther just glowered at him, and Arthur shook his head. “I don’t understand you. He’s infiltrating our government, buying our weapons, and using them to cause a lot of pain, to a lot of people. And you just sit there. This man is evil, father.”

His father’s lip curled. “Don’t be so bloody naive. The world we live in is hardly so black and white, no matter how much you’d like to believe it. Cornelius Sigan, or Cedric Alined, or whoever the hell he is, is one men among thousands — he’s probably no more the villain than your average mercenary or corrupt official. He’s a businessman, a necessary evil. Not a dragon for you to slay.”

“Is that what you think of me? A dragon slayer?”

“No,” Uther said with a hint of derision. “It’s what you think of yourself.”

Arthur bit back a retort, his mouth set in a tight, angry line. Even after all this time, that snide disappointment in his father’s voice still had the power to make him feel about five years old. Like he was still a child, living in the shadow of his father’s expectations.

“So you’re just going to do nothing? To hell with anyone else?”

“I am looking after the strategic interests of my country, Arthur.” Uther said with an air of finality. “I suggest you do the same.”

“Continue like this, and I’m not sure I much like the sort of country you’re trying to protect.” He shot back, leaning forward to swipe the papers back from the table and turning to leave.

007.” 

Uther’s voice halted him, and Arthur paused.

“You will not pursue this, you understand me?” Uther’s voice was dangerous, blue eyes hardened to a pale steel. “Cornelius Sigan is no concern of yours.”

Arthur swallowed. “You do nothing, Uther, and you give me no choice.”

Choice?” Uther’s voice was a whipcrack, a thunder of authority lashing out into the air, and suddenly Arthur was twelve again, cowering in the face of his father’s wrath when he’d gotten into a fight at school and lost. Uther slammed his hand down on the table, and Arthur couldn’t help but flinch. “You work, for me,” he snarled. “You are my son. Your choices are mine. And you will show me some respect.

The words seemed to hover in the air between them, lingering long after the sound had faded from the room.

“Or what?” Arthur said quietly. The words slipped from his mouth, even and daring, a sudden, reckless fury burning through him and giving him courage. “You want me to turn a blind eye? Fine, but tell me something. When Sigan turns up on our doorstep with an arsenal like that and an army of sorcerers, when he comes for our third of the Triskelion and burns your precious government to the ground…will he be your concern, then?”

And then without waiting to see Uther’s reaction to that particularly bombshell, Arthur turned and walked out.

 


 

Merlin, of course, took one look at him and knew. “Oh God,” he said. “What happened?”

Arthur shook his head. “Not here.”

Flashing a look down the corridor, Arthur grabbed Merlin’s hand and pulled through the nearest door, which happened to be a maintenance closet. 

Merlin gave a small squawk. “Arthur, what are you—”

“He knew.” Arthur cut him off quickly. “My father. What Sigan was doing, the weapons, all of it.”

“Arthur—”

“He’s known for weeks —

“Arthur.”

“He knew, and he…” but the words caught in his throat. Arthur swallowed hard, the pounding rage of helpless frustration making his voice shake. “He wouldn’t even…”

“Hey.” Warm fingers closed around his wrist.

Arthur didn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he opened them Merlin was a lot closer. He looked concerned. “It’s okay, Arthur. It’s okay.”

A hand came up behind him, tugging him forward, and Arthur opened his mouth to tell Merlin that he was fine, really, and there was no need —

He sagged. Merlin’s arms came up around him immediately, solid and warm and real, and Arthur held on to him and tried to remember how to breathe. He closed his eyes. Merlin’s fingers drifted through Arthur’s hair in an automatic soothing motion, and Arthur breathed. It was a brief respite, as through Arthur were offering sustenance to some starving part of himself. Merlin’s touch was soothing and grounding, a perfect anchor. And when Arthur pulled away, he was in significantly less danger of marching back down the corridor and punching his father in the face.

Arthur sucked in a breath, tilted forward to rest his forehead against Merlin’s. “Thanks. I needed that.”

“Oh is that why you dragged me in here?” Merlin’s voice was soft, teasing.

“I didn’t want to be overheard.”

“Because throwing ourselves in the maintenance closet is so inconspicuous.” 

“I…” Arthur blinked, looking around at the space they were crammed in, as though only just noticing it. “Oh.”

“This is literally the most cliched hiding place you could've chosen. This is the stupidest hiding place.”

“Well I'm sorry, I didn't take us to the Bahamas of hiding places.”

Merlin smiled a little, touched his cheek. “What happened? Uther wouldn’t authorise the mission?”

“Worse. He wouldn’t authorise anything at all. He’s determined MI6 have nothing to do with it.”

Almost imperceptibly, Merlin stilled. “He said that?”

“Forbid me from going near the case at all.” Arthur sighed, a cut off exhale of frustration. “I don't understand. My father has never been one to care about government regulations and stepping on people’s toes. It’s not like him to answer to anyone other than himself.”

“Well, maybe he doesn’t want to piss Sigan off, you know?” Merlin reasoned. “What with the Triskelion and all. Olaf was prying into Sigan's affairs in the beginning, if you remember, and look what happened to him.”

Arthur blinked. It was a good point, one he hadn’t considered. 

“Right. Um. About that,” he said. “I, er, may have yelled a bit and let slip that I know about the Triskelion. And the word ‘sorcerers’ may have also featured.”

Merlin raised an eyebrow. “You may have yelled a bit?”

“A bit.”

What did Uther say?”

“I don’t know, I walked out straight after.”

“Of course you did.”

“Invariably, Uther now knows that I know.” Arthur paused. “I’m sorry.”

Merlin shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it now.” He eyed Arthur searchingly, blue eyes seeing straight through him the way he always did. “You okay?”

“I just…I thought he would see things differently.” In the dark with just him and Merlin, the hushed admittance was easy. “I thought he would care.

“He’s just looking out for his own.”

“But don’t we also have a responsibility to look outside our borders? To fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, regardless of where they were born?”

“Yes, but not everybody thinks like you, Arthur.” Merlin sighed. “Truth is, the value of life is a rather selfish endeavour. We all have something we want to protect, at whatever cost. Your father believes he is protecting his country. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not. It doesn’t matter.” And then his voice hardened. “What matters is what we’re going to do about it.”

The words lingered in the air, heavy with promise, full of fight and unbridled challenge. Arthur met Merlin’s gaze, which was all storm and steel, a tempestuous calm in those blue-gold depths, and what he saw took his breath away. 

It was loyalty, quiet and absolute. A pure-and-utter trust that spoke without saying, that Merlin would take up arms at his side and follow Arthur into the fires of hell if he asked it of him. And it struck Arthur to the core, because he couldn’t think what he’d done to deserve that kind of staggering allegiance. It was humbling, it was empowering, it was terrifying. Because Arthur couldn’t bear the thought of letting Merlin down.

And that was the power of Merlin, his way of seeing people with all the belief they could never muster to find in themselves.

Arthur cleared his throat, straightening. “How fast can you get me on a plane to Istanbul?”

Merlin’s eyes gleamed. “We’re going after him then? For real?

“The rest of the double 0’s will stay here and stick with the original plan — the Triskelion is still Sigan’s endgame and he’ll hit it soon, and hard. We need to be ready for that.”

“So what’s our endgame?”

“You and me? We’re infiltrating the handover this Saturday. We’re stopping that arsenal from ever reaching its buyers. We’re taking out his network from the inside. And all the while we’re keeping Sigan busy enough worrying about us that he’ll barely have a spare moment to think too hard about a sorcerer acting within MI6.”

Merlin’s gaze flew to Arthur’s, who met it evenly. Their hushed argument from earlier came to mind, where just before Arthur had stormed off to confront Uther, he had pulled Merlin quickly to the side, his voice strained with a quiet urgency.

“How the bloody hell does Sigan know about your magic?”

“I don’t know! I’m not exactly an expert at this whole thing, you know—”

“You need to be more careful, Merlin.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?”

“I think you’ve been taking risks.” Arthur said frankly. “The flare on the bridge. Valiant. Edwin. I bet you were even shielding us in Paris, weren’t you?”

“I saved your lives.” Merlin said firmly. “I’m not about to apologise for it.”

“Yes, and I’m grateful for it. But Merlin,” Arthur took his face in his hands. “I can’t lose you, do you hear me? I can’t. Sigan’s main priority is obtaining the Triskelion, and as far as he’s concerned, right now you're the main thing standing in his way, whether he knows it or not. You heard what Freya said; he’s holding off the attack for now because he doesn’t know if he can win. That makes you a target the moment he works out it’s you, and I. cannot. lose you.” Arthur’s voice was hard and fierce and just a little strung out, and Merlin’s expression softened.

“Arthur—” 

“You’ve got to lay low — no magic, no miraculous saves, no lucky coincidences. Nothing that will arise any suspicion or give any him reason to think its you. Do you understand? Nothing. It’s too dangerous.”

Merlin opened his mouth to argue, but then Arthur said “please?” in that quiet, strained voice, and Merlin’s willpower crumbled. His shoulders slumped. “Alright, but no promises. If some guy decides to lob another fireball at you, you can’t ask me to just stand by and watch.”

“As a last resort, then. At least promise me that.”

“Fine. I promise to exhaust every possibility before I save your ass with my kickass superpowers. Capiche?”

And for the first time since he’d pulled Merlin aside, Arthur’s rigid mask cracked, his lips curving into a faint, reluctant smile.

In the dark of the closet, the two regarded one another silently, their breaths syncing together. 

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” Merlin asked quietly, after a moment or two.

Arthur didn’t have to ask what he meant. “At first, I wasn’t certain. You were always so careful, I couldn’t be sure. Then…I realised it didn’t matter.”

“Didn’t matter?” Merlin repeated, a little incredulously.

“You were still you.” Arthur said simply. “Sure, you could stop bullets with your mind and set a Fae witch on fire with Jedi death-glare — which is infinitely cool, by the way — but you hadn’t changed. It just took me a little time to realise it. In the end, you weren’t ready to tell me, and I didn’t want to put you in that position.”

“That’s what worried you?” Merlin said with a soft disbelief.

“You wanted so badly to tell me, I could see it in your eyes. I didn't want to take that from you.” Arthur’s voice hardened slightly. “Though, if I had known how much keeping it a secret was tearing you up, I may have reconsidered.”

“I adore you.” Merlin said without thinking. Arthur blinked, bemused, and Merlin blushed as the words caught up with him. “I, mean er,” he cleared his throat. “We’re really doing this then? Going rogue? Sneaking behind your father’s back?”

Arthur’s lips twitched. “Well, that depends. Can you keep all this off the records? Get us we need without raising any red flags?”

A slight raised eyebrow. “I’m a no-good, renegade hacker, remember? I’ve been blindsiding MI6 for years. I can keep the higher ups off our back.” 

“Alright then. I need everything you can on Cornelius Sigan, Cedric Alined, any of his monickers. Defence, FCO, Bank of England, Treasury, HMRC. I need intel, I need names, I need money and equipment and personnel on the ground. And I need it all kept under wraps. Can you do that?”

Merlin just smirked, and for a moment, the gold in his eyes seemed just a little brighter. “Give me 24 hours.”

“You’ve got 12,” Arthur said mildly. “And Merlin?”

“Hmm?”

Arthur’s mouth curved into that insufferable half-smile. “I adore you too, you know.”

Merlin looked at him, swallowed. “I’m going to kiss you now.” He said.

“Acceptable.”

 


 

“So let me get this straight,” Leon said slowly, once Arthur and Merlin had finally emerged from their closet looking noticeably more disheveled than they had before and then proceeded to explain the plan to them all in full. 

“Not only are we going behind our superior’s backs to commander the protection of a magical artefact that could very well end the world as we know it, but we are now actively disobeying a direct order from the head of MI6 to go after a man deemed untouchable by the law with an arsenal of weapons that could very well wipe out a significant portion of London in one sweep?”

Arthur shared a glance with Merlin. “Yes.” He said.

“Brilliant,” Gwaine said. “When do we start?”

There was a quiet groan from behind him as Leon thumped his head on the desk.

“What about Freya?” Percival spoke up from the corner. “We act on this information, and Sigan will know someone talked.”

“Witness protection, if we can wrangle it.” Arthur replied. “My uncle Agravaine’s in Legal. I’ll see if I can call in a favour.”

“Aredian will know it was her who stole the documents.” Lance said quietly. “You get that girl out, it might as well be a confession of her guilt.”

“We send her back to them, and it’s a death sentence.” Merlin said evenly. “I’m not going to let that happen.”

Percival just nodded, standing. “I’ll go break the good news then, shall I?”

“Arthur, what about the other thing Freya said?” Leon asked as Percival slipped out to talk to Freya, “that MI6 had a sorcerer?”

Don’t look at Merlin. Don’t look at Merlin.

“It’s possible.” Arthur said after a pause. “We’ve survived a few magical encounters now, where many others haven’t. I don’t think that's coincidence.”

“You believe her then.”

“You don’t?”

Leon shrugged. “Its pretty damn convenient, don’t you think? I mean why would a sorcerer ally with us against his own people? It doesn’t add up.”

“Maybe he’s one of the good guys,” Gwaine offered. “Not all sorcerers have got to be diabolical evil maniacs, right?”

At the back of the room, Merlin had a sudden and mysterious coughing fit, and Owain thumped him on the back. 

“I think that whoever he or she is, they’re a damn fool,” Arthur said evenly. “But, god help me, we’re going to need all the help we can get before this is over. And if someone is willing to risk their lives to help our sorry asses…” and here Arthur’s gaze came to rest inadvertently on Merlin’s, “we should be prepared to accept that help, wherever it might come from.”

There was a moment of charged silence, and the faint hint of perturbation in Arthur’s voice was enough sober the atmosphere in the room in one fell swoop.

From an outside perspective, Arthur supposed it might seem strange that, with all their experience in the field, MI6’s finest assassins could still get scared. 

Truth was, fear was not something one grew accustomed to. Sure, they could suppress it, learn it, use it, overcome it — but it never really went away. And the times that fear did come out, it was nearly always when they were, for all intents and purposes, safe. They couldn’t afford to crack mid-mission, so they held it all together until the job was done. When they went their separate ways home to the deafening placidity of civilian life, and found themselves unable to sit still or sleep because the aftermath was searing every moment into memory, to be recounted over and over again. 

Then there were the other times. Moments like this, just before the storm hit, where they could afford to give themselves a few seconds to freak the fuck out because they knew all too well what was coming, and it scared them shitless.

But that wasn’t the point. Point was, they were all still here. All prepared to do what needed to be done. Waiting only for Arthur to give the word.

Across the room, Merlin was looking at him steadily, those blue-gold eyes alight with fierce certitude as strong as any of the double 0’s.

Arthur breathed, and straightened. “When you joined the British army, you all made an oath of allegiance to observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty and of the generals and officers set over you. When you joined MI6, you reinstated that pledge.” A pause. “I cannot ask you to go back on those vows. What I am about to do would be considered treason by my father and the government, and will probably result in my immediate arrest or incapacitation. I do not hope for my cause to be considered in light of my intentions, and neither should you.

“What I can ask is that you consider what’s at stake. It is our weapons are being bought and used to do great wrong to a great number of people, our people who are aiding a man to do as he pleases without fear of repercussion, our neglect of responsibility that is allowing innocent people to die. I cannot stand by and let that happen. I will not.

“So now I ask you what I do not have the right to ask, and that is that you stand with me. You disobey the orders of our superiors because they are wrong, and you know it. And you do so knowing fully what your actions will entail.”

Arthur hesitated. “I will not think any less of any of you if you decide not to aid us in this endeavour. But if you do, you should know that I will not be able to shield you from the repercussions. To put it bluntly, well. We’re on our own in this.”

There was a moment of silence as his words hovered in the air. Then —

“No,” Lance said suddenly. “We’re not.”

Arthur looked up, and his breath caught painfully in his chest as he saw every single one of his friends on their feet, meeting his gaze with quiet affirmation.

“We’re not on our own, we never were.” Lance continued. “We’re a team, remember?”

Arthur blinked hard. “I can’t ask you to—”

“We’re not asking for your permission, you pompous ass.” Gwaine said, a little dryly.

“But—”

“You really think we’d just sit here twiddling our thumbs whilst you threw yourself into the thick?” Owain said mildly.

“I don’t—”

“Arthur Pendragon, when are you going to get it into your head?” Leon cut him off, his voice thick with emotion. “We’re in this together, damn it. And we’re with you to the end, whatever happens. Into the very mouth of hell itself.”

Arthur’s mouth closed. He looked round at his men, throat bobbing, feeling a rush of emotion he couldn’t place. In the corner of the room, Merlin was watching the ongoings with a faintly amused expression, looking not-at-all surprised at the outpouring of pledges of allegiance, damn him. And it must have been exhaustion, or his imagination, but for a moment Arthur could have sworn he saw a flash of scarlet and a glint of chainmail, could have sworn he felt the burden of a kingdom resting heavily on his shoulders and the weight of a sword in his grasp, it’s light blinding and brilliant as he raised it high to the sky, a call to arms and a beacon to lead the way —

Arthur swallowed hard, and met Leon’s gaze, the faintest beginnings of a smile tugging at his lips despite himself.

"Alright then. Into the mouth of hell it is.”

 

Chapter Text

The chopper was, in all respects, unremarkable: a Eurocopter EC135, standard model used by the NPAS. It wasn’t particularly fast, manoeuvrable, nor did it have any notable combative assets to speak of. It was utterly ordinary.

Then again, that was rather the point. 

Next to him, Gwaine’s voice filtered over the headsets. "Camelot Tower, Knight EC135/003, one-zero miles northwest, landing with Eurocopter, confirm over.” 

"Knight EC135/003, Camelot Tower. Cleared for landing, report the right downwind to helipad two, over.”

“Affirmative, report right downwind to two. 003 over and out.” 

At his side, Percival grinned as Gwaine signed off. “What, no wise cracks? No blindsiding the comms? No philandering across the radio and seducing the poor sod on the other end?”

Gwaine looked offended. “We are on a covert mission to ensure the security of an object of great importance, operating at the highest level of discretion. I am not about to flirt with the tower rep.”

“Didn’t seem to stop you on that raid in Budapest.” 

“Okay firstly, you agreed never to bring that up. And secondly, this is a tad bit more important than a night-time raid for the RAF. This is important.”

“And Budapest was what, target practise?”

Gwaine gave a non-committal shrug, and Percival turned his head to hide a smile.

“You know, you’re damn lucky you were the second best pilot in the corps—”

“—I’m sorry, second best?”

Percival smiled benignly and ignored him. “— else the Brass would have kicked you out years ago.”

“They did kick me out.” Gwaine pointed out as he brought the chopper lower.

“Only because you went and became a ruddy assassin for the British secret service.”

Gwaine huffed in amusement. “I seem to recall you turncoating first, actually. Thwarted a strike on Cairo, didn’t you? Certainly got M’s attention.” 

Percival hummed. “2011. Foiled an assassination attempt of President Mubarak.”

“Not sure everyone would thank you for that one.”

A small smile curved Percival’s lips, making him look, for a moment, endearingly boyish. “I did also prevent the deaths of thousands of people in the city, if that’s any consolation.”

“Now you’re just showing off.”

“Coming from the man who baled out without a parachute in order to then hijack the bogey on his tail and commandeer the Yakuza’s main fighter jet.”

Gwaine grinned, eyes alight with the roguish mischief that spoke of all sorts of trouble. “Well I couldn’t exactly leave the RAF without thrashing every record in the book now, could I?”

That earned him a snort. “Guess we were both meant for greater things, then.”

“Please, I’ve been telling you that for years."

Percival laughed — one of his startled, head-thrown back kind of laughs that made something warm curl in Gwaine’s stomach. The two fell into an easy silence as the countryside sped by below them, lulled by the dull roar of the propellers and the warm familiarity of the person beside them. 

“This is nice,” Percival said suddenly. “I mean, it’s no Typhoon FGR4, but…”

“Being airborne again,” Gwaine finished. He flashed Percival a side look. “Having my wingman back.”

“Um, hang on, I seem to recall it was you who was my wingman.”

“In your dreams, Chewie.”

“Really? The Wookie references again?”

“It’s not my fault you’re freakishly huge.

Percival humphed. “And I suppose that makes you Hans Solo?”

“Well, if you insist…”

Percival rolled his eyes, though he was still fighting a smile. Another period of silence. In the distance, the white towers of Camelot began to come into view, pale and gleaming in the morning sunlight. Both of them sobered slightly at the sight. 

“You really think the Triskelion will be safe in Camelot?” Percival asked quietly, as Gwaine began to bring the chopper into land. 

Gwaine didn’t answer straight away. His eyes were narrowed in thought, absent-mindedly adjusting the controls to accommodate for the sudden pick up in wind speed. This was the side of Gwaine that was often missed — lost behind the disarming smile and devil-may-care attitude.

Over the years, Percival had seen him walk away from scenarios that in all plausibility should have killed him, seen him sleep through target after target — men and women who wouldn’t trust a man as far as they could throw him — and come out with the vital intel they’d been after for years, seen him take down the worst sorts of people and brush it off as mere luck.

But Percival knew better. He knew that behind all that swash-buckling charm and roguish good humour, Gwaine was not only a damn good agent, he was a sodding genius. When Gwaine charged heedlessly into a gunfight with nought but his wits, chances were he’d already calculated the odds to a terrifying degree of accuracy and had tactical countermeasures A, B and C to back him up. When he drank and laughed and charmed his way into someone’s bed, everything he did was calculated, honed and directed to slip past someone’s guard, to make them feel like they had all the power when in fact it was him calling the shots. 

And that wasn’t even mentioning the number of confirmed kills — and the staggering number of unconfirmed ones — he had to his name. 

For all that Gwaine was a reckless, insufferable asshole, he could be a little scary sometimes. 

“Honestly?” Gwaine said. “I think this whole thing is fucked up. MI6 is apparently now not only turning a blind eye to negotiations with terrorists, but actively participating in them. We’re fighting a cult of magic-wielding fanatics. And the key to all of this is a little bit of old metal that might just mean the end of the world. None of this makes any sense.”

“But?” Percival prompted after a moment.

Gwaine huffed. “But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this… I trust Arthur.”

“You think he knows what he’s doing?”

“…I’m not sure I’d go that far.”

That earned him another snort. 

“Do I think that stealing away in a civilian chopper to an estate in the middle of nowhere is going to improve our chances when the Death Eaters eventually do come knocking?” Gwaine said. He glanced at him sideways, flashing Percival a quick smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Fucked if I know. Let’s hope so, though. For all our sakes.”

 


 

As work as a double 0 went, stakeouts were definitely the dullest. Arthur let out a sigh as he shifted for the billionth time, trying to get comfortable where he lay flat on the sun-baked roof. He had been crouched on a rooftop in Mecca for the better part of a day now, waiting for one of Sigan’s Al Qaeda operatives to leave the mosque he’d used as cover. Said operative was proving irritatingly reticent about the whole thing.

“Q?”

“007.” Merlin’s voice was immediate in his ear. “What do you need?”

“I’m bored.”

There was a long pause. “And you want me to do what about that, exactly?”

“I don’t know. Distract me. Recite some poetry. Play some music.”

“I think you’ve mistaken me for an iPhone.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Come on, Q, throw me a bone here. If I see another blasted lorry that I’m supposed to be monitoring, I might just blow it up for the kicks, and then where would we be?”

There was a huff in his ear. Then —

“Passing stranger, you do not know how longingly I look upon you.”

“Who now what now?”

“It’s a poem. W. Whitman, ‘To a Stranger’.”

Arthur’s eyebrow rose. “You know when I said ‘recite some poetry’ I didn't actually mean—” 

“You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking…” Merlin continued, as though Arthur hadn’t spoken. “It comes to me, as of a dream…”

And the poem continued. It was strangely intimate, hearing it through his earpiece, as though the words were being spoken from the very depths of him, existing only in Arthur’s head. Merlin’s voice was low and suave, the familiar crisp, calm tones from endless missions — the voice that steadied Arthur, that he trusted like no other — now with an extra edge. A slight husk to his words, an emotional undercurrent to the words that Arthur couldn’t quite place, a hint of something raw and open to the sentiments he was weaving. 

“…I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I sit alone, or wake at night alone,” Merlin’s voice was intoxicating, like honeyed scotch, devastatingly unembellished, “I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again…” 

…(when Albion’s need is greatest) —

and Arthur didn’t know whether it was the words, or Merlin’s voice, or something else entirely, but for a moment, his vision darkened at the corners, the world around him shimmered in a mirage, and he could almost feel the narrator’s loss, that ancient and familiar longing across the ages —

(Just…hold me…) —

“I am to see to it that I do not lose you.” Merlin finished quietly, and that last line of the poem lingered in the air, but Arthur heard something else entirely. The same voice in his ear, wrecked and ragged with tears, scared — so fucking scared but trembling with the challenge he was throwing out to the world —

I can’t lose him! He’s my friend.”

Arthur felt a burning in his lungs, a tear in his chest, and he realised he had forgotten to breathe. There was something warm and wet on his cheeks, and bloody hell was he crying — ?

Arthur?”

Merlin’s voice in his ear jolted him back to awareness, and the world snapped back to reality. Arthur inhaled, brushing the tears away with a hasty hand. What the fuck?

“Are you always able to recite poetry at the drop of a hat?” He managed at last, impressed with how even his voice was.

Yes.” Merlin said simply.

Arthur huffed. “Do you have any idea how hot that is?”

Yes.” Merlin said again, and this time, Arthur could definitely hear a smile in Merlin’s voice.

He shook his head, feeling his own lips tug up in response. “Merlin?”

Mm?” 

Arthur opened his mouth, but abruptly realised he had no idea what he was going to say. Do you ever feel as though you’ve forgotten something important? Like there’s something missing? Do you ever feel like your life is not your own?

“Thank you for the poem,” he said.

Merlin’s voice was soft when he replied. “You’re welcome, 007.”

 


 

For that next week, Arthur was leading a double life. On the one hand, he was acting as his father’s favourite blade, fighting for queen and country in foreign places as he had always done. On the other, he and Merlin were getting closer and closer to Sigan’s network. Surveillance and stake-outs, trawling through backlogs and purchase records, piecing together names and movements of anyone involved. Slowly but surely, they were closing in, every day bringing them closer to the handover in Istanbul.

In the meantime, what followed was possibly the most absurd courtship ever. 

One day, Gaius summoned Merlin to his office, the screen on his laptop behind him showing the the satellite feeds of a small, smoking crater where a suspected drug cartel had once stood. His expression was set in what Merlin had long dubbed his ‘Unholy Displeased Expression’, the one that came out whenever Merlin used to dismantle his laptop or that time he had accidentally installed an AI in the toaster. 

"Hello, Gaius," Merlin said pleasantly.

The Displeased Expression did not waver. “Did you order a strike on a drugs base in New Mexico today?”

“I might have done. Why?"

"You cannot just go around blowing up buildings because you feel like it.”

Merlin looked mildly affronted. “This wasn’t because I felt like it. This was the tactical elimination of a crime syndicate that was thriving off the suffering of others.” 

“I see,” said Gaius, in that way that meant he definitely did not see. “And I suppose the fact that the organisation formerly based in that warehouse exercised some rather medieval interrogation methods on 007 yesterday was completely irrelevant to this sudden outburst of altruism?”

Merlin’s uncharacteristic silence was answer enough.

Gaius let out a long sigh. “Merlin, Arthur is a double 0 assassin. Getting captured by the opposition is an inevitable risk, and not your job to exact retribution for.”

“They were exceedingly impolite to him.”

“You nuked three buildings and killed seven people.”

“They shouldn’t have tortured him.” Was all Merlin replied, the faintest trace of heat entering his voice.

Gaius sighed again, and didn’t press further.

Another night, some unsavoury characters that Arthur had thwarted a few years back made the staggering mistake of attempting to get their revenge by jumping the two of them on their way home. Merlin almost felt sorry for them. Of all the people in MI6, they had managed to single out Arthur Pendragon as the target of some misguided quest for vengeance. Needless to say, it did not end well for them.

In a matter of moments Arthur had all five of the men disarmed and on the ground, surveying them with cool disinterest, until one of them decided to try and stab Arthur in the knee. Arthur moved so fast he was almost a blur, catching the man’s wrist in mid-air and wrenching it into an unforgiving lock. The knife clattered to the ground at Arthur’s feet, and he picked it up. Silence. Arthur turned to face the remaining four men. 

Even without the gleam of the blade in his hand, there was no disguising the quiet lethality in Arthur’s poise, that distinct sense of predatory otherness that made people hesitate where they might have struck. The way he braced his feet, the way his muscles lazily eased and clenched beneath his skin, his hands competent on the knife’s grip. The way his eyes stormed with ice and death and the echo of countless battles fought. 

Unsurprisingly, the man nearest to him took one look at Arthur, paled, and took off towards Merlin in a blind scramble to get out of Arthur’s reach.

Arthur didn't think about it. He didn't have to. The knife flipped in his hand, his arm drew back, coiled and released. The target fell to the ground with the blade buried in the back of his calf. The whole thing had taken about three seconds. 

When Arthur looked up, Merlin was looking at him with the greediest expression he'd ever seen.

“There are moments,” Merlin breathed, “when it’s all I can do not to eat you.”

A beat. Arthur blinked, lips tugging up in bemusement. He was fighting a smirk. “Fantastic. Good to know,” he said. “Er, for now, you wouldn’t happen to have any handcuffs on you, would you?”

Merlin made Arthur’s car even more ludicrous than it was, added volatile options to every piece of tech Arthur got, and regularly bestowed upon him obscure weapons of mass destruction because it made Arthur’s face light up and Merlin was hopeless. In return, Arthur drove the car into the Nile, lost most of the equipment, and set half of Cairo on fire in the process, (but did manage to avert a terrorist bombing and save a few hundred people, so Merlin couldn’t really be irritated at him for long). By means of apology, Arthur brought him back a KYK-13 fill device he’d swiped from a control room of the criminal underground in Egypt, (some NSA Type 1 stolen code Merlin had been trying to get his hands on for weeks), and somehow managed to cajole a penthouse in The Savoy for a night where they proceeded to order everything on the menu and then ignore most of it in favour of fucking on every available surface. Merlin had been grinning like a loon for days after.

“Normal people don’t flirt like this, you know.” Morgana said to him one day.  

Merlin thought of bartered gadgets and exploding pens, of chaos and comms and of the storm’s edge that they lived on. As if any of them were normal.

“Don’t they?” Was all he said, and went back to trying to fit a bazooka into Arthur’s briefcase.

Nothing at MI6 had changed — it wasn’t as if the bad guys had stopped with the gun fights and the diabolical schemes and the explosions, after all. Arthur continued to take stupid risks out on the field and Merlin still managed to do about five times the amount of work as usual when he was monitoring Arthur’s missions. Arthur fought and flirted and outmanoeuvred to the nth degree, taunted death on a regular basis and shamelessly failed to return most of his equipment, and Merlin shifted satellites and security systems and entire governments getting him home.

No, in that respect they remained very much as they ever were. It was everything in between. The way Arthur’s expression would soften every time Merlin entered a room — that overbearing 007 demeanour defenceless against Merlin’s bright, dazzling smile. The furtive touches and stolen kisses in hallways, the cups of tea that appeared at Merlin’s elbow at two in the morning without him asking, the moments when Arthur would drag Merlin aside to devour him against a wall because it was unacceptable for a piece of tech to be receiving more attention that he was (no matter if it was a prototype explosive). It was the way Arthur stopped disappearing off the radar and started coming straight home after a mission, the way Arthur coaxed him from his desk when Merlin felt about to keel over and curled around him like an overbearing cat when they actually did manage to go home and sleep. It was the hushed adorations whispered in the dark as they learnt each other’s bodies, the way Merlin would hold him when Arthur woke up with a stifled scream in the middle of the night, the press of Arthur’s nose against his neck as he breathed him in in the quiet darkness, the smell of gun-oil and mild cologne and sunlight and something else that was just Arthur, something that was quickly becoming the smell of home.

It was the way he got to wake up every day with an Arthur Pendragon in his bed.

A shaft of sunlight lit up Arthur’s eyes as he grinned down at Merlin that morning, the curve of his smile endearingly boyish as he flipped them both over in one fluid movement so he was straddling Merlin’s hips, pinning him to the bed. He was all pale gold and mussed with sleep, unguarded in a way he only ever was when it was just them, and Merlin loved him so much he could barely breathe.

“Pushy.” Merlin admonished, not-in-the-least-breathlessly, and Arthur’s laugh was bright and warm.

“Only because you make it so easy, Merlin.” 

Merlin couldn’t help the shiver at the inflection Arthur put on his name, demanding and affectionate and unassailably his. He responded by dragging Arthur’s face back down for a deep, drugging kiss, claiming his ownership, letting him know in no uncertain terms that Arthur might have him pinned but Merlin was exactly where he wanted to be. He felt Arthur melt against him, tasted the infuriating curve of his smile, heard the involuntary exhale as Merlin dragged his fingertips across Arthur’s scalp in that way Merlin knew he loved. Arthur’s eyes drifted closed, and he leaned into the touch, practically purring.

Merlin loved him like this. When he was still soft and warm from sleep, his face untroubled by the concerns he would adopt over the day, when he was completely and unmistakably Merlin’s.

“We’re going to be late,” Arthur said at last, a little mournfully in between kisses.

“A wizard is never late,” Merlin murmured against his lips, “nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”

“By which you mean, ‘I am a sexy warlock who is fully entitled stay in bed for another round of morning sex with his boyfriend rather than turn up for work on time like the professionals we are.’”

“Yes, that was exactly what Tolkien meant to write.”

Arthur snorted. “Come on,” he said, bestowing upon Merlin one last lingering kiss. “I need to shower, and you need to be in Q-branch in half an hour.”

That merited a sigh. “You’d think that, being the Quartermaster of MI6, it would give you some leeway for a morning off every now and then.”

“Not when there’s a diabolical arms dealer on the loose.” Arthur reminded him.

Merlin made a small noise of protest as Arthur rolled off him. “Are you always this stubborn and insubordinate?”

“Only when I’m trying to save the world.”

Merlin threw a pillow at him, which Arthur effectively dodged with a laugh. He slumped back against the covers, giving himself a moment to admire the view as Arthur retreated into the adjoining bathroom. He was just deliberating whether or not to leave the warmth of the covers and follow him when there was a muffled buzzing from his phone.

Merlin grunted, rolling over to retrieve it. It was a text message — one line.

Emrys. We need to talk.

Merlin went very still. There was no signature, but he recognised the number. A curl of trepidation and old resentment and something resembling unease tightened in his stomach, chasing away the warmth of Arthur’s presence in one fell sweep. In all the seven years since he had run from the Guild, Kilgharrah had never pursued him, never once initiated contact. Why now? What had changed?

“You’ve run out of toothpaste.” Arthur called from the bathroom. 

Merlin’s head jerked up, and he realised he had been staring at the message for some time. He swallowed. Hesitated. Deleted it. 

“Cupboard under the sink, top shelf.” He called back.

There was a grunt. “Ta.”

Merlin barely heard him. There was a strange rushing sound in his ears. He hated that even now, seven years later, one message from the Dragon still had the power to reduce him to a terrified little boy.

Despite contacting Kilgharrah himself a few weeks ago, Merlin was still unsure where he stood with the Dragon. The final words of his letter were still uncomfortably prominent in Merlin’s mind. I hope to hear from you again, Emrys. Remember, you will always have a place among us if you choose.

Recruitment. That had always been the Dragon’s aim, although Merlin had never understood Kilgharrah’s particular interest in him. Even from the time he first arrived, it was no secret that Kilgharrah favoured Merlin above all the others, however that favouritism might have manifested.

Kilgharrah had given him everything, but then he’d also taken everything away. He had taken Merlin in when he’d had no one, loved him like family, yet he put him in the most dangerous positions. He nurtured and educated him, called him his protege, yet he’d decimated his innocence the first time he’d made Merlin end a life, the countless instances he had used Merlin time and time again for his own gain.

Merlin could no sooner sort out his feelings towards the Dragon than he could count the stars in the sky. Perhaps it had been a mistake contacting him at all. 

After another ten seconds of staring blindly at his phone, Merlin tossed it to the side and rolled out of bed, dragging the sheet still wrapped around him. 

Arthur’s eyebrow rose in the bathroom mirror as he entered. “What are you—”

Merlin collapsed against Arthur’s back, tucking himself into his body, rewrapping the sheet so that it enveloped both of them. For some reason, he was suddenly craving the physical contact with Arthur. 

Arthur made a little surprised noise at the sudden weight but caught him, setting the toothbrush down as Merlin pressed his face against Arthur’s neck, breathing him in.

“Hey,” Arthur murmured softly, reaching up to stroke through Merlin’s hair in an automatic soothing reaction.

Merlin closed his eyes and breathed.

“You okay?” Arthur said, after a moment.

Merlin nodded against his neck.

“Okay, well that wasn’t especially convincing, but I’m willing to let it slide for now,” said Arthur, turning to brush a kiss over the curve of Merlin’s ear.

The sudden swell of tenderness that buffeted Merlin was startling, and for a moment he could hardly breathe. He wound his arms around Arthur’s waist, opened his eyes to meet Arthur’s slightly concerned blue ones in the mirror.

God, but Arthur was gorgeous in the morning. The sleep in his eyes, the scruff of unshaven stubble on the line of his jaw, his hair sticking out stubbornly in the artful just-been-thoroughly-shagged way. The calm steadiness of him, astute and aware, even though he must be exhausted from the endless stream of missions of the past week. The warmth of him, solid and real as he held Merlin in a tight hold that promised never to let go. The unswerving faith in his gaze, solid and sure even despite all the shite Merlin had put him through.

Merlin didn’t deserve him.

Merlin sucked in a hitched breath, and buried his face back into Arthur’s neck.

“Come back to bed,” he said.

Arthur’s eyes softened slightly, mouth curving in amusement. “Merlin, we can’t,” he began, “the mission—”

Merlin folded himself impossibly closer, his bare chest burning into Arthur’s back, half-hard already.

“— the mission,” Arthur tried again, a little more unsteadily.

One of Merlin’s hands drifted down, stroking Arthur’s rapidly hardening cock just as he pressed his own length against Arthur’s behind, and really that was just unfair. Arthur let out a small, ragged breath.

“Minx,” he breathed, and Merlin felt a tiny smile creep across his face.

“I’ve never been called that before.”

“Well you are. A bloody menace.” Arthur managed. “You with your… cheekbones and playing with that damn neckerchief all the time and undressing me with your eyes every time I walk into the room.”

“I don’t do that.”

“Yes you do.” Arthur turned his head, pressed a kiss to the corner of Merlin’s mouth. “And then there’s that voice.”

“Voice?”

Arthur hummed, the sound vibrating through his chest. “In my ear. All the bloody time. Do you even realise how awkward it is to be sporting a raging hard-on when you’re trying to seduce the daughter of a Belarusian arms dealer? All because I’ve got you in my ear musing about what you’re going to do to me when I get home. In french.”

Merlin snorted inelegantly. “I thought I rather helped the situation actually. I’ve never seen a girl so flattered.”

Minx.” Arthur repeated. Merlin laughed, and Arthur wanted to taste it, so he did. “You’re incredibly sexy when you’re rearranging the world from your desk.” He continued. “I’d bet good money half the minions are battling feelings of fear and sexual frustration just from hearing you snap orders over the comms.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Merlin told him, “and I never want to think of the minion’s sexual frustrations ever again — least of all in conjunction with me.”

“Mm, you’re right. We should stick to my sexual frustrations.”

Your sexual frustrations?” Merlin repeated with an amused lifted eyebrow.

Arthur flickered a smile at him and leaned over to press his lips to Merlin’s sternum. “You do not know how longingly I look upon you,” he said, “you must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking—”

Merlin’s breath hitched a little. “You—”

Arthur interrupted him, pressing a kiss to his lips before murmuring against them, “it comes to me, as of a dream,” He tipped his head, nuzzling at the curve of Merlin’s shoulder, breathing him in. “I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you, All is recall’d as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured…”

“You do know the poem.”

“Now I do,” Arthur said, honestly. “Because it’s a beautiful poem.” 

Merlin surged up to kiss him again, sudden enough that Arthur almost toppled over backwards before his hand found the back of Merlin’s head. The build was slow and luxurious, their breaths loud and heavy and practically in tandem as they traded control of the kiss back and forth. There was no tipping point when things became more urgent, they just got there gradually.

“Shower.” Arthur managed, when he had a moment to catch his breath.

“Thought you said you didn’t want to be late.”

“We’ll just have to be quick then, won’t we?”

“Ever the romantic.”

“Idiot.” Arthur said fondly. “Now shut up and come here.”

Arthur’s voice was low and smiling and heavy with promise. Merlin fought a grin, and slipped in to join him under the hot water.

To that end, they were not really so different to any other people in love. Carving out a place for the other until it became unthinkable to imagine life without them.

“I am to wait,” Arthur breathed against Merlin’s collarbone, as the water roared around them, etching the promise into Merlin’s skin. “I do not doubt I am to meet you again.” 

There was a shudder, a pulse of something other flaring in the air, and for a moment — just a moment — the onset of water pouring down froze in perfect stillness around them, thousands of minuscule droplets glimmering in the air, scattering the light. Arthur’s breath caught slightly at the sight.

And when he looked up, Merlin’s eyes were burning a bright, brilliant gold as he recited back to him the following, final line.

“I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”

 


 

Of course, the only dampener on their honeymoon period was that every one of those days brought them closer to the day Arthur would sneak off to Istanbul to confront a homicidal arms dealer.

“Right, so this is what we know.” Merlin made a gesture on his touchpad, and images appeared on all the surrounding monitors. “A British ship called the Mercia docked in Istanbul two days ago. Unregistered, private company, got no right to be anywhere near Istanbul. Cargo was taken off last night — all illegally exported US and UK arms. Based on the list of items on the account summary, we can assume Sigan will be using approximately twenty lorries to transfer the goods from his temporary base, here,” he highlighted an area of Istanbul harbour, “to the no-go customer somewhere in the Middle East. We have reason to believe Sigan will be overseeing the transfer himself.”

“Any idea as to the destination?” Leon asked.

“Negative. Although the buyer’s main assets are in Turkey, so that could be a lead.”

Arthur nodded. “So really we’ve got two options. I get on the inside and wait to infiltrate the handover, thereby taking us directly to the arms, delivering us Sigan and whoever's buying them caught in the act, and forcing the authorities to arrest them. All of this risking the chance that the deal goes ahead if something goes wrong.”

“Not terrible.” Percival allowed, his voice coming from one of the monitors where they were live-streaming him and Gwaine in Camelot.

“Or,” Arthur continued, “I put a bullet in Sigan’s head and blow his cargo to kingdom come, assuring the immediate termination of his operations and branding me an enemy of the crown out to incite international war.”

“An inconvenience we’d really rather avoid,” Merlin said mildly, whilst Leon gaped at them both.

“So those are our two courses of action?” He clarified. “Tail him and catch him in the act, or drop a missile on his head?”

“That about sums it up, yeah.”

“This is a shit choice.” Gwaine announced across the monitors. “This is a choice that fucks everyone who touches it.”

“What about the sorcerers on Sigan’s payroll?” Lance inserted. “That list accounted for two dozen ‘grade four’ sorcerers selling their skills to our anonymous buyer, and my bet’s they’ll be there for the handover. We’re not equipped to deal with a squadron of that size. Hell, we’ve barely managed to handle one of them, let alone twenty.”

“We may not have to,” Merlin replied, fiddling with his tablet again and pulling up a profile. “There’s a reason Aredian calls himself ‘the Witchfinder’; human trafficking took a turn for the magically gifted about ten years back, and Aredian’s at the head of it. The sorcerers in question are his, bought and sold, more slaves than mercenaries. My guess is that if it comes down to it, they’ll have no lingering love for their master.”

“That’s a mighty big ‘if’.”

“Well then if they turn out to be a problem, we’ll all just have to point and shoot and hope for the best,” Merlin said tightly. “Because that’s about as goddamn much as any of us can do.”

The frustration was evident in his voice. At his side, Arthur put a hand on his shoulder, and the thrumming tension in Merlin’s frame uncoiled slightly.

Leon eyed Arthur. “You’re being rather quiet, Arthur.”

“Because he’s already made up his mind.” Percival noted.

Arthur inclined his head as everyone turned to him. “Look, if I take Sigan out myself, if I decide that the law is corrupt and that the only solution is to start assassinating people on my own jurisdiction…that is dangerously arrogant. We may be going behind the government’s back, but that doesn’t mean we can start thinking of ourselves as above legislation. All we need to do is catch him at the right moment. Give the authorities something they can’t turn a blind eye to.”

“And if we can’t?” said Leon.

“Then I’ll shoot the bastard and be done with it.” Arthur replied evenly. “But only after we’ve at least attempted to do this right. I don’t particularly fancy being on the run for the rest of my life when MI6 throws me out for treason.”

“And what about your life?” Leon pressed. “You walk into that hornet’s nest, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be walking out again.”

“It won’t come to that.” Merlin’s voice was even, slicing through the room with chilling certainty.

Leon sighed, turning to him. “Merlin, you can’t guarantee—”

“I can and I will. It won’t come to that. I won’t let it.”

Coming from anyone else, the statement would have sounded petulant or laughable, but there was a strange authority in Merlin’s voice that Arthur hadn’t heard before — a weighted intensity to his words that thrummed with something other, something that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Merlin was looking directly at Leon as he said it, something significant passing in the air between them, and Arthur was more surprised than anyone when Leon bowed his head in silent acquiescence.

“Alright then,” Arthur said into the silence, flashing Merlin a look. “I’m going to need an in to Sigan’s network, I’m going to need an alibi, something that’ll get me close to him.” Then his gaze met Merlin’s, and the corner of his lips curved up slightly. “And I’m going to need a gun.”

 


 

In the end, it was surprisingly easy (that is, surprisingly easy for someone of Merlin’s capabilities) to get Arthur a way in. Underground contacts combined with their own surveillance notified them of a weapons demonstration happening just off the border, an exclusive ‘buyer’s meeting’ for potential clients and wealthy benefactors before the cargo was moved. All Merlin had to do was give Arthur’s alibi enough money, mutual friends with the right people, and evidence of shadowy dealings in his recent past to make him someone worth cropping up on Sigan’s radar.

“Damien Hartley?” Arthur read out, with some scepticism, as he glanced over the documents Merlin had left for him in a package at the hotel.

A small noise of affirmation in his ear. “You’re a wealthy property owner, decent history in commerce, hotels in London, Paris, Cairo, Switzerland, Hong Kong. Upper class toff with too much money, aggressive personality traits, and associations with the weapons industry. Whispers of some underhand dealings here and there if they go digging — misfiled police reports, mysteriously absolved law suits, some shady airbrushing of documentation and the like — nothing damning, but enough to entice them. Background checks out, I laid the bread trails myself.”

Arthur just managed to keep the impressed expression from his face, and settled for raising an aristocratic eyebrow as he angled his fake passport at the nearest CCTV camera. 

“Damien, though?” He said, letting a hint of petulance into his voice. “Seriously? Do I look like a ‘Damien’ to you?”

“Oh shut it you ungrateful arse.” Merlin said mildly. “Your invitation’s on your phone, so don’t you dare lose it. I’ve prepared a safety briefing for you to entirely ignore —”

“Which I will.”

“— Your radio, which you found already, now installed with an omni-directional GPS antenna and a Quad-Band GSM modem—”

“English, Merlin.”

A small huff. “It’s a very small, very powerful tracker allowing me to pinpoint your location from anywhere around the globe.”

“Ah. Distress beacon?”

“Naturally.”

“Hmm. What’s this?” Arthur picked up a briefcase with a coded touchpad on its side, eyeing it curiously.

“That's for if things get really hardcore. Or if you want to blow up a moon.”

“No one's blowing up the moon.” He said a little sternly.

“And I thought you liked my explosive accoutrements.”

Arthur’s mouth twitched into an unbidden smile. Merlin had grown marginally more quiet over the past few days, and it was strangely comforting to hear his usual snark, even if it didn’t have quite the same light mischief Arthur was accustomed to. Arthur would have to be an idiot not to notice, and he didn’t have to pretend to know the reason for it.

The night before, the final night before Arthur was due to fly out, Merlin had led him to bed with golden eyes, something like desperation in his kisses as they’d lost themselves in the heat and the press of skin-to-skin. The next morning, Arthur had woken to find Merlin lying awake beside him, watching him as though afraid he might disappear.

“You didn’t sleep at all, did you?" Arthur said softly, sweeping his thumb across the dark shadows under Merlin’s eyes. Merlin said nothing, only turned his head to press a kiss to Arthur’s palm.

Arthur’s plan centred around three priorities: to make certain that the weapons didn't fall into enemy hands, whoever those hands belonged to; to ensure that their fragment of Triskelion remained secure and protected at all times; and, most importantly, to ensure that Sigan and his lackeys grew none the wiser regarding Merlin’s more off-the-record-activities. 

If reaching all three priorities meant letting whatever parties that were coming to claim the weaponry get away, that wasn’t Arthur’s problem. If securing the weaponry meant blowing it to kingdom come, well, Merlin had provided him with a number of gadgets with ample destructive capabilities should it come down to that. If ensuring the secrecy of the mission and the protection of the Triskelion (and indeed, of Merlin) meant leaving his team behind, forgoing MI6’s resources, and going in solo with no backup but Merlin on an off-the-shelf laptop to pull him out if this all went to shite, Arthur wasn’t about to lose any sleep over it.

Of course, Merlin took a slightly less blasé view when it came to Arthur diving heedlessly into the shark-infested waters without a second thought for his own safety. 

“…the conference starts in an hour, car will be waiting for you,” Merlin was saying. “Once you’re in, I strongly suspect they’ll have extensive security measures and a complete blackout on outgoing communications, so I can’t promise how much I’ll be able to intervene if this all goes to shit.”

“Understood.”

A pause. Arthur could hear Merlin’s breathing across the line, could almost sense him biting at his lip in silent agitation.

“Merlin, it’s going to be fine, you hear me?” Arthur said softly. “We’ve done this a hundred times before.”

There was a small, strangled laugh from the other end of the line. “Infiltrated a major terrorist organisation with just one man?”

“No.” Arthur said, “with two.” At Merlin’s silence, he pressed on. “We’ve succeeded against the odds countless times, you and me. This is just another mission.”

“Another mission where I can do nothing but sit and watch you throw yourself into harms way time and time again from the safety of my electronic perch in your ear.”

“Come now, don’t sell yourself short. The entertainment value alone of your sardonic commentary and surly retorts have saved me from strangling myself from pure boredom on more than one occasion.”

Merlin’s breath caught on a huffed laugh, making Arthur smile.

“Merlin, listen to me,” he said. “Before you came along… I was good, alright? I did the job, I didn’t die. That’s more than you can say for a lot of double 0 agents. I told myself I didn’t need anyone else, that’d they’d only slow me down because I was just that good. But then…” He swallowed. “But then you saved my life. Twice. God knows how many more times. You fought me tooth and nail the entire time but never left my side, and suddenly I wasn’t just good at this job, I was better than I had ever been, and that was entirely down to you. You make me better, and I’m not just talking about mission success.”

There was silence on the other end, and Arthur found himself wishing he could see Merlin’s face to know what the silence meant.

“I might face death, but I don’t seek it.  Not anymore,” he said softly. “And right now there is no one else I would rather have by my side.”

Arthur heard Merlin exhale. Another pause. 

Then, when Merlin spoke again, there was only the slightest waver to his voice. “Don’t get shot in any major arteries.”

Arthur smiled. “I love you too.”

 


 

The compound was situated comfortably in the middle of nowhere. The Syrian border was two-hundred miles to the south, the capital another hundred miles to the west, surrounded by nothing but mountains and wasteland and the patchwork of refugee camps, white tents against orange rock.

After several rounds of checkpoints, surveillance, electric fencing, barbed wire, and on-foot patrols, Arthur was finally allowed to pass, and was driven to the largest outbuilding about a kilometre down on the deep property. He had already memorised the blueprints Merlin had lifted from their systems that morning, and knew that the real laboratories were all underground. His gaze lingered on the smallest building on the property — a long silver warehouse that Arthur knew had transport containers hidden inside, ready to be shipped out at a moments notice.

Upon entering, Arthur was searched a further three times, subject to an full body scan, and made to stand and wait impatiently whilst some blank-faced security guard checked his invitation for what seemed like the millionth time.

“Not that this isn’t fun,” Arthur drawled, after the guard had started reading it through again, “but I do have somewhere else to be. If you’ve quite finished wasting my time.”

The words were low and suave, all polished arrogance and aristocratic derision with an underlying edge of warning. The guard eyed him silently, a penetrative gaze that Arthur met evenly. The guard looked away first.

“My apologies. Welcome to the demonstration, Mr Hartley.” He said at last, holding out Arthur’s phone and standing aside to let him pass.

Arthur made a small, unimpressed noise, took the phone and swept past him. 

Inside, the rest of the party appeared to have arrived already, and were clustered in tight groups of hushed conversation. Arms dealers and mercenaries, politicians and generals, world leaders and gang leaders — all mingling together under a common purpose: to see what new powers would be governing the battleground in the coming years, and to claim whatever piece of it they could for themselves. 

At first, there seemed to be an overall cold shoulder from a group of people who didn't care who the bastard was who'd come late and proceeded to waltz through the building as if he owned the place. Then Arthur struck up a conversation with an arms dealer from the far east that no one else had yet dared approach, radiating charm and arrogance and obnoxious superiority, and within a minute was being introduced to several of the man’s contacts.

By the time Cornelius Sigan himself entered the room, Arthur had made himself at home at the centre of one of the larger groups, conversing easily with a group of men who would sooner shoot down a suspicious new character than to welcome him in, yet that had made room for him as if he'd been one of them all along.

Heads up,” Merlin’s voice spoke up in his ear. He’d been largely quiet so far, content to let Arthur take the lead on charming everyone and their mother. “We’ve got our man on the scene. Coming in at your seven.”

Rolling his shoulders, Arthur glanced casually to the side to see a tall, gaunt-looking man in a grey Saville Row surveying the room with cool interest, dark, sunken eyes sizing up every man individually. He was younger than Arthur expected, more sleazy politician than war-seasoned veteran. There was something unsettling about him that Arthur couldn’t quite pin down, something oddly distant about his gaze that reminded Arthur of a shark, of those cold, dead-eyes behind glass. 

Arthur had encountered more than his fair share of monsters before. He’d dealt with murderers, assassins, psychopaths, terrorists, serial killers; none of them unsettled him like the man surveying the room before him. 

Arthur quickly turned away before those eyes could fall upon him. 

A minute or so later, there was the sound of someone tapping their glass, and a quiet hush fell upon the room, everyone turning to where Sigan stood at the centre of the room.

“Friends, colleagues, associates, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the demonstration today.” Though he did not speak loudly, his voice carried with ease — low and honeyed, with an assured sort of charisma that came from knowing you always had the upper hand. It was the sort of voice that demanded to be listened to, the sort of voice that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Arthur watched him closely.

“Some of you are investors, bankers. Some of you are military men. Some of you are great leaders.” Sigan acknowledged several individuals in turn, then paused, a small, thin smile stretching at his lips as he spread his arms. “Yet I say we all have one thing in common, and this is that we are businessmen. We’re entrepreneurs, innovators. We are men of vision. We are emperors of Rome, gentlemen. Blood and steel, the only elements that ever meant anything.”

There were several noises of affirmation across the room, men were nodding, raising their glasses. Arthur never stopped watching Sigan, and saw the brief, predatory gleam that came into his eyes before his expressed composed itself again.

“And that is why you are here, why any of us are here.” Sigan strolled forward, and the crowd immediately parted to let him through. “You see, when a continent enters into chaos, that's when opportunities open up. The British knew it in China, the Yanks in South America.” A shrug. “I’m doing the same here, just off the Syrian border, providing the latest weapons technology to fine upstanding gentlemen such as yourselves. But then, you already knew that, and you’re not here for me to tell you what you already know.”

Scattered laughter.

Sigan smirked, wider this time. He had finally reached the front of the room. “In a moment I will ask you to make your way outside where there will be a number of transport vehicles to take you to the testing ground for the demonstration. Before we do, however, I have a rather… special piece of merchandise I would like to show you.

“Now, they say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. Isn’t that right, Aredian?”

Arthur barely heard Merlin’s muffled curse in his ear. His fists clenched, nails digging into his palm as he fought the red wave of fury that momentarily blinded him. In his mind’s eye, he saw Merlin hanging from the rafters as he had been when Arthur had stormed the warehouse, bruised and bleeding, barely conscious from a beating he’d had the power to save himself from but hadn’t because of some stupid secret.

“Cornelius,” Aredian acknowledged as he swanned into the room behind them, and it took everything within Arthur not to react, not to launch himself across the room and destroy that bastard for ever laying a hand on Merlin —

“Tardy as ever, I see,” Sigan said. “I trust you have the package?”

“Your lack of faith wounds me.” Aredian replied drolly, and he tugged on something — a rope, or cord, and on the other end of it, a hooded figure with their hands bound, the cord pulled taunt around their neck.

Bloody hell.

The men around him were exchanging looks of confusion as the figure stumbled forward towards the front of the room. 

“Gentlemen, may I present the finest specimen of modern warfare to date. Something that far surpasses any of the weaponry you have seen so far today.” Sigan extended a hand to the figure, and even before he said it, even before the hood was ripped off, Arthur knew. 

Sigan’s eyes gleamed. “Magic.”

The man beneath the hood was young, about Arthur’s age. His clothes were shabby, his face hollowed and wan. There was a strange metallic-like collar around his neck.

His eyes were glowing a bright, sickly orange.

There was a collective intake of breath from around the room, and it was a physical effort for Arthur not to reach for his weapon.

“Mr Sigan?” One of the arms dealers had spoken up. “What is the meaning of this?”

“This?” Sigan repeated, turning to face the speaker. “This is power, gentlemen. Pure and simple. Aredian, if you would.”

At the signal, Aredian bent forward to remove the cord from around the sorcerer’s neck just as a panel that Arthur had mistaken for a wall slid open, revealing a great open plain of land stretching out into the dwindling light. The sorcerer was given a small shove outside. The man’s lips tightened. Then he muttered something, a curse or a prayer, some guttural outcry that Arthur couldn’t make out, and suddenly flames were erupting from the man’s palms. The men around Arthur leapt back, startled exclamations filling the air. Arthur held his ground; he could see that the flames would never reach them. They stopped about a foot from where he stood, so close he could feel the blistering heat upon his face, before recoiling with a snap and disappearing with a faint crackle.

“Power,” Sigab repeated, meeting the wide-eyed gazes of his guests. “I can promise you, what you’re seeing is not a trick. The power of sorcery is a very real, very potent ability accessible to just over 4% of the world’s population, as it has been for hundreds of years, only recently harnessed by myself. And this is what I am offering you today.”

As he spoke, Sigan withdrew a Glock from his belt, and fired once at the sorcerer. Just before the bullet could reach him, however, there was a flash of blue light, and the bullet rebounded off a shield. More murmurs and exclamations came from the crowd.

A small smile curved Sigan’s lips, and he gestured with the Glock to the sorcerer. “Imagine an assassin who can kill with a word. Imagine a soldier who could set off a nuclear explosion, or bring down a building, or stop a bullet, with nothing but a wave of his hand. Imagine an army of such men with a power no military can hope to shield against, with an offensive force that caters to every scenario.”

Out of the lengthening shadows, a dozen or so armed combatants dressed in black had emerged into the light, forming a perimeter around the sorcerer. The sorcerer’s eyes flickered back and forth. His hands twitched. As if by some unspoken signal, the men surged forward, deadly intent in every movement —

The sorcerer barked a harsh command — Ástríce! — there was a crack, a flash of blinding light, and all twelve men were sent flying back as though smacked by an invisible force, crashing to the ground some distance away. They did not get up.

The men around Arthur were beginning to look uncertain.

“Imagine a world where the most dangerous weapon is man himself,” Sigan continued smoothly.

Overhead, there was the sound of propellers as a chopper flew over them. The sorcerer glanced at Aredian, who nodded. A raised arm, another garbled exclamation of syllables, and a red ball of light  shot into the sky from the sorcerer’s palm, a deadly arc of blistering energy —

BAM

The orb of magic collided with the chopper, and the entire thing exploded in a great eruption of fire and metal, screaming as it spiralled and crashed to the ground. A great boom shook the air as a great mushroom cloud of fire and ash billowed into the sky from the wreckage.

Silence. There was a terrible gleam in Sigan’s eyes as he turned back to his audience. 

“Now imagine owning that power.”

A small, jerking nod to Aredian, who withdrew a small device and pressed a button. 

There was a second where nothing happened. 

Then the sorcerer screamed, crumpling to the ground. It was a terrible, animalistic sound — a sound of thoughtless agony, where pain had overridden every human impulse until nothing existed but the desire for the pain to end. Around the man’s neck, Arthur saw his collar was giving off sparks, emanating a faint blue glow. Arthur felt vaguely sick.

Sigan strolled over to the sorcerer, where he lay, still convulsing, on the ground, and gave the man’s head a nudge with his foot, a small curl of amusement on his lips. Some of the men around him laughed. 

Arthur stilled. Anger, cold and violent, crashed through him, and suddenly it took an immense effort within him not to surge forward and wrap his hands around that scrawny throat for the sudden, blinding rush of red that swept through him —

Don’t.” Merlin’s voice brought him back like a dousing of water. God knew how he had known — Arthur’s expression had barely flickered.  “Arthur, you can’t. You can’t, you hear me?”

Arthur exhaled raggedly, the breath hitching a little in his chest.

“Stop. Think. Look around you.” Merlin’s voice was cool and crisp and calm, the perfect anchor. “You’d never make it out alive, and there’s far too much at stake here. Now is not the time to play hero.”

He was right. Damn it, of course he was right. Arthur’s fists unclenched ever so slightly.

I’m sorry,” Merlin said after a moment, his voice gentling. “I know this is hard. But today we have to be soldiers, not heroes — soldiers. And that means to hell with anything that isn’t the mission.”

Arthur breathed, and straightened. He gave the tiniest of nods to the security camera on the wall in front of him.

“I know, you too. Now go and nail the bastard.”

Arthur’s mouth twitched, and he turned his attention once more to where Sigan was still spinning his pitch.

“…I have, at my disposal, a number of talented individuals like our young man here, trained and outfitted for maximum efficiency — anti-guerrilla tactics, how to deal with political insurgency, units ready to fight in deserts, mountains, cities, all available for contract hire or purchase at your own discretion. For a small surcharge, I can send in teams of our own to deal with specific targets. Assassinations, fake terror plots, even the odd coup.” 

Sigan nodded at Aredian, and he came forward to pull the sorcerer roughly to his feet, grabbing one arm whilst a blank faced guard caught the other. The sorcerer sagged between them, limp and unresponsive as they wordlessly dragged him away. For a moment, Arthur could all too easily see another in the anonymous sorcerer’s place, head bowed, blue-gold eyes beaten and dimmed as they marched him away —

Soldiers, Arthur reminded himself sternly, and shoved the mental image aside.

“These sorcerers represent the new elite of the armed forces, the new specialist regiment in modern day warfare. Gentlemen,” Sigan spread his arms, “they are the future. I thank you all for your time. Thank you."

Scattered applause. The murmurs grew louder as Sigan’s last words stirred up the crowd. 

“Now, if you would like to follow me for the second part of the demonstration—”

But Arthur was no longer listening. This wasn’t a weapons sale. This was slavery, pure and simple — human trafficking of some of the most dangerous people on the planet. And that was only the beginning.

Time to find out what was really going on here.

Arthur chose his moment carefully to slip away. In the hustle of eager arms dealers cramming themselves onto the waiting jeeps, no one noticed another figure melting into the shadows. By the time someone noticed that Damien Hartley was no longer with the group, Arthur was already long gone.

 


 

Merlin stared at the grainy image on the monitor in front of him, drumming his fingers absently on the keyboard. Every now and then, he could see a faint black outline shift across the view of the security surveillance he’d hacked into, nothing more than a slight blur as Arthur made his way across the compound. He resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder, check for the thousandth he wasn’t being watched. It was harder than he'd ever thought possible to act as if everything was fine.

Maybe everything was fine. Maybe his trepidation was wrong, maybe Arthur’s silent concern and late night obsessing over tactical countermeasures were unnecessary. Maybe Olaf’s warning — and Uther’s tactful negligence — were simply overreactions. Maybe Kilgharrah’s letter of caution all those weeks ago —you must tread carefully, for the man is not all that he seems — was just the Dragon being vague and melodramatic as per fucking always.

Maybe.

“Q.” Arthur’s voice was barely a murmur over the comms. “Biometric on the warehouse.”

Merlin shook himself mentally. There was still a job to do.

“Roger that,” he said crisply, hands already moving across the keyboard. “Hold your watch up to the scanner?”

Merlin couldn’t actually see Arthur give him the infamous Raised Eyebrow Of Incredulity, but he could imagine it all too well. 

“My watch.” Arthur repeated.

“Good, you were listening.”

There was a small huff as Arthur obliged. “Any other further functions I should know about? Poisoned clock hands? Geiger counter in the number twelve? No wait, let me guess, this one also makes a delectable cappuccino?”

“Just for that, 007, I won’t give you the one with the extra clip that also serves as a tea strainer.”

Arthur made a strange choking sound in his ear, and it took Merlin a moment of panic that Arthur was being attacked by an unknown assailant before he realised Arthur was trying not to laugh. An unexpected wave of tenderness made him blink rapidly, and Merlin had to swallow hard before entering the final command to bypass the security.

“Right, you’re in,” he said, a little thickly. “There aren’t any cameras inside, so I’ll be working blind. Do please try and give me some indication if you need help.”

“I’ll scream like a damsel,” Arthur promised, and on the monitors Merlin saw him slip inside. 

Merlin huffed. The next few minutes seem to last a lifetime. With no visuals, all Merlin had was the faint sound of Arthur breathing over the comms to reassure him Arthur hadn’t been brutally murdered in the time since he had gone in. In fact, so on edge was he for the slightest noise, the sudden buzzing of his phone vibrating on the desk almost had Merlin falling out of his chair. 

He didn’t look at the caller ID as he answered, temporarily muting his end of Arthur’s comms as he did.

“Q.” He answered briskly, never once taking his gaze from the monitors.

“You’ve been dodging my calls.”

Merlin froze. It was a voice he instantly recognised. A voice of grating, rumbling resonance, a voice that spoke of thunder and discord beneath the cordial tones. 

“Kilgharrah.” He said, and the hostility in his voice surprised him. It was the first time he had spoken to his former mentor in seven years. Apparently that hadn’t been enough time to soothe over former resentments. He glanced around quickly to see if anyone was watching. “What do you want?”

“Come now, Emrys, is that any way to greet an old friend?”

Merlin’s jaw twitched. “Don’t play games with me, Kilgharrah. What do you want?”

There was a sigh on the other end. “To make amends.”

“Forget it.”

“You haven’t heard what I’m offering.”

“Not interested.”

The sigh sounded more impatient this time. “Merlin, my son—”

“I’m not your son.” The words tore from him unbidden, savage and bristling with long-buried hurt. Merlin struggled to keep his voice down. “I never was.”

There was a long pause on the other side, so long Merlin thought he’d hung up. When Kilgharrah spoke again, his voice was unbearably gentle. 

“Merlin. All I’ve ever wanted to do is keep you safe.”

“Yeah? You’ve got a funny way of showing it.” There was a strange, fragile quality to his voice that Merlin didn’t like. "How old was I when you first had me robbing banks? Seven? Eight? How many times did you lend me out to do your dirty work? Or was I just another tool for you to use and discard whenever it suited you?” His voice broke a little at the end, the ran-out-of-words tightness in the throat that welled up and prevented him from continuing.

“Everyone has to earn their place.” Kilgharrah replied evenly. “My protection isn’t freely given, you know that.”

Merlin bit back a retort. “I don’t have time for this. Don’t call me again.”

He made to hang up, when —

“The young Pendragon.” Kilgharrah said suddenly, and Merlin froze again. “He’s in Istanbul right now, isn’t he?”

A beat. Merlin swallowed hard, hearing his heart thudding in his ears as he hastily ensured the line was secure. “How the hell did you—”

“Get him out.” Kilgharrah interrupted, and when he spoke again, his voice was heavy with foreboding. “If you ever trusted me at all, you’ll get that boy out now.”

“Why?” Merlin demanded. “What is it you know?”

“Heed my words, young Warlock. And remember, the help I give is not unconditional.”

“Kilgharrah—”

“Merlin!”

Leon’s voice tore him away for a split-second, and when Merlin next looked back at his phone, Kilgharrah had already ended the call. Damn it. 

Taking a deep, steadying breath, Merlin turned to the double 0 where he had just burst into the room.

“Leon?”

“It’s Freya.” He said, his voice a hushed crackle of urgency. “She’s gone.”

“Gone?” Merlin repeated. “What do you mean gone?”

“I mean she’s gone. Vanished without a trace.” Leon paused. “Merlin, if Sigan’s men got to her…”

Shit. Merlin’s blood went cold. 

If Sigan’s men had gotten to Freya, they’d know she’d have talked. And if they found out what she’d given them, what vital, oh-so-secret intel they now had…

If you ever trusted me at all, you’ll get that boy out now.

Merlin closed his eyes for a minuscule second, blood roaring in his ears at the sudden tearing in his chest, at the blind, unthinking terror that momentarily paralysed him as he finished what Leon wasn’t able to.

“Arthur’s been compromised.”

 


 

Something wasn’t right. The instinct nagged at Arthur like a persistent itch as he scouted the dimly-lit warehouse, his footsteps barely a whisper on the ground. Two dozen trucks loomed up out of the darkness in front of him like silent sentries, dark tarpaulin shrouding their contents from view.    

There should have been guards. Sigan wouldn’t have just left the main body of his cargo unprotected. It should never have been this easy.

Arthur flicked back the tarp cover of one of the jeeps as he passed. Even in the dark, the elongated shape of the FGM-148 Javelin light anti-tank missile was unmistakable. A fire-and-forget system with an effective range of up to 2,500 metres, a tandem warhead fitted with two shaped charges, guaranteed for penetration of surface and base reactive armour. Swallowing, Arthur let the tarp fall back again. 

The next few jeeps held similar cargo — armour-piercing shells, man-portable surface-to-air missiles, cluster munitions, nerve gas and other WMD’s. When Arthur got to the fifth jeep, however, there was an additional padlock preventing it from being opened. He paused.

If Sigan was happy to leave bloody Napalm under nothing more than a tarp cover, then what the hell merited a padlock?

Sparing another glance around him, Arthur withdrew a set of lock picks he’d had since he was about fifteen, barely used, and made quick work of the padlock. It only took a minute for him to hear the tell-tale click, and the padlock fell open. 

Inside, the contents were almost disappointing. A single box about the size of a large toaster sat alone in the centre, its steel sides reflecting dully. It was bolted to the bottom of the jeep. Frowning, Arthur shifted forward to lay his hand against the side. It was cold to the touch — bizarrely so, given the outside climate. There didn’t appear to be any obvious way of opening it. Arthur sighed, and began to pull his hand away.

That was when the box began to glow a bright, fluorescent blue.

Swearing under his breath, Arthur yanked his hand away, but the damage was already done. Blue light was bursting from the hinges, brighter every second, flooding the warehouse with blinding luminescence.

Almost in the same moment, Arthur heard the distinct sound of the warehouse door opening.

Shit.

There was only one thing he could do. 

The spike of panic hardened almost immediately into cold action, instinct overriding thought, and Arthur threw himself into the back of the jeep, pulling the dark tarp shut behind him. Its heavy cloth blocked most of the light from escaping, and Arthur crammed his body against the sides to seal any gaps. Outside, the warehouse was shrouded in darkness once more. 

Arthur barely breathed as footsteps echoed near his location, eyes screwed tight shut to protect them from the blinding light. After a minute or so, he heard lowered voices, barely a few feet away from where he was hiding.

“See?” A voice said gruffly, his accent vaguely American. “What did I tell you? There’s no one here.”

There was a grunt from a second man. “Could have sworn I saw a light.”

“Yeah? And I could have sworn Mr Sigan was pretty damn clear when he said under no circumstances were we to leave our posts except in dire emergency.” Footsteps passed by just next to the jeep Arthur was in, leaving only the tarpaulin sheet between them. “Besides,” the first continued, “ain’t no one stupid enough to try getting in here.”

007,” Merlin’s voice spoke up suddenly in his ear, and it was only years of assassin’s instincts that kept Arthur from jumping and giving himself away. “Code red.”

Outside the jeep, the footsteps paused. “Did you hear something?”

The next few seconds seemed to last a lifetime. Every heartbeat seemed to echo in Arthur’s ears, his body betraying him even as it fought to accommodate for the sudden surge in adrenaline.

“Code red — abort mission. Confirm.”

Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, willing Merlin to stop talking. Unfortunately, the unspoken communication they seemed to have established face-to-face didn’t appear to be as effective long distance.

Arthur?” Merlin’s voice was as crisp and calm as ever, although Arthur could pick out the faint tremor underneath, “Arthur, do you copy? Get the hell out of there, you hear me?”

Shut up shut up —

From the other side of the tarpaulin, Arthur heard the almost inaudible shifting of feet, and could imagine the two men silently communicating, narrowing in on his position. He knew he only had seconds.

“Arthur.” Merlin’s voice cracked ever so slightly, “Arthur please.”

The unmistakable sound of pistol slides being racked sounded like a gunshot in Arthur’s ears. 

Damn it.

Everything seemed to slow down around him. His entire body coiled in readiness. His hands were steady. His eyes were steel. 

There was the faintest scuff on the ground as one of them shifted forward —

Arthur moved.

One hand tore back the tarpaulin cover, unleashing the dazzling blue light and momentarily blinding the two guards in front of him. In the same moment Arthur launched himself from the jeep and onto the nearest guard. His weight sent them both crashing to the ground. He deflected the rifle with ease, wrenching the guard’s arm around and head-butting the man with the dull crack. The guard went limp beneath him. Without stopping, Arthur threw himself to the side just as the second guard opened fire. He kept rolling, snatching up the first guard’s weapon, and leapt to his feet just as the second man paused to reload. A blink, and Arthur had the stolen rifle aimed at point-blank range right between the second guard’s eyes, steady as though he had just been walking down the street.

The guard froze, his face paling.

“Drop. your. weapon.” Arthur’s voice was a thunder crack, a command from on high. 

The guard dropped his weapon. Arthur kicked it away with his foot.

“Thank you,” he said cordially, and knocked the man out with a quick blow to the head. 

He crumpled to the ground with a dull thud.

“Merlin?” Arthur said, already moving to retrieve the second guard’s ammunition and security card.

There was a faint exhale of relief in his ear, although when he spoke Merlin’s voice was as steady as ever. “Arthur. You need to get out of there, I’m pulling you out.”

“What? Why?”

“Mission’s been compromised. Freya’s gone, we think Sigan might have got to her.”

Goddammit.

Arthur bit back a noise of frustration. “Merlin, we’re so close…if I leave now, we have nothing.”

“We’ll have you alive,” Merlin replied, impassioned. “That’s what we’ll have.”

In the distance, Arthur heard raised voices. The brief spat of gunfire must have attracted more attention than he’d initially thought. He glanced back at the glowing cube in the jeep, torn. Images flashed through his mind — of the sorcerer, firing destruction into the sky, crumpling on the ground with a scream of agony at Sigan’s feet. The staggering amount of weaponry surrounding him, ready to be sold to the highest bidder. The strange blue light leaking out from the box in front of him, humming with alien energy.

There was too much at stake, too much they didn’t know. 

Arthur closed his eyes.

“I can’t.” He said. “Not yet.”

“Damn it, Arthur—”

“I’m sorry, Merlin, but we might never get this chance again. I just need a bit more time.”

“You don’t have time,” Merlin snapped, and it was only a testament to how well Arthur knew him that he could hear the faint strain in Merlin’s voice. “Two patrols are converging on your position as we speak, a minute longer and you’ll be surrounded. And with what Kilgharrah said—”

“What?” Arthur said sharply. “What did Kilgharrah say?”

There was a split-second silence in his ear as Merlin hesitated, and Arthur took advantage of it — momentarily pushing aside his own curiosity.

“Look,” he said quickly, “if I stay on the inside, I can take you directly to the arms. I can deliver you Sigan and whoever's buying them, caught in the act. If I bail out now, we’ve got nothing. We don't have Sigan in possession of chemical weapons, we can't arrest him for corporate fraud, his name's not connected to any of this. His deal will go ahead, and we’ll be powerless to stop it. Am I wrong?”

Merlin paused for a long time. Then — “ten minutes.” Merlin sounded resigned. “You’ve got ten minutes, and then you get out, understood?”

“Ten minutes.” He confirmed. A pause. “Er, I don’t suppose you could direct me past the two patrols could you?”

There was a huff in his ear. “Exit the warehouse through the southern entrance — same door you came in. I’ll divert the guards.”

Arthur couldn’t help it. He smiled. “You’re the best.”

“Arse.” Merlin replied mildly, then, “Arthur?”

Arthur stopped by the door, snapping another magazine into the rifle he’d acquired. “Mm?”

Merlin paused. “Make it count.” 

 


 

The compound was eerily silent but from the sound of Arthur’s laboured breathing as he ran. In the dark, his figure was nothing more than a ghost, another flickering shadow on the walls.

“Stop.” Merlin’s voice inserted suddenly, and Arthur skidded to a halt. 

Seconds later, a squad of half a dozen men prowled past the turning he would have taken, weapons drawn. Arthur stayed exactly where he was, concealed in the shadows, and the men passed him by. He exhaled. 

“Okay.” Merlin said. “Take the next left, keep going. You’ve got a window of opportunity of about twenty seconds before another patrol comes in at your six.”

If Arthur was surprised at the precision of Merlin’s information, he didn’t show it. He obeyed without question, without thought — every sense and instinct attuned to Merlin’s voice. 

“Entrance to the underground labs is twenty feet to your right around the next corner, two men guarding the door. I assume that’s where you were heading?”

Arthur grunted. He slowed at the corner, slotting the rifle against his shoulder in the ready position. His sight’s lined up, his gaze narrowed, finger hovered over the trigger, inhale and —

“Wait.” Merlin said, and it was only years of honed muscle memory that prevented Arthur from pulling the trigger accidentally. 

A moment later, he saw the two guards raise one hand to their ears, presumably to their own earpiece radios, and leave their posts without another word, heading off in the opposite direction. 

“All clear.” Merlin said. 

Arthur flashed a suspicious look at the nearest security camera as he ran over. 

“Merlin, you do realise part of being an assassin means I am quite capable of dealing with two guards? I mean, very clever and all that, but I could have handled it.”

“Mm. And wasted two bullets you can’t really afford to lose, not to mention the attention the gunfire would have attracted especially after I worked so hard to keep your sorry ass clandestine.”

Arthur’s brow rose slightly as he scanned the stolen security card and slipped through the door. “Someone’s feeling sassy today.”

“Eight minutes.” Was all Merlin replied. Arthur rolled his eyes.

The lights overhead flickered as Arthur raced down the corridors, dispatching of another three guards along the way. There was no way of telling how much time had passed, other than the growing breathlessness as Arthur pushed himself harder. He was panting by the time he reached the great metal door that stood between him and the lab.

“Merlin?” He said.

“On it.” Merlin replied briskly, the faint tap of fingers on keyboard in the background. “Again, no visuals inside, so there’s only so much I can help.”

“Roger that.”

A jolt, a faint whir, and the metal door began to swing open. Arthur slipped inside, weapon drawn. His caution was unnecessary, however; the lab was empty. He lowered the rifle slowly, scrutinising the workspace. There were several operating tables littered with skeletons of machinery and an assortment of firearms in various states of assemblage, a row of intense-looking computers, a wall of diagrams that made no sense to Arthur, a glass wall showing a sealed room evidently for testing. Arthur ignored them, advancing forward to a series of locker-like compartments along the wall. 

“Hey Merlin,” he said, “think you could open some of these lockers?”

There was a soft noise of indignation in his ear, and then every single compartment beeped and swung open. “Any particular one?” Merlin said dryly.

A smile flickered at his lips, unbidden. Arthur scanned the contents quickly to find a seemingly random collection of objects — a golden cup, a staff, an ugly-looking bracelet, a blue stone. That last one gave him pause; it glowed with the same blue light as the box in the jeep back in the warehouse. In fact, now that he looked at the other artefacts, many of them appeared to be giving off a kind of luminescence, a heated shimmer in the air barely visible to the naked eye. 

Arthur frowned, glancing back at the scatter of tech on the tables. There was something he was missing here — he was sure of it.

They already knew Sigan was the reigning arms dealer for the western world. They knew he was putting together an army of hired or captured sorcerers, and that he wasn’t shy about using them.  

But why? What was Sigan’s end game?

Sigan’s words filtered back into his mind — “…the finest specimen of modern warfare to date. Something that far surpasses any of the weaponry you have seen so far today…”

Magic. Power. Control.

This was far bigger than an arms deal, far bigger even than the trafficking of sorcerers. This was about revolutionising the battleground for years to come.

This was about war.

“Merlin,” he said, in a voice that was remarkably calm, “can magic be imbued into inanimate objects?”

A slight pause. “Affirmative. It’s tricky, but possible.”

“So, hypothetically, one could take a magical force and combine it with a weapon of mass destruction? Say, a nuclear warhead, an electromagnetic pulse?”

“I mean, hypothetically, yes, but a transient electromagnetic disturbance is generally only damaging to electronic equipment, and modern technology is largely adverse to the old religion…” Merlin trailed off. “Arthur, what are you saying?”

Arthur glanced back at the blueprints on the wall, connecting them with the box he had seen in the jeep. Arthur was hardly a genius, but he could recognise a bomb when he saw one. Slowly, the dots began to join together.

“I think,” Arthur swallowed, “I think Sigan’s managed to create a kind of magical bomb — a multi-frequency EMP of sorts, adapted from the artefacts in these lockers.”

Merlin caught on quickly. “So you get a rapidly fluctuating high current and voltage surge drawing from a magical source, specifically targeting anything that isn’t innately magical…”

“Or anyone.” Arthur added grimly.

Of course. What was the best way to win a war between magic and the modern world? Cut out their technology at the source, even out the playing field. Sigan could take down whatever he wanted — power sources, communication, military response, intelligence. It was the perfect tool to kickstart a worldwide destruction on the magical scale. Arthur could think of a great number of people who would pay handsomely to own a device like that.

Merlin swore softly in his ear. “We can’t let this get out. If even one of those devices was set off…”

A muscle twitched in Arthur’s jaw, indecision warring with knowing what needed to be done.

They had enough evidence now in this facility to lock up Sigan for life on possession and exportation charges alone. Merlin could send off a mandate confirming the illegal cache of the weapons, take it to the FCO for top brass approval, initiate the deployment of troops at the border to seize the weapons and arrest Sigan all in less than twenty-four hours if the brass didn’t fuck about. They had everything they needed to bring him down — all Arthur had to do was say the word. 

And yet.

If Freya really had been compromised. If Sigan put two and two together and figured out his knew ‘client’ was in fact an MI6 assassin. If the brass delayed too long in issuing the order or shared Uther’s stance on Sigan’s more illicit activities…

If Sigan knew that Intelligence was onto him.

Arthur closed his eyes. Essentially, that was the game changer. Twenty-four hours was nothing in the scheme of things, but it was more than enough time to clear that facility if Sigan had been tipped off. By the time the FCO cleared the order — if they even cleared it — Sigan could have already gone ahead with his deal. The weapons would be on their way to a new location in the hands of some of the dangerous men in the west, and Sigan would have disappeared once more, unaccountable for the bloodshed that would inevitably follow. Twenty-four hours could make the difference between saving a lot of people, and letting a monster slip through the net once again.

And Arthur wanted to trust his country. He wanted to have faith in its leaders. He wanted to believe that when the time came, they would respond with honour and principle and do the right damn thing for once regardless of ambition or self-preservation or fear.

But Arthur had believed in his father up until last week, and he couldn’t chance being disappointed again. There were too many ‘ifs’, too many things that could go wrong. And in the end, they couldn’t risk this new weapon falling into the wrong hands.

Arthur opened his eyes, eyes hardening with new resolve, narrowed with thought.

“My briefcase,” he said suddenly. “Merlin, how powerful did you say the explosion would be?”

“Enough to bring down a building, maybe.” Merlin said. “Why?”

“And if it were conveniently planted, say, in a warehouse full of extremely volatile weaponry?”

“Are you mad?” Merlin hissed.

“You were the one who said we can’t let this get out, and you’re right — we can’t.”

“I didn’t exactly mean you should go and blow up the entire facility!” Merlin bit out emphatically. “What happened to bringing in the authorities?”

“I’ve just told you Sigan’s developing a weapon that could wipe out an entire country’s defences in one blast, that could very well destroy the modern world as we know it, and you want to go to the authorities?” Arthur said, a little incredulously. He shook his head. “Besides, we don’t have time. Sigan will be finishing his sales pitch any minute now, and for all we know, these weapons could be shipping out tonight. We can’t afford to wait for a government intervention.”

“Alright, fine, so we blow it.” Merlin conceded tersely. “But what about you?”

“Hmm? What about me?”

“Well I assume you have some