The night was clear as they approached the compound. The air carried the salty tinge of the ocean. The wind pulled lightly at their clothes. It was painfully quiet.
Merlin closed his eyes, breathed in fresh air, the faintest hint of airborne frost brought with the vanishing heat of night.
He remembered standing on the peaks of the Gaul, spinning wisps of cloud with his fingertips, the weight of water pooling in his palms, the mist curling past his teeth like smoke.
He imagined the smell of rain. He imaged the taste of it — salty fresh, like ice and metal.
He imagined how it would shimmer in the pale light, how it would turn the moon liquid, soaked in snowmelt. How it would drench the earth, and the world would seem to exhale.
He held that feeling in his mind, crystalline clear.
And then everything was washed away by a feeling like the sky yawning as swathes of cloud melted out of the great black of the night sky, and the world transformed into a glittering deluge of rain.
“What is it with you and unleashing weather on us without warning?” Galahad grumbled, looking drenched already as he pulled his collar up.
“No one trying to sneak in anywhere would do it on a clear night if they could help it,” Merlin explained. “Movement is too noticeable, sound carries too far.”
“Yes.” Geraint said. He made sarcastic jazz hands. “That’s why we have magic.”
“Even magic is fallible. The noise will mask our steps for us, and no one will be looking too closely at a few extra figures in this kind of rain. Don’t underestimate the power of a simple solution.”
Drea hissed in displeasure, giving up trying to shield her eyes. “I can’t see a thing!”
“Neither can the people with guns,” Merlin said pointedly. “Besides. We don’t need to rely on eyesight to see where we’re going.”
“Maybe you don’t,” she muttered.
Lamorak side-eyed him curiously. “You can see the path ahead?”
“Can’t you?” Merlin said, surprised.
He shook his head, a tiny smile curling his lips. He seemed unbothered by the rain.
“Oh. Well.” Merlin thought for a moment, then tweaked his shields that masked his magical signature, extending them to include the group. “You can sense me, though, right?”
Drea snorted so hard she nearly tripped over. “Oh we can sense you, wonder boy. Like a bloody walking sun.”
“Anthropomorphic mass of pure energy, I can work with that. Just stick close to my position, and you’ll be fine.”
“No need to tell me twice,” Geraint said far too happily, and teleported next to him. He had done this enough times in the Gaul that Merlin no longer jumped when he appeared out of thin air.
His brother was a heartbeat behind, sidling up to Merlin’s other side and taking sticking close rather literally.
Merlin rolled his eyes, but their antics did make him smile, and he had to admit the comfort of the twins flanking him was nice. Drea and Lamorak fanned out behind them, and Mordred silently brought up the rear, his shields already enclosing them all in their protection.
Together, they advanced towards the compound. It had taken them the better part of the day to reach and another few hours to find: combing the fifteenth arrondissement where Morgause had marked out points of interest until they stumbled across a facility far too heavily guarded to be anything else.
Unlike the base Arthur had blown up in Istanbul, squirrelled away in some forgotten part of the desert, this base was hidden in plain sight — a collection of long, grey warehouses set back along the industrial part of the harbour. Some were large enough to house entire ships if they had to, although Merlin doubted there was anything nautical about their contents. Others were little more than outbuildings, linked together by a maze of undercover walkways and neon-lit corridors. The entire facility was surrounded by thick, electric fencing topped with barbed wire, leaving one heavily fortified entrance for vehicles to pass through. The area within was bathed in floodlights, scrutinised by cameras mounted on every doorway and on a dozen towers around the perimeter. If that wasn’t enough, there were also armed guards patrolling the inside of the perimeter.
Merlin send a tendril of magic to probe at the outermost fence. He could feel the hum of electricity zapping against his skin. Breaking it would take a fraction of a thought, but would almost certainly trigger some sort of alert, and the whole success of extracting Gaius depended on their presence going unnoticed.
Carefully, Merlin withdrew, leaving it be. He turned his attention instead to the metal rings of fencing, the barbed wire criss-crossing in a lethal tangle. He didn’t cut through them — didn’t sever or damage the metal in any way. He merely moved them. The thick rungs and barbed wire parted with a wave of Merlin’s hand. The razor-sharp metal snaked like living vines, curling into tight coils that left a gap in the fence for them to pass through.
“Did you teach him that?” Merlin heard Drea whisper back to Mordred.
“Nonverbal inorganic matter manipulation?” Mordred grunted. “If you call standing and watching him do it without any instruction whatsoever ‘teaching’.”
Galahad inched closer, whispering conspiratorially. “What did he do? The first time?”
“Moulded the stone of the castle to make a secret passageway from his room to mine.”
“He has a secret passageway?!” Drea gasped.
“I want one.” Geraint declared.
“Why to your room though?” Galahad asked.
“Apparently he had a burning question about wards and couldn’t be bothered to walk the length of the castle,” Mordred grumbled. He paused, adding, “At two in the morning.”
Lamorak looked like he wanted to laugh but respected Mordred too much to do it to his face. “Does he do that a lot?”
Mordred sighed, with great pain. “You have no idea.”
// ‘That was one time.’ // Merlin cut in to Mordred telepathically, faintly exasperated. // ‘And in any case, you never answered my question. You just warded the passageway so I couldn’t use it anymore until I worked it out myself.’ //
Mordred looked faintly smug at that. // ‘And it worked,’ // he thought back. // ‘You learned how to break enchantments, and I got some sleep.’ //
// ‘I find your teaching methods vague and unconvincing.’ //
// ‘Standard teaching methods are ill-equipped to handle someone like you.’ //
// ‘Someone like me?’ //
// ‘You try training someone with the power of a nuclear reactor and the impulse control of a hyperactive puppy.’ //
Merlin glared at him. // ‘I have impulse control!’ //
Mordred glared right back. // ‘You astral projected all the way to London because you ‘had a funny feeling’.’ //
// ‘That was accidental.’ //
// ‘You grew an entire orchard of cherry blossom trees overnight in the middle of winter because Lamorak said he had never seen one before.’ //
// ‘He was sad! Have you seen Lamorak’s sad face? With the eyes? The little droop in his shoulders? It was unacceptable!’ //
// ‘Sentient. Trees.’ //
// ‘For the last time, they were already sentient, and you can’t just keep bringing that up in every argument we have.’ //
// ‘I won’t have to. No doubt you’ll do something equally chaotic before our next disagreement, anyway.’ //
Merlin restrained the urge to poke his tongue out at him. No matter how far they may have come since they first met, Mordred still had an uncanny ability to push his buttons.
He focussed back on the task at hand instead, faintly disturbed that he was having to be the responsible adult here. Whenever he was the mature, sane one, it was clearly a sign that things had gone horribly awry.
// ‘Alright,’ // he thought, extending his thoughts to the others as well, and some of them jumped. // ‘Best keep comms telepathic from here on. We’re about to pass through their perimeter, and I don’t want to trip any alarms.’ //
Drea nudged Mordred, directing her thoughts to him alone. // ‘Did Merlin just hold a telepathic field around us all at once?’ //
// ‘Evidently.’ // Mordred thought back, his resignation almost tangible.
// ‘I can listen in, too.’ // Merlin inserted dryly, and Drea jumped for a second time, wheeling around to glare at him. He flashed her a sheepish grin. // ‘Can’t help it, sorry. You’re broadcasting.' //
// ‘Um. No.’ // Drea thought back. // ‘Actually, I’m not.’ //
// ‘Oh.' // Merlin went silent for a moment. // 'Is this another one of those things I shouldn’t be able to do?’ //
// ‘I’ll explain later.' // Mordred thought to him firmly. // ‘Merlin. Can you keep it up? The telepathic connection between us all?’ //
Merlin thought for a moment, probing the mini network he had woven between them. The pull on his magic was infinitesimal, akin to the effort of turning his gaze or blinking.
// ‘I don’t see why not.' // He offered.
Galahad snorted, half in disbelief. His brother shoved him lightly.
// ‘Do it.’ // Mordred thought. Then smaller, to himself in a passing thought that he probably didn’t intend for Merlin to hear. // ‘Fuck, we might actually survive this.’ //
Merlin stifled a smile.
It felt strange being on this side of a mission. Strange, to be the one on the ground rather than behind a computer screen, relying on magic to get them out of this rather than a few keystrokes if it all went to hell.
Merlin half expected to hear Arthur’s voice in his ear, making some quip about how terrorists never had the decency to cause trouble at a reasonable hour, having no respect for the sanctity of a Sunday morning lie-in. He half expected to look to his right and see Lance beside him, protecting his back with unflappable calm, or Gwaine, cracking some glib remark to offset the tension. He half expected to blink and be back at his desk in MI6, hands flying over the keyboard as he cleared the way for the double 0’s to do what they did best.
It probably said something terrible that the hyper-vigilance and tension of an operation like this only gave Merlin a warm flush of nostalgia. It turned out that hanging out with assassins had done something to normalise all this madness. Who’d have thought.
At least the lack of earpieces evidently wasn’t a problem.
// ‘Mordred?’ // Merlin called telepathically.
Mordred didn’t even need to ask. // ‘On it.’ //
There was a feeling like a blanket unfolding, a delicate wrapping of silky night wind, rich darkness cloaking them from sight. Merlin took a moment to admire the shifting light. No matter how much he practised, his light-bending never looked quite as seamless as Mordred’s.
// ‘Alright, well. Here goes nothing,’ // Merlin thought to him, eyeing the facility. // ‘Time to fuck shit up. Just like you taught me.’ //
// ‘I never taught you that. That is the exact opposite of what I’ve taught you.’ //
// ‘A little joke. Team building.’ //
Before Mordred could stop him, Merlin stepped through the gap in the fence into the compound.
Nothing happened. No siren. No whir of a camera, no cry of alarm.
Merlin didn’t bother hiding his smile now. It was all teeth, a sliver of a grin in the darkness.
Merlin had never before understood the deadly calm Arthur would sink into during a mission.
Arthur tried to describe it to him once — the heightened senses, every moment stretching out into infinity, something that went beyond mere adrenaline. Your body reacting before any conscious thought, trusting it, giving yourself over to it, surrendering to your base instincts because to stop to think would get you killed. The euphoria, the quiet, the icy stillness, the battle broiling in your blood, the crystalline moments, the peace and the thrill rolled into one.
Merlin understood now, though.
He could feel everything.
Every raindrop slowed, scattering the bright glare of the floodlights.
He turned his face up to the rain, felt its cold sting on his cheeks, the clouds above bristling with potential energy. His magic yawned, stretched, met the answering throb from the storm. The air hummed with him, like a tuned string. The earth shifted and sighed, creaked and cracked beneath his feet. Thunder rumbled from the clouds above.
Mordred glanced at him sharply as it all swept over him.
// ‘Easy,’ // he murmured over the connection. // ‘Remember your anchor. Keep your magic rooted.’ //
Merlin was already ahead of him. He reached deeper, felt the familiar curl of warmth in his bones. He felt for that essence of Arthur that was not magic, not exactly, but a tug, a warmth, like a campfire in the smoky dark of the forest: the perfect counter to the chaos and wildness running in his blood. Given a country divided them, Merlin was surprised how quickly the bond between them responded. Almost as though Arthur was closer than normal.
Now, Merlin’s magic unfurled, and he could feel the trauma imbued in these walls, the echos and imprints of suffering and cries in the dark. He could taste bitter iron on his tongue, smell the burnt ozone that was not of lightning, pure and zinging, but something else, something sweet and rotten and tinged with pain.
He could feel every life-force within this compound, indistinct murmurs and shiftings of energy, faint and incomprehensible but beating out their existence like tiny flames.
But he could not tell if Gaius was among them.
Time to resort to older methods then.
Merlin’s eyes narrowed, and he switched his sight from looking at to looking past.
“You can see the path ahead?” Lamorak had asked, and yes, that was sort of what it felt like.
In his mind’s eye, Merlin zipped through the compound, over the gates, through the doors, down corridors, searching until —
The central control room. They had to keep records of everyone in the compound. A quick hack into their databases would be much faster than searching every room.
// ‘This way.’ // He thought to the others.
He waited for the floodlight to pass before taking off across the loading bay towards the nearest building — a warehouse, barely visible in the torrential rain. The six of them pressed against the side of the building. A single guard stood sentry at the entrance, a machine gun holstered at his waist. Merlin peeled out of the dark, making himself unnoticeable the way he had once unconsciously done in Ealdor, pulling the silence around him like Mordred had taught him.
He touched the guard lightly on the temple. The man’s eyelids fluttered, his gaze rolling into the back of his head before his body succumbed to the powerful wave of drowsiness and collapsed. Merlin caught him before he hit the ground. He propped him up against the building just out of the rain, snagging his security card. He straightened to see five incredulous pairs of eyes staring at him, evidently thrown by his ease of action.
// ‘Easier than magically bypassing the security lock.' // Merlin offered, waving the key card with false joviality. The others said nothing. Merlin could feel their magic fluttering agitatedly with the excess adrenaline, shrinking with apprehension at entering the building.
// ‘Remember the plan,’ // he thought to them all. // ‘We go in, we get Gaius, we get out. It doesn’t have to be anything more than that. They have no idea we’re coming. They have no reason to expect us. We don’t engage, and we try to avoid being seen.’ //
// ‘What if they feel us coming?’ // Mordred thought. His face was pale beneath his hood, eyelashes wet with rain. // ‘You said Aredian had sorcerers under his command, and, well, your shields may be strong, but when you use your magic… the amount of power you have… it’s not exactly subtle. What if they sense you?’ //
Merlin’s eyebrow rose a notch. // ‘I’m surprised you’re so concerned with my safety.’ //
// ‘I’m not.’ // Mordred denied flatly. // ‘I just… don’t want them to miss you and hit me.’ //
// ‘Mm-hmm. Well how about I keep the magic to a minimum, and we steer clear of Aredian’s sorcerers. Sound good?’ //
Mordred scowled but dipped his head in agreement.
// ‘These sorcerers.’ // Galahad ventured. // ‘Are they allies or enemies?’ //
Merlin flashed back to what Arthur had witnessed in Istanbul — the collared man doing the demonstration, convulsing on the floor, versus the twelve sorcerers (some collared, but most — most not) who had pursued and nearly killed Arthur, and seemed to relish doing it. He remembered the way they had toyed with Arthur, barring his way with flame and taunting him with lightning before going in for the kill. He remembered the burns on Arthur’s back that had taken weeks to heal, the way Arthur’s fear often stemmed from helplessness, and how he had woken up in silent fits of terror for nights after. Merlin felt a hot flush of anger.
// ‘Neither.’ // He replied. // ‘Some are working for Aredian by choice. Hired mercenaries or extremist visionaries, either way, they’ll sooner kill us than let us walk out of here. But some have been trafficked and sold themselves — they have electric collars that enforce obedience until they conform of their own will.’ //
// ‘So even those who might otherwise be on our side will still try to kill us,’ // Geraint surmised.
Merlin nodded. // ‘The best we can do is try not to attract attention at all. I don’t want to hurt anyone attacking us only because they have no other choice.’ //
// ‘That's all well and good out here, but inside we’ll have no cover’ // Mordred pointed out, and though his thoughts sounded calm Merlin could sense his rising panic. // ‘Bending the light and using perception filters isn’t foolproof. They won’t work on cameras as well, or a large group of people at once, and even it they did, people can usually detect something is there, even if they can’t focus on it.’ //
// ‘Yes, well. About that.’ // Merlin thought. // ‘Lamorak. I have an idea.’ //
The look of nervous scepticism Merlin got in return from Lamorak was almost entirely unwarranted.
A dozen miles away and fifteen-thousand feet in the air, Arthur threaded the holster straps through the tapes of his body armour and pulled everything tight, feeling his posture respond instinctively to the tension across his torso.
Nine other agents were doing the exact same around him on the deck — each and every one of them in head-to-toe black, goggles, and a balaclava that obscured their faces completely.
“Here,” one of them said, tossing a pack sack in Arthur’s direction. “Your sleeve.”
Arthur nodded his thanks. Kay was relatively new to MI6, so it was unlikely these men would recognise his voice, but he couldn’t afford to take any chances until he knew for sure. After all, these were Uther’s men, not his.
He began the process of configuring the adjustable webbing straps of the body harness, securing the pack containing the parachute to his body.
“It’s Kay, right?” another said, making a practiced shuffle toward him as the jet dipped. He sounded older than Arthur, with a faint Liverpudlian hint to his accent. “The new double 0?”
The others turned briefly as well, their body language curious and expectant. Arthur sent a silent prayer of thanks that Kay had been the one picked for this mission. He’d have never been able to get away with imitating Gwaine, or Lance or Leon or Percival; they were too well known at the River.
“That’s me,” Arthur conceded.
The first man held out a gloved hand. His voice was friendly and easy, with the air of someone who was used to being in charge. “I’m Luke. That one’s Daniel. I’m the one running point.”
“Sir,” Arthur acknowledged, taking the man’s hand.
Luke whistled. “Jesus man, hell of a grip you got there.”
“Sorry.” Arthur forced himself to let up the pressure he was exerting. He kept his voice very carefully neutral. “Any news on the target?”
“No sign of him in the town. Based on the surrounding area, I’d wager he must have gone into the rural parts to have avoided being seen for this long. We’ll start there, and work our way south until we hit the coast. He’ll have to surface eventually, and when he does, we have our orders. No quarter. No mess. Quick and clean.”
Luke’s voice was genial enough, his orders clinical and professional, and it took every ounce of self-control Arthur possessed to keep from breaking his nose. These men were just following orders. To them, this was just another job. There was no point losing it now and jeopardising his position, no matter how much the casual way the man spoke about Merlin’s death made Arthur want to stab something.
“Rodger that,” he said.
If Luke picked up on the edge to his voice, he didn’t comment on it.
“I’m surprised M didn’t assign more of you double 0 bastards,” Luke admitted. “A couple of you are as good as an army, so I hear.”
“Don’t be daft,” Daniel scoffed from beside him. “Double 0’s are loyal to one man alone, that sure as hell ain’t M.”
There was a short, uncomfortable silence, to which Daniel continued, “What? Everyone knows it. I’m just saying it. Double 0’s may be the baddest motherfuckers around, but you’ve got to have had your head in the sand this past year if you think they’ll answer to anyone but 007.”
Arthur didn’t react at all, though his gratitude at the scarf was covering his face suddenly increased tenfold. Across from him, Luke’s expression was similarly hidden, but Arthur sensed his gaze.
“Guessed M supposed you were new enough not to have been roped in to that little mutiny, hmm?” Luke mused.
“Mutiny?” A third man repeated, saving Arthur from answering. “I thought it was only 007 who got suspended?”
“Nah,” a fourth said. “Leave of absence, wasn’t it?”
Some of the others began to chip in.
“I heard he’s been on a top secret assignment. Somewhere out in ‘Nam.”
“So what, that casino in Macau just blew up by accident?”
“Someone’s always got beef with the Triad. Doesn’t mean it were 007.”
“Can you think of many other agents who could have taken on the whole syndicate in a single night?”
“I saw some footage you know, got a mate in Q-branch. Whoever busted those prisoners out, he fought like one of ours.”
“And 007 is certainly the only one insane enough to try it.”
“And lethal enough to pull it off.”
“What do you say, Kay?” Luke said, cutting through the rest of them whilst Arthur reeled at how goddamn surreal this was. “Is it true? That 007 came to blows with M, the night of the attack on the River? That he was suspended?”
“Wasn’t there,” Arthur refuted, shrugging. “Couldn’t say.”
“Why’d he go dark for so long after that, then?”
Because Uther’s solution to everything was to either kill it or lock it away, and he couldn’t stand anything beyond his control, least of all his own son.
“That’s above your security clearance, I’m afraid,” Arthur deflected.
“What about Macau?” pressed Daniel excitedly. “That was him, wasn’t it?”
“Above your clearance.”
“Is he on mission now?”
“Higher above your clearance.”
Daniel huffed in annoyance.
Luke sounded faintly more amused. “Alright, above our pay grade, I get it. What’s he like, though? Arthur Pendragon?”
Whatever answer Arthur might have come up with was thankfully prevented as the jet dipped again, shuddering slightly as the deck began to open.
“Approaching drop zone.” The pilot’s voice came over the comms. “Any lower and we’ll trip french radar. There’s a nasty storm in Marseilles, too — came out of nowhere — so I’m dropping you to the north. T-minus-ten until first drop.”
“Eh,” said Daniel ruefully. “Save it for the ground, right? I’ll buy you as many rounds as you like when we’re though here, so long as you’ll tell me whether that story about 007 and the tank is true.”
“Of course it’s true!” one of the men crowed. “It’s practically legend.”
“Therefore classified, not doubt,” another said mournfully.
Bloody fucking surreal, Arthur thought again, shaking his head.
He made his way to the drop point along with the others, sliding his feet in the dubbed ‘airborne shuffle’ to avoid tripping or stumbling on the unstable cargo deck.
“See on on the ground, gentlemen,” Luke’s voice now crackled over the comms line. “Get caught, and we never knew you. Blast out early, and you’ll get the bollocking from hell for giving away our position. Blast out too late, and try not to die. It looks very bad on my report.”
A few men chuckled. Arthur’s fingers clenched around his harness. The familiar pre-mission banter made him itch, camaraderie so similar to that between Arthur and his own team warring with his animosity toward the men surrounding him now. Good men, or so it would seem; all gearing up to gun down Merlin.
He really hoped he wouldn’t have to kill any of them before the night was out.
The outside wind howled as the deck opened. Specks of rain hit Arthur’s goggles. The world below stretched out in a great swathe of endless black.
Arthur jumped, vanishing into the dark, rushing wind.
// ‘Two guards coming our way around the next corner.’ // Merlin murmured. // ‘Don’t run, just keep walking, and act like you’re meant to be there.’ //
Lamorak dipped his head the barest amount. The lights overhead were bare and unforgiving as they progressed down the corridors. With all the ease with which he had once led Arthur through enemy territory, Merlin directed Lamorak telepathically. Field monitoring experience now combined with the extra senses his magic allowed him, scouting the way ahead, guiding them past patrols, avoiding cameras and unlocking doors.
Of course, all of this was much easier when the person at their head was actually meant to be there. Lamorak had taken the shape of the guard Merlin had deposed of outside, his gun and security card on his hip. The five of them flanked him, cloaked in Merlin’s veil of look-away-don’t-notice-not-important that warped the perception of any who passed, rendering them essentially invisible to their eyes. Mordred’s magic was there too, brushing against him like cool, spring water: blurring and flaring the light around them, making it difficult for the cameras to focus on them properly.
They rounded the corner. The two guards nodded to Lamorak as he passed, eyes sliding vacantly over the rest of them; any sixth sense that might have given them away appeased by Lamorak’s presence.
By the time they reached the control room, Mordred’s shoulders were tense with the strain of keeping them all hidden. The amber in his eyes flickered erratically, and every now and then he would close them, breathing harshly though his nose. Merlin placed a hand in between his shoulder blades, intending to help, but Mordred jerked away.
// ‘I’ve got this. Just… the more the people around us, the cameras…’ //
// ‘We’re almost there,’ // Merlin soothed.
The great metal door leading to control opened with Lamorak’s stolen key card, revealing a room full of monitors, cables, and half a dozen people typing rapidly. They all turned to blink at Lamorak.
“Jilles? What are you doing in here?” One of them asked in french. “Why have you abandoned your post?”
Merlin sensed Lamorak’s panic, a sharp spike over the telepathic connection.
// ‘Galahad. Geraint.’ // he thought.
The air shuddered, creaking like ice shifting in a glacier. The six security guards froze in place: suspended in time. Merlin shook his head, unable to stop his smile. He never got tired of seeing the twins’ magic at work. His dropped his own perception filter, moving immediately to pull the door shut behind them. There was a faint beep as the security lock activated again.
“How long can you hold it?” he asked the twins out loud,
“These six?” scoffed Galahad. “Five minutes at least.”
“Ten at most?” Geraint added.
“That’s more than enough time.” Merlin put a hand on Mordred’s shoulder as he passed. “Hey. You can let go now, we’re good.”
Mordred exhaled audibly, and the cloak of his magic vanished. He rolled his shoulders, grimacing and rubbing his neck. “Don’t everybody thank me at once,” he grumbled.
A flicker of a smile crossed Merlin’s face. The return of sarcasm was always a good sign.
“You do have your moments.” Merlin allowed graciously. “Not many, but you have them.”
He ignored Mordred’s squawk of outrage to move towards the monitors, carefully navigating around the rack of servers spilling zip-tied cables all over the floor.
It was a little strange typing whilst leaning over someone frozen in place, but he managed. Thankfully, their machines were already hardwired into the main system, so Merlin didn’t have to spend time cracking any firewalls. All he had to do was find their records. He keyed in a few commands, pulling up the source code to check for any tripwires in the system. The database of assets in the facility was protected by an encryption key, and then there were several additional levels of security to access the prisoner and employee records. Ignoring the temptation of a backdoor hack (any criminal organisation worth their salt would have taken precautions against it), Merlin opened up the system parameters and scanned the machine’s logs. He double-backed to the initial password screen, and managed to bypass it simply by convincing it no time had passed since the last time someone accessed the database.
He hummed the Imperial March under his breath as he worked. In the background, Lamorak buried his snort in a cough. The twins were still holding the magic in place, but the effort to freeze time on only six people in such a small space was evidently minimal enough that they could wander over to see what Merlin was doing.
“What are you looking for?” asked Geraint, peering over his shoulder.
“Any data that fits the pre-set search standards,” Merlin replied. “Gaius’s name, for one, but I’m almost certain they’ll have assigned each prisoner a random ID or number instead, so I’m also including anyone who came into the organisation the two weeks around when he disappeared.”
“Won’t someone notice you’re snooping around in their systems?”
“If someone does, I’ll shake their hand, and you can cherish the look of surprise on my face,” Merlin said wryly. “I was hacking for years under the monicker of Emrys before anyone even realised I existed, and that was when I was twelve. If there’s one thing I can do, it’s keep off the radar.”
“Why Emrys?” said Galahad.
“Well, it’s just, it’s strange, isn’t it? To use the druid name for you in the prophesy for the name of a hacker?”
Merlin frowned as he typed, absently pulling up the roster of sorcerers. “You know what, I never thought about that. I didn’t know it was a druid name at the time. Kilgharrah gave it to me.”
“Kilgharrah?” Galahad repeated, lingering over the unusual name.
“He calls himself the Dragon. Head of criminal underground operations in London.”
“Is he a druid?” asked Geraint.
“No. Maybe.” Merlin pulled a face. “I’m not sure what he is, to be fair. He’s a bit too in love with causing problems to be a druid in the traditional sense, but the boner he has for balance and fate and for the greater good is ridiculous. Can you be an ex-druid? Is there like, a druids-anonymous? A club for druids-gone-dark-side? Do druids watch Star Wars?”
“How can you hold a conversation like this when you’re typing so fast?” Drea blurted, staring at his hands which continued to fly across the keys.
“Years spent in the secret service,” Merlin replied glibly. “I’m used to fending off nosy agents whilst cracking very important and sensitive information.” This accompanied by a pointed look at the twins.
Geraint only grinned, unabashed. “You’re a tiny bit terrifying, you know that?”
“I try. Mordred, if you’re going to make that face, could you at least stand out of my line of sight? You’re going to put me off.”
Mordred glared. “Just hurry up, and stop wasting time."
“I resent that implication.”
“Would you like me to state it more explicitly?”
“Ho-ho, the man’s got jokes.” Merlin flashed him a lopsided smile, his typing never faltering. “I’ll have you know I’m an excellent multitasker.”
“Well you certainly do have an uncommon ability to be multitudinously irritating.”
“Oh, now who’s wasting time?”
“Guys.” Drea cut in, exasperated. “Now? Really? You’re doing this now?”
Mordred flashed her a betrayed look.
Merlin merely rolled his eyes. “Relax, both of you. I’ve nearly got it. I just need to cross-reference this with the date — the assignment — the prisoner ID…” He hit the final key. “Aha! Got him!”
“Great,” said Mordred impatiently. “Where is he?”
“He’s…” Merlin trailed off, staring, his smile freezing on his face.
There was an odd drop in his stomach, a dizzying lurch as his world shuddered and realigned to the truth in front of him.
He blinked several times, but the information on the monitor remained the same.
The heady rush of adrenaline in his veins turned to ice. The first beginnings of dread began to claw up his throat.
“No. No that can’t be right — he’s…” Merlin broke off with a curse, rapidly thumbing in more commands.
In the flurry of Merlin’s fingers over the keys, there was a crackle of static from one of the frozen security guard’s radio.
“This is Perimeter-Four-to-Central.” A tiny voice threaded out in french. “There’s a guard here unconscious. No sign of struggle, but his gun and keycard is missing. Suspect intruders. Confirm, over.”
Everyone’s gaze except Merlin’s shot to the radio, wide-eyed.
“This is Perimeter-Four-to-Central. Repeat. There’s a guard here unconscious. Confirm, over.”
“Merlin,” Drea said uncertainly. “Merlin, I think—”
“Just a moment,” he shot back. “Just a — I just need to—”
“Central. This is Perimeter-Four. Is there anyone there?”
“Lamorak.” Galahad hissed. “Do something! Say something in french!”
Lamorak looked panicked. “I don’t—”
Geraint grabbed the radio from the guard’s belt, shoving into Lamorak’s hand. “Try,” he said.
Looking like he’d much rather crawl under a desk and stay there, Lamorak pressed the respond on the radio with trembling fingers. “Oui… oui, c'est Central.”
The guard on the other end responded immediately in french. “A guard is down. Request assistance. What is your status? Over.”
“My status,” Lamorak repeated.
“Yes. What is your status, Central? Over.”
“Our status is… as normal. There are no intruders.”
There was a pause. “Central. What’s your call sign? Over.”
“My… er…” Lamorak trailed off weakly. “It’s…”
The radio cut out.
The lapse of silence left behind was deafening.
On the monitors, they saw the troops they passed earlier receive a radio call, then double back, heading their way.
“Shit,” Galahad breathed.
“I’m sorry,” Lamorak said miserably. “I didn’t—”
Geraint caught his arm, cutting him off. “Hey no, you did good. It was a long shot, anyway.”
Distant sounds of raised voices arose from somewhere down the corridor.
“Bar the door,” Mordred said tersely. He started toward it, muttering barrier spells, and Lamorak joined him, shedding the shape of the guard to pour his focus into tracing runes on the metal.
A heartbeat later, both of them startled when the latch and lock pad disintegrated with a crack, reduced to atoms.
“Can’t get in if there’s nothing to unlock,” Drea said, brushing her hands off as she strolled forward between them. “How much time do we have?”
The voices were notably closer, now. There was a harsh, metallic bang as something struck the other side of the door. Everyone flinched.
“None,” Mordred replied, paling.
Galahad clasped Merlin on the shoulder, wrenching him out of his typing. “Merlin, come on. We need to go. Where are we heading? Where’s—”
“He’s not here,” Merlin said numbly.
Merlin twisted his head away from the monitors for the first time, heart thudding with a wild, sick kind of panic. Failure left him trembling, stomach twisting with the realisation that everything was spiralling out of control: that he had made a terrible mistake.
That he had been wrong.
“Gaius… he was transferred this morning. To Syria.”
The horrible silence from the room was punctuated only by the banging against the door. The monitors showed the corridor outside: dozens of guards flocking to control. Trying to get in. Trapping them inside.
“We…” Merlin choked on the words. “We missed him by hours.”
“Merlin—” Drea tried.
Another jarring impact shuddered through the door, making the walls quiver.
“We can’t hold the time lock much longer,” Geraint said warningly. He had his hand under Galahad’s elbow, who was starting to look a tad unsteady on his feet. Both of their faces were drawn with the strain of the magic.
“But I don’t understand,” Merlin said, his voice starting to splinter at the edges. “He had to be here — he was here this morning—”
“Are you saying we came here for nothing?” Mordred snarled, rounding on him.
“I don’t—” Merlin stammered. “I didn’t know—”
“What? You didn’t think it through? Well isn’t that just a resounding fucking shock—”
“How could I have known they would move him?!”
“Merlin!” Drea’s voice sliced through them, ringing with urgency and the sour tang of fear. “The guards!”
Outside, the banging had ceased.
Merlin’s head snapped around to the monitor showing the security footage from the corridor. The guards were stepping away.
They had placed something on the door.
Realisation tore through him.
“Oh shit,” Merlin breathed. “Guys—”
His warning was lost by a thunderous BOOM.
The door exploded inwards. Brick and mortar debris went flying. Monitor screens shattered.
There was no time to shield.
There was no time to flinch.
The shock of the blast knocked them flying. Merlin gasped as the ground slammed into him. Felt the flash of pain in his temple as his skull bounced twice. The world fractured, blurred in and out. His eardrums rang. Smoke ate up the air. Ash. Heat. Shouting —
Men were flooding into the room, yelling with voices that sounded like they were being screamed across a roaring ocean.
Merlin could only lie there for a moment, winded and dazed. His breathing was muffled to the ringing in his ears, but he could feel the furious gulps of air and the shaky, hitched exhales in his chest. He couldn’t hear a goddamn thing, and yet…
// ‘Galahad. Galahad, come on.’ //
Geraint’s thoughts were desperate, broadcasting so loud Merlin could feel his terror.
// ‘Galahad, wake up. Please. You gotta wake up.’ //
Merlin gripped the edge of a table, staggering to his feet.
He took everything in within a single moment — his friends, coughing and spluttering on the ground; the guards, emerging out of the smoke like spectres, semi-automatics cocked at the ready —
Geraint, desperately yanking on his brother’s arm, dragging his body across the floor behind an overturned desk —
Galahad, limp and unresponsive, face too pale, blood on his forehead —
Lamorak, utterly covered in soot and dust from the rubble except for two tear tracks down his cheeks, frozen in a half-crouch, in the face of the gun pointed between his eyes —
Mordred’s expression twisting into a snarl as he raised a hand towards the nearest guard, spitting blue in his palm, not seeing the second guard behind him who slammed his boot into the back of Mordred’s head — Drea’s cry as he crumpled —
“Ástríce,” Merlin said.
The raw force of magic imbued into that one word cracked the very air in half.
The power burst from Merlin’s hand. It beat out of him like a pulse, an infrasonic vibration, a deep, heady throb.
Time warped. A heartbeat stretched out into the seconds, rushing in the deep silence that fell in the wake of power unleashing.
Every single guard struck an invisible barrier. It rippled and flexed, throwing them all violently back, hurling them away from the protective circle of Merlin’s rage.
The shockwave was so powerful — whip-crack acceleration so purely condensed into a split second — they all passed out midair before they even hit the walls.
Dozens of bodies slid to the ground, out cold.
The five of his friends were the only ones left untouched. They stared at him, wide-eyed.
Merlin crouched immediately between Mordred and Galahad, his hands falling on their shoulders. There was a shallow gash on Galahad’s forehead from the explosion, but he was conscious now at least, blinking at Merlin dazedly. Mordred was braced heavily on one elbow, his face ash-white, but his eyes were icy clear.
“Are you all alright?” Merlin said hoarsely.
Mordred recoiled away from him. “Fine,” he bit out, shuffling across the floor to Galahad. “No thanks to you.”
Mordred rose a hand to Galahad’s forehead, hovering over the bloody gash. His expression sharpened with concentration, his breathing deepening, the pale blue of his eyes turning molten. The purest of white lights glowed from his palm.
A few moments later, Galahad’s wound was completed healed. Mordred slumped back heavily on his heels, catching himself at the last second with a hand on the ground.
“I said I’m fine,” Mordred snapped. “Now, we need to move. That spell of yours was too powerful. It would have drawn attention from any sorcerers nearby.”
Merlin swallowed hard, trying to ignore the twinge of regret that lashed out from deep, deep down: for his friends, for putting them in danger, not fighting harder to make them go back to the Gaul while they still had the chance, for thinking that maybe he wouldn’t have to do this alone; for Arthur and everyone back in London, for leaving them when they needed him most, for not having returned sooner; most of all for Gaius, at failing him once again, for having been so close, grief curling around his throat and choking him tight at the thought that this had all been for nothing.
It seemed like all he did these days was let people down.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said. “I thought — I really thought he’d be here. I never meant…” he faltered, feeling sick again.
I never meant for any of this to happen.
The words were there, but this was not the time for them.
(“What’s done is done.” Unbidden, a memory of Gaius surfaced: his voice as clear as it was a year ago, during Merlin’s early days at MI6. “It helps no one and nothing to look back.”)
Merlin dragged in a painful breath, steeling himself once more.
Come on, Merlin, don’t lose it now. You need to keep it together. They need you to keep it together.
His voice steadied. “Mordred’s right, though. We need to get out before reinforcements arrive.” He turned to Galahad and Mordred in turn. “Can you stand?”
Galahad nodded, taking Merlin’s and his brother’s hands to help him up. Mordred smacked Merlin’s offered hand aside, standing on his own. Drea and Lamorak drifted closer, faces pale but determined.
“Alright,” Merlin said. “No point bothering with subtlety, now. Everyone keeps your shields up, and stick close to me. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
They tracked him to a barn.
Arthur stood in the half-rotten doorway, breathing in the smell of wet hay and smoke.
The other agents moved quietly about the inside, gloved hands tracing the six slight divots in the hay where people had lain, plucking threads of clothing caught on splinters of wood, a strand of long red hair.
Arthur didn’t bother with any of that. His focus was on the pile of cinders near the open doorway. He bent down whilst the others were distracted, risked pulling off his glove to trail his fingers through the black ash.
It was still warm.
Of course, ash was an insulator; the ashes from a fire could stay warm for days after the fire went out. Certainly twenty-four hours.
Arthur’s fingers trembled as he pulled the glove back on. His anonymity thankfully saved him from scrutiny as he remained crouched there, ramrod still, struggling with his emotions.
(“Sometimes I dream of leaving Camelot.” The words arose faintly in the back of his mind. "Somewhere where nobody knew who I was.”)
Arthur tried to imagine Merlin here, tried to imagine him warming his hands by the fire, curled up in the hay, nose twitching as he eventually dropped off to sleep. He could see it so clearly. He wanted it so badly to be true; that Merlin was so close, that he was alive and okay.
Yet he hoped with everything within him that it hadn’t been Merlin here last night.
For whoever had lit that fire… these agents weren’t that far behind them. And they were closing in fast. The six people who had been sighted were evidently on foot. Distance that would take them hours to walk would take Arthur and these men a tiny fraction of that time on the road.
Arthur hoped they didn’t catch up to them. Because the only thing stronger than Arthur’s desire to see Merlin again was his desire for Merlin to be safe, and that meant far, far away from the agents in his company. If he had to keep them away himself, so be it. No matter how badly the thought of spending another minute apart from Merlin tore at him.
(“Obviously I'd take Merlin with me; he can do all the hard work.”)
“Alright men, wrap it up,” Luke’s voice snapped them all to attention. “New orders just in. There’s been some odd kind of upheaval down by the harbour. A private security alarm’s been tripped, some descriptions of intruders that match our targets. We’ve been called to check it out. Jeeps' waiting. Destination t-minus-thirty minutes, twenty if we punch it.”
“Finally,” Daniel groaned. He got to his feet, brushing hay off his knees. “Come on, double 0. Might finally get to see some action, eh?”
Not if I have anything to do with it, Arthur thought darkly.
“Coming,” he said out loud.
Given the whole thing had gone wrong in just about every way possible, there was one tiny silver lining: the commotion their presence had caused meant escaping was much easier than breaking in.
Every guard on the premises seemed to have been called in, transforming the formerly bare, closely-monitored hallways into bustling channels of utter chaos. The combination of the door explosion and Merlin’s spell had left Control in pieces, rendering security footage useless and forcing the guards to coordinate their position by guesswork. Hardly any spared them a second glance when everyone else was running about in a similar manner of frantic confusion.
The six of them tore down the corridors, footsteps thundering, breaths heaving shallowly in their chests. Merlin led them without hesitation, eyes flashing gold as he glimpsed the path ahead.
Nonverbal telekinesis took care of any opposition who did clock them. It was a reflex gesture, imprecise and inelegant but fast, matched well with the reactive potential of raw magic.
Merlin sent the occasional guard in their path flying back with a twitch of his fingers, stunning them long enough to run past, whilst Mordred brought up the rear, keeping any from pursuing.
When they rounded one corner to see an entire hallway packed with hostiles, Merlin threw out his hands without slowing. It was like watching gravity reverse. Every guard catapulted high into the air and face-planted flat against the ceiling whilst the six of them ran underneath them. The moment they were through, Merlin yanked the guards back to earth, and there was a great thud as they hit the ground in a pile, groaning.
The corridors seemed endless. A stitch started to burn up Merlin’s side. Ragged breaths left his mouth in a painful stutter. Behind him, the others weren’t sounding much better. Still, they pushed forward.
Their wild sprint started to flag as they turned the last corner, but this was familiar now — the door was there — closer —
They burst outside into the storm.
The icy wind whipped the rain up into their faces, soaking them instantly. Floodlights pierced the pitch black, swept in wide arcs across the compound. Flashes of movement. Black figures against narrow beams of glaring light.
Merlin staggered to a stop, lungs burning, throwing up a hand to shield his eyes.
The outer fence was in sight — fifty metres, no more.
Between them: ranks and ranks of people, lining up in orderly rows around the perimeter in the pouring rain. There must have been a hundred of them at least. They faced inwards, towards the compound, not out of it.
Waiting for them.
A curse hissed through Merlin’s teeth. He grabbed Geraint’s shirt as he ran past, saving him from breaking cover.
“Wha—” started Geraint.
“Hush,” Merlin urged.
He shoved them all against the side of the warehouse with his own body, willing the shadows and the rain to cloak them from sight. They went easily, half-falling against the wall, gasping for breath.
// ‘The outer fence is being watched,’ // he told them, switching to telepathy. // ‘Look. There’s too many. There’s no way we’re getting through unseen.’ //
// ‘They don’t have guns, though.’ // Galahad pointed out, still panting.
// ‘Of course they — wait. What?’ //
Merlin’s head snapped round, squinting through the rain. Galahad was right. Unlike every other guard they had faced tonight, not one of the perimeter guards was carrying a weapon.
Merlin’s eyes narrowed. He lingered for another few precious seconds, trying to catch his breath, to focus through the black rain, to determine why. He waited for the floodlight to pass over again, bathing the guards briefly in blinding light.
It was then — in the fraction of a second the light swept over one of the nearest figures — that Merlin caught the flash of reflected light.
Light reflected on something metallic. Something around the person’s neck.
// ‘They’re sorcerers,’ // he thought, faintly. // ‘They’re all sorcerers.’ //
Hundreds of them. Collared and highly disciplined, evidently, by the tight order of their formation.
And that was only what Merlin could see.
This was only one base, and the smallest one at that.
God. Merlin wrestled with his lurch of terror, clenched it tight and shoved it down.
How had Aredian got so many? The last Merlin knew, Sigan only had a few units of sorcerers ready for combat — and most of those were killed in the explosion in Istanbul.
Was this what Aredian had been prioritising the sixth months since Sigan’s death, since Merlin’s disappearance? Not the EMP prototype, not the Triskelion, not biochem weaponry — but human trafficking? Building a small army weaponising magic-users? Remaking them until they no longer needed an electric collar to keep them in line?
Did Arthur know? Did Morgause know?
// ‘What do we do?’ // Drea’s thoughts came rapid-fire, tumbling over each other. // ‘There’s no way we can take them all at once— there’s too many—’ //
// ‘We could cause a distraction?’ // Galahad suggested.
// ‘Draw their fire, then make a run for it?’ // Geraint finished.
// ‘That might just work.’ // Mordred thought. // ‘We could set off an explosion in one of the warehouses across the loading bay, might take a few of them out…’ //
The conversation continued, but Merlin’s focus remained on the sorcerers themselves. Could he take them all? How powerful were they? How skilled? How committed? How well would they coordinate their movements? The sorcerers Arthur had faced in Istanbul fought as a single unit — there was no hesitation, no crack in their defence, no mercy. They hadn’t just nearly succeeded in killing Arthur; they had enjoyed it.
Was there any way of knowing which of the people standing in these rows were here against their will, and which would strike him down without an ounce of regret? Was there even a clear distinction anymore?
(“Are they allies or enemies?”)
Reality slipped for a moment, blurred into that faint impression of not-quite-memories surfacing —
It was hard, sometimes. To feel any affinity for a people whom Merlin only ever saw trying to kill the man he loved. Years and years of it, of the hate in their eyes, the vitriolic burn of their magic, the clawed, desperate fingers grasping with a cold and empty hunger. Years of stepping in between their malice and the life beneath Arthur’s skin, years of too-closes and too-lates and god-don’t-you-dare-leave-me-you-prat. Years of becoming intimately familiar with Arthur’s blood under his fingernails, with the way Arthur’s hands folded tighter around the hilt of his sword when he was afraid, with the pulse of Arthur’s heartbeat under his terrified, fumbling hands.
Years of knowing exactly what his line was (Arthur’s life, above everything, above destiny and reason and principle), but secretly wondering whether he was betraying them, or the other way around.
It was only because Merlin was watching the ranks so closely that he spotted one of them fall.
The rain had turned the earth at the edge of the compound to mud — a slick, puddle-ridden mire.
At the far end of the rows of sorcerers barring their way, an old man stumbled in the rain. His feet sank in pools of sludge where footsteps before had churned the mud up. He went down hard, catching himself on his hands and knees.
His hair was white. There was a thick collar around his throat.
Merlin’s breath stalled in his throat — hope momentarily overtaking reason. Could it…?
In a flash, another guard stood above the man, sneering down with all the authority of a superior.
“Get up,” the guard said, barely audible to Merlin over the storm.
The old man tried. His arms trembled, his feet fumbling to gain purchase on slick ground. He got halfway before he slipped again, his knees buckling.
“On your feet, soldier,” the guard snapped.
Panting, the old man rose his head to meet the guard’s gaze, face upturned to the rain.
It wasn’t Gaius.
Merlin exhaled shakily, irritated with himself. (Gaius was in Syria, he knew this, he should be helping the others come up with a plan to escape, not getting distracted seeing things that weren’t there—)
“I said,” the guard repeated, “get. up.”
Then he did something. Pressed something in his hand.
Merlin realised what was about to happen a second too late.
The old man immediately went rigid, his body arching upwards, before he let out a short, agonised scream.
Merlin stared, frozen — horrified — as the man’s body spasmed, blue lights of electricity visible where they crackled against the collar. He looked like he was choking, desperate gurgles mingling with the rain as he seized and seized and seized —
Merlin could smell the burning of the sorcerer’s hair.
The vision crashed in violently this time, agonising vivid —
The man’s limbs pulled uselessly at his restraints, inhuman sounds tearing out of his throat over the crackling flames of the pyre, desperate pleas not even cracking Uther’s stony countenance as he watched from his balcony, as all of them just stood there and watched —
The guard released the control. The old man’s body slumped forward as if his strings had been cut, the scream choking off to one last gag before his head dropped against his chest. He tipped sideways, collapsing limply in the mud.
“No!” another voice tore his attention away briefly, and Merlin saw a bald, collared sorcerer nearby break formation. He started toward the old man, but the guard merely turned his remote to the younger man, and sent him crumpling to the floor too, convulsing.
More impressions came, flashing faster and faster like pages in a book —
They were just people. All of them. Merlin watched them come through the lower town. Some, enemies. (This one attacked a nearby village. This one tried to poison the king. This one summoned something that should have never left the earth. This one tried to slip a dagger between Arthur’s ribs whilst he slept.)
(A girl, trembling, condemned for striking down her attacker with a word rather than her fists. A teenage boy, caught protecting the harvests from drought so that his village would not starve. An old woman, braced against the pyre for weaving without her hands.)
Merlin took their pain when they burned. He took their screams and their suffering, drew it into himself until he bled with it. He put them to sleep rather than watch them suffocate, murmured prayers when their bodies slumped bonelessly against the pyre. He took their bones from the ashes, returned them to their families or buried them in sacred places if they had none.
It wasn’t enough. Was never enough.
( “Why do you hate me so much? I don’t understand it, what the hell did I ever do to you?”)
(“Do?” Mordred repeated icily. He turned around, his shell of cynicism cracking. “You’ve done nothing!”)
// ‘Merlin!’ //
Merlin jolted out of the not-memory with a painful wrench in his chest.
Mordred was gripping his arm, staring at him strangely. // ‘Drea’s going to set off an explosion in that warehouse there, okay? We wait until they’re distracted, then we’re going to hit them hard in the middle, take as many down as we can until we reach the fence. Get ready to run.’ //
(“Then run away.” Mordred said emptily, turning away. “That is, after all, your talent.”)
( “Run, child. Run and do not stop, no matter what you hear. I’ll buy you as much time as I can.”)
The guard strolled over to where the old man lay, fine tremors still coursing through his body. “Now,” he said. “Get up.”
Mordred’s plan wasn’t a bad one. Merlin probably could punch a hole in their defences, if he put his mind to it. Mordred was always telling Merlin off for overpowering everything — (“finesse,” he’d hiss, whacking Merlin on the head with a ruler, “I don’t want power, I want finesse. This is basic levitation. Stop trying to catapult us into the sun.”)
He probably could brute force his way through the mass of sorcerers to clear the way for his friends to escape, if only the thought didn’t suddenly make him feel sick inside.
(“How could you be so selfish? You speak about sacrifice, and loss, everything that was given up to save you — what your life cost them all — and yet here you are, risking your life for the sake of one man, and you won’t even consider the hundreds — thousands more that you could be helping?”)
“Merlin?” Mordred hissed out loud. “Did you hear me? We need to go!”
It wasn’t Gaius.
But it could have been.
The guard kicked the old man in the stomach. The bald man cried out for him — a small, desperate noise. He could not stand, but he tried to crawl towards them, pulling himself over the mud with hands white around the knuckles, blue from the cold and around the scars that littered them.
Merlin thought about raising a hand to these people, about bringing these people to their knees, and he’d never wanted to do anything less.
“GET UP!” the guard snarled.
(“Are they allies or enemies?”)
It wasn’t Gaius. Maybe the old man would kill Merlin, if given the chance. Maybe he would do it even without the collar.
It didn’t matter.
Merlin felt like his whole life was condensing down to a single moment: scraps of memories and voices and all that hurt and loneliness and pain and fear rushing in a soundless playback, a riptide of emotion beneath his skin, a gravity shifting —
“ I’m just one man.”
“One man with the power of all of us combined.”
“Do not feign ignorance with me, boy. You know what has been foretold of you, you know the power that surges in your veins. Did you really think power like that wouldn’t come with a price?”
(“—what your life cost them all—”)
“Pathetic. You have a gift most people would kill for, a gift that could save millions. Come and find me when you decide to start using it.”
“You think you know what it’s like to have a target on your back? To be hunted for what you are? To have the people you love most in the world give their lives just to give you a fucking head start?”
(“For god’s sake, that’s an order! Someone put him down!”)
“No one can find out about you, Merlin.”
“I trust you with everything! Do you think I would tell just anyone about my magic? Do you think I have ever told anyone, apart from you?”
“She and your father took great pains to conceal you from me and any others who were interested in the prophesy.”
(The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.)
“You’re a coward. You may have grounded your magic but you’re still afraid. Scared of who you are, of what you are.”
“I wish you to become who you were destined to be. To take up the legacy of your bloodline and reforge the world into a new age of magic. To become Emrys, He who was promised.”
(“Hope. Hope for a better world.”)
“My point is that the world is fucked, alright Mordred? Take it from someone who knows. The world sucks, and nothing we do matters. It’s cruel and unfair and I can’t do a goddamn thing about it.”
(“I wish we’d had more time.”)
“How could you do that? How could you just abandon us? How could you leave us behind?”
“ You think you’re the only one who’s thought you’d be better off alone, because the people around you just keep dying?”
“We lost everything, for you. For this great chosen one who would save us all. And what are you?”
(Who do you wish to be?)
“—A coward who has run for thirteen years while innocent people were hunted down and slaughtered— who dishonours the sacrifice of his parents by working for the very murderer who ordered their deaths —”
“ —Who dishonours anyone who was ever stupid enough to believe in you, to hope for a goddamn second that things would ever change because you weren’t the same as the others —”
Who do you wish to be?
(Thirteen years now he had been running. Running from that night, from the boy who had been born of the sea and earth and sky, from a name that had been a hope for a mighty people, a name that had meant son and beloved and hope, and if he was not those things anymore then Merlin didn’t want the name that went with them —)
“I’m sorry, but I’m not… I’m not him, Mordred, alright? I can’t be what you all want me to be.”
(Emrys. Sorcerer, Saviour, Leader, Light-bringer.)
“You won’t even consider the prospect that you’re meant for something more? That they gave their lives that night for a reason?”
(Merlin wondered whether this was how he failed them: one day at a time.)
"And what about our loyalty? What have you done to earn that? What have you ever done to save our people?”
He couldn’t save any of them. He had been failing ever since he had fled in the wake of Sigan’s attack. He was useless to his friends, to Gaius, to the Druids, to Arthur and everyone back in London, to everyone he loved. Useless to Owain and Freya and everyone they had lost; to his parents, to Cerdan; useless as a forgotten name and a broken prophesy. He had been useless against Uther when he came thirteen years ago, and he was useless to these people now.
“They aren’t my people, Mordred!” Merlin exploded. “And I’m not their Messiah. I’m sorry, but I’m not. I can’t.”
“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.”
“You have no idea what our people have suffered in your absence, what they still suffer whilst you played lackey to Uther Pendragon.”
“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.”
“Have you so little faith in your own people? Yes, there is volatility in magic. There’s temptation, and weakness, but… there’s beauty as well — goodness to be found in sorcery.”
Your people. Our people.
“Fuck your apathy. We don’t all having the luxury of walking away from this.”
( “ When the world finds out what you can do, Merlin, it’s going to change everything, our... our beliefs, our notions of what it means to be human... everything.”)
“I have to look at what I can do to help people now .”
(“When you use your magic… the amount of power you have… it’s not exactly subtle. What if they sense you?”)
Who do you wish to be?
A violent crack shattered the barrage of memories.
Across the compound, one of the warehouses exploded. Blistering orange flames ate up the night, billowing black smoke, raining brick and metal and ash.
Sirens shrieked. Alarm rippled through the ranks of guards and sorcerers, their faces lit by the flames. Everyone turned instinctively towards the explosion, blind momentarily to anything else.
“Merlin!” Mordred yelled over the sirens. “Merlin, we need to go NOW!”
He should. Coming here had been a mistake. This was their chance to get out.
He should run. Revealing himself had always backfired in some way in the past; it was what got Merlin into this mess in the first place.
But Merlin couldn’t look away from the old man.
The guard above him was one of few not distracted by the explosion. Remote control in hand, he drew back to kick the man again.
A cold rage grew within him.
“MERLIN!” Mordred roared.
And Merlin said:
There was a shudder, a balance tipping, a shift in the fabric of the world.
Mordred yanked on Merlin’s arm with all his strength, trying to force him to run, but it was like trying to move an oak tree. He just. Wouldn’t move.
There was magic — or something stronger — rooting Merlin to the ground.
Mordred followed his gaze, furious and frantic and terrified because they needed to go so what the fuck was Merlin playing at now —
Merlin was watching an old man lying in the mud about thirty yards away, another figure standing above him. His boot was drawn back, as though to slam into the old man’s stomach.
It never made contact.
Mordred nearly blacked-out then at the surge of power that coursed from his hand on Merlin’s arm.
There was a low whoomph: a pulse of magic. Thunder cracked above them, silver streaks slicing up the sky, and the rain —
Froze — suspended in the air in thousands of tiny droplets, just as a light brighter than the sun erupted between the guard and the old man.
The pure white burned. Mordred threw his hands up to cover his face, staggering back at the wash of heat, sensing every single person in the compound do the same.
When the air cleared, Merlin was standing between the two men.
His hand was snapped around the guard’s wrist, wrenching it high, twisting until a controller of some-sort fell from the guard’s hand. Merlin was taut and unyielding, his hair and clothes soaked deep, dangerous black, his magic warping the air around him from the force of his rage.
“Touch him again, and I’ll melt your insides,” Merlin spat.
The siren had cut off. The roar of the storm had stilled at Merlin’s hand. The whole world seemed to falter.
Impossible it was that Merlin’s voice could have been heard by all, his words brought every single person in the compound to a standstill.
Hundreds of people stared at Merlin — hundreds of collared sorcerers, hundreds of guards.
Mordred felt a deep, deep dread thrum though him; their cover entirely blown.
In the great silence, Merlin released the guard’s wrist, and the man staggered away, his face bone-white. He scrambled back through the mass of bodies, fleeing to where more armed men were emerging from the buildings, machine guns in hand.
Like ripples in a lake, sorcerers began to turn to Merlin, amber spilling into their eyes. Some of them looked thrown, hesitating in their confusion, eyes darting between Merlin and the old man he had stepped in front of. Some were smiling — small, vicious smiles, for Merlin had teleported right into their midst: he was entirely surrounded. Mordred saw starbursts of power — violet and crimson, emerald and sickly yellow — appear in a staggered cluster of lights all around them, muttered spells spinning in cupped hands.
And Mordred was afraid then, but not for Merlin.
Merlin, whose expression was harder than Mordred had ever seen it — cold and glorious, eyes searing gold in the dark.
Mordred wasn’t afraid for himself. He had seen Merlin’s control honed over the months. This was not unrestrained chaos, not wild, undistinguishing magic, lashing out in anger. This was intent: pure and unswerving. Merlin’s magic would not touch any he did not mean to, would not hurt anyone unless he willed it.
Mordred was afraid for everyone else. Because, god help them all, he knew what was coming. He felt Merlin’s magic build, like a line of fire up his spine, seething with increasing violence as the charge gathered. All around them, the air turned electric, sparking erratically. Heat spilled into Mordred’s chest.
“Get down!” Mordred’s voice rang with the command. He and his friends dropped to the ground. Bracing.
Merlin released the rain: it dowsed them all in a shock of icy water.
Incantations gabbled up the air. The sorcerers flung their attacks toward Merlin. The armed guards opened fire, ballistic-fire raucously loud.
In the midst of it all, Merlin’s shield rose: whiter than starlight, than lightning, than freshly fallen snow. It enclosed him completely, including the old man and his bald companion where they lay on the ground behind him. Shielding them.
Mordred was always taken aback by how vicious Merlin’s shields felt. Unlike any other magic-user he knew, Merlin’s defence was not passive, not reactive, but wrathful: a pure and ferocious protection, more deadly than any offence.
For in the end — even with all his power, all the impossible things he could do — Merlin was never so dangerous than when he was protecting someone else.
The attacks hit, striking the shield.
They met nothing but white.
A few dozen miles away, Arthur stumbled as he was getting into the jeep.
Warmth flushed through him, zinging with energy that popped and crackled, deep and heady with breathless exhilaration. The rich scent of burning wood. Lightning scattered across a dusk-smoke sky.
Arthur gripped the car door, shaky with the power rocketing through his veins, biting back a gasp at the pure euphoria of it. This felt different to the last time Arthur had sensed Merlin — back in London, just before Myror had nearly sniped him. That was powerful, but this… this was visceral, distinct, more potent.
More than anything, this magic felt far, far more lethal.
“Kay?” Daniel’s voice seemed to come from a great distance away. “You good, mate?”
Arthur managed to grunt an affirmative, dropping into the backseat and trying not to brace himself too obviously against the window as the car shot away. Merlin’s magic — (for there was no doubt what this was, Arthur’s every cell sang with recognition) — burned within him, beautiful and deadly, and to their enemies it was an inferno but to Arthur, to Arthur it felt like sinking into an embrace, safe and familiar and soothing in its heat.
He wondered whether this meant they were getting closer.
That, or Merlin was just very, very pissed off.
Powerful, Mordred thought, stunned, as the shield only seemed to glow brighter with every attempt to shatter it. Fuck, he was powerful. Mordred could actually see the air shearing off around Merlin’s hands, the magic that burned so hot the rain turned to steam around him.
The attacks built and built and built, but Merlin’s shield held under the onslaught. Spells crackled on the outside of the dome, splintering against it, colours like oil spills bursting in spider fractures against the white barrier. Machine-gun fire ricochetted, hundreds of bullets tinkling to the ground at Merlin’s feet.
Still, they pounded at him. Still, Merlin stood fast.
It was ruthless — relentless. For every spell that rebounded or fizzled out against Merlin’s shield, another dozen followed it. Exhaust one sorcerer, and another hundred stood behind them. Mordred found himself wondering when Merlin would start to fight back, because even he could not do this forever. There were just too many.
Mordred was just thinking that he should get up, that he should help, because someone should, but when he tried he only collapsed, woozy. His head was spinning too much, his limbs wouldn’t obey him. His body trembled all over, a shade too hot.
For anyone as magically sensitive as the five of them, the amount of magic in the air was utterly overwhelming.
Drea was curled up with her hands clamped over her ears, eyes streaming from the heat Merlin was giving out, and Lamorak was trying to stand but failing too, he was shaking so much, and the twins were both swearing repeatedly into the earth were their faces were pressed.
Then, just at the point Mordred found himself adjusting to the influx of power, the attacks paused.
Machine guns reloading. Sorcerers, panting — the beginnings of uncertainty crossing their faces.
A beat. A drop.
The power absorbed by his shield from the attacks shot up into the sky in a great pillar of light, searing out of his fingertips, illuminating the entire sky. Into the storm Merlin poured out fire and light, the glow of a thousand dawns. It zapped through the clouds, singing, slingshotting back round.
Then Merlin set the world on fire.
The magic crashed down in a terrifying shatter of lightning. An entire forest of crackling bolts, their branches spidering down from the sky.
Smoke seeped from the earth in its wake. The shockwave rippled outwards, sending everyone to their knees, but no one was burning.
The entire compound was wreathed in lightning, yet Mordred noticed the bolts didn’t hit a single person.
This light did not burn, did not harm: glorious and immortal and unbreakable.
Yet when that light faded, the collared sorcerers were the only ones left standing.
Every guard, every overseer, every enforcer, every dealer and mercenary in the facility lay on the ground, senseless, passed out.
In the wake of silence, the light from Merlin’s protective dome dimmed. His silhouette emerged: a liquid line of strength ending in the sparks crackling over his fingers. He was a thunderstorm made flesh, pure chaos wrapped in the skin of a boy.
But Merlin was tiring.
Mordred glanced at the burning field of energy around Merlin, narrowing his eyes against the vicious bite of illumination. Mordred had become intimately familiar with the feel of Merlin’s magic over the months; to anyone else, the amount of power singing in Merlin’s veins would seem inexhaustible, but Mordred could sense a distant burn-out approaching. Even Merlin’s power would exhaust itself soon from defending against so many.
Mordred wondered what he would do now — pick them off, one by one? Throw them back with a concussive wave? Open up the earth to swallow them whole? Incinerate them all with wildfire? Continue to try and outlast them — let them exhaust themselves trying to get through his shield, turn their own magic against them?
But Merlin wasn’t looking at them at all.
He turned instead to the two men on the ground behind him, the sorcerers whom he had shielded.
The old man was sitting up with the help of the bald man. Both stared at Merlin, terror and confusion in the wet of their eyes.
Merlin crouched down next to them.
And he held out his hand.
Merlin felt sweat trickling down his back, his thigh muscles cramping as he bent down.
The effort to shield against such a tirade of attacks was significant, but manageable after months of endurance training with Mordred.
The effort to contain that much energy, however — the control in letting only a shard of it escape to a select few — had cost him more than he let on. Merlin braced a hand on his knees, panting, making sure he wasn’t about to topple over.
Next to him, the two men were utterly silent. They stared at him the same way people stared at a towering rogue wave in the ocean: that sense of inevitability tinged with wariness, the realisation of your own fragility, something small and scared all wrapped up in the knowledge there was absolutely nothing you could do but let it sweep you under and hope you surfaced on the other side.
There was painful uncertainty in the way they held themselves — stiff and defensive but not daring to move, a sense of bracing themselves in the tense line of their shoulders, as though they expected to be struck.
Merlin extended a hand — open palm, in the universal gesture of surrender, of showing no harm.
“It’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. His voice was rough and tired, but softer than he could ever remember being. “Ah. Je m’appelle Merlin. Parlez vous anglais?”
“We speak english.” The bald man rasped, surprising Merlin with a thick Scottish accent. “I am Alator, of the Catha.”
“Alator. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I just want to help.”
Alator hesitated. His eyes had gone round with surprise, searching Merlin’s face through dew-strewn eyelashes.
The old man who was propped up against his side touched his arm, murmured something in a language Merlin didn’t recognise. It sounded like it could be Gaelic.
Alator’s shoulders sagged slightly.
“My father thinks we can trust you,” Alator said, in a way that conveyed he harboured a few more doubts. “But even if we can… you cannot help us. Our chains ensure it. All you do is delay our punishment.”
“May I see your collar?”
Both men sharpened slightly at that. They exchanged a quick look.
“They are welded on,” said the old man. His voice was deep and careworn, a tad hoarse from his ordeal. “Designed not to come off at all, and enchanted to prevent tampering by magic. You cannot remove them. Trying to do so would only set them off. It. It causes great pain.”
He spoke as if from experience. Merlin wondered whether he had tried. He felt a hot flash of anger. Well wasn’t that just wonderfully barbaric.
“Please,” he said. “I just want to look. I won’t try anything without your permission.”
Alator hesitated again. His dark eyes darted from Merlin to the white wall of the shield, still glowing, in between them and everyone else. Some of the other sorcerers had flung a few half-hearted spells at the barrier in the time they had been speaking, but most of them had stopped, watching.
“You protected us,” Alator said at last, his voice thick. “Why?”
Because I could. Because I’m sick of running. Because I hope that someone would do the same for Gaius, if they were in my position.
“Because I had the power to do so,” Merlin said.
Their gazes locked. Alator swallowed visibly. Then he lifted his chin, baring his neck. Merlin admired his courage, exposing his throat to a stranger.
He shuffled closer, extending his hand to hover just over the metal, not-quite touching. Sure enough, the metal was welded around his neck. Merlin could see the contact burns blistering the skin beneath it. There was no visible way to remove it.
But Merlin was of the sea and sky, of stars and the earth under his feet. And so was this metal.
He closed his eyes, centring himself, extended his other senses. He could feel the runes etched onto the metal: wards of binding and imperviousness. The metal had actually fused to his skin; Merlin could not move it like he had moved the barbed wire, and the runes prevented him from breaking it with magic.
Drea could likely use her obliterative magic to disintegrate it, but to use such destructive power so close to their necks… the fragility of it all, and with all these people had endured already…
No. He couldn’t destroy it, and he couldn’t remove it.
He had to unmake it.
Merlin thought of long winter nights in the Gaul when he couldn’t sleep, reading heavy tomes on alchemy, on the theory of transmutation, of visualisations that looked closer to formulas and matrices than spells. He thought of the words in the Ancient Language Mordred had him copy out again and again — words for ore and fire and shaping. He thought about how the twins spoke of time: as existence, ephemerality and endurance, as memory and potential, a condition but also a constant, unstoppable but relative, fluctuating, flexing, bending. Despite weeks of working with them, Merlin had yet to be able to stop time himself, but this wasn’t stopping time, this was reversing it, and on one, singular object.
He had to try. This was the least he could offer these people. The least he could do, after so long,
Merlin opened his eyes. He explained his plan to the two men, watching as their faces progressively dropped, slack with incredulity.
“Impossible,” Alator refuted, but there was wonder in his uncertainty.
“Do it,” the old man said immediately. “Try it on mine.”
The old man turned a frighteningly hard gaze on him. “Another few shocks from this collar, and my heart will give out,” he said calmly. “Nor will I long endure a life on the run. I will not live out the rest of my days as a slave. If there is a chance this boy can free me, I would have him try.”
Alator bowed his head, looking unhappy, but he didn’t protest.
The old man beckoned Merlin closer. “Come here, child.”
Merlin obeyed. “Sir…”
“Anhora,” Merlin amended. “I’m going to reverse the transmutation one part at a time. If at any point you feel any pain, tell me, and I’ll stop. Okay?”
Anhora’s eyes crinkled at the corners, as though Merlin’s caution was amusing in some way. “Do what you must, son; I am no stranger to pain.”
“There’s one more thing. This magic… it’s complex. I don’t know if I can hold the shield up whilst I do it.”
// ‘You won’t have to.’ // Another voice spoke into Merlin’s mind.
There was a cool sweep of magic, a feeling like fingers trailing through the still surface of water, and a familiar ice-blue shield enclosed his own.
Merlin scanned the sea of faces and found him across the compound, unsmiling, his eyes glowing. Mordred nodded once.
// ‘I hope you know what you’re doing,’ // he thought warningly to Merlin.
Merlin grimaced, but then, when had he ever really known what he was doing? He thought about burning up Sigan’s magic even as it manifested because it had felt wrong, about saving Arthur’s life from thousands of miles away, about making saplings bloom from ash in that clearing in the forest.
His instincts had gotten him this far.
Merlin breathed, finding that steady heartbeat of Arthur at his core. Above him, the rain was lessening, the sky clearing to the faintest patchwork of stars.
His world narrowed to the thick band of metal.
Remember, Merlin thought, and the word carried power. He could feel the entire history of the metal collar, from the mining of the ore to the smelting of the iridium, the heat of the blast furnace and the melting of the alloys, to the layered magic of the runes. The collar began to ripple, glowing a bright, radiant white. It burned without heat.
Remember. The runes carved on it disappeared, line by line. Its’ form melted into a thick, molten ribbon. The metals within it separated.
Remember. The collar became crude metal, became ore, became magma, became atoms, became light, became air.
The magic wrapped around his fingers, seeping back into his palms.
Anhora touched his bare neck with trembling fingers, eyes flooding. He tried to speak but could not manage it. His hand found Merlin’s instead, gripping it tight as tears spilled over his cheeks, mixing with the rain.
Beside him, Alator was staring at Merlin with sudden, dawning comprehension. With realisation.
“What did you say your name was?”
And Merlin smiled, years falling from his face.
He glanced up at the throng of people on the other side of Mordred’s shield. Before, they were a mass of indistinct voices hurling destruction at him, but now, Merlin could see faces, he could see people.
More than that: Merlin could see cracks. Many were looking desperately unsure. Their raised hands didn’t look like the precursor to an attack anymore; they looked defensive, as though readying to protect against an oncoming blow. Perhaps they were just tired from the effort of trying to break his shield, but several of them looked worn in ways beyond the past few minutes. Bruises, angry scorch marks around their necks, twitching limbs from nerve attacks: the signs of all the people who had tried to hurt them in the past. Where before Merlin had seen quick reflexes and combative strength, had been wary of their unhesitant aggression and lack of restraint, now he saw the story those instincts told of the kind of training and treatment they’d been subject to. He saw them all, every one.
“My name is Merlin,” he answered, and his voice was carried in the storm itself, in the hush of the rain and the rumble of the heavens, to everyone who watched from beyond the shield. “But I was born Myrddin Aurelius, to Balinor and Hunith, and I am called Emrys by the Druids.”
The moment he spoke the words he felt their rightness, the swell of deep-seated content within him, the sense of whole.
“Light-bringer,” Alator breathed.
“Liar!” Another sorcerer snapped.
“Who the fuck is Emrys?” A third said.
Scattered conversation broke out, confused murmurs and scoffed exclamations, flashes of awe and fear and hate and suspicion.
In their midst, a woman snarled a word of power, sending a plume of flame into Mordred’s shield. It broke up on impact, licking up the sides of the pale blue dome, biting, blistering, trying to find a weakness.
Merlin glanced over to see if Mordred needed any help, but the other boy’s face was stony and unimpressed. The blue barrier flexed, shimmering iridescent in the silver rain, and the fire extinguished with a spitting hiss against the sides.
“By all means, keep throwing fireballs, if it will make you feel better,” Merlin called out, spreading his hands. “But in case you hadn’t noticed, your employers aren’t around to enforce it. They won’t wake for a few hours. You don’t have to fight.”
The woman’s lips pressed together in a thin line before replying, “I have nothing else.”
She conjured a string of flames the size of tennis balls, fiery orbs darting at Merlin in a staggered firing pattern. This time Mordred’s shield turned sheer and taut, mirror-sheen smooth. The tiny orbs of light rebounded straight off it. The woman let out an undignified shriek and ducked as her own attacks flew over her head.
“You don’t have to work for him,” Merlin persisted. “You can be free of this.”
“Fuck you!” A different sorcerer broke forward out from the crowd now, chanting words that would make their blood boil from the inside.
Oh no you don’t. Merlin brought a lightning bolt down an inch from his foot. The man yelped, springing backwards. He turned and ran.
“Anyone else?” Merlin called out.
Silence. The sorcerers around him did not make a move.
“Look,” he said, trying to tamp down on his frustration. "You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. But I know Aredian. I know what he’s done, what sort of man he is, and I know he sure as hell isn’t worth protecting. I think many of you know that, too. Your magic is a gift. Don’t squander it for him.”
“And what if we want to?” A younger man spoke up — a boy, really — his eyes blazing. “What if we want to fight?”
“Fight for who?” Merlin gestured to the compound. “Whoever’s rich enough to buy you?”
Several people flinched. The boy's face twisted.
“Aredian is making us a people to be feared,” he proclaimed. “To be respected. He’s brought us together, trained us, made us powerful. He’s liberating us.”
Merlin could hardly believe this. “He’s forced you into servitude! Taken you from your homes and chained you up like animals!”
“It’s for our own good.”
“He’s using you!”
“So what?!” The boy erupted. There were the beginnings of tears in his eyes. “No one else thought we could be anything. No one else told us we could be more. But Aredian showed us how. He recognises us for our gifts. He’s shown us what we’re capable of.”
Merlin felt like crying. “To fight his battles,” he argued. “To make him money. His political agendas, his wars.”
“What does it matter? It has to start somewhere. It’s time those with magic fought back!”
“Then fight!” Merlin returned. “But not like this — not at the sacrifice of your freedom! You were taken for your magic, but you are so much more than his soldiers, don’t you see? Serving Aredian is the least of you.”
The boy's head snapped back, his face going slack, oddly youthful in its' vulnerability, eyes gone round and weak with surprise.
“Aredian has made you believe you don’t have a choice,” Merlin pressed on, “but you do. Do not let him take that from you. Do not let him make you into something you’re not.”
“And what choices are there for people like us?” The woman who had attacked him before spoke up, her face twisted with bitterness. “Every time we reveal ourselves to the world, they turn on us. Hundreds of years, all the same. This is the only way. We have nothing left but this.”
A few people were nodding, eyes downcast, and Merlin felt that fire again.
“There is so much you have left,” Merlin said fiercely. “And there is always a choice.”
His words rang in the air, shivering in the rain and the silence.
It was a sign of how much Merlin trusted Mordred’s shield that he now turned his back on the crowd, to where Alator and his father sat.
He held out his hand once more.
“May I?” Merlin asked.
Without hesitation, Alator nodded, eyes bright.
It was easier this time, easier to find that vestige of memory within the collar, that faint, disappearing trace of process and forging and formation. Merlin placed his mind in that between-space, feeling for the remnants, the echoes, the roots. He followed them.
A minute or so later, Alator’s collar was reduced to a lingering wisp of light, a curl of mist in the drizzle. Merlin actually felt Alator’s magic surge out the moment it was gone, tearing free of the runes that had bound it. Alator’s eyes flared twin flames, his magic rushing about him in a wind, his face dissolving into pure joy.
“Thank you,” he rasped. “Thank you, Emrys.”
Merlin ducked his head, flushing.
Back beyond the shield, the other sorcerers watched him with wide, wide eyes.
Merlin thought about how Arthur would speak to these people, how he would reach them, how his voice would swell with assurance, how his words would stir them.
He wasn’t Arthur. He didn’t know how to lead, how to use his words like that, to empower, to inspire.
But they had to know — they had to know that they had a choice.
“I can remove these collars from you,” Merlin addressed them again, “but your freedom is something you have to choose for yourselves. You can stay, if you want. You can go back inside and wait for the rest of these guys to wake up, and your life will go back to the way it was a few hours ago. You can leave right now; walk out of here and get as far away as you can, take the chance he won’t find you. I won’t stop you. Or you can let me burn these collars into ash. You walk out of here free. You return to your homes, or if you don’t have homes to go back to, you come with me. There’s a sanctuary for people like us. I’ll lead you to it. You don’t have to be this. You don’t have to fight like this. There’s another way — a better way. Let me show you.”
Silence. Some of the sorcerers still eyed him with enmity. Their hands twitched, but no attacks came — there was wariness in their hostility, in the way they watched him, as though measuring whether or not they could take him. None tried. They peeled away one by one, disappearing back into the warehouses, and Merlin tried desperately to swallow his grief.
Some looked at him with fear and distrust. They broke away in the opposite direction — to the gate, cranking it open and vanishing into the night. Merlin hoped they found a safer road.
But most — most stayed.
To Merlin’s immense surprise, the young man who had argued with him the hardest stepped up to the shield first. His hands were raised in surrender, tears or rain dripping from chin. He looked about Merlin’s age.
// ‘Mordred,’ // Merlin thought. // ‘Drop the shield.’ //
// ‘But—’ //
// ‘Do it.’ //
There was a flash of emotion from Mordred over the telepathic connection — poorly concealed worry and seething irritation and a long stream of expletives — // ‘‘drop the shield’ he says sure thing you fucking moron why not just shoot yourself in the face next time because this surely won’t blow up horribly in our faces and if that boy doesn’t kill you I’ll do it myself for putting me through this shit day in day out and destiny would probably thank me for it because I’d be doing the world a fucking favour—’ //
Merlin deftly tuned him out, rolling his eyes. // ‘Mordred.’ // he prompted.
// ‘Fine. This is a bad idea, but you know that. Try not to die. //
He dropped the shield. The night seemed darker without its’ light.
The boy twitched, but didn’t step forward.
“What’s your name?” Merlin asked the guy, who was still looking reluctant to come any closer, eyeing the air where the shield had vanished from nervously.
He licked his lips. “Gilli.”
“Gilli. You ready to get this thing off?”
He jerked his head in a tiny nod.
“Cool. I’m going to need you to come a bit closer.”
From the way Gilli reacted, you’d have thought Merlin had asked him to strip naked and dance a tango. Merlin didn’t press him. He stood there calmly, waiting.
Gilli stepped forward. Every step seemed to suck some of his bravado away, and by the time Gilli was in front of him, the boy looked terrified.
“I know what it’s like, you know,” Merlin said, as he began to work on the collar, soft enough so only Gilli would hear. “To feel trapped like that, to feel like signing yourself away to a man like Aredian is your only option. I’ve been there. I was orphaned young, fell into a rough group of people and worked my way up. Then I was in jail, and I made a deal with the worst of men to get out. I did what I had to in order to survive, in order to give myself even the slightest chance of fighting back. I know how it feels, I... understand. But you don’t have to define yourself by them. You are not what they made you, and you don’t need Aredian to tell you that you can be more. You don’t need him to be more.”
Gilli trembled. The glow of Merlin’s magic reflected in his eyes, wide and wondering, darting between Merlin’s.
“But how can we change things, if we don’t fight?”
“Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you need to fight. Change doesn’t come from a place of silence. Freedom isn’t something that’s given; it’s won. But it’s just as important not to lose yourself along the way. The world tells us there is no place for people like us, but you don’t have to let it change you. All you need is the strength and support to stand firm. Only then can we truly change things. Not by waging war, but through the unafraid way we choose to live.”
The collar melted away with a final gentle tug of Merlin’s magic. Gilli gasped, one hand flying to his neck.
“I can feel it again,” he said, astonished. “My magic.”
He whispered a word, eyes flashing amber, and a tiny flame appeared on his palm.
“It’s mine,” Gilli said, and his voice broke. “I mean, I had access to it before but… I’d forgotten…”
His head dropped as he breathed harshly, his next exhale catching on a sob, his hand shaking violently around the flame.
Merlin caught his hand, cupping it in his before the flame could lick over his fingers.
“Magic isn’t a weapon,” Merlin said softly. “It’s a part of who we are. And no one can take that from you.”
Startling Merlin, Gilli gripped his hand tight, letting the flame go out to press their hands together. “Thank you,” he said. “For showing me.”
Merlin grinned at him. He looked up to the others.
“Alright,” he said. “Who’s next?”
Mordred thought that he liked Merlin better when he was incompetent with magic and predisposed to running from his problems.
Mordred had been on the edge of anxiety induced hysteria ever since they got here, even before everything had gone tits up, but then they had a plan to escape, and the chances of death were dwindling, it was looking semi likely that they could actually do this.
Then Merlin proved that he was completely deranged when he teleported right into the middle of a bloodthirsty mob of sorcerers all for the sake of saving a complete stranger from being beaten to the ground.
There was a painful sort of nobility in that. A deep, extraordinary sort of kindness. Mordred was this close to respecting it, if he weren’t so terrified, despairing — not for the first time — that the great saviour of the druids was this much of a reckless, self-sacrificing idiot.
He’d barely hesitated when Merlin mentioned concerns about his shield, already resigned to the fact that he was probably going to spend the rest of his life keeping this all-powerful moron from killing himself. Then Mordred cast his own shield to help, and seen Merlin’s shoulders loosen, like he was afraid he would have to do this on his own, and maybe Mordred respected him a tiny bit more for thinking that and still deciding to help the old man.
Of course, none of this detracted from the fact Mordred was still going to strangle him the moment this was all over for getting them into this mess.
He glowered at the man in the question. Despite Merlin’s faith in the sudden, miraculous change of heart of the hundred-odd angry sorcerers trying to kill them, Mordred and the rest of their group had moved to flank Merlin the moment he demanded Mordred lower his shield. They stood now around Merlin in a protective circle, surveying the crowds with narrowed eyes as they gradually filtered through to where Merlin was banishing collars. He had done about a dozen already.
“How is he doing that?” Drea asked furtively from beside Mordred.
“Magic,” Merlin deadpanned, and Mordred considered summoning all the rain puddling on the ground and smashing it into Merlin’s face.
Mordred was too young for this kind of stress.
Next to him, Galahad was practically vibrating with excitement. “He’s reversing the atom exchange and the interstitial mechanism of the alloys! Reversing nuclear fusion reactions and photon-collisions to turn matter into light!”
“How is you know that but couldn’t read a bus schedule?” Lamorak asked incredulously.
“It’s just messing with time,” Merlin dismissed them both, in between collars and the stammered thanks of those freed. “It’s what you guys do! In fact no, what you guys do is way harder. I didn’t stop time. I just rewinded it a bit, on a very small object.”
“Merlin. What the fuck.” Geraint said affectionately. “What you did was much, much harder.”
“That wasn’t just time magic,” Galahad continued. “That was alchemy, extremely advanced transmutation. Where did you learn the litany of spells required to even understand it?”
“I, um, read a book? A few weeks ago?” There was a weighty pause as everyone gave Merlin extremely disbelieving looks. “What? They’re just equations. I’m good with numbers. It’s how I became Quartermaster of MI6 at nineteen.”
“What you just did takes more than just a knack for mathematics,” Galahad said slowly.
“Sure, but, I mean, that’s just raw magic, right? That means there aren’t any limits.”
Lamorak’s face twitched. “That’s… not what it means.”
Both twins turned on him. “Mordred, what the fuck have you been teaching him?” demanded Geraint. “Haven’t you been teaching him about rules?”
“Don’t put this on me,” Mordred said flatly. “Every other day, I ask him to do something that I know is impossible to teach him limits, and then Merlin will complain for half an hour about how hard it is and then he does it. Rules and limits don’t apply in this case.”
"I’m very annoying,” Merlin agreed.
Galahad choked on air.
“You know, actually, a lot of magic comes down to willpower and belief,” Geraint said thoughtfully. “Not knowing the limits is probably an advantage. Merlin’s never been restricted by traditional druid teachings, only by himself and his doubts that he had to overcome.”
“So essentially Mordred’s plan was to take the brakes off the Merlin Bullshit Train and aim it at the rest of the world,” Drea summed.
Geraint shrugged. “Seems to be working so far.”
If Mordred murdered all of his friends, at least he wouldn’t have to deal with this. It was a pity he was quite attached to them all by now.
The old man whom Merlin had saved first spoke up then. “People who grew up with the Old Ways… they know the limits of what is possible. You do not. The rules of what is possible and impossible were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.”
“Not that that means you should,” Mordred muttered mutinously.
Merlin flashed him an amused look.
Mordred jabbed a finger at him. “No. This is not funny. That thing you did? Teleporting in the middle of people who want to kill you? Don’t do that again.”
Based on Merlin’s expression, he was one-hundred-percent going to do it again. “But it worked out so well this time!”
In a fantastically timely and comical manner, this was the point at which one of the sorcerers Merlin was helping with their collar tried to kill him. It was the woman from before — evidently she had faked a change of heart in order to get close to Merlin.
(This. This was why Mordred didn’t want to lower the shield. What the bloody hell did Merlin think was going to happen?)
She struck out with fire whilst Merlin was studying her collar, catching Merlin completely off-guard, and several people reacted, Mordred included —
Someone else got there first.
A great rushing wind blasted into the woman out of nowhere, banishing her flames and sending her tumbling straight through the open gate and out the other side.
It was the bald man — Alator. Both of his palms were outstretched, eyes burning umber, face utterly merciless.
Next to him, Merlin’s face lit up.
“Holy shit,” he said, apparently unbothered someone had just tried to kill him. “Your magic is strong.”
Alator gave him a faint smile that already looked ridiculously fond. He had known Merlin for all of ten minutes. Unbelievable.
“I am a High Priest. I would hope so. The collar was binding my powers, but now…”
“You’re a High Priest?” Mordred blurted. “I didn’t know there were any left.”
Alator gave Mordred a long, interested look, before his eyes glinted with recognition. “Ah. You are one of Morgause’s.”
“You know Morgause?”
What the fuck was going on.
“Not personally,” Alator admitted. “Not since she shut the borders of her kingdom. But yes, our orders have crossed in the past.”
“You’re a druid, then,” Merlin said curiously. “That’s how you recognised my name.”
“We are aware of certain prophesies surrounding you, yes.”
“We?” Mordred repeated, somewhat hysterically. “Are you saying there are others?”
Alator’s smile turned dry. “Did you think Morgause was the only one who took her people underground?”
Yes, Mordred thought, dazed, I thought we were the last.
Alator continued speaking over Mordred’s internal upending of world view. “For generations, my people learnt to adapt to living amongst normal society — hiding our magic, practising our ways in secret — but we withdrew completely from the world once Uther Pendragon began systematically assassinating us. We got word a year ago that a man calling himself Sigan was taking druids prisoner, and my father and I as chieftains of the Catha went to investigate. We were captured a few months in, and we’ve been here ever since.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t free you sooner,” Merlin said earnestly.
Alator’s expression turned fierce. “No, Emrys. A generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel.” He clasped Merlin on the shoulder, a gesture of honest affection. “Your actions today will be remembered by the Catha, and by me. I must return to my people, but if you should ever need my help, I will come.”
Merlin’s smile could have outshone the sun.
Mordred felt overwhelmed. It was all too much, all beyond his ability to comprehend. Every harsh word, every cutting remark, every hateful accusation that he’d hurled at Merlin since they met now seemed to ring so hollow in his ears.
He had overheard a bit of what Merlin said to Gilli, and it cut him straight through. The way Merlin had opened up. The way he had spoken about freedom and change and self-acceptance. The way he had defended these people like they were his own.
“I’ll lead you to it,” he’d said, and Mordred had felt like falling to his knees and weeping. “You don’t have to be this. You don’t have to fight like this. There’s another way — a better way. Let me show you.”
Let me show you.
And now this. The Catha were a mighty people — descendants of tribes across Europe that had withstood countless invaders and armies over hundreds of years. Technically druids yes, but an extremist faction, one whose brutal justice and intense physical training conflicted with the pacifist ways favoured by the majority of druids. They were known for their ruthlessness, their savagery, their archaic values of honour and deep connection to the earth, their speciality in combative magic, but most of all their independence.
And here was their leader, swearing allegiance to Merlin.
It made his head spin.
Mordred wondered how many other druids had gone into hiding. He wondered whether Morgause knew. (He wondered why, given what she evidently knew about the trafficking of sorcerers, and given when the High Priest of the most recluse faction of druids risked emerging out of hiding to come and help… why hadn’t she done anything?)
Merlin and Alator were talking animatedly about air bending whilst Merlin continued to transmute collars. Mordred’s gaze followed Alator’s hand on his father’s shoulder — Anhora, he recalled, who was sitting to the side, looking drained but utterly content given he was soaked and covered in mud.
Mordred found himself wandering over to the old man whilst the others were distracted. In the midst of his confusion and utter mess of conflicting emotions, this was something simple. This was something he could do.
“Excuse me,” Mordred said. “I, um, saw what happened, with the collar, and… do you need…? I’m a healer, and it’s just, your neck… a burn like that should be treated at the very least, and the body can only take so much electricity before damaging your nerves, and…”
Mordred trailed off as Anhora straightened, eyes flashing with new life.
“A true healer,” he said, with a touch of reverence. “I didn’t think I’d ever meet one. The gift is astonishingly rare.”
Mordred just shrugged, awkward under his gaze.
Anhora’s smile broadened. “I am quite alright, son, but I would be honoured if you wished to attend to me.”
The moment permission was given, Mordred dropped to his knees, uncaring of the mud. His hands began to glow with a soft white light.
“I’m told this tickles,” he said apologetically, and gently touched the pads of his fingers to the blistering on the man’s neck. He felt the draw in his chest as the magic took hold, a thread of energy pulling from him to the place of hurt. Soothing pain, cleansing any infection, rebuilding cells.
A few seconds later, the burns were replaced with smooth, new skin.
“Magnificent,” Anhora breathed, but Mordred wasn’t done.
He extended his senses deeper, looking for any burn damage to internal organs and tissues, deeper still to the spinal cord, the nervous system, the brain. He cleared up some very minor neurological damage. He checked the man’s heart. He removed a tiny blood clot.
It was difficult to stop when he used his magic like this; there was a sense of resistance — a deep, physical ache to pull back when the body he was healing was giving off so much information, when the nature of Mordred’s magic allowed him to feel everything they were feeling. The man was in pain — how could Mordred stop now?
Just a little more.
Mordred healed any torn muscle tissue from the violent spasms, the bruising around his abdomen from being kicked in the stomach, the tenderness in his chest area. He checked for any internal bleeding, fixed a hairline fracture on one of the man’s ribs. He healed aches in his joints from the cold and the rain, any other cuts and bruises, a jar in his elbow from where the man had struck the ground. There was an older pain there too, though, in his hands — a tremor — a stiffness in the joints… Mordred could probably heal that, too, with enough time… if he just…
Mordred’s vision swam.
“Easy, child,” Anhora’s voice said warningly, bringing Mordred out of it with a gasp.
One of the old man’s hands was on Mordred’s shoulder, keeping him from tipping over.
“That’s quite enough,” he said gently. “You have done more than you promised. Thank you.”
Mordred just nodded, unable yet to form a response. His fingertips were numb, his hands tingling with sensitive nerves, and his arms were leaden at his sides. He knew these signs all too well, the backlash of healing as he adjusted to the ebb of energy out of him: the way his head went dangerously light and yet everything suddenly felt so heavy, like every blink, ever breath was a momentous effort. Temporarily, he knew. Mordred took a few, deep practiced breaths, feeling his head already starting to clear.
When he was certain he wasn’t about to pass out, Mordred raised his head and stood, pleased when there was no dizziness.
The others hadn’t noticed, thankfully. Merlin was banishing collars left right and centre, Alator was standing by his shoulder, his intimidating gaze keeping anyone from trying anything, and Drea, Lamorak and the twins were organising the sorcerers left so they didn’t all rush to Merlin at once.
“You make a good team,” Anhora remarked, prompting Mordred to raise an eyebrow at him. “You and Emrys.”
Mordred snorted before he could help himself, and slapped a hand to his mouth. Oh no. No, he wasn’t going to go near that with a ten foot pole.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he replied merely, and quickly retreated before he could dissolve into a hysterical mess. Ah yes, denial, his usual refuge whenever his mind was otherwise engulfed in utter chaos.
“Hey,” Mordred raised his voice to address his friends. “Seems you’ve got this sorted. I’m going to see if anyone else needs healing. The rest of you, stay with Merlin. Have your shields ready for any more attacks.”
“You don’t need to do that,” Merlin dismissed, waving a hand. “I’m sure there are others who need help, and these people won’t hurt me.”
“That woman just tried to kill you,” Mordred pointed out.
“She nearly set you on fire.”
“That doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
By all that was sacred, Mordred was going to give Merlin a sense of self-preservation if it killed him.
“Just stay with him,” he snarled to the others, and stormed off to make himself useful somewhere where he didn’t have to think about Merlin or Druids or prophesies or that dangerous, dangerous hope unfurling in his chest.
If he had known this was how guilting Merlin into taking action would go, he might have included a bit about moderation and subtlety and not going absolutely feral at the first arsehole he came across along the way.
Not that Merlin ever really listened to him, anyway.
Marseilles appeared in a faint blur of amber on the horizon, spluttering lights struggling to pierce through the storm.
Arthur cupped his hands on the window, squinting through the rushing darkness. It had been twenty minutes of burning down the highway, rain flooding the windscreen, the Etoile mountain ranges disappearing in the rear-vision mirror. The weather was utterly merciless out there. Howling winds, inky skies, torrential sheets of rain. Lightning splintered ahead. The crack of thunder was near instantaneous.
A few minutes later, they pulled off the A7 and the metropolitan area rose up around him. High-rise buildings and crisp lines of new development interspersed with postwar brutalist architecture, decrepit blocks and sun-seared, neglected places, all painted black in the downpour. The roads narrowed through the northern districts. Primped office spaces and glimmering lights gave way to poorer housing estates, blocks stained with soot and guano, then to the monolithic blocks of the industrial districts closer to the ports.
At the wheel, Luke pulled the jeep off a side road and cut the engine.
“Alright, then,” he said, twisting round to face them all. “See that gate up there? At the end of the street? That’s the facility we’re looking at. Our Intelligence is that warning sirens were triggered about 0100 hours, about thirty minutes ago. Since then it’s been quiet, but there’ve been reports of odd storm activity — lightning strikes, predominantly, at an extremely concentrated rate — and personnel leaving the facility in scattered groups, intention unknown.”
“What’s the nature of the facility?” one of the men asked.
Luke grimaced. “Also unknown. Agricultural hardware, so we’re led to believe, but they would hardly be the only business in these parts with some more dubious undertakings on the side. Drugs, smuggling rings, illegal immigration and human trafficking. But that’s not our concern tonight.”
Arthur had to physically bite the side of his cheek to stop himself from speaking up — inwardly screaming that this was one of three pillars of the largest criminal syndicate in Europe, a base they had been searching for for months that had already ruined thousands of lives, and how could that not be a priority? Was killing Merlin really more important to Uther than taking down Sigan’s operations?
Apparently it was.
Arthur made a mental note to reprioritise punching his father in the face in the near future.
"All that aside,” Luke continued, “the red-haired twins believed to be travelling with the target were sighted on a CCTV camera, from the factory on the adjacent street at around midnight. We believe the group may be behind the disruption, although their intentions are also unknown. Our objective is to scout out the facility, ascertain the situation and the target’s location, infiltrate the compound if necessary, and take him out. M has recommended a distance kill, as the target is known to be dangerous at close range, so we’ll be using snipers as a first point of attack with the ground team as back up.”
Arthur was pretty sure Merlin was dangerous at all ranges, but he certainly wasn’t about to admit that out loud. He wondered whether there was any way he could keep them all the agents together; trying to get in the way of people shooting from range would be near impossible if they split up.
“Any questions?” asked Luke.
“Yeah,” said Daniel. “Have you ever known human eyes to glow like that?”
Arthur’s head whipped around so fast his neck cracked. His gaze shot to where Daniel was pointing, out the front window, down the narrow road on which they were parked.
A dozen figures stood at the end of the road, just outside the gate to the facility, silhouetted sharply against the streetlight behind them.
Each of their eyes simmered a bright, unworldly orange.
Arthur said, with great feeling, “Fuck.”
The fear was instinctive by this point.
The last time Arthur had faced magic, he had undergone excruciating pain, been strangled in midair, and came very, very close to dying had Merlin not arrived when he did. Before that, he had nearly died again at the hands of Aredian’s sorcerers in Istanbul — still had the scar tissue from their wildfire to show for it. Again and again: the Bastet, Sophia, Edwin. A glint of glowing irises, and Arthur’s hand was already on his weapon, his heart pounding irregularly, a cold, clammy sweat clinging to his skin.
The only thing that kept him from diving out of the car was that these sorcerers weren’t making any move to attack.
If anything, they looked as though they were backing away, a haunted edge clinging to their shoulders. A few of them had hands raised, but it looked more defensive than aggressive. As though they were expecting to be attacked themselves.
In the car, it was utter disarray. Guns were being palmed and loaded, spare magazines flying over seats as men scrambled to the doors, ferocious whispers drowning out Luke’s hushed commands.
Arthur ignored them all, eyes narrowing at the figures at the end of the street who were still frozen in sight of the jeep. Not moving towards them. Not moving back through the gate where they were pinned against.
Why weren’t they attacking? Why weren’t they retreating? What were they waiting for?
Their silhouettes melted in the rain that gushed over the windscreen, blurring, the light behind them distorting through the water —
No wait, Arthur thought, panicked, recognising the blurriness, that now familiar surge of something else surfacing —
Tattered scarves fluttering on branches. Bloodied blades. A well, dripping…
It was hard, sometimes. To feel any true hatred for a people whom Arthur only ever saw slaughtered at his father’s command.
(Fear, yes. Frustration, grief at what they took from him, helplessness in bounds. But hate?)
Years of serving the people, serving his father, doing his duty; the crown prince, the obedient son, the protector, the warrior, his father’s right hand man, the people’s champion.
Years of blindly following his father’s orders, endorsing an oppressive regime he’d once thought to mean strength, protecting a man who purged magic whilst exploiting magic when he saw fit. Years of sealing himself in rationale of nobility and necessity — necessity which somehow always became the plea for infringements of justice, for acts of profound horror — acts where evil melted in duty and despair and good became lost in mania and sick ideas of honour.
(“There was so much happening. I wanted to stop it.”)
Years of questioning everything he thought he knew, of waking up in cold sweat with the screams of druids gutted on his command, years of more screams as Uther strung them up on the pyre.
(“I froze. I didn’t know what to do.”)
Years of no longer knowing what his line was (for what use were morals based on laws of society when not all of those laws were meant to protect the vulnerable?) and secretly wondering if that line had ever really been his, or Uther’s.
(“I forgive you.”)
Arthur came out of it with a gasp, the taste of blood in his mouth. He must have bitten his tongue.
Barely seconds had passed.
Around him, the commotion in the car was getting louder.
“Drive!” Daniel was insisting. “Scatter them — run them down!”
“I say half of us double back,” said another agent. “Catch ‘em off, block them in on the street from the other side.”
“And risk pinning ourselves down?”
“Listen to me,” Arthur began, but he was quickly overruled.
“They’ve got firepower, we do too,” one man said, hard. “I say we hit them head on. Take them out first. Put the bastards down.”
Arthur shuddered, hearing the echo of Uther in his words.
(“For god’s sake, that’s an order! Someone put him down!”)
“No!” Arthur blurted.
Every agent in the car swivelled to face him; even without being able to see their faces, Arthur could sense their incredulity.
“Are you mad?” said Daniel.
“They're not attacking!”
“Their eyes are glowing.” Luke hissed.
“So?” Arthur shot back.
“So they’re one of them, aren’t they? The ones with… you know…” Luke waved his hand vaguely, in a way that could mean anything from casting a spell to anthropomorphising a washing machine.
Behind his mask, it was a great pity no one could see Arthur’s tragically unimpressed expression.
“Magic?” Arthur finished for him.
“It’s not magic,” another agent said derisively.
“It’s something,” a third argued, and then chaos descended again in the car, hushed voices cutting over each other.
“Did you see what that Sigan guy did to the Riverhouse?”
“Fucking demolished it.”
“Why else d’you think we’re on war footing?”
“M warned us about this—”
“Fuck it. We can’t just sit here—”
“Grab me that rifle—”
“How d’you know that’ll do shit?”
“I don’t, but I bet these freaks still bleed—”
(He saw the lines of red bleeding from Merlin's nose, his ears, the corner of his mouth, from under his fingertips, dripping like wine onto the ruined marble.)
The agent made to get out, assault rifle cocked. Arthur’s hand snatched around the muzzle of his gun.
“Don’t.” Arthur snapped, and the beat of sudden authority in his voice silenced every single one of them. “Look at them. Just for a second. Look.”
The sorcerers at the end of the road still hadn’t moved at all since spotting them. They were huddled together, stiff, hands reaching for each other.
“They’re not attacking,” Arthur repeated. “That means we treat them as civilians until proven otherwise.”
“But,” Daniel said, properly hesitant now. “They’ve got magic, right?”
“And you’ve got a machine gun,” Arthur said flatly. “If you’re still feeling unsafe, I’m sure we can find you a bazooka in the boot somewhere. Who knows. Maybe these guys have got a tank stuffed away in their wizard’s hat.”
Daniel bristled, riling up to retort, but Luke’s hand on his arm stopped him.
“You fought magic before?” he asked Arthur.
Understatement of the year. Arthur nodded.
“Then what do you suggest we do?”
Arthur thought for a moment. “Talk to them?”
“I’m not.” His friends were going to kill him for this, but Arthur wasn’t joking. “Let me speak to them. If they try and off me, I give you full permission to pump them full of lead.”
Luke yanked his mask down, so Arthur could see his look of utter disbelief. “You’re mad.”
“I’m not advocating this.”
“With respect, I wasn’t asking you to.”
It was a delicate line Arthur was treading. Officially, Luke was his commanding officer tonight. Yet Arthur — (and indeed Kay, who he was impersonating) — was a double 0. Leaving aside their skills and reputation, a double 0 had freedoms other agents did not, could act outside the purviews that bound everyone else.
Just as Arthur had hoped, Luke backed down, though he didn’t look happy about it.
“This is fucking—” Luke cut off, his breath whistling out through his teeth, head falling back in a gesture of pure exasperation. “Fine. You’ve got two minutes. Don’t die.”
“I’ll do my best,” Arthur said dryly.
Arthur stripped all the weapons on his person, sensing the incredulity in the car thicken with every semi-automatic, handgun, and pointy thing he pulled out. He laid down his assault rifle, took the two pistols out of their holsters, and dropped them on the car seat. Then followed the SIG from the shoulder holster, the smaller concealed pistol in the ankle holster, the extra magazines, the combat knife strapped to his leg, the switchblade, the butterfly knife, the Browning stuffed down his pants.
“How even…” Daniel trailed off. “Where did you…”
“I don’t want to appear threatening,” Arthur explained. He held out his arms to show his empty holsters, wearing only a kevlar vest now behind the mountain of weapons. “Look. Harmless.”
Luke snorted so hard he nearly threw up.
“Why do you have a .50 cal Browning Machine Gun stuffed down your trousers?” Daniel said, hysterically. “Actually, how do you even have a .50 cal in the first place?”
“Oh, that reminds me,” Arthur said, ignoring the question. “Here.”
He reached back, pulled out a tiny shuriken from his back pocket, and handed it to Daniel. “So you feel safe.”
Daniel took it in a daze. “I want to be a double 0. Can I be a double 0? Where do I sign?”
The others were all laughing at him without making a single sound, silently shaking, sniggers muffled into their scarves.
“Touch my stuff, and I’ll know,” Arthur warned, only fractionally joking, and opened the car door.
He got out slowly, hands raised.
“Salut.” He called to the sorcerers. He approached them at an easy pace through the rain. “Ne t'en fais pas. Je ne suis pas armé. Je ne vais pas te blesser.”
I’m not armed. I won’t hurt you.
“Stop!” One of them exclaimed. Bald, middle aged, tan skin. “Stay where you are!”
Arthur stopped; ten feet from them, twenty feet from the car behind him.
“You’re Scottish,” Arthur noted, curiously. “What are you doing in Marseilles?”
Silence. The sorcerers shared uncertain looks, but none of them spoke.
“Did you come from that facility?” Arthur ventured. “Are you some of Aredian’s?”
All of them stiffened visibly at the name.
“You know Aredian?” the first man said gruffly, his expression inscrutable.
“For a given definition of know.” Arthur allowed. “He tried to kill me. Several times.” All of them stared at him. “He missed,” Arthur added.
Someone in the back of the group, a girl hid her laugh in a cough.
“We are no friends of Aredian’s.” The first man said darkly.
“You did come from his base, then.” More silence. Arthur took a cautious step forward. “How did you escape?”
Frustration itched across his shoulders, on the backs of his hands. Arthur flexed them, feeling a slight trickle of water seep into his gloves. His mask — before so soothing-dark and concealing — suddenly felt smothering. Arthur’s fingers twitched with the urge to pull off, but his neck prickled with the gazes of the agents behind him.
Two minutes, Luke had said.
Urgency made his voice rawer than usual.
“Please,” Arthur said, sotto voce. “I know what’s behind that gate. I know what they’ve been doing. Aredian… he’s taken a friend of mine captive. I’ve been trying to hunt him down for the past few months. If you know anything, if you can tell me what happened tonight…”
“We had help,” the girl spoke up abruptly, earning sharp, no, stop, what-the-fuck-are-you-doing glances from the others. She ignored them, stepping forward. “There was a guy. A stranger.”
Arthur’s throat pulsed. He risked a tiny glance back, checking the others were still in the car, out of earshot.
“Merlin?” he asked, murmur-soft.
An interesting ripple of reactions met that.
“You know Emrys,” an old man breathed.
Biblically, was on his tongue, but Arthur just about restrained himself. He nodded.
The bald man was scrutinising him closely now. “It’s strange. There is something about you. It reminds me of him a little.”
And putting that weird little tidbit aside for the moment.
“Please.” Arthur said again. "Anything you can tell me.”
Another whisper of silence in the rain. Then —
“He appeared out of thin air,” a younger boy blurted, hushed.
“He stopped them beating the old man,” another exclaimed. “I saw it!”
“He conjured the storm.”
“—held off hundreds of sorcerers—”
“— bent the lightning—”
“— stopped the rain!”
“And then the collars…” One of them touched their bare neck.
Arthur’s stomach did a strange flip-flopping in his chest. “He removed them?”
“He freed us,” the girl corrected, defiance in the faint flash of orange in her eyes.
Hope clawed up his throat. There was one last thing.
“What did he look like?”
“Dark hair, pale, skinny.” The boy paused, shivering a little in a way that had nothing to do with the chill. “Eyes that glowed gold.”
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, feeling lightheaded, heart pounding to the tune of exhilaration. He’s alive. This whole time, Arthur hadn’t known — not for sure — believing it with a hope that came from a dark and desperate place of not daring to know any differently, yet every day slipping a little closer to despair, and then even this sighting… it hadn’t been certain if it was even him… and now…
Merlin was alive.
And powerful, by the sounds of it.
Arthur struggled to keep himself in check. Struggled with the tremble in his thighs that longed to run, to abandon this undercover operation right now, tear heedlessly past all these people to that compound just ahead, to where Merlin — Merlin was there — alive and so, achingly close —
He screwed his eyes shut, frantic not to succumb to the ferocity of his desperation. It seemed a mountainous effort to pull his focus back to the people in front of him, but Arthur did it.
First thing’s first.
“Do you have somewhere safe to go?” he asked. “Homes? Families? Where are you heading?”
The group in front of him exchanged a few more measured glances, as though weighing up how much they could tell him.
“England.” The bald man said guardedly. “If we can.”
Well. That just made Arthur’s job supremely easier.
“If you stick around, I’ll escort you back to the country myself,” he offered. “We’ll get you guys on a flight. Do you need asylum? Or are any of you British citizens?”
Some of them were gaping at him.
“Most of us are citizens,” the bald man admitted, recovering first, “but… and not to seem ungrateful, but, there’s no chance we can just fly back home. We don’t have anything on us. Passports, ID or documentation, money, any way of contacting our families. Frankly, I’m not sure we’ll even get past border control.”
“You will,” Arthur dismissed, with complete certainty. He was already working through the details in his head, the favours he could call in, the departments he could gently lean on, the hell that Morgana and Gwen could wreck if he put them on the case. It was so refreshing to have a problem that he could easily fix. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“I’ll pull some strings, make a few calls. Don’t worry about it.”
The bald man scrutinised him, eyes narrowed, as though reevaluating Arthur’s get-up and sifting through what it meant. Why a man in nondescript military garb could make these kind of promises.
“You work for the government, then?” he asked finally.
Behind his mask, Arthur smirked. “You could say that.”
“They definitely came from that facility,” Arthur said, straight to business as he got back into the car. “They were trafficked — captured and transferred here to be sold — but they managed to escape in the chaos tonight. They’re not looking for trouble. They just want to get home. Once we’re done here, I’m arranging their safe passage back to the UK.”
Water dripping from his clothes onto the car seats was the only sound in the great silence that met him.
“What?” Arthur demanded. "They’re British citizens, and even if they weren’t, it’s our job to help them.”
“No,” Luke said, more confused than argumentative. “It’s our job to eliminate a threat.”
“Why can’t we do both?”
Luke looked at him weirdly for another moment, before shaking his head, apparently dismissing it for now. “Speaking of threats — any intel about the target? Any sign of him?”
He appeared out of thin air. Conjured the storm.
He freed us.
“They didn’t see much,” Arthur said vaguely, impressed himself with how even his voice was.
Luke accepted it without question. “Alright, then. Move out. Kay, heads up.” He tossed something small to Arthur, who caught it. “Your earpiece, put it on, stay on the main line. And here.” Now Luke reached back, grabbed a long case and pushed it at Arthur. A sniper rifle. “You and Daniel — you’ll be up top. Your kill stats make me want to weep, and you clearly know your way around a scope far better than any of us, so you’ll be our primary sharp shooter tonight. You can guide us on the ground, and if you get a shot, you take it.”
Leaving him too far away to do shit if the ground team got to Merlin before he did. Spectacular. Arthur was really going to have to work out a solution quick, else he’d be sniping his own colleagues to keep them from killing Merlin first.
The others were already prepped, leaving Arthur in the car to gather up his gear again whilst they spilled out onto the street.
Arthur swung by the sorcerers on his way through to join them. “You guys might want to get low,” he advised in a low voice. “We could be coming under some fire. Don’t go too far; I’ll come find you when this is over. I won’t leave without you. I swear.”
A dozen pairs of eyes blinked at him, wide as saucers as they took in the armoury he was sporting, but they were looking a lot less skittish now, more centred. A few of them had physically straightened at his words: an instinctive, involuntary response to the rich tones of command and reassurance that had slipped into Arthur’s voice. An unspoken promise that everything was going to be okay, because he would make it so.
Luke was giving Arthur a long, measured look as he jogged back to them.
“What?” Arthur said.
He shrugged. “Thought you double 0s were more of the ‘kill first, ask questions later’ variety.”
There was a weighty unspoken question there. Arthur glanced back at the sorcerers.
“Maybe we used to be,” he said.
Luke merely humphed, tugging his mask back over his face. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
It had taken nearly half-an-hour for Merlin to remove the collars on all those who had stayed.
His legs folded the instant the final one was done, dumping himself inelegantly on the ground with a quiet groan.
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Merlin. It came out a bit muffled since his head was smushed into his knees. “I hate alchemy. Is my brain leaking out of my ears? I feel like it is. You might as well abandon me now, let me perish and my body decay so that I may enter into the great Circle of Life like Elton John foretold.”
Galahad cuffed him lightly on the head, dropping down next to him. “Stop being so dramatic. You only did fiendishly-complicated and previously-assumed-impossible magic about, oh, seventy times.”
Merlin made a pitiful noise, and plumped his head on Galahad’s shoulder.
Galahad patted his arm comfortingly. “Has it occurred to you—”
“Probably,” Merlin muttered.
Galahad’s patting turned into a swat. “Has it occurred to you that after what you did today, you should be able to stop time?”
“Knowing my limits are self imposed isn’t the same as knowing how to operate without them,” he grumbled into Galahad’s shoulder.
“Dude. That was almost wise.”
“I hate you.”
“You’re cranky when you’re tired.”
“And yet I’m still more intelligent than you.”
Geraint cackled. Galahad bumped Merlin’s knee gently with his own. Merlin was fairly certain the only reason Galahad hadn’t shoved his face into the mud in retaliation was because Merlin looked so pathetic right now. Small mercies.
Besides: Galahad’s shoulder was broad and soft, and he was warm. Thankfully the rain had virtually stopped, (Merlin didn’t have the energy left to stop it himself), but the clearing skies brought in yet icier temperatures, making him start to shiver in the early hours as the adrenaline seeped away. The faintest light of the moon ghosted through the clouds. Merlin’s eyes drooped a little.
“Hey.” Galahad nudged him. “Don’t fall asleep. We’re sat in the mud, soaked to the bone on one of the coldest nights of the year, on enemy territory, surrounded by unconscious enemies who could wake up and murder us at any time. This is literally the worst place to fall asleep.”
“It’s your fault,” Merlin mumbled. “Your shoulder is too comfy.”
“Shoulder privileges are granted only to those who don’t fall asleep.”
“And yet, if I did, you wouldn’t push me off. You’re too nice.”
“I’m not,” Drea’s voice interrupted cheerfully. She poked Merlin lightly in the side, and Merlin made a little sound of complaint that was edging towards a whine.
“Why can’t I just rest a bit?”
“Mud,” Galahad reminded him. “Murder.”
Merlin sighed theatrically, but straightened up.
He took in the scene around them. Most of the freed sorcerers had disbanded by now, having thanked Merlin profusely and left to find their respective ways home. Alator and Anhora were among them. They had both clasped Merlin’s forearm one by one, reiterating their promising of aid should he ever ask, before departing with a few others bound for the UK. Those without clear destinations were lingering, having decided to take up Merlin’s promise of sanctuary in the Gaul.
The rest of his friends had gravitated back to Merlin, aside from Mordred, who was still healing some of the ex-slaves on the other side of the loading bay. Merlin watched as he moved from one young woman to an even younger boy. It was hard to tell at this distance, but Mordred looked a tad unsteady on his feet, his movements a little less hyper-precise than normal.
“Is he alright?” Merlin asked.
They followed his gaze.
Drea frowned as she saw him, calling out, “Mordred—”
“I’m nearly done,” he called back without looking. His palms glowed. The line of his back went taut with concentration. A minute later, the white light spluttered and died, and Mordred’s hands dropped, limp at his sides. The boy was beaming, touching his neck, thanking him. Mordred didn’t reply.
Merlin couldn’t see his face from here, but his shoulders were rising and falling where he was crouched, as though he was breathing heavily.
A middle aged man approached Mordred then, cradling his arm. Mordred’s head raised minutely, and he nodded.
// ‘Mordred.’ // Merlin called out telepathically this time, not bothering to try and hide his concern.
// ‘I can do it,’ // Mordred insisted. // ‘Just one more.’ //
The man sat opposite him, and Mordred shuffled forward. He laid his hands gently upon the broken arm, and Merlin barely saw any white light this time, but it must have worked for the man stretched his arm out only seconds later, extolling Mordred’s gifts before bounding off to join his companions.
Drea stood uncertainly when Mordred didn’t move.
Mordred tried to get up.
He dropped. Drea called out in alarm. Several people moved to grab him, but Merlin was faster. He teleported without really thinking about it, appearing beside him just in time to catch Mordred as his legs gave out. He grasped the other boy tight around the waist, tipping Mordred against his chest to control his fall.
It was a testament to how out of it Mordred was that he didn’t shove Merlin away, didn’t even startle. Instead, he just sighed, turning his face into Merlin’s shirt. Mordred’s eyes were glassy, his skin drained of colour. He inhaled once, nostrils flaring. Then — oddly, as though knowing he was safe — his entire body immediately slackened, passing out right there on Merlin’s chest.
The others reached them just as Merlin ever so carefully lowered them both to the ground. Drea lifted Mordred’s head onto her lap, brushing the curls out of his face, cursing at length.
“What’s wrong with him?” Merlin demanded.
“Healing.” Galahad replied, when Drea only continued to swear under her breath and twist her fingers though his hair. “It takes the most out of you than any kind of magic; empties your magical reserves so that it must draw physical energy from your own body to heal another’s.”
Merlin looked at Mordred, at the purple half-moon shadows under his eyes, the slack, unresponsive way his head was lolling. If this was how Mordred felt every time Merlin overexerted himself and went too far with his magic, he thought he understood why Mordred always reacted so extremely. This was horrible. Mordred’s face was ashen, and it physically hurt Merlin not to reach out and do something.
“Can’t I just give him mine?” Merlin asked, with sudden inspiration. “Replenish him? I must have more than enough magic left.”
Everyone looked startled at that.
“What? No,” said Geraint, recovering first. “No, you can’t donate a bit of magic like… like donating blood. Mordred’s own magic would see it as foreign magic, and therefore an attack. It would only make him weaker trying to fight it off.”
“I mean theoretically, you could donate all of your magic, every last part of it, then it would no longer be yours, but Mordred’s,” Galahad mused. “But I’ve never heard of such a thing. I don’t even know if it’s possible.”
Merlin genuinely considered that for a half-second, then grimaced. “I think I may still have need of it, unfortunately. There’s nothing we can do?”
“Wait until it passes,” Lamorak said quietly, shrugging off his damp jacket to cushion Mordred’s head. “He’ll come round in a minute or two, you’ll see.”
Sure enough, barely a minute passed when Mordred shuddered, the whites of his eyes briefly visible, brow creasing in a frown.
“Drea what the fuck have you done to my hair?” Mordred murmured drowsily, and Merlin felt weak with relief.
He kept back whilst the others helped him sit, pretty sure that, now he was conscious, Mordred would only recoil and snap at him if Merlin tried to help.
“I’m fine,” Mordred insisted, convincing absolutely no one given how heavily he was leaning on Geraint. His eyes were bleary but open, slowly beginning to focus. They drifted to Merlin, clearing for a second before fluttering closed. “I fainted?”
“Scared the hell out of us,” Galahad reproved. “You know your limits. What the hell were you thinking?”
Mordred’s throat worked. “You know it’s hard to stop.”
“I know it’ll be far too easy if you go ahead and kill yourself in the process,” Drea said, sounding a little sharp, making Merlin wonder whether they’d had this argument before.
Mordred’s eyes flickered open again, looking more with it this time. He brushed his fingers over her wrist.
“No, you’re not,” Drea said thickly, but she pulled him into a hug all the same, gripping him tight. Mordred didn’t protest it. He exhaled softly, resting his head on her crook of her neck. Geraint was pressed against his other side, propping him up, and Galahad’s hand was ruffling his hair, and Lamorak was using his jacket now to brush off the mud from Mordred’s back.
Merlin shifted where he knelt, suddenly feeling a bit like he was trespassing. Mordred was more fragile than Merlin had ever seen him, accepting the easy affection that normally he didn't indulge in; Merlin didn’t want to see Mordred’s expression crunch in discomfort the moment he realised Merlin was still there. Their conversation yesterday had certainly left no doubt of his enduring animosity towards Merlin.
“I’ll um.” Merlin said stiltedly. “I’ll go and round up anyone who’s coming with us. Make sure we’re not missing anyone. Get them ready to go.”
He started to get up.
To his surprise, Mordred’s voice stopped him. “Merlin. Wait.” He pulled back from Drea, bracing his own weight with a hand on the ground. He said, in a somewhat strained voice, “Can you guys give us a minute?”
The weight of silence from the others was painfully unsubtle.
Drea looked hesitantly between him and Merlin. “Now? Are you sure?”
Mordred looked shaky but determined. He nodded.
Merlin had absolutely no idea what was going on.
“Course,” Geraint said, with forced lightness. He pulled his brother to his feet, grabbed Lamorak’s jacket and gave Drea a nudge with his foot. “Come on. We can do a final sweep, check there’s no lurkers.”
He all but frogmarched them away, leaving Merlin with Mordred. Merlin lowered himself back down cautiously so that he was sat beside him. Mordred was supporting himself easily now, looking better by the second, but there was still a bizarre openness to his face, nothing there of his usual cool and impenetrable facade. They sat and watched the drizzle for a moment, speckled in moonlight.
“Are you going to be alright?” Merlin broke the silence, when Mordred said nothing.
Mordred jumped a little, as though he had forgotten Merlin was there. “Yes,” he said, clipped. “Fine.”
“Does that… happen often?”
Mordred had reverted to monosyllabism again. It had been a while. Merlin sighed inwardly.
Mordred was mute for so long Merlin wondered whether he only requested Merlin’s presence for some peace and quiet from the others’ worrying.
Then he spoke: abruptly, as though he had been silently building up to it and was trying not to lose his nerve.
“There’s no undoing what you did here tonight. Word will spread. Everyone will know. Druids. Magic-users. Aredian. Uther will know that you’re alive, where you are — who you are.”
“I figured,” Merlin said. At Mordred’s faintly disbelieving look, he shrugged. “I accepted that the moment I got between the guard and that old man.”
“And you’re not…”
Mordred struggled. “…Afraid?”
A cold wind raked over them, spitting rain into his face, and Merlin drew his knees up to his chest with a faint shiver.
“Of course I’m afraid,” he admitted. “I’ve lived my whole life in Uther’s shadow, terrified — dreading he would find out, that people would get hurt like last time. But I meant what I said to Gilli. If we let our lives be governed by fear… we’ve already lost. I can’t control what Uther will do. But I’m done letting my fear control me.”
Merlin glanced over to where his friends were gathering up the refugees.
“I’m going to free them all,” he said, and this time it was a promise. “All the magic-users in Aredian’s camps. Let him and Uther and anyone else do their worst. I’m still going to rescue Gaius, and I’m still going to return to Arthur, to help my friends, but I swear, I’m not going to let this trafficking shit continue. You were right; they’re my people too. I get that now. I’m sorry.”
Mordred stared at him. And stared. He still looked far too pale.
“Did you know my father died?”
Merlin froze. That was definitely not where he saw this conversation going.
“Not for sure,” he replied, very carefully, after a long few moments. “I had… assumed we are all orphans in some way, to be in the Gaul without family.”
Mordred only nodded. “I’ve never told you how.”
You don’t have to, Merlin wanted to blurt out, but there was something in Mordred’s face that kept him silent. Like this mattered. Like he was desperate to get it right. Like it was taking everything he had to say this, but even now, sat in the mud at the upmost end of exhaustion, it couldn’t wait a moment longer.
“He was a powerful seer,” Mordred began. “One of the rare ones, born with True Sight. One night, he had a vision that something terrible was going to happen. He dropped me off at the neighbours and said he'd be back before I woke up. He never came back.”
The hollow note in Mordred’s voice was agonisingly familiar.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin murmured.
But Mordred shook his head, a tiny jerking motion. His face was dismal— skin pale except for a hectic flush across his cheekbones, lips in a pained twist. His hands flexed at his side, as though trying to grasp the words he was failing to find.
“All druids have a knack for growing things, you know. But my dad—” Mordred’s laugh was a short, jagged thing, wavering in that way that meant he was close to tears — “My dad hated gardening. I never understood why he took the job he did. For years, working for the same family. Even when they moved around, even I was born, even when my mum got sick. Every week, tending their garden. For seven years.”
His eyes rose to meet Merlin’s.
The revelation was a sudden, violent thing, like a slap in the face.
"Oh my god,” Merlin breathed, because so much — so much made sense now — Mordred’s pure, all-encompassing hatred right from the beginning, warring paradoxically with the value he put on Merlin’s life, the way he couldn’t handle watching Merlin’s unintentionally self-destructive habits, his talk of sacrifice, the way Merlin leaving in the middle of the night had completely shattered him, his reaction in the barn, the sharp distinction he made between Merlin supposedly fulfilling the prophesy and Merlin choosing to save his loved ones —
“Cerdan. Cerdan was your father.”
Mordred was crying properly now, his face blotchy with it, something heartbreakingly young and small in his distress.
“I hated you for it,” he shoved the words out over an aborted sob — trembling, not with anger but hurt, hurt with a pain that went far beyond this, beyond now — “Who were you, that my dad would chose you over me? How special could you be that he would leave his four year old son behind?”
Merlin felt the words slice into him like physical wounds. Like hooks, catching in his gut and tugging until he wanted to throw up. He flinched, tears welling in his own eyes.
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I don’t blame you.”
The backlash of confusion was so visceral Merlin genuinely thought he would throw up. He dug his fingers into the sodden earth, reeling, unable to form any kind of response that wasn’t ‘why’ or ‘you should’ or ‘I do.'
Across from him, Mordred was dragging a shaky hand over his face, scraping away the tears. Steadying whilst Merlin was crumbling. “At least, not anymore,” Mordred amended thickly. “It wasn’t your fault. It was his decision. I know that. But this — what you did here, tonight? That’s the first time I thought maybe he was right.”
“You set them free, all those sorcerers. The alarm went off, your friend wasn’t even here, and all I could think about was the fastest way out of there, but you — you didn’t run.” Mordred’s breath rattled out unevenly. “Maybe… maybe my dad’s death wasn’t for nothing. Maybe you will change things.”
Merlin could only gape at him, shaken, at a complete and utter loss.
Don’t, he wanted to say, don’t mistake an act of kindness for the intervention of destiny. Don’t waste your faith in me when I’m barely clinging to any in myself. Don’t make me into a cornerstone of hope only for the walls to crumble when I inevitably disappoint you.
Don’t forgive me. It hurts too much.
He couldn’t seem to make his voice work, though. The words stuck in his throat, like a sob that never quite broke, that hitched and gagged and sunk back into your chest, aching.
He tried to convey the sentiments without words, but Mordred wasn’t looking at him at all, staring up at the sky instead. The rain was barely mist now. It transformed the air to ice and starlight, and the fresh, liquid moon soaked it all up, brimming and bright through the clouds.
“You’ve got your answers,” Mordred said, after a long pause whilst Merlin struggled. “You said you’d lead those refugees to the Gaul’s border. If you return with us, I’ll tell Morgause you’ve fulfilled your end of the deal. I’ll make sure you get the information you came for. Then… then I want to help.” His shoulders uncurled, straightening. “You were right; I didn’t appreciate the situation outside the Gaul. But now that I’ve seen it, I don’t want to hide anymore. I don’t want to wait for destiny or Morgause or anyone else. I want to fight. I want to help.”
Merlin’s exhale yanked the breath right out of him.
He tried again to speak, and this time his voice obeyed him. “Listen,” he said hoarsely. “I don’t… I don’t know anything about destiny, or prophesies, or what I’m meant to be. But… we’ll make it count, Mordred. My parents, your dad… We won’t let that be for nothing. I promise.”
Finally — finally — Mordred looked at him, and there was a light in his eyes Merlin had never seen before.
“You’re wrong, you know,” he said. “That… that the world is inherently cruel, or that humans are hellbent to destroy it and ourselves — because we're not. Yes, sometimes the world sucks, but everything we do matters so, so much.” He gestured to the scene around them. “If you want any proof of that, look around.”
Merlin looked. He saw the dozens of sorcerers around him, damp-clothed and freezing but eyes agleam. He saw smiles that whispered of hope, tiny spells being cast all over just because they could, magic that sung of deep and profound joy.
Some of the ice leaked out of his bones.
Merlin turned back to Mordred, his heart full. He held out a hand to help him up.
This time, Mordred took it.
“I have a shot.”
“This doesn’t mean we’re friends though,” Mordred warned, as Merlin pulled him to his feet.
“Of course not,” Merlin said solemnly.
“And I’m still pissed at you for like. A lot.”
Mordred wavered on his feet a little when Merlin let go of his hand, and Merlin steadied him automatically, catching him by the shoulders as he yawned.
“And when I’m not half-dead from exhaustion,” Mordred added, a tad sleepily, “I’m still going to yell at you later for breaking the rules of magic. Again. That was stupid. And dangerous.”
“Are you done?”
“Oh no. I could keep going. For like. An hour.”
“When you’re not half-dead from exhaustion?”
Merlin snorted, and Mordred almost looked like he didn’t want to hit him for it.
He was still grumpily muttering about shady transmutation circles and unstable spell-meshing when the first sniper’s bullet hit.
It had taken them only minutes to get into position.
Arthur lay flat on a nearby rooftop, finger off the trigger, watching through the telescopic sights of his rifle as the other agents moved in. They fanned out around the perimeter of the compound, silent and coordinated, like a well-oiled machine. Readying to infiltrate through the loading bay.
The sorcerers Arthur had spoken to were right: there were bodies everywhere — security guards, hired muscle and mercenaries, higher-ranking officers, the odd man and woman in expensive suits… all crumpled on the ground — unconscious, (Arthur could see their chests moving through the rifle sight, their breaths fogging slightly in the frigid air) — but not one of the bodies on the ground was wearing a collar.
Someone had taken out every criminal in the facility, but spared the slaves.
Arthur raised his sights a tad. Groups of people were clustered in the loading bay. Tiny pockets of light were sparking up randomly around them, like sparklers. It took Arthur a few seconds of blank staring to realise they were spells — that these people were sorcerers. Shabbily clothed. Tired, wan faces, creased in smiles. Bare-necked. Someone had removed their collars.
Arthur moved his sights further, noting the red-haired twins, a younger girl with braids —
Then Arthur stopped upon two figures, and he couldn’t breathe.
He was helping another boy to his feet, eyes crinkling, hair curling a little in the rain. His cheeks were wet. His hair was longer.
Air punched out of Arthur’s lungs. It felt like taking a bullet to a kevlar vest, like being socked in the gut, like he’d been holding his breath for months, and only just exhaled. His hands shook badly, and Arthur had to fight to keep Merlin in his sight. The magnification of the scope ate up the last stretch of distance between them to nothing. Arthur might as well have been standing right next to him, close enough to see the damp of Merlin’s skin, the mud on his jeans, the faint scruff of stubble on his jaw. He couldn’t help but soak up the details, to find the evidence of the months spent apart.
Merlin, a rain-drenched hoody plastered to the slender line of his shoulders, the delicate bend of his wrists peeking out, tugging the sleeves down over his hands.
Merlin, so, frighteningly pale under the harsh floodlights, the barest flush ruddying his nose from the chilly night air.
Merlin, the fine bones of his face sharpened into further relief, the cut of his cheekbones, shadows licking into the hollows underneath as his head turned.
Merlin, the bright blue of his eyes, eyelashes clumping together from the rain.
Merlin, smiling that tiny, crooked smile that made him look years younger, that scoured away all the tired, shadowed edges, brightened everything in breathtaking energy.
Merlin Merlin Merlin
For one wild, heart-stopping moment, Arthur saw Merlin go incredibly still.
Over the sights, he saw Merlin’s head tilt to the side a fraction, eyes moving up, as though searching…
A shock of blue eyes stopped right on Arthur.
Arthur nearly dropped his rifle straight off the roof.
There was no way — no way Merlin could have seen him, that he would even have known Arthur was there, not at this distance, not in pitch black, and yet, Merlin was staring straight at him through the scopes.
His brow was furrowed, lips mouthing something absently that looked a bit like Arthur’s name. Impossible.
Arthur was still staring at him when Daniel’s voice crackled over the comms.
“I have a shot.”
It hit him like a fucking defibrillator. Arthur’s vision actually fuzzed out for a second. It felt like he was jumping off that plane again, back in free fall, like the world was nothing but air and yet he couldn’t fucking breathe.
Arthur gulped for a few moments, scrabbling for what to do.
“It’s not clean.” Daniel’s voice added. “I repeat, shot is not clean.”
Arthur scoured the surrounding buildings with his scopes, frantically trying to find where Daniel was positioned — he’d had him, not minutes ago, but now… Arthur couldn’t see a bloody thing. The buildings blocked his line of sight. Daniel must have moved since Arthur looked away.
“Can you get into a better position?” Luke’s voice said.
“Not unless you want to wait ten minutes whilst I climb another building.”
“Kay?” Luke tried. "What about you? Are you clear?”
Arthur stared at Merlin through the scope, heart pounding sickeningly. “Negative,” he said, toneless. “I don’t have eyes on him.”
Move, Arthur thought desperately to Merlin, please just move. Put up a shield. Get out of the open space. Don’t just stand there, you idiot.
But Merlin wasn’t moving. He was still staring in Arthur’s direction, distracted from what his companion was muttering about, something confused and longing and vulnerable crossing his expression.
“Sir?” Daniel said.
Luke’s reply was damning. “Take the shot.”
There was no time to do anything else. Arthur didn’t have eyes on Daniel to take him out first. He was too far away to yell out a warning, and he wasn’t close enough to Merlin on the ground to push him out the way.
There was only one thing left he could think of.
“I might hit the other boy,” Daniel protested.
“Did I sound like I was asking?” Luke snapped.
Arthur couldn’t protect Merlin. But he could give Merlin a split-second warning to protect himself.
So when Luke gave the order —
“I said take the shot!”
Arthur fired first.
A warning shot. Pin-point accuracy. Five feet to the left, shattering off the concrete.
Merlin’s reaction was instantaneous. Arthur watched him duck instinctively, dropping straight to the ground, one hand grabbing the boy at his side and the other hand flinging up —
A shield burst around him, glorious and golden. Exactly how Arthur remembered it. Exactly as he had hoped.
A heartbeat later, Daniel’s shot exploded on impact, shattering against the side of the shield.
Arthur pulled back from the rifle to drop his head weakly onto the roof, pressing his forehead into the hard edge until it hurt, as he gasped his relief.
The clamour in his ears was deafening.
“What the fuck was that?” Luke yelled over the comms. “Kay? What…?”
Arthur panted into the wet concrete, feeling the rough gravel scraping over his cheeks as he began to smile.
“Sorry,” Arthur said mildly. “I missed.”
“Missed,” Arthur said again, and his grin was physically hurting his cheeks.
He ignored the backlash on the comms, lifting his head back up to follow what was happening. Through the rifle sights, Arthur watched Merlin and the boy run to join the others, the shimmering veil of the shield rippling out to include them all.
A second later, they vanished.
No, not vanished, Arthur amended. Not quite. It was like plunging into pitch darkness after staring at a bright light — those few moments where your eyes hadn’t adjusted, and everything was shapeless nothing. One moment the shield was glowing, a dazzling beacon in the dark, and the next the whole group were enclosed in shadows, in a little pocket of night.
With the level of detail afforded by his scope, Arthur could still see them if he really focused — incredibly faint, like a swathe of black cloth against black tile. A window of darkness.
Magic, Arthur marvelled, and restrained the urge to giggle helplessly with the relief still zipping through his veins.
The comms were still yelling: at him, at each other, scrambling to coordinate, to reposition, to find where Merlin had gone.
Arthur said nothing.
He watched through his scope as that faint patch of smudged darkness moved through the gate, out of the facility, and passed completely from sight round the bend of one of the streets.
Arthur watched Merlin disappear, and felt the shards of his own hope slice into his heart with the jagged edges of watching Merlin leave — again — and even still, that pain and loss could not even begin to touch the sheer force of relief swelling within him.
Alive. He’s alive.
The soles of Merlin’s shoes slipped on the wet cobblestones as he ran.
The night funnelled around them, misty-quiet, indigo shadows hugging their steps. The moon had slid behind a cloud, plunging the streets into darkness as though to ease their way.
Merlin knew his light-bending wasn’t as seamless as Mordred’s. He could do the basic tenets of the spell, sure, but Mordred made an art form of it: he knew how to hone the light, to weave it, to blend light and shadow in a way that not only camouflaged, but diverted the eye — unconsciously drew the gaze into little pockets, exploiting how the pupil adjusted to create blind spots.
But Mordred had nothing left in him. Healing had exhausted his magical reserves; it was all he could do to keep up on foot.
That left it up to Merlin. He pulled the night around his shield, stretching the darkness out as a tent as they ran, praying it would be enough to cloak them from sight. But he was tiring, too. Had been tiring well before the sniper fired that first shot.
They made it to the end of the street before Merlin’s magic gave out. The spells slipped through his fingers like water, defying his clumsy attempts to catch them. The shield flickered and died, and the shadows dispersed, leaving them in plain sight.
Merlin staggered a little, gasping. It was only the twins’ hands under his arms that kept him from tripping.
“Hug the walls,” Merlin rasped. “Keep moving. There — down that alley. The narrow one. Quickly.”
They darted down the side alley without question, flattening themselves again the wall.
“Fuck,” Merlin swore, half falling against the wall. He pressed his temple against the cold brick, eyes sliding shut for a second, sucking in lungfuls of crisp, freezing air. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hold it, I couldn’t—”
“Shut up,” Drea's voice cut in sharply from beside him. “You saved our lives. Again. Stop apologising and wasting time.”
Merlin coughed, a strangled laugh. “Fair enough.” He opened his eyes, pushing past the ache in his muscles, the throbbing behind his eyes, the weakening in his knees that wanted to sag into the wall and rest for a moment. Past all that to the people around him, looking to him. Think, Merlin, come on. Snipers above you. Likely a perimeter set up around you. You’re pinned down, but you’re not trapped, not yet. You’ve seen this before, come on. What would you be saying to Arthur right now, if he were in this position?
“Alright,” he said. "We’re nearly out. We just need to ditch these guys. Snipers are useless in pursuit within most urban environments — too many narrow streets, tall buildings, no clear line of sight. We stay away from the main streets, the open spaces. Keep low. There may be a ground team as well, though, who would be combing the area now—”
“And if there is?” Galahad asked.
Then we’re fucked. “Hope we’re faster than they are,” Merlin said grimly.
In another, last effort, he tried reaching for his magic, but it felt like trying to pick up sand in the ocean — bits of it cupped in your palms, right there in your grasp but continually seeping away in the waves, impossible to cling on to.
He tried again, harder, but in his grogginess and desperation he ended up accidentally reaching for something else instead.
Something he’d sensed ever so briefly, in the moments before the sniper’s first shot.
Something that felt a bit like the wall behind him, holding him up, keeping him from sinking to the ground, but stronger, deeper, safer.
(A hand in the dark. A door left ajar. A thread, drawing him in.)
Something that reached back.
Because that’s what we do, you and I.
Merlin’s head snapped up so fast it cracked against the brick. His mouth fell open, but no sound escaped.
“What is it?” Drea’s voice sounded very distant all of a sudden.
I’d ask you not to come looking for me, but I know you wouldn’t listen.
It had been an entire night of shattering revelations and emotional wreckage, of blinding realisations and fragile arrivals and his world upending, but this…
Merlin’s entire being broke.
Ruptured, like a fissure that burst open in the earth, fracturing, crumbling, shifting, poles turning on their axis, realigning to the pull of the antipodal force slotting it back into balance, into wholeness, into —
Merlin’s heart stuttered painfully. His eyes flooded. The connection between them throbbed, singing with closeness, filling him with soothing, sun-glow warmth, a longing so exquisite and so aching that Merlin couldn’t help but step unconsciously towards it.
Close. He was close. He was —
Little more than a slip of darkness, Arthur chased down the other agents in pursuit on the ground. His sniper’s rifle was long abandoned, his SIG palmed, the cold of the metal searing through his gloves.
Close. He was close.
Arthur could hear the others’ footsteps slapping over the cobbles just ahead, could hear their voices over his earpiece, whispered commands pushing them onwards, to block off the main streets in the area.
Streets which Merlin would know to avoid. Arthur clung to that meagre comfort as he ran. Another figure — Daniel — jogged around the corner just as Arthur caught up to the group.
“Good,” Luke’s voice was short with urgency, “you guys are here. Fan out. We need to cut them off.”
“And what if they’ve already gone?” Daniel hissed, through panted breaths. “We didn’t even see which way they went!”
“Then we’ll search every bloody street until we find them,” Luke snapped back. “If they have gone, we have no leads left — nothing to go on. Either we find the target here, tonight, or that’s it. Mission over. Now fan out.”
The agents obeyed, splitting off. Arthur deliberated for a heartbeat, torn between which direction to go in. Should he stick close to Luke — the one most likely to shoot without waiting for permission? Should he stay central, able to reach any of the agents if they found Merlin? Should he go off on his own, hope that he found Merlin first?
In the end, the choice didn’t matter; it was futile, without knowing where Merlin was…
Arthur’s breath hitched then, his eyes widening with a sudden, absurd thought.
(A shock of blue eyes stopped right on Arthur. Impossible. Recognising. Knowing.)
He needed to know where Merlin was.
(In the blackness, a hand reached out, penetrating the roaring vortex in Arthur’s mind, parting inky waves with a flick of his wrist. It stopped just before him, waiting.)
(Stay with me, the voice begged. It sounded more familiar this time, like someone he knew, like a memory he couldn’t quite grasp.)
(Warmth flushed through him, zinging with energy that popped and crackled, deep and heady with breathless exhilaration.)
( I love you. A velvet whisper, drops of molten gold amidst slumber's darkness.)
Arthur had been sensing him all along. His presence, his magic — like it was a part of Arthur, too.
And Merlin had sensed him in return. Had known he was there, beyond reason, beyond doubt.
Arthur had no magic. But maybe he didn’t need it. Maybe he just had to let Merlin’s magic reach him.
So, closing his eyes to the dingy streets and blackest skies of the early hours, shutting out the panic and the fear and the desperation, Arthur cast his thoughts blindly outward, and, for the first time, consciously reached back.
“You’re crying,” Drea said, faintly.
Merlin rose a hand numbly to his face, felt the hot blur of tears scald his icy fingers. So he was. He hadn’t realised.
“Merlin,” Drea said.
He looked at her. Her eyes were afraid.
He tried to answer, but couldn’t. He felt shivery, dizzy, heart pounding with anticipation, soul swelling in the direction of the presence approaching, muscles bunching under his skin with the effort of keeping them still. It felt like he was using all of his control not to fly apart. His body was vibrating like a struck chord, his string of thought turning to smoke, his grasp on everything unravelling but for the helpless tugging in his chest.
Here — the spluttering remnants of Merlin’s magic cried out — I’m here.
A hand gripped his elbow, thumb digging into the sodden hoody, and it was only after Lamorak steadied him that Merlin realised he had been falling, listing weakly in the direction of the end of the narrow street.
The end of the street, where the blurred silhouette of a figure skidded into view.
Merlin let out a tiny, involuntary noise — gutted, full of grief.
He stepped forward.
Arthur stopped dead next to the alleyway, frenzied, breathing through his teeth.
Luke and Daniel were just behind him, only a short side-street away, dangerously close, but Arthur clawed at his goggles anyway, yanked them down with clumsy fingers — needing to see it with his own eyes.
It. Him. Merlin.
Not ten goddamn yards away, staring at him like he couldn’t believe Arthur was really there. His face was carved with devastation, wrecked with hope. His eyes had gone so vivid: vast oceans reflecting vaster skies, weeping monsoons, twilight-soaked horizons and dark waters glittering with a misty burst of fragile, bewildering sunlight. They were brimming, tears spilling over ceaselessly, and they looked at Arthur and they knew him.
Arthur was in head-to-toe black. There was no way Merlin could have known it was him behind the mask.
But Merlin looked at him, and it was like Arthur was being seen for the first time in seven months.
He shuddered, swayed towards Arthur like he couldn’t help it. Like he was drawn. Like gravity. Like a sunflower turning its face towards the fire-gold glow of dawn.
He took a feeble step forward.
Footsteps echoed behind Arthur.
Arthur held up a hand to Merlin. Frantic. Warning. Stay. Turned his head jerkily towards the sound of the agents approaching at his back, shook his head hard, trying desperately to convey that the men approaching were no friends of theirs.
If Merlin stepped out from that alley, if Luke and Daniel saw Merlin, they’d open fire, and Merlin looked half ready to collapse already.
If Merlin stepped out to Arthur, if he inadvertently revealed Arthur’s identity, these men would know who Arthur really was. Uther would know he’d found a way around the tracking chip, would know his allegiance remained — would always be — with Merlin. Everything at MI6 — Agravaine, finding Aredian, keeping Kilgharrah in check, protecting Merlin from his father, protecting his friends — Arthur wouldn’t be able to do a single thing about.
Stay there. Arthur thought, as hard as he had ever thought anything, willing Merlin to hear it. Please. Go back. While you still can. Don’t risk it. Don’t risk yourself. Stay —
The command thrummed through their connection, like the toll of a warning bell.
Merlin froze up, trembling, heart thundering somewhere in his throat.
There were footsteps ahead. Voices.
“Kay?” an unfamiliar voice called out, clipped, muted tones from the perpendicular street. “You got anything?”
And the figure at the end of the alley — Arthur — looked right at Merlin as he replied. “Nothing,” he said evenly. “There’s nothing here.”
They stared at each other. Arthur’s face was entirely concealed but for a thin band around his eyes where his goggles had been. Eyes that burned into Merlin, over-raw with emotion, over-bright with anguish, with the struggle of leashing his want.
There was a muffled curse from the adjacent street. It sounded closer this time — just around the corner, mere metres away from Merlin and the other sorcerers.
“Alright,” the voice said, subdued. “We’ll do a last sweep of this block. Dan, you circle back, double check the other side. Kay, you take the next street over.”
“Sir,” Arthur acknowledged.
Still, Arthur’s eyes lingered upon him, like he was committing Merlin to memory, like he was soaking him up. It was a goodbye look. A look of pained resolution, of resignation, and Merlin felt panic skitter in his veins.
Stay, he thought now, a frantic tossing back of Arthur’s command. Stay. Don’t you go. Don’t you leave.
“Kay?” the man’s voice prompted.
Merlin watched the hope in Arthur’s eyes gutter, like smoke from a sparkler sputtering to dark as he broke their gaze.
Arthur turned away.
Merlin took a helpless step forward, but was stopped by a hand gripping his forearm.
“Merlin you can’t,” Mordred whispered urgently. “You can’t.”
“But he…” Merlin could hardly speak he was shaking so badly. “Mordred, that’s…he’s…”
“I don’t care who it is. They’re hunting us. Our magic is all but spent. You’ll expose us all — all these sorcerers. You’ve just set them free. Think about this, Merlin.”
Merlin couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. He was splitting down the centre, screaming at the loss.
“Galahad, Geraint,” he choked out. “Time… could you…?”
The twins’ looked stricken. “It’s too much,” Geraint murmured, his voice soaked with an apology. "We haven’t got anything left.”
“Mordred—” Merlin pleaded. “The light—”
But even as he said it, Merlin knew it was no use, could sense Mordred had nothing left either. Mordred just shook his head, his face drawn with his exhaustion, something that looked close to pity.
Fuck. Who was he kidding. Merlin had nothing left himself. He had nothing he could use against these men. Barely any magic left, certainly not enough to throw them back, to fight them off, to shield against them. Not enough magic to conceal himself from them, to try anything more advanced like stopping time himself.
There was nothing. Nothing he could do but watch Arthur steel himself and turn away, the line of his shoulders crunched with misery, rigid with self-control, like it was the hardest thing he had ever done.
("I wish we’d had more time.”)
There was nothing. Nothing.
Merlin was too far, there was no time —
“There is no time.”
Galahad’s voice came to him then. Snow dusted stone. Mountain peaks jutting into the sky. Avid conversation stretching into the dusk-smoke hours of the evening.
“The first thing to understand is that time and space are two sides of the same coin.”
(“You’re like two sides of the same coin.”)
Once and future. Past and present. Memories, moments. Blurring, interweaving, aligning.
There is no time.
“This world spins from the same unseen forces that twist our hearts, that remake time and space, that can shape and alter who we imagine ourselves to be.”
(“Do I know you?”)
(“Where might I find Gaius, the court physician?”)
(“You saved my boy’s life.”)
There is no time.
“You want to stop time?” said Galahad. “Do not try and control it. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realise the truth.”
“That there is no time.”
“There is no time?”
Galahad grinned. “Then you’ll see that it is not time that stops. It is only yourself.”
The twins were right — Merlin had been far overcomplicating it. Trying to force time to submit, to stop the world from spinning, to overcome it with sheer force of power.
It was so much simpler than that. So much more delicate, more instinctive, more childlike.
After all, stopping time was one of the first things Merlin had ever done.
Wood splintering, a balcony cracking, Gaius falling. Slowing. Suspending.
“It just happens.”
A bucket of water, stopping in midair, droplets freezing like glass.
Before he had learnt what it meant to have magic, before he knew how to use it, before any shred of understanding or instruction or study —
“Magic requires incantations, spells, it takes years to study. What I saw you do was elemental, instinctive.”
And Merlin had done it twice.
A dagger thrown. Arthur, groggy and sleep-dazed, half rising to his feet. Merlin, all the way across the room, unable to reach him.
And time, stretching seconds out into infinity as Merlin ran.
That was the first time he saved Arthur’s life.
(“We, all of us, are part of something greater — a cycle that was set in motion long before this life, and that will continue after we perish. Very soon, you shall learn that. You have already begun to suspect.”)
Merlin didn’t need his magic at full strength; the meagre, spluttering candlewick he had left would be enough for this, for a few seconds.
There is no time.
There was no burst of light, no intricate spell-work or lengthy incantation.
There was only him. The beat of his heart. The breath in his lungs. The turn of his gaze towards the horizon, where the first, smudged crest of dawn was breaking.
Merlin carved out his tiny pocket of the universe, and exhaled.
Galahad had never experienced what it was like to be on the other side of their magic.
But he was fairly certain it didn’t feel like this.
When he and his brother stopped time, it was like pressing pause. Like holding every tiny cog of their beings simultaneously within their minds, seizing them all at once, and juddering to a stop.
When Merlin stopped time, it was like the world was curling up for a nap. Like waking up just before sunrise, when the world was still and quiet and yet unformed. Like pausing under the branches of a willow tree, the whisper-curtain of leaves dipping back into the lakes.
Time didn’t seize.
It sighed, and s t r e t c h e d.
Fingers f l e x ing, r e a c h ing up to darkest of skies receding brightening d i s s o l v i n g to
Dawn. Periwinkle-blue and fragile. Trembling.
It b r e a t h e d,
and just as the first ray of sun
b u r s t across the sky,
in the s p a c e
Arthur pulled off his mask with trembling fingers.
He stared stupidly at Daniel’s frozen form in front of him, at Luke’s mouth caught on the ‘K’ of his name. Stared at the tiny mountain ranges of ripples in the puddle under his feet, suspended in motion. Stared and stared at the world which had ebbed and lingered and fell away before him, not even daring to hope because to hope would be to break, because there was no way, no way that this…
A whisper of meadowsweet magic stirred the back of Arthur’s neck. A second heartbeat fluttered next to his. A cracked murmur of his name broke the silence.
There was nothing.
Nothing in the whole world.
Nothing but them.
Merlin took a swaying step forward, feeling the pull of the dawn settling on his skin, splashes of sunlight and lavender mist spinning out like thread, wrapping around his fingers.
At the street’s end, Arthur’s posture was rigid, bracing as though for a blow, turning like he was afraid Merlin would be gone when he looked again.
For a moment, they just stared at each other, terrified of shattering this crystalline window.
Merlin broke into a run.
Every last shred of restraint Arthur possessed scattered like sea spray breaking upon the rocks.
His expression crumpled. His knees weakened. His weapons clattered to the ground.
Merlin rushed towards him, flying down that last stretch of the alley, heedlessly throwing himself forward —
He staggered, but Arthur was there to catch him, would always catch him, gripping his forearms, dragging Merlin up into his arms, crushing them together in a hug and —
Oh. There you are.
Merlin was laughing and swearing and crying in equal measure — gasping, messy sobs into Arthur’s throat and Arthur just. Held him. Fisted white-knuckled hands into Merlin’s wet hoody, curling himself into Merlin as much as he could, pressing his face into the crook of Merlin’s neck, breathing harsh, uncontrolled breaths. He was trembling all over, gulping in Merlin’s scent, desperately trying to convince himself that this was real.
Arthur’s voice caught on the name, small and wrecked and overwhelmed — and Merlin’s arms immediately came up, wriggling out of Arthur’s crushing hold to wrap around his shoulders in turn, holding him, grounding and familiar and so, so gentle, and Arthur nearly sobbed at the comforting shift in his bones.
“Shh, hey, I’ve got you. Shh, hush. Arthur.”
“I’m sorry,” Arthur gasped out, and then it was pouring out, a litany — I’m sorry, I’m sorry — again and again until the words lost all meaning, a garbled mess he couldn’t seem to stop — I’m sorry, I’m sorry —
“Don’t.” Merlin cut through, his voice cracking with grief. “Don’t. Arthur, god — don’t do that, please, it’s okay—”
“All the things I said…”
“What you had to do, with… with Sigan, my father—”
“Stop. I’m sorry,” Merlin professed, breathed it into his skin like something sacred. "For lying to you, for leaving—”
“Don’t be.” Not for that. Don’t ever be sorry for keeping yourself safe. Arthur pressed into him, hard enough that it hurt, a strangled laugh scraping his throat raw. “You’re alive.”
One of Merlin’s hands cupped the back of his head, fingers curling ever so slightly into the soft hair at the nape of his neck, and Arthur sagged into the tenderness of it. God, he could stay here forever, Merlin’s hand drifting through his hair, the sharp jut of Merlin’s collarbone digging into his cheek, the spicy smell of his sweat and his magic and him surrounding Arthur like a well-loved blanket.
“The others,” Merlin’s words tumbled out suddenly, muffled in Arthur’s hair. “Are they…”
“They’re okay,” Arthur assured. “Couple of close calls, but we’re all okay.”
“Everyone. We’re fine. I promise.”
Merlin’s relief was a near sob. “And you?” he said. “There was a moment, wasn’t there? A few weeks ago? Poison?”
“How did you—”
“I knew I’d gotten it out, but—”
“That was you?”
“Are you okay? What happened?”
“I…” God, where even to begin. “How long will it hold? This thing you’re doing?”
“I don’t—” Merlin faltered with a shaky sort of hiccup. "I’ve never done it before.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Arthur choked, his own laughter and tears finally overflowing. Of course you did it anyway. Of course you stretched out one moment into a thousand just for the chance.
He drew back a tiny bit, drinking in the sight of Merlin up close, the damp curls slicked to his forehead, the tears on his eyelashes, the red-raw of his eyes.
He cupped Merlin’s cheek in one of his palms, treasuring the warmth of it, and Merlin made a little yielding sound at the touch, nosing into Arthur’s hand, immeasurable softness stealing into his face. And there were a thousand things they needed to say, but all Arthur could think was: I love him. I love him.
“I love you,” he said.
Fresh tears spilled over Merlin’s cheeks, creasing between Arthur’s fingers. Arthur felt Merlin’s smile curve against his palm the moment before he saw it alight across Merlin's lips, wobbly and uncertain and full of wonder, as though Arthur’s love was something extraordinary and astonishing as opposed to the cornerstone of Arthur’s existence.
“I love you, too,” he returned, his voice hitching. “I can’t even… Fuck, I missed you so much.”
And Merlin kissed him.
Arthur expected it to be hard, edged with desperation, rushed and urgent and grasping — but it wasn’t.
Merlin kissed him long and deep, and it was warm and soft and achingly slow, a heat to it that made Arthur groan. He tugged Merlin closer by the hips, changing the angle to really kiss him back. He licked into the hot slick of Merlin’s mouth, tasting him, drawing out a tiny sigh. He caught Merlin’s bottom lip, sucking on it lightly in that way that had always made Merlin melt, and actually felt Merlin’s spine unfurl. He saw Merlin’s eyelids flutter, heard the involuntary noise he made, low in his throat. The next moment, Arthur felt the pads of Merlin’s fingers come forward to thumb the sensitive spots behind Arthur’s ears, and now it was his turn to go blissfully pliant. He nosed into Merlin’s cheek as he came up briefly for breath, inhaling him greedily, having to catch his breath again when Merlin nuzzled the corner of his mouth, as though he couldn’t bear to separate for even a moment. Their lips slid together again, mist curling in the breaths they shared. Arthur stretched every kiss out further, lingering, savouring, drowning in the feel of him, eyes blurring again unexpectedly at the pure contentment welling within him. The rightness. The sense of home, of whole.
“I love you,” Merlin breathed again, murmur-soft against his lips, and Arthur gave into it entirely, let himself break, let himself fall, let everything else fade away but for the feeling of Merlin against him, the feeling of being loved like this.
Every ray of breaking sunlight was as long as a lifetime. Every star that wheeled overhead had tarried to stand watch.
Every moment he spent in Arthur’s arms only made Merlin ache more for the chance to stay.
Arthur's hands had found their way under Merlin’s hoody at some point, and his thumbs were on Merlin’s hips, searing warm again his damp chilled skin, soothing circles into the muscles in his lower back, and Merlin felt so safe he wanted to fucking cry. When was the last time he had felt safe like this, cherished like this?
Merlin only eventually drew back when he tasted the fresh salt of Arthur’s tears on his lips. He said nothing, only stretched up, kissing the shimmering droplets away where they fell down Arthur’s cheeks. Arthur’s eyes drifted shut, and Merlin kissed him there too, feather-light over the soft tremble of his eyelids. He finished with one final, lingering press of lips to Arthur’s brow, and then rested his forehead against Arthur’s, soaking up the closeness, feeling his magic hum happily.
They breathed, leaning against each other.
Merlin touched the line of Arthur’s jaw absently, cataloguing all the the minute changes in his features, wanting to map them under his fingertips. Arthur’s eyes were still closed, and his breathing had deepened a little since Merlin had started, so he kept going. He tapped the faint, uneven shadow of Arthur’s stubble. He traced over Arthur’s zygomatic arch, trailed a finger down the strong line of Arthur’s nose, thumbed over the soft part of Arthur’s lips. He teased some damp hair away from Arthur’s forehead, stroked delicately over the downy hair of his eyebrows, smoothed his thumb under Arthur’s eye and stayed there, sweeping lightly back and forth over the purple-dark crescents.
“You look tired,” Merlin admonished gently.
Arthur laughed brokenly, eyes opening. “And you’re covered in mud,” he returned. “What, did you roll around in a bog on your way here?”
The familiar teasing only made Merlin tear up again, crumbling into the security of it.
“Just be thankful you’re not in your usual tuxedo,” he quipped back, a little thickly. "I’m not sure your dress shirt would have survived.”
“Trust you to worry about my wardrobe.”
“Trust you to not.”
They both broke into faint, helpless little snorts.
“For that matter, why are you pretending to be someone else?” Merlin asked, fingers tapping lightly against the regulation kevlar vest Arthur had on.
“Long story,” Arthur said with a faint sigh. “Uther, mainly. What about you? New friends?”
He inclined his head to the frozen figures of Mordred and the others behind him.
Merlin made a little half-hum-half-shrug. “I found them in a mystical druid city in the Alps.”
“Ah yes. Naturally.”
“They, er, followed me here.”
“Of course they did.”
Merlin quirked an eyebrow at that, wondering at the faintly resigned fondness in Arthur’s voice, as though Merlin inspiring a rag-tag group of strangers to follow him across France was not at all surprising.
But Arthur was still gazing at the others suspended in time. He shook his head, a hint of awe and disbelief tugging his lips into a smile, small and bright with an almost boyish wonder.
“I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that you can do this. That this is even possible. Your magic. It’s… it’s not like before, is it? It feels different. So much more now.”
“You can feel it?” Merlin asked, surprised.
And there — god, there it was, Arthur’s flat, exasperated ‘Don’t-Be-An-Idiot-Merlin’ look, complete with judgy eyebrows and poorly masked fondness. It was a good look. Merlin had missed that look.
“Merlin. I could feel it in England.”
“Oh,” Merlin said brilliantly. “Um. Sorry?”
Arthur snorted, a tiny puff of warm air against Merlin’s neck. “‘Sorry’,” he repeated, almost to himself in disbelief. “I’m guessing that wasn’t entirely intentional, then.”
Merlin thought about the moment he grounded, magic unleashing and spiralling home, anchoring deep within him but also unconsciously stretching out, reaching across time and space —
(And I use it for you, Arthur. Only for you.)
He hadn’t intended to use Arthur as an anchor; it was the love Merlin felt for him that he bound his magic to, his love, the one part of himself he knew would never waver.
Yet when he had opened his magic up, it was like the connection was already there between them. Like his magic was already bound to Arthur in some way.
“I suppose it was,” Merlin mused. “Mordred warned me about grounding magic to a person, so I wasn’t trying to, but I think part of me had been reaching for you all along.”
Arthur’s expression went through an odd mixture of touched and confused. “‘Grounded’?”
“Er. Long story.”
Arthur only huffed, frustration and reluctant sympathy colouring the sigh, like he knew the feeling. “I’m glad,” he said, mumbled it into Merlin’s neck. “That you had people. That you weren’t… that you weren’t alone.”
Merlin hummed. He turned his nose back into Arthur’s damp hair. Breathing him in. “None of them were you, though.”
For some reason, that made Arthur well up again. Merlin felt his tears, hot smudges on the collar of his hoody, felt Arthur’s hands involuntarily pull him closer as his breath snagged.
“How long?” Arthur asked again, thickly, barely audible where his face was pressed into Merlin’s skin. “How long until this breaks?”
Merlin closed his eyes, focussing on the spell he had woven. Already, he could feel the magic start to list away from him, the pull of the balance tugging to re-settle. Sunlight edging over the horizon. Foggy puffs of breath starting to curl in the air. Strands of magic peeling away, like violet petals of fatality, blooming only to fall.
“Soon,” he admitted.
He tried to subtly reign it back, to keep it together, but even that small adjustment sent a wave of exhaustion sweeping over him. Arthur’s arms tightened around his waist, supporting his weight as Merlin slumped a little against him.
His voice was edged with concern. “It’s tiring you?”
“It’s been a long day,” Merlin said merely.
Arthur’s hands were warm and steady, stroking down his spine, settling on the small of his back, and Merlin just. Rested there. Muscles loosening, the tension bleeding out of him. Growing almost drowsy on his feet for the feeling of being held like this. Safe. Known. Loved.
“You should go now,” Arthur said eventually, in a strained tone that suggested the exact opposite. "Get your friends, escape whilst everyone’s frozen.”
He didn’t move, though.
“You could…” Merlin coughed, his voice wobbling. “You could come with me.”
The last thing Merlin wanted to do was move, but he had to, had to pull back to see Arthur's face. The raw twist of want he saw in Arthur’s expression made his chest hurt in echo of it.
“I can’t,” Arthur said at last, sounding utterly shredded. “There’s so much, back in London, and with Aredian, and my father looking for you… I’m needed there.” A pause. Arthur ventured, somewhat hopelessly, “You could come back. We could, I don’t know, we could hide you…”
“I will.” Merlin said. “I’m going to. Soon. But Gaius—”
“—fuck, you found him?”
“He’s in Syria.”
Realisation alit Arthur's face. “Aredian’s base.”
Merlin nodded. “I’m going to free him,” he said, a bit of fire returning to his voice. “And all the others. The slaves, the sorcerers. They… they need me, too.”
They stared at each other.
“Merlin.” Arthur’s voice was softer than it ever had been before, stripped back and rough-hewn, and Merlin loved him so much he would tear himself in two to shield him from the world.
“It won’t be like this for much longer,” Merlin promised, trying to sound braver than he felt. He nudged his forehead to Arthur’s. “I’ll deal with Aredian’s camps, and you’ll deal with London, and. And then it’ll just be us. And fuck anyone who tries to keep us apart.”
Arthur’s smile was tiny. It was the most beautiful thing Merlin had ever seen. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. I don’t care what Uther says, how many men he sends after me. I’m done running. I spent seven months without you; I am never doing that again."
The kiss was startling. Hard and breathtaking, frank and pure and unabashed. Arthur kissed him fast, then pressed their foreheads together again, breaths ragged.
“Okay,” Arthur breathed.
“I’ll deal with London,” Arthur repeated, the faintest amusement curling in his eyes, softening. “And I'll watch for you.”
“To hijack Uther’s assassination attempts?”
“You know it.”
Merlin’s smile was edged with tears. He curled his hands into Arthur's collar, as though he could keep him there. “Thank you. I didn’t say it earlier. For tonight. For what you did at the River, with your father. I never got the chance to thank you for it.”
But Arthur just shook his head, pulling Merlin impossibly closer, his breath warm over Merlin's cheek. “You never needed to.”
And god, how was Merlin supposed to leave this? The whole world was in his arms, and Merlin had no idea how he was going to let it go again, to ignore every cell his body that cried out for the chance to stay, because there was no way that any of their reasons for separating could hurt as much as this.
I don’t want you to go, he thought, wild and desperate. I don’t want to leave.
But the magic was unravelling. Around them, the world was shifting. Merlin felt the pale warmth of the sun alight on his face as it peeked further above the horizon. He saw puddles rippling in slow motion. He heard a gentle creak as time began to run, like a stream thawing in the spring.
“Go,” Arthur urged. “I’ll lead them away, give you a clear path out.”
A tiny, pained sound wrenched from Merlin’s chest. “Arthur…”
“I know. It’s okay.”
“I love you,” Merlin said, trembling.
Arthur closed his eyes briefly, expression spasming, like he was on the cusp of breaking himself.
“I love you, too,” he uttered hoarsely. “More than anything.” He pressed a single, fierce kiss against Merlin’s lips. “Now go."
Merlin choked on another sob, but he stepped back. He reached for the veil of magic around them, anchoring himself with an ease he had never encountered before. Grounding, not on hazy memories, but on the taste of Arthur still on his lips, on the tear-slick-blue of Arthur’s eyes in front of him, on the shift of Arthur’s feet on the ground, bracing to run. Merlin dug down to the very vestiges of his exhaustion, drawing strength from the fire-glow warmth he found at his centre, the lightness in his chest from this brief refuge in Arthur’s arms.
Merlin feathered his fingers over the fabric of the world, feeling for the fluttering edges of his window, and tugged: widened the pocket of time to include his side of the street.
Behind him, Mordred and the others melted back into life, unfreezing as though no time had passed at all.
“Merlin.” Mordred said, and he sounded calm, but calm in the way that meant he was contemplating strangling Merlin.
“I know,” Merlin cut him off, without ever looking away from Arthur. “Breaking the rules of magic. Again. Yell at me later? When we’re not running for our lives?”
He vaguely heard Drea’s voice murmuring something to Mordred, presumably something along the lines of calm the fuck down this is not the time, and it must have gotten through, because Mordred didn’t start throwing a hissy fit.
The rest of the world was still slipping. The sun flecked across the buildings. Distant sounds of traffic rumbled.
Across from him, Arthur was pulling up his mask, making sure his face was covered. Only his eyes remained now, glistening, watching Merlin go.
“Merlin.” This time it was Galahad, one hand falling on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin resisted on instinct for half a second, then slumped. He let Galahad pull him away, let his shaky steps be urged onwards, stumbling into a run.
At the end of the street, he allowed himself one, final look back at Arthur, just at the moment the magic dropped completely.
The sunrise burst across the sky. It backlit Arthur's figure, limning him in light like some sort of hero of old. His gun was palmed, muzzle down, glinting like bright steel in the pale radiance of morning. Like a blade of burnished silver. His hair tinged gold, the hazy glare circling his head like a crown.
“Stay with me.”
“I wish we’d had more time.”
(Once and future. Past and present. Memories, moments. Blurring, interweaving, aligning.)
This is not goodbye. Merlin thought suddenly, fiercely. This is not all the time we have. We will have more. We will make more. We will keep going.
This is not our end.
At the end of the street, Arthur straightened abruptly, like he had been jolted. The connection between them flared, and with a sudden rush Merlin realised Arthur was reaching back.
There were no words — Merlin could feel the concentration Arthur was using just to hold his mind open like that — but the two of them had never needed words.
I’m here. The feeling said, even as Merlin was finally tugged around the corner by his friends, even as they ran, every step taking him further from Arthur’s side. I’m with you.
No matter how far he went, no matter how much uncertainty they faced in the days ahead.
I’m with you.
About fifteen minutes later — the first chance Arthur got when he was alone — he called the team.
Leon picked up. “Arthur?”
“He’s alive,” Arthur breathed. Nothing else would he risk over the mobile line, a line Uther could be listening in on.
There was a scuffle, a faint commotion in the background. Muffled voices. A beep as Arthur was put on loudspeaker.
“Say that again,” demanded Gwaine. His voice was strained.
“He’s alive,” Arthur repeated. It chanted in his bones. He’s alive. He’s okay.
Gwaine made a noise that was edging on a sob, and then there was Percival’s murmuring voice, Lance’s reverent “I knew it” and Gwen’s tearful gasp in the background, and Morgana swearing in that way that meant she was close to tears herself and Elyan’s very distant whoop.
“And the facility?” Leon ventured, his own voice shaky with the force of his relief.
Arthur’s grin was a wide, boundless thing, slicing through the receding dark. “Gone.”
Merlin had blown it open wide. Hadn’t even tried to be subtle about it.
It was as bold a statement as he could have made.
Merlin was alive.
He was powerful.
And he was done hiding.
And even as fresh tears burned over his cheeks, Arthur turned his head up to the brightening dawn and laughed.