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part 2

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The Research and Development Centre wasn’t a place that most members of the Department went. It was mostly underground, and the staff members were peculiar. It had earned the nickname of the Morgue back years before, though no one could quite remember how, and it was apt. There was a strange prickle that would run up your spine when you walked through the door, like someone walking over your grave, people said.

It was Gaius’ domain, and Uther Pendragon had never been seen to cross the threshold, which made it a curious place all by itself. Uther had been the sort of man to micromanage, but there had been something about the density of magical artefacts in that place that had made the man uncomfortable. He had ordered Gaius up to his office for all his reports and mostly allowed the place to chunter along at its own pace, which it had, quite merrily. If there was one part of the Department that wasn’t stuttering and stalling without the loss of their fearless leader, then it was R&D.

The basic thought behind its existence was ‘know thine enemy’. It had been started so that they could find non-magical ways to counter magical threats, but over the years, thanks to input from people higher up than even Uther Pendragon, it had expanded to finding ways to control magic for their own purposes.

It was the Research and Development Centre that had designed the anti-magical armour that the agents wore. Unicorn hair woven into them would repel a significant amount of magical attacks, and the Cross of Lorraine built into the design of the front was a powerful symbol of protection. But as well as protection and defence, they designed weaponry and any other gadgets they could think of. If you went down there on a regular basis, you learnt not to touch anything.

Gaius ruled over the whole sector with the strange sort of sharpness that appeared almost absent-minded. He was rumoured to be older than anyone in the world, among the younger agents. They said he’d found the secret of eternal life, back in the beginnings of the Department, and he couldn’t die. They also said that he had too much blackmail material on people high up in government to ever be retired.

Gaius himself didn’t much mind the rumours, they gave him some amusement. It was more honest to say that he was still there because no one else knew enough to take over, or they knew too much to want to.

The news of Uther’s death hadn’t taken long to filter through the Department, even to the basement levels of the Research and Development Centre, and work was subdued. Internal Affairs had already been down to ask Gaius how anyone could have got past the security system he had designed personally, and he had sent them away without telling them much of anything other than the fact he was busy.

His pet project was the generator. It stood in the centre of the main room, a series of hoops made from silver alloys, that were fixed to central struts, and surrounded by a complicated mesh of wiring and symbology that no one but him had a hope of understanding properly. It was intended to convert magical energy into electrical energy, but he hadn’t managed to get it working yet. He tinkered with it in his spare time.

He was poring over the diagrams for it when the door swung open.

Morgana swept in, looking efficient, controlled and overcome, all at the same time.

She was one of the few people who had never seemingly been unnerved by the cavernous and sub terrestrial Research Centre. She had known Gaius since she was a baby and she had searched him out on her first day working in the Department and seemed at home surrounded by the odds and ends that lived down there with him. So it wasn’t unusual for her to walk in like she owned the place, but today her presence wasn’t expected anywhere.

Gaius looked up as soon as she walked in.

“Gaius,” she said, crossing over to him. “Have you heard?”

He nodded gravely stepping away from the blue prints and resting a hand gently on her arm.

“They’re saying it was Arthur,” she said.

“I know, Morgana,” Gaius said. “They’ve been asking me questions.”

“Do you… Do you think it was?”

“Arthur?” Gaius asked, astonished. “Of course not! Arthur would never have dreamed of hurting his father.”

“But they had been arguing so much lately.”

“You know Arthur, Morgana. You know that he wouldn’t do anything like this.”

“I know, but it’s so terrible,” she sat on a stool pinched the bridge of her nose tightly, shutting her eyes. “What they’re saying. I can’t stop thinking about it. And it’s all just mixing together in my head.”

“You shouldn’t be here today,” Gaius said softly. “You should be taking the time off.”

“And stay at home? Alone?” she asked. “I prefer to be around people. I don’t want to be alone.”

“I’m sure we could find someone to take care of you,” Gaius said.

“With what happened, everyone’s so busy,” she sighed. “I came down here to get away from it all.”

“Of course, my dear,” Gaius said. “Would you like something to drink, or eat?”

“A cup of tea would be lovely, thank you,” she smiled at him, her face wan.

“I’ll go and see if I can find you some,” he nodded and headed to the small kitchen on the other side of the room.

He came back to find her staring at the blueprints intently.

“I don’t know how you make sense of half of this,” she said with a sigh, gratefully accepting the tea.

“I invented the annotation,” Gaius said. “It was worse in the beginning when we didn’t know what anything was at all, and no one knew how to write anything down. These days at least we agree on some things.” He looked at Morgana curiously.

“What does this even do?” she asked, “I see you working on it all the time.”

“Energy transfer,” Gaius said, slowly. “But you don’t want to hear about my tinkering, I’m sure.”

“I need to take my mind off things,” Morgana said, letting out a deep breath. “I can’t think about it anymore, Gaius, I can’t. I’ll go mad. Just… talk to me about something, anything, please?” Gaius opened his mouth to answer but there was a familiar rush of air as the door was pushed open again and they both turned to see Gwen standing there.

“Gaius?” she asked. “I’ve got some papers that you need to sign,”

“Put them on my desk, would you, please, Gwen,” Gaius said. She smiled and nodded before moving off. When she had moved to his desk, Gaius turned back to Morgana. “Where was I? Oh yes, this contraption. With oil running out, and global warming, the government’s looking at different sources of energy,” Gaius said.

“Like wind turbines?” Morgana asked.

“Precisely,” Gaius agreed, smiling a little. “I was asked to look into a way to convert magical energy into energy that we could use.”

“But where would you find a source of magic big enough to make that worthwhile?”

“You wouldn’t,” Gaius said, sighing, “but that’s the government for you. They don’t think things through. I’ve had to build in a magical conductor as well, to concentrate the magic. But it did present an interesting question. All energy can be converted, after all, so we must be able to convert magical energy somehow, mechanically, like magic users can convert it into kinetic energy, or light energy, or heat energy.”

“Does it work?”

“Not yet…” Gaius sighed. “It does conduct magical energy, and focus it, but I haven’t managed to get the conversion working yet. I really need to work with a magic user. But that’ll never happen.”

“And what about this?” Morgana asked, picking up a strange collection of tubing.

“Portable magical shield,” Gaius said. “Or it will be, when we can get it to work for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Gilli’s supposed to be working on that one. But he’s off sick today.”

“And this?” Morgana pointed to another device. But Gaius didn’t get a chance to answer because Gwen came up to them.

“Sorry to interrupt again, but there’s a memo about funding, it says urgent, and I need to you sign off on something.”

“Funding again,” Gaius said, shaking his head. “They tell me to do things and then they complain when I tell them how much it will cost. Sometimes I think that the government thinks we’ve got some sort of magical money tree down here.” He gave Morgana an apologetic look and rested a gentle hand on her arm. “I’m going to have to deal with this, feel free to stay and look around.”

“That’s fine, Gaius. I know that life must go on,” she smiled at Gwen who returned the expression tentatively.

“How are you, Morgana?” Gwen asked.

“As well as I can be, in the circumstances,” Morgana replied. “Gaius was just distracting me.”

“Sorry to interrupt.”

“Nonsense,” Morgana said before taking a sip of tea. “You have a job to do. I’ll manage a few minutes alone. And I know better than to touch anything.”

“I’ll be back in just a moment,” Gaius said, crossing over to the door of his small office and letting Gwen in. “Make yourself at home.”

“I will,” Morgana assured him.

*

The interview rooms in The Department were designed to be bland. Beige walls with no distinguishing features, a simple table and boring chairs. People being interrogated would have nothing to look at but the face of their questioner, and nothing to distract them or entertain. If you spent enough time in them, it was said, you would go made from the utter nothing of them.

Leon had sat in those rooms a thousand times before, and his mind had always been on getting to the truth. He had never realised how well the effect worked. The mind had nothing to focus on but why he was here. He had never been on this side of the table before.

On the other side was a man with slicked back grey hair and a smile that slipped on and off like a snake shedding its skin. He was perfectly still, which made Leon feel the need to fidget just to balance him out.

But he knew better than that. When a suspect fidgeted, you had him. Every flick of the fingers was a crack, and you could burrow into those cracks and break them apart from the inside out. So he quashed the need for movement and looked the man from Internal Affairs in the eye.

“My name is Aredian,” the man said, his voice as cold and still as the rest of him. He would have made a perfect mime, Leon thought, his mind scraping the barrel of inane, to try and distract himself.

“First name or last name,” he asked.

“You may call me Aredian,” Aredian said, and Leon knew that was as much of an answer as he was going to get. “You are Leon Harris?”

“Yes, sir,” Leon said. Short and sweet was the way, don’t give away anything more than you had to.”

“How would you describe your relationship with Uther Pendragon?” Aredian asked. Leon held his gaze.

“He was my superior.”

“Yes, but would you say that you had a close working relationship?”

“I am the second most senior agent in the organisation,” Leon said, emphasising the present tense, wherever Arthur was, as far as Leon was concerned, he was still at the top. “It’s to be expected that we worked together closely.”

“Yes, of course.” Aredian smiled his on-and-off smile. “His phone records indicate that you were among the people he contacted the most.”

“As I said, as a high ranking agent of the organisation, we had reason to speak quite often.”

“You dedication to your work is admirable,” Aredian told him in a voice that was clearly veiling mockery. “And Arthur Pendragon?”

“I had reason to speak to him as well.” Leon forced himself to relax his shoulders.

“Did you have a close working relationship?”

“We worked together.”

“Yes, I can see that.” One of Aredian’s hands moved with efficient, sharp movements to open the manila file in front of him before stilling completely again. “In the last four years, you have worked 76% of Arthur Pendragon’s assignments with him. The closest thing he has had to a partner since the regrettable incident with Mr Emrys.”

Leon bristled slightly. He couldn’t stop the straightening of his back at such a cavalier mention of something that had almost destroyed everything – and Arthur most of all.

“We are not partners. As we were the most senior agents, it made sense for us to be sent on more difficult tasks.” Leon’s eyes drifted over the beige for a second, but there really was nothing for his eyes to stick on and they slid back to Aredian’s face and his cold, glassy eyes, like mirrors or sheets of ice.

“Being so close to the Pendragons, did you notice any enmity between them?”

“No more than between any father and son,” Leon lied. He wouldn’t mention Uther’s raised voice, or Arthur’s outraged, despairing silences, punctuated by knuckles hitting walls as soon as he left his father’s sight. He wouldn’t ever mention the days he would notice Arthur staring at the pen that Merlin had given him in the office secret Santa and glaring at emails that came in showing his father’s name.

“Sadly patricide is not unheard of,” Aredian said. “You admit to working closely with Arthur Pendragon, but you didn’t have a hint of this?”

It was a trick question: say no and admit incompetence, say yes and admit culpability.

“No,” he said firmly, meeting Aredian’s eyes. “And if you believe Arthur Pendragon capable of killing his father, then you clearly never knew the man.”

“You believe he is innocent.”

“I know he is,” Leon said. He was showing his hand, wearing his loyalties for the world to see, but he had never been good at politics. “No family is perfect, but Arthur loved his father and he would rather have died himself than let his father die.”

“Your loyalty commends you,” Aredian said. “But even you have to admit that liquidating his funds and disappearing are hardly the actions of an innocent man.”

“They are the actions of a man who is being hunted down by the people who killed his father and framed him for the murder, though,” Leon replied, allowing his own smile to curve his lips. “If someone could get to Uther Pendragon, they could get to anyone.”

“I see you are one of life’s optimists.” Aredian said. “I can only hope that you’re proved right about Mr Pendragon’s innocence.” Leon tried not to flinch at the tone in his voice which clearly said that he hoped that Leon was proved anything but right, and he was going to make sure that that was true as well.

*

“God forbid that I ever claim to be the sensible one of the three of us,” Gwaine says under his breath, “but breaking into the house of a possible murderer when we’re wanted by the authorities and one of us is heavily medicated doesn’t seem the best idea we’ve ever had.”

“Remember that time in London, where you were ensorcelled to think you were a chipmunk?” Merlin asks.

“I never said it was the worst,” Gwaine hisses back, “I just said it’s not the best. And I made an excellent chipmunk.”

Arthur wishes they would shut up. The pain medication is wearing off and his side is beginning to ache again, just at the edge of unmanageable. He’s never really broken into a house before, either, not like this. It was always more official and always with the knowledge that he had the full backing of the British government.

Up until now he’s been innocent of all charges. In about three minutes he’s really going to be a criminal, rather than just an official criminal like he is at the moment. He glares at the fence they’re crouching next to.

“No one would ever mistake you for the sensible one,” he says back, as quietly as he can. “Anyone sensible would shut up.”

“Sorry for trying to lighten the atmosphere,” Gwaine says.

Arthur doesn’t really know what they’re waiting for. He’s just crouching down in some bushes. He can’t hear anyone on the road, or any cars even. He takes another moment anyway, just to pull himself together.

“Ready?” he asks. The other two nod, entirely serious for once.

They walked up to the back door and Arthur starts fishing in his pockets for the paperclips he always keeps in there, just in case.

The just in case in his mind had never really involved lock-picking though, and he’s never understood how it works, but from what he’s seen you just jiggle the unfolded paperclip around a little and the door magically opens.

The door magically opens.

And Arthur’s still got his hand in his pocket. He turns to Merlin who’s pushing it open; there’s an unrepentant expression on his face.

“We’re trespassing, and wanted by the police,” Merlin says, like he didn’t just use magic without batting an eyelid. “We’d have been here all day if I’d let you do it. Now let’s go inside where nosy suburban neighbours can’t see us breaking and entering.”

Gwaine chuckles and walks between the two of them and into the house. Merlin follows him and Arthur stands dumbfounded and outraged for a second before dragging his hand out of his pockets and following them. He’s not used to this new, competent Merlin, and he doesn’t like being wrong-footed like that. He’s a mess, physically and mentally, he knows that, but every time he feels like he’s doing something, Merlin’s the one to do it right. His irritation is mounting, but he’s not sure what he can do about it because it’s not like Merlin’s doing it on purpose.

Well, he’s probably not doing it on purpose.

Gwaine sits down at Catrina’s dining table and checks out a bottle of what looks like very expensive alcohol. He lets out a low whistle between his teeth.

“The divorce settlement must have been good,” he says, before opening the bottle.

“Gwaine!” Arthur says, as loudly as he dares. Gwaine swigs a mouthful without a sign of guilt.

Even Merlin’s rolling his eyes as Gwaine makes an exaggerated ‘ah’ sound, looking at the bottle with respect.

“We’re not here to get drunk,” Arthur tells him, “we’re here to find out if-“

There is the simultaneously terrifying and welcome sound of footsteps on the stairs.

“Jonas, is that you?”

It’s been more than six years, but Arthur hasn’t forgotten the sound of his ex-stepmother’s voice, clear as ever. He freezes, Gwaine freezes and Merlin starts to twitch.

“Jonas?”

The footsteps get closer and Arthur makes the decision without even thinking about it. If there is the slightest chance that Catrina is involved in his father’s death then Arthur will get it out of her. He slips to flatten himself against the wall by the door.

He’s just in time, a few seconds later the door creaks open and Catrina sees Gwaine sitting at her table.

“Who on earth are you?” she demands, stepping forwards.

“Me?” Gwaine asks, putting his feet up on the table. “Don’t mind me, I’m just the distraction.”

“Distraction from what?” That’s Arthur’s cue. He grabs her by the shoulder and pins her to the wall, his forearm across her throat, pushing her up so she can’t get enough leverage to kick him.

“Hello,” he says. She glares at him, and then over his shoulder when Merlin comes to stand behind him. There’s something in her face when she looks at Merlin which is a little too vicious for just knowing him in passing, as Arthur had thought she did. He files it away as a question to ask later. “You’ve heard, I assume?”

“Yes,” Catrina croaks around his arm, “I heard.” She smirks a little. “Can’t say I’m sorry that Daddy’s dead, though.”

“Why were you outside his building that night?” Arthur asks.

“We had something to discuss,” Catrina tells him.

“He wanted nothing more to do with you,” Arthur growls, pushing his arm into her neck a little more, just enough to make her gasp for breath that isn’t there, before relaxing it so she can talk again.

“It didn’t matter what he wanted,” she tells him, “we had business to discuss.” Her tongue caresses the word ‘business’ like it’s something obscene, and Arthur sees red at the innuendo. His father’s dead, and she won’t even show respect now. He wants to hit her, but he knows if he starts hitting something right now, he won’t stop.

“He’d never do business to you, not after what you tried to do?”

“A little fraud and espionage are all par for the course when you’re as rich as Uther Pendragon. He never had the moral standards you thought, you know. He was as mercenary as the rest of us.”

“Don’t talk about him like that.” Arthur’s not an idiot. He knows his father wasn’t perfect. He’s been realising it more and more ever since, well, ever since Merlin really. But he wasn’t corrupt, he tried to do the right thing.

“Sorry, I forgot what a little Daddy’s boy you were.”

“So,” Arthur says again, “are you going to tell me what you were there for, or not?”

“Like I said, I was there to do business,” Catrina frowned. “I didn’t kill him if that’s what you’re thinking. Why kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?”

“What do you mean?”

“Arthur,” Merlin said quietly from behind them. “I don’t think she did it, perhaps we should just go.”

“What, have you read her mind?” he asked. “Can you do that? Slip into people’s minds and find out what they’re thinking?”

“No.” Merlin’s hand came to rest on Arthur’s bicep, just in his line of vision. It was warm and strangely nonintrusive, and it made him relax his hold on Catrina, though he didn’t let her go. “I’m just not sure you want to hear what she has to say.”

“I want to find who killed my father,” Arthur said. “I need to know, Merlin.”

“Merlin,” Gwaine called from the table. “He’s a big boy, I’m sure he can take it.”

Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling of being left out of the loop again. The other two seemed to already know what Catrina was going to say and they seemed to know that he wasn’t going to like it.

“What did you mean about him being the golden goose?” he asked.

“Well, I suppose there’s no point in keeping it secret now he’s dead,” Catrina said, with an air of unconcern that just served to raise Arthur’s temperature to boiling point. “Uther was paying me, a nice little monthly allowance, in return I kept quiet about some of his less… legal activities in the Department. It’s amazing the sort of things a man will tell you in bed.”

Arthur felt sick. He gritted his teeth and tried to keep himself under control, but the smug look on her face was almost too much.

“My father never broke the law,” he said.

“It’s amazing what children will never know about their parents,” Catrina said. “Your father’s been establishing a private collection for years.”

“What sort of a collection?” Merlin asked.

“Magical artefacts,” Catrina told them. “All those little items that he’s been supposedly reporting to the crown and keeping in the vaults under the headquarters. Well, he hasn’t. There’s a hidden safe in his flat with quite a nice little selection in it. And there’s all sorts of paperwork that just goes missing.”

“I don’t believe you,” Arthur growled.

“Your belief has no control over whether it’s true or not,” Catrina said, shrugging as much as she could with Arthur holding her against the wall. “But Daddy had his own agenda. Why do you think he hunted down magic users all these years?”

“To protect the British people,” Arthur said, though it came out sounding far more like a question than he would have liked.

“So naïve,” Catrina said. “He was looking for something. I don’t know what, but he was definitely looking for something.”

“Did he find it?” Gwaine asked.

“Maybe,” Catrina shrugged. “He never told me if he did. But then, after our divorce, why would he?”

She looked between the three of them.

“So, as you can see. Your father was worth far more to me alive than dead. If I wanted to kill someone it would be your little warlock here,” she glared at Merlin. “If he hadn’t interfered then I might have…”

What she might have done was cut off when Arthur punched her in the face. He didn’t even know he was doing it until it was already done. She reeled back against the wall and Arthur let her go in shock. Merlin had stepped forward and he could see the expression of shock on his face in the corner of his eye.

“I’m not the only one who was there that night,” Catrina said. “And I’m the least of your worries.”

Arthur looked at her, refusing to feel guilty for the mark on her face.

“Who else?” he asked.

“Someone I’d avoid if I were you,” Catrina said.

“Who?” Merlin asked, stepping forwards again. His hand was half raised and Arthur saw Catrina’s eyes dart to it in alarm.

“An old friend of yours, I believe,” Catrina said. “Nimueh.”

Merlin’s face blanched, Arthur could see the blood drain out of it as though someone had pulled the plug, and Merlin was pale on a good day.

“What was she doing there?”

“I saw her walking out just before your handsome prince here tried to jump under my car,” Catrina said. “She looked angry. I didn’t want to talk to her in that mood.”

There was a sound from the front of the house: a car pulling into the drive.

“That’ll be Jonas,” Catrina told them.

“If you’re lying,” Arthur said, putting as much threat into his voice as he could. She just smiled.

“Run along,” she told him. “You’ve got better things to do.”

It was Gwaine who pulled both him and Merlin from the room with firm tugs to their shoulders, and they made it out through the back fence again and to their car, Arthur trying to decide what it was he was supposed to feel.

“My father,” he started as Gwaine turned the key in the ignition.

“Your father,” Gwaine echoed. “Whatever else he was, he was your father. Whatever she said, that doesn’t stop that from being true. He was the man you knew, but not just that man.”

Arthur looked at Gwaine’s profile in astonishment, nodding.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s just… I thought…”

“We should never look too carefully at our parents,” Gwaine said. “Believe me. It ends badly.”

Arthur sort of wanted to ask what that meant, but there was a tight tone to Gwaine’s voice that he’d never heard before and that was enough warning. This topic was off limits and Gwaine had said all he wanted to on the subject. So Arthur changed subject as quickly as he could.

“So,” he said turning round to look at Merlin in the back seat, who looked like Christmas had been stolen. “Nimueh.”

“I was hoping we wouldn’t have to go after her,” Merlin said softly.

“Where is she?” Arthur asked.

“I don’t know,” Merlin admitted. “But I can find out. I know some people who might know some people.”

“A magical underground grapevine,” Arthur said. “Why am I not reassured?”

“Most magic users aren’t like her,” Merlin said. “Most magic users aren’t like the ones you come across back in the Department. Most of us just keep our heads down and try not to get noticed. Life’s difficult enough without drawing attention to yourself. But it’s nice, to know other people like you, to know you’re not going mad.”

Arthur had never thought about that before: how people learnt that they had magic. He had always imagined that they sought it out. But that couldn’t be right, could it? What would it be like to realise that you were actually a freak? What would you think if things just started happening around you? Had Merlin been through that? Had Merlin thought that he was going mad?

Asking a question like that would assume a relationship with Merlin that he had forfeited years ago, though.

“Okay, so what’s our next move?”

“My house again,” Merlin said. “I’ll make some calls and we can have lunch. Then… then I’ll go and talk to Nimueh.”

“Then we’ll go and talk to Nimueh,” Gwaine corrected. Merlin didn’t answer.

*

NImueh’s house was far from what Arthur had imagined from the evil sorceress Merlin’s vague descriptions had depicted. It was a normal suburban house, complete with net curtains and laminate flooring.

It was also quiet, eerily so. There was an unnatural hush over the place.

“Shouldn’t there be birds… or next door’s music, or something?” Arthur asked, as they got out of the car in the driveway (Merlin had laughed when he suggested approaching the building like they had Catrina’s – ‘she’ll know,’ he’d said ‘she always knows’ , and Arthur was carefully not asking about that.)

“Dark magic,” Merlin said, sniffing a little at the air and shivering. “You can always feel it when this much has been used.” Arthur felt a strange tingling sensation up his spine at those words. He wasn’t sure if he was ‘feeling’ the magic like Merlin seemed to be, or if it was just the way Merlin’s voice sounded hollow, and a little frightened.

“We’ve faced dark magic before,” Arthur said, setting his shoulders.

“It never felt like this,” Gwaine commented.

“It was never this powerful,” Merlin agreed. “This is… serious.”

“So Nimueh might be behind those doors, cooking up something truly horrendous to throw at us?” Gwaine asked. “Nice to know.”

Arthur looked at the ordinary front door.

“I don’t think she wants to kill us,” Merlin said with a shrug. “Uther yes, but she never really tried to kill us.”

“She’s tried to kill my father before?” Arthur asked. Merlin winced.

“Only once or twice.”

“Another thing you didn’t think I needed to know.”

“If I’d told you then you would have done something stupid,” Merlin said with a tired shrug. “I really didn’t feel like working through that with you.”

“I would have arrested her and taken her to the detention centre,” Arthur said, growling. He didn’t know why, he didn’t think that magic automatically gave people super-hearing, but he was mostly whispering.

“Like I said,” Merlin said with a shrug.

“So, potential black magic wielding murderous person,” Gwaine interrupted, before Arthur could ask how following procedure and putting a dangerous criminal behind bars constituted ‘something stupid’. “How do you two want to handle this? I was thinking we’d try a frontal attack.”

“You want to knock on the evil sorceress’s front door?” Arthur asked.

“Precisely,” Gwaine agreed. “When dealing with people who could reduce you to charred cinders with a flick of their hand, I find it’s always a good idea to be polite.”

“If Arthur thought that, then he’d be treating me with a lot more respect,” Merlin said a little suddenly. Arthur opened his mouth to protest but then the words caught in his throat as he realised what Merlin was implying. He wasn’t just admitting to having magic, he was admitting to having enough magic to kill Arthur where he stood without even raising a sweat.

Arthur stared at one of Merlin’s over-large ears for a long moment, thoughts catching and then swirling away. There was one, determined, but buried right at the back which started with ‘what if…’ and continued on a path that made Arthur want to throw up.

What if… he’d run to the very person that he was trying to find. Merlin certainly had motive, and if he was as powerful as Gwaine and he seemed to think he was, then he had more than the capability. And Arthur had gone running to him, like a lamb to the-

Merlin turned to him, noticing him staring, and grinned a little hesitantly. He looked like an idiot, a genuine, lovely, idiot.

But he’d lied about the magic.

Arthur turned away, unable to return the smile with even a slight curve of his own lips, and he found himself staring right at Gwaine, who looked far too perceptive for Arthur’s peace of mind. There was a hard look in his eyes, and Arthur only managed to hold his gaze by remembering a time when he had given the orders in this… relationship, whatever it was.

“Fine,” Merlin said, when the silence stretched among them for too long. “Knocking on the door it is.”

So they knocked and then they knocked again for good measure, very loudly. Arthur had perfected the art of obnoxious knocking. It had been part of his passive aggressive teenage rebellion.

No one answered.

Merlin’s mouth was twisted in concern and Arthur felt a slight flip of jealousy in his heart. Who was this Nimueh anyway? How did Merlin know her? He pushed the thought and the feeling down, yelling inwardly at himself. In the same five minutes he could mentally accuse Merlin of murdering his father and be jealous of him. His head was a mess.

“There’s something wrong,” Merlin said after another moment. “The magic residue, and her not answering. Something feels off.”

“I’d offer to break the door down, but you’ve got the breaking part of our breaking and entering career down,” Gwaine said. Merlin managed a half smile, but he was still distracted, looking into the middle distance and seeing something that Arthur couldn’t. He waved a hand at the lock and Arthur could hear the click as the pins fell into place.

“Wait here,” Merlin said. Arthur opened his eyes to say something about not being a civilian, but Merlin’s eyes were glowing golden. He remembered that here, he really was the civilian. This was Merlin’s territory and there was nothing he could do to help him. So he nodded and kept his thoughts to himself, watching Gwaine do the same.

Merlin walked in, and Arthur waited. He pushed open the first door he came to,

“Shit,” Merlin said. Arthur could only see his back, but the slump of his shoulders told all the story that Arthur needed to know.

Gwaine squeezed past to lean around Merlin and look in.

“Now I'm wishing I hadn't eaten breakfast," he said, grimacing as he turned back to Arthur. "Apparently someone wanted to redecorate."

"NImueh?” Arthur asked. He was almost grateful that Gwaine and Merlin were blocking the doorway now. He already knew what they were looking at; he'd seen it before, after all.

“That depends on whether you’re asking if she’s the decorator or the decoration,” Gwaine said. Merlin elbowed him, looking a little sick. “The place is a tip," Gwaine commented, Merlin apparently lost for words, still staring at something Arthur couldn't see.

“That happens when someone’s exploded,” Arthur said. Gwaine looked back at him, obviously realising that Arthur knew exactly what they were looking at.

“I don’t mean like that,” Gwaine said. “I mean the actual room. The drawers have been turfed out. There’s not a single book still on the shelves.” He paused. “Come in and close the door,” he said, “you really don’t want one of the neighbours noticing you here. Not with this.”

Arthur stepped inside and closed the door.

“They must have been looking for something,” Arthur said. Merlin turned to look at him.

“What?" Gwaine asked. He was watching Arthur more shrewdly than Arthur would have ever believed him capable of, and Arthur deliberately met his gaze, defiant.

"Whatever it is, we should see if we can find something about it,” Arthur said. Gwaine continued just staring at him. “Just because someone's looked for something doesn't mean they found it."

“Firstly, if we don’t know what we’re looking for in the first place, then it’s unlikely we’ll find it, even if who ever was here first overlooked it. Secondly, it's a mess in there," Gwaine said. His voice was almost gentle, like he knew exactly what was going through Arthur's mind. "And this time I do mean Nimueh. It wouldn't be a pleasant experience."

“I’m not going to faint at the sight of a little blood," Arthur assured him, straightening. He barged past and stepped around Merlin into the living room.

It had once been a nice room, in a grandparently sort of way. There were pictures on the mantelpiece of people who looked entirely normal. Happy smiling couples, a selection of young women who looked about seventeen. One of them even looked familiar. There wasn't a single picture that wasn't stained red.

Nimueh had been sitting in the armchair when whoever it was had killed her, and some of her body was still there, but splattered out like a brilliant red butterfly. Arthur wanted to throw up, run away and just hide somewhere. His brain flashed back to his father, almost identical, and the nausea rose again.

He should move, should step forward or back, should make a comment to Merlin and Gwaine to show that he wasn’t scared by this. But his mouth wouldn’t open and his tongue felt stiff and heavy and too big for his mouth. His feet were rooted to the spot.

He found himself staring at a picture on top of the television, Two girls sitting next to each other on the steps of some ruined castle. They each had an arm slung over the other’s shoulders and they were grinning at the camera. One dark haired, one blonde and both about thirteen. From what little was left of Nimueh’s body, he could tell that the dark-haired girl was her, he didn’t know her companion, though she looked familiar. Like someone from a memory of a dream. She was pale, blonde and beautiful, but her legs were immersed in the sticky red of blood.

“Arthur." Merlin's voice was soft and barely there, like he was scared to speak to Arthur too loudly in case he'd take fright and run away, or break, perhaps. But it was the impetus Arthur needed.

“Well come on Merlin,” he said, “can’t your magic at least narrow down the search?"

*

Gwaine was right, the search was unpleasant. But it wasn’t the blood, or Nimueh’s dead eyes staring at them that made it so. It was the way they went through her life. Boxes of bills and bank statements. Shelves of souvenir tat from holidays that she must have been on, or heard about. It took hours and then, after all of that, Arthur sat on the stairs and gazed sightlessly at the front door. They still hadn't found anything that shouted ‘I’m suspicious and magical’. Arthur gave up. This was too much, too far.

“You okay?” Gwaine asked from the top of the stairs, making Arthur jump a little. He hadn’t heard the man coming.

“I’m fine,” Arthur told him, about to stand up as he heard footsteps on the stairs behind him.

“Right, because God forbid that Arthur Pendragon should ever actually feel something."

“Gwaine," Arthur said, wearily, "you need to learn when to keep your mouth shut."

“And perhaps you need to learn when to open yours,” Gwaine told him, squeezing past Arthur down the last few steps before using his knees to budge Arthur over until there was enough space to sit down. “My father had an open casket funeral," he said, as nonchalantly as if he were discussing the weather. "I was five years old and I had nightmares for three straight months. Woke up screaming."

“I’m not five years old,” Arthur pointed out.

“He was still your father." They sat in silence for a moment and Arthur wondered what had happened to Merlin, whether he’d fallen through a wardrobe into Narnia, or whether he had accidentally locked himself in the bathroom. But the seconds drew out and Merlin still didn't appear and Gwaine didn't say anything, or look at him, and Arthur couldn't quite help the pull of the silence.

“It was… like that,” Arthur said, lifting a finger to point at the living room door. “It was just like that."

Out of the corner of his eye he caught Gwaine opening his mouth as though to say something and suddenly he couldn't take it anymore, couldn't talk about it or think about it, couldn't see his father's head staring at him when he closed his eyes, couldn't feel the warmth of his blood against his fingers when he wasn't paying attention. He jerked to his feet abruptly, before he was even conscious that he wanted to move and nodded to himself.

“Right, we should be moving on,” he said, turning to Gwaine and offering his hand. It was a peace offering of sorts and when Gwaine took it, smiling a little, he hoped that it had been accepted. “Where on earth did Merlin get to? That man could get lost in an empty room, I swear to God.”

“Here,” Merlin said, appearing at the top of the stairs like he had been waiting for Arthur and Gwaine to finish their conversation. “I’ll need to put everything back the way it was, though. Don’t want the police to find evidence that you did this one too."

He jogged down the stairs to them and held out his hands. Arthur couldn’t make out the words he muttered, but suddenly the house seemed to be changing of its own volition. Objects moved around to their original positions, doors opened and closed as though moved by unseen winds and the blood that Arthur had barely noticed on the carpet - their footprints - and on the walls and banisters - their fingerprints - removed itself.

“And I don’t think we want anyone to see us sneaking out the back way, either,” Gwaine commented.

“Right, invisibility,” Merlin said, “I can do that."

“I thought you said that it didn’t work,” Arthur commented, remembering that morning’s conversation. Merlin looked a little uncomfortable.

“I said that you couldn’t do it for very long… I should be able to handle getting us out to the road.”

“Don’t worry,” Gwaine said, patting him on the arm, “If it goes horribly wrong and he accidentally erases us from existence, at least you won’t be a wanted fugitive anymore.”

Arthur wasn’t reassured.

*

It turned out that Merlin could do invisibility, though Arthur didn’t find the skill a pleasant one.

It was unnerving to feel things without being able to see your hands, or to watch things move themselves as Merlin or Gwaine opened doors. They made it out to the car before Merlin’s spell sputtered and failed.

“So,” Arthur said, when he was sitting in the passenger seat (having shoved Merlin into the back, but been unable to grab the keys from Gwaine) and blessedly visible again. “Who’s next on the list?"

Merlin bit at his lip.

“Look,” he said after a moment. “Nimueh was serious. She knew magic, better than anyone else I ever met. She might have been sort of evil, but she was also sort of powerful, and that someone could do that to her, without her even putting up a fight…”

“Not to mention the fact that someone killed both her and Uther,” Gwaine said after a moment. “That raises some interesting questions in my mind.”

Arthur stared at him again, his heart suddenly feeling like lead. He hadn’t made the connection, not properly. Someone had killed both Nimueh and Uther, which meant that there was some link between them, and probably not just that Nimueh wanted Uther dead. There was something else, and someone was looking for something.

“Do you think it’s connected to what they were looking for?” Merlin asked, echoing Arthur’s thoughts.”

“My father… his place had been turned over as well,” he said after a moment. He hadn’t really thought about it at the time, his eyes stuck on the thing that had once been Uther Pendragon, but he remembered things cluttering the floor. “I thought maybe they tried to make it look like a robbery.”

“Then why explode them?” Gwaine asked, “why not just whack them around the head with a handy blunt object? No… the death was personal, but the robbery was an actual robbery as well.”

“We need help,” Merlin said. “I don’t know where to start against someone like this.”

“And who do you suggest we ask for help?” Arthur asked. “Santa Claus? The tooth fairy?”

“No,” Merlin said, his face not even cracking a smile at Arthur’s appalling excuse for humour. Usually he liked mocking Arthur’s poor attempts at jokes. “We’re going to see the dragon.”

*

-

part 4
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