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part 3

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Arthur wasn’t sure what he expected when Merlin said that they were going to see the dragon. It sounded like a euphemism for drug use, or something you’d say while skipping down a yellow brick road.

We’re off to see the dragon, the wonderful dragon of...

Well, there were definitely bricks.

There was a canal, down the way, just an ordinary looking thing, with thick green water and the odd milk bottle floating in it. Merlin led Arthur and Gwaine along the tow path, behind back gardens and blocked off car parks. Arthur wouldn’t have called it picturesque. They passed locks, boats moored to the side and the odd dog walker too, who nodded the abrupt ‘good morning’ which was social convention for strangers in situations like this. Arthur would nod back while Gwaine would actually speak, his mouth twisting into a grin. Merlin, ahead of them, would barely even look up, focussed as he was.

“I hope he’s still here,” he said to himself more than anyone.

“Does he move around a lot, then?” Arthur asked. The dragon was presumably a man then, a man with a bizarre nickname.

“When he feels like it,” Merlin said with a shrug. “He likes to be enigmatic.” Arthur could have said that the dragon wasn’t the only one, but he was skating on thin ice as it was, trailing behind Merlin. His side still hurt, and his legs twinged with pain, but he kept up the fast pace and embraced the aches and the stabs of pain because they were half of what was keeping him going.

There was a bridge up ahead, Victorian red-brick and the worse for wear. Obviously some of the local kids liked to mess around with spray paint down here, because it was covered in angular letters that Arthur couldn’t even begin to read, though he recognised the repetitive patterns of taggers.

“Here,” Merlin said, turning to him. “We’re here.”

“Lovely place,” Gwaine commented, “very welcoming. I especially like the air freshener.” Arthur wrinkled his nose as the same smell assaulted his own nostrils, the scent of urine clogging the air.

“Well, never say I don’t take you anywhere,” Merlin muttered. Arthur opened his mouth to reply, before realising the comment was most likely directed at Gwaine instead, so he turned away, avoiding Merlin’s eyes as they sought his out, staring across the canal to the other side of the bridge, where the arc of the bricks descended into the overgrown weeds and cracked concrete on the other side.

What he saw made him open his mouth in surprise. The graffiti spread on the sides of the bridge had about as much artistic merit as an obscene drawing doodled in the dirt on a white van, but rising out of the water on the other side of the bridge, in dark reds and purples, spread out as though reaching towards them, was one of the most amazing works of spray paint art he had ever seen. It was a dragon, wings open, mouth wide and filled with huge teeth. Every scale seemed to be done individually, and the reflections of light from the water made it look like it was moving, like its eyes, which were staring right out at Arthur, were really glittering.

He took a step back, eyes wide.



“Damn, that’s impressive,” Gwaine said, his voice hushed in awe. “How did they even reach the middle bit?”

Arthur looked again and saw that Gwaine was right, the dragon’s head was at the highest point of the bridge, almost, right over the middle of the canal, where it would be unreachable from either side.

“They must have been on a canal boat.”

“Not exactly,” Merlin said. A smile pulled at one side of his mouth and he reached out a hand to touch the wall closest to them. Arthur frowned in disgust, looking at the slimy wall. But Merlin didn’t even seem to notice, pressing his hand into the bricks and beginning to mutter words.

Arthur would never get used to this – seeing Merlin use magic so casually, watching his eyes turn gold. There was a difference between knowing a thing and seeing it in action. So he looked away again, but the only other places to look were at Gwaine or at the dragon, and neither of them seemed like a better option. In some sort of compromise he stared instead at the wall next to Merlin’s hand, where some enterprising person who liked to call himself ‘Banez’ or ‘RanFL’ had chosen to leave their mark.

There was a strange ripple in the brickwork, like a low budget special effect, where suddenly the very solid looking bridge seemed to become liquid, and perfect circles undulated out from where Merlin’s hand sat. Arthur didn’t stare in wonder or faint, he’d seen far more than enough magic not to do that, in fact the only thought that crossed his mind was ‘that’s a little cheesy, isn’t it?’

Merlin seemed to be pushing his hand into the stones.

“Sorry, I have to do this to give him his voice. The stones remember you see.” Arthur didn’t see, but the stones seemed to because, after Merlin’s last words had finished leaving his mouth, they lingered on, echoing, echoing. And then those words were joined by others, whispering in, a thousand voices, a thousand different snatches of conversation the bridge had heard.

Arthur stared at Gwaine and was grateful to find his own astonishment mirrored back at him. It was nice to know that he wasn’t alone in this, that Merlin hadn’t shared everything with Gwaine in the past four years.

It wasn’t a charitable thought, but Arthur was saved from following it up as the echoes became louder and coalesced into one voice, made up of the sounds of a thousand others.

“Warlock,” the voice said, and it echoed still longer.

“Uther Pendragon is dead,” Merlin said.

“All things end,” The dragon replied. Arthur looked up at it, and the image seemed to be moving, wings stretching and contracting, like it was waking up after a long sleep.

“He was murdered,” Merlin said again.

“He had many enemies,” the dragon replied.

“Yes, and one of them killed him and made it look like Arthur did it,” Merlin said. When Arthur darted a glance his way, he looked strained, and slightly angry. “Can you help me or not?”

“The circle will be made,” the dragon said.

“What circle?” Arthur asked. “What are you talking about? Does this have something to do with what they were looking for?”

“Uther Pendragon carried it close to his heart for years, but he never knew what he was carrying. And that was his downfall.”

“Is this supposed to make sense?” Arthur asked. Merlin sent him an exasperated look.

“Sometimes,” he admitted.

“You must seek the circle too, before it is complete,” the dragon said. “Your friend, the cursed one, has been touched by it.”

“Freya?” Merlin asked, his face suddenly shocked. “What’s she got to do with this? She wouldn’t harm anyone.”

“You twist my words, warlock. It was you who summoned me, you who sought me out. You should listen more carefully.”

“I’m listening, and your words were twisted already before I had anything to do with them,” Merlin called back.

“Do you think it’s alive?” Gwaine asked Arthur in a whisper.

“What do you mean?” Arthur asked back, “it’s a painting on a wall.”

“Yeah, but it’s magic, right?” Gwaine looked at the dragon thoughtfully. “If it’s alive, then it can die, and if it can die it can be threatened. We might be able to get it to give us a straight answer.

The paving slabs under their feet suddenly rose up, throwing Gwaine off balance and almost into the canal until Arthur caught him by the back of his jacket. There was a moment where they both teetered on the point of overbalancing, before Arthur managed to drag them both upright again.

“Okay, so not the best idea I’ve ever had,” Gwaine allowed, with a sideways nod of his head, as Arthur pulled him back upright.

“Sadly, it probably was,” Arthur said, earning himself a look of shock, followed by a broad grin.

The dragon roared, or perhaps a train was going over the bridge above. The ground beneath them seemed to shake and the roar went on longer than Arthur could have anticipated.

As it died away, they were left standing, stunned, on the tow path. A little way further down, Arthur could see a woman pushing a buggy. She didn’t look the slightest bit concerned.

“Listen very carefully, warlock,” the dragon said, the paint oozing down the wall, to the other side, the outspread wings folding into its body.

“Why?” Gwaine asked, Arthur, “will he say zis only vonce?” The dragon ignored him.

“The witches are moving. They will take the circle to the centre and if they succeed in that, you will have only one chance.”

“Take the circle to the centre?” Arthur echoed. The words were meaningless, just gobbledegook. He didn’t know why he had expected anything different. This was Merlin after all. Years of lying aside, the man couldn’t be that different from the Merlin he had known before, even with magic. It was a relief, if anything, to know that Merlin was just as clumsy and uniquely useless as ever. The hands that had never quite learnt how to fire a gun and the feet that had always tripped over themselves were still there, which was good to know.

The woman was closer now, and suddenly, as though resetting, the world shuddered back to normal. Merlin was just a man leaning against a wall and the dragon was... gone, replaced by bricks, green moss and the scrawl of people with too much time on their hands.

Arthur stared.

The woman walked past them, barely glancing up – you didn’t question three men hanging around under a bridge – and the wheels of the buggy whirred, one squeaking a little on every turn. That sound seemed ridiculously loud in the sudden quiet, and Arthur almost flinched every time it squealed around.

They waited until she had left, and the echoes of her footsteps had faded before they spoke again.

“Brilliant idea, Merlin,” Arthur said, recovering himself from his shock as best he could. He didn’t want to let on how the hair on his arms was still standing on end, or how he was still working to remember which way was up. “Ask the local artwork for advice.” Merlin made a face that Arthur could quite read.

“At least we got a lead,” Gwaine said, patting Arthur’s shoulder in what was presumably meant to be reassurance, but came across more patronising. Arthur pulled away. A lead? They had nothing except a list of cryptic statements and fear for their lives.

“We did?” Arthur asked, turning on Gwaine. “Was that before or after you almost got yourself thrown in the water? We didn’t even manage to ask it about Nimueh, about what connected her to my father.” Gwaine ignored him.

“Freya,” Gwaine said, turning to Merlin. “That’s the name you said – your friend, the cursed one. We should go and see her.”

Merlin’s face became guarded immediately, and Arthur wanted to snap at him that this wasn’t the time to hold back, that Arthur’s father was dead and Merlin wasn’t going to bloody well keep information from him that could save his life.

But Uther would have locked Merlin up, would have had the officers in the detention centre stick electrodes in his skull, and bars on all the windows. He would have read dry reports where Merlin was referred to as ‘the subject’ and not even flinched as he read description of procedures that should have been referred to as torture.

Torture. Arthur hadn’t really let himself think the word up until now, although it had swam around the edges of his consciousness. Ever since Merlin had left and Arthur’s life had been shaken to its core, he had tried to avoid the detention centre, skirting the issue where possible. Because every time he had passed its doors, he had thought ‘this is where they’ll put Merlin’.

He had hated Merlin for making him question that, and he had hated Merlin for making him hate himself a little bit every time he walked past those doors. And on the days when he had had to go in, and see the magic users they kept in there, he had gone out on those nights and got a little bit drunker than usual, until Leon had peeled him up off the pavement or the bar top and dragged him home.

So Arthur had no right to demand Merlin put everything on the line, and he bit down on his tongue. Whoever this Freya was, Merlin didn’t want to bring her in to things, which Arthur understood. But still...

“If she can help...” he said, letting the sentence fade, and holding Merlin’s eyes. Merlin could never stop himself from helping someone. Arthur had lost track of the number of times that he had put missions at risk for the sake of some poor hapless bystander. Not that Arthur was any better, but he had always been better equipped, and he had known what he was doing. Merlin had-

Merlin had been leading a double life, and he had never been as helpless as Arthur had imagined; he had always had his magic to fall back on.

It seemed that particular character trait of Merlin’s still ran true. It wasn’t an honourable thing to do. It was a horrible way to play on something he knew would make Merlin break.

“Perhaps I should talk to her alone,” Merlin said, hesitantly.

“No,” Arthur said, immediately, his voice echoed by Gwaine. Merlin’s eyes opened wide, looking at the two of them, in one of their rare moments of agreement.

“She’s not dangerous,” Merlin said, as earnest as Arthur had ever seen him. “But she’s not used to strangers, and if I take Uther Pendragon’s son to her then she might-- It’s not the best idea, alright?”

“She might not be dangerous,” Gwaine said, jumping in before Arthur could, “but someone killed Uther. And I never knew a man quite as paranoid as him. And someone killed that Nimueh woman too, and you said yourself that she was the most powerful magic user you know. If she – if Freya - is involved, then chances are that whoever got to them knows about her too. If you go alone you’re both in danger.”

“I can take care of myself!”

Arthur opened his mouth to say that Merlin couldn’t have taken care of a stick insect, but he shut it again, once again aware of how out of touch he was. Instead he said, “we’re going,” in a tone that brooked no arguments. “Three of us will be safer than one.”

“My mother used to tell me never to put all my eggs in one basket,” Merlin said, but there was a note of capitulation in his voice.

“If we’re in a basket, then it’s on its way to hell anyway,” Gwaine said. He straightened up. “You won’t leave me to Pendragon’s company will you? We’d kill each other in five minutes.”

Merlin sighed and nodded.

“Fine,” he said jerking his head to indicate that they should walk further down the path. Arthur and Gwaine followed him as they set off again. Merlin’s footsteps were less certain this time, but his speed didn’t drop.

*

Leon was pretending to type up a report on his computer when the call came in, idly tapping nonsense into his keyboard and switching between windows restlessly.

The office was centred round a main screen, which took up all of one wall. It displayed a screen saver most of the time, just the dragon that had become the Department logo, gold on a black background. But every now and then an alert would beep and the screen would switch to a map.

It was rigged up to a magical detector Gaius had designed years before, which could sense surges of magic and locate them. Most people in the office were used to the occasional beeping. Minor incidents only caused a single alert that lasted twenty seconds, and small teams were sent out to investigate, usually lower ranking officers or newbies.

Major alerts were louder and they lasted until someone switched it off manually. Serious incidents were similar to a fire alarm, and the screen would flash red.

This incident was small. It was just big enough to merit a team being sent to the address indicated, but nowhere near enough to warrant a high ranking officer.

But Leon was staring at the screen when the alert pinged and he needed, all of a sudden, to get out. So he stood up, grabbed his jacket, grabbed his jacket and called out to Elyan, who sat at the next desk over.

“We’ll take this one.” Elyan looked up at the screen, only dimly aware that the alert had even gone off. He looked confused, but he didn’t say anything. With Uther dead and Arthur gone, the Department was upside-down. Leon had the sneaking suspicion that Elyan wanted to get out almost as much as he himself did.

They were almost at building security when there were hurried footsteps behind them.

Leon turned to see Cedric, the Internal Affairs agent he had met the night before, standing behind them.

“I’m to go with you,” he said.

“It’s a routine alert,” Elyan said.

“I’m to go with you,” Cedric repeated. He stared at Leon for a moment, and Leon just stared back, fighting to keep his frustration down. “Agent Harris, if you refuse to co-operate…”

“Fine,” Leon said, ignoring the exasperation on Elyan’s face. It looked as though he wasn’t going to be able to get away from this in any way at all. “You can come, but remember that we’re the professionals. You do as we say, you do it immediately and you don’t ask questions. If we say run, then you run.”

“I thought you said that this was routine,” Cedric said, smirking.

“You can never be too careful,” Leon said. He noted the way Cedric’s Adam’s Apple bobbed as he swallowed, and the flash of fear that crossed his features. Good. Let the man be scared. It might actually do him some good.

*

Merlin was silent as he drove, staring straight ahead with a frown, and all of Gwaine’s attempts at conversation faded into nothing, not that he tried much after it was clear that Merlin wasn’t interested in keeping things light anymore.

Arthur had no idea where they were. The silence seemed to sink into him, soaking into his bones and sticking his lips together when he wanted to open them and ask questions he knew he wasn’t supposed to. They drove down country lanes, trees flashing past, and into the outskirts of a city. He watched shops, houses and cars, people walking around, and he turned the dragon’s words around in his head.

The car itself was run down, probably a good fifteen years old, if not older, with the slightly mouldering smell of damp and the accumulated sweat of half a dozen owners. Compared to Arthur’s own car, which he supposed had been strip searched by Internal Affairs by now, it looked about as attractive as a rusty tin can on wheels.

He was going to comment on it, opening his mouth to deliver some scathing comment or other, when he realised that Merlin didn’t have a Department salary anymore, he didn’t have a redundancy package or a pension. The only money he got was from the small bookshop he had managed to find work in, barely over minimum wage, and just about enough to pay his rent, bills and food.

Arthur glanced at Merlin out of the corner of his eye, looking more carefully than he had before, and it was clearer then. His cheekbones, which had always been prominent, were stark, his clothes were good quality, but faded and worn, with tiny holes in, if you looked closely.

He opened his mouth to say something else again, but found that no words came to him. There was no apology he could give for that, he had done what he had to do and Merlin had done… what he had to do.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Gwaine watching him from the backseat. His posture was casual, but his gaze was fixed and definite. Arthur swallowed and looked away, letting the matter drop.

Then, too soon and strangely, also after far too long, Merlin pulled the car into the kerb and turned to them, attempting a smile.

“We’re here,” he said unnecessarily. Usually Arthur would have made a comment about Merlin’s ability to state the obvious, but Merlin was pulled to breaking point right now, caught up in something that Arthur couldn’t quite understand. But he knew what it was to be stretched taut and thin like that. He knew it from the months following Merlin’s escape. The manhunt that followed – led by Arthur, with his father breathing down the back of his neck – had been a nightmare. Arthur had been leading two searches at once, one in public, which he doomed to fail in every way he could (he knew how Merlin’s mind worked, knew which way he’d run, magic or no magic) and one which he kept in private, looking in the hours of the night when he was supposed to be sleeping. He had run himself ragged, and he had felt like he was being pulled apart.

If there had been anything he could have done to stop that, then he would have done. But, with Merlin doing magic in front of half of the bloody Department, Arthur hadn’t had a choice.

There was a strange thud-clang noise and Arthur straightened, his body still on high alert, and he jerked his head around to see a black cat standing gracefully on the bonnet of the car, eying the three of them suspiciously.

Merlin sighed and opened the car door.

“Are you two coming?” he asked as he swung himself out. Arthur left it a moment before he followed, watching Merlin walk around to the front of the car.

They were in the middle of a nondescript sort of street, a row of red-brick terrace houses, facing straight onto the road. They looked like they had seen better days, boarded up windows and graffiti. There were weeds and rubbish. It looked like a street marked for demolition.

Merlin reached out a hand to stroke the cat with one finger. Arthur almost rolled his eyes; Merlin never could resist a furry animal.

“Merlin,” he called. “If you’ve quite finished petting the local wildlife. We do have something rather important we need to be doing.”

“I told you we’re here,” Merlin said, grinning at Arthur widely, suddenly amused. It was his practical joke expression, the one he always wore before doing something to Arthur that Arthur should have seen coming.

“And your friend?” Arthur asked, glancing around the abandoned street. Gwaine looked a little puzzled too, so it wasn’t just him out of the loop. That made Arthur feel a little less lost, but a whole lot more concerned.

“Right here,” Merlin said, still grinning. The cat purred deeply, pushing its head into Merlin’s hand. Arthur stared between Merlin and the animal for a moment, aware that his mouth was hanging open in astonishment.

“First we talk to a wall, and now to a cat?” Arthur asked incredulously. “What exactly is next on our list: a conversation with a dustbin?” Merlin glared at him and the cat looked at him with eyes that seemed to be cutting him down to size. Arthur stared back. He refused to be stared down by a cat.

“Ye of little faith,” Gwaine said, reaching out his own finger to the cat, who sniffed it delicately before turning back to Merlin. Gwaine chuckled under his breath. “Guess she doesn’t like me.” Merlin simply shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. Then the cat leapt down off the bonnet of the car and ran off towards a house, darting through the swinging cat door before any of them could stop it.

“Oh dear,” Arthur said in the silence that followed. He was unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. He was growing tired of cryptic clues and no answers. “Our lead seems to have run off, Merlin. Perhaps she saw a mouse.” Gwaine hissed between his teeth, but didn’t say anything. Arthur can tell that he wanted to stay out of this conversation. Merlin, on the other hand, was growing angrier.

“You’re still the biggest prat I’ve ever met,” he said. He paused, looking betrayed. That was an expression Arthur remembered well. “I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“The only other choices were you or the Princess going off alone,” Gwaine provided, “And in the current circumstances I doubt either of those would have been wise.” Merlin looked like he was about to say something, but he bit his tongue and sighed deeply.

“Come on then,” he said, leading them to the house into which the cat had disappeared. The front door had been red at one point, but now the paint was peeling off in so many places, it looked more like an abstract work of art. There was a weed of some sort growing up from the front step.

As they reached the door, it swung open, revealing a slight, pretty girl, with dark hair and big eyes. She was looking at Merlin with a small smile.

“Hello,” she said. “I’ve been expecting you.” The words were barely out of her mouth before Merlin grinned and hugged her fiercely, causing both Arthur and Gwaine to blink in astonishment. “All of you,” she added as Merlin pulled away. She stepped back to let them in. “We need to be quick.”

“Why?” Merlin asked.

“We don’t have long,” she said. But she didn’t elaborate on that.

Arthur walked into the house and almost immediately wished that he hadn’t. It wasn’t a home, not really. The place had clearly been abandoned some years earlier and its current resident was a squatter. He looked at her again and took in the worn, torn jeans, and the ratty jumper that hung from her. So this was Freya, Arthur had to assume, the ‘cursed’ one. He wondered if that had anything to do with her choice of accommodation. He thought about asking for an official introduction, but remembered what Merlin had said about him being Uther Pendragon’s son, so he held his tongue.

The place smelt of mildew and disuse, the walls were stained and the only furniture was broken or constructed from cardboard boxes. Still, the four of them shuffled into what must have once been the living room and sat on what little there was.

“They’re coming for the stones,” Freya said, as though that should mean something to them, rather than just raising half a dozen more questions.

“What stones?” Arthur asked. If that was why his father had died, then that was what he needed to know. Freya turned to him.

“The dragon stones.”

“And they are?” Gwaine prompted.

“They’re a conduit,” Freya went on. She didn’t seem scared, not like Merlin had implied she would. She seemed perfectly at ease, smiling at the three of them, though her sleeves were wrapped around her hands, and when she sat down she curled her knees up to her chest.

“They’re also a legend,” Merlin said. “The dragon stones are just the stuff of fairy tales, aren’t they? Like the holy grail.”

“What makes you think the holy grail isn’t real?” Freya asked, her lips quirking slightly. Merlin smiled back, a secret, shared smile and Arthur’s stomach twisted horribly. The moment passed and Freya continued. “There are lots of things said about them: that they can channel magic into a person, or even redirect life itself, and turn back death.”

“They can raise the dead?” Arthur asked, his mouth falling open. Something slotted into place in his mind. His father, haunted by his mother’s death all these years, had hoarded magical artefacts and he had had one of these stones. Perhaps he had been looking for others. Of all the things that would make him steal from the Department and betray everything he ad worked for, there was only one that Arthur could believe. His father had been looking for a way to reverse death, and he would have gone to any lengths to find it, even magic. “Really?” Freya looked at him and smiled a little sadly.

“That’s what’s said,” she told him. “But no… nothing can do that.”

Arthur felt a wave of sudden sadness pass over him, almost drowning him. He had always seen his father as something untouchable, unknowable and completely solid, like a statue on top of a pedestal. But in that moment he saw him better than perhaps he ever had before, clutching desperately at straws, longing for something impossible, and never able to give up on a broken dream. It was pathetic, in a way, and it cut Arthur to his core. He swallowed the reaction down.

“The other thing you said, channelling magic into a person,” Merlin said, filling Arthur’s silence without even being asked. “They can give an ordinary person magic?”

“Another rumour,” Freya said. She paused, a little hesitantly. “I don’t know if it’s true. But everything I know about them suggests that’s more likely. I don’t know who’s coming for them, but I know that they’re coming. Nimueh had three of them.”

Arthur scowled, leaning backwards on his box and trying to ignore the way it bent worryingly under his weight. They were behind, chasing to catch up, and whoever had killed his father had at least four of the stones already. Out of how many? If there were only five, then Freya was the last person standing. They had to get that stone and use it to find whoever was after it.

“She was one of the most powerful of us and she was ripped apart like she was nothing,” Freya said. She looked lost.

“I’m not going to let them hurt you,” Merlin said with utter conviction. Arthur had to curse whoever had given Merlin such a naïve personality. Freya seemed to be of Arthur’s mind regarding Merlin’s statement, though, because she just smiled sadly.

“I have one of the stones,” she said. “It was given to me a long time ago, to be kept safe, and to mark me. It’s one of twelve, but all of them are needed for the ceremony.”

“So if we have the stone…” Arthur said, his interest caught by the idea. A plan was forming in his mind. He looked up to see whether the others were on the same page as him.

“Then we stop whatever it is they’re planning on doing,” Gwaine said.

“And we force them to come to us,” Arthur said. He couldn’t care less about some person who wanted magic for him or herself, but the chance to drag his father’s murderers into the light – the possibility of laying a trap for them – that was too good to pass up. There was an uncomfortable silence. The others did not seem as eager as he was.

“Yeah, make ourselves living targets,” Gwaine said, “sounds like a brilliant idea.”

“Keeping the stone safe is more important than you can know,” Freya said, cutting off the argument before it began. “Merlin, if the rumours are true then they could suck all of the magic out of the world, all of it.”

Arthur almost asked how that would be a bad thing, years of working on the other side of this divide not quite able to be smothered. But Gwaine caught his eye sharply, like he could see the thought in Arthur’s mind and Arthur bit his tongue.

“There’s something else,” Freya said slowly. “They’re going after the Department.”

“What do you know about the Department?” Arthur asked. He looked at Merlin suspiciously, wondering what he had been saying.

“I was arrested by them seven years ago,” Freya said. “I escaped.” She shot a look out of the corner of her eyes at Merlin and Arthur knew exactly what she meant by that.

“Of course you did,” he said.

“I heard something, I’m not sure about it, but you need to know.”

“What?” Arthur demanded. “What do I need to know?”

“Three days ago a warlock disappeared,” Freya said. “He had one of the stones too. But his house wasn’t wrecked like the others. I know someone who went to see him – to sort try and find out where he went, but instead of him they came across a witch placing a spell on it, dark magic, powerful. He hid, and heard something about luring the Department there, I don’t know why. It’s supposed to happen today.”

“You think this has something to do with the stones?” Gwaine asked. “Why would they go after the Department? They’ve already got what they want from Uther.”

“The more they throw the Department into chaos, the better,” Arthur said, reaching into his pocket for his mobile phone. “Something powerful would make people suspicious of another magical terrorist organisation. They’d start talking about the Avalon Council again.”

“We got rid of the Avalon Council,” Merlin said. “We took their headquarters, we got all of them.”

“There have been rumours of splinter groups,” Arthur said, “there always are. And if the magic they placed was as powerful as you say, and it killed enough agents, then a state of emergency would be declared in the Department. With my father dead, it would be chaos. They’d be torn between looking for me and looking for the terrorist group, they wouldn’t have the resources or the time to look into anything else.” He turned to Freya.

“What’s the address? I have to warn them.” He found Leon in his phonebook.

“Not on that, you don’t,” Gwaine said, snatching the phone out of his hand. “Do you know nothing about covering your tracks? You should have trashed that hours ago. Why do you even still have it on you?” He tossed the phone to Merlin, who concentrated on it for a second, his eyes flashing gold. Then wisps of smoke began to drift up from it and the stomach turning smell of burning filled the air.

“What are you-?” Arthur demanded.

“Saving your life,” Gwaine said. “You’re on the run now. This is our world.”

“If I don’t contact Leon then good people are going to die,” Arthur said, glaring at them both as best he could. “Good people who were your friends.”

“Use mine,” Freya said, handing him a phone. “The only people looking for me already know how to find me.” She held out a battered phone and Arthur took it, gratefully. “28 March Road. Don’t let them near it.”

Arthur entered Leon’s number from memory and lifted the phone to his ear, listening to it ring.

*
28 March Road was in a suburban area, half way down a cul-de-sac. The houses had front garden with clipped green lawns and neat, orderly borders. There were even net curtains. Leon shook his head at how very normal it looked. The ping was almost definitely nothing, just a kid with some latent ability slamming doors or something.

But they checked these things out for a reason and, with Internal Affairs hanging around in the form of Cedric, Leon wasn’t going to skip out on procedure. He performed the initial sweep of the perimeter, walking around as much of the house as he could. There were no obvious signs of illegal magical activity, no blood lines, runes or sigils. Just a normal house.

Leon's mobile rang when he was heading back to the car, Cedric making Elyan dawdle behind so he could ask him some question. He didn’t recognise the number.

“Hello?”

“Leon." The voice was almost as familiar as his own, and Leon had almost let the name Arthur slip past his lips before he remembered the man behind him and half turned just to check that Cedric had no idea that the man he was hunting was on the other end of the phone line.

“Yes," he said as calmly as he could. There were a thousand questions he couldn't ask.

“I didn’t-“ Arthur began.

“I’m aware of that,” Leon cut him off. “We're looking into it." He kept the 'sir' from the end of the sentence, just about.

“Good… good. Thank you," Arthur told him. "I can't tell you where I am, but I'm fine. I'm with... friends.”

“That's good to know," Leon said, selecting his words and his tone carefully, trying to sound as though he had no investment in this conversation at all. Light, he told his voice; still, he told his hands; steady, he told his voice.

“But we've got information," Arthur said. Leon heard another voice on the end of the line, muffled and vaguely petulant sounding. The tone was familiar. “Look. There’s going to be a call out today. 28 March Road. Not far from the office, and nothing major. It’ll be a trap.”

Leon looked up at the building in front of him. Just an ordinary suburban house with a bay window, flowers on the windowsill, though they seemed to be wilting.

“Any idea what kind?” he asked. The other voice came again and Leon’s eyebrows rose as he placed the familiarity. He swallowed, his heart thudding for a few seconds as he realised that this phone call was a tipping point. He drew in a breath and held up a hand, knowing that Elyan would take it as an indication to stop where he was.

“You’re already there, aren’t you?” Arthur asked, before telling the voice in the background to shut up. He swore and Leon’s mind echoed the sentiment. “Get out of there. It’s dark magic, something big. We don’t know what it’s set up to do, but my best bet is that it’ll kill you and anyone you’re with. They want to put the Department in a state of emergency."

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“Certain,” Arthur said.

“And you trust the source of this information?” he asked, knowing that Arthur would hear the rest of that question as well.

There was a pause before Arthur spoke, but when he did his voice was as steady as it had ever been, steadier than Leon had heard it in a while. “Yes.”

“Good. Thanks for the heads up. Pass on my gratitude," he said and, after a pause, "and tell him I say hello."

“I will.”

There were footsteps beside him and Leon turned to see Cedric walking up next to him.

“Why have we stopped?” Cedric asked. Leon gave him a polite ‘wait a second' smile and tried to look as though he was not having an illegal conversation with two fugitives from justice.

“I need to go. Will you be able to keep me updated?” He asked Arthur, keeping his eyes fixed on Cedric all the time.

“I’m not sure. I don't want to put you at any more risk than I have already..." Arthur replied

“Don’t worry about that,” Leon said, aware of Cedric’s eyes boring into the side of his face.

“If I can,” Arthur told him.

“Good. Thanks again.” Leon told him before ending the call.

“Why have we stopped?" Cedric asked again, not waiting for Leon to even get his phone back into his pocket.

“Standard procedure,” Leon told him, aware that Elyan was frowning at him. "We can't just go rushing in. These things can be difficult to predict. We should get the detection equipment from the car. He walked back down the path trying to stop Elyan from asking questions with a hard look.

“And that phone call,” Cedric asked.

“About something unrelated,” Leon told him, trying to make it sound as unimportant as possible.

“Not a personal matter, I hope.”

“No, of course not,” Leon assured him opening the boot and grabbing everything he could possibly find and handing it over to Elyan.

“What’s with the gear?” Elyan asked in a hiss, just low enough that Cedric wouldn’t be able to hear him.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Leon told him. He pulled on his own body armour, taking a deep breath.

“Who was on the phone?" Elyan asked, insistent.

“Later,” Leon assured him briefly before they closed the boot and Cedric could see them again. The man was staring at the pair of them with suspicion.

“That looks excessive. I thought you said that this was a routine call out,” Cedric commented. “That equipment doesn't look routine."

“And you go on a lot of call outs to magical events, do you?” Elyan asked, deflecting the intense gaze from Leon for a moment. “Why don't you just stay back here where it's safe and let the two of us do our job?"

Cedric retreats, suitably reticent for a man in a suit, Leon thinks a little viciously. And Elyan and Leon approached the door.

“So on a scale of one to ten, how bad a feeling do you have about this?” Elyan asked with forced cheer.

“Remember that rain of frogs in Wales?" Leon asked.

“The ones with the hallucinogenic mucus? Of course – most fun I’ve ever had in Cardiff. Right up to the part with the spiders… Or maybe including that. Why?”

“Worse.” Leon told him. Elyan nodded, suddenly serious. He separated out his own body armour and fastened himself into it. The things were another miracle of the R&D Centre. They somehow grounded the worst of magical blasts, Leon had never asked how. It might have something to do with the symbol on them, or maybe they were made of magical Kevlar. All that really mattered was that they worked. Wearing them meant that most magical blasts didn’t even make you stumble, but if someone was really trying to kill them, then it wouldn't do much more than making them die uncomfortable.

He lifted the portable detector gingerly, wondering what he was going to do about this. There was no reason for him to be worried. If he hadn't had that call from Arthur he would have gone up, knocked on the door and conducted this like any other minor incident. And he probably would have died.

And, according to the official line, he hadn't just received a call from Arthur.

He took a deep breath and pulled the long dagger from his belt. It was something that all agents carried. Guns were well and good, most of the time, but magic interfered with their mechanisms easily. A steel blade was the least vulnerable item they had ever found.

He reached out to touch the tip of the blade to the door and dropped it immediately as the metal corroded to black powder in front of his eyes. He wiped his hand reflexively against his jeans. It felt like it was crawling, like there were insects all over it, crawling backwards and forwards. God... god, he was going to dissolve.

He looked down in panic, but his hand was still there at the end of his arm, as flesh coloured and solid as ever. He wiped it off again, relief flooding him, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to take his eyes off it.



“Shit,” Elyan said.

“What’s the hold up?” Cedric called out.

“We're calling in back-up,” Elyan said, looking at the remains of the dagger lying on the doorstep. It looked diseased, like the metal had rotted if that were possible.

“Back up?” Cedric asked. "You said routine. If this is some sort of a-"

“While performing our routine checks,” Leon said, interrupting him, “we discovered something that was definitely not routine, which would be why the checks are routine in the first place.” He took a deep breath, twitching his fingers. They still felt tingly and itchy, though he assured himself it was all in his head. “We need back-up, which is routine for this sort of a situation.”

“If you’d touched the door,” Elyan said, under his breath. “How did you know?”

Leon didn’t want to think about what would have happened if he had touched the door. He didn’t want to imagine his own skin blackening like the metal.

“But that would have only taken one person out,” he said to himself, the thought coming suddenly. He grabbed Elyan’s arm and dragged him backwards. Arthur had said ‘and anyone you’re with’. Who would lay a trap like this to only take out one person?

He turned, pushing Elyan around roughly, and ran down the drive.

Behind the car" he bellowed at Cedric, who just blinked at him like he was stupid. Leon was dimly aware of a woman walking her dog on the other side of the road stopping to stare at the mad people with the unmarked car. "Get down."

Leon and Elyan hadn't managed to stay alive for this long without being very good at getting the hell out of the way when something screwed itself up (which was fairly often). They managed to grab the outraged Cedric, dive behind the car and signal to the woman to run, Leon flashing a badge that looked very official, but had in fact been a gag gift from the office secret Santa a few years back. It was amazing how often that badge had helped.

Then-

- there was nothing. Nothing at all. Just silence interspersed with Cedric spluttering about unprofessional conduct and clear breach of policy and common decency.

Leon opened his mouth to tell Cedric that if he wanted to have them fired for saving his arse then he was more than welcome to try, when there was a sickening whine sound, and the world went blue.

The light was eerie, the sort of light that was used in horror films when the ghosts appeared. It shimmered, growing brighter and brighter. The whine rose in pitch and volume until it even drowned out the swear words that were pouring out of all three of their mouths.

Leon watched in horror as the gardens across the street rotted in front of his eyes. Everywhere the light touched was darkening and eroding – tarmac, cars, trees. The whine was suddenly accompanied by the sound of metal screeching as it reached its breaking point. The car at their backs shook and Leon wondered whether it was ever going to end, whether the three of them might sit there until the car rotted away completely and then the light could reach them too. But, just as the volume reached levels that had Leon trying to claw his ears off and he could see the blue right through his eyelids, it all stopped in a dizzying split second, leaving them in silence and darkness. Leon wondered for a strange moment whether he was dead, but the sensation of air filling his lungs as he breathed in, thick with the bitter smell of dark magic, kicked him out of that thought.

It was like the aftermath of an explosion – and Leon had been near to a few of those in his time – his ears were still full of the noise, even as an afterimage of the sound, and his eyes saw the world as though he was wearing sunglasses, the retina unable to cope with the overwhelming light that had come from before.

After reassuring himself that he was still alive, he reached out to pat Elyan on the arm, and was reassured to feel a confirming tap on his forearm in return.

He reached out for Cedric and his arm was whacked away, which at least proved that the man was still alive.

Leon sat there for a long second, breathing in and out, revelling in the fact that his lungs still worked, and waited for someone to decide what to do next.

The feeling of elated relief lasted right up until he realised that the person who was supposed to make that decision was him.

In the past it had always been Arthur who had picked them up after something had shaken them down to the core. It had always been Arthur who stood up first, or stuck his head round the edge of the building to see if their opponents were still standing. Leon had never even really thought about how insane the man had been until he realised that he was about to stand up and poke his head out from the only definite source of protection he had.

It was possible that whatever that had been, it was activated by movement. It was possible that there were a million new horrible things waiting for him.

But he levered himself up anyway, trying to look as casual as Arthur always had, and reminding himself that at least, if he died, Elyan would have a little longer to work out a plan.

He couldn’t quite keep his shoulders from tensing when he straightened, and the back of his neck had that horrible prickling feeling of being watched, but when he turned around there was nothing there but the house, and utter devastation.

“Well,” he said, his voice shaking. Though considering it sounded distant and echoey to him, the others probably couldn’t even hear it. "I guess we're walking back."

He left Elyan to deal with the gibbering Cedric. When he walked around the front of the car, he could see that half of it was gone. It looked like a cut-away drawing from a ‘how stuff works’ book, apart from the fact that, rather than clean lines, all the edges were ragged and black.

“Fuck…” he said with tremendous feeling, as he realised that, had the blue light lasted a few more seconds, then the last bit of the roof, the part that had left the passenger door window in shadow, would have been gone, leaving his head to the tender mercies of whatever that magic was.

His knees wanted to buckle, but he forced them to straighten and walked back to the other side where Elyan was dragging Cedric to his feet and patting him down.

"Well," Elyan said, his cheer sounding forced and brittle. "I'm awake now."

Leon laughed, the sensation a release of the energy that was piling up behind his mouth and in his limbs. Elyan joined him after a second, chuckling together until they couldn’t breathe properly for peals of relieved laughter. Cedric stared at them in disbelief, his mouth working in horrified fish circles.

They stayed like that until the back-up Elyan had remembered to ring for while Leon was checking the damage, came hurtling down the street and they were pulled back out of the radius of destruction, checked over by medics and told that they were lucky sons-of-bitches.

Leon was pounded on the back by Elyan repeatedly, who opened his mouth to tell everyone how he'd saved his life. Leon started to tell him to shut up when a car drew up that Leon recognised. The car Uther had always used for work. He straightened up, astonished, wondering for a second whether the past few days had been a hideous magic-induced dream, but when it pulled up the door opened and a woman stepped out, long blonde hair falling to her shoulders. She was beautiful in a way which made Leon wish that he had five inches of bulletproof glass between him and her. She headed towards him without even pausing.

“Morgause Treherne,” she said, holding out a hand to him. “I’ve been asked to step in to the breach while the Pendragon situation is sorted out.”

“Agent Leon Harris," he offered.

“Yes, I know," she said. There was something about her, Leon could feel it prickling up his spine and he breathed in through his nose, deliberately, trying not to let it show as he straightened his back. There was a metallic tinge to the air that clung to the insides of his nostrils. Magic. It might have just been from the curse, though. It might have… he inhaled again, more carefully, but the scent hadn’t changed. And he could remember having smelt the magic while the house was glowing; it had been bitter, acrid. But now it was different, less bitter, and softer. Morgause was smiling serenely still, and Leon let his face take on the familiar blank expression of someone greeting a superior. “I heard you had a close call."

“Yes ma’am."

“Well, I’m glad that you’re all okay. I expect a report on my desk as soon as you’ve had a chance.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I don’t expect you to like me, Agent Harris. In fact, given everything that’s happened in the past twenty-four hours, I’d be surprised if you did,” she told him. “We're all in difficult positions right now. We just need to get on with the job at hand."

The only thing Leon could think was the word ‘Magic’ again and again, like there was a mouse or a hamster running around inside his brain squeaking it at him angrily. And all he could feel, other than that curious numbness of not quite having realised he was still alive, was a feeling of utter terror that this was all getting out of hand. He wished for the two millionth time that day that Arthur was standing next to him. He hated getting involved in the political side.

“Yes ma’am,” he said. At least those were words he didn’t have to think about.

*

“They tried to kill my men," Arthur growled, pacing the floor. "They are trying right now to kill my men. My men." It was easier to think about that than to think that maybe Leon was already dead somewhere.

“Yes,” Merlin said, unhelpfully, from his position on the kitchen counter.

“What would you know about it?” Arthur rounded on him, glaring.

“Arthur,” Gwaine’s voice was a low warning that Arthur was the only one there alone in the world right now. That rubbed him up the wrong way even further.

“And you!” he said, rounding on Gwaine instead, who smirked at him. Smirked! Leon and god knew who else were walking into the biggest fucking trap of their lives and Gwaine, who had used to call them friends, was smirking about it. “Why are you even here? We all know your idea of loyalty is buying a man a drink and ditching him for the hangover.”

Merlin protested somewhere to the side, but Arthur was in full flow now. All he could hear was the rushing in his ears and his own words spitting out of his mouth like dragon fire.

“You never were there for the clean-up. Why should you give a damn about them now when you never did before."

“I care,” Gwaine said, calm and level.

“You care. Really, Gwaine? You ran off - you left them to do this alone and you bloody know it. You fucking coward!" Arthur swung, wildly. His fist barely connected with Gwaine's shoulder as the other man ducked out of the way. Gwaine grabbed for him and pushed him forward into the wall Arthur's hip bones were digging right into it and Arthur was forced to push his elbow backwards until it connected with flesh and the pressure against his back released.

They went for each other, fists and knees. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t skilled and it had none of the discipline Arthur had been studying in from the moment he could walk. It was brutal. Arthur got a fist in his face, his teeth biting in to the soft flesh of the inside of his lips. It reminded him of scraps he had been in as a child, rolling around on the playground in defence of a football that someone else had already run off with.

Gwaine's shoulder collided with his stomach and sent them both crashing to the floor in a flail of arms and legs.

Then suddenly Arthur felt something tugging on the back of his shirt, dragging him away, and saw Gwaine being pulled in the opposite direction. Freya was watching them, looking nervous, Merlin stood next to her, face tight with anger. He drew in a deep breath and then let it out. As he did it, Arthur could feel the wounds from the night before again, aching, and the places where the bruises from Gwaine’s fists would show in a few hours.

“Fine, fine,” Merlin said with a tired voice. Arthur glanced at him and saw his hands extended, on reaching to each side, towards Arthur and Gwaine. His eyes were golden. “We get it. You both want to do something. Neither of you can. Now if you could grow up for a minute and use your brains rather than trying to knock them out of each other, then maybe we might actually be able to come up with a plan."

“I would have won,” Gwaine said.

“In your dreams.”

Neither of you won!" Merlin yelled. The sudden noise made both of them look towards him like naughty schoolboys. "If I hadn't separated you, the only thing that would have happened is that the two of your would have wrecked Freya’s house, and pissed off one of our few allies.”

“Everything alright?” Freya asked a little uncertainly

“I’ve got it under control,” Merlin assured her.

“Okay,” she told them with a small worried smile.


“Now,” Merlin said, letting his hands drop. Arthur slumped as the force that had been holding him back disappeared. “Are you going to play nicely together, or do I have to put you in separate rooms?"

Arthur offered a reluctant hand, which Gwaine took, just as reluctantly. He tightened his hand as much as he dared, and received the same treatment in return.

“Great. Then perhaps we could get back to the problem at hand,” Merlin suggested. “We can’t do anything more about Leon. I’m sorry Arthur. But he’ll get through it, he’s smart and he’s good at his job.” Arthur nodded. “Freya, we need the stone. If we have it, then maybe they won’t come after you. You’ll be safer, and we can try to work out exactly what’s going on.”

“I’ll go and get it,” she said, looking for a long moment at Merlin. “You have to stop them from getting it.”

“I’ll come with you,” Gwaine volunteered, looking between Merlin and Arthur with the disconcerting shrewdness that he seemed to have developed in the last four years. He stood up, and gently led Freya out of the room with an arm around her shoulders before Merlin or Arthur could say anything.

Then it was just Arthur and Merlin. Awkwardness fell as the door closed behind the other two. It was the first time, really, that they had been alone since Arthur had fallen on top of Merlin on his doorstep and Arthur, who had resented Gwaine’s presence for the entire time, suddenly wished that he would come back.

He glanced at Merlin out of the corner of his eye, and found Merlin looking back at him. Their eyes caught and Arthur couldn’t tear his gaze away.

The word sorry hovered behind his teeth. But accusations and anger hovered just as close, and he seesawed between the two, unable to let either come out.

The silence just grew thicker, punctuated by the sounds of Freya and Gwaine moving about.

There was a sound outside, the sound of boots on tarmac.

There was a knock at the door.

Merlin and he shared a startled look.

“Jehovah’s Witnesses?” Merlin suggested.

“With our luck?” Arthur shot back. He was already on his feet, grabbing Merlin’s arm and pulling him up. “Is there a back way?”

“Gwaine and Freya are upstairs,” Merlin said.

“Not what I was asking,” Arthur told him. “Is there a back way?”

“They’ve got the stone.” Merlin said, looking at the stairs. Arthur held him in place.

“Back way?”

“Yes.”

“Use it,” Arthur told him. Merlin stared, mouth falling open, and rebellion chasing across his face.

“I’m not leaving any of you.”

“I’ll get Gwaine, Freya and the stone,” Arthur told him. “We’ll be fine.”

“I’m not-“ Merlin was cut off by the sound of shouting and the door splintering inwards.

“Well,” Arthur said, releasing Merlin and turning towards the noise, “at least none of us has exploded yet.”

There were people piling into the house, burly men dressed in almost identical bland clothes. They carried guns and, when one of them rounded the door to find Arthur and Merlin, Arthur looked into his eyes and saw that they were glazed and deadened.

“Thrall,” Merlin said. The word didn’t mean a lot to Arthur, but the next one did. “Duck.”

Arthur had been in enough fights in his life that there were some situations and words he responded to automatically. There were many variations on ‘duck’ hardwired into him and he didn’t even need to think before he reacted, hitting the floor.

Bullets flew over them and then they bounced away, deflected off an invisible shield.

“Better than Kevlar,” Merlin said as they crawled for the door to the hallway. “We have to get to Gwaine and Freya.”

“How long can you keep up that shield?” Arthur asked.

“A few minutes, as long as there aren’t too many…” They came into the hall and were confronted by the sight of over a dozen pairs of booted feet and looked up into the muzzles of just as many guns.

“How about that many?” Arthur asked, not optimistic.

“Might be pushing it,” Merlin said.

“Tactical retreat,” Arthur decided. Merlin looked completely scandalised.

“But the others,” Merlin insisted.

“Come on,” Gwaine’s voice cut through. They looked up to see him standing behind them. Arthur didn’t ask how he’d got there, but dragged Merlin to his feet and hauled him back towards Gwaine.

“We can’t just go,” Merlin protested. Arthur wanted to agree with him. The soldiers, thralls, whatever they were, had turned their attention to the stairs. Arthur followed their gaze to see Freya standing at the top.

“Can’t you… burn them up or something?” Arthur asked.

“Or stop time,” Gwaine suggested, “that would be useful.”

“Not with this much interference,” Merlin said, sounding a little helpless. “They’re thralls – they’re not people any more, they’re possessions – of whoever sent them. They’re practically soaked in magic, and it’s interfering with mine. I can’t do anything that affects them.”

“That’s exceptionally useless,” Arthur commented. He had a feeling that their grace period was drying up. The Thralls seemed to have come to some sort of conclusion. “No invisibility?”

“Not at the same time as the shield.”

Arthur contemplated that for a moment. If they turned invisible then it was entirely possible that the Thralls would just shoot indiscriminately and they’d been dead in seconds.

“Merlin,” Freya said. Merlin’s attention snapped to her. “Go.”

“I can’t just leave you-“ Merlin started.

“We can’t help her,” Gwaine said. It sounded as though the words hurt him to say, and Arthur could understand that. She seemed nice, as inadequate as that was.

“I can take care of myself,” Freya said. There was a sound unlike anything Arthur had ever heard before. If he had had to label it, he would have put it something between Velcro and the squelch of raw meat, and suddenly Freya wasn’t standing at the top of the stairs anymore, instead there was a huge black panther. He stared.

Gwaine grabbed them both as the Thralls opened fire, taking their shoulders and taking advantage of the fact that every gun was trained on the huge black panther to make their escape.

*


-

part 5

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