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Evil Overlord, Inc.

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Thirty-six hours ago, right before the lease on his tiny flat ran out dormitory move-out deadline, Merlin had taken stock of his situation.

First class graduate degree in his dual specialty in physics and metaphysics?

Check.

A good start on an envious library heavy on runic and ritualized magic, with a good chunk dedicated to chthonic mythology and incantations?

Check.

A scholastic debt large enough to choke an elephant?

Check, check, and check.

Merlin sat down heavily at the kerb, his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. His head pounded.

Thirty-six hours ago, after the impulsive aftermath of purchasing a rare illuminated copy of Compendium of Ancient Bloodlines and Bloodrites before Muirden could get his dirty hands on it, Merlin had noticed that he didn't have all that much money left in his bank account.

Maybe he shouldn't have bought the book, but these kinds of opportunities only came once in a blue moon, and, anyway, he couldn't really fault himself for having taken advantage of his student discount while he still had it.

Maybe he should have held off on buying Thompson's Chemical Guide to Esoteric Compounds, Proto-Gaelic Linguistics and Syntax, and the Encyclopaedia Mythica Britannia (expanded edition), and saved up enough for a small flat.

Maybe he should have --

Merlin snorted, but both the noise and the action made metaphorical daggers stab through his skull.

Maybe he should have done a whole lot of different, more reasonable things, starting with not spending the last of his admittedly small post-graduate stipend on the alcoholic portion of the small graduation party with his closest friends.

Thirty-six hours ago, Merlin had been painfully sober and uncomfortably aware of the less-than-ideal situation that swooped down on every student once they graduated and were no longer protected by the expensive shelter of academia, but at least each one of his friends could sympathize because they were in the same situation as he was.

No money, no job prospects, crippling debt, and nowhere to go.

Getting pissed off their arses and spending the evening commiserating had seemed like a good idea at the time.

However, seven hours into the aftermath, Merlin wanted to die. He was still uncomfortably aware of the less-than-ideal situation that swooped down on every student once they graduated and were no longer protected by the expensive shelter of academia, but now, instead of being painfully sober, he was excruciatingly hungover and in the initial stages of I regret everything. He couldn't remember anything after Freya produced the absinthe and only had a vague recollection of trying Will's wolfsbane-spiked beer.

But before that...

Unfortunately, he remembered everything.


"Worst jobs ever. Go," Sefa said, in-between hiccups. She looked cute cuddled up next to Freya, though it was probably as much a survival tactic as anything. Both were on their way to being completely soused, neither was particularly stable, and one of them was keeping the other from face-planting on the sticky carpet. It wasn't clear to Merlin which one was which, nor which would fall first.

"That term as an intern for Bruce Caulder," Will said, cracking open a new can of beer, presumably to keep himself hydrated in-between shots of whatever bottle of vile two-pound grappa that they'd just opened. "He sent me to interview all those people who got affected by the drug spiking scandal, do you remember that? It was a couple of years back. Someone broke the seals on the boxes, used a needle to spike paracetamol with some sort of magic goop that made everyone break out in weeping pus?"

"I remember, it was all over the news," Gilli said. He was probably the most sober of them all, but that was because he'd joined late. He would catch up, though. He was dedicated like that. "What's so bad about that?"

"They were still weeping pus," Merlin said, unable to stop his snicker. Everyone grimaced.

Will pointed in Merlin's direction in confirmation, and at the same time, he made the face he always made when his stomach was about to become intimate with the loo. He sounded strangled when he waved dramatically (and desperately) at his throat and said, "I can still taste the smell of it in the back of my mouth."

Will made a good start on washing it out by half-emptying his beer.

"Clerk typist at the McTaggart Ward," Freya said sleepily, but she always sounded sleepy after the exam period. At least she would be able to get some rest, soon. "On a typewriter. In the basement office. About fifty feet from perverted sickos. Had to walk past them four times a day. More if I had to pee."

"Ugh," Sefa said, patting Freya's head.

"Wait, why four? I mean, once to get to the office, once to leave...?" Gilli's expression furrowed with confusion.

"Cafeteria was in the basement. Stairs were on the other side of the ward," Freya said. "Wouldn't let me eat in my office."

"Oh," Gilli said, then winced. "That's awful."

"Hmm-mm," Freya said, purring under Sefa's hand.

"I peed in a bottle, once," Freya murmured. "Totally forgot about it. It's probably still there, tucked next to the pile of used ribbons."

"Ugh. Gross," Gilli said.

"Mine's clearing out a Giant Hogweed infestation," Mordred said. His eyes were locked on some far-away point, like a soldier with the thousand yard stare.

Merlin hissed in sympathy, but only managed to inhale his beer down the wrong pipe, and nearly choked. He'd had to deal with Giant Hogweed, once, and he still had nightmares about it. The plant was one of the most dangerous in the world, capable of burning skin on contact alone. Mordred's druidic magic could protect him from most poisons, but the Giant Hogweed was a force unto its own. Whatever precautions he had taken at the time must not have been enough, not if he looked like a veteran remembering the war.

Fire wouldn't eliminate hogweed -- the roots went down too deep to completely destroy the plants, the poison became an airborne toxin at high temperatures, and the seeds spread more efficiently that way. It was horrible. Removing the Giant Hogweed required bomb gear, a self-enclosed rebreather, goggles, and gloves, all of which were preferably lined with Kevlar.

And there was the digging. A whole lot of digging. Then, hours on hands and knees and a microscope, looking for the stray roots that weren't uprooted in the first go, because the fucking things could regenerate.

"What the fuck even?" Gilli asked, sputtering. "Of your own free will? Why would you do that?"

Mordred shook himself out of it. "Professor Newton planted them around his herb garden because the undergrads kept stealing them for potion ingredients. Smart guy, but so fucking stupid. He didn't think it would get out of hand. Anyway, he promised me extra credit and access to his copy of Hesterfield's Herbology and Ancient Druidry."

"Not worth it," Merlin said, because he had a very expensive copy in his library. He would've loaned it to Mordred if he'd known Mordred had needed it.

"Could've stood to know how useless it was before I took the job to buy the bloody book, you wanker," Mordred said, kicking Merlin's foot.

"Christ," Gilli said, shaking his head. "Well, mine still has to be working for Madame Lacroix. The job wasn't bad, but I could've done without the groping. My arse was black and blue at one point."

"The horror," Will said, unsympathetic, but that was because he was an asshole. He was in-between girlfriends, and the in-between had lasted three years so far. Will was a charming guy, treated his dates like Queens, but once word got out that Will was a werewolf, well, word got, and the ladies would rather hug a Giant Hogweed plant than to give him a second look.

Gilli knew that, and he wasn't the sort of bloke to rub it in.

"You're just jealous," Gilli said, shrugging. "At least I got some."

Or maybe he was.

Merlin snorted. Will growled, and the girls yelled at them to simmer the fuck down, though coming from Freya, it was more of a cute, sleepy snarl. Will and Gilli settled without coming to blows, and after a few minutes of silent drinking, Sefa asked, "What about you, Merlin?"

"Ugh, don't ask Merlin, he's got the unfair advantage of not knowing which bad job to pick from his laundry list," Will said.

Merlin raised two fingers -- or at least, he tried to. His hand was a little numb. All he knew was the floor was awfully comfortable and he wasn't inclined to move. Will wasn't wrong, though. Pretty much every job Merlin had ever had ended up some sort of shiteshow in one way or another. His paper routes had been fraught with trigger-happy farmers, grumpy dogs and carnivorous cows. His job at the chippie had been all right until a half-giant got angry over what he thought was a substandard portion and tipped the stand over. Inventorying the stock at the local Tesco's had been hampered by an infestation of tsuchigumo, which shouldn't even have been a thing in Britain to begin with.

And that was during his formative years. It only got worse from there.

Merlin's personal favourite was having to round up the kelpies from a Scottish loch, but he could've done without the multiple attempts to drown him.

Sometimes, Merlin thought Fate had it in for him, and Fate's grudge meant he'd get thrown through the proverbial wringer until he'd made up for whatever he'd done wrong in a past life. But in all honesty, he had a good life, and it was no one's fault that he always seemed to find himself in the thick of a bad situation from something that had originally seemed so innocent.

"Dream job," Freya said sleepily. Her voice was stronger, now, as if she were sobering up, but it wouldn't last long. Someone would shove another shot into her hand the second she showed signs of full lucidity. Those were the rules. "What's everyone's... dream jobs?"

"That's a better question," Sefa said, brightening. She patted Freya's head. "What's yours, Frey?"

Freya took so long to answer that Merlin removed his arm from over his eyes to see if she was asleep. But she was sitting up straight and on her own, her mouth set in a thoughtful curl, and she said, "I want to train animals for the movies."

"Huh," Will said, voicing Merlin's agreement. Freya's dream job was perfect for someone with her affinity for and connection to animals. She did better with magical creatures, which was a skill few people had, and possessed a soft touch with the pricklier non-human races.

Merlin nudged Will's leg. "She could train you, mate."

"Only if she promises to give me treats," Will said, grinning.

Freya made a face. "Ugh. Pass. I can only work with intelligent animals."

Will sputtered, Sefa laughed, and Gilli gave Will a companionable shove. Merlin gave Will a wide-eyed look and promised, "It's okay, I'll never leave you at the dog shelter."

"Fuck you all," Will said, but he was smiling.

"Florist," Sefa said, which was a complete hundred-eighty from her field of study. She was studying French Literature, but instead of getting her doctorate to become a teacher, she went back for a certificate in accounting. Her mum had wanted her to get a degree in a field where she could impress people, but then changed her mind and insisted Sefa forget her doctorate for something that would become a sustainable career. Sefa had gone along with it only because her mum had threatened to cut her off from the family fortune otherwise.

It was a family fortune that originated from a great-grandmother who was a dryad, and who knew exactly where to find the mother lode of truffles in the forest, mainly because her magic nurtured them. But this was a little-known secret, and no one knew that Sefa's heritage was dryad-rich, not even her closest friends. If that piece of information ever got out, her job prospects were tanked, because she'd be fined for failing to Register as a Supernatural, and she'd have a black Registration mark on all of her records.

"Really?" Mordred didn't bother to mask his surprise. "But I've read your short stories, and you're aces at what you do. I thought you'd be writer, at least. But a florist? Wasn't even on my radar."

Sefa smiled at him, small and sweet like she was hiding a secret -- which, yes, she was, even if she was shoving a fresh shot of... something into Merlin's hand to keep him from pointing out that he'd known all along.

"Don't make it sound so common," Gilli groused.

And, right, Merlin was the only one in their group who knew. Merlin had the privilege only because he'd blurted it out the instant they'd met, much to Sefa's shock. She had never asked how he'd found out, and that had been a wash of cold water to remind him that people kept secrets a secret for a reason.

Kind of like him.

So he stayed where he lay on the floor, the new shot of alcohol balanced on his chest, and lifted his head in a resolute attempt to teach himself a new drinking trick. Merlin had managed to slurp a couple of millimetres before Will helpfully picked up the shot, and told him to "Open wide."

"I'm not judging. Have you seen my room?" Mordred asked. They'd all seen it, mostly to scout for special herbs for medicinal reasons, but Mordred was smart enough not to grow them where he slept, because his landlady kept an eagle-eye out for these sorts of things. "I'm a bloody tree-hugger on my worst day."

"That he is," Merlin said, coughing when the fire he'd just swallowed fizzed out of his nose. He was nearly too focused on rolling onto his side in the recovery position to notice Sefa's hard glare. He waved her off; it wasn't her fault that Mordred liked to hug her so much, even if he didn't know why.

Or maybe he did, and he was a better secret-keeper than Merlin, but whatever.

"What about you, Mordred?" Freya asked, clearly sensing the faint tension in the room.

"Well, I... Honestly? I've always wanted to be a healer."

"You could go to medical school," Freya said. "You're almost there, anyway."

"I wish," Mordred said wistfully. After a moment, he admitted, "They're going to close the program to magic users next year. If I got accepted in the first place, they'd do everything they could to squeeze me out, and I heard that the hospitals stopped hiring magic users this year. It's illegal, but no one's saying anything, so there's no real point if I can't get a job as a nurse or as a doctor. Imagine if I showed up and said, Hi, I'm a healer, I can take pain away with magic? I'd be bloody well lynched."

Mordred had started his druidic studies young and had passed his trials two years ago. He'd come to university with a focus in botany, because that would make his next few years easy, but he'd gotten so bored with the repetition of what he already knew that he'd moved on to biology. When even that got tenuous, he'd gone into nursing. With his advanced degree he could work as a nurse practitioner, but his prospects were already limited.

"You'd be a good healer," Freya consoled, though it really wasn't a consolation. Mordred's druidic magic gave him an advantage; his knowledge of botany meant he could brew natural remedies far more efficient than pharmaceutical companies; and, his education in nursing meant that he was already a step ahead of most Healer candidates. But to become a Healer, Mordred would have to apprentice to a Registered Healer, and they were few and far between these days.

"Did a bang-up job on my broken leg," Gilli said.

"What broken leg?" Sefa asked.

"Exactly," Gilli said, grinning. Mordred ducked his head, embarrassed or shy. Or both.

"The system sucks," Merlin said, a propos of nothing, because Mordred would be brilliant at Healing, even if he didn't always have the best bedside manner.

"Hear, hear," Will said. He didn't speak up again for a minute, during which Merlin endured someone (probably Will) poking him in the ribs with their foot. Finally, almost dejectedly, Will added, "I just wanted to be a cop like my dad."

The silence was full of politically-charged tension, and Merlin half-wished he could sink through the floor to get away from the blow-out that would inevitably occur. If he full-wished, it would happen, because he was drunk and his control over his magic tended to be spurious, taking his idle thoughts literally. Also, there was no telling if he were sober enough to sink through the floor, or if he'd get stuck partway like he had, back in his first year of university, completely by accident.

In any case, he'd done a good job so far in his life hiding exactly how powerful he was, and he didn't want to scare (or lose) his friends, so he'd resist the urge to cast magic, wilfully or not, as long as he could.

In self-defence for the argument that was no doubt brewing under everyone's skin, Merlin pulled the mouldy-smelling pillow he'd been stuck with from the bed. It flew over with a drunken wobble that made everyone laugh.

Merlin's friends thought he was a telekinetic. That's what it said on his registration card, anyway. It wasn't a magical ability, though most people didn't make that very fine legal distinction, but it also meant that he'd neatly avoided having to register as a magic user. Technically, the most strangling laws against magic users, creatures, and humanoids didn't apply to him, but they kind of did, not just because Merlin had been lying about his abilities his entire life, but because people were stupid.

"It's fucking unfair, is what it is," Sefa said. "If your dad could do the job, why can't you? It's not like you turn into a rabid dog at the full moon. Fucking normals --"

Merlin grabbed the pillow out of the air and tried to suffocate himself with it.

Ironically, in a world where perfectly normal, 100% homo sapiens sapiens were the minority, it was the supernatural community who were discriminated against.

Experts calculated the probabilities and estimated roughly sixty to seventy-five percent of the population on a global scale possessed some degree of non-human DNA. Some of the more open-minded theorists from the nineteen-sixties wrote papers correlating blood heritage to cultural mythical beliefs, genealogists had once had a booming business tracing back families to obscure connections of random deities, and statisticians determined that even a large influx of immigrating or emigrating people would keep the native magical population stable.

In Great Britain, the percentage skewed toward seventy. Ireland was more like ninety percent, but no one spoke about Ireland. Nice people, really, but they had some weird magic over there.

Regardless of the origins of a person, their supernatural status, was no reason for everyone else to be complete wankers about it.

The fear that non-magical people had for magical people and creatures had been growing year after year, and the restrictions on the magical community had been increasing since the early nineteen-eighties. It was as if centuries of peaceful coexistence had been completely forgotten about on the day someone flipped some sort of switch. Maybe the hatemongering started because someone had had a bad encounter and the anger spread from there, but it was stupid, because there were evil people in the world regardless of the source of their DNA.

The suppression of certain avenues of scientific study and the hasty redaction of published papers might have something to do with it, too. Oh, and let's not mention click-bait articles, misleading newspaper clippings, and pretty, bubble-headed reporters who didn't know their DNA from their... their... well, anything, really.

Somehow, seemingly without anyone noticing or anybody doing something useful about it, laws were passed requiring registration of certain magical creatures and magic users, forbidding anyone remotely magical from holding public positions, and restricting their movement and travel opportunities. Nothing was on the books about preventing magic or humanoid creatures from obtaining an education, not yet, but some schools had already instituted certain policies and had shut down the departments dedicated to supernatural studies.

It was why Merlin had nearly killed himself completing his graduate degree. He had wanted to get ahead of the wave that would've seen him pushed out of school without so much as a nod of acknowledgement for the work he'd already put in. Doubling (sometimes tripling) up on all of his courses had eaten all of Merlin's free time and hadn't given him many opportunities to find a job for when he graduated. He was lucky his friends were giving him a place to live, even if he couldn't afford his split of the room and board.

Unlike the others, he was the only one at a complete loose end.

Merlin blinked at the stark white light when someone -- Will -- yanked the pillow out from over his head. "We're done," Will said. He had a curious, wistful expression, as if he didn't see why the subject of magical politics infuriated Merlin so much. As far as they knew, Merlin had it easy. On the surface, Merlin had a perfectly normal, human gift that had nothing to do with the irrational order of amino acids in his DNA.

"Cheers," Merlin said weakly, feeling like a giant plonker. On the one hand, his friends had every right to hate him for not being as ostracized as they were. On the other hand, he was a fucking coward for not telling them that he understood, that he hated the situation as much as they did, because he was just like them. On the third hand, there was no use getting worked up about it when it was out of their control -- none of them had had the temerity to apply for a law degree or to be born into a political family. On the fourth hand --

On the fourth hand, he was really, really, fucking drunk. He blinked at all of the arms floating on front of him. But also, yes, he couldn't ever forget that if anyone knew what he was, he'd be killed on sight.

"What about you, Merlin? What's your dream job?" Sefa asked.

Merlin raised his arms over his head in a makeshift shrug. He didn't know. Physics was a reasonable enough field -- he could go in any direction he wanted, but his focus on energy forces and metaphysical interactions narrowed his options significantly. He should have gone into something more practical instead of studying something that could only help him understand his own power better, but what was done was done.

"Come on, Ems," Will said, a smile in his voice. "When we were kids and we were talking about what we were going to do when we grew up? What was that you wanted to be, again?"

"That was your dream, not mine." Merlin rolled his eyes, which didn't help the situation. He suddenly had more arms in the air. "And anyway, I'm pretty sure Evil Overlord isn't a valid occupation."

The resounding silence that greeted his announcement was either because he'd fallen unconscious, or because everyone was remembering the last time an Evil Overlord had nearly taken over London. It had taken three fighter jets, a platoon of infantry, and something secretly (but not so secretly) called a negavoid bomb to take him down.

Merlin grit his teeth and forced himself to look at his friends. Will was smirking, because it had always been a big joke to him. Sefa looked thoughtful, Freya might be asleep, Mordred's eyes were in narrow squints. Gilli was bent over, digging through the cooler of melting ice in search for something else to drink.

And then, his friends surprised him.

"That would be cool," Freya murmured.

"You'd make a great Evil Overlord," Sefa said, grinning.

"You do know that a prerequisite to being an Evil Overlord is being a little bit Evil, right?" Gilli asked, frowning at the bottle of absinthe in his hand. He held it up questioningly and Freya was suddenly wide awake and making grabby hands.

"Have you met Merlin?" Will said with a laugh. "He's a bloody nasty blighter when he's angry. Don't you remember what he did to Muirden when he sabotaged Merlin's experiments last year?"

"That wasn't me," Merlin said weakly. And, anyway, it wasn't his fault if he'd made the rotational balance of the measurement spheres a little more sensitive than normal, or that, for the sake of his theory, he'd used very volatilely flammable liquid to fill them because they had a lower viscosity and density than water. Also, Muirden was part fire elemental. It's not like the burns weren't going to heal. Eventually.

The group made a thoughtful murmur.

"Just think about it," Will said. "Imagine how much shite would get done if Merlin was an Evil Overlord?"

Merlin pulled again, snatching his pillow from wherever it had ended up, and tried to smother himself again before he panicked.

Will, the bastard that he was, said, "At least he doesn't have to worry about having to be a sorcerer, yeah?"

Well, fuck.

"No, I don't, because I'm not," Merlin lied, but he was shite at lying even when sober, and fought in vain to ignore everyone's pitying looks. Except for Gilli, who looked confused. "Someone give me a drink."


"All right, mate, that's everything," Will said, sitting down on the kerb next to Merlin. He was too cheerful, too hyper, and too bloody sober. "Ready to go? The sooner we drop off your kit, we'll go and get Mordred's rubbish. We've only got the lorry for a few more hours, I'm not keen on paying the overcharge if we don't turn it in on time."

"Ugh," Merlin said.

"You should see this," Sefa shouted, skipping excitedly across the road from her flat. She'd finished loading her belongings into the lorry earlier and had been helping Freya pack valuables into her little car. Will and Gilli were already moved into the house the six of them would be renting, but Gilli was nowhere to be seen, and Mordred was still in his room, fussing over which plants could be packed together.

Merlin vaguely remembered something about Helga not liking to be in touching distance to Thomas, and the sprawling ivy getting fussy if the trellis was at the wrong angle. Mordred had been a little too frantic and coherent for Merlin's still-muddled head, and out of self-preservation, Merlin had hid in the nearest broom cupboard until Freya found him there, trying to sleep. "You could stand to be a little quieter. Please."

"You're such a grouch," Sefa said, sitting down on Merlin's other side. She shoved her phone under his nose. The screen was too bright; Merlin closed his eyes tightly until the screen dimmed and went black.

"It's not fair that you don't have a hangover," Merlin complained.

"Werewolf," Will said.

"I am immune to the blights that affect common men," Sefa said flippantly, but when Merlin looked, he saw her giving him the squinty side-eye, as if daring him to say anything about not being entirely human. She shoved her phone into his face again. "Look at it!"

"Yes, yeah, it's very nice. Lovely black screen --"

"Not that, you pillock." Sefa hit the button at the bottom. The screen lit up.

"Augh," Merlin said, covering his eyes.

There was a scramble around him. Will jostled him on one side. Sefa screeched at an uncomfortably high pitch that made Merlin want to slide under a rock and die.

"Are you having me on?" Will said, tone incredulous. He laughed, and clapped a hand on Merlin's back, and something in his spine popped. It did the pounding headache absolutely no favours, and it was lucky that Merlin's last few visits to the beloved loo had taken care of what little there had been in his stomach. "I can be the bigger man and admit when I was wrong. I didn't think it would work."

"Wrong?" Merlin asked weakly. He lifted his head, hoping his best friend would at least take pity on him and tell him what was going on.

"Yeah, mate. You know, about the whole thing -- oh, there's Freya, she wants me to bring her suitcases down, I guess they're too heavy or summat," Will said. Merlin followed his gaze blearily to the third floor of the building across a wide lawn, and cursed Will's enhanced werewolf hearing right along with his enhanced metabolism and apparent immunity to hangovers.

Merlin watched Will go, and, at a loss for anything to do, finally squinted at the screen Sefa was insistently shoving into his face.

Internet browser. Light grey header. Dark blue font. Covered in hyperlinks. Black text on white in the body. The simple interface registered a few seconds later as Craigslist.

Evil Overlord Incorporated Open for Business!

Newly established in the heart of London, EOI is seeking profit-bearing ventures to fuel the business' planned rapid expansion. Although not currently engaged in active world-dominating plans until fully staffed, Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire, is interested in assisting Londoners in resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness and liberty for all.

Please email Dr. M. at DrM.EvilOverlordInc@gmail.com. If your proposal meets our interest, you will be contacted shortly.

Principals only. Recruiters, please don't contact this job poster.

Do NOT contact us with unsolicited services or offers.

Merlin rubbed his eyes. He read the Craigslist posting again. When he didn't understand it on the third read-through, he blinked at Sefa, who was vibrating out of her skin, and said, "What."

"It was Gilli's idea, but I wrote it. Freya helped! Will was completely useless, though. Sounds fantastic, doesn't it? Super posh and professional."

"I don't --"

"And look, that's not the best part," Sefa said, snatching the phone out of his hand. Merlin stared at her while she flipped to an email app and dropped it into his hands like they were hot potatoes. He nearly dropped them, hoping it was.

It was the email address of Dr. M. over at Evil Overlord Incorporated. The inbox looked full. Sefa reached over and scrolled the screen with her finger -- there were dozens and dozens of emails already, and as Merlin watched, three more popped into the inbox.

"What," Merlin said again.

"Congratulations, Merlin," Sefa said, her eyes sparkling. "You're an Evil Overlord, and you're in high demand."

"But," Merlin said, watching as Sefa bounced up from the kerb to run across the green, taking a box out of Freya's overloaded arms as Will effortlessly hefted two overstuffed suitcases in each hand. "I'm not... I don't even... As far as you know..."

He gave up. I'm not actually a sorcerer, I don't even have magic, As far as you know I'm only a telekinetic and a terrible one at that -- none of those statements were true, and, anyway, no one was actually listening to him. He didn't know how, but it seemed that the proverbial cat was out of the proverbial fucking bag, and he was so, so fucked. He half-expected government agents to converge on his location any second now, ready to haul him to a maximum security execution centre by way of a dissecting operating room to see what made him tick in the first place.

Tentatively, he opened the oldest email.

Dear Evil Overlord,

I really hope this is legit.

My next door neighbour won't stop playing his music at full volume in the middle of the night. I don't normally care, it's decent music, but my mum's visiting this weekend. If she thinks I don't live in a nice, quiet area, she'll make me move home. I'll pay you 50 pounds to make him stop, just for this weekend. No murder, please, blood to a minimum, and if you make sure the coppers don't show up after, I'll give you a bonus.

Merlin snorted. Then, he considered. That was fifty pounds he didn't have in his bank account and it would go far in covering his share of the rent. All he really needed to do was to get some bloke to turn off his stereo for a while. If polite didn't work, well, he could try threatening, which meant he'd have to bring Will along and paying him half. But that still counted toward his rent, and in the current absence of job prospects, Merlin would take it.

Idly, he wondered what kind of salary a full-fledged Evil Overlord made, anyway, and immediately dismissed that thought.

Him. An Evil Overlord.

Yeah, right.

 

 

Ten miles away, in one of several sub-basements within MI5, junior analyst Arthur Pendragon was pondering exactly that same question.

How much does an Evil Overlord make, anyway?

He couldn't imagine that the position paid well. Little return on initial investments. No return on capital. No profit margin on products or merchandising unless the Evil Overlord was particularly successful in their ventures to take over the world and achieved some degree of fame. If that happened, the sky might be the limit -- action figures, video games, movies, tell-all autobiographies...

Still, the personal satisfaction of Ruling the World In An Iron Fist had to outweigh any monetary gains.

Once upon a time, a young (very young) Arthur daydreamed about being an Evil Overlord. He ran around the opulent grounds of the Pendragon mansion with a bright red blanket tied around his throat, smiting any creature (usually his older sister) who might attempt to thwart his plans to conquer the universe. His father, more amused than anything, indulged him as a father would indulge their child -- by making certain that Arthur had all the little toy soldiers his little heart could ever want, and replacing them when Arthur stomped them under his trainers, burying them deep in the manicured grass, or melting them using nothing but strategically-placed magnifying glasses and the rare-but-still-not-extinct English sunlight.

Precocious was hardly the term he'd use to describe himself as a child. He'd been more of a spoilt brat.

Arthur had never grown out of his secret love for Evil Overlords. He collected every autobiography and tell-all, clipped out newspaper articles, recorded their appearances on the telly or on the radio. He was well into his teens when he began researching Evil Overlord plots in earnest and got it into his head to create his own plans for accomplishing his childhood dream of ruling the world. The fact that he wasn't a magic user (as most Evil Overlords were wont to be), nor a magical creature powerful enough to crush his rivals in a bloody fist? That hadn't stopped him in the least from pursuing his dreams.

Then Cornelius Sigan had risen to power, and Arthur had held his breath, thinking, Yes, this is it. The corrupt government would be washed away, rude people would be brought under a firm yoke, and those who wanted a better world would be forced into positions where they could be put to work to achieve exactly that. Arthur had drafted his formal letter of introduction to Mr. Sigan, making sure to include a loose sketch of what he'd like to be in charge of in case Mr. Sigan wanted ideas, and had pulled together what had been an admittedly paltry resume for a teenager.

Arthur never got a chance to send his application package, because, two weeks after Cornelius Sigan's emergence and subsequent reign of terror, he learned just how far the current, unscrupulous government would go to maintain the status quo.

Although the loss of civilian life had been minimal, there remained enough residual signs of the effect of the negavoid bomb in the northern part of London to make him shudder to his core every time he had to take the outbound train to his grandparent's estate.

After the day Cornelius Sigan had been removed from existence, Arthur had carefully hidden his Evil Overlord Masterplan. He'd thrown out all of his fanboy posters, and had given away all but the most useful of his books.

However, that didn't mean he'd got over his obsession with taking over the world. It did mean he had come to the conclusion that he would need a new plan. If someone as powerful as Cornelius Sigan couldn't manage to hold fast against the government, what could a paltry human being like Arthur do?

He'd thought about it for a very long time.

He eventually formulated a new plan. He began by infiltrating MI5.

At any given time in the United Kingdom, there was an average of thirty potential Evil Overlords. Of those, a good half were nutters without any real power to speak of; they were summarily chalked up for monitoring (just in case), and left alone. Among the fifteen who remained after Her Majesty's Secret Service eliminated the non-threats, ten were minor players who could only heft their Evil Overlordliness on a small, inconsequent scale. These particular people warranted a little more surveillance, and junior field agents were usually sent out to keep an eye on them as part of their Welcome to Fieldwork initiation.

From what Arthur had heard, some of those junior field agents were never reassigned, mostly because they were stupid enough to get themselves caught, but that was neither here nor there.

Of the five remaining potential Evil Overlords, all five were possessing of moderate magical ability of some sort and of strength sufficient enough to make people sit up and take notice. As was the standard operating procedure for these sorts of things, if these individuals were flagged before they achieved a particular tipping point in the de Gelder equation, they were summarily captured, imprisoned, and...

As the saying went, they never saw the light of day again.

Arthur sighed. He adjusted his glasses, glanced around to see who else was keeping him company in the basement this fine morning, and promptly returned to his work when he didn't see anyone he particularly liked.

The de Gelder theorem had as many statistical variables to determine the Evil Overlordliness-level of an individual as the formula coined by the Drake equation, which evaluated the probability of viable alien life in the universe. In contrast, de Gelder used variables based on a different facet of the individual's life -- current position on the socioeconomic scale, type of upbringing, educational level, cultural influence, proximity to high levels of other-natural activity, etc., to determine the probability of supernaturality. There were cross-referenced tables with pre-calculated statistical determinants based on hundreds of thousands of hours of research. It was all very tidy.

The equation was also considered to be an archaic and useless system, particularly now that the Magical Entity Registration Act was in full effect. All those who were born after 1991 were documented by the system and tagged from that moment onward. There were the dissenters, of course, people who were born before 1991 and who refused to register voluntarily "For the good of the nation", and those who slipped through the cracks, somehow, because the Magical Entity Registration Act had become law before there actually had been a support system in place. Despite those exceptions, the Magical Entity Registry was particularly efficient in flagging the individuals who might become Evil Overlords.

Although the gap to cover the holes in the system was rapidly closing with each incarnation of the Magical Entity Registration Act and the continued bolstering of the policing body, there were still exceptions.

That was where Arthur came in.

Although his department was far smaller these days than he'd been told it had once been twenty years ago, it still played the very important part of tracking down anyone who had fallen outside the scope of the Magical Entity Registration Act and to identify anyone who might not have initially fallen within the Evil Overlordliness criteria, but who might erupt later, given the right conditions.

Evil Overlords was not the actual term used within the department. The higher-ups liked to call them the Magically-Inclined Malicious Entities. It was a terrible acronym, and didn't have quite the same terrifying ring, and Arthur refused to use it on general principle.

However, it didn't matter what they were called. Arthur didn't give a shit either way, because he wasn't supposed to be a fucking junior analyst stuck in the fucking basement of MI5 in the first fucking place.

According to his ten-year plan, Arthur Pendragon should have taken MI5 by storm and have become either one of their top secret agents or a senior member in charge of manipulating the status quo.

But then, too late, of course, he'd discovered that his father had done what he had believed to be sensible, at the time, when the registration act came into effect.

Uther Pendragon had gone and registered Arthur under MERA.

Arthur hadn't found out about it until he was in his early twenties, loudly complaining about his lack of career advancement at one of the family's usual Sunday dinners.

("Maybe it's because you're a loud, obnoxious prat," Morgana said, poking at the still-frozen chicken nuggets with her fork. The cook quit that morning, no explanation given, and heaven forbid anyone in the bloody household actually read the how-to instructions on the box.

"One day I'll have the license to shoot, you know," Arthur snapped, mulish.

Uther tapped his chicken nugget on the table with a concentrated effort that lent itself well to spontaneous combustion, if only one had that magical ability, to no avail. He looked up, chided Arthur to be nice to his sister, and said, "Come to think of it, it's possibly because of that new law preventing advancement of the supernatural in the public services."

"Sorry?" Arthur asked, struck too dumb to do anything other than stare at his father in consternation. His plans for world domination had been foiled by a bloody law-abiding parent, and fuck it all to hell.)

It should have come as some sort of consolation that he wasn't the only one -- Morgana had been registered for an awfully long time -- there had been no hiding her own particular status, unfortunately. It wasn't a consolation at all. Instead, it had really, really pissed him off.

It was yet another roadblock in his Masterplan.

Surely, by now, a larger percentage of Arthur's plans should have been successful.

He might have been registered as the product of a magical ritual, which didn't seem to have actually given him any kind of power to go along with it, but he was still Registered, with a capital "R", and looked upon with suspicion. The question mark over his actual capabilities and the absolute lack of actual abilities had done nothing to abate the suspicion in his superior's eyes each time they evaluated (and rejected) him for promotion.

Arthur flicked his pencil so hard that it went flying out of his cubicle. He pulled off his glasses, dropped them on his latest mathematical proof to improve the de Gelder equation, and scrubbed his face. Calming himself down was a measure of patience that he was slowly running out of, because he'd been stuck at this exact same desk doing the exact same job for the last four years. Everyone else had already moved in sideways slides to different departments to eventually propel themselves up the ranks, where they could transfer out in the field.

Or they'd quit outright.

(If there was such a thing as quitting MI5. Most people didn't think so, but on Arthur's off-days, like today, he amused himself by establishing even more contingency plans in place for the day when he would make his grand escape from this particular interminable government cog.)

With so much outward movement in the department and zero staff replenishment since Arthur had started working there, surely Arthur would have a senior analyst position, soon? Wrong. He'd thought so, too, until he realized that the people who remained were those nearing retirement age, and who planned to spend the last ten years coasting on their bloody shirttails doing the absolute bare minimum.

Arthur was not one like the rest. He was not a slacker. He worked hard, damn it all, and it rankled that, while the results were noticed, the rewards were not coming.

He had the proper educational background to transfer to a completely different division -- politics, military science, and public relations had littered his course schedule during university, and he'd cracked down after graduation to get an outstanding proficiency in computers just to be on the safe side. He was in the 99th percentile for physical fitness, had superior marksmanship skills than most of the active agents on the field, and he consistently made it through the obstacle course faster than the others, with a perfect score each and every time.

But. He. Could. Not. Get. Out. Of. The. Basement.

"Tut-tut," Monmouth would literally say, instead of just making placating noises like a normal human being. "You are an indispensable asset to our division, Mr. Pendragon. Surely you realise what a loss we would suffer if you left? Whatever would we do?"

Translating the government double-talking bollocks to plain English had taken a couple of years, during which Arthur became less of a shiny penny who eagerly took everything at face value and turned into a grumpy curmudgeon that his own friends could barely stand, but he knew what it meant now.

It meant: Sit down and shut up.

It meant: Stop bothering us.

It meant: You're going to stay where you are and you're going to damn well like it, or we'll imprison you because you're a magical creature none of us have ever seen before, and cannot identify.

(Arthur was never going to forgive his father for his betrayal. In modern times, who in their right minds turned to magic to give their wife a child when there were more effective practices? IVF was partially covered by the NHS! If not that, well, there were other recourses. Using egg donors might be a bit sketchy, but it was borderline legal. And what about adoption? There were so many kids nowadays who could use a good, loving home.

It wasn't as if the Pendragons had ever been poor and couldn't have afforded any of those options. Arthur could no more understand his father's decision to consult a practicing witch over a credentialed doctor than he could forgive the untenable situation his father had left him in.

Still, it was a mark of his genius that Arthur had figured out a way to become an Evil Overlord even without any kind of magical power at his disposal. However, he couldn't do it as long as his name was on the bloody registry.)

And finally, the usual government double-talking also meant: We're going to continue to make you push papers, because it's cheaper to maintain surveillance on you this way.

"Ugh," Arthur said, to no one in particular. Then, to himself, because he didn't know if there were any voice recorders nearby analysing his every move: Why did I ever think working for MI5 was a good idea?

A traitorous part of his brain supplied, It's a perfectly respectable job.

A less traitorous part of his brain said, Contingency plans for taking over the world.

"You look grumpy," Gwaine Greene said, schmoozing his way into Arthur's cubicle and making himself a clean spot on the desk.

Gwaine always sat there instead of on the seat in the corner that was intended for exactly these kinds of visits, looking properly roguish and debonair as befit an agent of his standing. His suit was Dior, tailored to his frame and to hide the armoury he insisted on wearing beneath his clothes even within the relative secure walls of MI5. His shoes were polished to a blinding mirror finish, and his tie was carelessly loose around a collar that had far too many buttons open.

There was a lot of chest hair, Arthur noticed. He tried not to notice every time Gwaine came by, but Arthur couldn't not look, not when Gwaine was practically oozing charm and shoving his chest into his face. Also, he wore a necklace with a shiny pendant that attracted attention. It was ugly as fuck, perpetually tangled in Gwaine's chest hair, and Gwaine had, somehow, managed to convince the whole administrative pool that it was a mysterious, and very illegal, artefact that had been charmed to keep him from getting a bullet in his arse.

He'd gotten shot everywhere else, it seemed, but his arse was still intact, so, possibly, there was merit in his claims.

"I'm working on a complex problem, and you're bothering me. Of course I look grumpy," Arthur said sternly, rather than to admit the truth about his own spiralling despair. Even if he was being overly-cautious and there were, in fact, no voice recorders in the vicinity of his cubicle, there was still the problem of Gwaine.

Gwaine wasn't a junior field agent, but he wasn't a senior field agent, either. Because of his rank, or lack thereof, Gwaine was rarely assigned to the truly complex and urgent cases while simultaneously continuing to successfully dodge being assigned to the low-key jobs. As a result, he had far too much time on his hands, which he spent wandering MI5 at his leisure, chatting up every person of every gender who deigned to give him two seconds of their time. He was a shameless gossip, and Arthur wasn't so stupid as to give Gwaine anything to talk about.

"Go away," Arthur said, snatching a file folder out of Gwaine's hand and putting it out of reach. He snatched another two, covered his work with a third, and promptly kicked Gwaine off his desk when Gwaine reached for his computer. "This might come as an absolute shock to you, but you don't actually have the security clearance to be here."

"Don't be rude, Princess. Of course I have clearance. I'm a --"

"Undercover agent of no particular standing," Arthur said. He snatched his glasses out of Gwaine's hand before Gwaine could try them on. "Whereas I am an analyst in a privileged field of intelligence, with sufficient security clearance to completely muck up your weekend. Stop leaving your fingerprints on my paperwork and do what you do best. Disappear."

Arthur made a firm gesture in the air.

Gwaine gave him a sunny smile, clearly not put off by Arthur's attitude. It seemed, no matter how many times Arthur spurned his advances, Gwaine only redoubled his efforts, making a point of visiting once every day whenever he was in town. Sometimes twice. Telling him, You're not my type, was only incentive to convince Arthur with the pathetically feeble argument of: Not yet.

"Anyway, I thought you'd be interested to know Galahad got promoted," Gwaine said, inspecting his fingernails.

"Galahad," Arthur said, unimpressed. He threw the file folder he'd been about to sort properly back onto his desk; several sheets slipped out, but they were upside-down, so it didn't matter if Gwaine saw them. Gwaine had long ago proven that mathematical formulae didn't make any more sense to him if it were upside down as it did right-side up.

But, seriously.

"Galahad?" Arthur repeated.

Galahad was a nice enough bloke. Average scores coming into MI5, assigned to the administrative pool writing up reports. He'd made a lucky connection between two unrelated case files, brought it to the attention of his superior, and got seconded to one of the foreign threat oversight bureaus as a junior agent. But that was all that it was -- luck. Galahad hadn't shown himself to have much of the sort of conniving intelligence that was required for his position.

All he had going for him was his lack of registration as any kind of supernatural creature. Arthur knew, because he'd looked. He'd looked really hard. "What sort of promotion?"

"Field duty," Gwaine said, flashing the sort of sly grin that came with hoping to get a certain sort of reaction from Arthur.

Arthur wasn't going to give Gwaine the fucking satisfaction. "How nice for him," Arthur said blandly. He went back to sorting through his files. "Get off my desk."

Frustratingly, Gwaine didn't move. If anything, he squirmed more onto the desk, tearing papers, wrinkling folders, and making even more a nuisance of himself. A container of pens tipped over, dumping half of the contents onto his blotter, and Arthur gave up trying to clean up while Gwaine was still in the general vicinity.

Gwaine made a sound of disappointment when Arthur leaned back in his chair to regard Gwaine with his most serene expression, and Gwaine redoubled his efforts to annoy him. "He starts his training tomorrow."

"He has to be trained? Are you bloody kidding me?" Arthur blurted out, catching himself too late. Gwaine's grin was broad at getting a rise out of Arthur, but surely Arthur wasn't the only one who was offended. It was a statement of fact that anyone who intended to go into the field as an agent needed to complete the minimum requirements beforehand, so as to not waste anyone's time and the government's money. "Doesn't that bother you?"

"Oh, loads," Gwaine said, though he looked unconcerned. An instant later, his expression darkened and became borderline serious -- or at least, as serious as Gwaine ever got outside of an actual mission. He leaned in as much as he could without tipping over from his precarious perch on the desk. "Look, mate, I'm trying to help you out here."

"Ta," Arthur said, shoving his glasses up on top of his head. He rubbed his eyes -- his prescription was so mild that, normally, he didn't bother with them, but he'd had a headache for the last few days and it was getting worse. The glasses helped a little. "Because I couldn't make it through the day without hearing the latest gossip. Whatever would I do without you?"

"You're absolutely thick," Gwaine said, shaking his head. He slid off the desk, taking a few folders along with him, stood up straight as the whole mess fell around him, and brushed down his suit. "Galahad sets a precedent. If some bumpkin like him can become a field agent for making a tiny little connection that's going to amount to a big fat nothing once they get around to really looking at it, someone with your sparkling credentials should get that same privilege."

"You'd think," Arthur muttered, refusing to say what was on his mind. Galahad had an advantage that Arthur didn't. He wasn't Registered, plain and simple.

Gwaine exhaled slowly, then put on a forced smile and friendly gaze -- his mask when he didn't want people to know how angry he was -- and said, "Right, then. I see I have some work to do."

"Yes, please, go and do it," Arthur said absentmindedly, staring at the mess of papers on the floor with a feeling akin to grief. He'd had the files so neatly sorted, too. It would take him ages to put everything back in its proper place.

He barely acknowledged Gwaine's stern, "Drinks later, mate, and I'm not taking no for an answer," before crouching down to start cleaning up the disaster zone that had once been his nice, organised cubicle.

Arthur was under his desk, rooting out the last of the pens that had rolled off between the desk and the flimsy cubicle walls when he heard a familiar beeeep. He froze, not sure he'd heard right, and tried to dismiss it in his mind as the chime of someone's mobile phone. Except mobile phones weren't permitted in the high-security department, and even though no one really enforced that rule, everyone was smart enough to put their devices on vibrate.

Beeeeep

Arthur stood up so fast, he nearly knocked himself out on the underside of the desk. He fell on his arse, scrambled to his feet with a hand on the back of his head, and stared at his computer screen. A pop-up notification, one of his own making, had appeared in the middle of the screen.

Beeeeep

He dragged his chair over, sat down, and cancelled the audible alarm. With a sure click of several icons and multiple prompt-less keyboard commands, Arthur pulled up the passive alert program.

FLAG KEYWORDS: EVIL, OVERLORD

Arthur hesitated.

In a fit of boredom, Arthur had written a subroutine and tacked it onto the scanning software that searched every publically-accessible electronic forum for possible threat indicators. Technically, the scanning software didn't exist as far as the public was aware, so it wasn't really keeping an eye on things the way Big Brother did. Since the bloated software workhorse was already searching for keywords that were on Arthur's personal flag list, he figured he'd throw in a few more keywords of his own interest, adding a couple of lines of code to the programming to make sure he got an alert, too.

It wasn't as if the analysts in charge of queueing the flags to the proper department would send this notification his way.

Eventually.

Most of the keyword hits couldn't be categorised as potential threats. New websites dedicated to Evil Overlords made an appearance every day. People updated the Evil Overlord pages on Wikipedia all the time -- Arthur included, though he was careful to do so from a private terminal and a whole lot of masks and subnets and bouncing internet signals to keep anyone from tracking the updates back to him. Blog posts referenced Evil Overlords appeared every now and then. Idiots used different variations of Evil Overlord as their sign-in user names for video games or pop culture websites. The news media outlets were the worst culprits -- everyone, right down to the fashion reporters, overused the phrase, applying it to whatever fit their fancy at the moment.

Arthur didn't even have to look for the report he received last week with the keyword hit compilation to know that in one day, they'd logged 1,089 uses that combined Evil + Overlord in the same sentence. There had been 260,396 uses of Evil; 4,502 uses of Overlord, and, stupidly, 231 uses of Overlord Evil, for reasons Arthur had later tracked down to an autocorrect error associated with the most recent word processing software patch. That had been back at the beginning of April and had been someone's bright idea for a prank.

There were other keywords, too -- code names for the self-proclaimed Evil Overlords in question, which ended up, more often than not, sounding more like silly super villain code names from second-tier comic books. If Evil Overlord was combined with a code name, that ratcheted up the threat level and Arthur fobbed it off to someone with more seniority. But, generally, it really was rare that Arthur would be alarmed, even in those situations, because when he followed up the flags with a bit of judicious hacking, it nearly always turned out that someone was writing their autobiography (with amusing delusions of grandeur), a novel (with ridiculously overpowered main characters), or racy fanfiction.

(Arthur saved the best fanfic to his personal collection that no one would ever find, not even Morgana. However frowned upon the material, fanfiction was still better than some of the erotica sold on online stores.)

No matter how infrequently the flagged words actually became an actual threat, Arthur would industriously verify each and every incidence. He would mark them harmless the way he did nearly every time, but he couldn't help being annoyed that he received the physical reports one month after they were originally logged. What if, in the meantime, they could have stopped a fledging Evil Overlord? One month was more than enough during which an enterprising Evil Overlord could set out and wreak havoc to degrees only previously seen when Cornelius Sigan had emerged.

That was where the subroutine had come in -- to alert Arthur right away when it detected the phrase in accompaniment with certain other trigger words. It was a subroutine of his own design that was only marginally based on the de Gelder equation and that he'd named the Pendragon Theorem. He privately felt his theorem was more accurate at identifying emerging Evil Overlords than the so-called sophisticated screening program from the Magical Entity Registration Act.

Rubbing his fingers together, Arthur stared at the alert for a few more seconds before opening up MI5's Internal Alerts Bulletin.

Nothing.

In case his little program was a little too efficient, Arthur waited a few minutes, and refreshed the Bulletin.

Still nothing.

"Okay, then," Arthur said, and opened up the privacy protocol that he definitely wasn't supposed to have on his terminal, because it contravened a very long list of electronic security regulations, but he was far too excited to give a fuck. If he found anything official, he'd have to wait a whole month before he could tell anyone about it. In the meantime, he didn't want to be caught snooping.

The trigger words brought Arthur to a Craigslist advert. Glancing over his shoulder to make sure his coworkers wouldn't make an appearance, Gwaine included, Arthur took a deep breath and opened the link in the browser.

Evil Overlord Incorporated Open for Business!

Arthur snorted. This wasn't quite the approach he'd seen Evil Overlords take in the past. Not that he'd seen many, he hadn't been a junior analyst that long, but he'd been reading up on what few files he had access to in the department. It was ridiculous enough that Arthur couldn't dismiss it out of hand, so he read on.

Newly established in the heart of London, EOI is seeking profit-bearing ventures to fuel the business' planned rapid expansion. Although not currently engaged in active world-dominating plans until fully staffed, Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire, is interested in assisting Londoners in resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness and liberty for all.

"Okay," Arthur said again, taking a screen grab and saving it in one of the hidden folders located on a removable hard drive he wasn't supposed to have on the premises. He read the text again, this time reading between the lines.

Newly established --

Whoever this Evil Overlord was, he was clearly new, and Arthur didn't need to read it on the screen to know that. Craigslist wouldn't have been Arthur's first choice. Most people -- the smarter ones, anyway -- could spot a scam a mile away and steered clear. Sometimes the adverts weren't hoaxes, but Arthur wasn't decided on this one, not yet.

Seeking profit-bearing ventures --

Emerging Evil Overlords usually had a nest egg to keep them solvent while they acquired other means to finance their plans for world domination. Clearly, this one was starting from rock bottom, and probably didn't have a couple of quid to rub together.

Rapid planned expansion... fully staffed --

It went without saying that Evil Overlords were nothing without their minions and subordinates; there was nothing new, there, either. However, Arthur's brow furrowed as he read that section again and again, not entirely certain if he was reading it correctly. Was the Evil Overlord actively looking for personnel to support their madcap venture? The typical practice was to have their support system already set up. There were fewer possibilities of being infiltrated by an enemy agent.

Dr. M., the company head and Evil Overlord extraordinaire was fairly mild when it came to the grandiosity that was normally attributed to these sorts of criminals. Assisting was a curious choice of words, as were resolving minor problems, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness, and liberty for all.

Arthur leaned back in his chair, not sure what to make of it.

Finally, scowling, he leaned forward and dragged his keyboard closer, getting to work on tracking the source of the Craigslist advertisement. He snorted in amusement, shaking his head as his fingers danced on the keyboard.

"Does anyone even know how Evil Overlording is supposed to work anymore?" He shook his head in disappointment. "What the Hell is this generation coming to?"

 

 

Eight.

That was the number of job-targeted CVs Merlin had sent out to the thirty-two temp agencies on his list. Coincidentally, that was also the number of applications he'd filled out for a few local jobs.

He hadn't heard from any of them, but it was early days. He felt rotten taking advantage of the benevolence of his friends, but they'd all flatly informed him that they'd chuck him out if he became too much of a drain on their resources. In exchange for the last month's rent, they all made him promise to remember them for key positions in his new administration once he established Evil Overlord, Inc. as a legitimate business. That was easy enough to agree with considering there was no chance in Hell that Merlin would ever stick his neck out like that.

Evil Overlord, Inc., my skinny arse. He snorted.

Merlin stuck his head in the refrigerator, tried not to look too much at the organisational disaster that was Sefa's attempt to make everyone eat healthier, Freya's latest addiction to fermented foodstuffs, and Will's recurrent meat lover's pizza take-away order. He pulled out the last of the coffee cake that had been the bonus payment from his first and only Evil Overlord job.

If anyone asked, he'd swear up and down that he'd been pressured into the role. Will's bored, What can it hurt, Sefa's pragmatic, It's dosh you don't have, Gilli's shrugging, I just want to watch you do magic, mate, and Freya's honest, That poor girl, she must be half mad from all the noise, had harried him all the way to the client's front door.

Getting the young woman's loud next door neighbour to turn down the music for one weekend had been easier than expected. The neighbour was a blue-collar worker who dealt with his daily frustrations by playing his favourite music at loud volumes -- just a regular bloke like everyone else.

When Merlin had explained the situation, he'd said, "Oh, her mum! Of course, not a problem. You know, she could've just asked herself. I'm not that bad of a guy."

Most people, including hardened battlefield soldiers, would have been hard-pressed to demur, because there was no arguing with an eighteen stone, heavily-tattooed man who might have given the most recent Mister Universe a run for the bodybuilding championship. The man might have been just a regular blue-collar worker, but he was also six feet, five inches tall, built like a Hermann tank, and etched with muscles, sinew, and a permanent angry scowl on his face. Maybe he really wasn't that bad, but he definitely scared the shite out of anyone who might think otherwise.

"I think she's a bit shy."

Shy had been putting it mildly. She'd opened the door to let Merlin in when he'd come by, didn't say a word for nearly thirty minutes, but had smiled brilliantly when Merlin had awkwardly suggested he get on with it, because by that point, he had been able to hear the problem pounding through the walls.

The incident had worked out so well that Merlin had walked away with one hundred pounds instead of fifty, and the coffee cake was because the earnest not-quite-the-usual-sort-of-boy-next-door had followed Merlin to chat with his pretty neighbour. Merlin had spent the next thirty minutes as a go-between, and by the time he left, he was fairly certain that the young woman's mum had met her daughter's new boyfriend when she visited.

Since then, Merlin hadn't touched the email account associated with the Craigslist ad. He refused.

The whole thing was sketchy enough without encouraging his friends to perpetuate the fantasy. Fantasy or not, he couldn't deny how good it had felt to be able to help someone out, even for something as frivolous as a noise complaint. He hadn't even needed to use his magic. Also, there were so many emails from people who needed some sort of help -- what could it hurt, really?

Magic didn't need to be part of the equation, Merlin told himself sternly. Plus, he needed money. He couldn't continue to freeload. Those were the only reasons he was loading the email client for that account now.

He wasn't the least bit intrigued by the whole Evil Overlord idea. Not at all.

There were far fewer emails in the Inbox than there had been when Merlin had last looked at it. Sefa had volunteered to monitor the account, putting a star on those she thought had promise, colour-coding them according to some complicated system that Merlin had only half-listened to, and to clear out the undesirables.

There were a lot of undesirables, ranging from outright hate mail to smarmy, unexplainable dick pics.

Will had volunteered to take care of those, offering up wolfish smile full of sharp canines. The effect he must have had been going for had been somewhat ruined by the spinach stuck between his teeth, but Merlin appreciated the sentiment all the same.

("I don't even know why we're still talking about this," Merlin told his flatmates wearily. "I'm not doing this."

"Hate to break it to you, mate," Mordred pointed out, "But you've already done it."

"There was zero risk of having my neck stretched by the rope," Merlin sighed heavily. "I didn't even need to use magic."

"Oh, so you didn't tweak the volume when you visited the big bloke so you could hear yourself think? Because I remember your neighbour at the firsties halls, always complaining about their stereo turning itself off when they put it on too loud, and never mind how many bits of new equipment they bought to replace the old ones," Will said.

"Shut it," Merlin said, grousing. "You can't prove it was me."

"Right-o, then," Will said, smirking as he clamped a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "You're doing this. And don't worry. I'll back you up. We all will.")

With a sigh, Merlin scrolled through the hundreds of emails while finishing off his coffee cake. He chewed thoughtfully on the candied nuts while trying to decide between three different jobs -- all starred, all flagged green, and all requiring urgent attention. He idly thought about creating a spreadsheet to organise the requests a bit better, but if his friends got a wind of that, they'd start thinking that he was treating this whole Evil Overlord business as something real.

He'd gone to university for physics and metaphysics, damn it. He had a doctorate degree. He was going to teach. He was going to consult. He was going to, eventually, do something of spectacular importance binding both mundane and magic together, even if he didn't quite know what, yet. He was absolutely not an Evil Overlord.

Except he really, really was.

(Deep, deep down, where no one could see, Merlin cackled gleefully whenever Gilli or Freya called him by that title. He'd been dreaming his whole life about finally releasing his magic in a spectacular blast of purple-white lightning and having all of his naysayers grovel at his feet. But that kind of thinking would be wrong, and his mum definitely wouldn't approve.

Also, he didn't want to go to jail. Merely being a sorcerer was an offence punishable by a life sentence.)

"You should do the shop one, first," Will said from where he suddenly appeared at Merlin's side on the sofa.

Merlin startled and stared at his best friend for a full minute before his brain re-engaged. "Where the fuck did you come from?"

"Work," Will said.

He was in his grease-stained overalls, and Goddess help him if Freya caught him anywhere near her grandmother's quilt, decoratively draped over the back of the ratty kerbside couch they'd appropriated. Will might not be able to get into the police college for training, never mind into the police force, full stop, but that didn't keep other, unscrupulous employers from taking advantage of Will's werewolf strength. He'd been lucky and had found work at Old Man Ferguson's garage, where he did the dirty grunt jobs and nothing else, but he got paid under the table, and wouldn't get fired for taking off a few days per month to deal with moon-related issues.

"And anyway, you're a shite Evil Overlord," Will continued. "Shouldn't you always be aware of your environment? Make sure you're surrounded only by your trusted people? You can't let your guard down, not for a second --"

"Ugh," Merlin said, because he heard enough about it from Gilli.

Gilli was a little obsessed with the entire idea of establishing a proper business base. As far as Merlin knew, Gilli was currently holed up in his room, surrounded by computers, and setting up a website for Evil Overlord Incorporated, complete with options to access company profiles, products and services, and the public blog. Possibly, he was also doing some remote work to justify the paycheck he received from his actual employer, too, but Merlin had long ago learned to stay out of Gilli's room.

"And anyway, you should do that one," Will said, quickly changing the subject.

Merlin gave Will a grateful look. If there was something he could count on, it was that Will would always know when to leave well enough alone.

"How was work?"

"Sucked," Will said, and didn't elaborate. He leaned in, heedless of personal boundaries, and tapped at the screen of Merlin's mobile. "No, this one, definitely. The shopkeeper can wait."

Merlin squinted at the screen.

Please if you could help would be appreciated greatly. My son failing at school, avoiding friends, not speaking to his mother, to me. We are thinking he is in drugs, or wrong company, or in trouble. Naveen collapsed yesterday morning, but doctors are telling us there is nothing wrong with him.

"They should talk to the police. Or send their kid to a shrink. I'm not qualified for this kind of thing." Merlin sighed. "This sounds outside of my pay grade."

"You're an Evil Overlord," Sefa said, marching into the room. She dropped her bag on the side table and plopped in the big armchair they'd scrounged from the corner of the street on rubbish day. Haughtily, she added, "Nothing is outside your pay grade. You are above pay grades."

She was dressed in a proper business suit, fresh off the rack at the charity shop and heavily altered to fit her willowy frame. Of them all, she was the only one whose part-time job during university had had the potential of turning into something more, and she was doing her utmost to make that a reality. Considering that an actual career meant that Sefa would be able to support them all until they got themselves sorted out, everyone very much encouraged her endeavours.

"Sorry, what?" Merlin asked, trying not to laugh.

Sefa said nothing for the longest time. Merlin exchanged a concerned glance with Will, who shook his head to show he didn't have the faintest idea, either. When Sefa finally spoke, it was with a hard, flinty look in her eyes and a pointed finger in his direction. "You. You are going to finance my flower shop."

"Um," Merlin said, freezing where he sat. Sefa wasn't physically intimidating, but she had the Angry Finger of Doom out, and looked as if she were about to wield it indiscriminately. Also, Merlin had exactly fourteen quid and thirty-two pence in his bank account. He couldn't finance her flower shop, but, sure, he'd go along with it and humour her anyway, because, see: Angry Finger of Doom. "Okay?"

Sefa relaxed, and thankfully, the finger dropped, too. "Yes, good. All right. In exchange, I'll take care of all the accounting."

Merlin risked a sidelong glance in Will's direction, but he seemed as frozen to the spot as Merlin was. A few of Mordred's plants, hastily stashed on the narrow windowsill until he could find proper shelves for them, reached out, latched onto the cheap, gauzy curtains, and dragged their pots out of direct line of fire. Merlin watched them move with amusement, then absolute horror, because if plants were afraid of someone who was only a little bit dryad, he had better be, too.

Merlin gulped, nodded and made a noise of agreement.

"Now that we've sorted it out, let me make this clear," Sefa said. "You are an Evil Overlord. You can handle anything. You can't afford to turn anything down because you need to get the company name out there. And, because you're shite at being an opportunist, at least one of us will be accompanying you at all times to make sure you're not taken advantage of."

"Um," Merlin said again, mostly to defend himself.

Sefa wasn't wrong; he really was pretty awful at that sort of thing. He just wanted to help people. Still, that wasn't the point of his original complaint. He shook his head, and held up his phone.

"All right. But this is literally out of my pay grade. I mean, I feel for the guy, but his kid is either a drug addict, an alcoholic, or he's really sick. I'm not a doctor --"

"Technically," Will began.

"A medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a social worker, anyone else more qualified than a metaphysicist," Merlin specified, giving Will a dark look. He waited to see if Will would have any additional interruptions, and didn't speak until Will's magnanimous gesture to continue. "I can't help him."

"You're a sorcerer," Sefa said, completely unimpressed. "Sorcerers can do anything --"

"No, I really can't. Like, really, fucking really can't," Merlin said, because if he could have, he might've saved his mum before she died on the operating table after a car wreck, or stopped his dad from being murdered on the doorstep of their house. Merlin rubbed his chest, ignoring the faint flash of sympathy in Will's eyes.

"Practically anything, then," Sefa said, hand-waving callously. But then again, it wasn't callous if she didn't know Merlin's family history, so he couldn't be mad at her. "You can find any hidden drugs and convince his parents to put him in a program. Same with alcohol. If he's sick, you can tell them he's sick and they'll take him to the hospital. But under no circumstances do you tell them that you can't help. You are an Evil Overlord. You can do anything, and you've got to make people believe it, or they won't buy into the company."

"Ugh," Merlin said, elbows on his knees, burying his face in his hands. He winced when he nearly took his own eye out with the corner of his phone.

And then something Sefa said finally registered, and he sat up straight, the ice cold of fear pouring down his spine.

"Wait, no, I'm not a sorcerer! I literally can't do any of those --"

Will snorted. Sefa's expression could only be interpreted as I'm done with your shite.

"I hate to say this, Ems," Will said, leaning in, "But we know. We've known for a really long time."

Sefa nodded.

"I'm a werewolf, remember? I asked you outright when we were twelve, and you lied to me, but I figured you had a reason," Will said.

I can sense you, Sefa mouthed silently, and when Merlin searched her face for answers, there were none. Then it clicked: dryad. Dryads were attracted to magic.

"I'm not," Merlin said weakly, thinking he really should protest a bit more vehemently, but Gilli choose that moment to come into the sitting room.

"Oi, Gilli," Will said, twisting around to gesture their flatmate over. "You know about Ems?"

"What about Ems?" Gilli asked. He was rumpled, as if he'd fought a battle with his bed and lost spectacularly. His shirt was inside out, his hair stood up on end along one side of his head, and his pants had disturbingly happy Smiley Faces on them.

"Would you be so kind as to tell Merlin how it is that you are able to get drunk?" Sefa suggested.

"Booze?" Merlin suggested, because that was the standard approach, even if Will needed to spike his beer with concentrated wolfsbane extract to get buzzed.

"You," Gilli said, blinking sleepily. A moment of muzzy confusion passed quickly, because he said, "Oh, is this about him being a sorcerer and him thinking we don't know?"

"Um," Merlin said, because his heart wouldn't stop racing. "How?"

"It's a bloodline thing," Gilli said, shrugging. He came over, tipped himself over the back of the couch, and landed on Merlin's unoccupied side in an ungainly sprawl. "Not entirely sure what from, but my mum says my great-great-something grandmum dallied with probably some sort of incubus, and nobody knew. The whole family tree nearly died out until we realised we need different sources of energy to survive, or we'll starve to death. My little sister eats crayons, so I count myself lucky. At least, for me it's just magic. Not as messy, easier to find, and I don't have to pick the paper wrappers out of my teeth."

Merlin blinked repeatedly. As far as Merlin was concerned, Gilli wasn't registered as any sort of creature, but he did have a criminal record for allegedly breaking-and-entering a number of homes and museums to steal supposedly magical artefacts. He was never charged for possession of illegal magical objects because they were never magical when they were recovered. Suddenly, a whole lot of things about Gilli made a whole lot of sense.

"It gets you drunk?" Merlin asked, confused, still trying to parse how his friends seemed to have known what he'd been hiding his entire life with Gilli getting drunk on magic, not beer, whenever Merlin was around.

"Mate, you radiate like, loads of uncontrolled magic when you're pissed," Gilli said with a grin. "Really goes to my head."

Merlin stared at him in horror.

"We all know," Will said, patting Merlin's shoulder.

Merlin stared at Will in abject horror.

"Your secret's safe with us," Sefa said. She tilted her head to the side. "Well, not for much longer, I suppose."

Merlin stared at Sefa in abject, petrified horror.

Mordred choose that moment to arrive, announcing to all and sundry, "Honey, I'm home!" There was a loud clatter in the main entrance that was Mordred stumbling over all the shoes that they left in front of the door, and a very irritated Mordred emerged into the living room. He paused at everyone's unified silence, and when his gaze settled on Merlin, he said, "Oh. Did Merlin finally figure out he has magic?"

"I have magic?" Merlin squeaked, because he was a fucking idiot, that's why.

Mordred, being the wanker he was, took out his mobile, took a photograph, and tapped away on the screen before putting it away. "Freya's going to be mad she missed this."

"Oh, there's an idea," Sefa said. "Mordred knows all the medical mumbo jumbo. He should go with you on this one."

"Go where?" Mordred stopped in the act of shrugging out of his coat.

Will plucked Merlin's mobile out of his fingers and handed it to Mordred. The screen had gone blank, but apparently everyone knew the passcode, on top of all of Merlin's other secrets, damn it all, because Mordred woke the mobile out of sleep and breezed through all of Merlin's security protocols.

Merlin stared at his mobile for a few long seconds. If he was going to have any degree of privacy, he was going to have to use more than merely mundane security options, but since the cat was already out of the bag --

He snapped his fingers. The mobile disappeared out of Mordred's hands and plopped in Merlin's lap. "Hands off," he said.

"Neat," Sefa said, grinning and not at all intimidated by the show of magic.

"Woof," Gilli said, rubbing his head. "Some warning next time? I feel like someone just snatched a meal out of my hands."

Will snorted, but he gave Merlin a knowing wink. What, exactly, the shared joke was about, Merlin didn't know, but Will seemed absurdly pleased about something, so Merlin let it go this time.

Mordred stared at his empty hands in some disgust for a few seconds before saying, "Yeah, okay, let's go. Might as well get it over with."

"I'm not going," Merlin said.

"Not in flannels, you're not," Sefa said, getting up and heading down the hallway. She went up the stairs, and Merlin heard her stomping overhead, slamming doors open in the rough vicinity of his bedroom. Merlin stared at the ceiling, wondering how it was that such a slight person could make so much noise, and he idly remembered: dryad.

"You can pick up supper," Gilli said. His stomach growling.

"Yeah, sure, I can stretch fourteen pounds and thirty-two pence into a four-course meal," Merlin said flatly.

"Can you really?" Gilli asked, wide-eyed.

Merlin grunted. "No, of course not."

"But, magic," Gilli insisted. "Can't you conjure more money?"

"Didn't someone try that, once?" Will asked, glancing around the room. "Got arrested because the bills disintegrated after a few hours. Plus the serial numbers were all the same. It was all over the papers. Can you make the money different, Ems?"

"Ems will have cash and this month's rent after tonight," Sefa said, dropping a clean pair of dress trousers and a button-down shirt into Merlin's lap.

Mordred gave Sefa a small nod. Merlin had the uncomfortable feeling that his friends had all been plotting behind his back, and had been for years. He might be the figurehead Evil Overlord in the equation, but everyone else was running things far better than he was, and he was grasping to keep up.

"Will, go get your long leather jacket, it'll be proper posh on this one. He's got to look the part, you know," Sefa said. Will went, and Sefa took his place, crossing her arms over her chest and looking down at Merlin as if she could force him into doing whatever she wanted.

Merlin grabbed his clothes and stood up.

"I hate you all," Merlin announced, and went to the bathroom.

Nearly an hour later, on the other side of London, Mordred stood back on the pavement and took in the area where Naveen and his parents lived. There was enough greenery to account for a proper lawn, trees shadowed the buildings, the pavement had been recently swept, and every car parked on the street was either a Rolls Royce, a Mercedes, or a Porsche. Merlin spotted at least one Ferrari.

(The difference between a Rolls Royce and a Mini, as Merlin had learned from the foremost expert on the subject -- Will -- was that one of them was small enough that it could fit in the boot of the other. Merlin only recognized the Ferrari as a Ferrari because it was bright red and looked like the one on the poster covering the hole in the wall in Will's room.)

"Does everyone know?" Merlin asked, because he was still stuck on that. He'd thought he had been so clever, hiding himself all these years, but apparently, he couldn't have been more obvious if he'd tried.

"Yes," Mordred said, frowning at the house.

"Even --"

"Yes," Mordred said.

"I'm such an idiot," Merlin said. "How am I not in jail right now?"

Mordred looked at him for a long time, but instead of answering, he gestured at the house.

"Well, it looks like they can afford it. I'm tripling the fee," Mordred decided, and walked the brick path to the door.

"You're a real humanitarian," Merlin said.

"Rent. Food," Mordred said. He gestured rudely for Merlin to stand next to him on the front stoop before knocking on the door.

A small boy who couldn't be any older than eight or nine answered, his brown eyes wide, his mouth in an unhappy downturn. His pyjamas were pale blue, covered in Superman logos, and he wore oversized Batman slippers that had seen better days.

"Hullo," Mordred said. The boy ran inside, leaving the door open behind him.

Merlin raised a brow at Mordred. Mordred frowned in confusion. Before either of them could decide what to do, an older couple came to the door. "Yes, hello?" asked the man, the woman standing on tip-toes to peer over his shoulder.

"Good evening. I apologise for the lateness of the hour," Mordred said, and Merlin couldn't help but to side-eye him. He'd never heard Mordred so polite before. "I'm an associate of Dr. M from EOI. We received your email outlining an intriguing dilemma and would like to offer our assistance."

The man and the woman exchanged glances, speaking in that silent way that couples often did, and stepped out of the entrance, inviting them inside.

It took a cup of aromatic tea, two biscuits (each), and at least fifteen minutes of awkward small talk about the weather before Mrs and Mr Ramanathan explained any specifics about their wayward son, who just so happened to be wayward at the moment, having missed dinner for the fourth time that week. Was that unusual? Yes. Did he give any reason for being late? No. Do you know if he's eating at all? No. Is he off alone or with someone? They didn't know.

"Well," Mordred was saying, a dour frown on his brow, "I have to say that this is an unfortunate situation. Without actually speaking with Naveen himself, we are unable to give you any answers, provide options for a solution, or even resolve the problem."

Merlin was thoroughly entertained. Mordred wasn't one to mince words, but here he was, drawing out the conversation as much as possible. Merlin wondered if his so-called "staff" had decided to charge consultation fees by the hour.

"But you will return, yes?" Mr. Ramanathan asked, sliding forward until he was on the very edge of his seat. That wasn't eagerness in his eyes. It was desperation, pure and simple, and Merlin found himself taking the situation more seriously than he normally would have. "And Dr. M? You will be bringing him next time?"

"Dr. M is a very busy man," Mordred said, after a long, hesitating pause. He didn't get a chance to finish his thought before Mr. Ramanathan interrupted.

"We could be making an appointment, yes? If we promise Naveen will be here?"

Mordred smiled, kind and patient, and leaned forward. He gestured with his hand, inviting Mr. and Mrs. Ramanathan closer, as if he were about to share a secret.

Merlin saw movement in the doorway. It was the little boy from earlier, who, Mrs. And Mr. Ramanathan had assured them, was definitely not Naveen. Merlin waved at him. The little boy ducked around the corner and didn't return.

"Mr. Ramanathan. Mrs. Ramanathan. I hope you understand if I tell you that we are cannot make appointments. You see, of utmost importance is the continued safety of the company's staff. In particular, of Dr. M. He's irreplaceable, and if certain government officials become aware that Dr. M is returning to your house on a specific day at a specific time, they may attempt to apprehend him, even though all he wants to do is ensure that everyone is safe, healthy, and happy," Mordred said.

Merlin's head snapped around to stare at Mordred. The excuse had rolled off his tongue, almost as if it had been practiced. Once more, Merlin wondered just how many other contingencies that his friends had prepared for.

"Yes, yes," Mr. Ramanathan said, his head bobbing. Mrs. Ramanathan clutched her husband's arm and said something very quickly in their native Tamil. Mr. Ramanathan paused for a moment to reassure her, patting her hand, and turned to Mordred. "I understand. We understand. But we are not being people who would tell --"

He was cut off by a loud noise outside, which quickly became a loud noise inside. The front door banged open, and blended laughter rang through the house. A scuffle of footsteps stumbled through the main hallway, and it sounded nothing like one of Merlin's flatmates trying to get through all the shoes cluttering the entrance without falling flat on their faces, and more like a determined stumbling charge.

"Oh, no," Mordred said. His pale skin took on a greenish undertone.

Merlin had seen him like that once before, after he'd come back from a weekend out in the woods as part of a druidic pilgrimage with some of the younger acolytes that he'd been mentoring at the time. The pilgrimage through the woods to a sacred site in Wales had been anything but sacred when they'd found the site corrupted by a bunch of high school pillocks who had believed it would be a lot of fun to try some of the spells in a book of magic they'd found in the library.

(A book of dark magic had no business being in any sort of public library, as far as Merlin was concerned. When Mordred returned to cleanse the site, Merlin had tagged along under the pretext of offering moral support. The book was now part of Merlin's personal library, locked under three different types of binding spells.)

The house was hardly a sacred site. It took Merlin half a second to catch on -- his excuse was that he'd suppressed and hid his magic for so long, he was no longer accustomed to relying on it first -- but he reached out to see if he could sense something different in the ether. He found it just as it turned the corner and entered the living room.

The Naveen Ramanathan in the family photographs on the mantelpiece and hanging all over the walls in the main room was a clean-cut boy with curly brown hair, a too-wide nose, and a smile that could outshine the stars. The Naveen Ramanathan who stumbled drunkenly across the entrance to the large family room was strung out, sallow, and far too thin, his clothes hanging from his bony frame as if they belonged to someone larger than him.

His curly hair was greasy and straight, his smile less bright and twisted, and his skin nearly gray. "Hey, fam," he said, and laughed. He threw his arm across the shoulders of the person creature who settled against Naveen like she belonged there.

Humanoid in appearance, the creature was shorter than Naveen, who barely came to Merlin's shoulder even in those ridiculous biker boots she wore. Curvy in all the right places, long brown hair that framed perfect, heavy breasts in a low-cut top --

Was it Merlin's imagination, or did her chest suddenly drop a size?

Her skirt was too short and her flimsy bolero jacket couldn't possibly do anything to protect her against the elements --

Something wasn't right. Merlin blinked again. The creature's smile broadened, and... Wait. Hadn't her blond hair been brown a second ago?

Her appearance flickered.

Blond hair and a square jaw and broad shoulders and brown eyes --

flicker

Blond hair and a square jaw and broad shoulders and blue eyes and curves --

flicker

Merlin tilted his head to the side, wondering what was wrong with the creature's physical seeming. At first, he thought their glamour wasn't working, but it wasn't until he felt Mordred's fingers digging into his elbow. Merlin glanced at Mordred, saw how Mordred's pupils were blown wide with lust, and, Oh.

Mrs. Ramanathan's confusion warred with apprehensive welcome. Mr. Ramanathan's mouth was open, his eyes were darker than they had been a second ago, and he was making no effort whatsoever to hide the erection tenting his trousers.

Oh.

Merlin smiled stiffly at the creature. "Hello," he said.

She promptly frowned, which sent her physical seeming into a multitude of different incarnations, each and every one of them coming closer and closer to Merlin's type. The problem was that she couldn't quite get to Merlin's ideal partner, and whatever effect she was expecting to have on Merlin? It fell far short.

"Why aren't you on your knees?" she snarled, her face twisting into an inhuman expression. Her eyes flashed purple, her mouth was full of teeth, and Merlin felt, rather than saw, Mordred struggle to keep from obeying, but he eventually did crumple to the carpet. Mr. Ramanathan beat him to the punch, though he collapsed dead away in a faint under the creature's powerful command.

"I'm bent," Merlin said cheerfully.

The succubus tore away from Naveen's side, throwing Naveen into the living room as a distraction. Starved for energy and soul-weakened, Naveen stumbled like a marionette with cut strings. But Merlin didn't pay him any mind. As soon as the succubus moved to flee, he threw out an arm, flinging magic to stop her where she stood.

"Leaving so soon?" Merlin asked. "We were just getting acquainted."

"Let me go," she hissed, low and guttural. Merlin imagined that it was supposed to be a seductive voice, but it just grated on his ears, like fingernails on a chalkboard.

He could let her go, Merlin thought. But she would come back; it was clear that Naveen was completely ensnared, and it would take very little for the succubus to glut her appetite now that her prey could no longer resist her. The boy was an easy meal, and no demon would give that up, not after putting so much effort into it. Merlin couldn't allow the succubus to kill Naveen, then to move on to her next meal, but what could he do?

Merlin wondered if this was something the others had covered in the secret staff meetings that he hadn't known about. A quick glance at a dazed but recovering Mordred, who was slowly getting to his feet, gave Merlin his answer.

He was Dr. M, Evil Overlord.

Only he could make this choice. It was his responsibility.

(Jesus fucking Christ. He wasn't Dr. M, Evil Overlord. What the fuck was he doing?)

Merlin swallowed. He wavered. If the government got involved, the succubus would suffer far worse, and so would the Ramanathans. The government didn't really distinguish between supernatural perpetrators or their victims.

The succubus, sensitive to hesitation and doubt, slowly broke into a sly grin. "Let me go," she whispered. "I promise I won't do it again."

The succubus' smile faded at Merlin's disbelieving snort. He paused for a second, trying to remember the proper ritual words. They came to him in a flash.

"In accordance with the Tenebris Carta, under the seventy-seventh clause and the power vested in me by the nine celestial sovereign bodies of Albion, as a Guardian of the Realm, I find you guilty of breaking the laws against harming human beings. You've taken what doesn't belong to you, and I'll see it returned before I banish you."

The succubus' mouth dropped open. "It was freely given --"

"Oh, please," Merlin scoffed. "The kid's underage. Even if he did, he can't legally consent. Plus, FYI, consent under the influence -- any kind of influence -- isn't consent. There's no argument on the planet or any of the Underworlds that could make what you did okay."

Merlin's magic lashed out before he finished speaking, and he ripped the succubus apart.

("Guardian of the Realm? Do you know what that is?" Mordred asked, side-eyeing Merlin curiously. "That's fucking pretentious, that's what it is."

"Ugh," Merlin sighed. "I had to say it. Those are the rules. Plus, taking the vow was the only way I could even read the Tenebris for that essay for that elective we took in our third year. Being a Guardian is apparently a lifelong thing. Plus, it's kind of cool to say."

Mordred snorted in amusement. He paid the cashier and shoved the Thai take-away into Merlin's arms. "I'm gonna mock you about it forever, mate. You know that?"

"Yeah," Merlin said with a sigh. "I get the feeling I'm going to be hearing a fuckton of mocking from this point on.")

 

 

Seventy-two hours after the alert had first pinged through Arthur's secret monitoring subroutine, he felt he was close to accurately identifying Dr. M.

Arthur did all his work from home, of course. He didn't want anyone stealing his thunder. It wasn't as if he couldn't reproduce the search at his desk at MI5 once the official report of flagged words hit his desk -- whenever that would be. And, besides, if Galahad, of all people, could cash in a chance connection between unrelated report files for a promotion as field agent, then Arthur could, too, no matter what it said about his registration status in his file.

The original Craigslist posting had been uploaded from an university IP address, which meant it could have come from any of the students attending. That alone would have been cause for dismissal as a kid's prank, but Arthur was nothing if not thorough, and he hacked the email address that had been posted on the website.

The email address had been created almost simultaneously with the Craigslist post for Evil Overlord Incorporated, also through the same university server. That would have been a dead end until he noticed that the account was being accessed by multiple users, first through their mobile devices, then later from what looked to be different computer terminals through a private IP address hosted from one of the cheapest internet providers in London. One casual visit through the telephone company and internet provider's worthless firewalls later, Arthur had the telephone numbers, address, and names of all the people who had access to the local WIFI.

For an idle moment, Arthur wondered if an Evil Overlord could truly be made up from different individuals with different abilities, but he quickly dismissed the idea as ridiculous. From the reports of Evil Overlord deeds performed in London thus far, they only ever mentioned one or two people showing up to take care of things.

Also: There was only one spot on the Evil Overlord throne at any given time.

That was a rule in the official, unpublished Evil Overlord handbook, the one that the government had long assigned a task team to prevent from falling into the hands of the public. Arthur had acquired his own copy long before working for MI5, all through illegal channels and after ensuring that no one could track the purchase to him.

(A imprisonment in Wandsworth prison was the automatic sentence awarded to anyone found in possession of the book. Thankfully, Arthur could use his position and security clearance as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. As a 15-year-old with a copy, he would've been pretty much fucked.)

The odds were good that one of the people accessing the email account was the Evil Overlord in question, and the remainder were their underlings.

Sefa Wellborn was the person who checked the emails the most, and from what Arthur could tell, she was the one who organised the inbox to some semblance of order. It had taken a while for Arthur to work out the system she used, but troll emails were flagged as spam, irrational requests were answered with a form letter, and the rest organised according to importance (or difficulty -- Arthur hadn't decided yet). She seemed to flag the ones that appealed to her the most, probably at some sort of whimsy rather than practicality.

Freya Huntington was on the email account nearly as much as Sefa, though she had a less systematic approach to viewing and categorising emails, often undoing Sefa's hard work.

Gilli Dougherty accessed the emails at unpredictable intervals, sometimes frequently within the same hour, then not at all for days. It confused Arthur until he found the Gilli's computer on the network at the private IP address and realised that Gilli was doing market research on the emails while building a website for EOI.

William Grimm and Mordred Oldham were about even in access frequency, though neither of them did anything particular, and often read the same emails repeatedly. After looking into it, Arthur decided that particular emails were targeted for the laugh factor. Arthur couldn't blame them. Some of those marriage proposals were pretty funny. The dick pics varied in degree of amusement, though.

(One of them combined both in the same email, and Arthur would never forgive Sefa for not putting that email in the Bin as promptly as it had come in. The marriage proposal had been ghastly, fraught with grammar and spelling errors, and the attached photograph was of an erect penis that couldn't possibly have come from someone human.)

An anomaly was in the form of Merlin Emrys, who had never accessed the email account himself until, one day, he spent several hours systematically going through each email, one by one, though he avoided those in the spam folder and the gin. After that first access, Emrys checked the email account regularly, on the order of one or two a day, or sometimes once every two or three days.

Interestingly, the day after Merlin Emrys accessed these emails, he would access them again the day afterward, moving them into the Completed folder.

He was the only one to do that.

The connotations of that excited Arthur to no end. Completing the assignments set out in the emails implied that Merlin Emrys was the Evil Overlord, but Arthur didn't want to make assumptions without evidence. There was at least one other person in the group whose name began with the letter M, and it was far too easy for anyone to take up the mantle of a completely anonymous pseudonym.

At a bit of a conundrum, Arthur had moved onto the next level of his search -- checking to see if any of these people were registered under MERA.

According to Arthur's research, Evil Overlords had a tendency to surround themselves with other-powered individuals, whether they were human or not. In doing so, they opened themselves up to challenges to their positions from formerly-trusted lieutenants or minions, but it was still a far safer bet than having normal, non-magical human beings as part of their inner circle. Normal, non-magical human beings might harbour bigoted worldviews or simply be completely terrified, and were more likely to betray their Evil Overlord employer to outside parties or to the enemy.

It seemed strange that Dr. M would surround himself with so many on-the-surface normal people, so Arthur dug as deeply as he could without setting off any alarms.

A bit of research confirmed Sefa was not registered under MERA. Still, it was a matter of minutes to trace her genealogy back a few generations to a family of known dryads. Full-blooded dryads were dangerous, vicious creatures, particularly when their territory was threatened, but all of Sefa's other direct ancestors were human, which meant her power, if she had any, was sufficiently diluted for Arthur to confidently strike her out as the mysterious Dr. M.

Mordred was a registered druid, and while druids had a largely false reputation for being cagey, manipulative individuals, they were hardly candidates as Evil Overlords. While history was dotted with bloodthirsty, murderous druids, the bloodthirsty, murderous acts that they performed were usually a requirement of some sort of ritual in order to maintain magical balance and to appease their equally murderous and bloodthirsty Gods and Goddesses. Ever since the Druidic Exemption Act of 856, originally intended to absolve druids from doing what they needed to do to preserve the balance, was repealed in 1628, the frequency of bloodthirsty, murderous acts performed to fulfill the letter of the ritual had gone down to almost zero.

(Almost, because some druids were awfully old-fashioned.)

Still, Mordred remained a potential candidate for Dr. M. while an unconvinced Arthur continued his search.

Gilli's judicial record -- sealed for crimes perpetrated as a minor -- proved to be an interesting read, but there was nothing in his genealogy that triggered any alarm bells. He wasn't registered as anything in particular, but his adolescent affinity for magical objects couldn't possibly have gone away with adulthood, even if his arrests had tapered off since he went to university. Arthur could only think that Gilli had gotten smarter about it.

If Gilli had learned to cover his tracks, that meant he might be cunning enough to elevate himself to a higher position in life. As a non-magic user, all he needed to do was to get his hands on the right magical artefact to gain greater power. However, that was a physical impossibility. The government had very meticulously acquired all of the known artefacts that would pose that degree of danger to public safety.

That didn't meant that there were unknown artefacts capable of ending the world, but Arthur preferred not to think about that. Gilli wasn't struck from the list, and a question mark was drawn next to his name.

A recent post-doctorate graduate in physics and metaphysics, Merlin Emrys proved to be an attractive option. He had the academic credentials; he had the correct first initial. Although he technically fit the minimum requirements as being a legitimate Doctor M of some sort, Arthur wasn't entirely sold. His research had been rather straight-laced, and none of his published works were remotely inflammatory. Also, a comparison of his writing style with the post on Craigslist only showed an eleven percent correlation, so he clearly had not posted it himself.

However, Merlin was, in fact, registered in MERA, and Arthur's excitement had been short lived when he saw Merlin was only a low-level telekinetic. That designation, by itself, was somewhat problematic, because it wasn't inherently a magical gift, but one that had long been proven to occur by virtue of a definite genetic abnormality in humans.

(When the first DNA test against supernaturals became available, they were terribly expensive, and no one wanted to pay; the government decided that registration as a psionic only warranted genealogical proof going back several generations on both sides that everyone was quite thoroughly human.

Nowadays, DNA testing was relatively cheap, but the government had a policy of never looking back, which was why a great deal of ancient -- and ridiculous -- laws were still on the books even in modern times.

For example, if someone wanted to purchase an overpriced coffee these days, they could conceivably settle their bill by singing at the top of their lungs, hopping on one foot, and presenting the barista with a goose egg. It had to be a golden egg, though, which was probably enough these days to cover an overpriced Starbucks coffee.)

The point being, if it was human in origin, it wasn't magical, and therefore, the Magical Entity Registration Act didn't apply. Since most people preferred being safer than sorry, there were plenty of psionics in the database, so Merlin's registration as a low-level telekinetic wasn't suspicious in the least.

For werewolves, however, there was no getting around the MERA. Will was there, flagged under multiple alarming codes, including Dangerous to Humans, Restriction Quarantine Protocols During The Full Moon, and Broad Range Dispersion Probability of Mites.

(Dimly, Arthur remembered noise out of Parliament about introducing a bill requiring werewolves to wear flea collars, but that had been so outrageously speciesist that it never made it to the green paper. There was talk that one of the more loudmouthed, local MPs was lobbying to get that reintroduced after the summer.

That talk fizzled out when the newspaper broke the scandal that this particular MP was a werewolf, himself, which only confused the flea collar issue even more.)

Werewolves were charismatic arseholes, but none of them had ever possessed sufficient control to be an Evil Overlord, so Arthur immediately gave him a pass. He did the same to Freya, who was indeed registered under MERA, though her classification was evenly distributed under several categories -- most to do with animals and animal control. In other words, no one could actually pin down what she was, exactly, but at least they could put her in a rather nice box.

Unlike Arthur, who didn't fit any known reference, but that was a different problem.

It certainly was a motley crew, and no doubt there were others, but Arthur was certain that these six people were all part of the inner circle.

Dr. M, remained elusive. If pushed to guess, Arthur would place his bet on Dr. Merlin Emrys.

He considered going to his other office, where he'd installed a superior computer system. It had better processing power, a completely independent network, and impossible-to-penetrate firewalls. It was the hacker's dream he'd had as a young boy, and he turned it into a reality as soon as he could. There, he could write an algorithm to calculate the probabilities on each member of this little troupe of people and be better able to pinpoint Dr. M.

With a grumpy sigh, Arthur shook his head. It was a lazy man who blamed his tools. He should be able to figure this out on his own.

Arthur leaned back in his chair. He removed his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt, squinting at the two oversized computer screens to make out the tiny font on the Facebook page. He shoved the glasses onto the bridge of his nose, adjusting them as he leaned in, and --

"It's like you're ten years old all over again," Morgana said. "Ugly plaid sleeping trousers, a shirt covered in pizza pocket tomato sauce, rubbish from an empty bag of crisps, and a giant bottle of lime fizzy soda to keep you company while you obsess over your latest obsession."

Morgana LeFay-Pendragon was immaculate -- as always -- in a black pencil skirt, a tailored white shirt, and sensible pumps that wouldn't raise any eyebrows in the straight-laced work environment that was the Aglain, DeBois, and LeFay-Pendragon law offices. Few people had ever seen her in anything but the best, and few were those who knew that she preferred soft flannels, hideous plaids, and cheap plush pink bunny slippers, never mind actually having witnessed it.

"You're one to talk," Arthur muttered. Morgana had her own vices, though they tended toward the sweet, decadent, and expensive, preferably in the form of imported chocolate from Belgium, or those complicated constructs from Japan. He'd had to help her come up with creative ways to get her illicit goods smuggled through customs, and that was a favour he'd yet to have seen paid back.

Morgana raised an eyebrow at him, imperious, unimpressed, and, most of all, impudent, considering that she was an uninvited intruder in his home and he had every right to shoot her. Arthur huffed in annoyance.

"I'm pushing thirty, thank you very much," Arthur grunted. He quick-keyed and quickly minimized all of the open windows on his computer to hide them from Morgana's keen-eyed inspection. Only then did he peer down at his chest, plucking at the thin T-shirt to spot the stain Morgana was talking about. He picked at it, but it was too late: the sauce had sunk through the fibres, dried, and marked him a slob. "Also, it was a calzone, not a pizza pocket."

"Same thing," Morgana said breezily, invading Arthur's home office without invitation. Again. Or rather, as usual.

"You don't have clearance to come in. I have top secret things in here," Arthur complained. Inwardly, he was glad that he'd changed his mind about going to his other computer room. Morgana would have found out about it.

(If she didn't already knew. She was such a bloody snoop. On the bright side, there was a big difference between knowing about something and having been in there, which was something she had yet to achieve.)

"If you have top secret things in here, I sincerely don't want to know about them," Morgana said pityingly. "As your big sister, I feel I should tell you that your top secret things belong in your bedroom, preferably in the bedside drawer. If they're in your office, well, then, that's just sad."

Arthur glared at her and raised two rude fingers. "Why are you here? How did you get here? I changed the locks. I definitely didn't give you the key. Leon doesn't have the key. Father won't come to this part of town unless you have blackmail material, so I saved on the expense and didn't make extra copies."

"I've Seen where you hide your spares," Morgana said slowly, as if to someone extremely stupid. Arthur glowered at her, because he didn't deserve that. He hadn't forgotten that she was just as magic as her mother had been, using cantrips and crystals and mirror bowls to see the past, the present, and the future. It was just... He'd honestly believed he'd found a way to block her ability, this time. "Also, I Saw that you weren't going to answer your door, so I saved us both the time and aggravation."

"Which brings us back to the first question. Why are you here?" Arthur asked.

"To check up on you, because you were also not going to answer any of the texts I was going to send, and once again..."

"Saving us both time and aggravation," Arthur parroted, rolling his eyes. "Do you ever use your gift for something useful?"

Morgana smiled like a shark, all teeth and menace. Useful was a matter of definition. Short-term and inconsequential things, all of them immediately related to Morgana, came to her in brief flashes of insight or visions that were muddled the way lucid dreaming sometime was. For the more significant bits of information, like whether she would win a court case (and how), Morgana claimed that she required complicated, convoluted, and energy-draining rituals, and she preferred to only perform those when it really mattered.

(Arthur had asked her about lottery tickets, once. Only once. He still wasn't convinced she didn't have illegal winnings in an off-shore account, somewhere, even though she didn't need more dosh since she was an equal heir to what was an already ridiculous old money fortune.

Uther Pendragon's career in the media, which subsequently became a media empire, only added to the "ridiculous".)

"Did Father send you?" Arthur asked suspiciously.

Morgana sat down primly on a clean corner of the futon tucked in the corner. The futon was left-over from Arthur's university days, and he hadn't had the heart to get rid of it, but seeing Morgana doing her best to sit elegantly on the sloped edge, he thought it best if he burned the infernal thing as quickly as possible before her corrupt ways tainted the rest of his flat. "You are completely wasted at MI5. Your job title is meaningless, and your salary is barely a step above the postroom assistants."

"Excuse you," Arthur said. "Three steps."

Morgana's perfectly plucked eyebrow arched. Arthur gave her his best enigmatic I don't give a shite smile, which always made her suspicious. For all her magical talent, she tended to live in a state where she either could never figure out what he was planning, or she'd seen what he was planning and didn't know why he was doing it. There was never any middle ground, and Morgana didn't like not knowing. He'd learned long ago that pretending that he wasn't bothered was the fastest way to irritate her into going away.

"But, no," Morgana finally said. "It's just..."

"Oh, God," Arthur said flatly, drumming his fingers impatiently on his fingers. "It's a vision, isn't it? Don't keep me in suspense. What could you possibly be Seeing now? Is it my foot up your backside as I kick your annoying arse out of my flat?"

Morgana released a long, slow, completely exasperated Big Sister breath, mouthed something that was probably rude and unflattering, and rallied herself for a second attack. For all that he quailed internally in anticipation, the funny thing was, Arthur preferred it when he got her riled up, because Morgana would finally get to the point.

"You are twenty nine years old," Morgana said, slowly, her voice dropping into that cold, lecturing zone that Arthur always forgot about until the next time he was on the receiving end. "You are in a dead-end job with no hope of advancement. You've become a recluse, avoiding your family and your friends unless they make you come out with them. You haven't had a date in four years."

Arthur winced. He was perfectly well aware of all of those things on an individual basis, and they'd never bothered him before. Laid out like that, though, it really did make him sound pathetic. However, that didn't mean he had to like it, so he crossed his arms across his chest. Besides, sarcasm and deflection was always the best defence. "Well, come on, now, Morgana. We're family. You don't have to pull your punches."

Morgana's mouth pressed together in a thin line. "Why are you doing this to yourself?"

Arthur began to defend himself until he realised he absolutely no idea what he was defending against. Despite being right, Morgana was wrong, anyway. For a dead-end job, at least Junior Analyst at MI5 was an notable title -- though even if he were allowed to tell people, it wasn't as if he had anyone he wanted to impress, anyway. His friends believed he was a data entry clerk, his father thought he was a glorified paper-pusher for the government, and Morgana, despite not having the right security clearance, had found out the truth the way she always found out.

(Damn her.)

"I'm not sure what you expect me to say," Arthur finally said.

"I know what you're really up to," Morgana said. She shook her head with disappointment. "You hid away all your books, threw away all your posters, and you stuffed your favourite cloak in the charity box. But you never gave up any of it, did you? Not really."

(She didn't have to define "it", considering she made a point of buying him things Evil Overlord-related for Christmas and his birthdays, every year. Last year was a Cornelius Sigan plushy she'd found on Etsy and an Evil Overlord-themed brand of beer from Germany.

The plushy didn't look a thing like Sigan, and the beer wasn't bad. Arthur might or might not have invested heavily in the microbrewery.)

Arthur scratched his chin before realizing what a physiological giveaway that was, and tucked his hand back in the crook of his crossed arms again. "I have no idea what you're talking about," Arthur tried.

Morgana tilted her head. Arthur shrugged, he had needed to try. Morgana nodded in silent agreement. When she spoke again, some warmth had cracked the ice. "I'm going to tell you something."

"Okay," Arthur said.

"I need you to listen to me very, very carefully," Morgana said.

"Okay," Arthur said again, curious. Morgana usually kept her visions to herself, self-serving wench that she was, but since her visions were usually about her, Arthur had never feel slighted. That she was about to share something now, well, Arthur felt his sister deserved his full attention.

"You are in a rut."

Arthur raised a brow and leaned back with a grunt of disappointment. So much for being let in on a vision. This was a one-person intervention, not an offer to help him reach his own dastardly ends.

Of course he was in a rut. She'd already said as much, using many more words, and surely there would be more. He waited, but the more he waited, the less Morgana seemed willing to say. He gestured in invitation for her to continue, but she seemed more intent on trying to making him understand through sheer will alone.

Arthur spread his hands. "I don't see --"

"You're comfortable. You're not motivated. There's no challenge for you at your job. There's no risk to you as long as you toe the line. Without a close relationship, you don't have to worry that your partner will ever find out about your little..." Morgana's fingers trebled in the air mockingly, as if plucking an ominous chord on the strings of a harp. "Proclivities."

Arthur shifted in his seat. He glanced at the wall clock and wondered if Morgana had somewhere to be.

"Arthur. Arthur," Morgana said, leaning forward as if to reach for him. She aborted the attempt after a few seconds when Arthur rolled his chair away from her. "You have to get out of your rut."

"Morgana," Arthur said with a sigh. He rubbed his face, forgetting that he was wearing his glasses, and nearly knocked them off his face entirely. He scowled at the smears of grease and crisp seasonings on the lenses, and left his glasses on top of his keyboard to deal with, later. "I'm not --"

"Please," Morgana said. As usual, she knew exactly what to say to shut him up.

His entire life, Arthur had only ever heard her beg four times -- over getting her driver's license, attending a music concert, going on a trip to Thailand, and for their father to give Leon a chance, because no matter what, she was going to marry him. This was number five.

The plead shook him up enough that he finally noticed what he should have seen from the minute Morgana invaded his flat. Her perfectly-coiffed curls were less curly than usual, the shade dull rather than vibrant. Flawless makeup wasn't all that flawless, and if he really looked, he could see where she'd missed the dark bags under her eyes, and where she'd added too much blush to compensate for the sunken hollow of her cheeks. She'd lost weight, he saw, because however well-tailored her clothes, the skirt was far too loose around her waist, her blouse billowing out along the sides where it would normally hug her curves.

"You're having nightmares again," Arthur said, his voice a whisper he himself could barely hear. Morgana flinched as if he'd rung a bell with each word, and looked away.

Arthur's mind raced.

Seers were so rare that it had taken Arthur and their father a very long time to discover that Morgana's dreams and visions were insights into the future. Despite her gifts being a supernatural inheritance, Morgana's mother had never been forthcoming with information, and she'd fled with her divorce settlement to somewhere in Italy. Anyway, no one wanted to deal with the conniving bitch. It was Arthur who'd figured it out, and giving her abilities a name helped with control, and things got easier after that.

Well.

Easier, and worse, because that was the way of things.

It was only by registering Morgana and classifying her as poorly as he could that Uther had saved her from the fate that inevitably waited all Seers of moderate ability. For all its condemnation of the magical community and the supernatural, the government was greedy, and not above using the very same magical community and supernatural creatures to achieve their own corrupted gains.

Despite Morgana's low scores, government officials had visited the Pendragon household all through Morgana's teenage years -- the years during which most magical creatures would achieve their full strength, and tested her again and again.

Morgana became an old pro at fooling the tests very quickly, reaffirming her registration status with theatrical struggles in her "attempts" to complete the tests. The visits eased when she turned twenty, and stopped altogether when she hit her thirties, because no one came into their heritage or their magic at such a late age.

But the truth was, Morgana was the most powerful Seer of the century. Possibly the millennia, if that. She thought Arthur had no idea of her strength. And, anyway, if she did know that he was fully aware of the extent of her abilities, she pretended that she didn't, so that they could continue on as they always did. Morgana didn't need rituals to see the far future in great detail. She simply needed the will.

And will, she had, in incredible, disciplined measure. The shadow of the government and the threat they posed had taught their little family to be cautious in public, more so in private, and to never stray from the carefully-cultivated illusion they'd woven to ensure their safety.

(Not that those government officials ever looked twice at Arthur, not as far as he knew. Either they had been smart enough to understand that his magically-induced conception didn't make him some sort of magic creature or user, or they had been smart enough not to mess with things they didn't understand. It didn't mean that they hadn't kept an eye on Arthur from afar, and Arthur had learned to play his very human, non-threatening role from a very young age.

For reasons.)

Discipline meant control, and absolute control meant suppression. Morgana's tiny flashes of random inspiration were nearly always useless -- her Louboutins would get soaked that morning, for example, so she would be better off wearing the Femme Fatale boots that day -- but that was not all that they were.

Random flashes tended to happen because her power broke through her ability to control it. Nightmares were visions so potent, so urgent, that they plagued her until she did something to resolve the situation.

She wouldn't be here if she thought Arthur couldn't do something to help.

The first time Morgana had had a nightmare, they'd all been struck dumb by her re-telling of the events. Uther, their father, had immediately upgraded their home security, hired additional bodyguards, and altered his regular routes. It had been enough to stop the nightmare from happening again. Maybe the attempted kidnapping had been stopped in its tracks. Maybe there had been no attempt at all. But there had been threats against Uther in the past, some of them escalating enough to require police attention, and there was no doubt that circumventing a vision also stopped Morgana's nightmares.

For a while.

It became the norm for the Pendragons to do what they could to alter events enough that the visions never came to fruition. Uther was desperate to protect his daughter and to keep her from pain. Arthur helped as much because it was something that he was good at, and because he was terrified he'd lose another member of his already-small family. Sometimes their plans worked. Other times, what they did wasn't enough. But at least, they tried.

There were so many other nightmares that Arthur remembered. He'd stood in the doorway, clutching the doorjamb, stricken with fear and worry as he watched his big sister thrashing in her bed, calling out names and screaming for help while their father tried to wake her up. She would have nightmares for weeks upon weeks, and, unfortunately, not even the all-powerful media mogul that was Uther Pendragon could do anything to change the tipping point that was the source of Morgana's visions.

But eventually, the nightmares tapered off. Of the few that slipped through, well. By then, Uther had learned how to best wield his power as the head of the most influential television and radio broadcasting company in the United Kingdom. Morgana used her education, her experience, and the substantially terrifying influence of her law firm to squash what Uther couldn't fix. There hadn't been much for Arthur to do to help in a very long time, but when he did pitch in, the problem went away.

(Arthur had learned that there was a trick to it. Sometimes Fate could be tricked by reproducing the exact same events in the vision and altering the outcome. Other times, it was best to let it happen, and to fix things later. Arthur had gotten rather good at making sure things turned out the way he wanted them to.)

Still, this time around, if Uther couldn't do anything, if Morgana couldn't, why would she come to Arthur?

He was a lowly paper pusher, for fuck's sake.

Arthur rolled his desk chair across the room and took Morgana's hand. Very gently, he asked, "Can you tell me?"

Morgana's eyes, when she finally looked at him again, were pale, washed out, lost, the way she very often was when she was shaking off the last vestiges of a stubborn nightmare. They watered up with tears that would mess up her mascara if they shed, but she valiantly rallied herself together, even if it took crushing Arthur's hand to do it. "You can't let it happen, Arthur."

"Okay," Arthur said, knowing better than to ask questions. Morgana liked asking for help nearly as much as she liked to beg, and he'd get his answers if he waited long enough.

"Something's happening," Morgana said, the words hushed, as if they were in an echo of magical privacy. "Something very, very bad. I can't..."

She trailed off, and Arthur nodded. He didn't press. Morgana's very, very bad was tantamount to people dying, and if she talked about it, she would relive it all in her head. She was already exhausted, and he didn't want to put her through that again. "Go on," he said, ignoring Morgana's fingernails digging into his palm.

"I see you there. You're trying to stop it. But it's so much. It's so much, Arthur. I can't bear to see it. I wake before I have to see how it ends."

Arthur felt ice dripping down his spine. He wondered if that was how people felt when they claimed someone had walked over their graves. Because that was what he was hearing in Morgana's voice -- a funerary dirge in a future he didn't know he had.

He found himself bracing for the inevitable. He'd always thought that the worst thing Morgana could ever See was someone dying.

He had a feeling that it was him, this time.

"I don't... I don't want to lose you," Morgana said, as hoarse as if she'd been screaming for hours. "But --"

"But the outcome is not worth the life of one man." Arthur heard the detachment in his own voice. It sounded strange. She'd seen him die, and in apparent spectacular fashion, after trying to do the Right Thing. Whatever that thing was, it needed doing.

So this was one of those, then. The sort of vision when Arthur would have to figure out how to trick fate in the hopes of the best outcome. He couldn't do that without knowing what he was in for.

So, he took her other hand and didn't so much as wince when she dug her nails into that one, too. "Now tell me everything, Morgana. Don't leave a single thing out."

It took hours, the rest of Arthur's stock of lime fizzy drink (liberally mixed with the vodka he'd had in the freezer), and a greasy breakfast of bacon and egg, but by the time he'd escorted Morgana to the taxi he'd called to take her home, Arthur already had something of a plan.

There were two things he absolutely needed to do, however.

First: he had to get out of his rut.

Second: he had to accept that, no matter how well prepared he thought he was for taking on the role Morgana herself had Seen him take, he couldn't do it alone.

 

 

"Seventeen positive Yelp! ratings," Gilli said, nose glued to his mobile as usual. "That's for this week, not total."

"You'll give him an inflated head," Will said, snatching the phone out of Gilli's hands. Gilli blinked several times, and his fingers grasped on empty air, as if not realizing that the object of his intense scrutiny had been removed. "How about this, eight negative reviews. Huh. Apparently we need to improve our customer service. It's taking too long to respond."

"Not my fault," Sefa said. "I'm tagging everything as they come in."

"Nor mine, I'm staying out of it," Freya said. At Sefa's withering glare, Freya shrugged sheepishly and said, "Now. Definitely from this point onward. I'll be staying out of it."

"It's not like anyone lets me respond or make appointments," Merlin groused.

"It's for your own safety, mate," Will said. "It's not like we want the government to know when and where you'll be. Imprisonment is not a company mandate."

"I sure hope not," Merlin said, sipping his beer. The beer was shockingly good today, and he was sure it had less to do with the fact that it was his usual brand, and more to do with the really nice payout he'd received from his last job. That old mum had been absolutely desperate to find her beloved pup that Merlin couldn't find it in him to charge her anything, but Freya, who'd been his minder that day, had used her special touch to calm the dog down once it was found, had seen the golden opportunity and had gone for it.

It still shocked Merlin how cutthroat Freya could be, given the circumstances. He'd expected her to be compassionate to someone who had just lost her dog, but then again, he was learning new things about his friends every day.

(Like just how much fur Will shed, even when he didn't change forms. Merlin had had to charm the shower drain to keep from clogging up. The laundry lint catcher was always stuffed full and had caught on fire once; that stopped when Merlin cast a perpetual cleaning charm on the dumb thing. No one had paid him for that bit of clever magic.)

"I should put something about high demand and unreliable response times on the website. That way they can't say we didn't warn them," Gilli said, his fingers twitching to make notes to himself. He snatched his phone back and started typing in a reminder app.

Will got up to get another celebratory round of beers at the bar. One of the waitresses came by and dropped off their order of chips. Merlin demolished half of his plate before noticing the odd looks he was getting from Sefa and Freya. "What? This job is hard work."

Some days, it felt as if he had used more magic in hours than he had in his entire life. It wasn't as if he had completely bottled up his magic before. He'd just hidden it beneath a proverbial rock, which was covered by a powerful glamour. He'd learned how to be more subtle in its use, and had done his best to disguise it as a minor telekinetic trick for when public demonstrations were unavoidable.

These days, though, Merlin felt the jobs required more aggressive use of magic, none of which could be explained away as mere telekinetic ability, and the sometimes-urgency of the situation meant he couldn't exactly mask the fact he was using sheer, undiluted magic to solve a problem.

He found he was falling back on his magic more and more, mostly because he could deal with a problem more quickly. It felt like something of a cop-out, but ultimately, the issue was solved and probably a whole lot neater than it would have been if he'd resorted to using "telekinetic" tricks and elbow grease.

"You know," Sefa drawled out thoughtfully, "We need to think bigger. The jobs you've been getting are small-time. If you're going to be an Evil Overlord, you need to be an actual Evil Overlord. We need to get you more exposure."

"I think I'm exposed enough," Merlin muttered, wiping his fingers on a napkin before accepting a fresh beer from Will with a grateful nod.

"Craigslist just isn't cutting it," Will said, shoving Merlin along the bench before sitting down.

Will didn't need the room; he just liked claiming as much territory as he could. Merlin was grateful he hadn't been there when he and Sefa had had a massive row about taking the biggest bedroom in their shared house. It had been settled only because Will couldn't afford to pay the extra rent on the meagre under-the-table salary he was earning at the time, but if he continued to volunteer as Merlin's back-up and continued to demand a cut of the job fees, there would be another big argument over the big bedroom, soon.

"We should hire someone to do the public relations," Freya suggested.

"Don't look at me," Gilli said, even though no one was looking at him. "I just do up the pretty pictures and cover the website with the clicky things."

"And we all appreciate it," Sefa assured him, reaching over to pat Gilli's arm. "But that's a fair point. This whole thing was a lark, but it's turning out pretty well. If you want to do this full time, it needs an actual business plan. I can take care of that, but I wouldn't know the first thing about public relations or marketing, and that's what you need. An actual public image, something that goes beyond Yelp!."

"Can't exactly afford to hire someone, though," Merlin said, smacking Will's hand away from his plate of chips. Will growled at him; Merlin growled back and dragged the plate closer, then pointedly drew a flashy golden line across the table. Will snorted, made another attempt to grab Merlin's food, but only hit the invisible barrier for his trouble.

"Ow," Will complained, shaking out his hand. Then, because sometimes he didn't have the sense to leave well enough alone, he tried again, harder. He scuffed his knuckles, then stared at them with a lower-lip pout as his werewolf healing kicked in and the broken skin healed up. Sefa choked on her beer. Gilly typed something with intense concentration on his phone. Freya shook her head slowly, unimpressed, and muttered, Some dogs can't learn new tricks.

Mordred picked that moment to arrive, still dressed in his nursing scrubs. His hair was a wilder bird's nest of curls than usual, his cheeks were ruddy against pale skin, and he looked as if he were ready to go on a bender, if only he didn't have an early shift the next morning. "What did I miss?"

"I hurt my hand," Will said, holding up his hand the way a dog would offer up his injured paw. For some reason, that sent Sefa into hysterics. Merlin moved her beer out of her hand. She probably had had enough.

"Poor baby," Mordred said, shoving Will out of the way to get onto the bench seat with them. "Anything important?"

"We need a public relations guru," Freya said.

"Still not me," Gilli said.

"We know," Freya said, rolling her eyes.

"Someone who can do marketing, too," Sefa said, blotting the tears from her eyes with a napkin.

"Preferably someone who'll work for free, like the lot of you," Merlin said. "Because, money."

"I'm getting a beer," Mordred said helpfully, and slid off the bench seat. Will immediately reclaimed the space.

"I need another one," Sefa said, frowning when she couldn't find her glass.

"Water for Sefa," Merlin said pointedly. He yelped when she kicked him under the table.

"And paracetamol for Merlin," Will said. Mordred waved a hand behind him to indicate he'd heard, but he was already halfway to the bar in a loud pub, so Merlin kind of doubted it.

"We're not working for free," Freya said with a frown. "We fully expect to be compensated for our time and support in some way. It's just going to be later, when you can afford it."

"So that's one take-away pizza for Freya," Merlin said. Freya beamed, satisfied with the offer. "Anyone else?"

"I want your bloody profile picture," Gilli grumbled.

"Some of your chips," Will said, knocking at the invisible barrier on the table.

Sefa snickered as Will scratched mournfully at the air. When she pulled herself together, she reminded Merlin, "Flower shop."

"Flower shop," Merlin confirmed, but gestured between Gilli and Will. "Find a photographer who doesn't make me look like a twat, and you? Get your bloody own, you bottomless pit."

"You know," Mordred said, returning to the table with a large pint of bitter for himself, a bottle of water for Sefa, and no paracetamol in sight for Merlin, "There's someone who could do the marketing thing."

"Who's that?" Sefa asked, scowling at the bottle.

"Local bloke. Came into the clinic today, covered up in bruises. Was really embarrassed when I asked him what happened, said he's being tormented by some sort of ghost that keeps dragging him into a black hole of nothing when he's trying to sleep. Swears up and down it's just a nightmare, tries to pass it off as his imagination, but he can't explain the bruises," Mordred said. "Seemed like a nice bloke. Has a little boutique advertising agency with a mate of his, but they've been having trouble getting a foothold in the industry."

"Got a name?" Gilli asked, already opening a browser on his phone.

"I'll do you one better," Mordred said, seeming almost resigned to not being able to relax for the rest of the evening. "I'll take Merlin over to his place tonight. He hasn't got much, but we could trade a bit of ghost hunting for a bit of marketing. How does that sound?"

Merlin leaned over the table to look at Mordred. Mordred didn't seem concerned, so it was probably exactly as he'd described -- some sort of poltergeist plaguing the poor man. Ghosts were easy enough to deal with.

"Sounds really good," Sefa said, excited. She pulled at Gilli's arm. "We could work out a whole bartering system for people who have skills we can use. Expand our resources, maybe even hire contractors for the bit jobs that aren't worth our Merlin's time. Just think of the franchise opportunities!"

Merlin ignored her. Franchises? She was fucking nuts. He didn't know much about franchising, but he knew enough to admit that they were nowhere near ready for that sort of thing.

"Ghost hunting, huh? Can I come?" Will asked.

"No," Mordred said. "You'll just pee on the front step like you did at the last one."

"Fuck you, I didn't piss myself. And it wasn't my fault, the bloody thing came out of nowhere --"

"As ghosts often do," Mordred allowed.

"-- and it scared the shite out of me, all right?" Will said. "If you'd been there, you'd have been needing a change of pants, too."

Merlin finished his beer and reached for Sefa's untouched bottle of water. No sense dealing with a ghost drunk -- he'd end up the one pissing himself.

It was after Mordred's pint, a fresh plate of chips all around, and a stop-over at the clinic so that Mordred could take a very illegal look at the patient's home address for a very personal and non-medical reason, before Merlin had any notion of what kind of situation it was.

"Well," Merlin said, scratching his eyebrow with his thumb, "It's not a ghost."

Mordred made a tooth-sucking sound. "I'm not nearly drunk enough to deal with this."

Merlin glanced at Mordred sidelong, ready to berate him for not being at his best, but then agreed Mordred had a point and said, "You and me, both."

The house was nice enough, for all that it was shrouded in an ephemeral veil with moving tentacles that no one without the ability to see auras could possibly see. The tentacles lashed out wildly at anything that moved, as if trying to grab its prey, and every once in a while, it solidified just enough to wrench a few leaves out of a neighbour's spindly tree. A dog barked its head off somewhere down the street, probably anxious at the weight of the darkness in the area, and Merlin had the feeling that no matter what the time of day, the house was always in a perpetual shadow.

The tentacle-entity wasn't an actual, sentient creature. It was an artefact of whatever dark rite had taken place on this site some time ago -- quite some time ago, actually, since it couldn't have grown so large in such a short period of time. If it was an actual, sentient creature, Merlin would be backing away slowly while making plans to reread his Lovecraft and study up on his Cthulhu mythos before tackling the situation. This? It was only marginally less awesome and terrible.

"You know, this is why I tried to get bookstores to stop selling occult books during my undergrad," Merlin said. "Even if the author includes a section on how to close incantation circles properly or how to safely dissipate black magic, nobody bothers using one. Or it's bad information all around. If the black magic lingers, the circles degrade, and this kind of bollocks happens. Every. Single. Fucking. Time. It's completely irresponsible --"

"Are you winding yourself into a strop?" Mordred asked, pained. "Because I've heard it a million times. And once more for the people in the back, who might not have heard, I'm still not drunk enough to deal with this, and definitely nowhere close to the numbness level required to survive one of your bloody rants."

Merlin pulled at his ear in clear sign of vexation, clamped his mouth shut, and gestured rudely toward the house. "Fine. Go knock on the door."

Mordred walked to the door in an impressive straight line, but couldn't quite suppress the urge to dodge out of the way of the tentacles sweeping through him. It would've brought a bubble of laughter out of Merlin to watch Mordred flail around and duck behind a shrub, except for the fact that dark voids like these? Eventually, they became solid enough to literally eat an entire city. He wondered how anyone could let it get so bad.

The answer to that was the very human, very mundane, completely non-magical person came to the door. It was nearing midnight, the next day was a workday, and they could've timed their visit with a bit more consideration, considering the bleary-eyed squint being shot their way. Anyone supernatural would have gotten the fuck out of there a long time ago, or would have done something about the situation.

Still, Merlin needed to double check. "Please tell me you're renting."

In an unbreakable six months lease, with four months to go, Merlin learned, as a very muzzled Lance Du Lac led the way inside. He leaned against the counter while the kettle warmed up the water to a boil and rubbed his face.

Mordred was right -- Lance was a nice bloke. He was gracious despite the late hour and after having been woken up from his sleep. He'd immediately invited two relatively complete strangers inside, and offered them tea. Even better, Lance was nice to look at.

Merlin, in an absentminded, completely unprofessional slip, admired the line of Lance's shoulders, the muscle stretching the thin shirt he wore, and the delicious strip of skin exposed by the low-slung nature of his sleeping trousers. But then, he saw the dark circles under his eyes, and looked too long at the blankets and pillows on the sofa in the living room, and remembered they were here on a job.

"You fancy getting your deposit back?" Mordred asked, glancing knowingly at Merlin. It wasn't that Merlin damaged things on purpose. It was that the things he was damaging tended to damage other things.

(As they do.)

"That ship's sailed," Lance said with a sigh. The kettle whistled, he poured hot water in the large mugs, and stared at them for a long, exhausted moment until seemingly realizing that he should put the tea bags in, too. He took care of that before bringing the mugs to the one-leg-too-short kitchen table and distributing them all around. "The main bedroom's a mess. The paint's peeling from the walls, the carpet's been bleached in the middle, and I've had to patch up the window a few times."

"Ah," Mordred said. He gave Merlin a significant look that either repeated the earlier mantra, Not drunk enough, or meant, Fix it, the poor bloke's had it rough.

"Do you live alone?" Merlin asked instead.

"Ugh," Lance said, sitting heavily in the chair across from Merlin and Mordred. He buried his face in his hands, said nothing for nearly a minute, and rubbed his temples. "I don't think I've never not lived alone in this cursed place."

"I sense a story," Mordred said. Merlin elbowed Mordred hard in the ribs, because clearly there was a story, but not necessarily a good one. Mordred, who clearly should have switched to drinking water halfway through their evening, and possibly also had some of the kebab from the take-away place they passed along the way, scowled, only to realise what he said. His mouth formed an embarrassed "O".

"I had a flatmate," Lance said. Either he was far nicer than Mordred had said and was ignoring the drunk arsehole in the room, or he was far nicer than Mordred had said, but too tired to have noticed Mordred's lack of tact. "He didn't last."

"Um," Merlin said, because that sounded dreadful. "He's alive, right?"

"Huh?" Lance asked, blinking owlishly. "Oh, yeah. Yeah, nothing like that. Just poked his head in my bedroom at the wrong time, saw the big black hole in the middle, and flipped his shite."

"Oh," Merlin said. "Well. I suppose that's understandable."

"I suppose," Lance agreed, sighing heavily. "It's not like it affects the other bedroom. Just mine. But that doesn't matter. None of the flatmates stay more than a week or two. I've been borrowing from the company funds to float the other half of the rent, at least for now. Once my lease is finished, I'm out of here, but in the meantime... It hasn't been easy."

A loud, blood-curdling, soul-tearing, reach-down-into-a-man's-guts-and-tear-them-out screech blared through the house. By Merlin's reckoning, it came from somewhere upstairs, closer to the back yard. He glanced at Mordred to find him staring up at the ceiling with much the same wide-eyed regard as Merlin had, a second ago. Lance, however, didn't move from where his chin was propped up in one hand, dipping the teabag into his cup with the other.

"That's... inconvenient," Mordred said, his voice a little wobbly. Merlin had a feeling he'd just been startled sober by the dragging footsteps in the distance and the wobble-rattle of chains.

"How did this even get past the local Council?" Merlin asked, crossing his arms. He hadn't been involved when Sefa and Gilli tracked down a place large enough to house them all. In the aftermath, he'd learned all the "Dos" and "Don'ts" that came with renting a flat and how lucky they were that the landlord was friendly to supernatural tenants. Since entire districts of the city were now zoned to keep the supernatural -- regardless of prior inhabitation -- out, it was pure chance that Sefa had found them a place at all. There was no way that a local council would allow renting a flat if it was even remotely contaminated by something supernatural.

And Lance's flat was tainted ten ways to Sunday.

Mordred glanced at him curiously. Lance woke up a bit and looked at him as if he'd never seen him before.

"They had to screen the place for magical residue before they put it on the market, right? It's like a Council rule. This is a restricted area, isn't it?" Merlin asked.

"It is," Lance said slowly.

Mordred's raised eyebrow irritated Merlin. Merlin scowled at him. "What? I pay attention when people talk to me."

"Doesn't always seem like it," Mordred said.

"Yeah, well, takes a while to sink in if I'm thinking about something else," Merlin said.

He leaned forward, absentmindedly pulling the teabag out of his mug, squeezing it of every delicious drop with a curl of glittering golden ribbon that attracted Lance's attention. Most mundanes freaked out when they saw magic performed in front of them, or if a magical creature crossed their path, but not Lance. If anything, he seemed absolutely delighted, which made Merlin want to help the bloke out even more.

"Look, the way I see it, whatever this is, it's old. It's been around for a while. Longer than a year, but not more than two, and you've only been here for a couple of months," Merlin said. "Was there a tenant before you?"

"Uh," Lance said, but he was awake and thinking. "Yeah. Someone on a year-long lease, but they broke it early at penalty. I don't know about any others."

Merlin glanced at Mordred, pointing at Lance meaningfully, but Mordred only blinked big wide eyes. Druids, Merlin muttered under his breath. They had a rather narrow worldview of magic as a whole, which was all good and dandy. Balance was nice, but actually understanding balance in the grand scheme of metaphysical cause and effect was even better. Merlin rolled his eyes.

"I haven't seen it yet, but I'm pretty sure I don't need to," Merlin said. The sometimes-physical ghostly dark tentacles outside of the house was a dead giveaway. Emphasis on dead. "If they got you or anyone else to rent this flat, it's only because they masked it. Whatever they used -- an illusion, a suppression charm, some sort of reliquary -- it only countered the dark magic that was cast here for a really short time, long enough to rent the place out, and that's... That's so bloody irresponsible --"

"Where does your landlord live?" Mordred asked, rudely shoving Merlin's mug into his face. Merlin's rant was cut off by a scramble to keep the hot tea from spilling all over his front.

"A couple of houses down, at the corner," Lance said, glancing between them.

Merlin sipped his tea in-between grumbling about idiots and greedy fucking bastards and bloody fucking stupid twats. He didn't immediately notice that Mordred was calling his name.

"What?"

"What," Mordred mimicked. He spread his hands and thumbed over his shoulder. "Evil Overlord trumps arsehole landlords. Go get him. House on the corner."

He turned to Lance.

"What's his name?"

"Norris Newt--"

Merlin didn't hear the rest. He didn't need to. Mordred was right. As ridiculous as the title was, Evil Overlord did trump arsehole landlords. Whether or not Merlin actually was an Evil Overlord didn't matter. The situation was wrong, unethical, criminal and completely illegal. More than anything, it was going to be satisfying to place the blame for this whole fuck-up where it belonged and to shove those Lovecraftian-like tentacles up the landlord's arsehole. And not in the nice way.

He was down the road, banging on the front door to number one sixty-four, using his magic to make sure the knocks resounded loudly inside, waking up the inhabitants. It took three minutes for the lights to turn on, another two before someone looked out the window, and some very loud whispers on the other side of the door before it swung open.

"What in the good lord's name is going on? If this doesn't stop right now, I'm going to call the police --"

"Hello," Merlin interrupted, smiling thinly. "Norris Newt?"

"Newton," Norris Newt corrected, crossing his pudgy arms over his round belly. He wore a robe on top of his fancy pyjamas and leather slippers. Behind him was his matching wife, her hair in curlers.

"Excellent," Merlin said, his grin broadening. Norris Newt took a wary step back. "I'm Dr. M from Evil Overlord Incorporated. I'd give you my card, but I'm not interested in acquiring you as a client. In fact, I'm quite cross with you, and I'd like to show you why. Come with me."

He turned on his heel and walked back the way he came, not bothering to wait and see if Newt was following him. Anyway, he wasn't giving the man a choice. He twined his magic around Newt and dragged him along.

"I like to think I'm a fair man," Merlin said, in as conversational a tone as he could manage given how absolutely ticked off he was. "I understand that there are good tenants and bad tenants, just like there are decent landlords and absolute fucking twatwaffle landlords."

He gestured; his magic pulled a sputtering Newt up from where he was lagging behind, bringing him even with Merlin. Merlin looked him in the eye, long and hard, even after they passed the streetlight and it was dark for a few more strides, making certain that Newt understood in no uncertain terms that Merlin was talking about him.

"I don't know -- unhand me -- you're hurting me -- stop this immediately!" Newt protested. Merlin shook Newt a few times, maybe more violently than was warranted, but it shut him up.

"Pay attention, Mr. Newt," Merlin said, stopping in front of Lance's flat. Lance was at the door, wide-eyed and worried; Mordred was nowhere in sight. "I'll grant you that you had bad tenants not that long ago. Kids, probably. You were happy to see their backside, but not so happy when you saw what they left behind.

"You had a choice, Mr. Newt. You could've gone to the Council with your problem. I understand not everyone likes to deal with the Council, so, if you didn't want to go to them, that's fair. But you had a phone book worth of other solutions. For instance, you could've contacted the police, they've got a division that deals with this sort of thing. If it was outside their capability, there's a number of certified magical removal units that you could've hired." Merlin looked at Mr. Newt closely. "But you were too cheap for that, weren't you?"

Norris Newt squawked in outrage, spluttering wordlessly. Merlin waited until he was done before he continued.

"I bet you gave the master bedroom a new paint job, some fresh carpet, a set of colourful drapes, probably from the charity shop. Then, to cover up the worst of the damage, you hid a small charm inside the room."

Merlin tugged Mr. Newt after him as he walked up to the building, excusing himself as he walked past Lance and pulled a struggling Mr. Newt after him and up the stairs.

"Instant fix. I get why you did that. Cheap, easy, quick. But stupid. So fucking stupid."

Merlin didn't need direction to find the master bedroom. There were only three doors on the second landing and the middle one was open to the bathroom. The door on the right side was warped, sooty black all around the edges, and something dark and purple pulsed in the crack at the floor. Mr. Newt squealed as Merlin walked up to the door, but Merlin had a measure of mercy; he didn't open it quite yet.

"Here's the thing," Merlin said amiably, using his grad student tutor voice to its full, patronising glory. "Patches are fine for the short term. But they don't last, do they? I mean, think back to the last time you covered a hole in the wall with a picture. Eventually, someone's going to move the frame, aren't they? Well, it's the same thing here. The charm covered up the mess but it didn't do anything to contain it. While the magic in the charm degraded over time, the dark magic that had been cast inside the room continued to grow. Most likely the charm kick-started some sort of cascade effect, so this whole show is your fault, but that's neither here nor there."

Merlin didn't want to touch the doorknob, so he used magic to twist and open the doorway. It swung open fast, as if blown in by a firm breeze, and crashed on the far wall. It wasn't wind that caused the breeze, but the vacuum caused by the large, man-sized oval void in the middle of the room.

He felt a faint pull, but it wasn't magical in nature. His hair and clothes were sucked into the vacuum, but it was so mild that he barely budged from his position. It was a different story inside the bedroom. The furniture had been sucked into the middle; half of it was hanging out of the void-hole, the rest disappearing inside. Black tentacles, much like the ones he and Mordred had seen outside on the walk up to Lance's house, lashed viciously at everything physical, connecting more often than not. A drawer of neatly folded pants went whizzing across the doorway. A couple of them went flying -- floating -- out.

(A little, mortified sound squeaked behind Merlin, but he didn't look. If he did, he'd make eye contact with Mordred, and then burst out laughing. That just wouldn't do; he was currently in Full Evil Overlord mode. Still, someone had bought a pair of Hufflepuff pants, complete with badger face on the front, the snout extruded like an elephant's trunk, and that was more than Merlin had ever wanted to know about his new friend's Hogwart House sorting.)

He turned his Full Evil Overlord glare at Mr. Newt, who promptly pissed his pyjama trousers, the poor daft plonker.

(Idly, Merlin wondered if Sefa was going to hear about this, which might mean getting a lecture about being a scarier Evil Overlord. It wouldn't do to be bettered by floating black holes of nothing, but he left that problem for later.)

Mr. Newt sobbed. "No! No, don't, please, I'll do anything, I won't do it again, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"

Merlin sighed and turned to face Mr. Newt. Lance stared at them, still wild-eyed, mouth open as if he were about to protest, but thinking better of it. Mordred was behind him, leaning against the stairwell, cup of tea in hand, a tiny, amused smirk pulling at his mouth.

"Anything?" Merlin asked, just for clarification's sake.

"Oh, God, please! Don't throw me in there! I'll do whatever you want --"

"Good, because we're going to start with a few things," Merlin said. He ticked off each item from his fingers. "Reduce Mr. Du Lac's rent by half. He's a nice bloke and doesn't deserve the bollocks you've put him through. Pay for the renovations to the master bedroom to make it liveable -- to Mr. Du Lac's standards. Allow Mr. Du Lac to extend his lease at the halved rent in perpetuity, if he decides to continue living here. Are you with me so far?"

"Yes, yes, I'll do that, I swear!"

"Excellent. Two more things," Merlin said. He snapped his fingers in front of Mr. Newt's face to make sure he was paying attention. He thumbed over his shoulder toward the open bedroom door. "You're paying my fee for cleaning this mess up. Once I'm done, my druid friend over there --"

Merlin helpfully turned Mr. Newt around, where Mordred was holding up his cup of tea in greeting, "-- he's going to cleanse the area and make sure that shite like this can't happen again. You're going to pay his fee, too."

"Yes, yes! Let me go! I promise!"

Merlin let him go. Mr. Newt promptly turned on his slippers, shoved past Lance, barrelled into Mordred (spilling his tea all over his nursing scrubs), and dashed down the stairs. He stumbled halfway, nearly fell on his arse, and collided with the corner.

"Oh, Mr. Newt?" Merlin put enough ice in his voice that it was like magic, because Mr. Newt froze where he stood in the front landing below. Merlin crossed his arms and leaned against the railing. "When you get the invoice from EOI, please pay promptly. Our bill collector is kind of an arse."

Mr. Newt squeaked and ran out of the flat.

Merlin bowed his head and gave in to the peals of laughter that had been building up since... well, since the Hufflepuff pants, actually, though he was nice enough not to mention them. Merlin was still angry about the carelessness that had started all this and that the idiot landlord had continued his money-making scheme until the perfectly-containable situation had gotten out of hand, but, fuck.

"You enjoyed that," Mordred remarked, plucking at his damp scrubs.

"Maybe a little," Merlin said. Way too much, he silently admitted, which sobered him up a lot. He wasn't an Evil Overlord. He wasn't!

Merlin wiped a tear from his cheek, brushed down his clothes, and hoped sincerely that he hadn't scared Lance. Lance, however, looked at Merlin as if he'd just seen the Second Coming.

"If you can fix that," Lance pointed at the void inside the master bedroom, "And get Newton to do all those things about the rent, I'm going to name my firstborn after you."

"Don't you dare, Merlin's a terrible name for a child. I should know," Merlin, said, making a face. "But there is something you can do for us. Why don't you have a chat with Mordred about that while I go in there and deal with the void?"

Chapter Text

 

 

Two weeks after sending his letter of resignation and keeping his head down to avoid attracting attention, it figured that Arthur would have the misfortune of seeing Gwaine on his last day.

Arthur had ducked out of the lacklustre Farewell, good luck, good-bye party (the sign was so tattered, it must have been recycled since the 1970s), dumped the Tesco's cake in the first rubbish bin on his way out (it might've been poisoned; the bright blue icing was awfully suspicious-looking), and headed, via circuitous route, right to his department. He'd had nefarious, underhanded, completely illegal Things To DoTM, and he'd needed to get them all done now, before the others returned and his uploaded spooled recording of an empty room ran out of film.

(Actual moving picture film was expensive and a vintage affectation that was largely the domain of 9mm snuff film enthusiasts and artistic cinema students. Arthur didn't know why his department had never upgraded their security to the more reasonable digital age, but for the moment it worked in his favour. Still, he wasn't going to spend any more on video film than he had to.)

He'd completed all the items on his mental checklist, enacted a few more, and snuck a couple more back doors in MI5's servers in case he needed to gain access to restricted files in the future. The under-the-skin itch that he'd forgotten something didn't go away until he located the spoofed access card of a certain former administrative staff member (Galahad wouldn't miss it) tucked between the edge of his desk, a file folder, and a stapler that didn't belong to him.

Truth be told, the busywork was only been busywork because he'd completed the majority of his infiltration Master Plan a few days before he had submitted his resignation. Arthur had spent the last two weeks in-between sighing heavily and laboriously slugging his way through all the extra files that his colleagues shunted his way, (because otherwise, who else was going to take care of it? Certainly not his devoted co-workers), grateful for the distraction. It had given him an additional cover to keep his nerves under wraps.

Arthur didn't expect MI5's best to come storming through the department in search for his traitorous arse -- he was good at his job, damn it, and, anyway, if someone caught on, the breadcrumbs all pointed at other people -- but he hadn't been able to help being wary. No one ever truly left MI5, no matter what they said, and given that Arthur's resignation came with an offer of employment at Pendragon Media, Arthur half-expected someone to throw a hood over his head, drag him to a dark room, and enlist him as an undercover agent in the future service of Queen and country, but no one did.

And, well, fuck them all. Arthur was moving on to bigger and better things. Pendragon Media was just a cover, the job a figurehead spot to make the shareholders happy to hear about new blood at the helm, but Uther was absolutely thrilled with the idea, and it had come with a corner office. Arthur had never had a corner office.

"You're quitting?" Gwaine asked, out of fucking nowhere, and Arthur swallowed his yelp of surprise. It wasn't until he'd taken in Gwaine's hand-dog expression that Arthur bit back his scathing remark about sneaking up on people and realised Gwaine was going to miss him.

"I've resigned," Arthur corrected, riffling through his desk drawers for personal items. He didn't have anything, because he was smart enough not to leave behind knickknacks that would only get stolen by coworkers too cheap to get their own. "You knew this."

"You're going over to Pendragon Media, though?" Gwaine asked, as if he couldn't believe it.

"I'm going where I'm wanted," Arthur corrected again, because he had a sneaking suspicion that some secret agents were trained as walking lie detectors. While it was true that Arthur was on the books at Pendragon Media as a new staff member and the right signatures were on all the right paperwork, it also wasn't true.

Under the heading Duties and Responsibilities in the job description, the Vice President of Media Liaisons didn't actually do anything, but someone clever with words had made it sound like it was Very Important and that the Company Would Go Under If The Position Wasn't Filled Immediately. It also had a heavy side of Only Arthur Pendragon Could Do This Very Special And Sensitive Work, and an undertone of Don't Disturb Him.

(All in capitals. Arthur had been impressed when he saw it.)

The job had a made-up title, came with a code for the good photocopier on the Executive floor, and included a key for his own private bathroom. He had a budget to hire his own secretary, a bloated expense account that could conceivably pay his wardrobe and grocery bills for a year if he was creative in his itemisation, and a nice ergonomic chair with all the bells and whistles, hand-softened genuine leather, and a button that would swirl it around in a suitably menacing and beautifully villainous way.

What more could Arthur ask for when he wanted some surface legitimacy as he embarked on his journey to build a new Empire?

(An actual Evil Overlord to groom for the part, but he was working on that.)

Still, Uther was happy, because it meant he could trot Arthur out as the new face of the company while he himself worked in the backroom to manipulate things in peace and quiet. And possibly also play a few more rounds of golf with his mates. Uther would no doubt also stoutly proclaim that he'd always promised, A Pendragon would always be at the head of Pendragon Media, to whoever would listen, try to set Arthur up with the sons of his most prominent friends, and ask Arthur to sit in for him at the Stakeholder Meetings From Hell, but that was annoyance he'd deal with, later.

Arthur didn't know why he hadn't thought of doing all this before. Leave MI5. Take a high-paying job where he did nothing but pursue his own interests, in a position where he would be able to manipulate the media for his own agenda. Take over the universe like he'd always planned.

(He knew why, of course. He wasn't stupid. Entering into an unholy alliance with Uther Pendragon was the least of the rotten, no-good, idiotic things he was going to have to do if he were going to garner world domination. But if he was going to have to start going to the family dinners, by God, he wasn't going alone. He already had a date in mind. It was on his To Do list, right under Acquire Evil Overlord.)

"Is this about Galahad?" Gwaine ventured carefully.

Yes, it was, he wanted to snarl.

"Who?" Arthur asked, shooting Gwaine a genuinely curious look. He wanted to see where Gwaine was going with this line of questioning. An underling swept by, dropping a brown inter-office envelope into Arthur's inbox, heedless of the Very Important Fact that Arthur was no longer working at MI5, and moved on. The post cart's front-most right wheel squeaked with a high-pitched hyena laugh at Arthur, but that might've just been his imagination.

His network access would be terminated at the end of the working day, he'd already turned in his swipe and mag cards and restricted-usage keys, and all the other paperwork from HR had been painstakingly filled out, too. Eventually, someone would realise Arthur wasn't there to receive any mail, and someone would come looking for the reports once they had been sitting at Arthur's empty desk for a few weeks. In the meantime, Arthur would entertain himself by reading the newest missives. He picked up the envelope.

"You know, it's all right," Gwaine said, offering Arthur a lopsided smile. "I know how you feel. I'd probably quit, too, if the bosses kept passing me over for a promotion."

"Yes, well," Arthur said testily. He could pretend he'd forgotten about Galahad, but he couldn't hide his lingering bitterness over his lack of career advancement. Lying and manipulation was a very delicate game to play, and Arthur had learned that doing it effectively involved revealing personal issues, whether or not they were cultivated. "Not much that I can do about it."

"You could've stuck around a little longer. I know they would've promoted you eventually. I heard a few people mentioning your name in the last few months --"

Arthur rolled his eyes. In case Gwaine had missed it, Arthur rolled his eyes again, with feeling. "You're trying to make me feel better. It's not working. But thanks, anyway."

Gwaine sighed. He shoved his hands in his trouser pockets, ruining the carefully tailored line. "Was it something I did?"

"Hm?" Arthur asked distractedly. He skimmed the dot-matrix printout, squinting at the fading ink, cursing yet once again the person who had filled MI5's basement with those old printers and the person who refused to replace them until every last one of them broke. There was no point in printing anything anymore. That was why they had emails and tablets and --

He looked up when Gwaine tugged his shirtsleeve.

"What?"

"It's going to be awfully dull without you around here, Princess," Gwaine said, so bloody sincere that Arthur's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Isn't there anything I can do to change your mind?"

"You're two weeks too late to make that sort of offer," Arthur said. He crossed his arms, careful to tuck the memo from the interoffice envelope under his armpit, away from Gwaine's questing glance. It might be his last day, but that didn't mean he had to take it easy on people. Namely: Gwaine. "What do you want?"

"We should go out for drinks," Gwaine said, changing tacks so abruptly that Arthur was jarred by the metaphorical gear shift.

"If that's a newfangled euphemism for getting shagged in the loo, it's gone over my head. Sorry, mate, but you're not my type, you've never been my type, and, short of a personality transplant and a complete physical makeover, you're unlikely to ever be my type," Arthur said wearily. It figures that after all these months of being hounded by the MI5 field agent, Gwaine wouldn't take it easy on Arthur on his last day.

"That hurts, Princess," Gwaine said, hand on his chest, looking decidedly not hurt at all. If anything, there was a mischievous glint in his eye, and Arthur wanted to say, Oh, no.

Any kind of response at this point would be revealing a weakness. Arthur might not have any active experience in the field or as an agent, but he'd been raised in the Pendragon household with Uther and Morgana, who were both frightening in their own right, and surrounded by every sort of media royalty under the bloody sun. Arthur knew how to play politics, manipulate the game, and host a court of backstabbing self-entitled pillocks. He could manage Gwaine, and he'd start by not giving Gwaine any kind of leeway.

The silence stretched. Gwaine's smile was unwavering. Arthur's steely glare was at full power and not making any sort of dent in Gwaine's sunny demeanour, and they probably would have continued in the staring match well past Arthur's scheduled departure time if Gwaine's fancy digital watch hadn't picked that moment to beep.

"Well, look at the time," Gwaine said, fake-cheerful. Arthur felt a measure of sympathy for Gwaine's field handler, because Gwaine couldn't fucking act to save the fucking world if it fucking depended on it. "I've got an appointment. I'll be seeing you around!"

Arthur watched him go with a mixture of suspicion and confusion, because that was weirder than normal, and muttered, "Not on your bloody life."

He remembered the interoffice envelope and uncrossed his arms. He skimmed the contents again, skipping past the typical Eyes Only front cover liberally stamped Top Secret in garish red ink, thumbing through the legal mumbo-jumbo at the beginning, the lengthy table of contents, tables, and figures, and all the repetitive text that was cut-and-pasted from one report to the next, not stopping until he was at the meat of it.

The report was the monthly summary of scanned incidences of flagged words that fell under the department's purview. The list was a whole encyclopaedia worth of not-so-mythical creature species, an overview of every known magical artefact, ritual, and field of study, and random inflammatory key phrases that included Evil Overlord, overthrowing the government, and other similar alarming wording combinations.

(Cheeky Nandos, for some mysterious reason, was on the list. The techs had been trying to delete that entry for months, but it kept making a reappearance. For once, Arthur had nothing to do with it.)

The obnoxious 278-page document was broken down in different categories according to date, over what media it was captured, and the location where it was recorded. Each incidence had a code number associated with it, which was in turn associated with a certain individual. An appendix included a histogram of the number of offences performed by the same code number.

By now, Arthur had memorized the code numbers associated with all of Dr. M's Evil Overlord Incorporated key personnel. They'd first appeared in the previous month's alert report, not even coming close to striking the threat threshold, and while all traffic was monitored by the computerised Magical Registry system, none of EOI's staff warranted a second look.

In fact, Arthur was a little baffled that the little group hadn't scored higher on the threat rating scale. He was a lot more surprised that there was no mention of EOI in the current monthly report. Arthur happened to know that EOI had been quite active in dealing with the public, particularly in the last few weeks, so he thought that someone, somewhere, would have noticed and put them under surveillance -- or at least on some sort of notice. Just to be on the safe side, of course.

Arthur flipped through the report a few more times to make sure he hadn't missed anything, but, no, there was no mention of Dr M, or of EOI.

How odd.

He could only come up with one reason why a fledging organisation flagrantly using the flagged term, Evil Overlord as part of their business name, wouldn't have made the report. Either someone had cleared them after a thorough investigation (unlikely given the short time frame), the latest version of the Magical Registry system had a bug in it (plausible, though the programmers would fervently deny it to their dying breath), or something else had taken priority, which resulted in a poorer threat score.

Arthur took a large mental step back to reset. He flipped to the front of the report and went to the page he should have read from the beginning. There, in big bold red font, under the header, CURRENT THREATS, were the familiar names of sorcerers who had been under long-term surveillance: Nimueh Black, Morgause Gorlois, Alator Murphy, John Ruadan, and Elizabeth Valdis. According to the last month/this month ratings listed next to their names, none of these magic users had wavered much in terms of activity, so, why --

Oh, that's why, Arthur thought, when he scanned all the way to the bottom of the page. There were new players on the field. Not only that, they were worrisome emergents, given that their previous rating had been a boring civilian N/A and was now at a concerning five-point-four on the ten-point scale.

Arthur's brow furrowed. He hadn't received any flags using the special addition he'd hidden in the Magic Registration software. The information in the report was already a month old. He should have received some sort of notification when the keywords tripped the software alarm. Hell, someone in his department should have received notification, given that he was only a junior data analyst. It didn't have to be him all the time, though it almost always was.

Since he'd heard absolutely nothing being mentioned about emerging Evil Overlords, not even in the chatty tea room where all rules of secrecy and security clearances were thrown out the window, there was only one conclusion that Arthur could make. The emerging Evil Overlords were off the grid, without so much as a cell phone between them, and they had either been reported by someone, had run afoul of one of MI5's secret agents, or had caused some sort of Incident in a region where there was no immediate threat to the United Kingdom. Or all three, plus the added bonus of Not yet to the last one. If they made the Threats short list, the emerging Overlords were definitely of concern to Her Majesty's Secret Service, regardless of how the information was gathered.

(In one hour and thirty-eight minutes, Arthur would cease being concerned about the fact that the Magical Registration software hadn't so much as given Dr. M's Evil Overlord Incorporated a notable threat rating. In one hour, thirty-eight minutes, and five seconds -- five seconds because he wanted to revel in leaving MI5 a relatively "free" man -- Arthur would be privately overjoyed that his personal pet project was still operating under the radar, and that he could continue with the next phase of his grand plan. In the meantime...)

Arthur sat down heavily in his chair, typed in his login for what would be the last time, forever and ever (at least from this terminal), and used his supervisor's password to access the Magical Registry files. His supervisor wouldn't notice. The mailroom attendant was probably distracting him with the squeaky wheel on the deliveries cart, his trousers on the floor, screaming, "More! Harder!" while getting buggered over the desk in the upstairs office that oversaw the entire floor.

Arthur glanced up while he waited for the module to load information on the Emerging Evil Overlords, and, yes, the cheap plastic blinds were drawn. The corner of the mailroom cart was wedged against the glass, and --

"I'm never going to get that out of my head," Arthur said, quickly returning his attention to his terminal.

Sofia Runds and Aulfric Runds were not in the Magical Registry database. They weren't in any criminal database that the Emergent Threats Division had searched, and since they were known to be thorough, Arthur didn't perform any searches of his own. Neither of the emergents were in the general register office database, they had no national insurance number, and possessed no driver's licenses or other identifying documentation had been issued to them, as far as Arthur could tell.

Either Sofia Runds and Aulfric Runds weren't their real names (there were already too many John and Jane Does in MI5's files, and it was someone's job to come up with new names to sort them all out), or this lovely pair came from a different dimension altogether.

If it was the latter, it meant:

1. Non-human species
2. Non-human magic
3. Non-human mindset
4. Non-human levels of Armageddon.

"Ugh," Arthur said, to no one in particular. Gwaine was right. Arthur should stick around a little longer, but, well. His official access would be revoked presently; and, in the grand fashion of all things government, it would take roughly three months to get it back should Arthur change his mind about furthering his career with MI5. Still, the mere possibility that he might actually be promoted if he stayed during the latest emerging threat wasn't enough to convince him.

Anyway, he'd resigned, and that was that, full stop.

In the meantime, however, nothing was stopping Arthur from gleaning all the information he could get. Busywork was busywork, no matter what it actually was, and Arthur had a good hour and a half to waste.

While he dutifully scanned all the blurry photographs and copied all the files into a compartment packet to be picked up later by way of hacked firewalls, Arthur idly wondered if Gwaine's sad puppy let's go for drinks, mate had been not only an attempt to get Arthur to change his mind about leaving, but also Gwaine's way of possibly wanting to give Arthur a heads-up on the current situation. After a few seconds of thinking about it, Arthur decided, Nah.

Gwaine wasn't that subtle. Also, Arthur was on to bigger and better.

He cracked his fingers and went through the documented sightings some enterprising data analyst, who clearly had more access and time than Arthur had ever been given. As he watched grainy private security footage and video from the CCTVs, Arthur quietly documented every single lawful infraction made by these two emergent and came to a decision. If these two people couldn't be arsed to follow basic traffic rules, then they were most likely to be from another dimension.

Which definitely meant different dimension, non-human species, magic, mindset, and destruction. "And a bloody partridge in a pear tree," Arthur muttered, typing a command in another terminal box. He leaned forward, elbow on the table, chin in his hand, and scrolled through the results.

Some enterprising person had compiled a possible itinerary based on the emergent sightings and their speed of movement. Sofia and Ulfric hadn't figured cars out, it seemed, but they were moving quite quickly, as interdimensional creatures were wont to do, and the best estimation of their destination was London, proper. They'd arrive within the week, give or take a few days.

Arthur wouldn't normally be alarmed. He'd lived through the carnage that was Evil Overlord Cornelius Sigan, as had most Londoners. The Evil Overlords who had followed after Sigan hadn't been anywhere as nasty, and if they didn't rate at least a footnote on the news, right before the weather report, they weren't worth mentioning, as far as anyone was concerned. The Magical Registry division would take care of the problem before it became a problem.

Except they were fucking clueless, if the orders attached to the file was anything to go by. Arthur finished reading through the latest after-engagement combat reports -- a helpful gendarme in France ticketing the duo for holding up traffic ended up getting ticketed himself, and that wasn't an euphemism at all -- and closed all the windows with a shudder. He didn't have a weak stomach, but he could feel the Farewell, good luck, good-bye neon-blue Tesco poison cake roiling in his stomach even though he hadn't taken a single bite.

The senior staff was taking the whole situation far too lightly, Arthur decided. What they'd interpreted as a Lucky strike, or an Unfortunate accident, Arthur saw nothing but the promise of more gruesome carnage and mayhem. Sofia was wicked, Aulfric was merciless, and they were just getting warmed up.

It wasn't his job anymore, Arthur reminded himself. But then again, it kind of was, considering the new career path he was about to embark on. Couldn't let two emerging Evil Overlords invade already claimed territory -- that was simply not on. Oh, and as the newest vice president of Pendragon Media, he might want to encourage his new staff to report it to the public at large, because, apparently, that was the sort of thing they'd put into his job description.

Arthur made a few adjustments to his First Steps in World Domination plan, nodded to himself in self-satisfaction, and adjusted his glasses. He wouldn't be able to actually do anything until he got back to his flat, but he'd expected that, anyway.

"Right, then," Arthur said, making note of the time. He had an hour left. Arthur sent a few more files to his bolthole in the network for later retrieval, logged out, packed up the few items remaining on his desk -- including the stapler that had never belonged to him -- and headed upstairs, where Human Resources would force him through another gauntlet of paperwork before he could leave.

Several reams of forms later and dazed by enough non-disclosure agreement reminders to hang himself with, Arthur stopped at the security desk on his way out. He turned in his mag key, signed a form; handed over his actual key, signed a form and filled out another one to promise that he hadn't made any copies. He handed over his photo ID, filled out a form, signed and initialised it at the right spots, watched the security guard tear off the magnetic strip from the back and use a Sharpie to vandalise his photograph, then signed another form to personally guarantee that he'd witnessed the destruction of his photo ID.

He handed over his box of items, watched as they inspected every object and confiscated everything that might contain hidden data, and expressed dismay when they poked at the small cactus he'd stolen from a cubicle neighbour's desk on his way out.

(He signed yet another form.)

They kept the stapler. That was all right, because the stapler was a decoy.

The joke was on them, anyway, because Arthur had modified the little cactus pot a long time ago, and there were at least seven different microchip dots, four thumb drives, and the spoofed SIM cards of a few Director cell phones hidden in the ceramic.

The stapler was booby-trapped, originally intended to stop Gwaine from touching his things, but Gwaine had never risen to the bait.

Interestingly, they forgot to take his parking pass.

(Never mind that Arthur had never driven to work, but if he wanted, he now had unlimited free parking privileges in one of the toughest parts of London to find a parking place in.)

Arthur took the tram uptown, ate at one of his favourite Italian restaurants, then took a cab to Trafalgar Square, where he mixed in with the tourists. He stopped in at Morgana's office to harass her for twenty minutes, then took the train out to his flat. He doubled back on his route a few times, and only once he was reasonably certain that he wasn't being followed did Arthur actually head for his flat. He stopped for Thai along the way.

The exercise had done him some good. Now that the whole idea of two emerging Evil Overlords approaching London had sunk in, Arthur was even more firmly of the belief that he couldn't allow them to gain a foothold in the city. Either the government would smarten up and use a long-range sniper to eliminate the incoming threat, or they would muck that up, too, and it would be up to Arthur to deal with before the panicked army Brass decided to contaminate another large part of the city with negavoid radiation. Again.

Negavoid radiation. He snorted.

"Straight out of a comic book. Whoever comes up with these ridiculous names, anyway?" Arthur muttered, turning the key in the lock to his flat. He reset his alarm system, kicked off his shoes, shed his jacket, dumped his potted cactus on the kitchen table, and headed straight for his computer system. He set his dinner aside for now. He wanted to get started.

After performing the routine security checks, loading the firewalls, and setting up both cellular bounce and an internet masking protocol, Arthur hacked into Dr. M's email account to see what the man was up to these days. If he was too busy to deal with other Evil Overlords encroaching onto his territory, Arthur didn't want to bother him. And, anyway, Arthur needed to make sure Dr. M was up to the task of dealing with other-dimensional beings who potentially had world-ending abilities before throwing him after the Runds.

Luckily for Arthur, someone was online and accessing the email account. A bit of digital elbow grease was all it took to confirm that the person in question was Merlin Emrys.

Arthur grinned. So far, so good.

His glee evaporated when he saw the email that Merlin was reading -- that he most definitely wasn't closing and walking away from.

"No, no, that just won't do," Arthur said, opening up his secure, completely untraceable cellular chat app. He double-checked that he had the correct number to Merlin's mobile, and texted, Don't take that job.

Arthur ignored his impatient nerves and embraced the irritation that came with the lack of immediate response. He saw no additional movement on the email account, which made things worse. While he waited, he skimmed through the other emails in the account and found the one that really should have been flagged with higher priority.

The third one from the 24th is more promising, he sent.

Arthur opened the plastic bag of take away, balancing the two Styrofoam packets on the edge of his desk next to his keyboard while he waited for a reply. He dug around, searching for the plastic cutlery, and scowled when he didn't find any. Again. He was going to have to complain about it. Again.

By the time he returned from the kitchen with a fork, extra napkins, and a lime soda, there was some activity on the email account. Arthur relaxed, feeling relieved, but almost dropped his rice when he noticed that Merlin was looking at the wrong bloody email.

No, you idiot. The third email RECEIVED on the 24th, he texted.

Arthur wasn't expecting the nearly immediate response. You'd catch more flies with honey, Will.

Arthur scowled. Did Merlin seriously think that his werewolf friend was even remotely capable of establishing an untraceable hack into an email account, never mind make his presence nigh unnoticeable?

He texted back in aggravation, and hit send without thinking about it. And promptly immediately regretted it, because that wasn't the tone he'd meant to set, and definitely not a good start to the type of alliance he wanted to make with this particular Evil Overlord. Then again, he'd already called Merlin an idiot, so that ship had probably sailed.

Arthur stared at the text message, hoping that he hadn't cocked up everything spectacularly with, I'm not Will, Honey.

The longer he went without an answer, the more his stomach roiled with anxiety. He glanced at the clock on the computer monitor and silently counted each second that passed. Arthur released a held breath when the duplicated screen showed that Merlin was now looking at the right email.

He took the initiative before he lost it entirely. Go to the address straight after work tomorrow. Ask for the proprietor. It'll be worth your while.

The answer was almost immediate this time. Who are you?

Someone on your side. Someone who wants to see you succeed.

I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin replied.

Arthur understood. If he were in Merlin's position, he'd go for the classic distraction of denial and distance, even if it didn't really work in this case.

Arthur cursed under his breath; he couldn't afford to lose Merlin now. The odds were too high that he would never be able to re-establish contact. Arthur could see his future plans crumbling from an imagined future where Merlin would decide to close the email account, close the proverbial doors of EOI before they were well-established, and disappear from the face of the planet.

He didn't think Sofia or Ulfric would be amenable to his future plans. They seemed the type to want it all for themselves.

Biting on the nail of his thumb and leaning forward to rest an elbow near the keyboard, Arthur stared at the text message until the letters blurred. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Merlin log out of the email account without looking at anything else.

In desperation, Arthur abandoned all his plans to keep himself out of the line of fire and to operate from far, far behind the throne of power. He pulled his keyboard close, and typed in the text message box:

Fine, then. Be difficult. Here's some incentive: I'll meet you there.

 

 

Seventy-four.

That was how many questions Merlin had. Seventy-four -- no, wait, number fourteen and thirty-two were the same, just worded differently; he scratched out the second one and corrected himself. Seventy-three.

It had taken nearly all of Merlin's squad of...

("Henchmen?" Will suggested.

"Henchmen die," Gilli pointed out.

"I refuse to be called a minion on the grounds that I'm not yellow," Mordred said, flipping through a fashion magazine he'd stolen from the next-door neighbour. It still had their postal sticker on it. Merlin would fret about being arrested for mail theft, but in the grand scheme of things, that was probably the last thing he should be worrying about. "Also, I'm not that annoying."

"Remains to be seen," Will said. Mordred ignored him and turned the page, studying the latest low-fat diet scheme with avid interest.

"Sidekicks?" Freya asked, making a face even as she said the word.

If Sefa had been there for the conversation debating what to call themselves, she would've thrown a fit, reminding them all that they were neither crime lords, cartoon characters, or comic book heroes. Evil Overlord, Incorporated was a business, she'd have shrilled out, and they would all comport themselves in a professional manner and refer to each other by their properly assigned titles. Then, Mordred would make her some sort of tea to ease her temper, liberally spike it with rum, and twenty minutes later, Sefa would be swinging from the rafters and singing a ridiculous song before declaring them all Dr. M's Merry Band of Misfits.

But that never happened, and they'd never really decided what to call themselves.)

It had taken all of Merlin's mates several hours to calm him down after the suite of text messages from Merlin's mysterious... benefactor? Stalker? Whomever it was. Just as Merlin had become willing to accept that the texts were some sort of mysterious hoax, that the government wasn't spying on him, and no one was setting up a trap to capture Dr. M and throw him in gaol, Will had said, "Though that whole bit about knowing which email you were reading is pretty fucked up, you've got to admit."

Percival -- a giant of a man who probably did, in fact, have giant's blood in his ancestry, somewhere, though no one could prove it since actual giants had exactly the same DNA as non-magical mundanes -- had been the one to catch Merlin before he could throw himself out the window of the shared flat. He had also been the one to give Will a stern look and effectively silencing him, to sit Merlin down onto the only unoccupied piece of furniture, and to say:

"I don't know why you're panicking," Percival had said, glancing at Lance. Lance had come over with his business partner to pitch their marketing plan and had promptly gotten sucked into the drama. "After how you cleaned up Lance's flat and sorted out the landlord, how is one Internet stalker a problem? You're Dr. M."

"Oh, my sweet summer child," Gilli had said, and promptly launched into a long rant about Internet security, how people were absolutely appalling at protecting their personal information, and how Merlin's login password was pretty easy to guess.

("Magic1", everyone had said in chorus, rolling their eyes at Merlin. Merlin had promptly changed his password to the name of an obscure Indo-Asian alchemist to spite them all, called them heathens, and went in search of alcohol.)

"Ugh," Merlin said, to no one in particular. Alcohol had become an alarmingly large part of his life of late. He was getting no better at holding his drink, and though he'd woken up with a massive hangover, he also had a much clearer head than he'd had the night before.

He rubbed his temples ineffectually before moving on to burying his face in his hands in the hopes that wishes were a thing and he'd wake up from this terrible nightmare. His real life was waiting for him -- a prestigious upper position in the National Physical Laboratory, a fit bloke making him breakfast before he rushed out to work, late again as usual, a nice flat that was lived-in messy, and not an absolute rubbish bin from having to live with slobs like Sefa and Gilli.

Merlin opened his eyes, and, yeah. Still in the nightmare.

The charity shop that had hired him to cover occasional shifts was empty. From a conversation with the other staff member, Merlin had learned that people rarely came to this particular charity shop, but it was nice and quiet and a good job to have when someone needed to study for exams. Merlin couldn't complain: the minimum wage wasn't much, the hours were good, and it was the only place that didn't care about his Registration status or the fact that his advanced degree in physics made him woefully underqualified for pandering second-hand fashion to the masses.

Merlin looked down at the water-stained thin-ruled paper pad in front of him. His messy scrawl had started off as detailed Pros and Cons of following up on the mysterious Internet stalker, degraded into Reasons Why Was This His Life, took a sideways turn into a grocery list of denial, and finally became a seventy-four seventy-three question pop quiz for What the fuck.

He might have gotten himself pissed last night, but he was quite pissed off now.

How dare this arsehole try to scare him? He'd lived his entire life frightened of so many different things. Of himself, his own power, his neighbours, his friends, the government, the police, of... of... of everything, really, and he was tired of being afraid.

Merlin had always put on a brave front. He pretended he was someone that he wasn't, he did things that weren't him, he acted like he wasn't Registered for something that he wasn't. But he always was, and that would never change no matter what he did...

Or maybe things could change, Merlin decided. If he made things change.

He simply didn't know how.

Merlin should have gone into politics, he reasoned. Or law. If he ignored the niggling fact that both were restricted avenues of study for those who were supernatural and otherwise, certainly, yes, indeed, politics and law would have been the way to go if he were going to step out from his comfort zone, shake up the infrastructure of the universe, and re-sort things to the way they should be.

Unfortunately, he was a metaphysics and physics major, with a vast knowledge of many aspects of the workings of the universe that was largely useless in day-to-day activities, but which also qualified him to understand that shaking up the infrastructure of the universe required a bit more than a few rebellious and illegal demonstrations against the status quo. While it might be easier to invent a device that would send him and his loved ones to an alternate universe where the current state of affairs weren't a problem, it wouldn't solve the niggling key point that there was, in fact, a problem.

Percival was right. Merlin needed to step up and become an actual Evil Overlord. Looking at his list of questions, Merlin had to admit that he hadn't thought it would be so damn hard.

However, if there was one thing that he knew about Evil Overlords, it was that they weren't afraid. They walked the walk, they talked the talk, and what little petty insecurities they had were shoved deep down where no one could see them. And they made things happen.

(Up to and until getting erased from existence by whatever new weapon the government had developed against supernatural creatures and magic users, that was. Merlin still flinched at the thought of being in the crosshairs of the next negavoid missile launch.)

Merlin looked down at the water-stained paper and the scratchy handwriting with a dodgy shop pen and set it on fire.

Watching the paper curl, blister, and blacken made him feel better.

The smoke, however, triggered the overhead sprinklers.

"Fuck. Fuck. Fucketyfuck --"

He spluttered and threw his arms up in the air.

Merlin's magic reacted before he had any conscious thought of doing so, and he froze the room around him. The spray of water suspended in mid-air, fat droplets everywhere, and while Merlin could and did pinch the pipes feeding the sprinklers to keep the mess from getting worse, it was too late to do anything about the water that had already fallen.

He should evaporate the water. He should dry all the clothes. He should --

He stared down at the pile of wet ashes on the repurposed kitchen counter, checked the clock, and saw that his shift was nearly over. With a nod to himself, Merlin decided:

I should not give a fuck.

He made the ashes disappear. He was already soaked from the water so he walked through the aisles of used clothing, not bothering to dodge the sprays of water. The magical pinch on the pipes should hold, at least until the pipes ran dry. And, anyway, he was pretty sure that the owner of the charity shop had plenty of insurance, considering they wouldn't spring for any type of security like video cameras or extra bolts on the door.

Merlin left the shop, locked up behind him, cancelled the time-freeze, and winced as he watched the big splash of water collapse onto all the racks and the clothes. He was just as soaked, but at least it was a cloudy, rainy kind of day and no one would give him a second glance. People got caught in the rain all the time.

Still, he ducked his head, shoved his hands in his pockets, and headed deeper into town. He had business to take care of. A stalker to scare off.

The third email received on the 24th had been a request for pest removal. Anyone else, Merlin included, would have responded with a short list of the top pest removal businesses in London. However, the wording had been very formal, with so many multisyllabic monstrosities it was as if he were reading a school assignment. The email had also only been one paragraph long, with three lines and absolutely no real detail, which made everyone (mostly just Merlin) suspicious all over again.

There was nothing in the body of the email to make anyone think that it was worth the time of the very busy Evil Overlord, Inc. employees.

The address was in a fairly posh section of town and belonged to one of those tiny, independent shops that had managed to survive the encroachment of big box stores by virtue of being as old as the city itself and the continued patronage of its upper class clientele. Merlin couldn't make out much from across the street and through the sheets of pouring rain. There were no sale signs on the windows, no indication of what they sold, and the aged green sign with brash patina and faded gold letters only said: Taliesin's.

If it was some sort of a trap, it was elaborate and cunning. If it was a trap, it had been set in a highly populated area where there was an equal chance of unavoidable collateral damage and of being discovered. Discovery was the least of Merlin's concerns -- his friends had bloody well outed him as an Evil Overlord on Craigslist, for pity's sake -- but the potential of collateral damage...

Merlin grit his teeth. He shouldn't have given in to his curiosity to come to this place to find out about his stalker. Turning around and walking away was sounding more and more like an excellent idea. At least he was only out a few hours of his time, and not much else.

Merlin glanced down the road. There were a few pedestrians huddled under black umbrellas. Several cars passed by. He could see a few people walking into a shop, a child squealing as it tugged on its mother's hand and jumped into a puddle.

He glanced the other way. It was more of the same. No sign of government agents or Magical Registry barkers or undercover police officers.

Maybe it wasn't a trap.

Merlin wasn't going to risk it if it was.

He turned around and stopped dead when he nearly collided with someone on the pavement. He wasn't sure whether it was a man or a woman, but there was definitely an umbrella. "Pardon me," he muttered.

The umbrella twitched, and finally lifted, but the man beneath it didn't move.

The bloke was fit bloke, with styled golden hair gone askew from the wind. He wore a tailored single-breasted hip-length grey raincoat with a double-tall stand collar over tailored black trousers and polished ankle boots. He appeared to be no different than any other man out and about on this foul-weathered day, minding his own business and quite clearly on his way to handle more.

Except that those cornflower blue eyes behind steel-black glass frames were taking his measure with a far-too judgmental gaze, and his mouth --

His perfect, fucking perfect mouth with wind-burned lips --

Were pressed in a thin, disapproving line.

"Hello," Merlin said, brow furrowing.

"Well," the man said, tilting his umbrella back until the stem rested on his shoulder. He paused to glance at the shop across the street, and continued, without missing a beat, "It's a point in your favour that you showed up at all."

Magic roared under Merlin's skin. He clenched his hands in fists to keep it in check, and only just managed.

"But I do question arriving without so much as a coat against the chill. Or something against the rain," the man continued. "You're soaked worse than a drowned rat. Is this the sort of impression you make to all your clients? And what if you catch ill? Will that affect your capabilities? Imagine the lost revenue that the downtime required for your full recovery would cost the company."

Merlin clenched his jaw. There was a flicker of something in the man's eyes; he released a slow breath and forced a small smile that might have been genuine if not for the way he was tightly clenching the handle of the umbrella.

Abruptly, he stuck out his hand. "Dr. Emrys. I'm Arthur Pendragon."

Pendragon?

There was no one in London who didn't know the name. Sefa subscribed to one of the eight major magazines published by Pendragon Media. Gilli was addicted to their news channel. Will had a crush on one of the announcers for their morning show. Freya regularly used their newspaper while housetraining puppies -- it was the more absorbent than the Daily Mail or the Telegraph, in her learned opinion, and the more skittish animals didn't mind it as much, because the noise from the crinkle was low. Even Mordred couldn't really find fault in Pendragon Media, not since the were the first to make the move to one hundred percent recycled paper, and had long established their own in-house recycling program in a brand new zero-carbon footprint building. The old building had since been reconverted into low-rent flats with its own roof garden, solar panels, and a complicated mechanism of insulation, water recycling, and composting.

In other words, anything related to Pendragon tended to have a high approval rating amongst his friends. Merlin couldn't imagine why, because Uther Pendragon, the scion of Pendragon industries, was a bit of a stiff-necked sweaty-upper-lip broomstick-up-the-arse pillock. But, really, that was probably his own opinion from overexposure. His mum had been Uther Pendragon's biggest fan.

But Arthur Pendragon? Merlin refocused on the man in front of him. He'd never heard of an Arthur Pendragon, but that didn't mean much. He wasn't into the rag mags the way Mordred and Sefa were.

There was the slight chance that Pendragon was a more common name than Merlin had previously thought, and this was just some random bloke with a famous name.

Who just happened to randomly introduce himself to Merlin on a random street in London, making idle reference to a stalking incident over the Internet and their scheduled meet-up to assess a potential customer.

People did that.

Right?

Merlin blinked owlishly at him. "Pardon?"

Arthur sighed with... impatient annoyance, suppressed irritation, nervous anxiety -- and, wow, Merlin didn't know it was at all possible to have nuanced noises. He wondered if that was an acquired skill or a natural talent.

Arthur pushed his glasses up in a give-away gambler's tell, and huffily said, "I thought someone with an advanced degree in the physical sciences would --"

Merlin raised his mobile and took Arthur's photo. Regrettably, because of the rain, lack of ambient lighting, and shadows cast from the prat's umbrella, the automatic flash came on and blinded Arthur in the process. Arthur squawked, took a surprised step back, and --

This is the internet stalker. If you don't hear back from me in two hours avenge my death, Merlin texted, sending Arthur's photo out to his friends. Of all of them, he hoped at least Will would be invested enough in their friendship to come and find him if he disappeared. With Will, the resulting carnage was guaranteed to be spectacular.

Freya, who was probably the most bored of the lot, immediately answered back with, Thoroughly shaggable. I approve.

Will followed that with, Looks like a prat.

Sefa, who might as well have been wired into the London social pages, replied with, Is that Arthur Pendragon? Holy shite!

(Well, there was the identification confirmation Merlin had not been hoping for. Legitimising the stalker in any way, shape, or form, made the man more human.)

Mordred and Gilli didn't answer, but in Gilli's case, he was probably asleep, and Mordred? Mordred was either at work, where he wasn't allowed to have his mobile on him, or he was being a wanker, as usual.

Merlin glanced up. Arthur had removed his glasses and was rubbing his eyes. "Most people ask --"

"Right, sorry," Merlin said, not really concerned. He pulled up the Internet browser on his phone and typed in Arthur Pendragon. If the man was a plant or some sort of secret agent, there would be an internet presence of some sort, but Merlin hadn't thought it would be as elaborate as the one that came up from a simple search.

"Are you even listening to me?" Arthur snapped.

"I'm listening," Merlin said, scrolling through all the news articles about the Pendragon empire. Most of them had only peripheral mentions of Arthur Pendragon, but recent headlines implied that the man had received a promotion to Vice President of his company.

A short silence dragged on between them. Arthur remarked, "You have absolutely no sense of self-preservation."

"Hm-mmhm," Merlin agreed, because that had been pointed out to him many, many times already. Except he was still alive, so, in theory, his lack of sense of self-preservation had, thus far, not impacted on his ability to intuitively self-preserve.

"Very well," Arthur said. He shifted positions so that he was standing next to Merlin, their elbows touching, and raised his umbrella to shelter Merlin from the rain.

Merlin, grateful to be able to look at his mobile's screen without having to squint through the droplets, automatically brushed the mobile against his stomach to dry it off. Given that he was as soaked, that didn't work very well. He took the silk handkerchief Arthur offered him with a grunt of thanks, dried off his mobile, and continued to skim through the news articles he found with the name Arthur Pendragon in them.

"Taliesin's has been in London since the late 1500s, though not always at this location, and while there had been multiple branches all across England and the continent during the early 1800s, those shops have since closed," Arthur began.

"You met the Queen!" Merlin said, looking at a photograph of Arthur, Morgana and Uther Pendragon. Uther Pendragon had been accepting some sort of award, and was awkwardly bowing to Her Majesty while she dropped a ribbon with a gaudy medal over his head. Arthur was wearing a different pair of glasses at the time, more wire-rimmed and less flattering.

"A few times, yes," Arthur said, sounding as if they were old school chums and Why is that a surprise? "Anyway, there wasn't much call for magical instruments after the 1900s when automated devices made it to the market, and with the advent of the electronics age, their profits plummeted and their handmade products were no longer in as much demand."

"You were an ace footie player," Merlin said, tilting the mobile so that Arthur could see the news page he was looking at. He was a teenager in that one. "Look how adorable you are without your glasses."

"Won that game seven - two," Arthur said. Merlin didn't think the weather was chilly enough to make Arthur's cheeks flush red, but everyone's temperature tolerance was different, he supposed. Arthur cleared his throat. "Didn't need glasses back then. But, back to the subject -- after all those financial drawbacks, Taliesin's caters exclusively to people in the musical industry, and only if they have enough money to afford their wares. Interestingly enough, the family are not magical themselves."

"Hm?" Merlin tapped at another news link. The photograph that accompanied the article was of an intensely private scene. The Pendragon family at a graveyard, huddled close to each other, a ten year old Arthur Pendragon clutching to the lapels of Uther's coat. Ygraine DuBois Pendragon had died in a terrible car crash.

Distress flooded Merlin's senses as he hastily tapped out of that news page. He knew what it was like to lose a parent young, and even though their circumstances were different and no loss could possibly ever be compared, he was fairly certain that if their positions were reversed that he wouldn't appreciate Arthur reading a news article about his mother's death.

Luckily, Arthur didn't seem to have noticed.

"Perhaps the family had been magical, once upon a time, but I have it on good authority that if someone has a solid ritual in place, all one needs to do is to follow the instructions to apply whatever charms or hexes they want on the object of interest," Arthur said. "No inherent magical ability necessary."

"I wish the government would go ahead and restrict the large-scale publication of occult books, already," Merlin groused, thinking about the disaster that had been Lance's flat. He'd tracked down the prior tenants and found that the culprits had been a pair of very mundane seventeen-year-old boys who had been, at the time, sixteen years old, drunk, and bored.

Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. "You agree with what the government is doing?"

Merlin turned murderous eyes at him. "Authority over magical artefacts, education, and law should be in magical hands. The government doesn't know their arses from their elbows when it comes to magic. Their ignorance causes more harm than a mad minotaur rampaging through Cumbria Crystals. Which, for the record, has never bloody happened, because minotaur are smarter than you'd think, and they have manners. Unlike some of the Lords, who are giant douchebags on a good day. Unfortunately, they're the only authority we've got, so --"

"Maybe you can change that," Arthur said, tilting his head measuringly. "Establish your own government. Implement your own rules and laws and --"

"Ugh," Merlin said. "I'm not a politician. That seems like so much work."

Arthur hummed.

"Anyway, why did you insist on this place? While we're on the topic, who the hell do you think you are and why the fuck were you hacking my email account anyway --"

"Appoint people who know how to set up a government. Let them run it. Have them all report to you. Deal with them as you see fit when they do things you don't like. It's pretty simple once you get started," Arthur said, and he looked as if he would continue in that vein. Except, instead, he took a sharp breath, rounded his shoulders, and said, "Right. My apologies. I'm getting ahead of myself. Shall we return to the matter at hand?"

Merlin stared at Arthur. He took a subtle side-step to make sure, but, no, Arthur hadn't grown a second head, and Merlin hadn't missed it. Then, because he could be a posh prat, too, he said snottily, "Certainly."

And that was it for a few minutes -- nothing but silence. Cars driving by, pedestrians jostling past, the rain pattering on Arthur's umbrella. Merlin shoved his mobile into the back pocket of his jeans, then did the same with his hands, keeping his arms close to his body to stay warm. Now that he wasn't being continuously soaked, the cold was finally making its presence known, and Merlin was shivering a little.

He studied Arthur for a few seconds. The instinct to turn around and walk away fizzled to nothing when he realised that Arthur was struggling to come up with an answer to Merlin's earlier questions. Someone with his background, influence, and authority was probably not accustomed to being put on the spot, or interrogated, or...

Merlin wasn't actually sure what was going on, but for now, he'd go along with it. Very gently, he asked, "You said the Taliesins didn't have any magical ability?"

Some of the tension in Arthur's shoulders eased. He nodded curtly. "Charles and William Taliesin. Brothers. They're the current proprietors of the shop. Charles' son and William's oldest daughter are the apprentices. None of them are Registered."

Merlin glanced at Arthur sidelong. "Lack of registration doesn't mean that they don't have magic."

"Are you speaking from experience?" Arthur asked, raising an eyebrow. He adjusted his glasses and gestured for Merlin not to bother answering. Which, well, Merlin wasn't about to, not to someone who was a complete, judgmental berk. "That's a topic of conversation for another time. Let's focus."

"Yes, let's," Merlin said, shifting uncomfortably. His current level of anxiety had as much to do with his soaked clothes, the rain, and the very pointed remark about his own Registered status. "Let's assume they're magic until it's proven otherwise. That would be stupid."

"Fair," Arthur said grudgingly.

"Still, they said they've got a pest problem. That doesn't necessarily mean that it's my sort of problem," Merlin said. "There's a long list of pest removal people, with far more experience than I have, in the directory. Why randomly answer a Craiglist ad? Are they that hard up?"

"That was odd, yes," Arthur admitted slowly. "I did a bit of investigation. They've hired five pest removal services in the last six months. None of them found anything, but they charged for full fumigation services and trap setting, regardless."

"One must make money in these difficult times," Merlin remarked.

"Indeed," Arthur said, a slight curl of a smile on his lips.

"So not actual pests," Merlin allowed. "And anyway, I've seen enough daytime telly to tell you it might be anything from a plot to take over the business, to scare away the customers, or some other really... unreal scenario. Family politics and the like. Still doesn't mean that it's my problem."

"Hm," Arthur said. He pulled his mobile out of his coat pocket, thumbed past the lock screen, and tapped his way through several screens until he found what he was looking for. While he worked, he said, "The reason why I flagged the Taliesins is because they're an old, influential, well-connected family. Also, very rich. The other jobs are... scraping the bottom of the barrel. You can't survive on pudding and casseroles. The Taliesins will pay whatever you want, and their good word would do better for Evil Overlord Incorporated than any number of Yelp! reviews."

He tilted the mobile toward Merlin and pushed play on what was a very grainy security feed. The fixed-view camera was trained on a backroom or workshop of some kind. There were four narrow wood tables in the line of sight, part of one wall, and a distant door. Several tools littered each of the tables, and it appeared as if the workers had left their work at a standstill when they left for the evening. "There's also this."

Merlin grudgingly grunted to indicate that he was impressed without coming straight out and saying so. The prat had a pretty big head already, no need to add to it.

"Electronic files, emails, telephone conversations -- there wasn't anything interesting in there until I compared them with their most recent purchases," Arthur said. "There was far more fiduciary activity than is normal for this time of year. Comparing their accounts to last year, the Taliesins are ordering additional supplies for the construction of their instruments, some other items that could be perceived as occult in origin, if one squints, and informing clients that their orders are unfortunately delayed. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the quantities seem odd given that the actual demand on their business hasn't increased."

"Okay," Merlin said, because he could see how that would be strange. More than anything, though, he wanted to know how Arthur knew all that and how that had anything to do with him. Instead, he waited, having the distinct impression that Arthur liked to roll out the information in as dramatic a way as possible.

Arthur nodded toward the mobile in his hand. "Watch this part. It might convince you."

Nothing happened for three more seconds. Then, without warning, the instrument in fabrication on one table abruptly went flying across the room, splinters spraying everywhere. Another one was crushed flat. A third one stripped apart, piece by piece, which were in turn ground systematically into sawdust. On the fourth table, where the instrument was nearly finished, an icepick tool stabbed through the surface systematically, punching holes in every spare millimetre.

Merlin was at a loss for words. When the video clip ran out, he said weakly, "Oh, one of those types of pests. They really should've said."

A fleeting smile touched Arthur's lips, but whatever amusement he felt quickly disappeared. "Can you deal with it?"

"Sure," Merlin said, slow and careful. He tilted his head off to the side thoughtfully, already skimming through his repertoire of exorcism rituals and ordering them in degrees of difficulty and category. The ones for possession looked to be unnecessary, but infestation rites, while easier in comparison, were tricky to do properly. He hadn't had the opportunity to try them before, and now seemed as good a time as any. "I can do it. But first, you have to tell me what you're on about."

Arthur's jaw clenched. He put his mobile away. "No idea what you mean."

Merlin crowded into Arthur's space, less to be intimidating, and more because Arthur was warm and goose flesh was crawling on Merlin's bare arms. "Look. You hacked my email account. You read private information. You texted me to come here. I don't know you from Adam -- for all I know, this is a setup of some kind. I know what the government does to people like me, so..."

Merlin spread his hand in the air invitingly.

"Cards on the table. Why are you doing this, and what's in it for you?"

Arthur didn't seem to react, but his expression darkened slightly. The knot in his jaw didn't loosen right away, and when it did, the tension that had disappeared from his shoulders earlier returned in full force. He turned on his heel to face Merlin and removed his glasses.

"Have you ever had a job interview? A proper one, not one like getting a call back to work at the chippies stand or the charity shop," Arthur said. Before Merlin could do more than to snort, Arthur continued, "In a professional setting, it's a two-way process. They want to know if you'd be a good fit for their company. You want to know if you want to work for them. That's what this is."

"All right," Merlin drawled, certain that there was a punch line in there somewhere. He wasn't seeing it, though. "So you're...?"

"I'm seeing if I want to work for you," Arthur said, bald, bold and ballsy. His expression was guarded, and Merlin couldn't tell what he was thinking.

Merlin had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud, because this was ridiculous. A part of him took Arthur seriously, though.

His friends were helping out as much as they could given their own lives and interests, but ultimately, if Merlin managed not to get himself captured by the government while establishing Evil Overlord Incorporated as an actual, legitimate business, his friends would take advantage.

They'd made that clear from the beginning. Sefa would do the accounts, but she wanted her bloody florist's shop. Mordred wanted to be a Healer, not this part-time orderly business that they had him doing at random clinics around the city. Will wanted... well, no one was entirely sure what Will wanted, but the point was, Merlin wouldn't have much of a staff running the company when the people closest to him would bail out as soon as their hard work saw some return. Or things got difficult -- whichever came first.

Having someone who worked toward the company mandate who was all in -- and more so than Merlin himself, it seemed -- was a little staggering, all things considered.

"And what job are you applying for?" Merlin asked, just as surprised as Arthur by the seriousness in his tone.

Arthur's raised eyebrows took a while to descend. When he answered, it was with a small, sweet, pleased smile, the sort Merlin wanted to see in other scenarios and circumstances.

"Why, your second-in-command, of course."

 

 

Twenty-eight seconds.

That was how long it took for Arthur to get any kind of response out of Merlin. It might've been twenty-eight seconds and a quarter. Maybe twenty-eight seconds and thirty-two. But no more than twenty-eight seconds and a half -- of that Arthur was certain, even though he didn't dare break eye contact with Merlin to look at his chronometer.

Still, it was an eternity of time in which Arthur suffered the nervous roil of his stomach twisting onto itself. He doubted everything he'd ever done in his life that had led him to this point. If he had the time, he might perform some introspective (albeit dubious) navel-gazing and lint-gathering to examine why he'd blurted out his plans like that. He'd intended to be subtle, ingratiating himself into Dr. M's good graces over time, making himself invaluable over even those already close to him, until such time that they'd be stupid to do without him.

If Arthur could be grateful for one thing in his life, it was for the sang-froid that his father and older sister had helped him put in his veins. It had served him well all through his years of university, while navigating the social minefield of the rich and famous, and during his fruitless stint at MI5. And now, it kept him from cowering and otherwise revealing weakness while suffering under Merlin Emrys' unwavering gaze.

(There was no proof that Dr. M deserved the threat rating that Arthur had calculated for him based on his track record, thus far. If he looked very hard, Arthur would be able to find non-magical ways to resolve the cases that Merlin had taken on. But at this moment, while holding his ground on a sopping-wet Evil Overlord who was clearly out of Arthur's fantasies, Arthur thought he might need to re-evaluate the threat rating fairly soon. Merlin's stare was flinty enough that it could cut through tungsten carbide.)

On the surface, Arthur wore a neutral, fearless mask, kept his tone unflappable and flat, controlled his body lest he telegraph his unvarnished thoughts. Beneath that, Arthur wasn't as gibbering, flustered, or frightened as he thought he would be given the circumstances. Facing up to an Evil Overlord of unknown power --

(Not so unknown; Arthur had been tracking Merlin's progress through the email requests for assistance, and some situations, like how Merlin had taken down a mountain troll hiding under Clattern Bridge, had made for both interesting viewing over surveillance cameras, and confirmation that Merlin was no mere... telekinetic.

There was magic. Of that, Arthur was certain. Otherwise, his threat rating calculation was useless. He needed it to not be useless, because Sophia and Aulfric were still on their way to London, and thus far, their threat ratings didn't compare. On numbers alone, Merlin would lose, and he'd lose soundly.)

-- was likely not a perfect approach, but it had been the only one Arthur had been able to come up with, at the time. Arthur was certain that few people would willingly confront someone like Merlin to bully their way into his administration. Surely that gave him a leg-up in the recruitment process.

(Except that there was no recruitment process. What was wrong with him? He had a plan. He was not following the plan. And, what was this absolute shite stirring up in his head? He had better self-control than this.)

A droplet of water dripped down Merlin's neck, following the curve of the tendon, and disappeared in what was now a nearly transparent T-shirt, lost somewhere around those delectable collarbones.

(Arthur amended his last thought. He had better self-control than this when he wasn't in a dating dry spell, and while not reeling in the presence of a Merlin Emrys that was far more attractive in person than on those Facebook photographs, and who just so fucking happened to be exactly Arthur's type. Nobody could possibly think straight under those circumstances.)

Seriously, though. Jesus fucking Christ, Arthur swore. The man was soaked through. His wet shirt left nothing to the imagination. Merlin was broad shouldered, narrow-waisted, and lean -- exactly how Arthur liked his men. How hadn't he noticed that when he investigated Dr. M? Merlin's nipples poked through the thin fabric of a faded band T-shirt from a concert five years ago, his skinny jeans left nothing to the imagination when dry and definitely did not when wet, and Arthur had to keep from staring at the outline of what appeared to be a very healthy cock.

He didn't particularly like bottoming, but he was reconsidering.

Arthur snapped himself out of it with a mental slap. He didn't know the extent of Merlin's abilities and power. For all he knew, Merlin was reading his mind right now, and that was not on, fuck! But Merlin's expression never changed, he didn't so much as blink, and his mouth remained the same confused, lopsided moue that had appeared when Arthur had made his offer.

Possibly, Arthur's mind was safe, his thoughts private as they had always been. Still, in the interest of keeping the Evil Overlord from having more ammunition than he already had, Arthur refused to blush at the idle thought of seeing those lips around his cock. It wouldn't do to have Merlin becoming suspicious when there truly was no need.

But going back to the crux of the matter.

It was taking Merlin twenty-eight seconds to respond. Arthur didn't know how long he could keep from fidgeting, but surely it was longer than thirty seconds, at least?

"All right," Merlin said, finally breaking Arthur's train of thought.

"Sorry?" Arthur asked, because he hadn't planned for All right. He was ready for a brush-off. An abrupt dismissal. A mocking scoff. Even a flick of Merlin's finger sending him on his arse. But, All right? That was outside Arthur's sphere of reference. When his entire life was one contingency plan after another where he had to connive and manipulate his way into something that he wanted, Arthur had no idea how to react when something went his way, for once.

Merlin tilted his head toward Taliesin's. "Trial run. You want to be my second-in-command? Be my second-in-command. You found this place, you've done your research, you're familiar with the people. Hell, you're so posh you even speak their language."

Arthur tried not to preen under the recognition and backhanded praise. It was more than he'd ever gotten while at MI5.

"Go ahead. Lead the way. Find the problem. Negotiate the terms of the contract. The fee for the work performed. Anything else you might think of," Merlin said. He shrugged his shoulders, completely nonchalant, as if he truly didn't care whether Arthur would be good at it or not.

Arthur narrowed his eyes. "Why?"

"Nothing like seeing how an employee might work out than seeing them do the job, yeah?" Merlin said, his smile broad and lazy, but the look in his eyes was hard and challenging. In that moment, Arthur realised that there was the slight possibility that his admittedly amateurish psychological profile on Dr. M was most likely incorrect. Merlin was not the pushover he appeared to be online.

"Yes, all right," Arthur said, not sure what else to say when he had Merlin's casual All right still ringing in his ears. "Are you coming in with me?"

"Can't observe how you work if I'm out here, can I?"

"I don't know that, do I?" Arthur snapped. "Your track record doesn't match your registration status."

It was Merlin's turn for suspicion, and Arthur immediately regretted his tone. And his blunder. But Merlin only narrowed his eyes, and there was more of a thoughtful pinch in his brow than any menace, and he shrugged again.

Arthur huffed to mask his relief when it was clear that there would be no smiting of his existence in his immediate future, and eyed Merlin critically. "Can't you do something about..."

He waved a hand over Merlin's body, roving up and down.

"Yeah. Sorry. Give me a second," Merlin said, running his hand through his soaked hair. Another rivulet of water dripped down his neck and into his shirt, which? That just made Arthur very irrationally randy angry, and that wasn't conducive at all to maintaining professional comportment. Arthur looked away, staring hard at Taliesin's, grateful he had done enough groundwork to know how to start the conversation.

He ignored the tingle under his skin, telling himself it was some sort of after-effect of being in close proximity to a sorcerer. He'd read enough about it in the first-person witness accounts to know that anyone who had ever been in the line of sight of Cornelius Sigan had been affected by something similar. That the tingle under the skin had a remarkable similarity to the sensation of a confident hand drifting over his body, leading him to a slow, lazy climax? That was incidental and completely irrelevant. It was especially not important that he had been feeling this way ever since he'd realised just how bloody fit Merlin was, and how Facebook stalking had prepared him not at all for the real thing.

"Ready?" Merlin asked, after a second. Arthur was about to ask why on earth he thought that he could possibly be presentable while still soaked through, but when Arthur turned and saw Merlin, his words died in his throat.

For one thing, Merlin was dry. The rain was coming down in a torrent of snarling kittens and angry puppies, and despite not having an umbrella, none of it was making contact. Instead, where the heavy droplets pummelled Arthur's nigh-indestructible combat-grade umbrella to the point where it might actually collapse, the rain was veering away from Merlin like missiles whose programming had gone awry.

For another, when dry and properly dressed, Merlin was another dimension of fit altogether.

Gone was the second-skin wet-T-shirt, replaced with a fitted black button down with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Instead of the indecently tight skinny jeans, Merlin wore tailored trousers that were probably miles worse, if for no other reason than they made him look longer of leg than was socially acceptable.

"How --" The obvious question was immediately replaced by another when Arthur came to the realisation that --"Did you change your clothes in public?"

"Don't get excited," Merlin said, and Arthur couldn't tell if he was being serious or if he was teasing. The smirk tugging at his lips was not helping Arthur come to any conclusion or to pull himself together. The image of Merlin casually stripping in public -- fuck's sake, why couldn't he think of anything else but dragging Merlin into the alley behind them to shag him silly? He forced himself to focus. "It's an illusion. Can't afford these sorts of clothes for real, and, well. Shortcuts are nice."

"You mean these are still your rubbish bin rags?" Arthur asked, reaching out to inspect the glamour. The shirt sleeve certainly felt like silk to him. Exactly like silk, actually, and that didn't compute.

Merlin shrugged, as if it was no big deal. At first, it was almost arrogant, but Arthur saw that Merlin truly had no concept of how amazing his seemingly "simple" magic trick was. Arthur knew of absolutely no sorcerers who could perform illusions to the point of physical verisimilitude. Even Sigan's illusions, which had been strong enough to be picked up by video cameras and recorded, had looked like animation from the 1980s. In comparison, Merlin had done some random handwaving to turn himself into a bloody fashion model, and the outcome was something that would stand up to the scrutiny of the most observant copper.

And to make matters worse, it had taken Merlin no effort at all. Arthur wanted to ask why Merlin didn't take the extra step and simply transformed his existing clothes into what he was wearing now, but he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to know the answer.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Arthur said under his breath. After shaking his head and making sure there was no incoming traffic -- because that was an image: turned into road kill while trying to impress his future Evil Overlord boss -- Arthur crossed the street to Taliesin's. In the reflection of the window from a nearby shop, Arthur saw that Merlin followed along placidly, hands in his trouser pockets, stride slow and languid, his intent expression marred by a cocksure smirk.

Fuck off, Arthur wanted to say, full of bile and vitriol, because it was just not fucking fair. But then, he noticed that Merlin's attention was fixed firmly in a direction that could only be described as Arthur's arse, and, well.

That made Arthur feel better about his earlier distraction.

(He normally would take advantage of the situation, because it had been a while. But business came first, and anyway, he wasn't so sure having a one-off with a potential employer was a good idea. If he were to get involved with an Evil Overlord, it would only be after gaining their implicit trust, and after ensuring that it was a long-term relationships, because Arthur had never done anything by halves. He wasn't going to start now. The fewer people with direct access to the Evil Overlord, the less the chances of Arthur's plans being curtailed. And, anyway, being Merlin's Evil Consort, on top of being the second-in-command, wouldn't be that much of a hardship.

Deep down, though, Arthur was an Evil Overlord at heart, if not in fact. He wouldn't accept anything but the most equal partnership.)

Taliesin's shop was typical of any other music shop -- with a storefront separating access to the workshop and offices in the back, displays of accessories and other small products that were of very high quality or difficult to come by, and therefore expensive, and an employee behind the front counter. It was atypical in that there were no displays of their primary bread and butter, other than several thick catalogues lined up the shelves behind the storefront, and there was no actual cash register anywhere in sight.

"Welcome to Taliesin's," the employee said.

The man was tall and slim in a suit and tie that looked tailored at first glance, but was probably an off-the-rack taken in to an inch of its life. His posture was perfect and disarming, his accent foreign but so faint that Arthur wouldn't have been able to place it as vaguely Romanian if he hadn't worked for years at MI5, and he was balding. The last was a shame, not just because he was young enough not to deserve that fate, but more because he'd used some of that vile spray-on hair to patch up the gap.

"How may I help you?"

Arthur suppressed the urge to slip into the theatrical persona of a musical instructor and his wayward, high-maintenance student, even though that was exactly how they might appear to someone on the other side of Taliesin's counter. A quick glance in Merlin's direction was enough to confirm that Merlin had noticed that the four large pedestals that normally displayed one of the famous Taliesin instruments were empty of everything, glass case, bronze name plates, and all.

"Good afternoon," Arthur said, tucking his umbrella into the receptacle next to the door before turning to the employee. There was no name tag, but business files conveniently located on the business' main computer system had given him the front desk scheduling. "Anton Nicolescu, isn't it? The proprietors contacted my associate --"

(Interestingly, Merlin didn't so much as squeak at being demoted. Arthur was disappointed.)

"-- and I regarding a private matter. Would you please inform them that representatives from EOI are on site and would like to meet with them immediately?"

Anton regarded Arthur with a particular blandness that Arthur usually associated with rusty gears slowly being turned in someone's head. His eyes drifted down, clearly taking their measure. As if deciding that they weren't the usual riff-raff walking off the street, but unwilling to be any kind of helpful, Anton asked, "Do you have an appointment?"

"Of course not," Arthur said with a scoff. Then, saying nothing more, he raised an eyebrow and waited.

Anton huffed and shook his head. "Mr. Taliesin is very busy --"

"Then, we'll talk to the other one," Arthur said helpfully. Anton's eyes narrowed.

"And he is also very busy," Anton said after a moment's pause, his voice devoid of anything but the most lacklustre monotone.

"A pity," Arthur said, unconcerned. "They indicated that their request was of an urgent nature, and since we had an unexpected opening this morning, we thought we'd take care of the situation immediately. If both of the proprietors are too busy for us today, I'm sure we can fit them in..."

He turned to look at Merlin, who was watching him with curious interest. Merlin didn't react right away, but he must have picked up Arthur's very obvious hint -- a sideways kick to the calf out of Anton's line of sight -- and said, "Uh, mid-November, I think?"

The response came not too quickly and not too ridiculously late, which made for greater believability. Arthur gave Merlin an approving nod and turned back to Anton. When Anton demonstrated he was completely immovable, or completely stupid, Arthur rapped his knuckle on the counter. "So, do we stay, or do we go? Which is it?"

"Do you have an appointment?" Anton repeated.

Immovable it was, then.

(In Arthur's head, he imagined grabbing Anton's tie, pulling him over the counter, and explaining how stonewalling the Evil Overlord of London was bound to mean Nothing Good for Taliesin's in the long run. In fact, the next time the government deemed it prudent to destroy an Evil Overlord, this one might happen to be powerful enough to redirect the negavoid missile to this particular shop, and no one would return to the esteemed establishment for at least another hundred years or so, breaking their long-standing tradition of being one of the oldest businesses in the city.

While the idea was viscerally satisfying, it wouldn't help Arthur get the position he was hoping for in EOI, and he didn't dare muck it up. So, Plan B it was.)

Arthur checked the time on his mobile, as much to make certain that the timing was right as to affect an unbothered air. He turned to Merlin once he was satisfied, and opened his calendar app to kill some time. He skimmed through it as Merlin stood beside him, shifting uncomfortably, his arm brushing against Arthur's elbow. Comb-over Anton, however, remained still, but quietly drummed his fingers against the underside of the counter with the anxiety of someone who wanted them out of the shop immediately, but was too polite to say so.

"Right, then," Arthur said, finally. "We can move up the assignment over at the theatre. I have tickets for Friday's show, and I could do without the whole --"

He caught himself just as Merlin raised a brow, though no doubt Merlin was flat-out confused and the effect only helped support Arthur's act. Arthur held up his hand in apology, smiled flatly, and shook his head.

"Never mind. Client confidentiality. Come on, if we hurry we can finish this one and only be a little late for the Westminster job."

Arthur headed toward the front door and was fussing with his umbrella when Merlin caught up behind him, already reaching out for the doorway. "What Westminster job?" he whispered.

"The one we'll have once we've taken care of this one," Arthur said, sotto voce, and didn't elaborate when he heard first a high-pitched squeak, and then, hurried footsteps behind them. It was Anton, who had decided they'd overstayed their welcome, and had come over to usher them out.

"We're closing --"

"Rather early," Arthur pointed out.

"Impromptu staff meeting," Anton hurriedly explained.

"That's funny, how did you get the memo?" Merlin asked, peering over Anton's shoulder. Anton side-stepped to block Merlin's line of sight.

"If you'll just step outside --"

"Doesn't strike me as an effective way of running a business," Arthur remarked, tucking his umbrella under his arm and adjusting his coat. His calculations had been correct, but there had been a rather large standard deviation based on the data accumulated from hours of spotty video footage, and there was no guarantee that the time stamps had been correct. Some people simply didn't know how to sync their computers to the NIST-F1 atomic clock, but if his research was correct, the EventsTM that were driving Taliesin's to ruin always occurred in roughly the same time frame.

"Perhaps we don't care for your business," Anton sniffed -- or tried to. There was a loud crash from one of the back rooms, and Anton startled, jumping a foot in the air. His eyes were wide and full of fuck propriety, because he grabbed both Merlin and Arthur and manhandled them toward the door.

However, he weighed less than Arthur by half, and Merlin, however lean, was clearly not a slouch, either, and the attempt only managed to shift their clothes somewhat. Merlin's shirt -- the thin band shirt he really was wearing, and not the silky button-down illusion -- tore.

Except when Arthur glanced down, he saw that Merlin's illusion was seven different types of perfect, and showed frayed shirtsleeve and bare skin.

"I liked this shirt," Merlin complained.

"Send me the bill," Anton snapped.

Arthur was still looking at what seemed to be a faint, coloured line of a tattoo he couldn't fully make out when a door slammed open. That was the only reason he startled; he'd lost track of time and had forgotten about the expected sequence of events.

Anton released them, turned around, screamed --

The creature with big empty gray eyes, gaping maw with broken teeth and elongated fingers that was coming at them also screamed --

Arthur most certainly did not scream, and he absolutely definitely had video surveillance footage to delete, later, in order to eliminate the evidence --

But Merlin, soon to be known as the notorious Evil Overlord, Dr. M, shouted, "Àbrecan!" and the creature...

Blew up.

Arthur had an idle thought at that moment, and that was to invest in hazardous materials protective equipment if he were to be employed with EOI. He wondered if he'd have to buy his own, or if the company would supply it. The company definitely should supply it, he decided, because there needed to be a substantial budget for health and safety.

The second thought to cross his mind was, Oh, maybe not, because monstrous creature body parts, pulverized and practically liquefied by whatever blast of power Merlin had thrown at it, splattered all over an invisible shield. The shield glittered translucent gold and reflected all the colours of the rainbow, and was really quite pretty.

And then Arthur focused on the... slime sliding down the sheer face of the shield, and had to turn away. He'd thought his stomach had been fortified after many years at MI5 studying post-war massacre photographs and video footage. Nothing could prepare him for the sight of the clumpy, globby, slimy innards of an unknown monster as it suction-cupped and wobbled its way toward the ground.

"Ew," Anton said, arms held away from his body, head down. Long, sticky, slimy tendrils dripped from his face, chest, arms and hands. The shield hadn't extended to protect him.

Arthur glanced at Merlin curiously, wondering if that was deliberate or simply a matter of proximity. Or, even better -- because, possibly, Merlin liked him a little bit. Either way, Arthur felt vindicated for Anton's absolutely atrocious treatment earlier.

The shield must have dropped at that moment, because all the creature-splatter collapsed at their feet at once, and --

"Ugh," Arthur said, his eyes watering from the stench.

"Oh my God," Merlin muttered, jerking back as if slapped. Merlin not-so-discreetly pinched his nose and tried to breathe through his mouth. Arthur tried the same, without the undignified nose-pinch, but, no. That wasn't better at all. Disintegrated monsters stank worse than a troll on a hot summer day at low tide during an algae bloom. He was going to be tasting disintegrated monsters that stank worse than trolls on hot summer days at low tide during algal blooms for the rest of the week.

The month.

The commotion had drawn the attention of the personnel from the offices and workshop, who gaped at them -- at the mess, to be more precise -- with varying degrees of dismay, shock, and confusion. A tall man of the silver-fox variety, complete with aristocratic features and a very proper amount of grey at the temple, pushed his way to the front of the crowd. He walked around the counter, but had the wisdom to stop short of the dark, ochre-coloured pile in the main room.

"Just what is the meaning of this?"

Anton turned around and shakily pointed a still-dripping arm at Arthur and Merlin. "It was them!"

Arthur glanced at Merlin, who had raised an eyebrow. Arthur thumbed in his direction and shrugged. "Well, it was more him than me, if you want to split hairs."

"I'm going to call the police," another man, shorter than the first, announced. There was an uncanny resemblance between him and the silver fox, and though Arthur knew very well that Charles Taliesin was the older of the two, he was more vain about his age and dyed his hair regularly. There was a ten year difference with William Taliesin, but it seemed no one took him seriously. Arthur certainly couldn't, not with those fake-looking white splotches on either side of his head.

"Be my guest," Arthur said cheerfully, ignoring how Merlin had tensed at the word, Police. "I'd like to see whether you'll succeed in convincing the Yard that this incident was a terrible act of vandalism perpetuated by persons unknown, and that they won't need to acquire copies of the video surveillance or bring in their forensic squad to confirm the supernatural phenomena that we've just witnessed. It should prove entertaining, but, alas, my associate and I have a pressing engagement to get to, so..."

Arthur fished out a sleek business card. It was sleek black matte double-thick, with raised borders and silver script shamelessly lifted from the website that Merlin's flatmate, Gilli was putting together.

(This version was much nicer than Arthur's one and only attempt to design one himself. What a disaster. It had looked like a cross between a formal government agency business card and a cutesy birthday-card invitation. He learned three things that night: graphic designing software was the stuff of Cthulhic nightmares, he had no flair for design, and it was best to leave the art to the professionals.)

"Here, do take our card. Feel free to direct the police our way if they should need corroborating statements." Arthur held it out without extending himself; Anton, being closest, took it with his fingertips. In the process, he soiled the entire thing.

"Well." Arthur tapped his umbrella on a clean spot on the ground, and said, "We'll be sending you the bill for this pest control exercise. Good luck with the cleaning."

He turned for the door, catching sight of the amused smile on Merlin's lips. Completely unbidden, Merlin said, "And in dealing with the rest of them."

"There's more?" Mr. William Taliesin squeaked, putting down the phone without having dialled a number. Silver fox Charles Taliesin stared between Arthur and Merlin in alarm.

"Oh, just two or three more, but I won't know until I find the nest," Merlin said. His tone was earnest, bordering into the enthusiasm of a brand new professor who hadn't yet had their soul destroyed by the frustration that were first-year university students. "They breed quickly, you see. It's a very unique phenomenon and, honestly? People should be studying these creatures a bit more, the scientific advances we'd learn from the parthenogenesis alone would be absolutely amazing. Anyway, if their mum's not around to feed them, they'll start cloning themselves like crazy until there are enough boggarts to overpopulate their territory. For safety purposes, mind you. But there shouldn't be that many of them to deal with by the time we're able to come back in November. Maybe only two or three dozen --?"

"Sounds about right," Arthur said, inclining his head. He had no idea what Merlin was on about, but he could play along, too. He made a mental note to look up boggarts. It sounded made-up. "Anyway, if we get caught in traffic, we'll run late, and that just won't do. Shall we --"

"Wait, no!" Charles Taliesin shouted, sliding across the pile of slime, colliding with Anton, and catching Arthur's sleeve. They almost went down in a pile. Arthur gave them a seven for grace, but only a two on the execution. "Wait. What do you mean, November?"

It was nearly three hours later, after a lengthy fees negotiation (complete with cleaning and administrative charges) that lasted longer than it actually took to find the boggart nest and to destroy them --

("It's not really destroying, technically," Merlin said quietly, while they stalked through the convoluted basement corridors in search of a tell-tale sign that a boggart was nesting nearby. "You can't kill them. Sorry to say, they're quasi-immortal; they don't die of anything except old age. But I can send them someplace where they'll be happier. They like the quiet of marshy swamps or peat bogs. I don't know how the first one got here, but all the work going on in the shop must have been driving them insane."

"But the slime?" Arthur asked. "And the body parts?"

"Oh, that," Merlin said, shrugging. "Boggarts are really just borrowers, you know? If they take a shine to it, they take it. Usually when it comes to bodies --"

"Oh," Arthur said, disgusted. "Pleasant."

"Not really," Merlin said, and shushed further conversation, pointing out the infestation that was growing in the corner behind the shelves full of varnish.)

-- before they finally left Taliesin's.

There was no need for an umbrella. The streets were surprisingly dry. Arthur swung his combat-strength umbrella over his shoulder as they walked down the pavement towards one of the main roads to flag down a taxi.

"So."

"Hm?" Merlin asked.

"So, do I get the job?" Arthur pressed, impatient.

"Hm-hm," Merlin said, companionably pleasant but frustratingly dodging. His expression wrinkled, and he asked, "We have business cards?"

"We? Does that mean I have the job?"

Merlin rolled his eyes. "I'm thinking about it. I'll run it past my Board of Directors. But back to the more pressing matter. Business cards? Can I see?"

"Maybe when you give me the job," Arthur sniffed, and he fancied he was a better sniffer than Anton.

"Bollocks," Merlin muttered. "At least tell me where you got them made up. They looked proper, with the good card stock and everything."

"You realise, as your second-in-command, I would have no secrets from you," Arthur said. He blinked, slow and cow-eyed, waiting for Merlin to bite on the baited hook. Merlin, for his part, only blinked, slow and cow-eyed, either not all that quick on the pick-up, or missing the point entirely. Arthur huffed, and, suddenly surly, said, "Alas, I am not currently your second-in-command. More's the pity."

A black cab pulled up to the kerb in front of them. Arthur turned away from Merlin and opened the door. He stepped aside, inviting Merlin to climb in.

Merlin's eyebrow perked up -- an endearing trait if Arthur had ever seen one, but Merlin really had to stop wearing his emotions on his sleeve -- and he tilted his head questioningly.

Arthur sighed. "Well? Get in. If you're going to present my case to your Board of Directors, you should be informed of my terms of employment."

"I can't pay you," Merlin said quickly. Arthur squashed a frown, wondering what Merlin's friends were extorting from him in salary, and decided that he'd find out, but later.

"Hear me out," Arthur said, finally feeling settled in his own skin now that he was back on the original script of his meticulously laid-out plan for finagling a position in EOI's chain of command. "You'll like what you hear."

 

 

 

 

"Thirty thousand pounds, plus cleaning and administrative fees, and a recurring yearly service fee of ten thousand pounds to address any new infestations," Merlin announced. He couldn't help feeling gleeful, and a whole lot gobsmacked. This was the largest cheque he'd ever received. His tuition loans didn't count -- he still had to pay them back.

Which was a sobering thought, now that it was stuck in Merlin's head, but he was good and determined not to let the reminder get him down.

Mordred whistled, Will's eyebrows shot up, and Sefa made a funny face. Freya squealed with delight, and a grinning Gilli said, "Well, you won't be eating pot noodles this week, that's for sure."

"Gods, I'm so sick of pot noodles," Merlin said, plopping into an empty spot on the sofa. "I'm buying dinner tonight. What does everyone feel like?"

"Thai," Gilli said. "Ta."

"Pizza," Will said.

"Steak," Freya said, hands clasped together, eyes round and pleading. "Pretty please?"

"Raincheck," Mordred said, apologetic. "I've got a shift tonight."

"It's the weekend. Plus, you had a shift earlier," Freya said, frowning.

"And I'll have a shift tomorrow," Mordred said, shrugging. He stretched out. "Such are the perils of the gainfully employed. We can't all be Evil Overlords."

Merlin took the jab for what it was -- friendly ribbing. Once upon a time, before he'd gotten to know Mordred a bit better, Merlin would have thought Mordred was being a jealous prat, lashing out with sarcasm and scorn. These days, he knew Mordred was just that much more comfortable talking to his plants than to people, because he was never exposed to proper social interactions and had never been taught tact, politeness, and subtlety. Sharp barbs and sarcasm were his affectionate baseline, while curses upon the family line and poisons in the morning tea was how he showed someone how much he hated them.

"Except you could be," Merlin ventured, his smile sly. It wasn't just the money that had gotten him excited.

Hashing out the details of Arthur Pendragon's employment contract over coffee ended up being a long discussion of a proper Evil Overlord empire over a catered dinner at Arthur Pendragon's posh vice president suite at Pendragon Unlimited. Arthur's You don't know what you're doing, do you? had stung, but his hasty, Here, let me tell you what you could do, if you really wanted, had soothed Merlin's hackles enough for him to willingly listen to a lecture on socio-economic changes, political reform, and employment opportunities for the currently disadvantaged.

Mordred snorted in amusement. "Druid," he reminded.

"Aware of that," Merlin said, leaning forward, elbows on his knees. "There's things you could do as an Evil Overlord employee that won't make you break any of the oaths you made."

"Like what?" Mordred asked, playing along.

"Like Healing," Merlin said, raising his eyebrows and nodding earnestly when Mordred sat up a little straighter and turned the full force of his attention away from the telly. "You could do it, you know. You've got most of the training already. If I find a Healer to mentor you and put you both under my protection..."

He trailed off. Mordred was clearly hooked, but the wariness in his expression was disheartening. "Don't make promises you can't keep, Merlin," he warned.

"I'm going to make it happen," Merlin said, because, fuck it. It needed to happen. Mordred was a brilliant caregiver and it was a shame that he couldn't do all that he was able to do to help his patients. How many people in the supernatural community were in the same situation? Skilled and talented, but prevented from doing their best or fulfilling their dreams simply because they were supernatural?. "I just need a bit of start-up capital and income flow to make sure I can cover everyone's salary, and fairly. Arthur said that if we set ourselves up as a proper corporation, fill out all the paperwork and make everything legal according to the law --"

Will snorted.

"We'll just ignore all the roadblocks against supernaturals, yeah? Treat them the same as we would everyone else. It'll make it all that much harder for someone to shut us down. We need a proper storefront, offices, programs, everything --"

"And how are you going to manage that?" Sefa said stiffly. She sat straight-backed on the edge of one of the chairs, her arms crossed over her chest. Merlin didn't understand why she was angry.

"Arthur wants to invest in the company. He'll give us the start-up funding. None of us really know how to set up a business, but Arthur knows a few people --"

"Arthur this, Arthur that," Sefa mocked, and Merlin stopped, flummoxed by her reaction.

"What?"

Sefa waved her hand at him in dismissal and wouldn't meet his eyes, but Will cut in before Merlin could find out what her problem was. "And you trust Arthur, why?"

"Because --" Merlin faltered.

"Come to think of it, he stole my artwork to make those business card, didn't he?" Gilli said. "I don't trust a thief."

"You don't know him. None of us do," Will pressed. "You've practically just met. He hacked your computer, for fuck's sake. He's probably hacked all of our computers, stole all of our information, copied all our files. This plan that he's selling you? For all you know, he took it from one of our files --"

"You never mentioned anything remotely like the plans Arthur has," Merlin defended.

"That's not the fucking point. This guy has the ability to find our bloody porn, if it comes to that. How do you know he's not one of the bad guys? One of those Registration grey-coat busybodies trying to catch us doing something we're not supposed to be able to do, just so he can get an arrest bonus in his paycheck? Maybe he's an undercover copper, they're sneaky fuckers --"

"He's Arthur bloody Pendragon," Merlin spluttered. "If he's undercover, he's pants at it!"

"The point is," Will said, a reverberating growl in his voice, "We are your friends. You've known us for years. And suddenly you're listening to some random bloke off the street? This is supposed to be our thing! We came up with the idea, we've been the ones telling you that this was a good thing, and we're the ones who have been helping you out! Who is this fucking pillock, anyway? I bet you he doesn't even do anything at that fancy job of his, and he's bored, so he's decided to fuck you over and take the company --"

Mordred stood up abruptly, holding up his hands. "I'm out of here. Too much tension for me."

"You've got a stake in the company, Mordred. You can't possibly be happy that Merlin's throwing us off the cliff for this bloke," Will snarled.

Mordred's lips pressed thinly together. "I don't have a stake in the company. I have a stake in Merlin!"

"And we don't?"

"You don't fucking own him, you bloody greedy pillocks!" Mordred roared.

Mordred's outburst silenced the entire room, and Merlin stared at Mordred wide-eyed. He thought he should try to defuse the situation, but he had no idea how. Mordred had raised his voice for the first time that Merlin had known him, and Merlin was too shocked to do anything else but watch.

Mordred pulled himself together. He took a deep breath. A lot more calmly, he said, "I was never in favour of starting the company. I tried to talk your drunk arses out of posting it on Craigslist, but you were all too pissed to listen to me. You went ahead with it over Merlin's objections, never mind mine, because, Come on, Merls, it's all in good fun?"

The falsetto sounded like Sefa, and it wasn't flattering at all. Sefa stared out the far window, ignoring them all, stiff and stone-faced. A nearby plant wilted, but luckily, Mordred hadn't spotted it yet.

"Then, once the joke wasn't a joke anymore and business picked up and you lot had to do more than sit on your arses, your free time to help out dried up pretty fast, didn't it? You're happy to volunteer for some spare cash, just as long as you also reap the benefits down the road -- your own private investigator shop, Will, don't think I don't know about that. Or the up-front money for Gilli's graphic design business that he already got and never mind Merlin's student loans. Or your florist shop, Sefa. You keep harping about the fucking florist shop."

Mordred's voice got louder toward the end, there was an unexpected wave of wild magic in the house. The wilted flower plant started to bloom again. Gilli belched loudly and unexpectedly as his low-grade appetite for all things magic was sated to overflowing. When Merlin wasn't preoccupied with the amazing sight of Mordred's temper, he'd let himself be impressed by the rare loss of control.

"You don't own him," Mordred repeated. "He's paid us back what he's owed. He's paying us for what we're doing for him. He's promised to give us shite we have no right asking him for in the first place, but you know Merlin. He's going to give it to us anyway because he's a fucking idiot."

"Hey," Merlin murmured, but the protest was quiet. When weighed against how Mordred was speaking up in his defence, Merlin couldn't really bring himself to be insulted.

(Maybe he was a little insulted.)

"So what if he wants to go all-in with this bloke? At least he's showing interest in what Merlin's doing. What the fuck have you done for Merlin, lately? And don't you fucking say you're just watching out for him now. You didn't protest all that loudly about Merlin meeting him in the first place, and I sure didn't hear anything about any of you going along to the meeting to keep him safe, either. What's wrong with you? I don't know if you haven't noticed, but it's dangerous for our kind out there!"

"We know that! And it's not like Merlin can't take care of himself!" Will snapped.

Mordred turned murderous eyes on Will. His voice dropped in volume and in tone, the octave so deep that Merlin felt a chill run down his spine. "Really?"

"You know, I can --" Merlin began, only to wither under Mordred's glare.

"Just like he was able to protect himself after that incident with the vampire nest? I had to drag him to the clinic to give him an emergency IV. What about when the sewer nearly collapsed on top of him, but he didn't see it because the goblin was leading him into a trap? What about --"

"Jesus," Merlin muttered, covering his face with his hand. Maybe he hadn't had the most spectacular start as an Evil Overlord. And he was still figuring out the ins and outs and the tricks of the trade. But Gods, didn't listening to Mordred made him feel as if he really was the biggest fucking useless idiot on the face of the planet. He slowly slid off the sofa.

"And you know something? I'm no different than you greedy gits! All I hear is that Merlin's got a plan for me to be a Healer like I've always wanted to be. I don't much care how, but if letting his bloke help with the company will do it, I'm in fucking favour of it, all right? But the rest of you? You're acting like spoilt brats, whinging about having to share their toys --"

Ugh, Merlin thought to himself. He slunk toward the door. No one noticed his escape -- not Sefa, who was straight-backed and stubborn in the corner; Will, who had lunged to his feet to get into Mordred's face; Gilli, who looked like he'd rather be somewhere else but also couldn't leave as long as Mordred was spilling magic like a sieve; or Freya, who slunk deeper and deeper in her chair, looking guiltier and guiltier with each millimetre she lost into the cushions.

He'd known for a while that his friends asked more of him than he was able to give. He just never gave himself much of a chance to really think about it. They were his friends, not just flatmates, so it wasn't like he was being taken advantage of.

But listening to Mordred spell it out like that? It was a jarring wake-up call, and it forced Merlin to really take a step back and realise just how bad things had gotten.

He'd been the one without a steady job, so he'd kept the house clean as a way of covering some of his rent. Even though he was able to pay his share, he kept cleaning, because no one else would do it. Same thing with the cooking, except when he worked those part time jobs and came home late, he'd still have to cook because everyone else was waiting for him to take care of it. Everyone kept asking for things -- a new printer for Gilli, some expensive sweets for Sefa, volunteering his mornings at the pet rescue with Freya, looking into the private investigator licensing for Will -- and Merlin kept doing. He didn't mind, except, for fuck's sake. He couldn't remember the last time he'd done something purely for himself.

(He couldn't even wank in his room. Someone kept barging in. Taking care of it in the shower was right out. No sooner than his foot stepped into the tub did someone start banging on the door, needing to take a piss. It didn't matter that there was another loo in the house, no other loo would do.)

Merlin picked up his shoes from the pile cluttering the front entrance, worked his way through the obstacle course, and left the house as quietly as he could. Even outside, he could still hear them shouting, except, now he could hear Sefa joining in, Freya leaping up to Mordred's side, and Will growling like he was about to change his shape and tear everyone to shreds.

He considered going back in for all of three seconds.

He headed down the pavement instead, shoulders hunched to his ears, and wished he'd remembered his coat.

Guilt, however, was perfectly well capable of keeping him warm, and Merlin nursed his hurt feelings and his self-sacrificing complex for a few more blocks before deciding that Mordred was right. Nobody owned him. Not his best mates, even if they'd come up with a way for Merlin to make money and had supported him, at least in the beginning, until he could get on his feet. Maybe he owed them a bit, but he already felt raw, as if they'd scooped out his insides with a jagged-edge grapefruit spoon and kept digging for more.

And all that led to one question. Never mind what his friends wanted. What did Merlin want?

His degree, for all that he'd loved his studies, was useless. Most of the jobs in metaphysics and physics were restricted to the public sector, and although the older generation was retiring, the government also wasn't replacing most of the existing positions. The remainder of the careers in the private sector were about as difficult to find as an albino zebra in a Siberian blizzard, but those he had found and applied for had job descriptions that were so boring, Gilli had jokingly wagered that Merlin would quit within three months.

Sadly, Gilli was probably right.

The funny thing was, Merlin liked his current job. Not the one at the charity shop (where he no longer worked, thanks to an unexplainable flood), at the restaurant (where he had no prospects despite his improving culinary skills), or at the laundry (where the highlight of his day was rebuilding the ancient coin slot mechanism to accept bank cards). This ridiculous and completely irrational career, with a made-up title and the permanent looming threat of lifetime imprisonment in the future.

At least as Evil Overlord, Merlin was using his education in ways that refined how he applied his magic to problem-solving difficult situations. He was helping people. He wanted to keep helping people.

And that, he decided, was the crux of the matter. Ignoring the illegalities of his incorrect Registration status and the unfortunate existential negation of the last Evil Overlord's life, Merlin wouldn't be able to maintain the company's forward momentum, keep to the prescribed mandate, and allow himself to be reined in by his friends, who, thanks to Mordred, seemed to have a completely different idea of what to do than what Merlin really wanted.

(To be fair, he hadn't known he wanted it until Arthur had told him what he could do with his position and his company. He didn't like some of Arthur's ideas, Arthur hadn't liked some of his, but, at the crux, at least Arthur had talked to him about it. And he hadn't even been hired yet.)

There still remained the matter of why his friends had had this reaction to Merlin's enthusiasm. They should be fucking glad that he was finally into what he was doing, otherwise they wouldn't get their bloody florist shops, would they?

His phone buzzed.

Merlin almost ignored it in case it was Will or Freya or one of the others texting him to find out where he was and to tell him to return to the flat, but when he glanced at the screen on his mobile, it was a message from Arthur.

I'm moving up the Westminster job. Are you free right now?

"What job?" Merlin frowned, stopped at an intersection, and leaned against a pole while he flipped to his email app and checked for anything new, but the influx had ebbed, lately, especially since no one was re-posting the Craigslist ad to put it back on top of the Recent Entries screen.

(Arthur had discouraged that, anyway, insisting that they needed a more formalised job and contract process than random advertisements on the Internet.)

Is this the one you were talking about at Taliesin's?

Yes, came the quick reply. Then, just as quickly: I'll pick you up. Are you at your flat?

No. Also, I never told you where I lived, Merlin said, frowning. Then, driven by the earlier conversation, he texted, Did you hack my address, too?

There was no answer. Merlin waited until the light changed twice before pushing off from the post and crossing the street. He was halfway there when his mobile buzzed with an incoming call from an unknown number.

Merlin answered, more out of curiosity than common sense, but peevishness drove him to say, "Yello. You are connected to Sheila's Satisfying Sex Strumpets. Our operators are currently indisposed. If you want to wait for the next available --"

"Yes," Arthur said, strangely flustered.

"You want to wait for our next available operator? Good on you, mate. The queue's fairly long, though. I could transfer you to a syndicate network --"

"Yes, Merlin," Arthur said, sounding frustrated.

"I can't guarantee their turn-around times, but you sound like you really need a good one, so, if you'll hold on a second --"

Merlin hung up and pocketed his phone, satisfied. There was a bit of a skip in his step as he walked down the street, and though he wished he'd snatched someone's jumper before he snuck out of the flat, he couldn't really complain. The sun was shining through a rather thick cloud cover, but there was sunshine, for a change, and that, along with ignoring the next few times Arthur rang his mobile, did a great deal to boost his mood.

He picked up on the seventh ring. "Hullu, Joe's Cleaning --"

"Yes, I hacked your address. I hacked everything. I know your bank balance, how much you owe the government, how terribly you failed your driving test, your preferred type of lube, your unhealthy obsession with pineapple pizza, and also, I feel the need to point out that you have questionable taste in wanking material. Tentacle porn? Really?"

Merlin pressed the heel of his free hand against the throbbing vein in his temple. "That's not mine."

"That's what they all say," Arthur said mockingly. Almost immediately, his tone lost all humour. "If you were the well-known son of a media mogul and billionaire philanthropist with an impeccable background and the talent to do so, you'd hack the up-and-coming Evil Overlord to make sure they were worth your while before throwing your lot in with them, right?"

Merlin made a disgruntled noise.

"Wouldn't you?" Arthur pressed.

"Fuck you," Merlin said, but he didn't hang up.

"Now that we have that cleared up, where are you? I'm driving past your flat now. There's a broken window and I hear shouting. Is that why you're in a strop?"

"Ugh," Merlin said. "I'm not fucking fixing that."

"You had better not," Arthur said warningly. "Whatever the problem is, it's not yours. And don't let them expense it to the company, we don't have the insurance set up. And, anyway, it won't cover deliberate property damage."

"I haven't hired you yet. You're not the boss of me," Merlin said mulishly. "Anyways, can't you find me with your hoity-toity talent?"

"No, Merlin, I can't, because I showed you how to turn off the GPS location services on your mobile and programmed in a few extra masking tricks on top of that. Tell me where you are. With luck, I can get you to my tailor and into decent actual clothes, and not that hocus-pocus illusionist bollocks, in time for our appointment this evening."

"Just what -- what appointment?" Merlin hissed.

"Where are -- never mind, I see you. You definitely need a tailor. They'll never let us in if you're wearing torn jeans and a shirt with holes as large as your head in it --"

A car screeched to a stop next to Merlin. It was a sleek, lovely sports car with all the proper curves and engineering delights, in polished silver with gunmetal highlights instead of all that garish chrome that people put on their vehicles nowadays. Merlin didn't know the make or model, though he was sure that if Will were around, not edging toward a rabid rampage, and talking to Merlin, he'd rattle off the statistics right down to the estimated mileage and next due date for an oil change.

The passenger side window slid open, and Merlin heard an echo through the mobile. "-- get in."

He hunched down and peered through. Arthur was in the driver's seat, dressed in charcoal trousers, a lightly patterned matching waistcoat, an off-white shirt with the palest tinges of blue, and a properly-knotted Windsor tie. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to his elbows, his silver (Platinum? It seemed that the prat would have a platinum) watch glinted with reflected sunlight, and he wore a thumb ring that Merlin hadn't noticed before. Between the artful tousle of his gold-blond hair and the pointed glare half-hidden behind his glasses, Arthur looked absolutely devastating.

(Fuck.)

Arthur held out his mobile, very deliberately tapped the Hang-up button, and gestured to the passenger seat.

Merlin huffed a sigh, put away his phone, and climbed in. "I feel like we should have agreed on my fees before I got into your car," he muttered. Then, because he was a bit bitter about the row that had started between him and his flatmates (but which became a row between Mordred and his flatmates), he added, "My pimps are going to be pissed I didn't follow their rules."

Arthur pulled away from the kerb. "Don't be ridiculous, Merlin. I'd have you on permanent retainer. In fact, why aren't you in the hot tub at my flat, feeding yourself strawberries and getting yourself ready for when your sugar daddy gets home?"

"Because I'm allergic to strawberries," Merlin deadpanned. It was better than choking at Arthur's matter-of-fact tone. Between Getting yourself ready and Daddy, he was lucky that he hadn't completely checked out of reality and allowed himself to drown in the fantasy.

"Raspberries, then. Or whatever it is that you prefer. Kiwi? Perhaps mango?"

Jesus. Merlin groaned. He distracted from the rising flush in his cheeks and matching interest below the waist by playing with the window controls. Eventually, he shut the window.

Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Finally, Arthur said, "I'm going to give you until we get to my tailor's to finish brooding. Once we get there, you're going to tell me what's going on."

"You're not the boss of me," Merlin said again, though the protest sounded weak even to his own ears.

The truth was, he needed to talk to someone who would understand the situation -- and not get stuck on the whole Evil Overlord aspect and get him arrested. There weren't that many people in the know. Lance was a nice bloke and they got on well, but Merlin wasn't sure if he was ready to confide in someone who saw the absolute good in everyone, mainly because he might not see the good in Merlin. He didn't know Percival all that well, and anyone else Merlin might have spoken to was right out. They were all currently angry with him.

That left Arthur, who cut through all the bollocks and bluster, aiming for the heart of the matter. He'd lay it out for Merlin, good and bad, whether he wanted to hear it or not. He'd make a good second-in-command, Merlin reflected, except for his tendency to boss around his boss.

(Fine. He made the decision to hire Arthur that very same night after Taliesin's. It was both an impossible and an easy decision to make. Arthur was rich, proper, and a bloody force of nature. Merlin was poor, crass, and a bloody force of nature. They complemented each other. Merlin would have had to be blind not to see that, and stupid to let someone of Arthur's quality get away.

However, he was going to dangle the question of Arthur's state of employment as long as he could. Arthur was so confident and cocksure about everything else; watching him twist in the wind a bit was cruel, yes, but fun to watch.)

Still, it didn't mean that Merlin was ready to talk about it. He wasn't sure he even had the words. Somehow, having a deadline made him hurry up and sort through what he was feeling.

Arthur turned on the music. A few minutes of hasty introspection later, Merlin turned the music off. "Repeating for the official record, I don't know what you're on about. What Westminster job? What does a tailor have anything to do with it?"

Merlin endured the sidelong appraising look from Arthur, which became quiet consideration when Arthur stopped at the next red light and turned to study him. Then, as if deciding on something, Arthur nodded to himself, turned back to the art of driving, and accelerated through the green light.

"The secret to a business' success is the continuing propagation of good recommendations. Your existing clients already like you, they pass on your contact information to other people, and so on and so forth. This will make me sound like a snob --"

"Because nothing else you've said so far has well established that you are a snob," Merlin said.

"-- but what EOI needs the most is the sort of legitimacy that will prevent anyone from closing you down. The best way to achieve that legitimacy is to have a large upper class clientele."

"Taliesin's," Merlin said, catching on.

"It was quite the fluke to find them in your Inbox, desperate for solutions to their little problem. And if I know anything about old families, rich people, and nouveau riche, it's that as much as they enjoy the popularity afforded them by their position in society, their money, and their name, there's a certain sort of attention that they don't want, and that's bad publicity."

"Boggart infestation," Merlin said, rather pleased with himself for coming to the realisation. A restaurant would hate it if it got out that they had cockroaches, months ago, after they sorted themselves out and had nothing but glowing health inspections afterward. He could see how the more fastidious upper class would react the same way. Boggarts could ruin a reputation as surely as a cockroach.

"Taliesin's paid for our discretion in handling the matter. As much as they wanted the boggarts gone, they also wanted them to stay gone, hence the service contract, and that no one ever hears about it. That's why they agreed to the inflated fees. Nothing is worth more to these people than their social status, and since we have no competition in this business, we can happily take advantage of it to set our own prices however we like," Arthur said.

Merlin nodded, even though he was busy trying to remember whether he'd mentioned Taliesin's to anyone. He had talked to the others about meeting Arthur and the subsequent job, but he was fairly certain he hadn't called the business by name. Still -- "Wait, we can't set them so high that normal people can't afford us," Merlin said.

"However we like," Arthur repeated, and Merlin grunted, satisfied. He squirmed in his seat, stuck a leg out in the ridiculously roomy sports car, and magnanimously gestured with his hand for Arthur to get on with it. Arthur rolled his eyes, took a left turn, and was silent for a few minutes before he spoke again. "Discretion is worth more than valour. So, if Mr. Taliesin the elder -- or the younger -- happens to hear about one of their friends finding themselves in a spot of trouble, they'll recommend you without hesitation. Those friends will, in turn, recommend you to their friends, and so on, until you have a nice, fat bank account, a client list full of dirty secrets, and people who would absolutely be mortified if the legal system went after you for any reason.

"In other words, what we're doing is ensuring that EOI endures no matter what legal complications we might encounter, and we're going to do it by putting the upper class under our thumb. One fat cat at a time."

This was the sort of completely underhanded thinking that Merlin would never have come up with on his own, and that he was pretty sure that none of his mates would have, either, because it required a particular understanding of how certain levels of society worked. It also sounded like it would require a great deal of delicate handling to manipulate successfully, and delicate handling was not something he could subscribe to anyone in his close group of friends and allies. Arthur, on the other hand...

"Which brings us to Westminster," Arthur said. "Taliesin's supplies and maintains the instruments for popular A-list musical artists, orchestral choirs, and the largest theatres in London. We were bound to get a recommendation sooner or later, though this is far sooner than I expected."

"So where are we going?"

"The Other Palace," Arthur said with a gleeful grin. "Formerly known as St. James Theatre, formerly Charlotte Chapel, formerly --"

"A Roman graveyard," Merlin finished, remembering the Wikipedia page. "Well, fuck."

"Exactly," Arthur said. "It just so happens to be in...?"

"Westminster," Merlin grumbled. "But what's wrong with my clothes?"

"Presentation, my friend. Presentation is everything. If you're going to be an Evil Overlord, bloody well dress like one."

 

 

Sixteen outfits later, Arthur was still trying to decide whether he was a sadist -- for inflicting this outrage on a stroppy Merlin, or a masochist -- because of the suffering he was enduring having to watch Merlin being trotted around half-naked, or paraded in sinful suits that should be the only thing he wore.

(Arthur decided that, as soon as everyone, in particular, the werewolf, was out of the flat, he was going to break in, steal all of Merlin's ratty clothes, and burn them. On principle.)

"I can't afford this," Merlin said glumly, picking at the edge of his suit jacket. Arthur wanted to slap his hand away; he was ruining the line.

"You just made thirty thousand pounds, you can afford it," Arthur said.

"I've got expenses," Merlin snapped. "The rent on my flat, my part of the utilities and groceries, and, oh, let's not forget the heavy cloud of student loans. My PhD was not cheap."

"God forbid you miss a payment," Arthur said, calmly. Logically, he knew that he couldn't sympathise with Merlin's plight. He'd never had to worry about money. Because of that, he didn't have the same priorities when it came to having money. He should shut up before he made a bigger arse out of himself.

"Then there's paying Sefa for all the accounting that she's doing, reimbursing Mordred for all the medical supplies from two weeks ago -- don't ask --"

"I wasn't going to," Arthur said.

(He already knew, anyway. Werewolves and water didn't mix. Werewolves, water, and electric eels didn't mix. Werewolves, water, electric eels, and a sorcerer who had the genius idea of using himself as a lightning rod to give the werewolf a chance to escape? An even worse cocktail, with the added onus of Merlin being unable to heal himself the way a werewolf could.

Personally, Arthur would have simply drained the tank. On the other hand, the eels might have been seriously injured in the process, or they might have died. The hydra would've survived. Hydras were the assholes of the supernatural world, and they could survive nearly everything.

Arthur couldn't criticise Merlin's course of action, because the electric eels were apparently a rare breed and the aquarium was barely scraping by on public donations and ticket sales as it was. If Merlin hadn't cornered the hydra snacking on the electric eels in the first place, the aquarium would have been forced to shut down, since their current main attraction were the exotic electric eels and the fireworks show they gave every day -- twice a day during the summer when kids weren't in school.

Merlin's trick had been successful: the eels had survived, the hydra had retreated to have a good sulk in the darkest corner of a newly reinforced tank, and everyone was happy. However, Merlin could've done without the werewolf falling into the fucking tank in the first place, cocking things up spectacularly.)

"Then there's Will's bodyguard fees, paying Freya back for all the take-away she picked up for us three days ago, and, oh --" Merlin flinched when the tailor's needle came too close to his family jewels, and Arthur rolled his eyes. Franklin was a professional. He didn't poke anyone with a needle unless they were being ornery. "I mentioned the business cards to Gilli. He'll probably want you to pay him for using the logo without his permission, and I'm going to have to figure out how to pay him for his time and the business cards he's going to make, because he says the ones you put together were garbage."

"I'm not a graphic designer," Arthur admitted.

"Anyway --" Merlin paused, watching Franklin warily, but the tailor took the needles out of his mouth, stuck them into the needle pillow around his wrist, and muttered, Don't move. "Anyway, I'm pretty sure the thirty thousand is already used up and that I can't afford to breathe the air in here."

"The air is specially imported," Franklin said, coming back with a miniature chalk pen. "One pound per minute."

Merlin waved a hand toward Franklin, nearly smacking the tailor in the head. Franklin's reflexes were well honed, and he made the simple act of ducking a deliberately graceful crouch as he went to mark a few lines along Merlin's inseam, the lucky bastard. "See?"

"He's joking," Arthur said.

"I'm really not," Franklin said seriously, looking over his glasses.

Merlin's eyes were as round as saucers, and Arthur enjoyed the panic for all of half a second before he reassured, again, "He's joking."

Franklin shrugged. He neither confirmed or denied it as he moved away from the platform and gestured toward the change rooms. "You may remove the trousers, sir. My assistant finished tailoring the first set and one of the shirts Mr. Pendragon selected; they should be hanging in the room for you now."

"Do I have to come back out?" Merlin asked plaintively.

"I believe we're done for the day. I have all the measurements I need in order to fill the remainder of the wardrobe Mr. Pendragon requested," Franklin said.

"What wardrobe?" Merlin asked, his voice a higher pitch than normal.

"Don't worry about it," Arthur said, herding Merlin to the change room. If he hadn't taken on the job of escorting Merlin around the shop, they would never have finished this quickly. Even with the end in sight, Merlin stubbornly dragged his heels to the back of the room. Arthur took up his post next to the door, which was largely unnecessary now that they were done and Arthur didn't need to guard against Merlin's escape.

Though, in retrospect, he'd likely ignore the new clothes and wear his charity shop cast-offs, so it was a good thing that Arthur had followed along, even if it was to his sanity's detriment.

"Your T-shirt and jeans," Arthur ordered, sticking his arm over the partition. He tried -- and failed, again -- to ignore the bare shoulders and delectable collarbones. "Give them to me now."

(He should win a fucking award for keeping his voice steady.)

"Don't burn them. I know you're thinking about it. Don't do it," Merlin insisted.

(Arthur should also receive his duly-deserved accolades for not immediately throwing those clothes in the bin. Instead, he folded them nicely and placed them in the plastic bag that Franklin's clever assistant, Clements, delivered less than twenty seconds later.)

Merlin emerged from the changing room -- more of a changing partition, though, with all the bells and whistles that came with a high-end shop with its own private tailor and expert seamstress -- looking absolutely delectable in single-pleated off-navy trousers and crisp soft grey button-down. He also looked absolutely fucking miserable, so Arthur made a snap decision as he stepped into Merlin's space.

"Arms," Arthur ordered. Merlin stuck out his right; Arthur unbuttoned the cuff and began folding the sleeve to the elbow. "First of all, I'm investing in your company whether or not you hire me, which, for the record, would be to your detriment if you don't. Forget about paying for the clothes. They're on me --"

He paused to give Franklin a significant look, and the tailor, without so much as looking up, nodded as if it was a fait accompli regardless.

"And I don't want to hear any protests," Arthur said, matching Merlin's left sleeve to the other. Merlin didn't look as if he were about to -- if anything, he looked like he was about to faint -- and Arthur continued, "So let's not discuss this again. Finally, I've allowed you to dither long enough. Why were you upset earlier? All this talk about money, is that the problem?"

"No. I... Yes. Also, no," Merlin admitted. He swallowed hard just as Arthur cuffed him lightly on the jaw, raising his chin. Arthur forced himself to focus on what he was doing and nothing more -- not the smooth curve of Merlin's neck, not the grubby but sinful scruff at his chin, and definitely not the glimpse of collarbone as he roughly unbuttoned the top button of the shirt.

"Your employees?"

Merlin winced, and Arthur knew he'd hit on the problem. Honestly, he wasn't sure why it should surprise him. Arthur held out his hand -- Franklin dropped a silk tie into his palm as he bustled about. Arthur approved of the tricolour blue with faint touches of silver and sparse but shocking highlights of red, and tossed it around Merlin's neck.

"Either they want more money --" Arthur trimmed down his list of possibilities at Merlin's downcast eyes and stiff shake of his head. "Or they are unhappy with the direction the company is going in --" Again, Arthur had to revise his opinion of Merlin's friends when Merlin's head tilted and he looked off to the side. "Or they hate me with the passion of a thousand suns and believe that I am the devil for influencing you to think for yourself and what you want to do with the company."

Merlin's flinch was audible, and Arthur knew he'd struck gold. Unfortunately.

"I have questions. May I ask them?" Arthur asked, fiddling with Merlin's collar. He thought about all the training he'd taken in preparation for his application to MI5 and how he'd rigorously maintained his regime despite being relegated to a desk job for the last several years. Off the top of his head, he could think of several ways in which he could kill Merlin right now, and really? He was going to have to instill a healthy sense of self-preservation in this fledging Evil Overlord, and soon.

"Sure," Merlin said. His mouth tugged in one corner, as if in an aborted attempt to smile. He looked so sad that, no, that just wouldn't do. But first things first, and he'd sweeten Merlin up later. Maybe with some chocolate. Based on all the purchases on his bank card, Arthur had decided that Merlin had a sweet tooth.

"Do you pay them a salary?"

"Uh," Merlin said, which answered the question Arthur already had an answer to. In fact, he already knew how Merlin was going to answer, if he was going to answer honestly at all.

"Do they have employment contracts outlining their hours, job responsibilities, and benefits?" Arthur asked.

Merlin rubbed the side of his head.

"Are there any itemised expense reports turned in before they are reimbursed for their expenses?"

"Ugh," Merlin said, by which he clearly meant "no", as Arthur expected.

Arthur knotted the proper Windsor tightly, holding it there for an annoyed second. Merlin, surprisingly, didn't retaliate -- didn't so much as notice, which galled Arthur. Surely such an act should acquire Merlin's complete attention. Or at least spark his survival instinct, but then again, Arthur had already established that Merlin didn't have any.

After a moment of contemplation --

(By Gods, Merlin's eyes were really blue. Arthur couldn't decide whether he wanted to harass Merlin into shaving the stubble along his jaw or not. It was a Herculean task to keep from kissing those lips. How did people do this?)

-- Arthur indulged in a bit more self-punishment and, after messily loosening Merlin's necktie, unfastened another button of Merlin's shirt.

"All right," Arthur said. Then, borrowing from Morgana's This is what you're going to do, and you're going to do it because I said so Boss Lady tone of voice, Arthur sternly added, "This is what you're going to do, and you're going to do it because I said so --"

Merlin snorted, and this time, yes, there was a sparkle of amusement in his eyes and the tug of a smile on Merlin's lips.

Success! Arthur decided, but pressed on regardless. "After this evening's job, you and I are going to visit a lawyer, who will have all the appropriate paperwork for the establishment of the legal corporate entity that is Evil Overlord, Inc. She will have employment contracts for all of your employees, as well as full descriptions of their job descriptions, the terms of which are all negotiable --"

"Is there a contract for you in there?" Merlin interrupted.

Arthur faltered. He found his voice a moment later, and said, "Well. I didn't want to presume."

"Bollocks," Merlin snorted, and there was a fondness in his tone that made Arthur's heart stutter. Arthur leaned forward, unable to stop himself, but at least he was sufficiently well-trained that he turned his awkward instinct to kiss Merlin into a graceful lunge for one of the folded handkerchiefs that Franklin's assistant was carrying out of the stockroom.

(The assistant startled, but good breeding and poise kept him from dropping his expensive burden. He eyed Arthur and Merlin, curled his lip in a knowing smirk, and left them alone. Arthur would tip him, later.)

"You already signed your own contract and you can't tell me otherwise," Merlin said.

"Well, in that case, I won't," Arthur said, frowning as he concentrated on folding the handkerchief into a perfect square for the pocket of Merlin's single-breasted suit jacket.

"And anyway," Merlin continued, as if Arthur hadn't spoken, "What are a stack of employment contracts going to do, anyway? My friends' noses are already bent out of shape --"

"They'll stay that way until you straighten them out," Arthur said firmly. "It might have been their idea for you to go on this path, but you are the one who is doing all the work. You are not the employee -- you are the very reason that the company exists, not them, because the first advertisement of your services would not have happened if it wasn't for you."

Merlin ducked his head, but that was a good sign. It meant that Arthur was merely echoing what Merlin was already thinking, but he was going to need to proceed very carefully from this point forward. An Evil Overlord with a too-large ego would become frightfully unwieldly to manage, even for Arthur.

"However, now that EOI is becoming a legitimate business venture," Arthur said, mincing his words a tiny little bit because legitimate and Evil Overlord was something of an oxymoron, given Great Britain's history with them, "It's time to set boundaries and guidelines establishing the proper code of conduct for your staff. You need to set out your expectations; they need to know what's expected of them. Despite occasional acts of outright rebellion, people like rules, as long as those rules are reasonable and equitable."

"Is that why you boss me around?" Merlin asked.

"Are you signing my employment contract?" Arthur countered.

"I'll give it a read-through," Merlin allowed slowly, which was as good as a Yes, in Arthur's opinion.

"Then, absolutely, yes. I am bossing you around. That will be one of my privileges as your second-in-command. It's going to be my responsibility to ensure that the proper people are in the positions of responsibility to fulfill your vision for the company, which, in turn, means that you'll have more time to do what's important to you. And if I have to tell you what to do in order to make certain that you stay happy..."

Arthur trailed off. He was still on-script, even if the script had only been written on the car ride over and while Merlin had been changing into the first few outfits Franklin had shoved into his arms, but he had to wonder if he was pushing a little too hard.

"They don't like you. Did you know that?" Merlin asked, sad, as if it mattered to him that all of his mates get along.

Arthur's instinctive, I don't really care if they like me or not, they don't have to like me as long as they do their jobs, died a quick death in the back of his throat when he realised that little nugget of information. Odds were stacked firmly against Arthur ever establishing any kind of friendly terms with Merlin's circle, but it would do him no hardship to be seen making an attempt, and remaining civil when Merlin's friends started picking fights like territorial roosters at a cockfight.

"I don't see why. I'm a likeable bloke," Arthur said, giving Merlin his most winning grin. Merlin's eye roll was accompanied by a sardonic smile, and Arthur shrugged. "They don't know me. Maybe that's part of the problem. I'll work on that, but only if you agree to sorting this out properly."

"Fine," Merlin said, resigned -- but also, Arthur was happy to note, relieved. Merlin was an intelligent fellow with a high level of empathy for those who were close to him. He must have realised that he was more likely to lose his friends forever if things continued the way they did, and that if he followed Arthur's suggestion, the worst outcome was that he would lose them only for a short time.

"Very good. Don't worry. I promise it will all work out," Arthur said. He stared down at the wrinkled snarl of silk in his hands.

Arthur gave up on the handkerchief and settled for shoving the silky piece into Merlin's front pocket as messily as possible. It would go with the insouciance of his just-rolled-out-of-bed haircut, the scandalously-unbuttoned shirt, and the artfully tied I-made-an-attempt tie. A slightly undone appearance would go far in making an Evil Overlord personable and likeable. It helped that Merlin was naturally earnest and innocently charming, too. Without even trying, Merlin could win over the most critical audience in a London theatre.

As it happened, that was exactly what Merlin was going to have to do, one hour later, when they arrived at The Other Palace and were greeted by the hard faces of the property owner, the Director of the current show, and the two high-maintenance actors, all of whom wore expressions that they were quite done with this bollocks, Thank you very much.

"I don't care what it is, where it came from, or why it's here. I want it gone. Gone. Is that clear?" the owner bellowed, getting right into Merlin's personal space.

Merlin, who was too busy looking around -- fortunately, not with the familiar tourist-gawk of someone who hadn't visited the former St. James Theatre, before the recent renovations and re-branding -- barely noticed the short, squat, rotund owner, leaving Arthur to deal with them. "I assure you --"

"And I don't want this in the papers. I don't want anyone to breathe a word of it. I don't want anyone to know about it. Just do... do whatever. Whatever it takes, do you understand me?" The owner was poking a thick finger in Merlin's chest, right in the middle, and was giving the sternum quite a beating.

Merlin, noticing the owner for the first time, stared down at the finger.

"Um," Arthur said. He might not know Merlin all that well, but there were certain inappropriate things that One Must Never Do To Aggravate An Evil Overlord.

(There was even a book with that title -- out of print, nowadays, but it had sold out quickly and had gone into eight revised editions before the government shut down the small, single-title press. Arthur owned three copies, each with new information, and corresponded with the reclusive author on a regular basis. Although there was no tangible proof of it, Arthur suspected that the author was an Evil Overlord, herself, only, she'd been smart enough to get out of the game after a spectacular "demise".)

"You may not want to --" Arthur said, trying to interrupt the owner while gesturing to the way he was practically hammering his fingernail into Merlin's nice, new shirt.

"And you have to do it for a reasonable fee. The Taliesin brothers might have been hoodwinked into paying your excessive fees --"

Merlin looked up, then, his expression mild and beatific. "Are you terribly attached to your hand?"

"-- but my sainted mother didn't raise any fools, and..." the owner stuttered to a stop. "What?"

"Your hand," Merlin said, raising an eyebrow. He helpfully pointed to the hand attached to the finger that was unacceptably wrinkling his loosened, suddenly-crooked, but perfectly knotted tie.

"Uh," the owner said.

"The average individual can insure their hand for up to two hundred thousand pounds. A gifted musician, for example, who makes their living and reputation using their hands, can insure them for much more," Merlin said, friendly and casual, as if he were talking about the weather. "On the black market, there's really not that much transplant value to them. Maybe some bloke's missing a finger; wants it replaced, but it'll only cost him a few hundred quid, assuming he cares about making the finger match the rest of him."

The owner made a strange sound and glanced at the Director and the two leads of the show, all of whom were staring at Merlin, wide-eyed. Truth be told, Arthur was staring at Merlin, a little wide-eyed, too, though for completely different reasons.

(How the Hell did Merlin know this? Arthur wasn't sure about the pricing scheme, but he knew that sometimes, people bought the weirdest things on the black market. That used to be part of his job. However, that didn't explain how a physics student would know that in the first place.

But that wasn't what absorbed Arthur's complete attention. Merlin was bloody hot when he made threats. He had a previously-undiscovered talent for it, it seemed.)

"On the other hand, if someone's really hurting for money and makes the right connections, they can sell their hand to a black magic broker for tens of thousands. Some hands are worth more than others. Soft, virgin hands --" Merlin took a hold of the owner's wrist, twisting it around in a tight grip until the palm was upraised, "Like yours, especially if they've been aged well, can be sold at an underground auction for about twenty-five thousand pounds."

The owner pulled at their arm ineffectually and with increasing panic.

Merlin's smile was sweet and friendly and a whole lot of scary. Arthur felt himself swallow discreetly, even though he was reminding himself, over and over, that Merlin was an innocent sort of person who didn't seem to have the personality to hurt a fly. He wasn't really the Evil Overlord that Arthur wanted him to be -- though he was doing a damn good job of it right now.

Arthur gave Merlin his best placid, What the fuck are you doing right now raised eyebrow, which only seemed to make Merlin's smile just that tiny bit more manic. Arthur shrugged, mostly to himself, and wondered if this was payback for having dragged Merlin to the tailor.

Abruptly, Merlin let the owner go. The owner squealed, nearly tumbled into the seats behind them, and held their hand close to their chest, as if it was their most precious possession.

Merlin hummed to himself and looked around, as if the whole conversation bored him, but Arthur saw the opportunity for what it was. Calmly, Arthur volunteered, "Our debts collection department is rather draconian about recouping our losses resulting from non-payment. They're quite effective, though, so we can't complain about their tactics. However, if you find yourself short on funds, currently, our billings department has put together a low-interest monthly payment plan --"

"I'll pay!" the owner blurted out, and hastily made their exit.

The Director looked at her two leads. Her two leads looked at each other. They looked back at their Director. The Director looked at Merlin, then at Arthur, and back at Merlin. The two actors looked at Arthur, then at Merlin, and back at Arthur.

The Director was a lovely woman in her mid-thirties with long wavy black hair, a creative but fashionable style in clothes, and a somewhat harried look to her, if one noticed that she neglected to finish applying eyeshadow on her right eyelid. She took a deep breath, clapped her hands together, and said, "Well, now that the nasty business of money has been addressed, shall we discuss the problem?"

"Certainly, Ms. Leodegrace," Merlin said, which made the woman blink.

All four of them -- the Director, the two actors, and Arthur -- gave Merlin a strange look. "How did you know my name?"

Merlin produced the theatre booklet from seemingly nowhere, flipped the first few pages open before holding it up to the Production Crew section. Gwen Leodegrace's photograph and brief biographical blurb was situated prominently at the top. The print quality was shite, which was unfortunate. Theatre booklets were supposed to be high quality and collectible, provided enterprising fans put in the effort of getting the signatures. This one, however, looked like someone had stuck it in a photocopying machine from the early 2000's, limping along crookedly and streaking ink.

Gwen blushed, a little embarrassed at not having to caught on, and chuckled as if it should have been perfectly obvious.

"Incidentally, I know a bloke who does a fantastic job with marketing and promotions," Merlin said, fishing out a business card out of, again, seemingly nowhere. "Excellent prices and customer services. You should call Mr. Du Lac and see what he can do about this travesty. The photograph doesn't do you justice. Nothing about this booklet does, actually."

Gwen sighed, the actress blurted out, "I told you!", and the actor rubbed his head as if it was a long-standing argument that he didn't want to hash out right now.

"The owner makes the final decisions, I'm afraid," Gwen admitted.

"In that case, do tell him that Dr. M very strongly insisted," Arthur said, cutting in before they went completely off-track. "He's only thinking of the good of the theatre, of course."

Gwen's mouth quirked into a wry smile, and she looked from Arthur to Merlin and asked, "A patron of the arts, then?"

"I'm afraid Dr. M hasn't had much time to indulge in his personal interests," Arthur said, a little testily. He felt a bit guilty about his manner at Gwen's put-out look, but he pressed on, hoping that everyone would get on board with the hint he was very unsubtly about to drop: "His schedule has been quite full, lately."

"I do like fractal art," Merlin said, seguing into something that made Gwen smile brightly in delight and caused the actor to make a noise of interest. Arthur groaned inwardly, but was pleasantly surprised when Merlin smiled charmingly and said, "But I'm afraid my Second is correct. I don't want to rush through the resolution of your troubles, but I do have an appointment later this evening."

"In that case," Gwen said, smiling brightly, "Let me give you the tour."

They didn't get very far through what was a whirlwind historical lesson of the former Charlotte Chapel-turned-St-James-Theatre before the actor, walking behind Arthur and Merlin, piped up, "I've been here a few times before the renovation and the rebrand, for this show or that show. I can tell you with all honesty that I haven't seen anything like this happen before."

"Like what, exactly?" Merlin asked.

"Well, it's random," the actress said, laughing a bit. Her laugh was like wind chimes, tinkling lightly, but it sounded hollow. Arthur chalked it up to nerves. "My make-up case would be moved from one side of the table to the other. Or the entire wardrobe is missing and it's on the other side of the stage that it's supposed to be during a show."

"The lights are the wrong colour, or they won't come on," the actor said. "The curtains won't open all the way, or they won't close. Entire sets go missing, the prop someone walks onto the stage with isn't the prop that they actually have, or the costumes are for a completely different play altogether."

"The orchestra gets the wrong music, or the music they're playing isn't the music people hear," the actress said, wringing her hands. "Someone recites their lines, but nobody can hear them, while someone else sounds like a bloody opera singer."

"Occasional animal noises," the actor said, looking thoughtful. "Almost like the Amazon, if you ask me."

"And there's the attacks," the actress said.

"Attacks?" Merlin and Arthur asked simultaneously, then glanced at each other. Merlin's raised brow was questioning, Arthur's frown was denying, because he didn't know anything about it, and when they turned to Gwen, she gave them a defeated look.

"We're missing our lead actor," she admitted.

Merlin and Arthur exchanged looks again. Then, Merlin turned to the actor. "You're not the lead?"

"Not officially," he said with a wince. "I'm the understudy. The third understudy, actually, because the first and second understudies also went --"

"Missing," Merlin finished for him, sighing to himself when the actor nodded his head frantically.

"As soon as the notice went out," the actor said. "I'm not interested in vanishing. I have three cats! Who's going to take care of them if I disappear? My boyfriend? I don't think so. He can barely take care of himself --"

"I'm pretty sure we have a ghost," the actress interrupted. "A really, really angry ghost."

Arthur looked at her doubtfully. He wasn't an expert on the supernatural, but he was willing to bank that it might be something as simple as a pixie infestation, or possibly something as simple as an interdimensional glitch.

"I know what I'm talking about," the actress insisted. "I've been haunted! I know what that's like! I've seen all those Ghost Hunters shows, too. I know the symptoms."

"So, you've noticed cold spots, have you?" Arthur asked, trying to sound a little earnest. He figured, the faster he got information out of them, the faster Merlin would resolve the problem, and the faster they could get out of here. He might want to ensure that Merlin made all the right connections -- even intimidating the rich owner of the theatre was a connection in its own right, even if Merlin had scared the shite out of them -- but he was just as keen to open a bottle of beer and veg out in front of the telly.

"Of course I have!" the actress said.

"Drafty theatre," the actor said, sotto voce.

"Noticed electromagnetic disturbances?" Arthur asked.

"All the time! My watch doesn't work anymore!"

"Change the bloody battery," the actor said, rolling his eyes.

"What about --"

"It's not a ghost," Merlin said, finally returning his attention to the conversation. For a second, Arthur had thought he'd have to elbow Merlin.

"Oh, thank God," Gwen said, relieved.

"You don't know what you're talking about," the actress said.

"What is it?" the actor asked.

With all the flair and drama of an actual Evil Overlord, Merlin paused for a long time before answering, "Your theatre is alive, and her name is Charlotte."

No one spoke. This was a new one on Arthur, too, and he processed the information for a few minutes before finally saying, "Charlotte chapel."

"Yeah," Merlin said, but with the sort of drawl an university professor threw in when they were hoping that their student made the connection themselves. Arthur had no idea where else he could go with it until --

"Charlotte Chapel," Arthur blurted out, the realisation hitting him like a ton of bricks. "It was never a church or sanctified ground. It was a person?"

"Might've been," Merlin said, giving Arthur the sort of proud little smile that Arthur had never gotten enough of growing up, and that he promised to collect as often as possible from Merlin from this point onward. "I'm not entirely sure. She's pretty old, though, and I think..."

"This is such a load of crock," the actress scoffed. "Buildings can't be aliv--"

The floor opened up under her feet. She fell through with a screeched, "--eeeEEEE!" The floor closed up beneath her feet.

They all stared at the floor for a minute. Gwen and the actor took a prudent step back. Arthur had to suppress the urge to do the same, but he would absolutely not be shown up by Merlin, who didn't look the least bit fazed, so he stayed where he was.

"I think," Merlin said, picking up where he left off before the interruption, "I could probably talk to her, negotiate some sort of peace agreement? Maybe convince her to help the show, rather than hinder it?"

"Oh, could you?" Gwen beamed, stars in her eyes.

(Charlotte, according to Merlin, was a sweet old... lady? house? who was a little bit lonely and a whole lot cantankerous. She didn't like the play, but more than that, she didn't like the lead actors at all because they were horrible singers. To spare her own sensibilities, she'd elected to simply remove them from the stage. They were all right, Charlotte promised, merely in a state of suspended animation. She'd restore them -- and, yes, the actress too, once she was over her hissy fit -- once the current play's run was finished.

Much to Arthur's delight, they both received lifetime season tickets as part of their payment plan. Just to keep an eye on things, of course.)

Chapter Text

 

 

Four hundred and eighty-seven signatures.

Merlin shook his hand out and stared at the desk in consternation. The desk itself was heavy rosewood, elaborately carved, and laid out in a sleek, modern design that somehow made it feel ancient and ponderous at the same time. No doubt it was well-constructed, because it was solid enough to carry the weight of an entire other tree.

One pile of papers was all the paperwork for the establishment of Evil Overlord, Inc. as a legal company. A shorter stack contained the contracts for his mates -- all of them quite reasonable and open to negotiation; he'd be taking those back to the flat with him, later, and hope that no one hated him too much.

Surprisingly, Arthur's employment contract had been fairly straightforward. It was agreed that, with all of the investments Arthur was putting in, he would have equal share in the company, as well as nearly equal say. Merlin's extra 1% still gave him veto power over any of Arthur's decisions, which had gone a long way to reassuring Merlin that Arthur really was a good bloke, deep down. If one looked past the spoilt prat.

Another stack of papers had to do with legalities. Merlin's Power of Attorney declaration, in case things ever went wrong. Merlin's Will and Testament, in case things went really wrong. There was an emergency fund for, well, emergencies, insurance paperwork against disasters, and supernatural incidents and acts of gods and goddesses, a retainer for Morgana LeFay-Pendragon's company for every lawful eventuality, up to and including Merlin's probable future arrest as a danger to the country, and a whole slew of Other ThingsTM that Merlin couldn't remember right now.

His arm throbbed.

"Now that this is out of the way," Morgana said, sitting down in the seat next to Merlin, "Let's have us a chat."

"Um," Merlin said, because, well. Morgana.

Morgana was a beautiful woman. As a gay man who had no interest whatsoever in most other gender of the species beyond male, Merlin could freely admit that. She had pale, porcelain skin, ruby-red lips, almond-shaped eyes in sparkling colours, and wavy hair so brown it was nearly black. She was slim to the point that Merlin wondered if he should insist she eat something, but the way her pencil skirt and white blouse was awfully loose hinted that the weight loss was recent and unexpected.

"Okay," Merlin said, because, well. Morgana.

Merlin could recognise supernatural creatures on sight. The caveat was that he could also tell when a normal human being was gifted with supernatural ability, too. And, however dangerous Merlin expected Morgana was in the legal field, Merlin was far more dangerous in his own specialty.

He settled himself comfortably in his chair, elbows on the armrests, and asked, "What did you See?"

Morgana began to speak, only to falter. Her mouth dropped open, and she stared.

Then, very slowly, she looked around the room. Her colour went a little grey; her eyes were wide with alarm and dread, and those finely manicured fingernails were digging deep into the upholstery of the chair. Merlin was glad to see that she was rending leather, and not him. Why would she --

"Oh, fuck," Merlin said, smacking himself on the forehead. "Sorry. Look, no, it's all right, the building's nearly empty. There's only the guards on the ground floor and a few cleaning people on the fourth. If you're worried about listening devices, well, my mate, Will? He's such a fucking blabbermouth that lately I've been making these big bubbles of silence to keep people from overhearing things they shouldn't. It's kind of automatic by now. Trust me, I'm really not the sort to out people like that --"

Merlin turned his head off to the side.

When Arthur had brought him to the building and up to the ninth floor, Merlin had hastily sketched a ward with his finger on the outer privacy and enhanced security partition that led to the law offices of Aglain, DeBois and LeFay-Pendragon. The ward triggered now, and he cast out his senses to see who had just entered through the front doors.

"Arthur's here. Should I shut up?"

Morgana blinked at him, eyes large and owl-like. "How --"

"Wards," Merlin said. "Well. Just the one, really, but there's only one way in, and, yeah. Ward."

"Why --"

Merlin shifted uncomfortably. "I can't help it, not these days. I mean, I grew up paranoid about the whole Registration bollocks. Mum lied on my forms, and if they ever found out, I'm pretty sure they'd have me strapped to an examination table so fast, my head would still be spinning while they cut me open to find out what makes me tick. I'm not so sure that's not going to happen, especially if this is going to happen --"

Merlin waved at the papers on the table.

"And if I go along with Arthur's plans --"

He thumbed over his shoulder to point at Arthur just as he entered the office.

"The odds of that wide-awake autopsy actually happening increases exponentially, and, fuck."

Merlin shut up, his entire body twitching. He pressed the heel of his hand against his throbbing head. Charlotte Chapel was a sweet old entity, but the theatre was large and there had been a lot of Charlotte to contend with. Merlin needed two shots of strong tequila, a good, hard shag, and at least twelve hours of sleep to even make a dent in the ringing that was still echoing in his head now that she was out of it. Unfortunately, Arthur hadn't given him a moment's peace, which was why he was in a pristine law office, hand cramped, head throbbing, instead of in his nice, warm bed.

"Did I miss something?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," Merlin said.

"No," Morgana said.

Merlin pinched the bridge of his nose. "Can I go home now?"

"No," Morgana said.

"Yes," Arthur said.

Merlin rubbed his hand all over his face and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. A coffee cup floated in front of him and Merlin grabbed it before it vanished.

Arthur handed Morgana another coffee, left his own on the desk, and opened up a box of sweets and pastries. He passed it around. Morgana helped herself to a chocolate-covered croissant. Merlin held up a hand in a No, thank you, gesture when it came his way. Arthur held it under his nose until he gave in, selecting something deep-fried and obscenely sugar-covered.

While Merlin chewed dutifully through the pastry, which might as well have been a bag of sugar for all that it made his teeth hurt, Arthur pulled a small device out of his trouser pocket and walked around with it held up in front of him. After several minutes, he slapped the device shut, put it back in his pocket, and retrieved his coffee.

"What did I miss?" he asked, reaching for a pastry.

"Did you tell him?" Morgana accused, narrow-eyed.

"You're a lawyer, Morgana. You should know better than to ask leading questions. Did I tell him that you were ruthless? Why, yes, I did. Did I tell him that it was going to rain tomorrow? No, I didn't, but thanks for reminding me -- Merlin, it's going to rain tomorrow." Arthur took a bite of his Danish.

"He knows I can See things," Morgana said slowly.

Arthur shrugged, unconcerned. "No, I didn't. Also, why should that surprise you? He's an Evil Overlord. Were you about to tell him your vision?"

"Vision?" Merlin perked up, because most Seers didn't actually See all that much. There were plenty of theories on how their abilities worked and how their particular brand of magic interacted on a metaphysical plane, mostly leaning toward the interaction of previously (and still) unknown subatomic particles that were associated with time fragments. However, no one had actually performed a scientifically-controlled experiment involving Seers, which didn't matter anyway since the actual technology to measure those subatomic particles didn't exist yet.

"Yes," Morgana said, ignoring Merlin.

"Do you want me to be in the room for that?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," Morgana said again. This time, her voice was strained.

"Gun out?"

"If you wouldn't mind," Morgana said. Arthur shrugged, and, his cheek bulging after stuffing the remnants of his scone into his mouth, removed a gun from under his dress jacket, and. Well. Merlin hadn't even noticed that it was there.

"Huh," Merlin said.

(Merlin supposed that some things made sense, now. For example, the way Arthur had taken position to cover the door of the unoccupied dressing room at The Other Palace when Merlin settled in for a meditative conversation with Charlotte Chapel had struck Merlin as odd, at the time. But if Arthur had been armed all along, then, in all likelihood, he'd taken the position in order to protect Merlin while he was at his most vulnerable.

As a scientist, Merlin was trained to look at things objectively. It had taken him a while, but he tended to wait until he had sufficient evidence before he came to a conclusion -- sometimes the conclusion needed multiple revisions, as witnessed by the papers he'd had to write as part of his doctorate. There was never enough evidence, anyway.

But the gun? That was evidence of something. The scientist part of Merlin's brain worked to put the puzzle pieces together: how Arthur knew everything about Merlin without asking, how he'd hacked into Merlin's personal computer, how he'd rendered himself virtually untraceable, how he seemed to anticipate what Merlin might do and be prepared for it, and how he'd easily taken the position of a protector. As if he'd been trained for it.

The trash mags that populated the reading rack in the loo back at Merlin's flat had done a pretty good job documenting how the wayward heir returned home to take his position in Pendragon Communications. Throwing in a dash of Wow, this is some freaky coincidental timing, and Merlin came up with nothing good.

If his friends were right and Arthur was just some sort of fucked-up setup by intelligence agencies and the Registration Act people, Merlin was never going to live it down.)

Merlin rubbed his head again. When he came up for air, he pointed at Arthur, raising his brow at the rather fancy gunmetal-matte polish of the semiautomatic in his hand, and pulled up an invisible magical shield, just in case Arthur decided to shoot him.

(Because, seriously. That was so not on.)

"You and I are going to talk about that," Merlin said tiredly. He gestured at Morgana. "But, of course. Ladies first."

"Arthur is my brother," Morgana said.

"Okay," Merlin said.

"This isn't what you think it is," Morgana said, a little frantic.

"Okay," Merlin said, rubbing small circles into his temple.

Morgana paused. She exchanged glances with Arthur. Arthur shrugged, his expression inscrutable, and he leaned back, relaxed, against the low-profile designer filing cabinet along the wall. He sipped his coffee, otherwise unconcerned, but the gun was rather glaring against the dark fabric of his tailored trouser leg.

Morgana, like Merlin, must have noticed Arthur's general insouciance, because she turned to Merlin and asked, "Have you ever heard of the multiverse theory?"

"Ugh," Merlin said. Arthur snorted in amusement.

Clearly misunderstanding, Morgana said, "The theory is that this universe that we live in isn't --"

"Ugh," Merlin said again, dropping his hand from his temple and dropping his head to rest on the plush back of the chair.

"-- the only universe that exists. There are in fact multiple universes that mirror each other but also diverge when --"

"Ugh," Merlin said, stomping a foot on the ground. The floor was covered in tight Berber coils, muffling the noise.

"-- at points in history, a critical decision can be made --"

"Okay, stop, stop, stop," Merlin begged, holding up a hand. If the silk cloth Arthur had shoved into his front jacket pocket were white, Merlin would be waving it like a flag. But it was red, and he knew better than to wave that colour around. "I'd rather fling myself off the Cliffs of Dover than have to listen to another alternate timeline, multiverse edition theory. You can skip that part. Just assume I already understand what you're going to tell me. I'll ask questions if I'm lost, I promise."

Morgana glanced from Merlin to Arthur. Arthur hid his grin behind his coffee cup. Morgana's eyes narrowed thinly.

"I'm sorry, did I neglect to mention that he really is a Doctor? Physics and metaphysics, I believe, wasn't it, Merlin?"

"You're such an arse," Merlin said. He turned to Morgana. "You grew up with him? Yeah? How has someone not ripped his head off already?"

Morgana studied him for a moment. "I like him. Arthur, you can put the gun away."

"You can put the gun away," Merlin encouraged, waving his fingers in the air in dismissal. "You know, that gun, the one we're going to be having a chat about later?"

"I have a license," Arthur frowned.

(Merlin had to look away. Arthur was pouting. If that wasn't fucking adorable, Merlin didn't know what was.)

"So," Merlin said, turning to Morgana. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Arthur's shoulders heave as if in a heavy, suppressed sigh. The gun went into Arthur's shoulder holster -- the very same one Merlin had somehow not noticed before -- and disappeared beneath his suit jacket. That had to be some sort of physical displacement spell, or a powerful undetectable illusion, because Merlin still couldn't spot the gun.

"So?" Morgana said, raising a knowing eyebrow.

Merlin forced himself to focus on Morgana. She was Arthur's bloody sister. She was a Seer. The odds were stacked against him. He could pretend he didn't like Arthur all he wanted, but Morgana would be harder to fool.

He gestured. "How about you tell me about the vision that you were going to tell me about without telling me it was a vision?"

Morgana's expression immediately sharpened. "You said you wouldn't out me."

"That was before I realised you were already outed to the crazy gunslinger over there," Merlin said, pointing at Arthur without looking at him. He grunted. "Look, it's late, I've got a headache. I promise you, nothing you tell me can be any worse than half the stuff I saw in my head when I was talking to Charlotte."

"Charlotte?" Morgana asked.

"I'll tell you later," Arthur said.

"Will it fall under lawyer-client confidentiality?" Merlin asked, pressing his thumb into the throbbing vein over his left eye.

"Is Charlotte my client?" Morgana asked, but she was looking at Arthur, as if trying to decide whether they had clients in common.

"Um," Arthur began, but Merlin had a flash of inspiration.

"She could be," Merlin said. "How do you feel about emancipating a sentient building from ownership?"

"Huh," Arthur said, as if he hadn't thought of that. When Merlin glanced at him, it seemed to him that Arthur was a little annoyed. Maybe because he hadn't come up with the idea first, when he tended to come up with plans for everything when Merlin had no idea what to do next. Merlin allowed himself a smug moment.

"Huh," Morgana said, as if it was a challenge that she had never encountered before. Her eyes went far-away and distant, as if she were already planning a strategy and weighing its chances of success.

"Ugh," Arthur said, shaking himself out of his sulk. "Can we talk about the vision, first?"

"Please," Merlin said.

Morgana blinked at him, as if she'd forgotten that he was there, too lost in her own thoughts about a possible big client with a landmark decision that would get her name in the books as a notable case. But then she focused, frowning for a moment, and said, "Well. How do you feel about the end of the world as you know it?"

"Dramatic," Merlin snorted, because he couldn't help himself. Arthur slapped him on the back of his head, and how the fuck did he get across the room so fast? Merlin glared at him while sitting up straight in his chair. He turned to Morgana and said, "Sorry."

"It's fine," Morgana said haughtily, though, clearly, it wasn't fine. Seers, regardless of their strength or ability, were often mocked for being charlatans or con men. It wasn't their fault that in revealing the future, their client could act on changing that future, making their vision statistically less viable. Merlin made noise of contrition, but Morgana waved him off. "Arthur, you've never needed proof because you lived with me. It's not Merlin's fault that he doesn't know better."

"That's the thing, though," Arthur said. He pressed a hand on Merlin's shoulder, his fingers digging in. "Merlin does know better, doesn't he?"

"Ouch, that hurts," Merlin said.

"Will you listen and take it seriously?" Arthur asked.

"If you stop breaking my collarbone," Merlin promised. Arthur let him go. Merlin rubbed the spot and rolled his shoulder with a scowl, and turned expectantly to Morgana.

And he listened.

He might have interrupted for clarification if he weren't absolutely gobsmacked, but it was good that he sat there, silent, taking it all in. Morgana eventually did answer the questions he wanted to ask all on her own, but her answers were far more chilling than Merlin was prepared to hear.

By the time Morgana was finished describing the vision in its many, vivid details, Merlin's forgotten coffee had gone cold (he drank it anyway), Arthur's expression was grim (well, more grim than usual), and he was distantly aware of the security guards performing their hourly patrol (the cleaning crew had left hours ago).

"Well," Merlin said, when he found his voice again, and stared at his coffee cup with dismay, because he didn't know what to say.

He heated up the coffee with an easy spell that had come in useful more than once during university, and drank it all in one go. It didn't help the throb in his head -- if anything, Morgana's story had only reinforced it, making it impervious to the most powerful cures in the universe -- but at least he could think a little more clearly, now.

Morgana and Arthur were looking at him expectantly. Someone -- most likely Arthur -- had finished off the box of pastries, and now that the coffee cup was empty, Merlin needed something to do with his hands. "Can I have a pad of paper and a pen?"

"In the second cabinet drawer," Morgana instructed Arthur. She had been sitting at the edge of her seat, queenly and imperious, all through her account, but she was tired, now, and it showed. She slid back into the plush leather armchair and slumped.

Arthur shoved a bright yellow legal pad and several pens in Merlin's hands, most of which dropped to the floor. He left them there, dragging the office-chic coffee table over, and started writing. The pen was a garish green, but it was one of those nice gel-tips, and Merlin let himself be distracted by the Nice ThingsTM that the rich tended to have while he wrote equations down that he hoped he'd never have to use once he'd left university.

(No such luck, clearly.)

"So, to sum up," Merlin said, glancing briefly at Morgana, "Magic users and supernatural entities who rate in the Fuck, no category of power ratings are being drawn to England in droves."

"That's correct," Morgana said.

"How many?"

"At least four that I've Seen," she said.

Merlin wrote a few numbers down. "The reason behind the mass exodus is unknown, so that means zero counteracting force -- worst case scenario, you understand. And magic begets magic, and that means the reverb on ley line capacity to absorb is going to be terrible, let's put that down as two hundred hertz; that's the best case scenario. That should balance it out a little. Estimating the current Registered population --"

"Conservative figures are at sixty percent," Arthur supplied from somewhere behind Merlin.

"Conservative's good," Merlin muttered. He wrote down a few more numbers, argued with himself under his breath, and continued to write down the differential equations until he needed more data. He moved onto the correlation statistics, ignoring Pearson's theorem for now because he'd proven it as useless for this kind of thing, anyway, and decided he needed to invent new math to be able to properly estimate how big the clusterfuck was going to be.

"How many Registration agents?" Merlin wondered.

"Unknown. Also, classified," Arthur said. After a moment, he said, "About eight hundred in London, but it goes up to twelve hundred if you count all of England and Wales. Not Scotland, though. They folded them into their police force. Doesn't include Ireland, either. Because, Ireland."

Merlin paused in his calculations. "Is that the sort of classified that goes with why you've got a gun like you're a bloke in a double-0 film?" When Arthur didn't answer, Merlin said, "Yep, definitely having that conversation," and went back to estimating a few variables. He pulled out his phone, opened up the app he had to write to do this kind of metaphysical work, and started computing.

He was distantly aware of Morgana getting up, of Arthur moving around. Of the siblings talking quietly, though not so quietly that it was private, and Merlin heard snatches of, "employment contracts", "here's yours, take it before he changes his mind", and "actually, take all of them, because I know he's going to leave them here". Merlin huffed under his breath, then was immediately distracted when he realised that he needed specific parameters in order to formulate a valid theorem, but no one had actually performed the experiment yet to determine what those parameters would be.

(It was a Catch-22.

If time travel was not a thing that was possible, mostly because of correct propulsion power requirements and the lack of appropriate navigational controls required not to end up in a multiverse, eaten by the local tyrannosaurus rex, then the tools required to measure the number of possible multiverses multiplying from a specific temporal nodal point was impossible.

Knowing what the appropriate navigational controls were needed also required a good map of the different multiverses, which, in turn, would provide information on how much power was enough power punch through all those potential multiverses and arrive to the correct timeline-appropriate destination. Nobody had ever performed experiments to evaluate multiverse potential, because they'd actually need to build a time machine to do it.

That was mostly because nobody wanted to end up in the multiverse where, say, Captain America was actually a Hydra Nazi arsehole, or, worse, tea was illegal or nonexistent, though.)

Merlin considered setting the multiverse variable value to one thousand, just to be on the safe side, but that might be too small a number, and that would bias the results.

"Morgana?" Merlin asked distractedly. "How many possible -- no, wait, I'm trying to estimate the probability that it might actually happen, not how many are going to be created from there. I don't suppose you have any idea how many different multiverses emerged from the last big focal point?"

Morgana didn't answer for the longest time. Merlin's ghastly green pen hovered over the legal pad, and he looked up, frowning.

"A guesstimate is fine. I was going with one thousand but I'm pretty sure that's a low --"

"One," Morgana said.

Merlin blinked. He considered the impact of having lived in one single meaningful multiverse since the last large temporal node, but his processing power was at capacity. He rebooted.

The reboot only caused several more mental crashes, but not until Merlin was able to get a glimpse of the unending line of No written across the blue screen of his brain.

Merlin looked down at the legal pad.

Wordlessly, he ripped out the sheet that he'd been working on, crumpled it up carefully, and threw it over his shoulder. He went back one page, crossed out several steps of his equation, and started fresh from there.

Two sheets later, the numbers still weren't working out. He was missing some data. He pulled a fresh blank page from the bottom of the legal pad, which came out in a jagged, diagonal tear, and started compiling all the most meaningful events to impact Great Britain in the last hundred years. The most recent -- the most notable -- happened when Merlin was a kid.

The negavoid missile. Cornelius Sigan. The last (meaningful) Evil Overlord London had ever seen.

A small part of upper London, mostly in and around the missile's blast zone, was considered to be completely uninhabitable. It wasn't that there was a threat of radiation exposure -- a negavoid weapon didn't act like that, if Merlin's best guess was correct. A negavoid missile imploded, rather than exploded, and while there was an impact zone the size of a meteorite crater caused by a one-centimetre iron ore meteorite traveling at speed, that had very little to do with the actual missile.

(The windows of every house and shop facing that area, however, begged to differ. People were sweeping up broken glass for weeks.)

While there was no actual visible damage from the missile beyond the area of impact, the invisible damage was still present. Merlin hadn't visited the site itself, not having any real desire to be exposed to the negavoid radiation in case it messed with his magic like it did for some people. Also, he might have questionable survival skills, but he didn't have a death wish, because everyone knew the government monitored visitors to the memorial site for potential threats. Without any personal observation to go by, he wasn't entirely certain what the invisible damage was, and what it meant to the whole impact-on-multiverse-theory that he had going on in his head. And on paper.

He needed to do research. He couldn't do it here. "I need my computer."

"You can't leave yet," Morgana said, almost desperate. "What are you going to do?"

Morgana was wide-eyed and frantic under the glamour-professional makeup, high-class clothing, and otherwise put-together demeanour. She'd had this vision for a while, most likely on a recurring basis, and it was haunting her everyday life to the point that she was reaching out to whomever and whatever might throw a spanner in the works of what sounded to be an absolute fucking catastrophe.

The longer Merlin looked at her, the more he realised that it wasn't that simple. That it was never that fucking simple. As he ran through the story she'd given him, Merlin realised that there were holes large enough to comfortably drive a double-wide lorry through and still have room for an obnoxious SUV or two along the sides. If he were being reasonable, he'd chalk up those holes as a normal artefact of being a Seer and the fleeting, flaky nature of visions.

As he leaned back in the chair, Merlin regarded Morgana with new eyes. He threw in the fact that Arthur was far too relaxed about the entire thing, to the point that Merlin could see the tension bristling under his skin.

They weren't telling him something.

Merlin had graduated from a prestigious university with a doctorate in physics and metaphysics; he could do the math. This was just one instance when two plus two did not equal four, and he needed to engage his otherwise-depleted upper faculties in order to calculate the fourth dimensional algebraic matrix in order to come up with the most likely answer.

He knew exactly what they weren't telling him.

Which was: the world was going to go to shite, Morgana was hanging on to sanity with those manicured blood-red fingernails, and for some reason -- most likely some sort of ridiculously-proportionated hero complex and overblown sense of duty -- Arthur was fated to die.

The realisation left a bad taste in Merlin's mouth. He didn't want anyone to die. He especially didn't want Arthur to die for reasons that he didn't want to look at too closely.

(Some of it had to do with one of the clauses in Arthur's employment contract. Merlin hadn't thought anything of it at the time, because some of those papers he'd signed had had to do with sizeable insurance packages on all of his employees, including himself. But the clause in question read to the effect of, if Merlin didn't perform his utmost due diligence in the protection and continued existence of his Second-In-Command, someone, most likely Morgana, was going to take it out of his hide.

Mostly, though, it had to do with how Merlin was quickly outgrowing his hot bloke crush and how it was becoming something more. The competency boner he'd since developed was also transfiguring itself into genuine affection for the prickly pear who was quickly becoming Merlin's favourite people in the whole fucking world.)

"Well," Merlin said, when he realized that his silence had grown to unbearable-tension levels. He exhaled slowly and repeated Morgana's question. "What am I going to do?"

"Yes," Morgana said, slipping to the edge of her seat. Arthur hadn't moved, his expression stony, most likely because he'd already figured out that Merlin had already figured everything else out, and he was bracing for the answer.

"Fuck if I know," Merlin admitted. Morgana deflated with disappointment, but Merlin wasn't sure he liked how Arthur's expression had flickered, however briefly, into relief. "I'm going to go home. I'm going to pull from my bookshelves to see if there's anything that covers this. I might have to use my status as alumni a whole lot sooner than I'd originally expected and raid the protected archives at uni. I'm going to write a program that can handle all the variables and get a clearer picture of what's going to happen."

"And then?" Morgana pressed, and, for fuck's sake. She was a dog after a bone. Merlin was exhausted, and, frankly, he was fucking terrified, too. He was tempted to roll up the legal papers up and to smack her in the nose with them.

"I'll be perfectly honest with you," Merlin said, mirroring Morgana's pose. "I'm not actually an Evil Overlord."

Morgana's eyes shot to look at Arthur, who had once again rebuilt his expressionless mask, and who wasn't looking at Morgana, but at Merlin.

Before Morgana could question Merlin any further, Merlin said, "I'm just a random guy. I'm just one guy. I have no idea what I'm going to do. I have no idea if I can even do anything."

"But --"

"You have to accept that," Merlin said, cutting her off. He stood up abruptly. "I can't make promises I know I'm not going to be able to keep. I can't tell you what I'm going to do when I don't have a goddamn clue. This isn't a cut-and-dried, black-and-white sort of situation. People are going to die, and I fucking hate you for putting that on me."

Morgana looked slapped. Arthur stared at the space between his feet. Merlin couldn't look at either of them, and he stalked out of the office.

"Where are you going?" Arthur asked, following after him.

Merlin pushed the call button on the elevator multiple times before realising that there was no way that he could stand there and wait patiently for it to arrive. He went toward the stairs, cutting off the alarm with his magic before he pushed open the door.

"Home," he snapped.

"I can drive you --"

Merlin ignored Arthur. He took the steps down two at a time almost single-mindedly, because if he thought about anything else, he was going to trip and fall flat on his face. By the time he reached the ground floor, banging the exit door open, he wasn't any calmer.

As he walked out the front doors and turned to walk in the general direction of his flat, Merlin did his best to ignore how his hands were shaking.

 

 

Seventy-two point three three three percent.

That had been the calculated probability of a good outcome of what had amounted to a MI5 suicide mission that had gone active several months before Arthur handed in his resignation. The agents involved had not survived, the op had been blown, and MI5 had had a damned difficult time quashing the news outlets, social media, and word-of-mouth. If they'd asked Arthur, Arthur would have done a full scale critical assessment and rejected the operation before it was ever approved on the basis of Not Enough Information.

(But they hadn't, because the people running things didn't see genius when it was in front of them, wearing a clown hat and big squishy red nose. Also, they wouldn't have seen Arthur's particular brand of genius when it was buried in a completely different department located in the near-basement, trudging away on computers older than the Cetacean era and drowning on paperwork that was two months old and several weeks overdue.

No, he was never not going to be bitter about it.)

For that reason, and that reason alone, Arthur understood why Merlin had shut down when Morgana had pushed him for a more concrete answer. Anyone who didn't know how frighteningly accurate Morgana's visions were would be, to some extent, unable to take her word as gospel and to act accordingly -- even Arthur, who had grown up with her, had a hard time, some days. At the same time, he understood why Morgana had pushed in the first place. She was hoping for some sort of reassurance that the situation would be resolved, because that reassurance was often enough to mute the recurring nature of the visions and the way they bled into her nightmares.

She never accepted Arthur's reassurances that everything would turn out, even when he made sure they did. She wouldn't accept them now, no matter how often Arthur promised her that he wouldn't die.

(Except he didn't know how he'd manage that quite yet. He was still working on it. There were at least eleven contingency plans. Some of them were more viable than others.)

Arthur, as a matter of principle, did not take sides when it came to family brawls, though those had become fortunately fewer as Arthur and Morgana matured and Uther realised that his children could out-stubborn him. Arthur would, of course, take sides against anyone who came after his family, even if he didn't agree with Morgana or Uther in the first place. It was curious to him why he elected to remain silent and on the sidelines, abandoning Morgana at the last minute to chase after Merlin. While he could rationalise it on paper, he preferred to chalk it up as being unable to rationalise against Merlin's logic.

It really hadn't been fair of Morgana to dump the weight of her revelation on Merlin's shoulders and to expect him to solve it. Especially without compensation.

("You didn't even give him a retainer," Arthur pointed out, when he'd returned to Morgana's offices and after she'd shouted at him until she was red in the face. "You can't blame him for walking away."

"You would put a price tag on saving the world, wouldn't you?" Morgana snapped, and from her tone alone, Arthur knew that she wouldn't be mollified until after she'd eaten at least one tub of Green & Black's organic chocolate ice cream.

"It's like you've never met me," Arthur scoffed, hands in his pockets. He shrugged his shoulders and tossed his head in the vague direction of the emergency fire escape, where Merlin had just disappeared. "He might not be an Evil Overlord by nature, but I am. Now sit your arse down and let's talk terms."

"What?" Morgana squawked. "Are you serious?"

"You won't believe me when I say that I'm going to make sure that it doesn't happen. So, come on. Work with me. If you're convinced it's going to happen... If I'm going to bloody well die saving the world, I'm going to go out in style. Here, use my pen. We'll start with the non-negotiables.")

Arthur's experience and knowledge -- even if it was second hand, outside his security clearance, and overall purview -- of all things heroic, life-affirming, and altruistic was sadly very limited, but if there was something he excelled at, it was in coming up with plans and manipulating actionable vectors into an outcome with far better odds.

That was why he pulled his car up to the kerb in front of Merlin's flat with the stack of employment contracts Merlin had forgotten at Morgana's office. Personally, he thought it would be best if they cut the dead weight entirely or reassigned people to positions that would best suit their particular skills. Merlin had planned on asking them what they wanted to do for the company and to let them have it, since he was a nice bloke like that, but Arthur, who was the Second-in-Command and the person countersigning the job offers, had other plans, and had convinced Merlin to go along with them.

Arthur gathered up the papers, stuffed them under his arm, locked up his car -- double-checking for good measure, because, honestly, Merlin could afford to live in a better neighbourhood, now -- and went to knock on the flat's front door.

Despite it being a house of reasonable size, Merlin himself lived in the dubious square footage of what could generously be described as a closet. Arthur had checked the real estate listing and knew that the other private rooms in the two-level-plus-attic house were at least average in size, if not larger. He thought that was quite unfair, given the proportion of income being brought in to cover the rent and utilities, but, then, he'd checked everyone's bank activity, and, Oh. He had a clearer picture of who, exactly, was the dead weight around there.

The front door swung open, and Will, without so much as a greeting, said, "We don't want any."

The door swung shut, Arthur stuck his foot in, and there was a faint crack that could potentially have been Arthur's foot and not the doorjamb, if he hadn't had the foresight to wear the Cambridge executive-class steel-toed shoes with Italian leather before coming over. Morgana could mock him all he liked, but MI6 knew how to outfit their undercover agents, and they shared their catalogue and list of suppliers with MI5.

(It was one of the databases he planned on regularly mirroring to his own, private servers.)

Will seemed a bit gobsmacked when the door bounced off and swung wide open, had the grace to look chastised but only once Freya shouted, "Will!" from somewhere beyond the sea of footwear littering the front landing, and narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Arthur, clearly trying to decide whether he should try again or snarl for Arthur to go away.

Freya distracted him with a high-pitched squeal, a one-word "Ohmygodyou'llneverbelievewho'satthedoor," and a hasty retreat inside, which triggered Will's predator hunt-the-prey instincts for a few seconds.

Those few seconds of distraction were all that Arthur needed. He walked inside. Logically, not the best move to make when on a werewolf's territory, but Arthur had listened to enough of Merlin's stories about his friends to know that, for all his posturing, Will wasn't an alpha and would happily roll over onto his back in exchange for belly rubs. "Is Merlin in?"

"He's upstairs," a lovely, slim-boned brunette said, peeking around the corner further down the landing. Arthur recognized her from Facebook as Freya. "But you're out of luck, he's working on a special project or summat, and he's kind of snarly."

"Worse than Will," said someone from behind him.

"Hey," Will complained, but there wasn't much energy to it. "Ugh. Yeah, he's pretty bad today."

"He's been getting worse over the last few days, so if you don't want to get stuck in the heat wave that has no promise of breaking, I'd scamper off if I were you," the man behind Arthur said. Curly hair, pale blue eyes, perpetual weariness, a bit of cherubic baby fat clinging to his features -- that was Mordred.

"I'll take your warning under advisement. Are all the residents in, today?" Arthur asked.

It was nine days after Merlin had stormed off -- nine days of cooling-off time in which there had been no cooling off, it seemed, and firmly into the weekend, again. As far as Arthur had been able to tell from hacking everyone's schedules, this was the best time to catch all the flatmates at the same time. He already knew that the answer was a resounding, Yes, and half-expected to be lied to, anyway.

"Should be, yeah," Mordred said, at the same time that Will said, "No."

Arthur moved aside to let Mordred in. The druid kicked off his shoes, shouldered Will out of the way, and headed toward the doorway that Freya had disappeared into.

"In that case," Arthur said, ignoring Will, "Since I came to talk to Merlin's employees, I'll leave it up to you whether you want him involved in our conversation."

Mordred paused just shy of the doorframe and the stairway landing to look at Arthur with a curious expression, but it was Will's scowl that Arthur wished he could capture on camera. Will's face rippled into a half-shift before remaining stoutly human, though his mouth was trapped in a sneer the way it would look like on a dog, full of big teeth and curled lip.

"Oh. You're him," Will said unpleasantly.

"I am," Arthur said pleasantly, because he could be the bigger arsehole here. He kept his shoes on, because he didn't trust the carpet more than he wanted to not offend the residents, and walked past Will, leaving Will to growl at the open door.

Sefa was in what must be the Head of the Household chair. It was a big, plushy armchair tucked in the perfect spot where one couldn't help but to see her first, above anyone or anything else, upon entering the room. It was the spot with the best natural lighting from what was a vine-covered window, and had the best line of sight to the telly mounted on the wall. She didn't look up when Arthur entered, but Arthur could pick out someone who was faking it better than most agents, and anyway, the dead giveaway was in how she couldn't stop biting at the cuticles on her fingernails.

Sprawled on a lumpy sofa and hunched over a laptop was Gilli, watching cat videos and making amusing huffing noises. Will pushed past Arthur and nearly sat down on Gilli's legs, Freya came out of the kitchen with a beaming smile and a mismatched tea service set, and Mordred waved a hand in the direction of everyone behind him as he headed into the kitchen. "Sit wherever," Mordred said.

"I'll stand, ta," Arthur said, studying how everyone had structured themselves around the telly. Freya sat down on the second sofa underneath the windows, tea service tray precariously balanced on a coffee table that was a wide plank of rotting wood on two slippery stacks of magazines. Mordred returned from the kitchen with a beer in his hand and plopped down next to Freya, who wrinkled her nose at the dirty hospital scrubs.

"What do you want," Will groused. He didn't bother with a question mark.

"To discuss the terms of your continuing employment at Evil Overlord, Incorporated," Arthur said, without missing a beat.

"Fuck off," Will said, turning to the telly.

"Wait. What do you mean, continuing?" Freya asked, sitting up straight.

Arthur had everyone else's attention, too, except Sefa, who picked up the remote and changed the channel to some terrible B-movie knock-off starring Casper Van Dien. Hot bloke, really, but it was a shame about his career.

Taking a moment to look around the room, Arthur said, "As you are no doubt aware, Evil Overlord, Incorporated is growing to the point where it is no longer feasible to maintain it as a... hobby to earn extra money. The premise of the business holds enough appeal in the marketplace to turn it into a viable career option, and not just for Merlin. However, in order to maintain it as a legitimate company, I'm afraid that we --"

"We?" Will mocked.

"-- need to file all of our paperwork appropriately. The registration of the company name, the business license, accounts and financing, a permanent address that isn't the cramped closet in a house full of resentful friends --"

"I understood that reference!" Gilli blurted out, only to frown and say, "Hey. Wait."

"-- and so on," Arthur said, determined to get through his explanation without further interruptions. "I've had extensive discussion with Merlin about his employees, i.e., you --"

"Did he just say, i.e.? Who even talks like that?" Will asked, looking around the room.

"-- and we decided on a course of action --"

"He's pissing me off. Can I throw him out?" Will asked.

Mordred smirked behind his hand, but otherwise seemed interested in what Arthur had to say. Gilli was listening, but he seemed despondent, while Freya looked confused and ill at ease. Will was outwardly hostile, Sefa was coldly hostile, and it wasn't the best audience. Arthur sighed inwardly and soldiered on.

"My understanding," Arthur said, cutting himself off with a growl low enough to make Will blink, startled, "Is that everyone in this room is otherwise engaged in other employment or activities. Given the nature of Evil Overlord, Incorporated's business plan and its mandate, we decided that the business would benefit if it had more permanent staff."

"You're offering us jobs?" Gilli asked.

"I'm still stuck on why you're talking to us about this, not Merlin," Freya said, frowning.

"As Merlin's Second-in-Command, it falls to me to manage certain aspects of the day-to-day running of the business, which, in this case, includes staffing and staffing issues," Arthur said, ignoring Gilli's question, because, surely, the answer should be obvious. He hefted the papers neatly organised in manila folders in emphasis before putting them down at his feet and taking the topmost folder.

Arthur had strategically organized the paperwork for the employment contracts according to how likely they were to accept the offers on the table. He was starting with Mordred for a reason. However reticent and aloof Mordred seemed to be at the best of times, he was also the one who had gone off on all the others for their treatment of Merlin, and Arthur saw him as an ally. At least, he was an ally as long as he had the appropriate bribe.

"Mordred," Arthur said, leaning over to hand him the folder. He waited until Mordred had dubiously opened the thick file before saying, "EOI is offering you a position as the lead medical and druidic authority. You will have autonomy over your division, where you will be expected to both manage a medical staff capable of ensuring the relative health of EOI's employees, and a druidic team which will be responsible for addressing assignments better suited for their skill sets. Until EOI expands further, you will consist of the entirety of the department."

He paused to let it sink in. Mordred's brow furrowed as he shifted his attention from Arthur to the papers in his hands.

That was when Arthur added the enticement: "Since Merlin and I are in accord on the subject of continuing education, we've reached out to esteemed Healer Gaius Herrington, who, though retired, has agreed to take you on as his apprentice on a part-time basis and is willing to work around your schedule at EOI."

Mordred's head snapped up, his eyes as big as saucers, his mouth dropping open in wordless exclamation. Arthur took that as a successful offer and picked up the second folder. He swallowed a grimace, because this one was going to be tricky.

"Will," Arthur began, holding out the file folder.

"I don't want it," Will snarled.

"Hm," Arthur said, flipping through the papers thoughtfully. "Well. We do need a security team. There are going to be dangerous assignments where Merlin's ability to protect himself will be compromised. I suppose we can find someone else suitable for --"

The file folder was snatched out of his hands.

"An old friend of the family helped establish the SAS back in the 1940s, and his son, who just retired from that very same service, is starting up a consulting security business. I'd planned on hiring him to train up EOI's security force, but I might make an offer --"

"I'll take it," Will growled, and his sidelong look had that werewolf-about-to-shift-shapes shine to it. "If I can hire whoever I want, have complete autonomy over my team, and you don't fucking meddle with my tactics."

Arthur pretended to think about it. "If you listen to my friend's son when he trains you. Also, keep in mind that I'm the Second-in-Command of this company. You'll have to at least consider my point of view before you make your final decisions in security situations. Also, Merlin has the authority to veto any decisions you make, so please keep that in mind."

Will grumbled under his breath. "Do I get a gun?"

"If you pass all the tests," Arthur said smoothly. The man who would be training Will was a hardened veteran who took no shite and had experience around werewolves, since other nations weren't quite as strict as the United Kingdom about allowing otherwise-abled races in their ranks. He'd know what to expect in terms of werewolf strength, reflexes, and temper, while at the same time standing in as Will's alpha until Will could stand on his own. It was the best of a bad situation, and hopefully, he'd get on with Will, later. When he mellowed out.

(If he ever did.)

"Deal," Will said, satisfied. He didn't seem at all interested in the other paperwork, because he put it aside and stared at the telly.

"Freya," Arthur said, picking up the next folder.

"Ye-es?" Freya said cautiously. She'd seen how it had gone with Mordred (easy) and with Will (easier than anticipated), and was likely waiting for the ball to drop. Arthur smiled at her and handed over the file folder, accepting the Doctor Who mug of tea she offered in exchange.

"In reviewing the cases that EOI has taken, thus far, we determined that a large number can be attributed to magical creatures and crossbreeds that fall in somewhere in the spectrum. Would you --"

"Be interested in taking over the animal cases, training and re-homing them as necessary, and assisting non-human creatures with their more mundane problems?" Freya asked hopefully, wide-eyed as she held the still-closed folder.

"Yes," Arthur said, hiding a smile at Freya's enthusiasm. "All that, plus assist with researching magical and non-magical creatures and animals, and to consult on-site whenever the situation requires."

Freya's eyes narrowed. "Is there medical insurance?"

"Second-to-last packet in the folder," Mordred supplied, head bowed over the paperwork. "Sick leave like whoa."

Freya seemed only somewhat mollified, but Arthur knew that he had her hooked. When she didn't ask any more questions and opened her own file folder, Arthur reached for Gilli's file and handed it to him.

"Well?" Gilli asked suspiciously. "What do I get in this job lottery?"

"Essentially, everything that you're doing now, with a few other additional duties. Graphics, website, maintain the virtual storefront. We want you to extend into social media, use resources for promotions and marketing, and take charge of a public relations office --"

"I don't want to be in charge," Gilli said quickly, exactly as Merlin had predicted. "Graphics, website, storefront, and social media -- I'll do all that. Especially the social media. That's a handful on its own. But promotions, marketing and public relations? Fuck, no."

"We'll have to find someone for that," Arthur said, with a put-upon sigh, even though Merlin had also warned him that Gilli wasn't a fan of extra responsibility. Lance Du Lac and his partner, Percival Morehouse were high on Merlin's list of actual direct hires, if only they could get them to abandon their still-struggling boutique business and hop on board. Arthur would have to look into it more and come up with a proposal, but he imagined that, in the end, the outcome would be beneficial for all of them. "I'll discuss alternatives with Merlin."

"Uh, huh," Gilli said, already flipping through the information packets. He mumbled to himself, but the only thing he said that was both audible and understandable was a stunned, "I'm being paid how much?"

(There would be a slight adjustment to the salary, of course, to compensate for the reduced responsibilities, but Arthur didn't think Gilli would complain.)

At this point, Sefa was eyeing him warily. Arthur took the opportunity to sip his tea -- Earl Grey, slightly bitter from having steeped for too long -- and to let her look her fill. He didn't make any movement to get the final file folder from the floor, and, anyway, from Sefa's vantage point, she couldn't tell if Arthur had any other file folders to pass around, anyway.

("Sefa's going to be a hard nut to crack," Merlin admitted, a curious tone in his voice that Arthur thought he'd explore, later. "It's... a thing."

"A thing," Arthur said, unimpressed. "You can't elaborate?"

"Oh, I can," Merlin answered, but sheepishly added, "But also, I can't."

Arthur stared at Merlin long enough to know that Merlin wouldn't wither under his glare, at least not that time. He decided, for the sake of presenting an united front, he wouldn't push. "Well, then, let's not make it easy for me or anything.")

Arthur studied Sefa for a moment longer.

"In any case," Arthur said, putting aside the mug of what was sub-par tea once he'd sipped at it for a socially-acceptable amount of time while still flattering his hostess with appreciation for her hard work, "I want you to understand that you don't need to decide immediately. Merlin insisted that we keep the positions open until he gets a clear answer from you, whether it's positive or negative. Although, please don't wait too long. We do have a business to run."

"What about me?" Sefa said suddenly.

Arthur turned to her, blinking in theatrical surprise, and inclined his head, questioning what she could possibly mean. He let his eyes drift down to her hands, which were clawed tightly enough around the remote control to the telly that all the colour had gone from her fingers, and glanced around the room, alighting on the file folders nearly everyone was in the process of combing through.

"Oh," Arthur said, less enthused than he'd meant, but he wasn't a fucking actor no matter how much he believed he'd have been a better undercover agent than Galahad. He looked down at his feet, feigned surprise and confusion and How stupid I am, it's right there gestures, and picked it up.

Sefa's expression was triumphant -- probably because she was planning on turning him down and telling him where to stuff it while turning everyone else to her side -- until she saw the file folder Arthur held out to her. She took it with some hesitation.

It was substantially thinner than everyone else's, but Arthur elected not to comment on it. He nodded encouragingly, shoving his hands in his trouser pockets, and waited.

Merlin had signed on a standard contract for Sefa -- to continuing her role as office manager, keeping an eye on the finances, and deciding how to prioritise the jobs that Merlin took on. He'd been very adamant about it. It was only when pressed that Merlin had revealed his promise to supply her with a florist's shop when the business took off that some key puzzle pieces finally fell in place.

Merlin's I can't elaborate was less of a stonewalling than it was a revelation. Arthur didn't need to have it spelled out for him. He'd come to his own conclusions about Sefa when he'd done research on Merlin's friends, and this was merely confirmation of theory. Sefa was a creature, though the blood must be quite diluted by now, if she managed to maintain a human appearance and to pass all the blood tests that came with Registration. He understood. There must be certain personality traits associated with her particular brand of other-ness, or she wouldn't be clinging to her lifeline as if it were, well, an actual lifeline.

There was a plan B if Arthur bollocksed up this negotiation, but he was hoping that he'd guessed right about what it would take to get Sefa out of Merlin's hair, while still keep her as a friend. He suspected that she had never been as invested in Evil Overlord, Incorporated as she'd pretended to be, that it was more for what she could get out of it than in furthering the company mandate, and he was banking on that to make this work.

The file folder had been organised and reorganised multiple times until Arthur had decided on the best order to present his case.

First, to catch her attention, there was a bright yellow legal paper -- torn to letter size -- with big black lettering that said, "If you don't want Merlin to wonder what happened to the money from the Taliesin job, you'll give this offer serious thought."

It was very mobster and cutthroat, but it was an ultimatum softer than the one Morgana had wanted to give -- take the agreement, or I'll release the hounds.

(The hounds, if that was confusing, was Morgana and her empire of shoot-first-sue-later lawyers. She was never to know that Arthur privately called her the queen bitch of the pack. It was just his version of brotherly affection, and he in no way wanted her to take that title and to run with it. Because she most definitely would.)

Sefa's eyes widened and she started to get a bit red in the face. Arthur was fairly certain she would've started shouting at him if not for the evidence he'd compiled in the next portion of the file folder: a very thorough forensic examination of the Evil Overlord account at the bank and how she'd been skimming money off the top since nearly the very beginning. Greed had gotten the better of her, and the fifteen thousand pound transfer was both highlighted and circled in red.

In case she missed it.

She didn't miss it. Arthur wasn't a werewolf with sensitive hearing, but he heard her thick, nervous swallow all the same.

The third and final part of the packet was The Deal: following through on Merlin's promise.

Sefa could keep what she'd taken. It was already a healthy amount. The remainder would be financed by Arthur himself, who would be Sefa's silent partner with the majority split until such time that she was able to return half of what he was putting up and to regain controlling ownership. The option was there to buy Merlin and Arthur out, entirely, so that she would be the sole proprietor of the shop. Merlin would provide her with all the support she needed to get going; Arthur would ensure that her business was recommended to as many people in the upper class societies as possible; and, once established, Sefa was on her own.

And, finally, while it was not explicitly stated in the documentation, she would remain friends with Merlin, Arthur would keep the secret of her misdealing, and Merlin would be happy that his friend was happy. All would be right in the world, at least until the next impeding apocalypse.

Arthur wasn't sure about Sefa's reaction. She stared at the papers as if she couldn't decide whether to rage, laugh, or cry.

"What you'd get, Sefa?" Freya asked.

Sefa didn't answer for the longest time. From Arthur's vantage point, she was staring at the bank information where Arthur had circled each and every one of the withdrawals that had originated from EOI's accounts.

"Sefa?" Mordred asked, concern lacing his voice. That was enough to attract Gilli's attention, though he returned to the information packet in his hands quickly enough. Will sniffed the air, tilted his head in consideration, and dismissed whatever pheromone response came with whatever emotions were present in the room as insufficient cause for concern.

Will's reaction was more of a reassurance to Arthur than Sefa's eventual answer, which was to blink at her flatmates with the shine of tears in her eyes, and to say, "Everything I ever wanted."

Arthur released a held breath without seeming to release his held breath, and allowed himself a small nod of self-congratulation for a job well-done. He might not have the signed contracts in his hand, but he would, eventually, and that was good enough. To Sefa, he said, "I'll get in touch with you to finalise the agreement, but I suggest you go ahead and scout some locations for your florist's shop."

"You're getting your shop?" Freya exclaimed.

"I'm getting my shop!" Sefa squealed, throwing her arms and legs out, kicking them about. If that wasn't a complete turn-around from her mood a few seconds ago, Arthur didn't know what it was, but he noted how she'd rolled up her file folder. She didn't want Merlin to find out she'd been skimming money out of the accounts, and clearly, she didn't want anyone else to, either.

Arthur knew when to bow out and to take his leave, but as soon as he entered the walkway that would lead to the carpet of shoes, Merlin stumbled down the stairs and into his arms. There was a sleep-warmth to him, soft and muzzy, and it caught Arthur completely by surprise.

"What's going on -- ARTHUR!"

"Ow," Arthur said, because that was right in his ear.

Merlin pulled back, tripping on a stray shoe; Arthur caught him before he fell onto his arse on one of the steps leading up, and they stared at each other in silence for several seconds before they simultaneously blurted out:

"You forgot the contracts, I brought them over --"

"Do you have access to radiation suits?"

They both fell silent, stared at each other some more, and Merlin was the first to recover. "Contracts?" he asked cautiously, leaning forward to peer into the sitting room. "How'd that go?"

"It's sorted, you'll have a proper staff soon," Arthur said, but forcefully brought the conversation back to: "Radiation suits? What on earth for?"

"Because I don't have enough data," Merlin said, obviously distressed by that fact. He swung an arm around and nearly hit Arthur in the process; Arthur guessed he was gesturing up the stairs, but was too sleep-muddled to register his lack of coordination. "Do you believe it? Nobody's thought to do temporal stability experiments on Ground Zero! I'm nearly certain that's why the vision doesn't offer any other outcome. There are other outcomes, but the zone is preventing them --"

"Merlin," Arthur said, rubbing his forehead. He was dimly aware that the noise level in the sitting room had gone down substantially, and that their conversation was attracting attention, but that wasn't his main concern at the moment.

"What?" Merlin asked.

"What kind of radiation suits?" Arthur asked, because there were radiation suits, and then there were radiation suits, none of which were flattering to the figure, and all of which were often only effective against a small spectrum, or specific types of radiation.

"Um," Merlin said. He did a complicated thing with his face that included raised eyebrows, widening eyes, and the press of his mouth.

"Not a mind-reader, Merlin," Arthur said tiredly.

"Oh, right," Merlin said, and leaned in to whisper, "The Negavoid energy."

It took a moment before those words sank in. Arthur blamed the intoxication caused by the lingering sleep-warmth of Merlin's body, the softness of Merlin's pyjamas, and Merlin's natural scent, which smelled like all the things that were right in the world, with a side of spicy mischief and joy.

And then, Negavoid energy hit him like a ton of bricks. "Fuck."

"Yeah," Merlin said earnestly.

"Fuck," Arthur said again, because radiation suits weren't the problem. While people were still permitted to live in the houses close to the impact zone, direct access to the restricted site wasn't going to be easy, not if Merlin wanted to kick a few rocks around, get soil samples, and collect measurements. It was a strict military zone.

"Yeah," Merlin said. His tone was so despondent that Arthur had the sneaking suspicion that Merlin had already gone to the site to try to get there himself, only to realise that soldiers with semiautomatic rifles might be something of a problem.

"Fuck," Arthur grumbled, because he was going to have to ask for a favour. When he looked up to see Merlin's hopeful eyes, he sighed and said, "I can get the suits."

"Good, perfect, excellent," Merlin said, pushing past Arthur to get to the door. "The sooner we get there --"

"Merlin," Arthur said quietly.

"What?"

"You might want to get dressed."

"I am dressed -- oh," Merlin said, glancing down at his ratty T-shirt and striped fleece pajama bottoms. Arthur followed his eyes down and, well. It wasn't his fault that he couldn't look away. "Right. Give me a second."

He pushed his way past Arthur again, taking the steps two at a time. Arthur called after him, "Dress scientist-professional! The blue trousers and a button down! Do you have a clipboard?"

"Who uses clipboards anymore?" Merlin shouted down. "I'll just use your touchpad!"

Arthur had the mental image of Merlin dropping his touchpad into a vat of negavoid energy and shivered. "You'd just lose it! I'll buy you your own!"

Merlin slammed a door shut in answer. Arthur turned around to see that all of Merlin's flatmates were watching him with interest. Mordred had an amused smirk, Will was shaking his head as if trying to clear his head, Gilli and Freya were grinning, and Sefa's eyebrows were raised in a knowing look.

Retreat was sometimes the better part of valour. "Excuse me. I've got to make a phone call."

Arthur left the flat before anyone could ask him why his ears were pink.

 

 

Four days, two tablets, and one fake government identification card later, Merlin started on level twelve of the most illegally addictive game he'd ever played in his entire life and blindly reached across the tiny table for his coffee. His nearly-empty cup was snatched out of his fingertips, but before he could focus on the person who was currently helping himself to the seat across from him, a fresh cup was pushed into his hands.

"... thanks?" Merlin asked, confused.

"It's my pleasure, love."

The bloke -- the fit bloke, and he certainly deserved the emphasis -- was tousle-haired, manly-bearded, and wearing a tailored suit that Merlin had been recently educated into recognising as Savile Row. He wore no tie, his shirt was open a classy-respectable two buttons, and he sprawled in the chair with the ease of a man who had never walked into a building and felt unwelcome.

Until now.

Merlin's eyes narrowed. He pushed the coffee cup away, lining it up next to the other coffee cup the bloke had brought along with him. Merlin's old coffee, dregs and all, was on the next table, where the two girls sitting there were staring at it as if it were radioactive waste.

Which, given the proximity to the negavoid crater, was probably not far from accurate.

"You have the wrong table," Merlin said. "Piss off."

"Cute twink with a dorky scientist vibe? Can't brush his hair to save his life? Probably in the process of reconfiguring a brand new tablet or playing..." The man leaned forward to peek at the screen. Merlin snatched it close to his chest, hiding it from view. "Angry Birds?"

Merlin glowered.

"Angry Birds it is," the man said, grinning big and broad. He gave Merlin a flirty wink.

Merlin wanted to punch him in the face. The man seemed intelligent -- or at least observant -- because he leaned back a bit in his seat.

"I'm at the right table," the man assured him.

"Ugh," Merlin said, getting up.

The man grabbed his wrist in a hold that, while probably not completely unbreakable, was tight enough to hurt. "Sit down, Mr. Emrys."

Merlin made squinty eyes at the man. "Doctor Emrys."

"Dr. Emrys," the man corrected, easy as rain, charming smile not quite reaching his eyes. His tone was gentle when he continued, "Please sit down. I don't like attracting attention."

Merlin glanced around the Café. The two ladies at the table next to theirs were shooting them both dark looks. A couple of girls were openly staring at the man with big smiles on their faces. The barista was also making heart-eyes at him, which probably explained why there was a lily drawn in the cream of his coffee, while Merlin's mug was black and plain.

"Kind of missed the mark on that one," Merlin pointed out.

"Can't help that," the man said, shrugging while letting Merlin go. He grinned dazzlingly at the girls across the way, winked at the barista, and did his charming best to look apologetic to the two women at the nearby table, but only succeeded in making them huff and turn away. The man leaned forward, pushing the two coffee mugs out of the way, and looked at Merlin intently. "There's no need to attract the wrong sort of attention, is there?"

"That sounds like a threat," Merlin said.

The man made a humming sound that could've been agreement, could've been protestation, then said, "We have a mutual friend, if that reassures you at all. The mutual friend being one of a handful of people in the universe who can pull off computer nerd chic, acts like the world owes him for some unforgivable slight or another, and has a really nice arse if you don't mind the overbearing attitude that goes with it?"

"You've just described half my mates," Merlin said, but he capitulated and sat down. He made sure to balance on the edge of his seat, in case he needed to dart away.

"You have terrible taste in friends," the man said. "Let me narrow it down. Arthur Pendragon."

Merlin had half-anticipated that answer. Without missing a beat, he said, "Don't know him."

"Then why is he glaring at me as if he'd like to hack my head off and mount it on his trophy wall?" the man asked. He sat back in his chair, crossing his arms with a smug, self-satisfied look on his face.

Merlin chanced a look over his shoulder. Sure enough, there was Arthur, standing in the queue for coffee, looking perfectly edible in an anything-but-plain three-piece charcoal suit, pale blue shirt, and steel grey tie. His hair was wind-tousled, he held a pair of reflective Top Gun sunglasses in his hands, and his mouth was set in a firm, irritated-as-fuck line.

"Actually, it looks more like he'd hack off your head, prop it on a spear, and set it on fire," Merlin said, though he couldn't honestly fathom why until -- "Oh, he's your boyfriend? You're using me to make him jealous? That's not on, mate. That's just not on. I don't want to get in the middle of whatever kinky sex games you're trying --"

"Believe me, you definitely do want to get in the middle of our kinky sex games," the man purred, his mouth spreading into a lascivious grin, and winked.

"Ugh," Merlin said. Sure, the bloke was good-looking, and who wouldn't want to get close up and personal with Arthur Pendragon? The fact that Arthur was apparently in a seemingly-open relationship with another person shouldn't be a deal breaker, not if someone was well and truly determined to get that particular notch on their bedpost.

And yet, the thought made Merlin sick to his stomach. He felt stupid, somehow. Of course someone like Arthur would have a boyfriend -- or a partner, because that sounded fancier, and more to Arthur's standards -- and wouldn't be looking for a relationship of his own. And, fuck's sake. Merlin wasn't in uni anymore. He hadn't been with anyone in ages, never having had the string of one-night stands like he thought he'd have once he'd grown out of his beanpole teenage body, and, really, he wasn't into that sort of thing.

(There was a story that explained the whole reluctance toward one-night stands, but Merlin didn't want to think about it. Luckily, Will wasn't here to bring up that whole horrible experience.)

"Yeah, no," Merlin said, getting up. Suddenly, he didn't feel like going to the Ground Zero site anymore. He'd apologize to Arthur, pay him back whatever he'd put in to arrange the entire delicate operation, and figure some way to go in on his own. He dimly remembered one of his cohorts in the materials chemistry program working on an invisibility cloak. Maybe he could borrow that.

A nearly-overbearing presence loomed at Merlin's shoulder, and he swallowed. He didn't need to turn around to know Arthur had arrived. To compound the tiny feeling of dread sinking in Merlin's belly, Arthur said, "Sit down, Merlin."

Merlin sat down.

"Gwaine," Arthur said, and unlike two seconds ago, his voice was the ice-cold that came right before the sledgehammer strike that would shatter someone into a million pieces. Merlin startled and looked at Arthur in surprise. "You're in my chair. Get the fuck out."

"That's no way to treat your boo," Gwaine said, frowning. "You said you'd make an effort not to scare away the nice twink this time."

Arthur's sigh wasn't just long-suffering, it was aggravated and bordering on murderous. Merlin caught the clue, and decided that maybe, just maybe, the two of them weren't actually together the way Gwaine made it sound. The thought made him a little giddy and a lot light-headed.

"You're not wearing your glasses," Merlin said instead, distracted by how blue Arthur's eyes were at the moment.

"Contact lenses, Merlin. Keep up," Arthur said, raising an eyebrow. He turned to Gwaine. Gwaine's grin had turned smarmy, but he didn't move. If anything, he wriggled in his seat as if marking his territory. Arthur's eyes narrowed, and Merlin could almost see him trying to calculate how much trouble it would be to get Gwaine out of the way.

Ultimately, Arthur growled under his breath, put his tea down on the table next to Merlin's cup, and politely asked the ladies at the next table if he could borrow their third chair. Surprisingly, the two women didn't seem inclined to accommodate until they realised that, a) Arthur was not Gwaine; b) Arthur was Arthur freaking Pendragon, and; c) Arthur had asked politely.

Arthur planted the chair next to Merlin, sat down, and stared at Gwaine for a long moment. Finally, he said, "I appreciate your coming by."

He didn't sound particularly appreciative, but Gwaine didn't seem to mind. "I come when you call."

"No, you really don't," Arthur said, with another one of those aggrieved sighs Merlin was coming to like, as long as they weren't directed toward him. "But I know how much trouble you'll be in for doing this."

"Assuming I'll get caught, which, come on," Gwaine scoffed, spreading his hands in disbelief. "It's me. That won't happen. And if it does, it'll be worth it, because you'll owe me a favour."

Merlin glanced at Arthur. Arthur's face approximated sucking lemons pretty well, so Merlin had a good idea of how he felt about owing this Gwaine character anything. "I told you my conditions," Arthur said flatly.

"I can work around them," Gwaine said, unperturbed.

He looked like he was about to say more, but Merlin cut in with, "Hold on. For the sake of clarification, what do you mean by favours? Because I hear that sort of thing, I think of, you know..."

He made a hand gesture in the air.

"Not that sort of favour," Arthur said quickly.

"Exactly that sort of favour," Gwaine also said, nearly simultaneously.

"Ugh," Merlin said, because he was in some sort of fucked-up soap opera, and last he looked, this wasn't Coronation Street.

He didn't like the idea of Arthur dating this self-righteous arrogant smarmy little piece of shite, no matter how good the two of them might look together. At least it didn't look anything like that, considering how far away from Gwaine that Arthur was sitting. Even then, he liked the idea of Arthur owing this self-righteous arrogant smarmy little piece of shite a favour, no matter what the nature of the favour, even less.

"Okay, no," Merlin said finally, dropping his hand from where he'd been pinching the bridge of his nose. "No favours. Arthur doesn't owe you anything. There will be no blackmailing or extortion or any of that bollocks, you understand?"

"Um," Gwaine said, unsure. He glanced at Arthur.

Arthur raised a brow and shot Merlin a sidelong look. "Unfortunately, we need him to get through the security checkpoint."

"And owing him a favour is the only way he'll do it? A personal favour?" Merlin pressed. After a moment of silence and Gwaine's drawled, Well, for some definition of personal, if you know what I mean, Merlin shook his head. "Fuck that. No. Any business we do, we do above board. If he does something for us, then we'll do something for him in equal measure --"

Merlin grunted at the swift kick in his shin. Gwaine looked intrigued, but Arthur's foul mood had returned tenfold, and there was only one guess who would've done the deed. It helped that Arthur followed up with, "Shut up, Merlin."

"Ow," Merlin said, reaching down to rub his leg. Was Arthur wearing bloody steel-toed Oxfords, or something? But he continued on undeterred, glaring at both Arthur and Gwaine. "And by equal measure, I mean, my definition of equal measure, not this bloody bollocks of conditions that this one wants 'to work around'. I don't do things that way, and I'm not letting you do it, either."

Arthur didn't say anything. He tilted his head, but the scowl had vanished, and the much more pleasant Raised-Eyebrow-of-Curiosity had returned. Gwaine, however, was no longer smiling, and had adopted Arthur's annoyed scowl.

"Well, I showed up. It's not my fault you're not following through. A favour's a favour --" he began, only to be interrupted by Merlin's snort and the very loud and angry scrape of his chair along the linoleum when he got up once more.

"How dare you," Merlin said in the sort of hushed-but-shouting voice that was meant for the exclusive use of private scolding that couldn't help but be held in public. Nobody could hear what he was saying, but everyone knew that tone of voice, and using it meant that the crowd in the Café were glancing their way in the hopes of seeing a massive train wreck of a fight. "First you proposition me by inviting me back to your hotel room for a shag while my fiancé's getting us coffee, then when I tell you I'm not interested, you have the nerve to tell us that you can't give him a promotion after all the shite you put him through? I'll have you on harassment and blackmailing charges so fast, you won't know what the fuck just happened."

Gwaine blinked at him.

Arthur also blinked at him.

Merlin raised his eyebrows in challenge.

Gwaine licked his lips and chuckled. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, body language reading like a teenager trying to calm down his date before they caused a scene. "That's not going to work."

"You didn't want any attention, you said. And apparently, you can get us through the cordon, which tells me a lot of things about you, up to and including you're a government agent, and you've got security clearance, but how much do you want to bet it won't be for much longer? The bookies are already setting odds," Merlin threatened, his voice a low hiss.

"Where did you find this one?" Gwaine asked Arthur.

Arthur shrugged, but looked like he approved of Merlin's underhanded tactics, because he didn't attempt to curtail Merlin. Instead, he sipped at his tea and relaxed in his seat, then magnanimously gestured for Merlin to continue.

At a slightly louder I'm-mad-at-you-but-I'm-trying-to-stay-quiet-because-we're-in-public volume, Merlin said, "Everyone thinks you're a charmer, but really, you're secretly a closet bigot with a missing left testicle and substandard cock, and a bestiality fetish for goats. The small, cute, baby ones. I've got the pictures your ex sent me --"

He pulled out his phone, snapped a picture of a very startled Gwaine, his mouth open in disbelief, which, Perfect. Merlin leaned in close to Arthur.

"If I get Gilli to Photoshop those pictures, can you sneak them in somewhere public?"

Arthur hummed thoughtfully to himself and said, "We've got a popular Twitter feed at the company."

"That'll do." Merlin nodded and turned to Gwaine, increasing his volume a bit. "-- and if you don't leave us the fuck alone, I'm going to make sure those photos get posted everywhere. Everywhere."

He paused, took in Gwaine's slightly gobsmacked look, and gave him as nasty a grin as he could manage.

"Well?" he asked. He could tell Gwaine was still trying to get his footing. "Arthur doesn't owe you a favour. This is a random meeting in a Café. We go our separate ways, no harm done, and if we ever see each other again, we pretend this little chat never happened. Or... You take the chance that I'll maybe agree to take care of whatever you need taking care of sometime down the road."

Gwaine slumped a little in his seat. He darted a sidelong look at Arthur, who shrugged his shoulders again, and waved his hand toward Merlin in a gesture that couldn`t be mistaken for anything else but, Yeah, what he said. When he finally spoke, he said, "You know, when you left the department, things sure got boring fast. It's really not fair that you moved on to something where you get to have more fun."

Arthur's eyes widened at Gwaine's words. He coughed, and if he hadn't already put down his tea cup, he probably would have choked on it, too. "I don't -- You said you wouldn't -- You fucking wanker --"

Gwaine's eyebrows shot up meaningfully, a smug smirk pulled at his mouth, and he looked far too satisfied with himself for, apparently, spilling the fucking beans. "Or did I not get the memo? You never left, and you're really undercover?"

"Gwaine," Arthur warned, his voice low and angry. He looked ready to lunge across the table to throttle Gwaine then and there. A red flush was rising up his neck, he was determinedly not looking at Merlin, and for all the anger in his expression, Merlin could see heavy colour tints of betrayed and embarrassment in his aura. If he wasn't mistaken, Arthur had never planned for Merlin to find out about his background.

(Which, come on. Merlin wasn't an idiot. He might have been lost in his own little world while working on his doctorate, but that was behind him now, and he was at full operating capacity.

It didn't take a genius to notice the irregularities in Arthur's background. Between what little Arthur had told him, what information -- and lack of -- there was in the media about Arthur's activities, and what Morgana had revealed from her visions, it was pretty easy to put everything together and to draw a big question mark. Throwing in the particular level of competency, the fact that he carried a gun nearly everywhere he went, and knew things he shouldn't, even with his remarkable computer hacking skill, adding two plus two together really did equal five.

With a capital F, Five.

As in: MI5.

Calling in a favour with someone like Gwaine to help them get to Ground Zero? That was only confirmation, even without Gwaine's testimony. What was even better was how Gwaine was twisting things around to point the spotlight on Arthur so that they'd forget about Merlin, which meant that either, Arthur had left MI5 and was operating on his own, or this was even more of an elaborate undercover plot to get Merlin to hang himself.)

"I really wish I'd been pulled into this assignment, I'd have shagged him --" Gwaine leered at Merlin, his eyes raking down Merlin's torso like he wanted to paw every inch. Merlin's mouth curled in disgust. "-- already, by now. Gotten state secrets out of him and left. You don't have the bollocks to push it that far --"

"Ugh," Merlin said. He put a hand on Arthur's shoulder to steady him, and held his hand in a silencing gesture at Gwaine. "Shut up, you absolute fucking wanker."

 

And Gwaine shut up, despite the still-moving lips. The layer of silence coming from that side of the table was absolutely blissful, and Merlin relaxed. Gwaine caught on quickly, alarm bleeding through his every pore. He started to get up, arm moving toward his open suit jacket, probably going for a gun.

"And don't move, either, because I'm not done," Merlin growled, jabbing his pointer finger at Gwaine in warning. He didn't use magic this time, but Gwaine sat back meekly, eyes wide as saucers, hands flat on the table.

Merlin exhaled in a sharp, put-upon sigh, because this was getting to be far more trouble than it was worth, and he was ready to call it quits and go back to his flat for a nice long nap. Then, he remembered what Morgana told him, all the calculations and research he'd done over the last few days and nights, and grunted in resignation, because, yes, he really need to do this, no matter how much of a pain in the arse it was.

Merlin dragged his chair back to the table, sat down, and pulled at Arthur's shoulder until he turned around. He stared at Arthur for a long time before Arthur could peel his eyes away from Gwaine. Arthur's jaw twitched, but he eventually made eye contact. There was apology and guilt in his eyes, in his aura, and a hidden plea that Merlin couldn't parse, but it didn't matter anyway.

"Remember back at the flat, when I said we were going to have a talk?"

Arthur nodded stiffly. He glanced at Gwaine, the murder slowly returning to his expression, and Merlin snapped his finger to get Arthur's attention. It worked, but it also made Gwaine startle and meep, as if he expected something bad to happen.

"We're still going to have that talk, but not here and not now," Merlin said. "Baseline, though? I'm not stupid, you're not that subtle, and I know. I'm not running for the hills either, in case you didn't notice."

Arthur's brows pinched as if to ask, Why not? He seemed to catch himself, though, likely realising that it was best not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"I trust you," Merlin said, surprising himself a little at the revelation. He meant it, and that... somehow, didn't surprise him. "I trust you. Do you know what that means, coming from someone like me?"

It was Arthur's turn for his eyes to go wide, because he swallowed thickly and nodded sharply. The tension in his shoulders eased, but the mayhem-and-death he directed toward Gwaine hadn't abated one bit.

Merlin went over what Gwaine had said. Succinctly put, Gwaine's mindset was firmly down to, Fuck him and leave him, all very James Bond-like, but even Bond wouldn't have walked away on a potential high-profile threat.

That meant he hadn't known who Merlin was or what he was capable of until Merlin went and gave himself away. Except, not really -- Merlin was down on paper as a low-powered telekinetic, which was barely a one on the one-to-ten grade threat categories. It would be easy enough to argue that pinching someone's vocal chords was within the realm of his abilities. If he gave Gwaine enough time to think about it, he might laugh it off and walk away and refuse to admit he was ever bested by someone who could barely lift a pencil in the air, most days.

But on the other hand, Arthur wouldn't have specifically called Gwaine for help, despite his association with a government agency (MI5 or otherwise), if he couldn't be useful, and if, more importantly, he couldn't be trusted. By now, Merlin had learned that Arthur never did anything by halves, and this was, hopefully, an attempt to suss out Gwaine as part of their team.

"Here's the deal," Merlin said, leaning forward a bit. He crooked his finger in invitation, and Gwaine, despite his fear, leaned in. If nothing else, Merlin gave Gwaine credit for having cocky bravado in spades. "We're going to do this. You're not going to ask questions -- you'll follow orders and nothing more. Can you do that? Nod if you understand."

Arthur snorted. Gwaine's eyebrow raised in offence, but his mouth curled in amusement. Gwaine nodded.

"When we get out of there, alive, unharmed, all in one piece, with all the evidence scrubbed and no video trace left behind, and nobody tailing us for any reason whatsoever..." Merlin glanced at Arthur to see if he was missing a scenario, but Arthur only twirled a finger to continue. "Any of that bollocks or anything like that, you and Arthur are going to have a chat, later. If you don't like what you hear, well. I'll just make all this not to have happened and you won't remember a thing. If we ever pass each other on the street, it'll be like I'm a stranger to you, because you'll never have known me, and you'll have completely forgotten that you ever had Arthur this close to owing you a favour. Simple as that."

Gwaine's nose scrunched up. He didn't like that.

"Those are my terms. Take it or leave it," Merlin said.

Gwaine looked between the two of them. Narrow-eyed, he asked, "What do you want in the Restricted Zone?"

Merlin exchanged glances with Arthur. Arthur shrugged, clearly leaving it up to Merlin. Merlin turned to Gwaine and said, "I just want to take measurements. Scientific ones. With delicate equipment specially constructed for exactly this purpose."

Gwaine's brows furrowed. He leaned in, wriggled his fingers to invite Merlin in, and said, "If you can make my memory go away, then you can do the same thing to the guards and anyone else you run into in the Zone. Why do you need me?"

"Um," Merlin said, because he didn't want to reveal the reason why to someone who was, thus far, a question mark in the biggest sense of the word. In the supernatural community, everyone knew the effects the Zone had on them, and no one talked about it. No one wanted the mundanes to know how weak, how powerless, that Ground Zero could make them.

"Because it's the Zone," Arthur said simply, having leaned in to join in on the quiet conversation over cold tea dregs and untouched coffee cups. "Have you never wondered why no one who's Registered lives in the area within two hundred metres of the Zone?"

Merlin scowled at Arthur, because of course he'd have figured that out. But did he have to go and practically spell it out for Gwaine?

Yes, Arthur's sidelong glance replied, and they both turned their attention to Gwaine.

Arthur must have decided that Gwaine needed more incentive, because he said, "Comes down to, we need backup, and I hate to say it, but you were second to me in the short-range firearms testing component."

Gwaine must have been thinking about the very not-subtle hint about Ground Zero's effects, and was clearly still thinking about the question Arthur had asked him, because although his expression cleared up at the mention of potential firefights, he continued to look thoughtful. But the bait Arthur had thrown out was enough to get him on the hook, and he said, "Let's talk tactics on the way."

Merlin wasn't sure what tactics would be required, but the specifics didn't seem to matter. Whatever they'd agreed on when they left the Café, Merlin hadn't been read into the plan. Honestly, though, that was fine with Merlin. As long as the two of them watched his arse once they were into the Zone, he'd do whatever the fuck they wanted him to do in the first place.

Arthur and Gwaine were walking shoulder-to-shoulder along the pavement with the familiar Alpha male strut of people with something to prove. For nearly the entire point-five-eight miles from the coffee shop to the first Zone marker, the two of them had blunt moments of flirty shop talk (from Gwaine) and angry -- but bitten-off -- threats (by Arthur).

Merlin was amused. He could tell they were good friends.

As entertaining as it was to watch two fine specimens of delicious arses ahead of him, Merlin ended up paying less attention to them and more on his own senses. The closer they came to Ground Zero, the more everything began to fuzz out, enveloping him in a magic-deprivation tank surrounded by television static noise and an under-the-skin creepy-crawly feeling. From the stories he'd heard, every supernatural reacted differently to the negavoid energy, while mundanes went largely unaffected. Still, it didn't stop Merlin from feeling sick to his stomach when he saw a nearby playground full of kids. He wondered how many of them were really supernatural, but would never know because of how close they lived to the radiation at Ground Zero.

The affected area, where the buildings hadn't been destroyed from the physical impact, was surrounded by a flimsy aluminum barricade three metres high, reinforced with concrete bricks and chain link netting. Access to the Zone was strictly regulated by several obnoxious government departments with names that didn't match their occupations, but the poor sods actually guarding what was perceived as a harmless area were all no-nonsense army regulars, with a couple of agency suits thrown in for supervisory measures.

Merlin could see one of them just ahead, at one of the few entry points around the fence, sitting along the edge of the guard station desk while chatting up an armed soldier. There were a few soldiers stationed at the entrance, a couple inside, loitering in the shade, and Merlin suddenly did not want to go inside. It was less the effect of the negavoid energy and more the abrupt realisation of what might happen if this was a trap.

"Um," he said, feeling dizzy. Arthur and Gwaine walked on without having noticed Merlin's waver.

Merlin slowed down, reaching out to put a hand on a nearby brick wall, and stopped. His stomach roiled, he ducked into the alley, and threw up.

"Ugh," he said. Freya's fry-up hadn't tasted half as good coming up as it did going down, and his nose burned from the otherwise-mediocre coffee from the coffee shop. Merlin spat to clear his mouth, patted his pockets in search of something that wasn't an electronic tablet, a sensitive device to detect radiation particles and take measurements, or his mobile.

"That bad?" Arthur asked from fucking nowhere, his tone a quiet, concerned murmur that Merlin nearly drowned out with his shout of surprise. Arthur offered him a cloth handkerchief -- because, of course, he'd have cloth handkerchiefs -- and followed that up with breath mints.

"Boy scout, huh?" Merlin asked sarcastically, and vindictively wiped his mouth with the handkerchief. Arthur wasn't getting that back -- and Merlin felt good about it until he noticed Arthur didn't seem to care about that. He rubbed his face with his hand and shook his head, and grumbled, "No, I'm fine. I'll be fine. It's doing something weird to me but I can deal with it."

"We don't have to --"

"We have to, and you know it," Merlin said, snatching the mints out of Arthur's hand. He threw a handful of tic-tacs into his mouth and nearly promptly choked on the overwhelming orange and mint flavour. Coughing a bit, he said, "Let's just get this over with."

"All right," Arthur said, but Merlin heard the, I hope you're not being stupid, Arthur definitely was thinking.

Gwaine had covered for them while Merlin sorted himself out, and from the looks of it, he was doing it with the sort of genial charm only the upper class seemed to have. The soldier -- Sergeant Isolde Lemieux -- and the government spook -- Tristan "I'm just a consultant, don't mind me" Grant -- were laughing at something that Gwaine had said just as Arthur and Merlin arrived at the checkpoint.

"Oh, here they are," Gwaine said easily. "My colleague, Arthur Pendragon. You might have heard of him in the news?"

"Didn't you take that job at your da's company?" Tristan asked, the question far too questing to be casual curiosity.

"It's all hush-hush, you understand," Arthur said easily. He shot a glare at Gwaine, but offered up a wink and a small, tired smile. "I'm not really here, and you didn't see me."

"I'll just put you down as a simple number cruncher," Isolde said with a grin. "We see them all the time. Not all there in the head, but smart as whips when it comes to data. It won't raise any flags.

"That's our Arthur," Gwaine said, throwing his arm across Arthur's shoulders. "Simple."

Merlin bit his lip to keep from laughing when he heard a low growl from Arthur.

"Mike Valiant or Cedric Cole?" Isolde asked, picking up a pen.

"Whichever comes the least, or whichever you hate the most," Gwaine said.

Isolde and Tristan exchanged glances. "Valiant, then." She flipped through the log-in book and copied ID numbers from a previous entry. Once finished, she gestured at Merlin. "And him?"

"Dr. Ambrose from Edinburgh University, on a special permit. Needs data for a project, don't ask him what it's about. It's got big words we couldn't afford on our salaries, anyway, not worth the headache of trying to follow what he's talking about," Gwaine said. He held out his hand for Merlin's special permit, which he didn't have, but Arthur planted a few hundred quid in Gwaine's hand. "Here you go."

"Seems legit," Isolde said, handing over half to Tristan. Neither of them glanced at the other soldiers, who, in turn, weren't paying them much mind, either, and Isolde put down her pen. "Go on in."

Merlin held his breath, and followed the others through the gates.

 

 

For the eighth time, Gwaine asked, "Are you just about done?"

Merlin stopped answering after the fourth repeat, and Arthur, who'd lost patience after number two, had to admit he was impressed with Merlin's self-restraint. At least, until he noticed Merlin wasn't answering Gwaine more because he was completely oblivious to his surroundings than because of annoyance, which would be a normal response given the circumstances. Instead, Merlin's world had narrowed to the device he held in one hand, the tablet that was in the other, and whatever interesting feature he'd just noticed at his feet.

Children, he told himself. Gwaine was a big kid who wanted all the toys and had the unfortunate training to throw a fearsome tantrum if he didn't get his way. Merlin was one of those quiet kids who liked to sit in a corner and read a book, but woe betide the poor unfortunate who tried to take the book away. And there was Arthur, the goddamn babysitter, trying to herd them along, because they didn't have a whole lot of time.

Tristan, the Government Agent Who Could Be Bought, and Isolde, the Self-Made-Millionaire Soldier, might have allowed them through the gates, without officially signing in, but that didn't mean that the two of them wouldn't sell out their own mothers if it would turn out to be profitable. It was best to finish their business as quickly as possible, but it would help a whole lot of Gwaine stopped asking stupid question, if Merlin got on with it already, and those soldiers patrolling the inside of the barricade stoppedlooking in their direction.

Arthur scratched his jaw and told himself to calm down.

(What do you mean calm down? I can't fucking calm down, his self snarked back. We're in a government-controlled, army-patrolled area. They've got automatic rifles and Shoot-To-Kill Orders. We broke in. Illegally. We've been caught on camera, you passed on money with your fingerprints, people are looking at us. Gwaine doesn't seem to understand the trouble we're in right now, Merlin isn't in any particular sort of hurry, and there you are, a big numpty standing there with his hands in his pockets, doing fuck-all looking perfectly suspicious like a fucking arse! I'm not going to fucking calm down. Don't you fucking dare tell me to calm down --)

Arthur took a deep breath, made a list of items that he was going to have to deal with, and quickly --

(Starting with hacking the Restricted Zone's computers, wiping their video footage and any backups he might find, off-site or otherwise; seguing to bombing every applicable server worldwide with a virus that would adjust his fingerprints, if found, to those of the nearest criminal with a facial-recognition match; and ending with killing Gwaine a few times for good measure, just because.

Merlin would be left for later, when Arthur was certain to have Merlin's complete attention. There was a list of all the dumb things Evil Overlords should decidedly Not Do if they planned to live into old age, and waltzing into an area controlled by the enemy was one of those items. Arthur was going to make Merlin eat that bloody list.)

-- and calmed down.

Ground Zero was, on the surface, an unremarkable landscape that reminded Arthur very much of the photographs of post-nuclear mock-urbanized testing sites. A big crater marred the centre like the pothole from Hell. Building debris, where it hadn't been pulverized by the force of the negavoid bomb, stuck out from the ground in random pieces of mangled rebar, crooked and bleached-out signposts, and piles of brick. Vegetation was limited to the occasional wilted weed, animal life came down to a few ants and a handful of cockroaches, and the only indications that humans once lived in this area was the inexplicably still-standing children's gym from what must have been a playground, off in the distance, and a clothesline hanging from a post, greyed-out shredded rags fluttering in the nonexistent breeze like flags of surrender.

It was eerie.

It was even more eerie standing this close to the negavoid crater with nearby buildings towering in the distance, and no sound could be heard of distant traffic over the heavy Darth Vader breathing echoing from the inside of the radiation suits.

"That's odd," Merlin said suddenly. He held up the device in his hand, tapped a couple of keys, and crouched down to take a measurement.

Arthur ignored the chill creeping down his spine, chalking it down to a bead of sweat instead, and casually asked, "What's odd?"

"Hold that thought," Merlin said, his voice muffled and hollow. He got up and waddled -- because there was no other word to describe walking in a radiation suit two times too big for his frame -- toward the lip of the crater.

Gwaine stared at Merlin. He spread his arms in the air helplessly before dropping them down fruitlessly. Arthur would take heart that someone else was as frustrated with the situation as he was, except he was never, ever going to find camaraderie with Gwaine if he could help it.

Arthur started to follow Merlin, but stopped when he saw an uniform heading their way. The soldier was slight of frame, and odds were that their bulk was mostly made up of tactical gear, weaponry, and a 1940s-style gas mask. It wasn't until they came closer that Arthur recognised Isolde and found it curious that not only was she not wearing a radiation suit, but neither were the soldiers on patrol along the barricade.

So, why were they wearing radiation suits, if the British Army didn't feel the need to equip their own personnel with the correct protective equipment for the situation? Arthur had a moment to feel both stupid and completely duped, but that went away really quickly when Isolde said, "You need to clear out," at the same time that Merlin announced, from the top of the crater's lip, "There's no radiation."

"Jesus Christ," Gwaine said.

"Got a call from HQ; some bigwigs are heading in. Don't ask me who, I can't tell you, but you need to get out of here before they arrive. You've got twenty minutes," Isolde said. She almost sounded bored.

Heartened that the bribe had been more than enough to buy Isolde's loyalty, and suspecting that she would press on him for a tip on their way out, Arthur glanced at Merlin. Raising his voice to be heard through the suit at distance, he asked, "Are you just about done?"

Merlin, for some inexplicable reason, was on his hands and knees, crawling up the rise and inching toward the crater himself. He didn't answer. Possibly, he hadn't heard, but Arthur doubted that.

"Gwaine --"

"He's your boy," Gwaine said, shaking his head. The movement made the big yellow radiation suit twist oddly, turning him into a big ugly blob on the landscape. "You get him."

You're damn right, he's my boy, Arthur thought to himself with possessive glee, and glanced at Isolde to excuse himself. Somehow, even with the gas mask obscuring most of her face, Isolde managed to radiate amusement. Arthur ignored her and headed after Merlin with as much grace as he could while wearing an awkward, completely self-enclosed, bubble-shaped radiation suit. He was rather pleased with himself for climbing up the steep rise without having to resort to drastic tactics, but that pride vanished in an instant when he saw Merlin start to slide down the other side of the crater and into the pit.

Arthur caught Merlin before he slid down the rise and rolled all the way toward the large, bright blue quartzite slab that was pulsating alarmingly. Merlin didn't even seem to notice. His arm was outstretched toward the crystal, training the device in his hand in the general direction of the pulse. Idly, he adjusted the knobs, waiting for several seconds in-between readings before twisting to the next switch.

Big yellow puffed-up radiation suits, Arthur learned in that moment, came with attached oversized rubber boots that gave absolutely shite in terms of traction. He slipped down the rise with Merlin another foot. Worse, it seemed that the crystal was glowing brighter, and the pulsations had increased in frequency.

"Merlin," Arthur said, trying to stay as calm as possible given the circumstance.

"Just a second," Merlin answered.

Big yellow puffed-up radiation suits, Arthur learned in that moment, came with attached oversized gloves that were about as slippery as an oiled pig, because Arthur's grasp on Merlin's leg slid from his knee to his calf.

"Merlin," Arthur said, a bit more urgently. His mouth went dry as he watched the crystal erupt from the ground, the crystals spreading like a maw opening wide for a meal.

"These readings make no sense," Merlin said. If Arthur ever had any doubts that Merlin was every bit the scientist that his doctorate claimed that he was, those doubts were completely erased in the face of the complete obliviousness that Merlin had for his own continued survival in the pursuit of data. He watched with dismay as Merlin smacked the side of his device a few times, the end result of which was Merlin sliding even more out of Arthur's grasp and Merlin grumbling something that was muffled and inaudible behind the radiation suit.

The bright blue of the crystal was now a steady shade, and several more quartzite blocks had shot out from under the ground in a jagged, roundish line. Arthur wasn't prone to hyperbole or hysterics, but to him, those new quartz bits looked like bloody teeth.

When Merlin started to twist the knobs again, Arthur lost it. He kicked Merlin's other leg with the foot not currently wedging himself against a rock against further slips, and roared, "Merlin!"

"I'm not done!" Merlin said, exasperated. The physical shape of his suit seemed to twist, as if Merlin were looking over his shoulder only to find the empty, disorienting blankness of the radiation suit looking back at him. He settled on his belly again -- sliding another centimetre out of Arthur's rapidly-failing grip -- and twisted another knob. "I calibrated the measurements this morning. I know it's working! I just don't understand why I'm not picking up any of the expected radiation given the size of the blast. The half-life of negavoid particles is expected to be fifty years; if you look at the math, the particle count is high enough. I should be detecting that! But instead, all I'm getting is --"

"That's fascinating," Arthur cut in, unable to keep the tension out of his voice. "How about we discuss it further, when you're not in danger of being eaten by the magical equivalent of a Sarlacc?"

"Huh?" Merlin asked, confused. He lowered the device. Then, a little more intelligently, he said, "Huh. And me without any mad Jedi skills."

(The make or break of any relationship, Arthur felt, was whether the potential life partner was capable of recognising popular culture references, no matter how obscure, and to be able to appreciate them in any given context. Arthur had had many close calls when he'd dated people who couldn't, for life or money, intelligently explain the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. He was immensely happy to discover that Merlin passed that test, but he'd celebrate when they weren't about to die.)

They made it back to the crater's lip with a minimum amount of muffled cursing, scrambling, and sliding, during which they wasted five minutes of the twenty minutes window, came up with two good jokes for reverse rubbers, and established that, under no circumstances, ever, would they ever discuss the details of how they'd escaped the Pit of Doom.

"That's not normal," Arthur said, watching the crystals recede, though not all of them buried all the way into the ground. They still looked like teeth, and they continued to pulsate in that blue light, almost in the same rhythm as a heartbeat. Through the clear flexible Plexiglas window that made up the face plate of their pseudo-Minions costumes, Arthur saw Merlin's mouth drop open as if about to offer up an explanation, and quickly cut him off. "We'll talk later."

Isolde wasn't in a hurry despite her twenty minute warning. Gwaine sauntered right along with her, and for all Arthur knew, they were making plans to Netflix and chill, later. They made it to the main bunker area with three minutes to spare, went through the fastest (and most woefully inadequate, in Arthur's opinion) decontamination process, and were out the door right after, hastily adjusting their shirts and ties like they'd had the most troublesome threesome in the showers.

(Which, fortunately and unfortunately, wasn't far from the truth. Arthur had gotten a healthy eyeful of Merlin's naked arse, and it was enough that it would fuel wank fantasies for a month, at least. He had also seen more of Gwaine's backside than he'd ever wanted, and the art deco apple cover-up tattoo on his right arse cheek was going to be powerful blackmail material once Arthur ran the digitised photograph he'd secretly taken with his phone through the proper compilers to resolve whatever was hidden beneath.

Gwaine had ended up with Merlin's too-small shirt, Arthur had had the good sense to check the label before accidentally putting on Gwaine's trousers, and Merlin had stood there, one hand covering his bits, the other pressing against his temple, when Gwaine tossed Merlin's pants in the incinerator.

"I'll just go commando," Merlin said, flustered and fed up, practically running out of the dressing room after pulling on the rest of his clothes, leaving Arthur and Gwaine to walk out of the bunker with an awkward mixture of irritated arousal, stubborn boners, and that feeling of camaraderie that Arthur definitely didn't want to have with Gwaine, ever.)

They were at least five minutes overdue on their exit strategy, and in the process of completing their exit strategies -- one hundred pounds more in everyone's pocket, with an added two hundred pounds tip -- when the bigwigs arrived. The bigwigs were mostly big, blustery, and at least one of them was wearing an ill-fitting toupee over a peek-a-boo comb-over, each of them elbowing their way past without making eye contact with anyone, and as they were walking away, Arthur heard the weedy voice of the singular outlier in the group announce himself as, "... Cedric Cole, damn it. How many times do I have to come here before you get that right?"

"Well, good thing we didn't sign in as that one," Gwaine commented as they rounded the corner, crossed the street, and worked their way back to the Café. "Now, do you mind telling me what all that was about?"

"Yes, we do mind," Arthur said pointedly.

"You're supposed to read me in," Gwaine reminded him. He waggled his eyebrows. "It's that, or we're back to the favour you promised me, Princess."

"Ugh," Arthur said, because he really didn't want to tell Gwaine anything.

Merlin glanced between them and asked, "What did you tell him you'd do, anyway?"

"A shag --"

"A date," Arthur said firmly, shooting Gwaine a dark look. "No presumption of any kind of physical contact involved."

"Um," Merlin said, looking strangely pale and unhappy. Arthur wondered if all that time in the sweltering heat of the radiation suit had taken it out of him. Merlin was too thin on a good day, and Arthur felt a compulsion to feed him up properly. Who knew when he'd next need to use his magic? Didn't that take fuel? "Why a date?"

"I've been trying to shag --"

"He wants my contacts at Pendragon," Arthur said, cutting Gwaine off. "There's a press party every few weeks, depending on who or what's in the headlines, and a couple of big galas, especially at movie festival time. He's trying to --"

"Call it job security," Gwaine said quickly.

"More like adding to his black book," Arthur said wryly. He glanced at Gwaine, who shrugged, unrepentant.

Merlin looked between them for a long moment before shaking his head. Arthur wasn't sure what was going through his head and swallowed an inward sigh. He might have been harbouring a secret hope that he might have half a chance with Merlin, but his association with Gwaine might have destroyed that.

(Seriously, simply knowing Gwaine was tantamount to a relationship killer, it seemed.)

Also, there was the whole issue with Human Resources and whether fraternisation in the ranks was permitted. It wasn't a subject that Arthur wanted to bring up in polite conversation, particularly since that polite conversation would have to include Arthur's bloody sister.

"Right, okay," Merlin said, rubbing his forehead. "I suppose they got that whole lothario aspect of secret agents right in the James Bond movies."

"No, that's just this one," Arthur said, thumbing toward Gwaine. Arthur's personal grievance eased when Merlin laughed, and the topping on the cake was Gwaine's put-out sigh and muttered, I'm not that bad. Arthur shot Gwaine a disappointed look, and said, "Yes, you are."

They entered the Café only to find it completely deserted of patrons, which was odd considering that it was normally full of students and layabout locals outside of the rush hour flood of blue-collar workers and businessmen. The staff was milled around the telly bolted to the wall, and someone kept saying, "Oh my God. Oh my God," over and over again.

Arthur exchanged glances with Merlin; Merlin raised a brow and cast a querying glance at Gwaine, and Gwaine evaded the unspoken question by holding his mobile out at the edge of his arm's reach, like someone in desperate need of reading glasses but refusing to own up to it.

"Welp, that's me," Gwaine said dramatically, pocketing his mobile. The frown pinching his brows didn't fade now that he wasn't squinting at the screen. "It's a 77-101. You know how it is, Princess."

"What's a 77-101?" Merlin asked.

"All hands on deck," Arthur said distractedly, fishing his smartphone out of his pocket. He glared at it -- he should've gotten an alert, for fuck's sake. Why else would he have spent all that time laying alarm traps in MI5's system? He waved an absentminded hand at Gwaine. "Go on, we'll settle up later."

"Oh, we'll settle up, all right," Gwaine said, leaning in for a kiss.

Arthur held out his hand. Driven by his own momentum, Gwaine couldn't avoid it in time and fell face-first into it. Arthur pushed him away.

He glanced at a moderately-disheveled Gwaine, who caught himself from the unexpected push-and-stumble. Gwaine smoothed out his short beard, brushed back his hair, and adjusted his tie, unconcerned and undeterred. His grin spread across his mouth, clever and sly.

Arthur's hand closed into a fist, his index finger outstretched, and he shook it in scolding denial. "Don't you have something to do?"

"I'll call when it's over," Gwaine said, tugging on the lapels of his suit jacket, peacocking as usual. Arthur rolled his eyes and turned to look at Merlin for help. Merlin, strangely enough, wasn't making eye contact. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"Short list, isn't it?" Arthur asked, returning his attention to his phone with a frown deep enough. He didn't look up at Gwaine's half-hearted laugh, and it wasn't until the door clicked shut that Arthur found what he was looking for.

"There's something not right about that bloke," Merlin said, a propos of nothing. "I can't put my finger on it."

"Hm-mmh," Arthur said, reading the contents of his screen. He grunted in annoyance, "Oh, there it is. I've got to check on that code. It shouldn't have taken this long for the alert to come through --"

Merlin cleared his throat. "What's that, then?"

Arthur looked up, realised where he was, and while he could feel the heat of a caught-out flush on his cheeks, he was just as unrepentant as Gwaine had been earlier, though for different reasons.

"So I left myself a backdoor at my old job," Arthur defended. "Big deal."

"Um," Merlin said, pinching the bridge of his nose. Arthur moved away, purely in self-defence, but Merlin didn't move his hand away for almost a minute. "We're still having that talk, you know."

"Sure," Arthur said, his attention more on the newscast being played on the telly than on Merlin. Merlin spread his hands in annoyance, smacking Arthur in the shoulder in the process.

"Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God," one of the baristas was saying.

Arthur peered over the gathered staff members to see the telly. The local London news channel was on, complete with scrolling headlines bar at the bottom, the station logo and banner just above, and familiar talking head filling the left side of the screen. Live teletype closed captioning was blocking the banner's subtitle and the onsite camera insert in the upper right corner was filled with flames and smoke, and for a moment, Arthur had no idea what was going on.

And then, he remembered the alert on his phone and Gwaine's 77-101 recall ahead of the anchorperson's shaky voice reading from the off-screen teleprompter: "... reminiscent of Cornelius Sigan's attempt to take over Greater London --"

"Arthur," Merlin said, tugging on his sleeve.

"Hm?" Arthur answered, trying to make out the rest of the anchorperson's speech over the growing din in the Café.

"-- reports of seven confirmed dead, thirty-one wounded, and the numbers are expected to rise. Emergency services currently cannot reach the injured --"

"What the fuck?" Merlin said, right when the video flipped to the on-site camera, blowing up the scene.

Through the dark grey smoke was video that could only be the illegitimate devil baby of a Michael Bay action movie and a Stephen Spielberg military drama. Buildings were burning, vehicles were overturned, people lay dead in the streets. Survivors tried to escape the spreading fires while simultaneously ducking for cover, and from the way that the video jumped around, the cameraperson was one of the people trying to get away, fast.

"... the area has been closed by the Metropolitan Police. There is currently no word on any action being taken to stop the carnage --"

Arthur pushed the Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God barista out of his way when the cameraperson found a relatively safe hiding spot and propped their camera on top of a few rubbish boxes. The video captured two people casually walking across the road, unconcerned for the shite going on around them, and Arthur would worry more for their state of being if it weren't for the fact that they were causing the carnage.

He shouldn't be surprised by the sight of Sofia Runds and Aulfric Runds. He'd known from the reports at MI5 that they weren't quite human. But he was surprised all the same, because the grainy photographs in the files hadn't done them the least amount of justice.

Their skin tone was an off-shade of aquamarine blue, their hair a ghastly shade of yellow (the woman) and grey (the man), and their features just this side of too-sharp to be attractive, biomechanically possible, or human. The lady had horns coming out of her forehead, her smile was full of shark-sharp teeth, and her robes came out of a medieval renaissance faire, complete with the trimmed brocade sleeves and the scandalous bosom-plunging bodice. She was younger than the man by at least a few decades (or centuries), even though he'd opted for something more appropriate for casual Friday. His tan suit was either off-the-rack or off-the-body, because it didn't fit him very well, and there was no looking away from the bloodstains on his shirt and trouser legs.

Arthur idly criticised their fashion sense. It was better than dealing with the tense ball of panic in the core of his belly.

"The unidentified supernatural beings are reported to have suddenly appeared in the busy financial district --"

Arthur felt Merlin's presence next to him as if he couldn't possibly be aware of anything else in the world. Merlin was watching him, Arthur knew, though he didn't know what Merlin was thinking.

"You're not surprised," Merlin remarked, his tone about as flat as it was whenever he mentioned that they were going to talk about certain things. Like Arthur's guns. Or his association with Gwaine. Or his past job history.

(Really, if Merlin was that worried about his experience, he would've asked Arthur for a CV At the very least, Merlin should've insisted on references, though, admittedly, Arthur didn't trust his former employers to give him a glowing recommendation. He would've made them up.)

"Not particularly, no," Arthur admitted, meeting Merlin's eyes briefly. "You heard Morgana. We're getting an influx of powerful supernatural creatures. When I first heard about them --" He waved at the screen. "-- I figured they were the first wave."

"You couldn't have mentioned it?"

Arthur wavered. Perhaps it was a calculated risk to hold back some information, but between getting hired for his position with EOI, managing his job at Pendragon Unlimited, dealing with the fallout of Morgana's visions, and catering to Merlin's eccentric scientific tendencies, it had honestly slipped his mind.

"It slipped my mind," Arthur tried.

Merlin's eyes, which had been carefully guarded, drifted into foreboding and flinty.

Arthur refused to back down. He stared back.

Merlin raised a brow.

Arthur raised one right back. Before Merlin could say a word, Arthur grabbed his arm and drew him away from the telly, where a second barista was joining the first in their Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God mantra. The two simultaneously covered their mouths with their trembling hands just as Sofia swept a hand out in vicious dismissal and the camera feed suddenly split into broken glass before going out altogether in a blurred cable-over-lens last gasp of the scene.

"What," Merlin said.

"We need to talk," Arthur said at the same time.

"You --" Merlin pressed his lips together. He threw his arms up in the air. He turned to the telly, which was back to the anchorperson, and gestured meaningfully. After a steadying breath, Merlin said, "You think?"

"Not here," Arthur said, cool and collected to Merlin's teapot-under-pressure. He pulled Merlin out of the Café, glanced around meaningfully, and dragged him up the pavement and away from the screeching tyres and honking horns of people who were either trying to get away from the attack, or being the usual oblivious London drivers.

Thirty seconds of being hauled around like a recalcitrant child later, Merlin wrenched his arm away. Ten seconds of traded glares turned into Merlin's aggravated capitulation, and he followed Arthur to a small office building some twenty minutes away from the Café. Arthur gestured him onto the elevator, hit the top floor, and once there, glanced around until he saw the stairs and rooftop access.

"77-101," Arthur repeated once they reached the roof, which was surprisingly well-manicured as far as ecologically-conscious rooftop gardens went. Like the Café, the rooftop was empty, so there was no one lingering around when Arthur went on to explain, "That's an inter-agency call-in, all bodies on site, including military."

As if summoned, several Apache helicopters whoop-whooop-whooooped their way across the city, heading straight for the area marked by growing swaths of grey-black smoke. Merlin came up behind Arthur, shifting here and there until Arthur got out of the way and let him take a look. Through a very thin gap, there were the flashing lights of police cars, yellow barricades being pulled up, and, scarily enough, an army tank slowly caterpillaring its way to the party.

"That code didn't exist until Cornelius Sigan made his first appearance," Arthur said, remembering all the little blurbs of information he'd collected over the years. Some of it had come from first-person accounts, when he was old enough to pass for older, and could use the Pendragon Unlimited media pass he'd stolen from his dad. "Prison block and cell room number from the one of his first arrests, not long before he went on his world domination plot. That's where the code came from."

"Fascinating historical tidbit, but what the actual fuck?" Merlin asked, throwing an arm out randomly.

Arthur's mouth pressed in a thin line. He tilted his head and forced himself to breathe slowly.

(He didn't know what to do. That was what the actual fuck.)

Merlin, clearly misinterpreting Arthur, stared heavenward, his mouth moving silently as if pleading for the entirety of the mythological pantheon for bloody mercy.

Arthur stared at the distracting line of Merlin's bare throat, remembered how Merlin had been very bare not that long ago, and that he was still pants-less beneath the tailored trousers. His mouth went dry, his brain stuttered to a stop, and he shifted slightly, because he didn't want to be caught.

"Wonderful," Merlin said, rubbing his hands over his face.

"It's not that bad," Arthur said.

Merlin's gaze dropped down to him. It was completely withering, and Arthur blinked at him, trying to look both hopeful and innocent. He was an adult, now, so he wasn't sure if it would work as well as it used to, back when he was a child.

"For fuck's sake," Merlin said, waving flustered hands in the air in Arthur's direction. "Ugh. Stop that. The kicked puppy act. I can't stand it."

"Uh," Arthur said, frowning slightly.

"No, that's just worse. Stop," Merlin said, covering his eyes. Arthur didn't understand what he meant, so he shut up and waited for Merlin to sort himself out. Finally, Merlin dropped his arms and sighed heavily. "Look, I'm not stupid. I mean, yes, I get lost in my own world, sometimes, or I don't come up for air often enough when I'm working on a project, but I'm not completely oblivious, all right?"

Arthur chewed the inside of his cheek and pointedly raised an eyebrow.

"Oh, shut it," Merlin groused. "There's oblivious, and then there's oblivious, and I'm absolutely not the second one. Kind of hard to ignore how you know everything about my friends, about me, about our clients. Or why you're carrying two guns, three knives, and a long, thin, metallic thing that had better not be a garrotte, because I like my neck where it is, thanks."

Arthur blinked at him and couldn't quite suppress the instinct to check to make sure his weapons were still on his person. He'd been so careful when they got dressed after the radiation wash at Ground Zero. He didn't even think Gwaine noticed how well-armed Arthur had been. "How did you --"

"Sorcerer, remember?" Merlin ran his hand through his hair. He walked a few steps away and sat on the rooftop ledge. With a heavy sigh, he said, "I know, okay? I know. Will's dad used to be a cop. He had some really unsavoury friends. I know most of them. I'm friends with their kids. So when I asked if they wouldn't mind running a background check on you..."

He trailed off, waiting for Arthur to piece it together. It took a minute, but Arthur eventually did put everything together. He couldn't help how explosively he reacted. "Fuck's sake."

"Yeah, exactly," Merlin said, because he apparently couldn't believe it either.

(Arthur wasn't certain how to feel about the fact that he'd had his own tricks turned on him. Not very good, for a start. Hideously impressed, for another. Ultimately, Arthur decided that he was unfairly frightened and aroused, which was a disturbing combination, but one that he'd accept since it was Merlin.

Still.

There was a large difference between surface veneer (see: vanity Google searches) , the truth (witness: hacking MI5 and getting his hidden file details), and the absolute truth (theoretically: the files Arthur had on his very private, highly protected server, that no one could possibly know about). Either way, anyone who could do a background search on him that would satisfy the curiosity of someone like Merlin?

That was someone he wanted in EOI's employ, if for no other reason than to free him from the burden of doing all the work.)

"How?" Arthur asked, unable to help himself.

"George," Merlin answered, after a moment of consideration.

"George?" Arthur prompted.

"George," Merlin confirmed, then pinched the bridge of his nose before waving his hand in the air. "Just some bloke I went to school with, yeah? No, that's not his real name, it's not even his pseudonym, and he owes me a whole lot of favours, because I helped him cover up his obsession with doorknobs."

Arthur opened his mouth to ask.

"Don't ask," Merlin warned, his tone flat and serious. "You really don't want to know."

"Okay," Arthur said, holding up his hands in surrender.

"And, anyway, that's not the point. For someone who can do all the things you do," Merlin said, "You kind of suck at covering up your own tracks."

"The personnel files are behind half a dozen solid firewalls," Arthur said weakly. "I know. I tested them." He paused. "Is George looking for a job?"

"Maybe. I'll ask," Merlin said.

"Okay, good," Arthur said, hoping his tone alone was enough to convey how disturbed he was that someone with those hacking skills was in the wind.

Merlin sighed. He stared at the fine gravel pathway under his feet and kicked at a weedy overgrowth. He eventually crossed his arms and shrugged awkwardly. "So you're former MI5. All right. I can live with that. And the guns. And as far as I can tell, you're not here to kill me, so I still trust you."

Arthur glanced at him, startled, and didn't bother disguising his surprise. He looked away just as quickly, swallowing hard, and the tension in his shoulders eased.

"I've been waiting, you know. I figured you might tell me," Merlin prompted, because he was something of an arse under that disarming charm, and it seemed he wasn't going to let Arthur off the hook entirely.

Arthur tilted his head to the side, trying to see a way out of the trouble he was in. Ultimately, he decided that the honest truth was the best approach and stood up straight. He looked off into the distance, shrugged, and said, "Eventually."

Merlin laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement. "That looked painful."

"It was," Arthur admitted, a small smile curling at his mouth. The smile faded slowly, and Arthur took a deep breath. "Now that that's unexpectedly settled, there's something else we have to talk about."

Merlin waited, arms crossed, and nodded encouragingly. "Something to do with that?"

He waved toward the fiery eruption in the distance. Arthur thought he could make out the military tank being flipped upside down. His heart wrenched and something sick settled in his stomach.

"Yeah," Arthur said, his jaw set, his eyes narrow. "That, and the government's absolutely shite contingency plans for the emergence of the next Evil Overlord."

 

 

99-999.

Merlin should be focusing on the data that he'd compiled at Ground Zero and coming up with a theory. Although he'd turned the numbers into pretty graphs that would look great on a presentation screen, they didn't make much sense even with some of the unrealistic correlations he'd throw in early on, because he already knew what the results meant.

They were well and truly fucked.

The trick was in writing up the narrative, making sure nobody panics or believes it's a joke, and in getting the information out where it needed to be.

Scientific papers took months for peer reviews. Sometimes, those papers never saw print, because the publication went under, had a too-small distribution, or was lost in the tidal wave of monthly publications.

If Merlin was lucky, getting this paper in print would take three months at minimum, even if he could prove his claims to the satisfaction of the peer review committee. Even then, there was no guarantee that anyone but the few physicists in the field would ever read it. Merlin's field of study was very exclusive.

On the other hand, there were plenty of open-source journals online, where the data could be seen and reviewed by anyone under the sun. That would get the information out, for sure, but it also meant that Merlin's inevitable conclusion would get mercilessly taken apart. Within seventy-six hours, the locusts would have moved on to another paper, leaving his article a complete wreck despite the scientific validity.

Merlin could go to the media -- Arthur had virtually guaranteed that route when he first aligned with Evil Overlord, Incorporated. The math was too complicated for the general population and turning it into plain English would only cause government officials to have a knee jerk reaction: where they immediately trotted out their nearest talking-head expert to debunk the claims. There were plenty of independent news outlets who liked to stick it to the government every now and then, but none of them would touch a story on the supernatural if it meant risking their reputation and continued existence.

That left... not much choice, if Merlin were honest. He could write it up as a blog post for the new section of EOI's website, and let Gilli loose on social media to get the word out as quickly as possible. In this scenario, Merlin wouldn't need to deal with the blow-back, and Gilli was pretty good at cutting trolls at the knees.

(Merlin privately thought Gilli rather enjoyed it.)

Still, Merlin couldn't push himself to put words to virtual paper to warn his fellow supernaturals and magically-inclineds, because he was stuck on 99-999.

That was, according to Arthur, the code for the negavoid bomb.

As contingency plans went, the fiddle-faddling Ministry of Supernatural Services' lead committee had intervened on what had been previously inadequate military plans and insisted on the adoption of a single, uniform approach.

Every time the United Kingdom was threatened, the British military force would react first by distracting the target until the jets could get out to the area, where they bomb the bloody shite out of it. No exceptions. Collateral damage was collateral damage, and no one had to know if military personnel or innocent civilians were killed by the bombing run, because the government could always blame it on the Evil Overlord.

Two Evil Overlords? No problem. Drop two bombs.

(Merlin had looked from Arthur's revelation to watch the fighting going off in the distance. They'd been about two miles away with roughly thirty streets worth of buildings in-between, give or take, and well outside the blast zone of the most high-yield negavoid bomb that could be carried by the smaller fighter jets in the RAF's hangars.

The first -- and completely selfish -- thing to go through his mind had been to wonder whether they were far enough, or if he would be affected by the bomb blast.

The second had been that, Now, I understand why the Café wasn't good enough for this chat, because, on the off-hand that the RAF could get their birds in the air before the Runds disappeared, Arthur had just saved his bloody life.)

Merlin rubbed his face.

He was still rubbing his face, trying to get some sensation through the pervasive numbness, when someone knocked on the door. And kept knocking.

In a fit of impatience, Mordred pushed the door open, only to be stopped in mid-swing by the tall piles of journal papers on the floor. He stared at the miniature towers as if they had personally offended him and put his shoulder into wedging the door open a little wider so that he could squeeze through. "I drew the short straw today. Are you all right? Eating and sleeping --"

Mordred took one look at Merlin's face, trailed off, and with what was the nearly audible sound of gears grinding, and of changed tactics. He sucked in his post-graduation fast-food belly and squeezed through the opening, shutting the door behind him with an audible click that would have been foreboding if Merlin didn't already have 99-999 playing on repeat in his head.

A couple of books were slapped shut and moved from the bed, the pizza box Merlin had left on the floor was kicked aside, and the unkempt duvet of a bed Merlin hadn't slept on in days was roughly smoothed down. Mordred flopped on the mattress, knocking off a few more journal articles that Merlin had forgotten about, but could only stare at while they slowly dribbled to the ground in a papery waterfall.

"They got away," Merlin finally said, forestalling Mordred's wait-them-out-until-they-sweat tactic of finding out what was wrong. "They -- They got away."

Merlin shrugged, because there was nothing more to say. Except, apparently, there wasn't, because Mordred raised an eyebrow and made himself comfortable.

(The 99-999 message eventually did ping through to Arthur's mobile, probably already three minutes after it already had been issued, if Arthur's best estimate of the programming delay was correct. Merlin's legs gave out, and he slumped down right there on the rooftop, arms around his knees, his back wedged against the ledge.

Arthur came to wait next to him on the ground, legs stretched out, one hand on his phone. Every now and then, Arthur twitched as if wanting to spool up any live video feed of the fight. He never actually done that, for which Merlin was grateful, even if he knew, deep down, that the first thing Arthur would do once it was all over would be to get all the recordings he could get his hands on.

"Eight minutes," Arthur guessed, less because he wasn't sure how long it would take for the RAF to scramble a crew and get a bird in the air, and more because he was less confident in how long it had taken for the text message alert to come through.

Merlin sat there, quailing in fear at impending doom, his mind gone completely blank, all of his energy drained away. Like a fucking coward.

00-000 was the reset text sent several eternities later, because 61-616 advised that the targets had gotten away, and the two 77-101 were still on the loose. Merlin hadn't known he'd been holding his breath the entire time until he'd gasped for air.)

Merlin stared at Mordred, that same helpless feeling coming over him right then and there, and a near-hysterical laugh escaped from his tight chest.

Mordred looked sick to his stomach, nonplussed at Merlin's reaction, and, for once, completely non-judging of Merlin's life choices. He squashed that a minute later when he sat up straighter on the bed, shook his head in disappointment, and asked, "Why aren't you mad?"

"Uh?" Merlin asked, twisting his hand in a violent What the fuck are you talking about gestures. "I am?"

"No, not about that," Mordred said, shuffling over until he was close enough to the edge of the bed to dangle his legs to the side, kicking yet another journal pile like a bloody Godzilla. "I mean, yes, you should be mad that the government's policy is to drop a bomb on London the next time a sorcerer decides to take over the world. But, also, it's bad enough that every fucking sorcerer out there thinks London has to be their first stop on their world domination tours without the rest of us wondering whether the PM is going to push a button to bomb our neighbourhoods."

"In case you haven't noticed, I'm a fucking sorcerer," Merlin said flatly.

"Yes, well. You get a pass," Mordred said, flapping his hand in the air dismissively. "My point is, why aren't you mad about the sorcerers invading your territory?"

Merlin glanced at him sharply. He felt a record skip in his head. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and asked, "What?"

"Okay, fine, if you're going to bloody well split hairs. They're not sorcerers. They're Sidhe. But the telly keeps saying sorcerers, it's all over the radio, people keep saying sorcerers behind cupped hands like it's some sort of nasty STD --"

Merlin made a face. He loved Mordred, he really did, but sometimes the shite that came out of his mouth should remain unsaid.

"-- but still, sorcerers, so that's what I've got on the brain. Besides, it's not like they're tripping over each other to get an expert to tell them why Miss Thing and Glamour Boy are blue. Freya had to sit on Will to keep him from calling the news station with a hot tip -- Hey, everyone, FYI, if they're blue, they're probably Smurfs."

Merlin snorted.

"The fact remains," Mordred said slowly, after a long pause, "That you're the one who has a trademark on Evil Overlord and Evil Overlord, Incorporated --"

(-- along with a few other trademarks, copyrights, and patents, thanks to Arthur's ingenious, underhanded approach to making money without actually working, and because Morgana was quite happy to take over all of Evil Overlord, Incorporated's legal business. Currently, Morgana's hapless interns were screening the news media and keeping count of every use. The networks were no doubt going to be slapped with a huge bill in the aftermath.)

"-- and Papa Smurf and Smurfette are currently invading your territory like they've got a right to be here. Do they?"

"Uh," Merlin said.

"Uh? Uh?" Mordred grunted mockingly. His grimace and spread arms revealed much about what he thought of Merlin's answer. "The fuck, Uh?"

Merlin rubbed his forehead in annoyance. "Jesus fucking Christ, Mor--ow!" He moved his hand to cover his forearm where Mordred had just zapped him. Merlin always forgot that druids could do that kind of magic.

(All that bollocks about keeping the bloody balance was absolute rubbish. They said that to lull their enemies into a complacent state. Mordred was the most vindictive druid Merlin knew.)

"Ten thousand, one hundred, seventy-eight," Mordred said slowly, in a monotone that made Merlin think he was pulling numbers out of his arse. "And counting. That's how many new email requests for your help have come in the last twenty-four hours, and that's for the people who found your Craigslist ad."

"Technically, not my ad," Merlin said mulishly. Still, he was impressed at all the people who had gone bin-diving in old Craigslist posting to find that. He thought Sefa had taken it down a long time ago. Or maybe that had been Gilli's job?

"Twenty-two thousand, eight hundred and fifty-one," Mordred said, and he was definitely making shite up now. "And counting. That's the number of ticket requests on the official company website. Don't make me go downstairs to get Gilli -- he'll tell you how many people have been leaving messages on the Facebook site, have been trending #EOI on Twitter, and have been upvoting the company logo on Reddit. Never mind Tumblr -- they're crying because they don't have anything to gif."

Merlin winced. Maybe Mordred wasn't kidding about those numbers, not if he was threatening to bring Gilli into it. Gilli loved website statistics and could talk numbers like it was the very air he needed to breathe. Everyone knew better than to ask him about that sort of thing, the same way they knew better than to ask Merlin about his doctorate work, or how they didn't want to know anything about Mordred's more interesting cases under Gaius.

"Remember the company mandate?" Mordred said, his voice softening.

Merlin groaned. "Oh, that's bloody low of you, mate."

It was kind of hard to forget. Arthur had ripped it off from the original Craigslist ad. When Merlin found out, he'd begged and pleaded for the mandate to be changed to something less pretentious, but of course, by then, it had been too late. The slogan was already all over the company stationery.

("But it's true," Arthur said, adjusting his bloody sexy black-frame glasses and robbing Merlin of all his argumentative faculties. "That's what we do. That's what you believe in. Why would we put down anything else?"

Merlin made a quiet, somewhat dumb, noise of agreement, said something that might have been, Fair enough, and left the office in a haze of loosened red tie, unbuttoned shirt, vest tight around his chest, mussed up hair where he'd been up all night working on company paperwork and the frustrating desire to kiss Arthur until he'd forgotten his own name the way Merlin just had, in that moment.)

Assisting Londoners in resolving minor and major issues, settling disputes, and ensuring the continued health, happiness and liberty for all.

Truth be told, the company mandate wasn't that bad.

Mordred beamed. "Does that mean you're going to man up?"

"Fuck you," Merlin said, turning to stare at the pile of notes and calculations on his desk. The tension had mostly left him, he was less panicked now, and he was starting to feel more himself again -- in that he wasn't half as numb as he had been before.

Mordred chuckled. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and brushed Merlin's arm. Merlin looked down at him. "Look, I know you, Merlin. Maybe not half as well as Will, but he'd back me up on this. You're more territorial than a werewolf with a long-standing claim on their land. You consider everyone in London under your protection -- don't try to deny it. We all know what you did on campus. It's a fair bet you spread those wards out to London proper, too."

"Uh," Merlin said, because, while he might not have mastered the fine craft of self-preservation, he knew how to keep a secret, even if it meant skulking around under an invisibility spell. How could anyone know about the protection wards?

It had happened as a matter of course while in university. Incensed by the odious lack of security, particularly for those supernaturally-inclined or magically-imbued, Merlin had slowly constructed and maintained protective wards to do something about the frighteningly large number of unreported assaults on campus. Dubbed the Do No Evil wards, Merlin was starting to work on something more manageable for the comparatively larger scale that was London. He'd only done a few areas, so far.

Mordred made a sympathetic noise as Merlin realised that Merlin, himself, was the worst kept secret in the university of secrets. Merlin looked at him in absolute horror.

"Anyway," Mordred said, "You've never had to fight for your territory before, because nobody ever challenged your protection on campus. The city's not that much different. You marked it yours when you based EOI out of London, not expecting anyone to make a fuss about it."

"That's Arthur's fault --"

"All the same," Mordred said, sounding far too cool and collected for Merlin's liking, "Just like a werewolf with a long-standing claim, you're rattled because someone had the bollocks to dare challenge you. Sooner or later, preferably sooner, you're going to get good and mad, and then... Then? You're going to teach the trespassers the fine details about how things really work around here."

He paused and stood up.

"And we all want first row seats when that happens." Mordred said with a grin. He ruffled Merlin's hair, snatching his hand away before Merlin could retaliate. The grin faded, and Mordred pointed at the papers. "Finish that, give it to Gilli, and go take care of this problem. I'm tired of dealing with all the collateral damage walk-ins at the clinic."

"I --"

The door shut behind Mordred with a decisive, no-arguments slam.

"-- hate you so much," Merlin finished lamely. He rubbed his face, stared at his work for a few minutes until he remembered where he left off, and picked up his pencil.

He emerged from his room eighteen hours later, not quite registering his surroundings as he operated on the last dregs of cold coffee fuel. The memory stick with his scientific paper, a plain-English version, and several different types of graphs was left on the kitchen counter for anyone to find, and hopefully pass on to Gilli.

(He would have emailed it. He should have emailed it. He no longer had the computing power to figure out why he hadn't emailed it.)

Merlin stood there, blinking without seeing anything, until someone turned him around, guided him up the stairs, and tucked him in bed.

Merlin woke up some time later, refreshed and renewed, to find that someone had cleaned up his room of the paper explosion. All the journal papers were stacked up neatly in the corner, the debris of old pizza boxes and caffeinated drinks had been removed, someone had moved his dirty clothes into the laundry pile, and there was a plate of cold toast and a glass of lukewarm orange juice on the bedside table along with a note in Arthur's handwriting.

Call me, ASAP. Also, don't ever fucking turn your phone off again.

Merlin snorted. "Prat."

He was halfway through the toast when the Math part of his brain activated suddenly, compounded all the variables, factored in Arthur's note, and came to the inevitable conclusion that Arthur had seen Merlin at his absolute worst, cleaned up after him, and put him to bed. On top of that, he'd taken one of the suits out of the closet and hung it up behind the door with another yellow post-it note: This one.

Merlin choked on toast and embarrassment. "Fuck."

His mobile -- a new, upgraded version loaded with all sorts of software from Arthur that Merlin hadn't had a chance to play with -- was on his desk in a place of honour, plugged in. There were twenty-two text messages, seven voice messages, and three thousand and eleven notifications on the Twitter icon.

He called Arthur on the way downstairs.

"Still alive?" Arthur asked, without waiting for a greeting. "Have a shower and get dressed in one of your suits. I need you at the office."

"We have an office?" Merlin scratched his belly as he headed for the sitting room. The telly was on, but half the shoes in the entrance were gone. That meant everyone was working -- Nope. He could sense Gilli in the kitchen, and he padded out a minute later in a ratty bathrobe, a pink One Direction band T-shirt that belonged to Will, and tea-stained sweatpants.

At least, Merlin hoped those were tea stains.

"Hullo, Ems," Gilli said, munching on that infernal concoction of peanut butter, pastrami and pickles he'd been eating a lot of, lately.

Merlin covered the microphone on his phone and asked, "Are you pregnant?"

"Ha. Ha. This is my favourite sarnie, all right?" Gilli tried for a rude two-fingered gesture, nearly dropped his sandwich on the floor, and caught it in a disastrous face-down grab. Going by Gilli's scowl, it was all Merlin's fault. "I'm stressed out. Too many trolls to kill. I need my comfort food. Look what you did."

"Sorry," Merlin said. He hoped, for the sake of trolls everywhere, that the trolls Gilli was talking about were metaphorical.

"Still under renovation," Arthur said distractedly.

"What's under renovation?" Merlin asked, confused. He lost the thread of the conversation somewhere.

"I meant you're coming to my office at Pendragon Unlimited," Arthur said, like the bloody entitled prat that he was. "My assistant is coming by to pick you up. You remember Elena?"

"The changeling?" Merlin asked, turning his attention to Arthur.

"The what?"

"Ooops." Merlin winced. Clearly, he was doing fantastic on the whole keeping secrets and being discreet front. "I didn't say that. And don't mention it to Elena. She might not know she's a changeling. That's how it works."

"That's how what works -- you know what? Explain it to me later. We have more pressing concerns," Arthur said. "Be ready in thirty minutes. Be nice to Elena, she's a bit clumsier than usual today, but she'll get you briefed. Catch up on the news on the ride over."

"What pressing concerns?" Merlin asked. It took him a minute to figure out that Arthur had already hung up. Annoyed, he texted the question.

Twenty seconds later, there was no response from Lightning Thumbs Pendragon, who usually had an entire novel typed out in reply before the screen of Merlin's mobile was able to dim and go dark. Merlin gave up waiting.

"Why are you stressed out?" he asked Gilli.

Gilli, who was licking the peanut butter off his hand, pointed at the telly with the other.

It was a newscast -- it was always on a newscast, these days -- except instead of sleek desk, teleprompters and talking heads, the bottom half was a headline banner and the rest was live, zoomed-in video of Smurfette.

Merlin groaned heavily and enthusiastically. "Isn't there anything else on the telly? I'm sick of hearing about them."

"It's my day for the remote," Gilli said.

"It's always someone else's day," Merlin complained. "When do I get a turn?"

"When there's nothing good on and nobody's home, because you have crappy taste," Gilli countered.

"Rude," Merlin said. He turned his back on the carnage playing out on the screen, went to the kitchen, and helped himself to a pickle while building a peanut butter-free sandwich. He stole the fresh cup of tea Gilli had left to steep on the counter, and went upstairs to get ready.

Thirty-two minutes later, he was post-shower, presentable, and sitting in the passenger side of a bull's-eye red Toyota hatchback. There was a dog hair-covered blanket in the back seat, a Black Widow bobblehead glued to the dashboard, and a frazzled Elena behind the wheel. There was a chip in her hair. Merlin plucked it out when she turned to merge into traffic and hastily threw it out the window before she could see it.

She drove in white-knuckled silence for ten minutes, the tension in her body strong enough to snap a steel bar in two. It only got worse the more the traffic cut in front of her, but fortunately, she turned onto a relatively quiet road with fewer arseholes driving on it.

Elena needed to calm down, and desperately. Her latent changeling magic was scratching against Merlin's aura with enough power to cause static sparks.

"So the boss wants you prepped for an interview," Elena said, her eyes glued to the road ahead. "More specifically, he wants sound bites -- written, recorded, on camera -- for immediate release when you have your big coming out appearance --"

She stopped because Merlin snorted in amusement.

"What?"

"Sorry to break it to you," Merlin said, knowing full well how inappropriate this conversation would be. But, fuck it, she wasn't his employee, and Arthur did tell him to be nice to her. "My big coming out? I was thirteen. It involved water balloons, white shorts, and a very fit Derrick Smolcoch, which was really an unfortunately surname, if you know what I mean."

The car came to a stop at a red light. Elena looked at him with wide eyes before deciding that he was serious, and grinned. "Was that really his name?"

"I'm sure he wishes it wasn't," Merlin said. "Bit of a leech, that one. One of those older, smooth-talking types full of swagger and ego, completely convinced that he could get anyone to overlook the size of his dick, which was about..."

Merlin held his forefinger about three centimetres away from his thumb.

"That much. Fully erect. Traumatised me for years, too, because he told me, It gets bigger once it's inside. Can you just imagine the day I finally saw a normal cock? I ran away, because, Fuck, no. That's not going up there. Anyway, mum came looking for me, opened the door to the shed, and there's Smolcoch, pants down, sucking his stomach in to make it look bigger. Hi, mum, I said, because I'm a wee one without a whole lot going up in my head, but at least I still had my pants on. I'm gay! Then she turned to glare at Smolcoch, pointed at his crotch, and said, Not with that, you're not."

Elena laughed so hard that she didn't hear the car horns honking behind her, and it was nice to see some of the pent-up bad energy sloughing off. She needed to laugh more, it was pretty much the only way that she could balance out being a changeling in a human world.

"Your mum sounds lovely," Elena said, wiping the tears from her eyes. She continued to drive, a smile on her lips, and the electrically charged atmosphere had gone down to zero.

"Yeah, she was," Merlin said, absentmindedly rubbing his chest. She passed away when he was in his early years of uni, and he missed her terribly. Before Elena's mood could falter, he quickly changed the subject. "So what's this about sound bites? Arthur didn't mention anything about this to me."

"He said for me to remind you to catch up on the news and to Read your bloody email," Elena said, rolling her eyes. "Anyway, long story short, Pendragon Unlimited got scooped. The newest Evil Overlords --"

Merlin grit his teeth. That phrase really bothered him. It bothered him more when it was applied to other people.

"-- had an interview with the Gazette, went on the radio for a quick chat with their favourite DJ, and walked up to a local news station and a wet-behind-the-ears field reporter who didn't know what they were doing, but who got a huge promotion after," Elena said, rolling her eyes.

Merlin had met Elena a few times when he dropped by Arthur's pseudo-office at the Pendragon building. The changeling aspect aside, she was a lovely woman with a very sweet nature. The terrible luck she endured day in and day out was because of the bad energy that clung to her like a second skin, but when she was happy, Elena was one of the sharpest people that he'd ever met.

From what he understood about her work arrangement, her official title was "Assistant to the Vice President", but her duties were anything but secretarial. Her very confidential salary was in the six figures and she had an assistant of her own, which was absolutely necessary, since her number one responsibility was to do Arthur's job and to cover for him while he was out of the office. Arthur had promised that she would be the actual Vice President when he left the position in a few short months, and had the paperwork in place to make sure it happened, already signed off by Uther Pendragon.

Whether or not Uther Pendragon was aware that his son was planning on leaving the company after only signing up for the job a little while ago was still up in the air, but from the way Arthur praised Elena's intelligence and competence, Merlin suspected that the outcome would work out for everyone.

Elena might not have been told what, exactly, it was that Arthur was up to in his free time, but she wasn't stupid, because she'd hired Merlin to clean up a pixie infestation at her flat. She put two and two together the first time Merlin showed up at Arthur's office, said, "Ah," and spoke no more on the matter.

(It was conceivable that she also thought they were also fucking, which, sadly, was not happening. She might be wrong about that, but she was absolutely correct about Arthur working with Merlin, and did a wonderful job covering up for Arthur's frequent and unexplainable absences.)

"Uther's furious about the ratings drop and made Arthur promise to do something about it," Elena said. She shrugged a shoulder. "And it looks like you're it. Sorry."

"Lovely," Merlin said, slumping in his seat.

"It's actually a brilliant plan," Elena said, grinning. "I calculated how much the ratings would drop if this continued, and Arthur took a look at the numbers and said, Let them drop. Then he asked me to predict how much of the market we'd steal from everyone else if we had an exclusive with the real Evil Overlord of London. It's bloody fantastic. The profits alone --"

She cut herself off and slammed on the brakes. The Toyota screeched to a halt a few centimetres shy of crashing into the car in front of them. The rear bumper wasn't so fortunate, because the bloke behind them had been following too closely. The crunch of metal was as disheartening as Elena's constant bad luck.

Shaking off the whiplash and the shock of being in a car crash, Merlin first turned to Elena to make sure that she was all right. The air bag had saved her from a concussion against the steering wheel, and even at slow speeds the crash looked much worse than it actually was. Elena's surprise-dazed look became a determined-someone's-going-to-die look, and she fought her way through the air bag to unbuckle her seatbelt and get out of the car.

Merlin clambered out of the car after her, hoping he wouldn't have to get between Elena and another driver. The uncontrollable energy from a changeling was usually directed on the changeling themselves, at least until the bindings could be removed by her blood-family, but when angry, those energies often latched onto the target of the changeling's ire. Merlin didn't want to become a bad luck magnet for however long it took for those energies to dissipate.

But no sooner did he start to drift toward defusing the situation than he'd felt the stirrings of alien magic. He turned around slowly, half-dreading what he'd find, and, sure enough, there were Sofia and Aulfric Runds.

They must have appeared out of nowhere not long before Elena and Merlin arrived at the intersection, because three cars ahead of Elena's Toyota were three vehicles in bumper-to-bumper crashes, and five cars in the intersection itself had been turned over and shoved out of the way to make room for the Sidhe's arrival. Merlin could hear the distant shouts of people trapped inside their cars and of rescuers making their way over to get them out before something disastrous happened.

The something disastrous happened two seconds later when a car caught fire and three of the rescuers were casually swept away by the wave of Papa Smurf's hand. The gathering crowd screamed.

Merlin rubbed his forehead and sighed.

"Elena," Merlin said.

"What?" Elena snapped. She turned toward where Merlin pointed. She paused, brightened, and exclaimed, "Oh. Oh, no. No. Yes. Yes! Look over there! There's a Pendragon Unlimited van! Give me a second, I'll give them a call --"

Elena walked away to... Merlin wasn't entirely certain what she was going to do, but he'd spotted the van, too. A few seconds later, someone with a mobile against their ear waved their way as he emerged from a nearby building, a cameraperson in tow. Merlin could only guess that the crew had been on their way out already, skipping on whatever business they'd had in there at the time.

"We're getting that exclusive," Elena said smugly, reappearing besides Merlin.

"Yeah, you are," Merlin said with a sigh. He reached into the back seat of the semi-crumpled Toyota for his suit jacket. He pulled it on, adjusted the collar and cuffs, and said, "Do me a favour and call Arthur. Looks like I'm going to be late for those sound bites."

Chapter Text

 

 

Thirteen minutes before Arthur expected Elena to march Merlin through his door, he answered his phone to a somewhat harried, "Your boy just pulled a hold my beer."

Arthur didn't immediately answer Elena. He was too busy parsing what she'd just said to come up with a response. By the time he rediscovered his capacity for speech, Elena cackled with laughter. Arthur blinked at his mobile, because he hadn't heard Elena so excited in a long time.

"And we're getting it on video. We're on the telly. Live," Elena said.

Leaning back in his office chair, Arthur watched as the constant stream of Pendragon Unlimited network news playing on the flatscreen along the side wall suddenly flashed with Breaking News and one of their most popular morning show anchorpersons. They must have been intercepted before leaving for the day, since their shift had ended an hour ago and it showed in the dark circles under their eyes. The lunchtime newsperson had the bad habit of turning up late, and given the video playing now, Arthur thought that the newsperson wouldn't ever be late again.

He reached for the remote in his side desk drawer and turned up the volume.

"Where is this?" Arthur asked, even as he recognised some of the landmarks when the off-site video filled the screen.

"We're about ten minutes away as the London traffic drives, just around the block," Elena said. "Or three minutes' walk, if you cut through the shortcut to get to that fancy tea place you like so much."

Arthur debated leaving now, with the hopes of arriving before anything happened. Sod's law being what it was, he'd get there only to find out that he'd missed the show and was forced to watch the replays on the telly. And, anyway, when he signed up as Merlin's Second, he had long since come to the conclusion that he was most effective behind the scenes, handling all the fine details that Merlin couldn't be bothered with. At the moment, that meant making certain that Merlin's image was cast in the proper light.

"Stay on the line," Arthur said, and put his mobile aside. He reached for his desk phone and called down to production to remind them to stick to the script that he'd given them.

"Are you kidding me?" Catriona Billo roared, and from that tone, Arthur knew he was a few short seconds of being hung up on. "I have never, not once in my life, kowtowed to you bloody bureaucrats in your ivory towers. You don't understand a damn thing about the media --"

"I understand that I have the authority to fire you, effective immediately," Arthur said curtly. He was in no mood to deal with the hysterics of an overwrought artiste, no matter how good they were at getting high-quality newscasts out.

There was a reason why Pendragon Unlimited had so many media awards, and most of those reasons had to do with Catriona. Arthur would never do something so stupid as to lose her to the competition, but Catriona didn't know that. Since she had never been threatened like that before, she would never realise that Arthur was bluffing.

(Not that he was. Bluffing, that was. Whatever her talent, Catriona was an atrocious person. Arthur was certain Pendragon Unlimited could find a more pleasant replacement. Uther put a great deal of emphasis on the happiness of their employees, because it meant they'd work harder and better, and make the company look good.)

Arthur waited a few more seconds, listening to the background noise. When he'd waited long enough -- a few seconds were an eternity when it came to video -- he said, "Very soon you'll see a gentleman with dark hair, wearing a --"

Arthur paused to glance at the video. He could just make out Merlin approaching the two Sidhe in the background. It was a slow trudge through the car wrecks and as he stopped every now and then to assist someone out of the traps of mangled metal, but he was partially obscured by the flames and the smoke. No one would immediately notice him, not as long as the Sidhe were causing havoc in the main screen.

With the satisfaction of knowing that Merlin had gone along with Arthur's selection in wardrobe, he spoke more confidently in the phone, "-- navy blue chalkstripe bespoke suit with an aquamarine tie. He's in the lower left side of the screen."

"How can you even make that out?" Catriona said. "There's too much smoke."

"Be that as it may," Arthur said, pushing the question aside, "You'll play him up as the hero in the story. Or else. Send more crews in; I want to see as many angles as possible."

"But how --"

Arthur hung up. He picked his mobile from the desk, stood up, and walked over to the flatscreen. He itched to call Merlin to find out what the fuck he thought he was doing. He cursed the fact he wasn't able to communicate with Merlin or direct him to a more reasonable course of action, and resolutely decided to commission someone to make a pair of those tiny earwigs that worked over long distances to avoid this exact situation from happening again.

His heart was in his throat as he watched Merlin finally arrive at the last crumpled, turned-over vehicle. He was in full view of the camera now, and no one currently viewing the video would miss how Merlin crouched down next to a broken passenger window. After nearly thirty seconds of annoying newscaster commentary about the Sidhe attackers, Arthur watched as a very young child wearing a frilly purple skirt, an oversized neon yellow Leicester Tigers rugby jersey, and high-top trainers, crawled out from the wreckage and stumbled into Merlin's arms.

"So far, so good," he murmured, forgetting he still had Elena on the line.

"He's perfect. God. He'll have half of London eating out of his hands in no time," Elena said. "The other half will be tripping over themselves with marriage proposals."

"Better not," Arthur groused, again forgetting that Elena was still on the line.

(About half a dozen horrible outcomes flashed through his mind in a fraction of a second, and all he could think about was how much it would cost him to bribe Elena for her silence, and how much work would be involved in keeping Elena away from Morgana.

Arthur hoped, at some point, that things would settle down enough and that he could date Merlin and become a proper boyfriend, but pride would get in the way if Elena or Morgana or both of them decided to play matchmaker. He could handle his love life just fine. He didn't need any bloody interference.

He wasn't a coward, damn it. It just wasn't the right time.)

"I knew it! How long have you been dating --" Elena's voice trailed off. On the telly, Merlin was walking resolutely toward the Runds. "Oh, bugger."

Arthur closed his eyes for a second. But only a second. He didn't want to miss anything.

The camera's angle was as dramatic as it got, and it couldn't have been scripted better if this were the movies with a thousand scene takes. Merlin's stride was a purposeful march, his shoulders back and his spine straight, deft fingers unbuttoning his suit jacket and straightening the lapels. Neither Sofia nor Aulfric had spotted him yet. The man was busy torturing someone who had had the misfortune of crossing his path while running away, while the woman had thrown her head back into a morbid cackle over her latest handiwork.

"Just what the fuck do you think you're doing?" Merlin demanded, coming to a stop some distance behind the Sidhe.

The reaction was instantaneous. Sofia stopped laughing and whirled on her heel so quickly that she lost her balance for a fraction of a second. Aulfric was sufficiently distracted by Merlin's arrival that his victim was able to shake off the residual tremors from the spellwork and to get away.

"Pardon?" Aulfric asked.

"No. I absolutely shall not," Merlin said firmly. He waved a hand at the destruction around him. "Do you know, I was willing to let the first few incidents go. I thought to myself, Surely they'll leave London, soon. Seriously, no one is so daft as to piss off their host. But this? This is the last fucking straw."

The two Sidhe exchanged glances. Their confusion was caught on camera plain as day.

"What," Sofia said. She clearly didn't understand the inflections associated with the English language if she couldn't manage a question. And, anyway, her voice was too high pitched to determine whether it would have been a question, or just general outrage. Either way, Sofia was definitely on the back foot, now.

Merlin tilted his head and narrowed his eyes. Arthur couldn't help the smirk that spread across his face. They'd had their share of ludicrously stupid clients, but Merlin had always dealt with them with charming grace and impressive patience. Currently, Merlin's expression showed no sign of either, which meant he was allowing no quarter in this discussion. Arthur took a step away from the telly, wishing he had a bigger screen.

This was fucking epic.

"This is my territory," Merlin drawled, his voice dropping into a deep bass baritone that sent chills down Arthur's spine. "Mine. And while I have an open door policy where all are welcome and therefore under my protection, that protection lasts only so long as my guests toe the fucking line."

Aulfric blinked his eyes rapidly. "You --"

"Me," Merlin confirmed. Arthur regretted not being on the site, because the telly couldn't transmit the magical energies that were no doubt almost a physical presence on that usually uneventful London street.

"But --"

"The two of you have overstayed your welcome," Merlin said, walking slowly and deliberately toward the Sidhe. "Not, mind, that you ever had a welcome to begin with. Common courtesy is to reach out and acquire permission to cut through someone's city, even if it's only for a night or two as you continue on your little journey. Did you do that? No, you absolutely did not."

Sofia and Aulfric exchanged glances. Incredibly, Aulfric took a step back. Sofia, however, held her ground.

"To be fair, a lot of people don't really know about my claim, don't know how to reach me, or just plain hate talking on telephones. That's why I have an open door policy. Guests who don't sign in at the front desk are more than welcome to squat in the lobby for a night or two as long as they don't draw attention to themselves," Merlin said. He paused and coupled his raised brow with a huff of disappointment that was as cutting as a sharp knife. "I imagine you're aware that you missed the mark on that last bit. By a lot."

Merlin stopped ten metres away from the Sidhe. Arthur found himself leaning toward the telly in anticipation. He was only dimly aware that someone had come into his office to watch the screens with him, but he couldn't tear his eyes away.

"Strike three is..." Merlin looked around before waving a hand in displeasure. "This. A little bit of delinquency is understandable. Petty theft, shoplifting, property damage. I mean, who doesn't enjoy a bit of fearmongering every now and then?"

Sofia smiled, teeth sharp and pointy. Her shoulders relaxed as she glanced toward her companion, who didn't look any less wary than he had a second ago.

"But, now, you've gone too far," Merlin said, his voice rock bottom on the vocal spectrum. The growl coming through the speakers was downright terrifying. It resonated in the same fashion as an echo in a deep cave and sounded far too much like an angry dragon rudely woken up early from hibernation.

Everyone, from schoolchildren and onward, knew not to poke angry dragons, but clearly that was an important factor missing in the Sidhe's education, because they didn't retreat when they bloody well should have.

After letting his warning sink in, Merlin gestured curtly. "Get out."

Once more, Sofia and Aulfric exchanged a long glance in which there might have been silent conversation.

That conversation seemed to last for ages, because Arthur noticed that the sirens in the background had gotten louder. His stomach twisted with nerves. If the government's Magical Registry Office goons had arrived to take care of the situation, he was afraid that Merlin might get caught in the crossfire.

Impulsively, Arthur hung up on Elena and texted Merlin.

Wrap it up, the MRO spooks are almost there.

His thumb hovered over the send button. He almost pushed it when he heard Sofia sneer, "Who's going to stop us? You?"

The camera angle changed, which meant more camera crews had arrived on the site, and there was a tight shot of Merlin rolling his eyes as if pained.

Arthur rolled his eyes at the sight of Merlin rolling his eyes. The person standing next to Arthur snorted. Arthur startled, having forgotten about his visitor for a minute, and he blinked in surprise when he saw his father, his arms crossed, a smirk of absolute delight on his lips.

"When did you get here?" he asked.

"Shh," Uther said, scowling. He pointed at the telly in a motion for Arthur to pay attention.

"Bloody Hell. Are you two amateurs? Too cheap to spring for some decent scriptwriters? That line is straight out of the Evil Overlord Handbook, circa nineteen eighty. It's a little outdated," Merlin said, and Arthur's attention snapped back to the telly. "Want to try again? Go for something a little bit more presumptuous? Because if I'm not mistaken, your next quip is going to be something about destroying my city, killing me, and dancing on my grave."

"No," Sofia said, her eyes glowing with a strange, silvery-white light. "This is our rejoinder."

Aulfric pulled a jewel-tipped staff out of his literal arse, because he didn't have it a second ago. Sofia raised her hands, her fingers curled into claws. A blue beam of light burst out from the staff's jewel with the frightening precision of a laser blast, while Sofia threw an arm out, then the other, in what was a nearly comedic windmill attack.

The image fritzed out suddenly. Electronics never did well around significant quantities of magic, and radio or remote video transmissions were nearly always interrupted. Logically, Arthur knew that, but he couldn't help but step forward and twap the telly in the hopes that it would clear the screen.

The pixilation sorted itself out and the image freeze hiccupped into normal speed, but Arthur didn't breathe again until the smoke cleared and he saw Merlin standing there, a hand in his trouser pocket, the other disgustingly brushing imaginary dust from his suit.

Between him and the Sidhe was a golden shield. It glittered beautifully in the light and held up on camera even better than fancy CGI.

(Arthur knew that even on the most low-resolution television set, the magical shield would appear exactly as it was in real life. In fact, the lower resolution, the better.

On a cheap telly, the shield sparkled like freshly-poured champagne with bubbles rising to the surface, and was absolutely mesmerising to watch. On an expensive thin screen like the one at his flat, the shield was a sheet of fancy knotwork and lacework spun out of the thinnest strand of gold thread.

On the medium-resolution screen at Arthur's office at Pendragon Unlimited, the shield was somewhere in-between. It glittered all along the knotwork and the woven lines.

Arthur couldn't decide which version he preferred.)

The gobsmacked Sidhe stared at Merlin, then at each other. Then, in an orchestrated movement, Aulfric raised his staff, while Sofia once again raised her arms, as if about to strike another barrage against the shield.

Merlin didn't give them the chance. "Let me show you the way out."

Thunder crashed, loud and reverberating, through the audio. The cameraperson jerked back in surprise, and the image switched to a second crew that had pulled back enough to capture Merlin and the Sidhe together in a single shot. The shield was not a shield, but a dome that completely surrounded Sofia and Aulfric.

Merlin clapped his hands.

The dome shrank on itself until it was roughly large enough to accommodate two people, and suddenly popped with a crackle-snap. The Sidhe vanished right along with it.

"Wow," Uther said. His breath hitched, and he grabbed Arthur's arm with a desperate, panicked shake. "Oh, no! Look!"

"Pointing out the glaringly obvious, Father," Arthur said, trying to get his arm free so that he could send the text message. He had no other way of warning Merlin that he was in trouble. "Why doesn't he fucking turn around?"

"Turn around," Uther insisted, uncrossing his arms. He gestured urgently at the screen.

Merlin winked at the camera. He didn't turn around, because of course not.

But in that second when the agent from the Magical Registry Office threw one of those high-tech magic-suppression nets at Merlin, Merlin grinned brightly, and --

Blinked out.

In his place was the Evil Overlord, Incorporated logo, spinning slowly in full colour, like a coin on a table.

The high-tech, magic-suppression net fluttered uselessly through the illusion. The Magical Registry Office spook tripped over his own two feet and landed on top of it. Arthur felt an overwhelming wash of self-satisfaction that one of those arseholes had finally gotten their comeuppance.

The logo would remain for a few more minutes before vanishing on its own, Arthur knew, but the camera didn't linger on the logo. Instead, the newscast switched to the anchorperson, who was grinning like a loon and trying to control it. They cleared their throat, smiled a little less widely, and furrowed their brows in an attempt to be serious. "That was the live --"

Arthur muted the telly.

"I want to interview him," Uther said suddenly.

Arthur was so startled that he nearly dropped his mobile when it rang.

(The idea of Uther doing an interview wasn't that strange. Before he moved onto running his own media company, Uther was the number one most well respected reporter in the United Kingdom. He'd started as a beat reporter, did his stint as a weatherperson, and had a rather uncomfortable round as the footie announcer. Every Christmas, Morgana would pull out the very large collection of bloopers from Uther's early footage, and each clip was funnier than the last.

But he'd made smart choices, been luckier than most, and for several years ran the BBC's newsdesk with poise, panache, and trustworthy charm. Eventually, the BBC lost his interest. He went on a year-long sabbatical with National Geographic, and married Ygraine DuBois and her very large family fortune. It was his second marriage, and everyone hoped it would last longer than his first.

Uther stopped being the face of the news and established Pendragon Unlimited, which was, these days, one of the largest media companies in Western Europe. He'd only come out from behind his desk a few times since his retirement from the camera, and only when famous but reclusive celebrities or highly-visible and scandalous political figures insisted that Uther be the one to interview them.

Zero -- absolutely zero -- summed up the number of times that Uther requested to perform an interview.)

"Um," Arthur said, blinking. He glanced down at his mobile when it rang a second time and saw who was calling in. He held up a finger. "Hold that thought."

Arthur stepped away from his father, answering his phone.

"What do you --" think you're doing, Arthur nearly asked, because chastising the invading Evil Overlords on camera hadn't been the plan. They'd agreed that starting slow would be best: establish EOI more firmly as a corporate entity in London, ward the city against both internal and external enemies, empower supernatural communities by providing them with resources and assistance that were available to everyone else.

Small.

The originally-planned interview would have been released as a no-nonsense, placid conversation with a new business owner and would have been buried in the late night news. It was a way of announcing the company and its intents without announcing the company and its intents, both protecting Merlin and EOI, while simultaneously keeping things above board.

However...

This debacle wasn't as disastrous as it could have been. Out of all the possible outcomes, Merlin successfully eliminating a threat with a minimum of fuss was the best that Arthur could come up with. At the same time, Merlin had created an on-air persona that was worthy of any action hero at the cinema. It was just...

Shite. They were going to have to hire so many more people for the company. Evil Overlord, Incorporated was going to be absolutely swamped with requests for assistance. The Magical Registry Office would be all over EOI, too, and Arthur could already see what kind of tactics they would use to try to close the company down and arrest Merlin. Arthur hoped that Morgana's law firm would be up to the task of defending and protecting EOI's employees.

(He could almost hear her sigh heavily, and say, "Of course we are.")

With a sigh, Arthur tried again. "Are you all right?"

"Not a scratch on me," Merlin said. Then, hurriedly, he added, "I know that it's not what we agreed on, but --"

"We'll adjust," Arthur said, glancing over his shoulder. Uther was watching him, his head tilted with interest.

Arthur pushed up his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn't know how they'd proceed from this point forward, not yet, and he couldn't think clearly when the image permanently etched in his memory was Merlin's intent, monstrously possessive declaration of, Mine! Arthur was going to need a series of wank sessions to clear his head, and he couldn't start that while his bloody father was still in his office.

"Where are you right now?" Arthur asked, walking toward the window and looking out. He was on the top floor and couldn't see the city street beyond the ants squirming around, but the view was fantastic, and he needed some space to keep Uther from listening in.

"Um," Merlin said, and Arthur could hear the horns honking and emergency vehicle sirens whoop-whoop-whooping in the background. "A block away from your building? It's a nice day for a walk. Should be there in a few more minutes. We're still doing the interview, right?"

"Hold on," Arthur said, and pressed his mobile against his chest. He turned to Uther. "When do you want that interview?"

Uther's expression split with the sort of glee that Arthur hadn't seen on him in a long time, and he bounced where he stood. It reminded Arthur of a child at the candy store, wide-eyed and excited to bursting. "Two hours?"

Two hours was more than enough time to prep Merlin for a regular interview. An interview with Uther bloody Pendragon, on the other hand, was something no one could prepare for properly and still expect to emerge unscathed. He nodded curtly to his father, who rubbed his hands in anticipation, and left the office. Surprisingly, he did Arthur the courtesy of shutting the door behind him.

Arthur wasted a few more seconds to wonder why his father hadn't asked how Arthur had managed to secure an interview with Merlin so quickly, and decided that he really didn't want to know how much his father knew about his life, after all.

"Come straight to my office," Arthur told Merlin. He glanced through the glass wall that let him watch his staff, all of whom were currently entranced with the video replays on the news. "Can you glamour yourself up to look like someone else? Everyone saw you on the news. You'll never make it if you're recognised."

Merlin snorted, which sounded suspiciously like, Of course I can. Arthur sighed. Well, of course he could. If Merlin could make a couple of pesky Evil Overlords disappear when no one else had been able to slow down or stop their reign of terror across Europe and the English Channel, then, surely an illusion or two was child's play.

"All right," Arthur said. "See you in a few minutes."

Merlin made a sound of assent. Emergency vehicle sirens were louder in the background, and Arthur thought he could hear the heavy tactical trucks from the police's Magical Control Division rumbling past.

"Oh," Arthur said, clearing his throat. "If no one says it, then... You did good. Thank you."

"I knew you appreciated me," Merlin said, his grin audible in his voice. Arthur rolled his eyes and hung up without answering.

He promptly called Elena, because he was going to need her on site for all kinds of damage control and media shenanigans, up to and including getting both their in-house legal counsel and Morgana into the offices, in case the government agents got it into their heads to invade a private business without the appropriate warrants and nothing but the assumption that a dangerous magic user was being hidden, somewhere.

(If he stuttered a little during one phone call because he was stuck on the mental image of having to throw Merlin in a broom closet to hide him from the British men-in-black, only for Merlin to drag him in after him? Well, he passed that off as an oncoming cold, and Mrs. Alwin from down in Security seemed to believe him. There was a nasty one going around, she said, and wouldn't let Arthur get off the line until he'd written down an improbable hot toddy cold remedy that included enough alcohol to knock out a horse.

He wasn't sure about the remedy, but he could use the alcohol right now.)

Arthur loaded the very illegal app on his phone and frowned when he didn't get his usual MI5 alerts for Evil Overlord emergencies. As he scrolled through the notifications, he saw they were all for the two Sidhe who had invaded London, and there was nothing -- yet -- for Merlin.

Was someone tampering with his feed? He thought he'd fixed that problem.

A second after the thought crossed his mind, a pop-up warning came up, canvasing the area for a new unknown supernatural entity. Arthur smiled to know his software and viruses were working the way they should, but he frowned and fidgeted uncomfortably, because he didn't want Merlin to be caught.

Instead of fretting about it and texting Merlin for an update, Arthur busied himself with handling both the task list for his official and unofficial careers.

In the midst of replying to a half-dozen urgent production emails, including one from Catriona Billo that had included a fervent Well-spotted and Thank you, Arthur stretched out his cramping hand and blindly reached for his tea mug. As soon as his fingers touched the familiar Cthulhu tentacles hand-carved into the ceramic bowl, it was cruelly snatched out of his grasp.

His cry of outrage was quelled when the cup was replaced by a fresh brew from his favourite tea shop down the street, and he let himself drown in the combination scents of orange and bergamot for three entire seconds before a second cry, this one of alarm, sputtered around the hot mouthful of tea.

"You were supposed to cast an illusion!"

Merlin looked at him in confusion. "I did."

"No, you clearly did not --" Arthur waved his tea at Merlin's general vicinity. His hair was messier than it had been on the telly, his cheeks were a little flushed, and if it weren't Arthur's imagination, Merlin's eyes were a little brighter. As far as he was concerned, there was no illusion whatsoever. He felt his blood pressure rise.

And then he took in the rest of what Merlin was wearing.

Gone was the immaculate navy blue chalkstripe bespoke suit and aquamarine tie. In its place were a pair of ratty blue jeans, torn at the knees, the skinny legs tucked into the untied, scruffy, and out-of-style Doc Martins. His white T-shirt had the logo of one of the local food delivery places, and, as if to compound the disguise, Merlin was also carrying a bag of take-away.

There were little touches to the costume that only enhanced them. The metal-studded leather belt that did nothing to hold up the jeans on those slim hips. A string of coloured beads were wound around Merlin's left wrist in what Arthur supposed was the latest fad, and he had a thick black band around his right wrist. The shirt was clean, but old, as if it had been put through the wash enough times to get the stiffness out of both fabric and inked logo.

Arthur blinked at Merlin.

He started laughing.

His shoulders shook so hard he had to put down his tea before he spilled it. He caught himself, chastising that the concept of hiding in plain sight shouldn't be this ridiculous, and it shouldn't have worked as well as it did considering that the MRO government agents were no doubt canvasing the area for Merlin.

Arthur pulled off his glasses to wipe the tears out of his eyes, hiccupped to catch his breath, and calmed down. But one more glance at Merlin set him off again.

When he finally got himself under control, it was to find his office door closed, the blinds to the windows shut, and Merlin standing in front of him with a bemused expression, once again wearing the bespoke suit.

"Nobody pays attention to the delivery boy," Merlin said with a shrug.

Fucking genius, Arthur didn't say, because Merlin had already single-handedly defeated two otherworldly Evil Overlords without breaking a sweat, and there was no need to give him a big head. Instead, Arthur reached for the bag of take-away and unpacked the containers as Merlin dragged over a chair to the other side of his desk and sat down.

"I was thinking we should bill the city for the emergency service," Merlin said, summoning a Red Bull from Arthur's private reserve. The small refrigerator slapped shut lightly, but not before Arthur noticed that he needed to replenish Merlin's supply of horrid caffeine monstrosities. One day, when the Evil Overlord business was settled a bit more, Arthur would wean Merlin onto a healthier diet, but for now, he had smaller battles to fight. "Maybe offer them a discount as a new client."

"God, no," Arthur said, appalled by the idea. He checked both take-away containers, switched them around, and slid one of them over to Merlin. "Don't be ridiculous. We have an overhead to consider. There's no question that we should gouge them through the nose. Emergency services mean just that. Emergencies. And that comes with all the surcharges, extra fees, and inconvenience penalty."

"Inconvenience penalty?" Merlin asked, confused.

"If only they'd contacted you for your assistance sooner, you wouldn't have been made late for your appointment today," Arthur said. A warm feeling settled in his stomach at Merlin's bright grin.

"Elena said you'd prep me for the interview?" Merlin said a few minutes later, between bites of a club sandwich from the deli that was right next to Arthur's favourite tea shop. "Please say it's not going to be with that hag, Mary Collins. I can't stand her."

"Different network," Arthur said, his cheek bulging with his usual cheese and ham toastie. He continued to chew in an attempt to hide his grimace when he remembered what he'd promised his father, but something must have given him away, because Merlin put down the second half of his sandwich and eyed him warily.

"Who's my interview with?"

"About that," Arthur said, only to be interrupted.

"If it's Morgause Gorlois, I'm telling you right now, it's a big fat no. I refuse. She made a nun cry! I don't care how big her talk show is or how much draw she's got, I'm not --"

"Different network," Arthur repeated, scowling in annoyance. "Do you even watch proper telly?"

"I never have the remote," Merlin said forlornly. "I have to Netflix whatever I want to watch. Sadly, that means nothing from Pendragon Unlimited, because they won't bloody well license their shows already."

Arthur snorted. He chewed his toastie slowly, wondering how much longer he could stall. On the one hand, the sooner he prepared Merlin for his interview, the better. On the other, there was no preparing anybody for one of Uther's interviews. If Merlin thought that Morgause Gorlois' usual rubbish talk show bollocks was bad, he might vanish the way he'd vanished the Sidhe Evil Overlords when he was face to face with Uther Pendragon's hard-nosed news reporter approach.

"Who is it, then?" Merlin prompted.

"Um," Arthur said, and forced himself to smile. "My father."

 

 

 

 

Three days later and thirty-three minutes into the airing, Merlin stopped peering through his fingers and lowered his hand from his face.

"It's not terrible," Merlin finally admitted.

The editor of the ultra-rare, much-hyped, heavily-promoted Uther Pendragon interviews London's Evil Overlord newscast was particularly skilled, because he'd turned the disaster that was an actual interview into something polished and professional, despite Merlin's best unconscious attempts to tank the entire thing. If Merlin were being honest, he came out of the episode looking like a Hollywood superstar, with all the panache and charm of a cultured Lord.

Arthur might know the right person to send flowers to. Maybe a fruit basket? Because what Merlin was watching on screen was not what actually happened in that private interview room.

("Are you an actual child?" Uther said, after a long, silent staring match with Merlin. Merlin made an affronted sound, because he thought he'd answered Uther's question with straightforward aplomb, but apparently not.

Arthur, over in the corner of the room, had a hand over his face in what appeared to have been complete dismay. Merlin, however, wasn't fooled. Arthur's shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter.

Uther exhaled a heavy sigh. The crew exhaled a sigh of relief and amazement that Merlin hadn't made Uther disappear like the Sidhe, which, don't get him wrong, had been tempting. But this man was Arthur's father, and Merlin was in the process of slowly working up his courage to ask Arthur out. He might tank his chances if he completely obliterated Uther from existence.

"Why don't we try this again," Uther said, waving a hand magnanimously and sharing a meaningful look with the floor producer. Merlin didn't know what that meant and nearly asked, except Uther continued without giving him the chance. "This time, why don't we try for something more natural? Be yourself, just... less of an idiot. Ready?"

"Um," Merlin said, and shrugged.

"So, Mr. Ems., tell me something. I'm certain all of our viewers would be interested in knowing what happened to the sorcerers who invaded London --"

"Dr. M," Merlin corrected.

"Sorry?" Uther asked, thrown off and a little blustery.

"It's not Mr. It's Dr. I'm an actual doctor. Not a medical one, so I can't do anything about your health problems, not that you have any, I'm sure. I noticed your wheatgrass shake and carrot sticks earlier, and you're doing better than I am on that front, so kudos to you. And it's not Ems. It's just M. The letter M. Like Dame Judi Dench from the David Craig 007 flicks? Put them together, it's Dr. M. Except, I suppose, more evil? Not that she was evil. I suppose she was more chaotic neutral? For Queen and Country and all that?"

Merlin trailed off toward the end when Uther's fingers pinched the bridge of his nose. Eventually, Uther dropped his hand to the armrest of his leather chair, took another deep breath, and pulled himself together. "Again," he said, but the third take, which had gone a little better, had been ruined because Arthur had given up controlling himself and had burst out laughing.)

"And, if you don't mind my asking, what happened to the sorcerers who invaded London?" Uther-on-the-telly was asking, and Merlin crossed his arms, impressed. Uther's performance was smooth and natural, as if he hadn't asked that question a million times during the interview.

"The Sidhe, you mean," Merlin-on-the-telly said. The screen shot to Uther's questioning frown and gesture for him to explain. "They're not sorcerers. They're members of a supernatural race that don't actually live here, on Earth. Kind of like fairies, but on steroids. The rage-inducing kind."

"Ah," Uther-on-the-telly said, and if Merlin hadn't been looking for it, he would have missed the tug on the corner of his mouth. "They weren't friendly?"

Merlin-on-the-telly snorted derisively. "I'm not sure, but I think the way they were causing all sorts of unlawful carnage and destruction was the dead giveaway. Anyway, they won't be back. I did what one does when they have annoying houseguests."

"Which is?" Uther-on-the-telly asked.

Merlin-on-the-telly shifted on his leather seat and looked a little sly, a little evil. Honestly, though, Merlin had been a bit uncomfortable by the question because he didn't know how to explain it in plain English. It had involved splitting open a gateway to a new dimension, keeping that gateway contained, dropping it on the Sidhe, and closing it again, but Arthur's advice at the time had been to keep his answers simple, so Merlin had said, "I got rid of them."

There was a sharp intake in the background of the video from the area of the camerapeople and the floor producer. Even Uther-on-the-telly seemed a little pale at that declaration, though he'd looked more constipated than anything when Merlin had given that answer. Merlin would definitely be sending the editor a fruit basket, the biggest one he could find, because, seriously, this was magic on film. How did they do that?

"How?" Uther-on-the-telly said, a lot strangled and a little breathy. That wasn't because of some sort of trick by the audio team; Uther really had sounded like that, like an excited but absolutely terrified little boy listening to a campfire ghost story.

"Well. It's a little complicated," Merlin-on-the-telly said. The Sidhe hadn't been sent home to their original dimension, not exactly, since Merlin had no idea where they really came from. In any case it was the furthest he could manage, and in the mess of dimensions that was the multiverse, that was pretty far, and there were a lot of other worlds in-between. It would be a while before the Sidhe found their way back, but that's not how it came out when Merlin-on-the-telly grinned and said, "Does it really matter how as long as they're gone?"

The shot ended on Uther-on-the-telly smiling somewhat nervously (more like with glee, if Merlin remembered correctly) and a commercial break.

"Jesus, Merls, I've got gooseflesh," Will said, raising his arms to show off the fact that, yes, he really did have gooseflesh under his hairy forearms. Merlin shoved Will's arm away from his face.

"I'm glad I'm recording this, Freya will be so mad that she missed the live showing," Sefa said. Mordred, crunching noisily through some crisps, made a noise that sounded vaguely like agreement. It might also have been disapproval -- Merlin wasn't sure.

"Couldn't be helped. I mean, I took care of the ritual those kids left wide open in bloody Hyde Park last night and made sure that the Hellhounds didn't hurt anyone else, but she still has to round up the strays. I offered to help, but she said I'd just get in the way," Merlin said.

"She's right, though," Mordred pointed out.

"Excuse you, I don't know how many times I have to tell you, but I am a bloody Disney Princess," Merlin retorted.

Mordred snorted, Will choked on his tea, and Sefa shushed them with a hissed, "Are we watching this or not?"

"There's a commercial," Gilli said, rolling his eyes at her.

(Freya was good at what she did, and, yeah, the reality was that, Disney Princess or not, Merlin would only slow her down. Still, there were a few things that he could do to help her out, and one of them was securing and fireproofing an abandoned warehouse -- not that it was abandoned any longer -- to pen the Hellhounds together. Arthur had rolled his eyes and called Morgana, asking her to take care of purchasing the property immediately.

Freya had been delighted. For now, the warehouse was a kennel for the Hellhounds until they could decide what to do with them. Sending the pups back was just cruel, because they came from Hell, and Hellhounds, despite their names and the bad rap they'd gotten from Supernatural, were actually quite good-natured and affectionate.

When Freya learned that, well. Merlin had a feeling that Freya would try and rehabilitate them as house pets.

Merlin thought that was a disaster in the making, Freya adamantly disagreed, Mordred offered no opinion because, "Druids are above such thing, Merlin, why are you asking me?" Arthur was the worst of the lot, having come late to the scene and missing out on all the four-legged levels of mass destruction energy before Merlin managed to herd most of the pack together. Despite one of them having taken a chunk out of his trouser legs, Arthur wanted one of the little fiery-tempered nibblers as his own.

Either way, Freya now had a kennel of her very own, along with plenty of space to work on the hounds individually, and she'd already talked to Arthur about buying more of the property around the warehouse for more buildings to house other wild creatures or demolish in exchange for more greenery and open space.)

"Is it much longer?" Gilli asked, glancing up from his shiny new laptop. He'd been more relaxed now that he was in a new role at the company, handling tasks that were more his speed and domain of interest. Lance had taken over the department with single minded determination despite insisting that he was only "trying it out" while Percival continued to run their own boutique marketing shop. Arthur thought it was a matter of time before the boutique shop closed its doors and Percival stopped pretending that he wasn't keen to become part of the employee roster at EOI.

The question, however, was very valid. Arthur had twigged on to the fact that MI5 and the MRO agents would be hunting down anyone associated with Merlin in the hopes of using them against him. It was a depressingly effective tactic, according to Arthur, so he'd gone ahead and set up safe houses and new identification for all of them in the very short period of time they had before the show aired.

Merlin wasn't so sure that Arthur didn't have everything already sorted from the very beginning, though, because he had it on good authority that forged ID cards that could pass muster under the most intense scrutiny were both not cheap and not fast to make.

Technically, they shouldn't even be together now, but Sefa had insisted, and Merlin had allowed it only after everyone had promised to Scatter the fuck away as soon as the show was over.

And after he'd warded not just the flat with safety protocols, but set traps around the entire block to let him know if one of the MRO units were sneaking toward them while they watched Special Report with Uther Pendragon.

"I don't know, actually," Merlin admitted. He gestured at the screen and crossed his arms. "Uther didn't say, Arthur didn't know, and Elena said something about enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame. Except this is well over fifteen minutes."

The commercial break ended, the network logo flipped across the screen, and a brief introduction montage segued back into the interview.

"Shush," Sefa insisted, even though no one was talking at this point.

"For our viewers' information, we agreed that I wouldn't ask you any personal questions. This is for your protection, since you insisted on anonymity," Uther-on-the-telly said, looking wise and thoughtful and as if that had been entirely his idea. Merlin knew better, because there had been a ten minute battle of wills and wits, followed by a sixty-seven second silent staring match, between Arthur and Uther until Uther capitulated. "But perhaps you could indulge me and allow me to ask one question that might flaunt the rules?"

Merlin-on-the-telly gestured magnanimously. Merlin-on-the-sofa thought that particular shot made him look like an arse.

"Have you always been in London?" Uther-on-the-telly asked.

"Most of my life, yes," Merlin-on-the-telly said, sufficiently vague and generic that it wouldn't give anyone any information on how to track him down. It was bad enough that, between his confrontation with the Sidhe and this interview, his face was now officially "out there". A lot of people would recognise him. He was pretty sure Uther's argument that his anonymity would be blown out of the water sooner rather than later had been a valid one, despite Arthur's stubborn insistence that Merlin would be fine.

"And did you always protect London?" Uther-on-the-telly asked.

"I've always done what I can," Merlin-on-the-telly said, shrugging.

"Such as?"

Merlin-on-the-telly sighed. "If you're trying to ask, Why I haven't done more, why are you showing your face now, then, let me speak plainly. There's only so much you can do when you're a kid and you're trying to simultaneously control and hide your abilities so you don't hurt anyone while ducking the MRO agents patrolling the streets, sniffing for any hint of supernatural wrongdoing. I mean, honestly? Can you blame me for being a chubby-cheeked, lollipop-sucking brat with big ears and hair that stuck up no matter what my mum did to it, and being absolutely terrified that the MRO might to turn up on my doorstep to take me to jail on the grounds that I'm a sorcerer and I might turn into another Cornelius Sigan?"

Uther-on-the-telly flinched. He was of the generation that had been both old enough to understand the damage Sigan had done and to have been in the middle of the war. The memories of those dark days haunted him as much as it did most of London, though the younger generation, who had never had to endure Sigan's short reign of terror, didn't have quite the same degree of fear, if the current trending #BadassEvilOverlord was any sign. Sigan's name wouldn't have as much as an impact on them.

"I had nightmares for years," Merlin-on-the-telly continued. He leaned forward in his seat and stared at Uther-on-the-telly intently, as if willing him to understand. "I dream things like the MRO agents breaking down the front door, shooting my mum full of bullets for getting in the way, and dragging me out of the kitchen where I'm doing schoolwork. Next thing I know, they've got me strapped to a table, and someone in doctor greens is looming over me, scalpel in one hand, something terrifying and claw-like in the other."

"Sounds like you were a kid with a very vivid imagination. The MRO say that their treatment of incarcerated supernaturals is fair and humane. That wouldn't have happened," Uther-on-the-telly said smoothly.

Merlin-on-the-telly barked a sharp laugh that chilled Merlin-on-the-sofa to the bone. Will curled up under a blanket, distinctly uncomfortable by the direction of the interview. Uther-on-the-telly frowned, as if he hadn't expected that reaction.

"You don't think so?" he asked.

"When has the government ever been straightforward about anything? It's not just limited to the MRO, you know, but we're talking about the MRO now, so I'll target them. If you believe that anything the government has done regarding the supernatural is fair and humane, particularly of late, I've got a few barrels of love potion to sell you," Merlin-on-the-telly said.

"You tell him, Merls," Will growled. Sefa moved to the edge of her seat, glancing quickly at Merlin before returning her attention to the interview. Her eyes were shining brightly, and Merlin hated that he was the only one in the room who knew why.

"And do you have any evidence to support this accusation?" Uther-on-the-telly asked, not the least bit perturbed.

"Oh, loads," Merlin-on-the-telly said with a snort. "Why don't we start with how schools were segregated when I was growing up?"

"They're not segregated anymore."

"No, because segregation is no longer a politically-correct word. Just because people don't say it anymore, it doesn't mean it's not still happening. Registered kids aren't allowed to attend just any school these days. Instead, they're bussed to one of the handfuls of schools that are touted to be supernatural-only, which the government claims will be better for them -- more focused educational program and individualised teachers, and all that rot, but it's a load of bollocks," Merlin-on-the-telly said. "There's only three schools in West London, and they're overcrowded, have abusive and punitive mundane teachers who teach only whatever they're arsed to teach. How's that supposed to be a better educational program when the only teachers our kids are allowed to have don't know the difference between a nymph and a sylph, that Napoleon really was human and not just an abnormally tall gnome, and two plus two equals bloody four?"

Merlin-on-the-telly paused.

"Am I allowed to curse on-air?"

"You can say whatever you'd like on-air," Uther-on-the-telly said generously, a quirk of amusement pulling at the corner of his mouth. There was no missing the tiny gleam of fear in his eyes, though. It might have been manufactured -- Merlin was pretty sure that Uther Pendragon wasn't afraid of much.

"Well, then," Merlin-on-the-telly said. He paused -- Merlin-on-the-sofa knew he'd only been trying to remember what they'd been talking about -- before continuing. "And anyway, where are all the supernatural teachers? Police officers? Healers? They can't get jobs because of the laws that have been passed in recent years. There's a whole generation of highly-educated people who have doctorates but who have no choice but to take jobs as delivery people or dishwashers at the local chippy stand because they can't get jobs in their fields. Companies complain that they don't have the people to fill their positions? One guess why. Business pundits talk about the British economy going down the drain? One guess why. The government has been discriminating against the supernatural population for decades, and that has got to fucking stop."

"No shite," Mordred said with a snort. Merlin closed his eyes tightly in embarrassment at his own vehemence on the screen.

"Those are the laws of the country, as passed by elected government officials," Uther-on-the-telly said, his tone neutral. "Elected by the population of Britain, incidentally, and they are intended for everyone's protection. If those are the laws, then --"

He stopped when Merlin-on-the-telly rolled his eyes and sank back in his seat.

"Very well, then," Uther-on-the-telly said, changing tactics. "You have very strong emotions about this. I sense that it's more than general malaise for the situation of the world at large, that it's something much more personal. Tell me, Dr. M, what happened to make you feel this way?"

"We had a deal about the personal questions, in that you wouldn't ask any," Merlin-on-the-telly said dully. Merlin-on-the-sofa abruptly got up and walked to the kitchen, his chest tight, because he had a feeling that he knew where this conversation was going. They'd only ever done one take of this particular part of the interview.

"It might help our viewers understand about you. They should know why you didn't step up to protect London sooner, and why you're emerging now, instead of having a nice, quiet life where you can stay out of trouble. Nobody needed to know you ever existed," Uther-on-the-telly pointed out.

There was a long silence from the sitting room. Merlin put his hands on the kitchen counter and leaned forward, his head down.

"My first memory," Merlin-on-the-telly finally said, his voice the low, dangerous murmur that came with the fragility of breaking glass, full of sharp edges, "Is watching my father come home after work through the window in the kitchen. He was earlier than usual, hurrying to the house from around the corner. He'd promised to bring me a treat if I was good that day."

There was a long silence. Will was the one who caught on first, because while he hadn't been there and had never known the details, they'd been friends long enough that he'd put the pieces together without ever having the full story. "Turn it off," Will said. "Sefa. Turn the bloody telly off."

She didn't, for whatever reason, because Merlin heard Uther's voice prompt, almost as if in a dream, "And?"

"And he never made it home," Merlin-on-the-telly said, flat, emotionless. "A couple of black cars came out of nowhere. The old MRO logo was painted on the door. The wheels rolled over the pavement, blocking my dad's way no matter which way he might want to go. I saw two men climb out of their cars --"

(Merlin had been taught at a very young age to never bang on the windows. That meant attracting unwanted attention. Still, that hadn't stopped him from pressing a hand to the glass, already knowing in his three-year-old mind that something was very, very wrong.

His father never had a chance. The agents hadn't appeared out of nowhere intending on detaining him or making an outright arrest. No. They'd shot Balinor multiple times at point-blank range the instant Balinor had raised his hands in surrender, and careened off less than a minute later, leaving him to die not ten metres away from the front stoop of their rented flat.)

The memory came in a blur of teary eyes and screams, the sight of his mother running over to take him away from the window, to shield him from harm and from the sight of violence and the blood around his father's body. But it had been too late, far too late, by the time his mother could pull her bawling little boy away from the window, and Merlin would never forget what he'd seen.

"So, you tell me," Merlin-on-the-telly said, after a too-long silence and a non-responsive Uther. There was a rare viciousness to his tone, too cold to be an animal's snarl, too sharp to be anything else but the double-edge of a bloody blade, revealing his hurt and his pain for the whole world to see. "You tell me. When should I have emerged to save London when I knew what the MRO agents could do to me or anyone I loved? When I was three years old? Ten? Fifteen?

"I did what I could when I could. I stopped an arsonist from burning down a rest home. I exorcised the demons possessing a little girl before they could destroy her soul. Schoolyard bullies learned the errors of their ways, robbers targeting an already-poor neighbourhood got robbed in turn, and fuck if I wasn't going to hunt down every member of the gang who assaulted that family of four last year for the nerve of having gotten lost on their city street."

Merlin took a deep breath. He reached out with his senses to make sure that the wards on the house hadn't been breached. There would be no continuing the interview after what happened next, Merlin knew. Arthur said they'd fill out whatever time they needed to fill the slot with a replay of Merlin's confrontation with the Sidhe and some commentary. That meant that he and his friends would need to abandon the flat, and soon.

He wondered when would be the next time he'd see his friends again.

Merlin-on-the-telly was angry in a way he should have been when he'd sent the Sidhe home. His voice dripped through the stereo speakers with cold venom.

"I tried, all right? But the problems of the world were never my responsibility. That's rubbish. I'm not the government. I'm not the police. It's not my goddamn job to keep the peace. Where's the MRO in all this? Out terrorising supernatural people whose only crime is trying to earn a wage to be able to afford to give their kid a treat that day? Kudos to them for a job well done, then."

A low growl seeped into the voice of Merlin-on-the-telly toward the end, and it reverberated in his voice when he continued after a weighty silence filled with Uther's loud swallow.

"Rules and regulations and restrictions. Is that what we want the future to be like? Oppression and suppression? When do we stand up and make it stop? When are we going to fight for equality and freedom? How about now? Haven't we waited too fucking long for someone to stand up and do something?"

"And by we, you mean...?" Uther-on-the-telly asked.

"Me," Merlin-on-the-telly snarled. "If no one else is going to step up to the line to do what's right, then I bloody well will. Let me make it abundantly clear. London is mine. I'm going to keep it safe. Even from itself."

(Merlin stood up at that point, yanking off the microphone, throwing it to the ground. He still didn't remember the trip to the green room that was down the corridor, but he remembered how Arthur had followed him. Arthur watched him for a long few seconds before pulling Merlin in a tight embrace, and held on until Merlin stopped shaking.

Eventually, Merlin returned to the interview room, a little more composed than before, grateful that Arthur hadn't asked any questions and was hiding his concern behind his usual mask of stoic nonchalance. The camerapeople were gone, the producer was in the back corner having a quiet chat with another crew member, and Uther was slumped a little in his plush leather seat, elbows on the armrests, hands loosely clasped to form an inverse V in front of his mouth. He looked thoughtful, his expression distant.

"Sorry about that," Merlin said, feeling steadier than he had a few minutes ago. "We can continue. Or start over. If you want."

Uther looked up, startled, and lowered his hands. A second later, he stood up, worked the inside of his cheek while his brow furrowed deeply, and he shook his head. "I believe we have everything we need."

"Oh, good," Merlin said, so relieved it was over that he couldn't find any space in his head to care about how poorly the interview had gone. He was worn out and exhausted. How long had they been in the interview room? Was it always this stuffy? He was having trouble breathing.

Then, Uther Pendragon, who had been his mum's favourite television personality, did something so completely surprising that Merlin didn't immediately know how to react. But he took the hand Uther held out for him, and shook it in a firm grasp, all the while trying not to gape when Uther said, "I hope you'll allow me to interview you again when you succeed in your endeavours, Dr. M.")

Merlin listened to the chirpy commercial jingle for what was probably too long, took a deep breath to steady himself, and walked out of the kitchen with his head held high. He had nothing to be ashamed of. He was simply steeling himself against the pitying looks he expected to see on his friends' faces.

"Orright," Merlin said roughly as he headed into the hall where he'd left his shoes. "That's the end of the interview. Not much else after that. A replay from the other day, Arthur said. They were going to try to get in an expert or someone, fill the rest of the time with commentary. You won't be missing anything. Let's go. Time to go into hiding."

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Merlin tied his runners and shouldered the backpack he'd left on the stairs before risking a glance around the sitting room.

Mordred was pale. Will was glaring at Sefa and looked to have been doing that for some time. Gilli rubbed his eye with the heels of his hands and was making quiet noises that sounded suspiciously like sniffling. Sefa was sitting straighter than before, on the edge of her seat, eyes glued to the screen, the television remote cradled to her chest. Her expression was unreadable.

Then, as one, they turned to stare at him. All of them except for Will.

"No, I don't want to talk about it. No, I never lied to you -- I said my dad was... was gone, and you just assumed he'd left my mum and me. I never tried to clear that up because I didn't want to think of him just... just lying there, dead, for hours, because the police and the ambulances wouldn't even come when we called," Merlin said, his voice cracking.

"Merlin," Sefa finally said, breaking the group's silence.

"No," Merlin snapped. "No. If you lot really care about me, you'll get your acts together right the fuck now and do what you're told without bloody arguing with me about it. Don't make me have to see another person I love lying dead on the fucking pavement in front of our goddamn flat, all right?"

Everyone hesitated for less than a handful of seconds before standing up at once, each of them scattering throughout the house to get whatever bits and bobs they hadn't already packed in their day bags or stashed away at the safehouses. They were already wearing warded pendants to protect them against anyone who might follow them, but for the rest, they were on their own. They would be all right, Merlin told himself. They were all supernaturals who had trained themselves into staying unnoticed and unnoticeable.

Gilli hugged Merlin with a less-than-manly sob on his way out. Mordred's lips thinned when he came to stand in front of Merlin, but he held back whatever he'd been about to say, offering a stiff nod, instead, and a casual, "We'll see you when it dies down." Sefa walked out without making eye contact, her nose up in the air as if she were snubbing him, but Merlin wasn't fooled. Her eyes were red and watery, and she'd only tear up if she looked at him.

Will was the one who lingered the longest. His backpack was slung over his shoulders, his cap was pulled low over his forehead, shadowing his face, and the silence between them was awkward for about four seconds.

(That was the rule. They'd agreed on that a long time ago.)

Will tapped the side of his cap in a lazy salute and said, "We're with you to the end. Give me a ring if you forget. I'll be happy to remind you."

"Yeah," Merlin said softly. Will thumped Merlin's shoulder and walked out of the flat without another word.

Merlin locked the front door behind him. He double-checked the illusions that altered the appearance of the building from the street and made sure that the fake last number on the house was as crooked as the original. With luck, the authorities would never find the place.

He shouldn't be expending so much effort to protect it. They were all moving on to bigger and better things that were bigger and better than themselves. The new places were much better, and, frankly, they were all sick of living with each other, anyway.

But it was his first real home since uni. He was a bit fond of it.

Merlin gave the doorframe one last pat and walked down the street, hiding himself with his magic when he heard the sirens heading his way.

 

 

Thirty-seven thousand, eight hundred eighty-two, and counting.

Arthur marvelled. That was the number of requests for the magic love potion that Merlin was selling, which was equivalent to the number of people who were gullible enough to believe that anything marketed as love potions actually worked.

And love potions absolutely didn't work. Arthur knew that for a fact.

(He'd been bloody eight years old, all right?

Anybody would have had a crush on the gorgeous newscaster from a rival station whom Uther had been trying to pull over to Pendragon Unlimited and who was frequently invited to the house for dinner. Arthur had had his doubts about the love potions to start off with, because this was the modern age and snake oil was still snake oil no matter who prepared it. However, after a protracted scientific experiment with a sound testing model, he'd been completely convinced that love potions were absolutely fucking bogus.

All was not lost, however, since Arthur's natural skepticism and wariness for "cure-alls" or "solve-alls" had been deeply entrenched in the astounding levels of disappointed disgust that his eight-year-old self had felt at the time.

There had been the unexpected added bonus, too, of having lost interest in the newscaster himself, and discovering the applicable uses of mind control by an Evil Overlord.

Such as this one. If thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and five -- and counting -- people had faith in useless, overpriced rose water marketed as love potions, that bode well for their ability to feel confidence in an Evil Overlord. All it would take was some careful planning and on-the-spot manipulation.)

As Arthur swept through the statistics, he was interested to note that, while #BadassEvilOverlord, #LovePotions, and #WokeLondon hashtags were trending into the millions in England, #BadassEvilOverlord, #LovePotions, and #I<3DrM were the most popular hashtags around the world. Idly, he wondered if he could get his hands on the rating numbers from Pendragon Unlimited's overseas affiliates, just to see how they were doing over there, and whether it might be worthwhile to look into franchising.

He decided that, yes, he probably could, but no, it wouldn't be soon, because the Magical Registry Office, several police units, and even some army personnel, were all currently camped outside Pendragon Unlimited. It would be awfully inconvenient if he were arrested. Luckily, his staff was made of sterner stuff than him and there was a nearly one hundred percent attendance since the controversial airing.

They were defying the authorities in clear but silent support for their Evil Overlord. Arthur might not have worked there long, but he'd grown up around that building and its personnel, and he'd always had a soft spot for his father's business. Right now, he felt an absurd spike of pride.

Arthur pried his attention away from his phone long enough to take a bite out of the greasy burger on his plate. He washed it down with a big gulp from his pint of bitter, wiped his hands on a napkin, and picked his mobile up again. When someone slid into the booth across from him, Arthur immediately covered his phone and tensed in anticipation for escape.

"Sorry I'm late," Merlin said. He took a deep drink from the pint he must have bought at the bar before coming over, and put the glass down with a loud clink.

Arthur waved the apology away, instead frowning at the dark bags under Merlin's eyes, the hollow of his cheeks, and the faint tremor under his skin. Merlin was exhausted, starved, and stressed. "It'll blow over, soon."

"Maybe." Merlin sighed and rubbed his eyes. He didn't say anything else and didn't move until after the server came over and dropped a plate in front of him. The sight of food -- even the artery-clogging burgers and heart-stopping fries that were the staple of this particular American-themed bar, which was surely the last place that anyone would look for them -- spurred him to action.

Arthur let him eat in peace. Merlin looked like he needed the sustenance. Arthur might prefer that the sustenance was healthier, but at least Merlin was feeding himself. He didn't want to know when was the last time he'd had a proper meal, because that meant looking at how poorly he was doing, too.

Twenty minutes, two burgers, and most of the soggy fries later, Arthur looked up from his latest little project on his smartphone and said, "You're going to have to do another interview. Not right away, but soon."

"Because the last one went so well?" Merlin said with a snort.

"Yes," Arthur said, grinning. He ignored Merlin's wide-eyed startle. "And don't sell yourself short. It didn't go well. It went spectacularly."

Beyond Arthur's wildest dreams, actually. Deciding not to prepare Merlin too much for Uther's charming, casual, and absolutely brutal investigating reporter approach had worked out in ways that Arthur couldn't have predicted. He'd always been on the fence where Uther's personal politics were concerned, but Uther had made a clear declaration when he'd reassured Merlin that the interview was complete and took a personal interest in the final edits.

Uther was up to something. That much was obvious. Morgana thought their father was bored and needed a new cause to champion. Arthur believed Uther just wanted to violently stir up the shite and to surf ahead of the wave, cackling gleefully as it drowned Pendragon Unlimited's rivals.

(He always knew that he'd gotten his tendencies toward Evil Overlordliness from somewhere.)

"Spectacularly? Right." Merlin eyed Arthur's glass as if wondering how much he'd had to drink, but otherwise didn't say anything about it. He emptied his own drink, and, with amber-coloured courage of his own, asked, "When?"

"Ah," Arthur said, waving his glass around in a half-hearted shrug. He took a drink. "I suppose whenever the legal team gets Uther out of gaol."

Merlin blinked. "Sorry?"

"MRO agents showed up at the house to ask my father about you," Arthur said, unable to stop grinning. He hadn't been there, personally, but he'd seen the video he'd hacked from the manor's security footage. "He told them, and I quote, I don't reveal my sources. Kiss my bloody arse, which the agents took exception to. Apparently there's a clause in the latest version of the Magical Registration Act? Gives the MRO the authority to arrest anybody who helps a dangerous unregistered supernatural?"

"But I'm registered," Merlin protested. Unspoken was, 'Course, I'm registered as the Wrong Thing, which was semantics as far as Arthur was concerned.

"They don't know that, do they? And, anyway, that's not the point. The point is, it causes a lovely clash between the freedom of the Press, the laws against unnecessarily detaining a citizen, and the Ministry of Supernatural Supervision -- sorry, Services and all of its little agencies like the MRO. Don't look so worried. Believe me, my father is enjoying every minute of this," Arthur said.

"Really?" Merlin asked, skeptical.

"Oh, yeah. Nothing ever got my father's blood boiling like the suppression of freedom of the press and the protection of their sources," Arthur said. "My father is the current record holder amongst reporters for the number of times they tussled with the long arm of the law, regardless of rhyme or reason. All of the charges were thrown out of court, even when he cheeked the judge."

Merlin snorted. "Uther cheeked a judge?"

(And it had been fantastic.

At the time, Morgana was still reading Law, and the controversy around Uther's latest contempt of court had risen to levels that excited even her most ancient, fuddy-duddy professor, all of whom wanted to know what would happen in the court case. The police wanted to force Uther to reveal the source who had known intimate facts about an extremely high-profile murder and to turn over all of his notes, including some material Uther had admitted up-front that he'd elected not to put on-air. He was saving it for later.

On that day in particular, Morgana was let out of classes early, dropped by Arthur's school, and brought him to the courts. The case had already dragged on for two days, and the full weight of Pendragon Unlimited's legal team had made an appearance in the court.

"How many times do we have to go through this?" the weary judge said, circumventing all the pomp and circumstance of a judicial proceeding to address Uther directly.

"As many times as it'll take until the police understand that I will protect my sources," Uther said calmly. Surprisingly enough, Uther's lawyers let him talk, likely because they thought it was just easier to let him handle things. They were right.

"Uther -- Mr. Pendragon," the judge said, catching himself at the last moment -- they were golf buddies, when they weren't in court. "Make it easier on yourself. Everyone wants the best possible outcome. Give the police all the information you have, and we can all go home. They'll catch the killer, London will be safe, and that'll be that."

"Is the trial cutting into your tee-off time?" Uther asked, his shoulders back, his spine straight, his voice the haughty chill of an aristocrat who Gave No Fucks. "If that's the case, then, I cannot possibly do that. If I hand over all my material, the police will be too busy working on this case instead of protecting London from the greatest crime of all: your absolutely terrible golf game. God forbid your slice cut through the woods and kill an unsuspecting passer-by. How could I possibly live with myself?"

The trial was adjourned right then and there by a red-faced judge, Uther was remanded to another night in jail, Morgana couldn't contain her giggles, and an eleven-year-old Arthur beamed at his father for standing up for what he thought was right. Of course, the police were doing their own damn footwork in the meantime and found enough evidence to lead them to the right person, and Uther was released the next morning with a rather large fine.)

"Oh, yeah. He'll cheek anyone. Absolutely fearless, he is. The last interview he did before you? Some third-world country dictator with more guns than sense, and he reduced them to tears. A judge is nothing," Arthur said, grinning. "You should come to our next blooper reels night. Sometime we watch Uther's best clips, too."

Merlin smiled faintly, if a little uncertainly. The light dimmed a little in his eyes. "So, you didn't ask me here to discuss how to break him out of prison?"

"God, no. My father's fine where he is," Arthur said.

He nodded to the server who arrived to take their plates away, and ordered two plates of apple crumble with extra scoops of that ghastly crystallised ice cream they insisted on serving in this place, and asked for two more pints of beer.

When the server left, Arthur turned to find that Merlin had relaxed considerably. He didn't understand why, not at first, then realised that the prospect of breaking Uther out of prison was daunting. As if Merlin hadn't recently made two of the most powerful supernatural creatures documented in Compendium of Ancient Races: A Bestiary without batting an eye.

(Despite the title, the book was not nearly as titillating as Arthur had hoped. He had a newfound respect for Merlin's tenacity, because he barely finished a section before feeling himself begin to nod off. If not for Merlin's notes in the margins of the book he'd borrowed, Arthur would have been bored to tears.

Unicorns don't "love" virgins. They prefer well-tenderised flesh. The more well-fucked, the better was still Arthur's favourite comment.)

"No, what we need to talk about is Morgana's vision," Arthur said, keeping his voice low. The background music was loud enough in the themed restaurant-slash-bar that no one would hear, even if they were sitting close enough, but Arthur wasn't going to take any chances.

"Um," Merlin said, raising a brow, then frowning. "But didn't I take care of the cause of that problem?"

"That problem, wasn't the problem, apparently," Arthur said grumpily, because the outcome of Morgana's vision, where he was concerned, was still the same. He'd been resigned to his fate when he'd first heard about it, but the more time he spent in Merlin's company, the more determined Arthur had become in making sure he avoided that outcome. A few things did change, according to Morgana, but she had been very vague about the details.

Possibly, Arthur's predicted death was more gruesome than originally planned, or something worse was going to happen. Arthur couldn't imagine what the something worse might be. Did he run away screaming, maybe? Merlin was the one who died instead?

Either way, the thought made him shudder involuntarily, and all the more determined to ensure that it wouldn't happen.

Merlin leaned in. "So, what is the problem, then?"

"Who knows," Arthur said, studying the patrons of the pub with particular wariness. He didn't think either of them had been followed, but for all that he'd scored high on all of his field tests, he'd never actually been in the field, and having been stuck in the basement of MI5 performing tasks that a monkey could do with one hand tied behind its back? That had an impact in overall fitness. His position as Merlin's Second, however, gave him more than enough paranoia to make up for that lack. "Morgana didn't say."

"Morgana didn't say," Merlin repeated faintly, sitting back in his seat. He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping, and for a second, his eyes fluttered shut, giving the appearance of sleep. Arthur wasn't fooled. He knew resignation when he saw it.

The pints were delivered to their table, the pub grew louder as more people arrived, and halfway through an argument about footie scores and the latest trade in players, Merlin abruptly changed the subject to bring them back to whatever had been broiling in the back of his mind.

"So, what did Morgana say?" Merlin asked.

Arthur winced. He'd hoped that Merlin would have been sufficiently well distracted to avoid having to dredge up the details. He offered up a half-hearted shrug, and offered an evasive, "She didn't really go into it."

Merlin tapped a finger on the table and raised a brow. "What changed?"

"Nothing," Arthur said. "Some things," he added, when Merlin's raised brow became a doubtful frown. "Nothing important," he said, when his reassurance didn't stop the downward plunge of that eyebrow; in fact, it invited the other to join in. "Fine, but remember, you asked for it."

Merlin's hand gestured impatiently.

"The time frame's moved up. I'm not sure by how much, exactly, but since you got rid of the Sidhe, the conservatives have been pushing some of their more outlandish laws through Parliament. Most of them aren't going to pass, and it's an election year, so I don't know how that's going to work out."

Merlin's elbows were on the table. His hands cradled the latest pint, and he was silent when the server came by with the runny salsa drowning nacho chips that Arthur had ordered in the middle of their footie argument earlier. He hadn't been that hungry, but they'd needed more than just fresh pints to justify their extended stay in the booth. "Go on," Merlin said, once the server was gone.

"I suppose we're on a tipping point," Arthur said, picking at his napkin. "Morgana wasn't clear on that. We have to consider what we're going to do at the next event --"

"So there is going to be another incident," Merlin said, with the sort of self-satisfaction that Arthur found irritatingly attractive. It was also very distracting, because something short-circuited in Arthur's brain before he caught up with what Merlin had said, and eloquently asked,

"What?"

"Cause and effect," Merlin said, his voice dropping to keep from being overheard. It remained low enough that Arthur could hear him over the ambient noise of the bar, though. "That's what this is. If there's a fixed moment in time, nothing can change it. There's a proper name for the theory, but I don't remember what it is, so let's just call it the event horizon of temporal causality, which sounds very Whovian, I know. What it means is that, Morgana's original vision? It's one of those fixed moment."

Arthur blinked in answer.

"In plain English," Merlin said, a fleeting smile of amusement disappearing behind an intense look, "Is that it's going to happen no matter what we do. Knowing that it's going to happen is nice, because maybe we can stop it from happening. But we can't, since Morgana's still getting that vision, so where does that leave us?"

Arthur blinked again, because Merlin in lecturer mode was really fucking hot, and maybe Arthur would have read something completely different in uni if Merlin had been his professor. Or his junior lecturer. Either way, Arthur was surprised he was able to both shift himself into a more comfortable position on the bench seat, and follow Merlin's train of thought. "With changing the outcome."

"That's right," Merlin agreed, pausing to pull a nacho from the bowl and frowning when half of it disintegrated under the watery slop. He dropped it a second later, clearly having second thoughts, and licked his forefinger and thumb.

(Arthur may have stared at the flick of Merlin's tongue curling around his fingers with far more interest than was allowable in polite company, but, fuck it. They were in a bar, Merlin wasn't paying attention, and Arthur really wanted to throw the nachos on the ground, climb over the table, and snog Merlin stupid.)

"But here's the thing," Merlin was saying, and Arthur shook his head a bit to snap himself out of it. "Morgana's not seeing what leads to the event horizon of temporal causality, and she's not seeing outcome because the front end and the back end are just too fluid. She only sees that one, fixed event. The fixed event still happens no matter what. What happens inside that fixed event doesn't have to be fixed, though. The final outcome can be changed depending on the decisions made at the time. So, if we can change the outcome, why can't we change the reasons that lead up to the event horizon?"

Arthur's heart sank because if Morgana was seeing his death as a fixed event, that meant there was no changing that. That was more tragic than Arthur realised, but since he'd had time to come to terms with what now seemed to be an inevitable future, it wasn't as crippling as it had been when he'd first learned about it. He'd had a plan, but now he was starting to doubt that his plan would even work in the first place. Still, it gave him a momentary pause before he quickly latched onto what Merlin was saying.

"So the reason that --" Arthur paused when Merlin held up a hand. He peered around the pub with a faint frown before drawing back. Merlin gestured in the air at the opening of the booth, and the noise levels abruptly muted. Arthur glanced at the shimmery curtain briefly, considered asking about it, but instead went on with his thought before he lost track of what he was saying. "-- the reason Morgana sees what she's seeing could be different?"

He stopped, because something dawned on him.

"Shite. You're right. A million things could trigger what she saw," Arthur said.

"Well, I wouldn't say a million. Maybe a couple of hundred things," Merlin said.

Arthur shook his head, not listening. "Morgana only sees a very specific scene. Over and over. It could be interpreted in a million ways --"

Merlin opened his mouth, but clamped it shut when Arthur narrowed his eyes at him.

"And she didn't see the whole of it, so we have no idea what's going on around that event. All we know is that there will still be a battle. That's on the calendar, no matter what we do. It might not unfold the way she sees it as long as we don't do anything to change what's causing it," Arthur said.

That meant, no matter what, Arthur was the only intended person who could be at the confrontation that Morgana was Seeing. No other substitute would do. It meant he could manipulate the absolute fuck out of the situation however he wanted, and that his original plan for survival might still work.

"Very good. A+. We'll make a Time Lord out of you yet," Merlin said, raising his pint.

Arthur grinned, but his pleasure was short-lived. He reached for his mobile, went through the security screen, and flicked through a number of his apps without really looking at the data that they'd been built to collect. He was trying to process too much information at once, and he couldn't parse it all to come up with a specific answer. "Political momentum," he finally blurted out.

"Pardon?" Merlin asked.

"Political momentum," Arthur said. "That must be what's driving this particular vision. Cause and effect."

"Not following," Merlin said, frowning.

"You said it yourself. You can't know what single cause is pushing things to the breaking point. It could be political momentum. Political momentum can take a lot of different shapes and forms, and from a media aspect, it's difficult to control, curb, or redirect. Anyway, it doesn't matter what it is. It's the driving force, and no matter how bad it gets, the impetus usually has the same outcome," Arthur said.

Merlin tilted his head as if considering, but he wasn't completely convinced.

"For example, let's say the aftermath of the Sidhe attack is causing lawmakers to push more controls and restrictions to prevent any more attacks on London. But introduce the threat of additional controls and restrictions on a population that's already strangled to within an inch of their lives, and something's going to break."

Merlin shifted in his seat, crossed his arms on the table, and nodded slowly.

Arthur leaned in, too, and said, "Or let's say that the lawmakers don't do anything because you scared the shite out of them in that interview. But what you said in that interview is enough to plant a seed of rebellion and revolution in the minds of everyone who watched it."

Merlin looked a little sick at the possibility that he was the cause, so Arthur quickly came up with another example.

"Never mind lawmakers or the interview. What if the MRO goes after someone's family member, kills them, and that's enough to set off a community? It doesn't matter what it is, Merlin. Political momentum. We're at a critical point in our current history. Everything's going to come to a head. It's inevitable. You said that, too, so stop looking guilty."

Merlin frown disappeared, and was replaced by a heavy, glum look. "Yeah," he said slowly, putting his pint down. "If I'd left well enough alone and the Sidhe continued on their rampage, the political agenda wouldn't have changed. It would've just given the politicians more ammunition to further their agenda tomorrow, instead of, say, next week. Just the Sidhe alone, causing all that trouble, would've fired up the MRO agents and they're lashing out at the community, anyway."

"Right," Arthur said, and picked up where Merlin left off. "And when you showed up to stop the Sidhe? Actually stopping them? You made the politicians scared. They can't fathom the idea of the supernatural community self-regulating, whether it's through integration of the mundane and supernatural populations or because an Evil Overlord showed up to take care of the problem. Their knee-jerk reaction is to hurry things along in order to become the masters of their own domain again. Cause and effect. No matter which way things might have gone, we're still going to end up at your... your event horizon of temporal causality."

Merlin said nothing for a long time. His finger scratched along the side of the glass of his pint as if there was a label that he could pick off.

He had that pinch in his forehead that he sometimes got when he was thinking his way through a problem needing to be fixed, so Arthur didn't bother him. The truth was, Arthur wasn't entirely sure what he could say at this point that would make everything better. He'd settle for turning one situation into a marginally better one, if only to wipe the sour look from Merlin's face, but he couldn't come up with a single thing to do.

(Playing a few cat videos on YouTube came to mind.)

Instead, Arthur picked at the lacklustre nachos and drank his bitter, letting Merlin wallow in his own thoughts. It wasn't as if Arthur hadn't had a lot of time to do that himself. In any case, he wasn't in the mood for navel gazing -- at least, not in public.

He watched Merlin for a while. It seemed that the dark bags under his eyes were heavier than normal, suddenly, and that his shoulders were more rounded, as if someone had just deposited the weight of the world upon them. Arthur didn't think that was very far from the truth, except that someone was Merlin himself.

It had started when Merlin's friends had dragged him into the whole Evil Overlord business, hit a plateau when Merlin accepted his fate and gamely soldiered on, worsened when Arthur got involved, took a steep rise when Morgana revealed her vision, solidified in the aftermath of Uther's interview, and finally crashed with the realisation that no matter what anyone did, the end result would remain the same. Arthur grimaced, because when he tried to think beyond Morgana's vision, he could only imagine that worse would come to worse, and he wouldn't be there to help Merlin stem the tide.

Finally, Merlin twirled his still-full glass along the bottom edge, somehow managing clearly using magic to keep it turning in full defiance of the laws of physics, and released a small huff of air.

"All right," Merlin said, catching his glass before it wobbled all the way to the edge of the table and spilled. He sipped at it, put the glass down, and asked, "What does an Evil Overlord do to resolve an unwinnable situation that falls outside their purview?"

Arthur looked at his own glass -- nearly empty -- and decided that, after three full pints, he'd had enough. "I hope that's a rhetorical question, because I'm not at full operating capacity at the moment."

Merlin shifted in his seat and crossed his arms. "If you think about it, the best way to fight fire is with fire. I want to stop the vision from happening, and every sign points to political momentum as being the event with its fingers on the temporal trigger. To stop it from happening, I have to fight it in that arena, but I'm not political momentum, and there's no time to become one."

"Not too late to throw your hat into the ring for the next election, though. It's coming up quick," Arthur pointed out.

"You're drunk." Merlin took the last of Arthur's pint out of his hand and put it out of reach. "Anyway, I'd only be one guy in the government. There's all that wheeling and dealing I'd have to do, too. Not sure I could get a lot of people to vote my way, if it came to that, so that's no guarantee of success. If we want to stop all these new laws from being added to the book, what other ways are there?"

"Petitions. Protests. Prosecution. Propaganda," Arthur said. He shrugged at Merlin's look.

"Yes, well, that's it for the P's," Merlin said, adding, "Also, never playing Scrabble with you. But seriously, how often has that worked? Also, would it even work in time?"

Arthur started to give a history lesson when he thought better of it. "Still a rhetorical question?"

"Yes," Merlin said. "What other options do we have?"

Arthur stared at Merlin for a very long time. Merlin stared back. The server walked past their booth a couple of times with a confused expression on their face, but Arthur didn't think too much on it beyond wondering whether the sound-dampening curtain Merlin had cast was also hiding them from view.

Merlin scratched his chin. Arthur reached for his pint when something occurred to him. It was so simple that he abandoned his glass to smack himself on the forehead.

"I have an idea," Arthur said, adjusting his glasses.

"I hope so," Merlin said, concerned.

"What does an Evil Overlord do to resolve an unwinnable situation that falls outside their purview?" Arthur asked.

"Um," Merlin said, leaning forward to study Arthur carefully. "Did you hit yourself too hard? Because that's my question."

"No, but listen. Why is it outside your purview?" Arthur challenged. "You're the Evil Overlord of London. It's your territory. Everything that goes on in London falls under your purview, and that includes whatever goes on in the House of Commons and the House of Lords."

Merlin tilted his head. His mouth dropped open in what Arthur thought was protest, but Merlin seemed to be considering it and closed his mouth before it distracted Arthur any more than it already was.

"If you want to make it your business, make it your business. March right in. Conjure up your own throne next to where the Queen usually sits when she opens Parliament. As long as it's not above her, or a fancier seat than hers, I'm sure she won't mind too much."

Arthur grinned, unable to help himself. He could picture it in his head. Merlin in one of the bespoke suits that Arthur set out for him, waving away all the security as he marched through Parliament, and making himself comfortable on the floor in front of all of the politicians. Merlin would lock the doors with an imperious wave of his hand, magnanimously tell the Speaker to continue, and stop every bloody bill from becoming law.

Unbidden, Arthur's imagination added in the Evil Overlord strut that had first appeared when he'd marched up to the two invading Sidhe and gave them the what-for. The combined image was powerful, tantalising, and sexy. It took Arthur a second to shake himself out of it.

"More than that," Arthur pressed, when he realised that Merlin wasn't quite buying it, "What does an Evil Overlord do to resolve an unwinnable situation?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Merlin asked, after soundless grasping for an answer.

"Make it a winnable situation," Arthur said. "Stack the cards in your favour. Get the public on your side. Make it clear you're not going to accept anything else but your absolute bottom line. Keep that political momentum from getting out of hand. Make it so that you -- we -- are the only players on the battlefield."

Merlin didn't say anything for the longest time. Arthur thought for a second that maybe he'd pushed Merlin too far. But when he spoke, it was with a quiet, "You're putting things in my head that shouldn't be there. I'm not actually evil, you know."

Arthur leaned back. He had pushed too far. He felt his inner self scrambling backward, desperate to find a way out of it, but his mouth started working before he could think things through. "You're not, no. Not in the slightest bit. But being an Evil Overlord is more than just having minions and blowing shite up, Merlin."

"I'd hope so," Merlin said, but he still sounded... off. Detached, almost, as if he were re-thinking his entire life.

"That's where all the other ones went wrong," Arthur said slowly, reaching out to catch Merlin's hands. When Merlin didn't pull away, instead staring at where their hands were clasped, Arthur was reassured that at least Merlin was listening. "Power tends to corrupt. That's true. I'm not denying that. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. We all know how the saying goes. Except you don't have unlimited power. You've put in checks and measures to keep yourself on the straight and narrow. Do you really think Mordred would let you go too far? Can you really resist Will when he's giving you his ridiculous puppy-eye look? Freya would be so disappointed in you. I won't even mention Sefa, because I can see you cringing already."

Arthur suspected that Sefa was some sort of supernatural, and had for some time. He still hadn't figured it out, even with the help of Merlin's borrowed Bestiary. In the end, it didn't matter what Sefa was, because she was Merlin's friend, and Merlin relied on his friends in a way that none of the other Evil Overlords in history ever had. Merlin wasn't alone.

"And then, there's you," Merlin said quietly. There was a curious note to his tone, but Arthur didn't pay attention to it.

"And then, there's me," Arthur agreed, a small smile touching his face. He glanced down to their clasped hands and watched Merlin's fingers playing with the thumb ring Arthur always wore. "If anyone's evil in this equation, it's me. I know it when I see it. The fact you're even doubting yourself right now is enough proof that you're not evil and you're never going to be."

Merlin groaned. He pulled one hand away and covered his face with it. Arthur let the silence stretch, but Merlin didn't do so much as move beyond fidgeting with Arthur's ring.

"You know, when Lord Acton said all those things about power, he also said that Great men are almost always bad men. He's not wrong." Arthur waited, and was rewarded when Merlin stopped covering his face. "Great men are those who understand they can be corrupted by the power they have. They can do great things with that power without letting it go to their heads. They're only ever going to want to do the right thing. Sometimes that means crossing the line."

Merlin was distant for a moment. "Great men are almost always bad men."

"Yeah," Arthur said, not sure how to interpret Merlin's expression. He didn't realise he was holding his breath until Merlin's eyes softened and his mouth pulled into a small smile. Arthur jumped on the opportunity and reminded Merlin, "Turn it into a winnable situation. However you can."

Merlin flinched, but he didn't turn away completely from the idea this time. He nodded curtly, and said, "Political momentum, right?"

"Yeah," Arthur said, because he realised he'd lost the plot, suddenly, and he had no idea what Merlin was on about. He didn't want to discourage Merlin, though.

"I think I've got an idea," Merlin said, and his smile became a sly grin.

 

 

For the twenty-third time that day, Merlin told himself: This is a bad idea.

Once Merlin had shared his idea with Arthur, Arthur had immediately set about making certain Merlin had all the information he required before they enacted the plan. By the time Merlin had had second thoughts about it, Arthur had already compiled all the building blueprints, including those that weren't available to the public for obvious reasons, hacked the supposedly secure mainframe and acquired a copy of the security measures and guard patrols, and found out what they'd be serving in the cafeterias and restaurants for the esteemed members of Parliament and associated staff on the day most of the bills would be presented for their third reading in the Commons.

That day had come faster than intended, which forced Arthur to concede defeat and recruit Gwaine to help them with the escape plan, because Will would be busy arranging a distraction. Merlin knew what Will got out of it -- excitement, the knowledge of sticking it to the Man, and causing general turmoil and mischief, but he didn't know what Gwaine was helping them for. Gwaine was a spy for MI5. He should be protecting Queen and country and shooting Merlin where he stood, not going out of his way to help Merlin out.

(Merlin couldn't figure Gwaine out. At all. Sometimes there was something about him. Other times, Merlin just wasn't sure.)

Gwaine might still shoot Merlin, later, when it was advantageous to do so, earning him a promotion to super spy or however it worked in the spy business. Perversely, Merlin thought Gwaine might only be helping out for a chance to get into Arthur's pants, and that was something that Merlin didn't like. At all.

"Focus," he told himself. "Don't think about that."

If he thought about Gwaine and Arthur, he would only start moping about the kiss-that-never-happened, and that was counterproductive to what he was supposed to be doing right now.

(Several hours and coffees after their brainstorming session at the pub, Arthur suggested they retreat to his safe house to do some more work on it. It wasn't much longer after that when Merlin stretched out to pop a few kinks out of his back, because they were finished, and it was a bloody relief.

"You're fucking brilliant," Merlin said, grinning. He went over the notes spread out on the coffee table, unable to believe they had gotten so much done in so little time. Arthur had taken his plan and had supplemented it in ways Merlin couldn't have imagined, and Merlin was convinced it would work.

"Of course I am, which means I should get started on the rest," Arthur said, gesturing toward his laptop. What that gesture really meant was that Arthur would be locking himself into his spare bedroom for the night while he made their sketchy ideas a reality. "I have a feeling some of the new laws are going to be pushed through the government machine as quickly as possible, and you'll need to go in at a moment's notice. Best to go in prepared."

"Yeah, that's fair," Merlin agreed, already getting up from Arthur's plush leather sofa and heading for the door. He'd been to Arthur's flat a few times already, but the bolt-hole he was using as a safe house was so identical to the original that Merlin wasn't sure if they were at the actual flat or just at a clever reproduction. "I should get some sleep, just in case."

Arthur walked Merlin to the door. Merlin had his hand on the door when he turned around to tell Arthur everything that was on his mind. How glad he was that Arthur had gotten involved with EOI. How Merlin wouldn't have gotten this far without Arthur. How much he loved working with him --

But all those thoughts had vanished from his mind in the snap of a finger when he realised how close Arthur was in that moment. His body heat radiated like a furnace, and Merlin's eyes had dropped down to Arthur's lips.

He didn't know what came over him. He leaned toward Arthur to kiss him --

Abruptly realised what he was doing --

Pulled himself back --

And yanked the door open to use as a barrier between them. "Right. Goodnight," he said, and hurried down the corridor like a fucking coward.)

Merlin shook his head with a huff, but the memory lingered.

"Focus," he ordered himself sternly.

Merlin crossed the busy lobby. No one noticed him, not really. Most of the people visiting the public areas were tourists, so they wouldn't recognise him even if Merlin hadn't frozen time. Maybe the locals would know him by sight, but the schoolchildren running around were keeping the adults busy, while the security guards stood aside, knowing better than to get involved.

"This is a bad idea," Merlin said out loud, because no one could hear him anyway.

He wove through the people standing as still as statues until he arrived at the front of the first security queue. He wedged himself through the tiny gap between the metal detector and the table at the security station, paused to nervously adjust the crooked tie of the security guard currently scanning a lady in a garish pink business-cut outfit, and darted past the troop of children who had scattered around the main entrance when Merlin had cast his time-freeze.

Merlin kept going. There were a few more hops, skips, and jumps through security and a few back doors that no one was supposed to know about. Between the information Arthur had scrounged up and the insider details on all the hidey-holes Gwaine had personal knowledge of, Merlin reached the restricted areas fairly quickly. The corridors were mostly empty except for the obnoxious décor, but once he passed a few people, he was pleased to see that the suit Arthur had selected for him didn't make him stand out too much.

Eventually, he reached the doorway that would lead to the room he had only ever seen on the telly during certain recorded debates on the boring channel his mum always used to watch. Merlin tugged on the lapels of his suit, adjusted his vest, touched his tie --

Paranoia swarmed through him, and he opened the door. Sticking his head inside, he verified it was indeed the room where he needed to go, and shut the door again.

Satisfied, Merlin released his time-freezing spell, which wasn't so much an actual spell as it was an effort of will that he'd never tried to quantify according to metaphysical or physical rules, and counted to ten.

He took a deep breath, recalled Freya's advice --

("To borrow from Charlize Theron, think Murder, and glide in," she said, but Merlin didn't get it until Gilli found the video clip and showed it to him.

"No, screw that, do the Winter Soldier murder stalk, that's way hotter," Will insisted.

Will was outvoted when everyone agreed with Arthur's suggestion: "Remember when you went up to the Sidhe? Do that.")

-- threw the doors open with a careless wave of his hand, and stalked in.

The volume in the room went from the low hum of quiet chatter that didn't quite overwhelm the current MP reading from a sheet of paper to a loud, roaring silence by the time Merlin reached the halfway point. Ignoring everyone's gawping in favour of looking around and frowning unhappily, Merlin sighed theatrically --

("Thanks, Gwen. I really appreciate the lessons," Merlin said, giving Gwen a hug. "I'll probably trip and fall on my face, though."

"You'll do fine," Gwen said, grinning. Though she never inherited any particular ability from her father, her brother was, apparently, a skilled metalworker in a way that didn't involve hammers and anvils, so she had a vested interest in making certain that the laws didn't pass. "Break a leg!"

"Please don't say that," Merlin begged, glancing at the buzzing text that just came through his phone. It was from Arthur. It's time. "I might actually go and do it.")

-- snapped his fingers, and summoned himself a seat.

The chair appeared close to the end of the House of Lords, out of the way. Like Arthur suggested, it was nowhere near as ostentatious, but it was far more comfortable. The leather executive chair was as plush as he could make it. Merlin had modeled it on the one he liked best from the office furniture supply store.

He sat down in it, crossed his legs, and put his hands down on the armrest.

He looked around. No one had moved. No one was moving -- wait. Someone near the back rows abruptly broke into a run, racing toward the closest exit. Unfortunately for them, Merlin had taken the precaution of locking all the entrances.

When nobody else moved, when not even a mouse squeaked, Merlin suggested, "Sorry I'm late? Don't mind me. Continue with your recitation of the bill that you're currently attempting to read into Law. It sounds fascinating. I'd like to hear more."

What followed were minutes of stunned silence, complete disbelief, and frightened murmurs. Eventually, somebody who actually had more bollocks than the rest of them stepped forward from amongst the throng of slack-jawed gapers. The Sergeant-at-Arms, dressed in full ceremonial uniform, stalked forward. He was an older gentleman, with white hair and a build that hinted toward being built of stern stuff, and politely asked, "What are you doing here?"

His voice didn't quaver in the least and it carried marvellously across the room the way Merlin had only ever heard in Sirens and their half-blood kin, whenever the Gift bred true. He wondered how the MPs would react to know that their own staff was as supernatural as he was.

Merlin raised a brow. He didn't want to be mean, but Mordred had advised him to treat the members of the House in the same way as he did his students at university. Merlin didn't have to dig too far down to find the patient, but annoyed contempt that festered under his skin whenever he'd had to tutor someone.

"I believe I made my intentions quite clear. Did I stutter?" Merlin asked coldly.

"Uh, no, sir. Er. My Lord. Er. Dr. M," he said, and hastily scurried back to his station. Maybe he wasn't made out of stern stuff, after all. Possibly, the Sergeant-at-Arms didn't fully trust his abilities when armed with only a sword. It might not even be sharp. Merlin always wondered about that.

Merlin fixed his attention on the MP who had been speaking earlier when Merlin first walked in. He was still standing, his jaw dropped open, the paper in his hand trembling violently. In the same contemptuous tone of voice, Merlin asked, "Do you need an engraved invitation?"

"Um," the man said.

"Good," Merlin said, taking that as a No. He rolled his hand in the air -- everyone flinched audibly, likely thinking that Merlin had been about to cast something -- and smiled thinly. "Pretend I'm not here."

The man smiled weakly at the invitation and looked at the piece of paper he was holding up. It was trembling so much now that he had to clasp it with both hands to steady it. He glanced at Merlin a few times -- by this point, Merlin relaxed in his seat and fiddling with his phone, trying to appear as uninterested as possible -- before beginning to slowly stammer out the rest of his statement.

The MP was interrupted a few times by the sound of loud banging and crashing on the outside of the House doors. Once more, the MP looked at Merlin. He stared at the doors. He looked at Merlin again.

Merlin exaggerated rolling his eyes and groaned. "How annoying. Can't they see that we're trying to work toward the betterment of the United Kingdom?"

No one answered him. A few people shrank in their seats. Someone was in the process of crawling under the miniature desk that barely offered any shelter at all.

With another half-arsed wave of his hand, Merlin soundproofed the room. The room was suddenly very, very quiet. Merlin straightened in his seat and nodded self-assuredly. "That's better."

Then, he returned to playing the Burst-a-Bubble gem game Arthur had put on his phone. It was awfully addictive, but it was also very important that he continue the ruse that he was playing.

It took several minutes before the MP picked up on his speech again, though he did stumble through it. A long silence followed before someone else stood up and meekly rebuked it. A third person rose up to argue for the bill, though their voice was barely above a whisper and wouldn't have been audible if Merlin hadn't absentmindedly cast a magnifying spell on the room.

Eventually, the room continued with business as usual, with only a few occasional glances cast in Merlin's direction. There wasn't as much shouting as Merlin remembered from when his mum made him watch the BBC Parliament channel with him, and he supposed he shouldn't be surprised that everyone was a whole lot more subdued than they probably normally were. Still, as long as everyone was focused on the task at hand, they weren't paying complete attention to Merlin, and Merlin opened a tiny little doorway in the foundation of the building to let the Brownies in.

Predictably, no one noticed them. Brownies had exceedingly good camouflage.

(Several weeks ago, well before the interview was aired and the subsequent necessity to go into hiding, a Brownie knocked imperiously on the front door of Merlin's shared flat. It loudly declared that it was Quite unfair that it had had to find out that there was once again a Champion in Albion through the Scatterbrained pixies. Also, if it hadn't heard stories to the contrary, it would believe Merlin was Prejudiced against fairy-kind, because it wasn't as if most of the Fair Races had easy access to computers or electronics.

Never having dealt with Brownies before, Merlin could only rely on what little he remembered from his Mythical Races of Great Britain reference book, fourth edition, published eight years ago, which was filled more with pseudo-anthropology bollocks than anything useful, but it was better than nothing. It turned out that Brownies were very much about proper protocols and rules, having absorbed Victorian-era niceties with fervour and never changing with the times, so after a profuse but meaningless apology and an offer of tea that was mostly honeyed milk, the Brownie's ruffled fur was finally settled, and they could get on with business.

The business in question had to do with getting rid of an infestation of Red Caps -- Nasty bloody blighters, the Brownie insisted -- so that the Brownie and its nest-mates could finally settle in the house they'd selected as their home.

Normally, that sort of thing would be easy enough to take care of, because, while Merlin might never have encountered a Brownie before, he'd had to get rid of Red Caps a few times already as part of his job as Evil Overlord. He had to agree that Red Caps were nasty bloody blighters, because they had sharp teeth they weren't afraid to use, had a propensity for ankles and fingers, and their knives were sharp enough to completely scalp a head of hair from a person without the person immediately noticing.

Except, the job hadn't been easy. At all. The Brownies' home was already occupied by humans who didn't realise Brownies also lived there, and convincing them to leave the building so that Merlin could get rid of the pests that had migrated from a neighbour's house during an extermination had taken a while. Worse than that, the Red Caps weren't merely an infestation, they were a global invasion, because there had been hundreds living in that tiny two-level flat, somehow.

In the end, the Red Caps were removed from the site, the people living in the house were confident they were free of bugs and rodents, the Brownies could return to their little burrow-within-the-house, and Merlin, for his trouble, would go to the grave with Red Cap scars on his arms and ankles.

The Brownies couldn't pay the fee. Of course, they couldn't. They didn't have jobs, they were horrendously offended by the concept of money, and, in the end, Arthur had negotiated an exchange of favours.)

It was time to cash in one of those favours.

Since Merlin was looking for them, he saw the Brownies poke through the hole in the flooring, glance around with marvel, and get on with the business of delivering the letters that Merlin had given them. The Brownies would make sure that the bright red envelopes were delivered to the right person more efficiently and more accurately than Merlin could do with his magic.

Also, they'd tidy up the place while they were at it, which was technically trading a favour for another favour where the Brownies would continue to owe Merlin something in exchange, but the Brownies had delighted in the idea, and considered it a fair trade.

When the final letter was delivered, the last Brownie in the troop paused at the top of the landing and saluted before swan-diving through the hole. Merlin lowered his mobile and peered down the gap to make sure it was all right, nodded his thanks, and patched it up.

The timing was perfect, because someone was calling for an end to the debate. "If there's nothing more to add on the subject, I motion to move to an immediate vote --"

Merlin stood up, and the speaker immediately shut up. Merlin pocketed his mobile, tugged on his jacket, and took a long look around. "I have something to say."

"Um," the speaker said, trading glances with the people closest to them. Someone else braver than him said, "You're not an elected MP."

"No, not technically," Merlin admitted. "But the Queen gets a say sometimes, doesn't she?"

"She's the, um. The monarch of all Great Britain," the brave soul said, the sarcasm in their tone so heavy that it dripped on the fine carpeting in the room. "Of course she does. But she doesn't influence matters of the state."

"It doesn't matter. You lot listen when she speaks, don't you?" Merlin tried to remember the lessons from his Government classes when he was a lad. None of it had stuck, but he vaguely remembered begging his mum to make him a red cape lined with spotted fur to go with his plastic crown for some sort of play the class put on, for some reason.

(In the end, he was cast as a tree, immobile, trapped, and eternal, but that was neither here nor there.)

"Anyway, as lovely as she is, we're not debating Her Royal Majesty's authority in Parliament. We're talking about me," Merlin said, sweeping a hand down from his collarbone to his hip in extravagant display, just like Gwen showed him.

He paused, as much to give the room a moment to adjust as to remember the script.

"London is the heart of England." He looked around, taking in the confused expressions of his captive audience. "It is here, in this fine city, that the law of the land is created and enforced. From the largest borough to the smallest hamlet, every living inhabitant is subjected to those laws. There are no exceptions.

"As the Evil Overlord of London, it would be remiss of me not to have a say in what impacts upon a large portion of the population of our country. I am, after all, one of those individuals."

Again, Merlin paused, mostly for theatrical effect. It seemed to be working. He didn't know why he doubted Gwen; she knew what she was doing.

"But I won't waste time proselytizing to an audience ruled by unsubstantiated fears. Instead, I invite you to find the red envelopes at your feet to read the contents. Go ahead. I'll wait."

Immediately, people glanced down warily. There weren't any desks for the Brownies to have left the letters, but it wasn't as if the Brownies were tall enough to reach a desk unnoticed, anyway. Others shuffled their papers and held up the slim red envelopes with confusion. A handful had taken the initiative to open the sealed envelopes to read the contents for themselves, and, once realising that nothing untoward was happening to their neighbours, more of the MPs began to open their own letters.

"Once you understand what you're holding in your hands, I ask you to spare some very, very careful consideration about whom these new laws will condemn. It won't be merely a strange-looking, nameless, faceless person on the street. It'll be your friends. Your next door neighbour. Your child's babysitter. Your landlady."

Merlin paused.

"Your family."

He paused again.

"You."

Some people caved in, as if they'd received dire news, the letter they received crumpled in their hands. Someone -- several someones, actually -- let out anguished cries. More people, however, were angry, and it showed in body language and tone, though none of them dared come down the steps to confront Merlin directly.

It had taken a great deal of research and hard work in order to properly leveling the playing field in a political arena. Everyone knew that nothing was ever done without a few greased palms, exchange of favours, or underhanded blackmail. Though he might have claimed the mantle of Evil Overlord, it didn't mean that Merlin was necessarily evil.

Arthur, on the other hand...

But that was Arthur, and he wasn't here. It was up to Merlin.

Merlin had elected not to threaten the MPs with the letters. Nor had he blackmailed them. People reacted unpredictably to that sort of thing.

Instead, he had opted to go for the most subtle route of all: uncovering their secrets and reminding these people that no matter how well hidden or how much money they'd spent in bribes, no secret remained secret for long.

A surprising number of the elected Members of Parliament were descended from people who were classified as supernaturals according to the MRA's latest revision to have been passed as law. Even more were related to, or had married, someone who was Registered. Some of them were even Registered themselves. Of those who didn't have that connection, well, that was where Merlin had opted to use the poker skills he'd refined during his years playing poker with first-years at uni.

He bluffed.

There was a risk associated with what he was doing. Except where the MP was the supernatural, Merlin had been careful not to name names, nor give enough information that they would be able to suss out the identity of the person staining their family name. And, with some help from Morgana, he'd added a non-threatening threat reminding them that all members of the supernatural community, regardless of whom they were related to, were under Merlin's protection. He would protect them or seek restitution if any of them were harmed.

Or worse.

(Arrested. Tortured. Experimented upon. Killed.

Merlin tried not to think about it.)

Merlin waited for the ruckus to die down before he spoke again.

"I trust you'll keep that very important information in mind when you vote." He did a mental run-down through all the points of his speech, decided that he'd covered all the bases, and smiled broadly before clapping his hands. The noise startled the people nearest to him. "Speaking of. I'll let you lot get on with it. Don't worry. I won't peek."

He stepped away from his conjured leather chair, which vanished in a glittering fizz of opalescent light and headed back the way he came. He looked up at the cameras he knew were always recording the inner workings of Parliament, singled out one of them, and winked.

Then, using his ever-growing reserves of magic and ignoring the physical exhaustion hanging from him like a broken limb -- maintaining all that magic for so long was draining -- he stopped time again and disabled the wards.

On the other side of the door were several special assault teams from either the in-house security force, from the Yard or from the military. Merlin didn't know, and he didn't stop to check, mostly because he was breathing through the fright.

His biggest nightmare? This. Opening the door to find a bunch of guns pointed in his face, all for one reason and one reason only: his status as a supernatural.

Since officially outing himself, Merlin's usually average anxiety levels had ramped up, his unnatural restlessness annoyed even him, and the number of sleepless nights had increased. This was the reason why. He'd known from the very beginning that this was one of the dangers that he would need to face when he took on this role -- a role he hadn't even wanted in the beginning but had grown to enjoy -- but imagining it happening had nothing on having to face the real thing.

At least they were frozen. That was one thing less to take care of.

Taking a deep breath, Merlin forced himself to relax. Carefully, he wove through their frozen bodies, lowering the muzzle of their weapons to the ground, and hurried through the cleared corridors and police barricades to get to the exit Gwaine said would lead Merlin right to him.

In theory, Arthur was somewhere offsite, having hacked the security system in the building through the relay that Gwaine had tucked into the mainframe. He would have been monitoring the video feed from the main room, alerted Merlin by text if anything out of the ordinary would have happened, and kept track of Merlin's movements. Since Merlin's ability to stop time was a localised happenstance --

(More to do with taking himself out of time, rather than actually stopping time, but this was no time for a physics argument.)

-- Arthur would see the moment when Merlin vanished from the video feed and proceed to unlock the emergency doors on the outside of the building.

An easy disguise over his clothes and facial features would protect him against immediate identification, so he cast that spell a second before he stepped outside. He didn't drop the time-freeze magic until he was as far as he could get without trembling from the sheer effort of maintaining the spell at a distance, glad that all the magic he'd been using of late had helped his overall endurance and strength. He was nearly at the meet-up point a few blocks on the other side of the bridge when he became aware of the hubbub on the other end.

Grinning to himself, but careful not to look around, he ducked into the tiny parking lot of an even tinier deli restaurant, and slid in the back seat of the nondescript navy blue compact.

"Took you long enough," Will groused from the front passenger seat. He looked over his shoulder, did a double-take at the illusion covering Merlin's features, and sniffed the air to reassure himself that Merlin was indeed Merlin, and not an old, grey man with a long beard who happened to think the back seat of an occupied car was a good spot to take a nap.

Gwaine glanced at Merlin in the rear-view mirror, but unlike Will, he wasn't the least bit perturbed by his appearance.

"I can tell you've been wasting away waiting for me," Merlin said, gesturing toward the crumpled up take-away wrappers on the floor next to him. "You didn't grab me a sarnie, did you? I'm starving."

"Saved the best for last," Will said, handing a paper bag over his shoulder. Gwaine snorted, and when Merlin unwrapped the sandwich, he saw why -- it had been completely picked clean of anything resembling meat, and all that was left was limp lettuce, questionable tomato, and soggy bits of cheese.

"Ta," Merlin said, as sarcastically as possible, and smacked Will on the back of his head. He ate the sandwich anyway. He was too hungry to be picky.

No one spoke as Gwaine pulled out of the parking lot. Will fiddled with the radio, but was otherwise preternaturally aware of their surroundings, scanning the area as if checking for an invader in his territory. Merlin had thought it was overkill to have the two of them around to pick him up, but Arthur had insisted.

("I thought you trusted Gwaine," Merlin said, a little confused by Arthur's refusal to let Gwaine be the only one to pick him up. He was equally confused by his own attempt to redeem Gwaine in Arthur's eyes, because he was invested in Arthur, damn it, no matter how many times he lied to himself about it.

"The only thing I trust about Gwaine is how bloody lazy he is," Arthur said, glancing up from the papers strewn across the kitchen table. He nudged one of the take-away Styrofoam platters out of his way and wrote something down in code. "I'm not convinced he's not spying on us for MI5, keeping mum until whenever he's up for his next promotion. But I know he'll do whatever he can to make sure that he has the least amount of work to do, now and in the future. As long as he's convinced that by doing W, he'll avoid having to do X, Y, Z, I don't doubt he'll do what we ask him to do."

"Then why --"

"He talks the talk, he walks the walk. He's got the access we don't have and the skills to fake it when he doesn't," Arthur said, leaning back in his chair with a sigh. He pushed the frames of his glasses up his nose and dropped his arm. "But the one thing I don't trust him with is you. That's why Will is going. You're part of Will's pack. He'll make sure you're safe."

"Oh," Merlin said. He nodded. "All right. I suppose that makes sense."

It wasn't until he'd noticed the way the tips of Arthur's ears had pinked up that he wondered if he'd missed something important. Arthur didn't mention it again, though, and Merlin quickly forgot about it.)

Currently, they were making use of Gwaine's MI5-sponsored driving skills. The car slowed down for traffic, and Merlin stopped in mid-bite to take a curious look around. There were hordes of people heading toward Parliament, and, while that wasn't unusual of itself, it was neither the height of tourist season, and most of the people were visible supernaturals.

"Um. What's going on?"

"Been happening for a while," Gwaine said, speaking for the first time since Merlin joined them in the car. "I took a walk while we were waiting for the speeches to finish, and there's been a pilgrimage ever since."

Merlin stared at the side of Gwaine's head. Very slowly, as if to a very small child or to one of his more vexing students in uni, Merlin said, "That's nice. Doesn't answer my question."

"Swing over the bridge, why don't you?" Will said, staring down at something on his phone.

Gwaine shot an odd look in Will's direction. "We're supposed to be going away. Not toward."

"He'll be asking about it until he sees it for himself, I guarantee you. You don't want to be on the wrong side of Merlin when he's nagging you for something. Best to do it right now, get it over with, or you'll pay for it later," Will said, frowning a little at his phone. In an undertone, he muttered, "Oh, found it."

"But --"

"Just do it," Will said, twisting in his seat to look at Merlin. "And make the car look funny for a second, why don't you? Camouflage our faces from the cameras, while you're at it."

"Maybe if you'd gotten me a better sarnie," Merlin grumbled, but he did what he was told just as Gwaine turned the corner.

And there they were. A crowd of them. A growing crowd of them. Enough to nearly completely stop traffic to an utter standstill. All the people lined along the pavement, and some of them were holding up signs.

Keep Calm Dr M is Here

The Only Evil Overlords are Good Overlords

I'm the Princess, You're the Dragon, Dr. M is my Knight

"Jesus Christ," Merlin said, eyes wide.

"That's not the half of it," Will said, grinning. He shoved his mobile into Merlin's hands. "I took this one earlier."

It was a photograph of a woman walking down the street, dressed as skimpily as the weather would allow. She was carrying a sign that said, "Dr. M for PM."

 

 

Arthur distributed three overpriced coffees, four scones of questionable provenance, and four bacon butties from the shop down the street. He pushed the extra scone and breakfast sandwich in Merlin's direction before Morgana could get her filthy claws on them, and prompted, "So?"

In a competition geared toward exaggerated eye-rolls, Morgana would likely place as a top three contender. This latest attempt, however, didn't impress the French or Russian judges very much, because they gave her a low score for adding an exasperated sigh into the mix.

"Can't I have a coffee in peace before you start asking questions?" Morgana asked.

Merlin snorted.

"No," Arthur said, ignoring Merlin. "We may have doomed Merlin to a life of political intrigue. We don't want that, do we?"

"I'll wither," Merlin said, around his bacon butty. "I'll die," he added, a bit more dramatically.

Morgana's second attempt at the eye-roll gold medal was only marginally better, but her previous scores hurt her. If she were lucky, she would place in the top ten. Still, she didn't answer them, opting instead to shrug a shoulder and to cup her extra-large double-shot espresso with extra cream, caramel, and sugar as if it were a lifeline.

"You look rested," Arthur said, instead of another prompt, even though it was a prompt, of sorts. He'd learned a long time ago that Morgana responded more favourably to compliments and positive reinforcement than insults or harassment. However, he was her brother, and therefore, was contractually bound to be an arse whenever he felt like it, so his version of brotherly positive reinforcement fell far short of the required mark.

The third attempt at the Eye-Roll medal belly-flopped spectacularly, the crowd Ooh-ohhhh-ing sympathetic disappointment when the triple-loop of irritation resolved into the flat glare of doom. The judges awarded zeroes to Morgana across the board, and the announcer wished her the best of luck in her training for the next competition in four years.

"I realise you don't like talking about it," Merlin said, already doing better at soothing Morgana's ruffled feathers than Arthur had ever managed in his entire life, "But I -- Arthur and I, I mean, we think that the more information we have up front, the more chances we have of making sure it doesn't happen. Or, rather, since it's a fixed temporal event, that its effects on you aren't half as bad."

Morgana eyed him warily, broke off a piece of her scone, and nibbled at it.

Merlin rubbed his face with his hands, and, instead of making another attempt to convince her to hurry up and tell them something, reached for and unwrapped another bacon butty.

If there was something Arthur was good at, it was recognising the signs of sleeplessness. Morgana had mastered all the cover-up tricks when she was young and Arthur, in self defence, had learned to see beyond that. She did look well-rested, which hinted that the nightmare-visions weren't anywhere near as bad as usual. That was a good sign. On the other hand, Merlin didn't know any make-up tricks as far as Arthur was aware, and he hadn't bothered to cast a glamour to hide the dark bags under his eyes or the sluggishness of his movements. That was not a good sign.

Rather than draw attention to Merlin, though, he nudged Morgana's leg pointedly, leaned back in his seat with his coffee, and watched Merlin demolish the second sandwich with the speed of a starving man who hadn't seen food in weeks and had no restraint left, whatsoever.

Arthur pretended that he didn't notice when Merlin stared at Arthur's own, untouched breakfast sandwich. He wasn't that hungry, and he knew Morgana only ever had coffee for breakfast, anyway. He'd gotten the food for Merlin.

"It... did change," Morgana eventually said, but only after she was halfway through her coffee and had picked all the blackcurrants out of the scone.

All four butty wrappers were crumpled up in front of Merlin, three of the four scones had vanished, and Merlin was making a good start at picking up the crumbs in front of Morgana. He looked up at Morgana quickly and asked, "How?"

"It's still going to happen. Not as soon as the last set of visions, but not as vaguely later like the original. A few weeks? Months? I don't know," Morgana said.

Merlin grunted, but didn't push for more. Arthur might have more experience dealing with Morgana in the aftermath of a vision, but Merlin was the one who understood the metaphysical process of clairvoyance and how it worked with temporal theories. Merlin had tried to explain it to him, once, but it had only hurt Arthur's head. Arthur was willing to accept that, if Merlin didn't push for more details, the odds were there were no details to be had.

But details were what they needed, so Arthur was the one who pressed, "You didn't happen to notice anything out of the ordinary in the background? Something that would give us a time frame?"

This time, the eye-roll was a case of too little, too late. It was spectacular, even according to the Russian and French judges. But it barely moved Morgana up the rankings, so it was wasted effort.

"I'd tell you if I noticed," Morgana snapped.

"And sometimes you say you don't notice things," Arthur retorted.

"If you don't sort yourselves out, I'm leaving," Merlin said wearily, already getting up. His backpack was near the door for a quick get-away, and Arthur huffed quietly, because he'd put a lot of effort in establishing a safe house that Merlin had, thus far, refused to use. He wouldn't be half as upset if Merlin would simply settle down and stay. Right there, with Arthur, in particular.

"I don't know what to tell you," Morgana said, throwing up her hands. "I still can't see all the people in it clearly, but I can tell they're different because they're not wearing the same thing as they did before. They're not armed in the same way. It's not a rainy day -- maybe a gloomy one, or maybe it's earlier in the morning before the rain. How am I supposed to tell? It's not like there's a big clock hanging on the wall in my dream, right next to the calendar with a big red circle on the bloody date."

"Then, let's simplify," Merlin said, sitting down heavily. He rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a notebook and a pen, even though there were plenty of those scattered around Arthur's bolthole. "Tell us all the details you remember from the original vision. Then all the details you remember from the changed version. And finally, go through the newest vision. Process of elimination, and we'll figure out what kind of threat we're facing."

Morgana was tight-lipped for a very long time, but when she saw Merlin wasn't budging an inch despite his exhaustion, she turned to Arthur, as if hoping for reprieve. Arthur held up his hands in the air -- He's the boss, he tried to tell her -- but she scoffed in response. Arthur twisted his palms up in a half-shrug -- Okay, fair, I'm the boss, but he's the actual boss here -- and Morgana rolled her eyes again. But it was so pathetic that clearly the UK was out of the running for that elusive eye-roll medal, and she was settling for having fun.

Three hours, several coffees, and two soggy delivery pizzas later, Morgana's Louboutins had been kicked off, Merlin was a little unhinged, and Arthur was enraptured and entertained, because he'd never seen Morgana so thoroughly discombobulated by an opponent. Every time she attempted to avoid the issue, Merlin dragged her back on topic, his questions increasingly piercing. Whenever she tried to dodge the interrogation with philosophical meanderings about visions and hazy crystal balls, Merlin would pin her with an unimpressed look that reminded Arthur of his dour-faced, take-no-shite professors in uni, and gave her a sharp, short lecture on the theoretical metaphysics behind psychic clairvoyance and magical clairvoyance, and made her answer the damn question.

"All right. This isn't fucking working," Merlin said, slamming down his notepad. His notepad was full of scribbles and symbols Arthur couldn't identify, not even with the proper cryptology key. He tossed his pen down. The pen skittered across the coffee table and rolled off the edge, landing in Morgana's abandoned left shoe.

While Merlin rubbed his face and Morgana sank in her chair in both relief and exhaustion, Arthur got up to make more coffee, because it was going to be a long night.

Between the three of them, they were slowly decimating Arthur's coffee stores. Morgana couldn't survive without caffeine and it was a requirement in her P.A.'s job description that she be fed regularly highly-caffeinated and sugared drinks at appropriate intervals during the day. Arthur was pretty sure that his own blood was mostly red cells, T-lymphocytes, and platelets reinforced by a concoction that included caffeine, theophylline, experimental xanthine alkaloids, as well as some possibly-illegal chemicals that supplemented alertness and mental capacity. Merlin...

Well.

Merlin lived on coffee and tea in equal measure, sometimes mixing the two, and believed that the thick black sludge that solidified in the bottom of a forgotten pot qualified as a meal. Of the three of them, Merlin was likely the one who would demand an IV infusion to keep going, but Arthur was determined that would never happen. Merlin was too gaunt these days, as if he'd been running on fumes since the interview was aired, and couldn't be bothered to eat or sleep.

Arthur opened and closed the cabinet doors, searching for the packet of biscuits he remembered stashing in there, and really wished he'd thought of getting fruit and vegetables before he holed up in his little safe house. Healthy foods made for a healthy Evil Overlord, but the Evil Overlord would have to make do with the sugary-sweet raspberry filling as a temporary substitute.

If they were at his own flat, if they weren't in hiding, then making sure Merlin ate and slept at regular intervals and for the appropriate amounts would be far easier. Merlin's latest appearance in the public eye had only made things worse, security-wise -- everyone was under even more scrutiny than before. In that aftermath of a vote that had barely prevented the bill from going through, there had been a mass round of firings at Parliament, too, mostly the guards, assigned police, and secret agents.

Fortunately, Gwaine was still at MI5, and thoroughly enjoying the chaos. He hadn't even come close to the chopping block, because, apparently, he'd arranged things to make it look like he hadn't even been in London on the day in question. Arthur had been impressed.

(But not impressed enough to agree to a date, much to Gwaine's disappointment, but Arthur suspected Gwaine no longer cared and that his attention was elsewhere, at the moment.)

While Arthur waited for the percolator to finish dripping through the sub-par roast, he went through the apps on his mobile. Every safe house remained secure and Merlin's friends -- their employees -- were currently either sleeping, watching telly, or... jacking off, apparently, and Arthur quickly turned off that feed. The hidden programs in MI5's database were quiet, for now, continuing to provide a low-key feed of whatever high-priority feeds had made the radar.

Twitter continued to trend #EvilOverlordRocks and a new hashtag, #DrMforPM had been making the rounds recently. Tumblr and Reddit had gone crazy with the latest footage from Parliament and there was a new influx of gifs. People were using Facebook as their own personal soapboxes to alternatively praise and condemn Merlin's actions. Fortunately, most of the commentary was positive.

The media was a little late to the game, but it was hard not to get on board with big, breaking news quickly without suffering the consequences -- being left behind in the ratings. Most of the news outlets were putting their own spin on the #DrMInvadesParliament event, with some of the newscasters on the continent or overseas trying to shine the situation in as negative a light as possible. The Russian government was mum on the situation, some Asian governments were cautiously positive toward the concept of an Overlord, but not necessarily an evil one, Australia was experiencing a disastrous forty-five degree heatwave and nobody cared about Evil Overlords unless they were a brand of nice, cold beer, and the United States ...

Arthur took screenshots of the President's Twitter feed. Sooner or later, he was going to make a drinking game, and it would be fantastic, but he'd have to write rules to make sure no one got alcohol poisoning.

At least the majority of the British media empire was neutral toward Merlin's latest appearance, following the lead of Pendragon Unlimited broadcasts. Uther's standing order was to continue to uphold the company mandate, which started with a diplomatic, Fuck the shareholders, segued into, Fuck the board, and ended with, Stir the shite. Anything related to the Evil Overlord was to be reported upon with unbiased respect and fair commentary, and if a reporter, editor, or producer failed to meet that mandate, they would be immediately fired.

Arthur approved. Unfortunately, with Uther gone, the responsibility of firing anyone fell to Arthur. Luckily, since the MRO was also after Arthur -- somehow they were under the impression that because they were related, Arthur was somehow privy to the same information Uther had -- the job of kicking anyone out of the building now fell to Elena.

(Uther, whose original freedom had been recently secured by Pendragon Unlimited's team of cutthroat lawyers using Morgana's input as a representative of EOI, had been detained again shortly after what was becoming widely known as the Parliamentary Filibuster. MRO agents had managed to get a court order to reinstate Uther's contempt of court, because he still hadn't divulged everything that he knew about Dr. M.

Technically, Uther didn't know all that much about Dr. M., but he knew Arthur did. He'd taken Arthur aside, quietly told him, "I'll keep them off the scent for as long as I can," and shoved him toward the door. "Run."

And he'd grinned. That was the last Arthur had seen of his father since his arrest.

The media outlets -- including Pendragon Unlimited's rivals, surprisingly enough -- were in an uproar over the situation, and public opinion was turning more and more against supporting government policies. There was a ridiculously large online petition to Free Uther Pendragon, and Arthur idly wondered whether his father would leverage the current situation into a political career.

He certainly had the cunning for it.)

Satisfied that everything was under control for the time being, Arthur closed all of his applications and put away his mobile. He poured three cups of coffee, tucked the packet of biscuits under his arm, and deftly juggled everything on his way back to the sitting room.

He arrived in time to see Merlin sitting next to Morgana on the sofa. Morgana's eyes were closed, but her brow was pinched as if under great strain. Merlin's eyes were also closed, and his brow was pinched as if deeply troubled. The very tips of his index and middle finger were touching Morgana's forehead, and there was a strange, electrical golden glow around the point of contact.

Concerned, but knowing better than to interrupt any of Merlin's spellwork, Arthur silently and carefully deposited the coffee mugs on the coffee table, and tucked the biscuits out of Morgana's theoretical reach before deciding that they would be safer if he handed them to Merlin, himself.

Whatever Merlin was doing was still ongoing, and after ensuring that neither Morgana nor Merlin were in particular distress, Arthur sat down. Eventually, he grew impatient, sipped his still-steaming tea, and munched on the biscuits.

It wasn't much longer before the glowing golden light faded out of sight. Merlin's hand dropped a second later, lightly brushing Morgana's shoulder before jerking away as if shocked. Morgana's eyes fluttered open, and though she looked more tired and drawn than before, she seemed no different to Arthur than she had several minutes ago.

Merlin, on the other hand...

Merlin's mouth had dropped open. An incredulous look drifted into his eyes, but it quickly hardened into something that Arthur couldn't interpret. He sank back into the couch, shoulders down and slumped, as if he were a marionette and all the strings had been cut. He was absolutely distraught.

Arthur looked between them.

The silence dragged on for a few more minutes before Arthur lowered his coffee, cleared his throat, and asked, "I seem to have missed something."

Morgana blinked owlishly at him. Merlin didn't seem to realise that Arthur had returned to the sitting room and continued to stare off into the distance.

"So, what went on just now?" Arthur asked, gesturing between the two of them and hoping that he didn't sound like a jealous prat.

There was still no response from Merlin, but Morgana shook herself out of it, eventually, and with the ease of many years of practice, sat up straight and schooled her features into her best, Nothing happened, everything's fine mask. She reached for her coffee mug, pointedly ignored Arthur while she sipped her drink and determined whether it was suitable, and shrank into herself the instant she met his eyes.

"Merlin wanted to see the visions for himself," Morgana said, her voice so tiny that Arthur almost wasn't sure he heard her clearly. He leaned forward when she went mute, though her lips were still moving, and barely made out the rest. "He went into my memories of them."

"Ah," Arthur said. He felt rather numb, all of a sudden. He understood Morgana's reaction better, now. Being forced by some otherworldly power to review the same vision of the same event over and over was one thing. Having to view them as they were remembered in memory after trying so hard to forget them? That was quite another. No wonder Morgana was so shaken. Certain details would have stood out more than others, because they were more meaningful to Morgana, and --

Arthur rubbed his eye.

"I didn't know that was possible," he said, his tone as neutral as he could make it. "Would've thought of doing that before."

"He made up a spell," Morgana said, staring into her coffee.

"He made up a spell," Arthur repeated, because, Of fucking course he made up a fucking spell. Merlin was a bloody Evil Overlord. Nothing could stop him if he really wanted to know something, apparently.

Arthur scratched the fading logo on his coffee mug with his finger. He took one slow sip after another until he'd finished topping up his caffeine tank off when he realised it was nearly empty anyway. The silence dragged on while he considered the situation; Morgana drank her coffee with the glumness of someone wishing that there was alcohol in it, too.

"So," Arthur asked, turning to Merlin. "I expect you saw everything?"

Merlin nodded jerkily, but he didn't turn to make eye contact. He still had that stunned, thousand-yard stare, and one of his hands was gripping the couch pillow so tightly that Arthur was surprised the fabric didn't shred.

Arthur glanced at Morgana, who nodded dumbly in confirmation. She brought the coffee to her lips mechanically, only to find that it was empty. She deposited the mug -- an ugly black thing with a sad-looking cat on it that he'd picked up at the pound shop years ago -- on the coffee table. It clinked.

"Well." Arthur cleared his throat.

He tried to convey his annoyance to Morgana. They had had an agreement. No one would know that Arthur would die at The Event. People needed to focus on the important thing, which was not, in this instance, himself.

Arthur was forewarned and forearmed. He could take care of himself. That wasn't what he was worried about. It was how to contain the problem.

Unfortunately, Morgana wasn't making eye contact, so he had to give up on that.

Arthur glanced between Merlin and Morgana. He wasn't sure how he should feel to know that the secret he'd shared with Morgana was suddenly not a secret anymore.

Arthur had no idea how Merlin was taking it, though. Did he believe that Arthur had only thrown in his lot with Evil Overlord, Incorporated so that he could use it and manipulate it to save his own life? Or would he realise that Arthur wasn't so self-absorbed to believe that one man mattered more than the whole, and that Arthur was fighting to make sure the outcome and aftermath of the battle Morgana kept Seeing was the best possible scenario?

Merlin was being rather mum on the subject. Anyway, there was nothing like poking the dragon to find out.

"Do I die in this one, too?" Arthur wondered, because Morgana hadn't wanted to talk about it over the phone, and Arthur hadn't wanted to ask in front of Merlin. But that cat was out of the bag, as it were.

Morgana said nothing, but Merlin exhibited the first sign of emotion Arthur had seen in him since he'd ended the spell. His head whipped toward Arthur, his eyes narrowed, and the flash of gold in them was like a crystal shattering in a million pieces.

That's exactly what the world did, a second later. An uncontrolled burst of sheer power thundered throughout the flat with Merlin as the epicentre. Glass shattered, ceramic crumbled, structural weaknesses in furniture were abruptly revealed. Merlin's coffee spilled through the cracks in the mug even as the mug, vainly trying to stay together, slid down the sloping edge of the coffee table. Arthur's glasses had a clear crack in the right lens. Morgana grabbed at the back of the sofa as it sank beneath her, the windows were all blown out, and Arthur wondered if his ToughBook laptop had been tested against magical earthquakes. Magiquakes?

Arthur cleared his throat and removed his glasses, glad that he'd packed his spares and hoping they were intact, too. "Mer--"

Merlin's eyes flashed again.

"--lin--"

Under most circumstances, Arthur would be concerned when he couldn't hear himself talk. He tried again. "Merlin. Merlin. Mer-lin."

He didn't make a single sound.

"Right, you're in such a strop you don't want to listen to me talk. Brilliant. How am I supposed to calm you down now?"

He saw Morgana talking to Merlin, but it clearly went as well as it had for Arthur, because her hand immediately went to her throat and she looked at Arthur with alarm.

"Shut up. Shut up. Shut up," Merlin snapped, standing abruptly. His hands were in tight fists, he struck himself on the head twice, and he prowled around the flat like he was looking for something to kill. Logically, if Arthur didn't want to die anytime soon, he shouldn't attract any attention. However, since he wasn't fated to die right now, Arthur did the only thing he could do, which was reach for the notepad and pen that had fallen just beneath his chair, and to flip over to a fresh page.

We need to talk, he wrote. He waved the notepad in the air until Merlin looked at it.

"No, we absolutely don't fucking need to talk," Merlin snarled.

At the very least, we should get out of here. There's no way the magiquake escaped notice, Arthur wrote. He held the notebook up. Merlin eventually stopped pacing long enough to read the newest note.

"Magiquake?" Merlin read, his temper temporarily aborted by confusion, but realisation quickly sank in and he added a hearty, "Fuckshite."

Merlin went around the mostly-empty flat, stomping his way in and out of different rooms. Arthur and Morgana exchanged glances, and both of them simultaneously shrugged their shoulders before their unspoken question was answered with a pulsing hum of magic. In a whirlwind of energy, the few items that Arthur had brought along were packed up in a traveling case and deposited at his feet. The pen and notebook were snatched out of Arthur's hands and stuffed into Merlin's bag.

Arthur was fairly certain Merlin's magic was also set to the task of scrubbing the flat clean of any traces of Arthur, Morgana, and Merlin -- it was a trick Merlin had done before, and it saved so much time and effort.

"Let's go," Merlin said curtly, already on his way to the door.

"Merlin," Arthur tried, shouldering his bag in a hurry to join Merlin and Morgana. He still didn't have his voice. "Goddamn it, Merlin."

They headed for the Underground, took the train in silence for several stops, switched lines, disembarked a stops further on, and flagged down three taxis. Morgana climbed into one of the black cabs, though she paused to shoot an apologetic over-the-shoulder glance in Arthur's direction. Arthur let her go alone without worrying about it. Escaping the MRO agents was something she was used to, and she had the talent to help her dodge anyone who dared follow her.

Arthur abandoned the taxi that had been summoned for him, and slid into the third car, joining Merlin in the back seat, dumping his belongings at his feet.

Merlin didn't even seem to notice. He was staring gloomily out of the window.

"Where to, gents?" the cab driver asked, glancing at them in the rearview mirror.

"Just drive for a minute," Arthur said, and angrily elbowed Merlin. Merlin's murder-glare was fantastic, enough to quail the most hardened criminal, but Arthur was annoyed , unimpressed, and done with this shite. He pointed rudely at the driver, who repeated his question.

"Just drive, please," Merlin said, weary and exceedingly polite, the way he was when he'd been battered and defeated.

"It's your quid," the driver said, his tone light-hearted and friendly. He pulled away from the pavement, merging into traffic, but Arthur barely noticed where they were going. His complete attention was on Merlin, who had slumped on the slippery leather bench seat, his head turned away from Arthur while he fiddled idly with a seat belt he didn't bother buckling.

"Merlin," Arthur tried again. He threw up his arms and gave up. If Merlin didn't want to talk, that was fine. If he wanted peace and quiet, that was fine, too. If he wanted to think about what he'd Seen through Morgana's memories, great, that meant, possibly, that Merlin was coming up with a strategy for the future. So, he sat back and waited.

And waited some more.

The cab drove with the late evening traffic in the central area in ever-widening counter-clockwise circles, if Arthur's mobile was any sign. He thumbed through his messages and answered a few more. He checked the security on the flat they'd just left and discovered that it had been invaded by MRO personnel twenty-eight minutes after the magiquake. The servers over at MI5 were abuzz with activity, the Met were on high alert, and everyone seemed keen on capturing the latest Evil Overlord by the end of the evening.

Sighting near Camden, heading there now, Gwaine texted, and the secret radio transmissions, translated to text on Arthur's mobile, confirmed the personnel movement. Arthur relaxed a little bit, since Morgana didn't live in that area, and he and Merlin where nowhere near there. He didn't even have to worry about the taxi driver, who had stopped circling and was taking a large loop around northern London, taking shortcuts through the posh areas.

Eventually, with only the quiet driver and the terrible coldpunk rock music playing through the tinny car speakers for company, Arthur caved. It wasn't that he couldn't talk. It was that Merlin wasn't paying attention at all. Not to him, not to his surroundings, nothing.

So he typed something on his phone and used the text-to-speech function to say, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you."

It was unfortunate that the current Global Settings for the speech option was set on Male Lumberjack, because it had a low, tremulous tremble, almost guttural, and sounded a bit like the donating speaker had gargled with the broken teeth from their chainsaw. Arthur, while he liked to think that he had a nice baritone, had never managed something as deep.

(He might or might not have used this particular voice the last time he threatened someone anonymously. It was surprisingly effective. Arthur would have rather used Morgana's voice, but, for some reason, she didn't want to cooperate with the rather intensive recording process.)

Merlin stared at the phone with an unreadable expression, but Arthur spotted the faint, damning curl at the corner of his mouth, and quickly tapped on his phone. Male Lumberjack said, "Don't judge me."

Merlin snorted. Arthur considered that to be a measure of success.

"Can we talk?" Male Lumberjack said, and Arthur followed that up with his best imitation of Will's puppy dog eyes. With the cracked left lens of his glasses, he probably looked adequately pathetic.

Merlin didn't answer. He turned away instead. After several interminable minutes, Merlin knocked on the Plexiglas partition and said, "Pull over just ahead."

The cab driver came to a stop near a dark, mostly-deserted park. It was a rich enough neighbourhood that security was minimal, because no one ever expected any mischief here. When Merlin got out, Arthur hastily followed him out, tossing a Male Lumberjack-voiced, "Keep the meter running."

The cab driver didn't even seem to notice the voice. He shrugged, said, "It's your quid," again, and turned up the coldpunk rock.

Arthur quickly typed a short speech into his phone while following Merlin toward the park bench at the edge of the pavement, right under the big elm tree that would shadow it heavily during most of the daylight hours. "You can talk now," Merlin said wearily, sitting down.

Arthur paused in mid-type, stopped to glare at Merlin, and held down the delete button until the entire text was gone. As soon as he was done glaring, he wished he hadn't done that, because now he couldn't remember what he'd been about to say.

So, very lamely, he explained the whole situation away with, "I didn't do all this because I expect anyone to save my life. I accepted that I'm going to die a long time ago."

Merlin made a small, strangled sound and covered his face. He shook his head, leaned forward, and clasped his hands, elbows on his knees. As if it weren't dark enough to make it difficult to read Merlin's emotions already. Arthur couldn't make out his expression at all this way.

He stood there, awkward, trying to come up with something else to say. "I thought... I'd have a go at fixing things before I went, that's all."

"That's unacceptable," Merlin said sharply. He didn't look up.

Arthur frowned down at Merlin and scoffed. "That's... that's rich, coming from you and everything you've been trying to do. Just because I decided that I want my death to mean something --"

Merlin surged to his feet and Arthur retreated a step, surprised by how fast Merlin could move when he really wanted to. "You. Dying. That's unacceptable."

"I agree it's not ideal," Arthur said, shrugging half-heartedly. "I'm not happy about it myself. I had plans --"

Plans that went out the window the instant Merlin silenced him with a kiss.

Arthur froze, acutely aware of how they didn't fit together. The clinical part of his brain determined that the angle had been absolutely terrible for an approach. Arthur's nose was squished, his glasses askew, and there was something hard and sharp digging into his chest. He didn't realize it was his mobile until a minute later, after he'd properly categorized all the physical contact points against his body.

Eventually, the rest of him caught up to one very important detail: that it was Merlin who was pressed against him. Of course, he had to come to that conclusion exactly as Merlin started to pull back, and, yes, Arthur agreed wholeheartedly with Merlin's conclusion.

Absolutely unacceptable.

(Except, of course, Arthur was thinking about this precise situation, and Merlin breaking the kiss, rather than the unfortunate knowledge that he was going to die sometime soon, but, well, semantics.)

Where Merlin moved away, Arthur moved toward. Arthur took a step where Merlin leaned back, filling the space between them. His arms wound around Merlin, pulling him close.

Arthur kissed Merlin this time. The clinical part of his brain determined that this was a much better angle, because nothing was inappropriately squished and they fit like puzzle pieces. And then, he stopped fucking thinking, because Merlin was in his arms and it was everything he'd been hoping for.

Merlin's lips were stiff, just as surprised by Arthur's response as Arthur had been by Merlin's kiss. Unlike Arthur, Merlin relaxed almost immediately when he realized what was happening, and his lips softened in welcome.

They held each other. They kissed. It was chaste and innocent and yet somehow desperate and intent, neither deepening nor demanding more, content in the moment.

When they drew away, it was reluctantly, neither one of them stepping back or releasing the other, instead sharing air and an emotion Arthur was afraid to name.

"Now, do you get it?" Merlin asked, his voice broken, and Arthur thought he felt something wet on his cheeks. He wasn't sure if those were his tears or Merlin's. Or if it was raining. "I mean, I kind of guessed something like this might happen, based on what Morgana didn't say and how bloody messed up she is when she tells us about the visions. But it's something completely different to fucking See it for myself --"

Arthur opened his mouth to say something. It might have been along the lines of, I have a plan, don't worry about that, I'll be fine, this isn't the first time I've had to sort out something like this, but Merlin kept talking.

"I have to figure this out. I can't let you die. I don't want you to die. You're not allowed to die."

Arthur wanted to soothe Merlin's growing agitation, but the only words to come to him were the very same time paradox and divergence point and temporal event arguments that Merlin had made. Instead, he bit his tongue and kept his thoughts to himself --

(It's a fixed event, Arthur wanted to say. There's always going to be a battle. I'm always dying. I'm meant to die. But I'm not going to, I promise.)

-- and kissed Merlin's temple.

"We'll figure this out," Arthur said quietly.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

1:1,459,338,200.

Merlin stared at the ratio for a long time. Then, picking up his pen, he wrote it out.

One to one billion, four hundred fifty nine million, three hundred thirty eight thousand and two hundred --

Merlin scowled, erased the sheet of paper, and removed the rounding factor.

-- one hundred, eighty-seven.

Once more, Merlin stared at the numbers for a long time. Writing them out like that didn't make them look better. Getting rid of the rounding only made it worse. He flicked his pen over and over with increasing anxiety until it spun out of his grasp.

The pen arched beautifully in the air, like a ball soaring through the air to reach the goal, and smacked Will on the back of his head.

"Ow," Will said, turning to scowl at Merlin. He promptly turned back and growled at Sefa, "Don't you dare change that channel."

"I wasn't going to," Sefa said quickly, even though she had the remote control in her hand. "You realise that there are better presenters on the other networks?"

"This one's cute," Will said. "Besides, she's new at this. She'll get better."

Merlin glanced at the telly. The on-site reporter was a poised, well-groomed brunette who could, even on her worst day, double as a high fashion catwalk model at the most exclusive venues and design line unveilings. Her makeup was understated, her eyes were bright, and her smile was sweet, but a large part of her charm, at least where Merlin was concerned, was her quick intelligence and her sharp wit.

Arthur had mentioned her briefly a few days ago, as part of the news that Uther would be released from his latest incarceration soon. Mithian St.-Clair was Pendragon Unlimited's latest field reporter after a string of other field reporters proved they didn't have the sang-froid for unstable situations. She'd been promoted from one of the satellite offices in a tiny little community up north not just for her looks or her ability, but because Uther was championing inclusivity.

Mithian was a werewolf, apparently. And also an Alpha, apparently, who was looking to establish her own pack.

Merlin didn't share that little tidbit of information with Will, only a little because he knew Will would have a heart attack before running off to track her down, exposing his throat and bare belly to her in the hopes she would take him on. Mostly, Merlin didn't speak up because he didn't feel like talking, and because he was still staring at the number.

1:1,459,338,187.

It didn't matter how many times Merlin recalculated the data he had on hand, or how many theories he applied in the hopes that another solution was both plausible and possible. There was no changing an incipient event that had such a foothold in fate and temporal dynamics. There was only delaying the inevitable.

He didn't know how to stop Arthur's murder.

The odds were terribly against even making the attempt. The temporal causality effect would come into play, and no matter what they did, the event horizon would continue to drive toward this exact scene, over and over. It was inevitable; Morgana couldn't see anything else but that particular scene, and she was a powerful enough Seer that no amount of measurement uncertainty could influence the ratio in any significant aspect.

Merlin's initial solution had been to keep Arthur away from the battle in question, but he hadn't seen any particular markers in Morgana's memory of the vision to know where it would happen, or more importantly, when. Kidnapping Arthur and relocating him to the outermost reaches of the planet wasn't going to fucking help when both hard science and esoteric magic confirmed that Arthur's presence in the battle was critical. They could try to hide Arthur away forever, but the battle would follow him.

And, besides, Merlin knew Arthur well enough by now that, no matter what, Arthur would not be left out of a critical situation.

He also knew Arthur well enough by now to know that Arthur probably had a PlanTM to save his own arse, but since none of Morgana's visions ever extended much further beyond Arthur falling down to the ground in a heap, there was no knowing if it would work. If Arthur had a PlanTM, he was keeping it to himself, because the more people knew about it, the less chance it had to work.

"Ugh." Merlin said, to no one in particular.

Merlin rubbed his face. He dropped his arms with defeat at the nudge at his elbow, and gratefully accepted the tea from Mordred.

"No luck, then?" Mordred asked. Mordred sat down on the old, worn out sofa next to him.

Merlin shook his head. "I'm out of ideas."

Mordred clicked his tongue sympathetically. Merlin was grateful Mordred didn't try for platitudes -- they wouldn't help right now. Neither would the What-if questions that Sefa lobbed at him earlier -- it wasn't as if she had the background to understand the science, so some of the directions she had gone in bordered on the ludicrous. And, honestly, that annoyed Merlin more than anything, because he was the metaphysicist, damn it, and ludicrous was his specialty.

Still, he appreciated her attempt at helping. He appreciated everyone for trying. He just didn't want to think about the problem anymore.

"Can we start the staff meeting? I have a hot date," Gilli said.

"Ahh --" Will began, only to be cut off by Gilli's pointed finger and angry, "Don't start."

(Knowing Will, he had most likely been about to make a remark about dating fire elementals or salamanders, which, first of all, was speciesist. Mostly it was stupidly ironic, given that Will was a werewolf who had once dated an ifrit on a temporary student visa, years ago. He wasn't one to talk.)

Will shut up and settled on the sofa with a smug look on his face until he sniffed the air, shifted in his seat again, and announced, "The pillows smell like cat pee."

"No, that's just you," Freya said, too quickly. Too innocently. Will gave her a suspicious look.

"Staff meeting?" Gilli prodded again.

"We're not all here," Mordred pointed out.

"Arthur's been delayed. Uther's fresh out of jail, the MRO is sniffing around, he has to be a bit more cautious than usual. You know how it is," Merlin said, rubbing his head. "Lance and Percival are working overtime to finish off one last project before they move to the new building and get it set up properly for us, and anyway, it's safer for them if they're not directly involved with the rest of us for now."

"What about the rest of the staff?" Sefa asked.

"Except for us, we have no staff," Mordred reminded her. He studied her for a second. "Well, except for us, minus you. You're not staff anymore."

"Excuse you, I'm a founding member and a consultant," Sefa said primly. She turned to Merlin. "I thought we were recruiting?"

"We were. We are," Merlin corrected quickly. "It's just been put on hold for now. Can't exactly have interviews when we're half-expecting the MRO agents to kick down the door."

"Or worse, one of the short-listers turns out to be a MRO agent in the first place," Will said distractedly, his eyes still glued on the telly. The volume was turned down, but Sefa must have put on the subtitles.

"Better hurry, though. People are still sending in applications, even though they're past the deadline," Gilli said, head bowed over his tablet. "Do you want numbers?"

"No," Merlin said wearily, waving a hand in the air in protest. "No. Just... Set up an autoreply, swamped with response right now, thanks for your interest, will post updates on the main blog. Then the same thing on the blog, too."

"All right," Gilli said, finger-pecking at his tablet's keyboard.

"If you hired an HR person --" Sefa suggested.

"First thing we'll do, then we'll dump everything else on their laps to deal with, so if you've got suggestions for someone to skip the line, do tell, but for now that's a pin on the board for later," Merlin said. He looked around. "Anyone have anything for staffing issues?"

No one said anything. Merlin fumbled through his notes before remembering that the meeting-specific information was stored in his phone. He found his mobile and opened the agenda Arthur had sent him earlier.

"Payroll," Merlin announced, frowning. "Oh, right. We're on fixed salaries -- except you, Sefa -- hourly wage and X amount of weekly hours. Except we're not doing fixed hours and we're all working overtime on some of this. For the time being, Arthur wants to introduce timesheets, make sure that you get paid for your time. Oh, and expense reports."

"I miss being gainfully employed," Sefa mused, mostly to herself.

"Ugh, paperwork," Freya complained.

"It's overtime pay and compensation for essentials until we can sort out department budgets." Merlin stared at his mobile for a long time. Arthur was the one who knew about these things, who'd already laid the groundwork and had set up a base budget. He was the one who should be talking about it, and that knowledge only sank Merlin in a depression spiral, because Merlin didn't know if Arthur would ever be speaking at staff meetings again.

It made his eyes prickle. He forced himself to keep talking.

"Anyway, Arthur will send out the forms, fill them electronically and send them back, and don't be fucking ridiculous about it. Send them in weekly so that we can stay on top of things, but as long as they're in by end of each quarter you'll be compensated. Miss that deadline and you're shit out of luck. If you've got questions, hold on to them, because Arthur's the one with the answers."

Merlin took a deep breath and pushed on without seeing if anyone would speak up despite the warning.

"Next item are the EOI offices. Arthur has an estate agent looking at a few buildings for us, but until we have regular revenue again, an actual rental won't be on the books."

"I still have dibs for a corner office," Will said.

Arthur wanted a corner office, too. He wanted one on principle, even though...

(Sometimes, it didn't fucking pay to know what was going to happen in the future. Merlin had never wanted to be a clairvoyant or a Seer, but now, he didn't envy clairvoyants or Seers at all.)

"You can have all the fucking corners you want," Merlin snapped. At the deathly silence in the sitting room, Merlin's eyes watered until he couldn't read the text on the phone anymore. He sniffled and wiped his cheeks from the tears that spilled out.

He should apologise. He didn't, because his throat was closed up. He should storm out angrily, but he didn't have the energy. Instead, he accepted the crumpled tissue paper Freya handed over, and blew his nose.

"Someone else take over, yeah?"

Nobody picked up the slack immediately. Everyone turned to Sefa, but she wasn't part of the staff anymore, although she kept in touch with everyone on a regular basis, providing updates about her flower shop and nursery. There wasn't much that she could add to that particular topic that they didn't already know.

Gilli sat up, swallowed noisily, and said, "Right, I've got a few things to talk about, don't I? Finished moving the website to a secure server. That'll stop the government from trying to hack us."

"Huzzah," Freya said, glancing at Merlin cautiously.

"Not that it was a problem before. Between George and Arthur, we're locked down pretty tight," Gilli said.

(They still hadn't convinced George to join the company, but Arthur was working on him.)

"Social media's blown up like crazy, mostly positive; the negatives are just trolls who wish they were you or government asrseholes," Gilli continued, flicking through his tablet. "Still getting job tickets through our old Craigslist email address, there's been a slight drop-off in through our website but that's only because some twat spread a rumour on Reddit about MRO agents monitoring IP addresses to track people. Don't worry, I've taken care of that, we should be back to normal in no time."

He paused, skimmed through his notes, and hummed to himself.

"Like I said earlier, job applications are still coming through, but I'll sort it like we talked about." He broke into a big grin. "You'll never guess who applied -- Edwin Muirden. Remember that bloke, Merlin? Keep stealing your books, turning the professors against you, trying to steal your research to present it as his own? He was such an all-around nice guy."

Merlin snorted, but he didn't look up. He was too busy wiping the tears out of his eyes, which wasn't helped by Mordred, who was rubbing his back comfortingly.

"I'm guessing he's an automatic no," Gilli said. "Can I reject him?"

"Let Merlin burn him," Mordred said. "It'll make him feel better. Plus, it's not like it'll really hurt him. But a few fireballs..."

"Damn it. Spoilt my fun. Good job," Gilli said, though his tone was light. He continued through his notes. "There's so much chatter on the blog posts that I had to expand the user database and how the site handles the comments. I'm thinking we need to add a forum, let people have their own chats in their own space. What do you think?"

He looked around. No one answered. Merlin couldn't find it in him to even process moving forward without Arthur there to cast his vote. How the fuck was he going to manage without Arthur after... after?

"Right," Gilli said, after a prolonged silence. "I'll table that for later."

He hummed quietly, skimming through his tablet, and made a sudden, Oh sound.

"Almost forgot. I've been monitoring the responses on your work, you know, the stuff you posted about Ground Zero? A lot of the comments are clear rubbish, even I can tell that. But there was a comment a couple of days ago that redirected most of the trolls. The poster suggested that the data might point toward an exposed ley line? Maybe a damaged one." Gilli looked up, then. "I don't know. Does that make sense to you?"

Merlin looked up, then, his brows furrowed. He felt Mordred shift on the sofa next to him, and turned to meet his eyes. Mordred had the same thoughtful look on his face.

"It's possible --"

"That's impossible --"

They looked at each other. Mordred was the one who broke the silence first. "If it was an exposed ley line, the area would be saturated with wild magical energy. Instead, it's practically a no-supernatural zone, and not only because everyone got the fuck away from there as soon as they could. I worked at a clinic on the edge of the grey area around it, but had to leave. It's either blocking or sapping energy, because I couldn't even use my magic after a while."

Merlin held up a finger, wagging it as he thought about it. He didn't have to think very far. He remembered the weird sensations from Ground Zero where not even air seemed to move. He remembered the glow at the bottom of the crater, strange and unnatural but beautiful and vivid, pulsating like a heartbeat. He remembered the juxtaposition of not being able to use his magic, but being able to feel it, live and aware, thrumming under his skin.

As if it were a living thing.

As if it were a living thing.

He had a counter-argument for Mordred, if only he could put it into words. A few seconds passed before he could translate the images and mathematical equations in his head to something that resembled English. "If it's a ley line that was unearthed by a negavoid bomb, and it's exposed to the residual radiation of the negavoid bomb --"

Mordred clearly wasn't following, if the deep frown on his brow was any sigh. It didn't matter, because Merlin ran out of words and scrambled for another way to explain.

Desperately, Merlin grabbed Mordred's shoulder, jarring his arm so much that tea sloshed out of his cup and onto the sofa, and said, "No, think about it this way. If someone gets a deep cut on their arm and they don't seek medical help, what do they do?"

"They bleed out," Mordred said flatly, brushing his jeans even though the tea had already soaked through. "If they survive, maybe they get an infection. Gangrene. They'll lose their arm."

"Right," Merlin said, and added, "And if it was a supernatural creature that was hurt?"

"They'd heal. Well. Mostly. They can't help it, it's in their blood to do anything to stay alive," Will volunteered, excitedly. He pointed his thumbs against his puffed-up chest. "See? I'm paying attention."

Merlin exchanged glances with Mordred again. This time, he could tell that Mordred had caught onto his theory. Out of anyone in the group, he was the one more likely to understand the metaphysical aspect of a situation, even if only in layman's terms. He might not know where Merlin might be going with this, but Merlin was hoping that Mordred would come to the same conclusion on his own, in the hopes that his idea wasn't as far-fetched as he thought it was.

Then the lights turned on in Mordred's eyes, and he grimaced.

Very slowly, Mordred allowed, "Well, it's possible."

"How possible?" Merlin pressed, aware that Sefa, Freya, and Gilli were watching them oddly. Will had turned back to the telly.

"Had an interesting conversation with Gaius about two months ago, maybe longer. About ley lines and interaction with human souls?"

Merlin's eyes narrowed. He vaguely remembered Mordred animatedly recounting that conversation around the dinner table, but could recall none of it. Most likely, Merlin had been too busy working out the Ground Zero problem in the first place. "Sure," Merlin said, "But tell me like I don't remember anything."

Mordred snorted, seeing through him easily. Still, he humoured Merlin and said, "It was about druidic sacrifices in the heyday. You know all those bog bodies they keep finding? Gaius' has the idea that they were sacrificed to feed flagging ley lines or to rejuvenate dormant ley lines. Likewise, he believes that the ley lines, when at full strength, could bring the very sick or injured back from the brink of death. But he can't prove it because --"

"Because ley lines keep shifting, and nobody's mapped ley lines against finding bog bodies," Merlin said, making the connection even though he remembered none of the dinner table discussion. "So, feed the ley lines, draw energy from the ley lines? That's the idea?"

"Hedge witches," Will supplied suddenly. He tilted his head back to look at them. "No real nascent power of their own, right? Most of their rituals and spell work are based on pulling magic from the land around them."

Everyone stared at him.

"What?" Will said, affronted. "I listen."

Everyone stared at him some more.

"Fine," Will said, deflating somewhat. "I dated a witch. Shut up."

Mordred snorted.

"But he's on to something, whatever that is," Gilli piped up. "I've always lived close to places where I could feed from strong magical energies. Never thought about it in terms of ley lines, honestly. You don't count, though. Sorry, Merlin."

"Ta," Merlin said, certain that he had been insulted, but not sure how.

"Dryads cluster close to ley lines," Sefa offered quietly, almost shyly. Merlin made eye contact with her, wondering if this was when she revealed herself for what she truly was. Instead, she went on and said, "And nymphs like rivers that follow ley lines."

As disappointed as he was that Sefa continued to hide herself from her friends, Merlin couldn't fault her. And anyway, he was more interested in what it all meant. No supernatural lived close to Ground Zero. Not anymore. Not for a long time.

Ground Zero had been blocked off because of the very same radiation alert that Merlin hadn't been able to detect until he'd travelled as close to the crater as he could get. As far as he was concerned, the negavoid radiation was below harmful levels. What had happened to the radiation?

Immediately, Merlin wanted to know how many more supernaturals moved away from the area surrounding Ground Zero over the years. His gut told him that if they plotted it out over a map by year, he'd get an ever-widening concentric ring.

He stood up slowly, a sick feeling sinking in the bottom of his stomach.

"Merlin?" Will asked, his voice low and serious, the telly abandoned despite showcasing Mithian St.-Clair to her best profile. "You've figured it out, haven't you?"

"I need to do the math," Merlin said, wringing his hands.

"What's going on, Merlin?" Mordred asked, putting his tea on the floor and standing up, too. "What are you thinking?"

"I'm not sure what I'm thinking," Merlin said, running a trembling hand through his hair. He tried for a reassuring smile, but failed miserably.

"I'm really scared," Freya whispered.

"I don't care if you're not sure. Just tell us," Will said. Merlin blinked at him -- when did Will get up? Why was he so close?

"Um," Merlin said, his eyes falling on Freya. Her eyes were big and round, and he thought he could feel her emotions until he realised that he was scared, too. Pretty fucking terrified, actually. He spread his hands, chuckled nervously. "It's like this. What happens if you feed too much power to an active transformer being used to power homes?"

Nobody spoke. Freya exchanged glances with Sefa. Will made a curious noise. Mordred crossed his arms, eyebrows furrowed, and Merlin had no idea what Gilli was doing, because Will was standing in the way.

"Eventually, the transformative capacity of the receiving line can no longer self-regulate," Arthur said from the doorway.

Will jerked way with a startled growl. Sefa gasped with surprise. Mordred turned around, the calmest of the lot, because he was the one who'd watched Merlin set the wards around the decrepit flat. They'd have been alerted if the anyone with bad intentions approached the temporary safe house, and, of course, there was no way Merlin would stop Arthur from coming in, no matter his mood.

He wasn't alone, though. For whatever reason, Gwaine had tagged along, and he was looking over Arthur's shoulder into the living room.

Merlin looked at Arthur, his heart thumping hard against a painful twist. If he was right, and he wouldn't make any broad statements until he was absolutely certain, the negavoid bomb, which had damaged and exposed one of the ley lines running under London, had left behind enough residual negavoid radiation to feed negative energy to a ley line desperate for some sort of sustenance that it could use to heal itself.

Except, instead, the ley line was being poisoned by power that it wasn't equipped to handle.

"Yeah," Merlin said quietly. "That's about the sum of it."

"But what does that mean?" Sefa asked.

Merlin looked at Arthur. He was already miserable knowing that Arthur would inevitably die, if Morgana's visions were to be believed. He was afraid to put hope into whatever Arthur's PlanTM, because it would break Merlin if it failed. Ultimately, it didn't matter. Even if Merlin figured out how to extricate Arthur's fate from the temporal event, Arthur would die, anyway.

They all would.

Arthur knew that, too, because he looked a little green.

"It's pretty simple, sweetheart," Gwaine said, pushing past Arthur to get into the sitting room, "London's sitting on a bomb."

He tilted his head and grimaced.

"Was kind of hoping that wasn't the case, but the tea room rumours are hard to ignore. That's why I came by."

Merlin buried his face in his hands, because the news could have been broken a little more gently than that, and waited for the blowback. Surprisingly enough, no one reacted, and Merlin sincerely hoped t it was because they'd been struck dumb by the news than for some other, inexplicable reason that he couldn't come up with.

Gilli was the one who broke the silence. "This is a staff meeting. You're not staff."

"Excuse you, I'm a consultant," Gwaine said. Merlin shot a glance at Arthur, but Arthur only rolled his eyes and shrugged, making a gesture that Merlin could only interpret (hopefully correctly, this time) as, Play along.

"You better not get paid more than I do," Will said.

"If I did, I wouldn't tell you," Gwaine needled, crossing the sitting room.

Gwaine made room for himself on the sofa by plopping down half on Merlin's lap and half on Mordred's, but since Merlin was nestled against the arm, there wasn't much of anywhere that he could move. Mordred grunted, squeezed out from under Gwaine's surprisingly considerable weight, given his size, and muttered something unpleasant and unflattering about jocks and muscleheads.

"Anyway, all this?" Gwaine asked, gesturing at Merlin and reaching out for the papers on his lap. He'd snatched away a good portion of it before Merlin had the good sense to react and to protect his research, but by that point, Gwaine was already reading through them, making thoughtful noises.

Arthur wrenched the papers out of Gwaine's hand, smacked him on the head with them, and handed them back to Merlin without looking at them. Merlin quickly and gratefully put them away, only slightly mortified that Arthur had glanced at the math that determined the odds of Arthur's successful survival given the temporal parameters Merlin had been able to suss out from Morgana's vision.

"Budge over," Arthur said. Exasperated, Mordred got up and claimed a spot on the same sofa as Will and Freya, and there was a bit of a tussle between Arthur and Gwaine before Gwaine decided that the better part of valour was getting out of Arthur's way, and Arthur sat down next to Merlin.

Merlin stared at Arthur's thigh where it touched his own leg with the warmth of a thousand suns. That was the only excuse for his distraction, but he eventually tuned in onto whatever it was that Gwaine was saying with broad gestures and nonsense words.

"... and that's part of the reason I'm here."

"You smell weird," Will said, tilting his head in puppy-like confusion.

"He feels weird," Mordred agreed, but he didn't seem all that bothered about it.

Will, on the other hand, studied Gwaine for a few more moments before turning to the telly again, but his hackles were up, and he was paying attention.

Gilli stared intently at Gwaine before turning to Arthur. "Translation, please?"

"There's some interesting activity at Ground Zero," Arthur said, his tone tinged with amusement. He took off his glasses, squinted at the lens, held them up to the light, and fished out a piece of microfiber with which to clean them. He didn't continue until he was satisfied, and Merlin left him to it, knowing Arthur had a tendency to hide the fact that he was thinking with this particular mannerism. "An unit of army engineers has been assigned to the site. A few lorries full of construction material drove through the gates a few hours ago."

"That's why you're late?" Sefa asked, catching on.

"That's why I'm late," Arthur said, gesturing toward Gwaine. "Our... consultant advised me of unusual activity in the sector, which I felt merited further investigation, particularly given the data Merlin collected at the site and the implications that came with them."

"But he's not really staff," Gilli said, unable to get past that hurdle.

"Does he really make more than me?" Will asked, turning to Merlin.

Merlin was too busy rubbing circles against his temples to have the energy to handle his mates. They could be such fucking children, sometimes. He tuned out the argument and didn't pay attention again until Arthur elbowed him gently in the ribs.

"Here. Take a look."

Merlin looked, but had no idea what he was looking at. The first glance only revealed some sort of fancy photography that Merlin didn't immediately place as satellite images until he took note of the scale on the bottom of the page. It took him a minute to locate a few landmarks, and as he went through the short stack of printouts again, he realised they were increasing magnifications of a site that no one had been able to access in just slightly more than twenty years.

"Where did you get these?" Merlin asked absentmindedly.

Although the government didn't strictly regulate certain satellite images and there was no technical reason to do so for captures of London, no one, regardless of their scientific background, security clearance level, or Registration status, had been able to get their hands on overhead images that would better detail the damage wrought by the negavoid bomb.

Merlin could feel Arthur giving him one of his patented raised-eyebrows, scornful looks, and pointedly did not look up. Instead, he focused on the date stamps, which were all less than an hour ago, and the fact that the most zoomed-in image showed a long, wide structure with diaphanous material completely covering the crater with the exposed ley line.

"Shite," he said, to no one in particular about nothing in particular, because this was bad.

Very bad.

There was no reason for the government to be so interested in the site when they'd long let it lay fallow following their own investigations shortly after the Sigan Incident. That meant that they'd figured out for themselves what was going on, and when it came to the government, there was no telling what they would do with this information.

The government probably had some sort of specialist -- an old and doddering metaphysicist lucky enough to still be on the government payroll, preparing for their retirement years in the relative comfort of a pension that was only plush because they'd bought into it early on -- who explained what it all meant.

It was easy enough to imagine the metaphysicist wading through whatever data had originally been acquired, and to dutifully plug in the new data from the government stiffs that Tristan and Isolde said came by all the time to take measurements of some sort or another. Maybe the metaphysicist didn't know what they were looking at, because despite their impressive curriculum and number of additional letters attached to their names, they themselves weren't in any way associated with the supernatural, what with being a government employee and all.

Possibly, just possibly, the nameless, faceless, unknown, most likely completely non-existent metaphysicist would have Googled a few terms, clicked around on a few links, and stumbled upon the paper that Merlin had posted to the Evil Overlord Inc. blog.

Possibly, bordering on definitely, Merlin might have contributed to the government having information that they shouldn't have, and, well..

(Fuck.)

This wasn't the solution that Merlin had been hoping for in the How-to-Save-Arthur dilemma. It was worse. It was the fucking trigger.

Merlin didn't want to deal with sorting out whatever it was that the government was about to do. He had more important things to do.

(Like sorting out How-to-Save-Arthur.)

Merlin sighed a heavy sigh and slumped, sinking deeper in the worn-out pillows of the second-hand couch. He rubbed his forehead some more, because he couldn't think with all these problems battering at his brain for attention, and decided that he really, really needed a drink. Preferably something stronger than tea.

Merlin looked around in search of alcohol, because of the usual culprits, surely Will would have brought a six-pack over for the post-meeting wrap-up, and stilled, suddenly acutely aware of everyone's eyes on him. "What?"

"Mate," Will said, pointing in his direction, "When did that happen?"

Half-expecting to discover that he'd somehow set himself on fire, Merlin glanced down, but didn't immediately spot anything untoward. The only thing that wasn't quite normal was the weight of Arthur's arm around his shoulders, his fingers rubbing at the nape of his neck. At right that moment, Arthur's thumb found the knot in his neck, pressed just so, and Merlin moaned.

Freya giggled.

"Um," Merlin said, trying for innocent and knowing he was failing miserably, given how hot his cheeks were. He stood up abruptly, breaking free of Arthur's hold, ignoring the curl of amusement on Arthur's lips, and decided the only way out of this was through. He clapped his hands together and said, "All right, folks. Gilli, track the downloads on that paper we posted to the blog, see if you can find out who in the government got access to it. Not that we can do much about it now, but I want to know how much they know.

"Mordred, Sefa, I need the two of you get me an updated map for the leylines. I want to figure out how bad this is going to get. Freya, move the Hellhounds and start relocating all of the other creatures. Will, work with your contacts to get an evacuation plan."

Merlin turned to Arthur and Gwaine. "You two..."

"Don't say it," Gwaine warned, eyes round with alarm. "There's no way we'll get through --"

"Find a way," Merlin said. "We need to get back to Ground Zero."

 

 

"That's number thirty-four," Gwaine announced unnecessarily.

"Thirty-seven, actually. You missed the guard who stepped out for a fag," Arthur said, adjusting his binoculars. They were stereographic, and had more depth perception than Gwaine could get with the flattened view through the standard-issue models.

Besides Arthur, Merlin stirred. He said something that was both muffled and indiscernible until Arthur nudged his shoulder repeatedly. Merlin returned to the world of the living -- though he clearly had one foot somewhere in the metaphysical realm -- and took the pencil out of his mouth. "Forty-two. There's five more in the bunkhouse. No sign of Aredian, though."

"You're not even looking," Gwaine complained. "How are you doing that?"

"Magic," Merlin said. "Can I borrow someone's mobile? I need another calculator."

"Right arse cheek," Arthur said, flushing a little and grinning a whole lot when Merlin, too absorbed in his work to notice what he was doing, blindly fondled his arse to fish out his phone. He caught Gwaine looking between the two of them with a disgusted look on his face.

"At least let me get in on that," Gwaine whined.

"No. Not on your life. Never. Won't happen," Merlin said, decisively, his tone brokering no argument or negotiation, and returned to his calculations.

Arthur laughed, unable to help himself, and watched Merlin fondly for a few minutes. He wasn't entirely sure how Merlin could operate in that strange mode of partial detachment -- aware of some things, but not others, remain capable of responding to both. Or several, as the case might be, because as far as Arthur could tell, Merlin was working on several different things at once.

Foremost on the radar was the situation at the negavoid Ground Zero. Gilli had tracked down the government IP addresses that had accessed and downloaded Merlin's paper, handed the information to Arthur, who delegated it to the still-elusive knob-obsessed George, who in turn winnowed down the IP address to specific desktops and identified their users. Gwaine, because he'd been in everyone's hair at the time, had been given the task of finding out who might have taken the paper seriously, or understood the implications, and to find out whom else that person might have told.

Interestingly enough, except for Arthur's old supervisor at MI5, no one in Her Majesty's service had actually paid any attention to Merlin's meticulous work. Half of it had to do with not being able to understand the high-level mathematics that Merlin had used in his paper, but mostly, without Arthur there to stem the flow of work, his former department was woefully behind on evaluating the threats flagged by another division.

His old supervisor had tagged it, Worth investigating, but there was no record of it going anywhere else. As far as Arthur could tell, no one in MI5 was aware of the threat rumbling under the surface of Ground Zero, and they weren't the ones instigating the increase of armed forces personnel on-site.

Gilli, however, noticed a certain individual had accessed the EOI website on a spurious, but too-frequent basis, which stank to Arthur as obsessive behaviour. George discovered that this particular intruder was some bloke who was a highly-disliked former classmate of Merlin's, and, when Arthur arranged to meet him, he understood why they were highly-disliked in the first place.

(Arthur had borrowed Elena to man the front desk of the seventh floor of a building that was still partially furnished despite having gone into bankruptcy. It had been perfect given the minuscule amount of time he'd had to set things up. He still remembered how Elena's voice had been sickly-sweet and pleasant when she'd escorted Muirden to the glass-walled conference room, guiding him inside.

"Good luck at your interview, Mister Muirden," she said.

"It's Doctor Muirden," Muirden snapped, already making a good impression.

"Let me know if you need me to validate your parking, Mister Muirden," Elena said, all smiles, and when the door closed on Muirden's face, the smile vanished from her face. She mouthed, Wanker, and jerked her hand up and down in the air as she walked away. Muirden didn't even notice.

Arthur, struggling not to laugh, leaned over the table to shake Muirden's hand and to invite him to sit. He moved to the perfect position to watch Muirden's expression when Merlin, who had been sitting in the big leather chair at the head of the large conference table, executed the perfect Evil Overlord chair swivel to face Muirden with a small, serene smile.

The sound of Muirden's jaw falling to the floor had been priceless.

Before Merlin could even say, "So, still up to your old tricks, yeah? Steal someone's research, pass it on to someone else in the hopes that it'll make you look good?", Muirden burst into tears and begged for mercy.

The poor sod had indeed passed Merlin's Ground Zero research as his own during a government interview for a metaphysicist position, using faked credentials and someone else's unregistered Registration status. Aredian, it seemed, had been on the interview panel, and had asked Muirden to explain the impact of the data, in which he made a few wild, speculative guesses that had been uncomfortably close to the truth.

Needless to say, Muirden didn't pass his police check at the government job; he was shite out of luck trying to get a job at EOI no matter how much he begged Merlin; and, Elena definitely did not validate his parking.)

The actual culprit was some sort of military advisor who was somehow associated to a number of sub-committees, and who was peripherally linked to the people who had built the negavoid bomb in the first place. Tómas Aredian was too well connected to the right people and had too much leverage on the wrong people for Arthur or Gwaine to do something about him, directly, and it wasn't until Arthur saw his photograph that he remembered Aredian as one of the people who had come to Ground Zero just as he, Gwaine and Merlin had been leaving that first time.

It was too much of a coincidence for Arthur to ignore, but he had to ignore it in favour of dealing with the question immediately at hand: How bad was it going to be?

"How much longer?" Gwaine complained.

"I just got the ley line map from Mordred, give me a few minutes, yeah?" Merlin replied absentmindedly.

"How much longer do we have to wait here like a pack of wankers?" Gwaine clarified.

"Um," Merlin said, his brow furrowing, but he didn't look up and was immediately absorbed by the image on his mobile's screen, a hand hovering over a sheet of calculations.

"When we're ready," Arthur said patiently, which was as close as he would get to ever admitting, I don't know. For all the surveillance scenarios he'd ever played out in his head, Arthur had never actually engaged in one, and he felt like he should turn to Gwaine for some input, given that Gwaine was the actual secret agent and knew his way around a battlefield.

But it was Gwaine, and Arthur didn't know if he wanted to trust him that much. Will thought he smelled bad, Morgana frowned when she looked at Gwaine, Gilli got the heebie-jeebies when he got close, but it was Merlin who said that Gwaine felt wrong before Mordred even mentioned it. On top of that, Arthur wasn't convinced that Gwaine's loyalty was to anyone but himself.

"Um," Merlin said again, putting down his pen and reaching out blindly to pat, then poke, at Arthur's thigh. He hadn't looked up from the ley lines. "Um."

Arthur lowered the binoculars. "Yes?"

Merlin didn't answer right away. His eyes were wide, round, and showing too much white as he turned the screen of his mobile to Arthur. The screen was filled with a topographical map, the landmarks obvious, with strange squiggly and circular lines drawn over top, as if a child had taken a box of crayons and had drawn random curlicues everywhere. If this was the ley line map, it wouldn't mean anything to him.

However, something about it had bothered Merlin enough that he felt the need to show Arthur, which hopefully meant that Arthur would be able to puzzle it out on his own, as Merlin seemed to have gone subverbal. He took the mobile, shifted in his seat, and angled the phone carefully to keep the light from the window.

The map didn't have the sophistication of modern-day maps with longitudes and latitudes locating every street, building, and city to within a millimetre of their global positioning coordinates. Nor did it have the level of detail that Arthur could get with satellite maps. If anything, the ley-line map was more like a medieval map, with fanciful drawings in the margin and exaggerated imagery within city borders. Although there were no sea dragons curling out of the Thames, no gryphon aeries anywhere, and certainly no red X marks the spot, the map was still drawn well enough that Arthur was able to turn the background transparent, overlay it on top of an actual city map, and to resize it so the major landmarks matched.

He zoomed in on the Ground Zero site. The ley line map confirmed that there was, indeed, a ley line in the area, though it was not a major line, if the thickness of the sketch was any indicator of prevalence. Arthur wasn't certain what that meant in the grand scheme of things and couldn't correlate it to Merlin's alarm or the way Merlin was scrambling to put everything away until...

He zoomed out.

And then, he understood.

Instead of standing alone, as most of the smaller ley lines seemed to do, the ley line at Ground Zero fed immediately into several tributaries, which, in turn, were connected to other minor ley lines, some of which were very strongly linked to one of several major arteries -- never the same ones -- that ran in a cross section beneath London.

"Um," he said, because, what else could he possibly say about that level of destruction?

(The analogy of cartoon characters came to mind. The evil toon would trace a line of gunpowder across the floor of a shed, which was filled with explosives. The toon would tip-toe away to shelter, light a match, drop it onto the pile of gunpowder, and cackle gleefully as the spark burned its way through the laid line. The toon would crouch with their hands over their ears, counting down in anticipation of detonation. More often than not, the evil toon's plans were thwarted by the hero toon's hilarious antics, and the shed never blew up. The town was saved.

It was simple, easy, and hilarious, because no one ever sympathised with the evil toon. Why couldn't this situation be as simple as it was on the telly? Evil Overlords weren't supposed to be the heroes.

For once, Arthur was glad Merlin was an outlier to the mean.)

"All right," he said, scrambling to his feet. He kicked at Gwaine's hip to get him moving. "We need to get inside. Right the fuck now."

A wardrobe change and nearly an hour of dodging through the mostly-deserted and strangely largely unlit streets later, they were at the gates again, ignoring the large army trucks waiting behind Gwaine's sleek black company car. Gwaine was currently engaging in a staring match with the guardsman at the gate, who was insisting on everyone's identification while tapping his clipboard meaningfully.

"If you can't tell that we're on important government business --" Gwaine paused to snatch the fake IDs that Arthur had somehow acquired for this particular incursion. "-- then you're vastly mistaken. I'll make sure your commanding officer hears of this. We can't afford any further delays! This is absolutely ridiculous. How dare you -- what are you doing? Who are you calling? Put me on the line right now with whoever that is!"

Arthur exchanged a glance with Merlin in the rear view mirror. He blinked, at first not immediately recognising Merlin despite the fact that the only concession to a disguise had been a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses and an ill-fitting off-the-rack suit that still made Arthur wrinkle his nose in disapproval. But Merlin's eyes rolled impatiently, and he held off kicking the back of the driver's seat with what Arthur thought was enormous restraint.

"Tone it down," Arthur said, through clenched teeth. "You're attracting too much attention."

"It's the best approach, trust me," Gwaine said, though he first glanced around to make certain no one was in earshot and spoke at a soft volume. "They've got a guest list, and it's on paper, so we can't hack that, can we? The more obnoxious we are, the faster they'll be about letting us through."

"Or turn us away, you big wanker," Merlin snapped, clearly stressed.

"Obnoxious and loud tends to equate self-entitled and important," Gwaine said, shooting Arthur a wry grin. Arthur tried not to take offence. He'd learned young that obnoxious and loud weren't half as effective as pushy and precocious, but then he'd grown up and came to the conclusion that the limelight could wait until he was a proper Evil Overlord.

(He'd been nine years old, at the time. All these years later, despite remaining arrogantly precocious, Arthur was satisfied with his level of celebrity, which would no doubt explode once it was revealed that he was Dr. M.'s right hand man. However, he wasn't above using obnoxious and loud as tactics to help them get what they needed for EOI. It was actually a whole lot of fun.)

"They teach you that in Spy 101?" Merlin asked in the snarkiest tone Arthur had heard him use.

"No, learned from watching the best," Gwaine said, thumbing toward Arthur. He didn't say much more than that, continuing in his role of impatiently tapping at the steering wheel and snappily asking, Well? Raise the goddamn gate, we're late, at whoever passed by.

Arthur felt Merlin's attention on him. He refused to make eye contact. "I don't know what he's on about. I'm a darling."

Merlin snorted, but when Arthur glanced in the rear view mirror, some of the tension had leached out of Merlin's shoulders.

"Finally!" Gwaine exclaimed, hitting the steering wheel. "It's about time. Is that your commanding officer? She'll clear this up immediately and see you in the stockade for interfering with Very Important Government Business."

Sergeant Isolde Lemieux emerged from the gatehouse with a severe frown on her face, her lips in a pressed line, and her hands, thankfully, nowhere near her weapons. Behind her was Tristan Grant, still in his government-issue business suit. He seemed less suspicious than Isolde but slightly more unreadable beyond the flash of peculiar interest in his eyes. They followed the guardsman to the car.

Isolde stood next to the driver's side door, far enough away that she didn't have to bend down to stare at Gwaine. Gwaine stared back unflinchingly, and except for a few impatient gestures on his part, neither one of them spoke for a solid thirty seconds.

During those thirty seconds, Tristan casually walked around the hood of the car, his attention focused on the passengers. Arthur watched him move, not doing the slightest thing to hide his identity, but he felt, rather than saw, as Merlin ducked his head down, ostensibly over a tablet.

Tristan paused at Arthur's side of the car. He leaned back, tilted his head, and looked through the rear passenger window at Merlin. Merlin glanced up quickly with an annoyed frown, but immediately looked down again, tapping the tablet with intent that was most likely not manufactured.

Isolde heaved a sigh and whipped her hand out to the side. The guardsman handed her the three identification cards. Isolde flipped through them, one after the other, at least three times over, as if shuffling playing cards, but her eyes never drifted from the IDs themselves. Time trickled past so slowly that Arthur fretted that they would never get inside, or, worse, that Isolde would flag the soldiers to start firing. Instead, she raised her eyes to look over the roof of the car to where Tristan stood, and there was that bit of silent telepathic communication between close couples Arthur had always privately envied, before Isolde abruptly handed the cards back to Gwaine.

"Open the gates," Isolde said, shooing the guardsmen out of the way with a rude gesture. As soon as they were out of earshot, Isolde stepped closer to the car and bent down, looking at the three of them. Nearly simultaneously, Tristan knocked on Arthur's window, gesturing for him to roll it down.

Arthur raised an eyebrow, but he complied. As soon as the window was lowered all the way, Tristan leaned an arm across the width of the door and quietly asked, "Whatever's going on in there, it has nothing to do with you lot. It's been going on too long. So. Do you know what they're doing?"

Arthur glanced at Merlin, his mouth opening and closing with a click, as if unsure of how much to reveal. Arthur hesitated, too, but Gwaine, being Gwaine, asked, "Bunch of military talking heads, no government oversight anywhere? What do you think?"

Isolde hissed through her teeth. Tristan clicked his tongue, his expression neutral. He looked off to the side thoughtfully, and when he spoke again, it was with a low tone that carried no further than the car. "Recognised you straightaway when you were on the telly, you know that?"

"Didn't really think much about it," Merlin admitted.

"You never turned us in," Arthur said, turning his wary glance from Tristan to Isolde. Isolde smirked and shrugged, but Tristan's eyes narrowed measuringly. He would have seen some sort of chatter from some of the spy bugs he'd left on any number of computer systems since leaving MI5. Some of those computers belonged to the military; others were MI6, and at least one was an unidentified ghost server that, based on the material it contained, was the private domain of the Royal Family.

He was nothing if not thorough, and he was invested, damn it. Originally it was because he wanted to make sure Evil Overlord, Incorporated became something out of the ordinary, something amazing. And now... Now, he found that he used those resources not only to safeguard the company, but to protect Merlin.

(Arthur liked to think he was an upstanding, virtuous man, even if his morals were dubious. But not even a bloody saint would have resisted going through the Royal Family's records to see if there was any truth to the rumours that the Family wasn't as mundane as they let their press agents claim they were.

Hint: they were as bloody supernatural as most of the population, and hiding from their own government as much as the rest of them, but if push came to shove, Arthur was certain he knew whose side they'd be on when Evil Overlord, Incorporated, made a stand.)

"No, but I looked you up," Tristan said, and shook his head. He looked right at Merlin. "Read your paper. Fascinating stuff."

He paused, but it was Isolde who finished whatever thought Tristan hadn't spoken yet. "Can you fix it?"

"Fix what?" Merlin said innocently. His eyes were so round with surprise and concern that Arthur almost believed him. The act would have worked if Gwaine hadn't choked back a laugh. Tristan didn't seem to mind the deception, however, because the corner of his mouth twitched.

"So, what do I tell mum?" he asked.

Arthur started to answer, mostly to mirror the confusion on Merlin's face and to ask, What the fuck are you talking about? when he realised Tristan wasn't talking to either of them. He was talking to Gwaine.

Gwaine shrugged a shoulder, and very seriously said, "I meant what I told her before, and that hasn't changed. They're trying to fix things. This is just another item on their list."

Tristan clenched his jaw, looked down at his hands, and rubbed his palms. "She's not going to like that."

"Then she should get off her bloody arse and do something about it instead of hiding behind gilded walls. I keep telling her it's 2017, regular folks are more open-minded now, Victorian sensibilities were a long fucking time ago, and there aren't any more witch hunts, damn it. This would've never been a problem if she'd gone and done something about it when it first started being a problem -- and anyway, why are we sitting here wasting time? Can we go in?" Gwaine said, gesturing at the open gates ahead.

"You can tell her that yourself. She lets you get away with that sort of lip," Tristan snapped. He caught himself, pinched the bridge of his nose, and huffed a sigh. "And, anyway, if she decides to hang you, at least you'll survive."

Arthur glanced sharply at Tristan. He turned to Merlin, who had the same startled expression that Arthur imagined he wore, too. He gave Gwaine a critical look, trying to see if he'd missed something, but, no: MI5 wouldn't have made a supernatural creature or someone otherwise-human inclined into one of their secret agents, never mind given them any sort of authority. And, anyway, Arthur had done a thorough background check. Gwaine wasn't Registered, his records were all above board, right down to the sealed juvenile arrests and associated court proceedings. So, what the fuck was Tristan talking about? At least you'll survive?

"You know," Merlin said conversationally, his voice low and his breath close to Arthur's ear, "Come to think of it, those two feel weird, too."

"Uh," Arthur said, but he was stuck on the more important question of, "What does that mean?"

"It means he's jealous mummy likes me best," Gwaine said cheekily, and his voice darkened as if heavy light-cancelling curtains had dropped down around it. "Letting us through or what?"

"Go," Tristan said, waving a hand. "I expect an invitation for when you do a full debriefing with mum."

"I don't report to you," Gwaine singsonged, letting go of the brake to drive through the gates.

"I'm very confused," Merlin said, looking between Arthur and Gwaine. Arthur had no answers to give, either, and Gwaine hummed merrily to himself, as if nothing untoward had happened. Maybe to him, nothing had.

But it was in that moment Arthur saw the shrewd glint in Merlin's narrowed eyes, so he paid attention when Merlin got out of the car. Gwaine fussed with a few controls that were not normally part of the off-the-assembly-line automobile standard, turned off the engine, and climbed out to face a waiting Merlin. It was resignation Arthur saw in Gwaine's eyes, not surprise or anger, as if he'd expected Merlin to use his magic on him.

His surprise happened in the aftermath, when the gold faded completely from Merlin's eyes, because he said, "That was a lot more gentle than I expected."

Merlin blinked repeatedly, his mouth open in the O of someone who'd been slapped in the face with a fish, and when he found his voice, it was to blurt out, "That was not what I was expecting at all."

Gwaine grinned and winked. "Keep it to yourself, yeah? For now?"

Merlin flushed and fumbled with his satchel, shoving the tablet in the front pocket, ducking his head like an adorable schoolboy with a crush on a handsome classmate. Arthur glowered with jealousy, times three -- Gwaine should not be winking at Merlin, Merlin should not be flattered by this attention, and what the fuck was going on?

Before they could ask, he spotted an increase in activity off in the distance, with soldiers in scattered formations running double-time toward the Ground Zero impact site. Some of those soldiers weren't even pretending to be anything other than mission-ready, because they were flat-out running, already hunkering down to brace for impact. Gwaine had a gun in his hand, keeping it close to his hip, and Arthur resisted the urge to draw the gun Merlin didn't know he had.

(But probably knew, anyway. Because he was a sorcerer, and he knew Things.)

More soldiers appeared, this time from the gatehouse; they ran past without so much as a wary glance, hard caps low on their heads, automatic rifles cradled in their arms. Their orders, whatever those were, must have been clear enough to broker no argument or hesitation, but that didn't stop Arthur from seeing the fear in their eyes.

Then, and only then, did the alarms begin to blare.

There were megaphone speakers positioned nearly every fifty metres all along the fencing that surrounded the affected zone. They were supposed to alert nearby residents of a radiation leak, requiring them to evacuate to their nearest shelters. In all of Arthur's research, he had never found a single incident when those alarms had gone off.

Age, possibly rust, most likely deteriorated connections -- all of those things explained why the speakers crackled and hissed before popping in a loud clash of static and antistatic. Covering his ears too late, Arthur was deafened by the blaring warble of a multi-scale whoo-whooo-whooooopp. He turned and saw Gwaine leaning against the car, doubled over as if in extreme pain, and further down the road, from the guardhouse, were Tristan and Isolde, driving along the rough road in an open-top all-terrain. They drove past, did a sharp U-turn that nearly tipped the vehicle, and drove straight toward Arthur, Gwaine and Merlin.

The all-terrain came to an abrupt stop and they were rained with a hail of pebbles, gravel and dust. Tristan looked as miserable as Gwaine, though to a lesser degree; Isolde merely looked grim as she clenched the wheel tightly. She shouted, "Get in!"

Gwaine didn't hesitate. He tottered on one leg, as if knocked off balance, and in a few steps shook off his stagger to climb in the rear seat. Arthur followed, because he wasn't going to bloody well walk if he could catch a ride, but paused when he realised he had no idea where Merlin was. He whirled around, desperate, only slightly terrified, and stilled when he saw Merlin.

Merlin stood on the other side of the car, his head tilted as if listening to something. He was absolutely motionless, his expression concentrated and thoughtful, lost to something Arthur couldn't make out from over the distant clatter of gunfire and the screech of alarms.

That was when Arthur realised Merlin was unaffected by the alarms. Whatever it was that Merlin was listening to, it had captured his complete attention, and there was no reaction when Arthur called his name.

"Mer -- Merlin!" Arthur repeated, marching over to place his hands on Merlin's shoulder to give him a good shake. Or two.

(Or several. He wasn't panicking. He wasn't.)

It was enough to make Merlin blink and to come back to himself, though there was a gold-glazed look in his eyes. It wasn't normal. It wasn't normal for Merlin. The gold-glaze was dark, streaked with mud, as if it were still in its unrefined form, trapped in rock. It was nothing like the brilliant burnished gold of Merlin's pure magic.

Arthur started to shake Merlin again, only for Merlin to catch his hand and shake his head.

"Power's back on," he said simply, frustratingly cryptically, and nodded in the vague distance, in the direction of the crater.

"That's good, yeah?" Arthur asked, because he had no idea. He only knew Merlin couldn't use his magic reliably here, if he could use it at all; that the ley line was exposed and probably severely contaminated by the negavoid radiation; and, that meant --

Merlin wavered in his arms. He was more pale than usual in the headlights of the all-terrain, a little too green around the edges.

"Not good?"

Merlin shook his head slowly. He opened his mouth as if about to explain, but his attempt was interrupted by the loud blast of a horn. From the army vehicle, Isolde waved an arm, urging them to hurry. Gwaine was hunched over the rear seat; Tristan was doubled over. Arthur glared at them over his shoulder with a notion of asking Isolde to Wait one bloody second,

And then it hit, whatever it was, in a pulsating, visible blast like a soundwave in oil-contaminated water, iridescent in the dark of night. The force of impact wasn't enough to knock them off their feet, though Arthur rocked closer to Merlin. Merlin didn't budge a millimetre; he seemed rooted to the spot.

The wave went through Arthur with no visible or noticeable effect. Arthur patted himself anxiously and looked Merlin over with a critical eye. The engine to the all-terrain vehicle must have cut out, because Isolde was twisting and grinding the key and stamping on the accelerator in an attempt to get the engine running again.

The cold, logical part of Arthur's mind distilled what had just happened. It must have been a low-energy, short-wave electromagnetic blast, of some sort, because Arthur had no other explanation for it.

The instinct-driven lizard part of Arthur's mind knew he was wrong. Arthur grasped Merlin's arm and dragged him toward the all-terrain just as he received confirmation: his mobile buzzed in his jacket pocket, completely unaffected.

Arthur ignored the call when he noticed the secondary effects of the pulse of whatever that had been.

Dust floated from the ground as if it was the fresh kick-up of a passing vehicle. Small stones rose as if untouched by gravity. Arthur's hair floated up from his head, and he felt a trickle of electricity on his skin. He had to flatten down his tie as it drifted of its own volition into his face.

Merlin was outside of the realm of effect, it seemed. Arthur didn't catch on right away, but he followed Merlin's gaze as Merlin stared down at himself, then at Arthur, completely confused. It was as if he were surrounded by an aura of some kind, and the energy that had been mysteriously released was repelled by Merlin's magic.

That was when Arthur noticed that the blackness which had tinted the edges of Merlin's eyes was gone, and now there was neither blue nor white in them, and nothing but gold.

Brilliant, vivid gold.

"Oh, no," Merlin confirmed quietly, reaching out with a hand, only to see the floating rocks move away from him. "This isn't good at all."

They ran to the all-terrain, clambering onto the back seat and climbing over Gwaine to get to the empty rear bench seat, Isolde barely waiting for the doors to close before she stamped on the accelerator. She drove back the way they'd come, heading to the guard house, rushing through the gates. The truck screeched as Isolde took a hard right, but miraculously kept its wheels on the makeshift road.

Behind them, the earth rocked, roared, trembled --

And in the ripple of pavement that reminded Arthur of a tsunami, the all-terrain vehicle lurched, jerked to the side, and barely kept on course or ahead of the wave crashing upon the surface from deep underground.

Eventually, the earth quieted, reduced to little but a faint tremor. The city was alight with awakened households, men and women streaming out of their houses or looking out the window to see what was going on. It wasn't long before Isolde couldn't drive any further, and the five of them climbed out of the army truck to join the other gawkers in the street.

The London sky had been cleaved in half by a bright blue-grey light filled the sky like a spotlight at a film festival.

"What is that?" Gwaine asked shakily, clearly not himself.

"We were wrong," Merlin said slowly. "This is worse than a bomb."

"But what is it?" Tristan demanded, the bark in his voice betrayed by a crack of fear.

Merlin shook his head, but it was Arthur who answered, because he knew. He was the expert on Evil Overlords, the only one amongst them who had studied them since he was very small. That particular shade of blue belonged to only one man. That light had been his trademark, the undertone of any destruction that he had wrought upon London. It was the same person that the government had murdered at Ground Zero.

"It's Cornelius Sigan."

 

 

The government denied there was a problem for nine days.

The blue lights in the sky above Ground Zero were a "new experimental device intended on making the zone safe for inhabitation again" and the scientists tasked to study the effects were currently reviewing the data collected.

("Bollocks," Will said, because no one else was saying it.)

The destruction of the buildings around Ground Zero had "nothing to do with the experimental device that was energised at the same time, and the severe and unprecedented earthquake in the region was a natural phenomenon which had occurred by sheer coincidence".

("And I'm a bloody wraith," Sefa hissed, sitting on the very edge of her seat, practically spitting.

Freya eyed Sefa curiously. "Are you?"

Sefa's glare wasn't quite murderous, but it came close.)

The area around Ground Zero had been evacuated by the government in a ring that extended several hundred yards. The government's excuse was concern about "contaminants leaching into drinking water pipes and the possibility of broken gas lines following the earthquake".

(Mordred snorted, but offered no commentary, because he knew better than anyone else that the public health statistics indicated nothing of the kind. And, anyway, his friends amongst the city workers would've been called in to do the work, and they were currently sitting idle, waiting for the go-ahead order from on-high.)

When the press -- led by Uther Pendragon of Pendragon Unlimited, who had grabbed a microphone and a cameraperson to get right into the face of one of the officials observed entering the central command headquarters positioned outside Ground Zero's "new" restriction zone -- insisted on answers, the government's response was a tight-lipped, "No comment."

("Probably the first time someone's dared say that to him in years," Arthur said, the amusement in his voice not matching his now-perpetual scowl.)

Shortly afterward, a ghostly blue light was observed on the horizon, where it trailed like a nasty little cloud until it hovered directly above a small winter festival. Social media was, once again, more informative than mainstream media, which couldn't get on-site in time, but either way, despite the video footage, the government kept mum on the situation.

(Thirty-six dead, hundreds more injured, and that said nothing of the mental trauma that was caused by both natural and supernatural means. There was no shaking off being trampled by frightened people stampeding toward the few available exits, and there was definitely no forgetting the reedy, thin-mustachioed, greasy-haired, possessed-by-Cornelius Sigan bloke who had glowed bright blue on video, and cast spells to harm, torture, and murder whoever was nearby.)

The area was blocked off for an unannounced, highly-sensitive government event within the hour of Twitter announcing the presence of a new Evil Overlord wreaking havoc near Parliament Hill. Not long afterward, #WhereIsDrM began trending.

("Where is he, indeed," Gilli muttered, shooting a sidelong glance at Merlin. Merlin tensed but said nothing, just as he did nothing, because there was nothing he could do. The Cornelius Sigan-Cedric Cole Twin Power Activate monster had vanished, and Merlin didn't know where they were. Making a public appearance now, when the government was on high alert and hiding the fact they were freaking the fuck out, would help no one.)

The British stiff upper-lip had borne Londoners through a series of seemingly random attacks throughout the city, all of them unprovoked and unrelated, at least until Arthur made an appearance and remarked that each of those sites had been areas of contention, decades ago, when Sigan had first made an appearance.

("I can't imagine the owners of those places having to deal with this shite again," Freya said, cuddling one of the Hellhounds close. She hadn't felt comfortable leaving them alone in the warded warehouse-turned-kennel, on the off-chance that Merlin's residual magical signature would be strong enough for Sigan-slash-Cole to take notice. Their flat was currently the territory of several very fluffy and flammable Hellhounds, one of which was sprawled across Arthur's lap as if it had every intention of coming home with him. "I'd be so pissed, personally.")

There was nothing for it, really. Merlin could only react to the aftermath, which was better than useless, because if he couldn't handle cleaning up his own room, how could he help the city clean up the streak of destruction? It was bad enough watching shaky smartphone video of what was going on, never mind seeing the ruins on the more stable video of mainstream media, and Merlin had taken to his room to bury himself into research and metaphysical theory to see if he could come up with a solution to the Sigan-Cole problem.

Foremost amongst them: what to call this fearsome combination, because "the Sigan-Cole entity" didn't exactly roll off the tongue.

(On more than one occasion, Merlin had sat up straight from his over-the-book crouch, cracking his spine in an effort to slow down his transition into a permanent hunchback. He'd spot Arthur stretched out on his bed, sleeping blissfully, the Hellhound keeping the room temperature at a slow roast, curling up against Arthur as if it was Arthur's personal hot water bottle. Arthur looked so soft and vulnerable in those moments that Merlin somehow found a third or a fourth second wind, and concentrated on a solution, because he had two problems to solve.

One more important than the other, of course.)

"Do you think he'll find us?" Percival asked, carefully scratching behind the ears of the Hellhound dubbed Momma Hellhound, from the way it watched the other Hellhounds, making sure they behaved. The telly was slow-panning over the aftermath of a complete flattening of a string of flats not far from Parliament Hill. Luckily, no one they knew lived in that area. Unluckily, and more troublesome, a lot of people had died.

"No," Merlin said quietly, chewing on his thumbnail. "I wiped off every magical trace on the outside of the No-See-Ums wards. As far as anyone outside of Google Maps is concerned, we don't exist."

"No-See-Ums?" Gwen asked, curling up against Lance. She was carefully keeping her feet away from the Hellhounds, who had a particular fascination for her mismatched coloured socks.

"Don't ask," Mordred said, thumping Will on the head as he walked past. "This one thought it was a great name, and it stuck."

"Okay," Gwen said uncertainly, and made room for Mordred on the sofa. Merlin wasn't sure how they'd managed to keep the Hellhounds from the furniture (except for the one who was on Arthur, but that was semantics no one wanted to argue), but it had something to do with how Freya had said, No, which only worked when she was in the room. Or, really, when Arthur was in the room, too, because the Hellhounds thought that Arthur was the next best thing besides peanut butter.

"If it helps, this is the safest place in London," Morgana said, her feet tucked under the legs of some bloke named Leon. Merlin gathered that Leon worked in Morgana's law firm, and also that he was Morgana's secret husband except Uther kept forgetting they were married. That was understandable, since Merlin didn't remember Leon's last name, and the bloke was so quiet that Merlin half-forgot Leon was there at all. He was such a well-grounded, self-effacing guy Merlin half-suspected that Leon harboured a secret desire to be in the spotlight, for a change. "I can't even See it, and I've looked."

"That's an endorsement if I've ever heard one," Will said, glancing over his shoulder at Merlin. "Have you ever thought of starting a security firm?"

"Yeah. It's called Evil Overlord, Inc., and it's not doing too well protecting its clients right now," Merlin said absentmindedly, still staring at the telly. In a fit of self-defence, someone had turned on the closed captioning, because the background chatter sometimes completely overwhelmed the reporter, no matter how loudly the volume was set. He was busy reading the text of the latest reports in the hopes that it would tell him something about where Sigan-slash-Cole had gone. "I can't stay here and do nothing!"

(Actually, he damn well could. All the mathematical equations in the world pointed toward one single outcome, and that was the resolution Seen in Morgana's visions. If he moved forward to confront Sigan-Cole, then the inevitable would happen, and that, Merlin couldn't allow. He wasn't ready for it. He didn't have a solution.)

"Just wait," Arthur said, putting a hand on Merlin's shoulder.

"Wait for what?" Merlin snapped, and immediately regretted it. He didn't want to be angry at Arthur, of all people. Arthur was the only one who could defuse everyone's tempers while retaining their own. Despite the familiarity of being in their own flat, having so many people cramped together was wearing on raw nerves. "For Tristan and Isolde? I don't care what Gwaine said -- actually, I don't fucking know what Gwaine said. Why are we waiting?"

"For this," Gwaine said from the doorway, where he promptly ducked and narrowly avoided getting his head knocked off by a blast of energy. He raised his arm from the floor and waved a white envelope. "I surrender!"

"Sorry," Merlin said, rubbing the side of his head. "I'm a bit on edge."

"So glad I let you go in first," Isolde said. She looked different out of uniform. Her hair was down around her shoulders, her jeans loose and torn at the knees, her peasant blouse adorned with hand-stitched embroidery. No one would ever suspect her of being a ranking non-commissioned member of the British Armed Forces, or that she was currently AWOL.

Actually, Merlin wasn't even sure if she was, or if she wasn't. That was never made clear. Given that Tristan was still wearing his usual clearly-government-issue off-the-rack black suit-and-tie combination, and that Isolde was armed to the teeth with weapons cleverly hidden beneath her unassuming outfit, they probably were on-duty, just not in the way they'd originally presented themselves.

Tristan stepped over Gwaine's body, snatching the envelope out of his hands. Gwaine grabbed his leg and did his best to trip him, but Tristan fell on top of Gwaine instead. There was a scuffle that was cushioned by the mountain of shoes in the entryway and attracted the Hellhounds, who started barking angrily at a pitch that Freya insisted meant, Stop this nonsense right now!

After glancing in their direction to make sure they wouldn't damage anything and ruin their safety deposit, Merlin continued to nibble at his thumbnail and to stare at the telly.

A piece of white paper flashed in front of Merlin's eyes. He jerked away from it, already forgetting what it was, but Arthur snatched it out of Isolde's fingers.

"You'd think they'd outgrow sibling rivalries," Isolde said, thumbing over her shoulder. Merlin followed the gesture in time to see one of the Hellhounds raising their hind leg, as if about to take a piss. Gwaine shrieked and shoved Tristan at the Hellhound, Mordred yelled for Freya to take her damn dogs outside, and Isolde bit her lips to keep from laughing out loud, because, Did you see what they almost did, Dee? Fucking dogs almost --

Tristan was not impressed. When Gwaine cackled gleefully, Tristan kicked him in the ribs.

"This is what you were waiting for," Arthur said, gently pulling Merlin's thumb out of his mouth and putting the opened letter in his hand. "Go on. Read it."

"The situation's become untenable," Tristan said, brushing himself down, adjusting his shirt, and running his fingers through his thinning hair. "The MRO agents are spread thin, they've had too many losses from early confrontations, and the army is making noise about dropping another bomb on Sigan's arse. Or is it Cole's arse?"

"We haven't settled on a supervillain name for them, yet," Will said.

"Doesn't matter," Gwaine said, throwing an arm over Arthur's shoulders. "They're one and the same. I think mum was hoping it wouldn't come to this, but she's too much of an optimist, and I did warn her. Sorry it took so long. She was angsting over the wording."

Merlin stared at that arm until Arthur successfully dislodged it. Satisfied that he wouldn't actually have to do something to hurt Gwaine, Merlin glanced down to the letter in his hand. The paper was thick, embossed, and was pressed with an official-looking seal, but it was also upside down. He turned it around.

"Oh, hello," Merlin said, to no one in particular. He tuned out the background and not-so-background conversation conversations and furrowed his brow as he read.

A good third of the letter was the royal crest, the date, and several official-sounding salutations. The bottom half was a large, flourished signature and a bunch of titles that Merlin assumed would mean something to a person who was more of a royalist than he was. The actual letter was only two lines.

Dr. M., also known as Dr. Merlin Emrys, as well as every employee of Evil Overlord Incorporated are hereby absolved of their actions, past, present and future, where such action, however small or however great, is performed for the betterment of the United Kingdom and all Commonwealth nations. So ordained by Her Majesty the Queen--

There was another string of names, titles, and whatnot. Merlin was about to make a querulous noise when he spotted the handwritten postscript.

If I must make Evil Overlord of London an official title, I might as well elevate it for all of the United Kingdom. Now get out there and save my bloody country before it's completely decimated.

Merlin re-read that last part several times before looking up to find Arthur staring at him with a small, wry grin on his face. "Were we waiting for the Get Out Of Jail Free card?"

"The Get Out of Jail Free card is nice," Arthur said, and shrugged a little. "I was talking about the job."

"Huh," Merlin grunted, and reread the letter, just to make sure.

Merlin could feel Arthur's body heat right next to him, and closed his eyes to keep from moaning at the sensation of Arthur's hand sliding down his spine. He did shiver when he heard Arthur's breath against his cheek when Arthur whispered, "Are you ready to get to work?"

"We don't even know where they are," Merlin pointed out.

"That's an easy problem to solve," Arthur said, his hand sliding around his waist to squeeze Merlin closer to him. "And I have a solution. Make them come to you."

Merlin hummed thoughtfully. He hadn't thought of that, honestly. Dealing with the Sidhe's attempt to create chaos had been easy to do, because the Sidhe had conveniently landed into his lap. As long as he was holed up behind magic-tight wards, there was even less chance of encountering Sigan's new alter ego, even by accident. But issuing the magical-equivalent of an engraved invitation...?

That could work.

"Are we being paid for this?" Merlin asked.

"You're getting a bloody title out of it," Tristan snapped. "What more could you want?"

"Our usual fee," Arthur said blandly. "I did make that clear when I told you what it would cost for us to interfere."

Merlin side-eyed Arthur. He'd known that Arthur took care of most of the administrative bollocks for the company and even engaged in the negotiating of the charges associated with any job that they took on. Merlin was grateful for that, because he didn't have the mind nor the patience for that sort of thing. It meant Arthur could ask for whatever silly trifle he felt they could get, if for no other reason than it amused him. Merlin, on the other hand, had one and only one responsibility. As Arthur put it, Merlin's duty was to take care of the actual business.

He swallowed thickly. Could he take care of business? The Sigan-Cole entity had demonstrated itself to be very powerful, very destructive, and very irrational. There was no talking to an irrational creature, there was little that could be done against wanton destruction, and Merlin wasn't entirely certain he was strong enough to hold his own against a monster that had received a power-up from the poisoned energy of the ley line. His mum had always taught him to stand up to bullies, but she'd also taught him not to be absolutely fucking nutters about it.

Tristan huffed in irritation before grudgingly handing over an envelope he'd plucked out of his inner jacket pocket. Arthur inspected the contents carefully, tilting it so that Merlin could see it when Merlin leaned over his shoulder for a better look, and gave Tristan a restrained nod and smile that Merlin could not have duplicated in a million years, not after seeing at all the zeros on the cheque.

"That's not all of it," Arthur said, and Merlin boggled at him.

"Mum's not stupid," Gwaine said, crossing his arms.

Tristan shot Gwaine a dark look. "The rest is on delivery of services rendered. As agreed."

Arthur's smile broadened, and he tucked the cheque back in its envelope and pocketed it carelessly, as if it were nothing more than a dirty napkin. He also patted Merlin on the shoulder, which didn't do anything to settle Merlin's nerves, and said, "And the rest of it? She guarantees no interference?"

Tristan hesitated, Gwaine scratched his jaw and didn't meet anyone's eyes, but it was Isolde who answered in a no-nonsense tone, "For the most part. We're working on securing certain divisions of the army that stopped answering their coms, but all we can do is wait and intervene, if we can."

Arthur's eyes clouded over, as if that was an unacceptable answer. As far as Merlin was concerned, everything was unacceptable, right down to Cornelius bloody Sigan taking possession of some hapless (or not so hapless) civilian and making a mess to his city. He didn't need a rebellious faction of the army, answering to a man who seemed to have far more power than he was supposed to have, making things worse.

"As long as Aredian is taken care of in the end," Arthur said firmly, as if it was non-negotiable. Which it was.

"That'll be my job," Gwaine said, and tilted his head toward the door. "Which I should get on with doing, if we've got nothing else to talk about?"

"The rest can keep," Arthur said magnanimously, and escorted the three to the door. Once the door was shut and they were beyond the wards, driving off in three separate vehicles in many different directions, Arthur turned to the room. Everyone had been listening in and pretending not to be, but now their attention was rapt on Arthur. He didn't seem bothered. "Does anyone else need reminding of their jobs?"

"Keeping an eye on the Hellhounds and making sure they don't eat your socks," Freya volunteered.

"I need to find Gaius at the clinic and get the word out to the other Healers," Mordred said. "Help them out as needed."

"Hide in the closet and wait for it to blow over while finding all the social media streams and re-posting them everywhere," Gilli said, already hunkering down in the sofa, half-hidden by the pillows.

"Evacuation plans," Will said, turning away to watch the telly again.

"Helping Gilli," Lancelot said, since he turned out to be a whiz at setting up video streaming websites on the fly, along with all the appropriate eye-catching graphics that would be necessary to go along with it.

"Helping Will," Percival said, because he'd been in the army in a past life, and whether or not he actually had Giant blood, he was as intimidating a figure as a werewolf protecting territory.

"Helping Mordred," Gwen said, having admitted that she had a nursing degree that she'd abandoned in favour for pursuing a career in the arts. She was a little rusty, but if people were hurt, no one would protest about the extra pair of hands.

"I don't work here," Sefa said cheerfully.

"Oh, now you remember," Will grumbled.

"I'm not sure how much longer you'll have your greenhouse if your two silent partners back out of your flower shop franchise," Arthur pointed out, in a rather nice bit of blackmail. Merlin was startled into a laugh.

"Fine," Sefa groused. "I'll call Elena, make sure she has a crew ready to go wherever. Then I'll wait half an hour and let the other outlets know."

"I'll be preparing your press statement," Leon volunteered, since he neither worked for Merlin, hadn't been around during the earlier planning stages, and didn't seem to have any particular skills or abilities that would contribute to the cause. When everyone looked at him, he shrugged a little uncertainly, and said, "If you need one, that is."

"We do need someone to handle our Public Relations," Arthur commented.

"We can deal with that later," Merlin said.

"Right," Arthur said, glancing between Merlin and Leon before clapping his hands together. "That can be your interview. Work on that press statement, and we'll see."

"Don't you already have a job?" Morgana asked. Leon grinned, shrugged without answering, and that, inexplicably, was enough for Morgana, because she announced, "I'll do what I always do. Prepare the usual responses for anybody suing you for property damage, restraining orders for your adoring fans, and, well. I'll keep an eye on things, too, but I'm not sure anything is going to change much."

If Merlin needed any confirmation (hint: he didn't) that he was being hurried headlong into that inevitable temporal event that he couldn't correct, not even for the tiny detail of keeping Arthur alive, Morgana's words qualified as the last nail in that coffin.

Merlin rubbed his face, pushed all the silly little emotions rising up to the surface into a little, overstuffed box, and sighed heavily. He couldn't deal with this, and yet, he was going to have to.

Arthur turned to Merlin and raised an expectant brow.

Merlin tried his best, most innocent, I have nothing to do with this why are you asking me anything expression, but Arthur raised a brow and Merlin deflated. He sighed, and dropped his head dejectedly. "I guess I'll get ready."

He turned for the stairs, and was halfway up when he realised that Arthur was following him.

"I can get dressed on my own," Merlin muttered, heading for his room.

"I know," Arthur said, shutting the door behind him. The Hellhound who had adopted Arthur whined from the other side, scratched at the door a few times, then thumped down heavily across the door, as if intending on guarding it. Sullenly. "That's not why I'm here."

Merlin took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Right. Come to give me a pep talk, then?"

"You're the Evil Overlord of London. No -- of the United Kingdom," Arthur said with a scoff. "You don't need a bloody pep talk."

Merlin tried for a smile, but it fell far short of the mark. "You suck at reassurance."

"And you suck at self-confidence," Arthur said, coming closer. "You've got no reason to be. You're miles stronger than Sigan, and this is coming from a self-professed expert on all things Evil Overlord. Do you know how I know? It's because you've done impossible things, and each one is greater than the last, and nobody I have ever heard of has ever managed as much as you have."

Merlin swallowed thickly when Arthur put his hands on Merlin's chest and walked him backward. There wasn't a whole lot of room to move, but there was the desk, the mounds of journal papers and rare books, and --

(The bed. How could he forget the bed --)

Merlin landed on the bed with a bounce, spreading his legs to give Arthur room to move, and left his hands on Arthur's thighs. He looked up hopefully, and Arthur obliged without hesitation. He leaned down and gave Merlin a sweet, chaste kiss --

And pulled away.

Merlin gaped at him. "What --"

But Arthur was already moving toward the closet, which, really, wasn't anything more than a piece of old pipe that Merlin had cleaned up and permanently spelled to levitate, since there wasn't any actual room for anything resembling a closet in what was a closet-sized bedroom. He hummed thoughtfully to himself as he riffled through Merlin's clothes.

Merlin cleared his throat delicately. When that didn't do anything to direct attention to the problem, he threw a pillow at Arthur. "What are you doing?"

Arthur looked at him as if he were the offended party, and there was no more offended party in the room than Merlin, who was sitting on his bed right where Arthur had put him. Arthur brushed down the back of his head, smoothing down the hair that the pillow had driven askew, and scowled. "What do you mean, what am I doing?"

"You're there," Merlin said, waving at Arthur. He moved his arm to point to his general vicinity. "And I'm here."

"Well-spotted," Arthur said, his brow furrowing even more. He spread his hands as if he didn't understand Merlin's dilemma. "You can't possibly be so nervous about the Sigan-Cole Whatever that you've forgotten where you are?"

"No! You --" Merlin finished his thought with an eloquent hiss of frustration and a jerky motion of his arms that should explain everything. "I thought we were... you know."

Arthur's expression turned odd, but Merlin had the satisfaction of seeing his cheeks flush. "Yes, and I'm more concerned about keeping you at peak performance. Hasn't anyone ever told you that elite athletes do their best when they're throttling the edge of sexual frustration? They channel that extra energy into intent and are better able to focus on their goal --"

"Nn-nrg," Merlin didn't growl, and fell back onto the bed, covering his face with his hands. When he came up for air, he reached out with grabby-hands and muttered, "I'll show you throttling. Come here. Arthur, please --"

Arthur silenced him by dumping a stack of bespoke clothing on his head. "Get dressed."

Merlin didn't move.

He remained where he was under the soft material, his eyes closed to the grey blobs of material on his face, and... gave up. Just like that. Gave up, because he'd been trying so hard to find a solution, but it was difficult to stay strong, and he didn't know how Arthur could bear it. He really didn't mean to let the tears well up to the surface or to let his voice croak with tears.

(There was a time when he'd reassure himself that it was mostly a manly sob, but he didn't fucking care anymore. He couldn't take it. How could anyone expect him to go on when he was about to lose Arthur?)

Almost immediately, the clothing was wrenched away. Merlin had the sense that they were being gently folded before being draped over the back of his rickety student chair. More than that, though, he was acutely aware of Arthur's weight making the bed dip. Then, the bed dipped a whole lot, and Arthur's body heat was radiating on top of him.

Merlin covered his face with his hands, but didn't succeed in muffling his ugly sniffling and sobbing noises.

Arthur, damn him, was so gentle in pulling Merlin's hands away from his face that Merlin didn't realize that his hands weren't covering his face anymore until a soft cloth handkerchief dabbed at the tears gluing his eyelashes together.

Merlin pulled himself together, but only barely -- he set off again when Arthur opened his mouth as if he were about to ask a question.

Then, suddenly, Arthur wrenched his glasses off, dropped them somewhere in the vicinity of Merlin's bedside table, and dived in to snog Merlin within an inch of his life.

Somehow, they ended on the floor, wedged between two unmoveable piles of recent research on temporal mechanics and another one of applying chemometric evaluation of spatial factors to metaphysical resolutions to astronomical positions, and it was the most comfortable Merlin had been in a long time.

"You're not going to lose me," Arthur said, from where his face was buried in Merlin's armpit. He shifted in an attempt to gain some leverage and to sit up, but the end result of that was knocking several journal articles onto their heads and accidentally kneeing Merlin in the groin.

"Say what?" Merlin asked hoarsely, cradling his bollocks with one hand. He grunted when Arthur used him to lever himself up, and didn't really focus on what Arthur said until the throb of pain eased a bit more.

"I said," Arthur repeated patiently, offering an arm to help Merlin to his feet. Merlin ignored it, because he was fine where he was for a few more minutes, thanks. "You're not going to lose me. And I damn well better not lose you. So get your head in the game, if you please."

"Um," Merlin said intelligently, his throat suddenly thick with a myriad of emotions -- the least of which was not premature grief. "Neither one of us can promise that. The maths --"

"Fuck the maths," Arthur said, crouching down to rummage through the few boxes of high-end shoes that Merlin had tucked half-under the mattress. He discarded a few pairs before finding what he was looking for. "Your math's wrong."

"My -- what?" Merlin stared at Arthur, affronted, and sat up straight. He tossed the journal papers on his chest onto a nearby pile without taking any care for it being in the proper pile, despite the careful system he'd trained himself to follow since the early days of his doctorate. "My math's not wrong, unfortunately. However much I might want it to be --"

"Pass me my glasses," Arthur said, moving toward the drawer where Merlin kept his pants. Merlin snatched Arthur's glasses from the makeshift bedside table and moved in time to intercept Arthur from coordinating his bloody underwear with his outfit. Arthur smiled faintly, kissed Merlin stupid, and patted Merlin's cheek before putting on his glasses. "You're adorable when you're mad."

"I'm not mad. I'm just -- I'm just not wrong. How can you say that? Morgana's visions --"

Somehow, Arthur had retrieved a clean pair of black trousers and tossed them onto the pile of clothes. Merlin wasn't sure how Arthur had gotten past him, since he was too distracted staring at Arthur's arse when he bent down.

"I've looked over your proofs. I can't pretend that I understand half of it, but I'm fairly decent at complex mathematics and even developed my own theorem for the determination of socioeconomic statistics and their correlation with Registration status," Arthur said.

Merlin stared. He knew Arthur was smart, but he didn't show it very often. Merlin's friends mostly thought Arthur was a pushy sort of hands-on person, but they had no idea how intelligent Arthur really was under his blunt, arrogant veneer. Also, it got Merlin hard when Arthur talked like this.

"Once I figured out your notation style and realised that your big V is actually an inverted A, and that your timeline theorem relies heavily on Magammon's posit that certain events have always will have had happened, everything fell into place," Arthur said.

"When did you have time to study Magammon?" Merlin wondered, because he had the only surviving book that still had all the pages, and he couldn't remember letting anyone borrow it.

"In my spare time between setting up safe houses and making sure Pendragon Unlimited continues to run while my father was in contempt of court, but that part was mostly Elena," Arthur said. "Anyway, that's when I realised that there's a little-known variable you didn't take into account."

Arthur scratched the scruff of his jaw as he studied Merlin's room.

"Where are your socks?"

"What?"

"Socks, Merlin," Arthur said, spreading his hands impatiently. "You need to get ready."

"Variable, Arthur," Merlin snapped, because he was not all that interested in clothes right now. "What are you talking about?"

Arthur sighed and walked over to him. He started tugging Merlin out of his shirt despite his protests, and said, "You forgot to take me into account."

Merlin blinked. He was only dimly aware of Arthur tugging at the belt of his jeans, too distracted by the monkey wrench Arthur's revelation had thrown into his calculations to notice the prime opportunity he was missing. By the time he realized that his jeans were pooled around his ankles, he'd looked up in time to get a face full of the trousers Arthur had thrown at him, earlier. "How does --"

"I've spent a lifetime curtailing the worst of the outcomes of Morgana's visions," Arthur said, answering the question before Merlin could finish. "I've always been successful before, and I'll be successful this time, because I have plans for the aftermath."

"Um," Merlin said, because he'd seen that look in Arthur's eyes before.

"It involves gratuitous nudity, explosive victory sex, and you moving into my flat." Arthur crossed his arms challengingly. "Do you have a problem with that?"

Merlin tilted his head in consideration of the imagery that accompanied Arthur's bald statement, and deemed it acceptable. He let the fantasy wash over him for several minutes, ignoring Arthur's urging nudges to Get dressed, Merlin, and, eventually --

(sadly)

-- tore himself out of his own head. He waved his arms in the air in protest.

"No problem whatsoever, but I bloody well see through you, you prat," Merlin said. "You're not distracting me with sex."

"Can't I?" Arthur asked, his expression smug.

"I have to do the maths on this," Merlin said, turning in search for his laptop. He shoved journal papers aside, lifted his hoodie from the desk, and delicately shoved the mouldy pizza slice he'd completely forgotten about into the rubbish bin.

Arthur turned him around and held him firmly until Merlin paid attention. "No maths. No elaborate theorems. No pages-long calculations. You don't need all that."

"But --"

"Take it on faith," Arthur said. "Trust me."

Merlin's shoulders slumped. He looked down at his hands. "I do."

"Good," Arthur said, and tugged Merlin's shirt off.

"But if you're wrong, I'm going to resurrect you and kill you, you know that?"

Arthur's laugh and smothering kiss was answer enough.

(Much later, on the way to the site, Merlin frowned, and turned to Arthur. "Wait. I'm moving into your flat?")

 

 

Twenty-three minutes after Merlin magically wrote, Cornelius Sigan is a stupid poopface, in big white letters in the rare clear blue British sky, the Sigan-Cole entity appeared.

It was too bad, because that was only the second message in the list that Arthur had given Merlin. He would've at least wanted to see number #8 -- Cornelius Sigan is an absolute wazzock.

(He'd been particularly proud of that one.)

The entity had arrived, in all things, a taxicab. It wasn't even a black cab, though Arthur couldn't really fault the entity for that. At his earliest opportunity, he'd hacked Cole's mobile to make sure that whoever he called would receive his identification as Cornelius Sigan, Evil Overlord. Taxi companies were run by intelligent people; they kept a list of troublesome fares they never wanted to pick up again, and seeing that on their Call Display would've garnered an immediate hang-up.

(In contrast, Merlin's mobile read: Dr. M., and no one had hung up on him, yet. Last week's client didn't count. She'd been so excited to get a phone call from Merlin that she'd dropped her mobile on the floor, where it had been promptly stolen by the Cthulhu offspring that had taken to haunting her loo. She'd called back as soon as she'd wrestled her phone from the baby Lord of the Depths, apologising profusely. There were freshly-baked biscuits when they'd arrived to take care of the problem, and they'd been delicious.)

Still, the not-taxicab was actually an Uber, from what Arthur could tell through his binoculars. He made a mental note to corrupt the app on Cole's mobile, or at least write a subroutine to block Cole's account through Uber, but then decided a second later that there was no need, since Merlin would take care of the problem in short order. Arthur couldn't help feeling sorry for the driver, whose expression was a combination of deep regret for their life choices and mortal fear for their continued survival. As soon as the entity slammed the door shut, the Uber driver peeled off like a bloody bat out of Hell.

Arthur didn't blame him.

Sigan-Cole stormed down the empty city streets, happened on a gap between buildings to see the latest message in the sky -- Cornelius Sigan isn't a tosser if he can't get it up in the first place -- and howled in outrage. The entity blorbed, its shape distending outside of the logical limits of the possible physical outline of a human being, and windmilled its arms as it threw fireball after blue fireball at the sky.

The entity's aim was terrible. It struck most of the building, effectively demolishing it, and once the flight path was clear, the fireballs didn't have any lasting power. Or rather, the entity didn't have much of a throwing arm.

It was appropriate that the next message in the sky was, Clearly, Cornelius Sigan was always picked last for cricket, which wasn't on the list of insults that Arthur had given Merlin. That meant Merlin was gaining some confidence as Sigan-Cole approached, if he was enthusiastically involved in taking the piss out of the entity.

Arthur thought that was a good thing.

Sigan-Cole threw back its head and roared. Its body crackled, but didn't blorb. Arthur wished he understood what that meant, and belatedly remembered he had a radio in his hand and asked Merlin.

"Let's say that the entity keeps losing its shape," Arthur asked, keeping his binoculars trained in Sigan-Cole continued advance toward its target. "What would that imply?"

"I dunno," Merlin said. Arthur could almost hear his shrug. "That it's not a stable possession?"

Arthur considered that, then shook his head, even though Merlin couldn't see him. "Not according to the footage Gwaine recovered from Ground Zero. Cole looked fairly willing; he walked right into the pit you nearly fell into."

"Willing doesn't equal stable," Merlin said, and Arthur heard the eye-roll in Merlin's tone, even if he couldn't see it from across the river. "Did you know there are so many free spirits in the world, that it's a miracle we're not all possessed now?"

"You don't say," Arthur said, frowning through the binoculars.

"Doesn't matter if Cole was willing," Merlin countered. "The container has to be compatible. If it's not compatible, things start falling apart. Sometimes the entity is just too big to be contained. If the ley lines healed Sigan's disembodied soul with negavoid energy, then it's possible the soul is just too big to fit in a body that's meant for one skinny bloke. It's like a dam trying to hold back more water than it was built for. Eventually, it'll spring a few leaks. Wait long enough, and something will go critical, and it'll blow. It's like that hole I told you about, the one in Lance's room at his flat? It didn't have any kind of containment, so it spilled out everywhere. Same idea."

"Hm." Arthur scratched his jaw. He watched as Sigan-Cole destroyed another building out of sheer frustration.

(They'd picked this particular waterfront area for the confrontation for a reason.

It was a deserted worksite for a string of poorly-designed and greatly-underfunded private homes that a now-defunct architectural firm had hoped to build quickly on cheap land using substandard material and underqualified labour. Most of their budget had gone to local councillors in the shape of bribes in the hopes of selling the finished housing for hundreds of thousands of pounds more than they were worth.

But the police got wind of a completely different embezzlement scam perpetrated by the company owner, and the investigation effectively shut down every aspect of his operations. The buildings were an eyesore, and Arthur was more than happy to save the city some money by letting a rampaging monster tear them down. Maybe it would encourage the new local councillors to recoup the land and turn it into a lovely little park. This part of town was rather bland-looking and could use some greening-up.

And, anyway, it was ideal because the area was nowhere near Ground Zero and in a patch where there were no nearby ley-lines, effectively cutting off any energy sources for the entity and forcing it to engage Merlin using nothing but its own reserves of magic. The situation was as optimised in Merlin's favour as they could engineer it.

Also, it had clear line-of-sight. Arthur was nothing if not a voyeur at heart.)

"How did you handle the situation at Lance's flat again?" Arthur asked.

"Well," Merlin said, sounding embarrassed. "Before or after I terrorised the landlord?"

Arthur snorted. "Whichever part solved the problem."

"Put the breach under a containment ward. Made the energy source inaccessible to the manifestations outside of the flat. Waited until the void's power started pushing against the wards and let it blow itself out. Repaired the breach," Merlin said.

Arthur guessed from the lack of elaborations and pointed sentences that Merlin was too distracted to go into the magical theory behind his reasoning for taking that particular approach, something for which he was grateful. Not having a doctorate degree in metaphysics, Arthur couldn't always understand what Merlin was talking about, never mind keep up with Merlin when he got going on a tangent.

He turned the binoculars to the rooftop where Merlin was hiding -- as opposed to the rooftop where the illusionary decoy-Merlin was flamboyantly writing things in the air with a feathered pen, pasting a new insult in the sky -- and saw that Merlin was checking his mobile.

He rolled his eyes and clicked the radio a few times to get Merlin to pay attention.

"What are the odds that the Sigan entity will blow itself up?" Arthur asked.

"I can't even begin to calculate," Merlin said, sounding somewhat bitter. He held up his mobile as if he'd been trying to do the maths before Arthur had interrupted, but the resolution on Arthur's binoculars didn't let him see that clearly. "I mean, I could treat it like a walking, talking, stroppy void to the netherworld, but it's not exactly the same thing, and I don't have all the variables. I could've looked them up, but I've been a little distracted by a completely different problem, you bloody wanker."

"For the last time," Arthur began. He paused. He hadn't realised that Merlin had gotten himself completely wound up over Morgana's visions. He should have noticed Merlin's withdrawal some time ago. He should have spent some time reassuring Merlin that the situation was under control. For example, he could have at least mentioned the extraordinary number of times Morgana had seen him dying in one fashion or another -- usually spectacularly -- and somehow avoiding death no matter what, even when he hadn't known danger was coming.

Technically, Merlin's temper was entirely Arthur's fault for not reassuring him on the subject. But also, technically, it was Merlin's fault, too, for not telling Arthur what was eating at him all this time. For all that he wore his heart on his sleeve, Merlin was surprisingly good at keeping secrets.

Arthur rubbed his forehead in annoyance and adjusted his glasses. In a calmer voice, he said, "Can we just agree to have angry make-up sex, later?"

"Is this before or after you die?" Merlin snapped.

"Faith, Merlin," Arthur reminded him. "And besides, I've already started moving you into my flat. You just haven't noticed yet. If I'm that confident, that should tell you something."

Merlin didn't answer right away.

"Before or after the victory sex?" Merlin asked. He tried to sound nonchalant, but Arthur could hear the uptick of interest in his voice.

"Before, I think. We can combine it with the Thank-God-You're-Alive sex, if necessary," Arthur said. "Get all the nervous energy out first, then we can rest before the marathon victory sex."

"You blokes realise you're on an open line?" Isolde cut in.

"Don't stop on our account," Gwaine said quickly.

"Can I film it?" Elena asked.

"I don't want to be hearing this," Will moaned.

"Shut up, Will," Freya said.

In the distance, Arthur saw the military convoy heading their way. It wasn't merely a convoy, either -- there were a few tanks, a number of fast-response vehicles, several of which were heavily armoured and equipped with heavy artillery normally intended for taking down airplanes or submarines. Arthur had hoped it wouldn't come to this, but someone had to intervene, and it might as well be him.

Morgana's visions had told him that much.

Regretting he wouldn't be able to stick around to watch Merlin take down the Sigan-Cole entity any longer, Arthur heaved a sigh and retreated from the rooftop of his half-constructed building, taking the rickety elevator down to the ground floor.

On the way, he answered everyone: "We're aware, we don't care. Fuck you Gwaine, we're not your personal peep show. Elena, I'm not paying you to open up a porn studio, so, definitely not. Will, pay attention, you're our liaison with the police, and the evacuations need to go smoothly if the entity escapes the perimeter. Freya..."

Arthur marched across the builder's yard and positioned himself in the middle of the road. There was only one logical route through and Arthur was currently blocking it. He waited until he saw the glint of sunlight reflecting from the windows of the fast response vehicle before issuing his last order.

"Freya, release the hounds."

He paused before putting his radio away, and considered.

You better win this one didn't quite have the impact that Arthur wanted to make. Good luck seemed too impersonal, and that was the last thing he wanted Merlin to hear at this late stage in the game. So, instead, he said, "I love you, Merlin."

Then, he threw his radio over his shoulder as far as he could, because he was that much of a coward, thank you very much, and he damn well knew it.

(It was the only time Arthur was ever going to admit to being guilty of anything remotely resembling cowardice, and he was very, very grateful that no one was around to see him slap his hands over his face and regret what he'd just done. But then, he realized that the current situation was untenable, and that he'd better compartmentalize and Deal With This later.)

Arthur raised his hands in the air in surrender. He didn't move as the vehicles bore down on him. There wasn't so much as a flinch as the lead truck came to a stop a bare centimetre from his knees, though he did blink repeatedly against the dust that had been kicked up by the wheels, and wished he hadn't traded his glasses in for his contact lenses. Glasses would've hampered him in a fight, though, and he'd rather be able to see.

When the dust died down and two soldiers emerged from the rear passenger seat on either side of the vehicle, Arthur wriggled the fingers of one hand in greeting, and said, "Hello."

The soldiers didn't respond. Their assault rifles were tucked against their shoulders, their attention firmly focused down the sightlines of their weapons, and the muzzles were trained dead centre on Arthur's chest.

It wasn't quite the scenario Morgana had Seen in the latest variation of her Arthur-Dies-The-End-Of-The-World-Is-Nigh visions, but it was close, and Arthur just had to play the game a little longer.

"My name is Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon, who is the owner of Pendragon Unlimited Media. If you shoot me, my father will be very unhappy, and he'll be sure to let the entire world know. I'm not sure how he plans on doing that, but knowing him, it's definitely going to be somewhat embarrassing to our government and our armed forces, given that I'm not armed and not threatening you in any way. By the way, as I'm concerned that I might be misrepresented, we are on video and this conversation is being recorded," Arthur said, and waited for a reaction.

There was none, but that was all right, because nobody was shooting him just yet. On the flipside, more people began to emerge from their vehicles, and very shortly, he was completely surrounded by soldiers tricked out in all sorts of body armour, nylon netting, weaponry, and urban camouflage. It was starting to look more like the scene Morgana had described to him that morning over the phone.

He shouldn't feel satisfied about that, but he did.

Arthur waited a minute more. "I'm also an employee of Evil Overlord, Incorporated. My job title is complicated, but let's simplify it a little bit. I'm Dr. M's Second."

He saw at least two soldiers exchange glances. Another one adjusted his grip on his automatic rifle. And yet, no clear leader advanced.

Arthur took that as a sign to continue, so he did. "In case you're thinking that means I'm nothing more than his personal assistant, allow me to correct your false assumption. Should something happen to Dr. M and he becomes unable to complete the task he has set himself, the duty falls to me. Perhaps you should take a moment to think about what kind of power Dr. M has demonstrated and decide for yourselves what kind of person the Evil Overlord of London would trust to be able to accomplish the task that he couldn't."

Almost as if it had been choreographed, a thundering blast from somewhere behind him.

It resounded like the clang of distorted bells, boomed its way through the unfinished buildings around them, and sent a rush of dusty wind down the road. Arthur was reassured by the golden glitters of magic in the air, which settled right along with the sand, and sincerely wished he could return to the rooftops where he'd left his binoculars so he could watch the battle.

From the pins-and-needles sensation trickling on his skin, and the loud, alien noises that sounded like a technorock band doing their best to blow out their amps, Arthur was fairly certain it was a good show. Elena had better be doing her job directing the camera crews, or Arthur would be very put out that he'd had to come deal with this annoying little detail of stopping the army from interfering so that Merlin could do his job.

He coughed a little to clear his throat, and looked directly at the soldiers who were in front of him before settling his attention to the driver of the vehicle right in front of him, and to the passenger next to him.

"I'm sure you're thinking that this is a load of bollocks. That I'm bluffing. Allow me to save you the trouble of looking up my status: I am, in fact, Registered, though I am, thus far, unclassified, as no one has been able to identify where I fit on the spectrum." Arthur paused. "Here's a hint. There's no spectrum for what I am."

("You're something, all right," Merlin said, his brow furrowing. "But I'm stumped.")

Arthur shrugged, splayed his raised hands in a What are you going to do about it gesture, and smirked. The situation hadn't changed to perfectly match Morgana's vision quite yet, so he couldn't begin the countdown to the zero point when he was supposed to be shot and killed. That moment was coming, however, if the tension around him was any indicator.

Oh, and the Hellhounds. Arthur was pretty sure that was his favourite, Cathal, over there behind the soldiers, sniffing at the rear wheel of the vehicle and raising its leg.

Nobody noticed the sound of trickling pee -- who could, with the absolute racket that Merlin was causing a couple of blocks and a river that-a-way -- or the hacking sound Cathal made a few seconds later, when it trotted over to the nearby building and spat up a good-sized flame.

(Freya promised that Hellhounds were easy to house train and that they learned new tricks all the time. Sit, roll over, shake paws, and, fetch the nice man's left hand were the games they liked best, though both Arthur and Merlin wished that the left hands belonged to dead people to begin with. On the plus side, Mordred was getting a lot of practice reattaching dismembered limbs.

Setting a ring of fire around a designated area decorated with treats was child's play, Freya said, though she did wish Gilli had discovered the Hellhounds' ability to use their sulfuric fire and suffocating brimstone to disrupt radio signals and WIFI a lot sooner. She was a fantastic animal trainer, but she wasn't a miracle worker.

Either way, Merlin had been pleased to be able to update his personal bestiary with this new piece of information, while Arthur happily returned the jammers he'd purchased to block any signal sent to launch negavoid missiles. Military grade jammers were expensive, even on the black market, and he made a small profit in the re-sale.)

Arthur noted there was still no reaction from the gentlemen in the army vehicles, though some of the soldiers were beginning to notice the quickly-spreading fire.

Arthur hummed to himself. He was amused to note he was following the rhythm of the magical battle going on behind him. He imagined a few fireballs here, a couple of concussion blast there, some lightning bolts, and a lot of cursing and swearing as the background lyrics to the stuttering collapse of a building or two. The soldiers were getting increasingly spooked, the hellfire had surrounded them completely and was continuing to climb the buildings, and --

Finally.

Just like in Morgana's vision, the pillock in the passenger seat climbed out of the car. Morgana hadn't been able to See him clearly in the earlier visions, but that morning she'd confirmed that Tómas Aredian was the bloke who was going to murder Arthur.

Aredian was a tall, sallow, hollow-cheeked fellow with a modest comb-over to hide a bald spot on the back of his head and a manicured goatee that was far more Evil Overlord than an actual Evil Overlord. He was built like a bureaucrat and dressed like one right down to his brown socks, starched shirts, and horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

Arthur admitted it. He was a little disappointing. He thought he'd be going against someone a little more... grand.

"Hullo, there," Arthur said, but Aredian was too busy raising a small black box into the air and repeatedly punching a button. After a few minutes, he howled, much as the Sigan-Cole entity had done, earlier. Aredian threw the black box into the army vehicle, where it struck the driver and disappeared out of sight. Innocently, Arthur asked, "Problems?"

"You're doing this," Aredian snarled, pointing an accusing finger in Arthur's direction.

"Hm," Arthur said, raising and dropping a shoulder. "My lawyer asked me to make her life easier and advised me not to cop to anything. But for curiosity's sake, what, exactly, am I doing?"

"Shoot him!" Aredian shouted.

"Video cameras," Arthur reminded, which made all of the soldiers pause, if they weren't already giving Aredian suspicious glances. "For the record, the person ordering my assassination is Tómas Aredian, the deputy Minister of the Ministry of Supernatural Supervision and the Chairperson of the Humans First! Council, which, incidentally, has been directly funding the Magical Registry Office. I thought that was supposed to be a publicly-funded, government-run agency. Would you care to comment on that, Mr. Aredian?"

"How dare you --" Aredian sputtered.

"What I believe Mr. Aredian is trying to accuse me of is jamming the transmitter to a remote missile launcher equipped with a small explosive payload capable of destroying an area half a mile in every direction, destroying every building and killing every inhabitant who live there. That missile is a new, improved prototype to the negavoid device that turned part of North London into a supernatural wasteland some twenty years ago.

"Mr. Aredian is also rather upset that I'm blocking the convoy, preventing him from positioning himself at a ringside seat out of the blast range that will kill a lot of innocent people when he launches a missile with sufficient fallout to negatively impact sixty-some percent of the population that happens to have supernatural genetics," Arthur said with a sly grin. He tilted his head in mock consideration. "Isn't that about the sum of it?"

Aredian stared at him, bug-eyed and slack-jawed. Some of the soldiers nearest to Aredian were giving him wary looks and were inching away.

"Meanwhile, what he's neglected to mention is that, despite the forged documents to the contrary, he doesn't actually have the authority to lead this particular mission. Seriously, who would even fall for that to start with?"

Arthur looked around. At least two of the senior personnel were glancing at each other.

"I mean, really? Mr. Aredian has no army background or associated rank, honorary or otherwise. He isn't a super-secret spy under the auspices of Her Majesty's service -- I should know, I used to work for them. And... Oh, what am I forgetting?"

Arthur lowered one of his raised hands to tap at his forehead, his expression frowning in theatrics he'd learned from Gwen. Dramatic pauses were always the most flamboyant, though he did wish he had a proper Evil Overlord cloak to perform a villain's swish with.

"Oh, yes! Weren't you responsible for figuring out that the negavoid bomb didn't actually kill Cornelius Sigan twenty years ago, but instead provided the means in which his soul could be preserved? And, once you deemed the soul ripe for the proverbial plucking, ensured that an appropriate vessel was available for Sigan to possess, all for no other reason than to save your family company from bankruptcy? The very same company manufacturing the negavoid bombs that they're selling to our government for an exorbitant fee?"

(Arthur made a mental note to send George a thank-you basket of knobs for finding that little tidbit.)

Arthur paused again, taking note of how the soldiers had spread out a little more, and how it was getting awfully close to the point when he was supposed to die. He ignored the trickle of sweat running down his spine and pressed on.

"A pity that you didn't count on Dr. M."

On the other side of the river, there was one majestic blast. It erupted in a mushroom cloud of pale blue light at the stem, brilliant gold at the neck, and silvery, fluffy clouds that faded into the afternoon sunlight in prismatic shades of blue, orange, and grey.

(Arthur could have kissed Merlin. They couldn't have synchronised the magical battle with Arthur's speech any better if they'd tried.)

A gentle rush of air swept past Arthur, like the ocean lapping at the shore, and Arthur, for the first time, turned his head away from Aredian to watch the mushroom cloud fade away in a trickle of sparks, the residual power in the air settling into his bones the same way that the oppressive silence of the aftermath of a war created hallowed, holy ground.

The battle was over. Arthur was pretty sure about that. It meant Merlin would be here soon. He'd promised he would be.

Arthur turned to look at Aredian, knowing exactly what he'd see. Morgana's vision allowed for no surprises, though it was disconcerting to see a gun pointed in his direction.

This was the scene Morgana had Seen, moments before he was shot. Arthur reminded himself not to brace for the bullet. He knew it would hurt so much more if he was tense, and forced an easy smile onto his lips.

"Feeling inadequate, Mr. Aredian?"

Aredian fired.

Somehow, the crack of a single bullet was louder and more encompassing than the biggest magical bomb Merlin could drop on top of the Sigan-Cole entity's head. The world slowed -- but didn't quite come to a stop the way it did when Merlin's magic froze time -- and Arthur saw the bullet's spiralling approach with frightening clarity, unable to help his fascination with the turbulent eddies in the air that were left in the wake of its passage.

He should dodge, he thought, but the rational part of his brain reminded him that he was neither Merlin, to be able to move freely when time was stuck in its own loop, and nor was he actually a supernatural to be able to withstand the damage caused by a normal bullet.

(That was why he wore three layers of the most cutting-edge bulletproof materials under his clothes. It had taken his tailor over on Jermyn St. a damnably long time to get the fabric to drape properly, without obviously being body armour, and it would pass muster on the fashion runways in Milan.

However, it could stand to be a bit more breathable, and Arthur resolved to pass on that very important feedback. Everyone wanted to look good, but absolutely no one wanted to sweat like a pig in the process.)

Time stuttered, accelerating like someone pushing the Skip button on a telly remote instead of Play. As soon as Arthur had the flitting thought about body armour did he realise, Fuckshite, I've been shot.

A 9mm bullet didn't have a whole lot of knockback power. That wasn't why Arthur took a step back. Sheer offence at the gall of his opponent for having pulled the trigger in the first place had been the driving force, but when he put his foot down, his entire leg, then his body, collapsed under the shock.

Because.

Fuck.

It hurt.

Fleetingly, Arthur fretted that the body armour hadn't worked the way it was supposed to. Had Aredian loaded armour piercers into his gun? That absolute twatwaffle! That wasn't playing by the rules!

He landed on the gravel road with a floppy-limbed, nerveless splat, Hopefully, Arthur would appear a lot more graceful on video, or Morgana would never let him live it down, and his father would tut-tut about the importance of making a good appearance on camera.

For a second, his vision darkened, as if he'd knocked himself out, but just as quickly, everything brightened with unspeakable clarity, as if the sun had emerged from behind a thick, threatening storm cloud.

Arthur's chest throbbed. He glanced down to where his hand had risen up to cover the injured area only to discover that there was no blood, and that the body armour had held up fairly well, given the circumstances. His pectoral muscle ached, and he had a feeling there would be a bruise, later.

(Kevlar, he remembered, worked under the principle of stretchy fibres tightening under fast, impacted pressure. It was why it was generally useless when showing up dressed for a gun fight but the weapon of choice was knives. Sharp edges and blunt edges didn't use the same amount of force and couldn't engage the special fibres as effectively.

It was, Arthur realizsd, a flaw that must have transferred to fibrous nanomaterials and why most army grunts swore by ceramic plates, instead. Arthur would have to recommend the company making the fabric return to the drawing board. Bruises were as unappealing as sweat.)

"Jesus fucking Christ," Arthur groaned.

He shifted onto his side, because, bruise or not, the pain of being shot had transferred to his organs while setting his nerves on fire. That was the reason that he didn't immediately notice the rising electricity in the air. Once he realised that the sharp, acrid smell wasn't anywhere like gunpowder and more like ozone, Arthur looked up in time to see Merlin murder-walking toward them.

It was fantastic.

Merlin was absolutely fucking done, and not even a blind man could miss it. His unbridled rage showed in every stalking step down the imperfect gravel road. It was a physical presence in the way his magic crackled in the air around him, lightning trailing in his wake. And there was absolutely no doubt who his target was, because if looks could kill, Aredian would have been a very dead -- thoroughly obliterated from existence -- man.

Arthur grunted, shook the residual pain off as much as possible, and forced himself to his feet. Merlin didn't seem to notice that Arthur was just fine, thanks, because, apparently, seeing someone holding a smoking gun over Arthur's prone body was the one thing capable of dousing Merlin in blinding fury.

Quiet gasps of surprise echoed in surround sound as Arthur tottered to his feet. Arthur ignored the soldiers -- he doubted they would shoot him, now, and, maybe, Aredian would be too surprised to have another go. Arthur brushed himself down while giving Merlin a critical once-over.

The navy blue suit was a loss, of course. The special bulletproof material hadn't held up against magical rounds or whatever it was that the Sigan-Cole entity had used against Merlin. The jacket was half-burned, there was something that looked suspiciously like blood down one leg, and Arthur suspected even the best dry cleaner in London wouldn't know how to get it out of this particular type of fabric.

His hair was in disarray, but that had more to do with being in sore need of a haircut. The scrape along his jaw, on the other hand, made Arthur scowl, because there was no reason for that to be there. It was a pity that the Sigan-Cole entity was taken care of, or Arthur would have had to do something in retaliation.

"You shot my partner," Merlin said, his voice the quiet, draconian growl of someone about to fuck shite up. The sound sent a thrill of excitement down Arthur's spine paired with a level of arousal that was inappropriate given the situation, but didn't keep Arthur from stepping into Merlin's path and putting a hand on his arm to stop him.

Merlin's magic crackled, but immediately dissipated when he turned, recognised Arthur, and realised that Arthur was alive. Merlin's rage vanished, he melted like a scoop of ice cream on a hot grill, and the tremendous grin of delight and pure joy had better have been caught on camera.

Merlin's eyes traced down to Arthur's chest to where slightly-scorched fibres marked the spot where Arthur had been shot. His gaze flicked up to seek out Arthur, but the flash of irritation in his eyes was tempered by how bloody happy he seemed to be that Arthur was all right.

"That's right," Arthur said, turning slowly until he found Aredian in the crowd.

Arthur might have braced himself more on Merlin than he'd meant to, because his entire left side hurt like bloody heck, but nobody needed to know that. From the expression on everyone else's faces, however, Arthur had the feeling they thought he was invulnerable.

(Honestly, with Merlin at his side, he sure felt like he was.)

Arthur lingered over the sight in front of him. Aredian with his gun limp in his hand, ineffective and impotent. The soldiers who gaped at Arthur and shot angry looks in Aredian's direction. The guns that were aimed at the ground, at Arthur, at Merlin. Arthur smiled pleasantly.

"And I'm sure these fine soldiers will disarm him and take him into custody for the attempted murder of an unarmed bystander," Arthur said. "They might want to hold onto him in case he decides to leave the country before the full investigation on his other activities is complete. There might be more charges pending."

"But," Merlin protested, clearly out for revenge. Arthur laid a soothing hand on his shoulder.

"If they don't, you can take care of him later."

Arthur turned Merlin away and guided him back the way he'd come, earlier, but not before Arthur had the satisfaction of seeing Isolde in uniform, appearing out of nowhere to wrench the gun out of Aredian's hand, and to order the soldiers to stand down.

 

 

One exclusive interview with Uther Pendragon, two unavoidable press conferences, four mandatory attendances at their favourite pubs celebrating the rise and fall of Cornelius Sigan, and fifty-two hours later, Merlin found himself sitting on the pavement outside his flat. He was in a ratty T-shirt and an equally ratty pair of jeans, nursing the Mother Of All Hangovers.

He wasn't altogether certain of the details. Gilli's explanation had been hazy. Apparently, some enterprising Dr. M fan had hacked the interwebs and somehow tracked his comings and goings to a building that existed only on paper but wasn't showing up on video, and followed that up by leaking the information to Reddit with the subheading, Dr M's Secret Lair???? Now, the flat he shared with his best mates was no longer secure in a very permanent way.

It wasn't just the people who had figured out the address or who were camping on the front yard in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Dr. M or Arthur Pendragon that made it impossible to get home. Some of it was the media, but a large portion of the crowd consisted of undercover agents for the Magical Registry Office, who didn't understand the concept of blending in.

Either way, it made coming and going difficult, since not everyone could make themselves turn invisible and walk past everyone unnoticed. Or stop time and walk past everyone unnoticed. Or was virtually unrecognisable, and capable of walking past everyone unnoticed.

Merlin rubbed his face.

Yeah, Merlin was good with avoiding them all. His head being the way it was, he couldn't promise he wouldn't banish everyone, MRO agents, annoying reporters, and innocent fans, to a dimension with big monsters who thought human beings made perfect pre-dinner aperitifs.

That was why he was sitting on the kerb outside of Arthur's building, watching his decidedly more sober mates moving box after box of books, manuscripts, journal papers, personal belongings, and clothes. He should be helping, but he couldn't muster up the energy to move.

He didn't remember drinking that much.

(It probably happened during the impromptu staff meeting, sometime between the second and third bottle of tequila, but definitely before Morgana arrived and popped the champagne bottle. Merlin's recollection of that time frame was a little fuzzy.)

"Admit it, you're going to miss us," Will said, plopping down on the pavement next to Merlin, draping his arm around Merlin's shoulders. "Maybe not all that much, since we've got actual offices, now, and we're supposed to show up on Tuesday once the paint fumes have dried. But you'll miss us, yeah?"

Merlin blinked at him. He said the only thing he could think of. "I was promised victory sex."

Will recoiled with a disgusted scowl. "Jesus, Merlin."

Will got up and walked to the small lorry Arthur had rented to move everyone out of the flat. Merlin had no idea when everything got packed -- or how, given the hubbub on the pavement outside their old lodgings -- but Freya had kissed Merlin on the cheek earlier and thanked him for making things easier.

(He had a suspicion that, during the impromptu staff meeting, sometime between the second and third bottle of tequila, he'd been conned into using his magic to pack up their belongings and to load up the lorry when Gilli gave them the heads-up about the Reddit spoiler. They all wanted to get out before the Internet crowds began to appear on their doorstep, which, Merlin had to admit, was sound reasoning.)

It was mid-afternoon, and everyone else had been moved into their temporary-turned-permanent safe houses. Everyone had discovered that they rather enjoyed living alone, and the safe houses were far better than the flat they were renting, so it wasn't a hard decision to abandon ship. The only one who refused to move was Lance, because he had a great rental rate, and a landlord who was awfully quick to handle any problems he might have with building maintenance. At some point, Merlin would have to visit everyone to make sure their wards would hold, but it could wait until his head wasn't splitting in two.

"You've traumatised Will," Mordred said, taking the spot Will had vacated moments before.

"Good," Merlin said absentmindedly, not quite registering Mordred's words. His face scrunched up, and he asked, "Sorry, what?"

"Fuck's sake, Merlin. Your breath could kill Giant Hogweed," Mordred said, putting his hand on Merlin's face and shoving him away. Merlin tipped over and lay there, half on the hard pavement, half on the wilting grass. Mordred got up, took a box from Sefa's arms, and headed inside.

Gilli stepped over Merlin's body. After a minute, so did Sefa, who was followed by Elena. Merlin didn't know when Elena became part of their little group, but he didn't mind. She seemed to be less clumsy and more self-assured around them, which was something of a relief.

Merlin watched everyone scurry about for a while before wondering (a) why everyone was moving as if they were pain-free, and (b) how everyone was sober enough to move. They drank as much, if not more, than he'd had. It didn't occur to him until afterward to realize that a = b, but a + b did not equal c, which meant that c needed to be resolved by some sort of quantum physics equation whereby one must first discover what c was supposed to be in the first place.

He covered his head with his hands and groaned. Even thinking hurt.

"The world's unfair," Merlin said, to no one in particular. He started counting blades of grass, which made him sleepy, and he felt himself snoring a few minutes later.

Something -- someone -- nudged him roughly. "You can't sleep on the ground, Merlin," Arthur complained.

"Watch me," Merlin said.

"Come on, you have to get up," Arthur insisted, and pulled on Merlin's arm. Merlin let it happen, because he had neither the strength to fight back, nor the energy to help. Someone else came joined in with the manhandling until Merlin was more or less upright and mostly draped over Arthur's side, but whoever it was, they moved away before Merlin could thank them.

(It was probably Will. He smelled like wet dog when he was sweaty.)

Arthur snorted, and said, "Yeah, that was Will. He smells like wet dog anyway."

"I can hear you, you know!" Will shouted, and his voice rang loudly in Merlin's ears. Merlin whined and reached to hold his head, but missed and ended up with a hand full of Arthur's glasses and a clump of hair instead.

"Did I say that out loud?"

"You did, yeah," Arthur said, and thankfully, he was considerate enough to keep his voice soft. Merlin liked to think he sounded fond, but hopefully he would never let Merlin drink again, Oh my fucking God.

"I'll try, but you're rather fond of your tequila," Arthur said. His lips found Merlin's temple and pressed a kiss there, but it didn't do a whole lot to make the pain go away. "And, yes, I am fond. A little exasperated, though, just so you know. Are you always like this when you're drunk?"

"You weren't supposed to hear that. That was in my head," Merlin complained. He looked down and noticed his feet were moving. "Are we moving?"

"Up to the flat," Arthur confirmed. "Nearly done moving your rubbish. I'm ordering a few more bookcases -- how in the world did you manage to keep so many books in that tiny closet you called a room?"

"Magic," Merlin said, and was grateful when Arthur leaned him in the corner of the lift. Arthur was nice and solid and warm, but what Merlin really needed right now was some ice on his skull, and the metal panels were cool to the touch.

"I'll get you some," Arthur promised, and, how lovely was he? Merlin was absolutely lucky to have him. "Yes, you are. But you're drinking some water and taking paracetamol, because I am not unpacking your things for you. The last book I tried to put away nearly bit my fingers off."

"Stop stealing my books," Merlin muttered, and, oh, they were moving again, this time to Arthur's flat, which had a lovely-looking bed in it, not that Merlin had had the chance to test it out before. Which reminded him: "I was promised victory sex."

"Maybe when you're not dying," Arthur said. He sniffed the air. "And after a shower. And about a litre of mouthwash."

"I'll have you know I'm a delicate fucking flower," Merlin protested. "I smell like one, too."

"As lovely as a corpse flower," Sefa said, climbing into the lift just as Arthur pulled Merlin out, but the doors closed before Merlin could retort. Not that he had one. Maybe later.

"Why aren't you hungover?" Merlin asked instead.

"Because some of us can hold our drink," Arthur said. "Unlike you."

"Ugh," Merlin said, because it was the only comeback he could think of.

There was a whirlwind of movement, a flash of bright light before curtains somewhere were pulled closed, and the softness of Arthur's Very Expensive Sofa. He was left there for who knew how long before Mordred shoved Merlin over, pushed him into a sitting position, and said, "Drink this."

It turned out to be water, with something sweet and bitter, like a mandarin orange with too much rind. Merlin drank it all and reached for more, but the second glass was only plain water, this time, and Mordred was good enough to help him balance the glass before he poured it all over himself. Then, as was typical of the bloody pillock that he was, Mordred let him fall onto the sofa again.

Merlin distantly heard him say, "Don't bother with paracetamol. I just gave him my hangover cure."

(And Merlin only finds out now that Mordred had a cure all along?)

The outraged squawk belonged to Arthur. "You had a hangover cure? Why didn't you give him that before?"

(Thank you, Arthur.)

A hand ran through Merlin's hair, and it probably belonged to Arthur, and he was doing that because Merlin had probably spoken out loud again.

"You did," Mordred answered.

"We could've cut the move in half the time," Arthur complained. "He's the one with the lift-and-move magic."

Sure, make me do all the heavy lifting, Merlin tried to say, but he probably wasn't very successful. Arthur's fingers through his hair were a magic all their own.

Mordred snorted. Merlin decided he'd spoken out loud again, and grumbled. Mordred said, "Could have, would have, didn't. For two important reasons. I only learned the recipe from Gaius this morning, and, trust me, he didn't want to share. Also, we wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting into with Merlin."

Merlin mumbled something that wasn't even coherent to himself.

"Isn't he adorable?" Mordred cooed.

I can still hex you, Merlin was pretty sure he warned, then decided, Fuck that, and waved a hand in the air. He felt his magic take some sort of form, but what it was, exactly, he wasn't sure. It must have been frightening, or at least painful, because Mordred shrieked and clambered away. He heard a distant door slam shut.

"You realise he won't be sharing that hangover cure anytime soon?" Arthur warned.

"'m the Evil Overlord. I'll make him share," Merlin said, or thought he said, and drifted off to the feeling of Arthur's fingers giving his scalp a nice massage.

He wasn't sure how long he was detached, boneless, and --

(Let's be honest, here. He'd startled himself awake from a particularly loud snort after he'd probably been snoring like a chainsaw in desperate need of an oil change while cutting through a thick tree trunk with several missing links along the chain. He'd woken up splayed across the sofa, one leg on the floor, his upper body sagging in the space between the sofa and the coffee table. A gaming magazine was stuck to his face by the super glue that was human drool, and he'd been cradling the telly remote in his hand.

Despite all that, Arthur had draped a comfy, incredibly soft blanket over most of his body, had placed a pillow under the magazine that Merlin had been glued to, and must have had adjusted Merlin's grip on the remote so that he wouldn't bean himself in the head when he finally did wake up.

Arthur was a keeper. Merlin wasn't so sure about himself.)

-- quite alone, which was disappointing.

But he was sober, which was excellent.

Most of Merlin's belongings were stacked in the bedroom-turned-study, boxes piled nearly to the ceiling in a neat little corner. The black rubbish bags and duct-taped suitcases that contained his clothes were on top of the futon beneath the window, and his suits, which came in garment bags that Arthur had insisted upon, were hanging from the narrow closet.

Merlin scratched his head, panicked for ten minutes until he found his mobile and the text Arthur had left: Back soon, which was followed by, And by "soon", I mean in an hour from now, and it is now just past 1 PM. Merlin checked the time -- he must have woken up just as Arthur had gone, because he would have nearly an hour to himself.

He took the opportunity to inspect Arthur's refrigerator, helped himself to the sandwich Arthur had left on a plate for him with a post-it note that said, Eat this, and explored the flat some more.

It wasn't a big flat. The sitting room was large enough to accommodate staff meetings, the kitchen was definitely meant for a single cook, and the bathroom was attached to the master bedroom. Merlin didn't see where they'd be able to stick the extra bookshelves Arthur had threatened to buy. Then, he spotted a slight crack in the wall in the corridor next to the spare bedroom and pushed at the bare wall until the secret passage opened wide into what looked to be the much-larger flat next door.

(He never would have suspected there was a secret passage to another flat, never mind found it in the first place, if not for the crack in the wall. Given the elaborate security system he spotted on the inside, Arthur must have left it that way on purpose to make sure Merlin found his way there.

Merlin couldn't wrap his head around the reason why, but then again, he didn't have much brainpower for thinking. He was too busy gaping in awe at the hidden flat-within-a-flat. To list the differences between the other flat and this flat was to try and compare night and day. The secret flat belonged in a home décor magazine, or in an architectural display.

The open design sprawled into vaulted ceilings that reached up to the floor above and to a second level that was almost entirely made out of bookshelves. The kitchen was wider and larger and chef-quality. The sofa in the living room looked more comfortable than the one in the other flat, and was far more appealing because of the big plasma telly.

It was bloody amazing.)

Merlin's mobile buzzed.

I see you found my inner sanctum, Arthur texted. An attachment followed, which was a photograph of Merlin curiously pushing the door in from right above him, a bit to the left. Merlin found the camera, laughed, and waved before texting back.

Who's the Evil Overlord around here?

As if that was ever in doubt. Me, of course, Arthur texted back, which made Merlin crack up. He grinned at his phone, decided, yes, he loved this man. He beamed up at the camera again, smiled wickedly, and went to snoop around some more.

(The flat, Merlin discovered, was far more massive than he'd first thought. He found a computer room so technologically elaborate that he backed out immediately, careful not to touch anything. There was a large walk-in closet in the messy master bedroom that explained why Arthur was always done up to the nines. But the crowning glory was the study in the back of the library with empty bookshelves and space for more, where Merlin found a post-it note that said: Merlin's office.

Merlin would never come right out and say it, but, yeah, he had to agree. Arthur, not Merlin, was definitely the Evil Overlord between the two of them. He had his own bloody secret lair.)

By the time Arthur returned to the flat, Merlin had showered (twice), gargled most of the contents of a nearly-new bottle of mouthwash, gotten dressed in something somewhat respectable, and had planted himself in front of the refrigerator again, trying to decide what he would make them for dinner.

"Arthur? Is that you?" Merlin asked, trying to decide between toast and beans and spag. Someone needed to do the shopping, clearly.

"If it's not, you have a problem," Arthur said, leaning against the doorframe. "That reminds me, you need to ward the flat against Morgana."

"How about against everybody, instead? Easier to maintain." Merlin said. He was quickly distracted by the Hellhound squirming past Arthur's legs to peer into the kitchen. Like most of its breed, it had a sleek, black body and a burnished copper mask on its face. Unlike its littermates, however, this one had a little white mark on the side of its nose, which glistened against the darker fur like a scar, and made it look as if it were permanently sneering. It was the one that Arthur had taken a fancy to. "Freya?"

"She insisted," Arthur said, shrugging. Arthur's hand drifted to scratch at the underside of the Hellhound's pointed ear.

"Ah," Merlin said, frowning in serious agreement. "Yes, because it's such a hardship to take Cathal in."

"It was the price of convincing Freya to give you a day off," Arthur said, raising an eyebrow. Just as Merlin was about to ask, Arthur held up a hand. "Don't ask me what the others wanted in exchange for the promise of leaving you alone today."

Cathal sniffed the air, its ears perking up, and it broke into a big doggy grin, tongue lolling, eyes bright. It scrambled backward and loped off deeper into the flat. Merlin heard the tell-tale sounds of the comfortable sofa creaking under the Hellhound's weight, and winced, but Arthur didn't seem to care about letting the pets up on the furniture.

"Why today in particular?"

"Because," Arthur said, his voice velvet-smooth as he stepped inside, "Today is the day I finally get you all to myself, and this," he pulled out a bouquet of roses from behind his back, "is step one in my master plan to seduce you into staying with me forever."

(Merlin had had a plan to seduce Arthur into exactly the same end-result, and it had involved food. Given the state of the refrigerator, his version of a seduction had been doomed to fail from the very start. He was happy that at least one of them had a better plan in place.)

"Sold," Merlin said, and crashed into Arthur.

The flowers fell onto the floor. Arthur staggered backward until he hit the far wall on the other end of the corridor, the plaster giving under the force of their combined weight.

"Don't think this means we're not going to talk about the body armour you didn't tell me about," Merlin said, in-between gasps for air. "Or that I didn't notice you kept giving me more drinks whenever I asked about it."

"An Evil Overlord has to have some secrets," Arthur said, cutting off Merlin's response with an insistent kiss. It was Merlin's turn to collapse the plaster when Arthur turned them both around with a quick movement that was probably a secret ninja trick, because Merlin had no idea how he'd managed it without magic.

"Is this the victory sex?"

"No," Arthur said, drawing away to favour Merlin with a frown. "This is the desperate first-time getting-together I'm-going-to-be-with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life-whether-you-like-it-or-not sex. The victory sex can be later."

"Huh," Merlin said, unable to hold back his delighted grin. "Well, then. Carry on."

Arthur pressed a kiss that was all the more gentle given the bruises caused by their earlier fervour, and when he pulled back it was with a little smirk and a tilt of his head toward the door. "The wards?"

"Oh -- oh, right," Merlin said, casting something with a haphazard gesture that probably would hold against Morgana, but he didn't have the coherence for something more. He'd install something more robust later, he promised himself, and realised: "Wait. Wouldn't Morgana See what we're doing and stay away?"

Arthur gave him a flat look. "She's my sister. Ask me how many times she's cockblocked me."

"She wouldn't," Merlin said, his voice as flat as Arthur's expression. After a second of thinking about it, Merlin cursed. "Fuck. She would."

He turned and cast a stronger ward on the door. The door shone a bright, vibrant gold, but Merlin didn't have the opportunity to make sure it would hold against low-level-sorcerers-possessed-by-former-Evil-Overlord-sized interruptions before Arthur was dragging him deeper into the flat, past the bedroom door and toward the secret passage that Merlin hadn't quite closed all the way.

"You're already vetted into the security protocols. I'll show you how to get in, later," Arthur said, not stopping for anything, though he did pause long enough to close the entrance completely and to secure the lock with a biometrics reader. "And you'll add a bunch of traps and secret passageways. I have a list of things I want to do. Do you think you can install a moat with crocodiles? I think that would be sufficient deterrent against most people."

"Whatever you say," Merlin agreed, too distracted by Arthur's arse on the way up the stairs.

(That was why he'd tripped on the top of the stairs, suddenly unable to navigate steps when they stopped going up, and nearly face-planted in Arthur's arse.

From the smirk that spread across Arthur's face when he looked over his shoulder, he knew exactly what Merlin had been doing and wouldn't have minded if that had been the end result.)

"Whatever I say, huh?" Arthur asked, twirling Merlin into one of the sturdy oak bookshelves. They were in the military tactics section, and when Merlin glanced at the nearest book, he almost cackled. The title was, How to Take Down Your Opponent.

"Whatever you -- oh --" Merlin started to say, but lost his train of thought somewhere between Arthur's mouth on the side of his throat and Arthur's thigh against his crotch.

Somehow --

(He wasn't sure how. As far as he could tell, Arthur definitely did not have any magic.)

-- after an unknown amount of time --

(A few minutes?)

-- Merlin came up for air to discover he was missing his shirt, his jeans and pants were around his ankles, and Arthur was on his knees. That was all that he was able to process before his cock ended up in Arthur's mouth, he became intimately acquainted with Arthur's deep-throating skills --

(!)

-- and realised that the sneaky prat had either lube in his pocket, or had planned ahead by tucking the packet in the bookcase, because that was a wet finger circling around his hole. Merlin tried to spread his legs more, but he was trapped by his clothes around his jeans, and he couldn't bloody concentrate well enough to use his magic to make the inconvenience go away.

And then, with a particular swirl of Arthur's tongue, followed by the contraction of throat muscles swallowing, Merlin managed a rare moment of clarity that had nothing to do with the desperate first-time getting-together I'm-going-to-be-with-you-for-the-rest-of-your-life-whether-you-like-it-or-not sex they were about to have, and everything with wanting it now, before he came in Arthur's mouth.

He didn't want a bloody blowjob. They'd traded blowjobs and they had been, and continued to be, fantastic. Merlin wanted Arthur's cock in his arse, and that was the one and only reason that he managed to make his clothes vanish.

In the process, his magic took care of Arthur's clothes, too.

Arthur drew away from Merlin's cock to glance down. Merlin's cock bobbed up insistently, saliva-slick, offering up a fresh bead of pre-come, as if it were irresistible bait to lure in his prey. Arthur looked up at him, glasses askew, and said, "Nice trick."

"Thanks," Merlin panted. He gestured impatiently for Arthur to continue.

Arthur, was having none of it. He adjusted his glasses and favoured Merlin with a scowl. "In the process, however, you also took away the condom I had in my back pocket."

"Fuck," Merlin hissed wholeheartedly, and wondered if there was a spell that would get him a whole box of condoms immediately. He couldn't think of one, though, and he let out a growl of frustration.

Arthur cleared his throat. "Perhaps we should have had this discussion before, but I hacked your health files and I know your last test was clean and you haven't been with anyone since it was done. I'd be happy to show you mine, though I assure you are also clean --"

"Ugh," Merlin said, leaning his head back against the bookshelf and covering his eyes with his forearm. The sight of Arthur on his knees, his glasses still slightly askew, talking like a bloody professor with bruised lips -- it was just too much. Merlin surrendered. Arthur was the Evil Overlord, hands down. Merlin was his bloody puppet, and he didn't fucking care. Then, he caught the last of what Arthur was saying:

"... I could load it on my computer --"

Merlin sputtered and twisted in Arthur's grasp, bracing himself against the bookcase. "You could walk down the corridor and do that, or you could fuck me right now.`

There was a long pause. When Merlin looked over his shoulder, it was to see Arthur staring at Merlin's arse as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted to put his mouth there or if he wanted to get to his feet and fuck. Merlin stuck his arse out even more, hoping Arthur would get the hint and fucking decide, already, because Merlin wasn't fussed either way. He could tell the moment that Arthur remembered that he'd already fingered his hole with lube to stretch it, and that lube tasted terrible, even when it was the flavoured, edible kind, because he surged to his feet.

Yes, finally, Merlin thought.

Despite Arthur's enthusiasm, he still hesitated, and Merlin banged his head on the bookcase. "What is it now?"

"Are you sure you want it this way?" Arthur said, his voice hollow, as if it was taking a great deal out of him to be posh and polite.

Merlin glared at the volume of Mapping Changing Territory Lines Over The Centuries: Book Four (United Kingdoms) and hissed, "Desperate first-time getting-together sex, remember? I'm not going to make it to your bedroom. If you don't fuck me right now, I'm finishing myself off and leaving --"

"No!" Arthur's hands tightened at Merlin's hips, and Merlin felt the firm press of a very hard cock between his arse cheeks, just catching the rim of his hole.

Merlin didn't give Arthur much of a choice. He pushed back, and the first, delicious burn drew a strangled noise that was somewhere between a grunt and a moan. Maybe he hadn't been loosened enough; maybe they shouldn't have waited so long to have penetrative sex; or, maybe --

But it reached the point when Merlin didn't feel the burn anymore, and instead enjoyed the satisfaction that came with fullness. Arthur was fully-seated and warm behind him, his breath coming in short, desperate pants between Merlin's shoulder blades, and his hand snaked around Merlin's body to cross his chest and hold him --

The drag of Arthur's cock as it pulled out rubbed Merlin in exactly the most perfect way, but he revised his evaluation a second later when Arthur thrust in, slowly, almost experimentally. He continued in this nearly clinical movement, as if he were studying every approach to decide how best to proceed, until Merlin was ready to scream in frustration.

He did scream, a few seconds later, when Arthur came up with the solution to what must have been an otherwise complicated scientific theorem. Somehow, he'd discovered how Merlin best liked every thrust, how to change the angle just so, how much strength and power needed to be behind it all, and how deep Merlin wanted it, each and every time. It was exactly as perfect as anything in the universe, and Merlin didn't want it to fucking stop.

The bookcase rattled. It bounced against the bookcases on either side of the in-wall construction. A few books bounced loose, but didn't quite fall off their shelves.

It figured that Arthur would fuck like a champion. He was relentless, as if he could go for hours, and that was definitely something Merlin wanted to explore, later. Preferably someplace with a horizontal surface, surrounded with mirrors, so that Merlin could watch the ripple of Arthur's thigh muscle and perfect arse with every thrust.

Arthur shifted his angle again, adjusted the rhythm, and --

Merlin crested unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning crashing down his spine, and he cursed. It was too fast, he had wanted it to last. His come pulsed onto the leather-bound, extremely rare first editions.

Arthur began to stutter, each fuck deeper and harder than the last, until he stopped with a deep exhalation of breath, nearly entirely balls-deep in Merlin's arse.

Merlin laughed softly, unable to help himself. A little hysterically, maybe. Arthur was breathing heavily on Merlin's back, kissing him on the shoulder as if in apology for... for what, Merlin didn't know.

(For substandard fucking that he considered to be beneath his capability? How dare he perform less than at his best? Merlin would demand that Arthur do better than the best fuck of his life the next time. He hoped the next time would be soon.

As soon as they recovered, ideally.)

"Sorry about your... um. Your books," Merlin said, wincing a little when Arthur pulled out and come trickled down his leg.

Arthur gently turned Merlin around, kissed him so soundly that Merlin forgot what he was apologizing for, and drew away with a sly grin. "I don't care about the damn books."

Merlin gaped at him. "Priceless first editions, and you don't care about the damn books? You bloody heathen. What do you care about?"

"You," Arthur said, and leaned in for another kiss.

"I've got to know," Merlin said, as soon as they broke for air. "Is there any chance your security cameras caught all that?"

Arthur gave him a pitying look. "I thought you knew better than to ask dumb questions, Merlin."

Merlin couldn't help but grin.

(Some time later, sprawled across a wide bed that was so comfortable it might be illegal, thoroughly shagged to the point of wobbly legs and fuzzy thoughts, Merlin grinned about nothing and everything. He shifted, only to be immobilised when Arthur's arms tightened around him.

How did it ever come to this? Less than a year ago, he had been haunted by joblessness, heavy debts loomed over his head, and he had to deal with the ever-heavy threat of imprisonment if not outright assassination for being who and what he was. And now, he was the owner of a successful company, and he didn't have to worry about his debts any more. Until certain laws were repealed, he still did have to worry about the MRO agents who wanted to arrest him, but it didn't bother him any longer.

He was the Evil Overlord of London.

Who would dare arrest him now?)