Merlin shifts the box he's carrying, propping it up with a knee while he balances on one foot and digs the key out of his back pocket.
"I could have done that," Gwaine says behind him, toothy leer clearly audible in his tone.
"Anything to get your hands on my arse?" Merlin asks, struggling to fit the key in the lock, then to turn the knob. His box teeters precariously, until Gwaine's own arse bumps it back into balance. Gwaine's arms are occupied with two large boxes of his own.
"Thanks," Merlin says, and shoves open the door to their new flat.
The place has had a fresh coat of paint since they were last here, and the smell of it lingers in the air. Gwaine dumps his boxes haphazardly in the middle of the room and goes to open one of the huge bay windows.
"Huh," he says, leaning out to have a look into the alley. "View's a bit better than last time."
Merlin puts down his burden and goes over. "Oh, hey, they moved the rubbish bins!"
"Cleaned up the whole alley," Gwaine says. He opens the other window, which swings out smoothly, with none of the squeaks it had exhibited when the agent had tried to open it two weeks ago. "New paint, clean alley, quiet window hinges," he mutters, and gives Merlin a knowing gaze.
"Don't say it," Merlin warns, as he realizes what Gwaine's thinking. "Please don't say it."
"You're thinking it, too," Gwaine protests, casting his eyes cautiously around the flat. "This place-"
- - -
The drip in the bathroom sink is gone, along with the rim of lime around the bottom of the toilet bowl. The kitchen cabinets have new pulls, and the radiator knob turns smoothly when Merlin adjusts the temperature in the bedroom.
"Damn it," he mutters, kicking at a bag of bedding as he walks back into the living room. "I should have known there was something odd here. They didn't ask for a security deposit, even when they saw my creds."
Gwaine nods in commiseration "I was so happy to find a place this close to Market Road, I didn't really question it. I mean, isn't it illegal to rent jinxed flats anymore?"
"Not if they're historic - the buildings or the jinxes," Merlin says. "There's a grandfather clause that if the jinx is more than two hundred years old, it doesn't have to be removed. They think that if it's not gone by now, it's too hard to lift."
"What bollocks," Gwaine grouses. "This place was built in 1910."
"There used to be an inn or something here, before that," Merlin replies. "It's probably from then."
They've already made four trips up and down the eight flights of stairs, and they make three more before they call it a day. That's the trouble with old buildings: they rarely have lifts. Not, Merlin thinks, that he'd readily trust a lift in a jinxed building, anyway.
"I wonder if it's the whole building," he says as he sets a plastic tub full of dishes on the kitchen floor, "or just our place." Their kitchen table is coming tomorrow, when Percy can borrow the moving van from his theatre job, and Arthur and Isolde are free to help with the heavy lifting.
The sofa's going to be hell coming up those tight turns.
"We should ask around, later," Gwaine suggests, leaning on the counter, "when people start coming home." The building’s largely abandoned for the day, everyone off to work or classes. Merlin and Gwaine haven't seen any of their new neighbors yet.
"Think they'll be too weird?" Merlin asks. "About us being Freelancers, I mean?"
"You are way too hung up on that," Gwaine says, snagging the front of Merlin's shirt and tugging him in for a kiss. "Bet a quarter of the people in this building are Freelancers."
Merlin's from a small factory town, where everybody has a boss, and a shift, and a one-day weekend. People who work for themselves in Ealdor aren't considered free spirits or entrepreneurs; they're just lazy bums. Merlin's mother had not been impressed when he'd foregone returning to Uncle Gaius' shop after uni in order to Freelance in Camelot. It had taken a few years before she'd acknowledged that he hadn't wasted a good opportunity.
Merlin understands why she'd been so against it. His father is a Freelancer, and has fulfilled every one of the stereotypes to a T. Merlin's decided on giving him a swift kick in the ass if they ever see him again.
Gwaine's hands are fiddling with the buttons of Merlin's shirt now, deft fingers untangling the rounded bits of seashell from the linen. "You've got that look again," he murmurs, darting in to steal another kiss. "That 'gonna kick the old man's arse' look."
"Sorry," Merlin replies. "Sorry. Just..."
"You'll see him again," Gwaine says, "and you'll give him a kick, then take him back home to your mum, and she'll pretend she doesn't want him in the house for all of a minute before they're snogging like teenagers."
"If he comes back," Merlin points out, his own hands tucking into the waistband of Gwaine's trousers.
"He always comes back," Gwaine says gently. "You know he does." He finishes with the buttons and pulls Merlin close, letting their foreheads touch. "I really screwed you up, taking off like I did, huh?"
"It's fine," Merlin says, even though he's still disappointed, and, okay, just a tiny bit insecure in the aftermath of Gwaine's little panic attack.
"It's not fine," Gwaine counters, "and I am so, so fucking sorry, love." He punctuates this with a warm, tender brush of lips that makes Merlin want to forgive him everything.
"I know you are," Merlin murmurs. "It's okay."
"No it in't." Gwaine always lapses back into his Carleon lilt when he's upset. "Fucked up, din' I? Won' do it again, I swear. I love you, and I'm not goin' anywhere."
"I know you're not," Merlin assures, arms wrapping more securely around Gwaine's waist. Gwaine presses closer, one hand running up the back of Merlin's neck, the other broad and warm at the small of his back. "I know you're not."
- - -
"Oh, that is it," Gwaine snarls, scrambling out of their temporary bedroll. "I am moving the fuck out of here!"
"You've just moved in," Merlin points out, though he's kind of thinking along those lines, himself. It's only their first night, and already, they've had enough.
The jinx, it turns out, is a haunting. A loud, obnoxious haunting that started up around midnight and has been replaying for three hours. Rhythmic pounding against the bedroom wall is followed by several loud bangs, a shout, a gunshot, and a wretched wail. This is the sixth time it's going, and by the speed of the banging, Merlin can tell they're about to get to the bloody part of all the bloody noise. "Don't go out there!" he warns as Gwaine goes to open the bedroom door.
"Why?" Gwaine turns to look at him as the bangs start up. "It's not corporeal, is it?"
They both flinch at the gunshot, and Merlin's shoulders hunch instinctively at the wail. It sounds absolutely heartbroken. "Doesn't feel like it," he allows, as silence descends, "but do you really want to find out?" Merlin can usually tell what sort of haunting he's in the presence of, but there's little or nothing he can do about it. His magic is meant for the living.
"Quiet now," Gwaine points out, and cracks the door open cautiously. Merlin rolls his eyes at the contrary bastard and starts to disentangle himself from the sheets, then freezes as a harsh sob echoes beyond the door. He gasps, his chest constricting with instinctive sympathy.
"Oh," Gwaine's saying, soft and shocked, as he looks around the door and into the hall. "Oh, fuck."
Merlin finally gets to his feet, padding cautiously to Gwaine's side. He peers out past Gwaine's bare shoulder, and can't suppress a full-bodied shiver at the sight before them. Gwaine snakes an arm around his waist and tugs him close.
In the hallway of their flat, the ghostly image of a young man looks up at them, his dead lover cradled in his arms. He whimpers, hugs the body tightly, and disappears.
"Oh, fuck," Gwaine whispers again.
They don't hear another sound for the rest of the night.
- - -
"We had a jinx for a while when I was a kid," Isolde says, maneuvering a couple of armchairs to face the ragged, old sofa that's now sitting between the bay windows. It had been just as hellish to get up the stairs as Merlin had predicted. It's fortunate that Percy's job encourages him to practice levitation spells. "It was a cat poltergeist."
"A cat poltergeist?" Arthur echoes, rifling through the pizza boxes on the coffee table. "How the hell does a cat become a poltergeist?"
"Same way a person does," Isolde replies.
Arthur shudders. "That's dreadful." He contemplates the piece of pizza he's found, then sets it back in the box.
"Kittygeist!" Gwaine exclaims, waving his beer at Isolde. "I remember him! We were, like, seven, right? He used to terrorize your mum in the kitchen."
Isolde nods, and takes up the slice Arthur's abandoned. "Upended all the pots, clawed open the cabinets and knocked everything to the floor, sat on top of the toaster hissing for hours at a time - until one day Mum figured out that he liked fish. We ate a lot of fish that year. He disappeared after we got a couple of real cats as pets. I think they must have appeased him."
"So how do we appease these guys?" Gwaine asks, dropping down onto the sofa. "I mean, this isn't poltergeist level bad, but it's..."
"Grim," Merlin finishes from where he's staring out the window. He rubs at his eyes, which feel gritty and red even after three cups of coffee and a whole lot of stair climbing. "Awful." He'd been unable to sleep after seeing the apparition, lying awake all night, tracing runes of protection across the pale skin of Gwaine's back with his fingers. Even without ink, they'd taken so strongly that Percy had barely been able to shake Gwaine's hand when they'd met him at the old flat this morning.
"I don't know," Isolde says. "A cat's a fairly simple creature, comparatively speaking. It wants food, it wants warmth, it wants petting. It wants to be safe. People... I think you'd have to find out who they were, and why they died, before you could help them move on."
"Why hasn't anybody done that already?" Arthur asks, finally committing to a slice of mushroom and onion. "I mean, that's a pretty awful thing to have floating around all these years. Rather cruel, too."
"Because nobody gives a damn about a couple of dead queers," Merlin says, bitter, and that shuts them all up for a minute.
"He's probably right," Percy says eventually, from where he's sprawled on the floor between the armchairs, staring at the ceiling, still recovering from the levitation spells. Magic isn't his strong suit. "There are so many big jinxes in this city that a little murder haunting here and there barely gets noticed. There's always something bigger to deal with, and whoever lived here could probably afford dampening charms. Why bother fixing it when you can pretend it doesn't exist?"
"Ignorant fucks," Isolde growls, and everybody grunts an approval.
Merlin finds himself drifting as the others talk, mind turning over the possibilities, the whys and whos of the haunting, magic probing at the ether around them. Yes, there are traces of dampening charms, going back many years, decades, even. The idea that someone had been able to ignore such a gut-wrenching jinx for so long makes Merlin question what faith he has in humanity, and his place in it.
"Ah, Merlin, love?" Gwaine's voice breaks through his musing. "The walls are glowing."
Merlin starts, and turns away from the window. The walls are, indeed, glowing with the force of his magic, which is eagerly erasing any trace of dampening and haunt-repelling charms left in the flat. "Er, sorry." He takes a breath and reels in the magic, trying to bring his bitterness and anger under control along with it.
"You'll get a warning for that," Arthur says. "I can already see that Unlicensed Use schmuck in the MRA rubbing his hands together in glee."
"Nah," Gwaine waves him off, "didn't we tell you?"
"Gwa-aine," Merlin whines, but the others are clamoring to hear the news, and all Gwaine does is grin at him proudly.
"Merlin got his Master's License," he declares.
"Already?" Isolde squeaks, and hurries over to give Merlin a hug. "Congratulations!"
"Nice one!" Percy crows from the floor, clapping in approval. "Why the hell didn't you do the levitation, then?"
Merlin smirks. "You needed the practice." The truth is that he probably would have floated the couch right through the roof in his present state of distraction. His magic is a bit, well, too big for little things like floating couches.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur pouts, though he gets up and shakes Merlin's hand after wiping his fingers on a napkin. "Why didn't my father tell me?"
"Because your father's an arse who's embarrassed that you're friends with a Freelancing Warlock, even if he has a Five-Star rating to go along with his Master's License," Gwaine says cheekily.
"Five-Star?" Arthur echoes. "My father actually gave out a Five-Star rating to somebody who isn't working for the Magical Regulation Agency?"
Merlin shrugs, and blushes. "Er, the other examiners wouldn't really take 'no' for an answer."
Arthur barks a short, pleased laugh, and pulls Merlin into a hug. "Nice job, Merlin."
"Thanks," Merlin says. "See, if you weren't running off to Constantinople all the time, you'd have been here to share the news."
"My brother-in-law lives in Constantinople," Arthur protests, giving Merlin a friendly shove before returning to his pizza. "I am obligated to go see him."
"Not every month, you're not," Gwaine says, and scowls when Merlin and Arthur reply, in tandem, "Tell that to Guinevere!"
- - -
Whap-whap-whap-whap, bang-bang-bang, cry, BOOM! Grief.
The apparition is the same tonight, winding up its third iteration, and Merlin can't stand it anymore. He gets out of bed - their real bed, even if it's only a futon frame with an extra mattress on top - and settles cross-legged on the floor, in the slash of light washing through the window.
"Merlin?" Gwaine rasps, "What are you doing?"
"Maybe I can make it stop," Merlin says, reaching for his magic, letting it fill the room, the whole flat; letting it taste the form and depth of the jinx.
"You've never managed before," Gwaine mutters, though not unkindly. "Just put in the earplugs and come back to bed."
"That's not a solution!" Merlin snaps.
"It is for the weekend," Gwaine replies. "You can go to the records office on Monday."
"I'd still feel it." Especially now that he's tuned in to the jinx's own magic.
"Fine," Gwaine sighs, but instead of rolling over, he sits up. "I don't want you going out there alone, okay?"
"It's definitely not corporeal," Merlin says. "It can't hurt me."
"Just thinking about it hurts you," Gwaine counters, vehement.
Merlin doesn't answer. The pounding has started up again, more quickly than before, as if the apparition can sense their agitation. He thinks it must be the bed-frame they'd seen last night knocking against the wall. He gets up and goes to the door, waiting for the banging - someone beating down the door to the couple's room. Gwaine rises from the bed silently and comes to hover at his shoulder.
When the banging starts, he yanks open the door and casts a protective spell, trying hard to align it to the wavelength of the jinx. He doesn't manage, though - not even close - and it happens all over again. One of the men shouts a protest; the gun goes off, the other jerks and sags, bloodied, to the sheets. Then that awful wail, and the survivor sobs in anguish. "Fuck!" Merlin hisses. "Goddess-fucking-damn-it!"
The man on the bed lifts his head, surprised and suspicious. He pulls the body close, as he did the night before, and glares at Merlin in hateful agony. "I'm sorry," Merlin says. "I'll try again. I'll keep trying until I get it right, I promise you."
The man looks away, tucks his dead lover's head to his chest, and the whole scene fades away.
Merlin doesn't realize he's moved until the bedroom door is closing in front of his face, and Gwaine tugs at his hips again, dragging him backwards all the way to the bed. "Come on, babe, come sit down." He lets himself sink to the edge of the mattress; Gwaine drapes the duvet around his shoulders and kneels down to caress the tears from his face.
"Sorry," Merlin sniffles. "I don't know why it's affecting me so much."
"Because it's horrible," Gwaine murmurs. "Because you're a good man. Because you fear the same thing."
"I don't fear death," Merlin says.
"No, you fear losing me," Gwaine tells him, "the same way I fear losing you."
Merlin shivers. "Yeah. Yeah. Goddess, Gwaine, don't you ever fucking leave me like that again."
Gwaine leans in until his head is resting against Merlin's heart, beard scratching his chest, and says, rough-voiced, "Not ever again, lover. On my honor. On everything I've ever held dear."
"I thought you were dead!" Merlin growls, anger rising anew - anger he'd thought he'd exorcised months ago. He wraps an arm around Gwaine's shoulder, runs his hand through that long, unruly hair. "Your things were mostly gone but there was blood everywhere, and your bike was still in the fucking garage. Nobody'd seen you - not Percy or Arthur or Gareth or Isolde or any-fucking-body! No word for a month, no emails, no calls, nobody saw you anywhere, and I'll kill Mordred for lending you that anti-scrying amulet! I thought- Fucking hell, Gwaine!" He's crying by the end of it, gasping out the words between broken breaths, feeling like he's just gotten Gwaine back all over again.
There's a tickle of wetness on his chest, and he realizes Gwaine is weeping, too, hands clenched into the fabric of Merlin's boxers. His shoulders are shaking, and he's muttering, "Sorry, 'm sorry, so fucking sorry, never wanted to hurt you," his breath raising goosebumps on Merlin's skin.
Around them, the jinx's magic wavers like a voice at the edge of its range.
- - -
Merlin spends Sunday sorting through his books, partly organizing them on the shelves built into the living room wall, but mostly searching for ways to align his magic with that from which spring hauntings, poltergeists and other jinxes that are formed through death.
Gwaine pauses in his own unpacking to make them a stir fry for lunch, and ignores the beer left over from yesterday in favor of tea. Gwaine always avoids alcohol when he's feeling guilty. Merlin indulges in that for a bit, but he can't stand to see his lover so morose; when the dishes are done, he pulls a Guinness out of the fridge and snaps off the cap with a flicker of magic.
Gwaine startles at the accompanying flash of light and trumpeting fanfare - way too big for this piddling stuff, is Merlin's magic; the excess has to make something - but accepts the beer with a sheepish grin. "Thanks."
Merlin waits until he's taken a drink to kiss him, licking the bitter ale from Gwaine's lips; he loves the taste of beer on Gwaine's skin. Gwaine opens to him with an appreciative moan, lets Merlin follow it with his tongue, in slow, deep strokes that make his hips rock in tandem into Merlin's.
There's a ripple in the jinx, subtle, but enough that Merlin breaks the kiss to focus on it.
"No fair," Gwaine whines, and presses Merlin into the counter. "Your magic is such a cockblocker!" He can always tell when it's magic that's distracted Merlin; he says there's a set to Merlin's face that makes him look distant, ethereal. Dangerous, sometimes.
"Not mine," Merlin mutters, gazing speculatively past Gwaine's shoulder, out into the living room. "It's the jinx."
"Wonderful," Gwaine says, sarcastic. "Because it hasn't fucked with us enough."
Merlin shushes him, and taps his shoulder. "Turn around."
Gwaine turns, and Merlin feels him stiffen at what he sees: The man from last night stands there, fully clothed, little more than a silvery outline against the brightness of the day. The look on his face is contemplative, and perhaps a touch wistful. When Gwaine shifts so that he's standing in front of Merlin, obviously protective, the man tips his hat, and disappears.
"Huh," Merlin says. "I think he likes us."
"They never like us," Gwaine protests, and it's true. Every death jinx Merlin's run into has gotten the best of him in some way. Ghosts and warlocks don't seem to mix. "Except for the Kittygeist," Gwaine continues. "Kittygeist loved me."
Merlin snorts a laugh. "Really?"
"Yeah." Gwaine nods proudly. "My mum took in orphaned kittens, and I always helped feed them. Isolde's mum used to make me sit in the kitchen when she was cooking dinner so that Kittygeist would leave her alone."
"So you started early in the security business, huh?" Merlin asks, letting himself be pushed against the counter again.
"Born to it, like I told you," Gwaine replies, and rakes his teeth along the column of Merlin's neck - a move that never fails to fill Merlin's cock. "Now, where were we?" he growls, and licks at the shell of Merlin's ear.
"Ahh," Merlin stammers, then decides that actions speak louder than words. Right he nips at Gwaine's lower lip, and licks in deep, here.
- - -
There's just one round of the apparition that night, faint and quiet, so that Merlin only wakes fully as the man wails for his lover. He waits for it to start once more, but it doesn't, and he falls asleep again to the rhythm of Gwaine's steady breathing.
- - -
Gwaine has a gig Monday morning, wiring a CCTV system and burglar alarm for some new jewelry store in Lower Town. It's pretty much a waste of his abilities, but it will pay the rent and give him another civilian reference, so he crawls out of bed before sunrise, cursing heartily, and heads for the shower. Merlin dozes until he's ready to leave, helps him carry his gear down to the car, kisses him thoroughly, and Disappears himself directly back into bed.
It's good to be a Five-Star Master Warlock.
The sound of clinking cutlery nags him into consciousness, the obnoxious, repetitive tap of a spoon against a cup making him twitch. Merlin hates that sound. Why the hell can't people learn to stir their tea silently?
He rolls over, trying to orient himself, and cannot, for a long moment, figure out why someone seems to be having a meal in his bedroom. All his friends are at work; so is Gwaine. Merlin's pretty sure he hasn't invited anyone over, though why they'd be taking breakfast in the bedroom if he had, he doesn't know.
The absolute lack of conversation finally gets his attention, and he struggles upright to have a look around.
In front of the window, washed out by the late morning sun, is the ghostly image of a table for two, set for brunch. The jinx's two wronged lovers sit opposite one another, working steadily through the food on their plates, lifting their teacups for a drink - all the usual mealtime motions. They appear to be talking, low and intimate, heads ducking shyly now and then, as if they are still getting used to one another's presence, but all Merlin can hear is the ting of their forks against their plates.
Well, this is a nice change from before, he supposes. The sight of scrambled eggs and scones makes his stomach growl, so Merlin drags himself out of bed, thinking about his own breakfast. An odd motion in the scene catches his eye; when he faces it fully, he finds the Survivor, the one they'd seen in the kitchen yesterday, gazing at him steadily.
Merlin blinks, startled, and gives an acknowledging nod. The man nods back, mouth quirked into a tiny smile, and goes back to his conversation. His lover doesn't look up, but Merlin thinks, because of the sudden stiffness of his posture, that perhaps he's aware of the living company as well.
Ghosts are an odd lot. Some exist entirely in the circumstances of their jinx, never varying their routine, unwilling or unable to see the living. Others are almost as bad as poltergeists, corporeal, able to affect the physical world with touch, as well as sight and sound. Merlin's heard of one that actually turned into a poltergeist, so frustrated was it at the indifference of the living to its plight. Sometimes, all it takes to lift a death jinx is to acknowledge the suffering of the ghost; often, only a necromancer can release the spirits of the dead.
Merlin knows two necromancers, but he's not talking to either of them right now, so he supposed he'll just have to free these fellows himself. He's never succeeded before, but he's also never had a ghost smile at him before, and he figures there's a first time for everything.
- - -
The breakfasting couple is still there when Merlin's done showering, but gone by the time he's finished his own eggs and gone to the bedroom to grab his wallet. He hopes this won't be a daily occurrence: he really can't stand the sound of silver on china.
Merlin checks the bus schedule reflexively, charting the best route to the records office, then snorts at himself. He slaps shut the laptop and puts it in his bag, locks the door from the inside, and Disappears himself to Market Road.
The circle of flagstone reserved for teleportation is mostly empty. There's a General class student practicing under the eyes of an examiner, and a small child climbing back and forth over the low barrier while her mother tries to get her attention.
"Emrys," the examiner - Alined, Merlin thinks his names is - says by way of greeting, and the man beside him stares in wide-eyed wonder. Merlin gives them a flat, awkward grin in return and hurries away. He can't stand the looks of adoration and jealousy that have followed him since he started working on his rating.
The records building is an older, black granite affair that used to be the city hall, back when Camelot was a tenth the size it is today. There's a well-known jinx on the place that makes all the doors squeak no matter how often they're greased or replaced, and - after the manner of bureaucracies everywhere - it's never ranked highly enough on the list of necessary maintenance to have been dealt with. The few people who work in the building seem mostly accustomed to the noise, and those who visit are advised to bring earplugs.
Merlin sits at a directory station and clicks through all the relevant sections - historic jinxes, historic buildings, crime, rental properties - while noting down any mention of his street or neighborhood. There are few, but enough to send him up the stairs, earplugs in hand, to rifle through binders of old deeds and boxes of microfiche.
What he finds is pretty much what he'd suspected. Their building sits on the foundations of an old rooming house, which had, in 1843, been the site of a murder-suicide, where a jealous man had killed his male lover, and then himself.
That's how the initial record reports it, anyway. More recent notations suggest the truth that Merlin knows: one man had been murdered, and the other had taken his own life shortly after.
The whys of the matter remain unexplored, though Merlin thinks that rampant homophobia is the most likely answer. It had not been a neighborhood tolerant of 'gentlemanly foibles.' The police had no doubt taken the witnesses at their word, and allowed the real killer to go unpunished.
The jinx is described only in the barest terms. It doesn't fall under the two-hundred-year clause, but it's a localized one, confined to one flat and easy to obscure with charms; it's fallen through the cracks all these years because nobody's ever been bothered enough to try and sort it out. There's only one recorded attempt - an exorcism, back from the days when the New Religion had been on a popular upswing, before people had balked at how much more difficult their lives became without magic.
Merlin makes copies of the most pertinent documents, mostly to show the ghosts that he's interested in them. There's nothing of any real use here; he'll have to work out the magic of the jinx for himself.
The research library he prefers is far enough away that he'd be justified in Disappearing, or taking public transport, but Merlin elects to walk. It's been some time since he's taken in the mid-day scene on Market Road, or chatted with any of the acquaintances he has here. The Freelancers' union he and Gwaine are members of has an office here, too, and he's been meaning to stop in and update his credentials - something that even in this day and age has to be done in person, rather than online.
He takes his time, stopping to buy a pastry from the vegan bakery, popping in to say hello to people he knows, pausing at a street show to look appropriately impressed by the magic on display. He can't actually do the intricate little spells the young couple are showing off: his magic cannot be constrained like that, though he wonders, sometimes, what life would be like if it could.
The union office is closed for lunch when Merlin walks by, and looks like it has been since last week, if the pile of post just inside the glass-panel door is any indication. Typical, he thinks. Even when Freelancers organize, they tend to do so in a haphazard, catch-as-catch-can way. Merlin prefers a little more order in his professional connections, but Gwaine is friends with the chapter president, and they get early notice of all the fun jobs and good deals that come the union's way.
Merlin's phone vibrates as he turns the corner a street away from the library. Done for the day, Gwaine's text reads. Stupid SOB forgot to schedule electrician. Lunch?
Merlin glances toward the library, then back to his phone. It buzzes again. Can get veg kebab from Mary's on way home.
Well, that settles it, then. Mary has the best veggie kebabs in the city. Will be there when you get back, Merlin texts back. Get extra mustard sauce. He glances at the library once more, feeling only a little guilty, and heads for the teleport point, which is in a shady square right across the street. He can, he reasons, come back this afternoon. He will come back this afternoon. He is not a slacker; he can manage his time effectively.
- - -
Merlin cannot, he admits three days later, manage his time effectively. Not with ghost porn popping up all over the flat, at all hours of the day.
The ghosts, apparently emboldened by Merlin's lack of response to their breakfast intrusion, have rapidly moved from food and awkward conversation to frequent and enthusiastic sexual encounters. It had started with kissing, mostly at night: Gwaine and Merlin had seen them in the kitchen, or in the hallway; they'd seemed absorbed with each other, but Merlin could feel the air of wariness about them, as if they'd been uncertain how far to take their new-found freedom. The second evening, Merlin had left out the records he'd brought home, strewn them casually across the dining room table, with the note exonerating the Survivor on top. After that, the situation had descended into something akin to a no-holds-barred porn flick.
Now Arthur's on the phone, asking if he and Gwen can come over to drop off some biscuits and cakes that Gwen's testing out for her restaurant, and Merlin's not sure what to tell him, because the ghosts are getting it on in the middle of the living room floor. Loudly.
"Come on, mate," Arthur says, "we're just down the road. Either you get these, or Percy does. Free food for you, a somewhat informed second opinion for us. I promise it won't be like the last time."
Merlin winces, because the pasta Gwen had brought over the last time had been truly awful, no matter how much Arthur had claimed that Merlin and Gwaine's palates were not sophisticated enough to appreciate its true nature. Fortunately, that chef hadn't lasted another week. "It's not that, Arthur," he assures. "It just, well..." He trails off, unable to come up with a decent excuse, and Gwaine grabs the phone away.
"The jinx is acting up, mate," he tells Arthur. "I don't think you want to be here just now." Merlin thinks this is a rather feeble excuse, because Arthur has seen some fairly gruesome jinxes on his rounds as an MRA agent. Arthur obviously concurs, because Gwaine's next words are, "No, really, princess, you do not want to see this."
"Oh, just let them come," Merlin says, deciding he can be forgiven for casting a charm to make the ghosts invisible and silent just this once. He and Gwaine have been more than patient. He's quite sure the ghosts will understand.
Gwaine puts his hand over the phone for a moment, his pupils wide, and growls, "They're not the ones I want to come, Merlin!"
Merlin shivers at the intensity in Gwaine's voice, and takes a proper look at his lover. Gwaine's skin is flushed, and there's that peculiar, dangerous tension about him that develops when he's been denied for too long. His cock is straining against the fabric of his jeans.
"Point," Merlin rasps, throat suddenly dry, and takes the phone back. "Sorry Arthur, now's really not a good time."
His voice must give him away, because he can practically hear Arthur roll his eyes. "You could have just said you were planning to shag," Arthur chastises, then yelps, as if Gwen's thwacked him on the head.
"Bye, Arthur," Merlin says pointedly, and flips the phone closed. He's barely dropped it on the counter before Gwaine has him pressed against the fridge, mouth hot and wet on his own, cock digging into his thigh. Merlin moans, scrabbling at Gwaine's shirt, yanking the tails up so he can get his hands on Gwaine's skin. Gwaine shivers at the contact, pressing even closer, his fingers curling into Merlin's hair. He flinches when Merlin's hand runs across the scar on his waist, the gash he'd accidentally given himself the day he'd run off on Merlin. Merlin pulls his hand back, but Gwaine hums a protest, presses both their palmsto the scar, and breaks off his kisses long enough to rasp, "Not going anywhere. I'm not, I'm not..."
Merlin kisses back desperately, like he's fighting, and wills himself to believe, believe, believe.
- - -
Isolde drops in a few days later, and Merlin finally gets to meet the infamous Tristan, who is fifteen years her senior and has a scoundrel reputation even Gwaine has a hard time living up to.
"Arthur still giving you a hard time over those voodoo dolls?" Gwaine asks as they sit down for tea. The ghosts, having had a satisfying round not half an hour before, are nowhere to be seen.
"They're legitimate items of trade," Tristan insists blandly. "I don't understand why he's so worked up over them."
"Because they came from a black market dealer?" Isolde asks with a sarcastic grin.
"Those people have to make a living somehow," Tristan shoots back. "If the tariffs weren't so high-"
"Can we please talk about something other than tariff law?" Gwaine cuts in. He turns to Merlin. "Every time I see him, he manages to work it into the conversation."
"It needs conversing about," Tristan insists haughtily - not, Merlin thinks, unlike Arthur chafing over some obscure point of magic enforcement law.
"Not right now, it doesn't," Isolde counters. "So, how are you two getting on here? Gwaine mentioned that the jinx has gotten better?"
"Well," Merlin hedges, "they're a lot happier than they were."
"Happier?" Isolde echoes.
"You have a 'happy' jinx?" Tristan asks, confused.
"We have a death jinx," Merlin replies.
"More like a sex jinx, now," Gwaine corrects with a bit of exasperation, because even he's getting tired of the incessant ghost porn.
Isolde blinks. "Okay, what exactly happened?"
Merlin briefly relates their interactions with the ghosts, and finally bemoans, "Now they're having sex all over the place!"
"All the time," Gwaine adds. "I mean, all the time. It was funny the first few days..."
"And hot?" Isolde asks, because she's known Gwaine all his life.
"Yeah," he concedes, "and hot, but there's only so much a guy can take." He gives a leering grin. "Even a guy like me."
"I'm going back to the library tomorrow," Merlin says. "There's a section about metaphysics I've been avoiding, but it might have what I need." Metaphysics is not a real science, Merlin doesn't care what any magic user says, but he has to allow that there is an occasional nugget of wisdom to be mined out of the mountains of nonsense.
"Why don't you get Pendragon's necromancer sister to get rid of them for you?" Tristan asks. "Or her sister. Goddess, what a dysfunctional family."
Merlin knows that Tristan and Arthur don't get on, and he rarely sees eye to eye with Morgana or Morgause himself, but he still bristles at Tristan's casual disdain. "Morgause is no reflection on Arthur and Morgana," he defends. "Anyway, even if I were speaking to either of them right now, Morgana's more about resurrection than laying to rest, and I hate the way Morgause does things. These ghosts deserve better." Getting ripped out of the living world is traumatic, even when you're already a ghost. Morgause hardly cares about the living, let alone the dead.
"Not talking to the twisted sisters?" Tristan asks, pointedly ignoring Merlin's defense of Morgana. "I don't blame you. That's a pair that give magic a sketchy name."
Merlin scowls. "Morgana's a good person. She's helped me out more than once in the past. She's just..." He sighs, and admits, "Morgause has been a bad influence on her. I wish they'd never met." He pauses, and decides that what he knows is going to go public soon enough anyway. "They're not really sisters."
"What?" Tristan sits up, startled, and Isolde leans forward eagerly.
"Yeah, you know Morgana's Uther and Vivian's kid, right? From Vivian's marriage to Uther?" Gwaine says. "And everyone thinks Morgause is Vivian's daughter with Gorlois? Turns out she's only Gorlois' - from his first marriage to some countess from the continent. She has no blood ties to Morgana at all."
"So she has no claim to Uther's money through Morgana or Vivian?" Isolde asks, a little too gleefully, Merlin thinks.
"Not in any way that Uther's lawyers won't tear to shreds," Gwaine confirms with a smirk. "Morgana's pissed, Arthur's thrilled, and the rest of us are just sitting around, waiting for the show to start."
"Is that why you're not talking to them?" Isolde asks. "Solidarity with Arthur?"
"No," Merlin says decisively. "Morgause and I have a set of arguments all our own, and Morgana always takes her side." He hopes that's going to change, because Morgana's pissed at Morgause as much as at Uther right now. If he were a better person, he'd offer a shoulder to cry on, but he's not quite ready to forgive her for siding with Morgause just yet.
A rhythmic tapping has started up while they've talked, and grows steadily louder in the sympathetic silence that follows Merlin's words. Tristan looks up, a puzzled scowl on his face. "What the hell is that?"
Merlin sinks deeper into his chair in resignation. "They're at it again."
"Your ghosts?" Tristan asks, with a perverse, eager curiosity. Merlin can see why he and Isolde are so well suited.
"I'm actually surprised they showed this much restraint," Gwaine says with a laugh. "Want to go out for dinner?"
- - -
Merlin pops himself over to the library early the next morning and, feeling like he's betraying his entire profession, slinks into the aisle where the metaphysics books are.
There's a woman about his age paging through Theory of Modern Meta-spiritualism - whatever the hell that means - and she gives him a shy smile. "Metaphysics comps?" She gestures with her book. "I thought I'd get an early start, before all the good volumes get checked out."
Merlin blinks, unsure if she's trying to flirt or just being nice. "Er, no. I have a jinx I need to get rid of." He scans the titles, but nothing jumps out at him; it all looks worthless. "Um, would you maybe know where to find something on aligning magical auras?"
She frowns, looking cautious. "That's not the sort of thing you jump into without training."
"I have some experience," Merlin says with a self-effacing shrug, and reaches for The Spiritualism of Cosmic Alignment.
"Apparently not," the woman says, smirking, and takes the book out of his hands. "That has nothing to do with auras." She replaces it with an older, thicker volume. "Start with this."
Merlin squints at the title. "Sympathetic Auras for the Beginning Sorcerer? Um, okay." He pages through it, but it all seems to be outdated, or unscientific tosh. He pauses at a chapter introduction and realizes that he'd actually disproven one of the underlying principles in his final thesis. "No," he says, snapping the book closed and replacing it on the shelf, "that is definitely not helpful."
The woman raises an incredulous brow. "You need to have a basic understanding of aura sympathies before you start trying to mess with things."
"I have a basic understanding of aura sympathies," Merlin counters, rolling his eyes. "Better than. I'm trying to-"
"Slumming it in metaphysics, now?" a familiar, mocking voice cuts in. "Couldn't cut it as a Magical Freelancer?"
Merlin sighs, and turns to the interloper. "Still working on your thesis, Julius?" he retorts. "What's it been, three years now?"
"I heard your boyfriend ran off on you," Borden counters, scowling. "Did you cry?"
"Talk to any dragons lately?" Merlin returns with the lowest blow he can, because hell yes, he'd cried like a toddler, and he is not going there in the middle of the bloody library with this worthless prick. "Oh, that's right, the Dragon Council banned you from the Eyries for life, and declared your family name a disgrace."
Borden actually lunges at him for that, but freezes in mid-stride before Merlin can even get a warding hand up. "Are you quite finished, gentlemen?" comes the disgusted voice of Merlin's former advisor. The spell is released, and Borden stumbles, catching himself against a shelf.
"Professor Alator," Merlin acknowledges, and winces at the stony glare he gets in return.
"I cannot believe someone gave you a Five-Star Master rating, Emrys," Alator growls, and Merlin has to grin, because it's not him the professor is mocking. "How is the thesis coming, Mr. Borden? You only have two months left to submit a final draft, do you not?"
Borden's cheeks flush an amusing shade of pink, and he slinks off without another word.
"Tea, Emrys?" Alator asks casually.
"Sure, professor," Merlin agrees. He turns to the woman, who looks rather mortified, and says, "Thanks for the help."
"Um, you- you're actually Emrys?" the woman stammers. "Like, Merlin Emrys, the youngest Five-Star-"
"Please, Miss Compton," Alator cuts in, rolling his eyes, "don't swell his head any further."
Compton blushes. "Er, so when you said you had some experience in aura sympathies..."
Merlin nods. "I wasn't kidding. Really, though, thanks for the suggestions." He gestures at the metaphysics shelves. "None of this makes any sense to me."
As they walk away, Alator mutters, probably loudly enough for Compton to hear, "Nor me."
- - -
"So why the interest in aura magic?" Alator asks after they've settled into his office.
"There's a death jinx on our new flat," Merlin says, sipping at his tea - Taylors of Harrogate; people Alator doesn't respect get Tetley - "and I'd like to remove it."
"Why not call a necromancer?" Alator asks. "You know several, do you not?"
"I don't like the way they do things," Merlin says. "And this jinx... It's become sort of personal. I want to do this right."
"Your magic is not meant for the dead," Alator points out. "No warlock of your calibre has ever successfully released a death jinx."
"There has to be a way," Merlin counters. "I can feel them, and I can see how my magic could be molded to touch them. I just- I can't make the two line up."
Alator stares at him for a moment, and admits, "I'm not sure I follow."
"I know the harmonic my magic should reach to interact with the ghosts," Merlin explains. "If I can - in their reality - stop the things that hurt them, I think I can release them. All they seem to want is somebody to care about what happened to them."
Alator's eyebrows crawl up his bald scalp in disbelief. "That is not how one gets rid of a death jinx," he argues.
"I believe it will work," Merlin insists. It has to. He can't stand the idea of those men suffering any more than they already have.
And the sex is getting really annoying.
"If it does, you'll have a whole new paper to write." Alator sets down his cup and rises. He runs a hand along one of his bookshelves, then pulls down three older volumes. "Read these. What you're suggesting has not been tried in a thousand years. As jinx magic grew more entrenched in the world, the power of living magic to work against it was diluted. The techniques are all but lost."
Merlin takes the books and pages through them. Two of the three aren't even in English. He certainly has his work cut out for him. "Thank you, sir. I really appreciate this."
"Keep notes," Alator orders. "Write down your entire thought process - from the very first day you came up with this idea. I do not jest. If you are successful, you will revive an entire field of study. Your career-"
"My career," Merlin cuts in, rolling his eyes, "is going well enough. I just want to help these ghosts."
"Do as I say," Alator insists, with something of a paternal air about him, "and you'll be helping more than just your ghosts."
- - -
Merlin takes the books home, after a second trip to the library to pick up some translation volumes, and settles in at one of the bay windows with his best set of earplugs. He's familiar enough with the older languages that he can get the gist of each book with little trouble, but picking out the details of the different spells and meditation techniques is a painstaking process. He starts to take serious notes, focusing on developing a step-by-step methodology rather than just letting his magic pick its own course, because Mordred's the only other warlock he knows to whom that way of working would make any sense, let alone be useful. If he's going to do this, he's not going to do it half-arsed.
Gwaine comes home sometime after lunch, juggling his tool bags and a box of greasy takeaway. Merlin only notices when the box hits the floor and spills sauce all over the carpet near his feet.
"Shit," Gwaine mutters, dropping his bags. "I'll get that. I take it you had luck at the library?" His voice comes to Merlin as if through water.
Merlin pulls out the earplugs, and the background slap of skin on skin that he's been ignoring gets startlingly loud. "I ran into Alator, and he pointed me in the right direction. I think I might have this sorted soon."
"Thank the Goddess," Gwaine groans, crumpling into a chair and staring morosely at the newly-stained carpet. "Want to go out for dinner? Get a room, maybe? Isolde said we could kip at hers. I really can't take much more of this."
Merlin grins, and nods his head at where the ghosts are going at it, just out of sight in the hall. "'All porn, all the time' not what it's cracked up to be?"
Gwaine looks over, a petulant frown on his face. "I moved here to spend my free time with you, not with a pair of horny, dead gits," he whines.
Merlin blushes at the frisson of fuzzy warmth that curls in his chest. "That's actually one of the sweeter things you've said to me."
Gwaine's face goes soft and wistful. He stretches a hand out, and Merlin uncramps himself from his seat to take hold of it. Gwaine tugs until Merlin's crawling into his lap, legs straddling his thighs. He brings Merlin's hand up to his lips, brushing it with soft, tender kisses. "You know I love you, don't you?" he asks. "I've said it before, right?"
Merlin pulls his hand away to card through Gwaine's silky, haven't-brushed-it-in-an-hour hair. "Yeah," he breathes, as Gwaine arches into the touch. "All the time, Gwaine. Every day." He ducks in, licking at the hot skin of Gwaine's throat, grazing Gwaine's jaw with his teeth. Gwaine moans, needy and content all at once, and Merlin fists his fingers in his lover's hair, guiding gently until their mouths align. The kiss is slow and deep, full of all the things even Merlin doesn't know how to say, and when it's over, all he can do is wrap himself around Gwaine and wish he could live in this moment forever.
- - -
They do end up going to Isolde's for the night, because the ghosts have ramped up to new levels of debauchery, and between that and Gwaine's ill-disguised frustration, Merlin can't focus on his work.
He reads and takes notes long after everyone's turned in, the muted, intermittent sounds of Isolde and Tristan shagging almost a relief after the constant, inescapable noise of the ghosts. He's almost there, he knows. It's just a matter of aligning his magic to the right harmonic, and convincing the ghosts to relive their deaths one more time.
Neither he nor Gwaine have ever seen the Survivor's death, though the records point to a suicide by hanging. Merlin's not sure where it had taken place. He doesn't know how much time had passed between the deaths.
He doesn't even know the dead men's names.
None of this will matter in the end, from what he's read, because the magic of the jinx will respond to his actions and his intent. It already has, to some extent, but a true release for these ghosts will not come without living help. They are too mired in their tragedy, in the potential their deaths had denied.
Merlin closes his notebook eventually, and turns out the light. Gwaine is sleeping fitfully in the guest room, covers tangled between his legs, a pillow half over his head. Merlin doesn't know what his lover's dreaming about, but he knows it dissipates, blows away like sand when he slips in behind Gwaine and wraps an arm around his chest. Gwaine's relieved sigh makes him feel as secure as anything Gwaine's ever said with words.
- - -
Gwaine cancels the day's clients when he hears, at breakfast, that Merlin's going to try to release the jinx. "No way I'm letting you do it alone, love," he says, scrolling through his contacts. "Don't argue."
"It will take half the day just the get the magic lined up," Merlin protests. "You need these jobs."
"Family emergency," Gwaine tells him, and then the client he's blowing off. "I need to be there."
Merlin sighs. Isolde pats him on the shoulder, and says, "You know he's in for keeps, right? He doesn't use the word 'family' lightly."
Merlin glances over, and she only looks like she's half-joking. "Yeah," he says, setting aside the last remnants of his fears. "Yeah, I know." Gwaine's been steadfast since his return to Merlin's side, patient and open and earnest in a way Merlin hadn't really believed he could be when they'd first met. Merlin owes him the fullest trust in return.
"Are you talking about me?" Gwaine asks, squinting at them suspiciously from across the table.
"Yes, Gwaine," Merlin says, giving him a broad, easy grin, "we're talking about you."
He can practically see the sappy thoughts floating up in Gwaine's eyes. It's equal parts hilarious and achingly heartwarming.
"Goddess, this level of sweetness is nauseating," Tristan complains, stirring cream into a probably-black-market cup of very expensive Brazilian coffee. Isolde flicks him on the forehead in reprimand, and Merlin has to laugh, because the look he aims her way is as besotted as Gwaine's.
"You don't think there's a happy jinx on this place, do you?" Isolde asks later, as Merlin's packing up his books. "They both looked like a couple of lovesick dogs."
Merlin smirks, finally confident in the depth of Gwaine's feelings. "They are a couple of lovesick dogs."
- - -
It takes longer than Merlin had expected, because reading about the alignment of aura harmonics and actually doing it - while one's subjects fuck against the bedroom wall - are two different things. Merlin gives in eventually and lets the rhythmic grunts pull him deep into the magic of the jinx; that gets him closer to what he needs, even though he ends up with a wicked, weeping hard-on.
Gwaine spends most of the day sitting nearby, planning out a new security system, occasionally getting up to grab a beer. His presence is grounding, reassures Merlin that whatever happens with these ghosts, his own world will keep on turning just the way he needs it to.
Finally, as night falls, Merlin feels things start to give, to slip into place. His magic rolls like waves, in time and period with the deepest, oldest pools of power that exist. He's part of the world in ways he rarely has been, tendrils of life and energy reaching over the farthest horizon, unable for an eternal moment to know or care where he ends and everything begins. There is no edge, no cliff or threshold; everything is one, cyclical and whole. He basks in the paradoxical clarity of it, the knowledge that he is nothing, and part of everything.
He has a purpose, though, and he is disciplined enough to keep it in focus. The boundary between life and death is clear - not real at all - and all he has to do is stand there, one foot in either world - stand across an infinity of worlds - and reach out.
Their names are Dillon and Miles, they tell him, and if he swears, if he swears he can make it stop, they will live their deaths for him just one more time.
I promised you, Merlin tells them, and I can do this.
So they show him, again, and for the first time - because if he'd thought he could feel it before, now he's living it with them - the night it had all ended so horribly. They are in their bed, making love, adoring each other, hardly able to believe their luck, when the door bangs open, a shot deafens them, and Dillon gasps his dying breath. Merlin weeps in sympathy as Miles wails, wretched and alone.
The body's not even begun to cool before Miles is off the bed, shockingly determined in his grief. He will not live with this. He cannot. The tack he'd brought up from the stable to keep it from getting stolen provides all he needs - two stout stirrup leathers tied together are long enough to wrap around a beam, and Merlin cannot - has to - watch as Miles pulls the leather tight around his neck and lets himself swing.
Now they're staring at him, anguished and tired - Gwaine is, too, Merlin can feel him, even though their flat doesn't exist here - and waiting for his help.
What do we do? Miles asks. What will you do?
One more time, Merlin says. One more time, but you won't die. Trust me.
They are wary, but they can feel his power; he is solid to them, tangible in form and magic. They return to the bed one last time.
The door bangs open, and the gunshot sounds, but when Merlin looks over, his shield glowing bright and gold at the foot of the bed, Dillon is gasping in relief. Miles pounces on him, crying out his joy, and Merlin weeps in sympathy once more.
This time, Dillon stands beside him as they watch Miles fumble with the tack, unable to stop his own death in any way that matters. He wraps the leather around the beam, tightens it around his neck, and lets himself go. With the barest flash of Merlin's eyes, the leather snaps, disintegrates into a dusting of ash, and Miles crashes to the floor. Dillon falls to his knees beside his coughing lover, pulls him close, and-
-nothing. Suddenly, there's just no jinx. Merlin's magic flares and collapses, nothing left to guide its form, and Merlin's left trembling in the empty hallway, Gwaine's voice growing louder and more worried in his ear.
"Merlin!" Gwaine shakes him, almost panicked, and pulls him into the bedroom.
"'m fine," he stutters through chattering teeth. "Think t-that was ovvverdoing it a b-bit."
"Was it?" Gwaine asks, pushing Merlin onto the bed and wrapping him in the duvet. "I wouldn't know." He crawls up next to Merlin, pushes him down to the pillows, and lies down on top of him. "Never do that again, though. Never!"
Merlin mumbles an apology, but he doesn't think Gwaine hears him. It's too much like that first week, only now it's Gwaine who's uncertain, cursing and clenching a fist into the pillow, face pressed into the hollow of Merlin's neck.
"'m sorry," Merlin manages, finally. "I'm sorry. My magic's too much for this. It sucked me in."
"I know," Gwaine chokes out. "You were like one of the ghosts, Merlin. Just like them. My hand went right through you."
"It's okay," Merlin whispers, wriggling an arm out from the duvet, wrapping it around Gwaine's back. "I'm okay." He tries to take a deep breath, and finds he can't. "Except for the part where you're lying on top of me and weigh more than Arthur's pony."
Gwaine gives a strangled, painful sob, but when he rolls away, Merlin can see the makings of a grin on his face. "Arthur has a pony?"
"Mister Fuzzles," Merlin acknowledges, tucking himself against Gwaine's chest, so that now he's the one with his nose at Gwaine's throat. "30 years old, blind in one eye, shaggy like a sheep. He's very cute, actually."
"Mister Fuzzles!" Gwaine chuckles, gleeful despite the tears on his cheeks. "I will get a year's worth of material out of this."
"Oh, just wait until you hear about Morgana's pony," Merlin mumbles. "Angelcake."
"You're puttin' me on," Gwaine protests, pulling Merlin close, bundling the covers around them like a barrier against the world.
"Mhm-mmm," Merlin hums, warm and sleepy, slack with exhaustion. "Swear on my license. Angelcake."
"Angelcake," Gwaine echoes, but it sounds... off. "Angel."
"Cake," Merlin mutters. "Please don't cry."
Gwaine sniffles, and Merlin can feel the sharp intake of breath where they're pressed together, chest to chest. "That's my line," Gwaine rasps.
Merlin pulls away a little, just enough so he can look into Gwaine's red-rimmed eyes. "I love you, Gwaine. You know that, right? You know it goes both ways?"
"Yeah," Gwaine breathes. "'course I know, angel. It always has."
Merlin tucks in close again. "Good. That's... yeah. That's good." The last thing he feels before finally drifting off is the soothing rumble of Gwaine's chuckle against his heart.