- Text Size +


Written from a prompt by pasty_pants.

Beta by neptuneskisses, additional handholding by unamaga. Huge thanks to you both!

This fic contains character death, please see end notes if you would like to know who dies before reading the story


Merlin sat bolt upright in bed. There it was again. Quiet noises, footsteps, and the sound of someone opening the living room door: a quiet creak, and the shush of the door across the carpet.

He slid out of bed and crept to the bedroom door, listening. There was definitely someone moving about downstairs. He padded softly across the landing, listening at Will's door. Snoring.

Well, that ruled Will out.

There were no lights on, and Merlin crept down the stairs silently, rounded the corner, and snuck into the living room. In the unlit room Merlin could just about make out a guy, fairly tall, studying the bookcase.

"Hey!" Merlin shouted, grabbing the intruder's arm, intending to twist it up behind his back.

He was fast, and strong; he pivoted out of Merlin's grasp, and before Merlin could react he was on his back, legs swept out from under him. Merlin struggled to his feet, launching himself at his attacker. He was out of practice, but a simple intruder should be no problem.

"What the hell are you-" he managed to get out, before strong hands grabbed him and pinned him up against the wall, weight leaning heavy on his back.

"I just want to talk," an almost familiar voice said, right in his ear.

Oh no. It couldn't be.

"Get the fuck off-" Merlin managed to slither out of the intruder's grasp and finally got a good look at him.

"Arthur?" he breathed, stunned.

"Merlin," Arthur replied. "You've got sloppy. Four years ago I'd never have got in without you waking."

"Arthur." Merlin said again.

He was older. Four years older. It suited him. Blond hair longer now, flopping into his eyes and shining in the glow of the street light. Wide shoulders filling out his leather jacket, the familiar dragon pendant glinting on a chest that seemed even broader now. New scars, one glancing off his cheekbone, another on his chin. Ragged-hemmed jeans, going at the knee, and those blue eyes, flickering over the room, over Merlin, taking everything in.

Yes, Arthur looked-pretty damn good. But then, physical attraction had always been the least of their worries.

"What the fuck do you want Arthur?" Merlin asked.

Arthur sprawled onto the sofa and propped his booted feet on Merlin's coffee table, dislodging his pile of Law Review journals.

"My Dad's on a hunting trip," he said, slowly.

"And? You break in and beat me up to tell me that? I hope the stag gets him."

"No, Merlin," Arthur looked up, pursing his lips. "Dad's on a hunting trip. And he hasn't been home in a few days."

Before Merlin could answer he heard clattering about upstairs, the click of the door, and then Will, calling downstairs.

"Hey Merlin, what's all the noise?"

"Sorry we woke you, Will," Merlin said, clicking on the desk lamp as Will came into the room. "Arthur was just leaving."

"Like hell I was," said Arthur, standing.

"Arthur?" Will asked, eyes wide, "You mean, Arthur-Arthur?"

"I only know one Arthur," Merlin said, feeling the situation slip out of his grasp.

"Are you sleeping with this guy?" Arthur said suddenly, stalking over to him.

Merlin said "That's none of your business" at the same time as Will said


It was -kind of- true, but Merlin really didn't feel up to explaining it all at the moment.

"Whatever," Arthur said, taking Merlin's arm, but talking to Will. "I need to borrow your boy for a few days."

"No way," Merlin said, pulling his arm back out of Arthur's grasp. "I told you. And Uther. I'm through with it. Find him yourself."

"Wait, who's Uther?" Will asked. He moved to Merlin's side, pressing his shoulder to Merlin's. Merlin pressed back, grateful for the comfort being offered.

"My father. He's missing, and I need Merlin to help me find him."

"No, you don't," Merlin said, insistently.

"Look," Arthur said placatingly, "Can we just talk about this?" He shot Will a look. "Alone?"

"Hey," Will held up his hands, " I'll just, go and put the kettle on."

Merlin jerked his head to the patio door.

"Outside," he said, picking up his hoody from the back of the sofa, and slipping it on.

The night was cool, and clear, the moon full and round, silvering Arthur's eyes and hair as he turned to face Merlin.

"Talk," Merlin said, wrapping his arms round his chest against the cold.

"Dad got word, four days ago, about something that might have been," Arthur swallowed, and Merlin guessed what was coming. Only one thing ever made Arthur look like that.

"Nimueh," he said, feeling the anger boil up, even after so long.

"Yeah, Nimueh. I was dealing with a haunting in Salisbury,"

"By yourself?" Merlin asked.

Arthur glared at him.

"I've had a lot of practice. Dad said he'd check it out, it was probably nothing, but it was the first lead we'd had in ages. That was four days ago, and I've heard nothing since." Arthur began to pace, agitated. "He's not answering his phone, no one's heard from him, nothing. It's completely unlike him, and," he stopped, staring at Merlin, "and I'm really worried, OK?"

"What do you expect me to do?" Merlin said. "Your Dad made it pretty clear what he thought of me leaving."

"He was angry! You abandoned us!" Arthur yelled.

"I wanted a normal life!" Merlin shouted. "Do you remember what that's like?"

"We're not-" Arthur began, than his shoulders slumped. "Look, I know you didn't always see eye to eye,"

"Well, that's a massive understatement," Merlin said.

"But he's my Dad, and he's missing, and, fuck, I don't know what to do, OK?"

Dammit, Merlin thought. Just when he thought he'd finally got his life figured out. But, whatever Uther thought of him (and he was under no illusions that he wasn’t a huge disappointment), he couldn't knowingly let Arthur walk into danger alone. Not after all they'd been through.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked. "Do you want me to try and," he waved his hand to his head, use that thing that freaked your Dad out so much he could barely look at me? It was unlikely, but otherwise he didn't know what Arthur wanted from him.

"Oh! No! I, erm, no. I know where he was headed, it's about a three hour drive from here. I just want you to come with me to check it out, OK?"

"OK," Merlin said, giving in. "But I've got to be back on Monday."

"What's Monday?"

"I've got an interview, for a graduate position at King's Chambers." Merlin said, feeling the nerves rise again.

"So," Arthur said, turning to head back inside, "Skip it."

"I can't just 'skip it'. Do you know how competitive it is? If I get the post I'm pretty much set for life."

"Whatever lawyer-boy. I'll get you back on time. Go and pack. I'll meet you in the car."

Merlin pulled the backpack off the top of the wardrobe, and stuffed in some jeans, socks, t shirts, all packed in willy-nilly. If Arthur had broken four years of silence, he must be really concerned, Merlin thought. He stood on tiptoe and felt around at the back the top shelf of the wardrobe until his fingers closed around the hilt of the knife.

"Hey." Merlin looked up from cleaning his gun, tapping the barrel to clear it of the last of the salt. Arthur, he knew, could do it with his eyes closed, but he wasn't that good.

"Hi," he said, as Arthur sat on the bed next to him.

"So, apparently the Beast of Bodmin is real."

"Yeah." Merlin shuddered, remembering the sight of the giant spectral cat's jaws, almost closing around Arthur's neck, before he'd come to his senses and shot it.

"You did well," Arthur said, bumping his shoulder with his own.

"Thanks." Merlin reassembled the gun, and began to pack away the cleaning supplies. Uther got livid if there was anything left out where the hotel cleaners could see.

"Oh, this is for you," Arthur said, holding out a package wrapped in brown paper.

"Why?" Merlin asked, confused.

"Your birthday- you're what, 12?"

"17. Jerk." Merlin said, but he took the present, feeling pleased.

It was a short, silver bladed knife, with a leather-wrapped hilt. It had a matching sheath, and, as Merlin found when he traced a fingertip down the blade, it was lethally sharp.

"Idiot!" Arthur said, as Merlin sucked on his finger to stop the bleeding.

"It's great," he said, touched. He hadn't expected anyone to remember. He picked up the sheath. He already carried a knife at the small of his back, one of Gauis's, so, "Where should I-?"

Arthur tapped his ankle.

"Lift up," he ordered, and Merlin swung his leg up onto Arthur's knees.

"Here," Arthur said, buckling the sheath, and holding his hand out for the knife. He slid it home, and tugged Merlin's jeans down to cover it. "There. Just like me."

"Thanks, " Merlin said, still feeling the burn of Arthur's fingertips on his skin.

"So, Arthur?" Will asked from the doorway.

Merlin smoothed his jeans down over the hilt of the knife, and pretended to be tying his laces.

"Yes?" He said.

"You want to tell me what's going on?" Will said. "I mean, I've only ever heard vague hints, but I got the impression you kind of never wanted to see him again."

"I didn't," Merlin said, standing and zipping the backpack shut.

"So, what, he just turns up and you go running? And what the hell was that 'none of your business about? You ashamed of me?" Will said belligerently.

Merlin huffed out a laugh. "No. But it really is none of his business. And, believe me, I am absolutely the last person he would have wanted to ask for help. But, he needs me. Uther is all he has. And- I owe both of them."


"I just do. Look," Merlin put his hand on Will's shoulder, wishing, for about the hundredth time, that he could feel more than friendship for him. "I'll just help Arthur find whatever back country pub Uther is holed up in, and I'll be back on Monday." He kissed the top of Will's head.

"You'd better be," Will joked.

The Jag sounded as sweet as ever as Arthur revved the engine. Merlin slung his bag into the back seat, and slid into the passenger seat.

"He lets you drive this?" He asked. The XJ6 was like a second child to Uther. Arthur stroked the dash with a proprietary hand.

"She's all mine."

Merlin rolled his eyes, but asked.

"So, where are we going?"

"Dad got word of something weird up in Kington, near Offa's Dyke. It sounded like Nimueh's kind of thing. I've got the name of the Travelodge."

Merlin thunked his head back on the headrest.

"That's practically Wales."

"Which is why we need to get going." Arthur clicked on the ipod, and AC/DC filled the car.

"I see your taste in music hasn't improved," Merlin said, as Angus Young informed all and sundry that he didn't need reason. He reached out to skip the track.

"Hey!" Arthur smacked his hand away, "Driver picks the music-"

"I know, I know." Merlin groaned. He closed his eyes, not really wanting to talk to Arthur. "Wake me up when we get there.

Arthur looked over at Merlin, the orange glare of the streetlights making him look drawn and pale. However he had imagined finally seeing him again, he hadn't thought it would be like this. He studied him for a few seconds, then reached over and poked him sharply in the shoulder.

"Wht'?" Merlin flailed, waking up.

"We're here," Arthur said, getting out of the car and opening the boot to get his bag.

"Arthur, it's 5am," Merlin said, leaning against the bonnet of the Jag.

"And?" Arthur slid his gun into the holster at the small of his back, and checked to make sure he had the right IDs.

"And, you really expect to talk to anyone this early?"

"No," He slammed the boot shut and locked it, then cocked his head in the direction of the hotel. "We're going to find Dad's room, and see what he left us in the way of clues."

"Look, are you going to tell me exactly what's going on any time soon?" Merlin complained.

"When we get there. Catch." Arthur tossed Merlin the ID.

"You kept my fake ID? Arthur I'm touched." Merlin grinned.

"Shut up."

The night receptionist was about 18, and clearly revising for something judging by the mess of textbooks and post-its covering the desk. Arthur leaned on the desk and smiled.

"Good morning," he glanced down, "Oriana. I'm Detective Campion, and this is my colleague, Detective Dowland." They both flashed their IDs, falling into the routine as smooth as velvet. "I understand you have a Thomas Malory staying here?"

"I'm not sure I should-" she began, hesitant, hand twining in her curls.

"Ma'am, we're on the trail of a man wanted for several violent street robberies in this area. He strikes in the early hours of the morning, usually young women. We need to know if he's here." Arthur said gently, smiling at her, "You wouldn't want to put anyone else at risk, would you?"

She tapped away at the keyboard.

"He checked in five days ago, but-"

"We'll need to see his room." Arthur said.

"I really think-"

"Look. We can go back and get a warrant. But it'll take hours, you'll have to stay past the end of your shift, and in the meantime he could be god knows where doing god knows what."

She sighed, and swiped a key card through the machine.

"It's room 240." She said, giving them the card.

"Thank you," Merlin said, fingers closing over the card. "If you could call someone to meet you, that would be a good idea. We don't want anyone else falling victim."

"I will," she said, nodding.

They made their way in silence across the foyer, and into the lift. Arthur hit the button for the second floor, then looked up to see Merlin glaring at him.

"Do you have any idea how many laws we've just broken?"

"Never bothered you before," Arthur said.

"Well, now I have to be careful."

"I know, you're going to be some important lawyer and leave me to actually take care of things that can kill people." The door pinged and they stepped out into the hallway.

"Let's not go over this again," Merlin pleaded.

"Shhh," Arthur held a finger to his lips as they reached the room. He put his ear to the door, but couldn't hear anything. Not that he'd really expected to.

"Anything?" Merlin said.

"No." Arthur put the card into the slot and carefully opened the door.

The room was spotless, beds made, a spare pair of shoes tucked under the desk the only indication that anyone was actually using it. Arthur opened the wardrobe to see a few shirts and sweaters hanging in a neat row. He moved them aside, but there was nothing else.

"Arthur," Merlin said softly. He held out a file folder.

"Where was it?"

"Taped under the desk."

Merlin sat on the bed and spread out the contents of the folder. Newspaper clippings, photographs, sheets of lined paper covered with familiar slanted writing. Arthur picked up one of the clippings and read aloud,

"'Third person dead of mystery illness. Environmental Health officials 'baffled''".

"There's another one here," Merlin said. " ' Mother of 2 dead of mystery disease. Locals warned to boil all water.' What is this?"

"I don't know." Arthur said, leafing through the cuttings, and turning over a photograph. It was an autopsy photo, showing a middle-aged man with some kind of skin condition, chalk-white, with the veins showing blue and mottled. "It's all the same thing. Something in this town is causing an outbreak."

"But why would your Dad think it was anything to do with Nimueh? It could be," Merlin waved his hands, "Legionnaires or something."

"Let me think," Arthur said, scanning his father's notes. Names and addresses of people who had fallen ill, a sketch of the sewer system, and then, in the corner- "Here's something. Dad found stories saying this disease is always associated with Nimueh reappearing. And it's always fatal."

"So, it's what, some kind of magical Cholera?" Merlin asked, looking doubtful. "I don't know-"

"No, that's it, you don't know," Arthur shouted. He was tired, and worried about Uther, angry at Merlin, and his shoulder ached, which meant rain on the way. "You don't know, because while you've spent the last 4 years learning to be Perry Mason me and Dad have been out there, alone!"

"It's not like either of you made any effort to persuade me otherwise!" Merlin shouted back

"Shit, I can't do this now," Arthur said. He dropped the file back on the bed.

"Look," Merlin said, soothingly. "We're not going to be able to talk to anyone for a few hours. You look like death, and I could do with a nap myself. We'll have few hours rest, go and find Uther, and then I'll be out of your hair forever."

"Fine." Arthur pulled off his boots, and stretched out on the bed. The last thing he heard was Merlin hanging the 'do not disturb sign' on the door.

The pathologist leaned back in her chair.

"Like I told your colleague, the cause of death in all cases was a massive infection that caused the internal organs to fail in rapid succession."

"And what caused the infection, Doctor?" Arthur asked. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin scanning quickly through the patient file.

"Do you not talk to your colleagues, Mr Wilby? As I told Mr Malory, we haven't been able to isolate that. The only thing that links all patients is the water supply. They worked in different places, shopped in different places, and we've ruled out tainted food."

Arthur saw Merlin give a small nod, and stood up. "One last question. When did our colleague visit you?"

"That is just typical-we're down here struggling, working weekends, and environmental health can't even keep track of their own investigations." A look of intense annoyance passed across her face, and Arthur tried his 'I'm too cute to stay cross at' smile.

"Please, Doctor Tozland?"

It never failed. "Two days ago." She stood, "Gentlemen, I'd love to stay and chat, but I have a crisis on my hands. Do us all a favour, and find out what's causing this."

"Thank you Doctor." Merlin put the file back on the desk. "We'll do our best."

"Well, apart from finding out Dad was still alive two days ago that was a complete waste of time," Arthur said as they walked back to the car. It was nagging at him- why hadn't Uther been in contact? He pushed down the part of him that said it was because he was no longer able to contact anyone. That was-unthinkable

"I'm not so sure," Merlin said, pulling a sheet of paper out of his pocket.

"They've narrowed it down to people whose water supply is treated at the Appledale sewage treatment plant. The water's been tested and retested, but they can't find anything in it."

"But people are still getting sick," Arthur said. His shoulder had been right. It was raining; the windscreen wipers made squeaks across the glass.

"Well, nothing normal anyway. Which makes it more likely to be magic."

"So now what?" Arthur knew the answer. It did not mean he was looking forward to it.

"Now, we go down into the sewers. And quickly. My interview is tomorrow."

"I know!" Arthur snapped, too anxious to bother hiding his irritation.

"OK, turn here," Merlin said, looking at the map on the report he'd pocketed. "The treatment plant is this way."

"Super," Arthur said sarcastically, eyeing the side road.

"This is not how I wanted to spend my Sunday," Merlin said, feeling for the next rung on the ladder and trying not to heave at the stink rising up from the sewers.

"Stop whining and get down here!" Arthur called from below.

"We've seen no sign of your Dad, he's still not answering the phone, and I doubt we're going to find him in a sewer." He jumped down the last bit and stumbled. Arthur put out a hand to steady him.

It was the first time they'd touched in four years. It felt like longer.

"Its the only lead we have," Arthur said, pulling something from his pocket and putting an ear bud in one ear.

"That looks like a cannibalised radio," Merlin said. He shone the torch on the walls of the tunnel, looking for, well, something.

"That's because it is. Still picks up EM though, which would-"

"Indicate magical activity. I haven't forgotten everything." Merlin craned to look at the blinking LEDs. "You know you can actually buy EM detectors. It's not like you don't have the money."

"This works fine. The money's for more important things." Holding the detector out in front of him, Arthur began to walk down the tunnel, feet slipping on the slimy bricks. After a few metres, the EM detector began to whine, and the lights blinked in sequence.

"There's something this way," Arthur said.

They stuck close to the wall. Merlin loosened the gun in his shoulder holster. The weight was at once familiar, and unusual, another part of his life he hoped he'd left behind. They moved quietly, the only sounds their footsteps, the whine of the EM, and the unpleasant suck-slap of the water in the sewer.

Suddenly the EM spiked, a loud shriek as they passed a side tunnel. Arthur swung his torch to peer down it.

"There's definitely something down here," he said, hurrying forward into the tunnel. The gloom closed in around him.

"Arthur, wait for-"

"Merlin!" Arthur shouted as something rounded the corner.

It was as big as a bear, but strangely reptilian, standing on four rangy legs. It looked like a badly-made clay sculpture bought to life, and the stench coming off it was even stronger than that of the sewers.

"What the?" Merlin asked, shining his torch on it.

The creature growled and started towards them. For something so awkward-looking it was fast.

"Shit!" Merlin caught sight of small eyes and a mouthful of teeth.

"What the hell is that?" Arthur yelled, staggering backwards.

"How should I know?" Merlin shouted back, starting to run. He sprinted down the tunnel, and into the main passageway. He turned, expecting to see Arthur behind him.

He wasn't there.

Feeling the panic rising he called

"Arthur!" just as Arthur bellowed


Merlin ran back down the tunnel to see the creature rear towards Arthur, snagging one long claw into Arthur's jacket and dragging him backwards.

"Arthur!" Merlin shouted again, taking a few more steps forward. He drew his gun and fired at the creature. The bullets hit it in the shoulder with a wet 'thwap'. The creature howled, rearing up, and Arthur wriggled out of its grasp. Merlin darted forward and grabbed his hand.

"Come on!" he said, dragging Arthur behind him. He'd always been faster. He towed Arthur behind him as the ran out of the side tunnel, then towards the ladder.

"What the fuck was that?" he asked as they ran.

"Why are you asking me?" Arthur jerked his hand out of Merlin's grasp. "Do you think you got it?"

There was a growl from behind them.

"I think that's a no!" Merlin said, grabbing the first rung of the ladder and climbing quickly, legs burning with the effort. He hauled himself up onto the pavement and took a few deep breaths of non-sewer air. He heard another growl, even closer, and Arthur turned to fire into the gloom.

"Quick!" Arthur said as he pushed himself upright.

They shoved the manhole cover in place. Merlin heard claws scrabble at it, but it stayed put.

"OK," he said. "There is definitely something magical going on."

"You don't say," Arthur said, rotating his shoulder as if in pain,

Merlin made his way back to the car, propping himself against it as he waited for Arthur to unlock the door.

"Hey, Merlin?"

"Yeah?" Merlin opened the door and flopped into the passenger seat.

"Thanks. For back there."

"No problem," Merlin said. He wasn't used to being thanked. Saving each other had just been-what they did.

He let Arthur study him. Merlin looked back, impassive, focusing on the streak of mould up the side of his neck, in lieu of saying anything he'd later regret.

Arthur nodded once, sharply.

"Yeah, that's enough," he said, starting the engine.

"Do you think that thing got your Dad?" Merlin asked as they stopped at the door to Uther's room, ignoring the looks of the young family walking down the corridor- though whether it was because of the mud or the smell he didn't know.

"No. He's fine. He's just-" Arthur swung the door open.

"Not here." He finished.

The room was bare, save for their backpacks leaning against the wall. The boots were gone from under the table. Merlin checked the wardrobe.

"Nothing," he said.

Arthur picked up the phone.

"This is Detective Campion. Yes, we're still chasing some leads. What time did Thomas Malory check out? I see. Thank you."

He put the phone down, then thumped the table.

"Damn it! Dad checked out two hours ago."

"So now what?" Merlin asked. He checked around the room, looking for anything they might have missed. He ran his hands under the table, but this time there were no hidden notes.

"Wait," he said, remembering. He clicked the light on in the bathroom and lifted the cover off the cistern, and, just as he'd thought, saw something wrapped in layer after layer of plastic.

"Arthur," he called over his shoulder.

Arthur took one look at the package, and realisation broke across his face.

"Cistern?" he asked.

Merlin slit the plastic.

"Yep, just like that time in Pluckley."

He peeled back the layers, and there it was.

"Dad's notes?" Arthur said.

"Yeah." Merlin handed over the green Filofax, stuffed to bulging with Uther's notes.

Arthur opened it and an envelope fell out. He slit it and took out a sheet of hotel notepaper.

Merlin craned his head, recognising Uther's neat writing.

"Well?" he asked.

" 'Son,'" Arthur read aloud, voice cracking. He cleared his throat and started again. "'By the time you find this I'll be miles away. Do not follow me, or attempt to find me. That's an order. I'm on the trail of something dangerous, and I'll not put you at risk. Deal with the afanc in the sewers, or more people will die.

I'll be in touch when I need you.


"Well," Merlin said, at a loss. "So what now?"

"We kill the afanc," Arthur said shortly.

"That's it? What about your Dad?"

"You read the letter," Arthur said. "It needs to be dealt with." He sat on the bed and started skimming through the notes, refusing to meet Merlin's eye.

"And your Dad? The reason you dragged me out here? You're just giving up? I can't believe you're still blindly following his orders! What happened to 'I'm really worried'?"

Arthur's loyalty to his father had always been absolute. Merlin knew it, had borne the brunt of it, and he didn't know why he'd thought he might change.

"I AM worried! But this is more important. People are dying! Are you going to help? Or is your interview more important?" Arthur spat.

Merlin sighed and pulled the bestiary out of the bag they'd bought up from the car.

"How d'you spell afanc again?"

Arthur wadded up the sandwich wrapper and lobbed it into the bin.

"Anything?" he said.

Merlin looked up from his book.

"No. Plenty of creatures that live underground, but nothing that causes the symptoms we saw. You?"

"Just the name, and that it's a portent of Nimueh. She must control them or something."

Merlin squinted at the clock.

"Arthur, we've been at this for hours. I need to go, I've got tomorrow to prepare for and I need a decent night's sleep."

'oh, right,' Arthur thought. For the past few hours it had been like Merlin had never left-cramped room, bad fast food, the two of them on the trail of something evil. It was so easy to slip back into the old routine, and he had to keep reminding himself that this wasn't permanent.

Not that he wanted it to be, of course.

Swallowing his regret, he said,

"I don't understand it. If this thing is connected to Nimueh reappearing, there should be more cases of poisoning."

"So look up poisonings around the last time we know Nimueh was active," Merlin said.

"But that was-" Arthur began.

"I know, just do it!"

He flicked through the notes and newspaper clippings, looking for deaths, around the time, over a decade ago, that Merlin lost his mother.

"Got it!" He said suddenly, finding a yellowed newsclipping. "'Mysterious Deaths in Plymtree'," he read.

That's it," Merlin said, voice steady.

"But it doesn't say anything about how the deaths stopped."

"Nothing?" Merlin sat next to him on the bed, the mattress dipping under his weight.

"No. They stopped as suddenly as they started."

"Wait, what's this?" Merlin pointed to the headline in the side bar. "Water plant destroyed by arson. That's it! The fire, it has to be!"

"Fire?" Arthur said but he understood what Merlin was getting at. "Elemental theory. The afanc looked like it was made of mud, so fire should kill it."

"Good enough for me," Merlin said, getting to his feet and pulling on his coat. The little grin was almost uncomfortably familiar.

"You're enjoying this," Arthur remarked, packing up the books.

"You sure this'll work?" Merlin asked.

"Absolutely." Arthur hefted the can of hairspray. It wasn't the world's most elegant flamethrower, but it would get the job done. He checked his pocket for his lighter and saw Merlin doing the same.

"OK," he said, shoving aside the manhole cover. "Let's do this."

The sewers smelled as bad as they had this morning. He was going to have to shower for hours to get the stink out of his skin, and the Jag might never be the same. He fumbled the EM detector out of his pocket.

"Erm, Arthur," Merlin said tightly, "I don't think you actually need the detector."

Arthur turned and saw the afanc charging towards them. Clearly it remembered them, and it was angry.

"Now!" shouted Arthur. He pressed the nozzle and flicked the lighter. The afanc reared back at the flame, but Merlin had darted behind it and was busy directing his own makeshift flamethrower at the creature's underbelly as it reared. Arthur moved forward, directing the flame at the creature's eyes. There was a smell of burning sewage as the creature howled, and the flame seemed to catch on the afanc's muddy hide, flickering all over it. It gave one last howl and then the flames consumed it completely. Arthur shrank back against the walls of the sewer, shielding his eyes.

"Merlin, you OK?" he called out.

"Fine! You?"

"Yeah!" The lessening heat on his face told him the flames were burning out, and he got to his feet. Aside from a scorched patch on the ground, and a lingering smell of burnt sewage, there was nothing left of the afanc.

He scuffed at the patch with the toe of his boot.

"Well, you were right."

Merlin flashed him a smile.

"Aren't I always?"

"Whatever. Come on, I'll get you home."

"Yeah," Merlin plucked at the hem of his hoody, soaked in mud and god-knows-what else. "I need to get the sewer smell off me- don't think that would go down too well tomorrow."

"Forget tomorrow," Arthur said as he climbed back up the ladder. "No way are you sitting in the car wearing that."

"I don't have another one," Merlin protested.

"Then I'll drive you back naked. But no way are you getting that crap all over the seats," Arthur grinned, opening the driver's side door.

"Prat," Merlin said, but he sounded fond.

"I know you are," Arthur said, and for a few seconds it was just like old times.

Merlin was asleep, head tipped back onto the headrest, by the time Arthur pulled up at the kerb.

Arthur looked at him for a few minutes. It could have been four years ago, the both of them back from a hunt, ready for a shower and bed, together. Suppressing some completely pointless regrets- Merlin had left him, he reminded himself, he cranked up the radio irritably. Merlin flailed awake to a blast of Rush.

"Wha'?" Merlin said.

"See you still haven't grown out of sleeping in the car," Arthur said. "We're here."

Merlin rubbed his eyes.

"OK, well, I'd better..." he gestured.

"Yeah, well, thanks for the company."

"You'll find him Arthur. You don't really need me."

Yes I do. Arthur thought fleetingly.

"Yeah. Well, I'll see you Merlin." Arthur rolled his shoulders to rid them of the tension he'd felt ever since he'd broken into the house two nights ago. He'd had years to learn to cope without Merlin, and he could do it again.

"OK, well, bye." Merlin pulled his bag out of the back seat, and Arthur watched as he walked up the path, and into the house.

"Will?" Merlin called, putting his bag down in the hall. He checked the kitchen and smiled at the note stuck to the fridge with one of Will's red London bus magnets.

Leftover Chinese in Fridge. Help yourself

"Will?" he called again. He grabbed the foil carton out of the fridge and took it upstairs to eat in bed. He needed food and about ten hours sleep if he was going to get over the shock of seeing Arthur again, and get himself in the right frame of mind for the interview. He shoveled a forkful of cold noodles into his mouth and flopped onto his bed, stretching out his legs and closing his eyes.

He let his mind wander to the interview, trying to pull his thoughts away from afancs and missing father figures and back to his real life. He was bone tired, and he just wanted to sleep.

He was drifting off when he felt something wet land on his cheek. Another drop fell, and he wiped it off and looked at his fingers.

Red. Blood. From the ceiling.

He looked up.

"Will!" He screamed.

Pinned to the ceiling. He'd never seen anything like it.

Will's lips moved soundlessly, blood dripping from his nose and open mouth.

Merlin scrambled to his feet, looking for something, anything to get Will the fuck down from the ceiling.

"Will, just, I'm going to get you," he said.

Will's lips shaped "Merlin."

Merlin felt something tickle at the edge of his brain, a malevolent wrongness that he'd never felt this strongly before. He was reaching for Will, thinking he could maybe pull him down, when flame raced across the ceiling towards Will, flickering over him, and he began to scream and scream and scream.

Merlin watched in horror as the flames took hold, catching on the curtains and racing down the walls and onto the carpet. A symbol shimmered in the fire for a few seconds before Merlin looked back desperately at Will and ran, Will's screams echoing in his ears.

He ran hell for leather down the stairs, flames licking at his heels, and grabbed his backpack from the hall, pulling his phone out as he sprinted down the path. The Jag was still sitting at the kerb, and Arthur got out and ran towards him, grabbing him and pushing into the car.

"Fire Brigade's on its way," Arthur said. "Was there anyone else in there?"

"Will." Merlin said, panting for breath, smoke and grief stinging his eyes. "Will was in there."

One of the firefighters had put a blanket over his shoulders, and Merlin clutched it round him, staring at the remains of the house as he and Arthur leaned against the bonnet of the Jag. The fire had spread rapidly, and between the water and the flames there wasn't much left that was undamaged. He watched dully as they wheeled out Will's body on a stretcher, face covered by a blue blanket. He'd have to tell Will's parents, he supposed.

"You OK?" Arthur asked, next to him.


"Mr Emrys?" one of the firefighters asked, face full of professional sympathy.


"We'll do a full investigation, but from first inspection it looks like a candle tipped over and caught on the curtains. Were you or your housemate using candles this evening?"

"I-I'd just got in. I don't know what Will was doing," Merlin lied.

"Well, we'll let you know. My condolences, Mr Emrys."

They watched the firefighters coil the hoses and pack up. When the noise of the engine had faded away Merlin turned to Arthur.

"It wasn't a candle."

"Then what was it?" Arthur said slowly, like he could guess what was coming next.

Merlin dug a notebook out of his backpack and drew the symbol he'd seen in the flame.

"Look familiar?" he said tightly.

"Nimueh," Arthur said grimly.

"Yes. It's her mark." Merlin opened the passenger door and got in.

"What are you doing?" Arthur asked.

"Coming with you. She's killed enough of the people I love."

The decision was easy, in the end.

"You're coming back?"

"You want to find your Dad. Your Dad wants to find Nimueh. I want to find Nimueh. So yes. For now."

Arthur revved the engine.

"Tomorrow. First thing, we'll start chasing leads."

"OK." Merlin felt cold and shivering, and he knew it was shock setting in. He wrapped his arms around himself and looked out of the window as his house, and his normal life, disappeared in the rear view mirror.

The Jag swung up the country lane and came to a halt in the driveway of a farmhouse. Chickens pecked around in the grass at the front of the house, and from the road it probably looked like nothing out of the ordinary. But Arthur knew what to look for, and he saw the runes on the gate posts, the herb garden, and the country wreath on the front door that was definitely not the usual harvest festival tat.

"Gaius is expecting us," Uther said, jolting him out of his reverie.

"You mean he won't threaten you this time?" Arthur asked, getting out of the car.

"Enough. We need to know how to get rid of this spirit, and Gaius is the best person for the job. You will show him the respect he deserves," Uther glared, and Arthur nodded.

"Yes, father."

He liked Gaius anyway, he told himself as the walked up the path, chickens scattering in front of them.

"Uther, Arthur. It's good to see you again. Tea?" Gaius ushered them inside. The house was piled floor to ceiling with books, protective writing in a dozen languages covered the walls, and his lab bench took up most of the space under the open window.

"Yes, thank you." Uther said.

"Merlin can make it while we talk. Merlin!" Gaius called.

There was a crash from the kitchen, followed by a voice calling

"Um, I'm OK! Just a mug!"

Gaius sighed.

"Go and help him." Uther ordered.

"But Dad-" Arthur protested. Whoever this Merlin was, he didn't care. He wanted to learn what Gaius had to say. The spirit at West Bagborough was usually persistent, and nothing they'd tried had worked. Uther thought maybe they weren't dealing with a ghost at all, but a Kelpie. And, right now, Gaius was their best chance of killing it.


Arthur turned on his heel and went into the kitchen, scowling. There was a boy on his hands and knees, picking up bits of broken mug. He looked up.

"Oh, hi, um, I'm Merlin." He held out his hand, then promptly fell backwards onto his ass, dropping the bits of broken mug again.

"Yeah, I can see you're a real help to Gaius," Arthur said sarcastically, making no effort to help as Merlin scrabbled around for the broken pieces, then stood up again.

He looked to be about the same age as him, almost painfully thin and gangly, black hair sticking up at the back of his head. He was almost white as a sheet, though whether he was just always this pale, or whether he was scared of him Arthur didn't know.

"I am actually. Took down a barguest all by myself just last week." Merlin rubbed his hand through his hair and set the kettle on the Aga.

"And I'm sure all the black Labradors in the village are quaking in fear," Arthur said, though he was slightly impressed. They weren't as bad as werewolves, but barguests were still shapeshifters, and they needed a good shot with silver to kill them.

Merlin set out four mugs and turned to him.

"Are you always such a prat, or do you save it for visiting people?" he asked, almost conversationally.

"You can't talk to me like that," Arthur said.

"Seems like I can," Merlin said as the kettle began to whistle. He put a rosary into the teapot and muttered in Latin as he poured in the boiling water.

"Holy water? You're making holy tea?" Arthur said aghast.

"Can't be too careful." Merlin poured the tea and offered him a mug.

Arthur blew on it to cool it, and took a sip.

"Satisfied?" he asked, as he failed to fall about screaming.

Merlin sipped his own tea.

"Well, I know you're not a demon. But you're still a prat."

"Jerk," Arthur said, taking another sip. "So, how do you know Gaius?"

"I live with him. My mum died two years ago. He took me in, taught me how to, how to not get killed like she did." Merlin studied his mug, not looking at Arthur.

"Was it a demon?" Arthur asked, feeling suddenly sorry. He'd never known his mother, and looking at Merlin's face, he thought, for the first time, that that was preferable.

"Something worse," Merlin said, gathering up the other mugs to take them through to the living room. "Much worse."

"All done?" Arthur said neutrally as Merlin let himself back into the room.

"Yeah. Will's parents are-as well as you would expect."

Merlin sat on the edge of the bed, head in his hands.

"And your interview?"

"Told them I lost a close family member and I was," Merlin's voice was wry, "reassessing my options."

Arthur snorted at the phrase. "Well, let's get going."

He stood, but Merlin made no move to join him.

"Merlin?" he hesitated, then put his hand on Merlin's shoulder. Merlin had always been skin and bone, and not much had changed, but he felt cold under the thin material of his hoody, and Arthur realised he could still smell smoke and the lingering hints of sewer.

"Tell you what," he said, shaking Merlin's shoulder briefly and letting him go. "You have a shower, I'll find us something to eat, and we'll start in the morning."

Merlin looked up. He face was wrecked, drawn and pale and so young-looking that Arthur was reminded vividly of fifteen year-old Merlin, slipping under the kelpie's hooves and skewering it as he and Uther were down. He'd had the same half-terrified, half-determined look.

"Thanks," Merlin said at last.

"Well, it's partly self-preservation. You stink," Arthur said picking up his wallet, and closing the door behind him.

"So, who was Will?" Arthur asked as the car hummed through the fens. He was trying for nonchalant, but Merlin knew better.

"He was, safe. Comfortable. A good friend, who didn't deserve to die," he said wearily.

The night's sleep had done nothing to dispel the grief that weighed heavy on him, but it was beginning to turn to anger.

"But was he, you know-" Arthur prompted.

"What business is it of yours?" Merlin said angrily. "Don't try to tell me you've been celibate these past four years, because I won't believe you.

"I just wondered," Arthur backpedalled.

"Sometimes! Is that what you want to hear? That he was in love with me, and I didn't feel the same? That he deserved so so much better than me, but thanks to that bitch Nimueh he'll never get it?" Merlin felt the anger shiver through him and turned in his seat to yell at Arthur.

"Don't get angry at me, get angry at her!" Arthur yelled back, braking to let a flock of sheep cross the road.

"I am! It's all I can think about!" Merlin said. He sagged back in the seat and stared out of the window as the Norfolk countryside slipped past.

"Where are we going anyway?" he asked.

"Acle. Dad's notes had something that might have been a sighting of Nimueh, starting two weeks ago. A beautiful, dark haired woman on the side of the river, luring people onto the banks."

"That's the best you've got?" Merlin said, aghast.

"It's a start. Even if it isn't her, something is causing those boats to run aground. One couple got swept out to sea and almost died."

"You know I get seasick." Merlin said,

"For god's sake, its the Norfolk Broads, not the Atlantic." Arthur said.

"Don't blame me if I throw up in your car," Merlin warned, but he checked the glove box for ID, just in case.

The head river ranger at Acle was not, as Merlin had expected, a wizened old man smelling of tar and salt, but an attractive middle-aged woman who looked carefully at their IDs before handing them back with a wink.

"So, detectives, what can I do for you?"

"We're investigating the rash of accidents on the Bure between Acle and Great Yarmouth," Arthur said, leaning back in his chair and smiling at the ranger. "Just trying to get the whole picture."

"Well, as I told your colleagues, there's not much to tell. Seven boats, all in accidents at night, all reported seeing a dark haired woman on the bank who seemed to be in trouble. They tried to stop and help her, but the current caught them and they ran aground. One couple got swept out to sea and almost capsized."

Merlin made a note. It sounded a bit like descriptions of Nimueh, but it wasn't much to go on.

"Any reports of a missing woman?" he asked.

"No. We looked for her, but the description wasn't much to go on."

"And that was?" Merlin prompted.

"Wearing white, young, long dark hair. She looked," Nancy looked at her notes, "'beautiful and scared', according to the first group that got in trouble."

"Do you think they were telling the truth?" Arthur asked.

"What do you mean, Detective Wilby?"

"Don't you think it's a little odd? They all run aground trying to help this woman, but she's nowhere to be found?"

Nancy smiled, gently amused. "I'll tell you what I think. None of these people were experienced in these waters. They'd all been drinking, and the tides are high at this time of year, especially with all the rain we've been having. Add to that that the local kids live to torment tourists, and what you've got is a series of pranks gone wrong."

"Do you really think that's likely?" Merlin asked.

"You're not from around here, are you Detective Wilkes?"

"No," Merlin said, unsure where this was going.

"Well, then I doubt you'd understand just how bored teenagers get in places like this. We've increased the river patrols and the boat yards are warning people. It'll blow over in a few weeks."

"We'd still like to talk to the latest victims," Arthur said, smiling winningly.

She sighed but wrote on a pad and tore off the sheet of paper, handing it over.

"They're moored up near Walker's boatyard. Tell them Nancy sent you."

"Thank you, Nancy," Arthur said, smiling even wider.

Merlin inwardly rolled his eyes. Some things never changed.

The latest people to ground their boat turned out to be a group of five men out on a stag weekend. They'd all been drinking, and only one of them, Pete, had been above deck when the boat crashed. His story was the same as all the rest, a dark haired woman had appeared on the bank, looking in need of help. Pete had lost control of the boat when he'd gone to help, and they'd had to wait for the river rangers to tow them off. That time had been spent drinking even more.

"All in all, not the most reliable witnesses," Merlin remarked as they walked back to the hotel.

"No, and, I don't know, this doesn't feel like Nimueh." Arthur said.

"I don't think it is her. She wants you dead, you're dead." Merlin tried to suppress the quiver in his voice, and mostly managed.

"So what, a ghost?" Arthur asked, starting the engine.

"It would make sense," Merlin acknowledged. He reached out and turned down the radio, only to have Arthur turn it back up again.

"Great. I'll drop you off in Norwich to do the research while I get us a boat."

"No. No no no no," Merlin protested.

"Hey, she affects people on the water. A boat's the only way," Arthur smirked.

Merlin felt seasick already.

"I hate you," Merlin's voice was thick as he leant over the side and heaved again.

Arthur scanned the river banks, the early evening gloom making it difficult to see much.

"You don't," he said, squinting ahead.

"Pretty sure I do," Merlin wiped his hand over his mouth. "We'd better be right about this."

"We are. Girl fell off a boat 10 years ago and drowned-boyfriend didn't try to help because he was sleeping with her sister. Bingo, classic vengeful spirit." Arthur gripped the wheel, feeling the river get more and more choppy underneath him.

"That's odd," he said, trying to hold the boat on course.

"What?" Merlin croaked, looking if possible even more green.

"There's no wind and high tide isn't for another two hours. The river should be calm." Arthur struggled with the boat. It wanted to drift towards the bank, and, looking up, he saw why.

She was young, had long dark hair, and her dress was wet and dripping. Even as she reached out her arms pleadingly he felt the boat lurch under him.

"Merlin!" he yelled, doing his best to keep the boat from running aground.

Even seasick and out of practice Merlin was an excellent shot. The rock salt hit the ghost squarely in the chest, and she flickered and disappeared. At once, the river became calm again.

"Well," Arthur said as they moored up. "At least we know what we're dealing with."

"Great," Merlin said, sliding back to sit on the deck of the boat, shotgun balanced across his knees. "A touch of grave desecration along with the seasickness. Just what I need."

Anna Price's grave was in a small churchyard on the outskirts of Norwich. They parked the Jag as close to possible to the church railings and left the lights on as they took turns to dig.

"Here we go," Arthur said as the shovel struck the lid of the coffin. "Pass me the stuff." He levered off the lid of the coffin.

"Can we just get this over with?" Merlin said as he jumped down into the grave with the lighter fluid and salt.

"You didn't use to be this squeamish," Arthur remarked, concentrating on covering the remains with lighter fluid as Merlin sprinkled the salt. "Too much for you all of a sudden?"

"I saw my best friend get burned to death two days ago. Give me a fucking break if I'm not as unflappable as the great Arthur Pendragon at the moment," Merlin hissed.

"Hey, I didn't mean-" Arthur said, helplessly watching Merlin scramble out of the grave.

He boosted himself up over the edge and dug a matchbook out of his pocket.

"I'm sorry, alright?" he said, striking a match and waiting for the others to catch, then tossing the book down into the grave.

"I forget- it's like you haven't been gone," Arthur tried to explain. They'd fitted so seamlessly back together. He watched as the flames took hold, the grave filling with fire.

After a few minutes Merlin said.

"It's OK. I'm fine."

Merlin was a fairly convincing con man. It was the smile, Arthur thought. But he'd never been able to lie to him worth a damn. He let it go though.

"Sure. Fine," he said, as they watched the flames burn down.

The hotel receptionist glared at them as they tracked dirt through the foyer. They rode the lift up to the room in silence, and it wasn't until they were both unwrapping burgers that Merlin spoke.

"Well, that was a bust. Where next?"

Arthur kicked off his boots and swung his legs up onto the bed.

"We'll look through Dad's notes to see if he noticed anything, but," he hesitated, then went on, "Dad left those notes behind for a reason. We saved people here, and I think he wants me, us, to carry on doing it."

Merlin, over on the opposite bed, frowned, but Arthur cut him off.

"You know what's out there. We'll find Nimueh. God knows I want to too. But we can't just ignore everything else! We owe it to people to protect them."

"I..." Merlin began doubtfully.

"Can you really leave people to it? Again? Knowing what we know? Can you abandon them again?" Arthur pushed, desperate for Merlin to agree. It wasn't that he couldn't do it alone, if he had to. But even after less than a week in Merlin's company he didn't want to.

"Abandon them, or abandon you?" Merlin asked. "Because I don't remember you making much effort to stop me."

Arthur winced.

"That's not fair," he said.

"Isn't it? " Merlin asked.

"You left. I got over it." Arthur said shortly.

"Fine. We'll decide where next in the morning, " Merlin said, the look in his eyes leaving Arthur in no doubt that he was just as bad at lying to Merlin as Merlin was to him.

Merlin snapped his fingers, feeling the magic shimmer over him as the fire licked at the edges of the painting.

"You're kind of useful to have around, you know that?" Arthur said, coming up behind him.

Merlin leaned against him, and smiled as Arthur snaked an arm around his waist.

"Why, because I can do this?" He collected a ball of fire in the centre of his palm, and shaped it into a dragon. It reared and beat its tiny wings. The more he used the magic, the more he could do with it, and making Arthur smile like that was just an added bonus.

"That is so cool!" Arthur said. He reached up a hand and traced under Merlin's eyes. "Though I don't think I'll ever get used to you with yellow eyes."

Merlin leaned forward and was just about to kiss him when Uther's voice broke in.

"When were you going to tell me about this?" His voice was soft, which was always a dangerous sign.

"It's not what it looks like, Father," Arthur said, pulling away from Merlin.

"On the contrary, I think it's exactly what it looks like," Uther said.

Merlin let the dragon collapse and sent the flames back into the fire. He closed his eyes and felt the magic draw back.

"Yes, it is," he said, squaring his shoulders. "I didn't tell you because I know how unreasonable you can be-"

"Unreasonable? You know how dangerous magic is! It killed your mother, and Arthur's, and nothing good will come of it. I can't believe you can be so stupid and irresponsible!"

"I'm not!" Merlin shouted. "I can help people! I can sense when there's ghosts or spirits around, I can make fire, I can move things, I think I can find people, though I haven't tried, and sometimes I can see things before they happen! Think how useful that could be to us!" He paced back and forth, not willing to look at Uther and see the hate he knew would be in his eyes.

"Arthur," he said, turning to him. "Tell him, tell him that finding that kid being attacked was no coincidence! Tell him!"

"Father, I," Arthur began, but Uther cut him off.

"I can't believe you knew of this and didn't tell me. I've never been so disappointed in you."

Arthur looked down and didn't say anything.

"Arthur," Merlin said again, feeling his certainty sliding away.

"You kept something dangerous and evil from me," Uther said. "I don't think I can ever trust you again Merlin."

"I can't believe you!" Merlin said, realisation dawning. "You don't like me being with Arthur. The magic is just an excuse! All those years of watching each other's backs and suddenly you can't trust me?" Merlin clenched his fist angrily, and he knew that the magic was spilling up inside him, showing in his eyes. Uther took a step back, and Merlin took a few breaths to calm himself down.

"That's the problem, you can't control it; everything you do with it is tainted," Uther said, the words no less painful for being delivered in Uther's smooth quiet voice.

"That's it?" Merlin asked. He walked up to Arthur, put his hand on Arthur's hip under the leather jacket. "Arthur. Come on, tell him. Tell him it's nothing to be scared of."

"Merlin," Arthur said softly. "You know what he's like. Give him a few days to cool off."

"I will not 'cool off'. I need to seriously think about whether I can let you keep working with us." Uther was ice cold.

Merlin looked pleadingly from one to the other. But he's always known the power Uther had over his son, and it seemed Merlin wasn't enough for Arthur to consider rebelling.

"Fine," he said. "Thanks for sticking up for me Arthur."

"Rise and shine!" Merlin set the cup of tea down on the bedside table by Arthur's head, then leaned across and shook his shoulder.

"Mnurghhh," Arthur said, pushing himself upright.

"Come on, time to get going," Merlin said, throwing open the curtains.

"I suppose this means you're still coming with me?" Arthur asked, flailing around for the tea and taking a big gulp.

"I am," Merlin said.

He'd lain awake most of the night, trying to sort it out. Will's death was a dull ache of grief, nagging at him, and he was still, after all this time, angry at Arthur for not standing up for him. The last few months before he'd finally decided Uther's unending suspicion was too much to cope with had been a torture of heavy silences, the three of them barely speaking. But Arthur was right. They worked together as well as ever, and Will, his mum, and Ygraine deserved vengeance, however long it took. If it meant they helped other people along the way, then that was a bonus. The news reports that morning had just helped him to make up his mind.

"Well, alright," Arthur said, smiling, trying and failing to look unaffected by the news. "So, find anything for us?"

Merlin dug around for the car keys in Arthur's jacket, which was hanging on the back of the chair.

"Something in Canterbury, in the Cathedral grounds. Sounds like a Black Dog, and it's picking off tourists."

"We need silver?" Arthur said, throwing back the covers and swinging his legs out of bed. Merlin determinedly did not look at his muscled calves and thighs.

"I'm going to check the boot of the Jag," Merlin said. "But if the worst comes to the worst, I've got this." He propped his foot on the stool and pulled out his boot knife.

"You kept it?" Arthur said, face going soft.

Merlin suddenly felt embarrassed.

"It's a good knife," he said, dropping his eyes to the floor so he didn't have to look at the fond look on Arthur's face.

"Come on. You get dressed and I'll go and check out," Merlin said to cover the awkwardness.

"Oh, and Arthur?" he said as he reached the door.

"Yeah?" Arthur's voice was muffled as he pulled a t shirt over his head.

"I'm driving," Merlin said, darting through the door before Arthur could protest.

The next few months saw poltergeists in Hertfordshire, a vampire in Datchet, a glam-rock ghost in southwest London, and, by accident, a fairy ride just outside Swindon.

The fairy court, all on black, fiery-eyed horses, attempted to spirit Arthur away, his habit of making eyes at anyone vaguely attractive having got him in trouble again. Merlin grabbed onto him and just held on, feeling the fairy magic shimmering over him and through him as Arthur was changed from a newt, to a snake, to a lion, then back to himself, the fairy huntress having apparently given up. Merlin looked up at her, wondering what happened next, and she gave him a long, calculating look back. Then she nodded, almost like a salute, before spurring her mount and disappearing in to the side of the hill with the rest of the court.

"What happened?" Arthur asked groggily, holding his head.

"My life turned into a Fairport Convention song, that's what happened," Merlin said, rattled. He could still feel the magic trying to change him. "And for god's sake, put this on," he said, shrugging out of his hoody. A naked Arthur in his arms was not good for his equilibrium.

He got used again to long drives, Arthur's still inexplicable love for Ted Nugent, too many bad cups of service station tea, and rediscovered the perfect storm of grease and burnt toast that was the Little Chef breakfast. They shared a succession of cheap hotel rooms, sleeping on lumpy mattresses and waking up too early as sunlight spilled in through thin curtains.

After a particularly bad night, wrestling with a pillow that was apparently made of rocks, Merlin threw the pillow at Arthur and asked.

"Why, Arthur? Why can't we stay somewhere above a flea pit? The family fortune is just sitting there!"

"There are more important things to spend it on," Arthur said, tucking the pillow behind his head and stretching out on the other bed. "Besides, the bed's not that bad."

"Just because you can sleep on anything, no matter how lumpy," Merlin grumbled.

"Don't talk about Lance like that," Arthur said, deadpan, and Merlin forgot his irritation in peals of laughter.

He didn't know whether it was directly related, but shortly after the fairy court Merlin began to notice the magic more and more. He'd let it die down. It was a reminder of what he'd left behind, and really, he didn't need the ability to conjure fire in law school, no matter how annoying his classmates were.

But the tingle he'd felt the evening Will died was only the beginning. He'd felt the magic licking over him as he held onto Arthur, and it seemed to have sparked his own magic to wakefulness. On Dartmoor, tracking the ghost of a highwayman who lured travellers off the road, stranding them on the moors, he felt the ghost even before the EM detector whined. He realised he always knew where Arthur was, even when he couldn't see him, which was useful, but slightly disturbing.

Later, having a well deserved pint, sitting by the fire in the Globe Inn, Merlin reached his hand down to the fireplace and let the flames twist up into his palm, making shapes and sparks, before he funnelled them back into the fire.

So, they were back. He decided not to tell Arthur. It had caused enough trouble already.

Arthur looked up from his notes as Merlin sighed and clicked the laptop shut with a sigh.

"Anything?" he asked, sipping his pint. "We've not found any new leads in weeks. Tell me we have something on her."

"Nothing new," Merlin said wearily. "No new sightings, nothing to suggest where she'll appear next. Have you tried calling your Dad?"

"Yes. Still no answer. I've been looking through his notes, and the only thing I can find is that Nimueh's old. Really old."

"But all the reports say she's young and beautiful," Merlin said. "I mean, from what I remember she was definitely young.

Arthur flipped open the notes to the Penny Dreadful he'd been looking at. "There's a story of her here. A farmer was promised the finest herd of cattle in the West Riding, then one year afterwards she took the man's daughter in payment. And that was 150 years ago."

"And your Dad saw her, what, 25 years ago? And she looked the same?" Merlin ripped open his packet of pork scratchings.

Arthur reached across the scarred pub table and pinched one.

"Yeah. There's stories of her going back centuries. Sometimes she makes deals, sometimes she just takes exception to people. There's portents, rains, poisonings, her mark on or near the dead. She seems to be more active near solstices and equinoxes, but that's about it. But she keeps cropping up."

"I found photos of her mark on Roman remains," Merlin agreed.

"I think we're dealing with an immortal. So did Dad," Arthur said, biting the bullet.

"Well, that's unfortunate." Merlin said, draining his glass.

"Understatement of the year," Arthur agreed, standing up. "Coming?"

Merlin slung the laptop case over one shoulder. "Right behind you."

They walked out into the quiet car park, and Arthur dug out his keys from his jacket pocket.

"We'll hit the road again in the-" he began, before being picked up and flung against the bonnet of the car by something. He tried to reach his gun, but his arms were pinned to his sides, and all he could do was struggle futilely against the force holding him.

"Arthur!" Merlin yelled.

"What the fuck is it?" Arthur shouted. His head was pressed flat against the bonnet, and he couldn't see anything except the moon overhead.

"I can't see it!" Merlin's voice came from somewhere on his left. "It just picked you up!"

Arthur felt the pressure leave his torso, though his legs were still immobile. He struggled to a sitting position as something shimmered into view.

"Arthur Pendragon," the figure intoned. In the faint glow of the car park lights Arthur made out the figure of a knight in black armour, the visor lowered.

"Never heard of him," he said, sliding his hand up to his holster. The knight made a gesture and Arthur found his hand pinned to the car bonnet again.

Merlin was creeping up behind the knight, weapon raised, but with a twitch of his arm the knight batted him away.

"I know you Pendragon," the knight said. A gauntleted hand forced his head up. "And I know your father."

"What have you done to him?" Arthur demanded, the words hard to get out thanks to the knight's tight grip on his jaw. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin begin to get stiffly to his feet. All he had to do was keep the ghost? Elf? Demon? talking until Merlin could grab the gun that had gone flying.

The knight laughed hollowly, "I did nothing to him. He banished me ten years ago, down to the Pit. I walked these hills for seven centuries before that, and I had to claw my way back up out of the fire, inch by painful inch."

"Boo hoo," Arthur said, "If Dad-" he was cut off, the knight's fist smashing into his jaw. He tasted blood, knew his lip had been split.

"You can't imagine the pain," the knight continued, "but one thing kept me going, knowing that as soon as I came back to the land of the living I'd track down every Pendragon and inflict on them some of the torture I endured. I really wouldn't try it." He turned his head and Merlin went flying again. Arthur heard his startled cry as he hit the pavement. Then he found himself begin to be lifted, then slammed back onto the ground, the knight standing over him.

"And when I saw you and your pet here, in my own hills, I knew it was a sign." He drew back his booted foot and kicked Arthur hard in the side. Arthur curled in on himself, but the knight just picked him back up and dropped him. Arthur's teeth rattled in his head as the knight drew back his fist again.

"And I can keep you pinned for as long as I wish," the knight said over his shoulder to Merlin, "so you can watch you friend here writhe and moan in pain and beg for death, before I do the same to you." Arthur kicked against the knight's hold, one heavy hand on his collar, then cried out again as the knight snapped his left index finger, then took hold of it and twisted.

"Stop!" Merlin said. "Get your fucking hands off him!" he struggled against the knight's hold, then his eyes started to glow yellow, luminescence building up in them. Merlin turned his head in the direction of the gun and it flew into his hand.

"I'm much more then a pet," he spat, aiming and firing.

The rock salt caught light as it left the barrel of the gun. Both shots hit the knight in the back, and it collapsed in on itself in a blaze of light.

Arthur hit the ground again, dazed and shaken, the hot-ice pain in his finger combining with the bruises and the ache in his side. But he knew what he'd seen, and he flinched away as Merlin tried to help him to his feet.

"Don't you fucking touch me!" he said, voice thick through his spilt lip.

Merlin's hand dropped, but he didn't step back.

"I just saved your life you ungrateful bastard!" he yelled back.

Arthur was just about to reply when the back door of the pub opened and the landlord poked his head out

"Everything all right? One of the regulars heard shouting."

Merlin closed his eyes, and when he opened them they were their normal blue.

"Fine," he called. "Sorry for the noise, we're just going now."

The landlord looked suspicious but nodded and closed the door.

"Get in the car unless want the police on our tail," Merlin order. "And give me the keys, you can't drive until I look at that finger."

Arthur complied, reluctantly, but his head was throbbing and he just wanted to lie down. After, that is, finding out what the hell Merlin thought he was playing at.

The short drive back to the hotel took place in a stony silence that reminded Arthur of the final unhappy days before Merlin had left them. The receptionist looked concerned at his bruised and battered face but Merlin just flashed him a grin and said

"Bar fight. You should see the other guy."

Stupid Merlin with his stupid infectious smiles and stupid ears and stupid magic, Arthur thought bitterly.

"Take your shirt off, I need to look at you," Merlin said as they got into the room.

"No, you need to tell me what the hell just happened back there!" Arthur demanded, though he wriggled out of his jacket and tugged his shirt gingerly over his head. "I thought you'd, y'know, grown out of it?"

Merlin laughed humourlessly.

"I don't think it works that way."

"Merlin...." Arthur said warningly, wincing as Merlin prodded his side. He didn't think he'd cracked any ribs, but he was going to be one huge bruise come morning.

"After, OK?" Merlin asked. "Just let me look at you."

He pressed his hand to Arthur's side, and Arthur felt coolness wash over the bruises.

"Pretty handy," he said, impressed. Merlin hadn't been able to do that before.

"Let's see that hand," Merlin said as if he hadn't spoken. He bound the index and middle fingers together, hands gentle, then cupped Arthur's jaw to look at his lip.

"This'll sting," he warned as he dabbed at it with antiseptic from the first aid kit. Merlin's hands had always been gentle on him, and it didn't really hurt.

"Anywhere else?" he asked, sitting back.

"No. Now talk." Arthur said, swallowing the painkiller Merlin gave him.

"What do you want to know?" Merlin asked.

"Why the hell you didn't tell me that you could still do that?!" Arthur asked. He wasn't angry at the powers so much as the secrecy. It hurt that Merlin didn't trust him although, he supposed, it wasn't like he had much reason.

"Well we all know how swimmingly that went before!" Merlin said hotly.

"That was Dad! I can't believe you didn't trust me with this!" Arthur countered.

Merlin stood stiffly, and Arthur belatedly realised he'd been pretty bashed about too.

"Well I guess that's my cue," he said, picking up his backpack and starting to stuff clothes into it. "I hope you find him Arthur. If I hear anything I'll let you know."

"What?" Arthur said, confused.

"We know how this goes. I do magic, you or your father freak out because all magic is evil, I go." Merlin said heavily.

Arthur reached out and grabbed his wrist.

"Sit down. You're not going anywhere. I just want to know why you didn't tell me."

"Because I knew you'd react like this! It's been coming back in dribs and drabs since," Merlin broke off and looked down, "Since Will. I felt her that night, and I think it's the reason the fairy couldn't change me. It's the reason you're still alive and human you ungrateful prat!"

"I wouldn't have said anything. I just wish you'd told me," Arthur said, surprised to find it was true. Without Uther's constant disapproval the fact that Merlin could do-whatever it was he could do-wasn't such an issue. And he remembered how useful it had been before his father had found out. Plus, it was Merlin. If he coudn't trust him who could he trust?

"I mean, I've been pratting about with the EM detector all this time when you could just do your thing and save us all the hassle," he said, striving for normal.

Merlin laughed shakily

"You're really OK with it?"

"I was before, remember? I'm just a bit freaked out. I mean, I've never seen you do that thing with the salt before."

"Yeah, I don't know why I did, but I thought it might work," Merlin said.

"Remember it for next time." Arthur stretched out on the bed. "You think you sent him back to Hell?"

"Nah, but I think it'll be a while before he bothers anyone again."

Apparently reassured Arthur was not about to hit the roof, Merlin toed off his boots and settled back against his pillow.

"Hey Merlin," Arthur asked, remembering something. "Can you still do that thing with the fire?" He flicked his lighter, the small flame glowing in the dingy room.

"You're such a kid," Merlin said, but he stretched out his hand and made a dragon swoop and dip, while his eyes glowed softly in the gloom.

Despite Arthur's reassurances, Merlin still felt a little on eggshells around him. He could tell he was trying to be normal with it, asking Merlin if he felt anything, encouraging him to practice with fire and telekinesis, but every so often Merlin would catch him looking at him with a worried expression, as though he was suddenly going to snap and start being evil.

"I'm still me, you know. I'm not going to go all Wicked Witch of the West on you," he said, after catching Arthur looking at him for the twentieth time that day.

"I wasn't looking because of that," Arthur said, looking flustered.

"Then why were you-" Merlin began, before being interrupted by Arthur's phone.

Arthur pulled it out and frowned at the screen.

"What is it?" Merlin asked, craning his neck to look.

"It's a message from Dad. I think it's an OS map reference." Arthur said. "Map 151, and then a grid reference,"

"Why is he sending you a grid reference?" Merlin asked.

"Obviously he wants us to go there. Come on, you can check the map in the car while I drive." Arthur pushed his chair away from the table and left his coffee half-finished.

"You're just going to follow, just like that?" Merlin said, hurrying to catch up with him.

"This is the first we've heard of him in months. Damn right I'm going to follow." Arthur said.

"I should have got the coffee to go," Merlin mumbled, more to himself than anything else. Still, at least it meant Arthur was no longer looking at him. Even if it was because he was still nervous of him, Merlin liked it probably more than was prudent.

The map reference led to a small farm just outside Henley in Arden.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" Merlin asked doubtfully.

"It's the only house in the grid reference. This has to be it." Arthur said, leaning on the doorbell.

The door was opened by an older woman wearing a thick cable-knit jumper, a tweed skirt, and sensible shoes. Arthur looked at her for a few seconds before breaking into a smile and engulfing her in a hug.

"Hetty!" he said delightedly.

"I wasn't sure you'd recognise me," she said, stepping back to look at him. "Look at you, you're so tall!"

"Um, Arthur," Merlin said, wondering who the woman was.

"Merlin, this is Hetty Stanhope. She used to look after me sometimes when Dad was hunting." Arthur turned back to Hetty,

"Have you spoken to Dad? We got a message to come here, but we've not heard from him in months."

"Now, Arthur, let's not discuss this out in the cold," Hetty chastised.

Arthur looked immediately contrite, Merlin noted with amusement as they followed Hetty inside. She obviously still had the knack of keeping him in line.

"Sit," she said, ushering them into armchairs by the fireplace.

"Hetty, have you spoken to him?" Arthur asked again urgently.

"No," she shook her head. "I called him when I started having problems, but all I got was his answerphone, so I left a message. Is something wrong?"

"I don't know," Arthur said, a little desperately. "All we got was a text message with your map reference on."

"Typical Uther, has to be mysterious." Hetty tutted.

"So, what can we do for your Ms Stanhope?" Merlin asked as Arthur tried not to laugh.

"You can start by calling me Hetty," Hetty said with a smile. "And you must be the young man Uther was so taken with."

"He was?" Merlin asked, dumbfounded. Uther had tolerated him, maybe even liked him on a good day, but the way Hetty spoke it almost sounded like he was proud of him.

"Well of course he was" Hetty said, shaking her head disapprovingly, "He was proud of you."

"It didn't feel like it," Merlin said, sullenly.

"Merlin," Arthur said warningly. "Hetty, what's the matter? Why did you call Dad?"

"I think I have a poltergeist," she said, matter of factly.

"In the house?" Merlin asked. He closed his eyes and concentrated, but he couldn't feel anything out of the ordinary. When he opened them again Arthur was looking at him and he shook his head slightly.

"No, in the garden. Every night for a week, branches blowing without the wind, shrubs uprooted, the greenhouse turned all topsy-turvey." She motioned to the window, and Merlin got up and looked out. What was obviously usually an immaculate garden looked as though a herd of elephants had trampled through it.

"Sounds like one to me," Arthur said, nodding. "We'll check tonight, just to be sure. Do you have somewhere safe to this evening?"

Hetty glared at him.

"Arthur, when you had that boggart under your bed when you were nine did I go somewhere safe then?"

Arthur laughed.

"No, you hit it with the poker and it disappeared."

"Well then. And I have you and Merlin. Where else could be safer?"

"So what was Arthur like when he was little?" Merlin asked, squinting out into the darkened garden. As stakeouts went this was definitely a cut above normal. Hetty made pot after pot of tea (seeing the rosary beads poking out of the teapot, Merlin wondered if she knew Gaius) and fed them fruitcake.

"Impulsive. Stubborn. Brave," Hetty said, pouring another cup. "Oh, and he had such a sweet tooth. He was such a cute, chubby little boy."

"Hetty!" Arthur protested as Merlin laughed.

"So, what are these bags for Arthur?" Hetty asked, picking up one of the charm bags they were working on.

"Think of them as poltergeist proofing. They have protective and banishing herbs in them. Once we bury them at the four corners of your garden the poltergeist will disappear. Only thing is, we have to do it when the poltergeist is active." Arthur tied the last knot in the linen thread and tossed two bags to Merlin.

"That sounds dangerous," Hetty said.

Arthur put his arm round her, and Merlin smiled at the warmth in his eyes.

"We'll be fine. We're big boys."

Merlin shivered as he felt something creep into the back of his mind.

"Arthur," he said, just as the dog began to bark and scratch at the door.

"This is what happened last night," Hetty said.

They both ran to the window; in the garden the trees were whipping to and fro, stepping stones rose up from the lawn and the windows in the greenhouse shattered one by one.

"Looks like you were right Hetty," Arthur said. "Stay behind the salt line. Come on Merlin." They forced the door open, and ran down the steps to the garden.

The poltergeist was vicious, the invisible force ripping up plants and shrubs, hurling plant pots into the air, and making the tree branches bend as if in a gale. Merlin headed for the alpine bed, trying to make himself as small as possible as he scrabbled in the soil, rooting up the ground cover plants to make a hole. He heard Hetty yell,


and dropped flat to the ground, just before a plant pot shattered against the wall above his head. Finally he had a hole big enough for the bag, and he shoved it in, patting the earth back over it quickly. He struggled to his feet, feeling the poltergeist pluck at his coat and hands.

"Arthur! How are you doing?" he called above the noise of waving branches and crashing pots.

"One down! Doing the vegetable patch!" Arthur called back from the other side of the garden.

There was a woodpile in the furthest corner of the garden. As Merlin approached it the logs rose in the air, aiming themselves at him, and Merlin dropped to all fours, crawling across the ground as the logs swooped overhead. The earth was damp in the corner, easy to shift, and he dug a small hole and fumbled the bag out of his pocket just before the logs fell on him, knocking the air out of him and the bag out of his hand. Merlin struggled under the weight of the logs, flailing his hand out for the bag before he heard the crack of a shotgun, and the logs lifted enough to allow him to roll away.

Hetty stooped to pick up the bag.

"I thought Arthur told you to wait in the house," Merlin said as Hetty dropped the bag into the hole.

"It's a good job I didn't, isn't it?" She said, getting to her feet and picking up the shotgun. "Go, help Arthur, he's in trouble."

"Get back inside the house!" Merlin ordered as he sprinted across the lawn, dodging tree branches and garden gnomes.

Arthur was pinned down next to the vegetable patch, being pelted with root vegetables.

"Arthur! Throw me the bag!"

Arthur staggered to his feet and hefted the bag, but the poltergeist slammed him against the wall, and shoved the compost bin against him, pinning him in place.

"Mer-" Arthur croaked, as the poltergeist slowly squeezed the air out of him. Merlin took two steps forward and felt himself being lifted up by one heel and flung against the wall of the garden shed. The pea netting rose and plastered itself to him, green tendrils worming across his skin and round his throat. Merlin clawed uselessly at it, feeling his throat constrict. He looked around wildly, and spotted the bag Arthur had dropped, about a foot away from the corner of the garden.

"I hope this works," he thought. Trying not to panic he let the magic trickle up inside him, concentrating on the bag. It lifted, and he frowned, struggling to keep it in the air. He wormed one hand free and pointed at the corner of the garden. The bag dropped into the hole, and then he twisted his hand, covering the bag over with earth. Immediately the netting dropped. Freeing himself he hurried over to Arthur and helped him shove the compost bin away, gagging slightly at the smell.

"Arthur, are you alright?" he asked anxiously, as Arthur opened his eyes.

"Yeah," Arthur said croakily. "I ever tell you you're kind of useful to have around?"

Merlin just laughed shakily and helped him brush off the potato peelings.

Hetty sent them on their way with hugs, kisses, and an entire fruitcake. It must have put Arthur in a good mood, because he actually pulled up at a decent hotel in Leamington Spa, and treated them to an actual sit-down meal in the little restaurant. Coming back from a trip to the bathroom, Merlin caught site of a girl at their table.

"Typical," he said to himself, although actually, since the Black Knight had attacked them Arthur hadn't gone home with anyone. He couldn't really begrudge Arthur the company. As he got closer to the table she looked up, straight into his eyes, then said something to Arthur, laughing softly, before walking back across the bar.

Merlin shook his head, trying to clear it. He suddenly felt very sleepy, the deep exhaustion of too many late nights.

"Who was she?" he asked, sliding into his seat.

"Charlie, cute, Irish, very interested in seeing me later, and," Arthur raised a tumbler to his lips, breathing in, " A connoisseur of whiskey it would seem."

"She bought you that?" Merlin said.

"Yep." Arthur set his lips to the rim of the glass and Merlin suddenly got a sharp sense of wrongness.

"Don't!" he said urgently.

"Don't what? Arthur asked.

"Don'- I think its poisoned!" Merlin said. The glass felt evil somehow, and all he knew was that Arthur couldn't drink it.

"Poisoned? Merlin don't be ridiculous." Arthur raised the glass to his lips again.

"Arthur," Merlin said urgently, wide awake now, and that tiredness should have been a clue, "I don't trust her- I mean come on! Who just randomly buys someone a drink?"

"Happens to me all the time," Arthur smirked. "Ooh, you're jealous!"

"Dammit I'm not!" Merlin said, the wrongness pressing against his temples now, "it's dangerous, I can feel it."

Arthur just shook his head and raised the glass again. Desperate, Merlin snatched it out of his hand.

"If I'm wrong I'll buy you another one," he said, and drained the glass.

It slipped from nerveless fingers as the darkness rushed in.

"Dad, this is Arthur. Look, I don't know what you're doing, but I need you help. Merlin's with me and," Arthur looked at Merlin, tossing and turning on the bed, lost in fever, "And he's pretty sick. I think it's magical and," he swallowed, "and I don't know what to do! I know whatever you're doing important, but it's Merlin. I need you, so just, call me back, OK?"

Arthur sighed as he ended the call and went back to Merlin's bedside.

He'd collapsed suddenly and dramatically in the restaurant, and Arthur had never been more grateful for Merlin's slight frame as he half-dragged, half-carried him back to the room. Merlin was burning up by the time Arthur had him stripped to his boxers and in bed, and he'd been barely conscious as Arthur coaxed some aspirin and water down him.

"Why did you have to be such an idiot Merlin?" Arthur murmured as he dipped a flannel in water from the ice bucket and draped it over Merlin's forehead. His skin was clammy with fever-sweat, and Arthur knew he couldn't put it off any longer, and dialled the number.

"Gaius," he said into his phone.

"Arthur, how are you my boy?"

"Bad," Arthur said honestly. "It's Merlin."

"What's the matter?" Gaius said sharply.

"I think he's been poisoned," Arthur said, grateful Gaius didn't waste any time getting to the point. "He said he could feel the poison, I think it's magical. A girl bought me a drink, and he drank it because I wouldn't listen to him, and now he's got a fever and he won't wake up." Arthur knew he was babbling, but he seemed unable to help himself. Merlin shifted fitfully, and Arthur smoothed his hair back from his forehead.

"Arthur, focus," Gaius said urgently. "Are you sure it's magic?"

"I don't know! But he said he could feel the poison, and he can feel stuff like magic, you know he can. I need you here, I don't know what to do!"

"Where are you?" Gaius asked.

"Leamington Spa," Arthur said.

"Arthur, by the time I get there it could be too late."

"So I what? Just let him die?" Arthur asked wildly. "All because some girl bought me a drink?"

"Girl? What girl?"

"I don't know, just a girl?"

"Do you have the glass?" Gaius asked tightly. "Is there a mark on it?"

Arthur had pocketed the glass in case they needed it to work out the poison, and he picked it up from the table and turned it over in his hands. There, etched on the base of the tumbler, was the mark of Nimueh.

"Nimueh," he said grimly.

"As I feared. It's magical, and, knowing her, likely to be fatal very quickly."

"So you'll come?" Arthur said pleadingly. He wasn't above begging, not for Merlin. Not now.

"I can't just fly up from Somerset, Arthur! But you're in luck. A friend of mine lives about forty minutes away, out by Earlswood Lake. Her name's Elaine. I'll give her a call."

"Thank you," Arthur said, feeling suddenly weak.

"In the meantime, try and keep him cool. If he wakes, get him to drink."

"Thanks Gaius. I know you and Dad had a falling out, but-"

"He's my boy Arthur. I'd do anything for him," Gaius said, a touch sorrowfully.

Arthur looked at the sleeping figure.

"Yeah. Me too," he said, almost to himself.

The forty minutes before Elaine arrived seemed almost endless. Arthur called down for another bucket of ice and wrapped it in towels, then packed them around Merlin in an attempt to bring the fever down. Merlin wasn't even moving now, just twitching fitfully and making pathetic, broken sounds.

"Don't you do this to me Merlin," Arthur said as he wiped off Merlin's brow. "She's not getting you too, not like this."

When it came, the knock on the door startled Arthur.

"Arthur?" said the woman in the corridor. "Gaiu asked me to pop by. I'm Elaine."

Thank god Arthur thought. But, mindful of Gaius, he poured a glass of holy water from his flask and held it out.

She raised an eyebrow.

"I see someone's taught you well," she said, taking the glass and drinking.

"Can't be too careful," Arthur said. "I've been fooled by a beautiful woman already today."

She chuckled and crossed the room to Merlin's bed, the quartz and tiger eye beads at the end of her braids clicking as she moved. She was tall and curvy, as unlike Gaius as it was possible to be, but like Gaius he trusted her almost instantly.

"Well, you're a lot more charming than your old man, I'll give you that."

She pulled up a chair and sat at the side of the bed.

"Now Merlin, what has she done to you?" she said softly. She put one hand on his forehead and her face fell.

"He's burning up," she said.

"I know! I've been trying to keep him cool but he just seems to get worse! Is there anything you can do?" Arthur asked desperately.

"Sshh, it's OK" she soothed him, "Can I see the glass?"

Arthur handed it over. Elaine frowned at the mark, mouth set in a determined line.

"Arthur, get me the tripod and the candle out of my case."

Elaine's case was a weird mixture, rune stones and crystals mixed in with beakers and test tubes. She set up the tripod over the candle and placed the glass on top.

"What are you doing?" Arthur asked.

"Finding out what he was poisoned with- my magic needs a helping hand."

"Merlin could tell it was poison without touching it," Arthur pointed out.

"We don't all have his gifts," Elaine said. She dripped some blue oil into the glass, and it bubbled and turned clear.

"Hmmm, as I thought," she said, "The Morteus flower. But Nimueh's done something to it- normally the fever doesn't take hold until several days after the poison is ingested.

"How do we get the antidote?" Arthur asked, not even entertaining the thought that there wasn't one.

"The only cure is a tea made from the root of the flower." She pulled a book out of the case and showed Arthur a picture of a tiny yellow flower. "She must have picked from woodland nearby- it loses its potency in a matter of hours. You need to find it quickly Arthur, we don't have much time."

"Right," said Arthur, snapping the book shut.

It was hardly even woodland, Arthur thought as he hurried towards it across the field. Just a collection of scrubby trees, in the farmland on the edge of town. The night had fallen quickly, and he didn't know how he was going to find the damn flower in the gloom.

"Um, hi? Hi? Excuse me?"

There was a girl-couldn't be more than 14-sitting awkwardly against the fence. She called out again.

"Sorry! Can you help me?" As Arthur got closer he saw that she was holding onto her ankle

"I was taking a short cut and I think I tripped in a rabbit hole and I hurt my ankle. My phone's dead, and I need to call my parents," she looked up hopefully, all bright eyes and freckles, "Can you give me a lift into town?"

Arthur wavered, aware of how little time he had, but he couldn't just leave her there.

"I'll take you back, but I need to get something from over there first-" he pointed to the trees. At her doubtful look he said "I'm on a scavenger hunt! I need a Morteus flower- but I've only got half an hour to find it." It didn't sound convincing, even to him, but it was the best he could do.

Her face twisted into a wheedling smile. "They're hard to find! I'll help you look, just don't leave me here in the dark, please."

The extra help would be useful, Arthur thought, and he gave her a hand up. "OK," he said.

"Great! I'm Viv by the way!" She limped alongside him.

"Art," Arthur said as they reached the tree line.

"So, this hunt's pretty important, huh?"

"Yeah, really important," Arthur said, swinging the torch in a wide arc at the base of the tree. "My partner's kind of relying on me."

They split up and searched in silence for a few minutes before Arthur saw it, a collection of tiny yellow blooms huddled at the base of one tree.

"Viv! I've found them!" he knelt and carefully uprooted one, wrapping it in a tissue and putting it in his pocket.

"Viv?" He called again, squinting into the darkness. He bent to pick up the torch and was knocked onto his back by a huge shaggy dog. It sat on his chest and growled at him, a constant low rumble, and though the night was dark its eyes glowed redly.

"Shit!" Arthur swore, and he reached for his knife. The dog's jaws closed round his wrist, not breaking the skin, but with enough pressure to show that this was an option.

"Viv! Get out of here! It's dangerous!" he yelled.

"Actually, I'm perfectly safe."

She came striding towards him, all traces of limp gone. As Arthur watched she flickered and changed, first into the girl in the bar, then into a woman with blue eyes, long dark hair, and a blue dress.

"I'm afraid, Arthur Pendragon, that I lied. Viv is only one of my names. I see you've met my pet."

"Nimueh,"Arthur gritted out. He worked his left hand behind him and managed to draw his gun.

"Oh, Arthur, I can assure you that that will do no good whatsoever." She made a gesture and the gun went flying.

Arthur struggled and the dog let go of his wrist to snap at his throat, growling and snarling. It was a dead weight, and he couldn't shift it. He felt tree roots crawling over the ground towards him, wrapping themselves round his legs and wrists.

Nimueh crouched down next to him and ran a fingertip along his cheekbone.

"Such an easy mark. Can't resist a damsel in distress. Just like your father," she cooed.

"What have you done with him?" Arthur snarled, jerking his head away from her.

"Nothing at all. Yet."

"And Merlin, he could be dead by now," pleasenopleasenopleaseno "because of the poison meant for me!"

Nimueh laughed, "that was never meant for you, " she stood, "It was-a test. I've got such plans for young Merlin."

"What do you want with him?" Arthur demanded, an icy chill running through him. He struggled against the roots, feeling them cut into his skin.

"Nothing you'll ever find out," she said, leaning back against the tree. "You know, I've half a mind to let my pet have you, after all the trouble your family has caused me-"

Arthur flinched away as the dog snapped at his face, teeth grazing his throat. Nimueh crouched again, copper knife in hand and said,

"No, I'll let you go. But I'll give you something to remember me by."

She set the knife against his breastbone, and Arthur was sure he was going to wind up sliced open and bleeding out. He struggled again, then his eyes widened as he saw a ball of light speed through the clearing, hitting the hound which vanished with a howl of pain. The ball hovered over Nimueh, and Arthur knew, with a certainty he couldn't explain, that it was Merlin. Nimueh looked up, a look of shock on her face, before the ball rushed at her and she shuddered, fading into the dark and disappearing.

As Arthur looked at the place where she had been, he heard her voice in his head.

See you soon, Pendragon..

"Are you sure this will work?" Arthur said anxiously, watching as Elaine poured boiling water over the cut-up root.

"I hope so," she said. She cupped the mug in her hands and whispered over it, and the steam changed colour from white to green, then died down.

"What did you do?" he asked.

"Nimueh gave the poison a magical boost; I just did the same to the antidote. I'm not as powerful as her, but with Merlin's gifts we should be alright." She set the mug down on the bedside table, and Arthur moved to help her get Merlin sat up. He was as limp and floppy as a rag doll, and his skin was burning hot.

"He saved me back there," he said. "There was this-"

"Ball of light?" she asked. Arthur nodded.

"He was calling out to you," she said. "I've heard of connections like that, but I've never seen one."

Arthur didn't know what to make of that. He took the mug and tipped it to Merlin's mouth.

"Come on, come on, swallow for me," he said softly. The tea dribbled between Merlin's lips and, after a few agonising seconds, Merlin's throat worked as he swallowed.

"Make sure he gets all of it," Elaine said gently, but Merlin's eyelids were already fluttering.

"Come on, just a bit more," Arthur coaxed, tipping the mug up again, already feeling like he could breathe properly for the first time in hours.

"Tastes vile," Merlin croaked, but he drank obediently.

"You OK?" Arthur said, setting the mug back down.

"I, yeah, I think so." Merlin said, opening his eyes properly and looking up at him. "What happened?"

Arthur took him by the shoulders and shook him.

"You were an idiot! That's what happened! Don't you ever do that to me again!"

"Arthur," Elaine said, placing her hand between his shoulder blades, "Merlin is still sick. Perhaps save the yelling 'til later?"

"Nimueh," Merlin said.

Arthur eased him back onto the pillows and passed him a bottle of water.

"Yes. Nimueh," he said. "Seriously Merlin, don't ever do that again."

"You wouldn't listen," Merlin said tiredly.

"Yeah, well, I will next time." Arthur said awkwardly.

"See that you do," Elaine said, packing up her case. "And Merlin? When all this is over, I want you to come and see me. The things that you can do? They're just the beginning."

"Thank you," Arthur said, showing her to the door.

"You be careful. Both of you. I don't know what Nimueh meant by 'plans', but it can't be anything good."

"I'll take care of him," he promised.

She kissed his cheek, and Arthur felt her magic prickle over him, comfortingly, healing the cuts and bruises.

"I already know that," she said.

It took several days before Merlin really felt well enough to go on the road again. Arthur was being oddly twitchy about the whole Nimueh thing, and Merlin knew he was keeping something from him, but every time he asked Arthur hastily changed the subject. Instead, he tried to make up for getting Merlin poisoned, allowing him to drive, booking into halfway decent hotels, and sticking close to him. Not that Merlin minded that last one too much.

Finally, in a greasy spoon just outside Crewe, Merlin had had enough.

"OK," he said, throwing down the newspaper, "It's been a fortnight, we've got no leads on her, no sign of a new job, and you've still not told me the whole story. What happened?"

Arthur chased the last of his baked beans across his plate with a piece of toast.

"What whole story?" he asked, blandly.

"Don't play dumb with me Arthur. What happened when you saw her? What did she say?" Merlin pressed. He knew she'd been there, had felt it even in his fever, but Arthur wouldn't tell him anything other than that, and he was starting to worry.

"Why do you want to know?"

"Because it's NIMUEH!" Merlin shouted.

The boy at the counter looked over at them curiously, and Merlin just smiled weakly and lowered his voice.

"It's Nimueh," he hissed, "for the first time in years we've seen her, and she must have said something that we can use to track her."

Arthur looked at him. He needed a haircut, blond fringe falling in his face.

"Fine," he said at last, sipping his tea.

"Well?" Merlin said. He felt Arthur's booted foot knock against his, and he pressed back. Arthur had been doing this more and more, touching him, as though to reassure himself that Merlin was truly there.

"She implied she knew Dad, that he'd helped her. But why would he do that?" Arthur asked, anguished.

"I don't know," Merlin said, turning over the new information.

"And she said she had plans."

"What kind of plans?"

"Just, plans. That's all, honestly. She said she had plans, for you, then you did your ball of light thing, which, by the way, is still freaky, and she disappeared!"

"Plans. I don't like the sound of that," Merlin said, feeling a coil of foreboding unwind in his stomach, and wishing the precognition had come back along with everything else. Then at least they'd have a better chance of working out what to do.

"No," said Arthur, pressing his boot back against Merlin's foot for comfort. "Me neither."

The uneasiness didn't disappear, despite a new case in Stockport, a shapeshifter that had already killed three people. The local press were blaming a group of impressionable teenagers and the latest computer game, but the grisly piles of tissue in the sewers were a dead giveaway.

"This is disgusting," Arthur said, lifting up something pink and gooey with the tip of his knife.

"The sewer or that?" Merlin said, gagging slightly. He swept the beam of his torch across the walls and down the tunnel. They'd tracked the shapeshifter, currently a thirtyish Asian woman, this far, but so far there was no sign of it.

"Both," Arthur said. "Seriously, why can't anything we hunt ever hole up somewhere nice.

"Doesn't work like th-"

"Shhhhh!" Arthur said.

Merlin heard footsteps coming round the corner.

"Hello?" a thready voice called out.

Arthur opened his mouth, but Merlin shook his head.

"I don't know how I got down here! Can you help me?" The woman rounded the corner, and Merlin put out his arm to stop Arthur.

"We don't know it's not a shapeshifter," he murmured. "Wait until we're sure." Arthur nodded, and they split up, hiding in the shadows.

She came towards them, looking the worse for wear, hair tangled with sewer dirt and her clothes muddied and torn.

"I'm lost, can you, oh, forget it," the shapeshifter said. She shot out an arm and grabbed Arthur by the collar, slamming him up against the wall. "I'm fed up of this body anyway. You'll do nicely. I always had a thing for blonds."

Merlin drew his gun, waiting until he was sure he wouldn't hit Arthur too.

"We do have more fun," Arthur croaked. From his hiding place Merlin could see him trying to inch his hand close enough to his knife, but the shapeshifter saw, and threw Arthur to the ground.

"Not nice!" it snarled.

It was the opening Merlin had been waiting for. He stepped out of the shadow and called

"Hey! One of him's enough, believe me!"

The shapeshifter turned, and Merlin shot it three times, the silver bullets thumping into its chest. It fell to the ground, twitched once, then lay still.

"Thanks." Arthur said.

"Like I could cope with two of you," he said, grinning.

Back at the hotel Merlin took a long shower, washing the sewer-smell off his skin, then flopped out on his bed. Arthur was already snoozing, the remains of a takeaway thrown onto the table. Merlin put the TV on and idly watched the news, letting his mind drift as he started to fall asleep.

Arthur's phone rang, the tinny rendition of "Jessica" jolting Merlin awake.

"Arthur, phone." he mumbled.

The phone continued to ring. Merlin chucked his pillow at Arthur.

"Answer it!"

Arthur reached out blindly and fumbled the phone open.

"Yeah?" he grunted. Then he sat bolt upright, eyes wide.

"Dad?" he said.

Merlin froze, then made a lunge to sit by Arthur, trying to hear what Uther was saying. Arthur batted his hand at him as he said

"What? I- yes. Yes Father. OK," and hung up.

"That was Uther? What did he say?" Merlin asked. Arthur pulled his backpack out from under the bed and started stuffing his clothes into it.

"We have to go. He's meeting us in Froggatt, in the Peak District."

"What for?" Merlin asked. He put out a hand and took Arthur's arm. Arthur shook him off impatiently.

"I don't know, he just said to meet him there." He went into the bathroom for his washbag.

"Arthur, it's going to be nearly midnight by the time we get there. I'm tired, you're tired and pretty bashed about by that shapeshifter. Can't we go in the morning?"

"No!" Arthur snarled. He stuffed his washbag into his backpack and forced the zip closed.

"You always do this, you never question him!" Merlin said. "How do you even know it was him?" Not that he really doubted it. The peremptory order was pure Uther.

"I know," Arthur said. "You've got ten minutes or I'm going without you."

Merlin sighed, and grabbed his bag, starting to pack.

"And he didn't say anything else?" Merlin asked again as they sped down the A6.

Arthur sighed. "No, nothing."

"And you don't think that's odd?"

Arthur turned the radio up, not wanting to get into yet another argument about Uther. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin huff, and lean against the window, closing his eyes as Aerosmith filled the car.

He spotted Uther's Aston Martin as soon as they pulled into the hotel car park. His dad was leaning against the bonnet, waiting for them. He parked next to him, and wound down the window.

"Dad?" he asked, searching Uther's face for any signs of what he wanted.

"Son," Uther inclined his head. "You need to get that mud off the wheel arches before she starts rusting."

Arthur held his tongue as Merlin snorted next to him.

"Merlin," Uther said. "It's, good to see you again."

"Really? I must have imagined you saying you could never trust me again," Merlin said bitterly.

"Merlin," Arthur said tiredly, "can we leave that for later, once Dad has actually told us what he wants?"

"Come inside. Both of you." Uther ordered.

Arthur followed him into the hotel, hearing Merlin muttering behind him. Once they got to the room Uther locked the door and turned to them.

"Arthur," he said, nodding.

"Dad." Arthur looked at him for a few seconds, then strode forward and hugged him hard, all the stress and worry of the past few months disappearing for a few minutes.

"It's OK son," Uther said, "its OK."

Arthur stepped back, and sat on the bed. He felt Merlin's hand land on his shoulder, squeezing, and saw Uther narrow his eyes.

"I meant what I said," Uther said to Merlin. "It is good to see you."

"I'm glad you're OK," Merlin said, and Arthur knew that was the most he was going to get.

"Dad, what's the matter? Why did you disappear like that?" Arthur asked.

Uther sat heavily in one of the overstuffed chairs.

"I got a lead on Nimueh. It was too dangerous to take you, and there was that thing in Salisbury."

"That was months ago!" Merlin protested. "What have you been doing since?"

"Looking for Nimueh. And I think I've found her, or where she will be."

Uther spread a map out over the table, and beckoned them over.

"Here, the Stoke Flat stone circle."

"And?" Arthur asked. "There's circles all over the Peaks, what makes that one special?"

"In some of the writings it's said that Nimueh visits the circles at the equinox." Uther said, tracing his fingers over the map.

"I read that," Merlin said slowly. "The lore says she must see the sun rise in a stone circle or she becomes bound to the earth."

"What does that mean?" Arthur asked.

"I think it means she's vulnerable." Uther said.

"But why do you think she's coming here?" Merlin asked. Arthur thought it was a fair point.

"Because of these," Uther spread out a bundle of newsclippings.

"It's been raining solidly for a week. By itself that's not too unusual, but there's also been a rash of murders round here."

"And?" Arthur asked.

"And this mark was found on all of the bodies." Uther tapped the diagram in one of the clippings. It was a very familiar mark.

Arthur took a deep breath.

"That's her mark alright."

"And the equinox is the day after tomorrow," Merlin said.

"It's our best chance in years," Uther agreed.

Arthur opened his mouth to say something, and a yawn escaped instead.

"Go to sleep," his Dad said. "I got a suite, there's two more beds next door. We'll discuss it in the morning."

"Hey Merlin," Arthur whispered as he stretched up to turn off the light.

"Mmmm," Merlin grunted from across the room.

"Nimueh. We might actually get her. The day after tomorrow."

"Tomorrow, actually," Merlin said sleepily.

"I can't believe it. I could sleep for a month." Arthur said dreamily.

"I could take Kings up on that interview," Merlin said, propping himself up on his elbow. "I could get my life back on track."

"Yeah," Arthur said, suddenly unhappy.

He fell asleep thinking uneasily about life on the road without Merlin.

"So, the Stoke Flat Circle is here," Uther said after breakfast the next morning. "It's ancient, it links in with the portents, and its measurements are based on multiples of seven, so it's-"

"Got mystical connections." Merlin finished. "But, Uther, are you sure she'll turn up?" He still wasn't convinced.

"She did say she'd see us soon." Arthur pointed out.

"You saw her?" Uther asked sharply. "Why didn't you tell me immediately?"

"I called you when Merlin was poisoned!" Arthur protested. "And you didn't call me back. For all I knew you were dead!"

"Don't take that tone with me," Uther said softly.

"Yes Father," Arthur said at once, ducking his head.

Merlin sighed, but continued:

"So, for whatever reason, she appears in the stone circle. Then what? As far as we know nothing kills her."

"Your ball of light made her disappear," Arthur pointed out.

Merlin cringed. He'd been hoping to avoid that particular discussion with Uther.

"Ball of light?" Uther glared. "You're not still meddling with magic?" His voice was the same as it had been four years ago, and he had the same look in his eyes. "I don't want you using it around me," he said, standing, making use of his height and bulk to intimidate Merlin.

"You don't get to make that decision!" Merlin said, raising his voice. He swept a hand out, gesturing to the map and newspaper clippings spread over the table. "You're going to go in there, with no idea how to defeat her. And you think I'm not going to use it if it will help?"

"Father-" Arthur began, but Uther just spoke over the top of him.

"I expect you to follow my orders if you're going to be part of this." he hissed.

Merlin stood, and shoved his way past Uther to the door.

"I'm not Arthur. I can think for myself."

"Hey!" Arthur said.

"You mean you can abandon your family," Uther spat.

Merlin felt the magic rise along with the anger and clamped down on both of them.

"I'm going for a walk," he said, and slammed the door behind him.

"Well boy, here we are."

Merlin woke with a start to see that they were back at Gaius's. Uther cut the engine and turned round to look at him.

"I should thank you," he said gravely. "You saved my life, and you saved Arthur's. I owe you."

"It was nothing," Merlin said, aiming for Arthur's easy nonchalance. Actually, he could still smell the water-weed stink of the kelpie, and he knew he'd be dreaming of razor-sharp hooves aiming at his head for a week. His knife, Gaius's knife, was still soaked in greenish blood, he knew.

"No, it wasn't," Uther said.

Merlin said nothing. Arthur twisted round to look at him too, and he felt pinned by two sets of blue eyes.

"Could I," Merlin's voice quavered, and he stared again. "I mean, I know you both hunt things all the time, and I know you're looking for," he swallowed "bad things."

Arthur snorted, but Uther shushed him.

"And I want to, too. My mother was killed by something, someone called Nimueh. Gaius says you're looking for her."

"We are," Uther nodded slowly, "Merlin, what are you asking?"

"Let me come with you! Gaius won't leave the farm, and I'm never going to find her staying here. You've seen me fight, I can learn more, I'm quick and Gaius has been teaching me loads. And," he smiled, heart thudding at his own nerve, "You did say you owed me."

"Father, you can't honestly think-"

"Arthur be quiet. Gaius knows of this, Merlin?"

"He doesn't mind me hunting. He just says he's too old to do it himself. But I want to get Nimueh, and as far as I can see you're my best chance." Merlin clutched his hands into fists and thought 'sayyessayyessayess'

"It's dangerous."

"I know."

"I can't have arguments. You come with us, you'll have to do as I say, just like Arthur does. I won't have any disobedience." Uther warned.

"I can do that," Merlin said.

He knew even then it was a lie.

Uther found him sitting in the sun lounge of the hotel, watching the ducks on the lawn huddle together against the rain.

"I thought you'd send Arthur," Merlin remarked as Uther said next to him.

"He sent me," Uther admitted.

Merlin just snorted.

"Is it really back?" Uther said.

"You make it sound like a disease," Merlin said. "Look, Arthur came to me, not the other way around. He wanted to find you. He was worried sick! And you have the gall to talk to me about abandoning people!"

"It was too dangerous," Uther protested.

"It was dangerous without you! Everything we do is dangerous! I don't know if you've noticed, but Arthur's kind of a magnet for trouble."

"You both were," Uther said, almost fondly.

"Well, luckily he has me to keep him out of it, mostly. And, the magic helps me do that," Merlin said.

"I'm glad you've been with him," Uther said. "Even though we've not always seen eye to eye, I know you've always done your best to keep him safe."

"Was that hard to say?" Merlin asked, touched despite himself.

"No, not really." Uther smiled, then said, "I still don't like the magic though. It killed your mother, and Arthur's, and Will."

"It didn't. She did. Blame Nimueh!" Merlin said. "Anyway, despite what Arthur thinks, I don't think anything I can do will really harm her. She went because she wanted to- she could have killed Arthur at any point."

It was not a comforting thought.

"I know. And that worries me. All the lore says she likes to toy with her victims," Uther said thoughtfully.

"Well," Merlin said, sounding far more confident than he felt, "We'll just have to prove the lore wrong, won't we?"

"Silver?" Arthur asked, opening the boot of the Jag.

"Yes," Merlin leaned across and pointed at the bullets and the knife.




"Yes," Merlin said, "Arthur, we have everything, we checked."

Arthur took one last look at the weapons in the boot, and then felt Uther's hand on his shoulder.

"We've got everything, son."

"I was just checking," Arthur said, feeling slightly foolish. Whatever uneasy peace Merlin and his father had negotiated, the atmosphere was still tense. They'd tracked Nimueh for so long he couldn't quite believe this could actually be it.

The drive to the stone circle was short, and quiet. The mist and grey, pre-dawn light made everything hazy and mysterious. They parked out on the road and crept quietly up through the patchy woodland, and onto the moor itself.

"Can you feel anything?" Arthur whispered to Merlin.

Merlin shook his head as Uther frowned at them both.

"Quiet," he mouthed, pointing to the circle ahead of them.

It was no Stonehenge, the stones were short and stubby, a half-dozen fallen down flat, the rest covered in moss and lichen. A magpie strutted aimlessly among the stones.

"Are you sure about this Dad?" Arthur asked as the stepped into the circle.

"As I can be," Uther replied. "You know what you have to do."

They pulled out bags of salt and made a ring just inside the stone circle. The sun was cresting the horizon, and it was starting to rain again in earnest; privately Arthur thought the salt was useless- it would wash away in minutes if the rain kept up.

"You know Uther, I'm frankly offended that you think that would stop me."

Arthur whirled round. There she stood in the centre of the circle, looking exactly the same as in the wood before: long brown hair, blue dress, and bare arms. Despite the rain and the mud, she was completely clean and dry.

"Now!" Uther shouted, and all three fired at once. Arthur saw Merlin's bullets catch fire as they left the gun.

Nimueh just laughed, and waved her hand, the bullets disintegrating before they even reached her. Her eyes glowed a dark blue.

"Again, I'm disappointed in you all. Although, my little sorcerer," she stalked over to Merlin, who surged forward, knife at the ready, before being picked up and flung against one of the standing stones, "You are coming along nicely. I've got wonderful plans for us." She picked him up by the throat and held him at arms length. Merlin scrabbled at her hands, his legs kicking uselessly.

"Leave him!" Arthur shouted, launching himself at her. She flung out the other arm, and the magic picked him up, and threw him down again. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Uther on the other side of the circle, loading a revolver with rock salt.

Arthur heard barking, a familiar growl, and three dogs appeared in the circle. He slid the hilt of his knife into his palm, and slashed out when the biggest hound came near him. Immediately the other two piled on, and he felt a pair of jaws close around his calf through the denim, tearing through the cloth and into the muscle.

He screamed, and struck out blindly at the hound, wounding it. He dug his thumbs into the corner of its jaws, hands slipping in blood and saliva, and it let go. The other two dogs closed in on him again with low rumbling growls, and he tried to stand, feet slipping in mud and his wounded leg giving out underneath him.

"Call them off!" he heard Uther call, followed by the crack of the revolver.

Nimueh shrieked, and the dogs shrank back. Arthur pulled himself up using one of the stones, and saw that the salt had at least wounded her. Merlin was crawling away from her as she grappled with Uther, the magic crackling round them.

"Merlin, rock salt!" he yelled, digging the cartridges out of his pocket to load up his own gun. Merlin was struggling with the dogs, and it looked like he was losing.

"You think that will stop me for long?" she mocked. She picked Uther up and let him drop, and Arthur heard him call out as his head hit one of the stones. She stood up, and as Arthur watched, crackles of magic surrounded the bullet hole, and the bleeding stopped. She stretched out a hand and twisted it, and lines of blood sprung up on Uther's face, across his cheekbones, and down into the collar of his shirt.

"We'll find a way," Uther gritted out, face slick with blood, "If it's the last thing I do I'll find a way to end you."

Arthur managed to stand upright, and he drew his gun, putting two rounds into her before he collapsed again. She whirled round and hauled him up by the throat, bullet holes closing over almost instantly.

"Now, Arthur, that's gratitude." She smacked him across the face and Arthur felt his nose break. He hit the ground with a thump. "All the creatures of mine you've killed over the years, all the trouble you've put me and my kind to."

"Gratitude?" he said, spitting out blood. "You murdered my mother! What the fuck would I be grateful to you for?"

"Oh, Uther," she stepped over him, kicking him in the ribs as she went, "You never told him."

"Told me what?" Arthur said. He squinted at Uther, who looked ashen, blood everywhere.

"Let me tell you a story," Nimueh said in a sing song tone, "About Uther, and Ygraine."

"You don't get to say her name," Uther spat.

"About how much they were in love," Nimueh said as if he hadn't spoken. Her voice was almost hypnotic. "So in love, and he was handsome and brave, and she was beautiful and loving, and they were almost perfectly happy, except for one thing."

Out of the corner of his eye Arthur saw Merlin struggle away from the dogs, but Nimueh simply waved her hand and pinned him up against a stone, where he hung, limply.

"They couldn't have children. And it was tearing them apart, for they both so desperately wanted them," Nimueh continued. "Then, one day, Uther was driving down a country road, when he stopped to help a woman with her car. She said she could help them."

"Dad," Arthur said, unbelieving, "She's lying! Tell me she's lying!" But Nimueh's words came back to him Can't resist a damsel in distress. Just like your father.

Uther just shook his head despairingly, and Arthur felt the disbelief turn to anger.

"And the woman healed Ygraine, and nine months later Ygraine gave birth to a boy with hair as blond as corn and eyes as blue as the sky. And Uther, Ygraine, and Arthur, lived happily." Nimueh smiled nostalgically.

"And then you took her from me! You tricked me! You killed her!" Uther struggled to his feet and Arthur limped over to help him stand. His jacket was soaked through with blood.

"Dad," he said, "Why? Why didn't you tell me?" He was still trying to process it all.

"How could I?" Uther said, leaning heavily against him.

"A life for a life," Nimueh said lightly," You had a year, and you knew the terms."

"You made it sound like we'd have more time," Uther said desperately.

"Humans, you're all so disgustingly naive," She said. "Everything has its price."

Arthur heard his father's hitched breathing, almost as if he was holding back tears. It was almost too much to bear.

"You!" He yelled, "This is all your fault, my mum, Merlin's, this life, it's all down to you!" he palmed his knife, holding it ready, willing in that moment to die if it took her down as well.

"I'm the reason you're alive," Nimueh said mockingly. "You're as much one of my creatures as Merlin is."

It all blurred together. Arthur lunged at her, knife at the ready, going for her throat. Every cut he landed on her healed, and she just grabbed onto him as he clawed and slashed and bit, tasting his own blood from his nose and split lip. She seemed to have about a dozen hands, prying the knife from his grip and sending it flying.

"You'll never beat me Arthur," she crowed, "just as Uther won't. Better men than both of you have tried and failed."

She flung him back down, and reached to send a burst of magic through the wound in his calf. The pain tore through him and he screamed, the edges of his vision fading to red and black.

"Leave him!" he heard Merlin and his dad call as if from very far away. He forced his eyes open enough to see Nimueh standing over him. She seemed taller, blue eyes full of fire. She held out her hand and flames collected round it.

"Goodbye Arthur," she said simply, and aimed the fire at him.

"No!" Uther screamed, and leapt in front of him.

He was dead before he hit the ground.

"DAD! God no no no, Dad, " Arthur babbled. He heard Nimueh squelching through the mud towards him.

"So self-sacrificing," she tutted. "Never mind, it only changes the order of your death."

"Leave him," Merlin ordered. Arthur looked up, squinting through the rain, to see Merlin peel himself off the stone with a huge effort and stagger towards them.

"You'd challenge me?" She laughed.

"Step away from them," Merlin said, but he was unsteady on his feet, and he collapsed, crawling the last few feet.

"Merlin, Merlin, Merlin," she shook her head, "I expected so much more from you." She raised her hand again, and Arthur saw the light collect.

"Go, Merlin," he said, trying to get to his feet, although he knew there was no chance he could outrun the magic.

Merlin pulled him into a tight embrace, covering him with his body.

"Keep your head down," Merlin muttered. Arthur found his cheek pressed into the wet fabric of Merlin's jacket, then suddenly pins and needles prickled all over him, something pulling at him. He tucked his head down, closed his eyes, and held on.

"Go!" Merlin yelled at the top of his voice, and Arthur saw a flash of light burn behind his eyelids, and heard a frustrated scream.

When he opened his eyes there was a scorch mark on the ground where Nimueh had been, and the rain had stopped.

"What did you do?" He asked shakily.

"I sent her- away," Merlin said. He looked green, about to pass out, and he was covered in blood and cuts, as though the magic had torn at him.

Arthur limped over to Uther's body, checking the pulse even though he knew it was too late.

"Arthur, is he? I'm so sorry," Merlin said helplessly. He sank down next to Arthur.

"My Dad, Merlin, my Dad," Arthur said, burying his face in Merlin's shoulder as the pain and grief took him.

"It's been three days, Gaius," Merlin said. "And he still won't talk to me."

Gaius offered him a cup of tea.

"You saw the state he was in. Give him some time, the boy's just lost his father."

"I know! I was there!" Merlin snapped.

The past few days had bled into each other. Getting Arthur, practically catatonic with shock, into the car. The lies to the police and park authorities ("It was lightning, in that big storm. The cuts and bruises? I don't know officer, but he was a keen rugby player.") about Uther's body, the hurried cremation, the hospital visit for Arthur's bruised ribs, and the long, silent drive to the one place Merlin could truly call home. When they'd arrived at Gaius's Somerset farmhouse Arthur had limped into the living room, brushed off Gaius's concerns, and collapsed onto the sofa without a word.

That had been three days ago, and apart from the odd grunt Arthur hadn't spoken to either of them since.

"I can't help thinking it's my fault," Merlin said, clutching his mug desperately "If I'd been better, quicker, I could have sent Nimueh away before she got to Uther. Maybe he's right not to speak to me."

He shook his head, trying to clear it. Ever since he'd somehow banished Nimueh he'd felt a constant buzz, like tinnitus. He suspected he was picking up Gaius's own magic, and the protective spells that covered the house. He didn't want to think about what that meant.

"Merlin, my boy," Gaius said, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder, "Nimueh is old, and crafty, and immensely powerful. That you and Arthur are alive at all is a miracle. Don't blame yourself."

"Gaius," Merlin said, turning away from the window and sitting at the kitchen table. "Did you know? About Uther I mean, and the deal?"

"Not all of it," Gaius said. "I've known Uther a long time, and I suspected he had a history with Nimueh apart from Ygraine's death, especially knowing how prone she is to make deals."

"And me?" Merlin said, almost afraid to ask, "She said she had plans."

"I don't know Merlin," Gaius shook his head. "I just don't know."

On the fourth day, Merlin snapped.

Arthur was outside, working on the Jag, again. Gaius had gone into town to do some locum work, leaving with a shake of his head at Arthur's legs sticking out from under the car.

"What are you doing?" Merlin asked, raising his voice over the crackle and blare of Whitesnake from the radio.

Arthur dipped the brush into the bucket of soapy water and went back to working on the caked-on mud.

"Cleaning the wheel arches," he said shortly. "Dad was right. They'll rust."

"You've been doing this for two days," Merlin said carefully. "Your leg must be hurting. Why don't you stop for a bit, and I'll make us some lunch?"

"It needs doing."

Arthur stood and stretched his arms above his head, then picked up a cloth and started polishing the wing mirrors.

Merlin reached out and put his hand on Arthur's arm.

"Arthur, come on. I know you're upset about Uther. This ignoring thing you're doing isn't helping."

"Nothing I can do about that."

"Just talk to me," Merlin almost begged.

"What do you want me to say?" Arthur hissed. He shrugged Merlin's hand off, then shoved him up against the side of the car.

"I don't know!" Merlin said, trying to keep a hold on his reactions. Arthur plus the car, pinned up against it, had some pretty strong memories attached.

"You want me to talk about how much I hate her?" You know that already! How about the fact that she created me! How am I supposed to deal with that?" Arthur asked, anguished.

"She didn't-" Merlin protested. "I'd know if, if you were magic."

Arthur continued,

"or about how I failed Dad, how he'd still be alive if I was better, shall we talk about that? That I let him down, and almost got you killed too?"

"You didn't fail him!" Merlin shouted, though Arthur was only inches away. "That was my fault! I should have- I should have been quicker, I could have got to her quicker, and then Uther would-"

"She'd have killed you too!" Arthur yelled, "I'd have lost both of you! I can't lose you as well! I can't- you almost-when you grabbed me I thought- just don't! Don't do that again, because I don't know what I'd do without you!"

"She was going to kill you! What the hell did you expect me to do?" Merlin yelled back, taking another step forward.

They looked at each other for a few seconds, and for a fleeting instant Merlin wondered if his precognition had come back after all, because he saw it coming a spilt-second before Arthur yanked him forward by the shoulders and kissed him, hard and desperate. His fingers bit into his shoulders, and Merlin opened his mouth to him and just hung on.

Arthur hissed when Merlin's hands found the bruise in his side and Merlin wrenched his mouth away from Arthur's to say


"Don't" kiss, "apologise," Arthur said, tugging him back to him, pressing him up against the door of the Jag, the handle digging into his back. Arthur kissed him again, brutal, bruising, breaking off to bite and kiss at his neck, pressing words into his skin.

"Can't lose you," and "don't leave me" and "you make me so scared."

"Scared?" Merlin gasped out as Arthur tugged his t-shirt up and slid his hands up his chest, apparently remembering that spot on his ribs that made his knees weak.

"Scared you'll go." Arthur said into his collarbone. "Scared she'll get you."

"She'll get you first!" Merlin said, shifting his weight and taking advantage of Arthur's bad leg to spin him round and slam him up the side of the car. "You can't just go for her like that! You'll get yourself killed! And I don't know what I'd do without you !" He leaned in to kiss Arthur again, sliding his hand up to tug on his hair (Arthur had always secretly liked it) keeping his mouth on his, kissing him and kissing him and kissing him until their breath came in pants and Merlin's lips felt bruised and tingly.

Arthur shoved him off him and grabbed his hand.

"Upstairs, now," he ordered, dragging him along behind him

"Is this a good idea?" Merlin said, tripping over his feet and almost treading on one of the chicken pecking around in the courtyard.

Arthur slammed him up against the hall wall, rattling the picture frames.

"It's a terrible idea," he said kissing him again, and quite unfairly grazing his fingers against that spot on his ribs.

"An awful one," Merlin agreed, towing Arthur into the room that had always been his, yanking his shirt over his head, and falling on top of Arthur, trying not to elbow his bruises again as he worked his shirt up and off, then bent his head to kiss Arthur's throat, sucking marks into it.

"Really dreadful," Arthur said, squirming around under Merlin and shoving his jeans down to his ankles. Merlin sat back on his heels and just looked at him for a few seconds, cataloguing the changes- a long scar up his breastbone, what looked like a burn on one hip, the cuts and bruises from the fight with Nimueh, before stepping out of his own jeans and letting Arthur pull him back down.

"Stupid idea," Merlin gasped out, as Arthur lipped up underneath his jaw and put two proprietary hands on his ass, pulling him firmly against him. Merlin groaned as their cocks slid together, and Arthur pushed up into him.

"Wait," Merlin said, with an effort, rolling off him. Arthur made a complaining noise and tugged him back. "Seriously, wait. You're all screwed up because of your Dad, you don't know what-"

Arthur cut him off with a kiss, stealing his doubts.

"Wanted it before," he said voice husky, "wanted it for ages. C'mon Merlin," he reached down to grip Merlin's hardening cock, and Merlin bucked his hips into it, callouses familiar even now, "Know you do too." He twisted his hand, and Merlin whimpered.

"Yeah" he managed, "yeah, I do."

He wormed his hand between their bodies, relearning the shape and weight of Arthur's cock, and sealed his lips round one of Arthur's nipples, sucking and licking over it. By the way Arthur groaned and arched under him it was still one of his sensitive spots

"That's it," he whispered into Arthur's ear, "Come on Arthur, come on," he sped up his strokes, pulling Arthur up by the hair to kiss him again, twisting their tongues together and jerking him roughly.

"Can't believe-" Arthur cut himself off with a cry as he came, spilling warm between them. Merlin slowed his hand, kissing Arthur slowly as he came down. He'd always needed a few minutes to come back to himself, and that hadn't changed either.

Arthur's blue eyes focused again, and he grinned lazily, rolling them so the Merlin was underneath.

"Let me take care of that," he said, and slithered down Merlin's body to slide his mouth slowly down the length of Merlin's cock, one hand fisting the base. Merlin flailed his hands out and gently slid them into Arthur's hair, holding on lightly. It only took a few hot, wet slides, and something innovative with his tongue that he had certainly not known how to do four years ago before Merlin was coming too, right down Arthur's throat.

Arthur crawled back up and collapsed down beside him, slinging an arm and a leg over him.

"Seriously, worst idea ever," he said, drowsily.

Merlin worried it might just have been.

"Stop thinking." Arthur said, snuggling up to him. "Nap now. Existential crisis later."

Arthur jolted awake when he heard the snick of Gaius's key in the front door. He peered at the clock on the wall, and saw he'd been asleep for less than an hour. Merlin was motionless beside him, bruises and cuts standing out on his pale skin, the body that had once been as familiar to him as Arthur's own there to be rediscovered.

"Merlin? You awake?" Arthur asked quietly. When nothing was forthcoming Arthur slid out of bed, careful not to wake him. Merlin had probably got as little sleep as he had over the past few days. He tugged on his oil-stained jeans and t shirt and carefully shut the door behind him, going out onto the landing.

"Arthur, Merlin?" Gaius's voice floated up the stairs, followed by the man himself. "What are you- oh."

Arthur felt himself blush as Gaius studied him. He knew he looked (and probably smelled) as if he'd-been doing exactly what he'd been doing- and Gaius always had a way of making him feel like a stroppy teenager again.

"Merlin's asleep," he said.

"He needs it," Gaius said, keeping his voice low.

"And I'm just going to-" he jerked his thumb in the direction of the bathroom.

"I'll put the kettle on," was all Gaius said, leaving him with a paternal smile, and a waggle of his eyebrows.

Arthur showered quickly, and stopped by his room for some clean clothes, then checked on Merlin again. He was still asleep, covers thrown back. Arthur covered him back over, thumb brushing gently over the bruise on his cheekbone, and went downstairs to the kitchen to face Gaius.

Gaius had not only made tea, but sandwiches too, and Arthur took one fatly-stuffed triangle and took a huge bite, half out of hunger, half out of a desire to put off talking for a few more seconds.

Gaius just looked at him as if he knew what game he was playing.

"Don't look at me like that Gaius," he said warningly. "I know what I'm doing."

"I see you're talking now," Gaius said, apropos of nothing. "And I'm not saying anything. Not that it would make much difference."

"No." Arthur said, finishing off his sandwich, and reaching for another.

"Merlin is vulnerable as well now," Gaius said. "I don't want to see either of you hurt. And grief can do strange things to people."

"I know! It's not that!" Arthur said. He wanted to say that the grief may have been a catalyst, but that it hadn't been the cause. That they'd have got there sooner or later, that he'd never really forgotten what it was like, and that having Merlin back on the hunt with him was like having all his senses back, when one had been missing.

He didn't though. He had his pride, after all.

"Look Gaius," he said instead, "It's not like I think it'll be all, puppies and kittens and rainbows now."

"Well that's a sentence I never thought I'd hear you say," Merlin said from the door.

Arthur turned, a little anxious. Maybe Merlin had thought it was a huge mistake. Maybe he wouldn't want to do it again. If it meant he'd still go on the road with him, Arthur could cope with that, he hoped. Merlin just smiled at him, brushing past as he reached across him for a sandwich.

"But," Arthur continued, looking at Gaius, but speaking to Merlin, "I know it's not a mistake. I know we have some things to work out, but I'm not sorry it happened."

Gaius looked at them both.

"I'll leave you to it them," was all he said.

They sat in silence for a few minutes.

"How's your leg?" Merlin said eventually.

Arthur laughed "That's the first thing you ask?"

Merlin just shrugged.

"It's sore, but OK," he said.

"About earlier," Merlin began.

"Don't," Arthur said. "I knew what I was doing. So did you. I don't regret it." He studied Merlin's face. He still looked tired.

"Me neither. But this doesn't fix anything." Merlin said wearily.

Arthur knew what was coming, and he pre-empted it.

"I'll deal with Dad's death, OK? But," he grinned sheepishly, knowing exactly what it did to Merlin, "Can't we just see how things go?"

"But the hunt-" Merlin said.

"It didn't affect us before. Well, until you abandoned us." He was still a bit bitter about that, it seemed.

"Because your Dad made it impossible for me to stay!" Merlin said.

"Yeah, well thanks to Nimueh you won't have that problem any more!" Arthur said, getting up angrily. He felt the tears prickle at his eyes and honestly didn't know if he was angry with Nimueh, his Dad, or Merlin. The short-lived feeling of peace he'd woken up with was long gone. He strode to the window and looked out at the garden and the fields beyond.

"I didn't mean it like that!" Merlin protested. "You think I don't miss him too? That I don't blame myself?!"

"All you did was argue with him!" Arthur said, still not looking at him. He felt Merlin come up behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder and forcing him to turn round and look at him.

"I argue with you too. Doesn't mean I don't care."

Arthur felt the grief well up again at the look in Merlin's face.

"I miss him Merlin." His voice sounded small even to his own ears.

Merlin put his arms round him, and Arthur tucked his face into his shoulder.

"I know," Merlin said.

"Can we, maybe, just see how this goes?" Arthur asked, not willing, now that he had Merlin once again, to let him go without a fight.

"I can manage that," Merlin said, and Arthur felt him press a kiss to the top of his head.

"I think I've found us a job," Merlin said over breakfast three days later.

"What?" Arthur asked, squirting brown sauce all over his scrambled eggs on toast. He nudged his foot against Merlin's, and Merlin nudged back. They hadn't actually done anything other than kiss a few times since that desperate sex three days ago, partly because Merlin was still twitchy about doing so in Gaius's house, and partly because Arthur had been sleeping for long periods of time, almost as if he'd been afraid to close his eyes before.

"I was looking through your Dad's notes, and his phone, and there's a message in the drafts folder for someone called Morgana, asking for her help." He pushed the notes and phone across to Arthur.

There was a clatter as Gaius dropped the frying pan he was washing up, and Merlin was sure he heard a bitten-off chuckle.

"Do you know her Gaius?" Arthur asked.

"I've met her, but I think it's best if you meet her yourself before I say anything else," Gaius said, and went back to wiping up cutlery.

"Is there something you're not telling us?" Merlin said, feeling slightly alarmed. "Is she dangerous?"

"Not dangerous," he said, "but I'm surprised Uther was considering getting in touch with her."

Arthur drained the rest of his tea and stood, clapping Merlin on the shoulder, fingers playing with the hair at the nape of his neck. Merlin tipped his head back into the contact.

"It's only in Glastonbury- nice drive out, and back for supper," he said.

"Good luck," Gaius said, and Merlin couldn't shake the feeling that they were missing something.

Are you sure this is the right address?" Arthur said, doubtfully looking up at the unobtrusive façade of the café-bar, incongruous in the dingy backstreet of the ancient town. The flowing writing on the sign simply said "Fey's".

"This is the only address," Merlin said. He pressed his face to the tinted glass. "But it doesn't even look open."

"Only one way to be sure," Arthur said, pushing open the door.

Inside it was dimly lit, with a well stocked bar and a gleaming espresso machine, a scattering of small tables and comfy chairs, and some sort of elaborate iron chandelier in the centre of the room. Merlin felt that tinnitus-buzz again, and looked up to see that the chandelier made the familiar lines of a Devil's Trap. He nudged Arthur.

"Think we're in the right place," he said.

"Yeah, except where is everyone?" Arthur said, looking around the empty bar. "Hello! Anyone home?"

"We're closed," came a Irish voice from behind the door at the back of the bar. The door swung open and a woman came through. She was gorgeous, Merlin noted absently, with wavy dark hair and pale blue eyes. She was also, unless he was mistaken, magical, although the buzz was easy to miss, outweighed by the Devil's Trap, and what he now saw were protective and shielding runes woven into the upholstery and painted on the walls.

Arthur put on his best smile- typical, Merlin thought with a flash of irritation- and walked towards her.

"Hi there, are you the owner?"

"I'm Morgana, yes. Who's asking?" She came out from behind the bar and walked towards them, striding on 5-inch heels without any apparent effort.

"I'm Arthur Pendragon, I think you-"

"Get out!" She snapped, eyes narrowing.

"I just want to-" Arthur began.

She struck him in the chest, shoving him backward, glaring at the both of them.

"Out! You've got some nerve coming here! And you can tell Uther from me that-"

"Morgana!" Another woman hurried over towards them from the back room. Pretty, with her curly hair gathered into a knot and her coffee-coloured skin set off by her yellow shirt. She laid her hand on Morgana's arm and leant in close, explaining something in a low tone. Merlin thought he caught Gaius's name.

"Come on," the newcomer said tugging on Morgana's arm gently. "Let's sit down and find out what they want before we chuck them out." She cupped Morgana's elbow and steered her over to the bar.

Merlin perched on one of the high stools, Arthur next to him.

"Well?" Morgana said, glaring.

"I'm Arthur, this is Merlin," Arthur began.

"Gwen," said the other woman, leaning over the bar to shake hands.

"And we can't tell Uther anything," Arthur said, with the fake-cheerfulness that meant he was minutes away from punching someone, "because he died last week."

Morgana frowned, looking a bit embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she said slowly. "I may not always have seen eye to eye with Uther, but I know what it's like to lose a parent."

She ducked under the bar, and came back up with four brandy glasses, then filled them at the optic. She pushed two across to Merlin and Arthur, then sipped hers.

"What happened?" she said, looking them straight in the eye.

"Nimueh happened," Merlin said.

"I feared as much," she said darkly.

Arthur just knocked back his drink.

"We're sorry for your loss," Gwen said, and she did look it, " but what do you want with us?"

"We found Morgana's name in Uther's notes. He was going to ask you for help, we think," Merlin said. Arthur passed the phone across the bar so they could read it.

Morgana. I need to see you. I wouldn't ask, but it is important. u.p.

"Why didn't he send it?" Morgana said.

"I don't know," Merlin admitted. He'd wondered as much himself, but they were desperate for a lead. Maybe, given Morgana's reaction to Arthur, he'd had second thoughts.

"Can you think what he would have wanted?" Arthur asked.

Morgana shook her head.

"No, except-" She gestured around the empty bar. "Glastonbury's where the leylines converge. Did you know? Hunters come through here all the time, and they know my place is safe for them. I was a hunter myself. I still hear plenty. And-" she broke off.

"And?" Merlin prompted.

Gwen reached out and grasped Morgana's hand, their fingers interlocking. They exchanged looks.

"And, sometimes I can see what's going to happen. It's mostly useless though."

Bingo, Merlin thought.

"You're magic?" Arthur said.

"No, not really. Just, I can see the future sometimes."

"Why can't you do that anymore?" Arthur asked, turning to him. "It would come in useful."

Merlin rolled his eyes as Morgana asked,

"You too?"

"Not that, other things though," he said, somewhat reluctantly, not sure how they would react. He held his hand over the brandy glass and made it hover, then set the brandy alight in the glass.

"Oh," Gwen said, looking slightly shaken. Morgana just narrowed her eyes, then nodded.

"So, you think he was coming here for information?" Arthur prompted.

"Seems likely," Morgana said, shrugging. "We hear lots of things."

"Anything about her?" Arthur asked.

"Not recently. And no visions of any use, nothing specific. Just the ones I always have, which are bad enough. Although, you may not need them," she said, looking thoughtful.

"What do you mean?" Merlin said.

"You know there's portents of her?" she said.

"Yes..." Merlin said, not seeing where this was going.

"Bors!" Morgana bellowed. "Get over here you lazy sod!"

There was a groan from a sofa in the far corner of the bar. Gwen hurried over and helped the man up.

"Come on, you drunk," she said, almost fondly. The guy draped over her shoulder had straggly brown hair, jeans ripped at the knee and frayed at the hem, and a tie-dye t shirt under an open denim waistcoat. He looked like a washed-up hippie, which, Merlin thought a tad cattily, wasn't that unusual for Glastonbury.

Gwen deposited him on a bar stool- she was stronger than she looked- and he swayed, but stayed upright.

Morgana set a cup of coffee in front of him.

"Bors, this is Arthur, and Merlin."

"Mornin'" he said, drinking the coffee.

"It's two o'clock," Arthur remarked.

"Afternoon," Bors said, unfazed.

"Show Bors the portents," Morgana ordered.

Merlin flipped open the filofax.

"See, Nimueh's appearances are often preceded by rains, poisonings, there's a mark on or near the dead. She appears more often on equinoxes and solstices, she has a pack of Black Dogs, and she seems to make deals with people that turn bad."

Bad was an understatement, Merlin thought, but he wasn't going to tell all and sundry about Uther's deal.

"And your Dad found her with this?" Bors asked.

"Not mine, Arthur's. And yes."

"Must have been good," Bors said, absently turning pages.

"He was the best." Arthur said.

"Let me have a look at this for a bit, and I'll see what I can do," Bors said.

Merlin left Arthur and Bors chatting and wandered over to where Gwen was tidying coffee cups, stacking them neatly next to the espresso machine.

"So, you and Morgana are hunters?" he asked, intrigued.

She reached under the bar and pulled out a revolver, and as she laid it down Merlin caught the outline of a blade under her shirtsleeve.

"We can take care of ourselves," she said, putting the gun away again. "But since her dad died and Morgana took over here full-time we haven't gone looking for it. Sometimes I wish...I wish we could do more. But this place takes a lot of work. Morgana won't leave it for long, it's the only thing of Gorlois's she has left"

"Did you ever meet Uther? Why is Morgana so set against him?" Merlin asked. Though, if anyone could understand falling out with Uther, he could, especially as it seemed he had known about the visions. Morgana must have known that sharp look of mistrust almost as well as he did.

"No, I met Morgana after her Dad died, and I think if Uther had ever shown his face here, Morgana wouldn't have let him inside long enough to meet anyone."

"But you know Gaius," Merlin pointed out.

"Everybody knows Gaius," Morgana said from behind him, making him jump.

Before he could ask her about Uther, Bors called.

"OK, I think I've got an idea."

Merlin went back over to where Arthur and Bors were sitting.

"See, what you need is an alert system that marries up all the portents," Bors said, opening an ancient-looking laptop covered in stickers. "All the news reports, inquest details, Met Office data, dog wardens, police incident reports, Environmental Health reports, and so on." He waved a hand, and that seemed to upset his balance. Merlin put out a hand to steady him.

"Can you do it?" Arthur said, sounding sceptical. Merlin couldn't honestly blame him.

"Got a Masters from Edinburgh says I can," Bors said. "Give me a couple of days, then we can just leave it running until we get hits." He picked the laptop, helped himself to a drink from the bar, and then weaved his way into the back room.

"Thanks, Morgana," Arthur said, a little sheepishly. "You didn't have to do this."

She folded her arms, looking uncomfortable.

"Well, our problems aside, Uther had the right idea. Nimueh, the dreams I've had over the years....I want her dead as much as you do."

"What dreams?" Arthur asked.

"Just dreams, as far back as I can remember. Her face, and fire, and screaming."

Merlin shuddered at the memory of Will. He couldn't imagine seeing that over and over for years. It must have shown on his face, because Arthur rested his hand on the small of his back, comfortingly.

"If you hear, or see anything, anything at all, will you tell us?" he asked, scribbling his and Arthur's numbers down on a napkin.

"OK." She hesitated, then went back behind the bar and picked up a folder, holding it out to them.

"I was going to give this to Percival, seeing as Lance has buggered off to France, but-" she pulled a face, and Gwen snorted.

"We should go ourselves, you know what Percy's like."

"And you know why we can't! We talked about this! I can't leave this place, there's no one I trust, and if anything happened to you-" Morgana said passionately, then broke off and turned back to them.

"Anyway, see what you think. It's not far away. You'd be doing me and Gwen a favour."

Merlin took the folder from her and opened it, flicking through the contents. News clippings, photos, computer printouts and handwritten notes on lore and legend. It was the same way Uther had always put together a case, and the way he and Arthur did too. Merlin wondered who had taught Morgana.

"OK," he nodded. "we'll... see you soon I guess." He followed Arthur out to the car.

"Hey," said Arthur, sliding into the driver's seat, "Do you think Gwen and Morgana are-"

"Are what?" Merlin said, opening the file and scanning the news clippings.

"You know," Arthur made a gesture.

"I don't know. Why does it matter?" Merlin asked, irritated.

"Because Gwen's pretty hot, that's why," Arthur said.

"Well, either way it's not like you're going to stand a chance with her," Merlin said, slightly annoyed.

Arthur suddenly leant across and kissed him, squashing the file between them.

"No need to be jealous," he said against Merlin's lips, then kissed him again, and drew back.

"I wasn't!" Merlin protested, even though he had been, a bit. Arthur flirted like other people breathed, and he tried to not let it bother him.

"Good," Arthur's blue eyes were serious. "Because I know I've been pretty useless these past few days, but I do want this-" he gestured between them- "to work."

"Oh. Well, good," Merlin said, absurdly pleased.

"OK, that's enough of that," Arthur said, as if pulling himself together. "Where are we headed?"

"Amesbury," Merlin said, switching on the iPod as Arthur started the engine, the Jag purring beneath them.

"Hey. HEY! Merlin." Arthur shook Merlin's shoulder, trying to wriggle out from underneath him. The TV had switched from the film they'd been watching to late-night teleshopping. Merlin had called dibs on the bed with the best view of the ancient set, so they'd both squashed onto his bed to watch Police Academy. His dad had snorted, and gone into his own room to watch something more cerebral. His loss, Arthur thought.

Merlin was solid and warm on top of him, drooling slightly onto his shoulder. They'd both been bone tired after the day they'd had, a ghost causing a rash of drownings, the waterlogged remains at the bottom of a well having to be brought up, and then refusing to burn. No wonder they'd fallen asleep. And if Arthur enjoyed they fact that they were basically cuddling, well, what Merlin didn't know wouldn't hurt him. There had been that cute park warden, all freckles and dimples, who'd slipped him his number with a wink and a smile, but Arthur knew where he'd rather be. Had known it for a while, if he was honest. But he had no idea how Merlin would react, even if he had caught him staring a few times. Knowing his luck Merlin would be freaked out, and he didn't think he could cope with losing their easy interdependence.

"Come on," he said again, pushing down the inappropriate lust. "Time for bed."

Merlin opened his eyes.

"'m in bed," he pointed out sleepily.

"Yeah, but I'm not. You need to let me up," Arthur said. He needed the loo for one thing. For another, his body was reacting to the weight of Merlin on top of him, and his jeans only hid so much.

"Don't want to." Merlin tightened his grip around him and put his head back onto Arthur's shoulder, nuzzling his nose into the collar of his t shirt.

"What?" Arthur said, praying he was reading it right.

Merlin propped himself up on his elbows, and leant forward.

"Mean I want you to stay here," he said, then dipped down and kissed him, small, soft press of lips against his, and pulled back.

Oh. OH.

Arthur reached up, and curled his hand round the back of Merlin's neck, feeling the soft hair there, then pulled him back down for a longer kiss, still soft, gentle, but with the promise of more.

"I will, but I've got to piss," he said regretfully.

Merlin burst out laughing.

"Ass," he said, rolling off him.

When he came back from the bathroom Merlin was under the covers. When he caught sight of him he pulled the covers back.

"Come on, get in here," he ordered.

Arthur slid between the sheets, and kissed him again, marvelling that things could be this easy.

"So what have we got?" Arthur asked as Merlin spread out the file on one of the scarred wooden tables in the Amesbury Arms.

"It's weird," Merlin said, leafing through the cuttings. "There's some sort of virulent presence attacking people at night. No deaths yet, but plenty of injuries, and a couple of hospitalisations."

"A poltergeist," Arthur suggested. It would explain the violence.

"Do poltergeists leave fingerprints?" Merlin asked. He pushed a photograph across the table. It showed a young woman, pale and scared, with a set of fingerprint-shaped bruises around her neck.

"Well, that's- weird," Arthur agreed. "So what are we thinking? Ghost? Zombie?"

"I don't know," Merlin admitted. "But we're in luck anyway," he handed another news clipping to Arthur.

"'Barman at Amesbury Arms latest victim of mystery attacker'," Arthur read aloud. "Merlin, I think we need a refill."

The barman in question was young, twitchy, and, at first, reluctant to talk.

"So mate, we heard you were in a spot of bother," Arthur said as he accepted his pint.

"'s nothing," the barman said, rubbing his arm through the stripy fabric of his shirt.

"That's not what we heard," Merlin said, sipping his Guiness. Arthur couldn't understand his fondness for it.

"What happened?" he asked, leaning forward.

"You obviously read the papers," the barman said, flicking his fringe out of his eyes and shifting as if to move away.

Arthur braced his forearms on the bar.

"Yeah, but now we want the real story, not the one the newspapers printed," he said, confidentially.

"Who are you?" the barman asked.

"I'm Art, this is Emrys. We're writers for Paranormal Britain. And we want your story. We'll believe you, if you trust us." Arthur smiled encouragingly.

There was a long pause. Then: "I'm Ben," he said. "You promise to write about it, so people know the truth?"


Ben rolled up his sleeve, showing a set of bruises just like in the photo, and whispered:

"So, I was walking past the Abbey last night, on the way home from football training. And, out of nowhere, this, this thing grabbed me and shook me, like it was trying to drag me to the ground."

"What else?" Merlin prompted.

"Well, it was digging into my arm, it felt like it was going to squeeze it in half! I managed to grab my house keys out of my pocket with my other hand, and I sort of," he made a swiping motion, "with them, and it let me go." He sounded a touch shaky.

"And what was it that attacked you?" Arthur asked.

"Shouldn't you be making notes?" Ben said, sounding suspicious.

"All up here." Arthur tapped his forehead.

"Well, it was- oh, you're not going to believe me."

"We believe all kinds of things," Merlin said.

"It was a hand."

"And what was the hand attached to?"

"Nothing! It was just a hand. Kind of silvery-ooh, like the hand Voldemort makes for Wormtail."

"Voldemort?" Arthur mouthed at Merlin, who just rolled his eyes.

"So, you were walking past the Abbey, where you were assaulted by a disembodied hand, which disappeared when you stabbed it with your house keys." Arthur said.

"I knew you wouldn't believe me," Ben said dejectedly.

"We do," Merlin reassured him. "We just want to make sure we get all the details right for our readers."

"Ben, do you know anyone else that was attacked?" Arthur asked. When Ben wavered he pressed on "We could be looking at a paranormal cluster here, very rare."

Ben looked around, then pointed at a couple in the corner.

"Over there, Susie and Vic. She was attacked the day before me. No one believed her either."

"Thanks Ben," Arthur nodded at him, and they moved away from the bar.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"Sounds like a possessed object, but a hand?" Merlin said, brow wrinkling.

"Let's see what these guys have to say," Arthur said as they reached the table. "Hi, I'm Art and this is Emrys. We'd like to talk to you about what happened to you the other night."

"Who are you?" the woman asked.

"We write for Paranormal Britain magazine," Merlin said, trying a smile on them. "And we know something happened to you, something the police won't believe. Ben's told us his story, will you tell us yours?"

"Why?" Vic asked, taking Susie's hand protectively.

"So we can stop it," Arthur said, simply.

"OK, so this is weird," Arthur said, slinging his backpack into the corner of the hotel room. He'd got a twin, just in case, although he hoped they'd only need the one bed.

"Disembodied hands. It's like something from the Addams family," Merlin agreed.

Susie and Vic's story had been similar. Susie, walking past the Abbey on the way home from her knitting club, had been grabbed around the throat by a silvery hand, which had all but choked her before she managed to stab it with the scissors from her knitting bag.

"It looks like a ghost. Connected to one place, driven back by steel-"

"The keys, and the scissors-" Merlin put in.

"But whoever heard of a ghost hand?" Arthur said. He stretched and winced as it pulled at the huge bruise in his side. Merlin would have to drive back, the wound in his calf had been paining him every time he changed gear between Glastonbury and Amesbury.

"Are you OK?" Merlin asked, sitting next to him on the bed.

"A bit sore," he admitted.

"We can pick this up in the morning," Merlin began.

"I'm not an invalid!" he protested.

"You're allowed to say it hurts! Let me look at your leg," Merlin ordered.

Arthur sighed, but Merlin had that look, so he rested his leg up on the bed, rolling up his jeans.

Merlin ran his hands gently along his calf, and Arthur felt his breath catch, his body still getting used to the feel of Merlin's hands once more. Gaius had cleaned and dressed the wound, and the neat black stitches stood out against his skin. Merlin's hands were so gentle on him he could barely feel it, and when Merlin pressed more firmly, cupping his calf in both hands, he felt a coolness wash through his leg.

"It looks OK," Merlin said.

"I told you I was fine," he replied, although whatever Merlin had done seemed to be helping, the pain receding slightly.

"You were lucky," Merlin said. "If that had got infected it could have been really nasty."

He looked a little shaken, so Arthur, trying to lighten the mood, said,

"Hey, worst come to the worst and we had to amputate it I could have one of those cool peg legs, like a pirate."

It was a weak joke, but he hadn't expected Merlin's response. He hauled him to him and kissed him. Arthur pressed forward to kiss him back, completely on board with whatever he wanted , but Merlin sat back and said

"Arthur! That's it!"

"Pirates are it?" Arthur asked, confused.

"No, amputation!"

"I don't follow," Arthur said.

Merlin left him on the bed and pulled the laptop out of his backpack, switching it on. He waited for it to boot up, doing a little dance of impatience, before typing madly for a few seconds.

"There's an old story," he said as he typed, "about a man with a glass eye. He died violently, but the gravedigger stole the eye and sold it to someone else. The new owner saw scenes from the man's life, and it eventually drove him mad."

"And?" Arthur got up and leaned over the look at the screen, resting his hands on Merlin's shoulders. Merlin leaned back against him and tilted his head up to smile at him, moving his head from side to side over his stomach.

Oh yeah, Arthur thought gleefully, so not sleeping alone tonight.

"And, something that was not of the person still retained their spirit after death. So we need to look for amputated hands, or fake hands."

"It's a start," Arthur said, squeezing his shoulders, and letting him go. He made crappy tea with the little kettle in the room and the tiny pots of UHT milk while Merlin searched.

"I've got something," Merlin said after a while.

Arthur crouched down next to him.

"Look, a local legend. A guy called Mylor had his hand cut off by his jealous uncle. He had a silver hand made, that worked just like a real hand."

"Sounds promising," Arthur said. If they were dealing with a possessed object it would explain the bruising.

"He was executed, so, violent death, and his remains were interred in the Abbey," Merlin finished.

"Well, that explains why people were attacked outside the Abbey," Arthur said. "Seems like a simple salt-and-burn job. We'll be done in no time."

"That's it?" Arthur asked, shining his torch down on the iron box. They'd had to wait 'til nightfall for the Abbey to be quiet enough, and it was filled with shadows. "You can't fit a body in there."

"It was centuries ago," Merlin said. "They used to dig up the bodies to get more space, and just keep the bones."

He swung open the heavy iron lid to reveal a ramshackle collection of bones. He covered them with salt, and followed it up with lighter fluid.

"Here," Arthur handed him a matchbook.

They watched the flames until they died down.

"You ever get the feeling this was too easy?" Arthur said.

Merlin groaned.

"Why did you have to- oooof!" Cold metal fingers closed around his throat as he was knocked backwards.

"Get it off me," he croaked.

"I can't shoot it!" Arthur protested.

Merlin felt his vision grey out, and heard a buzzing in his ears. He tried to focus enough to call the salt to him, but he felt the magic slipping away from him as he struggled to breathe.

"A-A-A" he croaked.

A shower of salt hit him in the face, and the hand scuttled away on its fingertips and under one of the pews.

He brushed the salt off.

"Well, that answers that question," he said, shaken.

"Are you alright?" Arthur asked.

"I'll be fine," Merlin rubbed his neck, "What's one more bruise? So, I'm guessing we need to burn the hand."

"Yep," Arthur looked around the Abbey. "Any idea where it might be?"

"Well, the bones were here. Makes sense the hand would be too."

They split up, footsteps echoing in the empty Abbey as they searched. It wasn't with the candlesticks, or the plate cupboard, or the choir stalls, or the chancery. Merlin got covered in dust and grime, kneeling on the floor and grubbing about behind cupboards, all the while expecting to feel the icy fingers around his neck again.

He met Arthur back in the nave.

"We've looked everywhere," he said. "Where else is there?"

"Didn't churches use to use bone motifs?" Arthur asked absently, looking up.

"Yes. Why?" Merlin said, not following.

"Look up there." Arthur pointed at one on the stained glass windows. There, nestled in the carving round the edge, seemingly part of the design, was a silver hand.

"Give me a boost," he said.

Merlin laced his hands together and Arthur scrambled up.

"Just.....a bit......further....." he gasped. "Got it!" Arthur jumped down to the floor, clutching the hand.

"Oh, so now we-"

"Burn it." Arthur said, as if it was that easy. The hand obviously had other ideas. It twitched, struggling in Arthur's grip. Arthur struggled to hold on as it twisted and wriggled.

"Quick! Put it in here!" Merlin said, opening the iron reliquary that had held the bones. Arthur dropped the hand in and he slammed the lid shut. The iron held it, but they could still hear it scrabbling around, like a spider in a matchbox.

"Do you know how hot fire has to be to melt silver?" Merlin asked.

"No. You?"

"No, but I bet its hotter than you can get with lighter fluid and zippos," Merlin said glumly.

"Unless..." Arthur said.

"Unless what?"

"You can make fire," Arthur said, tentatively. "Could you burn the hand? Magic it hot enough?"

Whatever he had expected, it wasn't this. He'd assumed that Arthur only tolerated his magic, and to actually be asked outright to use it for a job made him oddly thankful.

"I'm not sure. I can't magic the iron, but maybe. Let me try."

Arthur opened the box. The hand shot out, and gripped the edge.

"Salt!" he yelled. Merlin grabbed one of the bags of salt and poured it over the hand, which twitched feebly, then lay still.

"Well, go on. Do your thing," Arthur gestured.

This was different than lighting candles and making dragons to amuse Arthur. He held out his hand, palm down over the box. The fire that had always come so easily to him trickled up from that place deep inside, running over his hand, and then igniting in the box, yellow flames licking at the hand. He concentrated, gritting his teeth, trying to make the flames brighter, hotter. It felt like the hand was fighting him, but whether it was the iron that surrounded it, or the years of magic in the hand he didn't know. It was like trying to push against a heavy weight. He felt pressure build inside his head as he tried to force the flames to burn, felt the pulse hammering in his ears, and somehow he slipped to his knees.

"Merlin," Arthur's voice came from far away. "Don't-" he felt Arthur's hand on his shoulder, anchoring him.

"I can do it," he gritted out. He twisted his hand, focusing on heat, melt, burn.

The flames suddenly flashed blue-white, burning up high out of the box, and Merlin felt something snap.

"I think that's it," he said, slumping. Arthur caught him under the shoulders.

"Are you alright?" he asked, face concerned.

"Just, tired," Merlin said. It was an understatement. He felt completely drained, and the bruises round his neck were throbbing. Arthur leant him against one of the pews, and then peered into the box.

"Gone. Not even ashes," he said. He crouched down in front of him.

"Are you sure you're OK Merlin? It's never affected you like this, not for years."

"It was old," Merlin explained. "It was...soaked in magic. Hard to overcome. And usually I'm just acting like a glorified EM detector. This was a bit of a stretch."

"But, you made Nimueh disappear," Arthur pointed out.

"I think that was adrenaline," Merlin said.

Arthur would have died otherwise. Of course he'd made her disappear- what other choice had there been?

He half-dozed on the short drive back to the hotel. Arthur had manhandled him into the car, and he'd never been more grateful for the Jag's comfortable seats. The receptionist gave them a funny look as they walked across the lobby. Arthur was half-carrying him, arm wrapped firmly around his waist. Merlin leant into him gratefully, head aching and bone tired.

He slowly stripped off his jeans and shirt, fumbling over the buttons, and wriggled under the feather duvet. All he wanted to do was sleep. Arthur moved quietly around the room, the night rituals familiar after months on the road. Jacket, over the back of the chair. Boots, under the table. Gun unstrapped, but within reach, Blade under the pillow of the opposite bed. Mobile on the bedside table. Arthur clicked off the light and pulled back the covers of the other bed. That wouldn't do.

"Hey," Merlin said sleepily.

"You still awake?" Arthur asked.

"Uh huh," Merlin said. "Come here". He drew back the covers.

"Merlin, you are two minutes away from being dead to the world," Arthur said, but fondly.

"Just get in here," Merlin said. He was tired,and sore, and had a hell of a headache, and he just wanted Arthur next to him where he belonged.

"I'm not letting you forget you wanted to cuddle," Arthur said, but he slid in next to him, immediately wriggling onto his side and letting Merlin spoon up behind him. Arthur was warm and reassuring, something to hold on to.

"Screw you," Merlin managed, feeling his eyes close.

Arthur kissed his knuckles.

"Maybe in the morning.

Arthur woke first. In the night they'd somehow changed places, and now Merlin was curled into him, dark eyelashes fanned onto his cheek, the morning sun showing the scars, barely healed, from Nimueh's attack. Arthur studied him, pleased to see that the faint green tinge of tiredness was gone from round his eyes.

Merlin shifted, then opened his eyes, blinking a couple of times.

"Hey," Arthur said, giving in and smoothing the hair out of Merlin's face. "How're you feeling?"

Merlin stretched and yawned

"Better. I slept well."

"Yeah," Arthur said, "me too." It was inane, but he wanted to say that though he'd slept better over the past few days, the nightmares finally fading away to be replaced by a nagging grief, this was the first time he'd felt truly rested. He didn't though, just kissed Merlin on the forehead, and slid out of bed.

"I'm going for a shower. Do you want to get breakfast here?"

Merlin padded up behind him and Arthur found himself being turned towards him, Merlin's hands on his shoulders.

"I'm not tired this morning," he said before he kissed him. Arthur decided a shower could wait.

It was different from the frantic rutting at Gauis's. Slower, unhurried. Arthur took time to map all of Merlin's body, relearning the lithe muscle, the scar just under one nipple, the way that spot on his ribs made him shudder and pant and beg. It was good, they'd always been good together, working together as though they'd never been apart here as well.

As the pale morning light filled the room they fitted themselves together, Merlin pressing slowly inside him, moving so gently, drawing it out no matter how much Arthur growled at him to move faster, hand on his cock, Merlin's lips on the back of his neck, panting into his skin.

It had always been Merlin, and though there had been others, Gwyneth, so passionate and funny, and Lance, gorgeous, dedicated and brave, that he had loved and left, it had always been Merlin, hovering in the back of his mind, his one regret.

After, Merlin smoothed out his hair, rubbing his fingers over his scalp. He pushed back into his hands.

"You sure you're OK?" he asked.

"Well, I'm still a bit sore, though not as much as you are," Merlin said, a hint of smirk in his voice.

Arthur turned his head and nipped at him, then licked over the bite.

"You know what I mean," he said. "You looked half-dead yesterday after the fire."

"I'm fine," Merlin said, tugging on his hair slightly in emphasis. "Do you keep asking because you're worried, or because the magic still freaks you out?"

"If it freaked me out that much we wouldn't be naked," Arthur said. He thought for a moment, then, because honesty was important, added: "Probably. I'm getting used to it. And I was the one that asked you to burn the hand. Idiot."

"Prat," Merlin answered automatically. "So what now? We check in with Bors, pick up the rest of our stuff from Gaius, then what?"

"We keep on doing what we were doing. Nimueh's still there. She still killed Mum, Will, Dad," he swallowed. "And she has plans for you. And that freaks me out. "

Merlin's hand stopped, then started combing though his hair again.

"She was just trying to get a rise out of us. It was probably a lie," Merlin said, but the shake in his voice told a different story.

Gaius had sent them off with the rest of their laundry, some more old notes of Uther's, and one of his gruff, fatherly hugs.

Arthur still lapsed occasionally into a brood, but Merlin was mourning Uther too, in his own way, so he let it go. The road was the same as ever, except that more often than not at the end of the day they ended up in bed together, and Merlin had to get used again to the fact that Arthur fought for the covers with every dirty trick in his arsenal, leaving him with a small corner of the duvet come morning. He coped.

He also had to get used the the fact that sometimes, Arthur would study him after he practised magic, and he could see the questions in his eyes that never came.

Merlin stretched out on the bed, and thought about heaving his weary legs off to get the remote. Then he thought better of it, and just waved his hand. The remote sailed into it.

"Lazy sod," Arthur said. "You'll get all out of shape."

Merlin propped himself up on one elbow.

"Yeah, because obviously stretching for the TV remote is the only exercise I get," he said, looking at Arthur.

He'd just got out of the shower, washing off the slime and pondweed from the fight with a particularly nasty water sprite that had been responsible for a series of drownings in the Severn River. It had almost got them too, before Arthur had succeeded in stabbing it with a flint knife. Now, with just a towel round his solid hips and the water beading on his eyelashes and trickling down his chest, he looked good enough to eat.

"Just as well," Arthur said, coming over to him. "Coz I like the shape you're in just fine."

Merlin pushed himself upright, the remote forgotten as he leaned in to kiss Arthur, tangling his hands in his damp hair and letting out a trickle of magic to unknot Arthur's towel.

"Cheat," Arthur said between kisses.

"You complaining?" Merlin asked, lying back and pulling Arthur down on top of him, kissing him all the while.

"Not at all," Arthur said, biting his neck.

Arthur shoved his boxers down as they kissed lazily, Arthur's skin warm and damp under his palms. There was no urgency, but it was intense, sweet and languid. He rolled Arthur under him and was kissing across his stomach, moving down to nose at his blondish pubic hair, when the phone rang.

"Leave it," he said, kissing Arthur's inner thigh. It always drove him crazy.

"Might be important," Arthur said, a little breathlessly, and yelped when Merlin bit him, then rolled off to one side.

Arthur grabbed his phone.

"It's Morgana," he said. Merlin squashed up next to him so he could hear what was being said.

"Hey Morg-"

"Where is she?" Morgana's voice was tight with tension.

"Who?" Arthur put the phone on speaker so they could both hear.

"Gwen! You'd better know where she is Pendragon, or they'll never find the body." Morgana hissed.

"We haven't seen her for weeks!" Arthur said, looking worried. Merlin reached across for his phone, but there were no messages.

"She was coming to find you," Morgana continued, a hint of panic creeping in with the anger. "We had a row, about a job in Wales, she stormed out, said she'd find you and Merlin since I wouldn't go. If you're lying to me-"

"I'm not!" Arthur protested. "Look, we'll find her, I promise." Merlin started to get dressed and gather up their scattered belongings.

"Stay right where you are," Morgana ordered. "I'll be there in two hours."

"How do you know-" Arthur began.

"Bors has been tracking the GPS on your mobiles," Morgana said.

"Why can't you do that for Gwen?" Merlin asked, ignoring for the time being how creepy that was.

"It's been turned off," Morgana said. "I'm on my way."

Merlin called Gwen's phone in case. Nothing.

It was more like two and a half hours, and Morgana must still have broken every speed limit between Somerset and Shropshire.

"Have you heard from her?" she asked, pushing past Merlin to get into the room.

"Good to see you too Morgana," Arthur said, apparently suicidal. Merlin could almost see the anger rolling off Morgana.

"You think this is funny? She could be dead! How would you feel if it was Merlin-" she broke off.

"Look," Merlin said, "just tell us what happened and we'll find her, I promise." He patted her shoulder and felt her shaking under the thin leather of her blazer.

"I had a vision. Last night. Something's going to happen in Monmouth. People are being kidnapped, and I saw the materials for a summoning ritual."

She took a deep breath, composing herself. "Most demons need human blood to summon them, so-"

"OK," Arthur said matter of factly. "We find them, we stop them, but where does Gwen fit into this?"

"She was one of the people kidnapped," Morgana said quietly. "I saw her with a knife at her throat."

"Morgana..." Merlin said, sick with pity. She looked like she'd been crying. That fact alone was terrifying.

"And then what happened?" Arthur asked softly. He put a cup of tea in Morgana's hand. Merlin looked at him and smiled. Sometimes, just sometimes, Arthur could be a real sweetheart.

"Well, I woke up screaming. Gwen's used to it by now, and she made me tell her what I saw." She took a deep drink. "I told her, told her there was no way she was ever going anywhere near Monmouth."

"And?" Merlin said.

"And she said I was selfish, that I'd seen it for a reason and we had to go. We had a big fight, she thinks we should do more to help."

"She said that to me," Merlin said, remembering Gwen's wistful look.

"And then she just stormed out! Took a few things and said she'd find you. That Arthur would help."

Morgana looked up, glaring.

"You Pendragons are all the same. You're dangerous to everyone around you."

"Hey!" Arthur said, holding up his hands, "Just what exactly have I done?"

"All she's talked about since you turned up is how you and Merlin are doing what we should be doing. I wish I'd never laid eyes on you, your father was bad news and so are you!" she said, voice rising and cracking on the last few words.

Merlin saw the flush rise in Arthur's cheeks, and before he could say anything Merlin cut in.

"Morgana, I know you're upset-"

"I'm angry!"

"But this is just wasting time we could be using to find Gwen. What do we need to do?"

Morgana dug into the pocket of her jeans.

"I saw part of a farm sign. It looked like the people were being kept in some kind of outbuilding. Then I had Bors check for missing persons- two more people have gone missing as well as Gwen, all centred on this place" she tapped a painted fingernail on the map, "the ap Rhys farm."

"OK," Arthur said. "That's about an hour and a half's drive. We'll call you as soon as we find her."

"Like hell you will," Morgana said, standing, "I'm coming with you."

"It could be," Arthur began, putting his hand on her elbow. Quick as thought she pulled him towards her, twisting his arm up behind his back. Merlin didn't even see where she'd pulled the knife from, but there it was, pressed against Arthur's throat. She was nearly as tall as him, head tilted back only slightly as she spoke in his ear

"That next word had better not be 'dangerous'" she said. "Who do you think I am?" She let Arthur go with a shake.

"I guess you're coming with us," Merlin said, impressed.

They pulled out of the car park in uneasy silence, Morgana glowering in the passenger seat next to Arthur. Merlin studied the backs of their heads, Arthur's shoulders tense with worry. As they hit the A49 Arthur cracked and reached for the ipod.

"Music?" he asked, with forced cheerfulness.

The strains of 'Cold as Ice' filed the car, and Morgana just glared at him as Merlin struggled not to laugh.

It was dark by the time they turned up the side road to the farm Morgana had shown them. The farm house at the end of it looked more like a country hotel than anything else.

"Are you sure this is the right place?" Merlin asked as they parked the car down the lane out of sight of the house.

Arthur popped open the boot and started stocking up on weapons.

"I'm certain," Morgana said, leaning forward to grab a bottle of holy water, and tucking a handgun into the waistband of her jeans. "The sign I saw was the one at the end of the lane."

"It's just," Merlin closed his eyes again, concentrating, but he couldn't feel anything magic anywhere except the buzz of the sigils on the boot of the Jag, and Morgana.

"I can't feel anything," he said.

Arthur looked sharply at him.

"What does that mean?"

"I don't know," he said honestly.

"What do you mean, feel?" Morgana asked.

"I can feel magic. Spirits, ghosts, I could tell you had some. If people are really trying to raise a demon there should be tons of background magic, but I can't feel any at all."

"EM's not picking anything up either," Arthur said, waving the detector under his nose.

"I'm always right!" Morgana insisted. "God I wish I wasn't, but I know what I saw, and if you don't believe me I'll go by myself!"

She strode up the lane ahead of them, clutching her jacket around her against the damp.

"Oh for God's sake," Arthur said as they hurried to catch up. "Just what is your problem?"

Morgana walked quickly, riding boots crunching over leaves and twigs.

"You're my problem! You, you're just the same as your father- you get people I love killed!"

Arthur looked at Merlin, eyebrows raised. Merlin shrugged. He had no idea either, but Uther had had his secrets it seemed.

"What?" Arthur said.

"Forget it," Morgana said.

"I-" Arthur began, but Merlin, spotting the door of the nearby stable block open, hissed-

"Down," and dropped to the ground, tugging Arthur down with him.

A thin line of light outlined the door, and illuminated a shadowy figure briefly as it locked the door behind itself, and hurried across the lawn to the main house.

"In there," Arthur whispered in his ear, "Come on."

Merlin moved quietly, aware of Morgana and Arthur on either side. He was still concerned that he couldn't feel anything magical at all. The only thing he'd never been able to detect with any certainty was Nimueh herself. Whatever was being planned, the spirit behind it must be immensely powerful, he thought.

The stable was locked. Morgana pulled some lock picks from her pocket, but Arthur just pushed past her and kicked the door until it opened. There was a lamp plugged in next to the door, casting enough light to show the stalls running the length of the building. Each stall was locked with a bar across the door, as well as several bolts.

"Gwen!" Morgana hissed.

Very quietly, there came a "Morgana?" and Morgana ran forward to let her out.

"Get them all out before they come back, whoever they are," Arthur said, looking around.

"There's something off about this," Merlin said. "I mean, do you recognise the writing on the walls?"

Arthur glanced at it. "No-yes, is it?"

"Elvish runes, from Lord of the Rings. Yes." Merlin said. "And that symbol over the stall is from a Lordi album. It's just- weird."

"Weird or not, just check if there's anyone else here," Arthur said.

Merlin turned his attention to the nearest stall. The bolts slid easily, newly installed, and he slipped into the stall.

There was a teenage boy huddled in the corner, hands tied in front of him. He had a black eye, but other than that he seemed ok.

"Hey," Merlin said, squatting down and pulling out his knife to cut the rope, "Hey, I'm Merlin, you're going to be ok. What's your name?"

"Minesh, Min," the boy answered softly, flexing his wrists as the rope fell free.

"Well Min," Merlin said, "We're going to get you out of here. How many more are there of you?"

Min shook his head, "I don't know. I've been here two days. They don't open the doors except to feed us. I've heard a couple of other people get locked in here. This morning there was a girl, I think she kicked them or something, because they were quite rough with her." His welsh lilt got more pronounced as he got more agitated.

"Are you hurt?" Merlin said.

"Just this-" he gestured to the cut above his eye, "They kept saying they needed us perfect for," he swallowed, "for the sacrifice."

"You're OK," Merlin said. "Go and wait by the door."

Merlin was opening the next stall when the stable door burst back on its hinges.

"Stay in here," Merlin muttered to the man in the stall. "I promise you'll be a lot safer."

Two teenagers entered the stable, laden down with candles and bunches of herbs. One carried a blunt-looking sword, the other a curved knife.

"What the-" one said, before Arthur doused him with holy water.

"What did you do that for?" he said, spluttering. Merlin noted with no surprise that he failed to burn. He hadn't felt a scrap of magic here, and it seemed that what they were dealing with was depressingly human.

"You're not-" he began, before Morgana punched him.

"What are you doing?" She said, as he nursed his broken nose. "Tell me the plan, or I swear, demon or not, I will end you."

"I wouldn't be so sure," the other, older man said. He snaked out a hand and grabbed Gwen, pulling her up against him, and setting the knife to her throat.

"One wrong move, and your pretty girl gets her throat slit." His voice shook with bravado, but he held the knife steady.

They backed away, hands raised.

"What are you doing?" Merlin asked.

"We're raising a demon," the one Morgana had punched said. "We're going to film it, get famous!"

"You, seriously?" Arthur's voice was half amused, half incredulous. "What are you doing with all these people?"

"The demon needs a blood sacrifice," the man holding Gwen said. Out of the corner of his eye Merlin saw Min creep towards them from his hiding place by the door. He shook his head slightly at him, and Min froze.

"Are you kidding me?" Arthur said. "You don't know the first thing about raising anything."

"We read it in a book!" The first guy protested. "We've got the sacrifices, the candles, the herbs-"

"Yeah, we saw this thing on TV," the guy holding the knife gestured wildly, and Gwen stamped hard on his instep, then rammed her elbow back into his stomach. He went down and Merlin ran to help her, snatching up a length of rope and binding his hands together. He looked up to see Arthur hauling Morgana off the other guy, who was curled into a ball, and whimpering.

"Put them in here," Merlin said, opening one of the empty stalls. Gwen dragged the man that had threatened her into the stall, and Merlin shot the bolt home.

"Are you OK?" Merlin said.

"I'm fine," she said. "Mostly I feel stupid. They jumped me in the lane, and brought me here. I should have known better."

Arthur let out the man Merlin had told to stay put, then shoved the other kidnapper inside.

"Is that the last hostage?" Arthur asked.

"Yes," Gwen said. "They thought they needed three sacrifices."

"Min," Merlin said, tossing him a phone from the pile of coats and bags they'd found in the corner, "call the police, and wait outside 'til they get here."

"Aren't you staying?" he asked, looking confused.

"It's better we don't," Arthur said, shooting the second bolt home.

"Are you sure you're OK?" Morgana asked, hugging Gwen to her as they walked back down the lane.

"I'm fine, I promise," Gwen said.

"You were lucky," Arthur said bluntly. "You don't just march in like an amateur, that's how people get hurt."

"Don't talk to her like that!" Morgana said instantly.

"You're the one who said she shouldn't have gone, I'm just agreeing!" Arthur continued, apparently unable to stop digging the hole. "People die doing this," he added as they reached the car.

"Yeah, well thanks to your father I know all about that!" Morgana snapped.

"That's it," Arthur said, "What the hell happened, and why are you taking it out on me?"

"Arthur," Merlin said, warningly. They were all tired, and it looked like Morgana had a temper to rival Uther's, and nothing good could come from any of it.

Morgana looked at Gwen, and said,

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you any of this." Then she turned to Arthur.

"Our fathers knew each other. They were in the same line of work; you know I used to hunt, well, my Dad taught me. One day, six years ago now, Uther turns up at the bar, says he needs my Dad's help. With a case. They both left. My Dad didn't come back. You work it out." Her voice was steady, but thick with anger and accusation.

Arthur looked dumbstruck.

"I'm, I'm sorry," he managed.

"Me too," Merlin said. "God, Morgana, I'm so sorry, but you've got to believe us, we didn't know." It would have been one of the rare times Uther had left them to pursue a case alone, he thought. Typical of him to not say anything, never being able to admit he was fallible.

Morgana pressed her lips together until they were nearly white, and gripped Gwen's hand tightly. For a second, even though it was Gwen who was all bruised up, it was Morgana who looked the worse for wear.

"Yes, well," she said, sounding suddenly tired. "Now you know. Just, take us back to Shrewsbury."

They drove back in silence. Not even Arthur was suicidal enough to attempt conversation or music. In the rearview mirror Merlin could see Gwen curled up in Morgana's arms, drowsing against her shoulder.

As they watched Morgana and Gwen speed off in Morgana's MG, Arthur turned to him and said,

"How could he do that?" He looked distraught.

"Your Dad wasn't perfect," Merlin said carefully, taking his hand and leading him upstairs. "But I know he would have done his best. Sometimes people are just unlucky."

"Don't let me get you killed Merlin," Arthur said seriously.

"You're not your Dad," Merlin said, and kissed him.

Arthur brooded for a few days afterwards, quieter than usual. Merlin knew he was used to thinking of his Dad as pretty much infallible, and it was hard to accept that he'd not trusted Arthur with the whole story. They drove North, a little aimlessly, stopping frequently to eat, and stretch their legs. There was nothing on the radar, but it was either keep going, or stay in Shrewsbury, moping. So they took it in turns driving, and stopped off in Kendal for a few days when the Jag developed a persistent niggle that Arthur couldn't fix.

"We'll need to stop off at Kay's," Arthur said as he coaxed the car off the M6. "He's the only one Dad ever trusted with her."

"Great, more car talk," Merlin said, but fondly. If it snapped Arthur out of his funk he was willing to put up with a few hours of chatter about ratios and head gaskets. Arthur could be supremely annoying when he was bored.

"Well," Kay said, wiping his hands and closing the bonnet, "You were right Arthur, it needs replacing. Can you stick around til tomorrow? I can order the part and have her up and running as soon as it gets here."

"Sure," Arthur said. "Call me if it changes." He shook hands, and Merlin grabbed their bags out of the boot and followed him out of the garage.

"So what now?" he asked.

"Find a hotel, check in, and try and find a job to do," Arthur replied. "I'm bored out of my mind here."

Merlin smiled, and said,

"It's been all of three days."

In the end it was the local news that found them something. The pub had it playing quietly in the background. Arthur was currently taking on all comers at darts and beating them with quite obnoxious amounts of sarcasm, and Merlin was trying to work out the optimum time to intervene before things descended into a fight, when the newsreader's voice caught his ear:

"And finally, one young family seem to have got more than they bargained for when they took a trip to Burnswark. Ewan McKay and his daughters report seeing Roman soldiers crossing the fort last night. What do you think Gerry?"

"I think someones been reading too many ghost stories Nita."

"So sweet dreams from both of us."

The newsreaders chattered on as the jingle played them out. Merlin pushed his way through the group of men surrounding Arthur- just in time, as Arthur had that look on his face that promised someone was about the get a black eye, and grabbed his elbow.

"Come on, I think I've got something for us,"

"But I was just-" Arthur protested.

"How many matches have you won tonight?" Merlin asked.

"All of them, duh," Arthur replied.

"Then let the other children play," Merlin said.

"Hey, we're half way though a game here!" One guy, big and burly protested.

Merlin yanked all three darts out of Arthur's hands and, without even bothering to aim properly, threw them at the board.

Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. All three in the treble top.

Without waiting for any comeback he dragged Arthur out of the bar, protests ringing in his ears.

"What is it?" Arthur asked as they walked to the hotel.

"Ghosts on the news," Merlin said.

"That's what we've come to?" Arthur asked petulantly.

"You're about to start fights over darts matches. Which means you're bored. And you were complaining only this morning."

"OK," Arthur said as they reached their room. "But you so owe me for not letting me work off some energy back there." He waggled his eyebrows in a way that he probably thought was sexy. God help him, but Merlin found he agreed.

"Guess that means I can let you do all the work," he said, opening the door.

"Hmm," Arthur said, wrapping his arms around him. He smelled of beer and leather, and Merlin shuddered happily as he leaned in to lick at his ear. "I'm OK with that."

They picked the Jag up late the next morning, and after Arthur had spent ten minutes looking her over and crooning that she was 'all better', much to Merlin's amusement, they hit the road.

"So what did you find?" Merlin asked as Arthur changed lanes.

"Not much more than you heard on the news. Brunswark is the site of a couple of small Roman forts, this part of Britannia was border country, but that's it."

"All the websites mention people seeing ghosts from time to time," Merlin said, looking out of the window at the fells in the distance.


"And that's it." There hadn't been much to go on other than that, no attacks, nothing.

"Guess we'll have to go and see for ourselves then," Arthur said, merging onto the motorway.

The fort was nothing special to look at, just a small hillock in the middle of a green field. It was empty and calm, the weak sun warming Merlin through his jacket, and a breeze rustled the leaves and made the grass stems ripple.

"Well?" Arthur asked.

"I guess we wait," Merlin said, stretching his legs out and leaning against the fence.

An hour passed and Arthur was getting fidgety, and Merlin was about to suggest calling it a day, when he felt the prickle of something, and the sun went behind the clouds.

"Arthur," Merlin murmured, "check the detector."

The detector confirmed it, a high-pitched whine.

"Look," Arthur said, pointing.

At the foot of the hill fort a legion shimmered out of thin air. At its head a man carried a golden eagle standard. Each solder wore silver plate armour, and they moved as one, marching in step perfectly, down the hill and towards them. As they got closer Merlin put his hand on his gun, readying to fire.

"Wait-" Arthur said. "You said yourself there were no reports of injuries, just wait."

They marched past them, packs hoisted on shoulders, the paint bright on their shields, each decorated with a bear and a falcon. It felt like the ground should have thudded under their approach, that Merlin should have been able to hear the thump of sandalled feet and the jingle of plate and helm, but they were silent, unblinkingly moving forward.

The lead soldier stopped when he was level with them, and looked at them both, staring at Arthur for long seconds. Merlin was just about to fire when the centurion saluted.

"Ave, Artorius," he said.

Arthur looked shocked, but nodded at him, and the legion wheeled to the right and carried on across the field.

"Leave it," Arthur said.

"What? You're the one who was bored," Merlin protested, but he knew what he meant. The ghosts felt old, but not evil.

"They were brought here to protect people," Arthur said a little dreamily. "I can understand that. Who are we to not let them, if that's what they think they're still doing?"

"You're kind of sentimental, you know that?" Merlin asked, but he leant against Arthur briefly, pressing their sides together as the legion completed its round of the field and disappeared.

They stuck to the Scottish borders after that, taking a week to drive from Lockerbie to Berwick, via a detour to Edinburgh to deal with a poltergeist, and ridding the A1 of a particularly nasty phantom hitchhiker. They found no other signs of Nimueh, but there was something, a tugging at the back of his mind, a growing feeling of unease.

They ended up in a pub on the outskirts of Kelso, on the trail of a boggart that was terrorising the landlord, and only the landlord. They were mystified as to why, until, the second night, Arthur looked at his pint suspiciously.

"They didn't top it off," he said, raising the glass to eye level. "I've paid for less than a pint."

"What did you say?" Merlin asked, flicking through the bestiary.

"They're serving short measures."

"That's it!" Merlin said. "There's a lot of lore that boggarts target people that cheat their customers- millers giving short weight, clergymen stealing from collections."

"And landlords that can't serve a decent pint," Arthur said, stalking up to the bar.

The phone rang, and rang, and rang. Arthur snuggled back down into the covers, despite the fact that it was nearly midday, and tried to ignore it. Two weeks after the boggart and they'd decided to take a day off. Arthur was kind of annoyed at the interruption. But it kept on ringing, and eventually he untangled himself from around Merlin's still-sleeping body and crawled out of bed to answer it. When he saw the caller ID he was glad he had.

"Have you found her?" Arthur asked Bors urgently.

"No, but there's something weird come up in Durham," Bors said. Arthur could hear the noise of the bar in the background, clinking glasses and the crash of someone hitting the ground, then Morgana's unmistakable bellow. "People acting out of character, and denying all knowledge of it. Thought I'd let you guys know."

"Demons," Arthur said. It wasn't a question.

The mist hung low over the grounds as they booked into the country house hotel in Spennymoor.

"This is the place," Arthur said. He took in the chintzy room, the rose petal wallpaper and matching bedspread. "All the people that were acting strangely stayed in this hotel."

"So, the demon's staying here?" Merlin said.

"Seems likely." Arthur bounced on the bed. Despite the hideous bedspread, the bed was firm and comfy. "Can you sense anything?"

It had always been one of the more useful things Merlin could do. Even Uther had grudgingly agreed that Merlin's 'feeling' was at least as useful as an EM detector.

"Nothing when we booked in," Merlin said, sitting next to him. "We should wait for breakfast- more chance of seeing everyone there. We'll just have to find some way of passing the time. " He shrugged his coat off and hung it over the back of a chair.

"What did you have in mind?" Arthur teased, pushing Merlin back onto the bed, feeling his muscles, strong and lithe under the flannel shirt, and kissing him, smiling as he did so at how good it was.

"Well, this was our day off. We were supposed to spend it in bed," Merlin said, reaching up to cup Arthur's face. Arthur nuzzled his jaw into Merlin's palm. "So I thought we could pick up where we left off."

"I can get behind that," Arthur said, laughing at his own bad pun as he let Merlin pull him down.

Arthur rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as they entered the restaurant for breakfast. They'd stayed up 'til the small hours making preparations, finding a safe place to trap the demon, and Merlin had been uncharacteristically restless, tossing and turning in his sleep and murmuring half-intelligible words.

He put the earbud of the EM detector into his ear, and joined the queue for the hot breakfast. Merlin picked up a bowl and went to get some cornflakes, eyes briefly closed in concentration.

Arthur loaded his plate with toast and fried tomato, sausage and scrambled eggs, and walked slowly through the restaurant, listening out for any spikes. He was almost at the window when the EM detector spiked. He looked around, and the little old lady eating mango at the next table looked back at him.

"Good morning," she said, digging her fork into the flesh of the fruit. Merlin looked up from where he was filling his orange juice glass and nodded.

Arthur put his plate down in front of the teenage boy at the corner table.

"Lost my appetite," he said.

"Can we have a word madam?" Merlin said, coming up behind her, stepping carefully.

She looked up, eyes flashing black.

"I don't think so," she said, then she stood, caught Merlin by the collar and flung him into one of the empty tables.

"Well I never," someone gasped behind them, but Arthur was off, chasing her through the restaurant, out through reception and into the wooded grounds of the hotel.

She was fast, and Arthur hesitated, wavering. He didn't actually want to shoot her, he had no idea how well the woman would heal once the demon was exorcised, but he had to get her to the place they'd prepared.

"Bit tame isn't it?" he taunted. "You go all out possessing people, then what, decide to stop for breakfast?"

"You have no idea," the demon said, turning and stopping a few feet away. "Last time I was up here, mangoes hadn't even been discovered in this miserable country."

"Boo hoo," Arthur said, inching forward and sneaking the packet of salt out of his pocket.

"Oh I don't think so sonny boy," the demon said, yanking the salt out of his hand.

"Arthur, down," Merlin said, and he dropped flat as a stream of water hit the demon in the chest. It hissed and spat as the water soaked it.

"How did you manage that?" Arthur asked, turning to see Merlin holding a hose pipe.

"It's fed from a tank. Only took a few minutes to bless it," Merlin said.

Arthur pulled the cuffs out, and cuffed the demon as Merlin kept the hose trained on it. It twitched and whimpered at the touch of the steel.

"Quick," Merlin said. "That won't hold it for long."

Arthur heaved the demon up into a fireman's lift, glad it had chosen a small host, and carried it across the grounds to the shed they'd seen the day before. Merlin, who'd always been good at it, had spent half an hour creating a complex Devil's Trap there the night before. The demon kicked and screamed and Arthur heard the screech of tearing metal.

"Quick!" he urged. Merlin opened the door and he stumbled through and all but threw the demon in the centre of the circle.

"Let me out now!" the demon ordered, pacing the bounds of the trap.

"Now, why would we do that?" Arthur asked.

"You send me back and I'll hunt your father down," she said, face twisting with hate. "I'll make him burn, he'll wish he was dead all over again."

Arthur hesitated, but said,

"Even dead he'd still kick your ass."

They couldn't really do that, could they? He thought, worriedly.

Merlin started reciting the exorcism, doing it without the book, the show-off. The demon thrashed around, eyes flashing from cloudy grey to black and back again.

"I know what you are," she hissed suddenly "Nimueh's creation, and her consort. Your names are all over the Otherlands."

"I like being famous," Arthur said airily, although what the hell did that mean, consort? Merlin huffed out a laugh and carried on reciting. The demon began to pant, clenching the hands of its borrowed body.

"Nimueh's put the word out. You she wants in bloody pieces, but your little friend-"

"I'm actually taller than him," Merlin remarked mildly.

"Merlin," Arthur said pointedly. Merlin shot him a look and carried on.

"But... but you, she's got plans for," the demon gritted out. "You have no idea what you can do, but Nimueh, Nimue, Nim-" it panted, drawing a deep breath, veins standing out and eyes flipping black. Merlin's voice rose over the demon's as he chanted the final words. "She says soon," the demon croaked, then it screamed as black smoke poured out of its mouth, billowing up into the roof, then disappearing.

The woman dropped to the floor like a stone as Arthur ran forward.

"Is she OK?" Merlin asked anxiously.

Arthur felt for her pulse. It was there, thank god. He knelt and picked her up, one arm under her knees, the other round her back.

"She's going to be OK, I think," he said.

"Where, where am I?" the woman said dazedly.

"It's OK," Merlin said. "You had a bit of a funny turn, but we'll just take you back to the hotel and get you a cup of tea, you'll be right as rain."

"Oh, that's...nice," she said, and closed her eyes, sagging back against Arthur's chest.

They carried her back to the hotel and up to her room, the hotel's manager and the woman's granddaughter in tow.

"What happened?" the woman, Elspath, asked.

"Do you take blood pressure tablets?" Merlin asked, looking at the bottle on the bedside table, an idea forming.

"Yes," she said, sounding uncertain.

"There has been a recall issued on these," Merlin said, picking up the bottle. "People were experiencing a range of symptoms, including psychotic breaks."

"Oh my!" Elspath said, "Well, what should I do?"

"Just get rid of these, get a new prescription, and you'll be fine," Arthur said, patting her on the shoulder and flashing a smile.

Arthur was strangely quiet as they packed, sullen and withdrawn.

"OK, what's wrong?" Merlin asked as he fetched his toothbrush.

Arthur sat on the bed.

"Do you think she was right?" he asked.

"About finding your dad? Demons lie, she was just trying to get you to let go." Merlin sat next to him and, after a brief hesitation, slipped an arm round his shoulders, squeezing. Arthur leant into it, soaking up the physical contact. He'd always been touch-hungry.

"No, about me. Nimueh, and that demon, they both said Nimueh made me," Arthur said, voice cracking. "What the hell does that make me? Am I some kind of, of monster?" he shrugged off Merlin's arm and paced the room.

It had been a while coming, Merlin thought, but at least that had given him time to think of an answer.

"No!" he said, grasping Arthur by the shoulder to hold him still. "Absolutely not." Arthur sagged.

"Are you sure?"

Merlin let his hand drift up to Arthur's neck, stroking gently.

"I can feel magic, right? I can feel Gaius's, and I knew about Morgana, and I felt the hand in the church, the demon here, all those ghosts. There's no magic in you Arthur. I'd know. Nimueh made your mum able to have you, but she didn't create you."

"Sure?" Arthur's voice was small.

"Hey, you're annoying, and a bit of a prat," Merlin said, trying to lighten the mood. "You're just not a magic one."

Arthur laughed shakily and sat back down, drawing Merlin down next to him.

"But the demon said 'soon'. I just wish I knew what she had planned. I wish I knew what she wants from you," he said thoughtfully

Merlin let his head flop back onto the pillow.

"You and me both," he said, remembering the last time she had wanted something from him. It didn't make him feel any better.

Merlin chained his bike (the best thirteenth birthday present ever) to the back gate and let himself in at the kitchen door. He stopped, momentarily distracted. A feeling prickled over him, just like it had two weeks back at the churchyard, the day before Libby Murdock got attacked by that huge black dog. It was weird, like a prickly headache, pressing at his eyes. He shook his head and toed off his boots so he didn't get mud on the kitchen floor.

"Mum!" he called out. "I'm back!"

"Hello darling," his mum called from the living room.

He pushed open the door, and the weird feeling intensified. There was another woman sitting next to Hunith on the sofa, cup of tea in hand. Merlin didn't recognise her, but she was even prettier than Libby, with long wavy dark hair and blue eyes.

"Who's this Mum?" he asked, sprawling into the armchair.

"This is Nimueh- did I say that right?" his mum asked, turning to her.

"Perfect," Nimueh said.

"I tripped on that broken slab at the bottom of the drive, and dropped all my shopping. Nimueh was passing, and she helped me pick it all up, and helped me into the house."

"Are you alright?" Merlin asked, noticing his mum had her foot up on a stool.

"Just my ankle. Gaius is coming round in a bit, I'll get him to have a look at it. Anyway after she'd been so kind, and with the rain and all, it was the least I could do to offer Nimueh a cup of tea and somewhere dry to wait."

"Don't mention it Hunith," Nimueh said sweetly. "Now you have the last biscuit, you deserve it after that nasty fall."

She picked up the plate with the biscuits and passed it over. Mum must have bought new ones, Merlin thought. He'd never seen biscuits with that pattern before.

Hunith picked it up and dipped it in her tea.

"You're mum's been telling me all about you, Merlin," Nimueh said. "You're quite the gifted young man it seems."

Merlin shifted in his seat.

"Yeah, well," he said, then he broke off as his mum started coughing, eyes wide and shocked.

"Mum!" he said, leaping to his feet. She shook and her face turned bright red. Her teacup crashed to the floor. She clawed at her throat, eyes standing out, breath coming in great pants as she choked.

"Do something!" Merlin yelled at Nimueh. He grabbed his mum's shoulders, trying to remember the first aid they'd done in school. Did you thump a choking person on the back?

"Come on mum, you'll be ok, you'll be ok," he muttered over and over, hands fluttering uselessly, thoughts whirling. She took one long, rattling breath, then shuddered, and fell limp to the floor.

"Mum? MUM!" He finally remembered to feel for her pulse. It was gone, and it felt like his heart had been cut out.

"No!" he yelled. He rounded on Nimueh, who stood there quite serene. "Why didn't you help here? What have you done to her?"

"Poison," she said calmly, sitting and rearranging her skirts. "Fast acting. Not one you'd be familiar with."

"Is she-" Merlin felt tears rise in his throat, and his head was killing him. "Is she dead?"

"Oh yes." Nimueh said, sounding quite unconcerned. "But, I'm gifted too Merlin. And I can bring her back."

"How?" Merlin asked. He didn't question it. His mum's hand was still warm in his, and he didn't want to feel it go cold.

"Magic is real," Nimueh said, almost gently. "And I control it. I can bring her back. But you need to give me something. That's how it goes."

Merlin hesitated. "Magic? Really?" It seemed unreal.

"Yes, really. You've felt it already, I know you have. You'll have your whole childhood with her," she urged. "Just you and mum. Like it's always been. I don't want much, and I won't ask for it for years. But all magic has its price. I've got plans for you and me."

Merlin looked at his mum and stood, slowly. He untangled his fingers from hers and laid her hand on her stomach gently. Her eyes were closed, and he wanted, more than anything, to see them open again.

"OK," he said. "What do I need to-"

The living room door slammed open and Gaius burst through. He held out some kind of pendant in front of him.

"Get back!" he yelled, and threw a handful of something white at Nimueh. She screamed.

"Leave this house!" he bellowed. Merlin had never seen him so angry.

"I'd like to see you try and make me," Nimueh spat.

Gaius brandished the pendant. It was a oak leaf, Merlin noted.

"Gaius, what are you doing?" he asked. They were losing time, his mum would-

"Did she touch you?" Gaius demanded, stepping in front of him.

"No! She's going to help me, Mum-" Merlin rambled, trying to explain.

"You don't want her help," Gaius said.

"Don't listen to him," Nimueh snapped. "You want your mum back, don't you?"

"I-I," Merlin wavered.

"Go!" Gaius said again, throwing the white stuff- salt, it was salt- at her and beginning chant in something that sounded like Welsh.

Nimueh screeched like a bird, and there was a blinding flash from the pendant. After the spots cleared from his eyes, Merlin saw there was a magpie where Nimueh had been standing. Before Gaius could catch it it flew up and out of the window with a harsh shriek.

Gaius sagged back onto the settee. The hand that had held the pendant was red and burned, and then pendant itself was a blob of molten gold.

Arthur strolled down the high street in Ambleside, soaking up the sunlight. The Black Dog they'd tailed to the lakeside town had actually been, well, a black dog. A mastiff, not a flesh-eating shapechanger. He'd unilaterally decided to give them both a day off. The hotel room had a kingsize bed and a shower you could fit a rugby team in, and he wanted to make it up to Merlin. He knew he'd been twitchy and snappish since the whole thing with Gwen and Morgana, and their last day off had been interrupted by demonic grandmothers. He'd left Merlin visiting a friend from uni and gone for a walk to stock up on supplies. Now that they'd finally abandoned the pretence of twin rooms there was no way he was letting that bed go to waste.

He stopped at the crossing, waiting for the light to turn green. Next to him a young woman, apparently engrossed in a text on her phone, stepped out into the traffic.

"Hey, careful!" he shouted, grabbing the strap of her bag and pulling her back out of the oncoming traffic. A bus blared its horn as it shot past, inches from her face.

"Oh my god!" she said, blue eyes wide with shock. "I could have been killed!"

"You're OK," Arthur said, amused.

"No, really, you saved my life!" She held out her hand "I'm Sophie."

Arthur took her hand, and there was nothing but blackness.

Merlin opened the hotel room door, takeaway in hand.

"I tell you, Owain is exactly the same as- what are you doing?"

Arthur was folding clothes and packing them, the backpack already open on the bed. His guns, knives, flask, EM detector and a packet of salt were lined up on the dresser. That alone was enough to rattle Merlin- if Arthur was dressed, he was armed.

"I'm leaving," Arthur said, not looking up, intent on packing.

"Why, is there a case?" Merlin asked slowly. There was something- off- about Arthur.

"No, I'm leaving. Me. By myself." he said flatly.

"Arthur, what-" Arthur looked up.

"I'm through with this. I'm giving up," he said in that same flat monotone.

Merlin's heart sank. They'd been so happy this morning. Arthur had been brooding a bit, but how could so much have changed so quickly?

"What about Nimueh? What about your mum, my mum, Will? What about your Dad?" he said, disbelieving.

"I've met someone." It was like a bullet wound. "Sophie's the only thing that matters now."

Something was seriously wrong. Arthur was many things, but he wasn't cruel, and he never gave up. That he would abandon him and the hunt without so much as an explanation, was unthinkable.

"Who's Sophie?" Merlin asked. He closed his eyes, concentrating, and caught something. A tiny thread of magic, where there had been none before.

A smile broke out over Arthur's face. "She's wonderful! I love her. We're going to get married as soon as I've met her father." He looked half-besotted.

"And where did you meet her?" Merlin asked, trying frantically to remember if love potions actually existed.

"This morning," Arthur said, as if that explained everything. "I have to finish packing. She's coming to collect me in a bit. Look after the Jag, Merlin, I won't need it anymore."

That settled it. Whatever had happened to Arthur, it was clear that he wasn't at home.

"OK," he said, buying time. He needed help on this one. "Look, I've just bought some Chinese, why don't you help yourself? That way you won't need to stop and eat before you meet Sophie's Dad."

"That's really kind of you Merlin," Pod-Arthur said. He smiled, and for a split second his eyes flashed silver. Merlin felt his blood run cold.

"Great, well, just help yourself. I'm going to, um, wash my hands," he babbled.

He bolted the bathroom door behind him and rang Gaius, hands shaking as he dialled.

"Merlin," Gaius said, "What's wrong?"

"Arthur! He says he's met someone and he's going to marry her! He's given me the Jag! It's like he's a pod person or something," Merlin said, stumbling over the words in an attempt to get them out. "There's some kind of spell or force or something on him, I can pick it up just about." He paced the bathroom, thoughts whirring. "What could do that?"

Gaius said "Hmmmmmm" thoughtfully.

"Gaius! There's no time for hmmmmmm! He's minutes away from playing happy families!" Merlin said forcefully.

"Well, most likely he's under some kind of enchantment. Has he eaten anything?"

"I don't know! I haven't seen him since this morning. Gaius, his eyes-"

"What about them?" Gauis asked sharply.

"For a second, they were silver." Merlin said.

Gaius sucked in a breath.

"Sidhe," he said. "This is bad."

"What are sidhe?" He hadn't heard the name before.

"Old spirits, in human form. They are powerfully magical, they can cast a glamour, sway people's minds."

"Sophie," Merlin said. "The girl he's supposedly in love with. It has to be."

"Merlin," Gaius said "Whatever you do, don't try and stop Arthur. He's tied to the sidhe at the moment, he'll likely be violent. You might just have to wait and see what she wants with him. I don't even know if it's possible to stop him."

"I'll find a way," Merlin said, and hung up.

Arthur had started on the spring rolls by the time Merlin left the bathroom.

"You were a long time," he said suspiciously.

"I...ate some bad food at lunchtime. Owain still can't cook," Merlin said, patting his stomach and pulling a face.

He was spared any further lies by Arthur's phone.

"OK, yes sweetheart, I'll be down in a second," he said, sounding completely besotted. Merlin's stomach twisted for real at the endearment, even though he knew it wasn't really Arthur talking.

Arthur picked up his bag and jacket, then he paused and pulled his amulet off over his head, laying down on the table next to the salt.

"Well, so long Merlin," he said, and, with a jaunty wave, stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind him.

Merlin picked up the amulet. He'd never seen Arthur without it in all the years he'd known him. He gripped it so tightly the dragon's wing cut into his palm, then slipped it over his head, tucking it down into his shirt. He ran to the window in time to see Arthur getting into the passenger seat of a car with a blond girl at the wheel. She leaned across to kiss his cheek, laughing as they sped off.

He hit Morgana's number.


"You've got some nerve," she began.

"I don't have time for this!" he snapped. Morgana could hold a grudge it seemed. "Arthur's got-I don't know, enchanted, by a sidhe and I need Bors to track his mobile so I can find him! I don't have time to argue- he did it for Gwen, so please, please Morgana, I need your help," he begged.

Morgana clicked her tongue.

"They're bad news."

"I know! He's talking about marriage!" Merlin said, knowing he was sounding a little hysterical and not really caring.

"Oh Merlin," Morgana said, sounding sorrowful, "that's awful."

"You don't need to tell me that," Merlin said, tugging the notes out of his bag, and wishing, not for the first time, that Uther's obsessive nature had extended to indexing.

"Don't you know the stories? The sidhe only take mortals for a short time. It's usually for some kind of sacrificial bargain with the court," Morgana explained, voice softening. "Ireland's full of stories about them."

"She could kill him?" Merlin said. He flicked through the notes, looking for something, anything.

"That or keep him with her in the Otherlands," Morgana said. "I'll get Bors to ring you as soon as he finds him. Good luck Merlin."

It was twenty agonising minutes, during which Merlin read tale after tale of stolen babies and stolen brides before Bors rang back.

"He's in the Ransome Hotel in Bowness. Take care Merlin. The sidhe are old, and cunning. Morgana actually looks worried."

"I've got more to lose than they have," Merlin said grimly.

The hotel was only a short drive away, along the shores of Windermere. The grounds were wooded, running down to a small landing stage. Merlin was spared the need to spin a story to the receptionist when he spotted Arthur and Sophie strolling in the grounds, hand in hand, talking quietly. He ducked behind a hedge to watch.

Even though he knew it wasn't real, Merlin was still jealous. It wasn't like he wanted hearts and flowers, but he was pretty sure Arthur had never looked at him with such blind devotion. He'd never left the hunt for him. He'd been able to watch Merlin go without so much as a peep.

This close, it was clear what Sophie was. He could feel her magic, like an echo of Nimueh's, old and strong and unfathomable. His hand went to Arthur's pendant, gripping it. It was warmer than his skin, almost like he could feel Arthur's heat in it too, imbued in it after years of wear. Great, now Arthur was leaning in to kiss her, that intense look in his eyes that Merlin knew from joyful experience meant a long, sweaty orgasm in the very near future. He let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding when Sophie turned her head so Arthur's kiss landed on her cheek.

"Now Arthur," her voice floated over, light and teasing, "I said I wanted to wait until you've met Father. He'll be here soon."

"Anything," Arthur said, kissing her hand.

They walked back up the hotel and Merlin followed, slipping into the crowd of people in the dining room. He chose a seat behind a potted palm and peered around it at Arthur and Sophie. They'd ordered tea and scones, and Sophie was hand feeding Arthur small bites, Arthur beaming at her with a blankly besotted look on his face. Merlin gritted his teeth and looked down at the notes in his lap. Despite the collections of stories, it seemed that Uther had never actually come across a sidhe, so had no idea what would work on them. He had the usual suspects, salt, steel, and silver, and if none of those worked he'd try the magic. He still wasn't sure how he'd banished Nimueh back at the stone circle, but if Arthur's life depended on it he'd find a way.

Sophie's voice rose above the hubbub.


Merlin looked up and saw a tall white-haired man, walking to the table with the aid of a cane.

Sophie stood and kissed her father on the cheek. She introduced Arthur, and her father looked at him with a smile that Merlin could only describe as predatory. They rose and went out into the garden. Merlin put down his teacup and followed them out.

Sophie led Arthur by the hand, through the trees and down to the landing stage, her father walking the other side of Arthur, almost as if he didn't want him to escape. Merlin slipped into the trees, peering around one. Sophie's voice carried on the night air.

"Arthur darling, would you wait here for a moment?"

Arthur just nodded and stood on the dock, looking out at the lake. Merlin crept forward and a twig cracked under his foot. Sophie and her father turned and Merlin froze. After a second they turned back.

"Are you sure this is the only way father?" she asked.

"The only way. Entrance to Avalon requires a human soul, you know that. Do you want to become mortal?"

She bowed her head.

"No father."

"Then do as we discussed."

He raised his walking stick and the end of the carved wood glowed. Merlin put his hands to his head; the sudden increase in magical buzz was almost painful. Out on the lake the air shimmered. It looked like the entrance to the hollow hill the fairy hunt had entered, all those months ago.

"Who calls us?" A voice boomed out over the lake.

"I, Aulfric, seek entrance to Avalon, for myself and my daughter." Aulfric said.

"You were banished with good cause," another voice admonished. Merlin crept forward even closer, and saw flashes of golden light dipping and swooping over the lake. He edged closer to get a better look.

"We are penitent," Aulfric continued. "And to show our penitence we bring you this soul. Hunter, Knight, great with love. He-" Aulfric broke off and whirled round. Merlin shrank back against the tree, but it was too late. Aulfric pointed his staff at him, and Merlin found himself jerked backwards, and he hit the tree with a thump.

"Do it Sophie! NOW!" Aulfirc called. Merlin struggled up to his knees and saw Sophie take Arthur by the hand.

"Come on Arthur," she said, "this way we can be together always, won't that be nice?"

She led the unresisting Arthur down into the water. Merlin managed to get to his feet and drew his gun.

"Your weapon won't work boy," Aulfric spat. Merlin fired anyway, and the bullet holes just closed over.

Aulfric was chanting in an old-sounding language as Sophie led Arthur until he was chest-deep in the water.

"That's it Arthur," Sophie said, voice soothing, "not long now." The portal over the lake shimmered even brighter.

Desperate, Merlin dropped the gun and just ran at Aulfric, crouching down to cut him off at the knees. Aulfric simply floated up out of the way, and aimed his staff at Merlin again.

"You will not ruin this chance," he said. The staff began to glow again, and Merlin put his hand out, trying the telekinesis more out of desperation then any hope it would do anything on what was clearly a magical object. To his surprise the staff flew into his hand. He could feel the magic in the rowan-wood. It felt old. It felt like Nimueh. Aulfric looked momentarily shocked, but then Sophie called out,

"Father, it's time!"

"Too late!" Aulfric crowed. Merlin saw the portal had split open, and he could glimpse something beyond it, another world it seemed. Aulfric was wading out into the water to stand next to Sophie. They placed their hands on Arthur's head, spoke three words in unison, voices ringing out across the lake, and pushed him under. He didn't come back up. He didn't even try.

"No!" Merlin screamed. Acting on instinct, he pointed the staff at them, and felt the heat of it as the magic flowed through it and towards them, and they screamed and disappeared in a cloud of golden smoke. The portal flickered out of existence. Merlin watched the surface of the lake anxiously. But Arthur didn't reappear.

"Shit. Arthur!" he yelled. He threw the staff aside and waded out into the lake. The water was cool and green and he ducked under the surface, searching, searching, searching. He swam down a few strokes, the pressure building in his ears, squinting in the murky water. It wasn't until his lungs were almost bursting from holding his breath that he caught sight of Arthur, floating face down. He broke the surface to take a huge breath, then dived back down and hauled Arthur up, holding him against his chest as he swam for the shore.

"Come on Arthur, come on, don't do this to me," Merlin chanted over and over as he laid Arthur's waterlogged body out on the dock. He tilted Arthur's head back, and thumped his chest a few times, and Arthur coughed and spluttered, bringing up lake water. He looked up at Merlin with bloodshot eyes.

"What the hell happened?"

"I really just went with her?" Arthur asked later, back at the hotel. They were tucked up in bed, Arthur had a slight fever, and Merlin swore he could still feel the chill of the lake water in his bones.

"Yes," he said, tightening his grip on Arthur. It had been too damn close.

"And you just- killed them?" Arthur repeated.

"Yes. Well, they disappeared. They were about to kill you, they almost did. What makes you think I would let that happen?" he said, knowing he sounded irritable, and not caring.

"Are you pissed off at me?" Arthur said incredulously. "I almost died today!"

"Well, apparently I should have let you," Merlin said hotly. He made a move to get out of bed, but Arthur tugged him back down.

"Wait, what's this about really?" he said.

"You just upped and left!" Merlin said, knowing how petty it sounds, but seemingly unable to stop himself.

"I was under a spell!"

"You said you loved her!" Merlin regretted it as soon as the words left his mouth.

Arthur looked at him for a second, then smiled.

"You're an idiot, Merlin."

"Yes, probably, look just forget it," Merlin said awkwardly.

"I didn't love her. I barely even remember her. In case you haven't noticed, I'm in love with you."

Merlin felt the weight lift off his chest.

"Oh, well," he said. "Me too."

Arthur tugged on the amulet Merlin still wore around his neck.

"Doesn't mean that you can keep this though," he teased.

Merlin laughed, and lifted the leather thong over his neck before slipping it over Arthur's. The dragon glinted on his bare chest, back where it belonged.

"It's yours anyway," he said, and leaned in to kiss Arthur's temple. "You need it to keep you safe."

"Nah," Arthur said, kissing him properly. "I've got you for that, haven't I?"

Merlin was twitchy and overly-conscientious for a few days after Sophie. It freaked Arthur out, that there was a whole chunk of time that he just couldn't remember- that Sophie could have done anything to him, and he'd have gone along willingly. He understood anew what people who had been possessed or hag-ridden had gone through.

"Is there anything we can do to stop it happening again?" he asked Gaius one evening, as he and Merlin ate in a little restaurant in Carlise.

"There's amulets and sigils against demonic possession," Gaius said. Arthur could hear him turning pages on the other end of the phone, "but sidhe aren't demons. Just, be careful."

"Great," Arthur said, hanging up.

"Are you ok?" Merlin said, looking up from his laptop.

"Yeah, I'm fine. But Gaius says there's nothing to stop going all-" he waved his hand again.

"Maybe you should just stay away from strange girls," Merlin said crisply, but he was smiling.

Arthur kicked him under the table, and Merlin kicked him back. They were just working up to a rough footsie war when Merlin's laptop pinged and Arthur's phone rang at the same time.

"Arthur," Bors said urgently, not bothering with niceties, "I've got a hit. The portents are clustering."

"Where?" Arthur asked, waving to catch Merlin's eye. Merlin turned the laptop round to show him a map.

"I've sent it to Merlin. There's been fires, rain, and a rash of Black Dog sightings. If I'm right, and I am, the next thing you'll see is poisonings."

"We're on it," Arthur said.

"Good luck," Bors said, and hung up.

"OK," said Merlin, "so they're clustering on Newbury."

"How many dead already?" Arthur asked, frantically trying to work out how long it would take to get to Berkshire from here. It was late already, and it wasn't as if the M6 was ever particularly clear.

"One mauled to death by a dog. One dead in a house fire and another in hospital, another three released after a dog attack but one won't regain use of his arm."

Six more lives ruined.

"Right," he said, "lets hope we can get there before that number goes up."

"Arthur," Merlin said as they threw their clothes willy nilly into their backpacks back at the hotel. "Even if we don't stop, it's not like it's round the corner. Newbury is five hours away."

"You think I don't know that?" Arthur yelled, checking under the bed. "But what are we supposed to do?"

Arthur loved the Jag, never more so than now as it purred down the motorway, eating up the miles. It had been nearly midnight when they finally got on the road, and now it was getting on for 2 am as they hit Preston. Arthur cranked up the ipod, and Sandy Denny and Robert Plant filled the car, as he tried to keep himself awake. He yawned once, twice, and found his eyes closing for a third time as the Jag swerved.

"Arthur!" Merlin shouted, shaking his shoulder. "This is stupid. Pull over."

He did as he was told, and tipped his head back on the headrest as Merlin took over the driving.

When he woke up, they weren't moving.

"Are we here?" he asked, confused. It was still dark, but there was the faintest glimmer of light on the horizon.

"No," Merlin said grimly.

Arthur pried his eyes open to see the stationary traffic in front of him, and the flashing police lights.

"We've been here a while," Merlin said.

"Fucking M6!" Arthur swore, thumping the dashboard.

"I know, I didn't see it 'til it was too late," Merlin said.

Arthur leaned across and pressed the horn.

"That won't do anything," Merlin pointed out, but the other cars took up the challenge, and soon the air was full of clashing horns.

"Makes me feel better," Arthur said. "People could be dying, dying right now, and we can't do anything because we are stuck in fucking Birmingham. Why didn't you-"

"Can we not blame me?" Merlin snapped. "I didn't cause the accident."

In the end they sat for an hour and a half. Arthur got progressively more and more anxious and then more and more angry. Eventually the road cleared, and he shoved Merlin aside to take over the driving.

He floored it all the way to Oxford, by which time Merlin was shifting in his seat and looking uncomfortable.

"Arthur, we've got to stop, pull off at the services. I know we're in a rush but I've got to piss and both of us need coffee."

Arthur scowled, but twisted the wheel sharply as he took the slip road.

The service station was filling up with early morning drivers, a few people lingering over coffee, truck drivers filling up on caffeine and fried breakfast before the journey to the coast. Arthur hurried back from the bathroom and found Merlin waiting for him, holding out a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich.

"Eat." He ordered. "Not far now."

Arthur shoved the sandwich in his mouth, chewing quickly. The newsagent was stocking up on the early editions, and one headline caught his eye. With a sinking heart he picked one up and paid the cashier.

"Look," he said, slapping the paper down in front of Merlin.

"'Three dead in mysterious outbreak. Link to Kington suspected, not proven'."

"Shit," Merlin said. "We're too late."

"Finish that in the car," Arthur said grimly. "We're not letting anyone else die."

"I don't care that he's been up for hours," Merlin barked into his phone. Arthur thought that would have been his lawyer voice. "Get him now!"

Arthur pulled up behind Newbury town hall and parked up, ignoring the 'no parking' signs.

"No, you know what?" Merlin continued as they struggled into shirts and ties, "I'm outside now. If your boss is not ready to meet me I hope your conscience can cope with the deaths that will result from it."

"Damn Merlin," Arthur said, smoothing his hair in the rear view mirror. "Do you actually want to give him a heart attack?

"We don't have time to be nice" Merlin pointed out.

The reception, even this early, was full of people milling around.

Arthur leant on the bell.

"Yes?" the receptionist snapped, hurrying over.

"Richard Carlton, Michael Cavendish, Thames Valley Environmental Health," Merlin said. "Mr Abbas had better be expecting us." They flashed their badges.

The receptionist flinched. Clearly she had been on the receiving end of Merlin's rant.

"I'll take you up," she said.

The head of public health looked like he hadn't slept in a week, rumpled, dark circles under his eyes.

"Mo," he said, shaking hands, "And I hope you've brought good news."

"Tell us what happened," Arthur said, sitting down.

"I got woken up about three hours ago. Five people were admitted to hospital overnight, all with the same symptoms- fever, skin conditions, coma. Three died last night. Another one this morning. Eight more admissions in the past few hours." He put his hands on the desk and leaned forward. "Are we looking at an epidemic gentlemen? With the papers already reporting it, it looks like we'll have a mass panic on our hands. That's all we need on top of those dog attacks." He siged, and propped his chin on his hands.

Four dead already. Arthur gripped the arms of the chair

"Do you have the medical records?" Merlin asked. "We need to see them."

"You told my PA you'd dealt with it before," Mo said, handing the files over. "In Kington? But I've not heard about that in months, they just stopped, all of a sudden, didn't they?"

Arthur flicked through the files. Identical, down to the chalk-white blue-mottled skin. He nudged Merlin and pointed to a close-up photo of one of the victims.

"Look familiar?" he murmured, pointing to a mark formed by the blue mottles.

"Well, that settles it," Merlin said under his breath.

"We'll need directions to the nearest water treatment plant." Arthur said.

I can't believe we're doing this again," Merlin grumbled as he climbed down the ladder. Arthur looked down at him.

"Ready?" he asked.

"Yeah," Merlin said. "Chuck it down."

Arthur tossed down the bags with the flamethrowers- propane canisters this time- and climbed down after them.

The sewer tunnels were damp, and cool, and smelled- like any other sewer.

Arthur gagged slightly.

"Well," he said, gesturing. "Do your thing."

Merlin's eyes glowed in the gloom. It was still a bit freaky, but damn useful.

"This way," he said, choosing the tunnel on the right.

They crept along the narrow tunnel in silence, sticking close to the wall. The tunnel ceiling got lower and lower, and soon they were moving at a half-crouch.

"Are you sure this is the right way?" Arthur asked, nearly on his knees. He pulled out the EM detector to check.

"Yes, have I ever been wrong?" Merlin said irritably.

There was a small opening in the side of the tunnel, a hatch leading down to a lower level.

"Here," Merlin said, dropping to his stomach. "It's down he-"

The EM detector went crazy as a clawed paw hooked into Merlin's shirt and yanked him through the hatch.

"Merlin!" Arthur yelled as Merlin screamed. Arthur saw the afanc in his mind’s eye, the claws, the teeth, and he wriggled through the gap and jumped, landing heavily. The torch Merlin had dropped rolled around on the floor, casting weird shadows.

"Arthur!" Merlin called from a few feet away. Arthur swung his own torch round until he saw the afanc, crouched over Merlin as Merlin shuffled backwards, trying to get to the flamethrower he'd dropped.

"Do it!" Merlin yelled, brandishing his knife as the afanc lunged.

"Move out of the way," Arthur said, fumbling his lighter out of his pocket.

Merlin shuffled another foot along the wall, but the afanc just reached out one long, scaly arm and grabbed his foot, dragging him backwards.

"Just do it now!" Merlin said, arms flailing for purchase.

Arthur flicked the lighter and the flame caught. The afanc raised its head at the noise and Arthur aimed the flame straight at its eyes. It roared and shrieked, but Arthur moved forward determinedly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Merlin scrabble to his knees and hold out his hand, bringing the flamethrower to him. There was another roar as the flamethrower lit itself and Merlin aimed it at the creature's underbelly. It roared again and reared up, and the flames twisted and wrapped around it as it howled one last time, and dissolved into dust.

Arthur looked over at Merlin.

"You OK?" he asked.

Merlin winced as he got to his feet. "Yeah. Just a bit bashed about." He rubbed his forehead, which was streaked with mould and dirt. "And in need of a shower."

Arthur looked down at his own clothes, covered in god-knows what. "I think that goes for both of us."

They had to consign every article of clothing to the bin as soon as they got back to the hotel room. Arthur spent a good fifteen minutes in the shower scrubbing to get the smell of propellant and sewage off his skin and out of his hair. Merlin was on the phone when he eventually came out of the bathroom.

"Ok. That's very upsetting. No, I can assure you we've found the source of the outbreak. You'll need to treat the water with the normal agents, but I'd recommend bottled water for the next week to be on the safe side. Then retest it. No, you're welcome. I'm sorry we couldn't be of more help."

Arthur looked at him. Merlin's face was set in a grim mask, and with a sinking feeling Arthur realised he knew what was coming. The hectic drive, the fight, it hadn't been enough.

"The eight people admitted this morning are all dead. So is the last one admitted last night," Merlin said hollowly.

"Thirteen people. Thirteen dead. Our fault! Because we didn't get here in time!" Arthur picked the cup Merlin had been drinking from, and hurled it against the wall, followed by the other cup, and the water glass. "What's the fucking point?" He hurled the alarm clock for good measure, feeling a certain satisfaction at the crash.

Merlin grabbed him by the shoulders "It is not! Our! Fault! " he shook him. "It isn't! It's her fault. She did this!"

"Bors said the portents are clustering. It's coming up to Midsummer." Arthur said, thinking aloud.

"And?" Merlin said, letting him go.

"And we are done with sitting around. We are going to Gaius. Now. We're finding a way to summon her, and then," he took a breath. "We're killing her."

Merlin looked at the newspaper they'd picked up, at the photos of the first victims in happier times.

"I have absolutely no problem with that."

Pulling up in front of Gauis's house, seeing the familiar wreath on the door, always felt like coming home. At least this time he wasn't manhandling a bleeding Arthur over the threshold. This time, Gaius had welcomed them in, and, with a smirk and a raised eyebrow, shown them to their room. Merlin felt about fifteen again, squirming under Gauis's knowing gaze.

"Get some sleep," Gaius ordered.

"But-" Merlin protested.

"The books will still be there in the morning. You both look half dead."

Arthur just pushed past him and collapsed onto the bed. They'd covered 400 miles in the past 24 hours, and Arthur had done most of the driving. Not to mention fighting an afanc, and the semi-meltdown Arthur had had in the hotel room after. Maybe they could both use some sleep.

"Get your boots off the duvet," Merlin said, slapping Arthur's ankle.

Gaius just snorted and closed the door behind him.

Arthur just lay there, arm thrown over his eyes. Merlin stepped out of his Converse, then unlaced and tugged off Arthur's boots.

"Come on, get those jeans off," he said, dropping the boots to the carpet with a soft thud.

"Merlin, I so don't have the energy right now," Arthur mumbled.

Merlin chuckled, but leaned over and kissed him, lips soft and pliant under his.

"Seriously, much as I'd love to I'd-" Arthur broke off to yawn, "fall asleep half way through." He unbuttoned his jeans and wiggled awkwardly until they were far down his legs enough to kick off.

Merlin watched the unusually inelegant display, then eased himself onto the bed next the Arthur. It wasn't the bed he'd slept in as a child, but the big, feather-mattressed guest bed, and he felt oddly touched at the upgrade.

"I see the magic's gone," he said lightly.

"N'ver with you," Arthur mumbled, rolling towards him and working his hand up under Merlin's tshirt, resting on that spot on his ribs.

"You sweet talker," Merlin said, curling around Arthur and nosing into his hair. He could smell the cheap hotel shampoo they'd been forced to resort to, but it was better than the dirt and sewer muck.

"Mean it," Arthur said softly, falling asleep with his lips against Merlin's neck.

"Did you start without us?" Merlin asked as he came down to breakfast the next morning, Arthur trailing behind him.

He'd missed this, Merlin realised. Gaius's council of war, the big scrubbed table covered with ancient books with cracked leather covers, scraps of paper and parchment, and Gaius's own notes, black ink walking across the page, stones acting as makeshift paperweights, the laptop whirring on the side table a recent addition.

Gaius was frying mushrooms at the Aga, eyes intent on the pan. "I was just putting out a few feelers." He looked up and frowned. "Is Merlin not feeding you, Arthur?"

Merlin's hand flew to the bite mark on his neck, the one that Arthur had put there this morning as he muffled his cries as he came. He felt the blush start, but Gaius just chuckled and lifted the kettle off the stove as it started to whistle.

They spread the papers aside and ate. Gaius had to swoop in quick and rescue a book that looked at least 400 years old before Arthur set his plate on top of it.

"Right," Gaius said as they cleared the plates. "Let's get to work."

It took three days. Long days full of cups of tea and fried food and short, restless naps. Most of it they put together from notes and lore and memory. Uther's notes were extensive, but Gaius turned up folk tales and folk memory from before the Roman invasion. She was old, centuries, maybe millennia, old. They found sightings in Ireland and Brittany, cropping up at regular intervals. Gaius called Morgana to ask her to check something in her father's books, and Gwen grabbed the phone to tell them, over Morgana's protests, that Morgana had been having dreams of rain and fire.

"Listen to this," Gaius said, reading aloud. "Rain is referred to as the tears of Nimueh, because her appearances are traditionally associated with heavy rainfall.

"We know that," Merlin said, squinting at the spidery writing on an ancient parchment he was studying. "It's rained pretty much every time we've seen her. This is getting us nowhere!" His neck and shoulders ached from crouching over the table, and Morgana's dream just underlined how important it was they find Nimueh as soon as possible, without actually being of any practical use.

"I can't read this," Arthur said, interrupting his mope. "It's not in Latin, or anything else I recognise." He pushed the book across the table to Gaius.

"It's old Irish," Gaius said, "but I don't think it's of any use to us. Elaine sent it to me because she knew I'd like the binding. It's a herbiary, just bits and pieces of lore. "

"I just spotted this," Arthur said, tapping his finger on the page. Merlin craned his neck to see it.

"Nimueh's mark," Gaius said, "let's see what it says." He pulled the book over.

"You read old Irish?" Arthur asked.

"Old Irish, Old Norse, Middle English, Anglo-Saxon, Cornish, Latin and Greek," Gaius said absently, still reading.

"You're awesome, Gaius," Arthur said, with such fondness it made Merlin's heart ache.

"Hey," he said, kicking him under the table "I read Latin, Welsh and Breton you know!"

Arthur kicked him back, then trapped his foot with both of his, rubbing his socked foot up the leg of his jeans.

"What does it say?" Merlin asked.

"It's about Nimueh, and the sidhe," Gauis said, skimming it. "It says they're of the same origins."

"The sidhe, like Sophie?" Arthur said.

"Sophie's power," Merlin said slowly, remembering. "It wasn't as strong, but she, and her father, they felt like Nimueh. The bullet's closed over too, same as with Nimueh."

"You shot them as well?" Arthur asked. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I was a bit more concerned with whether you'd drowned or not!" Merlin said. He could still remember those few seconds of panic, how cold and lifeless Arthur had looked.

"Nimueh's clearly immortal," Gaius mused. "And the stories of the sidhe are ancient."

"So she's what, a super-sidhe?" Arthur asked, trying for the joke and not quite managing it.

"Let me finish this," Gaius said, reading aloud. "'And so it came to pass that among the sidhe one was grown great indeed. Beautiful and capricious, wielding the power of life and death, and too mighty to be constrained within the bounds of Avalon. Nimueh and Ninian and Vivian they named her, passing as she did between the Otherlands and the Mortal realms as she desired,'" he cleared his throat and carried on "'And she walked the Isles bending all to her will, too great to be contained.'" Gaius finished, and passed his hand over his forehead.

"Shit," Arthur said. Gaius just nodded.

"Well, that just confirms it," Merlin said, " I mean, we knew she was immortal, right?" He was trying to look on the bright side, and failing.

"It just confirms we're fighting something that can't be killed," Arthur said gloomily.

"There are stories." Gaius leafed through the book. "Sidhe can be-dispersed. Turned into their otherwordly form, stripped of their bodies. But it takes strong magic, and with Nimueh, it might not be enough. She'd just create another one."

"You turned her into a magpie," Merlin said, remembering that day, how confused and scared he'd been.

"She did that herself," Gaius said. "The amulet was a Celtic protective pendant. It forced her into a less threatening shape, but you saw what happened to it. It wouldn't have worked for long."

"So what now?" Merlin said. It seemed useless, they'd carry on fighting a losing battle, because what could kill an immortal?

"I call Elaine for a favour," Gaius said. "And hope she comes through for us."

The call came the next day. Merlin answered while Gaius was feeding the chickens.

"Gaius?" Elaine asked, sounding uncertain.

"It's Merlin," he said.

"Oh Merlin! How are you feeling? It's Elaine by the way." He could hear the smile in her voice.

"Hi Elaine," he said. Arthur looked up, a smile on his face, and he grinned back. He suspected Arthur had a bit of a crush on her. It was kind of cute.

"Listen, I think I've got something that may help," she continued. "A friend of mine is a lecturer in Celtic and Cornish culture down in Truro. He's got some papers, old stories, that might be what you're looking for. He thinks you're researching for a paper, and he'll see you tomorrow."

"That's great!" Merlin said. He scrabbled around for a pencil.

"His name's Geoffrey Monmouth." She read out his number. "And, Merlin? I know why you and Arthur are doing this, but please, be careful. She's Nimueh. I didn't heal you for you to throw your life away."

"I'll be careful," Merlin promised.

"Good. You take care of yourself, and Arthur. I'll burn some fenugreek for you."

Merlin had to look it up. It was the herb for good fortune. He supposed they needed all the help they could get.

The campus at Truro was much like any other modern university, but Geoffrey's office still managed to look eerily like Gaius' kitchen. Arthur shifted in his seat, taking in the files and books piled up all around him. His shirt collar was too tight, too warm in the summer heat.

"So, what can I do for you?" Geoffrey asked.

Arthur looked at Merlin. He was better at this kind of thing. He'd been in this world, and for a moment Arthur felt acutely out of place.

Merlin sighed, but said,

"My research partner and I are interested in the intersection between Cornish and other Celtic folk traditions, especially concerning the sidhe and other immortals. Elaine Waters said you might have access to some papers that could help fill the gap in our research."

"The Coggeshall Papers?" Geoffrey said. "But they're just collections from Victorian folklorists. Surely you know that they made a lot of assumptions- most of the stories are not as old as they thought. I'm not sure how much use they will be to you."

"Please, Professor Monmouth," Arthur said, trying for charm. "Our Department's really getting on our backs about this. They want the paper written."

"Oh, I know how that feels," Geoffrey chuckled. "The papers are in our special collections. I'll write you a note, but what were you looking for?"

"Stories about how the sidhe can be trapped or controlled," Merlin said. "Our argument is that such stories represent the desire to tame female sexuality, and the sidhe as a metaphor for the othered feminine."

Arthur bit his lip, trying not to laugh, but it must have been convincing, because Geoffrey made an interested sound and pulled a pad of badges towards him, scribbling out two badges.

"These will get you into the reading room," he said. "And I'd be interested to see the finished article gentlemen."

"You are such a bullshitter," Arthur said admiringly as they rang the bell to the reading room. "The othered feminine? Come on!"

"Worked didn't it?" Merlin said.

The papers were an uncatalogued mish mash of scribbled folk tales, rubbings of carvings and gravestones, and glosses on stories from half a dozen sources, including the Exeter Book. Much of it was nothing new, a lot of it Uther had turned up, and some were stories from Elaine's book, but after they had been searching for an hour and a half, Arthur found it.

It was otherwise a fairly pedestrian account of a fairy ride. Apparently all huntresses had a thing for blonds. Arthur was just about to put it on the useless pile, when a sketch further down the page caught his eye.

"I think I've got it" he said slowly

"What?" Merlin said, looking up from a sketch of the Seven Sisters stones.

Arthur held up the book

"What does that look like to you?"

Merlin squinted at the circles and lines surrounded by symbols.

"A Devil's Trap," he said. "But what are the runes?"

"The notes say it's Ogham," Arthur said. "Coggeshall says the story is from the thirteenth century. The circle is supposed to be used with a summoning ritual to trap and bind a sidhe." Underneath the drawing was a chant, written out phonetically. Arthur mouthed the words, but he didn't even recognise the language.

"Why would you want to do that?" Merlin said.

"Maybe they wanted to make a deal," Arthur read quickly. "Says here that the man who used it had luck for a year, then died in a freak accident."

"Now where have we heard that before?" Merlin asked.

"Gentlemen," the archivist said, coming over. "We're closing now. Would you like us to put these aside for you tomorrow?"

"Thank you," Merlin said.

Arthur quickly snapped a picture of the page before the archivist took the book away.

"Come on," Merlin said. "We'll send that to Gaius, and come back tomorrow to see if we've missed anything."

"Yeah," Arthur said to Gaius, pacing the room with the phone tucked under his chin. They'd booked into a hotel because Arthur didn't feel like making the 250 miles round trip twice in two days. "It's a summoning and binding ritual. The story says the trap must be marked inside a stone circle using holly ash, and it only works on the half-year."

"Midsummer," Gauis said. "That's two days away."

I know, thought Arthur. "Then you're supposed to burn resin and light some candles. There's a chant, Merlin says it's Welsh, or something like it. We're going back tomorrow to check if we've missed anything."

"Ogham's almost as old as the sidhe," Gauis said. "I'll see if I can turn up anything else here. Talk to you tomorrow."

Arthur spread the photos out on the table and dug into the pizza Merlin had ordered. He picked the olives off his slice flicked them into the bin.

"We could do it," he said after a while. "We could actually summon her." He couldn't quite believe it. After years of searching, it felt like things were going impossibly fast all of a sudden.

"But then what?" Merlin said.

"It's a trap. We could just...leave her there?" OK, so he hadn't got that far.

"That wouldn't work," Merlin argued, stealing the last slice. "You've met her. All she'd need to do would be to persuade someone to rub out the line and she'd be free."

"I was basking," Arthur said. "But if you can trap something, you can kill it. Diminish it, or whatever. Like you did with Sophie."

"I suppose," Merlin said. "God, we could actually end this. Can you imagine? I could go back to Kings, actually take them up on the offer."

Arthur felt heartsick. He'd thought they'd gone through this after Uther.

"And what do I do?" he asked. "It's not as if I have a lot of real-life skills."

"You could come with me," Merlin said, rolling onto his back and staring at the ceiling. "We could do anything. It'll be over."

"It'll never be over," Arthur said, raising his voice. Nimueh was a drop in the ocean. "There'll always be something people need protecting from!" He couldn't believe Merlin could think about walking away from that, from him.

"Hey," Merlin said soothingly. "Hey I didn't mean it. It's not like I want to leave you. But this isn't the only way to live." He looked pleadingly at Arthur.

"Yeah," Arthur said. He got up and threw the crust and the empty pizza box in the bin. "I know. Let's just go to bed. All that research is making me sleepy."

But he sat up long after Merlin had gone to sleep, feeling him warm against him, and trying to imagine a life without him once more.

Arthur's phone rang at lunchtime the next day, disturbing the silence of the reading room. The archivist glared at him, and he slipped out into the hallway to answer.

"Arthur," Gaius said. "I've found something. Where's Merlin?"

"We're still going through the papers," Arthur said. They'd been at it all morning, and Arthur's throat was thick with dust, but they hadn't found anything else.

"Get him, then ring me when you're back at the hotel. I'm emailing you some scans of one of Gorlois' books Morgana sent me."

Merlin was hunched over a book, a little frown line of concentration between his eyes. Despite that, he looked almost content, and Arthur felt another pang of regret- he clearly loved to research, and Arthur was momentarily sorry that he'd pulled him away from a life where he could do it to his heart's content. Maybe Merlin was right, and he should give it up. It was selfish of him to expect someone like Merlin not to use his brains.

"Gaius wants us to call him back," he whispered, letting his lips accidentally-on-purpose graze Merlin's ear.

"OK," Merlin said, jerking his head away and glaring at him. Still, he brushed his hands over Arthur's as they packed the papers back into the blue archive box.

"Hey," he said awkwardly, once they were back in the car. "I'm sorry I yelled at you last night. I, I just don't know how I'd go back to doing this without you any more."

Merlin leaned across and pecked him on the cheek.

"You're just a big marshmallow under all that leather and attitude," he said fondly, and he left his hand on Arthur's knee as they drove back to the hotel.

"Can you read it?" Gaius's voice was tinny over the speakerphone.

"Yes, the scans came out fine," Merlin said. The spidery writing was in Middle English. He had no idea how Morgana's father had got hold of it.

"What's it say?" Arthur said, craning his head to look at the screen of the laptop.

"It's part of a long story about Fionn Mac Cumhall, an Irish hero," Gaius said in his storyteller voice. "He fought with a sidhe like Nimueh, on a beach next to the Giant's Causeway. He killed the sidhe with a knife dipped in tears."

"We have to cry on our knives?" Merlin asked, puzzled.

"It's just a way of saying sea water. Salt water," Gaius said.

"Rock salt hurt her," Arthur pointed out. "Makes sense I suppose."

"He drove the knife into his heart," Gaius continued. "But Fionn was wise, and he knew that the sidhe was powerful, and could create a new body. His form had to be tied to the earth. So Fionn dug a grave, and buried the body with the knife in his heart, and into the ground beneath."

"Like vampires and zombies. Stake through the heart is a classic," Arthur said.

"Then he covered the corpse with salt and earth. The sidhe was never seen again, and there were forty days of sunny weather, and the crops were fruitful. That bit's probably just a flourish," Gauis said. "The important bit is burying the body."

"So we don't burn the body?" Merlin clarified. "We bury it."

"You know iron and steel traps demons and spirits," Gauis pointed out. "This just makes it permanent."

"So why hasn't anyone done it before?" Merlin asked. "I mean, Uther was looking for her for twenty-five years."

"No one else would be reckless enough. Gorlois and Uther didn't always see eye to eye, and anyway, the story was useless without some way to contain Nimueh," Gaius said.

"Tomorrow," Arthur said suddenly. "We have to do it tomorrow. It's Midsummer, it's the only day the trap will work."

Merlin nodded, then realised Gaius couldn't see him. It didn't matter though, because Gaius, sounding suspiciously teary, just said,

"I won't tell you to be careful. But look after each other."

and hung up.

The next few hours were a whirl of preparation. Resin and candles and holly ash (which they had to burn from scratch, getting some very odd looks in the process) went into the boot of the Jag. Merlin sharpened his knife, and Arthur's, and the new steel knife, until they all had a razor edge, the sound of blade against whetsone soothing in the quiet room. Arthur obsessively cleaned and reoiled every gun they owned (it was a comfort thing, Merlin knew). They bought sacks of salt, and made buckets full of salt water.

"So, do we let it dry on the knives?" Arthur asked.

"By the looks of it the knife has to be wet," Merlin said, reading over the story again. They'd printed it out, and the words for the summoning, and the printer paper was already looking a little the worse for wear. "But she'll be trapped, so it should be easy enough."

He really hoped so. All day he'd had a vague feeling of wrongness, magic tickling at the edge of his mind. But Cornwall was soaked in magic, just like Glastonbury, and he hoped it was just that he was picking up. The last thing he needed this close to finally, finally avenging his mother and Will was the jitters.

Arthur was at the bar, flirting with the bar maid and ordering their food, when she appeared at their corner table.

The air flickered, and there she was, sitting across from him. Ageless as ever, blue dress and blue eyes and her dark hair held back from her forehead with a blue ribbon.

"Nimueh," he hissed, hand flying to the knife at the small of his back. The knife that was currently sitting in the hotel room. Damn.

"Now Merlin, don't make a scene," she cooed. "Oh, did I spoil the surprise? You can't hide from me Merlin, especially not here. You make the leylines glow, did you know that? It's quite distracting."

"After tomorrow you won't have that problem," he gritted out. He tried to get up, but she just nodded her head and pinned him back in the seat.

"Such courage. You're more than I could have hoped for, Merlin. We'll be so wonderful together. All that power, harnessed to me." She smiled, and took a sip of Arthur's whisky, then made a face.

"Cheap stuff."

"What on earth makes you think I'm going to do anything but kill you?" Merlin said.

Nimueh doodled signs on the table top with the dregs of beer.

"You've been in my plans since you were twelve," she said. "I felt you even then. That's why I killed your mother, did you know? You were supposed to trade your service for her life. Then that bastard Gaius got in the way," she glared at the sign, and it flashed gold, burnt into the table.

"What about Will? What the hell did he do to deserve what you did to him?" Merlin hissed, still struggling to get up.

"You'd stopped using magic. I needed something to get you up to scratch again."

"Shut up!" Merlin said, shaking with fury. "You're not killing anyone else I love! This ends now."

"Not 'til tomorrow," Nimueh said. "Your little ritual won't work 'til then, Do you have any idea how much damage I can do before sunrise?" She leaned forward, smiling, and ticked off on her fingers

"Gaius. Morgana. Gwen. Owain. Elaine. Bors. Lancelot. Hetty, oh, and Arthur. I could kill them all in seconds. Is killing me really worth all their deaths?"

Her eyes flashed blue, and Merlin knew with sinking certainty that she would do it. She would wipe out all the family he and Arthur had left without so much as the blink of an eyelid.

"What do you want?" he asked.

She tilted his chin. Her hand was cool against his skin.

"You, Merlin. All that lovely power, pledged to me. You could be as strong as the old ones. You'd make a wonderful consort, except," she flicked her gaze to Arthur at the bar, now caught in the middle of telling a convoluted story, judging by his hand gestures, "I doubt you'd be able to fulfil the responsibilities. So I'll settle for you, as my page. A trade. Your service, for their lives."

"How do I know you're telling the truth?" Merlin said, but he knew she wasn't bluffing. It fitted the classic pattern, the one that Uther and god knew how many others had fallen into.

"You've been researching me. You know the stories are true. And do you really want to take the chance?" She closed her eyes "I think I'll go with Gaius first. He's death's been mine since you were thirteen. Clock's ticking Merlin."

Merlin looked over at Arthur, head thrown back in laughter, charming the crowd around him. Looked at him golden and strong and loyal and brave. They had no guarantee the ritual would work. It was an easy decision, in the end.

"OK," he said, bowing his head.

She clapped her hands.

"We'll do this properly. It's not every day I get a page like you. Midsummer is the time for rituals. The Hurlers stone circle. Tomorrow, at sunrise. You come. They live."

She disappeared.

Arthur chattered all through dinner, hiding his own nerves with a never-ending barrage of quips and observations. Merlin felt a heavy weight of grief and foreboding settle in his chest, knowing what the next day would bring.

As the waitress cleared their plates Arthur looked at him intently.

"You OK Merlin?" he asked.

"Yeah," Merlin sighed, "yeah. Let's just go to bed,"

"Not to sleep, I hope," Arthur said, grinning. "Condemned men, and all that."

Arthur was rushing, but Merlin made him slow down. If this was the last time, he wanted to take every second he could. He slowly stripped off Arthur's clothes, leaning in to kiss every bit of skin, every scar and freckle and mark, from the cut along one pectoral to the bite on his thigh he'd put there two days ago. Arthur seem to catch on, touching him with gentle hands, easing Merlin's clothes off, and touching him all over in turn. They spent endless minutes just kissing, Merlin's hands in Arthur's hair, Arthur's amulet and ring warm against his skin, drowning in each other, in this taste that was so familiar, and so necessary that Merlin didn't know how he could give it up, just that he had to. They kissed until their lips were numb and bruised, cocks hard and leaking as they moved against each other.

"Merlin," Arthur whispered against his skin, breath ghosting over his nipple as Arthur circled it with his tongue, "fuck me." He bit down, and Merlin shuddered and said,


He flipped Arthur over and kissed his way all across his shoulders, broad and muscled, down his back, and nibbled playfully at the curve of Arthur's ass.

"Just get on with it," Arthur said, flailing his hand out and passing Merlin the lube.

"Patience," Merlin said. He rested his head on the small of Arthur's back, kissing the skin there as he worked Arthur open, fingers twisting and turning, making Arthur cry out and grind against the bed.

"Now!" Arthur growled, in a voice that brooked no argument.

Merlin slicked himself up and pushed inside, groaning in unison with Arthur. He thrust a few times, experimentally, but he wanted to be able to kiss Arthur as he came, so he drew all the way out, ignoring Arthur's protests.

"Wait," he said, propping himself up on the pillows at the head of the bed.

"I like how you think," Arthur said, and let Merlin push his knees back up as he lowered himself back down onto him.

Merlin thrust up, and Arthur rocked back down, and they built up a rhythm, sweet and easy. Arthur was beautiful as he came, head thrown back, that throat right there for Merlin to kiss and bite at, and the feel of Arthur rippling around him was enough to set him off too, coming in long pulses, and calling out Arthur's name.

They cleaned up slowly, and collapsed back into bed. Arthur hooked one leg over his, and mumbled,

"Love you," before falling asleep.

Merlin stayed awake, thinking, soaking up every last second of Arthur against him, before falling asleep to dreams of fire and smoke.

It was the feeling of emptiness next to him that woke Arthur up.

"Merlin?" he said, confused.

The sheets next to him were cold.

"Merlin? What the fuck?" he said. He grabbed his phone and dialled Merlin's. The theme to Rainbow, which he'd uploaded to Merlin's phone as a joke weeks again, rang out from the table by the TV.

Arthur began to panic. Merlin's clothes were gone, as was his backpack.

"What have you done Merlin, you idiot," he said aloud. They'd had a plan, and at no point in that plan was Merlin supposed to go missing.

That was when he noticed the note.


Years ago, when he found out about us, your Dad told me to look after you. That's what I'm doing now.
I need to do something, and I need to do it without you. I understand how your Dad felt now.
I love you Arthur, and I'm sorry


"Oh like fuck you will," Arthur said angrily, and slammed the door behind him as he sprinted down the stairs.

The receptionist looked a little shocked as he pelted into the lobby.

"Can I help you sir?" she asked cautiously, putting down the detective novel she was reading.

"My partner," he said, fumbling in his pocket and producing a police ID. "Tall guy, pale, dark hair. Have you seen him?"

"Sir, I-" she began.

Arthur slammed his hands flat on the counter. "Have you seen him! Lives could be at sake here!" He knew he was probably scaring her, but all he could think of was Merlin, out there alone, doing god knows what.

"Let me check," she said. She swivled the chair round and called into the room behind the reception desk.

"Patti? Have you seen Mr-?" she raised her eyebrow at Arthur.

"Dowland," Arthur said, giving the fake name. This was bad. This was really, really bad.

The other woman came up to the counter.

"About forty minutes ago," she said, looking at Arthur with concern. "He asked me what the traffic was like."

"And?" Arthur said, gripping the edge of the counter.

"And I told him to avoid the roadworks around Minions." She shook her head. "He said thanks, that he would have been stuck in traffic otherwise. That was all though."

"OK, thank you," Arthur said over his shoulder, already sprinting to the car.

He yanked open the glove box and pulled out the map, frantically searching for Minions, and why Merlin would need to know about it. When he found it, his heart sank. There, just outside the village, was a stone circle. Merlin had gone after Nimueh alone.

"You're a fucking idiot Merlin," he said angrily to himself as he gunned the engine.

He broke every single speed limit between the hotel and the stones, all the while his thoughts swirling with nonononononono and Merlin. He had no idea what Merlin was playing at, but there was no way he'd let Merlin put himself in danger without backup. Nimueh was going down. One way or the other.

The sky was grey with pre-dawn light when he yanked the handbrake on and ran hell-for-leather across the moor to the circle. Merlin was on his knees in the centre of the stones, head bowed. As Arthur watched the sun crested the horizon, and Nimueh appeared at the edge of the circle.

"I see you've kept your word," she said, and Arthur flinched at the sound of triumph her voice.

"Yes," Merlin gritted out.

"You've made the right choice," she said. "Your service, for their lives. You know it makes sense."

Arthur gasped, then shouted,

"Like hell it does! Merlin, what the fuck are you doing?"

"Arthur," Merlin yelled, "get away from here!"

"What on earth made you think I'd be ok with this?" Arthur said. He didn't know who he was more furious with, Nimueh for suggesting it, or Merlin for going along with it.

"Ahh, the brave knight," Nimueh cooed. "Its too late. Merlin was just about to pledge himself to me." She stepped forward to place a hand on Merlin's head, then froze.

"You tricked me!" she screamed. Clouds raced across the sun.

"I just had to get you here," Merlin said, standing. Arthur craned his neck around the nearest Hurler, and saw the Trap, drawn with holly ash on the grass.

"You left me that note for this!" he yelled at Merlin. He was livid. "You should have told me!"

"If you were here she'd suspect!" Merlin yelled back. "It was the only way!"

"Fools!" Nimueh hissed. "You think this will keep me for long?"

It was already raining, and Arthur knew the ash would wash away in a matter of minutes.

"We'll just have to do this quickly then," he said, stepping over the line to stand next to Merlin.

"I'm going to take so much pleasure in killing you Arthur Pendragon," she spat. "No father to save you this time." Arthur felt the magic hit him, and he went to his knees, before struggling back up. He launched himself at her knees, but she just skipped away, reappearing on the other side of the circle.

"I thought this was supposed to bind her?" Arthur shouted. He grabbed his knife from the sheath at the small of his back.

Merlin's eyes glowed yellow as he ducked Nimueh's grasp, and threw her to the ground.

"I think it would, if it was anyone but her," he called back. He fired two shots at her, the bullets sparking to flame, and she screamed and twisted her hands into fists. Cuts and bruises bloomed on Merlin's face.

"I'm going to make you watch, Merlin, " she hissed as she got to her feet, and suddenly Arthur found himself being dragged across the circle, feet scrabbling for purchase on the grass. "I'm going to make you watch me flay the flesh from his bones, until he begs for death, and then I'm going to do it to everyone you know, everyone you've ever known until you're pleading with me, and them I'm going to do it to you." She dug her fingers into his shoulder, and Arthur felt her nails break the skin. His whole arm went limp and he dropped the knife from nerveless fingers, screaming as pain raced through his body like hot ice.

Merlin's eyes were totally yellow-gold, and as he got to his feet Arthur saw flames in their depths, dancing around him and spilling over his skin. He was terrifying, the magic that had always been part of him wrapping around him like a cloak.

"No. You. Won't," Merlin said, each word heavy as stone, and the flames streamed out from his hands and wrapped round Nimueh.

She screamed again, and let him go. Arthur dropped heavily to the floor and scrabbled around for his knife, using his left hand as he still couldn't feel his right.

"Let me go! How dare you, you don't have the power to," she screamed and Arthur saw her change shape in the centre of the flames, from her normal form, to Viv, to Charlie, to an old woman, to a magpie, and back again. The rain was streaming down, but the flames burned on.

"Quickly Arthur," Merlin called, voice filled with pain. "You need to do it, I can't hold her much longer. His nose was bleeding, and Arthur saw blood begin to trickle out of his ears.

Arthur dropped the knife back onto the grass and pulled the flask of salt water out of his pocket. He unscrewed it with his teeth, an poured the water over the blade, setting the flask down so he could turn the knife over and do the other side.

"Come on," Merlin said, and he slipped to his knees.

Arthur picked up the knife and stepped forward, then hesitated.

"They won't hurt you. Do it!" Merlin said, voice gone weak and thready.

He stepped into the flames.

"You really think you can kill me?" she mocked. "You, a mortal nothing?"

"Yes," Arthur said, and stabbed her.

She flickered and screamed, and Arthur felt the ghost of Merlin's hand on his own, driving the knife home.

The light and flames burned so bright that Arthur had to close his eyes against it, and Nimueh's screams turned into the squawk of a magpie, and faded away. Arthur opened his eyes, and let go of the knife, the body sagging against him. It was over.

"Merlin?" he said. "Merlin!" Merlin was slumped down, eyes closed, blood trickling from his nose down his face. The flames had caught on his clothing, the edges of his hoodie blackened and burnt. Arthur looked around, and saw they were in the centre of a circle of scorched earth.

"Come on Merlin," Arthur said, feeling the panic rise as Merlin just lay there. "Come on, we did it. Don't do this Merlin!" he shouted, shaking him by the shoulder with his good arm.

"Not so loud," Merlin croaked.

"Oh thank God," Arthur said, slumping down next to him and pulling him into a one-armed hug, kissing the side of his head. "I thought, for a minute,"

"I'm ok," Merlin said, though he looked anything but.

Arthur thumped him.

"Don't you EVER do anything like that again Merlin!"

"She would have killed you," Merlin said tiredly.

"And you think I'd have been happier, knowing you were alive and not being able to get you away from her?" Arthur said, but softly.

"I...I didn't think."

"Well, it's over now," Arthur said, looking at Nimueh's body. He could hardly believe it. His whole life had been taken up with it, he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do now.

"No it's not," Merlin said. "We need to bury her."

Arthur sighed.

"I'll get the shovels. But you'll have to do the digging."

"Typical," Merlin said.

The feeling started to come back to his arm when Merlin was halfway through digging the grave, and Arthur helped dig the last few feet. They manhandled the body down into it, and Merlin drove the knife through the heart and into the earth below. He scrambled up out of the grave, and helped Arthur tip the sack of salt over Nimueh. The body was already shrinking, skin shrivelling and turning papery. Arthur thought it must be the steel, stripping away the magic that meant she could look like anything.

By the time the grave was filled in the sun was high in the sky, drying up the rain. Arthur thrust the shovel into the damp earth and leant on it, out of breath. He looked across at Merlin, dirt on his face, white and withdrawn, hands gripping the shovel so hard the knuckles were white. It looked like it was the only thing keeping him upright. He still hadn't wiped away the blood and ashes.

"So, what happens now," Arthur asked at last. He still hadn't forgotten their conversation, but at least even if Merlin left again he'd be alive, and free to do what he liked, not longer at the mercy of Nimueh.

Merlin rolled his head on his shoulders, loosening his neck, then looked at him with dust-rimmed eyes.

"Well, it's not like I can go back to being a lawyer," he said with a choked laugh.

"Who wants to be a lawyer? They're worse than demons." Arthur felt a little punchy.

"I could stay with you," Merlin said at last.

"You- what?" Arthur said, feeling hope fill him up, like the sun rising.

"Nimueh's dead. But I know you, you're not going to let it go. There's more out there that needs hunting, people that need saving; you know your dad would do the same thing, so that's what you'll do too."

"Family business?" Arthur said, smiling at how well Merlin knew him.

"Seems to me someone who's a little bit magic would be useful to have around, don't you think? "

He was smiling too now, and Arthur knew they'd be OK.

He kissed Merlin, tasting blood and smoke, feeling Merlin shake in his hands, feeling the utter relief wash through him.

"That's a yes?" Merlin said against his lips.

"Yeah" Arthur breathed, kissing him again.

The early evening was crisp and clear, and Arthur clicked his seatbelt in place before looking at Merlin.

"So, what's the plan?" Merlin asked.

Arthur punched him on the shoulder.

"Hit the road, find something evil to kill," he said, still a bit giddy.

"Sounds good to me," Merlin said, grinning.

Arthur started the Jag's engine and headed out into the sunset, Merlin's hand on his thigh, AC/DC blasting out of the speakers, and the whole open road ahead of them.


Please Review

End Notes:

Uther, Nimueh and Will die in the course of the story. The deaths of Hunith and Ygraine are mentioned. Hunith's death is also seen in flashback.