Chapter 17: The Emrys Strain

"Dr. Andrew Spell," Arthur said, raising his voice slightly to be heard above the shuffle and panting of the race. How many runners? he wondered. How long would it take for them all to pass and the spectators to disperse? "Or should I call you Xander?"

"Xander, if you please, Arthur Drake," the other said. Close up, Arthur could see that the suit and neat haircut and clean shave was only a shell; the eyes blazed black with a terrible, homicidal rage. Beside him, Merlin shivered. "I left Dr. Andrew Spell behind when Thomas Drake – your father – ended my career and ruined my life."

Hellfire and damnation. How many times, Arthur wondered, was he going to have to listen to the same evil-villain shit? This lifetime, too?

"Good morning, Marvin," Xander continued, turning to face Merlin, who was pale and taut as a guitar string. "I am pleased to see you found your way home. And they have trusted you with a weapon today. Interesting. I rather regret testing our cure on you – Emrys the First, you could say – but dear boy, supra omnem scientiam. Progress is progress, you know. Do you suppose Thomas Drake will be sorry to say goodbye to the lab's newest pet?"

The terrorist's casual threat made Arthur's blood run cold. "You're mistaken," he said. "My father really couldn't care less what happens to him. If you think to spite Thomas Drake, send Mer – Marvin home without a scratch on him. Why bother with the project when you could have the son?" he goaded the man.

"Shut up, Arthur," Merlin warned him.

With Xander's eyes on him, on Merlin beside him, Arthur could give no surreptitious signals – but Leon had worked with and for him so long he didn't always need the signals to know what Arthur wanted and needed. And Percival had the intelligence and training to take his cue from the older knight. They began to edge to each side, almost as if they were being buffeted and moved by the bodies of the runners.

"Ah, ah, ah," Xander chided, and raised one hand to show them a small black boxlike device. Leon and Percival froze, and Merlin hissed. "Tell your men to back up and keep going," Xander told Arthur. "If my thumb comes off this button…" He shook it warningly. Arthur didn't have to give the two knights any orders, they began to retreat cautiously but definitely.

"Those first responders," the terrorist sighed. "Such heroes, aren't they? Even knowing the possibility – probability, should we say at this point in history? – of a secondary detonation, they still come. Unfortunately, there was no primary explosion this morning for them to respond to, was there?" Xander's lips drew back, revealing crooked, yellow-stained teeth. "Don't despair, gentlemen – the day is young."

He turned, his thumb moving off the button in the center of the small black device.

Beside Arthur, Merlin's gasp of "No!" shifted into a rumble-roar of detonated explosives – the air shivered – warmed – the ground trembled – the bank building mushroomed in a cloud of fire and brick –

And froze. Everything – everyone – froze. His body unable to move, Arthur's eyes tracked Merlin as the young sorcerer stepped forward, empty hands raised, voice rough with strain, throaty with commanding fury, pronouncing words Arthur did not understand, but recognized from his sixth century lifetime.

Another wall of air slammed into the left side of Arthur's body – chunks of concrete and brick flew into the air from the closed post office tucked between two taller buildings – Merlin half-turned, closing his left hand into a fist without pausing. The debris slowed – and stopped as though embedded in the clear gel of the air. Merlin continued speaking, but Arthur heard nothing but a high-pitched ringing. He thought foggily of the sorcerer at the round table of Camelot Securities, surrounded by the bits of paper Gwaine had been flicking.

This is, Arthur thought, one hell of a snow globe.

Merlin turned his head, and the broken wreckage of the bank retreated, settled, onto its foundation, into the empty parking lot, away from the road and the people. He made a pushing gesture with both arms, clearing the air of car-sized masses of masonry and rock, skimming the shrapnel and shards of brick and metal back into piles of rubble as easily as a child pushing and shaping his castle in a sandbox.

Fires ignited in the ruins of both buildings, dancing and twisting upward, snarling to be free, but finding no fuel to spread.

Arthur found he could move – slowly and with difficulty, as though he was under-water, but he pushed forward, step by step, til he could catch the remote detonator from Xander's motionless hand.

Xander turned, slow as Arthur, to fix him with a malevolent glare, then faced Merlin again. He lifted his hand – Arthur watched it rise, inch by inch in sick fascination, palm toward the teenager's back, fingers splayed. Dread washed over him and he opened his mouth to scream a warning. "MER –" as a thick bolt of light sprang from Xander's outstretched hand, crossed the distance to Arthur's friend – "LIN!"

The bolt hit Merlin, splashing so widely the young man was obscured for an instant, before he was knocked flying – no, he said he couldn't fly, Arthur thought – and slid several feet along the street before coming to a motionless stop. The sniper rifle clattered on a few feet without him.

Time resumed. People screamed, smoke billowed to the left and to the right, the flames licked upward. Rubble shifted, fragments pattering down.

Arthur took one step toward Merlin, grimly halted the movement – I can't help him – and swung around as Xander's hand emerged from under the opposite side of his suit coat, pointing a machine pistol at Arthur's chest.

Around them, chaos. Runners continued on the course, some swerving around them without taking in the reality of the situation, some shrieking and running for the sidewalk. Spectators scurried up the street, down the street, cowered for cover against the buildings that remained intact. Arthur wondered if he imagined the sound of sirens. He wondered if it would do any good to try for his own handgun just under his left arm.

"I was going to give you a message to take to your father," Xander told him, clearly and calmly, then shrugged. "I guess you'll just have to be the message." The barrel lifted an inch, aiming, as Arthur understood, at the base of his neck, above the protection of the vest armor.

Xander's finger tightened. Arthur looked evenly into the man's eyes.

The pistol sputtered out five or six shots. Arthur never felt them. He saw them, however, stopped in midair. He swallowed, and the skin of his throat brushed the first round. Xander's eyes widened in horror, shifted over Arthur's shoulder.

Arthur pivoted as Merlin stepped up beside him. The jeans had several more holes scraped in them, the blue NSA jacket was shredded, revealing the flak vest beneath. There was a road-blackened graze down the left side of his face, dripping blood down onto his collar. Smoke rose in twists and tendrils over his shoulders from his back. His hair was spiky with sweat and gray with plaster dust.

And there was golden fire in his eyes.

Arthur thought, incongruously, of Merlin whistling the Gambler. Know when to walk away… know when to run…

"I am not Emrys the First," Merlin said to Xander, quietly and oh-so dangerously. "I am Emrys. You thought you could steal my magic. You thought you could use my magic. You thought you could hurt my king." There was a brief moment when Merlin deliberately drew breath into his lungs, the length of time it took an indication of his struggle. Arthur hardly dared breathe, himself. Xander swallowed, his eyes flicking to Arthur, comprehension beginning to dawn.

"You were wrong," Merlin said. He jerked his chin upward slightly – and the pistol rounds hovering before Arthur disappeared.

Xander stumbled, his right arm dropping as though the machine pistol was suddenly too heavy. He brushed his suit coat to the side with his free hand. Red splotches bloomed on the white field of his collared shirt to either side of his tie. He coughed, choked, and red spilled over his chin.

A baby cried. The sirens crescendoed. Merlin reached out and took hold of Arthur's sleeve near his elbow. Not his arm, just the sleeve.

Xander knelt, slowly, leaning forward to put one hand down on the pavement of the road. He lowered himself, laid his head down. Arthur watched his body shrink slightly as his last breath was expelled.

Arthur's jacket pulled at his shoulder and neck as Merlin's grip tightened. Arthur turned in time to catch his friend under the arms and ease him down also. "Merlin!"

"I'm all right, I'm all right," the sorcerer repeated softly, his voice catching. "Just tired. Let me rest a minute."

Arthur helped Merlin lean over his knees. Leon and Percival were with them, then, Leon kneeling to check Xander's body, Percival bending over Arthur and Merlin with a question on his face. "Get me a first aid kit or something," Arthur said.

Leon turned. "He's dead," he reported.

"Cover him," Arthur said, and Leon scanned the crowd, coming back with someone's lap blanket.

"Hold still," Arthur told Merlin. "Relax, let me check this out." He unzipped the jacket, the flak vest. Merlin let his arms flop lifelessly at his sides, as he rested his forehead on his knees. Arthur eased off the torn and smoking remnants of the jacket. The flak vest, though the fabric was melted away from the Kevlar, was intact.

Merlin stiffened as Arthur pulled the heavy armor down his arms, let it topple over on the ground. Gently, he pulled the back of Merlin's collar away from his body. There was a circle of reddened, irritated skin, but no blood. Arthur let his other hand drop to the center of Merlin's chest, pressed to monitor his friend's heartbeat. Waited, counted, felt him breathe.

"Are you satisfied?" Merlin said, still in the soft, tired voice of someone who is out of breath and trying not to betray it. "Yes, my heart is still beating."

Arthur removed his jacket and arranged it around Merlin's shoulders, then folded his legs beneath him to join him on the ground. All around them the police, the emergency personnel arriving on the scene – firemen and medical techs alike – rushed back and forth, checking, reassuring – handling. Leon stood over them like a guard; Percival arrived with a small medical kit. Arthur took out the alcohol swabs, began to clean Merlin's hands. His friend didn't even move, not even to wince.

Gwaine knelt in front of them briefly with predictable questions that Arthur answered easily. Are you all right? Yes – What happened? Tell you later – What can I do? A vague general gesture, Help.

Chance came a while later. "Is he all right?" he asked Arthur immediately. Arthur nodded, encouraging Merlin to turn his head so he could reach to wipe the scrape on his face. The agent stood and surveyed the damage around them, hands in his pockets. "Damn, Arthur," he uttered, then bent to check beneath the lap quilt a short way away. "This Xander?" he asked. "Multiple gunshot wounds… What happened to him?"

Merlin shut his eyes. Arthur said firmly, "As far as I'm concerned, the man shot himself." Chance gave him a measuring glance, then his gaze went to Merlin, briefly.

The Baltimore PD captain arrived, knelt and tried to duck low enough to see Merlin's face. "Is he all right?" he asked Arthur.

"Just tired," Arthur said noncommittally. "Scrapes and bruises. I want him checked out in an ER eventually."

"Soon as we can get him to an ambulance," the police captain promised. "Son?" he added, addressing the top of Merlin's disheveled head. "Consider your record cleared. We've got a double handful of minor injuries we're treating, but the worst is the broken wrist of a seventy-two-year-old woman who was knocked over. No casualties." He lifted his head to glance around, at two completely decimated buildings and a street still full of people. "None," he added in quiet disbelief, before moving off.

"It was thanks to him, wasn't it," Chance said. "I've seen demolitions experts handle controlled implosions with more disorder. What – I beg your pardon – Who is he?"

Arthur gave him a half-smile. "Does it matter?" he said, remembering when he'd answered Chance's question Have you two ever met before? with the same response.

Chance looked at him, possibly remembering the same conversation. "Arthur, and Merlin," he said slowly, "In Camelot." The eyes of the unflappable NSA agent widened. "Is he –" he stuttered. "Are you –"

At that moment a woman in a smudged navy suit with a draggled red scarf and a long run in the left leg of her nylons clattered up to them, shoving a microphone into Arthur's face, then Merlin's, as Gwaine on one side and Leon on the other tried to pull her back politely.

"That was incredible!" she squawked. "That was unbelievable! What's your name? Who are you? Have you always been able to manipulate the natural world around you?" Behind her hovered a man whose top half was hidden behind an enormous television camera.

Arthur stood, between the woman and Merlin. "The hell is wrong with you?" he said, putting as much energy into his anger as he could manage, glancing around for Percival. "You didn't see what you think you saw, trust me."

"Of course we did, and so did a dozen other witnesses," the female reporter snapped, trying to dodge him to see Merlin. "We have the testimony recorded – awesome footage! –" her waving hand indicated a WBAL-tv van half on the curb at a cross-street. "And it'll run on the five-o'clock news," she finished triumphantly.

Arthur opened his mouth to tell her who he was, who his father was, threaten a lawsuit, but Chance beat him to it. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said blandly, flipping open his NSA badge. "I'm going to have to prevent that. National security, you understand. I'm going to have to confiscate any footage you may have recorded today."

The female reporter began to argue. Beside Arthur, Gwaine reached down, and helped Merlin to stand. Arthur glanced back to catch a fading gleam of gold from the sorcerer's eyes. "That won't be necessary, Agent Chance. I think you may want to check your equipment again," he said softly to the woman. "I'm sorry."

Her eyes bulged as she looked at him. She opened her mouth twice, but nothing came out, and she turned and stalked away.

Gibson Chance's mouth was open, too, briefly. He seemed unsure whether to laugh or interrogate. From behind Arthur, Percival said, "They have space for Merlin in an ambulance, now."

"May we?" Arthur said to the agent.

Chance mouthed, Merlin. Then he nodded, motioning for them to follow Percival, a gesture that was very close to a bow.

Arthur thought, he's going to have questions, later. But for now, he wasn't worried. "Come on," Arthur said to Merlin. "We're done here."

…..*….. …..*….. Epilogue – Thanksgiving …..*….. …..*…..

Each of them had their job, as previously assigned by the girls. Gaius was charged with concocting a perfect vinaigrette for the salad. Leon and Gwaine were salting and stuffing the turkey. Arthur himself was peeling potatoes, seated on one of the bar stools at the kitchen peninsula. Merlin, behind him at the table, was tasked with snapping the green beans.

"So how come Percival gets out of kitchen duty?" Gwaine complained, holding up both of his hands, which were covered in breading. "Just because he's late?"

"He is late," Gaius said sternly, "because Kathryn was experiencing a bit of morning sickness and wanted to feel herself before traveling."

"She's bringing fudge-pecan pie," Gwen reminded them from her supervisory position on the second barstool. Arthur thought she looked radiant in jeans and a v-neck sweater in dark red. He leaned over in obvious invitation, leading with his lips, and she arched a playful eyebrow at him before granting him a kiss.

"Percival said he'd bring rolls," Freya added from the table.

Arthur turned to see Freya leaned forward over the bowl of snapped beans. Beside her, by contrast, Merlin was reclined in his chair so far his head rested on the back and his feet pushed at the chair opposite.

"What about lazy here, then?" he objected.

Merlin grinned. Freya nudged him and said, "He's the entertainment."

"What's he going to do, juggle?" Leon said. "Gaius, have you got eggs in your fridge?"

"No," Gaius said sternly, to the suggestion, not the question.

"Some music, then, Merlin," Gwen said. "Arthur keeps talking about how you always pick the music to suit your mood."

"I what?" Merlin said.

"Come on, Merlin," Arthur goaded. "Play some music."

Merlin narrowed his eyes at the challenge. The radio clicked on in the kitchen. Sing us a song you're the piano man… Sing us a song tonight… Well we're all in the mood for a melody… And you've got us feeling all right!

Freya clapped her hands, and Leon had to remind Gwaine of his primary task, he was laughing so hard. "Play something for someone," Arthur commanded.

"Play one for me, mate!" Gwaine agreed enthusiastically.

"Ah, hell, that's too easy," Merlin said lazily, not even moving. His eyes gleamed golden as the radio shot through Wastin' away again in Margaritaville – To all the girls I've loved before – It's five o'clock somewhere! like someone was slowly turning the dial.

"Hey!" Gwaine protested, grinning. Gwen collapsed into Arthur's side, giggling uncontrollably.

Arthur said, slyly, "Do Freya."

Heavy drum accompanied the immediately recognizable Wild thing! You make my heart sing! You make everything – groovy! Freya shrieked, "Merlin!" She was bright red. Gwaine had disappeared below the level of the counter, but his uproarious chortling could still be heard. Wild thing, I think I – love you… But I wanna know for sure! Merlin lunged upright, wrapping his arms around Freya, squeezing her in a bear hug as she squirmed and giggled. His grin was wide and brilliant.

"Merlin!" Gaius called. "I think your generation would say, that's too much information!"

Come on, hold me tight – I love you!

"All right, enough!" Arthur bellowed. "Merlin! Give Gwen a song!"

Beside him, Gwen caught her breath long enough to protest, "Oh, no, Arthur –"

The Troggs gave way to Andru Donalds, I say she must be somebody's baby… Cuz she's all right… She's probably somebody's only light, gonna shine tonight – yeah, she's probably somebody's baby all right… It was Gwen's turn to blush, and Arthur's turn to pull her into a hug, grinning.

"Okay, now Arthur," Gwen said.

"No," Arthur said, Merlin grinned impishly and the childish strains of a nursery rhyme chanted through the radio. I'm a little teapot, short and stout… "Merlin!" Arthur said. When I get all steamed up, hear me shout! He twisted to throw a half-peeled potato at the sorcerer, who caught it without using his hands. Freya rolled her eyes and plucked it out of the air.

"Okay," Merlin said. "How about this one?" Did you ever know that you're my hero?... and everything I would like to be?... and I can fly higher than an eagle… 'cause you are the wind beneath my wings… He was still grinning. Gwaine snickered. Arthur rolled his eyes and affected to glare. "Not a Whitney Houston fan?" Merlin said, mock-sympathetically.

The music changed again. When I am down, and oh my soul so weary… one by one, their friends quieted. When troubles come, and my heart burdened be… Then I am still and wait here in the silence… Something changed in Merlin's eyes. All hilarity was gone. Until you come, and sit a while with me… Arthur could see, in his peripheral vision, that Gaius was frozen in place. Gwen wiped a tear away. The two knights in the kitchen were utterly silent.

There is no life – no life without its hunger… each restless heart beats so imperfectly… Merlin would snipe at him verbally, and he'd respond with an insult or a more physical rudeness. But when you come, and I am filled with wonder… Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity

Arthur didn't look away from his friend – it was like they two were alone, saying something it had always been hard for each of them to say. I am strong, when I am on your shoulders… You raise me up to more than I can be…

The song ended, and Arthur cleared his throat. "Merlin," he said. "Thank you." Merlin didn't duck his head in sheepish embarrassment. Instead, he held Arthur's eyes levelly, and nodded.

"I bet," Leon said diplomatically, "that you can't think of one for Gaius, Merlin."

Merlin's gaze shifted to his grandfather, standing over the salad bowl, eyebrow quirked in stern expectation. A sneaky smile tugged at his mouth, and music burst from the radio.

I said Doctor – doctor! – Mr. MD – doctor! … Now can you tell me, what's ailin' me? Gaius said, "Merlin," but was obviously trying to hold back a smile. Gwaine and Leon were laughing, trying to finally finish stuffing the turkey. He said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, – yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, - yes indeed, all you really need - Gwen grabbed Arthur's hand, potato juice or not, and pulled him to the open area between the table and couch, letting her hand slide down his arm in an opening move for swing dancing. Is good lovin' – Gimme that good good lovin' – Good lovin' – All I need is lovin'-

Freya copied Gwen, dragging Merlin to join them. I said baby – baby! – now it's for sure – it's for sure! I got the fever baby – but you've got the cure… Arthur was surprised to see that Merlin wasn't too bad on his feet. Gwaine let out a wolf whistle and Gwen giggled. I said yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah - Arthur watched Merlin spin Freya in a circle, slide back from her til their hands met, then pulled her to him, throwing his head back to laugh happily. All I need is lovin!

You catching this, Destiny? Arthur wondered. His arms full of his once and future wife, Merlin, his friend and sorcerer, with the love of his life happy – dancing! – at his side. We're even.

Almost.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed (and didn't get thanked in a PM) and fav'ed and followed – you are an inspiration and an encouragement! You helped to make this trip worthwhile, and I'm glad if you enjoyed the ride as well!