Merlin’s summer work placement, two years into his degree course, was a mistake.
It hadn’t started out as a mistake. No, in fact Professor Kilgharrah, the careers advisor at uni, had made it sound like the perfect stepping stone into a brilliant career. And it was an essential requirement of his course that he did at least eight weeks of work experience in an appropriate establishment.
“Exactly what you need, Merlin,” Kilgharrah had told him. “A practical opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day. The Camelot Trust is a worthy organisation, set up by royal appointment. King Uther himself volunteered back in the day. Obviously he was merely Prince of Wales back then. But he’s been back many times over the years to inspect the project. It’s where he met his wife, of course.”
Merlin was no royalist and couldn’t care less about King Uther and his long-dead wife. Dr Ygraine DuBois had been a well-respected and widely published archaeologist before she married Uther Pendragon. Quite why she felt she’d needed to bother with the heir to the throne was a mystery to Merlin. Her career took a definite nose-dive after the marriage and Merlin was quite sure she must have regretted it. Uther always seemed to be a bit of a miserable sod and, although Ygraine hadn’t lived to see him grow up, their son Arthur appeared to be making a career from falling out of limousines outside nightclubs in various stages of intoxication. Useless spongers, the pair of them. Dr DuBois could have done far better.
“I’m not looking for a husband,” Merlin commented.
Professor Kilgharrah eyed him for a moment, unamused, then continued reeling off the reasons why Camelot Trust would be ideal for Merlin.
Royal connections aside, Camelot Trust was a massive conservation and restoration project in the heart of Wales and the museum at the centre of it all was amazing. Someone had come up with the brilliant idea of moving unique old buildings from across the country to the one site, so that visitors could see the changes in architecture and living arrangements down the centuries. It was constantly growing and developing and it always needed volunteers to help out. And every summer they took on twelve placement students in a well-organised and thought-out training programme that even included a series of lectures by Professor Gaius, the eminent historian who ran the place.
“If you do well, and a job comes up in the future then you can apply,” Professor Kilgharrah had told him. “And of course if they already know you then you’ll stand a good chance!”
“Assuming there’s a vacancy and they like me,” Merlin pointed out. He’d already discovered that even work placement in any sort of museum was hard to come by, actual jobs after he graduated were going to be even harder to obtain. Most of his applications for placements had been ignored without even a ‘thanks but no thanks’ response. Medieval History might have been an interesting degree but so far it wasn’t proving a very useful one. He was even starting to consider going along with his best friend Gwen’s horrible, horrible idea of setting up a wedding planning business. She’d already suggested a few times that he should join her. But hell would be freezing over before he went down that route. Camelot Trust was a definite step up from that.
“One thing at a time,” Kilgharrah insisted. “First, apply to give up your summer.”
And so, full of misplaced hope, Merlin did.
The Camelot Trust museum was everything that Merlin had ever hoped it would be. Growing up he’d been taken there by his mum at least once a year, and gradually he had become less interested in petting the sheep and playing on the swings and more interested in the actual exhibits. In recent years he had particularly liked the full-sized castle that had started to go up, brick by brick, transplanted from its original neglected location in a run-down seaside town. Every brick had been carefully numbered and logged. It was like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
And it still wasn’t even close to completed. The whole thing was going to take years.
Merlin had high hopes for that castle. He didn’t care how lowly the job was that he got assigned to as long as he could work on restoring the castle. It was going to be magnificent. In its original location it had been a ruin, rapidly disintegrating on the edge of town, the potential tourists driven away by the fact that it was the popular hideout for the less pleasant members of the population. By day the kids used it as a football pitch, by night the shelter of the walls provided a place for the homeless, for drug users, or for teenage couples with nowhere else to go. Left as it was, within a few decades there would be nothing left of it. A perfect candidate for the Trust.
Merlin wasn’t the only student or volunteer working there, of course. In fact there was a whole row of tiny lodges where helpers could stay during the summer and all twelve successful students would be staying there. It was like a miniature house of his own (if a house only had one room) and Merlin loved it. Admittedly running down to the shower block in the morning wasn’t ideal, but at least there was a plumbed-in toilet, a tiny fridge and a sink. It was a step up from the shared accommodation he’d had at uni. No need to label his food in case one of his housemates stole it (like that stopped some of them). Wonderful.
They had food and shelter, and in return the helpers would work all summer and learn from some of the most highly respected minds in the business. Not a bad deal, really. The tiny lodges would probably be a bit cold once they got into September, but Merlin had grown up in a small village in a rural part of Wales and thought he could cope with that quite easily.
On the first day, the newest batch of recruits were shown around by an enthusiastic young museum guide named Freya. Merlin liked her immediately. She knew her stuff and was bright and friendly. When one of the other students, Cedric, started trying to trip her up with what he obviously thought were difficult questions she just replied and carried on.
“So what if people want their houses back?” Cedric asked when they’d emerged from a terraced row of miners cottages. “Do they all get taken down again?”
“The trust bought all these properties,” Freya explained. “Some had already been abandoned.”
“What if you put a brick in the wrong place when you’re rebuilding?”
“We don’t. They’re numbered.”
“But you might,” Cedric insisted.
“We ensure that only workers with at least a basic knowledge of maths are allowed to work on the rebuilding,” Freya assured him.
“That’s you out, Ced!” That was Gilli Stevens, one of the other new recruits. Most of the group laughed, but Cedric glowered at Gilli.
“Oh do be quiet!” George Smart snapped at him. “Some of us are here to learn!”
That earned the recruit a hate-filled look from Cedric, and for a moment it seemed as if there might be retaliation, but Freya managed to smooth things over.
“You’re right of course, but I’m sure Cedric is asking so many questions because of his eagerness to learn. Cedric, perhaps you haven’t had an opportunity yet to study any of the literature that’s been left in your cabin?”
There had been several booklets and an extensive email with links to various web articles last time Merlin checked. He’d made a start on reading it, but doubted that Cedric had got as far. That opinion was not contradicted the longer he knew Cedric.
“Why would I do that? This is just glorified bricklaying. The only thing that’s different is that we’re all getting a chance to do that laying” – he smirked – “with Prince Arthur!”
That was a very odd thing to say. Just because it was a favourite royal charity there was no reason to suppose that they’d even get to see King Uther. There was absolutely no chance that his drunken offspring was going to turn up.
George gave Cedric a disapproving look. A few people laughed, but Freya just ignored Cedric and continued with her tour. “You’ll all be very familiar with the study centre soon enough,” she told them, indicating a large pre-fab building totally at odds with the rest of the museum. It was grey and square and completely uninspiring. “You’ll have full access to the library and all resources. Those of you here partway through your degree are going to find that invaluable. And of course Professor Gaius will be available if you have any questions.”
Merlin had heard of Professor Gaius, had even managed to get to a few guest lectures in the past. The man had been in charge of Camelot Trust for decades. Having a chance to work with him even in the smallest capacity had made the choice to come to the museum for the summer an easy one to make.
“When will we meet him?” he asked Freya. “I have questions already!”
Freya just smiled at him. “Later,” she said. “There will be an introductory talk on the work we’re doing here from him in the morning. I think it’ll be on the castle that we’re building this time. Whatever it is, he never fails to be interesting. And then there’ll be a lecture every week. He’s keen on encouraging learning.”
It was exactly what Merlin wanted to hear.
They all followed her into the study centre. It was actually far nicer inside, light and open-plan, with desks and laptops, along with what appeared to be an extremely small selection of books. But Merlin knew that was deceptive. One of the historic buildings on site was a very old mansion, and most of that was the true library. There were beautiful reading rooms over there, he’d seen pictures of them and once had even managed to sneak a look during a guided tour. He could hardly wait to actually go inside. Images of relaxing summer evenings spent gazing out over the grounds sprang to mind, a book on his lap and a drink in his hand.
Although they probably didn’t let you drink anywhere near the antique books, he realised. But maybe he’d be allowed in anyway. He would have been quite happy to just sit there. Perhaps there would be like-minded people in there as well, and they could all sit and chat about the history of the place, the work they’d be doing. He’d have to avoid George, who was gazing lovingly around the place. George was probably pleasant enough but had been asking very sensible questions throughout Freya’s talk and had the air of someone that could be a bit of a bore. Still, there were worse people in the group that he could get stuck with…
“I’m so boreddddddddddddd…” Cedric complained loudly. “Where’s the bloody prince?”
Cedric was clearly going to be annoying.
“The royals don’t really come here any more,” Merlin told him, confident of his facts. “King Uther only does official visits and it’s not like Prince Arthur’s going to turn up for anything that involves actual work!”
“Well…” Freya began, but Cedric cut her off.
“You’d better be joking. I only signed up for this crap because Arthur’s supposed to be here this summer!” Cedric complained.
Merlin laughed at that. “Like Prince Partypants is going to come here!”
George nodded furious agreement at the very idea.
Cedric glowered at him. “That’s what I was told! If that was just some sort of stupid recruitment drive to get us to work for nothing…”
“We get work experience, and we have room and board provided,” Gilli pointed out.
“Bored is right,” Cedric grumbled. “Bloody slaving away for some useless charity.”
“You don’t have to be here,” Freya told him. “We’re happy to release you if you want to leave. There are other applicants who would be more than happy to take your place.”
Merlin could see that he wasn’t the only member of the group who was hoping Cedric would take the opportunity to leave. The rest of them generally seemed to be okay, at least on first impressions. All of them had either come from or were in the middle of studying some form of history or archaeology course. He wasn’t sure where Cedric had come from. Competition had been fierce so it was unlikely that he could have obtained a place without having a deep interest in the subject. Still, his main interest appeared to be the current heir to the throne.
Cedric glowered at Freya. “Is Prince Arthur coming here for the summer or not?” he demanded.
“I don’t know where you got that information from,” Freya told Cedric. “Obviously the royal family’s comings and goings aren’t public knowledge due to security risks involved.”
It occurred to Merlin that Freya wasn’t actually denying the story. But that was impossible. Although there were only eleven students, and Professor Kilgharrah had definitely said that there were twelve placements available. Merlin had just assumed that someone had dropped out at the last minute and that they’d be getting a replacement later. But no, it couldn’t possibly be the prince. He’d finished university the previous year, Merlin was sure of it.
“Now, I’ll get you all registered with full access passes, then you can come in here whenever you like,” Freya carried on as if Cedric had never asked about Prince Arthur at all. “This will take a little while, I’ll just go and get the forms.”
Because of course they’d still be using paper, Merlin thought, smiling to himself. It was just that sort of place.
“Let me help you,” Cedric offered, following her. “I have questions.”
Merlin thought he saw Freya roll her eyes, but she didn’t stop him. No doubt he would be pestering her some more about the non-existent royal visit. Perhaps he wouldn’t return once he realised he was going to be disappointed? That could only be a bonus.
Cedric didn’t leave.
He was still there, doing next to no work at all, the following morning. Well, strictly it was almost midday when Cedric appeared. The rest of the group had been attending a lecture with Professor Gaius about the work rebuilding the castle. Merlin sat himself between Freya and Gilli in the second row and prepared to learn as much as he could.
Professor Gaius was every bit as interesting a speaker as his reputation suggested. The man had worked at Camelot Trust almost since graduating. Merlin didn’t even want to think how long ago that would have been. Merlin had read pretty much everything that the man had ever published. He wondered whether it would be unprofessional to take his copy of Camelot Deconstructed along and ask the professor to sign it? Eventually he decided against doing so, then immediately regretted it when Gilli and his friend Mordred both went up to Gaius after the lecture with copies of the same book. If nothing else it was an excuse to go and speak to the great man.
Merlin cursed under his breath, causing Freya to look at him curiously.
“I just wish I’d brought my copy along to sign now.”
“Oh no, Gaius hates when people do that,” Freya assured him. “Says people should do their own research and make their own names rather than staring doe-eyed at those who’ve gone before. So best not to. Oh, don’t look so horrified. I have to stop myself from doing it all the time! Gaius hates people sucking up. Watch him give them the eyebrow when they leave.”
“The eyebrow?” Merlin wondered.
“Oh, you’ll see. It’s legendary. You’re not a proper employee until you’ve faced trial by eyebrow! But better to get it for something other than fanboying.”
In the front row, George looked quite put out though whether that was general disapproval or simply annoyance that he didn’t have a book to be signed himself was anyone’s guess.
Merlin bit his lip, watching Gilli and Mordred holding out their books, reverent expressions on both their faces. He liked Gilli and wondered if perhaps some sort of warning might be in order. And Mordred hadn’t actually done anything to make Merlin dis-like him, but there was something a bit odd about him…
… and too late. That was the eyebrow.
“Yes,” Freya agreed. “I really need to work it into the first day tour. But Cedric yesterday was being such a pain in the arse… where is he anyway?” she looked around at the small group. “This is a mandatory part of the induction.”
And as if summoned by magic, Cedric appeared. Well, more accurately he chose that moment to strut into the lecture theatre, then stand in the aisle scanning the rows of faces.
“Oh good,” Merlin grumbled. “Tell me, Freya, did you just summon him?”
Freya looked guilty, and although Merlin very much doubted that she’d actually summoned Cedric (because really, who would waste that much magical energy on that creep?) her expression did confirm that she probably had magic. He thought he’d sensed it on her the previous day. Gilli and Mordred seemed to have it as well, no doubt helping them become friends so quickly.
“It’s okay,” Merlin added quietly to Freya. “I have magic too.”
It wasn’t as if there was likely to be much prejudice against magic users at Camelot Trust. Professor Gaius himself was rumoured to have magic, after all, but in the wider community there was still some discrimination. And it was good to see Freya relax and smile again. Although she was showing them around for the first few days, Merlin knew they were going to be working together all summer and he’d already decided she was someone he would get along well with.
“I thought so,” Freya whispered back. “Not that it’s a problem here but some people get a bit mistrustful.”
“Yeah, I used to get that,” Merlin told her. “Whenever I did well in exams, there was this one kid at school who always said I must have been cheating.”
“Were they near the bottom of the class?” Freya asked, smiling when he nodded. “Yes, I used to get the same thing.”
“I’d love to know how we could use our magic to cheat. It’s not as if the invigilators have the answers in front of them for us to float over, or that we can read the examiner’s minds! Not that I’d want to with one or two of the teachers we had!”
Freya laughed. “I know what you mean! Oh, you’re going to fit in very well here, Merlin, I can tell. Oh no, here he comes…”
Cedric was making a bee line for her, having given up his search of the seats.
“He’s still not here then?”
“Good morning to you too,” Freya replied. “You know you were all supposed to be here two hours ago?”
Cedric didn’t show any indication that he had heard her. “What time’s he getting here?”
“Why don’t you go down and ask Professor Gaius?” Merlin suggested, poker-faced. “He’s in charge of the entire faculty, he’s bound to know.”
Freya widened her eyes but didn’t say anything.
“Good idea, Marvin, was it?”
“Yeah, whatever. Hey, Gaius…” he headed towards the Professor.
“Merlin!” Freya was biting her lip, trying not to laugh.
Gilli and Mordred, already cowed by Professor Gaius’ lack of delight at their request, stepped back quickly to give Cedric full access.
“It’s Professor Gaius,” Gaius informed him coldly. “And I was speaking to these two young gentlemen.”
Mordred and Gilli had clearly instantly been forgiven their minor faux pas given the far greater offence that was Cedric.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m just wondering when the prince is getting here,” Cedric continued, apparently quite oblivious of the way Gaius’ eyebrow was climbing so far up his forehead that it had almost reached his hairline.
“Arthur has been delayed,” Gaius informed him.
There was immediately an excited chatter around the room at the implied confirmation that Prince Arthur would indeed be joining them.
“Oh no,” Merlin muttered, less enthused by the news. “Why does this have to happen the same year I’m here?”
Gaius hadn’t finished with Cedric. “Now kindly explain who you are and what you’re doing here? This is for summer work experience students only.”
“Oh I’m here on the study programme,” Cedric told him confidently. “Cedric Sigan, at your service.” He gave a sweeping bow. Gaius could not have looked less impressed if he’d tried.
“You’re late,” Gaius told him. “I don’t have time to go through this again. Ask one of your colleagues for details of the lecture. You can then write me an explanatory essay this evening to ensure that you’ve picked up all the relevant points. Two thousand words minimum.”
Gaius looked at Cedric as if he were particularly stupid. “Ask your colleagues to explain the lecture. Take notes. Write them up in essay format. Submit to me tomorrow morning or you’re off the programme. Clear?”
It definitely hadn’t featured in Cedric’s plans for that evening. He looked quite put out, and didn’t have the sense not to argue with Gaius. Gaius seemed to be one of those no-nonsense professors who would pile on more and more work if you protested.
“We’re not students. We’re workers. You can’t give me homework.”
Eyebrow again. “I think you’ll find I can. The purpose of this programme is that you are here to study as well as work, and you can’t work effectively unless you know exactly what we do here. Now run along, and allow me to finish my conversation with these two gentlemen. They both turned up early and appeared to be paying full attention to the lesson throughout.”
That at least brought hopeful smiles back to Gilli and Mordred’s faces.
“Ooh he’s going to sign the books!” Freya whispered to Merlin. “He almost never does that!”
Merlin watched miserably as Gilli and Mordred chatted happily to Professor Gaius. They were probably going to be his favourite students after that, he supposed, simply by the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.
He wished he’d brought his book in.
Gaius’ lecture was followed by an hour-long session from Freya on the actual restoration work and methods, to be followed up in the afternoon with a practical demonstration out on the site. The session overran and by the time they broke for lunch Merlin was starving. He was also a little fed up with Gilli and Mordred opening their freshly-signed books to admire the surprisingly kind and encouraging messages that Gaius had left them.
All in all, it wasn’t turning out to be the greatest of days. Little did Merlin know that it was about to get worse.
To avoid having to listen to Gilli and Mordred’s retelling of their encounter over lunch, Merlin lingered behind, offering to help Freya dismantle the display equipment post-lecture. It didn’t take long, and they were soon heading off to the cafeteria. There wasn’t really time to go back to the chalets to eat, and anyway Merlin had never been very good at making his own lunch. Besides, the cafeteria gave them a decent staff discount.
“The general public have probably already finished off the good stuff,” Freya warned. “You’ll learn to get here early if you want anything other than a cheese sandwich. Most days we break at noon and quite a few of us head over here. But on the induction days the schedule tends to go to pot. At least the school holidays haven’t started yet so it’s not too busy.”
The remaining selection looked perfectly okay to Merlin, but then he wasn’t too fussy as long as he got fed. There was almost no queue at all, so he followed Freya around, loading up his tray with a healthy and nutritious lunch consisting of a can of cola, crisps, a Mars bar and an extra-large portion of chips because it was the end of lunch and the server obviously felt he looked hungry and needed all the leftovers.
“That’s not a very well-balanced meal,” Freya commented, giving it a critical look. She’d got a chicken salad sandwich and an apple on her own tray.
Merlin quickly covered the chips in tomato sauce from the dispenser.
“Vitamin C,” he told her, grinning when she rolled her eyes at him.
There was no problem finding a seat in the mostly-empty cafeteria. Cedric was thankfully nowhere in sight and the rest of the recruits were on a few tables close together so Merlin and Freya simply sat at the nearest free spot.
Isolde, one of the older students, immediately shifted over to chat to Freya about the plans for the afternoon. Merlin was happy to sit there and eat his lunch without needing to take part in the conversation. He’d demolished the plate of chips, scoffed all the crisps and was just finishing off the Mars Bar when Isolde suddenly asked about Prince Arthur.
“Are we really going to have a royal visit?” she grumbled. “It’s going to be so distracting.”
“It won’t last long,” Merlin assured her. “We’ll be working. The royals don’t do that!”
Isolde grinned at him. “Too true. Tris, my husband, he’s probably going to come down here with anti-monarchy banners when he finds out! He was complaining enough about me doing this when it was only King Uther Approved or whatever it’s called.”
“Royal appointment,” Freya put in.
“I’ll join in with his protests,” Merlin told them with feeling.
“Not a fan?” Freya asked.
“No. And he’s really going to be coming here?” Merlin asked, repeating Isolde’s question because there still hadn’t been an absolute definite answer. “I hoped it was just Cedric’s wishful thinking.”
“Afraid not,” Freya sighed. “All summer, as well.”
Isolde groaned. “I’m not telling Tris. He’ll be unbearable.”
“But why is the prince coming?” Merlin couldn’t help asking. “Is the museum’s next building going to be a bar?”
Isolde barked a laugh at that.
Freya tried and failed to hide a smile. “Shhh! He might be nice!”
Merlin doubted that very much. “Well he’s good-looking, but as everyone’s going to have told him that for his entire life he’s bound to be a total dickhead. I mean, just because he’s a prince it doesn’t mean that he’s anything special.”
“Merlin…” Freya began. She looked a little worried but Merlin was warming to his subject and didn’t stop even though Isolde was no longer laughing either.
“He’s just been born into a privileged lifestyle and done nothing to earn it.” Merlin began gathering up their used cups and plates and piling them on his tray, but continued talking. “I suppose he’s not even going to have to do all the training that the rest of us do, just stand around having his picture taken and his hair done. Waste of tax payer’s money, the whole lot of them.”
“Merlin, hush…” Freya urged. Isolde didn’t say anything but was looking with concern at something behind Merlin.
“He’ll probably spend his whole time in the bar anyway, when the photographers aren’t around.” Merlin picked up the tray and got up from the table, turning to take the tray back. “It’s not as if some pampered spoiled waste of space like that is ever going to do any actual work.”
And that was when he saw that there was someone standing right behind them who had presumably heard everything that he had just said. Someone very blond, very annoyed and very royal.
Prince Arthur stood there, arms folded and an expression of great displeasure on his face.
“Ah.” Merlin managed. “Um… Ah.”
“It’s strange,” Prince Arthur told him, still managing to look intensely displeased, “that a moment ago you appeared to have such a great deal to say, and yet now you appear to be incapable of even the basics of the English language.”
Merlin glanced back at Freya for help, but she was sliding down in her chair, obviously wishing she was anywhere else. In her job, he supposed, it wouldn’t do to upset the royal sponsors of the Trust. And she had tried to stop him. The other students were all just staring at Arthur. At least one had got their phone out and was trying to sneakily take a picture. A picture that would have Merlin in it as well as the angry prince.
If that picture got into the papers somehow Merlin was never going to hear the end of it from Will, his mate back in Ealdor who hated the royals with a passion. On the other hand his housemate Gwen would probably faint with excitement and want daily updates. And if either her or Merlin’s mother saw the pic and found out what Merlin had been saying then he would be in big trouble.
Still, why should he have to apologise? Prince Arthur was famous for his partying ways, and it was a dead certainty that he wouldn’t be lifting a finger to do any of the actual physical work while he was at Camelot Trust. And anyway, it was rude to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.
“Perhaps I didn’t have the advantage of being given the pick of the top schools in the country, unlike some,” Merlin retorted. “And how was I supposed to know you were here? I didn’t hear any heralds piping their golden trumpets to announce your glorious arrival!”
“Surprising. With those ears I would have thought you could have heard a pin drop on the other side of Camelot!”
Merlin gaped at the prince for a moment. “I thought you royals were supposed to be the epitome of good manners!”
“When some jumped-up student is slagging me off? I don’t think so…” Arthur looked down at Merlin’s chest, trying to read the ID card hanging from his lanyard. Merlin immediately slapped a hand over it but it was too late. “Merlin? Seriously?”
“It’s a family name. And I’m not just a student, I’m here to work. W-o-r-k,” he drawled out the word, super-slow for Arthur. “Something you won’t have come across yet. Tax from it is what pays for your parties and nights out.”
Oh, he was being so rude now. His mother, if she ever found out, might actually disown him. But there were no journalists nearby, only the fellow students with their phones. Another reason why he hadn’t noticed the prince arriving.
“Your highness,” Freya cut in smoothly, standing up and stepping between them. “I’m sorry about Merlin. Welcome to Camelot Trust. I’m Freya Waters, I’m one of the senior guides and I’m in charge of induction. We weren’t expecting you until later. I would have met you at reception if I’d known. Have you eaten? Let me arrange something with catering for you.”
Arthur, who apparently could be quite charming when he wanted to be, turned the most disarming smile on Freya. “Miss Waters, thank you but I’ve already had lunch. I was told you were in here and came to find you. The gentleman on reception wanted to call you but I prefer to find my own way around. You get a far more accurate view of people’s true nature when you do that.” He gave Merlin a pointed look, then turned his smile on Freya again. “If you’ve finished your meal then I would be grateful if you’d show me around. But only if you’re finished. I don’t want to interrupt your break, I’m sure you’ve had a most trying morning already.” Again, he favoured Merlin with a glare then smiled at Freya.
“I’m finished,” Freya told him. “We’ve got about twenty minutes before the afternoon session starts. Come with me, I’ll get you sorted out with a pass and then we’ll take it from there.” She paused for a moment, looking around at her charges. “Everyone, you’ll see on your agenda that the next session is at the castle site at two-thirty, I’ll see you there. Lance Du Lac will be leading the session so don’t wait for me if I’m late.”
“Don’t we have to wait for his royal highness?” Merlin asked, because he just could not help himself. There was something about Arthur that completely obliterated any filter that might have been on Merlin’s mouth normally.
“We’ll catch up,” Freya assured him. “This way, your highness.”
“Just call me Arthur, please,” Arthur insisted as they walked away. “Honestly, Freya, I just want to be treated exactly the same as all the rest of the students are. No standing on ceremony.”
“No standing on ceremony,” Merlin repeated in a fake-posh voice to Isolde, as they carried their used crockery over to the tray trolley. “Like his royal royalness won’t be having photoshoots every five minutes. Why is he even here?”
Isolde shrugged. “He went to university, didn’t he? Perhaps he did a related course?”
Merlin had no idea what Arthur had studied and didn’t really care. He knew Arthur had finished university a year earlier because ever since then the press were allowed to publish whatever they wanted and the world had been subjected to pictures of him everywhere. It seemed to Merlin that Arthur had spent most of his time at an endless stream of social events as if he were the most fame-hungry reality TV star. For the majority of these he had been in various stages of intoxication. It didn’t exactly scream wannabe historian. Arthur was also taking up a space in the group that a genuine student could have used. It was incredibly unfair. Prince Arthur did not need work experience. It wasn’t as if he’d ever actually be doing any work for the rest of his life.
“I’m sure that if he did a degree it was probably in media studies or playing sports or something,” Merlin sniffed. “Nothing academic.”
“You do still need to study for those things,” Isolde told him. “Honestly, Merlin, he seemed okay, give him a chance.”
“Do you think your husband will?”
Isolde laughed at that. “No, but I’m not going to tell him that Arthur’s here!”
That was quite a good idea. Merlin wondered whether he could get away with it with Will and Gwen.
Dr Lance du Lac was bloody gorgeous.
Merlin wasn’t sure whether it was his dark hair, his olive-tinted skin or his huge brown soulful eyes, or perhaps it was the movement of his biceps as he carried out the practical demonstration. Or all of the above.
Merlin was not alone in thinking this. He did briefly tear his gaze away from the delicious instructor to note that all his fellow students were just as absorbed as he was. Even his royal spoiled-ness was engrossed. Though that of course meant nothing because everyone knew Prince Arthur had an endless stream of girlfriends and was as straight as an arrow.
Dr Lance was probably straight as well, but Merlin wasn’t going to let that get in the way of his fantasies.
“I started out where you are now,” Lance told them. “I was on summer work experience here six years ago. Best thing I ever did.”
Merlin supposed that whoever had been in charge back then would have found those deep brown pleading eyes impossible to resist across the interview table. He didn’t blame them.
“Now, I know that as part of the requirements for coming on this programme you’ll all have already spent some time on archaeological digs, so I’m going to assume you all know the basics. Is there anyone who has somehow slipped through the net and feels they need extra help?”
It was so, so tempting. But Merlin resisted. He looked around at the rest of the group, fully expecting Arthur to put his hand up. But Arthur just smiled and looked around much like everyone else was doing.
Obviously Arthur would be getting help later because Merlin was quite sure he’d never seen anything in the papers ever about drunken parties on ancient sites. Perhaps Arthur had visited Pompeii at some point and seen the ancient hostelries. It probably counted in his blond, inbred head.
Merlin gave a little snort of amusement at the thought, realised everyone was suddenly looking at him and tried to turn it into a cough. Freya gave him a warning look, even though she couldn’t possibly have known what he was thinking.
George glared at him for interrupting the talk. Arthur, because he obviously wanted to be known as Mr Perfect, actually offered him a water bottle. That resulted in a few sighs from one or two other students.
“No thank you,” Merlin told him.
Arthur just smiled and put the bottle away.
“I’d have taken it,” Gilli whispered. Merlin had sat next to him and Mordred because Freya appeared to have appointed herself as chief Arthur-caretaker and was now lost to Merlin.
“Yeah, we could have sold it on E-bay,” Mordred added.
That was quite a good idea. Although Mordred hadn’t been very quiet, and Merlin thought he saw Arthur’s smile falter, just for a moment. That wasn’t very nice, he supposed, having people treat you as a way to earn money.
“For charity, perhaps, if the owner agreed,” Merlin replied and was rewarded with a grateful smile from Arthur for that.
“As long as it’s a good one,” Arthur told him.
Maybe Arthur wasn’t entirely awful, Merlin supposed. But Merlin was never going to say that out loud. And he still didn’t think Arthur should be there.
As Lance’s lecture went on, Merlin came to the conclusion that the only reason they needed experience of being on a dig was so that they knew how to handle ancient items. They certainly weren’t going to be digging anything up. But the castle’s surviving masonry was extremely old, and the dismantling, labelling and rebuilding needed to be done carefully. Lance handed round some of the thousands of photos that had been taken before and during the dismantling of the building. All of them would be used as guidance during the rebuild.
“All of the buildings that we’ve moved here have been sort of giant three-dimensional jigsaws,” Lance told them. “The castle is going to be the biggest challenge of all. Not only are we rebuilding the ruin, but after that we’ll work on it to restore it to its former glory. Eventually visitors will be able to see this magnificent building in an almost identical state to when it was first erected over a thousand years ago.”
And then Cedric turned up.
Merlin had been vaguely wondering where Cedric had gone. He thought perhaps the man had either passed out from excitement on seeing Arthur arrive, or more likely had been marched off the site by one of Arthur’s bodyguards. Generally the two bodyguards had been keeping a discreet distance, but Merlin had no doubt that they were ready to step in at the first time of trouble.
The two bodyguards both looked as if they could kill someone like Merlin without blinking an eyelid. It had occurred to him that perhaps he should be a little politer to the prince given their proximity, but he really couldn’t help himself. And anyway it wasn’t as if he was going to get sent to the tower just for being cheeky to his royal highness.
Cedric had not attended the lecture, which was no real surprise apart from the Arthur factor. He had also completely missed Arthur’s arrival by the looks of things as he stopped in his tracks and stared at the prince, mouth open and phone held to his ear.
“Uh yeah, gotta go, he’s arrived,” Cedric told whoever it was that he was speaking to, and immediately pushed his way through the group to get a place next to the prince. He sat down and stuck out a hand.
“Cedric Sigan, your majesty! Pleased to meet you!”
Arthur didn’t take his hand. “Dr du Lac is in the middle of a fascinating talk. Shush.”
Another point in Arthur’s favour, Merlin decided. Still rich and spoiled though. But not the worst person in the group.
There wasn’t a lot that Cedric could do after that. His phone went off, loudly.
“Can you switch all phones off or at least put them on silent?” Lance requested.
Merlin knew his was off but checked it anyway, and saw a few others do the same. Cedric didn’t even have the decency to look ashamed as he silenced his phone. In fact he looked annoyed to be asked.
The rest of the talk went smoothly. The problems returned when the group were asked to follow Lance onto the site to examine some of the bricks. To Merlin, this was hugely interesting and exciting. Lance showed them a few of the carefully numbered and labelled bricks, their corresponding photos and measurement records, the 3D CAD drawings that had been created from surveys done before the castle was dismantled… everything had been done with such precision.
Cedric did not share his enthusiasm.
“Bit like we’ll be labourers on a building site, yeah?” he commented, watching Lance fit a single brick in place painstakingly slowly. “Bet you didn’t think you were signing on for this, right your highness?”
“Cedric, please,” Freya hissed. “Listen to Lance.”
“And if you can’t then at least let the rest of us listen,” Isolde added.
Arthur just looked supremely uncomfortable and embarrassed, and tried to ignore Cedric. Merlin again felt a smidgen of sympathy.
“Not that there would be anything wrong with working on a building site,” Arthur said carefully, “but I believe we’re here to learn about the restoration of historic buildings, their care and upkeep.”
That shut Cedric up. Briefly.
The afternoon continued much in that vein. Lance eventually split them into three groups of four and had everyone work on a mock-up of a restoration for the remainder of the day. Merlin found himself in a group with Arthur, Gilli and a pleasant but clumsy girl called Elena who had tons of enthusiasm but kept tripping over or dropping everything.
“Can I swap groups?” Cedric requested. “I’d like to assist the prince.”
Lance pretended that he hadn’t heard.
“If you all refuse to swap with him, drinks are on me this evening,” Arthur whispered.
Merlin considered it for a moment. He was strongly tempted to swap just to annoy Arthur. He twisted his expression into one of what he hoped was deep thought, tapping his chin with his finger.
“And tomorrow evening,” Arthur added quickly.
“I had no idea you liked my company so much!” Merlin grinned. “Okay, sold.”
Elena giggled, and managed to drop the brick she was holding once again. “Oops.”
“You know you’re not here to get plastered every night?” Merlin checked. “The pub is an exhibit.”
“They serve beer,” Arthur pointed out. “And there’s nothing wrong in relaxing with friends at the end of the day. You don’t have to overdo it. Don’t believe everything you read in the gutter press, Mer-lin.”
“Hah hah, Merlin and Arthur!” Gilli grinned, pleased with himself for having noticed the name connection. When both men glared at him he ducked his head. “Um… I’ll just pick these up for you, Elena.”
It was lucky that they were only working on a practice piece. Merlin was aware of Lance hovering around, watching Elena with some concern. Apparently she was top of her class and absolutely brilliant at her subject, but her practical ability was less impressive. It was probably nerves, Merlin supposed.
Arthur did do his best to put Elena at her ease though.
“I’m always dropping things too,” he told her. “And falling over.”
“Usually after you’ve been in the pub,” Merlin supposed.
Arthur rolled his eyes, but apart from that ignored Merlin’s jibe. “When I was younger I often had to accompany my father on state visits. Once, when we were being introduced to a particularly terrifying queen, I was supposed to walk down a red carpet with a bouquet that was almost as big as I was. I tripped over my own feet, landed flat on my face and destroyed the bouquet in the process. My father didn’t stop telling me off about it for the rest of the visit.”
“I’ve seen that picture,” Merlin put in helpfully. It was quite famous, a popular accompaniment to any article about Arthur in the media. Especially once he started falling over in bars as well. “You looked as if you were going to burst into tears.”
“I was seven, Merlin. You’d cry if you were seven years old and you’d just tripped over in front of a hundred or so adults on international TV.”
“I know the picture,” Elena smiled. “I had it on my wall for a while when I was in my early teens. It reminded me that anyone, no matter who they were, could be almost as clumsy as me sometimes.”
“Good to know that my horrible experience had some positive purpose,” Arthur told her. “Thank you, that makes me feel slightly less miserable about it when I look back. Now, come on, spread those pictures out, Gilli. We’re going to beat all the other teams here.”
“It’s not a competition,” Merlin grumbled.
“Life is a competition, Merlin,” Arthur told him.
“Yeah, and you’ve already won it.”
Arthur favoured him with a long, steady stare, until Merlin had to look away. He was being unfair, and he knew it. And he had a nasty feeling that he knew the reason why.
It was in those blue eyes that stared back at him, in the golden hair that was shining that bit too brightly in the sun, and the strong hands and arms that Merlin found his gaze lingering on far too often.
Yes, Arthur Pendragon was gorgeous.
But he would have been told as much for his entire life, and definitely was straight and anyway completely off-limits to someone like Merlin. So instead of flirting, instead of making any attempt to be charming and to win Arthur over, Merlin resorted to insults.
Hopefully Arthur would get tired of it and join a different group the next day. Assuming he even came back. He probably had important things to do like standing on a balcony and waving at people.
Arthur was good to Elena though. Even Merlin had to give him that much. Though of course Elena was blonde and sweet-natured and pretty, and Arthur most likely had ulterior motives. Whatever his reasons he was patient and kind to her. It paid off for the group because by the end of the session she’d become progressively less nervous and was coming up with some good ideas. And their practice reconstruction looked better than any of the other groups. All in all it wasn’t a bad afternoon. And it also meant that Merlin had already done a training stint with the prince and it would be someone else’s turn the next day.
“You were just being nice to us so that we didn’t swap with Cedric, weren’t you?” Merlin grinned as they finished up for the day and headed back to the chalets.
Arthur shrugged. “Do you blame me? Would you want to… oh god, here he comes.”
Sure enough Cedric was jogging to catch them up.
“Arthur,” he called. “Wait up.”
“Would it be rude if I ran?” Arthur whispered. “I was sprint champion at school, I could probably lose him.”
Elena giggled and Gilli laughed. They were both completely taken in by the fake charm, Merlin supposed. Merlin was having trouble not being taken in by it himself.
“All your schoolmates were probably terrified of beating you if those bodyguards of yours were anywhere near,” Merlin found himself saying.
To be fair, Arthur’s bodyguards were keeping a discreet distance from them. One was a stocky, mean-looking fellow with narrow eyes, short dark hair and a permanently grumpy expression. The other was a titan of a man, possibly the most muscular man Merlin had ever seen. He towered over everyone, but was somehow less imposing than the other man mostly due to having a kinder face and generally less unpleasant demeanour.
“And aren’t all us commoners supposed to walk six paces behind you or something? That would help with winning races as well!”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Arthur told him.
“Oh Merlin!” Elena protested. “Don’t be mean! Arthur’s so nice.”
Arthur definitely didn’t deserve it on the evidence of that afternoon but Merlin just didn’t seem to be able to help himself. All that privilege that Arthur had enjoyed all his life. Of course he would appear to be the best at everything. But perhaps enough was enough.
“Thank you, Elena. It’s been a pleasure having your company this afternoon. You too, Gilli.” Arthur favoured Merlin with that long steady Paddington stare again. He wasn’t great at it, but Merlin got the point. The dislike was mutual.
Merlin immediately decided that meant his opinion had been correct the first time. “It’s okay, his fan club’s here now,” Merlin beamed as Cedric caught them up. “Hi Cedric, fancy seeing you here.”
Cedric ignored him, his full attention on Arthur. “Hi Arthur. That was a pretty boring afternoon, right? I’ve got my car, why don’t we head into town and find a club?”
That would probably be a strong temptation for the Arthur that Merlin had read about in the gossip press. Much better than sitting with a group of quiet and generally fairly introverted students in the small on-site pub. Even assuming that the earlier offer to go there had been genuine. Although going there with Cedric might have lowered the appeal.
Merlin expected Arthur to take up the offer anyway, he’d probably already forgotten all about their supposed free drinks. Elena and Gilli were less cynical, both watching Arthur to see what he said.
“Thank you but no, I already have plans this evening,” Arthur told him. “But you should go. Have a great time. Please don’t concern yourself about me.”
“Plans?” Cedric asked, giving Merlin a shove to get him out of the way, then falling into step beside Arthur. “Pray tell, is there to be a welcome party here or something? I seem to have missed the invitation.”
“Probably because you missed all the sessions today,” Merlin told him. Everyone, except Cedric, laughed at that.
“Ah, well if you’ve missed them all you’ll need to do some reading to catch up,” Arthur decided. “It’s probably best if the rest of us don’t disturb you.”
“Didn’t Professor Gaius set you an essay for missing his lecture?” Merlin added.
“Ah, you should do that then,” Arthur agreed. “Have fun.”
“There’s no party though?” Gilli wondered, just as they were turning away from Cedric. “I thought we were going to the pub on site… ow!”
Elena smacked him on the arm, but it was too late. Cedric’s expression noticeably brightened.
“Great! I’ll be there! Um… where is that?”
“Freya took us there on the tour earlier,” Merlin told him. “Or there’s a site map amongst the induction documents that would have been left in your cabin, perhaps you haven’t noticed it yet?”
“Yeah… perhaps I should just stick with you, Arthur?” Cedric suggested. “You seem to know your way around. That would be best.”
Arthur looked so weary and cornered that Merlin again felt sorry for him, against his own better judgement.
“Why don’t you just come along with everyone else after we’ve all had dinner?” Merlin suggested. “I’m sure everyone’s going to go there, we’re all still getting to know each other. You know where we all had lunch, right? That’s where we’ll be getting our meals.”
Cedric shook his head. “I don’t eat in public cafeterias. Surely we’re not expected to eat there all the time? Arthur, you must have a private dining area? You can’t eat in a place where the general public are attending.”
“The museum shut half an hour ago,” Arthur pointed out. “So there won’t be any problems in the evenings or first thing in the morning. You’re right that I won’t be able to sit in there on a normal lunchtime, but I’ll just have to have sandwiches in my room or on the site. Freya thinks that will be best for everyone. And it will give the rest of you a break, because unfortunately I’ll probably attract a lot of attention while we’re all on site working. I’m sorry about that, by the way,” he added, nodding to Gilli and Elena.
That was a bit miserable for Arthur, Merlin thought. Part of the fun of the summer job would be getting to know his fellow students. Poor Arthur, sitting out alone with his caviar and lobster sandwiches, or whatever princes ate.
“We can cope,” Elena assured him with a smile. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. Merlin could well imagine what he was thinking. It wouldn’t be fun at all. They were probably all going to feel like goldfish in a bowl.
But then Arthur probably felt like that his whole life. Again Merlin couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for him.
Cedric continued to pester Arthur. He asked endless questions about how long Arthur intended staying on the project (all summer, the same as everyone else, and no it wasn’t boring, and no he didn’t want to ditch these losers and head for the pub with Cedric), about Arthur’s personal life (no he didn’t have a girlfriend, no he didn’t want to be set up), about Arthur’s mother…
“You know, I lost my mother a few years back,” Elena said suddenly. “I really miss her. I would hate people pestering me about her.”
Arthur gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you, Elena. And I’m sorry about your mother.”
“I’m sorry about yours,” she told him, her eyes huge with compassion.
Yes, the two of them were definitely connecting, Merlin thought miserably. Not that he was interested in Arthur at all. No.
Cedric took the hint anyway, and very briefly shut up.
They had reached the rows of chalets where the students were all staying. Gilli headed off immediately, saying he’d see them in the cafeteria shortly.
Elena followed suit, managing to trip over her own feet when she turned to leave. “I’ll see you all in a bit… Oops!”
Merlin noticed the fond smile Arthur gave her. It simply further confirmed Merlin’s assumptions. Of course the prince would latch on to one of the pretty girls. That was always the way that things went. He just hoped that Arthur didn’t mess her about. Elena seemed to be kind-hearted and sweet, she definitely didn’t deserve to be anyone’s holiday romance. Especially not someone who would get her heartbreak plastered all over the papers.
Merlin’s cabin was near the end of the row and they had almost arrived at it. Strangely, Arthur was still at his side. Well, almost. Cedric was walking between them. He’d actually elbowed Merlin out of the way so that he could get into that position.
“Are you staying in one of these as well, Arthur?” Merlin queried.
Cedric scoffed at the very idea of that before Arthur could reply. “Of course not! He’s Prince Arthur! He’s hardly going to slum it with the rest of us. Honestly, you do have some stupid ideas. You’re in a hotel, I suppose, Arthur?”
Arthur hesitated, glancing worriedly at Merlin before he replied. “I’m not sure what the final arrangements are going to be.”
“Arthur’s probably not allowed to tell us where he’s staying,” Merlin said carefully. He saw Arthur give a tiny, almost imperceptible nod behind Cedric’s back at that, so continued. “Yes… I think if journalists got hold of the address then he’d get even less peace.”
“It’s true,” Arthur agreed quickly. “Thank you, Merlin.” His expression was almost pleading.
Merlin realised that once he left them and headed for his own chalet, Arthur would never be able to get rid of Cedric. Arthur would be followed to wherever he was staying. And Cedric was pretty awful. And Merlin had been rude, and perhaps Arthur hadn’t really deserved it, he seemed okay despite everything. They’d have to work together all Summer. Perhaps it was time to build bridges? There was an opportunity to make up for Merlin’s bad behaviour, and for the rest of his life he’d be able to tell people that he’d rescued the prince. Plus his mum and Gwen would be pleased with him. (Will not so much).
“Arthur, this is my cabin. You said you wanted to borrow that book – would you like to pick it up now?” he found himself saying.
“Yes, if you don’t mind,” Arthur immediately grasped at the excuse. “Cedric, we’ll see you at dinner, yes?”
“What book?” Cedric frowned. “I might want to read it. I’ll come in.”
“Sorry, it’s a very small cabin,” Merlin told him. “I’m not even sure how Arthur’s bodyguards are going to fit. Especially the big one!”
The tall, bodybuilder bodyguard must have had good hearing. He turned and grinned over at Merlin but didn’t speak.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Arthur told Cedric. “I’m sure I’ll see you again. Goodbye.”
“Come on Merlin,” Arthur stepped around Cedric and grabbed Merlin by the arm. “I’d love to get a chapter in before dinner. Which is your chalet?”
“Excellent! Off we go!” Arthur marched Merlin away. They weren’t quite running but it was a bracing walk.
Cedric was left standing there.
“Thank you!” Arthur whispered as soon as they were out of earshot. “He’s either a journalist or a stalker!”
The journalist option would explain a great deal.
“Do you think he’s going to stay out here until you re-emerge?” Merlin asked, glancing back at Cedric. The man was on his phone again but showed no signs of leaving.
“Probably. Thanks for doing this, I know I’m not your favourite person.”
Merlin shrugged. “I prefer you to Cedric, if that helps?”
“Damned with faint praise,” Arthur sighed.
“I’m sure his mother loves him,” Merlin replied, then mentally kicked himself, remembering Arthur’s particular history. “Uh… sorry.”
“It’s okay. And she’s clearly mentally defective.”
Merlin fumbled in his pocket for his key, unlocked the chalet and let them inside. The tall bodyguard followed them but stopped at the door.
“Don’t worry, I stand out here,” he said to Merlin. “Unless you try to hurt Arthur. Then I kill you!” he added with a friendly grin and after that, despite the man’s size, Merlin couldn’t imagine him actually killing anyone.
“Thank you Percival,” Arthur told him. “Can you get the man we were just talking to checked out? I think he’s either from the press or he’s some sort of obsessive royal stalker. His name’s Cedric,” he looked over at Merlin questioningly.
“Sigan,” Merlin supplied helpfully. “I think that was what he said his surname was, anyway. He’s been asking about Arthur ever since we arrived. He’s the reason the rest of us heard about you,” he added to Arthur. “We had no idea before. Everyone was surprised except him.”
“I’ll get onto it,” Percival promised, getting out his phone. “Sounds like he’s press. Stay here with your friend until I get an answer.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said to him, then closed the door. “Sorry Merlin, you’re stuck with me for a little while.”
Merlin had gathered that much. “Friend though?” he queried.
Arthur grinned at him. “You showed great restraint there! I thought for a moment that you might correct him and say you’re actually an anti-monarchist who hates everything about the royals, especially me!”
“Yeah, that does sound more like me. But as your bodyguard is built like a wall, I think I’ll leave him thinking I’m friend.”
“Incorrectly,” Arthur agreed, still smiling although Merlin thought it looked a little strained. “We could never be friends.”
“Obviously. So, as you’re stuck here, do you want a coffee? Oh no, you’re a posh royal. Tea? I don’t have any fancy cups, you’ll have to use a mug.”
“Funny. I like coffee thank you. Black, no sugar, mugs are fine.”
“Just don’t poison me, please.”
“I’ll try to control the urge.”
While Merlin busied himself with the kettle, Arthur looked around the little chalet, then sat down on the edge of Merlin’s bed, dumping his bag on the floor. “Are all the other students in sheds like this one?”
“It’s a chalet,” Merlin corrected. “And yes, I think so. I suppose they’ve built you a palace. Oh wait! Is that why we’re building this castle? Is it going to be your summer residence or something?” He laughed, pleased with his own cleverness in thinking of that one. Though he supposed Arthur wasn’t going to be as pleased with his coffee. It was a store’s own brand, instant.
“Your wit knows no bounds,” Arthur told him. “No, strangely enough I won’t be living in the castle. And I’ve been given a room at the library. Security thought it was safer, and the bodyguards have rooms next to mine.” He looked around at the chalet again. “I like this better. I’d rather be with the rest of the group.”
“But then you’d also be with Cedric,” Merlin pointed out.
“True. Though I don’t think he’ll be staying for long. He’s definitely not a genuine student.”
“It’ll be no loss when he goes,” Merlin agreed. “There was a girl in my year at uni who tried to get on this programme and failed. She’s a good student. It’s really unfair for someone like that to take one of the places.”
“I suppose you’re not too happy about someone like me taking one as well?” Arthur queried.
Merlin had thought exactly that. He didn’t really want to admit that to Arthur, whom he was starting to like at least a little. “I’m sure you’re more deserving of the place than Cedric,” he attempted.
Arthur nodded. “That was almost diplomatic, Merlin. Careful!”
“Don’t worry, it won’t happen again. Here,” Merlin handed Arthur a steaming hot mug of instant coffee. “You probably won’t like it. It’s instant. You’re probably used to some fancy bean that’s been passed through a civet or something!”
“You really are beyond funny,” Arthur grumbled, taking the mug from him. “I can cope with instant.”
Merlin smirked, settling himself down in the only chair, a small wooden one that normally tucked under the chalet’s little desk. There was barely room to turn it around to face Arthur.
“So how the hell did Cedric get on this course?” Merlin wanted to know. “He doesn’t know the subject. We had to go through an interview and write a paper on why we would be suitable. It wasn’t easy. Everyone who’s here went through a tough selection process. Well…” he looked at Arthur.
“I know what you’re thinking but yes, I had to go through the same process,” Arthur told him. “Three times, actually. I know you aren’t going to believe me, but I did. I tried to get on last year, and the year before, but Professor Gaius refused. He thinks I’d be a distraction for everyone else.”
“I can’t imagine why!” Merlin commented. “But wouldn’t it have been easier to just come and do a royal visit or something? The whole summer is a long time to give up.”
“My mother worked here. It’s where she met my father. I just wanted to do it, it makes me feel a little closer to her. And it fits with my degree. Any other student with my grades and course would have been accepted the first time I applied.”
Arthur, Merlin realised, had never known his mother. He could understand that wish, that need to know the mysterious parent.
“I get that,” he told Arthur, trying to sound kinder than he had been. “I never knew my father, he left before I was born, then a few years later we heard he’d died.”
“Sorry,” Arthur replied. “Was he a historian?”
Merlin shrugged. “I don’t know what he was. Mum gets upset if I ask about him so I don’t ask.”
Arthur nodded, staring down into his coffee mug thoughtfully. “My father is the same. We rarely talk about my mother. Though of course I can read endless books and articles about her if I want to, or see old footage on TV. She’s both mysterious and familiar at the same time.”
“My dad’s just mysterious,” Merlin said. “And it was mum who fed my love of history. She took me all over the country as a child, making sure learning about historical places was fun and interesting. I had no chance!”
“That sounds good,” Arthur took a sip of coffee, then pulled a face. “Ugh! Merlin, this is not good. I’m getting you a caffetiere and some proper coffee in the morning – consider it a thank you for rescuing me from Cedric!”
“I knew you were too posh to drink instant!” Merlin smirked, taking a sip of his own drink, then almost spitting it out. “Oh… okay, that’s not good.”
Arthur gave him a smug look. “So I’m not the only one who likes decent coffee.”
“One of my housemates, Gwen, back at uni… she’s always got a supply of the good stuff and I… um…”
“Steal it?” Arthur supplied helpfully.
“Coffee’s for sharing! I’d forgotten how bad the really cheap stuff was!”
“Now who’s posh!” Arthur laughed.
“Shut up! I’m working class, salt of the earth!”
“You’re two-thirds of the way towards being an honours graduate in an academic subject, spending your summer restoring historical buildings for a charity trust sponsored by the king, surrounded by other similar geeky types and sitting in a glorified shed with the heir to the throne. At best, Mer-lin, you can be described as middle-class.”
Merlin’s friend Will back in Ealdor would probably have an embolism if he heard that. Merlin didn’t like it either. Middle class sounded awful. Secretly though, he knew it to be true. But that didn’t mean he was ever going to admit it. “I’ve never been so insulted! Raised by a single mum, Labour voter, working class!”
“Plenty of non-working class single mums and Labour voters out there, Merlin. What did you say your history-loving mother did for a living? Because she sounds as if she’s a teacher or something like that.”
She was deputy head at the local primary school, but Merlin wasn’t going to admit that. Time to change the subject as soon as possible. “Never mind about my mum, we’ve got a more serious problem. No drinkable coffee, and we can’t leave the chalet while your number one fan is out there.”
“Middle class,” Arthur told him smugly.
“Upper upper upper class,” Merlin retaliated. “Prat. Give me that mug, it’ll have to be tea. Sorry it’s not earl grey, I only drink Yorkshire.”
“Yorkshire’s the best,” Arthur agreed, handing over the mug and watching as Merlin tipped the contents down the chalet’s small sink. “I take a box abroad with me whenever I fly.”
“First class flying’s posh,” Merlin reminded him.
“Yes, I’m poshly hiding from a maybe serial killer in a little shed with an anti-monarchist. My life is amazing.”
“It is! You can’t say it isn’t!”
Arthur raised an eyebrow. “We’ll discuss this again after you’ve been in my company for a few weeks. I guarantee that you will not find it amazing.”
Merlin looked over at him, trying desperately not to laugh and then failing. Arthur frowned, then realised what he had said and laughed too. It was a wonderful rich, full laugh, genuine and unguarded. Percival appeared at the little window, peeking inside to see the Prince of Wales with his head thrown back, roaring with laughter. Percival smiled at them, then was gone again.
Perhaps Arthur didn’t laugh that hard very often, Merlin wondered later.
“I meant,” Arthur said once he could speak again, “spend some time with me.” He wiped at his eyes. “Nothing is private, everyone stares, everyone takes pictures of you without asking your permission, and people that you think are friends sell stories to the papers all the time. It might sound like a life of privilege but it’s not. It’s the worst kind of celebrity, without even having chosen that life for yourself. You’ll see what I mean. By tomorrow, even if Cedric isn’t a journalist someone else will have let the media know that I’m here. They’ll be sneaking around asking questions. Anyone on the programme with me will be fair game to them. You could sell them a story about my tea preferences!”
“It would keep me in posh coffee for the summer, that’s for sure,” Merlin agreed, smiling at Arthur to show he was joking. “But I don’t do that to friends. And Mr Muscles out there seems to think we are friends.”
Merlin shrugged. “Your company’s not amazing, apparently.” He handed over the tea, pleased to see Arthur was smiling back at him. “Obviously you need help. It so happens I’m brilliantly funny and very helpful. One thing though. Not only am I working class…”
“Middle class,” Arthur corrected again, “though I really don’t care what supposed class you are.”
“Lower middle class,” Merlin allowed, “but I’m also out and proud. That might not sit too well with your royal image. Prince Arthur hangs out with shirt lifter, and other such eloquent and well thought out headlines!”
“It makes no difference to me,” Arthur assured him. “I never understand why anyone’s sexuality had any bearing on who they could and couldn’t associate with. After all, unless you’re sleeping with the person then it really isn’t your business.”
That was the point at which Arthur rose immeasurably high in Merlin’s estimation. Definitely not a complete prat after all. In fact, perhaps if the world was populated with people like Arthur then it would be a better place. Merlin supposed that he might be smiling fondly at his new friend, but he didn’t care.
“That’s very true,” he said. “Perhaps you’ll be a good king one day after all.”
“I have female heterosexual friends,” Arthur added. “That doesn’t mean that I’m sleeping with them.”
“That’s not what the papers say.”
“I loathe the papers more than you can possibly imagine. But honestly, Merlin, one of my closest friends is gay. One newspaper did try to make something of it a couple of years back. It’s what they do.”
“Single handsome friend?” Merlin asked hopefully, making Arthur laugh again.
“Yes, but trust me, you do not want to go there. Gwaine’s the biggest flirt you ever met. He’s also something like twentieth in line to the throne so absolutely not your type!”
Merlin immediately started googling ‘Gwaine heir to the throne’. It didn’t take long to find the man. Dark-haired, dark-eyed and gorgeous.
“Mmm… handsome.” Merlin grinned at Arthur. “So if you and all your cousins and sister and everything die, we could have the first gay king!”
Arthur gave a contemptuous snort at that idea. “As if he’d be the first. Openly gay, yes. And thank you, Merlin, for so casually wiping myself and most of my family off this mortal coil!”
“Think of the savings to the taxpayer,” Merlin replied, unrepentant. “Oh! Think of the coronation! All the rainbows! It would be brilliant!”
“Perhaps he could ride in on a unicorn?” Arthur suggested, his voice heavy with sarcasm.
“Excellent idea! The tax payers would love that!”
“I’ll suggest it to my father,” Arthur told him drily. “Perhaps the next state opening of parliament could be a rainbow event?”
“Glitter…” Arthur repeated with another of those hearty laughs. “My father… oh Merlin, you have no idea how much he would hate that.”
Merlin could well imagine. King Uther Pendragon did not look the type to embrace glitter and rainbows and unicorns. But perhaps his son and heir might be persuaded eventually.
“You could do it for your coronation though! We few, we happy few, we band of buggers… we’d all love you for it!”
“I’ll give the idea due consideration, many decades from now, when the time arrives,” Arthur promised.
“Don’t be silly, Merlin. My eventual coronation will be every bit as ridiculous and stuffy as every king or queen that has ever gone before me. Who knows, perhaps you and your lot will have abolished us by then and I won’t even have to go through with it!”
Merlin was a little surprised by that thought. “Don’t you want to be king?”
“God no!” Arthur exclaimed. “I’d like a job here, doing what that du Lac chap does all day. That would be my perfect life.”
Merlin stared at him, stunned. “But…”
“Oh, and if you try repeating that to the papers the palace will just deny it and point out that you’re a lefty republican!”
“I am!” But Merlin didn’t think he’d ever want to talk to the papers about Arthur. Especially not to people like Cedric.
There was a knock on the door at that moment.
“Prince Arthur?” an unfamiliar male voice called.
“That’s Val,” Arthur explained, getting up to open the door.
The shorter, scarier bodyguard was on the other side. He nodded to Arthur, then pointedly gave the chalet a visual scan, ending up with Merlin. Unlike Percival, Val didn’t smile at him. In fact Merlin thought that the look he was being given was outright dislike.
“Your highness, Cedric Sigan is a journalist. Percival’s removing him from the site right now. He won’t be bothering you again.”
“Thank you, Val,” Arthur told him.
“So there’s no further requirement for you to stay here,” Val added. “I’ll escort you to your room and have dinner ordered.”
“No need,” Arthur assured him. “I’d like to be with my fellow students as much as possible, so will be eating in the cafeteria and then socialising in the pub on site.”
“The king’s instructions…”
“Are to keep me safe. I will be safe, just as he was when he took on work experience here. I assume that he didn’t meet my mother by hiding away in his rooms?”
“No sir.” Val looked across at Merlin again. It was quite an odd thing to do, Merlin thought, considering he was male and therefore not of any sort of romantic interest for Arthur. “Shall I escort you and your friend to the cafeteria then, sir?”
Merlin wondered if being accompanied by Cedric might have been preferable. He also thought that Arthur was looking uncomfortable at Val’s thinly veiled insinuations. There probably wouldn’t be any further visits by the prince to Merlin’s cabin after that. Merlin was surprised at how disappointed that made him feel.
“Yes, of course,” Arthur picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Ready, Merlin?”
Merlin nodded, pocketed his wallet, and followed Arthur out.
He was sure that Valiant was glaring at him the entire time.
News of Cedric’s departure had already spread around the group by the time Arthur and Merlin arrived for dinner. Mary, one of the students Merlin hadn’t really interacted with yet, had spotted Percival marching Cedric out. Then when Arthur and Merlin appeared Freya confirmed that Cedric wouldn’t be joining them again.
She hadn’t looked at all disappointed to be giving out that particular news.
Dinner was okay, although there was little choice. Merlin doubted that Arthur would want to go there every evening. A few of the catering staff apparently had to stay late to feed those staying on site, so the sooner everyone got down there and ordered their meal the better the staff liked it.
Arthur, of course, was super-charming to them and very apologetic for his lateness.
“Oh, we’ve heard about the trouble with that reporter your highness,” they told him. “You poor dear. Have an extra portion of chips. Can we have a selfie?”
And so Merlin was standing there with his empty tray while they all made a huge fuss of Arthur. At one stage he was in the serving area, posing for pictures where he dished up chips with all the catering team around him. Annoyingly Merlin was forced to pose as the recipient of those chips. Apparently the picture was going to be printed out poster size and hung up in the cafeteria. Merlin would get to see it every day.
Eventually Merlin was able to take his (cold) fish and chips away and join the rest of the group. Arthur arrived a few minutes later with a steaming hot plate of delicious-smelling steak, chips and peas. There was even some sort of posh sauce on the plate.
“They didn’t offer me that as an option,” Isolde grumbled, looking at it enviously.
“That is because you are not the Prince of Wales,” George pointed out, pausing in his chewing of a fat, greasy chip. “Obviously.”
“The café people got a bit excited when they saw Arthur,” Merlin told them. “There’s going to be a poster of him pretending to work.”
Gilli and Elena laughed, but the rest of the group all regarded Merlin with varying degrees of either horror or disapproval.
“The royal family work extremely hard,” George stated. “And if nobody has said so already, your highness, it’s a great honour for us all to have you join us for the summer.”
There was a general murmuring of agreement around the group. They’d pulled the tables together to make one big one. Merlin, due to having arrived with Arthur, had a place right in the middle. He would have preferred to eat his cold fish and chips in a place less on display. Still, he supposed that nobody was looking at him.
“Thank you, but I’d really prefer it if you treated me the same as you would anyone else,” Arthur told them. “I’ve been trying to get onto this programme for a couple of years and part of my wish to do that is simply to have summer work experience.” He paused, glancing at Merlin before continuing. “There are those who would tell you that I’m in dire need of experience in work!”
Everyone laughed, including Merlin. And that broke the ice for Arthur. After that people started to engage him in conversation, leaving Merlin in peace.
By the time they all headed down to the pub, Arthur had been adopted by Mary and her workgroup from earlier – Sefa, Daegal and Tyr. Merlin wandered along behind with Elena and Isolde. He thought he saw Val the bodyguard smirking at him, but he couldn’t be sure.
It wasn’t really surprising, Merlin thought. It wasn’t as if the Prince of Wales was going to single him out as his special friend. And anyway, the man was an annoying prat and Merlin was perfectly happy to be left alone.
In the morning, Arthur was there in the cafeteria right in the middle of the other students. They’d pulled a few tables together and were all chatting happily. Merlin collected some breakfast then wondered if he could get away with sneaking onto the end beside Isolde. But no such luck – Arthur had already spotted Merlin and waved him over to an empty spot at Arthur’s side.
“You’re last, Merlin!” Arthur called. “Luckily I saved you a seat.”
“Because nobody wanted to sit next to you,” Merlin grumbled. There was a slight faltering of Arthur’s smile, and Merlin wished that he hadn’t made the comment.
There was an element of truth in it. Arthur had simply sat beside Merlin the previous evening, so there hadn’t been a noticeable gap. He wondered whether Arthur had sat down beside Elena that morning, giving her no choice, and then the rest of the table had filled up leaving that empty space on the other side. Not because people didn’t like Arthur, they’d all been chatting happily to him when Merlin came in, but simply because of who he was. Despite their friendliness in the pub the previous night, nobody felt confident enough to make that move in the cold light of morning.
Mordred shrugged. “None of us want to look like that nutter Cedric,” he pointed out. “Nothing personal, Arthur. Mary saw your security bloke marching him out last night.”
That then prompted everyone to start talking about Cedric and what a pain in the arse he’d been and how glad they were that he’d gone.
“Sorry,” Merlin whispered.
Arthur just shrugged. “It’s fine. And sometimes pointing these things out helps stop it happening again. It was the same at uni, but within a few days everyone got used to the way things are around me. They were fine last night, things will settle down.”
He reached over and helped himself to one of Merlin’s pieces of toast.
“Oi!” Merlin exclaimed indignantly.
“Besides, this saves me getting up for more!” Arthur told him, laughing when Merlin started spluttering about over-privileged royal toast-stealers thieving from the starving minions.
As it had done the previous evening, teasing Merlin did seem to help put the others more at ease. It was just rather difficult having Val the miserable bodyguard standing right behind Arthur, arms folded, glaring at anyone who came near. Merlin had done his best not to look at the man. He was just scary. Hopefully Percival would be back on duty later.
Merlin quietly ate his breakfast, listening to all his new friends chatting, and occasionally joining in. At one point he had to slap away Arthur’s hand as the prince attempted to steal a second piece of toast.
“Just get double the quantity tomorrow, Merlin,” Arthur advised.
“You could get up and fetch more,” Merlin pointed out. “It wouldn’t kill you. And I’m sure there are a few staff on duty who weren’t here last night and would like a selfie.”
“They did that earlier,” Gilli told him.
Oh well, Merlin thought, at least the poster with him being served royal chips hadn’t appeared. Yet.
Afterwards, as they were passing the reception desk on their way out of the cafeteria, Merlin heard someone call his name. He looked round, and saw Alice waving to him. She had been his main contact while he’d been applying for the course, a kindly lady who seemed to be involved in organising anything and everything. It wasn’t surprising to see her covering reception that morning.
“A parcel’s just arrived for you,” she explained as he came over. “Special delivery. Don’t tell me, it’s from your mum because you forgot to pack your underpants or a razor or something.”
The box had the Whittards logo stamped on the side. Good quality coffee was doubtless inside. Merlin couldn’t help giving a fond smile at the sight, even though it was exactly the sort of waste of money that he would expect from the royal family.
“I suppose that happens a lot,” Merlin replied. It wasn’t as if he was lying to her, just continuing the misinformation.
“Every year,” Alice agreed. “Oh! Elena! Elena! Parcel for you too.”
With Alice distracted by Elena, Merlin quickly picked up his parcel and headed off, Arthur at his side.
“This is from you, isn’t it?” Merlin asked, already knowing the answer.
“Of course. It’s not a gift, it’s just that I’ll want decent coffee next time we’re hiding in your shed!”
“Next time!” Merlin tried not to smile but he couldn’t help himself. Val hadn’t put Arthur off. Another point in Arthur’s favour.
“I can assure you Cedric won’t be the last of his kind this summer. I need a reliable sanctuary and you’re it! Now run along, Merlin, get that back to your shed before Gaius’ lecture. I’ll save you a seat!”
“You’re assuming I want to sit next to you!”
Arthur just smiled at him. “You know you do.”
And then the very annoying posh git walked off, whistling to himself, Val the bodyguard stomping along grimly behind.
Merlin watched Arthur go.
“You’re staring,” Elena whispered as she passed him.
Merlin immediately schooled his expression into what he hoped was mild annoyance, and directed it at Arthur’s retreating figure.
“Too late,” Elena told him knowingly. “But honestly, I don’t blame you. He’s even more handsome in person. Come on, or we’ll miss the start of the lecture.”
Later Merlin thought of half a hundred comebacks and excuses that he could have claimed for supposedly staring at Arthur, but they were all far too late. Instead he just muttered “Wasn’t staring” and hurried after Elena as they both headed back to their chalets with their post.
Elena’s parcel was oddly-shaped and quite bulky.
“Parcel from home?” he asked, then mentally kicked himself because he didn’t want her asking about his own parcel and where it had come from.
“Yes,” Elena panted as they jogged along. “Forgot to pack a few things so Dad posted them. Says I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on! What about you? What did you forget?”
“Coffee,” Merlin said truthfully. “I forgot how bad instant is.”
Fortunately they were in too much of a rush and getting too out of breath for Elena to enquire further. Merlin dumped the box inside his chalet, then couldn’t resist slitting it open to have a look.
Inside was a shiny new cafetiere, large enough for several people, and about half a dozen different packs of coffee. And a gift note lay across the top. “Thanks for saving me. A x”
Merlin was absolutely not going to read anything into that x at the end. It meant nothing. Arthur was straight. Arthur was the heir to Camelot’s throne. It was just the way that people signed notes. It meant absolutely nothing.
“Merlin!” Elena called from outside. “Hurry up!”
Merlin left his gift on the bed, and joined her in a race to the lecture hall. Neither of them were fast enough to be spared the Eyebrow of Disapproval when they arrived. Merlin made the mistake of going in first, and was watched as he slid guiltily into the seat next to Arthur, opened up his notepad and tried to hide behind it. Elena sneaked into an empty seat at the end of a row, unnoticed.
It really wasn’t fair that Arthur was laughing.
After that they were friends.
Merlin wasn’t entirely sure how it had happened, but somehow he was the Official Best Friend of the heir to the throne. People started using him as a sort of go-between if they were too shy to ask the prince something themselves. Also, and this was far worse, it meant that the many pictures of Arthur in the papers started to feature Merlin as well. One journalist even tried to interview him about Arthur.
It was deeply embarrassing.
The poster print went up in the cafeteria within a few days, and somehow managed to end up in the papers as well. This meant that both Gwen and Will messaged him with polar opposite responses to seeing it.
“Love that picture of you! What’s Arthur like? Tell me everything!”
“Bloody hell mate. Disowning you for this one. Hope you gobbed in his chips!”
The latter would have been a bit stupid seeing as it was Merlin who was receiving the chips, but Will never was one to let facts get in the way of anything he felt like saying. At least he hadn’t visited. Gwen was already threatening to do so.
And Camelot Trust was a working museum, so people did visit. Hordes of them. Takings had never been so high. And the most popular area of the site was the castle reconstruction, where people gathered hoping to take a look at Prince Arthur.
As Gaius had feared, it was distracting. Arthur started working at the rear of the building so that he was out of sight, but that did little to quell the enthusiasm. Merlin was quite sure that the same group of teenage girls were there every single day. And because the papers had caught onto his friendship with Arthur the girls started taking pictures of Merlin too. And trying to pass him things to give to Arthur. Notes, presents, underwear…
In the end Merlin retreated to the other side of the wall as well.
“Enjoying your fame?” Arthur asked.
Merlin threw a handful of mud at him in reply.
Some of the group enjoyed the attention. Merlin was fairly sure that Mordred and Gilli were doing a nice little side-line in sales of candid shots of Arthur. Or at least they were until George dropped them in it with Gaius and that lucrative number came to a close. George, needless to say, hated the distraction. He blamed Arthur, and Merlin by association. That was hardly fair, as Merlin was simply caught up in the media circus.
And then there were the journalists. Mostly they wanted to know whether Arthur was following in his father’s footsteps and had met his future wife on the site yet. All the females were regularly questioned about this, even Isolde who had made it quite clear that she was happily married and that if they knew what was good for them they’d leave her alone. Kara, who had replaced Cedric, seemed to have started dating Mordred. Mary was engaged. But Elena was the subject of much speculation, being one of Arthur’s closer friends within the group.
Eventually she joined them in working behind the wall as well.
“They really are clutching at straws,” she complained. “How do you put up with it, Arthur? Who any of us are seeing is nobody’s business. And no offence, you’re lovely but you’re not my type.”
Merlin was fairly sure she added “your tits aren’t big enough” but he couldn’t be sure. Which was a shame because he was bursting to reply that Arthur was the biggest tit he’d ever met.
“I don’t know how you’re going to manage when we all have to work as museum guides later on,” Elena added. “All the public will want to be in your group. The rest of us will be a disappointment. And those girls who are always here, they’ll be going round with you every day!”
“Are they still there?” Arthur sighed. “They follow me when I leave to go to the toilet! I think I could give Val and Percival the day off, nobody’s going to get near me to assassinate me or kidnap me or whatever while they’re around!”
“You’ve clearly never watched Misery,” Merlin smirked, then laughed out loud at Arthur’s horrified expression.
“That was a writer!”
“That was an obsessed fan!”
“They’re probably plotting ways to capture you and make you fall in love with them so that they can seduce you for your royal seed,” Elena agreed. “Bingo! New second in line to the throne!”
If it was possible for Arthur to look more horrified then he did. “Oh my god!”
“Hah! Brilliant, Elena!” Merlin laughed.
“They’re very pretty,” Elena pointed out. “The heir would look lovely on the stamps one day.”
Arthur glowered at the pair of them. “You jest, but in my teens I had to endure a long lecture from my father about always making sure I disposed of used condoms securely. It was mortifying,” he added.
Elena and Merlin were almost crying with laughter at that.
“A used condom! That’s all they need! Well, and a turkey baster!” Elena squealed.
“It’s not funny!”
“It… is…” Merlin gulped. “The idea… the warning…”
“Someone would… a turkey baster… oh my god!” Elena was laughing so hard that she started hiccupping.
“The pure and royal line of kings!” Merlin put in. “King of the turkeys!”
“Shut up, the pair of you. Why am I back here with you two anyway?” Arthur grumbled.
“Hiding from your fans,” Elena reminded him, giving him a little peck on the cheek.
“Plus we’re your favourites,” Merlin added, doing the same. “It says so in all the papers.”
“It does,” Elena agreed. “Shame we’re both gay.”
And unfortunately, the journalist hiding in the bushes caught both the kiss and the scoop.
If Merlin had thought being the prince’s best friend brought him too much attention, being the prince’s gay best friend was far worse.
“The Prince and The Poufter!” The Daily Sol proudly proclaimed the following morning. The offensive headline was accompanied by a couple of pictures of Merlin and Arthur sitting together during their lunch break. Merlin normally grabbed a couple of sandwiches from the cafeteria and brought them back so that Arthur didn’t have to eat alone. But he wasn’t the only one – half the group did the same. That fact appeared to have been missed by all the red tops.
The headlines in the trashier papers generally were not kind. “Prince Artie likes a party!” claimed The Daily Reflector. Somehow Elena’s own lack of heterosexuality had been ignored in favour of the paper publishing pictures of both her and Merlin chastely kissing Arthur’s cheek and a titillating story about whether Arthur was shagging one or both of them.
Things went downhill from there.
One paper had managed to locate an ex-boyfriend of Merlin’s who was more than happy to dish the dirt. Not that there was much dirt to dish, but apparently simply being a homosexual male keeping close company with the Prince of Wales was enough. And then a supposed ex-boyfriend of Elena’s popped up, although he turned out to actually have been someone in her year at uni who had never even spoken to her.
Arthur, for his part, was more embarrassed that Merlin and Elena were being harassed than he was worried about being accused of possible love for another man. Another point in Arthur’s favour, Merlin decided.
Arthur really did have far too many good points. Life would have been much easier if he was actually the prat that Merlin had originally supposed.
“All this publicity isn’t very conducive to studying,” George grumbled one evening over dinner.
“It’s an experience we’re never going to forget though,” Mary declared. “I wouldn’t swap it for any other work experience. I think Arthur should pretend to go around the whole group, one week at a time. I volunteer to be the girl next week!”
That set everyone else off, joking and arguing over who would be Arthur’s pretend girlfriend or boyfriend next. Arthur just smiled good-naturedly and carried on eating his dinner. But when Merlin stole a glance at him a few minutes later he found Arthur was gazing at him thoughtfully.
Arthur often seemed to be doing that.
“Are we off to the pub?” Isolde asked the group generally.
It was a given that at least some of them would be. George never went along. Mary, Isolde and Elena never failed to go. It wasn’t as if there was a lot else to do in the evening, although strictly they were all supposed to be following George’s example and studying.
Merlin had so far spent exactly no evenings at all sitting in the reading room in the ancient library building and exactly eight out of nine evenings in the pub with Arthur. And the other students of course.
“I have to do a presentation for Professor Gaius,” Arthur announced. “It’s to show that I’ve caught up on missing out the first day. I was supposed to do it a few days back.”
It was the first Merlin had heard of it. “Really?”
“Yes. Was that an offer to help? Thank you, Merlin,” Arthur slung an arm around his friend’s shoulders. It meant that Arthur and the scent of his skin were incredibly close. Merlin tried not to savour the smell, tried not to breathe it in too deeply. If Arthur knew what he did to Merlin when he got that close it would probably be the end of their friendship, no matter how easy-going the prince was.
And so they ended up back at Merlin’s little chalet. Merlin had grumbled about missing out on his nightly beer, but Arthur had procured cans of lager from somewhere (Percival, most likely as Merlin couldn’t see Val doing anything like that, not if Merlin was going to be drinking it).
“So, what’s this presentation?” Merlin asked.
They were both sitting up on Merlin’s bed, leaning back against the headboard. It wasn’t as if there was anywhere else to sit. Merlin supposed he’d be able to truthfully one day say that he’d shared a bed with the king. The media would go wild if they ever found out.
Will wouldn’t be impressed.
Arthur was leaning forward, opening up his laptop. It was considerably larger than Merlin’s cheap 15 inch one. But that wasn’t anything surprising. Only the best for Arthur. “Oh, there isn’t one. I thought we could have a quiet evening, watch a movie or something.”
Arthur looked round at him worriedly. “I mean, if you don’t want to then we could go to the pub.”
“No, it’s okay. I was just surprised. You could have taken that massive super-laptop down to the pub and everyone could have watched the film.”
“Yes, and carried on pimping me out while they were at it. I’ve had enough of the journalists and everything. George is right, it’s distracting everyone. I called my father’s private secretary earlier to see if the palace can get them to leave us alone. And Lance is going to seal off half the castle site so that we can all work without being constantly ogled.”
“Your fan club will probably cry.”
“My possibly underage fan club need to stop following around older men that they don’t know. Now, what do you want to watch? Comedy? Action? Superheroes?”
Merlin leaned over to look at the list on the screen. “Some of these are still on at the cinema.”
“Yes. Well some of us can’t go to the cinema very easily. What about this one? Thor 4? I think I’ve seen the others.”
“Chris Hemsworth always does it for me,” Merlin confirmed. “Good pick.”
Arthur selected the movie, then sat back on the bed. “You know, if the papers heard that you had a thing for stunningly handsome muscular blonds then we’d never hear the end of it.”
“True. Do you know any?”
“Funny.” Arthur looked over at the window. “The sun’s getting low. It’s going to shine straight in our faces. Can you close the curtains?”
“The papers are going to make something of that,” Merlin commented, but did as he was bid. As he settled back down onto the bed next to Arthur again, he couldn’t help thinking that this felt like a date.
But it wasn’t. Arthur was his friend. That was all.
“They’ll make something of nothing, so I wouldn’t worry,” Arthur commented. Merlin didn’t reply, so after a few moments Arthur checked up on him.
“Okay? You’re being quiet. Pleasant but odd.”
“This wasn’t what I expected a summer here to be like,” Merlin admitted. “I thought I’d be reading into the night and working all day. Not drinking beer and watching superhero movies, and definitely not with someone like you!”
“No beer and movies? What kind of poor excuse for a student are you, Mer-lin?” Arthur retorted. “Are you actually George?”
“No, but I’m also not Prince Party Pants!” Merlin told him. “I don’t spend every night in a bar getting wasted.”
“Have you seen me do that?”
“In the papers.”
“Ah. And based on your experience over the past week, how reliable would you say they are?”
Arthur had him there. Merlin muttered something under his breath about not very reliable at all, making Arthur laugh triumphantly.
“Hah! So you take it all back?”
Merlin regarded Arthur sitting there on his bed, handsome features and triumphant smile lit by the light from the laptop screen. All it would take would be the smallest movement to lean forward and kiss him.
Not a date. No. Prince of Wales. Not gay. No kissing. No.
“I’ll take some of it back,” Merlin allowed. “But those photos looked real enough. Prince Arty Party Pants. All you needed was a little crown!”
“Yes, I’m sure my father would agree to let me take a crown out to a nightclub for the evening. And it wouldn’t look at all silly.”
“Hmm.” It gave Merlin an idea. A silly one, but he had a feeling Arthur wouldn’t mind. He picked up his notepad from the desk beside the bed. One good thing about having no space in there – everything was within easy reach.
Merlin tore a page out of the notepad, then stretched over to rummage around in the little desk drawer for scissors. Finding a pair, he started doing some hasty crafting, turning away from Arthur so that what he was creating was out of sight. Particularly the part that involved sticking the paper together with magic. Arthur definitely didn’t need to see that bit.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked, leaning across Merlin, trying to see. “What’s that?”
He was practically lying over Merlin. Merlin could smell his aftershave, feel the warmth of his body. It was so distracting that Merlin barely put up any fight at all, letting Arthur grab the paper out of his hands.
“Oh you’re funny.” Arthur held up the paper crown that Merlin had made. “I do have a proper one of my own, you know?”
“Oh I know. I’m sure my taxes have paid for it.”
Arthur side-eyed him. “I bet you’ve never paid taxes in your life.”
“And earned enough to pass the tax threshold?”
“There was national insurance on one job!”
“That’s to benefit you! That’s not taxes.”
Merlin glowered at Arthur, knowing he couldn’t win that one but determined to have a go anyway. “Well Mum pays taxes. And I’ll pay them one day.”
“I’ll be sure to thank you when you do. Hmm…” Arthur looked at the crown, turning it over in his hands, examining it. “Merlin, how did you stick this together?”
“The… paper was in a loop?” Merlin offered.
“It’s from pages in your notebook. Try again.”
Arthur hadn’t been fazed at all about Merlin being gay. But some people did see magic as being a threat. Not that it was, not unless the user was some sort of psycho anyway. What was the worst that could happen? It wasn’t actually illegal.
“You might not like the answer.”
Arthur gave a wry smile. “Is this like the being gay thing? I wasn’t supposed to approve of that either, was I?”
True. Well, in for a penny… “I have magic.”
“Amazing. And yet you’re such a disaster zone!”
That wasn’t the reaction Merlin had expected at all. Merlin might have said that he was slightly short-sighted or something for all that Arthur was bothered.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“You have magic, yes. My sister does too, she’s a seer. I don’t think she can do whatever you did to that paper though.”
“The… your… you mean Princess Morgana?”
“I don’t think I have any other sisters!”
“No, I suppose that as they’d be in line for the throne they’d probably have made their presence known,” Merlin agreed.
“Not if they had any sense. Stop distracting me, show me all the things you can do with your magic,” Arthur demanded, the movie completely forgotten.
Arthur nodded, watching him expectantly. “Show me what you did to the paper.”
Merlin did as he was bid, tearing out another sheet of paper and sealing it together so that it was a continuous loop. The second time he didn’t bother with scissors, willing the fibres of the paper to disintegrate in places until there was a row of not entirely tidy paper spikes around the top of the crown.
Arthur watched, completely fascinated. “That’s amazing. Do something else.”
“I don’t know! What else can you do? Can you make us invisible? That would be so good.”
After the past week, Merlin could imagine how Arthur would want to stay hidden. He wished that he could help his friend, but sadly it was beyond his capabilities.
“I think that only works in Harry Potter,” Merlin explained. “Sorry. But I can do this.”
He raised a hand, carefully crafting a tiny dragon made of sparks of light. It floated in the air for a few moments, then flapped its wings and flew across to Arthur, circling his head a few times.
“That’s amazing!” Arthur repeated. “I’ve never seen anything like that!” He held out his hand, and Merlin duly allowed the dragon to ‘land’ on Arthur’s outstretched palm. “I can’t feel anything.”
“No, well it’s not real,” Merlin told him. He let Arthur admire the dragon for a few more moments, then released the illusion in a shower of sparkles.
“What else can you do?” Arthur demanded. He would, Merlin realised, probably carry on asking all night. It was good that he was so interested and positive, but Merlin didn’t really want to spend the rest of the evening doing magic tricks.
“It’s a bit exhausting,” Merlin lied. “I don’t want to overdo it.”
That, at least, Arthur seemed to accept. He sat back against the headboard again, drinking his beer and watching the movie, idly playing with the second crown as he did so. It made a mildly irritating rustling sound and so eventually Merlin grabbed it from him and plonked it on his head.
“There you go. Now you look even more like Prince Arty Party!”
“Hah!” Arthur retrieved the first crown from where it lay forgotten on the bed. “Well if we’re having a party, you can have a hat too. Princess Merlin, there you go!”
He put the crown on Merlin’s head. It was slightly too big, and slipped down to rest on his ears.
“Ah, so that’s what they’re for,” Arthur teased.
“My head isn’t as big as yours,” Merlin retorted, then yelped when Arthur smacked him on the arm. “Ow!” He retaliated in kind, elbowing Arthur in the side.
“Oi! It’s the tower for you when I’m king!” Again with the smack.
“When you’re king I’m emigrating!” Merlin grabbed one of the pillows and whacked Arthur with it. And of course Arthur couldn’t let that go. The childish mock-fight escalated, until Arthur’s forgotten laptop almost slid off the bed. Merlin caught it just in time, magically lowering it back into the centre of the mattress.
Arthur gazed at him, all mock fighting forgotten. “That was amazing. I’ve never seen anyone with magic like yours, Merlin. Some of Morgana’s friends are good, but you’re something else. You really are.”
Merlin shrugged, uncomfortable with the compliments. He was better with insults really.
“I could be your magical advisor when you’re king. Hefty salary of course.”
“Definitely. There’s got to be some benefit to being king and that’ll be it.”
It wasn’t the first time Arthur had said something like that. Sometimes Merlin thought that Arthur didn’t actually want the job he was born to do. And just a week of the press intrusion had been more than enough for Merlin. Arthur had to suffer it permanently. Nothing was worth that. So this time Merlin didn’t reply with some flippant comment about all the wealth and palaces and everything but just nodded.
“I’ll look forward to it.” He took a swig of lager, then gestured towards the laptop with his can. “Do you think we should restart the film? I don’t have a clue what’s happened so far.”
Apparently Arthur didn’t either, so the film was restarted and they both sat there mostly in companionable silence, occasionally commenting on something happening on screen. It felt peaceful and right, sitting there with him. Merlin couldn’t recall an evening that he’d enjoyed more.
At some point Arthur’s silly crown had been restored to its rightful place on his head. Arthur had rolled his eyes but left it there.
“I’m fashioning a wizard’s hat for you next time,” he’d warned.
The assumption of a ‘next time’ had left a warm feeling in Merlin’s heart.
By the time the film ended dusk had fallen outside and it had grown dark in the small chalet. Arthur had been quiet for some time, leaning back against the headrest, apparently intent on the movie. Only when Merlin switched on the small bedside light did he realise that the prince was actually asleep.
“Thought you’d been uncharacteristically quiet,” Merlin whispered, gazing at him fondly. Arthur didn’t respond, the gentle rise and fall of his chest the only movement. His head was slumped forward, chin resting on his chest, creating the previous illusion that he had been engrossed in the movie. And still the crown was in place, just about. It was adorable.
Merlin couldn’t help himself. He got out his phone and quietly snapped a picture.
Of course, that had to be the moment that Arthur opened his eyes. He started to sit up, and the paper crown started to slide off his head. Arthur caught it, regarded it, then frowned at Merlin.
“Did you just take a picture of me so that you can plaster it across your social media?”
“Yes. Well, I took a picture. You looked pretty silly. And then there’s the crown and you being king one day. I thought it would be great blackmail material!”
Arthur’s expression darkened. “Blackmail,” he repeated. He screwed up the crown into a ball and tossed it aside, getting to his feet and picking up his laptop. “I should have known.”
“Oh… no,” Merlin suddenly realised how that might sound to someone like Arthur. “No, no Arthur, not like that. No! I’d have done it to any of my friends so that I could tease them later. But never social media. Especially not you!”
Arthur had started to shut his laptop, but paused in the process. “Any of your friends?”
“Well we’re friends, right? Friends tease each other. God knows we have been for the past week. And look,” he held up his phone so that Arthur could see the picture of himself. “Are you telling me that if I’d looked that funny you wouldn’t have taken a picture and tormented me with it?”
Arthur took the phone from him and looked at it for a long moment. Merlin fully expected him to delete the picture.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin added. “I didn’t think. I keep forgetting who you are.”
Arthur looked up from the phone, then handed it back, photo still in existence. He gave Merlin a grateful smile.
“That might be one of the nicest things that anyone’s ever said to me!”
“You’re still a clotpole, obviously.”
They gazed at each other, and if Merlin didn’t know better he would have said that Arthur’s expression was fond.
“I should go anyway,” Arthur told him. “I’m tired and if I fall asleep in here god knows what else you’ll do to me!”
He made no move to leave. And Merlin could think of a million things that he’d like to do to Arthur. Most of them would probably result in Merlin’s oft-threatened trip to the Tower. King Uther would probably bring back capital punishment or something.
Merlin licked suddenly dry lips. Arthur looked so beautiful standing there, lit only by the single light in the tiny chalet. He was watching Merlin’s mouth, as if the motion of Merlin’s tongue was the most fascinating thing in the world.
It wasn’t fair. If only Arthur wasn’t straight. If only there wasn’t a bodyguard standing right outside the door. If only Arthur wasn’t the bloody prince of wales.
“I’ll see you in the morning then,” Merlin sighed.
Arthur gave him a sad little smile. “Yes. Goodnight Merlin.”
And then he was gone, heading out into the night, going back to the much grander place where he would be staying. Outside the door Merlin could hear Arthur talking to Percival, their voices fading as they walked further away.
Alone, Merlin flopped back on his bed. It was still warm from where Arthur had been reclining. Beautiful, unobtainable Arthur. Arthur, who Merlin had to admit that he was starting to fall for.
“You are an idiot,” he muttered to himself. “He’s the prince of bloody Wales! And you are no princess!”
The pillow was going to smell of Arthur, Merlin just knew it. And as he completely failed to stop himself rolling over to breathe in that scent he noticed that there was a single strand of golden hair lying on the pillow.
He left it there. After all, it was probably the only part of Arthur that he’d ever get to sleep with. Life was unfair.