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.
Life might have been unfair, but it carried on regardless.
Whatever Arthur’s people at the palace had done, it worked. There was a happy balance struck. For one hour every day Arthur would go out on the public area of the site and work. A set time, two o’clock. There was rarely a vantage point around the castle to be had. Merlin didn’t want to even think about how many photos he was on.
“It’s like having feeding time at the zoo,” Freya had grumbled, offended on Arthur’s behalf. But Arthur just shrugged and got on with it.
And it was worth it. Having a set ‘available’ time meant that there was little or no interest from the public or press for the rest of the day. Temporary screens went up around the castle site, deterring most of the curious although there would always be a few who even photographed those. Visitor numbers remained high.
As they got further into summer, the days got warmer. Soon it was uncomfortably hot to be working out in the sun. Merlin slathered on the factor 50, his skin too pale to ever tan properly but always quick to burn.
Arthur of course turned a beautiful shade of gold. And if that wasn’t enough he started working shirtless. Merlin thought that the frustration of being around Arthur that summer was going to kill him.
Perhaps he wasn’t the only one. During the public sessions, Arthur was subject to regular wolf whistles and cat calls. Merlin supposed that if that had been done to a woman then there would have been outrage, but apparently it was perfectly okay to objectify his friend. Isolde was rightfully outraged on Arthur’s behalf and frequently called people out on it. That got her into one of the papers too. Apparently she was a bitter feminist who wished all the attention was on her.
Isolde thought that was hilarious and started turning up in a t-shirt with ‘Bitter Feminist’ on the front and ‘Notice me’ on the back. Her sister-in-law ran a printing business and it was easy enough to get similar shirts made up as needed. Merlin had one with ‘Arthur’s GAY bestie’ on it. Elena had one with ‘Arthur’s other bestie (also GAY)’ on it. And there were a couple that got swapped around regularly with ‘Arthur’s secret love’ emblazoned across them.
That actually worked. The mockery of the press stories combined with the removal of Elena from the possible Arthur dating pool slowed the stories to a trickle. Obviously journalists were still around, but the secret love thing had turned into a joke and there were daily shouts from the ‘audience’ asking who Arthur was in love with.
“All of them!” Arthur would call back. “Different one every day! I’m exhausted!” People laughed, and took more photos. On the days when Arthur was shirtless there were requests for him to pose. Sometimes he would oblige.
“You don’t seem to mind,” Merlin commented one afternoon. Arthur had just been standing up on a log, smiling and waving dutifully to the crowd.
Arthur shrugged. “They’re going to take pictures whatever I do.”
“Don’t you feel objectified?”
“Yes, but it’s too hot to work with a shirt on. And there’s no harm. I may as well make it fun for them. Besides, Lance has joined in so they’ll soon get tired of me and start snapping the more photogenic person!”
Merlin hadn’t actually noticed but Lance had stripped off his shirt in the heat and was leaning over the low castle wall that they were reconstructing. It was a perfect shot if Merlin had a camera in hand. And had been remotely interested in anyone but Arthur.
“I suppose,” Merlin agreed half-heartedly. He barely glanced at Lance, because Arthur was right there in front of him and equally shirtless. And it was Arthur.
“Are you sure you’re gay?” Arthur teased, giving him a light smack on the arm. “Isolde might have to edit that t-shirt!”
Merlin was quite, quite sure that he was very gay indeed. Half-naked Arthur, just inches away. Yes. Gay. Definitely.
“Eloquent. I can see how you would have talked your way onto this study programme. The aural presentation must have been something to behold!”
“Oh, my oral presentation is something to behold, trust me,” Merlin replied, pretty much on autopilot because his mind was still focusing on Arthur’s torso. And then his brain caught up to the horror of what he’d just said. “Oh! I mean… I meant… um…”
Arthur did not look horrified. He had a sly, almost pleased smile playing around his lips. Leaning forward (bare skin far too close for Merlin’s sanity) he whispered, almost inaudible; “I’m pleased to hear it. But shush, Merlin. Reporters are everywhere.”
“What?” Merlin stood there stupidly, staring at Arthur. But Arthur had already turned away, picking up the next brick in the sequence and carefully placing it on the wall. He was a study in concentrated effort, as if he hadn’t said anything strange at all.
But he had said it. Definitely. Arthur was flirting with him. It wasn’t Merlin’s imagination.
“Merlin!” Freya snapped her fingers in front of his face. “You still with us?”
He looked around, realising that he’d been staring into space. Probably at Arthur. Just as well Freya had noticed and stopped him. Two till three each day was not the best time to be doing that. “Huh?”
“You were miles away. I thought you were going down with heat stroke or something!”
“No,” Merlin forced a laugh. “You know me, I was thinking about dinner!”
“Hmm,” Freya regarded him thoughtfully, and he had a horrible feeling that she wasn’t fooled. “Are you going to stay fully clothed? In this heat?”
“I have deathly pale skin and a chest that looks like a caved-in toaster,” Merlin told her. “So no.”
“A caved-in toaster?” Freya laughed. “Oh Merlin, who told you that? How mean!”
It had been his friend Will during a short break at the seaside a year or so back. And Merlin had given as good as he got. But he didn’t think Will was exactly wrong in his observation. Especially looking at Lance and Arthur.
“A friend. Anyway, nobody’s going to care what the rest of us look like with these two strutting around the place.”
“True,” Freya mused. “We should do a calendar. Sell it for the charity.”
“I was just thinking that!” Merlin agreed, grinning at the looks of horror on Arthur and particularly Lance’s faces. “Like that fireman one, except archaeologists.”
“I feel objectified,” Arthur complained (which was a little rich considering his posing a few moments before) and Lance nodded agreement.
As part of the programme, there was a requirement that the entire group trained as museum guides then helped out during the summer.
Merlin had been looking forward to it prior to his friendship with Arthur. As their training progressed his enthusiasm waned somewhat. He had a horrible feeling that he would get few questions about the exhibits and many about Arthur.
Arthur was exempt from taking part, which also wasn’t fair. He was doing the training along with the rest of the group, but he wouldn’t be taking the public round. Not because Arthur didn’t want to but because Alice decided it would be a logistical nightmare. Everyone would be insisting on going on the ‘royal’ tour and it would be demoralising for everyone else.
Instead, to complete that part of the training Arthur would be taking a select few groups of schoolchildren round. There was a competition between schools, focusing on encouraging the study of local history. The ten winning classes would be escorted around the site by Arthur.
“Are you sure it’s not the losing classes?” Merlin had asked when Arthur admitted to this one evening in the pub.
“Funny. No, those are going to be escorted around by you, didn’t anyone tell you?”
Merlin thought he might prefer taking children around. There was less likely to be a journalist in the group disguised as a tourist, waiting to trip him up with some question.
“They’d be the real winners then!”
“Hmm.” Arthur had been quiet all evening. Merlin half-expected him to suggest they go off and watch a film or something, which was what usually happened when Arthur didn’t feel sociable. But the offer hadn’t come.
“What’s up?” Merlin asked eventually, when Elena had headed to the bar to fetch more beer. “You’re moping about something.”
Arthur shrugged. “I have to leave for a few days. My father insisted. There’s a reception at the palace and I’m supposed to be there. I was just thinking how much I’ll miss being here.”
Merlin was going to miss him too. So he found a special way to put that into words. “Your fan club will be inconsolable. There’ll be complaints.”
“They can admire the rest of you instead. It’s only two days. I’ll be back on Sunday night.”
“That’s three days.” It was Thursday night.
“Ah, I knew you wouldn’t be able to bear to be away from me! I’m not going until tomorrow afternoon. It’s forty-eight hours. You’ll cope. Here, give me your phone, I’ll put my private number in.” Arthur held his hand out expectantly.
There had been no need, until that point, to exchange numbers. Merlin realised that they’d been in each other’s company so much that it wasn’t necessary. Although he’d wanted to message Arthur a few times late at night or first thing in the morning. Or at lunchtime, when he was in the cafeteria and couldn’t remember which snacks he was supposed to take back to the site for Arthur. He unlocked his phone and handed it over, watching as Arthur started to set up a new contact on there.
“Will the Secret Service come over and torture me if I ever give it to anyone else?” Merlin laughed.
Arthur looked at him sharply, his face suddenly full of suspicion. “What?”
“Joking,” Merlin said quickly. “I would never.”
Arthur relaxed a little, and carried on typing his number into the phone. “It’s not funny. People do, you know? The papers would pay a small fortune.”
Merlin recalled Arthur’s reaction to the photo that Merlin had taken. It was the response of someone who had already been hurt.
“Who was it?”
“Hmm?” Arthur looked up from the phone again.
“The person who betrayed your trust. Who was it?”
Arthur froze for a moment, his mouth a silent o of surprise. Then he looked down, finished off what he was doing on Merlin’s phone and handed it back.
“Someone at university. I thought they were a friend. I was wrong.”
“You know I would never do that?”
“I thought I knew that they wouldn’t. The papers would pay a lot of money for a juicy story. It’s a temptation.”
“I don’t know why. How many stories about you getting drunk and falling on your face at clubs does the world need to see?”
“Well, that wasn’t the story they were trying to sell,” Arthur told him. “Ah, Elena, perfect timing!”
As Elena set their drinks down on the table, Merlin made a mental note to ask Arthur about it again when they were alone. He knew there was more to that story. And if it wasn’t about getting drunk then what naughtiness had Arthur been up to that he wanted kept from the world?
The drunken party prince had turned out to be a media fabrication. What else was incorrect?
Arthur lifted his beer and saluted them both with it before taking a long swig. Very regal. Merlin could feel Arthur’s gaze on him as he drank. Arthur knew Merlin well enough by then to understand that he had an innate thirst for knowledge (“Nosiness, Merlin”) that was never sated. And Arthur’s horrible ex-friend was a mystery that Merlin wanted to solve, if only to ensure that he himself never inadvertently behaved in the same way and hurt Arthur.
There was no chance that evening, so would have to wait. When he got back to his chalet, Merlin opened his phone, intending to message Arthur now that he could, and looked through his contacts.
There was nothing under Arthur, or under Pendragon. Merlin was scrolling up and down for a while, and then he saw it.
‘Super Sekrit No.Tower awaits for any who share it’
“Prat,” Merlin muttered fondly. It probably tested the limit of the allowed contact name. No wonder Arthur had taken so long to tap it in.
Merlin couldn’t resist sending a message, all thoughts of Arthur’s ex-friend long gone. ‘Have changed your contact name to A. Prat. Seemed more suitable. Merlin.’
He just hoped that Arthur had put the right number in.
A few moments later a message came back. “That’s okay, I’ve put something suitable in for you at this end too. A x”
There was that x again, just like with the coffee. Merlin was absolutely not going to read anything into it.
But that didn’t stop him messaging Arthur at least once an hour for most of the next few days, until Arthur was back in his rightful place at Merlin’s side.
Because they were friends. Right?
The Camelot Fayre was an annual summer event at the museum.
For one long weekend, starting on the Friday and ending Sunday night, staff were supposed to dress up in costume, serving at themed stalls dotted around the site. The students on work placement were not exempt from this.
“I’m not dressing up,” Mordred had grumbled when they were told about it.
“It’s part of the joys of working here,” Lance pointed out. “Consider it an experience!”
“You know we’re studying for degrees, right?” Kara checked.
“You know I’ve got a doctorate, right?” Lance countered. “I was running round in bearskins last year. Embrace the experience, it’s good fun. And it’s not unusual for museum staff anywhere to be expected to dress up every now and then.”
It wasn’t quite what Merlin had thought about doing when he’d signed up, but he’d visited Camelot Fayre several times over the years so wasn’t exactly surprised.
“Everyone signs up for a particular building,” Freya explained to them. “Everywhere on the site is up for grabs but obviously the popular ones go quickly. Then you choose a suitable costume to wear, appropriate to your building – for example you might choose the church from 1815 and dress up as different religious figures from that era. And you can sell whatever has been agreed for that property.”
“That’s either food or things from the gift shop,” Lance put in. “Last year Freya and I were in the Iron Age village selling swords and shields. They barely move in the main shop but we were having mock battles with them and cleared almost the entire stock. Alice ordered double the quantity this year.”
“Sign me up for the pub!” Mary called. “I can see myself as a buxom serving wench, dishing out tankards of mead! Who’s with me? Isolde, right?”
“Me!” Mordred and Kara shouted in unison.
Isolde’s face fell, as did Mary’s. Kara and Mordred both looked suddenly very enthusiastic about the project they’d hated the idea of only minutes before.
“That’s the pub taken then,” Lance commented. He’d got a list in his hand, and made a note on it. “We generally do this in groups of three but it’s not a problem if four of you want to do it. The pub is always busy. It means that someone can still run the stall if the others are doing re-enactments or the like. I’ll put the sign-up list on the noticeboard. Everyone can see what’s left and put their names down.”
“It’s for all staff, including volunteers and casual workers so I’d recommend signing up quickly, otherwise you’ll risk missing your favourite,” Freya added.
Lance held up the sheet of paper and headed towards the door, narrowly missing Professor Gaius on his way.
“Dear lord, not this again,” Gaius grumbled. “Why can’t we raise money some other way? Any other way will do.”
“I’ll put you down with me and Lance for the Iron Age settlement then, shall I?” Freya asked with a cheeky smile.
“If you think that’s a wise career move then by all means do. Otherwise it’s the library again, thank you Miss Waters.”
“And shall we sign you up for the calendar shoot, Sir?” Freya asked, all innocence.
Apparently being permanent staff did not make her exempt from the eyebrow.
There was no chance of getting to that list within the hour, Merlin realised. He certainly wasn’t going to be the person that walked out of Professor Gaius’ lecture.
Arthur nudged him, then tilted his notepad so that Merlin could read it.
“We’re going on a stall together.”
It wasn’t even a question.
“Which building?” Merlin scribbled underneath what Arthur had written.
“Roman villa. I’d make a good Roman centurion.”
“You’d be a good Roman prat!”
“You can be my slave. We’ll get you a toga!”
Merlin groaned. “The press will love that.”
Unfortunately he’d made the noise a little too loudly, and then leaned over to write on Arthur’s pad, all interest in the lecture lost.
“Mr Emrys. Mr Pendragon.”
Professor Gaius was standing over them. “Gentlemen, if I may?” He held out his hand expectantly, waiting for them to pass him the notepad. “I didn’t realise, when I agreed to instruct this year’s intake of work experience students, that primary schools were sending us a couple of candidates.”
Arthur and Merlin exchanged apprehensive glances, then Arthur reluctantly handed over his notepad.
“It was about the charity thing, Professor,” Merlin offered. “We’re keen to raise money.”
“Hmm.” Gaius read the note, his eyebrow rising as he did so. Unfortunately Arthur’s handwriting was so neat that it might have come out of a printer, and Merlin’s was reasonably legible as well.
Please don’t read it out, Merlin prayed silently. He was fairly sure that the remaining students were trustworthy, but there was always going to be a temptation to sell a story to the paper. That note could so easily be misinterpreted.
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint the pair of you but there will be no dressing up as Roman centurions.”
There was a ripple of laughter around the room, although Merlin did hear someone grumble that they wished they’d thought of that.
“The villa is always one of the most popular and will have been taken the moment Dr Du Lac pins that notice to the board. Perhaps the pair of you would be suited to the village green?”
“The green?” Merlin frowned.
“Why?” Arthur asked, looking equally puzzled.
Gaius smacked the notepad down on Arthur’s desk. “Because there’s an authentic set of stocks there. And if the pair of you start writing notes during one of my lectures again I’ll have you both sent there for the fayre no matter which of the properties you sign up for!” He shuffled back to the front of the lecture hall amid peals of laughter from the rest of the group. “I’m sure you’ll be very popular! Now, if I can drag you all back to what you’re actually here for, today I’m going to talk about the particular challenges involved with bringing the tithe barn here. I’ll start with some footage of the building in its original setting.”
The lights dimmed. Arthur nudged Merlin with his foot. Merlin waited a moment then nudged him back, trying not to make a sound as he did so. Arthur elbowed him in retaliation and Merlin had to stifle a giggle.
Professor Gaius gave him a sharp look.
Merlin knew he was probably ruining his chances of ever getting a permanent position at Camelot Trust, but he couldn’t help himself where Arthur was concerned. Arthur was nothing like Merlin had expected him to be. And although that was theoretically a really good thing, in reality it definitely wasn’t. Because Arthur was funny and handsome and actually quite kind when you got past all the annoying Arthur-ness of him. These were not good things because they were all what Merlin wanted in a partner.
He just didn’t want that partner to be the straight Prince of Wales.
When Professor Gaius had returned to his lecture, Merlin gave Arthur’s foot a kick. It was childish, but he wasn’t going to let Arthur have the last word as it were. Arthur narrowed his eyes, gaze still on Gaius, then put his foot over Merlin’s, holding it in place. There was enough pressure that Merlin couldn’t free himself without risking drawing further attention to the pair of them. It didn’t hurt or anything. And if Merlin were honest it was turning him on a bit. The possessiveness of Arthur, the petty need to dominate, to win, no matter how ridiculous the competition. The feel of him there, almost seeming to stake his claim on Merlin.
And so that was how they stayed for the rest of the lecture.
Afterwards there was a scramble for the door as most of the students were keen to get their names on Lance’s list.
“Mr Emrys, Mr Pendragon, a word please,” Gaius called before they could escape.
Arthur had almost made it out first, his speed and enthusiasm spurring the others on. He stopped at the door, letting the rest of the group hurry past him. George of course was slower, gathering his things together then favouring Arthur and Merlin with a disapproving look. No doubt he thought that they were about to get the telling off that they clearly so richly deserved.
“Gentlemen,” Gaius began.
Merlin shuffled closer to Arthur, suddenly feeling as if he were about ten years old and back at school getting told off for messing about in class with his friend Will. It had happened quite often.
“Do you know how much competition there was for a place here this summer?”
Merlin hung his head guiltily. Out of the corner of his eye he was aware that Arthur was also looking remorseful.
“Yes, Sir,” Arthur said. “And I’m very grateful to you for allowing me on the programme.”
“Me too,” Merlin agreed.
“We were just excited at the idea of the fayre,” Arthur added quickly. “It’s an important opportunity to give something back. We were hoping to raise a huge amount for the trust. We still want that, don’t we Merlin?”
Merlin nodded vigorously. “Yes. Definitely.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m sure that’s to be applauded. And while it’s always pleasant to see relationships develop at these summer schools, please can you restrict it to your own time.”
“Relationship?” Arthur spluttered at the same time as Merlin protested “It’s a friendship.”
“Hmm,” Gaius said again. “Friendships are a type of relationship you know?”
“Oh, yes…” Arthur glanced worriedly at Merlin.
If Merlin had needed any further confirmation of Arthur’s complete lack of interest in him sexually, his reaction to Gaius had sealed it. Still, friends were important. And Arthur was great company. And it wasn’t as if Merlin had ever thought even for a moment that it was going to be different. But Arthur was so very tactile. All. The. Time.
“Friendships are important,” Arthur confirmed, as if he were reading Merlin’s mind. “You know how difficult it’s been sometimes.”
“Yes, Arthur, I’m aware.”
“But I’m sorry for disturbing your lecture, and I’m sorry for distracting Merlin as well. He’s a really dedicated student, Professor. It’s different for me because obviously I’ll never be allowed to work somewhere like this permanently, but Merlin’s chances shouldn’t be tainted because of me.”
Merlin gazed at Arthur open-mouthed. He wasn’t used to people taking his side like that.
“Uh, it was me as much as Arthur,” he put in quickly. “I could have just ignored him. And we do want to take part in this fayre thing and help the Trust raise money.”
“Excellent,” Gaius smiled. “I’ll tell Dr Du Lac to put you both down for the village green then?”
Merlin and Arthur exchanged a worried glance.
“Oh don’t be so foolish,” Gaius told them. “Do you have any idea how dangerous stocks were? It wasn’t like the comedy sketches that the pair of you might have seen on TV. People were badly hurt, sometimes killed. No, we’d never do that. May I suggest though, that the pair of you sign up for the castle? I don’t believe Lance put it on the list as he’s probably just re-used last year’s and the castle was nowhere near ready at that stage. But obviously any stall manned by the Prince of Wales is going to be very popular. So we may as well play up to it. You two can go as King Arthur and the warlock Merlin.”
“King Arthur?” Merlin wondered. Warlock sounded cool. “Will we be selling the toy swords from the shop and stick them in a stone?”
Gaius waved them away. “Talk to Alice about that. I generally don’t get involved. So, run along and put your names down. And during my next lecture I expect to see the pair of you paying such rapt attention that I’ll think young George has been cloned!”
Merlin and Arthur took their opportunity and hurried away. Merlin thought he heard Gaius mutter under his breath as they left:
“And not to each other.”
Gaius was correct about the castle.
It wasn’t on Lance’s list, so Arthur got out a sharpie and wrote it in at the bottom, then put his name and Merlin’s name against it.
“You’re assuming I want to spend the day with you,” Merlin commented.
“Too late, it’s by royal command,” Arthur told him.
Although the rest of the group had already put in their choices and were leaving to head off down to the castle site, Elena had still been standing there frowning at the sign-up sheet when Arthur and Merlin arrived. She watched worriedly as Arthur defaced the list.
“Are you supposed to do that?” she asked.
“Professor Gaius suggested it,” Arthur told her. “It’s fine.”
It was sort of true, and as Lance was nowhere in sight it was totally justified, Merlin thought. But he noticed that George hadn’t put his name against any of the properties. George was such a stickler for the rules that it wasn’t going to be much fun if they ended up with him.
“Which one are you going for?” Merlin asked Elena hopefully. He couldn’t see her name on the list either.
She looked a little lost standing there, biting her lip and twirling her hair absently. “I don’t know. You know what I’m like, I drop everything. I don’t want to put my name down. People aren’t going to want me on their team.”
“I bet Mary and Isolde would much rather have you than be stuck with Mordred and Kara,” Merlin pointed out.
“You’re coming in with us,” Arthur decided. “We need a third person and you’d be our first choice.”
Elena looked so pleased and surprised that it was all Merlin could do not to hug Arthur for suggesting it. Well, commanding it really.
“I never get picked for things,” she told them. “Oh! We could be knights. That would be fun!”
“I was thinking king, queen and Merlin can be the fool but knights… I like that idea,” Arthur agreed. “Brilliant!”
“Fool?” Merlin queried, but Arthur wasn’t listening. He’d slung one arm around Elena’s shoulders and was guiding her around, heading for the exit.
“We can pool ideas in the pub this evening and come up with a plan. We’re going to make more money than any other stall!”
“It’s not a competition,” Merlin grumbled, trotting along beside them.
Arthur glanced at him, then slung his free arm across Merlin’s shoulders, giving both his friends a little squeeze.
“Merlin, Merlin, Merlin. Of course it’s a competition! And we are going to win!”
The worried expression had returned to Elena’s face. Merlin understood exactly how she felt.
A week later, and Merlin’s fears were entirely justified.
Naturally people had been excited about Arthur’s involvement in Camelot Fayre that year. So much so that his stupidly handsome face had been plastered on some of the posters. His bodyguards had been grumbling about it non-stop. Well, Valiant had been grumbling about the extra work and glaring at Merlin as if it were somehow his fault, whilst Percival had been worrying about how many extra staff they’d need to ensure Arthur was kept safe that day.
There were many reasons why Merlin preferred Percival. The fact that his priority was keeping Arthur (and therefore the rest of them as well) safe was high on the list. Also Valiant was just scary. And he definitely didn’t like Merlin.
On the evenings when Valiant was on duty, when it was Valiant sitting outside Merlin’s chalet waiting for Arthur, Merlin never felt completely at ease. There was always the fear at the back of his mind that Valiant would suddenly burst in and drag Arthur away from the gay person. As if it were catching or something.
On Valiant evenings, as Merlin thought of them, Merlin preferred that they sat in the pub and worked through plans for Camelot Fayre with Elena. Valiant still glowered at him, but there were more witnesses if he decided to flay Merlin alive or something equally pleasant.
It was one such evening that Arthur brought along their costumes.
As it was a castle, Merlin had hopes of being something cool like a knight or a king. He assumed Arthur would probably be wanting the king role, some might say he would be a natural. But a knight would be great. Perhaps Merlin wasn’t particularly knightly-looking, but it was a fayre for charity, and Arthur had been going on about sword-fighting and knights and things.
So far they had been working out what they would sell, and putting in orders with Alice from the museum shop. Apparently there were quite a few medieval knight-related toys and gifts that hadn’t been selling particularly well, and she was keen to offload them. The costumes of the three salespersons hadn’t been up for discussion. Arthur had insisted that he would sort something out.
Elena and Merlin had been sitting in the pub chatting over a couple of pints of lager when Arthur finally joined them. Valiant walked behind him, grumpy-looking as ever, and stood a few feet away, back to the wall.
Arthur had three garment carriers slung over his shoulder. He dropped them on an empty chair, greeted his friends then headed off to the tiny bar.
Elena eyed the carriers worriedly. “What did Arthur say we were all going to be dressed as? It’s knights, isn’t it? Oh, I didn’t hear when he told us and I didn’t like to ask. He’ll think I’m ditzy.”
Valiant gave a brief, nasty snort of laughter, but when Elena looked around his face was as grim and angry as ever.
“I don’t think Arthur actually said what we were going as,” Merlin admitted. “He’s been all leave it to me whenever I’ve asked.”
“I hope we’re knights. I’d love that! Knights would be fun.”
Only one of the three garment carriers looked bulky enough to have any sort of helmet inside, but Merlin decided that he wasn’t going to be the one to dash her illusions. “I’d love that too,” he agreed.
As Arthur returned with his drink, Merlin and Elena turned their conversation back to what they’d be selling on their particular stall. Elena barely waited until Arthur had sat down before she announced her brilliant idea.
“Arthur, we’ve been talking.”
“Nothing new there,” Arthur replied, sipping his beer. “If talking was an Olympic sport, we’d get two golds from you pair!”
“Very funny,” Elena replied. “No, we thought we could print a load of pictures of you and then you could sign them!” Elena exclaimed. “We’d make a fortune!”
That was a really good idea. Merlin turned to Arthur hopefully. “How many do you think you could sign in the next few days? Five thousand? Ten?”
“None,” Arthur told him. “Sorry.”
Elena looked quite disappointed. “But it would be popular…”
“Listen, I’ll do the calendar as long as the rest of you take part too. But I’m not allowed to give autographs. It’s a good idea in theory, but it’s not permitted. Too easy for an unscrupulous person to make a forgery.”
“Really? But isn’t the king’s signature on bank notes?” Merlin asked.
Arthur shrugged. “Google it if you don’t believe me. I can’t do autographs. Sorry.”
Elena looked disappointed for a moment, then moved on. She nodded at the carriers that Arthur had put down earlier. “Let’s see our costumes then. Are we all knights, Arthur? I suppose you’re going to be the king?”
Arthur paused, looking between them both, then at the carriers. “Um… no,” he said carefully, putting his beer down on the table then picking up the first garment carrier. “No, we’re all something different and I thought it would be better if I wasn’t king, so I’ll be the knight.”
“And what will we be?” Elena asked, no longer looking as excited as she had been.
“This is your costume,” Arthur told her, unzipping the carrier. “You’ll be the queen.”
Inside was a crown and a deep red and gold dress. Elena’s pale complexion would probably be washed out in it. She regarded it miserably.
“You’ll be in charge,” Arthur added. “We’ll find you a throne.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” she said in a small voice, taking the dress and crown from him. “Lovely.”
“What are you going to be?” Merlin asked.
“A knight, of course,” Arthur replied as if anything else was a ridiculous idea.
“Hmm… Maybe you and Elena could swap?” Merlin suggested, but Arthur ignored him.
“This is your costume, Merlin,” Arthur announced, unzipping the second carrier.
At first Merlin thought it was another dress. But it wasn’t, it was some sort of ghastly robe. The thing was deep blue. With stars all over it. Sparkly silver stars. And there was a pointed wizard’s hat to go with it. And a wand. Merlin stared at it in horror, and then at Arthur.
“Merlin the wizard! What else could you be? Besides, Alice wants to sell off all those boxes of magic tricks that are piled up in the store room. Perfect!”
“You and I obviously have different ideas of perfect,” Merlin commented, holding up the robe. “This is beyond horrible, Arthur.”
“It’s perfect,” Arthur insisted. “Stop complaining, Merlin. Look, we can paint a lump of polystyrene or something and stick the toy swords in it. You can pretend you’re the real Merlin and…”
“I am the real Merlin!” Merlin protested. “This real one, anyway!”
“And we’ll use papier machee for the stone, better for the environment,” Elena added. “Are you going to stand there drawing the sword out and claiming you’re the once and future king then, Arthur?”
“Once and future prat,” Merlin grumbled. “Look at this costume. And I don’t think Elena likes hers either, do you El?”
“Well…” Elena looked between them both. “It’s obviously very kind of Arthur to get them for us…”
“She hates it,” Merlin confirmed.
“Hate is a strong term,” Elena qualified. “It’s just that… Oh, I really wanted to be a knight, Arthur. I’m not a girlie girl, I’ll just trip over myself if I wear that. Kara or Mary would have loved it, I’m sure. Perhaps I should swap with one of them?”
“Or Arthur could swap costumes with you?” Merlin suggested mischievously. “Red’s his colour.”
“Merlin,” Arthur growled, “shut up.”
“You’d look great. A very modern monarchy type of thing to do!”
Arthur rolled his eyes, turning away from Merlin and trying to talk only to Elena. “Elena, I’m sorry, I presumed. Of course we’ll find you a knight’s costume. You and I can stage battles for the children to enjoy – both boys and girls. Actually, that’s a really good idea. Unlike Merlin’s idea,” he added pointedly.
“Can I have a knight’s costume too?” Merlin asked hopefully.
“You’re Merlin the wizard,” Arthur reminded him. “He wasn’t a knight.”
“He wasn’t real!” Merlin grumbled. “And even if he was, he wouldn’t have worn something like this.” He held up the horrible, sparkly robe-thing so that they could see just how awful it was. Arthur, he noticed, was looking amused. At least Elena was sympathetic.
“Three knights would be good,” she said. “Though a wizard is perfect for Merlin,” she added. Merlin immediately regretted revealing his magic to Arthur, who had blabbed about it to Elena a few nights back without a second thought.
“I can’t send back two costumes,” Arthur assured her. “It would look as if I was being a prima donna or something. No, we’ll just change yours. Unless of course Merlin can wave his magic wand and turn both your costumes into something else?”
Merlin was half-tempted to try. Transformation wasn’t a spell he’d attempted since his pre-teens when he’d seen it in a Harry Potter movie, and his mother’s favourite mug had never been quite the same again afterwards. But the wizard costume deserved to be amended. Also that would show Arthur.
“I’m tempted,” Merlin muttered. “And then I’ll turn you into a frog, see if anyone wants to kiss you!”
“Turn Elena’s into a knight,” Arthur told him. “Leave yours alone, it’s perfect.”
“And don’t turn Arthur into a frog,” Elena added. “People won’t buy that calendar Freya’s shooting if he’s all green and slimy.”
“Not much different from usual then,” Merlin told her. He got to work on the costumes. It wasn’t quite as difficult as he had expected, though he didn’t think he’d want to make a career out of it. Elena’s red knight costume looked great and she loved it. Arthur’s green knight costume, in the end, had a coat of arms depicting a large frog on it. And nothing Arthur could do or say would make Merlin change it.
The following week passed in a rush. Along with the work experience, the lectures and tour guide training, everyone had to fit in plans for the Camelot Fayre.
Because it was an annual event, there were a stash of little stalls locked away in one of the stores. The things had to come out a few days in advance in an attempt to rid them of the musty smell. The one for the castle was particularly ripe, or at least it seemed to be to the students working nearby.
“Thank god we’re not selling food from it,” Arthur had muttered as he munched his way through his lunch a few days before.
“It’ll have freshened up a bit by the weekend,” Freya promised them.
On the day of Camelot Fayre, however, Arthur was not convinced.
“It still smells,” he complained. “It’s going to put customers off.”
Alice, who was busy handing out floats and card readers, paused for just a moment. She reached under the reception desk and brought out a bottle of fabric freshener.
“Nothing is going to put people off your stall. That should sort it. Off you go. Merlin, here’s your till.”
Merlin found himself carrying a fairly heavy cash box and card reader down to the castle site while Arthur walked beside him wondering about the spray bottle.
“So what do I do with this?”
“Uh… spray it?” Merlin suggested.
Arthur experimentally did so.
“On the tent,” Merlin sighed. He had a feeling it was going to be a long day. That feeling intensified when they got down to their musty-smelling marquee and Arthur attempted to use the spray properly.
“Not much is coming out.”
Merlin sighed again, heavier this time, wearier. “You need to adjust the nozzle.” He put the box and reader down on the table, then held out his hand for the bottle. “Surely you’ve used cleaning products before, Arthur. Please tell me you’re not that much of a spoiled princess!”
Arthur scowled at him and didn’t hand the bottle over. He did fiddle with the nozzle though, and managed to spray a fair amount on one small area, creating a wet patch.
He actually sounded quite proud of himself.
“You’ve never used any sort of cleaning product in your life, have you?” Merlin guessed. Behind them, he heard Percival snort with laughter, and knew that he was correct.
“Obviously I’ve used cleaning products,” Arthur protested. “Soap is a cleaning product. Shower gel. Toothpaste.”
“I meant household cleaning. Which obviously you haven’t. Give me that bottle.”
Arthur held it as far from Merlin as he could. “I will not. Alice entrusted it to me!”
“It’s not actually a cleaning product,” Elena pointed out. She’d been arranging the merchandise out on the sales table. “It’s a scented spray.”
“Hah!” Arthur jumped on that as if it were some sort of personal triumph. “Not a cleaning product!”
“You’re still using it wrong. Give it to me!” Merlin made a grab for the bottle but Arthur swung it out of reach again. “Oh my god, are you five? You look ridiculous!”
Arthur didn’t actually look ridiculous. The Green Frog Knight outfit suited him enormously. Merlin might have had a few dreams about it over the past week and definitely had been daydreaming about getting carried off by him. But Arthur didn’t need to know about any of that.
“At least I’m not wearing a star spangled gown and a silly hat!” Arthur retorted. He made the mistake of pointing at Merlin when he said it, using the bottle-wielding hand. Merlin saw his chance and immediately moved in, grabbing the bottle and managing to wrest it out of Arthur’s hand.
“Hah! I win!” Merlin danced out of reach, moving around the outside of the tent spraying it properly – or as best he could with Arthur chasing after him.
“Boys…” Elena called. Percival was just standing there beside her, laughing at the pair of them. “Can’t you stop them?” she asked, but Percival shook his head, then laughed louder when Merlin tripped over and Arthur pounced on him. “Oh… careful with the costumes!”
Merlin wasn’t too bothered as he knew he could fix any damage with a little magic. Having Arthur pinning him down was definitely high up on the fantasy list. He was suddenly quite glad of the flowing wizard robes that hid his reaction to Arthur’s proximity so very well.
“Surrender!” Arthur demanded, his legs straddling Merlin’s hips so that he was pretty much sitting on his prey.
“Never!” for a brief moment Merlin couldn’t even remember what they were play-fighting about. The feel of Arthur’s weight on him, the warmth of Arthur’s body against his was all he wanted. Merlin lay there laughing and breathing hard, trying to hold the bottle underneath him so that Arthur couldn’t easily get it.
And then a stern voice rang out, causing them both to freeze in place.
“Arthur, whatever do you think you’re doing?”
Standing over them, looking decidedly unamused, was King Uther himself. He might not have been wearing his crown but that made little difference – he was even more imposing and scary in person than in the pictures.
Merlin swallowed hard, not quite sure what the best thing was to do. Despite all the time he’d spent with Arthur over the past weeks he still had little or no idea of the correct etiquette to be observed around royalty. Well, around royalty that wasn’t Arthur. Somehow he knew that Uther would not appreciate Merlin’s banter in the same way that Arthur did.
“Father!” Arthur scrambled to his feet, brushing himself down hurriedly. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”
“Clearly,” Uther intoned. His gaze slid from Arthur to Merlin, who stayed down on the ground.
Somehow it felt safer there. Closer to the earth that he was no doubt about to be buried alive in. Merlin wondered if perhaps his magic might throw up some bright new talent that it had yet to show. Perhaps it would kindly turn him invisible. Or make the king vanish or something. Anything.
Arthur didn’t seem to understand that Merlin wanted to hide. He reached down, grabbed Merlin by the arm and hauled him to his feet. Merlin realised to his horror that the spray bottle had soaked the front of his costume. He just hoped that Uther didn’t think it was anything more damning.
“This is my friend Merlin, he’s a fellow student here,” Arthur explained.
Oh the horror. Merlin found himself on eye level with the king and completely at a loss as to what to do. Was he supposed to bow? Shake the man’s hand? Say something? Anything?
“Uh… Pleased to meet you, your majesty,” he managed, holding out his hand. He wiped it on his costume first, as it was wet from the spilled fabric freshener.
Uther’s eyes narrowed and Merlin vaguely recalled something that Arthur had said once about having to wait for the king to speak to you. At the time he’d been attempting to shut Merlin up, it had been one of the many plans that Arthur had apparently got for Merlin once he became king.
Arthur elbowed him sharply, so Merlin quickly withdrew his hand and gave an awkward bow instead.
If anything Uther looked even less impressed at that.
“Arthur, a word. Walk with me.”
With an apprehensive glance at Merlin, Arthur did as he was bid. But the king’s voice carried, trained as he was in public speaking, and Merlin could still hear the beginning of their conversation.
“That, I presume, is your homosexual friend? Really, Arthur, couldn’t you have chosen one of the other students to befriend? The papers are not being kind. This had better not be another Cenred situation.”
Whatever Arthur’s response was, the pair were walking away and soon out of Merlin’s earshot. He wondered whether he was perhaps intended to hear the king’s jibe? Perhaps it was the reason Uther was there at all? Arthur certainly hadn’t believed he was going to turn up. And what was a Cenred situation?
“I know he’s the king,” Elena whispered, “but I don’t like him very much. Arthur’s not like him at all, is he?”
No, Arthur definitely wasn’t. If he was then there wouldn’t be a problem, because King Uther seemed to be a complete dickhead. Merlin gave a heavy sigh, then shook his head. “No. Come on, let’s finish setting this up before the crowds get here. Assuming his dad allows him back then Arthur’s going to be busy. Do you think we should have got a fourth person to help? What if Arthur isn’t allowed back?”
“Hopefully he will be.” Elena went back to sticking up price lists at the side of the flimsy little tent that they’d been given. “People aren’t going to be very happy if they come up here and just find the two of us. I mean, you’re a bit famous now because of the papers but even so they’re going to want Arthur.”
Merlin hadn’t really considered that aspect of things. The papers had put quite a few pictures of him in over the past weeks, along with the unflattering and sometimes homophobic headlines. He looked down at the ridiculous wizard outfit that Arthur had made him wear. The Prince and the Poufter was still a very sore point. His costume wasn’t going to help matters at all.
“If he doesn’t come back I’m going to take this stupid thing off,” Merlin decided. “Do you think we’d be able to get another knight outfit at short notice? I don’t know if I can turn this thing into one. It would be too different.”
Elena shrugged. Her red and gold dress had turned into a red and gold knight’s armour without too much trouble but Merlin hadn’t seen many pictures of knights dressed in blue with sparkling silver stars. “No idea. I don’t know where Arthur got them. I’m just glad he let you change that stupid princess costume for me. Ugh!” she gave a little shudder at the memory.
Merlin tried an experimental touch of magic but the costume really didn’t want to change. He was a bit worried that it might change into a cocktail dress or something by mistake and that he’d be stuck in it for the rest of the day. Instead he concentrated on trying to dry out the wet patch on his front before Uther came back. At least that would be an improvement.
“Oh! Hello! We’re not open yet.”
Not without a little apprehension, given their previous visitor, Merlin looked up from what he was doing to see who Elena was greeting. It sounded too cheery to be Uther back yet. He needn’t have worried – it was two of his favourite people in the whole world.
“Mum! And Gwen!” He gave both of them a hug. “I’ve missed you!”
First his mother, then Gwen hugged him back. They both gave the best hugs, he remembered. Not like the clotpole he’d been stuck with for the past few weeks who seemed to think arm punches were some sort of sign of affection. Merlin had got them both clearance so that they could get in early. He’d also offered a pass to Will, but Will had refused, saying he’d rather poke himself in the eye with a sharp stick.
Elena was watching them curiously. When Merlin put Gwen down, he gestured towards his newer friend.
“This is my good friend Elena, she’s on the programme with me. Elena, this is my mum and my friend Gwen.”
“I’ve heard lots about you both,” Elena smiled. “All good,” she added quickly.
Gwen smiled delightedly. “That’s good, I may let Merlin flatshare with me again next year in that case!”
“I love your outfit, Elena,” Hunith told her.
“Merlin changed it for me. Arthur wanted me to be a queen. I mean, that’s nice and all but I would have hated it when I was a kid if I’d come here and seen that the men got to be knights and the women had to just sit there on the throne.”
“Me too,” Gwen agreed. Merlin made a mental note of that because while Gwen didn’t take any shit from anyone, she also absolutely loved dresses (particularly very flouncy wedding dresses, hence her choice of dream job) and would have adored being queen for the day. He was going to tease her for it at the earliest possible moment.
“Arthur and I are going to do some mock swordfights,” Elena continued. “Like Lance and Freya did last year. And Merlin’s going to do magic tricks.”
“What… real ones?” Hunith asked. She glanced worriedly at Merlin.
“No, there were some retro ones in the museum shop that weren’t selling. Goodness knows who thought they were a good idea. But we’re going to try to shift them. Stupid kiddies ones, you know the sort. Where you make a coin seem to travel through a solid glass bottle, or where you pick someone’s card… not exactly earth-shattering. Oh and wands as well.”
“I’m definitely going to want to watch you do those!” Hunith rolled her eyes.
Gwen smiled. “Me too! But first I need some pictures.” She had her phone out. Merlin groaned, he knew that the pics would be all over her Instagram before the end of the day and all their friends would see. “Smile!”
Merlin stuck his tongue out and gave her the finger. Naturally that didn’t stop her taking photos of him. Behind her Arthur had returned. He headed straight for the tent, head down, and began unpacking some more boxes. Gwen and Hunith hadn’t noticed him.
At least he hadn’t brought the king back with him, Merlin thought.
“So can you try out a few tricks now?” Gwen asked. “I could record it for posterity!”
She could record it and upload it, she meant. Merlin wasn’t stupid.
“No. Come on Gwen, we’ve only got half an hour before the public start coming in. Hey, I don’t suppose either of you want to be queen, do you?”
Arthur dropped half the swords with a loud clatter, swore and started gathering them all up again. He still had his back to them, and Merlin’s two visitors barely glanced at him.
“You could see if Alice has a spare costume,” Merlin continued. “I’m sure there’s something, and we’ve got plastic crowns for sale… you could preside over the knights during the tournament?”
Gwen looked dubious. “Who’s Alice?”
“Nice lady, runs everything round here.”
“I don’t know…” Gwen glanced at Hunith. “What do you think?”
“It’s a great idea.” Arthur said before Hunith could answer. He stood up and turned round, a bundle of toy swords in his hands.
Gwen and Hunith both stared.
“There you go, Gwen,” Merlin told her. “Royal command!”
“Merlin!” Gwen hissed, nudging him in the ribs.
“Ow! What was that for?”
Gwen didn’t say anything, just nodded meaningfully towards Arthur, her eyes wide. Arthur was carefully arranging the swords on the table by colour. The customers would muddle those up in no time, Merlin thought.
“Oh. Yeah, Prince Partypants is trying to make himself useful,” Merlin said loudly, making sure Arthur could hear. “It’s not going well.”
Hunith’s wide-eyed gaze immediately fell on Merlin instead. “Merlin!”
“Mum!” Merlin repeated the tone back to her. “What?”
“You can’t say things like that!”
“Oh yes he can, unfortunately.” Arthur abandoned the swords over to join them. “I’ve had to put up with it for weeks now. If I complain then the papers will immediately start reporting how I’ve had a bad falling-out with one of my co-workers or something so I have to grin and bear it. I’m Arthur, by the way,” he held his hand out, all politeness and charm.
Gwen looked at the hand, then up at Arthur’s face, then back at the hand again. She made no move to shake it. “Um…”
“Merlin and I have established that when I’m eventually king I’m going to reopen the Tower of Camelot for business. Merlin here will be the first one through Traitor’s Gate!” Arthur grinned. “There’s a dungeon with his name on it!”
“When you’re king I’ll be emigrating to a republic,” Merlin told Arthur. Though he thought he would vastly prefer King Arthur to King Uther if their brief meeting earlier was anything to go by.
That exchange at least made Gwen laugh and finally shake Arthur’s hand.
“I’m sorry about Merlin,” Gwen said with feeling. “He’s not usually this rude.”
“If only that were true,” Arthur sighed. “Look how rude he’s being right now, not telling me who you two are! Is he like this to you?”
Gwen gave a nervous little laugh, and glanced at Hunith who was trying not to laugh. “Um… no, Merlin’s lovely. Honestly. I can’t imagine why… um… I’m Gwen! Yes, I’m Gwen.” She laughed again, then looked helplessly at Merlin.
“Gwen, as in Merlin’s best friend and flatmate?” Arthur smiled.
“Yes?” Gwen glanced at Merlin again.
“I’ve heard many good things about you, Gwen. Pleased to meet you,” Arthur told her. “Clearly you’re some kind of saint if you’ve suffered Merlin for the past two years.” He turned to Hunith, the charming smile still in place, and held out his hand. “Hello, I’m Arthur.”
“They know,” Merlin told him. “Arthur, this is my mum.”
Arthur’s smile did falter then as he must have realised that he’d been insulting Merlin in front of Merlin’s mother. “Mrs Emrys… um… Ah. I’m sorry, Merlin is… er…”
“Merlin is a cheeky so and so and I am sure I raised him better,” Hunith told him. “And please call me Hunith, your highness.”
Betrayed even by his own mother in the face of Arthur’s charm. Merlin tried not to feel bitter.
“As long as you call me Arthur.”
Merlin made a disgusted noise. Hunith smacked him lightly on the arm.
“I understand you’re a teacher? And that you brought Merlin here as a child, kick-started his interest in history?” Arthur continued.
“I did. He’s always loved the site. I was so pleased when he got a place here.”
“He’s certainly making the summer interesting,” Arthur allowed. And that could mean anything really, Merlin supposed.
“And you run your own business, is that right?” Arthur continued, speaking to Gwen.
“Yes, your highness,” Gwen gave a little curtsey again.
“Please call me Arthur. Absolutely no curtseying needed either. We’re fellow martyrs, having to put up with Merlin and his ways.”
Gwen did absolutely nothing to disagree with what Arthur had said, just smiled almost manically and nodded. “Yes, your… uh… Arthur. I’m a wedding planner. I’m just starting up though. It’s all groundwork at the moment, I won’t be operational until next year when I graduate.”
“I’ve told her to call it ‘Til Death’, but she refused,” Merlin added.
Arthur stared at him for a moment, then laughed heartily, throwing his head back and giving Merlin a tasty view of his exposed throat. “Til Death! Brilliant!”
“See, you could call it that now and say it’s by royal appointment,” Merlin attempted, then belatedly realised that Gwen was giving him a killer Paddington stare. “Um… or not.”
“I like it!” Elena piped up.
“I haven’t decided what to call it yet,” Gwen allowed.
“Arthur, are you really going to be working on this stall, selling things?” Hunith put in.
“You do know you’ll be mobbed? I thought the car park was busy when I came in, and I was quite early. There’s a queue to get in already.”
“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” Percival assured her. “I’ve got extra staff on today and they’ll help with crowd control. We’ve put some barriers up, just in case. It’s all sorted. If it gets bad we’ll operate a numbered system so that most people can go and look at the rest of the site then come back when it’s their turn.”
“So if I want a picture of you all I should get one now?” Gwen checked.
“While our costumes are intact,” Merlin agreed. “You probably won’t get another chance. I’m burning this thing at the end of the day.” That earned him another light smack on the arm from his mum.
Percival obliged with the photos, gathering the five of them together and taking a few pictures on Gwen’s and Hunith’s phones. Merlin just hoped a printed and framed copy wasn’t going to be on the mantelpiece next time he went home to Ealdor.
“So,” Arthur said once the photos had finished. “Did anyone want to sit here and be queen?”
It was remarkable how quickly Gwen and Hunith needed to leave at that point.
Their stall, as expected, was ridiculously busy.
The planned mock swordfights between Arthur and Elena barely had a chance to happen. Mostly people were queueing up to buy something, anything, as an excuse to speak to Arthur. And although Elena and Merlin could take brief comfort breaks without anyone caring, if Arthur took a few minutes away from the stall then the queue ground to a halt.
Despite himself, Merlin couldn’t help admiring Arthur for the way that he dealt with it all. Always calm and polite, moving people along but never actually seeming to rush them. And their stall was making a lot of money. Mostly because Arthur was being very obliging with selfies – as long as you bought something.
“Obviously photos are free, but the museum is a charity,” he kept reminding people, gesturing to the donation box that Percival had needed to return to Alice and bring back a fresh one several times.
Gwen’s brother Elyan turned up briefly at one point, along with his friend Leon. Merlin knew Elyan reasonably well through Gwen, and had met Leon a few times. He supposed they were really all there to take a look at the Prince of Wales. They didn’t stay long after the no doubt hoped-for introduction to Arthur having seen how busy Merlin was.
“Can we help?” Leon offered.
“No, we’ll be okay, thanks. Just do the tour, then sit with Mum and Gwen,” Merlin told them. “Family and friends can stay after closing tonight. I’ll ask Alice to add you to the list on my next break.”
He regretted that foolish decision almost as soon as Elyan and Leon had left.
“Why did you tell him that?” Arthur grumbled, coming away from his latest photoshoot. “They could have taken the photos or something.”
Merlin didn’t have a good reason. “They’re here for a visit?” he offered. “I don’t know, Arthur, it just came out! If they come back I’ll rope them in. Mum and Gwen too. I’ll call Gwen when I get a moment.”
Of course none of them came back, and Merlin was really too busy to call anyone.
Midway through the afternoon help did arrive, though from an unexpected source. Arthur’s friend Gwaine turned up.
He didn’t look like the prince he was supposed to be, dressed in worn jeans and a leather jacket despite the heat. Merlin supposed there was a motorcycle somewhere in the museum carpark – Gwaine had a sort of cool biker vibe to him. He also didn’t bother queuing, just strode past everyone and went straight up to his friend.
He didn’t sound like a prince either. Perhaps Arthur had been teasing when he’d made the claim. It was probably a friend from uni. And yet when Merlin had googled him, Prince Gwaine did indeed look exactly like (a tidied up version of) the man in front of him.
“Gwaine!” Arthur had been posing for yet another selfie with the happy purchasers of a pair of toy swords and shields. “Do you want to see the scruffiest prince who ever lived?” he asked the two children that he was crouching beside.
Both of them nodded bemusedly. They were quite small and Merlin suspected that they had no real idea who Arthur was, though the fact that he did have the handsome looks of a cartoon Disney prince probably helped, as did the knight costume.
“There he is,” Arthur pointed. “Prince Gwaine.”
“He doesn’t look like a prince,” the little boy exclaimed. His mother, who had been beaming proudly (and Merlin suspected would have liked a selfie of her own) suddenly looked mortified.
“Oh, I’m sorry, your highness,” she told Gwaine who grinned delightedly at that last bit.
“Don’t you worry, ma’am. I consider it a compliment that I don’t look like Buttface over there!”
Merlin immediately liked this Gwaine person enormously.
“Buttface,” Merlin mouthed at Arthur, as soon as the little family had taken selfies with Gwaine too and then moved on. “Butt. Face.”
“Shut up, Merlin.”
Gwaine’s smile widened. “Ah, don’t you listen to him my friend.” He stuck his hand out. “I’m Gwaine, this idiot’s cousin. And you are?”
“The bane of my life,” Arthur replied. “Actually, that’s both of you!”
“I’m Merlin,” Merlin shook Gwaine’s hand. “I’m working with Prince Buttface for the summer.”
Arthur muttered something rude and unprincely under his breath.
“Merlin… is that your real name or just for today with the costume?” Gwaine asked.
“Real name. Someone,” Merlin glared at Arthur, “thought it would be funny.”
“Yeah, he’s not very witty,” Gwaine agreed. “All that inbreeding.”
“Yes, Gwaine’s a prime example of how badly that can go,” Arthur told them. He looked around at the ever-growing queue. “Merlin, we still have a lot of customers, stop chatting to Gwaine and get back to work. And make sure you sanitise your hands after touching Gwaine’s. You never know where he’s been.”
“Bet you’d like to know where I’ve been though, eh Merlin?” Gwaine grinned. “Cute guy like you…”
Merlin recalled Arthur’s warnings about Gwaine. Still, it would be worth it. Gwaine was very good-looking. And it wasn’t as if Merlin’s heart was his to break. No, that was already held unknowingly by Arthur, poised and ready to drop and shatter into a million pieces at any moment.
“Gwaine…” Arthur warned.
Gwaine held his hands up defensively. “Okay, okay, I’ll back off. Pity though.” He gave Merlin an appraising look.
“He’s such a protective old hen,” Gwaine told Merlin. “Ooh, who’s this? Fair lady knight in red, it’s an honour.”
Elena had returned from a comfort break with three icy cans of coke that she handed out to Merlin and Arthur.
“This is Elena,” Arthur told him. “Another friend that you can leave alone. Elena, my cousin Gwaine.”
“He calls Arthur Buttface,” Merlin added. “I like him.”
Arthur looked as if he might say something, then shook his head and went off to meet the next member of his adoring public.
“He loves me really,” Gwaine told Merlin and Elena.
“Yeah, he told me,” Merlin assured him. “Listen, we’re sort of run off our feet here. Have you only come to see Arthur? You might find it a bit boring here for the next few hours while we’re all working. Some of my friends have gone down to the pub in the village square, you might enjoy that more.”
“Well, I wanted to see my old mate Percy as well, and he’s right here,” Gwaine nodded to the muscular bodyguard keeping watch in the background. Percival raised a hand but stayed at his post. “And also to have a nose at this place. But I do like a pub.” Gwaine rubbed his chin, considering his options. “And meeting new people can be fun. Are they as cute as you?”
“Well one’s my mother!”
“Ah, that’s a yes then!”
Gwaine was incorrigible, Merlin decided.
Elena had stepped behind the sales table with Merlin, taking a sale from yet another family.
“Merlin!” Arthur called, “Could you help with the photo?”
Gwaine didn’t go away. He watched Merlin go across in his ridiculous costume, take a few pictures of an entire family with Arthur, then head back to the stall because one of the little girls wanted a picture with the lady knight and Elena needed to extract herself from the stall for that. It wasn’t quite chaos, but it was harder than it needed to be.
“Looks as if you lot need some help,” Gwaine commented. “It so happens I’m an excellent photographer, and available for hire.”
“It’s a charity,” Arthur pointed out.
“I’ll accept beer later.”
“Done.” Merlin told him before Arthur could start bartering. “Now get to work!”
“Merlin!” Arthur protested.
“What? You told me off for sending Elyan and Leon away!” Merlin pointed out. “Now smile. And try not to shatter the lens on the nice lady’s phone!”
“Hah! I like you!” Gwaine told him, stepping up to take the phone from the customer. “Okay, everyone say Wensleydale!”
Having someone to help with the photography did make things a lot easier. Generally adults only wanted pictures with Arthur. But the little girls were often keen to have a picture with Elena, usually in some sort of mock fight pose. She was quite right about role models. And sometimes Merlin got called out in the ridiculous wizard outfit, though that had little to do with anything other than the funny costume.
The swords were going down fast. Merlin wasn’t sure they were going to have enough to last all day. He wondered whether they could liberate a few from Lance and Freya’s stall as apparently they weren’t doing as well that year. Crowns were going down too, lots of children had wanted to wear one while posing with Arthur. Merlin carefully put a couple of crowns, two swords and two shields aside, just in case they completely ran out, and stuck a note on the box they were in telling Elena and Arthur not to sell them. Not that Arthur had been behind the stall all day, nor was he likely to be before they closed.
The magic tricks weren’t going very fast though. It wasn’t surprising as they were cheap tat and not really worthy of a respectable museum shop. Then again, on a normal day there was plenty in that shop hardly worthy of the setting.
Every now and then Arthur would look critically over the remaining wares. It was clear that they would very soon have little but the tricks left to sell. Not that this mattered to most people, but Arthur tended to be more than a little bit competitive and had told Merlin and Elena that they were going to sell every single thing on that stall. And he hadn’t entirely been joking.
“Merlin,” Arthur said on his latest viewing of the stall, “you’re clearly not promoting your side of this very well.”
“That’s because the magic tricks aren’t magic, and they’re a bit rubbish!” Merlin replied.
Arthur gazed at them thoughtfully. “Do you know how they work?”
“Of course!” Merlin had at least attempted a couple of them to some singularly unimpressive kiddies who had then bought swords instead.
“Hmm…” said Arthur thoughtfully, and got out his phone.
Half an hour later Princess Morgana turned up. Or rather, Queen Morgana. Resplendent in a tiara that might well have been real, and the most glorious purple satin gown, she swept past the line of delighted onlookers smiling and waving regally as she did so. She had a large bag slung over one shoulder which didn’t entirely go with the image.
“Oh my god!” Elena exclaimed, clutching at Merlin’s arm. “Oh my god! I’ve died and gone to heaven, haven’t I? Oh my god!”
Clearly the Pendragon siblings had both received far more than their fair share of attractive genes. If possible, Morgana was even more stunning than her brother. And she was in character from the very start.
“The queen has arrived!” Arthur yelled. “God save the queen!”
“What is he doing?” Merlin whispered, but Elena might as well have had hearts standing out in her eyes for all the attention she paid him.
Gwaine echoed the cry, punching the air with his fist, and getting the crowd to join in. Morgana’s smile widened further as she joined them all in front of the castle.
“I heard there was a tournament!” she called. “I am in attendance! Bring me my throne!”
Percival brought out one of the plastic chairs from inside the stall. Nobody had been able to use them so far anyway. Morgana raised an eyebrow when she saw it, but sat herself down on it as if it were the finest of thrones.
“Excellent. Bring on the first challengers! You two! The ugly Green Frog Knight and the lovely lady Red Knight!”
“That’s you,” Merlin elbowed an awestruck Elena.
“Oh my god!”
Somehow she didn’t trip over. Merlin had noticed with Elena that she was only really clumsy when she was trying to do something elegant. Stomping up to Arthur to engage in a mock battle was not elegant in the slightest and she pulled it off very well, following Arthur’s lead when he bowed to the ‘queen’.
“Marvellous!” Morgana applauded. “And now one of you shall be my champion. Hmm…” she regarded them both for a moment. “Red Knight, step forward. Give me your sword.”
Elena did almost stumble at that point, but managed well. And the mystery of Morgana’s huge bag was revealed – it was full of brightly coloured ribbons. She tied one around the hilt of Elena’s sword, then handed it back.
“Let the battle commence!”
For a moment it looked as if Morgana’s awestruck champion was going to lose by default, but Arthur was perhaps kinder than Merlin sometimes gave him credit for and eased her into it. Soon enough was sprawled on the ground, Elena’s sword at his throat.
“My champion!” Morgana crowed as Elena bowed to the crowd. “And now I need a new one. Who’s next? Surely there is someone who can defeat my knights?”
A couple of small boys ran forward eagerly (two more sword sales) and received favours, duly defeating Arthur and Elena and then getting their picture taken with the two knights and the queen (“It’s free, obviously, but the museum relies on charitable donations,” Morgana told everyone. The charity box was moved to a spot beside her throne). And so it went on, the sword stock vanishing rapidly.
“This is the last box,” Alice warned, having had to enlist Lance’s help in bringing it down from his own stall. Apparently the Iron Age settlement wasn’t as popular this year for some reason.
Arthur whispered something to Morgana, then turned and gave Merlin the thumbs up. That did not bode well at all…
“And now a break from the fighting! The wizard Merlin, my court sorcerer, step forth and entertain us with feats of magic!”
Merlin was going to kill Arthur.
The card tricks were the easiest to perform to a large audience. Merlin allowed Morgana to pick a card, show it to the crowd to the right of her then return it to the bottom of the pack (the pack did only consist of five cards so you had a 20% chance even without the raised dots that identified each one by touch.
“My queen, is this your card?” he asked, holding up the Queen of Hearts. Really, he didn’t even need the trick, Morgana was bound to have gone for the queen.
Morgana took it from him and showed it to the crowd. “It’s magic! Another trick, my sorcerer!”
“Can’t we go back to sword fights?” Merlin grumbled under his breath but duly utilised one of the ‘magic’ wands that produced a bunch of feathery ‘flowers’ when twisted just so. “For you, my queen,” he called loudly.
There was rather a lot of applause for such a rubbish trick, but generally this was due to everyone entering into the spirit of it.
“Do we have any aspiring magicians to learn from Wizard Merlin?” Morgana called. “I tire of him and need fresh, new magicians at my court!”
That brought a steady stream of children forward. The magic trick pile started to go down. Elena took charge of sales while Arthur and Morgana posed with Merlin. Merlin just prayed that his mother or Gwen didn’t come back while that was going on. They wouldn’t be able to resist taking more snaps for Gwen’s social media. Also his mother had an Instagram account. Pictures of her son with the royals in stupid costumes would doubtless prove far more popular than the flowers and sheep that normally adorned it.
A small dark-haired girl was next in the queue, her parents standing behind her beaming happily while Merlin prepared to demonstrate the wand into flowers trick. She regarded Merlin, stony-faced throughout the trick.
“You’re rubbish,” she declared. “Look what I can do.” And she turned the wand bright green.
There were gasps from around the queue, not least from her parents.
“I’m so sorry,” the mother began. “Cassie, you naughty girl…”
Morgana waved her aside. “It’s fine. That’s wonderful, well done Cassie!”
Arthur crouched down beside the little girl, who was looking a little worried at her mother’s reaction. “That’s amazing,” he told her.
“Mummy tells me not to do it. She says it’s bad.”
Arthur glanced up at Merlin, then smiled at Cassie. “Well your mummy is trying to look after you. Some people don’t like magic users. They’re jealous, or frightened of it. Your mummy doesn’t want those people to see how special you are. But don’t ever think that you’re bad for having magic. You’re different, and having magic is incredible. Okay?”
“And you can keep the green wand. That’s a present from Queen Morgana and I. Come on, we want a photo with an amazing sorceress.” He took her hand, lost in his larger one, and led her over to Morgana.
Merlin bit his lip, trying not to do anything embarrassing like cry while Arthur continued to talk to the child after the photos. He knew he’d never hear the end of it from Arthur if he did. But if he’d thought he couldn’t love Arthur any more than he already did, apparently he was wrong.
Suddenly he realised he was staring, and quickly turned away. But in doing so he immediately met Gwaine’s gaze.
Gwaine looked at Merlin, then at Arthur, then back at Merlin.
“Huh,” he said, as if he was answering a question in his mind. And then he tossed back his hair and turned his attention to the customers. “Okay, back to the sword fights! Who wants shooting next?”
Forgotten, or so he hoped, Merlin crept back behind the sales table. It was much safer there.
But Gwaine seemed to be watching him after that.
The day was a huge success.
The stock did sell out, even the rubbish tricks went in the end when there was nothing else. Merlin’s foresight in putting a couple of swords and crowns aside for photo ops proved wise as soon all that the children were taking away with them were photos and Morgana’s ribbon favours.
Even the ribbons had almost gone by the end of the day. As the queue dwindled and the remaining stock vanished, Merlin finally had a chance to sit down on the grass with Elena, both of them just waiting for the last few visitors to finish having their photos taken. The front gates had closed nearly an hour earlier. Every other stall on site had closed and been taken down, but Arthur had insisted that all the kids in the queue got a photo. Merlin and Elena had taken down their own stall. Various staff members had appeared to carry it all back. Only Morgana’s ‘throne’ and the charity donation box remained.
“They’re so nice,” Elena sighed. She was still gazing adoringly at Morgana. “Lots of people wouldn’t have done this. They’d have taken the chance to finish.”
Some of the bodyguards were looking quite fed up, Merlin thought, though Percival was still cheerful enough. It had been a very long day.
And then, finally, the last of the visitors were done, and it was over. The final pair of children went off with the by then quite tatty swords and crowns. Arthur sat down heavily on the grass, shattered. Gwaine joined him.
“Bloody hell, mate!” Gwaine grumbled. “I thought I was going to spend a few minutes here with you and then sit in a country pub till you were done!”
“I’m exhausted,” Morgana agreed. “Arthur, that was a favour and a half!”
“The kids loved it,” Arthur protested. “And we’ve raised so much for the Trust.”
“You promised me beer,” Gwaine reminded him.
“Merlin promised you beer,” Arthur argued wearily.
“I don’t care who it was, I’ve earned beer! Perce, you off duty yet?” Gwaine called to Arthur’s muscular bodyguard.
“No, but I’m due a break,” Percival called back.
Gwaine scrambled to his feet. “Perfect. So where’s this pub, Arthur? And these friends of Merlin’s?”
“We have to take the chair and donation box back on the way,” Arthur sighed. “I just want to go to sleep!”
“Throne,” Morgana corrected him. “This is my throne, little brother. I haven’t finished being queen yet.”
“Perhaps you’d like us to carry you down there on it,” Arthur retorted.
“I’ll consider it. Now, Merlin and Elena, my darlings, you have done so well today, your queen gives you the rest of the day off and you can escort Gwaine and I to this pub. Arthur, as the losing knight you can carry the throne and box back and join us later.” She got to her feet. “Lead the way, Court Sorcerer!”
Arthur muttered something highly un-princely, but picked up the chair. Percival grabbed the donation box and they headed off. The large number of bodyguards had started to disperse, but there were still far more than usual around. Morgana had of course brought her own. Gwaine didn’t appear to need any. Merlin quickly pulled the ridiculous robes over his head and rolled them up into a ball. He was quite sweaty underneath after a long warm day working hard, but there wasn’t a lot he could do about that.
“I should probably take a shower,” he apologised.
“I’ve smelled worse,” Morgana assured him, taking his arm and walking with him. “Now tell me all the embarrassing things that my brother has done since getting here. I want as much ammunition as possible.”
There wasn’t really very much to tell. “He’s been working hard.”
“Boring. Make up some gossip, Merlin. I’ve been seeing a lot of you in the gutter press. You’re quite famous, you know. When Arthur called me earlier it was a perfect excuse to come and meet you.”
Morgana was not as intimidating as Merlin had at first supposed. She was actually quite nice, and it was easy to walk along chatting to her. Behind them Gwaine was talking to Elena. It sounded as if he were chatting her up. But before the evening was over Merlin realised that Gwaine chatted everyone up. There were no exceptions.
Isolde and Mary were still working at the pub, though they had moved inside and started helping the regular barman as he was dealing with a far larger evening clientele than usual. Mordred and Kara seemed to have got fed up and wandered off. Gwen, Hunith, Elyan and Leon were still there, sitting around one of the larger outside tables. Elyan raised his glass when he saw Merlin approaching.
“Merlin! Finally! We thought you’d turned yourself invisible or something!”
“Where’s your lovely costume, darling?” Hunith called. Sometimes Merlin’s mother thought that she was hilarious. Merlin pulled a face at her and dumped the offending garment in her lap once he was close enough.
“All ready for you to launder, mother dear,” he told her.
Morgana settled herself down at the table without invitation, taking the spot beside Gwen and gesturing for Elena to take the seat opposite. She shooed Merlin away. “This is the ladies end. Merlin, I love you very much already but I want to you take your stinky self away and go sit with the boys now.”
And that was just about the last conversation Merlin had with Morgana for the rest of the evening.
“I don’t mind a bit of musk,” Gwaine told him, putting his arm around Merlin’s shoulders as they walked down to the other end of the table to sit. “Bet Arthur likes it too, am I right?”
Merlin really didn’t know what to say to that. “Um…”
“Ah, I’m teasing you my friend.” Gwaine laughed, then turned his attention to Elyan and Leon. “Hello gents! Now tell me at least one of you handsome fellows is single? I’ve had to spend a whole afternoon dealing with children and relatives and if I don’t get a snog before the night’s out I’m not going to be happy!”
Merlin wondered how many times Gwaine tried something like that on straight blokes and got punched? At least Elyan had a sense of humour and thought that was hilarious. Leon was staring at Gwaine in disbelieving horror. But then, Leon had always been a bit straight-laced. Merlin wasn’t even sure whether he liked men, women or both. Judging by the look on his face he definitely didn’t like Gwaine. And of course to someone like Gwaine that was akin to showing a red rag to a bull.
Leon looked even more scandalised when Gwaine sat down on the bench next to him and put his hand on Leon’s thigh. Things went downhill (or uphill) from there and Merlin wondered whether the normally rather mild-mannered Leon might end up punching Gwaine.
Merlin was relieved when Arthur and Percival returned a little while after. Arthur headed into the pub to fetch more beer, whilst Percival sat down on Gwaine’s other side.
“Perce!” Gwaine immediately stopped tormenting Leon and grabbed Percival’s thigh instead.
Merlin was fairly that Percival was either in or at least trying to start a relationship with Freya on the quiet as he’d noticed them sneaking around. They looked quite happy together so he didn’t fancy Gwaine’s chances there.
“Still not going to shag you, Gwaine,” Percival told him.
“Are you shagging Arthur instead? Moved up a notch.”
“No, Gwaine.” Percival took a swig of his beer.
“Merlin then? I would but he’s spoken for.”
That was news to Merlin. “I’m single.”
Gwaine just smirked at him and tipped back the rest of his mug of beer. “Of course you are. Is it Leon, Perce? Because you should know he’s been teasing me all evening and I’m on a promise!”
Leon rolled his eyes and gave a weary sigh.
Percival laughed. “Top tip, mate,” he said to Leon. “Shag him, then tell him you want a serious relationship. Best way to get rid of him quickly.”
“Oi!” Gwaine protested.
“Unfair?” Percival raised an eyebrow. “Gareth? Bedivere? Kay? Geraint? I could go on…”
“I’m searching for Mr Right,” Gwaine told them.
“Mr Right Now,” Percival amended. “I was his bodyguard before I was reassigned to Arthur,” he explained to them all.”
“Arthur stole him,” Gwaine grumbled. “Perce is my best mate!”
“I thought Arthur was your best mate,” Merlin checked.
“Not since he stole Perce from me. I’m unprotected, Merlin!”
“Good reason not to have sex with you,” Leon pointed out.
“Hah! You’re funny. I like that,” Gwaine went back to massaging Leon’s thigh. Beside him, Percival rolled his eyes at them.
“When I left university my father decided to change my bodyguard team,” Arthur explained. “Percival applied for and got the job of head bodyguard. Gwaine didn’t speak to me for a month. It was heaven. But sadly I got stuck next to him at a state banquet and that was the end of it.”
Gwaine smirked. “Arthur loves me,” he told them all. “I couldn’t leave him on his own forever.”
Merlin smiled, enjoying the way Arthur was protesting but was obviously very much at ease with Gwaine. He looked up and down the table, to where Morgana was holding court with Gwen, his mother and an obviously besotted Elena. The quartet seemed to be getting along splendidly, and he wondered if they were enjoying the evening enough that they might be persuaded to delete the pictures of him in his silly costume from their phones. Probably not, but it would be worth a try.
Arthur saw where he was looking. “Ah, do you need me to rescue your mother and friend from Morgana? Elena’s a lost cause but there may still be time to save the others,” he whispered. Merlin could feel Arthur’s breath warm on the shell of his ear, he was so close.
“They’re fine,” he assured Arthur. “They both look as if they’re enjoying themselves. Though perhaps not as much as Elena!”
Elena was gazing at Morgana’s cleavage longingly.
“Oh my god,” Arthur muttered.
“Elena’s going to be heartbroken if she gets rejected,” Merlin pointed out.
“Rejected? My harpy of a sister is all ready to take her home and ride her into next week! What? Oh don’t look like that, Merlin. I walked in on her once. Most damaging moment of my life. I did consider bleaching my eyeballs. You just pray that she doesn’t ask your friend and your mother to join in!”
Perhaps that was a little loud. Next to Merlin, Elyan was staring at Arthur open-mouthed.
“I’m the tame one in the family,” Gwaine assured them all.
“Apart from Arthur, surely?” Merlin asked.
Gwaine just laughed and emptied the rest of his beer down his throat, winking at Merlin over the top of the glass. “More beer, as promised,” he ordered Arthur.
“Merlin promised…” Arthur reminded him.
“Ah I bet he did. Come on, Artie, get a round in.”
Arthur had got the last round in but that didn’t seem to matter to Gwaine. He got up, so Merlin did too. “I’ll help,” Merlin offered.
He was sure he heard a snort from behind him, but wasn’t going to turn around and give Gwaine the satisfaction.
“Another bottle of pinot!” Morgana called after them. Arthur held up his hand to show he’d heard.
“And again, you see how incorrect the papers have it,” Arthur commented to Merlin. “I’m the friend who gets to be designated driver with this lot.”
“I believe you,” Merlin assured him, earning him a smile from Arthur. “And I was the one who promised Gwaine beer, I should pay.”
“I don’t mind paying,” Arthur assured him as they headed into the pub. “It’s my cousin and sister who are going to be drinking most of it.”
“And my friends,” Merlin reminded him.
“Yes. Who all seem very pleasant.”
“I like Gwaine and Morgana,” Merlin admitted. “But your father’s… interesting. Where did he go, anyway? I thought he was going to come storming back in and haul me off to the tower!”
“He went to speak to Professor Gaius. They’ve probably been drinking Scotch and reminiscing about the good old days when they were young. They’re friends, as much as my father has friends.”
“So he’s still here?” Merlin checked. “He still might come and shout some more?”
Arthur nodded. “Some of his bodyguards are still around, I saw them when I took the chair back to reception. Listen, I’m sorry about my father. He’s a complex man.”
“He’s a rude man,” Merlin pointed out. “And not just to me. You didn’t deserve the way he spoke to you.”
Arthur shrugged, then leaned across the bar to place their order. “I’m used to it,” he told Merlin when Mary had gone off to get Morgana’s wine. “And he’ll probably reappear later. Just keep your head down. Morgana and Gwaine will most likely try to annoy him so just let them take the flak.”
“I always manage to do something that isn’t good enough. He didn’t want me doing this programme for a start. I know Professor Gaius says it was because of the media attention and that it was all down to him but that’s not true. Gaius has always been kind to me. It’s my father. He doesn’t like me mixing with the wrong sort of people.”
“But mixing with Gwaine is okay?” Merlin couldn’t help laughing.
“Exactly! Well, Gwaine’s my cousin so there’s no chance of me sleeping with him. So there’s that in his favour.”
Merlin frowned for a moment, wondering quite what Arthur meant by that. Surely there was no chance of Arthur sleeping with any man at all, regardless of their relationship. Because Arthur was completely straight. Wasn’t he?
“So you might sleep with him if he wasn’t your cousin?” Merlin asked tentatively, just as the bartender came back with their order.
“What? No, of course not,” Arthur looked almost panicked for a moment, then laughed, nodding thanks to the bartender. The laugh sounded a little forced. “You do say some strange things, Merlin! Now help me with this.” Arthur tucked the bottle of wine under his arm, then carefully picked up three of the beers. “You can take those two?”
“It might be safer if I take the wine too. Or, you know, get a tray?” Merlin suggested.
“Amateur!” Arthur declared, and proceeded to carry the beer and the wine without spilling a drop. Though Morgana did have to retrieve the wine bottle from under his arm before he was able to put the beers down.
“Drink!” Gwaine yelled on seeing the beer.
“What’s he like at state banquets?” Merlin wanted to know. He just couldn’t picture Gwaine at anything like that.
“Terrifying,” Arthur replied as they settled themselves back down on the bench again. “It’s a wonder he hasn’t caused a diplomatic incident yet.”
“Give me time,” Gwaine smirked. “It’s on my bucket list.”
“Oh no…” Arthur breathed, looking at something behind Gwaine.
“Joking!” Gwaine insisted.
“No, my father’s coming over,” Arthur groaned. “Merlin, just keep your head down like I told you.”
“Betcher good at doing that for him, right Merls?” Gwaine leered at him with another wink.
Merlin didn’t reply, too horrified that the king was returning. The king, flanked by a pair of grim-looking bodyguards on either side of him and another pair behind. One was even bigger than Percival.
While most of the remaining staff and guests sitting outside the pub that evening had grown accustomed to the sight of Arthur and Morgana, the actual king was a rare spectacle. Merlin was vaguely aware of phones coming out, taking snaps. He hoped nobody would go up to Uther and ask for a selfie, thinking he was part of their earlier pantomime selling goods outside the castle.
“Arthur, I’m leaving,” Uther announced as he approached the table, ignoring everyone else that was sitting there and concentrating solely on his son. “I came to say goodbye and to make sure you’ve been thinking about what I said earlier.”
Arthur nodded seriously. “Absolutely, Father. I’ve thought of nothing else. Goodnight.”
Merlin could see Gwaine’s eyes twinkling with amusement. “Hello Uncle Uther,” he called.
“Gwaine,” Uther said, as if it pained him to utter the word. And then he scanned the entire group at the table, his gaze finally landing on Morgana with a frown. Striding over to her, he pointed at the tiara that she still wore. “Morgana, is that Queen Isabella’s tiara? What on earth are you thinking of by bringing it out here!”
“I’m queen for the day, Father,” Morgana told him. “We’ve raised a great deal for the charity and brainwashed many small children into thinking that the monarchy is a very lovely thing. So you’ll be able to do that talking to the nation thing you like for yet another Christmas, all thanks to Arthur and I!”
Elena giggled because she’d had several beers and was clearly quite besotted with Princess Morgana. Uther momentarily glowered at her, but Elena didn’t even notice because she was too busy gazing at Morgana.
“Can I have a lift home, Uncle Uther!” Gwaine called from the other end of the table. Uther glanced at him, shook his head in disbelief, then turned his attention back to his errant offspring.
“Morgana, you’re coming back with me right now to put that tiara back under lock and key where it belongs.”
“Awww…” That was Elena. “Don’t go. I love you Morgana!”
Morgana regarded her for a moment, smiled wickedly, then removed the tiara and handed it to the king. “That’s okay, Father. Here you are, I’ll trust you with it. No wearing it in the car on the way home now.”
Gwen’s eyes widened. Hunith looked down at her lap but Merlin could see his mother’s lips twitching as she tried not to laugh. Elena did not make any attempt at all not to laugh. And she had quite a loud laugh when she was drunk.
“You’re very funny!” she told Morgana, between chortles.
Uther looked down at Elena as if there was some bad smell under his nose. “She’s drunk,” he pointed out to Morgana. “Don’t.”
And then he stomped off, bodyguards walking quickly behind him in an attempt to keep up.
“Oh dear,” Hunith smiled. “Somehow that wasn’t how I ever envisaged an audience with the king going!”
Morgana shrugged and took another sip of her wine. “He’ll calm down.” She regarded Elena almost sorrowfully. “But sadly my lovely, you are very drunk, he’s correct about that, and so I will have to postpone the delightful ending I was hoping for today. Here,” she rummaged around in her now almost empty bag and produced a card. “Call me when you’re sober. And keep the knight costume, I may have more favours to bestow.”
Elena gazed bemusedly at the card in her hand, then back at Morgana.
“Oh sweetie, you really do have the confused bambi look down pat, don’t you?” Morgana sighed. She got to her feet, looking up and down the table. “Subjects, my reign is over. It’s been wonderful. Arthur, once your time here is done I expect a party with all my new friends invited!”
And then she went up and down the table kissing goodnight to them all, ending with a deep and filthy snog for Elena before Morgana swept off into the night.
“Now do you see which of us is really the party person?” Arthur whispered to Merlin. “Stay away from her, she’ll corrupt you!”
Elena was dreamily watching Morgana go, hiccupping softly every so often.
“And you won’t?” Merlin checked. Arthur had been sitting so close all evening. The warmth of the other man against his side felt secure and familiar like home.
“I love her so much!” Elena announced to the world. “I’m going to have her babies!”
Elyan snorted with laughter, trying to cover it when his sister frowned down the table at him.
“I think Elena’s had enough for one evening,” Gwen told them. “Merlin, can you help her back to her chalet?”
“Is Princess Morgana there?” Elena asked. “She’s so beautiful. And so clever. Do you think she was wearing tit tape? I think she was. I can’t see how else that dress would stay up. I kept hoping it wouldn’t. Tit tape… oh fortunate tit tape…to bear the tits of Morgana… no, the weight… not weight… what’s the Shakespeare quote about the fortunate horse?”
“Oh my god,” Arthur muttered, downing half his beer and leaving the rest. “Come on, Merlin, we’re taking her back.”
“Arthur and Merlin,” Elena sighed as they helped her up. “Like King Arthur and the Wizard. Arthur, we should have put the swords in the stones.”
“Next time,” Arthur promised. “Come on now, time to go.”
“I love your sister.”
“I know you do,” Arthur told her kindly. “Merlin, take her other arm. Elena, say goodnight to everyone.”
“Goodnight to everyone!” Elena called, trying to wave but failing because her arms were around Merlin and Arthur’s shoulders.
The three of them staggered off, Percival following. It was slow progress because Elena kept getting distracted by absolutely everything. But finally they were at her chalet.
“Have you got your key?” Arthur asked.
It took a bit of finding, but eventually Elena retrieved it so that Arthur could unlock the door and they could get her inside. Merlin tried to help her into bed, making sure she was on her side, whilst Arthur poured her a large glass of water.
“Drink this,” he instructed. “Do you have any painkillers?”
“Mmm…” Elena murmured. “I don’t hurt.”
“You’re going to in the morning!” Merlin told her.
“Do you think you’re going to be sick?” Arthur asked. He’d put her bin beside the bed just in case.
“No. No…Arthur… Arthur you’re lovely and I want to ask… I want to ask if you… If I can… permission to marry your sister please!” Elena hiccupped at the end. “Oops.”
“If you like, but you’ll have to ask my father,” Arthur told her. “We’re not allowed to marry unless he agrees.”
“Oh… don’t like him so much. Grumpy man…” Elena mumbled, her eyes closing. “You and Morgana are the best… mmm…”
Arthur regarded her for a few moments. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
“I don’t think she drank that much, it was just wine on an empty stomach,” Merlin surmised. “I think she can just sleep it off. I’m going for a shower, I’ll check on her on the way back.”
“You do smell a bit,” Arthur agreed as they crept out of Elena’s cabin, closing the door behind them.
“Oh it talks, Prince Stinkalot! I’m surprised those kids didn’t keel over from the smell towards the end there!”
“I do not smell.”
Merlin raised an eyebrow. “Arthur, our costumes were boiling hot in the sun. I can smell my own manly aroma, never mind yours.”
“You both stink,” Percival confirmed. He was standing outside the chalet, back on duty.
“Yes. We both stink. So I’m going to take a shower and change before I go back to the others,” Merlin decided.
“Good idea, I’ll join you,” Arthur announced.
Merlin wondered if he’d heard that right. “Don’t you have your own shower?”
“The library’s a long way to walk. I might as well use the ones here. Lend me some shower gel and a towel?”
Merlin glanced round at Percival, but the bodyguard was looking away, pointedly not listening.
“Okay,” he agreed, heading over to his own chalet, trying not to think about wet naked Arthur in the shower right next to his. There were questions about clothes, because Arthur was still in most of the Green Frog Knight costume, but if that was what his highness wanted to wear then Merlin was fine with it. He pulled out a couple of towels and his bottle of shower gel, along with a change of clothes for himself, and headed back out to the shower block just like he did every morning.
Except most mornings there was just Mordred or Gilli or Ty or someone going into the men’s side. Not golden, beautiful, perfect Arthur.
“Percival, can you keep an eye on Elena?” Arthur asked suddenly, stopping and turning to his bodyguard. “I’m worried in case she throws up. We won’t be long.”
“You know I’m supposed to stay with you?” Percival checked.
“We’ll be in here. You could just dash across and check for a moment. You’ll know if anyone attacks me because Merlin will scream like a girl and you can come running.”
Percival regarded them both for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll go in and check the place out first,” he allowed.
At least Merlin knew that he wasn’t in much danger of being assassinated while he was on the periphery of so much protection. He stood with Arthur outside the shower block, waiting for Percival to finish his checks.
“What you said to Elena about not being able to marry without your father’s permission. Is that true?” Merlin asked, suddenly feeling awkward in the silence.
“Being heir and spare we have to have his permission. So neither of us can marry unless he permits it. One of those ancient, wonderful laws that was put in place centuries ago. There are plenty of others. You should see the one about succession. I can’t actually stop being in line to the throne, no matter how much I might want to.”
“Do you want to?”
“Sometimes,” Arthur admitted.
Merlin thought about it. “Your life is actually shit, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Arthur agreed. “I’m glad you see that now.”
Merlin nodded, thoughtful. “I’m sorry I was rude,” he said after a while. “When we first met, I’m sorry for all the things I said. I mean, obviously you are a clotpole and everything, but I wouldn’t have your life for all the money in the world.”
“Thanks,” Arthur said sadly. “And I didn’t think that you would. Consort is out of the question then?” He smiled as if he were joking and of course he was, Merlin told himself. Of course he was. Though the smile didn’t reach Arthur’s eyes.
“What did your father mean earlier?” Merlin asked instead of answering the question. “Another Cenred situation he said. What’s that?”
Arthur bit his lip, looking away for a moment then back at Merlin. “Cenred was someone I met at university. He was confident, good-looking, seductive…”
Percival chose that moment to reappear and Arthur immediately stopped speaking. “It’s safe. I’ll be right out here,” Percival told them.
“Thank you,” Arthur replied, heading into the shower block, Merlin following. Merlin’s mind was spinning, trying to make sense of what Arthur had just said.
“Seductive?” he asked.
“He was. Very. I thought he was a friend. More than a friend. I was wrong.”
“He was the one who betrayed you, the reason you were so nervous when I took a picture?” Merlin guessed.
“Yes.” Arthur stood outside one of the shower cubicles, holding the towel Merlin had given him. “He took evidence of what he was to me. Photos. Videos. Other… biological evidence of what he was to me.”
Merlin’s confusion must have shown in his face. “What…?”
“He kept a set of sheets,” Arthur supplied helpfully, his expression showing all his disgust at the memory. “DNA. Our mixed semen. So. No doubt.”
“You’re gay,” Merlin whispered.
“Bi, but yes, I prefer men. Are you shocked?”
“Yes. No! Yes!”
“Eloquent as ever,” Arthur smiled sadly.
“I’m shocked by what he did, that anyone could do that,” Merlin clarified. “Not by you. Surprised, yes. So… your father, he said another Cenred situation?”
“He thinks I’m sleeping with you,” Arthur told him bluntly.
“I told him I wasn’t.” Arthur paused, looking down at the tiled floor briefly then his eyes met Merlin’s. “I didn’t tell him how much I wanted to.”
For a moment Merlin just gazed at him, dumbstruck. “Wh.. what?”
In answer, Arthur leaned in and kissed him.
“Ah Merlin,” he whispered, soft against Merlin’s lips. “If you can’t understand what it is I’m trying to say to you, what hope do I have?”
Merlin could feel his heart racing in his chest as Arthur kissed him again, slow and lingering. “Arthur…”
“Can I show you?” Arthur breathed, crowding him against the wall, his hands reaching down below Merlin’s waistband, probing, “let me show you how much I want you, Merlin.”
“He won’t come in. He won’t let anyone else come in. Please?”
Slowly, unable to tear his gaze away from Arthur’s, Merlin nodded. Arthur stepped back, divesting himself of the knight’s costume, struggling with some of the fastenings until Merlin moved in to help him.
“I can do that, Sire.”
“Oh are we playing knight and squire now, Merlin?” Arthur teased gently. “I’d have you on the stable floor, you know that.”
“Not the hayloft? Hidden away from ye olde press.”
“Mmm yes. And I’d keep you there, just for me.”
Merlin smiled at the thought, watching the golden pink of Arthur’s skin emerge as he shed the costume. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen most of it before, Arthur had been working shirtless for weeks. But to have him there and finally, finally be allowed to touch.
“I’ve wanted you so much,” Merlin admitted. “I thought there was no hope for me.”
“There won’t be if you don’t hurry up,” Arthur growled, pulling the rest of his clothing off. Merlin stopped for a moment, taking in the full glory of Arthur totally naked, the prince’s erection already hard. Arthur didn’t let him stare for long, reaching for Merlin’s belt buckle. “Come on,” he insisted, undoing Merlin’s fly. “Those need to go.”
They half-stumbled into the shower together, cramped intimately close in the single cubicle. Arthur switched on the shower and closed the door behind them.
“Saves water,” Merlin gasped as the first of the spray hit him. “Shower together!”
Arthur just grunted something unintelligible and turned the spray on harder, before pushing Merlin back against the shower wall. He captured Merlin’s mouth with his own, his tongue probing deep, exploring while their naked bodies pressed together. Merlin could feel Arthur’s rock hard length rutting against him, Arthur reaching down to take them both in his strong hand, working them both to a shuddering climax, their release washing over them in waves. Weak at the knees, Merlin let himself be held up by his lover, those strong arms he’d lusted over for so long wrapped around him, keeping him close.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, soft against his face. “Merlin.”
Merlin didn’t say anything at all, just held him back because Arthur was his to hold now. His to kiss and touch and love. Especially to love.
Afterwards, they dressed slowly, reluctant to be apart even briefly. People would know, Merlin thought. People would see them together, see that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The papers would be unbearable. And yet…
“I don’t want this to just be once,” Merlin admitted. “It won’t just be once, will it?”
“I don’t do one night stands,” Arthur promised him. “Anyway, we’re going straight back to your cabin, aren’t we.” It wasn’t a question. “But you do know what being with me means? The press? No privacy?”
Merlin nodded, though he had only experienced a small part of it so far. “I can deal with it if it means I get to have you again.”
“This is just the first time, Merlin,” Arthur promised. “Just the first. We’ve got all summer. It’s going to be glorious.”
And it was.
Summer passed all too quickly. Later Merlin would look back and wonder that they’d spent over two months on the programme at Camelot Trust. It went by in a haze of activity. Days spent with Arthur working at the museum, nights spent with him in Merlin’s bed, TV turned up loud, curtains closed and door locked so that whoever was guarding Arthur couldn’t see them.
When Percival was on duty at night it was easy. He didn’t care what they did, he seemed to like Merlin and he certainly didn’t judge Arthur’s choices. They could go back to Arthur’s room and spend the night (they weren’t cruel enough to ask Percival to sit outside Merlin’s chalet all night). But when Val was on duty it was harder. Those were the evenings that they spent with the rest of the group, pretending there was nothing going on. And all the time Val glaring at them as if he could see exactly what Merlin was to Arthur, what they did together in the dark.
And then, suddenly, it was over. Time to go back to their normal lives. There were tearful goodbyes, and promises to stay in touch around the group. Then they were packed up and gone their separate ways, the bubble of their summer project burst forever.
Arthur stayed one last night at his room above the library, the privilege of being who he was. Merlin stayed with him, sneaking in whilst Percival pretended to look the other way. That would be the way of their life from that point on, Merlin supposed. Sneaking around, hidden. He could cope with it easily enough if it meant he could be with Arthur.
On that final morning Merlin woke in Arthur’s bed, the late summer sun streaming in through the window. Beside him, Arthur was already awake, lying there watching him.
“That’s creepy, you know?” Merlin whispered, smiling against Arthur’s mouth as his lover kissed him good morning. “Watching me sleep.”
“I can’t watch you every day from now on. Let me drink in the sight one last time.”
“Until next weekend,” Merlin allowed. “You’re coming to stay next weekend.”
“Mmm,” Arthur kissed him again. “I’ll be counting the hours.”
But what he said next sent a thrill of fear through Merlin.
“I’m going to tell my father that I’m gay,” Arthur whispered.
Arthur’s father. That would be the king of Camelot then. The grumpy bloke who definitely hadn’t taken to Merlin on the one occasion that they’d met. The one who probably really did have keys to the Tower…
“Right… Can you give me time to flee abroad? Somewhere he doesn’t have any influence and can’t arrange to have me sent to the tower for despoiling his son and heir?”
Arthur seemed to find that a lot funnier than it actually was.
“I’m not entirely joking,” Merlin added, which just made Arthur laugh harder, although Merlin realised that might be because of his own horrified expression.
“Merlin, it’ll be okay. I mean, obviously he’s not going to be delighted, but he’ll come around. This is the twenty-first century, after all. And he knows my preference is for men – after Cenred he had no choice. At least you're going to be an improvement on Cenred!”
“Not sure your father will think so. At least Cenred went away with a bit of cash.”
“A lot of cash.”
“I’m not bribeable. I don’t care about money.”
“No,” Arthur leaned over to kiss him again. “And that’s one of the many reasons I love you. It’s going to be okay. I promise.”
And at that point Merlin believed him.
Being dropped off at home by the Prince of Wales’ personal car was a perk Merlin thought he might be able to get used to. He waved as the car drove away, taking Arthur with it, watching until it had turned a corner and was gone. Then he went inside, heading upstairs to the flat he and Gwen were going to share in their final year and started to unpack. He wondered how Gwen was going to react to the news that Prince Arthur would be visiting on a regular basis? Luckily she wouldn’t be there for another week so at least Arthur’s first visit would be private.
There was a message from Arthur half an hour later.
“Just got home. Best summer ever. Still thinking about you x x” followed by a heart emoji.
Merlin couldn’t stop smiling. “I might stop complaining about paying for you lot x”
“Hahah I’m worth it! X”
Oh yes, he definitely was.
“I suppose! X”
“Just going to talk to my father. Wish me luck! X”
And that was the last that Merlin heard from Prince Arthur.
For the first hour or two Merlin didn’t worry. After all, it was a pretty huge thing to come out to your father when you were the heir to the throne. There would be things to discuss, not least how they would deal with the press. Merlin sent a few supportive texts, but there was no reply.
Three hours passed. Four. Merlin tried calling, but it went straight to answerphone. The chances were that it had been switched off, he told himself. King Uther always came across as quite severe. There had been an incident a couple of years back where he’d visited a nursery school as part of a tour and one little boy had ended up in tears after he’d snapped at them for interrupting him. Definitely not the kind of person who would enjoy being disturbed by electronic media or indeed anything else.
By early evening Merlin had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Arthur was never silent for that long. There was always a message of some sort, even when he was supposedly on official business. When his phone finally rang and he saw that it was Gwen calling, the disappointment was huge. He ended the conversation with her quickly, wanting to keep the line clear.
Arthur didn’t call that evening, nor the next day, no matter how many times Merlin left messages.
Finally, three days later, there was a single message:
“This summer was a mistake. I was experimenting. I will be changing my number. Do not contact me again. Arthur.”
Cold, brutal, heartless.
It wasn’t Arthur. It didn’t even sound like something he would say. He wouldn’t do that. He loved Merlin as much as Merlin loved him. Merlin knew that.
Merlin tried to call him back. Anyone could be on the end of a text, and Merlin wouldn’t believe it until he heard Arthur’s voice. But there was just the dead tone of a disconnected number.
Merlin didn’t want to waste his tears but they fell anyway, betraying him. He should never have got involved with the Prince of Wales, he’d known that right from the start. And yet get involved he had. Merlin knew he only had himself and his foolish heart to blame. Things were never going to have ended well. And it helped, just a little, to cry. It was an outlet for the ache in his heart.
Now that they were no longer side by side at Camelot Trust there was no way to get near Arthur. He had no public engagements coming up on the official royal sites, and Merlin could hardly walk up to the door of the palace and demand to see him. It was a breakup more final than any other could possibly have been. They would forever be living in two completely different worlds.
Still, Merlin held onto hope. If the king had been behind the text from Arthur’s phone he couldn’t keep his son away from Merlin forever. Sooner or later Arthur would find a way to contact him. And there were plenty of websites and social media dedicated to the monarchy’s every move.
Merlin turned into a royal stalker. He started following Twitter accounts that he never would have even looked at before. But he knew that eventually Arthur would be visiting a hospital or cutting a ribbon somewhere. And then Merlin intended being right at the front of the crowd.
It happened sooner than Merlin expected. One of the sites alerted him to the fact that Arthur was due to appear the very next day in Cardiff, opening a new wing of the hospital.
Merlin didn’t hesitate. He got on the first train in the early hours of the morning and was in the hospital grounds several hours before Arthur was due to arrive. The visit hadn’t been widely advertised, and so there weren’t huge crowds - just a small area cordoned off. Mostly Merlin found himself surrounded by various hospital staff. These were the ones who hadn’t made the cut and been allowed to greet the prince personally inside the new wing. Merlin stood at the front, wearing sunglasses and tucking his hair into a baseball cap in the hope that he wouldn’t be recognised by the press. At least, not before Arthur arrived. He wasn’t sure what he’d do once Arthur got there. Mostly he was hoping that as soon as Arthur saw him everything would be okay.
In the end Merlin had to wait for several hours. Arthur went in through a different entrance and presumably spent some time being shown around the new wing. Merlin’s feet were getting numb from standing for so long. Finally Arthur appeared in the doorway. Merlin removed his sunglasses. That would, he thought, be enough for Arthur to recognise him. If it wasn’t then Merlin was going to have to risk removing the cap. But he really didn’t want the press to spot him there. Just Arthur. Nobody else.
Arthur looked tired, Merlin thought. The brightness of spirit that Merlin was used to seeing in his lover was almost completely gone. Arthur was smiling at the people he was with, but it was clinical, practiced. It wasn’t the smile that Merlin knew.
And then Arthur stepped up to the red ribbon that he was supposed to cut to open the wing, and gave a short speech to the assembled group. It was polite and bland, and Merlin could not have recalled one word of it afterwards.
What he did recall was the way that Arthur looked out at the crowd, the way that Arthur faltered in his speech for just a moment when he saw Merlin. How he had stared, just for a moment, his expression so very sad and regretful. How Merlin had raised a hand in greeting. The way Arthur shuffled his feet, then looked down at the notes he was reading from. And then after that how Arthur very pointedly never looked Merlin’s way again.
The ribbon was cut, the speech finished in a cool and professional manner, then Arthur went back inside as quickly as possible. One of the suits with him spoke to him before he went in, gestured towards the crowd, but Arthur shook his head and carried on heading indoors.
“He was supposed to do a walkabout, come and shake a few hands,” the nurse next to Merlin grumbled. “Miserable git. Probably late for the pub!”
Merlin just nodded and walked away sadly, well aware of the real reason that the walkabout had been cancelled. Somewhere, presumably on the other side of the building, there was a car waiting to whisk Arthur away. There was no real hope, not after Arthur’s reaction to seeing him, but he had to try. He still believed that Arthur was acting under his father’s instructions rather than of his own volition.
Naturally, the car was guarded and the area where it was parked cordoned off. The driver was sitting behind the wheel, talking on his phone. Arthur hadn’t appeared yet. Merlin circled the area, trying to judge which would be the best angle to approach the car from once Arthur appeared. He felt as if he were one of the sneaky journalists who had dogged their every move back at Camelot Trust. There was a yew hedge on one side of the path, low enough that he could peek over the top but thick enough to hide behind. And it wasn’t too far from the car. Arthur wasn’t going to be alone when he came out, but there would definitely be fewer people around. And perhaps Percival was on duty? Percival had always been kind, friendly. He would probably help. Or at least let Merlin know what was going on.
“Oi! What’re you doing there? Get out from there!”
The harsh sound of Val’s voice startled Merlin and he almost fell over. Getting up and coming out from behind the bush, he faced the bodyguard that, given the choice, would have been the one he’d least like to see there.
“I… wanted to see Arthur.”
“Public gawping area was round the front. Show’s over, go home.”
A second bodyguard came over. It wasn’t Percival, or one of the bodyguards who had sometimes appeared on Val or Percival’s days off. It was a tall, hard-faced dark-haired man that Merlin had never seen before. The deep scar across his face did nothing to make him look any friendlier.
Val nodded towards Merlin. “This is the pouf from that museum camp, Kanen. Still bothering the prince. You know the orders.”
Kanen’s expression hardened further. Merlin was shocked to see the man unholster his handgun and aim it steadily at Merlin’s head.
“Prince Arthur wants nothing to do with your sort. We’ve got orders to protect him. Now clear off before my finger slips on the trigger. Won’t be the first time,” he added with what was almost a smile. Not a pleasant one though.
“I just want to talk to him,” Merlin persisted. “There’s no harm in talking.”
Val shook his head as if unable to believe what he was hearing. “My god, listen to him! We know you’re a bloody magic user! There’s a reason you lot should be registered, corrupting the prince like that. So no, you’re not talking to him and casting whatever spell you had on him again. Get out of here and don’t come back!”
“I told you we should have put a restraining order out,” Kanen grumbled. “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me. I’ve run into this sort before. No questions if we have to shoot him then.”
Merlin blinked, not quite believing he was hearing this. Kanen was scary, even more so than Val. There was still no sign of Percival. Percival was the senior bodyguard. He’d sort everything out.
“That great lug?” Val said dismissively. “Sacked. He won’t be working for the palace again. And yes, that’s your fault before you ask.”
Merlin had liked Percival. Friendly, kind, easy going… and now unemployed by the sounds of it. “Can I just speak to Arthur for a moment?” he attempted again. There was no chance of them agreeing, but every second that he could delay leaving was a second closer to the moment Arthur would walk out of the door.
“Are you deaf as well as stupid?” Kanen asked. The gun was still there in his hands. Merlin was terrified, but determined not to show it.
And then the doors of the hospital slid open and Arthur walked out. He was flanked by two men in suits, a third bodyguard walking behind him. It was as small an audience as Merlin was ever going to get.
“Arthur!” Merlin called, trying to dodge Val and get to the prince.
Val immediately tackled him to the ground, holding him there painfully with his face in the dirt.
“Your highness, we have a situation!” Kanen called. “Please get inside the car immediately.”
The bodyguard behind Arthur quickly put himself between Arthur and the other bodyguards. Not that Merlin could possibly have done anything with Val’s weight on him. One of the suits opened the car door and the driver started up the engine.
But Arthur had seen that it was Merlin, and was heading over.
“Sire, I must insist you get in the car!” Kanen called again as Arthur approached.
“Let him up, Val” Arthur ordered. “He’s not dangerous, and you know it.”
Reluctantly Val released Merlin, giving him a swift kick as he got off him. Merlin struggled to his feet. Kanen still had the gun out.
Arthur regarded Merlin worriedly. “Merlin, you aren’t supposed to be here. I thought I made that clear?”
“You sent that message?” Merlin exclaimed. Until that point he had been hoping that someone had taken over Arthur’s private phone.
“Yes. And that number is now disconnected. I wish you well, Merlin, but we have very different lives and it isn’t possible to continue our friendship.”
“We’ll have a restraining order in place by the morning, Sir,” Kanen told them. “Now please, for your own safety, I insist you get into the car. The king’s orders clearly state…”
“I am aware of my father’s orders,” Arthur replied. “Merlin, please go. And don’t try to do anything like this again.”
And then he turned and walked back to the car, the third bodyguard at his side.
“You heard the prince,” Val said. “Now do one. And if you ever think about going to the papers with your so-called story, you’ll regret it.”
The thought had never even crossed Merlin’s mind. Heartbroken, he walked blindly from the scene, wanting to get as far from Arthur and his people as possible.
And so he didn’t see the wretched expression on Arthur’s face, shielded by the tinted windows in the car as he looked back at Merlin’s retreating figure.
For Merlin, the experience had shown him that there was no way to get to Arthur, not really. He could stalk all the public events Arthur did from that point on but anything he said or did would be out there in the public view. The things that Merlin wanted to say definitely weren’t for public consumption. So tender, so private…
And those bodyguards would have no qualms about shooting him if they had to.
No, that was going to be his first and last attempt. Arthur knew that he was out there. Arthur was going to have to be the one to make the contact. Merlin had no choice on that. He kept checking his phone that night, hoping that seeing him would make Arthur call, say there had been a mistake, but still there was nothing. In the end he cried himself to sleep, not for the first time.
A few weeks later there was a photo in the paper of Prince Arthur attending a gala with an attractive redhead on his arm and rumours of a possible engagement. Lady Sophia Lake, the redhead in question, was very welcome to him, Merlin thought bitterly.
And then he screwed the newspaper up into a ball and chucked it at the recycling bin.
Life went on, as it was prone to do. Summer, no longer as bright and hopeful as it had once seemed, faded into Autumn, Winter, Spring and then it was Summer again. In that time Merlin went through his final year at university, graduated with a first, applied for a long succession of jobs that for the most part didn’t even get him to interview. Museum work was notoriously hard to get into, he’d always known that. But when a vacancy came up at Camelot Trust and he wasn’t even interviewed, and then a second one came along with the same outcome, Merlin knew he’d been blacklisted. He didn’t try again. Later he heard that one of the posts had gone to Elena. At least she deserved it.
Finally he got a job. It was one that he didn’t even need to apply for.
Being a wedding planner had never featured even remotely in his career plans. Not that Merlin had ever really considered what kind of work he might do if it wasn’t in a museum. But Gwen had never had any doubts. And she’d always hoped her best friend might go into business with her.
“Organising weddings is the best job possible,” she assured him. “We’ll be helping people who are deeply in love, working with them to make sure they have a wonderful day that they’ll always look back on with happiness. We’ll be there every step of the way, making sure their day is absolutely perfect!”
“Sounds a bit nauseating,” Merlin told her. But he was really struggling to find employment at the time and Gwen was his best friend (well, aside from Will but he was 150 miles away back in Ealdor and didn’t count) so he agreed to join her pet project.
To be fair, he hadn’t thought it would last very long. They officially set up business in August, and he’d fully expected to be looking for work again by the New Year.
He’d reckoned without Gwen.
Gwen was an amazing wedding planner. She really did love her job, and cared deeply about every wedding they worked on. So many happy couples. There were Ella and Ben from the local tavern who had wanted everything to be ale-themed. Merlin had particularly loved that one – they’d all spent many a planning session completely sloshed, and the party after the wedding had gone on all night. Brilliant. Then there were brides like Vivien at the other end of the spectrum. Daddy had paid for everything and the spoiled little madam had demanded a huge lavish wedding on top of Snowdonia then couldn’t understand why this wasn’t possible. Merlin had not been surprised to hear that the marriage only lasted a month. He just hoped Vivien wouldn’t use them again when she inevitably married some other poor sap.
Gwen had told him not to be so mean, but without much force. Vivien had even tried Gwen’s patience. And Gwen was the nicest person in the universe.
Gwen’s niceness, combined with a fierce intelligence, sharp brain for business, and absolute love of all things wedding related, meant that the business took off, at least enough for them to make ends meet and achieve a small profit. Shockingly, Merlin was still employed by the following Summer.
It was a busy job. They had to organise venues, music, flowers, catering, hairdressers, costumes… Well, usually suits and dresses, but those were costumes as far as Merlin was concerned. He preferred jeans and t-shirts. And yet the costumes were the area in which Gwen considered him absolutely essential.
Perhaps ensuring that a dress fitted perfectly on a bride’s wedding day wasn’t what he’d ever imagined using his magic for, but that was of no consequence. Because that was what it was used for. Time and time again. Overly optimistic women who bought dresses two sizes too small, convinced that would be the spur they needed to make them fit into it by the big day. It rarely happened. Or brides and grooms who had been so stressed by the wedding that they hadn’t eaten and needed the clothes taken in. Gwen’s seamless last minute dress adjustment service was legendary in the field. Merlin had no idea what people thought they did with the dresses and suits, and some surely had to suspect there was magic involved. But whatever, they got endless 5 star reviews and glowing recommendations.
The very worst part of the job was the actual wedding day where Merlin always had to dress up smartly whilst running around making sure everything went smoothly. Gwen on the other hand had a selection of beautiful wedding outfits and always looked stunning. Merlin suspected the actual weddings were her favourite part of the job. He wasn’t looking forward to the day Gwen decided to get married herself, because he had a horrible feeling he’d be organising that one solo. And it would have to be the best one ever.
The work didn’t dry up. Everyone loved a wedding. But the business wasn’t expanding as quickly as Gwen had hoped, despite the glowing reviews. Nearly a year in, and although things were going well enough there were still only the two of them employed.
Until the wedding that changed everything.
It began on a glorious July day, warm and sunny, but with a gentle summer breeze filtering through the open window in their office. (Office was perhaps stretching it a little – it was the living room of the flat that they shared) The sunshine brought back memories of two summers back, of Prince Arthur bloody Pendragon and all the hurt and disappointment he’d caused Merlin.
Mostly Merlin had convinced himself that he was over Arthur. It was just that the great prat was always on the TV, or in the papers. There had been a particularly annoying interview the previous summer in one of the Camelot Times weekend supplement magazines, going on about Arthur’s sensitive side and hinting at some secret love. Of course, it was a female lover that the journalist was probing for information on. The Lonely Prince, she’d called the article.
Merlin briefly considered using the article’s main photo of Arthur gazing wistfully out of a window as target practice after he’d read it. But instead he did the same as always – carefully stored the magazine away in his room so that he could pine over it when he was feeling particularly miserable. The writer seemed to think that Arthur was nursing a broken heart. Merlin tried, unsuccessfully, to convince himself that this wasn’t the case. But instead the piece had reopened old wounds and left Merlin hoping for things that he knew were impossible.
It wasn’t as if Merlin could even ask Arthur. Although no restraining order had ever been served on him, Merlin had no doubt that should he approach Arthur again then that particular threat would be carried out. He could have contacted Elena and begged her to pass on a message. She was seeing Princess Morgana regularly if the article was correct - her frequent visits to the palace were what was fuelling the reporter's belief that there was something between Elena and Arthur. But contacting Elena would put her in a difficult position, possibly even result in her being banished from the palace as well. He couldn’t do that to her. Besides, he’d barely contacted her in the past year. Ringing up out of the blue just to ask a favour wouldn’t look good.
So Merlin shut the article away, as he did with all the others. He could have done without having to view shirtless Arthur on the Camelot Trust charity calendar the previous August as well. But Gwen had bought a copy and hung it in pride of place in their flat. She’d never got around to taking it down, but at least December was only a shirtless picture of Lance. Merlin didn’t mind looking at that. And he absolutely did not ever sneak a longing peak at August when Gwen wasn’t around.
It was impossible to avoid Arthur. Eventually, Merlin supposed, he’d be on the stamps and coins and everywhere, just like the article said.
But by that time Merlin was quite determined that he would have himself a decent, steady boyfriend who loved him, and that he would have completely forgotten his ill-advised dalliance with Arthur. It wasn’t as if Merlin was ever likely to bump into Arthur again. Once in a lifetime was enough of a shock for anyone.
Gwen was a little late that morning. That was unusual for several reasons, the most obvious one being that they worked out of their little flat and so she was always there to greet Merlin in the kitchen when he crawled out of bed in the morning. There was no sign of her. And the kettle was almost cold – she’d been gone for a while.
He checked her diary but there was nothing in there about an early meeting.
“Where are you?” he texted to her, but there was no reply. Later he tried calling, but still nothing.
It was odd, but he supposed she had been called away on something urgent and he’d find out soon enough. As long as it wasn’t Vivien’s second wedding already…
Late morning, by which time Merlin was on his third mug of coffee and halfway through a packet of hobnobs, Gwen breezed back into the flat, a bulging folder tucked under her arm and a huge smile on her face.
“Merlin! Great news! Guess what?”
“You’ve won the lottery and we’ll never have to work again?”
Merlin doubted that.
“We’ve got a brilliant job!” she put the file down on her desk, dropped her bag on the floor, then headed for the kitchenette and more specifically the kettle. “You’ll never guess who!”
“The prime minister? Lord Voldemort? Actually, that’s a good match!”
“Funny…” Gwen poured herself a mug of tea, as the kettle was still half-full and hot from Merlin’s coffee. “And yet wrong. I had a call this morning from my brother so I had to rush off. One of his friends is getting married,” Gwen explained. “Elyan’s going to be best man and he recommended us.”
That wasn’t surprising, Merlin thought, given that Gwen would probably have half-killed him if Elyan had let his friend go anywhere else. He liked Gwen’s brother, Elyan. Nice, down to earth sort of bloke.
“It’s his friend Leon. You remember Leon?”
Merlin did remember Leon. Elyan’s best mate at Uni who had sometimes accompanied Elyan when he was visiting his sister. They’d both turned up at Camelot Trust the previous summer for the fayre. Yes, tall, steady, reliable Leon. As down to earth as Elyan, and just as nice a person. They’d definitely give him the best wedding they possibly could. Leon deserved it. His partner would probably be a similar sort of person.
The last time Merlin had seen Leon was actually at that Camelot Fayre, during happier times. Times that Merlin preferred not to dwell on. It was over a year ago and Merlin had moved on. Or so he told himself. It was definitely for the best if he did so.
“Yeah, of course. What does he want? Let me guess, he’s marrying one of their cricket team and cricket’s the theme?”
“Not exactly,” Gwen replied. “His husband to be is one of the royal family.”
Merlin actually felt his heart plummet at that news. “What… Arthur?”
That would have been too cruel. Merlin could understand Arthur not being allowed to come out as gay, but to have settled down with another man… no.
“Oh Merlin!” Gwen laughed. “Now that would be the biggest coup of all time! We’d be made! No, definitely not your friend Prince Arthur. He hasn’t suddenly turned gay!”
“No,” Merlin said, trying not to sound too bitter. Gwen didn’t notice, so he must have succeeded.
“Though perhaps after this we’ll be in the running when he does tie the knot,” she continued. “Imagine! Actually, no, I think that level of royal wedding would be a bit much. No, I think this is a duke or something. Duke of Devonshire, I think.”
Merlin had never heard of the Duke of Devonshire. It was probably some minor royal. Highly unlikely that Arthur would attend the wedding in that case. He breathed a sigh of relief and didn’t bother to correct Gwen about his lack of ongoing friendship with Arthur.
“Yes,” Gwen was looking through her file, then brought out a picture. “This is him. Gwaine… er, Prince Gwaine, to give him his official title.”
Merlin remembered Gwaine from the fayre at Camelot Trust. He was the friend of Arthur’s whom they’d joked about being the first gay king if he hadn’t been about twentieth or so in line to the throne. Arthur had said something at the time about him not being the first, or the last. Clues that Merlin had missed early on. He didn’t think that anyone had mentioned Gwaine being Duke of Devonshire as well, though.
“Arthur’s friend. We met.”
Gwaine was looking even more handsome than usual in the photo Gwen was holding, with glossy locks that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a shampoo advert. He was grinning rakishly at the camera, posing as if he were born to do so. But then looking like that he probably was.
“He’s actually Arthur’s cousin, and nineteenth in line to the throne,” Gwen continued happily. “So if anything happened to Prince Arthur, Princess Morgana, and… oh, I don’t know, whoever are third through to eighteenth… then he’d be king! And we’re doing his wedding! Imagine!”
“Well if he’s looking for someone to assassinate Prince Arthur, I’d do it!” Merlin grumbled.
Gwen laughed, because of course she would think he was joking, Merlin realised. Perhaps he should have told her that their relationship had changed? But it had been so much easier to let people attribute his low mood to stress over his studies. Nobody knew the truth. Not one person.
“I know when you worked with him that summer you were grumbling about him at first. But… you started to get on?” Gwen frowned. “You stopped complaining about him after a few weeks, anyway, and when I visited you seemed to be good friends. Very good friends, actually. You know, at one point I thought that if Arthur hadn’t been straight the two of you might actually be…”
“Definitely didn’t get on,” Merlin confirmed, interrupting her before she told him whatever it was that she might have thought on seeing Arthur and himself flirting with each other. “I was just being polite. Come on, it’s not as if I ever mention him or anything, is it? Not like he’s Will or someone like that.” In fact, for the past year Merlin had always done his best to change the subject should anyone mention Arthur.
“Well… no, but he’s the Prince of Wales so you’re not going to be meeting him in the pub on a Friday or anything. I did think you two were good friends though.”
“Happy if I never see him again. Please tell me he’s not giving this Gwaine bloke away or something?”
Gwen looked deeply worried. “He’s not giving Gwaine away, no, Gwaine’s mother will be doing that.”
“But he’s attending this wedding, isn’t he?”
Gwen didn’t need to answer. Merlin could see it in her face.
“I thought the two of you were friends!” she repeated. “I didn’t realise it would be a problem…”
Merlin shook his head. “No, don’t worry Gwen. We never see the guests anyway at these things, too busy looking after the happy couple and those in the key roles. Easy enough to avoid Arthur.”
Gwen looked supremely uncomfortable. “That might be a little tricky,” she admitted. “He’s Gwaine’s best man.”
“You’re kidding me?” He knew she wasn’t. Gwaine and Arthur actually were friends. Probably because Arthur hadn’t slept with Gwaine and broken his heart. Of course Arthur would be Gwaine’s best man.
“I thought it was going to be a nice surprise!” Gwen told him. “I’m really sorry, Merlin. Look, I’ll do the wedding. You just help behind the scenes. No need to ever meet anyone involved with it. How does that sound?”
It sounded barely bearable.
Just as long as Merlin could make himself stay away. But he knew that if Arthur was going to be nearby then the temptation to go and give him a piece of his mind would be strong.
At first it was easy enough.
Gwen was the one liaising with the grooms, doing all the meetings. Merlin sat in their office working on invitation designs and catering menu options, and a thousand and one other things. And another wedding came onto the books, a small one that Merlin could handle solo. Gwen was better at all the face to face stuff anyway. She charmed all their clients, soothing any fears with her gentle calm. Merlin knew he’d probably just make any last minute jitters worse.
He was quite surprised at Leon. Gwaine was obviously handsome and rich, but Merlin had never had Leon marked down as someone who would care about that. Gwaine had seemed fun, and pleasant enough. But he’d also seemed incredibly loud and full of himself, things that Leon was not. Perhaps opposites really did attract. Polar opposites in this particular case.
It was to be a winter wedding, a few days before Christmas. Held on Gwaine’s country estate, unsurprisingly. Devon was lovely in the summer, but Merlin wasn’t so sure about it in December. And although he was only working in the background on that particular job, it was going to be far too big to leave Gwen to deal with on her own. Which meant that afterwards Merlin would have to drive back to Camelot, spend a day or so sorting out the post-wedding paperwork, and then have to drive all the way back to Wales for Christmas with his mum.
Gwaine might have seemed down to earth and nice enough but just like his cousin he was clearly a typical inconsiderate royal prat.
Work stopped for a few minutes while Merlin brooded yet again on his lost love. It had been two years, and he still wasn’t over it. He didn’t think he’d ever be completely over Arthur. The complete change of heart, the personality transplant, the coldness of the man… none of it made sense. Arthur had been there with him in bed that final morning, full of hope for the future, whispering promises and speaking of undying love… and then breaking it off cold like that.
It was Arthur’s father, of course. Merlin had no doubts about that. Everything had been fine right up until Arthur had gone to talk to Uther about Merlin, right up until Arthur had tried to come out to the king. Whatever Uther had said and done in that meeting, it had finished any hopes Merlin had for a future with Arthur. But Arthur had been so sure it would be okay, so determined to succeed at any cost. They’d gone through every possible scenario. There was nothing that Uther could have said or done that would have made Arthur change his mind about Merlin. There was nothing in Merlin’s past that could have put Arthur off – he’d met Merlin’s mum a couple of times over that summer and got along with her very well.
Merlin just didn’t understand it. He thought he never would. Arthur had let himself be persuaded out of it. And although King Uther had done that persuading, Arthur still had to shoulder a share of the blame for going along with it.
But on that particular day Merlin had other things to worry about. It was cake-tasting day for Gwaine and Leon, and Merlin was in charge of sorting out the samples with the chosen bakery, a firm based within a village owned by Gwaine’s Duchy. Every business involved in the wedding had to be based within that (admittedly quite wide) area. Pretty much the only one that wasn’t was their wedding planning service – Merlin wasn’t quite sure how they’d got away with that one and supposed it must have been Leon’s long friendship with Elyan that swung it. Still, in general long drives down to Devon or not far off it were involved whenever face to face meetings were required. Their mileage on the ‘Gleon’ job was already pretty high.
It would be the first time that Merlin would have to deal with the grooms themselves. So far he’d avoided that. But Merlin normally dealt with cakes so go he must. Gwen had assured him that there was no chance of the Best Man turning up (the worst man, Merlin tried unsuccessfully to tell himself) but still he was nervous. He hadn’t seen Gwaine since that day two years ago. And Gwaine had definitely noticed that Merlin and Arthur were an item. Or, at that time, on the brink of being one, but that was irrelevant. Even if he had forgotten Merlin, Leon would not have done. Leon would remind Gwaine.
Merlin felt slightly sick with apprehension, and that was before the cake-tasting had even begun.
He picked up his car keys and jacket, and headed for the door. Yet another long drive ahead.
Audrey’s Bakery was fronted by a quaint little shop in the heart of the village of Little Pockton. Audrey herself was a formidable woman who had her own ideas about what made a suitable wedding cake and hadn’t been overly interested in Merlin’s suggestions. She apparently was a friend of Gwaine’s mother, though, so there was no chance of Merlin persuading the grooms to select someone else.
The meeting was booked for 4pm, by which time the shop had its few remaining wares marked down at a sale price. Merlin picked up a loaf of bread and a couple of pastries for Gwen and himself to enjoy when he finally got home that night, then headed off into the kitchen at the back of the shop to meet Audrey herself.
Gwaine and Leon were already there, Leon greeting him with a cheery wave. Gwaine just nodded at him, not unfriendly but certainly not the same as he’d been towards Merlin that day at Camelot Trust.
“How are you?” Leon asked. “Haven’t seen you in ages!”
Merlin shrugged, “I’m getting by,” he said as non-committedly as possible. “But congratulations to you two!”
“I’m only here for the cake,” Gwaine assured him, then looked him up and down critically. “You look thinner than I remember, Merlin. You lose weight?”
Leon frowned, noticing it too. Merlin knew that he had lost a lot, too much in fact when he’d first lost Arthur. Slowly Gwen had tried to feed him up and it was less noticeable now or so he thought. That was what a broken heart could do to you.
“Stress over my final year studies,” he explained. That had been the excuse for everything for the first year. Then for the second year it had been stress in trying to find a job in his chosen area, although people had mostly stopped asking why he was so sad by then. “I lost a lot, that’s why Gwen puts me in charge of cakes. She thinks it’ll help fatten me up again.”
“Sounds like a dream job,” Leon told him. Beside him, Gwaine just nodded, watching Merlin thoughtfully. He opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but then Audrey appeared with a plate of cake slices in each hand and set them down on the table in the middle of the kitchen.
“There you go, boys. Your best man out there,” she nodded towards the door she’d just come in through, “he’s already stolen two. Cheeky lad!”
Merlin’s heart plummeted to his boots. Gwen had sworn Arthur wouldn’t be there. He glanced at the door worriedly. Perhaps he could get out before Arthur appeared.
“Hey Merlin,” Gwaine called softly to Merlin, his face softened in what looked like concern. “You know Leon’s best man? Elyan?”
The man in question appeared as if on cue, a plate in one hand and a half eaten cake slice in the other.
“Hi Merlin! Hey, I can see why you and my sister are in this business! Free cake! Brilliant! I like this one!”
“That’s what you said about the other two,” Audrey smiled, pleased. “Now, I’ve got chocolate, lemon sponge, coffee – though that doesn’t always sit well in a wedding cake, I don’t know why, Seville orange with rum – I thought of you, Gwaine, and a lemon and lavender.”
“Lavender?” Gwaine pulled a face. “I already like the rum one best.”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Elyan warned him. “The lavender one is amazing!”
Leon went over and started trying small pieces of the cakes. It was a serious business, evidently. He’d even got a notepad out to make comparisons.
“Mate, you just need to taste them not write an essay,” Elyan laughed at him, trying a different piece of cake. “Oh… this is the rum one… that’s the one you want!”
“You’re not the one getting married, El,” Leon told him. “And I’m not giving Gwaine any opportunity to get even more pissed than he will anyway!”
“You wound me my love!” Gwaine called to him.
“You don’t deny it though!”
Gwaine shrugged, then headed over to join in the cake tasting. He had hung back a little, watching Merlin. Still Gwaine hadn’t completely lost interest in Merlin and nudged him as he passed. “You went so pale then I thought you were going to pass out,” he commented quietly. “Miss him, don’t you?”
“What?” Merlin asked, startled. “No…who?”
Gwaine gave him a sad little smile. “Thought so. Now I have cake to eat, assuming Elyan’s left us any. Then you and I shall have a talk.”
Again, Merlin wondered if he could escape.
Talking to Gwaine turned out to be an excuse to sit in a local pub, supposedly so that Merlin could have a meal before he drove back on all that sugar. Elyan and Leon headed off to the bar to get a round in. There was a long queue. Merlin wished he’d been quicker to offer to get it, because he was left with a once-again serious Gwaine. And, a moment later, Percival, beer in hand.
“I timed that well,” he told them. “Leon only spotted me after I’d been served so I couldn’t buy a round! They’ll be a while, it’s a massive queue.” Percival sat down opposite Merlin, putting his beer down on the table. “Hi Merlin. Long time no see. How’re you doing?”
Percival had lost his job because of Merlin’s affair with Arthur. Even though Percival was greeting him with a smile, Merlin wasn’t entirely convinced that Percival was going to feel all that friendly towards him. And Percival had not got any less muscular in the past couple of years.
“Okay,” he replied warily, absently rubbing his neck, trying not to think how easily Percival’s hands could just snap it like a twig. “Um… How are you?”
“He’s great! He’s back working for me, where he belongs,” Gwaine grinned.
Percival nodded, still smiling. “I am, it’s true.”
Merlin swallowed nervously, shifting on his seat. “I’m really sorry you lost your old job,” he ventured.
Percival shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. Uther’s a jerk, I was glad to get away from him. Val was horrible to work with too. And Gwaine had a vacancy down here so it all worked out fine for me. I just feel bad for Arthur.”
Merlin gave a disbelieving snort at that. “I don’t!”
“Really?” Percival frowned at him. “Arthur’s a great guy, he’s nothing like his father. Surely you of all people know that?”
“I know he says one thing and then does whatever his father tells him to,” Merlin replied. “I know he breaks promises. I know he’s weak.”
“And I know he’s absolutely wretched,” Gwaine put in. “He’s miserable, Merlin.”
“Good!” Merlin looked around to see where Leon and Elyan had got to with the drinks. Driving later or not, he needed one. Perhaps he’d have a skinful, find a bed and breakfast for the night then drive home in the morning. Little Pockton looked like exactly the sort of quaint tourist haunt that would have plenty of places to stay.
“I was with him the day he went to see his father about you,” Percival continued. “Arthur was completely certain about what he was going to do. He was dead set on it, had all these ideas of how he could be a positive role model for the gay community. Didn’t stop talking about it. And I’m sure he would have been brilliant at it. But he went into his father’s study and closed the door. After that only the two of them know what went on in there. Arthur was in there for nearly two hours. I could hear them arguing. Uther was shouting all kinds of homophobic abuse that I won’t repeat. Arthur was giving as good as he got, yelling back at him. Sometimes it would go quiet for a while, they’d talk in normal tones again. But it would always start back up, the raised voices, the anger, neither of them willing to give way.”
“But Arthur did give way,” Merlin pointed out. “He sent me a message telling me I was a mistake and that he was changing his phone.”
“I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Arthur wanted,” Percival insisted. “Uther said something. It was quiet so I couldn’t hear. He talked for a long time and every now and then Arthur must have tried to butt in because I’d hear Uther yell not to interrupt him, he was the king and Arthur would damn well obey him.”
“And he did,” Merlin pointed out, his voice cold.
“Yes. Eventually the door opened. The king came out, fired me on the spot for not doing my job.”
“Even though your job was bodyguard, not matchmaker,” Gwaine put in.
“Yeah. I wasn’t worried, I have no problem getting employed in security jobs, I mean look at me!” Percival smiled, gesturing down at himself. “Uther’s loss!”
“My gain,” Gwaine grinned. “Good to have my buddy back on security.”
“Safer work too,” Percival told Merlin. “We’re at risk of break-ins here rather than assassination attempts or kidnapping. But I didn’t like to leave Arthur behind. I had no choice, I had to obey the king. But I could see Arthur sitting in Uther’s study, head in hands. He looked broken, Merlin.”
“And he’s been like that ever since,” Gwaine added. “Merlin, listen, you don’t really know me but I’ve heard a lot about you, most of it from Arthur. He’s my best mate, has been since we were kids. All through that shit with Cenred… you know about that, right?”
Merlin had heard that the man had died in a plane crash earlier that year. An accident. But that wasn’t what Gwaine was referring to so Merlin just nodded. “Smart bloke. Came away from it rich, not that it did him much good in the long run.”
Gwaine shrugged. “I didn’t shed any tears over that. And going after Arthur’s money’s not something you’ve ever considered, am I right?” Gwaine asked, not waiting for an answer. “Of course you haven’t. Because you’re a decent guy, and that’s why Arthur loves you.”
Merlin gave a bitter laugh at that. “I don’t think so. Look, what is this, Gwaine? Are you even getting married or is this some sort of setup to get me here so that you rich royal types can have another laugh at my expense? That’s it, isn’t it? Aw, Gwen’s going to be livid, she had hopes for this job.”
“I’m getting married,” Gwaine told him. “Arthur’s my best man. And yes, Leon and I hired Gwen’s firm because of you, because I wanted to see if there was any hope. Gwen’s chatty, friendly. Lovely girl. She told me you’ve been miserable too. She didn’t appear to be aware that you and Arthur were ever anything more than friends. Seemed to think study and work were what made you sad, and that you’d be glad to see your old friend Arthur. Even though you never mention him to her.”
“I haven’t told anyone,” Merlin admitted. “No point now, is there?” He looked around again. Leon was talking to Elyan, both of them laughing together at something. Happy. Looking forward to the future. It was how he’d hoped that he would be with Arthur by now. Once. Before Arthur dashed all his hopes.
“I think there is,” Gwaine replied. “I’ve known Arthur my entire life. He’s my best mate. And I have never seen him like this.”
Percival nodded. “I’ve only known him a few years, but I agree with Gwaine. Whatever the reason that he broke things off with you, it’s definitely not because he doesn’t care.”
Merlin didn’t know what to think. It could be a joke. Gwaine was the sort who liked a joke. But surely not a cruel one? Elyan and Leon wouldn’t have let him do that if they knew. Merlin didn’t believe that Percival would either. And Merlin wanted it to be true. He wanted so much for Arthur to love him.
“Say I believe you,” Merlin said carefully. “Say this isn’t a cruel joke…”
Percival looked quite offended at that idea. He was probably the decent bloke Merlin took him for. But Gwaine was nobility, one of the supposed elite. It might amuse him to take all the plebs for a ride.
“It isn’t,” Gwaine assured him.
“Then what are we going to do about it?”
Gwaine smiled. “Well, my friend, we are going to get you and Arthur talking to each other. And then we’ll take it from there.”
Percival grinned, toasting them with his beer.
Merlin just hoped this wasn’t going to be a terrible idea.
The meeting to approve the reception dinner was, Gwaine had decided, the best place to bring Arthur in without arousing any suspicion. It was to be held on Gwaine’s estate, the caterer demonstrating exactly what they could provide at the location. Merlin had found that doing the tasting at the wedding venue always went best. Not that it really made any difference to the taste, but it gave the couple a better idea of how things would be on the day. There were rarely any complaints. Vivien, of course, but then that bride had complained about everything.
Waiting for Arthur to arrive was nerve-wracking.
Merlin busied himself with the caterers, going over every aspect of the menu with them. He knew he was probably asking the same questions that he had done weeks ago, anything to distract himself from what was about to happen.
What if Gwaine was wrong? Arthur had seemed so sure they were finished the last time Merlin saw him. What if Val and that other bodyguard, Kanen, were there? Merlin was fairly sure Val would do whatever he felt he needed to ensure Merlin was kept away from Arthur.
“Are you okay?” Gwen asked, as Merlin checked the starters list for the third time. “I could recite that selection myself by now, I’ve heard you go through it so many times.”
“Fine,” Merlin assured her, looking at the desserts list. “Hmm… that’s four different chocolate dishes…”
“Which will go down well!” Gwen assured him. “Everyone loves chocolate.”
“My mate Will doesn’t.”
“Your friend Will is a very strange man,” Gwen told him. “Now something’s up, Merlin. What is it?”
Merlin wondered if he should tell her the truth. After all, if they got fired from the job by the king or something she wasn’t going to be too happy with him. Nor would she be happy if he hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her about Arthur. Gwen wasn’t just his business partner, she was his friend. She deserved to know the truth.
“It’s Arthur,” he began to say. “He and I…”
And right then the doors burst open and the two grooms walked in, Elyan following closely behind. Gwen was instantly all business.
“Merlin, we’re going to talk about his, I’m worried about you,” she promised, giving his hand a quick squeeze before greeting their customers. “Gwaine, Leon, hello! I do hope you two are hungry because there’s quite a spread to go through. And I must say the caterers you’ve chosen have done an excellent job. Now if you’ll come with me to the first table, can we start with the amuse bouche? Oh Elyan, no!”
Merlin smiled despite himself, seeing Gwen smack her brother’s hand as he reached for one of the miniature, artistic morsels of food.
“I’m the best man!” he protested, popping a tiny rockfish cromesquis into his mouth. “Mmm… that one’s good. Bit small.”
Merlin wasn’t quite sure how being best man made him taster in chief, but Elyan had certainly embraced the role at the bakery. He was fairly sure Elyan had made the final decision on the wedding cake.
“How are you so slim?” Gwen grumbled at him. “Don’t eat any more. Now, Leon, Gwaine, try the spiced confit pork belly…”
Merlin watched them moving around the table, trying the tiny samples. It was easy enough for them to select half a dozen or so, then move on to the starters.
“Now,” Gwen began, “the salmon roulade is sourced from a local farm…”
Merlin stopped listening. He thought he might possibly have stopped breathing. Because coming through the doorway, looking every bit as fine as he had two years earlier, was Arthur Pendragon.
“Sorry I’m late,” Arthur called, hurrying over to join them. He was dressed in a green Henley and what looked like a brand new pair of designer jeans. Casual wear for the very rich, Merlin supposed. “There were roadworks on the motorway, ten mile tailback. We had to take the scenic route.”
Behind Arthur was a bodyguard that Merlin hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t Val or Kanen but a younger man with a gentler face. Handsome, Merlin noted. He hoped that Arthur hadn’t replaced him.
“No worries, mate!” Gwaine grinned, turning to greet his friend. “You’ve only missed the amused booch thingies!”
“Which were delicious,” Leon added quickly to the somewhat offended-looking caterer.
“That’s good, good…” Arthur looked around at the group and that was when he saw Merlin. Merlin could pinpoint the exact moment Arthur realised he was there because all the colour drained out of Arthur’s face.
“Merlin,” he breathed. For a moment Arthur just stared at him, mouth hanging slightly open. Merlin wasn’t sure what the best way would be to react.
“Hello, Arthur,” was the simple greeting he eventually settled on. And they stared at each other long enough that it was starting to become awkward.
“Guys,” Gwaine beamed at them both, grabbing Merlin’s arm with one hand and Arthur’s with the other then sweeping them off across to the far side of the room. “I forgot you two knew each other, you were on that course, weren’t you? Probably want to catch up!”
Merlin was aware that Gwen, Elyan and the caterers were watching them all curiously. He could hear Leon loudly trying to draw their attention back to the starters, which removed any question of whether Leon was in on it or not.
“What’s going on?” Arthur demanded, keeping his voice down. “Why’s Merlin here?”
Gwaine shrugged. “Well he’s the wedding planner.”
Arthur frowned. “Wedding planner? Merlin?” he looked at Merlin curiously. “You’re an archaeologist!”
“I couldn’t get a job,” Merlin explained. “So I joined Gwen’s wedding planning company,” Merlin told him. “Well, mine and Gwen’s now I suppose.”
“Til Death… you said it was going to be called Til Death,” Arthur said. He looked around, to Gwaine. “You gave me a company name, it wasn’t Til Death. I would have remembered.” He looked back at Merlin, his expression almost frantic.
“Gwen hated that name, there was no way she’d actually call her business that,” Merlin sighed. “Queen of Hearts Wedding Planning, that’s what we went with. Our logo has a playing card with a manipulation of Gwen dressed as the Queen of hearts. She looks beautiful.”
“She really does,” Gwaine agreed.
Arthur looked at Merlin, then at Gwaine, then back at Merlin again.
“I can’t do this. I can’t be here,” he announced.
“Yeah, you can, mate,” Gwaine reassured him. “Look, you’ve been miserable without Merlin, we both know it. We’ll persuade your dad, eventually. I mean what’s he going to do, really?”
“You don’t know,” Arthur told him, running his hands through his hair then pulling on it. Merlin had never seen anyone actually do that before. Arthur looked desperate. “You don’t understand. I have to go. I can’t ever be anywhere near Merlin.”
“Why not?” Merlin asked. “What’s your dad said?”
“The king. He’s the king, Merlin,” Arthur said.
“Yes, I know. He’s still your dad.”
“He’s the king. I have to go,” Arthur repeated. “Gwaine, I’ll call you. We need to talk about this.”
“What about me?” Merlin demanded. “Don’t I deserve an explanation?”
Arthur gazed at him sadly. “Just forget about me, Merlin. For your own good. Please. Find someone who deserves you, makes you happy.”
“You made me happy,” Merlin found himself saying. “And you were happy too.”
The look of pain on Arthur’s face on hearing that was heartbreaking. “I have to go,” he said yet again. “Don’t come after me.” He turned away and headed for the door, calling to his bodyguard who had stayed at the entrance. “Galahad! Change of plan, we’re leaving.”
The bodyguard, Galahad, looked confused, but followed Arthur out.
“Well that could have gone better,” Gwaine commented.
Gwaine hummed thoughtfully to himself for a moment or two. “Yeah,” he said eventually. “But could have gone worse as well. Least he doesn’t have Val as bodyguard all the time now. That new lad won’t know who you are. Hope he’s on guard duty next time too!”
“Next time?” Merlin repeated incredulously. “Arthur’s never going to come near this wedding now he knows I’m helping organise it!”
“Perhaps,” Gwaine told him cheerily. “We’ll see. I have another plan.”
“And this one went so well.”
Gwaine just smiled smugly. He was clearly living proof that the aristocracy were insane after so many generations of inbreeding, Merlin decided.
“Merlin!” Gwen called across. “If you’ve finished, we need Gwaine over here please.”
“Come on, you have a wedding breakfast menu to decide on,” Merlin told him. He tried not to listen to the sound of a car engine starting up outside, knowing it would be taking Arthur away from him yet again.
He tried to ignore the curious looks that Gwen was giving him. But there would be questions later, he knew.
“So,” Gwen began when they got home that night. “Prince Arthur. Explain.”
Merlin had been waiting for that. Gwen had been very quiet in the car journey back, turning the radio on and letting the music and inane DJ chatter fill the silence. But it could only last so long, and as soon as they were inside their flat, the door closed, she asked the inevitable question.
“Arthur doesn’t want me around. I don’t think we’ll lose the job, Gwaine said not to worry about that. But I don’t think Arthur’s going to want to be best man if I’m working on this.”
“Arthur looked at you as if he’d seen a ghost,” Gwen commented. “It was shock on his face when he saw you, not dislike.”
“I don’t know what it was,” Merlin said truthfully.
“I know what it looked like,” Gwen stated. She stood in front of him, arms folded. “It looked like a couple of exes meeting up unexpectedly. That’s what it looked like. Merlin, tell me Arthur’s not the reason you’ve been so unhappy over the past couple of years.”
Merlin didn’t say anything. Hiding the truth was one thing but he wouldn’t lie to Gwen.
“I’ve missed something huge in your life, haven’t I?” she said softly, no longer demanding. She unfolded her arms and took a step closer. “Oh sweetie,” she put her arms around him, drawing him in for a hug. “I wish you’d told me right away instead of pretending you were stressed about exams. You were so miserable. And I would never have taken this job. We can still cancel it. Or I’ll just do it alone, whatever you want.”
“This wedding’s too big a job for one person,” Merlin told her. “And we can’t cancel, it’s a huge boost for business and we’d be letting Gwaine and Leon down. No, we’ll do what we agreed in the beginning and I’ll just work on it all in the background.”
It seemed like a reasonable solution. And it would have been except for one thing.
Doing the suit fittings was a terrible idea, Merlin knew.
It was his speciality, using his magic to ensure that everyone’s wedding outfits fitted perfectly. Normally there wasn’t a problem. And with the Gwaine/Leon wedding there wouldn’t have been if it weren’t for one of the best men.
“Surely he can get one of his royal tailors to do this?” Merlin complained when Gwaine announced his latest plan.
“Nope. Everyone has to match. I’m not having my wedding ruined because of Arthur. What if his suit’s the wrong shade of black? It’s going to ruin the photos!”
Gwaine did not strike Merlin as the kind of person who would really worry too much about that. He did seem quite invested in getting Arthur and Merlin speaking to each other again, hopeless though it was.
“Having Arthur on the photos is going to ruin them anyway,” Merlin told him.
“Hmm… This is true, and I’ll make sure to tell him.”
“Wonderful,” Merlin muttered, “another reason for him to hate me.”
“He doesn’t hate you. It’s something else but he won’t tell me what it is. Anyway, we’re doing this. I’m the customer and the customer is always right,” Gwaine stated happily. “So, we’ll have a fitting next week. See you then, Merlin.”
Gwaine’s calls usually seemed to go along those lines, Merlin had discovered.
Arthur probably wouldn’t turn up, anyway, Merlin told himself. So he went along with it. The fact that he was secretly hoping that he would see Arthur again had absolutely nothing to do with his agreement.
And so, a week later he was back at Gwaine’s stately home, kneeling on the floor at Percival’s feet. As one of the ushers, Percival also needed a suit. And getting one to fit properly was definitely a major challenge for Merlin’s magic.
Percival was pleased with the results though. “Merlin, I’m going to hire you to adjust every item of clothing I buy from this point on! You’re brilliant! I’ve never had a suit fit this well. You’re wasted in wedding planning, you know that?”
Merlin did know that. He knew he’d studied long and hard for a career in museums and archaeology, but despite having a first and plenty of work experience he had found it impossible to find a job in that area. Sometimes he wondered if it was anything to do with his past relationship with Arthur, some kind of payback from the king? But he supposed he would never know.
Leon was next, another tall man but considerably less muscular than Percival. His suit fitted perfectly, there was nothing for Merlin to do. Unlike Gwaine, who somehow managed to make the trousers look as if they were the wrong length no matter what Merlin did. Elyan’s fitting was easy enough, another man built to wear a suit.
Eventually Merlin had seen to all of the wedding party except Arthur. It was disappointing, but he hadn’t expected Arthur to show, not really. So Merlin went for a comfort break in one of Gwaine’s stately bathrooms, then came back expecting to pack up and go home.
Except he couldn’t because there was one more member of the wedding party waiting when he got back.
“Oh, you’re joking,” Arthur complained as soon as he saw Merlin. “He said it was your colleague Gwen! I’m going to kill him, I swear.”
Well, that explained how Gwaine had persuaded Arthur to come along. Merlin couldn’t face yet another rejection and turned to leave.
The door shut in his face, and he heard a key turning in the lock.
“You’ll thank me later, bitches!” Gwaine called through the door. “Now kiss and make up!”
“That’s not funny!” Merlin called, but he wasn’t sure Gwaine was even still there on the other side of the door. “Let us out!”
There was no answer.
“He’s gone,” Arthur said. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. I take it this was his idea?”
Merlin reluctantly turned to face his ex-lover. “Of course it was. I get the message, Arthur. Obviously I have to do this, it’s part of my job. I didn’t expect you to actually come along. Seriously, you thought Gwen was going to do this?”
Arthur glared back at him defiantly. “Why wouldn’t she? Equal opportunities, Merlin.”
Merlin wondered, because it felt a little suspect. “Okay. Well I don’t think Gwaine’s thought this through. I can let us out of here, I can use my magic to open that door.”
“Oh I will. As soon as you tell me what happened. What went wrong? Why did you suddenly decide you didn’t want us?”
“Common sense, Merlin. I’m the heir to the throne, I can’t be seen as a gay man.”
“Why? You were happy enough before. You had plans, hopes for the future. And I’m supposed to believe that those meant nothing too? I meant nothing?”
Arthur turned towards the window, as if seeking something out there that might help him. Or perhaps looking for an escape, Merlin thought.
“Well?” Merlin demanded, when no response was forthcoming. “Don’t I deserve to know?”
Arthur remained staring out of the window. “You meant everything,” he said finally, not looking at Merlin. “You still do.”
Merlin froze, not daring to hope. Had he misheard? “What?”
“We can’t be together,” Arthur continued. “It isn’t possible. The press would tear you apart.”
“We discussed that. I can cope,” Merlin insisted. “Look at me!” he shouted, when Arthur still kept his gaze on the window.
Slowly Arthur turned.
“It would be easier if, after this wedding, our paths don’t cross again.”
“But why?” Merlin had to know. “What changed?”
Arthur gave a heavy sigh, then sat down on a plush sofa in front of the window. “It was my father,” he said. “I thought he would understand. But he made it clear he could never, ever understand two men being in love. Cenred was something that he could comprehend. Cenred had seduced his son, corrupted him. Cenred wanted money, and that was what he got. That was all he was ever interested in. But you were different. You couldn’t be bought, you never once made threats or asked for hush money. He took my private phone from me on that first evening. So every text, every voice message you left after that, he saw or heard them all. All that love and concern for me. Even he could tell that it wasn’t a blackmailer calling his son but someone that actually cared. And that you weren’t going to go away.”
“So he sent that text?” Merlin sat down next to him, daring to be close. Arthur didn’t move away.
“No,” Arthur shook his head sadly. “That was me. I sent it. I had to try to make you give up on me, get on with your own life. There were things my father said… I was afraid, Merlin.”
“You?” Merlin could never imagine Arthur being afraid of anything.
“Not for myself. I don’t care what happens to me. I’d go through anything for you. But it wasn’t about me. I was afraid for you, for what would happen to you if you persisted.”
“We talked about that. I can cope with the press intrusion.”
“Not the press. Oh god, I don’t know how to tell you this.”
Arthur gazed at him sadly, then away. “First of all, in this country there are ancient laws regarding the monarchy. I’ve told you before, I think, that I can’t step down from being heir to the throne regardless of how much I want to. That would have to be done by Parliament. I can’t even abdicate when the time comes unless they agree. Did I tell you that part of it? I have no say in things at all.”
“Tell me about it. And it’s not the worst one, the one that means we can’t be together. You’ve probably heard of sovereign immunity?”
“It means that my father could commit any crime and no court could convict him. Anything, including murder. If he did it himself there would be no comeback. He told me this. When I absolutely refused to give you up he stopped shouting at me. He sat down at his desk and brought out a gun, laid it there in front of him.”
“He threatened to kill you?”
“Oh Merlin,” Arthur sighed, “are you being deliberately foolish? Of course it wasn’t me he threatened. If it was me then I would have just taken the risk. But it wasn’t. It was you. He threatened your life.”
That wasn’t what Merlin had expected to hear. “The king wants me dead?”
Arthur shrugged. “Not if you aren’t part of my life. But he sat there telling me how easy it was to poison someone’s food or drink, how simple it would be to procure the necessary product. You could detach yourself from what you were doing, convince yourself you were adding flavouring or something. He said that. He said all of that. And then he looked at me and told me very clearly, very coldly, that he would never allow me to have a partner of the opposite sex. And that it would be for the best for this homosexual person – those were his words – if they never saw me again. Kinder. Safer. All the time he was gently tapping the barrel of that gun. Threatening, yes. But not me. No. He threatened the most precious thing in the world to me.” Arthur looked down at his hands, stretching his fingers out then clenching them into tight fists. “I love you more than anything, Merlin. I think I always will. And I’m not subjecting you to that kind of danger.”
Merlin felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from him. Arthur loved him. Arthur had never stopped loving him. It had never been about anything other than Arthur’s desperate wish to keep Merlin alive. The fool. The stupid, self-sacrificing fool.
“That’s not your choice to make,” Merlin told him. “I’m not scared. If that’s all it is then it should have been my choice. I’d choose you,” Merlin insisted. “Even now, I’d choose you.”
“I can’t ask…”
“You don’t have to,” Merlin insisted. “I’m offering.”
“Did you not understand? He will have you killed. The kind of money he has, it wouldn’t be a problem and anyway I think he’d actually like to do it himself.”
Merlin shrugged, trying to appear less bothered by that than he actually was. “Well, he can try.”
“He will! Listen to me! Morgana came to me the morning after I’d spoken to my father. She was distraught, crying. I told you she’s a seer?”
“She’s good. She’s really good. And she had a vision. She saw you and I in my father’s office. There was a gun in his hand, pointing at you. And she saw him shoot at you, point blank. That was the decider for me. Morgana doesn’t lie, and her visions come true. How would she have known you and I were even together? It was too big a coincidence. I couldn’t risk you, Merlin. I still won’t.”
“Did she actually see me die in this vision?” Merlin asked.
“Well, no,” Arthur admitted. “She woke up. But she’s had the same vision again several times. She says it doesn’t change. I’ve always feared you’ll turn up at the palace or something and that scene she’s dreamed will play out.”
“But she didn’t see me die?” Merlin checked. He knew enough of seers to realise that what they thought they had seen and what they had actually seen could be very different. Not that you could ever tell a seer that. They were always adamant if it was a strong vision. And this one sounded as if it had been very clear.
“No she didn’t,” Arthur admitted. “But she said you couldn’t possibly have survived it. He shot you in the chest. Oh my god, Merlin! I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. I can cope, knowing you’re out here in the world living your life, alive, safe. I hate it, I hate not being with you, but if that’s the price for your life then I’ll pay it.”
“Is that the only thing stopping us being together?” Merlin asked carefully. “You’re trying to save my life?”
“Isn’t that enough?”
“But you still want us to be together as much as I do? Your feelings haven’t changed? Everything we had wasn’t a mistake?”
“God no, I’m miserable without you,” Arthur admitted. “Not a single day has gone by that I haven’t wished you were with me. But that’s selfish. I can’t let you die because of me.”
“Oh Arthur…” Merlin breathed. “That’s just… oh, you idiot!”
Arthur looked understandably hurt and offended by that. “Hey, I didn’t want to let you go!”
“But you didn’t need to!” Merlin insisted. “Prophecies can be avoided.”
Arthur gazed at him sadly. “Morgana saw this over and over. She’s never had such a strong vision.” He glanced briefly at the door, then back at Merlin. “Look, my bodyguard is outside. I don’t know how Gwaine’s persuaded him not to come in here so far but eventually he’ll want to check on me. You need to unlock that.”
Merlin ignored that request. “I think we should go and see your father.”
“What? Are you not listening to me? No!”
“We should visit him, talk to him.”
“I don’t want you anywhere near him!”
“I’m not scared of him.”
“Well you should be!” Arthur exclaimed. “Even without what Morgana saw, there’s security to worry about. Val and Kanen, that day you turned up at the hospital, they reported back to my father and they’ve been told if you ever come near me again they’re to shoot you and make it look like an accident. They can do that.”
“Like Cenred?” Merlin asked. He already suspected the answer.
“Yes,” Arthur’s expression was grim. “Exactly like Cenred.”
Merlin had searched for Cenred, angry at the way he’d treated Arthur at first, and then just confused at the whole situation. At his lowest point Merlin had even wondered whether Cenred might be the innocent party after all, just another man naïve enough to fall for Prince Arthur. So Merlin had always kept an alert on the name, just in case. He’d seen the news stories the previous year, the obituary. “The plane crash. A tragic accident, the papers said.”
“I don’t think it was an accident,” Arthur told him. “In fact, I know it wasn’t. My father made very sure that I knew it wasn’t, in case I was thinking of ever making contact with you again. And it worked because I’m not risking anything like that happening to you.”
Merlin glanced back out of the window but there was nobody around. “Are they here today, Val and Kanen?”
“No. Galahad’s on duty. He’s newer, wouldn’t immediately know who you are. You’re probably safe with him on duty, and Owain, my other newer guard. They’re decent men, wouldn’t kill without good reason. But they might report back. Someone might show them a photo of you and then they’ll realise. Galahad will probably say something about today.”
“I don’t want us to be finished,” Merlin told him plaintively. “I still love you.”
Arthur gazed at him sadly, his eyes tracing the features of Merlin’s face as if trying to commit it to memory. “And I you. But it can’t be. Not while my father is alive.”
“What about when you’re king? We could keep things quiet and be together then. I’d wait,” Merlin added. “For you, I’d wait.”
“My father is fifty-eight years old,” Arthur pointed out. “My great-grandmother lived to be almost a hundred, kept all her mental faculties and fell asleep one evening after a tipple of her favourite gin. With medical advances my father might live even longer. I can’t ask you to wait for what might be more than forty years. You’d be giving up half your life, only to live the rest of it in media hell.”
“Arthur,” Merlin smiled, trying not to laugh. “I wouldn’t be giving up anything. I’m a gay man, it’s not as if there’s a biological clock ticking. I have a job – not the one I expected, I grant you, but it’s a job. I like working with Gwen, who wouldn’t? And knowing that you’re waiting too, that one day we can be together properly, that would make it worthwhile. I can cope. All I would be giving up is a slow trickle of meaningless relationships with people I can never truly love because my heart is already taken. So yes, I’d wait a thousand years if I had to.”
And then Merlin leaned in to kiss Arthur, because he could. Because Arthur had never ever stopped loving him, quite the opposite, and the world made sense again. Arthur didn’t resist, didn’t even try to pull away. They half-sat, half-lay on the sofa, rediscovering the warmth and taste of each other’s mouths. When Arthur finally, regretfully broke away it didn’t feel like an ending but a beginning.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Arthur whispered.
“Me too. And now we need to talk to your father,” Merlin insisted again, with a braveness he didn’t feel. He had an idea, a way to deal with Uther. But he needed to face the man in order to carry it out.
“I did,” Arthur told him sadly. “I argued for hours, and it made no difference.”
“Well,” Merlin smiled, looking into Arthur’s beloved face and feeling stronger than he had in over two years, “you’re not me.”
And just to emphasise that, he conjured a tiny dragon in his hands, all made of ice cold flame.
Arthur gazed at it wonderingly. “No,” he agreed. “I suppose I’m not.”
The drive to the palace seemed to take forever.
Arthur’s new bodyguard, Galahad, was sitting in the front seat next to the driver. He’d simply accepted it when Arthur had told him they were going back to the palace and that Merlin was coming with them.
“Merlin is one of the wedding planners,” Arthur had explained. “Already passed security when Gwaine took them on, no need to worry about checking. We’ve had a bit of a disagreement about my suit for the wedding, I just want to show him the one I think would be better.”
“Yes, Sir,” Galahad said, but Merlin had seen him tapping at his phone as they got in.
“He’s probably doing a check on me,” Merlin whispered to Arthur.
“I know.” Arthur leaned forward and tapped on the glass dividing him from Galahad and the driver. “Don’t start the car yet. Galahad, don’t run that check yet. Can we step outside, just for a minute?”
Galahad gave Merlin a wary look but got out.
“Stay here,” Arthur told Merlin.
“I need to show him you’re not threatening me. If you’re right next to me you could be controlling me by some means. Especially as you’re down as a magic user. Okay?”
Merlin reluctantly agreed and stayed in the car, watching as Arthur climbed out and walked a short distance away with Galahad.
The driver stayed in the car, checking the sat nav, uninterested in anything else. Merlin might as well not have been there for all the notice that the man took. He supposed that was professional disinterest. What or who the royals had in the car with them was not any of his business. Sadly the same couldn’t be said of those in security posts.
Merlin couldn’t hear what Arthur was saying to Galahad, but at the end of their conversation Galahad nodded, pocketed his phone then said something to Arthur. Whatever it was it made Arthur smile and both men returned to the car looking a lot happier than they were when they’d left it.
“Well?” Merlin whispered when Arthur slid back onto the seat beside him, the door being closed after Arthur got in. Arthur was apparently not supposed to do such things himself. Merlin wasn’t sure he’d ever quite get over learning that.
“It’s fine. Galahad will get us through security when we arrive. I’ve promised him that if he gets into any trouble for this Gwaine or my sister will employ him. It’s a better job here with Gwaine anyway.”
That didn’t stop Merlin worrying for the entire journey. Every time Galahad looked round Merlin found himself reaching for his magic, concerned that he might need to protect himself against a bullet.
But Galahad stayed true to his word and they reached the palace without incident. Merlin had seen the palace before, of course, many times, though always from the outside. Having the main gates opened and being driven through was a far different experience. All the tourists outside had been moved back but that didn’t stop them excitedly snapping photos as Arthur’s car drove through. Merlin ducked his head, hoping that the tinted windows would hide him. Arthur laughed at that.
“They can’t see you, Merlin!”
“It doesn’t feel like it. Oh god, we’re inside the palace grounds!”
“Second thoughts?” Arthur queried. “We could leave, if you don’t think you can do this?”
Merlin shook his head. He knew they’d probably only get one chance. Soon enough Uther would hear that they were back in contact and then it would be too late. He would persuade Arthur that Merlin’s life would be forfeit if they continued their relationship, and Merlin would lose him again.
There was another unfamiliar bodyguard waiting for them when they got out of the car.
“Owain,” Arthur greeted the man. “This is Merlin. He’s with me. We’re going to see my father. Can you and Galahad accompany us, please.”
Merlin saw the two bodyguards exchange glances. Galahad nodded to Owain. Merlin supposed that Arthur was right and the pair of them were the decent people he’d claimed. They would have to be.
The palace itself was ridiculous. Overly ornate, it was more of a museum than a home. Merlin felt completely out of place. And yet Arthur strode through the corridors, greeting everyone that they passed. Merlin didn’t know how he managed to remember all their names. But he did.
“You actually live here?” he asked Arthur at one point as they passed through what looked like (but in fact weren’t) solid gold doors.
“No, I have my own residence now. Owain and Galahad work directly for me rather than being part of the king’s security team. But yes, I grew up here.”
“Just what every child dreams of,” Merlin commented, looking around at the thick drapes on the windows, the old and probably priceless paintings on the walls.
“Indeed,” Arthur said. Merlin supposed that perhaps it hadn’t been much fun there for a child. “But Morgana and I had each other, and the private rooms aren’t as bad as this. And we often stayed with Gwaine.”
It still felt far too austere for a child to grow up in.
The king’s office was on the first floor. Merlin had visions of King Uther sitting on some sort of ornate throne, signing documents whilst wearing his crown and looking regal. Perhaps there would be a robe involved. There were none of these things.
Arthur nodded to the guard outside, then tapped on the relatively plain wooden door to the office.
“Enter,” called a very familiar voice. It spoke to the nation on Christmas Day every year. Merlin felt a sudden rush of nerves but it was far too late to back out. The guard opened the door for Arthur, then stepped back.
King Uther was dressed in a perfectly normal and un-kingly outfit. Just a light blue button-up shirt with an open collar, not even wearing a tie. He was sitting at his desk, his back to the window, working on some papers. Briefly he glanced up when the door opened, but then continued reading through the paper he had in his hand. He didn’t look up again until he had finished with the document, laying it back down on the table.
Arthur and Merlin stood in front of the desk, waiting. Merlin had learned that much at least, that he was supposed to wait until the king spoke before saying anything himself. It was stupid, and Uther was demonstrating exactly why.
“Yes, Arthur,” Uther sighed, finally looking up from his paper. And then he spotted Merlin. “You!”
“This is Merlin, Father,” Arthur put in quickly.
“I know who he is!” Uther roared, getting to his feet. “How did he get in here? Why are you with him? Did I not make myself clear on the previous occasions that we discussed this, Arthur?”
“Yes, but you’re wrong…” Arthur began.
“I am the king!” Uther yelled at him, banging his fist on the desk. “You will obey me, Arthur! How dare you bring this… this abomination here!”
“I love Merlin,” Arthur replied. Merlin could hear the slight tremor in his voice as he spoke. Arthur had endured a lifetime of Uther dominating him, Merlin supposed. It would be hard to stand up to that, even as an adult.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Uther scoffed.
“And I love Arthur,” Merlin added.
“You do not speak in the presence of your king,” Uther growled at Merlin.
The king who wanted him dead, Merlin thought. He knew he should be frightened. But really, Uther was just a man. A man with far too much power.
“That isn’t illegal, just royal protocol,” Merlin pointed out.
“Get out or I’ll have you arrested.”
“For what? Talking? I walked in here with Arthur. I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Uther glared at him, then turned to Arthur. “Arthur, you know what we spoke of. Don’t think that I will hesitate.”
Arthur glanced nervously at Merlin, who nodded reassuringly. “It’s okay, he can’t hurt me.”
“Oh, I can,” Uther assured him. He reached down and opened the drawer of his desk. Sure enough, just as Arthur claimed, he brought out a gun, dark and sleek.
Arthur took a sharp intake of breath. “Morgana saw this…” He looked to Merlin, his expression desperate. “It’s going to happen, just like she saw. You need to go. Now!”
“As if I wouldn’t be able to hit him before he reached the door,” Uther sneered. “Arthur, if I do this it will be for your own good. You clearly cannot control your feelings for this boy.”
Merlin regarded him coldly. He had no intention of going anywhere. “You do know we’re not living in medieval times now, don’t you? You know that you’re just a figurehead, a face for the coins, not some kind of warlord?”
“Merlin…” Arthur warned. “Don’t provoke him.”
“You will give up any claim to my son,” Uther told him calmly. “There will be a payment, just as there was with the other one.”
“You mean Cenred? That money didn’t do him much good, did it?” Merlin commented. He glanced at Arthur, who was regarding them both worriedly.
“I know you killed Cenred,” Arthur stated flatly. It wasn’t even an accusation. There was a gasp from behind them, and Merlin realised that at least one of the guards had entered the room. A witness then.
“He was greedy. Requested more after his silence had already been purchased. So. Now he is permanently silent. It’s a lesson that you would do well to learn.”
“I love Arthur,” Merlin repeated. “I won’t give him up. I don’t want your money.”
There was a tightening in Uther’s jaw at that statement. He still held the gun. “Do not contaminate my son with your abnormality,” he commanded. “Arthur’s bloodline is that of kings, going back centuries.”
“And queens, no doubt,” Merlin pointed out. He wasn’t sure if Uther would get the reference at first, but the anger on Uther’s face left him in no doubt.
“How dare you!”
“No, how dare you! Your son came out to you and you didn’t just reject him, you forced him back into the closet for the rest of his life! You didn’t think what it would do to him!”
“Arthur will be king after me!”
“And his being bi will make no difference to that. You’re a heterosexual man, god help women everywhere, is that something you flaunt every day? Do you go on state visits or attend posh dinners, or wave from balconies shouting that you like to fuck women?”
“How dare you!” Uther repeated. His face was going a shade of purple.
“Sire, please put the gun down.” That was Galahad, coming forward cautiously, hand outstretched. Uther ignored him. Because what could Galahad do? He wasn’t allowed to overpower the king.
“Merlin,” Arthur warned, “be careful. Remember Morgana’s vision. You be careful too,” he added to Galahad. “Don’t do anything rash.”
Merlin kept a wary eye on the gun, knowing that he was goading the king. But there was method in his madness.
“But it’s true!” Merlin continued. “His sexuality is irrelevant. It doesn’t stop him being king. Would you really rather that your son was unhappy for the rest of his life than be true to who he is?”
“The media will rip both of you apart. You’ll be the pervert who turned their golden prince into a degenerate. The people will reject you both, but you especially. It will be the end of the monarchy!”
“Well that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” Arthur put in. “I don’t want this. I didn’t choose it.”
“Arthur!” Uther protested. “See how this creature has corrupted you?”
The gun was still pointed at Merlin, but it was wavering, almost as if Uther were considering including Arthur as a target. Merlin kept up his concentration, watching Uther like a hawk. The guard from outside and Owain had come in too. But like Galahad they were powerless.
And then with a clatter of heels Morgana burst into the room, stopping dead in the entrance as she took in the scene.
“Oh my god no!” she exclaimed. “I just saw… No… no, no… this can’t happen!”
“It’s okay,” Merlin called to her, holding up a hand in what he hoped would be a warning to her not to come closer. The last thing anyone needed was Morgana caught in the crossfire. “Stay back.”
“Leave us, Morgana,” Uther ordered. “Guards, remove her.”
“Don’t you touch me,” Morgana warned. Sensibly, none of the guards even attempted it, and she strode over to Arthur’s side. “What are you doing?” Merlin heard her whisper. “Oh, Arthur… why’s Merlin here?”
Arthur shook his head at her. “I trust Merlin,” he told her, then turned back to face their father, looking far calmer than he had to be feeling, Merlin supposed. “The monarchy should go if it means monsters like you ever coming into this position again, Father.”
“Divine right of kings? Divine right of demented murderers is more like it. It’s all that in-breeding, isn’t it?” Merlin added.
Uther pointed the gun squarely at Merlin. “It’s a divine right, especially if it clears the world of depraved creatures like you.”
“I’m not the one who’s depraved,” Merlin told him.
“No!” Arthur yelled, almost drowned out by Morgana’s scream.
At point blank range Uther couldn’t possibly miss. And he wouldn’t have done with any other target than Merlin.
Merlin reached out for the bullet with his magic, freezing it there in the air between them. Uther fired again, a second shot straight after the first, so quickly that he couldn’t have realised what was happening.
Both bullets froze in mid-air, hanging there impossibly still. The guards, who had moved towards Uther when he fired, king or no, paused, staring at the suspended bullets.
“How?” Galahad asked.
Morgana stared at the frozen bullets in amazement for a moment. “Oh. Oh, Merlin…” And then she made a strange sound, half-sob, half-laugh. “Oh my god…”
“He has magic,” Uther exclaimed disgustedly. “Magic! I’ve long said it should be made illegal. Small wonder he has such influence over Arthur. Arrest him!”
Merlin gave the bullets a little nudge with his magic and they dissolved in a shower of golden dust.
“Other than protecting myself I’ve done nothing wrong,” he pointed out.
“Unlike my father,” Arthur added. “You all witnessed that he attempted to kill Merlin? For no good reason other than his own homophobia? It’s you who should be arrested, Father.”
“Arthur, listen to yourself!” Uther exclaimed. “That’s treason!” The gun was still in his hand. And now it was pointing at Arthur.
“Don’t…” Arthur began.
Perhaps it was an accident. Perhaps Uther’s finger slipped on the trigger in his rage. Merlin didn’t know and didn’t care. Because suddenly there was a bullet racing towards Arthur, aiming to hit him in the heart.
“No!” Merlin heard Morgana cry. The guards all leapt forward, but they would have been far too slow. Only Merlin was fast enough.
The bullet stopped just inches from Arthur’s chest. Arthur was staring at it in horror. At least, until Merlin plucked it from the air with his fingers and laid it carefully down on the desk. Then he stared at Merlin instead, pale with shock.
“Merlin… God, you saved my life!”
Uther had dropped the gun in shock. Whether that was the shock of shooting his son, or at how Merlin had stopped the bullets, Merlin wasn’t sure. At any rate Morgana snatched the gun up, keeping it safely out of Uther’s reach.
“Does sovereign immunity extend so far as attempted murder of your own son?” Merlin asked. His hands were shaking. That had been so close. Too close.
“Silence!” Uther demanded.
“You just tried to kill me!” Arthur gasped. He still looked stunned. “If Merlin hadn’t been here…”
“I… It was the sorcerer!” Uther cried.
“What?” Merlin exclaimed.
“It was you, Father,” Arthur said, shaking his head. “It was you.”
“Guard!” Uther pointed at Owain. “Arrest the sorcerer,” he repeated, ignoring Arthur. “Arrest both of them!”
“Are you okay, Sire?” Galahad asked cautiously. “You seem a little…”
“Unhinged is the word you’re looking for,” Merlin supplied.
“You’re fired!” Uther snapped at Galahad, as if it were him who had spoken. “You!” he pointed to the guard who had been on duty at the door, “call up my head of security. Tell him to bring as many men as possible, ones equipped to deal with magic users. Hurry!”
“Do as he asks,” Arthur told the man calmly. “Ensure that they bring a doctor as well. I think that we can all see that sadly my father is not himself. I fear he is perhaps unwell and requires a break from his duties. My sister and I will need to stand in for a short time, at least until he is quite recovered.”
“How dare you!” Uther raged. “This is treason!”
“I’m sure the security footage from this room, along with my father’s confession regarding Cenred King, will be sufficient to ensure he receives the help and support that he needs,” Arthur continued. “Galahad, Owain, please restrain him. It’s for his own good.”
“Treason, Arthur! I’ll have you disinherited!” Uther shouted.
“Yes, except that’s not possible now,” Morgana told him. “You won’t be having anything done to anyone, you evil pig!”
Behind them, guards were already entering the room. Valiant, Merlin was glad to see, wasn’t amongst them. Belatedly he realised that the guard who had been outside the door was probably quite senior, having been guarding the king. There would be few who doubted his word.
“Monmouth!” Uther yelled as an older man came hurrying in.
Merlin had heard Arthur mention Geoffrey Monmouth, Uther’s chief advisor before. He was red in the face and Merlin supposed the man had been rushing to get there.
“Goodness me, whatever is going on?” he asked, seeing the king in handcuffs and almost spitting with rage. “Arthur? Morgana?”
Arthur gave Merlin’s hand a gentle squeeze.
“It’ll be okay,” he promised. “Nobody knows protocol better than Geoffrey.”
Then he let go and went over to begin the long process of change.
Merlin didn’t see Arthur again for hours.
By that time Morgana and Arthur had been locked in fierce discussions over the future of the monarchy. Prime Minister Annis had been summoned to the palace. She had actually been smiling when she left by all accounts. Uther was not a particularly popular king.
Morgana had been distraught at first after the shock of having seen her visions coming true. But once Arthur had convinced her that he was okay and so was Merlin she calmed down. After that she had stood at her brother’s side and stayed there, supporting him as much as she could.
Merlin had been shown to a side room, assigned a person he could call on if he needed anything, and then left to his own devices. Mostly that involved watching TV and playing with his phone as there wasn’t a lot else to do. The news was speculating that something was going on at the palace because of the prime ministerial summons, but as yet none of the stations seemed to have come anywhere close to guessing the truth.
It was quite boring, waiting. Gwaine popped in for a while, but he was on his way to see Arthur and barely had time for more than a hello. Merlin could have requested anything he wanted from the assistant that he’d been given. But instead he just had a sandwich (the poshest sandwich that he’d ever had in his life!) then took a selfie and sent it to Gwen.
Arthur finally appeared at nearly 10pm. He looked exhausted and sank wearily down onto the sofa beside Merlin.
“Well, it’s done,” Arthur told him. “My father has been declared unfit to rule. He’s in a private secure hospital receiving the best care.”
“So you’re king now?”
“I’m regent. It will be officially declared soon. And I’ve discussed with the prime minister how we can bring in legislation removing sovereign immunity. She was very enthusiastic about it. Probably a republican like you!”
Merlin smiled. “I’m rethinking. I like some aspects of the monarchy. The Prince of Wales, for one. Morgana and Gwaine are pretty good too.”
“You’re not bad yourself,” Arthur told him. “God, I wish I’d known you could stop bullets… that was incredible! I’ve never seen anything like that. I thought you just made paper crowns and adjusted costumes!”
Merlin shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant about it all. “I’m quite good at magic.”
“I’ll say! I could have had you at my side all this time,” he shook his head sadly. “You never needed protecting.”
“No,” Merlin agreed. “But you couldn’t have known that. And I get that you pushed me away because you love me, I really do.”
“I’d do anything to keep you safe, Merlin. But I feel like a fool.”
“Well, you’re royalty so that’s nearly the same thing!” Merlin teased, making Arthur smile again.
“I try. So, will your father abdicate at some point?”
Arthur shook his head. “It’s complicated. Because technically he’s not of sound mind he can’t abdicate. I step in as Prince Regent until such time as he’s declared fit to rule again.”
Merlin did not like the sound of that. “So he could return to the throne?”
“Yes. But in the meantime I will effectively be the king in all but name. And as I said, I can work with our government to ensure that the archaic laws regarding the monarchy and sovereign immunity are changed. So if he does return to the throne there will be charges to answer, king or not. After what’s happened here there won’t be much opposition to changing that particular aspect of the law.”
“Get rid of the monarchy altogether?” Merlin asked hopefully. “Save all that money and you and I could have a normal life?”
“I’ll never have a completely normal life,” Arthur told him. “There’s always going to be media interest. Photos of me in retirement while I’m shuffling round Tescos in scruffy clothes with the headline pointing out that I don’t look the same as I did fifty years earlier.”
Merlin didn’t bother arguing it. They both knew it was true.
“So,” Arthur said, putting an arm around his partner. “Apparently I have to live here again now. How would you feel about being the royal consort?”
“Servants and four-poster beds?”
“Well, we normally say staff rather than servants, Mer-lin, and usually sleep on a comfortable divan with a firm mattress…”
Merlin grinned delightedly. “Ah,” he said, “finally!”
“There’s the royal prat I know and love!” Merlin declared.
“Royal Prat Regent, yes,” Merlin told him happily, silencing the indignant spluttering with a kiss.
After that, Merlin’s life couldn’t stay the same.
For one thing, he had to sneak around pretending that he wasn’t having a secret affair with the Prince Regent. And for another there was no longer King Uther blocking his career.
Professor Gaius called him on the afternoon Arthur’s regency was announced, offering him a job. Not everyone was entirely happy about that.
“Leaving?” Gwen exclaimed. “But… you can’t! The big wedding… I can’t train someone that fast!”
Merlin had a feeling that would be her reaction. “It’s okay…”
“It’s not okay!”
“It is. I’ve spoken to Professor Gaius. One of his assistants is retiring at the end of the year. So I start in January. Plenty of time for us to recruit and train. And I’ll still be around for Gwaine and Leon’s wedding.”
“Hmm,” Gwen considered this. “It’s still not very long. But I’ll manage. Won’t it be further away from Arthur though?”
Merlin shrugged. “Arthur’s so busy at the moment, I sometimes go days without seeing him, especially during the week. So I’ll drive down on Monday morning and back on a Friday. Or he’ll come to me. We’ll make it work. Apparently there’s a country estate not too far away from Camelot Trust anyway. Arthur’s seeing whether he can take it on as his private retreat. Or we could just move into the castle at Camelot Trust if it’s ever finished!”
“Money no object!” Gwen commented, smiling, reaching out to give him a hug. “Well, I suppose I couldn’t keep you forever. I'll miss you though. But I’ll be coming to visit regularly, you can bet on that. And you have to do something for me. No arguments.”
“What?” Merlin asked warily.
“This.” Gwen pointed to the old Camelot Trust charity calendar that she’d had on the office wall for over a year. Merlin had assumed she just hadn’t got around to taking it down at year end. It wasn’t as if the picture there was anything but perfect. Lance, shirtless, grinning at the camera.
“Introduce me to Mr December!” she begged. “Oh my god, Merlin, please tell me he’s straight and single!”
The wedding went perfectly. But then, weddings organised by Gwen and Merlin always did.
Arthur remained as best man, which given his change of status suddenly meant that there were a lot more media enquiries for Merlin and Gwen to deal with. They took it in their stride, though. Suddenly every reporter in the world wanted to be at that wedding. The phone did not stop ringing. No, Arthur would not be bringing a plus one. No, they didn’t know whether he was seeing anyone. Yes, it was on the Duke of Devonshire’s private estate so no unapproved press access. Yes, a single reporter would be in attendance and they had already been approved and appointed. No, Gwen and Merlin couldn’t sneak anyone else in, no matter how much was offered. And so it went on.
Arthur’s best man speech was heartfelt and entertaining, whilst Elyan’s made everyone laugh. In the end the two had collaborated so that there was no risk of one upstaging the other. Gwaine managed not to fluff his lines in the chapel, despite having completely messed up the rehearsal a few days before. And Leon did everything correctly, as he always did.
“I enjoyed today,” Arthur commented, sitting to one side with Merlin at the evening do. “That was a beautiful wedding. Well done.”
Gwaine was out on the dance floor doing some sort of ridiculous routine that he had clearly choreographed two seconds earlier and must have looked far better in his somewhat inebriated mind. Leon was watching him fondly, shaking his head. They both looked stupidly happy. As you should on your wedding day.
“Gwen’s weddings always go well,” Merlin assured him. “She’s an expert.”
“Hmm.” Arthur sat back in his chair, watching the dancers thoughtfully. “An expert…”
Morgana was dancing with a group of her friends. Merlin noted that Elena was amongst them. They’d somewhat lost touch over the past couple of years. He was looking forward to getting to know her again in the New Year.
“One day I might put Gwen to the test on that,” Arthur said quietly.
Merlin gave him a quizzical look. “What do you mean?” he asked, though he knew perfectly well. It was always fun to watch Arthur squirm though.
On that particular occasion, Arthur just smiled.
“Nothing yet,” Arthur smiled at him. “We haven’t even announced ourselves to the world yet.”
They sort of had, though Merlin had not yet been named as Arthur’s partner.
Arthur hadn’t held back during his first address to the nation. Prime Minister Annis had already announced that King Uther was unwell and that his heir Prince Arthur would be standing in as regent for the foreseeable future. So Arthur had introduced himself and immediately declared that he would be reforming the monarchy, starting with the abolition of sovereign immunity.
After that, because Arthur didn’t do things by halves, Arthur came out to the entire nation. And so it was that revelation, not his proposed overturning of ancient laws which dominated news reports around the world in the 24 hours following his address.
Arthur’s declaration of his sexuality had provoked either outrage, indifference or adoration, depending on the slant of the particular news media reporting it. So far the reception had been mostly positive. But then he hadn’t brought his partner out officially in public, not yet.
And so Merlin and Arthur had quietly rebuilt their relationship, keeping everything private. It had been difficult when Arthur was hounded by the press constantly. Still, he had refused to release the name of his lover. Sooner or later someone would find out. Merlin knew that Arthur was tired of hiding. He was too. It was almost Christmas and he would have liked to take Arthur home, introduce him properly to his mum. Or perhaps they’d all have to go to the palace. Arthur had already recorded his first Christmas day speech but it was perhaps best not to advertise the fact that it wasn’t entirely live…
Obviously the shock and horror of Merlin’s new boyfriend’s identity was going to kill Will but that couldn’t be helped.
“Is the reporter still here, do you think?” Arthur asked casually.
Merlin looked around the room. He could see Mithian Nemeth, the same reporter who had written the thoughtful article about Arthur the previous year. She was sitting quietly across from them. Watching them, naturally, though never intrusive.
“Yes, she’s still here. I don’t think she’s taken her eyes off you all night.”
“Perhaps she needs to know that I’m spoken for,” Arthur said lightly, though there were questions in his eyes as he looked at Merlin.
“I think perhaps she does.”
“Shall we dance?” Arthur stood, offering his hand.
Merlin took Arthur’s hand. He didn’t look over at the reporter, knowing she would be alert, would be about to get the scoop of a lifetime.
“Are you ready?” Arthur asked.
“No,” Merlin replied. “But I never will be so let’s do it anyway.”
And so they did.