It happened the fourth time Merlin went to see him perform. It was accidentally the fourth time. Had Merlin known he’d be at yet another ‘The Art of Magic’ show, he’d have run screaming from the park, but Wayne was an arsehole with a perverted sense of humour and Merlin was one of the most gullible amateur deceivers there was. The first show to which Merlin had gone had been an accident as well. He’d been in his favourite magic shop, Gaius’s, and Art was playing outside. The second show had been witnessed by design --- Merlin had been curious about the new magician on his patch, he couldn’t deny it. The third viewing had been to confirm his ranting and ravings and to convince Gwen in joining them (she hadn’t. She had said he was judging unfairly. Those who didn’t practice magic just didn’t know.)
The thing was, Art wasn’t very good. Oh, he had the charisma and the charm, Merlin had to give him that. His costumes (seemingly regular street clothes, but a trained eye knew better) were always well-cut and flattering. His posh voice added to his sense of class. It wasn’t that he didn’t perform his illusions competently, because each movement, every misdirection was well-honed. It was the quality of the illusions themselves. They were old hat, bland, lacking in ingenuity and challenge. They weren’t even of the delightful old-school tradition that everyone knew the solution to. They were blah. There was no other term that did them justice. Blah.
So Merlin was rolling his eyes just as Art picked him out from the crowd and asked him onto the makeshift stage. There was a look in Art’s eyes that Merlin found disarming. It was, at its heart, the same kind of curiosity that Merlin had felt. And something else too, something indefinable. Merlin had no choice but to join him there on the raised platform, standing tall and proud and just a little bit defiant.
“Hello, kind sir, and what is your name?” Art asked, giving the audience a mischievous grin, as if they were in on some grand joke and Merlin was about to be an unwitting victim.
“Lin,” Merlin said, because he’d stopped going by his full name at the age of thirteen and didn’t see any reason to start it up again now. Most people assumed ‘Lin’ was short for Linton or Lindsay, and that was the way Merlin liked it.
“Would you happen to have your mobile phone on you? Maybe an android, or offering from the Apple Gods?”
Merlin couldn’t explain to Wayne, later, why he chose to do what he did next. There was no rational explanation. He was usually so caring, so patient, so nice --- everybody said so. But it was the look in Art’s eyes, the confusion of being forced in front of an audience, an innate need to impress in the sort of way where the impression needn’t be favourable.
“No,” Merlin said, shaking his head vigorously. “I never keep my phone on me. I’ll have to summon it.”
Art’s expression had changed to one of boredom, as if to say; oh, shit, I’ve landed one of those idiots who think they need to be funny. Just my luck.
That’s when Merlin clapped his hand twice and the iPhone his mother had given him for his birthday and which he was on pain of death not to lose apparently miraculously dropped from high above into his outstretched hands.
Art looked up. Then he looked down. Then he scowled.
“Right,” he said through gritted teeth as the audience applauded. He took a deep, noticeable breath and began his spiel.
As far as Merlin had been able to make out, this was Art’s signature illusion. It was the sort of signature illusion all amateurs had in the arsenal. It was showy, it was actually very simple to accomplish, and it included fear and pathos. It wasn’t a bad illusion, it just wasn’t particularly good either. One of the things Merlin had ranted about at Gwen was the fact he was sure Art could do considerably better, if he put his mind to it. His sleight of hand wasn’t as sneaky as Merlin’s own, but it would fool even close-watching non-magicians (or ‘muggles’ as Gwen insisted on calling herself and all others like her.) Art knew his role and he played it well.
Art was in the middle of ‘bashing up Lin’s phone’ when Merlin pulled his next rabbit out of his hat. He ‘summoned Art’s phone from the air’ and began dialling Wayne’s number. The audience lost it --- laughing and cat-calling.
Art stopped what he was doing, roared, “is that my phone?” and made as if to snatch it back.
“Your phone’s in your pocket, I believe,” Merlin said.
Art looked down to check that this was indeed true, and Merlin was now dialling Wayne’s number on his own phone. Art surreptitiously checked the pocket he’d concealed the iPhone, narrowed his eyes and tipped out the bag, which now contained a bouquet of paper flowers. This was a jibe that was not lost on Art, Merlin could tell, as he was shoved unceremoniously off stage.
“Bloody amateurs think they’re so funny,” Art yelled loudly. The audience clearly thought the whole illusion had been set up and giggled and clapped raucously. Art’s scowl deepened and he faltered in the lead-up to his next piece.
“That was cruel,” Wayne said, cracking his knuckles as if he felt he’d have to join Merlin in a fist-fight some time soon.
Merlin winced. “It was?”
“You made him look a complete prat.”
Merlin couldn’t quite wipe the satisfaction off his face. “I did, didn’t I?”
Of course, the whole thing had been a gigantic mistake, as Merlin discovered the fifth time he saw Art. Mostly because he saw Art at extreme close-range and Merlin wasn’t what Gwen called the rough, tough muscled type. And Art was. Given the way he was crushing Merlin’s upper arms and pushing him against the bricked wall of the alleyway, he very much was. Merlin’s breath caught in his throat.
“Get off me,” Merlin said, sounding calm and collected and not at all like he was panicked he was about to get punched within an inch of his life.
“Only if you promise to stay the hell away from my show.”
“I didn’t even know you had a show on today,” Merlin said, truthfully. He had been walking down the street towards Gaius’s when he’d been dragged into the alleyway. The fact that Art had been on his mind was a total coincidence.
“Well, I do, and I want you to piss off.”
“I’d be glad to. But you’re still holding onto my arms. I value them enough to stay put.”
Art’s lips quirked. “Why not just magic yourself away?”
“Why not just make me disappear?”
Art let go and folded his arms across his chest. He was still barring Merlin’s escape from the alleyway. “How’d you do it? How did you do that flashy thing with the falling phones?”
“A magician never reveals his tricks, you know that. That’s the one thing you know about magic, surely?”
Art looked ready to eviscerate him. Merlin couldn’t explain why that made him feel sorry for the well-built, likely murderous man.
“I could sell it to you, I suppose,” Merlin said, feigning that the idea had only come to him at that moment. “You’d have exclusive rights to performing the illusion in public. I’d have the £150 I need to help pay my rent.”
“What makes you think I have £150 to spend on one measly illusion?”
“Your shoes alone cost at least £400. One very clever, easy-to-impress illusion would pay for itself a thousand times over. Admit it, you’ve never seen anyone else conjure a phone from mid-air.”
“Is that what your display was all about? A way of hawking your wares?”
“No, actually,” Merlin said with a cheery smile. “It was about making ‘The Art of Magic’ somewhat entertaining. This would be a bonus.”
Art frowned. From the many accidental encounters they’d had, Merlin had taken Art for the brash, confident type who thought he was perfection personified. It hadn’t occurred to him that Art might realise he wasn’t the world’s most impressive illusionist. In fact, part of the reason that had spurred him to show him up was the very belief he was oblivious to his faults. This frown, coupled with the slightest of pouts, belied that belief.
“How do I know I can trust you?”
Art jutted his chin forward. “Yet you expect me to.”
“No. I hope that you will. Expectation and hope are different beasts, no matter how much they conspire when it comes to magic.”
Art gave a soft snort and a raise of his eyebrow. “All right, Lin. I’ll buy your measly trick. But I won’t pay a pound over 100.”
Merlin squared his shoulders. “Then, Art, you will not buy my excellently brilliant trick and I’ll go search out another street magician. My price is £150.”
“You mishear. One hundred and fifty.”
Art rolled his eyes. “£125, and that is my final offer.”
Merlin knew that a set of instructions alone was worth double that price, let alone the rig he’d created to aid the delivery, but at the same time, he really had made Art look like a prat, and he was caring, patient, nice with everyone else.
“Okay,” he said. “Hand over the money and I’ll show and tell you how it’s done.”
“Contrary to your obviously deep-seated belief, I don’t walk around with that sort of cash. We’ll have to meet again.”
Merlin was surprised he didn't hate the idea of that. “I’m often in Gaius’s on a Friday. At around ten in the morning.”
"See you then, I guess."
Merlin waited for Art to move out of his way, but there was a beat, two, and he still stood, imposing. Merlin gestured between them.
"Are you planning on us seeing each other all the time until ten tomorrow, then?"
Art started into action, shifting the balance of his weight and pressing his back up against the stretch of wall beside Merlin. They were so close, Merlin felt Arthur's warmth seeping through his shirt. He stopped himself from craning into it.
"Tomorrow," Merlin said, giving an aborted wave.
Art nodded, jaw set, almost like he’d eaten a toffee and his teeth had glued together. It made him look simultaneously stern and heroic. It should have been ludicrous, but it wasn’t.
His heart was beating erratically in his chest, his tongue was dry and too large for his mouth. Merlin scanned the shelves of Gaius's, knowing where every object was, but pretending to himself he was searching for a particular deck of cards that was two shelves behind him and on the right. He kept telling himself it was ridiculous that he was nervous. This was a business transaction between two people who had shown nothing but disdain for one another. And yet, whenever he thought of Art’s hands on his arms, breath hot against his face, gaze watchful and intense, he was nervous.
“We must stop meeting like this. Really,” Art said smoothly, crowding into Merlin’s space. He raised an imperious eyebrow. “Are you prepared?”
Art slipped the money into Merlin’s left jeans pocket under the guise of shaking his hand. Merlin couldn’t help but smile. He hadn’t been entirely fair about Art’s skill in sleight of hand.
“You do trust me,” Merlin said, jerking his head to indicate a back room Gaius sometimes let him use for practice.
“Or maybe I want you to think that I do.”
Merlin worried at the hem of his sleeve, then brushed it up his arm.
“You’re kidding me,” Art said, incredulously, “the trick is literally up your sleeve?”
“Clichés are that for a reason. And, yeah, it’s such a convention that people generally dismiss it these days. Plus, you can clip this on after so-called showing that you have nothing up your sleeve. It’s made out of a slap-band. Quick, no fuss, minimal noise.”
Merlin showed Art the illusion a few times and explained the wrist and arm movements necessary to get it to work. Then he got Art to try a few times. At first, Art propelled the phone into the ceiling, then he nearly decapitated Merlin. It took go number six before he got it to work well, and even then it was painfully obvious.
There was a certain measure of wonderment in Art’s voice when he said, “it must have taken you days to get this right.”
“Oh yeah. A week to get the rig to fire correctly.”
Art leaned forward and Merlin was reminded of a hunter stalking his prey. “How come I’ve never seen you performing? I’ve played all the clubs, I’ve been on these streets for a month. The only time I’ve seen you do magic is in my show.”
Merlin figured he had one of two choices; tell the truth and give Art an advantage over him, or lie and preserve his mystique. He didn’t know what it was about Art that made him want to tell all.
“I don’t really like it. You may have noticed, but when you dragged me on stage the other day, I spent the whole time looking into your eyes. That wasn’t to distract you. I had to act like there was no audience, or I’d freeze up. Throughout my teens I tried to perform, in amateur magic shows and at nursing homes, but I used to get terrible stage fright, so I stopped torturing myself and everyone around me.”
“But you still visit here every Friday.”
Merlin shrugged. “I like it here.”
Art tried the manoeuvre again and this time it worked exactly as it was supposed to, seamlessly. He was the quick study Merlin thought he’d be. This was a consolation and a curse. It gave Merlin hope.
“Do you have other illusions no one’s ever seen before?” Art asked, tilting his head to the side, considering.
“I have a couple where everything’s made and set, but mostly I have ideas,” Merlin confessed. “Lots of ideas and no real way to implement them.”
Art gave the kind of smile that stopped hearts and set butterflies racing in stomachs. Merlin promised himself his heart was still ticking and his butterflies were all chained up.
“Well, then, Lin, it seems we’re both in luck, as I have no ideas but plenty of implementation.”
“What are you suggesting?” Merlin asked, although he suspected he already knew the answer.
“Every master magician needs an apprentice.”
“You want to be my apprentice?”
Art gave an exasperated snort and dragged Merlin under his arm before Merlin could stop him. He noogied him with more force than Merlin felt anyone would have liked. He ground his words out between each rub of his knuckles. “You know that’s not what I’m proposing, stop acting so obtuse.”
“What makes you think I’d want to be your apprentice?” Merlin asked, finally wriggling free. He brushed a hand through his hair.
“You still have rent to pay, don’t you? Anyway, we both know you wouldn’t really be my apprentice.” Art sauntered to the door and walked through. His voice carried back into the room. “You’d be my servant.”
Merlin felt one of the butterflies escape. He chuckled to himself, then frowned. “Art,” he yelled, running to the door. “How, what, when and where?”
“I’ve programmed your number into my phone, and mine into yours,” Art answered. “I’ll text you the details when I have the time.”
And then he was gone. Not quite with a puff of smoke, but it had been a dramatic departure nonetheless. Merlin checked his phone and saw that, indeed, there was a new contact in his list. He couldn’t stop his lips from curving up at the corners.
When Merlin wasn’t devising illusions and annoying other magicians, he worked alongside Gwen at B&Q. He got to wear a truly hideous bright orange apron and his customers were sometimes the rudest people he’d ever met, but it very nearly paid the bills and he got a discount on tools and bits and bobs that were very useful for his true passion, so he didn’t hate it. Gwen was researching her PhD in environmental sustainability at Leeds University, which is what she had described as her excuse when they first met, before stammering that she didn’t mean it like that, of course she wasn’t trying to imply someone needed to have an excuse to work at B&Q, simply that she did.
Merlin was hanging up his apron in his locker and thinking of a nice, warm bath to soothe his aching feet when Gwen came in to get ready for the late shift.
“Lin, a little birdie told me that you’ve made a new friend,” Gwen said. They were close enough now that Gwen had no qualms about teasing him. Merlin occasionally wished for the days she was terrified of causing offense.
“Wayne has been telling everyone all about my adventures, hasn’t he?”
“Mmm-hmm, he has a weekly newsletter,” Gwen confirmed. “I knew you were a little too adamant in your anger about ‘The Art of Magic’.”
“It’s a business deal, Gwen. That’s all.”
“That’s a shame.” Gwen stared upwards. Merlin felt she probably wasn’t actually looking at the ceiling tiles. “He was… lovely. You’d make a good couple.”
“Art is far from lovely. He’s arrogant, aggressive…” Attractive as hell. Merlin sighed. “And probably straight. Business. Deal.”
“Best of luck with that, anyway. I’ve always said you should find another magician to partner up with, haven’t I?”
Merlin couldn’t once remember Gwen suggesting anything of the sort, but he smiled and said his goodbyes. He did not begrudge Gwen the nightshift. He was of the opinion only the truly crazy DIYers came out under veil of darkness. Especially those who thought they’d get a bargain if they turned up five minutes before closing time. 8.55 pm on nightshift at B&Q was surely hell on earth. It was a kind of compensation for the teasing, he thought, though really it was far too harsh a punishment.
He was in his warm, soothing bath when his iPhone indicated he had a message. He didn’t scramble out of the bath to check it, but water did slosh everywhere and he stubbed his big toe.
“Can you meet in an hour? At The Brewery Tap.”
Merlin wasn’t surprised by the fact Art didn’t use text speak, nor was he surprised by the summons, or the destination. He was a little surprised at his reaction, which had the gall to be a gasp. He rubbed his head and purposefully did not spend fifteen minutes debating what to wear. It was only ten minutes, at the most.
“I performed your illusion at two of my shows today,” Art said with no preamble. As Merlin sat down he passed over a lager. “It was an instant hit. Shame you weren’t there to see it.”
“I was at work. Also, you didn’t tell me you’d be performing.”
“I reckoned you’d turn up, like all the other times.”
Merlin shook his head, taking a sip of lager. Then Art’s words bounced against something in his consciousness. “Wait… all the other times?”
“Yes, Lin, it didn’t exactly escape my notice that you’d become my own unimpressed personal stalker. Why did you think I asked you on stage that day?”
“I never really gave it much thought.”
“I’d been watching your derision for weeks.”
Merlin flinched. “… it’s not like that. I just ---“
“Knew you could do better.”
“Knew you could do better. With better material. You’re good. You’re better than I was giving you credit for. But your potential seemed squandered whenever I’d see you. Plus, that time you brought me on stage, I was at your show against my will. I wasn’t stalking you, I just kept bumping into you. By chance.”
“Perhaps it was destiny,” Art said with a finger wiggle.
A rose appeared between his index finger and thumb, and he handed it to the girl who set a sample of burger and chips in front of them. She smiled prettily at him and he winked.
Merlin watched the exchange with wry amusement. He’d had a horrible feeling Art would be that kind of magician. It wouldn’t do to show disappointment, so wry amusement it would have to be. He took a chip and bit down on it with a satisfying crunch.
“That was sweet,” he said around perfectly salted potato.
“I try to practice as much as possible.” Art was suddenly serious, a furrow in his brow. “I love magic. I’ve been practicing since I was a small child, ignoring my father’s vociferous complaints. I'd do close-up magic with extended family. Larger productions for other children who lived close by. And I don’t think I’m bad, despite your rampant disparaging. But I know I’m not transcendent. I’d very much like to be.”
Merlin had been the same in many ways. He had started learning magic tricks from the age of five, as a way to offset all the bullying he'd already been forced to withstand. Every 'you're a wizard, aren't you?' was easier to take when he could prove that, yes, he kind of was, even if his head was still dunked in a toilet. By the time he'd moved to a different town and gone only by 'Lin', thereby circumventing any magical necessity, he had been well and truly obsessed with and embroiled in that world. He didn't regret it one teeny, tiny bit.
“What makes you think I’m the one who’s going to make you transcendent?” Merlin asked, because he was genuinely curious.
There was a calculating stare. “You think that, so why shouldn’t I?”
Merlin couldn’t stop his grin from forming. He dug into his knapsack and pulled out a folder. “I brought a collection of designs. I’ve created and tested these first five, but the others are a little out of my price capabilities.”
Art flicked through the folder and his eyes seemed to light up from within. “You did these sketches yourself?”
Merlin ducked his head. “Yeah. I don’t usually trust anyone else with my stuff.”
“They’re good. Very ---“ Art stopped and smiled at the picture Merlin had drawn as the end result of the second illusion, then looked up, concerned. Merlin was starting to find his mood swings jarring. “There’s, uh, there’s something you should know about me.”
Merlin waited, not wanting to break Art’s resolve in telling him something he deemed serious. Art frowned down at the folder, then up at Merlin.
“I’m not as rich as you think I am.”
“The accent’s a fake?”
“No. I was entirely as well off as you think I am when I was growing up. Not a millionaire, but privileged. However, when I said that my father complained about my magic… he disowned me when I gave up my law degree to pursue this.”
“I'm not financially destitute. I can contribute some money. Just. The shoes were a birthday present from my sister.”
Art looked crestfallen. He closed the folder and pushed it back across the table.
Merlin dropped his austere façade and kicked Art under the table. “This doesn’t have to change anything. It just means it’s going to take longer for us to set some of this up.”
“Really? But you could sell these designs to anyone. This,” he pointed to illusion number four, “is worth thousands by itself.”
“I never even thought of sharing my ideas before you," Merlin said, honestly. "I'd never seen anyone that I thought could do them justice. If anything, your being nearly as impoverished as me is a point in your favour."
Art studied Merlin with the same expression he had used that fourth fateful performance. It did odd things to Merlin's spine; made it flicker hot and cold, then wobble dangerously to the side.
"You don't think this being on an equal footing thing means I'm going to give up my rights to boss you around at every opportunity, do you?"
"I think I understand the arrangement correctly when I say I'm to be your ever-loyal manservant."
"Sounds about right."
Art conjured another rose and asked the girl who had served them the first sample to serve them a second. She appeared about to refuse, so Merlin conjured up some paper gardenias to supplement the request. She bustled away with a roll of her eyes, but she brought them each another sample, having put one of the gardenias behind her ear. Already Merlin could see that he and Art had the makings of an unstoppable force.
"Lin's in lo-oooove," Wayne crooned, ten minutes into Merlin talking about his first session with Art.
They'd set up one of Merlin's earliest prototypes for sawing one's own arm off. As far as Merlin was concerned, every good magician had one truly gory and disgusting illusion in their repertoire. Many of his illusions were about beauty --- about producing a joyous wonderment in the audience. This one was about creeping everyone out. He called it his ode to Penn and Teller.
"I am not in love, Wayne," Merlin said, swirling his beer around in its glass. "It takes more than muscles and myriad annoying traits to make me fall in love with a man, otherwise I'd be in love with you, wouldn't I?"
"And I am constantly wounded that you are not, fair Lin," Wayne said, clutching his chest as if his heart were about to break. Merlin would be concerned were he not aware Wayne's bicurious tendencies extended mostly to New Years kisses and the occasional grope. "But, seriously, you light up whenever you mention him. You have it bad."
Art was every bit as bossy as he said he'd be, and could be catty if the mood struck him --- which it did when Merlin accidentally pinched his side fitting the currently clumsy but still functional harness. Merlin was quite adamant he did not 'have it bad'.
Except for how he totally did.
Because, when he was fitting the harness, Art was shirtless, and he was the sort of toned that had always appealed to Merlin --- not cut enough he could slice glass, but enough that his muscles were firm and well defined. And that was in addition to how Art could sometimes be boyishly enthusiastic in a way that made Merlin's blood thunder through his veins, or how they had long and involved conversations about their favourite magicians (Merlin did not share Art's fascination with Criss Angel, Art had no appreciation of Harry Blackstone Jr.), or how Art sometimes shot him a look that was nine parts amazement and one part indefinable-thing-he-had-shown from the beginning.
Gwen came and plonked herself down next to Merlin with her Fluffy Duck. "Lin has it bad for Art?" she asked, though really it was more of a statement. "I don't blame him. Even muggles would fall for his magical prowess."
"He's going to be appearing in about ten minutes, so could you maybe pipe down on all the 'Art and Lin sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G' stuff?"
Wayne raised his eyebrows. "Appearing? Is that the trick you've been working on?"
"If you'd been listening instead of insinuating, you'd know it wasn't."
Art arrived at the pub five minutes early. He waved over at Merlin before attempting to get himself a lager amongst a throng of half-drunk students. It was another ten minutes of waiting and trying to attract the barman's attention. Merlin watched him as he began tapping his foot impatiently and glaring at his watch. When he finally made it to the table, Art was clearly frustrated.
"Art, this is Wayne, and this is Gwen. Wayne and Gwen, this is Art," Merlin exclaimed, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
Art shook Wayne's hand somewhat warily --- Wayne was giving him one of his patented mischievous leers --- but graced Gwen with his sunniest smile.
"It's so exciting to meet a proper magician. Not that Lin isn't proper, or a magician, but, you know, he never performs in public, and you do, which is amazing I think," Gwen rambled, before closing her mouth tightly and staring at her drink.
Art's smile widened. "Why, thank you. Have you been to any of my shows?"
"Oh, yes! Lin dragged me along to show me how bad you were," Gwen said automatically. She quickly realised her mistake. "But you weren't bad, of course. I thought you were fantastic. I didn't understand what he was complaining about."
Art stared at Merlin and edged disconcertingly closer towards him. There was a definite threat in his eyes as he said his next words. Though what he was threatening, Merlin wouldn't want to say.
"I trust that next time you see me I'll be even better than fantastic."
"You've been letting a new dog teach you old tricks, I hear," Wayne said, staring at Art as if in challenge. Merlin had never understood Wayne's overly protective side, especially since, as he had said many times, there was no need for it here.
Art didn't take his eyes off Merlin. "Indeed I have." He snapped his attention to Wayne. "Has he ever taught you any?"
"He's tried, but I'm all butter-fingers. I prefer to leave the magic to the enthusiasts."
They chatted some more, Merlin and Gwen comparing notes as to how much their registers took that week. They had an ongoing competition that had been going on for several years. Arthur feigned interest for a while, but it was obvious he was bored after six solid minutes of squabbling.
"And what do you do, Wayne?"
"I'm a law clerk."
"Did Lin tell you I studied Law?"
Wayne looked at Merlin intensely. "No. No, he did not."
"I didn't think it was my story to tell," Merlin said, looking between the two and not liking the tension that was building.
"Which firm do you work for, just out of interest?"
"The Leeds branch of Pendragon."
Art's eyes clouded over and he slouched back in his chair. "Right."
There was another tense five minutes in which Wayne and Gwen started to chat aimlessly about specific customers Gwen had served that day. Merlin watched as Art withdrew into himself, pouting around his glass. Art drained his lager, then announced that he had to go. He practically ran out of the pub. Merlin followed him out of the pub, grabbing hold of his shoulder to spin him around.
"Okay, what was that about?"
"This has all been a set-up, hasn't it? I may not be a world-class illusionist, but I can recognise a trick when I see one. I knew it was all too good to be true. A witty, handsome, and preternaturally talented magician wants to aid in my plans for world domination? No such luck."
Merlin's confusion eclipsed his frisson of excitement at the complimentary things Art had to say. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Your best friend just happens to work for my father? I wasn't born yesterday, Lin."
Merlin took a step forward. "I'm fairly sure Wayne had no idea your father was the head of Pendragon. And if he had known and this was all a ruse, why would he tell you?"
"To mess with my mind? To put me off my game? To remind me how foolish my dreams are?"
"And why would I then go chasing after you?"
Art looked lost and confused, eyes downcast. "I don't know."
Merlin suddenly felt confident in a way he hadn't since he met Art. He advanced further, placing his hand back on Art's shoulder. "Let me assure you that my wit, good looks and talent are at your beck and call simply because I like you. There are no ulterior motives, Art."
Art went wide-eyed. He adjusted his stance, pushing into the touch. "It's Arthur," he said, quietly. "I prefer my full name. I go by Art for the pun. But it's Arthur, from my friends."
Merlin hesitated. He hadn't told anyone his true name since he was thirteen and he really didn't want to start now, but it felt important, somehow, like this was a turning point, so he admitted it.
"Lin's short for Merlin. And yes I have heard every joke there is to tell."
"There is no way your name is really Merlin," Arthur scoffed.
"It is, I promise. My mother said she named me after the bird and only thought of the sorcerer afterwards."
Arthur's grin was just this side of cruel amusement, but his touch was gentle as he clasped hold of Merlin's hand and dragged it down by their sides. "Are they going to miss you, Merlin, or do you think we could go back to mine to try the 127 hour illusion again?"
"I'll text Gwen as we're travelling."
"I shouldn't have doubted you, of course," Arthur was saying imperiously. "I should have realised that a true honey-trap wouldn't be quite so useless at fastening a clasp."
Merlin deliberately dug his fingers into Arthur's hip. "Can you take a deeper breath? I made this to fit me and I'm not, you know, as broad as you are."
"What exactly are you suggesting?"
"That you're as thick as you are stupid?"
Arthur gave a wheeze of indignation --- Merlin had fastened the clasp --- and flailed to grab him in a headlock. Merlin carefully dodged out of the way, narrowly avoiding tripping over the other props in the illusion. It took him another moment to think about the fact Arthur had described him as a honey-trap. He cleared the floor space.
After another minute, Merlin went close again to help Arthur with his shirt. Luckily, Arthur looked like he was too busy trying to control his breathing and look natural to attempt another attack.
"I think everything's ready."
"Good. Sit. Be my audience."
"How about you try using your words, Arthur?" Merlin ventured.
"I would, but this thing's killing me. It'll have to be fixed soon," Arthur said, wincing in pain.
"Did you want me to take it off now?"
"No. Let me perform the illusion, first. But immediately after?"
Arthur went through his spiel extraordinarily quickly. They'd written it in the morning, heads close as Merlin typed into Arthur's laptop and Arthur corrected every little mistake before spell-check could. It was darkly humorous and earlier that day Arthur had said it in such a convincing way that despite the fact he'd written half of it, Merlin had been laughing so deeply his stomach hurt. Here, though, it was clear that Arthur was struggling.
He still performed the illusion with aplomb. Even though they had only worked on it that day, everything went off without a hitch. Merlin was constantly ashamed by how much he had underestimated Arthur's abilities. It really had been his material that had let him down. There was no doubt in Merlin's mind that Arthur had the potential to be a world-class illusionist. He relished in the idea that when that happened he might be by his side.
The illusion ended in a wash of corn syrup, chocolate sauce, and food dye. Merlin had a cloth ready to assist the clean-up.
"Thank you, Merlin," Arthur said as he looked at Merlin through lowered lashes.
Merlin groused to distract himself from swooning. "Are you ever going to stop calling me that?"
"No, I'm not. We can say it's my nickname for you if that will make it any better."
"Then you'll have to suffer, because your full name suits you and I enjoy how it rolls off my tongue."
Merlin helped Arthur peel off his shirt and swept the cloth over his torso. Arthur's muscles looked even more impressive when accentuated by light glistening off a cursory slick of water and Merlin wanted to drag his fingertips over them again and again. He fiddled with the side clasp instead, and once that was released, stretched Arthur's arm out to his side, gliding and kneading his hands over his muscles to ensure his blood was flowing. Arthur made a low, contented sound that did terrible things to all of Merlin's nerves. He stepped away and willed his knees not to buckle.
"Do you have a measuring tape? I reckon I could get the necessary equipment tomorrow if I knew your correct dimensions."
Arthur shook himself awake. "I'll go find it."
Arthur pulled a t-shirt over his head as he left the room, returning shortly after with a retractable construction tape. "Will this do?"
"It'll have to. But keep absolutely still while I measure you, or things may go terribly awry."
"Clearly you haven't heard the many horror stories I have in my time at B&Q."
"I would hazard not."
Merlin raised his eyebrows and concentrated as hard as he could on writing down the measurements as he took them, anything to stop his mind from cataloguing every touch. There was a sliver of Arthur's skin showing at his hip where his shirt had rucked up.
"The only thing worse would be hearing them from the perspective of the nurses who had to treat the wounds."
"You don't sound suitably scared."
"No. That's because for a second I thought you were touched in the head," Arthur said, smoothly, as he ruffled Merlin's hair. Merlin stilled. "It was this second, by the way."
"All done," Merlin said with false gaiety as he once again escaped Arthur's all too distracting clutches. "Which is good because it's late and I am working the 6.45am shift tomorrow."
"Should we meet later in the day?"
"Uhm, no. I'd like to have a few solid hours to reconstruct this, so maybe Thursday?"
"All right, Thursday." Arthur seemed to sense something was amiss as he became strangely formal. "Thank you very much for allaying my fears and, ah, for not mocking me."
"I ---" Merlin had been about to say he would never mock Arthur, but they both knew that wasn't true. "You're welcome, Arthur."
They got into a pattern where they met every day. It was brilliant, most of the time. It was all about bringing the ideas Merlin had been working on for years to fruition, so it was easy to concentrate on those tasks at hand. But sometimes it wasn't brilliant, it was completely and utterly beautiful, and those days were a kind of torture that tore Merlin up inside. Because Merlin had no clue where he stood with Arthur and it was bewildering and invigorating and painful and a force to be reckoned with. For all intents and purposes, Arthur seemed straight. He flirted outrageously with Gwen, barmaids, female audience members, random women in the street. But he was, he definitely was --- Merlin didn't think he was making this up --- overly familiar and tactile with Merlin.
Getting to know him hadn't stopped Arthur from looking at him occasionally like he was trying to fit his puzzle pieces together and that doing so was his favourite past-time. Arthur stared at him sometimes when he thought Merlin wasn't paying attention. He'd look quickly away when Merlin sought to meet his eye, so Merlin knew it was supposed to be surreptitious. He stared and he touched and sometimes he quipped enticingly. It was doing a number on Merlin's nervous system. His once chained butterflies chased traitorously around his insides on those occasions when he didn't tamp down hard enough on his emotions.
Since they spent every day together, two and a half months down the track, their worlds had become hopelessly tangled up. Arthur's sister Morgana and Gwen had moved in together as Morgana worked in environmental law and needed a flatmate. Arthur and Wayne would argue and get into long shouting sessions with one another, aided by Arthur's insistence on calling Wayne 'Gawaine', which got slurred into 'Gwaine' when he was drunk, and Wayne's insistence on talking disrespectfully about his boss as soon as he found out he was Arthur's father. But Wayne got along famously with Arthur's best friend Leon. (Morgana called it a bromance; knowing Wayne's bicurious tendencies had Merlin wondering if the b was unnecessary.) Arthur and Merlin visited Gaius's together every Friday and Gaius had taken Arthur under his wing as he had with Merlin many years before. Arthur's uncle had provided funds for several of their illusions and while he often made Merlin supremely uncomfortable --- there was just something about his self-satisfied smirking --- Merlin couldn't say the support hadn't been appreciated.
And the magic. The magic was amazing. Arthur's shows started to attract massive crowds as his illusions became bigger and brighter. Since all the money went back into the illusions, the illusions became even more sophisticated. Arthur made Merlin's ponderings and planning look good. He also, once or twice, conned Merlin into turning the show into a double act. Merlin had soon discovered that Arthur's pouts had supernatural powers of hypnotism.
"I've been thinking, and if you dare say that's dangerous, I shall kick you, but..."
"Arthur, spit it out."
"... we should apply for the next series of Fool Us."
Merlin looked up from the laptop and stared with exaggerated force. "We're not ready."
"We could be."
"No, we couldn't. We should wait until the next series."
"There may not be another series. You know how fickle British audiences are with magic. It's like ventriloquism. One minute it's cool, the next it's pathetic, the next it's cool because it's pathetic. We could win a spot in Las Vegas, Merlin, it could make our career."
Arthur had taken to discussing their futures as if they were forever to be entwined. It was always 'our career', 'our prospects', 'our continued happiness'. It warmed Merlin in ways he suspected it shouldn't.
"It could also break it and make us look like idiots on National TV."
"So we'd pull a Tommy Cooper and make it seem it was intentional. Your favourite act from the first series was Piff the Magic Dragon."
"That was based solely on the fact that his little dog, Mr Piffles, was super cute. But he wasn't transcendent. Don't you want to be transcendent?"
"I want to be something more than a Leeds street performer," Arthur sighed, throwing himself into the armchair poised in Merlin's peripheral vision, and flinging his arm over his head. "And we could be, you know," he said around his elbow. "We made £244 in tips today."
"Exactly. To me, that sounds like a winning situation already," Merlin swivelled in his chair and continued to gaze at Arthur. "You want to pit one of our illusions against Penn and Teller's decades of experience. You want to perform in front of our idols and try to stump them. They'll take one look at any of our illusions and see the solution within ten seconds flat."
Arthur reached forward and grabbed Merlin's hands. "They won't. Even I have difficulty understanding some of our illusions, and I'm the one performing them. You have to have more faith. And, regardless, even if we didn't fool them, even if we didn't make it to Las Vegas, it might just generate enough buzz that we could get a regular spot at a club instead of having to beg all of my uncle's contacts to give us a chance."
Merlin wavered. Arthur was pouting. And gazing. And still holding onto his hands; not crushing, but tender. Merlin stood no chance against a combined attack.
"Fine. Sign us up. I think I even know which illusion we should perform."
Arthur gave an excited whoop of delight and dragged Merlin into a hug. Merlin ineffectually struggled for a moment, before surrendering. Arthur was warm and solid and smelt sweet like the fake blood he'd used earlier in the day. He brushed his hand up into Merlin's hair and cradled the back of his head.
"If it's the one I'm thinking of, my uncle said he'd give us some cash to get us on our way, too."
Merlin pulled away. "You spoke to your uncle about this before speaking to me?"
"I knew you'd agree," Arthur said. "It's a genius idea."
Merlin attempted to cool the rage building inside. This was typical Arthur behaviour, and he hadn't been able to articulate to himself why Arthur's uncle made him uneasy. He had enough sense to realise that him catapulting into a fit over something this trivial would be strange and perplexing. Arthur loved his uncle, for understandable reasons --- he was his late mother's brother and had supported him where his father had not. Merlin had no proof he wasn't as benevolent and sympathetic as he always wanted to appear, he only had intuition. So he didn't fly off the handle. Merlin simply put on an air of being long-suffering and close to losing patience.
"Sometimes, you beggar belief."
"I know. I'm amazing. We're amazing. We're going to be astounding, Merlin, just you wait and see."
They wouldn't know for weeks whether they'd been accepted onto the show. They'd had to submit a video, which Gwen's new boyfriend Lance had helped with, and an essay, which Wayne, Leon and Gwen all contributed to. They trialled the levitation illusion a thousand times and worked out the millions of tiny hiccups and kinks. Several times, Arthur had to go to his uncle for more money, and several times Merlin watched the reaction with avid interest. Arthur's uncle was always accommodating. Sometimes nauseatingly so. He was sure something was amiss, but he couldn't put his finger on what it was.
They spent all waking hours that Arthur wasn't performing and Merlin wasn't working at B&Q together, not to mention some sleeping hours too, when one or other of them would collapse into exhaustion at the other's flat. It became a way of life. Eat, sleep, bicker and fall hopelessly deeper in love with Arthur. During long shifts, Merlin thought about Arthur. During long showers Merlin thought about Arthur. It was... a problem. One that Merlin couldn't see any solution to.
By necessity they were close. Merlin was constantly undressing and dressing Arthur, and Arthur never seemed to mind. The only time he complained was when there were technical difficulties, which, granted, happened more often than either of them would have liked.
"Merlin, you do realise that if you fluff this rig up one more time, I'm going to force you into a leotard and out onto the stage as my bait."
"You mean misdirection, and I've no doubt you would, you pervert."
They worked on Arthur's look, no leotards involved. His costumes became slightly more opulent, with more compartments and a sharper cut. He deigned to let Morgana and Gwen give him the barest hint of eyeliner, learned how to apply it himself. When he was performing to the invariably large crowds he'd attract, he needed something to add to his theatricality, and it worked like a charm. On the steadily increasing occasions he conned Merlin to join him, he insisted on Merlin being made-up as well. Every time they performed together, Merlin had to keep all of his attention on Arthur, or his speech would become stilted and his feet glued to the spot. This led to Wayne continually ribbing him for his unwavering puppy-dog-like devotion, which Merlin realised he didn't know was entirely true, given how cruelly bawdy he could get. Wayne teased, but he wasn't usually nasty. These comments were always too close to home and Merlin didn't think Wayne would say them if he knew this was the case. Gwen, though, Gwen had figured it out. The few moments they could snatch alone together, she'd sometimes barrel him into a hug and stroke a hand through his hair, telling him it would all work out in the end.
The only thing was, Merlin never wanted there to be an end. He'd joined Arthur in talking about 'our career', 'our prospects', 'our future'. And when subsisting on baked beans and grilled cheese sandwiches for months at a time, this became more than vaguely nebulous dreams, it became a life-goal.
When they got the call, Merlin had just finished stripping Arthur's back-brace off. He felt ashamed by how much he revelled in these moments, when his fingertips would skate against Arthur's golden skin and Arthur would chatter incessantly about the day's performances. It was one of the few moments when Merlin could initiate touching Arthur without fearing he was being too obvious.
Neither of them was called often, so they looked at the phone with shared mistrust before Merlin finally picked it up.
It was a bored-sounding woman on the line. "Is that 'The Art of Magic'?"
Merlin had been subsumed by Arthur's stage name, so he answered in the affirmative before pressing 'speakerphone'.
"Two months ago you applied to be a contestant on Penn and Teller: Fool Us. Are you still interested in appearing on the show?"
Merlin swallowed thickly. Arthur's eyes had practically turned into gigantic hearts and his grin was scarily manic. Merlin's own grin was starting to form and his pulse was racing.
He barely managed to control his voice as he said, "Yes. Yes, we are."
"Great," the woman said, as unenthusiastic as before. "Contracts and shooting schedules will be sent to your nominated addresses. Best of luck."
"We did it!" Arthur exclaimed, throwing his arms around Merlin, picking him up and swinging him around.
"Hey, hey, hey, get off me," Merlin mock-complained. Not only was he worried Arthur was going to do himself a severe injury --- he wasn't nearly as light as he looked, he was all too aware that Arthur was still half-naked, and given that plus this new excitement, he felt his body was about to betray him.
"Never," Arthur said, surging forward and crushing Merlin's lips with a fierce kiss.
Merlin stilled, breath caught in his throat. He was sure at any moment Arthur was going to scramble back, pale-faced and stricken, muttering apologies about an adrenaline rush and addled brains.
But Arthur didn't. He loosened his hold on Merlin and kissed him softly, licking over the seam of his lips. Merlin was so shocked he opened his mouth and accepted Arthur's warm, wet tongue.
It was everything he had ever dreamed of. Arthur's fondness for the dramatic manifested itself in him dipping Merlin backwards once he'd been granted access, using his upper-body strength to support him within his embrace. His surprisingly gentle side had him brushing his fingers through Merlin's hair. Arthur moaned, slow and deep, shortening his kisses to lick and nip a path down Merlin's neck.
"Merlin," he murmured, pressing their foreheads together. "I don't think you have any idea what you do to me."
Merlin stared into his eyes, close, so close, and there it was, that look.
"Not a clue," Merlin confessed. "I think you're going to have to show me."
Later that night, Merlin couldn't have said who pounced first. He couldn't have spoken at all. He was too tired and muddy-minded for words, shagged into oblivion.
Merlin was loose-limbed and flushed the entirety of the next day. He couldn't look at Arthur for fear of dragging him back to bed. There was an unspoken agreement in Arthur, who was avoiding staring, but occasionally compelled to wrap Merlin in his arms and kiss him senseless.
"So, it's happening," Wayne said, clapping Merlin on the back when he told him the news about Fool Us. "I'm really happy for you, Lin."
"Thanks Gawaine. You're too kind," Arthur answered for Merlin with his most insufferably pompous smile.
"I hope you do that trick where Art decapitates himself on stage and dies a horrible, bloody death."
"Actually, I'll be looking for a volunteer. I don't suppose your kindness could stretch so far as to be a ring-in?" Arthur returned.
Merlin glanced between them. He had hoped their animosity had grown into meaningless banter and piss-taking, but there was real hatred in the tense line of Arthur's back and Wayne's jaw was a little too set for his liking.
"We've been practicing a levitation illusion. One that works nothing like any others currently being performed around the world. We've checked."
Arthur signalled a line across his throat and glared at Merlin. Wayne was never more than cursorily interested in magic, so he nodded absently and went to claim a beer before everyone else turned up for congratulatory drinks.
"Why did you tell him that?" Arthur hissed, leaning closer than either of them had dared since they entered the pub.
"We've been friends for over a decade and he won't remember in three drinks time?"
"Merlin! We've been keeping this a secret for a reason."
"Arthur, calm down. It's not like I showed Wayne the schematics and begged him to betray us to the highest bidder."
Arthur glared in the direction of Wayne at the bar and Merlin sighed.
Everyone turned up to their congratulatory drinks. Gwen even brought her brother Elyan, who'd spent the past two years getting into trouble in various parts of Europe. Arthur's uncle arrived towards the end of the night, in time for Arthur and Merlin's impromptu magic-off. Merlin always had an illusion or three at the ready, and he'd noticed early on in their friendship that Arthur did too. This led to them one-upping one another whenever they'd had a drink too many. This night, it meant epic battle. Merlin performed his favourite card trick, one that required a trick deck and a double lift, Arthur did a variation on the Cups and Balls. Arthur used Merlin's own illusions against him. Merlin wasn't letting him win, but he suspected he was. It was kind of fabulous.
It was even more fabulous when Arthur said 'screw it' to inhibitions and caught Merlin in a boisterous and passionate kiss. Merlin soon turned the tables and had Arthur making a noise that was akin to a whimper. When they stopped, Merlin glanced shyly around the room and saw Gwen giving him a cheery grin, Wayne frowning in consternation, and Arthur's uncle looking close to murderous before he noticed he was being watched and he gave one of his self-satisfied smiles.
Most of the magicians who frequented Gaius's were more amateur than Merlin and Arthur. Or they weren't budding magicians at all, but members of the unsuspecting public who thought they could get gag gifts for close friends and relatives. They'd soon realise Gaius's wasn't that kind of magic shop. Arthur had really been the first magician Merlin had come into contact with, which may have contributed to his initial reaction to his schtick. Arthur had more experience, having scrapped and struggled his way through clubs and on the streets. He explained some of the subtext behind the seemingly friendly words and looks from the other magicians assembled in the green room.
When Barry and Stuart, a Scottish duo who'd already had moderate success on British television, said they were glad there was another double act in the show, what they were really saying was 'die, die in a fire'. After Merlin explained he was strictly behind the scenes, Barry joked he wished the same of Stuart. Arthur translated that this meant, 'thank Christ for that.'
All of the magicians were wildly different. There was a French magician who was part mime, judging from the make-up she was wearing, a David Copperfield wannabe clan in skin-tight leather that Merlin sincerely hoped was parody, a Mentalist who had the looks of Derren Brown and none of the panache, and a few magicians Merlin had long admired; a platform magician, a grand stage illusionist, and Merlin's favourite close-up magician.
Mark Vincent, the close-up magician in question, was in the corner of the room, despite having been in two episodes during the first series and not having fooled Penn and Teller once. Merlin was a bit in love with him, but watched him like a hawk when he offered to show him an illusion or two. Arthur had taught him to be wary of any magician willing to display his skills for free. It was probably an intimidation tactic. Merlin found he wasn't intimidated so much as in awe. While most of his and Arthur's illusions fell into the realm of platform magic and grand stage illusions, they tested one another with sleight of hand and close-up magic all the time. And Mark was stunning. Merlin was envious and wistful, but mostly proud in the kind of way he always was when someone was just that good at what they did. It always filled him with joy to see such talent, even if he didn't possess that talent himself.
It was going to be a long couple of days. The order of business was to wait in the green room until called to discuss your illusion with the magic consultants of the show. There was then a rehearsal and screen test, along with preliminary make-up. They would later meet the host, Jonathan Ross, and finally the real stars of the show: Penn and Teller. Merlin's breath was already tight in his chest and his nerves frayed at the edges. He could only imagine how Arthur must feel, considering he was going to be on stage, in front of the live studio audience, and, in a couple of months, potentially millions of other viewers. After the actual performance, in a couple of days, a film crew would follow them to Leeds to create a short info-piece on 'The Art of Magic'. It was all a tad overwhelming.
Merlin excused himself from Mark Vincent when he looked across the room and saw Arthur going a strained shade of purple. Arthur looked about to bark the head off the Copperfield wannabe he was speaking to and this was very much not good. Merlin legged it to his side.
He expected Arthur to be in deep conversation with the other magician, but he wasn't. He'd turned away, shoulders taut, gait stiff.
When Merlin got to him, Arthur grasped onto his arm and dragged him to the men's room.
"We're well and truly fucked," Arthur said, voice going high-pitched.
"Twist has the schematics to our illusion in his bag. He was going to show me a picture of his daughters and I saw one of your sketches. And more than that, when he bent, I saw he was wearing the back-brace you designed."
Merlin felt the world drop away beneath him. "No! How could this have happened?"
"I suspect you didn't have to beg Wayne to betray us to the highest bidder."
"It wasn't Wayne. Apart from you and Gwen he's my best friend and he wouldn't do this to me. You? Yeah. He might well murder you in your sleep. But not me. He knows how important this is."
"I don't think you realise the scope and influence my father has. He'd pay any price."
"No, you don't get that Wayne would never betray me. Ask Leon. Wayne might be obnoxious on occasion, he doesn't seem to have taken a particular shine to you, but he has a good heart."
Arthur was close to tears. It was the first time Merlin had ever seen him distraught. Flustered, angry, humiliated, but not like the ground was quaking beneath his feet. His eyes were red-rimmed, his lower lip quivering. "Then how?"
Merlin didn't want to say. After all, he didn't think his defence of his friend would stand up alongside accusations against one of the few members of Arthur's family that Arthur trusted in and liked.
"I don't know." Merlin wrapped Arthur in a hug. "Arthur, this isn't the end of the world."
"Really now? Sure feels like it."
Merlin stroked Arthur's cheek, shaking his own head vigorously. "I brought a prototype I've been working on. I wanted to show it to Teller, get his advice. I've heard he's generous with up-and-coming illusion designers."
"Oh, a prototype, brilliant! That means we're set. I've seen your prototypes, remember, Merlin. They rarely work correctly without weeks of tinkering."
"This one does. I've been working on it since I met you. It's --- I guess you could say it's themed. And it'll also mean you won't be on stage alone. It requires both of us."
Hope sizzled and mixed with ambivalence under Arthur's surface. "You said you wanted Teller's advice. Something must be wrong with it."
"By advice I kind of meant reassurance that it's as dazzling an illusion as I think it is."
"Merlin, even if your illusion were on par with all of Houdini's best, how am I going to learn to perform it in the maximum of four and a half hours we have before it's expected?"
"How? Easily. Because you can do anything, Arthur. I've seen you in action. One day, you're going to be the world's most famous and best-liked illusionist. You're crazily talented, you're dynamic, you're funny and hot as hell, and, of course, you have me."
Arthur smiled a genuine and truly beautiful smile that stopped hearts and set butterflies racing in stomachs. He kissed Merlin his gratitude with deep, sloppy kisses that were as much possession as they were appreciation. While Merlin would have loved to have wallowed in that for an age or two, he knew they had a lot of work to do. He detailed his plans.
Arthur used all of his charm to beg that they not be forced to perform a rehearsal. In fact, they hadn't been near the soundstage until the lead-up to the recording. Their costumes were make-shift, cobbled together at the last minute, with Merlin's robes and beard and Arthur's crown pilfered from the studio next door. But they had costumes, and they were adequate. As Arthur had suggested when they first discussed signing up for the show, they'd decided to ramp up the comedy of the piece to make the illusion that much more impressive.
Twist did perform their levitation illusion and it fooled Penn and Teller. Merlin had held Arthur back from punching him in the face, because there was something guileless about Twist and he didn't think he was at fault in the whole ordeal. If anything, as far as Merlin was concerned, Twist had been intended as another victim. When he explained this to Arthur, he agreed, but admitted he still had the driving urge to punch the leather-clad bastard in the face.
When the time came that they were to perform in front of the live studio audience of three hundred, Merlin thought his heart was actually going to beat out of his chest and flop onto the polished black floor. His breath came quick and sharp.
"You said you had faith in me," Arthur reminded him.
"Oh, I do, absolutely. It's me I'm worried about."
"I don't think I've ever said how incredible you are," Arthur said, holding onto Merlin's shoulders and gazing into his eyes. "So I'm not going to start now."
Merlin poked his side, yet still found himself smiling.
Arthur pushed close. "But you are. You're incredible. I know you can do this."
"We can do this. Together."
Jonathan Ross began his introductions. "And now for a couple of magicians who I think you'll agree are a spectacle to behold, 'The Art of Magic'."
Jonathan had been overwhelmingly enthusiastic when he'd caught them mid-peck-on-the-cheek earlier that day. Though he'd made next to no sense, talking about 'fangirls' and 'slashing' and 'a viewing blitz'.
There was practically a drum roll. Arthur strode onto stage and Merlin shuffled behind. He felt that if he lost himself in the character he could just about forget the immediate audience, the cameras, the millions who'd be watching from their homes, and two of the world's most respected magicians. Almost.
"Merlin, what is the meaning of this?" Arthur asked in his most overbearing tone. He gestured at the lights, the camera, the audience, Penn and Teller, and finally Merlin's prop --- the centrepiece of the illusion. He looked majestic. There was no other word for it. Arthur had a royal bearing and striking features, and Merlin knew that if he hadn't the need to concentrate so hard on getting everything right, he'd be kneeling at Arthur's feet swearing his love and fealty to his king.
"It's a test, Sire. Like the Holy Grail, only, not."
There was a titter from the audience at that. Merlin made a harrumphing sound in reply, which garnered more amused chuckles.
"I thought I'd been through enough of your infernal tests," Arthur whined. "I've been on Total Wipeout and fallen in the water, I've auditioned for The X-Factor and suffered Louis Walsh's comments about my resemblance to a Greek God, I even sat through an entire episode of 'The Only Way is Essex'."
The audience laughed gratifyingly. Merlin peered out at them beneath his over large wizard's hat and saw that they were engaged, even if they didn't think 'The Art of Magic' was any good, magically.
"Ah, Sire? None of them were tests. That was just a taste of twenty-twelve."
"Twenty-twelve, twenty-twelve. It's all you ever talk about. I don't understand the significance."
"It's the date, Sire. The year. Honestly, you needed to pay more attention to your tutors when you had the chance. It's now the year two thousand and twelve, and I have it on good authority from Grand Wizard Roland Emmerich that unless The Once and Future King pulls this sword from this stone, the world is doomed!" Merlin shouted the last word. It helped release some pent up energy.
The dialogue they went through wasn't for theatricality alone, although it did pad out the illusion. While he was talking, Merlin was pacing and casting his hand over the stone. It was classic obfuscation.
"Alright then, let me at this sword," Arthur said, advancing towards the prop.
Merlin shot off a round of sparks and pushed his hand into Arthur's chest. "But you must not!"
"You intimated before that I must."
"Young Pendragon, it'd hardly be much of a test if anyone could come and pull the sword from the stone, could it? No, we must humiliate another before you can be bathed in glory."
Arthur twisted his expression into one of supreme disgust. "I really don't like your baths. I don't think that's glory, Merlin."
Merlin very nearly broke character at Arthur's adlib, but shuffled towards Penn in order to mask his smile.
"Penn Jillette, oh he of the Red-fingernail Clan, will you attempt to pull the sword from the stone?"
Penn shrugged, looked vaguely amused. "Yeah, sure."
This was a risk. Merlin didn't think he'd be able to pull out the sword, but there was every chance he'd accidentally break the prop. Penn pulled. Then he pushed. He pushed and pulled with both hands. He went red in the face. He asked Jonathan to clutch onto his waist and add his weight and sexual innuendo to the fray.
He did not pull the sword from the stone.
"Can't be done," Penn announced to the audience and future viewers at home. "That sword is stuck fast."
"It takes a king," Merlin pronounced. "One who is as strong as he is obnoxious. As thick as he is stupid. As ---"
"As insulted as he is sure that a nearby wizard is going to get a good kicking up the arse," Arthur cut in.
He clasped hold of the hilt of the sword with both hands and pulled.
They had decided that twelve seconds was the optimal time for Arthur to pretend difficulty with extracting the sword. The first five seconds would be what audiences were schooled to expect: the characteristic posturing of a magician. The following five seconds would heighten the melodrama and add a touch of fear. The next two seconds would make the audience feel sorry for Arthur so that when he eventually, finally pulled the sword from the stone, the audience would be triumphant.
Merlin joined his hands together in mock prayer, adding to the comedy. He kept sneaking obvious sidelong glances at Arthur, muttering jibes barely under his breath.
When it pulled free, the sword gave a metallic twang that resounded through the studio. Some of the audience were on their feet as they clapped. When the applause died down, Arthur placed one foot up on the stone and brandished the sword so that it glinted in the stage lights like a jewel.
"I have accomplished your task, Wizard. Now what would you have me do?"
"Now, you see, that's the tricky but no doubt enjoyable bit," Merlin said, timing the punchline; one, two, three. "The continued safety and freedom of the world rests in the successful assassination of Piers Morgan."
The audience clapped and laughed again while Jonathan came to stand next to them. Penn and Teller deliberated, whispering to one another.
"Cute act," Jonathan said. "I know I probably shouldn't ask this, but what are your actual names?"
"Merlin," Merlin said.
"Arthur," Arthur added.
They glanced at each other and grinned.
"We've got a couple of wise guys here," Jonathan lamented, turning twinkling eyes directly towards one of the cameras.
"Can we examine the stone, please?" Penn asked, standing up and making his way over before they could reply. Merlin had anticipated this. He didn't let his traitorous body hold onto his breath, instead ensuring he was breathing regularly and deeply enough to get oxygen into his system.
Another minute passed, two. Penn and Teller conferred. Merlin could feel Arthur's energy radiating off him in waves. He shifted stance, holding onto the hilt of the sword he'd sheathed to his side as if he were a true warrior, about to do battle. Before Teller gestured if he could take the sword, and spent another minute examining it.
"All right, Penn, Teller, I think the time has come that you need to tell us how this illusion was done," Jonathan said.
Penn gave a deep, loud-sounding sigh.
"There are lots of ways this illusion could have been performed. Seriously, for one. With more sophisticated costumes and jokes for another. We know how we would have accomplished the same effect, but I'm not certain 'The Art of Magic' used that technique," Penn looked at Teller, who was scribbling on some paper between them. "It's... clever. Better than most people probably think."
"You're buying time, Penn," Jonathan chastised.
"Teller's drawn a diagram," Penn continued. "I will say this for the viewers at home --- we think magnets are involved."
Merlin jittered forward and closely scrutinised Teller's diagram. It extrapolated upon one of the many designs Merlin had thought of using and discarded.
"That's not it," Merlin said quietly.
"And there are no magnets," Arthur supplemented.
Jonathan put a finger to his earpiece and confirmed that this was the truth with the magical consultants who had seen the schematics and inner workings of the stone.
Merlin stood stock still, hope bubbling up inside. He chanced a look in Arthur's direction and saw light shining from his eyes.
"There's only one answer, then," Penn said, rearing back in his chair and clapping his hands together. "You fooled us."
The next minute was a haze of Arthur's embrace, a roaring crowd, and chants of "Vegas, Vegas". Merlin didn't think he'd ever been so happy in his entire life.
The celebratory sex was fast, fierce, and mind-blowing. Merlin curled up against Arthur's side and stretched his hands out in front of him, yawning in sleepy contentment. Arthur bent down and kissed a trail up his neck and to his lips, before settling back again. His golden crown (stolen from the nearby studio, but they didn't think anyone would notice) was set at a jaunty angle on his head.
"There are a few things I don't understand, but paramount is this: when did you have time to make the stone? We're rarely apart."
"So that's why you're so thin."
"Yes. That and your abominable cooking skills," Merlin twisted in Arthur's embrace and looked up at him through his lashes. "Ordinary mortals can't singe baked beans."
"As you have stated time and time again, I am far from ordinary."
"Mmm. You're positively abnormal."
Arthur snorted. "Okay, my second question is this: how exactly does the stone work? I perfected the movement, but I confess I haven't truly grasped how it achieves the seemingly impossible."
"Remember how I said I began designing it when we met? It was based on something we had in abundance."
"... And that is?"
"Oh, hah," Arthur jeered, tickling Merlin mercilessly until he was a writhing mess amongst the sheets.
"One final question," Arthur said sounding far too stern.
"No more questions. Precious sleep," Merlin mumbled.
Arthur didn't heed Merlin's protestations. "What are you going to do about Wayne?"
Merlin sat up straight. He glared at Arthur. "It wasn't Wayne."
"Then who? Who else had the means, the opportunity, and the motive?"
"What do you mean 'who else'? Wayne had no motive, very little opportunity, and I keep my plans under lock and key. Anyway, why does it have to be one of my friends? Morgana's still in contact with your father, is she not?"
"She is, which is why I haven't been idiotic enough to let her near our illusions."
Merlin hesitated before embarking on his next suggestion. "And what about your uncle, Arthur. Have you let him near?"
As opposed to sounding outraged, Arthur's tone was more contemplative. "My uncle hates my father, why would he help him?"
"I wasn't thinking he would. I was thinking he'd humiliate him, through you. Bad that he should have a magician for a son, but a failed magician who'd made a fool of himself on National television? The ultimate payback."
Arthur moved, separating himself from Merlin. He was eerily soft-voiced when he spoke. Merlin knew immediately that his fears had been realised. "You're adamantly defensive of a man who has never shown me anything but contempt, yet only too free with accusations against someone who has shown me, us, nothing but support."
"I know it must seem unreasonable, but ---"
"It seems unreasonable because it is. I won't hear you say another word against my uncle, Merlin."
Merlin swivelled in his spot and stared into Arthur's eyes. "You'd trust him over trusting me?"
Arthur gaped, then closed his mouth with a snap. He cradled Merlin's jaw. "I trust him over Wayne. But you? I trust you implicitly. Emphatically." His expression became conflicted. "We'll have to sort this out when we get back."
Merlin let out a soft, shallow breath. He had worried over this sort of confrontation for months. He hadn't known for certain how Arthur would react. He had thought --- hoped --- that Arthur's feelings for him ran as deeply as his for Arthur, but there was always a seed of doubt. Of fear. Of disbelief that he could be so lucky.
Merlin leaned forward, licking his lips invitingly. "I don't believe we've finished celebrating."
Arthur canted his hips, using his knees to flip Merlin closer. "I would agree."
"Well, then, my king, you had better hold onto your crown."
"Sorcerer, you had better hold onto your staff," Arthur crowed, with a blinding and mischievous grin.
It wasn't like in the movies, with dramatic timpani banging music, the swell of an orchestra, and long, concentrated stares. It was all a bit pathetic. Arthur's uncle admitted that he had sold the plans to their illusion, claiming he needed to recoup part of the money he'd lent them because his business was going under. He'd never been able to gather up the courage to admit this had happened, he'd said. It hadn't been intentional maliciousness. Foolhardiness, that was all. Arthur's pain at the betrayal broke Merlin's heart.
"I thought he cared for me," Arthur mumbled, surrendering himself to Merlin's embrace.
"It's his fault if he doesn't, not yours," Merlin assured him. "And I care deeply for you. As do all our friends."
"He suffers you. Maybe if you hadn't thrown him down those steps and accused him of grand treachery, he'd be edging towards tolerance."
Arthur snuffled. "Sorry."
Merlin gave a wry smile and stepped away from Arthur. "We all make mistakes. For instance, I once stumbled upon the same magic show four times and look where that got me."
"Still in Leeds, working at a B&Q. Yes, I can see what you mean."
"A day away from Las Vegas, and quitting my awful job at B&Q," Merlin countered.
Arthur's mood lightened. He gave a beatific grin. "It's going to be brilliant, Merlin, we're going to be fantastic."
"Transcendent," Merlin corrected.
Arthur gazed at Merlin with the look he had always given him and for the first time Merlin realised what it was. It was a kind of magic.