At 7am on the morning of the long-planned school trip to see Macbeth, Miss Slater was standing in the school car park, clipboard tucked under one arm and most of the students marked off already. It was still dark, and from the open door of the coach she could hear the low murmur of mostly sleepy voices. The last she’d noticed, Freya and Sarah were actually asleep, and Arthur didn’t look far off, slumped against the window, his rolled up coat acting as a makeshift pillow.
It was to be an overnight stay. Although they were going to the matinee performance at 2pm, the drive to Stratford was a long one and so Miss Lawson, the Head of English, had decided that they might as well take the opportunity to stay the night at a local hostel which catered for school and college groups, that way they could also attend the ‘actor’s workshop’ the following morning (which Miss Slater was quite excited about) before travelling home.
Whether they would actually get there in one piece was another matter. In the absence of their usual coach driver, Mr Lewis the elderly head of Science had been co-opted, and his driving was… eccentric, to say the least. Or, to quote George when he had arrived fifteen minutes earlier and noticed Mr Lewis searching for the driving glasses he was, in fact, already wearing, they were all going to die.
Then there were Merlin and Arthur of course. Miss Slater was certainly not going to flatter herself that any progress made in the privacy of the school library would extend to in front of their classmates. In fact she knew it wouldn’t (she hadn’t needed Julia’s hysterical laughter to tell her that, thank you very much). Arthur’s fight with Liam had not gone un-noticed in the school at large and over the several days that had followed their altercation, Miss Slater had noticed the speculative looks and whispers among their fellow pupils. Evidently, so had Merlin and Arthur - who had taken to glaring at each other in mutual accusation (a new development) and flicking things at each other in class (sadly not a new development at all) as if to emphasise their shared and ever-lasting enmity, whatever someone might have written on the toilet walls (she only knew about that because Merlin and Arthur had made separate and lengthy complaints to their form tutor expressing their shock and outrage).
Given the very public nature of this trip and the numerous opportunities for delinquency, Miss Slater thought she could be forgiven then for becoming increasingly nervous as the date of the trip drew closer, especially when one of the teaching assistants cried off at the last moment, leaving them short staffed. Fortunately for them all, an unexpected but very welcome answer had presented itself the previous night, one that promised to help with the problem of Merlin and Arthur and solve the shortage of accompanying adults at the same time.
She checked her watch as the last car finally pulled up carrying her missing pupil and her replacement chaperone (who just happened to be his mother).
“Good Morning, Mrs Emrys!” Miss Slater called, smiling at the dark haired woman who currently had Merlin’s arm in a grip of iron as she marched him towards the coach.
“Call me Hunith, please,” she replied, apparently impervious to Merlin’s mutter of ‘Mum, get off!’ “I’m terribly sorry we’re late. I had to practically drag this one out of bed by his ankles and dress him myself.”
Even Merlin’s ears went scarlet. “You did not!”
Miss Slater risked a glance at the coach. Yes, Arthur had apparently deemed this worth waking up for.
“Yes, I think a few of the students have struggled with the early start.” She motioned ruefully at the coach windows as Hunith gave her overnight bag to Mr Lewis (who looked at it rather absently for a few long moments. Miss Slater tried not to feel too worried). As if to prove her wrong Arthur was now fully awake and smirking down at Merlin, who looked like he was about to make a regrettable hand gesture in response - before he caught his mother’s eye and thought better of it.
“Shall we press on, then?” Miss Slater interjected hastily. Hunith gave Merlin a speaking look and a little push towards the coach door while Miss Slater ticked off the last two names on her clipboard, checked Mr Lewis had shut the luggage compartment properly (he hadn’t) and then followed. The warmth of the coach was very welcome after the chill outside and she had half-unwound her scarf before she became aware that the trip might well be doomed before it had even begun.
“I don’t think that would be wise, do you?” she said, pointedly, as Merlin moved down the aisle towards the only spare seat left behind the teachers’ section – across the aisle from Arthur. “Nick, move up please.” Nick looked most put out but got up and trailed down the aisle, scowling at Merlin as he passed like it was all his fault while several girls nearby exchanged knowing looks. “Merlin, you can have Nick’s seat.” Nick’s seat was, reassuringly, at the back of the coach. Miss Slater waited until they were both seated, gave Arthur a quelling look when he chose to make a few loud comments about People Who Were Late, and then made her way to her own seat, next to Hunith. There were, after all, many times and places where she would be more than happy to negotiate a further cessation of hostilities between Merlin and Arthur, but a fast moving vehicle driven by a man in slippers was not one of them.
There was a small delay then, as Mr Lewis looked once again for his driving glasses, only to find he was, in fact, sitting on them, but finally they were off. Miss Slater settled back and checked the tickets for the tenth time that morning. Across the aisle Julia – Miss Norris to her class – produced a bag of toffees to pass around, Mr Kennedy fell asleep again, and Hunith dug out a crossword book and a pen and got to work. It was, mostly, quiet on the coach as they drove through the still dim lanes and Miss Slater let herself relax for a while.
Of course it couldn’t last. They made it to the Services on the motorway without any mishaps (if you didn’t count Mr Lewis taking corners like he’d missed a career in Formula One) but the short break outside seemed the revive everybody, not least of all Merlin and Arthur.
“Miss, Merlin’s stolen my notepad!”
Miss Slater closed her eyes briefly and prayed for patience, even as she heard Merlin’s reply, “Miss, Arthur’s hallucinating again.”
“No, I’m not. It was here when I got off the coach and now it isn’t.”
“Well if you’re going to be careless with your secret diary, it’s hardly surprising that—”
“It’s not my secret diary!”
“Honestly, Arthur, you don’t have to be embarrassed about...”
Miss Slater stood up and Merlin trailed off. Next to her, Hunith looked up from her crossword clue (three letters, ‘a rocky hill’) and gave Miss Slater a sympathetic look, “Do you need me to ground him for a month?”
Miss Slater smiled, ruefully, “That can be plan B.” She made her way, slightly unsteadily, down the coach to where Arthur was looking daggers at Merlin who was busy cultivating an expression of extreme innocence. Miss Slater was not fooled. “Arthur sit back down. Merlin, I suggest you give back the diary—”
“Notebook,” cut in Arthur, immediately.
“I’m sorry, notebook,” went on Miss Slater, “to Arthur and apologise.”
“But I haven’t got it!” said Merlin, looking wounded.
“Merlin Emrys!” came his mother’s voice from the front of the coach. A few students sniggered and Merlin gave an enormous, put upon sigh. “Oh all right. But I was just getting to the good bit with Arthur’s emo poetry – I would never have thought of rhyming ‘beard’ with ‘weird’ myself but…” He trailed off, looking reflective, as Miss Slater put a firm hand on Arthur’s shoulder before he could get up again.
“The book, please, Merlin?” She said, holding out a hand. Merlin handed over a small, well used notepad. Miss Slater passed it to Arthur who practically snatched it out of her hand with a loud, “It’s for football planning.”
Merlin grinned and Arthur looked, for a brief moment, like he might be tempted to vault over the seats and throttle him anyway, regardless of the coach full of witnesses, but Miss Slater injected a clear ‘don’t you dare’ into her look and he turned back to the front with a scowl.
Miss Slater spent the remaining hour and a half of the trip patrolling the coach every ten minutes, just to be on the safe side, and only narrowly resisted cheering when the sign for the theatre coach park came into sight. They pulled in in good time (thanks to Mr Lewis breaking the speed limit all the way down the M5), making it to the theatre with half an hour to spare. A steward came to show them to their block of seats and Miss Slater made sure to put at least twenty-five students between Merlin and Arthur as they shuffled slowly up the stairs to the Dress Circle. Once there, Mr Kennedy and Miss Norris began seating the students according to their classes, leaving Miss Slater to organise her own group in a way that wouldn’t involve actual bodily harm or the entire school being banned from future theatrical performances.
She was just trying to work out how close was too close (ten seats? Twelve?) when Hunith appeared next to her, tucked her crossword book away in her handbag, and announced, “Merlin can sit next to me.”
“Are you sure?” said Miss Slater, after a slightly stunned moment, at exactly the same time as Merlin stuck his head into view round a nearby pillar and said “What? I’m not sitting next to my—”
“You will do as you’re told!” said Hunith, fixing him with a Look. Arthur, who was standing at the end of the row, looked delighted at this turn of events. Until Hunith added, “And Arthur can sit next to him,” and then his smile vanished, to be replaced by a look of horror.
“Are you sure that’s wise?” said Miss Slater, taken aback, as Arthur opened and closed his mouth, soundlessly, and Merlin protested, “I don’t want to sit next to him either!”
“I assure you I will not put up with any nonsense from either of them,” said Hunith, serenely, “You just concentrate on the rest of the class, I’ll deal with these two.”
The steely gaze she turned on Merlin and Arthur at that moment went a long way towards convincing Miss Slater that Hunith could, in fact, deal with them very well.
“Well, if you’re sure…” Miss Slater said, hesitantly, not quite believing it could be that easy.
“Quite sure,” said Hunith firmly. She swept past the frozen pair, and paused at the end of the first row. “Well? Come along boys.”
After a moment, Merlin scuffed his way along the row, looking horribly betrayed, and threw himself into the seat at the very end. Hunith waited patiently until Arthur followed, sitting down two seats away until Hunith told him to ‘move up’ at which point he very grudgingly shifted along next to Merlin – who immediately moved two inches closer to the aisle and looked pointedly away. Miss Slater let out a long breath and began directing her class along the two half rows remaining, finally seating herself one row back, and directly behind Arthur, within easy listening distance (it wasn’t that she didn’t trust Hunith, it was just hard to break old habits). As her class got comfortable, tucking away coats and bags under seats and whispering among themselves, Hunith retrieved a theatre programme from her handbag and began flicking through it, apparently oblivious to the icy martyred silence emanating from the two boys on her right.
“Oh, look Merlin, it’s got that woman in it from Doctor Who.” She said quite loudly after a moment, tilting the programme. Merlin ignored her, so Hunith looked at Arthur instead, “Do you watch Doctor Who, Arthur?”
Arthur looked somewhat awkward at being addressed, but after a moment said, “I watched the last series.” Hunith nodded encouragingly, so Arthur added, “I liked that one with the alien in the wheelchair.”
“Davros,” Merlin hissed, seemingly unable to ignore such a heinous transgression.
“That’s what I said,” snapped Arthur.
“No, you didn’t, you said the—”
Hunith cleared her throat and Merlin subsided. “Merlin’s a bit of a Doctor Who fanatic,” she went on, conversationally, “Has been ever since he was little. He dressed up as a cyberman for his seventh birthday – tinfoil hat and all.”
“I hate you,” said Merlin, while Arthur smirked and mouthed ‘tin foil hat?’ at him.
“I beg your pardon, Merlin?” said his mother, cheerfully flicking through a few more pages. Merlin crossed his arms and didn’t speak.
“And what about your father, Arthur?” Hunith asked after another silence. “How is he getting on these days? I don’t believe I’ve seen him since the unfortunate incident with your eyebrows.”
Arthur darted a quick glare towards Merlin – who was looking worryingly nostalgic – before he answered, a little stiffly, “He’s very well, thank you…er, Mrs Emrys,” Merlin sniggered and then mimed being sick and Arthur elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “He’s been away the last few weeks, at a business conference in Salzburg.”
“Ah,” said Hunith, “A lovely part of the world, so I hear. Do you never travel with him?”
Arthur shook his head, “Not recently. He used to take me with him, when I was younger I think, I don’t really remember it.” He shrugged awkwardly.
“He doesn’t leave you on your own though, surely?” said Hunith, in such a concerned voice that Miss Slater noticed Merlin begin to look worried – as if he half expected her to invite Arthur to stay.
“Oh no,” said Arthur at once, and Merlin breathed an audible sigh of relief. “My aunt comes to stay when he’s out of the country.”
Hunith nodded approvingly, and then asked, “And how’s your sister doing?”
“Sister?” said Merlin at once, perking up again. “What sister?”
Arthur shifted uncomfortably, “She’s my stepsister. Was my stepsister anyway.” Merlin looked strangely put out not to have known this fact. “She’s well. Or was when I last spoke to her. She’s, er, she’s coming to stay soon.”
“Oh how lovely,” said Hunith, beaming.
Arthur looked a bit dubious in Miss Slater’s opinion, but he smiled politely, regardless.
“How old is she? Your sister?” asked Merlin curiously.
Arthur shot him a suspicious look, but was saved from answering by the sudden dimming of the lights and the soft swoosh of the safety curtain going up. Miss Slater leaned back in her seat as the rustling in the auditorium died down and the curtains slowly opened on the wild moor land scene, light flickering on the boards of the stage and on the three figures grouped together in the centre. Three figures who were… Miss Slater leaned forward again, squinting slightly, because really, it looked just like they were wearing…
“Pointy hats!” hissed Arthur triumphantly in the near darkness, his profile clearly outlined as he turned to Merlin, whose scowl was obvious, even in the dim light.
“They’re cloaks,” snapped Merlin. Miss Slater thought Merlin was onto a lost cause there – the three witches were, quite clearly, wearing pointy hats.
“Hats, Merlin,” hissed Arthur again, obviously in agreement.
“Shhhhhh!” said Hunith, sharply.
Arthur turned back to the stage – his smirk so wide it was threatening to become a full grin, while Merlin sat in sulky silence, looking personally let down by the costuming choices of the company’s artistic director.
Merlin continued to sulk through the first three acts – for which Miss Slater was extremely grateful, as Merlin’s sulking seemed to mainly involve ignoring Arthur, no matter how many times Arthur glanced his way (which happened to coincide with every time the witches appeared or were mentioned). As a result Miss Slater was able to relax fully and just enjoy the play. It was a very good production. The company had evidently opted to set it in the eleventh century, as opposed to the modern day – which seemed to be the trend nowadays – and the costumes and scenery were plain but effective. As the un-named lord finished reporting the flight of Macduff to England at the end of Act Three, Miss Slater found herself so deeply involved that it was rather a shock when the curtains swept closed and the houselights went up for the interval. She blinked, taking a moment to acclimatise herself after the dim and atmospheric lighting of the stage, half feeling she was still among the intrigue and blood-soaked politics of Macbeth’s court. Thankfully, Merlin was at hand to disabuse her of any such fanciful notions.
“Phew, I think my arse has gone to sleep. I’m going to get an ice cream,” he announced from the row in front – stretching his arms so widely he almost smacked Arthur in the face. It was almost possible that was an accident. Almost. Fortunately for everyone, Merlin was up and out of his seat before Arthur could do anything about it, disappearing down the side aisle to the vestibule as if he feared the ice cream might melt before he got there.
Arthur sat awkwardly next to Hunith for a few moments, before he said, not looking at her, “Did you— er, did you want anything?”
Hunith beamed at him. “It’s very kind of you to ask Arthur, but it’s alright – Merlin will bring me something back.”
“Oh,” said Arthur, “Ok then. I’ll just—” He gestured over his shoulder, “go find the toilets.” He then looked vaguely horrified at having mentioned the word ‘toilets’ in front of Merlin’s mother and promptly disappeared down the aisle almost as quickly as Merlin. Hunith watched him go, then met Miss Slater’s rather surprised gaze.
“Poor boy,” Hunith said, kindly, “He’s so terribly awkward around me, but it’s no wonder I suppose.”
“It is?” said Miss Slater, trying not to sound too nosy. Being reasonably new to the school had its disadvantages, one of them being the amount of gossip that was so well established, no one thought to tell her.
“Yes, what with his mother and all.” At Miss Slater’s questioning look, Hunith explained, “Arthur’s mother died when he was born, and I don’t think his father has ever gotten over it.” She sighed. “I knew her, Igraine I mean, Merlin and Arthur were only born a few weeks apart and I would see her sometimes, at the antenatal classes.” Her gaze turned sad, “She was a lovely woman, and very good for Uther I think. He’s not… well, he’s not the warmest or most open man in the world.”
Miss Slater nodded, “Yes, I’ve noticed that.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” said Hunith, her gaze clearing again. “I’m sure he cares about Arthur a great deal. He’s just not always good at showing it I think – and he expects so much from him.” She frowned a little in thought.
“You know him, then? Uther, I mean.” Miss Slater asked.
Hunith shook her head, “Not really. Not any more, anyway. But Merlin mentions things, sometimes, and,” she added with a smile, “I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of awkward run-ins with the man - thanks to Merlin and Arthur.”
“That I can well believe,” said Miss Slater, rueful.
She left Hunith then, her mind on Uther and Arthur as she wandered out of the auditorium, intent on making sure her students were behaving themselves outside. She was relieved to see most of her class standing in little twos and threes, chatting amongst themselves as they ate, while the others had made their way back to their seats with ice creams and bags of sweets. They seemed to be enjoying the play at least, if some of the comments she overheard were anything to go by, a fact that Miss Slater could only hope would translate into their class work when they returned to school. She stayed outside for ten minutes or so, speaking to her class, listening to Mr Kennedy’s lengthy feelings on the stage production, before she spotted Arthur waving to his friends as he made his way back into the theatre and decided she’d best go back in after him – Hunith having just passed her on her way to the Ladies. Sure enough, when she got back in Arthur had just come to an abrupt halt at the end of their row – in which Merlin, and two girls from Julia’s class, were the only incumbents.
Merlin looked up at him and raised an eyebrow, challengingly, as Miss Slater took her seat on the row behind. That seemed to be enough for Arthur, who pushed past Merlin and sat back down, borrowing Hunith’s programme and immersing himself in a description of Acts Four and Five. Merlin stared at the side of his head, and slurped his ice cream. Loudly. Arthur twitched, so Merlin did it again.
“Do you mind?” Arthur snapped, looking up.
“Nope,” said Merlin, smiling widely and taking another enormous lick of his ice cream, managing to dribble half of it down his chin. Arthur stared at the ice cream, then at Merlin and then suddenly looked away, flushing, and leaving Merlin frozen, mid-lick, and looking strangely disconcerted.
Miss Slater watched them curiously for a moment, the itinerary in her hand forgotten as an awkward silence descended and Arthur fidgeted in his seat, looking deeply uncomfortable. Then, Merlin, spoke – sounding, well, almost uncertain – if that was ever a word Miss Slater would have associated with him and Arthur.
“Didn’t you…” Merlin stopped to rub the ice cream off his chin with the sleeve of his sweatshirt, “Didn’t you want anything to eat?”
Arthur shot him a small glance, before answering, “I don’t like ice cream.”
Merlin looked shocked. “Is that even possible?”
“Apparently so,” said Arthur, his tone irritable.
“Oh,” said Merlin. He cast around on the floor, apparently looking for something, before he produced an orange striped packet, already open, “How about a Revel then?”
Arthur stared at him. Merlin shook the bag a little. “You like chocolate, right? I know you do – I’ve seen you eat it.”
Arthur looked suspicious. “All right, what have you done to them?”
Merlin pressed the hand still gripping the bag of Revels to his chest, looking horribly offended. “Arthur, they’re my mother’s Revels. Are you trying to suggest I would deface my mother’s chocolates?”
Judging from his expression, Arthur did, in fact, think Merlin might do such a thing, but Merlin shook the bag again and after a moment, Arthur reached in and took one. “Thanks,” he muttered, grudging.
Merlin beamed and took another lick of his ice cream (Arthur didn’t look this time) and sat back, watching as Arthur popped the chocolate in his mouth, chewed for a second and then nearly spat it back out, grimacing.
“It’s a coffee one!”
“Oh no, is it really?” said Merlin, looking distinctly unsurprised by this. “Here, try another.”
Arthur went to reach out before he stopped, abrupt, and glared at Merlin’s angelic face. “They’re all coffee, aren’t they?” he said in an accusing voice.
Merlin grinned, looking very pleased with himself. “Mum hates coffee ones, she always leaves them. She says she can tell them from a mile away.”
Arthur glared at him for a second longer, then, to Miss Slater’s surprise, reached into the bag regardless. “On second thoughts, I think I will have another, thanks,” he said, pulling out a chocolate and looking at it for a moment before he proceeded to squidge it firmly into the middle of Merlin’s ice cream.
“Hey!” Merlin yelped at once, looking outraged.
“Boys!” said Miss Slater warningly. Both Merlin and Arthur jumped at the sound of her voice and Merlin stopped brandishing his ice cream like a soggy weapon, and flopped back in his chair – looking mournfully at his cone.
“Ugh, you’ve polluted my Cornetto,” he said, after a brief and apparently failed attempt to retrieve the chocolate.
Arthur did not look at all sorry.
“I really do hate you, you know,” said Merlin, almost absently, as he took to digging the Revel out with a bit of wafer.
“Likewise,” said Arthur, going back to reading the programme, awkwardness gone.
It was at that moment that Hunith returned, smiling at the both of them sitting quietly in their seats. “Glad to see you two have been behaving yourselves!”
Merlin humphed a little under his breath and managed to accidentally flick a bit of ice cream onto Arthur’s arm. Arthur wiped it off onto Merlin’s sleeve.
Hunith made her way past them, back to her seat, and exchanged a knowing look with Miss Slater as the bell rang for the end of the interval and students began filing back in.
Finally the audience were seated, the lights went down and the curtains opened.
The three witches entered. Pointy hats in place.
“One word, and you’ll be wearing this ice cream as a hat,” came Merlin’s voice.
Arthur just smirked.
“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” intoned the witches on the stage.
The second half had begun.
The End (for now)