To Miss Slater’s amazement, the remainder of the play passed without any of the kind of incidents that would get them column inches in the local Gazette under a headline about teenage delinquency and the falling standards of teaching in the Modern World. It was true that Arthur persisted in looking smug every time a witch appeared or was vaguely mentioned by any character, and Miss Slater wasn’t entirely sure that Merlin ‘s elbow nearly connecting with Arthur’s face was the tragic accident he had professed it to be, but frankly, for them, that counted as subdued.
When the play came to its dramatic conclusion, the applause was finished and Arthur rather absently passed up Merlin’s coat whilst getting his own, Miss Slater started to wonder if she’d fallen asleep at some point in Act 4 and was in the midst of an elaborate dream. If James McAvoy suddenly popped up next to her with a box of Ferrero Rocher, she’d know she had.
Sadly, that did not happen. Instead Mr Kennedy appeared at the end of the row – on his way to the exit – as his class very slowly filed past behind him, and ruined everything.
“Good lord,” he said, looking at Merlin who was frozen in the act of taking his coat from Arthur and possibly (very possibly) opening his mouth to say ‘thank you’ (Miss Slater could dream). “Now that’s not something I ever expected to see – you boys getting along!” Behind him, one of his pupils took out her phone and actually snapped a photo. That seemed to wake up Merlin at least, who snatched his coat like Arthur had somehow infected it, leaving Arthur staring at his hands like they’d betrayed him.
“I was distracted thinking of the play,” said Merlin firmly – which Miss Slater found highly unlikely. Judging by the look on Hunith’s face, she wasn’t the only one.
“Ah yes, of course,” Mr Kennedy said genially. “And who can blame you?” (Miss Slater hoped his wasn’t a prelude to another lecture on stage production). “To understand Shakespeare is to understand all, as they say, and to exercise the intellect.”
“I think it just confused Arthur,” said Merlin.
Arthur stopped looking betrayed and glared at Merlin. “It did not.”
“It was probably all the long words.” Merlin looked sad on Arthur’s behalf.
Someone sniggered and Miss Slater resisted the urge to put her face in her hands.
“You’re not a fan of the Bard?” Mr Kennedy looked terribly disappointed at the pair of them.
“Merlin’s more into Doctor Who actually,” Arthur announced loudly before Merlin could respond. “His mother was telling me he likes to dress up as a cyberman and wear a—”
Merlin abruptly stood up. “I think we should get back to the coach.”
Miss Slater shook her head exasperatedly at Arthur (who was looking all too pleased with himself now). “Both of you be quiet, and Merlin sit down and wait. We are not all stampeding for the door at once.”
Scowling, Merlin grudgingly sat back down, but not before Arthur casually flipped up the seat, causing Merlin to miss it completely and land on the floor after making a wild and unsuccessful grab for the armrest.
“Arthur!” Mr Kennedy sounded scandalised. Honestly, it was like he was new to the school.
“It’s alright,” Miss Slater said hastily. “Mrs Emrys and I can deal with this. We’ll meet you back at the coach.”
‘Mrs Emrys’ was looking vastly amused actually, and Miss Slater quite distinctly heard her mutter something about “asking for that one, sweetheart” which she could certainly sympathise with.
With a last look of deep disapproval, Mr Kennedy moved off, his few remaining pupils trailing behind him and goggling at Merlin and Arthur as they passed.
“Merlin, I suggest you get up,” Miss Slater said, when it was clear Merlin was fully intending to remain locked in a red-faced glaring contest with Arthur. “And everyone else,” she looked around at her class as Merlin struggled to his feet and noticed several phones disappearing back into bags and pockets. “Make sure you’ve got all your belongings with you and then make your way to the exit.” She turned back – just in time to bark, “Don’t even think about it Merlin!”
Merlin swung his bag gently onto one shoulder and widened his eyes like he’d fully intended to do that all along, and not, as Miss Slater suspected, like he’d been intending to take advantage of the enclosed space and lack of escape route to get a decent swing at Arthur’s head with his rucksack.
The reaction of Merlin and Arthur to their unprecedented outbreak of cordiality and the interest it generated among their classmates was, apparently, pretend the other no longer existed. Miss Slater felt this was strategy was flawed on two fronts, the first being that Merlin and Arthur could no more convincingly ignore each other than she could ignore Mr Lewis’s wilful flouting of British traffic laws on the way to the hostel, and the second being that as a way of drawing gossip away from them, it rather had the opposite effect, causing an outbreak of speculation the boys couldn’t fail to notice. Miss Slater had a feeling that the grainy photograph now circulating of Arthur helping Merlin with his coat wasn’t helping. Either way, they spent the short journey to the hostel twenty seats away from each other – after one brave soul had asked if they were sure they wouldn’t prefer to sit together (amid much giggling).
It was something of a novelty to spend dinner at the hostel telling people off for texting at the table, or for being a bit noisy, as opposed to, say, salting someone’s casserole or nailing someone’s underwear to the main door. Yet at the same time, she couldn’t help but feel there was something downright unsettling about it, especially when an after dinner discussion of the play brought up the subject of costume and Arthurdidn’t mention pointy hats. By the time Merlin had passed up two separate opportunities to steal Arthur’s luggage, and then suddenly announced he was going to bed (while everyone else was still making excuses to stay up), Miss Slater decided that stapling pants to the door might have been an improvement.
Ten minutes later, she had the last few stragglers rounded up and herded them towards the main stairs. The hostel was already settling down for the night and Hunith was not far behind her. She paused, however, when she noticed Arthur trailing along at the back of the group and wondered if she ought to say something. The gossip tonight hadn’t been that bad, but that was always relative when it wasn’t directed at you, so she smiled and let Arthur catch her up on the stairs, the others going ahead.
“Everything alright, Arthur? You seem a bit quiet tonight.”
For a second Arthur looked like a startled rabbit, before he shrugged, “I’m fine, just tired.”
They passed the first landing, Hunith moving ahead of them, as Miss Slater tried to think of a good way to phrase what she wanted to say. “You know,” she said at last, lowering her voice slightly, “there’s nothing wrong with you and Merlin being friends.” Arthur’s nonchalant expression took a turn for the horrified. “Not that you necessarily are,” she added hastily before he could fling himself off the staircase or something, “I’m just saying, that the world won’t end if you don’t solder his locker shut for a week.”
“No-one ever proved I did that,” Arthur pointed out immediately.
Miss Slater just pursed her lips and fixed him with A Look. “Don’t insult my intelligence, Arthur. The point I am trying to make it that you shouldn’t let other people’s opinions get to you, you can be nice to Merlin occasionally if you want.”
“I’m not going to be nice to Merlin,” Arthur said, pulling a face like Miss Slater had lost her mind. She very kindly didn’t point out the many ways he’d already proven that wasn’t true. “And I don’t care about what other people are saying.”
“You don’t?” Miss Slater said, sceptically.
“No!” Arthur scowled.
“So you weren’t ignoring Merlin tonight because of it?”
Arthur looked shocked (it was about as convincing as when Merlin tried it), “I can’t ignore him, we’re not friends.”
It was an odd teenage sort of logic, but Miss Slater recognised the stubborn set of Arthur’s jaw and knew she wasn’t going to get any further tonight. “Very well,” she said, giving in and speeding up alongside him as they finally reached the top floor along with Hunith. Then she added, “Just think about what I said.”
“I don’t need to,” Arthur said firmly, before remembering who he talking to and tacking a belated, “...Miss,” to the end.
Miss Slater just sighed as Hunith opened the door to their corridor (the hostel had helpfully grouped them by class). “Right, of course.”
“I shall be glad to get to sleep tonight,” Hunith said cheerfully, as though to cover the injured silence practically emanating from Arthur.
Miss Slater was just opening her mouth to reply when a door a few yards away flew open and none other than Merlin burst out wearing nothing but a pair of stripy pyjama bottoms.
“Mum! Where did you pack my—”
He broke off abruptly and there followed a shocked silence in which Merlin’s gaze went straight over Miss Slater’s shoulder to Arthur. Then he made a noise a little like a dying cat and attempted to get back into his room – bouncing off the door before he realised it had closed and scrabbling at the handle instead.
The sound of the door slamming shut behind him again was probably enough to wake half the floor.
“I’d better go and see what he’s lost,” Hunith said, excusing herself and following Merlin as though this was all perfectly normal (which, Miss Slater reflected, it probably was).
Miss Slater turned to Arthur, only to find him red faced and still staring at the door like Merlin might suddenly come back through it.
That was, until he noticed her looking. “I was just...”
“Ignoring him, I know,” Miss Slater said, drily.
If it was possible, Arthur looked even more embarrassed. “I’m going to bed,” he announced, scraping together a tiny bit of dignity before he scuttled off to his room like the corridor was on fire.
Miss Slater watched him go and reflected that she might be getting quite fluent in teenage logic after all.
The End (for now)