It was 3:30 in the morning, and Arthur's eyes were starting to go bleary as he clicked around the Avalonia message boards to catch up on royal new jobs, but it was just the usual—hackers bragging about websites they'd broken into, email addresses they'd mined, and passwords cracked. No point to any of it. From down the hall, Arthur could hear his father coughing in his sleep. He'd kill Arthur if he found him online at this late hour when he had school the next day. Not that Arthur cared what that bastard thought, anyway. He clicked his tongue ring against his teeth and rubbed his hand in large circles around his head, shaved except for the long strand of dyed-pink hair that fell from the centre of his forehead.
Fuck it, he thought. He was going to watch some porn, have a wank, and go to bed.
He was just about to Google huge cocks when an IM popped up on the screen.
madevilgay: hey mate wuts up
Arthur grinned. It was his favourite hacker. He always had something good for Arthur to try. He sent a quick reply.
excaliburn: not much, getting tired anyth new?
madevilgay: ya i been holdin sth 4 u wait til u c this. ur gonna b PISSED OFF
madevilgay: some fuckin antigay group want to protest pride this yr & posted sth on their blog
madevilgay: ya so i was thinking we pay them a visit
excaliburn: like improve the look of their site
madevilgay: ya like help professionalise & gain more support lol
excaliburn: ok, url?
A quick look at the site told Arthur all he needed to know. Taking up half the page was a glossy image of a man with neatly combed hair smiling alongside a woman holding a baby in her arms. Protect the family, it said across the top, then Protest WorldPride on 7 July. With the comic sans font and pastel colours, the homepage looked like it had been designed in 1998.
Fucking bastards. He'd seen this group in the papers more than once already. A little web maintenance was exactly what they needed. Arthur scanned down the page and opened a few more links. The site had a blog where some tosser named Jonas Aredian had posted a series of articles about the threat of gay marriage. Clicking onto the About page, Arthur saw that Aredian was the co-chair of the organisation. Probably a site admin, too.
excaliburn: im there. gonna try sth. if it works, u got contacts?
madevilgay: got an email listserv rght here!
excaliburn: ok get ready
madevilgay: u need any help
excaliburn: i think we're good but ill let u know
Arthur went back to the website and added /adminpanel.php to the url.
First try. He typed in a couple of other common extensions.
A login screen came up. Bingo!
In the username field, he entered fuck. For password, he typed you. The error message was Sorry, that username does not exist.
Perfect. The system would very helpfully let him know when he got an existing username.
He tried a series of usernames, waiting until he landed on one that called a different error.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, that username does not exist.
Sorry, password is incorrect.
jaredian, so nice to meet you, thought Arthur.
excaliburn: i found a user. prob an admin.
excaliburn: definitely should try that. bet these idiots haven't even sanitized the input
Arthur clicked back and re-entered jaredian as username and ' or 1=1 -- as password. He hit submit, and the admin panel opened up before him.
excaliburn: fucking idiots. why are the anti-gay ones always the stupidest
madevilgay: its not obvious y? lol
excaliburn: the least they could do is use wp or sth. but they gotta use sth homegrown…
In the Admin panel, Arthur navigated to a Users tab and clicked in. A list of registered users opened up, about twelve. He deleted every account. Then, next to jaredian, he clicked edit. A form opened up with Aredian's public profile. Arthur changed Aredian's occupation to Fucker in Chief and his description to Nice to meet you! I'm Jonas Aredian, the Fucker in Chief. I enjoy being mean to children, harassing people, and goat herding. I also fuck the goats. Thanks for visiting!
He edited Aredian's account settings, changing his username to wanker and his password to g04t!hump3R. To make sure it would be extra difficult for Aredian to log back into the system, Arthur removed his email address. No account reset information could be sent to him now. Sacred Marriage was going to have to track down their shit-arse sysadmin before they'd get access to their website again.
Five minutes had passed since Arthur had first visited the website. He now bounced back to the content tab and, finding the button to add images, uploaded his shell and waited while the system processed it. Image added! a friendly message informed him.
excaliburn: just loaded shell
madevilgay: brilliant. they are so fucked
Arthur smirked and opened a new browser tab and went to http://www.sacredmarriage.co.uk/images/shell7.php Nothing—the page didn't exist. In the URL, he edited "images" to "img" and then to "imgs." Still nothing.
Unperturbed, Arthur reloaded the homepage and viewed the source, searching "shell7." The browser highlighted <img src="/content/shell7.php" />. He clicked on the link.
excaliburn: takeover is happening baby! watch it burn!
madevilgay: fuck that was fast mate. royal!
The shell launched and gave Arthur his own admin panel. He was ready to give Sacred Marriage a makeover. Some people paid bucketloads for a site redesign, he thought, and here I'm doing it for free, out of the good will of my heart. In Vim, Arthur edited his standard index.php document to add text customised especially for his new "client." Then, humming, he uploaded the replacement webpage and images through the shell.
Now, when he reloaded the Sacred Marriage homepage, the hideous font from 1998 and the picture of the young couple with their baby were gone. Instead, the entire website was replaced with a white page, across which two drawn unicorns leaped joyfully under a massive rainbow banner. Below, a message read:
SACRED MARRIAGE NOW SUPPORTS GAY MARRIAGE.
JOIN US IN OUR EFFORTS TO HONOUR ALL FAMILIES.
excaliburn: done! check it out
madevilgay: fuck, this is brilliant!
madevilgay: ok, sending email now
excaliburn: i hope this gets tons of publicity
madevilgay: the emails going out to every major paper, plus celebs and some bloggers and such
madevilgay: hey we should meet up sometime
excaliburn: no way mate lol. you know way too much already about what ive done
madevilgay: lol aw
excaliburn: aw. ok well i think i earned my beauty rest
madevilgay: ya you definitely did mate. ok c u later
Feeling satisfied with his work, Arthur pulled up http://www.xxhotsexyguysxx.com and got comfortable.
Arthur hated tossers like that. He knew the type well: the ones who swaggered around the hallways like they owned the place, thinking like they were royalty just because they’d been blessed with pretty faces and the ability to chat up girls. Within the narrow concrete walls of Knightly College, students like Merlin Emrys were kings, but once they got out into the real world they would get their arses handed to them, and Arthur would be there to laugh.
Arthur glared as Merlin sat down next to him and flashed him one of those special smiles designed to please. He was obviously accustomed to charming the pants off everyone and getting exactly what he needed. And chances were, Merlin had probably sat next to Arthur because he knew he would need help getting through this class. They were in their last year now, and the slackers wouldn’t be able to survive Mr. Kilgharrah’s Advanced Topics in Medieval History. It was intended to get Knightly's best students into uni, not give wankers like Merlin an easy A. And if Merlin thought that being captain of the swimming club and having cute dimples would be enough to trick Arthur into letting him copy all the answers off his tests, or even write his essays for him, he was about to find himself failing out of school right quick.
“I’m Merlin,” he said, giving Arthur a friendly smile and extending his hand.
Arthur glanced at his hand in disdain. He'd had enough trouble with kids like Merlin to understand that it was best to stay clear of them. “Yeah, I know who you are,” he muttered.
Merlin's empty hand dangled awkwardly between them. “Ooh-kay then. Usually it's considered polite for you to tell me your name.”
"Arthur," he said, looking at his desk.
"It's nice to meet you, Arthur. Have you taken a class with Mr. Kilgharrah before?"
It was just as Arthur had thought—this conformist wanker was trying to pump him for information about how to handle Mr. K. "Yep."
"And he's tough, so good luck," Arthur said. He took out his mobile and started scrolling through his email, wishing Merlin would just leave him alone.
Merlin didn't try to keep the conversation going. He'd evidently given up on Arthur and had started talking instead to Freya, who was sitting on his other side. Arthur peered over at his friend's blushing cheeks; she was obviously excited that the most popular boy at school was paying attention to her. Freya was evidently an idiot when it came to boys, but she was smart in her schoolwork, so it looked like Merlin would be all set to pass the course after all. Will would be pissed off when he saw. The unfairness of it grated on Arthur, and he vowed to warn Freya later.
Arthur shifted his attention to the conversation happening behind him.
“Have you found someone to go to the prom with yet?”
“Mm-hmm. Lance asked me last week,” the other girl said. Arthur peeked over his shoulder and saw it was Gwen.
“You’re so lucky! He’s really fit,” said the other girl—Morgana. “I want to ask Morgause, but I’m too scared. She’s so intimidating.”
“Do it! Do it! She would definitely say yes. It would be so fun if the four of us could go together.”
Arthur rolled his eyes. Everyone at Knightly was going mad about the prom that was coming up in a month. Mrs. Nimueh, the maths teacher, called it a "rite of passage" or something, but Arthur was one hundred percent certain he could safely transition to adulthood without bopping around the gym hall with a bunch of tossers. Or worrying who he would go with.
He glanced back over at Merlin, who was still nodding his head at Freya, as if he cared what she was saying. He wondered who Merlin was going to the prom with. There was no doubt he already had a date.
"Hey, mate." Will plunked down into the seat on the other side of Arthur. "Did you miss me?"
Arthur smiled in relief. Will was straight, but he was ok. He and Will had become friends during their first year at Knightly when Will had told Kanen, a raging homophobe, to go fuck himself after he'd insulted Arthur. They'd discovered they both played World of Warcraft, and a friendship was born. When a job opened up at The Computer Physician where Arthur worked a few afternoons a week, he'd persuaded Mr. Gaius to hire him.
Will peered past Arthur at Freya. "Brilliant," he whispered. "Freya's in this class, too." Will had fancied Freya all year.
"Yeah, but Merlin Emrys is chatting her up, so you'll be lucky if she even notices you sitting there," Arthur informed him.
"What would Merlin Emrys want with her, anyway? She's hardly his type."
Arthur shrugged. "Just looking for someone to help him with his coursework, is my guess."
“Hello, everyone. Welcome to Medieval History. For those of you who know me,” Mr. Kilgharrah smiled and winked at Arthur, “you already understand what you’re getting into. For those of you who don’t, you should be aware that I don’t believe in going easy on students. I expect you to clearly articulate your views and defend them with logic, reasoning, and these things called facts. You will write coherent responses to the readings each week, and at the end of term, you will hand in a solid, well-organised research essay with quotations and reputable sources. Yes, it’s true; this term you will visit the library. If any of this scares you, I recommend you meet with your tutor immediately following today’s class and request to be moved.”
Arthur smirked in delight. He blew off most of his classes, but he liked the way the grizzled, red-haired teacher ripped on the idiots and didn’t tolerate any bullshit. He actually wanted to write the essays Mr. K. assigned. He loved watching him cross-examine the most privileged students in the class until they were blushing red in the face, wishing they’d never opened their mouths in the first place. But if a student worked hard, and studied, and tried, Mr. K.’s office door was always open. Last year when Mrs. Cailleach had threatened to have Arthur suspended after she’d caught him and Will drinking in the library, Mr. K. had intervened and gotten him off the hook, promising he’d personally oversee Arthur's punishment and take responsibility for his future behaviour. After that, Arthur had limited his drinking strictly to The Rising Sun.
“Let’s get started. We’re going to be talking about the Medieval period this term, but the Medieval period is much more, and much more complicated, than just the story of King Arthur you grew up with.”
Arthur glanced around the room. The students were probably dumbfounded and would be blown out of their chairs if Mr. K. suggested that King Arthur might not even have existed.
“That being said, sometimes it’s helpful to begin with a familiar story. Who can tell me the approximate time frame of King Arthur’s life, assuming he was real?” Mr. K. asked the room.
“Seventh century,” Arthur answered without raising his hand.
“Not bad! You’re in the ballpark, Arthur. Can anyone get any closer?”
“According to Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, King Arthur lived during the late fifth century and died in 542 A.D.” replied Merlin from beside him. Arthur stared. Geoffrey of bloody Monmouth?? He peered at Merlin's desk, trying to see if Merlin was Googling the answers on his mobile, but he seemed to be reciting from memory.
“Excellent!” Mr. Kilgharrah exclaimed. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Merlin. Merlin Emrys.”
Arthur heard a couple of girls in the back of the room giggle.
“An auspicious name. What can you tell me about the historical Merlin?” Mr. Kilgharrah pursued.
“Not much. He is a mythic figure. In the tales of King Arthur, Merlin served as a court wizard and advisor, but in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, he was more or less relegated to living under a rock.” Merlin spoke with confidence, rattling off the answer in a clear and steady voice, his French pronunciation flawless when he articulated the title of Malory’s work.
Mr. Kilgharrah looked pleased. He begin to narrate Malory’s version of the tale in a broad outline, how Arthur was born of the encounter between Uther and Ygraine, his incestuous relationship with Morgause that engendered Mordred, his marriage to Guinevere, and finally how Mordred with the help of Agravaine engineered Camelot’s ruin by exposing Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot, making off with his father’s bride himself.
“In the end,” Mr. Kilgharrah concluded, “the brief dynasty imploded on itself, King Arthur and his only son killing each other on the battlefields. It’s a tragic story, the end of Arthur’s Golden Age.”
“But I wonder,” Arthur heard Merlin’s voice beside him, “if we might in some sense consider Mordred a hero? He is often much maligned, but there are alternative tellings of the legends in which Mordred is depicted as a leader of the Scottish peoples with a rival claim to the throne as strong as Arthur’s own.”
Arthur understood about ten percent of what Merlin had just said. It wasn’t that Arthur was an idiot—far from it. He could take a computer apart and put it back together in a half hour; he could break into a server and bring it down, use it to attack other servers, or get access to secret files with ease. But Arthur had always struggled with literature and history, and here was the most popular boy in school putting even Mr. K. to shame with his theories and intimidating vocabulary. Arthur wondered where he’d learned to talk like that.
After class, Arthur followed Merlin out into the hallway, running a little to catch up with his long stride.
“Hey, Merlin. What you said today in class—how’d you get so smart?” Arthur blurted, then felt like a right idiot. Nerds didn't talk to popular kids; it just wasn't how things worked. And while this had never bothered Arthur before—usually they had nothing interesting to say anyway—he most definitely wanted to talk to this one.
Merlin smiled at Arthur, apparently not bothered by Arthur acting like such a twat before class had started. “I have a good memory. I forget very little of what I read,” he said. “And it doesn’t hurt that my mum’s a professor.”
“Oh,” answered Arthur. He wasn’t sure what to say next. He clung to his school bag and shifted his weight to his other leg.
Merlin smiled one of those dazzling smiles that made everyone at school swoon. “And your parents?”
“It’s just me and my dad. He’s never around though. Works too much,” Arthur said, making his voice sound as strong as possible. “He’s a bit of wanker, actually.”
“That sucks,” Merlin said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur said, waving his hand, wishing they could talk about something else.
"So what do you like to do, after school, like for fun?"
Arthur was grateful that, evidently noticing Arthur's discomfort, Merlin had changed the topic. Maybe he wasn't such a bad bloke. "If I'm not working, I usually just hang out at home, like play games and stuff."
"You work at The Computer Physician, right? I think I've seen you there before."
"Oh?" Arthur didn't think of himself as being a memorable person, but ever since he'd dyed his hair pink, he supposed he stood out.
"Yeah, you helped me with my computer once." Merlin gave him that odd look again, the one that made Arthur feel slightly uncomfortable. "Are you like, a computer genius or something? I bet you're like that guy from The Matrix that can hack into anything."
"Nah, I'm not that good," Arthur protested, his face getting hot. Merlin really was fit. Arthur almost didn't register that he'd just admitted he was a hacker.
But Merlin hadn't missed it. He raised an eyebrow. "Wait, so you really are a hacker? Cool. I've heard about kids like you—that you trade secrets in online forums and help each other out. Kind of like that group Anonymous."
"Um, kind of."
"I even read about some of the forums, like AnonHack and Avalonia. Are you one of those guys?"
Merlin had edged closer to Arthur in his enthusiasm, and for a minute, Arthur felt almost cool. "AnonHack really sucks. Avalonia's tons better," he bragged. Shit. There he was again, blabbing away. Something about Merlin made Arthur want to tell him everything. The bloke was dangerous. He had to talk about something else before he revealed enough about his activities that Merlin could have him put in jail for life. “But, I mean, I don't do that stuff or anything. I just know about it. Um, what do you think of Mr. K.?”
“Mr. K.? Who do you mean, Mr. Kilgharrah?" Merlin looked confused for a minute, but then took Arthur's cue. "Oh, I haven’t had him before, but he seems nice enough. One of the first intelligent-seeming teachers I’ve met at this school.”
“Yeah, this school’s a joke. Everything about it from the teachers to the lunch food to the stupid kids and then this year there’s the prom to top it all off.”
“What, you’re not going?” Merlin asked, giving him a peculiar look.
“Nah,” Arthur said, toeing the floor. “I don’t care about that kind of shit or the ridiculous pop music they’ll be playing. It’s just a popularity contest.”
“Is it?” asked Merlin. “Maybe you’d have a good time if you just found the right person to go with.”
Arthur reddened. “I seriously doubt that. I’d rather go to The Rising Sun and check out whoever’s playing. But I guess you’re going. Kids like you…” Arthur stopped before finishing the thought. The truth was, Merlin was making him feel a little nervous, and he was afraid he sounded like a twat.
“Kids like me?” Merlin laughed without taking offence. “Well you’re right; I’ll be there. But I haven’t asked anyone yet.”
“But you plan to? Ask someone.” Arthur wanted to take off one of his dirty trainers and stuff it directly into his mouth.
Merlin eyed him with curiosity. “Yeah, I’ve had an idea of someone to ask, but I don’t think he would go with me.”
He? Arthur had always assumed Merlin liked girls. He had dated Morgana last year, hadn’t he? “Why would someone turn you down?” Arthur blurted. Merlin was staring at him in the most disconcerting way.
“Just a feeling I have,” Merlin replied. “Too bad—looks like this year you won’t be going at all, and I won’t get to go with the boy I like.” His words suggested disappointment, but his confident tone and pointed look made Arthur feel like Merlin was challenging him.
“Merlin! Are you ready?” A huge bloke had come up behind Merlin, slapping a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. It was Percy. He would be the fastest boy in the swimming club if he didn’t have so much bulk to slow him down. Arthur hated him immediately.
“Percy, what’s up, mate?” Merlin greeted him with a complicated handshake that Percy seemed to be familiar with.
“We’re just going to get some lunch. You coming?” Percy asked.
"We're starved." Leon had just arrived with Lance, Gwen, and Morgana. Looking at them all together was like sitting in on a celebrity fashion shoot. Arthur became very aware of his tattered shirt and nervously tucked his pink hair behind his ear.
“Yeah, let’s go,” replied Merlin. He turned back to Arthur, as if realising he was still there. “See you around then.”
“See you around,” Arthur repeated lamely, watching as Merlin disappeared down the hallway, one hand hung on Percy’s broad shoulder, the others following behind him.
"Hey, Arthur, where you heading?"
Arthur turned around to see Mr. Gwaine behind him, his arms folded across his chest and his hair, strangely long for a teacher, falling over his face. He was grinning as he gave Arthur a onceover. Mr. Gwaine taught P.E. and coached the footie team, and he was the youngest teacher at Knightly. All the kids thought he was hot, and Arthur guessed that was true. The tight t-shirt and clingy shorts he always wore revealed every muscle on his body, and there were a a lot of muscles at that. More to the point, Mr. Gwaine's body wasn't like Arthur's or even Merlin's, it was a full on man's body, every inch, and he positively exuded experience. But there was something about him that Arthur just didn't like.
Mr. Gwaine bit his lower lip. "I need some help with the school server. There's a new chemistry teacher and I have no idea how to create an account for her. I know you're good at that kind of thing," he said, pulling at the whistle hanging around his neck.
Mr. Gwaine brought his laptop to The Computer Physician whenever he got a virus—it happened so frequently that Arthur suspected Mr. Gwaine spent a fair bit of his time "researching" certain shady websites—so he’d figured out that Arthur knew computers.
"Sure, I can try," Arthur agreed. He followed Mr. Gwaine to his office and waited while he unlocked the door. The office was musty smelling, like sweat, and a couple of Mr. Gwaine's sports uniforms were strewn over the chairs, some old trainers thrown on the floor near the desk.
"Ha, let's get some air in here, yeah?" Mr. Gwaine laughed and opened one of the windows. "You can have a seat there at my desk."
"How'd you get stuck with this job anyway? If you don't know anything about servers?" Arthur asked as he sat down. The desk was dirty, ash from his cigarettes sprinkled over the mess of paper. He looked with trepidation at the yellowed, crusty keyboard.
"They always call me when the photocopier gets jammed, and I'm pretty good at getting the paper out. And I change the toner cartridge, too. So when they needed someone for this job, they asked me. I guess there was no one else," Mr. Gwaine explained.
"I see," Arthur responded, not seeing at all. He knew that the guy they'd first brought in to set the system up some years back had been let go during budget cuts, and they'd never found the money to replace him. Needless to say, the entire system was rife with security vulnerabilities and woefully outdated. Arthur guessed they got what they paid for. With Mr. Gwaine in charge of their pathetic excuse for a server—a clunky PC in the basement running Windows Server—the school was basically fucked.
"Why don't you log in for me? It's best if I don't know your password." It was always good to make a point of turning down login credentials; it would rule Arthur out as a suspect if it were ever noticed in the future that someone was tampering with the server.
"Oh, right. Yes, good idea," Mr. Gwaine agreed, leaning over Arthur to type in his login information. He smelled older and smoky and Arthur felt suddenly cramped.
"There you are. All ready for you to work your magic."
Mr. Gwaine hovered nearby, watching with interest as Arthur began to type. I need to get this guy the hell away from me, Arthur thought as he entered a bunch of meaningless commands, scrolling through directories, checking file permissions, and calling up information about the server environment.
"Christ, all this to add a new user? I'll never remember everything," Mr. Gwaine muttered. He soon got bored and left Arthur's side to walk around his office and fiddle with his mobile.
With Mr. Gwaine no longer paying attention, Arthur quickly accessed the list of users and scanned the names. There were at least six other admins on the list; apparently the previous tech guy had given out privileges like candy. He paused when he reached K. Fisher, a biology teacher who had passed away before Arthur had started at Knightly. Mr. Fisher, long gone from this world, would never miss his account, and he'd never complain to Mr. Gwaine that he could no longer log in. Arthur gave Mr. Fisher a quiet thank you as he changed fisherk's password to his own and upgraded his privileges to admin. It was a beautiful thing, unlimited access to the school server. And now he had it.
It took just ten seconds for Arthur to add the user Mr. Gwaine requested and log out. "All set! The new instructor should be able to get in now with these credentials," he said, handing Mr. Gwaine a sticky note with the new user's username and password. Just tell her to be sure to change her password the next time she logs in."
"Thanks, Arthur. You're a life saver," Mr. Gwaine told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You ever need anything, my door is always open." He gave Arthur a knowing wink.
"Um, yeah, I appreciate that. I'll see you in P.E.," Arthur told him, ducking out of Mr. Gwaine's reach and heading for the door.
Arthur shoved the keyboard in with the rest of the old, tan-colored types with the extra-large keys that clacked as they banged against each other. From the bin below, he wrestled out another keyboard and walked back to the front desk, where Will was perched on a stool, drumming his fingers. Sometimes Arthur wished Will would do a little more than just sit around at the Computer Physician when he was supposed to be helping him.
“How’s this one? Do you want to try it out?” Arthur handed the keyboard to Mrs. Alice.
“I’ll have to take it home, dear, and see if I like it with my computer. Thank you so much for finding this. How much do I owe you?” She began to dig in her purse for money.
Arthur held out a hand to stop her. “Nothing. You gave us your old one, so this’ll be an exchange.”
“Why, but that one doesn’t work,” she protested.
“Yes, but we’ll tinker with it. See if we can fix it and sell it again,” Arthur explained.
“Even so, I have to pay you something for your trouble,” she insisted, digging around in her purse.
“For you, Mrs. Alice, nothing at all.”
"Yeah—Mr. Gaius would never let us get away with making you pay a penny!" Will smirked. Arthur shot him a look.
Mrs. Alice gamely ignored Will. “Oh, Arthur, you’ve always been such a nice boy, even with that funny haircut you got,” she said, but then paused, looking embarrassed. “I don’t mean I don’t like it, of course! It’s very handsome, just unconventional is all.”
Arthur laughed. She was hardly the first one to comment on his hair. At least she was nice about it.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Alice. I know you’ve always had a bit of a thing for us wild punks,” he told her with a wink.
She blushed. “Oh, Arthur, well!”
"What's this? Are you courting all the young ladies again, Arthur?" Mr. Gaius's warm tones rang through the shop. Arthur turned to see him walking towards them with open arms. "Welcome, Mrs. Alice, it's always wonderful to see you." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek.
"It's been too long. I really must get in the habit of stopping in your little shop more often," she replied, blushing. The two stared at each other like infatuated teenagers.
"We would like that very much." Mr. Gaius leaned across the counter and gave her his characteristic lopsided grin.
She gathered her belongings. "Yes, well, I must be off now. I'm sure I'll be back with more problems soon enough."
"Wait, Mrs. Alice, would you… care to have dinner sometime? I hear The King's Kitchen makes an excellent duck confit." Arthur had never seen Mr. Gaius quite this shade of pink.
"I'd like that. Do ring me," Mrs. Alice said. She grabbed her purse and the keyboard. “I can’t thank you enough, Arthur!”
Arthur waved at her as she left the store, then smiled at Mr. Gaius. Will was trying not to laugh.
"What?" he asked, flustered. "Mrs. Alice is an old friend."
"Indeed." Arthur nodded.
"Yep," Will affirmed.
"Indeed, you two should get back to work. I didn't hire you to meddle in other people's affairs." Mr. Gaius acted annoyed, but he was humming as he strode back to his office. As soon as he was gone, Will took his magazine to a chair behind a stack of computer corpses where he liked to hide, leaving Arthur to deal with the customers as usual.
Luckily, the shop was deserted now, so Arthur settled back down on the stool to continue unscrewing the back panel on the computer he was fixing. He liked these quiet times best, when Will and Mr. Gaius had both disappeared, and he could be alone to do his work. The hard drive was open in front of him, and Arthur busily tightened some of the clips and checked the motherboard for signs of damage before pulling out the RAM.
“Hey, you… hello? I've been standing here for five minutes!”
The voice sounded annoyed. It wasn't uncommon for Arthur to become so caught up in what he was doing that he failed to notice a new customer. Mr. Gaius, used to dealing with people like Arthur, had given him a kind-hearted talking to more than once in the past. Flustered, Arthur knocked his screwdriver and a few computer parts to the floor and had to bend down behind the counter to pick them up.
“Hello?” the voice asked again.
“Oh, yeah, um, sorry, one minute,” Arthur muttered, gathering what he'd dropped.
“You all right?”
As Arthur rose from the ground, he nearly collided with someone's head.
“Watch it!” he scolded and raised a hand to protect himself. And then he saw it was Merlin from class, leaning over the counter to watch him.
“Oh!" Arthur said, surprised. "Sorry, Merlin, I didn’t know it was you.”
Merlin reached over and rubbed Arthur’s shaved head. “I like this,” he approved. “Fuzzy.”
“Quit it.” Arthur put his hands on his head protectively. “Can I help you with something?”
“Yes, you can. I was in the neighbourhood and wanted to come visit you.”
Arthur looked at him sceptically. “Don’t pick on me, Merlin. What do you really want?”
“No, really. I just couldn’t picture you in a uniform so I thought I’d have to see it myself.”
“Well, as you can see, I’m not in a uniform, which is part of the reason I took this job in the first place,” Arthur pointed out, indicating his Misfits t-shirt and old jeans. “Also, I happen to know a lot about computers. So seriously—are you having trouble with yours or something?”
“It is about time for me to get a new one. Any advice?”
“It depends. What are you going to be doing with it?” Arthur asked. “Basic stuff, like going online and writing essays for school? Or maybe something like gaming…?”
Merlin nodded at him seriously. “Nah, none of that. Just basic stuff, yeah.”
“Oh.” Arthur couldn't really be disappointed; Merlin was more likely to be going to parties than playing WoW, but people could always be taught the right path. “You won’t be needing anything too powerful then.”
“Like an iPad? I’ve been wanting one of those.”
“Not like an iPad,” Arthur scoffed. “Those things aren’t replacements for real computers. They’re just toys. Besides, Apple is the devil.”
“I’ll think it over. I might not be ready to buy something just yet.”
“Ok… so what did you want again?” Arthur didn't want to sound rude, but Merlin was just standing there with his hands in his pockets, giving him this appraising look, but seemed to have no intention of actually buying anything or of needing computer help of any kind.
“I told you.” Merlin looked at him as if the reason was perfectly obvious.
“Just wanted to see you.” Merlin smiled.
“You’re lucky I’m not the sensitive type. Some people might be really bothered by your making fun,” Arthur told him.
Merlin shrugged. “I’m not making fun, but whatever you want to think.”
This boy was getting harder and harder to understand. To cover his perplexity, Arthur tried to joke with him. "Ok, ok, you're one of many to come to the Computer Physician just to see the computer geeks who work here. We're quite a draw." One part of him wanted Merlin to disappear along with the awkwardness he brought, so Arthur could be alone and finish fixing the computer in front of him. But Arthur kind of wanted Merlin to stay, too.
"No fair! It's not nice flaunting the fact that other boys come in here to see you just to make me jealous." Merlin gave him a sly smile and reached for the screwdriver Arthur was holding. When he pulled at it, Arthur didn't let go, and they stood together in uncomfortable silence watching their own tug of war, which neither seemed particularly inclined to win.
"Any date for the prom yet?" Merlin asked, dragging the screwdriver closer.
"I told you, I don't care about the stupid prom." Arthur yanked the screwdriver back, and Merlin let go.
"You don't have to be such a rebel all the time. It's ok to occasionally like what other people like," Merlin lectured.
Arthur wasn't trying to be a rebel; he genuinely hated the kids at school and couldn't imagine why anyone would voluntarily spend an entire evening dancing to bad music with them. He'd have much more fun online scrolling through the Avalonia message boards or chatting with madevilgay and other hackers who, although he'd never met in person, were better friends to him than any of the kids at Knightly would ever be.
"It's not that. I just… it's just that the prom blows. Well, for me, anyway." He hoped his voice sounded normal. "I guess you're already going with Percy?"
"And I thought I told you, the boy I want to go with probably wouldn't go with me."
"You shouldn't say that. You won't know until you ask," coached Arthur. He wasn't sure he wanted to help Merlin get up the courage to ask Percy—in fact, the idea of them going together made him feel weird—but it seemed like the right thing to say.
"I do know he wouldn't go with me," Merlin said, sounding more serious than usual. "But it doesn't matter. It's not your problem, anyway."
"I guess not," Arthur said, confused as to where to let his eyes rest.
"Maybe I should go," Merlin murmured. "I'll see you in Mr. K.'s class."
"See you," Arthur said to Merlin's retreating form. Merlin's broad shoulders disappeared through the door frame, and Arthur just stood there looking stupidly after him.
"Pining already, Arthur?"
Arthur turned around to see Will's head poking out from behind the old computers. "I'm not pining! Shut up, Will."
Will raised an eyebrow.
"Merlin's nice," Arthur said, fiddling absent-mindedly with some wires.
"Lots of people are nice," Will pointed out. "And you don't look at them like… that."
"Like what?" Arthur demanded.
"You know, like you want to snog him. And run away screaming. At the same time." Will was a master with words.
"That's ridiculous. I could never like a boy who thinks he's so wonderful and hangs out with that crowd."
“Relax, Arthur. I know how it feels to like someone out of your league. Remember last year when I had a crush on Gwen? It was truly pathetic.” Will sighed and shook his head. “Merlin is cute I guess, as far as boys go, but he’s also one of them. Geeks like us, my friend, have no chance with those types.”
Arthur walked across the school car park to the bus stop. As he walked, he became aware of someone behind him—several someones, it seemed. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a gang of three boys following him. Fuck, Arthur thought. It was Val, Cenred, and Kanen, three of the biggest tossers at Knightly. It wasn't the first time Arthur had had to deal with them. A few months ago they'd taped a piece of paper reading "King of Cock" to his chest and tied him to a fence with the long chain Arthur attached his wallet to his jeans with, and he'd been trapped there like a total wanker until Mr. Kilgharrah had spotted him and raced to his aid.
Arthur quickened his pace, praying they hadn't noticed him. No luck.
“Hey, nerd,” one called. “Nice fucking hair.”
Not that again, thought Arthur. They could at least try to be original. "Sod off," he shouted without slowing down. If he could make it across the car park to the street, there'd be too many people around for them to do anything.
"What, not happy to see us?"
"Why you in such a hurry?"
"Yeah, last time you couldn't get enough of my cock in your mouth," Val sneered.
Arthur stopped in his tracks. He may be a nerd and a queer, but he wasn't a bloody chicken. He was certain to get his arse kicked, but he wasn't going to run from these bastards, and if he could punch just one of them in the face it'd be worth it.
"I see you're sporting a stiffy just remembering it," Arthur mocked.
"What was that? Could you say that a bit louder? I thought I heard you talking about my dick," said Val.
All three of them were very close now. Arthur curled his hand into a fist. "I said, leave me alone, you fucking twats."
"Leave me alone, you fucking twats," imitated Val in a high-pitched voice. "I'm going to bloody your face up right good."
Arthur thrust his chin out and resisted the urge to step backwards. "You wouldn't dare. Not in plain sight of the school. You'll be expelled for life." The building was far off, but Arthur hoped it would give them second thoughts.
Cenred looked around at the car park, empty of people, and smirked. "No one's going to help you back here, you bloody poof." He poked a finger in Arthur's cheek.
"Yeah, it's just you and us," said Kanen, pushing Arthur into a car.
They weren't going to let him go, Arthur realised, his heart starting to race. They were going to kick the living hell out of him. He wished to god he had a dragon or something he could call on for help, or at least a fucking sword.
But he didn't. He was just a pathetic boy alone in a car park with three testosterone-frenzied arseholes. He assessed them quickly. Val was the worst: a complete piece of shit and the strongest besides. The other two followed him around. If he could take Val down, he might stand a chance.
Before they had a chance to pummel him, Arthur slammed his knee as hard as he could into Val's balls. Val practically screamed, then bent double, and fell to the pavement, clutching himself. It wasn't fighting fair, but this wasn't about honour. This was about survival. Arthur was stronger than his nerdy appearance suggested, and with any luck, Arthur had kneed Val hard enough to prevent him from ever polluting the world with bastard children. Cenred and Kanen stared perplexed at the sight of Val writhing helpless on the ground. It didn't look like he'd be getting up anytime soon.
"You fucking bastard," Kanen said threateningly as he turned his attention to Arthur. In fact, they were both leering at him now in the most disturbing way.
Arthur brought his fist back and aimed for Kanen, but Cenred caught it, leaving Arthur open for Kanen's blow. It came fast, and it fucking hurt. Arthur was momentarily blinded, his teeth cutting into the inside of his lip where Kanen's fist had landed. He struggled to regain his balance, but another punch, this time in his stomach, sprawled him against the car behind him. The blow had winded him, and Arthur couldn't breathe. He felt like throwing up, and slid to the ground trying to get air. He was fucked, and the best he could do against two huge guys was try to minimise the damage. He curled into a ball to protect his stomach and his bits.
As Arthur felt the sharp toe of a boot kick him in the shoulder, he heard another voice coming from far off.
"Piss off, you fucking bastards!"
Arthur raised his head from where it was tucked into his chest and saw Merlin barrelling toward them. He flung his rucksack to the ground as he ran, a fierce look on his face. Arthur had never been so happy to see anyone in his life.
Merlin crashed right into Cenred, the momentum bringing both of them to the ground. Merlin butted his head against Cenred's and then started wailing on him until Cenred's nose started to bleed.
Arthur didn't waste time. Kanen was torn between guarding Arthur and saving Cenred from Merlin's assault, so Arthur took advantage of his indecision to scramble to his feet. Arthur's head still wasn't on quite right, and the world rocked from side to side as he stood, making him an easy target for Kanen's next blow. But it was one against one now, and Arthur had a chance. He drove his head between Kanen's chest and arm and slammed his body into a car. Pressing him against the door, Arthur delivered a series of punches to the soft part of Kanen's belly until he began to whine and slump.
"See how you like it, you tosser!" Arthur shouted, blinded by rage. He was practically holding Kanen up by force now as he beat him, barely noticing Kanen's face go all droopy and his eyes start to close.
"Arthur, Arthur, that's enough! Let him go."
When Arthur felt a hand on his shoulder, he almost spun around and decked Merlin across the face. He caught himself just in time. The car park was littered with the slowly rocking bodies of Val, Cenred, and now Kanen, all moaning except Val, who had clean passed out.
"Shit," Arthur said, pulling the bottom of his t-shirt up and wiping the blood off his face with it like a towel.
"Yeah, shit," agreed Merlin. He had his hands on his hips and was assessing the damage. "We make quite a team."
"I guess we do." Arthur laughed bitterly. "Two fancy lads against an army of arseholes. God, I hate this school."
"Aw, come on," Merlin said, putting a friendly arm around his shoulder. "It's not as bad as all that. This lot's the worst of the bunch."
Arthur manoeuvred out of Merlin's reach. "Easy for you to say. You're the most popular boy at Knightly. No one bothers you."
"No one's going to bother you anymore, not if I can help it." Merlin had a curious look in his eyes that did nothing to ameliorate the wooziness in Arthur's head.
"Well you certainly saved my arse this time!" Arthur lightened his tone and smiled to relieve some of the tension in the air. "Come on, let's get out of here before these guys get their shit together. Where are you headed?"
"Dunno. Home, I guess?"
The question mark that punctuated Merlin's answer and the way he was regarding Arthur out of the corner of his eye made Arthur wonder if Merlin was really suggesting they went somewhere together now…? He longed to be back in his room and see if there was anything new on Avalonia.
"That's cool. I'm probably going home, too," Arthur said, picking up his rucksack.
"How do you usually get home? You look like kind of a wreck," Merlin noted.
Arthur glanced down at his bloody shirt and tried not to imagine what his face looked like.
"And I think you have a bit of a limp at the moment," Merlin pointed out.
It was true, his ankle hurt from when he'd fallen awkwardly on it after Kanen's punch, but he'd just have to make do.
"I'll be all right, I've been plenty worse," Arthur reassured him.
"Look, my car's right over there. I was on my way home when I spotted those wankers kicking your arse," Merlin winked. "Aithusa's a piece of shit, but if you promise not to make fun of her, I'll give you a lift." Merlin picked up his rucksack and was already walking away, as if expecting Arthur would follow as a matter of course.
Arthur hesitated for a moment, but then skirted Kanen's form and hobbled after Merlin. "Aithusa?"
"It's what I call my car," explained Merlin over his shoulder. "I decided she needed a name and a lot of love to keep her from breaking down in the middle of the street."
"That's a bit superstitious," Arthur pointed out, opening one of Aithusa's doors.
"Maybe." Merlin grinned at him over the roof of the car and then popped down into the car.
Arthur settled into a seat so comfortable it felt like it'd been designed just for him.
Merlin turned the key in the ignition. "You know, I'd rather not go home just yet. I'm a bit pumped from the fight. Can we go somewhere first, calm down for awhile?"
Arthur's heart thudded in his chest. Merlin wanted to hang out with him? He racked his brain for a place they could go, and thought of his room, the floor barely visible under the dirty t-shirts and underwear, various computer parts cluttering up the shelves and desk and any spare place. Plus, from the way his father was always going on about it, Arthur knew the room smelled like shit. No, he thought. There was no way he was bringing Merlin there. That'd be weird, anyway. What the fuck would they do in his room? Merlin didn't seem that into computers. He probably didn't even like Trek.
Arthur realised Merlin was still waiting for his answer. "Oh," he said. "Um, I don't know, what do you like to do? I'm probably not up for sports or running around or anything…" Arthur gestured to his mangled body.
"I figured that." Merlin was trying not to laugh.
"Oh yeah, right, of course you did." Arthur blushed. Did he have to be such a bloody wanker? Merlin wouldn't ask him to play sports right now, even if Arthur didn't have two left feet. "Oh! I know! We can go to The Rising Sun."
"The Rising Sun? Isn't that kind of a dodgy place?" Merlin looked worried.
"Why, just cuz the bikers and punks hang out there? They're actually very gentle people. It's the school rockstars and the athletic types that people have to worry about," defended Arthur.
"Hey, one of those 'athletic types' just scraped your arse off the pavement." Merlin pretended to be cross, but Arthur could tell he wasn't really bothered. "But all right, let's go to The Rising Sun place. But if there's any trouble, this time you're going to have to be the one to save me."
Merlin gunned the engine and threw the car into forward. As he wove through the parking lot, he blared the horn in extended bursts. The wind rushed in as Merlin powered down the passenger side window and leaned across Arthur to shout, "Good-bye you fucking fucks!"
"Tossers!" Arthur joined in and let go of all his fear and hate in laughter. "Woo!" he screamed. "Let's get pissed!"
Nobody batted an eyelash as a bloody and bruised Arthur sauntered into The Rising Sun. It was a motley crowd, the pub full already in the early afternoon. He nodded at the bartender, Elyan, and said hi to a couple of the blokes that had practically become fixtures. This was his territory, a place where Arthur was the cool one, not Merlin. He wanted to impress him.
"Hey Art, looks like you got your arse handed to you. This the bloke that did it?" Edwin, one of the regulars, was eyeing Arthur and Merlin with a smirk.
"Not this guy. This guy saved my royal behind. These three tossers at school tried to beat the fuck out of me," Arthur explained.
"Oh yeah?" Edwin asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, but we're ok now." Merlin laid an elbow on Arthur's shoulder and leaned against him. "Right?"
"We're fine," Arthur affirmed, shifting his weight just enough that Merlin couldn't lean on him anymore. "Need a pint after all that."
"Careful, there," Edwin said to Merlin. "These boffins are always terrified when a bloke likes them."
Arthur reddened. "I'm not... not terrified," he stammered. "I mean, me and Merlin are mates. Well, we're mates now, I guess."
"Mm-hmm," nodded Edwin, as if Arthur had only confirmed his meaning. "I'll let you lads go enjoy your little date."
"Oh, stuff it, Edwin," Arthur said, pulling Merlin to a table several feet away. He'd been completely humiliated. Date. The fuck.
Merlin perused the room as they sat down. In one corner, a couple of biker guys were making out. A few tables down, a crew of ragtag university types with dyed hair and piercings were shouting and swilling beer. "The people here certainly are different." For the first time, Merlin looked nervous, like he was the one who was out of place.
"They're cool, and you can just ignore Edwin. We're old friends," Arthur told him, relaxing into his chair and taking a sip of his pint. "He loves messing with me."
"I hope he doesn't really mess about with you…" Merlin mumbled.
"What? Oh, no, it's nothing like that," Arthur said, a little too quickly. Merlin slouched and scowled into his pint. Although Arthur realised this wasn't Merlin's scene, Merlin might try to look just a little more like he was having a good time.
"Are you friendly with any of the other lads here?" Merlin asked.
Arthur gulped down a few more sips of his pint. "Yeah, they know me. This is pretty much the only place I ever go. The people here are fun and they know how to dance, not like the lame places where you probably go."
"Dance, to this rot?" asked Merlin, surprised. The Clash was playing, which seemed to Arthur like perfectly acceptable dance music.
"Want me to teach you?" asked Arthur, feeling eager to show Merlin how.
"What is it, ballet, that I need to master technique and style?" Merlin joked. "Seems to me all you need to dance to this is enough beer that you don't realise you look like a knob."
"Bottom's up, then!" agreed Arthur, and downed the rest of his pint. The pain in his face was much improved already. "Come on, drink up," he coaxed Merlin, smiling as an indulgent look replaced the judgmental one on Merlin's face.
"Ok, but only since you asked," Merlin said, finishing his drink, too.
"Now, follow me!" Arthur said, pulling Merlin up into an empty space between the tables. "Just kinda, like this, jump around and do whatever feels right," Arthur panted between hopping on his good ankle and pumping an arm, his head lobbing to the frenetic beat of the music. Merlin stared at him uncomfortably.
"Come on, mate, don't be such a ninny!" encouraged Arthur. He took both of Merlin's hands and pulled him closer so that Merlin had to start dancing along with him. Merlin first shuffled hesitantly from one foot to the next, but as Arthur called out his approval and smiled widely, Merlin lost some of his uptightness and began to jump with more vigour. "That's it!" Arthur began to push and pull Merlin's arms with exaggerated motions, and it wasn't long before Merlin was laughing right along with Arthur, bopping his head up and down and side to side.
Merlin's growing enthusiasm inspired Arthur to take his dance to another level. He let go of Merlin's hands and spun around, throwing in some air drumming for good measure, and then did a little leap. "Woo-hoo!" he called out. Mid-flight, he could see Merlin smiling jubilantly, the corners of his eyes crinkling up in the cutest way imaginable. "Woo-ow!" Arthur moaned as he came down, landing a little too hard on his beat-up ankle. "Fuck it all!"
"Shit, Arthur!" Merlin cried, and in a second had his arms around Arthur's waist, tugging him into a booth. "I knew this was a bad idea. I never let my swimmers participate in a race when they're injured, and this isn't any different. Does it hurt?" In spite of the sticky spilled beer and pieces of food that coated the floor, Merlin got right down and started to rub at Arthur's ankle.
"It's completely fine," Arthur said, forcing his voice as low as it would persuasively go. He couldn't let Merlin think he was a pussy.
"Shut up, it's all purply and bruised. It must hurt like hell. No more dancing and jumping around and stuff," Merlin lectured.
"Yes, Dr. Emrys," Arthur mocked, but secretly he liked the way Merlin was rubbing him all over the place and ordering him around. Merlin gazed up at him with big, serious eyes full of concern. He really was the hottest guy at Knightly. Arthur couldn't believe he was so smart, so brave, so nice, so fucking perfect on top of everything. If Arthur didn't fancy the arse off of him, he would hate him.
Wait—did he fancy Merlin?
The heat that flooded Arthur's body as Merlin plopped his bum on the bench beside Arthur was all the answer he needed. His crushes on Leon and Lance and—fuck it all—even Mr. Gwaine, that tosser, paled in comparison to what he was suddenly feeling, to what he realised now had been building for awhile, for Merlin.
But Merlin was the captain of the swimming club, had already replaced him as the star of Mr. K.'s class, and was the only person in all of Knightly who had even a shot at a top rate uni like Cambridge or Oxford. Plus, Merlin liked Percy, and Arthur could never compete with the kind of strength and confidence that Percy had in spades. Arthur was loads cooler, obviously, but a computer nerd? Merlin would never go for someone like him.
"You're such a wreck," said Merlin, rubbing the crown of Arthur's head in rhythmic circles until Arthur could have shut his eyes and purred. Merlin touched his forehead gently against Arthur's. "No, really, you look like shit, mate. Those blokes really fucked you up."
"Need more beer," Arthur said, Merlin's proximity unnerving him.
"Ok, in a minute," Merlin promised. He took the scarf he was wearing around his neck and gently swabbed the coarse material against Arthur's lips, pulling them open. "You've still got blood and dirt all over you." Merlin was staring at Arthur's lips as he wiped away the grime on Arthur's cheek, his eyelid, and then the side of his neck. Arthur waited without speaking, not breathing at all until Merlin was satisfied with his work and tucked the end of his scarf in his pocket. Merlin leaned in and kissed the spot just above Arthur's ear. Merlin smelled all sweaty and gross and manly, like he'd just come from kicking the shit out of three homophobic arseholes. Which he had. "I'll go get you that pint now."
By the time Merlin returned from the bar, Arthur felt as giddy as if he'd already drunk all the alcohol his body could manage. God help me, Arthur thought. He was going to need saving.
Arthur thought about Merlin all weekend. He thought about him when he was on the Avalonia discussion boards (would Merlin think this was cool or lame?). He thought about him while he was watching Yu Yu Hakusho (would Merlin like this, too?). He thought about him when he started up his next round of WoW (would Merlin be a Mage?) So when Monday morning rolled around, the kind of excitement that he only felt when a new version of Linux was slated for release rumbled in his stomach. He put on his Hüsker Dü t-shirt and tightest black jeans and made sure the pink patch of hair on his forehead hung just right down the side of his face.
Arthur made it through his morning classes, impatiently trolling through his Tumblr on his Android tablet, ogling a mix of band gifs, Felicia Day (coolest chick ever), and gay porn while the teachers droned on. Class with Mr. K. was the last class of the day, and he'd have to wait until then to see Merlin.
"You seem nervous today," Will whispered from the seat next to him in maths. He prodded him in the back with a pen. "You're not paying attention at all."
"I never pay attention in this stupid class. Mrs. Nimueh knows shit-all about maths, and if I listened, I'd probably cock up what I already know."
"Watcha looking at?"
"Naked guys blowing each other," Arthur answered without missing a beat, swiping his finger down the screen.
"Are not," Will said, but leaned across his desk anyway.
"Fuck off, you'll get me in trouble," Arthur protested.
"Hand it over, Mr. Pendragon." Mrs. Nimueh was already half-way down the aisle, her heels clacking as she walked. "You're having entirely too much fun."
Flustered, Arthur pressed the button to turn the screen black. "Emergency email. My grandmother's sick, and I had to write to my aunt. Finished now—I know I really shouldn't during class time, but this is serious," said Arthur, sitting up straighter in his chair.
Mrs. Nimueh wavered for a moment before the stern look returned to her face. "I said, hand it over."
Arthur sighed and gave Will the evil eye as he reluctantly placed the tablet in Mrs. Nimueh's open palm. She turned it back on, and Arthur kicked himself for never setting a password on the thing. More than anyone, he should know better than to leave a piece of hardware unprotected.
Mrs. Nimueh's eyebrows shot up as she perused the contents of the tablet. "Very interesting, Mr. Pendragon. Very interesting." She smirked and returned it to his desk. "I'm sorry to hear your grandmother is so terribly, desperately ill. I'm sure in the future you won't play with your devices in class except in the case of a similar emergency."
"Of course not," Arthur answered, relieved. Fuck, thanks to Will, he'd almost gotten busted for porn.
Will smirked at him as Mrs. Nimueh returned to her lecture. "Bet you wish Merlin was doing that to you," Will teased, nodding at the screen.
Arthur paled. "What?"
"Come on, I know you want him. The way you stare at him during Mr. Kilgharrah's class. You're in lurve!" He settled his chin on his hands and fluttered his eyelashes at Arthur in the most irritating fashion.
"Am not," he said, crossing his arms over his chest.
"Oh, Merlin, you're so smart. Oh, Merlin, you're so handsome. Oh, Merlin, let me give you a good wank."
Arthur rolled up his notebook and gave Will a good smack. "Shut it!" he hissed, his face reddening. He was going to kill him.
"Mr. Pendragon! Do I have to come back there a second time?" demanded Mrs. Nimueh.
The bell rang before Arthur had a chance to respond.
"Phew! Lunch time," said Will. "I gotta go to the loo. Meet you there?"
At the moment, Arthur wanted to pummel Will more than he wanted to spend lunch with him, but he was used to Will's antics. "Yeah, fine."
When Arthur walked into the dining hall a few minutes later, he spotted Merlin at a table by himself, shoving a forkful of pasta into his mouth. Arthur wondered if he always ate so voraciously, but he supposed someone as athletic as Merlin must need a lot of food. He himself wasn't hungry at all; in fact, seeing Merlin made him so nervous that he'd lost his appetite entirely. As Arthur started to walk over to the buffet, Merlin looked up mid-chomp and waved Arthur over. Arthur shifted his eyes around to make sure Merlin was really waving at him and not some member of the swimming club, but there was no one else in sight. Usually, Arthur huddled with Will and Freya at a table in a dim corner where they could enjoy their lunch unnoticed. Sitting with Merlin in the school dining hall like they were friends was quite another thing, and Arthur couldn't believe Merlin would want to be seen with him so publicly.
Arthur forgot all about getting food in his excitement to get to the table before Merlin changed his mind.
"Hi," he panted, out of breath, as he sat down. He wasn't sure what to say next.
Merlin regarded him with an amused expression. "Aren't you, uh, going to get something to eat?"
Arthur looked down at the empty table in front of him. "Oh yeah… I already ate."
"You did?" Merlin did not seem convinced.
"Yeah, a few minutes ago. I just came back to see if Will was still here." Arthur peeked around the dining hall as if trying to find his friend.
"Here," said Merlin, pushing his tray over. "Have some of mine."
"Just eat it," Merlin coaxed. He held up a fork of spaghetti and looked at Arthur expectantly.
No one had fed Arthur since his father had been forced to when he was ill as a child, but, not wanting to disappoint Merlin, Arthur opened his mouth and let Merlin feed him the pasta.
"Not really." Arthur smiled as he chewed. "But thank you."
"I got some good news," Merlin said. "I was accepted to Oxford."
"What?" Arthur gasped. It was almost unheard of for someone from Knightly to be admitted to Oxford. From the way he talked in Mr. K.'s class, Arthur knew he was smart, but he couldn't believe Merlin had actually been accepted. "How'd you manage that?" he joked.
"Magic." Merlin grinned.
"Brilliant," Arthur enthused. "Really, Merlin, you're amazing." You're amazing?! Arthur was glad Will couldn't hear how stupid he was.
"Thanks." Merlin seemed happy at Arthur's reaction. "What about you, what are you doing next year?"
"Ugh, my dad thinks I should study law, but I'd rather die than do that. I might just work at The Computer Physician for a year or two and see how it goes." God, could Arthur sound any more like a loser? "Um, I'd get my own flat, start a rock band or something."
"Really? What do you play?" Merlin looked surprised.
"Nothing." Arthur laughed and clicked his tongue ring against his teeth.
Merlin shook his head at Arthur, but he smiled as he ate a couple more bites of pasta and then held out another forkful. "You should eat some more."
As Arthur took the fork in this mouth, he noticed Merlin watching his lips.
"You're cute when you eat," Merlin observed and shifted his seat a little closer.
Arthur thought Merlin must be making fun of him, but he appeared to be completely serious. He was close enough now to touch, and enclosed in the thick material of his hoodie, Merlin's shoulders looked strong and inviting. Arthur wondered what it would be like to be held in those arms, wondered how it would feel if Merlin took his hand right now, in front of the whole school. His throat went dry as Merlin tugged on the loose material at the elbow of Arthur shirt.
"Merlin!" On the other side of Merlin, Percy's lumbering form plunked down, his food tray hitting the table with a bang so loud Merlin practically jumped back from Arthur.
"Sorry I'm late. Mr. Gwaine kept us overtime. Miss me?" Percy began to massage Merlin's shoulder with one enormous hand.
"I was wondering where you were." Merlin flashed Percy the same smile he'd given Arthur earlier. "You must be starved."
"I'm practically faint, he worked us so hard," Percy acknowledged. Arthur wondered bitterly if Merlin was going to start feeding Percy pasta, too. What was he doing sitting at this table anyway? He hated these kinds of people.
"Mr. Gwaine can be a complete arse!" Merlin laughed. "You think he's going to go to the party tonight?"
"After the swimming race? He probably will, the dirty bastard," Percy said as he chewed. "It's going to be fun, though. You're coming, right?"
"Shit, it's a bad idea, but what the hell. I can't miss it if I'm the captain of the club, can I?" Merlin smacked Percy on the back. "Hey, did you hear about…"
Arthur drowned out the rest of the conversation, feeling more and more left out. As soon as Percy, the guy Merlin obviously liked, had shown up, he'd forgotten all about Arthur. The happy nervousness in Arthur's stomach turned sour as he searched for an excuse to leave.
"Hey, I think I see Will now. I'll catch you later, all right?"
Merlin grabbed his arm. "Wait, Arthur, don't leave yet. Do you want to…"
"Sorry, but Will's waiting! I gotta go." Arthur pulled himself out of Merlin's reach.
"Ok, if you have to. But I'll see you in Mr. K.'s later?"
"Yeah, sure," said Arthur, anxious to be gone. Percy gave him a quick head nod before continuing his conversation with Merlin. From the looks of things, they were obviously together, or about to be. When Arthur turned to glance at them once more as he left the dining hall, their heads were bent close to each other's, Percy's arm around Merlin's shoulder. Arthur promised himself he would put Merlin out of his mind then and there.
madevilgay: hey i have a job 4 u, kinda weird
excaliburn: weird is ok if pays well :D
madevilgay: theres a bloke looking for help
excaliburn: what does he want
madevilgay: he wont tell me
madevilgay: i know him, so its royal, but says he wants 2 talk 2 u directly
excaliburn: how do u know him?
madevilgay: hes in my class
excaliburn: is he on here?
madevilgay: no, hes not a hacker
madevilgay: obviously or he wouldn’t need yr help lol
excaliburn: ok so
madevilgay: so should i set it up?
excaliburn: ya if u know him n ur sure hes royal
madevilgay: def. just tell me when then
excaliburn: tomorrow 430 ok? rs? tell him ill b at the round table in the back
After school the next day, Arthur went to The Rising Sun to wait for his new customer. Sometimes the hackers on Avalonia would hook him up with people looking for his help, and sometimes Arthur could even afford to buy a new monitor or hard drive with the money he made, but mostly he just blew it on comics. He didn't like to meet customers directly, but he trusted madevilgay, so he took a seat at the round table and settled in.
When Merlin walked into the pub, Arthur nearly pissed himself.
What the fuck is he doing here? Arthur wondered, panicked. He couldn't let Merlin see him on a job—or worse, think he was dating the bloke. But the customer hadn’t arrived yet, and maybe Arthur could just pretend he wasn't excaliburn. It was only a job, after all; Merlin was… well, Merlin was special.
Arthur sat up straighter and waved. Merlin had hated The Rising Sun, but he knew that Arthur often went. So if Merlin was here, it could only mean one thing: he'd come to see Arthur. Maybe he even liked Arthur? The idea made him feel all sweaty in a good way.
Merlin looked confused when his eyes landed on Arthur, but he came over anyway. "What are you doing here?" he asked hesitantly.
"Just having a pint. You?"
"I was supposed to meet someone," Merlin answered.
Arthur's heart dropped. Of course. It was stupid to think Merlin had come to The Rising Sun to see him. Arthur took a sip of his pint and gave Merlin a nod. "Oh, I see. Ok, well, guess you better look around and find him. You wouldn't want to keep him waiting."
"That's the weird thing. I was supposed to meet him at this table ten minutes ago. How long have you been here?" Merlin asked.
"Not much longer than that. Are you sure it was this table? Maybe he meant a different one." He didn't know why he was trying to be helpful; having realised that Merlin was most likely here to meet a guy, right now Arthur just wanted Merlin to leave him alone. Arthur imagined some bloke like Edwin flirting with Merlin and discovered his right hand was clutched into a tense fist.
"No, I was specifically told a round table. At the back. And this is the only round table at the back."
"Well I haven't seen anyone." Arthur said, examining his pint.
"Mind if I sit down?" Merlin didn't wait for an answer as he pulled up a chair next to Arthur.
"By all means, then." He tried to sound irritated, but it was difficult with the beer making him warm and Merlin's body so close to him again. "So what's he look like, this guy you're waiting for?"
"I don't know."
"Like a blind date, then?" Arthur said, surprised. He hadn't thought someone as popular and cute as Merlin would bother with blind dates.
"No, it's not a date, you dolt. I'm here to meet someone about… something important. A favour I need."
"What kind of favour?" Arthur asked, starting to get confused.
"It's… never mind. I can't really tell you. I'm just having a problem and someone recommended I meet this guy, said he could help me."
"Wait," said Arthur, hedging. "This isn't about a computer problem… is it?"
"Um, sort of. I guess you could say that…" Merlin answered, cocking his head to the side and giving Arthur a confused look.
They both grinned at the same time.
“So, you’re the famous hacker,” Merlin said, giving him a sardonic smile.
“Not famous, but there are a couple of things I’m ok at,” Arthur answered.
"Aren't you afraid? I mean, you do all these hacker jobs for people. Aren't you scared someone will rat you out?"
"Nah," Arthur said with bravado. "I’m nobody important. I’ve never done anything illegal. Or at least, not super illegal.”
"Still, it's kind of… cool."
Arthur, certain that his face was red, was grateful for the dim lighting of the pub. "What’s your big secret? Must be a serious job if you would tell only me. Or maybe just embarrassing?” The idea of finding out one of Merlin’s darkest secrets was kind of a turn-on. Arthur ogled Merlin’s lean, broad shoulders, sculpted from many hours doing laps in the school pool. Arthur had a brief mental image of Merlin completely wet, the water weighing down his swimming trunks so that they clung to his body, revealing… well, revealing everything. Arthur's blush deepened, and he resolved to sit in on a swimming practice the next chance he had.
“It’s really not that exciting. But it means a lot to me, and if I was ever caught, it could ruin my chances for uni.”
This was getting good. “Ok, what is it?” Arthur asked, trying to appear disinterested.
Merlin had him curious now. The most popular boy in school had turned out to be a gay genius, and now he was apparently engaged in… what, exactly? High-level money laundering? Fraud? Anti-government resistance movements? Oh, man, if Merlin was an anarchist or something cool…
“You’re going to think this is stupid,” Merlin said.
“You went through all this to meet up and now you’re going to wimp out on me?” Arthur goaded. “Come on, I’ve heard it all—breaking in to kinky porn sites, revenge on ex-boyfriends, even some illegal shit. Out with it.”
“Yeah, but that’s exactly why you’re going to think this is stupid. This is lame, almost embarrassingly nerdy.”
“I promise I won’t think it’s stupid,” Arthur said, trying to look serious.
“Ok, well, I practically duffed this maths test. It was never my best subject,” Merlin started.
Arthur began to smirk, but Merlin gave him a dirty look. “Sorry,” he said. “You were right. I really hadn’t expected something that lame.”
“You done?” Merlin asked. When Arthur pulled his face back into a listening expression, Merlin continued, “I've been having a hard time in the class all term, and my marks are already borderline. Then, the night before this big exam, I got completely pissed at that party to celebrate the swimming race, and I didn't prep at all. Thing is, I’m afraid it’s going to affect this academic scholarship I’ve applied for, and without it, I’ll never be able to afford Oxford. I’m fucking screwed.”
“So what do you want me to do about it? I’m a pretty good tutor, if you need some help studying for the next one,” Arthur said, giving Merlin a little smile. He toyed with the idea of Merlin spending hours in his bedroom, listening adoringly as Arthur broke down a complex maths problem, and then snogging the hell out of him. They'd end up kissing on the bed, and first thing is Merlin would take off Arthur's shirt and then maybe even take off his own, and let Arthur feel his fucking hot muscles, and then, would Merlin unzip his jeans, or suck more on Arthur's neck? Probably unzip his jeans…
“I don’t need a tutor,” replied Merlin. “I need this fucking D off my record. I heard excaliburn—you—can sometimes change things in the school’s computer system?”
Arthur pulled himself out of his fantasy. Maybe he shouldn't get carried away. Merlin was seriously cute, and a genius—though clearly not in maths—but he was still, as Will had noted, one of them.
“You want me to hack into the server?” Arthur asked with mock incredulity. “Merlin, do you know that is a violation of school rules?” Then, for good measure, he added, “and illegal? I could be thrown in jail for this, like at least twenty years.”
In fact, since helping Mr. Gwaine add a user and snagging an admin account for himself, Arthur had hacked into the school’s server many times already, sometimes just to spy on the records of the kids he most hated and laugh at the notes teachers left there. Although he couldn't really call it “hacking” when Mr. Gwaine had more or less handed him the opportunity. Fucking arsehole couldn’t find his way around a database if his life depended on it.
“Shit, I know,” Merlin said miserably. “I wouldn’t ask if the situation weren’t dire, but this could ruin me. Please, Arthur. How much do you usually charge for jobs like this? I don’t have a lot of money, but I can try…”
Was Merlin really so perfect that he’d never failed a class before? He was obviously not as flawless as he seemed if he was willing to hire someone to fuck with his transcript. Still, Arthur could understand why Merlin was so worried. Arthur would never be able to afford Oxford in a million years, and if this scholarship was Merlin's only chance to attend, then he had to do whatever it took to ensure he got it. Arthur almost felt bad for him.
From the desperate expression in Merlin’s eyes, Arthur saw that Merlin would agree to anything right now just to wipe this stupid D from his record. How could Merlin be so blind? Didn't he realise that Arthur was so besotted he would fix Merlin's mark for free without a second thought?
"Merlin, you don't have to…"
But Merlin was blubbering on. "And then on top of it all, I'll have to tell my mum about the party and getting pissed and she'll never let me out of the house again, not even to go to prom. Not that you care about the prom."
At the mention of the prom, Arthur remembered Percy’s huge hand rubbing Merlin’s shoulder in the dining hall. Percy—that’s probably who Merlin was so anxious to go to the prom with; maybe it was the real reason Merlin was so worried about his bad marks. Arthur could picture them standing in their tuxes posing for a picture: two strong, good-looking boys, Percy’s arm around Merlin’s waist. The image disturbed Arthur more than it should have.
“Go to the prom with me,” Arthur blurted.
“What?” asked Merlin.
“Be my date for the prom. In exchange for fixing your mark. You won’t have to pay me,” Arthur repeated. He hadn’t expected to charge a fee like this. He didn’t even want to go the prom, or at least, he thought he didn't want to go. But the idea of Merlin and Percy slow dancing—maybe even kissing—in the middle of the dance floor troubled him too much. Besides, Merlin didn’t have a lot of money, and they’d be helping each other: Arthur would share some of his expertise and Merlin would condescend to spend time with him. Maybe if they were together the entire night, it would give Merlin the chance to get to know Arthur, maybe even start to like him… Arthur willed his eyes to stop flitting around the pub and focus on Merlin again. “Well?” He kept his voice disinterested, like it didn’t matter at all how Merlin responded.
“Deal,” Merlin agreed. “The price is a lot less steep than I thought it would be.” He winked.
It was? Maybe Arthur should have asked for a kiss, too, but he guessed a deal was a deal.
Arthur went to his favourite computer in the school library, the one in the back of the room between the concrete block wall and the last stack of books. The aisle was narrow and the old wooden desk wobbly and uncomfortable, but here no one could look over his shoulder and see what he was up to.
Squeezing into the chair, Arthur booted up the machine and waited. He bunked his English class because he was so anxious to change Merlin's mark as soon as possible, both because he wanted to help Merlin quickly and because he was a little afraid Merlin would change his mind and back out of the deal. And he would have to do the job from school; the server was local and he couldn't dial in from outside.
When the system finally loaded, Arthur pulled up PuTTY and logged into the school server.
$ ssh firstname.lastname@example.org
$ email@example.com's password: ********
$ Last login: Wed April 23 14:32:21
[fisherk@knightly ~] $
Arthur smiled. It was time to make sure Merlin got whatever scholarship he needed to go to Oxford. He opened the mysql client and searched all the tables for Emrys. Lines of text began to populate the screen.
"What are you doing back here, young man?"
Startled, Arthur swivelled in the chair to find Mr. Monmouth, the school librarian, peering over his glasses at Arthur's computer.
"You're not looking at any of those… dirty websites, are you?" Mr. Monmouth's voice had that resigned tone of an older teacher who'd seen more than his share of students pass through the school. He himself was holding an enormous tome in his arms—The Complete Works of Chrétien de Troyes.
"Oh, no, Mr. Monmouth, nothing like that. I was completely knackered last night and fell asleep before I could finish this project, and it's due today, so I'm trying to finish and I didn't want anyone bothering me." Arthur shifted his body to block more of the screen from Mr. Monmouth's view.
"And class? Aren't you supposed to be there right now?" The librarian raised an eyebrow.
"I know I shouldn't skive, but the assignment is due next period, and if I don't finish, I'll fail the class and my father will kick me out of the house," Arthur pleaded. He didn't have to pretend to be desperate; if he didn't change Merlin's mark, Merlin would never get to go to uni and Arthur'd never get a chance to go with him on a date.
"Hmf," Mr. Monmouth grumbled. "I'll make an exception just this once, but only because it looks like you're working very hard. You shouldn't hide in the library instead of going to your classes, but I don't want you to fail your course. But this won't happen again, will it?"
"No, sir, definitely not. This will be the only time," Arthur assured him. Maybe Mr. Monmouth was cooler than he thought.
"Hmf," the librarian repeated as he turned to leave Arthur alone at the terminal.
Arthur waited a few moments before creeping to the end of the book stacks. He peered around the shelf to spy the librarian's slowly retreating form and waited until he sat back down at the Reference Desk. No one else was in sight.
Arthur hurried back to the computer and resumed his search. There were dozens of records for Merlin Emrys: his student information, records from previous schools, his history with the swimming club, medical reports—it just went on and on. When he came to Merlin's behaviour record, he couldn't help stealing a peek. It was completely blank, obviously. The boy really was a saint. Hiring Arthur to break into the server was probably the wildest thing he'd ever done.
Finally, Arthur uncovered Merlin's record for this term's maths class. He zeroed in on the incriminating mark.
"Wily bastard," Arthur whispered at it, placing his fingers on the keyboard.
mysql> update maths_aulfric_2012 set test_3="B" where test_3="D" and student_last="Emrys"
Arthur regarded the updated table where Merlin now had a B for the test. He wished he could change it to an A, but he didn't want to draw too much attention to the alteration, and in any case, Merlin would still get a decent mark in the class. The D could no longer threaten his scholarship.
He logged out and quit PuTTY before dialling 1 on his mobile. When they'd talked at The Rising Sun, Merlin had given him his number, and even though Arthur didn't think he'd have much occasion to ring Merlin, he'd added him to speed dial just in case.
The phone rang and rang, but no one answered. Although he knew Merlin was probably in class, Arthur wished he could hear Merlin's voice when he told him his problems were over.
Just as he had finished typing out a text message, his mobile vibrated. The picture of Merlin that Arthur had scored at The Rising Sun when Merlin wasn't looking appeared on the screen.
"Hi, Merlin?" he whispered, hunching over the desk.
"I had to run to the loo to call you. Is it done?" Merlin sounded excited.
"Yeah, I took care of it, no problem," Arthur bragged.
"That's bloody fantastic, Arthur. You saved my arse." Merlin laughed in relief.
For a second, Arthur worried that now that the mark was fixed, Merlin might change his mind about the prom. Maybe he'd already asked Percy and couldn't—or wouldn't want to—get out of it?
"Do you still… you don't have to, you know. If there's someone else you'd rather, I'd understand." Arthur kept his voice firm and level. He didn't want Merlin to know how he really felt.
"No, no, definitely," Merlin assured him quickly. "Nothing's changed; we're still going together. I mean, if you want…"
"I do want to. I've been looking forward to it all week," Arthur said. "I mean, you know, it'll be watch all those losers dancing and getting pissed."
"Yeah… ok, well, I can pick you up if you're not too embarrassed to show up in Aithusa."
"Are you kidding? Aithusa's the best car ever."
"Ok, then. I'll see you this weekend," Merlin promised.
"Arthur! Your little friend's here!"
Fuck. He felt like a bloody idiot in this tux, the wankerish effect of all the black satin barely mitigated by the neon pink Crass shirt he was wearing. Arthur wanted to retain a shred of his dignity, even though as a prom attendee, he was basically giving up all credibility. Definitely. Not. Royal, he thought as he examined himself in the bathroom mirror. And he had a new zit. It was on his cheek, and there was no way Merlin could miss it. He stuck out his tongue at himself in the mirror.
His dad was hollering as usual. Jesus, was it any wonder Arthur buried himself in his bedroom? Rubbing a bit of gel into his strand of hair, Arthur flung open the door and went to the sitting room.
There was Merlin, looking tall and fit and bloody gorgeous, his black hair a messy contrast with his neat and shiny tux. When he saw Arthur, he smiled broad enough for his dimples to pop, and walked up to give Arthur a peck on the cheek. Arthur could've punched him. His dad was standing right there, for Christ's sake.
"I got you this," said Merlin, handing over a small white flower. It wasn't ostentatious or too romantic, just a subtle accent that added class to Arthur's jacket when he pinned it there. He noticed Merlin wore a matching one and felt braver.
"Have fun. I'm sure there'll be plenty of nice girls there for you to meet," his father said, taking a sip of his whisky.
"Dad, I'm going with Merlin," Arthur reminded him.
"Yes, well, like I said. Enjoy."
"What the fuck is with your dad?" Merlin asked when they'd gotten outside. "Does he not know?"
"He knows. He just chooses not to deal with it," said Arthur. He didn't want to talk about it. Instead, he turned his attention to Merlin's beat-up car parked on the street. "Is this my chariot?"
Merlin gave a funny little bow. "Aithusa awaits, my king," he said, and took Arthur by the hand.
Merlin's hand was long and slim, and Arthur felt the pleasure of being connected to someone else. He'd never held hands with a boy before, and Merlin's gesture seemed to say they were together.
On the drive to the school, Merlin talked with ease to a mostly silent Arthur, occasionally punctuating his statements with a tug on Arthur's jacket or a poke on his arm. And then when Merlin had nothing else to say, his hand fell on Arthur's leg and stayed there. Arthur tried to figure out why Merlin even bothered with the performance; he only had to be Arthur's date in exchange for Arthur fixing his mark, but he didn't have to pretend he actually liked Arthur—not that he was complaining. Merlin's hand was warm and strong as it moved up and down Arthur's thigh, and Arthur didn't want the moment to end. He tried to shift a little closer to the driver's seat without being too obvious, but Merlin noticed and grinned at him, then gripped Arthur's leg a little harder.
Merlin was just as conscientious after they'd parked and gotten out of Aithusa. He came over and adjusted Arthur's flower, which had slipped just a little, and then without hesitating grabbed his hand again and led him to the entrance to the school gym hall, where Mr. Kilgharrah was waiting to receive the students.
"Ah, Mr. Emrys. Mr. Pendragon. Welcome to Camelot," he said, indicating the building with an open palm. Then he whispered so no one else could hear, "So pleasant to see my favourite students. The best at Knightly." He gave them a wink.
In accordance with this year's theme of medieval Camelot, the gym hall had been set up magnificently; narrow maroon banners emblazoned with the symbol of a dragon hung along the walls, giving the hall a courtly air. Along the sides of the room stretched long tables filled with food.
Arthur looked around and saw the familiar faces, wondering if he would see any of them again after Knightly. Morgana and Morgause were jumping and twirling each other to the music; off in a corner, Gwen and Lance were wrapped deep in each other's arms, oblivious to everyone else; and sitting on the bleachers were Will and Freya. They weren't talking or looking at each other, but Arthur noticed that Will was holding her hand. Arthur smiled to himself. Nice work, Will, he thought.
Near a life-size cut-out of King Arthur, Cenred, Val, and Kanen were trying to pick up three girls who were rolling their eyes at each other. Arthur smirked as the girls dipped out of the boys' reach and fled to the dance floor, giggling. It seemed being dickhead homophobes hadn't helped them with the ladies.
"I guess the only dates those three will have tonight is each other." Mrs. Nimueh had come up behind them and placed a hand on either of their shoulders. "On the other hand, I'm so happy to see you two together. You're the smartest students in the school."
"We're not togeth…" Arthur started to protest.
"Thank you," Merlin said at the same time.
She winked at Merlin. "Don't worry, he'll figure it out." She squeezed Arthur's shoulder and leaned close to his ear so Merlin couldn't hear. "Don't wait too long," she whispered.
As Mrs. Nimueh walked away, Arthur stood feeling awkward, trying to figure out what her advice had meant and how he should act on it. Should he get them drinks? Ask Merlin to dance? Maybe it was just better to go hide on the bleachers with Will and Freya. He wished he knew better what to do; he was probably dragging Merlin down, the most popular boy at Knightly forced to attend the prom with a bloody loser. Arthur wouldn't be surprised if Merlin ditched him, and fast.
"Should we… ?" Arthur broke off the question when he caught sight of Percy striding toward them. He looked hot, his perfectly fitted tux making him seem somehow taller than usual, his biceps even larger. He barely glanced at Arthur as he nudged Merlin with his enormous shoulder.
"Hey Merlin, you're looking good in that tux. You wanna dance?" he asked. Arthur would have punched him in the face if he didn't suspect Percy would lay him flat with one blow. Arthur looked at the floor in silence, resigning himself to the fact that he was about to lose his date for the evening. Fuck it, he'd have been surprised if things had turned out differently, anyway.
"Sorry, mate. I'm afraid I belong completely to Arthur tonight," Merlin said, wrapping an arm around Arthur's shoulder. "Right?" he looked at Arthur for confirmation.
"Um, yeah. Yes. Merlin's with me," Arthur told Percy. Emboldened by the firm squeeze of Merlin's hand, Arthur put his arm around Merlin's waist. It was slim but muscular from his long hours in the pool.
"Whatever, that's cool. Have fun," Percy shrugged and moved on. Arthur watched as he walked over to the new boy, Mordred, that Arthur had seen at Knightly recently.
"Shall we then?" Merlin asked.
"Shall we what?"
"Dance. Do you want to dance?" Merlin eyed him with amusement.
"Oh yeah! Definitely. I definitely do." Arthur felt like an idiot, and terrified too, because the closest he'd ever gotten to dancing was throwing himself in a mosh pit at punk shows. "I'm not very good, though."
"You'll be fine. It's fun—I'll show you," Merlin reassured him, leading him to the very centre of the dance floor.
Arthur started to sweat from nervousness, but once they started to dance, he realised Merlin was right. It was fun, especially if he focused on Merlin and pretended no one else was there. Merlin was kind of a goofball, Arthur discovered, but sexy, too; he flirted with Arthur, making silly faces and swinging his hips, crashing into Arthur every once in a while. Arthur started to enjoy himself. He knew his shoulders were moving at an entirely different speed from his feet, but he didn't care, not as long as Merlin kept looking at him that way.
When a slower song came on, Merlin put his arms around Arthur's waist and pulled him in close, surprising Arthur, who wasn't quite sure what to do with his hands.
"Like this," Merlin instructed, taking Arthur's wrists and guiding them around his neck. Working to keep his breathing even, Arthur did as he was told and took Merlin in his arms, and after a few moments he became aware of the light pressure of Merlin's head as it came to rest on his shoulder. Arthur thanked God he knew SQL. They moved slowly with each other, shifting their weight from one side to the other as the song wove a spell around them.
Baby, It's been a long time waiting
Such a long, long time
And I can't stop smiling
No I can't stop now
And do you hear my heart beating
Ah can you hear that sound
Cause I can't help crying
And I won't look down
Arthur had just laid his head against Merlin's when he sensed a new tension in Merlin's body.
"Arthur, there's something I have to tell you," Merlin whispered from where his head rested on Arthur's shoulder.
Shit, he had known this was too perfect. "What?" Arthur asked without moving, not daring to look at Merlin. He didn't want Merlin to see his face when Merlin revealed that he still liked Percy, or that this whole prom date had been a giant joke, or that he wasn't even gay after all.
"Don't freak out, ok?"
Arthur was decidedly freaking out now that he'd picked up the note of anxiety in Merlin's voice, felt Merlin grip his jacket as if to prevent him from running off. Arthur didn't respond.
"We've met before… somewhere else."
Arthur had no idea what Merlin meant. He'd never lived anywhere else in his life. He'd practically never left the city even on hols. Christ, he hardly left his room. Arthur was certain they'd never seen each other before starting at Knightly. Feeling a little better now that he knew this wasn't about Percy or anything else scary and bad, Arthur pulled back so he could look at Merlin. "Nope, we never met before. I'm sure of it."
Merlin didn't meet his eyes. "You're the most royal hacker on the Avalonia discussion boards."
"Yeah, I know you've heard all about excaliburn—obviously, since how else would you have…"
"Not just heard about," Merlin replied, cutting him off.
"What do you mean?"
"Talked to. Like, every day."
"You talk to excaliburn, I mean me every day?" Arthur asked, trying to piece together what Merlin was saying.
"Don't be so dense, Arthur! I'm…" Merlin looked all around as if anyone else were paying attention to them and whispered, "I'm madevilgay."
"Oh shit, is that how you pronounce it?" Arthur exclaimed. Then all of a sudden it hit him.
Holy fucking hell.
"Wait," Arthur said, clutching the sides of Merlin's waist. "You're madevilgay from Avalonia? The one I chat with every day? The one who was with me when I hacked Sacred Marriage? The one who set me up with, with… you so I could change your mark?" Arthur's voice got higher and higher as he grappled with what it all meant.
"Don't be angry. Are you angry?" Merlin was pleading at him with his eyes.
Arthur hated to see Merlin upset, and he calmed his voice to relieve some of the tension. "No, I'm not angry, just… confused. The next thing you'll be telling me is you have magical powers!" he teased. "I can't believe I thought you were bad in maths. And now I find out you're a hacker."
"My mum may be a literature professor, but my father was a programmer. I guess some of that got passed on to me," Merlin explained. His voice was soft and Arthur could feel Merlin's hand still rubbing at his waist.
"But why, if you knew I was excaliburn…?"
"I didn’t know. At least, not until I talked to you that day after Mr. K.'s class, and you said some things, then I suspected. And after that, online, there were clues, but I knew you'd never tell me who you really were, and I was afraid to be wrong because… I had started to really fancy you."
"Oh." No one had ever fancied Arthur before.
"And then I got you to meet me, I needed to find out if you were really who I thought you were," Merlin paused. "…and I wanted an excuse to hang out with you again."
Was Merlin crazy? "An excuse to hang out with me? But you're the one who…"
"I didn't think you liked kids like me," Merlin admitted. His lips were close to Arthur's—so close Arthur could breathe the minty smell of Merlin's toothpaste.
"I didn't think you liked nerds like me," Arthur whispered, angling his head up to Merlin's. He noticed they were still swaying together, their feet turning them in a slow circle even though the song had changed and the beat had picked up.
"But I am a nerd like you," Merlin informed him.
"You do like Trek, then?" Arthur murmured. He didn't hear a response because Merlin was suddenly kissing him, his lips moving lightly against Arthur's and, when Arthur didn't pull away, pushing more insistently. At first Arthur stood there without responding; he had no idea what to do. It was like he was in some awful sci-fi novel where he was perpetually trapped ten seconds in the past while reality rolled on without pause, leaving him behind.
But Merlin didn't stop, and Arthur raced to catch up; he let himself forget everything—the gym hall, the Avalonia boards, his father, the fact that he'd never kissed anyone in his life—and just let himself feel Merlin kissing him and feel himself kissing Merlin back. He pushed his body closer to Merlin's and grabbed his head with both of his hands, their kisses becoming so long and deep Arthur couldn't even breathe. It was fucking amazing.
"Mmm, your tongue ring," Merlin whispered. "I like it."
"Yeah." Merlin nuzzled against Arthur's cheek. "I like you."
Arthur slipped his hand under Merlin's jacket and stroked the muscles of his back. Maybe the prom wasn't so horrible. Maybe there were a couple of ok people at Knightly.
"Will you have time for a boyfriend after you go to Oxford?" Arthur asked.
"Who else is going to help me hack the school? I'm sure they've got plenty of problems that need fixing." Merlin kissed him again. "I hope Oxford is ready for us, excaliburn."