People were always talking in their business about how art in the twenty-first century was a different beast, but Merlin knew that people who said that just didn't have enough history.
After all, most of the art that had been produced, ever, was either government-sponsored or supported by private patrons. Usually the latter. So Merlin had no problem with the fact that a part of Circus Camelot's sprawling staff was dedicated to grubbing for money. It had got them the Citadel, their permanent home and a sparkling jewel among jewels in the London skyline. Up until a few months ago it had kept them afloat without too much interference in the artistic process.
Now...well, things were a little different.
He watched Arthur drilling the acrobats, the backbone of Circus Camelot's show, and tried not to worry about the dark circles under Arthur's eyes, the hunch of his broad shoulders. Arthur was himself a performer, first and foremost, but ever since the incident with the Cup Of Life Corporation he was also Artistic Director and in charge of the search for a new Executive Manager. Onstage he was the all powerful Prince Of Tumblers; back here, in the rehearsal room, he was a tired young man with too much to carry.
Cup Of Life had seemed like such a gift. Morgana, their head -- former head -- of Development, had wooed the company into a three-year sponsorship deal: Cup Of Life would support the Circus and in return they'd get billing on banners, in programs, in all the advertising material. The Citadel's three trendy bars would specialise in cocktails mixed with Cup Of Life alcohol. It would add a classy edge to a company whose product was considered crass and low-brow, and it would keep the Circus well-funded.
Uther either hadn't known or had decided to ignore the fact that Cup Of Life would also demand creative control, something neither Uther nor his son would give over to any corporation, ever. Morgana, siding with their enormous new sponsor, had tried to have Uther replaced as Artistic Director; Uther, Merlin knew, had already been frail from his last fall in the ring, not physically so much as mentally, psychologically -- he'd known he wasn't in condition to work the aerial rope and he'd tried anyway and, of course, he'd fallen. Not far, but it had shaken both father and son.
Merlin wasn't sure where Arthur had sent his father once it became evident Uther could no longer keep up his duties and was, in fact, close to a breakdown; he hoped it was somewhere sunny.
They had funding through March, at least, and the touring show was already booked for summer: the US, Canada, Brazil, France, and the UK. Plenty of time to find a new sponsor. Merlin still had contact with Kilgarrah F/X, even if Kil -- their former artificer, and a stage magician of no small skill himself -- was out in Los Angeles now. Maybe he knew some big American sponsor who'd like to get a little overseas exposure.
"Merlin!" Arthur called, and his face brightened considerably. Behind him, one of the junior acrobats took a tumble; Arthur barked "Again!" over his shoulder and then jogged to the doorway where Merlin was leaning. "Did you need something?"
"Just thought I'd watch the new routine," Merlin said. "See about some ideas for my act."
"Your act is fine, as long as you don't set anyone on fire," Arthur said. "By the by, how's the new hat working out for you?"
Merlin tipped the newsboy cap perched on his head. "Seems all right."
"You can make it work with the rabbit?"
"Arthur, why don't you let me worry about the magic act?" Merlin said. Arthur drew himself up a few inches.
"I'm the Artistic Director," he said. "I should know what's going on in every aspect of the performance."
"No, you should delegate supervision of the acts to the performance captains and then get reports from them," Merlin said patiently. Arthur looked pained. "Look, I know the stage is where you want to be, so until we're back up to full staff, you might not be able to do it all personally if you keep performing. Let Gaius worry about the illusionists, Lancelot can take care of the horsemen -- "
"Gwaine got into a bar fight last night," Arthur said promptly.
"And is Lancelot taking care of it?" Merlin asked. Arthur scowled. "That's what I thought. Focus on the acrobats, that's where you're needed. Anyway, you have me," he added brightly. "I'm as idle as any old thing, I'll keep a lookout and let you know if we have any problems. Any luck with Ealdor Enterprises?"
"They haven't got the kind of money we need," Arthur said gloomily. "I've got Gwen working on a matching grant from the Arts Council."
"Well, I'm sure you'll find something." Merlin clapped him on the shoulder. "I thought I'd go have a look in on the horses. Want to come along?"
Arthur glanced back at the acrobats. Leon was sitting on Percival's shoulders, trying to help one of the other tumblers stay steady on the outside equator of the giant round steel cage that Arthur called the Bauble and everyone else called the Sphere Of Certain Death. Elian was standing on top of the sphere, fiddling with his safety harness. As they watched, the woman clinging to the outside fell backwards, into Leon, who tumbled off Percival's shoulders -- or rather tried to, but got his leg hooked around Percival's throat. All three went down on the mats in a heap. Elian cracked up laughing, lost his balance, and would have fallen if not for his harness.
Arthur sighed, watching Elian swing through the air. "Please can we go look in on the horses?"
The Circus had fifteen acrobats, four illusionists, nine clowns, six ballet dancers, two daredevils, five horsemen, and four horses. One of the clowns also had six performing cats, but he'd trained them from kittenhood and they lived with him in a tiny flat covered in scratching posts and kitty jungle-gyms. Most of the acrobats were fresh talent, unpolished but with huge potential; the clowns were old veterans of the ring, mysterious blokes who took clowning rather more seriously than Merlin thought was wise, but he couldn't deny they were pretty fucking funny. The illusionists were run-of-the-mill, in general, except for Merlin; no false modesty there, he could be earning twice as much for his act with Cirque du Soleil or out on his own, but he'd been recruited by Gaius, and -- and, well, he liked Arthur. He liked the home he had here.
The horse performers were mostly quiet and gentle, shy offstage almost to the point of reticence, their time spent with the horses. Gwaine was the lone exception, a brash young Oxbridge sort who'd played polo and gone to all the Right Schools and then fucked off to -- so he said -- Argentina, where he'd learned trick-riding. Gwaine was always getting into trouble, and Lancelot was by far the more dependable performer, but nobody else Merlin knew could do a handstand on the back of a moving horse the way Gwaine could.
It had been Arthur's idea, four years previous, to set up twenty-four hour webcams on the stable in the newly-built Citadel Performance Centre. Cirque du Soleil didn't use animals in their shows at all, which left them free from accusations of cruelty, and Ringling Brothers was dogged, year after year, by rumours that they beat their elephants and kept their other animals in tiny cages, half-starved. The only large animals Camelot had were horses, but Arthur was determined nobody would say they were being mistreated, and he'd put webcams on them to prove it. It had been Morgana's idea to make sure people came round to "look in" on the horses and occasionally do a bit of free performance for whoever was watching the webcams. It worked; the cams paid for themselves in advertising hits on the feed site. They even had "cammie" fans who never missed any action on the feeds and gossipped about everyone on the circuscamelot.uk forums.
There was a wide, irregular painted outline on the floor of the stable where the webcam visibility began; as they approached it, Arthur did some casual backbend-flips, ending up leaning against one of the stalls, arms-crossed.
"Show-off," Merlin said, joining him at the stall door, reaching out to pet Ringo's nose. (Lancelot had named the horses after the Beatles. Merlin didn't judge. Okay, actually he totally did judge, but not out loud.)
"What's the point of being extraordinary if nobody ever sees it?" Arthur asked.
"People see you be extraordinary every night," Merlin pointed out. "Twice on Saturdays."
"Yeah, but they expect it then," Arthur said. "The problem with you, Merlin, is that you've no sense of showmanship."
"I'm an illusionist!" Merlin said, outraged.
"Yeah, but you're just good on instinct, you don't really know why," Arthur continued, unruffled. Merlin pulled a sugar lump from behind Arthur's ear and fed it to Ringo. "Everything is perception, it's all context. People expect us to build a world for them when they pay the ticket price. The trick is in building a world they didn't expect. Here it's easier; they expect horses, not handsprings. Why not give 'em a thrill?"
"Why indeed," Merlin murmured, rubbing Ringo's soft muzzle. Arthur sighed and leaned back again, carefully not looking at any of the webcams.
"We need funding," he said.
"Yes, I know that," Merlin replied. He took a pack of playing cards out of his pocket and fanned them out. Arthur took one, rolling his eyes. "It'll come. We've loads of time yet."
"Well enough, these things take loads of time." Arthur examined the card, held it up to one of the webcams, and then put it back in the deck. Merlin passed him the cards and let him shuffle. "What happens if we go under?"
"England falls, ice encompasses the continents, and some giant Norse wolf eats the world," Merlin said, grinning. "Come on, Arthur. We're not going to go under."
"Better not. The Citadel's not paid for yet," Arthur said, passing Merlin the cards back. Merlin cut the deck, offered the two halves to Ringo, who snorted, and then did a fancy double-fan, shuffling them into each other before pulling up the top card and sticking it to his forehead.
"Now. Is this your card?" Merlin asked. Arthur, despite himself, laughed.
"Yes, Merlin. It always is," Arthur said, and pulled it off Merlin's forehead, flipping it back onto the deck.
"Oi. Really though. Are you going to be okay this evening?" Merlin asked. "You look tired."
"I'll be fine. I'm the best. I'm always fine," Arthur replied.
Every performance season of Circus Camelot had a theme, ever since they were a two-bit busking gig Uther had run out of a shabby camper-van when Arthur was a boy. This year's theme was Industrial Revolution, hence Merlin's new newsboy cap; Arthur had decided a top hat was too Victorian. The first scene of the show involved Arthur onstage, alone, in the darkness; the lights came up slowly on the acrobats and ballet dancers intertwined on multiple levels, with Percival and Leon taking most of the weight. When Arthur pulled a lever, the lights would come up and the acrobats would begin to move, one giant human machine set in motion, the start of the revolution.
After that, most of the scenes were typical -- feats of acrobatic grace and strength, high-wire walking, men and women on aerial ropes -- emulating early biplanes, quite clever, that -- Gwaine on two of the horses racing around the ring trying to beat a steam train made up of clowns.
Arthur could have been called ringmaster, in another time, in another sort of circus; he had two solos of his own as well as joining in some of the others, and he was almost constantly in front of the audience. The only time he left the ring was after the junior illusionists had done their little tricks and departed, chased off by clowns; Arthur had a costume change and usually was the last one off. That was when Merlin came out, and the lights went down again.
There were people in the audience who came purely to see Merlin perform, and he liked to think he gave good value for the money. One of the acrobats came onstage with him and held up a lamp over Merlin, who strutted and busked, producing pigeons and then chasing them along the "street" as acrobats and clowns paraded by, pretending to ignore his tricks. He made pound coins appear and disappear and turn into ten-pound notes; he wandered out into the audience and pulled scarves from peoples' clothing, bouncy rubber balls out of the noses of small children; when he came back to the stage, Gaius emerged, and the whole laughing crowd hushed.
Gaius was a legendary illusionist, one of the famous great golden magicians who had given way in recent years to hacks like David Blaine and Criss Angel. And, Merlin sometimes thought ruefully, Merlin Emrys. He knew Gaius didn't see it that way, because Merlin's father had been a very respectable illusionist and he'd grown up practicing magic. He was following his father's stage tradition, declining even television interviews, let alone television performances (you could find him easily enough in bootleg videos on YouTube). Still, Merlin couldn't deny Gaius had a gravitas he lacked, and it was evident when the audience fell still and silent.
Merlin did a card trick for him; Gaius clapped him on the back, and they did a handful of illusions together, the kind of thing you needed a two-man team for, until Merlin began to move away and Gaius faded back into the darkness. That was how life had been: Gaius had found him on the street, taught him some tricks, and then stepped back to turn Merlin into the star of Circus Camelot.
And that was when the show each night really took off: Merlin danced from trick to trick, never giving the audience time to think, never giving them the chance to figure out how he'd done one illusion before he was two more beyond it. They got more complicated, bigger, shinier, until finally Merlin threw off the dramatic cloak he wore and raised one hand. Fire lit the stage from above, growing and changing, unfurling in the shape of a giant dragon. It was Merlin's best trick, the one nobody could debunk or figure out, and he sent the giant fire-dragon soaring in circles, out over the audience, before pulling it back in to hover over his head, wings outstretched.
He was off the stage entirely by the time it winked out -- no curtain calls for Merlin Emrys, no bows. Just the dark stage and the dropping ashes of the dragon.
Standing ovation. Every time.
Merlin knew Arthur had to watch the dragon each performance, if he never saw anything else. Arthur took his cue off Merlin's return to backstage, and Merlin gave him a sweaty high-five-low-five as he came off and Arthur ran back on. That was Circus Camelot's trademark: the audience never had the time to get bored.
Merlin sat down on a bench next to Gaius and leaned back, tipping his head up to stare at the catwalks of the light rig. Gaius patted his shoulder. He looked tired too.
"Good show tonight," Gaius said. Merlin closed his eyes.
"Do you ever wish you could tell them the truth?" Merlin asked. "I mean -- do you ever wish when we were out there performing we were telling the story of what actually happened, instead of the Disney version?"
"Good lord, no," Gaius said, sounding scandalised. "Merlin, there are children in the audience."
Three years ago, Merlin had been working a patch; doing a bit of magic during the day, sure, but in the evenings catcalling johns and making condoms appear from behind their ears. He'd mistaken Gaius for a john -- so Gaius said, though Merlin was never quite positive Gaius had been innocently "in the neighborhood" -- and when Gaius had ignored him he'd thrown a playing card with enough precision to lodge between the collar of Gaius's coat and his shirt. Gaius had been impressed, asked him to do a few actual tricks, and hauled him off the street and into the spotlight, just like that. Merlin went from an orphaned rentboy to a famous magician in the space of a few months, and he'd never looked back.
That wasn't a story you could tell the kiddies. It was, perhaps, a story he'd like to tell them when they got older; a story about his dad who left them and his mum who did her best and how tough a street life was, how magic could literally save you. Not exactly Circus Camelot material, though.
The story he told onstage had drawn the attention of the public; a few nights after it opened he found himself giving a tired, half-coherent post-performance interview to some guy from Time Magazine, and National Geographic had featured him in their piece on the Circus last month, just after the mess with Cup Of Life had gone down. It was truth, of a sort, and it was all the truth it was safe to tell most people.
And besides, there were good reasons to keep himself out of the spotlight as much as he could. Neither he nor Gaius had ever acknowledged the fact that nobody threw cards that cleanly, nobody could make a dragon out of fire, and nobody could, as Gaius did, make water fall from his fingertips without the use of rubber tubing. It was their secret, unacknowledged but evident: they were using real magic. And, thus, by the laws of illusionists, they were cheats.
Merlin didn't care. Gaius either didn't care or had spent too long doing it to feel guilty. All that mattered was the bright lights out front, and -- for Merlin -- the awed look on Arthur's face every night, right after the fire-dragon disintegrated, right before Prince Arthur went into the ring.
The Citadel was, by necessity, not just a circus but an entertainment complex. It had three bars, two of which looked down into the ring; there was a circus-themed "game room" for kids to play in before the performance, a Michelin-star restaurant, and a smallish hotel where visiting artists and tourists on the Circus Camelot Travel Package could stay. There were rehearsal rooms, a costume shop, and a scene shop; offices, a smallish gym for the performers, a well-appointed lobby, and two small proper theatres upstairs that local companies rented out for their performances. There was some dormitory housing for the performers as well -- Merlin had a room next door to Arthur's, and they shared a bathroom. The Citadel was a living, breathing organism, a miniature city unto itself inside London, and Merlin loved it dearly.
After the show, most of the performers gathered at the big round dinner table in the green room and carbed up, recovering the calories they'd lost swinging from ropes and cavorting for the audience. Merlin, whose performance was less purely athletic, usually went with Gwaine to the stage door, where they'd sign autographs -- the last ad campaign the circus had run had been a three-poster series plastered all over London, and Merlin and Gwaine had been two of the stars, which put them in high demand by fans of the Circus. Merlin's poster showed him in shadow except for his blue eyes, holding a playing card in a vaguely menacing manner; Gwaine's showed him in fancy dress, a heartthrob on a horse. Arthur's was, of course, the Prince of Tumblers, arms spread wide. It got them a lot of attention; Merlin privately felt they made Arthur look like he might have brain damage, Gwaine look like a cheap romance novel cover, and himself look like an arse, but they drew crowds.
Especially at the stage door, where Gwaine would chat up anything that looked at him and Merlin would do simple illusions while he assured Arthur's fans that the Prince would be there just as soon as he could get out of costume ("get out of costume" was Merlin's polite euphemism for "inhale a plate of spaghetti without chewing"). Once Arthur showed up -- with Gwen at his side, acting as bodyguard, PR agent, and crowd control -- Merlin and Gwaine would fade back inside, usually off to make sure the horse performers had properly seen to the animals.
"Just found out I landed the panto gig," Gwaine said, as they walked down the narrow corridor to the stable.
"Oh yeah? That's good, isn't it?" Merlin said. "Are you dropping out of the December performances, then?"
"Some of 'em, but Arthur okay'd it, and I've found an American woman to replace me. Rodeo rider -- you'll like her," Gwaine said. "Besides, I had to promise I'd do as many shows as I can, since I'm nicking Lennon for the panto. We're doing Cinderella, I'm going to be Prince Charming. On a horse."
"Lennon's going to be more famous than you are some day," Merlin teased, as Gwaine checked George's feed.
"Well, he's the brains of the operation," Gwaine said with a grin. "Panto's fun, Merlin, you ought to see if you can get cast some year. John Barrowman's doing Puss In Boots in Cardiff. He's flat-out said they'd have you for Puss in a heartbeat, you could probably make a call and land it easy."
Merlin rolled his eyes. "I'm not competing for stage space with John Barrowman. Especially if he's going to be making Puss jokes."
"Suit yourself. If you end up spending your whole life pulling cards out of your sleeves for Circus Camelot, don't say I didn't warn you," Gwaine said. "I'm going down the pub. Come along?"
"Nah. Try not to get in any fights tonight, or Lancelot'll have a coronary," Merlin said. Gwaine tossed him a salute, waved cheerfully at the webcams, and ran off to get showered and changed. Merlin lingered, patting Lennon for a bit, whispering to him about how he mustn't misbehave during the panto, and then headed for the dormitory.
His mobile rang just as he stepped inside, and he checked caller ID, then answered immediately. "Kilgarrah!"
"Hello, young illusionist." Kilgarrah's voice was deep and amused, half a world away and eight hours behind him. Merlin did quick math; it'd be midafternoon in LA. "How's my favourite traitor?"
Merlin laughed. "Staying here instead of moving to Los Angeles isn't being a traitor, Kil. You're fine out there, aren't you?"
"Yep, happy to be here and free of the Beeb's tragic low budgets for special effects. I'm doing films now, we're really starting to take off. Pyrotechnics, mostly. I'll send you some rough cuts. Talking of, I got your email," Kilgarrah said, switching topics with his usual cryptic leaps of logic. "Sorry to hear about your funding woes."
"We'll keep our heads above water," Merlin said, with a confidence he didn't feel.
"Course you will. The art is important, I know that. Arthur couldn't do it without you, I'm sure."
"I don't suppose you've any contacts interested in helping with the budget?" Merlin asked. A door slammed nearby; probably Arthur. Humming in the bathroom confirmed it.
"Well, I did a bit of poking around before calling you. No bites for flat sponsorship, but there's a documentary filmmaker I know who's interested in doing a reality show."
"A what?" Merlin asked.
"Oh, you know, like Survivor or The Bachelor or something."
"Kilgarrah, this is the circus, not some desert island. My God, can you imagine Arthur on The Bachelor?"
Kilgarrah laughed, full and booming. "Well, okay, not exactly like that. His idea is to start filming during casting and planning next year, and follow a group of performers up to opening night. See who gets canned, see who does well. He even thought of making a game of it -- contestants competing for the right to perform with Circus Camelot."
"Kilgarrah, is it true you have to leave your soul at the California border when you move to LA?"
"I'll let you know," Kilgarrah told him. "Think about it, Merlin. Ask him about it. They'd sponsor the whole of next season. If Arthur's interested, I'll have them send him a pitch."
Merlin rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I'll see what he says, but don't wait by the phone."
"Look after him, Merlin. You and him, you're two sides of the same coin."
"Thanks for the poetry, Kilgarrah. I'll email."
"Sleep well, young illusionist."
"Was that Kilgarrah?" Arthur called from the bathroom. "How is the old bastard, still trying to lure you out to LA?"
"Something like that," Merlin called back guiltily, plugging the phone in. He walked over to the bathroom, where Arthur was brushing his teeth and washing his makeup off, dressed in a towel and a smile. Merlin had been put off by all the semi-nudity, when he'd first met Arthur, but now he appreciated it. Arthur was a stunning man, of course, but beyond that it felt like one moment of truth in the endless series of layered performance they always engaged in. Half-naked in the bathroom, his face scrubbed clean and his hair hanging in his eyes, Arthur was...honest. And if Merlin was perhaps less than wholly honest, he still felt better for being in the presence of someone who was.
Arthur looked weary.
"Nice to know one of us has a job, if it all goes to hell," he said, smiling at Merlin in the mirror.
"Two of us. Gwaine told me about the panto," Merlin answered. "Live horse, audience full of kids, sounds like we should go for the sheer thrill factor."
Arthur laughed, rubbing his face. "Well, anyway, it's good exposure for him. He went out?"
"And you're staying in?"
"Yep," Merlin repeated. "Night's young though, relatively speaking, and I just pirated Kilgarrah's latest shoot-em-up. You in?"
"Can't," Arthur said regretfully. "Meeting in the morning with the board. Don't you have a pick-up rehearsal with Gaius tomorrow?"
"Not until noon," Merlin said. "Well, get some rest, I guess."
"No harm in trying," Arthur muttered, retreating to his own room. Merlin could hear him moving around, and then a loud huff as Arthur settled into his bed. Merlin lay down on his own bed, on the other side of the wall from Arthur's, and pressed a hand to the plaster, willing Arthur deep, dream-free sleep.
The next morning found Merlin loafing around the administrative offices, waiting for Arthur to get back from his breakfast meeting with the board of trustees and pestering Gwen, who was trying to set up interviews for Executive Director and assemble grant requests and donor ask letters at the same time. Morgana's huffy departure after her failed coup had left Gwen doing Morgana's job as well as her own, and even an army of unpaid interns weren't much help. Merlin stuffed a few envelopes, waiting for her to get off the phone.
"Please don't tell me you're quitting," Gwen said, when she saw him with the interns. "Gwaine said he was going to pitch panto to you, and I nearly slapped him."
"Nope, not quitting," Merlin assured her, setting the envelope down. "Listen, can I have a minute?"
Gwen looked around at the chaos of the office and nodded mournfully. Merlin took her gently by the arm and drew her away from the office, guiding her downstairs and out into the busy London morning and on a path to the Starbucks across the street.
"I talked to Kil yesterday," he said, once they were settled in with coffee. "He had a proposition for us."
"Oh?" Gwen asked hopefully, tucking a stray lock of hair back. "Funding?"
"Well, sort of. He knows this bloke who wants to fund next season if he can film us for a reality show," Merlin said.
"Great. When does he start?" Gwen said tiredly. Merlin smiled.
"I haven't talked to Arthur about it yet. I'm not so sure it's a good idea, Gwen. Arthur's big on keeping backstage where it belongs, and I mean...can you imagine them holding a competition to see who should perform with us? We'd be the laughingstock of the arts community."
"Bugger the arts community," Gwen pronounced.
"Yes, well, you say that now."
"I mean it, Merlin. Arthur's run ragged, you're fretting all the time, I'm doing the job of two people, and you know who wants to give us money? Nobody. Everyone keeps telling me we should put on a musical."
"We should -- " Merlin paused. "I can't dance, you know."
"Yes, but you're very good at jazz hands," Gwen said, demonstrating. Merlin produced a packet of sugar from between her fingers and emptied it into his coffee. "Stop that, it's weird."
"So you're telling me our choices are Survivor: Camelot or CIRCUS! The Musical?" Merlin asked.
"Or we rob a couple of banks," Gwen replied.
"I'm in," Merlin said. Gwen sighed. "Sorry. It's serious, I know. It's just that this isn't a TV show, we don't do DVD extras. And I have a stake in it -- YouTube's one thing, but if someone can see me in digital high-res, and rewind and pause, rewind and pause...it's not right. The point of the Circus is that it's not real. It's not supposed to be."
Gwen patted his arm. "Pitch it to Arthur. If he backs your view, we'll say no more about it."
"Yeah," Merlin sighed. "I just feel like I'm offering to sell his soul for him."
Arthur said no. Vehemently, vociferiously no. Merlin was glad they weren't in the stables when they talked about it, because Arthur's furious flailing would have set the webcam fans chattering ceaselessly. There was never even a question of yes; Arthur made Merlin get on the phone with Kilgarrah immediately, though it was four in the morning in LA, and tell him that it wasn't even a negotiation. Flat-out no.
So they didn't talk about it, and Arthur went on being tired and careworn, and Merlin went on worrying, and Gwen kept wringing money out of the budget somehow, and then a few days before Christmas, Gwaine almost died.
The news came in right before Merlin was supposed to go on. Lancelot got a text; he went white as a sheet, and showed it to Gaius, who covered his mouth with one hand.
"What, what is it?" Merlin asked.
"News alert," Lancelot said, and Gaius stepped in front of him before he could say anything else.
"Check after your act," he said.
"News alert about what?" Merlin asked, because Lancelot, while a valiant horseman and a good person, was not much one for current events. To upset either of them that much, it had to be personal.
"Merlin, you're about to go into the ring -- "
"Lancelot, tell me," Merlin ordered. Gaius rubbed his face with one hand.
"It's Gwaine," Lancelot said, scrolling through the story on his phone. "It's -- he took a fall in the panto."
"Well, that can't be so bad, he falls all the time in practice," Merlin said reasonably.
"He's in hospital," Lancelot said. "Lennon kicked him."
"What?" Merlin demanded, grabbing his phone. "Lennon's never kicked in his life -- "
"Merlin, your cue," Gaius said. Merlin shook him off. "Merlin!"
"Stable but critical condition -- oh, my God," Merlin murmured.
"Do not tell Arthur," Gaius said to Lancelot, who swallowed nervously.
"He should know," Merlin said. "We should -- "
"You have to perform," Gaius told him. Merlin bridled, but Gaius took the phone out of his hand and gave him a shove. "There's nothing we can do. We'll find out after the show. Go, Merlin!"
"This is absolute rubbish," Merlin muttered, stumbling a little as he walked into the ring. One of the acrobats came out with him and took a pose with the lantern; Merlin could feel the flutter of the two pigeons in the collapsible cage strapped to his back, under his cloak. He took his mark under the lamp, looked out at the audience, and -- couldn't do it.
The point of the cloak was to conceal the birds, but it was also meant to be shed only once Merlin had completed the act -- it was the last thing he did before the fire-dragon illusion. People knew he performed in the cloak and hood; it was a trademark.
He reached up and pulled his hood back, settling the cloak high on his shoulders. The lamp-holder gave him an uncertain look.
"Ladies and Gentlemen," Merlin said, quietly, calmly. "I know you came here tonight to see us perform, but we've just had word Gwaine Caulder-Lyons is in hospital after a fall during tonight's panto performance."
A hushed sigh ran through the audience.
"We don't know much yet," Merlin continued, aware that backstage Gaius was probably preparing to kill him. "But I think he could probably use some magic tonight more than you and I could. I'm sorry -- I know they always say the show must go on -- and it will, Arthur'll be...back out in a minute. It's just -- I believe in magic and I think it can save people. It saved me. If you believe in it or even if you came here tonight just wanting to believe..."
He swallowed down the panic rising in his throat.
"Could we believe in some for Gwaine right now?"
He stood there, awkward and uncertain, stripped out of his grandeur, and felt for the moment, listened for it. It was like a rising tide; the swell of worry and concern and hope and belief, of a few hundred people who cared about some horse-riding bloke they'd never met.
It was maybe thirty seconds, maybe less, before a woman in the front row stood and picked up her little girl and walked out; one by one the audience began to leave, until there was a steady stream pouring up the steps to the exits. Merlin glanced at the acrobat holding the lamp, and the man nodded; he blew it out and set it down as Merlin shed the pigeon-cage and cloak, and they climbed up the steps too, gazing out into the lobby as the crowd left. The bars above the ring were empty.
Merlin felt a light touch on his shoulder; Arthur, still in costume and makeup, coming up behind him. He waited for the rebuke -- for breaking the illusion, for driving their patrons away -- but it never came.
"Show's closed. I'm off to hospital, Gwen's riding with me," he said. "Coming?"