Merlin would have managed to catch the bag if he hadn't been obliged to stifle his instincts and force himself to reach out with his hands, rather than with that sinuous surge of power that was always clamouring to come crashing out through the too-fragile barrier of his skin. He could feel the pulse of it uncoiling with his adrenaline, fast as a striking snake, and only the memory of his mother snapping "Hands!" at him half a hundred times a day made him master the reflex and reach up to save himself like a normal human. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye, but Hunith's training held good, and so he didn't out himself as a wizard in the middle of a busy train in Kings Cross Station by freezing the luggage mid-topple, which was good; but on the other hand, his physical reaction was a hair's breadth too slow, which meant that he still got smacked on the head by a heavy bag and went stumbling back into a cross-looking middle aged lady in a twinset and pearls. Which was not so good.
"Sorry, sorry!" he exclaimed, clutching at a seat back with one hand for balance and raising the other one palm-open in a gesture of placation, offering her his very best apologetic smile and puppydog eyes. She glared at him, but was evidently too British to do anything other than treat him to a passive-agressive glower. "Really," he tried again, rubbing his skull gingerly, "I'm most terribly sorry!"
"Hmph," was all he got in response, but he was distracted from his victim by a voice behind him.
"No, please – it was my fault!" He turned back to see the owner of the voice and of the bag which he'd just failed to catch: a very pretty girl in a green hoody who was biting her bottom lip and looking stricken as she clutched the offending bag tightly to her chest. She glanced from Merlin to the lady and then back again, her face the picture of mortification, and Merlin – who had been feeling a little disgruntled about the whole unexpected-rain-of-luggage scenario – took one look at her huge brown eyes and immediately wanted to reassure her that he had thoroughly enjoyed being knocked half unconscious. "I'm so sorry!" she said again. "Are you okay? God, you poor thing!" She reached up to touch the bump on his head and Merlin winced in spite of himself. "Oh! God, sorry! Again!"
"No, really, it's fine," said Merlin, smiling. "Honestly – tough as nails, my skull. Nothing to worry about. Mind you – wow – are you carrying bricks in there?"
"Engineering text books," she said, wrinkling her nose ruefully. "They might as well be bricks, though. Some of them could definitely qualify as blunt objects."
"Fresher?" She nodded. "Me too!" he said, feeling his face light up. He considered the various options and jumped at the most likely destination for this particular train. "Edinburgh?"
"St Andrews." She sounded a little apologetic. "It's forty..."
"...miles north of Edinburgh, on the Fife coast, and doesn't have its own train station. Yes, I can quote from the prospectus at length." He grinned. "Looks like we're going to be neighbours, then. Hi – I'm Merlin Emrys, soon-to-be St Andrews student."
"Oh, brilliant!" she exclaimed, looking genuinely delighted. "Hi! Er – Merlin? Seriously?" She looked like she was expecting a punchline. Merlin sighed.
"Don't bother. I've heard it all before. I promise."
"Um. Right," she said, tentatively. "Well, nice to meet you anyway, er, Merlin." She spoke the name like she was tasting an unfamiliar food and suspected that it might contain unexpected chili. "My name's Gwen."
They shook hands, and Merlin could see that she was feeling it too, this odd, exhilarating helium-in-your-veins sensation of new beginnings and infinite possibilities stretching out ahead of them. "So, Gwen, do you always carry three times your body weight in text books around with you?"
"No, of course not," she said, giggling. Then a sheepish expression crossed her face. "Oh – um. And there's a sort of – well, there's a hammer in there too, I think. Um. A small one. Sorry about that."
"Of course there is," nodded Merlin, gravely. "Who travels without a hammer in their luggage these days? One never knows when a spot of joinery might be in order." The corner of his mouth twitched. "Stop!" he said, raising one hand in front of him. Gwen blinked, and after a beat Merlin added: "Hammer Time! Dooo doodoodoo! Doodoo! Doo! Hammer Time!" as he improvised a quick, and truly terrible, attempt at the Hammer Dance in the cramped confines of the aisle. His newfound friend dissolved into astonished giggles, and behind him, Twinset-and-Pearls gave a disgusted snort and stomped away down the aisle. Merlin cast one last, apologetic glance over his shoulder, but he couldn't stop grinning. He felt half-drunk already on the excitement of the day, silly and reckless and brimming with the wild optimism of fresh starts and new leaves.
"I make my own jewellery," she said, nudging him with her elbow and blowing at a coil of curls which had fallen down in front of her face. "Idiot."
"Really?" He glanced at the copper earrings she was wearing, one a filigree oakleaf, the other an acorn. "You didn't make these, did you?" She ducked her head, suddenly shy, and Merlin's brows darted up to his hairline. "You did? God, they're brilliant, though! They're really good, like something from a shop!"
"Thanks," she said, glancing up through her eyelashes. "I learned it from my Dad. I sell them on etsy and ebay and stuff, when I can." She shrugged. "It's nothing special – I mean, I'm still learning..."
"Can you get a ruddy move on?" snapped a voice from somewhere behind the girl, and they both jumped, and then giggled some more like naughty children. Merlin grabbed the bag out of her hands, his breath still coming in giddy, hitching gasps as he tried to stifle his laughter, and reached up to stuff it more securely into the luggage compartment. She looked rather impressed – not to say startled – at the ease with which he manhandled it into place, and Merlin found himself wishing he could explain that it wasn't just muscle-power he was using to boost it up – but of course he couldn't. He felt like a bit of a fraud.
"Wow," she said. "You make it look like it's full of feathers! I would never have thought - I mean, not that you look like a wimp, I didn't mean that," she added hurriedly, her eyes suddenly widening in remorse, "Just, you know – wow!"
"I'm a professional dancer," he said, in a modest voice. "I'm lithe and toned and have muscles in places you wouldn't believe. It's all from doing the Hammer Dance." He winked at her, and wiggled his bum as he shoved his own rucksack into a space that was probably too narrow for it to fit into, if one paid attention to little things like the traditional laws of physics. Gwen made a helpless choking sound behind him as he sang in time to his wiggles: "Dooooo doodoodoo! Doodoo! Doo! Hammer Time!"
"Oh my God, you are so totally sitting with me, you Hammer-dancing lunatic. Come on. I'll buy you a horrible coffee to apologise for assaulting you with a set of engineering text books, and you can promise to never ever try to dance ever again." Merlin blinked a little at the press of her warm dry fingers curling around his hand, but he followed her willingly just the same. This was his brave new world, after all, and meeting strangers was going to be his main occupation during Freshers Week. No harm in getting some practice in.
They quickly secured a block of four seats with a table in the middle, and sat down grinning across at each other.
"Hey, it's not really Merlin, is it?" Gwen asked, looking at him sidelong. "I mean – really really? You're pulling my leg, right? I mean – nobody's called Merlin. Why would any woman name her baby after an old man with a long white beard and a pointy hat? It's like calling your baby Gandalf."
Merlin looked back at her helplessly. People were always asking that, and there was simply no easy way to explain it. The truth – that Hunith had abandoned 'Gareth' and opted for 'Merlin' after the first time she'd watched wide-eyed as her brand new baby boy summoned his bottle across the room and into his chubby little fist and gurgled at her with golden eyes – was simply not the kind of thing one could admit out loud. He was lucky he hadn't been called Gandalf.
"Um," he said, with an apologetic shrug, and Gwen's smile faltered.
"Oh my God – I mean – I mean, not that it's a bad name!" she said, stumbling over her tongue in her haste to undo it. "It's a lovely name! So unique! And special! You'll definitely be remembered! Not like Gwen – loads of Gwens around, but Merlin, that's really different!"
Merlin snorted, and waved his hands in the air to stem the tide of her words. "It's a ridiculous name," he said. "But it's all I've got. I did try calling myself Mervyn for a bit, at High School, but it didn't take. Merlin it is."
"Well, I like it," she said, seeming determined to make amends for having insulted him.
"Still, it's a bit – I mean. Merlin. Arthur." Merlin could feel himself starting to redden under her gaze. Will had teased him relentlessly when they discovered that Prince Arthur was going to be attending St Andrews too. Gwen's mouth was twitching irrepressibly. "Oh my God, you're going to be his best friend. You know you are. Merlin and Arthur – it's meant to be! There's no way you aren't going to get pointed out to him, with a name like that. King Arthur and his trusted advisor Merlin!" She made a noise distressingly like a squeal. "You're going to be the next Prime Minister!"
Merlin reached across the table to thwap the top of her head. "Shut UP," he said, flushing harder. He felt like his cheeks were on fire. "Although – what's Gwen short for, exactly?"
"No, no, I don't think it's short for Um. Never heard of anyone called Gwen-short-for-Um. Is it Gwendolyn?"
He perked up, watching the way she bit her bottom lip. "Or is it, could it possibly be – am I sitting next to the future Queen Guinevere, by any chance?"
Gwen sank her head in her hands. "Shut up," she muttered to the tabletop, looking mortified.
"You are? You are! You're called Guinevere! You really are! And you had the nerve to – oh, that's priceless!"
"Oh, shut up and tell me how you take your coffee, Your Wizardliness," said Gwen, glancing up at him ruefully through her curls.
By the time they had reached the outskirts of London, Merlin knew that Gwen Smith was the first person in her family to go to University, like him; that she had no brothers or sisters, like him; that she had only one living parent, like him; and that she'd harboured a lifelong crush on the Prince of Wales, and was feeling more than a little bit hysterical at the prospect of spending the next four years attending University in a town the size of a postage stamp with the object of her teenage sex fantasies – also like him, although Merlin wasn't sure whether he felt like sharing that particular gem just at this moment.
"That isn't why I applied there," she insisted. "I mean, I know that there must be thousands of girls who filled in their UCAS forms with St Andrews just because they're living some kind of stupid 'Princess Diaries' fantasy and they think they're going to meet him and he'll fall for them and they'll end up with a tiara and a load of corgis, but I'm serious about my career. St Andrews has an excellent engineering department. I was going to apply there long before I heard that's where Arthur was going." She sounded decidedly defensive, and Merlin suspected that she'd repeated this little mantra more than once already. He was pretty familiar with the teasing himself.
He nodded. "I always assumed he'd go to Oxbridge," he said. "Well – not that he sounds like he's much of a boffin, but I think if you're royal they pretty much just let you in, don't they? Not like the rest of us."
"Probably wanted to escape all the comparisons with his parents," suggested Gwen, tipping another packet of sugar into a cup of coffee that was only slightly less horrible than promised, and stirring it with the little plastic stirrer. Her eyes were huge and earnest as she peered over the rim at Merlin. "It's such a beautiful story, isn't it? The way they met at Oxford when she borrowed his jar of Gold Blend, not even realising he was the Prince of Wales at first because he was in the middle of shaving and she was distracted by her friend's dog...oh, they were so in love!"
Merlin took another tentative slurp of his coffee, which may or may not have been Gold Blend, but was certainly rather disgusting, and eyed Gwen dubiously. "You make it sound like a scene in a movie! It probably didn't really happen like that, you know – I mean, it's all PR, isn't it, and spin-doctoring and things? And they must have known each other for years, anyway, because she wasn't exactly a commoner, was she? And she must have known whose door she was knocking on, even if she pretended to be all surprised." She was looking at him like he'd just kicked her puppy, and his voice trailed off. "Um. And anyway, it was a long time before we were born, Gwen – I mean, she died nearly twenty years ago."
"But it's a Timeless Love Story," said Gwen, seriously, and Merlin could practically hear the capital letters. "It's just so – I mean, come on, you must've seen the documentaries, or the miniseries, or that Japanese cartoon?" Merlin shook his head mutely, and carefully didn't mention any of the books or magazines he might possibly have read about Prince Arthur and his family. Especially not the outrageously hot photoshoot in GQ magazine that he'd been hiding under his bed for the past three months, and frantically jerking off to most nights. Nope, definitely not mentioning that. Gwen rolled her eyes. "Uther and Igraine – it's like a modern day Romeo and Juliet!"
"Apart from the bit where he's still alive, and their families weren't in the middle of a vendetta, and they had a son, and..."
"Fine, fine, Captain Pedantry – not like a modern day Romeo and Juliet. God. But you know what I mean. It was really romantic, this fabulous love story, and they were both so good looking and glamorous and in love, and then she died so young..."
"Yeah, okay," Merlin conceded. "It was very sad. And romantic. And they were both ridiculously hot."
"Which is where he gets it from," said Gwen, sighing. "His Royal Hotness."
"I didn't have you down as a Sun reader!"
Gwen made an outraged noise, her eyebrows shooting up to her hairline. "Shut up! I don't read The Sun!"
"That's what they call him."
"And you would know that how? Because you read The Sun?"
"No! God! Because I see it when I'm buying The Guardian!"
"Me too. QED."
"Okay, fair enough." Merlin fiddled with his coffee cup, watching the black liquid swirl around as he tipped it back and forth. "It's weird, though, isn't it? Thinking that we might see him in person. In the street. Or at the Union, or whatever. In lectures, even – although I doubt he's doing Physics or Engineering. But – it's like someone stepping out of a movie and into your life, somehow."
"It's weird," Gwen agreed, staring out through the window and shaking her head slowly. "Really weird." She glanced over at Merlin and the corner of her mouth curved up in a crooked little grin. "You know what else is weird?" She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table, and Merlin mirrored her movement. "This train journey...thinking about St Andrews waiting up there at the other side of the country, all old and tiny and quaint with its cobbled streets and ruined towers – well, I feel like I'm going to Hogwarts. Like this is the Hogwarts Express. I keep half-expecting someone to produce a chocolate frog card, or cast a spell." Merlin made a little choking sound. "Go on, laugh," she said, shrugging, her mouth twisted in an embarrassed little half-smile as she fiddled with a shiny ringlet of her hair. "I know it probably sounds daft, but it's just – this is so different from my life. I can't believe that this is my life, all of a sudden – a train snaking up through all this rolling green countryside, taking us North to meet a handsome prince. Or at least see him, even if we never actually meet him..."
"I know what you mean," Merlin said, ruefully, thinking about the spell he very nearly cast by accident only minutes earlier. "And I've been thinking the same thing, to be honest." He glanced up at her through his eyelashes and then looked away. "I feel a bit like Harry Potter," he admitted in a small voice, reflecting that she had no idea just how true that statement was.
"Well, you've certainly got the messy black hair for it," she said, nodding. Her irrepressible grin was back full force, and Merlin could see that she had more than half expected to be mocked. He found himself wishing he could explain about Professor Gaius and Doctor Nimueh, and about the kind of text books he had stuffed into the bottom of his rucksack – but that wasn't going to happen. Magic was secret, and secret it should stay. Nobody wanted to go back to the days of witchburnings.
"My hair's not messy!" he said instead, weakly. She raised an eyebrow. "Well – not very messy. Well – yeah, okay, it's a fair cop."
"You just need a pair of round specs and a lightning scar," she added, thoughtfully. "You don't have a lightning scar under there somewhere, do you?"
"Fraid not," he said, pushing his hair out of the way to prove it. "And my eyes are the wrong colour."
"You're a fan!" she exclaimed, looking surprised.
"Hey, who hasn't read the books?"
"Most of the lads at my school haven't read the books," she said. "Although they've seen the movies. Well – most of the lads at my school can't read. And they think he's gay." She looked thoughtful. "I'm not sure whether they mean 'crap' or if they think he and Draco were secretly doing it."
"They're idiots if they mean he's crap – and as to him and Draco – well, there's definitely some sexual tension there, but I'd always kind of hoped he'd get together with Ron." There – that was the awkward 'I think you're lovely and I do hope we can be friends but, oh, by the way, please don't get flirty because I'm not really in the vagina business' bit over and done with, thought Merlin with some relief. Gwen blinked at him, and then giggled.
"No way!" she said. "Harry and Ron? I was 'shipping Harry and Hermione like mad. I can't believe Rowling paired him up with Ginny Weasley!"
"Eh, I saw that one coming from Book 1," said Merlin, regretfully. "But a boy can dream."
"Yeah." She stared wistfully down into her coffee for a moment. "We're probably not going to even meet him, are we?" she said, and Merlin knew she wasn't talking about Harry Potter.
He shrugged. "Oh – he's not all that and a bag of crisps," he said, lying through his teeth. "I don't know what all the fuss is about."
Gwen's jaw dropped. "All the fuss is about how he's going to be king, and how he's brave and hot and charming and has the most gorgeous smile ever, and...um. You're kidding, right?"
"I'm kidding," admitted Merlin. "Because – yeah, thinking about Prince Arthur being just another student – just some bloke you might bump into in the chippy - that is pretty mental. Every bit as weird as meeting Hagrid or Dumbledore would be, really."
"Yes! Exactly! Because you've seen him on TV so many times, right? At Christmas and Remembrance Sunday and things like that – I mean, the paparazzi have been pretty good at leaving him alone at school while he's underage, like they promised after what happened with his mother going into labour prematurely while being chased by those bloody photographers, bastards...so he's got this whole aura of mystery going for him too, because we don't really see very much of him."
"He's probably a gigantic prat," Merlin replied, after a moment, swallowing past the lump in his throat. "He probably has bad breath, and terrible BO, and the social skills of, of, of a thing with no social skills, and a saggy bum."
"He does not!"
"He could do."
"He couldn't! His bum's lovely! It's all that football, and rugby, and horse riding, and water polo, and all that manly sport he does!"
"Oh, well, yeah," said Merlin, mentally reviewing a whole slew of photographs and swallowing again. "Yeah. Unless he has a body double for photoshoots," he added, after a moment, grinning. "Some poor slob who's been sworn to secrecy, and can never confess that he's actually working as Prince Arthur's stunt bottom."
Gwen was in the middle of taking a mouthful of coffee at this point, and managed to inhale it, and then there were several moments of wide-eyed wheezing and spluttering and Merlin had to reach over and pound her on the back until she could breathe again.
"Shut up, you lunatic!" she choked, eventually.
Merlin twinkled at her. "I'm just saying. Nobody has an arse that impossibly peach-like. Not when they're already rich and handsome and going to be king. He's clearly too good to be true." Gwen gave a helpless laugh, pressing her hand over her mouth. "And he's definitely too good for the likes of you and me, Gwen," Merlin added, suddenly glum. "He'll be hanging out with all the Hooray Henrys and Henriettas. Tim Nice-but-Dim and that lot."
"Sloan Rangers," said Gwen, her face falling.
"Whatever. All those posh interbred types with more rooms than they know what to do with and flocks of sheep wandering around on their enormous ancient estates - that's who he'll be hanging out with. Not with a physics student from a grotty little council estate in Cardiff, or an engineering student – however lovely – who lives above her dad's garage in Wembley. Face it – we don't have our own flocks of sheep."
"He might...no, he won't, will he?" Gwen's shoulders slumped. "He'll be a stuck up git."
"He'll be a stuck up git," agreed Merlin. "An appallingly hot, appallingly rich, going-to-be-our-king-one-day, stuck up git."
They both stared sadly at the battered linoleum of the tabletop between them. "I bet you could rustle up a few sheep in your garden," said Gwen, after a while. "You're from Wales."
"Oi! Enough with the stereotyping, thank you very much! We don't all get handed a sheep at birth, you know!" Merlin said, in mock-outrage. "We could only afford a picture of a sheep, in our house. A second-hand picture. Of an ugly sheep. We were saving up to buy a plastic one to put in the garden one day, next to the garden gnome."
"You had a garden gnome?"
"Well, for a bit. But then it got nicked."
"Yeah. Gnome-napped. It's a rough estate – no gnome is safe."
"You do talk a lot of rubbish, you know," Gwen said, shaking her head and trying not to laugh.
Merlin dimpled back at her. "I'm not always like this," he admitted, more quietly. "I feel almost drunk today – do you know what I mean? Sort of reckless and hopeful and all bubbling over, somehow."
Gwen gave him an unexpectedly shy grin. "I know exactly what you mean," she agreed. "Everything looks different today. I feel like a character in a movie, or the heroine of a book, or something. I feel like I could do anything. Unstoppable. I'm not normally quite this..." she waved her hands in the air vaguely.
"Bubbly? Friendly? Likeable? Disarming? Pretty? Prone to hitting total strangers over the head with engineering text books?"
"Outgoing!" she said, covering her laugh ineffectually with the back of her hand.
Merlin wanted to hug her, all of a sudden, but there was a table in the way, so instead he reached into his pocket and produced a slightly battered KitKat. "You're brilliant, Gwen Smith," he said. "I'm really glad you tried to knock me unconscious with half a dozen engineering text books. Chocolate?"
"Ooh! I knew I liked you for a reason!" she exclaimed. "I mean, you know, not that you're not – I didn't mean..." she stumbled to a halt, blinking at him, and then smiled. "Yes please."
"That's my girl."
And so they sat and munched contentedly in silence for a moment or two, watching the outskirts of the bustling city beyond the thumb-smeared glass gradually give way to unbounded green.