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We Wish You A Merry Ofsted

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“Knock knock.”

Arthur looked up, more at the opening of the door than from the sound of the familiar voice. He stretched his neck from side to side, working out the kinks and relishing in the sudden release. He leaned back in his chair, the cheap plastic back bending under his weight.

“You do realise it's redundant to say, ‘knock knock’ as you're actually knocking, right?” he asked.

Merlin pulled a face and stepped back slightly out of the doorframe. “Someone's in a mood,” he said, scowling. “I was stopping by to see if you had this break free, but I think I'll go spend it with someone a little more pleasant.” He turned to leave and Arthur couldn't help but smiling at his ridiculous sulk.

“I'm sorry Merlin,” he called loudly, “I didn't mean to insult you.”

Merlin shuffled back into view, still frowning. “It's hard to hear knocks sometimes; these doors are really thick,” he muttered. He flicked a finger against the metal frame as if to emphasise his point and scowled at the gentle ‘ping’ it produced.

“Yes, they are.” Arthur nodded seriously.

Merlin rolled his eyes but settled himself on a desk in the first row. “Lord knows why I hang around you; I must be a glutton for abuse.”

Silently, Arthur agreed. It wasn't like he was a total bully to Merlin but he couldn't help himself sometimes with teasing: the man was infuriatingly attractive. And not just in the physical sense. From the first moment he walked into the staffroom, Arthur's eyes were drawn to him and he couldn't look away. Merlin was just so engaging; from his sudden and blinding smiles to the way he gesticulated when he got excited about something. Arthur lived for the moments when Merlin flailed to the point of injury.

It was that very line of reasoning that made Arthur make an effort to put some space between them.

 “I always thought it had something to do with my rugged good looks and winning personality.”

“Hardly,” Merlin snorted. “But back to business. I take it you have this break free?”

“If by ‘free’ you mean stuck correcting my year nines' abysmal understanding of the War of the Roses – then you're correct.”

Merlin took a pen out of his shirt pocket and pulled one of the books towards him. He flicked through it, the pen caught between his teeth, brow creased in concentration as he read.

Arthur tried not to stare at the way his lips cushioned the pen.

“Blimey, does this one really think the war was over actual flowers?”

“Who is it?”

“Chloe S.”

“Oh hell.” Arthur dropped his head into his hands and ground his palms into his eyes. “I knew she wasn't paying attention. How long is her answer?”

“Two paragraphs.”

Arthur groaned. “It could be worse. I'm actually kind of impressed she managed to write two paragraphs period.”

Merlin snorted and the pen fell to the floor. He tossed the book back onto Arthur's desk as he bent to retrieve his pen. Tapping it against the side of his face, he studied Arthur with the look of someone slowly realising something was out of place.

“Why the hell are you marking already? Their books aren't due 'til the end of the week.”

Arthur blinked. “Merlin, it's Thursday.”

“Oh shit.”

“Welcome to teaching, noob.”

Merlin scowled again and Arthur had to work very hard to stop another traitorous smile from crossing his face.

“I've had my QTS for almost a year now,” Merlin started.

“Key word being:  'almost’. Come and talk to me when you cross that year milestone and teaching isn't shiny and new anymore. In fact,” he leaned forward and propped his chin up on his hands, “since you just started at this school, your noob status should really be extended. We'll see how you're doing in September 2015.”

“That's not how it works!” Merlin squawked. “We have the same qualifications Arthur, just because you started two years before me and have a bit of a head start doesn’t make you some kind of teaching expert!”

Arthur watched him gesticulate angrily and lost the battle with his face. Merlin stopped mid-rant at the sight of his smile.

“You're winding me up,” he said slowly, as if he could will it to be true by taking his time with the statement.

“Well spotted.” Arthur chuckled as Merlin relaxed. “I've just been on the receiving end of far too many late nights marking and know better than to leave it too late.”

Merlin groaned. “I suppose I've got lunch to work through. And tonight. And tomorrow morning. Ugh, this is going to be a nightmare. I should probably start now then.”

“Bring your books up to my office after fifth period. I still have a bunch of mine to get through and there's loads more room to spread out in the history department. And we get much better signal than down in your crypt of an office.”

“Hey,” said Merlin, bristling with indignation, “there's a good reason our office doesn't have any windows, and that's due to – ”

“Budget cutbacks and poor urban planning?” Arthur suggested.

“Chemicals and materials that need to be temperature controlled and stored away from sunlight.” Merlin rolled his eyes.

“Well if you like your chem cave so much, I guess I won't see you in the sunny, breezy history department then.”

Merlin crossed his arms, feigning disinterest.

“Did I tell you we just got a new coffee machine?” Arthur asked casually, pretending to read the page in front of him. “Each pot makes twelve cups.”

“My mug and I will see you at 3:30. Good day.” He stuck the pen back in his mouth and made to leave.

“One last thing,” said Arthur as Merlin reached the door. “Is that your pen?”

Merlin plucked the pen out of his mouth and looked down at the faces of five very good looking, if twinky, boys. “Oh this? No, I borrowed it off one of the year tens; Stephanie? Selena? Sefa?” He frowned at it. “I'm sure it starts with an ‘S’. Anyway, mine have all gone walking somehow so she loaned me hers for the day. It's cute, isn't it? I mean, I can't tell you any of their songs but they're all adorable. Look at the blond one!”

Filing Merlin's preference for blonds away for careful examination later, Arthur sat back in his chair once more.

“Merlin, I know we just established that I am not the grand master sensei of teaching, but let me give you a friendly piece of advice. When it comes to the lending and borrowing of pens: just say no.”

“I'll give it back,” said Merlin defensively. “It's not like I'm going to steal it or anything.”

“I'm not talking about stealing. I'm referring to the fact that it's week two of school and every one the little monsters spent the summer collecting all the germs they could carry. They've had two weeks to mingle and now we've just about hit maximum germ saturation.”

“That's not how science works,” Merlin interjected.

“I'm not talking about science, Merlin. I'm talking about the gross magic that is the secondary school cold season. Frequent hand washing is your friend. Grubby children and their nasty germy pens are not. You should probably go rinse your mouth out. Preferably with mouthwash. Or vodka.”

“I never would have pegged you for a germaphobe. And thank you for your concern, but I think I'll be fine.”

“I'd say you'll eat your words once the plague hits, but your throat is going to be so swollen I don't think you'll be able to swallow anything.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Arthur knew he'd made a mistake. It was a daily struggle to keep his dumb crush on Merlin under control. Bringing up something as dangerous as ‘swallowing’ was just asking for trouble. But at least he was able to hide his subtle shifting under his desk.

Merlin just raised an eyebrow at him, stuck the pen back in his mouth, and left the room. As soon as he was out of sight, Arthur let his head fall to his desk, not caring if he smudged Chloe's stupid flower paragraphs. He was only permitted a few seconds to wallow in self-pity before a soft knock brought his head back up.

Gwen was standing in the doorway, a thermos in each hand.

“I thought you could use a midmorning pick me up,” she smiled, crossing the room and setting one down on his desk.

“Gwen, you are a saint.” He took an eager gulp and moaned, the bitter liquid hitting all the right taste buds. “I swear, if Leon hadn't of snapped you up I would have married you years ago.”

“Always nice to be appreciated.” She laughed, tugging her cardigan shut. “God it's cold in here. I know we're supposed to be cutting back but you'd think they could turn the heat on once a week.”

“Tell me about it. I think I'm going to put in a request for a space heater for the office. I mean, we're nowhere near as bad off as the chem department, but it still gets bloody cold!”

“Speaking of Merlin,” said Gwen with a small smile playing around her lips, “why is he walking around the halls fellating a One Direction pen?”

Arthur choked on his coffee. “He is not fellating it. He's pressing his luck with the plague season. Apparently he borrowed it off a student.”

“Which one?”

“Does it matter?”

“Hmmm,” Gwen took a sip and rested her chin on the lid. “Maybe I should warn him. It won't do him any favours getting sick so early in the term.”

“I already tried,” Arthur shrugged. “Best to let him make his own mistakes, the faster he learns the better really.”

“Ah, to be young and innocent again,” Gwen sighed wistfully. “Noobs are the cutest.”

“I'll drink to that,” said Arthur, raising his thermos in mock salute.

“I bet you will.” Gwen smirked. She raised her thermos to her mouth once more, catching sight of the clock in the process.

 “Shit, I'm meant to be in guidance now.”

“Who are you relieving?”

“Aredian,” Gwen wrinkled her nose.

Arthur grimaced. “Take your time. The old man probably has the next period off anyway.”

“I don't understand why he's still here. We found Merlin in time for start of term, why couldn't we have found another teacher who isn't steps away from retiring and/or death.”

“Because Aredian is going to suck every penny he can from the system before they throw him out,” Arthur sighed. “They can't fire him when he's months away from retirement but they can't afford to bring on anyone new while he's still here. Plus the Governors wouldn't be happy with a one hundred percent turnover rate in the chem faculty. Looks bad on the school and if Ofsted came calling…”

“I know. But none of this changes the fact that Aredian is a creepy old man who should have retired half a decade ago.” She pulled at a stray curl that had escaped her messy bun as if looking for anything to prevent the inevitable guidance session. Arthur watched her twist the lock around her finger and wondered if it would be rude to start marking again.

“I should go,” she sighed, “he'll probably just up and leave if I'm not there on time and as far as I know, both Jack and Val are in internal exclusion together.”

“How?” asked Arthur with an exasperated sigh. “How have they both managed to get an internal exclusion in week bloody two?”

“Children are evil,” Gwen shrugged as she backed out of the room.

Arthur picked up his pen turned his attention once more to marking. He began reading in the hope that he could at least tackle Chloe's abysmal book before his class arrived.

“Hello, Sir.”

“Hello, Daegal,” said Arthur automatically without raising his eyes, “always a pleasure to see my students arrive early.”

Daegal took his seat just as the bell rang, signaling the end of break.

Arthur looked down at the unmarked books and sighed. He took one last swig of coffee, stacked the books neatly in a pile, and stood to greet the stream of year tens that had begun to trickle through the door.

***

“Don't say it,” said an oddly nasal voice as its owner dropped into the staffroom chair beside Arthur.

“Say what?” asked Arthur innocently, as he took a bite of his bagel.

Merlin gave a great cough before answering and fixed his watery glare on Arthur. “You know what, you prat.”

“I do. But you look so miserable I don't have the heart to take it out of you,” Arthur replied truthfully.

Merlin looked dreadful. He had abandoned all pretence of looking authoritative and had a thick scarf wrapped around his neck so many times that it made him look like a head sitting on a lumpy platter. His usually clear blue eyes were rimmed with red, matched only by the red of his raw nostrils. He curled his feet up under him in the chair and put his head down on the lumpy armrest.

“I feel like death,” he said dolefully. “And I've run out of the good tissues; the lotiony kind,” he added as a qualifier as if Arthur didn't know what made quality tissue.

“I planned for this,” said Arthur proudly. He dropped his bagel to rummage around in his rucksack before producing a fresh box of balsam Kleenex and tossing it in Merlin's lap.

Merlin stared at it as if trying to process where it came from.

“Why am I not surprised that you carry emergency tissues with you?” he said finally.

“Because plague season,” said Arthur firmly. “Besides, I don't always carry them, I just knew you were due to be infected and figured your bathroom cabinet was probably not stocked effectively. I also have Berocca, Lemsip, in capsule and powdered form, and Vicks Vaporub. Pick your poison,” he finished with a smirk.

The cold was definitely slowing his higher brain functions, because Merlin just goggled at him with a slightly bemused smile on his face.

“Why are you so good to me?” he asked fondly.

This. The plain affection in Merlin's voice was a prime example of why Arthur tried to keep some professional distance between the two of them. Dating your colleagues, though not strictly prohibited, was a minefield of paperwork and conduct at work documents. Not to mention the disastrous consequences of a potential breakup. Whenever he discussed these fears with his sister Morgana (who had wormed the truth about his feelings for Merlin out of him with nothing short of torture) she rolled her eyes and told him he was putting the cart in front of the horse, and that you had to actually date someone first before you could break up with them.

Logically, Arthur knew this and even went so far as to agree with her (something he'd never admit). But the nagging fear that something might make them break up was enough to dissuade him from getting his hopes up. Despite his frequent complaints, he really did love his job and his students to the point where, at twenty-seven, he was willing to put their happiness before his own. On a day-to-day basis he was fairly happy with this decision. Sure, the nights were a little lonely, and dinner parties were slightly awkward, but at the end of the day he could reassure himself that he was making a difference in the world.

Brought back to reality by a rather disgusting gurgle from Merlin, Arthur backtracked quickly to safer, more familiar territory.

“Because I want to try and stem the spread of diseases before you infect the entire faculty,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, take something now and you might feel human enough to teach in thirty minutes.”

Merlin let out a croaky groan and let his head drop back onto the armrest, pulling the scarf up over his ears.

Arthur watched him sulk for a moment and fought back the insane urge to ruffle his hair. “If I make you a Lemsip, will you drink it?”

He took the muffled noise and half-hearted thumbs up to be a yes and crossed the room to the kitchenette. He popped the lid on the kettle and stared down at it in disgust. Someone had left water in it again and the filament was coated in lime scale. Really, it was like no one even cared about cleaning up after themselves. He'd have to send out another memo.

Replacing the kettle on its base, he turned instead to the recently installed instant-boil quooker tap. It had caused quite a stir when it went in, and the majority of the faculty was extremely pleased with it. Arthur was, unsurprisingly, against its installation. How was he supposed to trust a tap that dispensed boiled water? What kind of unnatural sorcery was that? Call him old fashioned, but Arthur much preferred the tried and tested tap and kettle system. At least then he could see what was boiling the water. With a sigh, he conceded that Merlin's need probably outweighed his distrust for the quooker.

Reaching into the cupboard, he picked out the least-stained mug (and if it just happened to be Merlin's favourite with, ‘think like a proton and stay positive’ emblazoned on its side, well, that was just coincidence) and tipped in the Lemsip powder. With a sigh, he pressed the button and watched the quooker kick to life with a high-pitched whine.

“Show off,” he muttered as he stirred the piping hot liquid, making sure to break up any clumps. With a fond look at the kettle, he made a mental note to clean it, and headed back to the seating area.

Merlin sat up with a start when Arthur set the mug down in front of him.

“Whas tha?” he asked groggily.

“As previously discussed, Lemsip. Drink up, it'll bring your oozing down to manageable levels,” he replied, sinking back into his own patchy armchair.

“I can't take Lemsip now, it makes me stoned,” said Merlin, panic in his voice.

“Then why did you say yes when I offered to make you some?” asked Arthur, exasperated.

“I did?” asked Merlin, now looking panicked and confused.

“You are the most useless person.” Arthur let his head fall back on the worn chair in just the right spot to bang his head against the wooden frame. “Fuck,” he said, blinking the away the stars.

When his vision finally returned it was to bring him the picture of Merlin looking morosely at the mug. It seemed not even bad chemistry puns could cheer him up today. Arthur leaned forward in his chair and braced his forearms on his legs, focusing all his attention on Merlin.

“Merlin, are you fit to be here?”

“I have to be,” Merlin sighed. “It's too early in the semester to take a sick day. The kids can already smell weakness.”

“Your fascinating outlook on the sensory capacity of teenagers aside, you're doing no one a favour by pushing through if you're really ill. The kids only get out what you put in. We can still arrange for a sub.”

“It's too late for that.” Merlin nodded towards the staffroom door, where a steady stream of faculty was pouring in.

With what looked like great effort, Merlin forced himself upright in the chair and took a sip of the bright yellow concoction in front of him. His face seized up in a pucker but he managed to force the liquid down. Arthur tried not to stare at the bob of his Adam's apple. The dilemma was solved when Merlin broke out in a spectacular coughing fit and brought his elbow up to cover his mouth.

“Hello boys – oh my, you look positively dreadful Merlin,” said Elena in way of a greeting.

“Hi Ellie,” Arthur replied, since Merlin seemed unlikely to be able to respond anytime soon. Indeed, he waved his free hand at her briefly before redoubling his efforts with the coughing spell.

“Anyone have the Metro?” Elena asked brightly, sinking into an empty chair. “I'll trade it for the Guardian.”

“Why would you want tosh like the Metro?” Arthur snorted, “it's absolute rubbish.”

“So is the Guardian when you get right down to it.” Elena shrugged, tugging off her cap and letting her blonde hair fly free. “At least the Metro is fun. And I never get to read it anymore. Not since Gwaine bought the car – sorry, Yolanda.” Her emphasis on the last word told Arthur precisely what Elena thought of the recent addition to their family.

Merlin waved a hand at them and patted his satchel in what seemed to be an attempt to indicate he had the Metro.

“Thanks love, but your paper should probably be burnt to prevent the spread of disease.”

“All the Metro is good for really,” muttered Arthur.

“Don't be such a classist.”

“As if we don't have the exact same financial background. Where is it you have your vacation home again? Spain? Austria?”

“Both,” she said quietly with a slight flush. “Daddy prefers the warmth but he still has a fondness for skiing which really can't be healthy in a man pushing retirement age…” She trailed off at Arthur's amused expression. “Shut up, I like my trashy papers okay? It's a fun way to start the day before the lull of academia sets in.”

“You teach P.E.!”

“Maybe I'll make Gwaine stop somewhere on the way home, see if I can at least get the Sun,” said Elena, not deigning to respond to his retort.

 “And where is Mr. Godwyn on this fine Monday morning?” asked Arthur, settling back gingerly in his chair and shooting a sideways glance at Merlin who seemed have finally won the battle against his chest.

Elena gave him a playful smack on the arm. “Mr. Greene is probably still circling the lot, trying to find a spot that doesn't offend Yolanda's delicate sensibilities. Apparently she has very specific preferences about where she's parked.” She snorted derisively.

“Gwaine is a lucky man,” Arthur yawned. At Elena's raised eyebrows he added, “to find someone who puts up with all his crazy.”

“Hear hear.” She echoed his yawn.

Merlin too was caught up in the yawning effect, but sadly his never reached completion as he broke off into another fantastic coughing fit.

“Merlin, are you fit to teach today?” asked Elena.

“Don't worry Eliie,” Merlin wheezed. “Arthur's taking care of me.”

She snorted. “Arthur's taking care of you?” She eyed Arthur speculatively. “Try not to read too much into that love; it makes him feel good about himself to pretend he's chivalrous. Speaking of which.” She fished around in her bag and produced a thermos. “Mind making me a pot?”

“You're perfectly capable of brewing your own pot. Why do I have to make it?”

“Because it always tastes better when you do it.” She batted her eyes at him.

“No way. That's the line I use on Gwen, you can't turn it against me!” He crossed his arms and fixed her with what he hoped was a stern glare.

“But it does!” she replied earnestly. He could practically see the anime sparkles in her Bambi eyes.

It was at this unfortunate moment that Merlin chose to reengage in the conversation.

“Go on then Arthur, you made my drink, why not fill the lady's cup?”

Elena turned to face Arthur with a smug smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Yeah Arthur, you made Merlin's drink, better make mine too. Don't want to start playing favourites.”

Merlin looked confused at that, though it might just have been an effect of the Lemsip. Giving her his best I'm-above-this-but-I'll-do-it-anyway face, he grabbed her thermos and stood up.

“You know there's a Metro app you can download for your phone, right?” said Merlin as Arthur crossed to the kitchenette.

Resolved to put in the minimal amount of effort, Arthur pulled the lid off the instant coffee tin.

Without looking over her shoulder, Elena called over, “And no instant, Momma needs the real stuff on Mondays.”

***

“So, we are fast approaching the thrilling conclusion in our recap of the Tudor dynasty,” said Arthur as he walked up the aisle and turned to face the class. “Hopefully you've picked up some information along the way; I'll find out exactly how much you've absorbed when you turn in your – ,” he clicked the right arrow key, “final research projects!”

His year tens, predictably, groaned in unison. He smiled in an exaggerated manner as he advanced to the slide again. “Yes how tragic, a final test of knowledge at the end of a unit. Much surprise, so shock.”

Mordred put up his hand and waited for Arthur to acknowledge him before speaking.

“Did you just meme, Sir?”

“Yes I did, Mr. Jernigan. Believe it or not, yours is not the first generation to discover the internet. Now, everyone take out a lined piece of paper and a pencil, you'll want to take notes as we go along. I said paper and pencil, not phones and tablets.”

Arthur paused in his pacing and sat back against his desk amid a chorus of groans.

“We do this every time, and every time you lose. I do not allow the use of electronic devices as a tool for note-taking unless you specifically have written permission from a teaching assistant, psychologist, doctor, or other working professional.”

“Does that mean I could get my mum to write me a note, Sir? She's a working professional,” asked Daegal.

“No, Mr. Cadwallader, although I'm sure your mother excels in her field as a veterinarian, her professional opinion will not sway my decision and let you photograph the slides. Although she might be interested in knowing how you disrupt class with flippant remarks.” Arthur crossed his arms and tried to keep his face neutral, though the sight of Daegal's face falling made his heart constrict a little.

“Sorry, Sir,” Daegal muttered towards his desk.

“It's already forgotten, as apparently, is this class' understanding of why taking notes by hand is important.” He pushed off his desk and resumed pacing slowly along the front of the class, pausing to look individual students in the eyes.

“Mobiles and tablets, besides the obvious fact of being a distraction, are not useful tools for taking notes. While I encourage you to use them at home and on your own time for what I choose to believe are entirely innocent activities – ” two rows back, Sefa, Freya, and Kara all giggled, “they actively prevent you from learning. Taking notes by hand forces you to listen and engage with the material as you copy it down. Your ears and eyes take in the verbal and visual description, your brain translates the signals into code, and your hand writes the notes in your own words; you can write dot-jots, draw a mind map, use any learning strategy at your disposal. It's an active and engaging process.”

“Mobiles on the other hand – ” he held his hand in front of him, thumb stuck up and a gormless expression on his face, “click, next, click, next, click, next, okay I'm done, now what's the assignment? It's completely passive! I know you think teachers love watching you suffer, and while that might be true for some of you,” there were scattered chuckles, “we really have your best interests at heart. Taking notes by hand may not be particularly exciting, but it is a valuable teaching tool and a skill you will be using your entire adult life, whether it be phone messages, meeting minutes, building contracts, or any other thousands of tasks. Writing by hand is important.”

If life were a film, his students would have burst into applause and given him a standing ovation. In his mind's eye, he could see Mordred wiping tears from his eyes, Sefa and Kara hugging each other for support, and Daegal blowing his nose into his sleeve. In reality, there were a few sighs and the rustling of paper as it was fished out of desks and torn out of notebooks. At the back of the class, a hand raised in the air.

“Sir,” called Vivian without waiting to be called on, “the other teachers let us use our mobiles to take notes.”

“Oh do they?” Arthur raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “And who precisely allows them in class?”

“Mr. Emrys.”

“Really? So if I was to email Mr. Emrys right now, he'd corroborate your story?”

“Yes,” she replied without missing a beat.

Arthur scrubbed a hand across his face before replying. “It's funny that students don't seem to realise teachers actually talk to each other.  I know for a fact Miss. Olaf, that Mr. Emrys does not tolerate the use of said devices in his classroom any more than I do. In fact,” he racked his brain, “I don't believe you are scheduled to have Mr. Emrys' class until next semester, which may be why you're confused regarding his electronic policy. I am meeting him for lunch after this period though, if you'd like me to check your story.”

The smile slid slowly off Vivian's face and was replaced with a rather ugly expression. Her classmates did nothing to soften the blow, breaking out in scattered titters.

“Please see me at the end of the day Miss. Olaf,” sighed Arthur. “Now, have we all got paper and pencil ready? Because we now have,” he turned to look at the clock, “approximately seven minutes to get through these slides. I will hold you into lunch if we run over time. Any questions before we begin?”

Mercifully, for once all the hands stayed down. The threat of cutting into lunch time was a great one; especially when chicken burgers were on the menu. And Merlin, although he wasn't exactly on the menu. Arthur took a deep breath and began his lecture.

“When it comes to history, there are two types of questions we can ask. If I ask for the date of Henry VIII's coronation, there is only one answer. This is an example of a fact-based question.” He changed to the next slide and heard the satisfying noise of pencil scratching on paper. “But if I were to ask you if Henry VIII was a good king, is there any one fact that leads to a solid answer?”

Freya's hand shot into the air and Arthur nodded at her.

“No Sir, that's a personal opinion.”

“Well worded Miss. Llyn,” Arthur smiled. “Fact and opinion are the two types of questions we can pose to history. Most of the history we deal with today is opinion based; there's no magic mirror that lets us gaze into the past and see any one truth about a topic. All we can do as historians is research our topic as thoroughly as possible and try to defend our opinion, or our thesis, with as many facts as possible. The topic we are going to be exploring for your final project is nationalism.” He advanced the slide and was pleased to see that they all still looked moderately focused.

“If you think back to the beginning of our unit on the Tudors, you'll remember it was during Henry VIII's time that England became truly independent from Europe, both religiously and politically. Under the rule of Elizabeth I, England's borders expanded and the country became a military force to be reckoned with. But was this a good thing?”

Arthur paused to let them catch up.

“If we jump ahead to modern times, we can see that a lot of the world is not very happy with how England has moved forward into the twenty-first century. Even though you were on break, I'm sure you heard a great deal about the upcoming Scottish referendum. An entire country is unhappy with England to the point of seceding. And they aren't the only nation who are strongly opposed to England politically.” He clicked once more and was rewarded with the happy image of the last slide.

“Your topic for this assignment is this: is Britain still worth fighting for? What did we do for the world? Are we something special? Or are we not? Before you all start panicking: there is no wrong answer to this assignment. You are allowed to choose either side, but your thesis must be properly supported with work from published sources. You'll need a minimum of five sources, yes I know, five is such a huge number,” he replied to the swell of groans, “all of which must be academic. You are allowed to use modern news sources but they shouldn't be your primary source of information. I want to see you really engage with the work of historians who have already contributed to this topic. The total paper length is between three to five pages. You should have more than enough material to fill three pages, but avoid copying long quotations. I want to see your work, not just copy pastes from scholarly articles.”

The bell rang and the effect was instantaneous. Notebooks were shoved into bags, students leapt from their seats, and mobiles were pulled from pockets.

“This is due next Friday!” yelled Arthur over the commotion. “Feel free to ask if you have any questions.”

The class filtered out in groups of twos and threes. Vivian whipped out of the classroom so fast all Arthur saw was a flash of blonde hair as she streaked by his desk. He sighed and wrote himself a reminder about their meeting after school.

“Sir, I have a question,” said Freya. She stepped towards his desk, pencil poised over her notebook. “If I find an article written by a professor that's published in a magazine, does that count as a scholarly article?”

“It depends what type of magazine it is,” he replied. “A scholarly journal is an academic source, a professor being quoted in an article in Cosmo is not; although I think you can be trusted not to try passing off a Cosmo quote in your paper.”

Freya nodded seriously and took notes, rather redundantly thought Arthur. Behind her Mordred sniggered and Kara elbowed him in the ribs.

“What about a magazine like ‘History Today’?” asked Sefa as she joined them at Arthur's desk.

“That's a bit trickier,” Arthur conceded. “Academics are very divided when it comes to the topic of public history. Even though the authors in that magazine have to do extensive research, they often aren't academics themselves.”

“So professors think they're better than them for having a degree?” Mordred frowned.

“Yes and no. It's more that hobby historians haven't had the same training that professors have. That, and the fact that the articles in that magazine don't have to go through a peer review board before publication.”

He looked around at the remaining faces. All five of them were gathered around his desk, though Daegal hung back a little from the rest of the group and wouldn't meet his eyes. They all wore similarly confused expressions.

“Before anything can be published in a scholarly journal, it has to pass through a peer review board. You can think of them like quality control testers in a factory. They know a lot about the topic the article addresses and they fact check to make sure the author has done legitimate academic research.”

“So they exist to stop professors from just making things up?” asked Kara.

“Exactly! I'm not saying that the authors in ‘History Today’ haven't done their research; it's just that their article hasn't passed through any sort of review. So while you can use articles from that magazine to back up your thesis, don't use them as the main part of your argument. Make sense?”

Freya nodded and snapped her notebook shut. “Thanks, Sir. If I finish my rough draft by this Friday, can you look at it over the weekend?”

Arthur tried very hard not to let his emotions show on his face. He settled for a rather tight-lipped smile and gave a little nod. “I won't give it a grade, but I'll look over it to see if you're on the right track.” Because who needed a weekend off anyways, right?

Freya looked thrilled and some of Arthur's annoyance deflated a little.

“I'll try and get mine finished for then, too!” said Sefa, swinging her bag over her shoulder. Kara nodded and Arthur saw his Saturday slipping away from him one paper at a time. Mordred looped his arm through Kara's and lead the group out the door.

“Thanks Sir, that lesson was well good. See you tomorrow!” Mordred called over his shoulder. Arthur waved and they all uttered variations of Mordred's statement. Daegal was the only one who left without a word.

***

“I know what you're going to say,” Merlin started as he stormed his way into the department office.

“Well that makes one of us,” Arthur swiveled in his chair to face Merlin.

The usual light and happiness was gone from Merlin's face and its absence made Merlin look like a completely different person. His brows were furrowed tightly and there was such rage on his features that Arthur was half standing out of his chair, ready to throw a punch at whoever had put Merlin in a bad mood.

Ignoring his awkward rise from his chair, Merlin ploughed on. “You're going to say ‘welcome to teaching Merlin’ or, ‘that's just how it is Merlin’, or ‘get used to it Merlin’, or any number of other idiotic things that won't help the situation. So I need you to sit down, shut up, and listen to me rant because I'm too angry to think right now.”

“Okay.” Arthur dropped uncertainly back into his chair and watched Merlin pace back and forth down the only free sliver of floor space not covered by years of accumulated items. Several times he came precariously close to knocking into a stack of laughably out of date textbooks.

“I know I've only been here a month – ,”

“It's only been a month?” Arthur interrupted weakly.

Merlin frowned at him like he was taking the piss or being deliberately thick on purpose. In reality, Arthur was mentally rewinding to the middle of August when he first met Merlin back at the faculty orientation day. How could it have only been a month? He wracked his brain, trying to remember when Merlin had become such an integral part of his life. It was probably somewhere around the time that Merlin had stopped waiting for an invitation to mark in the history department after school. Or when Arthur had changed his morning routine so that he would be driving past the station just as Merlin's train was arriving. Or around the time that Merlin had started bringing CDs so they could avoid the drivel of morning talk radio, and when Arthur had started bringing Merlin's Starbucks order with him in a travel mug. How could so much have changed in a month?

“Arthur?” Merlin's sharp address snapped him back to reality. “Am I boring you with my righteous anger?” He crossed his arms. “Shall I go rant at Will instead?”

“What? No! Sorry, Arthur Pendragon, present and accounted for, please continue.” He pulled at his tie uneasily and tried to fight back the rushing onslaught of feelings evoked by his trip down memory lane.

Merlin glowered but didn't push the subject. “I know I've only been here a month, and I know this is your school so you have very protective feelings for it, but some of the policies here are just ridiculous.”

Arthur could feel a slight prickling under his skin and his pulse increase just slightly. Merlin was right, this was his school and he was ruddy proud of it. He hoped whatever Merlin said next wasn't going to start an argument.

“Like the classroom management policies. I understand that those are in place for us as much as they are for the students, but I just had to sit through a thirty minute detention with Tristan for the sole reason that he's a teenager.”

“Tristan? Tristan Béroul? What the hell did he do to get a thirty minute detention? I haven't had him for a few years but he was a good student then.”

“He is a good student – and a good kid. But he's also seventeen which means he's inherently stupid and not in control of his hormones.” Merlin ran a hand through his hair and for once Arthur didn't have to force himself to stay focused on what Merlin was saying; the anger in his voice was powerful enough. “So when he spends half the lesson flirting with Isolde and making a fool out of himself, it's not really his fault. I mean really, the only person he was disturbing was Isolde and she didn't look too upset about missing out on my explanation of collision theory, which by the way is fascinating.” He turned to glare at Arthur as if daring him to argue.

Arthur caught on two seconds too late and nodded far too dutifully. Merlin's lips twitched up in an almost smile and Arthur let out a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding.

“Anyway, the point is:  they're both smart kids. Isolde is pretty much a genius and can take notes and flirt at the same time, and Tristan isn't that far behind her. They're two of the best in my top set and it's completely unfair that he not only got detention, but was humiliated in front of the entire class!”

“Why did he have to be – ”

“Kilgharrah,” Merlin finished for him.

“Ah,” was all Arthur could say, comprehension dawning.

“Good old Gary chose to sit on this lesson. Last period on a Friday. I know the drop-ins are done at the headteacher's discretion, but cut them a little slack. They're just kids for Christ's sake! They have to sit in class for seven hours a day, five days a week, all the while their bodies are literally under attack from all the hormones they have firing off in their brains, making mountains out of molehills.” He paused in his pacing again and turned to face Arthur.

“You know what I heard Elyan and Percy talking about the other day? How Elyan was worried that he'd screwed things up with Freya somehow because she hadn't Snapchatted him in three hours. Three hours Arthur! I'm constantly amazed at how they function when these are the things they freak about.”

“Being a teenager is shit,” Arthur agreed. “You've got adult urges in a kid's body, your face is a minefield, you want to be out from under your parent's wing but you can't be arsed to clean up after yourself, and the system tells you it's time to decide a career at fifteen.”

“Exactly!” Merlin seemed to deflate a little. “Which is why, when Gary is sitting in the back of your class giving you that look, the one that says ‘fix this or we'll be having words’, you have to follow the standard detention procedure as instructed in Gary Kilgharrah's Wonder Guide To Teaching.”

“And he didn't give it up with the three warnings?”

“Of course he didn't. I don't think Tristan has been given a warning since primary school. He was too caught up in finally convincing Isolde to go out with him; I don't think he really noticed what was going on. Not until I had to ream him out for the third time.” Merlin crossed an arm and used it to hold the other one vertical, his fist pressed to his chin. “I've never seen anyone go that red in my life. And he just sat there and took it.” Merlin shook his head and seemed to fold in on himself.

“I'm sorry,” was all Arthur could think to say. “It's never pleasant when you have to give them detention.”

“I can handle giving out detentions. But why do we have to make them feel like shit about themselves when we do it?” He gave a helpless little flap of his hand before returning it to his chin, leaning on it like it was the only thing keeping him from falling on the floor. Arthur was struck with the sudden urge to hug him; anything to make him look less miserable.

“You know what the worst part is?” Merlin continued, preventing Arthur from making a fool out of himself. “Kilgharrah didn't even stick around after. No nod, no ‘good work Emrys’, nothing. Just left like nothing had even happened. Like I hadn't just humiliated one of the best students this school has. Or had. And, who knows, maybe I've turned him off chem for good.”

“I think you've been hanging out with the beasts too long, you're being a bit melodramatic,” said Arthur gently.

“Well that's what it feels like,” Merlin muttered. “I just don't understand how we're supposed to be teaching these kids that bullying is wrong when we turn around and model it right back to them. Just because some old lizard is clinging to an outdated discipline system left over from the twentieth century private school system.”

“I know what you mean,” Arthur sighed. “I had to do the same to Vivian and Daegal at the beginning of the week. And Valiant is always getting it from one of us.”

“Yeah well, Valiant is a special case.”

“That may be, but it doesn't stop me from feeling like shit every time. I had to talk to Vivian after class on Monday; the poor thing was practically in tears she was so embarrassed.” Arthur ran a hand over his face and rubbed his chin.

“Is that why you didn't hang around on Monday?” Merlin settled himself on Geoffrey's empty desk.

Arthur nodded. “I couldn't deal with anything after that. Decided I needed a night to myself.”

The frown returned to Merlin's face. “You should have talked to me before you left. You shouldn't take this shit home with you.”

“Welcome to teaching, Merlin,” Arthur laughed dryly.

Merlin pushed himself off the desk and moved until he was standing over Arthur, arms crossed. “I'm serious Arthur; we all need a support network, especially in our line of work.”

“Is that what you are?” Arthur looked up at him, a wry smile on his face. “My support network? You've barely been here a month.”

If the words stung at all, Merlin didn't let it show. Instead he squared his shoulders and fixed Arthur with a piercing look. “I thought we were at least friends. Length of time doesn't necessarily correlate to the growth of friendship. Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you've told all your colleagues about how you and Morgana fretted for weeks over what to get your father for his fiftieth birthday and eventually settled on a new stationary set and a bottle of MacKinlay's that the three of you proceeded to binge drink when he found out wife number three was cheating on him. Or about how you ended up in hospital when you were twelve because Morgana accidently speared you in a play swordfight and now you have to buy shirts a size too large so they don't rub against the scar. Because I don't know about you, but those aren't exactly stories I would share with someone who was just a ‘work colleague’.”

Blindsided by the truth of Merlin's words, Arthur could do nothing but gawp at him. When the hell had he let Merlin in on so much of his life? Must have been the damn car rides. And the late nights marking. Clearly he was going to have to be more careful in future.

“No,” he said, standing up so that he and Merlin were level. “No, you're right, of course we're friends. Don't be stupid. I just meant that you're still new to the profession and I didn't want to dump my problems on you when you've got your own. I want you to remain excited about teaching for as long as you can.”

Some of the hardness seemed to bleed out of Merlin's face and he leaned forward, almost as if he were being drawn in.

“It's not your job to protect me, Arthur.”

“It may not be my ‘job’, but it's a duty I take on willingly.” The moment seemed oddly charged somehow so he backtracked to familiar territory. “Because you're right. I love this school, but it's complete and utter bullshit that we have to crack down on the kids for minor disruptions. Everyone has bad days and the kids in this place are so tightly wound; especially the upper years. I'm afraid that one day one of them will snap beyond repair.”

“Fifty quid says it's Valiant,” Merlin snorted, and just like that the tension was gone. Arthur collapsed back into his chair and Merlin plunked himself down in his usual seat at Geoffrey's desk.

“I refuse to take that bet. We both know it's coming.”

An awkward silence descended on them. It was only broken by the beep of Geoffrey's computer coming out of hibernation.

“I wish I could convince him that turning off the monitor doesn't mean the computer is off,” Arthur sighed, “this place wastes so much electricity.”

“Maybe we could turn it into a project,” Merlin yawned. “Have the students measure the eco footprint and present it to Gary. You have books to mark?”

“Always. And no less than…” he flipped through the stack nearest his elbow, “five essays to proof. My year tens are far too keen to be normal.”

“Good, it means I get to keep you a little longer tonight – while I start my lesson plans for Monday I mean,” he added hastily.

Arthur made a non-committal noise and tried to ignore the way Merlin's ears were suddenly red. He filed it away for closer inspection at a later date and pulled the stack of papers towards him.

***

“Morning all,” said Arthur, holding the staff room door open for Merlin to shuffle in behind him.

“Did you hear there was a shooting in Canada yesterday?” asked Will, by way of greeting.

“Why yes, I did happen to hear a little something about that.” Arthur rolled his eyes, “between the front page news stories, live updates on the BBC homepage, the radio, and my Twitter feed.” Beside him, Merlin snorted as he put the kettle on.

“And what do you think about the Prime Minister's stance on the need for increased security?” Will rounded on him.

Arthur turned to lean against the counter and folded his arms with a sigh.

“I think it's too early for this kind of discussion.”

This was clearly the wrong answer, if Will's thunderous expression was any sort of gauge.

“It's exactly that kind of attitude that's letting the establishment strip away individual rights one act at a time! Did you hear him try and link that shooting with the attack to terrorism? Less than an hour after the gunman was shot they started rolling out the scare tactics.”

 “Blimey,” Merlin poured equal measures of water into two mugs. “Was it a terrorist attack?”

“Possibly,” Arthur said as Will scoffed.

“Open your eyes Merlin, it doesn't matter if it was or not! The right-wing Canadian government wasted no time in seizing on the incident to promote its fear-mongering agenda over terrorism, which includes pending legislation to vest the CSIS with more spying and secrecy powers in the name of fighting ISIS.”

“Mmmm,” Merlin made a noncommittal noise as he took a sip of his tea.

Will paused his rant to unpack his breakfast. Arthur found it mildly impressive just how much anger with which Will could bite into his bagel.

“All this bullshit about the Western powers using fear and propaganda to justify their actions isn't exactly a new thing in history. Just look at what's happening in the States,” he said through a mouthful of cream cheese.  “But it shouldn't be about terrorism at all! It should be about the Western world's disgustingly lax attitude towards mental health. What do you think Merlin?” Will pivoted to face him.

Arthur also turned stare at Merlin's profile. Despite being caught in Will's crosshairs, Merlin looked remarkably undisturbed. He took another slow sip of his tea before answering.

“I think you're adorable when you get all worked up like this,” said Merlin, his eyes crinkling with his smile. “It reminds me of our youth and the first time you dragged me to a protest. I thought Mum was going to kill you.”

“I think she permanently damaged my hearing that day. I still get a weird ringing in my ears sometimes.”

Merlin snorted. “Yes, I'm sure it was my mother's shouting that ruined your hearing. Nothing to do with the seven hundred thousand people screaming ‘freedom for Palestine’.”

“Well she did scream very loudly. I'm pretty sure my dad heard her three doors down.”

“We ditched school and took the train to London by ourselves.”

“With my allowance money,” said Will defensively.

“We were thirteen,” said Merlin with a fond smile.

“Well, there was that.” Will rolled his eyes. He glanced down at his wrist and groaned. “I'll tell you this for free; I'd much rather face another lecture from your mother then go to class right now.”

“Evaluations?” asked Merlin.

“Oral presentations.”

All three of them heaved a collective shudder. Will ducked his head and slung his bag over his shoulder.

“I'll see you at lunch if I haven't hung myself first.”

***

“You're magic, you know that?” Arthur said, as he walked through the classroom door.

“Arthur! What are you doing down here?” asked Merlin, the beakers he held suspended comically in mid-pour.

“You didn't come up for lunch,” he replied, leaning his elbows on one of the long lab benches. “I was worried you'd blown yourself up and no one had thought to check yet.” That and he missed him, but it wasn't like Merlin needed to know that.

“Your concern is so touching,” Merlin rolled his eyes. “I'm sorry that I denied you the chance to pull my smouldering carcass from the wreckage. But the reality of the situation is far less thrilling.”

“Obviously. Real life is never as exciting as fiction. Although you're rocking the mad scientist look pretty effectively right now.”

“Oh.” Merlin set his beakers on the bench and pushed the safety goggles up on top of his head, causing his curls to stick out at odd angles. “Better?”

The look really only reinforced the idea of mad scientist, but it was so oddly charming that Arthur bit his lip.

Merlin took his silence as an affirmation. “As fun as it would be to tell you I was cooking up some dastardly experiment in my lab, the truth is we finished the lectures early and I needed to prep this experiment for tomorrow. I don't know what to do with top set classes. They're too efficient!”

“Damn them and their giftedness,” Arthur agreed, “making us work more than the bare minimum.”

“Well, when you say it like that…” Merlin grinned, sliding the goggles back into position.

“So what are you making them do tomorrow?” Arthur walked around the bench towards Merlin.

“Ah,” Merlin held up his hand. “There is science at work here. If you want to stand on this side, you need to put on the required safety equipment.”

“Merlin, this experiment is meant for teenagers.  I think I can handle it.”

The crease between Merlin's eyebrows deepened and his hand stayed firmly in the air. “Top set teenagers. Did you even do a chemistry A-Level?”

“Is this A-Level science?”

“No, but that's irrelevant. The safety procedures apply to everyone, students and teachers alike.”

The sight of Merlin dressed like a Doctor Horrible reject being deadly serious about saving him from baby's first science experiment was almost too endearing to handle. He lasted all of five seconds before giving a great huff and turning towards the equipment cupboard.

“The things I do for you,” he drawled over his shoulder.

“It's just good practice,” Merlin muttered, though Arthur noted he looked faintly pleased about something.

Once Arthur had dawned the appropriate apron, gloves, and goggles, Merlin finally allowed him to stand at the bench.

“Alright, Professor Science, wow me with your expertise.”

“Well,” Merlin turned towards the setup, gesturing excitedly, “I'm getting them to do a series of experiments to see how different materials react with solutions. Very basic stuff:  calcium, potassium, and sodium in water, milk, vinegar, and coke. But I've got a bit of fun prepped for them too. I've got a few boxes of stuff labelled ‘mystery material’ that will really react. So far I've got Berroca, Mentos, and baking soda. And then, there's my pièce de résistance.”

He gestured proudly to a bottle and a bag of what looked like sugar that stood slightly apart from the rest of the materials.

“Am I supposed to know what that is?” asked Arthur, leaning forward for a better look.

“Sulphuric acid and icing sugar. Youtube it, it's amazing,” said Merlin emphatically. “Now elbows off the table, I need to make sure I've got the right ratios worked out.”

Arthur couldn't help but smile as Merlin set about pouring the liquids into various containers and dropping tiny amounts of powdered substances in with tongs, all the while making careful notes of their reactions.

“I wish you were my science teacher,” said Arthur suddenly.

Merlin froze mid-pour. Arthur was acutely aware of just how sappy his words sounded but it was too late to retract them.

“Oh?” Merlin asked, without looking at him.

“I just mean, if I had you back when I was in school, maybe I wouldn't have hated science so much. I might have even done my GCSE.”

“Shut up,” said Merlin, though he was smiling a little. “Oh damn, that's not supposed to happen.”

They both looked down at the beaker that now contained a strange mix of what looked like milk and coke. It fizzed cheerfully and Merlin looked down at his hands like they had betrayed him.

“Go away, you're distracting me,” said Merlin.

“And here I thought I was being nice and keeping you company,” joked Arthur. “S'alright though, I have a ton of marking to get started on. I only came down here in the first place to congratulate you anyways.”

“Congratulate me?”

“On dealing with Will earlier. I've never seen anyone defuse him like that.”

Merlin shrugged. “I just know him is all. He's pretty much the only person from back home that I still talk to. We just get on.”

“Yes, but I'm assuming he and Mithian get on pretty well, and I've never seen her stop him mid-rant like that. Mind, he's usually in a better mood when she's around anyway…”

“The trick to Will is to disarm him; throw a curve ball into the conversation that he doesn't expect. He's so aggressive about these issues because he cares too damn much and he thinks he can make the world a better place by being angry at it.”

“And what do you think?”

“About his views?” Merlin sighed and leaned back against his stool. “I've always admired Will. It takes a lot of energy to be that invested in so many causes. But I also know that if I think too long about the state of the world I get depressed to the point of not functioning. I think it's important to pick your battles and to invest some quality time in causes you believe in but not to the point where you wear yourself too thin. I'm glad Will can manage it though.” He glanced up at Arthur as if waiting for a verdict.

“And more power to him if all his righteous anger fixes the world a little faster,” Arthur finished.

He felt vaguely liked he'd just passed some sort of important test when Merlin smiled again. His stomach unclenched and he became aware of background noise outside in the hallway.

“Good,” said Merlin, still smiling. “Now seriously, get out of here so I can finish this lesson. I'll come up to the office when I'm done.”

“Yes, Sir,” said Arthur, looping his apron over a stool.

“And don't you dare leave without me,” called Merlin when Arthur had reached the door, “it's cold out there!”

***

It would be a strange and backwards world if Arthur ever left school without Merlin. Somewhere around the middle of October, Arthur gave up any pretence of just happening to run into Merlin at the train station. Soon after came the joint trips to Asda (“he'll starve otherwise!”), the weekends spent wasting time in Foyles (“it's practical. I need to keep up with the trends for my lessons.”), Forbidden Planet (“how else is he supposed to carry all that tat home?”), and the cinema.

“Well it's getting cold out!” Arthur retorted for what felt like the hundredth time. “Have you seen how big his ears are? He must lose so much body heat.”

“I'm not the science teacher, but I'm pretty sure humans aren't like rabbits in that regard.” Nimueh smiled at him from across the booth at their local.

“Whatever, it's just more exposed surface area. He insists on wearing these ridiculous beanies that barely cover the lobes. And the other day he didn't even wear one of his horrid hipster scarves. I saw his collarbones and nearly died.”

“I seem to be rejoining the group at an interesting point in the conversation.” Morgana smirked as she slid in beside her fiancé and deposited their drinks on the table.

“Arthur was just fretting about the relative warmth of Merlin's ears and neck. I'm expecting him to progress to his weak ankles any minute now.” Mithian took a sip of orange juice.

“His little ankles! Don't even get me started. Like the rest of the nerd population born in the eighties, he insists on wearing Converse. And while they do have a certain,” he waved his hand vaguely, “aesthetic about them, they have absolutely zero arch or ankle support. Cotton canvas...” he scoffed and took a moody swig of coffee.

Nimueh's mouth was pinched together like she was trying very hard not to smile. Morgana's tongue was pressed to the roof of her mouth and she stared pointedly at the ceiling as she considered her next words.

“Merlin's ankles have remained intact for the last twenty-five years without your help. I'm sure you have nothing to worry about,” said Morgana tactfully.

“False. Merlin broke his right ankle when he was eight but the doctors thought it was a sprain so he spent the following week hobbling around Disneyland Paris with nothing but a tensor bandage for support. The break eventually healed but without proper support or alignment. Ipso facto: weakened structural integrity.” Arthur leaned back and took a sip of his drink in triumph.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, it registered just how stupid it was to be arguing over the strength of Merlin's ankles, but the much larger, disgustingly eager part of him that wanted to talk about Merlin all the time ultimately won out.

“I don't want to know why you know that,” Morgana sighed. “And regardless, that was practically two decades ago. I think any permanent bone defects would have been discovered by now, correct?” She turned to Nimueh.

“Don't look at me, he's not my patient,” Nimueh held up her hands. “And I can't give a consult for someone who isn't my patient. And can't ever be since he's over eighteen,” Nimueh rolled her eyes.

“That's my girl,” Morgana wrapped an arm around her, “always looking out for potential lawsuits.”

Arthur was saved from any more PDA by the arrival of their breakfast. The smell of bacon and the allure of hollandaise sauce was enough to pry Morgana and Nimueh apart and they tucked in eagerly. Arthur had barely picked up his knife and fork when Morgana spoke again.

“Speaking of potential lawsuits,” she said around a mouth of toast, “when are you going to work up the nerve to ask dear Mr. Emrys out?”

“Not happening,” Arthur snorted.

“Here we go,” Nimueh muttered to no one in particular.

“Why ever not?” Morgana asked, exasperated. “You fancy the pants off him, and anyone that voluntarily spends that much time in your shite-box of a car is either fucked in the head or fancies you back. Although the two aren't mutually exclusive.”

Because they were both adults (in public) Arthur refused to rise to the bait and resisted the urge to fling his Eggs Benedict in her face.

“My car is not a shite-box,” he replied calmly.

“Because ‘Up exclamation point’ is a perfectly reasonable name for a car,” she rolled her eyes. “Face it Arthur, your car is naff.”

“Just because James May and the rest of the Top Gear community has strong opinions about the name doesn't make it fact,” Arthur sniffed.

“You, dear brother, are an expert deflector. Let's get back to the part of the conversation about Merlin being one-hundred percent up for it.”

“One-hundred percent? Leave room for a margin of error,” interjected Nimueh.

“Oh no, he's gagging for it. You should have seen him when we saw ‘Urinetown’. He was bouncing around him like a puppy.”

Something in Arthur's stomach clenched at hearing the talk about Merlin like some sort of thirsty sex toy.

“That's just the way he is,” said Arthur quietly.

Nimueh was quicker on the uptake than Morgana. “Oh love, we aren't taking the piss. We just want you to open your eyes to the fact the two of you are barmy for each other.”

Arthur closed his eyes. “It's not worth the risk,” he said through clenched teeth. “We've been over this before, being friends is enough for me. I love my job, I've worked extremely hard to get where I am and I'm proud of what I've accomplished. It's not worth losing my mate and my job over some schoolboy crush that I'll work out of my system eventually.” Even as he said the words he knew it was a lie, but he had already made up his mind on the topic weeks ago.

“Arthur – ” Morgana started.

“We do this every week Morgana!” he yelled, slamming down his fork with more force than intended. “Every week I give you the same answer and I'm sick of it. I just want to have a nice breakfast and move on. End of discussion.”

He picked up his fork again and forced himself to take a bite. Nimueh looked between the pair of them like she wanted to say something but knew better than to intervene. Morgana watched him eat with a wistful expression.

“Not if Merlin has anything to say about it,” she said quietly.

Arthur took a deep breath and pretended not to hear her. “Nimueh, did you bring the binder with you? I know you're dying to show me the newest choices.”

She looked caught off guard for a split second but recovered quickly. “Of course! Always up for a look in the binder.” She dove under the table to root around in her bag, leaving Arthur and Morgana awkwardly avoiding each other's eyes.

“Here we are,” Nimueh resurfaced holding a giant red binder which she opened carefully on the table. “Where did we leave off…did you know we finally settled on a colour scheme?”

***

“You want to say that to my face mate?”

With a feeling of foreboding, Arthur turned the corner to see Valiant pushing Daegal up against a bank of lockers. Nearby stood Sefa and Freya, huddled close together. Kara and Mordred were close by too, and Kara's arm was looped around Mordred's, though Arthur guessed not in any sort of romantic gesture. All six of them were wearing very ugly expressions and Arthur could practically feel the tension radiating off them.

“Anyone want to tell me what's going on here?” Arthur called out.

Valiant took an automatic step back from Daegal before turning around. Behind him, Daegal let out a sigh but (either bravely or foolishly) didn't move to safer ground. Before Valiant could open his mouth, Freya stepped forward.

“Valiant took my phone, Sir. Daegal was trying to get it back.”

“Well I hope that's not true, because stealing is definitely against our school code of conduct. Mr. Orm please, turn out your pockets.”

Valiant's already stormy face grew darker.

“No.”

“Excuse me?” Arthur walked a little further down the hallway.

“No, Sir,” Valiant amended.

“You don't have a choice in the matter.”

Valiant shifted awkwardly. “My stuff is private.”

“Mr. Orm, I don't care what you choose to carry in your pockets as long as it isn't breaking any school rules. I have no reason to doubt Miss. Llyn's accusation, and now I'm telling you to turn out your pockets.” He came to a halt in front of Valiant and crossed his arms.

Arthur had the feeling that if he knew he could get away with it, Valiant would have taken a swing at him. A vein pulsed in his temple and his chest rose and fall like he was going to do a runner. Instead, he reached slowly into his pockets and opened his fists one at a time.

In his left hand, he held a fifty pence coin, a paperclip, and a small keychain. The keys were ordinary enough, but the object hanging off the ring was a small, worn, blue teddy bear. One of the girls giggled and Valiant sucked in a breath but held his hand steady. Arthur shot them a warning look and the giggles stopped. In his right hand, Valiant held two mobiles: one that was covered in scratches and several models out of date, the other obviously new with its protective plastic coating still on.

“I wasn't going to keep it,” he mumbled. “It's the new model; I just wanted to see how it worked.”

“Then you should have asked permission,” said Arthur, taking the phone and handing it back to Freya.

“I did! But she wouldn't let me and then this one,” he jerked a thumb at Daegal, “started mouthing off.”

“That doesn’t give you permission to just take things,” Arthur sighed.

He turned to face the group at large. “You five are free to go, have a good evening. Mr. Orm, please come with me to the Student Success office.”

“Awww, Sir, no!” Valiant moaned over the others' laughter.

“Now,” said Arthur with finality.

Valiant shoved his possessions back in his pockets and stalked off down the hallway.

“Thank you, Sir,” said Freya brightly.

“You're welcome, Miss. Llyn. Though next time I suggest you come to myself or another faculty member,” Arthur replied. “If this had escalated any further you all would have been in trouble.”

Arthur turned and headed after Valiant. He caught up with him sitting on the bench outside the office. Valiant looked up as he approached.

“Mrs. Knight told me to wait out here. Some retard is taking a test.”

“Watch your language,” said Arthur sharply. “You're in enough trouble already and using that word as a slur is unacceptable.”

“Whatever,” Valiant mumbled.

Arthur rubbed a hand across his face. “What's gotten into you Val? I know school has never been your favourite place but lately it seems like you're trying to go for the gold in detention. Is something wrong?”

“What's it to you?” Valiant sneered. “It's not like any of you care.”

“We do actually,” Arthur retorted. “None of us want to see a student fail.”

“Right, because it'll look bad on you.”

“No, because we're decent human beings who give a shit about our students,” Arthur growled. Valiant's head shot up and Arthur regretted his choice of words before Valiant's grin had even started.

“Language, Sir.”

Arthur bit back his instinctual retort. He'd never known another student who could get under his skin like Valiant could. For some reason, all his training and professionalism evaporated the second he opened his smart mouth.

“You know, you're not really helping yourself Val. And things aren't going to get any better by bottling them up. Now what is going on?”

Valiant looked like he was evaluating him. He opened his mouth but whatever he was about to say died as the door between them opened and Cedric and Gwen emerged.

“Alright Mr. Orm, what are we booking you in for today?” asked Gwen brightly.

Arthur considered the possibilities. Stealing was a serious offence and the punishment could go as high as external exclusion for three days. But Arthur somehow doubted that time off from school would be very good for Valiant, or much of a punishment for that matter.

“Just the usual backchat,” Arthur replied breezily. “An hour should be sufficient.”

Valiant's head shot up but he didn't say anything. Arthur held his gaze steadily as Gwen sighed and started filling out a form on a clipboard.

“Brilliant. Follow me Mr. Orm, I've got some poster boards that need gluing.”

Valiant walked into the room without looking back at Arthur.

***

12:13 - http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/comet-reeks-of-cat-crap-and-rotten-eggs/

7:01 - What the fuck? Why would you send me this?

7:04 - It's science!

7:05 - You knew this would be the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes. This is revolting.

7:06 - Here read this instead http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zsrbgk7

7:07 - I give no fucks about fish learning physics

7:07 - You should! It will expand your mind beyond your own meager subject

7:08 - Go away. I'm going to go shower

7:08 - K see you in an hour :D

***

Arthur skidded to a halt outside the classroom door and used the doorframe as leverage to propel himself into the room.

“Merlin?”

“I'm in here.”

Arthur pushed the storage room door open. Merlin stood in the middle of the room; one hand across his body resting on his opposite hip, the other over his mouth. His normally unruly hair had gone positively wild and was stuck up in little tufts. He stared at the various bottles with an unfocused expression, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.

“What're you doing mate?” Arthur asked hesitantly.

“Trying to decide if there's anything in here I can poison myself with. Not bad enough to kill me mind, just enough to put me in hospital for the next three days.”

“That seems a bit much.”

“No. No it's not.” He turned to face Arthur for the first time and Arthur saw how red his face was. “I'm going to fail Arthur. I never should have picked up the phone.”

“You know they would have left a message and we'd still be fucked twelve ways 'til Sunday. There's no escaping Ofsted once you're on the list. So unless something serious happens, like Aredian finally decides to pop his clogs, this is happening one way or another.” He crossed his arms and leaned back against the least volatile looking shelf.

“I can't do this,” said Merlin looking stricken. “My books are almost two weeks behind, my lessons are in shambles, and I've completed lost the plot of their sublevels. I knew I was losing a lot of marking time travelling back and forth between home so often but my Aunt Alice is sick and my mum is a wreck over it and I always told myself I'd make up the lost hours later. Why did I ever think I could be a teacher?” He ran a hand through his hair and it became clear why it was standing up in odd tufts.

Early on in their (professional) relationship, Arthur had noticed Merlin had a habit of playing with his ears when he was stressed. Now, he was tugging on the lobe of his right ear so hard, Arthur couldn't tell whether it was red from folding or whether it was just the flush from his face migrating. The small bit of his neck and chest visible had also started turning faintly pink. All in all, he looked slightly deranged, and his breathing seemed off slightly, like it was laboured but also hurried.

Instinctively, and ignoring the screaming warning signals coming from his forebrain, Arthur stepped forward and grabbed Merlin by the shoulders. He ducked his head to catch Merlin's eye.

“Merlin, look at me.” He waited until Merlin glanced up briefly. “Hey, no. Look at me. Look – that's better. You are not going to fail. Ah –” he cut off Merlin's retort, “No really. You're not going to fail because I'm not going to let you. We are going to get through this. We are going to teach our next lessons and pretend that everything is normal because it's not going to help the problem or our students to worry about the eval while teaching. At the end of the lesson you are going to warn slash threaten the students that Ofsted is coming and calmly explain to them what a big deal this is. At lunch you are going to draw up your rough outlines and after school I'm going to come down here and help carry all your books up to the history office where we will sit and mark until we run out of red ink or our fingers fall off, and possibly even after that. And we're going to avoid the staffroom because it's going to be utter chaos in there and that's the last thing you need right now. What do you say?”

Merlin looked like he was fighting back a smile and an eye roll simultaneously but said nothing.

“I should maybe mention this isn't a request,” said Arthur casually. “I was after something like ‘Arthur, you time management god! Of course I'll accept your help with marking. How can I ever make this up to you?’ But I understand if you're not up to talking right now. My first Ofsted I thought I was going to throw up on my inspector.”

“Arthur I can't ask you to help me on this. You've got enough to be getting on with for your own classes. How can you possibly have time to help me with mine?!”

“I'll manage,” Arthur shrugged. “For once in my life I'm up to date on my books.”

Which perhaps wasn’t entirely true, but after the previous Saturday's awkwardly short breakfast date with Morgana and Nimueh, he had gone home and channeled his bad mood into marking. Maybe not the most enjoyable way to spend a to spend a weekend, but it was certainly the most productive he had been in a while; at least until Sunday afternoon when Merlin came back from visiting his mum and they had gone to a retro arcade Merlin had been talking about for weeks. Merlin, unsurprisingly, annihilated Arthur at most of the games, but Arthur had held his own at Super Smash Brothers and had been the surprise victor at DDR.

“But you still have your lessons and all your reports!” Merlin's voice had taken on a slightly hysterical tone and Arthur's stupid chivalrous need to protect Merlin doubled in intensity. It was so strong it felt like a primal urge, broken down into a simple formula: eat, drink, sleep, protect Merlin.

“I said I'll manage. And George owes me a few favours.” He gave Merlin's shoulder a squeeze. “Ofsted is a shit thirty-six hours but it is manageable. We can do this Merlin.”

At long last, Merlin gave a half smile and seemed to be easing back towards his natural pallor.

“You should have been a politician,” he mumbled. “You can give one hell of a speech.”

“I could never run for office,” Arthur laughed, “I'd never have the patience to wait for any laws to pass. I'd much rather be King. Command supreme power and all that.”

“Thank God I don't live in that reality,” Merlin rolled his eyes.

Arthur laughed again and was relieved to see Merlin looking noticeably more relaxed. It was with regret though that he registered his hand still resting on Merlin's shoulder. He let it slide off in what he hoped was a casual gesture that didn't linger any longer than necessary. Merlin's eyes briefly tracked the movement before snapping back to Arthur's face.

“Okay: class, scare, lessons, class, books, marking, bleeding, success. Did I leave anything out?” He bounced up and down in quick little jumps as if preparing for a race.

“Not a thing. Did you eat breakfast this morning?”

“Not as such.”

“By which you mean you drank the pumpkin spice latte I brought you and are counting that as proper nutrition.”

“Correct.”

“Then here, take this,” Arthur pulled a BelVita bar out of his pocket. “Congratulations, your brain is now sufficiently nourished to teach. I'll meet you down here at three-thirty sharp!”

“As my King commands.”

***

Five hours into the day, Arthur had started to seriously doubt his own plan of attack. His year tens were still struggling to grasp the causes of the First World War and they absolutely could not afford to spend another full lesson on it. No matter how many times he reworded the questions, a large percentage of students were still failing their tests. In a final act of desperation, he had resorted to using a cut and paste activity.

In theory, the students were supposed to be working in groups to complete the flow chart, sticking the little info blocks in the correct spots on the timeline. But they seemed to be treating it as some kind of art class or free period.  When it became clear that not even Sefa was using her time effectively, Arthur slammed the lid down on his computer and stood up. Under normal circumstances he would have found it amusing how fast the students snapped to attention; almost like they thought the computer somehow had the power to encase him in a magic bubble where he was oblivious to the classroom. But his current mood was anything but amused.

“Is there some kind of problem here?” he asked the room at large. When no one met his eyes he continued, “because I believe I told you we were taking this worksheet up at half past and it's now,” he turned to look at the clock, “two-twenty, and I hear far too much chatter. Does this mean you're all done early? I'm asking you a question. Put up your hands if you're done.”

Not a single hand went up. Sefa looked miserable and Freya looked on the point of tears. Daegal, Mordred, and Kara all looked extremely uncomfortable and kept shifting in their seats. The rest of the class looked tense; they knew they had crossed the line and were waiting for the hammer to fall. It was moments like this that really made Arthur hate the kind of institutionalised fear Kilgharrah promoted in his school. But he also couldn't afford to waste time today.

“I have to say, I'm very disappointed right now. You've had more than enough time to finish this activity and you know that if you're having trouble with something, you come and ask me for help. Not your classmates.”

Mordred put up his hand and the class shuffled in anticipation. Arthur took a second to steel himself for whatever was going to come before answering Mordred's question.

“Mr. Jernigan?”

“Sir,” Mordred bit his lip, “I'm not trying to be disrespectful. But is this stuff really important?”

“Are you actually asking if it's important to learn about the First World War?”

“No!” Mordred back-peddled. “I just mean this stuff about why the war started. It just isn't very interesting…” he trailed off, a faint flush rising on his cheeks.

Arthur sighed and briefly lamented the fact that, of course, they were choosing today of all days to get uppity about the coursework. The class had collectedly moved backwards in their seats, as if bracing for an explosion. Arthur folded his arms behind his back and began to walk along the front row of desks.

“Would you prefer to just skip ahead to the bloody parts? To the part where, for the first time in history thirty-two different countries fought in the same war? To the Battle of the Somme where one in four men were wounded and one in ten men died? To where one out of ten families was ripped apart by the death of their father, brother, or son? To where thirty-seven million soldiers and civilians died as a direct result of the war? To the part where thousands of women felt so patriotic and guilt-ridden and idle that they became field nurses and inspired an entire generation of women to stand up for their rights and create the first wave of feminism? Or maybe you want to skip the First World War entirely and just go straight to Hitler? Is he more exciting than learning about how the desires of a few Slavs living in Bosnia instigated what was then the largest and bloodiest battle in history? Because that's the message I'm getting from all your chatter.”

There was an oppressively heavy silence in the room. No one had moved since he'd started talking and the lack of noise was almost distressing. He never thought he'd miss the awful squeak of barely rubberized chair legs on linoleum. He knew if he didn't win them over with this lecture, he would lose them for the rest of the unit. With a sigh, he returned to his desk and held up a thick paperback filled with post-it notes for the class to see.

“I was planning on reading excerpts from this book next week. It's called ‘Testament of Youth’ and was written by a woman named Vera Brittain. Vera was only a couple of years older than you when the war started. She was bright, motivated, and excited about life, particularly about getting her degree in English Lit at Oxford. When the war first started, she viewed it as a bit of an annoyance and a disruption to her studies, but for the most part her peers were excited by it. They wanted a chance to go to war and prove themselves. They had no idea the scale of destruction that was going to take place, and that the events of 1914 to 1918 would permanently change the world forever. They honestly thought they'd be home in time for Christmas.” His voice wavered slightly at the end of his sentence.

“Let's skip ahead, shall we? I'm going to read you two different passages. The first one Vera wrote after becoming a nurse. She wrote, ‘I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case--to say nothing of 10 cases--of mustard gas in its early stages--could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes--sometimes temporally, sometimes permanently--all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.’”

 He paused and looked up at the class as he flipped to the next post-it note. They still hadn't moved, but the mood was a little less charged and a lot more sombre.

He dragged his finger down the page to the next passage. “Over the course of the war, Vera's entire way of life changed. She abandoned her studies to become a nurse. She watched powerlessly as her fiancé, her brother, and her best childhood friend all went to fight and died. She came back to England utterly changed and found the middleclass still clinging to their old ideals and clamouring for revenge against Germany and the Axis powers. But Vera didn't see that as a viable option. She wrote, ‘"It is impossible," I concluded, "to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilisation."’ Even after losing so much to the war, Vera remained committed to pacifism and even went on to speak at the League of Nations. I'd love to tell you more about Vera's experiences, and those of her fiancé, brother, and friends, but unfortunately I can't. Because if you can't understand the motivations behind why the war started, and why these young people, like thousands of others, felt the need to join so badly, then you don't deserve to hear their stories.”

He stopped abruptly and ran a hand through his hair. “I don't like lecturing you like this, but it's a slap in the face to the thousands of men and women who died so that you could be alive today to sit in this classroom. It would be an insult to their memories to read their real experiences like some kind of glorified fiction without understanding why they did what they did.” He turned back to face Mordred. “Does that answer your question Mr. Jerigan?”

“Yes, Sir,” Mordred answered quietly. His eyes were rimmed with red and around the classroom there were several sniffs.

Arthur turned to put the book back on his desk. As he did, he caught sight of Kilgharrah standing just outside the door. They locked eyes and Kilgharrah gave him an unreadable look, a slight nod, and was gone before Arthur could even feel wrong-footed. He checked the clock again and turned back to the class.

“We've officially got ten minutes left until the end of the lesson. But unfortunately we don't have more time to work on the activity now because I've got to prep you for the Ofsted evaluation that will be starting tomorrow.”

Muttering broke out and for the first time since Mordred's question, he felt a little more relaxed.

“Which means the timeline activity is now homework, due tomorrow. We'll take it up in the first five minutes of class and then move on. While the inspector is here you will be on your best behaviour. You will treat them you like you would treat your visiting grandparent – with respect. If they ask you a question you will answer it truthfully, even if it means getting a fellow student, teacher, or even the head teacher in trouble. Your parents and guardians will also be getting questionnaires sent to them, so they may ask you how you feel about a variety of topics related to school. Please answer their questions honestly, too. These inspections are entirely based around the students getting the maximum level of support and education from a school. It's in your best interests to answer honestly.” The bell rang and Arthur nearly swore in relief.

“You are dismissed. Leave your books on the corner of my desk for marking. And please, let's all come back to class tomorrow with a better attitudes.” He headed for his desk and immediately started to pack what felt like his entire desk into his bag.

One by one, the students filed by his desk, all depositing their books and shuffling out in silence. As usual, Freya and Co. hung back and joined the end of the line. They had almost reached his desk when Vivian stopped the procession.

“I had a great auntie who immigrated to the United States with her husband in the 1930s. She joined up with the Women's Airforce Service Pilots and was killed on a delivery mission. The WASP unit wasn't considered part of the military so my great-great-grandparents had to pay to have their daughter's body shipped back to them without any sort of honours or recognition for her service. I want people to learn her story.” She held her book out to Arthur.

Arthur took in her look of determination. “That, is a very admirable goal. I'll make sure to include her story when we get to women's service in World War Two.” He took the book and Vivian beamed at him. Arthur's echoing smile broke out across his face, for what felt like the first time in days.

Vivian flounced out of the classroom like normal and he was finally left alone with The Five. He wasn't surprised to see tear tracks on the girls' faces.

“Sir,” Mordred started unsteadily.

Arthur held up a hand. “Before you say anything, I want to apologise. You are normally a very well behaved group and your grades speak louder than the choices you made today. You aren't bad kids because you have a bad day. That said, this really is an important part of the unit and we can't move on until it's finished.”

“We know, Sir,” Kara said quickly. “That's why we wanted to say we're sorry for being part of the disruption.”

“We should have just kept working on the activity,” Freya agreed. “This is school. We're here to learn, it's not meant to be fun.”

They all nodded gravely and Arthur let out a half-hearted laugh.

“Remember how I told you to be honest with the inspectors? I take that back. Lie through your teeth and whatever you do, don't tell them I make learning boring.”

The group chuckled but Sefa still looked mildly unsure.

“That was a joke. Tell them whatever you want. But just so you know, teachers actually do put a lot of effort into trying to make things interesting for you. It also has to be accessible to everyone in the class, though. There's no point in having a ‘fun’ lesson if you don't actually learn anything from it.”

“We know, Sir,” said Daegal. “We'll finish our timelines tonight. And when we do,” he looked at the others for support, “please will you read us more of that book?”

What Arthur felt like saying was something along the lines of ‘provided I don't lose my job tomorrow, then yes’. “As long as we don't have any more disruptions, I don't see why not,” was what he actually said.

“Cool! See you tomorrow, Sir,” Daegal beamed at him. They all stacked their books onto the pile (Kara straightening them once the final book was in place) and left. Alone at last, Arthur let his head drop onto his desk for a total of sixty carefully counted seconds before he picked up his overfull bag and his stack of books and headed for the door.

***

“Oh thank God,” said Merlin as Arthur turned the corner. “I thought you might have changed your mind and gone home to work in peace.”

“Are you daft? No, don't answer that,” he said as he fumbled at the doorknob with his slightly freer hand, “you must be daft if you had any fears I might desert you. I should probably talk to Gary about that, he probably doesn't want to employ a complete and total bellend.”

“Shut up,” Merlin laughed, trying to shift his books to help. Between the two of them, they somehow managed to get the door open and tumbled into the near-empty office.

George had, most likely, gone home at precisely three-forty five on the dot to continue planning for tomorrow there, or whatever else it was George usually did. Arthur wasn't entirely sure. The only hint George's personality came from the meticulous layout of his desk and a framed photo of his marching band, George almost completely obscured by his tuba.

Geoffrey was still packing his bag at his usual snail's pace, unperturbed by their sudden presence. He waited until he had snapped the buckle closed on his satchel before speaking.

“Ah Arthur, there you are. Here are the plans you requested. You might need to… update them a little.” He dropped a stack of papers on top of the stack of books in Arthur's arms.

Arthur blinked and set his load down on his desk. “Geoffrey, these are handwritten.”

“Yes,” Geoffrey bristled not unlike how an owl ruffles its feathers. “I haven't taught year ten for quite some time.”

“So you don't have a notebook file? Or a PowerPoint?” Arthur tried.

“Paper and pencil were good enough when I started in this profession,” Geoffrey into a familiar refrain.

“Yes, I've heard your tirade before!” Arthur interjected with a forced smile. “Thank you, I'm sure these will be extremely helpful.”

“You're welcome,” said Geoffrey, evidently believing Arthur to be serious. He flipped his felt hat onto his head and pulled on his coat. “Good luck tonight, boys. You know, I remember the days before all this Ofsted nonsense. My how the times have changed.” He laughed to himself as he left, leaving Arthur and Merlin staring after him with twin expressions of disbelief.

“Oh Geoffrey,” Merlin shook his head and set his books down on the newly vacated desk. “I'll miss him when he goes.”

“He's really something,” Arthur agreed, rolling his eyes.

“Are those going to be any use to you,” asked Merlin, nodding at the faded lesson plans.

Arthur picked them up and did a quick scan. “Provided I omit his usage of the word ‘Hun’ there might be some useful ideas in here.”

“Good God, he doesn't really?”

“I did say he was something.”

“Oh, Arthur, I'm so sorry. I'll go back to my office and let you spread out in here. You're going to have a lot more to do than you thought.”

Arthur reached out and grabbed his arm mid turn. “No. You stay. This changes nothing.”

“Arthur,” Merlin breathed. “You can't possibly help me and get all your work done for tomorrow. Are you insane?”

“Nope,” said Arthur with certainty. “But we're a team, and even if I have to write my lessons from scratch, which I won't, I'm still leagues ahead of you. Now sit down and teach me enough science to mark these books.”

“Absolutely mental,” said Merlin in whispered awe. “This is going to end so poorly.”

“I've made my decision, Merlin. Do not make me waste time googling the answers to these questions.”

“No, of course not,” Merlin snapped back to life. “Here, there's an answer key in this binder for the multiple choice and I'm going to print off the answers for Part B.” He turned towards the computer but aborted the movement halfway through and wobbled on the spot. Arthur held out an arm to steady him and Merlin clutched onto it, the heat from his palm seeping through the thin cotton of Arthur's shirt.

“Merlin, please do your absolute best to not break your neck before tomorrow. I don't want to spend all night marking if you aren't even around to be evaluated.”

“That's not a bad idea actually,” Merlin muttered, frowning at Arthur's narrowed eyes. “No but, ah. Oh hell, here.” And before Arthur's brain was done untangling that horrible mutilation of the English language, Merlin had thrown his arms around him and pulled their bodies tightly together.

Arthur's stomach did a funny little cartwheel which was odd because stomachs probably couldn't do that. Or if it was within their capacity, they probably shouldn't be doing aerobatics, because the sensation it provided had clearly addled his brain past the point of no return. His arms hung woodenly at his sides while his heart tried desperately to pump extra blood into his brain to restore cognitive functions. He finally remembered that, in a hug, generally both people's arms were involved. Luckily, Merlin didn't seem to care.

“Just, thank you,” Merlin breathed into his shoulder. “You're really going above and beyond the call of duty with this one and, just, thanks,” he finished lamely.

Arthur's arms, now moving of their own accord, wrapped firmly around Merlin's torso and patted him on the back in what he assumed was a platonic gesture of support. Eager both to remain in the embrace forever and desperate to end it before it became awkward, Arthur did what he did best: deflect, deflect, deflect.

“I know you're desperate to find excuses to procrastinate Merlin, but this is taking it a bit far,” he drawled. Merlin's head came up and he snorted.

“You're right – whatever was I thinking?” he deadpanned, taking a step backwards. Which was unfortunate because Arthur's arms, clearly still operating separately from the rest of his body, remained locked in place, causing Merlin to stumble again.

Arthur hastily unlocked his arms and grabbed Merlin by the shoulders to steady him. He pursed his lips and made a show out of aligning Merlin's shoulders, as if to prevent him from falling over again.

“Get off,” Merlin laughed, turning to face the computer at last.

Score another point for deflection.

***

Once he got into the swing of it, Arthur found that marking chemistry was actually a lot easier than he expected. The topics he remembered struggling with as a teen came to him more easily as an adult. The logical part of his brain told him this was the result of tackling the subject with a fully developed adult brain. The soft part of his brain told him it was Merlin's excellent teaching skills and solid answer key.

Merlin was at his usual place at Geoffrey's desk, typing furiously on his laptop and muttering a constant stream of dialogue to himself, mostly in the vein of, ‘but should I put the diagram on the worksheet or the PowerPoint?’ and, ‘are they ready for entropy?’ Despite their tight time limit, Arthur couldn't help glancing up at him every couple of books. He still looked a bit mad; his hair ruffled more than ever and a concentrated scowl on his face, but Arthur privately thought he looked cute as hell. Downright adorable even.

He had just about torn his eyes away from Merlin yet again (who was now folding his left ear in on itself) when Gwaine burst into the room. He looked mildly wrong-footed to see them and stopped in mid-step with his mouth open.

“You are still here,” he said, surprised. “I was sure you'd have gone home.”

Merlin let out a slightly hysterical giggle. “Home? Who has time to go home?”

“The olds?” suggested Gwaine. “Anyways, the rest of us are down in the staffroom if you want to join.”

From behind Merlin, Arthur shook his head furiously and waved his hand in front of his neck in the universal symbol for ‘BACKTRACK, BACKTRACK NOW’.

Gwaine, bless him, picked up on the signal faster than Arthur expected, but his expression betrayed some of his confusion. “Although it's a bit chaotic downstairs and there might be bloodshed over the queue for the printer soon.”

“What do you think, Arthur?” asked Merlin, turning to face him.

“I don't know,” said Arthur, absently rubbing his neck, “we're pretty well-established up here. And if people are at loggerheads, might be best to stay here.”

“Yeah, alright then,” Merlin shrugged.

“We've just had a massive delivery from Papa John's if you want any nibbles. Just to keep your stamina up,” Gwaine suggested. “It sounds like you lads are in it for the long haul.”

“There's an idea,” said Arthur.

As if on cue, Merlin's stomach rumbled and they all laughed.

“I'll pop down and grab some, shall I? Arthur, what do you fancy?” asked Merlin, standing up and stretching.

“Anything but mushrooms. Fungus has no place on food.”

“You know cheese is made with – no never mind, you don't need to know that. I'll be back in a few.”

Gwaine waited until Merlin was well out of earshot to round on Arthur.

“And why precisely are you keeping our resident twink locked up in your tower?”

“First of all, he's not a twink. Have you seen his shoulders? And his arms are surprisingly muscled under those sleeves. But, more importantly,” Arthur jabbed at Gwaine with his pen, “it's for his own good. He's really behind Gwaine. You should have seen him freak out earlier, he was almost crying. And I love you lot, but the last thing he needs right now are distractions. I can keep him on track much easier up here and with any luck he'll be on his way home by nine or ten.”

“And what about you?” Gwaine raised an eyebrow and threw himself down in the armchair.

“I'll sleep when I'm dead.”

“Arthur.”

“What?”

“You can't throw away your career over a crush.”

“Why is everyone in my life being so serious all of a sudden? Morgana, Nimueh, you. And you're supposed to be the fun one!” It could have been brought on by the hours of marking-induced insanity or the lack of food but in that moment Arthur felt genuinely betrayed.

“Sorry?” Gwaine looked affronted. “I could juggle something for you?” He made an attempt at getting out of the old chair but ended up falling further into the well-worn divot.

“Don't bother,” Arthur groaned, rubbing his eyes. “You'd probably still give me a lecture as you did. And before you say anything else, I'm not throwing my career away. I promise my books are up to date. I just need to tweak my lessons a little.”

“And by tweak you mean…?”

“Plan. I need to plan my lessons, okay?”

“Oh, Arthur,” Gwaine said in such a good impression of Morgana it was frightening.

“It's fine! If I get Merlin on the train by half nine I can be home by ten and that gives me four hours to plan before I absolutely have to go to bed. And if I'm at school for half six that gives me another two hours.”  He slammed his pen down triumphantly.

“You realise you actually have to be conscious to teach these lessons, yeah?” Gwaine shook his hair out of his bun to scratch his head more effectively.

“They invented energy drinks for a reason.”

“Good God, I'm getting an ulcer just looking at you.”

“Then go back to your little marking party.”

“I wasn't half lying when I said it was getting a bit mad down there,” Gwaine started retying his bun. “Ellie sent me to look for you because she was afraid you'd pulled an Aredian and were getting off with Merlin in a supply closet somewhere and she didn't want to be the one to walk in on it.”

“Merlin got off with Aredian?!” Arthur practically shouted.

“Jesus, it's good you're not the jealous type. No, Gwen walked in on Aredian and Cenred about two hours ago.”

“Cenred his PGCE student teacher?”

“That's the one.” Gwaine sat back in grim satisfaction.

“My God,” said Arthur, horrified. “Is that even allowed?”

“Well Cenred is what, twenty-one, twenty-two? He's definitely legal.”

“No I mean with the age gap. Aredian is old enough to be his grandfather!”

Gwaine frowned at him. “You should know better than anyone that you can't help who you fall in love with.”

“Yes, well I doubt very much it's love in Cenred's case. Although thinking about them only being in it for the physical is even more revolting.”

“And yet I don't see you denying the accusation that you're in love with Merlin,” Gwaine's frown deepened.

“Because I don't feel like arguing with you right now and it would be a lie.” Arthur let his head fall onto the desk and groaned. Maybe he could just close his eyes for five minutes…

“What would be a lie?” asked Merlin as he came back into the room.

Arthur sat up so fast he might have been made of springs. Gwaine jumped out of his chair like it was on fire. They both answered at the same time in a totally not suspicious manner.

“Nothing.”

Merlin blinked twice and sat back down at Geoffrey's desk.

“You know what, my level of caring right now is somewhere down in the sub-basement,” he said as he passed Arthur some pizza. “Gwaine, Ellie wants you back in HQ. Something about test driving her worksheet on muscle types.”

Gwaine sighed and hung his head. “Duty calls,” he said, standing up. “Enjoy your pizza, lads. Check by the staffroom on your way out to make sure there haven't actually been any crimes committed. Merlin,” he clapped Merlin on the shoulders, “keep an eye on this one. Make sure to get him home at a reasonable time so he can get his beauty sleep.”

Merlin laughed and Arthur flipped him the bird. Gwaine pulled the door closed behind him and they were left in silence.

“Shall I put a pot of coffee on?” asked Merlin.

“Oh go on then. And flick on the radio too – it'll keep our brains stimulated.”

“Arthur, this radio looks about two hundred years old.”

“Shows what you know Professor Science; the radio wasn't invented until the 1880s. And it works fine. It's just… selective about what it likes.”

“I swear this is how Terminator starts,” Merlin grumbled, flicking on the power, “crazies like you getting too attached to your technology and letting it rule you.”

“Like you haven't named every mobile and external hard drive you've ever had,” Arthur retorted.

“You leave 3PO and R2 out of this!”

“Really Merlin? Star Wars?”

“Yes, they have to match and I got R2 when I was doing a nostalgia re-watch. Anyway, this has nothing to do with the fact that your radio's antenna is so bent it makes Elton John look straight.”

“Shhh, he didn't mean it Heinrich.”

“Heinrich?”

“Heinrich Hertz, the man who confirmed Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism and the father of wireless transmission.”

“My God, you are such a nerd,” Merlin shook his head and turned back to the radio. “Alright Heinrich, let's tango.”

“Mmmm, less of a tango, more of a line dance… as in, he only gets one station.”

“What?” asked Merlin.

He turned the volume up in time to hear the melodic “London's heaaaaart,” jingle through the tinny speakers.

“Oh God, you listen to Heart?” Merlin moaned.

“Well, not by choice.”

“Can't we just use our phones? I've got Spotify.”

“No,” said Arthur around a mouthful of pizza. “If we're listening to music we actually like we'll get distracted and fight over who gets to choose the next song.”

“But,” Merlin protested weakly as Snap! began to play.

“You know I'm right Merlin. Besides, ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer is a classic’.”

“Classic garbage,” Merlin muttered. He grabbed a slice of pizza from the box and tore into it moodily.

“Have you been taking lessons from Will on how to eat angrily? Because you've really mastered the technique.”

“Oh shut up,” Merlin snapped and threw a piece of crust at Arthur. Arthur popped it in his mouth and smiled broadly.

Merlin took another bite and nodded his head at the tower of books in front of Arthur. “How goes my marking slave?”

“Very well, Master. I'm done with the first two classes and there are only a couple I have to ask you about. Like this one,” Arthur wiped his hands on a napkin and fished a book out of the pile. “What do you reckon? 4b?” He stretched across the table for Merlin to inspect the book.

“Yeah?” Merlin sighed. “I mean, it's not really but for him it is and I think we can stretch it. Fuck it, if they start inspecting books I'll just make Jack's mysteriously disappear. Give him the 4b.”

“Brilliant. And this one.” Arthur tossed him the book. “Can I make it a 5c?”

“Definitely. Oh well done, Alfie, yes!” Merlin flipped through the book with a wide smile on his face. “This from the kid who couldn't spell ‘periodic’ two months ago.

Oh, this is better,” his head came up as Lady Gaga came on the radio.

“Don't be a hater. There's nothing wrong with nineties Eurodance.”

“There is everything wrong with nineties Eurodance.”

“You're just saying that to be contrary and because you're tired,” said Arthur, pulling the books back to his side of the desk. “If you were in your right mind you'd be rocking some Vengaboys right now.”

“If I was drunk maybe,” Merlin snorted. “Now stop distracting me, I think I've nearly cracked this lesson.”

Arthur mimed zipping his lips and went back to marking. They stayed on task for approximately ten minutes (or three songs) when Merlin stopped them.

“This really is a terrible station,” he said halfway through ‘Tainted Love’.

“Mmm, but you can't say it’s dull,” said Arthur, circling the correct answer.

“That may be, but I'm still falling asleep,” Merlin yawned. “Digestion is stealing all of my blood.”

“What a horrifying thought.”

“Science,” Merlin yawned again.

“Alright, Sleepy,” Arthur resisted the urge to yawn, “get up.”

“Why?”

“Five minute dance break.”

“You can't be serious.”

“It'll get the blood pumping again. C'mon.”

“I refuse to dance to – oh hang on, that's better, again.” Merlin pushed away from Geoffrey's desk and stood up as the jazzy opening of Happy started playing. “Are you coming?”

“I'm not the one falling asleep at my desk,” Arthur crossed his arms.

“Not yet,” said Merlin, beginning some sort of twist move.

“And when that time comes, the coffee will sustain me. I'll leave the dancing to you.”

“You bastard! You tricked me,” Merlin laughed.

“I'm starting to wish I didn't,” said Arthur, tracking Merlin's ridiculous flailing moves, “I'm not sure this counts as dancing.”

“He wants us to clap Arthur! You can't say no to Pharrell!”

“For the love of – oh alright,” Arthur heaved himself out of his chair. “But only to show you how it's done.”

“Is that how it is?” Merlin asked, doing a duck and weave.

“Oh, that's how it is,” Arthur responded, sliding into place in front of Merlin. “Watch and learn.”

In reality, he and Merlin were probably evenly matched in their lack of skill. But dance-offs, like all other insert-task-here-offs, are a matter of pride. And when one initiates a challenge, it is law that both participants must try their best. In this case, Arthur was going to leave everything he had on the dance floor.

“You know,” said Merlin after a few minutes of uninterrupted and progressively sillier dance moves, “the music video for this song has a lot of kids in it. I think all of them are better than us.”

“That may be. But we are adults with salaries and they still have to eat their vegetables and go to bed at seven, so who's the real loser in this scenario.”

“Pretty sure it's still us,” said Merlin, executing his finest disco point.

“I can't hear you over all this blood pumping,” Arthur mock-shouted.

The song ended abruptly and they both stopped jumping.

“Slow song?” Merlin whined. “But our five minutes isn't up yet.”

Arthur licked his lips. “In that case.” And before he could think too hard and talk himself out of it, he stepped forward and put his hand around Merlin's waist.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, bewildered as Arthur joined their hands together.

“Shut up and go with it, we're still on our dance break.” Arthur swayed them back and forth a few times to test out the feel of the hold. In hindsight, he probably should have waited to hear what song it was before clinging onto Merlin for a song that opened with the lyrics ‘say you love me to my face’.

As the rest of Jessie Ware's lyrics played out to a mournful rock waltz, the blind panic that he'd misjudged the situation was replaced by a fuzzy, comfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach. This was much better than the ill-advised cartwheels his stomach had attempted to perform earlier. It was much more like the rush of endorphins you'd get after completing a particularly difficult Sudoku puzzle. Both foreign and familiar at the same time, and Arthur couldn't get past the overwhelming sensation of rightness.

Merlin's hand fit perfectly in his and their matching ink stains and smudges were like some sort of cosmic sign. Their chests weren't exactly touching, but they brushed together with every inhale. And then there were his eyes. Even after months of stealing hidden glances, Arthur had never truly appreciated just how gorgeous Merlin's eyes were. It was probably illegal for eyes to be that blue, but it wasn't the colour Arthur was distracted by; it was the lashes. How could Merlin possibly see through the underbrush he had growing out of his eyelids?

It was somewhere around the bridge that Arthur realised they were waltzing and staring into each other's eyes like something out of a Hugh Grant film. Even more disturbing - it wasn't awkward. Neither of them had cracked a joke in at least three minutes (which was frankly some kind of record for them) and everything still felt okay. In fact, the lack of anything to panic about made Arthur want to panic. His heart rate picked up and he felt his pulse beat in the hand holding Merlin's of all places. The miracle of the vascular system.

In what had to be the last repeat of the chorus, Merlin licked his lips and Arthur leaned in instinctively.

“I think our five minutes are up,” he whispered.

“What?” Arthur shook his head and the song transitioned abruptly, jarring piano chords banging out of the radio. He dropped Merlin's hand and, in a stunning display of grace and coordination, tripped backwards and landed in his chair.

“Shit, Arthur, are you alright?” Merlin asked coming to his side. His chest was rising and falling rapidly though he'd hardly had to cross a great amount of floor to get to the desk.

“Well, I'm awake now,” Arthur blinked. “I'm going to have one hell of a sore bottom tomorrow but I'll live.”

“Right,” Merlin looked uncertain and still somewhat flushed.

“No really, I'm fine. But we'll have to dance to this one another time, our break is officially over. We have students to educate and jobs to keep.” He reached for the book he had abandoned for the dance-off.

He made a few corrections to long answer questions before he felt the telltale burning sensation of being watched. He looked up to see Merlin staring at him with a slight frown on his face. Arthur felt a sudden wave of panic that Merlin might be contemplating asking him what the hell just happened, especially since Arthur was ninety percent sure they were about a second away from kissing. Luckily, his natural defence mechanism kicked in.

“I really wish they'd stop playing slow songs,” he screwed up his face as, ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ continued to pound out of the radio. “Makes it so much harder to keep the energy up.” As he finished talking the song changed again and he bit back a groan.

“Be careful what you wish for.” Merlin snorted, as the telltale opening of ‘Hungry Eyes’ crooned out of the radio.

***

“How you feeling today, Champ?” asked Leon, handing Arthur a cup of coffee before he'd even entered the staffroom fully.

“You are a Godsend Leon. If Gwen hadn't snapped you up already I would propose right now,” Arthur moaned as he took his first sip.

“That bad, eh?”

“I think I slept at some point.” Arthur screwed up his eyes in concentration, “I mean, it was two and then it was not two and my alarm went off so I must have slept for that in-between bit.”

“Fuck me, you're rough. As your doctor, I recommend an aggressive regime of coffee. Today is at least a four-cup day.”

“You've got a PhD in English lit,” Arthur yawned. “But you make a valid point. Today is definitely a four-cup day.” He hugged the mug not unlike an Oliver Twist-era urchin clutching his cap. The heat was almost too much but he was too tired to bother readjusting his grip.

“Hello lads, alright?” asked Gwaine, half carrying Elena through the door with him.

“Alright,” Leon yawned in return. “Gwen's only cried once so far and she's gone ahead to the office already. Last minute printing. Speaking of which.” He turned back to the counter to pour another cup of coffee. “She'll probably be ready for this by now.”

“Bless you for working in the same department as your spouse,” said Elena, attempting to pat her sleep-rumpled hair down in the mirror, “I'd probably kill this one if we shared a bed and an office.”

“Yes, but that's because you made the mistake of marrying Gwaine, whereas I had the incredible luck of marrying an angel on earth,” Leon winked at her over the rim of his mug.

“Truth,” Elena conceded at the same time as Gwaine said, “Oi!”

“Oh come on Gwaine, if Gwen was still an option when I started here, I definitely would have married her,” said Elena around a mouthful of bobby pins.

“I guess that's fair,” Gwaine grumbled. “I'm kind of sad I didn't get to make a pass at her.”

Leon snorted. “You make a pass at her every day.”

“And I very graciously let you live because Gwen is an actual goddess,” said Elena, turning to face them all again. Her messy bun still had several strands sticking out at odd angles, but it was a definite improvement on her previous look. “You doing alright there, Sunshine?” she asked Arthur.

“Hm?” Arthur blinked at her.

“You have to drink that coffee, Darling, you don’t just absorb it through osmosis.”

“Right,” said Arthur, taking a gulp.

Gwaine, unhelpfully, began to chant, “chug, chug, chug, chug.”

“Any other day I'd hit you for that, but today it isn't a bad idea,” Elena conceded.

Leon took it upon himself to help Arthur maximize his caffeine intake and tipped the bottom of the mug up as Arthur was drinking. After he drained his mug, Arthur gave himself a little shake and wiped his mouth.

“So really Arthur, how are you? Did you get everything done?” asked Leon.

“Of course I did. I'm a boss. Books marked, lessons planned and practiced, outlines outlined, the works.”

“Oh thank God,” Leon sighed. “Pay up,” he said to Gwaine.

“Hang on, how did Merlin get on? Is he ready?” Gwaine asked.

“Of course,” said Arthur, confused. “He was done before I was.”

“So it's a draw,” said Elena.

“Balls!” said Gwaine.

“Which means Mith and Gwen take all,” Leon grumbled.

“What the hell is going on?” asked Arthur.

“We had a betting pool going on which of one of you was going to finish. Only Mith and Gwen believed both of you were going to be ready on time.”

“Gosh, thanks guys,” said Arthur sarcastically.

“Hey now, I bet that you were going to be too soft and sacrifice your own work for Merlin's. I think that's a good assertion to cast on your character!” said Gwaine indignantly.

“And what, you two thought I'd be selfish and only worry about getting myself ready for the inspection?”

“No, that's what Will thought,” said Elena brightly, “Leon and I thought Merlin could probably pull himself through alright and couldn't believe you'd be stupid enough to not get your own work done.”

“Such support. Much camaraderie,” Arthur rolled his eyes.

“Oh shut up, it's too early for memes,” Gwaine yawned as he looked at his watch. “Actually, shit, no it's not. It's half seven.”

The familiar feeling of panic started to rise in Arthur's stomach, but before it could do any real damage, the door burst open and Merlin flew into the room, tie flapping over his shoulder.

“I think the inspectors are here!” he said, eyes wide and clearly terrified.

En masse, they ran to the window jostling Geoffrey's chair and earning them a stern look in the process. Sure enough, three taxis were idling in the drop off zone and a large group was getting out and gathering by the front entrance. As they watched, Kilgharrah strolled out of the main doors to greet them.

“What do you reckon?” asked Merlin. “They don't look too bad.”

“It's hard to tell,” said Arthur, who was feeling much more awake due more to Merlin's close proximity than anything else.

“A lot of them look fairly young,” said Cenred as he wandered over to join them. “That could bode well.”

“Sure,” said Gwaine, “or it could mean they're fresh out of training and still have the book memorised.”

They watched as Kilgharrah turned back towards the school and started leading the group inside. One of the inspectors, a middle-aged woman with her hair pulled back into a severe bun, glanced up at the window they were all huddled around. Without any sort of planning, they all dropped to the floor and hid beneath the safety of the windowsill. Cenred was the only one who hadn't moved.

“Classy,” he said surveying them over his cup of coffee. “And you lot are the qualified teachers.”

“Nice hickey, Cenred,” Arthur rolled his eyes, “I'm sure the inspectors will be really impressed with that.”

Cenred flushed an ugly shade of red and stormed off towards the toilets.

“I didn't see any hickey,” said Merlin.

“Nor did I, but it serves him right, the little shit,” said Arthur, hauling Merlin to his feet.

“Alright lads, and lady, time to get to the battle stations. I'll see you on the other side,” Gwaine gave them a salute, pecked Elena on the cheek, and headed for the door.

“Good luck, boys!” Elena hurried after Gwaine. “Just think, in forty-eight hours this will all be over and we'll be getting drunk.”

“It was nice of them to come calling on a Wednesday,” Leon agreed. “To battle my friends.” He clapped them both on the shoulders and left.

Alone, apart from Geoffrey and the other olds, Arthur turned to face Merlin. He was folding his right ear and staring off into space with a slightly unfocused look on his face. His tie had not survived the sprint to the staffroom, though the knot had probably lacked structural integrity from its inception. Merlin was not a tie kind of guy.

“How do you feel?” asked Arthur, pulling the tie free from its inadequate knot. “You were awfully quiet in the car this morning.”

“I think I fell asleep. Didn't you notice?” Merlin was still staring at some point over Arthur's right shoulder, the dark shadows under his eyes particularly pronounced up close.

“No. I was too busy concentrating on staying awake and not killing us on the drive in,” Arthur replied, working the tie into a Half-Windsor knot. “It'd be a shame to have spent my last night on earth cooped up in an office writing lesson plans.”

“Mmmm,” Merlin made a noncommittal noise. “Could be worse. At least you were in good company.”

“There is that,” said Arthur, stepping back to inspect his work. “Much better.”

“What?” asked Merlin, apparently coming back to himself. He looked down at his chest in surprise. “Oh, thanks!”

“Are you ready?”

“No.”

“Merlin. Look at me.” Arthur gripped his shoulders tightly and waited until Merlin met his gaze. “You'll be fine. Trust me.”

Merlin didn't respond, but gave him a half smile and quick nod.

“Do you have everything you need in your classroom? Your USBs? Mentos? Enough coffee?”

“Books are in the classroom, USB is around my neck, mentos are in my pocket, coffee is in my thermos.”

“Good man,” Arthur clapped him on the back. “C'mon, I'll walk you to your classroom.”

They left Geoffrey chuckling into his paper and exited into the still-empty hallway. They hadn't gone more than ten steps when three figures came around the corner in front of them.

“Ah good, just the two I was looking for!” Kilgharrah clapped his hands together eagerly. “Mr. Emrys, Mr. Pendragon, may I present Mr. Catha and Mr. Anhora. They'll be with you for part of the morning to test your worthiness. No need to look so frightened, Mr. Emrys!” Kilgharrah guffawed. “Mr. Emrys only joined our staff in August, but he's made an excellent addition to the science department. Merlin, would you be so kind as to show Mr. Catha to your classroom?”

Merlin turned to face Arthur with wide eyes. Evidently, showing the stern-looking bald man to his classroom was the last thing Merlin wanted to do. For a moment Arthur worried Merlin would simply stay frozen on the spot for eternity. In a last ditch effort of solidarity, Arthur flashed him a quick wink with the eye hidden from the inspectors. As if on cue, Merlin came back to life. His smile spread across his entire face, and just looking at it warmed Arthur from the inside out.

“Of course,” said Merlin as he turned to face the inspectors. “If you just follow me this way. What subject did you teach, Sir?”

Relieved that Merlin was functional again, Arthur turned his gaze back to the remaining two. Kilgharrah was watching him with a calculating expression that made Arthur feel extremely uneasy. Anhora however, was busy tapping away on his mobile and didn't appear to notice anything out of the ordinary.

“My apologies gentlemen,” said Anhora at last, putting away his phone. “I've been trying to secure a rather difficult entertainer for my granddaughter's birthday and believe I've finally succeeded.”

“No bother at all,” Kilgharrah boomed. “You'll be inspecting Mr. Pendragon for his first period. Arthur has been with us for, how long now? Four years?”

“Going on five, Sir,” Arthur agreed.

“Marvellous, marvellous,” said Anhora, his eyebrows raised in amusement. “Shall we proceed?”

“Right this way, Sir.”

***

Arthur pushed open the door to the staffroom and was greeted with a rousing chorus of “Arthur!” like something out of an American sitcom.

“It's over!” shrieked Mithian, throwing her arms around his neck and half strangling him.

“How do you think you did?” asked Arthur.

“Definitely a two. The only feedback I got was that the kids ‘didn't look as engaged as they could have’. Like, I'm sorry, you try giving them a lecture on Brecht in a class they're used to running around in and see how you do.”

“Utter rubbish,” Arthur shook his head. “I got something about letting my year elevens participate more. They were taking a test.”

Mithian threw back her head and laughed, using his shoulder for support. Behind her, the door swung open again to reveal Merlin. He looked a little worse for wear but his eyes were bright and clear. Arthur threw out his free arm and Merlin's eyes crinkled as he smiled and ran over to join them.

“Oh you sweet young thing, you made it!” Mithian cooed as Merlin slung an arm around her waist. “How did you do?”

“Really well, actually,” said Merlin sounding slightly shocked. “I'm not sure if it was because I actually did well or if I just looked good by comparison to the rest of my department.” He lowered his voice and the other two leaned in. “I think Aredian got a three. When I left, Kilgharrah smiled and shut the door behind me. Then there was some shouting but I couldn't make out the words so I ran for it. I'm not sure what was scarier: hearing Gary shout or having him smile at me.” Merlin shivered and Arthur and Mithian both laughed.

“Well, whatever it was, just take it in stride and don't think too hard about it,” said Arthur, using his free hand to ruffle Merlin's hair.

“Oi, why are you two molesting my girlfriend?” asked Will, coming over to join them.

“It's not molesting if I initiated it,” Mithian winked at him.

“Ick. Darling, if you're going to cheat on me, you can do better than Pendragon and my childhood best friend. I've seen him eat dirt. Voluntarily. And multiple times,” Will rolled his eyes.

“Yes, well I'm sure Arthur has refined his tastes since then,” said Mithian, giving him a gentle bump with her hip.

“Hey!” Arthur opened his mouth indignantly.

“Anyway, I came over here to break up the love fest for a reason.”

“Because you're a jealous bastard?” Merlin suggested helpfully.

“Yes. But also to tell you we're all going for drinks at the Golden Dragon.”

“The pub up on North Street?” asked Arthur.

“The very same.”

“I'm done in. I want to go home and drop off the car first.”

“Are you sure?” asked Mithian.

“It's only about a twenty minute walk from my place,” Arthur shrugged. “And I'm pretty sure if I had a pint now I'd pass out on the table. The walk will wake me up.”

“I'll come with you,” Merlin offered.

“It's fine,” Arthur laughed. “Go ahead and get a drink in you. You probably need it more than most of us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Will muttered.

“Are you sure?” Merlin asked.

“Positive. If I leave right now, I might even beat you lot there. You know how long it takes to get any momentum going around here.”

“Well, on the off chance of divine intervention I'll save you a seat,” Merlin laughed.

***

Apparently the man upstairs was smiling favourably on the teachers of St. Albion's Mound, because by the time Arthur got to the pub they were all comfortably ensconced in the back-booth area. Somewhat anticlimactically, there was no great cheer this time when Arthur walked in. He assumed this was because most of them were already well on their way to being pissed and in no state to keep track of the comings and goings of their colleagues if the heady smell of alcohol and their excessively loud conversations were anything to go by. Arthur didn't remain unspotted for long though; he had barely hung up his coat when Gwaine threw an arm around his neck and passed him a pint of something dark and frothy.

“Arthur, thank Christ you're here!” said Gwaine, clinking their glasses together and taking a sip. “Please go take control of your man.”

Arthur, who felt he was far to sober to deal with a request of this magnitude, took several gulps of his drink before responding.

“He's not my man, and what's he done now?”

“That's part of the problem mate,” Gwaine gestured to where Merlin was sat next to a cornered-looking George, happily babbling about something with great enthusiasm. “He's been talking you up to anyone who will listen all night, saying how you saved him with this inspection and how you've always been so nice to him and ‘gosh, isn't Arthur just the greatest?’ If you'd just pull the stick out your ass and put his dick up there instead, I'm positive he'd stop talking like the sun shines out of it and everyone would be a lot happier.”

“There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don't even know where to begin,” said Arthur, taking another giant swallow.

“If you're more a giver than a taker I'm sure you can think of at least one enjoyable way to shut him up,” Gwaine muttered into his pint.

“This takes me back to our conversation earlier this week. I swear, you used to be fun to talk to.”

“Oh fuck off,” Gwaine laughed, giving him a shove. “Alright, last piece of unsolicited advice for the evening. Get a couple pints in you, strike up a conversation with our resident twink, causally drop the fact that you want to have lots of sex and babies with him, and see where the night ends.”

“I wouldn’t' have pegged you for a Love Actually fan.”

“Ellie breaks it out every Christmas,” Gwaine rolled his eyes. “Though I quite like the plot with that Watson character. What's his name? Ah, doesn't matter.” He drew in a breath and shouted across the room. “Oi Emrys, your knight in shining armor is here, you can leave poor George alone now!”

Arthur watched as Merlin turned and searched for a couple seconds before locking onto Arthur. It became clear the moment he found Arthur by the almost painful-looking smile that burst across his face. Given that he had just downed almost three quarters of a pint on an empty stomach, Arthur felt it was perfectly acceptable to blame the sudden butterflies in his stomach on the alcohol. He really needed to see a doctor about all these stomach abnormalities; first cartwheels, then butterflies. Either that or he had to get Gwen and Leon to teach him some more interesting ways of categorising his feelings. He figured English teachers were probably guaranteed to have a better grasp descriptive language than he did.

During this pointless introspection, Merlin had extracted himself from the booth and crossed the floor to where Arthur stood.

“Arthur!” he said, throwing his arms around Arthur's torso and smashing his face into Arthur's neck. “I'm so, so glad you could come.” Over his shoulder, Arthur saw Gwaine and Leon wearing identical shit-eating grins and Gwen giving him the thumbs up. He would have dearly loved to flip them the bird, but one hand held his pint and the other one was supporting Merlin. He wondered distantly if all their greetings were going to include hugs now. He came back to the present when Merlin seemed to be nuzzling his neck. Either that or his nose was itchy and he had forgotten how to use his hands.

“But you knew I was coming,” Arthur laughed, pulling gently on the back of Merlin's shirt.

Merlin's head came up. “I did?” he asked, genuine confusion in his voice.

“I said I was just going to drop off my car before joining you lot.”

“Oh,” said Merlin, the smile slowly returning to his befuddled features, “of course you did. I should have known you'd never abandon me.”

“Never,” Arthur agreed solemnly, and his heart felt like it was swelling far too large. “Shall we get a seat somewhere?”

“Yes,” said Merlin, finally releasing Arthur from the embrace but keeping one arm firmly around his back. “And I need another drink.”

“How many have you had?” asked Arthur, setting his glass down at a mostly empty table and drawing up a chair.

“Two?” Merlin scrunched up his face in concentration.

“You've only been here an hour!” Arthur laughed. “No wonder you're rat-arsed.”

“I'm not rarsed. I mean ratted. I'm not drunk!” said Merlin indignantly.

“Of course you aren't. If I buy some chips, will you help me eat them?”

“Ooh yes, please!” said Merlin eagerly.

“Okay, you hold this table; I'll put in our order.”

“Aye, aye, Captain,” said Merlin, as he slid obediently into the booth.

He was far too cute like that, Arthur decided as he crossed the floor to the bar. All rosy cheeked and forgetful. Far too kissable.

“You have him so well trained, it's adorable,” said Gwen as soon as he reached the bar.

“I have no idea what you're talking about,” Arthur replied, browsing the menu.

The bartender, pretty red-haired girl, approached and Arthur ordered another pint, two hamburger meals, and a side of onion rings.

“Arthur, are you actually feeding him now?” asked Gwen.

“He needs protein! Have you seen the size of him? And if he doesn't eat now he's going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow. How is that any way to start your post-Ofsted weekend?”

Gwen raised her hands in little fists to her cheeks and let out a muppet-like noise.

“You two are the cutest thing I've ever seen,” she cooed. “If Leon and I have kids, I'm going to send them over to your flat every day for adorable lessons. I think you actually beat the cuteness of puppies playing in the snow.”

“If you have kids? Have you seen your husband lately Gwen? He's the embodiment of the Iron Giant in human form. I'm pretty sure it would do him a physical harm to not have children. And your babies would have the best hair.”

“This is all true,” Gwen conceded, taking a sip of her cocktail.

“Then what are you waiting for?”

“Owning a house for start. I'd also need to start an intensive gym routine before bearing any of Leon's brood. Have you seen the size of him? His babies will break me!” Gwen slapped at his arm as Arthur threw back his head and laughed.

“Maybe Ellie can help you plan a weight-training program,” he bit out as he wiped tears out of his eyes.

“There's an idea,” said Gwen thoughtfully. “Anyway, go save your boy toy before Edwin sinks his claws into him.” She nodded back towards their table. Edwin was indeed sitting in the seat Arthur had intended to return to.

“Oh hell no,” said Arthur, heading back across the bar with Gwen's snorting laugher fading behind him. “Can't take him anywhere,” Arthur muttered to himself.

Whatever fear that had manifested at Gwen's words was swiftly extinguished when Merlin looked up, beamed at him, and patted the space on the bench beside him. Smirking at Edwin's scowl, Arthur slid in beside Merlin and draped his arm casually along the back ledge.

“Hi Edwin, how'd maths do this week?” asked Arthur, somewhat smugly.

“Oh alright,” Edwin sighed. “Alvarr could have done better but he's only just back from surgery. They said they'd take that into consideration for their report though, so fingers crossed we scrape a two. Merlin was just telling me science is in a bit of trouble. If you have to jump ship Merlin, maths would be happy to have you,” he said offhandedly.

“Thanks, but I'm happy where I am,” said Merlin as he patted Arthur's thigh. “I mean in science.”

Edwin snorted derisively. “Of course you do.”

The three of them sat in silence, taking sips of their drinks at perfectly choreographed intervals. Merlin bobbed his head along to the music barely audible over the various conversations. Arthur tapped his thumb against his pint to the beat of the music and watched Merlin's eyes narrow in on the spot where his thumb ring clicked against the glass. Before he had time to question this thoroughly, their food arrived, carried by the same ginger-haired waitress as he'd spoken to at the bar.

“Two hamburgers with a side of onion rings?”

“Both here,” Arthur held up a finger.

She raised an eyebrow but managed to settle both plates and the bowl on the table with only a modicum of difficulty.

“I didn't get a burger,” said Merlin in confusion.

“No, but you need one. Now shut up and eat,” said Arthur reaching for the condiments.

“But there's no room,” said Merlin sadly. To be fair, he was mashed pretty firmly into the wall. Before Arthur could come up with a solution, Edwin rolled his eyes and downed the rest of his pint.

“Bloody hell, Arthur, you can have my seat and finish your cuddle after you're done eating. I can't stand watching the pair of you.” Without another look, he slammed his glass down on the table and took off in the direction of the bar.

“Tah, Ed,” said Arthur, getting unsteadily to his feet and sliding into the newly vacant chair. Everything felt a bit floaty, like he was in space.

Merlin let out a tiny, unhappy whine at having the whole of the bench back.

“It's cold now,” he pouted.

“Eat that thing… your burger,” Arthur gestured. “It'll warm you right up.”

Merlin muttered something inaudible under his breath but acquiesced soon enough. Arthur tore into his burger a split second after Merlin and would have sworn on his mother's grave that it was the best thing he'd ever tasted. From the first bite, the juice from the patty burst in his mouth and erased the slightly metallic tang left by the beer. The spices were perfectly balanced and hit all the right taste buds. He'd say it was just the alcohol talking, but across the table Merlin seemed to be having a fairly similar experience. Although perhaps that was an indication that it was the alcohol's work.

“This burger is amazing.” Merlin moaned.

“Yeah,” said Arthur, getting temporarily distracted by the bob of Merlin's throat as he swallowed. “Burgers really are the perfect drunk food.”

“They're pretty good,” Merlin agreed. “But you know what's my favourite after a night on the lash? A good curry.”

“Oh yeah,” Arthur groaned. “I love a good curry.”

“With just the right amount of sugar. And great hunks of chicken. And potatoes, can't forget the potatoes,” Merlin let his tongue hang out of his mouth in appreciation of his mental picture.

“Potatoes? Really?”

“Oh yeah! Just like Mum makes,” Merlin nodded enthusiastically. “The potatoes are the best part. You let them simmer in the juice and they soak up all the flavours.”

“I can't say I've ever had a curry with potatoes. It sounds delicious though.”

“If you want, you can come over next Friday and I'll make it for you,” said Merlin with an air of forced casualness.

Before Arthur could open his mouth to reply, Mithian landed hard in the empty chair next to him and stole a chip off his plate.

“What are you making next weekend?”

“A curry?” said Merlin, clearly wrong-footed.

“Ooh yes, please!” Mithian clapped excitedly. “Do you want me to bring anything?”

“What?” asked Merlin.

“Oh, never mind, I'll make a payasam! I just found a recipe for one I've been dying to try out but Will's not a big dessert eater. I'll tell the rest of them, shall I?” She snagged an onion ring and got to her feet unsteadily. Arthur watched her make her way across the floor and fall into Elena's arms.

“What the hell just happened?” asked Merlin, utterly bewildered.

“I think you volunteered to host a dinner party, mate,” said Arthur sympathetically

“What? But. No! I only wanted you to…” Merlin trailed off looking desolate.

What Merlin only wanted Arthur for was never revealed, because at that moment Will crashed landed in the empty chair much in the same way Mithian had.

“Did I just see my beautiful but tactless girlfriend pay you gentlemen a visit?” asked Will, with obvious trepidation.

“Yes,” Merlin glowered.

“Ah,” Will sighed. “Just so you know she's had about four shots and shouldn't be held accountable for her actions. That said, what's happened?”

“Merlin is hosting a dinner party next week for,” he looked over his shoulder, “oh, about ten or so.”

Will placed a hand across his eyes and gave his brow a hard rub. Across the table, Merlin's glare intensified.

“Fix. This,” he said in a dangerous voice.

“I'll do what I can,” said Will, rising out of his seat and glancing at the bar, “but it looks like it's a done deal mate. What are we having?”

“Curry,” said Merlin, looking murderous.

“Lovely,” said Will, dropping a hand on Arthur's shoulder in a very uncharacteristic gesture. “Sorry again,” he said before heading towards Mithian and the rest of the group.

“I'm going to kill him,” Merlin said.

“Technically it was Mith who turned our… dinner into a party,” said Arthur, resisting the urge to call it a date at the last second.

“Yeah, but who do you think gave her all those shots in the first place,” said Merlin darkly.

“If you want, I can come over early and help you get ready; lay the table, do the dishes, that sort of thing.”

“You're going to have to,” Merlin snorted. “I don't know anything about hosting a dinner party.”

The rest of the evening passed in somewhat of a blur. Arthur was pretty sure at some point he led the group in a badly choreographed rendition of Gangnam Style that even Psy wouldn't have approved of. There was also a vaguely memorable moment where Boyzone came on and Leon jumped around so much he overturned a table. Unsurprisingly, the party broke up not long after that.

“Alright, I've made an executive decision,” said Arthur as he pulled his coat on. “You're kipping on the couch tonight.”

“M'not,” Merlin slurred heavily.

“Yes, you are. The trains have stopped running and you're not taking a cab all the way back. It'll cost a fortune!”

“I've got money,” said Merlin, trying and failing to get his arm through his coat sleeve.

“Haven't you seen those ads? ‘Don't get into an un-booked minicab alone’,” said Arthur, holding out his sleeve for him.

“So book one,” Merlin grumbled.

“I'll do you one better. I'll get into the cab with you, and it'll take us both to my flat which is close and warm and has an extremely comfortable couch.”

Merlin made an unintelligible grumbling noise that Arthur counted as a win. He pushed him ahead, waving to various coworkers on the way out. Elena and Gwaine had disappeared hours ago and were most likely already asleep in post-coital bliss. Leon had Gwen in a massive bear hold and she was struggling to escape, but with all the giggling that was happening, Arthur doubted she minded being trapped very much. Will was involved in a heated discussion with George and petting an unconscious Mithian's head as it lolled on his shoulder. Just as Arthur pulled the door and was hit with the first blast of cold air, Merlin dug in his heels and his head shot up.

“It's our song,” he said, swaying slightly and holding onto the wall for support.

“What?” Arthur shouted, unable to distinguish the music from the noise of the street and the pub.

“Our song! The Winnie the Pooh one,” Merlin shouted back.

Arthur strained to hear and was greeted with the familiar chorus and pounding piano chords of Somewhere Only We Know. Something fluttered in his stomach at the idea of Merlin calling it ‘our song’. The damn butterflies were clearly nocturnal. He turned back to face Merlin, intending to say something incredibly witty and suave when he caught sight of just how white Merlin's face looked in the streetlight.

“Merlin?” he asked tentatively.

Merlin opened his mouth to respond, paused, held up a hand, stepped outside, and barreled towards the nearest bin. The butterflies in Arthur's stomach quieted somewhat at the sound of Merlin retching in moonlight. Clearly, even the butterflies had their limits.

***

As Arthur walked up the path to Merlin's building he wondered for what seemed like the seven hundredth time if bringing flowers was too much. He figured the wine would be appreciated by all, and worst case scenario he could pass the flowers off as his idea for a centerpiece, but even to his ears that sounded a bit weak. The problem was, the more Arthur thought about the night's dinner, the more he was sure it was supposed to be a date. A date that, granted, now had about six chaperones but the fact still remained and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.

Obviously his traitorous cartwheel-flipping, butterfly-breeding stomach was thrilled at the prospect. His penis was also very excited at the prospect of possibly getting near Merlin's long fingers or pretty pink mouth and was demanding more attention than normal. The calmer, more rational, and luckily in-control mind still had reservations about the whole thing.

The thing was, he had always sort of assumed that everyone who said Merlin fancied him did so in the way all mates tell each other to ‘just go for it’ in matters of the heart: wonderfully supportive, but perhaps not the best thought-out advice. So while this new information that Merlin maybe sort of fancied him a little did great things for his stomach, dick, and ego, it left the rest of him downright terrified. Daydreaming about Merlin suddenly revealing feelings for him had been a nice fantasy, but it was never supposed to actually happen.

All the excuses he was constantly giving Morgana and Gwaine and it seemed like everyone else under the sun were real concerns for Arthur. He did value their friendship and didn't want to do anything to mess it up. Nor did he want any sort of relationship or, God forbid, the ending of any sort of relationship to cause problems at work. Granted, that argument didn't stand up particularly well against any of the couples he was about to have dinner with, but Arthur had principles damn it. Dating and work never worked out in the films, and damned if he was going to fail and continue working surrounded by happy couples, knowing the love of his life had found him wanting in some way.

Which is how Arthur came to be standing outside Merlin's building for ten minutes trying to decide whether or not he should ditch the flowers. Somewhere around minute twelve Arthur gave himself a shake and called on whatever remained of his self-respect.

“Oh hell,” said Arthur as he rang the buzzer.

“Arthur?” came Merlin's voice through the static.

“Yes.”

“Thank God,” was all Merlin said before pressing the door release.

Any other day, Arthur would have opened the door and proceeded up to the fifth floor. However on this occasion, he realized, he was clearly functioning at less than full capacity. Because, as the door buzzed with the universal noise of unlocking, he raised his arm as if he'd been electrocuted and threw the flowers as far away as he could before calmly proceeding to open the door. Off to a smashing start, he opted to take the lift, lest his legs decide to betray him on the stairs and land him in a neck brace.

By the time Arthur reached the fifth floor, Merlin's door was already open and the smell of something burnt was wafting out into the hallway. Arthur pushed the door closed behind him and poked his head around the corner into the kitchen.

“How you doing?” he asked tentatively, depositing his wine on the counter.

Merlin spun around, causing his TARDIS apron to flare out dramatically. He was clutching a wooden spoon like it was his lifeline and had what looked like a tissue over one wrist and taped in place with a couple of Avengers plasters.

“So. Badly.” Merlin sucked in a breath. “Full disclosure time; I've never actually made my mum's curry recipe myself.”

“But you said – ”

“I know what I said,” Merlin snapped, waving his spoon in the air and sending flecks of curry everywhere. “But I was drunk and wanted to impress you so I may have stretched the truth a little. Anyway, my landlord just put in this cooker last week and I guess the propane wasn't calibrated properly because everything cooks like it's got the fires of hell beneath it so then of course this happened,” he gestured to the pots of ruined curry behind him. “Oh, and I burned myself trying to drain the rice because I thought I could at least serve that but I poured boiling water on my wrist and ended up dumping half of it down the drain and now I don't know what to do because I don't have enough chicken to start over and even if I did I'd never get all this shit cleaned out in time and everyone is expecting curry in forty minutes.”

Arthur couldn't help but smile at the state Merlin had worked himself into.

“Oh dear, that's a tough one,” said Arthur stroking his chin in mock-thoughtfulness, “for anyone but a Pendragon of course.”

“What do you mean?” asked Merlin hopefully.

“I mean, you are looking at one of the only two surviving veterans of Uther Pendragon's increasingly horrible dinner parties. Spoiled curry is nothing compared to the time Morgana and I had to run through a business conference and slap the smoked herring canapés out of everyone's hands because of a botulism scare.”

“Good God!”

“I mean, it worked out fine in the end. But when you're fifteen and suddenly have a French chef running at you in tears screaming ‘le poisson est un poison! Le poisson est un poison!’ it tends to put other emergencies in perspective.”

“I can imagine,” Merlin shivered. “But how is your traumatizing fish story going to help my disaster of a dinner party?”

“Right,” Arthur clapped his hands together. “First things first, turn on your fan, and open every window in your apartment. We can worry about getting the heat back later; that smell definitely needs to go. I'm going to phone the highest-rated curry house on Just Eat and beg them to fill and deliver an order for eight in thirty minutes. Once you've got all the windows open, dispose of the evidence; throw it in a bin bag, flush it down the toilet, I don't care. Just get rid of the fail curry and start washing the pots. I'll set the table and, if everything goes according to plan, we'll be able to dump the takeaway in a pot before the rest of them get here.”

Merlin was staring at him with his mouth hanging open. “How on earth did I survive before I met you? Because this right here,” he gestured to his mess of a kitchen, “is classic me. How the hell did I survive without an evil genius fairy-godmother cleaning up after me?”

“I always kind of assumed Will used to bail you out.”

“Doubtful,” Merlin snorted. “He prefers to act as the antagonist rather than the clean-up crew. Anyway, this is wasting time! We have a crime to perpetrate!”

“I prefer to think of it as a minor deception, but we can argue the semantics later. To battle!”

***

“So I've been thinking,” said Merlin as he settled himself in Geoffrey's chair. “I never did thank you properly for saving me from the curry incident.”

“I thought watching you burst into tears and hug the delivery man was enough of a reward,” replied Arthur without looking up from his computer.

“I did not burst into tears!”

“There were some definite sobs coming from your throat.”

“Sobbing does not equal tears,” said Merlin impatiently. “Anyway, if you're going to be a prat about it I won't tell you about my idea for a thank you present.”

“Present?” Arthur's head snapped up. “Do tell.”

“No, I shan't,” said Merlin loftily. “Not until you admit I didn't cry on the delivery man.”

Arthur crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. They stared at each other in silence, Arthur scowling, Merlin with a smirk across his face.

“You drive a hard bargain Emrys,” said Arthur eventually. “This better be worth it.”

“That's a risk you're going to have to take,” Merlin purred.

There was something incredibly sexy about being in a faceoff with Merlin. So much so, that Arthur decided to end it for the safety of his pants and his dignity.

“Alright, you didn't cry on the delivery man. But you certainly didn't behave in an age-appropriate way either.”

“Fair,” said Merlin. “Though I was operating in a curry-induced hysteria. Anyway, what do you say to going skating next weekend?”

“Skating? As in ice skating?”

“Yes.”

“With you?”

“Yes.”

“Merlin, are you honestly inviting me to an activity which involves strapping metal blades on your feet and trying to stay upright on ice?”

“What's wrong with skating,” asked Merlin, sounding slightly hurt.

“Nothing, I love skating! I'm just wondering if you've thought through the implications of essentially arming your feet when I've seen you lose your balance while standing still multiple times.”

“Oi! I resent that. For all you know I could be a champion figure skater,” Merlin sniffed.

Arthur couldn't have kept a straight face if he wanted to. The laughter burst out of him so forcefully he had to grip his desk to stay in his chair.

“Oh my God,” he gasped, “I have no regrets about giving up the curry delivery story now. This is even better.”

“Shut up,” Merlin laughed as he flung a pencil at him. “God you are such an ass. Why are we even friends?”

“I don't know,” said Arthur, still laughing as he wiped tears away from his eyes. “Jokes about your past career aside, I would love to go skating with you.” He looked up in time to see what looked like triumph flash across Merlin's face.

“Brilliant! We've got a couple of local options obviously but I was thinking we should take a trip up to London on Saturday and go there. Hampton Court Palace is supposed to be nice, and if we're feeling brave we could swing up to central and get some Christmas shopping done before the masses descend.”

“Ugh, it’s a nice thought but I'm pretty sure the masses have already started shopping. That said,” he added quickly at Merlin's fallen expression, “I do need to head to Oxford Street at some point for my father's present and it's probably better to get it sooner than later.”

“Hooray!” Merlin pumped a fist in the air.

“Look at yourself, you're acting about twelve!” Arthur laughed.

“Sorry, I just love Christmas in London,” Merlin smiled dreamily. “I mean, obviously not the hordes of people, but all the lights and Christmas markets and window displays and the special Christmas menus. I went to uni in London and it was my first real home away from home. It'll always hold a special place in my heart.”

He looked so content that Arthur couldn't find it in his heart to take the piss out of him.

“So Hampton Court then?” he asked finally.

“Hmm? Yeah! You can park your car at mine, it's much closer to the station and you won't have to pay the ridiculous parking fares. Shall we meet at ten?”

“Let's do half ten, we could both do with a lie in for once.”

“Good thinking,” said Merlin, rising to leave. “Oh, and Arthur? Don't spread this around eh? I mean, not that I don't love our coworkers,” he added hastily, “but I'm not exactly anxious to embarrass myself on skates in front of the entire faculty.”

“Ha, I knew you weren't a champion ice dancer in your youth!” Arthur pointed an accusing finger. “And what, you don't care if you embarrass yourself in front of me?”

“Naw, you're different.” Merlin shrugged. “Alright, back to the trenches. Wish me – ” he broke off as a scream echoed down the hall. Without a word, they bolted out of the office in the direction of the noise.

It didn't take them long to find the source. A small crowd of students were huddled at the far end of the hall. On the screens of the many mobiles held in the air, Arthur could see two indistinguishable figures grappling together. Merlin reached the group a split second ahead of Arthur and pushed his way to the center of the ring.

“Enough!” he shouted, all trace of his usual goofy tone gone. “Step away from him, Valiant. Now!”

With an increasing feeling of dread, Arthur pushed through to Merlin's side. Sure enough, Valiant had one arm wrapped around his middle and was stepping backwards away from the student he'd clearly just dropped on the floor. Daegal was whimpering slightly and clutching a hand to the side of his face. With his legs tucked beneath him like that he looked very small. Beside him, Sefa was sitting with her back to the lockers and her head in her hands, sobbing. Freya and Kara were standing a little further back from the action, each of them holding one of Mordred's arms, clearly restraining him from running at Valiant. All three of them were panting slightly. Arthur shot Mordred a warning look and he stopped struggling, though he didn't look any less fierce.

“Everyone needs to leave now,” said Arthur to the crowd at large. “Go to the canteen, the library, your next class, I don't care. But this hallway needs to empty now.” On his last word, the crowd started to disperse, picking up dropped rucksacks and muttering to each other.

“You six,” said Arthur turning back to participants, “stay here. This has gone on long enough.”

“It was Valiant, Sir,” spit out Mordred. “Sefa was crying because her mum called her with some bad news and Valiant started to take the piss out of her.”

“So Daegal threw the first punch?” asked Merlin slowly.

With a sinking feeling, Arthur turned to look at Daegal.

“He wouldn’t shut up, Sir,” he said, his voice rough with pain.

“And you thought what? You'd make him stop by beating the crap out of him?” Merlin asked coldly.

“He said some really terrible things, Sir,” said Freya quietly.

“Frankly, I don't care what he said, Miss. Llyn. There is never and I mean never an excuse for using physical violence unless it is in self-defence,” said Arthur, barely controlling his rage. “I am extremely disappointed in all of you and there will be consequences for this. Mr. Emrys, please escort Mr. Cadwallader and Miss. Vaughn to the nurse. You three will go to Student Success and wait for either Mr. Emrys or myself to join you. Mr. Orm, come with me.”

Arthur turned and headed back towards the history office without checking to see if Valiant was following or not. When they were both through the door, Arthur shut it softly and crossed the room to the water cooler.

“Are you alright?” he asked as he filled one of the styrofoam cups.

“What?” Valiant coughed.

“You were just in a fight. I know Mr. Cadwallader isn't exactly a heavyweight champion, but the way you're holding your stomach tells me he got at least one good blow in.”

“Yeah but, what's it to you if I'm hurt?” asked Valiant, looking genuinely confused.

Arthur shook his head. “I'm not going to do this with you today Val. I refuse to rise to the bait. We're getting to the bottom of this once and for all.” He handed Valiant the water. “Have a seat.”

Valiant remained standing and looked more confused than ever.

“Am I in trouble?”

“You are, but for once not from me,” Arthur sighed, and leaned back against his desk. “Why did Daegal take a swing at you?”

“Little shit has been looking for a reason to start a fight for months,” Valiant sneered.

“And for good reason,” Arthur retorted. “You haven't exactly been nice to him, have you?”

“I never hit him,” Valiant scoffed, and downed the water.

“I don't care that you never hit him. You've clearly been doing enough of a job on him to drive him to violence, and now I need to figure out why. You can tell me whatever it is that's bothering you Val, it's kind of my job to help with this sort of thing.”

“It's none of your damn business!”

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose and forced himself to take a deep breath. “Alright, we'll work up to that. What did you say to Sefa that made her cry?”

For the first time, Valiant showed the faintest hint of being ashamed.

“She was already crying,” he mumbled, not meeting Arthur's eye.

“What was she crying about?”

“Her mum called and said her stupid rabbit had died.”

“And you thought you'd do what? Make fun of her for grieving the loss of a family member?”

He knew even as he said it that'd he hit on the source of the problem at once. Valiant's head shot up and his face was twisted into the ugliest expression Arthur had ever seen.

“It's just a rabbit!” Valiant screamed. “Just a fucking bunny! It's not like it was her dad or anything!” He crumpled the empty paper cup in his fist and whipped it across the room.

“Val, did your dad die?” Arthur asked softly.

“What?” Valiant shook his head like he'd been slapped.

“Because if he did, I'm so sorry. Truly.”

“But how did you?” Valiant staggered backwards and landed in the armchair, all the fight gone out of him.

“When did it happen?” Arthur asked gently.

“We don't know,” answered Valiant in a hollow voice. “He ran out on us two years ago in September. They found his body two weeks ago.”

And suddenly, the patterns of Valiant's behaviour slotted into place with new meaning. Arthur could have kicked himself for being so blind.

“I'm so sorry,” he repeated. “There are no words.”

“He wasn't very nice,” Valiant's eyes flashed and he looked up at Arthur. “I mean, he tried to hide it but I know he used to beat my mum. And the sick part is she missed him. I heard her praying for him to come home every night.”

“Oh, Val,” Arthur sighed. “Why didn't you tell anyone?”

“It's not like anything would come of it,” he scoffed. “It's not like there's a ‘sorry your dad's an a-hole’ time bonus for tests or anything.”

“But we could have gotten you in to see a counsellor,” Arthur threw up his hands. “We could have given you an outlet for your aggression, gotten you into after school sports, art club, anything that would get you out of your house and out of your head for a few extra hours a day!”

“I'm not talking to a shrink,” he said with conviction. “That's not going to help a damn bit.”

“It helped me when my mum died,” said Arthur softly.

“Your mum died?” Valiant asked suspiciously.

“Yup. When I was fourteen. A hit and run by a drunk driver as she was coming home from the late shift. By the time they found her, she'd already bled out.”

“That's horrible.”

“Yeah,” Arthur laughed humourlessly, “it is. I was angry about it for a long time. Sometimes I still am. I was angry at her for offering to take the night shift so her co-worker could go on holiday. I was angry with the bastard who ran her off the road and left her there to die. I was mad at the paramedics for not being able to do anything to save her. And I was mad at myself for not appreciating her more when she was alive. We didn't have a bad relationship, but I was fourteen and already starting to rebel against my parents, skipping family meals, going straight up to my room after school, the usual stuff. But even though I knew she loved me, that didn't ease all the pain I felt after she died. Which is why I can only begin to imagine the hell you're going through right now.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “But you can't carry on like this. No one deserves pain like this but you don't have the right to inflict it on others when you're trying to make your heart hurt less.”

Valiant had kept his eyes locked on Arthur for the entirety of his confession but now he looked down at the floor. Sitting and without the usual tension in his frame, Valiant looked a lot younger and somehow more vulnerable than usual.

“I know this is possibly the least helpful thing I can say to you right now, and I remember wanting to punch everyone who said it to me, but you need to hear it from someone who has lived it. You can get through this. You are tough enough. And you don't have to do it alone. I strongly recommend you talk to a counselor; I'm proof positive that they work, but if you don't want to do that, then please, come to me. I'll leave my office door open, eat lunches in my classroom, hell, I'll give you my mobile number, which is, by the way, incredibly against school policy. But I need you to know that you have someone to talk to. And it doesn't have to be about your dad.” Arthur registered the barely perceptible twitch and carried on. “It can be about anything; a difficult assignment, how your mum is doing, what you thought of last night's game – anything you want. You're going to get better Val, it's just going to take time.”

“If you're quite done Mr. Pendragon, Mr. Emrys is waiting for Mr. Orm in Student Success. I believe he owes Miss. Vaughn an apology.”

Arthur whirled around to see Kilgharrah standing in the doorway. His expression made it impossible to judge how long he'd been there, or how much he'd heard, but Arthur was willing to bet he'd heard that part about giving Valiant his mobile number. Ignoring the inevitable shit storm, Arthur turned back to Valiant.

“Do you feel up to that right now?” he asked calmly, ignoring Kilgharrah's pointed cough behind him.

“Yeah. I'd have probably taken a swing at me for the shit I said too. Sir,” he added hastily, looking at Kilgharrah. “Do you um, do you think,” he paused. “If I did want to talk to a counselor, would you be able to come with me to the first session or whatever?” His mouth was shut in a tight line as if he was holding his breath waiting for the answer.

“Definitely,” said Arthur firmly. “I'll look into options for you.”

And in what was probably the first time in years, Valiant responded, “thanks, Sir.”

He left the classroom without another word, leaving Kilgharrah and Arthur alone.

“Well?” asked Kilgharrah, casually straightening his tie. “What do you have to say for yourself Mr. Pendragon.”

Arthur could feel the calm he'd cultivated during his conversation with Valiant evaporating at a rapid rate. He gave Kilgharrah a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes and opened his mouth.

“First of all, I'd appreciate it if you call me Arthur. Calling me ‘Mr. Pendragon’ when we're alone makes it sound like I'm one of your students and creates an unequal power dynamic. Second, I want you to know I don't regret anything I just said to Valiant,” Arthur voice wavered and he clenched his fist to steady himself. “He is a child in pain and it's our duty as teachers to help our students in any way we can. I don't care if it was inappropriate to tell him about my mother; I wasn't going to get through to him any other way. I think the divide we cultivate between teachers and students is wrong. We are their educators and we need to have their respect, but that doesn't mean we need to bully them to keep them in line. You have no idea of the pressures kids face today and heaping on punishments for something as trivial as speaking out of turn one time isn't helping them. It's an antiquated system and not one I can see myself being a part of for much longer.”

He hadn't meant to say the last part out loud, but it wasn't exactly a lie either. Somewhere, deep down he had known he wasn't going to stay at St. Albion's Mound forever. But saying it out loud gave him a feeling of conviction he hadn't realised he was lacking.

“Is this your letter of resignation?” asked Kilgharrah raising an eyebrow.

“Only if you're firing me,” replied Arthur simply.

“Mr. Pendragon – Arthur. You are perhaps the most dedicated teacher I've had the pleasure of employing for a long time. Your students consistently meet their targets and I've heard nothing but good feedback about you, from students and parents alike. You possess a rare talent. The Governors would have my hide if I tried to fire you.”

Arthur let out a breath he didn't know he been holding and rested a hand on his desk for support.

“That said,” Kilgharrah continued, “in the future, I will expect you to come to me with any sort of problems you are having with the administration or changes you want to make. Bottling it all up like this isn't healthy and I need my teachers to stay in tiptop shape.” He gave a smart nod and Arthur was struck with a sudden vision of a dragon snorting smoke out of its nostrils.

“Of course Sir – Gary,” he amended.

“You have a bright future ahead of you Pendragon. I'll make sure to keep my eye on you.” He turned to leave but paused with his hand on the doorknob.

“Oh, but do us all a favour and snog Mr. Emrys. It's getting quite painful to watch.”

***

By the time Friday finally rolled around, Arthur had never been happier to see the end of a week in his life. The students could sense the end of term was in sight and getting them to stay focused was like herding cats. Between the typical demands of his job and trying to set up Valiant with a counsellor, it felt like he practically lived at school now. So it was with great joy that Arthur went home on Friday and spent the night marking while enjoying bottle of wine and a Doctor Who marathon.

He woke on Saturday morning feeling more refreshed than he had in a long time and got out of bed with a smile on his face, ready to face the day. His enthusiasm faded quickly once he and Merlin got off the train at Paddington. They spent nearly four hours shopping for Uther, at least an hour and a half of which was spent standing in queues or trudging behind other holiday shoppers in endless lines down the pavement. In the end, it was Merlin whofound the main component of the gift; a Japanese traveller's notebook set from Foyles and the matching accessories. Arthur picked up a few bestsellers to round out the purchase and Merlin managed to find something for his mum and uncle who were, in his words, notoriously picky when it came to books.

It was nearly half four before they managed to get themselves on a train to Richmond. Arthur had, foolishly, chosen to wear a new pair of trainers he'd been meaning to break in. Though he had achieved the desired result, he felt it likely that his feet were more broken than his shoes.

“We don't have to go skating,” said Merlin as they were nearing Hampton Court station. “I'd rather not be the cause of your feet falling off.”

“I'll be fine,” said Arthur, massaging a particularly sore spot on his right foot. “At least it will be a change of footwear.”

“Right.” Merlin looked unconvinced.

“Don't worry about it,” said Arthur, hastily shoving his foot back into his shoe and fighting the urge to hiss in pain. “See, I am so ready for skating.”

Right on time, the train came to a halt at Hampton Court. Arthur smiled brightly and headed for the door, doing his best not to hobble. Merlin followed slightly behind, as if waiting for Arthur to fall. Around them, the unfortunate weekend commuters shuffled towards the car park and various bus stops. The air was cool and somehow felt crisper here than it had been in London. Arthur shivered and tightened his scarf.

“So where does the actual skating take place? The river?” he asked, as they exited the station.

“Sort of,” said Merlin with a glance at Arthur's feet. “They turn the front driveway into an ice rink.”

“How is that ‘sort of’ like the river?” Arthur asked as they turned the corner.

“Well, we have to cross the river to get there,” said Merlin, indicating to the long bridge that stretched out in front of them.

“Oh joy,” Arthur said tonelessly.

He was fairly certain one of his blisters had burst and was now steadily leaking fluid into his sock. This was not how he had expected their first date to go. If it was a date. He hoped it was. Or did he? Mental breakdowns aside, this is not how he had pictured the day unfolding. They trudged on in silence until they were about halfway across the bridge.

“Arthur, wait.” Merlin held out a hand to stop him.

“What?” he asked, shifting his weight onto his other foot.

“I think it's snowing. Or at least, it’s trying to.”

He squinted and looked up into the darkness. In the light of lamp, it was just possible to make out the steady downfall of tiny specks, swirling around in the air currents. Arthur pulled off his glove and held up his hand. It was hard to tell as the specks turned to water as soon as they hit his skin, but it definitely wasn't just rain falling from the sky.

“God bless the British winter,” he laughed, tugging his glove back on.

“I could do with some real snow for once, make it look properly like Christmas” Merlin turned to rest his arms on the railing. “Though it is rather pretty out here regardless.”

Privately, Arthur thought Merlin's profile was far more enticing than any winter wonderland could ever be. But as he turned to look out over the Thames, he was forced to agree with Merlin's statement.

All along the river buildings were lit at the bottom with various floodlights, while delicate strands of Christmas lights crowned their edges and hung down in long strands on their faces. The reflections in the water let the colours bleed into each other, creating a scene Van Gogh would have been proud of. The palace itself was also quite impressive looking. Lit all in blue along its front, they had chosen to light the towers with red, allowing them to stand out in bold contrast to the rest of the façade.

“Very picturesque,” Arthur agreed.

To his surprise, Merlin laughed.

“What?”

“I don't know, it just all feels kind of… anticlimactic now, doesn't it?” Merlin tugged the sleeves of his jumper down over his hands. “I mean, normally I love December. I love how charged the month feels with all the festivities and that last push towards the break. But I think Ofsted took all the energy I had stored up for December. It just feels like, yup, this is it now. I haven't even got decorated yet for fucks sake.”

Arthur let out a bark of a laugh and Merlin scowled.

“Sorry, it's just, I need to repeat what I told you back in September and you're going hit me.”

“And what was that?” Merlin's eyes narrowed.

With a broad smile, Arthur opened his arms. “Welcome to teaching.”

As expected, Merlin slapped his shoulder, which only made Arthur laugh harder.

“Such an ass.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Is this really what it's going to be like from now on? No more excitement? Just a boring adult life?”

“This is going to sound so cliché,” said Arthur, gripping Merlin's shoulder, “but the joy of teaching lies in coming to school and never having two days go the same. Things are still going to be exciting; you just need to change your perspective a little.”

Merlin snorted. “You sound like you've been spending too much time with Gary.”

“Ugh, I have. He keeps on wanting to ‘consult’ with me. He sends me almost daily emails about scheduling in ‘time for a natter’. It's horrifying.”

Arthur pushed himself off the railing, ignoring the pain in his feet, and started to walk again.

“Sounds like he's grooming you for an admin position,” said Merlin, sounding impressed.

“That'll be the day,” Arthur snorted. “I think he's just trying to cover his ass with the Governors. Show them that school policy reflects the changing needs of the children in 2014 blah blah blah. Riveting stuff.”

“Still, when they're writing your biography on how you became the youngest ever Education Secretary, they can interview me about your early days,” Merlin mused. “Why yes, I do remember Arthur at the beginning of his career. So young. So bright-eyed. Unbroken by years of politics and red-tape. He was even fit back then!”

“I am not going to get fat!”

Merlin squinted like he was performing a pseudo-inspection on him and poked at Arthur's side, taking imaginary measurements with his thumb and index finger.

“Oi!” Arthur slapped his hand away. Merlin just laughed and pulled his jacket tighter around him at a particularly strong gust of wind.

“Serves you right, being cold,” Arthur grumbled.

For reasons unknown, the thinking about Merlin and the word ‘cold’ in the same sentence triggered something Arthur had failed to see in the six or seven hours they'd spent together.

“Where's your scarf?”

“Mmm?” Merlin looked down at his neck. “Oh, I didn't feel like wearing one today.”

“Didn't feel like… Merlin, you've worn a scarf nearly every day since I met you, including days it has been wholly unnecessary to wear a scarf. Why the hell did you not wear one to go ice skating in December?!”

“They sit funny with the coat,” Merlin shrugged. “It's not that bad.”

“Oh my God, you are a ridiculous person,” Arthur shook his head.

“I'm not the one who wore their stiff new shoes for a day of walking,” said Merlin loftily.

Arthur was saved from answering when they turned into the Palace gates and were ushered to the ticket booth. There was a slight squabble when it came to deciding who would pay, but Merlin won that round by flashing his most dazzling smile at the ticket girl who promptly handed him the card machine. Arthur was annoyed, but couldn't hold it against the poor cashier. He knew only too well what it was like to be disarmed by one of Merlin's infuriatingly inside-warming smiles.

“It's comforting to know that we still live in a world where the incredibly good looking get special treatment,” said Arthur, handing his bags over to the coat check attendant. “I was beginning to worry that society had moved past that.”

“This was supposed to be my thank you present anyway,” said Merlin as he led the way towards the rink. “Quit your grumbling.”

In the spill of the blue light it was hard to tell, but his cheeks looked a tad pinker than they had been on their brisk walk across the bridge. He led the way to the skate counter and plunked his shoes down. Arthur followed suit, his feet relishing the sudden freedom.

“Are you bleeding?” asked Merlin, his eyes widening as he looked at Arthur's shoes.

Sure enough, the inside heel of both shoes was stained with blood. At his words, the attendant turned around and raised an eyebrow.

“No, that's an old stain,” said Arthur waving his hand. “I've had these shoes for years.” He brought his socked foot down on Merlin's to stop him from opening his mouth again. He was damned if they were going to have another maybe-date ruined, especially by a pimple-faced youth acting as the skating police.

The attendant in question glanced at both of them and then, clearly deciding the situation was above his pay-grade, swapped their shoes beneath the counter for identical pairs of blue skates. Arthur smiled at him and removed his foot from Merlin's to head towards the benches. As he walked away, the foot that had covered Merlin's grew suddenly cold. It had been an odd sort of intimacy, touching socked feet. It took Arthur back to his days as a teenager; crashing Morgana's parties and playing all sorts of stupid games like Twister and Swab The Deck and any number of other things designed to get bodies touching and sparks flying.

Sadly, the only action his foot was going to see tonight was being forced into the skates. He pulled the boots on gingerly and was pleased to find that they fit somewhat loosely. Out of his peripheral vision, he could see Merlin already standing, hands in his pockets and ready to go. It was odd to see him standing so still for once and looking completely at home wearing an object Arthur would have thought made standing much more difficult.

“You were joking when you said you were a champion skater in your youth, right?” Arthur asked uncertainly.

“Wouldn't you love to know,” Merlin laughed.

“It's just, I sort of expected you to have fallen over already by now.”

“I actually have fairly good balance. Don't laugh,” he held up a finger in warning. “I am excellent at yoga and things that actually require balance. It's just when I'm forgetting to concentrate that I have issues.”

“Like walking down a hallway? Or standing?” Arthur suggested.

“Exactly. Now come on, I want to get going before the ice gets cut to hell.”

Together, they made their way towards the entry point, Arthur wobbling a little more than he'd like. For some reason, in his most recent daydreams, he had never equated ‘skating with Merlin’ to ‘skating with Merlin’. Now that the moment was here, he found himself wondering when the last time he'd been skating had been and if he actually remembered how to do it. Luckily, Merlin didn't seem to be doing much better than he was, pushing off with tentative strokes that didn't get him very far.

“Well this was a success,” said Arthur, clutching the wall to stop from falling over.

“Shut up,” Merlin laughed, his arms held out on either side to steady him.

Even looking a bit like a deranged goose trying to take flight, Arthur had to admire how gorgeous Merlin looked wobbling around on the ice. The festive lights played across his cheekbones in wild patterns, flashing all manner of colours. His hair was getting slightly too long and the ends of his curls flipped up in places. But the thing that made him most attractive was the wild, unabashed way he was laughing at their slow progress around the edge of the rink; the smile that said “yes, I'm having the time of my life, who wants to make something of it?”

It was while he was ogling his colleague like a commuter looking at the last sausage roll at Tesco, that he realized they were probably pushing the boundaries of plausible deniability to the breaking point with this one. Two blokes out on the town: sure. Two blokes staying in for the night: alright. Two blokes spending an afternoon Christmas shopping: slightly less believable. Two blokes finishing their shopping day with ice skating: definitely crossing some lines. It was doubtful that even shouting the magical phrase ‘no homo’ would have much of an affect now. Not that Arthur was entirely sure he knew what he wanted. Yes, he wanted Merlin in his life forever (and preferably naked and in his bed) but then there were all the tricky complications that came with any relationship, let alone one with a colleague.

It took Arthur nearly falling while still holding on to the wall to realize that he was over-thinking things. What he needed to do was to go with the flow and take nice, small steps. He was considering what would happen if he simply reached out and grabbed Merlin's hand when a familiar voice shouted “Mr. Emrys! Mr. Pendragon!”

They turned in shaky unison to see Arthur's favourite five waving, Daegal and Freya in the lead, the other three skating closely behind.

“Oh for fucks sake!” said Merlin under his breath before adopting a far too cheerful smile.

Arthur could do nothing but shake his head. Of course there were students here. Why wouldn't there be? Fate clearly hated Arthur and wanted him to die alone. There was no other way this sort of date could have gone.

Daegal and Co. came to a wobbly halt in front of them. After the incident with Valiant, Daegal had been home for three days and Arthur didn't have the rest of them in class again until the following week. He was pleased to see that Daegal's eye had mostly healed. There was still some slight discolouring on his cheekbone but the swelling was gone and he wasn't wincing anymore.

“Hello,” said Freya brightly. The others followed suit and smiled cheerfully.

“How are you all doing?” asked Merlin. “Enjoying your weekend?”

“Yes, we've been saving up all month for a trip to the palace,” said Mordred eagerly.

“And it's nice to be out of the house for a bit,” said Sefa, a little sadly.

Mordred wrapped an arm around her and gave her a tight squeeze. The smiles of the rest of the group dimmed a little as they were all reminded of Sefa's loss.

“Sirs,” Daegal said suddenly. He bit his lip, hesitating, and Kara poked him in the back.

“Ow. I, I just wanted to say I'm sorry for what happened,” he said in a rush. “Valiant didn't go into detail, but I guess he had something balls happen to him that made him act that way? Anyway, he said he was sorry to Sefa which is all I wanted and I apologized for hitting him. I didn't really want to hurt him. And I'm sorry for disappointing you both.” He looked up at Arthur hopefully.

“It's already forgiven,” said Arthur simply. “Everyone makes mistakes and I know I can trust you to never make that one again.”

“Seconded,” said Merlin with what finally looked like a normal smile.

“Cheers, Sirs,” Daegal smiled, practically glowing. “I'm glad I ran into you here, I didn't fancy making a speech at school. Why are you out here anyway?”

“Professional development exercise,” said Merlin without missing a beat. “Mr. Kilgharrah wants to foster bonds between his staff. Ice skating is a great trust builder.”

“Yes, exactly that,” Arthur added lamely.

From the looks on the faces of the students, Arthur could tell they hadn't exactly presented a convincing argument. If their smug little smiles were anything to go by, they actually knew a lot more than they should. The idea of spending the next couple hours being followed by a team of pintsized chaperones was extremely unappealing. Fortunately, Merlin seemed to be on the same page.

“We should get going though,” said Merlin, “lots of other team-building stops to make on the way home.”

“Oh yes,” Arthur agreed, “Mountains to climb, mazes to navigate, etc. We'll see you lot on Monday!” He gave an awkward sort of wave and turned for the exit, Merlin close behind him.

“That could have gone better,” said Merlin as he pulled off his skates in an irritated manner.

“Definitely,” Arthur sighed, letting his head fall back, and bang against the partition wall. He just couldn't catch a fucking break.

***

There was something inherently adorable about seeing the school decorated for the holidays. Various student projects hung on the walls, giving reports on different religions and celebrations. Paper snowflakes were plastered to the windows, drooping slightly from condensation but still giving the place an undeniable sense of cheer.

The classroom doors were decorated with various handicrafts, bits of tinsel, and ornaments. Some of the duller teachers had opted for simply wrapping theirs like a gift in a single type of paper. Arthur's was decorated all out, complete with fake snow sprayed in the window and a stocking hung on the doorknob. It was so covered, in fact, that it was hard to tell it was a door at all.

The office had started playing Christmas carols in the hallways before and after school as the students bustled about and walked to their classes. Despite the increase in work and marking as end of term neared, students and teachers alike remained cheerful. It was, undeniably almost time for Christmas. So it was with a light heart that Arthur signed his name to the list of staff willing to chaperone the end of term disco.

Of course, by the time December eighteenth finally arrived, he was beginning to regret his decision.

“This is so stupid. Why did I agree to this?” he moaned to Merlin over dinner in the staffroom.

“Clearly for the free food,” said Merlin, shoveling garlic bread into his mouth. “Though you think Gary would have sprung for something a little swankier than Pizza Hut.”

“He probably had coupons,” Arthur muttered.

“Cheer up lads, a meal's a meal,” said Gwaine reaching for a fourth slice.

“That's disgusting,” said Mithian, watching him suck up a strand of cheese that continued to grow. “Your wife teaches nutrition, how can you eat like that?”

“Easily,” Gwaine replied, finally winning the battle with the cheese.

“Ugh, that's put me right off my pie.” Mithian dropped the rest of her slice back onto her plate.

“Cheers Mith,” said Gwaine, reaching for her discarded slice.

“Oh God. Right, I'm going to go down, the punters'll be arriving soon.” She dusted the crumbs off her hands and stood up. “You lot better be down soon,” she narrowed her eyes. “I refuse to be left alone with George and Edwin for the night.”

“We'll be down as soon as the incredible bottomless pit is finished,” Merlin waved a hand.

“You better.” She turned and left, leaving the three of them alone to finish devouring the remains.

“I so don't want to go down there,” Arthur whined again.

“You volunteered,” said Merlin sounding exasperated.

“Under the influence of peppermint lattes and ginger loaf! I clearly wouldn't have done this if I was in my right mind.”

“He says this every year,” said Gwaine to Merlin, rolling his eyes. “Just wait, he's building up to how unwholesome these things have become.”

“Well they have! Discos in our day were a bit of a laugh but there wasn't the kind of humping and grinding they get up to now.” He picked up Merlin's crust and tore off a chunk.

“And what activities do you suggest we provide for them if not a dance?” asked Merlin.

“I don't know, but not this hormone fueled monstrosity. Something where they can have good, clean fun and nobody ends up passed out behind the bins or pregnant.”

“Good clean fun?” Merlin raised his eyebrows. “Arthur, you sound like the father in ‘Leave It To Beaver’.”

“At the last spring disco I had to peel apart a grind train. A grind train Merlin. Do you know what that is? It's where they stack the line guy girl guy girl and then they all grind together. It's horrifying.”

“Alright, so they need to find a happy medium I'm pretty sure that's why we're here at six-thirty the day before term ends. To chaperone.”

“No one likes a clever clogs Merlin. Are you done yet, Fatty?” he asked, turning to Gwaine.

Gwaine smiled broadly at him with his cheeks stuffed with pizza and gave him a double thumbs up.

“Alright, let's do this.”

Two hours in, and Arthur had to concede it wasn't that bad. Sure, he had to step in more than a few times when couples got too close during the slow songs, but on the whole it was alright. No one had died, started a fight, or shown up (noticeably) drunk. He had made a couple of rounds with Merlin before Mithian stole him away to patrol with her, whispering to Arthur that it would keep Edwin away from both of them.

Arthur made another circuit on his own and settled next to the refreshment table. He watched the dancers for a few minutes, noting with interest that Freya and Daegal had stuck fairly close together all night while Sefa had spent a lot of time with an older transfer student Arthur was fairly confident was named Lancelot. That was interesting and also slightly annoying since he had put money on the Daegal/Sefa ship sailing. Oh well, maybe Leon wouldn't notice until the new year and he could keep his twenty quid for a bit longer. Mordred and Kara were sat off to the side of the dance floor, holding hands and looking extremely pleased. At least he'd made some money back on that one.

The song changed from an upbeat Mumford and Sons tune to something slower and Mordred and Kara got up to dance again. Arthur watched them for a few seconds before the familiar piano intro penetrated his subconscious. Arthur couldn't help but laugh when he recognized the familiar tune of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’. The song was haunting him.

Instinctively, he looked away from Mordred and Kara to the corner where Mithian and Merlin stood. Mithian was angled away from him and chatting to Cenred. Merlin though, had clearly just turned away from the conversation to stare at Arthur. As their eyes met across the dance floor, Merlin smiled at him with an expression that could only be labelled as intent. Arthur swallowed; heart racing and stomach cartwheeling like nobody's business. The moment couldn't have lasted more than a couple lines of melody, but Arthur knew they were both thinking back to that day in his office so many weeks ago.

Merlin was the first one to look away as he looked down to fish his mobile out of his pocket. Arthur was slightly put out that Merlin would end whatever the hell this moment to answer a text, but he picked up on Merlin's intent when his own phone buzzed a few seconds later.

9:33 - we never got that second dance

9:33 - blame ofsted

9:34 - ofsted isn't here now

9:34 - no, but a couple hundred students are

9:34 - pity that

When it became clear Merlin wasn't going to send anything else, Arthur looked up to see he had rejoined the conversation with Cenred. Arthur had never needed a wank more desperately in his life.

“Fucking Ofsted,” he muttered bitterly.

***

Arthur woke the next morning to his text alert. Stretching out an arm, he pulled the phone back into bed with him and stared at the display until his brain woke up enough to read the message.

6:58 - sorry if this wakes you but Will just phoned to say he's on his way over. We're going to load his car now so we can leave for home right after school. Won't need a ride. Once more into the breach!

Arthur blinked the sleep out of his eyes as he let the full extent of Merlin's message sink in. He was tempted to just stay in bed and call in sick; it wasn't like they were actually going to teach anything today. But apparently lunch and maybe a brief goodbye after school was all he was going to get from Merlin. His bad mood growing, Arthur groaned and dragged himself out of bed into the damp cold of the morning.

The day passed in  a blur. Arthur's classes were mostly just free periods, serving as drop off points for any outstanding assignments. As pleased as he was that the vast majority of his students had managed to catch up on their workloads, it meant his holiday was rapidly filling up with marking. He spent the rest of his periods playing a history edition of Jeopardy, in which the girls universally crushed the boys.

Despite not teaching his year tens on Fridays, several of them stopped by with gifts. The favourite five showered him with various sweets and gift cards and even Vivian sought him out to give him a bottle of mulled wine. All in all, the day had shaped up quite well. In fact, the only downside was that Merlin had somehow managed to give the last detention of the semester and was therefore occupied all of lunch.

“I'm sorry,” Merlin had whispered, the horrible reindeer on his jumper poking out through the crack in the door. “But he tried to steal some magnesium to take home for ‘experiments’. Gary would probably breathe fire if I let him off just because it's the last day.”

With a promise to find him before he left, Merlin had shut the door again and left Arthur to sink back into a foul mood. The day continued much as it had in the morning, though with slightly less cheer. Try as he might though, it was hard to stay completely miserable when Valiant sought him out at the end of it to say he and his mother were heading north to spend the holidays with his grandparents.

“That's great Val! I think some time away will be good for you,” Arthur said honestly.

“Just wanted to let you know what was happening,” Valiant shrugged.

“I'm glad. And if you need anything over the holidays, I check my school email every day. Don't hesitate to write, even if you think it's over something stupid.”

In typical fashion, Valiant nodded but didn't say anything else. He did, however, hand Arthur a card before leaving the office. Arthur looked down at the neat handwriting on the front, presumably written by Mrs. Orm, and tossed the card into his bag, feeling a bit more cheerful.

He had planned to take his bags out to the car before returning to find Merlin and do… something. At the very least, say goodbye and happy holidays. This plan was disrupted when Merlin came sprinting across the parking lot as Arthur threw his stuff into the backseat.

“Where the hell have you been?” Merlin practically yelled, coming to a stop much too far into Arthur's personal space. “I couldn't find you anywhere and Will won't get off my arse about leaving.”

“You must have just missed me.” Arthur shrugged, holding onto the door, “I was in the office with Val and came down here to pack before saying goodbye.”

“Yeah, well,” Merlin slapped at Arthur's chest ineffectually. “Don't scare me like that. I thought you'd gone already.”

“You gonna miss me?” Arthur batted his eyes and smirked.

“Not anymore,” Merlin growled. “How is Val doing anyways?”

“Spending Christmas with his grandparents.”

“Good, good…” Merlin trailed off.

They stood in awkward silence for a few moments until Arthur tapped his thumb nervously on the roof of the car. The click of his ring on the metal seemed to jerk Merlin back to life.

“I guess this is it then,” he laughed. “It feels weird to think that I won't see you for weeks when I don’t think I've gone longer than three days since September, even on half-term!”

“Yeah, well that's what you get for living a million miles away.”

“Hey, it's not like you're staying put either. Aren't you and Morgana getting on a plane tonight?”

“Tomorrow,” Arthur groaned. “Christmas in Hawaii, how traditional. And I still have to pack.”

“Listen to yourself! Boo hoo, I have to spend Christmas in paradise,” Merlin scoffed.

“Home has its attractions.”

“Yeah.” Merlin shifted an inch closer and Arthur's pulse quickened. “Listen Arthur, I just – ”

Whatever Merlin was about to say was cut off by a harsh car honk behind them. Arthur looked over Merlin's shoulder to see Will rolling down his window.

“Merlin! It's a four hour drive and I refuse to be on the road still at midnight! Snog him and get in the bloody car!”

When Merlin turned back to face Arthur, his ears were bright red. He had also taken another step forward and was now standing far too close for conversation to happen comfortably.

“Such a lovely chap,” said Arthur to ease the tension.

“I don't know how Mithian stands him,” Merlin fumed. “I don't know how I stand him for that matter.”

Behind them, Will honked again.

“You better go before your ride takes off,” said Arthur.

“I wouldn't put it past him either.” Merlin rolled his eyes. “Merry Christmas I guess. I'd say I'd text you but you know home has notoriously spotty signal.”

“And I'll be in Hawaii,” Arthur reminded him. “But I'll have access to email at the hotel.”

Will hit the horn with far too much enthusiasm.

“Fuck it, come here,” said Merlin, pulling Arthur into a quick hug. “Merry Christmas, prat.”

“Merry Christmas, noob,” Arthur echoed back.

The hug was over far too quickly for his liking but with Will's fourth and longest honk, they didn't get much of a choice in the matter. Merlin took off across the parking lot and barely had time for a final wave before Will tore out of the parking lot, earning him some disapproving glares from the on-looking students.

With a sigh, Arthur turned back towards his own vehicle and slammed the back door with slightly more force than necessary. He leant back against the door and pulled out his phone.

3:56 - hope Will isn't giving you too hard of a time

3:56 - he's just pissed off he isn't going to see Mithian for weeks. This is going to be a great four hours

3:57 - sounds fun :D

3:57 - oh, sorry about what he said

3:57 - what did he say??

3:58 - the part about snogging you. Will's little idea of a holiday joke

Arthur's brain froze, unable to come up with a response that wouldn't make him a liar or get him in trouble. He didn't realise how long he'd stood there until Merlin texted him again.

4:01 - Arthur?

4:02 - Arthur? Are you okay?

4:03 - oh my God, were you actually going to kiss me back there?

4:04 - Arthur????

4:05 - ANSWER ME GOD DAMN IT

Maybe it was the holiday spirit. Maybe it was the simple fact that Arthur enjoyed being able to call himself honest. Either way, it was with great trepidation that Arthur texted back.

4:05 - maybe

4:06 - HOLY SHIT. DONT MOVE

Arthur couldn't have moved if he wanted to. He was frozen in place with all kinds of jangling nerves and an electric sense of anticipation. He'd done it. He'd told Merlin he maybe wanted to kiss him. The charade was over. At least they had some cool down time over the Christmas break to decide how they wanted to deal with the revelation. When it got right down to it, it actually couldn't have happened on a better day.

Arthur barely had time to be pleased with his newfound sense of calm however, as Will's car whipped back into the parking lot even faster than it had left. Arthur watched as Merlin practically leapt out of the front seat, dragging his bag behind him, neglecting to shut the door behind him. Watching his approach with a growing feeling of anxiety, Arthur tried frantically to come up with an excuse for his text. This is why they needed time damn it! He was saved from providing any kind of explanation when Merlin, not slowing down in the slightest, dropped his bag and all but flung himself at Arthur.

Their first kiss was not anything like he had imagined. For a start, they both had cold and chapped lips, so it was difficult to get any sort of rhythm going. Then Merlin opened his mouth and somehow everything clicked into place. Cupping his chin with one hand, Arthur angled his head back to get better access. Merlin responded enthusiastically, wrapping his arms around Arthur like he was trying to absorb into him.

Some part of him dimly registered the sounds of Will's curse and the car door slamming. He assumed the revving noise was Will pulling out of the parking lot again, but he was far too busy getting acquainted with Merlin's mouth to notice. Who cared what Will was doing when Merlin had such lovely lips? The kiss probably would have lasted much longer had it not been for the wolf whistling. Acutely aware that they had just snogged in the parking lot at their place of employ, Arthur reluctantly pulled away.

“Whoops,” said Merlin, a dazed smile on his face.

“Whoops as in we kissed or whoops as in we just made out in front of our students?”

“Definitely the second one. Could have got a lot more accomplished if the little buggers had fucked off a little faster,” Merlin smirked.

“I take it you aren't going home tonight?”

“There'll be trains tomorrow.”

“I love trains. What a glorious invention.”

“Agreed. Shall we drive?”

Without another word, Arthur ran around to the driver's side. By the time he got his door open, Merlin was already in and buckled. Arthur turned the keys and reversed out of the spot with probably more speed than advisable. In the rear-view mirror, he saw Daegal and Freya standing at the edge of the parking lot. Freya waved and Daegal gave him the thumbs up.

“How much trouble do you think we're going to be in when the whole student body finds out we've hooked up?” he asked as they turned onto the main road.

“Can't say that I care much right now. How long does it take to get to your house?”

“Ten minutes, give or take.”

“Mmm,” Merlin reached an arm across the gearbox and squeezed Arthur's thigh. “Make it take less.”

Arthur didn't need telling twice. He was fairly certain he must have found a hidden warp stream, as the journey only took them six minutes.

“You know, this would go a lot faster if you stopped distracting me,” said Arthur as his keys fell out of the lock for the second time.

“Yeah, but where's the fun in that?” asked Merlin, sliding his hands underneath Arthur’s shirt.

“True,” he said as he finally got the door open. “This is probably going to be over embarrassingly fast anyway so you should probably try and tease it out a little.”

“The time for teasing is over,” said Merlin, kicking the door shut behind him and throwing his coat on the floor. “In fact, teasing is what got us in this damn situation in the first place.”

“How so?” asked Arthur, pulling off his jumper and tossing it aside. It landed on his side table and knocked several pens and a coaster to the floor.

“You with your damn teasing!” Merlin slid his belt out of its loops and chucked it over his shoulder where it landed on a lamp. “Always poking at me and trying to get my attention. You act like a five year old pulling on my pigtails. How was I supposed to resist that?”

“Well, maybe if you hadn't been so attractive and so damn eager about being a good teacher I wouldn't have teased you!” Arthur let his jeans fall to the floor and paused. “Why are we fighting right now?”

Merlin frowned. “I don't know. But I'm horny and cross that you made me wait four months for this and now we're alone and still not kissing.”

“That, is easily fixed,” said Arthur, crossing the room and backing Merlin up until he was pressed against the wall.

He found he much preferred kissing Merlin without all the extra layers getting in the way. Chest to chest, skin pressed against hot skin, was clearly the superior way to go about these things. Especially since it provided such excellent opportunities for friction. Merlin being slightly taller meant Arthur was at an excellent height to rock his hips back and forth. The answering moans that fell from Merlin's lips indicated that Merlin also approved of this form of contact.

“You have no idea how long I've been waiting for this,” Merlin breathed.

“I might do,” Arthur replied, attaching himself to Merlin's ears at long last. He nibbled at the lobe and ran his tongue along the shell in playful strokes. Merlin gave a full body shudder and collapsed against him.

“So from the sound of it, we've both been idiots.”

“Pretty much.” Arthur kissed his way across Merlin's neck to reach the other ear. “I was afraid of fucking up our friendship and our work relationship, what's your excuse?”

“I thought you were just being friendly.”

Arthur released Merlin's ear and Merlin let out a little whine.

“Being friendly? Merlin, we danced a fucking waltz in my office. How did you think that just me ‘being friendly’?”

“Exactly! We spend a goddamn magical moment together and then you never made a move! I thought you were just testing me out to see if you liked me.”

“Oh my God, we're so fucking stupid.”

“Fuck I love hearing you swear in that cut glass accent. It sounds so dirty and wrong.” Merlin pulled his hips closer before letting his hands migrate further south.

“If you like hearing me swear, you'll love this.” He groaned as Merlin pulled him free from his pants and began to stroke. “Why the ever-loving fuck would you text me at the dance and then not bloody follow through on it?” His hands made their way to Merlin's cock and copied his actions, pulling slowly, teasing at the head.

“I was trying – ” Merlin broke off in a moan. “I was trying to be flirty goddamn it! And I needed to be sure you fancied me before just walking over and snogging you.”

“They shouldn't let us be in charge of children,” said Arthur, pausing to pull down Merlin's pants. “We're obviously incompetent failures.”

“I don't want to talk about work right now,” Merlin grunted, pulling Arthur close again and mimicking his earlier rocking motions.

This was clearly another activity that worked better with fewer clothes in the way. The slide of Arthur's cock against Merlin's was delicious with the slick mess of precum between them. Talking was replaced by more important things like kissing lips and sucking on necks. Arthur quickly discovered that Merlin liked it when the cool of his thumb ring stroked over his hip bone.

“Shut up,” Merlin choked out, “it's stupidly hot when you tap it on things.”

Arthur snorted and Merlin took his revenge by speeding up his thrusts until they were going at a truly frenzied pace.

“Remember that part about this not lasting very long?” Arthur ground out.

“Yeah?”

“Good,” was the only warning Arthur was able to give before coming all over their chests.

“This is seriously the least sexy encounter I've ever had,” Merlin laughed as Arthur took him in his hand again with quick strokes.

“True,” Arthur agreed, “but it's very us.”

Merlin's answer was mumbled unintelligibly and a second later he came with a gasp, shooting all over Arthur's hand. Arthur stroked him through it and gave him one last kiss in the afterglow of a seriously lovely orgasm. When Merlin finally opened his eyes again they looked down at the mess they had created.

“We probably could have planned this better,” he said, dragging a finger through the trails on Arthur's chest.

“Yeah, most of my fantasies took place in the bedroom and with Kleenex next to the bed.”

“There's an idea.” Merlin fixed him with a definite ‘come hither’ look and took a step towards the stairs. “I've never seen your bedroom.”

Arthur spared his wreck of a sitting room the briefest of looks.

“Cleaning can wait.”

***

“So how is this going to work?” Merlin asked several hours later, lying in bed. His damp hair smelled like Arthur's shampoo and curled gently around his ears.

“You mean the holidays or in general?” Arthur asked, rejoining him under the duvet.

“Oh, I've got the holidays sorted already. You're going to phone your dad and tell him to have fun with Morgana and Nimueh in Hawaii and come home with me instead.”

“You wouldn't say that with such confidence if you knew my father,” said Arthur, propping himself up on one elbow.

“And you wouldn't fight me on this if you knew my mother,” Merlin sighed. “She as good as said she wouldn't let me in the house if I didn't have you with me.”

“Awww, you told your mum about me?” Arthur teased, wrapping his free arm around Merlin's middle and tickling him.

“Hunith Emrys is not a woman to be trifled with. There are no secrets from her. And Aunt Alice is particularly excited to finally meet you. She keeps referring to you as my ‘special friend’.”

“Well in that case,” Arthur stopped tickling and settled for pulling at Merlin until he rolled onto his side. “I suppose I better come with you. I'd hate to be the cause of a family feud. Especially at Christmas.”

“Good,” Merlin raised a hand and stroked Arthur's fringe back. “Because I wasn't going to take no for an answer.”

“Cheeky.”

“Whatever. I've fixed our holiday plans, you sort out the rest of our lives.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “The rest of our lives?”

“You know what I mean.” Merlin rolled his eyes.

“Well if you're talking the extreme long term, I don't think we're going to have any trouble at work. I don't know how much you got it on your end, but the harassment I was getting on a daily basis to man up and kiss you was certifiably insane. Even Gary was pulling for us.”

Merlin stopped petting Arthur's hair and stared at him in horror.

Gary is interested in our sex life?!”

“Apparently,” Arthur laughed.

“Don't laugh, that's horrifying. Oh God I'm going to be sick.”

“Not here you're not, I just washed these sheets.”

“Glad to know you care more about your sheets than my mental state,” said Merlin grumpily, flipping around to lie on his back.

“Next time I'm at your house, I'll threaten to vomit on your sheets and we'll see how you like it.” Arthur pressed a kiss to Merlin's temple.

Merlin lay quiet for a moment, folding his ear.

“Just so we're clear; there's definitely going to be a next time, yeah?” Merlin looked at Arthur carefully. When Arthur didn't answer, Merlin continued. “It's just, I'd hate to break my mum's heart.”

Arthur raised a leg and moved until he was straddling Merlin.

“Merlin.”

“Yes?”

“There's definitely going to be a next time.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills): An inspection of schools and teachers carried out by a team of government officials. The point of the inspections is to make sure the teachers and the school policies are effective and providing the students with the best possible/ministry approved study experience. The school is usually notified of an inspection 24 hours in advance. Inspectors are given free range of the school during their visit and ask for student and parental feedback on the quality of education. Teachers and schools are given ratings between 1-4 (1 being outstanding, 4 being unsatisfactory). The grade they receive determines how soon the next inspection will take place. Most teachers aim for a 2 which means an inspection will not occur again for two years. These grades are important as they are released to the public and therefore available to parents. If a school has a poor rating, a parent is less likely to send their child there, resulting in less money for the school. The grades also influence teacher's salaries. Basically, Ofsted is a big ball of stress and nope that all teachers have to face. Picture it like the worst final you've ever taken multiplied by ten.

QTS (Qualified Teacher Status): A basic requirement of teaching in England and Wales. There are several different routes QTS, all of which include a formal evaluation. The most common route involves doing a PGCE to gain your NQTS (newly qualified teacher status). You then teach for a year with supervision and are evaluated at the end of your probation year to see if you qualify for QTS.

Internal exclusion: A punishment where the students are taken out of class but kept in school. North American equivalent is an in-school suspension. In this story, internal exclusions are used after the students are given three warnings.

GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education): Students start taking GCSE classes starting year ten. These courses determine what exams the students will sit and what they will go on to study at university. GCSEs are mandatory for core subjects (English, maths, science, and P.E.).

Student Success Office: Guidance or behaviour office. A space where students can go to work if they need help on assignments or have special needs in general. Also used as a space to hold students in detention and internal exclusion.

PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education): A one-year course for degree holders (North American equivalent of teachers college) with a heavy emphasis in practical teaching placements.