Gwaine actually throws something at Merlin when his alarm goes off at eight in the morning, which proves what sort of day it’s going to be. Normally Gwaine is so easy-going Merlin wonders if anything (aside from “snobby entitled gits,” as Gwaine had said under his breath the first time they’d seen Prince Arthur saunter across the campus at orientation) bothers him. “You don’t even have lectures until two today,” moans Gwaine, who is now without his pillow. At least he didn’t throw the decorative knife he keeps above his bed. “Leave a man in peace, yeah?”
“You didn’t need to prove to everyone that you can drink all comers under the table,” Merlin mutters, but he shuts his alarm off. “Go back to sleep, but if you miss your lecture again I’m not forging notice from the health center.”
Gwaine slurs something rude, and Merlin throws his pillow back before rolling out of bed and getting dressed as quick as he can. He’s definitely more of a morning person than his roommate, and since they’ve only known each other a bit over a month now, he’s still trying hard to stay on his good side. He’s lucky he’s got his little secret study spot just off campus, or he suspects he and Gwaine would have killed each other by now.
When Merlin gets to Camelot Coffee for his usual Friday morning ritual of coffee and revising, there’s a line out the door, mostly consisting of giggling girls. He stares, bewildered, and thinks about going back to his room, but he can’t actually get any work done there and he’d like to know what’s going on in his computer science lecture in the afternoon, so he joins the queue, clutching his laptop bag a bit closer.
It’s the middle of October, so there’s no holiday that people are coming to town for, classes aren’t cancelled, and he really can’t think of a single reason for what seems like half the co-ed population of Albion University to be at a relatively unremarkable coffee shop. But Merlin is a creature of habit, so he just clings to his bag and waits until he gets inside and then all the way to the front of the queue, nose stuck in the book he brought along until the last minute, since he’s going to have to put it down to do his revising and he’s at an exciting bit.
Gwen the Barista (which isn’t her last name, but it’s how she introduced herself the second Friday Merlin came in so he still calls her that in his head) is used to him by now, so Merlin doesn’t think much of rummaging in his wallet while he greets her. “What’s the crowd all about? Did you get a good writeup in the--”
Someone clears his throat. Definitely, unequivocally a him, Merlin realizes when he looks up and finds not sweet, curly-haired Gwen smiling at him but Prince Arthur with his eyebrows arched expectantly. Merlin blinks a few times, but it’s still Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales, darling of the tabloids, fellow Albion University freshman, standing at the till with a red apron emblazoned with a dragon and a “CAMELOT COFFEE” and with a name badge proclaiming him “Arthur: Trainee.”
“You didn’t get a good writeup in the student paper,” he manages when Prince Arthur doesn’t seem inclined to ask what he can get Merlin today (a reality check, or possibly a top so he can check that it stops spinning) like Gwen the Barista always does. “Is there some sort of charity drive going on here today that I didn’t know about? I could maybe afford a few extra quid …” Merlin looks doubtfully at his wallet. Actually, he probably can’t, at least not with what he has with him. “Um. Your Highness,” he adds, because Prince Arthur looks deeply unimpressed.
The girl standing behind him starts muttering. “There is not a charity drive,” says Prince Arthur, who sounds like his day is about as trying as Merlin’s. Perhaps more so, if all these girls have been giggling at him all morning. Merlin’s reminded a bit of visiting the bird enclosure at the zoo with his mum when he was little. “I am a regular employee. What sort of drink can I get for you this morning?”
“No you aren’t. Gwen is here Fridays. What have you done with Gwen?”
Prince Arthur stares at him and Merlin wonders if he is going to be sent to the Tower of London for disrespecting royalty. “Guinevere is in the back room restocking at the moment, I’m sure you can speak to her soon if you wish, though I feel I should warn you that she is attached. Now, what can I get you?”
“Right, sorry, um. Wait, what? No, I’m not interested in Gwen.” Prince Arthur just stares more, and the muttering of the girls in line grows a little louder. “I mean, I’d like a mocha, please. Sire.”
Finally, the prince picks up a cup and checks a box on it, then returns to giving Merlin a look like he is the most trying customer he’s had all day, which cannot be true given all the simpering and probably the swooning. “And a name for when the drink is ready?”
That, Merlin surmises, is why the line is out the door; all these girls are getting their name written by the prince. “Merlin,” he says, feeling a bit sheepish, and then he gets stared at some more. “No, really, I promise. Ask Gwen if you don’t believe me.”
Arthur shrugs. “I don’t care that much, actually.” Merlin thinks he probably ought to be offended, but Arthur writes his name on the cup and takes Merlin’s money and it’s all relatively normal (if he manages to forget the fact that the fucking Prince of Wales just handed his cup to Gwen the Barista as she comes out from the back) until he freezes and goes back to giving him looks that make Merlin wonder if he is committing some awful sort of treason. “Merlin,” he says in a tone of voice that makes Merlin think things that will get him thrown in the Tower of London. “You were surprised that I’m here.”
“Well, not every day the Prince of Wales takes my coffee order.”
“Would you have come if someone had told you I would be here?”
There is, he suspects, no right answer to that question. “Probably not. Wouldn’t have wanted to wait in line for this long.” Also he would have been spared finding out that the prince is sort of a gigantic git.
Prince Arthur looks at Merlin. Then at the line, which isn’t quite out the door any longer but which is still a great deal busier than Merlin has ever seen it. Then at Gwen the Barista, who is looking harried at the amount of drinks in the lineup to prepare. “How would you like a job serving king and country, Merlin?” he asks.
“Put on an apron and get behind the counter.”
“Your Highness,” says Gwen the Barista in the back room around noon, when the second shift has shown up to relieve them and the crowd of disappointed potential princesses has dissipated somewhat. She’s actually wringing her hands. Merlin doesn’t think he’s seen anyone do that before. “You don’t actually have authority to hire anyone, you know. Camelot can only afford so many employees.”
“If I keep working here, I can assure you business will be more than adequate enough to hire Merlin alongside me.”
Since Gwen the Barista is casting looks at Prince Arthur’s bodyguard that probably mean that she is about to explode just so she doesn’t have to chastise the heir to the throne, Merlin steps in. “I sort of think that’s … not the point, sire. She probably would have liked to pick someone to hire on her own. Or the owner would, or something.”
“They might have hired you anyway. You’re clearly some sort of coffee savant.”
That is probably actually partly due to Gwaine (who introduced him to coffee as an apology for introducing him to liquor during the first week of lectures) but mostly to the fact that Merlin’s a bit magic, but Merlin decides not to say that, especially not in front of Prince Arthur. Either he would be sent to prison for being a potential terrorist or he would be kidnapped into Prince Arthur’s personal army of bodyguards, but either way he’s pretty sure he would never see his mum again.
“He might not even want a job,” says Gwen the Barista. Prince Arthur’s bodyguard, a tall blond man with a beard, snorts. Merlin suspects that means his fate is sealed. “And with all due respect, sire, we don’t know if people will keep coming after your first few shifts. I don’t think we could spare the expense …”
Prince Arthur (Prince Arthur, and he is still wearing an apron and Merlin is still wondering if lucid dreams are part of his superpowers) seems to be trying to decide whether or not he’s offended, but he also finds the time to look pointedly at Merlin’s frayed cuffs and ancient trainers. “Of course he wants a job. And if you’re so worried that the popularity of the Prince of Wales won’t last, Merlin can have my salary until things either calm back down and we no longer need a third person behind the counter during my shifts or until Camelot makes enough profit that he can be hired on to mirror my shifts. I’m sure we can find a schedule that accommodates both his lectures and mine.”
Gwen the Barista just stares, looking a bit gobsmacked, and Merlin really doesn’t know what to say to that, so he asks the question that’s been bothering him all morning. “Why are you working here, anyway? Like you said, it’s not like you need the salary.”
“To be perfectly honest, I was dared. By Her--” The way he stops and grimaces tells Merlin everything he needs to know. He doesn’t follow celebrity gossip, but it was sort of hard to avoid the news stories last year when Her Grace the Duchess of York was discovered to be King Uther’s illegitimate daughter, which effectively disinherited her from being a Duchess and didn’t allow her to be a princess either, which everyone agreed was terribly unfair. “By the Lady Morgana,” Prince Arthur says at last. “But it is important to know how to work, I agree with her on that.”
“So you … want me to do your job for you?”
Arthur stiffens right up at that, and Merlin winces, but the bodyguard seems disinclined to drag him off to a dungeon or a tower or Scotland, so he figures he’s safe. “No. I want us to do equal amounts of work because Guinevere and I were both run off our feet before you came in and you are apparently a wizard with the espresso machine.”
“Yes, regular Harry Potter, that’s me.” He would make a joke using one of the spells from the books, but he did that with Will once and that’s how Will found out about the magic thing, so he has decided to banish the words Wingardium Leviosa from his vocabulary, especially in the presence of heirloom vases.
“I suppose I could ask the owner,” Gwen offers. “He was overjoyed to hire you, your Highness, but I don’t know if he wants to hire anyone else.”
“You are a wonder, Guinevere.” It’s a bit disconcerting to see the bright smile that’s in all the prince’s press photos up close. “Have I thanked you yet for stepping in and offering?”
Damn, he’s smooth. Gwen the Barista (who Merlin should probably stop calling that if they’re going to be co-workers, and even though his mother will fret, the money really could help so if they offer, he probably won’t say no) goes from nervous to dreamy in under a second. “Well, Lancelot asked and we were looking for help,” she says.
“I clearly should pick more bodyguards with charming girlfriends.” He turns to the blond bodyguard, still standing impassively in a corner. “Leon, you ought to get on that.”
Merlin checks his watch and curses, then ponders dying of mortification because he just cursed in front of the crown prince. He hasn’t had a chance to get any revising done before his lecture, and he really needs to. “I’ve got to go and get ready for a lecture, but I’ll be back in on Monday, probably, if you want to talk to me then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin, I’ve got a shift tomorrow.” Prince Arthur holds out a phone that Merlin could probably sell and pay a month’s rent on his mother’s cottage with. “Give me your number. I’ll call you once Guinevere has worked things out with the owner.” It takes three tries to find the contacts, and then the phone is snatched out of his hands. “On second thought, just tell me your number.”
Merlin forcibly restrains a roll of his eyes and lists off the number. “Thank you for the job offer, sire. And Gwen. Now I do have to go, though.” Gwen smiles and kisses his cheek and thanks him under her breath, which only goes to show what things must have been like before he got there, and Merlin grabs his things and gets ready to go out.
“Wait,” says Prince Arthur when he’s almost at the door, and then looks between them like he’s swallowed a lemon. “If we’re all to be co-workers, you really ought to call me Arthur.”
“Why are you diving for your phone every time it makes a noise? You should realize by now that I’m going to keep texting you just to see you jump,” says Gwaine that night, then grins in the way that led to them hiding in a supply closet in a classroom building after hours during orientation weekend, and then to them being kicked out of a bar the next night. “Did you meet a boy, Merlin?”
“I did not.” Merlin buries his face in his pillow even though Gwaine knows he’s blushing and is probably trying to see if he can make Merlin burst a blood vessel. “I got a job offer at Camelot Coffee, I’m just waiting to see if the owner approves it.”
“Because there’s a boy working there,” Gwaine tries. He seems to have made it his mission in life to find Merlin a boyfriend, after several very awkward drunk conversations wherein Merlin wailed about how hard it is to find someone to shag in the countryside. “Unless it’s fair Gwen the Barista who’s caught your eye, though I didn’t think you swung that way and I am forced to remind you that I have dibs.”
“Gwen’s got a boyfriend.”
Gwaine clutches at his chest. “Say it isn’t so! I must win her affections from a rival, then?”
“Your rival is one of the prince’s bodyguards, mate, you might be in a bit of trouble there.” Before Gwaine can begin to ask how the hell he knows that, Merlin’s phone rings for real and he dives for it again. This time, he doesn’t know the number, so he fumbles it open and turns his back on Gwaine. “Yes, hello?”
“Is this Merlin?”
Arthur sounds deeply uncomfortable, and Merlin feels that way with Gwaine practically breathing down his neck, so at least they’re a matched set. “Yes. Have you called about the job?”
“I have, just got off the phone with Gary at Camelot, actually, who says you’ve got the job and wants you to come in for my shift with me tomorrow. We start at six.” Merlin grimaces. “You can bring in your lecture schedule tomorrow as well, and we can work out times that work for both of us.”
“I’ll be there.” Gwaine is creeping closer. Merlin throws a pillow at him to put him off for a few seconds and it knocks a book off Gwaine’s desk.
“What was that?” Arthur asks, sounding mildly alarmed.
“My roommate is being a git, is all. I’ll see you in the morning, Arthur.” The room goes dead silent behind him and Merlin wonders exactly how awful the conversation with Gwaine is going to be, because Gwaine will mock him forever and then ask which one of them will be the princess.
“I suppose you shall.” Arthur pauses and Merlin wonders if there is some bit of royal etiquette that he isn’t following right now. Is he allowed to hang up on the Prince of Wales? “Merlin.”
“Um, that’s me.” He sneaks a peek over his shoulder to find Gwaine gaping at him. “Did you need something else, your--did you need something else?”
“If you don’t want to do this … it’s not as if I’m giving you a royal order or anything. You just seemed good at the job and we desperately needed help.”
Merlin blinks at the phone. “I … seemed good at the job? While I was standing in the queue?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I really, really don’t.”
Arthur lets out an offended huff. “Never mind, then. Will I see you in the morning?”
“Six o’clock, with my schedule,” Merlin confirms. “I’ve got to go before Gwaine implodes, though.”
“Good night, Merlin. I’m grateful for your assistance.”
Merlin wonders exactly how posh someone has to be to say “I’m grateful” instead of a simple thanks. “Good night, Arthur.” He is spared trying to figure out whether he’s allowed to hang up on the prince when Arthur hangs up first, and then he turns around to face Gwaine. Who instantly throws his own pillow back at him with a lot more aim and force and then starts laughing like a bloody hyena. “What?”
“That was the fucking Prince of Wales! On your mobile! Coffee shop indeed. You should have told me before, I ought to tell him to treat you right if he’s going to make you his mistress.”
“I’m not going to be the prince’s mistress!”
“Do you get to wear a tiara to the wedding, then? You’ll have to warn me, I’ll need to buy a top hat, and possibly a morning jacket.”
“You already have both of those, you just pretend you don’t,” Merlin points out, since during one of their few serious conversations Gwaine had admitted that his father’s in the peerage and that Gwaine hasn’t spoken to him since he was fifteen. “Also, you are not a Literature major, you have no right to sound like a Jane Austen novel.”
“That is not the point. The point is that you and the Prince of Wales just set up a date.”
Merlin buries his face in his hands and wonders if his superpowers extend to wiping Gwaine’s memory of this entire conversation. It would save a lot of awkward moments. But mostly they’re a bit rubbish and just move things around and sometimes blow them up and let him balance far more coffee cups at a time than the average person. “The Prince of Wales and I just set up a work shift. At Camelot Coffee. Where he apparently got a job to prove to his bastard sister that he can work like a common person. Christ, I’m living in a Mills & Boon novel.”
Gwaine just beams at him. “I’m stopping by in the morning, you realize. Your face is not the face of a man who just set up a work shift, and I am really going to look forward to watching you moon over his Highness over the espresso machine.”
“There will be no mooning.”
“And pining,” Gwaine continues like he didn’t hear. “A whole forest of pines under a full moon, like a bloody painting from Norway.”
Merlin decides that it really won’t help to tell him that yes, Arthur is stupidly attractive and like anyone else in the entirety of Britain and the Commonwealth who’s attracted to men Merlin certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed and might actually tie him to it (but just a little bit). “He’s an incredible git,” Merlin says instead.
Gwaine rubs his palms together with glee. “I’ve got a front row seat for the greatest show of the century.”
Merlin flops into an ungainly heap on the floor of the break room, since Arthur and Gwen (who he can no longer call Gwen the Barista since he’s technically one as well, now) have taken up the couch. “Do I get a state funeral for dying in service of my country?”
“You haven’t died, Merlin, you idiot, or your mouth would not be flapping on.”
“My apron has the imprint of my consciousness in it. Like that one episode of Doctor Who, with the library.”
“You’re a bit of a geek, aren’t you?”
Clearly Arthur is one of those sad people who doesn’t see the point of science fiction or fantasy, which at least means he probably won’t start to suspect that Merlin’s got superpowers. “All the best people are,” he says as loftily as he can from the floor. “I’ll bet you don’t even know what Star Wars is.”
“Of course I do. ‘Live long and prosper’ and all that rot.” Merlin and Gwen stare at him. The bodyguard, who is not Leon today, lets out a quiet noise that might be a snort. Arthur’s smug look fades somewhat. “That is Star Wars, isn’t it?”
“I believe that the line ‘live long and prosper’ comes from the Star Trek franchise, your Highness,” says the bodyguard tactfully.
Arthur grimaces. “Thank you, Percival.”
Gwen stifles a laugh, and Merlin tries to as well, not quite as successfully, which gets him a dirty look from Arthur. He struggles into a sitting position, since the dingy carpet probably isn’t exactly sanitary. “The fact that you haven’t seen Star Wars has made me lose a bit of faith in the monarchy, you know.”
“Aren’t they rubbish? There were a whole lot of people a few years back saying they’re rubbish.”
“That’s the prequel trilogy. They don’t actually exist.” Gwen starts giggling into her hand, which Merlin hopes is more due to Arthur looking gobsmacked than his own statement. “Seriously, you have to watch them, it’s classic cinema even if it is American. You ought to come over and we can have a marathon or--” It occurs to Merlin that he just invited the Prince of Wales to watch Star Wars with him and that he probably has a lot of more important things to do. “Um, sorry, I’m sure you have terribly trendy clubs to be in on a Saturday night with all your posh friends.”
“Actually, I’ve got nothing scheduled for the rest of the day. If I’m not imposing, I’d be willing to watch the films.”
Merlin thinks about the mess that his and Gwaine’s room is in, and the teasing he’ll get if he brings the prince back, and the four hours of sleep he got last night after Gwaine was finished talking about their royal wedding. Then he says “Yes, okay, Gwen, do you want to come along as well?” because turning down the prince when he’s offering to be friends is a bit unthinkable.
“Much as I would love to rewatch the adventures of Luke Skywalker, it’s very rare that Lancelot and I both have an afternoon off and I’m going to take advantage of it. You lads should have fun.” She stands up. “Now, if we stay here too much longer, I imagine we’ll get talked into helping out up front again, and all of us had a long morning. You’re both doing very well, and you work well together. Hopefully in a week or so you’ll know all the drinks.”
Merlin struggles his way off the floor, with a hand from Percival the bodyguard, and gives Gwen a hug. “Thanks for putting up with us, Gwen.”
“You’re brilliant at making the drinks, Arthur’s brilliant at remembering who gets which one. We just have to teach you both the other half of things.”
“Two sides of the same coin, that’s us,” says Merlin, before realizing that’s a phrase his mother used about his father once while she was on the phone to Uncle Gaius and didn’t think Merlin was listening. “Anyway, maybe some other time. We’ll let you get to Lancelot.”
Gwen pecks Percival on the cheek, shakes Arthur’s hand, and then breezes out of the room, stopping to chat with Gilli at the counter on her way. “Shall we go, then?” says Arthur. “Or should I let you have a while to nap or something first?”
“No, I’ll be okay. I’ll just call Gwaine on the way, warn him I’ve got a guest coming over.” And hopefully get the teasing over with where Arthur can’t hear Gwaine’s half of the conversation. “Do you need time to … I don’t know, run a background check on me or something?”
“Don’t be stupid, Merlin, that was done before I ever called you about the job. Percival will make the necessary calls while we walk.”
They walk across campus while Merlin talks to Gwaine, who informs him that he’s going out to the pub and Merlin should put a sock on the doorknob if he and his Highness start shagging. “I hate you,” says Merlin, and hangs up on him.
Arthur looks amused. “Having a bit of a domestic, are we?”
“He’s just being a bit of an arse, is all.” He lets them into the building, and ignores the face Arthur makes at the ancient building with the notoriously tiny rooms. Not all of them can afford singles in the nice new dormitory that got built five years ago when rumours started that the prince was considering coming to Albion.
When they get to Merlin’s room, Gwaine, true to his word, has gone, so Merlin resists the stupid urge to give Arthur a tour of a room that can be crossed in about five steps and sets about clearing places for Arthur and Percival to sit and finding the DVDs in his pile. “Where should I sit?” Arthur asks once most of the surfaces are clear.
“Um, we have to watch on my laptop, I’m afraid, so you should probably sit on my bed. Both of you can, if you like? But if one of you would rather, the desk chair is close enough to see.” Arthur and Percival have a complicated conversation with their eyebrows, leading to Percival perching on the desk chair looking intimidating and bodyguard-ly and Arthur sitting down on the bed and leaning against the wall. “Okay, then.”
They end up watching all three movies, with a break for takeaway, and Merlin falls asleep round about when Leia meets the Ewoks, while Arthur is loudly mocking the special effects. He wakes at five in the morning when Gwaine comes in with a crick in his neck, a blanket pulled over him, and a Post-it note stuck to his forehead: See you for our shift on Monday. Thank you for an educational evening. Next time I’m taking you to one of my posh clubs.
Halfway through their first afternoon shift, which is the next Wednesday, Merlin looks up from the espresso machine he’s fixing with a bit of magic and a lot of muttering to discover that the crowd filling Camelot Coffee has gone completely silent, not even a giggling girl on the phone to a friend saying that she swears the prince looked right at her and was maybe even flirting. The reason for the silence has just walked through the door wearing a smart suit, heels that could probably kill a man, and massive sunglasses, which she removes to stare around before she strolls up to the head of the queue.
“Back of the line, please, we won’t serve queue-jumpers,” says Arthur. Sophia, the third employee in with them, looks halfway between starry-eyed and scandalized. She’s got a massive crush on Arthur.
“Surely you’ll make an exception for your sister,” the Lady Morgana answers, and Merlin tries not to stare. In the year since the rags latched onto the story about her parentage in the wake of a very emphatic press release from Buckingham Palace saying Arthur and Morgana would never marry despite constant rumours, she’s made very few public appearances. Apparently she’s made an exception to visit her brother’s workplace.
“We don’t mind,” says the girl at the front of the line, looking like she might swoon at any moment. Merlin suspects that people from all over the country have started making trips to Camelot Coffee to see the prince, since the papers had a spate of articles about it after Saturday wondering if the prince had been disowned and forced to work for a living.
“There, see? They don’t mind.” Then Lady Morgana smirks in a way that makes Merlin think somebody’s about to die. Possibly him, since he’s making the drinks. And then she reels off a drink with so many fiddly specifications that even Merlin’s better-than-average memory can’t retain it and beams. “Well? Get to it,” she says, waving at Arthur.
Arthur turns to Merlin, long-suffering expression firmly in place. “Did you get all that, Merlin?”
“Um.” He turns to Lady Morgana. “Could you perhaps repeat that, my lady? We’re still technically in training.”
She smiles at him and turns to Arthur. “Really, he’s absolutely precious, where did you find him? Your taste is usually dreadful.” Arthur just glares in silence. “Your ‘best friend’ Edward Valiant the eighth in sixth form, for--”
“Don’t make a scene, Morgana, there might be journalists,” Arthur hisses.
“You aren’t any fun. Father would be proud.” He pointedly picks up a cup and she sighs. “Fine, if you aren’t making the drinks I may as well get something I’ll actually like. Merlin, is it? Just a shot of espresso, darling, and perhaps a muffin. For here, I plan to stay around for a while and then take my dear brother to dinner.”
Arthur flagrantly overcharges her and spends the rest of their shift practically slamming orders down on the counter while the customers look progressively more nervous and Lady Morgana lounges with what looks like a textbook on political theory and takes tiny bites of her raspberry muffin. They get off at seven, when it’s just Morgana and various bodyguards and a few regulars hanging about, and Arthur grabs Merlin’s arm before he can flee back to his room to get a bit of study done. “You are not to go anywhere. I will not be left alone with that harpy.”
Morgana, of course, chooses that moment to swan over. “Getting forceful, Arthur? How terribly Medieval of you.”
“You have been saying that since you were six, Arthur. Now come out from behind that counter, can’t I give my brother a hug? You too, Merlin.” Sophia, who’s in charge of closing everything down now that it’s all quiet, gives them all a wide-eyed look, and Merlin decides it’s in his best interest to obey, so he sheds his apron in the break room and grabs his bag and jacket and comes out to find Arthur, still in his apron, with his arms wrapped around Morgana. “I am very proud of you,” Morgana whispers, just loud enough to be heard, before shoving her brother away and grabbing Merlin by both shoulders to deposit kisses on his cheeks and the smell of her undoubtedly very expensive perfume on the rest of him. “And you are an absolute darling, Arthur’s told me all about you and I’m sure it’s all lies, come to dinner with us and set him straight.”
“I really couldn’t, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of catching up to do.”
Arthur finishes shedding his apron and getting his things and slings his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “Nonsense, Merlin, you can’t possibly turn it down. She’ll take us somewhere terribly expensive and let us feast without overextending our poor student pockets.”
“You don’t have poor student pockets.”
Arthur grimaces. “I’m not meant to buy anything for myself with money I didn’t earn at Camelot for the rest of the semester, although we’re arguing about Christmas.”
Merlin stares at him. “But you offered me your salary when it looked like Gwen wouldn’t hire me! I wouldn’t have even thought about accepting if--”
“That’s not the point.” Morgana lets out an unladylike snort and Arthur glares at her. “You’re coming to dinner, Merlin, don’t pretend you have anything better to do.” He pauses. “Unless you and Gwaine had plans?”
“Gwaine’s got a late lecture on Wednesdays, and then he’s got to go to the library,” says Merlin, which he realizes a second later must sound like consent, because Arthur is ushering him out the door and Morgana is striding down the street, the bodyguards scrambling to fall into step behind them. “Really, I don’t have to--this is very kind, but--”
“Can we keep him?” Morgana calls over her shoulder.
“I’m not a puppy you got for Christmas,” Merlin mutters, but Lady Morgana is striding down the street and Arthur is scowling at his trainers, so the only person who reacts is one of the lady’s bodyguards, a sort of terrifying blonde woman who narrows her eyes like she’s wondering if Merlin plans to suddenly jump on her charge.
Morgana leads them, of course, to the most expensive restaurant in town, where Merlin suspects she doesn’t have reservations, and procures them the best table in the place. The maitre d’ looks like he’s salivating and he’ll probably sell a story to the tabloids about Merlin being caught up in some scandalous incestuous royal menage a trois, considering Arthur fusses with Merlin’s collar while they’re waiting for the table to free up and Morgana beams at them both indulgently and then there’s a bit of a tug-of-war over whose side of the table Merlin is going to sit on when they get there.
Dinner is actually quite pleasant after Morgana and Arthur tell him for the fifth time to stop boggling at the prices and pick something already, the crown won’t go bankrupt from one meal at a nice restaurant. They talk about Camelot Coffee and how sweet Gwen is (apparently Morgana is acquainted with her through knowing Lancelot, who is on Arthur Duty tonight) and Morgana’s possible future in politics (“if you’re PM while I’m King I’m going to abdicate”) and the travesty that is Arthur’s lack of knowledge about Star Wars and Star Trek and other quality programming. It’s ten o’clock before Merlin quite realizes it and he’s got a lecture at eight in the morning.
“Give me five minutes, Lancelot and I will walk you back to your dormitory,” says Arthur when Merlin says that, and Merlin doesn’t see a reason to say no, so he fidgets around while Arthur and Morgana have a heated, whispered conversation a few feet away.
Morgana kisses his cheeks again as she gets ready to breeze back off to wherever she’s staying these days. “Don’t let him push you around,” she whispers. “You’re good for him and I hope to get to know you better.”
With that extraordinary statement, Merlin gets dragged off back to his dormitory.
Things settle into a pattern after that, just like all the brochures and orientations said, but it’s not quite the pattern Merlin was expecting for his first year of uni. There’s lectures and homework, of course, and more adventures with Gwaine and others that lead to more than a few work shifts spent with a headache and Arthur laughing at him and scolding him in turns. There’s figuring out the laundry machines and calling his mother in a panic when everything white he owns is dyed a sort of sickly yellow colour (which stain remover won’t fix, but his superpowers do a great job of clearing up). There’s late nights and early mornings and more coffee and beer than anyone should drink and his Logic professor takes an inexplicable dislike to him. He’d expected all of that.
But he certainly hadn’t expected Arthur and all that comes with him. Merlin’s used to bodyguards falling into step behind him whenever Arthur catches him on campus now. Morgana calls him once a week to see if there’s any gossip that Arthur isn’t telling her about. There’s a certain amount of the girls who come to Camelot Coffee who flirt with Merlin just as much as with Arthur (“smart of them, they know it annoys me when they ignore you,” Arthur says one night) and he eventually stops fumblingly trying to explain that he’s gay. Lady Vivian (long rumoured to be a possible bride for Arthur when the time comes, though her father looks nearly apoplectic whenever that’s mentioned in an interview) comes to visit and Gwaine spends a whole night flirting with her at a club; Gwaine looks far too pleased with himself the next morning and Merlin chooses not to ask. Arthur spends less time than Merlin assumed he would with his rich, titled friends. Instead, there are Star Trek marathons in his roomy single (“Are you a Vulcan, Merlin? It would certainly explain the ears”) and late-night study sessions in the library. They get in the habit of playing Battleship over Skype when they’re too lazy to actually see one another. Gwaine gets in the habit of saying “You sunk my battleship, your Highness, and you sunk it hard!” in an insulting falsetto every time Merlin shuts his laptop. Merlin always refuses to dignify that with an answer.
He certainly isn’t the only one having trouble believing he’s friends with the crown prince either. His mother and his Uncle Gaius both tell him to stop pulling their legs when he first mentions it (and then they both spend at least ten minutes each reminding him not to tell anyone, not even the prince, about his superpowers. Well, they both call it magic, but Merlin hasn’t done that since he was eleven and he didn’t get his Hogwarts letter). People, especially the posh people who probably assumed they would be Arthur’s best friends, gape at Merlin when he walks across campus. There are articles about him in every tabloid in the country (and one of them is so unflattering and makes such horrific accusations that he refuses to speak to Arthur for nearly a week, even when they’re working). Arthur says that the King has asked about him.
Still, it’s a comfortable enough routine. Arthur doesn’t act much like a prince most of the time, and between he and Gwaine Merlin is never bored, even if he doesn’t have the huge group of friends that he envisioned when he was getting ready for university. And if after a month Merlin is finding it hard not to cuddle up to Arthur when they watch movies or to push his hair out of his eyes, that’s nobody’s business but his own (and possibly Morgana’s, because she seems to know everything without him actually telling her, which is highly disconcerting).
Then Arthur finds out about his superpowers.
It’s late November and they’re on their way back to campus from an early Sunday shift, Leon a ways behind them because he got a call, when they catch sight of Nimueh, one of the most insistent of the paparazzi who get put on the royal stories and the one who broke the story about Morgana’s parentage and got her stuck in the limbo she’s in. Morgana never mentions it, but Merlin has inherited a great deal of resentment on her behalf from Arthur, who tends to talk about it when he’s pissed. He’s been half-expecting her to show up, especially in the wake of an article that said Merlin is clearly another illegitimate child of the King’s.
Arthur clearly wasn’t expecting her, because the second he sees her his jaw sets and he takes a step forward. Merlin, not looking forward to whatever confrontation comes next, grabs Arthur’s arm to hold him back. Of course, at that, Nimueh’s camera goes right up and aims at them, but before Merlin can snatch his hand back so there isn’t a “ROYAL GAY SCANDAL” headline in tomorrow’s paper, Arthur shakes him off and lunges for the camera.
Nimueh looks delighted at this turn of events, since the prince assaulting her is probably nearly as good as a gay scandal, but Merlin’s not going to risk Arthur getting in some sort of trouble for defending his privacy, so he tries to short out the camera and actually makes it explode just as Arthur looks back to see what his intake of air was all about.
All three of them stand there in silence for a long moment, and Merlin takes a second to thank his lucky stars that nobody else was around. Nimueh is staring in horror at the remains of her camera, Arthur is staring at Merlin, and Merlin wonders if he’s going to have to grow a moustache and move to Morocco. “Well,” says Arthur at last, sounding a bit strangled, “we’d best be going, Merlin.”
“Right, yes, of course.” Merlin is mid-nod when Arthur grabs his elbow and drags him off. Nimueh lets out a squeak that might be disappointment or belated shock and Merlin wishes again that he knew how to wipe someone’s memory. On purpose, and not just by accident like he did to his year three teacher once.
Arthur doesn’t say a word the whole way back to campus, not even when Leon catches up to them and asks why Nimueh is standing on the pavement with a smoking heap of plastic on the ground in front of her. He drags Merlin back to his dormitory, shuts his bodyguard out of his room, and pins Merlin against a wall. “I did not imagine that. Your eyes did something freaky and her camera exploded. I’m not seeing things.”
“You can’t have me arrested and thrown in a dungeon in some secret facility in Wales,” Merlin blurts. “My mum would worry. You like my mum. She sent us biscuits.”
“Facility in Wales?” Arthur asks, sounding a bit wrong-footed. “What the hell kind of films--no, I know what films you’ve been watching, and you are to stop immediately. I haven’t any intention of having you arrested. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“I--um.” Merlin’s never actually told anyone on purpose before. His mum and Uncle Gaius knew before he could talk, Will knew after he pulled his stupid Harry Potter stunt (and then freaked out and stopped speaking to Merlin but Merlin tries not to think about that much) and they’re the only ones who know. So instead of trying to say something unbelievable like “I have magic” or “I have superpowers,” he lifts his hand and makes everything in Arthur’s room hover an inch off the floor.
Arthur jumps and takes a step back from Merlin, although he doesn’t bother looking around the room, just stares at Merlin’s eyes. “Holy shit.” Merlin shrugs and lowers everything back to its rightful place and then stares at the floor. “Holy shit, Merlin.”
“I’m not dangerous or anything, and I don’t know how I got it, and I don’t really do much with it. That, with Nimueh’s camera back there, that was an accident.” He peers up at Arthur, who is still just staring at him. “Please don’t be mad?”
“Mad? I’m--Merlin, holy shit.” Arthur takes Merlin by the shoulders and drags him over to sit on the bed. “So you’re … what, Harry Potter? Peter Parker?”
“I am slowly teaching you the ways of the geek.” Arthur doesn’t crack a smile. Merlin stares at his lap. “I don’t know what I am, really.”
“Hey.” Arthur nudges him and then sits on the bed next to him. “You’re Merlin, and you’re my best mate. And apparently your name is quite apt. Now, how about you calm down and stop worrying that I’m going to press-gang you into being my secret magical bodyguard.” He smiles, and Merlin manages a tentative one in return. “And then you are going to tell me everything you can do.”
“Make it stop raining, Boy Wonder,” says Arthur a few days into December, looking up from his study spot in the library to stare out the window.
Merlin looks up from his laptop, where he is ostensibly studying programming theory. “It’s nice that you’ve fixated on the superpowers thing and not the ‘bit useless’ thing,” he whispers, “but I actually can’t do things like that.”
“You haven’t figured out how yet,” Arthur corrects. “You’re powerful enough to do it easily.”
“I’m sure I should say something about the balance of nature or some rot like that, but my head is swimming with code right now.” He stares down at the book next to his laptop, which isn’t decoding the problem he’s run across. Merlin’s superpowers tend to be good about making computers do what he wants and they’ll definitely come in handy when he’s an anonymous face in an IT department somewhere, but lecturers tend to want to see his work, which means he has to do it all the long way.
“We’ll make it our next goal.”
Merlin blinks, still not used to having someone else interested in his power without being terribly nervous about it. It’s been years since Uncle Gaius gave up trying to find an explanation for them and turned over the only book he thought might be useful, and his mum has always just tried to let him do what he can. Arthur, on the other hand, has spent the week and a half since he found out grilling Merlin about everything and then demanding that he demonstrate. It’s nice, having someone who wants to explore what he can do; Merlin is more interested in playing with the power than he has been in years. The bodyguards have been kicked out of their rooms more than they have been all term, under the impression that Arthur and Merlin have started playing some sort of role-playing game.
There are a few problems, though. For one thing, Gwaine seems to have figured out that Arthur and Merlin are keeping some sort of secret and that it isn’t a passionate love affair and he’s been sulking and threatening to call Lady Vivian again just to drive Arthur mad. For another, Morgana has picked up Arthur’s new habit of calling Merlin “boy wonder,” and it’s making him worry that Arthur told her. Most worrying, however, is the fact that Merlin’s almost-nonexistent crush on Arthur, mostly founded on him being the bloody Prince and the warmth of his shoulder when Merlin fell asleep on him while they watched Labyrinth, is growing by leaps and bounds now that he’s getting all of Arthur’s intense focus directed at him on a regular basis. Sooner or later, Arthur is going to realize that Merlin’s started blushing whenever he smiles and Merlin really can’t see that ending well at all.
“It’s not like we’re not used to it raining constantly,” Merlin points out when he realizes he’s been silent for a bit too long. “I don’t want to cause climate change.”
Arthur sits up straight. “You could fix climate change,” he says, loud enough that Leon, sitting two tables away, stares at them in confusion. “You could, Merlin. Why haven’t we thought of that before? You could actually save the world.”
Merlin sighs and tries to figure out how to head this particular idea off at the pass, because he’s not going to lie and say it isn’t nice having Arthur look at him like he’s some sort of hero, but he’s also just not that good. “I raised my mum’s cat from the dead when I was fourteen,” he offers, and Arthur just stares at him. “For about five seconds. And then I was in a coma for a week and my mum cried and I’d really rather not try it again.”
He waits while Arthur gets past the lemon-sucking look that usually means he’s having squishy emotions and doesn’t care to show it, and is a little pathetically happy that Arthur’s retroactively worried about him. “So,” Arthur manages at last, and then his lips twitch. “Rule one: you can’t raise people from the dead. Very messy.”
“Seriously, you never saw Star Wars but you can quote Disney?”
“Morgana,” Arthur explains. “But anyway, it’s good to know your limitations. We do need to know what’s impossible before we can figure out what you can do.” He scowls. “And we’re going to call things that put you in a coma for a week impossible. I can’t possibly do without you for that long. At the coffee shop, I mean.”
Merlin closes his textbook because he suspects this is going to turn into a long conversation and sneaks a glance at Leon, who has the I-am-not-hearing-any-of-this look perfected. “Look, if we can figure out a way to save the environment and the pandas and end world hunger, then I’m doing it, even if it means more than a coma. The needs of the many, right?” His Logic professor would be proud.
“But then what happens when you save the world and it all goes to hell again and you aren’t there to save the pandas? And seriously, Emrys, pandas?” Merlin rolls his eyes and goes to open his textbook again because he catches enough grief from Gwaine, but Arthur reaches across the table and covers the book with his hand. “You aren’t to do anything stupid like sacrifice yourself without my express consent, do you hear me? And you probably ought to know in advance that I’m not going to give it to you.”
“Of course, your Highness. You realize this is all a moot point, right? I can’t even heal a sprained ankle, let alone all the problems in the world.”
Arthur moves his hand, and Merlin thinks he’s withdrawing, but instead he grabs Merlin’s chin in warm fingers and makes him look up, half-standing out of his chair and leaning close enough to make Merlin’s heart flutter. “Yet,” he corrects. “We’ll figure out the best way to let you help.” Arthur’s grip is firm enough that Merlin can’t really turn his head, but he flicks his eyes in Leon’s direction, which makes Arthur let him go. “You’re my secret weapon.”
The moment’s uncomfortably tense, and Merlin’s sort of afraid he’s going to choke on his own heartbeat, so he lets out a nervous laugh and leans back in his chair. “That explains it. You’re trying to put the monarchy back in power and I’m your ticket to the top.”
Much to Merlin’s relief, Arthur laughs and stops looking at him quite so intently. “You make it sound like some sort of horrible drama on daytime telly.”
“Arthur.” Merlin tries out the unimpressed look he’s been trying to duplicate for weeks now, which doesn’t seem to work. “You’re the Prince of Wales and I’m a scholarship student with magical powers and we both work at a coffee shop. I’m pretty sure we’re already in that horrible drama.”
It’s a few days before the end of term and sometime in between giving caffeine fixes to fellow students and frantically studying, Merlin finds himself deep in the stacks of the library with Arthur, miraculously bodyguard-free (Percival is guarding the only entrance to the section they’re in) and looking for an obscure Poli Sci text that Arthur needs.
“Gwaine says he and Vivian are actually going out on a date the next time she comes up to visit,” Merlin says, scanning a shelf for the correct month of the periodical the article is in. “I don’t see any way that will end well at all, do you?”
“Vivian’s love life is none of my business, thank God, though you should warn Gwaine that if he gives her a venereal disease her father will have him killed.” Without any warning, Arthur is suddenly breathing right in Merlin’s ear, batting his hand away from the shelves. “February, Merlin, not December.”
Merlin turns around to say something exasperated because he has a lot of better things to do than hang about the library for an afternoon being ordered about. His train of thought gets derailed when he finds himself face to face with Arthur, way too close for comfort, and they swallow in tandem. “I don’t think Gwaine has any--” he starts when he trusts his voice again.
“With all due respect, which is none as he’s a disrespectful git, fuck Gwaine,” says Arthur, and then he kisses him.
It’s sweet and warm and Arthur presses him back against the bound periodicals with his hands on either side of Merlin like he’s preventing an escape. Not that Merlin intends to escape, ever if possible, but it’s nice to know that Arthur wants to keep him there. He twists his hands in Arthur’s shirt and the kiss gets deeper, wetter, hotter. Arthur looks wrecked when he finally pulls away. “I don’t want to fuck Gwaine,” Merlin blurts, and Arthur starts laughing a bit hysterically, leaning his head against Merlin’s shoulder.
Merlin starts laughing too, because it’s been a long week and he’s standing in the bound periodicals section of the stacks with the Prince of Wales, who just kissed him--no, with Arthur who just kissed him--and it’s impossible not to laugh. “That’s good,” Arthur says at last, “since I don’t really want you to fuck him either,” and Merlin has to kiss him.
“This is ridiculous,” Merlin says against Arthur’s lips a few minutes later.
Arthur stiffens right up and pulls back, but only a few inches because Merlin grabs his shirt collar before he can go too far. “I do realize that I come with complications, and reporters, and in-laws who wear crowns on a somewhat regular basis, but--”
Merlin interrupts before Arthur can look any more miserable. “We can worry about all that later, right?” That makes Arthur relax and kiss Merlin again, and Merlin puts off all the complications that are going to come with this. Things like coming up with excuses for his mum and Gwen and Gwaine and Arthur’s bodyguards because if this is anything like how it’s always going to be they’re going to be spending a lot of their time snogging. Or like the fact that he really wants to be with Arthur but is eventually going to have to decide how long he can take being someone’s dirty secret and what happens when that time limit runs out.
And then he stops thinking, because he has no idea where Arthur learned to kiss but he’s damn good at it, and it’s only a matter of time before Percival comes in to look for them.
“We should get your article and move this somewhere more private,” Merlin says eventually.
Arthur goes bright red, and Merlin stares a bit because he hasn’t seen Arthur blush since Morgana’s visit. “I … might have had my tutor find the article for me already, since he knew it would be hard to find. I just wanted an excuse to get you alone, mostly.”
Merlin blinks and pulls back. “You planned this? I thought this was some sort of spontaneous movie snog or something.”
“It was clearly an excellent plan,” says Arthur, and kisses him some more.
It takes a while, but eventually they get all their clothes straightened out and their hair fixed, but Merlin knows he probably looks a bit ravished when they make it out of the stacks and back to Percival. Percival, luckily, just falls in step behind them as Arthur chatters on about game theory as applied to climate change policy because for all he claims Merlin is a geek he really, really is one himself.
That conversation abruptly stops, however, when they reach Arthur’s room and shut Percival out (“take the night off, I don’t plan to leave again,” says Arthur, and Merlin tries to look innocent), because Arthur pins Merlin to the wall before they can even get their jackets off. It lasts for the rest of the afternoon, and well into the evening, at which point Arthur produces a Pot Noodle, since he’s actually sticking to not buying anything he can’t afford himself. Merlin manages to extricate himself around ten, protesting that they both have work to do, and practically floats back to his hall.
Gwaine takes all of two seconds to take in Merlin’s hopelessly ruffled hair and swollen lips and raises a suggestive eyebrow. “And here I thought you were out with his Highness all afternoon.”
“Oh, I was, he’s decided to make me his mistress after all,” says Merlin, since he’s a rubbish liar, and just grins when Gwaine laughs.
The last few days before end-of-term are a bit frantic. Not so much with the school work, although of course that’s difficult, but everything has been taken out of focus by whatever this thing is that Merlin has with Arthur now. Arthur cheerfully informs his bodyguards that Merlin is showing him the wonders of Deep Space Nine and spends hours carefully exploring Merlin’s mouth with his own, running fingertips across Merlin’s skin, and mumbling profanity and endearments in his ear. Merlin returns them in equal measure because he knows he won’t get this for long, and he’s going to make the most of it while he has it.
Arthur develops a disconcerting habit of coming out of nowhere, pinning Merlin to a wall, and snogging him within an inch of his life whenever they’re in private (and once when they’re in the break room and Gwen is right on the other side of the door). He doesn’t try to do anything more, even though more often than not Merlin makes a stop in the bathroom in his hall for a desperate wank before he goes back to Gwaine, who always just laughs and spends ten minutes guessing who Merlin’s getting off with while Merlin says “I told you, I’m Arthur’s mistress” at regular intervals.
For once, something about Arthur being in his life makes a strange sort of sense, and Merlin hasn’t even begun to mind not being able to have a public relationship, and that’s what makes it so odd when Morgana calls the day before Merlin leaves for Christmas hols and tells him not to break her brother’s heart.
Merlin finds Lancelot helping Arthur pack whatever he’s taking to London for Christmas. “You might want to leave,” he says, because he really needs to get things straight in his head and he doesn’t particularly want to do it in front of anyone else, even if Lancelot is perhaps his favourite of Arthur’s bodyguards, “because I don’t really want to have this conversation in front of anyone else.”
Lancelot eyes him for a few seconds. “You aren’t planning to assassinate him?”
“Not at the moment.” Lancelot eyes him for a few more seconds and Arthur is starting to look nervous because unlike Lancelot he knows what Merlin could do to him. Or potentially do to him, if Merlin hadn’t cried for hours after he’d accidentally killed a mouse with his superpowers that one time. “I just had a chat with Morgana.”
Both of them wince in unison and Lancelot leaves the room pretty quickly, leaving Arthur, who has relaxed into a rueful grin. “What has that harridan done now? Should I be having a talk with her?”
“She just called me to tell me not to break your heart.” Arthur’s wince is hidden so well it almost couldn’t be called one. Before that, Merlin figured that Morgana knew in that way she has of knowing absolutely everything. It takes him a few seconds to come up with something to actually say. “Arthur, did you tell her?”
Arthur turns fully from where he was shoving shirts into a bag that some poor staff member at Buckingham will probably have to iron and it occurs to Merlin for the first time in a while that Arthur really is the Prince of Wales and he is in way over his head. “Wait, that’s what’s tripping you up? I plan on telling Morgana that I am not actually a fifteen-year-old girl, despite what she thinks, and that she doesn’t need to protect me, if that’s what’s worrying you, but of course Morgana knows.”
Morgana knows everything, Merlin reminds himself. It’s like she has superpowers too. But Arthur is starting to look confused, and he’s not like any prince Merlin’s ever heard of, and they’ve never actually talked about this, since that first kiss in the library. “Why does Morgana know?”
“Because I told her. Why do you think?” Arthur rolls his eyes. “What has gotten into you tonight, Merlin?”
“I just didn’t realize anyone knew, I guess.”
Arthur comes over and kisses him, then flicks him gently in the ear when they finally separate. “Of course people know, Merlin,” he says, which is so not the answer Merlin was expecting. Morgana is one thing; “people” is entirely another. “It’s not like Percival didn’t figure it out the first day, so of course the others know, and I had to inform my father, just in case. We’re keeping it from the staff so far, they’ll want to spend years writing press releases, but--”
“The king knows,” says Merlin faintly, and thinks it might be time to sit down. “Lancelot knows. He probably thinks we’re snogging in here right now.”
“As we could be, if you weren’t having some sort of nervous breakdown.” Arthur sits him on the bed, looking somewhere between amused and annoyed. “What, did you expect me not to tell anyone?” Merlin just looks at him helplessly, and Arthur’s face shutters off into an expression that Merlin hasn’t had directed at him since … ever, actually. Even that first day in Camelot when Merlin was completely failing at ordering coffee he never got the face that Arthur does when he’s talking to fans or the press. “You … expected me not to tell anyone.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, Arthur, you’re the Prince of Bloody Wales, and the press would have a field day if they figured out you’re with me.”
“And you’re worried about the press?”
Merlin winces, because even though Arthur hasn’t moved away, he’s feeling farther with every exchange. “Not for me. I mean, not that I want to be chased around by paparazzi, but I was worried about you. It’s not going to be good when they figure out that you’re gay, you know?”
“They’ll figure it out sooner or later, Merlin, I’m not going to marry some woman I don’t love, there have been contingencies in place since I was fifteen. I thought you … well, I didn’t do anything in public because I wanted us to have some time, but … you thought you were some sort of secret.”
That tone of voice, Arthur sounding more horrified and less fond with every word, makes Merlin want to lunge forward and apologize for ever thinking such awful things, but he can’t do it. Of course he’s some sort of secret; it’s not that he thinks Arthur doesn’t care for him, because obviously he does. It’s just that even if a miracle happens and Arthur isn’t disinherited for being gay, Merlin isn’t exactly future prince material. Now that he’s thinking about it, though, he’s remembering that Arthur hasn’t been towing him across campus with an arm around his shoulders since they started whatever this is, but by the waist and even by the hand once, and that he wiped sugar off Merlin’s face with a fond smile at Camelot when anyone could have seen. “You’re the prince,” he says, because it’s the only possible answer.
“And you’ve been saying for months now that you don’t care if I am or not.”
“I don’t, but I figured you did.”
Arthur actually does step away at that and runs a hand through his hair, putting it into hopeless disarray. Merlin stares at his own knees because he doesn’t know how to fix this and he understands that obviously he got a whole lot of things wrong but he still doesn’t understand how. “It was never some sort of choice between you and the throne, Merlin. Like I said, there are contingencies. But if you think that badly of me …”
“I don’t, this isn’t about me thinking badly of you, you know it isn’t.”
“You think I would keep someone I care about secret when it might hurt them and you say you don’t think badly of me?” Arthur raises an eyebrow. “I think I’d like you to leave, Merlin.”
“We can’t just leave it like this for weeks,” Merlin objects. “I know you’re busy this break.”
“I can’t have you here right now. Get out of my room.”
Merlin stands because they’re both feeling wretched at this point and Arthur won’t let him fix it and he’s never wished this hard before that he could turn back time just so he could avoid having this conversation. “I’ll see you in Camelot at start of term, yeah?”
“The dare was for a semester. I imagine your job is safe, if you still want it.” Merlin blinks. Arthur’s never mentioned that before. “We’ll talk, Merlin, but not today.”
This is the end of something, Merlin knows, and if he walks out now chances are it will be the end forever because Arthur won’t listen to him. If nothing else, he should try to salvage the friendship, since Arthur’s the best friend he’s ever had and knows about the superpowers and wants to help Merlin use them and is sort of stupidly wonderful. But there’s a huge lump in his throat and he feels like an idiot and he doesn’t think there’s anything he could say to make it better. So he nods, and says “Okay” but not goodbye because he’s not the maudlin heroine in some period film and walks out.
He’s crying by the time he gets back to his and Gwaine’s room (well, he was probably crying by the time he walked by Lancelot in the hallway without even waving like he always does to the bodyguards, but that’s not the point), and Gwaine doesn’t bother teasing him. He just sees him, winces, and says “Oh, fuck, you really were the prince’s mistress. Come here, you stupid sod.”
Gwaine lets him cry for about fifteen minutes, and then drags him out to a nearly-deserted bar and gets him drunker than he’s been since the beginning of term. It doesn’t really help.
Morgana calls the day after Boxing Day, about two hours after a package containing a lightsaber arrived on Merlin’s doorstep with a note that read I don’t know who else I would give it to. Merry Christmas, Merlin. “Boy wonder, you have got to do something about this,” she says before he can manage so much as a greeting.
“I thought you were going to have my bollocks sawed off and thrown off the northern coast of Scotland if I hurt him,” says Merlin, waving the lightsaber around to hear the noises. It’s a proper authorized model and Merlin has a suspicion that Arthur paid for the whole thing out of his Camelot funds, which makes him feel oddly proud.
“As far as I can tell, you’re both being idiots, and he’s not going to fix it.”
“I would fix it if I actually knew what I did.”
There’s silence on the line for a second. “Arthur told Uther and me that he’s gay when he was fifteen, about two weeks after Uther first mentioned drawing up a list of possible brides to introduce him to over the next few years. Despite the shouting that followed, he has never changed his mind that he won’t marry someone for convenience and that he won’t have relationships in secret. There have been plans for nearly every possibility ever since then, drawn up with help from some of the king’s most trusted publicists, who have since been sworn to secrecy. Arthur doesn’t believe in hiding things like that, no matter how inconvenient it is.”
“I’m pretty inconvenient.” Merlin stabs his duvet with the lightsaber and wonders if his Christmas package made it through the security at Clarence House.
“He called me the night he met you, you know,” Morgana says in the tone of one who actually knows that he doesn’t know. “Ostensibly to tell me all about his first day on the job, but he was mostly talking about you. Uther and I have been waiting for the two of you to work it out since then. Why do you think I came to size you up?”
“You came to watch Arthur humiliate himself making coffee drinks,” Merlin points out.
Morgana lets out an amused noise. “Well, that as well. It was a temptation. But it was mostly to check up on you. And I like you, Merlin. I really don’t want to saw your bollocks off.”
“And I’d like to keep them.” He clears his throat and turns the switch on the lightsaber off because the noises make it a bit hard to have a serious conversation. “Look, I get that Arthur is upset that I thought he was keeping me a secret, insulted his honour or something like that, but it was only logical and I don’t know how to fix it.”
Morgana groans. “Christ, I cannot believe that I am getting the whining from both sides of this, and I hope you realize that by default I’m on his side, but you do realize that you never actually treated Arthur like the crown prince until you started your little affair, right?”
“Ah,” says Merlin. Then, “Shit.”
“Precisely, boy wonder.” Morgana sighs. “He’s moping. Do something,” she says, and then hangs up before he can answer.
Merlin stares at his phone and then paces his room for an hour before his mother appears and finds him waving the lightsaber at his Darth Vader action figure. He gets as far as “So there’s this boy, and I think I may have screwed it up” before she puts her arms around him and tells him to apologize for whatever it is he did before going to make tea, just like she does whenever he’s upset.
After a bit more pacing, Merlin decides to send an e-mail, since he doubts Arthur will answer his phone, and spends most of the evening putting it together, an elaborate apology and declaration of affection, before he deletes it all because Arthur will just call him a girl’s blouse and then continue ignoring him. Instead, he types out a few lines: I’m sorry. I know you wouldn’t treat anyone you care about like that, it was just that we’d never talked about it. But we should. Please?
Fifteen minutes later, he gets Arthur’s response. We are playing Battleship in half an hour. We are not talking about anything else.
Merlin answers the call when it comes, of course, board at the ready, but he doesn’t say anything right off, just sort of stares at Arthur like an idiot. He’s wearing an Albion U shirt, which he never does when he’s actually at Albion, and he looks exhausted, which Merlin feels guilty about even though he knows how busy Christmastime is for the royal family. “Nothing but Battleship,” Arthur warns him before he can open his mouth, although he’s staring at Merlin just as hard as Merlin is staring at him. “The rest some other time, but Morgana told me she would snog me in front of Nimueh so my being gay would be less of a scandal unless I talked to you, so we’re playing Battleship.”
“She really is going to be PM someday,” says Merlin, and he settles into the game because it’s better than he was expecting to get right off.
There isn’t much conversation, and Arthur beats him pretty viciously and doesn’t even crow about it, but he does give Merlin a tight smile before he signs off for the night and tells him to be on again in two days, so Merlin decides to take what he can get.
For the rest of the holidays, they talk nearly every night. It’s awkward at first, since every time Merlin tries to have a serious conversation Arthur distracts him with overly-enthusiastic talk about his superpowers (“just call a spade a spade, Merlin, it’s magic, you aren’t Batman”) or yet another game of Battleship, which both of them are getting better at.
“Are you really not coming back to Camelot?” Merlin finally gives in and asks the night before they’ll be heading back to Albion.
“Morgana just dared me for one term,” says Arthur, then clears his throat. “We should talk about it before we see each other again.”
Merlin straightens up and tries not to look too eager. “I’m so sorry, Arthur, seriously, it’s not that I thought that you of all people would want to keep us a secret, it’s just that anyone who’s ever read a Mills & Boon knows how this sort of thing goes and--”
“I do understand that, and that’s not what we need to talk about. I’d like to take you on a date,” says Arthur, ignoring that even though Merlin can see him trying to swallow the smirk and knows that there is going to be a conversation about books called The Greek Tycoon’s Passionate Virgin Mistress in their near future. “One that we both acknowledge as a date. If you aren’t ready to deal with the press, we don’t have to hold hands over the table, but I will make it clear this time that I am not out to make us some sort of secret. My father and I have discussed it, and we think it’s probably best if we just make it all look like yesterday’s news. The articles this autumn probably helped with that.”
This isn’t talking about it so much as it is pretending it never happened, but Merlin is entirely okay with that, because Arthur is smiling at him again and asking him out on a date, which he should probably warn his mother about so she doesn’t faint when the press gets hold of the story. “I wouldn’t be averse to some hand-holding,” he says eventually, “but you should know that I don’t kiss until the third date.”
“That is a blatant lie, I shall be kissing you at the door,” Arthur replies, and logs off.
Merlin grins stupidly and then goes to tell his mother that he’s got a date with the prince.
On the second day of term, Merlin stumbles into Camelot Coffee at six in the morning for his first shift and finds Arthur calmly putting on his apron. He blinks several times just to make sure he’s seeing it, and then looks around to find Gwen setting pastries in the case with Lancelot looking on and probably not doing a very good job of body-guarding unless Gwen is a threat to the crown. “The dare only lasted for a term,” says Merlin.
“That’s right. Good morning, Merlin,” says Arthur, and hands over Merlin’s apron with the name badge already attached, then snatches it back and ties it on for him when Merlin just stands there staring. Gwen and Lancelot tactfully pretend they aren’t there, which he could kiss them for.
“Good morning. The dare only lasted for a term.”
“Yes, and now I can use my allowance as well as my salary and eat like a human being, I thought I was going to die of sodium overdose if I had one more helping of Pot Noodle by the end of last term. Well, part of my allowance. I do plan to continue donating some of it to charity.”
Merlin finally manages to cobble together a sentence that isn’t the one he’s already used, because Arthur is gorgeous and grinning at him and it’s too early in the morning and he’s starting to feel like all of this is actually going to work out and he has to say something. “Can I talk to you in private for a moment?” he asks, and hopes that the so I can snog you rather desperately for a bit part of that came through loud and clear.
“Take a few minutes, it’s quiet yet,” says Gwen, who is possibly a saint and probably knows a great deal more than she lets on.
Arthur quite calmly takes Merlin’s hand and hauls him into the break room and for his own peace of mind Merlin pretends he doesn’t see Lancelot start grinning. “You wanted to talk?” asks Arthur after the door is shut, and Merlin pins him to the door since he figures turnabout is fair play and kisses him. Arthur tastes like his disgusting bitter black coffee and starts laughing into Merlin’s mouth after ten seconds, but it’s glorious anyway. Arthur rests their foreheads together when they pull apart. “Good to know it gets you hot that I’m working for a--Merlin.”
Merlin smiles and thinks about maybe opening his eyes eventually. “What?”
“Merlin, you are glowing and the customers are going to notice that.” For all Arthur is trying to sound stern, he sounds a bit awed as well, and Merlin opens his eyes to find that he is indeed glowing a bit, which is more mortifying than he cares to admit. “You are such a girl.”
There are probably a lot of things he ought to say about making sure Arthur knows he’s sorry and telling Arthur he’s a git for making Merlin miserable for weeks but that he loves him anyway, but he suspects the glowing sort of took care of a lot of that for him. “My mother wants to meet you,” he says, since that’s at least new information.
Arthur pulls back just far enough for Merlin to get the full force of a beam that puts Merlin’s fading glow to shame. “You told your mother about me?”
“About us. I didn’t want her to read it in the--” Arthur’s kissing him again before he can even finish the sentence, and Merlin reins his superpowers (or magic, or whatever he’s calling them) in so the glow doesn’t show under the door. “I think my uncle probably knows as well, now, she can never keep a secret from him,” Merlin adds, just to see if it makes Arthur kiss him again (it does).
“There are probably customers by now,” says Arthur eventually.
As if that’s some sort of cue, someone knocks on the break room door and they scramble to right themselves and Merlin manages to douse the glow but not his ear-to-ear grin, which is okay, since Arthur’s matches. They open the door to find Gwen biting her lip on a smile on the other side. “Do you two have yourselves sorted out? People are starting to get here.”
Merlin’s blushing so hard he’s worried he might actually start glowing again, so Arthur answers for both of them. “Yes, we’re ready.” Gwen smiles between them like they’re kittens with a ball of yarn and goes back to the dessert case before taking out her phone, probably to text Morgana, who has spies everywhere. Or maybe Gwaine, who’s been harassing him for answers ever since they got back and keeps telling him that he needs to get a boombox and stand under Arthur’s window until he’s forgiven. “Are we doing this?” Arthur whispers, looking him right in the eye just as a few customers walk through the door.
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” says Merlin, and goes to the espresso machine.
It’s definitely not a standard work shift. They are working, so it isn’t like Arthur backs him up against the till and kisses him senseless even if Merlin sort of wants him to, but they make a point of touching one another every time they pass cups back and forth and straighten each other’s aprons and try to see how many innuendos they can make out of coffee orders. Gwen is laughing every time she looks at them before an hour is out, Lancelot is attempting to look stoic from his vantage point nearby, and after another hour the customers are starting to notice. Most of them seem to be writing it off as male bonding, however, until Arthur swats Merlin in the arse when he gets behind on drink orders and Merlin automatically responds by flicking him in the nose. That’s when the whispers start.
Their breaks overlap by a few minutes, since there’s a lull in the crowd, and Arthur gives one look around the shop and spends the whole five minutes they have off together holding Merlin’s hand while the customers slowly start figuring out what’s going on and start taking cameraphone pictures and calling their friends or just openly staring. “We’re going to have a really interesting term,” says Merlin, and gives Arthur a nervous peck on the lips before going back to his spot behind the counter. Several of the girls sitting around the shop break into shrill whispers and it’s only a matter of time before this particular bit of gossip gets farther than Camelot.
Sure enough, Nimueh shows up twenty minutes from the end of their shift, panting with her new camera in hand. Arthur grins at him and Gwen rolls her eyes. “Want to give her something to report?” Arthur asks, holding his hand out. “Sure you’re ready?”
“I’m sure, although if your father has me thrown in the Tower I will never forgive you.” Merlin steps over and grins, because there’s no way he’s turning that one down. “I love you,” he says quietly, too quietly for anyone to pick it up, since it will be nice to get that one out of the way before the press starts hounding them day and night.
Arthur grins so hard it looks like it must hurt. “I know.”
Over at the door, Nimueh raises her camera with a look that says she realizes she can probably buy a whole island with the money from this scoop, and Merlin kisses Arthur because he doesn’t care if the whole world knows about them, his boyfriend the Prince of Wales just made a Star Wars reference and he couldn’t be happier.
He still makes Nimueh’s photos come out all wrong with his superpowers, though. Just on general principle.