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The Victory of Shadows

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The first time Merlin saw Arthur was in the summer of his first year at Cambridge. It was an idyllic English afternoon in May, and Gwaine had insisted they go to the regatta. Merlin was keen to experience everything Cambridge had to offer, but he found some things - especially things that tended towards the expensive and were laden with ridiculous tradition - difficult to justify when he had a stack of work to do.

"I know that face," said Gwaine, forcing another four-pack of beer into his already full rucksack. "Look, I don't like this elitist crap any more than you do, but you've got to admit, it's a great excuse to catch some sun and get wasted."

"I've got exams," Merlin argued, feebly.

"Yeah, yeah, haven't we all. But you can't work all the time, Merlin. You need to unwind a bit, get some fresh air, kick start your brain cells." Gwaine ruffled Merlin's hair.

"My brain cells are fine," said Merlin, running his fingers vaguely through the curls around his right ear.

"No they're not. They're starved of fun. They're shrivelling up as we speak. Come on, I'm not taking no for an answer. Just think of all the pretty people. Ever shagged a rower?"

Merlin, who hadn't shagged anyone at all since Fresher's Week more than six months previously, narrowed his eyes at Gwaine and pointedly slammed his book shut.

"They have muscles in some very strange and unusual places," said Gwaine, and had the nerve to wink. "Come on, Merlin. The sun's shining, the sky's blue, we're young, free and single. What have you got to lose?"

"My principles," muttered Merlin, darkly.

But he went with Gwaine anyway.

*

Before he went up to Cambridge, Merlin had had some very long conversations with a dragon.

He couldn't remember a time when Kilgharrah wasn't there. When he was very small, the dragon would come to him in dreams, in the shape of the smoke of a bonfire or a summer cloud. One day, when Merlin was about eleven, he went to explore the caves on the beach near his home, and wasn't surprised to find a dragon sitting there. He asked Kilgharrah once why no-one else seemed to know the dragon lived in the cave: after all, it was wide open and the beach was hardly private. Kilgharrah told Merlin that people tended to see what they expected to see, and that really didn't include dragons any more. Merlin remained unconvinced, and when he found out a few months later that dragons had magic too, he realised that Kilgharrah hid in the cave on purpose.

What young boy wouldn't like a secret magical dragon as his best friend? He would visit the cave frequently, and sometimes when he was lying in bed, Kilgharrah would talk to him in his head, and if it made Merlin a bit of a strange child sometimes, it didn't really hold him back. Having magic made him strange anyway, enough so that other children were wary of him and his mother worried a lot. It was okay, though. Merlin found that people seemed to like him regardless: he was kind and loyal, and reckless enough to appeal to the bigger boys who might otherwise have bullied him. He knew better than to tell anyone about Kilgharrah, even his parents, although he thought perhaps his father knew, from the looks he gave him when he announced he was going to the beach.

So Kilgharrah watched over Merlin, listened to his anguish about school and his first, fumbling steps into romance; even his joy over finally being able to grow a few scratchy bits of hair on his chin (which, to Kilgharrah's confusion, he was ridiculously proud to shave off) and, that last summer on the hot Welsh sands, Kilgharrah heard all about Cambridge.

Kilgharrah was very excited and proud. He told Merlin about his destiny to save the world at the side of the Once and Future King, and how Cambridge was part of this destiny, and Merlin thought the bloody dragon was totally off his rocker. He didn't say anything, though. He didn't want to leave on bad terms; he was rather sad he couldn't take the dragon to Cambridge with him. Kilgharrah had a bit of a thing about old places, and he really loved tradition. He'd have fitted right in, apart from being, well, a dragon.

But Kilgharrah said he had to stay in his cave, and Merlin had to go and get a degree (and possibly find his destiny, although the jury was out on that one as far as Merlin was concerned) and that was that.

Merlin missed him terribly.

cave by kironomi

 

Cave by Kironomi

*

Gwaine squinted into the sun, casting about for a spare bit of grass for them to sit on and finally announced, "There!"

"Where?" asked Merlin, grumpily.

"Between the blonde twins and the scary raven-haired beauty you had a crush on last term."

"Oh," said Merlin. "Morgana."

"Difficult?"

"No, of course not," said Merlin, briskly, and strode over to the spot Gwaine had pointed at, Gwaine loping along behind him. The grassy bank was full of picnickers and they were lucky to get space enough to sprawl out within sight of the river. There was a lot of activity down there: rowers doing stretches and moving boats about, someone making horrible noises with a loudspeaker. There were stalls selling champagne and strawberries with cream, and a group of guys juggling clubs.

"Hello, Merlin," came the slow drawl of Morgana's voice. "I didn't think you liked these things."

"I was coerced," Merlin said, pulling his knees up to his chest, arms wrapped loosely around his legs. "How've you been doing?"

Morgana smiled; her cheeks dimpled, her eyes sparkled and Merlin could do nothing but smile helplessly back. "I'm fine, thank you," she said.

"I didn't think you liked this kind of thing either?" said Merlin.

She wrinkled her nose. "Family obligations. My brother's rowing for Fitzpatrick."

"Ah, obligations. Same for me. Gwaine's trying to get laid."

A punch landed not-too-softly on Merlin's arm. "Hey!" Gwaine complained. "I get your pasty arse out in the sunshine for once and this is the thanks I get?"

Morgana laughed. Merlin thumped Gwaine back, but Gwaine had muscles like iron, and barely noticed.

Morgana's phone rang: a heavy beat of drum and bass that seemed out of place in the summer afternoon. She gave them an apologetic little smile and picked it up; she said a warm hello and in a swift, graceful movement got up and drifted away out of earshot.

"She looks great," said Gwaine.

"Yeah," said Merlin with a little smile. "She does."

"You going to ask her out?"

"Er, no."

"Why? She's beautiful, she likes you…."

"Not in that way. We're friends, that's all. Well, barely that, now, really."

"Ah, Merlin, this is your problem, you see. You never take risks."

"No, but she did." Merlin's eyes drifted back to Morgana, still talking on her phone, the sun casting soft shadows on her cotton dress. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "She was practising magic."

"Magic?"

"Yes. When I first met her, she was about to get sent down for practising dark rites."

Gwaine gave a low whistle. "Not just doing magic without a licence, but doing forbidden magic as well? She doesn't do things by halves, does she?"

"Exactly. I can't blame her, really, she fell in with a bad crowd. She's kind of easily led."

"And you knew?"

"I helped her to stop." Merlin hesitated, remembering the long, dark nights when he'd held Morgana's hand, soothed her, kept talking while she shivered in fear. How he'd battled the dark magic that surrounded her. How he'd protected her. Persuaded her, bit by bit, to wait until she was old enough to get a licence and study magic, proper magic, white magic, legally. Showed her how to control her power in the meantime; because although she wasn't so very powerful, not nearly as powerful as Merlin himself, hers was a restless, erratic sort of magic, firing at random and anxious for escape. It was very intimate, touching someone else's magic that way, and it didn't feel right talking about it. The only way he could really sum it up to Gwaine was, "It wasn't easy. No-one had ever really tried to help her before. But she was very brave."

"I heard her stepfather is a bit of a tyrant."

"He doesn't approve of magic, I know that."

Gwaine pulled a face. He didn't have magic himself, but he had a rebellious streak a mile wide, and he was no fan of rich executives either.

"Yeah," said Merlin. "I feel sorry for Morgana."

"But you don't fancy her?"

"Not really. Why?"

"Well, I wouldn't mind having a shot myself. But I'm a good friend, Merlin, and you did see her first."

"How very chivalrous of you," said Merlin, with a grin.

"Of course. So, do you mind?"

"Not at all," said Merlin. "I should warn you, though, I've never seen Morgana with a man, except those guys she did magic with, and I don't think there was anything romantic about that. And when she was recovering she got to be good friends with Gwen, and they've been close ever since. Very close." Merlin waggled his eyebrows meaningfully.

Gwaine's face fell. "Oh, I see. Well, that's a shame."

"Sorry Gwaine. But you can tell she's taken. Look at her."

Morgana was giggling at whoever was on the other end of the phone, twirling a strand of hair around one finger. She looked completely absorbed and carefree.

"She's not talking to her father, that's for sure," said Gwaine, wryly.

Merlin patted him on the knee. "Don't worry. Plenty more fish in the sea."

"You're right," said Gwaine. "And I am an expert fisherman."

"The best," said Merlin.

"Where is Gwen these days, anyway?" Gwaine said, scanning the sunny riverbank with one hand shielding his eyes. "I haven't seen her for ages."

"She's been studying. You know, like me? The whole exam thing?"

"Well, she's having a day off today, mate. Look, down there."

Merlin followed the direction of Gwaine's pointing finger, glancing quickly across the grass, through the scattered groups of students, down towards the riverside, and there was Gwen. She wore a pretty summer dress, her dark hair tumbling down her back, decorated here and there with flowers. She was talking to the most handsome, golden-haired, gorgeous man Merlin had ever seen.

Merlin cleared his throat, but his voice still came out croaky and thick. "Who's, um, that guy she's with?"

The sun glanced off the water, mid-day bright and dazzling. It made the man's hair shine as he threw his head back to laugh at something Gwen had said.

"I dunno. Some rower. I think he's a captain. Why don't you ask Gwen to introduce you?"

"No! No, it's nothing like that. I was just curious, that's all." Merlin attempted a nonchalant shrug and dropped his gaze determinedly to the grass, plucking a handful and sifting it through his fingers. "Trying to get into the swing of things, after you dragged me here and everything."

Gwaine gave him a good-natured shove on the shoulder, and might have been about to say something else, but they were both distracted by a flurry of movement next to them. Morgana was shoving things into her bag: book, laptop, scarf-thing.

"Merlin, could you give a message to Gwen for me? Just tell her something came up, and I have to go. I'll make it up to her. Please?"

"Okay," said Merlin. "Is everything all right?"

"Fine," said Morgana, with a bright smile. "Absolutely fine. Just a bit of a headache, you know? I think it's the sun and the Pimms, too many late nights. Tell her to have a good time, will you?"

"We'll look after her," said Gwaine.

"Don't worry," added Merlin. "Hope you feel better soon."

"Not Gwen on the phone then," Gwaine murmured as Morgana drifted off across the grass.

Gwen joined them a few minutes later. She looked so disappointed at Morgana's disappearance that Merlin couldn't help but give her a massive hug. Gwaine joined in, which made her laugh. The rest of the afternoon passed in a haze of sunshine and cheap red wine; Merlin was determined that Gwen should have a good time, Morgana or no Morgana, and it was a mission Gwaine seemed more than happy to help with.

And if every now and then, Merlin snuck a glance down towards the clubhouse between races to catch a glimpse of Gwen's handsome friend, he was sure no-one noticed.

*

Gwaine somehow wangled an invite to a party thrown by one of the teams - Merlin didn't catch which one, and didn't much care, as an afternoon watching boats charge up and down the river hadn't ignited in him so much as a spark of interest in rowing. What did matter was that Gwaine had stolen his room keys and wouldn't let him go home, so he had no choice but to tag along. Gwen came with them, and a couple of other people Merlin recognised as friends of Gwaine's but didn't know very well.

The party was in a marquee on a quad lawn in a college Merlin hadn't been to before. It was a warm evening and people were mostly sitting outside, drinking out of plastic glasses. The air was heavy with the smell of fruit punch and warm beer mixed with fresh cut grass and old, warmed stone. Merlin volunteered to get the first round in, and Gwen went with him to help carry. He was leaning across the temporary bar, ignoring something sticky his arm had landed in, earnestly trying to catch the barman's eye, when Gwen said, "Oh, hello!"

Merlin looked up and found himself looking straight at the man he'd seen talking to Gwen at the riverside.

"Merlin," Gwen said, "This is Arthur. Fitzwilliam Captain."

"Hi," said Merlin, holding out his hand and hoping it wasn't as sticky as his elbow. "Merlin."

Arthur's hand clasped his, Arthur smiled at him, and Merlin had a feeling like a handful of sparklers had gone off in his stomach.

"Nice to meet you, Merlin," said Arthur.

He looked so familiar. Merlin searched Arthur's eyes for a hint that he'd felt something too, but found only a friendly, amused twinkle. Of course, why would there be more than that? They'd only just met.

Hadn't they?

Arthur very gently disentangled his fingers from Merlin's, and offered to buy them both a drink.

"Best not," said Merlin. "I'm getting a round."

"That's okay," said Arthur. "Not a problem."

"No, really, I couldn't-"

But Arthur had already summoned a barman with the raise of an eyebrow, and the next thing Merlin knew there were drinks and a tray, and Gwen was going back to the others, leaving him standing at the bar with Arthur and a glass of something with strawberries and apple floating in it. It even had a straw. Merlin very, very rarely drank things with straws in.

"So," said Merlin, determined to take some control over the conversation, even if he seemed to have very little control over his actual life at the moment. "How do you know Gwen?"

"I'm Morgana's stepbrother," said Arthur.

"Oh. Oh! I know Morgana."

"Well, yes." Arthur gave him an odd sort of look. "You're a good friend of Gwen's, I understand? So it stands to reason…."

"Yes, but, ah, no, I mean it was the other way around. I introduced them, actually. To each other."

"Really? Well, I'm glad you did. Gwen's been such a good influence on Morgana, I've never seen her so happy. Funny, though, Morgana's never mentioned you."

Merlin shrugged and sucked hard at his straw. "I'm not important. She has a lot of friends. How come I haven't seen you around before?"

Arthur blinked, obviously noticing Merlin's conversational handbrake turn, but to Merlin's relief he went along with it. "I've been in Madagascar."

"Madagascar? That's a long way away."

"Yes, it is," said Arthur with a little smile. "My personal tutor has a project out there investigating the preservation of several endangered species. I took a year out to volunteer there to help save a family of Hapalemur aureus malagasy bokombolomena."

"Ah," said Merlin, wishing he knew what halpalemur-whatever-he-said were, exactly. "You're doing biology, then?"

"Yeah, I'm reading Nat Sci, but I really like Ecology best. And you're….?"

"ASNaC."

"Oh."

"Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic."

"It's okay, I know what ASNaC means."

"It's a real subject," said Merlin, a little defensively. He was used to seeing that particular 'that explains everything' expression on peoples' faces when he told them what course he was doing, but he didn't intend to let Arthur get away with it.

"I didn't say it wasn't. I'm sure it's very important."

"Too right it is."

"For…."

"For understanding humanity," said Merlin. "What are hyperlemmings without people, after all?"

That hadn't come out right at all. Merlin looked dubiously at his drink.

"Hapalemur. Bamboo lemurs. Specifically golden ones," said Arthur. "They'd be better off, actually. Less endangered. But I'm sure History's very important too. First year?"

"Yeah. Well, nearly second, obviously, just the exams to go."

"I suppose so. Well, I'm a bit ahead of you, then. I'll be starting my third year in October."

"Excellent!" said Merlin, totally lost now, and for some reason clinked glasses with Arthur.

Arthur gave him an amused look. "You're empty. Want another drink?"

Merlin peered into his glass. That's the thing about straws. Always ended up drinking too fast. "Yes, please, just a beer," and then, "No! Wait, it's my round. It has to be, this time, really. What're you having?"

Arthur considered his glass, which he'd only sipped at, for a second. Then he gave Merlin a wicked sort of look which made Merlin's knees melt. "Bottoms Up!" he said, and downed it in one. He swallowed, hard, fished a strawberry out of his now empty glass and sucked on it.

Merlin smiled a slow, feral smile as he watched Arthur's full lips close on the fruit. He glimpsed Arthur's tongue prodding at it, cheeks hollowing.

"Yeah," said Merlin. "Cheers."

*

"The thing about summer is," said Merlin, "it never really gets dark. In the winter, you go to bed when it's dark. In the summer-" He waved his hands expansively, "-it never gets dark! So what's a person to do? No bedtime!"

"Mate," said Gwaine. "You are so pissed."

Arthur laughed. He wasn't as drunk as Merlin, or even Gwaine, but he was sprawling on his back on the grass with them, staring up at the few bright stars that could be seen through the not-quite-dark sky. He was loose-limbed and relaxed, and Merlin found himself momentarily transfixed by a blade of bright green grass trapped in Arthur's golden hair.

"So what," said Arthur. "You go to bed at three in the afternoon in the winter?"

"Noooo," said Merlin, patiently. "Because there's stuff. To do. But before we had 'lectric light, people did. No choice." He waved his arms again, and his voice came out as a squeak. "Dark!"

"Nonsense," said Arthur. "They had oil lamps. And before that, candles."

"No, no, no, no. Before that. Before that, they didn't. So they went to bed."

"Or told stories around the fire," said Arthur.

Merlin sat bolt upright, considering this revelation as if it were a stroke of genius. "Yes! Yes, they did! Beowulf! And they had those things. In the walls. Torch-thingies."

"Braziers?"

"Yeah. Brassieres," said Merlin, and spluttered into a fit of giggles.

Gwaine rolled over and said to Arthur, "He's not usually like this, you should know. He doesn't get out much, you see. No tolerance."

"Oy!" said Merlin.

"It's all right," said Arthur and then, more softly, close to Merlin's ear. "I rather like it."

Which set Merlin of in another peal of giggles.

"Hey, Arthur!" Someone was crossing the grass towards them with big, loping strides. Merlin craned his neck to see who it was: it turned out to be Leon, one of Arthur's crew-mates on the rowing team. He had impressive arm muscles, a slightly dodgy beard and flowing curls that brushed his shoulders and softened his features. Everyone on Arthur's team was ridiculously good-looking, Merlin had noticed. It was uncanny. Like a sort of sampler-set of different kinds of handsome.

"Now what're you laughing at?" said Arthur, looking down at Merlin as if he was the most inexplicable thing he'd ever seen.

"Stuff," Merlin said.

"We're leaving, Arthur, if you still want to share a cab," Leon said, reaching down to help Arthur up.

Arthur took Leon's hand and rocked smoothly to his feet. "Better had," he said. Merlin thought he caught a catch of regret in Arthur's voice. He rather enjoyed that.

"I expect we'll be here 'til dawn," Merlin said. "Seeing as how it's hardly going to get dark. So, see, no need to sleep!"

"Ha!" said Gwaine. "Is that right, Mr 'Oh no, I've got to study."

Leon was obviously ready to go, but Arthur hesitated, fumbling in his pockets. "Shit. I haven't got anything to write on."

"Write it on your hand," Merlin said. "That's what I do."

'Ah, but that wouldn't be any good," Arthur said. "Because I want to give you my number. So if I wrote that on my hand and gave it to you…."

" 's okay," Merlin said, rather liking the warmth that bloomed in his chest at the thought that Arthur might want to give him his actual number. "I wouldn't mind."

"Here." Arthur grabbed Merlin's hand, and scrawled something across the back of it with a Sharpie.

"There," said Arthur. "Call me sometime. Maybe we could try and talk when we're both sober, see if we make more sense."

"I'm making perfect sense!" Merlin grinned a lopsided grin at Arthur, and squinted at the back of his hand. "Oh no. It's too dark."

"Must be bedtime, then," said Arthur, and waved over his shoulder as he left, with Leon in his wake.

Gwaine got very bossy after that, insisting that Merlin get to his feet so they could go home and start drinking water. Merlin was completely comfortable on the grass, and mostly unable to feel his toes, but eventually Gwaine got him upright, tugged Merlin's arm across his shoulders and they started to weave their way home.

As they emerged onto the street, Merlin saw a familiar figure in the distance, getting out of a small blue convertible of some kind.

"Hey, Gwaine," he said, coming to a halt because walking and talking at the same time were for some reason very tricky at that precise moment. "Over there. 'S Morgana!"

Gwaine peered in the direction Merlin was pointing. "Oh yeah. So it is."

"She must be feeling better," said Merlin. " 's good. Very good."

"Great," said Gwaine. "Come on." So Merlin did, concentrating once more on putting one foot in front of the other.

"Funny, though," he murmured. " 's very late and that wasn't Gwen in the car, was it? Where is Gwen? D'you know, Gwaine?"

"She went home hours ago," said Gwaine. "Don't you remember?"

"Dunno. I've been a bit… distracted. And this might surprise you. But I think I might be a leeeeetle bit drunk."

"Surely not," said Gwaine.

If Merlin hadn't known better, he might have thought Gwaine was being just a little bit sarcastic.

*

The first time Merlin did magic, he nearly burned down the Little Acorns Infant School.

It wasn't his fault. It was the fault of a sales rep who had stopped by with a range of educational toys to sell. Merlin loved to play in the castle. It was a big, grey, plastic affair, with lego horses and a moat and drawbridge that worked. Not a Disney castle, but a gritty, realistic world where Merlin could let his imagination run wild. He was busy defending the realm from a wicked princess when a man he hadn't met before knelt down by the west tower and said, "Hello, young man, what's your name?"

Merlin peered suspiciously at him. "Merlin," he said.

"Ah, I see. Are you playing Camelot?"

"No."

"Is your little friend there Arthur?"

"No," said Merlin. "He's Princess Esmeralda."

"I don't remember a Princess Esmerelda. Who was she?"

"Well." Merlin leaned in and spoke earnestly. "You know it's not real?"

The man chuckled. "Yes, I do know that."

"Right," said Merlin, relieved. "Well, Esmerelda and Constance are twin princesses, only Esmeralda is the good princess, and Constance is the bad princess. She had to go home, because she was sick after the custard, but we're getting the castle ready for a siege when she comes back."

"Oh, I see."

"You can play if you want. We need someone to be in charge of the guards."

"I'm afraid I can't, I have to have a chat with your teacher in a minute. But perhaps you could cast a spell for me before I go? I'd love to see some magic. You are a wizard, aren't you?"

"Of course I am! That's why I'm wearing a dress and a pointy hat!"

Merlin was very fond of the pointy hat. It made him taller, for one thing. And it had stars all over it.

"I thought so."

"I'm the great wizard Alakazam," Merlin said.

"I thought you were Merlin?"

"Well, yes, that's my real name." The man looked more confused than ever, and Merlin was convinced that he must be a bit stupid, really, but it wouldn't be kind to point it out.

"You've never heard of Merlin?"

Merlin shook his head.

"Ah well. Can you do a spell for me, Merlin?"

"All right," said Merlin. He reached out his hand and said, with huge gravity and import, "Burn!"

The small beanbag in front of him burst instantly into flames. There were a few moments of confusion and children screaming, the sudden hiss of an extinguisher.

Merlin stared in horror until the flames were out, foam everywhere and an alarm ringing somewhere. Then he sat down, suddenly on the plastic moat of the plastic castle, and burst into tears.

*

Merlin scrubbed and scrubbed at his hand until the big green numbers faded to nothing. It took a long time, and Gwaine found it hysterically funny that Merlin was so determined to obliterate any evidence of Arthur's existence from his life.

Merlin didn't mention that he'd written Arthur's number down in the back of a notebook before he'd taken so much as a hint of soap to his skin.

Four days after the regatta, Merlin's phone rang. Unknown number.

"Hi?" said Merlin.

"Hello, is that Merlin?"

The back of Merlin's neck tingled. "Yeah. Arthur?"

"Gwen gave me your number. Hope you don't mind."

"'S okay." Merlin was grinning. Couldn't help it. He picked up a paperclip from his desk and started to unbend it, phone wedged between his ear and his shoulder.

"So…. I was wondering."

"Yeah?"

"Would you like to get a coffee some time?"

"I might." The paperclip trembled a bit in Merlin's fingers.

"Tomorrow? I've got a lecture at seven, maybe after that?"

"Who has lectures at seven o'clock at night?"

"I'm helping my supervisor. It's an open lecture, about his work in Madagascar."

"Ah. The golden bamboo lemur."

"Yeah. The golden bamboo lemur."

There was a pause, while Merlin tried to think of something clever to say, and failed, before Arthur said, "You fancy it then?"

"Sure, why not," said Merlin. "The Coffee Shop?"

"See you there, about half-eight."

"I'll be there," said Merlin, trying for casual and coming out horribly eager.

"Me too," said Arthur, and hung up. Without saying goodbye, which was probably incredibly cool. Or incredibly rude. Merlin couldn't bring himself to care which.

He spent the next two hours trying to convince himself it wasn't a date.

Or was it?

He wasn't about to go and tell Gwaine that he had a possible-date with Arthur, because he'd never hear the end of it. But if he kept it to himself he'd explode, so he grabbed his sunglasses, phone and keys and set out for Gwen's instead.

Gwen's room was in one of the oldest parts of college, huge but cluttered with ancient, giant radiators and a desk that seemed almost as big as her bed. She loved it, though; there were always fresh flowers around the place and clusters of candles. When Merlin arrived that afternoon she was studying, piles of books stacked neatly in sturdy columns around her laptop; swatches of cloth arranged on the bed behind her. Gwen was hoping to do a PhD in mediaeval textiles when she'd finished her degree. Merlin had never known anyone get so excited about looms or plant dye as she did. She'd given him a handkerchief with his initials embroidered on it for his birthday, only a couple of weeks after they'd first met. He knew immediately it was one of those things he'd treasure forever.

"Merlin! How nice to see you. Would you like some tea?"

"Thanks." Merlin flung himself across Gwen's bed, crossing his arms behind his head. "Sure I'm not interrupting you?"

"Most definitely not," said Gwen, crossing the room to turn on the kettle. "I've been reading that same sentence over and over again for an hour, and I still couldn't tell you what it was."

"I know the feeling."

"Really, Merlin? That's not like you."

"Yeah, well." Merlin shrugged. "It's hot."

Gwen gave him a sceptical look.

"What's your excuse?" said Merlin.

Gwen sighed, turning her attention back to the teabags and mugs that sat on a tray by the kettle. "I don't know, really. Just keep thinking about things."

"What kind of things?"

"Nothing. I'm sure it's nothing."

"Gwen? What's wrong?"

Gwen said, very softly, "Morgana."

"Oh, Gwen! What's the matter?"

"I'm not sure." There was a tremor in her voice that Merlin didn't like the sound of at all. He sat up and leaned towards her.

"Tell me," he said, gently.

"Promise you'll be straight with me if you think I'm being an idiot?"

"'Course. That's what friends are for, right?"

The kettle boiled. Merlin waited while Gwen made the tea and came to sit next to him on the bed.

"Go on," he said.

"She's changed," said Gwen. "She used to be so kind, and she'd tell me everything. But lately she's very secretive. I know there's something worrying her. She gets these headaches, and I asked her about it the other day and she got quite cross. She accused me of trying to control her. I'd never do that, Merlin!"

"Of course not," said Merlin, his heart sinking.

"I know there's something on her mind. She doesn't sleep very well at all, she wakes up with nightmares, screaming the place down."

"Perhaps she should see a doctor," Merlin suggested. But Gwen caught his eye and he knew - they both knew - a doctor couldn't help with this.

"I'm afraid she's using magic," Gwen said.

"It might not be that," said Merlin, hoping he sounded more reassuring than he felt. "Perhaps she's worried about exams."

"Hm. Well, perhaps," said Gwen, dubiously. "But why would she be so secretive?"

"Pride, maybe? Doesn't want to admit she's fallen behind?"

Gwen considered that for a moment, but the frown didn't leave her face. "But what if it is magic, Merlin? What will we do?"

"We don't know it is, Gwen. It could be all sorts of things. Let's not jump to conclusions, okay?"

"Could you talk to her? Maybe I've done something to upset her, or it's something she can't say to me… she might be able to tell you."

Merlin patted her shoulder. "I'll have a word. Okay? But you must try not to worry."

"All right," said Gwen with a brave smile. "I'll try. So. What brings you here, anyway? What's stopping you from being glued to your books all afternoon?"

"Arthur," said Merlin, realising he liked the sound of Arthur's name on his lips far too much. "He called me."

Gwen gave a little shriek. "And?"

"He asked me out. At least, I think he did."

"You think he did? You mean you can't tell?"

"Well, he asked me out for coffee. But it might not be romantic at all. I don't even know if he's gay."

"Morgana said he's bi. He had a boyfriend at school, but he went abroad or something, so they split up.

Merlin tried to quell the little surge of hope that welled up in him at that. "He might not know that I am though."

"Um," said Gwen. "Don't you remember?"

"Remember what?"

"You told him. The other night, at the regatta. Quite loudly, actually. In fact you sort of announced to the world you were pansexual."

"Did I?"

"And while you were at the bar he asked Gwaine if you were being serious."

"And Gwaine…?"

"Said he knew you'd shagged men and women but he wasn't sure about any kitchen equipment." Gwen giggled. "Which is quite funny, when you think about it."

Merlin buried his head in hands. "It isn't. It isn't funny at all. Gwen, how the hell am I going to have coffee with him now?"

"Oh, Merlin, shh. It's okay. He must like you! Why else would he ask you out?"

"Pity?" wailed Merlin.

"Don't be silly." Gwen gave him a quick shoulder-hug. "Why not just go for a coffee and take it from there? You really like him, don't you?"

"I fancy him like fuck. Don't know about liking him. I don't even know him."

"Well, I do, a bit. And he's lovely, really he is. He's very self-assured. And passionate."

"He's got a really nice arse."

"Merlin!"

"And smile. Nice smile," added Merlin, sheepishly.

"That's better. Oh, Merlin. Don't worry. You deserve a bit of fun."

"He's into blokes, though? Really?"

"I think it's safe to assume he hasn't asked you out just to discuss world politics."

"Oh," said Merlin. "I don't know whether that's a good thing or not. Is it a good thing?"

"You know it is," said Gwen.

Judging by the flutter of excitement in his belly, Merlin thought she was probably right.

*