corilannam: (Merlin - pendragon)
[personal profile] corilannam

The call came into Buckingham Palace at 0217 GMT. At 0219, a frantic scatter of lights went on across the palace, and by 0230, half of London was lit like daylight--10 Downing Street, the BBC, every newspaper of any or no legitimacy, and everyone who had heard from someone and then called someone else.

After blinking away sleep and the initial shock, everyone asked the same question: does Arthur know yet? To whom will fall the task of telling the Prince--no, the King--that his father is dead?

The matter would have been easier, and handled already, if the Prince of Wales had been living at Kensington Palace or Clarence House or any of the numerous royal residences where he belonged. What on earth had possessed him to move to Cardiff, and what had possessed King Uther--God rest his soul--to let him?

At 0300 precisely, a protection officer answered his ringing mobile.

Some weeks earlier

Merlin had just resigned himself to shutting his laptop and bidding a reluctant farewell to the internet for the night when his mailbox pinged with a new Google alert. He only caught the words "Avalon Project" before two more copies of the alert piled into his inbox as forwards from Will and Freya.

Freya's landed on top, and he could read her note in the preview pane: OMG, getting back together with you RIGHT now so I can move back there and visit you at work EVERY DAY.

Bemused, he poked the down arrow to get to Will's message: I EXPECT YOU TO RESIGN IN PROTEST IMMEDIATELY.

It was hardly the first time his ex-girlfriend and best friend had disagreed about something. He was tempted to just ignore them both and go to bed like a sane person, but whatever this was, it seemed to have something to do with Merlin's workplace. And tomorrow, tragically, was Monday.

He clicked on the original alert email and opened it:

Avalon Project Set to Transform Welsh Village School

The Prince of Wales begins work Monday at Taliesen Architectural Partnership, a Cardiff-based firm where Prince Arthur has signed on for two years to finish his professional qualifications in architecture. Arthur will be heading his own project, a full-scale renovation of a Welsh school. On Sunday, the Prince and Council unveiled the long-secret choice of school to be the Avalon Primary School in Ealdor, Wales.

"Our goal is to create a model for complete environmental sustainability and energy self-sufficiency," Arthur said in an address to the Cardiff Council. "When the Avalon School is finished, we should see the costs of the renovation more than recouped by the long-term savings to the people of Cardiff."

The renovation will take approximately one year and will be funded by a partnership between the Cardiff Council and The Prince of Wales' Trust for Tomorrow grant scheme.

Merlin stared at the words until he had to blink, but they made no more sense than before. The Prince of Wales wanted to renovate Merlin's school into some eco palace showroom? But...why? Ealdor was just a small village of no particular note on the outskirts of Cardiff, and the Avalon school barely registered with the county council, let alone the media.

Don't buy your plane tickets yet, he typed back to Freya. I'm sure it's just a typo.

Bugger that, he wrote to Will. I need my job. You gonna support my porn habit in my old age?

After he hit send, there was a significant pause before the reply popped up. We'll talk.

Yeah, he was sure it wouldn't take long before Will had plans involving the prince, their website, and probably significant embarrassment for Merlin.

Assuming any of this was even real.

Just before he logged off, one more email popped into his box. It was from Dr. Gaius, the Avalon head teacher, and the body was empty. The subject line said simply: Staff Meeting Tomorrow.

Merlin snorted. Yes, he would imagine.

The Prince of Wales at his school. He was sure it was all just a very bad joke.

Arthur woke Monday morning to the smell of toast and the suspicious lack of a housemate. Gwaine's absence was suspicious because today was Arthur's first official day as an associate at the Taliesen Architectural Partnership, where Gwaine had been a partner for two years, and Gwaine was his ride to work.

He grumbled about unreliable twats as he dressed himself. One piece of hair had gone askew as he slept and refused to be flattened. Arthur blew out a whistle of frustration. There were sure to be photographers.

Gwaine had left a cheerful—and completely illegible—note next to the electric kettle. The top two words were shaped vaguely like "Your Royal Arseness," but Arthur could not even begin to guess at the rest. He crumpled and binned the note without trying.

Fucking Gwaine. He hadn't even left any toast.

The Jaguar was in the shop until the weekend. Resigned to driving himself in his beloved Saab Phoenix --even more beloved to the paparazzi for its recognizability—Arthur left the haven of their cozy little house. On the front steps, he faced the blank-faced smirks of his protection officers. "Yes, yes," he grunted. "Come on, I'm not even late yet, no thanks to my lunkhead of a housemate."

"Good morning, Your Highness," Elyan said and handed Arthur his car keys. He and Percival had been with Arthur since his uni days, and technically they had no facial expressions to speak of. But he knew they were mocking him inside. He knew.

As expected, photographers clustered outside the city centre building where the firm had three floors of suites. Arthur gave them a wide berth as he pulled into the private car park attached to the building. If he did not roll down the window, surely they would not see his hair, and then he would not get a pointed email from George, his private secretary, advising him about the organic styling products he had taken the liberty of having sent to Arthur's house. Really, if Arthur had any interest in hair care, he already did live with Gwaine.

He pulled up to the car park attendant and took a quick glance in the mirrors before rolling down his window, just to make sure no reporters had slipped in behind him.

"Permit in the window, please." The attendant barely spared enough of a glance to remind Arthur to pull out his shiny new parking permit.

"Right, sorry." He felt in his suit pocket and tamped down a frisson of panic when the permit failed to appear. "Hang on, I know I grabbed it before I left. Sorry, it's my first day and my damn housemate was supposed to give me a lift this morning."

At the sound of his voice, the attendant's head jerked around to stare at Arthur with wide, horrified eyes. "Your Highness! I'm so sorry, I didn't see it was you. Please, go right ahead."

"No, I have it." Arthur gave up on his pockets and dug into his work satchel. "I just got it last week." He had even filled out the cheque and posted it himself, to George's distress but his own pride.

"Please, Your Highness, I wouldn't dream of delaying you—"

"Ha! Here it is!" Arthur brandished the permit to both their reliefs. He would like to at least get through the door of his new job without needing any kind of special accommodations.

He did make it through the door, and Gwaine redeemed himself a very small amount when he was waiting outside the lift when it opened. "Good morning," Gwaine chirped and shoved a paper cup of steaming tea into his hand. "Drink up, you're going to need it."

"Where the hell have you been?" Arthur hissed, though he took the tea.

"Doing you a favour." Gwaine gave him a thump on the back just as he was taking a sip. "I had a nightmare that they tried to give you a ceremonial procession into the building with trumpets and shit. So I figured I better get to the office early, just in case."

"And were there trumpets?"

"Champagne and an omelet bar. Yes, I will accept your apologies and accolades. I think there are still scones, though. You'll probably have to eat one to be polite."

He did not have time to eat any scones, though he would rather have liked one. But the only other thing Gwaine had been unable to get rid of were the partners, senior associates, junior associates, and other staff members Arthur never did identify, all of whom wanted to personally welcome him to the Taliesin Partnership. He had expected that, though he had not realized that even the senior partners from the London office were coming for the occasion.

"Very pleased to have you aboard, Arthur," Olaf boomed with the familiarity allowed him by his long friendship with Arthur's father.

"Indeed." Alined shook his hand vigourously. "Your project is revolutionizing the way we think about restoration and the future of British architecture."

Arthur smiled easily. "I appreciate the sentiment, but why don't we see how the first day goes before we start the revolution?"

"Ambitious, but prudent." Olaf looked ready to launch into one of his monologues about his own triumphs when Gwaine appeared at Arthur's shoulder.

"Speaking of getting started, let me introduce you to your new colleague." Ignoring Olaf's annoyed frown, Gwaine pulled Arthur away. "Arthur, this is Lancelot du Lac. He'll be your right hand on the Avalon project. Lance, may I present His Royal Highness Arthur, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, blah blah blah."

It was a testament to Arthur's distraction that he, self-trained to pay equal attention to everyone in his immediate orbit, had not noticed this man standing just behind Gwaine's shoulder.

"Mr. Du Lac, it's a pleasure," he said and meant it because Lancelot du Lac was bloody gorgeous. "Forgive me, but I don't recall meeting you on my previous visits to the firm."

Du Lac smiled and yes, Arthur would be hard pressed to forget a smile like that, all Gallic heat and melting dark eyes. Not to mention the man filled out his suit quite nicely indeed. "No, Your Highness. I only started a fortnight past, and I've spent most of my time getting up to date with the project."

"We hired him specially for you, Arthur," Gwaine jumped in. "Remember, we promised you a qualified lieutenant."

Ah, yes. Now Arthur remembered reading the man's CV. Gwaine had outdone himself, on a number of levels.

"It sounds like we'll be seeing quite a lot of each other." He offered his hand and Lancelot shook it warmly. "You must call me Arthur."

"I will try, Your Highness," Lancelot replied with a mischievous quirk to his mouth. "But I still slip up with Gwaine, so it might take some time."

The Duke of Clarence slung an arm around Lancelot's shoulders. "You should have heard what we called him back in school. Remember the term you discovered the joys of bean burritos, Arthur?"

Thus having eradicated all the goodwill he had earned by hiring Lancelot in the first place, Gwaine let go of Lancelot to steer Arthur out of the conference room. As they walked down the corridor, Arthur noted plates of hastily piled scones stuck on every flat surface. A faint aroma of omelet wafted past his nose.

"Here's your office. Settle in." Gwaine gave him a little shove into an office at the end of the hall. "Lance and I will go get the files and blueprints."

Arthur nodded and closed the door until it was just ajar before turning to survey his new domain. The office was a fair size and sunny, with a computer desk and a drafting table by the large window. He walked over to the desk and unpacked his laptop into its place.

He sat down with a sigh, finally giving in to the fluttering of excitement in his stomach. At last, he had done it. His dream job, won on his own ideas and abilities. A real job, with a pay statement and tax deductions, like no one on his father's side of the family had ever had. If he could manage not to muck it up for two years, he could sit for his final qualifications and then this could all be permanent.

Someone had left a sheet of instructions for logging onto the network. He started up his laptop and managed to log into his work email—work email! There were a number of messages already in his inbox, mostly welcome messages from the people who had just welcomed him in the conference room, along with a string of messages from Lancelot du Lac about the Avalon Project.

He wanted to dive right into them, but one message caught his eye from the middle of the list, the only one from outside the firm. The subject line read simply: Your First Day.

The flutters flared in his belly when he clicked on it. Arthur, it read. I am exceedingly proud of you. I look forward to your continued accomplishments on behalf of Great Britain. UR.

He blinked rapidly to clear his eyes, then slammed the lid shut as Gwaine and Lancelot shouldered open the door, arms filled with blueprints. "Watching porn at work already, Arthur?" Gwaine guffawed, but Lancelot, at least, was polite enough not to chuckle until Arthur did.

"Stuff it, Duke of Ballsack," Arthur replied on the theory that Lancelot might as well get used to their working style now. "All right, Avalon Primary School. Who has the plumbing schematics?"

Merlin was at least five times as confused when the staff meeting ended as before it had begun.

Next to him, Elena, his teaching assistant, sighed a squeaky little sigh. "Can you believe it? Prince Arthur at our school! Such a shame that we'll all be somewhere else while they're working here, but we'll catch a glimpse or two, don't you think?"

"I sure hope so," he lied and patted her hand. "In fact, I think I'll go ask Dr. Gaius about that right now."

"Oh, good. He's always liked you the best."

"For another five minutes he likes me," Merlin muttered as he got up to chase after his head teacher. "Gaius! Gaius, could I have a word with you?"

Gaius did not turn around, but slowed his already-slow gait until Merlin caught up. "You may have two words, my boy, as long as neither of them are ‘royal' or ‘wedding.' I shall be hearing quite enough of that in the weeks to come."

"I honestly can't imagine anything more horrifying," Merlin told him.

He really was being honest, but Gaius shot him an arched eyebrow anyway. Gaius was one of only three people who knew that Merlin was bisexual, though like Will and his mum, his boss seemed to view it as a purely theoretical orientation that Merlin had mostly gotten over when he had started dating Freya.

Apparently it was impossible to believe that anyone with even a passing interest in cock could resist the glorious Prince Arthur Pendragon. Merlin struggled to keep from rolling his eyes as he followed Gaius into his office.

"I'm just wondering if you've thought this through." As Gaius settled behind his desk, Merlin perched in the guest chair and tried to look wise and persuasive. "Because this doesn't seem like a very good idea to me."

"I have thought about this as little as I possibly could, which unfortunately, was still considerably more than I would have liked. However, the decision was a long time in the making and ultimately was not mine to make. The county council has chosen Avalon Primary as the recipient of the Taliesin grant, and it was both my obligation and privilege to accept."

"So you're in favour of this? Throwing us all out on the street for a year while Prince Arthur rips apart our school for his vanity project? Throwing the children out on the street--the children, Gaius."

Gaius pushed his spectacles up his nose and began gathering the papers scattered across his desk. "The children will continue learning elsewhere. In fact, this should be quite a learning experience for all of us. Particularly you, Merlin."

Merlin stared at the papers Gaius was extending toward him. "Oh, no. No, I want nothing to do with this. I'm going to be much too busy making sure my students aren't freezing to death in those bloody caravans we'll be calling classrooms."

"As of this morning, they are no longer your students. They are Elena's students."

From the cold shock that went through Merlin's chest, Gaius might as well have stabbed him with an icicle. "What? You're sacking me? Gaius, no, this is my life. Please, forget I said anything. Let the prince have his bloody playtime, I won't say another word!"

"I'm not sacking you, Merlin. In fact, I am putting you in charge of this project from here on out. Your job will be to work with Prince Arthur and his people as the Avalon representative. Think of yourself as the prince's partner in whatever capacity he needs you."

"Gaius. I am very possibly the least appropriate person for this job." Merlin waved away the stack of papers again as though he could make them vanish from existence if he refused to acknowledge them.

"On the contrary. Who is it who shapes our sustainable development lessons?"

"That's hardly—"

"And who runs all of our design and technology special projects?"

And who had run a highly opinionated anti-monarchy blog with his best friend since they were schoolboys themselves? "Gaius, that's not—"

"And no, Prince Arthur does not have the constitutional power to execute you for mouthing off to him." Finally, Gaius's mouth started to twitch. "I already made several calls to check. Although I advise you to show him more respect than you do me."

Merlin slumped in his seat, defeated. "This is all happening so fast."

Gaius's look softened. "I know, and I'm sorry. I was meant to serve as the liaison myself. It seemed a good way to transition into my retirement and leave an extraordinary legacy."

"Retirement?" Merlin's head snapped back up. "Gaius, no."

"Don't fuss, my boy. We all have to go sooner or later. Dr. Muirden was meant to replace me as head teacher during the transition, and then permanently thereafter. However, it seems my services will still be needed after all, especially while the school is in such a tumultuous state."

Merlin winced. Edwin Muirden had seemed like a nice enough assistant head teacher for the half-term he'd lasted before being sacked for a truly shocking criminal background that had somehow evaded detection before last month.

"Elena is qualified to teach on her own now," he conceded.

"Indeed. In fact, it's past time for her to stand on her own. I have the utmost confidence in both of you."

Dragging his head into a reluctant nod, Merlin finally took the papers. "What do I do?"

"The Taliesin architects and engineers arrive next Monday to begin surveying and conducting their preliminary work. You have the rest of this week to get up to speed with the project and transition your lesson plans to Elena. After that, your main job will probably be to keep people out of the way until we move the classrooms at the end of term."

"I really don't want to do this."

"So noted." Gaius shooed him away and turned to his email.

Dismissed, Merlin rose and left the office, pulling out his mobile as he went. As he slowly walked back to the classroom that was no longer his, he called up a blank text message on his phone.

My life is over, he typed and then sent it to everyone he knew.

"You're sure they're ready for us?" Arthur asked again as the cars whisked the Taliesin team out of downtown Cardiff on their way to the sleepy town of Ealdor, which had become the focus of Arthur's every waking minute.

"They are." Lancelot reached over and tapped one of the folders Arthur held. "There is a new staff liaison, but they assured me he's been fully briefed."

Arthur flipped open the folder to what was clearly a school picture, though without the accompanying CV, he wouldn't have been sure if it was a student or teacher. The man—Emrys, Year 6 teacher—looked around twelve himself, with a dopey grin and a terrible haircut that did nothing to ameliorate his unfortunate ear situation.

Oh well. Arthur was working with him, not dating him, and the education and awards listed on the CV seemed promising enough.

His phone buzzed on the seat next to him and lit up with an incoming text. It was from Mithian: Do try not to fuck up, darling. Remember I may have to live in Wales someday.

He snorted with laughter and Lancelot gave him a mildly questioning look. "Encouraging words from my girlfriend." The last word brought the usual sickly mix of unhappiness and pride, another brick successfully mortared in the wall he had built to protect the nation from his true nature.

A flash of surprise showed on Lancelot's face before he nodded. "Ah, yes, the beautiful Princess Mithian. You are a lucky man, my friend."

"Yes." He had been lucky, lucky to find a friend of impeccably royal pedigree with the same inconvenient nature, willing to be his companion and public shield. Someday, she might even be his Queen. If he was lucky.

When Avalon Primary School came into view around the corner, they found a welcoming committee lined up in order of size starting with the teensy tiny nursery class. Each age group waved a hand-painted sign welcoming Taliesin—and Prince Arthur—to Avalon with varying degrees of artistic sophistication. They started jumping up and down as the cars pulled up in front of the school despite the quelling looks of their teachers.

"Sorry." Lancelot peered out the window with a grimace. "I know we told them no ceremony."

Arthur smiled and looked out as they passed a gaggle of 7-year-old girls clutching at each other in excitement. Despite the inevitable cadre of photographers and video cameras, it was a delightful scene. "It's all right. This is the kind of ceremony I don't mind."

Vivian, Olaf's daughter and their chief design engineer, was already cooing over the nursery and reception pupils. Arthur started with the Year 1s and worked his way up, making a point to greet and thank each of the pupils by name. "Are you all right?" he asked when he reached the Year 6 teacher at the very end of the line, a pretty blonde girl who seemed to be swaying dangerously in the light breeze.

"Yes," she squeaked. "Your Highness. It's just that I was told not to move an inch lest I do something to make a fool of myself."

Arthur tried very hard not to roll his eyes. "Oh, do come here." He got a grip on her upper arm and tugged her forward until she took a couple of steps forward, hopping to get her feet to stay under her. "There. Now nobody needs to feel foolish."

She grinned at him and started to say something, but interrupted herself with a hiccup—that turned into a belch as she tried to suppress it. "Oh, bugger, now I'm sacked for sure. And they only just promoted me."

He burst into a loud laugh. "You remind me of my girlfriend."

"Oh!" She clapped her hand over her mouth. "But she's so beautiful."

"I'm sure she'll be pleased you think so, Elena." The head teacher appeared to rescue them. "Your Highness, welcome to Avalon."

"Thank you, Dr. Gaius." Arthur shook hands with the head teacher and smiled for the cameras. He rather hoped that they had caught his exchange with Elena; Mithian would love it. "It's a pleasure to see you again."

"It's a pleasure to have you here, and as you can see, we are all tremendously excited about the project. We've set up an office space for you inside. If you would follow me, I'll introduce you to the staff member who will be your assistant during your time at Avalon."

Arthur fell into step next to Dr. Gaius, ambling along slowly past the cheering children to give the cameras as much opportunity as they needed. He had agreed to their unobstructed presence and a few sound bites today in exchange for their absence for the rest of the project.

"Ah, yes, Mr. Emrys, isn't it? I had hoped to meet him at once." In fact, it was a little strange that the man had not been present to greet him, but perhaps he had been busy behind the scenes.

Dr. Gaius cleared his throat and reached for the door. Arthur quickly grabbed it and held it for him to enter. "Thank you, Your Highness. Mr. Emrys had... a few things to take care of before your arrival. He was our Year 6 teacher before Miss Gawant, whom you just met, took over for him last week."

"I see." The corridors of the school echoed with their footsteps, quiet now that a door separated them from the hubbub continuing outside. "I hope his new role hasn't inconvenienced the school."

"Not at all. But you'll find...." Gaius hesitated just as they reached the door at the end of the corridor. "Well, I'm afraid he's a bit of anti-monarchist and isn't best pleased with either your project or his role on it. You may find him a little standoffish at first, but don't worry, he's a good lad and he'll be a great help to you once you get to know each other."

That didn't exactly sound promising, but Arthur had no time to ask anything further before Gaius tapped on the door. "Merlin?"

When the man came forward to greet them, he looked nothing like his picture. His hair had grown out shaggy over the tips of his ears. His face was a little thinner, just enough to allow his blue eyes to dominate. Aside from the mad gleam of his eyes over a manic grin, Merlin Emrys was tremendously, if unconventionally, attractive.

And when Arthur met those eyes, the most powerful surge of attraction he had ever known dropped through him, settling low in his belly. He had never felt anything like it, and for a moment he saw the gleam of the man's eyes turn from madness to desire, and when the man stepped towards him, Arthur thought that perhaps one had misjudged the situation in quite a delightful way.

But it was instantly clear that Emrys was, indeed, quite mad after all. "Hello, Arthur," he exclaimed and came forward to shake Arthur's hand with completely inappropriate vigour. "It's terribly nice to finally meet you. I'm sure we'll be great friends."

"Merlin!" Gaius hissed. "A spot of decorum, if you will."

"Oh, right, sorry," replied the madman, still shaking Arthur's hand. "Would you prefer ‘Mr. Pendragon,' then, at least until we get to know each other?"

It startled a laugh from Arthur as he extricated his hand. "I've always encouraged informality, but I must say, I don't think I've ever seen it taken with such enthusiastic liberty before."

"I imagine there's quite a bit of normal life that a distinguished individual such as yourself hasn't seen. Do you get out of the palace much, Arthur?"

"Merlin! Your Highness, I must apologize—"

"Not at all, Gaius." Arthur met those blue eyes with bemused wonder. "You may certainly call me Arthur, if I may call you Merlin."

He caught the flash of surprise in the other man's eyes only because he was looking so closely. Interesting. So, not mad necessarily, but obviously not impressed with Arthur and definitely trying to goad him. That was fine: Arthur had grown up with Gwaine.

"All right, then," Merlin said slowly. "I guess that's a place to start."

"Yes, well, let's hope you take your job more seriously than you take me." Arthur gave him a pointed look. This Emrys chap was intriguing, and not hard to look at, but if he did anything idiotic that hurt the project, then so help him, Arthur was going to demonstrate every hereditary power he had left to make Merlin's life miserable. Those powers were less than they had been a century ago, but he knew how to work them.

Gaius cleared his throat. "Merlin, why don't you show His Royal Highness around the workspace?"

Merlin raised his eyebrows at his boss before he turned back to Arthur with a deadpan look. He extended his arm and shuffled around in a slow, tight circle, showing off the plain wooden desk, two chairs, and metal filing cabinet that had been crammed into the office. The room was so small, Merlin had to pull his arm at the last second to keep from smacking into the filing cabinet.

Arthur nodded slowly, keeping his face as blank as Merlin's. Their eyes met, and an unexpected note of humour flashed between them. All the Taliesin people would never fit in here, though neither of them would say it.

It was an absurd situation. In fact, this entire enterprise was absurd, which made Arthur's heart sing with a primal battle-joy. He loved nothing more than triumphing where he had no business even trying.

Gaius cleared his throat again; he was starting to sound somewhat consumptive. "Is there anything we can get you, sir?"

"Some water, perhaps?" Arthur realized his mistake a second too late when Gaius nodded at Merlin.

But Merlin merely gave a sardonic, surprisingly graceful bow. "My lord," he said at Arthur and then escaped the room just before the rest of the Taliesin crew tried to cram inside.

Merlin stole yet another glimpse of Arthur out of the corner of his eye as he and Lancelot bent over their papers. The plans were precariously stacked on the rickety old desk that had been the absolute best option Merlin could find--he swore!--to furnish the little office. They would have more space next week after the kids left at the end of term, but for now, it would be tight quarters. At least most of the royal retinue had left after the initial tour of the school, leaving only Arthur and Lancelot--and Merlin, of course, who was not allowed to leave until they did.

He liked Lancelot, and not just because the man was almost freakishly good looking. When Merlin had met him last week, they had gotten on at once. There was something warm and steady about Lancelot that seemed nobler than any of the actual aristocrats he had met today.

Though Arthur, Arthur was something unique in nature. Nothing had prepared Merlin for coming face to face with him and having his preconceptions cut right out from under him. Merlin had no particular love for either the man or the institution that had bred Prince Arthur, but unlike Will, who used their blog to bash anything and anyone vaguely aristocratic with the passion of a hobbyist, Merlin tried to consider every individual and event as it fit into the bigger picture of Britain as Merlin believed it could be.

Arthur as a person, though he had lived in the public eye since the day of his birth, remained something of an enigma. He'd spent half his youth partying as hard as he physically could with his aristocratic peers and their socialite hangers-on. The other half he'd spent performing his royal duties with almost grim determination.

After uni, he'd had almost three years of active service in the Royal Navy before settling back in Cardiff for graduate studies in environmental architecture. When he spoke in public, it was usually about his pet project of bringing British architecture into a new age of style and environmentalism. Pretentious or admirable? Merlin was less sure about that than he used to be.

One thing he did feel sure (and somewhat aggrieved) about: Prince Arthur was bloody beautiful. The smile that looked so posh and practiced on the television had, when experienced in person, melted right through Merlin with its bright warmth. He would have to work hard not to let that show--at least he'd gotten in his fair share of commentary today to let Arthur know exactly where he stood.

"Merlin." A set of royal fingers snapped in front of his nose, making him jerk his head back. He looked up into Arthur's amused face. "We're done for the day. You can stop drooling into the files now."

Merlin slammed the file drawer shut and swiped the back of his hand over his mouth, just in case. Though he was not drooling, obviously.

Lancelot gave Merlin a conspiratorial grin as he rolled up the last set of blueprints. Walking over to join them took two steps. "Yes, we had best head back. Looks like it's going to rain. We wouldn't want the royal skin to get dampened."

"Hold on now," Arthur protested. "Until about five seconds ago, I thought you were on my side."

"I heard that princes are actually made from spun sugar." Merlin ignored the indignant prince in question--or at least pretended to--and looked at Lancelot, inquisitive and innocent. "Is it true?"

"Yes, and rainbows shoot out of my arse whenever I take a shit," Arthur snapped, and Merlin did a double take at the bright red flush staining his face, unexpected and sexy. "In fact, I don't think there's room in the car for anything besides my chauffeur and my enormous head. Better hope Merlin will give you a lift, Lancelot, or you'll be walking home."

Merlin hesitated, torn between the undeniable entertainment factor and the worry of what Gaius would do to him if Arthur was genuinely peeved. But Lancelot only chuckled. "I feared this day might come. How about it, Merlin?"

"Afraid I can't offer a lift," Merlin answered. "But you're welcome to walk home with me."

More than welcome, actually. He had not since Freya had left him, let alone male company, which was mostly a thing of myth and legend to Merlin. Though if he were more honest than he wanted to be, Lancelot was not the one he wanted to imagine in his bed.

But Lancelot was still chuckling, even when Arthur turned to Merlin with a frown. "You haven't got a car?"

"No." Merlin shrugged and resented the hint of embarrassment he felt at Arthur's surprise. Most people in Ealdor didn't have cars. "I have a bicycle, but I walk to school since it's just up the road a bit."

"Let us give you a ride, then."

Merlin gaped, running through resentment, amusement, and a softer pleasure he did not like at all. "Er, thanks. That's surprisingly considerate of you, but I'll be fine."

"You heard Lancelot. It's going to pour any minute."

Merlin inched around the prince to get to the tiny window behind the desk. He craned his neck to see the sky, which did look ominous. "Nah. It'll hold off until I run home. No worries, I have long legs."

He heard something behind him, a catch of breath. When he turned around, Arthur looked surprised. Perhaps he was unused to people turning down his generosity.

"It's not out of our way," Lancelot put in.

"Actually, it is. Cardiff is that way." Merlin jerked his chin in the direction of town. He reached for his knapsack, but then stopped. " I have to wait to be dismissed or something?"

Arthur's mouth quirked. "If you had any manners, yes. But I can't expect miracles on the first day. Here, at least take my umbrella."

"Thanks, but--"

"Take the fucking umbrella, Merlin."

Merlin found himself gaping again. "Really, I had no idea you lot were allowed to curse."

"Please. You should hear my father at Ascot." Arthur grinned and for a moment looked boyish, just another young man around Merlin's age, the kind he had crushed over in uni. "Stop being an idiot and just take the brolly, would you? I want to go home."

"You just ruined a very nice moment we were having," Merlin informed him. But he took the umbrella and hid his grin until he was safely out the door.

Halfway home, it started bucketing rain.

"You're going to be so smug about this tomorrow, aren't you?" he muttered to an imaginary prince as he opened the umbrella. It was, he had to admit, nicer than the umbrella he had forgotten at home this morning.

Gaius had made him turn off his mobile before the royal procession had arrived. He turned it back on as he walked over to his answering machine. No surprise that both had blown up with messages over the course of the day.

Merlin was too exhausted to answer more than two of them.

"Well?" Will did not bother with greetings even on a good day. "On a scale from one to absolute twit, how pretentious was he?"

"There was a bit of twittishness." Merlin would rather focus on that, in fact, but as he shook out the umbrella, he felt compelled to honesty. "He wasn't completely horrible, though. He tried to give me a ride home and then insisted I take his umbrella."

The line fell silent for a moment. "Seriously? You have his umbrella?"

Merlin shrugged. "Yes. It's just a plain black umbrella. Nice. Kind of old fashioned. Not monogrammed or anything."

"Still." Will's voice lowered as though he were about to deliver the evening news. "You realize what you have to do, don't you?"


"Get on your computer and fire up eBay, my lad."

Merlin stood for a moment with the umbrella in his hand, stunned. "My God. You are a genius."

"Oh, I'm aware."

Merlin raced over to the kitchen table where his laptop sat and logged onto eBay. "Okay, I'm on. Sell item. Category: Collectables, Royalty, oh look, he has his own subcategory."

"Good enough. Title."

"Personal umbrella of Arthur, Prince of Wales." Merlin typed with relish. "Proceeds go to charity?"

"But of course."

"Starting bid?"

"Oh, I'd say you shouldn't take any less than a pound fifty for it."

He snapped a photo of the damp umbrella and while it uploaded, he googled a perfectly twit-like picture of a smiling Arthur, looking nothing like the gorgeous man Merlin had spent the day trying not to stare at. "Right. I think we can shell out a little extra for some listing upgrades, don't you?"

"I wouldn't hear of anything less for such an important item."

"And...we're up. God, I hope he surfs eBay in his spare time." Merlin fell back in his chair, giddily imagining the look on Arthur's handsome face when he found out. Dimly, he was aware that this was his way of pulling Arthur's pigtails, like a schoolboy with a crush, but he would rather think of it as an act of republican rebellion.

"Oh, speaking of things I hope he sees, I did a great blog post this morning. Brilliant, if I do say so myself. I called it 'Prince of Wales vanity project sidelines Welsh school children.'"

"Will! What the fuck, are you trying to get me sacked?" Slagging Arthur online seemed rather tawdry now that Merlin had met the real man.

"Untwist your knickers, Merlin. It's not like anyone knows it's our blog."

Which was true, but Merlin still hung up on him.

He called his mother back next. "Hi, Mum. Don't go on the internet tonight, okay?"

"Merlin! Oh, tell me everything. What was Prince Arthur like?"

"He was perfectly nice." Unlike Will, his mum had no interest in the less nice parts of following the Prince of Wales around all day. Nor could he bring himself to tell her how Arthur was warm and bright, with a sharp wit that cut Merlin in such a way that made him crave more.

"Oh, I knew he would be. See, didn't I tell you to give him a chance?"

"Yes, yes." Merlin smiled. "He even offered me a ride home, and then he gave me his umbrella."

"What a lovely gesture. And on your first day together."

"It was nice of him," Merlin allowed. "Will and I just put it up on eBay."

The silence gave him time for his stupidity to catch up with him before his mother spoke again. "Merlin."

He winced and put his hand over his eyes as if it could protect him from her outrage. "It's for charity?"


"Love you, Mum, long day tomorrow, g'night." He hung up and sighed. Right, so perhaps it had been a little rude to auction Arthur's umbrella, but he had a feeling it would made Arthur laugh, and Merlin liked it a bit too much when Arthur laughed.

If this was day one with royalty, he was not sure how many more he could take.

"So how'd it go?" Gwaine called from the kitchen.

"Well enough." Arthur rested his head on his hand as he paged down through his email. Most of the messages were from George, keeping him abreast of important royal issues about which Arthur did not give a shit. The only thing of use was the copy of his father's itinerary; Uther was on a state visit to Australia and could never keep the time difference straight in his head when he phoned.

"Did the new liaison work out all right? I wasn't thrilled having someone besides the head teacher, and at the last minute, but he insisted that this Emrys fellow would be up for it."

"He was...interesting." Arthur's gaze drifted from the computer screen as he remembered the appealing bundle of contradictions that was Merlin. "Sharp enough, but none too pleased with me before he even met me and not afraid to let me know it."

"Wish I'd been there to see that, but you know how Lord Olaf always finds something else for me to do whenever Vivian's at a site." Gwaine dropped a plate of beans and toast at his elbow.

"Just be glad he never found out that you fucked her in the Camsteeple Suite during the Savoy renovations." Arthur focused on the email and hit delete and delete and blah blah blah. "Last time I ever pick you up from work."

"Hey, I said I'd be your wingman if you want to pick up a luscious young lad for the night. I'll even carry the non-disclosure agreements."

Arthur grunted and jabbed the delete key harder. The whole idea was distasteful. Not the idea of sex, but of everything that would have to surround it for Arthur. Just as well that he seemed to have imagined that moment of mutual attraction with Merlin.

"I mean it. Chastity isn't healthy. And we both know your arrangement with Mithian doesn't include any blowjobs."

Arthur choked on his first mouthful of toast. "Jesus, Gwaine, don't talk about her like that."

"Hell, I'd blow you, if you want. Just friendly-like."

Arthur choked on his second mouthful of toast. "Gwaine. Go away. Also, you are never, ever coming to the school."

Gwaine bent over the back of the chair and gave Arthur a sloppy, affectionate, and thoroughly irritating hug around the neck. "Aw, come on, the kids will be gone in a couple weeks. I want to meet this new fellow, he sounds like my kind of guy."

"Never." Arthur's reply was firm and he ignored Gwaine until his friend wandered off again. He would be mortified if Gwaine said those kinds of things around Merlin, a realization that distracted him almost as much as the earlier realization that Merlin did have long legs and a surprisingly graceful body line, when he was not stumbling around.

It was clear that Merlin had little use for the Prince of Wales, but why on earth did Arthur care so much what Merlin thought of him as a person? Was he so used to being universally loved, at least to his face, that his ego could not bear a dissenting opinion? God, he hoped not. That was one way he had never tried to emulate his father.

His email pinged. He winced instinctively, peering at it with one eye while the other squinched shut in self-defence.

He relaxed when he saw it was not from his private secretary this time. It was just a Google alert, the one he had set to capture any mention of the Avalon Project. Google, unlike George, informed about the things in which he actually had an interest.

Opening the email, he grunted in surprise at the link within. He knew that web address well: it was his favourite anti-monarchy blog, a fact he had occasionally been tempted to announce in public, just to imagine the blog owners weeping in dismay.

His friend Leon liked to say that the blog was run by a bunch of nutters. And Leon was right, as Leon tended to be. But there was something about one of the writers that occasionally seemed almost…intelligent. His or her posts, while disapproving of Arthur's entire existence, family, and larger circle of acquaintances, held a surprising amount of wisdom about the evolution of Britain and how Arthur's hereditary privileges and responsibilities fit into a modern democracy.

He had found the blog back in university, during a long, black night when he had felt the pressure of his birth bearing down and threatening to stamp out everything else about who Arthur was. He could never live up to his father's expectations, the nation's expectations, or worst of all, his own expectations.

The internet search box was never his friend on nights like that. He brushed aside all the PR-shined articles about the golden prince and wallowed in the comments about his uselessness. A particularly virulent comment came from someone with a link to an obvious republican blog next to their name.

That had not been a good night. He was halfway through a blog post when he closed the browser—that post was the first one that was calm, rational, and all the more painful for the truth he saw in it. The next morning, he had shaken himself off as he always did and got on with things.

But he went back a few days later when he was feeling better, because he did not like to leave things unfinished. He read the rest of that post and then figured out how to find the rest of the entries by that same username.

Over the years, those writings had become a secret advisor of sorts. He found more sense in them than most of what he heard from his father's people, his own people, the politicians, the media, or the people he met while doing the royal rounds.

Whoever wrote them was also maddeningly obtuse, frustratingly naïve, and had a clear lack of appreciation for history and tradition. Arthur had considered commenting to inform the writer of his or her failings, but he was not one for hiding behind anonymity, and doing something like that under his own name was clearly out of the question. His father would have made sure he never saw the internet again, even if the entire nation of Wales had to lose access along with him.

He clicked through to the site and could tell within five words that this was not the writer he favoured. Arthur clicked the back button after the second paragraph, disappointed. If the blogger could not be arsed to understand the true purpose of the Avalon Project, Arthur could not be arsed to consider their objections to it. Arsehole.

He was about to call it a night and go slouch in front of the telly with Gwaine when another alert popped up in his mail. The link in this one surprised him even more. "eBay?" he muttered. "What the fuck?"

Fifteen seconds later, he buried his head in his arms, torn between laughter and irritation. Merlin. Of course.

There had to be legal recourse for when one found one's possessions being auctioned off online without one's permission. But Arthur sighed and shut down the computer before Merlin could throw any more spanners into his day.

Merlin was damn lucky he was cute.

The rain was still coming down the next morning, though at least it restrained itself to a steady patter rather than the downpour of yesterday. Merlin trudged along the road to the school, huddled under his old, crap umbrella that he had always meant to replace except that he never thought about it until it was already raining. He clutched his travel mug of coffee to his chest and spared a wistful thought back to the royal brolly sitting on his kitchen table. Will had forbidden him to use it again on the grounds that Arthur might take it back.

"I would offer you a ride," called a familiar posh voice, almost shouting to be heard over the rain. "But I'm worried that you might put my car up on eBay."

Merlin grinned as he turned his head toward the sporty-looking black car that had prowled up beside him. Arthur leaned on the open window, getting his jacket sleeve wet in his attempt to look casual.

"It was up to almost a hundred pounds when I left the house," Merlin called back with glee he made no effort to conceal. "A hundred pounds for an umbrella, just because you touched it. Can you believe it?"

"My God. Maybe by this afternoon, the bids will approach what I paid for it in the first place. Why aren't you using it, by the way?"

The water running down his neck was starting to give him a chill, but Merlin still grinned as he squelched along with Arthur rolling along beside him. "Well, once it went up on the auction block, I felt like it wasn't really mine anymore."

"It wasn't yours to begin with!" Arthur sped up a little, then idled until Merlin caught up again.

"It belongs to the people now, my friend." Merlin hiked his knapsack up to cover his neck better. "Well, I suppose it did before, too, right?"

Even through the rain, he could see Arthur bristle, more like a wet cat than a wet prince. "I'll have you know that I've paid for everything I own with my own money."

"Even that car?"

"That was a special arrangement, but it hardly came out of your meagre tax contribution, Merlin."

Merlin had a comeback ready to volley, a quip about the source of Arthur's ancestral money, with barbs about burning abbeys and the oppression of the peasantry ready for follow up. But Arthur accelerated again and covered the remaining hundred metres to the entrance of the school. By the time Merlin reached it, the prince had already disappeared inside.

Merlin supposed it was just as well. He could wait until Arthur dried off, and cooled off, before offering to let him choose the charity.

By late on the following Friday, everyone had gone except for Merlin and Arthur himself. At dismissal time, a steady stream of small girls had brought him notes and tiny bouquets of wildflowers to say their shy good-byes. He had given them all kisses and piled their gifts on top of Merlin.

Merlin sat at the desk now, surrounded by wilting flowers, head lowered to Mihelcic and Zimmerman's text on environmental engineering, which Arthur had brought in from his reference collection at home. Arthur perched on the arm of the extra chair by the window, mentally reviewing the progress of the last fortnight and planning for the new effort about to begin.

He turned away from the window, and when he moved, the light fell on Merlin's face. It illuminated his skin, shadowed his cheekbones, darkened the sweep of his eyelashes over his downcast eyes as he read. Arthur's stomach did a slow, warm somersault as he realized that Merlin was not just attractive, but very beautiful.

Despite his attraction to Merlin in the beginning and the warmth that had built between them as they worked together, he was unprepared for the revelation. His gaze was still tracing the lines of Merlin's face with stunned curiosity when Merlin looked up and asked: "Why are you here, Arthur?"

Arthur opened his mouth, but nothing came out at first. "What?"

Merlin ought to have made fun of him for that, but instead he looked up at Arthur, utterly serious. "What are you doing here? I think I misjudged your intentions, but I want to hear them from you."

"I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before."

"Yeah, and that's a problem, don't you think?"

He had never thought so before, but when Merlin looked at him, the world tended to go askew. Arthur lowered himself down into the seat of the chair. For the first time, he felt like Merlin was actually taking him seriously. "You've read the plans. I think it's clear what we're trying to accomplish."

"Yes, I get it. I teach environmental sustainability to my kids--or I used to, back when I was allowed to actually teach."

Arthur tried not to roll his eyes at the jibe. "Yes, terribly sorry for the inconvenience."

"Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of having the greenest school in the UK, not to mention all the new spaces and bells and whistles you're adding on. But why Avalon School? Why not a shiny office building in London, or one of your estates? What's the point of coming to Ealdor, of all places?"

Arthur leaned back and let his gaze drift up over Merlin's head. "On a philosophical level, I wanted to do this in Wales because Wales is special to me. You'll take the piss, I'm sure, but when I was invested as Prince of Wales, I took that seriously."

He paused for the mockery, but Merlin just shook his head. "I won't take the piss. I asked the question, remember?"

"We chose Ealdor, and Avalon, for a number of logistical reasons, but the fact that it is small and humble is part of the answer you're looking for. With just some modest grant money and an investment from the county council, we'll not only see Avalon thrive, but we'll see the investment returned to the community."

"I have to admit, I thought you were just here because tiny Welsh school children look good on camera."

Arthur laughed. "The cameras have their uses. The model we're using can be replicated all over the country once people see the benefits it brings to one tiny school in one tiny village. Office buildings or estates would end up little more than a novelty, a rich man's whimsy. They've been done."

"By you?"

"Gwaine--my housemate, you haven't met him yet--and I worked on a brand new office building in London while doing our postgraduate programmes. As I started working on my qualifications, I invited Taliesin to help me completely rebuild my mother's ancestral estate in Cornwall. It was how I got my foot in the door with them."

Merlin made a soft huff of surprise. "Funny to think of you needing an in somewhere."

"Gwaine was my in, actually. He was already working there while I went off for my stint in the Navy." He grinned at the thought of how well Merlin and Gwaine would get on. "But it's hard getting people to actually take me seriously, despite my qualifications. Even so, I have to say, you've been a special challenge."

To his surprise, Merlin looked slightly abashed. "I should apologize for that. I believe in judging people on their own merits. You deserve that as much as anyone else."

Arthur started to reply, but the sudden thickness in his throat threatened to make him croak around it. Damn. If only he had never noticed how lovely Merlin was, surely that admission would never have hit his heart this way. Idiotic, both of them.

"I suppose," he conceded and wished he sounded less stiff, "that my coming here must have been a dreadful inconvenience for all of you."

Merlin's brow creased with annoyance, but then he shrugged it off with a little smile. "Not as bad as I thought, to be perfectly honest. The kids were thrilled, and let's face it, they never learn anything the last couple weeks of the term anyway."

The grin that spread across his face was completely beyond Arthur's control. "Aw, Merlin, you like me! Admit it, you love having me here so you can bask in my glory."

"I do not!" Merlin squawked and hit his knees on the underside of the desk as he tried to sit up straighter to give Arthur a proper dirty look. "I don't like you in the least. I'm merely having less trouble tolerating your presence than I'd anticipated."

Arthur pushed himself to his feet and shifted over to sit on the corner of the desk nearest Merlin. "I'm sorry to hear that, Merlin, because I do like you."

He bent down to look closer at his new friend, and it was a power game and it was flirting and it all sent a giddy rush through Arthur's head. He never got to flirt, not properly, not the real kind that made one tingle with the possibilities.

Merlin looked up at him through those lashes and then cleared his throat and looked to the side. "Anyway, the only real issue was that my ex-girlfriend wanted to get back together with me as soon as she heard you were going to be mucking about the place."

His ex...girlfriend. Arthur felt his face freeze and then burn. For a brief moment, he had forgotten the way the world worked and the promises he had made. Message received.

"That must have been awkward." He got words out through his shame-tight throat. "Do I need to double up on my security detail?"

"You're fine with the goons you have. Freya went home to Norway after she dumped me and airfare's gone up a lot lately."

"Pining for the fjords, was she?" Arthur joked and died inside at his own words. He congratulated himself on finding the least sexy comeback possible. Good thing that nothing could ever have happened anyway.

"Something like that. It was fine. She was a little fierce for me. You definitely couldn't handle her."

"My girlfriend is from Sweden. Those Scandinavian women, eh?" Arthur hated himself before the false jocularity even cleared his lips. Faux-heterosexual bonhomie--now there was a low that he had never thought to sink to. "Right. I should let you get home. Enjoy your weekend."

He grabbed his satchel and fled before he could say or think anything else that would disrupt the fragile truces that comprised his life.

Lancelot was waiting for him outside, idly chitchatting with Ewan and Owain. "I thought you'd gone," Arthur called to him. "Don't you need to be getting home?"

"Nothing to get home to tonight." Lancelot turned to him with his usual warm smile. "I thought I'd see if you wanted to get a drink."

And there it was again, that illusion of possibility. Arthur returned the smile, though his felt tight, bitter, and weary to the bone. "Why the hell not?" he said.

Will was glaring at him over the table at Sunday dinner. His mum was pretending not to notice, serenely eating her potatoes. Merlin was trying to pretend not to notice, but he was starting to twitch.

It finally burst out of him, almost choking him on his broccoli. "What? For God's sake, what?"

"You like him!" The words burst out of Will almost before Merlin finished. "That ridiculous oaf. You've completely fallen for Prince Charming."

"I don't! I have not!" Merlin's chest tightened. Fucking Arthur with his pretty eyes and chiseled face, his big heart and big dreams, and his fucking Swedish princess.

"All you'll talk about is how nice he is to everyone and his vision for the future of Britain and how he's really not much of a twit at all. It's like you're in love with him or something."

And there it was, the elephant in the room that nobody could see but Merlin.

"William. Perhaps you should be as open minded about Prince Arthur and his project as Merlin has been." Hunith put more potatoes on Will's plate to soften the chiding words.

"With all due respect, Mrs. Emrys, you're--"

"I don't think you should finish that sentence, do you, William?"

As they bickered back and forth, Merlin put his head down, glad for the reprieve so he could go back to the thoughts that kept trying to pull him back in as they had all weekend. He stared at his potatoes, but he only saw Arthur, bending close to him, smiling.

Arthur could never have meant to seem like he was chatting Merlin up. The fact that Merlin had responded so instinctively as if he had, that was all on Merlin, and damned if he knew where that came from. It could only have been the intimacy of the conversation, combined with Arthur's undeniable presence, combined with Merlin's undesirable celibacy.

Only a deeper instinct had protected him from making an irrevocable fool of himself--the instinct to hide the other side of his orientation. Nobody needed to know about those feelings, not in the real life of a village school teacher. And if he did decide to explore them, the bloody Prince of Wales was just about the worst choice he could make for a discreet partner.

No, it was nothing. He did like Arthur, unexpectedly. It was confusing his whole mental state; that's all it was.

Merlin would have a good wank or two tonight, and tomorrow morning, he would go back to sniping at Arthur like nature intended. It would all be very professional.

Chapter 2
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Cori Lannam

October 2017


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