"You know what I am going to say. I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. But if you would return a favourable answer to my offer of myself in marriage, you could draw me to any good--every good--with equal force."
- Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
Arthur was quite convinced that his father's ward, Morgana, was having an affair.
He had no proof, but that was of little consequence - the fact of the matter was that the evidence added up. Morgana had taken to leaving the house with greater frequency recently, dressed with unusual care, for mysterious "errands". When she returned, she never brought anything with her, yet glowed with satisfaction all the rest of the night. She had always been a restless sleeper, often rousing Arthur by pacing through the hall at odd hours or sneaking downstairs to the study with a candle to read the night away, and now she slept the night through. Arthur could only conclude that this affair was quite sordid in nature, and that for the sake of their family's reputation, and, more importantly, for the sake of Morgana's, it must be put to a stop immediately.
Morgana, however, would not respond to Arthur directly confronting her and demanding an explanation for her actions, which was why Arthur had been reduced to waiting for her to leave their town house in Grosvener Square before hailing a hansom to follow Morgana's own. His plan was simple - he planned find the man Morgana was seeing, identify him, and then inform his father. Surely, his father could do something to either persuade the gentleman or Morgana to cease this dalliance immediately. However, as the hansom continued further east, down Oxford Street and towards the Thames, Arthur's trepidation grew. Who was it Morgana had taken up with? The neighborhoods they passed through were hardly the sorts of places anyone of consequence would deign to live in, and they slipped further and further from the respectable part of town the longer the ride went on.
The hansom abruptly halted, interrupting Arthur from his musings. He was about to complain to the driver when he saw the cause - Morgana had hopped out of her carriage and was walking away towards Covent Garden. He left a generous tip for the driver and hurried after her. Perhaps he had thought the worst. Perhaps Morgana had simply found an interesting shop of curios, or was cheered by the nearness of spring and cared to be out and about, or was spending her time in a tearoom discussing women's rights and other political issues - that certainly wouldn't surprise Arthur in the least. And while that was perhaps not something that would please his father, it wasn't cause for scandal. Women's groups were also very charitable, after all, and while Arthur had no doubt Morgana and his father would inevitably come to words over such activities, it would be forgiven quickly.
But his hopes were dashed when Morgana entered a slightly shabby if serviceable-looking building with the air of someone following a set routine. Dr. Gaius, Chemist the neat sign read, and under it Pharmaceuticals and Consultations Within. Good lord, Morgana was frequenting a chemist's? What could possibly be occupying her there? Arthur reeled through several nightmare scenarios - feminine ailments, Morgana being in a bad way and seeking a cure, opiates (it always seemed to be opiates, these days) - before he mustered his courage to enter.
The interior of the shop matched the exterior - serviceable if in slight disrepair. Drawers of herbs lined the walls, as did thick medical texts, scientific instruments, oddly-colored bottles, and baubles Arthur had no way of identifying. A woman and her baby were at the front desk being seen to by a young man, slightly younger than Arthur himself, his accent thick and lower-class as he described how best to cure chicken pox. His face was slightly pockmarked from what looked to be adolescent spots, and his hair was mousy and poorly-cut, the fringe falling in his eyes. Morgana was nowhere to be seen. Arthur cleared his throat purposefully.
"You wait your turn," the boy said, and then turned back to the woman. "Now, marm, you've done the right thing leaving your son at 'ome in bed - keep 'im away from the newborn, though. And you've got to keep 'im from scratching, it'll only make things worse. Me mam tied mittens to me 'ands to keep me from itching. Just keep 'is fever down, and give him a bath with oats in it if 'e complains too awful, it'll soothe 'im. Keep 'im quiet, keep 'im on a light diet. Most children get through just fine. You should come see us if 'is fever runs too high, though."
"Great, wonderful," Arthur interrupted, before the woman could even thank the boy for giving what Arthur considered common sense advice. "Now where is the Lady Morgana?"
"Excuse you, your 'ighness," the boy sneered, "I don't think Mrs. Winkle was done here."
"Oh, no, no," Mrs. Winkle said, edging out of the store. "Thank you, I'll just be going..."
"See what you did there?" The boy whirled on Arthur as the door jingled cheerfully shut, "you lost us a paying customer, you did."
"She wasn't paying!" Arthur protested. "You weren't offering her anything except a bunch of free advice that any child should know!"
"And why d'you need to know 'bout Lady Morgana, anyway?" The boy sneered. "She's real nice-lookin'. You fancy if you stalk 'er like a madman you'll get a piece of that? Can't say I blame you..."
Arthur slammed his hands and cane down on the counter. Hard. The boy started - good for him. "Do you know who I am? Do you? I'm Lord Arthur Pendragon, which makes the Lady Morgana my father's ward. She may as well be my sister and I find her frequenting this," he sneered, "establishment. I have no idea where she's gone and you will tell me this instant."
"No need to get your hoity-toity knickers all twisted," the boy drawled, and then hitched his thumb behind him, towards a smartly-painted dark green door that had escaped Arthur's notice. "She's up with Dr. Gaius. Nothin' improper, on my honor."
"As if you have any," Arthur snorted.
Arthur honestly had no idea what to expect when he climbed the stairs, but he certainly did not expect Morgana's voice to ring out the second he put his hand on the doorknob at the landing, sharp and imperiously demanding, "Quiz me!"
"I think you're wasting your time," came an unknown voice. Male. Young. Low tenor. Middle class accent, vaguely Welsh sounding. Arthur opened the door a crack and peered in the room. It was messy and far from grand, but certainly not a seedy den. It looked rather like a mixture of an eclectic professor's parlor and study. Morgana was sitting with her back three quarters turned towards the door, so Arthur could only see a pale sliver of her face, but she looked perfectly calm, comfortable, even, in a well-loved burgundy armchair, a thick tome on her lap. The man Arthur presumed had spoken (since there was no one else in the room) was very tall, perhaps even taller than Arthur, and thin as a reed, as dark and pale as Morgana. Dr. Gaius, Arthur presumed, though he was rather young to be a doctor. He certainly was attractive enough that Arthur could believe he may have caught if Morgana's fancy - his hands were long and elegant, if ink-stained, his cheeks were high and fine, and his smile was wide, warm, easy. There was a certain charm to his slightly rumpled clothing, even though it was not particularly rich, a certain awkward mode of dress that somehow made him appear as if he had slept in his clothes, yet made the result appealing rather than gauche. He was leafing through what looked to be three different books at once, scribbling something in a leather notebook, and his manner with Morgana put Arthur somewhat at ease. If they were indeed having an affair, it seemed to be a purely academic one, as neither of them seemed as enamored with each other as with the books strewn about the room.
"Come on," Morgana wheedled. "You know Gaius won't let me move on without getting a grounding in herbs first." So he wasn't Dr. Gaius. His apprentice, perhaps? Was she learning medicine? That would explain the sneaking out, since his father would never approve of her holding any sort of profession, and it would fit. Morgana had always tended to any of the ill baby animals that were on their Cornwall estate. On one memorable occasion, she had stumbled across a nest full of orphaned ducklings and nursed and fed them. They spent the rest of the summer following her around the house, quacking after her and chomping at her skirts.
"Very well," the unnamed man sighed, rising and taking the tome out of Morgana's hands.
"Start at the end," Morgana commanded. "I know all the A's and B's."
"As my lady wishes," the man nodded. Arthur felt soothed by his deference to her title. It seemed entirely sarcastic, but he used it, so clearly, this was at least partially a respectable endeavor. "Thyme?"
"Antiseptic, used on wounds. Can also be boiled into a tea to soothe sore throats."
Morgana made a noise that sounded distinctly unladylike. "All of the uses?"
"All of them."
"Prevents decay," Morgana recited dutifully. "Expels worms. Should be used carefully, as some may find it toxic."
"Drat. Er, feminine issues - can help suppress a heavy cycle. Hot poultices for arthritis or rheumatism."
"You forgot that a wash can be used to improve complexion."
Morgana gave a loud snort. "As if I'd ever bother with such frivolity."
"Yes, you have been blessed with a perfect complexion and stunning beauty," the man laughed, and Arthur stiffened again. Clearly, the fellow was a rake. "Let's go out of order. Ginseng."
"No!" Morgana exclaimed, though clearly not overly-upset. "I haven't got to G yet!"
"Come now, Morgana, you've had two weeks to learn this!" Arthur stiffened at the use of her Christian name. It wasn't unheard of, but still...
"Have you ever prepared for a season? Have you? It's ridiculous. I've been in and out of dress fittings, forced to sit at teas and listen to gossip over fabric and colors that are in fashion and how eligible my brother is... All I know is it's one of the herbs that needs to be given in small doses or it becomes toxic. Give me a hint."
"Your brother should not be given this herb when around aforementioned ladies." A pause. "No? Used as a stimulant occasionally, though more often as a catalyst for male arousal, a subject I thought for sure you'd be quite well versed in..."
That was the last thing Arthur heard before the dull roar in his ears drowned out all sense of rational thought and he burst into the room, fists swinging. He could only vaguely hear Morgana's screams and the man's yelping, but his focus had narrowed on the strange man's face as he raced in the room and pummeled him over and over, and his rage enveloped him completely. He did not come to himself until Morgana dragged him off the skinny fellow and slapped him across the cheek.
"Bloody ow!" He yelped.
"It's no more than you deserved!" she shot back, crouching down to help the young man drag himself to a chair. Arthur was miffed to notice that he'd only landed one blow on the man's cheek, which was an angry, swollen red. The rest of his punches, from the way the man was hunched over and rubbing ruefully, seemed to have hit his arms, shoulders, upper chest, and perhaps the palms of his hands that he'd held over his face defensively. "What on earth were you thinking?" Morgana screeched. "Did you follow me? What has got into you?"
"That scoundrel was making advances towards you!" Arthur said righteously. "I heard him! I was defending your honor! And you cease that laughter at once!" The young man made no effort to stop his slightly hysterical giggles, even as Arthur advanced towards him again, fist raised.
"Oh for heaven's... Arthur! Merlin! Stop that at once!"
"Tell me what you're doing here!" Arthur demanded. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't beat this bastard -"
"- Merlin to a bloody pulp for so crassly seducing you!"
"That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard!" Morgana grabbed his wrist. "Oh for pity's sake, you utter idiot, Merlin isn't seducing me, he's helping me learn magic."
Arthur blinked as the pieces of evidence he'd previously ignored fell into place. The hum of raw power in the room, the strange vials downstairs, the fact that this strange young man - Merlin - still appeared bemused and utterly not threatened by him, and was indeed murmuring over a poultice before applying it to his cheek, which was visibly deflating and turning its normal color before Arthur's very eyes. And then, even more evidence - Morgana pouring over strange books, her sleeping through the night, her avoidance of his father and secrecy, why she walked without an escort throughout the streets of London no matter the neighborhood, the strange flashes of gold he'd attributed to the sunlight in her odd, pale eyes ...
"Oh," Arthur said. "Oh, bloody, buggering fuck, anything but that."
"You are the most embarrassing, priggish, insufferable man I have ever had the misfortune to meet, let alone call my brother," Morgana snapped the second they got in the carriage to go home. She had been silent with fury while Dr. Gaius, an elderly man with a shock of white hair and a soothing manner had explained that yes, Morgana had been taking magic lessons. He had insisted that Merlin only aided him when he was forced to make house calls and was entirely beyond reproach. Gaius, at least, had gained Arthur's confidence, if his assistant (who he treated with a fondness that suggested more that Mr. Emrys was his own son, though the age difference between them was clearly too great for that to be true) had not.
"That is quite rich, coming from you," Arthur yelped. "What on earth were you thinking? Were you thinking? Because I can see not a shred of evidence suggesting you thought at all! Sneaking out of the house for your own idle fancies, putting our family in danger..."
"It is not a fancy!" Morgana yelled back, color rising to her cheeks in anger. "I have magic, Arthur, those nightmares have been magic. This is the first thing in years that has helped me with them!"
Arthur sighed and looked out of the hansom window, knowing the battle was lost. "How did you even find this witch-doctor?" He asked, finally. "How did this madness even begin?"
"Gwen had always suggested that magic may be the cause of my nightmares, for as long as we roomed at Bradford's together," Morgana said. "I was extremely reluctant to believe her. It was not until earlier this year; the incident with the candle, do you remember?"
Arthur furrowed his brow. "You mean when the draft made it jump to your bed curtains?"
"It wasn't a draft," Morgana said softly. "I... I had been having nightmares. Terrible ones about being consumed by fire, I looked up at the candle I had put out and it burst into flame. Almost as if I had... willed it into being so."
"Just one nightmare is no reason at all to do this!" Arthur spluttered.
"It wasn't," Morgana agreed, "until my dreams started coming true."
Arthur blinked at her. She didn't look mad or hysterical. In fact, she looked quite confident in herself. But the words coming out of her mouth... "What do you mean, coming true?" He said finally.
"Small things," Morgana shrugged. "Seeing conversations before they happened. Predicting an invitation before it arrived in the post. Knowing you'd slip on the ice and sprain your ankle before you did. You should have listened to me that day at the races, by the way."
Arthur sniffed. His friends had recently thrown an informal race to test their new mounts before Ascot opened later that spring, and naturally drinking and betting had run a bit wilder than was strictly necessary. Arthur had lost £35 on Percy's new gelding War Admiral, from the finest stock there was, against Gawain's old standby, Secretariat, who had mysteriously seemed to get a second lease of life that day. Morgana had advised him to favor Secretariat, but he had simply supposed that was just her being Morgana, nosing in men's games where she didn't belong. "So Gwen gave you his name?"
"Yes, and he recognized I was magic instantly. I've been taking lessons ever since. And you can't stop me Arthur, if you do I'll just keep sneaking around! I've done it for four months and you haven't suspected a thing!" With that shocking announcement, she opened the door of the hansom, which had arrived at their front step, and flounced inside. Arthur hastily paid the driver and followed in her wake.
"Four months?!" He bellowed, slamming into the house. "You've finally done it, Morgana, you've done something so completely out of line that even I cannot defend you against Father when he finds out!"
"When I find out what?"
Descending the mahogany staircase, Uther Pendragon was as imposing a man at two-and-fifty as he must have been at six-and-twenty; the youngest of Wellington's commanders, who had played an integral role at Waterloo. The son of a wealthy merchant, Uther Pendragon had not always been the politically influential lord he had become. Twenty-six years ago his title had been honorary, and he had run his late father-in-law's estate, Tintagel, when he had not been an ambitious young Colonel. He'd had a wife, a young son, and the world at his feet. A year later he would be a grieving widower who had unknowingly exchanged the life of his beloved wife for a spell powerful enough to have aided in the British victory at Waterloo. For his great sacrifice, he had been awarded a seat in the House of Lords, which he used to ruthlessly abolish all of the Great Workings of magic. Uther Pendragon's soul, it was often said, had perished with his wife. It was a rumor his father encouraged nearly outright. Oh, Arthur knew his father loved him (if only because he was his mother's son, the last bit of her left in this world), and he loved Morgana, the orphaned daughter of his fallen second-in-command, Lord Goloris, as though she were his own. But he was dogmatic, rigid, and ruthless. He had cut ties with previously beloved friends over the slightest perceived sympathy to magic, and though Morgana was of age Arthur could not, in good conscience, explain to his father what he had caught her doing, not without ruining her utterly. By the frantic look in her eye, the same thought was suddenly striking Morgana, and, despite her previous brave words, terrified her. Arthur would have to construct a very convincing lie.
"Did you know, Father, that Morgana has decided, now that she is of age, that she is no longer in need of an escort? I had believed her to be with a maid or Miss Smith, but today I found her shopping in Covent Garden alone!" It was not entirely a lie, which made it a very good one, since it was an argument they had often had before. Morgana would no doubt passionately re-insist that she was not a child, she did not need someone to accompany her every move, and Arthur could pretend all his shock was at her gall to actively disobey his father, rather than simply railing impotently against him.
"Is this true?" Uther thundered. Morgana shot Arthur a look that could have crumbled stone. Arthur just grinned.
"And," he went on, "I have discovered she has been doing so for months." No doubt now Uther would lock Morgana away and see to her supervision with obsessive care. Let her try to learn magic then.
"I'm not a child!" Morgana exclaimed. "I have a knife in my skirts that I am quite capable of using, thank you!" Uther looked murderous at the mere suggestion that Morgana do anything to soil her lily-white hands even remotely, especially to defend herself. It took all of Arthur's iron will not to cackle.
"You will do no such a thing!" He bellowed. "Do you intend to ruin yourself? I am bolting every window shut today, and posting servants at every door. You will not leave this house without my say-so!"
"That's ridiculous!" Morgana said shrilly. "Do you mean to make me a prisoner or a hermit?"
"Of course not," Uther scoffed. "That would hardly do with the upcoming season. Arthur will accompany you wherever you go."
Instantly, the mocking smirk that had inhabited Arthur's face melted right off and popped up on Morgana's. "But Father!" He protested.
"You are the only one I trust with her," Uther said gravely, patting Arthur on the shoulder as if he were bestowing upon him an honor by forcing him to be Morgana's little guard dog. "It will be good for both of you. You won't be hiding in your club and at the race tracks any more this season. You will watch over Morgana, and thus you will be sociable. Perhaps this way you will finally find someone worthy of marriage."
"It is a neat solution," Uther said dismissively. "And it is my final one. Good day, the two of you. I shall see you at supper."
"Have I mentioned today," Arthur hissed at Morgana as they scurried up the stairs to their respective chambers like children caught stealing sweets, "exactly how passionately I detest you?"
"No," Morgana sniffed. "But I assure you, brother dear, that the feeling is entirely mutual." And with that, as though she were the aggrieved party in this scenario, she slammed her chamber door in Arthur's face.
Arthur wasn't sure exactly what he was supposed to do while Morgana went about her lessons. He had no magical talent to speak of and had less than no interest in sitting in the little study and witnessing Morgana outright disobeying his father, yet he could not very well leave her there on her own. When he asked Morgana what she expected him to do, her answer had been swift and certain.
"Apologize to Merlin," she ordered as they rode to the chemists' on Wellington Street. "You were just dreadful to him, punching him like that!"
"I will not apologize for a completely justified action!" Arthur argued. "I came to a perfectly logical conclusion and acted accordingly."
"Very well," Morgana smiled, sweetly poisonous. "I suppose you'll have to entertain yourself listening to Gaius and me. I know how deeply you care about the magical properties of wormwood, at any rate."
Arthur grumbled and cursed, but it was of no use. Not only did Morgana seem to take some sort of sick pleasure in making Arthur suffer, but Dr. Gaius quite agreed that Merlin should be forced to take some exercise and not distract himself and Morgana with tangents as, apparently, he often did, and were ordered not to re-appear for at least another hour.
"Well," Arthur said dully as they strode towards St. James' Park in awkward silence. "We may as well find some subject we can both converse about. It will be a dreadful hour, otherwise."
"Oh, should we?" Merlin drawled. "I expect you are the sort who thinks cricket is a viable topic of conversation."
Arthur, who had been just about to suggest that very thing, shut his mouth with a snap and glared. "I'll have you know I was the star Bowler at Eton," he said. Merlin gave a derisive snort.
"Of course you were," he muttered. "When will you realize that cricket is an elaborate hoax perpetrated on the upper classes to make them look as ridiculous as possible so the rest of us may laugh at your expense?"
"Cricket is a sport of elegance, you cretin," Arthur said, and launched into a long and loving list detailing all of cricket's great many virtues, all of which Merlin rebuffed with highly sarcastic but unnervingly astute answers. The conversation then turned to what games Merlin did find acceptable, if he did not accept cricket – would he then not be in favor of rugby or polo? to which Merlin replied that he did not believe in games or sport.
"I grew up with nothing to entertain me but my imagination," he said stoutly. "I had very few companions except for my school-mates, who were over two miles walk away, and yet I was never bored. Creating games and sports with ridiculous rules only serves those who do not have the imagination or drive to create rules for themselves, or are so spoiled that they must put rules in their play in order to create discipline, if only in one arena of their lives."
Arthur's rebuttal to that lasted them the rest of their walk, which Arthur was disconcerted to find that he enjoyed in spite of the fact that Merlin had deplorable opinions on everything. "This was quite invigorating, " he said when they reached Gaius'. "We should do this again."
Merlin looked slightly pained. "I imagine I don't have much of a say otherwise?" He asked.
"No," Arthur agreed. "I don't believe you do."
Despite Merlin's initial reluctance, it soon became clear that he enjoyed their exercise and vigorous, near-violent debates, which ranged from the politics of magical law to the merits of fox-hunting (or lack thereof, if you believed Merlin) to Arthur's previous failed romances to the mundane such as the fact that Merlin apparently, and with every fiber of his being, loathed all manner of nuts, as Arthur discovered when, after buying a small bag from a vendor, he had attempted to offer some to Merlin, who recoiled as if Arthur had just offered him hemlock.
"Truly, any nut?" Arthur asked, popping one in his mouth.
"They are mealy and make my stomach ache," Merlin said. "I fail to see the charm."
"They're spiced remarkably well." Arthur waved the bag under Merlin's nose, just to see him recoil as though he was going to be ill. "None? Ah well, more for me." He popped a chestnut in his mouth and then tossed the tuppence that had been sitting heavily in his pocket ever since he bought his snack. He so hated loose change.
"I – what was that?" Merlin stopped in his tracks and stared at Arthur.
"You just gave money to that little girl," Merlin said, looking between her retreating figure and Arthur suspiciously.
"Oh," Arthur had never been confronted about an act of charity before. It was distinctly uncomfortable. "She's been at the same corner every day since we started our walks. And she's nearly blind."
"I noticed that," Merlin said, still looking highly suspicious, "but since when do you notice things like that?"
"Since I'm not the terrible ogre you seem to think I am?" Arthur asked, and then shuffled his feet awkwardly. "I thought you knew that. I thought we had become… friends. Of a sort." Merlin blinked a few times, as if considering such a thing for the very first time.
"Oh," he said, surprised. "We have, haven't we?"
"Well, now I'm not sure." Arthur popped another chestnut in his mouth. "I could never have a friend who could be so stupid."
"Nor I one who could be such an arse," Merlin replied, eyes twinkling. Arthur elbowed him playfully.
"And yet I count you as my friend. Strange."
"Very strange," Merlin agreed. "It is as though I've taken temporary leave of my senses."
"Well," Arthur said, "I'm positive you shall be the worst friend I ever have. Really, quite awful."
"And yet you wish to befriend me anyway."
Arthur sighed as if he was being greatly put-upon. "If you insist on begging like that, I suppose I must. But really, Merlin, it's most unbecoming of you to plead in such an undignified manner."
Merlin opened his mouth as if to say something scathing, and then closed it, shaking his head and bumping into Arthur companionably as they continued their walk.
Saying England was prone to rain in spring was like saying that Merlin was just a little bit magical. Though Arthur and Merlin had become comfortable walking trough the park and engaging in merry verbal abuse, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner rather than later their routine would be delayed by inclement weather.
"This is damned unfortunate," Arthur greeted Merlin, who stuck his head out the pharmacy door into the April rain looking befuddled, as though he had never experienced such a phenomenon.
"It's raining," Merlin said.
"Yes, yes, you do have a talent for observation, old boy," Arthur drawled, and Merlin took the newspaper he was holding above his head to keep dry and thwacked Arthur's arm with it.
"Less cheek and more suggestions, please, milord, unless you enjoy catching pneumonia."
"Well, I don't know what you do for entertainment," Arthur shrugged. "Cock fights? Enchanting teacups to jig?"
"Enchanting teacups to jig is far less entertaining than it sounds," Merlin said. Of course he'd actually tried it. "You'd know that if... Oh, that's exactly where we should go. Come on!"
"Where are we going?" Arthur shouted, hurrying after Merlin.
"The museum!" Merlin replied.
The museum Merlin referred to soon became apparent once he had hailed a taxi, having decided it was too wet to walk all that way. He directed the driver to the Museum of British Magic & History - a modest brick building next to the Natural History Museum off Cromwell.
"Now," Merlin said once they were indoors. "What do you know of magic?"
"Some are born with it," Arthur shrugged. "Some aren't. It's regulated all over the world, strictest in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, after my father... well, you know."
"Made a deal with the Sorceress Nimueh that sacrificed his wife for his country, which lead to her execution and the regulation of all magic? I'm familiar with it. Is that really all? Good God, you're ignorant."
"I'm stronger than you," Arthur reminded him. "I could punch you. Or shoot you."
"And I could turn you into a toad," Merlin said blithely. "Come along. Lots to learn, little time to do it in."
With that, Merlin began a whirlwind tour of the museum, leading Arthur through rooms full of druid robes and giant slabs of stone carved with runes, rooms with preserved scrolls and paintings of magicians performing great deeds, and one room that was just filled with various staffs. Arthur thought it looked like a cane store and was utterly silly, but Merlin assured him that if he had one ounce of magical ability, he could have felt the power humming from them. He looked quite ill, actually, standing in the little room, rocking back and forth on his feet and jumping every time anyone went past the doorway.
"Sorry," Merlin said when they left the room, looking slightly sheepish. "It's just... there's a reason modern magicians don't use staffs anymore. Besides that it's unwieldy as anything, if you put enough magic power into any object, it gets... Well, a mind of its own. There's a reason those are behind magic-proof glass."
"You're saying those... those tree branches are more powerful than my Colt?" Arthur asked. Merlin just snorted.
"They make your Colt look like a child's toy," was all he said, before going, "ooh, the Healing Arts wing!" and rushing off again.
Merlin had often sworn to Arthur that he wasn't as lackwitted as he seemed, but Arthur had seen no evidence of it until that day, where it seemed to be coming at him in waves. Merlin was actually quite clever, at least as far as magic was concerned, if not when it came to common sense. It was quite a drastic reassessment of Merlin's character to cope with while trying to follow Merlin's waving hands and the facts and dates flying at him thick and fast.
"So," Arthur said when Merlin finally paused for breath, "you're educated, then?"
"Yes, my mother saw to that."
"You never mention your father, though," Arthur said false-casually. He'd tried asking Merlin nonchalantly for personal information once or twice, but unless it was on the subject of his mother or Gaius (both veritable saints, if Merlin was to be believed), prying personal information from Merlin was worse than trying to prise a prime steak from the jaws of a bull mastiff. Merlin froze and narrowed his eyes, clearly on to Arthur's poorly-disguised scheme.
"I suppose you're going to think it's more dreadful than it is if I don't tell you," he sighed finally. "Come," he said, walking quickly to a set of heavy mahogany doors that Arthur had noticed because they bore the Royal coat of arms. "Impress me, Lord Pendragon," Merlin demanded. "What does this symbol mean? Besides the obvious."
"The lion for valor," Arthur said, gesturing to the left. "Represents England. The unicorn, purity," he gestured to the right. "Scotland, and the shield in the center..." he gestured once more. "A rearing dragon for magic. Ireland. Where all the druids and magic-users went to escape the purge of the Romans."
"Yes, and your father knows they failed spectacularly, right?" Merlin asked. "Learning from history? No? Anyway, that's a bit of a nod - this is the magical creatures wing. There's quite a lot we can go to after, but we want the special gallery... here." He entered a small room that was full of dragons. There were paintings of dragons, drawings of dragons, embroidery of dragons, carvings of dragons, tomes on dragons on pedestals to thumb through.
"This is what my father does," Merlin said, gesturing to a recent-looking painting. It was a triptych, of a well-dressed man first yelling at a dragon flying overhead, then placing his hand on the dragon's muzzle, then riding it into the night sky. Lord Without A Land, the bronze plate helpfully read under the painting. God, Arthur hated art.
"Your father paints?"
"My father is a Dragon Lord," Merlin corrected. "You know, the great trainers and riders? They used to be part of the military."
"Yes, they were mentioned in several of my old naval histories," Arthur said, blinking. "You mean that wasn't hyperbolic frippery?"
"No," Merlin said proudly. "My father still does it. He's in Prussia, somewhere, keeping dragons from terrorizing villages and out of the way of new railroads and things."
"Why aren't there any left in England?" Arthur asked. "They're on our coat of arms, and they're a fabulous military asset, if the stories are to be believed."
"Oh, to be a Dragon Lord is a Great Working, some of the greatest there is," Merlin sighed. "A creature of that size and power, it couldn't not be. Dragons and their handlers were one of the first to be run out of England during your father's purge. My parents aren't considered married anymore, not now that Father's a man without a country or legal standing, but Mum says she's married to Father until one of them dies. Its run her out of all society - Gauis took us in after Father left. She keeps his little manor house in Camarthan where I grew up."
"I'm sorry," Arthur said softly, laying his hand on Merlin's shoulder as a shallow gesture of comfort. It was a wonder Merlin hadn't ever hexed him into a toad. If his mother was separated from him through legality and not because she'd passed on, he'd loathe and detest anyone who was even remotely involved in keeping her from him. It spoke to Merlin's character a great deal that he harbored no ill will towards Arthur, towards his ignorance and derision. He was a far greater man than Arthur had given him credit for, which meant that once again, Morgana was right. He quite loathed her.
"Don't be," Merlin shrugged with a soft smile. "It was your father who did this, not you. Besides, you've already done more than he ever did - you listened. That shows what kind of man you are."
Arthur abruptly felt very warm all over and slightly flustered, and snatched his hand back to stuff in his pocket, trying desperately to look anywhere in the small room that wasn't Merlin. "Yes, well," he blustered.
"He visited us, once," Merlin said, staring at the painting. "He was going to America - they were finding new kinds of dragons in the West and Dragonlords were being paid fortunes to tame them. He left from London and he came to see us before he shipped out."
"Do you remember him?" Arthur asked eagerly. He would give anything, just to remember his mother.
"I've always known what he looks like," Merlin shrugged. "My parents had their portrait painted when they got married. My mum says I look like him, but I don't know. He's very..." Merlin made a bit of a hunched over flexing motion as if imitating someone far more muscular than he, and Arthur had to stifle a chuckle in the hush of the museum. "He's a Dragon Lord, you know. He has to be."
"Don't you have that talent if you're his son? The stories said... I read, that is, that it's first-born son to first-born son."
Merlin hummed thoughtfully. "I suppose," he said after a pause. "Gaius thinks I must, since I'm so powerful, you know."
"I can see your modesty will be a true pillar of our friendship."
"And I can see your prattishness will be another," Merlin agreed impishly, and then, too loudly for a museum "ow!" when Arthur socked him in the arm.
"Do be quiet, Merlin," Arthur whispered as several wizened old men poked their head in the room just to glare at them. "Honestly, I cannot take you anywhere."
"Do you want to hear the story?" Merlin hissed, rubbing his arm. "Or shall we talk about, I don't know, fox hunting and polo as it pleases your lordship?"
"It pleases his lordship to hear your story of overwrought Dickensian anguish," Arthur said.
"I like Dickens," Merlin protested.
"You would," Arthur muttered, and held up his hand when Merlin opened his mouth, no doubt to engage in another indignant tirade. "Your father visited you when you were a boy?"
"When I was four." Merlin nodded. "I... I don't remember much. Just that his voice was very deep and he had large hands. And he was kind. He made my mother laugh."
"That's a good memory to have," Arthur said softly. "I'd give anything to have a memory like that. I'd give anything to have my mother alive, even if she was far away."
"Well, he writes," Merlin shrugged. "When he can, you know, a few times a year. It's nice to know he's out there, somewhere. I wish your mother was, too."
"Ah, but who would play the part of the poor little rich boy in this scenario if she were?" Arthur asked, trying to lighten the mood by elbowing Merlin in the side. He earned a fond glare for his troubles.
"You do play it very well," Merlin nodded. "Along with 'Arrogant Prat'. Why, you're practically multi-talented."
"I can still shoot you," Arthur reminded him.
"I can still turn you into a toad," Merlin shot back.
"You could," Arthur agreed, "but you won't."
"No," Merlin smiled. "No, I won't."
It was a very rare occurrence that Arthur found himself admitting he was wrong, but when it came to his first impression of Merlin, he admitted it readily – he had been entirely wrong. Merlin was not a rake or a bohemian reprobate (though Arthur took great delight in calling him one, as it made Merlin laugh), he was not stupid, and he was not useless. In fact, he was quite the most delightful person Arthur had become acquainted with in years. Arthur had never enjoyed the company of weak-willed people. There were far too many of them in the world, to his mind; people who meekly went about their lives with no apparent joy or spirit. He had always preferred people who challenged him in various ways. Physically, in the case of his cousin Gawain, who still was prone to challenging Arthur to races and shooting matches, or intellectually, as Morgana and Guinevere always had. Merlin challenged him in every way – intellectually, morally, politically – and rather than angering Arthur, it amused him. Merlin was witty and charming when it suited him, and had a manner that immediately invited intimate friendship, the sort that usually took years to develop. Arthur was quite capable of spending hours laughing with Merlin one day, and the next day having sober, serious debate with him, or speaking of personal matters. He trusted Merlin absolutely because Merlin trusted him absolutely, and because it was clear that Merlin was fond of Arthur for his own merits, not for his wealth or rank. In fact, he seemed to consider those both to be things he liked Arthur in spite of, rather than because of, an attitude Arthur had never encountered but quickly found himself reaping the rewards of. Merlin was, in short, quite the most delightful person Arthur had the honor of calling his friend, and it was hard to tell who was more excited by the frequent visits to Wellington Street, Arthur or Morgana.
Though Merlin and Arthur were capable of deep, intellectual conversation, more often than not their discourse turned into petty, boyish squabbling and teasing, as it had one April morning that was displaying the first, weak signs of spring, the breeze tentatively warm. It had begun with Merlin relaying the story of ladies coming to book him for ball entertainment, and one in particular who had apparently especially snobbish and awful. Merlin had described her accent as similar to Arthur's, and the conversation had degenerated from there.
"There is nothing the matter with my accent!" Arthur said hotly. "I sound refined."
"You sound posh," Merlin corrected him. "Posh and snobbish and unbearable - "
"I bally well do not!"
At this Merlin burst into gales of laughter. "That right there!" He managed in between chuckles. "I bally well do not? What kind of nancy Eton boy says that?"
"As if you're better," Arthur huffed. Sounding like he came from Eton wasn't a bad thing, it was to be envied. As fond as he was of Merlin, there were some things he simply did not understand. Not that Merlin's accent was terrible – he wasn't Will, who could slip into Cockney rhyming slang at the drop of a hat. His accent was of the plain, working-class variety, with occasional Welsh vowels rolled in as souvenirs of his upbringing and marking him as a slightly more interesting variety of layperson than the droves in London who sounded just like him. Arthur had observed Merlin in front of potential clients or past clients – they had seen a few on their walks – and Merlin was clearly capable of affecting his speech to resemble something more akin to Guinevere's upper-middle class accent, yet also clearly wished to do so as infrequently as possible, viewing trying to pass as some sort of badge of shame.
"At least I'm not one of those performers who tries to fake posh." Merlin shook his head, as if doing so would make him the worst kind of second-rate street illusionist. "Putting on airs and saying 'napkin' and 'dessert' and 'pardon'. It's bloody ridiculous is what it is. Like using those words mean you can't tell where I'm from!"
"Clearly," Arthur sniffed, "you really are allergic to any sort of class."
Merlin laughed and elbowed Arthur off the path. "I put up with your over-posh arse."
"Oh, yes, thank you," Arthur shot back sarcastically, shoving Merlin even harder so he went stumbling. "You're performing such charity."
"I am! " Merlin insisted when he regained his balance. "You probably had to buy the rest of your friends, if you even have any who aren't scared off by what a giant prat you are!" He shoved into Arthur, though clearly rather harder than either of them had intended, because first Arthur was stumbling and chuckling and then the next thing he knew he'd fallen into the lake they were walking past and it was bloody cold.
"Merlin!" Arthur bellowed, coughing out water. "You bumbling idiot! Do you want me to catch pneumonia?"
"Sorry," Merlin said in by far the least sincere apology Arthur had ever heard, because the sorry only came in between Merlin 's hysterical gales of laughter. "Oh, you look… you look! I'm sorry, you're just so… wet!"
"I'll show you wet!" Arthur growled, lunging forward and yanking Merlin into the water with him, which caused Merlin to let out an extremely unmanly shriek.
"Was that necessary?" Merlin coughed when he came up for air, shaking his head like a dog.
"Extremely," Arthur assured him, standing up and offering Merlin a hand, which Merlin took with a distrustful glance. Arthur didn't blame him – he'd been at the wrong end of taking Gawain's hand only to be unceremoniously dumped in something a few too many times. For that reason, he truly used his hand to help Merlin stand, which earned him a pleased, genuine grin.
Something Arthur had not been wrong about when it came to his first impression of Merlin was in regards to his looks. He truly was quite good-looking, if not in the conventional sense. It was highlighted more than ever as he and Merlin stood, hand in hand and ankle deep in the water, grinning at each other like giddy schoolboys. With Merlin's dark curls plastered down, the jut of his sharp cheekbones stood out, as did the charming crinkle about his eyes when he smiled. His plastered suit left little to the imagination in the way of his body which, while scrawny, was not as terrible as Arthur had previously, uncharitably assumed. It was lean rather than frail (certainly not frail, as Arthur could attest), nothing a few square meals could not remedy. It was a wonder Merlin wasn't the rake Arthur initially assumed him to be, though Arthur supposed that had more to do with Merlin's charm, which was far more akin to that of a lost kitten rather than of a practiced charmer – Arthur supposed that was why his clients tended to be older, matronly sorts of women, the kind who looked as though they would dearly like to give Merlin that extra bit of feeding he so clearly needed, especially if he was going to continue standing and smiling stupidly at Arthur after being dunked in a lake – he was shaking like a leaf. Arthur had a strange, wild urge to draw Merlin to him for warmth, before he realized that he was shivering as well.
"I don't think we can walk back like this," he managed through his chattering teeth. (When had they started chattering?)
"You started it!"
"You pushed me in a lake, Merlin. Must we argue this while I slowly die of hypothermia?"
"Oh, I forgot your tendency for melodrama, " Merlin said, rolling his eyes as if being irritated by being sopping wet on a cool day in mid-April was cause to throw a party and Arthur was reacting inappropriately. "Come on." He dragged Arthur to shore by their joined hands and then dropped it. Somewhere in his chest, Arthur felt the loss of Merlin's long, pale hand keenly, and wished to take it again, but before he could examine that odd emotion, Merlin murmured "Afierran wæter," and instantly Arthur was as dry as if he had never been dunked at all.
"Oh," Arthur said stupidly.
"Indeed." Merlin rocked back and forth on his heels, clearly pleased with himself. "I take it you approve of that little trick?"
"Oh, rather!" Arthur agreed, and then glared at Merlin when once again, he inexplicably burst into laughter.
"Oh, rath-er!" Merlin mimicked, before bursting into giggles yet again.
Arthur's only response was to shove Merlin, but this time he took care to do it in the opposite direction of the water.