Rating: currently PG
Word count: 6824 for this part
Notes: Yes. I know. I'm a terrible, terrible person. But I now know most of the plot structure (hurrah?) and how many chapters there should be altogether, so hopefully things will move faster from here. At least the Pendragons have finally appeared :) As have some rather silly injokes.
If you know anything at all about electronic security systems, I can't promise that my utter ignorance and artistic embellishment (ie. bullshitting) won't make you weep tears of pain, so, um, sorry about that.
From now on all of the illustrations will be LONDON PORN. Woo! Enjoy ryokophoenix's gorgeous photography.
(Part One | Part Two)
SOMEWHERE IN ITALY
DECEMBER 7th, 7:02pm
"Wait," Gwen said. "Go over that bit again."
"Lancelot!" Merlin called.
Gaius frowned. "I'm sorry, Gwen, which --"
"How do we get him to leave the house?" Gwen asked, frowning herself, glancing up at the whiteboard from where she was kneeling in the middle of the rug.
Lancelot twisted around, trying to meet Merlin's eyes without dislodging Gwen's tape measure from the outside of his leg. "Did you need me for something, Merlin?"
"Yes, I need some help with the Interpol servers --"
Gaius raised his voice. "I'll admit, I haven't quite determined --"
"No, nothing's wrong, I -- excuse me --" Morgana covered the mouthpiece of her phone and stood up. "Quiet, please!"
The hubbub died down fast; Morgana's voice was an arrow of ice when she wanted it to be. In the sudden silence, the dull golden sound of the dinner bell rang out like a pointed suggestion.
Gwen leaned her forehead against Lancelot's leg and giggled. He looked down at her and smiled. "May I have my legs back, Guinevere?"
"Yes, I'm all done." She looped the measuring tape around her fingers.
Gaius heaved a sigh. "Thank God. No business talk over dinner. Morgana."
Morgana gave a frantic this-is-important wave of one hand and disappeared into the room she was sharing with Gwen, still murmuring into the phone. Merlin gave his laptop a final, half-hearted death glare and then left it to sleep. His shoulders sprung into a bright network of aches as he stood up, and the faint warm smell of bread and rich sauce shot straight down into his stomach and set it to gurgling in anticipation.
"It's been a long day."
Gaius gave him the amused eyebrow. "Yes, it's almost like work, isn't it?"
"No sarcasm over dinner," Merlin said plaintively, and escaped to the dining room, following the smell. Adriana, Gaius's house- and groundskeeper, had taken one look at Merlin and immediately made it her life's mission to fatten him up by stuffing pasta into him until he felt ill. Not that Merlin could fault her cooking: it was simple, but amazing, full of obscenely fresh flavours and dark herbs, loud crusty bread and the bite of garlic. Lancelot had won Adriana's heart within two days by volunteering to weed the vegetable garden and by being the only person apart from Gaius who professed to like anchovies.
Merlin lowered himself into a chair and tugged a snugly wicker-wrapped bottle towards himself, glancing at the chill wind buffeting the trees outside the window with the lazy satisfaction of one who had spent the entire day inside a fire-warmed house. "Wine for anyone?"
"Here, please." Gwen passed her glass across the table.
"Bruschetta," Lancelot announced, placing a large saucepan on the table. Adriana chased him into his seat with a flick of her oven mitts.
"Sit! Sit, silly boy. Enough helping."
"Bruschetta," Gwen echoed blissfully, then raised her voice to a shout. "Morgana! If you don't hurry, we're going to eat your share."
Merlin laughed, enjoying the gentle slop of red wine as he poured his own glass. Adriana's bruschetta was a vat of slow-cooked tomatoes with caramelised onion and dark balsamic, spooned messily onto slices of garlic-smeared bread, and a bowl full of untidy strands of pasta laden with pesto.
Merlin waited with a growling stomach while Lancelot politely served everyone else; despite the informality of their meals, there was something about Lancelot that guilted you into good manners. So nobody touched their cutlery until Lancelot hooked the last strand of pasta onto his own plate, looked up with a small grin, and said, "Do begin, everyone."
Merlin applied himself solidly until his plate was empty bar crumbs and sauce-smears, rich tomato red and the golden-green of good olive oil mingling stark against the white crockery. "Gaius," he said then, chasing crumbs with a sticky finger, "No business, I know, but before I forget -- we don't know the format of Uther's security footage yet, so maybe Gwen should ask her father for -- Gaius? "
Gaius said something like, "Hmm," and Merlin turned to see what he was doing, which was watching Lancelot watching Gwen. There was a gentle, thirsty look on the young man's face that was very different to his normal unconscious seduction of the entire world, and Merlin thought: oh.
"Is it a problem?" he asked.
"It's a complication," said Gaius. "With any luck, we can prevent it from becoming a problem."
So Merlin was not at all surprised when Gaius's pep talk that evening centred around Personal Entanglements and how they led to Dangerously Mixed Priorities and were all-in-all a terrible idea which should be, if not avoided altogether, at least put off until after a job was finished. Merlin listened attentively and pretended not to notice the slapstick manner in which Lancelot and Gwen took turns in sneaking longing looks at one another, always when the other person was looking away. It was quite sweet really. But Merlin had to agree with Gaius: it was probably a bad idea.
After the talk someone put a DVD on, but Merlin tuned it out and sorted through his email: an uncharacteristically brief missive from his mother, informing him that she was having a new oven installed and that she liked the ceramic earrings he'd sent her, and another from their employer:
from: (address hidden)
date: 7 December 2008 18:09
subject: continuing apace
Greetings once again, young Wizard -
I sense that the workings of Fate have drawn you & your companions together at last. Remember that nothing is worth anything that is achieved in isolation. I have every confidence that the delicate balance of your gifts will lead us to triumph over our enemies.
- the Dragon
"What the bloody hell," Merlin grumbled.
DECEMBER 18th, 5:00pm
"First class is to the left, ma'am, if you'll just -- that's it, thank you --"
"Enjoy your flight, Morgana," Merlin called. Morgana lifted a hand and waved, then disappeared behind the dividing curtain, where she would presumably be offered complimentary champagne and oysters, and generally treated in the manner to which she was accustomed.
"Come on, Merlin, we're holding up traffic." Gwen took his hand and smiled, knowing. "Would you prefer she made loud comments about the falling standards of public transport all the way to London?"
"Down here, and your seats are just to the left. Have a lovely flight."
"I'm sure we will." Lancelot bestowed a sprinkling of bows and warm glances upon the cabin crew and led the way down the narrow aisle. "At least we're all sitting together. Here we are, row nineteen -- Guinevere, you must take the window seat, of course.'
"Oh, no, I'm exhausted," Gwen protested, "I'll just sleep, it'll be wasted on me, really."
"I insist." Lancelot planted his feet in the aisle and gave the impression that he was prepared to stand there politely until Judgement Day if necessary. Gwen eyed the arrested line of people behind them and quickly sat down. Merlin slid in next to her, and Lancelot took the aisle seat with a dazzling smile of apology that silenced the man who had been waiting to move past them.
Lancelot, Merlin knew, was going to be very handy to have around. Though he had no idea how the man ever did anything by stealth; he stood out, so much so that by the time they were in the air and the plane had levelled out Merlin was witnessing an occurrence that he'd been convinced only happened in movies: all the flight attendents started falling over themselves to be the one to give Lancelot the best possible service. Merlin was so entertained that he considered waking Gwen so that she could watch; she, true to her word, had fallen asleep against the window almost immediately.
The battle came down to a silent, vicious argument between an improbably tall redheaded woman and an even more improbably handsome man; the woman -- Shalott, her name badge proclaimed -- won by rolling the drink trolley over the man's foot, and glided up to their row of seats with a triumphant smile.
"Hello, and what's your name?"
"Lancelot." He gave the little bow again. "Delighted to met you, Shalott."
"Lancelot. What a fascinating name," she purred, which Merlin thought was a bit rich coming from someone who was only one misplaced double consonant away from being a type of vegetable. "What can I get you, gentlemen?" Her smile slid from triumphant to flirtatious, eyes still fixed on Lancelot.
"I'll have a mineral water, please." Lancelot met her smile with one that was just as flirtatious, but -- and this was the key point, as far as Merlin could tell -- no different to any of the other everyday smiles Merlin had seen on his face. That was just how he smiled.
The woman took it as encouragement and shifted her shoulders or did something with her ribs, Merlin wasn’t sure, but her breasts suddenly became a whole lot more pronounced. "Pretzels?" she enquired, breathily, as though it were code for unspeakably filthy acts. It probably was.
Merlin coughed. "I'd like some apple juice."
The brief look Shalott gave Merlin said, very clearly, that as far as she was concerned he was no more than an irritating obstacle standing between her and her ambition to ravish Lancelot in the plane toilets.
Then she poured him orange juice instead of apple, and trundled the trolley backwards with a final, "Anything I can do for you, anything at all, you just let me know," at Lancelot.
"I hate redheads," Merlin proclaimed.
"Based on one person?"
"It's not just her! In Edinburgh, there was -- I dropped my mug -- never mind. They're out to get me," Merlin finished darkly, and tried to sulk through all three episodes of Top Gear that were available on the inflight entertainment. Though it was admittedly difficult to sulk with Lancelot sitting next to him providing gravely hilarious commentary on the cars and charming Hateful Shalott into bringing an endless supply of lemonade for Merlin and sparkling mineral water for himself.
Gaius had gone ahead of them a few days earlier, leaving them with strict instructions not to break anything in his villa and to make sure nobody called him before they arrived in London unless it was a dire emergency. Merlin wasn't sure if he just wanted some time free of twenty-somethings or if he was laying groundwork; Gaius, he was starting to suspect, was thoroughly enjoying the piecemeal clues and snippets of advice he fed his team.
It felt strange to be returning to England, to be going home in only the larger sense. A part of Merlin, a small unprofessional part tucked away with his purple woollen socks and and the watch that he'd broken in Paris, felt as though it had been deprived of some rare essential; something like sleep, or iron, or air. It was a dull thirst that wouldn't be quenched until he was sitting at his own kitchen table listening to his mother tell him to shut that damn computer and talk to me while you eat, Merlin Emrys, or you'll be washing up every meal for the rest of the week. Gwen was used to moving continents, Morgana had spent almost half her life at boarding school, and from what Merlin had managed to coax out of Lancelot, he was pretty sure there had been a few foster families involved there. But Merlin had grown up in his unremarkable town with his friends and his mother and the deep, subtle, reciprocal roots that a person can lay down in their home soil; that a place and a life can lay down, in turn, in a person's soul.
On the tiny screen, Jeremy Clarkson was saying something insulting about some car that might or might not have been an Audi. Merlin took a sip of his lukewarm lemonade and grinned around the rim of the plastic cup, imagining Will's voice in his head, firmly revoking his Y chromosome.
"Glad to be back in England?" Gwen was finally awake. She laid one hand on top of his, which was hogging the armrest between their seats, and used the other to stifle a yawn.
Merlin tugged his headphones off. "Yes," he decided.
CENTRAL ARCADE, COVENT GARDEN
DECEMBER 21st, 2:12pm
"I can't believe it still isn't Christmas."
Lancelot straightened up from peering at jewellery and raised his eyebrows in Merlin's direction. "How do you mean?"
"The Christmas markets, Prague, Edinburgh -- that was almost a month ago. Now we're back in a big city and everything's still tinsel and lights and enormous crowds of people looking for presents."
Lancelot laughed, and a shop assistant looked over as though she was considering abandoning her long queue of impatient customers in order to rush over and offer him any help he might require. Honestly, first Morgana and now this -- Merlin was sure there had never been a less inconspicuous group of thieves. "Including you, I might point out. Perhaps you should have bought more while we were still in Italy."
Of course, Lancelot was the kind of person to think ahead and finish all of his Christmas shopping by November. Merlin made a helpless face at two identically ugly teapots and slid them back onto their display. "I've never had Christmas away from Mum before. I wanted to get her something special, but I'm pants at choosing gifts. Always have been."
"Well, what kinds of colours does your mother usually wear?" Lancelot asked, adopting a thoughtful tone. Merlin saw at least five women between the ages of fourteen and forty leap to the same conclusion and cast jealous, reproachful glances in his direction, as though it were Merlin's fault that his not-actually boyfriend were -- well, his boyfriend. Except not actually.
"He's French," Merlin said loudly, to the nearest and most blatantly disappointed woman. "French."
Lancelot's brow furrowed. "I'm sorry?"
"Nothing. It's -- don’t worry. My mother." Merlin drew a blank. What did she usually wear? "She likes green," he hazarded. "The coat she wears on really cold days is dark green."
"How about this?" Lancelot's swift talented hands dove into a nearby rack and emerged with a silk scarf in bright, inky shades of blue and green, bleeding into one another. Merlin didn't honestly know if his mother would like the pattern, but the fabric slid across his fingers like water, and it was certainly pretty enough, and if Merlin didn't set foot inside a shop for another decade it'd still be too long.
"Perfect." He huffed out a grateful breath. "I'm done, then. You?"
Lancelot nodded and held out his hand for the scarf again. "Let me get that; there's no point in both of us cluttering up the queue. You can pay me back tonight."
Gaius's enormous flat was in Bloomsbury, an easy walk away, for which Merlin was grateful. The cold was biting, though not bitter, and it closed itself over his body like water. The first time he'd gone out walking he'd forgotten to wear a hat, and had remembered just how stupid this was when he'd developed a dreadful headache, one that started in the tiny bones of his ears and then seemed to spread along his skull like white noise. Since then he'd done the sensible thing and worn a beanie every time; even Lancelot was wearing a woollen cap, though with ten times more fashionable aplomb then Merlin would ever be able to manage.
He'd been in London a few times before, mostly for school trips or to see a show with his mother, but this time felt different, and Merlin thought it was because he wasn't there to see anything in particular. He thought: the city doesn't care about agenda or appreciation, because it wears its history like a skin, never bothering to show it off. But to those simply moving within it, with a purpose entirely unrelated to the city itself, London was friendlier, tugging itself down from the lofty heights and deigning to become a context instead of an object. Merlin still wasn't quite comfortable with the size of the city, the awareness that it stretched out in every direction for longer than he wanted to think about. But Gaius had taught him the importance of blending into one's environment, and of all the places that Merlin had ever been, London was a perfect canvas for blending -- easy to dissolve and spread oneself watercolour-thin across the grey surfaces.
He wondered if other people felt cities like this, with their fingernails and their elbows and the soft interior surfaces of their lungs, breathing them in and metabolising their secrets and exhaling inadequate metaphors.
As they passed the British Museum, Merlin felt the dull buzz of his phone and managed to fumble it out of his pocket without having to remove his gloves. Opening the text message took a bit more finesse.
"Can I help you, Merlin?" Lancelot asked, half-smiling.
"I like my fingers unfrostbitten!" Merlin protested. "I need them for hacking! Oh, I've got it." He glanced at Will's message and felt his face break into a grin.
a little bird told me ur back in merry england. had enough of those dirty foreign climes eh?
"Good friend," Merlin said, slipping the phone away. "Think I'll leave off replying until we're back in a finger-friendly temperature, though."
Two steps inside the flat's door, however, Merlin was distracted from the welcome onslaught of indoor heating by the fact that he'd narrowly missed tripping over a pile of cables. "Gwen!" he called. "I think I almost destroyed something important, here."
Gwen appeared in the hall with a pair of pliers in one hand and a thick manual in the other. "Sorry! I'll tidy it up, I just -- I was distracted. There's only so much we can do before we know the details of the house's internal servers, you know, Merlin, and I don't even know how you're going to be accessing them in the first place -- Morgana will probably need to go through one of the house's own computers, at least until you can find the wireless key -- I'm not suggesting that you can't, or anything, you know I think you're brilliant, it's just --"
"Tea?" Lancelot had moved past Merlin; he touched her gently on the shoulder. "I bought some shortbread, as well."
"That would be lovely, thank you." Gwen beamed at him, her mess of a sentence forgotten.
Merlin put his shopping bag away in the room he was sharing with Lancelot, rescued a mug of Earl Grey from the kitchen before Gwen could corrupt it with sugar, and collapsed on the living room couch to text Will. His friend was clearly skulking in the storeroom or on a break from his job at the town's largest bookstore, because the replies came promptly.
yeah, back in the land of hope and glory and last minute bloody shoppers.
try working retail. i'll brain the next person to ask me where the twilight books are.
bet you london's worse. be thankful.
thankful, right, tis the season and all that. get me anything?
maybe if i paid someone else to do the shopping. what do u want?
u know me. easy to please. all I want for christmas is your mom.
Once he'd finished snorting a very painful gulp of tea out of his nose, Merlin composed a desperate capslocked message in which he threatened Will with excommunication from their friendship if he ever, ever traumatised Merlin with mental images of that nature ever again. He was saved from having to continue the exchange much longer by the sudden arrival of Gaius, Morgana in tow.
"Morgana," Merlin greeted her, eyeing the large bags in her hands with some trepidation. "Have I forgotten something? I thought you were staying at your own place."
Morgana dropped a breezy kiss in the vicinity of his cheek and set her bags down. Something black and silky slid out of the nearest one. "I am, but I needed to see Gwen."
Which turned out to mean that Morgana needed Gwen to see her, or more precisely, her dresses.
"Normally I'd just wear any old thing, but it's quite an important party, and it would be lovely to steal all the attention and have something to rub Arthur's face in," she was saying, as though antagonising the son of their mark was a perfectly logical idea. "Now, I've managed to cut it down to a shortlist of twelve, so I've brought those ones for you to look at."
Gwen nodded, already fingering the black silk with a delighted expression. Gaius looked as though he'd suddenly smelt something odd, or remembered something important, and made for the nearest door. "I'll be reading in my room," he said loudly. "Merlin, I thought we'd go for dinner at seven."
Merlin nodded helplessly, calculating the odds that he, too, could escape before Morgana --
"Merlin." She turned her widest smile onto him. "I would appreciate a variety of opinions."
"I, um, I really don't --"
"We'd be delighted." Lancelot perched himself on the edge of couch, hands on his knees, radiating attention. Merlin sank back into the cushions, thinking French with a certain mental viciousness.
Many, many outfits later, Merlin had recovered his laptop and was tucked comfortably into a corner of the couch, composing an email to his mother's friend Ronald and looking up every now and again when Morgana entered the room. Somewhat to his horror, he'd started saying things like, I think those shoes looked better with the other one, you know, the one with the -- skirt thing.
"Gaius!" Morgana gave a pleased exclamation; Merlin glanced over at the doorway.
"I thought you were waiting for dinner?"
"And I thought this circus would be finished by now," Gaius grumbled, but he put a fond hand on Morgana's shoulder as he passed her. "Merlin, you should be briefing Morgana on what she'll be doing at the Pendragons' Christmas party. We would like accessing the security system to be possible no matter what she happens to be wearing."
"Misdirection, Gaius." Morgana smiled. "Distraction. Now: black or red?" She hoisted the two current forerunners and dangled them one from either hand.
Gaius gave her a considering, twinkling look. "Red."
"Are you -- really?" Morgana's hands tightened on both dresses. "I don't know, I think -- Gwen? -- I think I prefer the black."
"Imagine that," Gaius said, and Merlin stifled a laugh. "Now that we're all in agreement -- Merlin, if you please?"
"Right." Merlin wriggled more upright, caught Morgana's eye, and began to carefully explain what he needed her to do: Uther's security system was almost certainly a self-contained one, controlled by servers only accessible from the house's computer network, and Gwen was probably right: for him to get a sense of its structure, Morgana would have to find him the network details on Uther's own computer. He was hoping to talk her through it over the phone, for the most part. "But if you run into a protocol that…" He trailed off, becoming aware that Morgana's mouth was doing the thing it did when she was completely lost and trying to think of the best way to bluff her way out of it. "Um. Do I need to start again?"
"Honestly, Merlin," she said, staring at him, "it's like you're speaking another language."
"It's not hard," he said, helplessly. "This is the easy bit. I hope. I'd do it myself, but we won't have another distraction as good as this party; we have to take advantage of it, and you're the one with the invitation."
"I realise that." She sighed. "But --"
"I think," Gaius cut in, "that you're going to have to start work a little earlier than we'd planned, Merlin. Morgana?"
Morgana bit at her lower lip for a moment, thinking, and then gave a sharp nod. "The party. They'll need some external staff anyway; they usually do, for these things. Lance --"
"Best not," Lancelot said, shaking his head. "I might know --"
"Oh, of couse." Morgana waved a hand. "Gwen, sweetheart, I'm sorry to ask --"
Gwen looked dubious. "What would I have to do?"
DECEMBER 24th, 7:42pm
"Cheer up," Merlin said, folding back the cuffs of Gwen's black shirt. "Morgana's the one who has to make small talk with the enemy. We just have to get everyone drunk enough that they don't notice when I slip away and hack into the security system."
Gwen laughed. "So simple."
"I waited tables for three days once." Merlin cast a quick, reflexive look over the busy kitchen, but everyone else was far too busy to pay them any notice. "It wasn't that hard."
"Only three days?" Gwen raised an eyebrow and dimpled at him simultaneously, and Merlin grinned back. She knew him too well, already.
"There may have been an incident with soup on the third day."
"Oh, Merlin." She pulled her cuffs out of his hands, inspected them, and nodded. "Just don't draw any attention to yourself, and I'm sure everything will be fine."
"You! And you!" A drumstick of a man, tall and thin and impeccably bald, was pointing a sharp finger in their direction. "Drink trays, circulate. Any special orders, come back and they'll be made here."
Merlin's feet itched to snap to attention. "Yessir," he said brightly, and picked up the nearest tray of champagne flutes. Gwen did the same, shifting it to one hand with an easy balance that Merlin envied. "Have you done this before?"
She blinked. "No? But it's quite simple, just find the best -- there --" Her free hand nudged his tray until Merlin felt less as though it was about to topple off. "Good luck!"
Moving from the kitchen to the rooms that contained the party itself was like suddenly being plunged underwater; the clangs and fast shouts melted away into unobtrusive jazz and the rise and fall of conversation. It was still early, so the rooms weren't crowded, but there was a reasonable number of small knots of people looking in need of a glass to wrap their hands around. He caught sight of Morgana and made a beeline for her.
Despite the fashion parade ordeal, Morgana had ended up taking Gwen on a shopping trip and coming back with an entirely new dress or seven. Tonight she was wearing a backless dress in a rich gold fabric that caught every light fitting and every glance. She winked at him as he proferred his tray, and hooked her fingers deftly around the stem of a flute.
"Thank you," she murmured.
Merlin held still while his tray was assaulted by the other people in the vicinity, and smiled. "Enjoy your evening."
"I'll do my best." She gave a tiny roll of her eyes and lifted the drink to her lips.
Next Merlin approached a group of young men, all of whom had the air of someone who was there under protest and was looking to get drunk as soon as possible.
"Champagne? Sorry there's only a couple left -- I'll fetch more. Or I can do special requests, if you'd like something else."
There was a general unslumping of shoulders under beautifully tailored shirts and suit jackets, and someone with a large nose and the plummiest accent Merlin had ever heard immediately ordered a gin and tonic, easy on the tonic, one ice cube, with lemon instead of lime.
"Er," said Merlin.
"I'll have a Tom Collins."
"Red wine. Something decent, no cask rubbish."
"Uther wouldn't be serving anything out of a cask, Rupert."
And so on. Merlin cursed himself for not having a notepad; luckily, he did have a quick mind, and Gaius had drilled a memory for details into him. He absorbed all the drink orders, repeated them back to a series of impatient nods, and then made a run for the kitchens and reeled them all off to the harried young woman who was manning the bar.
"Long Island Iced Tea?" she demanded. "Really?"
Merlin shrugged apologetically and passed her the Coke. "He's clearly going for the highest possible density of alcohol."
"He? Jesus." She poured a shot of vodka and upended it into a tumbler with a vicious flick. "Remind me why I shouldn't take a swig from the nearest bottle?"
Merlin smiled, herding glasses onto his tray. "Can't help there, sorry."
By the time he stepped back out into the party itself, the noise was higher, the room's walls less visible, the amount of cologne and laughter thickening the air much more pronounced. Merlin sidestepped many pairs of high heels, made his way back to the group, and distributed the drinks. He was about to congratulate himself when someone wearing a dark red tie frowned down at his glass, then transferred the frown to Merlin.
"Look, this isn't right, I wanted it on the rocks."
Merlin, who considered it a minor miracle he'd even managed to remember all of the drinks correctly, was not in the mood to fight his way back to the bar just because one of these snobs had a fussy palate when it came to temperature. He conjured up a smile and a tone that aimed for politeness but, unfortunately, landed just the wrong side of patronising. "It's a cold night. Might even be better without ice."
The man -- well, he didn't look much older than Merlin himself -- took a firm step forward, and Merlin clutched at his tray so that he didn't step back, meaning that he found himself not very far at all from a pair of narrowed eyes and a pissy expression. "What did you say?"
Merlin heard Gwen's voice in his head, clear as day: just don't draw any attention to yourself.
"So sorry," he said. "Would you like me to speak louder?"
Blond-and-pissy frowned and leaned even closer, clearly about to say something rude; Merlin decided that it was high time to step backwards, did so, and felt himself slip.
"Oh, bugger," he had time to say, before his body abandoned its centre of gravity. The tray, still half-full of renewed champagne flutes, spilled most of its contents onto Merlin himself, but a good portion of it landed on his aggressor, who made a sharp sound of surprise and dropped his own drink as well. Merlin felt a glow of satisfaction past the throbbing of his bruised tailbone and the sudden patchy chill of his shirt.
"Sorry! I'm -- very sorry." Merlin bit down on his lower lip and stood up gingerly, trying not to put his hands or knees in any broken glass. Most of the people in the room were staring at them.
"Goodness me." He'd never been happier to hear Morgana's voice. She materialised at his elbow, radiating a regal concern. "It appears that one can polish one's floors to excess. Endangering the help and then shouting in their face -- really, it's hardly gentlemanly, is it?"
"Morgana," said blond-and-pissy, sounding unimpressed.
"Arthur," said Morgana.
"Gnfdkjsf?" said Merlin.
Arthur Pendragon -- fuck, Merlin chanted internally, fuck fuck fuck -- swiped at his sodden shirt with one hand, and his scowl became even more petulant. "Ugh. Fetch me some paper napkins or something, you clumsy dolt, don't just stand there."
"I'll give him a hand," Morgana broke in, seamlessly. "And I'll find someone to sweep up the glass."
"I still need a drink," Pendragon snapped. "Vodka tonic, with ice."
"Right away!" Gwen, who'd also managed to arrive on the scene, spoke up. She spun on her heel and headed towards the kitchen while Merlin bent down to his tray and kicked a few jagged bits of glass onto it.
"I think you've cut your hand," Morgana said, as she walked Merlin back to the kitchen. Merlin peered at his hands.
"I haven't --"
"No, I really think you have."
She smiled. "I think you'd better go and find something to clean the cut, don't you?"
Merlin handed her the tray and lowered his voice even further. "Uther's office -- upstairs and along the first corridor to the left, right?"
"That's right. You'll do just fine, Merlin. Here." She pressed something into his hand; it was her lipstick. Her blood-red lips smiled at him one last time, and shen she left him, calling for napkins in a bored voice.
Merlin took a deep breath and told himself to look as though he had every right to be where he was. He slipped into the bathrooms first, and carefully applied lipstick to a wad of toilet paper which he then clenched in his left hand, making sure that there was a fair amount of red showing. Then, still radiating casual confidence the best he could, he drifted -- with a few artistic winces -- towards the main flight of stairs. Time for the Boy Wizard to work his magic.
DECEMBER 31st, 11:02pm
Merlin was still thinking about the sign on the lamppost.
"It just seems so absurd."
"Welcome to the big smoke, country boy," said Morgana. "Never underestimate the lengths people will go to in order to have a better view than the rest of the crowd."
Trafalgar Square was, indeed, filling up in earnest, and Merlin tightened his grip on the railing. They were on the gallery side of the Square, high up; their vantage point was unfortunately located directly on an apex of the square of giant screens that dominated the open space, but it did allow a rare glimpse, through the buildings, of the London Eye in all its neon glory. And because of the railing, there was nobody standing in front of them; just a sheer drop to the stairs.
The sky was so pale, Merlin marvelled. Used to his own small town, and having just spent weeks at Gaius's villa, far from any large cities, he was still enchanted by the way the city never quite seemed to surrender to the night, clinging instead to its conglomeration of tiny light sources -- and this, this was something else entirely. The screens blasted images to every compass point, and there were large lights rigged around the Square, illuminating the crowd with a patchy glow.
Merlin was feeling amiable and excited and just-warm-enough on the strength of the champagne he'd drunk before leaving the flat. He was rugged up and among friends and this was a transition, one of the most basic transitions, and he was happy.
Gwen dug her elbow softly into his side. "New year, new job. It seems fitting."
Merlin laughed. "Yes, my illustrious new job in the household of the person I'm trying to rob, and the person who hates me for spilling things all over his stupid shirt. I can't wait."
"Don't be such an ingrate," said Morgana, her tone mocking. "You know I called in every favour Uther owed me in order to get this job for the son of one of my poor dear mother's friends. I had to become very emotional during a long-distance phone call."
"You enjoyed every second of it," said Gwen.
"I did," she agreed. "Though I never thought Merlin would go out of his way to --"
"Enough!" Merlin moaned, removing his hands from the icy railing and tucking them deep into the pockets of his down jacket. "I know! Yes, yes, my clumsiness has already put me on the wrong side of Uther's son. But, in my defence, he's an idiot."
"True," said Morgana calmly. "Happy New Year, everyone -- I'll be in touch."
She waved as she worked her way backwards, towards the imposing and slightly eerie facade of the National Gallery; she was meeting friends closer to the river, though how she was going to find them was anyone's guess. They'd all headed towards one of the designated viewing areas close to Parliament, earlier in the evening, only to be met by a press of disappointed people coming in the opposite direction. There was a single brilliant undesignated spot somewhere near Embarkment that afforded a view straight across the Thames, the Eye fitting neatly into the close horizon at the end of the panorama. The crowd of hopefuls filling the street at this spot had already created a traffic hazard by the time they'd given up and decided to stick with the Square; they'd had to fight their way through.
A little after that, Lancelot departed -- "On a quest!" he declared -- in search of anywhere at all selling hot drinks. Merlin didn't know how much luck he'd have; the last open cafés that they'd seen had been in the West End.
"We should have brought a thermos," said Gwen. Her nose was pink, and she kept burrowing deeper into the soft collar of the coat that Morgana had bought her for Christmas.
"Next time," said Merlin, without thinking. He turned and smiled down at her. "Do you think I just jinxed something?"
"I believe in us." She broke off to give a warning glance at the group of teenagers next to them, who were starting to diffuse hopefully into the small space vacated by Lancelot. "You managed to find the wireless key just fine, didn't you?"
Merlin nodded. There had been something altogether exhilarating about sitting crouched down with his back against the heavy wood of the desk leg and his feet in the thick carpet of Uther's study, letting the patterns unfold themselves beneath his fingers and etch themselves into his mental map, listening to his racing heart and the taut silence of the room. He'd been expecting a disaster, if only a minor one, but everything had gone smoothly. He hoped it was a good omen and not the calm before the deluge.
"That was quick thinking on Morgana's part, with the lipstick," he said. "Apparently my injury was almost bad enough to need stitches, and Uther's pleased that I didn't back out of the permanent position or try to sue Arthur or anything ridiculous like that."
Gwen laughed. "Lawyers."
"Feels odd that I haven't even seen this sword yet," Merlin said. "Though I doubt it'll look like anything worth this much fuss and money."
"Gaius thinks it's not about the sword, though?"
He nodded. "Revenge for something Uther did to the Dragon. And something about the sword not actually belonging to Uther in the first place -- I don't know, we're just the grunts, aren't we?" He smiled. "We're not paid to ask questions."
"Excuse me -- excuse me -- thank you --"
"That was quick!" Gwen hurried to take two of the cups from Lancelot's hands as he edged his way back through the now-dense crowd behind them. "How did you manage that?"
"Someone pointed me towards a stall two streets away."
The hot chocolate was lukewarm at best, but it was sweet and surprisingly creamy. They huddled together and exclaimed every so often at the still-increasing number of people, and watched the Eye shift from purple to blue to green, and Merlin got a few exuberant and poorly-spelled text messages from Will, who was clearly out drinking with some of their mates.
standing next tp somoene to snog? whatabout that gwenn gjrl?
As Merlin was standing there trying to think of a clever reply, the screens started the countdown, and the crowd began to yell along gleefully, a second or two behind. The soft, icy wind slid across Merlin's face and he fixed his eyes on the sky.
The communal 'Happy New Year!' sounded nothing like coherent words, but nobody cared. The first batch of fireworks streaked down above them in fingers of red and gold, many-layered arms slid around warmly-dressed bodies, and groups of people started to wave their arms and cheer.
Lancelot gave Merlin a look before leaning down and kissing Gwen -- well, it wasn't quite on the mouth, but it wasn't quite her cheek either. Gwen smiled at him with such sudden, honest happiness that Merlin felt a bit of a prick and looked at the fireworks again, to give them some privacy. What the hell. It was New Year's Eve -- New Year's Day, now.
Midnight and the sky was lightening even further, each explosion leaving an afterthought of smoke behind, each soaring collection of colour more wide-reaching and more overlapping. Merlin wasn't sure if this was something that you were supposed to wish on, like birthday candles and shooting stars, but it was probably the closest thing he was going to get. So he closed his eyes, watched the afterglow of bursting light against the backdrop of his eyelids, and wished one wish as hard as he could:
Don't let me fuck this up.
Coming up next: Microchips prove to be problematic, Merlin tries to prevent his life from becoming a romantic comedy, and Mordred steals some jewels.