Rating: currently PG
Word count: 6576 for this part
Notes: Finally! I'm sorry this chapter took me ages to get out. This is the end of the pure globetrotting-and-introductions; after this, the plot might actually start in earnest. And Arthur will actually make an appearance, I promise :D
NOVEMBER 26th, 9:40am
from: (address hidden)
date: 25 November 2008 17:57
subject: your quest
Greetings, young Wizard -
Now that destiny has seen fit to deliver you into my hands, I can only trust that you will prove a worthy instrument for the great task ahead.
To satisfy any misgivings you may have about removing the sword Excalibur from Uther Pendragon's possession: I can tell you very little, but you should know that he was never meant to own it. It was fated for another.
- the Dragon
"How helpful," Merlin muttered at his laptop. He whacked the keys a little harder than necessary as he logged out and then in to his personal account, and deleted five Facebook notifications that he had no intention of ever reading.
Gwen's glance at his inbox was just a little too long for her to pretend that she wasn’t stickybeaking. "Oh, do you email your mother?" she asked, sounding delighted. Merlin didn't have the heart to tell her that he wasn't exactly the type to keep up a faithful correspondence with his mother; rather, his mother was the type to keep ruthless tabs on him via electronic guilt.
"Yes," he said instead, and tilted the screen so that she could see.
date: 25 November 2008 09:59
subject: checking in :)
ignore gaius when he gets like that, you know he's just grumpy at me for not living up to his silly standards of 'essential education'. hope you're keeping your mouth shut and learning everything you can. i talked to ronald about the guardian site and he says to start at the archives and construct your links backwards instead of going the other way. hope that helps!!
keep safe and don't forget to wear your woollen thermals, it gets chilly in scotland.
all my love,
ps. will says 'skype me you daft prick' which he assures me is an expression of affection
"That's sweet of her." Gwen tapped her fingers on her inflight magazine. "What're you working on?" she added, indicating the other tabs.
"Editing Wikipedia articles." Merlin grinned. "What about you, have you found some good duty free stuff?"
Gwen flicked open to where one finger was holding her place. It was an article about, as far as Merlin could tell, the design process for British Airways' new line of uniforms for their flight attendants.
"You have odd interests," Merlin told her.
"So do you. I guess it comes with the profession." Gwen nodded at his meal, which had been shoved half onto her seat tray to make room for his laptop. "Are you going to eat your jelly?"
"No," Merlin said firmly, and passed it over. "It looks like glue. Radioactive glue."
"I think it tastes fine." Gwen lifted the plastic lid. The jelly quivered smugly. Merlin eyed the empty containers crammed together on her tray and compared it to his own half-hearted effort at getting through the aeroplane food; Gwen noticed and smiled around the a spoonful of lurid red jelly already in her mouth. "I'm not very fussy. Might be self-defence against Dad's cooking."
"Is it just you and your dad, then?" It was a bit of a leap, but there was something about the way Gwen mentioned her father -- light fondness covering a strong, defensive attachment -- that resonated with Merlin.
"Yeah. My mum died when I was a baby, so it's just the two of us." She glanced at him; calm enough to forestall any apology, and piercing enough that Merlin wasn't surprised when she said:
"You and your mum?"
Merlin nodded. "I don't know who my dad is. But we live in a pretty small town, so there was always someone to look after me if Mum was away on a job. How long have you lived in Prague?"
"A few years -- we were in Boston before that, and Madrid before that. Dad can work from anywhere, so we travel a lot. He thinks it's good for my education. Not that there's anything wrong with living in one place," she added, with an anxious look. "I'm sure you're very educated. Oh God. That sounded patronising, didn't it? I didn't mean --"
"Gwen!" Merlin grinned. "It's okay."
"Have you always wanted to work in the industry?" Gwen asked hastily. "Sometimes I wonder what it might have been like if I'd tried something else, but Dad loves teaching me, and I like being able to help him."
Merlin laughed. "Honestly? Mum tried to yell me into doing anything else, but this is all I'm good at. She gave up when I was sixteen and got me some proper training."
"Dad said that Gaius said that you're one of the best natural hackers he's come across," Gwen said then, as though confiding a secret, and Merlin's heart -- or maybe his ego -- grew a size. Hah. "You should tell your mother," she added, poking at his laptop. "Sounds like she'd be very proud."
"Normal mothers are proud of their sons for winning sports trophies, or getting into medical school," Merlin pointed out. "Do you think we're victims of moral corruption?"
"I guess we must be," Gwen said solemnly, and filled her mouth with jelly.
Merlin smiled as he turned back to Wikipedia. This trip wasn't going to be bad at all.
ST MARGARET'S CHAPEL, EDINBURGH CASTLE
NOVEMBER 28th, 12:38pm
"Did you know," chirrupped Gwen, who was nose-deep in her sodden pamphlet, "that this is the oldest building in Edinburgh Castle? Isn't that fascinating?"
Merlin tried to reply in the affirmative but was too busy fighting his way out of his man-eating poncho for the fifth time in as many minutes. He could barely hear her educational chatter over the sound of blue plastic flapping in the wind, and the bloody thing seemed to have grown three extra holes for limbs, none of which were in the right position for him to free his hands and wrestle the thing back into position.
"Fascinating!" he managed to shout, eventually.
"Oh, here." Gwen tugged at one side of the poncho and Merlin found himself able to breathe again, though the biting wind and practically horizontal rain that were waiting to smack him in the face were only marginally better than suffocating inside his own garment. "You alright, Merlin?"
"Yep. Fantastic." Merlin's fringe was dripping into his eyes and he couldn't feel parts of his right hand. "Let's get inside this incredibly old chapel, shall we?"
Following the pamplet, they had crawled through a series of gatehouses and up the unforgiving, rain-darkened cobbles that wound through the castle complex. Down on the Royal Mile the weather had seemed merely unpleasant -- and almost like coming home to Merlin, after Singapore's heat and Prague's dry freeze -- but up on Castle Rock it was another story altogether. Gwen's umbrella had turned inside-out about fifteen seconds after she opened it, with the kind of violent kamikaze lurch that told the owner that if the umbrella wasn't forced back into the correct position and closed immediately, the next gust of wind would transform it from a functioning tool into shreds of fabric hanging from twisted metal. Between them they did manage to close it, but that left Gwen with no protection and Merlin with only his evil poncho.
"Phew." Gwen gave a rueful smile as they squeezed into the chapel and began to drip industriously onto the stone floor. "Old and tiny it may be, but at least it has a roof."
St Margaret's Chapel was extremely minimalist as places of worship went, but the whitewashed interior and the simple grey arch managed to give an impression of light despite the small area and the sounds of the rain. Aside from the embroidered altar cloth the decoration was limited to a few bunches of fresh flowers and some deeply-set stained glass, thin collections of colour depicting a handful of saints; saints, again. It seemed like you couldn't turn around in Europe without elbowing a culture's venerations, stumbling into spaces once held holy, and even in such a humble church as this one there was a weight and an age to the air that made Merlin want to tread silently.
Wooden waveform seats lined the walls, and the only other person in the chapel was seated halfway along one of them, sitting bolt upright and reading a slim paperback, so still and vivid that she looked almost like a work of art herself. After a few moments of damp rustling in which Gwen and Merlin managed to regain their breath and blink their eyelashes apart, she glanced over at them.
"Goodness," she said, "it is pouring down," and it took Merlin a moment to realise that the rain hadn't actually damaged his hearing: her accent was Irish. After a morning spent being bombarded by cheery Scottish, it sounded very strange.
"Is your name Morgana LeFay?"
"Yes, that's me." Morgana put the book away in a bag and stood up. She was wearing a pale trenchcoat and dark gloves but didn't look at all wet; her hair fell from under a white beret in long, dry, shining black curls.
"Have you been here long?" Merlin asked. "Your email did say twelve-thirty, didn’t it?"
"About an hour," she said calmly. "I came early; it's a nice place to read. And luckily, I missed the worst of the rain on the way up."
"I'm Merlin Emrys, this is Gwen Smith."
"Pleased to meet you both." Morgana flashed a smile and moved past them to glance at the sky. "It looks like we're going to have to make a dash for it. The café's probably our best chance, we can have some lunch and talk where there's less chance of being interrupted by tourists."
Feeling like a diver unsure of when he would next have the opportunity to break surface, Merlin clutched his poncho tightly around himself and took a deep breath before plunging out into the weather again. The café was not far away but it required a slippery descent over the cobbles, all the while feeling vaguely as though he should be on hand to help Gwen if she slipped, and suspecting that it was far more likely that he would be the one to topple over and brain himself. The wind was beating at his poncho, setting it rippling and straining like a sail; one too-violent gust and he'd probably be a morbid curiosity in the paper, Tourist Dies In Freak Storm Atop Castle Rock. His mother would reach into the afterworld and throttle him herself for daring to die in her absence.
"Merlin!" Morgana, her hair striped across her face, grabbed his hand for long enough to tug him through the door of the building. Merlin looked down to make sure he didn't trip on the mat or anything equally embarrassing and noticed firstly that she was wearing heels -- how the hell had she stayed upright? -- and secondly that their gloves were the same shade of dark grey, gone almost black with the rain. It made Merlin feel better, grounded, in a way that he hadn't known he needed. The way she'd taken his hand like it was nothing, the way Gwen was holding the door open and only trying half-heartedly to hide her giggles at his inelegant flails. Merlin remembered his mother saying, only half-mocking, you watch out that you still remember me, Merlin, when your first team becomes your family, and he'd laughed and kissed her cheek and told her not to be silly. But here he was, having known Gwen a handful of days and Morgana less than an hour, and he could feel the first dim stirrings of...something. Potential.
"I'm fine. Thanks." He wrestled the poncho off over his head with a sigh of relief.
The instant Morgana's coat was off, Gwen made a sound of feminine joy and touched her shoulder. "Your dress! It's beautiful, is it vintage?"
"Yes." Morgana's face lit up with pleasure, which combined with her now-bedraggled hair to make her look much less like a painting and more like a person. "I found it in a tiny place in Soho; I must take you there when we're in London."
"Oh, the fabric is so well preserved." Gwen turned her wide eyes on Merlin. "Don't you think it's lovely?"
Merlin looked at Morgana's dress. It was...blue. With a white thing around the waist.
"Yes?" he ventured.
Morgana laughed and inclined her head as graciously as if he'd showered her with effusive praise. "Thank you, Merlin. Let's get some food."
The food turned out to be surprisingly good for a tourist facility; Merlin picked up a ham and salad roll, the largest possible cup of coffee, and a brownie that was the size of his fist. His tray had barely touched the table, however, when a shot cracked through the air, loud and unmistakably near. His knuckles turned white and everything on his tray rattled with the force of his violent startlement. "What --"
Gwen glanced at her watch; Morgana was doing the same. "It's the One O'Clock Gun," Gwen told him. Her pamplet had disappeared, but she recited seemingly from memory: "They've fired it every day since 1861, when it was established as a time signal for ships. The current gun dates from 2001, though."
The provision of an explanation did nothing to decelerate Merlin's heart, which was drumming away in residual panic. He took a gulp of coffee, promptly burned his tongue, and lifted the lid to let it cool.
"How do you know Gaius?" he asked Morgana, who was stirring her tea and once again looking far more elegant than should reasonably be possible ten minutes after emerging from a downpour.
"He got me out of trouble once," she said. "We were running two short cons in the same place; mine went sour, and he managed to save my skin. What do you owe him?"
"Me? Nothing." Merlin grinned. "Mostly I think he's scared of my mum."
NOVEMBER 28th, 8:02pm
"Snowglobes, over there."
"Ooh! Alarming-looking meat products in bread." Gwen removed a hand from the pocket of her coat for long enough to point. "Less alarming then the ones in Prague, though."
"Honeyed mead, to the left," Morgana joined in, smiling. "It's true, the Christmas markets in Europe are similar everywhere you go."
Merlin, who hadn't tried honeyed mead during his single visit to the Prague markets, directed them towards that stall, where a woman wearing an enormous scarf in the same shade of red as Merlin's sold him a mug of steaming golden liquid that smelt divine.
"Three pounds deposit on the mug," Merlin said, bemused, wrapping his hands around it. "I haven't had to hire crockery before."
"Doesn't look like it's worth three pounds." Morgana eyed it. Her thoughtful expression gave the impression that she could place a value on anything from a nail file to a human soul. "Though I suppose that's the point." She paused. "You could almost run a profit, if you somehow prevented people from returning them."
"If you packed up the stall and ran?" Gwen smiled. "Doesn't seem very feasible."
Merlin was momentarily distracted from the conversation by the mead itself, which was indeed honeyed and delicious and alcoholic in a soothing way, as though getting paralytically drunk on this stuff would be as easy and delightful as lowering oneself into a warm bath. When he'd emptied a third of the mug he tuned back in, only to discover that Morgana was musing about the kind of merchandise that one could use for a con based on hiring things out.
"One job at a time," Merlin pleaded, and Morgana laughed.
The markets were certainly a lot like the ones in Prague, right down to the juxtaposition of towering ancient architecture with gaudy modern consumerism, except they were marginally less crowded and people were speaking English. Sort of. And where Prague's had included a stage full of endearingly talentless dancing children, Edinburgh's markets went in for activities. A ferris wheel rose neon and magnetic above the crowds, with smaller rides clustered around its base like noisy foothills. There was even a small ice rink on a lower level than the market itself, and Merlin leaned against a railing -- wincing at the metal chill against his arms, even through his coat -- sipped at his mead, and watched the vivid chaos on the ice.
Gwen had acquired a cup of coffee, and Morgana was managing to eat a skewer's worth of chocolate-coated strawberries with something approaching elegance. Merlin was no longer surprised; Morgana would probably look elegant halfway down a fireman's pole in the middle of the Antarctic.
"Gaius wanted me to recruit you because you know the Pendragons," Merlin said. "Are you sure you're okay with stealing from your friends?"
Morgana made a so-so motion with her head as she swallowed a mouthful of food. "Friends isn't quite how I'd put it. My parents knew Arthur's mother, and Uther by extension. Arthur and I were socialised a lot as children; I think we were supposed to be sibling substitutes for each other."
"Arthur being the son." Merlin had been doing some research and knew the basics about Arthur Pendragon, motherless heir to a tidy fortune, final-year LLB student at UCL.
"I only see Arthur at parties these days, and he manages to insult me creatively every single time." Morgana gave a dismissive flick of her skewer. "He's spoiled and arrogant, and his father is twice as bad. I have no qualms when it comes to stealing from Uther Pendragon."
Merlin thought about Gaius' dry voice: the idea of making Uther Pendragon's life a little harder is not entirely unpleasant.
"Sounds like he's got no shortage of enemies," he said.
"Unsurprisingly. He's bankrupted or jailed more major criminals than any other single prosecutor in the world." Morgana gave a sigh. "Which would be admirable, I suppose, if he weren't also such an unremitting bastard."
"And a paranoid one," Gwen put in. "Dad wouldn't stop talking about how his security system is far better than it needs to be for a private collection. I hope you really are talented, Merlin. I mean, I don't doubt that you are --"
"I hope so too." Merlin squeezed her arm. The best way to save Gwen from herself, he was learning, was to intervene before she could say too much.
"Merlin, your pocket is singing," Gwen said then.
Merlin drained the last inch of cooling mead and fished his mobile phone out of his pocket with his free hand. The warbling polyphonic tune was only just audible over the market din.
"Ah, Merlin," Gaius said, as soon as Merlin had helloed. "The Florentine police report --"
"Fixed," Merlin said. "See, you didn't need to worry about it."
"Well. Good," Gaius said grudingly. "How's the recruitment business going?"
"Fine! Morgana's showing us around the markets, and we're on a flight to Paris tomorrow. I still think I could have handled the bookings --"
"We're keeping those parts of the job legal, Merlin. It'll hardly serve our purpose if you're arrested before we can even get you to London."
"It would have been -- wait, you're at your place in Italy, aren't you?" Merlin frowned, listening hard. "I thought I heard someone speaking English. In the background."
"My housekeeper speaks English", Gaius said, in what Merlin was already coming to recognise as his don't argue with me Merlin voice. It was unnnervingly similar to his mother's version of the same sentiment.
"Right," Merlin said cheerfully. "Though I'd like to go on record as saying that I think you're hiding something."
"Me?" said Gaius, with gloomy sarcasm. "Patience, Merlin."
"I know, I know, it's all of the learning curve. All things will be revealed in time. My education is --"
"Bye." Merlin grinned and hung up.
As they left the railing and pushed their way back into the market itself a middle-aged man with red hair, a blonde woman and half a footy team's worth of sons in varying shades of gingery enthusiasm barrelled past them, all smiling and talking at once. The man waved an expansive arm that, given the press of the crowd, was bound to hit someone; it hit Merlin, whose mug, held precariously in two gloved fingers as he manouevred his mobile back into his pocket, hurtled out of his grasp and fell onto the hard stone underfoot.
"Damn it." Merlin glared at the sticky ceramic shards and then at the back of the man's head. "There's my deposit gone."
"It's only three pounds," Gwen said, patting his arm.
"It's the principle of it. I don't like paying for things if I don't have to."
Morgana laughed. The sound turned heads. "That's how you run the con, Merlin," she said. "Third-party sabotage. Though for it to be worthwhile, the deposit would need to be far greater than the value of the item, so you'd need to be running a quality scam concurrently --"
Merlin, rather nervous about Morgana's seeming obliviousness to just how noticeable a person she was even when she wasn't discussing criminal activity with cold-sparkling eyes, seized an oversized tam o'shanter from the nearest hat stall and jammed it onto her head.
"Sorry." She laughed again, but the spell of her musing was broken. She pushed the hat out of her eyes and posed in front of a scratched mirror. "I don't think it's my colour, do you, Gwen?"
Given that it was at least three shades of green, all of which were closer to lime-jelly vomit than to any kind of vegetation Merlin had ever seen, he agreed with Gwen when she said, "I don't think it's anyone's colour."
Morgana pulled it off and replaced it on the hat stand. "We're going to have stranger conversations before this is over, Merlin. I guarantee it."
"We're strange people," Gwen said, linking an arm through Morgana's. "Come on, let's go ice-skating."
NOVEMBER 29th, 11:03am
Morgana's boots, tall and with a bewildering array of buckles and laces, took three minutes to take off and probably twice that time to put on again, and the whole charade had to be repeated at every security checkpoint in the airport.
"This always happens," she sighed.
"Then why didn't you wear something easier to take off?" Merlin said, looking at his own stretched sneakers -- the laces of which he hadn't undone in months -- and Gwen's sensible flat shoes with no laces at all.
Both girls looked at him like he'd suggested making up a song about bombs and singing it within earshot of the security guards.
"Because these ones balance her belt," Gwen said slowly, as though it were obvious.
Merlin, who had already found himself in trouble for christening Morgana's obscenely large suitcase Franklin ("It's practically another whole person!" he'd protested, pointing at the damning digital readout of the electric luggage scales), decided not to push it. He was also slightly worried by the fact that Morgana had never flown Economy in her life.
"You could ask for a last-minute upgrade?" he suggested.
"Nonsense, Merlin." Morgana fastened the final buckle on her boots and stood up again; they were at what Merlin desperately hoped was the last security point, and a woman had already pulled Gwen aside for a 'routine check' and patted her down while the girl submitted to it good-naturedly and Morgana muttered about racism. "I wouldn't dream of sitting in a different section to you and Gwen. I'm sure it can't be that bad; I hardly ever drink the free champagne, anyway." And she wandered in the direction of the nearest Duty Free store, rolling her elegantly matching carryon luggage (Franklin, Jr.) behind her.
"Oh dear," Gwen murmured.
"It's only Edinburgh to Paris," Merlin said. "Maybe she'll consider it an adventure."
That fragile hope lasted Merlin until twenty seconds after they sat down, when Morgana discovered that not only was there no way she could extend her legs fully, the only things worth stealing were the headphones and the magazine, and they were free anyway.
"It's disgraceful," she said, yanking off her gloves.
"You get used to it," Merlin said.
Luckily, Gwen's sixth sense managed to locate a fashion article in the inflight magazine, and an indepth discussion of fur coats followed by a critical appraisal of the colours in Morgana's eyeshadow thingy managed to distract Morgana somewhat from the lack of legroom. It was becoming obvious to Merlin that when it came to clothes, Morgana was a wearer and Gwen was a sewer, and this seemed to be a recipe for firm friendship.
Before long the discussion turned back to vintage stores versus buying clothes new or somesuch thing. Merlin, whose mother had to bribe him into shopping trips with the promise of milkshakes and scones, found a station on the plane radio that played shamefully upbeat 80s pop, and left them to it.
THE LOUVRE MUSEUM
NOVEMBER 30th, 9:16am
"Remind me of what this one does?"
"He'll be useful. Trust me." Gaius' tone brooked no argument.
"Okay, thanks." Merlin cast a glance around the room; it was the off-season, surely, but the Louvre was still packed wall-to-wall, and both of the girls were out of his line of sight. However, he wasn't too worred about losing them -- Gwen was wearing a coat in an eye-catching shade of orange, and Morgana's heels struck up a distinctive percussion as she strolled across the hard museum floor.
"There's no need to be snide, Merlin." Gaius coughed. "In addition to Lancelot's general skills, I have heard some reliable rumours about Arthur Pendragon that suggest the wisdom of having a handsome, charming young man on our team."
Merlin managed, heroically, not to laugh. "I. I see."
"I first met Hunith in Paris," Gaius said, startling Merlin by volunteering the information. "Did she ever tell you that story?"
"No." Merlin added it to the growing list of questions he had for his mother. "I didn't know she'd ever been here."
Gaius made one of his huffing sounds, sounding either non-committal or guilty, and Merlin took it to signify the end of the conversation.
Merlin had liked Prague and thought Edinburgh might grow on him if he spent some time there without being molested by the weather or pushed around by clumsy redheads, but he wasn't sure about Paris. It wasn't that Merlin felt any of the traditional anti-French sentiment, it was just that he hadn't been entirely convinced that Paris was a real place until they walked out of the airport. As far as Merlin was concerned there was something almost unreal about the city -- Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, those curly little signs announcing the entrance to the Métro -- they were like things out of a story, frames from black-and-white films, icons emerging from the collective dreamwork of the human race.
As he was thinking, something happened in Merlin's peripheral vision that pinged his attention. It was pattern recognition, the same vague niggling in the back of his mind that he felt when the answer to a hacking problem was about to present itself to his consciousness after hours spent staring at a screen.
He looked in the appropriate direction, not sure what he was looking for, just looking. It was only the hours of training with Gaius that allowed him to see it, when it happened again: a young man with a black coat, a pale grey scarf and very French-looking hair murmured an apology as the tides of the crowd pushed him against a couple who were arguing over their museum map. They barely spared him a glance, and even though Merlin was watching intently he only just managed to see the effortless transfer of the man's wallet from his pocket to that of the thief. It was a beautiful pull, and Gaius' blanket approval made sudden sense: by his standards, it was obvious that this Lancelot fellow had a decent Essential Education in all the necessary things.
The grey scarf had been the agreed identifying feature in Lancelot's meticulously punctuated email, so Merlin felt confident that he wasn't approaching a strange and possibly violent pickpocket. He looked around for Gwen and Morgana and found them standing together in front of a piece of Art that, all things considered, wasn't much distinguishable from all the other Art. Merlin wandered up to stand next to them.
"Found him," he said. "Over near the painting of mountains."
Gwen peered around him. "The handsome one in the scarf?"
"I suppose," said Merlin, who'd mostly been watching Lancelot's hands and had only caught a brief glimpse of his profile. "Let's go."
They cut across the middle of the room, not walking too purposefully, until they were close enough that Merlin could tap the man's shouder.
"Hello? Hi. I'm Merlin Emrys."
And then Lancelot turned around, and Merlin had to admit that if there was any person on their team likely to succeed in a mission of gay criminal sexspionage...it was this one.
"Delighted to meet you. Lancelot DuLac." There was a surreal moment of cheek-kissing, after which the man smiled at Merlin in such a way that Merlin's sexuality -- which was not fluid so much as viscous: it could shift its focus, but only grudgingly, and only when quite a lot of force was applied -- started to shift around deep within him. Merlin shook his hand and was on the verge of thinking, wow, this could be awkward, when Lancelot released his hand and moved on to kiss Morgana's cheeks without changing his expression in the slightest. Merlin exhaled, not sure if he was relieved or not.
Morgana handled herself well: she introduced herself smoothly, and did no more than exchange a bemused, pink-cheeked glance with Merlin once Lancelot let her go. Gwen, however, turned wide-eyed and prettily flustered in response to Lancelot's soft, "And you are...?"
"Guinevere," she stumbled. "Gwen. Call me Gwen."
"Enchanté," Lancelot murmured, his almost imperceptible accent kicking itself into overdrive. He didn't kiss her cheeks, which Merlin thought was probably for the best, but he bowed low over her hand and kissed that instead.
"Well, I feel redundant," Merlin whispered to Morgana. "Why don't we just get him to wander up to Uther and ask for the sword, very nicely?"
Morgana smiled. "You haven't met Uther."
"Uther hasn't met Lancelot," Merlin argued.
"Excuse us." Morgana pulled him back a step, nodding at a group of Japanese teenagers who were looking at their clipboards and talking a mile a minute. As the girls slipped through the gap in the crowd Morgana had created and went into the next room, one of them dropped something that looked like a pink frog.
"Oh," Lancelot said, tearing himself away from Gwen, "just one moment," and he bent down to pick up the purse. Then, to Merlin's astonishment, he hurried up to the girl and handed it back to her.
"Mademoiselle. You dropped this." Another bow. The girl in question, who was a good head smaller even than Gwen, gazed up at him adoringly.
"At the risk of asking an obvious question..." Morgana said, when he returned.
"You didn't want to keep it?" Merlin finished, when Lancelot showed no sign of finding the question obvious.
Lancelot transferred the politely blank look to Merlin. "But that would hardly have been an honourable thing to do."
"Er," said Merlin. "Well. I suppose not."
DECEMBER 1st, 11:03pm
People had always made jokes about Merlin's body poking out at funny angles, but this was the first time he'd ever seriously wondered if his extremities were deficient in a minor but essential way. Either that or his blanket was too damn small, because bits of him kept escaping from the edges of it and letting in the air, which was just cool enough to be uncomfortable.
Merlin wriggled futilely for the millionth time and buried his head at a new angle in the lumpy blue pillow. He couldn't sleep; it was dark enough and the rocking of the train was pleasant enough, but he couldn't turn his brain off.
There'd been a minor misadventure due to the fact that the train's couchettes were numbered in some order that didn’t have anything to do with the nice, normal order of numbers, and they'd been half-settled in one compartment before being displaced by a group of harrassed Australian tourists who'd clearly travelled enough by European rail not to expect things like logic and numerical order.
But they'd found the right couchette and the right compartment eventually, wrestled Franklin onto the sturdiest of the luggage racks, and settled in for the night. It turned out that there really wasn't much to do in a sleeper train but...sleep. Once the bunks were unfolded, three on each side, there was nowhere to sit, and one could only stand in the centre if one was careful not to elbow anybody in the middle bunks.
Gwen had shifted around for a while on her top bunk but was currently buried in a book; Lancelot, below her in the other middle bunk, had fallen asleep immediately wearing earplugs, a satin travel blindfold and a deeply Zen expression. Morgana was in the bunk above Merlin's so he couldn't see her face, but this was probably for the best; he had no illusions as to just how unimpressed she would be with this sort of cattle-class transport.
Merlin wriggled a bit more and returned to his fond fantasy of murdering the other two people in their compartment, a couple who occupied both of the lowest bunks. They had taken up the floor with a seven-course picnic during which they spoonfed each other yoghurt and giggled inanely, after which the slurping sounds of food consumption were replaced by a whole new set of slurping sounds as they miraculously crammed themselves and their hormones into the tiny lower bunk directly below Merlin's. Now, however, they had mercifully separated and were fast asleep in their separate beds.
The night passed in a foggy mixture of half-dozes and wakefulness, with occasional stops at tiny lantern-lit platforms which Merlin could never be sure he hadn't dreamed into existence. By seven o'clock Merlin's blanket was doing its best to tie his legs in knots, but he ignored it in favour of resting his chin on his hands and watching the slow awakening of the world as they sped through it.
Lancelot's phone alarm set everyone to rolling and grumbling, and Merlin rubbed mercilessly at his own eyes as a long, slow groan emerged from above him.
"Morning, Morgana," he said.
Her next groan sounded like it was meant to be a scaffolding for words, but none were distinguishable. Merlin smiled. "We're almost there, I think."
At Venice Mestre there was a scurry to change trains; Merlin was groggy with fatigue and his thoughts only cohered when they were out in the early-morning air.
"Right," he said, staring at the tickets and trying to remember how to read. "The train number is one thirty-one."
It took ten minutes of staring at the click-click-click of the spinning numbers on the constantly updated departures board, followed by a rapid walk to the platform, but then they were on board the next train and Merlin was thinking about how nice it was to be able to sit up without whacking his head against a bunk. He was, however, not entirely sure which way the train should be going, and if that coincided with the way it was going.
He peered around worriedly as the station accelerated into a blur and then slipped away altogether. "Are you sure we're going south?"
"Don't care," Gwen mumbled, and two seconds later she was napping on Morgana's shoulder. Lancelot was doing something on his iPhone; Morgana was blinking blearily out the window and looking even less awake than Merlin felt.
"Sleep at all?" Merlin enquired.
"Not really." Morgana managed a smile. "You?"
Merlin fully expected to doze off too, but the thin sunlight coming through the window and the grumbling of his stomach managed to push him even further towards wakefulness. After a while he gave up and took out his laptop, but instead of working he found himself staring out of the window, taking in the swiftly-moving, surprisingly picturesque view. The train kept being swallowed by tunnels and spat out again, into the snow and the sluggish hills with their tall, naked forests. It was a little like gliding through a black-and-white photograph, though not quite; there was a faint blueness to the mist and a faint redness to the bristling porcupine mass of trees, and those rivers large enough not to have frozen over cut roads of dirty glass-green through the snow.
Merlin blinked the scenery away and looked down at his computer for a while, concentrating on piecing together a few rough theories based on what little he knew about physical lockdown systems. He couldn't have been working for more than ten minutes when he happened to glance out of the window again as they emerged from yet another tunnel. To his surprise, all of the snow had vanished, leaving behind a landscape of dull browns and greens broken up by the houses scattered across it like birds, perched halfway up hills and nesting in the crannies of the shrugging earth.
One more meagre patch of snow and a few hours later, they were alighting at a small station. Merlin blinked through the cool noon light and there, bundled up in an enormous coat, was Gaius, looking at them with that wry smile and raised eyebrow. He was looking at Lancelot and Morgana's silent war of courtesy over who got to carry her bags; looking at the way Gwen was leaning against Merlin's side and yawning hugely, clearly not quite awake yet; and Merlin realised that he hadn't just been trekking around Europe for the sake of being polite.
He opened his mouth to call Gaius a sneaky devil, but then one of Gwen's yawns managed to itch its way into the hinge of his jaw, so he ended up doing that instead.
"Well," Gaius said. "Nothing to make one feel old like the fact that one's team has a combined age of approximately half an hour."
"Good to see you, Gaius." Lancelot, having lost the struggle to maintain hold of Morgana's bags, strode forward and did the cheek-kissing thing; Gaius brushed him away after a moment but, Merlin noticed, he was hiding a smile.
"All right, all right, the car's in this direction. We should be able to manage in one trip, though we may have to strap Lady Morgana's luggage to the roof."
"Lady Morgana?" Gwen said, just as Merlin blurted, "You have a title?"
"Only a little one." Morgana shrugged. "I own some castles somewhere, too."
Merlin stared at her. "Then why -- why are you doing this?"
"For the same reason that you'll keep doing it, Merlin, even if your first job gets you enough money to set you up for years." She gave him a slow, brilliant smile and then tightened her grip on the Franklins and set off towards the platform exit. "Because it's the only game worth playing."
Coming up next: Morgana calls in a favour, fireworks are viewed from Trafalgar Square, and Merlin ruins Arthur Pendragon's shirt.