Rating: currently PG
Word count: 8648 for this part
Notes: MIRACLE OF MIRACLES, IT'S STILL ALIVE. I decided that having a WIP from three years ago hanging over my head was ridiculous, given that the plot outline is complete, so here we go again :)
I'm cutting the photographs from here on in, for the sake of efficiency, and the AO3 upload will be lacking them entirely. If you feel a need for atmosphere, feel free to Google Image Search 'London in winter' and then ignore all the ones that aren't vaguely grey and miserable looking.
(Part One | Part Two | Part Three)
JANUARY 1st, 8:49am
Everything was going to be fine, Merlin told himself, if he could get through the first day without forgetting to wince. He'd made the bandage extra-bulky, and then Lancelot had done something thin and French with his lips and removed the whole thing and started over.
"The best prop is a subtle prop," he'd lectured.
"The Pendragons don't strike me as very subtle people," Merlin had said, but he trusted that Lancelot knew a lot more about this stuff than he did, so he'd complied.
"And what are these?" Lancelot had held up a set of keys and jingled them, and Merlin had stared at him blankly until he'd caught sight of his own keyring (some godawful green plastic thing that Will had extracted from a Christmas cracker and mailed to him; Merlin had immediately attached it to his keys and sent his best friend a whole series of fuck-you-too photographs of the mass-produced monstrosity).
"Oy." He hadn't been surprised, though: Lancelot was a much better pickpocket than any of the others ever would be.
"Not on the first day," Lancelot had said.
So now Merlin was standing on the doorstep of Camelot House, rocking back and forth on his feet and glaring at the door. In between flirting with half of London and helping Merlin fake a laceration, Morgana had gotten hold of Arthur's keys at the Christmas Eve party and imprinted them. Merlin had a full set, but Lancelot was probably right: best to settle in for a while, gather some first impressions, instead of risking everything falling down around his head when they'd barely begun the caper.
The fact that his mind even landed on the word 'caper', Merlin considered sourly, was proof that his mother had completely ruined him for all normal society.
Merlin blinked as the door swung open to reveal the tall man who'd been organising the service staff at the Christmas party.
"Yes, that's me."
"Andrews," the man said, not changing expression. "I run the house, and you report to me. You're not too badly incapacitated, I hope?" Not only did he look like a drumstick, he had a voice like someone tapping their fingers against a steel drum.
"Er," said Merlin, distracted, then caught Andrews's impatient glance at his hand. "Oh, no, it's not a bother."
"Good. This way."
Merlin scurried after him and was given an efficient tour: living areas (huge), bedrooms (also huge), laundry (humid), bathrooms (many), studies (already familiar), and private art and antiques collection (ah-hah). Andrews swept him through the rooms at a pace that meant Merlin barely had time to note the positions of the most obvious security cameras, and while he saw a promising glint of metal from a case in the corner of one room, he didn't clap eyes on the sword itself. Time enough for that later, he supposed.
The end of the tour left Merlin in the kitchens (loud). The woman who'd been making cocktails at the Christmas party was called Georgia, and she was banging metal bowls around so Merlin assumed she had something to do with food.
"Honestly, I'm not sure why you were hired," was the first thing she said. Merlin decided not to go into the saga of emotional blackmail and Morgana's poor dead mother. "But," Georgia went on, "I suppose another pair of hands can't go amiss. Can you cook?"
"No," said Merlin firmly. "Sorry. Cleaning, though, I'm your man." Cleaning meant room access. And it wasn't like he could cook.
"You'll spend some time washing dishes," Georgia said. "But there won't be much until tonight. Uther's working from home but he's probably having lunch out."
"Isn't the rest of the family in?" Merlin tried to sound casual. A house empty of Pendragons was a promising start.
"Arthur? Yeah, he doesn't have classes at the moment, but he'll just come and grab a sandwich. He's not one for formal sit-down meals unless his father's around to insist."
This didn't quite fit with the impression that Merlin had received of the Pendragon heir, but he'd seen the family dining room and he could imagine that sitting down to eat three times a day at the long, severe wooden table, surrounded by portraits of uncomfortable-looking people, could wear thin pretty quickly for even the most determined snob.
"The house seems like it should have more people in it," he said, pulling his arms back from the bench so that Georgia could flour it. She'd pulled a bowl of pale, risen dough from somewhere and was in kneading mode; Merlin had never seen someone actually make bread before. Even his mother, who had a deep mistrust of anything that wasn't prepared from scratch, bought her bread from the bakery. "A big family with heaps of kids. All that space is good for throwing parties, though, I guess."
"I'm so pleased it meets with your approval," said Arthur Pendragon.
Merlin wondered if there was a god of hackers and con artists, and if so, if he'd accidentally done something to offend the deity.
"Good morning," he managed, and, "sir," for good measure.
Twitchy distaste narrowly defeated smugness on Arthur's face. "No need for that."
"I thought it'd be better to overcompensate," said Merlin, "considering..." He waved a hand up and down, taking in Arthur's striped polo shirt, and conveying -- he hoped -- the entire champagne debacle.
"Oh, you're that waiter, are you?" said Arthur, not quite convincingly. His eyes flicked down to Merlin's bandaged hand, then back up.
"Merlin Emrys," said Merlin. "I'll be working here for a while."
There was a pause. Merlin prayed for a cleaning emergency. He still wasn't sure about using his real name, but Gaius and Lancelot had tag-teamed the explanation and Merlin had been so exhausted by the end of it that he'd have called himself anything they wanted.
"About Christmas," Arthur said finally. "I'd had a -- well, a bad day. And I hate those parties, anyway."
"Are you -- are you apologising?"
Arthur's face went kind of pinched and annoyed. "My father always needs to make everything so...obvious."
"Ostentatious?" said Merlin's mouth.
"Exactly." Arthur frowned. "So."
"So you were in a bad mood," Merlin prompted.
"Nice to see you've been paying attention, Merlin," said Arthur, and turned on his heel.
"Oh," Merlin said, a few seconds later. "That was the apology."
Georgia smiled at him for the first time. She had flour up to her elbows and dusted across one cheek. "If you think that was bad, you should hear his father."
Merlin, however, had decided to put some effort into avoiding Uther Pendragon. It worked right up until he was painstakingly removing a lot of fiddly ornaments from a glossy wooden shelf, in order to to dust said shelf, and heard Uther's voice drifting into his ears. He froze, stupidly, and then had to force himself to keep on with the task. Cleaning. He was just cleaning. By no stretch of the imagination was that illegal.
"-- push it up to noon?" Uther was saying. Merlin could only hear one set of footsteps; he was on the phone, then. "That's more convenient. Mm. No, I was going to ask you if you'd read about the theft. Mordred. What sort of a bloody name is -- oh, I appreciate that he must be good, not just anybody could -- yes, I know."
Hearing Uther's footsteps pass the open doorway, Merlin quickly picked up some tiny ceramic ducks and transferred them to the tray with the rest of the ornaments.
"You're the new servant?"
After two more seconds of silent dusting, Merlin realised that this was not a continuation of the phone conversation, but was in fact directed at him. He turned, duster clutched protectively in front of his chest.
"Yes. Emrys, sir."
Uther's look said very clearly that he had more important things to do than worry about making his employees feel warm and welcome. "Tell Andrews that my lunch with Eliot Pompey has been moved up an hour and I'll need the car at half-past eleven instead."
"Right," said Merlin, and came perilously close to saluting with the duster.
"Very good," said Andrews, when this news was delivered. His face didn't move. Merlin wondered if confused pigeons ever tried to shit on the man's head when he left the house. If he left the house. Maybe he slept upright in a broom cupboard and would perish with the house when it -- sank.
"That's ships," Merlin muttered to himself.
Andrews gave a twitch of his eyebrows that suggested to Merlin that maybe some instructions had been conveyed to him while his brain had been elsewhere.
"Certainly?" he tried.
"Follow me, Emrys," percussed Andrews, and Merlin scurried after him.
"Eliot Pompey?" he enquired of Georgia, later. Georgia, Merlin was fairly sure, was a Source to be Cultivated.
Sure enough, she gave a wise nod. "An antiques dealer. They met at a gallery opening at the end of November last year, and Uther spent half of last month on the phone to the man. I think he's planning to have some of his pieces valued."
"I haven't seen any of the art yet," Merlin said. "D'you think they'd mind if I had a quick look?"
Uther's collection was spread over two large rooms: paintings on the walls, none of them spectacular in Merlin's uncultured view, and various objects in glass cases. Merlin spent some time looking -- first as a cover and then in genuine interest -- at a collection of brassy instruments that looked as though they might have something to do with navigation. He carefully didn't look at the security cameras as he wandered from piece to piece, and fought to keep his expression neutral when he made it to the sword. Excalibur was larger than he'd imagined, and the blade was wider, polished and flawless, deadly. It didn't look old, but it also didn't look like something made just for display.
Merlin slipped both hands into his pockets and stepped closer, leaning over the case. It seemed an age before the soft beep sounded and he could straighten up, heart pounding, and move on to gazing at a canvas like a warzone, ravaged by shades of brown and grey and with bits of newspaper incorporated into the whole. It was a lot messier and more modern-looking than anything else in the collection, but somehow more likeable for it, Merlin decided, proud that he'd almost managed to have an opinion. He would have made a terrible art thief. Morgana and Lancelot talked about famous art heists with respect for the professionals involved, yes, but also with a respect for the beauty and the history of the object.
"I like that one too," said the voice of Arthur Pendragon, from behind him. "It's not my favourite, but I like it."
Merlin turned. Arthur was standing with his hands jammed into the pockets of his jeans, easy, entitled, slotting into the room as though -- well, as though he owned it.
"Which is your favourite, then?" Merlin asked.
"That one." He came to stand next to Merlin and nodded at a small landscape, green and pastoral, pretty enough if you liked grass and pine trees. It resembled the modern piece only about as much as a hedgehog resembled a chair.
Arthur looked at him. Merlin was almost certain he was deciding whether or not to lie.
"He bought it because she liked it," he said. "Not because it's by anyone famous, or fashionable, or because he'd be able to boast about owning it, or just because it was expensive."
She. That'd be the late Mrs Pendragon, Arthur's mother. It struck Merlin for the first time that they had both of them lost a parent, at one stage or another. Merlin had wondered about his dad, sometimes wished that he was around just so he could meet him, see if he'd inherited his chin or his awful fashion sense from a real, imaginable, present human being. But he'd never felt loss. You have to have something, to lose it.
"Not that it wasn't, though," Arthur said. "Expensive."
Merlin rolled his eyes. Moment lost. "Of course it was."
"Are you trying to be snide?"
"Are you trying to be intimidating?"
Arthur's face gained a laughably transparent and who are YOU to talk to ME that way expression. This was pointless. Merlin had what he needed, he should have walked out of the room and not stood around gawking at art and putting himself in danger of being cornered like this. But he existed so narrowly inside this house, close and muffled with secrets. He wasn't used to it.
He preferred this, the spark of honest interaction, even though he was fairly sure the spark was annoyance.
"I'm sure there are duties you could be fulfilling out of my line of sight," Arthur said finally. "In fact, take that as a general guideline. If I'm forced to speak to you on a daily basis it may drive me to insanity."
"Driving's hardly necessary," Merlin snapped. "I'd say you're within easy walking distance already."
Arthur's mouth opened slightly, and stayed open. The silence pressed down on them for a few terrible, awkward seconds, and then Arthur tipped his head back and laughed. There was a note of honest delight in it, and Arthur's hand squeezed Merlin's arm for a brief moment, and even when he stopped the laugh lingered around his mouth.
"You're impossible," Arthur said.
To his horror, Merlin felt that sluggish pool of potential desire in him just melt entirely, like honey in hot water, and flow straight down the path of least resistance. He looked at his arm, felt the tingle of warmth there and the insidious hum of Arthur's stupid laughter in his ears, and thought: this is absolutely not what I need right now.
Not that it stopped him from obsessively replaying the conversation in his head as he walked back to Gaius's flat in the evening. He could deal with it. He'd had unwise crushes before, and managed to get through them with only the usual amount of soul-damaging embarrassment.
He'd just have to be more careful, and definitely spend less time gawking. At art. His sleepy libido was demanding a good few sessions of gawking at Arthur himself, just to make sure it wanted all the things it currently wanted, even though that would place him in direct contravention of Arthur's request to stay out of his line of sight. Unless it was covert gawking. He hadn't said anything about Merlin's line of --
"Did you press the wrong button?"
Merlin jerked his head around and managed a smile for Morgana as she walked toward him, a vision in shades of grey fur. His toes and the tip of his nose were freezing, he realised. God only knew how long he'd been standing like a moron in front of the intercom panel.
"I, uh. Lost in thought, I suppose."
"Are the Pendragons working you too hard? Do I need to make another concerned phone call?"
He laughed and pressed the button for Gaius's flat, and pushed the gate open when the buzzer sounded. "Better not have them thinking I'm some kind of weakling."
Morgana left him unlacing his shoes inside the entrance to the flat and floated into the living room, no doubt to present her gloves for Gwen's approval and flirt in her usual disinterested manner with Lancelot. Merlin inspected the damp toes of his socks, decided they'd dry off soon enough, and located Gaius in the kitchen. The man was putting together a tea tray of elaborate size and complexity, strainer and saucers and sugar biscuits and all.
"Uther met Eliot Pompey at the end of November?" Merlin said, in lieu of hello.
"Ah," said Gaius, setting the lid back on the sugar bowl.
"Is that what you were doing while we were in Edinburgh? I thought Eliot Pompey was a midgame figure, not his best mate."
"The timing was better this way," Gaius said calmly. "Don't make that face, Merlin, you look like you've swallowed a jar of horseradish cream."
"Uther Pendragon has already employed Eliot Pompey to give a new valuation of several of his most prized pieces, for insurance purposes. Including the sword Excalibur."
"Yes? Yes!" Merlin did a little spin on the spot and immediately felt idiotic, but he was too excited to spend much time caring. "I got the ID code off it today, too. Well, I hope I did. The thing beeped."
Gaius nodded. "I think it's time to make sure everyone's on the same page. A hand, if you don't mind?"
Merlin picked up one of the laden trays and made his careful way out to the living room, managing to slosh no more than a small amount of milk over the side of the jug.
"Let's start with the microchip," said Gwen, when everyone had a cup. "Excalibur's RFID chip is automatically queried every five minutes by a remote reader. If can't read it, or if it's not giving off the expected GPS coordinates, that'll set off the security alarm. The chip is designed to be impossible to remove from the sword without destroying it, which would make it -- ta da! -- unable to be read."
"Here," said Merlin. He pulled the gadget, an invention of Gwen's father's, from his pocket and handed it to her. "I got close enough to the sword today for this to read the chip's ID code."
"And now Guinevere can create one that gives back the same code when queried," Lancelot said.
Gwen nodded. "Then, thanks to Eliot Pompey, we put the new chip on the sword and deactivate the old one. The difference being, our chip will be removable. When we need it to be."
"Good," said Gaius. "Next?"
Gwen skimmed a half-eaten biscuit down a piece of paper full of scribbled notes. "The physical pressure sensor."
"We've been running some simulations, and I do not think we will be able to get around the sensor itself," said Lancelot. "This model is too delicate. The best approach would be to stop the computer system from sending the signal that would trigger the physical lockdown, but fool it into thinking that the lockdown is underway."
"Merlin?" Gaius said.
"I'll work on it," Merlin said.
"There's also the alarm sent to Uther's mobile phone at the removal of anything," said Gwen. "That's through a whole other path."
"The simplest solution is for me to steal the phone itself," said Lancelot.
"And I told you, I don't like it," said Gwen. "It puts you at too much risk. We're trying to avoid contact with Uther during the actual event."
Morgana leaned forward, frowning. "I agree. That's a lot riding on a single lift."
"I can do it," Lancelot insisted.
Everyone looked at Gaius, who took a deep sip of his tea and shrugged. "We'll leave it for now. Gwen, what's next?"
Gwen shot another look at Lancelot, half concern and half frustration, but she lifted her computer onto her lap and opened it. "The flashing lights."
"Ah, yes," Gaius said. "Gwen and I have been looking over the copy of the security feed that Merlin made during the Christmas party, and we've found something new."
Gwen turned the screen so that they could see the greyscale security feed of Camelot House's art rooms.
"The timestamp?" asked Morgana. "They're not too hard to replicate."
"It's not just that." Gwen peered down over the image and tapped her finger against a single spot. "Here. There's something that flashes, a tiny light. There's at least one of them in each angle."
As she spoke the picture jumped to a new view. It took Merlin only a few moments to locate the light in this one. "It's not regular," he said. "A code? Morse?"
"No, we can't find any patterns," said Gwen. "I talked to Dad about it; he's seen something like it before, he thinks it might be a safeguard."
Merlin made a face. "I don't like that word."
"You think the footage is automatically checked?" said Lancelot. "And the correct temporal pattern of flashes has to show up to prove that it hasn't been looped or duplicated?"
"That sounds unlikely," said Morgana.
"No," Merlin said slowly, "it's possible. The pattern could be related to the date and time through some sort of algorithm."
"I'll see what I can do with it," Gwen said. "Even so, we might need to think about alternatives to simple looping. Anyway, next is -- alibis."
"Covered," said Morgana. "Escape route?"
"Covered," said Merlin, and grinned.
JANUARY 2nd, 9:03am
"Christ," was Georgia's disgruntled greeting the next morning. "Anyone would think we were understaffed before this week."
"Another one." She jerked her head toward the open doors of the pantry. "Though this one can cook, or at least take orders and chop things."
Merlin's mouth went dry. Unknown human elements were very low on the list of things they wanted to deal with. "Really?"
"Well, he claims so, but he's been fetching dried marjoram for almost a minute now. Are you lost?" she called.
"Just admiring the mustards," came the reply, and it was a very good thing that Georgia was frowning at the pantry and not looking at Merlin's face, because he would have had to try and pass it off as either a seizure or an unfortunate form of Tourette's.
"H-hi," came out of his mouth, once the unfortunately known human element had emerged from the pantry.
Thankfully, Georgia didn't pick up on the panic. "Merlin, this is -- do you want William, or Will?"
"Yeah, Will's fine, hi," said Will, in a completely blasé way that Merlin was sure he'd copied off someone on the telly. "Pleased to meetchoo, Mervin."
"Merlin," said Merlin. At least it was an excuse to glare at him. "So, I hear you can cook."
"Well, if you're free right now, I could use a hand moving some furniture. So I can mop the floor. In another room."
"'Scuse us," said Will. He all but skipped at Merlin's heels as they hurried out. "Where's this furniture then?"
"Just over -- oh, I'm sorry, clumsy, whoops." Merlin slammed his friend against the nearest convenient piece of posh-beige wall and held him there, switching the glare back on. "My mother sent you here to spy on me, didn't she?"
"Yep," said Will cheerfully.
Which explained Will's otherwise inexplicable presence in the Pendragon household, really, because by now Merlin was convinced that between the two of them there was nothing that Gaius and his mother couldn't accomplish.
"You lied to that poor woman," Merlin said, releasing Will's shoulder. "I'm pretty sure you can't cook."
"You heard her." Will gave the kitchen door a good-natured leer. "I'm good at taking orders. Especially from a girl like that."
Bossy brunettes always had been Will's type, Merlin reflected. It was a good thing he hadn't met Morgana, he'd probably be -- wait.
"The rest of my team. You haven't met them yet, have you?"
"Only Gaius." Will grinned. "What a charmer he is. D'you think he and your mum ever --"
Merlin leapt at him again, smothering fingers at the ready, but Will hopped sideways and contented himself with a waggle of the eyebrows. Merlin thought about the bucket and mop that were awaiting him upstairs and wished that he could apply some of those cleaning products to his brain.
"Come on then," he said. "You might as well be of some use."
Perhaps Will's presence wasn't a complete disaster, Merlin thought, sitting cross-legged on a table with fingers flying across his tablet, occasionally glancing up to give Will an encouraging wave. Will rolled his eyes and shook the mop in his general direction.
"You're not even working," Will accused. "You're playing Angry Birds. I'm wise to your tricks, Emrys."
Merlin was putting the finishing touches to a rough but rather elegant backdoor in the Pendragon's network system, through which he would be able to siphon off a lot of useful data, and couldn't spare enough brain cells to come up with something cutting in return. He poked his tongue out instead.
There was only so much work that could be accomplished in a day, however, as the watchful eye of Andrews ensured that it kept being interrupted by -- well, work. The housekeeper slash butler (slash drill sergeant, Will added) took immediate if perplexed advantage of the sudden expansion of the staff, and ordered a full, exhaustive cleaning of Camelot House and the high-walled, semi-manicured thing that passed for a garden in the middle of London. It was almost as large as Merlin's own garden at home, but lost out entirely when considered as a ratio of the size of the house, and it had a cramped, out-of-place air to it that filled Merlin with an odd feeling of pity. He liked gardens that ran amiably into the ones on either side, and inquisitive trees that drooped over fences.
The garden was much improved aesthetically in the late afternoon, when Arthur marched through the front door of the house, paused briefly in the kitchen, and proceeded to sprawl full-length on the grass, sucking hard enough at the tiny straw of a Ribena carton to give the thing an hourglass figure. He was still wrapped up in an enormous red muffler and a thick jacket, but other than that he looked for all the world as though he thought it was the middle of summer.
The madman in question glanced up from the textbook he'd flattened out under his cold-reddened nose and caught sight of Merlin, who was hovering unwisely near the door and trying to convince himself that yesterday's erotic epiphany had been a great big mistake brought on by extended proximity to Lancelot's hair.
"Oh, good," Arthur said. He lifted the now-empty Ribena and waggled it in the universal signal for get me another one, and Merlin wondered what Arthur Pendragon saw, when he looked at Merlin; if he was remembering the spilled champagne, if he had any real curiosity about the life of someone like Merlin who existed on the comfort-enhancing periphery of his own. If his cool, neutral blue eyes saw people as Merlin saw art, curious but uncomprehending, or as Merlin saw code: beautiful and engrossing and always worth the second glance.
It would be best for him not to think of Merlin at all, of course. The curiosity of others was poison to criminals.
It would be best.
Merlin knocked his forehead sulkily against the fridge a couple of times and fetched another carton of cordial. He suppressed his simultaneous urges to throw it at Arthur's head and to smile like a loon, choosing to drop it into the dull grass next to the textbook instead. It wasn't the coldest of winter days, but it was cold enough that just stepping outside for that simple task made Merlin's fingers feel pinched.
"Anything else?" he said, before he could think better of either his intended sarcasm or the fact that he'd just recited the opening lines to some sort of ludicrously classist porn film.
Arthur pulled the straw away from the carton with clumsy, gloved hands, and bit -- nggh -- the plastic sleeve off the straw. He took two whole sips, eyes on Merlin, before speaking.
"You're not very good at this servitude thing, are you, Merlin Emrys?"
"And to think when I was six, I dreamed of fetching drinks for a living."
"As I said."
At six Arthur had probably been already embedded in some public school that tacitly encouraged its pupils to believe in the necessity of the serving classes. He'd probably worn tiny blue trousers and -- and learned pratliness, why was Merlin even thinking about this?
"It's a job," Merlin said.
Arthur ran the fingers of one hand down the crevice of his book, flattening the spine. Merlin couldn't read the text, but it was dense and heavily footnoted. Arthur glanced down at it, and up again.
"It's a job," Arthur echoed. He didn't sound quite as amused any more.
"I'll just, um," said Merlin, "um," and escaped back inside before he could do anything silly like lean down and pat Arthur on the head like a morose puppy.
Then Merlin made busy noises in the laundry for a while and read the small print on the bottles of cleaning products until it was time to leave.
"So, Pendragon the Younger," said Will, once they'd left the house in different directions and reconvened two streets away. "There's a face to launch a thousand reality TV shows, am I right?"
"Can't say as I've noticed, really."
Will looked at him. Merlin's heart sank.
"I was going for offhand," he said glumly.
"Missed it by a mile, mate." Will's hand thumped down hard between his shoulderblades. Merlin winced. "Cheer up. Looks like I arrived just in time."
"Time for what?"
"For getting you well pissed, and rinsing all dangerous thoughts of blond snootiness out of your mind. You and me. Beer. Lots of."
Merlin grinned. "All heart, you are."
"It's what your dear mother would want," said Will. "C'mon, Emrys. Beer."
POMPEY ANTIQUES, WEST KENSINGTON
JANUARY 10th, 9:50am
from: (address hidden)
date: 10th January 2009 17:57
Young Wizard -
Be on your guard! The gilded trappings of our enemy's lair conceal the ugliness of character that lies beneath. Be firm in your resolve. The sword must be released from its imprisonment.
- the Dragon
Despite what Hunith might or might not want, despite beer in what Will deemed pharmaceutical quantities -- followed by a ghastly morning of feeling like a throbbing wad of damp paper, and being booted out of first bed and then the apartment by an unsympathetic Gaius who wasn't going to have Merlin fired for being late to work -- Merlin was having trouble extricating Arthur Pendragon from his thoughts.
His first week in Camelot House had proceeded more or less as planned: uneventful, quiet, doing enough work to justify his presence and checking his phone every half hour to see if Gwen had a technical question or if Morgana had sent him another photo of the antiques shop they were rustling into being in order to solidify the character of Elliot Pompey.
Merlin was grateful for the presence of Will, who had a best friend's telepathic knack for sensing when Merlin's contemplation of security network keys had morphed into contemplation of the open-necked shirt that Arthur had been wearing on Wednesday morning, and the almost-smile he'd given Merlin as he swung his bag over one shoulder and left for the university library. At times like that, Merlin could count on being sprayed in the face with air freshener.
But it was no good. Arthur continued exactly as irritating and superior and offhandedly charming as ever, and just as much of a bad idea. It'd be alright if it was just Merlin's dick taking an interest -- he'd take Will's exasperatedly crude advice, have a few good wanks and move on -- but his brain was getting in on the act as well. Merlin was going to go ahead and blame the enormous house and Arthur's gorgeously tailored clothes, the general oppressive sense of money, for the dream he'd started having: the dream where Merlin couldn't find his sneakers and became more and more stressed out by this fact until Arthur turned up with some beautiful leather shoes in a box and proceeded to slip them onto Merlin's feet, all the while telling him what an idiot he was for losing them in the first place. Sometimes Merlin was sitting on a piano. Sometimes the whole scenario took place on a spaceship. It was a dream, after all.
But the point was, Merlin was not going to be Pretty Womaned or Cinderellaed or what have you by some arrogant prat whose father he was currently trying to rob.
Besides, it was probably very un-PC of him to even be having those kinds of fantasies; just like the proper feminist thing to do was to assume that women didn't necessarily want anyone to protect them (and Merlin was indeed quite sure that if anyone tried to protect Morgana she would laugh in their face), being a man and having wafty candy-floss feelings about resting luxuriously in another man's strong arms was not doing anything to help Merlin's convictions that he was a standard-issue bloke who just happened to be a little bit gay sometimes. Mostly, it seemed, around Arthur. And Lancelot a bit. But there were probably inanimate objects that could be described as gay for Lancelot, so that didn't count.
"Merlin." Morgana let out a sigh that was a bit more dramatic than it really needed to be. "You've been rubbing the same spot for almost a minute."
Merlin took a step back and inspected the sparkling glass cabinet door. "Have you noticed I'm doing a lot of cleaning in this job? Nobody told me about all the cleaning."
"It's a time-honoured undercover role," Morgana said.
Which Merlin knew, obviously; janitors and waitstaff and dustmen were often as good as invisible to the kind of people who were rich enough to be worth conning, and he'd already been over the reasons why he had to remain as unremarkable as possible in Arthur's eyes. It was stupid to feel underappreciated and frustrated when the whole point was to be taken as less interesting, less brilliant and capable than he truly was. But he did, even so.
"Time for you two to disappear," Gaius said. "Go and sit with Gwen."
Merlin cast a final glance around the antiques shop. It looked good, he supposed. Near the register, Lancelot was adjusting his cuffs and looking at himself sideways in one of the many old mirrors that hung on the walls. He had coloured contacts on behind trendy, dark-framed glasses, and his hair was curled; he'd walked around the apartment the previous evening in actual curlers, like someone's grandmother would use. The trousers and shirt that Gwen had altered for him worked a subtle magic that thickened his figure, and he'd used a kind of putty to change the line of his jaw. As Merlin watched, Lancelot's facial muscles tightened and then loosened into a new expression, somewhere between fussy and disdainful, that completed the transformation. It was still Lancelot, but -- at the same time, it really wasn't.
"He is very good," Morgana said, as she and Merlin stepped out of the showroom.
They bypassed the valuation room and Morgana rapped on a smaller door off the same corridor. "It's us."
Gwen pulled the door open. "Almost show time," she said. One of her hands was flickering near her leg in a silent jitter, but she looked more excited than nervous. She locked the door behind them once they were inside, then resumed her seat in front of the screen and pulled her headset on. Merlin and Morgana followed her lead.
One large screen like an enormous computer monitor was split into a central window surrounded by smaller ones. Half of these small boxes showed the showroom they had just left, with Lancelot and Gaius visible as they wandered around, and the other half gave multiple overlapping angles of the valuation room's interior, currently dim.
Gwen touched the box that showed Gaius, who was hovering near the shop's entrance, and flicked it into the centre so that its image expanded and filled the largest window, still crisply defined. She stroked a wheel on her controls and suddenly Merlin could hear, through his headset, the tread of feet and even a faint murmur of traffic from the street. One by one Gwen went through the camera feeds, moving so fast that Merlin could tell she'd already checked them all and was just doing it to fill in the time. Once it was back to the first view she let out a slow breath, and began worrying her bottom lip between her teeth.
"Here they are," said Gaius's voice.
All three of them sat more upright. On the screen, Gaius -- less physically altered, but still impressive in an impeccable suit -- pulled open the door and admitted four men and a woman. One of the men was Uther Pendragon. Two of the others were holding dark, heavy-looking cases, large enough to contain part of an orchestra's brass section.
"Eliot," Uther said, sounding nearly warm. He clasped Gaius's hand and didn't introduce the people behind him.
"Security," Morgana said softly, and lifted her own manicured hand to tap at the small window that showed the immediate street exterior. "There'll be more of them in that car. Uther doesn't take chances."
"Come this way, Uther," said Eliot Pompey, who sounded like a much posher and less grumpy version of Gaius. "I must say, I'm excited to finally get my hands on these pieces of yours."
Gwen let out an incredulous giggle. She adjusted the central screen as Gaius led Uther and his retinue to the back of the shop and then out through the same door that Merlin and Morgana had used. Lancelot, alone in the shop, picked up a broom and began to sweep near the entrance. Even in the small frame Merlin could tell that he was holding himself in the same way, not breaking character at all.
The view that Gwen eventually chose of the valuation room was that provided by a tiny camera attached to the ceiling light, positioned directly above the largest table. She fiddled with the zoom function while Uther and his security staff arranged themselves in the room; on the highest magnification, Merlin could see the velvety grain of the fabric spread out over the table.
"Where would you like to begin?" asked Gaius.
Uther gestured to one of the men, who handed over his case. Even zooming in closely and with a few quick window changes by Gwen, they couldn't see the combination Uther used to open the case; his hand covered the lock closely, by accident or design. Given what the Dragon and Gaius had said about Uther's paranoia, Merlin suspected that it was nothing more than habit.
"Damn," Merlin said. "That would've been useful."
Not because they had any intention of breaking into the transport cases, but because people were predictable. There was always overlap in PINs and passwords and chosen combinations, and knowing one of them could at least give a hint as to the number groups that made up the others. Lucky numbers. Memorable dates.
Merlin tried to pay attention for the first hour of slow appraisal and discussion of things that weren't swords at all: some ugly statuettes, two paintings, and a small mosaic that Uther handled with reverence. It was all very old and dull. Morgana was listening to Gaius's spiels with rapt attention, practically taking notes. For himself, Merlin was ashamed but not at all surprised by the way his brain took the opportunity to return, like a slow sly compass, to a partially constructed daydream about meeting Arthur in a Starbucks, in a parallel existence.
Arthur would be wearing his grey coat with the collar that brushes his jaw, and he'd glance over Merlin's shoulder and be impressed by the lines of code on his tablet, and he'd ask if he could sit down and they'd chat about uni and eat lots of pastries. Nobody would spill anything onto anyone else, nobody would be insufferable, and nobody would be committing criminal acts.
And then -- "Ah, I believe you mentioned this one," Gaius was saying, and Uther was pulling something long and unwieldy out of the case and there it was, Excalibur, seeming a lot larger than it had under the glass. Temporarily released from its imprisonment, as it were.
Merlin exhaled, slow and steady, staring at the sword.
"We've got it," he said. "I can't believe we're just going to hand it back."
Morgana patted his shoulder. "Patience, Merlin. There's no point in ruining a perfectly good escape route."
"True." Merlin glanced over at her. "Uther was talking about Mordred, the jewel thief. Read about him in the papers."
"Sometimes I think it might be nice to be notorious," she sighed.
"Shh," said Gwen.
Gaius had the sword in his gloved hands and was tilting it, turning it, examining it minutely, but also exposing it via the camera to Gwen's just-as-thorough examination. There was a furrow of concentration between her eyes as they swept the image, magnified until it was barely recognisable as a sword at all.
"Got it." Her finger flew to tap the screen, and she adjusted the channel of her mike so that Gaius's earbud would pick up her voice. "Got it. Uppermost side, about an inch above where the hilt meets the blade."
"Beautiful work," Gaius said, and turned the sword over one more time before setting it down on the cloth so that he could reach for a magnifier. "I'm going to take a closer look at the design."
This was it. Merlin's heartbeat crept into his ears and he found he was leaning forward in his seat. Gaius had rehearsed this for hours, sitting alone at the table and drinking his way grimly through multiple cups of coffee, until the sleight of hand was casual and all but invisible even if you were looking for it.
The hand magnifier with its thick handle was a construction of Gwen's, containing a fiendish little piece of technology that her father had shipped to them from Prague. When brought into close proximity of the RFID chip, it would render the chip useless; dead. Then Gaius would have to move the magnifier away and attach their own, modified version of the chip to the sword, and Gwen would activate it with a remote signal.
Not only was Gaius doing all of this directly beneath Uther's gaze, there was an additional element that skated close to gambling: the chip was queried every five minutes, and the exact timing was unknown. Merlin had offered to locate and hack the central servers of the security agency in order to find out, but Gaius had vetoed that as absurdly risky for the slim benefit it could provide, given that it would also require a physical break-in at a place of business that was quite literally all about security.
Deactivating one chip and then transferring and activating the new one should be the work of seconds. Merlin had already calculated the ridiculous odds that a security query would occur during the miniscule amount of downtime, but even the solidity of numbers -- usually a comfort -- wasn't helping the tension in his stomach. This job was going well so far, Merlin's personal crisis of lust notwithstanding. Surely they were due a disaster soon.
Merlin held his breath. Gwen, he was almost sure, was doing the same. Her finger hovered over a trackpad.
Gaius inspected the wrong side of the hilt first, then turned it over and brought the magnifier in close --
"One," Gwen whispered.
-- and then straightened up, brushing that part of the design with the tip of one dark-gloved finger --
"Two," from Gwen, and almost at once, as her own finger clicked down, "three," and she leaned back, grabbed at Merlin's hand and squeezed it, grinning all over her face.
JANUARY 14th, 2:20pm
"Another party? You just had one!"
Arthur's look managed to communicate that Merlin was an ignorant and uncultured beetle, whilst simultaneously being, well, a very attractive look. Merlin gritted his teeth and hated the both of them -- himself for having appalling taste, and Arthur for being Arthur.
"That was a Christmas party, Merlin," Arthur said, insultingly slow. "This is entirely different."
"You said you hated parties."
"Oh, well," said Arthur, as though there was some kind of airy self-evident truth in the two words. Merlin wanted to punch him just a little.
"This party has a different guest list," Georgia explained later.
They were hovering in the kitchen listening to Uther and Andrews have what amounted to a very polite argument about menu logistics. Merlin could tell that not many people argued with Uther. Andrews was getting away with it via stealth compromise tactics and heavy-handed use of the word 'sir'.
"More family." She shrugged. "More titles."
It turned out Arthur's mother had been some kind of distant cousin to royalty, which explained the implausible luxury of the house: Arthur was not only living off my-father-is-an-asshole-lawyer money, but also my-mother-was-aristocracy money. It was becoming rapidly clear that in Uther's opinion, although Arthur was living off this money, he wasn't living up to it.
"Our friends are starting to wonder why you haven't been coming out to the country on weekends quite as often as you did. Perhaps you can explain yourself to them this evening."
Arthur muttered something that sounded like your friends, but his face didn't shift from a mask of polite attention while he did so.
"You are forty-seventh in line to the British throne," Uther went on, with a dark glance that made Merlin wonder if the forty-six people ahead of Arthur in the succession shouldn’t all perhaps be sleeping with a knife under their pillow. "And you do have certain social responsibilities to uphold."
"I understand, Father." He gave a jerk of the head that was almost a bow, and Merlin's chest ached for him, thinking about his own mother and their silly rituals and their huge, embarrassing love, all the things he'd thought came naturally when you were part of a family of two. Merlin wasn't so dense as to think that the Pendragons didn't love one another, but their expressions of it were bafflingly obscure, and there was so much in the way.
More family and more titles turned out to mean fancier wine, floors polished until Will and Merlin could have sock races on them and almost break their legs in the process, and Andrews reaching superb heights of rat-a-tat organisation. Merlin had to stash his tablet hurriedly in his backpack when Georgia whirled into the kitchens, her whites smeared with sauce and her hair whipped back into a sleek braid.
"Champagne!" she said.
"I'm not sure that's such a --" began Merlin, just as Will was saying, "Don't mind if I do," and Georgia grabbed them both by their ironed shirt fronts and hissed, "For the guests."
Merlin swallowed down his déjà vu and made a fair show of gliding around the room with his tray of drinks. He was glad that the bandage around his fake hand injury had been replaced by a set of small white strips; anything bulkier would make this aspect of the job difficult. Morgana gave him a small wave with the hand not full of canapés -- she'd wrangled an invitation to this one as well -- and once his tray was almost empty, Merlin ended up eavesdropping shamelessly on a group of people wearing clothing that probably cost as much as Gwen's entire arsenal of technology.
Nearby, Arthur -- under his father's approving gaze -- was leading a young woman into the room, his hand tucked companionably through one arm of her black coat. She was unbuttoning the coat with the other hand, looking flushed and bright with the warmth of the house.
Through continued eavesdropping and drink-proffering, Merlin managed to determine that this pleasantly pretty personage was one of the most titled guests at the party: a Lady Dorothea. Which was an oddly old name, Merlin thought, like doilies, or snuff, but there was nothing old about Dot -- which was what everyone seemed to greet her with, but which in turn seemed too young. Her long hair curled at the ends and she had hazel eyes, mischievous behind glasses.
She was a redhead. Arthur looked delighted to see her.
Merlin resented her immediately.
"You're a disgrace," Will said, under his breath.
"You're a disgrace," Merlin said automatically. "What?"
"Robbing. Him. Remember?"
Merlin rubbed his free hand over his face, in case it was doing something he didn't want it to. Arthur was whispering something, his hands illustrating it in expansive motions, and Dorothea had her fingers pressed over her mouth as she laughed.
"I know," Merlin said.
"Plus he's a demanding twit."
"Then stop looking at him like you're composing a bloody sonnet, and get on with the servitude," Will said -- quite kindly for Will -- and dug his elbow into Merlin's back as he wandered away.
Three voices held a short, complex battle within Merlin: one of them told him to pay attention to Will and be an impeccable server for the rest of the evening, and one of them wanted to get even closer to Arthur so that it could pick a fight. The third one, which was sneaky, suggested a compromise.
"What are you -- here, try under the counter," said Georgia, when Merlin waltzed into the kitchen again and started digging around for the bottles of plain spirits. "Come back when you're done, I've got two trays of prawn wontons almost ready to be sent out."
By the time Merlin emerged with the glass in his hand, tray discarded -- he could have been a guest, except for the black apron -- the Lady Dorothea had moved on and was with Morgana, having her cheeks kissed and her dress exclaimed over. Arthur was standing by himself, near a window, twirling between his fingers one of the toothpicks that had gone out with the paprika meatballs. He didn't notice Merlin's presence until Merlin was very close.
"Vodka tonic," Merlin said, and held it out.
Arthur's fingers slid against his as he took the glass.
"With ice," Arthur noted. He took a single sip.
There was a gleam in Arthur's eyes that suggested he was considering an escalating list of cruel possibilities, and the contrary bastard part of Merlin that had led him over here in the first place thought, bring it on then. He didn't move and didn't break eye contact, watching Arthur watching him as though composing an argument, gauging limitations, something thoughtful and assured happening behind the bemused curve of Arthur's mouth, wet where the ice had slid against it.
"I don't know what else," said Arthur, "is on offer."
Merlin's ankles wobbled as he tried to stop the blood from rushing to the skin of his face through sheer force of will. This was terrible. This was fantastic. This -- they knew Arthur liked men, they'd stuck it in a fucking dossier -- but maybe he just meant, maybe Merlin was deluded, prawn wontons, oh God what a mess.
Arthur licked his lips. Merlin's eyes locked onto Arthur's mouth with the speed of a cartoon piano hurtling towards a hapless victim, and Merlin's heart gave a good kick within his chest -- DISASTER! a voice that sounded suspiciously like Gaius's was insisting inside his head. DISASTER IMMINENT!
And it was disastrous, Merlin knew, on so many different horrible and dangerous levels. Arthur was looking startled and predatory all at once, and he was leaning closer, and all things considered, doom-ridden piano metaphors were probably quite apt.
"I, um," Merlin said, and was a heartbeat away from adding I can't, but fuck, I want to, when Arthur licked his lips again, this time a distinctly nervous mannerism, and Merlin's body gave him an ultimatum: either escape immediately, or we're jumping him right here. Right now.
Merlin clenched his teeth so hard it hurt, and fled the room.
Coming up next: There is a distressing lack of kissing, Will gets his boogie on, and Merlin gets punched in the head.