Summary: Merlin walks into his favourite coffee shop one morning to find the Prince of Wales behind the till. His life only gets more surreal from there.
A/N: Title from Landon Pigg's "Falling in Love at a Coffeeshop," of course.
Disclaimer: I do not own Merlin.
Gwaine actually throws something at Merlin when his alarm goes off at eight in the morning, which proves what sort of day it’s going to be. Normally Gwaine is so easy-going Merlin wonders if anything (aside from “snobby entitled gits,” as Gwaine had said under his breath the first time they’d seen Prince Arthur saunter across the campus at orientation) bothers him. “You don’t even have lectures until two today,” moans Gwaine, who is now without his pillow. At least he didn’t throw the decorative knife he keeps above his bed. “Leave a man in peace, yeah?”
“You didn’t need to prove to everyone that you can drink all comers under the table,” Merlin mutters, but he shuts his alarm off. “Go back to sleep, but if you miss your lecture again I’m not forging notice from the health center.”
Gwaine slurs something rude, and Merlin throws his pillow back before rolling out of bed and getting dressed as quick as he can. He’s definitely more of a morning person than his roommate, and since they’ve only known each other a bit over a month now, he’s still trying hard to stay on his good side. He’s lucky he’s got his little secret study spot just off campus, or he suspects he and Gwaine would have killed each other by now.
When Merlin gets to Camelot Coffee for his usual Friday morning ritual of coffee and revising, there’s a line out the door, mostly consisting of giggling girls. He stares, bewildered, and thinks about going back to his room, but he can’t actually get any work done there and he’d like to know what’s going on in his computer science lecture in the afternoon, so he joins the queue, clutching his laptop bag a bit closer.
It’s the middle of October, so there’s no holiday that people are coming to town for, classes aren’t cancelled, and he really can’t think of a single reason for what seems like half the co-ed population of Albion University to be at a relatively unremarkable coffee shop. But Merlin is a creature of habit, so he just clings to his bag and waits until he gets inside and then all the way to the front of the queue, nose stuck in the book he brought along until the last minute, since he’s going to have to put it down to do his revising and he’s at an exciting bit.
Gwen the Barista (which isn’t her last name, but it’s how she introduced herself the second Friday Merlin came in so he still calls her that in his head) is used to him by now, so Merlin doesn’t think much of rummaging in his wallet while he greets her. “What’s the crowd all about? Did you get a good writeup in the--”
Someone clears his throat. Definitely, unequivocally a him, Merlin realizes when he looks up and finds not sweet, curly-haired Gwen smiling at him but Prince Arthur with his eyebrows arched expectantly. Merlin blinks a few times, but it’s still Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales, darling of the tabloids, fellow Albion University freshman, standing at the till with a red apron emblazoned with a dragon and a “CAMELOT COFFEE” and with a name badge proclaiming him “Arthur: Trainee.”
“You didn’t get a good writeup in the student paper,” he manages when Prince Arthur doesn’t seem inclined to ask what he can get Merlin today (a reality check, or possibly a top so he can check that it stops spinning) like Gwen the Barista always does. “Is there some sort of charity drive going on here today that I didn’t know about? I could maybe afford a few extra quid …” Merlin looks doubtfully at his wallet. Actually, he probably can’t, at least not with what he has with him. “Um. Your Highness,” he adds, because Prince Arthur looks deeply unimpressed.
The girl standing behind him starts muttering. “There is not a charity drive,” says Prince Arthur, who sounds like his day is about as trying as Merlin’s. Perhaps more so, if all these girls have been giggling at him all morning. Merlin’s reminded a bit of visiting the bird enclosure at the zoo with his mum when he was little. “I am a regular employee. What sort of drink can I get for you this morning?”
“No you aren’t. Gwen is here Fridays. What have you done with Gwen?”
Prince Arthur stares at him and Merlin wonders if he is going to be sent to the Tower of London for disrespecting royalty. “Guinevere is in the back room restocking at the moment, I’m sure you can speak to her soon if you wish, though I feel I should warn you that she is attached. Now, what can I get you?”
“Right, sorry, um. Wait, what? No, I’m not interested in Gwen.” Prince Arthur just stares more, and the muttering of the girls in line grows a little louder. “I mean, I’d like a mocha, please. Sire.”
Finally, the prince picks up a cup and checks a box on it, then returns to giving Merlin a look like he is the most trying customer he’s had all day, which cannot be true given all the simpering and probably the swooning. “And a name for when the drink is ready?”
That, Merlin surmises, is why the line is out the door; all these girls are getting their name written by the prince. “Merlin,” he says, feeling a bit sheepish, and then he gets stared at some more. “No, really, I promise. Ask Gwen if you don’t believe me.”
Arthur shrugs. “I don’t care that much, actually.” Merlin thinks he probably ought to be offended, but Arthur writes his name on the cup and takes Merlin’s money and it’s all relatively normal (if he manages to forget the fact that the fucking Prince of Wales just handed his cup to Gwen the Barista as she comes out from the back) until he freezes and goes back to giving him looks that make Merlin wonder if he is committing some awful sort of treason. “Merlin,” he says in a tone of voice that makes Merlin think things that will get him thrown in the Tower of London. “You were surprised that I’m here.”
“Well, not every day the Prince of Wales takes my coffee order.”
“Would you have come if someone had told you I would be here?”
There is, he suspects, no right answer to that question. “Probably not. Wouldn’t have wanted to wait in line for this long.” Also he would have been spared finding out that the prince is sort of a gigantic git.
Prince Arthur looks at Merlin. Then at the line, which isn’t quite out the door any longer but which is still a great deal busier than Merlin has ever seen it. Then at Gwen the Barista, who is looking harried at the amount of drinks in the lineup to prepare. “How would you like a job serving king and country, Merlin?” he asks.
“Put on an apron and get behind the counter.”
“Your Highness,” says Gwen the Barista in the back room around noon, when the second shift has shown up to relieve them and the crowd of disappointed potential princesses has dissipated somewhat. She’s actually wringing her hands. Merlin doesn’t think he’s seen anyone do that before. “You don’t actually have authority to hire anyone, you know. Camelot can only afford so many employees.”
“If I keep working here, I can assure you business will be more than adequate enough to hire Merlin alongside me.”
Since Gwen the Barista is casting looks at Prince Arthur’s bodyguard that probably mean that she is about to explode just so she doesn’t have to chastise the heir to the throne, Merlin steps in. “I sort of think that’s … not the point, sire. She probably would have liked to pick someone to hire on her own. Or the owner would, or something.”
“They might have hired you anyway. You’re clearly some sort of coffee savant.”
That is probably actually partly due to Gwaine (who introduced him to coffee as an apology for introducing him to liquor during the first week of lectures) but mostly to the fact that Merlin’s a bit magic, but Merlin decides not to say that, especially not in front of Prince Arthur. Either he would be sent to prison for being a potential terrorist or he would be kidnapped into Prince Arthur’s personal army of bodyguards, but either way he’s pretty sure he would never see his mum again.
“He might not even want a job,” says Gwen the Barista. Prince Arthur’s bodyguard, a tall blond man with a beard, snorts. Merlin suspects that means his fate is sealed. “And with all due respect, sire, we don’t know if people will keep coming after your first few shifts. I don’t think we could spare the expense …”
Prince Arthur (Prince Arthur, and he is still wearing an apron and Merlin is still wondering if lucid dreams are part of his superpowers) seems to be trying to decide whether or not he’s offended, but he also finds the time to look pointedly at Merlin’s frayed cuffs and ancient trainers. “Of course he wants a job. And if you’re so worried that the popularity of the Prince of Wales won’t last, Merlin can have my salary until things either calm back down and we no longer need a third person behind the counter during my shifts or until Camelot makes enough profit that he can be hired on to mirror my shifts. I’m sure we can find a schedule that accommodates both his lectures and mine.”
Gwen the Barista just stares, looking a bit gobsmacked, and Merlin really doesn’t know what to say to that, so he asks the question that’s been bothering him all morning. “Why are you working here, anyway? Like you said, it’s not like you need the salary.”
“To be perfectly honest, I was dared. By Her--” The way he stops and grimaces tells Merlin everything he needs to know. He doesn’t follow celebrity gossip, but it was sort of hard to avoid the news stories last year when Her Grace the Duchess of York was discovered to be King Uther’s illegitimate daughter, which effectively disinherited her from being a Duchess and didn’t allow her to be a princess either, which everyone agreed was terribly unfair. “By the Lady Morgana,” Prince Arthur says at last. “But it is important to know how to work, I agree with her on that.”
“So you … want me to do your job for you?”
Arthur stiffens right up at that, and Merlin winces, but the bodyguard seems disinclined to drag him off to a dungeon or a tower or Scotland, so he figures he’s safe. “No. I want us to do equal amounts of work because Guinevere and I were both run off our feet before you came in and you are apparently a wizard with the espresso machine.”
“Yes, regular Harry Potter, that’s me.” He would make a joke using one of the spells from the books, but he did that with Will once and that’s how Will found out about the magic thing, so he has decided to banish the words Wingardium Leviosa from his vocabulary, especially in the presence of heirloom vases.
“I suppose I could ask the owner,” Gwen offers. “He was overjoyed to hire you, your Highness, but I don’t know if he wants to hire anyone else.”
“You are a wonder, Guinevere.” It’s a bit disconcerting to see the bright smile that’s in all the prince’s press photos up close. “Have I thanked you yet for stepping in and offering?”
Damn, he’s smooth. Gwen the Barista (who Merlin should probably stop calling that if they’re going to be co-workers, and even though his mother will fret, the money really could help so if they offer, he probably won’t say no) goes from nervous to dreamy in under a second. “Well, Lancelot asked and we were looking for help,” she says.
“I clearly should pick more bodyguards with charming girlfriends.” He turns to the blond bodyguard, still standing impassively in a corner. “Leon, you ought to get on that.”
Merlin checks his watch and curses, then ponders dying of mortification because he just cursed in front of the crown prince. He hasn’t had a chance to get any revising done before his lecture, and he really needs to. “I’ve got to go and get ready for a lecture, but I’ll be back in on Monday, probably, if you want to talk to me then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin, I’ve got a shift tomorrow.” Prince Arthur holds out a phone that Merlin could probably sell and pay a month’s rent on his mother’s cottage with. “Give me your number. I’ll call you once Guinevere has worked things out with the owner.” It takes three tries to find the contacts, and then the phone is snatched out of his hands. “On second thought, just tell me your number.”
Merlin forcibly restrains a roll of his eyes and lists off the number. “Thank you for the job offer, sire. And Gwen. Now I do have to go, though.” Gwen smiles and kisses his cheek and thanks him under her breath, which only goes to show what things must have been like before he got there, and Merlin grabs his things and gets ready to go out.
“Wait,” says Prince Arthur when he’s almost at the door, and then looks between them like he’s swallowed a lemon. “If we’re all to be co-workers, you really ought to call me Arthur.”
“Why are you diving for your phone every time it makes a noise? You should realize by now that I’m going to keep texting you just to see you jump,” says Gwaine that night, then grins in the way that led to them hiding in a supply closet in a classroom building after hours during orientation weekend, and then to them being kicked out of a bar the next night. “Did you meet a boy, Merlin?”
“I did not.” Merlin buries his face in his pillow even though Gwaine knows he’s blushing and is probably trying to see if he can make Merlin burst a blood vessel. “I got a job offer at Camelot Coffee, I’m just waiting to see if the owner approves it.”
“Because there’s a boy working there,” Gwaine tries. He seems to have made it his mission in life to find Merlin a boyfriend, after several very awkward drunk conversations wherein Merlin wailed about how hard it is to find someone to shag in the countryside. “Unless it’s fair Gwen the Barista who’s caught your eye, though I didn’t think you swung that way and I am forced to remind you that I have dibs.”
“Gwen’s got a boyfriend.”
Gwaine clutches at his chest. “Say it isn’t so! I must win her affections from a rival, then?”
“Your rival is one of the prince’s bodyguards, mate, you might be in a bit of trouble there.” Before Gwaine can begin to ask how the hell he knows that, Merlin’s phone rings for real and he dives for it again. This time, he doesn’t know the number, so he fumbles it open and turns his back on Gwaine. “Yes, hello?”
“Is this Merlin?”
Arthur sounds deeply uncomfortable, and Merlin feels that way with Gwaine practically breathing down his neck, so at least they’re a matched set. “Yes. Have you called about the job?”
“I have, just got off the phone with Gary at Camelot, actually, who says you’ve got the job and wants you to come in for my shift with me tomorrow. We start at six.” Merlin grimaces. “You can bring in your lecture schedule tomorrow as well, and we can work out times that work for both of us.”
“I’ll be there.” Gwaine is creeping closer. Merlin throws a pillow at him to put him off for a few seconds and it knocks a book off Gwaine’s desk.
“What was that?” Arthur asks, sounding mildly alarmed.
“My roommate is being a git, is all. I’ll see you in the morning, Arthur.” The room goes dead silent behind him and Merlin wonders exactly how awful the conversation with Gwaine is going to be, because Gwaine will mock him forever and then ask which one of them will be the princess.
“I suppose you shall.” Arthur pauses and Merlin wonders if there is some bit of royal etiquette that he isn’t following right now. Is he allowed to hang up on the Prince of Wales? “Merlin.”
“Um, that’s me.” He sneaks a peek over his shoulder to find Gwaine gaping at him. “Did you need something else, your--did you need something else?”
“If you don’t want to do this … it’s not as if I’m giving you a royal order or anything. You just seemed good at the job and we desperately needed help.”
Merlin blinks at the phone. “I … seemed good at the job? While I was standing in the queue?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I really, really don’t.”
Arthur lets out an offended huff. “Never mind, then. Will I see you in the morning?”
“Six o’clock, with my schedule,” Merlin confirms. “I’ve got to go before Gwaine implodes, though.”
“Good night, Merlin. I’m grateful for your assistance.”
Merlin wonders exactly how posh someone has to be to say “I’m grateful” instead of a simple thanks. “Good night, Arthur.” He is spared trying to figure out whether he’s allowed to hang up on the prince when Arthur hangs up first, and then he turns around to face Gwaine. Who instantly throws his own pillow back at him with a lot more aim and force and then starts laughing like a bloody hyena. “What?”
“That was the fucking Prince of Wales! On your mobile! Coffee shop indeed. You should have told me before, I ought to tell him to treat you right if he’s going to make you his mistress.”
“I’m not going to be the prince’s mistress!”
“Do you get to wear a tiara to the wedding, then? You’ll have to warn me, I’ll need to buy a top hat, and possibly a morning jacket.”
“You already have both of those, you just pretend you don’t,” Merlin points out, since during one of their few serious conversations Gwaine had admitted that his father’s in the peerage and that Gwaine hasn’t spoken to him since he was fifteen. “Also, you are not a Literature major, you have no right to sound like a Jane Austen novel.”
“That is not the point. The point is that you and the Prince of Wales just set up a date.”
Merlin buries his face in his hands and wonders if his superpowers extend to wiping Gwaine’s memory of this entire conversation. It would save a lot of awkward moments. But mostly they’re a bit rubbish and just move things around and sometimes blow them up and let him balance far more coffee cups at a time than the average person. “The Prince of Wales and I just set up a work shift. At Camelot Coffee. Where he apparently got a job to prove to his bastard sister that he can work like a common person. Christ, I’m living in a Mills & Boon novel.”
Gwaine just beams at him. “I’m stopping by in the morning, you realize. Your face is not the face of a man who just set up a work shift, and I am really going to look forward to watching you moon over his Highness over the espresso machine.”
“There will be no mooning.”
“And pining,” Gwaine continues like he didn’t hear. “A whole forest of pines under a full moon, like a bloody painting from Norway.”
Merlin decides that it really won’t help to tell him that yes, Arthur is stupidly attractive and like anyone else in the entirety of Britain and the Commonwealth who’s attracted to men Merlin certainly wouldn’t kick him out of bed and might actually tie him to it (but just a little bit). “He’s an incredible git,” Merlin says instead.
Gwaine rubs his palms together with glee. “I’ve got a front row seat for the greatest show of the century.”
Merlin flops into an ungainly heap on the floor of the break room, since Arthur and Gwen (who he can no longer call Gwen the Barista since he’s technically one as well, now) have taken up the couch. “Do I get a state funeral for dying in service of my country?”
“You haven’t died, Merlin, you idiot, or your mouth would not be flapping on.”
“My apron has the imprint of my consciousness in it. Like that one episode of Doctor Who, with the library.”
“You’re a bit of a geek, aren’t you?”
Clearly Arthur is one of those sad people who doesn’t see the point of science fiction or fantasy, which at least means he probably won’t start to suspect that Merlin’s got superpowers. “All the best people are,” he says as loftily as he can from the floor. “I’ll bet you don’t even know what Star Wars is.”
“Of course I do. ‘Live long and prosper’ and all that rot.” Merlin and Gwen stare at him. The bodyguard, who is not Leon today, lets out a quiet noise that might be a snort. Arthur’s smug look fades somewhat. “That is Star Wars, isn’t it?”
“I believe that the line ‘live long and prosper’ comes from the Star Trek franchise, your Highness,” says the bodyguard tactfully.
Arthur grimaces. “Thank you, Percival.”
Gwen stifles a laugh, and Merlin tries to as well, not quite as successfully, which gets him a dirty look from Arthur. He struggles into a sitting position, since the dingy carpet probably isn’t exactly sanitary. “The fact that you haven’t seen Star Wars has made me lose a bit of faith in the monarchy, you know.”
“Aren’t they rubbish? There were a whole lot of people a few years back saying they’re rubbish.”
“That’s the prequel trilogy. They don’t actually exist.” Gwen starts giggling into her hand, which Merlin hopes is more due to Arthur looking gobsmacked than his own statement. “Seriously, you have to watch them, it’s classic cinema even if it is American. You ought to come over and we can have a marathon or--” It occurs to Merlin that he just invited the Prince of Wales to watch Star Wars with him and that he probably has a lot of more important things to do. “Um, sorry, I’m sure you have terribly trendy clubs to be in on a Saturday night with all your posh friends.”
“Actually, I’ve got nothing scheduled for the rest of the day. If I’m not imposing, I’d be willing to watch the films.”
Merlin thinks about the mess that his and Gwaine’s room is in, and the teasing he’ll get if he brings the prince back, and the four hours of sleep he got last night after Gwaine was finished talking about their royal wedding. Then he says “Yes, okay, Gwen, do you want to come along as well?” because turning down the prince when he’s offering to be friends is a bit unthinkable.
“Much as I would love to rewatch the adventures of Luke Skywalker, it’s very rare that Lancelot and I both have an afternoon off and I’m going to take advantage of it. You lads should have fun.” She stands up. “Now, if we stay here too much longer, I imagine we’ll get talked into helping out up front again, and all of us had a long morning. You’re both doing very well, and you work well together. Hopefully in a week or so you’ll know all the drinks.”
Merlin struggles his way off the floor, with a hand from Percival the bodyguard, and gives Gwen a hug. “Thanks for putting up with us, Gwen.”
“You’re brilliant at making the drinks, Arthur’s brilliant at remembering who gets which one. We just have to teach you both the other half of things.”
“Two sides of the same coin, that’s us,” says Merlin, before realizing that’s a phrase his mother used about his father once while she was on the phone to Uncle Gaius and didn’t think Merlin was listening. “Anyway, maybe some other time. We’ll let you get to Lancelot.”
Gwen pecks Percival on the cheek, shakes Arthur’s hand, and then breezes out of the room, stopping to chat with Gilli at the counter on her way. “Shall we go, then?” says Arthur. “Or should I let you have a while to nap or something first?”
“No, I’ll be okay. I’ll just call Gwaine on the way, warn him I’ve got a guest coming over.” And hopefully get the teasing over with where Arthur can’t hear Gwaine’s half of the conversation. “Do you need time to … I don’t know, run a background check on me or something?”
“Don’t be stupid, Merlin, that was done before I ever called you about the job. Percival will make the necessary calls while we walk.”
They walk across campus while Merlin talks to Gwaine, who informs him that he’s going out to the pub and Merlin should put a sock on the doorknob if he and his Highness start shagging. “I hate you,” says Merlin, and hangs up on him.
Arthur looks amused. “Having a bit of a domestic, are we?”
“He’s just being a bit of an arse, is all.” He lets them into the building, and ignores the face Arthur makes at the ancient building with the notoriously tiny rooms. Not all of them can afford singles in the nice new dormitory that got built five years ago when rumours started that the prince was considering coming to Albion.
When they get to Merlin’s room, Gwaine, true to his word, has gone, so Merlin resists the stupid urge to give Arthur a tour of a room that can be crossed in about five steps and sets about clearing places for Arthur and Percival to sit and finding the DVDs in his pile. “Where should I sit?” Arthur asks once most of the surfaces are clear.
“Um, we have to watch on my laptop, I’m afraid, so you should probably sit on my bed. Both of you can, if you like? But if one of you would rather, the desk chair is close enough to see.” Arthur and Percival have a complicated conversation with their eyebrows, leading to Percival perching on the desk chair looking intimidating and bodyguard-ly and Arthur sitting down on the bed and leaning against the wall. “Okay, then.”
They end up watching all three movies, with a break for takeaway, and Merlin falls asleep round about when Leia meets the Ewoks, while Arthur is loudly mocking the special effects. He wakes at five in the morning when Gwaine comes in with a crick in his neck, a blanket pulled over him, and a Post-it note stuck to his forehead: See you for our shift on Monday. Thank you for an educational evening. Next time I’m taking you to one of my posh clubs.
Halfway through their first afternoon shift, which is the next Wednesday, Merlin looks up from the espresso machine he’s fixing with a bit of magic and a lot of muttering to discover that the crowd filling Camelot Coffee has gone completely silent, not even a giggling girl on the phone to a friend saying that she swears the prince looked right at her and was maybe even flirting. The reason for the silence has just walked through the door wearing a smart suit, heels that could probably kill a man, and massive sunglasses, which she removes to stare around before she strolls up to the head of the queue.
“Back of the line, please, we won’t serve queue-jumpers,” says Arthur. Sophia, the third employee in with them, looks halfway between starry-eyed and scandalized. She’s got a massive crush on Arthur.
“Surely you’ll make an exception for your sister,” the Lady Morgana answers, and Merlin tries not to stare. In the year since the rags latched onto the story about her parentage in the wake of a very emphatic press release from Buckingham Palace saying Arthur and Morgana would never marry despite constant rumours, she’s made very few public appearances. Apparently she’s made an exception to visit her brother’s workplace.
“We don’t mind,” says the girl at the front of the line, looking like she might swoon at any moment. Merlin suspects that people from all over the country have started making trips to Camelot Coffee to see the prince, since the papers had a spate of articles about it after Saturday wondering if the prince had been disowned and forced to work for a living.
“There, see? They don’t mind.” Then Lady Morgana smirks in a way that makes Merlin think somebody’s about to die. Possibly him, since he’s making the drinks. And then she reels off a drink with so many fiddly specifications that even Merlin’s better-than-average memory can’t retain it and beams. “Well? Get to it,” she says, waving at Arthur.
Arthur turns to Merlin, long-suffering expression firmly in place. “Did you get all that, Merlin?”
“Um.” He turns to Lady Morgana. “Could you perhaps repeat that, my lady? We’re still technically in training.”
She smiles at him and turns to Arthur. “Really, he’s absolutely precious, where did you find him? Your taste is usually dreadful.” Arthur just glares in silence. “Your ‘best friend’ Edward Valiant the eighth in sixth form, for--”
“Don’t make a scene, Morgana, there might be journalists,” Arthur hisses.
“You aren’t any fun. Father would be proud.” He pointedly picks up a cup and she sighs. “Fine, if you aren’t making the drinks I may as well get something I’ll actually like. Merlin, is it? Just a shot of espresso, darling, and perhaps a muffin. For here, I plan to stay around for a while and then take my dear brother to dinner.”
Arthur flagrantly overcharges her and spends the rest of their shift practically slamming orders down on the counter while the customers look progressively more nervous and Lady Morgana lounges with what looks like a textbook on political theory and takes tiny bites of her raspberry muffin. They get off at seven, when it’s just Morgana and various bodyguards and a few regulars hanging about, and Arthur grabs Merlin’s arm before he can flee back to his room to get a bit of study done. “You are not to go anywhere. I will not be left alone with that harpy.”
Morgana, of course, chooses that moment to swan over. “Getting forceful, Arthur? How terribly Medieval of you.”
“You have been saying that since you were six, Arthur. Now come out from behind that counter, can’t I give my brother a hug? You too, Merlin.” Sophia, who’s in charge of closing everything down now that it’s all quiet, gives them all a wide-eyed look, and Merlin decides it’s in his best interest to obey, so he sheds his apron in the break room and grabs his bag and jacket and comes out to find Arthur, still in his apron, with his arms wrapped around Morgana. “I am very proud of you,” Morgana whispers, just loud enough to be heard, before shoving her brother away and grabbing Merlin by both shoulders to deposit kisses on his cheeks and the smell of her undoubtedly very expensive perfume on the rest of him. “And you are an absolute darling, Arthur’s told me all about you and I’m sure it’s all lies, come to dinner with us and set him straight.”
“I really couldn’t, I’m sure you’ve got plenty of catching up to do.”
Arthur finishes shedding his apron and getting his things and slings his arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “Nonsense, Merlin, you can’t possibly turn it down. She’ll take us somewhere terribly expensive and let us feast without overextending our poor student pockets.”
“You don’t have poor student pockets.”
Arthur grimaces. “I’m not meant to buy anything for myself with money I didn’t earn at Camelot for the rest of the semester, although we’re arguing about Christmas.”
Merlin stares at him. “But you offered me your salary when it looked like Gwen wouldn’t hire me! I wouldn’t have even thought about accepting if--”
“That’s not the point.” Morgana lets out an unladylike snort and Arthur glares at her. “You’re coming to dinner, Merlin, don’t pretend you have anything better to do.” He pauses. “Unless you and Gwaine had plans?”
“Gwaine’s got a late lecture on Wednesdays, and then he’s got to go to the library,” says Merlin, which he realizes a second later must sound like consent, because Arthur is ushering him out the door and Morgana is striding down the street, the bodyguards scrambling to fall into step behind them. “Really, I don’t have to--this is very kind, but--”
“Can we keep him?” Morgana calls over her shoulder.
“I’m not a puppy you got for Christmas,” Merlin mutters, but Lady Morgana is striding down the street and Arthur is scowling at his trainers, so the only person who reacts is one of the lady’s bodyguards, a sort of terrifying blonde woman who narrows her eyes like she’s wondering if Merlin plans to suddenly jump on her charge.
Morgana leads them, of course, to the most expensive restaurant in town, where Merlin suspects she doesn’t have reservations, and procures them the best table in the place. The maitre d’ looks like he’s salivating and he’ll probably sell a story to the tabloids about Merlin being caught up in some scandalous incestuous royal menage a trois, considering Arthur fusses with Merlin’s collar while they’re waiting for the table to free up and Morgana beams at them both indulgently and then there’s a bit of a tug-of-war over whose side of the table Merlin is going to sit on when they get there.
Dinner is actually quite pleasant after Morgana and Arthur tell him for the fifth time to stop boggling at the prices and pick something already, the crown won’t go bankrupt from one meal at a nice restaurant. They talk about Camelot Coffee and how sweet Gwen is (apparently Morgana is acquainted with her through knowing Lancelot, who is on Arthur Duty tonight) and Morgana’s possible future in politics (“if you’re PM while I’m King I’m going to abdicate”) and the travesty that is Arthur’s lack of knowledge about Star Wars and Star Trek and other quality programming. It’s ten o’clock before Merlin quite realizes it and he’s got a lecture at eight in the morning.
“Give me five minutes, Lancelot and I will walk you back to your dormitory,” says Arthur when Merlin says that, and Merlin doesn’t see a reason to say no, so he fidgets around while Arthur and Morgana have a heated, whispered conversation a few feet away.
Morgana kisses his cheeks again as she gets ready to breeze back off to wherever she’s staying these days. “Don’t let him push you around,” she whispers. “You’re good for him and I hope to get to know you better.”
With that extraordinary statement, Merlin gets dragged off back to his dormitory.
Things settle into a pattern after that, just like all the brochures and orientations said, but it’s not quite the pattern Merlin was expecting for his first year of uni. There’s lectures and homework, of course, and more adventures with Gwaine and others that lead to more than a few work shifts spent with a headache and Arthur laughing at him and scolding him in turns. There’s figuring out the laundry machines and calling his mother in a panic when everything white he owns is dyed a sort of sickly yellow colour (which stain remover won’t fix, but his superpowers do a great job of clearing up). There’s late nights and early mornings and more coffee and beer than anyone should drink and his Logic professor takes an inexplicable dislike to him. He’d expected all of that.
But he certainly hadn’t expected Arthur and all that comes with him. Merlin’s used to bodyguards falling into step behind him whenever Arthur catches him on campus now. Morgana calls him once a week to see if there’s any gossip that Arthur isn’t telling her about. There’s a certain amount of the girls who come to Camelot Coffee who flirt with Merlin just as much as with Arthur (“smart of them, they know it annoys me when they ignore you,” Arthur says one night) and he eventually stops fumblingly trying to explain that he’s gay. Lady Vivian (long rumoured to be a possible bride for Arthur when the time comes, though her father looks nearly apoplectic whenever that’s mentioned in an interview) comes to visit and Gwaine spends a whole night flirting with her at a club; Gwaine looks far too pleased with himself the next morning and Merlin chooses not to ask. Arthur spends less time than Merlin assumed he would with his rich, titled friends. Instead, there are Star Trek marathons in his roomy single (“Are you a Vulcan, Merlin? It would certainly explain the ears”) and late-night study sessions in the library. They get in the habit of playing Battleship over Skype when they’re too lazy to actually see one another. Gwaine gets in the habit of saying “You sunk my battleship, your Highness, and you sunk it hard!” in an insulting falsetto every time Merlin shuts his laptop. Merlin always refuses to dignify that with an answer.
He certainly isn’t the only one having trouble believing he’s friends with the crown prince either. His mother and his Uncle Gaius both tell him to stop pulling their legs when he first mentions it (and then they both spend at least ten minutes each reminding him not to tell anyone, not even the prince, about his superpowers. Well, they both call it magic, but Merlin hasn’t done that since he was eleven and he didn’t get his Hogwarts letter). People, especially the posh people who probably assumed they would be Arthur’s best friends, gape at Merlin when he walks across campus. There are articles about him in every tabloid in the country (and one of them is so unflattering and makes such horrific accusations that he refuses to speak to Arthur for nearly a week, even when they’re working). Arthur says that the King has asked about him.
Still, it’s a comfortable enough routine. Arthur doesn’t act much like a prince most of the time, and between he and Gwaine Merlin is never bored, even if he doesn’t have the huge group of friends that he envisioned when he was getting ready for university. And if after a month Merlin is finding it hard not to cuddle up to Arthur when they watch movies or to push his hair out of his eyes, that’s nobody’s business but his own (and possibly Morgana’s, because she seems to know everything without him actually telling her, which is highly disconcerting).
Then Arthur finds out about his superpowers.
It’s late November and they’re on their way back to campus from an early Sunday shift, Leon a ways behind them because he got a call, when they catch sight of Nimueh, one of the most insistent of the paparazzi who get put on the royal stories and the one who broke the story about Morgana’s parentage and got her stuck in the limbo she’s in. Morgana never mentions it, but Merlin has inherited a great deal of resentment on her behalf from Arthur, who tends to talk about it when he’s pissed. He’s been half-expecting her to show up, especially in the wake of an article that said Merlin is clearly another illegitimate child of the King’s.
Arthur clearly wasn’t expecting her, because the second he sees her his jaw sets and he takes a step forward. Merlin, not looking forward to whatever confrontation comes next, grabs Arthur’s arm to hold him back. Of course, at that, Nimueh’s camera goes right up and aims at them, but before Merlin can snatch his hand back so there isn’t a “ROYAL GAY SCANDAL” headline in tomorrow’s paper, Arthur shakes him off and lunges for the camera.
Nimueh looks delighted at this turn of events, since the prince assaulting her is probably nearly as good as a gay scandal, but Merlin’s not going to risk Arthur getting in some sort of trouble for defending his privacy, so he tries to short out the camera and actually makes it explode just as Arthur looks back to see what his intake of air was all about.
All three of them stand there in silence for a long moment, and Merlin takes a second to thank his lucky stars that nobody else was around. Nimueh is staring in horror at the remains of her camera, Arthur is staring at Merlin, and Merlin wonders if he’s going to have to grow a moustache and move to Morocco. “Well,” says Arthur at last, sounding a bit strangled, “we’d best be going, Merlin.”
“Right, yes, of course.” Merlin is mid-nod when Arthur grabs his elbow and drags him off. Nimueh lets out a squeak that might be disappointment or belated shock and Merlin wishes again that he knew how to wipe someone’s memory. On purpose, and not just by accident like he did to his year three teacher once.
Arthur doesn’t say a word the whole way back to campus, not even when Leon catches up to them and asks why Nimueh is standing on the pavement with a smoking heap of plastic on the ground in front of her. He drags Merlin back to his dormitory, shuts his bodyguard out of his room, and pins Merlin against a wall. “I did not imagine that. Your eyes did something freaky and her camera exploded. I’m not seeing things.”
“You can’t have me arrested and thrown in a dungeon in some secret facility in Wales,” Merlin blurts. “My mum would worry. You like my mum. She sent us biscuits.”
“Facility in Wales?” Arthur asks, sounding a bit wrong-footed. “What the hell kind of films--no, I know what films you’ve been watching, and you are to stop immediately. I haven’t any intention of having you arrested. I just want to know what’s going on.”
“I--um.” Merlin’s never actually told anyone on purpose before. His mum and Uncle Gaius knew before he could talk, Will knew after he pulled his stupid Harry Potter stunt (and then freaked out and stopped speaking to Merlin but Merlin tries not to think about that much) and they’re the only ones who know. So instead of trying to say something unbelievable like “I have magic” or “I have superpowers,” he lifts his hand and makes everything in Arthur’s room hover an inch off the floor.
Arthur jumps and takes a step back from Merlin, although he doesn’t bother looking around the room, just stares at Merlin’s eyes. “Holy shit.” Merlin shrugs and lowers everything back to its rightful place and then stares at the floor. “Holy shit, Merlin.”
“I’m not dangerous or anything, and I don’t know how I got it, and I don’t really do much with it. That, with Nimueh’s camera back there, that was an accident.” He peers up at Arthur, who is still just staring at him. “Please don’t be mad?”
“Mad? I’m--Merlin, holy shit.” Arthur takes Merlin by the shoulders and drags him over to sit on the bed. “So you’re … what, Harry Potter? Peter Parker?”
“I am slowly teaching you the ways of the geek.” Arthur doesn’t crack a smile. Merlin stares at his lap. “I don’t know what I am, really.”
“Hey.” Arthur nudges him and then sits on the bed next to him. “You’re Merlin, and you’re my best mate. And apparently your name is quite apt. Now, how about you calm down and stop worrying that I’m going to press-gang you into being my secret magical bodyguard.” He smiles, and Merlin manages a tentative one in return. “And then you are going to tell me everything you can do.”