The third Pendragon Institute fic, a 3-shot holiday follow-up to Inside the Pendragon Institute and Outside the Pendragon Institute. The staff of the museum celebrates the end of the year. Morgana's mysterious, Uther looms on the horizon, Mordred approaches puberty, and visions of commitment are dancing in Arthur's head.
CHRISTMAS AT THE PENDRAGON INSTITUTE (A Holiday 3-shot)
Part I: Of Business Trips, Staff Meetings, Hats, and Uther Pendragon
"I won't wear it," said Merlin Emrys, folding his arms adamantly. "I won't."
Arthur Pendragon, Assistant Director of the Pendragon Institute of Medieval and Renaissance Art, was dangling a crimson felt hat, decked with a green ribbon and a cascade of feathers, in front of his face, but Merlin felt that even the approaching holidays were no reason to deck oneself out in anything so absurd-looking.
"You can't be serious."
"It's just for the holiday staff party," Arthur said in tones of infinite patience, trying to sound coaxing, and waving the hat to and fro. "Look, Morgana says she's going to come as the evil Snow Queen, and Gwen and Will are wearing those silly elf caps. Lance has a set of fake reindeer antlers. And everybody's trying to get Gaius to dress up as Father Christmas."
"And what sort of headgear will you be sporting, then?" Merlin asked, drumming his fingers on his worktable and wearing his most blatant Arthur-is-a-prat expression. But the Assistant Director could see that he was also trying his hardest to suppress a smile of amusement.
"A crown of course," replied Arthur loftily. "What else would you expect? Well, you needn't look at me like that. It was Geoffrey Monmouth's idea."
He sought to deflect the blame onto the Institute's ancient and beloved librarian, but Merlin wasn't buying it.
"And what's Geoffrey going to be?" asked Merlin. "The Yule log?"
It had been a busy day, and Arthur, like everybody else at the Institute, was tired and not in the best of moods. So he directed a level blue stare in Merlin's direction and prepared to launch into a lecture about his junior conservator's insolence and total lack of respect for him, and how he had a series of punishments planned, to be carried out over the coming weekend.
Except he realized, before opening his mouth, that it would be rather silly of him to berate Merlin on that score. Young Mr Emrys, after all, had been sharing his flat for close to a year and might pretend (on occasion) not to have any respect for him, but obviously harbored feelings that went well beyond respect.
So he simply sighed and lowered the preposterous hat onto the worktable. He and Merlin had made it a habit never to behave towards each other in anything other than a professional manner at work, in spite of the fact that their colleagues (and many others) were aware they were more than simply boss-in-training and employee, senior and junior members of the museum staff. For this reason, he wouldn't even consider yielding to the temptation to press his lips against the corner of Merlin's mouth, where the faintest hint of a dimple lurked.
"I've never had a more disobedient, insubordinate conservator in my entire career," he finally said, his own lower lip quivering with his determination not to give way to laughter. "But you have the right to raise the costume issue at tomorrow's staff meeting. I do agree that some people take this holiday decoration business a bit too far."
The winter holiday season in New York was one of those special times when - in spite of the masses of people, and the crowds in the shops buying last minute presents, and the pickpockets and drug addicts looking to rob shoppers of their wallets, and the lines at the post office, and the unbelievably horrible traffic - the city actually looked festive and in some places even beautiful.
From Central Park all the way to downtown Manhattan, Fifth Avenue was lined with decorated windows, some elaborate and wonderful, some dreadfully kitschy, and wreaths of holly, berries, and glass ornaments seemed to have magically sprouted above the many shop entrances. At night the street was a blaze of light; even the lamp posts were decorated. The old, venerable department stores displayed mechanical holiday scenes, complete with moving figures, in their windows, and people queued for half an hour to see them. Not to be outdone, the city's museums ornamented their entrance halls and facades with a vengeance, and with the multiculturalism of the city in mind. The Metropolitan Museum had holly and ivy in the huge stone urns in their main hall, and their annual Christmas tree, set up as always in the medieval galleries, ornamented with eighteenth-century Neapolitan Baroque angels and cherubs and candles, above a detailed crèche of the same origin. A handsome eighteenth-century Hanukkah menorah was installed in a gallery nearby. At the Museum of Natural History, two huge dinosaurs decorated with pine boughs, colored lights and holiday wreaths appeared on the front steps, a massive tree hung with origami animals stood in one of the halls, and workshops and receptions were held for the celebration of Kwanzaa.
There was a kind of unspoken competition amongst the city's smaller museums. The Frick, the Morgan, the Cooper-Hewitt, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Pendragon Institute generally outdid themselves trying to look as holiday-friendly and tastefully carnivalesque as possible. This year the staff of the Institute, fired up by the spirit of friendly rivalry, had appealed to their London-based Senior Director, Uther Pendragon, for a little extra funding, and as a result the beautifully-ornamented tree in their entrance hall was taller than the tree of the previous December. It glowed satisfactorily with tiny white lights, and swags of pine and holly hung on the walls; more pine branches, interwoven with ivy, decorated the simply carved, twelfth-century altar in the sculpture gallery. Somebody – Arthur suspected Leon, the Head of Security – had suspended a sprig of mistletoe above one of the doorways to the tapestry gallery. Lance and Gwen – being newlyweds – obligingly stopped and kissed beneath it, but nobody else paid it much attention.
Visitors to the museum stopped looking at the art and applauded at the sight of the dark, handsome arms-and-armor curator and the pretty textile conservator snogging away, but Arthur's stepsister Morgana insisted that she would never make such a public spectacle of herself.
"If you keep doing that sort of thing, people are going to start coming here to stare at the good-looking staff, not the sculptures and paintings," she snorted, tossing her mane of dark hair. "It's bad enough that journalists are calling Arthur the 'Sexiest Museum Director Alive.' I mean, honestly! We're a cultural institution, not a paparazzi magnet."
Both Lance and his missus rolled their eyes towards the vaulted ceiling.
As it happened, two weeks earlier both the Assistant Director and Morgana, the senior curator, had returned to the city from brief business trips. Morgana had spent eight days in Sicily, attending first a symposium on medieval fresco painting, and then a tour of Norman castles in Palermo province. Arthur had been closer to home, at a series of meetings with fellow museum directors and administrators in Los Angeles, California. The meetings had lasted three days, followed by two days of museum visits, after which he had felt obligated to spend a little time with old school friends ("A gang of expat Brits, just like us," Morgana said) now living in nearby Corona del Mar. Altogether he had been away for a week, and when he walked through the door of his New York flat, his hands full of luggage and gift parcels, he was in a particularly…needy frame of mind. He had dropped his bags on the floor just inside the entrance, and shouted for Merlin, who emerged from the study and predictably tripped over the nearest suitcase.
"Watch it, you idiot, there are wine bottles in there," were the first words of love out of Arthur's mouth as he pulled Merlin into his arms.
"California wine is available in any New York liquor store," Merlin had mumbled an hour later into the little hollow above Arthur's collarbone. "I don't understand why you had to buy so much of it there."
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur replied, loosening his grip on Merlin's short, dark hair. He was sprawled all over their rumpled sheets, blissfully exhausted, his own immaculately cut fair hair a tangled mess, his clothes and luggage strewn across the bedroom floor. "I didn't buy any of it. It was given to me, and I could hardly throw it away."
Merlin had raised his head a little, so that Arthur's eyes rested with sleepy pleasure on his pale, angular face and blue eyes beneath the jagged spikes of fringe, and that full lower lip with the little indentation in the middle. He had missed Merlin terribly – had missed his retorts, wry comments, and impish sense of humor as much as his companionship and his thin, pliant body - during that busy week in LA, but he was damned if he was going to admit to it.
Instead, he had absently tapped the rhythm to some song by Coldplay on Merlin's hipbone and snapped, "I don't suppose there's anything in the kitchen that you could feed me? I'm famished after…after my exertions on your behalf."
This hardly amounted to a declaration of passionate attachment, but Merlin seemed not to notice. At least, he took Arthur's high-handed attitude in stride, as he usually did, and gently disengaged himself from their close embrace, sliding out of bed and stretching, rubbing his eyes with his fists.
"I think there's some leftover grain salad," he mumbled vaguely, hunting about the room for his clothes. "And soup, and some cheese. And a loaf of new bread."
"That'll be fine," Arthur said, pulling back the covers. He stood up almost reluctantly, surveying the contrast between Merlin's milky pallor and his own skin, tanned a becoming pale gold by the southern California sun, and the similarly striking contrast between Merlin's almost fragile slimness and his own athletic build. "We should open one of those bottles of wine to have with it," he muttered, beginning to think less about dinner than about maneuvering his junior conservator back into bed. "But I think it needs to settle after being jostled about in my luggage. We can open it in an hour."
"Needs to settle…what needs to settle?" Merlin said confusedly, only just beginning to look more than halfway awake.
"The wine, idiot," said Arthur, getting back into bed and drawing Merlin down with him.
The very next day, Morgana had made her triumphant return from Sicily. She had taken her young half brother, Mordred, with her, insisting that the experience would more than make up for his missing a week of school. As usual when coming back to the Institute after a business trip, she brought small gifts for everybody, which she distributed during lunch break. Lance and Gwen received a beautifully painted ceramic dish; most of the others were given candied lemon or orange peel, or Sicilian nougat. (Gaius, head of the Conservation department, protested that the chewy nougat sweets would rid him of what remained of his natural teeth, so Will, the objects conservator, promptly pocketed most of them.) Leon was handed a bottle of potent Sicilian grappa. ("She gave him the best present, naturally," grumbled Arthur.) After rummaging in her shoulder bag, Morgana had finally presented Arthur with a large ball of soap on a rope, and her stepbrother looked at her askance.
"I don't suppose this is meant to be some sort of hint," he said acidly, balancing the yellow globe in one hand.
"Don't be silly, Arthur," Morgana had replied, looking down her elegant, aristocratic nose. "It's a popular souvenir in Palermo. It's full of Sicilian lemon oil, and I thought it had a very manly scent."
"I notice you didn't give one to Merlin," Arthur murmured.
"What would be the point?" was the prompt response. "You'll be sharing yours with him anyway."
She had then marched away, looking unendurably smug. Now, two weeks later, she was still looking smug, and it was obvious that she knew something nobody else did. But she was remarkably tight-lipped and even Leon, her cavalier (as Arthur put it), had no inkling of what she was so pleased about.
"I've known her all my life," Arthur muttered to Lance and Will as they convened in his office for the first December staff meeting. "And I ought to be used to her by now. How could she do this to us?"
"Perhaps she's gone over to The Dark Side," Will suggested, not too quietly. "And she's going to defect to one of the huge, monster institutions like the Louvre, or the British Museum, or the Metropolitan."
"Or she's planning some sort of family coup, and is going to seize the reins of power from Uther, bypass you, Arthur, and set herself up as Senior Director of the Institute," Lance said, also more loudly than was necessary.
Morgana glared at the three of them from the other side of the room, and began holding forth about the arrant stupidity of the male gender. At the close of the meeting (which went smoothly, despite Merlin's half-hearted complaints on the subject of the hat), she approached the Assistant Director with a Cheshire Cat smile and asked him why he was looking so cross, especially when things at the Institute were going so well.
"We've gotten a grant for another special exhibition, the new museum guidebook is on its way to the printers, and we're operating in the black, unlike some other small museums I could name," she said primly. "There's no reason for you to look grim, stepbrother dear. Now, I'm off to read Leon's reports on new security measures for the tapestry gallery."
She looked like the proverbial cat who had eaten the canary, or like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth, but Arthur had received an email from Uther that very morning, and therefore had ammunition to spare.
"Before you rush off to commune with lover boy Leon," he said smoothly. "I don't suppose you've heard that Father and your mum are coming to New York for Christmas."
The senior curator's eyes widened and her crimson lips opened, shut, and then tightened into a thin line.
"I'll be delighted to see Mum," she said abruptly. "And I'm sure she's dying to spend time with Mordred."
Mordred, her extremely precocious little half brother, had been moved from London to New York at the end of the summer, to live with his older sister. He seemed to be quite happy living in Manhattan (although he was such a poker-faced child that it was difficult to tell when he was happy or not), was pleased with his school (even though, as in London, he was light-years ahead of his classmates, academically), and enjoyed spending after-school hours with his half siblings at the Institute. Elaine, his mother, rang him up from London every night to chat, and she had flown to New York several times to visit him, but both Arthur and Morgana were certain that Mordred wouldn't want to spend the winter holidays without her.
"Her original plan, as you well know, was for all of us to go to London for Christmas," Arthur sighed. "She had plans for a family reunion of sorts, with Cousin Galahad and the gods know who else. But renovation work on the house isn't finished, Galahad's swanned off to Scotland to spend the holidays with his girlfriend's family, and most of the country's been hit with a snowstorm. So, if they can get a flight out, she and Father want to come here."
"Bloody hell," Morgana said under her breath. "Where are they going to stay? Not with you?"
"Not with me," Arthur answered shortly. "They're booking a room at the Pierre."
It did him good to watch his stepsister's expression become considerably less smug than it had been for weeks, and he knew that she would spend most of her stepfather's visit doing battle with him, but he himself was not thrilled at the prospect of Uther Pendragon's arrival. He had refrained from mentioning it at the staff meeting, wanting to tell Morgana first, but now he would have to send an interoffice email all round the building, to inform his colleagues – including Merlin - that the Senior Director would be in town for the duration of the holiday.
That evening, most of the senior staff repaired to The Griffin to indulge in some liquid form of holiday cheer, and raise their deflated spirits after reading Arthur's all-points email.
The Griffin's main room, with its handsomely appointed bar, round wooden tables, flowers in huge glass vases, and wood-paneled walls, was as elegant as that of any Upper East Side pub. It was also quite warm, but Gaius noticed that Merlin was sniffling and told him to put on his jacket.
"I told you to get a flu shot," said Arthur with lordly condescension.
"I did get one. Last week," replied Merlin, looking in his jacket pocket for a handkerchief or tissues. "I think I'm allergic to the flowers." He gestured in the direction of The Griffin's vases, which were loaded with exotic-looking blossoms and what looked like some sort of ivy.
"I hope you're not going to pretend to be ill, so you can avoid Father when he makes his appearance," Arthur said under his breath, smiling. Merlin rolled his eyes.
"Cheers, mate," somebody said behind them, and they turned to find Lance's good friend Gwaine, waving a pint of Guinness at them from the bar. He was smiling at all of them, but he appeared to have been speaking to Merlin, and as they watched, he lifted his heavy glass in a brief salute.
Arthur grinned back at him, although he did wish – as he had before – that Gwaine would stop flirting quite so openly with Merlin. Of course it wasn't only Merlin he flirted with. Gwaine had a tendency to make eyes at anybody, female or male, who didn't fall into the category of geriatric, but such was his devil-may-care charm that even Arthur found him to be entertaining company. Gwaine had been recently hired as a technician by the Metropolitan Museum, and according to Lance, it looked as though he might actually make it through the year without getting sacked for inappropriate behavior.
Lance himself was ensconced at the bar with yet another of the old school chums he frequently brought with him to The Griffin. This evening it was Percival, and after a while they both stood up and strolled over to the table where Arthur was sitting with Merlin, Gaius, and Gwen.
Percival ducked as he passed beneath the brass chandelier, and everybody laughed, Percival just as heartily as the others. He was accustomed to being twitted about his height and a physique that wouldn't have seemed out of place at a Mr Universe contest. To tell the truth, he was a little overwhelming, being, as Morgana put it, frighteningly fit, and he towered over everybody else. Arthur definitely did not like being towered over, but he appreciated Percival's soft-spoken modesty and was good natured about the fact that all of Lance's mates seemed to resemble Roman gladiators or Olympic athletes.
"Where does Lance find these fellows?" he muttered under his breath to Gwen. "Does he belong to some elite gym, or what?"
Gwen shrugged her shoulders histrionically. "I have no idea," she murmured. "But I think you should invite them to the holiday staff party. It might intimidate your dad if he sees such mighty warrior types at your beck and call."
"That's not a bad idea," Arthur replied, half-joking. "Not that I think it'll work. Ask Lance, would you? By the way, do you happen to know what Morgana has up her sleeve? I mean, she usually confides in you. She's been gloating about something, and I'm bug…damned if I know what it is."
"She hasn't told me a thing," Gwen said flatly, glancing first at a group of tipsy young women who were eyeing her husband, and then at the beautiful senior curator, perched on a chair next to Leon at the next table. "But I do believe you're right. Either she's discovered some earth-shatteringly important work of art and wants to take full credit for it, or she's just won an ocean cruise for two…and isn't planning on inviting either of us along."