First thing: I forgot to give credit to my beta reader, plummuffins, when I posted the last chapter. She was certainly to thank for getting chapter 8 faster than the speed of a snail loaded with tranquilizers. ^_^
Also, hope you took my advice about not counting on swift updates. This one was pretty bad, and I apologize. I was stuck at the bumping into the teacher bit for way too long.
Nope, not dead, just adding another note a month or so after the previous one. Got stuck at many different points in this chapter. It's almost done, gotta put the finishing touches on it.
Challenge for this chapter: A chapter where Merlin doesn't interact with Arthur, except maybe at the end.
After Merlin's afternoon class, he sent Morgana a text. Pursuing uninteresting solution now.
He had looked up where on campus he could find the journalism department and he was walking there now. He had some of what he wanted to say prepared in his head, but it all got blown to hell when he opened the door to the newsroom and found Juliet and some staff member getting their coats on as if to leave.
Juliet looked surprised, but not rattled. "Hello,uh... Merlin, wasn't it?"
Merlin fought down the nearly over-whelming urge to curse the stupid twat. "Yes, it's Merlin. Arthur's friend."
"Right," Juliet said, nodding as if this wasn't something that might make trouble for her.
"Um, Merlin, we were just closing down for the night; perhaps you could come back tomorrow?" the man offered.
"I wanted to file a complaint against the paper. I came here first, rather than go any higher."
That got the man's attention. He took off his coat and sat down on a rolling chair nearby. "I'm Mr. Pell, staff adviser to the paper. What's your complaint?"
Merlin sat on a stool near the door and studied the man for a moment. Probably in his forties, wearing khaki pants and a white button up shirt with a black sweater-vest. His hands were smudged with black ink, probably from freshly printed newspapers. He had a few smudges of black ink on his forehead where he had probably thoughtlessly brushed back some of his wavy blond hair. This was a man who didn't just advise. He worked with the newspaper; got his hands dirty. Merlin made a calculated guess that he really loved journalism.
Some professors taught to earn money, some taught because they loved what their subject. The latter are obviously the more valuable, though the two intersect most of the time. And Merlin was thinking he might find this teacher very valuable to him if he was driven by his love of journalism. Merlin could use that.
Merlin wanted to brush off the cold calculation; this was about heart, about right and wrong, not about probabilities or observable data. "I came to complain about the article on the front page of today's paper, and about the questionable methods used to obtain the information in that article."
Juliet's eyes narrowed just a little as Mr. Pell glanced over at her. "I've actually had a discussion about it already. It was a last minute switch to the front page. The Editor in Chief made the call."
"It was a bad call. Feigning interest in someone to get a story is not proper journalistic method. And putting it on the front page makes the paper look like a gossip rag."
Mr. Pell's eyebrows went up at that, but more in an intrigued fashion than a surprised one. "Oh? I wasn't told how the story was acquired."
Merlin glanced at Juliet. "She can tell whatever story with whatever spin on it that she wants, but the truth is that she intentionally gave Arthur the impression that she was interested in him and he believed her; he trusted her with his secrets and she published them. She obviously had help since she's in the picture that's on the front page. This was quite obviously planned. It was given some forethought, so in no way was it accidentally discovered, opportunely documented in a picture, and then casually splashed across the front page. Or anything along those lines. These methods scream 'tabloid' to me, not 'newspaper'."
Juliet was glaring now, undisguised. Mr. Pell turned to her and said, "And your story?"
"I was just tying my shoe when Arthur started talking to me. He seemed interesting and he was good looking, so I thought I'd get to know him better. I was deciding that he wasn't that interesting after all when he told me who he was and that he was a virgin. I couldn't let such an interesting lead go, so I worked it into an article. I didn't think Arthur would care; if he's that well-connected he's probably dealt with the media before."
Merlin abruptly stood from the stool so swiftly it fell over. "Wouldn't care? What the hell is wrong with you? You exposed his identity and humiliated him after he trusted you! You have no ethics, and your moral integrity is nonexistent. Your stupid article doesn't belong in a student paper because it doesn't affect the students. Who really cares about gossip about Arthur? Write about budget cuts or new programs. Something without people, because you should be kept as far from humanity as possible!"
During his rant, Merlin felt power building inside him, and he fought to keep it in check. Mr. Pell looked alarmed and Juliet looked a bit surprised, but her eyes were narrowed and she was watching Merlin carefully. "You're in love with him, aren't you?"
That was too much. Merlin felt something snap inside of him. "You wouldn't know what love is if it walked up and kissed you, you horrific, soulless cow!"
He took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He was shaking, and he was fairly certain his magic had just done something. He had to control himself or he'd get himself killed. "Mr. Pell, I've told you my complaints and I'd rather not share oxygen near this devious fiend, so I'll be going now. Do whatever you think you should."
Merlin didn't wait for an answer, he just left, charging down the hallway, around a corner, and into a person. He was moving with enough momentum to knock both of them over. He shook a little as he got up, still filled with adrenaline.
The man had been carrying a few books and Merlin picked them up and handed them to the man. He was probably a professor, but a young professor. He had brown hair that was parted down the middle and worn a bit longer than most men. He was attractively muscular and his face was very rugged and manly, and he wore square glasses over his grey eyes. In his professional-wear, Merlin looked at the man and thought of Clark Kent who wasn't Superman, no, never.
Even as he looked at the man, the man smiled at him and said, "You might want to slow down, just a bit."
Merlin was still breathing heavily, but his shaking was calming and his magic had stopped building and vying for release. "Sorry, sir."
He didn't stand around to chat; he kept right on charging away. When he was moving down the middle of campus he had only slowed a little, and that was only to avoid attracting a lot of attention. He heard footsteps thumping behind him and turned to see Lancelot trying to catch up with him. He stopped and waited.
"Man, Merlin, you can really move. What's up?" Lance wondered.
"Nothing much. I just didn't feel like dawdling."
"It looked like a different motivation than that. You looked angry."
"I'll tell you about it sometime when I'm not angry then."
"Oh. Okay," Lance said, shrugging. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Well, only once a day, and you just blew your opportunity for today."
Lancelot grinned at him. "Might I beg for charity and ask for another chance?"
"Even if I gave it to you, you've just wasted it."
Now Lancelot was chuckling. "What do you like to eat, other than pizza? I remember Gwen saying that you were a picky eater, so I thought I should consult with you and plan ahead of time where we'll eat."
Merlin abruptly felt a bit nervous, suddenly reminded of his upcoming date. And he found himself going soft and gooey inside from how considerate Lancelot was being. Merlin hadn't had more than one boyfriend, and the one he had had wasn't the nicest or most considerate boyfriend.
"The worst idea would be to take me to a fancy restaurant," Merlin told him.
Lancelot blinked in surprise and then smiled a little. "It's odd to hear a date say that, but since we'll be coming from self-defense training, we would be out of place at a fancy restaurant anyway. Any suggestions?"
"Where are we going to do this?"
"Well, the Rec seemed like a good idea; some of our student activity fees go towards that, so we might as well use it."
Merlin thought for a moment, then said, "Wendy's is near there, right? That would work."
Lancelot grinned at him. "I'm surprised that everyone hasn't asked you out; you're such an easy date." His eyes widened as he realized what that sounded like. "I didn't mean that in a bad way! I mean, I didn't mean that you're easy just easy to please-no, I didn't mean that either..."
Merlin grinned and couldn't help but laugh. "I understand. My food standards are specific, if not high."
Lance sighed and smiled at him. "There. That's what I meant. And now we have our plans laid for Wednesday night. I can't wait."
"Me neither," Merlin agreed.
"Where are you off to next?" Lancelot asked as Merlin started walking again.
"I thought I'd read at the library for a bit. Give Arthur some space and time to sleep so he won't bite my head off when I do go home."
Lance nodded. "The library is between here and my next class. I'll walk you there."
"And they say chivalry is dead," Merlin said with a grin. They started walking towards the library and one of the buildings that was nothing but lecture halls; Lawson.
Lance glanced over his shoulder for a second before he looked at Merlin and replied, "Only among the uncultured."
Merlin glanced over his shoulder too, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. "What were you looking at?"
"I thought I saw someone I knew," Lancelot said carelessly.
Merlin frowned, but then shrugged and dismissed it. He had better things to think about. Like wondering what Mr. Pell was going to do about the article. Merlin probably hadn't made a sterling impression there at the end. Nevermind the fact that his magic had done something there, probably to Juliet, and possibly to Mr. Pell.
Maybe he should go see Gaius again. His magic seemed to be growing more powerful, too powerful for him to control. Because, while his emotions strengthened his magic, they had never caused quite so much power to build up in him as had just happened in the Journalism room. It frightened him. He could hurt somebody. Or even if no one got hurt, he could cause something blatantly magical to happen and get himself jailed and executed.
"You okay, Merlin? You look worried," Lance noted, putting an arm around Merlin's shoulders.
The weight of Lancelot's arm was reassuring and Merlin smiled a little as he met Lancelot's gaze. "Just thinking I should go see a family friend."
Lancelot frowned and seemed to consider that. "One of your father's friends?"
Merlin felt a bit nervous about that, but Lancelot had trusted him, and he already knew about Merlin's magic. "Yeah. He knows about...skin conditions, and he can help me if my 'skin condition' starts to get out of control."
"Is it out of control?" Lancelot asked, immediately looking concerned and flicking his eyes around, presumably to monitor anyone who might hear them.
"It's getting there."
Lance sighed and shook his head. "I know that 'skin conditions' aren't my area of expertise, but let me know if there's anything I can do to help you."
"I will. Thank you, Lance," Merlin said. They had arrived at the rather impressively-proportioned steps to the library.
"I suppose I must leave you here," Lancelot said, sounding genuinely regretful.
"I'm sure I'll see you soon," Merlin said with a smile.
Lancelot grinned and waved, then walked rapidly toward Lawson. Merlin suspected that he had made himself late so he could stop and walk with Merlin. That made Merlin smile to himself as he walked in the building.
He found a comfortable chair that was within range of most of the foot-traffic coming through the first floor. Merlin liked to people watch sometimes, and he didn't mind the noise. He read for twenty minutes or so before he heard, "Oh, it's you!"
He looked up to see the Clark Kent guy from before. "Um, yeah. Did I actually injure you or something?"
Clark Kent smiled at him and shook his head. "No, but I couldn't help but notice how upset you looked and when I saw Mr. Pell looking shaken, I stopped to talk with him."
Merlin's face grew warm. "Ah, well, I lost my temper a bit. Mr. Pell seems nice enough, but that foul excuse for a human being is beyond tolerating."
"Yes, he mentioned that you weren't terribly fond of Juliet," Clark Kent mentioned as he took the seat beside Merlin's.
Suspicion came to the forefront of Merlin's thoughts. "Who are you?"
Clark Kent smiled and shook his head bemusedly. "Where are my manners; I'm Johnathan, but you can call me John. I know Juliet because she's in one of my classes."
"Oh." Merlin still felt wary, but he asked, "Is there a reason you stopped to chat?"
John smiled again. "I just found what Mr. Pell said about you to be quite intriguing. Very few people have the courage it takes to stand up against any kind of authority, including the media. And you did it for your friend."
Merlin frowned. "Arthur's my good friend, and no one deserves to be treated like she treated him."
"Still, you're quite impressive. Mr. Pell said your name was Merlin; I assume you don't mind if I call you Merlin?" John's face looked earnest and pleasant.
"Seeing how that's my name, no, I don't mind, John," Merlin said. The guy seemed nice enough, it wouldn't hurt to be polite.
John grinned at his response. "He said you seemed to have a sharp wit. He also said that though he's never seen you in the journalism department before, you seemed to have a good fundamental grasp of the ethics of journalism. Have you studied Journalism before?"
Crossing his arms with renewed suspicion, Merlin said, "You know, this feels an awful lot like an interview."
John laughed. "Sorry, didn't mean to ask so many questions. I just thought you were very interesting and wanted to make sure I introduced myself so I could talk to you in the future."
Merlin noted a few things that suddenly grabbed his attention. The pupils of John's eyes were a bit larger than the lighting in the room would demand, he was leaning towards Merlin a bit with open body language, except that one of his feet was tapping nervously. Was John attracted to him? Is that why he stopped to talk?
"Yes, well, it's nice to meet you, John. It's a big campus, but I'm sure we'll see each other again soon," Merlin said, hoping the guy would take the hint and leave. He seemed nice enough, but Merlin wasn't feeling overly emotionally stable and he didn't want to deal with this guy and risk anything magical happening again.
John stood up and nodded to him, still smiling. "I'm sure we will. Bye, Merlin."
As John walked off, Merlin felt a little stunned. The guy seemed interested in Merlin, yet he was pleasant, polite, could take a hint, and hadn't attempted to molest Merlin at all. Excluding Lance, he was beginning to worry that maybe he was a creep magnet. Maybe not. Hallelujah.
When Merlin got back to their apartment, Arthur was gone, probably in class, and Merlin flopped on the couch; too many thoughts running through his head to easily manage. There was a knock on the door not long after he got back and he groaned and pulled himself up to answer it.
Gwen was outside, giving him a small smile. "Hey. Can I come in?"
Merlin moved aside and closed the door behind her after she entered. "Something up? You seem a bit...reserved."
"Did you guys see the paper already?" Gwen asked, looking around, presumably to see if Arthur was lurking somewhere in the apartment. After she had checked both bedrooms and peeked into the bathroom, she sat down on the sofa with huff.
Her question drew a long sigh from Merlin as he joined her. "Yeah. Arthur wasn't pleased. Juliet definitely turned out to be as bad or worse than we suspected."
"I can see why he wouldn't be pleased," Gwen said. "So it's true?"
Merlin nodded. "Both facts are true. I'm rooming with the governor's son."
Gwen whistled. "That's a bit dodgy, isn't it? You've been careful, right?"
"I don't want to talk about that right now. I'm going to see Gaius later to make sure I can control myself. So is that what you came to talk about? Arthur?"
"Yeah, actually I came to talk to Arthur, but he doesn't seem to be here," Gwen said, looking around the apartment again as if Arthur might pop out of the fridge or something.
"You wanted to talk to him about the article?" Merlin asked, puzzled.
Gwen bit her lip. "I wanted to apologize for my behavior. And I also wanted to ask you how things are going with Lance."
Merlin blushed. "Not bad. He walked me to the library earlier. We have a date set for Wednesday."
"Did you tell him not to take you anywhere fancy?" Gwen asked.
Merlin grinned at that. "He asked me on his own where we should go since he knows I'm picky. I was really surprised how considerate he is."
"He's very impressive," Gwen agreed. She hesitated, then added, "Does this feel a bit queer to you, this thing where we're both going on dates with him at the same time?"
"Everything feels queer to me. It's my natural state of being," Merlin replied, grinning.
Gwen frowned at him. "I'm serious, Merlin."
"Sorry, couldn't pass that up. And yes, it feels a bit strange, discussing our dates with the same guy. But even if he doesn't pick me in the end, I think it will have been worth it to help him figure out which of his he wants. Either of us would be lucky to have him, and I only want the best for you, Gwen."
Gwens eyes looked a bit wet and she glared at him. "Say all that sweet stuff and I'm going to get diabetes. Don't you dare make me cry."
Merlin chuckled and hugged her. She returned the hug with even more force than he. "I love you, Merlin. I don't know what we'd do without each other."
"Without me to hold you back, you'd be a mass murderer or some such by now," Merlin replied.
The hug lingered a few moments more, but they broke apart when the door opened. Arthur walked in and examined them with a raised eyebrow. "Do I need to tell Lancelot that his two birds are going at it behind his back?"
Merlin rolled his eyes and Gwen frowned at him. "No, I actually came to apologize to you, Arthur."
Arthur blinked at her. "For what?"
Gwen sighed and got up to face Arthur as he closed the door and moved into the living area. "I admit that I haven't really been fond of you, but some of that was due to me jumping to conclusions when we met. One of my first impressions of you made me think you were a philandering man-whore. So I treated you as such. But I was wrong, and I'm sorry I misjudged you."
Arthur looked shocked, then blinked as he thought of something and a blush crept onto his face. "Is this because you read that article?"
"Well, yes. Partially because it seemed to prove to me that I misjudged you, and partially because anyone who would publish something like that is a heinous twat-licker and I can't stand by and let someone get away with it," Gwen told him seriously.
Merlin tried to stifle his laugh. "Heinous twat-licker..."
Gwen turned to glare at Merlin. "I'm serious. I saw a few people talking and laughing about it on the way here."
"What did you do?" Merlin asked, knowing she would have done something; her temper too out of her control to stand back and watch.
"I took the newspaper from the guy in the middle, calmly folded it closed and rolled it up and, less calmly, poked him in the stomach with it. He fell backwards off his chair and I called him a tiny, flaccid prick," Gwen told him. She turned back to Arthur. "It's not okay for anyone to treat someone else like that. And people who take joy in such things disgust me."
Arthur was watching and listening to Gwen with something akin to awe. "You're mad as a hatter, but you're one hell of a woman," he told her after a few moments passed.
And Gwen smiled at Arthur, offering her hand to him. "Well, I think we'll get on better now than we did before, so let me know if you get a lot of flack from that stupid article. It's the least I can do."
Arthur grinned back at her and shook her offered hand. "I don't know about that, but I'm glad we're on more agreeable terms."
"Indeed. Perhaps we should have a movie night again...without any kissing, this time," Gwen suggested. She moved towards the door. "I'll see you guys later," she said before she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
Arthur sighed heavily. "That is one mad but incredible bird."
Merlin watched Arthur; his posture had relaxed a lot since when he first came in. Merlin had noticed that he looked very tense when he came through the door, but now he was looser. Merlin smiled, knowing from experience that having Gwen fighting for you was of great reassurance.
"I think we should make sure Gwen and my sister never meet. I don't fancy watching the world burn," Arthur said at last, thoughtfully.
Well, done. Hopefully the next chapter will come out closer to the pace of a rattlesnake on PCP rather than that of a snail on lethal doses of tranquilizers. Thank you for the reviews, they got me working on the chapter after I had set it aside for a while. I'll be adding a status update for the next chapter on my profile page whenever I make progress/think about it. Other than that, just let me know what you thought, constructive criticism is always appreciated.