"This is my review of Ms. Evienne's work," Arthur said, his tone heavy as a sledgehammer. "She's done nothing for this presentation, and that's what she deserves to show." He scooped the shreds of cloth and combed through the crowd, placing them ceremoniously onto Merlin's lap. Merlin barely knew how to receive the gift, staring up at Arthur with thinly veiled shock. "I'm sorry, Merlin," Arthur said gently. "That makes two of your dresses of I've ruined in less than twenty four hours-"
Nimue's eyes vibrated, her gaze burrowing into Arthur as she stood. "How dare you come into this critique, destroy my work and insinuate that I-"
"I'm not insinuating anything!" Arthur said, the fever of his anger rising. "You and I both know Merlin made that dress, just like every assignment you've turned in for the last month! You're a liar and a cheater-"
"Cheater? You're the one fucking Merlin behind your girlfriend's back!" Nimue shouted into his face with a throaty wail.
Arthur felt like a character from "Swords of Our Fathers," watching sickly as his blood spilled through his fingers. He had known there would be a high price for his impulsiveness, and Nimue had gone straight for the jugular. He may have exposed her for fraud-but the bitch had gutted him.
The teacher's voice rose over the amassing alarm, struggling to maintain authority.
"What's wrong, Arthur," Nimue smiled, pursing her red lips. "Didn't want anyone knowing you're a faggot?"
His eyes moved slowly to the two other people involved in his shameful love triangle; the people for whom he cared most. Merlin was cardinal red. Gwen saucer eyed; her pained expression leaving a sour taste in Arthur's mouth. He didn't want anyone to look at him, but that's exactly what every face within twenty feet was doing. It was the nightmare of standing naked before a massive crowd; but he was wide-awake in this living hell. He prayed for an earthquake. Ideally the magnitude seven the papers threatened could strike the San Andreas fault at any time—
But it didn't come.
Mrs. Blaze inserted herself between the students, heaving Nimue forward. "I do not tolerate hate speech in my classroom under any circumstance, Ms. Evienne!" she growled. Then she set her sights on Arthur, cuffing his forearm. "I've had enough out of the both of you! If either of you speaks another word, consider yourself expelled. And you, Mr. Emrys-"
Merlin swallowed audibly in his seat.
"I think it's best," the teacher sighed. "If you join your unruly classmates at the counseling office."
The shiny brass placket on the desk read 'Carol Lynn, Assistant Director of Psychology'. A claim backed up by a doctoral degree bragging on the wall above. The room was luxurious; every surface decorated with colorful abstracts, making it look more like a Jackson Pollock gallery than an office. The counselor quietly entered the room. She was a young forty, her gray hair streaked with magenta. It struck Arthur as an unusual style choice for a woman her age, but she carried it well.
"Mr. Pendragon-" She began.
"Mr. Pendragon is my father," Arthur replied briskly. "You can call me Arthur."
The counselor assessed him with a curious look, then continued. "Arthur, Mrs. Blaze tells me there was an incident between yourself, a Miss Evienne and a Mr. Emrys during an open critique?"
The petite shadow of said teacher hovered outside the frosted glass door, reminding Arthur of the bruising his arm would feel tomorrow. He cracked his shoulders. Truth be told, he was terrified to be here, but he'd be dammed if he'd let the counselor notice. "Something like that," he replied
"Ms. Evienne is giving her statement of events to my colleague as we speak, and Mr. Emry's will be after her," Mrs. Lynne said, pulling out a yellow legal pad. "As a school counselor, everything you tell me will be kept under strict confidentiality. But before we proceed, I want you to understand that Ms. Evienne's language towards you was in direct violation of the school's hate speech policy, and will therefore be properly addressed. However, her behavior does not diminish the seriousness of your actions, Arthur, or your allegations against her."
"I stand by what I said at critique," Arthur replied. "The dress Nimue showed wasn't hers. I didn't mean to freak anyone out; I couldn't stand that woman taking credit for work she didn't do. Something in me just…snapped."
"Can you elaborate?" Mrs. Lynne asked, jotting down notes.
"Nimue has been blackmailing Merlin. Forcing him to do her studio assignments. The dress I ripped wasn't even hers. Not really. All the the sewing, the patterning, it was all Merlin's.
Carol's expression was unreadable. "And what is Ms. Evienne supposedly, blackmailing Mr. Emrys with?"
"She has-" despite his best effort Arthur blushed. "A compromising video of Merlin and I. She threatened to make it public if we didn't do what she wanted. I told Merlin that no one could find out about us, especially not my girlfriend. So we struck a bargain with Nimue. For the past month I've been paying Nimue for silence and Merlin's been working for it."
"I take it you were concerned for your relationship with your girlfriend? If the video were made public?"
Arthur looked straight at the counselor and said, "Gwen and I have been together for years, she'd be furious if she found out I cheated on her. There's no way I could guarantee that she wouldn't tell everything to my sister. My Father is pretty religious. If he found out about Merlin and I, It would be-bad."
"Would he be angry?"
Arthur cleared his throat. "Well, besides cutting my school funds, let's just say I don't think I'd be invited home for Christmas. My father isn't very fond of that 'lifestyle', so to speak."
"Do you consider yourself a gay man, Arthur?"
He'd expected this to be brutal. But hadn't expected the damn Spanish Inquisition. "I've dated woman just fine," he swallowed. "But I've always been- curious. You have to understand I'd never considered trying anything with a guy until Merlin-" he leaned back in his seat. He wanted to say it out loud. To see how it felt. Here in this room, with a woman legally bound to silence seemed as good a place as any. "Yeah," Arthur said. "I'm gay."
The counselor seemed unaffected by his revelation. As if he had just told her he liked sugar in his coffee. How ironic, thought Arthur, that the thing he had dreaded saying out loud for so many years elicited so little reaction. "So you asked Merlin to keep your affair a secret?" she replied.
"I didn't ask," Arthur snapped. "I practically forced him! Merlin worked until he could barely stand because of me. He embarrassed himself in a room full of people, all because I didn't have the balls to fess up to Gwen and tell her months ago that I'm in love with-" Arthur stopped, realizing with horror that the moisture dripping down his cheeks wasn't sweat, but tears.
He never cried.
"This is my fault, all of it," he whispered, burying his head in his hands. But the tears kept coming, wracking him to his core. "I've fucked up both their lives. I doubt either of them will speak to me after this-"
Carol moved slowly out from her desk. "Arthur," she said, in a soft voice. "Would you like a glass of water?"
He nodded when words failed him.
Her exit gave him a chance to pull himself back together. To steal a tissue from a box on her desk, blow his nose and gather up his erratic emotions. When she returned with the plastic cup he had regained enough courage to meet her eyes. He downed the water all in one gulp.
"I can tell you're very upset about what's happened," Carol continued. "But do you have any proof to corroborate your story?"
"Merlin has the video Nimue took," he replied, clearing his sniffling. "I mean, she doesn't say anything on it, but, she took it-"
"I'm sorry Arthur, but I doubt that video of that nature would hold on it's own. Is there anything else? A written letter by Ms. Evienne, or an email?"
He cursed under his breath. The bitch had been right that night at the bar. What did he have on Nimue but his word over hers? Would all of this come down to who was a better storyteller? He swallowed his disappointment until it left a hard pit in his stomach. "So," he asked wearily. "What happens now?"
"All three of you will be put on a weeklong suspension. During that time, a board will review your statements, as well as the footage of your vandalism durring the critique. After a week's time, there should be a decision with regards to your continued enrollment at CCA."
"Yes, from the school's security cameras."
"I thought the cameras in the classrooms were for show. They actually work?" Arthur shouted.
"They're operational." She said mildly.
"Do they record audio, or just video?"
"And how long are the recordings stored?"
"That's not my department," the counselor replied, her over-plucked eyebrows crinkling in thought. "If memory serves, I believe the footage is stored for a period of three months. A safety measure; so the school has a database to access in case of a theft or crime report. After the allotted time it's cleared."
Arthur found the pleasure of this revelation impossible to contain. He grinned ear-to-ear, feeling more like his old self as he asked, "Do you have a piece of paper?"
She passed him her notepad, and he wracked his brain. He would never forget the first date. The day he and Merlin consummated their relationship in the car. The others were a bit fuzzy but the stalker in him knew Merlin's schedule well enough to bluff it.
"I've written down everything I can think of," Arthur said, eagerly returning the notepad. "For the first date, check the footage from the cameras at back of the school. Merlin said Nimue took him out for a smoke when she first threatened him with blackmail; I'll bet my life she wouldn't have done that at the front of the school. For the rest of the dates, check the fashion studio from around eight to midnight. You'll see Merlin sewing the exact garment Nimue presented as hers during critique, not to mention several other projects of hers the teachers should be able to identify."
Mrs. Lynne looked at the black ink scribbles; Arthur watching as deeper thoughts clouded her calm exterior. "All right," she sighed. "I'll speak with security. If what you say is true and video exists to corroborates your story, I'll need to call you into my office again."
"Sure." Arthur smiled.
"And Arthur," she said, putting sharp emphasis on his name. "I just want you to understand that if you are telling the truth, you may need to give a statement, to the dean of the school and the chair of the fashion department. Are you willing to do that?"
He looked her straight in the eye and said, "I promised Merlin once that I'd never let anyone hurt him, but it was me who ended up almost ruining his life. I owe him this-and so much more. I'll do whatever you want. I'll swear on a damn bible if you ask me to. I have to make sure that bitch gets what she deserves. I have to fix this for Merlin."
The counselor stood up to shake his hand, then walked to the door, rapping twice on the frosted glass. "Thank you, Arthur, for coming forward. Security will escort you off the premises now."