Summary: Merlin Emrys works the copy editing desk at the Camelot Herald, but dreams of reporting. When he finally gets a chance, it’s a big one: covering Prince Arthur’s Christmas charity auction. But a run-in with the prince himself may end up changing Merlin’s life in a very different way.
Word Count: 2,468
Author's Notes: This is very, very loosely based on the questionable Netflix movie A Christmas Prince. I hope you like it!
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
Copy editing was not Merlin’s dream job, not by a long shot. But the Camelot Herald hadn’t been hiring reporters when he got out of school, and at least it got his foot in the door, right? At least that’s what he told himself as he scribbled red through an entire paragraph of Valiant’s piece on Albion’s low birth rates and aging population. None of which had anything to do with traffic fatality statistics, especially when he only had nine hundred words to work with. And knowing Valiant, they probably weren’t even accurate.
Two theres to theirs later, the ancient gray-that-used-to-be-white phone on his desk rattled with a shrill ring. “This is Merlin,” he answered while making a note in the margin—Unattributed quote—and underlining it three times.
“Of course it is, boy, no one else would go near your disaster of a desk.”
“Gaius!” Merlin put down his pen and straightened his hunched posture, even though the managing editor couldn’t see him.
“I need to see you in my office immediately,” Gaius told him. It sounded menacing, but Gaius frequently sounded menacing and only rarely delivered on it. On the other hand, he rarely ordered people to his office.
The copy desk was a floor below, ad Gaius’s office was at the very end of the hallway furthest from the elevators, so Merlin had plenty of time to worry about what he’d done. He didn’t come up with any answers. Things had been going well; no one had yelled at him in over a week, and their mysterious publisher Kilgharrah had sent a paper-wide email praising an infographic that Merlin’s fact-checking had saved from horrible inaccuracy.
When he got there, Gaius waved for him to shut the door and have a seat. Without any preamble, he said, “You want to be a reporter.”
It wasn’t inflected like a question, but after he said it he just stared at Merlin with a dramatic, judgmental eyebrow raised. To be safe, Merlin nodded and answered, “Yes.”
“Well, congratulations. You’re getting your chance. And I do mean chance, singular,” he warned, eyebrow still in place. “If you mess up on this assignment, you probably won’t ever get journalism work in Albion again.”
Merlin resented that he hadn’t even been given a chance to be excited about the news before his stomach dropped out at the caveat. “Oh,” he said faintly. “No pressure or anything.”
“Yes, pressure. I’m putting my reputation on the line here to give you this opportunity, because I believe you can do it. But it’s a story with a lot riding on it, so if you fail, there will be consequences for the entire Herald.”
“You don’t want to, uh, start me off with something a little less potentially disastrous?” Merlin asked, without much hope for a good response.
“You can say no to this assignment, of course.” Gaius’s disapproval was withering. “If you want to spend the rest of your life on the copy desk.”
He knew Gaius would make good on it, too. Geoffrey was almost ready to retire from his permanent exile there, and Gaius wouldn’t hesitate to make it Merlin’s home for the rest of his career.
Then, perhaps reading the terror in Merlin’s eyes, Gaius relented slightly. “I really do think you’re the right man for the job, Merlin. But you’re also our best option. Elyan was supposed to take it for us, but he’s home sick with the baby. Valiant is still barred from the palace after last year. If I have to turf Metro’s biggest story of the year to Entertainment or Business, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
It was Merlin’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “Turfing it to Metro’s copy desk is somehow less embarrassing?”
“It will be,” said Gaius, “once you prove to everyone that you deserve that byline.”
Okay. He could do this. It was only his entire career on the line. It was only Metro’s biggest story of the year. It was only at the palace—
“At the palace?” He wasn’t proud of how his voice broke, but he didn’t think he could be blamed for that. “You’re sending me to cover Prince Arthur’s Christmas auction? He threw Val out last year. Personally. Physically!”
“He did,” Gaius agreed, sounding bored. “So I recommend you refrain from molesting the princess. In fact, if you’re able to avoid molesting anyone at all, that really would be best.”
“Right. No molestation. No problem.”
Merlin still felt a little faint at the prospect, but he didn’t get any more time to dwell on it before Gaius hustled him out of the office. “I hope you have a suit,” Gaius called after him, “since we don’t have time to get anything tailored now. Take the rest of the day to get ready, you need to be at the palace by four.”
* * *
Merlin’s suit had seen better days. Many better days. Years of better days. He smoothed the worn lapel self-consciously as he walked up the steps, surrounded by people in designer clothes that probably cost more than his whole year’s salary.
He had to be at the wrong entrance. Even people who regularly covered events like this couldn’t possibly dress up that much for them. The people around him were clearly the audience, not the press; the rich, famous, and noble people who would be bidding on the auction that Merlin was covering.
Looking around to see if he could spot anyone else with a press pass, checking his own pass to see if he’d missed any directions, he stopped maybe a bit too suddenly. Someone rammed into him from behind, hard enough to send him to his knees. He hit the steps painfully, and if people hadn’t been staring at him before, they definitely were after his loud yelp.
As he tried to right himself, Merlin ended up face-first in the crotch of the person—man, that was definitely a man—who’d tripped over him. Everybody erupted in gasps and murmurs, Merlin threw himself backward as much as he could manage which really just ended up slamming his back against the edge of a step, and Prince Arthur looked down at him with an expression that was mostly unreadable but seemed to have the edge of a smirk to it.
Only hours ago, he’d promised Gaius not to molest anyone and there he was, not even inside yet, molesting the heir to the throne himself.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Prince Arthur said as the stone staircase refused to obligingly open up and let Merlin fall into the bowels of the earth, never to be seen again. “And I generally prefer to have people’s names before they put their mouths on my genitals.”
He didn’t make the slightest effort to keep his voice down, so of course his words earned another round of shocked noises from the crowd. It struck Merlin as honestly a little precious of everyone involved; there was a reason tabloids had called him “the Party Prince” all throughout his years at college. Though Prince Arthur’s behavior had calmed down since returning to the palace at Camelot, at least publicly, he’d never expressed any sort of remorse for his past.
There probably wasn’t much Merlin could salvage in the way of dignity—or his job prospects—but he was going to try. “Merlin Emrys. Camelot Herald.” He held out his hand.
It was an awkward angle for a handshake, since he was still fallen back against the steps, but after a moment’s consideration Prince Arthur took it. Instead of shaking, the prince pulled Merlin to his feet—and fairly intimately into Prince Arthur’s space, as well. Though not quite as intimate as he’d been, Merlin supposed.
“Merlin Emrys. I thought I was familiar with all the Metro desk bylines at the Herald, but I don’t remember seeing your name.”
Before Merlin could answer, simultaneously flustered by their proximity and uncertain how to respond to that statement without admitting he was ridiculously unqualified to be there, Prince Arthur waved the issue away and took a half step to the side, separating them enough for Merlin to breathe without feeling the prince’s heat seeping into his lungs.
“Well, at least you’re not the blockhead from last year. But you know, it’s a good thing you ran into me. That press pass won’t get you in this door.”
“Yeah.” Merlin winced down at it. “I had just figured that out when I—uh, ran into you.” When the prince had run into him, more like, but he wasn’t going to push his luck any further. “I don’t suppose you could point me in the direction of where I need to go?”
“I could,” Prince Arthur said slowly, in a tone that suggested another option. The only other option Merlin could think of was getting thrown out on his ass à la Valiant, which he didn’t deserve when it had clearly been an accident.
But what Prince Arthur offered instead was, “Or you could come through this door as my guest. An exclusive with the prince of Albion—pretty impressive for your first assignment, wouldn’t you say?”
Merlin frowned at him suspiciously. “Why?”
“There’s just something about you, Merlin.” He wrapped an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and turned him around, facing the palace’s front doors again. “What do you say?”
“I’m not sleeping with you,” Merlin muttered. Either he’d get his exclusive with Prince Arthur—ethically—and wow Gaius, or he wouldn’t and refusing the prince would get him banished and his future was forfeit anyway. His tolerance for walking on eggshells was low and had already been expended in making it that far in the conversation. If Prince Arthur wanted to volunteer for an entire evening with him, he would know what he was signing up for.
The prince just laughed. “Not before you go to print, at least,” he murmured back. “That would be unethical. Come along, Merlin. You have a lot to cover tonight.”
* * *
Arthur really did keep Merlin busy all evening, and not with flirting. The prince barely stood still, and only ever sat down when he was talking to someone already at a table. Every guest, every potential donor, got a personal visit complete with questions about their health and family, as well as details about the cause being supported: an orphanage for disabled children who frequently had trouble being adopted to good homes.
Arthur shared countless stories of the individual children there, and Merlin, who was himself taking copious notes, marvelled that Arthur never referred to anything but his own memory for the anecdotes. He lit up talking about the kids, especially when he was telling personal stories, adventures he’d had with them—and there were so many. Was that where the prince spent his time when he wasn’t partying?
In spite of their rough first meeting, Merlin found himself charmed. Arthur was genuine in a way that belied his earlier smugness, and his chiding goaded bids higher and higher until Merlin had a hard time conceptualizing the value of how much money had been raised as the night wore on. He’d heard that Prince Arthur was dedicated to these events, the amounts raised over the past few years for various charities had been staggering, but it was a much different thing to read about versus experiencing it in person.
When it was time for dinner, Arthur finally led him to a table. It was smaller than the rest, probably the only table they hadn’t visited while Arthur was doing his rounds. Merlin quickly saw why as they sat in the only two chairs, in front of the only two place settings; facing each other, intimate like a first date instead of an interview or the large-scale event that it was.
“How did you arrange this?” Merlin asked, shaking his head at Arthur’s gall. It was probably inappropriate and definitely embarrassing to let himself be courted so openly while on assignment, but for all that people had stared when Merlin made a spectacle of himself on the palace steps, no one seemed to take much interest in his dinner plans. Most of the attention in the room was directed to eating, and what wasn’t was focused instead on the stage where a new auctioneer was taking over.
“And shouldn’t you be sitting with someone who’s paid for the privilege?” he went on before Arthur answered.
“Of course not,” Arthur said with a smirk. Unlike the easy, happy smiles of earlier in the evening, Merlin didn’t trust that one at all. “This is just a thanks for the generous donation of your time.”
The seared salmon was delicious, moist and flavorful and flaked apart without crumbling, and the vegetables on the side were seasoned to perfection. Merlin couldn’t eat another bite of them, staring hard at Arthur who continued to demolish his dinner in the most dignified manner possible. “What donation, what are you talking about?”
Dabbing his completely clean lips—not that Merlin noticed—with his napkin, Arthur asked, “Do you know what the dinner auctions are?”
The non-sequitur felt like a trap, but Merlin followed it anyway. “Sure, the dates. People bid on dates with famous or rich people; actors and CEOs and, you know, princes.”
Arthur’s grin just grew. “Right. Though I’m not for sale this year.”
“Okay, but how does that answer... No.” It wasn’t a non-sequitur. “No, you didn’t!”
“Who’s even going to pay for—for a date with me?”
“Not me. It would be unethical before the story is done.”
“You—you prat!” Merlin hissed as the announcer called his name for the first auction.
Grinning, Arthur waved him on in smug encouragement. “Go on, make the Herald proud.”
* * *
After the auction, where Merlin won a much higher bid than he thought he was worth—from Princess Morgana, of all people—he returned to his seat across from Arthur and glared. “You’re a terrible person,” he informed the prince.
Arthur just laughed with a wide, open smile and bright eyes, and Merlin knew he was a goner.
So at the end of the evening, when Arthur paused while escorting Merlin to the door and looked up, Merlin didn’t roll his eyes at seeing the mistletoe hanging above them. Especially because Arthur didn’t push; he just tilted his head at Merlin, questioning, and waited. Merlin couldn’t control the grin that split his face, so the first kiss felt strange, their lips not quite fitting together right beneath the smile.
Arthur pulled him close, trying to deepen the kiss, but Merlin placed his palms against the prince’s chest and gently pushed him back. Arthur looked so softly confused that Merlin was defenseless against it. He pressed another kiss to Arthur’s cheek.
“Call me after press tomorrow.”