Summary: When Morgana takes the job as Gwen's assistant, she only wants to prove herself by throwing Arthur the best thirtieth party ever. It's hard to do, however, when she feels like she has to live up to the standard his assistant Merlin sets.
Warnings: An excess of love for The Princess Bride.
Word Count: 4464
Author's Notes: Happy holidays! I hope you enjoy. :)
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.
"You. Are. A. Godsend."
As vehement as Gwen sounded, Morgana didn't really believe her. Gwen was the one doing her a favor, not the other way around. But her university education was useless without licensing, and she'd squandered her inheritance believing Morgause's lies. Morgana needed this job as Gwen's personal assistant while she got back on her feet a lot more than Gwen might need help doing…what exactly?
"I hate just throwing you in the deep end like this," Gwen was saying as they hurried to the back of the house. For reasons she had yet to explain, she'd asked Morgana to meet there rather than at the office. "But Sophia was an idiot, and Merlin has so much on his plate already—"
"Who's Merlin?" She had a lot to catch up on. At least she knew Sophia was the assistant she was replacing, but more than that required asking awkward questions, questions she would've had the answers to if she hadn't spent her life ignoring her best friend for the past three years.
"Arthur's right hand. Seriously. Arthur's life would be pure chaos without Merlin."
So another assistant. Very capable. Morgana filed the information away for later.
"Remember I told you about that ex of Arthur's who showed up at our engagement party? Well, Merlin's the one who talked her down from the chandelier, and he's the one who got rid of every single bat she'd trapped in the vents before any could get out and spoil the party even more."
Articulate and resourceful, too. Normally, Morgana admired those qualities, but from the tone of Gwen's voice, she practically worshiped the man, which meant she told Merlin how wonderful he was all the time because that's just who Gwen was. His ego was probably bigger than Piers Morgan's.
"Anyway," Gwen continued, "Sophia promised me that she had the venue booked and the guest list done, but as I found out after she quit, that's a big fat no to both."
"It sounds like you're better off without her."
"I am. So much better. I only hired her in the first place because Uther asked me to."
Morgana cocked a brow. "Since when do you listen to what Uther wants?"
"Since I married his only child and that only child left the family business to follow his dream." Gwen grimaced. "I don't do guilt very well."
No, she didn't. That was why Morgana still wasn't sure this wasn't a pity job.
"And since Merlin is so busy, you'd like for me to get as much done as possible so he doesn't have to," Morgana said.
"That only leaves one thing."
"What exactly am I supposed to be organizing?"
They came to a halt at the edge of the kitchen. "Arthur's thirtieth birthday party. Didn't I tell you that already?"
While it was possible she had, Morgana shook her head. Better to save face that way. When she'd accepted Gwen's job offer, she hadn't been fully committed to the idea of coming back to London with her tail tucked between her legs. She might’ve missed that particular detail.
"I don't want it to be huge," Gwen went on. "Arthur made me promise not to go mad about it. But we haven't had a proper party for him in all the time we've been together. I wanted to make this one special."
"And it will be," Morgana assured. "You won't have to worry about a thing."
Gwen surprised her with a sudden warm hug. "I've missed you so much. I'm so glad you're home."
Tears pricked the back of Morgana's eyes, but she squeezed them shut to keep from completely falling apart. She'd been fearful about everyone's pity and judgments about her less than successful return. At least Gwen was still on her side.
"Sophia didn't leave any results, but Merlin scrounged up all my notes to her about what we wanted," Gwen said when they parted. "He copied everything over to a clean laptop for you. Are you sure you don't mind working in the conservatory until we get your office sorted?"
"Of course not," Morgana assured. "With this weather, it'll be lovely."
Gwen led her through the kitchen, and just as she'd described, there was a full desk against one of the conservatory's outer walls with every possible accessory she might need carefully laid out atop its surface. Though she'd expected to get right to work, someone sat in the leather chair, his shoulders hunched as he tapped away at the computer.
"Merlin," Gwen said. "I'd like for you to meet Morgana."
The man swiveled around at the sound of her voice, a ready smile on his full lips. His intelligent eyes immediately settled on Morgana, and the smile widened.
"The infamous Morgana." He stood and stepped closer, his hand outstretched. "This should be fun."
Morgana shook his hand, ignoring the warmth that leapt from his skin and settled somewhere in the pit of her stomach. "Don't believe everything you've heard. Especially if it came from Arthur."
"Now where would be the fun in that?"
"You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."
Merlin shook his head. "Inconceivable."
Though she tried, Morgana failed to hide her amusement at how easily he'd followed her Princess Bride reference. "I wouldn't have pegged you for a Vizzini."
"I've always thought he's more of a Westley," Gwen interjected.
"Nah," Merlin said. "Call me Miracle Max."
"Because you love a nice mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich?" Morgana asked.
A ringing telephone broke through the banter, and Gwen pulled her phone out to scowl at the screen. "Sorry, but I have to take this," she said. "Are you two okay?"
"Go." To emphasize her point, Morgana shooed her toward the doorway. "We've got this under control."
Gwen scurried off. Once she was gone, Merlin sighed.
"I really hope you can get her to relax a little bit," he said. "She runs herself into the ground, trying to keep the company afloat."
"Have you managed to get Arthur to do the same?" Morgana asked. At the sheepish duck of his gaze, she snorted. "I didn't think so."
"Come on." Merlin patted the back of the chair. "Get comfortable. I'll show you how to get around the system so you can get started."
As Morgana slid onto the seat, she was very aware of Merlin's tall presence at her side. He wasn't nearly as awful as she'd imagined. In fact, he was quite charming. She could easily see herself working with him over the next month, and beyond…well, hopefully, by that point, she'd be able to stand on her own two feet without having to rely upon the kindness of old friends.
Only time would tell.
She came up with the idea in bed that night, though she had the good sense to wait until morning to run it by Gwen.
"I think that's fabulous," Gwen said. "But can you pull it off in such a short amount of time?"
On the inside, she wasn't quite as sure. She'd been gone from London for over three years. She didn't have the contacts she used to.
But Morgana didn't want to call on his help for this, either. She needed to prove to everyone that she could do it on her own. And more, that it would be as fantastic as Gwen wanted it to be.
She spent three days tracking down the perfect venue. In between calls, she designed the invitation, making sure it would be ready to print once she had the location booked. Compiling the guest list proved the simplest of her preliminary tasks. Merlin had imported Arthur's entire contacts list and social media links for her to have at her disposal. She sent him a BLT from her favorite cafe as a thank you.
On the fourth day, she signed the contract for the country estate she'd found the day before. It was a little farther than she'd hoped, but Gwen approved adding transportation options for the guests who didn't want to provide their own. Morgana was thrilled. From the instant she'd stepped onto the property, she'd known it was the one to bring the fantasy to life. Now, she just had to provide the actual fantasy part.
Her phone rang on the way back to London. "How's it going?" Merlin asked.
"Splendid." And she meant it, too. It felt good to be able to give something back to Gwen for giving her this chance, and so far, the party was shaping up nicely. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Merlin cleared his throat. "Um, we haven't had the chance to catch up since you arrived. I thought I'd check in and see if you needed any help."
Her good mood began to dissipate. Mr. Perfect didn't think she could actually do this. "I'm doing just fine, thank you." Her tone was icy. She didn't care.
"Fine or splendid?"
It sounded like he was teasing her, but she refused to let him off the hook for not trusting her. "Well enough that I don't need any help."
"Is that all?"
"Yeah." He paused. "Unless you want to meet up for dinner to go over the details."
A muscle twitched in her jaw from how hard she clenched it. It was amazing how he could go from charming to too much in the matter of seconds. "I won't be back in London in time." Better to opt for graciousness since they would still have to be in each other's paths after the party. "But thank you."
"Just ring if you need anything."
It was her turn to say, "Of course," but she hung up before he could make another attempt to interfere. This was her party to make amazing. Merlin could keep his grubby hands off it.
With the venue locked down and the invitations sent, the real fun began—menu planning and picking out favors and finding the right kind of decorations that wouldn't confuse everyone about what the real theme actually was. She'd toyed with the idea of making it a costume party, but decided that would've kept some people away, not to mention detract from the costumes she ordered for Gwen and Arthur. Though Gwen balked at first—"It's Arthur's party. He should be the center of attention, not me."—Morgana got her to come around after showing her the costumes she was having custom-ordered.
They were both going to look fantastic. Morgana almost wished she could indulge a little in the cosplay herself.
In the midst of it all, little trinkets began to show up on her desk. A first edition book. A nosegay of yellow flowers that made her think of spring. A black mask. Each one made her smile in its own way, but none came with a note. She assumed they came from Gwen, as small tokens of appreciation about the party to come, but they were both too busy to catch up more than a few minutes at a time. Even then, those precious moments were devoted to details about the party. Morgana always forgot about mentioning the gifts until after Gwen was gone.
A week before the big day, the first real blow to her plans nearly blindsided her.
"What do you mean, you have to cancel?" Her hand shook as she reached for the binder she'd put together with all the arrangements. "We had an agreement."
"Unexpected injuries fall within the parameters of our out clause," the man said. She'd only seen him the day she'd visited his facility, and though she'd been impressed with his prowess on the floor then, now she wanted to reach through the phone and throttle his scrawny neck. "I can't give you a duel with only one duelist."
"You must have someone else who can step in."
"Not on such short notice. The choreography is very exact."
Morgana chewed at her lip as she read over the exceptions they laid out in the contract. He was right. With his partner in the hospital, he had the legal right to back out of their arrangement. "What if I find someone for you?"
"But what if I do?" she pressed. "Can you still give the demonstration then?"
He sighed. "You would have to find someone with extensive prior training, who has the time to learn the duel safely."
"I can do that."
"By the end of the day."
Her heart sank. The swordfight was supposed to be the entertainment highlight. It was the idea that had sold Gwen on the whole theme in the first place. Its exclusion would change the tenor of the night completely.
"Will you let me try?" she asked. "I'll even pay extra if I find someone suitable."
"You're welcome to try," he replied. "But it's a wasted effort."
She was sick and tired of people telling her she couldn't do something. This swordmaster would hardly be another name on the list. "I'll call you by six o'clock."
With four hours to go, Morgana tackled the list of other fencing clubs she'd created before booking this particular one. The first was closed. The second had a tournament. By the third, she understood why the swordmaster had been so discouraging. A major event in Edinburgh had drawn most of the professionals away from the city. Those who remained behind were either busy for other reasons or not experienced enough for her needs.
She glared at the schedule for the party. There had to be a fix. The demo was too large a block to just eliminate. She simply had to think outside the box.
The possibility came to her as she was fixing her second cup of tea. Forgoing finishing, she darted back to the conservatory and pulled up the number for the Globe. It might only be stage combat, but Shakespearean actors had to be at least partially trained in swordfighting to make it look real.
After hearing what she wanted, the Globe gave her more numbers to try. Morgana felt like crying when the very first one finally yielded some good news.
"Can you send both?" she asked the agent. "I want to make sure he chooses the best one possible."
She had one more call to make before she could relax. When the swordmaster heard that she'd found two actors with extensive training for him to work with, he applauded her ingenuity.
"If we didn't have so much work to do, I'd invite you out for supper," he said.
The offer sounded genuine, and it wasn't like he wasn't an attractive man. Morgana hadn't dated in months, either. An evening out with someone appreciative might be a good way to dip her toes back into the pool. "Ask me after the party." In the distance, the front door opened and shut. "I'm sure our calendars will both be open then."
Merlin appeared in the doorway, but he stayed quiet while she finished up the call. "Do you need something?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I'm done for the day so I thought I'd drop by and see how you're doing."
Checking up on her again. Morgana wanted to scream in frustration. "I am the queen of problem-solving."
A crooked smile curved his lips. "Yeah? What happened?"
Briefly, she explained the almost cancellation and how she'd solved it. "So see? I don't require any help at all. Not even yours."
For a moment, his smile faltered, but just as quickly, his friendly mask returned. "I never doubted you for a second."
"Yes, you did," she said before she could stop herself.
His brows shot up. "Why would you say that?"
Heat spread across her face. She shook her head. "Never mind."
But he wasn't letting it go. Edging farther into the conservatory, his eyes darkened as they fixed on her. "I know how capable you are, Morgana. Both Gwen and Arthur think the world of you."
Gwen, she knew, but the affirmation from Arthur was a pleasant surprise. Though they'd all been friends at uni, she and Arthur had fought for Gwen's attention after they started dating. Jealousy had reared its ugly head more than once. In hindsight, Morgana knew that had played a part in falling for her half-sister's schemes. She'd missed having Gwen all to herself, and Morgause was ready to step in and take her place.
Morgana had been a fool. After listening to Morgana vent about Gwen and Arthur, Morgause had been wise enough never to let on about her relationship with Cenred. Which made the betrayal that much harder when the pair of them absconded with the rest of Morgana's money.
"And I love Gwen and Arthur," she said. It was true. Seeing Gwen so happy was enough for her to put her feelings about Arthur in the past. Any man who could do that for Gwen was worthy of her loyalty. "Why else would I want this party to be perfect?"
Merlin's regard was unwavering, the perception in his eyes acute. "You don't have to prove anything," he said softly. "No matter what you think."
His words sliced straight through the wall she thought she'd put up, driving it to dust with hardly any effort at all. She turned back to the binder, but the pages blurred.
"How about you take a break and grab a takeaway with me?" Merlin said. "My treat."
She was ready to say no when her stomach gurgled. Traitor. But she hadn't eaten since breakfast, and she needed to stay alert to find out whether or not the sword demo could go on with one of her substitutes. "It has to be quick," she warned.
"Whatever you need."
He stepped away to give her room to rise, though she was very aware of his presence as she led him to the front of the house. His cologne was musky but light, and it had a way of filling her nose when she least expected. It wasn't bad. In fact, it was quite nice. On anyone else, she would've actually appreciated it. This was Merlin, though, and in spite of what he might say, she couldn't let those feelings take root.
When they reached the street, he startled her by resting his hand in the small of her back. "What's your favorite place around here?" he asked.
"The fish and chips across the park," she replied automatically. His touch was gentle and warm, muddling her head. Though she knew she should pull away, she couldn't quite bring herself to do it.
"Then that's where we're going."
Every step of the way, Morgana tried to find something to talk about. The party was too touchy. She didn't want to talk about his work and feel more inadequate by Mr. Perfect. The only thing she could come up with was… "Where did you go to uni?"
She gaped at him. "Really?"
His smile remained easygoing at her blunt surprise. He even chuckled. "My Uncle Gaius teaches there. I wanted to be near him. It was the only place I even applied."
"Your mother must've hated that."
"Oh, yes. Lucky for me, I got in."
"That's not luck. That's ability."
He shrugged. "I test well."
He did more than that well. "So how did you meet Arthur?"
"Through Uther, believe it or not. I got an internship at PenCorp, then hired on after graduation. Uther assigned me to Arthur's division, mostly to keep an eye on him, and I cracked and told Arthur the truth about it the second day."
Morgana snorted. "I'll bet Uther loved that."
"Actually, he fired me. Then, Arthur hired me back as his personal assistant. The rest is history."
No wonder Arthur and Gwen trusted Merlin so much. He'd been loyal to Arthur from the start. Morgana had to respect that.
When they reached the takeaway, they were still chatting, and the conversation continued after they ordered their food. Merlin kept the topics light—the book he'd just finished, the unfortunate stylings of a teenaged boy who went running past the shop—leaving Morgana in hysterics by the time they started back. She was hardly aware of her initial misgivings when they reached the house again and invited him in with a tilt of her head.
Merlin hesitated. "Are you sure? I don't want to get in the way."
"Don't be silly." She grabbed the hand that didn't carry the food and dragged him to the door. His fingers closed around hers for brief, heated seconds until she let him go on the threshold. "It's about time we sat down and got to know each other better."
His smile was brilliant, his eyes dancing. "I'm looking forward to it."
She didn't see Merlin again until the night of the party. Because she wanted to be onsite to oversee the decorating, she left London before breakfast, arriving at the estate mid-morning. The caterer was already in place, and Morgana lost hours directing the workmen as they built her climbing wall with its multi-level platform at the top, installed her fake forest at the edge of the estate, and arranged the furniture in the ballroom to resemble a wedding hall. When her swordsmen arrived late afternoon, most of the tableaus were well in place.
The swordmaster looked over the small arena for the demonstration with approval. "I have to admit, I didn't think it would work," he said. "Remind me to hire you for my next birthday party."
Though he smiled at her, the satisfaction she expected to feel didn't come. He'd anticipated her failure, too. Had everyone?
He'd denied it when she'd voiced her opinion aloud. In fact, after that first day, he'd never done anything but offer his aid if she wanted it. He'd even backed off every time she turned him down. Any suspicions that he mistrusted her ability had been completely of her own construction.
The realization stunned her. She'd been so paranoid about being perceived as a failure, she'd projected onto poor Merlin when he'd only been nice to her. She owed him a massive apology.
"About that dinner…" the swordmaster said.
The last thing she wanted to discuss was going out with a man who’d seen her as incompetent. "Later," she said. Or never at all, if she could avoid him long enough. "I have to go change before the guests start arriving."
She fled for the private rooms she'd booked, one for Gwen and Arthur, the other for herself. A hot shower did wonders to relax her, so much so that when the knock came at her door, she called out, "Come in!" without thinking.
Merlin hovered on the threshold. Over his suit, he wore a long robe that looked incongruous in contrast. "I don't want to interrupt if you're still getting ready."
"No, no, I'm just about done." She turned around and cocked her head to assess him more carefully. "What on earth are you wearing?"
He held out his arms to better display the full effect. "My Miracle Max robe, of course. I couldn't attend a Princess Bride themed party without the appropriate costume."
Morgana burst into laughter. "Now you make me wish I'd come up with something for myself."
His gaze swept down her body. She'd chosen the black sheath as appropriately unassuming, blending into the background so Gwen could shine as Princess Buttercup. But from the way Merlin drank her, she was starting to think perhaps she'd missed the mark.
"I think you look beautiful." His voice was husky. As he stepped into her room, his hand disappeared inside the robe, to reappear with a small beribboned box. "And now all you need is this."
Curious, she took the gift and untied the bow to reveal a small chocolate nestled on a purple satin bed. "What's this for?"
"Well…" He edged closer. "I thought that, considering how hard you've worked for the past month, you were probably feeling mostly dead. So as the resident Miracle Max, that's my token to you. A miracle pill to bring you back from the dead." He smiled. "Chocolate-coated so that it'll go down easier."
The kindness of the gesture struck her silent. Then it hit her. All the themed gifts. She'd assumed they were from Gwen, but what if that was wrong? What if they had come from Merlin instead? He certainly had access to leave them without being noticed. And it fell right in line with the sentiment behind the chocolate.
"Thank you," she said. "But…why? This and…the other gifts?"
Pink began to creep up his neck. "Because you deserved them. You pulled off your own miracle, you know. Arthur will be talking about this party for years."
She was proud of what she'd accomplished, but hearing Merlin's praise sent her backpedaling. "It's just a party."
"Seriously? You've built a forest of ROUSes for people to explore. They can climb the Cliffs of Insanity if they want. And the swordfighting display? It's all fantastic."
"I hope Arthur and Gwen think so."
With a small laugh, she shook her head. "I can't believe I ever thought you were trying to sabotage me."
"What?" Merlin straightened at the declaration, lines appearing between his brows. "Why would you think that?"
"Because you were always checking in with me like I was a child."
"That's not why I was doing it."
"So you admit you were checking up on my work?"
The pink deepened. "I was using it as an excuse."
"To talk to you. I tried asking you out for dinner that first week, but I lost my nerve. I've wanted to ask you from that first day when we met."
When she'd been utterly charmed by their banter before her insecurities had ruined it all. "Gwen has been telling me for a month about how perfect you are."
Merlin shook his head. "I'm far from perfect."
"But you did set a high bar. I couldn't see past it to actually see you for the longest time."
"But…you do now?"
"I think I have since the fish and chips the other night."
His frown vanished, bringing back that bright smile that lit up the room. "In that case, would you be my plus one for the evening? You deserve to be able to enjoy it."
"And that can only happen with you?" she teased.
"I'm Miracle Max, remember. I can make anything happen."
Her heart felt buoyant with the possibilities of what could come. Tucking her hand inside his elbow, she nestled into his side and reached to brush a kiss across his cheek. "As you wish."