sam_storyteller: (Alternate Universe)
sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2011-01-22 01:58 pm

Oh, What A Show 2/2

Title: Oh, What A Show
Rating: PG (Merlin/Arthur, Gwaine/Ragnell)
Summary: Circus Camelot has a building it doesn't own, a trick rider who just ran off to do panto, and a serious sponsor problem. Fortunately, it also has Merlin Emrys, master illusionist, and Arthur Pendragon, prince of tumblers.

Chapter One


Merlin didn't know what to expect when they reached the hospital, but it wasn't what they found; outside there were reporters, but there was also this enormous crowd of people, men and women and children, lots of children. He recognised some of them from the performance -- they hadn't just left, they'd left and come here, like the panto audience had. The shockwave of emotion hit him like a strong wind as he and Arthur pushed through the crowd unmolested. Merlin flicked his fingers when he saw the journos closing in, and one tripped and a few others tripped over him and a couple of cameras exploded. Nobody noticed.

Inside, half the people in the waiting room were in ridiculous costumes, and he and Arthur blended right in. The panto actors seemed pleased to see their counterparts, if only because men in tights were at least as ridiculous as men in frilly shirts and fake swords.

"How can you not know anything?" Arthur was demanding at the nurse's station. "He's been here long enough you ought to know something! What kind of place are you running? He's my best horseman, you know! Well, do you know what happened to the horse at least?"

"I'll manage him," Gwen said, pushing past Merlin to tug Arthur away. Lancelot was busy consoling Annie Ragnell, the sweet, sort of butch American rodeo rider Gwaine had hired to replace him. She was in tears, and Merlin recalled hearing something about Gwaine asking her out. He edged over to the desk and leaned on it, producing a flower for the nurse behind the desk by snapping his fingers. She looked at it and gave him a weary smile.

"I'm sorry about Pendragon," he said, as she took the flower. "He's just worried. We all are. We only just got here, we literally know nothing -- we don't even know what happened. I don't know what stable-but-critical means, can you explain it to me? And, I mean, do you know what happened to the horse?"

He managed to charm at least a few details out of her; a child had somehow managed to get up on stage and Lennon had shied to keep from trampling him. Gwaine, who'd been in the middle of a handstand, had slid backwards just as Lennon came down, kicking and bucking to avoid the kid; he'd kicked Gwaine solidly in the back, then glanced another blow off his head. They just didn't know how badly he'd been hurt yet.

Lennon was in police custody, apparently safe at the mounted police stables.

"What about the kid?" Merlin asked, and the nurse gave him a surprised look. "I mean, do we know if he's okay?"

"Nobody's asked that," she answered. "We checked him out. He's scared, but he's not hurt." She tipped her head at a corner, where a man was fussing over a tearful little boy curled on his lap.

Merlin found Gwen, told her to pass word to Arthur, and then made a beeline for the child. The man saw him coming and wrapped two arms protectively around his son.

"It's okay, it's fine," Merlin said soothingly, crouching in front of them. "Hey, look," he added, and produced a coin out of thin air. He offered it to the boy, then glanced at his father.

"He's going to be in a pile of trouble tomorrow," the man said warily. "For now I just want to get him settled down."

"Go on, take it," Merlin offered, holding out the coin. The boy looked at his father, who nodded; he stretched out one grubby hand and Merlin dropped the coin into it, waving his fingers. The coin rippled and turned into a chocolate coin. Merlin put his finger to his lips.

"Our secret," he whispered to the child. "What's your name?"

"Mordred," the boy whispered back.

"He didn't mean to hurt anyone," his father said.

"I know. It'll be fine. Shh," he added, and stroked Mordred's hair gently. He stopped sniffling, curling further into his father's arms. "Life is dangerous. What we do is dangerous. We know the risks. Come on, I'll get you out of here."

He led the pair of them, the boy still in his father's arms, out to the main entrance. "Wait here," he added, and stepped outside, sending two bright, brief columns of flame up from his hands. All attention was immediately on him; the waiting crowd, the journalists, the photographers who still had cameras.

"Thank you for your concern," he said, projecting his voice as far as possible. "We don't know much yet, but we're living in hope."

At the edge of his vision he saw Mordred and his father slip into the crowd, passing unnoticed while all eyes were on Merlin.

"It's going to be a long night and probably a tiring one. If you have kids, I suggest you take them home," Merlin continued. "I'm sure someone will be...blogging or twittering or something as soon as we know more. Uh, stagemage dot circuscamelot dot uk, actually, I'll keep you posted there."

The crowd thinned; Merlin leaned back against the wall, and then slid down until he was sitting, knees against his chest, too tired to do more than tip his head back and stare at the hazy London night-sky. After a while, he felt the slick slide of spandex against his arm.

"Hiya," Arthur said, sitting next to him, leaning against his shoulder. "Thanks."

"Wasn't anything special," Merlin replied.

"Didn't have to be."

"Any news on Gwaine?"

"Head scans." Arthur waved a hand. "I don't know, medical stuff. Nothing they're willing to tell us, yet."

"He'll be fine," Merlin said.


"How angry is Gaius?"

"Dunno. Doesn't matter. Gaius doesn't run the Circus, I do, and if it had been me I'd have done exactly what you did. There's time for illusions, Merlin, and there's time for telling the truth."

Merlin smiled a little. "That's unusually wise of you."

"Well, I've learned from the best." Arthur nudged his shoulder, then bent and rested his head on it. "I dunno how much longer I can do this," he said quietly.

"We'll push through. Nil desperandum."

"Is that some kind of spell?" Arthur asked. Merlin snorted. "No, really, is it?"

"In a way," Merlin allowed. He tilted his head and very carefully pressed his lips into Arthur's hair -- nothing that couldn't be mistaken for brotherly affection. They sat like that for a few minutes, and then Merlin shifted a little. "It's freezing out here and you're in a unitard. Aren't your bollocks about to fall off?"

Arthur laughed a little. "Dance belt. It's insulating."

"Come on, let's find someone willing to go back to the Citadel and bring us some proper clothes," Merlin said. Arthur stood and offered him a hand up; Merlin took it, leaving behind a bright red posy when he let go. Arthur looked at it with a smile, stuffed it in his pocket, and followed Merlin inside.


The prognosis was better than they'd hoped for at first, in some ways. A couple of broken ribs, a punctured lung, and a concussed spine were all things Gwaine could bounce back from eventually; there was no permanent nerve damage, they said.

The problem was his brain, which Gwaine would have laughed about if he weren't in a medically-induced coma. He'd been knocked around pretty hard, and while his scans were good there was also the chance of brain damage. They just wouldn't know until he woke.

His doctors were hopeful, but then weren't they always.

Merlin came across Annie Ragnell at Gwaine's bedside, two days later, drinking bad coffee and looking like death warmed over. She'd come in for every rehearsal, she'd done her shifts looking after the horses and performed well every night, but when her Texas-flag rodeo-rider uniform came off and the horses were put up she was right back here, every hour she could be. He'd known he'd find her here.

"Hey," he said, sitting down next to her. "No change?"

She shook her head, hands folded in her lap. "They don't think there will be for a while."

"Yeah, I know. Guess it's just one of those things you say," he said.

"Guess so," she echoed.

"Arthur got Lennon back today," he added, and she smiled a little. "I guess the fact he didn't trample a kid trumped the kicking."

"It's not Lennon's fault."

"It's nobody's fault," Merlin said firmly.

"Yeah. I know," she said. "On the rodeo circuit I saw a guy get his head stove in by a bronco once. Never was more glad I was a trick-rider. Figured it was safe, y'know? Safer, anyhow."

"Listen," Merlin said, because there was really no smooth segue for this, "Arthur and Gwen agree you should stay on for the rest of the season. It'd be a help to us while Gwaine recovers and Arthur -- "

"Yes," she said.

" -- says he'll offer you a contract for next yea -- sorry, what?" Merlin asked.

"Y'all couldn't pry me away from here with a crowbar," Annie said.

Merlin glanced at the man on the bed, pale, covered in wires and tubes. "Gwaine?" he asked carefully.

"Well, we have some good times," she said, giving Gwaine a fond smile. "And he gets it. Wanting a choice in your life, you know, knowin' you'll probably tough it along and smell like horse all the time. But...Camelot means something. Stands for something I don't want the world to lose. Besides, nobody around here tells me a woman oughta be barrel racing. I really hate barrel racing," she added. Merlin didn't dare ask what barrel racing was. "It's nice not to wander for a change."

"You don't miss home?"

She snorted. "I spent about two months a year at home. Rest of the time I was on the circuit. I like having a home. Misfit brothers and all," she added, giving him a shy smile.

"Arthur's merry little band," Merlin murmured. "So you'll stay then? And next year too?"

"Yup." She kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Merlin."

"It was Arthur's idea," Merlin said.

"But you're the one sitting here tellin' me." She reached out and touched Gwaine's hand. "You're the one who asked a bunch of strangers to hope for him."

Merlin shrugged. "He's my friend too."


There was an afterparty scheduled for the New Year's Eve performance, though nobody was really looking forward to it. Circus Camelot was full of young, energetic narcissists, and usually their parties were a sight to behold, but it didn't feel right to get stumbling drunk while Gwaine lay unconscious in a hospital. Still, Arthur coaxed everyone into the big rehearsal room and there was a bar and a DJ and patrons to impress, and after they all had a toast or two to Gwaine's health, things were a little easier.

And then Kilgarrah showed up.

Merlin spotted him almost as soon as he came through the door; taller than anyone else by at least six inches, lean and rangy with a narrow, weathered face, he did tend to stand out.

"Kilgarrah!" Merlin yelled, pushing through the crowd. Kilgarrah grinned and pulled Merlin into a macho one-armed hug.

"Good evening, young illusionist," he said.

"What're you doing here? I thought you were in LA," Merlin said, just as another presence made itself known. A smallish man, wearing sunglasses, was taking in Merlin from head to toe.

"I thought you'd be taller," the man said, in a flat American accent.

"Merlin Emrys, this is Jack Cistercian," Kilgarrah said, looking annoyed. "Jack, this is Merlin -- "

"Star of stage and...stage," Cistercian thrust out his hand. Merlin shook it warily.

"Jack's the documentary filmmaker I mentioned to you," Kilgarrah continued. "I know, I know, Arthur said no, but Jack -- "

"See, I think a face-to-face, it reassures you artistic types," Cistercian said. "You like to see what you're getting, am I right?"

Merlin glanced at Arthur. Gwaine's injuries hadn't done anything to ease his load, and he was still worrying himself exhausted over the funding.

"Well, here in the Citadel what you get isn't always what you see," he said cautiously.

"Oh, I like you," Cistercian cooed. "That's a sound bite. That's an opening-credits sound bite."

"Jack, why don't you get a drink while I fill Merlin in, and then I'll introduce you to Arthur," Kilgarrah urged. Cistercian ambled off towards the bar and Kilgarrah held up a hand to forestall Merlin's commentary. "I know, I know, just hear me out. He insisted this was going to be a blockbuster show. He swore all he wanted was a face-to-face with Arthur and if Arthur still said no he'd be on his way."

"What if Arthur says yes?" Merlin asked. "He's tired, Kil, he's ready to break. Gwaine's in hospital, Ragnell's worried sick, Gwen's run off her feet -- Elian's helping her, for God's sake, and that's not his job in the least -- Percival's sprained a wrist, the horses keep spooking, Gaius is still hardly speaking to me -- "

"Guess Arthur's not the only one ready to snap," Kilgarrah said, but his voice was kinder. He ruffled Merlin's hair affectionately. "Take a deep breath. Things will work out, they always do. What is destined will be."

Merlin sighed, forcibly relaxing his shoulders. "How long are you in town?"

"Just long enough to scout some locations. A few days. Now," Kilgarrah said, leaning close, "if I get you drunk enough, will you tell me the secret of your fire-dragon act?"

"It's all done with mirrors," Merlin said solemnly.


"I'll never tell." Merlin glanced away and saw Cistercian offering Arthur a hand, sitting down with him at one of the little tables they'd dragged in for the party. Kilgarrah rested a hand on his shoulder and steered him inexorably towards the bar.

With a pint in his hand and Kilgarrah's soothing shop talk washing over him, Merlin relaxed another fraction; he could see Cistercian talking animatedly, Arthur watching with wary, tired eyes. Hell, maybe it would be a good thing. How bad could a reality show be?

You're not in the business of reality, a little voice said, but Merlin ignored it. Kilgarrah was right. Merlin didn't especially believe in destiny, but from all the evidence, destiny didn't seem to care.

About two seconds later, his phone beeped. Merlin considered ignoring it; Kilgarrah was old-school and thought people who checked their phone in the middle of a conversation were barbarians. Still, he casually slipped it out of his pocket and checked the textmessage --

And then shushed Kilgarrah, the first time he'd ever dared to.

Message From: Annie.
Gwaine's awake.

"It's Gwaine," he said, holding up his phone apologetically. Kilgarrah gave him a gentle smile. "It's Gwaine, he's awake! Arthur!"

He shoved his way over to where Arthur was sitting, arriving just in time to hear him say, "...suppose it's a possibility."

"I can have a contract ready for you tomorrow morning," Cistercian replied, as Merlin skidded to a stop, all but colliding with Arthur's chair. Cistercian gave him a cool look. "We could sign the preliminaries -- "

"Arthur, Gwaine's awake," Merlin blurted. Arthur turned and looked up at him, eyes wide. "Annie texted, he's awake."

"I'm afraid this will have to wait," Arthur said, standing and offering his hand to Cistercian.

"But the details -- "

"Sorry," Arthur said firmly. "It's family."


When they arrived at the hospital, Arthur didn't even bother with the nurse's station; he ran through the doors so fast nobody could react to stop him.

"Sorry, sorry, coming through," Merlin called, trailing close behind him. "Sorry, just, we'll only be a minute..."

Arthur rounded the corner and dashed down the hallway, Merlin in pursuit; the rest of the Circus were left behind in the lobby, halted by a burly orderly who had made a grab for Merlin and only just missed. He could hear Elian and Lancelot complaining loudly in the distance.

Merlin slammed into Arthur, who was stopped in the doorway. He peered over his shoulder at the bed where Gwaine was lying -- not awake.

"He's in'n out," Annie said, without looking away from Gwaine. There was another woman there too; Merlin thought for a moment she might be a doctor, but she wasn't wearing scrubs or a lab coat, and she looked...well, too fashionable, really.

"Did he talk?" Arthur asked. Annie nodded. "Is he okay? Is he..."

"He's fine," the other woman said, standing and coming to the doorway. She offered her hand; when Arthur took it on autopilot, she pressed her other hand over his. "I'm Sandy Ragnell, Annie's mother. You must be Arthur Pendragon. And this is the infamous Merlin Emrys -- read all about you on the website," she said, smiling at Merlin. Her accent was, if anything, even thicker than her daughter's, pure Texas. "Come in, both of you, have a seat. Gwaine's resting, but he seems coherent every half hour or so."

"No change there then," Merlin said quietly, and Arthur elbowed him, but he grinned too.

"I came in for Christmas to see my girl," Ms. Ragnell continued, settling herself composedly in a chair on the other side of the bed. "Didn't expect to be spending New Year's in a hospital, but if wishes were horses..." she shrugged good-naturedly.

"He asked about you," Annie said, as Arthur and Merlin sat down on either side of her. Another orderly put his head in the door and opened his mouth; Ms. Ragnell shot the man a furious, commanding look, and he closed his mouth again and backed slowly into the hallway.

"These folks just need a firm hand," she said.

"He asked if Arthur was angry," Annie continued doggedly.

"Of course I'm not -- I'M NOT ANGRY, GWAINE," Arthur said loudly, leaning forward.

"The boy's comatose, not deaf," Ms. Ragnell said.


"Arthur -- can I call you Arthur?" Ms. Ragnell asked. Arthur nodded, looking chastised. "I appreciate that you got my daughter a steady job and all, but you're about twelve years old and I've been watching cowboys fall off horses for fifty years. Give him some space to breathe."

Arthur scooted backwards. Merlin fought a smile.

"That's better. Now, Merlin, I don't mean to be a pain, but if there's any coffee around here I'm dyin' -- " Ms. Ragnell dug in her purse, obviously looking for a wallet; Merlin pulled a cup of coffee out of his sleeve and held it out. She looked up, looked at him, looked at the coffee.

"Well. If you've got some steak about your person, I wouldn't say no to that either," she said, accepting the coffee.

"Sorry, ma'am," Merlin smiled at her. "Hot beverages are about what I'm up to right now."

"I just love their accents," Ms. Ragnell said to her daughter. She turned to Arthur, frowning. "This boy's parents, I notice...not exactly around much, all things considered."

"Gwaine doesn't get on with them," Merlin put in. Arthur glanced at him. "Well, he doesn't."

"Doesn't matter," Arthur said. "He's family, we look after each other."

"Glad to hear it," Ms. Ragnell replied. There was a soft noise from the bed, and all of them looked up; Gwaine's eyes were open, a little glassy but definitely open.

"Hey, Gwaine," Arthur said, careful not to lean too far forward.

"Arthur," Gwaine grunted, and tried to move. Annie put a hand on his wrist and shook her head; he collapsed backwards.

"You shouldn't move too much," Merlin said fretfully.

"Thank Christ, 'cause I feel like I've been kicked by a horse," Gwaine answered. Arthur made a choked noise like he was hiding a snort of laughter. "Hey, boss."

"You're fine," Arthur said fiercely. "You're fine, Gwaine."

"Not fired?" Gwaine asked, raising an eyebrow. Arthur shook his head. "Right then, all's well. You look like utter shit, by the way."

"Don't worry about it," Arthur said.

"Everyone's here," Merlin added, and Gwaine's eyes drifted over to him. "They came to see you, but I think the hospital has a rule against mob scenes."

"Merlin!" Gwaine said, delighted.

"Hiya," Merlin said. "So, think I'll pass on panto."

Gwaine chuckled, then frowned. "Everyone?" he asked.

"Keep up, kiddo," Annie muttered.

"Yep. Everyone came to see you. They're all out in the waiting room," Merlin told him. "I'll say hi for you."

"Do that," Gwaine agreed. He frowned again. "Everyone?"

Merlin glanced at Annie, worried.

"Why don't you get some more rest?" Annie suggested. Gwaine nodded and closed his eyes. Arthur sat back in his chair, rubbing his face.

"You do look like you've had better days," Ms. Ragnell said.

"Mom, I told you, Arthur has a lot on his plate," Annie scolded.

"Well, don't we all?" Ms. Ragnell sipped her coffee. "What's on your mind, huh?"

"Nothing," Arthur said. "What matters is Gwaine's okay."

"Heard that line before," she drawled. "What 'it' is Gwaine not supposed to worry about? Oh, honey," she added, when she saw Annie glaring. "Nobody got anywhere in this world by being polite."

Arthur glanced at Merlin, who shrugged.

"It's been a long year," he said. "We've had some internal troubles. It'll be fine."

"Internal troubles?" Ms. Ragnell raised an eyebrow. "Corporate indigestion?"

Arthur laughed, suddenly, only a little insanely. "Something like that. Our sponsors pulled out when we said they couldn't have creative control over the Circus. We're still looking for funding for next year." He shrugged and gave her a smile. "Money problems. The curse of the arts."

Ms. Ragnell frowned. "Well, how much do y'all need?" she asked. Arthur's frown mirrored hers. She set her coffee down and dug in her purse again. "Boys, I am worn out, and it's time Annie and I cleared out and let someone else harass this young man. So, we'll be off. Here's my card -- this isn't the time, but give me a call tomorrow afternoon. I love to do tea, I never get to back home. We'll have some scones or something."

Arthur stared down at the card in shock, as Ms. Ragnell stood up and circled, taking Annie's arm and pulling her away gently. Merlin craned his head over Arthur's shoulder.

"Albion Energy," he read. He looked up at Ms. Ragnell. "Albion Energy?"

"We're the biggest producer of clean, green, natural gas and solar energy in the world. It's not glamorous, but it keeps the lights on," Ms. Ragnell said, patting her coiffed curls modestly. "I'm sure we can scare up a few million dollars to keep my Annie's circus in business. Might be a good tax shelter."


"A few mi -- a few million," Arthur repeated.

"How many million do you need?" Ms. Ragnell inquired. Merlin was pretty sure she was serious. "Y'all have free healthcare and spandex isn't that expensive. I think ten oughta cover it, but if you've got budget projections bring 'em along. Close your mouth, you'll catch flies," she added to Arthur, tipping his chin up gently. She squeezed his face affectionately, then sighed. "If I were fifteen years younger..." she said. "Come on, Annie, time for bed."

She pulled Annie, resisting, out of the room, leaving Arthur clutching the business card like a lifeline, and Merlin clutching onto Arthur's arm.

"Did she say ten million dollars?" Arthur asked hoarsely.

"I'm pretty sure she said ten million dollars," Merlin said. "Do we even have budget projections? Can we doctor them before tomorrow to include a trip to Aruba for me?"

"Ten million dollars," Arthur swallowed. "How much is that in pounds sterling?"

"About six million," Merlin said.

"What would I even do with six million pounds?" Arthur asked.

"Send me to Aruba," Merlin suggested.

"We could do the youth outreach program Gwen wants," Arthur said. "We could pay off the Citadel. We could run the circus without any other sponsor for five years."

"We could definitely hire Gwen a permanent assistant," Merlin suggested. "We could hire you a permanent assistant."

"Do you think she means it?" Arthur asked, turning to him. Merlin tapped the business card. There were three little letters after Sandy Ragnell's name: C.E.O.

"I think you should tell Jack Cistercian to take a flying leap," he said. Arthur looked up from the business card. Their heads were very close together, faces only inches apart.

"I need to call Gwen, we'll be up all night working on a budget," Arthur said softly.

"Yeah, you should do that," Merlin agreed.

"And we should tell everyone he's talking and he's going to be all right," Arthur continued, resting his forehead against Merlin's.

"We do need to tell everyone, yes."

"And you could make a blog post about it so that it's in the morning papers -- "

"I could," Merlin said. "Happy New Year to us."

"Merlin," Arthur breathed, and kissed him. Merlin closed his eyes and let it happen, because this was perfect, they were going to save the Circus and Gwaine was okay and for once, for once, he was going to get the boy.

When Arthur pulled back, his eyes searched Merlin's face. Merlin wasn't even sure what he was looking for.

"Was that all right?" he asked.

"Your timing, Arthur, is the most dreadful ever," Merlin told him, and kissed him again.


The acrobats were standing in two tall columns of four men each, at the back of the ring. Just beyond them, there was a clown crouched over, holding a heavy book on his back. Behind him was another clown, ostensibly reading from said book, squeaking nonsense babble and occasionally getting honked at by the others. The audience sounded like they were going to wet themselves laughing.

"Is this even legal?" Merlin asked, standing behind the door of the audience entryway, staring pensively at the clowns.

"Since when has legality ever concerned the circus?" Arthur asked, adjusting his crown. "How do I look?"

"You look fine, shut up and get in," Gwaine said from above. He had one foot on Ringo's broad back and the other on Lennon's, and neither horse looked thrilled about being stood on and pulling a chariot. Arthur glared at him, but he climbed into the chariot anyway.

"Right, Merlin, you're on," Gwen said, kissing his cheek. "Good luck. Try not to throw up."

"I've spent my whole life not throwing up on stage," Merlin retorted, but he slid past the chariot and the horses and walked out into the ring to thunderous applause. He turned to face the audience, grinned, and flicked his wrists; sparks flew from his fingers. Two of the clowns grabbed him by the arms, and Merlin mugged astonishment as they hustled him backwards, abandoning him between the two towering columns of acrobats. Percival glanced over and gave him a wink.

Merlin held up his hands for silence, then pulled his cowl back and snapped his fingers. Flowers blossomed from the costume of every acrobat. The audience went Ooooh.

"Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, assorted clowns, tumblers, dancers, tricksters, and illusionists," Merlin said. The microphone in his costume picked up the sound and echoed it around the ring. "We are gathered here today -- "

The clowns honked and laughed. Merlin shushed them.

" -- for a very special event. Camelot Circus and Albion Energy are pleased to present -- a royal wedding!" he cried, and the chariot galloped into the ring, doing a full circuit with Arthur waving, Gwaine looking solemn and dutiful as he guided the horses to a final stop in front of Merlin. Merlin offered Arthur a hand down, and the audience laughed.

"Wait for it," Arthur said, through his smile. Gwaine backflipped off the horses; Lancelot hurried out and pulled them away. Flashbulbs popped from the press seating. "Wait for it..."

"I'm waiting for it," Merlin said, through an equally wide grin.

The lights went out. Merlin felt Arthur move away; he stayed where he was for a full count of ten, and then the lights burst on again as Annie Ragnell rode into the ring at a full-out gallop on George.

She scattered the clowns, who shouted nonsense in annoyance; the acrobats seemed to fall apart, the towers crumbling as they dropped one another hastily. Annie pulled a lasso off her saddle and threw it expertly on a hook hanging from the grid; she swung in midair from the rope as George galloped out from under her. Gwaine leapt for the saddle, pulled himself up, flipped himself over to the other side, and then stood high in the stirrups, catching her as she dropped back down in front of him. The audience, seemingly confused, nevertheless applauded.

Gwaine slowed George to a trot, and then a walk; eventually he pulled him to a stop in front of Arthur, who was standing where the Head Clown had been.

"Bet you didn't expect that, did you?" Arthur asked the audience. They cheered. The press seats looked totally disarrayed.

Arthur took a small book out of his pocket. When he opened it, a bird flew out.

"It's no secret," he said, voice booming around the ring as the audience settled, "that Merlin Emrys and I have been seen conspicuously in the tabloids."

Merlin gave a solemn, scowling nod.

"And when we announce a royal wedding, naturally people think I'm the one getting hitched," Arthur continued.

"Grandstanding," Gwaine muttered.

"Let him have his fun," Merlin muttered back, patting George's nose.

"But the thing about Circus Camelot is, we're all in it together," Arthur continued. "And if I'm a prince, well. Being equal, we're all royalty. Even those guys," he added, tipping his head at the press seats, where the clowns were arranged in front of the reporters and photographers. The audience tittered.

"And anyway, Merlin won't make an honest man out of me," Arthur continued. Merlin shot him a you're pushing it look. Arthur cleared his throat. "So today we're here not to marry me off, but to celebrate a family affair."

Gwaine made a soft noise; George pricked his ears and bowed his head, so Arthur could see over it clearly.

"Gwaine Caulder-Lyons," Arthur said sternly. "Do you wish to marry Annie Ragnell?"

"I do," Gwaine said.

"Annie Ragnell, do you wish to marry Gwaine Caulder-Lyons?"

"I do," Annie said.

"Merlin." Arthur held out his hand. Merlin gave him a blank look. "Merlin, the rings?"

"Oh! Right," Merlin said. He patted his pockets. "Right, I definitely have the rings," he continued, pulling a stream of silk scarves out of one pocket. The audience laughed. Merlin checked the other one and produced a dove. "No, that's not it..."

He tugged on his inside pocket and a rabbit came out. The audience roared. Merlin gave Arthur a sheepish look and put the rabbit away, which only made everyone laugh harder.

"Ah," he said finally. "I know where they are."

He held up a hand, palm open. Flame burst upwards, dancing and twining until the fire formed two rings in the air. They winked out abruptly, and Merlin caught the rings as they fell.

"Careful," he said to Annie, as he handed them to her. "They're hot."

Annie smiled and slipped one on the hand Gwaine offered her from behind; she dropped the other one into his palm, and he put it on her finger.

"Then I now pronounce you husband and wife," Arthur said. "You may kiss the horse."

Merlin leaned forward and pecked George on the muzzle. Gwaine offered the reins to Annie.

"You drive," he said. Annie clicked her tongue; George sedately turned around, and then broke into a gallop again as they left the ring.

"Now the boring part's over," Arthur said, "Bring in the dancers, this is a party!"

In the ensuing chaos, with the tumblers and acrobats and clowns and illusionists all bursting into the ring, Merlin faded away behind the backstage curtains, holding out his hand for Arthur, who followed.

"I have ninety-three seconds before I'm back on," Arthur said, pinning him against the wall. "You were brilliant. Give me a kiss."

"Flattery doesn't work on me," Merlin said, but he kissed him anyway. "This was a surprisingly clever plan."

"Surprisingly!" Arthur said, outraged.

"Well, you're not known for your deviousness." Merlin patted his head. "It's all right, that's what you've got me for. Now, go put on a show."

"Always," Arthur said. "See you after. And Merlin?"

"Hm?" Merlin asked.

"Marry me sometime?" Arthur said. Merlin grinned.

"Any time you like," he answered. He offered Arthur a red posy from nowhere.

Arthur tucked it into his costume, beamed, and did a back-handspring into the ring.

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