Title: For Want of a Girl - posted January 23, 2009
Author: Lacey McBain
Pairing: none - Gwen's POV
Rating: PG
Word Count: ~1600
Summary: Gwen wondered what kind of woman would be crazy enough to trust this man. (modern AU)
Disclaimer: Merlin belongs to the BBC; I'm just importing its characters for a bit of North American fun.

For Want of a Girl

"Hey, hey, be careful with that," Gwen called after the burly men wheeling their equipment down the narrow corridor that led to the backstage area. Well, Merlin's equipment, technically, but they'd been doing the show long enough now, she thought of it as hers as well. If anyone had told her she'd end up a magician's assistant—and to a real magician, too, not just one of those guys who did everything with mirrors and invisible fishing line—she wouldn't have believed it. She'd come a long way from Fond du Lac, Minnesota, and her father's blacksmithing shop.

Of course, that was how she'd met Merlin—skinny, with ears too big for his face, and he didn't look like he could hold a sword let alone perform tricks with throwing knives. Yet, there he was in her father's shop, requisitioning the very best he could afford for his act, and Gwen had known there was something about him, something wonderful and magical, and she'd been unable to resist asking a hundred impertinent questions.

"You should come to the show," he'd said to her when he came to collect a guillotine blade from her father—something about chopping a woman in half, and Gwen wondered with some degree of terror what woman would be crazy enough to let this awkward boy anywhere near her with a blade that could cut through metal easier than those stupid knives the infomercials raved about on late night television.

So, she'd dragged her dad to the show at the old barn on Evergreen Road, the one the city had converted to a kind of arts centre, and she wasn't really surprised that the parking lot was full. It was a small town and it was late November, so any excitement was better than none at all. The stage was dark and the crowd restless, children loudly asking about magic and rabbits and all manner of things, when suddenly a voice announced: "He has traveled the world to bring you the greatest illusions, sleights of hand, and the most daring escapes. The Fond du Lac Arts Council is proud to present, The Amazing Merlin, Magician Extraordinaire."

The crowd applauded enthusiastically and perhaps everything would have carried on with some measure of success if Merlin hadn't tripped on his heavy blue robes as he popped out from behind the curtain. Or if his pointed hat hadn't pitched forward into the crowd and left him with a pigeon sitting conspicuously on his head. Or if his voice hadn't cracked the first moment he tried to speak, causing the crowd to titter in response.

Gwen watched Merlin's face turn red to the very tips of his ears, but to his credit he got control of himself, his shaking hands, and his too-long robes, and without a word he lifted the pigeon from the top of his head and tossed it out over the crowd where it seemed to disappear in a burst of butterflies that danced away into the shadows. The crowd stopped laughing and leaned in with interest. So did Gwen.

She watched for how the tricks were done. Watched what she knew she wasn't supposed to watch, and she never was able to catch him palming something or taking an object from his sleeve. He was really very good, and the crowd settled down with a murmur of anticipation as Merlin's feats became more and more complicated. Fire seemed to dance from his fingertips, climbing up the curtains and racing around the room with no damage to the draperies or the stage. Rabbits appeared and disappeared in front of their eyes—from under seats and hats, and a thunderstorm raged around them although not a drop of rain touched any of them. It was amazing.

"For my next feat, I will cut a woman in half. You will see the blade pass right through her! But I need a volunteer from the audience because my last assistant is, um, unavailable." Merlin grinned sheepishly and the crowd responded to the joke, but Gwen saw the silver glint of the blade her father had made, knew how dangerous it was, and wondered again who would be insane enough to trust this man.

"I'll do it," she heard herself say, and her father pulled at her arm and shook his head, eyes wide with horror. Merlin hadn't asked him to dull the blade, or create two matched blades, things that would've been common enough with a trick like this. He'd made props for magicians before.

"Miss Guinevere Lyonesse," Merlin announced smiling, and offered his hand to help her onto the stage. She knew it was ridiculous to take the chance on a magician no one had ever heard of, who'd shown up in town with cash to burn and no connections whatsoever, but knowing that only made her more desperate to find out what Merlin was going to do, how he was going to save her from what appeared to be an inevitable and messy fate.

She smiled into the heavy bright lights that blocked out most of the crowd's faces and gave a small wave. The stage was empty except for the freestanding contraption that looked like a modified guillotine. There was no table to lie on, nowhere to rest any part of her body, and when he positioned her directly underneath the blade, still standing, she wondered again what foolishness had brought her to this moment.

"You're perfectly safe," he whispered to her as he moved her hands to rest on the sides of the wooden frame so that she was standing as if in a doorway with a very large blade at the top of it. If it fell, it would split her in half, back and front, and she thought how odd it would seem to be sliced this way, like a piece of fruit, knife sliding straight through the core.

Merlin finished his lead-up, some prattle about ancient spells and other clap-trap, and then he smiled at her again and said, "Gwen, trust me," and his eyes flared a beautiful golden colour, like campfire flames and autumn fireflies, and she nodded and stared straight ahead even as she heard a gasp from the crowd and she knew the blade was moving through her as if she were not even there, as if her body were suddenly water or air and she felt not a moment of pain or uncertainty even as she saw the blade impact with the wooden floor, its top edge still clearly stuck within her calves.

He danced a hand in her direction and she was floating then, tipping backwards until she rested on her back partway in the air, as if a table had grown solid beneath her, although she knew there was nothing there, and she watched the blade glide upwards and then crash down again, touching her waist where she'd belted her blue dress, and then disappearing again with a resounding thud that splintered wood. Another great gasp and tremendous applause as volunteers came up to see if they could find the wires holding her in mid-air or determine how the blade had passed through her without causing any injury at all.

When the curtain came down, Merlin tipped her gently back onto her feet and asked if she was all right, and she kissed him, happily, fondly, because she knew this was the beginning of something exciting in her otherwise everyday life, and he grinned back and held her hand when they went to take their bow.

They gave Merlin a standing ovation, not unheard of, but never given for outsiders, and the Fond du Lac Lantern ran an article that led to bookings in Carlton and Oliver, Superior, and eventually Duluth. Gwen hemmed Merlin's robes (then pitched them out altogether), made him practice everyday with the throwing knives until she wasn't afraid to open her eyes anymore, and bought herself some spandex and sequins to make herself something nice that wouldn't cause her father to order her to stay at home.

It was six months down the road, a three-day showing in Reno, when someone from Vegas caught the show and booked them at The Camelot for an extended run. Gwen wondered if this was the beginning, or the beginning of the end. She wasn’t sure how much magic Merlin had in him, or if he could keep up the kind of pace that Vegas was demanding. Well, she supposed they’d see, and no matter what, it had been a great adventure already.

“Yo, Miss? Where do you want these?” someone shouted pointing to the giant crate that held the water casket. Gwen motioned to the very back of the stage area, then looked around.

“Anyone by chance seen Merlin?” She’d wanted him to go away for a bit, of course, but she hadn't meant for him to disappear entirely from helping with the setting up.

“Saw him in the hallway with Mr. Pendragon a few minutes ago,” one of the porters said as he checked off the boxes and crates against some sort of master inventory list.

“Uther Pendragon?” Gwen had seen his name on the contracts and of course, she’d Googled the family to find out what exactly they were getting into after Morgana, Uther’s step-daughter, had approached them in Reno.

“No, Arthur,” the porter said, still looking at his list. “Actually, Mr. Pendragon was dragging him off somewhere. Perhaps to sign some paperwork?” The guy looked at Gwen sympathetically, but his tone suggested there was a likelier chance that Merlin had done something reprehensible and was about to get them turfed, so there might not be any reason to unpack their boxes after all.

“Where did they go?” Gwen asked apprehensively, and set off in the direction the guy pointed. Honestly, if Merlin screwed this up, she was going to kill him.


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