Gaius the busker has sat on the street-corner outside Arthur's dad's restaurant and bar for as long as Arthur can remember. Today, he's got a girl with him. Or at least, a girl standing next to him, defiantly singing into the wind and the cold. Her voice gusts in and out of Arthur's ears with every breath of wind. It's pretty, in an angry sort of way, and she's got her eyes closed, hands fisted in her thin hoodie and knees jammed together, skinny legs feeling the cold in her black stockings and little denim skirt.
Gaius has given up playing his usual acoustic-blues and is accompanying her quietly. It sounds like something traditional, something about, oh, home and harvests and whatever it is that those ten-thumbed folk-singers whinge about through their adenoids, only ... yeah, it's pretty. And not adenoidal at all. She sings it like it's a rebel chant and she's on the barricades.
She's pretty too, if you like skinny girls whose approach to fashion is 'display what you've got even if you haven't got it'. What she has got appears to be mostly throat and collarbones. She's a bit tomboyish, her hair cut short and rumpled in the wind, and the battered rucksack at her feet and her equally-battered trainers help that image, but the little skirt, the stockings ... She's clearly run off from something, even if 'something's just a boring home-life. And here she is, a rebel going nowhere with runs in her tights.
'New birdie?' Arthur asks Gaius quietly as he walks closer. Gaius laughs.
'Just tell me she's a looker,' he says, sightless eyes smiling. 'We'll never pull in more than a tenner if she's not a looker.' But the way he plays along with her, gently tapping his foot and making the guitar cry and sing like a lark in the air, tells Arthur he's loving every minute of it. That's the way he used to play when Arthur sat with him when he was a kid trying to learn the shapes of G and C and D, and the way Arthur imagines he used to play when Arthur's father played with him. Of course, these days Uther's a restauranteur, and Gaius gave up his recording contract for reasons known to Arthur only as 'hippie shit', thanks to Uther, but they used to pull in crowds.
But that was before. Before Arthur was born, before his mother died. Nowadays Uther's only concession to his past is to let Gaius sit outside the shop and sing about how it was just that the time was wrong.
Arthur says goodbye, gives the girl one last look, and then goes inside. The account-books and ledgers await him, but at least it's warm in there. Her voice stays in his ears, though, tripping its rhythm through his skull.
When he knocks off at five, she's still there, this time huddled against the wall, still singing her little heart out. There's a tin dish at her feet with a few coins in it, and it looks like Gaius's, but Gaius himself has gone. Arthur goes to walk away, but finds he doesn't want to.
'Hey,' he says, a little awkwardly. He scrabbles in his pocket for a some change, and dumps it in the dish. She looks up. 'What's your name?' he asks.
'Merlin,' she says, the look in her eyes daring him to say something about it. They're pretty eyes, he thinks, in a sharp little face.
'Arthur,' he says, holding out a hand and hoping to shove right through that little bit of ridiculousness. She grins, and shakes his hand.
'Very pretty,' Arthur adds, after a few moments' awkwardness. 'The song, I mean. Er.'
'Thanks.' She drags a hand through her hair. 'My mum used to sing it to me, when I was little.' There's a hint of an accent there - Arthur can't quite place it yet, but he will. She's obviously trying to mask it, too, her lips forming syllables a little too deliberately to be natural. It has the side-effect of making Arthur notice her mouth, which makes him feel embarrassed as soon as he realises it.
'Listen,' he says, not knowing how to say this or even why he's saying it. 'Er. Do you have a place to stay tonight?'
She's immediately on the defensive. 'Yeah,' she says, those pretty eyes wary now. She doesn't elaborate. She doesn't need to. There's a threadbare blanket poking out of her rucksack. The sky's darkening, the year's heading into winter, and Arthur makes a decision.
'The pavement doesn't count,' he says sharply. 'The best you could hope for with that is getting picked up by the police and stashed in a cell for the night. I'm sure I don't need to tell you what the worst is. Come on, I've got a perfectly respectable couch you can kip on.'
'And don't you think it would be a bit stupid of me to go home with the first stranger as says he has a couch?' she retorts, dropping Ts and Os in her irritation - Irish, thinks the pedantic part of Arthur's brain triumphantly.
'Well, you've got a choice then, haven't you,' Arthur snaps. 'Nice comfy concrete with hot and cold running gutters and your choice of molestation for the evening, or my couch with a blanket that doesn't look like it came over with the Normans and waking up in the morning with your virtue intact.'
'I'll take the concrete, thanks,' she fires back. 'I can take care of myself.'
'Don't be a fool.'
'Yeah, well, don't be such a ... a dickhead,' Merlin spits. She grabs the blanket and tugs it around herself fiercely. 'Go on, piss off.'
She looks ridiculous, all ears and eyes and throat and legs swaddled up in that horrible rug. 'Fine, he says, fishing his card out of his wallet. 'If you change your mind, there's a payphone over there.'
Arthur is woken up by a call on his mobile at 3am. He answers it groggily.
'This doesn't mean you've won,' says a scratchy, Irish, female voice on the other end. It takes him a moment to process it.
'Merlin?' he asks.
'And I didn't get molested, either, just for the record.'
'But you got picked up by the rozzers,' he points out, a little triumphantly. 'And it's 3am, what are you calling me for? Don't you have a nice cell to be enjoying?'
'Changedm'mind,' she mumbles.
'I changed. My mind.' She enunciates clearly this time, almost all hint of the accent gone again.
'Couch looking attractive now, I assume?' He can't help but rub it in.
'Okay, maybe I will take that deliciously comfortable-looking pallet in the cell-' she starts, and he interrupts.
'No, wait,' he says. 'Hang on. Where are you, I'll come and pick you up.'
He gave her the spare room, instead of the couch - there were still sheets and blankets on the bed, though it hadn't been aired in months. At half past three in the morning, he doubted she'd care.
The next morning she's gone, and the bed's a mess like she'd been wrestling a bear in it. There's a note on the pillow: it just says 'Thanks'. Arthur scrunches it up and throws it in the bin without a second thought and goes to get his breakfast, but halfway through his coffee and toast he gets up and retrieves it.
He smooths the paper out on the table-top, thinking.
She's not with Gaius when he gets to the restaurant, and he has to tell himself he wasn't expecting her to be. It's not like he knew her, or she was anything but a perfect stranger he felt sorry for. Better to keep it like this. But Arthur can never just let something lie.
'No backing vocals today?' he asks Gaius.
The old man raises an eyebrow at him over his sunglasses. 'Missing her already?' Arthur goes to demur, and Gaius laughs. 'I sent her out to get some breakfast,' he explains.
'She could have had some at-' Arthur starts, and then clamps his mouth shut.
'Chivalrous of you,' Gaius says. 'Oh yes, she told me what happened,' he continues. 'She also asked what happened to you to make you an prat and a considerate person at the same time.'
'Tell her, the same thing that shoved that stick up her arse.' As insults go, it's a poor effort, and Arthur knows it. Gaius's snort is the last thing he hears as the doors bang shut behind him.
Uther strolls into sight between the tables and chairs. His crisp white shirt practically glows in the gloom.
'Father,' says Arthur, nodding at him. 'I'll have the accounts ready for the butcher by Wednesday,' he adds. 'Don't worry.' He knows he was supposed to have them done yesterday, according to Uther's always-a-week-ahead schedule, but somehow it didn't happen like that. He had trouble concentrating, was the issue. And that was weird.
'I'm not worried about them,' Uther says. He comes over, puts a hand on Arthur's shoulder in a gesture that is comforting and fatherly and, ultimately, controlling. 'I'm worried about you. Did you really take some girl home off the street last night?'
'Yes. It was the least I could do - she had nowhere to stay.'
'I'm sure I don't need to tell you about the dangers of letting strangers into your home,' Uther says pointedly. He means I obviously need to tell you.
'I'm well aware,' says Arthur, shrugging off Uther's hand. 'But she's harmless, Father. She's a kid.'
'Kids can run off with your credit-card details. And she's hardly just a kid. She's a young woman.' Uther's expression says plainly that young women are trouble. 'Have you thought about that? About your reputation? Taking in a girl off the street, Arthur. It looks bad.'
It makes you look bad, which makes me look bad, which makes business look bad.
'There's no harm to my reputation in a bit of charity,' Arthur points out.
Uther harrumphs. 'Be that as it may, you can let her sleep wherever she likes tonight, provided it's not in your flat.'
'Yes Father,' Arthur says, giving up. Uther gives him a final pat and strides off. Checking the diary later Arthur sees that his father has a lunch-meeting with the brewery people, and that he's booked the rest of the day off, unsurprisingly. Sighing, Arthur rolls up his sleeves to tackle the accounts again, and the roster, making sure Megan's got the days off she wanted for her brother's wedding and that Kat can cover for Johnny when his exams are on next month. He likes this bit of his job - the people-managing bit. The accounts he learnt to do because Uther expected him to, but hiring and directing and managing, that's what he enjoys.
Singing filters in through the open window, high and reedy from distance, and Arthur wishes he were outside. He finds himself thinking about his guilty little secret, hidden in the linen cupboard of his flat behind the guest towels for guests he's never had, and how much harm it could do to get it out again.
Then he remembers what his father said about distractions, and sighs again. He closes the window and turns up the radio, tuned to Uther's approved pop hits-centric station - apparently modern music is what the clientele expect. Trendy stuff.
He pretends he can't hear Merlin sing 'he's got a daytime job, he's doing all right' from outside.
It's nearly six in the evening, and dark, before Arthur manages to sort out every little detail for the busy weekend ahead, and he knows something's wrong as soon as he steps through the first set of doors - for a start, there's no singing. He pushes through the second set of doors, the ones that lead outside, and sees Merlin, looking defiant and trying to act like she's six feet tall and made of bricks and barbed wire, being talked at by two guys in hoodies. Talked at, not talked to. She's talking back, clearly, but there are two of them, and they're bigger than her (like everyone in the whole bloody world is, don't they feed their daughters in Ireland or something?) and Arthur knows he has to do something.
'There you are,' he says in the most jovial voice he can muster, striding over to Merlin and throwing an arm around her shoulder, minding her scruffy rucksack. She'd clearly been trying to leave - before I got out? - before they cornered her. 'Waiting for me long?'
'Not exactly,' she mutters, trying to push away from him. He digs his fingers into her shoulder, settling his hand proprietorially and starting to steer her away.
''Scuse us, gentlemen, but she and I have somewhere to be,' Arthur says, and winks, pulling her down the street towards his car without giving the guys any opportunity to reply or intervene. 'Friends of yours?' he murmurs in her ear.
'Hardly,' she says darkly. She shrugs him off. 'Okay, enough of the big strong man act,' Merlin adds, drawling 'man' sarcastically out to have at least four As in it. 'Cheers and all, but I can take care of myself.'
'Still damaged in the brainpan I see,' Arthur says, ignoring her protests and sweeping her into the passenger's side of his car. 'Come on, I'll buy you dinner,' he adds as he gets into the driver's seat.
'I didn't ask for charity,' she says, fumbling for the handle of the door. Arthur starts the car to hopefully forestall any running-away-into-the-night actions, the thing coming to life with a roar of dust and diesel as she stares at him like a cat in a cage. 'I never asked for you to come and yank me off the street like you're Prince Charming and I'm fucking Cinderella. I just wanted to see a bit of London and visit Uncle Gaius, and-'
'Wait, Uncle Gaius?'
She gives him this look of complete and utter exasperation. 'Yes, Uncle Gaius. The man who plays guitar outside your father's bloody bourgeoisie restaurant is my mother's brother. Did you even know his name?'
Arthur recoils, stung. 'Of course,' he retorts. 'He used to teach me guitar,' he adds, a little quieter.
'You play the guitar?' she asks, turning to look at him with the first hint of actual interest he's seen.
'Used to.' He says it with finality, because what he doesn't want the question 'Why'd you stop?' as much as he likes the gleam in her eye when she looks at him.
'Why'd you stop?' she asks brightly.
He doesn't answer.
'Come on, there's got to be a reason,' Merlin says, raising an eyebrow at him.
He pretends he hasn't seen it. Eyes on the road, after all. 'No real reason,' he says finally, as forbiddingly as possible. 'Just sort of stopped.'
'Yeah, whatever,' she says, but she lets it drop.
'Indian okay?' Arthur asks after a while, because they're coming up to a curry place he knows does decent takeaways.
'Sure,' she says. 'Or, y'know, you could let me out of here. It's kind of not the point to the whole rootless drifter lifestyle if you let the sons of capitalist pigdogs pick you up off the street and buy you curries.'
'Rootless drifter,' he says disbelievingly. He doesn't even touch 'capitalist pigdogs'. 'Just for that, we're eating in, and I'm going to hold the door for you and pull your chair out. The waiter may even call you madam.'
She rolls her eyes exasperatedly at him, and he grins. Game on.
The waiter, in the end, must be completely scandalised, because they tease and needle and screech at each other all night, and Merlin storms out at one point only to be dragged back in, and ends up threatening to bedeck him with tamarind chutney if he doesn't stop acting like a stupid clotpoll, to which Arthur demands she stop insulting him in her bizarre Welsh dialect, and the ethnicity mix-up stuns her into insulted, speechless silence just in time for Arthur to calmly ask for the bill and pay it.
The journey back to his place is silent as well. When they get inside, Arthur attempts to make it better by offering her a drink, and that ends with them both lying on their backs on his living room floor. Her feet are next to his head, and he can't help noticing that some time ago she must have painted her toenails black.
'So come on, why the 'rootless drifter lifestyle' then?' he asks, putting as much sarcasm into it as he can. It's half-hearted. He already knows he likes her more than he ought to.
'I dunno,' Merlin says vaguely. Seeing someone lying horizontal try to shrug their shoulders is interesing, particularly when you're also horizontal and staring along the floor at them. She's clearly not actually going to tell him without some encouragement, so he attempts to poke her on the nose with his foot. He sort of misses, because his fine motor control isn't the best after a couple of beers, and she bats him away, vagueness gone. She shrugs again. 'Sort of a family tradition? And ... y'know. Just. Didn't fit in anymore?'
'Why aren't you staying with Gaius?' Arthur asks, ignoring the 'didn't fit in anymore'. No-one ever thinks they fit in, especially girls who paint their toenails black.
'Because that wasn't the point?' she says. 'The point wasn't to go from one relative to another, it was to. I dunno. Be free? Be my own person?' When she shrugs a third time, it makes the edge of her shirt ride up over the waistband of her skirt, and it hitches on those stupid collarbones. Which Arthur should not be noticing.
'I can't believe Gaius let you sleep on the street,' he says, almost to himself.
'He wasn't happy about it,' she says, satisfaction in her tone. 'But he understands, y'know?'
Arthur doesn't understand. But he knows there's no sense in that argument, so instead he hauls himself to his feet and goes and gets her a towel. Trying to play the responsible host, at least partially to remind himself that the bed she's sleeping in tonight is not going to be the same as the one he's sleeping in, no matter how much he'd like it to be.
It stares at him from the back of the linen cupboard, something baleful about the silver of the one visible catch against the black plastic, and he sighs and drags it down. He walks back into the living room with the towel over one arm and the guitar-case banging against his leg.
'Fancy a sing-along?' he asks. Distraction, that's the idea. And if he can remember the chords, he used to be able to play a mean 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' ...
She's up on her feet almost immediately, ignoring the towel and staring instead at the case. 'May I?' she asks, as if she's asking him if she can hold his child or something.
'Yeah, I-' before he can finish the sentence she has the case on the floor and is opening it reverently. He decides to go and put the towel in the guest room where she'll find it tomorrow, because she's clearly occupied right now, and ... he feels uncomfortable. Like hiding the guitar in the cupboard was shameful, when actually the only shame here is that he didn't sell it before now. He feels stupid for even having got it out, but to be honest her reading of him as 'bourgeoisie' is starting to get irritating, and he wants to prove he's not some corporate sellout, even if he's not Mr Sex n Drugs n Rock n Roll Street Theatre fingerless gloves eating out of a rubbish bin. Arthur rubs his eyes angrily. You don't have to be one or the other, he tells himself. Just because you've got a comfortable life doesn't mean you're dead from the neck up. I may be a junior bookkeeper for my father's business, but I've got a steelstring in my linen cupboard.
It doesn't sound quite as Jimi Hendrix as it was intended, really. But does it really matter if you never make the scene?
When he decides that's quite enough irrational behaviour from him and makes himself walk back into the living room, it's to hear the 'plunkplunkplunkplunkplinkplinkplink' noise of tuning going on, very, very softly.
The guitar is enormous in Merlin's skinny arms. She doesn't even look up, just says 'It's been a while since you've done this.' Her on-again off-again accent's been thickened by the beer she's had.
'I'm sorry, Merlin,' Arthur retorts. 'Sometimes us bourgeoisie pigdogs have more important things to do than play Kumbayah on our living room floors.' Nevertheless, he sits down beside her, deliberately leaving a few inches between them. He likes to think he has some self-control.
She laughs, and passes him the guitar, which he wasn't expecting. He almost drops it.
'Well, don't hold it like it's a bomb,' she says, rolling her eyes. 'Come on, play me something.'
'I can't,' Arthur says, treacherous fingers already tripping over the strings. 'It's been years. And who said you could order me around in my own house?'
'I'm your guest, at your own insistence,' Merlin points out. 'Go on, I'll sing if you play. You're the one who wanted a sing-along.'
He strums absently, trying to think of a song, but all that comes to mind is Uther's disapproving face and angry voice the first day he'd earnt a fiver playing with Gaius.
'Is that what you want? Sitting on your bum on the street, never knowing where you'll be tonight? You think you can get money for nothing, for rubbish like that? Arthur, I raised you better than that. I raised you to work for your keep.'
He shoves the guitar away angrily. 'I can't,' he says again, getting to his feet. As he does so he kicks the body of the instrument, making it echo with a hollow knocking sound.
'And here I'd thought you'd treat a valuable instrument better than this,' Merlin says, gathering it up to her chest, still looking tiny cradling the enormous soundbox. 'After all, it's worth money, and that's your best love, isn't it.' She looks up at him now, arching a brow. 'You should treat a guitar with a bit more respect, you know.'
That stings. Or stabs. 'And what would you know about what I love?' Arthur demands. 'You don't know anything about me.' He gestures wildly at her, at the guitar, at the room. 'You don't know a damned thing.' He turns to leave, and is stopped by a hand on his shoulder. She's still holding the guitar, one gentle hand firm around the neck, but she turns him around, and slips her free hand into his. She runs her thumb along the tips of his fingers, where he used to have callouses, and looks at him, eyes wide.
'I should go,' she says. 'I'm sorry, this was a bad idea.'
'Probably,' he says, stiffly. There isn't enough beer in the world to let him admit that she's right. But then again, he can't, he can't just let someone sleep on the streets and probably get mugged or worse just because he's in a pet with them. Because he told himself, years ago, that he wasn't that much like his father. 'No, wait.'
She hasn't moved, so it was a stupid thing to say, which puts him in an even worse mood. 'Don't go,' he says gruffly. It's then that he realises that it's not just that he wouldn't let anyone sleep on the streets like this. It's her, specifically her. Her and the way she provokes him and pokes him just by being there, with her weird ideas and her unthinking insults and her body all tantalising angles he'd never even considered before.
She doesn't know it, though. She clears her throat. 'Clearly you want me to leave,' she says. 'The shouting is a clue.'
'Clearly you're shit at reading people,' Arthur snaps back. He takes a breath. 'I mean, no. Don't leave.'
'Yeah, sure.' She rolls her eyes at him. 'Look, it's been nice, and cheers and all, but I'm trying to do the self-sufficient thing, and you're obviously not keen on houseguests.' Carefully she leans the guitar against the sofa and tries to pull herself free of him.
'Merlin-' He tightens his grip on her hand, but she slides away.
'Arthur, no. You're sweet, in a ... prattish way. But I'm making you uncomfortable.' She picks up her bag. 'See you around,' she says, and with that, she's gone.
Arthur sleeps badly that night, and dreams of sleeping on concrete with neon signs burning up above him, his father's voice in his ear telling him there's no such thing as money for nothing.
When he gets up, the guitar is still against the back of the sofa, and despite himself he picks it up. Half the morning is gone before he realises what he's been doing. He realises his fingers are throbbing, and his head is full of chord progressions and Merlin's voice.
'Screw it,' he says suddenly, and grabs the guitar. His father won't be at the restaurant on a Saturday.
An hour later, Arthur's fingers are ripped raw, and Gaius is giving him tips that he's not sure he entirely grasps, but it's worth it, because Merlin is grinning at him, one foot braced behind her against the wall, the other one tapping the ground infectiously, and there's twenty pounds in the tin dish at her feet. It's like last night's outburst never happened. Merlin's known the words to every damn song Arthur and Gaius have been able to remember between them, from soppy serenades to reggae numbers, and that's a challenge. Arthur loves a challenge.
'I got one for you,' he says, dredging up something from the very back of his memory, and that's when the 'hrrumph' startles him into looking up, shading his eyes against the watery winter sunlight, only to find his father looming over him.
Sunday is spent at the accounts. The tension in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife. Arthur knows better than to push Uther when he's in this mood, and keeps his head down.
Uther's turned the radio up louder now, and in his anger he told Gaius he was no longer welcome in front of Uther's property. Still, the distance and the bubblegum on the radio doesn't entirely drown out the chorus of Used to like to go to work, but they shut it all down, I got a right to go to work, no work here to be found from down the road.
And Uther walks Arthur to his car, as well, which Arthur thinks is just a tad ridiculous. He doesn't need a chaperone, for Heaven's sake. Although apparently Uther thinks he does.
'If I hear anything more of that trollop,' Uther says threateningly while Arthur opens the driver's side door. He doesn't finish the sentence. He doesn't need to.
'Goodnight, Father,' Arthur says wearily, buckling himself in. His hand is reaching for the stereo controls before he's even pulled away from the side of the road, though, and he drives home to the sound of you feel all right, when you hear the music ring.
And you know what? He does. And the sound of his guitar strings resonating to the bassline from the back seat makes him feel even better.
It's still dark outside when the phone starts ringing. Arthur drags himself to it.
'I just wanted to say goodbye.'
He's awake all of a sudden. 'What?'
'I didn't mean to wake you up, but I don't have a lot of time. I'm going up north, I've got a cousin in Manchester, Morgana, and-'
'No, Merlin, wait-'
'I can't, I've got to-'
'Dammit woman, just let me get some bloody trousers on and I'll be there in ten minutes. You're at Gaius's spot, right?'
He puts the phone down.
Arthur is still buttoning his shirt when he turns the ignition key in his BMW. The guitar is still on the backseat. Arthur puts the pedal to the metal as much as you can in London, but even so, by the time he gets to the restaurant, she's just a dark-haired figure in the distance, walking purposefully away.
'Wait!' Arthur shouts, running down the street after her. 'Don't go!'
Merlin turns under a convenient streetlight, a reluctant smile playing about her lips. 'Seems to me we already had this argument.'
'Don't go,' he says, refusing to plead, refusing to touch her. It shouldn't be that kind of a decision, and he doesn't have the right to act the lovestruck Romeo now when he didn't before. And it's a stupid weekend infatuation, he knows that, but ... He needs her to stay, needs her in ways he can't even articulate, doesn't know what they are, doesn't know if he needs her in his life or in his heart or in his bed, just knows that he needs her. Needs to find out why.
'Don't stay,' she counters. 'Go with me. You and me, babe. How about it?'
'My father would kill me.' Arthur shakes his head emphatically. 'The restaurant-'
'Do you really care that much about the stupid restaurant? You know it'll be fine without you. Do you even enjoy the work?'
'No, not all of it, but-'
'Then don't stay here, don't stay working for him,' she says wildly. 'Christ, Arthur, the birds on the wires up there are freer than you. He's making you a cage here.'
'He's my father-'
'And when has he ever done anything but tie you up in chains of gold? And you fall for him every time, don't you. Every time he says he's doing it for your own good, I bet. I bet you do, and you swallow your pride and you bow your head and you just let him run roughshod over you.'
'He's always looked after me, since my mother-'
'Yeah, I've heard,' she says. 'Gaius reckons Uther used to play too. So what happened, Arthur?' She asks it so softly, even though she's saying things Arthur never let anyone say to him before. 'It's like he hates music,' she says, and there's this hint of incredulosity there, like she's saying 'it's like he doesn't breathe.'
Arthur finds himself shrugging, still torn about how he's supposed to react to this strange, wild girl. 'I suppose he doesn't want to remember,' he eventually says.
'And so you're not allowed to even play guitar for a hobby?' she asks. 'Arthur, he locked you away on a Sunday like you were a naughty kid who skipped school. You're a grown man, for God's sake! Grow a pair. For once, take control of your life,' she adds like it's the easiest thing in the world. Whatever world it is she lives in, maybe. She knows nothing, clearly, about the real world.
'You can't talk to me like that!' Arthur finds himself saying.
'I can,' she says, folding her arms. 'I can talk to you however I like, Arthur. Listen to yourself! He's turning you into him.'
'No!' Arthur cries, taking her by the shoulders, the first time he's touched her and it's for this? But she doesn't court gentleness, does she. He grits his teeth and stills himself.
'There you are,' she says, pushing him away. 'That's what you should be saying to him.'
'If I do, will you stay?' he asks, as a final desperate try. She only shakes her head.
'Don't do it for me,' she says. 'It's not real if you do it for me. Do it for yourself. You owe yourself that.' She leans in and kisses him gently on the cheek, slipping a cold hand into the pocket and squeezing his own hand for a second.
'Don't worry,' she says. 'I'll be back, one of these days.'
He stand and watches her walk away, and can't help but think he could have caught up with her easily, and wonder what's making him stay.
Three years later, Arthur's grown a beard, and he and Gaius are setting up their amplifiers in a pub far from Uther's restaurant, a pub with the name 'Camelot' over the door and Arthur's name on the deeds, when someone dark-haired and slight slips into the bar.
She's sitting three rows back with a beer in one hand, watching intently. And Arthur sees her, and smiles as he sings 'the dice were loaded from the start. And I bet, and you exploded into my heart.'
He also sees her roll her eyes at that. He shakes his head at himself. He didn't forget, exactly, but he should have remembered better that she's not a girl who likes a lovesong the way it's meant to be. That's okay. There's always another song.