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Nights 'Round the Table

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Oaklandish

Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther Pendragon and presumed heir to Pendragon Broadcasting, was well on his way to being quite thoroughly plastered.

He hadn't intended to get drunk, honestly, but after sitting in Bay Bridge traffic for over an hour (an hour!) and spending nearly that long trying to find someplace near the club to park his Miata where he could be sure it would still be there when he got back, he needed a couple beers. And another after Morgana chided him for driving in the first place ("Honestly, Arthur, why not pretend to be a sane person for once and take the train like everyone else who lives in the City?" Never mind that BART was full of drunk club-goers and people in desperate need of a bath at this hour.) and another after the tenth scornful look he'd gotten from one of the club's other patrons, as though he were the weird one when half of them had pink hair and metal spikes on their boots.

And then Morgana had told him to lighten up and handed him something a virulent shade of green, and because the whole point of this excursion was to cheer her up, he'd drunk that, too. Because that's what big brothers did. Part of the job, cheering up sisters when they were heartbroken. Although he was starting to think this was more a case of heart-annoyed-that-the-bastard-left-after-I-already-bought-tickets-to-this-show. But still. He was a good brother for showing up, regardless.

"Hey," he said as Morgana slid into the booth across the table, her face flushed from dancing, "I hope you realize what a good brother I am."

"What?" Morgana called over the wild screeching of electric violin.

Arthur leaned forward, pitching his voice as loud as he could without straining. "I said I'm a good brother."

Morgana frowned for a second, as though trying to process what he'd said, and then grinned. "I know!" she yelled back. "They're amazing, aren't they? I told you you'd love them!"

Arthur shook his head. "Not the band." Really, not the band. "Me," he yelled. "I'm good!"

Morgana's smile widened. "I'm glad you're having fun!"

Arthur sighed heavily and turned his attention back to the antifreeze-colored concoction in front of him. It was the second one Morgana had brought him, and he still couldn't tell if the artificial green flavor was supposed to be apple or melon.

The violin built to a crescendo, holding on a high note, then ended abruptly. The crowd burst into cheers, and Morgana put a hand to her mouth to give a piercing whistle of approval. Arthur clapped because he was glad it was over.

"Thank you." The violin player's voice was monotone, a sharp contrast to the wildness of his playing, but a perfect match for his flat blue eyes. It wasn't exactly what Arthur would have called engaging stage presence, but maybe that was just down to nervousness. The kid couldn't have been older than twelve, and Arthur had no clue how he'd ended up playing at a bar, although he suspected that had been some of what Morgana was gushing about over the horrible canned music that was playing before the band went on.

For a long moment, the boy just stared out at the audience, then nodded sharply and turned to pack up his violin. The crowd's cheers increased, and Arthur tossed back the last of the neon green atrocity.

"Did you want another drink?" Morgana asked, her attention finally turning from the stage as the strange boy disappeared into the wings. "I was just thinking I could use another, myself."

"I'll get it," Arthur said, hurriedly pushing himself to his feet. Two was definitely his limit for sickeningly sweet green things.

The line at the bar was long, nearly everyone in the building wanting refills on their drinks before the next band went on, it seemed like. And, in keeping with the way his luck was running tonight, Arthur found himself at the tail end of it. By the time Arthur was close enough to actually see the bartender's face, all of the crazy violin kid's equipment had been cleared, and a tall man was sweeping down the stage.

"A Mai Tai and a large Fat Tire," Arthur told the bartender. Maybe if he got a full 20 oz. beer for himself, Morgana would stop bringing him green things.

"Elyan, I need three bottles of water and a Gentleman Jack, straight up," came a breathless voice from behind Arthur.

Arthur turned his best indignant glare on the interloper, fully prepared to deliver a lecture on politeness and not cutting in front of a man who just wanted his beer, but he was stopped by an apologetic smile. Or, more precisely, by the generous mouth doing the smiling. Or maybe it was the cheekbones, high enough to make any woman envious, but on a face that most certainly didn't belong to any woman. Or maybe it was the eyes, a brighter blue even than the summer sky and rimmed in heavy black eyeliner.

Or maybe it was the simple fact that he was most definitely not unpleasant to look at and Arthur was not entirely sober and hadn't gotten laid in far too long.

Whatever it was, Arthur found himself glancing back to the bartender -- Elyan? -- with a cocky grin. "Why don't you make those drinks on me?"

"Oh," those fantastically full lips said. "Thanks, but..."

Arthur glanced up from that perfect mouth to see the other man brandishing a handful of drink tickets.

"I'm with the band."

"Right," Arthur said, hoping he didn't sound quite as much the fool as he felt. "The band. Well. Break a leg, then?"

"Thanks," the man said, gathering the bottles of water Elyan handed him into the crook of one arm.

"I'm Arthur, by the way," Arthur said.

"Merlin," the man answered. He flashed a grin. "Enjoy the show, Arthur."

"Oh, I intend to," Arthur answered under his breath, eyes following Merlin's retreating back. Or, more precisely, his retreating backside.

"Hey, mate," the bartender said, interrupting Arthur's prurient musings, "did you want your drinks?"

It was only then that Arthur really noticed the drinks sitting atop the bar. Now that he thought about it, he vaguely recalled that they'd been there when Merlin was gathering up his order.

"Uh," Arthur said, intelligently. "Yes. Um. Thank you." He hoped the generous tip he pressed into the man's hand was enough to keep him from noticing the flush in Arthur's cheeks.

As he wound his way back through the crowd toward Morgana, Arthur wondered what on earth had possessed him back there. He didn't hit on strange men in bars. Not anywhere it might get back to his father. Not where Morgana might see.

He must, he realized, be drunker than he'd thought. Who would have thought those ridiculous green things actually counted for anything?

"There you are," Morgana said as he reached the table. "I wished you'd gotten back sooner. You just missed them."

Arthur frowned at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Are you even making sense?"

"Mordred, Arthur," Morgana explained, in a voice that told him she, at least, thought he ought to know what she was on about. "And his aunts. They came over to thank me for coming. Morgause invited me personally, you know."

"Who?"

"Morgause," Morgana said impatiently. "Mordred's aunt. I just told you."

"Right," Arthur said, years of experience telling him that he was far better off leaving it at that than letting on that he had no fucking clue who this Mordred was, either. "Congratulations?" he tried.

Morgana sighed heavily. "Honestly, Arthur, sometimes I don't know why I even try."

"Mm," Arthur half-agreed. Normally, he'd have been at least trying to pay attention, but movement on stage had caught his eye just as Morgana had begun speaking, and he found himself unable to look away.

Merlin had ditched the baggy hoodie Arthur had seen him in earlier and replaced it with a vintage black leather motorcycle jacket, a perfect match to the leather pants that stretched quite nicely across his ass as he helped a scruffy-looking man wrestle an amplifier to the front of the stage. A second amp was carried across the stage by a man who had to be at least six and half feet tall and whose arms looked like he probably could have carried both amps by himself, and maybe Merlin and his scruffy friend, too.

There was a woman, too, doing something with a microphone and too many cables. She was pretty, Arthur noted distractedly, as Merlin and Scruffy Guy shuffled past her, with tight dark curls framing a kind face. She was wearing some 50's-style pink thing that Leon would have loved.

Another, slightly less scruffy man (why were Merlin's friends all scruffy, anyway?) met the two at the far end of the stage, and started doing something with another mess of cables. Arthur tried not to feel too disappointed that Merlin wasn't bending over anymore.

"Are you even listening to me?" Morgana's voice was all exasperated amusement. "Or are you too busy leering?"

"What?" Arthur's head whipped around. "What, no. I wasn't..." He searched his mind frantically for a good excuse, anything that he could have been looking at on that stage other than Merlin's ass. "I mean," he said, remembering the woman in the pink dress, "I was just admiring her legs. In a gentlemanly fashion."

Morgana gave him a long, measuring look. "You were admiring her legs."

"Yes," Arthur said.

"In a gentlemanly fashion." She no longer looked amused.

"Absolutely gentlemanly," Arthur confirmed.

Morgana sighed. "If you say so, Arthur."

"Just so you know," he told her, "it's hard to take criticism seriously from anyone whose drink has two umbrellas."

Despite the apparent chaos, it didn't take long for Merlin's band to finish setting up their equipment. Arthur was a bit disappointed to see Merlin settle himself behind the drum set -- it was hard to properly appreciate a man's backside when he was sitting on it, after all -- but his disappointment was short-lived.

As the piped-in music faded away and the lights came up onstage, the woman in pink stepped up to the center stage microphone. She flashed the audience a quick, shy smile, and then the entire world exploded into music.

Arthur wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but it certainly wasn't this bouncy, growling sound that made him want to get up out of his chair and dance, and maybe even sing along if he'd known the lyrics. Or maybe not, since they seemed to involve mass murder of some sort, and somehow he didn't think that would be quite so charming coming from him, even if he were in a pink, frilly dress. He settled for tapping his foot along with the beat.

There was nothing shy about the woman in pink, now, as she half-flirted first with the other members of her band, and then with a few of the audience members sitting at the tables closest to the stage. Scruffy Guy was smirking at the crowd as his fingers flew across the frets of his guitar, and Not Quite So Scruffy Guy was cradling his upright bass like a man might cradle a lover. And Merlin... Merlin's face was rapt concentration, eyes focused on some point in front of him, his arms moving with almost boneless fluidity, drumsticks moving so fast they were a blur.

The song ended with a rhythmic cadence, and the crowd burst into cheers and applause.

"Hello, and good evening!" the woman in pink shouted to the crowd. "We're Lapping Tears." At least, that was what it sounded like to Arthur. What a weird name for a band.

"And we," Scruffy Guy said, "are here to rock. Your. World."

Morgana leaned over as the band opened up their next song, and murmured in Arthur's ear, "You're right. She does have nice legs."

The next time Arthur made his way back to the bar, he ordered himself a whole pitcher of beer. He was pretty certain the bartender remembered him, and that he was still laughing.

By the end of the night, Arthur was well and truly drunk, and Morgana was far too pleased about that fact, smiling even as she complained about having to drive him and his car back into the City.

"Next time, take BART, and we can take a cab back across the Bay together," she told him as she gathered up her things. "You're just lucky I stopped after that Mai Tai, or you'd just have to leave your car here overnight."

"Morgana," he said "please stop talking."

"And miss the chance to see you make that face? Never."

"Fine. You keep talking. I'm going to go get some water. No--" he held up a hand to forestall her, "you stay here. I'll be right back." The room lurched in a somewhat nauseating fashion as he stood.

"Don't fall over," Morgana said cheerfully.

Arthur was very proud of himself for being able to flip her off without tripping over his own feet.

"Back again?" Elyan greeted him. "I'm afraid there'll be no more beers for you tonight. You've passed the point where I could plausibly convince anyone I thought you were sober when you ordered."

Arthur shook his head. "No beer. I'm done with beer." He kept shaking his head, partially to emphasize his point and partially because it was sort of hard to stop once he'd gotten started. "Need water."

"Water, I can give you," the bartender said, producing a bottle of Crystal Geyser. "That'll be three dollars."

Arthur paid, taking the bottle and downing it all in one go. It did nothing at all to soothe his turning stomach, but it did wonders for the headache that had just been starting in the center of his forehead.

When he turned away from the bar, the pink-clad front-woman for Merlin's band was behind him, along with Not So Scruffy Guy.

"Hey!" Arthur's mouth said without his permission.

The pair turned to look at him, and he very carefully did not ask if maybe Merlin was still around somewhere. "You guys were really great," he said instead.

"Thank you," the woman said, returning his smile. Not So Scruffy Guy gave him a polite nod, but looked wary.

"I mean it," Arthur insisted. "Really. Very good."

"Hey, are you guys coming?" came a voice from behind Arthur. "Percy and Gwaine are bitching about having to load everything into the truck themselves."

Arthur recognized that voice. He'd been looking for that voice! Well. For something that went with it, anyway. "Merlin!" Maybe that was a bit overly enthusiastic. "Um. Hey."

"I think you mean Percy's loading the van and Gwaine is bitching," said Not So Scruffy Guy.

"Gwaine loaded his guitar, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and the twin groupies that seem to be following him home," Merlin corrected. "Hey... Arthur, was it?"

"That's right," Arthur said. "I was just telling your band-mates here how much I enjoyed your show."

"You should have told us you were a friend of Merlin's," Not So Scruffy Guy said, actually smiling now and offering Arthur his hand. "I'm Lance."

"Nice to meet you, Arthur," the woman said. "I'm Gwen." She threw a questioning look at Merlin, and Arthur couldn't quite decipher the quirked eyebrow he gave her in return.

"Is this the first time you've seen us?" Gwen asked.

"Yeah," Arthur said, ignoring the way his stomach still roiled from a bit too much beer. "My sister dragged me, actually. I didn't think I'd enjoy myself, but..." His eyes drifted to Merlin. "But I really did."

"I'm glad," Merlin said. "You know, we're playing here again a week from Tuesday. If you want to come."

"Yes," Arthur said, too quickly. "I mean, I'll have to see if I'm free." God, he sounded like an idiot. And the edges of his vision were starting to go wonky, a sure sign that he'd had far too much to drink. He really ought to be going. But...

"Maybe," Arthur continued with exaggeratedly careful pronunciation, "if you're not busy after--"

"There you are." Morgana's voice was heavy with exasperation. "For god's sake, Arthur, twenty minutes is not ‘right back.'"

Arthur fought down panic. How much of the conversation had Morgana heard? What had she seen? Not that he'd been hitting on Merlin, exactly, and even if he had (which he hadn't!), surely Morgana couldn't have noticed from a distance, could she? No. No, of course not.

"I was jusht--" Arthur paused, tried again. "Just telling these fine people how very much I enjoyed their performance."

For good measure, Arthur threw an arm around Gwen's shoulders and gave her a look he hoped could pass for lascivious. Given the way Morgana was staring at him, he thought maybe he hadn't quite succeeded. To say nothing of the way Gwen herself was staring at him. And Lance.

But Merlin... Merlin was staring, of all places, at Morgana, looking a bit stunned.

"Morgana?" Merlin said. "Am I really seeing Morgana Pendragon at one of my shows?"

Morgana's head snapped toward Merlin, her mouth curving in a tight-lipped smile. "I thought I recognized you up there, Emrys. Not a bad set. I hadn't realized you still played."

"On and off," Merlin said. "When I get the time."

"You two know each other?" Gwen asked, not-so-surreptitiously ducking out from under Arthur's arm.

"Yeah," Merlin said. "We're sort of...old friends."

"Classmates," Morgana clarified. "We went to college together. Didn't we, Merlin?"

Merlin nodded. "Introduction to Decision Analysis."

"With Dr. Taylor?" Gwen asked. "Merlin was still complaining about that class two years later when I met him."

"Hey, it was only a year and a half," Merlin corrected.

"It was worth complaining about for at least that long," Morgana said.

"Isn't Taylor the one Father got suspended for constantly trying to look down your shirt?" Arthur asked.

Morgana gave him a Look. "Thank you, Arthur. I love it when you feel the need to explain deeply mortifying incidents in my past to people I've just met.

"I'm Morgana, by the way," she said to Gwen and Lance. "In case you didn't catch that. And the drunken ass is, for better or worse, my brother, Arthur."

"A pleasure to meet you," Lance said.

"It's a shame Merlin didn't get the chance to introduce us sooner," Gwen put in.

"He's your brother." Merlin's voice was oddly flat.

Despite his increasing queasiness, Arthur forced a grin. "That's right. Arthur Pendragon, in the flesh."

His pronouncement didn't get nearly the reception he was used to. If anything, Merlin looked annoyed.

"How nice for you," Merlin said. "I'm going to go finish loading the van."

Arthur frowned. "I think--" he started, but he was interrupted by a troubled-looking Lance.

"I should help, too," he said, frowning after Merlin. "It was nice meeting you, Morgana. Arthur."

"I think--" Arthur tried again.

"I'm really sorry about that," Gwen told Morgana. "He gets like that sometimes after a show.

"I really think I'm going to be sick," Arthur finally got out.

Morgana and Gwen both turned to stare at him, and the pitcher of beer Arthur had consumed earlier chose that moment to make a reappearance.



Oaklandish


Whoever invented 8 a.m. meetings, Arthur thought, ought to be shot. He smiled weakly at his father over the rim of his coffee mug and willed his head to stop aching. Or, at least, to stop aching quite so much.

"Good morning!" Morgana said as she breezed into the conference room.

Forget whoever invented early morning meetings, Arthur decided. Morgana ought to be shot for being that perky and being able to look that put together at this ungodly hour. Especially when he knew damned well she'd been out every bit as late as he had the night before. Especially when it was her fault he'd been out in the first place.

As she slid into her seat, Morgana grabbed Arthur's hand beneath the table and pressed two tablets into it. Arthur glanced down. Advil. Okay, maybe she only deserved to be kicked in the shins a couple of times.

"Now that you're both here," Uther said, "we can begin. I've asked you here today because I am entrusting you with a very important project. Very important."

Arthur exchanged a quick glance with Morgana. It was never a good sign when Uther started repeating himself.

"You know you can count on us, Father," Arthur said, and Morgana nodded her agreement.

"I truly hope so," Uther said. "Because what I'm asking isn't just for me, or even for the future of Pendragon Broadcasting." A disturbing, almost beatific smile came over Uther's face, and Arthur thought with a horrible, sinking feeling in his stomach, that he knew what was coming.

"It's for Catrina."

Arthur took small comfort in the fact that Morgana's cheerful grin suddenly looked much more like a grimace. It wasn't that they disliked Uther's new wife, exactly... Well, no. Arthur thought maybe Morgana genuinely did dislike her, but Arthur liked her just fine as long as he never had to spend any time with her or ever talk to her at all.

"As you know," Uther continued, "she has quite a following among QVC viewers, who loved her series on kitchen appliances. The two of us discussed it, and we decided it's time for her to take her career to the next level."

"What does that have to do with us, Father?" Morgana asked, having regained her composure.

"I'm glad you asked. As of yesterday morning, Pendragon Broadcasting has acquired a local television station known as Let's Eat! Obviously the name will have to go, but the station has a very strong following among local food connoisseurs, and I believe there is enough talent there to help make it a success as the latest addition to Pendragon Broadcasting's cable lineup."

"And you want Catrina to have a show selling kitchen appliances?" Arthur asked. It didn't really seem like much of a step up from QVC to him, but it was hardly the utter disaster he'd been imagining when his father first mentioned Catrina's name.

"No, of course not," Uther said, waving a dismissive hand. "She's going to be the host of the station's flagship culinary show. It's been in the works for months. We've already begun filming."

Morgana looked like her coffee had gone suddenly sour. "You've got Catrina hosting a culinary show?"

"Of course," Uther said, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. "You know how much she loves to cook. It's a natural choice."

"But--" Morgana protested.

"I won't hear any arguments," Uther said. "It's a done deal. And Arthur, I'm putting you in charge of the project."

"What, me? In charge of a cooking show?"

"Not the show," Uther said, obviously starting to lose patience. "The station. Despite its current popularity and the extra viewership that Catrina will undoubtedly bring with her, it's going to need some work before it's cable-ready, and this is the perfect opportunity for you to start taking on a more active role in the company. You'll want to add at least one other new show to the station's lineup to start, and another three or four at least over the course of the first year.

"Morgana," he continued, "given your experience with some of the more... unique aspects of culinary culture, I expect you to act as an advisor to Arthur for this project."

"Given my knowledge and experience in both culinary culture and managing a television station," Morgana said, "wouldn't it make more sense to put me in charge of the project? To be blunt, Father, I don't think overseeing your pet baseball team for the past three years really gives Arthur the skills he needs to make this venture successful.

"No offense meant, of course," she added as an aside to Arthur.

"None taken," Arthur answered. He would never admit it aloud, but Morgana did have experience better suited to this project. Arthur's idea of fine dining was eating pizza off a real plate instead of straight out of the box, and he really didn't see any problem with that, as much as it seemed to pain Morgana.

Besides, any project revolving around Catrina was likely to have Uther hovering like a particularly neurotic mother hen. No, Arthur was more than happy to let Morgana try to talk Uther into letting her take the lead on this one.

"Your experience is precisely why you won't be heading this project," Uther said. "We need a solid station here. Nothing flashy, and, quite frankly, Morgana, your culinary preferences are not something that will appeal to the heart of the American viewing public."

Morgana's lips compressed to a tight line. "You really believe I'd let my personal agenda get in the way of running a successful station?"

"Not intentionally," Uther conceded, "but you can't deny that you're very passionate about your views, and Pendragon Broadcasting can't afford to take the risk of you losing your objectivity when it comes to this station. Besides, Arthur needs to get more involved in running and maintaining our networks if he's going to take over my position when I retire."

"I see," Morgana said. "So, this is all about making sure Arthur is the perfect heir to your empire. I should have guessed."

"Father," Arthur broke in, having no interest at all at getting in the middle of that discussion again, "I appreciate your confidence in me and your desire to help me improve my skills and knowledge, but I agree with Morgana. She's clearly the better candidate for leading this project."

"Arthur, I have tried to give you as much freedom as I could," Uther said. "I let you go to school on the other side of the country. I let you oversee the
Giants after I bought the team. And I did all of these things because I know how hard it is to be a leader, to have to step up to the plate and take charge of things, and I wanted you to have some freedom before you had to take up such a heavy burden of responsibility.

"But it's time, son. It's time for you to start becoming the great leader I know you will someday be. And it starts here, with this television station."

Arthur felt his determination to dodge the project slipping away as Uther spoke. There was nothing quite like a little parental guilt trip for motivation.

"I understand, Father. I'll take the project."

"Of course you will," Uther said, smiling. "And if you fail, Morgana can take over."

"Take over the project?" Arthur asked.

"Oh, certainly the project. At the very least."

Arthur could feel another headache coming on, and it was not at all helped by Morgana's suddenly speculative look. By the time Uther had finished outlining the details of the project, Arthur was fantasizing about more painkillers and a cool glass of water.

"You know," Morgana said in a low murmur as she gathered up her notes with unnecessary slowness, "if you're going to prevent this from being a complete train wreck, you'll need to come up with at least one good show to balance out Catrina."

"Don't be so melodramatic," Arthur told her when he was sure that the elevator down the hall had closed completely behind his father's back. "She can't be as bad as all that. You're just a food snob."

"You weren't there for Fourth of July," Morgana said, and it was almost an accusation. "She used cooking spray on the barbecue, Arthur."

Arthur didn't really see what was wrong with that. Cooking spray was just oil, wasn't it? Was it bad to put oil on a barbecue? "Ah, well..."

"Butter-flavor," she continued, eyes narrowing. "Artificial butter flavor."

Okay, that... was maybe a little bit on the strange side.

"But don't worry," Morgana said with a sudden, determined smile. "I'm sure you'll be able to develop a fantastic new show. After all, I've got your back."

"That's what I'm afraid of," Arthur muttered.



Oaklandish


Arthur had managed to find himself a dark corner in the studio that allowed him to both see the filming of Home-Like: With Catrina Tregor and hide from his father. He had known Uther would hover, since he doted on Catrina to an excessive degree, but it was still surprising behavior from a man who made detachment into an art form. It wasn't that Uther was inattentive to his properties or uninvolved in his investments, just that the man preferred to hire the perfect people for their positions and if they turned out to be less than perfect, he quickly and effectively ruined their careers. To witness Uther second guessing everyone from the director to the rather timid looking intern holding cue cards had to have everyone convinced they were all seconds away from being fired and they would all be reduced to working at gas stations in the Central Valley. Arthur shuddered, wondering if that's where he was headed as well if he failed in this project. He was pretty sure he had enough of his own money saved and invested, and he owned his condo, so worst case scenario he'd end up at Footlocker or 24 Hour Fitness.

Of course it was while absorbed in his internal monologue on the disastrous route his life was about to take, given how little he knew about food, and absorbed in thoughts of whether he would be able to earn commissions from his inevitable retail career, that Morgana found him.

"Why, dear Arthur, you look positively stricken. I would have thought Catrina's cooking to be right up your alley," she said, leaning in close to his ear.

In truth, he hadn't noticed Catrina's cooking. He looked, since he knew it was likely that Uther would interrogate him over the details soon, but he honestly didn't see any difference between this and the few other instructional cooking shows he had seen over the years. His confusion must have shown on his face. Morgana's expression had traveled from smug to appalled.

"You really don't know, do you?"

"Morgana, it can't possibly be that bad. Father knows a good investment when he sees one."

"Arthur, Uther has made his fortune by never underestimating the lowest common denominator of the American public."

"Are you suggesting that our father has married the lowest common denominator? Because that's probably not a good opinion to have of our step-mother."

She glared at him. "Her sets match her clothes and the predominant color scheme of the dish. She doesn't even match for taste, she goes by theme! And I think she's drunk..." Morgana's words tapered off as she stared at the set.

Catrina was clutching what looked to be a bottle of vodka and there were six other bottles of alcohol on the counter near a bowl that seemed to be holding their former contents. As Arthur watched, she put the bottle down, picked up a cup and dipped it straight into the bowl. He could just make out the phrase "Time for party punch!" before she downed the cup in one go. Unfortunately, Arthur knew Morgana's speechlessness wouldn't last, so he attempted to change the subject.

"About the band we saw... the one with the pretty girl in pink."

"Oh yes, I remember her. Don't tell me you fancied her?" There was something vaguely threatening in her voice, Arthur was sure of it.

"What? No, of course not."

"Good." The genuine relief on Morgana's face set Arthur's teeth on edge. "Don't think I've forgotten what happened last time you tried dating a woman."

"I just figured you would remember her before you'd remember anyone else in the band." He was never sure if Morgana's claims of bisexuality were an attempt at trendiness, or as a cover for her lesbianism.

"Did you," Morgana replied. Sometimes he was certain she could hear his thoughts. "I'm honestly surprised you remember anyone that was there that night. That was quite a performance you gave, Arthur."

"Hey! I remember. I just wanted to know if you had... if they had any albums. I'd like to buy one of their albums. "

"Have you given any thought to the show you're going to develop?"

"Why are you changing the subject?"

"Guinevere works in a restaurant in Oakland that is very likely to be the next big thing."

"Who on earth is Guinevere?"

"The lead singer for Lapin Tueur; you met her. You just said she was lovely. You ruined her shoes. I knew you didn't remember."

"No, I... just..." He demurred as he felt a weight settle on his shoulder.

"Arthur." Uther had snuck up on them. The man could be silent as a cat when he wanted to. "Morgana."

"Father," they replied in unison.

"I saw that pitcher of yours on The Loco Show. Have you begun preparations for his inevitable stint in rehab?"

"No, Father, I don't need to. Valiant just likes the publicity, he's not actually on drugs." And it put bodies in seats. Attendance was up 20% because of "The Snake." Arthur would have to put together a report to send to his father charting ticket sales, before Valiant came up from the minors and after the Pennant win, since judging from Uther's expression, he was not convinced.

"Arthur, Albert Godwin's daughter Elena is in town overseeing her father's new venture in Napa, I have informed Godwin that you would be delighted to entertain her. I spoke to Leon about your schedule and he has written her in for 8pm on September 13th. Reservations have been made for you at Gary Danko."

Arthur tried not to react. "Of course, Father."

"Glad that's settled. I must get back to work. I want everything perfect for Catrina. Isn't she wonderful?" Uther didn't wait for a reply, just returned to terrorizing the lighting assistant.

While Arthur was used to Uther's demands, Morgana apparently felt the need to pick which battles Arthur fought. "Why would you let him do that? Don't you see what he's trying to do? He wants you to breed with that woman."

"Morgana, it's one dinner for networking. That hardly counts as expecting us to breed. Besides, is it so wrong that he might expect grandchildren someday? "

"Well, Arthur, I suppose it depends on whether you intend to marry a young lady of his choosing, or if you'd rather find someone who gets your rocks off. "

"What... I... how, what is that supposed to mean?" He thought he was quite successful keeping anything like panic out of his voice.

"You do know I love you, right? That I'm here for you and I'll never judge you, but if you don't grow a fucking pair when it comes to your love life, I'm going to have to shiv you for my sanity."

Morgana waved him off before he could respond. "As I was saying before Uther demonstrated that we may need to have a lawyer declare him incompetent in the coming months, if you want to save this network, you'll need to produce shows that have not been hand picked by Uther. I happen to have a couple of restaurants for you to visit that are both phenomenally camera-ready, and willing to do nearly anything for publicity. Both Ambrosia and The Blessed Cafe are in the East Bay. I'll have Aglain coordinate our schedules with Leon; they can make the necessary reservations."

"The East Bay again, Morgana? Why on earth do you go there voluntarily."

"I know you live in mortal fear of hippies, but you're on a deadline, and I don't actually want to be put in charge of this fiasco if I can't fire her," she said, glaring at Catrina. The woman seemed to be mixing Cool-whip and butterscotch pudding mix together and pouring it into the hole in the center of a store-bought angel's food cake. She watched in horror for another minute as Catrina opened a can of cherries, before pulling Arthur into a hug.

"Some of us don't have an off-season, and have to get back to work. Don't forget what I said about shivving you," she said as she walked off.

"I work in the off-season," he shouted after her, only to be run out of the studio himself for ruining the take.



Oaklandish


After a week of negotiation, Leon and Aglain had successfully coordinated Arthur's and Morgana's schedules for not one, but two dinners in the East Bay. Arthur was feeling put out by it. He'd prefer to stay in the City and in civilization, since there couldn't possibly be anything so special that it would require him to cross the bridge twice in one week. Although he supposed there might be something to it. Surely no restaurant in the City (also known as civilization) would allow cameras to invade their space on what would have to be insanely short notice. Maybe he should just think of Oakland as the Minors, where people with promise went to train and learn the demands of being a pro, before they got called up to the Majors and got to work in real restaurants.

Of course, all the planning in the world didn't help him find parking. He was reminded yet again, why he hated coming out here. They couldn't just build parking garages. No, he had to park blocks away on some sketchy side street and risk a mugging. He considered himself lucky when he made it to Ambrosia without being accosted.

The host stand was empty when he entered, so he shot off a quick text to Morgana to let her know he had arrived. Since he had his phone out, he assumed it wouldn't hurt to look at his schedule for tomorrow and double-check his email; he would be offline for the next hour or so, after all. He knew he could trust Leon to take care of emergencies, though the only likely emergency would be Valiant deciding he needed to wrestle the sea lions.

"Sir, do you have a reservation?"

He looked up to see the hostess had returned. She was a small woman, with dark hair and eyes, and an accent that he couldn't place. He was also fairly sure he recognized her from the club, which he supposed wouldn't be too unusual, if the singer also worked here. Of course her coworkers would turn up to cheer her on.


"Yes, sorry. Pendragon for two."

"Of course, sir. The rest of your party is already here. If you'll just follow me." He saw Morgana as soon as they entered the dining room, but he followed the hostess anyway. As he took his seat, she handed him a menu, and began the introductions.

"My name is Freya. Welcome to Ambrosia. Your server tonight will be Morris, and Lance will be with you shortly with our wine and beer list. Our specials are a Carpaccio of Welsh black beef fillet with picked ginger, served with parsnip chips, or pan-fried trout stuffed with fresh herbs, wrapped in bacon and served with crushed new potatoes and roasted vine tomatoes. The soup today is potato leek."

While she spoke, someone came to fill their water glasses and leave a carafe for the table. Arthur could hear him mutter something to Freya in a language Arthur didn't recognize, and that seemed to have too many consonants, and she responded in the same. So it really wasn't English then, he'd have to figure out how to bring it up in some way that wouldn't be completely embarrassing, which would mean to someone not Morgana. ...Who was currently giving him her patented "there's something wrong with your head" look.

"Sorry, I was thinking about work," he said as soon as Freya left them alone.

"Valiant's gimp friend made another public appearance then?"

"‘The Machine'? No, he's in Bali. It's this project." Diverting Morgana with real world problems was always the safest course of action. "I get the whole, ‘let's make some TV!' concept, but why are we here, again?"

Morgana sighed. "You, Arthur Pendragon, are going to talk to whomever is in charge and you are going to ask them, if they had the opportunity to appear on national TV, what format they would like to appear in, and then you are going to do the same thing at The Blessed Cafe, and if either of them are kind enough to take you up on the pitch, you are going to bring in cameras and make some magic."

"Ah, okay. I suppose that is the best way to get this done quickly." He hated to give her the satisfaction of knowing he needed her on this. And judging from the way she rolled her eyes, he didn't need to tell her.

"Just look at your menu, Arthur."

Before he could do more than open it though, the bass player from the band was asking if they wanted to look at the beer and wine list.

"Lance," Morgana practically purred. Arthur wondered what ridiculous thing she was about to ask him to do. "Guinevere tells me you trained in France to be a sommelier."


"I did, although we're better known for our beer pairings here than for our wines. We do have some lovely choices, whichever you're interested in."

"Do I really have to choose, then? I can see the merits of both. I'm going to get the souffle, so maybe a nice hoppy ale with dinner and a sweet wine for dessert?"

"An impeccable choice, but are you sure you want both? Not many people recommend mixing your drinks."

"I am. They're both too tempting to turn down, and besides, I like to live on the edge." Morgana was looking like the cat that got the canary, but Arthur had to give her credit for buttering up the staff, even if she was going to be unbearably smug about it.

"I'll just have a Fat Tire. Thanks." Arthur resisted the urge to count how long it took Lance to break eye contact with Morgana, but it did happen eventually. Before he could resume his earlier conversation with Morgana, the waiter had come and taken their orders. Yet another person he recognized from the club had delivered their drinks.

"Does everyone in, and fan of, Lapsang Tea work here?"

"First of all, it's Lapin Tueur, it's French, and secondly, yes, I think everyone in the band does work here, except the guitarist. He works at some dive downtown."

"Wait, so Merlin works here, too?"

"Oh, you remember Merlin's name but not Gwen's." She was glaring again.

"It's just..." He thought fast to divert the conversation from why he really remembered Merlin's name. "You said you were in the same class."

"Yes, Arthur. That happens on occasion when you are enrolled at the same university."

"But you went to Stanford."

"Yes Arthur, your point?"

"But why, if Merlin went to Stanford, is he working here?"

"Because he likes it, because it's the family business, because he decided not to go the dot com route? I don't know. You'll have to ask him."

"But, that makes no sense, you don't waste that kind of degree."

"God, Arthur--, sometimes I swear you sound just like Uther. All I know is, he was getting a degree in Chemical Engineering, there was some weirdness with his frat brothers, and he fell off the face of the Earth. I didn't hear anything about him again until I saw him at the club."

He wasn't sure which part of that he wanted to focus on, and went with the part where she said he was like their father. He thought Uther was a great man, really, but he'd always thought he was his own person, and the idea stung more then he wanted to admit.

"Why does being surprised that he would give up a prestigious degree make me like Father?"

"Because it's never occurred to him that even with all the planning in the world, sometimes what will make you happy isn't doing what's expected of you, or even sticking to what you thought you wanted. It's taking a chance that you'll lose everything in order to get what you need. And I worry that it will never occur to you, either."

"Morgana." Arthur was completely unsure of how to respond. Of course that was when their food began to arrive.

The first course was soup for Arthur and something called a wild greens salad for Morgana. The soup surprised him; from the rest of the menu and what he'd seen being served to others, he'd expected it to be heavy, probably with chunks of potato, but it was delicate and cold, certainly the best vichyssoise he'd ever had. On the other hand, since he'd only had it at event type dinners, for awards, fundraisers and the like, he wasn't sure if ‘ the best he'd had,' was a glowing recommendation.

Whenever he looked up to Morgana to try and continue their previous conversation, she glared, but otherwise she looked enraptured just eating her salad. He wondered if it was a put-on; she couldn't actually like being vegetarian. How much joy could a person get from only eating salads? He was sure it was just one more way for her to pretend to be morally superior to him. When they did talk again it was kept to safe topics: work, but not the new station, Morgana's mother's escapades as a designer and her hopes for her Spring line, Arthur's attempts to keep the team's rivalry with LA from escalating into property damage.

When their main courses arrived, however, the mood changed again. Morgana's eyes went a little glassy and faraway when she took the first bite of her soufflé. She looked up and around the restaurant like it was the first time she was seeing it, and as she took another bite, her face went from bliss to something between confused and agitated, but soon returned to bliss. Arthur wondered if maybe she'd had a break with reality, something caused by too many salads, maybe not enough protein getting to her brain, but he stayed silent, not ready for her to possibly push too hard with things he didn't want to think about again just then.

They ate the rest of their meal mostly in silence, punctuated by occasional sounds from his sister that could only be described as moans, which made Arthur feel distinctly uncomfortable. Yes, his meal was delicious, but he didn't think it warranted Morgana's extreme response. He had again been surprised by what he had expected to be simple mashed potatoes to find they had the sharpness of some kind of cheese, garlic, and an herbiness he couldn't figure out, coupled with a gravy that seemed to be made from beer. When they finally set down their forks, Morgana leaned back in her chair with the self-satisfaction of someone who had been properly laid.

Arthur leaned towards her. "For fuck's sake, you're being obscene," he said, hissing out the words.

"Oh, Arthur, you have no idea. I can't believe how easy it was to get a table here. The wait for reservations should be months at least."

"Morgana, it's just food. Don't be ridiculous."

She gave him a condescending, pitying frown, and stood up, putting her napkin on her seat. "I'm going to find out who we need to speak to so that you can have your show. Try not to embarrass me with your lack of interest in the subject matter, please."

And with that she headed off towards the bar and as he watched, struck up a conversation with Lance. It wasn't too long after that Lance disappeared into what Arthur supposed was the kitchen, and Morgana returned to their table.

"Apparently everyone on staff works on Tuesday nights as part of some team-building exercise, which means that Gwen will be joining us shortly since her assistant is here tonight, and some of the others will probably join us when they can slip away."

Almost as soon as she had said it, Gwen was angling one of the empty chairs at the table closer to Morgana so she could face Arthur, and sliding into it. In her white chef's coat, she hardly seemed like the same girl he saw last week on stage. Her curls were mostly hidden by a close fitting cap, and what didn't fit underneath was caught in a loose bun at the base of her neck.

"Hi, Guinevere, right?" Arthur said, reaching out to shake her hand. She stretched across the table to take his, and then seemed to think better of it, pausing to grab a towel from her back pocket, wiping both hands off, and then reaching back.

"Sorry, yeah. You can call me Gwen. Everyone does. I mean, all my friends do, or, I hope we can be friends... The mess -- it's the desserts, sorry. I'm the pastry chef. It gets everywhere."

"No problem. I'm glad for a chance to make a second impression."

"Oh! Yes, Morgana told me you were having, um...Thanks for offering to replace my shoes. I just don't really have the time to get to the City and replace them."

Morgana was giving him the "agree or I will shiv you" look, so he figured it would be in his best interest not to question what exactly Morgana had said about him or promised on his behalf, and if replacing a pair of shoes that he admittedly did ruin was all it would take to smooth things over so they could film here, he was willing to have Leon make that sacrifice.

"Of course, I'm happy to replace them. It should have never happened in the first place."

"I suppose I should be thanking you, though, since it gave me and Morgana an excuse to exchange numbers."

"Glad I could help. Morgana needs to get out more." Not that that was strictly true, but most of Morgana's friends were in entertainment in some way, which meant Uther gave her a hard time for not maintaining a professional distance, since someday she might have to fire them. Arthur had it easier with the players. They either retired or got traded. If anyone did something drastic enough to get fired, the press coverage and their likely league suspension meant it never came as a complete surprise.

"I'm sure we can help keep her occupied," Gwen said, giving Morgana a smile that widened as Lance pulled the other chair at the table to Morgana's other side. Arthur felt a bit as if he were facing a committee, which was odd. He was fairly sure the three of them had only met the once. There absolutely no reason to feel like they were presenting a unified front.

"How come it's not absolutely impossible to get a reservation here?" Morgana asked. Arthur did not understand why she deemed the topic important.

Gwen smiled. "It's because Gaius Emrys is still known as the executive chef. I mean he's good, he's really really good, but it's not going to make news, so everyone thinks it's business as usual. We've got our regulars, and good reviews on Yelp, and no one knows that the next Thomas Keller is our sous-chef."

"Wouldn't your sous-chef have had enough of a following that people would know he was here?" Morgana asked.

"This is the only restaurant Merlin's ever worked in, and Gaius is his uncle. Why would anyone know? I mean, I agree they should, but short of bribing bloggers to come here and check out what Merlin's done for the menu, I don't see how they would have found out."

"So, you need publicity." Arthur made it a statement, not a question. "It wouldn't take much, either. Maybe as little as ten minutes of air time to get the buzz started." Arthur still wasn't sure if he'd devote a whole show to this place, but compilation shows were popular and cheap to produce, so it would be in his best interest to set someone on creating a few.

"I'm sure if the word got out the two of you were here, we could get a mention in the society pages." Merlin joined them, grabbing a chair from a neighboring table and sitting on Arthur's side, facing the others.

"Oh, Merlin, play nice. You're just jealous that you keep turning down your chances to be in them yourself," Morgana chided.

"You know me, Morgana. I live for fame. It's why I'm here and not at Dow."

"I always did wonder why you left."

"Plastics are yesterday's news, Morgana. Food and rock ‘n roll are where it's at now."

"Did the band come first, or the restaurant?" Arthur interrupted. Merlin seemed much less hostile then he had the last time they'd met, and Arthur hoped that by steering the conversation away from Morgana's questions, he could keep it that way.

"Oh, the restaurant," Gwen said. "The band was Gwaine's fault."

"Yeah, Gwaine said that everyone he's ever slept with is either in a band or a cult, and since Gwen, Percy and I didn't want to give up all our worldly possessions, we figured we should get on that band thing." Merlin looked like he might be joking, but when Gwen reached over to punch him on the arm, it was more playful than offended.

"Lance isn't on that list?" Morgana asked, giving the man in question a once over.

"No, our Lance is the only completely straight arrow in our quiver," Merlin said, laughing.

"Didn't stop Gwaine from trying. We couldn't let him feel left out of the band, though -- so I took one for the team." Gwen leaned into Lance as if to reassure him.

"Are you guys always this shameless?" Arthur asked smirking. He was only amused by the display, not remotely interested in Merlin's apparent lack of straightness.

"Did you see Ratatouille? They had a guy who killed someone with his thumbs in a kids movie. This business is crawling with deviants." Merlin wiggled his thumb in what Arthur could only interpret as misguided attempt to turn it into a believable weapon.

"Ratawhat? I don't know what you're talking about, Merlin. Why would I care about a kids' movie?" Arthur wasn't sure how they'd gone from shamelessness to children's entertainment.

"I wouldn't say that too loud. Someone from Pixar might hear you." Gwen looked side to side quickly as if making sure they were safe.

"And that matters, why?" Arthur knew Pixar was somewhere on this side of the bay. He couldn't have survived in either of his industries and not have at least vague awareness of them. He'd never been fond of cartoons, though. Uther found them frivolous, despite having an appreciation for the sheer profit that could be made off of them with all the associated merchandising and low production costs, although he had to admit, Pixar never skimped on its budgets.

"Arthur has no Bay Area pride at all." Morgana rolled her eyes.

"Oh please, how many of you are actually natives." Arthur made a show of looking around the table skeptically. He and Morgana had grown up mostly in Marin, although she'd had several stints globetrotting with her mother. If it would add to his credibility, he would take native status.

"Merlin is. Grew up in El Sobrante and everything." Gwen nodded,

"Gwen, you don't even know where El Sobrante is," Merlin said fondly.

"Sure I do. It's somewhere over there," she said, gesturing behind her.

"What about the rest of you?" Morgana asked, deftly directing the conversation.

"Well, I grew up in La Jolla," Lance said. "I moved to Oakland after I got back from France, thinking I could work here while I looked for something permanent in Napa, and I just never left."

Gwen went next. "I moved out here from Ohio with my brother. Our dad's a programmer, and we thought we'd give the family business a go out here, but it was right before the dot-com crash, so it didn't work out very well. By the time there were tech jobs again, we'd both decided we didn't want to go back to it. Elyan's a bartender, and I'm here."

"I'm sure Morgana's told you all my secrets by now," Merlin said, his grin implying that he didn't mind in the least.

"I don't know if anyone knows all your secrets, Merlin," Morgana said with a smirk.

"What am I paying you people for if you're going to sit here lollygagging with with your friends?" The speaker had the same accent as the hostess and the server, but it seemed milder, as if he had been in America for a long time. Arthur tried to put on his best ‘I'm a professional, trust me' face, since he assumed he would have to convince the owner he wasn't wasting his staff's time.

"Gaius Emrys, owner and Executive chef of the greatest and possibly only Welsh fine dining restaurant in Oakland, meet Arthur and Morgana Pendragon, heirs assumptive to Pendragon Broadcasting. Arthur was giving us advice on publicity." Merlin said as he hopped out of his seat and grabbed another chair from the neighboring table and guided Gaius into it.

"Morgana asked where you were earlier, but you didn't answer your door when I knocked." Lance said.

"I was taking my glaucoma medicine," Gaius said indignantly. Merlin snorted, and Arthur realized Gaius meant the kind of medicine that you smoked. He supposed Gaius's eyes were a little bloodshot.

"Gaius taught me everything I know. He trained under Escoffier himself." Merlin's grin was bright and endearing, and it made Arthur feel slightly breathless. He was beginning to suspect that Merlin knew his smile made people think he was far more innocent then he was, and that it actually meant he was deliberately doing something he knew he shouldn't. It appeared Gaius at least was immune to the power of it, however -- if his eyebrow was anything to go by.

"I'll make you clean the deep-fryer if you don't behave, Merlin." Gaius seemed to realize that neither Morgana nor Arthur understood the joke. "Escoffier died well before I was even born. But you would do well to study him, young man. Your sauces are appalling."

"You only say that because I don't see the point in doing them the French way."

"I should send you to Geoffrey to be his saucier until you learn to do them right."

Merlin made a face that seemed to be an impression of Gaius. Gwen was giggling and sliding out of her chair, and Lance was smiling indulgently at her.

Two things struck Arthur, then. One, that nearly everyone in this restaurant, from the moment you walked in the door, was almost ridiculously attractive, and two, that Merlin and Gaius's mentor/mentee rapid-fire banter was the kind of thing that won writing awards. He knew that he needed to keep looking, that he couldn't just offer them a show without seriously considering all his options. But it was a hard thing when all his instincts were telling him a show here, with these people, would be a sure thing.

"Hypothetically speaking, if you had a show on a nationally televised cable channel devoted to food, what would you want it to be about?" he asked. Looks of skepticism were exchanged among the Ambrosia staff, but in a show of good faith, they went along with him.

For the next hour they talked about ideas, from Gaius doing the traditional cooking instruction style show, to a reality show with a confession booth where they all promised to hate each other for effect when the cameras were rolling. Well, Merlin promised. Gwen went off on a tangent about how Lance couldn't hate anyone if he tried, and she would never be able to face her mother again if she was rude on TV.

Then the conversations turned to gossip and local food lore. Gaius turned weepy for a moment recounting his tragic love affair with a woman named Alice who left him to found her own restaurant. Merlin told a tale about a local critic named Timothy Kilgharrah, who everyone called The Great Dragon, for reasons that were left unexplained, and who was notoriously cranky, to the point that the legendary five chefs to garner good reviews from him had formed their own club called the Dragonlords.

Freya came by long enough to tell a story of when she had been sixteen and her mother was the hostess. She had been instructed to come to the restaurant to get some money so she could take their cat to the vet ("A vicious black hell-beast," Gaius interjected), but the cat had escaped it's carrier, and they'd had to evacuate all the guests. Three people had needed stitches. Everyone had stories to tell about various local celebrities and big name stars who lived locally, and the chaos they brought along with great sales.

Eventually, Morgana began telling tales about their stepmother's culinary creations, which had everyone in hysterics. Arthur had tried to defend Catrina half-heartedly, saying that her cooking wasn't that bad, which resulted in everyone looking at him with complete disbelief.

By the time they left, the restaurant was empty. Freya had been hovering so impatiently to be able to close out the register that Gaius had announced the meal was on the house and that Lance had best get everyone another round of drinks. Morgana said her goodbyes, giving Gwen and Lance hugs, and she must really have been tipsy because they lasted a little longer then necessary, but she didn't hug Merlin, just gave him a smirk and said she'd see him around.

Eventually everyone left to finish their closing duties. Arthur had the distinct impression that most of those duties had been pawned off on other members of the staff at Gaius's request, but they couldn't avoid them entirely. Merlin lingered for a bit longer though, ostensibly to escort Arthur to the door and lock up behind him.

"You should come back, Pendragon. And not for business... To actually learn something about food."

"Think you can teach me something I don't already know, Merlin?"

"Oh, you have no idea what I could teach you," Merlin said, closing the door with a smile.