Merlin dashes across the street choked with London traffic - horse-drawn carts, motorcars, trams - and is nearly trampled by a horse. He shoots a glance back at his pursuers - they’re right there, about to step off the curb. Frantic, he ducks under one of the bookstalls closely packed along the block. The proprietor doesn’t seem to notice as Merlin darts between the legs of the men browsing through the books. Trouser legs and boots surround him like a curtain as he gulps breaths of wet tweed and tries to calm the hammering of his heart. He hears grumbling above his head about the anti-war demonstration a few blocks away in Trafalgar Square, excited talk about the German invasion of Belgium and the British ultimatum. Merlin’s heart is heavy at the seeming inevitability of war. All because of the assassination of some Austrian nob no better than the rest of them. British boys being sent to their death for that – it makes him sick.
He’s got to get back to the Square to find Will and catch the rest of the demonstration, not least because his paper’s expecting him to file a story in a matter of hours. He pats his pocket to make sure his notebook is still there. It is, thank god.
But first...lose these stupid gits. He can feel a bruise blooming on his ribs from the blow one of them got in before he wriggled out of their grasp and bolted away. The only good thing here is that if they’re still after Merlin, Will got away. He can’t believe he’s missing the rest of the demonstration because of these berks.
"Over there!" a rough voice cries out over the sound of the traffic. Merlin tenses and peeks out between the legs. A familiar bloke with the build of an ox, all dark bushy beard and beaked nose, is pointing in his direction. He’s surrounded by his mates, thick-necked fellows whose favourite pastime is apparently crushing skinny writers with glasses into unrecognizable bits. They’re stalking purposefully around the vehicles clogging the street, eyes trained on the bookstall where he’s hiding. Merlin scrambles through the patrons’ legs, heedless of their squawks of outrage, and springs up on the other side of the stall, ready to run.
But in what direction?
His mind races, trying to remember the layout of the streets in this area. He hasn’t been in London that long, having arrived in the city only recently to join up with Will and start his job with the newspaper; he has only the vaguest idea of where he is. He looks around, desperate for an escape route but not wanting to dive down a dead-end where he’ll be trapped. He’s about to make a blind run for it when a large hand clamps onto his shoulder. "This way," a deep voice says.
Merlin jerks in surprise and whips around, fists at the ready. He’s no boxing champion but growing up poor in the Valleys of South Wales, you learn the hard way how to defend yourself. He sees a handsome young man in a bespoke suit, blue eyes warm with concern. Posh; not a part of the mob then. Surprised, Merlin drops the fighting stance.
"Come on now, unless you have a death wish," the man says, darting a glance at the small gang of rowdies who are rounding the bookstall. His accent reeks of Eton and cricket, large retinues of servants. He tugs at Merlin’s sleeve and pulls him down a nearby alley. Despite Merlin’s immediate antipathy to being ordered around by a toff, he’ll take the help. He doesn’t fancy any more of a pummeling than he’s already gotten. So he finds himself going with the flow, feet tripping along behind his savior as they slip into the smoky darkness, the man’s blond head like a beacon.
The alley is gloomy. The sun has fallen behind the buildings so little light reaches down the narrow passageway. There’s barely enough room for a man to pass through. High above them the surrounding walls rise, wet to the touch when Merlin brushes against them. Wondering what the hell he’s gotten into now, he realises the stranger’s far ahead and the dark is gathering. "Wait," Merlin calls. "Where are we going?" he pants out. His skin prickles on the back of his neck.
"Don’t worry," the man calls back. "I know where I’m going." His teeth glint in the darkness and Merlin can just make out a smile. Does the man think this is a game? Merlin has a moment of belated caution. But now he’s stuck down a narrow alleyway with him. No choice but to go forward.
For what seems like an hour, but must be only a few minutes, he feels like he’s in the mines back home. Finally the air lightens. Traffic sounds get louder.
"Almost there," the man calls back to him. Merlin nods.
Then, just as they’re about to emerge, a dark hulking shape blocks out the light. Merlin’s blond friend stops short. Bloody hell. Ox Man displays a grin of dirty stumps and his cohorts fan out in a line. Merlin whirls his head around but of course, there’s nothing but darkness behind him and nowhere to go. The blond man holds his arms straight out from his sides as if to protect Merlin. Merlin’s about to protest that he can take care of himself when his rescuer says to Ox Man, "Just stop there, my friend." He hits just the right tone of authority, with the commanding air of a natural leader and the muscle to back it up. Merlin shuts up.
For a brief moment no one moves, bodies tensed for a fight. Ox Man locks his eyes on Merlin’s new-found friend, barely wasting a glance on Merlin. Everyone’s chests heave as they try to catch their breath in the close air, full of the smell of ale and men ripe with exertion.
"And who’s this?" Ox Man says with a sneer. "Got someone to do yer fightin’ for you?"
"Goin’ nowhere now, are ya?" a boy at the edge of the group adds, no more than fourteen. He chuckles.
That sets Merlin completely on edge. He refuses to be bested by a mere boy. He’s readying himself for something, adrenaline coiling in his muscles, when his newly-minted comrade-in-arms makes a feint with his right arm as if to attack Ox Man. At the same time he kicks his leg in effort to take the big man down. "Go! Duck under their arms! The tram!" he yells at Merlin.
For the first time, Merlin recognises the sound of a tram rolling closer. He bolts towards the vehicle, nimbly skirting around his tormentors. One of them gets hold of his jacket and there’s the sound of cloth tearing when Merlin wrenches himself away to jump on the tram. He scrambles inside without bothering to pay the fare. The driver yells, "Oi!" but Merlin ignores him and dashes up to the open top deck like the hounds of hell are after him. When he gets to the top, he looks down, relieved to see his defender’s blond head disappear into the tram, the rowdies hot on his heels.
Merlin yanks his new mate up the ladder and claps him on the shoulder, smiling. The man’s face is pink and shiny with all the running about, and he’s grinning like this is the most fun he’s had in ages. Merlin wonders what the fellow’s life is like that he finds amusement in standing up to a mob. He can’t help his grin - until he sees a muscle-bound arm closing on bottom of the ladder.
Quick as a wink, two hands grasp the top of the ladder like spiders on a web, scrambling towards their prey. Without thinking, Merlin stomps on the fingers, hard. There’s a shriek of pain and they disappear. The blond man raises an eyebrow at him; Merlin shrugs.
They look at each other. "Now what?" Merlin says.
The man casts a glance around the area. There’s a timid little man shrinking away from them in the corner, otherwise they’re alone. But not for long - there are already sounds of another assailant scaling the ladder. A second tram is approaching in the street from the other direction.
"I’ve got an idea," the man says. His eyes are shining mischievously and Merlin has a sinking feeling he’s not going to like it. "If it works, we should be set. If it doesn’t..." He glances meaningfully at the other tram that’s closing in on theirs.
Merlin stares at the blond man, then at the tram. Is he kidding? Who is this bloke? On the other hand, they only have seconds until the gang gets up the ladder. And there’s nowhere else to go.
Merlin takes a deep breath and nods agreement.
"Good man. Let’s do it." His friend grabs his hand. Merlin’s heart bangs in his chest like a bell.
"One, two, three, jump!" the man yells. They leap, airborne for a breathtaking second until Merlin’s feet crash hard into the wooden planks of the upper deck of the other tram. He knocks into a bench, wincing when the bruised spot on his ribs is bashed. He’s dimly aware of a commotion - screams and loud voices. A buxom lady with a large green hat hastens out of his way, holding her skirts and looking aghast. He flashes a grin at her in apology, then quickly rights himself. He can see his assailants on the top of the other tram, faces pinched and angry, barking obscenities and making rude gestures. The two trams slowly pull away from each other. The white faces get smaller and the ugly cries dissolve into the breeze.
Merlin laughs as the light of the sky opens wide above the city streets. He swipes off his cap to feel the wind fluttering his hair and cooling his sweaty skin. His new friend looks at him with a broad smile full of white teeth. He tips back his head in a full-throated laugh. The sound of it is warm and heady, like a snifter full of good brandy, and it has the same dizzying effect. It almost cheers Merlin more than the narrow escape. He takes deep gulps of air and the relief bubbles out of him in gales of laughter that he shares with his strange new mate, who leans on him with a hand to his shoulder.
Merlin holds out his hand, finally catching his breath. "Merlin Emrys. That was amazing. I’m eternally in your debt. Thank you."
"Arthur Pendragon." His hand is large and firm. "So. Do this often?" He chuckles. "I rarely have the opportunity to rescue someone from a mob, but you looked like you needed a hand."
Merlin laughs, still giddy. "I certainly did. Good timing there. I commend you." He looks at Pendragon more closely now that they’re standing still. Perfectly cut clothing in the most up-to-date fashion, posh accent: definitely a toff. And a handsome one at that, Merlin thinks, taking in the full lips and well-formed jawline.
"Yeah, thanks. That was brilliant. Can’t thank you enough, really." Merlin twists his hands together as his pulse returns to normal, feeling suddenly awkward and strange in the presence of someone so upper crust. He doesn’t like to feel indebted to a nob. The less he has to do with them, the better. But Pendragon’s hand is reassuringly solid on his shoulder as the tram sways.
The tram lurches as it turns a corner and they both tumble onto an empty bench. Merlin swallows as he finds his hands gripping Pendragon’s hips, their chests pressed together in a near embrace, legs entangled. The man is wearing an intoxicatingly spicy aftershave that Merlin hadn’t noticed before in all the commotion. It’s all Merlin can do not to bury his face in the man’s neck to get more of it. Their eyes catch and Merlin goes warm all over. Horrified by this wholly inappropriate surge of attraction, he covers up his discomfort with a slightly manic chuckle, which thankfully is returned by Pendragon. They take their time extricating themselves. Merlin comes away regretting the sudden loss of physical closeness. Perhaps it’s just the after effects of escaping the gang. Or something.
Pendragon clears his throat and darts a glance at Merlin. "What was that all about anyway? I trust you aren’t a pickpocket or some other member of the criminal element." Pendragon looks him over approvingly. Merlin apparently passes muster as sufficiently respectable.
"Demonstration in Trafalgar Square got out of hand. Hardie was speaking against the war. I’ve never seen so many people." It had been an unforgettable sight, thousands packed into Trafalgar Square to protest the coming conflagration. "My friend and I got into a shouting match with those blokes about the war and it got worse from there."
Pendragon’s mouth thins. "Hmm," he says noncommittally. "I see. You were in a bit of a pickle. Where’s your friend now?"
"Don’t know." Merlin’s stomach knots with worry. "I need to find him. We got separated just before you saw me. How’d you know about that alleyway, anyway?"
"Well, I spent my childhood roaming the neighbourhood. My father owns the entire block along there and every so often my nurse turned a blind eye and let me wander off on my own. I know every nook and cranny of those streets."
"Ah." Merlin was amused. A street-wise toff?
"Yes, I heard about the demonstration." Merlin feels cool blue eyes assessing him. "I was thinking of taking a look myself, out of curiosity."
They fall silent. Pendragon’s knee jiggles. Union Jacks wrinkle and billow in front of each store and house, like ladies waving handkerchiefs at a parade.
Merlin senses Pendragon stiffening slightly next to him. "It’s inevitable you know. The war," Pendragon says. His eyes are intensely blue, polished sapphires slanting away from his proud nose.
"I don’t want to think that, but you’re probably right." Merlin can’t help his hands curling into fists in his lap. At the demonstration, the crowd had listened raptly to Hardie’s words, faces intent. Hearing his own thoughts magnified and reflected back in their eyes sharpened Merlin’s resolve. Whatever the future brings, he’s not going to give in to the blood lust that consumes his countrymen. He’ll do everything in his power to stand up for his beliefs. He has his mother to thank for training him well in that regard.
"Not a patriot then." There’s a hint of something harder in Pendragon’s eyes.
"The opposite, actually." Despite his determination, Merlin’s reluctant to share his thoughts with someone he just met, someone who isn’t likely to agree. An aristo, no less. He looks into the handsome face, the blue eyes surveying him with curiosity. Underneath his discomfort, there’s another small flare of desire. Merlin curses his body as a traitor.
"Go on, tell me." Pendragon smiles and his eyes crinkle, his whole face transformed. "It’s alright, really. I won’t bite."
Merlin gulps. That smile does things to him. He wants to trust Pendragon. The man had come to his rescue without even knowing the situation. "I’m a pacifist. A Quaker. We don’t believe in taking up arms. And this war makes no sense. It’s for the aristos, the..."
"Yeah," Merlin says, feeling slightly abashed. "I love my country, but they’ll be sending boys to death for some outdated sense of glory. And for what? Because some obscure noble was killed in Serbia? A bunch of meaningless treaties made by old geezers hiding behind their desks?" He makes a dismissive sound.
"Don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel," Pendragon says, smirking. Then he becomes serious. "I’m signed up already. I go to officer training next week."
"Oh." Merlin swallows. "Yeah. Should’ve known, nob like you." His stomach roils. Suddenly everything’s much more real. It’s all too easy to imagine Pendragon in uniform, heroically leading men in battle. Unbidden, he sees a flash of the man’s face covered in blood, body splayed on the ground. He shakes it off and blinks uneasily.
"It’s alright," Pendragon says. "Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. Can’t say that I understand it." His face is tight across the cheekbones. "I’m not sorry I helped you. There’s something about you, Emrys." He searches Merlin’s face and Merlin can feel his cheeks heat under his gaze. Pendragon looks away, down the street.
"But there’s no choice for me, I’m afraid," he says. "I’ve got to go. I’m a Pendragon. And I want to, in any case. Wouldn’t feel right otherwise." He slaps Merlin’s thigh. "Everyone says it’ll be over in no time. So, not to worry."
Merlin’s filled with foreboding. If he could stuff those words back in Pendragon’s mouth, he would. He suddenly wishes they could just stay on the top of this tram forever, talking, trundling through the city. Safe.
Dusk is beginning to fall, the sky tinted pink above the rooftops. He hadn’t realised how late it had gotten. He should get off, make his way to Trafalgar Square to find Will. He’ll be worried, wondering what happened to Merlin. But he clings to the moment. Even though they have their differences, he feels a strange sort of bond with Pendragon, toff that he is. Maybe, if the circumstances had been different, they might have become friends. He tamps down the part of him that wants more, knowing that could never be, sloughing it off as a foolish fantasy. If he could just hold time still for this one moment...
When the tram turns onto Charing Cross Road, the street is thick with people, much more than usual. There’s a buzz of excitement in the air. Merlin feels his hackles rise with apprehension.
"What’s going on?" Merlin asks. He’s almost afraid to know.
"I don’t know," Pendragon says, frowning. "We should get off and find out."
They climb down and alight into the crowd. Pendragon steers him with a hand to the small of his lower back, the touch searing even through Merlin’s jacket. The snippets of conversation they hear are all about the war. Merlin nabs a newspaper boy hawking the evening paper. "What’s happening?"
"It’s war, sir. It’s official."
"What?" Pendragon shouts, sharing a look with Merlin. Merlin grabs a paper, shoving some coins at the boy. "Great Britain Declares War on Germany," the headline screams in bold.
"It’s finally here," Merlin says, lowering the paper.
"Yes." Pendragon looks sombre, preoccupied. "Well. I guess this is it then. We’d best be off. I’ll need to pack, get my things ready."
"Right. Yes." Merlin’s mind whirls. He’s still got to find Will, get home. Nothing will be the same after this. He’ll be expected to join the military along with everyone else. He’ll have to talk to his mother, figure out what to do. There may even be conscription and he has no idea what he’ll do in that event.
Pendragon’s hand on his shoulder brings him back to the moment. "Emrys. I’m glad to have met you. Best of luck, whatever happens." He claps Merlin to his chest, his breath warm on Merlin’s ear. Merlin takes a last bittersweet whiff of his aftershave. As he pulls away, Merlin imagines he feels a brush of lips on the shell of his ear. "Take care of yourself." Pendragon holds him by the shoulders, arms-length.
Merlin nods, wishing he could be folded in those solid arms just a bit longer. "I will. Thank you again. You saved my arse today, Pendragon." He half-smiles. "I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the British army is lucky to have you."
"And I’d be lucky to have you under my command, if it came to that."
"Well." Merlin doesn’t know what to say to that. If it were up to him, nobody would be under anyone’s command; they’d all be safe at home, reading novels and drinking tea. Preferably tucked into bed with a certain insufferably noble blond toff. But the world’s been turned upside down in the blink of an eye and Merlin suspects there will be few things anyone can count on in the near future except a great deal of sadness. "If you don’t get yourself blown to bits, maybe we’ll meet again someday."
"You never know."
"How about this? I’ll make you a deal. You keep yourself in one piece and I’ll meet you here, at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Cranbourne, in one year. Yeah? We’ll have a pint at that pub over there and you can tell me about all your adventures. Let’s say 4 o’clock."
Pendragon snorts and smiles. "All right, yeah." He holds out his hand and Merlin shakes it. "It’s a deal."
Merlin holds up a finger. "I’m holding you to it. That means all in one piece, no little bits like arms or legs missing now."
"I’ll do my best. I expect the same of you." He sweeps a hand across Merlin’s fringe. Surprised at the intimate gesture, Merlin shudders slightly and his eyes well up with feeling. "Stay safe, Merlin Emrys."
Merlin grasps Pendragon’s hand and forces himself to look him in the eye, holding nothing back. "You too, Arthur Pendragon." He just met the man but he feels like he can barely let him go.
They stare at each other, alone together in the midst of the milling crowd, their hands joined. Then Pendragon pulls his hand away. "I’ve really got to go. See you next year."
"If not before."
"Goodbye and god bless." Pendragon turns swiftly and Merlin watches him for a moment until he’s lost in the crush of people.
Merlin pulls out his notebook and writes it down. "August 4, 1915, 4 p.m.: Arthur Pendragon, Charing Cross Road and Cranbourne." His fingers briefly linger on the page before he shoves it back in his pocket, pulls down his cap and heads for Trafalgar Square to find Will.