When it came down to it, Arthur decided, it was all the weatherman's fault.
The only reason Arthur ducked into the small, nondescript bakery that first day was because he didn't have an umbrella, and he would have had an umbrella if he'd known it was going to rain; and he would have known it was going to rain if the damn weatherman had been competent for once. But, no, the storm clouds had come out of absolutely nowhere, and did you know how long it took for Arthur to get his hair to look like this? There was no way he was going to walk around outside in the wind and the rain, thank you very much, not when there was a convenient shop right there that he could grace with his presence until either the weather cleared up or his driver, Leon, finally got his head out of his arse and arrived with the car.
"Be out in a moment!" someone called out from the depths of the bakery in response to the horrible jingly bells that Arthur had set off by opening the door.
"No rush," Arthur replied, frantically texting Leon again to get here with the damn car because he didn't have sunglasses or a hat or anything and he was going to be recognized and swarmed any second and if anyone threw their knickers at him because Leon was lazing about somewhere, Arthur was going to make him eat them. Or wear them. Or something.
"Welcome to Kneading Knights. How can I help you?"
Arthur stared out the window intently, trying to will Leon into appearing and didn't turn around. "Sorry, I've not made my mind up yet," he said truthfully, as he hadn't even looked at any of the displays. "I'll be a bit. In fact, you can finish with whatever you were doing in the back if you'd like."
"No need, I'm done with the dough for now. Thanks for that, though."
Arthur, avoiding the baker's gaze by bending down to look at the various cupcakes and sticky buns in the cases, hummed noncommittally.
"Wow, the wind's really picking up out there. Winter's definitely on its way, yeah? And you without a coat or hat, I bet you'd like a coffee? I just made a fresh pot, not ten minutes ago. You look half near frozen, all hunched up and all. Here—" and before Arthur could get a word in edgewise a cup was being thrust in his face "—on the house."
Since his options appeared to be either take the coffee or risk it being spilt down his front, Arthur took the coffee. "It smells great," he said as his eyes moved from the proffered cup up the arm that held it to a flour spotted apron, to the bluest eyes he had ever seen. "Thanks."
"See anything you like? I recommend the jam tarts. Don't get me wrong, everything's good, but the tarts are my favourite. Made the jam myself and everything," the baker said with a smile.
"I. Erm. Yes." Arthur floundered about inarticulately while his brain rebooted because that smile. Fucking hell, what a smile. "Oh," he began, but before he could wrap his tongue around what he wanted to say there was a quick double tap of a horn outside. "Damn, that's my ride."
"One for the road then? I'll bag it up for you. Seriously, you have to try one."
"That'd be great." Arthur pulled out a few notes without even looking at their denomination and thrust them at the baker. "Thanks," he said as he took the bag. He turned to go, but paused in the doorway. "What's your name?"
"Merlin," was the reply, offered with yet another one of those blindingly beautiful smiles. "Thank you for stopping by. Come again soon."
"I just might do that. Thanks."
His name was Merlin.
Arthur was so distracted he didn't fire Leon for being so late. He didn't even yell at him.
The jam tart was absolutely delicious. And if anyone were ever to comment that he licked his fingers clean once he'd finished it, they'd be lying. Arthur Pendragon wasn't the type of man to do something like that.
Well, not usually anyway.
Arthur could not stop thinking about Merlin: his smile, his blue eyes, his innocent chatter.
And a distracted Arthur was not a good thing. Not when he'd promised to meet Morgana for drinks that evening. Morgana and he had a complicated relationship- she loved the attention and notoriety that resulted from being seen on the arm of 'Albion's Sexiest Bachelor' (of 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011 anyway- he had that damned disaster between him and Sophia to thank for breaking his record) and he appreciated having someone to share the paparazzi's limelight with.
Morgana, however, was an evil, horrible busybody and took one look at him when he met her outside her building and pounced. Not literally, of course. Morgana might like attention and seeing her picture splayed all over all the tabloids, but even she had standards and they included things like being not caught in public without knickers and appearing desperate for physical contact. So instead, she settled for grabbing his arm with far too much force and tugging him back into the car behind her with the simple command of,
"And, hello to you too, Morgana," Arthur replied airily, purposely misunderstanding her. "Reservations are for seven and I've asked Leon to take the scenic route and to make sure to drop us at the west entrance, which should have adequate press coverage, thus ensuring our presence is well noted and decently documented. I was planning on ordering the salmon, my understanding is that squash is in season and that we might-"
"That's not what I meant, and you know it!" Morgana interrupted, her fingernails digging into his wrist as she squeezed in frustration. "You've fallen for someone. You're making that dreamy 'look at me I'm so hopelessly in love, I've given away my heart and expect someone to stomp it into oblivion at any moment' kicked puppy face. I hate that face, Arthur."
Arthur scoffed as he pried her hand off of his arm. "Kicked puppy? Really, Morgana, I have no idea what you are nattering on about half the time."
Morgana pursed her lips and stared at him, but Arthur refused to admit to anything so she changed tactics. "Leon?"
"Tell me everything, Leon."
"Hey!" Arthur protested. "She doesn't pay your salary, Leon. I do. And nothing happened. I haven't met anyone, Morgana. Honestly. There have been no exchanges of names or numbers, no kisses, no dates, nothing." Which was entirely true. While he'd asked for Merlin's name, he'd never offered his own in response and thus, they hadn't exchanged names. He might be complete pants at lying to Morgana, but he was capable of skirting the truth. "Absolutely nothing has happened. You know how careful I am."
"Now, you mean," she said. "Because I happen to remember a time when you and that—"
"Yes, yes, I know what happened with Sophia."
"Fine. I don't have the best of track records, I am well aware of that, thank you. You can stop naming names now."
"Oh, Arthur," she sighed. "I'm not trying to be a vindictive harpy, I just don't want to see you get hurt. Not again. It's too much work for me to pick up all the pieces and put you back together again."
"I should have known that altruism wasn't the reasoning behind this little talk of yours," he said with a wry grin. "And even though there is nothing for you to be worried about your concern has been duly noted and taken under advisement."
"Thank you. Now fix your sleeve, you've managed to make a wrinkled mess out of it and we can't have you looking a mess in the pictures, can we?"
"Perish the thought, Morgana. Perish the thought."
Arthur managed to wait an entire week before sneaking back into Kneading Knights (which, if anyone asked him, was a ridiculously stupid name for a baker's). This time he was prepared to be out and about and had his favourite incognito disguise: a baseball hat with the brim tugged low, a blue silk scarf that he could pull over his face and a pair of aviator sunglasses that had the dual purpose of hiding his 'strikingly beautiful' eyes while adding an air of mystery to his ensemble.
Somehow he'd forgotten about the bakery's damned jingly bells on the door and thus his attempt to sneak inside was evilly thwarted. Luckily, no one seemed to take notice of his entrance, numerous customers were inside, all busily cooing over the various displays.
Merlin was everywhere at once; he was bagging up some scones for an elderly woman; he was running to the ovens when a buzzer dinged; he took a few moments to chop some Chelsea buns into bite sized pieces for people to sample; he waited on several people as they made up their minds about their purchases; he was stacking Danishes; he was pouring coffee.... It was making Arthur tired just watching him. The constant action didn't seem to faze Merlin though, he had a smile and a kind word for everyone. Arthur skulked about in the back of the store, examining the displays as he waited for the store to empty out.
"Welcome to Kneading Knights. What can I get for you today?"
Arthur took a step backwards, having been lost in thought and surprised by Merlin appearing suddenly in front of him, seemingly out of thin air. "Oh, um, I don't. I haven't. Well, yes. Thanks," he replied inanely, much to his dismay. He was capable of being coherent! What was it about Merlin that turned him into a gibbering idiot?
"Oh, hello. You're the jam tart and coffee from the other day," Merlin said, his wonderful smile lighting up his face.
Ah, yes, Arthur thought, that's the reason for the babbling. "Yes. It was... delicious."
"I knew it! I took one look at you and thought, now there's the kind of fellow that would like a jam tart. I'm a bit magic that way, I always know what a person will want. In fact," and there was that smile again. Dear god, how was a smile like that possible? "I bet you've been craving bara brith. I just finished making some today but had no idea why until right this minute. Back in a jiff!" Merlin spun around and headed into the back of the store.
"Bara what? No I," Arthur tried to interrupt and stop Merlin, but it was like stopping a whirlwind. Absolutely impossible. "Honestly, Merlin, I don't want you to trouble yourself. One of these pastries will be—"
But then Merlin was back, a sliver of moist, fruity bread was unceremoniously shoved into Arthur's open mouth. "It's grand, isn't it?" Merlin asked, beaming so happily at Arthur that all he could do in respond was nod. "I thought you'd like it, and I've a whole loaf I can wrap up, just for you."
"I've never had anything like it," Arthur said honestly. "What's in it?"
"Oh, sultanas, currants, and a little of this and a little of that," Merlin said, waving his hand about haphazardly. "That's all I can say, I'm afraid. It's me mam's recipe and she swore me to secrecy. Besides, Gwaine'd kill me if I blabbed it to anyone but him."
"One of the other bakers here. He and Lancelot and Percival- like the knights of the round table, yeah?"
"Ah," Arthur nodded in understanding. "That explains the name."
Merlin gave a one shoulder shrug as he wrapped up the bread. "Lance thought it was clever. I don't know; it's memorable anyway. Brought you back, didn't it?" He looked up then, holding the loaf out to Arthur, his eyes sparkling as they met Arthur's.
"No, it didn't," Arthur replied, and threw caution to the wind and risked embarrassing himself by answering honestly, "I rather think it was you."
Merlin's resulting smile was absolutely wonderful. "Oh." A blush crept over his face, starting in his cheeks and going clear up to the tips of his ears. "Oh, well then. That's brilliant." Their fingers brushed together around the bread and Arthur leaned in, getting closer, closer-
"Oh!" Merlin pulled away in a flurry of movement and a flailing of limbs. "The pies! I have to— Sorry!" he cried out, and then he was off, disappearing into the back of the store, leaving a frustrated and stuttering Arthur in his wake.
Arthur fought with the door to his flat, the damn key was sticking in the lock again and it really took two hands to do the 'lift the doorknob ever so slightly while turning the key so the lock would engage properly' trick but he still had the bara brith in one hand and no bag and he wasn't about to put it on the floor.... Luckily, he was well versed in how to use his hip as a lever and got inside after only a few minutes of frenetic fumbling. "You could have helped you know," he called out on his way to the kitchen.
Kilgarrah, not surprisingly, didn't answer. Arthur and his cat had long since signed a mutual non-aggression pact, he provided food, water, windowsills to sleep on and the occasional pat and/or chin scratch (if, and only if, said chin scratch and pat were requested) and in return Kilgarrah didn't kill him in his sleep. It was a complicated relationship, but it worked for them.
After leaving the bread on the kitchen counter and tossing his hat and scarf on one of the chairs, Arthur tracked down Kilgarrah, who was stretched out in his favourite spot by the corner window that looked out onto a huge bush. This time of afternoon was perfect, a sunbeam alighting on the cat, turning his orange fur so bright it was almost red. "So there you are," Arthur said in a manner that could in no way be interpreted as crooning. He was Arthur Pendragon and he did not croon, thank you very much, especially not to his evil hell beast of a kitty cat, no matter how cute the horrible creature looked with his tail and arse swishing rapidly and tongue sticking out ever so slightly as he concentrated on stalking and catching the squirrel that lived in the bush. This, despite the fact there was a window between them and each and every other time he'd attempted it he'd pounced, hitting the window, smacking himself senseless and scaring off the squirrel.
Arthur never laughed at that either. Or, never let Kilgarrah see him anyway. He didn't want to risk encouraging the cat to attack anything that might be actually attainable in one way or another. Like Arthur's toes for instance.
"Now you leave that poor squirrel alone." He tapped the cat on the nose (and then quickly got his hand out of the range of being clawed). "I've got a treat for you in the kitchen! Treat!" Kilgarrah actually deigned to look at him then. He was, after all, very familiar with the "T" word and rather enamoured with it. "Come on," Arthur raised his voice ever so slightly into that tone that implied deliciousness if the cat would actually listen for a change. "Come on, you evil creature you, treat!" Then he slapped his thigh a few times as he led the way back into the kitchen. The cat, still sulking over the lost opportunity with the squirrel, followed.
"I went to that bakery again," Arthur began to explain as he fetched a knife, the bread board and a plate before snagging the butter out of the fridge. "I know, I know. What was I thinking, right? Can you imagine if someone recognized me? I remember what happened that time I went and got chocolate from Tesco's, thank you very much. Morgana teased me about those photos for weeks." He cut several slices of the tea bread as he spoke, gesturing occasionally with the knife, then carefully diced up one of them for the cat before spreading butter on the rest. "But I don't think he knows who I am. He remembered me though, from my last visit. He even made this for me." Arthur put the slices and chopped pieces on the plate and sank down to sit on the floor, leaning against the wall, the plate on his lap. "For me, can you believe it?" He spread a few cubes of bread out on the floor for Kilgarrah to sniff. "He was smiling when he told me that. That smile." Arthur banged his head against the wall twice. "That fucking smile. I am so, so screwed, Kilgarrah. So very, very screwed."
The cat, of course, ignored his mental crisis, and busily masticated the hell out of the bread, purring loudly the entire time.
Two days later Arthur's resolve (which he'd been determined to follow after a late night talk with Kilgarrah, even if said talk really entailed nothing more than Arthur rambling while providing belly scratches and the cat pretending to pay attention as long as Arthur's fingers kept moving in the absolutely perfect manner) to keep his distance wavered, and he made his way to the bakery again. This time the weather was actually on his side; it was a drizzly, grey day and utterly perfect for a wide brimmed hat that hid a decent portion his face while providing a dash of flair and the waterproof greatcoat with upturned collar that emphasized his shoulders and narrow waist.
However upon opening the door, Arthur found himself frozen, half in and half out of the shop when he saw that the man behind the counter was not Merlin, but rather someone he had never seen before. It was not Merlin! That... how could that be? And, more importantly, what should he do now? He'd look like a right idiot if he just turned around and left right after walking in, and Leon wasn't set to pick him up for another fifteen minutes which meant he'd have to wander the street waiting for the car, where there'd be a decent likelihood that he'd be recognized, and that was the last thing he wanted to have happen him today. He was only wearing his third best shoes for heaven's sake!
"Welcome to Kneading Knights, mate. What can I do for you?"
Luckily there were no customers to witness his momentary lapse of brainpower. He squared his shoulders and entered the shop. Right. Best to just come straight out with it before he lost his determination and purpose for being there. "I was hoping to find Merlin here today?"
"Ah." The baker was the kind of man that Arthur knew both men and women often found handsome in that scruffy sort of roguish, never needing to shave way, but since he wasn't Merlin, Arthur hated him on principle. "He's in the back, kneading up a storm. Said he just had to get the kolaches done by this afternoon." The man gave a fond, if exasperated, shake of his head and smiled before adding, "I'm Gwaine, maybe I can help you?" in a helpful, overly hopeful manner.
"Oh, one Merlin's specialities. A mad baker, that one. Kolaches are—" he broke off when he was interrupted by a loud clatter from the direction of the kitchen. Gwaine ran to see what had happened with Arthur immediately behind him.
"I'm okay!" Merlin shouted as Gwaine burst through the swinging door. The source of the noise was obvious- a large metal bowl was on the floor, its doughy contents oozing out slowly. "It slipped. I'm sorry, I oiled the bowl and swirled the dough in it before putting it in to rise and..." He gestured helplessly to the resulting mess. "What am I going to do, Gwaine? I have to start all over and I'm never going to get everything finished on time. Oh." He smiled sheepishly when he noticed Arthur. "Hello."
"Hi. Sorry," Arthur quickly started to explain when Gwaine whirled around and glared at him, most likely for daring to enter the inner sanctum of the bakery. "I heard the crash and wanted to make sure everything was all right."
"I wasn't sure you'd be back so soon," Merlin said. "How was the bara brith?"
Arthur couldn't help but notice the way Gwaine's look changed from irritation to appraisal at that. "Oi, so that was you, was it?" His eyebrows furrowed, a sign of impending recognition that Arthur had learned to spot from a mile away. "You look awfully familiar. Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"No, I don't think I've ever had the pleasure," Arthur said quickly.
"Are you sure, mate? Because—" but luckily, Arthur was saved by the bell, those annoying jingly bells that had been so frustrating the first time he'd ventured into the bakery saved him.
"Why don't you see who that is?" Arthur suggested. "I can help Merlin clean up back here."
Gwaine looked like he was about to protest, but then Merlin beamed at them both and said, "Oh, would you? That'd be grand."
And, conveniently, Gwaine appeared to be as defenceless against Merlin's smile as Arthur was because he shouted, "Be right out," over his shoulder and gave them both a last, long look before heading out into the front of the shop.
"Can you really stay and help? I mean, it's not like you came in expecting to have to muck about with dough and flour and oil and whatnot."
"No, it's not a problem," Arthur assured him, pulling off his coat and hat and placing them out of the way on an empty stool.
"Thanks," Merlin said, smiling that amazing smile of his again. "You're saving my life here. And I don't even know your name."
"Arthur. It's Arthur," he replied. And, god help him, he couldn't help but smile back.
"Arthur? Your name's Arthur? Really? You're not just having me on?" Merlin's grin became even wider and more brilliant when Arthur shook his head, which barely seemed possible. "That's perfect!"
"Sorry?" Arthur asked. He blamed his utter confusion on Merlin's smile because, hell, how was someone supposed to be able to think with that being beamed in his direction?
"Arthur and his knights? You here and Gwaine out front and then there's Percival out doing deliveries and Lancelot. Well, it's Lance's day off, but he'd be here otherwise. I don't know any Galahads, well except the band and I think their music's rubbish, well not rubbish, but it's not my cup of tea, you know?" Merlin was bustling about as he talked, scraping the dough off the floor, shoving a mop into Arthur's hands, getting the bowl washed up and pulling random ingredients off the shelves. "But I suppose my taste in music isn't typical. Lancelot's always on at me about it because, well, musicals. I love musicals. Have you ever given them a listen? Or sung along? I always sing along. I keep telling myself one of these days I'll go to the West End to see one or maybe even Broadway because- the theatre! And the lights! And the music! But until then there's always CDs and You Tube and DVDs and whatnot. What do you think of scones?"
"I. What?" Really, what was it about Merlin that turned Arthur into a blithering idiot? Yes, Merlin seemed to jump randomly from conversational ice floe to conversational ice floe without even the briefest of warnings for impending icebergs, but Arthur was an articulate, intelligent man. He ought to be able to keep up with a baker for heaven's sake. Even a devilishly handsome and flusteringly overly articulate one.
Merlin looked at the counter where he'd been gathering (what appeared to Arthur anyway) a random collection of baking... things. "Scones. The kolache dough took a header and splattered all over the floor so I can't make them, obviously. What does it say about my baking that it would rather commit suicide than rise happily and let itself be turned into the yummy goodness that is one of my special fruit filled pastries? I'm not sure if I should be offended by that or not." Merlin pouted and then shrugged. "So, what's your opinion on scones?"
"I like them?" He hadn't really meant to answer the question with another question as he'd always considered it bad form to do so, but, honestly, he'd never given scones much thought. Who had? Were there really people out there who pondered over the appropriateness of scones as bakery items? Other than Merlin, that is. For Merlin to think about that sort of thing seemed... fitting. Almost expected. And kind of perfect.
"Oh, that's brilliant!" Merlin swept Arthur into a brief, and not even remotely unwelcome, hug and shoved him toward the wall lined with aprons and hats and bandanas and other things Arthur assumed were worn for baking. Somehow. "Gear up. With your help I'm sure we can churn out nine or ten dozen or so in no time flat."
Such an innocuous statement, but so confusing. Arthur stared at the paraphernalia lining the wall, completely at a loss with where to begin. Did he need to have a hat of some kind on? Gwaine had a bandana tied around his head, covering and pulling back his long hair. Merlin hadn't worn anything when manning the front of the store, but was sporting a backwards baseball cap now. The cap had once been all black with there was something stitched on it, but the whole thing had been dusted with several layers of flour and splattered with who knew what that it was impossible to make out what design it might have been. It was entirely unfair that the bits of fringe that stuck out from under the cap were completely and utterly adorable.
Did Arthur need a hat to be back here, or was Merlin just wearing one to wear one? And then there was the pile of aprons. Wearing an apron would make sense, he had no desire to have his clothes covered in anything, but there seemed to be many choices in aprons as well: ones that wrapped around the waist and covered only the lap area, ones that you slipped on and had sleeves and went all the way down to the knees and yet others that slipped over the head and tied around the waist. How on earth could getting ready to bake really be this difficult? Thousands of people, even Merlin, sweet adorable Merlin, managed it every day.
He pulled out his phone, trying to think of whom he could text to ask when Merlin suddenly popped up, leaning over his shoulder. "Oh, did you get a call? It's all right if you have to go."
Arthur gave those deep, innocent eyes a long look and swallowed heavily. "No, no. I was just texting Leon, my, um," my driver didn't sound right, "My friend. We were going to... go to a pub. Not that we had plans- we didn't have plans- we just hang out when neither of us have anything to do, but I thought I'd let him know I've found something. That I," realizing that he was babbling, again, Arthur quickly shut up. He didn't, however, blush. No matter how hot his cheeks felt. It was just warm in the room. "I'll just text him and then, um, gear up."
It took no time at all to type out a quick, 'Staying here for a bit¸ I'll send you a text when I want you to return for me.' and send it to Leon and then he was back at his 'what does gearing up entail' conundrum.
"Can't decide on a hat?" Merlin asked. "Back here everyone's hair has to be covered. We've something for everybody- hairnets for the sartorially challenged," he pointed and dropped into a whisper, "or if you're Percival. Basic chef and baker's headgear for the traditional sort- in other words, Lancelot. And bandanas and baseball caps for everyone else."
"What about this then?" Arthur asked, pulling a sparkly, purple triangular wizard's hat off a peg.
"That's for GIANT BERKS WITH HORRIBLE SENSES OF HUMOUR!" Merlin shouted, grinning.
"I still say it's perfect for you, abracadabra boy!" Gwaine shouted back from the front of the store.
Merlin gave a loud, exaggerated sign at that and gave Arthur a what are you going to do shrug. "Here," he said, pulling a cap similar to his own off a peg and handed it over. Arthur . "There's no hat more perfect for anyone than this one is for you. No one is more royal than King Arthur, right? I've not seen a single game of theirs, but with a name like The Royals they can't be all bad, yeah?"
"Kansas City Royals. They're a baseball team in... " Merlin made a vague, fluttery motion.
"Kansas City?" Arthur hazarded with a bit of a grin as he ran a hand through his hair to push it out of his face before putting the cap on.
"Very funny," Merlin chided lightly, tugging on the visor of Arthur's cap lightly. "Grab an apron, one that covers your chest since there's a little bit of kneading with scones to get them right and you probably don't want flour all over your front."
Arthur pondered the various aprons, skipping over those with lewd or ridiculous messages on them and settled for a plain dark red one. He slipped it on, tying it around his waist in a similar way to how Merlin was wearing his. "All right, ready. What can I do to help?"
Merlin, meanwhile, had been busy carefully measuring (in the sense that he appeared to be randomly dumping scoops) flour, sugar and other things into the bowl of a large industrial mixer. "Pass me the chopped up butter?" he asked, turning on the machine.
The two of them carefully fed the machine the butter and slowly the mixture started to come together in a way that seemed to please Merlin. Arthur thought it looked a little like the litter he bought for Kilgarrah's cat box, but he knew better than to mention that. After that, poppy seeds were tossed in, which only added to the litter box look, in Arthur's opinion. Then Merlin pressed a jug of semi skimmed milk into Arthur's hands. "Since something tells me you've never zested a lemon in your life, I'm going to ask you to slowly pour this in as I zest. Think you can handle that?"
"Just pour it in?" Arthur confirmed.
"Slowly." Merlin was already doing something with the lemons that involved scraping little curled bits of the peel off and having them decorate the dough.
"Pour it in slowly. I can do slowly," Arthur said as he demonstrated, letting the milk drizzle out of the container and into the bowl.
"Really," Merlin asked, looking at Arthur over the mixer. He raised an eyebrow and bit his lip. "I would have assumed you were better at taking things fast."
"It depends if I care about the result. Good," Arthur paused, carefully choosing his words, "scones are worth waiting for."
Merlin's resulting smile was so amazing, Arthur was pretty sure he'd be willing to do anything within his power to get another. Anything at all.
He was startled out of his Merlin-smile-induced daze by a flick of flour to his chest. "Hey!"
Merlin laughed. "Just making sure you're still awake there." He then did something to the mixer that involved a lever and a loud clang and suddenly the top of the machine was leaning up and backwards, and Merlin was manoeuvring the bowl out. "The dough's ready. Do me a favour and flour the board, yeah?"
Flour the board. Right. Arthur could do that. The flour aspect of that request was easy enough to fulfil, it was still sitting out where Merlin had left it. As to what exactly he was supposed to do with it... Arthur had dim memories of some cooking show he's watched once when the batteries had died in the remote and he'd been too lazy to get up to change the channel- some guy with ginger hair and ridiculous shoes throwing flour on the table in front of him before something, what happened after that was hazy, although Arthur was pretty sure dough was involved in some way or another. Cautiously, he grabbed the scoop out of the flour sack and dumped it out on the large board Merlin had gestured to with his chin.
Then, promptly coughed, because the flour was obviously evil and out to get him and splattered everywhere in a huge plume of white powder. Pointedly ignoring the snort of laughter coming from behind him, Arthur announced (quite calmly and definitively in his opinion), "There. Floured."
"Erm. Yeah. Thanks for that. Can you spread it about a bit?"
With a final cough and vague attempt at waving away the final bits of the flour cloud, Arthur pushed the flour about, spreading it over the board more evenly. "So what now?"
"Now," Merlin said with a grunt, as he manhandled the bowl up and scraped the dough out. "We knead."
Kneading, it turned out, wasn't all that difficult. It wasn't much more than pulling the dough together and onto itself. Merlin, of course, managed to do it effortlessly and the section he was working on looked finished in no time while Arthur's section, well..... Didn't. But then again, he wasn't the experienced baker here, was he? So when Merlin hip bumped him to move over, Arthur had no qualms about ceding his lump of dough and let Merlin's magic hands go to work on it. And right away, Arthur saw the differences in how Merlin worked the dough. While Arthur had haphazardly smashed his lump, Merlin stroked his. Patted it. Smoothed it.
Arthur found himself watching Merlin's fingers as he worked. They were long and thin with a strength, a power, to them. His palms were wide and Arthur could see his tendons and muscles rippling with each movement, it was oddly mesmerizing and Arthur was unable to look away.
"I could teach you how to knead properly, if you like," Merlin offered as he began patting the dough into round discs. "Scones don't need real kneading, just a light touch, but bread on the other hand...."
"You'd show me?" Arthur wasn't about to admit having no special skills or, to be honest, any knowledge whatsoever about cooking or baking. Today was the first time he'd been in a kitchen for longer than it took to microwave up leftovers or make tea in as long as he could remember. He'd never had any desire to learn how to do anything more- not until he'd met Merlin. "I'd like that."
Merlin smiled at him, warmly and openly. "I was hoping you'd say that." Then he gave each dough circle a light pat, spun it onto his palm, dusted it with flour, and then place it onto the lined baking sheets he'd already had waiting for them.
"Can I help?" Arthur asked, even though Merlin seemed to have everything under control.
"Hand me that dough scraper?" Merlin gestured to a tool that looked like a metal sheet with a wooden handle. Arthur passed it over and watched as Merlin deftly cut each round into six wedges, pushing them apart slightly with a flick of the wrist. "Now if you could open the oven for me?"
And then they were done. "How long do they cook for?"
"We'll need to check them in ten minutes," Merlin said, brushing his hands together and getting off the worst of the flour. There was a moment of awkward silence between them before they both started speaking at the same time. "I can't thank you enough for the help, Arthur. Really, I—"
"Thanks for letting me help, Merlin. This was—"
And then they both broke off, laughing.
"You go first," Merlin said the same time Arthur said, "Sorry, go ahead," which resulted in them both laughing again.
Arthur took the initiative then, stepping closer. "You've some flour," he began as he reached out with his hand, brushing the tip of his thumb along Merlin's cheek. "I'll just..." He ghosted his fingers over Merlin's lips before leaning in and covering them with his own.
The resulting kiss was soft, hesitant and utterly perfect, everything Arthur had ever hoped a kiss could be, but in ways he'd never experienced before.
It was magic.
Hours later, and safely at home, Arthur finally broke down and admitted to himself he was in way over his head. It was time to call in reinforcements. "I think I've done something stupid," he said the moment Mithian answered the phone. "Actually, no. I'm pretty sure I did. Positive, in fact."
"Most people actually wait for a greeting before expounding on their problems, Arthur," she replied, but he knew her well enough to hear the smile in her voice. "Now what kind of stupid are we talking about? Stupid for people in general or stupid for you?"
"Everyone. More than everyone. The kind of stupid that Morgana would go to the papers with and then tease me about until the end of time. "
"It can't be that bad. Nothing can be that bad."
Arthur slumped farther into the sofa and kicked off his shoes. "It is."
"Was there an engagement ring involved?"
"No, there was not an engagement ring involved," he said, mimicking her tone as he stacked cushions up beside him, to his left, and against the arm of the sofa on his right. "Like I could go to a jewellers without getting my picture taken. You're my publicist, you would have heard about something like that and stopped me before I could manage to go through with that sort of thing."
"Yes, again. And I thought we'd agreed that the Sophia incident was something that would never be brought up in a conversation between us ever again." Arthur grabbed the horribly ugly knitted disaster that Elena had made for him last year off the back of the sofa and started positioning it over the pillows.
"Arthur, what are you doing? You're moving things around and there's a lot of... Are you making a blanket fort?"
"No," he replied, rather sulkily, since that's exactly what he was doing, but it wasn't as if he was ever going to actually admit that to anyone, even Mithian whom he'd known for ages and considered a sort of combination of best friend and big sister.
"Oh, Arthur," she sighed, her voice warm and a little sad. "Whatever happened was serious, wasn't it? Okay, go fetch your little hellion and tell me all about it."
"Kilgarrah is not a hellion."
"Of course not, he merely rips each and every pair of stockings I've ever had on in his presence because he's protesting my wearing the wrong length skirt for the season."
"If you bribed him with tuna, he'd stop doing that." Arthur snagged the cat in question from where he'd been sleeping (half in and half out of his food bowl) and crawled into the little pillow and fabric cave he'd created. "I like him," he admitted softly. "A lot."
"Something tells me we're not talking about your cat anymore."
Arthur skritched Kilgarrah on the head when the cat batted at him in a half conscious protest of having been moved. "No, not the cat. The baker."
"The baker?" Mithian sounded completely confused, which, Arthur realized was only fair, as he'd not spoken to her of his recent forays into Kneading Knights before tonight.
"Merlin. He's called Merlin."
"So, Merlin, the baker," she prompted.
"He doesn't know who I am. I'm just a bloke named Arthur and he's a baker named Merlin and we get on. And there was dough and butter and flour, lots of flour and he has these hands. Mith, his hands. They were. The way he worked the dough? And his long fingers?" He sighed loudly, the fort shifting slightly as he curled up tighter inside it, making a space for Kilgarrah to stretch out next to him. "They were perfect."
"Oh. Oh, Arthur. You have it bad, don't you?"
"Yeah, I do," he admitted softly. "I really do."
"Maybe things will be different this time. If he doesn't know who you are..." she left her sentence dangling, open ended and full of promise.
"He doesn't. I'm certain about that. One of the other bakers might, though. He stopped me before I left, said he'd kill me if I hurt Merlin." Arthur snorted remembering the moment. Gwaine wasn't tiny, but wasn't remotely what could be considered big by any means and he'd looked like a right idiot with his hand on Arthur's chest and murder in his eyes. "Might be just the protective sort though, getting his dander up when anyone comes around Merlin, without it having anything to do with me, specifically."
"Or it has to do with you being you and not you being Arthur Pendragon. You can come off a bit abrasive sometimes, even when there are no paparazzi anywhere around. We've talked about this before."
"Now be a good little client and tell me everything."
Where to begin, Arthur wondered, rubbing his cheek against Kilgarrah's soft fur and relaxing at his rumbling purrs. Might as well bite the bullet and go for broke. "That stupid thing I did? Well. Mith, I... I kissed him."
Arthur's head felt a lot clear after talking with Mithian, it always did. He had a plan now. Sort of. Well, a goal anyway. If Arthur had any hope of having any kind of relationship with Merlin, he needed to be honest with him and once he explained who he was then he wouldn't be constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and he could relax and just be himself around Merlin. Well, as much as he was ever himself around anyone. As much as he knew who that person was, anyway.
So, with a determined bounce to his step he arrived at Kneading Knights bright and early the next morning, pushing open the door with a smile on his face and his head held high.
Only to find yet another stranger behind the counter.
The resulting stumble over the welcome mat was not his fault.
Nor was the fact his flailing attempt to keep his balance resulted in him getting his sleeve tangled on the door handle.
The completely undignified manner in which he fell on his arse however.... Well, that might have been something he could technically be responsible for, but good luck getting him to admit to it.
"You all right there, sir?"
Arthur looked up from his ungainly sprawl on the floor. And up. And up. The man in front of him was utterly and ridiculously huge and looking down at him with a look of concern... and possible recognition. Oh, crap. Arthur immediately spoke up, trying for his patented distraction technique. "I'm fine, thank you. A bit clumsy, I'm afraid. I was just—"
"Perce, what's going on?" And suddenly Gwaine was there to make Arthur's humiliation all that much more complete. "Oh, it's you. Hey, Arthur."
"Arthur." The mountain of a man turned, looking from Gwaine to Arthur and then back to Gwaine. "Merlin's Arthur?"
"I suppose I am." Trying not to smile, Arthur pushed himself off the floor, brushing himself off as he stood. "And you're Perce - Percival - one of the other knights right? Merlin mentioned you."
"Oh, you're him. Good to meet you, mate." Percival held out one of his huge hands for Arthur to shake. However, he didn't immediately let go, instead holding on to Arthur's hand as his head tilted slightly and eyes went wide. It was a sign of dawning recognition that Arthur was unfortunately quite well acquainted with. "Hold on. You're that Arthur bloke from the papers. Arthur Pendragon."
Shite. No getting out of it then.
"Oi, I thought you looked familiar!" Gwaine slapped Arthur's shoulder in what was probably supposed to be an affectionate manner but bloody well hurt. "Why didn't you say something? Can't believe we had the likes of you working in our kitchen, covered in flour."
"I'm not anyone special," Arthur protested. Truthfully. Because, well, he wasn't was he? "My father was a politician—"
Gwaine interrupted with a shake of his head. "Saying Uther Pendragon was 'a politician' is like saying going out in a monsoon will get you a little wet. Your dad was the bloody PM, mate."
"And I've been in the papers once or twice," Arthur continued "but that hardly makes—"
"Once or twice a week, more like. Starting with the time you brought a guy to the Palace as your plus one." Percival released Arthur's hand and crossed his arms, his muscles bulging in a worrying manner. "I'm guessing Merlin has no idea?"
"No, I don't think so," Arthur admitted softly. "Actually I'm sure he doesn't. He looks at me and just sees... me."
"You know you haven't a hope in hell of keeping him in the dark about that," Gwaine said, his tone cautionary, but not unkind. If you want this thing with him to go anywhere you'll have to tell him."
"Yeah, I know."
All in all, telling Merlin had gone better than Arthur could have hoped. Although, come to think of it, he wasn't entirely sure Merlin fully grasped exactly what Arthur had been trying to tell him. He'd never met someone who was completely clueless about who he was before and Merlin, Merlin just did not seem to understand.
"So, your dad was the Prime Minister," Merlin had parroted after a moment's silence. "And, because of that, you get your picture taken sometimes. Okay."
And then Merlin had asked if he'd ever had a triple chocolate fudge cake bites because they'd just got a shipment of some kind of special chocolate that would be perfect for them and Arthur got a little distracted by how Merlin used his hands to describe the cake bite things, "They're this big! This big! Perfect bite-sized desserts, just perfect!" and then there had been melted chocolate and a spatula covered in it and, well, Arthur's brain shorted out as he found himself hopelessly unable to focus on anything but Merlin's tongue as he licked it clean. And then there was kissing and chocolate everywhere and more licking and even more kissing and, well, they never quite got back to discussing the whole paparazzi issue but Arthur couldn't honestly say he didn't mind in the least, even if he never did get to try a chocolate fudge cake bite.
They'd started spending a lot of time together after that. Or, more precisely, Arthur started spending more and more of his time in kitchens with Merlin, either at the bakery's or the one in Merlin and Lance's flat, which was only a few streets away from the bakery. Arthur had never been that much of a fan of cooking or baking of any sort- he'd always been more of a believer in take-away eaten straight out of the container or restaurants with linen service and snooty wait staff that sniffed derisively if you dared pair the fish with a merlot, but there was something to be said for the baffling, yet endearing way Merlin seemed utterly at ease in a kitchen, and the way the outside world just ceased to exist when they were together.
It was nice.
And far too good to last.
It wasn't that Arthur forgot who he was, it was just that Merlin never treated him any different for it. And, maybe as a result of that, none of his friends did either. They gave him the occasional sideways glance at first, and Gwaine seemed to crack his knuckles an awful lot, but overall they treated him (Arthur supposed) the way they would any of their mates. Possibly a bit better, as they seemed to have skipped the awkward getting to know you period and slipped him almost immediately into a position of instant acceptance, most likely due to his position as "Merlin's Arthur," as they all called him.
Everything was great.
Until suddenly it wasn't.
And it had been Arthur's own fault. He was the one who had wanted them to go out to dinner. "No man can live on scones alone," he'd pleaded as he batted his eyes, playing up the 'woe is me, for I am such a poor innocent lamb' look that Merlin always saw right thought, but usually fell for anyway since he thought it was so funny.
The immediate, and rather sarcastic, response, was "A diet of scones and only scones? I would never subject you to such a thing, not when there are so many pies and cakes and Chelsea buns and cakes and tarts and oooh, cheese straws! Have I made you my cheese straws yet?" But then he'd burst out laughing and sighed his terribly put upon sigh, rolled his eyes dramatically and asked where they were going.
It was a lovely little hole-in-the-wall Italian place, one Arthur had frequented many times before. He'd never been bothered there, the occasional wide-eyed bloke or self-absorbed blonde might have noticed him and pulled out their mobile to snap his picture, but that had been it. There'd been no incidents with reporters and no altercations with paparazzi, nothing chaotic had ever happened there. Although, given the usual way things in his life worked, good things randomly blowing up in his face for no reason, he should have realized that was due to change.
Leon drove them to Ignazio's; he seemed as amused as Arthur was over how excited Merlin was to try the zeppoles there. Merlin was in full baker mode, blithering on about different recipes he'd researched and techniques he'd tried and did Arthur know that they were a popular gift to give on Saint Joseph's Day?
"No, I hadn't," Arthur replied. He was so engrossed, so utterly fascinated, by how serious Merlin was taking the mere idea of the fried dessert that he opened the car door and stepped out onto the kerb without even taking a perfunctory glance around. "But a better question is," he began to say as he turned back and reached in the car for Merlin's hand, "is—"
But he never got any further because just then someone yelled "Arthur Pendragon! Look! It's Arthur Pendragon!" And then heads spun round and cameras and phones and people sprang up out of nowhere and his name was being shouted and flashes were going off and Arthur's voice caught in his throat and all he knew was that he couldn't do this. He couldn't subject Merlin to this.
Merlin had already shifted over on the seat, leaning forward and ready to step out of the car but waiting for Arthur to move out of the way. Arthur acted quickly. Instead of taking Merlin's hand to escort him into the restaurant he shoved Merlin, shoved him hard enough that he could hear the surprised "ooof" and a grunt of pain as Merlin fell back, crashing against the seat and slipping to the floor. "Come back for me in an hour, Leon," Arthur ordered as he slammed the door shut and plastered a smile on his face and turned to face the crowds.
It took ten minutes, ten very long minutes, to work the throng and be able to enter the restaurant unscathed. Well, his reputation with the masses unscathed at least, his reputation with Merlin? Someone who mattered? He shuddered to think what damage he'd done to it with his actions today and just what the hell he'd have to do to mend it.
The restaurant's owner, Frank, greeted Arthur with a warm, but slightly nervous, "Mr. Pendragon!" as he entered. "So sorry about all that, all that chaos. The press you know, horrible, the lot of them, but what can you do? I've got your table ready, but, I thought it was for two?" Arthur had got to know Frank pretty well in his previous visits there. They'd talked about how an ex-pat American who'd learned to cook in New York City's Little Italy had wound up having to come to England to make the dishes he loved and how Arthur admired the kind of fortitude it took to move so far from home. Frank had always been open and honest with him, but now he was squirming slightly as he spoke and suddenly it was all clear. No one had ever bothered Arthur at Ignazio's before, not in the all the years that he'd frequented the restaurant. And, considering how careful Leon had been about being followed, there was only one reason for the paparazzi to have found him there today.
"If I eat here with my publicist, she usually makes the reservation," Arthur said, his voice low so not to be overheard. "And if I'm stopping by to pick up take-away, usually Leon or I places the order over the phone."
"Sir," Frank began but pursed his lips and swallowed heavily when Arthur leaned forward, right into his personal space.
"It's been tough for restaurants lately, or so I've heard. Not everyone has the dosh to go and eat out these days. You have to do what you have to do to get customers in the door and to fill the seats. So when the opportunity for a little free publicity practically falls in your lap only a fool wouldn't act on it, I understand that."
"Mr. Pendragon. Sir. I can explain."
"No need." Arthur brushed Frank's cloying attentiveness aside. "As I said, I understand. Too well, in fact. If you could take me to my table now, I'd appreciate it. Although, I won't be staying for a full meal, just coffee today I think, and an order of zeppoles packaged and ready for take away in exactly forty five minutes if you don't mind."
Blushing furiously, Frank merely dipped his head and lead Arthur to his table. "Of course, sir. I'll... see to it myself."
Arthur removed his jacket and laid it on the seat across from him before sitting down. He took a deep breath and then another, waiting until after his coffee had been poured and the waiter left to pull out his mobile. He had to.... what? If he texted Merlin, what should he say? 'Sorry for being an arse' or 'Did you make it home all right' or 'Sorry, but I did warn you' or maybe 'Will you ever forgive me?'
He debated and discarded ideas left, right and centre as he sipped his coffee. In the end he settled for texting Leon Did he get home all right?
His coffee had been refilled twice before he received the reply. I dropped him off at the bakery, as per his request. Will return for you at appointed time.
A quick check of his watch showed Arthur that there was still twenty minutes to waste before Leon would arrive. He swirled the dregs of his coffee slowly, round and around, willing away his need to badger Leon with questions, begging for information. He'd be face to face with Merlin within the hour; he'd be able to explain his actions then. Merlin would understand, he would. He had to.
No one brought him the bill, however a small, carefully wrapped warm parcel was left on his table at a few minutes before the end of the hour. Arthur nodded his thanks and, with exaggerated care, pulled out a twenty pound note and placed it under his coffee cup. It was unlikely anyone at the restaurant would have done anything if he left without paying, but it seemed more fitting to leave a generous tip, it was like smiling while you twisted the knife in even deeper and adding an extra thrust for good measure.
As soon as his phone dinged, announcing Leon's impending arrival, Arthur slipped on his jacket, grabbed the zeppoles and headed for the door. Thankfully Frank, usually a hovering presence near the entrance, was noticeably absent. Arthur wasn't sure he'd have managed to maintain a civil veneer if he'd had to deal with the man.
Leon was at the kerb in a few minutes and, after a moment's consideration, Arthur slid into the passenger seat instead of the back seat having decided that he needed to be able to see Leon to properly judge his answers when Arthur asked him about Merlin. Though he still waited until the car was on its way before asking his first question.
"How did he seem? Was he hurt?"
Leon looked away from the traffic briefly, cocking an eyebrow at Arthur's choice of words. "He was holding his left wrist tucked into his side with his right hand wrapped around it when he left."
It took a moment for Arthur to digest that information. "That's not what I meant," he said softly. He'd meant emotionally or mentally, not physically. He hadn't expected that.
"I know, I just thought you should...." Leon's hands flexed on the wheel the way they always did when he was trying to be diplomatic. "He was very pale. It surprised him, either the crowd or... or your actions. I couldn't get any kind of response out of him other than him suggesting that bakery of his when I asked him where he'd like me to drop him off."
A quiet Merlin... that was not a good thing. He slowly became aware that he had been clutching the zeppoles too tightly, the package had crinkled and wrinkled due to his grip and, for a moment, he tried to smooth it out before realizing it was useless.
"What's that?" Leon asked, jutting his chin towards the package.
"I got him an order of his damned zeppoles. I figured it was the least I could do."
"You do realize that most people don't bring baked goods to a bakery, don't you? Although, in this case," Leon trailed off and shrugged.
"Yeah. In this case, indeed. Although, I don't remember actually asking you to take me to the bakery."
"I assumed, sir."
"You know what they say about assuming...."
"That only an arse doesn't listen to his driver when he's cocked things up?"
"Leon." It wasn't an admonishment, but only just.
"I could always take you to Morgana's instead. I'm sure she'd be happy to hear all about tonight's events and be just full of advice for you."
"Do not even joke about such a thing. Fine, you were right, I wanted to go see Merlin and explain about what happened, why I did what I did. I need to explain, to apologize. I'll explain and he'll understand, I'm sure of it, and then everything will be back to normal." Arthur wasn't sure if he was trying to convince Leon or himself, but either way, he was fairly certain it wasn't working.
A few minutes later, Leon pulled seamlessly up to the kerb. "We're here, sir."
"Right." Arthur nodded. "Wait for me here. I. I don't know how long this is going to take." He took a deep breath and swallowed heavily before reaching for the door. "Here goes nothing."
Unsurprisingly, considering the hour, the bakery was closed, but Arthur knocked on the door anyway. And waited. And knocked again. And waited, and waited and waited some more. It started to drizzle then and he was about to say 'sod it all' and give up and admit defeat when he saw movement inside the shop. It was too dark to tell, but by size alone he knew it wasn't Merlin wasn't approaching the door. Actually, it looked like-
Percival had unlocked the door and opened it, but did not move to allow Arthur to enter. "He doesn't want to see you."
"I just want a chance to explain."
For a moment Arthur thought Percival was going to shut the door and send him on his way, but instead he slowly cracked each knuckle, leant against the door jamb, crossed his arms, loomed over Arthur saying, "Go ahead, explain."
The tone, the rain, the utter hell of the rest of the evening- it was too much. Something inside him snapped. "It's Merlin I owe an explanation to, not you. I don't have to explain anything to you, mate," he said as he attempted to push his way past Percival.
Which, given Percival's size, was not one of Arthur's brightest moves.
"Try that again and you'll regret it." It was a statement, presented as either a fact or foregone conclusion. "Consider yourself lucky you're still standing. Gwaine would have had you on your arse the moment he saw you at the door. But I thought I'd you a chance. So I'll ask again, explain it to me."
"I didn't mean to do it, to send him away. I hadn't planned it or anything. I tried to warn him, what it's like, but he'd never seen it. He couldn't, or didn't seem to, grasp how it truly was. Then when I saw them I just reacted- the press, the people, it's... they're like a pack of hyenas or wolves or something." Arthur took a deep breath and tried to come up with the right words. "They're this huge swarming mess and I didn't- I couldn't subject Merlin to that."
"Embarrassed to be seen with him then?"
"No! God, no. Merlin, he's just. He's so. He seems so friendly and outgoing, like he's not got a care in the world- but that's not him, yeah? He's so good, a genuinely good person, and that's so rare, it makes him vulnerable and I," Arthur floundered about with his free hand for a minute before shrugging helplessly. "I couldn't let them rip him to shreds. He's too special for that. God, he must hate me."
There was a moment of uneasy silence between them as Percival pursed his lips and seemed to consider what Arthur had said. "He doesn't hate you, least I don't think he does." When Arthur beamed at that he added, "doesn't mean he wants to see you though, he's still pissed off as all hell and rightfully so, I'd say."
There wasn't much Arthur could say to argue against that so he merely held out the package. "These are for him, the zeppoles he'd wanted to try. Will you see that he gets them?"
Percival almost smiled at that. "Yeah, mate, I can do that."
"And tell him... Tell him I'm sorry."
"I'll do that too." Percival took a step back and was shutting the door when Arthur grabbed it.
"Wait! Sorry," he added quickly, seeing the anger flash across Percival's face. "Sorry, just one more thing. Leon, my driver, he said something about Merlin's arm or wrist getting hurt. Is he all right?"
"Yeah, most likely. His left wrist's a bit wonky from all that kneading or something. He's never as careful with it as he should be."
"I didn't know," Arthur said as he turned and headed back to the car. "But I should have." He heard the door shut and lock behind him. But there was no finality to it. He simply refused to believe it was shutting for good. He'd get Merlin back.
Arthur did not spend the next three hours after returning home curled up in a blanket fort with Kilgarrah, that was his story and he was sticking to it. And since Kilgarrah would make a rubbish witness there was no one to say otherwise. He always thought best when surrounded by pillows and blankets, there was a peace there- one hard to come by elsewhere in life. The only other place that came close was when he was in the bakery's kitchen with Merlin. Somehow, despite his complete and utter lack of baking experience, it had felt comfortable, like he had found a home he never knew existed and he refused to dwell on the chance he might never experience it again.
It was in the fort that he decided that it would be best to give Merlin at least a week to contact him before he tried to apologize again. That was a good amount of time for cooler heads to prevail and to be able to calmly and rationally look at the events of the evening. Seven days was plenty of time. Or six. Six would work too. Even five days would be a perfectly reasonable cooling off period in this sort of situation, he should think. Yes. He'd wait a few days, four on the outside, maybe even three, and then if Merlin didn't call him he'd go to the bakery to track him down.
"So, three days, right Kilgarrah?" He scratched the evil little hell beast along the jaw in that one spot that always got his back paw to kick out over and over again. "I can wait three days."
Time had never passed so slowly in Arthur's entire life. He checked his phone constantly, making sure it hadn't either run out of power or failed to notify him of a text. Leon had taken to giving him worried looks in the rear view mirror which Morgana, of course, noticed and led to her dragging the entire story out of him before proceeding to tease him mercilessly for hours until he was about to drop her off when she smacked him on the arm with one of her shoes and told him to "man up already and go talk to your Merlin."
"But," he'd said, and he tried explain his very carefully thought out plan of waiting and biding his time and how it had only been two days and started to tell her what she already knew- all the ways things could go wrong and how they usually did and how tired he was of picking himself up after finding himself shoved down that path yet again, but she just held up her shoe and said,
"This is a brand new Lanvin, one of a pair bought mere hours ago to match this dress. I spent hours, hours Arthur finding the perfect shoes that would complement my calves yet actually be comfortable enough to walk in and trust me, you do not want to know what I spent on them. However, I will break this one over your head if you don't get your head out of your arse and go get your stupid baker back." She gestured menacingly with the shoe, they both knew she'd actually do it, just to prove her point.
"Okay, fine. First thing tomorrow morning. He should have the early shift at the bakery- I'll go and talk to him, I promise. All right?"
"Good." She slipped the shoe back on and leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Good luck, Arthur." Leon took that as her cue and hastily popped out to open her door for her. "Thank you, Leon. And Arthur, I expect you to report back to me with all the details. Otherwise I'll just have to drag them out of Leon, and you know I will. And you know I'll enjoy doing it!" And with one last air-kiss she was gone.
"Home, sir?" Leon asked once he was back in the driver's seat.
"Yes, please. And don't you go getting any ideas. You know I'll fire you if you start gossiping with her."
"Of course, sir."
"You're going to tell her everything anyway, aren't you."
"Of course, sir."
Arthur sighed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day.
Loitering behind Kneading Knights a little before 3 AM made Arthur feel a little bit like a stalker, but he didn't care. Merlin had complained once needing to arrive sometime before 3:30 on days he had the early shift in order to get enough baked before the shop opened in the morning and Arthur was going to be there, blocking the back door, when he arrived. Thinking ahead, he'd brought coffee, two travel mugs full of the finest blend he could find. One was for him while he waited and the other was for Merlin because Arthur wasn't above bribery if the situation called for it and Merlin was a caffeine addict if he ever saw one.
Just to make his morning better, it started raining shortly after he arrived. What was it about being outside this bakery and bad weather? A quick check of his phone told him that yes, for once the weatherman had actually predicted foul weather this time round, but as he was equally unprepared for it he found it didn't matter much. Wet was wet and miserable was miserable and god damn it, where the hell was Merlin?
Arthur was thoroughly soaked by the time a bright orange and purple umbrella turned the corner and hurried its way to the door he was guarding. He stepped forward, but it wasn't until he was practically bowled over before he spoke up, realizing that Merlin hadn't looked up once and, operating on autopilot, would never know Arthur was standing there until they'd crashed into him.
"Merlin?" There had been so many things he wanted to say but he found all he could get to come out was that, a name, hesitant and weak.
"Arthur?" The umbrella tilted up and he got a brief flash of bright blue eyes before he was suddenly pulled under it himself. "Look at you, you're soaked through and freezing. You bloody fool, you're going to catch your death out here. Come on." Merlin unlocked the door and shoved Arthur through before keying in the alarm code on the pad just inside the doorway. "What were you doing out there? It's ridiculously early, no sane person is awake this early unless they have to be. I wouldn't be up and about if it wasn't my shift."
"I wanted to talk to you."
"At three in the morning. In the pouring rain." Merlin shook out his umbrella, leant it against the wall, hung up his coat on an empty hook and grabbed an apron. "You could have just called."
"You were so upset, I wasn't sure if you would answer," Arthur admitted as, squelching with every step, he moved over to the rubber non-slip mat by the sink so he would avoid dripping all over the floor.
"You don't think I had a right to be upset?" Merlin wasn't shouting, but he had raised his voice. And he wasn't looking at Arthur, instead focusing on turning on the ovens and getting out the dough that had been prepped the night before.
Arthur grimaced, this wasn't going the way he'd hoped. "No, I think you had every right. I just. I wanted a chance to explain."
"And why should I listen?"
"Because I brought you coffee?" he asked tentatively, holding the travel mug he'd prepared for Merlin up in front of him like a sort of caffeine shield.
Merlin's response was to cover his mouth with his arm, his flour covered hand held away from his face.
"Merlin?" Uncertain, Arthur continued to hold the coffee out.
He still didn't say anything but Arthur noticed Merlin's shoulders were shaking a little.
"Merlin, are you okay?"
Then Arthur heard it. Merlin, Merlin was...
"Are you laughing at me?"
There was a muffled answer which Arthur was pretty sure was a "No," but considering it was half drowned out by snickers, he knew it was a lie.
And he found that, in this case, he didn't mind being lied to in the least.
Eventually lowered the coffee, but continued to stand there, dripping as he waited for Merlin to make the next move. And eventually, Merlin composed himself enough to lower his arm, take a deep breath and sigh.
"I'm still mad at you."
"I've not got a lot of time now; I need to get the breads started and more dough made up. We open in a few hours." Merlin's eyes darted around the kitchen and his hands took on a nervous flutter that Arthur recognized as a prelude to him becoming overwhelmed.
"I know that too. I was hoping you'd be able to listen while you worked though? I just want the chance to explain."
Merlin took a deep breath and then nodded. "First things first though, you need to change. You're soaking wet and dripping everywhere. There's something that should fit you over there," he gestured to the hodgepodge of clothing piled every which way on the shelves by the aprons and hats. "And don't forget a something for your head."
Arthur belatedly noticed that Merlin had on his Royals cap again. "Sorry. Hat or hairnet back here. I forgot. I'll do that first thing."
"You can leave the coffee." Merlin's tone was light, as if he was doing Arthur a massive favour by making the suggestion he not burden himself with the coffee whilst changing, but they both knew it was a lie and Arthur couldn't help but snickering lightly as he left the travel mug on the edge of the counter before going to examine his clothing options.
"As long as you don't mind," Arthur replied, playing along because being teased was a hundred times better than being yelled at and a million times better than having Merlin cry and he knew he probably deserved one of those responses, if not both.
Merlin grabbed the coffee almost instantly and took a long sip. "You'd think after all this time I'd get my act together and bring coffee or set up a little pot here with a timer or something," he said, every fourth word slightly drowned out by the thunk of his slapping a portion of dough down on the counter before doing a quick roll and twist to shape it.
"You would think," Arthur chided carefully and lightly, as he sorted through the clothes. He found a faded blue tee shirt that was probably Percival's given the size, but at least it wouldn't be too small and he hastily peeled off his sodden shirt and replaced it with the dry one. It took a bit of sorting to find anything else that might fit, Percival was far too tall, Gwaine too short and Merlin too thin but eventually he unearthed a pair of track pants he thought might belong to Lancelot that looked like they might be long enough in the leg and not too impossible around the waist.
A quick glance towards Merlin ensured the other man was seemingly still engrossed with his dough shaping so Arthur toed off his shoes and then stripped off his jeans. Or, he tried to. Wet denim was... clingy. It took a lot of pushing and shimmying and jiggling and tugging before he managed to get them off.
"Was that show for me?"
Arthur did not buy Merlin's innocent, teasing tone for a second. But, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth he responded with equal lightness, "Why, did it work?"
Merlin sighed. "I... I don't know. Arthur, what happened. I." He sighed again, closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead with the back of his arm and said, "I need to finish these."
"Can I stay? I know there's a lot to do to get the bakery ready to open and I don't want to get in the way of that but-" Arthur cut himself off. He wasn't going to beg. He wasn't.
Merlin didn't respond right away, instead taking a moment to quickly shape the last of the dough he'd been working on and cover the loaves and buns with towels for their second rise. "It's dreadful out there. You just got dry; sending you out into that again wouldn't be fair. And. And you did bring me coffee." He turned away and started getting out ingredients for whatever he was going to make next. "You can stay and we'll... talk. But," his voice gets firm and takes on a chiding nature, "you still need to put on a hat."
Head covering. Right. Looking around he spotted the other Royals cap, the one he usually wore when back here, but on a whim ignored it and grabbed the horrible purple wizard's hat and shoved it on his head. "This better?" He was sure he looked utterly ridiculous, but there weren't any mirrors so there was no way for him to know for certain.
Until Merlin burst out laughing that was. And then he knew he looked like a right idiot but he didn't care because any kind of humiliation that wearing the sparkling monstrosity might bring was worth having Merlin happy like that. "That'll do."
Arthur grinned and grabbed an apron. "Now that I'm properly attired, how can I help?"
"You can't. Not really. There's not really anything that you can do easily," Merlin explained, already measuring out flour and sugar into the mixer. "I mean, I've a system. We all do here. It's all planned out so that there's only the need for the one of us in the morning; it's all set up the night before. And, despite the times we've baked together before, I'd have to show you every step. It would just slow me down."
"Right. So I'll just stand here and look ridiculous then." Arthur flicked the pointed top of the hat with his finger and was horrified when it jingled. "Dear god, this hat just keeps getting worse and worse. And I wouldn't have thought that was possible."
Merlin looked up from the dough long enough to send Arthur a very self-satisfied grin. "And you can't take it off. Have to have your head covered when you're back here."
"Right, right." Arthur bit his lip, letting the sound of the mixer working and the dough coming together wash over him, rather surprised with himself that he found the noise soothing, which was just another reason he had to make it right between them. "Did you like the zeppoles? Percival gave them to you, right?"
"He did. They were good. I was surprised; they had nutmeg in them, just a hint, but enough for me to notice. I've not seen a recipe for them with nutmeg before, if there's to be a spice it's usually a cinnamon and sugar coating but the nutmeg worked surprisingly well." Merlin took a break from the dough to shove several pans of prepared loaves in the oven and then set one of the timers. "I experiment with ingredients sometimes, but my additions and changes tend to be chocolate related. I wonder where the chef got the idea for that."
"America, most likely. Frank brought most of the recipes over from where he'd worked in New York City's Little Italy."
"It's his restaurant. There's no one named Ignazio associated with it, that's just an Italian sounding name he came up with," Arthur explained with a sigh, repeating what Frank had told him in one of their talks. "His theory was that an Italian restaurant would be more likely to succeed if it had an Italian sounding name."
"I guess that makes sense." Leaving the mixer running for a moment, Merlin pulled two covered bowls out of the refrigerator before shutting it off and turning out the dough onto the board.
"I thought he was my friend. Frank, I mean." Unable to stand still, Arthur shuffled his feet, rubbing his toe against the edge of the non-slip mat. "But he was the one who called the press. He wanted some free press for the place, I suppose. People do that kind of thing, around me. I'm always Arthur Pendragon, Uther Pendragon's bisexual son. Arthur Pendragon, the cheeky bloke who turned tradition on its head. Arthur Pendragon, Albion's most eligible bachelor. Arthur Pendragon. Always Arthur Pendragon, never just Arthur, never just me. Not until you."
Arthur risked a quick look at Merlin. He was listening, Arthur could tell; Merlin's back was tight as he worked and his jaw clenched so Arthur continued, staring at a small worn spot on the track pants as he worried it with his thumb.
"You're special, Merlin. So special. You have no idea how special you are. And the paparazzi, they're vicious and because I'm someone they think they have the right to be in my business all the time and not only that, but to snap photos and videos and document every moment of my life and broadcast it to the world. It'll be in tweets and on blogs and Facebook and tumblr and god knows where else and before you know it, it's viral and everywhere and then there's no getting it back. And I have to grit my teeth and smile and just accept it, because if I didn't they'd act a thousand times worse.
"And because of that, people think they know me and seem to have come to the conclusion that it's perfectly acceptable to follow me into the Men's just to talk to me or cut in front of me at the coffee shop and ask me to pose for a picture- that I owe them that. And the fact that all I want is to take a piss in peace or get a damned latte doesn't even occur to them.... it just doesn't even register.
"Being me, being famous, it's not all glamour and excitement. I'm up on this pedestal and there's all these people that want to rip me off of it as publicly and as horrifically as they can and they don't care who they're hurting when they do it and I couldn't, I wouldn't, let that happen to you. I didn't mean to hurt you, Merlin. Believe me when I say that hurting you is the last, the absolute last thing I ever wanted to do. I was trying to protect you, I just," his voice from shook as he spoke, one step away from breaking completely, "just fucked it up completely. I'm sorry. I am so sorry."
Arthur swallowed heavily, this wasn't working. He couldn't find the right words. They probably didn't even exist. It had been the one good thing in his life and he'd fucked it up completely. He squeezed his eyes shut, unwilling to cry. "This was a mistake, I shouldn't have come. I'll return the clothes tomorrow." He reached up to pull off the hat but his movement was halted when his hand was grabbed. Merlin was standing in front of him, one floury, dough covered hand holding his.
Merlin looked sadder and more serious than Arthur had ever seen and they both stood there, frozen, until Merlin reached out with his other hand and stroked Arthur's cheek. "Oh, Arthur," he said, no more than a whisper. Then he leant forward and slowly, gently, drew Arthur into a kiss.
Five months later:
Merlin, Arthur decided, had no right to look as good as he did in a dinner jacket, especially that particular dinner jacket. Bow ties were not supposed to be sexy. Everyone knew that. But, there was Merlin, wearing a brand new dinner jacket, his hair in a horrid state if disarray, wearing a bow tie for heaven's sake, and looking ridiculously, amazingly unfairly, attractive.
"Are you sure about this?" Arthur asked as he brushed imaginary lint of Merlin's lapels.
"Are you really one percent completely positive that this is okay with you? That this is what you want, what you really, really want?"
"Because we could turn around now. In fact, Leon, turn the car around at the next opportunity, sod this premiere, the movie's probably bollocks anyway. We should head back, tell Mithian we'll do this another time—"
"Arthur!" Merlin grabbed Arthur's hand and squeezed it tightly. "Belay that order, Leon. Thank you, but we won't be needing to you to do that. We are going to do this, right Arthur? It's fine. It'll be fine."
"Stop worrying. Whatever happens tonight, nothing between us changes. Nothing about me and who I am and nothing about you. And what did I say about who you are?"
"I'm Arthur, Merlin's Arthur." He couldn't help but grin when he said that.
"That's right, my Arthur." Merlin leaned over and kissed Arthur lightly on the cheek. "And don't you forget it."
"We're here, sir," Leon said, pulling up to the kerb.
Flashbulbs starting going off even before the red carpet attendant could open the car door.
"Arthur! Arthur Pendragon! Here! Arthur Pendragon!" Arthur's name was being called from all directions as they exited the car. The minute the reporters and crowds saw Merlin with him they began shouting questions, trying to figure out who he was.
As calmly as he could manage Arthur approached the main gaggle of gossipmongers. Before any one reporter in particular could ask, but after they all had their cameras trained on him, Arthur began speaking, "I'm sure you're all very excited about tonight's premiere and I have no intention of trying to take any of the thunder away from what I'm sure is going to be a wonderful film, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to announce that Albion's most eligible bachelor is off the market; this here is Merlin, isn't he wonderful?" he pulled Merlin up close to him and snogged him senseless right then in front of everyone.
It was pandemonium. He could feel Merlin laughing and once they broke apart Arthur began laughing as well. There was yelling and shouting and pictures being snapped, but none of that mattered- he was happy, truly happy. He loved Merlin and Merlin loved him and there was the chance of a bright, sunny life for them together and nothing, nothing, was going to prevent them from reaching it.