Chapter 1: Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M
If there is one thing that gets drummed into the heads of the kids around these parts, it’s this: Stay Away from Cenred Cole.
If only boys would learn to listen to their mothers.
To be fair, it was not Merlin who broke this rule. Well, that is to say, he did, otherwise he would not be in this mess, but he did not break it first. All he had been doing was what he’d been doing his whole life; trying to keep Will out of trouble. And how well that had worked out, because now Will was dead.
And Merlin was in deep shit
“I can’t decide if you are incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.”
Merlin didn’t need to answer that question. Stupid. Unbelievably, totally and utterly stupid.
“What exactly were you doing there?” The scary Detective Inspector looked at him over the top of her glasses and raised one perfectly-plucked eyebrow.
He shrugged and still didn’t answer.
“Merlin, I’m trying to help you here. Work with me.” She tapped her pen on the top of her pad and waited for him to speak.
He tried, he really did, but speech seemed beyond him. He could feel his throat closing over, stopping the words from escaping. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply through his nose till he could feel himself start to calm down. “They killed my best friend.” His voice came out as a pitiful croak that didn’t sound like him at all.
“Yes, but what were you doing there?” The steely undertone to her voice belied the softness of the expression on her face.
He studied the table top for a moment. “Will always looked out for me.” His voice cracked again and he looked up to find her watching him. “He was popular; I was the dorky kid who liked to draw and pretended he could do magic, but he never dropped me, and he always stood up for me. Even when I came out.”
She just watched, waiting for him to continue.
“On our estate, you’re no one if you’re not in a gang.” Merlin shifted uncomfortably and started chewing at a hangnail. “I’m no one, and I’m fine with that. But Will… he likes for people to like him. He started hanging out with Valiant, and then Valiant… got him involved with Kanen’s lot.”
“Valiant?” She sat forward and spared a quick frown at his hands.
“Paul Valiant.” Merlin pulled his hands away from his mouth and then sat on them for good measure. “He was at school with us. He was a bit of a bully. He hated me, and had loads of run ins with Will because of it.” Merlin gave a small shrug and looked back down at the table. He could still feel her watching him. “Since school, Will and him got closer, they worked together on the building site over at Westons.” Merlin shrugged again, unsure what else to do with a body that didn’t feel like it belonged to him any more. This body belonged to someone who had seen too much. Merlin’s body should be at home, watching that Star Wars marathon with Will that they never got around to.
“And was he there last night?” She scribbled something down in her notes.
He nodded. “He got Will to go with him. I tried to talk him out of it, Will I mean, but he wouldn’t listen. Said it would be fine. Said he wasn’t going to get involved.”
“So you went with Will?”
“He didn’t know I was there. I followed him.” Merlin started chewing on his nail again.
“Like I said, we always looked out for each other.” The finger would start bleeding soon. The pain felt good.
She looked at him like he was an idiot. Maybe he was. “I’m sorry, but that was unbelievably stupid.” Yeah, why didn’t she tell him something new?
“I didn’t know! How many more times can I tell you?” Merlin threw his hands up in the air. “I didn’t know Kanen would be there, I didn’t know there would be drugs and guns! I. Didn’t. Know.”
She checked her notes. “You are sure it was Harry Kanen?”
“Yeah, everyone knows Kanen.”
“So what happened?”
“Will’s got a big mouth.” Merlin fought back the tears that suddenly threatened; he could feel his throat trying to close up again, like he was being strangled. “Had a big mouth. Will had a big mouth.” He wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t.
“He told someone about Kanen’s dealings?” She looked back through her notes.
“No! He wasn’t a grass!” Merlin sat up, ready to defend Will. Will wouldn’t grass, he wasn’t weak. Not like Merlin. “I mean he just never knew when to shut up. Always had to say what he was thinking. He didn’t like the way things were going, but he couldn’t just keep quiet, he had to tell them. Loudly.”
“I’m guessing Kanen didn’t like that?”
“You could say that. But it was this other guy…” He closed his eyes, not wanting to remember but forcing it anyway. “Sort of good looking, but not? Long dark hair. He was the one who did it.” Merlin shifted uncomfortably and started on the nails of the other hand.
She fixed him with a piercing look. “You’re telling me that Cole pulled the trigger?” She rifled through her papers and pulled out a photo. “This man?”
“Cole?” Merlin looked at the picture and nodded. “You mean Cenred Cole?” A sudden chill took hold him. “Oh my god!” Merlin could feel the panic that surely should have claimed him back at the warehouse start to close in on him. “That was Cenred Cole? I let my best mate meet up with a gangster! Oh god. They left him to bleed out on the tarmac. I went there to look out for him, and all I did was watch him die…” Merlin choked back a sob. “He just shot him. Like he was nothing. Pulled a gun, shot him, and then went on with business.”
“There was nothing you could do, Merlin.” She pushed a glass of water towards him and he gulped it down gratefully. “If you’d gone in there you’d be dead too. But you called us. We got there before they could move Will’s body, before they could dispose of the drugs. And with your evidence, we can actually put these bastards in jail.”
“But I didn’t save Will.” It was almost a whisper, he didn’t even think she’d heard him.
“I’m sorry, Merlin, but Will was dead from the moment he set foot on that building site.” She sighed and threw down her pen. “They were never going to leave a witness. We will get these bastards, I promise.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Inspector.” He looked her in the eye. She couldn’t promise him this if she didn’t mean it.
“I’m not. We will get them.” There was such steely determination in her face that he believed her. “We need you to give evidence, but let’s start with some detailed descriptions, maybe sit down with an artist.”
“I could draw them for you, if you want. Kanen, Cole. And there was this big Scottish bloke Cole was doing the deal with. Ugly. I’m not a bad artist, I could draw them.”
“That would be wonderful.” A smile graced her face for the first time. “I’ll sit you down with one of our artists anyway, just to make sure it’s all official. Let’s take a break now, while I get things set up
When he was a kid, Merlin believed he had magic. He swore he could make things move with his mind.
Of course, as he got older, he learnt that this was nonsense. There is no such thing as magic, so how could he possibly have it?
Perhaps if he had, he could have saved Will.
He was pretty pleased with his rendering of the men who’d been at the building site. He hadn’t even finished shading the image of the second man before the Inspector had snatched it from him and immediately phoned someone to say they had an I.D. on Cenred Cole and Stuart Hengist. She seemed excited.
“Thank you, Merlin. We’ll still need to do a formal ID, but this is a massive help,” she said, staring down at his sketches with a satisfied smile.
“What? But they’ll kill me!” Merlin looked up in a panic. He’d done his bit.
“It’s fine, they’ll be behind one-way glass, they won’t see you. You’ve already painted a lovely target on your back, though,” she added with a shrug.
“You just said they wouldn’t see me!” He fought the urge to start biting his nails again. He’d kicked that habit when he was thirteen.
“Merlin, your best friend died in very violent circumstances and someone called the police. Cole is not stupid, he’ll work it out pretty quickly.”
“He didn’t know I was there!” Merlin said quickly.
“Of course not, if he knew that you’d be dead already,” she said bluntly. “But men like him have a way of finding things out. Besides, you’ll be called to testify in court.”
“What? No! Nonononononono, I can’t do that!” To hell with it, he started biting at his thumb.
“What did you think was going to happen? With your testimony, we can finally put Cenred Cole behind bars. We have him for drug running, murder, and theft, all on your evidence. We know where to look, how to gather more evidence, but without you, we’re sunk.” The look she gave him left no room for arguments.
“I thought you could just, I dunno, use the pictures.”
“You’re an eyewitness, Merlin.”
“We’ll put you in witness protection.” There was that look again. Damn it.
“Like in films?” He tucked his hands under his armpits if for no other reason than to give him some nails left to carry on biting tomorrow.
“Pretty much, but sadly less glamorous, I’m afraid. We’ll move you to a new location, get you away from Manchester, give you a new identity, history – a new start.”
“What about my mum?” He couldn’t abandon his mum.
“She can go with you. You’ve made her a target too, they’ll try to get to you through her.”
“I can’t tell mum!” Merlin glanced around as if he was expecting her to walk through the door.
“Mr Emrys,” she said, sounding weary as she took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “I’m not sure you really seem to grasp the seriousness of this situation. If we investigate Cenred Cole in relation to this incident, he will know someone talked. When you disappear, it will be pretty clear who. He will come after you. He will come after your family. If he can’t get to you directly, he will go after your mother.”
“Shit.” Merlin buried his head in his hands. “What the fuck have I done? Mum has nothing to do with this!”
“It’s fine, Merlin.” He heard her say as she patted his arm awkwardly. “It’ll be fine. We will protect you, and your mother.”
“Yeah, then I only need to worry about her killing me instead of Cenred Cole.” He looked back up at her and attempted to smile. His face didn’t comply.
She put her glasses back on on. “I promise, we will do everything in our power to keep you both safe. Do you have any other family?”
“No, just me and Mum. My dad left before I was born.” He shrugged. People always looked at him with sympathy when they found that out and he hated it.
“What about grandparents? Aunts, uncles, cousins?” she pressed. “Because you won’t be able to contact them.”
“No, no one. I know nothing about my Dad’s side of the family, and Mum never talks to her parents, so I never knew them either.”
“Right. Well that makes things easier.” She nodded to herself. “We’ll move you both to a safe house tonight. One of our officers will collect your mother and pack a bag for you, it’s not safe to go back to your flat now.”
“I can’t go back at all?” He probably shouldn’t have been surprised, and yet still he was. “What about… Will… the funeral?” Hardest words in the world.
“It’s really best you don’t go. For your own safety. I’m sorry.”
Merlin put his head on his arms and finally allowed himself to cry. If you had told him this morning that this was how his day would turn out, he would have locked Will in the flat and never let him leave. His best friend was gone forever.
Hunith surprised Merlin. He expected her to fly off the handle and yell at him. And then she just… didn’t.
As soon as she arrived at the safe house, she pulled him into a hug. “I’m so proud of you, my darling boy.”
“Seriously?” He pulled away to look down at her. “I thought you were going to tear me a new one.”
“Merlin, don’t be crude.” She reached up and smoothed down his hair. “Are you alright?”
He felt tears forming again and didn’t answer. He didn’t need to, his mum always knew. And he might have cried, but if he did, only Hunith knew.
If Merlin had had magic, he’d turn back the clock to yesterday and stop all of this from happening.
Leaving wasn’t really so hard, as it turned out. The only things he cared about in Ealdor were his mum and Will, and Will was gone.
Merlin had never fitted in there, and his friends were few. He liked books and sci-fi and thought he was magic; most of the meatheads he grew up with liked sitting on the swings in the park and getting drunk on cheap cider. He wasn’t going to miss any of them. Except Will.
Merlin’s possessions, which looked horribly meagre once they’d been brought to the safe house, were mostly things he could easily have left behind, except maybe a few things of Will’s that he wasn’t allowed to keep anyway.
The police had taken his phone as soon as he’d been brought into the police station. It was old, and definitely nothing like smart, with about two hours battery life on standby and five minutes if he actually tried to use it, so he wouldn’t really miss it. He’d have liked to have kept some of the messages from Will though.
His clothes were mostly cheap and well mended. The Detective Inspector from yesterday had mentioned new clothes to go with his new identity, which just made him feel guilty for profiting from Will’s death.
The only thing really that he wanted to keep was Will’s beloved Man City football hoodie that had been left in his room. He stashed it at the bottom of his bag and didn’t tell a soul, not even his mum.
Every night he dreamt of Will. The gunshot. How black Will’s blood had looked in the moonlight. In his dreams, Merlin wasn’t at a safe distance, too far away to help. Instead he was standing next to Will, staring down at him as Will gazed back and begged for his help.
Sometimes, it was worse than that. Sometimes it was Merlin who pulled the trigger. Other times it was Merlin staring down the barrel of the gun, hearing the bang, collapsing to the ground. Sometimes Will stood beside him and watched him die. Some nights it was Will who shot him.
Often, he woke up screaming so loud he woke Hunith, and she’d come and hold him like she had when he was five and thought the bogeyman lived under his bed. She had always told him the bogeyman wasn’t real, but now he knew better. The bogeyman was very real. His name was Cenred Cole.
Merlin trained himself not to scream. Not to wake his mother.
The safe house they were holed up in was horrible. It wasn’t the house itself, per se, so much as they fact that they were not allowed out, not allowed to make phone calls and were watched constantly for nearly a month.
“Merlin.” George, an officious young police officer came into the room followed by the Detective Inspector. “We have your new papers.”
Merlin took the papers from him dubiously. He’d been hoping they’d have some say in who they were going to be. “No way.” He looked in horror at his new passport.
Alan Simpson, according to his passport, was seventeen years old from Cheshire.
“Ok, point number one – no, never and no. I am not going to be called Alan, only major twats are called Alan!”
“Language, Merlin,” Hunith said mildly.
He’d had a teacher back in year eleven called Alan DuBois. In his own way, Mr DuBois had been as big a bully as Paul Valiant. Mr DuBois was one of those teachers who wanted to be liked by the popular kids, and that had meant picking on the unpopular ones. Merlin was easy to pick on, he’d weighed about seven stone soaking wet, and had no father and few friends. He’d hated Alan DuBois with a passion.
“Point number two,” he continued. “What the fuck do you mean, seventeen? I’m twenty! I spent a long time waiting to be old enough to vote and buy alcohol! I’m going to miss the referendum!”
“You can vote by post or proxy under your real names,” the D.I. said. “And you have a young face, you’ll easily pass for seventeen.”
“Can I drink by proxy too?” He shook his head and frowned back at the passport. “Point number three, Cheshire, seriously? I doubt I’m posh enough to even set foot in Cheshire!”
“Actually, my mum came from Cheshire,” Hunith said.
“It’s ok for you,” he glanced over at his mother’s documents, “Mary.”
Merlin folded his arms and glared at them all in turn. Not that it did any good.
“We can’t change the paperwork now, Alan,” George said, barely sparing him a glance.
After about a fortnight, they moved to another safe house, a flat down in Milton Keynes, which was every bit as bad as the first, or possibly worse. Still, at least they were allowed out now. “If anyone asks, you just moved and are staying here till you can move into your new house. Say as little as possible,” George told them.
Then there were the back stories. Merlin’s father was apparently Jack Simpson, a businessman from Chester who had recently died, prompting Hunith to make a new start. In reality, Merlin’s dad had left long before Merlin had been born, and Hunith never spoke about him – in fact it was the one topic guaranteed to make her really angry, and Merlin had learnt to avoid it.
They ended up in Milton Keynes for three months. Three miserable, depressing, awful months. They had no jobs, no money, no friends. Merlin spent most of his time on the sofa, watching daytime telly and cookery programmes until he was sure he would go insane from boredom.
Eventually, George came back to say they were moving. Their new home was to be a town in Gloucestershire called Camelot, and hopefully that was where they were to stay.
A place had been arranged for Merlin at the local art college, the story going that he’d missed too much of his first year due to his father’s illness and had to start again. He wasn’t complaining – he’d never had the chance to do A-Levels at Ealdor Comprehensive, no one did.
Hunith’s back story was that she’d been a doctor’s receptionist, which was certainly a step up from working the till at Asda. She was given actual training on what the job entailed, and even got to work a few shifts in a practice in Milton Keynes, which at least got her out of the safe house a few mornings. She had an interview lined up with the local GP in Camelot.
“But I’ll be lying!” She said with great indignation. “I can’t lie at a job interview.”
“You can, and you must, Mrs Simpson,” George told her.
They’d made a point of that now; never Merlin or Hunith, never Emrys, always Alan or Mary Simpson to get them used to their new identities. Even his mum had started calling him Al, which was at least preferable to Alan.
Then there was the practising. Who are you, where do you come from, what’s your mother’s name, what was your father’s name, what happened to your father? Over and over again until they got it right, until the witness protection people were happy with them. And then they’d do it all again the next day.
Merlin hated every moment of it, although admittedly he didn’t really want to get himself killed by messing up, so he practiced.
Soon. They’d be free soon.
Chapter 2: Somewhere They Can't Find Me
The new place was like a different world from Manchester and the Ealdor Estate.
Camelot was leafy, quiet and pretty. The hardest drug here was probably a little weed, smoked by aging hippies in tie dye – because it was that sort of place, happy clappy and liberal and eco-friendly, where the people wore vegan shoes and fairtrade cotton.
“Seriously? We’re living here?” He hadn’t thought places like this actually existed.
The house was Georgian, yellowy-white Cotswold stone, set by itself on a hill on the outskirts of the village. There was a wrought iron gate with a dragon on it opening onto an neat little winding path through a pretty front garden full of roses, with more roses climbing around the front door.
Inside, the rooms were light and airy, although the walls looked to be at least a foot thick. The stairs were steep and winding, but Merlin was hardly going to complain about that when the stairs in the block of flats they’d lived in before were communal and full of used needles and stank of stale urine.
They had an actual house to live in. Merlin couldn’t believe his luck. His bedroom was brilliant, complete with old uneven walls and wooden beams in the sloping ceiling. And a double bed; he could never have squeezed a double in his old room! Not that he had anyone to invite back there, but hey, come on!
He went over to the window to see the garden. They had a garden! A real garden, stretching down to a garage. There were yet more roses in the neat flower beds near the house which gave way to a large lawn surrounded by privacy-providing trees and… holy crap, was that…
“Mum!” he called into the other room. “There’s a swimming pool! Seriously, who even has a swimming pool in England?”
It was partially hidden by the trees at the bottom of the long garden, but it was definitely a pool.
Hunith came into the room and looked out of the window. “Oh my goodness! Do you think we’re allowed to use it?”
Oh yeah, Merlin had forgotten that bit. They didn’t have it all to themselves, there was a bloke in the flat downstairs who owned the place, some… retired army captain or something.
The building was divided into two. The hill made it a slightly odd structure, with the front door at street level opening into what was actually the first floor, although it contained all the things you’d expect to find on the ground floor, with a kitchen and living room and dining room, then four bedrooms upstairs and a good-sized bathroom. But there was also a level below, with a self-contained flat opening onto the garden, which was at a lower level to the street. There was a steep set of stairs going from the kitchen that Merlin and his mum could use to get to the garden, but the two parts of the house were completely separate.
“Come on, you,” his mum said, tugging on his arm. “Let’s get unpacked, then we can go out and explore a bit.”
Merlin sighed and turned back to his unpacking.
Camelot turned out to be the sort of Gloucestershire town that Merlin had previously thought only existed in BBC period dramas. If Colin Firth had ridden round the corner on a horse in a top hat, he wouldn’t have looked out of place. That is to say, Colin Firth would have been in the top hat, not the horse. The horse might have looked out of place in a top hat. Then again, who knew with these southerners?
Every single building was made from the same yellowy-white stone, all on gently curved roads and sloping hills. It seemed strange when the occasional car drove past, like it was completely in the wrong era.
There was a church, a proper old-fashioned church with a massive steeple and picturesque graveyard and pointy trees. Across the road was a small pretty park, with a few swings and a slide for the kids and a large expanse of grass with a few picnic benches on the other side.
The main street was set on quite a steep hill, with several smaller streets and alleyways leading off it. The local post office was old and quaint with a roof that seemed to bend precariously in the middle, and there was a blacksmith, of all things, and an honest to goodness sweet-shop-come-newsagent, with big jars of boiled sweets in the window. There were several shops with organic whole food, a greengrocer, a butcher, a baker – all the sort of things that were supposed to have died out in the British high street.
There was an amazing library that was clearly actually built as a library, although these days it was apparently also an arts centre. The inside was all highly-polished oak, and the books were all pristine and loved. The library back in Ealdor had been a bit of a second thought kind of affair, where Merlin was one of the very few frequent visitors, and most of the books looked and smelt like they’d lost a fight with a dope-smoking rottweiler.
Various takeaways and eateries lined the street, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and a place called Burger Star, that seemed very popular. A building that had clearly once been McDonalds was now home to a discount shop. There were several pubs, possibly more than the size of the town seemed to justify, mostly with sheep related names such as The Ram and The Fleece, as well as a King’s Arms and a Rising Sun.
Starbucks on the corner seemed deserted, but a local café next to the library that looked like the sort of organic, hippy type place Will would have delighted in taking the piss out of, was clearly busy if the stream of customers was anything to go by. A ‘help wanted’ sign in the window caught his attention. A few prods from Hunith found Merlin landing himself a job interview in three days’ time.
Camelot seemed to have a distinctly hippyish vibe in general. Merlin tried hard not to stare as a man walked past with dreadlocks all the way down to his dirty bare feet. The side streets were full of things like shops selling crystals and incense, and there was something calling itself an ‘occult shop’, where a fierce-looking blonde woman with too much eye makeup glowered at everyone who passed. A sign for a fortune teller called Madame Nimueh pointed down a narrow little alley, with pictures of tarot cards painted onto the paving stones leading to the shop.
A shop called Made in Camelot selling all locally made produce, sat proudly on the high street between a Chinese medicine shop and Boots the Chemist. There were also two pound shops and various charity shops filling in the rest of the shop space.
Even in such a seemingly tranquil place as Camelot though, Merlin still found himself jumping at shadows every five minutes. Everyone was a stranger, therefore everyone was cause for alarm and suspicion.
“Come on,” Hunith said, linking her arm through his. “Let’s get something to eat in the pub. We have no food in anyway.”
The pubs back home had been the type of places where you took your life in your hands if you set foot across the threshold wearing the wrong footie colours, where the beer was watered down and no one dared complain, and the only food on sale was pork scratchings. The Rising Sun was not like that. It was all dark wood tables and an extensive menu and a friendly air with numerous types of real ale. And Merlin was suddenly not old enough to buy any of them. The food, when it came, was brilliant – hot and fresh and tasty. Merlin grinned, he couldn’t wait to tell Will…
And as usual, then it hit home. He couldn’t tell Will. He couldn’t tell Will anything. The reason for his current good fortune was because Will was dead. The food suddenly tasted like ash in his mouth.
“You left me, Merlin. Why did you leave me to die? I always stood by you, but you left me. You watched me bleeding to death, and you just left me there.”
Every night. Every night, Will was there, accusing, bloody, betrayed. Merlin’s imaginary magic boiled under his skin, trying to break out and put everything right. But even if magic were real, there was no fixing this.
Merlin got up and wrapped himself in Will’s hoodie as he sat on the window seat, watching the moonlight reflecting off the pool. He grabbed his sketchbook, never far away, and doodled till the sun came up. His own face stared back at him from the page, half covered in bark as though he were being swallowed by a mighty oak.
They’d been living in Camelot for two days, the sun was shining, and still Merlin didn’t know if he was allowed to use the pool. They’d not had sight nor sound of their neighbour; Hunith had even tried knocking on the door to introduce herself, but to no avail.
Surely it wouldn’t hurt if he just took a quick dip? If the neighbour wasn’t around, he wouldn’t even know. Hunith was at work, Merlin’s interview wasn’t scheduled till tomorrow. No one would know…
Merlin grabbed his trunks and a towel and some factor fifty, because he was pasty as hell, and headed down to the garden.
The pool was brilliant. No worrying about people laughing at his skinny frame in swimming trunks, no worrying about toddlers peeing in the pool or other people getting in his way. He swam till his arms got tired and then just lazed about in the pool for a bit. Eventually, when his fingers started to get all pruney, he got out.
Quickly drying himself off, he made his way back up the garden towards the house. He stopped suddenly in the middle of the grass. There was movement in the downstairs window. His mum should still be at work…
They’d found him!
Shit shit shit.
Someone was definitely watching him. He could see an outline through the curtain.
Except… Those windows weren’t their bit of the house were they? That was the flat the elusive neighbour lived in. Had the old man seen Merlin using his pool? Of course he had, he was watching him.
The threat of having been caught by his neighbour suddenly seemed less important after the scare of Cenred. Assuming it still wasn’t Cenred. This neighbour could be anyone. He could be one of Cenred’s cronies. He could be Cenred. But yeah, no, of course not. The police had checked all this out, right? They must know who the neighbour was. Probably some old chap, would have to be to be able to afford a place like this, even if he did have to rent most of it out. Had he been spying on Merlin? Was he some old perv?
There! The curtain definitely moved. He must know Merlin had seen him! Definitely an old perv! Merlin hurried inside. Maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to use the pool after all.
It was a warm May so far, which was rare enough all on its own. Hot, even, you could say. A nice, hot, sunny May, he had nowhere to be and there was a pool, just right there. He could see it from his bedroom window, it beckoned to him. He didn’t dare try again though, every time he got as far as taking out his swimming trunks he remembered the shadow behind the curtain. It had been nearly a week since he’d been seen by the Captain.
Maybe he should go and introduce himself. His mum had already tried a couple of times and got no answer, but maybe it was worth trying again? After all, the old boy might turn out to be nice.
Yes, he’d do that. Introduce himself. Maybe offer to do some shopping for him or something – he might not be that mobile if he needed to live in a ground floor flat with everything all on one level. Then, when he decided that Merlin was a model tenant, he wouldn’t mind letting him use the pool again.
Merlin checked his reflection in the mirror and attempted to flatten down his wayward hair before giving up with a shrug. He made his way down the side stairs to the garden and hesitated in front of the door to his neighbour’s flat. Should he do this? What if the old boy was asleep? Old people sleep a lot, everyone knew that. Or, what if he was one of those cantankerous old people that hated young people and he didn’t want to be disturbed?
He knocked tentatively. No answer. Feeling relieved, Merlin backed away from the door. Well, no one could say he hadn’t tried.
He cast a longing glance at the pool. A quick dip wouldn’t hurt, surely? He moved as quietly as possible in the direction of the pool. It was criminal, really, to have a pool and no one to use it. Merlin would be doing him a favour…
He crept over to the garage and peered through the window. No sign of a car. Did that mean the neighbour didn’t own a car, or did it mean he’d gone out? He glanced back to the house. It was quiet.
He ran back to the house to fetch his trunks. As he hurriedly changed he heard a car and the sound of a garage door opening and closing. He looked out the window with a sinking feeling. Was this the old man home? Had he missed his chance with all his faffing about?
He couldn’t tell from here, the door to the garage was around the other side and he couldn’t see through the window. As he watched the small side door opened and a man came out. There was no way on earth this could be his neighbour. He was young, probably in his early thirties, and blond and fit.
The man carried what looked like a gym bag up the side path to the downstairs flat. Maybe he was a relative who helped the old man out? Maybe Merlin should go and lurk downstairs so he could introduce himself when Blondie came back out, then he could see if he was as fit close up as he looked from a distance.
Would it look weird if he lurked around the garden for the visitor? Who knew how long he’d be?
Maybe the new guy would like to come for a swim?
Hmm, yeah. A pair of Merlin’s trunks would never fit him though. He’d have to skinny dip…
By the time Merlin had finished daydreaming, his mum was home and it was getting dark. Merlin sighed and went down to make the tea.
The trouble with a bedroom facing east was that on the few mornings he actually managed to go back to sleep after the dreams, the sun tended to come in and wake him far too early. Sighing, he kicked his legs out from under the duvet and decided to go and make a cuppa.
There were a few recipe books on a shelf in the corner of the kitchen, presumably left by an old tenant. He idly flicked through a few. Maybe he could try making pancakes, it didn’t look that hard. He set about mixing the batter.
The kitchen also overlooked the garden, so he stood and admired the view while waiting for his mum to get up. A movement caught his eye. The Blond God from yesterday was in the pool! Well, to be more precise, he was sitting on the edge of the pool. He was too far away for Merlin to see much, except for the fact that he was fit. Maybe now would be a good time to go and introduce himself?
‘Hi, I’m Merlin. Get your coat, you’ve pulled.’
Bloody hell, down boy! It was half past six in the bloody morning!
“You’re up early.”
Merlin nearly jumped out of his skin. His mother always had been light on her feet, and trust her to put in an appearance just as he was indeed ‘up early’ and having all the bad thoughts in the world about the man by the pool.
“Morning, Mum.” He made a big show of pulling a small pancake pan out of the cupboard. “Sun woke me. Fancy some pancakes?”
Hunith looked out the window to see what had had him so preoccupied. “Who knew our new neighbour would be so pretty?”
Merlin looked back round. The man had now pulled on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and some trainers and was heading back towards the house with his towel slung around his shoulders. Getting his first proper look at that face, Merlin definitely approved. Strong jaw, well-defined nose, high forehead. Pretty did not even begin to describe it. Handsome, maybe? Drop-dead gorgeous?
“Hey.” Hunith poked him in the ribs. “Stop ogling the poor man.”
Merlin felt himself blush. “I will if you will.” He went over to the stove and turned on the gas.
“So, first day at work today?” Hunith asked, sitting down and pinching Merlin’s tea. He rolled his eyes and put the kettle on to make a fresh cup.
“Yeah, should be good to get out of the house.”
“What time do you start?”
“Half nine. I think they let me miss most of the breakfast rush because it’s my first day.” He glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even seven, and the café was only a ten minute walk. He had bags of time, and could easily have been there for the early shift.
“Good luck, not that you’ll need it, you’ll be fine.” Hunith smiled fondly at him as he put a hot cup of tea in front of her.
“Thanks, mum.” He leant down and gave her a peck on the cheek. “So, pancakes?”
He couldn’t get the image of the blond out of his head as he set about attempting to make pancakes. He couldn’t be the neighbour, too young. Son, maybe? How could he introduce himself? Perhaps he should get up early for a swim tomorrow…
He made it to the café with plenty of time to spare. To be honest, with the way he’d been sleeping lately, early mornings would not be a problem.
It was a nice, sunny light little café on the main street next to the library. A wide doorway made easy access for pushchairs and prams next to a large window with two tables at the front which were slightly raised, and then more tables at an ordinary level leading up to a large glass counter. The counter itself was a sort of chiller, divided into savoury and sweet, with the savoury side containing a few quiches etc and various sandwich fillings and the sweet side having a wonderful looking array of cakes and pastries. More cakes and jars of homemade biscuits were on the top of the counter and the till was just set off to the side. Behind the counter were shelves filled with baskets of bread and rolls, and just behind that wall was an open kitchen area.
The dark-haired fey-looking girl behind the till was the same girl who had interviewed him. She waved and motioned him towards one of the stools beside the cake display on the counter while she served the long queue of customers.
When the queue had finally dwindled, she came over and smiled, pushing a stray lock of dark hair behind her ear. “Hi, Al, don’t know if you remember me, I’m Freya,” she said, extending a hand over the top of the cabinet.
“Of course I remember you,” he said, grinning back as he shook her hand.
“Sorry for not greeting you when you came in, Gwen was supposed to be here by now, but as you can see…” she gestured to the room, which he assumed was Gwenless. “Nevermind, I’m sure she’ll be here soon! We don’t normally have more than two on at once, except at lunch times when the shifts overlap, but as it’s your first day we thought we’d both be here to welcome you and break you in more gently. Or lull you into a false sense of security – the baptism of fire begins tomorrow!”
Merlin gave a nervous laugh, unsure if she was joking or not.
“Don’t look so worried,” she said as she threw an apron at him. “Come on, I’ll show you the ropes.”
Merlin quickly donned the apron and went around to the other side of the counter.
He’d only managed to burn himself on the milk steamer once before a pretty girl with loose flying curls came hurrying towards them with a guilty expression. “Sorry, sorry, Sir Fluffbutt escaped and I had to find him before Catrina eviscerated him!”
Freya burst out laughing. “I can only assume how weird that must have sounded to the noob.”
Merlin shrugged. “I expect no less from southerners.”
“Hi, I’m Gwen.” She smiled at Merlin and held out her hand for him to shake.
“Al.” The name still felt foreign on his tongue.
“Sir Fluffbutt is my pet hamster, who escaped from his hamster castle, and Catrina is my cat, who’s been looking for a chance to eat him for ages.” She tied her hair up out of the way while she was talking.
“Sir Fluffbutt?” Merlin said, bemused.
“Yeah, my brother, Elyan, picked the stupid name.” Gwen had a really lovely smile that almost made him wish he were straight. Then again, remembering the Blond God in the pool that morning, maybe not.
“How old is your brother?” Merlin expected her to say ‘ten’ or something.
“Twenty-five.” She gave an inelegant snort. “And he’s a big rough tough soldier. He gave me Sir Fluffbutt for my eighteenth to remind me ‘not to grow up and go messing around with boys’.”
“Tooooo laaaate,” Freya sing-songed, as she expertly wiped down the milk nozzle on the coffee machine and started to change the filter.
Gwen stuck her tongue out at her. “Anyway, I named the cat, she got a much better name.”
“Yeah, Catrina.” Freya sniggered.
“Hey, don’t mock her! Anyway, I can call her Cat for short, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“Or Red Dwarf.” Merlin was trying to pay attention to what Freya was doing with the coffee machine, but he’d have been lying if he said he had a clue.
“Hmm.” Gwen wrinkled her nose. “I think I prefer Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with Red Dwarf, I mean, if you like that sort of thing, and, you know, that’s fine if you do, it’s just…”
“It’s ok, Gwen.” Merlin laughed. “You’re allowed not to like Red Dwarf, I won’t hold it against you.
“I will. Not liking Red Dwarf gets you on table clearing duty.” Freya made a shooing motion towards the tables that were stacked up with dirty dishes.
“Oops, yes, sorry!” Gwen quickly hung her bag off a hook round the corner and put an apron on. She went about clearing and cleaning the tables with an efficiency that Merlin wouldn’t have expected from listening to her talk.
Freya let him have a rest from trying to use the espresso machine and instead showed him how to make scones. “A lot of the baking is done in-house, like I said in your interview,” she explained as she got the ingredients out. “We share it out between us.”
“So, you’re new to Camelot?” Gwen came over and started stacking the dishwasher. “Where are you staying?”
“Um, over on Citadel Hill? We are renting a house there, or most of a house.”
“Oh, you’re Arthur’s new tenants?” she sounded keen, but he got the impression Gwen always sounded keen.
“Arthur? You mean Captain Pendragon?” He paused from mixing the dough the way Freya showed him.
“Yes, I suppose, if you want to be formal.” She scrunched up her nose. “Did he tell you to call him that?”
“Don’t stop – work and chat, not or.” Freya nudged his arm. “Don’t over mix it. That’ll do. Now, tip it out over here.”
“I haven’t actually met him yet, that was just the name on the lease.” Merlin said as he tipped his sticky dough out onto the floured worktop.
“Oh! Arthur is really lovely!” Gwen looked as if Merlin liking Arthur was the most important thing in the world. “I mean, he can be a bit of an old grump sometimes, but, you know, he really is lovely! I worked with him a few years ago just before I went to Uni. And my brother served with him in Afghanistan.”
“That’s good to know.” He copied Freya as she folded the dough over and pressed it flat. Somehow it didn’t go so well when he did it. “What did you study at Uni?”
“I’m doing Fashion and Textiles at Loughborough,” Gwen replied. “I’ve just finished my second year so I’m back living with Dad and earning a some extra money.”
“I’m at Camelot College of Art,” Freya said. “Don’t over handle it, it’s scones, not bread.”
“I’ve got a place there in September!” Merlin said, his face breaking into a grin.
“Oh, cool, what kind of art do you do?” Freya asked, looking genuinely interested.
“Drawing, mostly. How about you?”
“I draw too. And a bit of ceramics. I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.” Freya burst out laughing. “That was not meant to sound the way it did, I’m getting as bad as Gwen!”
Gwen shrugged. “What can I say, foot in mouth syndrome is very contagious.”
Freya glanced at her watch. “I just need to nip up to the flat. Carry on cutting out the scones and put them on the tray. If I’m not back in time, the oven is hot, give them fifteen, yeah? Back in a mo.” She hurried out the front door and turned to another door immediately to the right.
“Freya lives upstairs?” Merlin asked Gwen.
She nodded. “Yeah. Her brother usually lives with her, but he’s away at the moment.”
“How about you?”
“Oh, I don’t live with Freya, we’re not a couple. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I mean—”
Merlin took pity on her and cut her off before she managed to fit both feet in her mouth. “I meant where do you live?”
“Oh! Not too far, actually. But then, nowhere is too far around here! We live just beside the smithy, near the post office.” Gwen was talking too quickly to hide her embarrassment.
“I can’t believe this place has a blacksmith, it must be like the only place in the world to still have one!” Merlin said.
“Erm… my dad is the blacksmith.”
“Oops, sorry.” Merlin grinned guiltily. So apparently Gwen wasn’t the only one good at fitting her foot in her mouth.
Gwen laughed. “It’s ok, he gets that reaction a lot. He’s sort of like an artisan blacksmith, he makes fancy gates and lanterns and that sort of thing, he also does some pretty amazing upcycling projects. He refurbished the old gate on Arthur’s house and made the outside lights to match.”
“Oh! The dragons? They’re so cool!” The dragon on the small gate leading to the path had been one of the first things Merlin had noticed about Captain Pendragon’s house; sometimes he could swear the dragon was watching him. There were also a few outdoor lights held in the claws of dragons which Merlin absolutely adored.
“Yes! The dragon itself is pretty ancient; he salvaged it from something else and incorporate it into the new gate. And the lights are custom made.” Gwen’s proud smile was a million watt. “What does your dad do?”
“Er…” He hated this. He was supposed to say his dad died and then get all the pitying looks and comments. “He’s not around anymore. It’s just me and mum, she works at the medical centre.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” There it was, the sympathy he didn’t deserve
“It’s fine, I don’t really want to talk about it, if that’s ok.” He felt like the world’s worst person, Gwen was so nice, and here he was, lying to her.
“So your Mum works with Dr Gaius?” Gwen asked.
“Um… a Dr Fraser, I think?” Merlin finished putting the scones on the baking trays and carried them over to the oven.
“Yeah, everyone calls him Dr Gaius. He’s a little… eccentric, but very sweet really.”
“I’ve not met him, but Mum seems to like him.” He slid the trays in and glanced at Gwen for confirmation that he wasn’t doing anything stupid before closing the door and setting the timer.
“I— Oh, customer!” Gwen broke off mid-sentence and went over to the counter.
“You’re up,” Freya said to Merlin as she came back into the café. “Go and show that coffee machine what you’re made of.”
“So, is Al short for Alexander or Alistair?” Gwen asked once the customer had sat down with his cup of tea.
“Alan,” Merlin said, pouting. “Mum hates me.”
Freya nodded seriously. “Yes, I think you might be right.”
Merlin snorted loudly, making the customers look at him in askance.
Freya grinned at him. “So, let’s give that coffee machine another go, shall we? I’d like a skinny soy latte.”
It might not have been the best cup of coffee in the world, and it might have taken him three attempts and a lot of help, but Merlin was proud of the skinny soy latte he eventually presented Freya with, even if the scones were out of the oven long before the coffee was ready.
“So, where did you live before you came here?” Gwen asked in the lull before the lunch rush.
“Why did you move?”
“My dad died.”
“What did he do?”
“He worked for Kilgharrah & Co.”
For someone who seemed so sweet and lovely, Gwen would have been an asset to the police if the interrogation she put Merlin through was anything to go by. It was almost like being back at the safehouse going through backstories and getting them straight.
“So, boys or girls?” Gwen asked, waggling her eyebrows in a bizarre fashion that only she knew what it was meant to convey.
“Both is an option too, you know,” Freya called from the back where she was making brownies. “Or neither.”
Merlin shrugged. He hated this bit, Gwen and Freya didn't strike him as homophobes, but coming out to new people was always nerve racking. “Boys.”
“Oh.” Gwen looked a little disappointed. “Oh well, nevermind, I’ll just have to find someone to set you up with! Oooh, what about Arthur?”
Merlin wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t desperate enough to go grave robbing for dates – Arthur was retired, that meant he was an old man – especially with a name like Arthur!
“Not your type?” She seemed surprised, like she couldn’t understand Arthur not being anyone’s type. “Don’t let his personality put you off, he’s really not too bad once you get to know him.”
“I haven’t actually met him yet, but I can’t say your description is all that inspiring.”
“Oh! Oh no, ignore the personality thing then! I shouldn’t have said that. He really can be quite nice sometimes. When he wants to be.” Gwen was getting so flustered her hands started flapping about in front of her, like she could wave away what she said.
“He just doesn’t usually want to be?” Merlin asked, grinning.
“Well, he has, you know, issues. Who doesn’t? Let’s change the subject, shall we? So how old are you?”
“Oh, I’m er… seventeen.” He was sure she’d be able to tell he was lying.
“Hmm,” she studied him a moment. “You seem older, but I guess some people just do.”
Merlin was saved by the door opening and a customer coming in.
“Oh my god, Hotty McHotface is back!” Gwen gave Merlin a little shove. “You serve him!”
The man standing in front of him was definitely worthy of the name. He had olive skin and dark eyes and looked like he should have been on the front of GQ rather than standing in front of Merlin ordering two cappuccinos and two blueberry muffins to go. Cappuccinos, damn him.
Merlin smiled at Hotty McHotface and turned to the evil coffee machine with dread. “Ok you, time to behave,” he muttered under his breath, willing the machine to work. Clearly he had no magic whatsoever, and the thing spat boiling liquid at him.
“Hi, Gwen,” Hotty said as Gwen sidled up to help Merlin. Hotty gave her a smile that should have melted the pants straight off her.
“Hi, Lance! Didn’t see you there!” Gwen lied. “Have you met Al? He’s new, I’m just showing him the ropes.”
“Hello, Al.” The smile Lance gave Merlin, whilst perfectly polite and friendly, was nothing like the electric-charged one he’d given Gwen. “What happened to Elena?”
“Oh, didn’t she tell you? She’s gone to Ireland to train horses.” Gwen looked a little put out that he was asking after another girl.
“Hi!” Merlin attempted to wave as the coffee machine of doom continued to spit hot milk at him. “Um, sorry, this is a work in progress.” Honestly, it was like the stupid machine knew he didn’t like coffee!
“It’s fine, I can wait. By the way, Elyan sends his love, Gwen.”
“Is he alright? I mean, I Skyped him on Friday, but I always worry, you know?” Gwen took pity on Merlin and took over making the cappuccinos whilst he went to sort out the muffins.
“He was fine when I spoke to him this morning,” Lance replied, handing Merlin money as he put the bag of muffins down. “He asked me to remind you about sending flapjacks?”
“Yes, of course, Freya’s going to send out a big batch of goodies.” Gwen put two cardboard cups in a little tray for him.
“Right, well, I’d better get going.” He didn’t seem too inclined to move, as he stood there making cow eyes at Gwen.
“Bye then.” She smiled back at him looking every bit as love sick as he did.
“Bye then,” he repeated, smiling at her again before exiting the shop.
“Oh my goodness, do I look a wreck? I must look a wreck,” Gwen said, trying to see herself in the chrome of the coffee machine.
“You look gorgeous,” Merlin replied. “And if he isn’t your boyfriend, why isn’t he?”
“Was that Hotty McHotface?” Freya asked from the kitchen. Merlin nodded.
“He’s one of Arthur’s boys, I don’t stand a chance with him,” Gwen said miserably. “And you saw him, he bought two of everything, he must be spoken for.
“Arthur’s boys?” Merlin asked.
“Yeah, Arthur collects good looking men and they have wild naked orgies and stuff,” Freya said, completely straight faced.
“They do not!” Gwen said. “One of those boys is my brother! Eww.” She couldn’t quite keep such a straight face as Freya and started giggling.
Freya gave in and laughed too. “At this rate, we’re going to scare away the new boy.”
He was gardening.
Not Merlin. Obviously. He was on his way to hang out washing, because his life was just that glam.
The blond. Maybe he was Captain Pendragon’s gardener? Bending over the roses in a quite delightful way. Showing off a nice firm-but-round butt.
Merlin was feeling somewhat mesmerised. Could that arse actually be real? He had a sudden, overwhelming desire to squeeze. If Merlin concentrated really hard, maybe he could make those jeans split…
Merlin hesitated, hand on the door handle. He looked down at the basket of washing in his hands. He could only get to the washing line by walking past Blondie. He glanced down at his ratty t-shirt and shorts and flip-flops.
He put down the basket and dashed back up the stairs to his room. Blue, something blue. Will always said that blue was definitely his colour. He extracted a deep-blue shirt from the back of the wardrobe. The D.I. from Manchester had bought a few shirts for him when they were in the safe house, but he hadn’t had the chance to wear them yet. Most of the rest of his tops were black with band or TV logos, like the well-worn Bastille one he was just pulling over his head, and he didn't think Blondie would be too impressed.
He quickly donned the blue shirt and his nicer jeans. Running into the bathroom, he stuck his head under the tap and then dragged a comb through his hair in an attempt to tame it. He was surprised to see a not bad reflection staring back at him in the bathroom mirror. He undid a couple of buttons at the neck and grinned to himself. Time to meet cute.
He went back down and picked up his basket of washing from the foot of the stairs. His heart sank as he opened the door, Blondie was no longer there. So much for getting dressed up, now he felt like a twat. Sighing, he crossed over to the line and began pegging out the washing.
"Good morning," a plummy voice said behind him.
Merlin spun round, dropping his mum's work blouse on the grass in the process. "Er, hi!" he said in a manly squeak. "Um, I'm Me— Alan." He quickly bent down to pick the blouse up, cursing his own stupidity.
"No need to bow, MeAlan," the posh twat said, raking his eyes down Merlin’s new outfit. "I'm Arthur." He held out his hand. "Arthur Pendragon."
“You’re Arthur?” Merlin looked down at the man’s hand like it was going to bite him before suddenly realising what he was meant to do and reaching out to shake it. "You can call me Al."
"You can't call me Betty." Arthur laughed at his own joke, his blue eyes twinkling in a manner that made Merlin want to drag him into the house and rip all his clothes off.
His voice may have cracked a little, he hoped Arthur didn’t notice.
"Never mind, I guess you're too young. Hell, I'm too young, but my mum was a big Paul Simon fan." Arthur maybe held onto Merlin’s hand a fraction longer than necessary, his grip sure and warm. Merlin wasn’t complaining.
"Are you related to Captain Pendragon?" Merlin realised he was being stupid before the words were even out, Gwen had already said he was called Arthur.
Arthur looked puzzled. "I am Captain Pendragon."
"Captain Pendragon who owns the house?" Because apparently Merlin was on a mission to make the hottest bloke he’d ever met think he was stupid – and seriously, Hotty McHotface was plain and boring compared with Arthur.
"Yes," Arthur said, like he wanted to add ‘duh’ but was either too posh or too polite to do so.
Merlin shook his head in denial. "But you're too young to live here!"
"I am?" There, mission accomplished, Arthur thought he was the stupidest person to ever exist. So much for operation Seduce Hot Blond Guy.
"Well, I mean." He gestured hopelessly towards the house. "It's a rich old person house."
"Is that so?" Arthur turned to look at his house with a raised eyebrow. "It was my mother's house."
"I'm sorry," Merlin blurted out, mentally kicking himself.
Arthur frowned at him. “For what?”
"Um…” Merlin floundered. “It's a lovely house?" he offered.
"Thank you.” Arthur didn’t really sound like Merlin’s approval was a thing he needed. “How did you like the pool?"
Merlin blushed. "I'm sorry. I did knock but there was no answer. I won't do it again," he said in a rush.
“You're welcome to use it,” Arthur said, somewhat stiffly. “Just not first thing in the morning; that's when I swim. I don't like to be disturbed."
"Um, ok. Thanks."
Arthur nodded and abruptly turned back to his gardening. Merlin resigned himself to being single forever and resumed hanging out his washing.
Coffee machine from hell notwithstanding, Merlin was really starting to enjoy working in the café.
When he worked with Gwen, they idled away the time, gossiping about the locals and fit men and celebrities. They weren’t too fussy, to be honest.
When Freya was on shift they mostly talked about art. No one back in Manchester had been interested in art. Well, no one on the Ealdor Estate, anyway; there were probably loads of people in the rest of the city who liked art, Merlin just never got to meet them. Freya loved David Wyatt, Tony DiTerlizzi and Alphonse Maria Mucha. Merlin told her of his love of Norman Rockwell and she suggested that he should try JC Leyendecker too.
He was currently sitting at one of the café tables during a quiet part of his shift working on a portrait of Arthur. He was particularly pleased with this one, having caught the light reflecting in his eyes, but he was struggling to get the nose quite right.
“He has a bump, just here.” Freya looked over his shoulder and demonstrated on her own nose. “You’re trying to draw him too perfect.”
“Thanks.” He looked up and grinned at her.
“Mind if I sit? My feet are killing me.”
“Sure.” Merlin moved some of his stuff out of the way so she could put her lunch down.
“Can I take a look?” she asked, gesturing at his sketchbook.
Freya had shown him some of her art, which tended towards the fantasy genre with dragons and monsters and faeries, all in glorious colours and magic. Merlin absolutely adored them, and felt more than a little intimidated by her talent.
His sketchbook was mostly full of portraits, and he felt a little nervous that she might not think it good enough. He let her look anyway, fair was fair.
“These are really good,” she said through a mouthful of sandwich. “I love this one!” She was looking at a Dr Who picture he’d done a few years ago.
“Well, who doesn’t love David Tennant?”
“True, he was easily the best Doctor, except maybe Tom Baker.”
“He’s a bit before your time, isn’t he?”
She shrugged. “What sort of a fan would I be if I hadn’t seen the old series as well as the new?”
“True. Me and Will watched them all on some dodgy DVDs he got off some bloke down the pub.” Merlin pointed to a picture of Will on the next page. Policeman George would kill him if he knew he’d drawn that.
She laughed. “Was he even old enough to be down the pub? Or is he older than you?”
“Trust me, that never stopped Will.” Merlin laughed too and shook his head, remembering all the times Will had tried to blag his way out of a scrape.
“He sounds fun, you should get him to come and visit sometime.”
Merlin looked down at the picture of Will. “He died.”
“Oh shit, I’m so sorry, Al.” Freya looked so genuinely concerned that Merlin started to feel guilty.
“It’s not your fault.” He absently started chewing on a nail as an awkward pause cut into a previously happy conversation.
“You really shouldn’t do that, you know,” Freya said, nodding at his bitten-down nails. “Might put people off, you serving food with your nails all chewed down to the quick. Or it might make them think my cooking is so bad that the staff would rather eat their own hands.”
Merlin laughed despite himself and pulled his hand away. “Sorry, it was a habit I thought I’d kicked years ago.” He looked down at his poor bitten fingers. He fished around for a change of subject. “How about Harry Potter? You strike me as a Hogwarts fan?”
“I love Harry Potter!” Freya sat up. “My friend El and I used to do cosplay. I’ll show you pictures. Oh, and I should show you my DeviantArt sometime!”
“You do fan art? That’s so cool, I’d love to see it!”
“I’m ravenclawdraw on tumblr.” He’d never seen Freya this animated.
“I always get sorted as Ravenclaw!” he said.
“Me too! Gwen got Hufflepuff. I think she wanted Gryffindor but really, she’s such a Hufflepuff, she’s just too nice not to be!”
“Yeah, I can definitely see that! Arthur would be Gryffindor,” he added, picturing his rude but handsome neighbour.
“Oh god, he really would, wouldn’t he? And that guy Gwen fancies, Hotty McHotface.”
“I quite fancied being Slytherin, like Will, but I never seem to be able to answer the questions right. Will reckons even a computer can tell when I’m lying.” He didn’t seem to be able to talk about Will in the past tense.
Freya laughed. “Yeah, I can see that. You’d be like a James Bond villain and tell everyone your dastardly deeds before you did them. Only then you’d probably let them go and apologise profusely.”
Freya, it turned out, was every bit as much of a nerd as Merlin himself and they spent most of the afternoon talking about TV and films between serving customers.
“But the new Star Wars was exactly the same plot as the first one, just with slightly different characters!” Freya was saying animatedly. “I knew exactly what was going to happen next just by working out who was who.”
“Yeah, but it was still way better than the prequels, you must admit.”
“True, but that wouldn’t be hard.”
“Bet you still go to the next one!”
“Bet I do too. Hey, let’s go and see the new Avengers on Saturday!”
Merlin paused. He and Will had been planning on going to see that film from the moment Will had read about it in a stolen copy of Empire. Could he really go without him? A voice in his head, very like Will’s, told him to stop being a twat.
“I’d love too.” He grinned at her. That was more like the real Will rather than the one in his dreams that accused him of all sorts of awful things.
Between them they got the tables all cleared and everything put away ready to go home.
Freya glanced irritably at the last two customers and then at the clock. “You know what pisses me off?” she said loudly. “People who just come in here to use the free WiFi. It’s gone five thirty, we opened at eight, do they not think we might like to close up?”
“Have you asked them to leave?” Merlin offered.
Freya sent him a withering glare. “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
One of the men looked up guiltily and closed his laptop. The other, a regular by the name of Cedric, simply dismissed Freya with a wave of his hand. “I haven’t finished my coffee.”
“See?” she said to Merlin. “I did actually tell them both we were closing up ten minutes ago. And they’ve been here all afternoon and barely ordered anything.”
Merlin went to wipe down the table where the first bloke had been sitting.
“You can get off if you want, Al,” Freya said.
“Are you kidding me? I’m not leaving you here, he could be a nutter.” Merlin eyed the man warily. Just because he was a regular, didn’t mean he wasn’t waiting for Merlin to leave to attack Freya. Hell, he could even be one of Cenred’s men.
Freya narrowed her eyes at Cedric. “I have an idea.” She disappeared out the back, returning a few moments later with a triumphant smirk.
Sure enough, Cedric looked up. “Is there something wrong with your internet connection?”
Freya looked innocent. “I don’t know, I haven’t tried it since seven this morning when I started work. Perhaps I’ll try it again when my shift is finally over.” She smiled sweetly at him. This wasn’t true, of course. Merlin happened to know that Freya had checked the film times on her phone less than half an hour ago.
Cedric stood and started gathering his belongings. “I know what you did, I shall be reporting you to your boss.” He shook his finger at Freya.
“Please do, he likes a good laugh.”
“You can’t talk to me like that, I’m a paying customer!” He took a menacing step towards Freya.
Merlin moved in front of him. “The café’s closed.”
“Fine.” Cedric sneered at them both before leaving, slamming the door shut with a crash.
“I can take care of myself, Al,” Freya said as she went over to lock the door.
“Bullies like that are far less likely to make a scene with another bloke around. He’s just too stupid to know that you are way scarier than me.”
“Thank you,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “Closing time. Can you put the rubbish out for me?”
“Yeah, sure.” Merlin moved over to the bin. “Oh, hey,” he turned back to Freya. “I thought this was your place?”
“Mine? Oh, no, I’m just the manager! The Boss Man does all the books and stuff, but he pretty much lets me do what I want so long as we turn a profit, which we do.”
Merlin grabbed the rubbish to throw in the big bin out the back. He nearly jumped in fright to see three men and a girl lurking by the bin. From the state of their clothes, he’d say they were homeless. They looked up hopefully when Merlin came out, but they didn’t say a word. He quickly threw the bag in the bin and went back in to ask Freya if there were any leftovers or something they could give away to stop them having to rummage through the bin.
“How many?” Freya asked before Merlin had the chance to say anything. She was frying sausages, despite the café being closed.
“How many?” he repeated.
“Oh. Oh! Four.”
She nodded and took out eight hotdog buns. “Ask them if they want sauce and onions on their hotdogs.”
Merlin did as instructed and came back with requests for two hotdogs with onions and red sauce, one with onions and brown sauce and the other with mustard and red sauce but no onions. Freya just nodded again and loaded up the buns, wrapping each in a paper napkin.
“Grab those,” she said, nodding to four take away tea cups on the side as she took the hotdogs and a bag of fruit.
Merlin followed her out.
“Here you go, who was no onions?” Freya dolled out the food and tea before making sure they had somewhere to stay tonight. She slipped the girl a Boots bag when she thought the others weren’t looking and handed a letter over to one of the men. “You’re sure you’re all ok for somewhere to stay? The hostel down on Esetir Street has beds free tonight. Ok, see you tomorrow.”
“Won’t you get into trouble for that?” Merlin asked when they were back inside. “I mean, those sausages were fresh this morning.”
“So what, because they’re homeless they don’t deserve decent food?”
“I didn’t mean that! I just don’t want the owner of this place to find out.”
“It’s ok, Al, he knows.”
She nodded. “Yeah, he encourages it. We usually give out leftovers, but we’re all out today and I didn’t get much baking done this afternoon.” She quickly washed up the frying pan and utensils she’d used. “He’s a decent bloke; he’s a patron of the hostel and the outreach programme. I was homeless for a while, after my mum died. My brother and I went to live with my uncle, but we couldn’t stay there.” Freya’s face clouded. “My brother got taken into care. I came back here. I had nowhere to live, but the Boss Man gave me the job here and let us live in the flat upstairs. That way, I could get custody of my brother.”
“Sorry,” Merlin said for want of anything better to say.
She gave him a wry grin. “Not your fault, silly. And we’re fine now.”
Merlin gave her a hug anyway. Freya was only a year or two older than him – his real age that is. It was amazing that she’d been through so much and remained so together. She seemed more sorted than anyone he’d ever met.
Merlin was busy attempting to appreciate nature.
Gwen had suggested walking home via the small disused canal that ran past the lower end of the town. The Camelot Canal was certainly prettier than the ones in Manchester, you almost wouldn’t know there was a busy bypass just a couple of minutes walk away. The sun was shining, the grass was green – so was the water, actually. And it did smell…
There was a hiss behind him. Merlin looked over his shoulder to see a large white devil coming straight for him. He stepped back anxiously and his left foot connected with… nothing. Arms windmilling like fury, Merlin suddenly found himself becoming much better acquainted with the canal than he ever wanted to be.
Squelch, tap, squelch, tap, squelch, tap, squelch.
There are people in this world who like canals.
Merlin was most definitely not one of them.
Up until about half an hour ago, he’d been quite indifferent to canals.
“Why don’t you walk down by the canal?” he muttered under his breath in an, admittedly bad, impression of Gwen as he trudged up the hill. “It’s pretty down there, much nicer than walking home by the road, and less fumes. There are even swans!”
The lack of fumes had been questionable. Something he’d never realised until he got this close was how badly canals stank. And he should know, he’d been as close as anyone could ever wish to be. And whose fault was that? Gwen’s. Gwen and those damn swans. He detoured so he could sneak in round the back of the house in case Hunith was home.
Merlin groaned. So much for sneaking in. Instead, he had to go and get caught by a practical catwalk model whilst looking like the creature from the black lagoon. Or the nastily green lagoon.
“Arthur! Hi!” He turned on his best smile.
“What the bloody hell happened? Did someone attack you?” Aww, bless, Arthur actually seemed concerned. Of course, ordinarily that would have been a Good Thing.
“Not exactly?” Merlin just wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Except he both looked and smelt like he’d already done that.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Arthur used a hoe to lever himself somewhat awkwardly to his feet from where he’d been tending the rose beds.
“Itwasaswan,” Merlin mumbled.
“Speak up, Al, I didn’t catch that.” The smirk on Arthur’s face said otherwise.
“I said, it was a swan!” he practically shouted.
“What?” Arthur was openly laughing at him now.
“Hey, swan’s are vicious, everyone knows that!”
“Yeah, yeah, they can break a man’s arm. What did this one do, push you in the canal or something?”
Merlin didn’t reply.
“Oh my god, it did! You actually got pushed in the canal by a swan!” Arthur threw his head back and let out a braying laugh.
“Oh shut up, you prat!”
“What?” Arthur seemed stunned that Merlin had actually spoken to him like that. “You’re the one who got pushed into the canal by a swan, and I’m the prat?”
“Yes, you are, you’re a humongous prat!”
“Whoa, no need to get your knickers in a twist. What happened to your shoe?”
Merlin looked down pitifully at his left foot which was just clad in a very dirty wet sock. “The canal ate it.”
“Oh dear.” Arthur was clearly trying, and failing, not to laugh.
“Oh shut up, prat. I’m going to get washed.” He glanced ruefully down at his feet. “I don’t suppose you know a one-legged man who might want one shoe, do you?” He turned away towards the house.
“Al, wait!” the massive prat said.
Merlin let out a long suffering sigh and turned back around. “Wha— uhhh!” he gasped.
For the second time that day he suddenly found himself covered in freezing cold water. Arthur, the prat-faced wanker was standing there with a smug look on his face and the garden hose in his hand.
“No offence, Al, but I can’t have you going in my house looking like that, imagine the mess.”
“Does your mother know you talk like that?”
“Where do you think I learnt it?”
The door to Arthur’s flat opened suddenly, revealing another stunningly attractive man, with designer stubble and shoulder length glossy hair, his nudity only covered by a cushion held in front of his groin. “What’s with all the noise?” he asked in a soft Dublin accent, scratching at his belly and yawning. No doubt this was one of ‘Arthur’s boys’ that Gwen and Freya had been talking about. Merlin tried to squash down the little jealous feeling that started to well up inside him.
“This idiot fell in the canal,” Arthur said, making Merlin pull his eyes away from the newcomer’s bare chest.
“Right, well,” the man pushed his hair behind his ear. “Some of us are trying to sleep in here, so if you don’t mind.” He turned, giving them a splendid view of his toned backside as he went back into the flat.
Arthur turned the hose on Merlin again.
“Get off me!” Merlin tried to dodge out of the way. He turned and ran for the house. Arthur took that as an opportunity to hose down his back as well.
Merlin collapsed in a soggy heap at the bottom of the stairs on the other side of the door and planned the best way to get revenge on a swan. And Gwen. And Arthur. Especially Arthur.
Will, in his dreams, told him he should have drowned in that canal. Told him he wouldn’t have been missed anyway. Merlin thought he was probably right.
Two days later, a parcel showed up for Merlin with a pair of shoes in it exactly his size and much more expensive than anything else he owned.
“What the…” He turned the box upside down, looking for some clue as to who had sent it. A delivery note fluttered out. A. Pendragon.
Merlin shoved the shoes back in the box and stomped down the stairs to bang on Arthur’s door.
Arthur opened the door part way and poked his head round. “Morning, Al.”
“What the hell is this?” Merlin demanded, waving the shoe box at Arthur.
Arthur raised an eyebrow at the box and then back up at Merlin. “It looks like a shoebox to me.”
“You can’t just buy me, you know.”
“I didn’t buy you, I bought a new pair of shoes. And in Camelot we pronounce it ‘thank you’, by the way. Consider it an apology for the hose.”
“Why should you buy me a pair of shoes just because of a practical joke?”
“Fine, give them to me and I’ll send them back.” Arthur held out his hand for the shoes.
Merlin looked down at the box in his hand. They were nice shoes…
“I supposed you do owe me for drenching me like that.”
Arthur’s eyes seemed to run over Merlin’s body like he was undressing him. “To be fair, you were already wet, and muddy. I did you a favour.” He snapped his eyes away and effected a look of boredom. “Look, if you don’t want the shoes, don’t keep them. Give them to charity or something.”
“So you’re saying I’m a charity case?”
“No.” Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I was just trying to be nice, alright? Don’t worry, I won’t do it again.” He moved to close the door.
“Arthur, who is it?” A voice called from inside the flat.
“It’s just Al, the kid from upstairs,” Arthur called back.
‘Kid from upstairs’ indeed. Then Merlin took in the way Arthur was standing, blocking the door like he didn’t want Merlin to see in, and came to the horrible realisation that he’d probably interrupted something.
“Um, I should probably go.” He could feel his cheeks flaming.
“Hi again, Al from upstairs.” The man from a few days ago appeared behind Arthur, clad in jeans this time, but not much else. He rested his chin on Arthur’s shoulder. “Well, I guess Arthur was right, you are a lot prettier when you’re not covered in canal.”
“Shut up, Gwaine.” Arthur shook him off.
“Sorry to have interrupted.” Merlin started backing away, but his retreat was impeded by a plant pot, which he proceeded to fall over.
“Are you ok?” Gwaine, asked as he pushed past Arthur to help Merlin up.
“I’m fine,” Merlin said scrambling up and trying to surreptitiously rub his backside. “I’m fine, just dented my pride a bit.” He picked up the new shoes from where they’d landed in the roses.
“Can it take much more denting?” Arthur, he couldn’t help but notice, had not come to his rescue, and had stayed standing behind the door. “You’d better not have damaged my roses.”
“Ah now, don’t mind Mr Grumpy,” Gwaine said, patting Merlin on the shoulder. “He’s just overprotective of his mother’s garden.”
Merlin suddenly realised that he was stood in very close proximity to a mostly naked and very gorgeous man. A very gorgeous man who had probably been having sex with Arthur before Merlin knocked on the door. If his face got any redder he’d get mistaken for a pillar box.
“I, er, I’ll let you get back to it. Um… thanks for the shoes.”
He turned and bolted back up the stairs. He could swear he heard the two men laughing behind him.
Of course, one of the problems with working in the best coffee shop in Camelot, was that soon or later, everyone ended up there.
Arthur in particular was quite a frequent visitor. Today he had company. Today he had brought Gwaine.
Merlin really wanted to hate the Irishman but found he couldn’t. He wanted to hate the way his hair was just too damn perfect, or the way he thought he could smooth talk anyone and everyone – and the fact that he was right. But Gwaine was actually really hard to hate.
“Gwen!” Seriously though, did he have to shout? The café really wasn’t that big! “How is my favourite girl?”
Gwen laughed. “I’ve told you before, it’s Freya that makes the apple pie, not me. She’s your favourite girl.”
“Can you not both be my favourites?” Gwaine went behind the counter, something that Gwen would have given anyone else short shrift for, and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“We can’t both be, favourite is a superlative.”
“Well then, where is the fragrant Freya?”
“Morning off, she’ll be in later.” Gwen pushed him away, still laughing.
“Ah, then as you don’t want to be my favourite girl and my other favourite girl isn’t here, I guess I’ll just have to kiss Al instead.” Gwaine turned and caught Merlin’s arm, pulling him into his chest. Merlin, caught completely unawares, allowed himself to be dipped back in a Disney princess-style move and thoroughly snogged. Gwaine’s breath tasted of toothpaste, his beard prickled at Merlin’s lips in a way that sent tingles through him, and he had an undeniably nice, firm body as he held on to Merlin, but he just wasn’t the man Merlin wanted to be kissing.
“Would you mind not sexually harassing the staff?” Arthur sounded disgruntled behind Gwaine.
“Ah, I don’t see him complaining, right Al?” Gwaine flashed his cheeky grin at Merlin as he maneuvered him back upright.
“Er…” Merlin was pretty sure his face was pink as he licked his lips. Gwaine was a good kisser.
“See, he’s a happy bunny. I think I’ll keep him.” Gwaine squeezed Merlin’s cheeks, before moving his hands down and squeezing Merlin’s other cheeks.
“Put him down, Gwaine. You don’t know where he’s been.” Arthur was giving them both evils, which was frankly unfair – Merlin was just an innocent bystander!
“Jeez, sorry Princess, am I stepping on your toes? Sorry, Al, I think the princess wants you for himself. But we could have been amazing.” Gwaine moved away from Merlin, shaking his head and raising his hands in a ‘what can you do?’ gesture.
If looks could kill, Gwaine would be dead from the glare Arthur sent him.
“Two coffees, when you’ve finished catching herpes, Al,” Arthur said, sitting down at his usual table near the counter. Yeah, right, of course Arthur wanted Merlin, that’s why he barely had a civil word for him.
“Actually, I’ll have a tea,” Gwaine said. “And a slice of apple pie. And Arthur will have one of those orange sticky buns.”
“No, he won’t,” Arthur called over.
“He will,” Gwaine said, firmly.
“Fine, whatever, just sit down.” Arthur crossed his arms and actually pouted like a little boy.
Of course, Gwaine pinched Merlin’s bum again on the way past.
As he worked he listened to a funny involved story Gwaine was telling about being asked to play a mediaeval knight in a staged joust at Sudeley castle. Perhaps his main problem with Gwaine was that he was just so damn likable? How were you supposed to hate someone like that? It was damned unfair.
Merlin’s absolute definite favourite part of his new job was helping Freya to run art sessions at the library with the local kids. Well, it wasn’t really part of the job, she’d just asked him one day if he fancied it and he’d agreed, he didn’t even get paid.
Dr Monmouth, who ran the library, was absolutely terrifying, with big bushy woolly eyebrows and a glare that could turn you to stone at a hundred paces. The children didn’t seem half so intimidated by him as Merlin did though.
The kids were brilliant. They all thought they were great artists, largely because their parents told them they were and stuck their artworks to the fridge, but also because they hadn’t reached that stage in life yet where self-doubt mixed with a fear of rejection and failure made them not want to try, and they still thought everything was possible.
They read stories in a group and then they painted dragons and monsters and princesses and castles. Once they read the frog prince, and Freya showed them all how to make origami jumping frogs. Another day they read Rapunzel, and then they all built a papier mâché tower, and Gwen knitted a little Rapunzel to sit at the top.
He loved the children’s imaginations. They made up new stories in their little group and then wrote them down and compiled them into a book, which they decorated. Maybe he should become an art teacher.
The problem was, Merlin was actually starting to enjoy life, and every time he realised it, he felt like he was betraying Will. How could he be having fun when his best friend was dead? How could he have gone out and replaced him so easily and be planning for the future? A future Will would never have. All of this had only happened because Will died. He was benefitting from Will’s death.
On those nights, he’d go up to his room, and curl up under his duvet with Will’s sweater and let the guilt eat away at him.
Of course, those were always the nights the dreams came. The nights he was feeling guilty for being happy.
This was not the happy, carefree Will Merlin remembered in the daytime. This Will was a bitter and vengeful Will, accusing Merlin of abandoning him, forgetting him, leaving him. How many times had he saved Merlin’s sorry arse? And Merlin had just left him there to die. Waltzed off to a new life with new friends and pretty neighbours.
On those nights, Merlin would sit by the window, waiting for the sun to rise and just draw whatever came into his head. Trees, Will, himself, Arthur.
The next time he saw Arthur was in Waitrose.
Merlin had laughed when Hunith had excitedly told him that their nearest supermarket was ‘the posh one’. “I can’t see us shopping in there, Mum!” he had said with a laugh.
But Waitrose just happened to be on the way home from work, although admittedly there was a pretty steep hill to get from the shop to their house. They didn’t have a car, and getting a taxi to a cheaper supermarket would have negated the benefit of the cheaper shop. Getting a bus to the supermarket and then lugging it all back again was quite a frequent occurrence, but for just a few small things, Waitrose was convenient. Will would have laughed his arse off.
Merlin had only run in for some single cream and a tub of ice cream to go with some local strawberries from the fruit and veg shop down on Queen Street.
Arthur, on the other hand, looked like he was doing his whole weekly shop in there, which Merlin supposed was just typical for someone posh. He was dressed in a simple tracksuit, his hair slightly disheveled and a bit damp like he’d just stepped out of the shower – there was no denying it, Arthur might be a prick, but he was a very pretty prick.
“Hi, Betty,” he said, joining the queue for the checkout behind Arthur.
“And there was me thinking you didn’t get that reference,” Arthur replied, looking over his shoulder at Merlin.
“Google is my friend, I looked it up on the computer in the library.” He dumped his stuff on the conveyor behind Arthur’s and began singing off key. “If you will be my bodyguard, I will be your long lost pal…”
“Yeah, ok that’s enough of that,” Arthur said quickly. “I have no one to blame but myself, I suppose.”
“Do you seriously buy everything in here?” Merlin peered down at Arthur’s shopping.
“Should I not?” Arthur frowned.
“Well, it’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?”
Arthur laughed. “It’s hardly Fortnum and Mason’s!”
“Why are you buying nappy liners?”
“Uh… they’re for a friend. Don’t be so nosy.”
“For a friend? Oh my god, are you dealing drugs?” The look Arthur sent him made him shut up.
The cashier started putting Arthur’s things through the till and Arthur moved to the other end of the checkout, letting her pack it into bags – bags he didn’t even bat an eyelid at having to pay 5p for, unlike Merlin who was carrying an old Tesco bag just for this purpose. If he was honest, he liked packing Waitrose stuff into a Tesco bag, he hoped it really pissed them off.
To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur actually waited for him to pay for his stuff. “Do you want a lift up to the house?”
“You came here in a car? It’s only a five minute walk!”
“I’m on my way home from the gym. So is that a no? It’s a warm day, I wouldn’t want your ice cream to melt.”
That hill really was steep…
“Yeah, I’d love a lift. Thanks.”
He wasn’t surprised to find that Arthur drove a BMW, or that he was arrogant enough to park it in a disabled bay.
“You really shouldn’t do that, you know,” Merlin said.
“Park in the disabled space. What if someone who was actually disabled needed it?”
Arthur gave him a strange look and shook his head like Merlin had said something daft, then he turned his frown on the car and muttered under his breath. Merlin could only make out the word ‘Father’. The posh plonker probably had the sort of rich daddy who could get him off parking fines. “Just get in,” Arthur snapped.
It was the coolest car Merlin had ever been in, but then most of his experience was Will’s modified Ford Fiesta which would have been a bone-shaker even if he hadn’t lowered the suspension.
Arthur’s car had leather seats – actual leather, not pvc. It was an automatic, which surprised Merlin; Arthur definitely struck him as someone who would drive a manual car. “All BMW i3s are automatic,” was Arthur’s clipped response, complete with eye roll.
“So, what do you do that you can afford to shop here all the time and pollute the environment by driving to Waitrose in a posh bastard car?” Merlin asked, reaching forward to fiddle with the radio.
Arthur slapped his hand away. “Actually, it’s mostly electric."
“If you cared so much about the environment, you'd have those reusable bags."
"I do, they're gathering dust in the boot, I always forget to take them into the shop."
"So what do you do?"
"I train army recruits.”
"You must be a rubbish soldier then.” Merlin didn’t always know why these stupid things came out of his mouth; he didn’t even know when they were about to do so, or he might try to stop them.
“How exactly do you work that out? I made captain before I was thirty!” Arthur sounded highly affronted.
“Well, you know, those that can do and all that.” Because when your foot is in your mouth, you might as well try and get the other one in too – Gwen had taught him that.
“You really are a little sod, do you know that?” Arthur shook his head and laughed. “For your information, I’m a ballistics expert. I teach at a specialist level and I act as a consultant for the armed forces and the police.”
“So why don’t you wear your uniform?” Merlin would quite like to see Arthur in uniform. He might be a prat, but he was a fit prat.
“Because I’m not actually in the army anymore,” Arthur said patiently, like he was explaining it to an idiot.
Merlin opened his mouth to enquire further, but the supermarket was so close to the house that Arthur was already at the turn off to go down to the garage. “It might be easier if you get out here,” Arthur said. “I’m storing some stuff in the garage, so there’s not a lot of room on the passenger side.”
“Is that where you stash the drugs then?” Again, Arthur glared at him. Knowing when he was being dismissed, Merlin grabbed his shopping bag from the back seat and opened the door. “Thanks for the lift.”
“Want me to help you carry your bags in?”
Arthur gave him a considering look, like Merlin had said something far more momentous than a simple offer of help.
“I’m perfectly capable of carrying my own bags, Al.” He leant over and pulled the car door shut.
Merlin waited till he was up the hill and in the front door before banging his head against the wall. What the hell was wrong with him? A gorgeous bloke was being nice to him and he’d run off at the mouth like a complete pillock.
Sighing, he shook his head and went to put his ice cream in the freezer. Who needed gorgeous blonds in their lives anyway, everyone knew men like that were prats.
Merlin’s picture of Arthur was going well, he’d really got the nose sorted now, and the eyes. The mouth was maybe a little off, but with a bit more work…
Ginger Guy was still there.
How was Merlin supposed to concentrate? He’d been there all morning drinking one cup of tea after another and looking shifty. When Merlin had voiced his concerns to Freya, she’d hummed in agreement not really listening in the midst of making bread, but of course Merlin couldn’t tell her why he was so concerned. Couldn’t say he was worried that this was one of Cenred’s men, come to kill him.
The man looked up and caught his eye, looking away quickly. He was tall, even sitting, with long legs stretching out and creating a trip hazard for the other customers. He didn’t look menacing, as such, but the affable charm and wayward red curls could just be a front to lull people into a false sense of security, so they didn’t run away whilst he was waiting for Cenred to come and kill them.
And he was definitely waiting for someone. He’d already been on the phone several times, demanding to know where this other person was and what time they would be there. It could have been perfectly innocent; it was a café, people meet in cafés all the time.
Freya was acting a little strange today too. Not strange strange, just… strange. So far she’d made ten loaves of bread, five batches of scones, finger buns, cinnamon rolls and two sponge cakes. She’d made a lot of it before Merlin even got there at half seven, and she was still going. Even in a café as popular as Tintagel, he wasn’t sure how it was all going to get eaten.
The door jangled and Merlin jumped. He looked up to see Arthur. Merlin smiled at him only to receive a curt nod in return. To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur went and sat down with Ginger Guy.
“Sorry, Leon. Had to go and see Gaius.”
“Is everything ok?” Ginger Guy looked concerned.
“Yeah, fine.” Arthur glanced over at Merlin. “Just a check up.”
“So how have you been?”
“Not bad. Got new tenants. The mother is nice, but the son doesn’t know when not to listen to other people’s conversations.” Arthur said this loudly, looking again at Merlin, but more pointedly this time.
“Hey, if you don’t want me to listen, go and talk somewhere else!” Merlin held his hands up defensively.
“That is a really wonderful sales technique you have there, Al. Telling the customers to go away,” Arthur said sarcastically. “Hey, Freya, congrats on the wonderful staff.”
“Hmm?” Freya looked up from her bread dough. “Arthur, hi! When did you get here? Sorry, can’t talk, I have too much to do.” She went back to kneading, humming under her breath as she did so.
Arthur shrugged. “Two teas when you’re ready, Al.”
Merlin sighed and put his pencil down. So much for getting a break today. He got up and went to get the teas.
Arthur went back to talking to his friend, quieter this time so Merlin couldn’t hear what was being said. Merlin couldn’t help but feel a little envious – the two looked so intimate, blond head nestled next to red. Arthur might be a massive twat, but he was a very pretty one. If you could ignore the major personality flaws, then getting all cosy with him like that would be rather nice really. For that matter, Ginger Guy wasn’t exactly hard on the eye either.
Merlin took the teas over, determined to just put them down and leave lest he be accused of eavesdropping again. Ginger Guy thwarted that plan.
“Hi, I’m Leon Kaye. A mate of Arthur’s.”
“Al Simpson.” He shook Leon’s proffered hand. “The annoying son of Arthur’s tenant.”
Leon laughed, his face lighting up. “He doesn’t mean it, you know. He had only good things to say about you last time we spoke.”
Arthur had been talking about him? What? Why?
“For fuck’s sake, I clearly need new friends.” Arthur dropped his head into his hands.
“Oh shut up. You know nobody else would put up with you,” Leon said good naturedly.
“Good, I’ll become a hermit and never interact with anyone ever again.”
“You bloody well would too.” Leon shook his head. “Just as well we’re persistent.”
Merlin laughed and went back to work as the lunch trade started to filter in.
Hunith had joined a book group, which Merlin suspected was just an excuse to drink wine and gossip. It was nice to see her enjoying life though, he’d never noticed how unhappy she was in Ealdor until now.
Anyhoo, he had the evening to himself. The weather was hot and sticky and all Merlin wanted to do when he got home was jump in the shower.
Feeling fresher, he went to find something to eat. Merlin had been doing the majority of the cooking since his early teens, when fish and chips or burnt beans on burnt toast had become too boring. Not that Merlin was great shakes in the kitchen, just compared with his mum he was practically Nigella. Cooking for just himself, however, seemed a little pointless, he thought as he mooched through the fridge.
He was distracted by the smell of a barbeque. He looked out the kitchen window and saw Arthur and his friend Leon standing at a massive black behemoth of a barbeque. Leon must have seen the movement at the window, because he beckoned to Merlin to come down. The sausages smelt good.
He shoved his feet into flip-flops and padded down the stairs.
“Hi, Al.” Leon waved him over. “Fancy a hotdog? Or we have some burgers too, and plenty of different salads and stuff. We probably have too much food, to be honest, but I think Mith thought we’d starve.”
“I have a feeling you’ll cope, but I can be a martyr and help you out if you want.” Merlin grinned.
“Don’t let us inconvenience you, Al,” Arthur said dryly, a small grin threatening the corners of his mouth.
“Can’t let food go to waste.” Merlin peered down at the sausages and burgers sizzling on the grill. “How many are you expecting?”
Leon snorted. “Just us.”
“Seriously? You have enough to feed an army!”
“Nah, trust me, I know how much soldiers eat.” Leon replied, expertly flipping a burger.
“I might have known you would have a fancy pants barbeque.” Merlin eyed the contraption warily. The only barbeques Merlin had ever been to had used those cheap disposable ones in a foil tray. Arthur’s was smarter than most people’s proper oven’s in their kitchens.
Arthur simply shrugged. “Why get an inferior model?”
Merlin sighed. That would definitely be how Arthur would view him, an inferior model. Especially when you saw Gwaine and Leon and Lance, not to mention Arthur himself.
“Who wants to go first?” Leon asked, slipping a burger into one of the prepared buns beside him.
“Al can – that way if you poison him, I’ll know not to eat your cooking,” Arthur said.
“Wow, thanks.” Merlin pretended to be offended.
“Hey, you’re getting a free feed, don’t knock it.”
“Nobody is getting poisoned! You both missed your chance, I’ll eat it myself.” Leon bit into the burger and showed them the middle to prove it was actually cooked.
“He’s got me convinced,” Merlin said, grabbing a bun and silently asking Leon for permission to get a sausage by raising his eyebrows and inclining his head to the spatula. He added plenty of tomato sauce and a few onions. “This is really good!” he said to Leon through a mouthful of hotdog.
“Thanks! Do you want a drink?” Leon pulled a can of beer out of the coolbox by his feet.
“He can’t he’s only seventeen,” Arthur said quickly. Merlin glared at him.
“Oh, sorry, you look older,” Leon said, looking guilty as he put the can back.
“Hey, come on! I’m nearly eighteen! And it’s not like you are selling it to me.”
“Not going to happen, Al,” Arthur shook his head, smirking. “There’s juice in the fridge if you want some. Glasses are in the cupboard over the kettle.”
“Seriously? It’s not like you are selling me beer here! I’m at home, I can drink a beer at home.”
Arthur just looked at him and smirked more.
Only sulking slightly, Merlin went into Arthur’s kitchen. He resisted the urge to have a nose around, Arthur and Leon were just outside after all. The flat was decorated in pretty much the same way as the rest of the house. The living room and kitchen were open plan and there were four doors leading off. There were a few pictures on the wall along with a framed signed football shirt, and a bookcase with a surprising number of books about such things as the Napoleonic wars – Arthur hadn’t really struck him as much of a reader.
Arthur was sitting in on of the wooden chairs just outside the window when he returned. It was a warm evening and humid. “Ugh, it’s too hot.” He dropped gracelessly down next to Arthur.
“Yeah, I reckon it’ll break soon,” Leon said. “Feels like there’s a storm coming.”
“So, you two met in the army?” Merlin asked.
“Nah, we went to school together,” Leon replied as he piled the cooked meat onto a plate and brought it over to join the rest of the feast.
“We served together too.” Arthur reached for another burger. “And now we work together sometimes.”
“Where do you work?”
“At the training camp over at Bovington,” Leon answered. “Training new recruits.”
“Oh wow, that must be rewarding!” Merlin loaded a plate with some salad to at least give the impression of being healthy. Then he added another hotdog and a burger for good measure.
Leon gave him a funny look. “Really? Most people think it’s weird that I’m not on active service anymore.”
“Well, that’s your call, isn’t it?” Merlin said. “I mean, there must only be so much you can take of war zones.” He gave an involuntary shudder as Will once more came to mind. “And training people is worthwhile.”
“Oh yeah, worthwhile when Leon does it, but I’m a crap soldier when I do it,” Arthur muttered under his breath, shoving his burger into his mouth as he scowled at Merlin.
“To be honest, I don’t think I could handle another tour,” Leon said. “Even if you come back in one piece, it messes with you in here.” He tapped the side of his curly head.
“Shit, sorry,” Merlin said, feeling like an idiot.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s good to talk about these things.” Leon was looking at Arthur rather than Merlin now. “We have a bad tendency in this country of not talking about mental health, or anything else that might be seen as a weakness. Bottling things up never did anyone any good.”
Arthur scowled at Leon and went to help himself to another can of beer.
“Yeah,” Merlin gave a hollow laugh. All very well and good, but he couldn’t talk to anyone. Maybe he should reconsider that police psychologist.
“So, would you consider selling your soul?” Leon asked.
“Joining the army? No offence, but hell no!” Merlin replied through a mouthful of food.
Arthur snorted as he concentrated on the can in his hands, rolling it back and forth.
“Actually, I meant teaching.” Leon snorted. “You seemed to think training would be rewarding?”
“Oh! Actually, I’ve been helping out with art classes at the library and I love it. So yeah, it’s something I might consider. Got to get more than a couple of GCSEs to my name first though.”
“You can do it!” Leon replied.
“I think you’d make a good teacher,” Arthur said quietly, licking his lips as he watched Merlin intently. Merlin couldn’t help but trace the passage of Arthur’s tongue with his eyes.
“Is anyone going to eat these sausages?” Leon asked, breaking the moment.
Arthur looked away first.
Chapter 3: My Little Town
For the first time since he’d worked there, Tintagel was closed when he went in for the early shift. Unsure what else to do, he pressed the buzzer for Freya’s flat.
“Hi Freya. It’s Al. Are you ok?”
“Al? What are you doing here?”
“Um… I’m here for work?”
“What time is it?”
“Shit. I’ll be down in a minute.”
Merlin hung about outside for a bit until Freya came down in a dressing gown.
“Sorry, sorry, didn’t realise the time! Listen, do you mind getting everything going? I need to shower.” She handed him a set of keys. “Alarm code is 1815, battle of Waterloo. Boss Man likes military history. I prefer ABBA.”
“Right, quarter past six, got it.”
Another girl came down the stairs behind Freya. She was wearing all black with various bits of metal attached to different points on her face and her hair was turquoise. “Thanks for last night!” she said, kissing Freya on the cheek. “Maybe see you around sometime, babe.”
The girl sauntered off. Merlin turned to Freya, one eyebrow raised in question. She shrugged. “Met her last night in the Fleece.” She grinned and scampered back up the stairs.
Merlin laughed and went into the café. Fortunately, Freya’s baking spree of the day before meant they weren’t going to be short of cake or bread for the day, he thought as he put the coffee machine on and switched on the cooker.
Freya didn’t actually manage to put in an appearance till gone ten, and by the time she did, Merlin was quite flustered from managing the breakfast rush on his own.
“Sorry!” she said, not sounding at all sorry. “I had this idea for a mural and I just had to sketch it!” She tied her apron around her middle and carried on talking. “There’s going to be this great big dragon, breathing fire out of his mouth and setting the castle alight. And King Arthur will be defending Queen Guinevere! Oh, and you’re there!” She whirled round and pointed at Merlin.
She continued to chatter away nineteen to the dozen about her mural whilst Merlin worked. By the time Gwen came in for the lunch shift, he was exhausted just listening to Freya.
The rain did not start until he’d already left work and was halfway home. Just a few drops to begin with, enough to give off that unique smell of hot ground getting wet for the first time in weeks, then a few more, bigger, till suddenly the rain was coming down in sheets, and Merlin was drenched.
There was nowhere to take shelter, the best he could do was make a run for it, pounding up the street at full pelt to match the rain with his precious sketchpad shoved into a plastic bag tucked under his t-shirt.
Why did they have to live up a hill? His lungs were burning before he was even halfway up, his pace slowing as he gasped for breath. He really should try and get fit. He practically fell through the gate and staggered up the front path, his hair plastered to his face as he collapsed against the door. He shoved his key into the lock with some force… and it snapped off in the lock.
“What? No! No, not now!” Merlin screamed at the door. The wrought iron dragon carrying the light beside the door laughed down at him.
He tried the door anyway, rattling the ancient handle and kicking it for good measure. He tried knocking, even though he knew it was useless. Hunith was at work, and then she was going straight out with a ‘friend’. He pulled out the cheap mobile the police had given him but it was dead. Hopefully it was just the battery run down and the phone was not waterlogged.
Merlin wrapped his arms around himself, unsure what to do. Houses were supposed to have little porch thingies over the front door, right? Not stupid roses! What was with Arthur and his rose obsession? Roses didn’t keep you dry!
Arthur. Yes! Arthur was probably going to kill him, but at least he had a dry flat and a phone to ring a locksmith.
There were no outside stairs connecting the top and bottom gardens, so Merlin ventured back out and ran all the way round by the road to the back of the house and knocked on Arthur’s door.
“Arthur? Are you there?” he shouted. “It’s me, Mer— Al. Er… Yeah, Mer-Al, ‘cause, like, I’m so wet right now I have gills. Let me in!” He banged his fist against the door to no avail.
No answer. Bloody typical. Merlin pushed the plastic bag containing his sketchbook through Arthur’s letterbox, hoping and praying that it was still dry; really should have thought of doing that back up at his own door, he decided to push his wallet and drowned mobile in for good measure. Then he ran across the wet grass to peer in the garage window. The security light on the garage wall, yet another dragon, came on as he approached, so dark had the day become, allowing him to see in. Arthur’s car was gone. Of course it was. Seriously, Merlin could not be any wetter if he jumped straight into the pool fully clothed.
Merlin looked over at the pool. To be honest, was that such a stupid idea? He was already wet, after all. And no one was around to see…
He kicked off his shoes, which fortunately were just an old pair of Converse and not the nice ones Arthur had bought him, and let out a whoop as he dive-bombed into the deep end of the pool. Despite the rain, the day still had not cooled down much, and the pool was wonderfully refreshing as he did a few laps. He turned over and floated on his back, trying to catch rain in his mouth like he and Will used to when they were kids.
“Al, what the fuck are you doing?” Arthur’s incredulous voice cut through Merlin’s fun.
Merlin nearly drowned.
Well, ok, slight exaggeration there. He panicked slightly and maybe momentarily bobbed under the water.
“Arthur!” He made his way to the edge of the pool. “I thought you were out!”
“I was.” Arthur waved his car keys at Merlin from where he was standing on the path next to the garage. “And now I’m getting wet, I’m going in.” He shook his head like he couldn’t believe how stupid Merlin was and walked down the side path to the house.
Merlin dragged himself out of the pool, the weight of his soaked jeans making it that much harder.
He squelched down through the garden and knocked on Arthur’s door. “Arthur? Can I come in?”
“What?” Arthur opened the door part way and stuck his head round it.
“Can I come in? My key broke in the lock and I need to call a locksmith.”
“Wait there.” Arthur shut the door in his face.
Just like that. Just shut the door. In his face. Like Merlin wasn’t saturated on his doorstep.
What had to have been hours later, or maybe, you know, five minutes, he couldn’t be sure, the door opened again and Arthur finally let him in.
There was newspaper spread out on the floor for Merlin to stand on. The Daily Telegraph, of course, he wouldn’t expect anything else from the posh prat. At least he got to make a mess of Boris Johnson’s face.
“So, care to explain?” Arthur asked in his most autocratic manner, and Arthur doing autocratic could make the Queen look like a chambermaid.
“I, er, was trying to open the door and the key snapped? I mean, I’m pretty sure it’ll be ok, I just need to call someone.”
Arthur just looked at him like he was stupid. “And rather than trying to sort it out, you had to go for a swim in the pouring rain?”
“Well, you said I could use the pool any time but first thing?”
And if the look before had said that Merlin was stupid, this one said he was the biggest idiot to ever walk the earth.
“I couldn’t get in, alright! Mum was out, you were out, my mobile is waterlogged, and well, I was already wet, so where was the harm?”
Arthur muttered something under his breath before going to one of the doors leading off the living room. He rummaged around and then threw a towel at Merlin.
“Here. The bathroom is there.” He pointed to another door. “Go and have a shower before you freeze to death. I’ll call the locksmith.”
“Thanks.” Merlin made his way over to the bathroom, carefully stepping on the trail of newspaper so as not to leave too much water in his wake.
Arthur’s bathroom was swanky, of course. What else would you expect? Technically, the word bathroom was not correct, he didn’t actually have a bath, but he did have the world’s biggest shower with the most enormous shower head he’d ever seen. It might even have been bigger than Arthur’s own head.
The whole bottom of the shower unit appeared to be non-slip. There were hand rails going all the way around all the walls; not just in the shower but the whole bathroom. There was even a plastic stool in the corner of the shower. Arthur was clearly a safety nut.
“Al?” Arthur tapped on the door. “If you chuck your clothes out, I’ll stick them in the drier.”
Merlin quickly shed his jeans and wrapped the towel around himself. He picked up his soaked clothes and quickly tried to wring them out over the sink. He was almost sure Arthur raked his eyes down his body when went to the door to hand his stuff over, but he quickly wrote it off as wishful thinking, remembering Gwaine in far less and not drawing a favourable comparison.
Arthur’s shower might be posh, but there were far too many knobs and twiddly bits and it took him a while to figure out how to use it. Eventually, he had a steady stream of hot water pouring down over his head and he decided he should marry Arthur if for nothing more than his shower. And his body. He might have pinched some of Arthur’s posh shower gel and shampoo, and he might have liked the idea that now he would smell like Arthur.
As he was drying himself off, he realised Arthur had his clothes and he had nothing to put on. He tucked the towel around himself again and stuck his head out of the bathroom door.
“I don’t suppose my clothes are dry yet?”
Arthur looked up from the sofa where he was on the phone, probably to the locksmith, and shook his head.
“Yes, I appreciate it’s raining, but my tenant is locked out of the house. Yes. Uh huh. How long? Seriously? Alright, alright, that’s fine. Yes. Can you call this number when you get there? No, he’s with me, we’ll come round. Yes. Arthur Pendragon. Thank you.” He didn’t take his eyes off Merlin the whole time he was talking.
Arthur pressed the off button on the phone and looked over at Merlin, raising an eyebrow at his towel.
“I, er, don’t have anything to put on.” Merlin waved his hand up and down his body, just in case Arthur wasn’t sure where the clothes would go, or hadn’t already taken in his state of undress.
“Right.” Arthur’s eyes seemed fixed on Merlin’s chest, determinedly not travelling any lower. “I’ll, um…” He licked his lips like they’d suddenly gone dry. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He stood and went into another room, returning shortly with a grey tracksuit which he handed to Merlin. “That might fit you.”
“Thanks.” Merlin returned to the bathroom and put on the tracksuit. It was clean, of course, but it still carried Arthur’s scent.
As he headed back into the living room, he saw Arthur bending over something on the table.
Arthur looked over. “Locksmith will be about two hours. There’s flooding on the main road, he can’t get his van round. These are really good, by the way.”
Merlin suddenly realised that Arthur was looking at his sketchbook. “Um….” He was unsure what to say. ‘Please don’t look at that’ seemed unfriendly considering Arthur had taken him in, but there were several pictures of Arthur himself in there that he’d really rather he didn’t see. At least the book looked mostly dry, thank you Tesco bag.
“I’m really sorry,” Merlin said. “The key just snapped off in the lock, I don’t know what happened.”
“It’s fine, it was probably a fault in the key.” Arthur could clearly take a hint as he closed the book.
“I thought you’d be a real dick about this.”
“Glad to know you have such a high opinion of me,” Arthur said drily. “Things happen, making a fuss is not going to help. You might as well sit down, you’ll be here a while.”
Merlin awkwardly parked himself next to Arthur on the sofa.
“Sorry, you probably had things to do this afternoon, didn’t you?” Merlin said. “Just pretend I’m not here.”
“It’s fine, I was just planning on doing laundry and tidying up a bit.”
Merlin glanced round at the spotless flat. What could possibly need tidying up?
Arthur caught his eye and laughed. “Ok, you’ve got me, I have a cleaner. I wasn’t planning on doing anything much at all. Fancy some tea?”
“Kettle’s over there.” Arthur nodded towards the kitchen.
“Hey, come on, I’ve been making tea all morning!”
“Then you should be well practised, shouldn’t you?”
“Fine.” Merlin stood up and went to put the kettle on. He opened the cupboard to get some cups. “Do you have any mugs that aren’t Arsenal?”
“Why would I want mugs that weren’t Arsenal?” Arthur looked like he genuinely couldn’t fathom that out.
“I dunno, variety?” Merlin sighed. Why did all the good looking ones have to be football nuts?
“Overrated.” Arthur shook his head, smirking. “Let me guess, you’re a Man U supporter.”
“Oh please, I’m actually from Manchester, so obviously I’d support City. If I could be bothered to support anyone.”
Arthur raised an eyebrow as Merlin brought two cups of tea over and put them on the coffee table. “I thought you were from Chester?”
“Er… I was born in Manchester.” Merlin silently congratulated himself on his quick improvisation skills. “To be honest, I don’t really like football at all, but Will wouldn’t forgive me if I’d said United.”
“How can you not like football?” Arthur looked aghast. “I mean, what do you do with your time? The Euros are on, what else can you watch? Don’t you find it boring?”
“Yes, Arthur, I do. I find football incredibly boring, that’s why I don’t watch it.” Merlin shook his head and looked over at Arthur’s TV. “Hey, what’s wrong with your telly?”
Arthur looked up quickly. “My telly? What? Nothing…” He sounded alarmed. “Why?”
“It’s all bendy.”
“It’s curved, idiot, it’s supposed to look like that!”
“Oh. Ooh, you have an X-Box!” Merlin went over to look.
“And a playstation, and a W—” Arthur was cut off by a massive clap of thunder overhead, this time followed by lightning casting shadows across the room.
Merlin turned from where he’d been staring out the window to find Arthur nowhere in sight. “Arthur?”
Arthur was on the floor with his hands over his ears.
“Oh come on, surely the big brave soldier isn’t afraid of a little thunder and lightning?” Merlin said with a laugh.
Arthur didn’t answer.
“Arthur? Hey.” Merlin put his hand on Arthur’s back, making him flinch away. “It’s ok, Arthur, it’s just thunder,” he said gently. At that moment a flash of lightning lit up the room, promptly followed by another roll of thunder.
“I know that.” Arthur struggled to get back up, trying to lever himself up onto the sofa in the most awkward way possible. He brushed off Merlin’s efforts to help him. “I’m perfectly capable of getting up on my own!”
“Ok, ok!” Merlin stood back and held his hands up to show he wasn’t helping. He glanced over at Arthur’s bookcase. “Oh hey, you have ludo!” He moved over to get a closer look and give Arthur a moment to collect himself. “Let’s play ludo!”
“Ludo. Let’s have a game. I’ve not played this since I was a kid.” If nothing else, it might distract Arthur.
“You’re still a kid.” Arthur still looked a bit pale.
“Oh come on, it’ll give us something to do while we’re waiting for the locksmith.”
“Fine,” Arthur said, sounding very put-upon, although he’d given in very easily for someone who didn’t want to play.
They moved over to the dinner table and set the board up, taking two colours each.
Merlin started off well, getting one of his yellow counters out on the first go and two blue not long after that. He was moving round the board at great speed whilst Arthur tried to roll a six and get any of his pieces moving at all. His luck couldn’t last, of course. Just as his yellow counter landed on Arthur’s green start point, Arthur rolled a six, promptly taking out Merlin’s piece, and then he rolled a three with his second go, mercilessly taking one of the blues. The one that really hurt though, was when Arthur knocked out Merlin’s remaining blue two spaces from home with one of the reds he’d managed to get out.
And the stupid thing was, it was almost worth it just to see the way Arthur threw his head back and laughed with his whole body. Arthur seemed like a different person like this, gone was the reserved, haughty ex-army officer, or the man huddled on the floor at the sound of thunder, and in his place sat a joyous, carefree young man beating his friend at a silly board game.
Merlin had no intention of letting Arthur win, of course. As soon as he got some of his counters back out, he went after Arthur’s. By the time Arthur’s phone rang, it was still unclear who was winning. Merlin had all his pieces out and Arthur still had two in start, but Arthur had more pieces home and safe.
Fortunately, the storm had mostly passed. They went round to the front door, Arthur taking his time despite the wet. The locksmith was efficient and sorted the lock out in next to no time. Arthur paid, which made Merlin feel rather guilty, but then again, Arthur was the landlord. He didn’t know how much it came to because they didn’t talk that loudly except for once when he overheard Arthur saying, “No, that’s fine, thank you, Robin, but I won’t hear of it. I’ll pay the going rate same as anyone else.” Arthur pushed a wad of notes at the locksmith, who actually didn’t seem happy at being paid.
“So, Al, I believe I still need to finish thrashing you at ludo?” Arthur said as he turned back around.
Merlin blinked at him, then grinned. “Hey, who says you’re going to win!”
“It’s inevitable, Al.” Arthur started to slowly make his way back down the hill. “I’m ordering pizza, if you’re interested,” he called over his shoulder.
Merlin hurried to catch up. Was he interested in pizza? Were his eyes blue?
He could swear the gate clanging shut behind him sounded like the dragon on it was laughing.
The sign on the café door said closed again when Merlin went for his shift the next day, but this time he could see Freya inside.
He tried the door. “Frey? Oh!”
The mural she was painting on the wall was incredible. Every line, every shadow breathed life into the work, and Freya hadn’t even got as far as adding much colour yet – a certain sense of envy filled Merlin. He knew he wasn’t a bad artist, but this was something else. A realistic dragon swooped down on a castle in ruins, breathing fire to destroy everything in its path. A girl who looked remarkably like Gwen was trying to run away and a knight who looked very like Arthur was trying to protect her whilst a wizard, eyes aglow, had one arm raised to cast a spell on the dragon. At this point, the wizard was only a sketched outline of an old man, but there was something about his features that reminded Merlin of himself.
It dawned on him then that this was the Camelot of legends; Knight Arthur was probably King Arthur and the Wizard was the Merlin of legends. The thought made him shiver, had he somehow revealed his real name to Freya?
“It’s wonderful,” he gasped, almost in reverence.
“Al! Hi! Did you forget something? Do you like it? I just saw all this expanse of wall begging to be filled and I just knew exactly what had to go in there!”
“It must have taken you ages.”
“What time is it? I started it just after Gwen left.”
“After Gwen left? That was last night, Freya! Have you not been to bed?”
“Oh.” Freya looked at the clock on the wall. “Oh! It’s that half seven! Oh dear, I need to open up!” She started packing her art things away. “Be a love and switch the coffee machine on for me?”
“Frey, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said brightly. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Merlin was about to leave work when the café phone rang.
“Hello, Buttercup, it’s Mum. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve invited a few people around for dinner tonight.” He hated her calling him Al, and in retaliation she’d taken to calling him whatever stupid pet name came into her head.
“Tonight? Wow, thanks for the warning, Mum! Tell me I’m not cooking?”
“You know you love a challenge.” She sounded hopeful.
“Your confidence is inspiring,” he replied as flatly as he could. “And what exactly do you want me to make? You do realise I’ll have to go to poncy Waitrose?”
“You love Waitrose really. I’m sure you’ll come up with something brilliant. I’ll pay you back for whatever you buy.”
“My boss, Gaius, and his partner Geoffrey.”
“Sounds like a riotous evening. Do I have to come?”
“No, Pumpkin, you are a free agent. You go out, abandon your poor mother. I’ll order in pizza or something.”
“You can’t order pizza if you want to impress your boss! I’ll cook something.”
“Have I ever told you that you are the best son ever?”
“Only every time you want something.”
“I’d better let you get on, love you!”
“Love you too.”
Freya and Gwen were life savers. Between them they’d come up with the plan that Merlin should do a Mexican sort of tapas thing, so people could just help themselves to the bits they wanted. They sent him to the shop with a long list of stuff, and then they’d shown him how to make patatas bravas, chilli con carne, and the base for huevos rancheros. Freya had also instructed him on making guacamole and nachos, and then she’d made him some chilli-chocolate brownies. They were going to be eating this lot for months.
Gwen gave Merlin a lift home with all the food. He’d asked (ok, begged) them to come and help eat it all, but Freya had wanted to work on her mural and Gwen had promised to skype her brother. He put the food into pans to heat up and put the grill on ready to do some corn on the cob. He’d got some posh Heston Blumental ice cream for dessert to go with the brownies Freya made. It might not be dinner at the savoy, but for a last minute dinner, it would pass.
He was just making a salad and mixing some stuff for the the nachos ready to warm up at the last minute when the sound of the dragon gate at the end of the path clanging shut made him run to look out the window. He did a double take. Dr Gaius, Hunith’s boss, was walking up the path and just behind him, actually smiling, was grumpy Dr Monmouth from the library.
“Yes, dear?” Hunith came into the room looking fresh and perfect, unlike Merlin who had chilli in his hair, don’t ask, and still needed to shower and change.
“One, they’re early, and two, what the hell is Dr Monmouth doing here?
Hunith glanced out the window. “Oh, that’s Geoffrey, Gaius’s partner, I told you. You’d better go and get changed, Merlin, you look a fright. I’ll get the door.”
He caught her arm. “I can’t sit through dinner with Dr Monmouth!”
“It’ll be nice to get to know him a little better.” Hunith levelled a steely glare at Merlin that told him to behave and be nice better than words ever could.
The doorbell rang and Merlin yelped, turning towards the stairs.
“Merlin, I was thinking,” Hunith quietly called after him. “It looks a bit odd, you being able to cook all this at seventeen, don’t you think?” Hunith said innocently as the doorbell rang.
“I was cooking at seventeen!” Merlin couldn’t believe this, all that hard work and now she wanted to take the credit? The bell went again. He sighed, this was for her, not him, and he supposed he did owe her. “Ok, fine, whatever, you cooked – they don’t need to know you can burn water!” He ran up the stairs, muttering under his breath.
“That was one time!” she called after him.
He had the world’s fastest shower and quickly donned his best jeans and one of his posh shirts, navy this time. He was just dragging a comb through his wet hair when the doorbell went again.
“Hello, Arthur dear, do come in,” he heard his mother say.
Merlin panicked. What was Arthur doing here?
This shirt looked good, right? He nervously checked again in the mirror before heading down stairs.
Arthur, of course, was carrying a big bunch of roses and a bottle of wine.
“I brought red wine, hope that’s ok” he was saying, handing it to Hunith with a charming smile.
“It’s perfect!” Hunith beamed at him. Oh dear god, please tell him his mother did not fancy Arthur!
“Betty!” Merlin hurried down the stairs coming to a skidding halt at the bottom. “What are you doing here?”
“Your mother invited me,” Arthur said, frowing. “Is that not ok?” Arthur was looking good. He had on a dark-red shirt and medium-blue jeans that practically shouted ‘expensive’. His blond hair was slightly wind-swept and he had a slight glow to his cheeks, probably from walking the long way round to the front door.
“I bumped into Arthur when I was hanging the washing out,” Hunith said. “I invited him to join us.”
“No Leon?” Merlin looked about, just in case he had somehow missed the gangly ginger giant.
“He’s gone back to Bovington. Sorry to disappoint.” Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Why do I get the feeling you’d rather my friends were here than me?” Merlin wasn’t sure if Arthur was genuinely offended or just pretending.
“Thank you for the roses, they’re beautiful,” Hunith cut in.
“I’m being a bit of a cheapskate, I’m afraid. They’re from mum’s garden.”
“They’re wonderful.” Hunith went to put the flowers in water.
“Why didn’t you just come up the stairs rather than walking all the way round?” Merlin asked.
“I can’t just walk straight into your part of the house, Al.” Arthur shook his head.
“It’s fine, the door was probably open.”
“You really shouldn’t go around leaving the door unlocked,” Arthur said. “Anyone could come in.” He stopped and sniffed. “Can I smell burning?”
“Oh shite.” Merlin ran into the kitchen and checked the pans. He opened the oven. His nachos, which he was sure he had left on the side, were happily burning away under the grill.
“Mum, why are the nachos under the grill?”
“Oh, You forgot to put them in, so I did?” Hunith offered a guilty smile that said she suspected she’d done the wrong thing.
“No, Mum.” Merlin sighed as he looked at his poor burnt starter. “That was for the sweetcorn. The nachos were just supposed to go in the oven for a few minutes to warm through.”
“I’m so sorry, darling,” she said, biting her lip. “I was trying to help.”
“It’s fine, I can probably salvage something.” How could he stay mad at his mum?
He managed to pick the most burnt bits out and then added a few extra chips and a bit more cheese and hoped no one would notice. Then he put the corn under the grill and went in to say hello to his mother’s guests.
“Oh, hello, Al, isn’t it?” Dr Monmouth said, frowning.
“That’s me! Hello, Dr Monmouth, Dr Fraser.”
“Oh, it’s Geoffrey and Gaius, please!” Dr Gaius said. Dr Monmouth merely glowered.
“What was burning?” Arthur asked.
“Nachos,” Merlin said with a shrug.
Arthur snorted. “Yum, burnt nachos, my favourite.”
“I… er… Mum’s made some more.”
Arthur gave him an appraising look.
“Is everyone alright for drinks?” He heard Hunith ask as he came back up the stairs. “I’m making cocktails! Who would like a Margarita to go with their Mexican food?”
“Margaritas sound lovely!” Arthur said, dragging his gaze away from Merlin.
“Yeah, I’ll have one!” Merlin said.
“No you won’t, Sweetpea, you’re only seventeen.” His own mother actually smirked at him.
“You have actually got to be kidding me?”
“Listen to your mother, Al.” Arthur was also smirking. “Did you remember to lock that door?”
“I’m going, I’m going.” Merlin got up and went down to lock the back door before putting the finishing touches to the food and making his guacamole.
The meal went quite well, even Dr Monmouth seemed to be enjoying himself, and before this Merlin would have said the man didn’t know how. They seemed like such an odd couple, cheerful friendly Dr Gaius and dour grumpy Geoffrey.
“What was this salad again?” Dr Monmouth asked, scooping some more onto his plate.
Hunith looked pleadingly at Merlin so he answered for her. “Um something with quinoa, I think, according to the label in Waitrose.”
Arthur snorted. “Really, Al? Kwin-o-a?”
“Er, yes?” Clearly he’d said something wrong.
“It’s ‘Keen-wa’, idiot.” The words stung, but the smile on Arthur’s face seemed almost fond. Honestly, how was Merlin supposed to know how posh people pronounced stuff?
“So, how are you finding Camelot?” Gaius asked, changing the subject with diplomacy.
“It’s lovely, everyone is so friendly!” Hunith replied, glaring at Arthur.
“Yeah, much nicer than the last place we lived.” Merlin jumped as a foot impacted with his shin. “Ow!”
“There is rather a disappointing lack of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table though.” Hunith raised a ‘shut up’ eyebrow at him.
“Excuse me, my lady, I’m sitting right here!” Arthur said, mock-offended.
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, Sire, I didn’t see you! Perhaps I expected someone more gallant.” Because of course, Hunith was allowed to kick Merlin, but woe betide anyone who dared to mock him.
“My friend Freya painted a mural today; you were King Arthur.” Merlin pointed his fork at Arthur, hoping to detract from his mother’s tongue after too much alcohol. “Our friend, Gwen, was in it too.”
“Was she Guinevere?” Dr Monmouth raised his his bushy eyebrows in question.
“Um, yes, I think so. There was a big dragon attacking a castle and Arthur was being terribly chivalrous and defending her with a sword.”
“A sword against a dragon?” Gaius asked. His own eyebrows were also a special thing, seemingly with a life of their own. “Seems rather impractical.”
“Excalibur, assuming it was indeed King Arthur,” Geoffrey said.
“Even so, it would surely take rather more than that.”
“It’s not as though they’d have had anti-aircraft missiles.” Arthur was speaking to Gaius and Geoffrey, and yet his eyes seemed to stray to Merlin more often than not.
“Well, there was a wizard too,” Merlin said.
“Ah yes, the mighty Merlin.” Arthur laughed again. Merlin reminded himself Arthur didn’t know his real name, he wasn’t laughing at him.
“Who would like some chocolate brownie and ice cream?” Hunith asked, jumping up to clear the plates. “It’s Heston Blumental! The ice cream, I mean. Not snail flavour, I hope! It was him that did the snail flavour wasn’t it?”
“I think that was snail porridge. Here, let us do that,” Arthur said standing up and giving Merlin a meaningful look. No doubt he thought that Hunith had done all the cooking and therefore Merlin should be doing the washing up.
Sighing dramatically, Merlin stood up and followed Arthur into the kitchen to load the dishwasher while Hunith took the ice cream out of the freezer.
“Now then. This ice cream had better not be snail flavour,” she said.
“Only the one you’re having, there wasn’t enough snail for everyone else.” Merlin rolled his eyes. Maybe his mum had better lay off the margaritas now.
When everyone had eaten their fill and, with the exception of Merlin, drunk enough cocktails and wine to put them in hospital (although Merlin may have snuck a few sips of wine in the kitchen when no one was looking), the evening drew to a close. Geoffrey, Gaius and Arthur thanked Hunith profusely for a lovely meal, and Arthur volunteered himself and Merlin to help Gaius get an inebriated Geoffrey down the path to the taxi.
“Will you be alright getting him into the house?” Arthur asked, worried.
“Yes, yes, young Gilly here will help me, I’m sure,” Gaius indicated the taxi driver.
“Ok, goodnight then.”
“Goodnight. Oh and Al, you must get your mother to let me know the recipe for those chocolate brownies, they were spectacular,” Gaius said as he climbed into the car.
“Oh, my friend Freya made them, she runs Tintagel café, just next to the library? She’s brilliant.”
“I know the one! Goodnight, my boys.” Gaius climbed into the taxi and waved as it started down the hill.
“I might as well head down this way then.” Arthur indicated the long way round to get back to his flat. They were standing quite close, Merlin suddenly realised.
“Nah, don’t be daft, you can just nip down the stairs!” Merlin said, looking back at the house but making no move to go in.
“It’s fine, a short walk will do me good after eating all your mother’s lovely food.” Arthur patted his flat stomach like he’d somehow put on weight in the course of the evening.
“You do know Mum can’t cook, right? I mean, I left her in charge of the kitchen for ten minutes and she managed to burn nachos.” Ok, so that was mean, but Hunith had only wanted to impress her boss, not Arthur. Not that Merlin was trying to impress Arthur or anything. Much.
“Well then, I guess you’re a man of many talents.” Arthur’s eyes seemed to be fixed on Merlin’s mouth. He leant in, and for a moment Merlin honestly thought he was going to kiss him. He could feel Arthur’s breath ghosting over his lips. “Goodnight.” Arthur abruptly pulled back and turned away.
Merlin watched him walk down the road and sighed. He was smitten, there was no use denying it. And there was no way someone like that would be interested in him.
He turned to go back to the house. “You can shut up as well,” he told the dragon on the gate, which he could swear was laughing at him.
Arthur had left his jumper behind. A gorgeous, dark-red lightweight cashmere. It still smelt like whatever expensive aftershave he wore.
Merlin was sorely tempted to keep it – not to actually steal it or anything, more to just… borrow.
He looked out the kitchen window. Arthur was just finishing his morning swim, late today, probably due to the amount of alcohol doing the rounds last night. It would be as good a time as any to return the jumper.
Merlin trotted down the stairs just as Arthur was heading back towards the house wearing nothing but a pair of tracksuit bottoms and his trainers. The water still glistened off his abs in a way that made Merlin want to lick it off. There were numerous scars littering Arthur’s torso that Merlin had never been close enough to see before. The man had been in the army; a few battle wounds were sexy. He found himself wondering if they were sensitive. People said that about scars, right?
Arthur stopped short when he saw Merlin standing by the door to his flat.
“What are you doing here?” The expression on his face could only be described as hostile.
“Um… I came to return your jumper?” Merlin was suddenly feeling very unsure of himself. What happened to friendly Arthur who’d nearly kissed him last night? (And he had nearly kissed him, nobody was going to tell Merlin otherwise). “You left it at ours. I saw you swimming and thought I’d bring it down.”
“Were you spying on me?”
“No! Of course not!” Merlin felt his face flame. He sort of had been spying on Arthur. “I just saw you from the kitchen window.” His attention was drawn by a long straight scar down the centre of Arthur’s chest. It looked like an operation scar, being far neater and more precise than the others. He quickly pulled his eyes from Arthur’s body and back up to his face, holding the jumper out in what he hoped was a gesture of peace.
Too late. Arthur had clearly noticed him staring and practically snatched the jumper from him; for a second Merlin thought he was going to put it on. “I told you, first thing in the morning is my time in the pool. I don’t want to be disturbed. Please remember you are guests in my house.” He pushed past Merlin and stormed into the flat, slamming the door with some force.
Merlin didn’t have a clue what he’d done wrong. Was it because he’d seen the scars? Did Arthur think Merlin was so shallow that he’d be bothered by something like that? Or was he embarrassed because of the near kiss last night? Maybe nearly kissing Merlin was a Bad Thing. Or maybe Arthur just wasn’t a morning person. Shaking his head, Merlin went back up to the house to finish getting ready for work.
Dr Monmouth was vile that morning when Merlin went in to do the art session with the children; Merlin decided to blame Hunith’s cocktails for everyone’s bad mood. There was no sign of Freya, which was strange, and Merlin had to run the class on his own.
By the time he got to Tintagel just before the lunch shift, it was complete and utter chaos.
Customers were behind the counter, helping themselves to coffee and sandwiches, there was a stack of money beside the till where the more honest customers had paid for what they took, and there were dirty dishes piled up left right and centre.
There was no sign of Gwen, and Freya was sitting at one of the tables, seemingly oblivious to the disaster going on around her, with a sketchbook spread out before her and her pencil furiously skimming across the page.
“Frey?” Merlin put his hand on her shoulder.
“Al!” She nearly jumped out of her skin. She pushed her sketchbook towards him. “Look, it just came to me this morning and I simply had to draw it! The Lady of the Lake.”
The image on the page disturbed Merlin. There was a whirlpool with a figure of a girl being dragged down below the surface of the water. The girl in the picture was undoubtedly Freya, her face awash with fear and misery.
“You see, you see? This is it! This is why I had to stop taking them, they were making me fuzzy.”
“Oh, I gave her the day off, her brother’s home on leave tomorrow and she wanted to sort some stuff out for him.”
“Frey,” Merlin crouched down next to her and took her hand in his. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… are you on something?”
“No, silly. That’s the point.”
“What’s this about?” Dr Gaius’s voice said behind Merlin. “Freya?”
“Dr Gaius! What are you doing here?” Freya looked around as if only just realising where she was.
“I was lucky enough to sample some of your excellent chocolate brownies yesterday, I thought I might see what other delights you had baked.”
“Oh… um, I haven’t done any baking…”
“How about I take you home, Freya? I don’t think you are very well,” Gaius said gently.
“I’m fine! I’m fine, can’t you see it? They made me ill! I’m better now. I’m brilliant!”
“Freya, have you seen the state of the café?” Gaius said.
Freya looked about her. “I… I… I can’t take them, Dr Gaius, I can’t! It’s fine, look, I can sort this out!” She jumped up and started collecting dishes from a nearby table.
“My dear, I only want to help you.”
“What in the world?” Arthur was standing in the doorway, looking aghast at the destruction.
“I…” Freya started crying. “I’m drowning, they make me feel like I’m drowning, all the time, and my head is so muddled I can’t draw. I can’t go back to that. Look, look, I’m good, see?” She held out her drawings to Gaius. “Please… I’m fine.”
“Come on, my dear, let’s get you upstairs. I think you could do with a nice rest. We’ll talk to your specialist about changing your medication.”
“I can’t! I don’t need to sleep! I’m not tired. And I don’t need any medication! And I have far too much to do here! I haven’t done any baking!”
“When did you last sleep?”
“I’m fine, honestly, Dr Gaius.”
“Just humour an old man then.” Gaius took Freya’s hand in his.
“What about the café? I can’t leave it like this.”
“Al and Arthur will sort the café out, won’t you my boys?” Gaius asked.
“Yes, of course,” Merlin said. “It’s ok, I can do it on my own.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Al,” Arthur said, not looking at him. “Let’s get this mess sorted out. We’ve got this, Freya, don’t worry.”
It was a strange afternoon, working in the café with Arthur – especially when Arthur was acting a bit awkward around him.
They began by straightening tables and collecting dishes as Gaius led Freya out.
Merlin found himself getting irritated with Arthur. It was like he just didn’t seem to get that the café was busy. He walked too slowly, he kept going the long way round the tables rather than simply turning around and going back the way he came, he got in the way of customers, he got irritated at the noise, and quite frankly he just wasn’t cut out for it.
After an incident where Arthur nearly fell over a small boy and yelled at him, they came to an agreement that Arthur served the customers up at the till, made the drinks and sorted out the food, and Merlin ran around and delivered it to the tables and cleared the dishes.
By the time three o'clock came and the lunch trade had finally ended and they were nearly out of cake, Merlin was starving, having completely failed to get any lunch himself. None of his favourite sandwiches were left, but he had managed to hide one of Freya’s fabulous cheese scones.
“Slacking on the job now, Al?” Arthur finally spoke to him as he went to sit down with his scone and a cup of tea.
“Oh come on, Betty!” Merlin was aware he sounded whiny, but his feet hurt and he didn’t care. “We have, like, two customers. This is my lunch. When are you going to tell me exactly what crawled up your arse and died, anyway?
“I told you, I don’t want you coming into the garden in the mornings.” Arthur pointed at Merlin’s cup of tea and scone. “I hope you paid for that.”
“Of course I sodding well paid for it, I’m not a thief!” Merlin sprayed an indignant a mouthful of scone crumbs everywhere. “And you told me you didn’t want me using the pool first thing, not the whole garden. I wasn’t actually anywhere near the pool.”
“Fine, I didn’t want you seeing me like that, alright?” Arthur rubbed the bridge of his nose, reminding Merlin of someone but he couldn’t think who. “I’m sorry. I actually only came in here to apologize. I’m not a morning person.”
“Seeing you like what?” Merlin felt genuinely confused.
“Oh come on! You know what I mean.” Arthur glanced at the two remaining patrons and lowered his voice. “I’m not exactly easy on the eye.”
“You looked pretty fine from where I was standing.” Merlin mentally slapped himself, he really hadn’t meant to say that out loud.
Arthur shook his head and glanced back over at the two ladies by the window. “Eat your lunch.”
By the time the customers had left, Merlin had finished his scone. He decided he’d better take advantage of the lull to do some baking. Despite Freya’s baking spree of a few days ago, they were starting to run low on stock. Brownies would do to start with, he could do those.
“I’m sorry.” Arthur brought a coffee over and perched on a stool near where Merlin was getting ingredients out.
“You already said that. It’s fine, I’m getting used to your sparkling duel personality,” Merlin replied, not bothering to take his head out of the cupboard.
When he turned back around with his hands full of ingredients, Arthur was staring into the depths of a cup of coffee like it held the answers to everything.
“Look, Arthur, I get that you have issues, ok? But I just want you to know that I would never judge you for that. I mean, so you have scars, big deal. Have you seen my ears?” He flicked his ear and pulled a face, drawing an involuntary smile from Arthur.
“It’s really not the same, Al.” Arthur shook his head, almost like he was having an internal argument with himself. The small smile still tugged at the corner of his mouth.
“Hey, Betty.” Merlin nudged Arthur with his shoulder on his way past with a brownie tray. “I’m your long lost pal, remember?”
“I wish I’d never introduced you to that song.” Arthur shook his head, but the smile was a little bigger. “And for what it’s worth, I like your ears.”
What? WHAT? Did Arthur actually just say that? “I think you’re pretty gorgeous, scars and all.” Merlin willed his mouth to stop talking and concentrated on weighing ingredients.
“Yeah, yeah, I know, shut up.”
A customer chose that moment to come in and Arthur got up and went to serve him.
“I think I should let Freya keep the mural, what do you think?” Arthur said when he came back.
Merlin glanced through at the dragon mural on the wall. “Is that your call?”
Arthur nodded. “This place was my mum’s. I inherited it along with the house when she died.” He cast a fond but slightly sad look at the café.
“So you’re ‘the Boss Man’?” Merlin said as he turned on the mixer for the brownie batter.
“Only Freya gets to call me that.” Arthur snorted.
“Are you going to sack her?” Merlin glanced up at him.
“For being ill?” Arthur looked offended that Merlin would even suggest such a thing. “What sort of a monster do you take me for?”
“That’s good to know. And the mural is amazing.”
“You know, this might sound a little odd, but that wizard looks a bit like you.” Arthur was studying Merlin.
“Because I’m a billion years old?” Merlin scoffed, pretty sure that Arthur could see straight through him.
“When we’re old men, like Gaius and Geoffrey, that’s what you’ll look like.”
When we’re old men like Gaius and Geoffrey. Did he mean like like Gaius and Geoffrey? Merlin tried and failed to stop the grin that split his face.
For probably the first time since Will died, Merlin did not dream about him.
Instead, his nightmares were about being trapped in a mighty oak tree, unable to move. He woke himself when he fell out of bed, tangled in the duvet he’d apparently been trying to fight off.
He pulled out his sketchbook and found a drawing he’d done when they first moved here of himself trapped in a tree. He spent the rest of the night proving that the devil is indeed in the detail.
Despite waking so early, Merlin found himself running late for work on Saturday. He was then made even later when he glanced out of the kitchen window and saw a titan walking down the garden.
Because, really, a titan was the only thing this man could have been. He had to be about seven foot tall, with arms bigger than trees. The army fatigues he wore stretched tight across his torso revealing the body of greek statue. For all the strangers that had made Merlin’s heart stop with fear since Will died, made him sure that they were there to kill him, this should be the one that scared him most. The man could probably snap his neck without even breaking a sweat. And yet… there was something about the face under that buzz-cut that just looked so young and kind that Merlin found himself feeling safe when he looked at him.
Then a horrible feeling of jealousy overtook him. Arthur was a good-looking man, this newcomer was a good-looking man… Why was he at Arthur’s so early? Had he been there all night? Maybe he’d just nipped out for a paper or something? Freya seemed to be right about the constant stream of gorgeous men that came and went from Arthur’s flat. Were they all his lovers? Merlin continued to torture himself with thoughts of what the two men might have been getting up to the whole way to work.
Arthur still hadn’t managed to arrange cover for Freya so Merlin was working on his own – and the weekends were always busy. Gwen was still off because her brother was on leave and her time with him was precious.
That basically meant that Merlin was rushed off his feet all day, because Arthur was clearly off shagging all the models that came and went so couldn’t possibly do another day in the café.
Merlin told himself that Freya was his friend, he was doing this for her, not Arthur.
Ever since he dreamt of being trapped in the tree, Merlin’s nights had seen even less sleep that they had before. Sometimes Will was not there, other times he stood over Merlin and stared down at him with the cold unblinking eyes of the dead. “You deserve this, Merlin. You deserve everything that’s coming to you.” One time, Will chopped the tree down, and Merlin was convinced he could feel where the blade of the axe had struck all day.
He’d gone to bed early on Monday night because the last few days of covering Freya’s shifts had completely worn him out. He woke from a very vivid dream where Cenred had been trying to strangle him with vines while Will watched and gave him pointers and, for some reason, the dragon on the gate droned on about destiny.
The moonlight was streaming through the window because he hadn’t bothered drawing the curtains and his clock said it had only just gone midnight. Sighing he flopped back down on the bed and tried to go back to sleep.
The sound of laughter from outside caught his ears.
“Put me down! Put me down, you tossers!”
That sounded distinctly like Arthur. More laughter followed.
“Let this teach ya for making us watch such a crap game!” That sounded like Gwaine. “And for whinging about it all bloody night!”
Merlin got up and went over to the window. Two men, Gwaine and the titan from this morning, were carrying a struggling Arthur towards the pool. The dragon security light on the garage wall came on as they approached, illuminating the scene.
“Don’t worry, Princess, you were warned what would happen if you complained one more time.” Gwaine’s voice carried clearly across the garden.
“What the hell are you doing?” Three more men came running out of the flat. There was a mighty splash as Arthur hit the water.
Hotty McHotface, ran towards the pool and, to Merlin’s surprise, jumped in fully dressed. “Arthur, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Arthur sounded pissed off. “Gwaine, so help me I will kill you!”
“Ah, come on, Princess, it’s only a bit of fun!”
Leon kicked his shoes off and also lowered himself down into the pool. “Are you hurt? Shall I help you get out? Do you want me to fetch Dr Gaius?”
“I’m fine, Leon!” Arthur snapped at him. “I can get myself out, stop fussing.” As if to prove his point, Arthur batted Leon and Lance away and swam to the side of the pool. Merlin couldn’t help but admire the strength in Arthur’s arms as he hoisted himself up to sit on the edge.
“You pair of bloody idiots!” A young black man who Merlin didn’t recognise was yelling at the two culprits.
“He’s fine!” Gwaine exclaimed, coming to stand next to Arthur. “Geez, Elyan, you lot make such a bloody fuss over a little dunking. He deserved it.”
Ah, Merlin thought. Elyan, that must be Gwen’s brother.
With such a speed Merlin barely saw it, Arthur’s arm shot out and the next thing anyone knew there was a smacking splash as Gwaine belly-flopped into the pool.
Elyan jumped back from the water splashing up, but the big man cheered before stripping off his top and dive-bombing into the deep end.
“Watch it, Perce, you nearly landed on me!” Leon dodged out of the way as the other man splashed him.
The scene descended into chaos after that. All of the men ended up in the pool, most of them in various stages of undress. Merlin was reminded of Freya’s joke on his first morning in the café about Arthur and his ‘boys’ holding orgies. Freya had such a dry sense of humour he was never entirely sure if she was joking or not. Now, admittedly he couldn’t see any actual sex happening, but there was plenty of nudity, and that was an awful lot of men for one little flat.
Merlin’s hand soon reached for his sketchbook and pencil and he started to draw six beautiful men cavorting in the moonlit pool.
Eventually they seemed to decide they’d had enough, which was maybe just as well because they’d clearly been drinking and Merlin wouldn’t really have liked them to drown. They made their way laughing and joking back to the house.
Arthur in particular was clearly far drunker than he seemed as his arm was slung around Lance’s neck letting his friend practically carry him as he stumbled along. Gwaine came and looped his arm around Arthur’s middle. “Anyone would think to look at you that you were completely legless.”
“Only half!” Arthur joked back as Leon swatted Gwaine around the back of the head. Something seemed a little off about Arthur, but Merlin couldn’t work out what.
As they disappeared from Merlin’s line of sight, he finally let out the small sigh of envy he’d been holding in. He wanted to be down there with them. Not for the orgy or anything, well, not much, although admittedly he wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed for making crumbs. But just for the easy camaraderie that seemed to exist between them. And for Arthur, he had to admit that, always for Arthur. And he didn’t want to share him with anyone.
Work was hell.
He hadn’t been able to get back to sleep the night before, and had made the somewhat stupid decision to exist on coffee. He hated coffee.
His eyeballs felt like they were made of sandpaper and the inside of his head felt like someone was repeatedly kicking a football against the hollow door of his brain. He strongly suspected that person must be Will.
Gwen was all sunshine and smiles after spending time with her beloved brother. Merlin didn’t tell her that he’d seen nearly all of Elyan last night in the pool.
The door made an annoying, head-rattling jangle when it opened. Seriously, did no one in Camelot own a kettle to make their own tea? The breakfast rush was supposed to be over so he could recover in the brief lull before the lunch rush started. Why couldn’t they all just fuck off and leave him to sleep?
“That has to have been the worst match I have ever seen!” Gwen’s brother walked backwards into the café, talking animatedly to the others. “I mean, what the hell?”
“This is the worst week to be English ever.” Leon shook his shaggy head sorrowfully as he followed Elyan in. “The country’s up the swanny, and we’re crap at football.”
“Ah, sure, you lot could never play footie anyway.” Gwaine spoke with all the cheerfulness of a man who held an Irish passport.
“Oi!” Elyan looked affronted. “Like Ireland did any better!”
“Come on! We played better than you lot! And at least we’re still in the EU!” Gwaine dodged out of the way laughing as the others tried to swat him round the head.
Gwaine came up to the counter. “Al! How’re ya doing?” He flicked his hair over his shoulder and flashed him a dazzling smile that no doubt got him into the knickers of anyone he directed it at. “And the beautiful Lady Gwen.” Here he actually swept her hand up and kissed it, making Gwen giggle and blush.
“Hi, Al, Gwen!” Leon called out. “Six teas please.”
“No, I don’t want tea. I’ll have a double espresso.” Arthur came in last, wearing a pair of black aviators and generally looking like some sort of movie star.
“Gwen.” Lance came over and smiled softly at her. “Er, and Al!” he said, suddenly realising that there were more people in the world than just him and Gwen.
The six men sat down noisily around the big table by Freya’s mural, the scraping of chairs going straight through Merlin’s skull.
“Are you alright, Al?” Arthur had pushed his sunglasses on top of his head, making his hair stand up a little in a way that Merlin absolutely did not find adorable. Adorable? Really? Doomed.
“Yeah, just didn’t sleep well last night. A bunch of wankers were making a racket outside.”
Six faces looked guiltily at him and a mumbled ‘sorry’ rang around the café.
“Tea!” Gwen said, bringing a tray over. “And a coffee,” she added before Arthur could complain. “Can I get you anything else?”
Merlin started preparing the six big cooked breakfasts he could hear them asking Gwen for, despite it being half eleven. Lazy gits. He had no idea how they were all so fit, they should be big and fat the way they ate.
He did his best to tune them out as he worked, leaving Gwen to serve the other customers while he saw to the food.
When the breakfasts were ready, he carried them over to the table.
“Al, have you met Elyan?” Arthur asked, gesturing.
“Hi,” Elyan said, holding out a hand to Merlin. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” He jumped and glared at Arthur. “Ow, what was that for?”
Arthur glared back at him.
“Hello,” Merlin said, reaching over to shake Elyan’s hand. “You’re Gwen’s brother, right? She talks about you all the time.”
“I dread to think what she’s been saying!” Elyan laughed as Gwen stuck her tongue out at him.
Arthur turned to the massive bloke across the table. “And this is Percy.” Percy simply lifted a hand and waved, his mouth already full of bacon.
“Hi, nice to meet you. Enjoy your breakfast!” Merlin beat a hasty retreat.
“So, is that the guy Arthur fancies?” he heard someone ask behind him in a loud whisper.
“Shush, he’ll hear you,” another voice that sounded like Leon hissed.
“I never said I fancied him!” Arthur sounded indignant. “He’s a kid.”
Yeah, why would Arthur fancy him? When he had all that lot at his beck and call? He glanced back over. Every single one of them would have been classed as the most beautiful specimen of manhood he’d ever seen before he’d met Arthur, and yet here they were, stuffing their faces with greasy food and drinking tea like they were normal human beings.
The lunchtime trade was starting to filter in, distracting him from listening to Arthur and his squaddie mates. Sighing, he went to serve Mrs Collins.
Half an hour later and the queue was out the door. He was serving Grunhilda from the hippy dippy crystal shop down the street, trying not to yawn and ignoring the way Gwaine’s arm was casually slung around the back of Arthur’s chair, or the way Elyan brazenly stole one of Arthur’s sausages.
His rapidly growing feelings for Arthur aside, he missed that. The easy camaraderie he’d shared with Will. His new friends in Camelot were brilliant, but there wasn’t that lifelong knowing.
“Excuse me, young man?” Grunhilda was waving her hand in front of his face. “I asked for soy milk?”
“Oh! I’m really sorry,” he said, turning to battle the coffee machine once more.
“Yes, well, it’s just as well I noticed, or no amount of incense would have made my shop worth coming into this afternoon!”
Merlin tried not to pull a face at the horrible images that brought up. “Here you go, one soy latte, sorry about that”
“And my gluten-free muffin?”
“Yes, of course,” he put the a muffin on a plate for her.
“On the house, Grunhilda, sorry about the staff,” Arthur said, coming up to stand behind her.
She simpered at him as she walked away.
“You have to be more careful, Al. Allergies can be serious.”
“I know!” He carried on serving the next customer, trying to ignore Arthur. “That’ll be five fifty please. Thanks. We’ll bring it over.”
“Well clearly you don’t know, do you? Or you’d have got the order right,” Arthur continued as Merlin put the order through to Gwen and started on the next one.
“Look— ow! Stupid bloody thing!” He swore and stuck his finger in his mouth as the espresso machine spat at him for the millionth time.
“Go and run it under cold water,” Arthur said, taking over the making of the coffee and apologising to the customer.
“Hey, Al, why don’t you go early? I can handle the rest of the lunch trade.” Gwen cut in as she came through from the kitchen. “I can manage here, you’ve been coping on your own for the last few days any way.”
“Gwen is right, Al, you should get off before you make any more mistakes.”
Merlin turned to glare at Arthur. “I— Freya!”
“Hello.” Freya was standing behind Arthur. She had big bags under her eyes in stark contrast to her too-white face, but she still managed to summon a smile.
“Oh my god, Freya! How are you?” Gwen ran around the counter and hugged her friend.
“I’m ok, I’m ok.” Freya gave a weak smile. “But Gaius thinks I should take a holiday, if that’s alright?” This last was said to Arthur, but she cast an apologetic look at Merlin and Gwen too. I thought I might go and visit Elena in Galway.”
“That’s fine, Freya, take as much time as you need,” Arthur said. “I’ll get cover.”
“Don’t be, it can’t be helped.”
“Yeah, just concentrate on getting better,” Gwen said. Merlin nodded his head in agreement.
“My kid brother will be back from his trip next week. He said he’ll help out with a few shifts if you want? And that way there’ll still be someone in the flat too.”
“How old is he now?” Arthur asked.
“Sixteen. He just finished his GCSEs.”
“Ok.” Arthur nodded. “That should be fine. Gwen can take charge for the moment, and I’m only five minutes away. If that’s alright with you, Gwen?”
“Fine by me.”
“Here, Gwen, for the breakfasts,” Arthur said, holding out his credit card. “Can’t have the books not balancing.”
Gwen took the card and went to the till. Merlin came and gave Freya a quick hug.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better. Have a lovely time in Ireland.”
“Thanks, Al. For everything.” She hugged him back.
“Hey, Arthur, are you coming? We’re going for a kick around in the park,” Percy called over, waving a ball in the air – goodness only knew where he had got it from. Merlin couldn’t believe those greedy pigs had finished all that food already.
“Yeah, let’s just think about the practicality of that, shall we, Perce?” Arthur’s voice was heavy with sarcasm.
“Oh shit, sorry mate, didn’t think.” Percy looked like a guilty schoolboy as he stood there clutching his football. A very overgrown schoolboy.
“We don’t have to, we can do something else…” Leon said.
“It’s fine. I’m a big boy. Go on, I’ll catch you up.”
Arthur’s friends were just as noisy leaving as they had been arriving. When they were finally out of the door, Arthur turned back to Freya.
“Enjoy yourself, Freya, forget about everything for a bit.” Arthur said. He looked over at Merlin who was unsuccessfully trying not to yawn. “Come on, Al, let’s get you to bed.”
Gwen burst out laughing. “Arthur, you smooth talker you!”
Freya started laughing too, her face lighting up and making her look more like her old self. “Demand a bit more romance than that, Al.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re all hilarious.” Merlin pulled the apron over his head and threw it at Gwen. “I’ll see you tomorrow, ok?”
“Bye, boys, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!”
“Be good!” Freya added. “And if you can’t be good…”
“Find new friends?”
“… be careful!” the girls chorused behind him as he left, their giggles following him out the door.
“Slow down!” Arthur reached out to grab Merlin’s elbow. “What’s the rush?”
“Sorry, old man, didn’t realise you were so slow.”
“Jesus, you’re grumpy today!” Arthur let go of Merlin’s arm.
“Sorry.” Merlin slowed his pace to match Arthur’s. “I’m just tired.”
“I didn’t realise we were making so much noise.” Just at that point Percy, Elyan and Gwaine laughed loudly up ahead at something Leon said.
“Because they’re usually so quiet?” Merlin raised an eyebrow at Arthur. He sighed. ”It’s ok, you sounded like you were having fun.”
“It’s not often we can all get together at the same time, so with Percy and Elyan on leave and the others able to get down – I guess we just got a little carried away.”
“You were in the Army together?”
“Royal Marines Commandos, four-nines. Percy and Elyan are still serving, Leon is too, technically – he works with me over at Bovington, training the troops, as you know. Although he is more full time than me, so he lives down that way.”
“And the other two?”
“Lance went back to studying; he’s training to be a psychologist. Gwaine is a bum.”
“What?” A startled laugh escaped Merlin.
Arthur shrugged. “He tends to flit from job to job. Does a lot of bar work to keep him travelling from place to place. He gets antsy if he stays in one place too long. To be honest, I don’t know if the army fucked with his head or if he was always like that.”
Merlin hadn’t really intended on following the others to the park. This was the long way back to the house, but somehow he found himself going along with Arthur as they chatted.
Arthur’s idiot friends were kicking a football around over on the long stretch of grass across the path from the swings. Despite the day being overcast, Gwaine and Percy had stripped off their shirts off to use as goal markers.
It was a nice sight, five very fit men, running about, two of them shirtless. Merlin watched as Gwaine tackled the ball from Lance and kicked it past Leon into their makeshift goal.
“Score for Ireland! Republic of Ireland is in the lead!” Gwaine pumped his fist in the air as Leon went to fetch the ball. “You English are rubbish, four of you, one of me!”
“Don’t look at me, I’m honorary Welsh by marriage!” Leon called back as he kicked the ball over.
“We’re practically in Wales here, let’s just support them instead!” Percy said as he ran after it.
“We’d stand a better chance if Lance would stop texting Gwen and actually play football!” Elyan shouted, trying to wrestle Lance’s phone off him. “What have I told you about leaving my sister alone?”
“Your sister could do worse!” Lance said, laughing as he moved the phone out of Elyan’s reach. “It could be Gwaine texting her!”
“Then he’d be picking bullets out of his no longer perfect little backside!”
Merlin stiffened beside Arthur. He still couldn’t deal with jokes about guns.
“You ok?” Arthur looked round to see why Merlin had stopped.
“Yeah, fine.” He knew the smile didn’t reach his eyes, but it was the best he could do. He resumed walking.
“They don’t mean it, you know. They’re just letting off steam.”
The ball came flying towards them.
“Leon, you ginger tosser! What did you do that for?” someone shouted.
“It’s not ginger, it’s auburn!” Leon yelled back.
“Oooh, get her!” They all started laughing “It’s strawberry blonde, don’t you know!”
Merlin fully expected Arthur to return the ball and go and join in with his friends but instead he stepped to the side, letting it fly past.
“Hey, Al, kick us the ball back!” Leon called.
He hated football because he was shite at it. He went to fetch the ball and then, closing his eyes, he kicked the ball in the general direction of the others, willing it to at least go straight and not make a total tit out of him in front of Arthur.
“Nice shot, Al!” Percy hooted. “That makes us level!”
Merlin opened his eyes to see the ball going straight past Leon into the goal almost like it was being pulled along by an invisible string.
“Sorry,” Merlin yelled back, regaining his senses. “My Dad’s Irish, I’m on Gwaine’s team.”
“Ha! Yes! Suck it up, losers!” Gwaine ran over and planted a smacking kiss on Merlin’s mouth before pinching his bum, as usual, and then smirking at Arthur.
“Are you playing?” Elyan ran over too, but kept his lips to himself.
“Nah, I’m hopeless at sport.” Merlin wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as Gwaine ran off again. “It was just a lucky kick.”
“It’s true,” Arthur said from beside him. “He had his eyes closed when he kicked the ball, I saw him.”
“Wow, thanks for telling them that, Arthur!”
“Oh.” Elyan looked disappointed. “Well, you can play anyway if you want – it’s just a kick-about, nothing serious. And you can’t be worse than the England team last night!”
“Nah, think I’ll just watch. Gwen sent me home early to get some kip, not to mess around playing football.”
“Well, woe betide anyone who disobeys my sister! You’d better get some sleep.” Elyan laughed and ran back to join the others.
“You should be careful with Gwaine, you know,” Arthur said, watching the others rather than looking at Merlin.
“Careful in what way?”
“I’ve seen the way you look at him.” Arthur turned then and looked Merlin in the eye. “I know he’s good looking, and fun and friendly, and he has this skill of making everyone fall in love with him whilst making you feel like you’re the most important person in the world. But he’s flakey. He never sticks at anything, he moves on.” Arthur looked… vulnerable.
“Are you seriously trying to warn me off your boyfriend?”
“Damn it, Al.” Arthur put his hands on his hips like Hunith did when she was telling Merlin off. “Gwaine is not my boyfriend. I told you, he doesn’t do commitment. He does sleeping around.”
“Ohh, I see. So what, he rejected you? And now you’re jealous because you think he likes me?”
“No.” Arthur sounded exasperated as he rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Gwaine and I are just friends, that’s all we’ve ever been. Anyway, I’d have been the one rejecting him.”
“So why the third degree? I’m a big boy, Arthur, I can look after myself.”
“I just don’t want you to get hurt, alright?” Arthur folded his arms across his chest. “But please, by all means, be my guest. Go and get yourself a broken heart and a nice case of the clap. Just don’t come crying to me next time he goes swanning off to Nicaragua with a cage dancer.”
“He did that?”
Arthur’s mouth twitched. “The location and floozy vary, but he always goes. Gwaine is one of my best friends in the world, I know he’ll always be there for me. I’m just never quite sure where ‘there’ is.”
“My heart is not that fragile.” Merlin turned his eyes to the game.
“You, Al, are not the casual fling type, I can tell. You’d get all dewy-eyed over him and then all snotty nosed and weepy when he inevitably gets itchy feet.”
”Would not!” Merlin knew Arthur probably had a point, he just wasn’t sure Gwaine would be the one to break his heart. Arthur himself stood a much better chance of doing that.
“Are you not joining in?” Merlin changed the subject, nodding towards the game which seemed to have gone from England vs Ireland to shirts vs skins.
“That was bloody well in, you lanky git!” Elyan was yelling at Leon, who seemed to be in goal for both sides as well as referee.
“It was out, it hit the post.”
“There is no post!”
“Nah,” Arthur shook his head at his friends’ antics. “Think I’ll give it a miss.”
“I thought you liked football.”
Arthur shrugged in response. “It’s alright I suppose.”
“Yeah yeah, you forget I’ve seen your Arsenal mug and the signed shirt on the wall. And you were blethering on about football the other day like it was the best thing ever.”
“I like watching football,” Arthur said. “I don’t play.”
“I’m not really sure they do either.” Merlin gestured to where Gwaine’s idea of tackling seemed to involve jumping on Percy’s back and wrapping his arms around his neck, despite the fact that Percy was meant to be on his team.
Arthur looked over and snorted. “Think I’ll walk back to the house with you. That lot know the way.”
“I’m not a girl, Arthur. I don’t need you to walk me home.”
“Ok, how about this – I’m going home. Feel free to walk ten paces behind and pretend you don’t know me.” Arthur started walking in the general direction of his house.
“Ok, fine! Prat.” Merlin hurried to catch up.
“I don’t fancy Gwaine, you know,” Merlin said, aiming for casual.
They were sitting on the rickety chairs by the table at the top end of the garden just outside Arthur’s window.
“Of course you do. Everyone fancies Gwaine. Even the straightest bloke you ever met fancies Gwaine.”
“He’s not really my type.” Merlin studied Arthur’s profile. “I prefer blonds.”
Arthur looked over at him and shook his head. “Al…”
“No. Don’t fob me off. I know you fancy me, your friends have dropped enough hints.”
“They talk out of their arses.” Arthur resolutely looked out at his garden rather than at Merlin.
“I don’t see what the problem is. I fancy you, you fancy me.” Merlin watched him, Arthur really was stupidly pretty.
“You’re seventeen, I’m thirty-two.” Arthur still wouldn’t look at him.
“That’s perfectly legal.”
“That’s cradle snatching.” Finally Arthur turned to him. “Drop it, Al it’s not going to happen.”
“Why?” Merlin sat forward.
“It would be taking advantage!”
“No, it wouldn’t. I’m the one who started this, not you.”
“Find someone your own age. Someone worthy of you.” Arthur looked away again.
“Worthy of me? Worthy of me? What’s that supposed to mean? For fuck’s sake, Arthur. You are the best looking bloke I’ve ever met! And yes, that includes Gwaine and Elyan and the others.”
“And is that all I am to you? A pretty face?” Arthur stood and made a move towards the house before turning back round, his voice rough and quiet. “There is more to me than that, Al! Seriously, you have no idea what you are asking.”
“No! No, that’s not all I see.” Merlin jumped up and reached for Arthur’s arm. “I see someone with a great sense of humour, and a kind heart, however well you keep it hidden. You looked out for Mum and me when we came here, you feed the homeless, you took care of Freya. Everyone around here loves you.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Mum always says that the thing about looks is that the person on the inside makes a difference to the attractiveness of the person on the outside. She’s right.”
Merlin closed the gap between them and pressed his lips to Arthur’s, silencing him.
The kiss was fleeting, but there. Arthur’s lips were dry and soft, slightly chapped where he’d been biting his lip. Arthur put his hands on Merlin’s arms to steady himself, kissing back softly, almost like he thought Merlin might disappear. Merlin moved slightly and their noses bumped. Arthur’s grip on his arms tightened and the next thing Merlin knew he was pushing him away.
“I said no, Al.”
“You kissed me back!”
“And I shouldn’t have. I’m too old and too broken, Al. You can do better, believe me.” Arthur turned awkwardly and went into his flat, shutting the door behind him.
“Well fuck,” Merlin said to the dragon holding the light.
Chapter 4: Everything Put Together Falls Apart
Freya’s brother was more than a little creepy.
He did this thing where he just stood there and stared, like he was trying to read Merlin’s mind or something. He was quiet – not like Merlin himself could be when he was with people he didn’t know, but more in a completely silent ‘I’m going to murder you’ way. At first Merlin had given him the benefit of the doubt and thought that maybe the boy was mute or something, except he did give monosyllabic responses when required
Merlin was in for a long shift with just him and Mordred in the café.
He was wiping down tables, trying to ignore the feeling of Mordred’s eyes boring into him, when Lance came in.
“Hi Al. Is Gwen not in today?”
“No, she’s gone to Loughborough to sort some stuff out for her course.”
“Oh, right.” Lance looked so crestfallen that Merlin ended up giving up his lunch hour to listen to Lance ramble on about how perfect Gwen was. It probably made Merlin a bad person that he felt irritated. Gwen was slightly younger than him, his real age anyway, and Lance had to be about the same age as Arthur, but it didn’t seem to worry them. Just stupid Arthur.
The rest of the day dragged on after Lance left. When Merlin finally got home, it was to find a note from his mother telling him she had a date and not to wait up. Even his mother had a better sex life than him.
It was a pain in the arse, pretending to be seventeen. Merlin and Will had been drinking since long before they were old enough, and now that he was well past eighteen, he suddenly wasn’t old enough again.
Perhaps, a treacherous little part of his brain said, if Arthur knew he was twenty rather than seventeen, he’d invite him to the pub, instead of going with Leon or Gwaine or one of the others.
As far as Merlin was aware, Arthur was home alone tonight, maybe he should go down and offer him some company. Or maybe he should offer him some company, after all, he might be suffering withdrawal symptoms.
Of course, he wouldn’t be having these silly thoughts at all if he hadn’t been raiding Hunith’s cocktail supplies all evening – a day working with Mordred could have that effect.
Tequila and stairs were not a good combination. Tequila and stairs and flip-flops even less so. He had run out of actual drink type mixers a while back, so his margaritas had consisted of a mixture of tequila and cointreau, followed by tequila and a bit more tequila. It was a slightly battered and bruised Merlin that eventually knocked on Arthur’s door, and a rather beautiful and perplexed Arthur that opened it.
“know ‘m not ‘spretty as all your lovers, but I thought you might like sme compny, or, you know… some compny.” It was a great opening line. Merlin included an eyebrow waggle and everything.
“All what lovers?” Arthur looked like a confused little puppy, bless him.
“I do not look like a puppy!”
Oh balls, Merlin must have said that out loud.
“Yes, you did. How much have you had to drink?”
“Han’t been drinking! ‘m svemteen.”
“Seventeen sheets to the wind, more like. Come on, let’s get you inside. I’m never going to get you back up those stairs like this.” Arthur stood aside and held the door open to let Merlin in.
Merlin stumbled into the living room and pitched face-first onto Arthur’s sofa. “Hello Arthur’s sofa,” he mumbled into the cushion.
Arthur snorted behind him. “I’ll just put some coffee on, shall I?”
It might have vaguely occurred to Merlin that there was something strange about the way Arthur moved into the kitchen, but then he got distracted with trying to untie his flip-flops so he could take them off.
“Here, idiot, drink this.” Arthur was holding a steaming cup out to him.
“‘M not thirsty.”
“Drink it any way. For me. And eat this.” One of Freya’s cheese scones! Merlin fell on it like he hadn’t eaten all day. Come to think of it, that might be true. Double come to think of it, he’d made these damn scones.
“Ok, but only cos you’re preeeeetitty,” he told Arthur through a mouthful of crumbs.
“No, I’m a very manly man, thank you very much.”
“Pretty pretty pretty. Pretty Arthur and his pretty boyfriends.”
“What pretty boyfriends are these then?”
“Youn know, Gwaine an’ Lion and Lansh an’ Ellan an’ Precy an’ Gwaine.”
“Al,” Arthur said. He sounded strained. Or possibly like he was trying not to laugh. “Those are my friends, my army mates. We served together. Not a single one of them is, or has ever been, my boyfriend.”
“Yes. They have this weird idea that I might be lonely stuck out in the sticks on my own, so they hang around like five particularly bad smells. Leon is married to Mithian, Lance is besotted with Gwen, Elyan and Percy are practically fighting the girls off. Gwaine, admittedly, will sleep with anything that moves, so yeah, I guess if I was up for a pity shag I could always go there, but I do have some dignity.”
“Pity shag? Have you seen you? I mean, I know Gwaine looks like some sort of Gooshy wooshy molldle, but you are way out of his league!”
“Abercrombie and Fitch, actually.”
“That’s who Gwaine used to model for, Gucci is also way out of his league.”
“Ha! So you admeet yourrre out of Gwaine’s leige!” Merlin shouted triumphantly. Then his face fell. “And mine, obviously.”
Arthur shook his head. “Al—”
“It’s ok, I’m sorry, I shouna come.” He started to stand up, making the room spin alarmingly. “Whoa…” he sat back down.
“Of course you are good enough for me, idiot. Too good. And far too young.”
“‘m not too young. I’ll be twenty-one in Sepemer! Two months t’morrow.”
“That’s clever, Al, considering you only turned seventeen in April. And even if you were twenty-one, I’m still too old for you.”
“’m still legal.”
“Only just. Go out and lose your virginity to someone your own age, Al. I’m not here to be your little experiment.”
“I don’t want ‘nyone m’own age.” Merlin didn’t even care if he pouted. “Anyway, boys my age don fancy me either.”
“Al, I never said I wasn’t attracted to you.” Arthur gently brushed Merlin’s hair behind his ear. “I said you can do better.”
Merlin studied Arthur. His kind eyes that belied his grumpy persona, his aquiline nose with its characteristic bump, his blond hair that caught the light, his pink lips that always looked bitten. He could never do better than Arthur.
Catching Arthur off guard, he surged forward on the sofa and caught those lips with his own, bumping noses and not caring. Arthur briefly gave in and kissed back, tilting his head to the side, his lips warm and soft. And then he was pushing Merlin away again.
“Al, stop, you’re drunk.”
“’m not a virgin, y’ know.”
“You said I shou’ lose me ‘ginity to someone m’own age. Me an’ Will used to go to the gay clubs in Man’ster, an’ he always managed to pull straight girls in gay clubs cos he’s a gen’us. An’ I…” There was a feeling, welling up in Merlin’s gut…
“Oh no you don’t!” Arthur said, pushing Merlin towards the bathroom.
It was mostly liquid anyway. And scone. TMI.
Merlin came back and plonked himself back on the sofa next to Arthur, still wiping sick from his mouth.
“Would you fancy me if I’m twenny?” Merlin asked, resting his head on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Not Al, ‘m Merlin. ‘M twenny.” Damn, Arthur was comfortable.
“Al, shut up.”
His eyelids should not be this heavy. “An’ I’m a wizard…”
If Arthur said anything else, Merlin really wouldn’t know.
On Sunday morning, he woke at about seven, which was late for him. His mouth tasted like Will’s socks and his head felt like Valiant was practising tap dancing on it whilst kicking out his eyeballs. Even all that alcohol had not been enough to keep Will from haunting his dreams.
He sat up and immediately regretted it. He clutched his head and peered at his surroundings. Where in the name of fuck was he?
‘Arthur’s,’ his brain supplied.
‘Pretty pretty pretty. Pretty Arthur and his pretty boyfriends.’ his own words from last night echoed around his aching skull.
He dropped his head back down and groaned. What the ever-loving bastard had he been thinking? Or drinking?
He curled up on the sofa, pulled the pillow over his head and whimpered. Maybe he could just smother himself.
Where had the pillow even come from? And the duvet, for that matter.
‘Arthur’ a little voice said. ‘And he kissed back…’ the voice continued. Kissed back… Oh god, he had molested Arthur. And Arthur had pushed him away, again. Get the hint, Merlin’s libido.
He should really get the hell out of here before Arthur woke.
It hurt to move. He couldn’t find his flip-flops. A few minutes searching revealed them neatly lined up next to Arthur’s shoes by the front door.
He slipped his feet into them and opened the door. The too-bright early morning sun was clearly an evil bugger trying to kill him. Maybe he’d turned into a vampire.
A movement caught his eye. Arthur was in the pool. Of course he was. Merlin turned towards the door up to the main house, keen to make his escape before Arthur saw him. It was locked.
Fuck. He rattled the handle.
How? There was no way on earth he’d been sober enough to do that!
He glanced back at the pool. Safety-conscious Arthur, of course.
Oh well. He had to apologise any way, best to get this out of the way right now, while there was still alcohol floating around his system. It briefly crossed his mind that Arthur liked to have the pool to himself in the mornings, but Merlin had seen the scars now, they’d sorted it, so surely it wouldn’t be a problem? Anyway, Arthur must have the key, so there was no alternative.
He trudged up the garden towards the pool.
“Hi,” he said a tad nervously.
“Al?” Arthur shook the water out of his eyes. “What are you doing up so early?”
“Couldn’t sleep,” Merlin shielded his eyes from the sun, trying to appear nonchalant. He sat down on the edge of the pool and dangled his feet into the water. With this head and that bright sun, he couldn’t even find it in himself to admire Arthur’s bare torso.
“I thought we agreed I got the pool first thing in the mornings?” Arthur didn’t appear cross… if anything he seemed wary.
“Yeah, but I’ve seen your scars, haven’t I? I figured you wouldn’t mind so much now,” Merlin said uncertainly. “Look, I’m really really sorry, ok? I one hundred per cent blame it all on the booze, and it’ll never happen again.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I just…” Arthur’s eyes flicked over to the side of the pool. “I prefer having the pool to myself.”
“I, um, wandered if you have the key to the main house?” Merlin asked as his eyes followed Arthur’s line of sight, trying to work out what had him so anxious. It was just a pile of clothes. Arthur’s grey tracksuit, his towel, his shoes… Merlin sucked in a breath as he suddenly realised why Arthur didn’t want him there.
He glanced back over to Arthur, who hadn’t moved an inch, a resigned look on his face. Beautiful Arthur, with his handsome face and his scarred chest and…
“Shit,” Merlin said before he could stop himself. “I’m so sorry, Arthur.”
“Sorry?” Arthur frowned at him and started to swim to the edge of the pool closest to Merlin. “Why the fuck should you be sorry?”
“I just… I…” His eyes drifted back down to Arthur’s legs.
“For fuck’s sake, I don’t need your pity, Al!”
“Sorry! I mean, bugger – look, I didn’t realise, ok?” He scrambled up. “I just meant… sorry for not realising, sorry for being dense, sorry if I said the wrong thing. Sorry for invading your privacy. I’ll just go, ok. Sorry.”
He turned to leave, cursing himself for his stupidity.
“Al, wait,” Arthur called.
Merlin pretended he didn’t hear and started walking quickly towards the house.
“It’s a pretty cowardly move to run away from a bloke with one leg, you know. I don’t stand much change of catching you,” Arthur shouted after him.
Merlin stopped, feeling horribly guilty, and went back. “Shit. Sorry,” he said again.
“I really do wish you’d stop saying that.” Arthur used his wonderful strong arms to hoist himself up onto the side of the pool. “Sit down, for fuck’s sake.”
Merlin gingerly sat down next to Arthur, dangling his feet back into the pool. He couldn’t help himself but glance back down to where Arthur’s left leg ended just below the knee.
“It was an I.E.D.,” Arthur said, answering the question Merlin hadn’t worked up the courage to ask. “Afghanistan. Road was rigged. We’d checked, but…” He shrugged in a manner that didn’t come off as nonchalant as he probably intended. “The transport we were in didn’t stand a chance.”
“I…” Merlin opened his mouth and then shut it again when he couldn’t think of a single useful thing to say.
“Believe it or not, I was the lucky one; two of my friends didn’t make it. Geraint died straight out. Bohrs, he died later. Spent a lot of time asking for this mother. Stupid thing is, I was so busy trying to reassure him, I didn’t even realise how badly I was hurt till Leon reached us. But I was the lucky one, so I don’t need your pity. I don’t need anyone’s pity.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“I know. No one ever does.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“I liked it.” Arthur shrugged again. “You not knowing. You didn’t treat me like I might break. The guys, they try. They’re better than most people, especially Gwaine; he never lets me think I’m anything special. And my sister has been amazing, which is weird because we didn’t talk for years before it happened. But every now and then I catch all them looking at me with this horrible sympathy… you never did that, because you never knew.”
“They just feel sorry for you because of your face.”
Arthur bumped Merlin’s shoulder with his.
“Is that why you keep pushing me away?” Merlin asked.
“No, Al. You’re still too young.”
“I’m really not.”
“Do you honestly care anymore?” Arthur took Merlin’s hand, a wry smile on his face. “I bet I’m not so ‘pretty’ now.”
Merlin looked at him, really looked at him. The uncertainty in his eyes, the worried pucker of his lips. “Do you really think I’m that shallow? Arthur, I think you’re the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen in my life.” He held up his free hand to stop the denial he could see forming on Arthur’s lips. “And that has nothing to do with sympathy or pity or anything else. It doesn’t even have anything to do with how you look.”
“No. You’re a decent person – you give a damn about people.” Merlin shook his head. “When I first met you, I thought you were a total tosser who just happened to have a pretty face. Since then, I’ve come to think you’re one of the best people I know. And you just happen to have a fucked up leg.”
Arthur shuffled over to where his stuff was and grabbed his prosthesis from the top of the pile so he could put it on. Merlin watched him in silence for a bit as he rolled a sock-like thing over the stump of his leg. Arthur glanced up. “It stops it rubbing,” he said. I’ll sort it out properly back in the flat, this is just to get me there.” He carried on fitting the leg in place “This leg is actually suitable for swimming, but sometimes I like swimming without it, just to prove I can.”
Arthur glanced up at Merlin as he dragged his tracksuit on over his wet swimming trunks. “Al, let’s be honest, I’m fucked up. Some nights I still wake up screaming, nearly four years later.”
“I get nightmares about… stuff. We’re all fucked up, Arthur. You, me, Freya. Are you really telling me Gwaine is completely fine? Or Leon?”
“They can all walk.”
Merlin stood up so he was face to face with Arthur. “So can you. But it’s kind of more impressive when you do it.”
“Oh fuck off!” Arthur gave him a shove that sent him precariously close to the edge of the pool. “I think that might be the single most twattish thing you’ve ever said in your whole life. I’m not here to be ‘impressive’, I don’t want to be an ‘inspiration’, Al. Fuck it all, I’m still just Arthur. Same as I was yesterday.”
“I’m sorry. You can’t expect me to be able to say all the right things. I’m not perfect either.” Merlin moved back towards him and leant in to gently press his lips to Arthur’s before simply touching their foreheads together.
“Al…” This close, he could feel the erratic beat of Arthur’s heart. “This would be so much more touching if you didn’t have the worst hangover breath.”
Merlin started giggling, and then groaned as his head protested. He felt a strong hand in the centre of his chest and the next thing he knew, he was in the water. He surfaced and wiped the hair and water from his eyes, looking up to see Arthur laughing. It was a glorious sight. No one laughed like Arthur, the way he threw his head back and laughed with his whole body. This morning it was particularly wonderful, with the early-morning sun reflecting off his drying blond hair.
“I’m sorry for how I reacted,” Merlin said as he swam to the steps. Arthur might have the amazing upper body strength to pull himself up on the edge, but Merlin definitely didn’t. “It caught me off guard, that’s all.”
Arthur shrugged. “I’ve had worse reactions.”
“Still not sure you should get to park in the disabled bay though.” he said as he climbed out of the pool, his clothes dripping wet. “I mean, you’re not that disabled, are you?”
“Tell me, Al, just how disabled is that disabled?” Arthur folded his arms across his chest.
“Well, you know, at least in a wheelchair or something.”
“I have a blue badge. That means I can park there. Although my father likes to remove it and hide it in the glove box in case anyone he knows sees it. I have got into trouble on more than one occasion because I didn’t realise he’d done it.”
“I dunno, if I was in a wheelchair and needed to park, and there you were, walking around no problem, I’d be pretty pissed off with you.” Merlin shook his head in mock seriousness.
“Shut up, Al. Unless you want to go back in the water.”
“So, will you come out for a drink with me?”
“Al,” Arthur sounded like he was suffering to have this conversation again. “You aren’t even old enough to go for a drink.”
“Fine, the movies then?”
“I don’t do the movies, too many stairs.”
“Oh my god, that’s why you avoid stairs!”
“I don’t avoid stairs I cope with them just fine. I just don’t like people watching me do stairs. Hills are actually worse.”
“Dinner, then?” Merlin tried.
“Will it shut you up?”
“Fine. Just as friends. Come over tonight, I’ll cook.”
“Take it or leave it, Al. It’s all I’m offering.”
Merlin decided they could work on that. Friends would do for now.
“Good morning, you dirty stop out!” Hunith said with a big grin as Merlin came into the kitchen, dripping wet. “I do hope you used protection.”
“It wasn’t like that!” Merlin felt his face flame as he squelched soggily into a chair. His mother was just… inappropriate sometimes.
Hunith snorted and put a cup of tea down in front of him. “I know. Arthur let himself in and left a note. Said sorry for the intrusion, but you were pissed as a fart and had crashed out on his sofa and he’d taken the back door key because you never lock it.”
Merlin rested his head on the kitchen table with a groan.
“Hmm. You could do worse, you know.”
“Than what?” he said into the tabletop.
“Than Arthur. He’s a nice young man.”
“He thinks I’m too young for him.”
“Ah. Yes, of course.” He felt Hunith sit down next to him. “Why are you wet?”
“Because Arthur’s a wanker.”
She cuffed him gently round the head.
“He asked me round for dinner tonight.” He sat up a bit and reached for the tea.
“Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” She ran a hand over his wet hair.
He shrugged. “I guess.”
“Merlin, you’ve been mooning over him since we got here.”
He nodded. “What if he finds me boring though?”
“Then he wouldn’t have asked you, would he?” She stood and took the cups over to the sink.
He nodded again and got up. “I guess I’d better go and shower.”
She caught his hand as he turned. “You can’t tell him, Merlin. You know that, right?”
“Are you meant to be working today? You’re late.”
“Afternoon shift. With Freya’s creepy brother.”
“Merlin, don’t be mean.”
“What? He is creepy, you don’t have to work with him.”
She shook her head and tutted at him. “I’m off to work. Be nice to that boy.”
“Where did you say you were from?” Mordred asked almost too casually.
“Oh really? Where abouts?”
“What is this, the Spanish Inquisition?”
Mordred just stared at him. Honestly, anyone else would have at least mentioned Monty Python there, if not actually quoted the whole sketch.
“How long have you known my sister?” Mordred asked instead.
“Just a couple of months.”
“Are you sure about that?” Those cold blue eyes bored into his soul.
It was no good, no matter how hard he tried to like him, Mordred freaked Merlin out.
Merlin checked himself out in the window for what must have been the millionth time. Blue shirt, good jeans, combed hair, clean teeth, clean rest of Merlin, check. Sweaty palms, check.
He rubbed his hands on his jeans.
He might have stood outside Arthur’s door for a while with his hand raised to knock.
“Are you ever actually going to come in, Al?” Arthur’s voice called out from inside. “The door is open.”
“If I’d left the door unlocked, you’d tell me off,” he said, going into the flat.
“Does that mean you actually locked the door for once?” Arthur looked over from where he was stirring something on the stove.
“I’m not completely incompetent, you know.”
Arthur just raised an eyebrow at him and smirked.
“So, you really are cooking?” Merlin tried not to sound impressed.
“Hmm, sort of.”
“It’s just spag bol.”
It wasn’t until Arthur went to dish up the food that Merlin realised he was using a crutch to get around rather than wearing a prosthesis.
Arthur obviously noticed him look. “You don’t mind, do you? When I’m here on my own in the evenings I usually take my prosthetic off. It’s more comfortable.”
Merlin shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me.” He helped carry the plates to the table and sat down.
“If it makes you uncomfortable, just say and I’ll go and put my leg on.” Arthur pressed, taking the seat opposite.
Merlin snorted. “Sorry, that just sounded weird. But, you know, it’s your place! Whatever makes you comfortable.”
“You sure you don’t mind? I wouldn’t normally with company, well, sometimes with the guys but they’re different. It’s been a long day, and it was starting to rub.”
“I already told you. No, I don’t mind, why would I?”
Arthur shrugged, watching him intently. “It disturbs some people.”
Merlin got the impression Arthur was testing him. “Does it hurt?”
“Wearing a prosthesis.” Merlin helped himself to some spag bol and garlic bread.
“Oh. It depends. The one I wear most is a really good one, we’ve got it by now so it fits me properly, and it has a cushioned sole on the foot to absorb some of the impact when I walk – makes walking more natural. So long as I take proper care, it doesn’t hurt much. But I drove down to Bovington and back today, and I did a lot of walking when I was there, and taught a fencing lesson, so, you know.”
“The one you wear most? How many do you have?” Merlin asked through a mouthful of spaghetti.
Arthur, being more polite than Merlin, waited till he finished his mouthful before answering. “Well, I have my old one, that I had when it first happened, and my usual one, a cosmetic one that looks more like a real leg, that my father insisted on, and one with an articulated ankle, which I hate with a passion. I also have a few different swimming ones.”
“But you weren’t wearing a leg to swim.”
“Sometimes I do. I like to make sure I can swim without it too though. But one of the swimming ones is like a proper, streamlined affair with a flipper. I’ll show you sometime.”
“Cool! Hey, do you have one of those running blades?”
“Yeah, I do! It’s really good, actually, you should come for a run with me.” Arthur actually seemed quite animated talking about all his different legs.
“Ok, you’re on.” Merlin grinned and helped himself to more garlic bread. “How come you have so many? Aren’t they expensive?”
Arthur nodded. “The NHS and the army are brilliant in getting you back on your feet, ‘scuse the pun, but most of mine were paid for by my father – nothing but the best, can’t have his only son looking less than perfect.” There may have been a hint of bitterness in his voice.
“So your dad is rich?”
“Actually, he’s a lord. Lord Uther Pendragon, Earl of Camelot.” Arthur had the grace to look a little embarrassed.
“Shit. I knew you were posh, but I didn’t realise you were that posh!”
“I’m one of the lucky ones. When I first came home, my Dad was brilliant. He hired all the best doctors and physios, got me the best legs and a wheelchair, got the whole floor of the east wing done out just for me.”
“He sounds cool. A whole floor of the east wing, eh? You must have had a really deprived childhood.”
“I don’t know if he’s ever been described as ‘cool’ before. He is a good father, in his own way. Completely smothered me for nearly a year. But yes, I can’t really complain because most people have to get by just on the NHS and their pension.”
“I guess he meant well?” Merlin attempted to twirl spaghetti around his fork like he’d seen on the telly.
“Again, in his own way. At first I let him, because I was in pretty bad shape, but even when he means well, my father is a very controlling man. When he wanted to wheel out a war hero he put me up on display, otherwise, I had to pretend to be ‘normal’. He hit the roof when I told him I was moving into Mum’s old place.”
“I suppose he was worried for you?” The piece of spaghetti unravelled halfway to his mouth and landed on the table.
“I think he was. He never thought I could survive on my own, not at uni, not in the army. When I came home quite literally in bits, he felt his point proven.” Arthur expertly twirled his pasta up and ate it.
“If it had been me I think mum would have grounded me for life.”
Arthur laughed. “Having met your mum, I believe that. I know I scared the shit out of Father, but he liked to have me where he could keep an eye on me, and make sure his poor cripple son didn’t embarrass him.” Arthur sounded bitter. “That’s why I have the cosmetic leg. It’s not as good as the one I usually use, but he likes it because it makes me look ‘normal’. God forbid anyone might think me weak. He finds it bad enough that I’m gay, he’s always trying to introduce me to eligible females.”
Merlin snorted. “Sorry, but you are the least weak person I ever met! He should see the way you heave yourself out of the pool, it’s one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen.”
The affronted look that had crossed Arthur’s face when Merlin laughed morphed into a small smile. “I seriously hope my father never thought anything of the sort, Al.”
Merlin grinned back and linked his fingers with Arthur’s across the table. “I guess he’s ok with you living here now?”
“He came round to the idea eventually.” To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur didn’t shake his hand away.
“At least you had this place to come to.”
Arthur nodded. “It’s been in Mum’s family for years. She moved back here after the divorce and opened the café, but she died of breast cancer nearly six years ago.”
“Not your fault. I got the conversion done here so I didn’t have to bother with stairs – stairs and hills take forever when your ankle doesn’t bend, but like I said, the foot where the ankle does bend is awful, bloody thing has a mind of its own. I could probably get a better one, but…” He shrugged. “I probably have enough.”
“That doesn’t sound fun.” Merlin wrinkled his nose as he pushed his empty plate away.
“My sister helped me get everything sorted here. I fend pretty well for myself. My friends tend to try and mother me, but I think they are more worried about me being lonely here all on my own rather than me not being able to cope. Father has mostly learnt to accept it. And he has mostly learnt to accept me, imperfections and all.”
“I like your imperfections.”
Arthur gave him a strange look.
“Yes, all of them. They make you more human.”
“In what way am I not human?”
Merlin shrugged. “Freya described you as some sort of saint who shelters the homeless, Gwen told me how ‘lovely’ you are, everyone around here sings your praises, you are a big heroic soldier, and you have an exceedingly pretty face. Real people aren’t like that.”
“So, what, without the scars and the missing foot I’d be too perfect?” Arthur’s face almost looked like he smelled something awful.
Merlin giggled. “No. If you weren’t a total prat you’d be too perfect.”
Arthur snorted. “I can always count on you to keep me in my place, can’t I?”
After they’d eaten and loaded the dishwasher, they went to sit down in the living room.
“You, know, you’re a chatty drunk,” Arthur said casually, lowering himself down onto the sofa and setting his crutch aside.
“What?” Merlin was a little confused at the complete change in conversation.
“Last night. You claimed to be a twenty-one-year-old wizard called Merlin.”
Merlin forced out a laugh that sounded hollow even to his own ears. “Well, you know, it was probably something to do with Freya’s mural.” He couldn’t quite bring himself to look Arthur in the eye, sure he’d be able to tell he was lying.
“I don’t know, you seemed quite sure.” He could feel Arthur watching him but didn’t dare look up.
“When I was a kid, I always thought I had magic.” Merlin was suddenly aware that his thumb nail on his left hand had drifted into his mouth and he was biting it. He pulled his hand away. “I was absolutely convinced that I could make things happen with my mind. Will and I used to pretend that it was real. When we got older he teased me about it, so I stopped.”
Arthur nodded. “My sister always thought she was magic when we were growing up. Personally, I think she was probably right, she’s definitely a witch.”
There was a pause before Arthur spoke again. “I’ve heard you mention Will before.” Arthur didn’t ask any questions, exactly, but the question was there anyway, hanging in the air.
“He was my best friend.” Merlin lifted his head at last and looked Arthur in the eye. “He died. He died and it was all my fault.”
Arthur took Merlin’s hand in his, and they just sat there in silence for a moment.
“He got involved with… some people. I saw it. I didn’t save him.”
Arthur squeezed his hand. “I don’t mean this to sound callous, Al, but sometimes you just can’t save people.”
“My old Captain, when I was still a lieutenant, she was hit by a sniper. One of the best soldiers I ever served with. Her husband was like you, he thought he should have saved her. He was standing right next to her when the bullet hit, but there was nothing he could do. Izzy died in his arms. Tristan blamed himself.”
“But what could he have done?”
“Exactly. What could you have done?”
“Have you spoken to anyone about it?”
“You mean like a shrink?”
Arthur shrugged. “Shrink, counsellor, therapist – whatever you want to call it. Leon is right about some things, talking helps.”
“Did you take that advice yourself?”
“Eventually, yes. Leon, Lance and my sister, Morgana, nagged me for a long time. For a while I tried Gwaine’s alcohol solution, but it wasn’t really for me.”
Merlin rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, maybe not for me, either. Last night was enough.”
Arthur snorted. “Last night I think you drank enough to impress Gwaine.”
Merlin groaned. “Oh don’t remind me.”
They sat in companionable silence for a moment, holding hands. “How come I’ve never seen your sister around?”
“Yeah, you’ve spoken about her, but she never seems to drop by.”
“She doesn’t live around here any more. She got a promotion that meant she had to move up north.”
“You must miss her.”
“We’re quite close now. We grew up together as cousins and we were really close as children, but then there was this big family scandal where she found out that my father was actually her father too – Morgana refused to have anything to do with any of us after that. My parents divorced over it, and I joined the army. But after the accident, when they got me back home, I woke up in hospital with a hole in my chest and a missing leg, and Morgana sitting by my bed. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped without her.”
“Will was the closest thing to a sibling I had.”
Arthur squeezed his hand again. “You’ll have other friends, you know. Better ones than a thirty-two year-old cripple.”
“Don’t call yourself that!” Merlin exclaimed as he sat next to him.
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t call myself.” Arthur let go of Merlin’s hand.
“Then don’t keep telling me who I can and can’t fall in love with!” Merlin glared back.
“In love?” Arthur’s eyebrows rose so far up his head that they almost disappeared beneath his blond fringe.
Merlin really hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He bit his lip. “Yes, clotpole, that’s what I said. Don’t let it go to your head or anything.”
Arthur grinned. “You barely know me.”
“I feel like I’ve always known you. I know you well enough to know that you deliberately didn’t wear your prosthesis tonight in an attempt to put me off.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Did it work?”
Merlin shook his head. “Did you really expect it to?”
“You wouldn’t be the first. Besides, it would be something you’d have to get used to. If you were to spend more time here.”
“I also suspect you are just using your leg and my age as an excuse because you’re scared to get into a relationship.”
To Merlin’s surprise, it was Arthur who leant in this time. He pushed Merlin back into the sofa and pressed their lips together. Merlin acquiesced immediately, opening his mouth and chasing Arthur’s tongue with his own. He could feel Arthur’s weight, his strength, his heart beating frantically against him, and he shuddered as a lick of desire ran through him. They’d both eaten garlic bread, that should be a problem. It wasn’t.
Arthur pulled back. Merlin could practically see the uncertainty running towards his mouth.
“Don’t you dare!” He sat up and caught hold of Arthur’s arm. “How much clearer can I make this? I want you. Ok? I want to pin you down, right here and now on this sofa, and have my wicked way with you.” Merlin moved so he was sitting astride Arthur and could feel his arousal. He leant down for another kiss. “At least some part of you knows what you want.” He cupped his hand around Arthur’s crotch, making him bite his lip to stifle a groan.
“Al…” Yeah, wrong name. That was going to be hard to get used to.
He gently eased down Arthur’s zipper and slipped his hand inside, curling his fingers around Arthur’s very interested cock.
Merlin gave him best evil grin and climbed off Arthur’s lap.
“If you really don’t want this, just say…”
He got no answer. Merlin’s grin broadened and he dropped to his knees, pushing Arthur’s legs open to make room for himself.
Arthur was watching him, his mouth slightly open. Merlin moved his hands up towards Arthur’s belt. Arthur put a hand out to stop him.
“No, don’t.” Arthur held the buckle in place.
“Are you sure you are ready for this? To have that out where you can see it?” He gestured to his leg. “It’s not exactly sexy, Al.”
“I’ve already seen it, Arthur.” Merlin said as gently as he could. Arthur’s leg, or lack thereof, genuinely didn’t put him off, why should it? It was part of Arthur.
“Who was it?” he asked casually as he ran his hand up Arthur’s cock.
“Who was what?” Arthur was looking at him warily.
“Who made you like this? Afraid of rejection.”
Arthur looked at him. “No one in particular. I have eyes. And I’ve tried dating a few times, since…” He gestured to his leg again. “No matter what they say before, it always puts them off. One night, lights off, never hear from them again.”
“I’m not going to do that.” Merlin stood up and held his hand out to Arthur. “Maybe we should take this to your bedroom.”
Arthur nodded, looking a little dazed..
“I’m really hoping you have lube and condoms.”
Arthur laughed, and Merlin was again reminded how much he loved it when that happened. “I do actually.”
Merlin quirked an eyebrow at the strange response.
Arthur reached over and grabbed his stick, ignoring Merlin’s hand as he hauled himself up so his t-shirt partially covered his erection. “Gwaine bought them for me as a present.”
“Oh?” Merlin tried really hard to keep the note of jealousy from his voice. “I thought you said you two weren’t like that?”
“We’re not. He bought them that morning you fell over the plant pot. Said he thought I might be needing them. I really hate it when Gwaine is right.”
“Hmm,” Merlin kissed him. “Can’t say I’m objecting.”
Arthur took Merlin’s hand in his free one and pulled him towards the door that presumably led to his bedroom. “Come on. I believe something was mentioned about having your wicked way with me.”
Merlin laughed and followed Arthur into his bedroom.
He had the afternoon shift again, which meant they had spent a lazy morning shagging. He had been in a very good mood to begin with, and he was pretty sure Mordred was finding his grin disconcerting, which served the little fucker right.
But then, from about halfway through the shift, Merlin hadn’t been able to shake the idea that someone was watching him. Of course, that was pretty standard with this whole witness protection thing, Merlin had been jumping at his own shadow for the last six months.
Someone was definitely watching him. There was a man hanging around outside the haberdashers across the road, baseball cap pulled low on his face, and he’d been there for at least ten minutes.
“Stop being so paranoid, clotpole,” he muttered to himself under his breath.
Except… A woman with a pushchair was trying to get down the pavement, and the man had to step aside. For the first time, Merlin got a clear look at his face and his blood ran cold.
Had someone betrayed him? The only person who potentially knew his name was Arthur, assuming he hadn’t bought Merlin’s half-arsed excuse about the wizard in Freya’s mural…
Not Arthur. Please, not Arthur.
“Are you alright, mate?” Mordred waved a hand in front of his face.
Merlin blinked over at him. Mate? Since when did Mordred even speak, let alone call him mate?
“Yeah,” he croaked. “I’m fine. Late night.”
When he looked back, Kanen was gone.
“I need to speak to D.I. Lefey. No, I can’t hold. Yes, yes it is urgent. No I’d rather not give you my name. No wait…”
Merlin ground his teeth in frustration as they put him on hold.
“Hello, who is this?”
“D.I. Lefey? It’s Merlin. Merlin Emrys?”
“Merlin? What are you doing calling me?”
“Kanen. Harry Kanen. I saw him, just now, outside the café where I work.”
“What? How the hell did he find you? Who have you been talking to?”
“Where are you now?”
“Hiding in Waitrose carpark.”
“Hiding in… why on earth…?”
“It’s public, people can see me.”
“And hear you!”
“No, there’s no one at this end.”
“Oh for god’s sake, Merlin. Go back to the flat. Tell Arthur what’s happened.”
“Yes, Arthur – the dumb blond who lives downstairs. Just do it. I’ll be with you as soon as I can.” She hung up.
Arthur turned from where he was skimming leaves from the pool. “Al, hi.” The smile was so genuine it almost broke Merlin’s heart.
So, ok, here was the bit where he told Arthur he’d been lying to him.
Just give him a minute.
“Al, are you ok?”
“Arthur… there’s something I need to tell you.”
“Ok. What?” Arthur put down his net and took a step towards Merlin.
“You know I told you my best friend died? We—”
“Mordred?” Arthur interrupted him. “What are you doing here?”
Merlin whirled round. Mordred walking towards them calm as you please. Well, no, the look in his pale eyes when he drew close was more terrified than anything.
“I just need to talk to Al,” Mordred said, dismissing Arthur with a tight smile.
“Sorry, Mordred, but I’m talking to Arthur,” Merlin said. “Who’s looking after the café?”
“Er… Freya.” It wasn’t even a good lie.
“Freya? But I thought—”
“Look, can we just go inside?” Mordred seemed agitated.
“Um, no. No, I don’t think so.” Merlin moved back towards Arthur.
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked Mordred, sounding concerned.
“Merlin, please…” Mordred said.
A coldness enveloped Merlin. “Where did you hear that name?”
“I… I just…” Mordred pulled a gun from inside his jacket. “I need you to come with me.”
The thump thump of Merlin’s heart nearly drowned everything else out.
“Mordred?” Arthur was suddenly in front of Merlin. “What the hell?”
The gun was waving about precariously as Mordred’s hand shook; Merlin would have put money on Mordred never having laid hands on a gun before today.
“This has nothing to do with you, Arthur. I just need Merlin.”
“Mordred, you don’t want to do this,” Arthur said calmly. “Why don’t you just give the firearm to me. You haven’t done anything wrong, yet.”
“I can’t! I can’t.” Mordred sounded near hysterical. “He has to come with me. They’ll hurt Kara.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you!” Merlin came out from behind Arthur, unwilling to use him as a human shield.
The gun wavered back towards Merlin.
“Merlin—,” Arthur started to say. Mordred jerked and the gun went off. Arthur cried out and staggered backwards.
First Will, now Arthur. This couldn’t be happening again, any minute now, Merlin was going to wake up. Except he didn’t, of course. He reached out uselessly towards Arthur, who toppled and dropped like a stone into the pool.
“Arthur!” Merlin moved to jump in after him.
Mordred looked wild now, the gun wavering back and forth. “Stay where you are!” He looked desperate. Merlin thought the first shot had been an accident, but he dared not risk it.
“He’s hurt, Mordred, I have to help him.”
“What’s taking so long?” another voice called out. Harry Kanen was walking down the garden towards them. “I’ve got the woman secured.”
Merlin stopped breathing. They had his mother. They’d killed Arthur, and they had his mother!
“I shot him!” Mordred sounded on the verge of losing it. “I think I killed him.”
Kanen barely glanced at Arthur, floating in the water. He pulled his own gun out of his pocket and fired it twice into the pool. “Well he’s dead now. Move.” He pointed the gun at Merlin and used it to gesture towards the house.
Merlin gasped, the air rushing back into his lungs. He dared to look down into the pool. Arthur was lying face down. A crimson cloud of blood was spreading out into the water. He wasn’t moving.
“You bastards!” There were tears streaming down his face. “What did he ever do to you? What did I ever do to you?”
Barely even sparing him a glance, Kanen smacked Merlin across the face with the butt of his gun.
Blackness burst in front of Merlin’s eyes as he heard his nose crunch. A wave of hot blood spilled into his mouth and down his front.
“Shut up and get in the house.” Kanen hit him again, this time getting him in the eye and nearly knocking him to the floor. He felt Mordred catch him from behind and hold him upright as he was dragged inside.
“He might not be dead! You have to let me help him!” Merlin struggled against them the whole way up the stairs. “Mum! Are you ok?”
Hunith was sitting on the kitchen floor, her left arm handcuffed to the radiator.
“Merlin! I heard shots, what happened? Oh my god, your face!” She reached out toward him with her free hand.
“They shot Arthur, Mum. I think they killed him. They wouldn’t let me check.” Kanen pushed Merlin roughly to the floor and handcuffed him next to his mother, giving him a hard kick in the side when he was done. Merlin let out a pained groan as he felt his rib crack.
“Shut the fuck up, the lot of you,” Kanen snarled.
They sat in silence for what felt like hours. Merlin kept replaying in his head the image of Arthur hitting the pool over and over again. He felt his mother squeeze his hand at some point and tried to give her a weak smile.
They all jumped when Kanen’s phone went off with a shrill bleep.
“You.” Kanen pointed his gun at Mordred. “Keep an eye on them. Feel free to shoot the mother if they cause trouble, we don’t need her. No talking.”
Kanen left the room and soon they heard him talking in the hall.
“Why are you doing this, Mordred?” Merlin was having a few difficulties breathing after the kick to the ribs and his words came out in a dry wheeze.
Mordred looked up from where his gaze was fixed on the gun. “I had no choice, they have my girlfriend.”
“Why you? I barely even know you!”
Mordred gave a hollow laugh and shook his head, straightening up. “No, of course you don’t, Emrys. Why would you bother taking the time to know me? You and Will, always so popular, thinking you were it.”
“Will? What? How did you know Will?”
“Same way I know you. I went to your school. You don’t remember me, obviously. Or Freya, who you claim to care so much about.”
“Freya’s in on this?”
“No, idiot. She was in the class above you. Not that you noticed. She didn’t recognise you either. I knew you. We lived with our uncle, just a few doors down from you. You and Will used to walk straight past us every day, like we didn’t exist.”
“Come on, you must have been what, four years behind? How many younger kids do you notice?”
“She was living just down the hall, and that bastard… and not one of you even noticed, or did anything!” Mordred yelled.
Kanen banged on the door. “I told you fuckers to shut the fuck up.”
“I remember,” Hunith said to Mordred, her voice low. “Hal Sutton hanged himself when people found out he’d been abusing his sixteen-year-old niece. She ran away; her eleven-year-old brother was taken into care.”
Mordred flinched and said nothing.
“None of this is Merlin’s fault,” Hunith said.
“Arthur tried to help,” Merlin said. “Freya told me. He gave her a job and a place to live, helped her get custody of you. And you shot him.”
“He…” Mordred shook his head in denial. “I didn’t mean to…” His face crumpled and he looked every inch the sixteen-year-old kid he was.
“Come on, you don’t want to be doing this,” Merlin said, jerking against the handcuffs tethering him to the radiator.
“You don’t understand.” Mordred shook his head. “They have my girlfriend. I told her I’d seen you and she went and told Paul Valiant. She’s friends with his brother.”
“So that’s how they found us?” Arthur was dead, and he and his mother probably soon would be, all because someone he didn’t even know had recognised him. Someone who had lived in Ealdor for such a short time that he obviously hadn’t made it onto the police radar. Sod’s law didn’t even begin to cover this.
“I thought I said no fucking talking?” Kanen came back into the room, tucking his phone into the back pocket of his jeans. “It’s your lucky day.” He pointed his gun at Merlin. “Cenred wants to talk to you himself, so it looks like you get to live a bit fucking longer.” He gave a cruel little laugh. “I reckon he’ll be here within the hour, so don’t get too used to breathing.”
“Look, just let Mum go, please! This has nothing to do with her.”
Kanen back-handed Merlin across the face, causing a fresh flow of blood from his probably already broken nose and making his head rebound on the radiator behind him. “How many fucking times do you have to be told to fucking shut the fuck up? It is not fucking well up to you who I let go, under-fucking-stand?” He was so close that little bits of spittle landed on Merlin’s cheek as he spoke, and he could smell the stale cigarettes on his breath. He moved to lean against the fridge with his back to the stairs.
No one even saw the crutch coming till Kanen was already on the floor, trying to get it off his windpipe.
Merlin attempted to sit up. How could Arthur be alive?
“Not such a big man now,” Arthur sneered down at Kanen as his struggles slowed. “You didn’t really think you could take out an ex-commando that easily, did you?” He gave Kanen a swift blow to the temple and the other man stopped struggling.
“We need to get those cuffs off you.” Arthur checked for a pulse and then went through Kanen’s pockets for the keys, taking his gun and phone too.
“I thought you were dead!” Merlin tried to rub life back into his wrists as Arthur released his handcuffs.
“Sorry, that piece of shit shot me in the shoulder.” Indeed, now that Merlin had a chance to look at him, Arthur’s shirt was drenched in blood.
Arthur unlocked Hunith. “You’re bleeding,” she said. “Here, press this to it.” Hunith handed him a clean tea towel from a drawer beside her.
“And you!” Arthur rounded on Mordred. “That was my best leg, you little bastard!” Merlin glanced down. Rather than his usual leg, Arthur was wearing his running blade.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to!” Mordred was shaking. Under different circumstances, Merlin might have felt sorry for him.
“How about I take this,” Arthur said as he gently took the gun from Mordred’s slack fingers. “It took me forever to get up those bloody stairs, and I had to go back into the flat to change.”
“I thought I’d killed you.” Mordred was shaking even worse now than before.
“Well, I nearly drowned. Al, cuff that one, he’s only unconscious.” He nodded at Kanen.
Merlin ignored the pain in his ribs as he bent down to secure the handcuffs. Then, as he straightened, he ignored the pain in his head.
“I’m sorry, Mordred,” Arthur said, holding out the other cuffs. “I need you to put these on.”
“The police are on their way. It will be easier for you if you are seen to be cooperating.”
Mordred nodded and started to fasten the handcuff around his own wrists but didn’t get further than the first one when the sound of a car pulling up outside made Merlin glance out into the hall. The glass in the front door was frosted, he couldn’t see anything. A few moments later there was a loud banging on the door.
“Kanen? It’s me, open up!”
“Cenred!” Merlin dodged back into the kitchen.
“Quick, out the back!” Arthur turned to the stairs and then looked back at Merlin with a shake of his head. “I’ll hold him off, you take your Mum and Mordred and run.”
There was another loud bang at the door. “Kanen! Open the fucking door!”
“What about you?”
“I can’t, Al. I’ll never to get down those stairs like this. Take one of the guns.” He handed one to Merlin. “I still have the other one.”
“I’m not leaving you, Arthur.”
“For fuck’s sake, Al… Merlin… whatever. It’s you they want, not me. It’s your evidence that can get these fuckers sent down. You need to get the hell out of here.”
“How do you know that?”
“About the evidence? I never told you that.”
The sound of gunshots interrupted whatever Arthur was going to say as Cenred started trying to shoot the lock out of the door.
“It doesn’t matter! Look, take my car keys. Go to Gwen’s, tell her to call Morgana. GO!”
Merlin turned and ran down the stairs and out the back door. Hunith and Mordred were waiting for him.
“Can I trust you?” He said to Mordred. The boy nodded. “I need you both to go to the smithy. Tell Gwen to call someone called Morgana.” He handed over Arthur’s car key to Hunith.
“Where are you going?” she asked, brow wrinkling in worry.
“I have to help Arthur.” He turned back to the house.
“Merlin!” Hunith called after him, but he was already on his way back up the stairs. “Don’t be bloody stupid!”
He could hear a crash above him that he assumed was the front door finally giving in.
“Kanen? Where the fuck are you?” A voice called out. “Who are you?”
“I’m Arthur Pendragon, and this is my house.”
“What have you done with that fucking cunt Emrys?”
A gun clicked.
Merlin reached the top of the stairs. Cenred was pointing a gun at Arthur, who was calmly sitting at the kitchen table, his own gun in his hand, the towel Hunith had given him in the other clutched to his shoulder, soaked through with blood, his face the colour of skimmed milk.
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“Don’t fuck with me, you posh twat.”
“Is your dick really that small?”
Why was Arthur trying to piss off the guy with the gun?
“Well, you’re clearly trying to compensate for something.”
“Who the fuck do you think you are?”
“Me? Oh, I’m just someone bleeding to death in his mother’s kitchen. I called the police ten minutes ago, by the way. You won’t get far.”
The sound of Cenred cocking his gun nearly made Merlin’s heart stop. There was no way Arthur would survive this time, not at this range.
Reacting on instinct, he threw out his hand towards Arthur just as Cenred pulled the trigger. Time seemed to slow, like the bullet was floating through treacle. He looked at Arthur and Cenred, also frozen in a moment, and then he concentrated and willed the bullet off course.
Time seemed to reassert itself just as Arthur squeezed the trigger of his own gun. Cenred’s bullet harmlessly skimmed past Arthur’s ear, embedding itself in the kitchen wall. Arthur’s shot, however, found it’s mark as Cenred dropped to the ground, his final glassy-eyed stare seeming to gaze straight through Merlin.
“Arthur!” Merlin ran forward.
“I thought I told you to go, Merlin.” Arthur’s voice was hoarse, his breathing shallow, like every breath was an effort.
A single hoot of a siren came from the front of the house and flashing blue lights reflected on the back wall, rebounding through into the kitchen.
“Armed police!” a male voice, shouted from the front door. “Drop your weapons!”
Arthur shakily put the gun down on the kitchen table. “Through here.”
“Arthur?” A woman’s voice called from the hallway.
“D.I. Lefey, wait!” The policeman’s voice yelled. “Let us secure the area!”
“It’s alright, Morgana. I’ve dealt with the threat.”
“Arthur?” The scary D.I. from Manchester came into the room anyway, ignoring her colleague. “What the hell happened?”
“You got here fast. Sorry, I had to shoot your suspect.” Arthur attempted to shrug and then winced as the motion aggravated his shoulder.
“Merlin called me earlier.” D.I. Lefey looked coldly down at Cenred’s body. “And we’ve been keeping a close eye on this piece of scum,” she said, kicking the corpse with her pointy shoes. “At least this way he won’t get off in court.”
Arthur let out a strange little noise that sounded like a half-laugh, half-groan.
“You’re hurt.” She went over and inspected his shoulder and a wound in his side that Arthur hadn’t mentioned, ignoring what must have been half the Gloucestershire constabulary filtering into the kitchen.
“How do you two know each other?” Merlin asked, looking between Arthur and D.I. Lefey.
“This is my sister, Morgana,” Arthur said.
“Your sister? But—”
He was interrupted by the shrill ring of Morgana’s phone.
“Lefey.” Morgana’s phone manner was abrupt and Merlin couldn’t make out what the person on the other end of the line was saying.
“Slow down, Gwen.” Gwen? Gwen was in on everything too? “Are they alright? Ok, Keep an eye on Mordred, I’ll send someone over. Thanks, Gwen.”
Merlin ignored Arthur’s quiet voice, turning on Morgana. “Who else knows? Is everyone in this town in on it? Have you all been laughing at me all this time?”
“Merlin, no one knew,” Morgana said, putting a hand on his arm. He flinched away.
“Bollocks. Gwen knows, Mordred definitely knew, probably Freya too. And you.” He turned to Arthur. “You clearly knew. What, were you just laughing at me all this time?”
“Al, Merlin… Morgana, please…” Merlin took note of Arthur’s pale face. The blood seeping through the tea towel seemed to have got worse, and now the adrenaline wasn’t coursing its way through him, Arthur was deteriorating.
“Arthur?” Merlin turned to Morgana. “Is there an ambulance on it’s way?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll get an ETA.” She pulled out her mobile again and made a call.
“Al…” Arthur’s voice was getting faint.
“Stay with me, Arthur, it’ll be ok.” Merlin went round and sat on the side away from the bullet wound. He took Arthur’s good hand in his and let Arthur lean on him.
“I’m sorry, Al,” he mumbled. “Morgana asked me to rent the house out to your mum, and to keep an eye on you. She didn’t tell me anything else.”
“It’s ok, don’t worry about that now.”
“No,” Arthur made an effort to push himself upright. “I need you to know…”
More bustling and a man and woman in green uniforms interrupted what Arthur had been trying to say. Merlin stood back to let the paramedics get on with their jobs.
“I need to take your statement,” an older policeman said to Merlin in a thick Gloucestershire accent that Merlin had trouble understanding.
“Not now, PC Taliesin,” Morgana said. “Let him get to hospital first.”
The man shrugged and turned away, muttering something under his breath. “Come on, Saxon,” he said to a police dog by the door that Merlin hadn’t even noticed.
Merlin made his way outside as Arthur and Kanen were being loaded into ambulances. One of the paramedics came over. “Are you Al? He’s asking for you.”
Merlin blinked at her. “Erm, yes? Yeah I guess I am.”
She gave a bemused smiled and nodded. “Do you want to come with him in the ambulance? You need to get checked out too.”
Merlin unsteadily climbed into the back of the ambulance. Arthur was lying on a stretcher, still conscious but clearly in pain. Merlin took his hand.
“Merlin. My name’s Merlin.”
Arthur went straight into surgery as soon as he got to Accident & Emergency. A bullet was lodged in his shoulder and the second bullet had grazed his side.
A kindly Irish nurse called Finna took Merlin through to patch him up and check for lasting damage. “I have no idea how your nose isn’t broken,” she said, prodding at said appendage gently. Going by the general look of you and the amount of blood, I was sure it would be.”
“I thought it was, I could have sworn I heard it go.”
“Well, it seems to be in one piece, you must have been lucky. The eye socket seems fine too, but we’ll send you to X-Ray, just be sure. We’ll get those ribs done too. We might need to keep you in for observation, can’t be too careful with head injuries.”
“Any news on Arthur?”
“You’ll be the first to know, sweetheart. I promise.” She felt around his aching ribs with expert fingers. “Hmm, I don’t think your ribs are broken either, just bruising. The paramedics were sure you were in danger of a pneumothorax, but it seems you’re fine.” She was clearly perplexed by him. Most people were.
Hunith arrived at the hospital with D.I. Lefey before Arthur was out of surgery. Morgana had marched straight up to the desk and demanded to know how her brother was.
They had to wait for ages before Arthur was out of surgery. Merlin reluctantly let Morgana go and see him first. He resisted the urge to bite his nails.
Hunith held his hand, but she knew him well enough not to talk yet.
Eventually Morgana came back out. “Merlin, he wants to see you.”
Merlin went over to Arthur’s room and tentatively stuck his head round the door. “Arthur?”
“Come in then, Merlin,” he said with a weak smile.
Merlin went over and sat in the chair by the bed. “Hi, Betty.”
“They gave me drugs, I’m pretty happy at the moment.”
“Arthur… I’m so sorry, this is all my fault.”
“No, it’s really not.”
“If I had just kept my big fat gob shut…”
“Then Cole would still be walking around. Morgana thinks they have enough to put Harry Kanen and several of his associates in jail for the rest of their lives. That includes the bastards that had Mordred’s girlfriend, although to be honest with you, I’m not sure that she’s as innocent as he thinks.”
“I lied to you. A lot.”
“I wasn’t completely honest with you either. Anyway, you are a crap liar. I mean, Morgana told me hardly anything, but you – you’re a very chatty drunk. You also nearly told me your real name the first time we met.”
“So you don’t hate me?”
“Of course not, idiot.” Arthur reached his hand out from under the covers.
Merlin tried not to let the grin on his face show too much as he took Arthur’s hand in his.
“One thing I don’t understand though,” Arthur said. “How did Cenred miss?”
“That bullet was coming straight for me, at that range, he couldn’t have missed. And yet it went completely wide of the mark.”
“I guess he just misfired?”
Arthur shook his head. “Even you could have hit me from there. It was the weirdest thing, I thought I was going to die, and I looked up and you were standing there, and then your eyes flashed gold and suddenly the bullet was nowhere near me.”
“Well, imagination plays funny tricks in times of stress.”
Arthur didn’t look like he believed him for a second.
“Yeah, and like I said. You couldn’t tell a lie to save your life.”
The misty wet light of dawn was pervading the gloom by the time Merlin and Hunith finally got home, although a persistent drizzle meant it was still quite dark. Arthur was being kept in the hospital, but had insisted the rest of them leave.
Merlin dragged himself up the stairs, intent on just falling into bed the second he stripped out of his wet, filthy clothes. He could do with a shower, but that could just wait.
He crossed over to the window, intent on pulling the curtains shut to try and stop the light.
There was a figure standing by the pool, just under the dragon light on the side of the garage.
It was hard to make out too much at that distance, especially with the misty rain. It looked like a man. A man in a light blue hoodie.
As Merlin watched, Will turned and gave him a funny little half wave/half salute.
Merlin practically broke his neck as he raced down the stairs and out into the garden.
There was no one there, of course. The pool was still clouded a pinky red with Arthur’s blood, but there was no sign of Will.
Merlin shook his head and rubbed his eyes. The recent strain was clearly catching up with him. It must be time to call that therapist.
He trudged back upstairs and decided that it was best to have that shower.
When he returned to his room, cleaner and warmer, Will’s hoodie was lying on his bed.
“Bloody hell, Merlin! Can you at least try not to steer me into a wall? Let me push myself.”
The hospital had let Arthur go on the proviso that he take things easy. That apparently meant that Morgana had had to go and fish his old wheelchair out of the garage, and Arthur was not happy about it.
Merlin batted Arthur’s hands away yet again as he tried to manoeuvre the chair through the front door in the rain. “I’m doing my best! It’s hardly my fault that your house is not wheelchair friendly! And no, you can’t push yourself, you’ll pull your stitches. You were shot and nearly died, remember? We’ve been through this at least a dozen times since we left the ward!”
“I’m hardly likely to forget, am I? And there is nothing wrong with my house! Mind the paintwork. Why don’t you try going in backwards rather than using me as a battering ram? And can’t you hurry up? I’m getting wet.”
“Damn it but you are demanding when you’re sick!” Merlin turned the chair around and managed to get it over the step and into the flat.
“I’m not sick! Morgana is just fussing.” Merlin really wished he didn’t find Arthur sexy when he pouted.
“Well, Morgana fussing was the only way the hospital were going to let you go home.”
Arthur shuddered. “Anything to get away from hospital food. What can I smell?”
“Mum cooked for you.”
Merlin couldn’t help but laugh at the look of horror on Arthur’s face. At least it stopped him whinging.
“It’s ok, I was joking, Gwen made lasagne.” Merlin passed Arthur his stick so he could get himself from the chair to the sofa. “We can have it for lunch.”
Arthur collapsed onto the sofa looking tired. “I hate that sodding wheelchair. I’m giving it to charity.”
“It was top of the range,” a new voice cut in.
Merlin whirled round. A forbidding looking man was standing in the doorway in a perfectly tailored suit, his iron-grey hair swept back from his face. Of course, Merlin had neglected to shut the door when they came in.
“Father!” Arthur attempted to sit up straight. “What are you doing here?”
“Morgana informed me you were in hospital. Is a father not allowed to visit his son?” Lord Uther Pendragon was not a particularly big man, but his very presence seemed to make the flat shrink in size as he came in and shut the door. “I’ll have an Earl Grey, lemon not milk,” he said to Merlin, like he thought he was the hired help or something.
“Father, this is Merlin, my partner,” Arthur said, looking a little self-conscious.
Uther gave Merlin a considering look that made him appreciate how it must feel to be bacteria under a microscope. He sneered. “Is the boy actually old enough to deserve such a title?”
“I’m nearly twenty-one!” Merlin said, affronted.
Uther simply raised an eyebrow that said he didn’t believe a word of it. “You could do better, Arthur. You should let me introduce you to Olaf’s daughter, the Lady Viviane.”
Arthur reached out and grabbed Merlin’s hand, pulling him down onto the sofa next to him. “Merlin is my partner,” he repeated, staring his father down. “I’m gay, Father, you know that. I’m gay, I only have one leg, I firmly believe that we should have stayed in the EU, I think we should be fighting to save the NHS and I think we should do more to help refugees, and to help the homeless, and combat inequality and protect the environment – I’m sorry if that isn’t good enough for you, I’m sorry if I’m a massive disappointment, but that is who I am. And Merlin is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
This sounded like old arguments they'd had many times before all rolled up together. Merlin couldn’t help the small smile that broke out before Uther spoke again.
“The best thing that ever happened to you? As far as I’m aware, it is down to him that you are in this state. You’re not in the army any more, Arthur. I shouldn’t have to worry about you like this. It’s bad enough that Morgana deals with criminals every day.”
“Merlin is not a criminal! And thanks to Morgana, the man that shot me is in jail – hopefully for a very long time.”
Uther’s face was almost purple now, and Merlin thought he was about to kick off.
“Arthur is supposed to be resting,” he said, as calmly as he could.
Uther turned towards him and opened his mouth, no doubt to tell Merlin off for interrupting. Then he stopped, and looked at Arthur’s pale face. It was like someone had cut his strings as he sank down into a chair and rubbed his face.
“Arthur – you don’t disappoint me. You have to know that I couldn’t be more proud of you, I apologise if I ever made you doubt that. I do wish that you’d stop scaring me like this, though.”
Merlin patted Arthur’s hand. “How about I make that tea, yeah?”
Chapter 5: Epilogue – The Sound Of Silence
He sat up in a strange bed in a cold sweat, heart thumping. The remains of the dream slipped away as he tried to remember it. It probably wasn’t Will, Will didn’t haunt his dreams the way he used to, Merlin hoped it was because he had forgiven him. The murder, on the other hand, the memory of that frequently woke him still, although talking to his therapist was helping.
A strong pair of arms encircled his waist and Arthur placed a kiss on his bare shoulder. He didn’t say anything, he just sat there, waiting for Merlin’s heart rate to return to normal.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Merlin said, covering Arthur’s hand with his own.
“It’s not like I’ve never done the same to you.”
“I think it’s just being back here. I love Manchester, but it’s just got all these memories. And then visiting Will's grave…”
“I’m sure the trial can’t be helping either. Hopefully it’ll be finished today.” Arthur kissed the side of Merlin’s cheek. Merlin twisted round and kissed him properly. The angle was all wrong, but he found it hard to care.
They lay down and drifted back to sleep.
“On the charge of the kidnap and unlawful imprisonment of Hunith and Merlin Emrys, how do you find the defendant, guilty or not guilty?”
“On the charge of the attempted murder of Arthur Pendragon, do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?”
“On the charge of accessory to the murder of William Jackson, do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?”
“And is the the verdict of you all?”
Kanen sat in the dock and glared at Judge Annis as she proclaimed his sentencing like he thought he could intimidate her into letting him off. These were not the only charges, not by a long way, but they were the ones Merlin cared about. He thought he’d feel elated, and thus was surprised to find tears streaming down his face. Arthur squeezed his hand, and then, in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, actually swept him him into a massive bear hug.
Two women in the gallery broke out into hysterical displays of crying before they decided that trying to kill each other sounded more fun.
“Which one’s the wife and which is the girlfriend, do you think?” Arthur murmured.
Merlin didn’t even try to damp down the laughter bubbling up inside him.
It was over. It was finally over. Will had his justice and Kanen would be lucky to see freedom this side of eighty.
“Are you ok?” Arthur asked, entwining his fingers with Merlin’s as they made their way outside the court.
“I’m fine.” Merlin smiled at his boyfriend.
This was the first time he’d set foot in Manchester for nearly two years, it felt strange and foreign to him now. He wasn’t going back to Ealdor, he’d never fitted in there at the best of times, and without Will there seemed little point. He squeezed Arthur’s hand.
“Come on, Betty. Let’s go home.”