“I still think he’s got to be some sort of boring businessman or something. I mean, he carries a briefcase.”
Merlin pauses in coating a truffle, looking at Freya with raised eyebrows and only rescuing it when it becomes clear he’s about to lose some of the chocolate to the counter. “I hadn’t realized the word briefcase suddenly became synonymous with leprosy. And Gwen agrees with me that he’s got to be something more interesting than that. I mean, Morgana brought him that first time, nobody could ever accuse Morgana of being boring.”
Freya continues sprinkling salt over the tops of his caramels. “Gwen just thinks it’s adorable that you have a crush on a customer.”
Merlin groans. “No, come on, can we not?”
“Well, let’s see. I could leave you alone with your crush on a man you’ve decided is some sort of superhero or something, or I could do to you what you did to me when I couldn’t talk to Gwaine and tell you that chocolate is the best aphrodisiac in the world and we’re the best in London.”
“We’re not living in Chocolat.” Merlin coats the next truffle, restarting his easy rhythm. There’s Mexican chocolate ganache setting in the fridge that will be ready about the time he finishes coating this batch. “And I don’t think he’s a superhero. Just, not some boring suit. Boring businessmen do not ask if we have new flavors every week.”
“Maybe they do if they’re bored with their jobs?” She shrugs. “There’s really nothing to do but ask him, and I—“ She stops. “I bet,” she continues, much more slowly, “I bet you can’t find out his profession within a month. I bet my Nana’s recipe for cocoa.”
Merlin has had Freya’s Nana’s cocoa four times, three times on Christmas Eve and once after a particularly painful breakup. Freya guards the recipe fiercely, and all of Merlin’s attempts to duplicate have failed utterly, possibly because Freya’s Nana puts highly illegal drugs in her cocoa. There is no other explanation. This is not a bet to be taken lightly. “What’s the catch? I mean, finding out his profession isn’t asking for his number, or offering to have his biologically impossible babies, or … whatever.”
“I am fairly certain he will offer both his number and his services as your weird science fiction babydaddy once he figures out you’re the genius behind the chocolates. The catch is that figuring out his profession requires actually talking to him.”
Merlin coats the last three in the batch and puts them back to chill on their sheet before taking out the next batch of ganache. He’s going to have to get started on the molded animals for children shortly, they’re running low. “You have a point.”
Freya finishes topping the caramels and starts arranging them on their tray. “You don’t have to, Merlin. If you don’t want to find out how to make Nana’s cocoa …”
“I don’t know why I ever hired you.”
A year ago, that would have sent her reeling, and for a second he regrets saying it, but she just shakes her head like she’s terribly above his petty insults and snatches the bowl of ganache out of his arms. “I’ll scoop this, you take these out to the front. He’s due in, you can get a start. See how I’m helping you?”
Merlin can’t help laughing as he takes the tray. He knows when he’s beaten.
Gwen is in the front when he gets there, straightening up the rows of chocolates to fill in for any gaps and mouthing along to the music on the radio, which is set to some station that seems to mostly play French music circa Edith Piaf. “Look who’s come out of the dim sugary world of the kitchen!” she says with a great show of surprise when he slips by her to settle the tray of salted caramels in its rightful place. “And blinking stepped into the sun.”
“You’ve been saving that joke,” he accuses. “And Freya sent me out here. Well, she sort of sent me, in that she promised me Nana Finna’s cocoa recipe if I get our favorite regular’s profession out of him. Well, bet me. But it all comes out the same anyway.”
Gwen’s eyebrows go up. “The cocoa recipe? That’s high stakes, from Freya. And also, if we’re going to be exact, your favorite regular. My brother comes in here a lot, as does Lancelot from the bookstore, as does Leon. And Gwaine is probably Freya’s favorite, unless he pissed her off this week, in which case it’s Morgana.”
“Yes, fine, mine. And it’s just because he gives me an excuse to try experimental flavors. Freya thinks he’s a businessman.”
She bites her lip. “I mean, he does have a briefcase.”
Merlin throws his hands in the air. “What on earth do you two have against briefcases?”
The shop bell chooses that moment to ring, admitting Morgana, wearing a cardigan that looks alarmingly as though it has singe marks on it and trailing the subject of their conversation in his usual sharp suit but without his briefcase (ha!) and another dark-haired woman wearing a dress and heels that look like they could kill a man. “Merlin!” says Morgana with every appearance of happiness, and Merlin realizes abruptly that his hands are still in the air like he’s expecting Gwen to arrest him and also that he’s wearing his chocolate-covered apron and looks a complete mess like he always does after a shift in the kitchen.
Before he can muster a response that doesn’t make him look like a total idiot, the man speaks, turning to Morgana with eyebrows raised. “Is he new?” He turns to face Merlin. “Are you new?”
Morgana rolls her eyes. “Honestly, Arthur, it’s like you were raised in a barn.” That gives him a name, at least, which he should really have by now, but he’s also never been out front of the shop when Arthur came in before, only caught glimpses of him and heard about him asking after and enjoying rarer flavors. “This is Merlin, he owns the shop, and Merlin, this is my brother Arthur, who loves your chocolates but apparently shouldn’t be allowed off his leash in public.”
The other woman looks up from her phone. “I suppose that’s my cue. Arthur, you wanted to order something?”
“Yes, I always do here. If I didn’t work it off the products of this place would make it so I had to be rolled everywhere I went.” He gives Merlin the sort of look that he has only associated with sexual partners and Gwen when confronted with tiramisu. “You make the chocolates?”
“Um, yes, but not at this precise second, since I’m in the front, speaking of which, I should go back,” Merlin manages, all in one breath, and flees for the safety of his kitchen, where Freya looks up in surprise when he nearly slams the door after him. “He works off the calories from the chocolates and when Morgana mentioned him needing to be on a leash the other woman with them responded.”
Freya pats him on the shoulder. “And then you bottled it?”
“And then I bottled it,” he agrees. “But I still have the rest of a month to get your Nana’s recipe.”
Merlin, no matter what Gwen and Freya claim, doesn’t spend all his time in the kitchen. Back before he had the money to hire them, for instance, he ran the front by himself except for when his mum was in town and made the chocolates whenever there weren’t customers, and now he does it fairly frequently, mostly when Gwen and Freya are doing a massive batch of marzipan, like they are today, because he hates making marzipan.
Lancelot from the bookstore has already shown up for his usual box of a dozen assorted, which he probably shares with orphans while petting his collection of adorable stray kittens because that is the kind of man Lancelot is, and there’s been a brisk business otherwise as well, though it’s a warm day so Merlin’s a bit worried about the integrity of his chocolates out on the street. Gwen and Freya, from what he’s heard of them, are having a great deal of fun in the kitchen deciding what the marzipan shapes should be this time, and Merlin is doing paperwork on the counter in between customers.
Overall, it’s a terribly peaceful day until Arthur walks in with the dark-haired woman who isn’t Morgana. And, because he’s a terribly suave human being, Merlin blurts “This isn’t usually your day to come in” like a total idiot creep.
Arthur smiles like that’s a perfectly normal thing to say. His friend (boss? Girlfriend? Merlin needs to find out or stop caring, preferably the latter) smiles as well, but she seems more amused than anything. “I’ve made my supervisor mad at me, so I thought some chocolate might smooth the way.”
“We specialize in apology chocolates,” Merlin says, and hopes he doesn’t sound hopelessly stupid. “Let me know what you’d like.”
Arthur turns to his friend. “Mithian, what does Annis like?”
“She likes fudge, but you should also get a few of the most expensive or fancy thing available. She’ll give them to Vivian, but it’s a nice gesture.”
“A decent-sized box of whatever fudge you’ve got and a few of your fanciest confections if you will, then, Merlin,” says Arthur, and Merlin sets to it, packing a box with an assortment of fudge—mostly just plain chocolate, though it’s as dark and rich as he can make it, but a bit of peanut butter as well—and then another, smaller, box with a few truffles, mostly the ones with the fussier decorations and the new-ish rose ones that people seem to enjoy.
On a whim, he puts one of the raspberry wine truffles, which Gwen and Freya tell him Arthur orders often, in a separate box at the end. “On the house, for a frequent customer,” he explains to Arthur’s raised eyebrow. “Since it seems you’re having a bad day.”
Arthur leans on the counter (Mithian snorts and goes back to tapping something out on her phone) with a grin. “Much better now that I’m here, though if having bad days gets me extra chocolate I might have to show up looking pitiful more often.”
“Mostly Gwen and Freya mind the front, and they don’t have clearance to give away my merchandise.”
For some reason, that makes Mithian snort, but Arthur just keeps grinning. “Well, I’ll have to stop by when you’re in the front, then, won’t I?”
Merlin is very lucky he isn’t holding anything, because if he were he would drop it. As it is, he ducks his head and starts ringing Arthur out, looking over his shoulder to catch Mithian’s eye. “Can I get anything for you while you’re here?”
She shakes her head, giving him a warm smile. “Thank you, but no. I can probably talk our boss out of one of the fancy chocolates, but I really must remember to come back in here next time I need a quick present. Much better than flowers.”
“Definitely, but don’t tell that to Elena at the florists’ down the way, she would never forgive me.” He finishes totaling Arthur’s purchase and reads it off, managing to get through the transaction without doing anything completely embarrassing despite the fact that Arthur never stops smiling at him. Part of him knows this is the ideal situation to ask precisely what Arthur does at whatever office he works in, since they’re talking about his boss, but it’s rather hard to concentrate on that with this much eye contact happening.
Mithian ends up interrupting before he can try to marshal his thoughts into working order, which doesn’t help. “Come on, Annis is already displeased, no need to be late back to the office on top of it. Thank you for your help, Merlin.” She raises her eyebrows. “I’m sure we’ll be back soon. This one is terribly fond of chocolate.”
“I’ve noticed,” Merlin says, like a total idiot, and Arthur laughs like he actually told a joke before giving him a lazy salute and following Mithian out the door, already bending to meet her eyes while she gesticulates at him, pointing at her phone.
Merlin goes in the back because there aren’t any customers and he needs a break. Gwen and Freya are both working with the air of people who are hoping very hard that he won’t suspect they were eavesdropping on his conversation. He just watches them until Gwen predictably cracks first. “At least you’ve found out he has a boss,” she says bracingly.
“Lots of people have bosses,” Merlin points out. “I am going to lose this bet.”
“You have no stakes in it,” Freya says, and then gets a thoughtful look on her face. “Perhaps that’s the problem. If you manage to get his profession out of him, you get my Nana’s cocoa recipe. If you don’t … Gwen?”
Gwen grins with enough glee to make him very nervous. “If you don’t, you let me set you up on a date. I know someone who will adore you, and who you will adore, and if you aren’t going to do anything about your massive crush on Arthur, you might as well go out with him.”
“I don’t like this.”
Freya smiles. “Too bad. If the carrot isn’t going to work, we’ll use the stick.”
“That metaphor has never made sense.”
Gwen gives him a sympathetic look that’s almost as good as a pat on the shoulder, and probably only refrains from doing that because her hands are covered in sugar. “You’ll do it, Merlin, don’t worry. He’s interested, even if he didn’t give you his number he’s still half in love with your chocolates, that’s nearly like being half in love with you.”
Merlin groans and is about to say that that does not count, but the shop bell goes out front and all he manages is a dark look between them before he goes out to sell truffles to a panicked man who needs dessert for a dinner he’s cooking for his anniversary.
Freya pokes her head into the back a few days later when Merlin is mixing up a new batch of white chocolate truffles. “Someone wants to speak to you.”
He eyes her suspiciously. “Is this you trying to set me up? Or an Arthur thing?”
“It may be an Arthur thing, but the someone is not in fact Arthur. Just come on, she doesn’t seem likely to take no for an answer.”
Merlin is visited by a sudden vision of Mithian being in to tell him to stop letting her boyfriend flirt with him, or to stop obviously mooning over him or something before he realizes that possibly more terrifyingly it’s likely Morgana come to visit him. He doesn’t know her very well, other than through Gwen and Freya, who met her at crafting night at Elena’s, but she’s Arthur’s sister, and he doesn’t trust Gwen and Freya not to have told her everything.
That doesn’t make the thought of going out to the front very appealing, but Freya is still watching him expectantly and Sefa the weekend girl is looking mildly intimidated from where she’s stirring a pot of melting chocolate, so Merlin straightens his apron, makes sure he doesn’t have any massive smears of chocolate or sugar on his face, and goes out to face the music.
Sure enough, the person waiting for him is Morgana, which is in some ways less nerve-wracking than if it were Mithian or someone else turning up at random to chat with him about Arthur, but which in other ways he can’t see turning out at all well judging by the smirk on her face. She’s wearing jeans covered in what looks like engine grease and when he comes out of the kitchen her smirk turns into a full-on beam. “Lovely, just the man I was hoping to see.”
“I figured that, since you asked me to come out here.”
Freya looks between them for a few seconds before coming to a decision. “I’ll just go back and supervise Sefa for a bit, shall I? Let me know when you want one of us to take the front again, would you?”
“Of course.” Freya disappears, and there aren’t any other customers, which means he’s left with Morgana, who has moved from beaming as an intimidation tactic to just looking at him assessingly. “So, can I help you?”
She puts her hands on the counter. They are, he is relieved to see, not covered in the same grease her jeans are, he doesn’t fancy sterilizing the counter right now. “My brother has historically terrible taste in partners, so you’ll have to forgive me if these questions seem a bit odd. Believe me, we’ve all deemed them necessary. Except Arthur, but he doesn’t get to have opinions on the matter. Now, are you or have you ever been a member of an organized crime syndicate?”
Merlin stares at her, but distressingly she seems to be serious. “No, definitely not. Not disorganized ones either.”
“Have you ever for any reason been a spy?”
“I was the lookout while a few friends were smoking pot in secondary school a few times?”
Her serious expression cracks into a smile, but comes back a second later. “Are you planning to sleep with Arthur and then stab him?”
“Is there cocaine in your chocolate?”
Merlin can’t help bristling at that. “I don’t need it.”
“No, I imagine you don’t.” She taps her fingers against the counter. “Have you ever been employed by a foreign government?”
“Unless one of the tourists who’s bought my chocolate was an ambassador or something, no.” He pauses. “Is Arthur some sort of politician and I didn’t know it?”
Morgana snorts. “Oh, pet, I’m going to tell him you accused him of politics, it might make him a good deal less besotted with you.” Merlin ignores that for his own sanity. And also ignores that the next most likely option after “politician” is “crime lord.” Or super spy, but nobody is actually a super spy. “Do you hate tea?”
“Who hates tea?” Merlin asks, horrified.
“Arthur has terrible taste. How are you in a crisis situation?”
“Pretty terrible, unless it involves ganache. Is he a mafia boss?”
“What would you do if he were?”
Merlin considers that question carefully. He likes Arthur, and thinks he could like him a lot, the way he always orders the experimental chocolates and tells whoever’s working in the front to send back his compliments to the chocolatier (and sometimes they’re detailed compliments), not to mention the fact that he looks like a knight from a fairy tale and wears pornographic suits. “Probably like him a lot less,” he settles on eventually. “And possibly check to make sure he wasn’t using my shop to launder money, though I don’t know how one goes about that.”
Morgana laughs. “Okay, I think you’re harmless.”
“All your questions are making me worry that I should have someone interrogate him.” He tries to imagine any of his friends enacting a similar interrogation on Arthur, but while he knows they all would in an instant, he’s having trouble thinking what sort of questions they would ask. “Although he hasn’t asked me on a date or anything, he might just like my chocolates, plenty of people like my chocolates. I don’t know anything about him. I don’t even know what he does for a living, if he’s not a politician or a mafia boss.” And Gwaine always says he doesn’t have a sneaky bone in his body.
Morgana, disappointingly, laughs again instead of answering. “You’re adorable, I think I approve. Now, how about half a dozen of your peanutbutter cups and a half dozen caramels to take back to Arthur so I can torture him with the knowledge that I went to see you without him.”
Merlin ignores that for his own sanity and starts boxing up her order. “What do you do, then?”
“Build things, it’s all terribly dull.” She flaps a hand. “This weekend I’m fixing Arthur’s motorcycle.”
“He rides a motorcycle?” Merlin asks, maybe a little faintly, and Morgana laughs unflatteringly through the rest of their transaction, only pausing to flutter a wave at him before she leaves.
Freya comes out of the back room with a speed that proves she was eavesdropping on the whole conversation. “I think asking his sister might count as cheating,” she says, which only confirms it.
“You never said it was.” Merlin turns to face her with his best serious face on. “Either he’s a master criminal or a bastard member of the royal family.”
She nods. “Valid theories. Now, let’s go back there and finish your batch of white chocolate before it starts melting in the bad way and send Sefa to mind the front for a while, shall we?”
Merlin slings an arm around her and agrees, and stays that way even though it means they have to shuffle sideways through the door back to the kitchen. He’s going to ignore everything Morgana said for his own sanity, he decides, and sends Sefa out to watch the front.
Normally, Merlin doesn’t work Sundays—usually Gwen and Freya handle the chocolate-making and Sefa runs the front and Merlin sleeps and does his grocery shopping—but the day after Morgana comes in he finds himself there, because Gwaine broke his ankle and Freya has taken him to A&E. The displays need rearranging for autumn, and since Sunday is their slowest-traffic day, he and Sefa are out in the front changing everything around while Gwen in the back looks for their molds for more autumn-themed things for the plain chocolates.
They have a few Sunday regulars, but most of them are on the older side, so it’s a shock to see Arthur come through the door a little while after noon, in jeans and trainers and a shirt so worn it’s practically transparent. Sefa, kneeling on the floor behind the counter reordering shelves in their display case, lets out a tiny incoherent noise. Merlin, to his own shock, manages words. “Hello, this isn’t your usual day to come in, is it?”
“No, but Morgana told me she stopped by yesterday and I thought I ought to come by on the off chance you hadn’t booked the next flight to Antigua. It speaks to your bravery that you’re still here.”
“Chocolate melts in Antigua,” he blurts, leaving right off on any pretense he had at being a functional human being at all.
To his surprise, Arthur laughs like that was actually funny and not just ridiculous and then puts his hands in his pockets. “I’m sure it does. I’m very glad you took that into account, I would have felt dreadful if I couldn’t apologize for her.”
“You don’t need to apologize for her. I mean, I’m not going to pretend she isn’t very confusing, but I know what it’s like to have friends and family who insist on making your life embarrassing.” Not that he doesn’t do quite a good job of embarrassing himself on his own. “Does she ask all those questions of everyone you interact with?”
“Normally only the ones she likes. You ought to feel honored.”
“I mostly feel very nervous. Are you a mob boss? Bastard by-blow of the royal family?”
Arthur laughs again, hands still in his pockets. “Neither of the above, I’m afraid.”
“What do you do, then?” There, Gwen and Freya will have to applaud him for that. “You know what I do, after all.”
Arthur starts poking around the shop like he doesn’t already know their merchandise backwards and forwards. “I don’t know if I should tell you, I rather like keeping this air of mystery about us. You never know, Morgana could be terribly paranoid and I could be an accountant.”
Merlin gives him his best dubious look. “She might be paranoid, but if you’re an accountant those questions make me really worry about your taste.”
“I think it’s improving,” says Arthur, giving him a warm look that effectively silences him for the near future. Merlin goes back to his organizing, since then he can pretend that he’s doing something but resisting the urge to stare, and Arthur continues to browse around the messy displays, picking up a small box of fudge, three dark chocolate dragons, and a box of caramels as he goes. “Restocking,” he explains when he catches Merlin looking.
“Restocking on dragon candies?” Merlin asks, just to be sure.
Arthur shrugs, dumping his load on the counter for Sefa to handle, which she scurries to do, standing up from her cleaning and organizing. “You’re the one who makes them, and it’s much more interesting than chocolate bars when I need a pick-me-up.”
“Any other requests for shapes, then?”
“Bigger ones wouldn’t go amiss, in general. But really, I’m fond of the dragons. I was named after King Arthur, after all.”
Merlin laughs. “Were you really?”
Arthur turns away from the register, where he’s handing over the notes for his purchases as Sefa tries to bag them and pretend not to ogle him at the same time, to raise his eyebrows. “I’m sorry, am I being teased for my name by a man named Merlin?”
Merlin can feel himself go pink. “I live in a very glass house, I should probably stop throwing stones.”
Arthur collects his bag of chocolates. “Yes, you should. Really, you’re missing out on marketing opportunities. Ealdor Chocolates, when you could have Merlin’s Magical Chocolates or something similar?”
“If you’d been asked to do card tricks as many times as I have, you’d be hesitant to put your name on the shopfront as well.” Arthur takes a step forward, but just the one, with plenty of space between them still, and Merlin stays where he is, not quite sure what else to do. “I’m glad you stopped by.”
“I’m glad Morgana didn’t scare you off.” Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin sees Sefa give a look between them and slip into the back room, closing the door behind her as softly as she can. Arthur doesn’t acknowledge it other than to smile a little. “Antigua’s a little hot at this time of year. I would have felt bad forcing you to flee there.”
“It wouldn’t be you, it would be her. Have you considered the possibility that she’s a supervillain?”
Arthur gives a short, sharp laugh at that. “She’ll love that, she’ll lord it over me for weeks. I’m accused of politics and mob work and she gets supervillainy.”
“Well, neither of you will tell me what you actually do for a living. I have to make my own guesses.”
“I like keeping you guessing.” Something beeps in his pocket and he swears. “I do hate to interrupt our conversation, but I’ve got somewhere to be. I’ll see you soon, though, I promise you that.”
Merlin gives a lame wave and then he’s out the door, leaving Merlin staring after him like usual, not a bit more enlightened as to what’s going on.
When the door to the back opens, he expects it to be Sefa, but instead it’s Gwen, hands on her hips and lips pursed thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s not a businessman,” she allows. “That was rather dodgy.”
“I even asked him outright what he does, that’s got to be worth some points.”
Gwen comes out from behind the counter to put an arm around him and squeeze. “Plenty of points. Though probably not quite enough to win you cocoa. Freya is very protective of her recipe. Now, I would say it’s about time for us to have a tea break, it’s a quiet day and we’ll hear the bell go if someone else comes in.”
Merlin, on what he tells himself is a whim, makes several batches of fairy tale themed chocolates, all set up in a display shaped like a castle that Freya constructs after exchanging conspiratorial glances with Gwen. There are dragons, including a few bigger ones, and castles and swords and white chocolate horses, and every child who enters the store once it gets set up immediately gravitates towards it, which is of course wonderful.
Arthur doesn’t turn up all week, though, not on any of the days he often does, even when Merlin is peeping out the door to the kitchen at the appropriate times and probably coming across as more than slightly mad. By the end of the week, he’s worried he scared off one of their best regulars by asking too many questions, or that Arthur was so embarrassed by what Morgana did that he’s avoiding him, and he’s feeling restless and grumpy and passing it on to his employees. To add insult to injury, Freya won’t give him the cocoa recipe even though he asked Arthur what he does and Arthur declined to respond and he can’t really be expected to stalk Arthur to work or something, especially if he isn’t coming in at all (“You’ll just have to ask more persuasively,” says Gwaine when he stops in for a truffle, with a truly terrifying wiggle of his eyebrows).
At the end of the week, when Merlin is minding the front of the shop while Gwen has a break, a new customer comes in. It isn’t as though most of their customer base is made of regulars, plenty of people wander in and out without ever getting to know them, so Merlin doesn’t pay her very much mind at first.
That changes when she comes to put her hands on the counter, heels clicking at every step, and gives him a fierce look that makes her look much less like a Disney princess than she previously did. “My boss likes your fudge.”
Merlin blinks at her. “I’m … glad to hear it?”
“My boss normally is content with the pastries from the very nice shop just two fronts down from our office, which I am glad to get for her, but suddenly Arthur is off and Mithian is stressed and because they decided to bribe her now she wants fudge.” She gives him a look with murderous intent while he’s still stuck on her mention of Arthur. “So you are giving me fudge, and it had better be the most amazing fudge you have ever made in your life, because otherwise I do not know why I am here when I could be working. Also, you are going to give me whatever those truffles with the heroin in them are.”
“Why does everyone accuse me of putting drugs in my chocolates?” Merlin asks no one in particular.
She gives him a dubious look. “God, you actually make them? There is really no accounting for taste.”
Merlin decides it’s not worth informing her that he is offended by that. He’s heard worse, and he sort of suspects that if he crosses her she is going to take one of her shoes off and disembowel him with it. “Apparently you liked them,” he does point out.
“Well, of course I like the chocolates, just not enough to want to leave my nice temperature-controlled office to get some fudge. Which you should be getting me now, I have more important things to do.”
Merlin starts packing up another box of fudge similar to the one that Arthur picked up for his boss. “You don’t work nearby, then? I always assumed, since Arthur stops by so much, and Morgana as well, and I got the impression they work together.”
She sniffs. “Morgana is in research and development, she hardly counts. And Arthur has been waxing poetic about your chocolates for months, I think he did a systematic survey of all the chocolate shops in the city and ended up fixated on yours. Possibly in the manner of a baby duckling.”
Most people say things like that with the implication that they’re good, but she looks more annoyed than anything. “I’m honored,” he manages, more uncertain than he wants to be, putting a few of his fancier truffles in another box.
“Hmm, you should be. And one of the blueberry ones, please.” Merlin puts it in the box. “Arthur is out of town for this week, in case you were curious. Business trip, all sorts of excitement. I thought I ought to tell you, since Arthur, I will assume, did not. He seems to forget that not everyone can divine his various whims.”
Merlin stares at her for a moment. “Why would you think I would be interested?”
She laughs, looking a lot friendlier for a second. “Oh, call it a hunch.”
“Nobody from your office makes sense,” he complains, ringing her total up when she doesn’t point out anything else to go in the box.
“We’re not meant to.”
“What do you even do there?” He doesn’t expect a proper answer, but he can’t help himself, either. If he isn’t getting answers from Arthur, he might as well try other people. He really wants that cocoa recipe, and he’s finding himself more interested in the mystery by the day. The combination is too much to resist.
She gives him a flat look. “Well, I’m personal assistant to the director, but I doubt you meant me.” Merlin doesn’t know what his face looks like at that, but whatever it is it makes her unbend enough to take pity on him. “Acquisitions, mainly. Information gathering. That sort of thing.” She hands over her notes. Merlin gives back her change and the bag of chocolate and fudge. “I’ll let him know you asked after him when he gets back to the office.”
Merlin shakes his head so fast it makes him a little dizzy. “Really, no need at all. Um. Please don’t.”
“If you’re sure,” she says in the pitying tones of someone who is obviously going to betray him the second she leaves the building. Gwen and Freya use that tone sometimes, but generally there’s at least an undertone of fondness, whoever this is seems far too pleased with herself. Merlin really hopes she and Morgana hate each other, because if they like each other he can’t see the world surviving it.
“Have a nice day,” he offers.
That makes her turn around and click her way right to the door of his shop, where she gives him a smile over his shoulder that makes him want to hide behind something. If she is a personal assistant then she is probably also an assassin, the people who work with Arthur are collectively terrifying and that should definitely worry him. “He should be back by Monday, by the way. If you were wondering.”
And with that, she’s out the shop door and Merlin is left stuck behind the counter until Freya gets back from snogging with Gwaine at the deli down the street through her lunch break. “Anyone interesting come in?” she asks, handing him a wrapped-up sandwich so he can eat in the back.
“I am pretty sure Arthur works for a crime syndicate or something,” he says, and goes to eat his sandwich and then make a batch of chocolate-covered cherries with Gwen.
“He asked for you,” Gwen says a few days later with a smile that’s equal parts mischievous and delighted.
Merlin, covered with ganache after a particularly long morning of getting an order ready for some kind of company party, stares blankly at her for a second. “Did he? Who’s he?”
“Arthur, of course.” She looks at him expectantly, and when he just keeps staring she jumps. “Oh! I mean, he asked for you, by which I mean he’s out there. Waiting. In case you wanted to say hello?”
Merlin puts his hand to his forehead and only realizes belatedly that he’s just smeared chocolate all over himself. “He wants to say hello?”
“That is what I just said.” Gwen laughs. “Go on, go out there, he looks stressed and he asked for you and he asked if we happen to sell cocoa. Which, really, we ought, Freya can make a batch a few times a day every time she works even if she won’t share the recipe with us, or at least she can once it gets colder.”
“Right. Yes. I’ll just go out there, shall I?” Merlin looks down at his apron. “I am covered in chocolate, Gwen, I can’t go out there until I have had six baths, why is he asking about me when he looks stressed?”
Gwen laughs again. “Don’t be an idiot, Merlin, it’s just like an artist being covered in paint or something, he won’t mind in the least, it’s not as though you’re minding the front, you’re just popping out.”
There’s really no argument he can make to that even if he feels like a total idiot, so Merlin brushes his hands off on his apron and goes out to the front, leaving Gwen in the back since Freya has the day off and it’s been quiet in the front all day. Arthur is indeed waiting, looking at the display of dragons and swords and the castle Freya made with a little smile on his face. He’s wearing one of his suits and he looks tired like he hasn’t in all the time he’s been coming into the shop, and Merlin wants to sit him down and make him toast and contents himself with clearing his throat and offering up an awkward smile instead. “Gwen said you wanted to see me?”
Arthur doesn’t jump, he obviously isn’t startled, but he still gives himself a little shake before he turns to smile at Merlin. “Well, Vivian said you wanted to see me.”
“Vivian is the scary one?” Merlin rethinks that. “That’s not really a proper descriptor from what I know of the women in your office.”
That makes Arthur laugh softly, and Merlin sort of wants to cheer. He and Arthur don’t talk much, but it still seems like the world is askew to have him tired or upset or whatever he is right now. “No, I know precisely what you mean. Morgana, Mithian, they’re certainly intimidating, and my boss Annis is terrifying, but nobody crosses Vivian and survives with their life intact.”
Merlin tries not to look as alarmed as he feels about that. “I’ll try not to cross her, then.”
“Hopefully she won’t have to come in here again, Annis knows I’m here frequently, she’ll order me to bring her fudge. Speaking of which, I think I’d like some of that today. Nothing like comfort food, since I’m told you don’t stock cocoa.”
“No, it’s hard to want to make subpar cocoa, but all cocoa that isn’t Freya’s grandmother’s recipe is subpar, and she refuses to share the recipe. It makes it very difficult.” Arthur smiles again, and Merlin blurts out his next words before he can think about it. “You could help me get the recipe, actually.”
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “You want me to steal it from her? Tie her to a chair and interrogate her?”
“I think her boyfriend would object to the bondage. And, um, no. I mean.” Merlin clears his throat and wipes his hand across his face and only realizes belatedly that probably spread chocolate even more. “We sort of have a bet on that if I find out what you do for a living this month she’ll give me the recipe? And I would share the spoils. Obviously. I mean, if you told me.”
That makes Arthur blink in bemusement and doesn’t help him relax, and Merlin instantly feels like an idiot and also sort of creepy. “Why on earth would you wager cocoa recipes for something like that?”
“I—they wanted me to talk to you?” Merlin winces. He really isn’t helping his own attempts to seem like a normal human being, and he isn’t making Arthur look noticeably less stressed either. “It was more about the talking than knowing what you do for a living, but now she’s insisting. And it isn’t as though I mind talking to you.”
Arthur’s mouth quirks, and Merlin relaxes. That’s beginning to be a familiar expression, anyway, one where he feels as though Arthur is laughing at him but not to be cruel. It’s better than him looking exhausted. “I feel rather as though I’m being damned with faint praise. You don’t mind talking to me?”
“I like talking to you.” The one bonus to having chocolate all over his face is that it probably does something to hide his blush. Or highlight it. One of the two. “Even without the promise of cocoa leading me on. Though that would be a very good bonus.”
“I would tell you, believe me, but then I’d have to kill you.” Arthur’s smile is rueful. “Or Vivian would come do it.”
Merlin can’t help staring. “You really aren’t just some sort of businessman, are you?”
This time, he grins, even if he still looks tired. “The name’s Pendragon. Arthur—” His phone goes before he can finish the reference (and Merlin half-wonders if he’s actually making a hint, but seriously, nobody is James Bond, it’s really not in anyone’s job description to wander around wearing sharp suits and shooting people for Her Majesty’s government and the freedom of the world while drinking martinis and flirting with attractive women. Or eating chocolates and flirting with innocent chocolatiers, in this case, which makes the whole thing even more unlikely), and he stops. “Fuck. Sorry, just let me get that.” Merlin nods dumbly and straightens the counter and pretends not to eavesdrop as Arthur says “This had better be—what? He’s—no, I’m not. Fuck. How soon? Okay.”
He hangs up, and Merlin does his best to smile. “Office calling?”
“Yes, my business trip was meant to solve a problem but apparently only made it worse. Small box of your best fudge to go, if you please, and I’ll come visit again soon.” Merlin boxes the fudge up because Arthur is suddenly practically bouncing on his toes with impatience, even though he still looks exhausted and rings it through. Arthur hands over the notes without a second thought. “Take care, Merlin.”
“You too. Sounds as though you need to more than I do.”
Arthur sighs. “Maybe.” Like that’s a cue, a car pulls up on the curb outside the shop. It isn’t a black limo with tinted windows like Merlin is half-expecting, but a sensible green sedan with Mithian in the driver’s seat. Arthur takes his box and starts walking out, only to turn around at the door and muster up a grin that’s closer to what Merlin is used to seeing from him, raising a hand up to his cheek. “By the way, Merlin, you’ve got a bit of chocolate just there,” he says, and walks out, shop bell ringing cheerily as he goes.
Merlin watches the car drive away and then gives Gwen a helpless shrug when she comes out of the back. “Something shady is going on.”
“We can call off the bet. If he’s some sort of criminal or something we don’t want you dating him, and maybe we don’t want to know.”
“I do, though. And I want Nana Finna’s cocoa recipe, too.” Merlin shakes his head. “He’s probably just trying to be mysterious or something.”
Gwen bites her lip and nods. “I suppose.”
“You are supposed to be much more comforting than that,” he says, and goes back to his ganache.
Arthur has always been a phenomenon of the shop only. Merlin sees most of his regulars around outside of work—they’re his friends too, enough that he’ll sometimes meet them at the pub, even Morgana, though she’s less regular than most. Even the ones he doesn’t know as well are people he sometimes sees on the street on his way to work or out to lunch, or while he’s running errands, picking up groceries or whatever else he happens to be in need of. Merlin isn’t used to seeing Arthur out and about, though, which is why he doesn’t know quite what to do with himself when he almost runs directly into him on the street on his way home from dinner at Gwen’s place.
It’s evening but Arthur is still wearing a suit, somewhat rumpled. He still looks tired, circles under his eyes, but his smile when he realizes just who stopped short in front of him is real. “Merlin! I don’t think I’ve seen you without a counter between us before.”
“They do let me out occasionally, for good behavior.”
Arthur laughs. It’s a ridiculously lovely sound, considering he doesn’t seem to care in the least that it’s evening and they’re in the middle of the pavement and anyone driving or walking by has got to be paying attention. “I’m glad I’ve run into you, though,” he says after a few seconds of companionable silence. “I was sorry to run out on you the other day, but work summoned. The fudge was much appreciated, though.”
“I’m glad. Always good to hear we brighten people’s days.”
“My boss has made mention of bribing you to move your shop somewhere closer to my office. She won’t actually do it, but the fact she considered it is an honor.”
Merlin shakes his head. “I don’t think I’d like to meet your boss. Anyone who isn’t overrun by Vivian as their personal assistant has to be terrifying.”
This laugh is a sharp bark. “Yes, I suppose that’s fair. I can’t imagine the impression you must have of us all. I suppose Mithian must seem like a relatively reasonable human being.”
“Well, I quite like you.” He feels his ears go pink at that and forges on, glancing away from Arthur’s wide smile. “And Morgana. I mean, and Mithian. But I know Morgana better, and I like her even if she’s strange.”
Arthur is grinning when Merlin dares to look up again. “She’ll be glad to hear it. She approves of you.” He breaks eye contact just long enough to check his phone and looks up again. “What direction are you going in? I’ve got enough time for a break to escort you part of the way, if you like.”
“It’s only a few blocks away.” Merlin can’t help smiling. “I mean, if you aren’t busy. Or on your way home, or anything. Isn’t it a little late to be working?”
“Still needling for that cocoa recipe?” Arthur holds his arm out before Merlin can apologize for being nosy, leaving Merlin to stare at him. “Well? Are we going?”
Apparently Arthur expects Merlin to take his arm like they’re in a period film, and Merlin can’t say he objects, so he tucks his hand in the crook of Arthur’s elbow, settling it there a little more firmly when it makes Arthur smile and start walking. He doesn’t go fast, and he stays close, and Merlin falls into step with him shockingly easily, considering he’s half-expecting to trip over his own feet or do something else equally mortifying. “Do you live close to here?” he asks eventually, mostly at random. Walking along with his hand on Arthur’s arm not saying anything at all seems pretty stupid.
“Not too close, unfortunately. My motorcycle is parked not far away, but I’m out enjoying the evening before I drive home, and presently I’m enjoying the evening with you.”
“I haven’t been on a motorcycle before.” And the thought of Arthur on one is really not good for his sanity.
“Maybe I’ll take you someday. If you’d like.”
“I would. If you would.” Arthur grins over at him and moves a little closer, though not quite close enough to touch. “Not that I’m trying to invite myself—”
“My sister interrogated you, my boss sent her terrifying personal assistant over to check you out, so I think you can safely presume a little, Merlin. That is, if you’d like to presume.” Arthur stops and Merlin drops his arm, letting Arthur turn to face him. Suddenly they seem to be standing very close together, he hasn’t the faintest idea how that happened. “I would like you to presume. And I would certainly like to presume myself. I know I’ve been cagey about what I do, and I swear I have my reasons for that, mostly because it isn’t the kind of thing to talk about in your place of work. Maybe after we’ve had coffee a few times, if that’s something you’d—”
“Absolutely, yes. We could—I could give you my number?”
Arthur grabs his hand and starts them walking again, and the smile on his face warms Merlin’s stomach until he starts wondering if it would be stepping over a line to ask Arthur up to his flat before they’ve even been on a date. “You can absolutely give me your number,” says Arthur, squeezing his hand. “And I will call it. Probably frequently enough to drive you mad. I’ll warn you, once you give me an in I am very persistent.”
“You don’t really need to be,” Merlin blurts, and then thanks everything that it’s dark and his blush hopefully isn’t as noticeable as it would be in broad daylight in his shop.
“You’re worth a little persistence, Merlin. Wooing, if you will. You’ve wooed me with chocolates, I’d say it’s my turn.”
“I didn’t woo you with chocolates. Unless you think I’m wooing the whole city of London with them, anyway.”
“You might not have meant to, but you did.”
Merlin stops and lets their joined hands pull Arthur to a stop, because he has no idea what to say to that, but it seems like an urgent thing to kiss Arthur right now and it seems like Arthur is not going to object. Sure enough, Arthur doesn’t drop his hand when he stops, but takes a step closer and watches expectantly. Which means he’s waiting for Merlin to make a move, and Merlin can do that.
He’s about to do it, in fact, when the gunshot rings out.
It’s not as though it’s the first time Merlin has heard a gunshot—he lives in London, after all—but it’s certainly the first time the gunshot is followed closely by the sound of breaking glass far too close to his head. He doesn’t even have half a second to react before Arthur has him shoved down into a crouch with a hissed “Stay there,” already moving in front of him and drawing a gun (a gun, Arthur has a gun, he was just walking Merlin home and he has a gun).
He doesn’t fire back like he would in a film, and there’s a long minute of silence while Merlin thanks any god he can think of that it’s a quiet night so people aren’t screaming or anything else like that. “Why are people shooting at us?” he whispers when nothing further happens.
“I am so fucking sorry,” says Arthur without moving from pointing his gun (his gun!) into the shadows where the shot came from. “Work seems to have followed me away from the office. I’m going to call for backup, and then we’re going to get you safe.”
“Please tell me you’re one of the good guys,” Merlin says, staying crouched where he is. He quite likes this spot. Nobody is shooting at him anymore, he thinks he might stay here.
Arthur winces and gives him a hand up. “That was a warning shot, we’ve got to get you under cover, this might get ugly. I made a few enemies on my recent business trip.”
“You’re a mob assassin,” Merlin decides. He never should have broken up with lovely safe Gilli. Gilli didn’t exactly make his skin tingle, but he also never got him shot at.
“No, I’m not. Look, I haven’t got time to explain, but I promise you, I work for the government, I’m—the easiest shorthand is a 007 reference, I suppose.”
“Nobody is actually a super spy,” Merlin says, and maybe he’s getting a little shrill, but he thinks he’s justified.
“Unfortunately, some people are. I will explain, but we need to move, you understand me? Don’t take me back to your flat, you don’t want to have to move, just take me to some restaurant that will still be open, people don’t like to cause scenes nearly as much as they do in films.”
“I’m going to die,” Merlin realizes.
Arthur grabs his shoulder and meets his eyes for an intense second that only serves to remind Merlin they were going to kiss a few minutes ago. “You are not. I am so sorry you’re being dragged into this, but you’re going to come out okay and I will explain everything, or Morgana will go to yours for tea and explain everything, and if you never want to see me again that is okay, but I’m going to get you out safe.”
It is really hard to concentrate on life or death situations when Arthur is making this much eye contact. Merlin takes a deep breath. “Okay. There’s a coffee shop that’s open late about a block from here. Is that okay?”
“Perfect. Thank you. Just walk, don’t run, call a friend if you don’t feel safe with me, I need to call Mithian.” Merlin starts walking and doesn’t shrug off Arthur’s hand when he rests it at the small of Merlin’s back (his other hand is still on his gun (Merlin is never going to be over that), which is equal parts terrifying and reassuring). It only stays for a few seconds before he drops it to dial Mithian, though, and then he’s all business. “Mithian? Ran into Merlin while I was getting the lay of the land, and we were shot at. Just once. We’re going to a coffee shop nearby, but he’ll need a place to stay for the night and I need backup if Odin or someone he’s hired is watching me. There’s only been a warning shot and nothing since, which makes me think it’s the man himself.” Merlin really wishes the name Odin meant something to him. “You have my location? See you at the coffee shop.”
Merlin takes out his phone and texts his Freya, since it means he won’t have to meet Arthur’s eyes. You owe me a cocoa recipe. And also a cup of the cocoa brought to me at the shop in the morning because I am having a very stressful night. Arthur makes a concerned noise that makes it clear he’s not even pretending not to read over Merlin’s shoulder, and Merlin sends the message without adding anything else. “Everything’s okay?”
“As much as it can be. I really am sorry, Merlin.”
“It’s going to take some … adjustment.” He’s pretty sure someone is following them, though that might be gunshot-induced paranoia. Arthur’s hand is on his back again, though, so he doesn’t speed up. If he’s going to be walking around with a super spy he’s going to do his best not to make a total idiot of himself.
They turn the corner and there’s the coffee shop, looking just as normal as it does when Merlin stops by after work so he can get enough caffeine to keep him from falling asleep at six in the evening like his grandmother. “Of course it is, I would expect no different,” says Arthur, and leads him in. “Let me buy you coffee. Not as a date, as an apology. Though I would like to try that again.”
Merlin grimaces, because they’re in public and he can’t really say that the last attempt at a date, all of ten minutes ago, ended in gunfire. Arthur winces in response, so probably he got that across pretty well. It feels safe and warm inside, though, and there hasn’t been a gunshot than the first, so Merlin manages something that he hopes looks vaguely like a smile. “Coffee is good. As large and black as you can get it.”
Arthur raises his eyebrows. “I would have expected you to like it sweet, given your profession.”
“And I would expect you to be drinking martinis, given yours,” Merlin shoots back, sitting down at a table in the corner and trying very hard not to look out at the street to see if anyone is watching them. That inevitably leads to him looking at Arthur, instead, who looks like a kicked puppy. Merlin relents. “I spend all day around sweets, usually I can’t stand them when I get home unless it’s a special occasion,” he explains.
“Damn, I was hoping you would have some stash of more chocolates at your home that are too amazing to serve the general public.” Arthur’s smile is hopeful and genuine and Merlin should be more worried than he is that Arthur is flirting when there’s a gunman after him. “I’ll just get us those coffees.”
Merlin waits at the table and Arthur gets through the line and gets them their coffees in short order, since it isn’t exactly busy at this time of evening. Sometimes they have open mic nights, but this isn’t one of them, much to his relief. Arthur comes back to the table and doesn’t have time to sit down before a car pulls up outside and gives a sharp hit on its horn. This one does look like a spy’s car, a sleek black sporty thing with tinted windows, but Arthur smiles when he sees it. “Morgana. She’s probably here to take you to her place for the night, no one dares cross her.”
“Oh God, of course your scary sister is a terrifying spy who goes to craft nights, that’s just what all this needs,” Merlin says, but he lets Arthur help him out of his chair and out to the street.
The passenger window of the car rolls down when they get close, Morgana leaning across with a grin on her face. “Come with me if you want to live.”
“Morgana,” Arthur snaps, fingers squeezing around Merlin’s shoulder. “Be nice, he’s had a shock, and I’ve got work to do.” His mobile goes. “Speaking of, that will be Mithian with the backup. You’ll be okay, Merlin.”
“Will you be?”
Arthur leans in, and for a second Merlin thinks he’s about to get a movie-worthy snog (with Arthur’s sister sitting impatiently in her car nearby, but nothing is perfect). Instead, he gets a quick, firm press of Arthur’s lips on his forehead. “I’m always fine, Merlin. Don’t let Morgana torture you too much.”
And then he’s off down the street at a run, meeting another car, and that leaves Merlin with little choice but to climb into Morgana’s car and take out his phone to text Freya again saying that at least she could stop shagging her boyfriend and sympathize with him.
Morgana ignores the still-warm and mostly-full cup of coffee he has when he gets to her flat and puts the kettle on for tea instead. He hasn’t been there before, probably because it looks sort of like a mad scientist’s lab exploded all over her flat. “I don’t make ejector seats, precisely, but I do design technology for surveillance and information-gathering use, when I’m not maintaining gadgets for fun,” she says when she sees him looking.
“Am I going to have to have my memory wiped or something after tonight?”
Morgana laughs and sits him down on a stool at the counter in her kitchen. “No, though you may have to sign a non-disclosure agreement or two.”
“I hate keeping secrets.”
“We won’t say you can never tell anyone, Merlin. It’s no way to live, and you won’t be finding out the details of Arthur’s assignments unless you get married or a similar level of commitment so you won’t be able to compromise him. You’ll be able to tell Gwen and Freya, if they’ll sign some forms too.” She leans forward, elbows on the counter. “I imagine you have some questions for me.”
“This all explained a lot. Especially you interrogating me.” Merlin fidgets for a few seconds. “So he’s James Bond.”
“His life is much less interesting than James Bond’s, but yes, he’s a spy. Mithian is his handler.”
“Vivian is a master assassin?”
Morgana laughs. “No, she really is a personal assistant, but personal assistants to the chief of the office that oversees high-level covert information-gathering missions needs to have similar skills at times. Come, though, you must have some things to ask me.”
“Who was that earlier? Why did we get shot at? Why did we only get shot at once? Is Arthur going to be okay?”
“Arthur is always okay,” she says firmly, too fast, and then softens. “He’s the best we’ve got, terrifying as that thought is. Stupidly brave, at times, but he’s good. He’s going to be okay. That business trip he was on was a mission, as you’ve probably already put together, and the head of the operation he was helping to dismantle got out. Lost control of the organization, so he’s working on his own at this point, but he fixated on Arthur, since Arthur killed his son. Arthur will have him beat, probably by morning, and it will be fine.”
The kettle goes, and Morgana pours him a mug of tea while he digests that. He wraps his hands around it the second she gives it to him. “I don’t know how I feel about him killing people.” She only hums thoughtfully. “I run a chocolate shop! I go there and I go home and I spend evenings with my friends and I talk with Elena at the flower shop and … I knew he wasn’t just a businessman, but this isn’t what I expected.”
“He likes you. He’ll respect your decision. That’s really all I can say.”
“He said I deserved wooing and then there were guns,” says Merlin in despair.
Morgana snorts. “He thinks he’s so smooth. You should have seen him with his first boyfriend.”
“I think anyone looks smooth compared to me, in all fairness.”
“Look.” She meets his eyes and waits until he stops moving about to keep talking. “He thinks you’re wonderful. He wouldn’t shut up about your chocolates and then he wouldn’t shut up about you. Usually his life is a lot less dangerous than this particular assignment has made it. As often as not he’s just getting information, meeting people, none of this explosions-and-shooting nonsense.”
“He kills people.”
“He does. But only as a last resort, and believe me, everyone knows better than to give Arthur an assignment where he might be forced to deal out collateral damage, because he will go to absolutely stupid lengths to prevent it.”
Merlin takes a sip of his tea, which isn’t nearly strong enough yet. It’s some herbal mix that Gwen swears by. She always tells him it’s soothing, which is probably Morgana’s point with serving it, but he can’t say he feels terribly soothed, knowing Arthur is out there on the street hunting down some kind of fugitive. “I don’t know.”
“I get that this isn’t for everyone. As your friend, I should probably encourage you to run in the opposite direction as fast as humanly possible. But as Arthur’s sister, I know he’s stupidly gone on you and I would rather you not break his heart. I’m not a neutral party.”
Merlin sips the tea again. It doesn’t get noticeably better. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t have to know, just yet. Now, I am rubbish at being comforting, so we are going to watch a film, which is not going to be any James Bond film because I am a benevolent hostess, and then you’re going to sleep on my couch and I will deliver you to work in the morning. Everything will be safe by then.”
There doesn’t seem much use arguing with that, so Merlin lets Morgana lend him a pair of pajama pants (it’s a little sad that he fits hers, and also she chose ones with cupcakes on them, but they’re comfortable so he doesn’t much mind) and they sit underneath an afghan he’s fairly certain she knitted herself and watch Chocolat, because she thinks she’s clever.
He falls asleep before the end of the movie and wakes up when it’s still dark, wrapped up in the afghan with a crick on his neck because Morgana doesn’t believe in providing pillows to her guests, with Morgana on the phone, whispering. “—promise, I would have told you if he wasn’t. He’s shaken, obviously, but he’s sleeping like a—no, never mind, he’s just woken up.” She raises her voice. “Merlin, may I tell Arthur that you’re safe and fine and he can get some sleep like a normal human being?”
“Is he okay?”
Morgana tosses her hands up in the air. “You’re both as bad as each other. Talk to him, I’m going back to bed.”
With that, she shoves the phone into Merlin’s hand. He manages to make a bleary noise to let Arthur know he’s there and gets an inhale in return, followed by words. “I just wanted to let Morgana know that everything is okay. Suspect is in custody, no one got hurt. Best possible outcome.”
“Good. I’m glad you’re safe.” He hopes the words are understandable, given he doesn’t care to remove his face from where it’s mashed in the couch cushions.
“I’m glad you are. I never should have offered to walk you home knowing he was out there. I thought it would be safer, and it was the opposite. I can’t apologize enough.”
Four in the morning probably isn’t a good time to be making decisions about his life, but the time also makes it hard to feel anything but happy that Arthur is okay, which might be something to think about when he wakes up properly. “You could maybe apologize after we’ve both had some sleep?”
“Right. Right, of course. I could stop by the shop in the afternoon if you’re working? If you want to see me, that is.”
“Stop by. We’ll talk.”
Arthur exhales, and when he speaks again it sounds like he’s smiling instead of worried and exhausted, voice as warm as it was when he said he was persistent, what feels like weeks ago. “I’ll be by in the afternoon, then. Maybe I can buy you dinner.”
“Maybe,” says Merlin. And then, when Arthur doesn’t show any sign of answering that: “Good night.”
“Good night, Merlin,” says Arthur, voice even warmer than before, and hangs up, leaving Merlin to fumble for the button on Morgana’s overly complicated phone.
It’s probably some sort of terrible government prototype, he decides, and falls back to sleep.
Morgana drives Merlin to work in the morning, getting him there five minutes later than his usual time. Gwen and Freya are inside, and when he arrives with Morgana at his heels they give him identical wide-eyed looks. Freya, he notes, has a thermos in her hands. “Arthur is a spy,” says Morgana, and produces three non-disclosure agreements out of what looks like nowhere, which only make the wide-eyed looks get worse.
It sets the tone for the rest of the day after Morgana leaves—which Merlin can’t blame them for, considering he’s still in shock himself. Gwen and Freya cluck over him and fuss and keep him in the back and both offer at least three times to run out for his favorite lunch, or tea, or soup. Both of them also offer to punch Arthur for almost getting Merlin shot, but they look dubious about it so Merlin turns them down. (Not that he would let them anyway. He quite likes Arthur’s face the way it is.)
Freya takes him aside when Gwen takes her afternoon break, threatens him for a full three minutes about the government’s non-disclosure agreements being child’s play as compared to hers, and gives him the recipe for Nana Finna’s cocoa. He promises to use his new powers for good instead of evil and hopes his smile is convincing.
Mostly, Merlin calms his jitters by shutting himself in the back room with his ingredients and coming up with a new recipe for cherry white chocolate truffles.
By afternoon, he’s less snappish and more centered, but no more sure about what he’s supposed to do about Arthur, which is why he gives serious thought to hiding under a table when Freya and Gwen approach him together sometime around three, coming from the front and making it really obvious who’s out there. “He wants to see you,” says Freya. “Should we send him away?”
“He brought flowers,” Gwen offers.
“I should talk to him.” Merlin makes a face and takes off his apron. “And probably not here. Wish me luck?”
Gwen bites her lip and Freya gives him a long look before she finally nods. “Get out of here, you work too much as it is. If you haven’t checked in by eight I’m going to assume you’ve been abducted and I am going to go to the press with wild stories about spy organizations.”
Gwen kisses him on the cheek. “Be careful.”
“We’ll be okay,” he assures them, even if he doesn’t feel at all sure about it, and washes his hands before he goes out front. Arthur is wearing weekend clothes, just jeans and a t-shirt, and he’s got a bouquet of cheerful flowers from Elena’s shop held out in front of him. Merlin’s automatic reaction upon seeing him is still a stupid smile, with a lot of added relief that he’s okay. That’s probably pretty telling. “Hi,” says Merlin, and immediately wants to kick himself.
“Hi. I brought these, but then I was going to offer a ride on my motorcycle to somewhere more private, and it’s hard to bring flowers on a motorcycle. Though of course I’ll understand if you don’t want to go anywhere with me. We can stay in public. Go to the park or something.”
Getting out of the shop sounds good, and he doesn’t have any illusions about his ability to concentrate on talking in private, so Merlin nods. “I’ll put them in a vase on the counter, sometimes Elena gives us one of her prettier bouquets to keep as an advertisement and we send over a box or two of chocolates as the same.”
“Sound business strategy.” Merlin puts the flowers in a vase in the next pause. Gwen and Freya will have to put water in, but he doesn’t think they’ll mind, and he doesn’t want to go in the back when they’re undoubtedly leaning against the door to eavesdrop. “So, we’ll go?”
“You’re sure you don’t mind?”
Merlin shrugs. “I trust you not to abduct me or something. We can talk about the rest of it.” He knocks on the door to the back once before coming out from behind the counter, so they know to send someone out to the front to watch it, and then follows Arthur out the door of the shop.
The motorcycle is parked halfway down the block, and Arthur fusses over Merlin’s helmet and then forces a thick jacket on him even though it’s a warm day. “For safety,” he says, trying and failing to sound casual, and directs Merlin to sit behind him on the bike and hold on.
Merlin does, probably too tight because Arthur drives fast, but it’s exhilarating too, going that fast, outside of a car. Arthur knows more shortcuts than a taxi driver and takes them all, not bothering to talk over the sound of the traffic and the wind, and they stop near the park, where things instantly get awkward again. “Shall we walk?” Merlin asks.
Arthur half holds his arm out before letting it drop to his side, and they end up walking side by side but not touching into the park, which is thankfully quiet, since it’s cloudy if not cold. Arthur seems to have some sort of route in mind, and Merlin doesn’t object, just keeps his hands in his pockets so he doesn’t reach out before he’s sure he wants to. “I should apologize again, and properly,” Arthur says eventually. “I am very sorry for pulling you into this. And for trying to date you without at least letting on that my profession isn’t what you’d call standard.”
“I guessed that much ages ago. I’m not … I’m mostly just still freaked out by last night, and by the reality of it all, I suppose.”
“I can’t say as I know what to do about that.” Arthur turns them down a path that isn’t well-groomed and into a little spot with a bench that Merlin suspects is mostly used by people wanting to smoke up after dark. “I can’t ask anything of you, either, but I would like to ask for another chance. A date without gunshots, for instance. We can do whatever you like.”
“You’re a spy,” Merlin says, which is stupid because they both know it, and then sits down on the bench because Arthur doesn’t seem to be moving on. “I mean, you are actually James Bond.”
Arthur grimaces and sits down on the other end of the bench, which feels as though it’s miles away. “For all that’s very good for quick explanations, it’s not very accurate in a larger sense. I’m not exactly the girl-in-every-port type, for instance.”
“And Morgana already explained there are less explosions in your life than in his.”
“I’m honestly more worried that you think I go around flirting with every gorgeous shop owner I meet. You’re a special case.” Arthur sighs and rubs a hand over his forehead and Merlin would really like to give him a hug but he’s frozen where he is, still trying to decide if he can have another night like last night. He’s starting to think the answer is yes, though he may have to invest in a bulletproof vest before their next date. “Do you believe that, anyway?”
Merlin nods. “Morgana said. That you’re really interested, I mean.”
“I am, I definitely am. I was half in love based off your chocolates alone, and then we met properly, and I—will not move too fast and scare you off, Mithian warned me I shouldn’t.” Arthur gives him a pitiful look while Merlin is still having trouble getting a full lungful of air. “Do you think we can give it a shot? Someday, if not today. I’m patient. Or I’ll leave you be and beg Morgana to pick up my chocolates in future since I’m addicted to them, you’ve every right to ask me to leave you be.”
He hasn’t known Arthur long, at least as more than the hot blond with the suits and briefcase who came in for chocolates frequently. Still, the thought of him not coming in any longer to flirt and make Merlin trip over his own words is disconcerting, and that’s what tips him over the edge. It isn’t as though agreeing to date Arthur is agreeing to marry him. He’ll have time to get used to the spy thing. “You don’t need to leave me be.”
Arthur breaks out into a tentative smile. “Okay, that’s … promising. I think.”
“Yes. I mean, we can give it a shot. I’d like to give it a shot.” Merlin stands up while Arthur’s smile is still making the shift over to delighted. “Do you want to have dinner?”
“I’d love to. But if you don’t mind,” Arthur says, standing up in turn, “I’d like to try something first.”
“What’s that?” Merlin asks, and shouldn’t be surprised when Arthur’s answer is a kiss. It’s slow and soft and doesn’t last very long, and Merlin’s knees still buckle a little when Arthur pulls away. Arthur catches him, which is probably the most embarrassing thing to happen all month, but Arthur’s also grinning fit to split his face so Merlin can’t have made too much of a fool of himself. “We can definitely try more of that,” he manages.
“I’m glad to hear it. But first we’ll go for dinner, and I’ll buy since I traumatized you, and we’ll figure things out from there. Sound good?”
This time, Merlin holds his arm out, and Arthur slides their hands together to start the walk back to his motorcycle. “Sounds good.”
“Ten bucks says he proposes by Christmas.”
“And half my chocolate supply the next time Elyan brings me home some from his travels says he’ll wait until New Year’s Eve because he thinks it’s romantic.”
Merlin gives serious thought to beating his head against the counter, and probably would if it weren’t presently covered in sugar from a minor disaster. “Can we not? We’ve been dating for a month. Freya and Gwaine have been together for ages, why can’t we speculate on whether he’s going to propose?”
“Gwaine and I could care less about marriage, but you and Arthur are both complete sops and he’s mooning around here nearly every day these days. I’m shocked he hasn’t asked you to move in with him yet.”
“A month,” Merlin repeats, and starts putting strawberry truffles on a tray for something to do that doesn’t involve letting Freya and Gwen torture him. “Why can’t we talk about whether Leon or Lancelot is going to get around to asking Gwen out first, and which one she’s going to say yes to? Oh, or maybe they’ll both ask you out. Together, I mean. That would solve the problem of having to decide between the two nicest men on the planet.”
Gwen smoothes her apron down primly. “We aren’t talking about me, we’re talking about you and your impending nuptials.”
“Nobody’s nuptials are impending! Especially not mine!”
Sefa chooses that moment to poke her head in from the front, fighting back a smile. “Merlin, Arthur is here.”
The counter starts looking tempting again. “He heard that, didn’t he?”
Sefa nods sympathetically. “I’m fairly certain Morgana and Mithian did too.”
“Why are they all here on the weekend?” he asks in a whisper, even though she can’t possibly know. “How much did they hear?”
“Not enough for it to be really embarrassing, don’t worry.” She looks over to Gwen and Freya with a grin. “I’m putting my money on Valentine’s Day.”
“I am not speaking to any of you,” says Merlin, and goes out to the front. Sure enough, there all three of them are, Arthur in jeans and a t-shirt, Morgana freshly showered, having probably been busy in her shop all morning, and Mithian still managing to look like Audrey Hepburn on the weekend. “To what do I owe the honor?”
“We’re stealing you for lunch,” Morgana explains.
“I don’t get warned about that?”
Mithian gives him a sympathetic look. “Neither do I, in all fairness. They just turned up on my doorstep.”
“It’s a beautiful day outside, I thought we ought to have lunch, and Merlin never answers his mobile when he’s at work,” Arthur says defensively.
“What he means is you’re stuck with us now,” says Morgana. “Now, come on, you’ve got Gwen and Freya and Sefa in today, they can spare you for an hour. Or two, if you and Arthur want to have a quick shag.”
“For God’s sake, Morgana!” Arthur doesn’t blush easily, but Morgana is the one person who can always manage to make him do it.
Freya picks that moment to come out of the back, giving Morgana and Mithian a grin that makes it clear she was eavesdropping. Not that they care. His and Arthur’s friends and family are both incredibly nosy, it makes their relationship very embarrassing at times. “Go on, Merlin, we’ll cover the shop. For the rest of the afternoon, if you like, we really need to hire someone else so you have more days off.” She leans in under the guise of untying his apron and says “I am going to win this bet.”
“You have become very competitive since you had to give me Nana Finna’s cocoa recipe,” he tells her, but he lets her take his apron off and shove him out from behind the counter nonetheless.
At this point, it’s natural to take Arthur’s offered arm, because Arthur seems to be under the impression that they’re living in a period drama instead of a spy film and Merlin is willing to go along with the illusion even if he feels ridiculous. Gwen thinks it’s adorable, Freya thinks it’s more proof that Arthur is courting him and planning to propose like a Victorian gentleman before they move in together, Morgana snorts every time it happens, and no one can tell what Mithian thinks because she has the best poker face known to mankind.
Nobody’s car is waiting outside, so Merlin lets Arthur lead the way down the street towards a diner that does a good weekend lunch (and brunch, because Morgana insists on breakfast food at all times of the day, probably because she is a vampire and doesn’t sleep). “What were they teasing you about in there?” Arthur asks when Morgana and Mithian fall into conversation about what projects they’ll be working on at the next craft night.
“Absolutely nothing relevant to you,” Merlin lies. It’s a blatant lie, and he and Arthur both know it, but sometimes it’s best to start that way.
“I would hope it’s relevant to me, given someone mentioned your upcoming nuptials. I would be very disappointed to find out you’re engaged at this point.”
Merlin is going to have to propose to Arthur himself just so none of them has the satisfaction of winning. It’s not a bad thought. Even if it is way too soon. “I am not engaged.”
“Yet,” Morgana calls from behind them without missing a beat, and then returns to talking to Mithian about quilt patterns.
“Not engaged,” he reiterates. “My employees are terrible people and I’m going to fire them all.”
“Annis would probably hire them,” Arthur says contemplatively, and Merlin’s alarmed look is entirely because of how plausible that is. He hasn’t met Annis yet, but he’s met Vivian once more and he’s heard enough legends to know that one, she and Gwen and Freya would probably get along swimmingly, and two, he would be terrified of her.
“Never mind, I’m never letting them out of my sight, you lot would corrupt them.” Arthur laughs, which hasn’t stopped being lovely and might never. Merlin does all manner of stupid things to make him laugh, these days, especially when he’s tired from work.
They get to the diner about then, where they’re greeted cheerfully by Percival the weekend manager and given a booth stuffed in the back corner where they can talk mostly in private. Merlin stays mostly quiet while Arthur and Morgana argue over which one of them should have to fill out the report from Morgana’s latest test of a gadget that practically blew her workshop up while Arthur was working with it. Mithian just watches them in the long-suffering manner of one who knows she’s actually going to be the one who ends up doing the report, if only to shut them up.
After, Merlin considers going back to the shop like a responsible business owner, but he suspects Gwen and Freya will just kick him out while Sefa smiles apologetically. They aren’t going to run out of anything important before the end of the day anyway. So, when Morgana tells them all she’s got groceries to shop for and Mithian excuses herself to “run errands,” by which she probably means buying flowers, Merlin takes Arthur’s hand and walks him in the opposite direction of the shop from the diner. “Are we having a walk?” Arthur inquires, smiling.
“To my flat, I thought,” Merlin says, and drops his gaze because it’s really embarrassing that that makes him blush after a month.
Arthur squeezes his hand. “Sounds like a good walk to me. Any plans from there?”
Merlin smiles. “I’m sure we can think of something.”
“You can teach me your chocolate recipes. Or the recipe for that cocoa with the addictive drugs in it, I still hold that I deserve the recipe since I’m the reason you got it in the first place. Or you can tell me why Freya and Gwen were teasing you about marriage earlier.”
This time, Merlin just laughs. It’s far too soon for all of it, but as with so many things with Arthur, he’s beginning to believe that doesn’t matter. “Can’t tell you, I’m afraid, there’s a wager on it and I’m pretty sure telling you would render the terms of the bet void.”
“Fair enough,” says Arthur, bumping their shoulders together. “The last bet you lot made ended up working out very well for me. I can wait to see how this one turns out.”
“So can I,” says Merlin, and speeds up to drag Arthur home.