Camelot has changed.
There is now a tram route that runs direct from the train station out to Ealdor, but it is a fine day, and Merlin’s had enough of sitting. He’s been sitting for over fifteen hours – lorry, bus, ferry, bus, train – plus he's not quite ready to get where he's going. He doesn’t think the cottage will mind, not given its previous owner.
"The future should never be faced on an empty stomach. At the very least, it requires a decent sandwich."
Wisdom of the ages, that is. Gaius didn’t say it first, but he said it best; Merlin will always hear it in his voice. He slings the straps of his smaller bags across his chest, cross-wise, and shrugs into the large backpack. On a whim, he chooses a route that takes him by his old school, curious to see what else is new.
At first, it's all depressingly familiar: dun-coloured stone and mullioned glass; scrums of boys and girls in drab grey and green, lounging on the steps or holding court beneath the great Albion Plane trees. Then he sees the looks on their faces – bored, mean, miserable – and remembers that he's no longer one of them, that this is what is different. He smiles to himself, whispering, "Thank fuck for that," as he turns into Bailey Street and instinctively hunches forward, leaning into the steep hill.
He climbs, sweating a little now, until Bailey gives onto the upper end of Kings Row. Exhaust fumes mingle with the rotten-sweet smell of fallen rose petals. The pavement is littered with them, decaying alongside the used scratch cards and compostable chip forks. Merlin doesn't recall there being a chippy nearby, but then he doesn’t remember the tall rose hedges and ornate iron fencing either, and they certainly aren't new. He wonders how many times he's passed this way, what else he'd missed before with his child's tunnel vision, his mum’s strict instructions nipping at his ears and his great, thundering eagerness to get where he was going.
To Pendragon’s. To Arthur.
* * *
Merlin watches his mum fumbling with the ties of her rain bonnet. It's pissing down slantwise, so the shelter's no good, and they've a good five minutes before the next tram is due. He is ten, but at this hour there's no one from school around to see him, so he presses in close to her hip and turns his face into her damp coat.
"Merlin? Love, is everything all right?"
Merlin shrugs. He wants to not have to talk until they are home, warm and dry and surrounded by things he is sure of. But he wants to wash that fear stain out of his mum's voice as well, hates that he is the frequent cause of it, so he tips his face up and stretches his lips into what he hopes will pass for a smile.
"Just cold, mum. And hungry."
She looks down at him with her wet lashes and clear vinyl-wrapped cheeks, puts an arm around his shoulders and gives him a squeeze.
"Bottomless pit, you are. Didn't Gaius give you your tea?"
Merlin gets a funny squirm in his belly at the question. "Arthur," he mouths into her coat. Sometimes it picks up curious smells from the care home, but now it just smells like damp wool.
"What was that?"
"Arthur." Merlin pulls away and shoves his hands in his pockets. "Arthur made me sandwiches."
She laughs. "I think I like him already."
"Why? You don't even know him."
"Well, if he's making you sandwiches, I know he's nothing like his father. I'll bet Uther Pendragon has never made anyone a sandwich in all his life."
They share a giggle at this, the thought of grim-faced old Uther in shirtsleeves and apron, slapping together a stack of cheese and pickle and passing them round on a silver tray.
"Get your face in that, boy," his mum growls in imitation, planting her feet wide and jutting her chin.
"Or else," Merlin adds, stabbing a finger into the pelting rain. He's only had a handful of run-ins with Pendragon's owner, but they tend to stick in the gut.
His mum's expression softens and she shakes her head, saying, "Oh, poor Arthur," and Merlin goes back to feeling uneasy about the whole thing.
He pulls his hood tight around his face and wanders a little ways down the platform, kicking at fast food wrappers and sodden leaves until the tram comes. Only then, wedged in tight between his mum and the window, lulled by the warmth and slight swaying motion of the car, does the story spill out.
Of how Arthur had been sitting in his booth today, rolling cutlery up in Pendragon's stiff red serviettes. Of how he'd laughed at Merlin for calling it his booth, said, "Do you know who I am?"
Of how he'd walked into the kitchen as if he owned it, dragging Merlin along even though he wasn't supposed to be back there, and carved up half a roast chicken before Merlin's eyes with swift, sure strokes.
"Gaius had to go see a man about some mushrooms," he'd said. "Told me to feed you if you're being a pest."
And as Merlin had watched Arthur butter thick slices of wholemeal bread and pile them high with chicken, chutney, tomato and greens – hair, shirt, and bright new trainers gleaming under the fluorescent lamps – he hadn't been able to tell him that Uncle Gaius had meant a bowl of leftover soup or the pasta he prepared for the kitchen staff, not food meant for the punters.
Nor had he been able to tell Arthur that he couldn’t stand raw tomatoes, that the jelly slime they left on the meat reminded him of bug guts and gave him the dry heaves. Instead, he'd dutifully fetched plates, accepted the serviette tucked into his collar like a bib – Arthur claiming the only good sandwich was a messy sandwich, but that he didn’t want to make more work for Merlin's mum – and choked down every bite.
Merlin's mum listens, eyes bright. "That settles it," she says when Merlin mentions about the serviette, about how he's not a baby. "I think we definitely like Arthur."
"Mum, no. He's one of them.Thinks he's better than every– "
"He's working in his father's restaurant for his gap year instead of traipsing around Iberia or New Albion with his friends. I call that very sensible and down-to-earth for a – how old is he now, eighteen, nineteen?"
"Who cares?" Merlin grumbles, pressing his face against the window, watching the lights of the city go all blobby as they pick up speed. "He's a stuck-up prat who makes weird sandwiches."
He doesn't tell his mum that he'd sicked up most of his meal in the toilet while Arthur was busy chalking the evening's specials onto the window board. Nor does he tell her that, before Uncle Gaius had returned, Arthur had lifted him onto a step stool and let him try out the big carving knife, showing him how to keep his elbow tucked in by his side and grip lightly, guiding the blade with index finger and thumb.
"No, no, ease up," he'd said, looming over Merlin's shoulder, curling his big calloused hand around Merlin's forearm and jiggling it. "Let the knife do the work."
Merlin doesn’t tell his mum about the knife because she'd worry; he has a poor record with sharp things. As for the rest, Merlin doesn't think his mum would scold him for being sick – in fact, she'd probably tell him he couldn’t help it – but he's already let her think that he just picked the tomatoes off, so now the truth feels shameful.
They disembark at the blue line's last stop and join the queue for the waiting bus that will take them out past Camelot's new stadium and leisure centre, out past parkland and pasture to the squat redbrick rows of Ealdor's council housing. Merlin wonders if Arthur sleeps at his father's posh old pile out on Castlegate, or if he's old and rich enough to have his own flat. He wonders if he's allowed a dog or a bird. All Merlin's allowed is peaky-looking goldfish from the fair who die just as Merlin's finally decided – after careful observation – on their best, true names.
There aren't enough free seats, so Merlin's mum grabs a rail in one hand and Merlin by the other. As the bus doors squeal and sigh with the relief of closing, he tugs at her hand. He gives her his most wide-eyed, earnest look, the one that gets him second helpings of pudding, even if he hasn’t finished his peas.
"Do I have to wait at Pendragon's? Arthur said he was allowed out on his own when he was eight."
She doesn't flinch, doesn't sigh. She fixes him with her steady blue-grey eyes, squeezes his hand and says, "Well, bully for Arthur."
"You are my son, Merlin. My one and only left in this world. I'm not turning you loose on the streets of Camelot until you're forty, at least, so I hope you haven't worn out your welcome with Gaius. Or Arthur."
Merlin rolls his eyes and wrinkles his face, but he's not really upset, and there goes that funny squirm in his belly again.
When he'd first switched schools, Merlin had been excited about the arrangement. He'd seen photos of his dad outside the original Pendragon's, before the fire, when it had been a nightclub. His dad is grinning in all of them, trim beard, big hair, arms flung around men in flashy suits. Actors. Footballers. Politicians.
However, in reality it's proven pretty dull. Pendragon's is strictly a restaurant now, dine-in only. It's the same cycle of ordinary people eyeing up the specials before asking for the same old pasta lunches, chicken dinners and Sunday roasts. Collectively, the entire staff must be around a thousand years old. Bors pinches Merlin's ears and thinks fumbling a pound coin out of his pocket and pretending to find it there is a good magic trick. Uncle Gaius is kind enough beneath the stern face and horrible hairnet, but he's head chef; he can't be bothered to entertain Merlin or invent tasks much beyond filling pepper mills and staying out of the way.
Now, though – and for the foreseeable future, except weekends and Tuesdays, when Merlin goes to chess club – there is Arthur.
Merlin drifts through the rest of his evening, hardly tasting his warm milk and biscuits, missing half the story his mum reads him about the brave boy and the foolish king. He burrows under the coverlet with Norbert and Astrid, butting his face into their soft, stuffed bodies. He's got a buzz under his skin now, a sort of happy dread to go along with the secret shame.
Arthur with his mint trainers. Arthur with his knives. Arthur with his broad hands and bright, bounding smiles. His sandwiches had been weird, but they'd also been daring, colourful, completely unlike any sandwiches Merlin has ever encountered at home.
Arthur had made cooking seem important, even dangerous – had made Merlin feel like he was in on it, whatever it was – and Merlin realises that he wants more, even if it makes him sick.
* * *
If Uther or Uncle Aggro are around, it is soup and toast for Merlin, or whatever Gaius has on for the family meal. But if they're not, Arthur raids the kitchen and creates the most outlandish sandwiches or freeform food "towers" which they eat in the back booth while Merlin does his schoolwork and Arthur pores over the restaurant's books and industry catalogues. Then, before Pendragon's opens for dinner, they both race around the place with safety matches competing to see who can light the most votives in their little red and amber glass bowls.
Arthur takes to calling him "Half-Pint," not teasing, but like it's a proper gangster nickname. Merlin tries out all the insults he hears in school – plus a few of his own invention – in return, but can’t find the one that fits perfectly, so mostly he sticks with "Arthur" or "sir" (with an eye roll) when Arthur provides unsolicited tutoring. Which is often.
Before Merlin knows it, he's solving real-life maths problems involving Pendragon's pantry inventory and learning how to fold serviettes into all sorts of geometric and animal shapes. Arthur continues to sneak him into the kitchen on occasion, too, lets him sniff at all the herbs and spices, shows him all the different knives and pans and how to work the blow torch.
They invent Dragon Toast, which is really just Welsh rarebit with a walloping overdose of hot spices and a few odd herbs tossed into the usual cheese mixture. Merlin is proud that he and Arthur alone can stomach the snack, even if their eyes water something fierce and Arthur's face turns the same shade as the serviettes.
There are eight years and at least half a metre between them, but Arthur never makes Merlin feel like a freak or a dumb, useless kid, so Merlin is more than willing to overlook his faults. Arthur can be very annoying about schoolwork – mainly in his insistence on Merlin finishing it before they do anything fun – and what strike Merlin as random details: garnishes, menu lettering, the crumbs on Merlin's jumper.
Merlin secretly wishes Arthur could come live at their house and make all their food. His mum bakes a mean cake when she has a mind to, but otherwise isn't much of a cook. They eat a lot of ready meals. Her sandwiches are tidy and predictable.
"You should bring her here, for her birthday," Arthur says one day when Merlin shows him the card he's made and asks him to check the spelling.
Merlin knows he could never afford it, not without help, and he's already too aware of all the free meals he gets after school. He shrugs, looking down at his lap.
"Nah," he says.
"Why not, Half-Pint? That's what I'd do for…"
Merlin looks up, sees that Arthur is no longer studying the card but looking out over the restaurant, his expression gone hard and far-away like it does sometimes when he thinks no one is watching. Merlin knows that Arthur's mum is dead, same as his own dad, but it's not something they talk about.
"I think it's a splendid idea," Gaius calls from the kitchen. He bustles out a moment later, wiping his hands on a cloth.
Arthur blinks. Merlin watches them exchange a look, then Arthur is smiling, saying, "That is, if she can stomach the old goat's cooking."
"How dare you, young man!" Gaius snaps the cloth at Arthur's ear, but he's too quick, ducking and catching the end of it, yanking it from Gaius' hands and holding it aloft with a triumphant grin.
Merlin can’t help but laugh, bouncing on the seat and clapping.
"Incorrigible, the pair of you." Gaius snatches the cloth back with a huff, glaring between them. "You can work off the cost, starting now. Nip down to the market and fetch me some carrots, preferably ones that don't look as if they've been sitting around since King Bruta's reign."
* * *
But Arthur practically ignores Merlin in favour of grinning like a chat show host and fawning all over his mum. He brings her wine she didn't order and a spray of yellow roses nicked from the fat blue bowl on the bar. He calls her "Hunith" and Merlin "young man" and Merlin wants to punch his stupid, smiling face.
Merlin marches straight up to him the Monday after, flings down his rucksack and says, "Stay away from my mum, prat-face. You're not allowed to like her like that," though what he really wants to say is, "You're not allowed to like her more than me."
Arthur's eyes do their bulgy thing, then their laughing-at-Merlin thing. He sets down his pencil, tugs the red placeholder ribbon firmly down the crease of the ledger he's working on and closes it.
"Like what?" he says.
"Like a girl."
Arthur shrugs, holding Merlin's gaze. "You've lost me, Half-Pint. A girl? What's that when it's at home?"
Merlin doesn't mean to smile, but he does. Arthur reaches for his hand and tugs him towards the kitchen, saying, "Now, let's go see if Gaius is finished with the mandoline. It's high time you learned to do proper pommes frites."
"Those are just skinny chips."
"Oh no. That's what they want you to think," Arthur says gravely. He flattens himself against the wall just outside the kitchen entrance, and tucks Merlin in alongside, covering his mouth with a hand that reeks of rosemary and garlic.
Merlin's first instinct is to open his mouth – to lick, to bite – but instead he closes his eyes and holds his breath, lets Arthur keep him there, quiet and still, until he's peered in and checked that the coast is clear.
He thumps Merlin's shoulder then, whispering, "C'mon, in here," and Merlin shivers.
Later, as he helps Arthur clear their booth and set it for the dinner crowd, Arthur says, "Honestly, Merlin. I know your mum works hard, is all, and she's a nice lady. I was just trying to make sure she had a good time on her birthday. Alright?"
Merlin nods, sleepy from all the rich food – Arthur dusted their chips with musky truffle oil and parmesan cheese – realising that it is all right. That he's forgiven Arthur without meaning to as well, somewhere there amidst the flashing mandoline blades, popping hot grease and Arthur's insistence on properly plating their chips before they could be eaten. He'd heaped them into a great pyramid on one of the gold-rimmed platters, ground fresh salt and pepper on top, and added the rosemary garnish that is now tucked into Merlin's pocket.
Later still, on the tram, he takes it out and presses it between his thumb and forefinger, then sniffs at his hand. He goes hot all over when he catches his mum watching him. She smiles, and he quickly shoves the sprig back in his pocket.
* * *
But this year, Easter hols means two whole weeks without Arthur, and not even the new gibbons at the Five Kingdoms Zoo or all the Cornettos he can eat can keep Merlin from feeling as if something's missing, that their adventures are less fun than they could be.
"Too old for a day out with your mum now, is it?" she asks on the bus home from the zoo.
"No, just…" But he can't explain it, so he shakes his head, says, "No Mum, never," and lets her finger-comb his fringe off his face and fuss over how long it's getting.
Later, as she tucks him in, she asks what's really bothering him.
Merlin clutches Norbert and Astrid to his chest, rubs his chin on their plush fur. His mum washed them during her spring clean, and they still reek of flowery detergent.
"Does Uncle Gaius ever get to go on holiday?" It's not what he really wants to know, but it's close enough.
"Gaius?" She tilts her head. "Of course, love. But it's different in the restaurant business. You've got to stay open as much as you can, especially when everyone else is on holiday, as that's how you survive."
"But what if you own the restaurant? Arthur's dad is hardly there, ever."
She purses her lips and stands, smoothing the coverlet. "Well Uther Pendragon's got plenty of other business interests. Trust me, Merlin, when he's not there he's hardly off sunning himself and stuffing his face with Cornettos... though come to think of it maybe he should do. Might improve his temper."
Merlin snorts. He can't imagine Uther in swim trunks, but the thought of him smacking his lips round a melting Cornetto, making exaggerated "mmm mmm" noises the way Arthur does when he's delighted by something he's put in his mouth, is funny.
"Why doesn't he just let Arthur have it? It'll be his one day anyway, if he wants it. He told me."
"Did he, now?" She bends down and presses a kiss to his forehead. "And is that what Arthur wants?"
"Dunno," Merlin says, then – because it is a thing he's heard Arthur says more than once to his uncle – "He's exploring his options."
Arthur keeps a binder of recipes, sketches, pages from catalogues, sheet upon sheet of calculations, but he also talks of wanting to travel, to fight, to help feed people who would otherwise starve. Merlin's marks in geography have vastly improved since he started paying close attention to the World News for Schools segment each day, keeping tabs on all the wars and disasters that might pull Arthur away from Camelot.
"Ah. Very wise of him." She kisses Norbert and Astrid, then Merlin once more, and switches off the overhead lamp. But she remains at his bedside, looking down at him. It's hard for Merlin to work out her expression in the dim glow of the nightlight. It's a smile of sorts, but not the kind that looks like it's heading towards laughter.
At last she says, "I'm glad you two get along so well, Merlin. I think you're good for one another. Gaius thinks so too."
"He does?" Suddenly Merlin feels wide awake.
"Mmm. But even the best of mates need time apart, and you've got to remember he is quite a bit older. He needs time with his own friends and family, and you need time with yours, all right? So no more pining. You'll be back at Pendragon's soon enough."
"I'm not – "
"Ah-ah," she says tapping her temple with one finger, then the spot she's just kissed, smack dab in the middle of Merlin's forehead. "You can't fool Mum-Vision. Now get some sleep. Tomorrow we're going on a fantastic canal boat adventure, as promised by the brochure."
With one week down and one to go, it's clear Merlin's mum has the right of it. He is pining and, whether it's Mum-Vision or just that he's terrible at hiding it, she can tell. When Elyan rings up on Saturday morning, asks if Merlin can come swimming at the leisure centre and maybe for pizza after with all the chess club regulars, she chivvies him off to find his swim trunks, forgoing her usual litany of worries and reminders.
All she says is, "Anything to stop you moping about," and, "Be sure and thank Gwen."
Gwen is Elyan's older sister, who's agreed to take them. She has her own car, a vomit-beige Allegro. She's in training to become a welder at the local polytech, volunteers weekends at the animal shelter, and runs off at the mouth, always saying exactly what she's thinking no matter who can hear. Merlin admires her. He wouldn’t mind having her life when he grows up, apart from the Allegro; no matter how many air fresheners she hangs in it, it always smells like something's died under the seats.
* * *
He stops, staring. He thinks he should probably say hello or something, but can’t quite get the words out. Arthur has hair in places Merlin decidedly doesn't, across his chest and under his arms, trailing down from his bellybutton and – darker – down below. His prick and balls are man-sized, far larger than Merlin's own, and hang heavily between his legs.
"Tha lost, son?" A large hand lands on Merlin's shoulder, startling him.
Merlin hasn't time for more than a hasty impression – massive thighs, purple prick-stub, thick slab of belly – before Arthur is between them, wet and furious, pushing the man away, saying, "Don't you touch him, Val. Don't you fucking dare."
"Oh? Your boy, is he then?"
"Might want to teach him to be a mite more subtle, is all I'm saying. Bigger eyes on him than you had when you was – "
Arthur punches the man in the gut, sends him stumbling, skidding back into a half-crouch on the wet tiles and what terrifies Merlin the most is that the man doesn't stop smiling, leering up at him and Arthur's naked bum as Arthur turns away.
Other men have noticed and a few are edging in, eyes flicking between Merlin and Arthur, asking what the trouble is.
"Nowt but princess there is a sore loser, is all," the man says, still grinning. "Thrashed him on the courts earlier and he comes for me in here. I ask you, is that any kind of example to set for the kiddies?"
"Come on." Arthur grabs a towel, wraps it around his hips and pushes Merlin towards the door. He's all red and splotchy, the veins in his arms and neck standing out.
"I need my goggles."
"No. You need to move, now." Arthur pushes him again, not hard, but not gentle either.
"Arthur – " Merlin squawks as Arthur suddenly grabs his neck, hauls him into one of the rows of lockers and squats down so they're at eye level.
"Christ, Merlin!" he whispers. "What the fuck were you thinking? You can't just go around staring at blokes in the showers."
"I wasn't – " Merlin begins, but he was. He was staring at Arthur and Arthur knows it, and now Merlin can’t look him in the eye. He can't explain why he was looking, either. All he knows is that the thought of Arthur's naked body makes him angry; all this time, Arthur's been lying with his clothes, but Merlin's seen now. His mum is right. There is a vast gulf between them and Merlin will never, ever catch up.
"What're you doing here anyway?" he blurts. "I thought you had a pool at your house."
"My father has a pool at his house, yes, but I'm not exactly welcome." Arthur sighs, then straightens up, glancing around. "You here with your mum?"
Merlin shakes his head. He doesn't want to tell Arthur about Gwen, doesn't want Arthur to tell Gwen about what's happened.
"Well you're here with someone, and I'm taking you to them. Where're your goggles?"
Merlin can see it all: Gwen's hands over her mouth, her forehead all squished with worry. She'll fuss over him, ask too many questions. She'll see Arthur's naked chest and legs – they'll all see, all know that Arthur isn't really Merlin's mate, but more like his nanny – and everything will be ruined.
He shoves at Arthur with no warning. "No! Go away. Leave me alone."
Arthur's eyes go wide, almost panicked-looking as he takes a step back.
"Merlin, what are – "
"You're not my mum! You're no one, so piss off and leave me alone!" Merlin dodges around him and runs for the doors.
He slows to a walk once he's on the other side, not wanting the lifeguards to shout at him. He cannonballs into the deep end, between Sefa and Will, and thrashes about goggle-less until he can barely breathe and his eyes are burning with chlorine, and this is a good thing, because it means no one will know he was almost about to cry.
* * *
All week he's waited for a phone call telling his mum he's no longer welcome at Pendragon's, but it hasn't come. He's worked off some of his nerves helping Will out with odd jobs around Old Man Simmons' rock shop, so he's got a little velvet pouch bulging with treasures, and he's fully prepared to offer Arthur the best one – a fat, golden blob of amber – as an apology.
After school, he doesn't dawdle. He says a hasty goodbye to Elyan and Will and tears off up Bailey Street and along Kings Row to Fargate. Uther doesn't like anyone but the punters going in the front entrance, so Merlin comes and goes by the alleyway off Fargate. It's home to a row of skips, stacked pallets and several sleek, mean-looking cats. Normally Merlin calls out to them, braving the pong of the skips to squat and peer at the yellow eyes hiding underneath, trying to coax them out with different names or sometimes just, "Here moggie." Today, he grabs the straps of his rucksack, tucks his chin and elbows in, and runs. He's nearly to Pendragon's when he hears a funny sound, a harsh groan, like someone's had the air punched out of his gut.
He stops, listening, and realises that the noises – there is a murmur now, a rustle, a swear cut off by another groan – are coming from between two of the skips. He knows he should probably bang on the door and get Gaius or old Bors to come have a look, but all he can think is that maybe Arthur is in trouble, so he rushes around the corner of the nearest skip, calling his name.
"Arthur, Arthur are you – "
He can't make sense of what he's seeing at first. Arthur's backed up against the brick wall. His face is flushed and bruised and he's got a split lip, but it's the other man who looks as if he's been beaten. He's slumped against Arthur, clinging to his shirt with one hand, the fabric bunched in his fist. Merlin can't see his other hand.
"Shit shit shit," the man pants out, likes he's the one who's been running. There is movement between them – sudden, frantic – accompanied by furious whispers. Arthur winces. Then the other man stumbles back and turns. He casts a panicked look at Merlin – he's got wide eyes, dark curls and a wet, rubbery mouth that Merlin thinks makes him look like a spaniel – and runs off down the alley without another word.
Merlin watches him go, then looks back at Arthur. He's still just standing there, breathing heavily, hands clenched in loose fists.
"Are you going to let him get away?"
Arthur blinks. "What?"
"After what he did to you! What did he do? Are you hurt?" Merlin doesn’t realise he's been moving towards Arthur until he reaches out, and Arthur catches his wrist.
"No, Merlin, don't. Stop. I – I'm fine, alright?" He lets go, shifts away along the wall, comes up short against one of the skips.
It's almost like he's afraid of Merlin, but that doesn’t make any sense either. Merlin would never hurt Arthur. He'd only run away at the pool because he'd been confused and hadn't wanted to look stupid in front of his friends. He feels terrible about it, has been fretting all week over what to say.
"But…" Up close, Merlin can see that the injuries aren't fresh, but he can’t tear his eyes from the dark, angry-looking seam that bisects Arthur's upper lip and the discoloured patch high on one cheek. His hair is mussed, his shirt is untucked, and his collar is pulled all out of shape. None of these things are Arthur.
Arthur swears again, so softly Merlin can only tell by reading his lips. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wincing as he catches the cut. "No, this – this wasn't… Merlin, that man was a friend, a good friend. He didn’t do this. In fact, he came by because he was worried about me. What you saw was… He was giving me a hug, yeah? A bit of a cuddle, trying to cheer me up."
Merlin stares. He's not an idiot. He knows what hugs look like, and he knows what Sefa's parents get up to when they go upstairs for a cuddle. Though why Arthur would want to do that with spaniel-face in an alley, Merlin doesn't know.
"Then why'd he run?" he says at last, because in the films he's seen people like to laze around a bit after. Sefa's dad always comes down for a round of bacon butties.
"I think you scared him, Half-Pint," Arthur mutters. He pushes off from the skip, smoothing down his shirt, his hair. He's looking everywhere but at Merlin, so uncertain, so lost that Merlin wants to give him a real hug.
"Look, Merlin, he's banned from the restaurant, alright? That's why we were meeting out here."
Merlin considers this for a moment, wondering if he's missed out on some spectacular bust-up with flying chairs. "Why is he banned?"
Arthur looks away, swallowing. Merlin watches his throat bobbing, sees his jaw go all bulgy and tight.
"My father thinks he's a bad influence."
"On me, Merlin."
"Oh. Well what did you – "
"Christ but you're full of asking today," Arthur cuts in, glancing down at him. For a moment Merlin thinks he's going to tell him something really gruesome and amazing, like they'd pissed in the soup or put rats in the stew. Then he shakes his head and eases past.
"C'mon. Let's get you inside. Gaius'll be wondering where you are."
Merlin starts to follow from habit, then stops, remembering that he still hasn't put things right from before. He is full of asking; his head is buzzing with questions, and it's hard to pick the right ones.
"Who hit you then? Was it that creep from the pool? I'll bet you smashed him good. Bet he looks ten times worse, right?"
Arthur pauses with his hand on the door, back to Merlin. He chuckles, muttering something that Merlin doesn't quite catch.
"I'm sorry," Merlin adds, suddenly desperate to have the whole thing over and done with, to have the old Arthur back, even if he's more of a grownup than a best mate. Even with all these new secrets.
He pulls out the amber and tugs at Arthur's sleeve, pressing it into his palm. "Here. I didn't mean to. At the pool – I didn't mean to look. I didn't know. I'm sorry if I got you in trouble. And I won't tell anyone your friend was here. Can we do Dragon Toast for tea?"
"Merlin, no, that's not – " Arthur begins, looking down at the golden lump in his hand. "What's this?"
"Amber. Will and I sorted the mixed lots for Old Man Simmons, so he let us keep ten each. I tried finding you one with a bee in, but Will says those only go to museums."
"Yeah?" Arthur rubs his thumb back and forth over the smooth surfaces. "It's like someone froze a glob of golden syrup."
"I know," Merlin says, excited, as he'd had the same thought. "But I licked one and it tastes nothing like."
Arthur pulls one of his faces, like he's trying not to laugh even though he's just spotted loo roll trailing from Uncle Aggro's shoe. "Good to know," he says, then, finally looking at Merlin instead of around him, adds, "But what's it for, Half-Pint?"
"You." Merlin hopes this is enough, that Arthur will just get it like Elyan or Will would. He hopes that he hasn't completely lost Arthur to the grownups, who need everything spelt out for them, over and over.
Arthur watches him for a long, fidgety moment. "Right then," he says at last. He gives the amber another rub, then closes his fist around it and slips it into his trouser pocket.
"Thank you. Dragon Toast, is it?"
* * *
For a time.
Then there is a new school, new mates, a puppy – at last! – who becomes known simply as "Brown Dog." There is a girl called Freya whom Merlin devotes himself to slavishly for a whole month when he is twelve, and a boy called Gil who kisses him in the garden shed on his fourteenth birthday. There are other crushes after that, other kisses, then – in time – other men who fascinate Merlin, who feed him and make him laugh and take him to bed, who help him learn that there is absolutely nothing wrong with him. But there is never anyone Merlin looks at and thinks, Yes, you, forever and a day, because I'd follow you anywhere.
There is never another Arthur.
As the years pass, Merlin realises that this is as it should be, because Arthur was a first crush, a childhood hero, an impossible ideal. He'll always be grateful for that time in his life, but he can't be chasing it in the now, because it's not real. It can't be.
He hardly thinks of Camelot at all, save when he gets the odd postcard from Gaius, who's off travelling the world with an old flame. The news of his death comes out of the blue, but it's not really surprising. What is surprising is what he leaves behind, or rather, who he leaves it to, given that he's not really Merlin's uncle. Not by blood, anyway. Yet his old cottage in Ealdor and all the contents therein are now Merlin's, free and clear, if he wants.
He's just out of university, trying to decide between taking a bursary for additional postgraduate study or trying for an internship with a pharmaceutical company. When, within the space of a fortnight, the bursary is revoked due to budget reallocations, Brown Dog has to be put down, and Gwaine begins hinting heavily that he'd like to put Tristan on the lease come July, Merlin decides that he does want. He tells his mum and new stepfather that he'll give it a year, that maybe it's just what he needs as he works out what to do next. If nothing else he'll be able to catch up on his reading.
"Will you look up Arthur while you're there, do you think?" his mum asks, pulling his face down so she can kiss his forehead. The hair that's escaped her cap is flying in the wind, whipping against Merlin's cheeks.
"Arthur who?" he says, knowing exactly who she means but unsettled that, of all the things she could say as she sends him off on his journey, this is what she picks.
"Arthur Pendragon, love. The one you'd a mind to marry when you were ten. At the restaurant, do you remember?"
The lorry driver honks his horn and Merlin pulls away, frowning, feeling an uncomfortable tug at his memory. "I doubt he's still there, mum. Last I heard, he was headed for the army."
* * *
It seems to be doing all right though. As Merlin watches, a bevy of banker types exit and climb into a waiting Merc. He looks down at his battered trainers and worn denims and wonders if he'd be better off grabbing something at the cash and carry. He'll just walk past, he thinks, have a look in the window. He can always come back into town another day.
But when he sees the menu board, something seizes in his chest. "ON SPECIAL TODAY" it proclaims in bold, colourful capitals. There is something about the daring slashes that cross the As, the flourish on the tail of the Y.
He knows that the mind's fond of playing tricks though, that there is a great power to nostalgia. If he's not careful, it will seep into everything, staining it, weighing it down, and he's here for a fresh start. He's here for a sandwich, maybe a cup of tea and something sweet, but…
Then he reads on, and suddenly he's laughing, right there in the street. The floodgates are wide, wide open; he's swimming in the memories, letting them sweep him down past Pendragon's, giving in to the inevitability of retracing the old route in full. He's following Kings Row to Fargate and Fargate to the alleyway that is still home to ponging skips and pallets and cats.
"Here, moggie!" he calls out, delighted when they – as when he'd been a boy – flick up their tails and ignore him. He stashes his large pack beside a pile of produce boxes and tries the door.
The smells come at him all at once: bold garlic, bright citrus, the earthy funk of mushrooms and cheese. Popping hot grease, pasta-water steam, and rosemary. Rosemary for remembrance, but also for loyalty – for love. A child's love, to be sure, selfish and fierce and probably one-sided, but still.
Almost immediately, Merlin's way is blocked by a giant of a man wielding a mop. He's got bulging biceps and army tats, but his face is gentle. He smiles at Merlin, says, "Can I help you, mate?"
"Arthur?" Merlin says, mouth gone dry when a moment ago it was watering. He reminds himself that recipes can be passed on, that anyone can sauté up some garlic and crumble a sprig of rosemary. "Arthur Pendragon, is he…?"
The man looks Merlin over, top to toe. "He doesn't owe you money, does he?"
Merlin shakes his head.
"Not here to murder him, then? Blackmail? Trying to fix him up with your sister?"
"No, I… I haven't got a sister. No, none of that. I just – " Merlin says the first thing that pops into his head. "I'm here about a job?"
"Ah. In there." Grinning, the man steps aside, gesturing towards the kitchen with his thumb. "He's in a mood though – the money men have been in pestering him – so watch yourself."
Merlin pauses outside the kitchen doors, peering through one of the round windows.
His hair is shorter. He's a bit broader through the shoulders and a bit thicker at the waist – maybe he's a bit taller, too, but back then he was always much taller than Merlin and now he's not, so it's hard to judge – but Merlin would know the motion of those hands anywhere. He would know that stance, that look of grim satisfaction as Arthur brings the meat mallet down on the fillet again and again, pounding it into tender submission.
Arthur is alive, alive and well and – by all appearances – practically right where Merlin left him all those years ago. It is the best fucking surprise he's ever received, no disrespect to Brown Dog.
"That's enough, mate," he calls out as he pushes through the swing doors. "I think it's dead."
Arthur's too much of a professional to startle easily. Of course. The pounding continues as he glances over. "What do you think you're doing in here?"
"Begging for mercy on behalf of that poor creature." Ignoring the stares of the other staff – two men, one woman, all incredibly fit and serious-looking – Merlin makes his way over to Arthur's prep station, careful not to let his bags knock into anything.
He knows he's grinning like an idiot, knows he sounds daft, but he's not expecting it when Arthur suddenly bellows, "Percival!" and turns to face Merlin, holding the meat mallet in the deceptively casual manner of a boy with a brick.
Merlin raises his hands, says, "Whoa – " just as the giant fellow pokes his head in, saying, "Yes, Chef?"
"Where'd he come from?" Arthur points the meat mallet towards Merlin.
"The alley. Dunno before that. Assumed he was a… well, a friend of yours."
Merlin watches Arthur's eyes widen, then sweep over Merlin as if he's properly seeing him for the first time. It's hot in the kitchen so it's hard to tell, but Merlin thinks he sees Arthur blush; he knows he is certainly, feels the burning in his cheeks and the tension in his belly because he'd remembered teenaged Arthur as brilliant – strong, clever – but is only now seeing that, at thirty-something, he is stunning. Suit advert handsome. Wank mag hot.
"And why would you think that?" Arthur says.
"Asked for you by name, Chef. Said he wasn't here for your money or your life, and hasn't got any sisters. I checked." Everyone in the room has a chuckle at that. "Said he was here about a job."
"Is that so?" Arthur lowers the mallet, juts his chin towards Merlin.
"Yes," Merlin says, nodding, suddenly knowing that it's true. It's not what he came here for, but he can't bear the thought of walking away again, of only ever being a customer, the odd man who comes in every now and then for a meal and – hopefully – a glimpse of the chef.
"And what job would that be?"
Merlin looks around the kitchen. It's smaller than he remembered. Some of the equipment has been upgraded, and there are new anti-slip mats on the floors, but everything is more or less in the same place. Merlin spies the saucepan of simmering cheese mixture and points.
"The one you're going to give me when I tell you exactly what's in today's special – Dragon Toast, is it?"
Arthur's expression softens. "Listen, mate, I don’t know what you've heard, but you don’t have to con a meal out of me. DuBois House is what you're after, out on Castlegate. That's where we do job training and pay what you can, but seeing as you're here now… Go ask Vivian to seat you and I'll bring you a plate."
"What? No, I'm not – " Merlin waves his hands, offended pride giving way to shame when he realises the full implications of Arthur's words. Of course. Arthur had always talked about feeding the people. "I mean, I am hungry, thank you, but I'm not after a free meal. I meant by smelling it."
"Come again?" Arthur's brow furrows in a delightful manner.
"I'll work out what's in that pot, there, just by smelling it. If I get it right, you give me a job, here – a month's free trial – anything you like. Deal?"
"What are you doing in there, laying the damn eggs yourselves?" A woman leans in through the service hatch. She's got a lovely face but a sour expression, topped off by an elaborate updo. "Table six is waiting on – oh, christ, not another one! Arthur, this isn't bloody Shelter! It's not sanitary having his sort in the kitchen, and will someone please step lively or whatever it is they say in the army and get me three egg and cress!"
Swearing, one of the men springs forward, his mop of curls confined in a hairnet. He quickly pops a bit of salad and some vegetable crisps onto a line of sandwich-bearing plates and shoves them through the hatch.
"Why, thank you Leon," she says with a plastic smile, glaring at Arthur while she loads her tray.
"You should give him her job for a start," Leon mutters when she's gone, causing another ripple of laughter amongst the kitchen staff. Merlin sees Arthur give the man a sharp look, but there's a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Well go on, then," Arthur says to Merlin. He wipes his hands on a cloth and gestures towards the ranges. "Let's see what you can do."
As Merlin divests himself of his bags, Percival pushes all the way in and grabs them, saying, "I'll put them in the store room. Brought your pack in, too. Nothing's sacred in that alley. Little shits from Saint Sylvestris use it as a shortcut to the arcade."
"Little shits," Merlin echoes with a smile, thinking of the children in grey and green, and himself and his mates, back in the day. "Cheers. Now – " He starts to lean in over the saucepan but is stopped by one of Arthur's hands splayed on his chest.
"Not like that, mate. How do I know you won't spit in it? Or shed."
Startled, Merlin looks down. He sees trim nails with perfect half-moons, blunt fingertips, work-rough skin with a variety of nicks and scars. There are no rings. He fancies he can feel the warmth of Arthur's skin, even through his jacket and shirt, and it makes it hard to be offended.
Instead of pointing out that he's not a cat, even if he did wander in off the alley, he says, "How'm I meant to smell it then?"
"Here." Arthur lets go and steps between Merlin and the ranges, reaching for a small ladle from the rack overhead. He dips up a portion of the cheese mixture and turns, holding it up to Merlin's face, cupping his other hand underneath. "Close your eyes."
They are standing very close, Merlin realises. When he does as Arthur commands, then parts his lips and draws in a slow, deep breath, he can smell more than Arthur's cooking. He can smell Arthur himself, faded hints of shampoo and aftershave under sharp, clean sweat and bitter coffee.
Logically he knows it's all just molecules, esters swirling round and setting off certain cascades of sparks in his brain. But certain parts of said brain are insisting that what he is smelling is danger sex food thing you want or comfort home safe thing you want, or some devastating combination of the two, and Merlin has to check himself from swaying in towards the source.
Thinking of hot cheese burns and sucker-punches – both of which he has, sadly, actual experience with – he opens his eyes and steps back a pace.
"Thank you," he says with a curt nod, noting Arthur's flared nostrils and puzzled frown. He tries – and fails – to ignore the intensity of his eyes, the trim lines of buttoned collar, precisely rolled shirtsleeves, and stiff apron. "If I may?" Merlin glances towards the shelf of spices, and Arthur moves aside.
The others have left their stations and gathered around, shoulder to shoulder, eyes fixed on Merlin. It feels, not so much unfriendly as intensely curious, but he still doesn't trust himself to speak. He claps his hands together instead, rubbing them back and forth briefly before reaching for the plastic tubs. He lines them up on the gleaming counter, first the easy ones – mustard, garlic powder, cayenne – then on to the smoked paprika, turmeric and five-spice. The pink peppercorns and the white. Thyme, rubbed sage – yes, it had been a mess, but one that oddly worked – and flakes of dried onion.
At Arthur's increasingly gobsmacked expression, Merlin ups the ante, rearranging the tubs and shakers in order of inclusion amount, most to least. When he is satisfied he steps back, makes a "Voila!" gesture and says, "This. Plus Worcester, sriracha and a pint of Elmet's best bitter. And, of course, salt to taste."
"How on earth did you – " Arthur begins, staring at the array of spices. He snaps his mouth shut as his staff break out into applause.
Feeling bold, Merlin leans in, saying, "And I'll reckon it still makes you go all red and splotchy and tear up like a baby."
Arthur inhales sharply, eyes wild. "Wait, do I know you?"
"Merlin," he says, offering his hand.
"Half-Pint!" Arthur cries, snapping his fingers. "Hunith's boy!" He starts forward for what Merlin thinks is going to be a hug, then falls back at the last instant, awkwardly clapping him on the shoulders. "Or whole now, more like. Good god but you've… you're an… erm. Grown. You've grown. All up."
Arthur bobs his head, grimacing. His cheeks are definitely redder than they were a moment ago. Going by the incredulous stares of the staff, Merlin gets the sense that an unsettled, stammering Arthur Pendragon is not the usual thing. And he likes the effect, because it makes Arthur's physical beauty less overwhelming, but it's not how he wants to do this.
He reaches for Arthur's arm, clasps it in his own. "Well," he says, "someone convinced me to eat my greens as a lad. So cheers for that."
"Oh?" Arthur cocks his head, looking uncertain.
"Mostly you tricked me by sneaking them into things, but, yes. And speaking of tricks – I'm sorry about just now. I only meant to pop my head in and say hello, maybe grab a bite, but I saw your sign and –"
There is a crash from out in the restaurant, an ear-piercing shriek. "Do you even comprehend how much this skirt cost, you… you blue-haired toad!"
There are more crashes, more swearing, and it's only a flash of white and pure instinct that makes Merlin throw himself at Arthur, shoving him out of the way of the shards of broken crockery chucked in through the service hatch.
"You can take your daddy issues and social bloody enterprise and shove them up your arse, Arthur Pendragon, because I fucking quit!"
Merlin blinks. Vaguely he's aware of more shouting, voices trying to calm the woman, Percival coming in with a dustpan, but mostly he's aware of Arthur-up-close.
They're mashed against the walk-in, chests pressed together and legs all tangled. He can feel Arthur's thundering heartbeat, his solid, masculine warmth, his thigh just left of there. Merlin knows his breathing is off and his panic must show on his face, because Arthur gives him an odd look, saying, "Steady on, mate. I think we'll live." He straightens up, pushing Merlin away, gently but firmly. "And, trick or no, I think it's safe to say the job's yours if you want it. Unless you're only passing through?"
"Gaius left me his cottage," Merlin blurts. "In Ealdor. Brown Dog died, I lost my funding for postgrad, and Gwaine… Um, no, that is, not passing through. Staying. Definitely staying. For now."
"Right then," Arthur says with a spreading smile. "Brilliant. Not about your dog, brown or otherwise, but – "
"No, 'Brown Dog' was her name."
"What kind of name is that? Couldn’t you be bothered to give her a real one?"
Merlin shrugs, noting that Arthur hasn't let go entirely. His hands are resting on Merlin's shoulders, which now fit those broad palms, a fact which is kind of doing his head in. "I tried, but it turned out that was the only name she wanted."
"Of course." Arthur cocks his head; the smile has reached his eyes. "Now then," he says, and Merlin lets himself be spun round to face the others. "You've met Percival. Let me introduce you to the rest of the lads."
"Chef," the woman says, sighing.
"Apologies. The rest of the lads and Mithian. Leon, Lance, Mithian – meet Merlin, the inventor of Dragon Toast. Someone get the poor lad a plate."
* * *
Arthur colours and looks away. "I was just passing on my way back from the farmer's market," he says, shouldering the remaining bags and setting off down the pavement. "Bought more than I can carry and thought you might as well make yourself useful. Come along."
Merlin doesn’t point out that this doesn't explain the second coffee. He just sips at it gratefully and smiles to himself as he and the grapefruit struggle to keep up with Arthur's quick march. He's twenty-two, with an MSc in medicinal chemistry and half his life lived over in the Ulaidh, yet tagging along behind Arthur Pendragon through the streets of Camelot feels as natural as breathing. Plus the view's not at all bad.
When Arthur is there again the next morning, Merlin doesn't question it. He slings a bag of ominous-looking leafy things over his shoulder, tucks another under his arm and accepts the coffee, saying, "So, Chef, what's for lunch?"
They develop a routine of sorts. Merlin spends his mornings at the cottage, sorting through Gaius' belongings, assessing needed repairs. He keeps meaning to get in touch with the student finance office to see if there's any news, but there's always something more interesting to claim his attention: naming the resident mice, reviving the herb garden, making nice with the old yellow AGA cooker that he knows he'll need come winter. At ten, he takes the tram into Camelot's city centre, where more often than not Arthur is waiting after doing his market run, and they walk to the restaurant together.
Technically Merlin's only needed for the evening shift, but he likes being at the restaurant, and no one minds an extra pair of hands. He reclaims the back booth when things aren't busy, reading, chatting to the other staff and catching up with Arthur between the lunch and dinner rush. He gets to know a few of the regulars, mostly pensioners from the flats on Fargate and – much to his amusement – teachers from his old school, who arrive haggard from their day, order heavy on the wine and starters, and leave much happier after a collective moan.
After closing, Arthur locks up and all the staff trudge down to the Rising Sun for a pint or two, then everyone is walked to his or her respective bus or tram stops in a round, leaving Arthur and Percival to see themselves back to the spartan flat they share above Pendragon's.
"He saved my arse our first week in Helmand," Percival explains one night at the pub. "I spent the next six years guarding his. Got to be a habit. Plus I had nowhere else to go."
"Came in handy after my father died though, didn't it?" Arthur says, frowning into his pint. He and Percival share a look; then the others are laughing and telling Merlin the story, as if men threatening to break Arthur's legs and torch the restaurant is the funniest thing in the world. Arthur must notice Merlin's expression when he gets up, for he follows him to the toilets.
"Merlin," he says, resting a hand on Merlin's shoulder, gently tugging until he turns to face him. "The lads and I, we've been through a lot together, come out the other side with a warped sense of humour. But they don't know about your dad. I'm sorry. I didn't think – "
Arthur breaks off as a man comes in, obviously startled to find two men half-embracing in front of the urinals. He gives them a dark look and shuts himself in one of the stalls. Arthur quickly drops his hand. He looks panicked for a moment then, seeing Merlin's watching him, his whole face shuts down.
"Sorry," he says again, jaw tight.
"It's alright, Arthur. I'm fine." Merlin turns away, putting a more respectable distance between them. He goes to wash his hands, just for something to do, and manages a weak smile and a nod in the mirror when Arthur passes behind him on the way out.
He doesn't know how to explain that it's nothing to do with his dad having died in a fire, that what's upset him is the thought of all that Arthur's been through, all the times he's been in danger during the past twelve years while he was blithely growing up over in the Ulaidh, kept safe and well-fed by his mum's new salary. He's upset by how much he didn't fucking know, then and in the intervening years, ashamed that the myth he'd constructed about Arthur had kept him from reaching out and finding out what was happening with the real one.
* * *
Gaius had been a special case, in the know but not directly involved, bound up with the Pendragon family and its secrets in a way Arthur and Merlin aren't sure they'll ever fully unravel. Nor care to. What matters – according to Arthur – is that Gaius was the one who'd told him stories of his mother, who'd understood Arthur's need to make his own way rather than live off a legacy built on vice and fear. After Uther's death, he’d done everything in his power to keep Arthur from becoming indebted to the wrong people, including his own uncle.
"He used to sit just there, enjoying a brandy or a cup of tea," Arthur says, nodding towards the wall end of the bar, where a picture of Gaius now hangs, horrible hairnet and all, above a bowl of lilies. "Always felt like I could ask him anything, then."
What matters to Merlin is that Gaius was a bit of a hoarder. The cottage bookshelves are full of photo albums; boxes of menus, magazines, and newspaper clippings slumber beneath the bed. He gets to see his parents in the seventies, himself as a baby, Arthur growing up tow-headed and wide-eyed in a world of sombre men.
There is even one of him and Arthur at the restaurant, printed on cheap glossy paper. Merlin doesn’t remember it being taken, but he remembers the occasion well: his first ever chess club tournament win. He remembers kneeling up on the padded vinyl to blow out the candle. Arthur and Gaius had made such a fuss over the Magic Meatball, proclaiming it an ancient, secret recipe, making Merlin wait blindfolded in the booth while they banged around in the kitchen.
In the photo, Arthur is standing beside the booth in apron and tie. He's the very picture of a snooty waiter presenting the chef's masterpiece, save for the mad grin. Merlin is clutching his plastic trophy, the red serviette they'd blindfolded him with tugged down around his chin and neck, like a bandit. He's gazing, not at the candle he's about to blow out, but at Arthur.
"That was just an ordinary scotch egg, wasn't it?" Merlin says when he brings the photo in to show Arthur.
"Tch. When did I ever feed you anything that was 'just ordinary'?"
Merlin scowls, but can't think of anything after a flick through his memories, so he concedes the point with a shrug.
"But yes, it was a scotch egg."
Arthur studies the photo, then slides it back across the table. "You caught us out on short notice, but we had to do something." He chuckles. "You were so amazed you'd won, wouldn't let go of that rook for days; I heard you even took it in the bath."
Merlin drops his gaze, feeling his cheeks heat. It's strange to think of his mum and Gaius discussing him with Arthur, back then. "I was never much good at chess."
"You never gave up though. No matter how crap you were at something, or what the odds were against you, you never gave up. That's how I knew you'd be alright. I told your mum as much once."
"Yeah?" Merlin looks up, catches Arthur's eyes on him before they slide away, over towards the bar where Percival is restocking glassware from the rack dolly.
After a beat, Arthur says, "She was a bit worried about your, er…"
"Hero worship?" Merlin taps the photo. "Blatant crush?"
"The way you looked up to me, yes." Arthur clears his throat. "She was worried about taking you away, putting you in another new school just when you'd finally found somewhere you fit. And about what might happen if you transferred that sort of trust onto someone else who didn't… Well, who didn't have your best interests at heart."
"Christ, how embarrassing." Merlin buries his face in his hands. "That explains one or two lectures I got. Did she know that you – "
He breaks off when he realises that he has no idea if Arthur is out, or even gay, come to think of it. What he'd witnessed in the alley that day could have been a one-off, an experiment, one of those "misunderstandings" that sometimes happen between mates.
He's made no secret of who he is around the restaurant, instinctively trusting that anyone who's thrown their lot in with Arthur won't tolerate bullying or hate speech, whatever their private thoughts. But for all the time they've spent catching up, Arthur has never mentioned anyone who might be construed as a partner – no exes, no almosts.
It's common knowledge that Vivian, the waitress Merlin's replaced, had irritated everyone by throwing herself shamelessly at Arthur since day one, but that's about it. Merlin's wanted to ask around, but it seems an invasion. Most of the staff are veterans and would clearly still take a bullet for Arthur, should it come to that; they seem more likely to purposely chop off their own fingers than gossip about his private life to an outsider.
"Know that I what?" Arthur says.
Merlin peers up from between his fingers. Arthur's watching him warily.
"I mean… um." Merlin drops his hands, glancing at the photo once more. "Did she ever tell you all the shite I used to spout, about how one day I was going to live with you and about twenty random pets you'd helped me rescue, and we'd eat nothing but gourmet sandwiches and things we could make with a blow torch?"
"Er, no." Arthur looks genuinely surprised.
"Well, now you know. Could have had it all, mate – birds, cats, rabbits…"
"And dogs of every colour?" A hint of a smile appears, tugging at the corners of Arthur's mouth. "Is that what you're really doing back here, Merlin? Is there no cottage after all? Should I warn Percival? He's allergic to cats, I think."
"And rabbits," Percival calls from the bar. "Hoppy little bastards. Shit everywhere. Can't stand 'em."
"Damn," Merlin says, grinning. "Back to square one."
"Well I think it sounds lovely," Elena says as she plops down beside Merlin with a cup of tea. "Add in a beer fountain and a yellow scooter and I'm in. Whoever said marriage has to be awful?"
"What?" Arthur squawks.
"El," Mithian says, coming over with a plate of biscuits, "I don't think Merlin meant it in that way."
"Of course he didn't," Arthur adds. "He was only a – "
"Ten," Merlin cuts in, cheeks burning now. "I was ten. And yes, I also told her I wanted to marry you, but obviously I had no idea what that meant… um, physically. I just thought it'd be like declaring permanent best mates or something. Mostly I wanted the pets. Really."
There's a horrible pause in which Arthur studies the ceiling, the wall, the backs of his hands. Mithian shoots Merlin a pitying look as she sets the biscuits down. Then Elena rescues them with a hearty back slap and a, "Well, I still say it sounds lovely."
"It does, rather, doesn't it?" Mithian says, sighing. "Of course, if your best mates are your pets, it gets a bit complicated."
"You could always live with the friend-pets." Elena takes a hearty swallow of tea, then reaches for a biscuit. "And keep a man in the stable. For riding."
"Oh for – " Arthur throws up his hands, then makes a shooing motion. He looks about as embarrassed as Merlin feels. "Break's over people. Back to work."
"But I haven't even sat down, Chef," Mithian says, while Elena chimes in with, "And I haven't finished my tea."
"Well I'm going back to work then. I don’t need to hear this."
Despite their protests, they follow Arthur's lead, Elena stuffing her face with biscuits while Mithian snags and hastily drains the rest of Elena's tea. Merlin's the last to slide out of the booth. When he looks around for the photo, he sees that it's gone. No one will confess to having taken it, but two days later it reappears, framed, hanging on the wall in the back booth.
* * *
Merlin doesn't want to embarrass Arthur – or repeat Vivian's offences – but he's given up trying to hide the way he watches him. Sometimes he catches Arthur watching him back, even flirting a little, and thinks maybe, but there's always a table or a tram waiting. There are always too many other eyes and ears, too much that needs doing. It's easier to stick to shop talk and mock insults.
But when his mum asks if he's happy, he says "yes," and when his uni mates ask if he's dead bored yet he says "no," and he's not lying. The hectic rhythms of restaurant life suit him, are a welcome break from problems that only come in books or beakers. Plus, he likes knowing that his labour is, in some small way, helping Arthur make a difference in the city.
On one of the mornings when Arthur isn't waiting at the tram stop, Merlin walks into Pendragon's to find everyone else, not doing lunch prep, but huddled in the back booth, having an animated discussion. They clam up as Merlin approaches, red-faced.
"Chef not with you?" Percival asks.
"No. Haven't seen him. Must still be shopping. What's going on?" He eyes the teacups on the table, wondering if perhaps news on the grant has come in, and they've all been into the booze instead of the Assam.
Mithian gives a loud cough, and Lance – who happens to be sitting across from her – winces. Merlin'll bet anything she's kicked him with her prosthetic, knowing he won't retaliate.
"So, Merlin," Lance says, smiling through gritted teeth. "Percival tells us your month's trial is officially up next Tuesday."
"Saw it marked on his calendar," Percival explains, pointing up.
"And we were wondering – not to pry or anything – but we've known Arthur a long time, and he's been… You've been a big help, since you came. And I don't know what he's told you, or what your plans are – again, not that it's our business, except as it affects him, and – "
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Lance," Elena cuts in. "Just ask him!"
"Ask me what?"
"Has Arthur showed you his trust fund?" she says.
Merlin laughs, thinking it one of her odd innuendos, but there are five sets of eyes staring back at him telling him that, no, whatever this is, it is deadly serious.
"Um, no? I don't think so. I remember him having a binder, once, where he kept all his plans, but – " He breaks off at Leon's furious head-shaking.
"No. This is something he started when we got back to Camelot. He used to keep it here, in the safe under the bar, but when DuBois House opened we took it out there."
"You've no idea what we're talking about, do you?" Mithian says, shrewd as ever.
"Sorry, no." Merlin's beginning to feel uncomfortable with the turn the conversation has taken. "But if Arthur did have a bunch of cash lying around, I'm sure the first thing he'd do was sink it into one of the restaurants, so – "
"No – oh god – Merlin, no." Lance looks absolutely horrified. "For once, we're not talking about money at all."
"The trust fund, mate," Percival adds, as if that explains everything. "Chef's box. His mission statement."
Leon rolls his eyes. "Look, you know how some people slap the first fiver they make under glass, or pin it up on the wall?"
"It's like that. But with Arthur, with everything he'd gone through – with everything we'd gone through, together – he wanted to do something a bit…"
"Different?" Merlin guesses.
"Arthur," Lance says with an elegant shrug, and in that moment Merlin's never liked him more.
"We all had to put something in," Mithian says, taking up the story. "Didn't have to explain if we didn’t want, but it had to mean something. Like a tribute, or a pledge."
"About not letting the bastards win," Percival says, his hands curling into fists on the table. "Remembering that we can always do better. That we can still serve, even here, even if we can't… if we're not… "
"In mint condition?" Leon suggests, and it must be another in-joke of sorts; no one laughs, but Percival's fists uncurl and his troubled expression fades, and Mithian is smiling as she glances down, adding, "With all our original parts. Do you know what he told me, when I woke up from surgery?"
Elena grins. "That sometimes original parts are overrated?"
Mithian nudges her, then catches Merlin's eyes. "He said his mum's tits had tried killing her for years before they eventually got her. That he didn’t like the way my leg had been eyeing me of late, so it was a jolly good thing I was getting a new one.
"I pissed myself – literally pissed myself, Merlin – but it was exactly what I needed to hear. That's Arthur for you."
Merlin nods, swallowing against the lump in his throat.
Leon clears his throat and leans in, arms on the table. "Arthur put three things in – well, four, if you count the first honest twenty quid. One of them was his mother's ring, one of them was a battered pound coin with a dragon on it, and the third was a yellow rock."
"Huh?" Merlin blinks.
"I asked him was it a jewel or something like that; was it worth a lot, and he said no. He said it was probably worth about five quid now, but some kid had worked for it, had given it to him to cheer him up when he didn't deserve it – had believed that he did – and that made it priceless."
"We've been wondering," Elena says, tilting her head towards the framed photo of Magic Meatball Day, "if that kid might be you."
"Amber," Merlin says, stunned. "It was amber, from the rock shop – if it's even the same – and I haven’t seen it, no. He's never said…" Merlin breaks off, the lump back in his throat, bringing with it the unwelcome prickle of tears. "Why are you telling me this?"
Elena reaches for his hand. "Because we like you, Merlin. We want you to stay."
"He's got a lot of rules for himself," Mithian adds. "Especially when it comes to his heart. And his dick. And I expect it's a bit weird for him given your history, but we see how he is with you, and for what it's worth – in case he's too stubborn to say it – we don't think those rules apply to you."
"Or shouldn't," Leon mutters, "not if he knows what's good – "
The sound of the back door jolts them all to action stations, and Merlin is left damp-eyed and awash in memories. Mithian, thankfully, tells Arthur to shut up and leave Merlin alone, that he's been having a go at mincing onions, not being a big girl's blouse over Ragnelle dying on The Wives of Bath.
The next morning Arthur is back at the tram stop, the hair on the top of his head ruffled from the breeze, eyes as clear and blue as the summer sky overhead, holding out a coffee and a squirming plastic sac.
"Fresh eels," he says with a toothy grin.
Merlin is so glad to see him there, smiling, healthy, that it's easy to push aside all the questions that have arisen in the past twenty-four hours. He doesn’t want to talk about the past, about awkward gifts and what they might or might not mean.
He wants to drink the coffee Arthur's bought just for him, wrinkle his nose up at the sac of eels and tell him about the comedy of disasters that had occurred when he and his stepfather had tried fishing for them out on Lough Neagh. He wants to make Arthur laugh.
* * *
After one round, however, Arthur stands abruptly. "You'll have to excuse Merlin and I. We've some business to discuss."
Merlin sets down his glass. "We do?" Arthur has been in a mood all day, uncharacteristically sharp-tongued and short-tempered with everyone in the restaurant.
"Yes. C'mon." Arthur throws some notes on the table and heads toward the exit.
After a round of shrugs and inscrutable glances – and Elena's promise that they'll save him some cake – Merlin stands and follows. He's not quite out the door when he hears the clinking and rhythmic thump of shot glasses being pounded on the table, and Leon's, "Fucking finally."
Arthur is waiting on the corner. They walk back up the hill to Pendragon's in silence, Merlin's heart hammering from more than the exertion, wondering at the meaning of it all, and if he should have insisted on one more shot, for courage.
Arthur leaves the main lights off, switching on only the wall sconces and recessed spots over the bar. Merlin's always amazed that, unlike most spaces, Pendragon's feels smaller when it's empty, like all the dark wood is gathering in. He leans up against the bar as Arthur nips in behind it, bending down. Merlin watches the taut pull of his shirt across his back and the way the spotlights crown his hair.
After a bit of a rummage, Arthur pulls out a bottle one-third-full of amber liquid and sets it on the bar alongside two small snifters. "This was Gaius' favourite," he says, nodding towards the photo. He pours a measure in each glass and slides one towards Merlin. At the last instant, though, he pulls it back.
"Are you sure you're old enough, lad?"
"Don't," Merlin says. It comes out harsh. It's a common enough joke between them, but it's not at all funny right now, because this is exactly what Merlin feels they've been circling around: the years between them; the old dynamic crashing awkwardly up against the fact that grownup Merlin fancies grownup Arthur something terrible, and Arthur…
Well, Merlin can't tell what Arthur wants, and it's driving him mad. Ever since he got the – somewhat roundabout – thumbs-up from Arthur's mates, he's been alternately obsessing over Arthur's every word and gesture, examining them for hidden meanings, and telling himself the whole lot of them are suffering from some sort of romantic PTSD brought on by watching too much daytime telly in the kitchen.
Ignoring the glass, Merlin lets his hand hover instead over Arthur's, watching to see if he'll pull it away.
He doesn't. Merlin covers it with his own, and they both stare dumbly at the sight for a moment, each breath and swallow seeming overloud in the deserted restaurant.
Then Merlin says, "Arthur – " just as Arthur begins, "Look, all I can offer – "
"No, you first," Arthur insists.
"I was going to ask if I make you uncomfortable, if you'd prefer I left."
Arthur is shaking his head before Merlin finishes. "No. Don't be daft. You break far less crockery than Elena and the pensioners adore you. As do we all. You'll always have a place here, Merlin, I want you to know that." He flips his palm up, capturing Merlin's wrist and giving it a squeeze.
"All I can offer is minimum wage though, plus meals. With your degree, I'm sure you'll find better prospects. And you must be missing your mates, your mum. That… er, Wayne fellow."
Now it's Merlin's turn to shake his head. "My mum's grand, Arthur. I told you, she remarried. He came with instant grandchildren and a canal boat, all of which she adores, and I prefer only in small doses. My friends I do miss, but there's tech for that, and Gwaine is not missing me in the least, going by his recent posts."
Merlin notices the way Arthur's eyes narrow at the name. "Nor I him, in case that's not been clear. We broke up a year ago, quite amicably."
"I thought you said he kicked you out last month."
"Mmm. He'd been letting me stay as a favour while I finished up my degree, but then he got serious about someone. So 'kicked' was probably a poor word choice; it was more of a 'Merlin, would you kindly move out so I can get a shag whenever I like without having to put on pants and leave the house' type of thing."
Arthur pulls a face. "He sounds immature."
"Hush. He's charming and very talented."
"Why'd you break up then?"
"The sex was terrible." It's not entirely untrue – they'd had different appetites, had always had more fun out on the town than between the sheets – but Merlin says it mainly to watch Arthur's reaction.
"Oh," he says, that little furrow appearing between his brows. It makes him look like a vexed child, and Merlin would smooth it flat with his thumbs, but he doesn't want to stop sort-of holding hands.
"Plus he's immature. Not for his age, mind, but for me."
"I see." A hint of a smile appears. "So, you want someone older. And better at sex."
Merlin strokes Arthur's palm with his thumb. "I want you," he says. "I think you know that."
Arthur's breath comes out all in a rush. He eases his hand away, downs his brandy and sets the glass on the bar with a grimace. "You had a crush on me when you were a kid," he says, crossing his arms over his chest.
"I loved you, Arthur." Merlin smacks his abandoned hand on the bar. "It was ten-year-old love, sure, but it was real, and there was nothing shameful in it. I'm sure I was a right nuisance, but you were wonderful to me.
"And now that I've gotten to know you again, I… Well, I like what I see. You've done amazing things here. And you're going to do so much more, I know it. I want to be a part of it, and if right now that means waiting tables and proofreading grant applications, then I'm okay with that. I think you're the loveliest man I've ever met, inside and out, and I just want a chance to – "
"Ssh," Arthur says, leaning across the bar and placing a hand over Merlin's mouth. It smells of the restaurant's coconut soap with a lingering hint of garlic, and Merlin resists the urge to lick, to bite.
"There you go again, bucking me up when I hardly deserve it. Christ, Merlin, what am I going to do with you?"
Merlin steps up on the brass rail and leans in too, until their foreheads are touching and Arthur's hand is the only thing keeping their lips apart. They remain like that for a long moment, breathing one another's air.
Merlin thinks about the lump of amber sitting in a box in a safe halfway across the city, in the great house that used to belong to Uther, and now belongs to anyone who needs a meal or job training or a safe place to stay. He mouths his reply into the warm, calloused cup of Arthur's palm.
Arthur's nostrils flare. He slides his hand down, gently gripping Merlin's jaw.
"What was that?"
"Kiss me, for starters," Merlin whispers, and Arthur does.
It is the softest, sweetest kiss Merlin's ever had, more tentative even than Freya's or Gil's. It is Arthur's mouth simply held against his own, then rubbed back and forth, lips and noses brushing against one another. When Merlin adds tongue, chasing the taste of brandy, Arthur gives in for one slick, thrilling moment and then Merlin's mouthing at air.
"That – this – is…"
Merlin watches Arthur run his hands through his hair, cross and uncross his arms. He wants to vault over the bar and make him stop, wants that mouth back on his and all that hard muscle pressing him against something, anything – wall, floor, the bar itself – but he takes a deep breath instead, trying to think it through from Arthur's perspective.
"Weird for you?" he ventures. Arthur nods. "Too weird?" Merlin touches his own lips, unbearably sad at the thought that this might be it.
"I haven't… I'm not… Dammit!" Arthur grabs the brandy he poured for Merlin and knocks it back, slamming the glass down. Then he strides out from behind the bar and around to where Merlin is standing. He pulls Merlin into his arms – not to kiss, as Merlin first thinks, but to hold – clinging on for dear life, nuzzling into the side of Merlin's neck.
Merlin closes his eyes and squeezes back, whispering, "Hey now, ssh. I've got you. It's alright."
He thinks Arthur's having some sort of moral crisis, scared what it might mean that he's attracted to Merlin, second-guessing all the interactions they'd had when they'd been younger, wondering what people will think now. So it's a complete shock when Arthur draws a ragged breath and says, "I haven't done that since I was fourteen, kissed a man on the mouth."
The whole speech Merlin's planning fizzles out in his brain. "What? But, what about that… your friend, the one who was banned?"
"Mordred? That's what got him banned in the first place, and me shipped off to a different school. Kissing was for queers. Pendragons are leaders of men."
Arthur's snorts. "Did that, eventually, but always in secret, always in passing, so it wouldn’t go anywhere. And no kissing. I made damn sure of that." He sighs right against Merlin's ear, making him shiver. "I'm not proud of how I've treated my partners, Merlin. I'm not sure I'd even know how to be out. Not now. I tried going out to the clubs a bit when I first got back – the lads were great, all came with for support – but it wasn't me. There was too much at stake, too much work to be done, and never anyone…"
"Worth going back for?" Merlin whispers. "Been there, done that."
He's been running his hands up and down Arthur's flanks. Now he slides one hand up, over his collar and into the lush down on the nape of his neck, cradling the back of his head. "There's not one way, Arthur. No formula. It's more like… well, curry."
Arthur pulls back, frowning. He's blotchy and rumpled and still impossibly handsome. "What, it happens when you're pissed at oh-three-hundred? That's hardly reassuring."
"Meaning everyone does it a bit different, you great cabbage-head."
"That's an endearment in French, you know."
"Not in my accent."
Arthur chuckles, burying his face back beside Merlin's, not quite kissing his neck but – as he'd done with Merlin's lips – brushing his mouth over it. Merlin shivers again, feeling like he's leaking electrons, like they are fizzing off into the air and soon he'll either be a useless lump on the floor or permanently melded to Arthur.
"You figure out what works for you," Merlin says, closing his eyes. "And me. That is, if I'm the one you want to make curry – fuck, this is a terrible metaphor, isn't it?"
Arthur noses at Merlin's ear, presses his lips behind it. "Pretty awful, yes. But."
"But?" Merlin whispers. He's hard, hard and straining against Arthur, and he hasn't a clue when that happened but there's no hiding it now. He feels Arthur's hands slide tentatively down over his arse, rubbing, gathering, giving a light squeeze.
"You are. I've never fancied making a curry with someone so much in my entire life." Arthur's hands slide up his back, slowly, firmly, as if he's being measured. "When you stumbled into my kitchen, I thought, 'Shit, Pendragon, here's your sort of disaster waiting to happen.' Even if you hadn't – "
"Disaster?" Merlin opens his eyes. "That's harsh, and I'm not sure I stumbled – "
"You did." Arthur kisses Merlin's earlobe, the angle of his jaw. "You looked like you'd been sleeping under a bridge. But even if you'd been bluffing about the recipe, I was half thinking of saying fuck it and giving you my number, seeing if you'd want to go for a drink some time. Then when I realised who you were – "
"You freaked out, didn’t you?"
Arthur exhales shakily. "Yes. Oh, yes. Massive cold shower moment." He kisses Merlin's cheek, then pulls away, uncoupling limbs until they're joined only by hands on one another's shoulders.
"But… I was just so glad to see you, Merlin. I'd always liked having you about the place. It was good seeing how you'd grown up, that you'd done alright for yourself."
"I never thought you'd stay though. Or meddle with my restaurant in surprisingly competent ways. Or look at me like…"
"Like I want to eat you?" Merlin smirks. "That's what Elena says."
"The minx." Arthur's eyes lock on Merlin's mouth.
"And if I do?"
"Want to stay and meddle. And eat you."
Arthur lifts his gaze, blinking slowly. He's clearly exhausted – it's there in his eyes – but there's a spark there too, a happiness that Merlin fancies he remembers from when he was a kid. They'd been good for one another, Gaius had said.
He says as much aloud, adding, "Arthur, I want to make that true in the now."
"Then I suppose… Well, for starters, I'll need to get over being weird about this."
Arthur cups Merlin's face and leans in, and Merlin can only hum his enthusiastic agreement.
In Merlin's opinion, it is the best kiss he's ever had – the fucking world champion of kisses – but it doesn't stop him from telling Arthur they'll need lots of practice.