When Arthur's Sat-Nav announces in a cheerily robotic voice that he has reached his destination, he can't entirely believe it. A quick glance up and down the street shows him nothing but more of the same little two storey houses, the gardens all neatly tended, cars washed and shined. Arthur feels claustrophobic just looking at it, but there's no mistaking Elena's little green VW bug parked in the driveway.
Arthur wonders whether Leon's Harley has been relegated to the garage, or done away with altogether. He loves the pair of them both dearly, but he'd never imagined this kind of life would be what they wanted. It makes him wonder about a lot of things, but mainly about himself, about whether he'll ever want this one day. He can't see it, frankly. It makes him itch just thinking about it.
He's not seen Elena and Leon since the wedding, and he doesn't intend to put a damper on their wedded bliss, so Arthur pushes the thoughts aside, parks up and gets out of the car. He takes with him a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine.
Elena opens the door – freshly painted white, with a smart gold knocker – and smiles hugely at him.
She pulls him in and they hug tightly. Arthur presses a kiss to her cheek and presents her with the flowers. She smells them, managing to get pollen on her nose that Arthur brushes away with his thumb.
"They're beautiful," she says.
"So are you," Arthur says smoothly, ignoring the way Elena looks pointedly at her paint-splattered jogging bottoms and the t-shirt which is so over-sized it must have been Leon's once.
She steps back and waves him into the living room. There are two squashy sofas and a bean-bag Arthur recognises from Elena's old flat. The TV is showing something from the history channel, and there's a half-drunk cup of tea on the coffee table. One of Elena and Leon's wedding photos hangs on the wall and Arthur nods at it with a smile.
"How's married life treating you?"
"Brilliant," she says, the smile on her face honest and sweet. "You should try it."
Arthur pulls a face. "Marriage?"
"Settling down in general," she says. "You know, living in a house instead of a string of hotels, that sort of thing."
"You know me, darling," Arthur says, all fake-regret. "Married to the job."
Elena laughs and smacks him on the arm. "You are so full of shit, Arthur," she tells him affectionately.
Arthur winks at her and asks, "Anyone else here yet?"
"Gwaine and Percival are in the study with Leon. Upstairs, first on the left."
"Alright, I'd best join them. I'll see you when we're done, yeah? I want to hear more about this matrimony lark."
"I knew it," Elena says, smirking at him. "Knew you were seething with unspoken envy."
"More like I just want to revel in all the freedoms I still have."
"You're crying inside," she yells after him as he heads upstairs.
The study is really only a decently sized spare room, currently all but full due to the array of mismatched dining chairs and kitchen stools around the room. Although he sees Percival quite a lot, Arthur hasn't seen Gwaine since the wedding either. There's quite a lot of hugging and back slapping all around.
Leon even offers him brandy and a cigar, which makes Arthur burst out laughing.
"Right?" Gwaine asks, nudging him. "True what they say, isn't it? Love makes you fat. And really fucking dull."
Arthur creases up at the look on Leon's face.
"Screw you both, then," he says lightly, offering the box of cigars to Percival instead.
Elena opens the door a few minutes and waves a hand through the air, coughing pointedly. "Lance and Elyan just called, they're running a little late."
"Thanks, love," Leon says, and gets up to open the window without further prompting. He pointedly ignores Gwaine's snort of laughter and Percival, eager to avoid any conflict as ever, asks them all what they've been up to since their last job.
Gwaine launches into one of his endless supplies of stories about his escapades and Arthur laughs along with Leon and Percival. He's never sure how much of what Gwaine says to believe. Unnervingly, it's probably all true. Percival talks a bit about business (worryingly slow, as ever) and before long, Lance and Elyan arrive. There's more back-slapping and idle chat before the talk turns a bit more serious.
"What've we got?" Lance asks, leaning forward in his chair.
Leon spreads a map on the desk, looks like maybe east London. Arthur leans over Gwaine's shoulder to check and sure enough, Canary Wharf is just at the edge of the map. Leon's not daft enough to have marked the road on the map but he taps it with his fingertip and Arthur immediately approves. Canary Wharf tube station is right at the end of the road, the Blackwall Tunnel is close enough to reach in a hurry and there's a veritable maze of streets in the other direction, heading further into the city. Leon opens up another map, this one much larger scale, of the street itself, with the individual buildings labelled in Leon's neat hand.
"Here," Leon says, tapping the neat outline of a building. "Branch of NatWest, fairly standard size, usually three staff on duty in the front of house."
"Nice," Percival nods.
Arthur sees Lance and Elyan exchanging looks and then Elyan clears his throat. "Lance and I got hold of a Securicor van. We've been messing around with the security protocols and stuff."
Everyone leans forward keenly. They've been kicking the idea around for ages – hijack a security van, get rid of the driver and guard, and then just continue with the route, walking in and out of bank vaults pretty much unquestioned. It would take so much organisation, let alone the technological side of it that Arthur's started to think it was just one of those geeky hacker schemes Lance and Elyan dream up every now and then.
"And?" Arthur asks.
"No problems. I can cut off the transmission for about five minutes without it triggering any of the alerts."
"Is five minutes going to be enough?" Lance asks, looking over to Leon and Percival.
"I reckon," Percival nods.
"I think we're ready, don't you?" Leon asks. He's got a little smile and Arthur knows that the audacity of just wandering into a bank and wandering back out laden with money, not even getting questioned, appeals to all of them.
"We can hack Securicor's databases and work out the routes," Elyan says. "Find one of the vans that takes a route through – I don't know, a tunnel or something, some kind of CCTV blackspot."
Leon nods thoughtfully. "Me and Perce for the hijacking?" he asks.
Elyan hides a smirk. "We'll need to get you some uniforms from somewhere. What are the odds you two'll match up to whoever's driving the van?"
"We should do a comedy bank job one of these days," Gwaine says, leaning back in his chair and stretching his legs out in front of him. "You know, tight shirts, short trousers – "
"Stop being a perv, Gwaine," Arthur tells him. "Although, you know, comedy theft is always a laugh."
"The music would be really jaunty," Gwaine nods.
"Alright, Bert and Ernie," Leon says. "We need someone trailing the van too, converge on the blackspot, keep other vehicles out of the frame."
"I've got that," Elyan says. "I can keep the laptop and do things from a distance, we'll keep Lance nearer to the bank."
"So once we've got the guards out of the van – "
"Shove them in Elyan's car, he drives them into the middle of the woods and leaves them, switches to the motorbike and heads back to the bank, just in case we need him," Percival recites.
"Then we walk in with boxes full of money chained to our wrists, and walk back out with even more," Leon says.
"The perfect crime," Arthur jokes.
"Don't jinx it," Leon says.
"Oh, calm down," Arthur protests. "Me and Lance will be front of house, keep the cashiers chatting, we'll all be long gone before they even realise they've been robbed. So you guys walk out," he says, nodding to Leon and Percival. "You drive off – Elyan, we'll need another spot without CCTV for them to ditch the van and unload."
"I'll get on it," Elyan nods.
"Me and Lance stroll out a bit after you two, jump in the car with Gwaine, and off we go."
"If someone can get me some kind of security access information I should be able to overwrite the bank security cameras," Elyan says. "Not switch them off but keep them off your faces."
Arthur nods and leans forward. "Good idea. Sheffield was a bit close for my liking."
They all agree, obviously thinking of their last job, their slender escape, and the three months Gwaine and Lance had had to spend out of the country for the heat to die down a little and memories to dull.
"I'll take care of that," Arthur offers.
Gwaine leans back in his chair and rolls his eyes exaggeratedly. "Translation: Arthur wants to get laid."
"Oh, fuck off. I can get laid anywhere. If you do it, you'll end up eloping with the poor woman."
"Honeytrap Pendragon," Gwaine muses. "Can we make that a thing? What do you say, guys?"
"I say stop being an arse," Leon tells him mildly. "Alright, so we're on, then? Get the ball rolling next week?"
"Week after," Percival says. "I've got a commission to finish."
"I've some cash spare at the moment," Lance says. "I'll rent us somewhere to use as a base."
"Alright," Arthur says, nodding. "This is sounding good."
"I need a swipe of the security strip and pin, and photos if you can manage it," Elyan lists, counting the items off on his fingers.
Arthur looks at him a bit pointedly. "I know," he says.
"And we need the days of the large cash deliveries, and as much info as you can get on the staff," Leon says, cutting off Arthur's protest with a wave of his hand. "Who's there at delivery time, what's their role, any of them particularly lairy."
"Leon, I know," Arthur insists. "I have done this before, you know."
"It doesn't hurt to be thorough," Leon sniffs.
"Just email us the cross-referenced, annotated plans," Gwaine suggests and Leon relaxes, smiling around at them.
"Alright, alright. Let's leave it there for the day," he says. "Who's staying for dinner?"
Everyone, as it turns out. Arthur doesn't think any of them are mad enough to turn down the possibility of Elena's home cooked chips. She might be a kitchen-disaster in every other respect, but the chips are out of this world. Arthur and Gwaine make a few trips up and downstairs to move chairs from the study into the kitchen, and then all of them crowd around the kitchen table. Sure enough, Elena soon has Lance and Leon peeling extra potatoes while she rummages in the freezer, yelling out possible options.
"Just more chips," Gwaine requests, passing out beer from the fridge while Elyan opens a bottle of wine. Arthur sits next to Percival and watches the chaos unfold. This is more like normal, he thinks. This is just fine.
"Chips and chips?" Elena asks, pushing her hair out of her eyes.
"Covers all the main food groups," Gwaine assures her. "And when it's your chips... The things I would do for one sweet, succulent – chip," Gwaine finishes sharply as Leon, passing, elbows him in the back of the head. "Chip, Jesus Christ, you people."
"Chips aren't sweet, idiot," Elena says, moving behind Gwaine and poking at where he's clutching the back of his head, hamming it up. Gwaine moves his hand and Elena pulls sharply at his hair. "Yep, looks fine," she says. She and Leon share a frankly alarmingly in-love look and Gwaine slouches into a chair opposite Arthur.
"That's what they have in common," he bitches. "Bullying me."
"It's what my dream relationship consists of, I know that much," Arthur says.
"Charming," Gwaine says, turning to Percival instead. "How's Didi?" he asks.
Percival snorts. "Probably plotting how to kill the next person who calls her Didi. And she's alright. This time of year, you know... It's not easy on her."
Percival and Dindrane have been on their own since he was seventeen and she fourteen. The rest of their family – mum, dad, older sister – were killed in a fire that nearly claimed their lives too. Arthur's only heard bits of what came after – Percival dropping out in the middle of his A-levels, spending a full six months battling with social services for custody of his little sister, all while keeping the centuries-old family carpentry business up and running. Percival is a quiet sort, but Arthur's respect for him is boundless. The anniversary of the fire is coming up in the next few days, and Arthur knows it isn't an easy time for Percival either.
"My dad loved the cabinet you made," Elena tells Percival as she passes, squeezing his shoulder. "Said it was some of the best work he'd ever seen."
Percival smiles genuinely and covers Elena's hand with his own. "I've got a commission at the moment from one of his friends. I meant to write and thank him."
Elena waves her free hand. "Daddy loves to show off."
They grew up near each other, and Arthur thinks Elena's father was instrumental in getting Dindrane out the care system. He gives her a wide smile and she declares to the room at large, "Right! I've bunged some stuff in the oven so fingers crossed."
And then she's back to bossing Lance and Leon about over the chips. She looks supremely happy, leaning into Leon's side and chattering away to Lance. When Arthur looks back to the others, he finds Gwaine with a slightly bemused look on his face.
"You look like a kid on his first trip to the zoo," Arthur tells him.
"So do you, then," Gwaine says. "Here, we observe the wedded couple in their home environment," he says, giving it his best David Attenborough.
Arthur snorts around a mouthful of wine and gives Gwaine the finger.
Dinner ends up being chips, chips and more chips, along with microwave mini-pizzas, southern-fried chicken, and slightly singed onion bhajis.
"Delicious," Gwaine says gallantly.
They talk about everyday things, and Arthur can't help noticing that when Gwen's name comes up, Lance's eyes get riveted on his plate. Again. Still. Arthur shakes his head, wondering how long they can go on being so fucking awkward about each other. Gwen's in her final year of medical school, and by Elyan's account, thoroughly frazzled. Arthur would bet that's one more excuse Lance has found to not put his heart on the line just yet. For a brave guy, he's quite the wuss sometimes, Arthur thinks fondly.
Before another bottle of wine gets opened, Arthur stands.
"I need to be going – "
Elena starts to protest and he cuts her off.
"I'm guessing if you think about it, you don't want my drunk arse crashed out on your sofa."
"Yeah, give me a lift to the station, Arthur?" Gwaine says and Arthur nods, fishing his car keys out of his pocket. He makes his goodbyes to everyone, a familiar satisfaction building in him that they are all back together and will be working a job soon, aligning everything perfectly.
Elena insists on waving them off and Arthur toots his horn twice as he turns the car around awkwardly.
"Fancy hitting a casino for a few hours?" Gwaine suggests as they pull out of Leon and Elena's cul-de-sac.
Arthur gives normality another glance in his rearview mirror and says, "Yeah, why not."
On the day that will change his life forever, Merlin drags himself into work like it's any other Monday morning. He waits until the last possible moment, nursing a coffee in the shade of the tube station entrance and glaring balefully at the bank opposite.
I hate it, I hate it, I hate it, he thinks uselessly as he tosses his coffee cup into the bin and ducks into the bank at 8.57 exactly. There is nothing, nothing he likes about his job. He'd never planned to be here more than six months at the absolute maximum. When his mum had died, he'd gone to pieces a bit, missed so many classes of his final year at uni that there was no point even sitting the exams.
He'd needed to keep a roof over his head that summer, but he'd meant to go back and finish his degree in the next academic year. What with one thing and another though, he's still at the bank almost six years later. He's almost forgotten what it was he loved about studying ancient history; sometimes he feel like the job has beaten any kind of passion and excitement out of him.
The money is shit, the work is dull, the customers and colleagues alike are snooty, and the manager, Mr Aredian, seems to dislike Merlin more and more every day. And every day is exactly the same. If he thought Aredian would allow him the breaks, Merlin would take up smoking just to spend ten minutes a day less in the building. Every few months or so, Merlin resolves to find a new job, any job, anything that doesn't make Monday to Friday feel like an entirely miserable slog. There's always a bill to pay though, a council tax reminder or a broken washing machine to fix, and nothing's ever come of his good intentions. Merlin feels worn out, ground down, weighted by the misery of prolonged dissatisfaction.
Merlin walks in past the row of cash machines, and the rather smaller cluster of machines that allow you to make deposits and pay bills and the like. Past the scattering of round wooden tables with self-consciously cheerful red and purple upholstered chairs, Merlin pauses to switch on his computer, almost certain that Aredian monitors their log-on times. After he's tapped in his password, he goes into the staff room and gets yet another coffee from the vending machine – vending machine! In the staff room! Aredian is such a tight bastard – just for the chance to kill a couple of minutes. He takes a slurp while it's still too hot and then can't put it off any longer and goes through to his table.
The two women working today are Marian and Lucy, and neither of them have much time for Merlin, so he knows it'll be an even quieter, duller day than usual. There's at least a little amusement to be had when Merlin works with Rick or Emma, both recent graduates who seem impossibly young. The morning drags on slowly, and the only bright spot comes in the form of a tall, gorgeous blond man who comes in just after Merlin gets back from his carefully eked-out lunch break. He makes a beeline for Merlin's work station and gives him a bright, friendly smile.
"Hi," he says. It really is a lovely smile, Merlin thinks, flustered. "Do you have a moment? I wanted to ask about your savings accounts."
"Of course, take a seat, sir."
The man takes off his smart suit jacket and drapes it over the arm of his chair. He even loosens his tie a little with an audible sigh of relief as he sits down.
"I can't stand this get-up," he tells Merlin, his voice lowered confidentially.
"Me neither," Merlin says, suddenly horribly aware of his own tight collar and tie. Some of the other branches favour the relaxed open-collared friendly banker appearance these days, but not while Mr Aredian is in charge. The global economic whatever-the-fuck (Merlin sometimes feels a bit bad that he doesn't understand it better, given that he actually works in a bank) is, to Aredian at least, no reason for bankers to be something other the austere, frankly bloody Scrooge-a-like Merlin imagines is Aredian's ideal.
"Alright," Merlin says. "So. Savings accounts. Well, a cash ISA offers tax-free interest and would allow you to save up to five thousand, three hun – "
"Ah, no," the man cuts him off modestly. "That wouldn't do, I'm afraid."
"Okay, and would you be looking for easy access to your savings?"
The man drums his fingers on the tabletop, thoughtful, a gold and silver ring on his finger catching Merlin's eye. "No," he decides. "No, that won't be necessary."
"Alright, then. Well, in that case we have medium-term savings accounts for one, two or three years, for amounts between five and five hundred thousand pounds," Merlin says, reaching for the appropriate brightly-coloured booklets (do head office or whoever makes such decisions think they deal with children?) and sliding them across the table.
The man glances down at them, his eyes flickering keenly to the section on yearly interest rates before he looks back up with another lovely smile and asks, "What are the interest rates like?"
Huh, Merlin thinks, and it must show on his face – damn it – because the man looks thrown for a second before he says, in the same conspiratorial tone as earlier, "Come on, spin it out a bit, don't make me go back to work."
Merlin can't help it, laughs a little and pulls the minute details of each account up on his screen, prepared to go through it word for word if that's what the man wants. Merlin flicks his eyes from his screen to the man who's now leaning back in his chair, looking supremely comfortable. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon, Merlin supposes cheerfully.
After almost fifteen minutes of Merlin reading small-print in a deliberately slow and careful voice, and the man asking for definitions of ever more inane terms, there's the loud beep of a mobile phone. The blond pulls it out of his jacket pocket with a regretful look at Merlin. He reads the message and his brows draw into a frown.
"Boss?" Merlin asks.
The man snaps his phone shut and back into his pocket. "Worse. Colleague. Well, fascinating as this has been, I'm afraid I'll have to glean the rest from these informative-looking leaflets." He's grinning at Merlin by the time he finishes that little speech and Merlin laughs, shaking his head.
"I'm sure I shall. Well, thank you very much, ah – " The guy's eyes wander over Merlin for a moment before settling on his name badge. "Merlin. Really?"
"Afraid so," Merlin says cheerfully. "I've probably heard all the jokes."
"I'm sure. No, it's just – " The man touches a hand to his own broad chest. "I'm Arthur."
Merlin lets out a loud ha!, probably the most genuine sound of amusement he's ever made in this place, but he wants to beat his own head in with his keyboard. Smooth and slick and cool are all things he is not.
"I'll look over these leaflets, and maybe pop back in."
"Alright, I'm glad to have helped. Bye, Arthur."
Arthur's blue eyes are warm with amusement as he says, "Bye, Merlin."
"Ta. So where's this traffic warden you were texting about, huh?" he demands.
"Taking too long," Gwaine says. "Got a mark?"
"Yeah," Arthur says as Percival pulls away. "Guy this time."
"Don't you love it when your professional and personal interests coincide?" Gwaine teases.
"Yeah, yeah," Arthur says and he ducks his head to hide a smile. Merlin really is something else. "He's tall, about my height, pale, dark hair, blue eyes." He waves the fingers of his free hand distractedly and adds, "Cheekbones."
"Cheekbones," Gwaine echoes, and Arthur sees him and Percival exchange looks in the rearview mirror.
"Like you said," he tells Gwaine. "No harm in making business pleasurable."
Gwaine jumps out at the next red light and doubles back to the bank on foot. With nothing else to do, Arthur and Percival head out of the city and kill a couple of hours at a driving range in Surrey. At around lunch time, Arthur receives a text from Gwaine. It's a profile shot of Merlin, obviously taken on the sly as he's walking down the street, followed by a single question mark. Yeah, that's him, Arthur sends back.
At around 3 they head back towards London just in case they get lucky and Merlin stops somewhere Arthur can feasibly 'bump into him'. They meet up with Leon at the office space they've rented and pass an hour going over plans. Then, at around half five, Gwaine calls Arthur from a pub near Liverpool Street and says that Merlin's stopped in for a drink.
Traffic's heavy this time of night so Leon gives Arthur a lift on his motorbike. He claps Arthur on the shoulder and yells good luck as he dismounts before roaring off again. When Arthur strolls into the bar he clocks Gwaine sitting in a booth with a pretty girl. He cocks his head towards the loos and Arthur nods in understanding. Perfect. At the bar, he orders a pint and waits.
Before long he spies Merlin coming out of the toilets. He's still dressed in his black work shirt and grey trousers but the tie is gone. Arthur waits long enough to be sure Merlin's on his own before he picks up his beer and wanders through the growing after-work crowd.
Tapping him on the shoulder he asks, "Merlin? From the bank, yeah?"
Merlin turns around and he looks weary before a look of recognition passes over his face, along with a bright smile. "Hi. Arthur, wasn't it?"
Arthur doesn't have to fake a pleased smile that Merlin has remembered him.
"So, um..." Merlin starts, obviously a bit at a loss.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure, okay."
Arthur smiles at him and says, "Grab a table?"
They find one in the corner of the pub and Merlin fiddles with a spare beermat when they sit down. "How was the rest of your day?" he asks.
Arthur huffs a sigh. "Nauseating."
Merlin laughs and takes a drink from his pint. "Yeah. What is it you do?"
"Sales," Arthur says, smooth and vague. "How about you, did you manage the boredom alright?"
"No," Merlin groans. "It was tragic. I played Minesweeper."
Arthur winces in sympathy. "So what are you up to tonight?" He looks around the bar. "Is this, ah – charming establishment your local?"
"God, you sound like a snob," Merlin says, but he sounds amused. "No, I'm meeting some friends up west later, just letting the tube die down a bit."
"Sensible move," Arthur says. "I'm really glad I bumped into you," he adds.
Merlin pauses with his glass halfway to his mouth. "Yeah?"
"Uh-huh." Arthur fiddles with his glass for a second and glances up at Merlin though his eyelashes. "To be honest, I've been kicking myself for not asking for your number ever since I left the bank."
Merlin grins. "Yeah? Well, here. Give me your phone."
The little curl of warmth Arthur feels at the sight of Merlin tapping his number into Arthur's phone has nothing to do with the job.
Arthur can't help smiling at him, noticing the rectangular shape of Merlin's name badge in his breast pocket, his tie gone too.
"Alright," Arthur says. "How about the cricket?"
"Or cricket," Merlin says. "I forgot to add cricket to the list."
Arthur presses his hand to his chest and feigns a wounded expression. "What would you like to drink?"
"Oh, it's alright I'll go – "
"No," Arthur says. "I asked you."
"Okay," Merlin grins. "I'll get them next time."
"Latte with an extra shot, then, please," Merlin says, leaning back in his chair as Arthur walks up to the counter.
Arthur leaves the cafe with a thorough knowledge of Merlin's feelings about everything from blueberry muffins to the new Star Wars films to the government. He doesn't know a thing about the workings of the bank, and he couldn't care less. They text each other Tuesday night, all day Wednesday – Arthur imagines Merlin covertly tapping away under his desk – to such an extent that Arthur just calls him on Wednesday night.
"Hi," Merlin says, sounding pleased. "How's your week?"
"Same as ever," Arthur says. "Dull."
"So hey, listen, do you have plans Friday?"
Merlin doesn't, and they arrange to go to a bar near Arthur's supposed workplace in south London. Arthur finds himself looking forward to it so much that he calls Merlin again on Thursday. Merlin sounds more surprised this time, but still pleased, and they chat for a bit on the pretext of checking their plans are still on.
When Friday comes around, they're not due to meet until seven, and Merlin has clearly gone home and changed after work. He shows up wearing skinny jeans and a fitted red t-shirt under a dark blazer, and Arthur nearly swallows his tongue.
"Hi," Merlin says, hurrying along the road from the direction of the tube station. "Sorry. Bloody trains."
"That's fine," Arthur says. "You look good."
Merlin grins at him like he's not sure whether Arthur is teasing.
"You scrub up alright yourself," Merlin tells him, his fingers brushing the vee of Arthur's soft jumper.
Arthur smiles back and him and squeezes Merlin's wrist before he nods to the pub.
"They serve pretty good food here," Arthur says. "Just pub-grub, but not bad."
"Sounds good," Merlin says, letting Arthur wave him into the pub. Arthur takes the opportunity to look up and down the lines of Merlin's body. He is so goddamn gorgeous.
Arthur does learn a few bits and pieces about the bank as they eat their meals. He finds out that the manager, one Mr Aredian (but Elyan's research had already shown that part) is rarely in the bank for more than a few hours at a time. Merlin says offhand that he has better things to be doing, and Arthur files that away as something to potentially learn more about. Merlin might not think anything of it, doesn't really seem to, but it's something to think about.
Still, Arthur's mind is only half on the job, mostly concerned with Merlin's lively conversation. His animated, curiously expressive face is captivating and their meal drags on so long that by the time Merlin's finishing his lasagne with chips – Arthur finishing off the last of the chips – there's a two-piece group setting up in the corner of the pub.
"Want to stay and check them out?" Arthur asks.
"Yeah, okay," Merlin says, half-turning in his seat to watch as the guy of the duo tunes his guitar while the girl plinks at disjointed chords on the keyboard.
Arthur's quite surprised when the lights dim and they start playing fairly decent blues music. The girl does most of the singing, and after a song and a half, Merlin leans over to Arthur and says, "This would have been better before the smoking ban, yeah?"
Arthur doesn't even smoke much, and Merlin not at all as far as Arthur's seen, but Arthur knows exactly what he means.
"We'd need cheap whisky instead of lager, in that case," he says, and Merlin grins.
"Do you wanna dance with me?" Merlin asks, his tone not changing from the casual one he's been teasing Arthur with all night.
There's a cleared space, and a few other people dancing along to the faster number the duo are playing right now, but Arthur doesn't think he'd care if there was no one else.
"Yeah," Arthur says, finishing his drink quickly. "I do."
Merlin grins and finishes his drink just as quickly, getting up from the cosy booth they've been sharing. Arthur follows him along to the makeshift dance floor, Merlin leaving one hand trailing out behind him so their fingers brush. When they get into the middle of the small crowd, he turns to face Arthur.
Arthur slides his hand inside Merlin's jacket, just resting on his waist for a moment before he slides down to Merlin's hip and then quickly back up again. Merlin smiles at him in the darkness of the bar and his fingers squeeze briefly on Arthur's shoulder. They dance for a few more songs, and Arthur gently reminds himself that this is not getting him the kind of information he needs. How is he supposed to bring himself to care, though?
As the music goes on, Merlin lets himself drift a little closer, his hands sliding down to the small of Arthur's back. Arthur could turn his head and steal a kiss right now. The song ends and Merlin backs off a little.
"Another drink?" he offers and Arthur nods dumbly, letting his feet guide him over to the bar, trailing in Merlin's wake.
At the bar, Merlin gets drinks in for both of them, leaning close to Arthur as they drink.
"They're good," Merlin says, nodding towards where the duo are still playing. "She's got a hell of a voice."
"Yeah," Arthur agrees. "Really good."
"So I have a question," Merlin says a little later, leaning in even closer to Arthur.
"Yeah?" Arthur asks, shivering as he feels Merlin's breath on his cheek.
"What are you waiting for?" Merlin asks, and he presses a quick kiss to Arthur's jaw. Lust coils in Arthur instantly and he does as he's wanted all night, turns his head to catch Merlin's mouth with his own.
"Nothing," he says after a brief kiss.
"Good, then. Come on," Merlin instructs, knocking back the last of his drink.
Arthur hasn't felt like this in years, and never when it's been part of a job. When they stumble off the tube he can't keep his hands to himself even for what Merlin assures him is only a ten minute walk to his flat. They end up necking at a bus stop for five minutes, Merlin pressed up against the shelter. When he curls his fingers through Arthur's hair and pulls, Arthur bites his lip in retaliation. It makes Merlin moan into his mouth, hands finding their way inside Arthur's coat, fisting handfuls of his shirt to pull him in until they're squeezed tight together.
"God, fuck," Arthur groans, and he means to say something more but he can't stop himself mouthing at Merlin's throat, dragging his tongue over the stubble there before going back for another kiss. Merlin wraps a hand around the back of Arthur's neck and pulls their mouths apart. Even in the dirty amber streetlights, his eyes are very blue, very lovely.
"Hang on," he starts. Arthur just squeezes his hip and edges a bit closer. "Hang on," Merlin demands. "My flat is all of three minutes away. I swear, I'll give you a blowjob you'll never forget and then you can fuck me, yeah? You wanna?"
"Oh my god," Arthur groans, and he kisses Merlin again even as he laughs and pushes at Arthur's chest.
"Come on, then," Merlin insists, tucking his hand into Arthur's and pulling him along.
Merlin's flat is on the second floor of a small, nondescript block off the main road, but Arthur doesn't have time to notice much more than that. They have to stop a couple of times on the stairs, because Arthur just can't stop touching him. He feels like he's burning for it, wants Merlin so close he can't tell where he ends and Merlin begins, wants to learn how to draw out every little noise of pleasure from him. He's never felt a need quite like it before.
Merlin wriggles out of Arthur's hold and pulls him up the final steps, stopping in front of a blue door and fumbling with his keys. Even though Merlin laughs at him, Arthur can't help plastering himself along the length of Merlin's back, nosing into his soft hair.
"Gorgeous," he says.
Merlin presses back against him but he scoffs and says, "Shut up."
"You are," Arthur insists. "God, from the minute I saw you – "
They manage to get inside eventually and then it's all kisses, messy and hot. Merlin gets a grip on Arthur's arse and squeezes, breathing a murmur of appreciation into their kiss. Arthur lets Merlin shove his coat off his shoulders while he tugs Merlin's scarf away to bare his slim, pale throat. As he mouths kisses along the skin he's just exposed something roars inside him at the thought of marking that throat. Merlin's hand tangles in Arthur's hair and Arthur thinks he could spend hours on that neck.
"God," Merlin pants, "God." He tugs on Arthur's hair, hard enough to make him hiss, pulling him up into a kiss. He lets his legs fall apart so he's all but straddling Arthur's thigh. Arthur runs greedy hands up Merlin's sides, under his jacket, pushing it off his shoulders.
"You're so fucking hot," Arthur says, giddy with how much he wants this man.
They stagger through the flat, pinballing off the walls and shedding clothes along their way. When Arthur gets his hands on Merlin's bare skin for the first time it feels like a triumph. Merlin lets go of Arthur for a second to fumble a door open and then he's pushing Arthur into a darkened room, walking him backwards until the backs of his knees hit the edge of a mattress and he sits down heavily. Merlin wastes no time climbing into his lap.
It's hard to focus with Merlin so close, raining down kisses on Arthur's mouth, but Arthur gets himself together enough to part their mouths and demand,
"Lights. I have to see you, Merlin, I have to – "
With a groan so heartfelt it's almost pained, Merlin nods shakily and scrambles out of Arthur's lap. Something crashes to the floor as Merlin fumbles on the bedside table but then there's a click and the room is bathed in soft yellow light. Merlin moves back towards him but Arthur stops him, hands on his waist to keep him still, looking to his heart's content.
Merlin's shirt is half open; his belt is unbuckled and Arthur doesn't even remember doing that. There's a light in his eyes that Arthur really likes, carefree and in-the-moment, something different than the too-reserved way he normally is. Arthur had thought at first that it was just a typical workplace façade, because Merlin just immediately looks like he should be lively and animated, and he is, but this, with the laughing eyes and the happy smile, is something else altogether.
Arthur realises he's been staring too long, thinking too hard, when Merlin cups his cheek and says, "Hey."
Arthur gives him a slow, deliberately steamy smile and undoes Merlin's remaining shirt buttons quickly, pulling it off his shoulders. Merlin yanks Arthur's soft wool jumper over his head and tosses it aside. He takes a gratifyingly tremulous breath and Arthur pulls Merlin in to stand between his legs. Merlin's hands come to rest on his shoulders for a moment and he murmurs, "Fuck you're so sexy."
He tries to move away and Arthur makes a noise of complaint. Merlin just smiles at him, touches his jaw, his lips, and says, "Two seconds. Promise. Get your kit off."
Arthur keeps his eyes on Merlin while he strips out of his jeans, eyes tripping over line of Merlin's back, the play of muscles under his skin as he reaches into a drawer and comes back with a box of condoms and a bottle of lube. He promptly drops to his knees on the floor and Arthur fleetingly remembers what Merlin said about a blowjob he'd never forget.
Then there's no more room for thought because Merlin rolls a condom over his dick and goes down on him like a fucking pro.
"Mother of god," Arthur blurts, and Merlin looks up at him, his eyes wicked.
Arthur runs his fingers through Merlin's hair, taking care to keep it gentle. His other hand falls to Merlin's shoulder, fingers trembling up over the side of his throat. Merlin's lips are a tight, impossibly soft seal around Arthur's dick and he bobs his head, fingers curling into Arthur's thighs. Arthur's lust just spikes higher at the sight of Merlin's cheeks hollowing as he sucks. He traces his thumb over the stretch of Merlin's lips and tells him,
"Fuck, you're amazing."
Merlin makes a pleased, almost amused sound, the smartarse, and Arthur would complain except that noise reverberates over his dick and he can hardly believe how good it feels.
"Merlin, Merlin, oh – "
Arthur curls his fingers through Merlin's hair, clumsy but careful, twisting dark locks around his fingers. He doesn't make any effort to control Merlin's movements, wouldn't want to change a damn thing. He just lets Merlin work on him, bobbing his head and occasionally shooting looks up at Arthur with those wicked blue eyes. Merlin pulls off completely for a moment, fingers squeezing into Arthur's thighs while he scatters kisses over Arthur's stomach, his hair tickling.
He means to stop Merlin, doesn't want to come just like that, when he's barely even touched Merlin at all. But it's so good, and Merlin is so unabashedly enthusiastic about his efforts. Arthur can't help rolling his hips just a little, and Merlin just goes with it, moves his head in counterpoint and Arthur thinks oh God, yes please. He lets Arthur chase his pleasure, pressing further into Merlin's mouth and then abruptly Merlin takes him just as deep as he can, holds him there as long as he can, and Arthur thinks he might have gone cross-eyed there for a moment.
Merlin pulls back and looks up at him, halfway to laughing. Arthur feels blindsided by lust of course, but there's this playful element woven through it, because Merlin is just so much fun. He goes down on Arthur again like beating his personal best or whatever is a matter of pride. Arthur curls around him, struggling to regain some kind of control but it's a lost cause apparently, Merlin's short fingernails tracing idle patterns on the insides of Arthur's thighs as Merlin swallows around his dick.
Arthur shudders and comes before he can think about stopping Merlin. He floods the condom with a series of sharp, shuddering breaths, rocking into the ongoing suction of Merlin's lovely mouth.
"Christ," Arthur breathes when he's finished and Merlin's pulled back to look up at him. "That was bloody fantastic. Your mouth is perfect."
Merlin laughs and presses his lips to Arthur's thigh. His mouth is hot and Arthur reaches down to drag his fingers through Merlin's hair before dealing with the condom, tossing it into the bin next to Merlin's bed.
"I mean it," he tells Merlin, who's watching keenly. "Perfect."
"What're you like," Merlin scoffs, but he sounds fond.
Still breathless and swept up in it, his gaze still stuck on Merlin's mouth, trying to make sense of his earlier garbled words, Arthur admits, "I wanted to kiss you from the first time I saw you."
Merlin lifts his head to look Arthur in the eye. He's all flushed and tousled and lovely, and Arthur wants him, desperately, in a way that has little to do with sex. "Yeah?" Merlin asks.
"Uh-huh. C'mere," Arthur says, pulling Merlin up gently. He rubs the pad of his thumb over Merlin's lower lip, still wet and puffy. Arthur groans and Merlin laughs at him.
"Got a bit of a fixation, have we?"
"God, yeah," Arthur admits easily and he tumbles Merlin onto his back. With one hand wrapped around Merlin's cock, he endeavours to show Merlin just how much he likes that mouth. He kisses Merlin slowly at first, keeping time with the gentle stroke of his hand. He doesn't seek entry, just lets Merlin's mouth open under his and kisses his lower lip, slow and exploratory.
He can't keep it up for long though, and by the time Merlin gasps out, "Fuck, get your fingers in me," Arthur's kissing him hard and hungry and utterly wanton. Merlin's so relaxed, so into it, that it doesn't take long at all for Arthur to get one, and then two fingers inside him, searching for that elusive spot that will send Merlin crazy. He can only graze it like this, racking Merlin with shudders as he arches into Arthur's touch and breaks their kiss to pant against Arthur's cheek.
"God, you're so fucking hot," Arthur tells him, wriggling down and kissing Merlin's flat stomach as he screws his fingers in deeper.
Merlin arches happily under him and asks, "Reckon you can fuck me?"
Arthur laughs against Merlin's stomach and says, "Thought you'd never ask."
By the time Merlin's been suitably reduced to a shuddering wreck, Arthur's fully hard again. Merlin's begging for it, dragging his hands through Arthur's hair, hooking one leg around his hips.
"Shh, shh," Arthur urges, trying to hold Merlin still long enough to grab another condom.
Merlin doesn't help, wriggling underneath Arthur, trying to pull him into kiss after kiss.
"Oh, God," Arthur moans lowly. "Stop it, stop, let me get this on – "
"Yeah," Merlin says, fisting his hands into the pillow under his head and looking at Arthur so keenly that his gaze feels almost like a touch.
Arthur bites his lip hard, trying to ignore the friction of his own hands as he rolls the condom down over his cock and squeezes out more lube, covering himself in it and gritting his teeth hard, trying to keep calm. Arthur feels like he could drown in Merlin's huge, dark eyes staring up at him. Merlin pulls his legs up eagerly, opening himself shamelessly for Arthur and staring up at him.
"God," Arthur says again, and Merlin huffs out a laugh that chokes off when Arthur kisses the inside of his thigh, biting at the tense muscles.
"Come on, come on, come on," Merlin chants lowly, and Arthur can see Merlin's fingers creeping down towards his own hole, sliding through the slick lube. Arthur groans and pushes Merlin's hand away, sucking on the soft skin he just bit, not letting up until there's a dark red flush under his mouth and Merlin's foot jerks.
Arthur tests the rim of Merlin's hole with his thumb, just pushing in ever so slightly, making Merlin give a sharp little cry and thrust back up towards Arthur.
"Arthur," Merlin insists, and Arthur shushes him.
He strokes his dick a couple of times, spreading the lube and warming himself, squeezing tighter to stave off the instant lust at seeing Merlin so on display for him. It takes a firm push before he's sinking inside Merlin, sweet warmth swallowing him up as he presses in. Merlin's fingers scrabble across his shoulders as Arthur presses home and he can feel Merlin panting against his ear, breath turning into a sweet little whine when Arthur bottoms out.
"Oh god, Arthur, Arthur, that's – "
"Good?" Arthur asks, a bit unnecessarily maybe given how Merlin's staring at him wild-eyed and breathless.
"Ye-ea-ahhh – " Merlin says around a long, slow sigh.
You're so, so beautiful, Arthur thinks as he rocks his hips carefully, just a little to be going on with, just testing it out, seeing how their bodies fit together – perfectly, of course – before he moves any faster. Merlin gives him an encouraging look and rolls his hips up against Arthur. Then Arthur's patience departs completely and he bends Merlin in half even further to steal a kiss, feeling the way the breath punches out of Merlin before their lips meet. Arthur lifts up a little and Merlin hooks a leg around his back, groaning happily.
"C'mon," Merlin says, curling his long fingers through the hair at Arthur's nape. "What, you forget how?"
Arthur barks out a surprised laugh. "Shut up."
Merlin laughs too, rolls his head back into the pillows. "Make me."
"I will," Arthur swears, and he speeds up a bit, Merlin's body a hot clench around him. Merlin moves with him, his head tipped back on his long neck, eyelashes low over his eyes, one lip sucked in between his teeth.
Arthur fucks him harder, until Merlin's on the verge of crying out with every thrust. Sometimes a shout does escape, hoarse and needy, and it only fuels Arthur's excitement. He slides his hand over Merlin's thigh, finds the shiver of his stomach and glides up to his chest, his beating heart. Merlin comes first, without a hand on, or really even anywhere that near, his dick. He locks down tight when his orgasm starts and Arthur has to work to rock his hips just a little, pushing Merlin through it. He's so fucking tight around Arthur, worse still when Merlin squirms a hand in between them and strips his own cock, fast and wet. Arthur slams a kiss onto his mouth just when it looks like Merlin's about to scream, some unholy noise that will have neighbours registering complaints with the council or something.
Merlin croons into Arthur's mouth instead, shaky, sweet noises as his hips hitch a few last times. Arthur feels just...completely destroyed, has no idea how he's still holding it together. When Merlin opens his eyes, it's with a smile. His fingers, the ones that have been tugging the sheets out of all recognition for the last few minutes, curl into Arthur's hair again. That, and the knowing, soft roll of Merlin's hips are the clearest invitation Arthur's ever received. Merlin's all languid and gorgeous, letting Arthur haul him up by his hips, lean over him and just – God – just fuck him. He tries to be gentle, he does, because Merlin must be achingly sensitive by now, but Merlin goads him into it – come on, is that all you've got? His voice quickly trails off as Arthur slams in deep, holding himself there as he crashes head first into a wave of pleasure, leaving him dazed for a long moment, his fingers probably too hard on Merlin's body but he can't stop, can't think.
Arthur can't help making a hurt little noise as they unfold their bodies and separate. Merlin just sprawls uselessly on his back with a slightly dazed hum, leaving Arthur, clumsy-fingered, to deal with the condom and try to scrape his brain together.
"Got, um – flannel?" Arthur asks, still on his knees between Merlin's legs.
"Mmm. Wipes," Merlin says, waving a hand towards the bedside drawer.
Arthur finds a roll of moist handwipes in the drawer and pulls off a few, carefully cleaning them both up. He finds Merlin looking down at him at one point and realises he's probably being far too tender about the whole thing. He clears his throat and finishes the job quickly, dropping the used wipes into the bin.
"Handy," he says briskly, but Merlin doesn't let him front it out for long, just pulls him down into bed with impatient hands.
"Fuck," Merlin says, turning onto his side and burying his face in Arthur's neck. "God."
Arthur moves his hands up and down Merlin's spine as he agrees, "Yeah."
Merlin laughs, kisses the underside of Arthur's jaw, goes silent for a moment. "Stay the night?"
If Merlin thinks Arthur's moving, he's got another thing coming. For now, at least.
They'd left something of a trail of clothes through the flat and Arthur retraces them until he finds Merlin's jacket, on the floor just inside the door. He scoops it up and feels the heavy weight of a wallet in one pocket. He pulls it out and flips it open, but there's no security pass, nothing work-related at all. There is a picture of a younger Merlin though, Arthur would guess about five years ago. He's flanked on one side by a round-faced, laughing boy, and on the other by a small, slender girl with a shy smile on her face. Arthur looks at it for a moment and then shakes himself – focus, focus. He puts the photo and the wallet back where he found them and rummages through Merlin's other pockets.
Nothing. Cursing, Arthur looks around. There's a row of coat hooks just inside the front door, the wooden backing painted a cheerful bright blue. Hanging from the second hook in is a lightweight navy duffle coat that he's seen Merlin wearing after work a few times. Bingo. Arthur roots through the pockets, and sure enough, there it is.
A plastic bank ID card on one of those ribbons to be worn around the neck. Arthur flicks the card out of its holder and reaches for his own coat. From an inside pocket he pulls a slim card reader. It's one of Elyan's bits of kit, a modified credit card skimmer that lifts security details. Between him and Lance, they can make a working copy of any security or swipe-to-access card inside a day.
Arthur scans the little chip and the magnetic strip on the back and uploads the details to his phone. Then he takes a couple of pictures, front and back of the card. He sets up a secure email with the data attached but his thumb wavers over the send button. Without thinking too much about it, Arthur saves the email as a draft instead and puts his phone and card reader back in his coat, bundling up Merlin's ID and replacing that too.
He puts Merlin's duffle coat back on its hook and drops his own back on the floor where he found it before he pads through to the kitchen. He drinks a glass of water and idly looks at the notes on a cork notice board. They're mainly bill reminders and final demands with fuck, fuck fuuuuuuck written on them in what he assumes is Merlin's hand. Arthur sets his glass on the draining board and goes back into the bedroom.
Merlin curls into him with a sleepily content noise and Arthur tilts his head, dropping a kiss into Merlin's messy hair.
Arthur's just decided to get some more sleep when Merlin's alarm blares, horribly early for a Saturday morning. Merlin only groans and nestles deeper into his pillow.
"Really, Merlin," Arthur scolds him playfully. "I had you down as a morning person."
"You did not," Merlin says grumpily, turning his head and opening one blue eyes to glare balefully at Arthur.
"No, I didn't," Arthur admits, touching his fingers to the side of Merlin's throat were his skin is sleep-warm. Impulsively, he asks, "Can I see you again?"
Merlin mellows, looking at Arthur properly and smiling. "You'd better. Busy all weekend, though."
"Monday?" Arthur offers. "I could take you out for lunch."
"That would make my working day pass a lot quicker," Merlin admits.
"You really don't like your job, huh?" Arthur asks, running his fingers up the length of Merlin's arm.
"Fucking hate it," Merlin says. "Manager's a wanker. Never mind. Not important. It's the weekend."
"Understood," Arthur says.
Merlin scrubs a hand over his eyes. "Alright. I don't have to leave til about ten. Let me jump in the shower and then I'll make us some breakfast."
Merlin's only in the shower for ten minutes, but it's long enough for Arthur to have a bit of a nose around the flat. It's more reflex than anything else by now, but he is admittedly curious about Merlin. He quickly finds a picture of a woman, probably Merlin's mother. It's the only one in a fancy frame, rosebuds worked in silver. The other photos are blu-tacked to the walls, or held onto the fridge by magnets, or else just tacked to the noticeboard with pins. The boy and girl from the photo in Merlin's wallet appear several times, their arms around each other or Merlin. There are several other photos too, of a mixed group of teenage boys and girls on a sunny beach somewhere. Arthur picks Merlin out on the left of the crowd, caught in the act of turning his head to laugh at something. Arthur would put him at eighteen, maybe nineteen. University friends, he thinks. Maybe college.
There are also a lot of books, shelves taking up almost a whole wall in the living room. There's a wide variety of them too. There are fantasy classics, political non-fiction, bits of philosophy, and a compendium of mythology, as well as a healthy collection of crime fiction. There's also a bunch of reference books; a reference dictionary, a well-thumbed thesaurus, a set of encyclopaedia. Not new though, not even that recent, maybe bought second-hand or maybe... Arthur casts another glance at the framed photo of the woman he's more and more convinced is Merlin's mother.
Before he can think anymore on it, Arthur hears the water stop in the bathroom and hurries back to the kitchen to pour a glass of water. He's leaning against the small kitchen table and sipping from his glass when Merlin walks in, his hair still wet. He's pulled on a pair of jeans but other than that he's not bothered with clothes. Arthur finds himself oddly riveted by Merlin's bare toes where they peep out from his low-slung jeans. He's in the process of threading a belt through the loops at his waist and Arthur doesn't have a hope of not staring at that.
Merlin catches him of course, when he looks up at Arthur and opens his mouth to say...something. Arthur's not sure and apparently Merlin isn't either for a moment because he hesitates, eyes caught on Arthur's.
"Hey," he says eventually. "Shower's free. There should be a new toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet somewhere. I'll make breakfast. Bacon sandwiches okay?"
"Perfect," Arthur says.
"Alright," Merlin says briskly, buckling his belt. "I put some towels in the bathroom for you."
"Thanks." Arthur drains his glass and rinses it out before squeezing past Merlin out of the tiny kitchen and heading down the hall to the shower.
When Arthur gets back, feeling nicely refreshed, he's disappointed to see that Merlin's pulled on a check shirt and a soft-looking dark grey cardigan. He watches for a moment from the doorway as Merlin pokes gingerly at the contents of a small frying pan.
"Don't just stand there, you lazy git," Merlin says, without turning around. "Make the tea."
Surprised that Merlin can just apparently tell when he's there, Arthur does as he's been told. They eat in companionable mostly-silence and then Merlin asks, "Where are you headed? I'm getting the district line west."
"Yeah, me too," Arthur says, although he really has no plans for the day.
"Alright, cool," Merlin says, hastily rinsing off their plates and leaving their cups on the draining board. "I better get moving, sorry."
"That's okay," Arthur assures him, collecting his coat from where Merlin has placed it over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Merlin stops him before he can put it on, stepping into Arthur's space and kissing him firmly.
"So, I'm sure your ego doesn't even need to hear it," he starts.
"Ego?" Arthur asks. "Me?"
"Stop that right now. Last night was. You know." Merlin's mouth quirks into a wonky smile that makes Arthur want to kiss him all over again. "Good," he finishes.
"Oh, good," Arthur says. "Wonderful, yeah. I'm glad it was good."
Merlin laughs – mission accomplished – and says, "Alright, it was bloody amazing."
"Yes, it was," Arthur agrees, running his fingertip down the line of buttons on Merlin's cardigan. Merlin kisses him again and then looks at the clock, groaning regretfully.
The tube journey is interminable. Arthur wants so badly to touch Merlin, beg him to cancel his plans, take Merlin back to his luxurious hotel instead and fuck him in the giant sunken bath tub – no, Arthur thinks. For all sorts of reasons, no.
"This is me," Merlin says as the train pulls into Whitechapel.
"I'll call you," Arthur says.
"You better," Merlin tells him teasingly, bringing Arthur's memories of this morning and last night into sharp focus. He kisses Arthur once, high on his cheek and then the doors are closing and Merlin's gone.
Arthur rides the train for a few more stops and then steps off the train. Of course, seeing Merlin again, or even calling him, is the last thing Arthur should do. He has enough information now. But then Leon was the one banging on about being thorough.
A few more days, Arthur tells himself. The guys won't begrudge him a few more days. They don't even need to know, really. Arthur wanders aimlessly until he finds a halfway decent coffee shop. Inside, with a double espresso steaming in front of him, he calls Leon's number. He lets it ring twice, hangs up, and calls back. Leon is verging on paranoid these days, and Arthur suspects that's down to the fact that while Elena knows all about how they make their money, she only half-approves.
"Leon, hi," Arthur says, talking quickly to cut Leon's enquiries short. "Yeah, not bad. Look I'm going to need a little more time. A week, tops. Let the others know, would you?"
"Wait, wait," Leon says before Arthur can ring off. "What are you talking about? Why's it taking so long?"
"Oh, just, you know," Arthur says vaguely. "The guy plays his cards pretty close to his chest," he lies. "I'll get there, though."
"Alright," Leon says, grumbling a little. "Don't take too long, yeah?"
"Sure," Arthur says. He drinks his espresso and then catches a cab back to his hotel.
"Ah, Mr Jessop," the receptionist says. "Your key, sir."
"Thank you," Arthur says, collecting the card from her, along with a handful of postal deliveries. He could do with a few more hours sleep, he thinks, as he rides the elevator up to his suite.
Monday lunch is quick, Merlin mainly enthusing about the weekend he spent with his friends, Arthur quickly making up a cover story along the same lines. Merlin does say before he leaves though, gotta run, it's delivery day, ugh, nightmare. Arthur registers it, makes a mental note of it, even as he kisses Merlin quickly outside the cafe, claiming a work commitment in the opposite direction. He's trying his best to stay away from the bank. There's no sense in letting any of the other staff get used to seeing him around.
They go to dinner on Tuesday night, and a movie on Thursday. Arthur couldn't recap the plot to save his life, but he knows exactly what Merlin looks like when he's surprised by a sudden explosion, or annoyed by a half-hearted plot twist. They're miles from Merlin's flat, and Arthur knows going back to his hotel would raise too many questions, no matter how tempting it is. He settles for a goodbye kiss near the tube station, chaste, but he can still feel the pull between them, how they burn for each other.
"Night," Arthur says when they pull back from each other.
"Yeah," Merlin says. "I mean – good night."
"Call me soon, yeah?" Arthur asks him and Merlin nods, a happy smile on his face as he turns away towards the tube station.
Arthur watches him go and then turns, hailing a cab. On the way to his hotel he leans his head against the back of his seat and sighs. There's no denying it. He hasn't been this happy in...well, he doesn't want to think how long. He's never felt like this before, such a mad, all-consuming urge to know another person, and he's grudgingly aware that it's not fair. It's not fair that he tells Merlin lies and half-truths in response to every personal question. For the first time in longer than he can remember, he kind of wants to be...normal. It'd be nice to have a place to take Merlin, even if it was a crummy flat, somewhere Arthur could show him and says here, this is real, this is a piece of me.
It's with these thoughts playing in his head that he pays the cab driver and heads into the hotel. He collects his key card and just as he's stepping out of the elevator, his phone rings. He pulls it out of an inside pocket and sees Gwaine's name on the screen with a guilty pang. Arthur knows his...whatever, his infatuation, with Merlin is no good for his mates. They're waiting on him, they need this job.
But maybe Arthur needs Merlin.
"Hi, Gwaine," he says. "What's up?"
"Not much," Gwaine says. "Well, okay, a few things. One thing. Well, four things. But one of them has biceps as big as my head, so maybe he counts twice."
Arthur's lost. "D'you mean Percival? What did you do to him now?"
"Me? Nothing. It's just, you know, he's a little anxious to be getting back to his sister," Gwaine says in the same good-natured drawl as always. "And Lance, well he's eager to be getting back to Elyan's sister so he can, I don't know, gaze longingly when he thinks no one's looking."
Bit less lost now, Arthur thinks. Getting the picture.
"And Elyan, well, you know twitchy is his default setting, bloody computer nerds, I swear. And Leon's just a grumpy, grumpy bear these days. I think he likes Elena better than us."
"I should bloody hope so," Arthur says but no, okay. The picture is well and truly got.
"And of course, I mean, none of them would ever say anything because we love you like you're our sister – brother, I meant to say brother – "
"Gwaine." But Arthur's smiling, and Gwaine can probably tell.
"So," Gwaine says. "Point is, just like usual it falls to good old Gwaine to come a-calling and beg, nay plead with you, o fearless seducer of bank clerks, for just a little information."
"Along the lines of what the fuck is going on, mate?"
"Nothing," Arthur says casually. "Just taking a bit longer than I expected. He's busy a lot, the mark, kind of difficult to pin down, you know?"
He realises what he's said and can actually feel himself blushing, glad Gwaine can't see his face.
"Ri-ight," Gwaine says. "I'm sure. Well hurry it up, if you can. I've pretty much hit my limit for sleeping in motels, okay? Five star luxury had better be just around the corner, Arthur."
"Yeah," Arthur says. "Yeah, okay, no problem." He ends the call and taps his phone idly against the table. He supposes Gwaine has a point. When any stage of a job, even the reconnaissance, takes longer than expected, Arthur is usually the first to complain.
As soon as he pushes away from the table to make a cup of tea, his phone beeps. It's a voicemail, and he picks it up with a small element of dread. Probably one of the others wanting to know what's taking so long. But no.
There's the sound of traffic first, and then Merlin's voice, over-loud and slightly off rhythm as though he's walking into the wind.
"Hi! Hey. So, I know you said call you later and this is like...a thirteen year old girl's definition of later, so sorry about that. I just wanted to, um. Well, I just wanted to say I'm really glad I met you." There's a pause. "So. There's that. God, I am horrible at this. Call me tomorrow. I won't even complain if you take the piss."
After he's listened to the message, Arthur hesitates a moment. Fuck it, he decides, quickly typing out a reply.
I'm glad too. Buy you
By the time he's made a cup of tea, Merlin has replied.
I'm buying but ok :)
Arthur drinks his tea and looks out of the floor-to-ceiling windows. The breath-taking view over the city is lost on him for once. It's too much, this thing with Merlin, Arthur knows. It would be too much even if he wasn't working a job. Too fast, too much all at once. But Arthur wants it anyway. Fuck the job, or the information. He hasn't had anything new from Merlin in days, anyway. He doesn't care about any of that, just wants Merlin, more of him, all of him, all the time. Arthur studiously ignores Gwaine's little speech and at lunch the next day, he arranges to meet Merlin for dinner later that night.
They kiss when they see each other – just Merlin's warm, soft lips on his cheek but Arthur turns his head and makes it a proper kiss, one that doesn't end til a bunch of school aged kids whoop at them to get a room.
"Takeaway at my place?" Merlin suggests, and Arthur nods gratefully.
The weekend is a delightful blur of sex and laughter, takeaway food, and the kind of conversations that Arthur is normally only used to having with people he's known for years.
He doesn't leave Merlin's flat til Monday morning, riding the tube with him again before finally turning on his phone to confront the texts and voicemails from the others.
Leon is predictably annoyed, Lance quietly concerned, and Percival not wanting to offend, but anxious to get done and back to his sister. Arthur sits in the same coffee shop as before and goes through the messages one by one. When he's finished he orders another coffee and watches the world go by as he drinks it.
This thing with Merlin, he wants it so much, but it's a dream. He's never going to have an ugly legitimately-funded little flat to bring Merlin back to. He's never going to have much to offer Merlin other than what they've had so far. Amazing sex, the blossoming beginnings of something more, and a large side-order of lies. There are too many things that have to be kept secret.
It should be easy. When he's done this in the past, he'd had no qualms. His only consideration had been that while it was okay to leave people with questions, suspicions were to be avoided at all costs. He finds he doesn't care about Merlin suspecting, or even wondering. What bothers him is the idea of Merlin worrying. The idea of Merlin doubting this time they've had together. There's simply no way around it though.
Merlin is wonderful, but Arthur owes it to his friends to get this done. To ignore the stabbing pain in his gut at the idea of disappearing from Merlin's life in the same way he's disappeared from so many others.
Since Friday, when Leon finally became unbearable and Gwaine agreed to this ridiculous errand, Merlin has done nothing more noteworthy than meet Arthur for lunch and fail to leave his flat all weekend. Arthur again, Gwaine's sure of it. So much for what he said about Merlin being difficult to pin down, the lying toad. Gwaine's not bothered to tell Leon about the additional meetings – and sleepovers, how cute – that Arthur's having with their mark. Let Arthur have his fun. Gwaine's not worried.
As far as Gwaine can work out, Arthur's had his head turned by the pretty boy from the bank and is delaying things a bit. It's not ideal, but Gwaine's sure Arthur will wise up soon enough. He stirs a little when five o'clock comes. A few minutes after five, he watches Merlin leave the bank. He'll walk to the tube, catch the District line all the way to Upney, then walk the ten minutes to his flat, only stopping to buy bread or milk if at all. It's all painfully dull.
Gwaine's phone rings and he looks down to silence the call. When he looks back up there's no sign of Merlin, but a sleek red sports car is peeling away from the kerb right where he'd been standing.
Oh, fuck. Leon is going to bloody well kill him.
"You're Arthur's friend, aren't you? Get in."
"What? Er. No, you're alright, thanks."
The back window opens this time and a blond woman gives him a cold smile. Merlin can't help noticing the small, shiny gun held casually in her lap and his legs feel a bit weak.
The dark-haired one pushes her glasses back up and says, "No, really. Get in."
He calls Elyan's number and after a nerve-wracking moment when there's no answer, Elyan picks up.
"Hey, man. Listen, I need you to run a licence plate. Seriously urgent, okay?"
"Something wrong?" Elyan asks, clearly concerned.
Yes! Gwaine's mind screams at him, but there's no point panicking absolutely everyone. "Not sure yet," he tells Elyan.
"Alright," Elyan says. "Give me the plate."
Gwaine rattles it off and Elyan says, "Right, I'll call you."
As the light turns amber, Gwaine pounds his phone against the steering wheel and grits out, "Shit, shit, fuck."
As he drives, hoping against hope to catch sight of the sports car, Gwaine calls Arthur's number. It goes straight to voicemail, and he just tells Arthur in no uncertain terms to meet him at the base as soon as possible. He also taps out a quick text to Leon (meet me at base right the fuck now). Leon might be one of nature's worriers but right now Gwaine thinks they have a good deal to be worried about. After Gwaine parks the crummy car around the corner from their rented office space, he jogs quickly down to the building. Leon's bike is nowhere to be seen, nor Percival's Shogun, and sure enough the office is empty.
Gwaine paces the length of the room twice before his phone rings.
He can tell straight away it's not good news and groans. "Go on."
"Whoever drives that car – their name and address are classified, and the plates have diplomatic immunity."
"Jesus fucking Christ on a cracker, what the hell?"
"I don't know." Elyan sounds troubled. "I've never seen this before, but I'll do some digging, see if I can get past the security."
"Right. Thanks. Keep me posted, yeah?"
"Gwaine, what the hell is this?"
"I really don't know. Just – keep your head down until we've figured it out, this could be bad."
"Alright. Damn. Be careful."
"Yeah. Cheers, mate."
Gwaine pushes his hands through his hair and tries to think. They've always managed to fly below the radar until now, pulling a variety of jobs that, as far as they know, have never been connected. But this... Diplomatic immunity, for fuck's sake. Who exactly is this Merlin character, anyway? Gwaine can normally trust Arthur not to make a colossal fuck-up, and he wonders just what the hell has gone wrong this time.
Gwaine knows Leon will be pissed as hell once he knows what's happened, but it's a relief to see him nonetheless. He takes one look at Gwaine and his face falls.
"Alright," he says, spreading his arms wide. "Hit me."
Gwaine explains as succinctly as he can, and watches Leon's face cycle from wind-reddened to pale with shock and then right back to red, anger this time most likely. He opens his mouth to start bitching and Gwaine waves a hand to shut him off.
"Yeah, yeah. Believe me, I've already thought it."
"I mean – fuck. Diplomatic immunity?"
"Apparently so. I'm still waiting to hear if Elyan can dig up anymore to go on."
"What did Arthur say?" Leon asks.
"Can't get hold of him," Gwaine admits. "I left him a couple of messages. Look, Leon. He's been meeting this kid more often than he's been letting on."
"Almost every day."
Leon's lips thin. "And you didn't say anything because?"
"Because I thought he was just having some fun, you know? I didn't exactly see this coming."
Leon looks disgusted for a split second before he shakes his head and says, "No, okay, not your fault."
They don't have much longer to wait. Arthur strolls in looking unperturbed, and Gwaine can pretty much feel Leon's irritation growing so he dives right in and asks, "So who does your boyfriend know with diplomatic immunity?"
He's watching closely and he sees the emotions flicker through Arthur's eyes. There's guilt and a bit of irritation at being found out, but mostly it's shock.
"No one," Arthur says. "What are you talking about?"
Gwaine groans. "Little tip, mate. For 'what are you talking about?' to be even a little believable, it would need to come before 'no one'."
Arthur looks from Gwaine to Leon and back again. "What's going on?"
"I was following Merlin," Gwaine starts.
"What?" Arthur looks outraged.
"Seriously?" Leon snaps. "Seriously?"
Arthur subsides, looking back to Gwaine. "And?"
"And he got into some flash sports car and disappeared. I had Elyan run the plates while I was on my way back here. Whoever it was has diplomatic immunity."
Arthur pales noticeably and Gwaine rules out any kind of double cross on his side at least. It was only a very, very slim possibility anyway, but still. It feels good to cross it off the list.
"What the fuck is going on?" Leon demands.
Just then their phones, all three of them, go off. Gwaine grabs his out of his jeans pocket and reads the text message that's popped up, from a withheld number.
Found something of
yours. Fancy a trade?
And then there's an address in an upscale area near Richmond. They all exchange looks and before they can do more, a flurry of calls and messages shows that Lance, Elyan and Percival have all received the same summons.
"Elyan's tracing it," Leon says, grim-faced.
"Oh, don't bother," Arthur snaps. "I don't know how she got hold of diplomatic plates, but isn't it obvious?"
"Fuck," Leon says.
And then, "Morgana," they say together.
Gwaine groans. Even the name Morgana is enough to cause explosions. Sure enough, in less time than it takes for Gwaine to breathe in and out three times Arthur and Leon are yelling. Maybe at each other, maybe at Gwaine, maybe just generalised yelling.
"Why the hell didn't you tell us Morgana was back in the country?" Leon demands.
"Oh, right, yeah, it slipped my mind. Because I didn't know, you dick!"
"Arthur – " Gwaine starts.
"I will sort it," Arthur bites out, already tapping away furiously on his phone.
"You – " Leon says, obviously pissed.
"I'm dealing with it! Christ, you're like a nervous old woman."
"Arthur," Gwaine tries again.
"I said I'll deal with it," Arthur snaps on his way out of the door. "I'll call you."
Leon rubs his hands over his face. "Jesus. Next time, how about we don't let Arthur seduce anyone? You know, just in case he falls in love and ruins our lives." Leon yells the last in the hope Arthur will hear it.
"Amen," Gwaine mutters. "Seriously, though. Are you out?"
Leon thinks for a minute. "Not yet," he says grudgingly. "Elena would be pissed off."
Gwaine laughs. "At this rate me and Lance will be the only ones enjoying a hundred percent of our own take."
"Don't bet on it," Leon says.
"Might have heard Lance rehearsing a speech to Gwen."
"Really. It was pretty precious," Leon admits.
"God. I can't wait to see Elyan's face."
Gwaine leans back in his chair. "Fancy a few hands of poker? Just while we wait for Arthur to deal with it?"
"You're a cheat, Gwaine."
"No, I mean you are a professional cheat. Not a value judgement, mate, just a statement of fact."
"So cheat better," Gwaine challenges him.
"Merlin, isn't it?" she asks, and her lips curve into a smile. "I'm Morgana, and that's Morgause."
Merlin swallows dryly. "What do you want?"
"Just a conversation," Morgana tells him.
"Normally," Merlin ventures, his heart pounding wildly in his throat, "those don't require guns."
Morgana laughs, and even Morgause's forbidding expression has a brief flicker of humour pass through it.
"Very cute, Merlin. I can see why he likes you."
As the car speeds onwards, seeming to miss every red light, and cut through congestion with absolute ease, Merlin sneaks his hand towards his pocket, wondering whether he'll be able to send the names Morgana and Morgause to Arthur's phone without being spotted. Before he can even get his fingers on his phone, Morgause very deliberately lifts the gun until it's pointed between his eyes.
"Hands where I can see them," she orders, and Merlin meekly puts his hands into his lap.
His mind is a rushing void of panic and he tries desperately to recognise something – anything – of the surroundings whizzing past outside the tinted windows. He thinks he sees a couple of signs for the A3, a train station that might have been Golder's Green but could equally have been something else, and fear is threatening to overwhelm him by the time the car pulls onto a beautifully maintained private road, ringed with tall, yellow stone buildings.
He tenses himself to run as soon as the door is opened but to his dismay Morgana drives the car down into an underground parking space, the doors automatically sliding shut behind them.
"Wait," Morgause orders him, and Morgana turns in her seat to look back over her shoulder and watch Merlin while Morgause steps from the car and waits by the back of the car.
"Out you get," Morgana says. "And listen, Merlin, we really do only want to speak to you. Morgause is just...very protective of my safety."
Merlin bites his tongue and gets out of the car. Morgause gestures with the gun towards a set of lift doors. There is only one button and Merlin presses it. The silver doors swish open almost silently and the three of them step into the mirrored elevator. Merlin catches sight of his reflection. He's pale, drawn, his fingers fidgeting anxiously.
He cannot believe that less than half an hour ago he was leaving work with nothing else on his mind but maybe meeting Arthur for a drink. And now this... Merlin has never seen this kind of property close up before, and maybe if he wasn't so terribly aware of the gun in Morgause's hand he would be in more of a position to admire the private driveway, the spacious buildings, the underground parking, and the lift straight up into the penthouse. In all honesty, Merlin didn't even know there was room for places like this in London. But all he can do is wonder what the fuck is going on, and what exactly it has to do with Arthur.
"Have a seat," Morgana offers, waving towards one of three cream leather sofas.
"I'd rather stand," Merlin says warily, keen not to allow either of them to get between him and the lift.
"Have a seat," Morgause repeats, and while the gun is hidden now, she has a hand in her very full pocket, and Merlin sees no real option but to obey.
Morgana sits down opposite Merlin and crosses her legs neatly, giving Merlin a sweet smile that is completely incongruous with the situation. "Don't look so worried," she urges.
"That's a bit difficult," Merlin points out.
"I know," Morgana says. "Sorry for all the cloak and dagger stuff. I promise it was necessary."
"What do you want?"
"I want to talk to you about Arthur."
Merlin frowns, shifts his weight and carefully asks, "What about him?"
"It's – " Morgana's pretty face twists in sympathy. "It's hardly pleasant. Morgause, would you mind getting us some drinks? I need to show Merlin those photographs."
"What? What photographs?"
Morgana gives him a small, be-brave kind of smile and pulls an envelope from under the coffee table. She opens it up and spreads an array of photographs across the marble surface of the table. They are black and white, taken with a long distance lens, unless Merlin's mistaken.
There's one of Arthur and a handsome man with longish dark hair. They're crouched beside a wall and both holding guns. Another shows two figures in the same clothes as Arthur and the other man, but with balaclavas over their faces, kicking their way into a shop. Another of Arthur in a flashy car, his arm around a pretty, smiling blonde girl. Another of Arthur, the man from the first picture, and a tall man with curly hair dividing cash and gold chains into piles.
Morgause places three glasses of doubtlessly expensive brandy on the table, but Merlin can't look away from the photographs.
"What – what is this?" he asks.
"This is Arthur," Morgana says, tapping a manicured fingertip against the photo of Arthur with the gun in his hand. "The real Arthur."
"A conman and a thief," Morgause says succinctly from behind Merlin.
Morgana shoots her a look and, interrupting their silent conversation, and Merlin says, "I don't believe you."
It comes out of him automatically, and he feels better just for saying it. She's lying. She must be. The photos are faked. Photoshopped. Something. People can do anything with photos these days.
Morgana gives him a pitying look and says, "If you wanted, you could ask Arthur about Sophia in Nottingham. Or Vivian in that jewellery shop in Manchester. Look, Merlin, you seem like a really nice guy. You don't deserve to be used and chucked by Arthur."
"What do you mean? Used how?"
Morgana presses her lips together and glances over Merlin's shoulder to Morgause. "Let me guess," she says gently. "Arthur came in about three days ago and asked about opening an account. He flirted shamelessly and either asked you out there and then or just happened to bump into you later that day."
It's all very familiar, apart from the time frame, and Merlin says a bit numbly, "I don't – I don't get it. He – we ran to each other in a pub I'd never even been to before. I just stopped off for a pint..."
"He's a thief, Merlin," Morgana says. "I'm sorry but he is. It wasn't a coincidence that he met you in that pub."
"No," Merlin says. "No, that's – " He thinks back to it, and feels unbearably stupid. Coincidence. As if... He'd been so glad to see Arthur again, so flattered by his obvious interest, that he hadn't even stopped to consider the sheer improbability of it all. He feels suddenly sick and drops his face into his hands, past caring how it'll look to Morgana and Morgause. "Fuck," he says in a low voice. "Fuck."
"I'm really terribly sorry," Morgana says.
"No, you – " Merlin swallows the lump in his throat. It's not like he trusts their motives, but fuck, at least they're giving him the truth. "I needed to know."
There's a heavy silence and Merlin glances up to see Morgana looking at him, sympathy in every line of her face. When she catches him looking, she leans forward and picks up a glass, nudging another closer to Merlin. He shakes his head insistently. His stomach is churning, and he doubts booze is the thing to settle it. In fact, he can't imagine what would stop this horrible, sick feeling.
Suddenly there's a pounding on the door and Morgana sets her brandy glass down neatly, smiling. "And that'll be Arthur," she says, looking supremely unconcerned, glancing over Merlin's shoulder at Morgause. "Let him in, would you, dearest?"
Morgause leads him to a large lounge and then Arthur stops noticing the surroundings because Merlin is there and he is alright and he is – is giving Arthur this look, all baffled and hurt, and Arthur has never hated his sister this much before.
"Merlin, go and wait in the car," he says, tossing his keys onto the sofa, not willing to take his eyes off Morgause, and certainly not willing to put his gun away. He does not trust that bitch one bit.
He hears Morgana and Merlin both draw breath to object and he pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and slides it over to Morgana without looking at her. Morgana unfolds it and reads it, and Arthur doesn't need to be looking to picture her smirk when she speaks.
"My, my, Arthur. What a clever boy."
Arthur pulls a memory stick from his pocket and says, "It's all here. Encrypted, password protected, un-fucking-hackable. Merlin leaves and I give it to you."
Morgana and Morgause look at each other and there's a slight tilt of Morgana's head before she shrugs and turns back to Merlin.
"Well, it was lovely to meet you. Remember what I told you about him."
Merlin looks from Morgana to Morgause and casts one dark, fleeting glance at Arthur before he all but runs out of the room, the front door slamming shut behind him seconds later.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Arthur mutters.
He gets in the car and guns the engine. Morgana's penthouse suite is at the end of a long private road, which means Merlin can only have gone in one direction. Arthur knows he should be concerned about the possibility that Merlin will phone the police, and on some level he is. It's just that his main worry is that he's fucked up, not the job, to hell with the job, but him and Merlin.
Because the thing is Arthur's started to think he could love Merlin, really easily, and really quickly too. And now Morgana has dropped her bombshell, Arthur would be willing to bet Merlin will never so much as talk to him again.
He catches up to Merlin quickly, and winds the window down, calling his name. Merlin just picks up his pace. His fists are clenched at his sides, his back ramrod straight. He won't even look at Arthur. Arthur realises this is Merlin when he's angry. He's never seen it before.
"Merlin, come on."
"Get fucked," Merlin snarls.
"At least let me take you home," Arthur says, slowing the car to a crawl to keep alongside him.
"Merlin." Nothing. "Merlin."
"What part of fuck off do you not understand?"
"Just let me explain," Arthur begs. "I owe you that at least, don't I?"
Merlin stops walking and Arthur's heart hammers with tentative hope.
"You owe me a hell of a lot more than that," he says coldly.
"I know. I know, And I'm sorry, okay? Please. Morgana's – I don't know what she told you, but she will say anything, twist anything, to screw me over. Just...just hear my side."
Merlin looks up and down the street then presses his lips into a tight line. "Fine."
"Thank you," Arthur says, breathless with relief. "Thanks."
He pulls the car to a stop and opens the passenger side door. Merlin hesitates a minute but he gets in, straps his seatbelt and folds his arms tightly over his chest. He keeps as close to the door (and, of course, as far away from Arthur) as he possibly can.
"Alright," Arthur says, tightening his grip on the wheel. "Let's – let's get a coffee, yeah?"
Merlin shrugs. "Whatever."
"Merlin – "
"I'm in the car, aren't I?" Merlin demands.
"Okay," Arthur says soothingly. "Okay."
He realises Merlin's casting sidelong glances at the breast pocket of his jacket and wants to kick himself when he realises the bulge of his pistol must be obvious.
"The gun bothers you, doesn't it?" Arthur asks cautiously.
"Well it doesn't exactly thrill me, no," Merlin says, his voice spiky with sarcasm.
Arthur sighs and empties the chamber, sliding the bullets into his pocket and leaning across Merlin to put the gun in the glove compartment.
"Oh, Jesus, yeah, that's loads better," Merlin snaps.
Arthur picks his words carefully. "I've never so much as aimed it at a civilian. I've fired into the ceiling a handful of times on jobs. I have it so I don't have to use it."
Merlin snorts. "That's bullshit. The world doesn't work that way, Arthur. What if the – the security guard or the shop owner or whatever, what if they're thinking the same way? You'll get yourself killed."
"I won't," Arthur insists.
"Oh, really. So you'll end up a murderer, then. Much better."
Arthur swallows and looks out into the night. "I don't – "
"Just – drive, before I change my mind."
"Where shall we go?" Arthur asks.
Merlin gives him a dirty look. "Somewhere with plenty of people around, please."
Arthur grits his teeth and tightens his grip on the steering wheel. "I'm not – what do you think I'm going to do?"
"I honestly have no idea," Merlin says, his voice tight.
Arthur blows out a long breath and tries to get a hold of himself. An encounter with Morgana always puts him on edge, and he'll do himself no favours by taking that out on Merlin. He holds his tongue as he heads towards a drive-through McDonalds.
"What would you like?" he asks Merlin, his voice carefully polite.
Merlin's still not looking at him and Arthur stamps down on a flare of panic. He pulls up to the first window and places their order, seized by a sudden fear that Merlin will jump out of the car as soon as it's still and run like mad. He doesn't though, just takes both the cups from Arthur and waits for him to pull into a parking space. He shoves one of the cups back towards Arthur and Arthur desperately wants to switch on the car's internal light, wants to drink in every feature of Merlin's face, even if he's angry. Because it might be the last chance he gets.
Arthur's surprised when the first demand out of Merlin's mouth is, "So who was she? Bitter ex?"
Arthur winces. "Hardly. She's my sister."
Merlin looks over at him, and it shouldn't feel like this much of a victory, but it really does. "She never said."
"No, well, she wouldn't."
"What – what did she want?"
"To annoy me," Arthur says darkly.
"She's always trying to muscle in on our jobs, or derail them somehow."
"Your robberies, you mean?" Merlin interrupts.
"Yes, fine, whatever," Arthur says a bit irritably. "She's got a nerve acting like she's so bloody sweet and innocent."
"Says the man with a gun in his glove compartment!"
Arthur rubs his hands over his face. "Her and Morgause, they steal for – for fun, for when they want a new trinket."
"Oh, right, and what's your excuse, then?"
Arthur presses his lips together and shrugs. "It's as good a way as any other to make a living."
"No," Merlin says. "Actually, my guess is that almost anything else would be better."
"I don't – it's not as simple as that," Arthur tries.
"Really. Go on, then."
"I – "
Merlin's face is hard but there's a little tremor in his voice when he talks, like he's not used to being this way. "I didn't come here for the coffee. Talk, Arthur."
"Alright, look. My dad – Morgana's dad, too. He was a businessman. Very successful. Just...not quite too big to fail."
Arthur shrugs. "I was sixteen. All my life, I knew I was going to follow my father into the family business, make a mint, live in luxury. And then he was arrested. Corruption, insider trading, the works. The company was dissolved, and my future along with it. Same with – " He bites back on Leon's name, because it's not his secret to tell. "One of my friends. His father worked closely with mine, and our family names became mud overnight. No one would talk to us. No one would even consider giving us a job."
"So by sixteen years old, your only options were business or crime? I'm sorry, do you expect me to believe that?"
"It's the truth. My world, Merlin, my whole world got ripped out from under me. Everything I'd ever wanted, ever expected, ever loved, was gone. Like that." He clicks his fingers for emphasis.
"So you became a bank robber."
Arthur's never felt particularly ashamed of it before. "Well, I – yeah," he admits.
"A thief," Merlin says flatly.
"It's not like we go around robbing old ladies of their pensions."
"But – "
"We're not bad guys," Arthur interrupts. He has to make Merlin see. "We don't hurt people. We just – "
"Steal from them."
Arthur closes his eyes tight and tries not to squeeze his cardboard coffee cup hard enough to break it. "You wanted the truth."
Merlin snorts. "Yeah. Yeah, this is exactly what I wanted. And what about Morgana? How does your sister come into all of this?"
"She ripped off me and – that friend I mentioned," Arthur says with a sigh. "That's how it started, I suppose. We got the boys together to take back what was ours, and it just...carried on. Tit for tat, you know? Would you believe we used to be really close? Her and Morgause have been out of the country, though, I didn't know or..." Arthur's tempted to say or I would have warned you, but it probably isn't true. How would he even have gone about it, anyway?
"This is really fucked up," Merlin says grimly. "So you – you and your friends, you were planning to rob the bank I work at and – what, were you just going to come in waving guns around? What if someone had tried to stop you? What if I had tried to stop you?"
"We're clever," Arthur says through gritted teeth. "If the job had gone how it should, no one would even have known until we were well away."
"Oh, yeah? And how were you going to manage that?"
Arthur's on the verge of complete honesty, but he owes it to the others to keep as many of their secrets as he can, even if his own are fair game. Reluctantly he admits, "I took the details from your work ID card when you were sleeping."
Merlin makes a noise that almost sounds like laughter and rubs a hand over his face.
"Oh, you fucker. You absolute fucker. I should have known – " He turns away and breathes out hard.
"What – "
"As if you'd have looked twice if you hadn't wanted – "
"No!" Arthur interrupts. "God, no! I would have, I did."
Merlin's look says plainly that he doesn't believe a word Arthur's saying.
"So you're telling me you're a professional bank robber, you fucked me for information, and I got held at gunpoint today because you and your sister have the most fucked up sibling rivalry I've ever come across?"
"I'm sorry," Arthur says. "I didn't mean for you to get dragged into this."
"Dragged? Arthur, the reason I'm involved is because you decided I looked easy enough to pump for details."
"It wasn't like that," Arthur protests.
"It was exactly like that. Take me home."
"Merlin – "
"Take me home or I'll get out and walk."
Arthur drinks the last of his coffee and glares out of the window. "Please don't be like this."
"I'm sorry? What did you expect?" Merlin demands. "What part of all this means I should feel well-disposed towards you right now?"
Arthur feels like he's been slapped but there's really nothing he can do other than start the car. He tries several times on the drive to get Merlin to speak to him. It's no good though, Merlin just keeps his face averted and doesn't respond once.
"Is that it, then?" Arthur asks when he stops at a red light around the corner from Merlin's flat. "You're just not even going to speak to me."
Merlin shrugs sharply and Arthur has to bite down on the anger that always rears up when he's scared or worried. He is not going to let Merlin slip away, he is just not. He experiences the childish urge to just lock the doors and keep driving, keep talking until Merlin understands. Brilliant, Arthur. Add kidnapping to the list, that'll win him over.
"Please," he says, keeping his tone deliberately gentle. "Just listen. What we had – "
"We had a couple of good fucks," Merlin says harshly. "Don't get excited."
"Don't lie," Arthur snaps. "You felt it too and I know you did, and it's got fuck all to do with any job. I feel like I've been looking for you."
"Good line," Merlin says with a hollow laugh. "Did it work on Sophia? Or um, Vivian, wasn't it? From the jewellers?"
Arthur grits his teeth. "It's not a line."
"Of course it's not."
"Don't do that," Arthur protests.
"Act like you don't even know me!"
"I don't know you," Merlin shoots back. "It's been three weeks, Arthur, and I guess today was the first time you told me the truth about anything but your name."
"We could have something good," Arthur insists desperately, horribly aware that they are on Merlin's street now, five blocks of flats, three houses, and then they'll be at Merlin's place.
"No," Merlin says. "I could have had something good with the salesman I bumped into in a bar. You are not that person. If I see you or your sister again, I'm going to phone the police and tell them everything."
Arthur draws the car to a stop and says, "Merlin – "
"I mean it. Don't call, don't text, don't come anywhere near me."
Merlin slams the door so hard behind him that the whole car shakes. Arthur sits outside for a while, watching the lights come on in Merlin's flat – hallway, kitchen, and then that's it. There's a half-full bottle of vodka next to Merlin's microwave, and a considerably lighter one of rum. Arthur wonders if Merlin's pouring himself a drink at the kitchen table. The same table he had Arthur bent over only yesterday night, making them hopelessly late for the film they'd planned to see. Afterwards he'd kissed the side of Arthur's throat and his toes brushed Arthur's calf in some weird, affectionate gesture.
Arthur decides that a drink sounds like an excellent idea.
But whether or not Morgana's on the scene, Arthur wouldn't usually leave them hanging like this. He knows as well as any of them that no news is emphatically not good news. Gwaine doesn't even want to think about how twitchy the others must be getting. Arthur's phone is ringing out every time they try it, and of course they can't risk leaving messages beyond 'where are you, you pillock?'
Gwaine supposes that out of all of them, he and Arthur are the ones with the least ties beyond their little group. They all love each other like brothers, that goes without saying. But Leon has Elena, Percy and Elyan have their sisters, and Lance has his frankly confusing mess of feelings for Elyan's sister. If Gwaine's honest, he'd have had to put himself at the top of the list when it came to potentially doing a bunk. It's how he lives in between the jobs they work together, and moving on is no big deal for him. But Arthur...
Gwaine just can't see it. He just can't imagine Arthur doing that to them, and so he can't help but worry. On the sly, he tries another number that he has for Arthur, one he's not sure whether Leon knows about. That goes straight to voicemail and Gwaine hangs up, frustrated. He shoves a hand through his hair and reaches for his cigarettes. He's gone through the better part of a packet since all this started, but this time he doesn't so much as get one to his lips before Leon's patience runs out.
Gwaine flails, snapping the cigarette in half.
"I've had just about enough of this," Leon says. Scrolling through his phone he stabs at the buttons and makes a call, barking, "Elyan – " after a few seconds and then, much calmer. "Ah, hello, Gwen, love. Could you put your brother on, please?" There's a pause. "Elyan. Run a trace on Arthur's phone for me... I don't give a fuck what we don't normally do. Run the trace."
Gwaine sighs and rubs his forehead. "Arthur's going to go nuts."
"Yeah, well he can get in line," Leon said, tapping his phone impatiently on the table while he waits for Elyan to get back to him. When he does, their conversation is brief, and Leon doesn't look any happier.
"Arthur's GPS is static," he says. "A Travel Lodge in Elephant and Castle."
Gwaine pulls a face. "He's all class."
Leon shrugs. "It's the last place he'd expect us to look."
"If he really didn't want us looking, he'd have switched his phone off," Gwaine pointed out.
"I don't like this," Leon says.
Gwaine hates to admit it, but he doesn't much either.
"Come on," Leon says. "We'll take the bike over."
The Travel Lodge is everything Gwaine was expecting for a budget hotel in this end of town. They walk purposefully past the bored looking teenager on reception and into the cramped lift before Leon pulls out his phone.
"Elyan's hooked me up to the GPS on Arthur's phone," he tells Gwaine. "Just got to follow the signal."
"Very James Bond," Gwaine joked, and Leon shot him a look.
"Any chance you could take this a little bit seriously?"
Behind Leon's back, Gwaine rolls his eyes. Leon has a tendency to get bitchy in times of high stress; Gwaine's mostly learned to ignore it. They draw a blank on the top floor and take the stairs down a level. This time they don't have to go far before Leon stops in front of a door.
"This is it," Leon says. He steps aside and lets Gwaine get a look at the door.
It doesn't take him long to get them into the room. The room is small, cramped, and in darkness apart from what little light is cast by the TV. It's showing one of the rolling news channels, but the sound is off. There's also a distinct smell of booze.
"Oh, for fuck's sake – " Leon starts.
Arthur is sitting on the floor by the end of the bed, and he is hopelessly, pitifully drunk.
"Maybe," Gwaine says to Leon, "Let me deal with this one?"
Arthur has deigned to notice them by now and is looking up at them, blinking to bring them into focus.
"H – hey," he says, the slow grin on his face not matching the darkly shuttered look in his eyes. "Hey guys."
"Hey guys," Leon parrots. "Fucking, hey guys, are you serious?"
"Leon, chill out," Gwaine snaps. "Look, take the bike back to base, okay? I'll drive this idiot and his car over in a bit."
Leon makes a noise of complaint but nods anyway, giving Arthur one last glare before he backs out of the room, pulling the door shut behind himself.
Gwaine drops down on the floor next to Arthur, narrowly avoiding an empty bottle of ready mixed Smirnoff and coke – ready mixed, Arthur, really? – and takes in Arthur's rumpled, haggard appearance.
"Looking good, princess," he says, and Arthur – must be really drunk, Jesus Christ – makes a sort of hiccuppy noise.
"He hates me," Arthur says. "Gwaine, he really, he actually hates me."
"Oh, Jesus," Gwaine murmurs. "What was it you told me all of three days ago? ‘Oh, no, Gwaine, I'm not in over my head, honestly, you're all so paranoid, what must you think of me, heavens, I never ever would'."
"Shut up," Arthur say. "He's special."
"And you're tanked," Gwaine tells him, patting Arthur companionably on the knee. "Leon's gonna kick your arse when you sober up."
"Nah," Arthur says. "When I'm hungover, the fuck."
Gwaine nods sagely. "Right. Maximum agony."
"Yeah." Arthur sounds frighteningly bleak.
"Arthur – look, just come back to base, okay? Sleep it off. I'll fend Leon off til you've got a fighting chance."
On the plus side, Gwaine gets to drive Arthur's flash car. On the downside, he has to listen to Arthur explain how great Merlin really is, and the huge, soul-sucking, all-encompassing extent to which he hates Arthur right now.
Arthur doesn't expand on the actual story much during the drive, but Gwaine can guess. He's only had the dubious pleasure of Morgana's company a few times, and well...she is a one of a kind woman. And that's even before you meet the sister. Morgause. Gwaine wonders if he should be worrying about the police, but he thinks probably not. Arthur might be a dick – an apparently heart-broken dick, who knew? – but if there was any danger, he'd tell them before he climbed inside a bottle, Gwaine's sure of it.
They're mostly staying in cheap hotels and guest houses, but they have a couple of mattresses back at the office they're using for a base, and Gwaine guides Arthur over to one in a supply cupboard, shoving him down and yanking off his shoes.
"Hates me," Arthur slurs, curling over on his side and burying his face in his upper arm.
"Oh, God, you're a pillock," Gwaine tells him severely, dragging a blanket over Arthur.
Leon's waiting in the main office when Gwaine comes back. "Can we just lock him in? Forever, maybe?" he asks, and Gwaine laughs, opening the window wide and boosting himself up on the sill to blow smoke out of the window as he lights a cigarette.
"What a clusterfuck," Gwaine mutters and Leon huffs a laugh.
"What do we do?" Leon asks after a moment.
Gwaine shrugs. "Wait and see, I suppose."
"Is it all you hoped for?" she asks, knowing unerringly that Morgana is looking at her.
"Oh, it's lovely," Morgana assures her. "We can have fun with this for months."
Morgause looks at her then and smiles, one of the real warm smiles that she doesn't let anyone else see. "Arthur seemed quite put out to part with it."
"I should think so," Morgana says. "There's enough here to run about five different scams, from good old fashioned tax fraud right up to blackmailing a cabinet minister."
There's a series of clicks as Morgause slots her guns back together and Morgana watches her clever fingers. "Good," she says, nodding firmly.
"And," Morgana goes on, "I think we can say that Arthur and his merry men have been sent right back to the drawing board, which is always fun."
"Do you think so?" Morgause asks. "I've often thought persistence was their only real asset."
Morgana laughs and kicks off her heels, tucking her feet under herself as she continues watching the computer program do its work. "True," she admits. "But did you see Arthur's face? And Merlin, of course, but I know my dear brother. We can safely say whatever little job Arthur was cooking up is off."
They're both out by the time he arrives at their flat on the outskirts of Southampton. Merlin wanders through the maze of streets to the little café where Freya works on weekday mornings. She squeals when she sees him, bounding out from behind the counter to hug him. And then she looks at him, really looks and her face falls.
"Oh, Merlin, what's happened?"
Merlin tries for a smile. "I can't come and visit my best friends?"
"Of course you can, but you look...sad."
Merlin swallows and pulls her into another hug for long enough to press his face to her hair and get himself under control.
"Little bit," he admits. "I'll – I'll tell you when Will's there, yeah?"
She touches a hand to his face in a gesture that reminds Merlin so fiercely of his mother that he wants to cry.
"Do you want something to eat?" she offers.
Merlin stomach is in knots, but he didn't have breakfast, so he nods anyway. Freya ushers him over to a table. A few minutes later she's back with a plate of beans on toast, cheese grated on top, and a steaming mug of milky coffee. Another wave of that overwhelming feeling hits him, and he feels loved and heartbroken all at once.
"Thanks, Freya," he says, his voice thick.
She perches on the chair opposite his and squeezes his hand fiercely. "I won't ask," she promises.
She's good to her word, and after Merlin's finished his beans on toast, he stays for a while to catch up with her. It feels weird not to even mention Arthur, like he can't say anything if he isn't saying that. But Freya, bless her, keeps the conversation limping along. Merlin misses both her and Will fiercely. He soaks up the little stories she tells him in between serving customers. He teases her gently about her blush when she says how Will made her a bouquet from three different colour phone directories that he stole from the recycling bin because he couldn't afford flowers. He lets her make him a second coffee, and then lets her insist he switches to tea. When the customers start getting more frequent in the run up to lunchtime, he offers to come behind the counter and help out.
"That's okay," she says. "Ricky'll be in soon, his shift starts at midday."
"What time do you finish?"
"Three," Freya tells him. "Come back and meet me? Will's off at five today, we could go and surprise him."
Merlin grins. "That sounds good. I'll see you at three, love." He leans over the counter to kiss her cheek and then picks up his bag and heads out into the streets.
It's always strange to be back home. Some things are so utterly different from how they used to be. The school he attended with Will and Freya is gone now, and he can't resist wandering into the Lidl that's replaced it to buy a bottle of coke. This was probably the science lab, he thinks as he pays the bored looking teenage boy at the checkout.
And yet some things are exactly the same. It's like a physical twisting in his chest when he passes a park they used to play at, the dilapidated climbing frame still just about standing. He remembers perching at the top with Will, the first time he ever whispered to Merlin that he thought Freya was really, really nice, and maybe he'd marry her one day. Merlin can't help smiling, rubbing the spot on his shoulder where Will had punched him when Merlin's response had been to wrinkle his nose and insist that Freya was great, but girls were gross and Will shouldn't marry one. Will had never let him live that down after he'd come out. And see, it all makes sense, he'd say, hooking his arm around the back of Merlin's neck and grinning in his face.
On an impulse, Merlin awkwardly folds himself into one of the swings and lets himself sway while he drinks his coke. He pulls out his phone to check the time and finds himself thumbing through his contacts. There's only Alex and Anna listed before Arthur, and Merlin hesitates for a moment over the call button, and for a lot longer over the delete contact button. In the end he just jams his phone back into his pocket, finishes his coke, and wanders into town to have a poke around the shops until it's time to meet Freya.
When he gets back to the cafe, Freya is just leaving, pulling on an oversized denim jacket that has to have been Will's originally. She tucks her arm through his and they wander the mile or so to the factory where Will works.
"He's going to flip," Freya predicts happily, and Merlin can't help smiling. On impulse, he ducks into a shop and buys a bag of sweets for them to share while they wait for Will. It's almost exactly like the old days, except Merlin never used to have this sense of emptiness in his chest, the aching absence of what he thought he'd found.
Soon the bell rings for change of shift, and Freya pulls Merlin to his feet, tugging him closer to the gate.
"Come on, she says, excited.
It's not long before Merlin spots will in the crowd, but it takes Will a bit longer to notice the two of them. When he does, he lets out an ecstatic whoop and bowls over to them, nearly knocking Merlin over with the strength of his embrace.
"Fucking hell, hello, stranger!"
For a moment, Merlin doesn't feel sad at all, reaching out a hand to pull Freya into the hug as well. It reminds him of being a kid, in the years before Will and Freya properly got together, when the three of them functioned as a single unit, all a bit lost without either of the others.
Merlin thought that the time he'd spent wandering about had let him get his game face on, but apparently not, because Will pulls back, takes one look at Merlin and sighs deeply.
"Right. Okay. Who do I need to punch in the dick this time?"
Merlin can't help himself, just grabs Will again and hugs him tight. "Fuck, it's really good to see you both."
Will's not that easily put off though. He takes Merlin by the shoulders and looks at him intently. "I mean it, Merlin. What's happened?"
"Not here," Merlin pleads.
Will looks like he's about to argue but Freya touches his arm and he relents. They pick up a takeaway on the way back to Will and Freya's flat. At Freya's insistence, they watch Short Circuit for an uncountable time while they eat, and it's only when Will's cracked open the beers Merlin chipped in for that he finds himself pinned by his best friends' stares.
"Well?" Will demands, subtlety never his forte.
Merlin takes a deep breath. "I need to tell you guys something but it absolutely cannot leave this room."
"Merlin," Freya says, touching his arm. "Of course."
Merlin takes a steadying breath and says, "I met someone."
They both look at him expectantly, as if they can't work out why he sounds so wretched about this.
"He's handsome. Clever. Makes me laugh." He reaches out and covers Will's ears with his hands. "Fucking unbelievable sex."
Will laughs and bats Merlin's hands away. "So how did you meet this perfect man and his perfect dick?"
"I'll get to that," Merlin says, and rubs a hand over his face. "Believe me, I will get to that. Anyway. It was only a few weeks ago. Kind of a...whirlwind thing, I suppose. We were talking every day, seeing each other most days, and I just. I was kind of crazy about him, I felt like I'd known him for ages."
"So what happened?" Freya asks.
"He's a fucking thief," Merlin says quietly.
"He stole from you?" Will demands. "Son of a bitch!"
"No," Merlin says quickly. "Not from me. Not like that."
Freya and Will exchange looks and Will asks, "What, then?"
"He and his friends are bank robbers, apparently. And jewellery shops and casinos and anything else they can get their grubby hands on, by the sound of it."
They stare at him, even Will apparently lost for words.
"Seriously?" Freya squeaks after a moment.
Merlin nods, and the whole story comes spilling out. Arthur arranging that accidental second meeting, Arthur subtly getting information from him, Arthur copying his work ID. Will looks gravest at that part, Merlin realises, while Freya pales noticeably when Morgana and Morgause and guns come into play. After he's finished, not leaving out his fight with Arthur, or the two numb days between then and now, there's a long silence.
"Bloody hell, mate," Will huffs. "You know how to pick them, don't you?"
Merlin laughs dryly while Freya slaps Will on the arm and tells him to behave. "It's okay," Merlin says. "My record does sort of speak for itself."
"Run of bad luck," Freya says kindly.
Merlin and Will share a sceptical look and Will says, "It's no good, love. He's jinxed and he knows it."
Ignoring Will, Freya turns to Merlin and says, "So what are you going to do?"
"What do you mean? Nothing, obviously," Merlin says. He expects them to look approving, maybe even relieved. He's doing the right thing, after all. Well, the most right thing would probably be to call the police and tell them everything he knows, but that just... He'd brandished it at Arthur in a clumsy threat, but he hasn't seriously considered it. It's only now that Merlin finds himself wondering why that is.
"So you're just never going to talk to him again?" Freya asks.
"Well, yeah. Obviously." He's surprised by their blank looks. "What else should I do?"
Freya shrugs. "I don't know. At least – " She and Will have a silent conference before Will finishes for her, "It's just not like you to leave something this way."
"What choice do I have?" Merlin asks. "He's – he's a thief and he – "
"A thief and a liar."
Merlin realises belatedly that that wasn't what he'd been going to say at all. The truth was far more raw than that. Worse even than crazy, beautiful women with guns. Merlin felt he'd been made a fool of, and that was the real source of most of his anger. That doesn't feel like the best thing to be angry about though, not when real crime is involved. Merlin's wounded pride feels like it should matter less than what Arthur and his friends planned to do.
"Do you love him?" Freya asks.
"I don't – it was too early for all that," Merlin says, deciding not to mention that he'd already thought about bringing Arthur over to meet Will and Freya, which, for an orphan, was as close as it got to introducing him to the family. He'd already decided that Arthur would adore Freya, while Arthur and Will would hate each other – hardly revolutionary. Will makes a point of disliking all Merlin's boyfriends for the first couple of months, insists it weeds out the losers.
"Anyway," Merlin adds. "Hardly matters now if I did. Could have. Whatever."
"Merlin," Freya says reproachfully. "Of course it matters."
"Freya, he was only ever interested in information."
"Which is why he's already robbed the bank and fucked off," Will says dryly.
Merlin has nothing to say to that, and with meaningful conversation apparently at an end, Freya just hurls herself across the sofa at Merlin and squeezes him tight.
"I'm so sorry, Merlin."
"It's alright, love," he lies. "As long as I've got you two, right?"
They both give him a frank, disbelieving look, eerily identical, but they don't push it. Will's not starting work til midday the next day, so the two of them stay up for a while watching repeats while Freya retreats to the bedroom.
"You know," Will says quietly. "If you ever decide you want to come back home, you can stay with us as long as you need."
Merlin smiles. "Thanks, mate. But nah. I'm alright. Just needed you two to set me back on my feet."
"Yeah." Will puffs out his cheeks. "Bank robbers, Merlin. Honestly. Your life."
Merlin finds himself laughing, and it feels really good. He thought it would be a hell of a long time before he could even start to find any of this anything other than fucking horrible, but Will and Freya really do have a way of making everything seem better.
"I can't believe you're just going to let it go," Will says a minute later. "I mean, you've had worse, right? The crackhead?"
"He wasn't a crackhead!"
"He looked like a crackhead."
"Alright, okay. I'm just saying. I've not seen you as gone over someone as this in a long time."
"Yeah, but he – "
"Thief, mental sister, blah blah."
"Will!" Merlin doesn't understand how he can be so casual about it. "He – he's – bank robbers, Will. Ocean's Eleven! Guns! He has an actual fucking gun."
"Volume control, mate, Freya's sleeping."
Merlin casts a guilty glance towards the bedroom and lowers his voice. "Fuck, sorry. But, come on. Seriously, Will?"
"Alright, look," Will says. "Cards on the table and all that. Maybe I would give more of a shit about him being fucking – Raffles the Gentleman Thief or whatever if I thought that was what was bothering you."
"What do you mean?"
Merlin thinks the look Will gives him then is frankly a bit bloody condescending.
"Mate. I've known you since we were both in nappies. You are not morally outraged. You are pissed off that he lied to you, and embarrassed that you fell for it."
Merlin opens his mouth to deny that, but Will just gives him a sceptical look. "Tell me I'm wrong," he challenges.
"You're wrong," Merlin says, but even to his own ears it sounds weak.
"Uh huh. And now tell me in a manner which is even vaguely convincing."
Merlin hits Will with one of the sofa cushions. "Get me another beer, dickhead."
"Come in for your lunch if you want," she says.
Merlin nods and burrows into the sofa, snuggling deeper under the blanket Will had tossed over him the night before. Will stumbles out of the bedroom at about half nine. "Hey," he mutters, before dropping down to sit on Merlin's shin.
"Oi! Move your fat arse," Merlin protests, and they grapple and bicker for a bit before Merlin settles with his feet shoved in behind Will's back.
"How long are you saying?" Will asks, and Merlin shrugs.
"Probably just one more night," he says, and Will clucks disapprovingly. "I don't want to lose my job."
"Bollocks," Will protests. "You'd like nothing better."
"Nothing except keeping a roof over my head."
"Blah blah blah," Will mutters. "Fine."
They spend the morning playing on the Xbox, and making a massive fry-up for breakfast. Bollocks to Arthur, anyway, he thinks, and immediately wishes he hadn't because he'd been doing really well with his resolution to put Arthur out of his mind.
At half eleven, Will notices the time and legs it from the flat like a cursing, flailing whirlwind. Merlin laughs and considers staying on the sofa all day, beating all Will's top scores on the Xbox. Instead, after doing the washing up and taking a quick shower he borrows Will's bike and cycles to the woods behind his mum's old house. There, he picks her a bunch of wildflowers like he used to when he was small, and pedals over to the graveyard. It looks the same as ever, neatly tended rows of headstones, splashes of colour from flowers, or heartbreaking little toys. Merlin picks his way along the path, the route he knows so well.
He goes to his knees and clears a few leaves from the grave before he sets the flowers down, neatening them a little. There's no dirt on the headstone but he brushes it off anyway, liking the feeling of her name under his fingertips. That done he sits down with his shoulder to the side of the stone and sighs. He's never felt stupid for talking to her this way.
"I...really wish you were here. I don't know what to do. I met someone. I think you'd like him. He's – I don't know, I think he's special." Merlin touches a hand to the grass over the grave. "But he lied to me, Mum. He lied to me so much, and I don't know what to do. Because I think Will's right, you know, it's not the robberies, not really. I know Dad wasn't exactly Mr Straight-and-Narrow either, so... I just don't know. Because he told me – I think he told me as much of the truth as he could. More than he had to. Maybe."
Merlin closes his eyes and listens to birds twittering away in the trees, the sound of a car engine as someone else arrives to pay their respects to a lost loved one. He turns his head and presses his forehead to the cool gravestone for a moment.
"I miss you, Mum."
Will's right, Merlin realises, and resolves never to say that aloud. Merlin doesn't like leaving things like this, even if he's not sure what there is left to say to Arthur. If nothing else, it'd be a comfort to know Arthur hasn't been shot by his sister. Or his mates for messing up the job, Merlin mentally adds, thinking of the heist films he's watched in the past. That happens, doesn't it?
He'll call Arthur when he gets back to London, Merlin decides, and feels almost instantly better. He's not sure whether that's pleasure at the idea of speaking to Arthur again, or relief and just having made up his mind, but he feels worlds better.
"See you later, Mum," he says, straightening the flowers he brought a little before he bikes back to the flat and drinks a cup of tea.
He walks around for another while, and then catches a bus down to the docks. There's a hazy, watery kind of sunshine and he sits for a bit, listening to the water and all the other sounds of ferries and lorries and cranes. The sounds of his childhood, it feels like. His mum had a job here once, when Merlin was about six, and he'd loved coming to work with her in the holidays.
He stays for a while, wandering around until he starts getting strange looks from a security guard. He takes another bus back to the cafe, and this time Freya makes him a plate of mushrooms and chips, and Merlin has to laugh. She knows every single one of his favourites, and always manages to pick the one he's craving right at that moment. He and Will joke that she's like the lady from Chocolat, only for fried food. He tucks in and Freya helps herself to a few chips.
"I'm going to ring Arthur when I get home tomorrow," Merlin tells her when she sits down next to him.
"Yeah? That's good, I think," she says. "It sounded like you need to talk to him, at least once more."
"Only once," he says firmly. "Just to replace 'fuck off' with a proper goodbye."
She nods. "You're too good to be carrying around anger like that."
"That's deep, Freya."
"Deep like a well," she sing-songs.
"Deep like a bass guitar," Merlin says, and she thwacks him on the head with a laminated menu. "I'm going home tomorrow morning," he tells her, and she nods.
"Will's not off til eight, but we should do something later. We don't see you often enough to waste the opportunity."
They meet Will from work again, and go bowling in the arcade where they'd spent way too much of their teenage years. Merlin and Will get way too competitive over the air hockey, much to Freya's amusement, and the chagrin of the teenagers waiting for a turn.
"Just like old times," she teases when they finally relent.
And it is. They even stop for kebabs on the way back to the flat. Merlin falls asleep on the sofa, listening to them bicker about what channel to watch. The next morning he catches a bus to the station and gets the first post-rush hour train back towards London, and his impending phone call to Arthur.
But it's Merlin's voice on the other end of the phone, small and tense.
And for a second, Arthur can't speak, can't force out a single word past his dry tongue and clenched teeth. He never thought he'd hear that voice again.
"Hi. Merlin, hi," Arthur says. Then there's a long enough silence that he pleads, "Don't hang up."
"I'm not," Merlin says. "It's just... Now I've called, I have no idea what to say."
"I'm sorry," Arthur says, because hell, he might not get another chance to say it. "I am really, truly sorry."
"I don't – I don't think I want an apology."
"What, then?" Arthur asks, trying not to sound impatient. "Anything, Merlin. Just tell me how to make this okay."
"I don't know whether – I don't know if you can."
"To start again, then," Arthur says, and he doesn't care if he's begging by this stage. He'd give anything.
"I just – coffee, okay? Don't expect it to be anything more."
"Yes. Yes, okay. Where? When?"
"I don't – " Merlin actually laughs, and Arthur feels something twist inside him at the sound. "I have no idea. It's not like we can talk in bloody Costa."
"Right," Arthur agrees.
"Come and pick me up," Merlin says. "I'm skiving off work today, anyway."
"Yeah. Alright. I need to – " Arthur runs his hand over two days of stubble, and Christ, he needs a shower. "I just need to get myself sorted, I'll text you when I'm leaving."
Arthur thinks he probably breaks some sort of world record for the speed of his shower. He forces himself to slow down while he shaves, dresses with care, and then he practically bolts from the hotel. He fights to keep below the speed limit on the way to Merlin's flat; the last thing he needs right now is to get pulled over and given a bloody speeding ticket. All told, it's probably three quarters of an hour, maybe closer to an hour, after his phone rang that Arthur pulls to a stop outside Merlin's flat.
Merlin is waiting, sitting on the low wall outside his block, and Arthur's heart leaps into his throat at the sight of him. He breathes out slowly and forces himself to relax his grip on the steering wheel. Merlin gets into the car and Arthur takes a deep, slow breath. He means to say hello, and he means to say it in the calmest, most non-threatening way he can, but he finds himself with his lungs full of the soft, piney scent that clings to Merlin, and words fail him utterly.
Merlin says it instead, a soft hello that clenches Arthur's stomach into a tight knot.
"Hi," he manages at last and then, without meaning to, he adds, "I thought you'd change your mind before I got here."
"I did," Merlin says. "About five times. But I kept changing it back."
Arthur nods. "Well. Thank you. I thought – the weather's not too bad, we could get some coffee and find a park or something."
"Yeah. Alright," Merlin says, his tone unreadable. "There's a park just round the corner with one of those tiny cafe-in-a-shed things."
"Sure. Okay. Just tell me where to go."
"Second left," Merlin says. "Then right at the lights, and the car park's just a bit down that road."
Arthur feels desperately nervous, his stomach turning over, his jaw clenched tight. The drive only takes a couple of minutes and Merlin's out of the car as soon as it stops. He only sort of waits for Arthur before he makes his way to the kiosk and orders a coffee (just one) from the bored looking teenage girl at the counter. Arthur buys his own drink and trails after Merlin to a bench. They sit in silence for a moment, the distant gleeful shrieks of little kids reaching them from the play area at the other end of the park.
"So," Arthur says, when he just can't handle the silence anymore.
"So," Merlin echoes, curling both hands around his cardboard cup of coffee and looking at the surface of his drink as though it's the most fascinating thing in the world.
"I – I was surprised that you called," Arthur says honestly.
"It was what you said," Merlin admits. "About your whole world being ripped out from under you. Because I know how that feels, and I know how it sends you along paths you never expected."
Arthur's nodding eagerly before Merlin finishes speaking. "It's not like I grew up thinking turning places over was a cool thing to do. My dad went to prison. I was on my own."
Merlin nods and takes a sip of his latte.
"You've got – " Arthur says, reaching for the smear of frothed milk on Merlin's upper lip before he stops himself with effort and just points instead.
"Oh." Merlin wipes at his lip and Arthur thinks he looks just as confused about what's allowed and what isn't as Arthur feels. "That's how I ended up working in the sodding bank in the first place," Merlin says after an awkward silence. "I fucked up my degree after my mum died. I just – couldn't function."
Arthur nods, holding his tongue in the hope Merlin will just carry on talking, anything that isn't running a mile in the opposite direction.
"It was only meant to be a holiday job, but I couldn't cover rent and fees the first year, so I kept telling myself next year, next year."
Arthur almost doesn't want to admit this, because it sounds like he's trying to worm his way in. He has to though, can't let it go unsaid. "I thought that too, for a while," he tells Merlin. "This job'll give me enough to start out on my own. But it didn't. So you say, the next one, the next one. But, you know. I'm hardly businessman of the year material anymore. Not that – I'm not complaining. I don't have anyone to blame but myself. This is – you're the first person who makes me feel like I should apologise for my choices."
Merlin's face screws up and he says, "What about the people you rob and traumatise? No apologies owing there?"
And it's – yeah. That side of things had taken a while to become okay in Arthur's head. He doesn't know whether defending himself is a good idea or not, but he can't help himself.
"First of all, we don't rob the kind of places that aren't insured up to the hilt. Most of the time, people don't even know they've been hit until we're long gone."
"Most of them time," Merlin says flatly.
"Yeah," Arthur agrees. "Most of the time. I'm not going to lie to you, Merlin, it does happen. But we've never seriously hurt anyone we've ever robbed. We've also never killed anyone, if that's what you're thinking."
"Well I wasn't, but I am now," Merlin says, and Arthur winces before realises that was a joke. Merlin is joking with him. He looks at Merlin and chances a smile. Getting one in return feels like stealing the bloody Crown Jewels.
"One thing I never intended," Arthur says, "even before it – before we clicked or whatever the hell happened so I couldn't stop thinking about you. Even before all that, I never intended for this to hurt you in any way. And I know that it did, and I can only apologise and offer to make it up to you any way you see fit."
There's a silence before Merlin asks, "You went to a posh, private school, didn't you? One where public speaking was on the curriculum."
Realising he's being teased again, Arthur admits, "Harrow. But with the fees, after Dad – I never sat my A-levels."
"Oh," Merlin says. "Sorry. Not the best topic of conversation, maybe."
"No, it's okay," Arthur assures him. "You can ask me whatever you want."
"I don't even know what to say," Merlin admits. "This is – this is the maddest thing that's ever happened to me. It's like a particularly ridiculous film."
Arthur can't help a grin at that. "Ocean's Eleven, that's us. Except there's six of us."
To his relief, Merlin snorts with laughter. "And you're – what, George Clooney?"
Arthur ruffles his hair and smirks. "Clearly, I'm Brad Pitt."
Merlin huffs out a laugh and shakes his head. "Unbelievable."
"I had to lie to you," Arthur says. "It's part of the job. I hated every second. But you have to believe me, I – Merlin, I could have got the information I needed the first night. I'm good at this."
Merlin's eyebrows crawl towards his hairline and Arthur realises he's probably not doing himself any favours.
"I'm good at it when it's a job. I was terrible at it because it was you, and you're not – Merlin, I swear – that's all – the job's off, anyway."
Merlin pointedly doesn't look Arthur in the eye as he asks, "Are they angry with you?"
Arthur tries not to let that little bit of concern give him too much hope, and he shrugs. "They're pretty pissed off now, but they'll get over it. Everyone screws up sometime."
"Yeah." In spite of the fact that Merlin's wary gaze on him feels like a punch in the gut, Arthur gives him a little smile. "One time, we had to pull out of this casino job because Gwaine ended up in hospital courtesy of the owner."
Merlin's eyes widen. "Did he find out what you were planning?"
"Nah. Found Gwaine in bed with his wife."
Merlin actually cracks a smile.
"And his sister."
Merlin laughs along with Arthur, and for a minute it's like Arthur never fucked up at all. But then Merlin sobers quickly and looks at him seriously. "What – I mean this is so weird."
Arthur catches one of Merlin's hands in both of his own and counts it as a victory when Merlin doesn't immediately pull away.
"The things I told you," Arthur starts carefully, "They were true. I was past caring about the job by the first drink. I just wanted to keep seeing you. I'm mad about you, Merlin, I really am. Don't write me off because of how I make a living."
Merlin's jaw works for a moment before he squeezes Arthur's fingers. "To be honest," he says slowly, "Aredian's such a dodgy bastard. It couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke."
It sounds like forgiveness, or at least not like hatred, and Arthur laughs, even as he asks, "Dodgy?"
"Well, yeah. I assume that was why you chose our branch."
"Wait, why did you choose our branch?"
"Transport links," Arthur says. "In case anything went wrong. There's a lot of potential exits. Dodgy how?"
What Arthur refers to as his professional instincts are jangling but he determinedly ignores them.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asks. "I'm hungry."
"Yeah? I could take you for lunch?" Arthur offers, hardly daring to hope.
"Alright," Merlin agrees.
Obviously they can't continue their conversation in the restaurant, and while Merlin's a little more reticent than Arthur's used to, they still talk easily. Arthur finds hope fluttering and dying inside him by turns as Merlin seems to rein himself in from being too nice to Arthur. Still, it's more than Arthur had ever expected, and he can't stop himself from smiling down at his plate. Maybe they can start again. Maybe they can make something of the remains of how they began. Arthur doesn't know how they will do it, but he knows he will do anything, anything to make it work.
As they leave the restaurant, Arthur racks his brains for something to say, something that will stop Merlin drawing a line under this and walking away. The walk back to the car is depressingly quick and when Merlin hesitates, Arthur's heart sinks.
"Merlin – "
But before Arthur can say anything more, Merlin silences him with a kiss. It's only brief, just Merlin's lips on the corner of his mouth, but it seems to sizzle along every nerve in Arthur's body. Merlin presses their foreheads together, his fingers tight in Arthur's shirt.
"Merlin," Arthur says again, a whisper this time, his voice coming out tiny and elated all at once.
"I just – this is the stupidest thing I've ever done in my life, but I don't – I don't want it to end like this."
Careful, so careful, Arthur pushes a soft curl of Merlin's hair behind his ear, fingers tracing his lobe. "Nor do I."
"I shouldn't want anything to do with you," Merlin says.
Arthur bites his lip. "But you do?"
Merlin nods, his tight grip on Arthur relaxing, fingers smoothing out the creases he put in Arthur's shirt. "I don't know why – but I do. There's – something, isn't there? Between us."
"Yes," Arthur whispers. "There is. There is, Merlin, please. Don't – just don't give up on it."
"I don't think I can," Merlin admits, moving back far enough to look Arthur in the eye.
Relief floods through Arthur, warmth filling him, pulling his mouth into a smile, knocking a laugh out of him. He throws his arms around Merlin's waist and squeezes him tight. Merlin laughs, sounding surprised and pleased. He returns Arthur's hug and Arthur feels like he could just stay here, right on the pavement with Merlin's heart beating against his own.
"We'll make it work," Merlin predicts confidently. "How doesn't matter right now, but we will."
Arthur nods, but before he can say anything, Merlin kisses him again, properly this time, his fingers curling through Arthur's hair, his mouth opening under Arthur's lips. Arthur means to kiss him gently, means to be careful and not chase Merlin off with his clumsy need. It's futile though, the first taste of Merlin making him crazy. Merlin's just as eager, kissing Arthur in a messy blast of heat that's only just this side of indecent, given that they're on a street corner in the middle of the afternoon.
"Come home with me," Merlin says between kisses and Arthur nods, shaky, his fingers hooking in the belt loop of Merlin's jeans, curling tight, like Merlin will just disappear if Arthur isn't touching him. Merlin laughs, low and warm, and pushes at Arthur's shoulders. "Come on. Let go, idiot."
Still, when they get into the car, Merlin settles his hand on top of Arthur's on the gearstick and squeezes for a moment. Arthur's heart is roaring in his chest, a feeling of unreality descending on him. Surely, surely this cannot be real. Merlin can't really be thinking about forgiving him, can't really be sitting here, holding Arthur's hand and inviting Arthur back to his flat. But he is, and Arthur just drives, trying to keep the ridiculous grin off his face.
Merlin's flat looks exactly the same as it did before and Arthur can't quite shake the ridiculous notion that there should be some visual reminder of how close they came to losing all this. Instead, it feels like the last five days might never have happened. Merlin nudges Arthur towards a chair and boosts himself up onto the counter in the small kitchen, swinging his feet idly while he waits for the kettle to boil.
"It's nice," Merlin admits. "To see you here again."
Arthur looks around the little kitchen, at the photos that have already become familiar, and the upturned mugs on the draining board, all the little things that make it Merlin's space.
"It's – you've no idea how good it is to be here," Arthur says honestly, and Merlin holds out a hand to him, pulling him in close, his knees squeezing Arthur's hips. Sat up there like he is, it's easy for Merlin to lean over Arthur, kiss him like he doesn't mean to stop. The kettle boils and clicks off unnoticed, because Arthur has his fingers creeping under the edge of Merlin's t-shirt, while Merlin has already slipped three of Arthur's shirt buttons loose and is kissing a path down his neck to the warmth at the base of his throat.
Arthur should probably just keep his mouth shut and not give Merlin cause to rethink anything. Still, he finds himself asking, "Are you sure? Merlin, are you – "
"Hush," Merlin tells him. "The way I see it, you're pretty much everything I ever wanted. So you rob banks? Seems like a fair trade."
Laughter bubbles up out of Arthur and he kisses Merlin again, just has to. Merlin hops down from the worktop, landing heavily against Arthur. They stumble a little but Arthur rights Merlin easily and before he knows it, Merlin is tugging him through the little flat and they're shedding clothes as they go. It's like the first night all over again except Arthur doesn't have any ulterior motives, doesn't have any secrets weighing on him anymore.
Merlin's bed is unmade and Arthur spreads him out in the rumpled sheets, dragging Merlin's t-shirt over his head and ruffling his hair hopelessly. Merlin looks up at him with laughing eyes and pulls Arthur down to kiss him. They don't get much further than shuffling out of their clothes and moving against each other in shuddery, heartfelt little motions. Merlin's fingers rake through his hair, trace the line of his throat, and dig softly into his shoulders. They kiss, and kiss, and kiss, their mouths clinging. Merlin tastes sweet on Arthur's lips, and the soft cries he makes seem to burrow right into Arthur, setting up home inside him, finding a place to live forever.
After, Arthur stares up at Merlin's ceiling, counting the cracks and wondering how he got this lucky. Merlin dozes off quickly. The whole length of his body is warm against Arthur, and it's already familiar. This is the first time Arthur can really feel good about it, though, because Merlin knows everything, and he's still here. Arthur feels like he can really relax. Although he'd tried to give Merlin as much of his true self as he could, there was always that element of doubt over whether Merlin liked him, or the persona he adopts. And it's not like the persona is wildly different from Arthur as it is, but it's still nice to be sure.
He'd thought he'd never hear from Merlin again, let alone this. He'd been planning to stay in London or nearby, just in case, but he hadn't had any real hope. He closes his eyes, not to sleep, but just to feel Merlin breathing, taste him on the air.
"I could love you," he whispers.
Merlin doesn't stir.
"Yeah," Arthur says. "Well, Gwaine's probably still around causing mayhem. Leon will be heading home to the wife. Elyan's probably gone to catch up with his sister, and I imagine Lance has tagged along to make eyes at her. Percival will be back at work."
"Mmm. Carpentry. It's the family business so he'd never let it go but it just doesn't pay, and he has his sister to support, so..."
Merlin looks taken aback and Arthur can't help smirking. "I'm sorry, were you expecting them to have retreated to their evil supervillain lair?"
"No!" Merlin protests. "Just...they sound nice, that's all."
"They're the best friends I've ever had," Arthur says seriously.
"So, Elyan's sister..."
"Gwen," Arthur says. "I actually dated her for a little while, if you can call it that. We went to the cinema and held hands and kissed maybe three times."
Merlin laughs and Arthur slaps his arm gently.
"Shut up, I was fourteen and confused. Anyway, we don't really talk about that, mainly because Lance is embarrassingly crazy about her."
"How did you get to know them all?" Merlin asks. "I mean is there some sort of criminal underworld newsletter or something? Wanted: One getaway driver, must have own car?"
Arthur laughs. "Don't be daft. I've known Leon forever, his parents were friends with my dad. He's the one I told you about. Then he knew Elyan and Gwen so we all knocked about together at school. Then Lance transferred in, but he didn't stay long, just long enough to fall for Gwen and then he had to leave. His dad was in the military so they moved on a lot. Gwaine I met when he blundered in at a rather crucial moment of a job I was working and nearly got both of us killed. To hear him tell it, he saved my life and was just barely tipsy."
"He sounds fun," Merlin says.
"He's a bloody liar," Arthur tuts. "Anyway, you know I said Morgana ripped off me and Leon?"
"Well Elyan's always been a complete nerd for computers, and Morgana had all these security systems in place, so we asked him to help out. He'd been talking online to someone about hacking and all that, thought he could help. It turned out it was Lance, and he knew Percival, and it all came from there."
"When was that?"
"I was...I dunno, about nineteen, twenty? So six, seven years ago now."
Merlin looks thoughtful. "Huh. Going into work tomorrow is going to be so strange."
"The job's off," Arthur promises. "You don't need to worry about that."
Merlin looks down at the table and then back up at Arthur. "About that."
"What if I told you that the money in the vault is the least of the assets at the bank?"
"What do you mean?"
"I – You know I said Aredian, the boss, he's dodgy."
"Yeah. Skimming off the funds or something?" Arthur suggests.
"Not – not quite," Merlin says, and he fiddles with his fingertips as though he can't quite believe what he's about to say. "Aredian runs private investments for these clients. It's some kind of tax scam, I think. But there's – he has a safe in his office, and one time I saw these things. Bearer bonds."
Arthur's pulse is pounding in his ears. Fuck, if they had turned over the bank for the cash and missed that... The irony would have been deadly. Still, he has to tread carefully. No amount of (high-denomination, untraceable, oh Christ help him) money is enough to fuck up this delicate balance he and Merlin are achieving.
"You – Merlin, you're not a crook," Arthur tells him gently.
"No, but Aredian is," Merlin says. "I saw the books for his private clients a couple of times. He makes dodgy investments, he skims off the top. He does everything but bash people on the head and steal their wallets. Anyway, I hate this fucking job."
"How did you see the books?" Arthur asks.
"I, uh. Well, I got a glimpse in his office one time, before he could hide it. Something looked off about the figures, so I um. Set off the fire alarm and snuck in for a proper look. Crooked to the bones, he is."
Arthur forces himself to lean back in his chair, hide his excitement. Because somehow making things right with Merlin is more important than the job of a fucking lifetime.
"Merlin, I can't ask you to do this."
"You're not asking me to do anything," Merlin points out. "I'm offering. Trust me, I wouldn't expect to walk away empty handed."
"You'd get an even cut with everyone else," Arthur hastens to assure him. "And I – I would hope you wouldn't want to walk away at all."
"Well." Merlin ducks his head. "Yeah. Right enough."
Arthur can't help grinning hugely and Merlin smiles back, flushing a bit. "Shut up."
Merlin forces back a flush of shame and hurt pride. Arthur could be in the shower. He could be watching TV in the other room. Except the pipes aren't clanking, and the TV is silent.
"Fuck," Merlin says quietly. "Oh god, I am an idiot."
He stumbles out of bed and sure enough, Arthur's clothes are all gone. Merlin shoves his hands into his hair and tugs, the prickling of pain waking him up the rest of the way to fact facts. Fact one: Arthur is gone. Fact two: Merlin is an idiot. He pulls on a pair of jogging bottoms and fights the almost overwhelming urge to kick something. Merlin never knew he was such a sucker for a pretty face. But he'd thought, he'd really thought that Arthur meant what he'd said. And he went and told Arthur about the fucking bonds, and now he is going to end up losing his job, and –
Merlin actually has his phone out to call Will and Freya and tell them that he is giving up on real life and coming to live in their wardrobe for the rest of forever when he hears a key turning in the front door. He's halfway there when Arthur steps into the flat, two carrier bags held in his hand, looking utterly unconcerned. He shuts the door carefully behind himself and then turns, looking put out when he sees Merlin.
"Fine. Ruin my surprise, why don't you?" he tuts.
"I thought – " Merlin starts, and Arthur's face falls, obviously reading Merlin's assumption in his expression.
"Oh, god, no! I left you a note," Arthur says hurriedly. "Post-it on the kettle. I thought you'd – "
"Never got that far," Merlin admits, and Arthur looks so wrecked and guilty that Merlin feels bad for doubting him, even though he thinks Arthur would admit he's given Merlin cause enough.
"I got breakfast," Arthur says lamely, holding up his carrier bags. "Well, more accurately, I got bagels and cake, but – "
Merlin takes the bags from Arthur and very deliberately sets them down on the floor. That done, he kisses Arthur, relief making him urgent and hungry.
"I'm sorry you thought – " Arthur says against Merlin's mouth, but Merlin cuts him off.
"Don't. It's – I'll get my head round this, I swear."
"What if I promise never to do a moonlit flit again unless you're with me?" Arthur suggests.
Merlin grins and hugs Arthur. "That'd work."
"Alright. I solemnly swear, and all that. Now, you. You have atrocious morning breath. Fix it, and I'll fix breakfast."
"Charmer," Merlin tells him, and turns away towards the bathroom.
"Hey," Arthur calls after him. "Don't fix the bed-head. The bed-head, I like."
Merlin catches sight of the grin on his face in the bathroom mirror and sticks his tongue out at himself. "Get yourself together, Merlin."
"Are you talking to yourself?" Arthur calls.
"Private conversation," Merlin shouts back around his toothbrush.
Back in the kitchen, he finds Arthur pouring coffee, plates set out neatly at his elbow.
"That all looks great," Merlin says, getting milk out of fridge and handing it to Arthur when he reaches over.
Arthur passes Merlin a coffee and nods towards the bagels. "Cream cheese, or salt beef?"
Merlin groans. "Cruel choice."
They settle on the sofa in the end, and Merlin can't help sneaking looks at Arthur. Never mind the stuff they talked about last night (and Merlin knows he's going to have to think about that at some point), it is just quietly amazing to see him there, feet propped on Merlin's coffee table, crumbs on his shirt, arguing with the commentators on Football Focus.
They end up having to halve the carrot cake and the chocolate fudge cake as well, and Merlin admits, "I love your idea of breakfast."
Arthur grins and brushes a smear of frosting off Merlin's top lip. "I would even eat muesli with you."
Merlin bumps their arms together and tells Arthur, "You're a weirdo."
Arthur just grins at him. Merlin has to laugh when he stacks the plates and then looks around expectantly, asking, "Where's your dishwasher?"
"Yeah, right," Merlin says, and points him towards the sink. "I'll wash, you dry," he adds, and they do, chatting about nothing in particular. While Arthur's drying the last plate, Merlin pours them both another coffee.
Arthur takes his cup with a hesitant smile that Merlin doesn't understand until he says slowly, "You know what you told me last night..."
"Yeah," Merlin says, swallowing. This is it. This is the conversation he knew they'd have to have at some point.
"If you want, I can swear that what you said will never leave this room," Arthur tells him very seriously. "I won't tell a soul. We'll forget all about it. We'll still be together. We'll still build a normal life. Or, if you want, we can do something about it and build a fucking amazing life."
"Do something about it," Merlin echoes. "You mean. Take it."
"Yeah," Arthur says plainly. "I couldn't do it alone, I'd need the others. But we could, I think." He looks fond. "Those guys. They could steal from the Royal Mint and get away with it."
Merlin laughs a little nervously. "I – "
"It's up to you," Arthur assures him. "I promise, if you don't want to do it, I'll never even mention it again."
The world seems to shiver for a moment while Merlin's mind races. Can he really do this? But Arthur makes Merlin feel like he can do anything.
"Aredian's out a lot, but his office is always locked when he's not there, and there's the security cameras – "
Arthur nods. "We'd need to do a lot of planning," he says. "But we're good at this. We've got ways round all that stuff." His voice is carefully neutral, and Merlin knows he's holding himself back, trying not to sound excited.
The ridiculous truth is that Merlin is excited. He's excited even to be thinking about it, to be thinking of doing something bold and daring with Arthur at his side, and he nods.
"I – is that a yes?" Arthur asks.
"I suppose it is," Merlin admits, and Arthur's face cracks into a broad smile. "Like you said, you'll need to do some planning with your friends – "
"We," Arthur interrupts, catching hold of Merlin's hand. "We're in this together, all the way," he promises, and Merlin nods.
"Okay. Okay. This is madness. But okay."
Arthur hugs him bruisingly tight and Merlin wheezes out a breath, surprised by the bright, awed look on Arthur's face when he pulls back.
"Amazing," Arthur tells him. "You're amazing."
Merlin laughs. "You have really odd criteria for amazing," he tells Arthur. "Not that I'm complaining. So what do we do now?"
"I'll make a call to the others, set up a meeting. If I know Lance, he won't have pulled out of the lease on the building we were renting, so probably there. We'll tell them what you know and see what they think."
We, Merlin thinks, feeling nervous at the prospect, and it obviously shows because Arthur reminds him, "I can't do it without them."
"No, no," Merlin says. "It's fine."
"Did you tell them about me?"
"No," Arthur says. "Well, I told Percival a little, he's going to be a bit late, need everyone on the same page when we talk about it. But with the others...better to explain it face to face. I just told them I had something to make up for letting them down before. It'll be fine."
Merlin doesn't mention it, but it sounds a little like Arthur's trying to persuade himself now. It's hardly a comforting thought and Merlin knots his hands in his lap to stop himself fiddling with the radio incessantly. It's all happened in such a whirl that he's only now thinking about the danger. Other than smoking weed with Will when they were younger, Merlin doesn't think he's ever done anything illegal. And this is spectacularly illegal. Double-digits-time-in-prison-type-illegal.
"That's Leon's bike," Arthur says, nodding towards a sleek black and chrome Harley parked up on the side of the street. He points out a few other vehicles as he slows, looking for a parking space. "Seems like everyone's here except Percy."
"What is this place anyway?" Merlin asks. "House? Storage unit?"
"Office space, Merlin. Plenty of short leases around."
"Alright," Arthur says, pulling into a parking space. "Let me just get a ticket and we'll go in."
Merlin can't help laughs. "You're worried about a parking ticket?"
"Never had so much as a library fine. The less official attention we get, the better."
"Right," Merlin says. "Makes sense."
It takes only a few seconds for Arthur to come back with a ticket. He slaps it onto the inside of the windscreen and says, "Alright, then. Let's go."
"Right," Merlin says in a small voice, fumbling to open his door. "Maybe," he says, "Maybe you should – I mean, explain things to them first."
Arthur rounds the car and squeezes Merlin's hand. "It'll be fine. Promise."
Merlin nods, but the clenched ball of anxiety in his stomach only dissipates a tiny bit as Arthur keeps a firm hold of his hand as they walk. Arthur leads the way to a nondescript office building and swipes a card to get them through the main doors. There's a single bored-looking security guard at the front desk and Arthur nods to him.
"We're on the fourth floor," Arthur tells Merlin quietly, nodding towards the lift.
Merlin almost gets a fit of the giggles in the lift, and catches Arthur looking at him strangely in the mirrored wall.
"Sorry," Merlin hiccups. "I'm nervous."
"Really?" Arthur asks dryly.
The lift doors open with a ding onto a corridor and Merlin follows Arthur out. He can hear voices coming from one of the rooms a little further down the corridor and Arthur gives him an encouraging smile. Merlin takes a deep breath, and they enter the room. The talk falls silent as soon as they do. Merlin can't help thinking that for a bunch of bank robbers – Jesus, bank robbers! When did this become his life? – all four of them are absurdly good looking.
And then Arthur says, "This is Merlin. He's with us, now."
"Um. Hi," Merlin ventures. He kind of expected Arthur to have had something better than that.
"So," Arthur says, and his tone makes Merlin think maybe he's regretting his opening gambit as well. "Merlin, this is Lance, Elyan, Leon, and Gwaine." None of them look particularly impressed and Arthur hastens to add, "I know what you must all be thinking."
While Lance gives Merlin a tentative smile, the one Arthur called Leon is looking steadily more and more outraged.
"Arthur. A word," Leon says, jerking his head towards the door.
"Say it here," Arthur says coolly.
Leon flicks a glance at Merlin but then says curtly, "Fine. No skin off my nose. This is a disaster waiting to happen. We don't know him. I've no reason to trust him. You should never have brought him here."
"And what you say goes, does it? You might have been around a while, Leon, but that doesn't mean you're in charge," Arthur snaps.
"And you are, I suppose? Do you never think it's a bit weird that every time we've come close to a major fuck-up, it's your fault?"
"Oh, you reckon?"
"Yeah, I do! If it's not your sister – "
"And the fact that you two spent your teenage years screwing each other's brains out has nothing to do with the way she treats us now – "
" – then it's some twink you were meant to see twice at most."
"Excuse me?" Merlin demands, not even thinking before he opens his mouth.
Arthur's face has gone hard and closed off and he snaps, "Let's take this to another room. Right now."
Leon just rolls his eyes but Arthur gets to his feet and demands, "Do you think I'm playing with you? What part of this looks like I'm joking?"
"Jesus Christ," Leon mutters, and they stalk out of the room together.
There's a silence, stunned on Merlin's part, but the others mainly look bored.
"Okay," Merlin starts. "What – "
"It's okay," Lance says with a reassuring smile. "It happens."
"Right," Merlin says, glancing at the door Arthur and Leon had disappeared through. "And has no one ever told them it's completely ridiculous?"
The others just look at him, and he flings his hands up in exasperation before following Arthur and Leon outside. As he goes, he just about hears Gwaine tell the others, "You know what? Fuck it, I think I'm going to like that kid."
"You treat this like a fucking game," Leon's saying. "You and Gwaine, you're as bad as each other. Just because you can live from scam to scam doesn't mean the rest of us have that option anymore."
"This is worth a hell of a lot more than – "
"Okay, can you stop this, please?" Merlin demands, walking up to them with his arms folded across his chest. "You're grown men. Leon, I'm sorry you don't trust me, but I understand you don't have a reason to. Yet. And you're right, you know, I don't understand most of this. I don't know anything about robbing banks. But I do know some things about that particular bank which will interest you. You lose nothing by hearing me out. And you," he says, rounding on Arthur. "We are going to have very serious words about you fighting over me like a bloody child."
They both look taken aback, but Arthur recovers first and turns to Leon. "Well? You heard him. Are you going to listen to us, at least?"
Leon looks like he wants to object but he just throws his hands up and stalks back the way they came.
As they follow Leon, Arthur presses a quick kiss to Merlin's temple and whispers, "That was brilliant. You're brilliant."
"Come on," Merlin says, "we need to properly tell them what's going on."
Arthur nods, briefly squeezing Merlin's hand. Back in the main office, a quietly hissed argument ceases as they walk in. Leon folds his arms and leans back in his chair, glowering mainly at Arthur.
"God, isn't he serious?" Gwaine says, his voice deliberately light. None of the others seem inclined to relax even a little though, and Gwaine shoots Merlin a pff, these guys kind of look. Merlin offers him a half-hearted smile in return as he and Arthur take their seats again.
"Alright," Arthur says. "Now, I know we've never been in a position to do an inside job like this before, but I don't think I need to explain why it's a good thing. We can keep our interactions with Merlin, make ourselves a hell of a lot less memorable than we might have been otherwise."
They don't look overly impressed, and Arthur's quick to add, "I trust him."
Elyan casts a sidelong look Merlin's way and then turns to Arthur. "That's really cute, mate, but honestly? You're introducing a whole new level of risk, not to mention I'm assuming you're going to want to cut him in?"
"So I'm wondering how far this money's actually going to go," Gwaine says coolly.
Arthur grins, excited "Tell 'em, Merlin."
"Mr Aredian runs private investments as well," Merlin says. "And, uh – there are bonds," he goes on, looking to Arthur who nods. "In the safe in his office."
"Bearer bonds," Arthur cuts in, leaning forward and looking around at the others smugly.
There's a very impressed silence this time, and Merlin can see why. He'd only caught a glimpse of the documents in Aredian's safe once, but they were unusual looking enough that he did some research and found that they were bearer bonds, a payment form rapidly dwindling in usage because there is absolutely no proof of ownership, and almost no possibility of tracing them. Merlin's wondered once or twice if Aredian is up to something dodgy with the crowd of extremely wealthy clients he manages on his private books. Arthur seems to take the others' silence as encouragement and gives Merlin a little grin.
Merlin can see them all thinking, suspect that they, like Arthur when Merlin first told him, are considering the irony of robbing a bank and missing the most valuable opportunity available. Just then, Merlin hears footsteps in the corridor. He can't help the way he jolts, looking around anxiously, and he thinks he's justifiably twitchy, but when a tall, well-muscled man walks into the room Arthur's face splits into a smile and he stands up, clapping the man on the back.
"Arthur told you there was one missing, right?" Gwaine checks with Merlin. "Say hello, Percy."
"Fuck off, Gwaine," the man says pleasantly, offering his hand to Merlin to shake. "You must be Merlin. I'm Percival."
Percy, Gwaine mouths and Merlin hides a smile. Okay, so Leon possibly hates him, Lance and Elyan seem determined to keep their own counsel, and this Percy bloke's so big he's sort of scary by default, but at least Gwaine is funny.
Percival is quickly filled in on the situation, and the possibility of bearer bonds. He takes a seat at the table and asks, "So how are we doing this, then?"
"We don't know whether we are, or not," Leon says. "We haven't exactly had a chance to discuss it."
"What's to discuss?" Percival asks.
"A lot. For a start, do we need to worry about Morgana?" Lance asks tentatively, as though the name is the worst kind of curse.
"I don't think so," Arthur says.
Leon looks sceptical. "Because your judgement is notoriously sound where she's concerned."
"As is yours," Arthur snipes.
"Guys, come on," Lance says, playing peacemaker again.
"Well, I can't afford to miss out on an opportunity like this," Percival says. "I'm in. So I can drive Merlin back to his, do a scout around for anything suspicious."
"Yeah?" Arthur asks. "D'you mind?"
"Um. Yeah, sure," Merlin says. Arthur gives him a reassuring smile.
"Percival's got the best eyes out of the lot of us," he tells Merlin. "I doubt Morgana would bother, but if she's still interested in you, he'll spot it."
Merlin nods. "Well. Okay. See you back here, then?"
"Yeah, shouldn't take long," Arthur assures him. "We'll go for some dinner later."
Merlin nods and can't help grinning when Arthur leans over to kiss him, prompting retching noises from one of the gang – Gwaine, Merlin suspects.
"See ya," he whispers to Arthur.
"Look, I know – I know this is a lot to spring on you. And believe me, I'm well aware how close this came to being an utter disaster, and I'm genuinely sorry for that. All I'm asking is that you consider it."
He looks around at them. Lance and Elyan are giving nothing away, and Leon still looks kind of pissed off. Only Gwaine is showing obvious interest, and Arthur wonders if he could pull this off just with Gwaine and Percival. Not a chance, he admits to himself. At a bare minimum, they'd need Lance or Elyan too, for their technical know-how. But Arthur's already got a few scenarios running through his head, and he can't think that any of them would work without all of them on board.
Arthur stands up and says, "I'm going to leave you to talk about it, okay?"
"Thanks, Arthur," Lance nods, and Arthur returns the gesture as he leaves the room. He wanders through the empty offices until he finds one with a fire exit. The first thing Lance does after securing a property is to disable the alarms and any in-built CCTV, so Arthur doesn't hesitate before pushing the door open and stepping out onto the small metal platform at the top of the stairs.
Arthur shuts the door behind him, relishing the chill of the evening and the spectacular sunset, bleeding molten orange into the heavy grey clouds. He's never felt so simultaneously happy and anxious. Because one way or another, robbery or not, Merlin is with him now. And it's brilliant. But right now, his best mates are discussing whether they should trust him or not, and that...that is a million miles from brilliant. Arthur can't blame them, but it still doesn't feel good.
He digs his phone out of his pocket and scrolls through the numbers absent-mindedly, trying to pretend he isn't waiting for them to decide.
"I trust Arthur. He's never steered us wrong before," is Lance's only comment.
"Yeah, but typically he's thinking with his upstairs brain," Leon says disparagingly.
Gwaine leans forward and looks at Leon seriously. "Are you out?"
Leon looks away for a moment. "No. Not yet. Elena will be beyond pissed off if I'm gone this long for no good reason."
"I don't fancy coming out of this with nothing to show for it either," Lance agrees.
Elyan nods. "I'm not thrilled about bringing someone on board this late in the game, but if there was ever something to take a risk on..."
"Yeah," Gwaine agrees. "Bearer bonds, seriously. It could be millions. Could be tens of millions.
"Better just hope it was bonds," Leon says. "And not just Merlin's imagination getting away with him. That or he's out to screw us over."
Gwaine laughs. "Ah, I doubt that. He seems like a nice kid."
"Oh, great. So the massive liability that could land us all inside for thirty years is nice. That's really comforting."
"God, will you stop talking about prison," Gwaine groans. "Come on. Bearer bonds, man! They're on the way out, we might never get another chance."
Leon huffs but Gwaine can see that he's interested and he digs the toe of his shoe into Leon's shin until Leon grins and slaps at his foot.
"We'll live like princes. For at least six months," Gwaine says.
Elyan scoffs. "I'm taking Gwen on holiday and investing the rest."
"God, isn't that just like a nerd?" Gwaine tuts. "Wine, women and song, my friend."
Leon groans. "I feel like I'm going to end up spending mine on a lawyer."
"Whatever," Gwaine says. "I know where I stand. I'll leave you to talk about it, but for the record, I'm in." He picks up his jacket and cuffs Leon on the back of the head as he passes. "Try and chill a bit, yeah? Blood pressure and all that, old man."
Leon swats at him half-heartedly, but he seems in a slightly better mood, so Gwaine heads out after the other half of the problem.
"Well," Gwaine starts, a gleeful tone to his voice.
Arthur groans. "Come on, then. Let me have it."
"Don't do anything by halves, do you, Pendragon?" Gwaine teases, taking a seat on the step above Arthur.
"Where's the fun in that?" Arthur asks dryly. He pretends he isn't taking comfort in the familiar smells of Gwaine's leather jacket and the cigarette he's lighting.
"So," Gwaine says in a hushed voice, the click of his lighter almost covering his words as he goes on, "Bearer bonds, eh?"
Arthur knows that tone of illicit excitement well from some of the stupider risks he and Gwaine used to take when they were a bit younger, and he can't help grinning.
"Marry him," Gwaine says.
Arthur snorts a laugh and shifts over on the fire escape to make room for Gwaine to get comfortable.
"I'm serious," Gwaine persists, knocking his knee against Arthur's shoulder. "I said it to Leon about Elena, and I'm saying it to you now. Marry that boy."
Arthur cracks a smile. "I take it you're in, then?"
"Oh, hell yeah," Gwaine says. "I wanna see how this turns out."
Arthur laughs but he can't help being grateful for Gwaine's attitude. "Thanks," he says. "And for being nice to Merlin earlier. I appreciate it."
Gwaine waves his words away. "He's part of the gang now, eh?"
"That's – I don't know," Arthur admits. "This isn't him, really."
Gwaine groans. "If he Jiminy Crickets you into a law abiding citizen I'll go right off him," he warns.
The door opens again then and Arthur looks around quickly. It's Merlin.
"We're back," he says a bit unnecessarily, stepping outside and pushing the door shut quietly.
"How's everything?" Arthur asks, standing up quickly and moving closer to Merlin.
"Fine," Merlin says. "Percival lurked. Also, said I could call him Percy."
Gwaine scoffs, sounding put out and Arthur laughs at him.
"I'll leave you two to it," Gwaine says, fishing his set of keys out of his pocket and letting himself back into the office.
In the resulting silence, Arthur holds his arms out to Merlin who steps into them with a relieved sigh.
"Alright?" Arthur asks, pulling back to look at Merlin.
"Fine," Merlin promises him. "Just...processing."
Arthur kisses his forehead. "Percy says everything's okay?"
"Yeah. He said he'd talk to you later, but he didn't see anything."
"Thought not," Arthur says, pulling Merlin into another hug.
"How's it going in there?" Merlin asks.
Arthur shrugs. "Gwaine's in. Other than that, I've no idea."
It's Merlin's turn to tug Arthur in, squeezing him tight. "Whatever happens, there's us."
Arthur nods against Merlin's shoulder, realising suddenly that that was exactly what he needed to hear.
"Should we head back in?"
"No," Arthur says. "We should stay here forever."
"It'll get cold," Merlin points out.
Arthur laughs tiredly and nods. "Yeah. Come on."
Merlin holds onto Arthur's hand as Arthur lets them back inside, and tries to radiate the same reassuring air Arthur had as they arrived. Everyone else is back in the main office, and their conversation sounds casual rather than hushed and urgent like it had when Percy bought Merlin back.
There are two spare seats left empty and Arthur and Merlin sit. Arthur's arse has barely hit the seat before he asks, "Well?"
There's a pause and Arthur snaps, "It's not the sodding X-Factor, will you just – "
"We're in," Leon says, looking at the others, who nod.
"Of course we bloody are," Gwaine says, grinning broadly. "This is the big one, lads."
"You say that about every two-bit casino – "
"Ah, shut up, Leon."
Arthur stands and is enveloped in a sea of hugs and handshakes. Crackers, Merlin thinks distantly as Lance pulls him out of his seat and shakes his hand as well. They are all completely crackers.
"You are all adorable," Elyan says, the first to take his seat again. "And I'm really glad mum and dad have stopped fighting," he adds, gesturing to Arthur and Leon. "But we need to work out how we do this. If it's even possible."
Gwaine grins and squeezes Elyan's shoulder on his way past and says, "You with your big beautiful brain? We can do anything."
Elyan bats Gwaine away but he smiles as he does it. In fact, everyone is smiling and Merlin can't help joining in.
"Alright," Lance says. "Merlin, we need to know everything you know about the running of your branch, Aredian's private investments, his movements, anything you can think of that might help."
"Okay, sure," Merlin says. "Well first off, my instinct is that these private investments aren't totally legitimate."
"Why do you say that?" Leon asks.
"I snuck into his office once to look at the books."
Percy claps Merlin on the shoulder at that, and he almost falls out of his chair.
"That takes balls," Gwaine says approvingly.
Merlin looks at Arthur, who gives him an encouraging nod. "I only got a really quick look, but I'm pretty sure he's skimming off the top. Big amounts too, tens of thousands. I thought anyone legit would notice and report something like that. Also, a couple of times, head office called and they seemed pretty pissed off that he wasn't there. And he just feels wrong to me, you know?"
There's a few nods around the table and Lance asks, "And these bonds?"
"I saw them in the safe in his office once. He was really quick to close it, and it just sat wrong with me. I did some Googling, and I'm pretty sure they were US bearer bonds."
"How much was there?" Percy asks, his voice breaking the hush.
Merlin shrugs. "No idea. Just a stack about so high," he says, holding his thumb and forefinger about half an inch apart.
"Fucking hell," Leon mutters.
"That's..." Elyan says. "That could be millions."
They all look a little shell-shocked, and Merlin can't help feeling excitement brewing in him, only multiplied when he sees the wild little grin Arthur's giving him.
"I need a drink," Leon says, and a couple of the others laugh softly.
Merlin thinks Leon's joking, but Gwaine goes over to a mini-fridge Merlin hasn't noticed before and pulls out a few bottles of beer. While they drink, Elyan opens up a small, compact laptop, asking Merlin more questions as Lance leans over his shoulder to point at the screen once in a while. Merlin has to admit it's slightly amazing to watch Elyan pull up blueprints and business contracts that he really shouldn't be able to access.
"Does he use a separate phone for the private investments?" Lance asks, leaning forward, looking at Merlin keenly.
"Yeah, he's got a couple of different mobiles."
Lance and Elyan exchange glances. "You know the number?" Elyan asks.
"No – Oh! Yeah, maybe," Merlin says. "He called me from a different phone once by mistake and I saved it just in case."
"Just in case?" Leon asks, looking as though he might have just gained a bit of respect for Merlin.
"Oh – in case I pulled a sickie and he called me on that one to catch me out," Merlin says, and Leon's shoulders slump.
Merlin pulls his phone out and finds the number, offering it to Arthur. In turn, Arthur passes it over to Elyan. They really are ridiculous, Merlin thinks, something about the situation making him want to laugh all of a sudden. He is planning a bank robbery, with the best looking collection of people he's ever seen. Lance and Gwaine are variations on a theme of tall, dark and handsome, Elyan certainly has strong and silent down pat, Leon looks like a slightly grumpy puppy, and Percy like a surprisingly handsome mountain. And then there's Arthur who's like a fucking fairytale prince, or something. They don't need guns, Merlin thinks to himself. They could rob most places with a smile and a little well-directed flirting, he imagines. Hell, from the little Arthur's said, that seems to be their M.O. a lot of the time.
"What's the security like on Aredian's office?" Lance asks.
"Most of the time when he's actually there, he has the door double locked from inside. But we can all swipe in apart from that. Some kind of fire regulations, I think."
"And the bonds are in a safe."
"Above and behind his desk, yeah."
Leon rubs his hands over his face. "We need to get Lance in there unnoticed long enough to get in the office and crack the safe."
"What about if he takes your place in the van?" Gwaine suggests.
"Van?" Merlin asks.
"That was plan A," Percy says.
"Elyan and Lance have figured out how to hack a Securicor van. I told you we'd be gone before you realised you'd been robbed," Arthur explains.
"You were just going to stroll in there?" Merlin asks, and he can't help laughing. "Wow, guys."
Even Leon smiles at that, and tells Merlin, "I'm glad you're impressed, but no, Gwaine, he can't. Instantly suspicious if your friendly neighbourhood cash-delivery man doesn't actually come back out again."
"Bollocks," Gwaine mutters.
Suddenly an idea occurs to Merlin, and it's sort of perfect, using Aredian's bloody tight-fistedness against him.
"There's a vending machine in the staff room," Merlin says. "You could restock it, or something?"
"Do you know who the maintenance company is?" Leon asks.
"No, but I can find out. Why?"
"Because if you bust it somehow, one of us can get in the back posing as a repairman," Gwaine explains. "Elyan'll do something high tech and inexplicable to the cameras and we should have a window of opportunity."
"You can do that? Just override the CCTV?" Merlin asks.
"Yeah," Elyan says. "It'd be easier if you can find me out some specs, but I should be able to hack into the recording if nothing else."
"That's bloody terrifying," Merlin says lightly.
"Anyone could do it," Elyan assures him. "Just takes the know-how and a bit of patience."
"No," Arthur says suddenly. "No, this is all too risky."
"I don't know," Elyan starts.
"No, he's right," Percy agrees. "The van and the vault was one thing, but if someone just strolls into the boss's office they'll know it was an inside job."
"Fuck, you're right," Elyan mutters, sitting back in his chair. "I'm willing to bet even with a cloned card they'll know it was Merlin's ID that opened the door. How about – "
They talk for a long time, about security systems, technology Merlin's never even heard of. Gwaine leans over at one point and whispers, "Don't worry, my eyes glaze over too."
Merlin smiles at him before he turns his attention back to the others. As far as he can make out, the main problem is making sure that he doesn't look implicated. And well, there's one really obvious way to do that. He clears his throat and they all turn to look at him.
"If we don't want it to look like an inside job, it has to look like a robbery."
"Merlin, no – " Arthur starts, obviously reading Merlin's intentions correctly.
"It makes sense," Gwaine says.
"No one asked you. Merlin – "
"Listen," Merlin says, turning so he's facing Arthur, focusing on him. "You told me yourself you trust everyone here, right?"
"Of course I – "
"Then I'm choosing to, as well."
Arthur still looks troubled, but Merlin can feel certainty settling on him like a warm blanket. He can do this. They can do it.
"Alright," Elyan says slowly. "How's this? Merlin, if you can damage the vending machine somehow, would you be the one to put in a call to the maintenance?"
"Not usually," Merlin says. "I mean, we'd be expected to wait until Aredian did it. But the others wouldn't think anything of it if I went ahead and did it, I don't think. Why?"
"I can reroute the call to us so there's no link-back to you when they examine the phone records."
"So that gets Lance inside," Leon says, counting off points on his fingers. "And Merlin, of course. Arthur, I presume you want to cover the front of house."
"Yep," Arthur says, and while he still doesn't seem entirely sold on the idea, he does look grimly determined.
Merlin takes a look at his watch and is surprised to realise it's pushing midnight. "I need to get going," he tells everyone. "If that's okay. I've had too much time off work lately as it is."
"Alright," Arthur says. "I can run you home now. Guys, you can figure this out, right? I can come back later."
"Wait," Elyan says. "Give me fifteen minutes and I can forge Merlin a doctor's note."
"Really?" Merlin asks.
"Yeah. Keep the boss off your back," Elyan says. "You need to attract as little attention as possible in the next few days."
Sure enough, inside fifteen minutes, Elyan provides him with a doctor's note that Merlin would never have guessed was fake if he hadn't known.
"Brilliant," Merlin says. "Thank you."
"Alright," Arthur says, leaning forward in his chair. "Now. You need me back here tonight?"
"We'll be fine, Arthur," Lance tells him. "See you tomorrow."
"Well, it was, uh. Nice to meet you all," Merlin says, looking around at them all.
A chorus of goodbyes echo after them as they head for the lift. When they leave, the security guard from before is long gone. Arthur gives Merlin no warning, just flings his arms around Merlin, squeezing tight enough to lift Merlin's feet off the ground.
"Put me down, you maniac!" Merlin protests, laughing. Arthur does, but not before kissing him soundly. It's ridiculous, how happy Arthur looks. They don't talk until they're in the car, peeling away from the kerb.
"How're you doing?" Arthur asks as they drive away. "Holding up?"
"Uh. Yeah. Yeah, I am."
"You sound surprised," Arthur says.
"No!" Merlin says hurriedly. "Well. A little, maybe. They're all so nice."
"Oh, yeah. Leon was really charming."
"Yeah – well, no, but it's understandable. You're asking a lot of them, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Arthur admits. "But if they say they're in, then they're in."
Merlin nods. "I don't doubt that. Gwaine's funny."
"Oh, yeah. He's funny, alright. Born without a sense of danger. Or timing. Or propriety. Or shame. Possibly he was raised by wolves." There's affection in Arthur's voice though, and Merlin smiles. "And you feel – you feel okay about doing all this?" Arthur asks.
"Yeah," Merlin nods. "I know you won't let anything happen to me."
"I won't," Arthur agrees. "But I actually meant the – the stealing part."
Merlin looks out of the window and fiddles with his seatbelt. "Yeah. I don't actually – I'm not sure I was ever really that pissed off about that side of it."
"No. Will pointed out that it was maybe more wounded pride than moral outrage."
Arthur chuckles softly, and reaches out to squeeze Merlin's hand. "Thank god for Will, then."
"He called you Raffles the Gentleman Thief," Merlin says, grinning at the memory.
Arthur laughs hugely this time. "I'll have to remember that one."
Before long they're back at Merlin's flat. "Are you coming in?" he asks.
"If you like. The guys seemed pretty sure they didn't need me back, so I'm all yours."
"That sounds good," Merlin says.
"Merlin, listen. We need to talk about afterwards."
"Yeah," Merlin agrees, pulling Arthur towards the sofa. "I suppose we should."
"The others will be okay. They'll have covers if they need them, but me and Lance – well, it's a bigger risk."
"What are you saying?" Merlin asks.
"I'm saying that even if this goes off without a hitch, we'd need to lie low for a while. Really low. Like, out of the country."
"Oh," Merlin says in a small voice. "For how long?"
"A year," Arthur says, unable to meet Merlin's eyes. "At least, with something this size. I know it's a long time to wait – "
"What do you mean, wait?" Merlin interrupts. "Aren't I coming with you?"
That draws Arthur up short. "Do you want to?"
"Merlin – "
"What? Don't you want me to?" Merlin's tone aims for jovial and misses by a country mile.
"Of course I do! Just – Merlin, this is your whole life I'm asking you to leave behind. Will and Freya. All your other friends. Your home."
"Yeah," Merlin says, gesturing around at the small flat. "I'd really miss this palace." He looks serious before he's even finished joking, though. "Will and Freya – god... We'd come back, right? For visits?"
Arthur nods quickly. "Eventually forever, if that's what you want."
Merlin looks thoughtful and says, "I don't know." – Arthur's heart drops into his stomach – "Maybe I'll get used to seeing the world."
Relief crashes down on Arthur, making it hard to breathe. "There's a lot of it out there."
"Yeah. Heaps of the stuff."
Merlin lets out a nervous sort of laugh and tells Arthur, "That doesn't even make any sense."
"Merlin. Merlin, are you sure?"
"I don't hate my life," Merlin says slowly. "But it's not the one I planned, either. I mean, nor is going on the lam with a sexy bank robber, but maybe it's time to try something new."
Arthur can't help laughing at that, and laces their fingers together. He lifts Merlin's hand to his mouth and kisses his knuckles. Merlin's smiling, but there's something in his eyes too, as though he, just like Arthur, can't quite believe the intensity of what they feel for each other.
"I'm starving," Merlin says after a moment. "Midnight snack?"
Arthur follows Merlin into the kitchen and watches him make cheese on toast. They eat it standing up in the kitchen, the amber street lights outside casting weird patterns over Merlin's face. After, Arthur wipes a smear of grease from the edge of Merlin's lips. They kiss and Arthur can feel all the promise even in such a simple gesture. But he can also see the way tiredness carves itself in the tension around Merlin's eyes.
He wants to promise Merlin forever. Instead, he curls his fingertips around Merlin's jaw and presses one last kiss to his mouth. "Come on. Bed time."
Merlin nods and lets Arthur shuffle him towards the bathroom. Apparently conspiring to rob is pretty damn exhausting.
That still leaves him with time to kill, and he's always jittery this close to a big job, unable to settle. He tries a couple of galleries, but the artwork reminds him too strongly of Morgana's exquisitely decorated accommodation, and he leaves before he can start scowling at innocent bystanders. He calls Percival instead and they spend a few hours at a gym. Arthur finds that much more effective as far as emptying his mind goes.
"How's Merlin?" Percival asks when they're finished, showered, and about to leave.
"Good," Arthur says. "I'm picking him up after work and bringing him to base to go over the plan."
Percival nods. "He's a nice kid."
"Kid," Arthur scoffs. "He's our age, you pillock."
Percival laughs, but then gets serious again very quickly. "Have you talked to him about the implications of all this, yet?"
"He's not stupid – " Arthur starts, deliberately not meeting Percival's eye as he scans the car park.
"I know he's not," Percival says quickly. "But he doesn't live the life we do either."
"He says he's happy to leave for as long as we need to."
Percival looks at him from the corner of his eyes. "And you doubt that?"
"I – not doubt exactly."
"But?" Percival prompts.
Arthur shrugs. "I suppose I'm not sure that he should."
It's impossible to get really, truly annoyed with Percival, no matter how bloody persistent he can be. "Because I'm afraid I'll fuck it all up," Arthur admits. "Happy?"
"Thrilled," Percival says dryly, then catches Arthur's arm and pulls him around to look at him directly. "Listen, Arthur. I've pretty much never seen two people look at each other the way you two do. However deep you think you're in, I'd be willing to bet he feels the same. And you know – " he glances around, lowers his voice, " – what he's agreed to do. Pretty big commitment right there. I think you can stop worrying about him finding a better option."
"You need to stop that mindreading shit," he tells Percy lightly, already feeling better. However dysfunctional it might be, Percival's right. Agreeing to rob a bank with someone is major-league commitment. This will tie them together, always.
"You need a lift anywhere?" Arthur offers as they reach his car.
"Just back to base," Percival says. "Leon filled you in on the details, right?"
"An overview," Arthur says diplomatically. Despite how well it seems to be turning out, Arthur knows Leon is still a bit pissed off at him about all the confusion.
"Well, we're doing the Securicor van," Percival says. "Distraction if one's needed, nice little bonus if it's not. Need to work out some logistics with Elyan."
"Alright," Arthur says, driving out of the car park and heading back towards east London. By the time he drops Percival back to the office block, it's not that long until he has to meet Merlin. He stops for a coffee and then drives to Mansion House tube station where he's arranged to wait.
Merlin makes good time, emerging from the exit before half past five. Arthur waves to him and Merlin jogs over the road to jump into the car. As he pulls his seatbelt on, he leans over and kisses Arthur's cheek. It all feels so normal that Arthur's frozen for a minute, until the driver behind him leans on his horn, bringing Arthur back to the rush of the traffic.
"Did you get everything?" Arthur asks as they peel away.
This morning, he'd given Merlin a list of the essential information – the locations of the silent alarms, the vending machine company name and number, the staff rota – along with other stuff that would be useful.
"Yep," Merlin says, sounding pleased with himself.
When Arthur reaches over and squeezes his knee, Merlin laces their fingers together and says, "Eyes on the road, speed freak."
Arthur deliberately eases up, and it's not much longer before Merlin tenses and says, "Someone's following us."
Arthur's impressed that he noticed. "Gwaine," he says. "Just in case."
"In case what? In case of Morgana?"
"Yeah," Arthur admits. Merlin looks understandably troubled. "Look, the info I gave her will keep them busy for weeks. You're worth taking precautions over, that's all."
"And what exactly is Gwaine planning to do if she does show up?" Merlin asks.
"Ram her car," Arthur admits with a smile. "Honestly, he's going to be gutted if she doesn't show." He's relieved when Merlin laughs.
"Isn't that dangerous, though?"
Arthur shrugs. "A little. Pretty common tactics, really. Mainly drug dealers. Have someone carrying, and someone clean tailing them to cause a diversion if any police show up."
"Wow. Did you ever – "
"What, dealing?" Arthur laughs. "Hardly. Don't get me wrong, Gwaine didn't have a pupil in his eye the first five years I knew him, the fucking pothead. But professionally? Nah. Profit to risk ratio is all out of whack."
Merlin actually looks interested, as though, in spite of himself, he can't help thinking this is all pretty cool. Arthur grins and squeezes his hand.
"Did you have any trouble at work?"
Merlin shrugs. "Bit of a bollocking for missing so many days, but with the doctor's note..."
"No questions asked?" Arthur suggests.
"Exactly. You lot are bloody amazing."
Arthur laughs, happy for the first time he can ever remember to hit traffic. He can't be annoyed by anything that gives him more of this, more time where Merlin is his and his alone.
"Listen, it's only fair to warn you – there's some precautions I'm going to take that the others won't be thrilled about, but just ignore us if it gets heated."
"Heated? What – "
"Don't worry about it. It'll be fine. I've got an ace up my sleeve, anyway."
Merlin groans and feigns reluctance as Arthur leads him onwards. "Definitely worried now."
Upstairs, everyone is already assembled, and someone has set an array of coffees on the table. Merlin and Arthur half-heartedly bicker over who gets the latte and who gets the mocha, but things quiet down quickly.
"Okay," Leon says. "The plan." He stands in front of a flip chart and there are groans and cat-calls from the others. "Shut up, wankers," Leon says, but he doesn't touch the chart. Or, Merlin notes, hiding a grin, the selection of different coloured marker pens he's rustled up from somewhere. "Alright. First link in the chain. Merlin, you mess up the vending machine."
"Ah – how?" Merlin asks.
"With this," Gwaine says, flipping a coin-sized disc of metal over towards Merlin. Merlin picks it up by the small length of wire it's trailing and looks at it. "See it's a bit wider on the end with the wire?" Gwaine asks. "You hold the wire, feed the coin in until it sticks, then tuck the wire in out of sight, blocks the whole thing right up."
"Good," Leon says. "Okay, so as soon as you can, you call the repair company. Five minutes – exactly five minutes – before you do that, you send Elyan a blank text. He'll intercept the call and put it through to one of us. Just keep it brief and normal on your side."
Merlin nods. "Okay. Aredian's booked to be out from late morning tomorrow. I could probably make the call last thing."
"First thing Wednesday would be better," Percy says. "There's a delivery early Thursday, right?"
"Right," Leon says. "And Thursday? What's Aredian doing then, Merlin?"
"Not in until eleven," Merlin says.
"I heard one of the women talking about coming in half an hour late because he wouldn't be there."
Merlin watches them all exchange looks.
"Perfect," Arthur says.
"It is," Lance agrees. "We're never going to have a better opportunity."
"Alright," Leon says. "Now, me and Percival, are going to be occupied pretty much constantly with this Securicor van. Elyan will help us out, but he'll be back ahead of us to handle technical stuff. You just let us deal with all that. Don't even think about it."
"Alright," Merlin nods. "The less I know the better, right?"
"Absolutely," Leon agrees. "Now, this is the most important part. We need to know this perfectly, okay, every one of us. Lance will arrive to repair the vending machine at – provisionally – 9.35. Merlin, you'll need to keep in touch with us, let us know by 9.25 if it's especially busy. That's all, one word to Arthur's phone: busy."
Leon nods and goes on, like he's presenting to the board, or something. "Provided Lance is in at 9.35, Arthur will text you a few minutes later. As soon as you get that text, you must make sure you're the closest person to the back door."
Arthur interrupts. "At 9.43, provisionally," he says, with a sardonic look in Leon's direction, "I'll come through the front door, wearing a balaclava, gun out. At the same time, Lance is going to come through and grab you. He's not going to hurt you, but it'll need to look real, okay? Believable. So like Leon says, from the minute you get my message, you have to make sure you're the one closest to the door."
Merlin nods and glances over at Lance who gives him a half-smile of encouragement.
"Lance's gun won't be loaded – "
"Hang on – "
"Lance's gun will not be loaded," Arthur repeats over Elyan and Leon's angry protests. Lance looks completely unsurprised and Merlin realises they must have discussed this earlier. This is surely the precaution Arthur predicted the others wouldn't be keen on.
"Arthur, listen to me," Leon says, very firm. "I know that you – "
And then Arthur plays what must be his hidden ace. He looks Leon square in the face and says, "You'd do the same if it was Elena."
Merlin flushes bright red and can't quite meet anyone's eye, because Elena is Leon's wife, for god's sake, and Arthur has now all but announced his fucking intentions.
Leon looks at Arthur consideringly. "Bullets in the second and third chambers."
"Third and fourth," Arthur says, like they're haggling, or something.
Leon sits back in his chair. "Okay. Third and fourth. Lance?"
"Fine by me."
"God, could you all stop looking so serious?" Gwaine bursts out. "No one's going to need bullets. This is the perfect crime."
There's a chorus of groans and pretty much everyone throws something at him.
"Alright," Lance says. "Merlin, I'll take you to the office, and you'll swipe us in. When we get inside, we shut the door and Elyan will help me disable the security cameras."
"What will you need me to do?" Merlin asks.
"Nothing," Lance assures him. "Just keep out of my way so I can do what I need to. I bring you out, leave you with the others, and we're done."
"And the van?" Arthur asks. "Who makes the call on that?"
"Elyan," Leon says promptly. "He'll be running communication, so he'll be best placed to say if we need the diversion or not."
"Alright," Arthur nods and turns to Merlin. "Now, as soon as we're gone, let instinct take over. Hit the emergency alarm and the police should be there within three to five minutes."
"Will that give you enough time to get away?" Merlin asks, anxious.
Arthur gives him a reassuring smile. "We drive fast. Don't worry about it."
"Yeah. You'll need to save all your energy for worrying about the police," Leon says, a good deal less reassuring.
"Right," Merlin says quietly.
"You're going to be a key witness to a major crime," Leon says. "So – "
"Ah, stop scaring the poor kid," Gwaine tells Leon. "You'll be fine, Merlin. The police aren't nearly so clever as they'd like you to believe."
"He doesn't need to be cocky, Gwaine," Leon says, huffing.
"He also doesn't need to be a rattling ball of nerves," Gwaine argues.
"I won't be either," Merlin promises. "I can do this. Tell me what to say and how to say it, and I can do this."
"Course you can," Gwaine says cheerfully. "Merlin's cool," he assures the table. "Ice water in his veins, this one."
Merlin can't help grinning because well. He doesn't think he's ever met anyone as cool as Gwaine.
They do a dry run in the office space for timings. It goes well, but Elyan still insists on coaching Merlin on the timings and details until he feels he could recite them in his sleep. To his surprise, it's Leon who steps in.
"Enough. Merlin's got bigger things to worry about."
"Right," Arthur agrees grimly. "We need to give you some coaching on how to talk to the police. In a bit. Let's all just take fifteen minutes, see if anything occurs to us."
Merlin thinks it's pretty obvious to everyone that Arthur wants to check he's handling this okay. It's a little bit embarrassing, sure, to be the only one who's wide-eyed and shocked by all this. In all honesty though, he's not about to complain, because he feels like he hasn't paused to breathe since this whole thing started. Gwaine and Elyan volunteer to go out and do a takeaway run, and Merlin takes the opportunity to pull Arthur out onto the now-familiar fire escape and hug him close, hiding his face in Arthur's shoulder.
"Alright?" Arthur asks gently.
Merlin nods. "Reeling a little bit."
"Wouldn't put it quite like that. Just – I can't quite believe this is my life."
Arthur laughs softly and tilts Merlin's head to kiss him. "For what it's worth, you're doing amazingly. Only three comic double-takes this time."
"You're a dick," Merlin huffs, poking Arthur in the ribs.
"I know," Arthur admits. "It was actually only two."
"Dick," Merlin repeats, and kisses him.
"Ready to go back?" Arthur asks.
Merlin nods, but hangs back. "Do you think – am I really doing okay?"
"Merlin..." Arthur smiles and shakes his head. "You've no idea. I don't think any of them can quite believe how amazingly you're taking all this. I know I can't."
From inside the offices, Merlin can hear the radio Leon switched on, the tail end of Percy's conversation with his sister, and the clatters of Gwaine and Elyan returning. He trusts them, he realises. Trusts all of them to give him the information he needs to get through this in one, non-arrested piece.
"The most important thing is that you act like a victim of a crime," Arthur says when they're settled back around the table with the others, boxes of Chinese food spread out between them. "It's okay to be scared, or nervous, or even a bit pissed off with us. Don't worry about messing up. Take it nice and slowly, don't worry about pausing in your story. They won't expect your memory to be perfect."
Leon's nodding in agreement. "Hedge. Don't be afraid to tell them you don't know, can't remember, didn't notice."
"They won't have any reason to suspect you," Lance says. "Right? No criminal record?"
"No. Well. Warning for possession when I was fifteen," Merlin admits. "Just weed."
Gwaine's offer of a high five is rescinded in the face of Arthur's glare. Even Leon looks like he's trying to hide a smile, while Percival isn't even trying.
"That won't matter," Leon assures him. "It'll have been wiped by now, anyway. So, when they ask you to describe Lance, he's tall. Maybe your height, maybe a bit shorter. Stuff like that."
"I'll have a balaclava on when I come back out and the line is I kept it on the whole time we were in the office. So what you want to give the police is a fleeting impression, like you barely glanced at me while I was on my way in."
"Gotcha," Merlin says.
"What about your finances?" Elyan asks suddenly. "How broke are you?"
"Er – no more than average," Merlin says. "Well. Average for someone with a student loan who's not in a graduate level job, anyway. You think they'll look into that?"
"Unlikely," Lance assures him.
"As long as they believe your story – " Leon starts.
"Which they will," Arthur assures him. "Leon."
Merlin's head is spinning a bit, information seeming to fly at him from every direction.
Arthur seems to notice and goes on, "So, this all sounds good. Time wise, I know why we don't want to hang around for this, but are we set? Seriously?"
"I think we're set," Elyan says. "I spoke to Gwen about uniforms for Lance, Leon and Percival; she'll be here tomorrow afternoon."
"And the technological side of things?"
"Yeah," Merlin interjects. "Can you really hack the CCTV that quickly?"
Elyan smirks. "You play a lot of solitaire at work, Merlin."
Evil geniuses, Merlin thinks. For sure.
"Hearts, actually," he says, and Elyan's smirk turns into a full smile.
"So yeah," Gwaine interrupts. "I'd say it sounds like we're pretty fucking set, doesn't it?"
"Wow," Merlin says. "That was quick."
"Like I said," Arthur tells him. "No point hanging about."
There's a general ripple of agreement, although Leon insists, "Alright, Merlin. We need you back here as soon as you can. We need to go over the plan, and all the eventualities as thoroughly as we can."
"Alright," Merlin says. "I'm finishing early tomorrow, anyway."
"Come here," Arthur says, pulling Merlin in and kissing him hard. "God, you're – you're amazing."
Merlin laughs and smacks Arthur's shoulder playfully. "Because I'm helping you rob a bank?"
"No," Arthur says sincerely. "Just because you are. Now listen, I'm going to ask again – are you sure you want to do this?"
"Of course," Merlin says quickly.
"Merlin. Listen, this is serious stuff – "
"No, really?" Merlin asks, all teasing and gentle sarcasm. "I hadn't noticed."
"Look," Merlin interrupts. "I might be making the biggest mistake of my life doing this, trusting you, but I am doing it."
Arthur looks surprised but undeniably pleased. "It's not a mistake," he promises. "I'll show you, I swear. I know this has all been mad, but it isn't always like this. My life is normally...calm. Happy. We can do anything. You could finish your degree, anywhere you want in the world. You can study all day, we'll make love all night, it'll be perfect."
Merlin laughs and squeezes Arthur's hand. "Sounds good."
"And if you want," Arthur offers impulsively, "We can – this job will set us up nicely for a good while, but then we can... I'll get a job or whatever, be normal."
Merlin doesn't know what to say to that so he just smiles at Arthur and points out, "You hate normal."
"Maybe I'd like it with you," Arthur says.
Merlin laughs, just has to, and pulls Arthur in for another kiss. "C'mon. If I don't go to sleep soon, I'm going to be up all night and I'll be useless at work in the morning."
What he actually wants is to take Arthur to bed and fuck until they're both exhausted. But Merlin knows himself, and right now he's tired enough to sleep. The minute he starts thinking too much though, he knows he'll be awake all night. The others have made it clear to him that his main role right now is to just not arouse suspicion. To behave as normally as he possibly can.
It's in the spirit of that that he drags himself to work the next morning, catching the tube and drinking coffee and chatting with his co-workers, doing all the things he would do in an average day. Just before he leaves, he takes the fake coin Gwaine gave him out of his pocket and jams it into the vending machine. The narrow wire tucks neatly out of sight, and Merlin breathes a sigh of relief.
He gets out of work at three in the afternoon, and is at the office block headquarters before schoolkids are clogging up the tube. This time of day, there are workers from the other floors milling about, and Merlin's still a little blown away by what the others are planning in the midst of all this normality. He tries to look confident as gets into the lift and goes up to the fourth floor.
Before the lift doors are fully open, Lance is there, looking pleasant but guarded. His face melts into a smile when he sees Merlin.
"Hey, you're nice and early. No one else is here yet."
"Oh, okay, are you busy? I can just – wait."
"No, no, it's fine," Lance says, leading Merlin into the large meeting room where they did most of the talking last night. "I was just double checking the plans for taking the Securicor van. Well. More like quadruple checking. I could use an excuse to stop, to be honest."
"If you had the time," Merlin starts. "Can I talk to you about the police again? I mean, they're going to want to interview me, right?"
"Yes," Lance says. "Do you want some coaching?"
Merlin nods. "Please. I was going to ask anyway, but one on one might be – "
Lance laughs. "Yeah. We do have a tendency to all talk at once."
"I noticed that," Merlin says, and Lance pours him a coffee from the percolator, and they sit down at the table.
"They'll probably ask you to describe the whole thing at first, start to finish from you arriving for work to me and Arthur leaving the bank. Don't get worried when they start asking you to repeat yourself – they're not trying to catch you out, just get you to clarify things."
"Gotcha." Merlin thinks that's going to be the hardest part, not letting his anxieties trip him up.
"Now, Arthur's going to be masked as he comes in, so it's me you're going to be describing. When it's Arthur just say he looked tall. For me – well, try to keep it vague, okay, and I'll have my own balaclava on as much as possible to give you an excuse for that, but you can't just give them nothing. Tell them as few direct lies as you possibly can, but like I say, keep things vague. No one's going to suspect much if you say I'm a few inches shorter than I really am, stuff like that."
Merlin hadn't really made the connection before, that Lance will be the one he's describing to the police. He likes Lance a lot, with his soft voice and his gentle, ready smile, and it feels like a huge responsibility suddenly. Merlin takes a swig of his coffee to cover his sudden discomfort.
"The main thing with the police is you have to believe what you're saying," Lance tells him. "The more you believe it, the more other people will as well. Don't give them too much detail, but don't just tell them you don't remember anything, either."
"Right." Merlin nods. "Happy medium."
Lance smiles approvingly and opens his mouth to say something more. Before he can though, but cuts him off when there's a knock at the door. A moment later, a pretty woman with the same kind eyes as Elyan lets herself into the office. Merlin notices Lance's whole posture change in some subtle, indefinable way. He looks somehow uncomfortable and adoring all at once, like the urge to be in her arms is warring with something else. He's almost swaying towards her, Merlin thinks fondly. And the woman, who must be Gwen, looks just the same. Merlin feels utterly invisible as they greet each other.
"Is something the matter?" Lance asks her.
"Just dropping these off," she says, holding up plastic bags filled with clothes.
"Ah, brilliant," Lance says, taking them from her. "Thank you for this."
"Oh, it's not a problem, honestly," Gwen assures him, and then seems to spot Merlin for the first time. She gives him a warm smile. "You must be Merlin. I'm Gwen."
"Hi, Gwen," Merlin says, and there's an awkward moment where they're not sure whether to shake hands or kiss each other's cheeks. Merlin can't help noticing that Gwen and Lance watch each other constantly, but only when they think the other isn't looking. Merlin finds he already understands what Gwaine meant about banging their heads together.
"You should stay for a while," Merlin tells Gwen. "Arthur just texted; him and Percy are on their way with pizza."
Gwen hesitates and Merlin insists, "Come on. It'll be fun. This lot need a civilising influence beyond me."
Gwen laughs, and it elevates her from pretty to stunning as she says, "Alright. That'd be nice. I haven't seen Leon and Percival in ages. Besides," she adds, giving Merlin another sunny smile. "I need to get to know you a little, don't I? After the number you've done on Arthur."
It's Merlin's turn to feel awkward and he fumbles out a reply. Lance is still standing there, almost military in his posture. Merlin has to laugh. It's kind of comforting to know that people who look like they should be modelling underwear on fifty foot billboards can be rendered just as stupid by love as other mere mortals. When he realises exactly what he just thought, Merlin's struck dumb for a moment. Because like he told Will and Freya, it is still much too early for that. But he doesn't have a more suitable word for it. He doesn't just want Arthur, doesn't just have a hopeless crush on him.
He is...smitten, that's the word. He is utterly smitten. It would be more embarrassing if he wasn't fairly sure Arthur's in the same boat. Sure, Arthur's lies had rocked him immediately, but he is coming to believe more and more in the realisation that came to him at his mother's graveside; Arthur told Merlin as much of the truth as he could at the time, and he never, never lied about the things that really mattered.
He's still mulling that over when Percy and Arthur arrive not long later, Gwaine in tow. They're carrying stacks of pizza boxes which they quickly abandon in favour of enveloping Gwen in a series of hugs. Merlin thinks Lance looks – not jealous exactly, but disappointed in his own unwillingness to greet Gwen the same way.
"Hey," Arthur says, detaching himself from Gwen and pulling Merlin into a quick kiss. "Okay?"
"Fine," Merlin assures him. "Starving, though."
Merlin quickly finds that he really likes Gwen. She's sweet and welcoming and friendly, but she takes no crap either. She quickly cuts Gwaine down to size when he starts in with the flirting that Merlin is starting to think might be the man's only form of communication. Gwen doesn't ask any questions about what they're up to, but she obviously knows. The bags of clothes she delivered are Percy and Leon's Securicor uniforms, and Lance's maintenance overalls, cobbled together from ordinary clothes, and modified by Gwen.
It's nice not having the job mentioned. Merlin is surprised by how few second thoughts he's having. Seeing them like this, just a normal bunch of guys like Arthur said, makes the whole thing feel less scary. Elyan and Leon arrive in time to help themselves to the last of the pizza, and at some point the decision is made to go out for a few drinks.
"I shouldn't, should I?" Merlin asks. "I mean, it's a hundred to one chance, but if I run into someone from work while I'm with you lot..."
"Doesn't he just think of everything?" Gwaine teases.
"He's right, though," Leon says.
"You go on without me," Merlin says. "It's fine, honestly. I can get a bus home from round the corner."
"No need," Arthur says, interrupting before the others can get out their protests. "I'm not really feeling a night out at the moment, anyway. I'll give you a lift."
There's a chorus of goodbyes as they part in the now-darkened lobby and Arthur slings his arm around Merlin's shoulder as they walk to his car.
When they get back to Merlin's flat, Merlin knows he should probably offer Arthur a drink at the very least, but he's horribly aware that it's now late on Tuesday, the job is going ahead on Thursday, and who knows when they will see each other again? The thought has been buzzing around in his head the whole drive and he kisses Arthur as soon as they've got the door closed behind them.
Arthur cups Merlin's face in his hands and looks at him. "You okay?"
"Yes," Merlin says quickly. "I just – "
"I know," Arthur says, kissing Merlin again. He seems just as urgent as Merlin feels all of a sudden and they stumble down the hallway to the bedroom. Merlin's already pulling at Arthur's shirt, but he doesn't question Merlin again, just goes along with it, unprotesting and lovely.
Merlin pulls Arthur onto the bed above him, spreads his legs wide and lets Arthur grind down against him, slow and forceful and so good. Merlin clutches at his shoulders, insistently tells him to take off his goddamn trousers. Arthur muffles his laugh into Merlin's throat and then strips them both with an efficiency Merlin can't help but admire.
It feels like only a few heartbeats later that Arthur's pushing inside him, the fingers of one hand laced with Merlin's, holding him steady. Merlin's still tight, but he wouldn't change a thing about it, relishes the deep press and stretch of it. His urgency really must be catching, because Arthur looks desperate for it too. His eyes flicker back and forth across Merlin's face in a way that makes Merlin feel less pitiful about his overwhelming urge to memorise every single detail of this.
Merlin's giddy just from Arthur's quick, shallow thrusts, but he wants so much more. He skims the nails of his free hand up Arthur's back, presses in a little more on the way back down.
"Come on," he says, deliberately challenging. "If I'm not going to see you for a while, you better give me something to remember you by."
Arthur laughs and kisses Merlin, pressing him down into the sheets and fucking him harder. Merlin arches into it, wrestles his wrist out of Arthur's grip to curl both hands through Arthur's hair and pull him into a messy kiss. Arthur bites at Merlin's lip, one thumb pressed to his hip, hard enough that Merlin thinks it might just leave a smudged, thumb-print bruise.
Merlin curls his leg across Arthur's back and it pulls him off rhythm, so they're just grinding together, trading attempts at kisses that just leave them both even more breathless. It doesn't take long for either of them and when Arthur comes apart a few beats after Merlin, he sinks down onto Merlin's chest, his body a surprisingly comfortable weight. Merlin runs his fingers through Arthur's hair, lingering where sweat has darkened it at his temples.
"Don't go to sleep," he tells Arthur. "We're doing that again soon."
"If you think you can manage it," Merlin says cheekily.
Arthur laughs and pinches Merlin's ribs lightly, just where he's ticklish. Merlin bats his hand away and listens to the sounds of Arthur padding over to the bin, disposing of the condom, and ducking into the bathroom to wash his hands. He brings the cloth back with him and wipes off Merlin's stomach before flopping down at his side.
"Afterwards," Arthur says a few minutes later. "You wait, and I'll contact you. Within the week, probably sooner. Then give it a few weeks, maybe a month, and you hand in your notice. Maybe you got jittery after the robbery, maybe you just want a change of scene. You work out your notice, nice and calm, and then you meet me. I've a friend who can get us to Ireland, and then...wherever you want. Anywhere. Everywhere."
Merlin swallows. Arthur looks so happy and excited, and he's clutching Merlin's hand. He can hardly bear to ask, but really, he has to. It's not even so much that he has doubts – he knows he should have them, though.
"Okay," he says, "and that sounds great, really it does. It's just – "
"What?" Arthur asks carefully. "Are you having second thoughts?"
"Not – I – it's just, well. You do sort of earn a living being dishonest."
"Oh." Arthur blinks and his eyes briefly show real hurt before he says jokingly, "Ouch."
Merlin pulls an apologetic face and says, "It's just – "
"No, it's okay, I get it," Arthur says. "Look," he says, letting go of Merlin's hand. "Here." He pulls the ring off his forefinger and sets it neatly on the bed between them. "The closest I ever came to doing serious time was over this ring. The guys nearly cut me off over it, but I will always, always come back for this."
He picks the ring up again and turns it over in his fingers before he puts it into Merlin's palm and closes Merlin's hand around it.
"I want you to keep it."
It so obviously costs Arthur something to say that that it makes Merlin's mind up for him and he says, "You don't have to."
"I want to," Arthur insists.
"It's lovely," Merlin says, turning the ring over in his palm.
"I had it made from some of my mother's jewellery so please don't lose it."
"Oh God, I can't – " Merlin starts.
"Yeah, you can," Arthur says. "I insist."
"But – "
"I trust you not to lose it," Arthur tells him. "You'd better not wear it, not visibly at least, just in case."
Merlin runs his fingers through Arthur's hair, touches his face softly. "You are – "
"What am I?"
"Don't know yet," Merlin admits. "Amazing springs to mind. Might revise that up to bloody amazing if you think you can get it up again before dawn."
"Insatiable," Arthur says, sounding obnoxiously pleased about it.
"Hey," Merlin protests. "If I'm not going to see you for at least a month, you better make it count."
"Don't," Arthur protests. "I don't even want to think about it."
"Arthur – "
"Phone sex," Arthur suggests, kissing his way to the hollow between Merlin's collarbones. "Lots and lots of phone sex."
"Never had phone sex before," Merlin admits.
"We'll become experts in the field," Arthur promises and Merlin laughs.
The ring in Merlin's hand is reassuringly warm and he carefully sets it on the bedside table when their kisses turn heated again.
Much later, Merlin is just starting to drift off to sleep when Arthur says, "It got sold at auction. My mum's stuff. Along with pretty much everything else."
"And you – found it and stole it back?" Merlin guesses.
"A few pieces, yes," Arthur says, sounding ready to defend himself.
"Good," Merlin says. "Whatever your dad did, no one has the right to take your mother's memory away from you."
Arthur's quiet for a moment before he leans forward to kiss Merlin's forehead. "Let's get some sleep."
Merlin lets it go until about eleven, then texts Elyan 'now' and dials the phone number he found on the front of the vending machine. The phone rings twice and then there's a pause before it picks up again mid-ring. That'll be Elyan catching the call and diverting it. Sure enough, it's Gwaine's voice that answers with a casual, "Yeah?"
Emma's hanging around so Merlin's brusque as he gives the details of the bank and the machine.
"Oh, really?" Gwaine asks. "How terribly inconvenient. I'll inform those who need to know. Expect us tomorrow." Then, softer, "You're doing great, kid."
"Alright, thank you," Merlin says. "Tomorrow, then."
"Mr Aredian won't like that," Emma says.
Merlin shrugs. "See if he likes a caffeine free work force, either," he jokes.
She laughs and agrees before offering to do a run around the corner to Costa. The rest of the day drags horribly. Merlin had thought he'd been bored and impatient for the working day to end all the time, but it has nothing on this. He keeps thinking tomorrow, tomorrow, and of course, today of all days, they're really quiet.
Merlin rearranges leaflets, files credit card applications, organises his desk drawers, sneakily cruises Facebook a little. Nothing helps until about half past three, when he gets a text from Arthur asking him to dinner tonight. The way it's worded leaves no doubt that in the midst of what they're planning, Arthur is still trying to find the time to date Merlin. After that, the afternoon fairly flies past.
He meets Arthur in an underground car park around the corner from the bank and has to laugh as he ducks into the car.
"This is very Jason Bourne," he says, at Arthur's enquiring look.
Arthur rolls his eyes and leans over to give Merlin a quick peck. He then proceeds to drive miles out of the city before eventually stopping at what seems like a random pub. The food is nothing particularly special but it is wonderful to have a few hours to talk about things unrelated to the job. They argue about movies, swap stories of disastrous dates, steal bites of each other's food. Under the table, Merlin traps one of Arthur's feet between both of his own. Arthur reaches across the table and catches Merlin's hand without missing a beat in his story.
They take their time going back into London, Arthur pointing the car down a bunch of little lanes and side roads before finally heading for the motorway. The more time they spend together, the more sure Merlin feels that they can do this. That they deserve the future this can give them.
Merlin doesn't have to ask Arthur to stay the night, although he was planning to. Arthur gets out of the car with him as though it was never up for question and Merlin hooks his fingers through Arthur's as they climb the stairs to his flat.
Worth it, Merlin reminds himself. It is so, so worth it.
He must move or something, because Arthur cracks open one eye and gives him a groggy look.
"Okay?" he asks, and Merlin nods. Arthur just sighs, turns over, and pushes himself up on one elbow to look at Merlin.
"Nervous as hell," Merlin admits.
"I'd be more worried if you weren't," Arthur tells him gently. "Look, you don't – we can do this without you."
And that's...sweet, really. But... "No you can't."
"Well... No. But we can put it off and find a way. Or we can just – we can go," Arthur says, and it sounds like the words are hard for him to say. "Me and you. We can just – "
"What about the others?"
"They – they're my best friends. My brothers. But you're...something more."
"I would – I'd never ask you to," Merlin swears, and he doesn't miss Arthur's little sigh of relief.
"C'mere," he says, and pulls Arthur into a quick kiss. "Aren't you meant to be meeting the others in about half an hour?"
"Fuck! Yes! Shit, where are my clothes? Can I use the shower?"
"Of course. I'll put a pot of coffee on."
It feels like any other morning, and Merlin experiences a weird moment of duality at the normality of it, like they're both getting ready to go work, and they'll come home tonight to half-drunk coffees and toast crusts on the worktop. Once the coffee machine's dripping steadily, Merlin ducks into the bathroom to brush his teeth, shamelessly ogling Arthur through the glass walls of the shower.
Arthur drinks a coffee, wolfs down half a slice of toast and then kisses Merlin, squeezing his hands tight. After the kiss – curiously chaste – ends, Arthur presses their foreheads together and takes a few steadying breaths.
When he moves back, he opens his mouth to speak, and Merlin presses his fingers to Arthur's lips.
"Stop. Don't. If we start saying the stuff we want to stay you'll be late. Leon's scary when he's mad, and I like your face as it is."
Arthur laughs softly and nods.
Be careful, good luck, I miss you already. The words are all right on the tip of Merlin's tongue, but if he won't let Arthur say it, then he can't either. He catches Arthur's face between his hands instead and kisses him, hard and fast, trying to get his point across. They stay pressed close together for a long moment before Arthur wrenches himself away, squeezing Merlin's shoulder as he goes.
"See you later," he says over his shoulder and then he's gone, closing the front door quietly as he leaves.
Merlin sits in silence until he hears the downstairs door onto the street open and close. Then he shakes himself and gets into the shower. It's still warm, surfaces covered in condensation from the heat of Arthur's shower, and Merlin takes his time, deliberately doesn't think about what's ahead.
One step at a time.
After Marian arrives, Merlin starts feeling more and more tense until the time comes. As soon as Lance walks in though, some weird calm descends on him. Luckily, Merlin doesn't have a customer when Lance arrives, clad in overalls and toting a tool box. Merlin takes a fleeting look at his ID, gives him the code to the lock on the staffroom door and goes back to work.
Better. He feels better.
Merlin knows what to do now that Lance is inside the bank, has a plan to follow, and it makes everything much easier. His desk is closest to the staffroom anyway, so it's easy for him to occupy himself with a stack of forms, making sure he doesn't need to move away from the doorway.
This is better than they expected, he realises as the lone customer finishes paying in a bill at the bank of ATMs along one wall, and then leaves.
"Perfect," Arthur says.
"Where are you?"
"Round the corner."
"One minute to go," Elyan says.
Merlin has to remind himself that it's not loaded, hardly helped by Lance and Arthur shouting over each other, and the other staff screaming.
"Lady, I can see your hand," Lance barks. "Move any closer to that alarm and I'm gonna shoot this one in the head."
"Oh, Jesus Christ, Emma, don't – "
Lance shakes him a little and Merlin shuts up. As Lance starts pulling him towards Aredian's office, Merlin hears Arthur's calm, authoritative voice saying, "This will be over very quickly, and none of you will be hurt as long as you do exactly as I say."
Merlin doesn't have to fake the way his feet tangle under him as Lance shoves him along.
"Open the door," Lance shouts, more for the benefit of the rest of the staff than for Merlin. "Open the fucking door!"
Merlin's hands are shaking as he lifts his card to the slot. The light stays persistently red the first time Merlin swipes, but the second time it turns green and Lance bundles him through the door. He kicks it shut behind them.
"I can see two cameras," Lance whispers, hardly moving his lips, and not losing his grip on Merlin at all. They're so close that Merlin hears Elyan's tinny voice through the earpiece saying, "There's four."
"Alright," Lance breathes, and he makes a show of dragging Merlin to the corner of the room, pushing him down. Merlin plays his part, twitching as though he's thinking about making a dash for it, shrinking back when Lance waves the gun towards him again. With a quick blast of spraypaint, Lance deals with the two visible cameras. Elyan directs him to the others, one embedded in the wall opposite the safe, and one above the door. He takes care of them too and Elyan tells him, "Okay. You're the invisible men."
Lance lowers his gun immediately and Merlin pushes himself up from the corner. "Well done," Lance tells him. "Very convincing. Are you okay?"
"Of course. Was it – did I do okay?"
"Perfect so far," Lance assures him.
"What next?" Merlin asks him, but Lance is already at the safe.
"Put these on," he says, pulling a pair of handcuffs from inside his jacket and tossing them to Merlin.
"Kinky," Merlin observes. There's probably something wrong with how much he's enjoying this. Lance doesn't even seem to hear him, too absorbed with the safe. He pulls out a selection of tools from inside his jacket and as Merlin locks a cuff around his left wrist he asks, "Can I help?"
"No," Lance says, shorter than Merlin's ever heard him. "Just let me work."
The whining of the drill is loud in the office, tearing through the safe at a downward angle. Merlin's expecting something horrible to go wrong, some explosion or alarm. There's only the screech of metal on metal though, for a few long, long seconds. Then Lance feeds a narrow tube into the hole he's made and puts his eye to one end of it. Carefully, every line of his body tense, he turns the dial a few times, a soft click coming from the safe each time he pauses. Merlin doesn't know how much time passes, but it feels like an age. But then the safe swings open so easily it's almost anti-climactic.
"Impressive," Merlin says, but again Lance doesn't seem to register the words. He has his palms flat on the wall to either side of the safe and his breath has gone a bit funny.
"The bonds aren't gone, are they?" Merlin asks anxiously.
"No," Lance tells him, pulling out a thick wad of papers. "No, they're not."
"How – how much is there?" Merlin asks quietly. The pile of bonds looks larger than it did the couple of times he caught sight of them.
"Don't know," Lance says, thumbing through them. He pulls one loose and shows it to Merlin. "Well, there's half a million quid."
Merlin squeaks. "Holy crap."
As Lance starts shoving handfuls of the bonds into his bag Merlin says, "Leave some behind."
Lance glances over at him a question in his face.
"They're going to wonder if it's an inside job no matter what we do," he says quickly. "At least give them cause to wonder about Aredian's finances and not, say, the hard-working staff."
"Good thinking," Lance says, as he crumples a couple of the bonds a bit and lets them fall to the floor in front of the safe as though dropped in haste, "Sure you haven't done this before?"
"Positive," Merlin assures him.
Lance nods. "Come on. Last leg now."
"Here," Merlin says, holding out his single cuffed wrist. "Do them up behind me, yeah? You wouldn't have my hands at the front if you were really trying to restrict my movement, would you?"
Lance gives him a strange, speculative look and Merlin shifts on his feet. "What?"
"Nothing," Lance says, fastening the second cuff. "You're surprisingly good at this."
"Oh..." Merlin blushes a little and fidgets. "Well, you know, everyone experiments."
Lance scratches his nose awkwardly and says, "I...was talking about the criminal stuff. But okay. Arthur will be pleased."
"For God's sake," Merlin protests. "Don't make me laugh, I'm supposed to be scared of you."
"Alright," Lance says. "The cuffs aren't too tight, are they?"
"Good. Arthur was very...forthright about your comfort, never mind your safety," Lance informs him, looking faintly amused.
"Right," Merlin says, a blush tinting his cheeks.
"Come on, then," Lance says, and he hooks his strong arm around Merlin's throat again, the snub muzzle of the gun pressed to his ribs this time. Even knowing there's no bullet in the first or second chamber isn't enough to make him totally comfortable with the situation. Probably good, on balance. He's not entirely faking his fear. Lance pushes Merlin ahead of him and the next few seconds pass in a blur, a quick glimpse of Marian and Emma sitting in the corner with their hands on their heads before Lance pushes him to join them. He catches Arthur's eye briefly before he and Lance back out of the door, keeping the three of them covered with their guns until the door slams shut behind them.
Merlin's heart is racing in his ears.
"Are they gone?" Emma asks tearfully.
"Yeah," Merlin says. "I think so. Let me – are you all okay? I'm gonna go and hit the emergency alarm."
Before he can work himself to his feet though, Marian has scrambled up and shoved the emergency alarm under the corner of the nearest desk. Merlin's heart is pounding in his ears, and his wrists are starting to ache from the cuffs. While it was happening, every second had seemed to take an age, adding up to more and more time for something to go wrong. Now it's over though, the world seems to have slammed back to its regular speed. He tries to push himself upright but his knees buckle and he drops back to the floor.
"Holy fuck," he mutters. "Holy fuck."
It seems like only a few minutes before he hears the wail of sirens and the bank gets abruptly crowded with police officers. They're armed, Merlin realises, and he feels a stab of guilt at putting Marian and Emma through this.
No one got hurt, he reminds himself as one of the officers cuts the cuffs from his wrists and drops them into an evidence bag.
Aredian arrives about ten minutes after the police, and Merlin has to try really hard not to laugh at the look on his face when he finds out his office was targeted.
Merlin's first instinct is to go home and wait to hear from Arthur, but they'd discussed this. If he makes his statement early, the police are more inclined to put any discrepancies down to stress.
"I'm alright," Merlin tells the police when they ask if he's ready to talk to them. "Wrists are a bit sore, but I didn't bump my head or anything. Just need a cuppa."
The coppers look amused at that and Merlin congratulates himself. Good old stiff upper lip, nothing a nice cup of tea can't fix. He wants to laugh but just lets himself be led to the police car. The younger of the two offers sits in the back with him, probably so Merlin doesn't feel like he's been arrested. He still does, a little bit, and deliberately keeps his breathing light and even.
The station's not far, and Merlin is handed a cup of tea and left to wait in an interview room. A man comes along and photographs the marks on Merlin's wrists from the cuffs, and then he's on his own for five minutes, just long enough to start feeling twitchy, when the door opens. Merlin recognises one of the officers from the bank, but the plain clothes guy is new. CID, Merlin presumes. Sure enough the man introduces himself as DCI Hamilton and the woman as Sergeant Embery.
The interview is pretty much what the others had lead him to expect, but nothing they'd said could have prepared Merlin for the rush of anxiety he feels as the recording clicks on. He determinedly shoves it down and does as the officers ask, which is to describe his working day in as much detail as possible. They let him go at his own pace at first, and Merlin is almost relieved when they interrupt at his mention of Arthur's entrance into the situation.
"Did you see his face at all, Merlin? Anything at all."
"No, sorry," Merlin says. "He already had that – balaclava thing pulled down when he came in."
"And then what?"
"Well, it was – I don't know, it seemed like exactly the same time, the guy came out from the back. They were both waving guns around, shouting."
Merlin expects to be terrified, but as he goes on he thinks actually, it's kind of easy. He can remember all the times he practiced with Lance or Arthur, and the little bits of advice the others had given too.
The police are most interested in what happened while Merlin was with Lance in Aredian's office.
"But you saw him earlier?" they insist. "Someone must have let him in."
"Yeah, our vending machine in the staff room broke down the other day. We called the company and the guy turned up this morning."
"Well, I made the call. Yesterday at lunch time. Some of us had been complaining about it, so I rang them up."
"And this repairman that turned up this morning. He seemed genuine?"
"Yeah," Merlin nods. "He had those grey overalls with the logo on, and he showed me ID and everything."
"What was the name?"
"Uh – " Merlin draws a genuine blank. Lance had only flashed the ID card very briefly, and it was the first time Merlin had seen it. "I'm not sure. It might have been Noah something. I'm sorry, I'm really not sure."
"That's alright. Undoubtedly fake, anyway. What did he look like?"
"Dark hair and eyes. His hair was about so long," Merlin says, fingers fluttering around his ears, an inch or so short of where Lance's hair falls, but an excusable mistake. "I suppose around my height, a bit shorter, I don't know. To be honest, I wasn't paying that much attention. God, what an idiot, I'm sorry."
"Alright. That's something to go on at least."
Is it? Merlin wonders. He hopes he hasn't said too much.
"So he grabbed you. Took you into the office at gunpoint, then what?"
"He kept hold of me and he was speaking to someone – "
"Oh a phone?"
"No. No, an earpiece, I guess? He didn't have a hand free. He shoved me into the corner and spray painted over the cameras. Then he got the cuffs on me, and – look, I know I should probably have done something, but I was scared, okay? I mean, they had guns."
"You did the right thing," one of the officers assures him. "Heroes get nowhere these days."
Merlin nods and carries on with his story, saying that Lance spoke to the same mysterious someone, but Merlin doesn't know who, only that he did something he didn't let Merlin see with what sounded like a drill, and then he was shoving paper sheets into a bag and had the gun on Merlin again, dragging him back out the front.
"It – I'm sorry," Merlin says, rubbing his hands over his face. "I feel like I'm gabbling. It all happened so fast."
"That's fine," Embery says, giving him an encouraging smile. "We understand."
They ask a few more questions, following up on things Merlin said, clarifying various details before Hamilton leaves him alone with Embery for a moment, returning quickly with a printed copy of Merlin's statement. Merlin reads it carefully, fighting his instinct to skim through it and get the fuck out. The anxiety keeps hitting and receding but he manages to nod and sign the declaration at the bottom of the station.
"Will I need to come in again?"
"Probably. Hopefully, we'll catch these guys, and we'll need you as a witness. Either way, we have your details, we'll be in touch as and when we need to."
"Alright," Merlin nods.
When he leaves the police station he walks to the bus stop, horribly aware of everything. Is he walking too fast? Too slow? He can't help expecting cries of hey you! Wait a minute!, pounding footsteps, and then the inside of a cell. Instead the bus pulls up just as he gets there. He steps on board, swipes his oyster card and sits down, his heart pounding. When he gets home it feels ridiculous to go into the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea, but that's exactly what he does, as though this is any other evening. Admittedly, most other evenings he wouldn't have added that splash of whisky to the mug, but he needs something to steady his hands and his nerve. What works a lot better than the booze is working Arthur's ring out of his pocket and touching the smooth curve of it.
Merlin's been home all of ten minutes when his phone rings and he almost jumps out of his skin.
"Merlin!" Emma says as he picks up. He's almost forgotten about his colleagues amidst all the drama.
"Emma! God, are you alright?"
"Yeah," she says. "Shook up, but okay. What about you?"
"About the same," Merlin says, and it isn't a lie. "They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"No, scared the crap out of me, but I'm fine."
"What're we meant to do about work, d'you think?" she asks.
"No idea," Merlin says. "I guess Aredian will let us know."
"Don't bet on it."
"Police took him in just after you left. Looked a lot less friendly than they did with you."
"Wow. You think he's in on it?"
"Ugh. Nothing would surprise me when it comes to that man."
"Yeah," Merlin agrees. "Did the police ask you about him?"
"No," Emma says, and Merlin feels relieved.
"Me neither. Are you due to work tomorrow?" he asks.
"Not til the afternoon."
"Bugger. I think I'm gonna go in at nine as usual. At least til we know otherwise."
She sighs. "Yeah. Suppose so. I really don't wanna go back, to be honest with you."
Merlin feels horribly guilty. "Are you okay, Em? Do you need me to come over or something?"
"No, I'm at my boyfriend's, he's making tea to order and toast whether I want it or not, for some strange reason."
Merlin laughs. "As long as you're okay. I'll text you tomorrow as soon as I know anything."
"Thanks, Merlin. I'm glad you're okay."
After they hang up, Merlin thinks about calling Will and Freya, but he can't lie to either of them, and if he tells them there was a robbery at the bank, they'll have questions he won't be able to answer over the phone. Doing normal things feels painfully strange, but Merlin forces himself into it anyway, watches a couple of soaps and then sit-com reruns.
He's surprised, both by how tired he is, and by how well he sleeps when he gives in and curls up in bed before the 10 o'clock news is even over. At two in the morning his phone wakes him up with the buzzing of a text message and he fumbles out of sleep, grasping for it. It's from a number he doesn't recognise and all it says is, nice handcuffs. Merlin grins hugely into his pillow.
"I'm Merlin Emrys," he says, displaying his ID in turn as she lets him in.
"Hi, Merlin. I'm Kate. Come on, have a seat."
Once they're seated, Kate smiles at him again, apparently genuine and says, "I'm heading up the internal inquiry. It's routine in situations like that."
Merlin nods. "Okay. Is there – do you need anything from me?"
"Witness statement to start with," she says. "We might ask you to come to an interview, at which you're entitled to have an advocate, which can be a professional, or just a friend. It's nothing formal at this stage."
"No problem," Merlin says, keen to seem helpful. "Do you need me to do the statement now?"
"What I'd prefer is for you to take a day or two to write down your account of the whole day, make sure you're not missing out on anything, however trivial it might seem."
"Okay," Merlin says. "I can do that. I take it we're closed for the day?"
"Yes, probably for a couple of days. Someone will be in touch to discuss it with you as soon as possible."
"Alright," Merlin says. "No problem."
"I'd like to apologise on behalf of the company for what you went through. I appreciate that it must have been extremely unpleasant."
"Oh – well, I'm just glad no one was hurt," Merlin says. "It's not like it was your fault."
Kate nods as they stand and head for the door. "Still," she says. "If you don't feel ready to return to work by the time we contact you, please feel free to say so. I understand you were caught up in the whole mess rather more than your colleagues."
"Yeah," Merlin says, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess so."
"Alright, Merlin, well, as I said, myself or someone else will be in touch soon."
Merlin walks out into the cool morning air and has absolutely no idea what to do for the rest of the day. True to his word, he texts Emma as he walks down the road, telling her not to bother showing up for her afternoon shift. He also fills her in on the internal inquiry and she replies with half a screen of exclamation marks followed by 'i KNEW he was dodgy'. Merlin laughs and lingers a moment, tempted to send a text to the number Arthur used to contact him last night. He decides against it though, mainly because Arthur had said he'd be switching phones regularly for a while, but partly because he has no idea what he'd say. All there is to do now is wait.
He ends up getting the tube into the west end just for the hell of it, goes to lunch, browses a few bookshops. He can't help checking his phone, even though he knows it's probably pointless. They joked about phone sex, but they both knew it was just a joke. Merlin's contact with Arthur will be minimal. For Merlin, this is going to be the toughest part. He touches the shape of Arthur's ring through his shirt, trying to draw determination out of the metal, out of what it means that Arthur left this ring with him. He can't wait to see it back on Arthur's finger where it belongs.
There's some confusion for a day or two, but when they're called back into work, Aredian is nowhere to be seen. Head office has sent a new interim manager called Mary, who is warm and lovely to them all. It makes a very refreshing change, and Merlin finds he doesn't totally hate going to work. Sometimes it makes him feel like he's going to squirm out of his skin with guilt, like his role in the robbery is tattooed across his forehead for everyone to see.
Most of the time though, it's okay. It's a bit of a limbo state, and Merlin does a lot of reading, a lot of killing time on the internet, a lot of wandering around the city (which, he's only just starting to realise, he's really going to miss).
After his second week back at work, Merlin phones Will and Freya to invite himself down for the weekend.
Will obviously knows something's up because he says, "Two visits inside a month, we're honoured," and there's an obvious prompt in his voice.
"I miss you guys," Merlin says, which isn't a lie. Soon it'll be truer than ever, or at least he'll be missing them from further away, for longer at a time.
Will just hums, obviously not taken in but willing to drop it for now.
Maybe 'drop it' is relative though, because when he gets to their flat late on Friday they're both waiting for him with matching, anxious looks on their faces, and the air of utter determination they bring out in each other. When Will lets him in, he takes Merlin's bag out of his hands, and shoves him towards the sofa. Freya pushes a cup of tea across the table to him and they sit shoulder to shoulder like the world's most unexpectedly terrifying interview panel.
"Spill," Will orders, with no preamble.
Merlin looks back and forth between them a couple of times and then takes a deep breath. "I'm going away for a while," he tells them, picking the teacup up to cradle it between his palms, soaking up the warmth.
"With Arthur?" Freya asks, her voice hushed.
Merlin nods. "I'll be in touch, you know I will. I just wondered – can you maybe visit my mum once in a while?"
"'course, mate," Will says. "As if you need to ask."
"Did you – he did it, didn't he? The bank?"
"We did," Merlin says, because he can't let them be in any doubt that he's in just as deep as Arthur is. He can't stand the thought that they might resent Arthur for this.
"Jesus, mate," Will says in a low murmur.
"Where are you going?" Freya asks anxiously.
"I don't know yet," Merlin says. "Abroad somewhere, for a while."
They're taking it better than he could ever have imagined, but he doesn't think he's imagining the brief flicker of envy on Will's face. They were supposed to be going out, but after Merlin's bombshell, the three of them spend the night in a nest of blankets on the floor, watching terrible movies they loved as teenagers. Merlin tries to pretend it doesn't feel like a goodbye.
There's no pretending at five in the morning though, when Freya slips out of the bedroom and sits on the sofa next to Merlin's shins, shaking him awake. She smiles as he scrubs the sleep from his eyes.
"Are you okay?" he whispers.
She nods and Merlin moves, curling up into a ball and giving her room to do the same, along with half of the covers.
"Do you love him?" she asks.
Merlin shrugs, shy in the way Freya sometimes still makes him. "It still seems really soon but – I feel like it's kind of inevitable, yeah."
She beams at him. "I'm so glad. We do worry about you, Merlin."
"I know you do, love. I'll send you a postcard."
"You better," she says, squeezing his foot.
"Look after him for me," Merlin whispers, staring at the stitching on the blanket he's wound around his fists.
"I always do, silly."
"Try tell him that."
"Yeah," Freya says, her voice soft and affectionate.
They will be okay, he tells himself on a wave of relief. They have been okay for a long time.
Maybe ten minutes later, Will comes stumbling out of the bedroom with the duvet around his shoulders. He mumbles something about Merlin stealing his woman, then promptly goes to sleep on the floor in front of the sofa.
They spend the rest of the weekend together, and Will and Freya's first priority is to get every possible detail out of Merlin. He trusts them implicitly and so he spills it all out, from meeting everyone and planning the robbery, to the police interviews. Freya's dumbfounded and Will's unabashedly impressed, like it's a movie. Merlin can't help catching his enthusiasm and they snigger like kids until Freya snaps at them about the danger. Merlin rushes to reassure her as best as he can, Will defending him.
Saturday night, they go clubbing at one of their old haunts. It might even have been the first place Will and Freya snogged, Merlin thinks at one point in the evening. Merlin gets up early and surprisingly hangover-free on Sunday and goes by the graveyard with a bunch of wild daisies he picks along the way. For once he doesn't feel like talking, just spends ten minutes tidying up his mum's grave and another half hour or so sitting there, soaking up the sense of her. The first few times he came to the grave it was out of nothing more than duty, and he'd expected to hate everything about it, from the headstone to the fresh grass. He's always surprised how much of a connection he feels to her here.
When he gets back to the flat it's obvious they both know where he's been. Freya volunteers to make breakfast, and Merlin takes the opportunity to get Will on his own for five minutes. He hands him an envelope stuffed with money and Will looks at him, eyebrows raised.
"What's that for?"
"Van hire. Can you clear out what's left in my flat after I'm gone?"
"Mate, that's – I mean, yeah, obviously, but that's way more than van hire and petrol," Will says, thumbing through the notes in the envelope.
"Call it a going away present," Merlin suggests. "Go on holiday or something."
For a minute he thinks Will's stubborn streak is going to win out but he just cracks a huge grin and says, "That's right, you're a bloody millionaire now."
"Not – not really."
Merlin can't resist. "Well, we did have to split it seven ways."
Will crows with laughter and shoves at Merlin. "You are such a jammy bastard."
Merlin lets himself be pulled into a headlock for a second and when he sits back up, the envelope is out of sight.
After breakfast they lounge around in front of the telly, all squashed together on the sofa. Around midday, Freya starts grumbling about wasting their last day, and in a fit of nostalgia, they spend the rest of the afternoon in the pub round the corner from their old secondary school. Merlin leaves it as late as he can, but they all know he has to leave tonight. They walk him to the station and Merlin has to keep his hands shoved in his pockets and his face half-averted because if he looks either one of them in the eye right now, he thinks he'll cry. It's not like he hasn't cried in front of them both before, but it'll be horrible, some disgusting chain reaction of tears and snot and he'll miss his train and end up sleeping on a bench at Fratton station like he did that time in uni.
Inevitably, they do all cry a bit, while they're waiting on the platform for Merlin's train. It's Will that starts it, however much he blinks and bitches about dust. That sets Merlin off and then Freya's helpless for a moment too before she waves her hand sharply.
"No. Come on. We do this in the privacy of our respective homes," she says and Merlin hiccups out a laugh, pulling her into a fierce hug. She laughs and sobs against his throat, and Merlin feels Will's solid bulk join their embrace. They hold each other for a few minutes and when they untangle, Merlin feels better.
"I'll see you really soon," Merlin promises as the doors open on his train. They get in one more quick, hard hug before Merlin has to jump on the train. Thank god for them, they both grin and wave until Merlin takes a seat and can't see them anymore. He wipes his hands over his eyes. Like Freya said. In the privacy of his own home is fine, but he is not going to sit here bawling all the way from Southampton to Waterloo. He manages to nap some of the way there instead, and although he doesn't get to bed until nearly two in the morning because of problems with the buses, it's worth it to have spent that time with his best friends.
It was sadly easy to lose touch with most of his university friends, especially when he never went back for his final year. There are a few though, that he still sees from time to time, as well as other people he's crossed paths with in various ways over the last few years. None of them are part of him in the way that Will and Freya are, but he'll miss them, even if he can't claim to be especially close to any of them.
Still, he makes a point of seeing those he can, those still living in and around London. He can't say goodbye to any of them, not really, but it feels good to see them. It helps fill the hours between shifts too, and before much longer, Merlin's counting down the days to handing in his notice.
After an evening in the pub with a couple of people from the block of flats he used to live in, Merlin gets home and up to his floor. When he slides his key into the lock, the door opens with a single push. He's sure he locked it in the morning and he holds his breath, very carefully edging into the flat, one hand working his phone out of his pocket. There's a light on in the living room, and Merlin almost stumbles when he sees something utterly impossible. Arthur, sitting in Merlin's ratty old armchair, dressed in a suit and loosened tie, looking like something from a movie.
"What – " he starts, but then Arthur's on his feet, reaching for Merlin, pulling him in. "Oh my god, what are you doing here?"
"I couldn't," Arthur says shakily. "I couldn't stay away, and I can't stay long, I'm sorry."
"Oh my god, don't apologise!" Merlin says, and he winds Arthur's tie around his fist and pulls him in. "Fuck, I've missed you like mad."
"Me too," Arthur says.
"I handed my notice in today," Merlin tells him, and Arthur beams before he takes Merlin's face in his hands and kisses him.
"Mmm. Hey," Merlin interrupts. "Stop it, it gets better."
"I've got holiday left to take. Two weeks."
"So you – "
"Fortnight from now, I'm yours," Merlin confirms. He thinks Arthur's grin will split his face in two.
Merlin nods. "Seriously."
"God, I've missed you," Arthur says, pulling Merlin in close. They just breathe together for a moment, Merlin re-familiarising himself with the way Arthur feels pressed against him. He laughs for no reason at all and Arthur kisses him.
"How's everything? Everyone?"
"Fine," Arthur assures him. Merlin thought he wanted the details, he honestly did, but right now what he wants is Arthur. He kisses the rest of the explanation off Arthur's lips and curls their fingers together. Arthur grins against his mouth and slides his arm tighter around Merlin's waist. "God, I missed you," he says softly.
"Me too," Merlin says. "God, so much. Where've you been?"
"Paris, mostly," Arthur says. "It was horrible. Everyone was on a bloody romantic getaway except me."
"Aw," Merlin says, teasing. "Poor baby."
"I know," Arthur says, hamming it up and clutching at Merlin. "Everything's a bit rubbish without you."
"Same," Merlin admits.
"How've you been?"
"Horribly anxious a bit of the time. Guilty sometimes. Mostly bored."
"Sounds about standard."
"I guessed," Merlin says with a nod. "Arthur – god, come and lie down with me."
And that's all they do for a while, not even talking much, just trading kisses and holding each other. After a while Arthur sits up and shrugs out of his suit jacket, removes his loosened tie and undoes enough buttons to pull his shirt off over his head. Merlin follows suit, peeling out of his layers of t-shirts. Somewhere along the line he becomes aware that Arthur has frozen, and he looks over, a question on his lips. Then he sees where Arthur's looking and doesn't have to ask.
"You're wearing it," Arthur says, touching his fingers to the silver chain that keeps his ring suspended against Merlin's chest, out of sight.
"Yeah," Merlin says, because it's monosyllabic or long-winded and hugely embarrassing. Arthur grins, suddenly gone not pushy and possessive as Merlin might have imagined, but pliant and easy, pulling Merlin over him as they tumble back into the sheets.
Merlin has found Arthur an easy read almost from the start, in a way he's starting to think maybe most people don't. Even the lies Arthur told led Merlin to the right conclusions when it came to the big things. And so it's easy to know what Arthur wants, and Merlin has no intention to tease tonight, just wants to give and give and give.
After, Merlin can feel sleep tugging at him, but he takes the time to press close to Arthur, smothering a yawn as he says, "Wake me up before you leave, please."
"Sure," Arthur says. "I really am sorry I can't stay longer."
"Forget it," Merlin says. "The last thing we need is to slip up now because we're a pair of horny kids."
Arthur laughs, kisses Merlin's brow. "Two weeks," Merlin hears him whisper before he drops off to sleep.
"So, then," he says. "Where do you fancy first? Gwaine's got a fuck-off great villa in the Bahamas that we're welcome to visit."
"I'd rather go to Vegas."
Arthur laughs. "Merlin. We just got all this money and now you want to gamble it away?"
"Not all," Merlin says hastily. "Just, you know. A bit."
Arthur rolls his eyes but he's grinning as he points the car towards the future and pulls away from the kerb. "Vegas it is, then. Passports in the glove compartment, by the way."
Merlin opens the glove compartment and pulls out two passports. Flicking one open, he groans.
"Dent," Arthur says, grinning, obviously proud of his comedic stylings. "You know, like Arthur Dent."
"Yeah, no, I get it. Just. Your big getaway plan involves a Hitchhiker's Guide gag, it's just – " Merlin rubs his hand over his forehead. "God help us."
"Think yourself lucky, John Smith."
"Doctor Who too? You are such a dork."
Arthur looks impressed. "I didn't think you'd get that one. But yeah. Gwaine was all for getting you one that said The Great Bazinga or whatever. You know. Magician jokes. I reckon you've heard your fair share of them."
"Yeah. Not even a bit suspicious at passport control," Merlin says.
"Right? It's a miracle that man's still at liberty, to be honest."
"How – how is everyone?" Merlin asks. He kind of misses them.
"Good," Arthur says. "Leon and Elena are pregnant."
"Both of them?"
"Shut up, you know what I mean."
"Yeah. Wow. That's brilliant news."
"Percy's got the furniture shop stable. New workshop, new staff, orders flying in, and Dindrane's a lot better. Gwen finally got tired of waiting for Lance to make a move, made one herself instead. They're on holiday, after which Lance will come home and try to rouse Elyan from his techno-lust coma. I swear, Merlin, I've never seen anyone buy so many things with wires coming out of them."
"Brilliant," Merlin says. "I'm glad they're all happy."
"Thanks to you," Arthur says. "Now it's our turn."
Ten months later...
Merlin knows it's sooner than Arthur would have liked to come back, but he'd agreed anyway, for a bunch of reasons. Vegas was amazing, Gwaine's villa even better, and the house on the coast in California best of all, but Merlin can't deny he's been feeling a little homesick, mainly for Will and Freya, but for England itself, miserable weather and all. Besides that, there's Leon and Elena's baby who they haven't seen other than via photos and Skype. Both parents have been getting more and more determined in their hints that everyone come for a visit, to the extent that the invitation was extended to Will and Freya as well.
Their plane landed at Southampton airport after a couple of changes, and Merlin feels hungover and jetlagged, but that's pushed aside by excitement. He can hardly keep still as Arthur steers the hire car through the city centre. As they round the next corner, Merlin spies Will and Freya waiting on the pavement outside their flat. He's out of the car before it's even fully stopped and Freya flings herself at him in the same instant. He catches her, almost bowled over by her small frame, until Will joins them, steadying Merlin on his feet.
"I miss you so much," Freya's saying into his shoulder. "So much, so much."
"Let him breathe, babe," Will tells her, but he sounds as giddy and relieved as Merlin feels. Phone bills aren't an issue these days, so they talk a lot, but it's not the same. Freya still uses that strawberry shampoo, and Will's still like a bloody furnace, his grip warm and bruisingly tight. When they finally separate and set each other down, Merlin realises that Arthur is still in the car, watching them. Merlin beckons him.
"Get over here!"
Merlin knows Arthur has been anxious about this first meeting, even if he'd never say it aloud. He's spoken to them both on the phone and via Skype before, and been overcome by Freya's shy sweetness, just like everyone else. He even claims to like the fact that Will did his level best to threaten him over Merlin's continued happiness and wellbeing. Mainly, Merlin thinks Arthur is just very aware that Will and Freya are all Merlin has left to call family.
Arthur does as he's told, though, and Merlin will just never get over how tanned and gorgeous he looks these days. He smiles at Will and Freya and offers them his hand. Freya pointedly ignores it, hugging Arthur with only slightly less enthusiasm than she'd shown Merlin.
They pile into the car and although the journey's a long one, Merlin barely notices it at all, spending most of the trip twisted around in the passenger seat to talk to Will and Freya, Arthur seemingly amused by the way they can all talk at once and still have a coherent conversation.
They do stop for petrol at one point and Merlin uses the five minutes while Arthur goes to pay and grab a round of coffees to turn around properly and look at his friends.
"I have something for you," he says, lifting a bag from the footwell and passing it over to Will. It had taken some arranging between the three of them, but Elyan had arranged an untraceable transfer of cash and left the holdall in a safety deposit box near the airport. He and Arthur had picked it up on their way into town, but even though Arthur knows everything and approves wholeheartedly, Merlin doesn't want him here for this.
Mainly because, as he suspected, Freya takes one look at the cash in the bag and says, "Merlin, we can't."
"We absolutely can," Will says, looking straight at Merlin.
"Will – "
"No, listen, babe," he says, turning to Freya. "If we...won the lottery, the first thing we'd do is see to it that Merlin was okay. Right?"
Freya still looks troubled. "Yeah, but – "
"He's right, Freya. If my mum was still alive, do you think she'd be living in that same shitty flat she used to? No. We're family. Let me do this. I'd have done it before, but I thought a massive cash transfer from the Bahamas might raise some questions."
"Are you – "
"I am completely, utterly, one hundred percent sure," Merlin interrupts her. "This doesn't have to be weird or awkward. Will's right. If you ever thought I wasn't going to share this with you, you're mad."
"God, Merlin." Freya squints out across the petrol station forecourt, then blinks hard a couple of times and looks back at him. "Thank you."
She doesn't have to say anymore, and neither does Will. They were all broke as kids, have all spent their adult lives counting pennies, and Merlin knows this will make just as much difference to them as it's made to him.
Arthur gets back before any of them can say anymore, and he grins at Merlin, obviously sensing what's just happened.
"Alright!" he says, all business. "Let's get this show on the road."
Conversation resumes as though it had never halted, and before Merlin knows it, Arthur is pulling up outside a neat little two storey house in a quiet street. One of the houses has several cars and a motorbike parked outside, and they head over once they're all out of the car.
It's Gwaine who opens the door, crowing at the sight of Arthur and Merlin, dragging them both in for a hug and landing smacking kisses on their cheeks. Will gets much the same treatment, but Freya gets a low bow and a kiss to the back of her hand. She laughs and flutters her eyelashes, obviously not taken in at all.
"You flash bastards," Arthur says, waving at the cars. "Which one's yours, then?"
"Have a guess."
"Porsche," Merlin says.
"Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner!" Gwaine says, as he waves them all inside.
"Owning a casino, man. Biggest scam of the lot," Gwaine tells them with a grin. "Right! Follow the sound of voices, we're just waiting on Percy and his lovely sister."
Sure enough, Lance, Gwen, and Elyan are already in attendance, Gwen passing the baby back to Elena as introductions are made and hugs exchanged.
Merlin's close enough to hear Gwaine ask, "You over your fear of dropping it yet, Ellie?"
"Don't listen to Uncle Gwaine. And you, arsehole, don't call my child it." As she sees Merlin watching them, she admits in a whisper, "I used to use the sling all the time. Even just sitting in a chair with her."
Merlin laughs and peers at the bundle in Elena's arms. Louise has her mum's unruly blonde hair, and a perfect miniature of her father's nose and brow. She blinks around sleepily at the unfamiliar faces, and snuggles in closer to Elena. The doorbell goes and Arthur, who's closest, goes to answer it. Leon appears on the other side of Elena and Louise stirs instantly, reaching for him.
"Such a daddy's girl," Elena says gently as she hands the baby over.
Arthur comes back then, trailing Percy and a woman Merlin doesn't recognise, who must be his sister. That necessitates yet more introductions but before long they're all settled, on sofas and chairs and in each other's laps. Leon hands out champagne and Percy and Elyan stamp their feet, demanding a toast.
"To my casino," Gwaine interrupts. "You are all welcome at any time."
Dindrane shoves a cushion over Gwaine's face, which allows Leon to clear his throat.
"Sod it," he says after a moment has gone past and he's apparently drawn a blank. "To all of us."
As Merlin echoes it and looks around the room, leans into the warmth of Arthur at his side, he thinks that sounds just about right.