Merlin is nine when his father takes him to Camelot for the first time. It's a special treat for Merlin's brithday because they came into some money unexpectedly and Balinor wants to make a fuss over him. Hunith waves them off from the house, her words ringing in Merlin's oversized ears, "don't wander off. If you get lost, find someone in a staff shirt and ask for help."
His father goes all out on the trip. They stop at a Wimpy's for breakfast and gorge themselves on burgers, binning Hunith's carrot muffins and celery sticks. Merlin likes his hat but hates the greasy feeling of the sun cream, so his father shrugs and leaves it in the car. At the admissions gate his father buys them fast-passes so they can skip the queues. Merlin drags him on every ride in the kiddie zone and even some of the adult ones, at least, the ones he's tall enough to ride. He's hot and tired and having the time of his life when his father suddenly ducks out of the queue they've just joined and tells Merlin to go on the ride without him - he's got to go to the loo so he'll wait for him near the exit. Merlin barely registers what his father says; his eyes are wide and fixed on the mass of metal that is The Dragon, Camelot's newest and tallest rollercoaster.
He's probably not old enough to go on it alone but he meets the height requirement and the bored looking operator waves him through. Merlin takes a seat at the front of the coaster next to a blond haired teenager. The older boy turns to watch him as he struggles with the restraining bar.
"Aren't you a little young to be on this by yourself?" he raises an eyebrow at Merlin.
"I'm not by myself, you're with me. And I am too old enough, I'm nine today and everything," he pulls with all his might but he can't get the bar to budge. He looks up at his seat mate imploringly.
The boy seems to be fighting back a grin. "Nine today? Is it your birthday then?"
"Yes. My dad is in the loo but he'll be waiting for me when the rides over. Then we're going on The Questing Beast," Merlin says proudly.
"Well since it's your birthday, I guess I can help you out." The boy leans over and pulls the bar forward for Merlin with one hand. It clicks into place and the boy turns and smiles at him. "I'm Arthur, what's your name?"
A ride attendant walks past their car, shaking the restraining bars to make sure they're in place. "Merlin." He extends his hand out to Arthur in a gesture that would make Hunith proud.
"Happy birthday Merlin," says Arthur shaking his hand. "Now lean back, you're in for one hell of a ride."
Merlin barely has time to follow Arthur's advice before the car is launched forward at highway speed. He laughs his way through the ride, screaming at the appropriate places and delighting in way his stomach drops. He can hear Arthur beside him, yelling out nonsense words that get lost in the wind as they whip around the track.
The ride is over far too quickly and soon they're back at the docking station. Merlin's hair is sticking up funny and he's a little sore from being bashed around on the corners but he already has plans to drag his father on the ride with him for a second time. He lets Arthur lead the way off the platform, watching the way the breeze catches at his shirt and makes the word 'STAFF' twist and ripple. They make it down and off the platform before Arthur turns around.
"Do you work here?" Merlin asks before Arthur can open his mouth.
His lips quirk up in a teasing smile. "I thought you said you were nine Merlin. Can't nine year olds read?"
"Do you get to ride the roller coasters whenever you want?"
"When we're on our breaks or have a day off, yeah."
Merlin's mouth falls open. "Best. Job. Ever!"
Arthur smiles a genuine smile at him and even laughs a little. "When you say it like that, I guess it does sound pretty wicked." He looks around, smile sliding off his face. "You sure your dad said he was going to meet you here?"
"Yup. But he might be a while as these lines are god awful," Merlin parrots at him.
"Nicked that off him, didn't you?"
Arthur smiles at him and knocks on the bill of his baseball cap. "Alright Merlin, my break is done but I work at the food booth just across the way. Can you see our sign?"
Merlin follows the line of Arthur's finger and finds the big 'Refreshment Booth' sign. "Uh-huh."
"Good. If your dad takes a while to show up or if you get scared being on your own, you come and find me ok?"
Merlin pulls a face at him. "I'm not scared. I'm nine!"
"Alright, alright," Arthur holds up his hands in mock defeat. "If you get bored then. Keep your nose out of trouble kid." He tugs the brim of Merlin's hat down over his eyes and by the time Merlin pulls it up again Arthur is halfway across the court.
Merlin bounces on the balls of his feet for a few minutes, taking in the sights around him. He's remarkably patient for his age so he doesn't mind waiting a bit for his dad to finish up in the loo. Once he comes back, he's going to take him on The Dragon and then The Questing Beast. Maybe once they're done there they can grab food at Arthur's booth and then head over to The Perilous Lands before closing.
Merlin doesn't have a watch so he doesn't know how much time has passed, but after a while his feet get kind of sore from standing so he sits down on the bench next to the ride exit. The line for the loo must be longer than his father thought. He kicks his feet back and forth and watches as the midday sun slowly turns his legs a faint red colour. His mum will be mad at him for not putting on the sun cream but it's too late now.
Someone steps in front of him, blocking out the sun. He looks up expectantly but instead of his father it's Arthur, scowling down at him.
"Merlin, are you sure your father said he was going to meet you here? You've been waiting for almost two hours."
"It must be a really long line then," Merlin smiles up at him, unconcerned.
Arthur doesn't look happy. "Maybe you should come wait over at the food booth with me, I don't think he'd want you to be alone."
Merlin thinks back to what his mother said. Arthur is STAFF and STAFF is safe, and besides that Arthur is his friend. But then he remembers the other half of her words, "don't wander off", and makes his decision.
"No, my dad said to wait here. He'll be here soon."
"At least move out of the sun then," says Arthur imploringly. "Your ears are turning as red as my shirt."
Merlin frowns at him, judging the distance between the tree and the exit.
"If it makes you feel any better, I'll wait with you. You can tell me what your dad looks like and I'll be able to spot him and wave him over to you."
"Ok! I'll race you! On your mark, get set, go!" Merlin doesn't look to see if Arthur is following him or not as he weaves his way through the crowd and jumps over the half-wall to touch the tree.
Arthur shows up a few seconds later, red-faced and panting. "How can you run in this heat kid?"
"I'm not a kid, I'm nine," Merlin pouts at him.
"Whatever. It's way too hot to be running today. You stay put alright? I'm just going to grab us a couple of waters but I'll be right back."
Merlin flops down at the base of the tree and picks at the grass idly. He watches the people pass but none of them are his father. Arthur returns a few minutes later with the promised water as well as a walkie-talkie.
"What does your father look like Merlin?" Arthur passes him one of the waters.
"He's tall and has a big beard and caterpillar eyebrows," Merlin quickly drinks down half the bottle. He can't remember when he got so thirsty.
Arthur looks like he's fighting another smile. "What's he wearing?"
"Mmm, sunglasses and his green shirt and shorts and sandals."
"Any sort of distinguishing features?"
"What's distinguishing?" Merlin asks, puzzled.
"Things that make him stand out."
"His hair is kind of long for a boy," Merlin giggles. "It's longer than mum's."
"And his name?"
Arthur turns and says something hushed into his walkie-talkie before settling down in the grass beside Merlin.
"So Merlin, what's your favourite ride that you've been on today?"
"The Dragon! It's so cool!"
"It's my favourite ride too. I've been on it sixty-four times already this season."
Merlin's eyes nearly pop out of his head. "Sixty-four?! I've only done it the once. My dad is going to take me on it again though," he nods.
Arthur's eyebrows squeeze together at that but he doesn't say anything. A few meters away, the loudspeaker crackles to life.
"If there is a Mr. Emrys in the park could he please come to guest services, his son is waiting for him. Thank you," the broadcast ends with a pop.
Merlin rounds on Arthur. "Did you get them to do that?"
"I had to Merlin, it's part of my job to look out for lost kids."
"I'm not lost, I'm waiting! My dad is just in the loo!"
"Calm down Merlin!" Arthur props himself up on his hands. "As soon as your dad hears that message he'll go to guest services and they'll bring him over to us. That way, he won't be able to miss you, even though you've changed spots."
"That's a good plan," Merlin nods with the grave wisdom of a nine year old.
"I thought so," Arthur grins at him. "Now tell me about the rides you haven't been on yet."
They chat for a while, Merlin practically shaking with excitement as he describes what he wants to do for the rest of the day. Arthur listens with one eye on him and one on the food booth he's supposed to be working in. A couple of times he scowls and makes annoyed hand gestures across the court at his colleague who is trying to serve the long line of customers by himself. Eventually a message comes through on the walkie-talkie and Arthur sighs before standing and muffling his response.
"-can't just leave him here," is all Merlin catches before Arthur moves to the other side of the tree to continue speaking in private. There is a lot of scoffing and some choice swear words before Arthur sticks his head back around the tree and looks down at Merlin.
"Merlin, I'll be right back. Apparently Owain doesn't understand that hanging out with you is way better than helping him over at the food booth. Do you want a refill on your water?"
Merlin looks down to find his bottle empty and hands it to Arthur.
"Stay right here, I'll be watching," Arthur uses two fingers to point at his eyes and then Merlin's, making Merlin giggle and do it back at him. He watches Arthur make his way through the thinning crowd and for the first time feels a little bit worried that his father hasn't returned yet. He must have gotten lost; Camelot is a big park after all. He forgets his worries when Arthur returns with cold water, a bottle of after-sun, and an ice cream sandwich.
Merlin's stomach rumbles at the sight and he can practically taste the ice cream on his hot tongue. "Can I have a bite?"
Arthur laughs. "You can have the whole thing. Another staff benefit - ice cream is on the house. But only if you put some aloe on your ears after."
Merlin rips open the package and sinks his teeth into the sandwich, wisps of cool air curling out of the corners of his mouth. "Tha's so col," he says around the ice cream.
Arthur just laughs at him and leans back against the tree. It's not long before his walkie-talkie goes off again and he jogs a short distance to hear the incoming message. Merlin stuffs the last bite into his mouth and dutifully applies the after-sun to his ears. When he returns, Arthur looks very stressed.
"Nothing you need to worry about. We're just going to hang out here for a little bit longer." Arthur gives him a weak smile and launches into a discussion about the perks of being an employee at the park. Merlin listens with rapt attention until a security guard crosses the court and joins them under the tree. He and Arthur have a whispered discussion a few trees over and Merlin watches as Arthur shakes his head and gestures sharply with his hands. Eventually he sighs and walks back to Merlin.
"Merlin, I've got some bad news but I don't want you to panic ok?" Arthur seems to be waiting for his confirmation so Merlin bites his lip and nods.
"Security has checked all over the park and they can't find your father. They want to call your mum to come and pick you up. Do you know what your home phone number is?" Arthur says it all calmly but Merlin can't understand.
"What do you mean they can't find him? Have they checked all the loos?"
"They've checked everywhere," Arthur sighs. "I'm sure there's a reason why he had to leave but the park closes in forty-five minutes and we can't wait for him any longer. Do you want to go with Leon here and call your mum?"
Merlin is still trying to process what Arthur is saying. His father can't be gone, he was going to wait for him by the exit. Maybe he's at the wrong exit. Maybe he'll be mad when Hunith shows up and they have to take two cars home. They can't afford to spend that much on petrol. Merlin's lower lip wobbles. No, he has to stay here and wait, his father will come for him, just like he promised. If he isn't here when his father comes for him that will just confuse everyone even more. Besides, Leon's shirt says SECURITY not STAFF. STAFF is safe. SECURITY is an unknown.
"No, I want to stay here with you and wait some more," he says finally.
"Ok, can you write down your phone number on a piece of paper for Leon? He'll go into the main building and call your mum just in case," Arthur hands him a slip and a pencil.
Merlin taps the end of the pencil on his chin a few times before putting all the numbers together in the correct order. Leon smiles at him as he takes the paper back and jogs away. Arthur plops down beside Merlin once more and pulls out his mobile.
"Have you ever played snake? I think you'd like it."
Merlin has powered through twelve games of snake by the time his mother arrives. Leon escorts her to where Merlin and Arthur are propped up against the tree, laughing as Merlin's snake crashes into its tail for the thirteenth time.
"Hi mum," Merlin says, looking up at her. "I'm sorry you had to come all the way out here. Dad's been a long time in the loo."
Arthur springs to his feet and introduces himself as he shakes her hand. The three of them turn their backs on Merlin to have yet another secret conversation. Merlin pays them no attention and starts a new game. When his mother turns around her eyes are red but she's smiling at him.
"Give Arthur back his phone love, it's time to go home."
He frowns at her. "But dad's not here yet."
"Dad has already left sweetheart. The park has been closed for an hour now."
"No it's not," he looks around and gets a shock when he sees the paths are empty and all the booths have been boarded up for the night. A light clicks on in his head and Merlin finally clues in to what's going on. "Dad isn't coming back for me." Tears spill over his cheeks and a nasty voice in his head chides him that nine year olds don't cry but he ignores the voice and the tears flow freely. Before his mother can even take a step forward Arthur crouches down in front of him and knocks the brim of his hat.
"Hey Merlin, since I haven't got a birthday present for you do you want to keep the phone?"
Arthur smiles at him. "Go on then. I'll get a new one and you can keep that one for games and stuff. You'll have to get a charger for it but bring the phone into the shop with you and someone will be able to help. It shouldn't cost more than ten pounds."
Hunith puts a hand on his shoulder. "Arthur, you've gone above and beyond helping today, I can't let you give him your mobile."
"No really, it's alright," he looks up at her. "I've been meaning to switch providers for a while now, the service is rubbish out here. Just don't let him call overseas and it'll deactivate at the end of the month." He turns back to Merlin. "Think you can handle that kid?"
Merlin's tear-stained cheeks bend around his huge smile. "Thanks Arthur! Best. Birthday. Ever!" he throws his arms around Arthur's neck and squeezes.
"No problem," Arthur pulls back and stands them up gently. "You take care now Merlin. Try to beat my high score, if you can."
"Psh, I can beat it by bedtime," Merlin calls over his shoulder as Hunith leads him away. Arthur just laughs.
"Do you think dad will be back in time to read to me tonight?" Merlin asks his mother.
Two years later and Merlin doesn't think of Camelot as the last place he saw his father, but as the place where he got his first cell phone and made a cool friend named Arthur. His mother is surprised when he begs her for money to go on the end of term trip, but doesn't say anything as she signs his permission form.
On the bus Merlin is a nervous ball of energy, bouncing up and down in his seat and driving Will just a bit mad. He can't wait to take his friends on all the best rides and then to the food booth to meet his cool older friend. Halfway through the ride, Will swaps seats with Gwaine, unable to cope with Merlin's endless chatter anymore.
When they arrive at Camelot, Merlin is the one who grabs the map and takes charge of the group. He marches them past the kiddie zone because they are eleven now and too old for the boring rides. They soar on The Wyvern, loop the loops of The Triskelion, and plough through the tunnels on The Wildren. They finally make it to the heart of the park where The Dragon stands, Arthur's food booth just visible past the exit, with the midday sun beating down on them.
Merlin queues with his friends, butterflies in his stomach for two reasons. Gwaine screams for most of the ride and Gwen puts her arm around him when they're all back on the ground. Gwaine leans against her in mock distress and Merlin suspects that maybe Gwaine wasn't really all that afraid of the ride when he catches sight of Arthur across the court.
Arthur is cooking over one of the barbeques parked beside the food booth. The smoke rising off the burgers is thick and catches in the tent overtop the patio. Merlin stares, entranced, as Arthur flips sausages and burgers, switching tongs and handing out orders like he was born to do it. It's a job no one should look good doing, but Arthur makes it look like it's something to be envied. Merlin doesn't realize he's crossed the court until he's close enough that he can see the sheen on Arthur's neck and face, sweat curling the ends of his hair. Suddenly the butterflies in his stomach are back.
"Hi," he calls out tentatively.
"Hello, if you'd like to order something please step around to front window and Percy will be happy to help you." It's evident from his rehearsed speech and polite smile that Arthur doesn't recognize him. Merlin feels his stomach drop faster than it did on any of the rides.
Merlin follows Arthur's instructions, not knowing what else to do. There's a bell in the booth window with a note asking the customer to ring for service. Merlin taps it and Arthur comes in promptly through the side door.
"Hello, how are you doing today?"
"Good," Merlin lies.
"Excellent, what can I get for you?"
"Do you still sell ice cream sandwiches?"
"We don't have the sandwiches in stock right now but if you take a look at the big long list on the wall beside you you'll see what we have in stock." Arthur's gestures are mechanical but the smile stays on his face.
"I'll get a fudge bar then I guess."
"That'll be two pounds please." Merlin is still rooting around in his pockets for change when Arthur comes back with his ice cream.
"First time at Camelot?" Arthur asks him.
"No I've been here before. Don't you remember? You gave me your phone," he blurts out.
Arthur studies him for a moment, lips pursed, and Merlin feels himself turning red under Arthur's gaze.
"Sorry I've forgotten your name. Marvin, was it?"
"Merlin," Merlin winces, desperate to crawl off and die from embarrassment.
"Merlin of course!" Arthur thumps his hand on the counter and his face brightens. "Did your dad ever turn up then?"
"No actually, we haven't heard from him since. The police think it was gang related activities."
"Oh." Arthur's reply is short and he gives Merlin a look of pity. Merlin hates the look of pity everyone gives him when they hear the news.
"It's you know, fine or whatever," Merlin rolls his eyes.
"It's a pretty shit thing to do to your kid on his birthday," Arthur scowls.
"You do remember!" Merlin practically shouts at him.
"Of course I do now!" Arthur leans on the counter and their eyes are level. "I'll never forget you! My dad gave me shit over giving you my phone."
"Oh god sorry! Do you want it back?" Merlin makes a move to reach into his pocket but Arthur's laugh stops him.
"You keep it, that thing is obsolete now. Besides, I've been paying my own bill for two years and I'm off to uni in the fall. I don't reckon my dad is about to start paying for it again."
"Maybe he'll pay for the old one if you give it back to him," Merlin suggests. Arthur throws his head back to laugh at that and Merlin stares at the bit of exposed neck.
"That's a nice thought kid, but you don't know my dad."
Merlin scowls at him. "I'm not a kid."
Arthur stretches out his arm and Merlin freezes, watching Arthur's hand come closer and closer to his face. Arthur stops suddenly and pulls his hand back.
"Sorry, I think the heat is getting to me. Last time you were here you had a hat on and my brain just went on auto-pilot for a minute. Too cool for your hat now?" Arthur smirks at him.
"Don't think I need it today," Merlin replies nonchalantly.
"Of course you don't," Arthur's smirk grows wider. "Not that it would do you much good anyways, I don't think there's any hat out there big enough to cover your ears."
"Har har," Merlin glares at him but feels the blush creeping up around his neck.
"Don't worry, I remember being eleven. The braces didn't come off until I was seventeen. My first kiss was a nightmare." Merlin flushes darker at that. "Do you want anything else while you're here? Anything for your friends over there?" Arthur nods over Merlin's shoulder at Gwen, Will, and Gwaine who are walking towards the booth. "It's free."
"Staff benefits, remember? Ice cream is on the house."
Arthur retreats to the freezer and pulls out four new fudge bars. "Give me back the one you bought, it's probably melted by now."
"No really, it's ok," Merlin protests feebly as Arthur takes the dripping package from his hand and bins it.
"Don't worry about it," Arthur presses a button and the cash drawer pops open. "What's the point of working here if you can't give away free shit to your friends?" Arthur hands Merlin back his change and waves the group over.
"Ice cream is on Merlin today guys," Arthur passes them all their fudge bars.
"Merlin paid for these?" Gwaine raises a quizzical eyebrow at Merlin who turns to Arthur.
"Of course he did. The money is in the till already so dig in," Arthur says.
The other three eagerly tear into the wrappers and mumble their thanks around the fudge bars. Arthur catches Merlin's eye and winks at him.
"Better eat it before it melts this time," he smirks at him. Merlin doesn't need to be told twice.
Merlin doesn't get a chance to go back to Camelot again until he's fifteen. It's a tough economy, and even though Balinor's salary was never very consistent, it was at least more than Hunith makes at the plant. When the layoffs come they move in with Hunith's uncle Gaius, who owns a condo just down the road from the park. Gaius' home is small and smells of old people but Merlin notices how his mother seems more relaxed and happier here than in their old house and makes up his mind to do whatever he can to pitch in.
Pitching in, to his uncle it seems, means getting a job. Camelot is hiring seasonal staff and now that he's on summer break he really doesn't have an excuse not to apply. It's close enough that he can ride his bike so he doesn't even have to trouble his mother for a ride. The application form is simple enough and they even ask you to list your preference of spots to work. Merlin writes 'REFRESMENT BOOTH' at the top of the list in bold letters and fills in the rest of the lines at random. Three days after he turns it in he's called in for an interview and subsequently hired. When the call comes through that he's working at the food booth he's over the moon.
He shows up for training an hour early and ends up having to wait for security to open the staff gate. Merlin sits through a couple hours of procedural training in a dimly lit room with a handful of other new recruits. He fills out his forms diligently and is rewarded by being the first of the newbies to get his STAFF shirt. Not wanting to wait, he pulls his sweaty t-shirt off and replaces it with his new shirt in Camelot red. After a tasteless and meager lunch, a scary looking woman named Nimueh ushers him and another boy named Cedric out to the food booth.They pass by an enormously long line of grumbling customers as Nimueh leads them to the side door.
"Arthur, got some fresh meat for you," she calls into the building. Merlin looks past her and sees Arthur at the counter. His heart thuds loudly against his chest and he hopes the others can't hear it.
Arthur doesn't even look their way, too busy squeezing nacho cheese into a tray. "Shit, I forgot we got the newbies today. Any chance you can stay out here and help train?"
"Nice try," Nimueh laughs as she turns to leave. "You two, drop your stuff in the back and try not to blow this place up, no matter how much Arthur would enjoy that."
"So much," Arthur mutters under his breath as he passes the nachos to the customer. "No time for introductions right now lads, just grab a hat and do what I say."
Cedric is the first to move, donning his hat and moving to stand by the cash.
"Not there," Arthur calls over, half his body in the pop cooler as he reaches for a cold can. "The cash register takes some actual training and the tape is a bitch to fix if you muck it up. I don't want to see either of you touching it, alright?"
Merlin nods, following Arthur's progress with his eyes. Cedric looks briefly upset, but the look is soon replaced by a mask of customer service as he turns to greet the next person in line.
Merlin spends most of the afternoon running and fetching things for either Arthur or Cedric, which works just fine for him because it gives him plenty of opportunities to check out Arthur's backside discretely. It's clear that Arthur doesn't recognize him this time. His eyes don't linger on Merlin for long and when they do it's to frown at him and show him the correct way of doing the task. Merlin supposes he's changed quite a bit from the eleven year old Arthur last met. He's grown taller and his face has lost the roundness of the childhood years. His hair is different too, finally being free from the awful bowl cut his mother used to give him every couple of months. The food booth is busy and Arthur is less patient than Merlin remembers, calling out orders briskly and losing his when Merlin takes too long to fill an order. Cedric turns out to be a master of flattery and schmoozing and wheedles several large tips out of the older ladies that pay their booth a visit.
"Tips go into the communal jar, we count them out at the end of the day," Arthur says when they finally hit a lull.
"How is that fair? I'm the one making the money, I should be the one to keep it," whines Cedric.
"Look at it this way. It's not fair to-," Arthur clasps a hand on Merlin's shoulder and seeks out his nametag, "Merlin here if you keep all the tips, just because he hasn't been on the window yet and hasn't had a chance to earn his own." There's a pause as Arthur eyes him curiously and Merlin holds his breath. Arthur doesn't say anything else though and drops his hand from Merlin's shoulder.
Cedric rolls his eyes. "I'm going for a smoke break," he says, already out the door.
"Whatever, be back in fifteen," Arthur calls after him. "So Merlin, how are you liking day one in the food booth?"
"It's alright. Bit of a learning curve but I'm sure I'll catch up eventually." Merlin feels suddenly shy with Arthur's full attention on him.
"Fair enough," Arthur grabs a bottle of water from the fridge and passes it to Merlin. "Sorry if I've been a bit of an arsehole today but training is never easy, especially not when they give me two newbies during the lunch rush."
"That's alright, you weren't too much of a dick." He tilts the bottle up to his mouth but a fly buzzing past his peripherals startles him and he slops water down his front. "Ah shit," he curses, wiping along his jaw line.
"Welcome to the food booth," Arthur laughs as he passes him a paper towel. "Spilling water all over yourself will soon be the least of your worries. Just wait until you spill the condiments or get barbeque grease all up your arms."
As it turns out, Merlin does both those things in the following days. Arthur is patient with him but Merlin can see he's getting frustrated. As much as Merlin is embarrassed by his incompetency, there's not much he can do. Because while it's great working with Arthur and getting to know him as a person rather than an idol, it's also very distracting. Either he's too busy staring Arthur to notice his surroundings, or Arthur is breathing down his neck, putting too much pressure on him and he mucks it up. The most infuriating part is how Cedric seems to be excelling at everything effortlessly.
Friday comes and Arthur asks them both to stay for a mini staff meeting.
"You may have picked up on this already but right now we're severely understaffed out here. I've already been on for six days in a row and that's all I can do before they're forced to start paying me overtime, and lord knows my father won't do that for any employee, not even flesh and blood. George is coming back from his holiday tomorrow so he'll be the supervisor for the weekend. I haven't had time to draw up a proper schedule yet but do either of you have a preference for who works tomorrow?"
Merlin opens his mouth to speak but Cedric cuts in. "Bagsy tomorrow off!"
Arthur turns to Merlin. "Is that alright with you Merlin? It means you'll work Sunday to Friday next week."
"That's fine, will you be the manager again next week?"
"Monday to Friday I will. George and I have an agreement for the weekends," Arthur grins at him and Merlin's heart clenches a little. "I'd invite you out with us but I wouldn't want you being hung over out here. Trust me when I say barbequing is the last thing you want to experience while sick. The smell alone can do you in. Plus you're both too young to come out with us anyways." Arthur reaches over and tugs the brim of Merlin's STAFF hat down over his eyes. It's familiar and painful all at once.
"I'm not a kid," Merlin replies automatically, pulling his hat up. He thinks he sees a flash of recognition in Arthur's eyes but it's gone before he can blink.
"I never said you were," Arthur ushers them out to the booth as he arms the alarm, "I said you were too young. Give it a few more years and you can come and party with us."
George turns out to be a worse manager than Arthur. He may yell at Merlin less, but he also has higher standards of cleanliness and does everything by the book. Instead of cutting into the hamburgers to see if they're cooked, he insists on using the meat thermometer. Anytime someone orders a drink he has Merlin run to the back room to replace it instantly so the cooler always stays stocked. Merlin is feeling run off his feet and sticks his head in the back freezer to cool off as soon as George leaves for his break. When he returns to the front of the booth he finds Cedric in front of the safe.
"I thought you were off today," Merlin frowns at him.
Cedric jumps at the sound of Merlin's voice but his face is calm when he turns around. "I forgot my water bottle here yesterday and I need it for the party tonight."
Merlin looks at the empty shelf behind Cedric. "I don't see a water bottle."
"Yeah, funny isn't it," Cedric scratches his head. "I must have left it on the bus. See you around Merlin." Cedric grabs his backpack and all but runs out of the food booth, leaving Merlin feeling uneasy.
At the end of the day George shows Merlin how to count the cash and how to separate the deposit from the float.
"The float goes back into the cash tray in the safe, the deposit into a brown paper bag with the completed cash sheet. Write the date neatly on the outside of the bag and then place it at the bottom of the safe, ensuring that the bags are kept in chronological order."
Merlin muddles his way through the cash sheet but finally gets it to balance with what the register says they made in profit. Merlin proudly signs his name at the bottom and locks everything in the safe. He's pleased that he managed to get through his first week without any major catastrophes and can't wait to show Arthur how efficient he can be on Monday.
It turns out that Merlin gets to see Arthur much sooner than anticipated when he's called into work on Sunday morning. He puts on his freshly laundered staff shirt and tucks the hat into his basket before he peddles down the road. He chains his bike up and is surprised when Leon meets him at the staff gate and says he'll walk down with him. There's something off about Leon's tone but Merlin can't figure it out.
They reach the food booth and find not only George but Arthur, Nimueh, and a familiarly looking older man. All four of them are frowning and are in deep conversation.
"Ah Leon, is this him then?" the man surveys Merlin with obvious dislike.
"His name is Merlin, father," says Arthur and Merlin suddenly realizes where he knows the man from. Uther Pendragon, the general manager whose portrait is hanging up in the training room. He's taller than Merlin imagined he would be, and even though he's only got a few inches on Merlin it feels like he towers over him.
"What's going on? Has something happened to Cedric?" Merlin asks.
"Don't play dumb boy," Uther's tone is cold and dangerous. "If you give it back now, we won't press charges and you're free to go."
"Give what back?"
"Merlin," Arthur sighs. "Someone has stolen almost all of the deposit bags from the past week. George says you were the last person to touch the safe. Did you notice if any of them were missing last night?"
Merlin is frozen to the spot and tries furiously to think back but his memory comes up with nothing. "I'm not sure. It took me a while to do the cash sheet yesterday and I kind of just threw everything in without looking." Arthur's face falls and Merlin knows that's not the answer he was looking for. "I'm sorry," he adds feebly.
"Sorry isn't going to bring back the thousands of pounds you've lost us this week!" Uther yells at him.
"It wasn't me, I swear," Merlin looks helplessly from face to face but finds no compassion in anyone but Arthur's.
"Father, I know how it is at the end of a long day. You're tired and hot and not at your best. If Merlin left the safe open by accident, he didn't do it on purpose, I'm sure of it."
"Regardless of whether it was an accident or on purpose there must be consequences." Uther turns his glare on Arthur. "We must make an example of the boy to show the other new employees that this sort of thing is unacceptable."
The missing piece slots into place and Merlin suddenly knows what happened. "Cedric was here yesterday," he blurts out and all eyes turn back to him. "I came in from the back room and he was standing by the safe. He said he forgot his water bottle here but the shelves were empty. He ran off before George came back from his break."
"How convenient for you that no one happened to see any of this," Uther scoffs. "A flawed story that you've obviously make up to cover for your own incompetencies."
"If Merlin says Cedric was here I believe him," Arthur growls at his father.
"Really Arthur?" Uther drawls. "You've known this boy for what, five days, and you're willing to take his word on this?"
"Merlin wouldn't lie to me," Arthur looks straight at Uther's eyes, unflinching.
"So be it," Uther waves for Nimueh to come forward. "Ring the police and have them bring Cedric in on suspicion of theft. And prepare Merlin's discharge papers immediately."
"What?!" Merlin and Arthur chime out in unison, Merlin upset, Arthur furious.
"I told you Arthur, an example must be made of him. Even if it turns out Cedric is the thief, Merlin still shouldn't have left the front end unattended. He played his part in this and now he must pay for his actions."
"Father this isn't fair, Merlin made an innocent mistake. He's not even out of training yet for gods sake!" Arthur yells loudly.
Uther looks out at the growing crowd, attracted by the noise. "Keep your voice down Arthur, don't make a scene over this."
"Like hell I won't!" Arthur bellows. "I've been stuck in this god damn food booth for eight years and now you're firing both the staff that were supposed to replace me? Over something as trivial as a few thousand pounds? I've read the profit reports father, I know how much revenue we generate each season. Or did you forget that I've finished my fucking degree? If Merlin goes then I'm going with him. I'm sick of waiting for a promotion." Arthur is breathing heavily and the look he gives Merlin makes his stomach twist with want.
Uther regards him coldly for a few seconds before the corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. "Well done Arthur. I've been waiting for you to make that speech since your sophomore year. Granted, I didn't expect it to be so public and over a teenager, but I suppose we can't have everything. The promotion is yours, you will come in with me on Monday in proper business attire and we'll start training you in the office." He starts to exit the booth, Nimueh trailing on his heels when Arthur calls out to him.
"Merlin gets to keep his job then?" Arthur sounds uncertain, almost like he's unwilling to believe he won the argument so easily.
"If you insist. But the next time his name reaches my desk he's gone." Merlin shivers and watches as Uther and Nimueh head for the main building.
Merlin turns to Arthur. "Thanks so much for that," he stammers. "I don't know how I could have explained it all to my mum."
Arthur turns and gives him an unreadable look. "Don't thank me Merlin, just don't do anything that stupid again. Next time I won't be around to save your neck." He leaves a confused Merlin standing in the middle of the food booth with George and Leon. Leon just shrugs at him and runs to catch up with Arthur.
"I'm glad you've worn your staff shirt today Merlin," George says as he preps the booth for opening. "It looks like you'll be working today after all."
Despite his rocky start, Merlin makes it through the season and spends the next three summers working at Camelot. For his eighteenth birthday he takes his friends around the park and makes them go on all his favourite attractions. Some of the thrill has worn off after riding them so many times, but Merlin still loves going on The Dragon just as much as he did the first time. This will be his last summer working at Camelot as he's off to uni in the fall and his program involves an apprenticeship component in the summers. He plans to make the most of his last few months of staff benefits.
He works his way up in the ranks of the food booth over the years and soon he is the one training new staff members. He dashes across the floor and dumps the popcorn out of the cooker a split second too late and watches as burnt kernels pour out of the pot.
"Mordred, you can't leave the popcorn machine on while you go outside, it burns way too quickly," he calls over his shoulder, already scooping the batch into the garbage.
"Sorry!" Mordred calls from his position at the barbeque.
Merlin would normally be more forgiving of the mistake but it's the third time Mordred has forgotten this week. They had a huge rush at lunch time thanks to several busses full of Chinese tourists and his back and legs ache from standing for too long. Leaving the scoop in the machine, he decides to make Mordred clean it out later as punishment. He slumps over the till and notices the message icon flashing at the top of the screen. He presses the icon and scrolls until he finds the new memo.
'ATTN: Camelot Staff,
Please be advised that all seasonal staff are invited to the first annual end of season party on August 31st at 9:00 pm directly after closing. The party will be held in the banquet hall and there will be light refreshments and a cash bar available for those of age. Attire is semi-formal. Please ensure that you have plans for a ride home before attending as public transit shuts down at midnight. RSVP by Monday, July 29th at the latest via the link below.
Merlin reads through the message several times, looking for any hint of the Arthur he used to know in the wording but finds nothing. He's seen Arthur a couple of times over the years, but only when he brings out stock from the upstairs of the main building. Sometimes they share a glance and Merlin will wave but Arthur always looks away first, walking swiftly down the hall in the opposite direction or striking up a conversation with the nearest available co-worker. Arthur hasn't come to the food booth since his promotion, or if he has it's been on Merlin's days off. They haven't spoken since the day Arthur saved his job.
He hesitates before clicking on the link and checking the 'yes' box next to his name and calls Mordred in to make his selection.
"If I go, can you give me a ride home?" Mordred looks up at him hopefully.
"Not likely," Merlin snorts. "You know I ride my bike here."
"Yeah but couldn't you borrow a car or something for the night?"
"Probably not. And even if I could I don't want to, what if I want to have a drink?" Mordred is a good kid but he's still bright eyed and keen about working at Camelot. Merlin vaguely remembers how that feels but four years in the heat serving grumpy customers and cleaning up meat juice has dulled his enthusiasm for the place a little.
"Fine, I'll ring my mum and ask her if she can pick me up," Mordred is already pulling his mobile out of his pocket and stepping out onto the patio.
"This counts as your fifteen!" Merlin yells after him.
Summer passes in a haze of freezies and hot dogs and before long it's time for the staff party. Merlin picks out his nicest clothes and packs them carefully in a duffel before biking in. It's the last day of summer before the park starts on its reduced fall schedule and the visitors are out in droves. Merlin works up a sweat within an hour of being there and dreads what the hat is going to do to his hair. He calls out orders to Mordred a little sharply and feels his carefully cultivated customer service smile slip off his face around one o'clock. By the end of the day he's got a headache and smells like barbeque and considers just going home instead of going to the party, but the lure of seeing Arthur one last time is too tempting, even if they haven't spoken in years.
They don't get the booth locked up until quarter after nine because Mordred messes up the cash sheet. By the time they get changed and cross the park it's nine thirty and Merlin is feeling even more irritable. Mordred keeps up a steady stream of conversation and Merlin ducks outside into the beer garden almost as soon as they arrive. He's not normally big on drinking but he doesn't see any other way to avoid Mordred for the night. He quickly looses himself in the beat of the music and the effects of the alcohol on his empty stomach. He sprawls in a deck chair at a table by himself, head tipped back and looks at the starts until the humidity drives him back inside in search of air conditioning.
On his feet, he's surprised at how unsteady he is and can't remember the last time he got this drunk. He stumbles back into the banquet hall and leans against the wall, reveling in the coolness of the stone as it seeps into his clothes. He's almost forgotten the reason he's come to the party when he looks across the floor and sees Arthur trapped with George on one side and Mordred on the other. Figuring he should probably repay his debt from all those years ago, Merlin makes his way crookedly to where the three of them are standing.
"Arthur!" he calls out, throwing his arm around Arthur's shoulder, "I haven't seen you in ages! How're you doing?" He's swaying a little and he's pretty sure he slurred some of his words but the identical looks of shock on all three of their faces are worth it.
"Merlin, I didn't know you were coming tonight," Arthur's voice sounds hesitant but he wraps an arm around Merlin's waist, steadying him.
"You should have checked the guest list then. I RSVP'd ASAP, didn't I Mordred?" Merlin giggles at his choice of words and leans into Arthur's side.
Mordred's eyes dart between the two of them in confusion. "How do you know Arthur?"
"I've known Arthur for ages," Merlin says a little too loudly. "He was my first manager at the food booth. Saved my job a few summers back, didn't you?" Merlin lets his head fall onto Arthur's shoulder and he looks at him sideways. The material of his suit is soft against Merlin's cheek and he nuzzles into it a little. Arthur narrows his eyes but says nothing.
"Ah," Mordred says and there's an awkward pause.
"How much have you had to drink tonight Merlin?" Arthur says finally, nudging Merlin's head up and off his shoulder gently.
"No more than three I think. Or maybe it was four." His brow furls in genuine confusion. "How long have we been here Mordred?"
"About forty minutes."
"Mmm ok, no more than three then. Probably. Although it might be five. M'not sure." Merlin sways again and Arthur curls his hand more tightly around Merlin's side.
"Alright, I'm calling you a cab, come on." Arthur turns and starts pulling Merlin in the direction of the door.
"M'not really that that drunk," Merlin says once they're outside. "I just wanted to save you from the tedium that is George and Mordred at the same time."
"Tedium is a big word Merlin, I'm impressed you can use it while sloshed."
"M'not sloshed, I told you, I was just acting for your sake." He stops abruptly and tries to turn them around in the opposite direction. "I left my bike chained up at the food booth."
Arthur resists his pull and continues marching them towards the exit. "Contrary to your belief, you are quite spectacularly pissed right now Merlin, and there's no way in hell I'm letting you bike home like this. Chances are you'll wind up dead in a ditch."
"There's no ditches on my route home," Merlin protests before tripping over his own feet. "Shit, I am drunk, aren't I?"
"Just a tad," says Arthur as he pulls Merlin back to a standing position and opens the staff gate for him.
"Shit shit shit, I can't go home like this," Merlin laments as Arthur guides him to a bench.
"What's wrong, you're legal?" Arthur drops down onto the bench beside him and pulls out his mobile.
"My dad used to drink," Merlin says simply.
"Ah," Arthur pauses with his hand over the call button. "Is there anywhere you can stay for the night? Any friends close by?"
"No, they've all packed up and left for uni now haven't they? I'm the only one staying local." He can feel his headache start to come back as the gravity of his situation sinks in.
Arthur hesitates for a moment before he stands up and walks a few feet away, talking into his mobile as he does. Merlin lets his head fall forward into his hands and tries furiously to think through the cloud of alcohol to come up with a solution.
"Merlin?" Arthur asks, concerned. He feels the bench dip as Arthur sits back down and places a hand gently on his back. "Are you going to be sick?"
"No," Merlin can feel the tears welling up like he's nine years old again. "Just mad that I let this happen. The only reason I came to this stupid party was to say goodbye to you and now I'm fucked."
"Goodbye?" Arthur's hand rubs soothing circles on his back. "I thought you said you were staying local?"
"I am, but I'll be on placement next summer so I won't be working here anymore." Merlin palms at his eyes furiously, trying to stop the tears before Arthur sees them.
"That's no reason we shouldn't stay friends," Arthur says as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"Friends?" Merlin jerks up and looks at Arthur. "Is that what you call us? You haven't said one word to me since the day your dad tried to sack me, which, I looked up by the way, and is illegal!" Merlin sways on the bench and is equal parts mad and grateful when Arthur puts a steadying hand on his shoulder.
"This isn't the right time to be having this conversation Merlin," his smile is wistful and trying to figure out what it means only makes Merlin's head hurt even more.
"Yeah well, we don't have to have it at all. I'll just walk home and come back for my stuff tomorrow." He tries to stand but Arthur keeps a firm grip on his shoulder and holds him down on the bench.
"No way, remember our earlier discussion? Dead in a ditch? I've called cab already, you can crash at my flat tonight."
Under normal circumstances Merlin would feel ecstatic about being invited back to Arthur's, but at the moment all he feels is sleepy.
"Should ring m'mum," he yawns, pulling out his mobile.
"Give it here, I'm sure she doesn't want to hear from you in this state." He hands it over and dozes in and out while Arthur makes the call.
"I'll hang onto this til morning. It's probably safer that way," Arthur's voice is oddly hoarse but Merlin is too tired to think about what that means.
He slides down on the bench and leans his head on Arthur's shoulder once more. "Wake me when the cab comes," he slurs.
Arthur doesn’t say anything but he shifts a little and wraps his arm around Merlin, holding him too tight to be comfortable in the heat but Merlin is passed caring. He's just about asleep when he hears Arthur whisper.
"That's not the first time we met. You know when it really was."
The next morning Merlin wakes up with a splitting headache in an unfamiliar bed. He sits up and tries to piece together the hazy memories from the night before when the breeze catches the curtains and they ripple, making the beams of sunlight dance over a figure on the floor. Merlin wakes up properly when he realizes who it is.
Arthur is lying on the floor in his undershirt and a pair of sweatpants. He's using his suit jacket as a pillow and is snoring softly, the sunlight illuminating brilliant strands of gold in his hair. Merlin watches him sleep for a moment and is overcome by a feeling of fondness before he feels creepy for staring. He retreats to the other side of the mattress and finds a glass of water and a bottle of Panadol on the bedside table. The water is warm and stale but it soothes his dried-out mouth and takes away some of the bitter taste. He swallows the pills and goes to put the glass back on the table but he misjudges the distance and it falls to the floor. The noise wakes Arthur and he sits up quickly, hair sticking up in all directions.
"Merlin? Are you alright? What's happened?"
"Sorry, just dropped a glass. I'll clean it up." He pulls back the sheet and puts one foot on the floor but jerks it back as a piece of glass presses into it. "Fuck," he crosses his leg, inspecting the cut and trying desperately to keep the blood off the sheets.
"Don't move, I'll be right back." Before Merlin can protest Arthur is up and out of the room. He comes back with a bottle of alcohol and a bandage. "Give me your foot," he says as he sits at the end of the bed.
Merlin hesitates and Arthur rolls his eyes, grabbing Merlin's foot and dragging it into his lap. "Hold still, this is going to sting." Arthur pours the alcohol over the cut and Merlin winces at the pain.
"Thanks for letting me stay here last night," he says to distract himself from his throbbing foot. "I don't really remember much but mum wouldn't have been happy if I'd come home drunk.
"You said as much last night," Arthur says, wiping off the excess alcohol with the sheet. "As far as I can tell, you had a miserable day at work and decided to vent your frustrations on your liver. Take it from someone with experience Merlin, that plan never goes as well as you hope it does. You're just lucky I was around to save you."
"You didn't save me!" Merlin scoffs indignantly. "I saved you from ho-hum George and chatty-cathy Mordred!"
"Saved might be a strong word for that scenario," Arthur smirks as he sticks a bandage over the cut. "I'm a grown man, I think I can handle myself at parties without your assistance."
"Well that's good, cause it's the last party we'll ever be at together," Merlin pulls his foot out of Arthur's lap sullenly. He knows he's pouting but he's hung over and his foot hurts and he feels that gives him a licence to sulk. He grabs a pillow and hugs it to his chest before belatedly realizing that these are Arthur's pillows and Arthur probably doesn't want him to get them dirtier than he already has. He tosses it aside and looks up to find Arthur staring at him, clearly trying not to laugh.
"Oh Merlin, you haven't changed at all have you?" Arthur shakes his head, smiling softly.
"Sure I have," Merlin replies, just to be contrary.
That just makes Arthur smile even wider. He reaches down and picks up something off the floor. "Here's your mobile back then. Or should I say my mobile?" he raises an eyebrow as he hands it to Merlin.
Merlin takes it wordlessly as his mouth falls open. "You remember that?"
"I told you I'd never forget you, didn't I?" Arthur smiles fondly at him.
"Then why the hell did you act like we were complete strangers when I started working at Camelot?" Merlin practically shouts, losing his head.
"Why are you still using my phone Merlin?" Arthur asks quietly.
"Why shouldn't I be? It's a good phone," Merlin replies defensively.
"No it's not, it's a terrible phone," Arthur's eyes narrow.
"You know how it is," Merlin mumbles. "Moneys tight and all that."
"So tight that you can't afford to replace a nine year old phone?" Arthur presses.
"I like it alright?" Merlin says, exasperated. "It reminds me of you and how you used to be before you got promoted and turned into a berk. It's just, nice," he finishes lamely. He looks at Arthur's face, hoping Arthur missed the subtext of his words, but one look at Arthur's expression and he knows the jig is up.
Arthur exhales heavily. "What am I going to do with you Merlin?" he says sadly.
Merlin can't take it, he can't bear to see the look of pity again or hear Arthur try to let him down gently or call him kid again so he swings his legs over the side of the bed to make his escape. Before his feet touch the ground, Arthur's arm is around his waist and he's being pulled back up on the bed. His head lands next to Arthur's thigh and he's on his back looking up at Arthur's worried face.
"There's glass you idiot! Are you hurt again?" his tone is angry but his eyes betray his concern.
"No, just my pride," Merlin sighs, trying to make a joke out of whole thing. Arthur is staring down at him incredulously but doesn't say anything. "Right, well thanks for letting me stay but I should be off now before our last moments together get any more awkward." He tries to sit up but Arthur's hand presses down firmly on his chest, pinning him to the bed.
"Merlin, this isn't going to be the last time we see each other. It…it can't be the last time." Merlin can't decipher Arthur's expression and he's still working on it when Arthur leans down and kisses him gently on the lips.
The kiss is short but tender and Merlin barely processes what's happening before Arthur starts to pull back. Merlin reaches out blindly and grabs the back of Arthur's head, pulling himself up onto his elbows. Arthur chuckles but doesn't fight him, his hand coming up to cup Merlin's cheek. Arthur bites gently at his lower lip and Merlin responds enthusiastically, running his tongue along Arthur's lip and licking into his mouth. He stops abruptly and pulls back, lying back down on the bed.
"Sorry, I've just realised I taste awful," Merlin says through closed lips, feeling the blush spread across his cheeks.
"Don't care," says Arthur gruffly, bending down to meet his mouth once more. "You don't know how long I've been waiting to do this. Thought you were going to turn me into a damn pedo," he says, his speech perforated by kisses. "Why do you think I tried to ignore you for three years? You scare the shit out of me Merlin." He finally draws back, looking down at Merlin with nothing short of wonder.
Merlin stares up and takes in his red lips, slick with spit, and his mussed up hair and grins. "I scared you so much that you ran away and hid in the office?"
"No," Arthur replies indignantly. Merlin purses his lips and scowls at him. "Well, maybe a little," he concedes. He trails a finger down Merlin's cheekbone to his lips and starts tracing their outline. "Still think this is going to be the last time we see each other?"
Merlin grins up at him wickedly. "Not on your life!"