.you can't break that which isn't yours
[merlin. arthur/merlin. (prince harry/arthur.) (will/merlin.) gwen/lancelot. hard r (themes). for paperlegends]
summary; when arthur is sent to eton for further education, it seperates him from merlin after years of close friendship. anger, hurt and jealousy all threaten the last fragments of their friendship and it's all merlin can do to cling to the remaining feelings they both share. arthur's fledgling friendship with prince harry doesn't do either of them any favours and it battles a secret that merlin has been carrying for years - a secret that only arthur knows. merlin must decide how far he is willing to go to protect his relationship with arthur and if their friendship can be saved. will arthur even care enough to try?
notes; FOR ras_elased WHO HAS BEEN WAITING 309280938092 YEARS FOR THIS. thank you to gwyntastic who was my amazing artist (\0/) and is as obsessed with dates and timelines as me and created such wonderful pieces of art for me ♥ thanks to myfoolisheart as well who beta'd this thing within an inch of its life and would never let me give up even when i wanted nothing more than to forget it ever existed. thanks to her, you have the finished article before you today. (and because she convinced me that arthur was becoming too much of a douchebag and that i needed to fix it because merlin just wouldn't be friends with him anymore - saving my fic!life, basically). so, here it is guys, the eton bff!fic. ♥
disclaimer; not mine. made from love and not profit.
Sunday December 10th 1995;
"-and it's going to be the biggest burger in the world and we'll put all sorts of stuff on it, Dad, and you know people will -"
Arthur looked up at his dad to check if he was still paying attention. His lip was twitching like it did when he wanted to smile at Arthur but didn't know how. Arthur was a little proud because his dad hadn't smiled like that in a long time, not since earlier when his head teacher had been angry at Arthur and called him in from work. It wasn't his fault, anyhow, and then his dad had offered to take him to McDonald's and get him a meal because he said that Arthur was showing something to do with inative's or something. Anyway, it meant McDonald's which he didn't get very often.
He clung to his dad's hand (because he would be in so much trouble if he let go) and followed him into the building.
"Daddy, they have Camelot toys!" Arthur pulled on his dad's hand and pointed at the casing with the figure inside of it. They had the Unicorn and the Tree and they even had the old wizard. "Oh, can I have a meal, can I?"
His dad rolled his eyes but ordered Arthur a meal anyway and pretty soon he was clutching the box in his hands and tearing at the handles, trying to get inside.
"Arthur, wait until we're at the table," he admonished, taking the box from Arthur's hand and reaching over for some napkins. Arthur wasn't a baby and he wasn't going to spill stuff but he climbed into the booth and slid right across, wrestling his toy from the box before spilling half of the contents over the table. His dad didn't look very happy but Arthur ignored him and looked at his toy in disappointment. "Oh, it's the Tree."
The Tree was kind of boring on TV because he just went around telling the wizard that he was going to die or that he was going to meet some princess and fall in love or something and it was all a little gross but Arthur wanted the Unicorn because he was so cool.
"-AND THEN THE UNICORN WOULD-"
"Merlin, don't shout sweetheart, and stop waving your chips about."
Arthur looked over at the next table and saw a Unicorn go tumbling across the plastic table. A unicorn. He frowned. How come he got a Unicorn and Arthur got a tree?
"Hey, you got the Tree!"
"Yeah," he said, looking up at the boy. "You're in my class."
The boy nodded and smiled widely. "Merlin! You stole my lunch yesterday," he said, like he was happy about it.
"Arthur," his dad said, pointing at his lunch and Arthur reached for his burger, pulling the green things out and risking a glance at Merlin. He was playing with the Unicorn, sliding it over his Happy Meal box and making it jump over chips. He had a box of chicken nuggets spread out over the table and Arthur wondered if he would see the Tree coming. He could just-
"Maybe your Tree could attack my Unicorn?" Merlin asked him, hopeful.
Grinning, Arthur shifted in the seat, moving right over until he could reach across to Merlin's table and drop the Tree amongst Merlin's scattered nuggets. "Ha! Now you're surrounded by evil chickens!"
Merlin's eyes widened and he made the Unicorn back up, shaking it. "Oh no," he said, jerking the Unicorn around. "He can't go anywhere!"
The lady sitting opposite Merlin was smiling behind her hand and Arthur gave her one of his own, the one his nanny called his 'blinding smile' and the lady did that thing where her face went all soft and weird and she looked like she wanted to sweep him up. Arthur got that a lot and made a face, turning back to his dad. "Daddy, is it alright if I play with Merlin?"
His dad was going to say no, Arthur could tell, and he made a face. "Arthur-"
"I promise to eat my burger."
His smile never worked on his dad but he gave it to him anyway, waving the Tree around dramatically and wishing that his dad could be as awesome as the lady sitting with Merlin.
"How come you're at McDonald's?" Merlin asked. He had sauce on his mouth, a smudge against his cheek and Arthur squinted at it, wondered if he should tell the other boy or smudge it further, make him look like that man from that Batman movie his father wouldn't let him see.
"I was on top of the climbing frame and told people what to do. Daddy said some hard words that i don't know and said I deserved a burger. I asked for cheese because the lady always gives me extra."
Merlin looked torn between laughing and making a sad face so Arthur interrupted before he could do either. "What about you?"
"It's my birfday."
His eyes were wide and his smile was bigger and toothier than the one Morgana used when she got him into trouble, but it made Arthur smile too. Merlin's ears were stupid and sticking out and the sauce stain was getting bigger with every bite but he also shoved a nugget across the table and said, "Happy Birthday to me!" so Arthur liked him a little bit, but only because he let Arthur play Camelot and gave him food.
"You want to come back to my house? I have a NES," Arthur said enthusiastically.
Uther frowned down at his son. "Arthur, you can't just go inviting people around to the house."
Arthur dropped his head but felt Merlin pat his hand. "It's okay. Mummy wanted to take me to the park anyways. You can share my crayons at school tomorrow, if you want."
He was about to say he could get his own crayons, but Merlin was looking at him a little like he did when he got to play with his favourite toys in class, so Arthur smiled. "Okay."
Merlin did end up sharing his crayons but then Arthur let him come around to his house and play on the NES so that they were equal.
His dad was out when Merlin came over, so his nanny made them drinks and those soldiers and eggs that he liked dunking and then he kicked Merlin's arse at Legend of Zelda (and he really shouldn't be saying that because his nanny didn't like him to use words like that). Merlin was a bit silly when he found out that Arthur had a computer and he knew it was because he was only five and his nanny always told him that computer games were bad for you but he didn't care because it meant that everyone in his class wanted one and he had one so they all wanted to come around and play on it. Arthur liked Merlin best, though, so he could come around and play on it but nobody else could.
"Why do you like me?" Merlin asked one day. They were eating chocolate and cookies and watching Play Days on TV. Arthur liked the clown and it was the clowns day but Merlin always liked to talk when Arthur's favourite things were on.
"The clown, Merlin," Arthur prodded, jabbing a finger in Merlin's leg.
"I know," Merlin said, and watched the TV, not speaking.
When the clown was done and Arthur's least favourite program (Button Moon) came on, he poked Merlin again. "Because you gave me a nugget."
Merlin smiled toothily and kicked his legs against the sofa. "Oh. I like this show."
Arthur huffed quietly but pretended to be interested.
When the door to the play room opened and Arthur's dad poked his head around, Arthur just managed to keep himself on the sofa. His nanny always told him off if he ran at his dad before he'd finished his work. Not that he cared when his nanny shouted, but his dad was supposed to be staying home this weekend and taking Arthur and Merlin to the zoo so he didn't want to make him angry. "Hello boys. Nanny made your tea, yet?"
"No," Merlin said before Arthur could and Arthur elbowed him.
"She was going to make alphabet spaghetti and turkey dinosaurs!" Arthur said, waving his hands in the air. He loved turkey dinosaurs.
His dad smiled a little and Arthur felt happy. "Well, give me about ten minutes and I'll be in with you."
When the door had shut, Merlin nudged Arthur. "Your dad is scary."
Arthur shook his head and jumped down off of the sofa, pushing a cartridge into the NES and shoving a control at Merlin. "Your face is scary," he said. He'd heard the insult on a late re-run on tv (which he wasn't allowed to watch but always managed to get his nanny to agree to, anyway) and liked it. "I'm gunna beat you at Zelda again."
"No way!" Merlin shouted. "You won last time!"
Tuesday September 29th 1998;
Primary school, Arthur decided, was like Nursery only way more cool. It meant he had lots more people to boss around and do his work for him and it also meant that he and Merlin were finally in different classes.
Okay, that wasn't exactly a bonus but Arthur was still only eight and being in a different class to his best friend was fucking awesome. (He hoped that nobody told his father he was saying fucking because Merlin would totally tattle and Arthur would get a smack.) The doors between their classrooms had large glass windows in them and strategically choosing the last table at the back of the room gave them lots of opportunities to look through the glass and pull stupid faces at each other.
Sometimes they got caught but Arthur could sweet talk his way out of any situation (mostly by name dropping his father) and even if Merlin ended up staying in during playtime, Arthur would sit on the windowsill of the classroom whilst his friends played stupid tag games and sneak Merlin chocolate from the tuck shop.
It also meant that, by the time they were on the second term, Arthur was kind of popular and awesome and Merlin was not. This wasn't exactly helping Arthur's plan of making it through primary school easily because Merlin was a ridiculous target for bullies. Arthur knew what being eight and awesome meant, but he didn't know what being eight and Merlin meant until one Thursday in April.
It was just before Easter and Arthur was determined to charm Easter eggs out of every girl in his class. He had Lancelot stand by the outside door to check for teachers and was just working on Gwen (a short girl with pretty hair who Arthur kinda thought liked Lancelot better, but whatever, he was Arthur) when he heard a commotion from Merlin's classroom.
There was no way Merlin could have detention today because Arthur was still in trouble from Monday and was having to sit at the front of the class (the front!) and couldn't exchange hand signal notes through the glass.
Striding over to the door and throwing it open, Arthur was half way through saying, "Merlin, what are-"
Merlin was bent over the teachers table, back at a horrible angle and he had a red mark on his chin. Edwin - a creepy boy who stole all the Play-do at craft time - had Merlin's collar in his fist and had his other raised. His two friends - a horrible girl called Nimueh who pulled Morgana's hair a lot and a small boy who Arthur didn't know - were smirking. All three glared at Arthur as he stood in the doorway.
Lancelot, who always seemed to be where he was needed, came in from the other classroom and frowned. "What are you doing?"
Edwin stuck his tongue out and waved his fist over Merlin's face. "He laughed at me."
Arthur grinned. "So? I'm sure you get that all the time."
Before Edwin could say anything, Gwen appeared over Arthur's shoulder and let out a little gasp. "I'm going to get a teacher!"
She ran away before Arthur could stop her and he frowned. "I think you should let him go before Gwen gets back."
Edwin just looked at him nastily and Arthur was already thinking of a way to put mud in his lunch box next time he was outside. Ignoring him completely, Edwin turned back to Merlin. "You shouldn't laugh at me. I can hurt you, you know."
"You're eight," Merlin said, stupidly in Arthur's opinion, and laughed again. "I'm not scared of you."
Edwin's face scrunched up in anger and Nimueh reached over and pinched Merlin's arm.
"Hey!" Arthur shouted and surged forward, thinking only of Merlin who wasn't supposed to get bullied by these new kids who obviously didn't understand that Arthur's dad was Uther Pendragon and owned even their PENCILS and he was so going to get them in trouble for this. He curled his fingers into the small boys' shirt and pulled him away from Merlin, giving him a shove.
The boy, startled, stumbled and fell against one of the tables.
Lancelot followed Arthur and pushed Nimueh (he didn't care if it was a girl because she was evil) out of the way whilst Arthur reached for Merlin.
"You should let him go," Arthur said, using the tone of voice his dad used when he was mad at someone.
"Why?" Edwin snarled, looking a little bit crazy and like Merlin's mum did that time he and Merlin tore up her garden looking for buried treasure. "What are you going to do?"
Arthur's mouth tightened and Merlin whimpered. Without thinking about it, Arthur reached back and punched Edwin in the face, right on his nose.
"I think you were awesome," Merlin whispered whilst they waited in the head teachers office. He was sitting really close to Arthur, bumping his shoulder, and the bruise on his chin was big and ugly. Arthur frowned at it, hating it a lot because he wasn't used to Merlin getting hurt.
Whatever, Arthur had punched Edwin back and he had a bloody nose and it was awesome. The not so awesome part came in the form of Arthur's dad and Merlin's mum, both of them in with the head teacher and even though Merlin was hurt, Arthur knew they'd get the blame. The head teacher hated them because they'd set free all of the frogs and newts from the pond and let the class snake go. They hadn't meant to cause trouble but the animals hadn't wanted to be there and it had been the right thing to do and Merlin and Arthur had been taken to McDonald's (again) because their parents were cool like that.
Right now, Arthur thought they'd probably be locked in their rooms for all eternity but it was kind of worth it when Merlin dropped his head on Arthur's shoulder and smiled at him. "You're awesome."
Arthur snorted and jiggled his shoulder and was pleased when Merlin kept his head there anyway. Yeah, he kind of was, but with Merlin he was even more awesome.
Thursday April 8th 1999
Arthur stood awkwardly by the door feeling as uncomfortable as a person could when their best friend was being used as a human tissue. Merlin was looking at him, eyes big and round, probably hopeful that Arthur would say something to stop Gwen crying. Unfortunately, Arthur had no idea what to do. Her dad had died, at Easter of all times and Arthur had never had to deal with this sort of thing. His mum had died just after he was born but he didn't know her and he never spoke about her; there was nothing to say.
Downstairs, the heated discussions their parents were having could be heard through the crack in the door. They had been arguing for ages over who was going to take Gwen into their care. His dad already had Morgana to look after and Merlin's mum couldn't look after her, her job barely bringing in enough to keep herself and Merlin comfortable. Gwen's extended family lived in Britain, but not close to Devon and Arthur didn't know what would happen if she left. Merlin would cry like a girl, that's for sure, and Morgana would be more unbearable than she already was. He'd have to share with her again and he didn't know if he could handle that. Plus, he kind of liked Gwen and so did Lancelot and they were used to having her around.
"We won't let you go," Arthur promised, adamant. He screwed his face up in concentration. "Gwen has to have family here somewhere."
"I don't," Gwen said quietly, her face still pressed into Merlin's shoulder. "They live in America but I do have an aunt in Scotland."
"But that's miles away!" Merlin said, and Arthur knew it was the wrong thing to say. They didn't want Gwen to feel worse and she had lost a father. It wasn't fair.
Starting to get uncomfortable with all the crying, Arthur crossed his arms. "Maybe we should go downstairs and ask."
"But we can't," Merlin said. "We can't do anything until the funeral."
Arthur felt useless and Merlin looked just the same as he tightened his arms around Gwen.
"We can go downstairs," Gwen offered, pulling away a little. "I want to know what's going to happen to me. I don't even know what I'm going to do."
"It's okay," Arthur said, fearful that she would start to cry again.
"Yeah," Merlin agreed. "Maybe our parents won't let you go."
"Oh, Merlin." Gwen sounded older than her years and Arthur wondered why she had used that tone. What? They were just trying to help her and keep her safe.
"Come on," Arthur said, opening the door to the bedroom. "We have to know what's going on."
In the end, Merlin's Uncle Gaius agreed to look after Gwen until a permanent solution could be found. None of her family was in any position to take her and Arthur knew there was a lot involved with adoption and care, or so his dad said and the last thing he wanted was to see Gwen taken away by people in less posh suits than his father. His father was shut up in his study a lot, trying to sort out the situation. The funeral was hard on Gwen but they all tried to be there for her and Arthur stood, looking stiff and uncomfortable in his suit, but he managed to be nice to her for the whole day. Lancelot held her hand a lot, being a giant girl about it, but he was making sure she always had someone to talk to and Arthur couldn't really laugh at him for that. His dad and Merlin's mum spent their time doing the rounds and fixing it so that the funeral ran smoothly. Merlin was proud of both of them (something he insisted on telling Arthur every five minutes) because their families were all so close. It almost hurt to think that they'd lost Gwen's dad, he would say, and I'll never be able to ride on his horses or watch him shod the feet and attach the shoes.
Arthur would roll his eyes but he was kind of sad too because he always loved hanging out with Tom because Tom was good at what he did and Arthur loved playing with the metal and the fire.
He tried not to look to angry when Merlin held Gwen's hand during the dinner and squeezed. "I love you," he said. "I want you to be happy and I'm sorry this happened."
Her eyes were sad but she smiled and kissed his cheek. "Thank you, Merlin."
Arthur rolled his eyes but turned his face away and tried to search out Lancelot in the crowd. Maybe he wouldn't get so bogged down with sappy stupid stuff with him.
"Do you like Gwen?" Arthur asked, picking at the food on the table.
"It's not nice to pick it up and put it back," Merlin snapped, slapping Arthur's hand and pulling him away. Arthur glared at him. "And no. Girls are gross and Lancelot's been holding her hand all day."
"That's because he's a giant girl," Arthur snorted. He sighed and put his hands in his pockets, moving from foot to foot. "If you did like her, I wouldn't mind."
Merlin just shrugged. Arthur wasn't quite sure why he cared so much but he knew that Gwen was upset and it would be so easy for Merlin to think he had to make her happy. It would be so like Merlin to do that. Merlin was rolling his eyes and Arthur hated the way he seemed to be humouring him. "No, Arthur, I don't like Gwen. Now come on, I think the dancing is starting!"
"Think we can trip up Morgana?"
Grinning, the two of them raced off to the dance floor and Arthur pushed the thoughts to the back of his head.
Tuesday October 19th 1999
"Prince Harry is coming to Devon!"
Arthur rolled his eyes as Merlin waved the pamphlet above his head. He went tearing into his mother's house and jumped on a stool, shoving the leaflet across the counter. Arthur followed at a more sedate pace and ignored Merlin waving at him to hurry up. He didn't see what was so special about Prince Harry, anyway, just because he was royal and cool and had lots of red hair. Merlin had loads of posters on his wall and Arthur was always scribbling on them and drawing fake moustaches and beards and he hated that it made Merlin cry and tell his mum, but that wasn't Arthur's fault. That was just because Merlin was too sensitive because Harry's ugly face was being drawn on. Still, Merlin didn't have to get so obsessive over it. The guy was just born into a good family, that was all, with benefits and yeah, Arthur wasn't exactly poor but that didn't mean Merlin had to go around fawning over him like, well like Morgana fawned over Brad Pitt or Gwen fawned over Lancelot.
Merlin always told him it was because he was Merlin's age and he could have been best friends with Harry if Merlin wasn't already best friends with Arthur. Arthur thought he was barking and frequently told him so and even Hunith thought Merlin was mad; she always told Merlin not to think like that because Harry had Important things to do and she always said important with a big I.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Look, mum, he's going to be visiting the school! Arthur and I were chosen to meet him, isn't that awesome?"
Arthur pulled himself up onto the other stool and shrugged. "It's kind of cool."
Merlin kicked his shin. "It's more than cool! He's Prince of England."
"Wales," Arthur said. "What's so cool about him anyway?"
Ignoring Arthur's words, Merlin glared at him. "You're just jealous, anyway, mostly because Harry owns a helicopter and Uther doesn't have one of those."
"Yet," Arthur said. Okay, so they weren't getting one anytime soon but Merlin didn't have to know that.
"Well, whenever I ask your dad he always just asks if I'm felling slightly ill and shuts the door to his study."
Hunith smothered a laugh behind her hand and Arthur just made a face.
"Back to Prince Harry," Merlin wailed. "What if he doesn't like me? What if he just talks to you?"
"We'd all be saved," Arthur said nastily, sticking out his tongue and jumping down from the stool. "I'm bored."
As he left the kitchen, he heard Hunith say quietly to Merlin, "He didn't mean it, he's just -"
"I'm not jealous!" Arthur yelled.
Merlin looked down at his hands and couldn't bear to look his mother in the face. He thought of all the ways he had planned to ask her his question but can't think of any proper way to do it now that she is standing in the kitchen with him. He swallowed and scratched at his hand. "Mum. What happens if... if you like someone a lot and you want to kiss them?"
His mum turned away from the sink, surprised for a minute before sitting down across from him. She reached across the table and tilted his face up, making eye contact and holding it. They had talked before, about girls and things and Merlin remembered the time she had tried to explain about sex and babies and how awful he had felt afterwards. He had had to hide out in Arthur's room for about a week before he could look her in the eye. This is different, though, and he wondered if she could sense it. He wondered if she knew how terrified he was.
"Are you asking because you really want to know," she asked, gently, "or because of who this person is?"
Merlin didn't know how to answer her. He frowned and dropped his eyes to the table, staring hard at a stain on the table, unable to keep looking at his mum. "He-"
He cut off at his mother's soft snort. Looking up at her from under his lashes, he could see her smile and almost jumped when she touched his hand, curling their fingers together. In the end, she did all the work for him. "Sometimes it's hard to figure out what we want, Merlin, but you're only nine. You're not going to know what you want just yet. Infatuation can seem wrong at such a young age but if you want to kiss them, there's nothing wrong with that."
"Merlin," His mum pressed gently. "People will say things, all your life. It doesn't mean they're right and it doesn't mean you have to listen. You are an amazing young man and whatever choices you make, I will be behind you."
Merlin dropped his chin to his chest, squeezing his eyes shut. Arthur always said crying was girly and he tried to get himself under control. "Okay," he whispered. "Okay."
His mum squeezed his hand once more and pulled away.
He still wasn't going to tell her exactly who it was he was crushing on. It was easy to pretend that this crush on Prince Harry was going to go away but with the visit to the school coming up, it was all Merlin could do to keep it to himself. Sighing, he slipped down off the chair and wondered if he should call Arthur. They'd only seen each other at school but he was pretty sure that Arthur was bound to have a fight with Morgana over something and maybe it would do them both good to vent some. Still, admitting he had a crush on Prince Harry (well, a boy) to his mother was different to admitting it to Arthur. That was something that was going to take more courage then Merlin had.
Saturday June 24th, 2001
They were arguing again.
"Arthur, turn down the bloody television," Merlin said, trying to grab for the remote.
Arthur dangled it out of his reach. Merlin had taken to using not-quite-swear words in the hope that his mum wouldn't tell him off or wash his mouth out or something but it was kind of embarrassing. Arthur always just said what he wanted to and his father ended up saying something about it then so be it. He shrugged. "They're always arguing," he snapped. "It won't make any difference if the TV is loud or not."
Merlin didn't look happy but he sat back in the seat. He was going to sulk for ever now. Arthur sighed and tossed the remote into Merlin's lap. It wasn't like he was watching it, anyway.
"I wish they'd make up their mind," Merlin said, quietly. "I don't wanna be a problem."
"Shut up, Merlin. It doesn't matter, you know your mum's going to say yes."
"Why is she?" Merlin frowned, jabbing Arthur's arm with the remote. "She doesn't-"
"You wanna go to school with me, don't you?" Arthur didn't know why Merlin had to be such a girl all the time. It was obvious that he wanted to stay with Arthur and it wasn't as if Arthur wanted Merlin to go anywhere. They were friends, weren't they? Okay, best friends, not that he'd bother telling Merlin that ever because he'd just cry and get happy or something. "Then let them argue. Dad'll pay and then we'll get to stay at school together."
"Mum's gunna owe your dad like, a hundred million pounds."
"It's probably something like thousands, Merlin, don't exaggerate."
Rolling his eyes, Arthur kicked the side of Merlin's chair. "Change the channel and find something interesting. The shouting is getting louder."
"Mum says I can go to Bramdean," Merlin said, breathless.
"Of course you can," Arthur replied, propping his feet against the arm of the opposite chair. "Dad told me this afternoon. You know it's going to be awesome, right?"
He could practically see Merlin's enthusiastic smile. "Hell yes. I'm so excited. Anyway, I have to go because mum's waving me off the phone. Sorry."
Grinning, Arthur ended the call and tossed the phone on the sofa next to him. So whatever, Merlin was totally going to the same school as him now and even if neither of them understood why their parents fought so much over everything, Arthur knew it was only because Merlin's mum (and he should really start calling her Hunith like she wanted) felt bad about having to rely on somebody else to give her son a good education- at least that's what he'd overheard her saying on the phone to someone. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop but he'd been going to the kitchen and she'd been talking and he was worried because Merlin would only moan if he didn't get to stay in the same class as Arthur and Arthur wasn't exactly happy about the prospect of Merlin having to move schools. Still, he was glad they'd come to some sort of agreement to do with Arthur's dad offering to make it a loan. Arthur didn't really understand what it all meant but as long as he and Merlin were still at the same school then it was all fine because it's what they both wanted.
Monday 3rd September 2001
"This uniform is ridiculous."
"Yeah, because it's the uniform that matters," Morgana snapped, adjusting the skirt on her hips. She'd rolled it up about six times already and Arthur had to slap the back of Merlin's head because he couldn't stop looking at the hemline which fell just below her bum. Arthur was sure that his dad was going to go nuts when he saw how she looked but Morgana seemed to be staying out of his way well enough. Gwen was wearing the horrible maroon blazer and checked dress. It was a hideous uniform for the girls but at least Arthur, Merlin and Lancelot got away with mostly grey and black. "Still, at least I look better than Gwen."
"Thanks," Gwen muttered. Gaius had managed to scrape enough money together for the first term but Arthur had spent fifteen hours earlier finding out from Merlin that her future at Bramdean was uncertain. It was only because Merlin still felt guilty about Arthur's dad paying for his schooling but they'd already fought about that a hundred times (and even more so with Merlin's mum) and he just couldn't be bothered to fight about it anymore. The money was paid and his dad just got more angry than he needed to but trying to get Merlin to back off was near impossible.
Right now, Merlin was staring at the school, mouth pulled down into a frown.
"I know what you're thinking," Arthur said smugly and Merlin just shook his head. "If it bothered dad that much then he wouldn't have done it."
"I'm not having this talk with you again," Merlin said, walking towards the building. Arthur glared at the back of his head but followed. Their parents were still talking with the head teacher by the school gates and had left them all to their own devices until they were ready to enter the school. "Boarding is going to be horrible."
"No way!" Arthur said, hi-fiving Lancelot who seemed to agree with him. "This is going to be so cool! Imagine not having parents looking over your shoulder all the time and not having to have awkward meals with your sister just because your dad-"
Morgana smacked him on the back of the head and narrowed her eyes. "Oh, don't worry, I'll always manage to be where you're eating, Arthur. I'd hate to let you get away with eating alone."
"I'm never alone," Arthur said, throwing an arm around Merlin's shoulders. Merlin snorted and picked at the hem of his jumper. Arthur was trying to keep it cool and make Merlin see that this was going to be awesome because they were going to be together, but Merlin was still nervous about going to Bramdean. He'd locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out and made Arthur promise that they wouldn't spend so much time apart that they just ... weren't friends anymore. Arthur had tried hundreds of different ways to not promise because Merlin should know and he shouldn't have to say it out loud but Merlin hadn't budged. In the end, Arthur had sat on the floor, back to the door and told Merlin about the time they had spent the weekend cleaning Mrs. Collins' classroom after spraying red paint in a fit of fun. Merlin had unlocked the door and sat beside him and it had taken Arthur another hour to admit that he was afraid of the same thing.
Arthur had tried to forget Merlin saying that he couldn't think of anything more horrifying than having to live life without Arthur by his side.
"Stop it." He kept his tone low but pulled his hand back, squeezing Merlin's shoulder. "You're being obvious, Merlin. We're still going to be friends, calm down."
"I hate it when you do that," Merlin muttered, and pulled away completely, turning back to his friends. "This is going to be so awesome, you know?"
It was a lame attempt at pretending that everything was going to be okay but the others accepted it, worried as they were about this new start. Arthur did what he was always did; led the way into the school and into a future that was going to be scary but cool at the same time.
Friday 18th January 2002
"Calm down," Arthur said, resting his hand on Merlin's shoulder. "She's going to be fine, you doofus."
"You don't know that," Merlin said, burying his face in his hands. "She's all I've got, Arthur, what am I going to do if-"
"She's not all you got," Morgana said. "You've got us."
Merlin smiled weakly and Arthur couldn't help but look at Gwen and Lancelot. They were curled up on the seats, Gwen crying and Artur remembered the many nights Hunith had spent being the mother that Morgana and Gwen had never had. Whatever, Hunith was a cool mum and he'd always liked her and it sucked that she was sick like this.
"She's not gunna die, Merlin. She's gunna be fine and she'll wake up and tell you off for being such an idiot about it." Arthur said, punching Merlin's arm. He hated this mushy stuff and resisted the urge to push Merlin's head off his shoulder. He was allowed to be a girl for a little while, he guessed, because of his mum.
"The bills and rent are paid for, Merlin."
Arthur press his hands to his eyes as Merlin looked up. "What?"
"There was no one around to take-"
"My Uncle Gaius is coming into town tomorrow to look after me! He could have paid it."
"I have it on good authority that there aren't sufficient funds-"
"You spoke to him?" Merlin's voice was getting higher and shriller and he was starting to sound like Morgana when she was being bitchy.
"Shut up, Arthur! This isn't about you." Merlin glared back up at Arthur's dad. "We could have found a way. We're not poor!"
There was a horrible silence and then Merlin was going again. Arthur needed him to shut up because his father didn't take well to being shouted at.
"You're not my father!" Merlin yelled, getting to his feet. "You don't have to pay for everything I do!. We've been doing fine all my life and sweeping in and paying for everything isn't going to make me feel alright, okay?"
Arthur's dad's face was calm and didn't betray anything but Arthur knew his dad and knew better. He was going to be livid about this but Arthur couldn't even say anything. There were times when it was easy to stand up for his father and-
"-Arthur is not my brother! As much as sometimes I wish he was, we're just friends and you don't owe me anything just like Mum doesn't owe you anything."
Arthur blinked, finding it hard to think. What the fuck? (He didn't even care about fuck, okay, this was a time for swearing.) What the hell had he done? "Merlin, shut your mouth."
"No," Merlin snapped. "No, you don't get to tell me anything. I'm going to see mum." Before he stormed out of the room, Merlin paused in front of Arthur's dad and Arthur thought that this was the first time that Merlin hadn't looked terrified in front of him. "Thank you. You didn't have to and shouldn't, but thank you."
After the door had slammed, Arthur laughed, not even caring how hollow it sounded. "Figures that he'd still be polite even being a dick."
"Well, excuse me. Don't you care?"
His father just looked angry. "Are you coming back to the house?"
Arthur had more to say but he didn't want to test his father anymore than possible. "Yes, dad."
Lying on the couch, Arthur was flicking through every station they owned (and it was well over 900) when there was a knock at the door. He remained still, perfectly aware that the person at the door would assume he was being deliberately bratty by not opening the door himself and just leave. His father was working and it was obvious that he wasn't going to answer the door and Morgana was staying with Gwen, so the house was empty. He wasn't in the mood to deal with anyone and the memory of why made him grind his teeth. Damn Merlin and his attitude and everything. His father had only been trying to help and, okay, he knew that Merlin and his mum were independent and they liked the idea of paying for everything and working for it but the bills and rent wouldn't have been paid and Arthur knew Hunith wouldn't want to come home to no house and debt. Admitting to himself that it was the brother jibe that hurt the most - and Arthur would kill to retain that secret - he ran a hand over his eyes.
It shouldn't hurt because he and Merlin weren't brothers and the idea itself was so ludicrous that-
Well. No. The idea wasn't ludicrous. Frustrated, Arthur swung his legs to the floor when the door opened and his father stood in the doorway. "Arthur."
He was using that voice he hated, the one that meant Merlin-
Shoving past his father (and boy, he was going to pay for that later) and into the hallway, Arthur froze, attempting to look casual and aware that he was failing miserably.
Merlin was standing on the doorstep, rain plastering his hair to his forehead and looking like he'd wished he'd stayed back at the hospital. Arthur didn't know what to do here, except stop Merlin looking so bedraggled. "For God's sake, Merlin, come inside."
As if frozen to the spot, Arthur could only watch as Merlin stepped into the hallway and shut the door behind him. He stood, dripping water onto the floor and Arthur rolled his eyes. His father passed by with a towel and handed it to Merlin, looking like he wanted to simultaneously berate them both and ask Merlin if he wanted something to drink.
Arthur took pity on him and moved forward, gripping Merlin's elbow. He ignored the tensing of Merlin's body and the water pooling beneath Merlin's feet and dragged him towards the direction of the kitchen. "I can make us something warm and you can tell me why you're being such an idiot and standing out in the rain when you could be with your mum,"
Only from him, Arthur knew, would Merlin accept that kind of talk. "Shut up," he said, half-heatedly. "About what I said in the-"
"I don't care," Arthur said, dismissing him with a wave of his free hand. "Do you want hot chocolate? Maybe we can see how long it takes dad to get mad at us while we make a mess of his kitchen."
"I heard that, young man," his father shouted through the hallway. "You're not too old for a spanking!"
Merlin snorted but stopped struggling against Arthur's pull. He seemed to relax the longer it took them to make something and eventually Arthur felt comfortable speaking to him, stirring his mug to have something else to look at. "It wouldn't be bad if you were."
"Were what?" Merlin said, licking chocolate off of the end of his thumb. He frowned, dabbing at the chocolate he'd managed to spill on his hoodie. "Arthur, what?"
"It doesn't matter." He wasn't going to say it twice because that would be weird. Instead, he tipped the spoon into the sink and curled his hands around the cup, wondering what game he could beat Merlin at tonight.
Eventually, Merlin seemed to follow. "No, wait, I get it."
"We're done, Merlin. Come on, let's just go play on the XBox or something."
"It's at my house," Merlin said, distracted and he poked Arthur in the chest. "You meant about-"
"Why is it at your house?" Arthur said more forcefully. He really didn't want to talk about this anymore and he didn't remember giving Merlin the XBox. When was the last time he'd even stayed around Merlin's house?
"You felt sorry for me? And it's okay, we don't have to talk about it anymore. Wouldn't bad bad for me, either. If we were. It would be awesome."
"Right," Arthur nodded, glad they were stopping this now. "I guess we'll have to play on the Playstation, then."
"That's a hardship," Merlin grinned, brightly. "I can kick your-"
"If the next word out of your mouth is a curse word, I'll wash it out with soap," Arthur's dad said, passing through the kitchen. He grabbed some papers off of the island before disappearing into his office.
Merlin looked terrified, white-faced. "I hate it when he does that."
Arthur shrugged. "It just gets worse. Come on, you can kick my curse-word-omitted."
"I hate you."
"And yet you're still following me." Arthur grinned back over his shoulder.
Tuesday 12th August 2003;
"Dad will pay for you," Arthur said, beating his thumb down on the Playstation controller. "If you wanted to go."
"He's just paid for three years of my education already, Arthur." Merlin was kicking his arse at Gran Turismo and Arthur hated it when this happened. It was new game, dammit. "I wouldn't want him to pay for me anymore."
"You mean your mum doesn't want him to pay for it anymore."
Arthur wasn't bitter. He and Merlin were used to this; nights of hearing his dad and Merlin's mum yelling about fees and who was paying for what and when. It wasn't anything weird or whatever the kids in the lower classes said. Arthur figured that they'd just got so used to fighting it out between them, that they were just going to keep doing it. Things always worked out and both seemed quite happy but Eton was another thing altogether. Arthur could understand why Merlin's mum was still worried about sending Merlin there; it wasn't boarding like Bramdean was boarding. Merlin wouldn't come home unless it was for breaks or for short weekend breaks because he was missing her. It was going to be permanent and if Arthur didn't have such an awkward relationship with his father, he'd probably be weirded out by it, too. As it was, he was okay with things except that Merlin wasn't going with him.
"Well, whatever they decide, things will be cool."
"I know," Merlin said, sounding like he didn't. He was always worried that Arthur was going to run away and abandon him which was mostly ridiculous because he'd got used to Merlin and they were best mates and nothing was going to change that. At least, he hoped not.
"So. I guess whatever happens, happens, right?"
"Unless your dad decides not to send you to Eton."
Arthur snorted. "Yeah, right. I've been on the waiting list for like, ever. Besides, Prince Harry is going."
"Shut up," Merlin groaned, blushing and dropping the controller on the floor. "You promised you wouldn't bring that up anymore!"
"Anyone would think you loooooove him," Arthur grinned, jabbing Merlin's ribs. "I bet you totally do!"
Merlin paled and went quiet and Arthur frowned.
"What? What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," Merlin said, too quick, but he started to right back and Arthur just pushed it aside. Whatever, Merlin was always being weird and crazy. "I do not love him!"
"Well, whatever. I bet we'll be best mates or something and then you can come and hang out with us and we'll be awesome friends."
"As long as you don't abandon me for him," Merlin said, sulking.
"Whatever. I'll never like anyone more than you," Arthur promised, aware that he was being ridiculous and girly but sometimes Merlin needed to hear it to get off his back.
"Come on, play better. I will beat you this time!"
Arthur was sitting on the kitchen stool, squirting a blob of tomato sauce onto the plate in front of him. He eyed Merlin from where he was puttering about the kitchen and couldn't keep the half smile off of his face. "Make sure you put everything back where it belongs."
Merlin leaned against the counter and plucked a chip from the plate in front of him.
Arthur's dad walked through the kitchen, putting his umbrella in the stand and waving at him absently, all with his eyes on the folder in front of him. "Son," he said, distracted.
"Dad," Arthur replied, amused. Merlin was still chewing on his chip and Arthur wondered if he had noticed that his dad's umbrella was pink. His dad disappeared into the study and just before he shut the door, he waved again. "Hello Merlin."
Merlin choked on his chip and managed a quick, "Hello," before the soft snick of the door cut him off. "He scares me."
Arthur rolled his eyes and pushed the plate away, stretching. He was used to his father coming home from work and shutting himself in his study straight away. It was part of the reason he invited Merlin around so often. Merlin was hilarious to have around, most of the time, but he was also good company.
"When do you leave for school?"
Arthur ignored the hesitant expression on Merlin's face but Merlin continued to glare at him until he gave in, sighing. "I can't help where my dad sends me, Merlin."
"I know," Merlin said, picking at the remaining chips on the plate. "I know."
They did know, both of them. It wasn't like they had anything else to talk about. Eton - and the money - had been done to death and they were just fighting over nothing, now. Arthur just wanted to hang with Merlin - and Morgana and Gwen and Lancelot - and just stay awesome and have fun before he left for school. He probably wasn't going to get much at Eton and, as much as he tried not to think about it, he'd probably miss them. Well, whatever. It wasn't like either of them had a choice; they were going to be split up and they were just going to have to deal with it.
Monday 8th September 2003
His father was looking down at him proudly and clasped him on the shoulder. Arthur tensed a fraction but mentally told himself to relax. "This is it, then."
Arthur nodded, not knowing what to say. They wouldn't hug because that's not what they did and he would be home at the weekend, but the clasp wasn't enough and Arthur didn't have the courage to ask for anything more. "See you this weekend?"
Stepping back, his father just stared up at the school and Arthur took it for the affirmative he had been taught to look for in his fathers bearing. The school looked huge and daunting from here and Arthur was sort of glad that he'd brought along his friends to see him off. Merlin's mum was standing by her car, one arm around Gwen's shoulders because she was crying which was ridiculous because he was going to be home every weekend.
"You don't have to be here you know," he said, mostly to Morgana who was looking distracted and it was nice of her to come but Arthur supposed she'd rather be hooking up with Owen at the local corner shop.
"Don't be an idiot," she shot back, coming forward to punch him on the shoulder. "Just make sure you don't forget about us."
He flashed her his most dashing smile which she promptly ignored, as usual, and hooked an arm around his shoulders.
"Don't forget about him." Her eyes made it more than clear what she would do to him should he forget. He was thirteen and about to head off to a new school wide open for the Pendragon charm - but that didn't mean that he was going to forget that his friends existed or that Merlin was going to be a complete girl about his departure.
"Nothing to worry about," he said, grinning.
She didn't look convinced but waved a hand in Gwen's direction. Gwen threw her arms around Arthur's neck and he could tell she was crying by the wet patch slowly soaking against his neck.
"Guinevere," he said, a little bit disgusted. "It's school, not exile."
"Might as well be," Merlin said, mumbling under his breath.
Arthur looked over at him sharply, brows drawing down into a frown. He patted Gwen's back again and peeled her off of him, guiding her back towards Morgana before turning to Merlin. "What?"
Merlin rubbed the back of his head and shrugged, glazing over his words. Arthur was getting tired of having Merlin dance around the subject. He didn't know what he had to do to convince Merlin that he wasn't running away and that he was going to come back and they'd still be the same best friends they'd been for as long as Arthur could remember. When he opened his mouth to say as much, Merlin gripped his shoulders and gave him a tight smile.
"So I guess this is goodbye?"
"Oh, stop acting like somebody died," Arthur shot back, pulling Merlin in for a hug anyway. Thinking about leaving, really left him a little breathless. It was stupid to be afraid of a school because he was going to be on his own, but Arthur didn't really know what to expect. He'd had Merlin as his wing man for the better part of his life and he was thirteen and alone and this was a whole new experience. He'd never been away from Merlin for very long before, let alone a complete term of school, and the prospect of not having his father in reach was also vaguely frightening. It didn't matter if his father was always working or always shut up in his study, but to be away from him completely was daunting.
"You'll never forget me, yeah?"
Arthur pulled away and made a face. "I'll see you every weekend, you moron. Stop crying and acting like a girl and I'll see you at Nik's on Friday night."
Merlin managed a tight smile and then stepped back, turning his face away from Arthur. Resisting the urge to run over and shake Merlin until they both ran away from Eton and Arthur's future and Merlin's absence in his life, Arthur picked up his bag from the floor and pulled it onto his shoulder.
His father motioned at their driver to get the rest of the bags and rested a hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Ready?"
Arthur cast one last glance and Merlin and then nodded. "Yeah."
They started off towards the school and Arthur mumbled an, "I think," under his breath.
"Are you alright?"
Merlin pressed his face to the window, watching the grass verges and cars blurring against his window as they sped down the motorway. "No," Merlin mumbled. "He's at a school in London, Mum. He's not going to want to come back to Devon every weekend."
"Don't be silly. You know as well as I that Uther won't take no for an answer. He's only thirteen, Merlin, he's not ready to forget about home just yet."
"Says you," Merlin said, thinking about the school and all the awesome things he'd heard Arthur tell him about when he'd been selling it to Merlin - and to himself - and it was hard to imagine why Arthur would want to come back to Devon and the country and his friends and leave behind so much amazing stuff.
Merlin flopped down on the bed, burying his face in the pillow and wanting to forget today had ever happened. Watching the back of Arthur's head disappear into the school had been the worst thing ever and Merlin didn't want to think about what would happen - both at home and at school - now that Merlin had lost his best friend. There was Lancelot, he supposed, and definitely Gwen and Morgana but they weren't Arthur. Arthur, who'd been Merlin's best friend for eight years and they'd been through everything together from his Mum's pneumonia to being separated at school. Knowing that Arthur was going to be in a different school - in a different county - wasn't something Merlin wanted to think about.
Groaning, Merlin peeled himself away from the comfort of his room and hovered on the landing. "Who is it?"
His mum gave him a look and held out the phone. Sighing, Merlin trotted down the stairs, taking the phone from his her outstretched hand. "Hello?"
"Merlin, this school sucks ass."
Merlin's lip twitched and he gave his Mum a blinding grin. She raised an eyebrow and retreated to the kitchen as Merlin rested his head against the banister and laughed into the handset. "I thought this was going to be the best adventure ever."
"I hate you, you know that right?"
"... and then they tell me that I'm not allowed phone privileges! What is THAT about?"
"You did get into a fight on your first day, Arthur. What about, anyway?"
"It doesn't matter," Arthur said quickly, and huffed. "But my phone privileges. I tried to explain that my best friend would be pining-"
"- I don't pine-"
"-without me and that I had to call him but apparently that wasn't a good enough reason so I text dad on a mobile I stole from my roommate and he called the school."
"Ouch," Merlin said, knowing full well what Uther's displeasure could cost a school. "That can't have been pleasant for them."
"it wasn't," Arthur agreed, positively gleeful. "The room master came into my dorm and he practically had his tail between his legs! He apologised for taking my phone and gave it back and hey presto, I called you!"
Merlin was secretly touched, not that he'd ever admit that. "That's going to make your dad happy."
"Whatever, he's not the one sobbing into his pillow because of my absence."
"Fuck off," Merlin shot back, running a hand through his hair and looking at the front door in distracted curiosity. "I'm sure you'll be the one pining tomorrow when you have a whole full day of lessons and I get the afternoon off because of my disability."
"Stupidity is a disability now?"
"No," Merlin said, "But apparently the headmistress feels sorry for me because she's given me permission to sit out of P.E since nobody wants me on their team now you aren't around to force them into it."
"Sorry," Arthur said, quietly.
Merlin swallowed thickly around the lump in his throat. "Why? You didn't abandon me, Arthur, and I'm not a damsel in distress. I'm thirteen, not a girl."
"Says you," Arthur shot back, but his voice was back to normal. "Now, about this weekend-"
"That's going to cost him a lot," Hunith said as Merlin put the phone back on the handset.
"His dad's paying," Merlin said, absently. He walked into the living room and perched on the arm of her chair. "I miss him already, mum."
Hunith smiled gently and patted his knee, curling her fingers against his jeans and squeezing. "I know, sweetheart but he'll be back before you know it and it will be like he never left."
"Until he goes again." Merlin sighed and pulled away. "He'll always just go again."
Hunith didn't know what to say.
Friday 12th September 2003
Merlin stared at the phone, as if willing it to ring would make it do so. What the hell was Arthur's problem? Every time Merlin called he was too busy or not available or the House Captain was always telling him to stop calling during school time. They promised to pass on messages but either they were lying or Arthur just didn't care. He'd had one phone call after the first to tell him that Arthur was actually sharing with Prince Harry and it was awesome, god it was awesome, but what, suddenly Merlin wasn't good enough to talk to anymore?
Merlin's mum was trying to understand but he knew that even she was starting to get tired of his constant anger at Arthur's silence. "He'll come around, sweetheart."
"You don't know that," Merlin said, glaring harder at the phone. Well, fine, if that's how Arthur wanted to play it then he'd just have to hang out with Lancelot, that's all. He was Arthur's old best-friend-who-wasn't-Merlin and dammit, he was going to be Merlin's now. Resolving to stick to this plan, not matter what Lancelot or Arthur said, Merlin left the living room and made his way up to his room. Pictures of Prince Harry and Arthur stared down at him from the walls, mocking him and he threw himself on the bed, burying his face in the pillows. He could almost picture Arthur standing in the doorway, smirking and calling him a big girl and he felt tears well up in his eyes. Dammit, he wasn't going to cry. He was twelve and not a baby and he wasn't going to cry like one. He swallowed and rubbed his face with his hand. He could tear down all the posters and pictures from his wall but he shouldn't have to hide them away. He should be able to stare at both Harry and Arthur and not get mad at them.
He sighed. If only Arthur would call.
Wednesday 10th December, 2003;
There was a card sitting in his locker. Opening it, a tenner fell out and Merlin had just enough time to grab it before it dropped to the floor.
The note inside was small and scrawled. miss you, a.
Merlin grinned. He'd have to thank Morgana later. She had obviously dropped it off but it was nice to know that Arthur hadn't forgotten.
Sunday 14th december, 2003;
"Arthur's coming home on Wednesday!" Merlin said, bounding into the kitchen. He grinned at his mum over the top of the counter.
"Don't think you're getting out of school," she chastised, raising an eyebrow. Merlin resisted the urge to groan and made a silent promise to punch Lancelot for being right. Dammit. It wasn't fair. "And no whining about it, either. Give him time to say hi to Morgana and his father."
"He's not even going to see Morgana until Saturday," Merlin said, sighing. "We both have to stay in school till then."
"Hmm." His mum smiled, patting his hand. "I'm sure you're excited."
Merlin grinned and nodded. They were splitting their time over Christmas, spending the first two weeks with Merlin's mum, spending Christmas day apart and then spending the rest of the holiday until new years, at Arthur's house. There was already a new years party planned at Arthur's house where everyone was invited and it was going to be so epic and cool. They hadn't seen each other for ages and even Merlin found it hard keeping up with Morgana, Lancelot and Gwen, what with all of them being in separate classes and groups. They hung out at holidays, but it wasn't the same as it used to be. When they did meet, however, it was even cooler than it had been before.
"Do you still have his gift?"
Merlin's mum shook her head, smiling." It's under the tree, Merlin, with all the others. Where it's been since the beginning of the month."
"Good. He missed my birthday, so his present better be amazing."
"It's not the presents-"
"-it's the thought, I know, mum. I was joking."
And he mostly was. Arthur was going to be the best present about this Christmas and Merlin couldn't wait until they were together again.