Pairing/s: Arthur/Merlin, Leon/Morgana
Summary: Pendragon Corporation has bought Gaius’s coffee shops. Merlin’s left hanging.
Warnings: Mild angst, miscommunication, health scare
Word Count: 3915
Author's Notes: I hope this hits your Modern AU, angst with a happy ending buttons. Your specific prompt was excellent but it somehow kept descending into a medieval recipe exchange in my hands.
Disclaimer:Merlin is owned by the BBC and Shine. No copyright infringement is intended and no profit is being made. Don't send us to the dungeons.
A month before Christmas, Cool Beans, the small but profitable coffee chain (three links makes a chain, right?) Merlin manages in Ealdor is bought out by Pendragon Corporation. Uncle Gaius had been talking about retiring ”Sooner rather than later” for nearly a year, so when the surprisingly generous, unsolicited offer to purchase the three businesses is made and accepted, it hurts, but Merlin can understand his uncle’s decision to sell.
The new owners give Merlin two choices: resign as manager or report to corporate for “re-training,” whatever that’s going to mean. The lack of equally well paying local employment had already made the choice for him when he gets a call from Human Resources asking that he arrive in London the day before his re-training is scheduled to take a meeting with Arthur Pendragon, Vice President of Marketing. Merlin’s stomach drops.
Of course he knew Arthur worked for his father but Merlin had assumed he would be interacting with the lower hierarchy of PenCorp, as Arthur used to refer to it back in uni (in obnoxiously privileged, not really jokes like ”Profit will always be the bottom line at PenCorp.”). Arthur had been born with a silver spoon shoved up his glorious bum and liked to lord it about when he had a few drinks in him.
He also liked to tease Merlin about his elephantine ears, country bumpkin ways and pretty much everything else. The teasing was never cruel and Merlin lamented that it did nothing to quell the stupid crush he had on the prat. Arthur, the arse, was just that good looking and Merlin had to look at him (which he really didn't mind) all the time.
He and Arthur shared the same business courses, regularly swapping being at the head of their classes in Business Administration and Finance. When Merlin had been forced to drop out just after the start of Senior year, Arthur had looked pained but said nothing about the circumstances, only that he was going to miss the competition.
Merlin had packed up his textbooks, moved back into his tiny, obscure indie band poster decorated bedroom, and got a job working in his uncle’s coffee shop while taking care of Hunith through her extensive cancer treatment program. A few months later, Arthur made a friends request on facebook but Merlin never hit confirm, not wanting to be mocked for postings like Look at what I learned this week attached to a latte decorated with a lopsided heart.
Merlin knew this was going to be his drab life and he didn’t want to watch the polar opposite that was sure to be Arthur’s meteoric rise in business and social circles unfold while he donned a tie-dyed apron and made coffees day after day.
Once Hunith had gotten a clean bill of health, instead of returning to school full time Merlin had stayed on while his mum regained her strength. He quickly moved up the small, not at all corporate ladder at Cool Beans, taking over as manager when Gaius semi-retired into only working the two mornings Merlin needed off to attend classes to finish his degree.
After making several suggestions to increase profitability and streamline practices, Gaius had been happy to cede nearly all the nuts and bolts duties of running the business to Merlin. Over time he implemented sourcing supplies from nearby farms and buying fair market coffees and teas. Paying staff a living wage was risky but paid off in the turnover rates of the shops plummeting while morale skyrocketed.
Hunith was healthy again, but she couldn’t face the physically demanding work of nursing any longer, so, instead, she turned her natural talent and love of cooking into supplying baked goods for the coffee shops.
The community wholeheartedly supported all these forward thinking changes, leading to the town’s lone Starbucks closing its doors and Gaius and Merlin opening a third shop in nearby Ascetir. The shop had started turning a profit six months in and expanded to the storefront next door less than a year after its Grand Opening.
Three years after leaving university, Finance and Business Management Masters diploma finally hanging on his coffee and cinnamon scented office wall, everything had been on an even keel again, maybe even looking up. Merlin was proud of the work he had put into Gaius’s business but then, in an instant, it all blew up in his face. He had done too fine a job making the small business look good on paper and now, at 26, he is in the unenviable position of living with his mum and not at all looking forward to some corporate drone re-training him for a job he is already damn good at. Arthur is going to have a fucking field day.
“It’s a week long training course, mum. I’ll be back well before Christmas,” he assures Hunith before leaving the house to catch the train to London. If it weren’t so aggravating not knowing what to expect, he’d be excited about taking a break from routine. He hasn’t been to London in years, kept too busy with work demands to have much of a social life in Ealdor (a pint down at the local with Uncle Gaius and Will hardly counts), let alone keep up with university friends so far afield outside of facebook posts. As it is, Merlin is tentatively looking forward to seeing the handful that stayed in London after graduation, but his nervousness over a corporate overhaul to Cool Beans is keeping him on edge. He can’t help worrying about how the sale will impact all the employees Merlin has grown close to.
Before the acqusition, Merlin had looked into Pendragon Corporations dozen coffee shops (stupidly named Hot Stuff) in London and was dismayed at their employee turnover rates and low customer satisfaction numbers. The businesses are profitable but mainly due to location rather than their offerings. He’d thought about bringing these concerns to Uncle Gaius’s attention, but the man was over the moon about finally having enough time and savings to travel and enjoy his gardens. Merlin didn’t have the heart to burst his happy bubble and now here he is, slogging through Victoria Station, future uncertain again.
It’s a beautiful day but Merlin packed suits and dress shoes as well as the business casual he’d expected to wear to his re-training. I am really starting to loathe that word, he thinks as he grudgingly hefts his suitcase and laptop bag from the train station to the tube.
The emailed directions are clear and he gets to the three story red brick Victorian building in no time at all. He enters the pass code and the security door buzzes him into a small but beautifully appointed marble lobby.
He needs to enter another pass code to use the elevator to access his room on the top floor and is gobsmacked when the doors slide open directly into a brightly lit living room, nearly as large as their entire first floor at home.
Gleaming herringbone hardwood floors are visible beneath brightly colored Persian rugs and there’s a comfortable mix of antique and contemporary furniture arranged in cozy groupings all over the room. The windows look out to the bare branches of trees growing in the square below. This is not the sterile studio he had been expecting.
“What the hell?” Merlin asks the empty room. It takes him a while to stumble on part of the answer.
He’d missed the note on the gleaming stainless steel refrigerator the first time through, finding it only when he realizes he’s parched and goes looking for water. He recognizes Morgana’s looping handwriting immediately.
Merlin! Sorry I’m going to miss you this time through. Leon and I are in Paris for Christmas and since the flat was going to be empty I thought you’d enjoy staying here rather than the cold confines of Pendragon’s
The master bedroom is the one with the Do Not Disturb on the door knob, otherwise you have the run of the flat, including anything in the refrigerator and cupboards. The liquor is in the sideboard behind the ugly couch that Leon picked out. Feel free to invite people over. The cleaners are coming in the Friday before we get home so don’t bother to pick up after yourself. We remember the state of your dorm room floor as though it was yesterday!
Love and Kisses,
Leon’s added a PS: Tell Gwaine whatever he drinks he has to replace. I remember what a lightweight you are so he’s not going to get away with laying the blame on you. Also, sit on it and you will agree that couch is the only comfortable one in the room.
PPS: See if you can get Arthur to beg. Film it. L
Merlin wonders what that last bit means but he goes to ring Gwaine, Elena, Gwen and Lancelot to see if they want to get dinner.
After making arrangements, he does a Goldilocks circuit of the living room couches and has to agree with Leon that his is just right.
The pub is cozy and warm and Merlin knows he’s grinning like an idiot and beaming with happiness but couldn’t care less. He keeps himself so busy and isolated, he hadn’t realized how starved for friendship he was in Ealdor.
He has Will and Gaius and Hunith but they don’t have these kinds of raucous, stimulating conversations on art and movies and films and television and politics and, hell everything! He had forgotten he even had opinions on things that aren’t coffee shop related! How crazy is that? Okay, he might be a bit drunk.
“I think it’s time we get wee Merlin all tucked up in bed,” a voice says to his left and Merlin turns to see Gwaine grinning his way. He lurches in for a hug and gets a face full of hair for his efforts.
“I’ve missed you all so much,” he says into the hair, getting a bit in his mouth. He fumbles at it a little before pulling away. “I might be a bit drunk,” he admits.
“Three pints,” Elena crows. “I win!”
Merlin sits up, leaning a bit too hard to the right but Lancelot catches him before they collide. He hardly notices, blearily focusing on Elena. “What did you win? Are there prizes?”
Elena smiles, “We drew numbers for how many pints it would take until you were ridiculously, adorably pissed. I got three and I think Gwaine’s right, it’s time to get you home. Arthur’s going to kill us all if you show up to your meeting hungover.”
“Too late,” Merlin says merrily, but he happily lets them bundle him into his coat and walk him to Morgana's door. They all decide it’s a fantastic idea to take him up in the elevator, too, which is super nice. Merlin doesn’t remember anything else until a ringing telephone nearly splits his head in half.
He fumbles at the bedside table for a few moments, not locating the source of the abominably loud noise before realizing that means he’s going to have to open his eyes. It takes a few seconds to convince his brain that’s even possible.
Thank goodness somebody had closed the curtains and the bedroom is dim but the incessant noise is coming from down the hall. Merlin drags his feet, eyes barely open against the assault of the bright living room on his pounding brain.
He finally spots the old fashion rotary dial phone on a side table, and thank the heavens it’s next to the comfy couch. Merlin sits, gingerly picks up the receiver and says the first thing that comes into his head: “Please, make it stop.”
The laughter is so loud, Merlin needs to hold the ear piece away from his head until it dies down. Warily, he brings it close again. “What’s funny?”
“You are Merlin. I’d nearly forgotten just how funny you are when you’re hungover,” Arthur says warmly. “I’m sorry to call so early after your big three pint night, but I thought you’d rather skip the meeting we’re supposed to be having in an hour and go back to bed. I’ll grab an Indian takeaway after work and swing by Morgana’s instead,” Arthur offers, not sounding at all put out about the change of plans.
“Yes, please,” Merlin says, so relieved he might cry. Or throw up. It's a toss up. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, now go drink lots of water and go back to sleep. I’ll see you around seven with tofu vindaloo, chole and extra naan. Don’t worry if you’re still asleep. I know the pass codes.”
“’See you later, Arthur,” he answers, smiling,
“Later.” Arthur says, hanging up.
Merlin stands there for several seconds, only putting the receiver back in its cradle when it starts repeating please hang up reminding him of his splitting headache. He’s still smiling, though, because Arthur's remembered his favorite dishes.
The water and sleep do their magic so Merlin feels nearly human when the elevator doors slide open, letting in the wonderful aroma of hot Indian food and warm sandalwood, the latter a smell Merlin has always associated with Arthur. Both do things to his heart and stomach but it’s Merlin’s belly that speaks first.
Arthur laughs at the loud growl, so Merlin pushes him with his shoulder and is immediately engulfed in long, strong hug. Merlin’s stomach growls again so Arthur lets him go, heading to the kitchen.
“Let’s eat before this gets cold, then we can talk.” Somehow, being in Arthur’s presence helps calm Merlin’s nerves.
They play catch up, though there’s not much Arthur doesn’t already know. Their friends have been keeping them both updated on each other’s promotions and health and what not and there’s not much beyond that for Merlin to share other than maybe, probably not wanting to work for Hot Stuff and his worry that PenCorp will ruin what makes Cool Beans unique but he’ll cross that bridge when they finally start talking about this re-training still loathsome business.
The dishes are all cleared away and the warm, companionable atmosphere shifts a little as Arthur sits up a bit straighter. “I know I should have called and spoken to you before we made that offer for your business.”
“Gaius’s business,” Merlin corrects.
Arthur looks Merlin in the eyes, “I’ve been watching you all but rebuild that place from the ground up. You’ve changed everything from suppliers to wages, implemented seasonal menus, customer loyalty rewards, giving back to local charities. Merlin, I could go on and on but the bottom line is all the ideas that make Cool Beans an asset are yours and I should have been brave enough to talk to you before we bought the business out from under you.”
Merlin can’t help asking, “Well, why didn’t you?”
Arthur sighs, “I was afraid you’d say no.”
Merlin stiffens a bit. “I didn’t have any say in this at all.”
“I know but that’s only because you never worked anything out with Gaius, which was very stupid. You grew his business by over 70% in a tough economy, even managing to expand without losing money. You should have been compensated with an ownership stake, then we might have been sitting on different sides of this table,” Arthur says firmly.
Merlin knows this is all true, but he has to defend himself. “He’s family and the shops are all he has as his retirement package. I know I can, and will, do something else to make sure mum and I have a secure future. Hell, I’m open to this re-training so I can do whatever PenCorp wants so I have a salary while I look for another job.”
Arthur’s eyes narrow, “So you’re just here to string me along until you find something better?”
“Do you seriously think I want to see you turn Cool Beans into Hot Stuff? Which is a really stupid name, by the way,” Merlin huffs. “Our shops will be out of business in three months, tops.”
“Like Cool Beans is much better,” Arthur sniffs. “But for some reason it resonates with people, which is why we’re planning to change our shops into Cool Beans shops and are offering you an upper management position where you oversee re-training of the present staff as well as finding suppliers that work within the parameters of your business model. We believe that you can turn our coffee shops around, Merlin. We want to make Cool Beans a household name.”
Merlin can’t believe what he’s hearing. “You want me to fix Hot Stuff.”
“Please stop saying that terrible name,” Arthur says, but he’s smiling. “Is that a yes?”
“I’ll have to see a contract, but from what I hear so far, it’s a yes. Mum will have to be written in. Gaius doesn’t own the rights to her recipes, so if they’re to remain part of Cool Beans she needs to be compensated,” Merlin says.
“Clever woman,” Arthur answers, grinning.
“Yeah, she really, really is,” Merlin replies.
Arthur had actually brought a contract but had left it down in the car in case Merlin wasn’t on board with working with Arthur to turn the London shops around.
“Why would you think that?” Merlin asks.
“All our friends have informed me that I was a terrible bully at university and I thought you might, maybe with good reason, hate me?” Arthur says with a sheepish shrug as he’s stepping into the elevator.
Suddenly Leon’s See if you can get Arthur to beg makes sense. Maybe Merlin was making this too easy for him. Merlin starts looking around for his phone.
Arthur’s back quickly with the contracts, shoulders and hair covered in a heavy dusting of melting snow. He’d gone out in nothing but his sweater, not wanting to struggle into his coat and gloves when the car is parked right in front of the building.
“It’s really coming down,” he announces. “I don’t remember seeing anything on the Beeb about snow at all.” He’s wet and shivering, the folder clutched in his hand shaking at his side.
“Take that sweater and shirt off and go find a towel before you get hypothermia,” Merlin says, taking the folder from him.
“It’s eighty degrees in here, Merlin. Morgana likes to swan about in nothing but her knickers,” Arthur retorts with a grimace but he heads toward the bathroom, stripping off his tops along the way. Merlin can’t stop himself from surreptitiously taking a few photos of his retreating, naked back. It’s even nicer than he had imagined.
Luckily, Arthur does not need to break Morgana’s one rule to find something to wear. Most of Leon’s clothes are in the guest room because he’s totally whipped, according to Arthur.
“Maybe he just wants to make her happy,” Merlin says, looking over the contracts. “I think it’s nice.” He can practically feel Arthur rolling his eyes from across the room.
Arthur’s moved to the front windows only too look out on more snow falling, blanketing the square in white. He turns on BBC News.
Merlin is caught up in the contract, making notes of changes with different colored pens he’d brought to take re-training not as loathsome now notes. Green for money, red for language, purple for elaborate, etc. It was a system he’d come up with in secondary school and still works well.
“I always loved purple was elaborate,” Arthur says, pronouncing it with a short and then long a, giving it two completely different meanings. He’s closer than Merlin expects and Merlin starts, narrowly missing drawing a purple line across the page.
“It was a happy accident,” Merlin confesses. I hadn’t even thought of the two pronunciations until I was writing them out when I had to teach some idiot how to take proper notes.”
“I am not an idiot,” Arthur protests. “I was just crap at picking out pertinent points. You helped when I needed it most.”
“I was happy to,” Merlin says, fondly remembering the hours teaching Arthur his system between classes. “It was rewarding watching you improve. Looking over your first semi-competent, actually study worthy class notes was like seeing my baby bird fly for the first time.”
“You saved my ass,” Arthur says sincerely.
Merlin just smiles, “And you made me pay by making me work twice as hard in every class we had together.”
“I was horribly jealous of how easy it seemed for you,” Arthur explains. “I know better now but you already had all the mechanics of studying and note taking down because you’d applied yourself from the beginning. It took me quite a while to realize how I’d been sliding by, things handed to me, grades given more on status than on merit. University was a very rude awakening and you didn’t have any reason to help but you did and I was terrible to you anyway.”
“I really was happy to help even though you teased me,” Merlin says, though he’s suddenly realizing the why. “I recognized you were struggling and it’s my nature to want to help where I can. I like solving problems and I could see yours so clearly, it would have been criminal to walk away and watch you fail. That’s just how I’m wired.” Merlin grins, “It’s my superpower.”
“It’s one of many,” Arthur says and turns back to the television, leaving Merlin to wonder what’s making Arthur so unusually open and complimentary. He hasn’t mentioned Merlin’s ears once. It’s nice but it’s also freaking Merlin out.
They’re curled up on either side of the comfy couch, waiting out what has now been given the unfortunately overused moniker of The Storm of the Century with beer and Roxy Music on the stereo when out of nowhere Arthur blurts, “Why did you never friend me on facebook?”
Merlin should have seen this coming. Did see this coming with the note taking, teasing confession of why Arthur was a bit of a dick. He really has to think hard before he’s honest, and at that point, it looks like Arthur has given up on an answer.
“I may have, maybe,” he pauses, taking a big swallow of beer, “had a huge, he’s way out of my league, crush on you and didn’t want you to ever see me in my not awesome at all tie-dyed Cool Beans Apron and hat in this lifetime or any other,” he says with a frown. “I know it’s stupid, but we’re both obviously pretty stupid so let’s call it a wash.”
Arthur’s gone from slumping dejectedly against the left arm of the couch to well into Merlin’s personal space in a ninja move Merlin has no hope of ever replicating.
“Or, we can just finally stop being so stupid,” Arthur negotiates.
“Or we could actually act as smart as we are?” Merlin asks hopefully.
Their first kiss is even better than he’s ever imagined.
They’re not snowed in, though they make good use of the twenty-four hours London is at a standstill after nine inches of snow falls in less than twenty four hours.
Merlin is home in plenty of time for Christmas and for the first time ever he has a boyfriend to introduce to his mum in tow.