Characters: Arthur, Merlin, Gwaine... pretty much everyone
Warnings: Mentions of past abuse. Spoilers for season five in later chapters (mostly the final chapter)
Summary: Merlin has always looked out for Arthur. Now it's Arthur's turn to look out for Merlin. Modern fic, Reincarnation, Gen, much bromance.
A/N: Gasp! What madness is this you say? A modern AU with no pairings! (Okay, so I acknowledge Arthur/Gwen but only because it's canon, and it's mostly only a mention). Sorry. Had to get that out of my system. I really enjoy modern AUs but can only ever find a handful that are gen, and as someone who's not a fan of pairings (I don't have anything against them, they're just not my thing) it can get rather frustrating. So ignore the sarcasm. It's just my way of venting.
Also, it is important to note that Merlin will come off as very OOC in this. That is for a reason and a very important reason at that. Also also, I started this story well before season five, and despite it not being all that long I finished it well after the finale. So, yeah, a bit of hand-waving may be involved concerning a certain ending of a certain episode, because like heck I was going to change anything, even for canon. As usual, this story is completely written, and updates will be every other day.
Normally, this would have been the part where Arthur demonstrated that his verbal prowess was still intact despite the buzz of alcohol clouding most of his brain, where he would establish dominance and ownership of his current surroundings with an attack of well-aimed insults that would leave Gwaine laughing his arse off and Arthur triumphant. His half-sister Morgana would call it being a prick and a coward, building himself up by tearing down those lesser than him.
But vagrants were lesser, and obnoxious, and the presence of the boy in front of him was going to be the rain on the parade that was Arthur's post-club intoxication, booze and lingering perfume of the girls he'd danced with a cloud carrying him to the stars. This was the part where he and Gwaine would waste the remainder of the night shattering beer bottles and laughing at their own brilliant stupidity. Which couldn't happen until the boy was gone, no longer tainting the place with his ragged thinness and what always eventually happened when there were vagrants around, friendly begging. Let the kid get his drug money elsewhere. Tonight, this was Pendragon territory, and the boy was an intruder.
A few insults, that's all it ever took. Maybe emphasized for good measure with a light kick to the shins or feet, to let the beggar know who's boss and all that. It would only take a second, and Gwaine was already hurling bottles into the ditch on the other side of the overpass.
Arthur stared at the boy: the large coat, layer after layer of shirts, his movements twitchy and erratic while keeping his limbs close to his sickly body. He refused to look at Arthur, not ignoring him but hoping to be ignored. He would be easy to chase off. Fun, even.
"Come on, Pendragon! You're wasting the night!" Gwaine called, and his bark of a laugh made the boy flinch.
Arthur stared at the boy who refused to look at him. Just an insult, quick and painless. He had done it so many times before without a thought and without remorse. Tonight wouldn't, shouldn't, be any different.
Arthur couldn't do it.
Fine, he would admit it to himself. He couldn't chase the boy off and he had no bloody idea why. Maybe he just wasn't in the mood; too tired, too drunk, the kid just not worth his time – whatever, it didn't really matter, did it? Arthur turned his back on the boy and joined Gwaine.
Gwaine, already staggering drunk and about to toss another bottle, jerked his chin in the kid's direction. "No putting him in his place, tonight?" Not that Gwaine cared. He never did beyond the occasional look of mild discomfort.
Arthur snorted. "He wouldn't listen if I tried. You should see him, twitching all over the blasted place." He mocked the boy's motions, the way the boy's hands would shoot up his body to his head and scrub his hair, slide convulsively down the back of his neck and tuck into his chest, only exaggerated and, in point of fact, nothing like the boy's motions at all.
Arthur and Gwaine tossed bottles, laughed, told the latest raunchy jokes, verbally bashed Arthur's father and the boy remained where he was, looking away as if his life depended on it.
(He dreamed of the boy, healthier, happier, dressed in blue with a red scarf, carrying a tray of food into a stone chamber. Arthur called him idiot, and boy called him prat, and that was the way it should be)
There were two outcomes to a night like this. One, they stumbled home, too drunk to call a cab, then pissing and moaning about who would be the one to fetch the car. Or, two, they passed out in said car. There was also the rare but annoying enough never to forget option of three, they get arrested for passing out.
They didn't get arrested, much to Arthur's relief when he woke up in the back seat, his mouth tasting of Gwaine's unwashed socks and jackhammers going off in his head. Gwaine continued to snore away in the front seat, while outside the day was steel gray and iron cold. Arthur crawled his painful way through the door into the chilly air. He hopped up and down, flapping his arms to get the circulation going, or tried to until his stomach told him in no uncertain terms that he really shouldn't be doing that. Arthur dragged his rebelling body to the overpass to take a piss.
The boy was still there, still huddled in his layers against the wall, fast asleep or attempting to sleep. He was shivering, and twitching, and Arthur thought he might have heard a bit of a whimper.
Vagrants were vagrants and had always been vagrants, looking for free handouts or a free high – the bane of Arthur's night life when he needed to let off some father-related steam. The boy was probably a drug addict, strung-out and riding it out until he was sober enough to get home. No one of interest. No one of importance. No more fascinating than the insects the boy was sharing his patch of dumpster with.
So it made absolutely no sense that now, out of all the strung-out teens and drunken bums that Arthur had chased off, this particular vagrant's huddling and shivering against the wall would strike Arthur as wrong.
Not just wrong, very wrong, as though the boy should have been huddling and shivering else where...
No, that wasn't right, either. As though the boy shouldn't be huddling and shivering at all.
The boy shifted, shuddered, then woke with a gasp that left him panting as if he'd been running in his dreams. He shifted around, about to stretch long, bony limbs when he finally realized he wasn't alone.
The boy froze. It was almost comical the way his head turned ever so slowly toward Arthur. He regarded Arthur in a heart-beat moment of round-eyed surprise (his eyes were blue, but sunken, sickly like the rest of him, and that, too, seemed wrong) only to quickly turn away, curling into himself as if he honestly believed that the more he could shrink the more he could go on being ignored.
Later, Arthur would blame it on his hangover, and possibly being temporarily possessed, when he rolled his eyes and asked in the flat tone he often used when he was forced to be polite, "Are you hungry?"
He didn't expect the boy to answer. Mostly he expected the boy to run away as he might from a complete stranger asking if he'd like a romp in the bedsheets. What Arthur got was a minute nod of a dark head on trembling shoulders.
The rest just seemed to... happen. It had to be the hangover, because there was no sane reason why Arthur soon found himself driving home, a sleeping Gwaine in the front, a lump of bony boy in the back huddling against the door like a terrified cat. He hadn't even asked the boy his name. Never mind that, what the hell was wrong with him asking a bloody, possibly high vagrant to come over for breakfast as if inviting a friend for tea? Who in their right mind did such things other than bleeding heart idiots who honestly believed kindness would ensure no knife to the back while the object of their kindness robbed them dry?
And why the hell wasn't Arthur pulling over and kicking the boy out?
Arthur's preoccupation with what had to be his insanity saw them back at the flat in a matter of what felt like seconds. A part of Arthur's mind whispered to him that there was nothing more for it; they were here, so he might as well keep his promise of letting the kid eat. Arthur wanted to call it an excuse to avoid any more self-questioning of his mental state, but he couldn't help feeling like he had made a compromise.
Gwaine Arthur left sleeping in the front seat – the man was a bastard when waking with a hangover. Arthur had the boy follow him, expecting him to run, but amazed when the boy obeyed despite his obvious dread.
"You don't have to, you know," Arthur spat irritably as he fumbled his key into the lock. "It's not like I'm forcing you or anything it's just... you look hungry." He winced. When he looked back, the boy was standing there on the bottom step of the stoop, swamped in his dark gray coat, shoulders hunched and his gaze turned resolutely away.
Arthur opened the door. He tensed as he led the way inside, waiting for a knife to the back or clock to the head. Neither came, and another look back showed him the boy shuffling timidly after. The boy paused only long enough to slip off his ratty sneakers. Which, considering the state of the place, wasn't necessary. But it told a story, the story of a boy who had grown up with good manners drilled into his head, and that he wasn't about to kill Arthur and rob him. You don't take off your shoes in the house you planned to knick.
Feeling a little more at ease, Arthur gave the boy the short tour of the place, ending at the kitchenette larger than most kitchens found in a flat – one of the few perks of being Uther Pendragon's son. Arthur had the boy sit at the glass dining table (the kind normally reserved for patios, but half-price and right there when Arthur had been in no mood for table shopping) while he prepared them a hardy meal of cornflakes.
Sometime during the preparations, Merlin had wriggled out of his coat and draped it over the back of the chair. It didn't matter how many shirts he wore, it couldn't hide the rawness of him, like the bodies of the junkies Arthur had always taken joy in scaring off; too thin and too angular, with nothing to hide the jutting knobs and lines of the skeleton, the skin ghost white and bruised looking.
The problem was the boy's eyes. They weren't a junky's eyes. Not clouded, not staring into nothing. They were clear and wide and so very much afraid despite the fact that Arthur had given the kid an out. They were the eyes of a terrified child, lost and confused but resigned to it, and once again Arthur was struck with how wrong that was. It was as if he knew this boy, knew how he should be, how he needed to be.
"So," Arthur said, trying to be as chipper and non-threatening as possible while he set down the bowls. "I'm Arthur. And you are...?"
For a moment, the boy said nothing, and Arthur found himself holding his breath, waiting for an answer.
Arthur nodded sharply. "Right, Merlin. Like anything for your cereal? Sugar? Honey?" But this time Arthur didn't wait for a reply. He fetched the items, anyway, liking sugar on his cornflakes, as well as the milk, which he had forgotten.
Arthur drowned his cornflakes in milk, while Merlin squeezed a wise amount of honey with a shaking hand. They ate in the most uncomfortable silence Arthur had ever experienced, and that included the silences that had reigned over the vast majority of family dinners.
"So," Arthur said, desperate to break that silence.
No topic came to mind. Arthur had been a little too hopeful in thinking one would. He couldn't exactly ask the boy what he did and where he was going, and doubted "where are you from," would be met with a coherent answer. He may not have had the boy's life story but he had plenty to tell him that whatever happened in this kid's life to see him on the streets wasn't something the kid was going to talk about willingly. And to be honest, Arthur wasn't sure he wanted to know.
So they ate in silence, Arthur staring at Merlin, Merlin staring at the table.
Gawine came barreling in as he always did after a night of drinking, clubbing, sleeping in the car and waking to find himself back at the flat – like a bull in a China shop.
"You could at least do me the courtesy of tossing me my bloody shades before going inside. Bloody daylight's like the knife to the eye. Where's the damn Tylenol?"
It took about two minutes of Gwaine rummaging through cupboards before he finally turned toward the table, frowning. "Who the hell is that?"
Arthur flapped a hand at first Merlin, then Gwaine. "Gwaine, Merlin. Merlin, Gwaine."
"Oh," Gwaine said. He went back to rummaging. Merlin hunched over his bowl like he was protecting it.
When one lived the life of Arthur and Gwaine, people tended to happen. Temporary friends forgotten in a week's time, (in Gwain'es case) one-night-stands with phone numbers written on pieces of paper or bare chests, tossed away or washed off, designated drivers rewarded with a meal or a little X-Box time. Neither Arthur nor Gwaine thought anything of it, and for once Arthur was glad for that. All the more so when that curious yet controlling part of Arthur that had invited the boy over now invited the boy to go ahead and use their shower. It was all right, Arthur had a few spare clothes the boy could use while he washed his own, or a robe if Merlin wasn't comfortable borrowing other people's things. It didn't matter the reassurances, Merlin seemed destined to be forever uncomfortable, and nervous, and rather flinchy as betrayed when Gwaine breezed by him and the spoon-full of cereal going to Merlin's mouth slopped onto the table.
Arthur didn't get it, didn't get what was wrong with him today, but it wasn't enough for him to change his mind. Whoever Merlin was, he was harmless, and thin, and Arthur could probably bench press him with one hand. Merlin was not a danger and Arthur could even use this to gloat to Morgana, show her that he wasn't the wanker she always thought of him as.
Merlin didn't act on Arthur's invitation until he had eaten the bowl practically clean. Whoever this kid, he wasn't one to pass up an opportunity. In fact, there seemed to be a bit of a hurry to his shuffling as he headed to the loo, as though half-fearing Arthur would rescind the offer to get clean and kick him out.
Gwaine took Merlin's spot with a bowl of cereal of his own, pushing Merlin's bowl to the side. Despite the unspoken agreement - habit, ritual, whatever one wanted to call it – of not inquiring about current guests, Arthur still waited for Gwaine to ask something. Arthur had to keep reminding himself that Gwaine hadn't technically seen Merlin out at the overpass, at least not up close. He had no idea Merlin was the homeless kid Arthur hadn't chased off. And as long as Arthur didn't say anything then Gwaine would never find out. It felt like keeping a secret – the big, nasty kind that could ruin a person's reputation, their livelihood and their career.
Which was absolutely ridiculous. Yes, there was that very slim possibility of word getting out and eventually getting to his father, but that was about as likely as Morgana saying that Arthur was the best brother ever complete with one of those cheap plastic trophies for all the world to know. The only time Gwaine and Uther had associated was... well, to be honest Arthur couldn't think of a time. No, wait, there was that time Gwaine had broken an expensive vase and Uther had banished Gwaine from the house. Gwaine and Arthur had been nine at the time.
Neither man up to talking, Arthur shoved his empty bowl to the side and went to get Merlin the promised borrowed clothes. Not that he expected anything to fit, although he did have a pair of draw-string sweats. It took a bit of rummaging to find them, long enough for Merlin's shower to end. It was quite the timing – Arthur heading to the bathroom to drop off the clothes; Merlin, a towel around his thin waist, opening the door since the clothes had yet to be provided. The boy jumped on seeing Arthur and took a step back, expecting... Arthur wasn't sure what he was expecting but it wasn't good.
The fading bruises on Merlin's body probably had something to do with it; ugly, patchy yellow and green things splotching his arms, his shoulders, and wrapped around his visible ribs. Scattered with them were cuts and scrapes, scabbed over or nearly healed.
Arthur blinked. "Uh... here. The... uh... the clothes." He quickly handed the bundle of T-shirt and sweats to Merlin, who quickly took them and retreated back into the bathroom. Not before Merlin turned, giving Arthur an unobstructed view of his back, where the bruises seemed to have gathered.
And they would be heavy, there, when the body had curled into itself, protecting the soft parts by offering up the bony parts. Then the door closed, and Arthur was freed from the hideous sight. He moved like a man punch-drunk to the couch and dropped himself onto it.
"You all right, mate?" Gwaine asked.
Arthur jumped, then blinked up at Gwaine now hovering by the couch, his refilled bowl of cereal cradled in one hand and spoon having paused on its way to his mouth.
"I said are you all right?" Gwaine chuffed. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Arthur shook his head and waved Gwaine off. "I'm fine."
Except that he wasn't. That part of him, the part that had invited Merlin over, let Merlin use their shower, let Merlin borrow his clothes, was joined at the hip to the impression that a bruised and sickly stranger was wrong, all wrong. Well of course it was wrong – someone had beat the kid and you couldn't exactly call a beating good, not when the body beaten was that thin and helpless.
But it was different, this feeling of wrongness. It was like... like the time Morgana had left one of her Barbie's in Arthur's toy box among his GI Joes and Transformers. Like the time she had made their Doberman wear a pink sweater. Like skinny Andy Cromwell trying out for the Rugby team. Merlin – timid, frightened, battered and bruised – it didn't fit. The kid was a complete stranger and yet that didn't stop Arthur from being unable to reconcile Merlin and docility as being able to share so much as the same sentence together.
Arthur didn't get it, and it was starting to scare him.
Merlin came out of the bathroom, practically swimming in Arthur's university T-shirt and looking twice as lost because of it. He stood there, hands clasped in front of him like a servant awaiting orders and fearing retribution should he not act quickly.
Even Arthur's metaphors of Merlin didn't sit right with him. Arthur sighed, feeling defeated without ever knowing who his foe was.
"It'll probably be a bit before your clothes are washed. It's Gwaine's day to do the washing."
Gwaine, having at some point in time planted himself at the other end of the couch, elbowed Arthur for the reminder. Arthur elbowed him back.
"Feel free to watch TV, play X-box or, I don't know, nap if you want. You can take my room for the time being."
"Thank you," Merlin whispered. Arthur was glad to see him shuffle into the bedroom. He didn't think he could take another dose of the awkward silence of breakfast.
"So... how do we know him?" Gwaine asked.
Arthur stiffened. "You know what? I think I should do the laundry. You really do take too long." He was up off the couch and making for the hamper before Gwaine had a chance to shake himself of the shock that was Arthur volunteering to do chores.
A/N: For those of you who might be wondering, yes, this was largely inspired by Colin's role in Parked. Colin does lost and broken so beautifully.